“Where did you get that?” Liwen demanded, gingerly plucking at Young-A’s shoulder. “Hyong Kim, come get your son!”
The old man only took a long drag off his cigarette and looked out the window, leaving his Chinese counterpart to struggle with whether to physically engage with a young, healthy man wielding a blade.
“She wanted it,” said a thicker man with narrow eyes and slicked-back hair, shaved on the sides. Young-A had pinned the man against a wall and was pressing a small hunting knife into his throat.
“Might want to choose your worse carefully, you get me?” drawled Hyong Kim. Liwen looked frantically between him and the thicker man, who cleared his throat beneath the live blade.
“I ain’t getting paid enough for this,” he amended.
Young-A snarled, as much as his passive face would allow, and he hauled the man away by a fistful of hoodie and shoved him toward the door. When the thicker man ventured to glare vengefully back at him, Young-A took a silent step forward and the thicker man evaporated into the hall.
Liwen rubbed his face, then spread his arms and turned on Young-A. “We have to have someone! There has to be someone with her, on camera! Otherwise, how the hell is the audience supposed to see how small she is?” He looked over at the exquisite little woman, lounging between a laptop and USB mouse without a care in the world.
“Not him,” Young-A grunted, folding the blade and stashing it somewhere around the pocket of his workman’s trousers. Liwen couldn’t track exactly where it went, but he updated his internal records of the hot-headed youth.
Finally his father peeled himself from the wall. “What he means to say is that there’s a strictly hands-off policy on Mi-Na. No petting, no tickling, and definitely no grabbing. Your, uh, young stud there broke the first rule, and you and he had better consider him lucky to have gotten out of here unscathed. Get me?”
The Chinese proxy smoothed his hair back. “You’re going to shit on my reputation, treating people like that. Hard enough to find someone open-minded enough to work with… uh…” He glanced at the tiny woman again.
“Yeah, choose your next words carefully,” said the old man. “She’s not a freak of nature. She’s not even disabled. Mi-Na is a small miracle, and that should be your working premise when you start talking to contractors, or whatever that street scum was.”
“Ta-ma-de, Hyong Kim! That’s my sister-in-law’s nephew, he’s not some stranger. He needed a few extra bucks, and believe me, he’s more open-minded than the first ten people I tried to call. Half of them thought I was full of shit… no, they all thought I was full of shit. Half thought I was playing a joke, the other half thought I was framing them.” He walked over to bum an Arirang 6 off the old man. “What am I supposed to tell people? No one’s ever heard of anything like this, a tiny woman as big as a dick.”
“Bigger than yours.”
“You want my goddamned help or not? You’ve got all of Liaoning to explore, if you think you can make it on your own. Go on, head on up to Shenyang: bright lights, big city, like the capitalist running-dogs say. I’m sure you’re destined for success out there, no contacts, no base of operations, don’t know shit from shit. Best of luck to you.” He looked at Young-A: the younger man perched on the computer desk chair, not looking at his sister but keeping a respectful distance. “You’ve got to meet me halfway on this, if you want my help. If not, I’ll hand over my pay right now and you guys can fuck off.” With much theatrics, he stuffed his hand into his jeans pocket and fished out the roll of 60,000 yuan.
Hyong Kwan sighed heavily. “Calm down, put that away.” He finished his cigarette and snuffed it out on the window sill of their budget hotel room. “We just need to establish a baseline of respect, you get me? Mi-Na is an irreplaceable treasure. I don’t know what passes for sex work in Liaoning, but Mi-Na’s one of a kind. You can see that. We can’t have any street hood roughing her up. That’s like…” He looked at the water-damaged ceiling, the exposed wiring leading to the AC unit. “I don’t know how to make you appreciate it. After Mi-Na, there’s nothing. There’s not another magical little woman to pull down from the shelf and replace her. For some callow, uncultured scumbag—”
“Hey, that’s my nephew, kinda,” said Liwen firmly.
“—to crush her in his grimy fist, in a pathetic attempt to get himself off, that’s worse than burning down the Notre Dame. That’s more shameful than wrapping a baby up in ‘Settling Down the Western Regions and Presenting Prisoners’ for him to shit and piss in all day. You get me at all?”
Liwen puffed out his cheeks at the hyperbole but nodded. “But I don’t know what we’re supposed to do. This is how it’s done, when you’re just starting out. You’ve got your talent, obviously,” and he bowed to Mi-Na, who nodded with high generosity, “but then you get a bunch of nobodies to work with, at least until you get some momentum. Nobody’s heard of Mi-Na, nobody’s ever heard of anything like her. And honestly… I really don’t know how this is supposed to work.”
“What do you mean? She’s a priceless jewel, the world should be banging down her door.” Hyong Kwan looked outraged at his partner, then glanced at Young-A, who refused to look at anyone.
“Right, she is, but no one’s ever heard of anything like her before. It’s not like starting a website and saying ‘hey, look, free unicorn’ or something like that. Everyone knows what that is, and even if everyone knows it’s not real, you’re still gonna get some curious takers who show up and need to see for themselves. But your daughter, I don’t even know if there’s a word for her. There’s the Japanese koonago, but how many people in my country have heard of such a thing? On the whole continent?”
“Japan has, I’d guess.”
Liwen rubbed the deep furrow in his brow. “You’re not making this any easier. What I’m saying is you can’t throw up a site that says ‘check it out, violation of known physics’ and then staff your production with name actors and shit. You’re gonna start out with people’s nephews and neighbors who can’t seem to get work anywhere else. And yes, I know that sounds dangerous, but it’s not for long. You build momentum, you get yourself known, people see you’re for real, and then you can demand real talent.”
Young-A glanced at his sister. She was clothed in the only garment she owned: a fine silk cloth bunched and tied in places to more or less resemble a hanbok. “They gotta be careful,” he said, a little too loudly.
“Right, of course. We have to train these guys in and see who’s going to work. But there has to be someone, because otherwise it’s just a camera on a beautiful woman, and there’s nothing to tell the audience how tiny she really is.”
Hyong Kwan snorted. “There’s the keyboard, neh? There’s the mouse. You can lay out a pen and pencil, find a ruler.” He pulled out his pack of cigarettes.
“All those things can be faked. You don’t know how jaded the audience is now, Hyong Kwan. They don’t take anything at face value, they all assume they’re being tricked. Shit, even if we could get Mi-Na to stand up next to nephew’s penis, people would already start complaining about CGI and greenscreen and what-the-fuck-ever.” Liwen felt at a loss for words. “I don’t know how to get you to understand this, there has to be something more. More than just standing there, turning around in a little circle. There has to be some kind of interaction—”
He saw Young-A place his hand on his hip, around where the blade had disappeared.
“There has to be something! You can say what that is, but there has to be something. Otherwise the audience isn’t going to believe it, and then it doesn’t matter how small or beautiful your sister is. Don’t you get it?”
The old man started to light a cigarette, then paused and looked at his son. “You have to excuse us. We’re going to talk about something that…” He wanted to say is not for your ears, but it could turn into Mi-Na’s lifestyle, so it felt ridiculous to be so modest. Mi-Na appeared to be disinterested, and Young-A engaged with his new smartphone, purchased two nights before in the night market in Anshan, where they now stayed. Remaining in Dandong was asking for trouble, so they agreed to make their way to Shenyang where Liwen had a few contacts. He felt their best bet was in Beijing, if they could build up the reputation to protect their presence there, but Hyong Kwan seemed set on making enough money to get Young-A and Mi-Na across the border and established in Ulaanbaatar, of all places. For that matter, Liwen wondered why he was even needed most of the time, with these two headstrong North Koreans dead set on plowing their way through eastern Asia, despite his best advice. Why should he care? And yet…
He led Hyong Kwan into the hallway, looking up and down for any nosy neighbors. “This is a really difficult conversation to have.”
“Come on, we’re both sophisticated adults.”
“Are you comfortable with this? Discussing how men are supposed to engage in intercourse with your daughter, behind her back? Behind Young-A’s back?”
“Whatever we decide, I’ll tell him about it later and he can break it to her. Honestly, between the two of them, she’s got the sharper mind and more evolved soul. He’s a good and loyal bodyguard, but no one would say he’s a strategist.”
“Still… this is weird. Disgusting.”
Hyong Kwan shrugged and rolled his unlit cigarette between his fingers. “But necessary. The men cannot be in control of Mi-Na. It has to be her terms at all times. I don’t care if you tie the guy’s arms up or what.”
“Does she know what to do with a man? I mean, it is a performance… on certain websites…” Liwen winced, struggling with imagining how such a scene could play itself out.
“I’m not proud of it, but Mi-Na was something of a favorite among the boys in her neighborhood. Young-A was always nearby, but she explored what those horny teens wanted and…” The old man closed his eyes and chuckled darkly. “Apparently she had some innate talent. It was only a matter of keeping the boys in check, so that’s what I’m concerned with here.”
Liwen’s lips tightened. “Well, it’s not impossible, anyway. Highly unlikely, but not impossible. In any trend, there’s always an outlier, someone going against the tide and succeeding because of it. We’ve got that going for us.”
Hyong Kwan considered his cigarette, then stuck it behind his ear. “But I’m leaving tomorrow. I need to know they’re in good hands, you’re not just gonna throw them to the wolves.”
“I would never!”
“I mean it. You and I like to fuck each other over when we get the chance, whether to settle some old score or because we think it’s funny. But these are my children, they have no part of that.”
“I know, Hyong Kwan.”
“If you tried to lash out at me through them—”
“No, I understand. You have my word, I’ll do whatever I can for them, as long as they stay under my power.” Liwen shrugged. “If they want to go off and do their own thing, there’s only so much I’ll do to stop them. They’re adults, such as Mi-Na is, and I’m not going to stick my neck out for anyone who doesn’t want that favor.”
“But they’re in your territory.”
“China’s a big place, old man. I want to help them out, gain some stability and independence, but I’m just saying.”
Hyong Kwan’s chest rose and fell slowly. “All right. That’s fair. I’m trusting you. You’re not out of my reach, you know.”
“You’d threaten your old friend?”
The two men shook hands, then hugged, and went back into the room. Young-A remained stock still in his hardback chair, and Mi-Na appeared to be crawling over the laptop keyboard. Her brother didn’t watch her, sticking to his new smartphone. His father shook his head. “Getting a lot of mileage out of your new toy, boy? I hope you’ll put it down long enough to help out your sister, one of these days.”
Mi-Na stood up and appeared to say something to the men entering the room, but she was too small and too far to be heard. Young-A heard her, of course, but showed no inclination to tell them what was on her mind. “I’m learning something,” he said.
Hyong Kwan looked at his friend, smirking. “Oh yeah? Are you collecting little monsters or something?”
“Something called Google Analytics. Teaching myself while you two old farts decide how my sister’s supposed to fuck giant men.” He looked back at them briefly and leaned his head toward his sister. “She’s building a website. Easier than we thought.”
Hyong Kwan looked at his friend, who looked back at him. “The kids are all right,” they murmured.