5:40 Gyeongbu Expressway
It took me a while to recall the painting and the poem.
We were all still recovering from the fright. Li was quiet. Kim was silent as well. Her hands were still firm on the wheel, driving us safely through the Gyeongbu Expressway, but I could see sweat dripping from her hands. Wet marks on the leather of the wheel’s cover reflected the fading sun’s light. I couldn’t imagine the fear that Kim was going through now. After all, this was her dad’s Mini, and she probably suffered most from the fright. Li was in shotgun, and I was directly behind her in the back seat.
I wanted to say something to comfort the girls but couldn’t think of any good words. I admit I was also trying to unfreeze myself from the experience. I could still feel the man’s gaze drilling into our faces. I could still feel it, along with the guilt for not standing up for the group or even thinking of doing so.
I look out the window. Moments earlier, the cars had begun to pile up into traffic. Kim had pulled us to the fourth lane, but I still felt trapped in the center of the highway. The occasional honks were disturbing as well, not because the sounds themselves were annoying but because the honkers reminded me of what had just happened.
I try to think of what we talked about during our picnic, but the memories suddenly have gone sour. They were fresh only moments ago. I could still remember the picnic itself. The three of us had been eating salad and chicken sandwiches on a red checker-patterned blanket. The yellow grass underneath the blanket was earthy. There were hardly any people for a Friday at the Seoul Children’s Central, which surprised me. We three talked about something fun, but whatever the topic was, the talk no longer felt fun to me now. The scenery of the park did not feel beautiful anymore. I did not want to think about what we discussed, nor was I able to. The incident had ruined our talk.
I opened the window to refresh the buzzing inside my head, and that’s when blaring began.
The sound of the sirens on a highway is never good. Never. Kim should’ve taken the local road, but we were all so shaken I couldn’t blame her for going somewhere familiar. The traffic was already shaping itself to become part of the bad omen. Red began to scream. As the ambulance and two police cars flew past us, the realization hit deep in my chest.
I suddenly wanted to tell girls about the Swiss painting. Then the Emily Dickenson poem.
Sometimes your body knows better than your mind. There are physical signs that can warn you that something is going to happen before you even think. Goosebumps are exactly that. I look at my arms, and I see that they have been popping up on my skin like weeds. Since when, who knows.
“Have you guys ever been in a day,” I would begin my talk after reassuring the girls that I was about to talk seriously, “where you realize that everything seems to align? Have you guys seen so many coincidences in one day?”
But even by reassuring them, I would imagine the girls would have a hard time understanding what I would say to them next.
There has been a buildup today, one that I felt was building up till this moment, that I had kept to myself but nonetheless would not be quiet to me. And rightfully so, no student talks about what they learned during their university classes on a Friday picnic. Professors, maybe, but the subject, no, unless it was absolutely necessary. But now, sitting in the back of the Mini, I knew it was too late to say something because whatever was happening had already begun.
The Swiss painting comes to my mind first because of the large trunk emblem I had seen above the car’s license plate. I had thought that the emblem was too big for a sportscar and that black on red wouldn’t make sense. But now I realize that perhaps that was the point. The image wanted me to remember.
11:00 The Swiss Painting
I had just unpacked my bags (missed attendance) when the professor turned off the lights and adjusted the projector. Lecture room 302 went quiet as Henry Fuseli’s The Nightmare came into focus on the wall. Blurry, The Nightmare was, then clear, all of a sudden.
The painting was true to its name. The canvas feels like a Caravaggio piece with its masterful contrasts of light and dark. In fact, the dark was so dark that it made the painting almost glow in the lecture room. It was safe to say that the image captivated the class at once.
Smooth strokes reveal a woman in white asleep on a bed with a red curtain behind her. On her chest, a fiendish, ape-like incubus sits, seemingly in control of the woman in white. But it stares right at us. Hideous and all the more intimidating. Its eyes seemed to jump out, feeding the creature’s mind with thoughts of us. “What are you looking at? Do you want me to do this to you too?” its eyes seemed to also ask. It wants to. But to me, the incubus’s eyes weren’t the scariest. Left of the incubus, a black horse’s face swings into view on the canvas. The horse stares at the incubus with milky white eyes.
Surprisingly, to me, according to last week’s reading, the word nightmare has no etymological relationship with horses. The mare, or mara, in the word “nightmare,” is the name of a devilish entity from Slavic and German folklore. The mara rides on people’s chests when they are asleep, which gives them nightmares, while mare is another word, and refers to a female horse.
As the professor says now, with a laser pointer in hand, circling the horse, “the painting is aware of the possible associations people could make.”
All the ideas are indeed there. Early definitions of the word “nightmare” included sleep paralysis or the sleeper’s feeling of dread. The painting portrays both with the incubus. The evil entity fills the poor woman with dread yet makes her suffer more by making her helpless, unable to resist or even move at all. She feels herself being conscious, yet unable to budge as she cannot help but watch her haunting.
The professor continues to talk about the woman in white. She talks about how the woman could be interpreted as Anna Landolt, the woman Fuseli loved (with Fuseli as the incubus), and the woman’s relationship with the woman in the second painting on the back of the painting.
But after the professor had redirected my attention to the black horse, I had trouble focusing on the rest of the painting. The picture itself was haunting, but nevertheless, those white eyes captivated me. They kept me guessing what they were trying to say.
5:30 The Man in the Silver Chain Necklace
The picnic was supposed to end well. The Children’s Central Park had been blessed with golden sun and silence except for the occasional cooing of gray pigeons and giggling of couples. All of that seemed necessary, and the warm Seoul April breeze was a nice touch. The three of us were supposed to be kids: me, Li, and Kim. We were supposed to leave the park’s parking lot in peace, and that would be our afternoon. That was supposed to be our afternoon.
The whole incident started so quickly yet so slowly. We were just about to leave the empty lot. Kim was on the wheel, gear steady in P. She had borrowed the blue Mini from her father. Li was sitting next to her. I was in the back. Li didn’t have her driver’s license yet; she was supposed to take the test next Saturday while mine was fresh. Li was a latecomer like me. Kim had suggested that I should drive, but I refused. I said that I wasn’t comfortable enough driving the Mini, but Kim could see that wasn’t the whole truth. So, Kim was about to tease me about being scared of driving when we heard a car door slamming shut.
A man in a silver chain necklace walked over from the red sportscar parked in front of us to the Mini. Before I could say something, the man was pounding on the driver’s window. I could hear the weight of the man’s knuckles. He pointed downwards, and Kim slowly opened the window.
The man spoke before Kim opened her mouth.
“Something wrong with you?”
It wasn’t yelling, the man’s voice was quiet, but it was loud enough to hold an implicit threat. Loud and monotone. There was no change in the man’s pitch. The man didn’t bother to use formal Korean, which immediately made my muscles tense up. Even the most complete strangers use formal Korean at first meeting. Her mouth was open, but Kim couldn’t speak. We all couldn’t speak. The words were thrust at us so quickly. We knew instantly and collectively that we were dealing with someone unhinged. Or someone who was about to be.
The man noticed the rest of us. He swayed his head like a rattlesnake, not ready to pounce but thinking of doing so. The man lifted his head towards me. The chain bounced underneath the man’s neck.
“You see what she did?”
It took me a while to shake my head because it took me a while to process his words or the man’s sudden stare.
The man leaned forward, almost sticking his head inside the car. His arms were resting on the top of the car frame. He started tapping on the roof of the car, but the tapping sound was very different from his knocking on the window. In the midst of the situation, I convinced myself that it was because of different car materials. Deep down and instinctively, however, I knew that the man held something in his hands. He was tapping the car with it.
Kim leaned back to avoid the man, but her movements were minimum. She barely moved.
“Scraped the paint clear off my bumper. Gray scars on my Carriage. The new model.” He turned to Kim again. “You wanna see? What you did to my car?”
“I’m sorry.” Kim’s voice quavered yet seemed calm. I could only hear her now; I was looking straight ahead at the seat in front of me. This was something I would do in class whenever the class clown crossed the line with the wrong teacher during middle school. Kim was never the class clown, more like the stern class head. This was the first time in my life I heard Kim so troubled. Her voice was always stern like she was rebutting an argument in a debate contest, with the ends of her sentences clear cut. Hearing Kim’s voice like that somehow crushed my heart. I continued to look straight ahead.
“I’m sorry. I—”
“No, no. Not sorry. The bumper. What are you gonna do about my bumper?”
The man raised his voice at the end. A motorcycle passed by on the road, not stopping, with its engine roaring. For a moment, I thought we were safe when I saw it pass in front of the windshield, even though it was from the main road. It felt as if the Mini was a stranded island and the engine roar was the sound of an incoming boat’s horn. The safe feeling lasted for a second. We were parked in the park’s nearly empty parking lot, which was far from the park. No one else was in sight. No one else was seeing us, as far as I was concerned.
“Daddy’s check?” the man suggested in a monotone.
“We’re sorry, sir.” Li spoke up. “We don’t know what happened.”
“Doesn’t matter what you know or not. What are you going to do?”
I could see Li biting on her lower lip. The man’s monotone was beginning cause a panic in my head.
The man would eventually walk away. He would drive his red sportscar with a sudden lurch, with a loud roar of its engine, out the parking lot and towards the street that leads to the expressway passage. He would leave empty-handed and, more importantly, without any promises from us. Silence turned out to be our best response. But what we experienced during the silence in the wide empty space would remain with us for a long time.
It felt like minutes had passed until the man broke the silence in the car.
“People here are rough, woman. You wouldn’t want to trigger the wrong person on the wrong day, now would you?”
Another long pause. It may have been the longest so far. The man kept on staring at us. The tapping from above was only getting louder. Didn’t seem fair for the man to tap on the Mini like so, even if Kim had done something to upset the man. But again, in the heat of the moment, I did not have any time for neat calculations. I just wanted the man in the silver chain necklace to move away from my friends. We were supposed to end our picnic happily. It was Friday, after all. And we for today we could still be like children.
The man turned and walked away. He placed his hands in his pants pockets before taking them out again to open his car door. I was not able to see whether the man had something in his hands or not.
I did manage to see something else.
When the man in the chain necklace slowly moved away from the Mini and headed for his sportscar, the pressure in the Mini loosened a little. Maybe it was the chilling feeling the man’s monotone had given me finally fading out from inside me. As I slowly became unfazed and the red sportscar zoomed off like the motorcycle we had heard earlier, I noticed the face of a black horse painted on the trunk of the car staring at me. Its eyes are white.
1:00 The Emily Dickenson Poem
The Chariot was the original title, but everyone knows the poem as Because I could not stop for Death. In class, the professor gave us a comparative analysis of the poem in different versions: the original published version and the close transcription.
The professor tells lecture room 204 that poetry makes sense once we understand that the rhythm and rhymes in poetry are a mirror. We use the mirror to not only look upon ourselves but to see the mysterious world inside it, he says. When we do so, poetry holds more answers to unanswerable questions than any other form of literature. But sometimes, a poem will do the exact opposite. Sometimes it gives unanswerable questions.
Because I could not stop for Death —
He kindly stopped for me —
The Carriage held but just Ourselves —
We slowly drove — He knew no haste
And I had put away
My labor and my leisure too,
For His Civility —
We passed the School, where Children strove
At Recess — in the Ring —
We passed the Fields of Gazing Grain —
We passed the Setting Sun —
Or rather — He passed Us —
The Dews drew quivering and Chill —
For only Gossamer, my Gown —
My Tippet — only Tulle —
We paused before a House that seemed
A Swelling of the Ground —
The Roof was scarcely visible —
The Cornice — in the Ground —
Since then — ’tis Centuries — and yet
Feels shorter than the Day
I first surmised the Horses’ Heads
Were toward Eternity —
The professor continues with his lecture, talking about the ballad meter, the personifications, and the symbols. The professor’s comments seem on point, and they seem to expand the poem f me and not reduce it. But there is one comment that I do not agree with the professor.
Death is not kind in the poem. He only acts kindly, I believe. Whether he is actually kind or not, the rhythm and rhymes do not tell. For me, Death is merely doing his duty. He must take the speaker to somewhere the speaker must head. And Death must guide the speaker slowly. And the speaker sees the children and the grain and feels the passing of the sun.
There are many unanswerable questions that the rhythm and rhymes tell us compared to the answers. The musicality of the poem does not make it friendly.
The rhythm and rhymes in the poem do tell us that some rides cement you in with deep memory. This answer, I think, I will never forget.
5:40 Rest Area
None of us three have spoken a word since the man drove off. Only the Mini’s engine spoke as it rumbled out of the parking lot.
Three blocks after exiting the lot, Kim turns a hard right and enters the Mini on the Gyeongbu Express. When she gets to the entrance lane, she is going 50. Then 60, and for a while, we all seem to think that it’ll be a smooth ride home. We lived near each other in rented rooms, not near enough to the university, but it was doable and about twenty minutes away from the park by car.
That number, however, gets higher by the time we pass the green “Rest Area Soon” sign. We start to see a line of cars and trucks as long as a beach. They stretch out so long that the furthestcars and trucks look like miniature figures. They were so small and shiny you could pick them up. There could be only one reason why traffic like this was piling up. That reason wasn’t construction since the renovation was done two years ago.
It probably happened in an instant. Most accidents are like that. Accidents happen in an instant but in slow motion, like an action scene in a movie. I believe so mostly because you expect the accident to come in an inevitable moment, once it passes your limits of control. Like that runaway baby carriage in Battleship Potemkin. Accidents happen as you know them, but too late to control them.
The honking noises come out of nowhere and everywhere. I looked around to hear the honks but could not locate where they were coming from. I suddenly get cold feet, thinking who else might be in a car on the verge of rage. This is not a good time to face another driver. The honking gets louder as the traffic thickens.
What would we say if someone did come up to us? Hopefully, we’ll be safer with all these cars around. Someone could reach out to us if we’re in trouble. Then again, people never want to get involved in something they think is trouble. What did we say to the silver chain man again? My flow of thought has been corrupted at this point. What did we even talk about during our picnic? I did the most talking, but I couldn’t remember what we three talked about on that red checkered blanket.
My head spins slightly.
I open the window to breathe in air. Sirens come wailing from a distance, then right next to us as the full four lanes slowly turn into three.
The screaming red ambulance started to make its way through. I eye the notice printed on the red ambulance: Thank you for yielding.
Kim, Li, and I stared in silence as two police cars closely followed.
The Thank you for yielding sign was printed in just the right format for spectators to see. The white letters on the black background were easily noticeable. It was not too bold with its font and was just the right size, compared to that trunk emblem seen earlier.
That horse, in my mind again.
My mind went to Henry Fuseli’s painting, then to Emily Dickenson’s work, then to conclusions. From incubus to death. Coincidences could be spooky, but they happen. The rational side of my mind wanted me to stop at that.
Yet, I felt like I wanted to talk. I don’t remember talking to the girls about what I learned in class during the picnic, and rightfully so. But now I wanted to. I think I needed to. Guilt, was it? No, but I wanted to talk. I wanted to get something off my chest. The connections would haunt me if I didn’t.
Casually. I would talk about the matter casually. We’ve all gone through fright, and the last thing I wanted to do was frighten the girls more. I could start by mentioning coincidences for sure.
“Have you guys ever been in a day where you realize that everything seems to align?
That would be my opening line. But then what? What then? Would my friends even believe my story?
How did those artists express their ideas? Artistically, no doubt, but there was something more to their story. Their stories were true. Fuseli was honest about nightmares and how nightmares are able to control us in our sleep. Perhaps Fuseli experienced it a lot. We experience it a lot. But what about Emily Dickenson?
My thoughts stopped at Emily Dickenson because reality outmatched me.
Not so long after the emergency vehicles passed by us, traffic had slowly loosened, and the inching forward was replaced with small, long strides. The sudden space felt timed as if we were sure to witness the aftermath at the rest area.
We, unfortunately, do.
Five minutes later, the Mini passes by it. It was too much of a spectacle not to miss. The accident seems to have happened at the entrance of the rest area. The rail that separates the rest area and main lanes has been nearly pulled off the ground and is now curved inwards like a dinosaur’s claw. A red sportscar is flipped on its side, a couple of meters behind the rail. The sudden understanding of how fast the car must have run into the rail disturbs me. The shattered glass all around the main vehicle was reflecting the sun like snow. The front of the car, like its trunk, is burst open, showing the inner steel guts of the machine. The tires were all intact, but the top left wheel was starting to come off. The doorless sides are punched in, reminiscent of a crunched and empty soda can.
There was no denying it. That is the same car seen before just minutes before.
Carriage, the man called it. The new model. But all vehicles’ ages are the same when they get broken badly. I feel another kick in my chest when I look over the remains of the car, but my eyes are still glued outside.
The ambulance has gone, but the police have remained; two men in blue are taping the black wreckage in yellow. The Mini is slowly moving away from the scene. I’m still looking out, even as we pass by with our speed back to normal as if I was still watching the wreckage, which was happening in my mind.
I don’t know what happens to a person’s mind when they see a tragedy after reeling from shock. I don’t know. But perhaps this is what it is meant to be. Confusion. A lot of unanswered questions were indeed piling up like the cars in the traffic jam. Most of those questions are blocked in my head by a certain fogginess. It was as if someone had half-erased the questions written on my mind’s blackboard.
But as we went back to 60 and our exit lane slowly viewed, Li asks the question that I had been holding deep in my mind after seeing the accident but couldn’t find the courage to bring it up or even identify it. After Li asks the question, I decide to tell my tale.
“It’s so strange, isn’t it?” Li asks quickly. Her whispers break the silence that started ever since our departure from the park, “He zoomed off much earlier than us, but he didn’t get much far.”