Sunghwan opened the glass door that led from the living room to the veranda. The wind was coming from the south, and the salty ocean air flooded the dark room. The path in front of the Annex was blanketed in fog and it was starting to rain. It was quiet; nobody was out. He heard the tinkle of a music box: Fly me to the moon and let me play among the stars . . .
Sunghwan flipped open his cell and called Choi Hyonsu, but his call went straight to voice mail.
Choi Hyonsu was the new head of security at Seryong Dam. Starting Monday, he would be Sunghwan’s boss. Hyonsu was planning to move in on Sunday, but he’d wanted to come by tonight, Friday, and take a look at the place his family would be sharing with Sunghwan. He was supposed to be here at eight, but it was nearly nine now. He couldn’t have forgotten. They had just made these plans at lunchtime, and he hadn’t called or texted to say he would be late.
Sunghwan closed the door and drew the curtains. He couldn’t stop his new boss from coming so late, but he also didn’t have to sit around and wait when he was being blown off. He didn’t have the time or patience. He had things to do. He texted Hyonsu: The code to the front door is 214365.
Sunghwan went into his room, which faced the arboretum behind the Annex. He tossed his cell on the desk and began changing. Things would be easier if he got there already in basic gear—wet suit, BC, weight belt. He was strapping a diving knife around his calf when his cell rang, startling him. It was his father. He often called around this time of night after a drink. Sunghwan could already hear his voice in his head: How long are you going to try to write a novel? At thirty–two years old, you’re nothing but a security guard. We didn’t all work ourselves to death to give you an education just to see you waste your life.
Sunghwan put his sneakers on and climbed out the window, ignoring his cell. He slung his backpack, which held his underwater camera and other gear, on his shoulder. He put his headlamp on and started off in the direction of the secluded, unlocked gate behind unit 101 that led to a shortcut to the lake.
As he walked toward the gate, a half-open window of unit 101 caught his eye. It was Seryong’s room, the girl he’d seen a few hours before, leaning against the bus stop and kicking at the curb. A mosquito coil was on the windowsill, smoke curling up. On the wall opposite was a portrait of the girl, her hair gathered on top of her head, her dark eyes staring straight ahead. She looked like a young ballerina in a Degas painting. Underneath the picture was a white desk on which glowed three votive candles: one green, two red. Next to them sat stuffed animals wearing party hats. A musical toy Ferris wheel with a lightbulb for a moon and a figure of a girl flying toward it rotated in front of the animal guests. That was the source of the tune that had been floating in the foggy evening air. Sunghwan hitched his backpack up and turned away, unsettled by the scene he had just seen. She must have thrown herself a birthday party before falling asleep. There was no way her dad would let her keep the candles burning through the night, and the window should have been closed. His white BMW was usually parked in front, but now Sunghwan couldn’t remember if he’d seen it. In his mind, yellow flames, flickering in the breeze, leaped from one stuffed animal to another, devouring them instantly.
Sunghwan blinked away the imagery and kept walking. It would not be smart to hang around. He should slip out of the gate toward the lake.
Sunghwan had taken the job on the security detail at Seryong Dam because of the perks: He was provided housing in the mountains near a lake. The pay wasn’t bad; it was less than working for the railway but more than he’d earned as a stable hand at a racehorse ranch. It was a one-year contract position, so he wouldn’t feel like a cog in a large organization. The first time Sunghwan went up to the rest area observation deck, he felt he’d picked the perfect job. It was the first day of June, neither hot nor cold. It was hazy out, and only the rim of the sun was visible in the pearly sky. It was the perfect weather in which to view the lake below, which, he saw now, had been created by stopping up the river that snaked down from Paryong Mountain in the north to the South Sea. Two thin, straight peaks bookended each side of the lake: Seryong Peak, which was near the observation deck where he sat, and Soryong, which was across the way.
If he was lucky, he thought, he might discover a muse here, one who would facilitate his becoming a bestselling novelist and an answer to his father’s questions. But in the two months since he’d arrived, Sunghwan had managed to write only two sentences.
But Sunghwan soon grew bored. His job was monotonous and the weather was getting hot. The lake beckoned alluringly, but he wasn’t allowed to enter it; he couldn’t even dip a finger in. His diving gear stayed in his closet. Seryong Lake was a first-tier reservoir that sustained four cities and ten counties nearby. A barbed-wire fence surrounded it. Nobody was allowed to even climb Seryong Peak. Seryong Ranch, which used to raise goats, had been shuttered upon the dam’s completion. The barn had become a haven for wild animals; it was illegal to build or tear down any buildings in the protected zone. The road that wound around the lake was partially closed to traffic. The lake was, in essence, a huge, sheltered well. Guards patrolled the lake day and night.
Sunghwan was still stuck when his boss shared the news that he was leaving for a new job at Chungju Lake. In the office, as Sunghwan discussed how to split up the work with Park, another of the guards, stared at the CCTV monitor. “This lake gives me the creeps.”
Sunghwan looked at the monitor. As the fog began to dissipate, Hansoldung emerged like a gravestone in the center of the lake. A pine tree with a split trunk stood alone in the middle of the otherwise barren island. “What does Hansoldung mean, anyway? Single Pine Tree Hill?”
“Who knows?” Park replied. “I did hear the old village was right below it. They say it’s still completely intact underwater. I heard the nameplates still hang on the gates.”
Sunghwan blinked. The back of his neck prickled.
“At least, that’s what they say. It makes sense, I guess. The dam was completed about a decade ago, but they didn’t demolish the village first. They just flooded it. It used to be the second-largest village in the township, you know.”
“Have you talked to anyone who’s actually seen it?”
“No. The residents are very protective of it. They treat it like a holy site or something. They don’t want anyone from the outside to come in and poke around. I figure it’s superstition— they don’t want to disturb anything since down in the new village they effectively live with a giant water tank above their heads.”
“Do you think there’s anything to it? That the lake might be sacred?”
“Sunghwan, you haven’t seen her at sundown, have you?” Park asked, referring to the lake as though it were human. “Watch the screen for a minute or two after the sun sets. When the darkness settles over the water, fog wafts up around Hansoldung. Like it’s smoke from the chimneys below.” Park kept his eyes on the screen. “I sound crazy, don’t I?”
“Well, no, but—”
“I can’t wait for this assignment here to be over,” Park muttered.
That night, Sunghwan drifted home. He lay down, but he couldn’t fall asleep. The secrets of the old village would unleash his imagination, and he would be able to do what he came here to do. He would write his masterpiece. He could practically see the underwater village in front of him, the last embers burning in the houses’ hearths. How could he get down there? He couldn’t climb over the fence with all of his diving gear. He had to get his hands on a key.
Sunghwan had left work that morning, after two consecutive nights on duty, with a copy of the key to the dock in his pocket. The keys were always transferred to the guards working the next shift to ensure that nobody could sneak them out, so Sunghwan had driven to a hardware store to make a copy during his shift, leaving the security office unmanned.
He waited for darkness to fall, coating the sinkers with fluorescent paint. He waited for them to dry, then tied them to the fishing line, making sure to leave about a foot between each; it would be a makeshift depth gauge, so he could calculate how to safely ascend by accounting for pressure changes. The line would also be a guide; once he found the underwater village, he could leave it discreetly at the water’s edge, allowing him to return, if he wanted to, the following night.
His new boss didn’t show up even after Sunghwan completed making his depth gauge. Tonight was the night; tomorrow he would begin writing again, before his workweek started. He had to enter the lake without anyone noticing him and take detailed pictures of the village.
He went out the window and past Seryong’s bedroom, and through the gate to the shortcut. On the other side, Sunghwan turned on his headlamp. He made it as bright as possible but still couldn’t see very well. The fog emanating from the lake was too thick; it smothered everything, like a snowstorm. It began to rain. He turned off the lamp at the end of the road, where he knew there was a CCTV camera. Darkness enveloped him.
He walked alongside the fence surrounding the lake and arrived at the dock ten minutes later. This was the sole point of entry to the lake: a pair of steel doors. A thick chain was coiled around the handles and fastened by a padlock. Sunghwan turned his headlamp to the dimmest setting to unlock it. Once inside, he used the chain and padlock to lock himself in, ensuring he would not be interrupted.
The concrete ramp leading down to the dock was about twenty yards long, flanked by a tangle of shrubs and vines. The Josong, a barge used by the waste management company that serviced the dam, was tied to the dock. Sunghwan put his backpack down by the Josong’s cabin. He took out the fishing line, tied it to the pier, and prepared to enter the water. He tugged on his fins and slid the breathing apparatus into his mouth. He checked his watch; it was 9:30.
He entered vertically. Once submerged, he turned his lamp as bright as it would go and descended, carefully unraveling the fishing line. He passed the first thermocline and spotted the yellow center dividing line of a two-lane road at the bottom of the lake. The undercurrent was fairly strong, but visibility wasn’t too bad. Sunghwan wrapped the fishing line loosely around a tree trunk and continued his descent.
Several minutes later, his feet were planted on the bottom of the lake. The water was cold enough to give him a headache. It was dark and quiet. Everything was colorless. Only the road, reflected by the light of his headlamp, glistened in silver. He could see glimmers of the old village in the far reaches of his light. Feeling both trepidation and excitement, he swam down the road into the darkness.
He was greeted by an engraved rock marking the entrance to the town. Welcome to Seryong Village. The frame of a bus shelter, its glass gone, was beside it. He looped the fishing line around a rusted sign pole and kept going. Underwater plants had grown thick on the ruins of a rice mill; fish swam through its walls. A telephone pole lay in the street and a rusted cultivator was stuck in the field. He wound his fishing line around each of these and continued on. He encountered a crumbled rock wall, dangling shingles, exposed steel beams, broken doorframes, scattered roof tiles, rotting, fallen trees, a stroller with a missing wheel, a well covered with a steel lid. Was this what the world would look like after humans went extinct? He was transfixed.
Like a fish, Sunghwan flitted around the roads and bridges
and stone barriers, taking pictures with his underwater camera, documenting what he might otherwise have believed to be figments of his imagination.
Time underwater flowed as capriciously as the current. In an instant, an hour had gone by. Sunghwan realized that he felt numb. Everything before him was shaking, and not because of the current. The village was suddenly painted in vivid colors. He felt ecstatic—he was starting to reel from the effects of nitrogen narcosis.
Last one, he told himself as he pointed his camera at the nameplate hanging on a house at the highest point of the village. He pressed the button, the flash popping over the dark letters on the nameplate. It vanished under the light and the letters floated up as though they were embossed.
It was 10:45 and he only had 120 bar of oxygen remaining. Sunghwan had to get up to the surface. He started to dump air out of the buoyancy compensator and began to ascend. He didn’t have time to return via the same route he had taken in; he had to ascend directly above that last house. He looked down as he rose steadily at thirty feet per minute. Everything was starting to return to gray. His mind lingered on the final nameplate: Oh Yongje.
Sunghwan paused his ascent once he felt the water turn warmer. He wasn’t entirely sure of his location in the lake since he hadn’t retraced his route along the fishing line. He decided to decompress there and checked his watch: 10:50 p.m. The gauge on his air tank indicated that he had enough air for about seven minutes. He relaxed and closed his eyes. He would stay there until he was nearly out of air.
Sound travels four times faster through water than air, which is why it is difficult to tell where sound is coming from when underwater. Five minutes into his decompression, Sunghwan heard something: a small, gentle sound. It had to be either someone diving in or something being thrown in the lake. He tensed and listened for movement.
Sunghwan looked up and caught sight of something flapping like a broken sail near the water. As it neared him, he took in the flowing dark hair, pale face, white dress billowing around the body, legs stretched up as if kicking. A person. A girl. Descending straight down, headfirst.
His eyes met the child’s, which were wide open. He felt his breath catch in his throat. A small, bare foot brushed against his shoulder before she sank.
It was her. Seryong. Sunghwan felt as if he were being sucked into a whirlpool. He had to be sure. He turned and kicked, forgetting that he was decompressing. He didn’t pay attention to how much air he had left. He reached out his hands, feeling around, as he dove into cloudier water. He spotted something dark and snaking: her hair. He turned her right-side up, her small face coming to meet his.
It was her. Cradling the back of her head, he saw that her eyes were bruised, her top teeth were knocked out, and her lip was busted, but it was Seryong. Sunghwan felt paralyzed. In that moment she slid out of his grip and sank deeper into the water. He let her go. He was left with something small and hard in his hand, but he soon forgot about it. He couldn’t breathe. But it wasn’t because of his shock; his tank was empty. He finally came to his senses. Ditching his weight belt, tilting his head up, and kicking his fins, he began an emergency ascent.
From SEVEN YEARS OF DARKNESS by You–Jeong Jeong, published by Penguin Books, an imprint of Penguin Publishing Group, a division of Penguin Random House, LLC. Copyright © 2011 by You–Jeong Jeong. Translation copyright © 2020 by Chi-Young Kim.