Translated from Korean by Anton Hur
She was about to flush the toilet.
She looked back. There was a head popping out of the toilet, calling for her.
She looked at it for a moment. Then, she flushed the toilet. The head disappeared in a rush of water.
She left the bathroom.
A few days later, she met the head again in the bathroom.
She reached to flush the toilet again. The head sputtered, “N-no, just a minute—"
She stayed her hand and looked down at the head in the toilet.
It was probably more accurate to refer to it as “a thing that vaguely looks like a head” than an actual head. It was about two-thirds the size of an adult’s head and resembled a lump of carelessly slapped-together yellow and gray clay, with a few scattered clumps of wet hair. No ears, no eyebrows. Two slits for eyes so narrow that she couldn’t tell if its eyes were open or closed. The crushed mound beneath was meant to be its nose. The mouth was also a lipless slit. Its strained speech mixed with the gurgling of a person drowning, making it difficult to understand.
“What the Hell are you?” she asked.
“I call myself the Head,” the Head replied.
“You would, obviously,” she said, “but why are you in my toilet? And why are you calling me ‘mother’?”
The Head strained as it formed its unpracticed speech with its lipless mouth. “My body was created with the things you dumped down the toilet, like your fallen-out hair and the feces you wiped off your behind.”
She got angry. “I never gave the likes of you permission to live in my toilet. I never even created the likes of you in the first place, so stop calling me your mother. Leave before I call the exterminators.”
“I only want so little,” said the Head hastily, “I’m only asking that you keep dumping your body waste in the toilet so I can finish the rest of my body. Then I’ll go far away from here and live by my own means, so please, just keep using the toilet like you always have.”
“This is my toilet,” she said coldly, “so of course I’m going to use it like I always have. But I can’t stand to think of the likes of you living in it. Finishing your body is none of my concern. I don’t care what you do, and I’d appreciate it if you stopped appearing.”
The Head disappeared into the toilet.
But the Head kept reappearing.
After a flush, it would peer over the toilet seat and stare at her as she washed her hands. Whenever she felt she was being watched, her eyes would dart to the toilet and lock gazes with its hard-to-tell-if-they-were-open eye slits. The mashed-up face seemed to be trying to create an expression, but it was impossible to tell what that was. When she approached to flush again, it quickly disappeared down the toilet. Then, she would put down the lid, flush, stare at the toilet for a while, and leave.
One day she had used the toilet like always, flushed, and was washing her hands. The Head appeared in the toilet behind her, just as it always did. She looked at it for a while through the mirror. The Head also looked at her. The mashed-up face underneath the irregular clumps of hair would’ve normally been yellow and gray, but now it was oddly red.
She remembered she was having her period.
“Your color looks different,” she said to the Head. “Does it have anything to do with the state of my own body?”
The Head replied, “Mother, the state of your body has a direct effect on my appearance. This is because my entire existence depends on you.”
She took off her underwear and sanitary pad. She stuck the pad smeared with her menstrual blood on the Head’s face and pressed down on it into the toilet. She flushed.
The Head and the pad swirled around the bowl and disappeared into the dark hole. She washed her hands. Then, she vomited into the sink. She vomited for a long time, then rinsed the sink and left the bathroom.
The toilet got blocked. The plumber presented her sanitary pad to her like a trophy and delivered a long lecture about not throwing such things into the toilet.
She began to keep her toilet lid closed. She developed the habit of frequently looking into the bowl whenever she was doing her business. She developed constipation.
One day, just as she was about to close the toilet lid, she caught a glimpse of the Head peering out of the hole. She slammed down the lid. She flushed several times. Just as she was about to leave the bathroom, she carefully cracked open the lid. Her eyes met that of the Head. It was staring at her from in the water. Its hair floated around its face. She shut the lid again. She tried to flush but the water wouldn’t go down.
She told her family about it.
“It’s not like it’s laying eggs or anything, why don’t you leave it alone?” And that was all her family said of the matter.
She avoided going to the bathroom at home.
One day, she saw it at a bathroom at her workplace. She had flushed the toilet and was washing her hands when she glimpsed, through the mirror, the Head peeping out from the toilet in her stall. She quit her job the next day.
Her constipation worsened. Her bladder developed an inflammation. The doctor told her she needed to make regular visits to the toilet. But the thought of something below where she did her business, waiting to eat her defecations, made the thought of going to any bathroom unbearable.
The inflammation and constipation never really went away.
Now that she had quit her job, her family suggested she find a husband. She went on a date set up by a matchmaker whom her mother recommended. The man who showed up was an ordinary office worker at a trading company. He said his dream was to marry a nice woman, have children, and live happily ever after. He seemed unassuming and dependable, albeit unimaginative. Sitting before this strange man, she couldn’t help being nervous about the bathroom situation. Her fidgeting didn’t escape the man’s notice. He said, “My favorite kind of woman are the shy and innocent ones. It’s so hard to find a girl who’s shy in front of a man these days.” The man was so enamored and enthusiastic about the match that they were engaged three months later and wedded in another three.
Now she was worried about the honeymoon. Thankfully, the Head didn’t appear on the trip. The first thing she checked after moving into her new home with her new husband was the toilet. There was nothing inside. Her life in her new home brought some relief to her bladder inflammation and constipation. Her days had no highs or lows, weren’t particularly good or bad, and she thought herself as more or less content. She was busy adjusting to these changes and thought less about the Head. Soon, she had a child, and forgot about the Head completely.
It was a little after the birth of her child when the Head reappeared in her life. She had been bathing the little one in a baby bath.
She almost drowned her child by accident.
The Head’s head had now grown to about the size of an average adult’s. The yellow and gray mashed-up clay lump form was the same but its eyes were a little bigger so she could now make out its blinking, and there was some semblance of lips on its mouth. There were mounds of flesh for ears that looked like they’d been carelessly stuck on either side of its face, and beneath its barely discernable chin was a new band of flesh that seemed to be the beginnings of a neck.
“Mother, is that child your daughter?”
Surprised, she said, “How is it that you have reappeared before me? Who told you where we were?”
The Head replied, “Your defecations are a part of me, so I will always know where you are.”
The Head’s words displeased her. She hissed, “I told you to go away, how dare you reappear and call me ‘mother’! It does not concern you whose child this is! But fine, this is my child. She is the only one in this world who may call me ‘mother.’ Now, be gone. I said, be gone!” The child started to wail.
The Head said, “I may have been birthed a different way from that child, but I, too, am your creation, mother.”
“Did I not say that I had never created the likes of you? I told you to be gone. If you do not, I shall do whatever it takes to find and destroy you!”
She slammed down the toilet lid and flushed. Then, she consoled her crying child and wiped off the remaining soap suds.
Once the Head came back into her life, it kept reappearing like a bad rash. She could feel it staring at her from behind after she had flushed and was washing her hands. She could see something yellow and gray in the corner of her eye, but when she quickly turned to look it was gone, leaving only a few telltale strands of hair floating in the toilet bowl.
Her constipation and bladder inflammation returned. She was worried for the child more than anything else. Was the Head jealous of her daughter? Would it bully the child? Just the thought of the child catching a glimpse of the Head was unbearable. She became nervous whenever the little one wanted to go to the bathroom.
She clenched her fists. She was going to destroy the Head.
She went to the bathroom. She did her business and flushed. She waited for the Head to appear as she washed her hands. When a yellow and gray thing slowly rose from the toilet bowl, she said in a low voice, “I have something to say to you.”
She finished washing her hands and crouched down before the toilet so she was eye-level with the Head.
“You are . . .”
She hesitated. The Head waited.
She grabbed the Head. She easily plucked it from the toilet and wrapped it in a plastic bag. She threw the bag away in a trash can outside. Then, with a light heart, she went back to living her life.
The reprieve didn’t last long. She was in the bathroom with the child when it happened. The child was now old enough to get on the toilet on her own. Her daughter could pretty much handle the whole process if she reminded her of every step, from lowering her underwear, sitting on the toilet and doing her business, wiping her behind, putting on her clothes again, flushing, and washing her hands. Her daughter wasn’t tall enough to reach the sink yet, so she lifted her up to the sink to soap her hands. One day, as they were doing so, a familiar yellow and gray thing appeared.
She turned. She saw the Head. Then, she finished rinsing off the suds from the child’s hands, dried them on a towel, and sent her daughter out the bathroom.
“What’s the meaning of this? How are you back?”
The mouth of the Head almost imperceptibly twisted to a sneer. “I begged the janitor who found me to flush me down the toilet.”
She said nothing as she flushed the toilet. The Head swirled in the rushing of the water as it disappeared down the dark hole.
Outside the bathroom, the child was full of questions.
She said to her child, “That was what we call a ‘head.’ If you see it again, just flush.”
The Head had the gall to appear before her and the child and call her “Mother.” She decided she had to get rid of it once and for all.
Plucking the Head from the toilet again was easy. But just as she was about to wrap it in a plastic bag and throw it out with the garbage, she hesitated. The Head could talk. If she threw it out like this, it could ask someone to flush it down the toilet like last time. She had to make it so that it couldn’t talk.
She put the Head in a small container and put it out on a sunny spot on the veranda. She figured without water or defecations, it would eventually mummify to death. She couldn’t think of any other way, nor did she care to expend the effort of finding out.
She cautioned her husband and child to not disturb the container with the Head. Her husband had no occasion to go out on the veranda, but her child was curious. She squirmed from the desire to stare at it and poke it and talk to it. She gave the child a harsh scolding and hid the container with the Head.
Her husband got some vacation time. They went traveling for a few days and when they came back, she went to the bathroom. She was washing her hands when something appeared behind her. She turned around. She slapped the lid of the toilet seat shut and flushed.
She scolded the child. “You did this, didn’t you! I told you and told you not to touch it!”
The child began to cry. Her husband stepped in. “Oh, that thing in the container? It asked me to put it in the toilet, so I did. Why, did I do wrong?”
She sighed and told him the whole story.
Her husband remained nonchalant. “Eh, that’s nothing. Just leave it alone. It’s not like it crawls out of there at night and lays eggs around the house.”
She dreamed she was in a white, tiled room. Suddenly from behind her, the Head popped out. She turned around in surprise. The Head popped out from another direction. It began popping out from every direction.
Her delighted daughter next to her kept pointing at them. “Head! Head!”
She begged her husband for help. He was sitting on her other side and reading a newspaper. “Eh, that’s nothing. Just leave it alone.”
His words bounced against the tiles and chorused off the walls. Leave it alone. That’s nothing. Leave it alone. That’s nothing.
The button for the flush was near the ceiling. She reached it with some difficulty and just managed to press it. Water swirled around her husband, her child, and the Head. She got sucked into a dark hole along with her still-delighted child and her still-nonchalantly-newspaper-reading husband. She grabbed her child and tried with all her might to escape the whirlpool. A familiar voice spoke in her ear.
She looked down at her child. Upon her daughter’s little body and delicate neck sat the Head.
The shock woke her. She stumbled into the bathroom. She sat in front of the toilet and stared into the pure, flawless white of the bowl, the clear water pooled inside, and the dark hole submerged within. Imagining the thing inside it and where that hole led to.
But the Head no longer appeared ever since she had tried to mummify it to death. As time went on, she no longer had nightmares about the Head. She quietly went about her life cooking for her husband and child, washing the dishes, doing the laundry, cleaning the house, shopping, and generally immersing herself in years of featureless, peaceful days. Her husband went up his organization ladder no faster or slower than other people. He wasn’t especially gentle or warm, but he did bring home a cake on her or their child’s birthday and planted candles in it. Her child, like everyone else, went to elementary school, then to middle school, and became a high school student. Her grades weren’t particularly good or bad. She was cute, but not a stunner. She was a typical high school student who had trouble getting up in the morning, liked celebrities, and worried over her pimples in the mirror.
“Come get breakfast or you’ll be late.”
“Mom, did you see my uniform necktie?”
“I hung it on the doorknob of your bedroom. Slow down, you’ll get an upset stomach.”
“OK. Oh, by the way, I saw a person’s head in the toilet yesterday.”
“Did you now. What happened?”
“I just flushed it down the toilet.”
“Good. More stew?”
“I’m good. But about that head, I think I’ve seen it before. Is there a way to get rid of it? It grosses me out.”
“Forget about it. Just flush it down again. Are you done?”
“Yup. See you later.”
“You’ve packed your lunch?”
“I did. Bye, mom.”
“Have a good day.”
The door closed.
Forget about it.
She began to clear the table.
Her child entered college. Meanwhile, she herself started noticing wrinkles and sagging in her skin, and rough patches where she had once been smooth. She gave her child some lipstick and it suited the girl well, only she wasn’t a girl anymore but a young woman. She now discovered the lines of her own face as a young woman in the familiar-unfamiliar face of her daughter and felt surprise, pride, love, and jealousy all at the same time. The day her child straight-permed her hair flat and dyed it purple, she herself stood before a mirror when no one was watching and fiddled with the curls of her “auntie perm,” a tight cap of poodle-y hair that also had to be dyed black.
She spent more and more time alone in the house. Her husband had been promoted to executive and lived under a mountain of work, and her child was also busy in her own way so that the family rarely saw each other during the day. From time to time her husband came home a little earlier than usual and the two of them spent a quiet evening together, but they had never had a fiery love story to begin with or had much in terms of memories to fall back on, and they had spent too much time together being emotionally unengaged to really start making an effort to be affectionate now. They usually ate dinner in silence, watched some television, and her husband would go to bed first.
She would then watch TV on her own. On days her child came home late, on days her husband came home late, and even on days when her whole family had long fallen asleep, she would watch TV until the national anthem came on. Partly because she had nothing else to do, but more so because she thought if she concentrated hard enough on the screen, she might decrease the little odd space that had appeared in her heart. The space felt empty sometimes and full sometimes and bitter or aching in still other times. This strange little space, if she ever let her guard down, could suddenly blow up in size and consume her. So she kept watching TV. She tried to empty her heart and mind watching the meaningless progression of scenes before her. But the well of thought taps a deep spring, and no matter how much she bailed, the thoughts kept overflowing the brim . . .
Then one night, she went to the bathroom.
This was because she had been watching the TV, like always, and was alone in the house, like always. She did her business and closed the lid and flushed. While washing her hands, she caught a glimpse of herself in the mirror. Sagging eyelids, wrinkles, rough and dry skin. White hair beginning to grow back at the roots. She fiddled with her hair thinking she’d need another dye job soon when she saw, through the mirror, the lid of the toilet seat move.
A wet hand had risen from the inside of the toilet and pushed the lid open. Another wet hand emerged. The two hands gripped the edge of the toilet.
She watched as the back of a person’s head, thick with hair and slick with water, rise from the toilet bowl as if to slide out of it.
The delicate hands spread their long, thin fingers and pushed against the edge, bringing up a narrow pair of fine-boned shoulders and slender arms connecting them to the hands. The rich black hair reached all the way down the smooth back, followed by the sensuous line of a little waist and white, voluptuous buttocks and firm thighs. A knee rose up and a foot perched on the edge of the toilet bowl. The leg was white and long and slim. The calves were just the right size, the muscles tensing a little as they brought the foot up, and the ankle was dainty. The other foot emerged, and its exquisite toes lightly touched down on the bathroom floor. The drenched, naked body shone in the yellow, dim light of the bathroom.
She kept staring in the mirror. The person who had emerged from the toilet slowly turned toward her. She saw the face of her youth reflected next to her own, old face. Her young self was smiling at her old self. The old self slowly turned around to face the young self.
The Head that was no longer a head stood still. The old self stared back at this face from her youth, this face that smiled back at her.
“Mother?” The tone of voice was a little falsetto but there was no more gurgling sound, no more of that irritating voice of a person drowning. “Don’t you see who I am?”
“Well . . .” Her own voice creaked like a rusty hinge.
“How have you been?”
She said nothing.
“I have finished my body. And just as I promised in the beginning, I shall leave and live by my own means. I’m here to say goodbye and ask a final request.”
She caught the word. “Request?”
“Don’t worry.” The Head smiled as if to reassure her. “I can’t go out in the world in my naked form now, could I? It was hard enough finishing my body just with what you were giving me, so I had no means to create garments to cover myself. This is my first and last request. If you could just give me a change of clothing, I shall hide my shameful parts and be on my way.”
She thought of the clothes hanging in her wardrobe and turned to leave the bathroom. The Head stopped her.
“Don’t go out of your way. Just the clothes you’re wearing now will do.”
She replied, “What are you talking about? You want me to take off my clothes for you this minute? When the floor tiles here are so cold to the touch? You should just take what I give you, why are you asking for so much?”
“Mother, please calm down.” The Head looked at her with a longing expression on her young face. “I’ve never received anything from you other than what you’ve thrown away. This is my first and last request. If you give me the clothes you are wearing now, I shall keep the body heat and scent of you forever with me until the day I die, with gratitude.”
She stared at her younger self. At her younger body. At this individual created not through a womb and placenta but through the colon and defecations. She stared at what had hid in the dark hole in the white porcelain for all that time, torturing her, but was now declaring independence. If this really was goodbye, and if they really were never to see each other again, what was a change of clothing to her?
As her young self toweled off, the old her took off her clothes. They weren’t anything fancy: a cardigan, a simple dress, a bra, underpants, and socks. That was it. Naked, she watched her young self pick up each item and put them on. Underpants. Bra. Dress. Cardigan. Her young self seemed to relish each item. Lastly, the socks were put on, the buttons on the cardigan done up. Her old self felt a chill against her naked body.
“All right, then. Now that you’ve put on my clothes, be off. I’m cold. I need to put something on.”
She turned again to leave the bathroom.
Her young self swiftly came between her and the door, blocking her. “Where do you think you’re going? Your place is not out here!” She pointed to the toilet. “It’s in there!”
“What are you on about?” cried the old self. “Did I not give you clothes when you asked for them? Did I not do everything you told me to? Why are you being so ungrateful? Enough with this insanity, Be off. Be off!”
A sneer changed her young self’s face. “That’s right. You gave me everything I told you to, and all you have left is that old lump of a body. I’ve endured for long enough down there, and you’ve enjoyed your life on the outside long enough. Now it’s your turn to go down the toilet. I shall take your place and enjoy everything you’ve enjoyed!”
Her old self was furious. “You ingrate! What do think I’ve enjoyed out here? My life is the same as everyone else’s, and did you not with your torture ruin what little happiness I had? I withstood all that disgust and hate and made you who you are today. If you have any gratitude for what I’ve done for you so despite all that you’ve put me through, then use your finished body to disappear from my life! Get out of my sight!”
The sneer faded from her young self’s face. Her eyes flashing, she began speaking through clenched teeth, but in a clear, slow, and restrained tone. “Gratitude. What gratitude should I have for you? Did I ask you to give birth to me? Did you ever take care of me or even say a kind word to me, your indisputable offspring? You birthed me even when I didn’t want it, and did you not at every turn try to destroy me out of hatred and disgust? What have you given me besides your feces and trash? I had to endure all manner of humiliations and degradations in getting what I needed from you to complete a human-seeming body. But now, it’s complete. This is the day I’ve been waiting for in that dark hole all my life. Now that I have become you, I shall take your place and live a new life.”
The young approached the old. Young, strong hands gripped old shoulders and neck. The young shoved the old’s head into the toilet and quick as a flash lifted her by the ankles. Lightly shoving in the old body into the toilet, her young closed the toilet lid shut and flushed.