Ah-gen got the bar of soap wet and gently rubbed it around his neck and collarbone until there was a little lather.
He rubbed for a while and then set the soap down. Then he
rubbed his neck some more until he felt that it was slick enough
and then, without even meaning to, he looked at himself in the
mirror and let out a giddy laugh.
One, two, three.
Ah-gen counted silently to himself, and on the count of
three he concentrated all of his energy on his neck, lifted his
shoulders, and pulled his neck down and in . . . one inch, two
inches, three inches. . . . Then something strange happened. His
collarbone gradually opened up and his neck slowly sunk down into his body.
Ah-gen opened his eyes wide and looked in the mirror, only to see the spectacular sight of himself withdrawing his neck into his own body.
His neck disappeared first, and then his chin, his lips, his
nose. . . . When it got as far as his nose, the tip got stuck on his
sternum. He lifted his hands and forcefully stuffed the tip of his
nose inside, using a final powerful squeeze. With a little “click”
sound the tip of his nose went in and the bridge of his nose followed
quickly after. Then . . . this was the crucial moment; after
more than a month, and after practicing countless times, the farthest
he had gotten was to his lower eyelids, and not an inch
more above. Today he decided that no matter what he was going
to get his eyes in, because the eyes were the most important part.
He thought, if he could just retract his eyes into chest, he
wouldn’t have to see this world. Only when he couldn’t see
would he feel like he had completely hidden—if he could only
go as far as his nose, then what point was there to this “head
retraction art”? His two eyes would still be on the outside, wide
open and looking at this ugly world.
Of course, one reason he called this skill of his “head
retraction art” was to differentiate himself from those itinerants
and their overhyped “bone retraction art.” He had always
looked down on that element of the Chinese martial arts known
as “bone retraction art”; he had seen many people demonstrate
it, most of them small girls, and they managed to fit themselves
into a leather suitcase or a bamboo basket. To call this a “bone
retraction art” was really an exaggeration. As long as someone
practiced from when they were little and stretched their muscles
and ligaments a bit, anyone could do it. What was special about that? “Soft bone art” would be a more appropriate description
than “bone retraction art.”
But his “head retraction art” was different. He was really
like a turtle, and could retract his head into his chest, could hide
his entire head; of course, there was a bit of boasting here, since
up until now he could only retract his neck, chin and lower eyelids
into his chest.
Sooner or later, though, I’m going to practice until I can
retract my entire head, he thought.
The description of his experience practicing his “head
retraction art” had a legendary quality to it.
Ah-gen learned this technique without studying in any
school or from any great master. From start to finish he was
self-taught. In fact, you could say that even he himself didn’t
know what had happened. By chance he found out that he had
this strange ability
The first time he discovered it was a month ago.
That day, an essay in the newspaper supplement had a problem,
and Ah-gen was called into the publisher’s office to be
cussed out. It was then, when he was angry and ashamed and
enduring a blistering attack from the publisher, that he suddenly
discovered that he could lower his head and then pull in and
retract his neck and even his chin into his chest cavity.
At first, he didn’t realize what had happened. He had just
lowered his head as he listened to his publisher endlessly enumerate
“You have to know, running a newspaper isn’t like running
a magazine, you can’t pour a basin of water and be done with it.
With a newspaper you have to stick it out for the long run, after
a long period of hard effort you communicate new ideas to the public and gradually change their ideas.”
His publisher kept going with no sign of slowing down. It
wasn’t the first time that the publisher had rebuked him like this
for his editing of the newspaper supplement. He understood the
publisher’s worries. The publisher had always taken care of talented
employees, but he also didn’t want his entire newspaper to
collapse because of Ah-gen’s editing of the supplement.
“I understand your ideals, but ideals need to be realized
gradually. You can’t bring the entire organization down because
you’re anxious to achieve your own ideals. How many people
does this organization have to feed? If the newspaper has to suspend
publication because of you,...