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A Fish Called Wanda

  • onMarch 29, 2018
  • byBaek Minsuk
16 mitgeona malgeona bangmulji (Collected Short Stories)
2018

 

 

“Do you know where I’m headed right now?”

The Jerk left a chatty message expressed in a lazy purr on my pager’s voice mail. It sounded like a drowsy cat crawling onto my lap and asking to be scratched under its chin. There were two parts to his message, with only the first being recorded on the pager. All by himself, the Jerk had used up the voice record’s maximum capacity. “What’s this noise?” he muttered at the warning buzz. “Oh, it’s nearly full. Okay, I’ll call again when I get there. There’ll definitely be some fun!” This was the end of the first part.

I can’t stand people who lack respect or courtesy for someone else’s pager. I quickly erased the recording. Among all that verbiage, I didn’t even remember where the Jerk was headed. The second part of his message was left on my phone’s automatic answering machine. His voice this time was like a lion roaring. In his excitement, the Jerk stressed almost every word. “Wow! Wow! Wow! It! Is! Time! I’ll! Stop! Here!” Thus ended the second part.

In my annoyance at his disrespect and discourtesy, I also erased the second part after listening only once, so what comes next was written down from memory several months later. My report is naturally not entirely accurate—wasn’t the Jerk’s story itself gibberish?

The first part was about a fish and the fishermen who went to catch it. They called the fish “Wanda,” and their quest was “The Great Wanda Expedition.” The Jerk was with the expedition and, as a member, was on his way to catch the fish called Wanda.

The second part was about what happened after they arrived at the place where Wanda lived, or was rumored to live. The Jerk’s message by international call was left as a recording just before the Jerk and his colleagues—namely, The Great Wanda Expedition—entered the heart of Wanda’s habitat. This was after the Jerk and the fishermen had set up camp with all kinds of equipment, secured a local guide, and prepared themselves for the high desert’s unpredictable weather changes and storms. The Jerk’s international call came from deep in the center of the North American continent’s western region.

The Jerk and the fishermen were in Utah or Nevada, some state in the western part of America. Maybe even California. They were somewhere along a border to the desert area around the Great Salt Lake. Or the Black Rock Desert. Or maybe the Mojave Desert. In the Jerk’s loud, excited voice, I also sensed a shiver of fear and horror. Such a thrill would be shared only by those who were entering a desert on a fishing expedition. My report operates on the premise that the Jerk’s message might be true, or that I am pretending to believe it is true.

 

If I think over the Jerk’s chatty message in the first recording, I can understand why going fishing in the middle of a desert was so natural for them. The chief curator of Gallery Comedism ordered them: Go catch the fish called Wanda.

The chief curator wanted something special for his gallery collection, something to distinguish it from other galleries, something to make it stand out. Paik Nam June was in every gallery. That was cheap. As for James Rich or Roy Lichtenstein, even the artists themselves couldn’t distinguish between original and fake. What’s worse, the copy sometimes had a higher degree of completion and more aesthetic value. Young artists are too young. For example, Sung Dong Hun has some diehard fans, but I can’t hide my suspicion that his taste is lowbrow.

The chief curator wanted a believe-it-or-not collection well-suited for the Gallery Comedism of the Great Believe It or Not Compendium. The curator recalled the Believe It or Not Museum located in a back alley of SoHo in New York. There was a collection there called A Handful of Soil from Singing Mountain. It was just a handful of soil placed in the middle of a room that blocked noise from outside, making it completely soundproof. The rules allowed only one viewer at a time to enter the room for five minutes. The room was lit only by a single five-candela light bulb of the sort normally used on a Christmas tree. Wondering what this collection was all about, the curator had entered the room and come out five minutes later feeling strange, wondering if he should believe it or not. He’d really heard a song sung by the soil.

The catalog of the collection included a copy of the guarantee by a famous psychometrist. According to him, the soil had been taken from a hill in eastern Anatolia. From the late thirteenth century to modern times, the hill had been the site of massacres, battles, and religious atrocities. The crusaders passed by in the thirteenth century, and the Mongols swept through in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. From the late sixteenth to eighteenth centuries, sporadically, those women suspected of witchcraft who had fled Europe for this pagan area were found, their limbs torn and burnt by their pursuers. In the twentieth century, the place was near the genocide wreaked by the Turks upon the Armenians, as is well known.

What was the song? According to the psychometrist, whose supernatural powers enabled him to read the history imprinted on matter, the song was an elegy for those who had died torn apart, burnt black, or parched dry on the hill from which the soil was taken. The sorrows of the dead, piled up over several centuries, could now by sheer strength of their accumulated quantity actually make themselves audible. By standing before the handful of dust—a so-called field of spiritual energy—a listener could hear that song of sorrows accumulated over centuries, an audible force field of souls.

The soil in the room had been scooped up by shovel in that field of spiritual energy and delivered by airplane from that hill in westernmost Asia to a back alley of New York City. The chief curator maintained that in the soil’s presence, he had sensed an old, somehow familiar melody, bleak but possessed of a tragic, divine beauty. From those five minutes absorbed in that meditative state, he suggested that the melody recalled some measures from Pablo Casals’s performance of Bach’s Sixth Cello Suite.

The handful of earth became a special attraction of the Believe It or Not Museum in New York. Comedism’s chief curator wanted something like that, a special attraction. Something that didn’t exist anywhere else, that existed nowhere else. For example, something like a fish called Wanda. The curator therefore sent his assistants, including the Jerk, aboard an airplane headed straight for the deepest part of the American West.

The fish called Wanda lives in the Utah or Nevada desert. Wanda seems to belong to an unidentified family of monsters that have probably drawn the curious around the world since before Christ to the late twentieth century. That family has a long, long never-ending, never-broken genealogy, including creatures from the biblical Leviathan to Jonah’s great fish, to the giant octopus Kraken, to Daedalus’ Giant Sea Snake, to the carnivorous helminth of Northern Ireland (a giant leech), to the common giant squid and jellyfish, to the enormous sperm whale Mocha Dick in the early nineteenth century (the real-life model for Herman Melville’s great whale, Moby Dick), and in recent times to the Loch Ness Monster Nessie and the Cornwall Monster. This long genealogy stretches from antiquity and continues insistently, longer than any genealogical line of the various human tribes. Wanda takes her place at the end of this genealogy of monsters.

The monsters noted above are unlike such monsters as fire-breathing dragons that appear in mythology, legend, and fantasy, the sort found in movies performed in by Sean Connery, or the monster Dijiang, a fat, headless body with six legs and four wings that appears in the Classic of Mountains and Seas (Shan Hai Jing), or even the “monstrous” Little Mermaid. Unlike these imaginary creatures, the monsters above had at least left some physical evidence, although their existence is uncertain, leaving us in doubt. Blurry black-and-white photos, even some documents of natural history left by a respected Catholic bishop from the eighteenth century, are such evidence.

As Wanda stands at the end of this monster genealogy, she has not yet become a well-known star monster. Moby Dick has sold several hundred thousand copies in South Korea alone, and the Loch Ness monster stretched out its long neck during the seventies and eighties, making headlines in the foreign section of newspapers around the world. Unfortunately, there’s no physical evidence for Wanda. She’s never been captured in a photo, just whispered about in rumors and mentioned in song melodies handed down by word of mouth. What skeptics always demand as proof of existence is at least a picture. Wanda was like a desert mirage, never where she seemed to be, but never very far away either, being only a local monster known solely to those who already knew of her.

The chief curator was thus desperately seeking Wanda with sleepless, blood-shot eyes.

“If we can’t catch her, he’s ordered us to at least get a picture of her,” said the Jerk’s voice on my answering machine. “If I get at least a picture, the bastard will help me avoid early retirement. If I catch Wanda and return with her, he’ll offer a special bonus of 1,000 percent of my salary and an evaluation of ‘Excellent’ for my personnel record. But that also means if I return empty handed, I’ll be laid off!” the Jerk shouted, sounding upset.

 

The name “Wanda” is said to derive from the one given to her by the natives who had lived in the area for centuries before they vanished. The area, either the Great Salt Lake Desert or the Black Rock Desert, receives less than twenty millimeters of rain in a rainfall or two every three to four years. A few towns deep in the desert purify underground water, or even seawater, and use it for drinking and cleaning, but most villages are located on the outskirts of the desert. From Las Vegas, the boundary area can be reached in forty-one hours by jeep. The Jerk and his group of naifs enjoyed a day in Las Vegas in ways that would have put their country to shame, if known. After a forty-one-hour drive, the Great Wanda Expedition set up base camp. They were now ready to brave the driest depths of the desert.

Wanda was reputed to live in the middle of the arid desert, a land with only an early morning dew to moisten it. She was to be found in a sand lake like a giant basin, a swampy, sandy area about the size of the large Jongno District in Seoul; and the sand of that swampy basin is said to flow around and around several kilometers a day. Wanda remains hidden until the day is past and emerges just after sunset, when she shakes the whole area nearby and whips up a sandstorm that covers everything with sand.

That’s more or less everything known about Wanda’s behavior. As for Wanda’s features, her skin is covered with hideous lumps like those of a skin cancer patient in the final stages. Those lumps are more likely organs for sucking in as much moisture as possible during the night. The breathing pores probably developed that way. On both sides of Wanda’s body hang some incredibly large, triangle-shaped fins. With these fins, she scoops sand, kicks, and jumps. At the end of the body hangs another triangle-shaped fin, but cut in half. This fin is ordinarily used for going straight, changing directions, or standing straight up, but can be used—as I’ll soon tell you—for some violent work. On the back, another fin seems to function like a hygrometer, or perhaps a weathercock wrapped in a gentle skin. That alone sticks out from the sand, even during the hottest noontime sun, probably detecting the direction of the moisture-laden wind.

What takes up half of Wanda’s body is her enormous mouth. It’s like a wound torn wide from one side fin to the other, like the Jerk smiling broadly and drooling with desire while watching pornography; and it also reveals sparse, frighteningly big teeth. Most astonishing of all are Wanda’s tongues. I’d never before heard of a creature with several hundred tongues. They are thin, almost impossibly long, and end in something stumpy, like an inlet valve. As with the tentacles of jellyfish, these tongues can extend many hundred meters from the mouth into the surrounding air and gently sway there as several hundred strands. Nothing is known, however, about the eyes, ears, and nose, neither from centuries ago nor today.

To stand before such a monster and try to figure out exactly what the eyes, ears, and nose look like on that creature with never-before-seen fins, never-before-seen teeth, and a never-before-seen streamlined body would be difficult and dangerous. Extrapolating from everything known about this creature, I reached the conclusion that I could never imagine Wanda.

No matter how carefully I try, I can never picture Wanda. I momentarily imagine a giant fish, but I honestly can never come up with a single feature of the damn thing. Maybe she looks like a plastic carp enormously swollen by wind and blown about in gusts, possibly as large as the vast Yeouido area in Seoul. Despite all this uncertainty, the Jerk and the fishermen boarded a plane headed for the American West.

The second part of the communication was a call made just before the group left its base camp. It started like this: “I used to wonder what kind of fool would climb to the top of K2 without oxygen. I’m the fool now. The day before yesterday, I finally found a local guide, but no sooner had this man understood our aim than he started objecting, ‘I don’t want to be eaten up by a fish in a desert without a drop of water.’ Of course, a colleague who knew English better from studying aesthetics at Seoul National University translated the guide’s concerns.”

They must have had difficulties finding a local guide. The fishermen were rejected several times. The fish called Wanda, hardly known to the world, was notorious in the area. Some said if Wanda shouted once, a tornado raged even as far away as Texas. The guide they found by offering 200 dollars a day was a native of the area. He explained that he was not only native to the area but also the last descendent of the natives who had nearly all died out 150 years ago. He had blue eyes and light blond hair, though covered with dust. The first ancestors of this blond-haired, blue-eyed native were the Native Americans of Death Valley in North America and the fanatical Anabaptists who fled religious oppression by crossing over to America from Zurich in Switzerland. That was his claim anyway and he insisted that one-seventh of his blood was pure Native American. If they wanted someone to guide them, he suggested that they choose the man with the most Indian blood, and that man was himself, though he said he really preferred to not take the job.

Because the members of The Great Wanda Expedition were already terribly exhausted, they simply listened to this amateur liar to the end. They didn’t want to provoke him with interruptions. Anyway, besides their need for a guide, the extravagant fishermen also needed to set up a large amount of equipment to approach the horrible monster after crossing the desert. Instead of a speed boat with strong propeller, they obtained two Pink Panther jeeps with powerful engines and four-wheel drive. These were borrowed from Hangar 18, the secret storage space of the Believe It or Not Compendium headquarters. The jeeps were Land Rovers of the kind used by the British desert army during the Fourth Middle East War, but remodeled to a 1997 style. Through top-secret technological innovation, a full tank could run this jeep 3,600 kilometers.

To catch the fish called Wanda, the fishermen removed the Vickers machine gun with its .303-inch cartridge and its round magazine and an 84mm anti-tank gun, and replaced them with a whaling harpoon of 70 kilograms. The harpoon was attached to a line of several hundred meters to let out line for a fleeing Wanda struck by the harpoon. The deadly power lay in the harpoon’s tip. If the harpoon were to fly through the air and strike Wanda somewhere on her body, then at that moment:

1) the tip of the harpoon would spread out like a Star of David;

2) small explosives containing nitroglycerin and sulfuric acid would penetrate deep under the skin and explode; and once holes were made that way…

3) compressed air in the harpoon would immediately rush under the subcutaneous fat and into its blood vessels, main arteries, and internal organs.

This triple device would instantly immobilize the pierced creature and kill her. The triple process would complete its work within one and a half seconds. Moreover, The Great Wanda Expedition had further strengthened its terrible killing power. The firing distance was extended fifty meters, a certain poison, the name of which I can’t recall, had been added to those already present, and poison gas had been mixed with compressed air. The lethal capacity of the harpoon used by the cruel Believe It or Not Compendium fishermen was now impossible to measure other than in the actual execution of its work. Two such harpoons were installed on each jeep. A truck loaded with food and water followed.

The Jerk’s voice trembled. “If we capture Wanda, are we going to call a cargo airline and construct a runway for it in the middle of the desert? And will we have to build a refrigerator big enough for Wanda to fit in?”

 

What the Jerk left on the answering machine about Wanda was in fact something terrifying. First, as for the eating habits of the fish called Wanda, incidents of distress and missing vehicles had especially been reported often. From the first statistics in 1932 until just before the Christmas holidays last year, 232 vehicles and mobile homes of people vacationing for lengthy periods had disappeared. If this had happened somewhere in Central or South America or in North Africa, it would have been less bewildering. But the place was in America. There were various opinions about the causes of such disappearances—sudden desert storms, a desert Bermuda triangle, or a time slip, as well as speculation about the actions of the Mafia or some other crime syndicate because the number of reports of people in distress or missing had increased rapidly during the Mafia’s revival in the 1920s, when Prohibition was enforced.

At any rate, those who believed in the existence of the fish called Wanda all blamed Wanda for the incidents of people in distress or who were actually missing. Wanda, who would suddenly fly up in a hot sandstorm, was said to have swallowed vehicles and people lost within the radius of her habitat—all in one gulp.

She was also said to have chomped up and gulped down unlucky “dogfish” called Greyhounds swimming upstream in the desert, slow-moving mobile home “shellfish,” or semi-trailer truck “crustaceans” smuggling contraband across state lines.

Judging from the size of Wanda’s mouth, I’m unclear whether those things were big enough for even one bite, but what is clear is that vehicles and people were continually disappearing there. That fact, along with what was described earlier about Wanda’s horrifying features, must have made for a horrific surge of adrenalin, for the Jerk continued to speak in a quivering voice. “While we’re going through hell trying to achieve great things in this boiler room desert, you’re all the way across the Pacific taking it easy with ice cream and fried mackerel!”

There was such an accusatory, desperate tone in his message that I felt momentarily horror-struck; I had been frying and eating three-layer pork after work for the first time in a long while.

The locals near Wanda’s desert even knew how to distinguish between a usual desert storm and the storm whipped up when the fish called Wanda appeared. As for a real, normal desert storm, an influx of salty air could be felt first, like a heavy air blowing from the ocean. This wind moves much more slowly than the wind speed we know. In the case of a strong storm, which is not common, the wind collides with the light, heated air of the desert and can change the area’s topography over dozens of kilometers. A small storm, by contrast, does not alter the landscape, but occurs between the earth’s surface and the upper sky. Hazy dust layers first appear in the sky and dimly settle before growing stronger and sucking sand up until the small storm becomes a dark whirl of dust.

The desert storm that occurs when Wanda appears gives no such advanced warning. It can suddenly appear just as one is sitting under a parasol leisurely licking ice cream, or so the Jerk said.

Wanda’s storm gushes out suddenly, erupting from deep within the sand. There is no turning, sucking, or moving about. Soaring up unexpectedly and turning things upside down, it obscures several kilometers of entire areas with a dark, thick sand fog and disappears slowly, as if gradually sinking back down into the place from where it came. The flat, wide spreading contour resembles the discharge of a megaton-range explosive. Sometimes Wanda’s gigantic tailfin leaves a line curving round like a brand burnt into the earth over several hundred meters. People call this effect of Wanda’s storm “Wanda’s Landmine.”

If one is unlucky and steps on it, blam, this enormous underground landmine called Wanda explodes. As Wanda appears above ground, dust burdens the air with unbearable weight, sand waves violently spread, and a sand tsunami as high as a big house floods through the sand swamp and sand lake; the whole sand dune and basin area is turned upside down. The sun itself seems to be slashed in two as the tailfin goes completely berserk, slicing through the air.

As Wanda’s power was so great, the locals belittled the Pink Panthers and the 70 kilogram harpoons of The Great Wanda Expedition. They laughed and made jokes about fools rowing a sand boat and fishing with a sand rod, trying to catch the sandstorm in the desert . . .

 

Those natives who had named the fish “Wanda” had already died out two centuries ago. Probably that’s why the meaning of the name is not clearly known. Somebody would ask, “So, what is it, why’s this fish called Wanda?” The blond fool who insisted he was one-seventh native would simply shrug with a dumb look and say, “She’s a fish called Wanda. She just is.” In fact, why should we care? We can’t see her anyway.

As suggested before, the power of Wanda was probably so far beyond comprehension and so coercive that depression and anxiety about the future were as pervasive as an epidemic among the natives two hundred years ago. Thus, Europeans didn’t need to use as much whisky to take away their lands. The natives withdrew meekly, as they were already drunk on a toxic brew of depression, anxiety, and iboga, a hallucinogen imported from the tropics.

According to a natural history document from the seventeenth century, though not entirely trustworthy, only one word remained to those natives who had lost all hope: “Wanda.” In the world of their language, the word “Wanda” was used to refer to everything. The desert without a drop of water, the ennui of enduring such a desert, the natives themselves who endured the ennui, the abrupt desert sandstorm, the certainty of death, and anything else thinkable was referred to with this single word.

That means that the natives called “Wanda” had lived some centuries, unclear how many, in the middle of the desert called “Wanda” where a fish called “Wanda” lived and where they fought against the anxiety and death called “Wanda.”

These natives all trembled constantly in anxiety over whether the fish called Wanda might suddenly pop out of their mouths . . . Such anxiety had probably accumulated over several hundreds or thousands of years until today and was now obscurely flowing through the whole desert, shaping sand dunes and cutting sand rivers.

 

This is everything I know about the fish called Wanda. And what I know is all from the messages left by the Jerk on my pager and on my answering machine. Honestly, I wouldn’t believe the Jerk even if he told me water was wet. I don’t know what the local climate there was like centuries ago, but if that desert area only had under twenty millimeters of rainfall a couple of times every three to four years, how could a fish live in such a place? Has Wanda survived over the centuries by sucking the dew that gathers in the desert all night long till early morning using the lumps all over her body and the several hundred strands of tongues? And for her food over the centuries, gulping down 232 vehicles, including mobile homes, according to the official figures? Actually, what does it matter since we can’t see her anyway? The Great Wanda Expedition hasn’t returned yet.

I’ve phoned several places, but the foolish fishermen haven’t returned through any Korean airport even though their visas are almost up. As the Jerk once said, although they had a sound locator and even a dish for satellite communication, these might have proved useless. Within a certain radius of Wanda’s habitat, even the simplest solar compass is useless, not to mention the traditional magnetic compass, for the fish called Wanda had to be disrupting even the earth’s magnetic field.

I hope the missing Jerk and his crew return from their Wanda expedition and exhibit the last monster of the twentieth century, The Fish Called Wanda, in the Gallery Comedism on the rooftop of the Galleria Department Store in Apgujeongdong so that everyone can see the end of the century.

“I’m standing now before the endless desert. I’ve never seen such a wide sandy beach! Of course, there’s no sea at this sandy beach,” the Jerk had said.

 

Translated by Hwang Sun-Ae and Horace Jeffery Hodges

Author's Profile

Baek Minsuk shocked the Korean literary scene with his hardcore, grotesque debut novel, I Loved Candy, in 1995, but stopped writing in 2003. He took up writing again a decade later and has been vigorously writing ever since. He has authored one novella, four short story collections, two essay collections, and six novels, including Bizarre Tales from the Cotton Field and A Century of Terror.