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Fiction

  1. Lines
  2. Fiction

The Man Who Touches Waves

by Kim Soom March 10, 2022

Kim Soom

Kim Soom has published thirteen novels, most recently When Has a Soldier Wanted to Be an Angel? (2018) and Sublime is Looking Inward (2018), the third and fourth novels in her Comfort Women series, and six short story collections. She has received the Yi Sang Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Daesan Literary Award, Heo Gyun Literary Award, and the Tong-ni Literature Prize. One Left (2016), the first novel in her Comfort Woman series, was translated and published in Japan in 2018. Her story “Divorce” is out from Strangers Press, UK as part of their Yeoyu Korean Literature series (2019)

1

 

Trying to see,

The desire to see.

These things remain inside me.

 

I don’t know what it means to stare.

 

Is someone else there?

(facing forward and in a bright, gentle voice) Hello.

(tilting head slightly) Hello.

Is no one else here?

 

2

 

I’m standing.

And I’m imagining a door.

 

Do you see me?

 

The window is far away. The window is so far away. It is both in my room and far away.

Am I, too, far away?

And from what am I far away?

 

I only know after it is passed.

And…

I only feel after it is passed.

 

The desire to see remains.

 

I know what it means to see.

I don’t know what it means to see well.

Look over there… When someone says this, I unknowingly look. After all, I once could. I sometimes fool myself into thinking I’m actually seeing. When I hear a door opening, I turn toward the door and stare in its direction. I think to myself that I am looking at someone entering the room.

 

3

 

Ah, I can picture waves. I can picture waves…

I’m on my way to the ocean. But I’m not on my way to see the ocean. I can’t see it. We can’t see it. What we saw wasn’t the ocean, but waves.

 

Waves break, foam, swell, come in and go out, rage and die down, and create sea spray… Waves are white.

I know the color white.

There is no white in ROYGBIV.

White is cotton, notebook, bunny.

I wanted to take white on a walk.

 

At the time, I could still see the letters with my left eye and the help of a magnifying glass. I had failed the college entrance exam and was spending all day at home alone. Back then, I was more frightened than ever to leave the house, but at the same time, I often felt the strong urge to go far away. On days like that, I would go to the subway station near our home and take Line 3 all the way to the last stop and back again. It was one Monday when my older brother, who was in college at the time, suddenly gifted me white (a bunny). I gave light green (lettuce) to white. I listened to white eat light green. The sound was like rustling colored paper. White ate light green and turned white again. I couldn’t touch white. White was alive. I was too afraid to touch something living. Instead, I touched a different white (duck stuffed animal). That night when the lights were off and I lay in bed waiting to fall asleep, I could hear white hopping. On Tuesday, I again gave white some light green. White ate light green and turned white again. I wanted to take white on a walk. On Wednesday, I gave white some more light green. The light green of Wednesday was more light green than that of Monday. It was also more light green than that of Tuesday. I wanted to take white on a walk on Saturday. I gave white more light green on Thursday. I could hear for a short few moments the sound of white eating light green. The unfinished light green was lying in front of white. It wilted and turned brown. That night when the lights were off, I fell asleep quickly as I didn’t hear white hopping. I gave white more light green on Friday. Then it was Saturday morning. The light green of Friday had turned brown and was lying in front of white. I was about to put fresh light green next to brown when my father said, “It looks like white is dead.” Only then did I try touching white. My father and I went to the dike on Yangjaecheon Stream, near our home, to dig a hole and bury white. Brown dirt stained my hands as I held the shovel.

 

Why is there no white in ROYGBIV?

There had been white in our home. The white of that home was in a cage and had one leg.

I am forgetting white.

 

Even if I forget white, white exists.

Even if I forget white, white dies.

 

4

 

I know the color red. I don’t know bright red.

Red is red.

To me, colors are their names.

 

Red bloomed and became a red carnation. It transformed into a red motorcycle, and then a red telephone with a rotary dial.

The red telephone bloomed into a green digital telephone. The green telephone cried at 3 AM.

I heard a voice over the green receiver.

 

“Will you let me hear your voice?”

 

If you let me hear your voice, it might visit my dreams tonight.

 

5

 

Stairs aren’t important.

And…

Stairs don’t frighten me.

 

I went up five steps. I passed the door and went up six more steps. Then four more.

I want to go down on my own.

I want to go up on my own.

There was no wind on those steps. I went to find those stairs. It was past midnight on a cold winter’s day. All that came to mind were those stairs. At that late hour, that was the only place I could walk to on my own. I was twenty-six, and they were the stairs at the subway station. I don’t remember what exit number they were. Being stairs that connected the underground shopping center to the department store, they were often noisy with the sound of footsteps, but the last train had already left, and there were no footsteps to be heard. I stepped down onto the stairs. One, two, three, four… ten steps. The stairs that unfurled beneath my feet were so long that it felt like I could keep descending all night, but I couldn’t bring myself to go any further. I crouched down on the stairs and started to cry. I was the only one there. The wind was raging in the streets, but there was no wind on those steps.

 

I use the stairs at Gyeongbokgung Station every day on my way to and from work, but I don’t know how many steps it has. I don’t count them anymore. I used to. But after I started using my white cane, I stopped. I used to avoid using a white cane, even though I couldn’t see telephone poles, trees, and signs that blocked my way. I didn’t want my parents to see me walking with one. That changed one day while job searching as a new college graduate. I was on my way back from an interview. I was standing on the platform at Bongcheon Station waiting for the train. Then suddenly, the ground dropped, as though someone had pulled my feet out from under me. When I came to, I realized I had fallen onto the tracks. I raised my hands and groped around, looking for the place my feet had been standing just a moment ago. The platform was about shoulder height. As I used all my strength to pull myself up, no one extended a helping hand. I didn’t tell my parents what happened. After that, I started walking around with a white cane. But I still didn’t want my parents to see me using it.

 

And I continue to picture a door.

A door above the stairs.

A door beneath the stairs.

Glass door, iron door, wood door, paper door, open door, opening door, closed door, closing door, brown door.

There was a door in front of me. I didn’t know its color. I tried opening the door. But it didn’t open. I continued trying to open the door. But it continued to resist. I tried push open a sliding door.

The iron door was closing. But my eyes couldn’t see this. I only learned what was happening when my hand got stuck in the door. The sound of the train’s wheels rolling on the tracks drowned out the sound of the door. I boarded the Mugunghwa-ho train. I was on my way down to Nonsan.

 

There is no yellow door.

 

Yellow is kind.

Yellow is three chicks,

I must find it.

It’s a secret.

 

What color was that door?

 

I greet the door.

I greet the wall.

I greet the empty chairs.

I greet the empty desks.

I greet the empty classroom.

I greet the empty hallway.

I greet the empty elevator.

I greet the mirror. I greet myself.

I greet the clock. I am not greeting the time.

 

I pause in front of the revolving door.

 

6

 

I want to touch the waves.

For a few days now, I have wanted to touch the waves. I haven’t told my mother that I’m going to the sea. I’m going by myself. I can get close to the sea on my own. Close to the sea… Ah, close to the sea. … When I leave the house, my mother is folding origami tulips in the living room. The folding of colored paper into tulips sounds like blooming flowers. My mother also makes deer with green paper. A green deer stands next to a pink tulip. The pink tulip is larger than the green deer. It isn’t long after I leave the house that it starts to rain. The sound of rain drowns out the sound of birds. It drowns out the sound of footsteps, too. The sound of rain drowns out the road. I lose my way and stop.

Snow doesn’t drown out the sound of birds. It doesn’t drown out the sound of footsteps. It doesn’t drown out the road. I don’t lose my way when it snows.

 

When my hand touches the waves, the waves unfurl before me.

The sea is blue. The sea is not blue. The sea is many colors. I remember the sea at Jumunjin, which I saw with my older brother thirty years ago, as the color blue. There is a young boy in a blue swimsuit and blue goggles floating on the waves in an inner tube. Cotton-like clouds, a golden sun, grey rocks floating near the horizon, people sitting and staring out at the sea, blue-and-white striped parasols, plastic white beach chairs, plastic white tables, yellow balls… I couldn’t see seagulls. I can’t see things that fly. I have to chase them with my eyes. But before I find them, they fly away. Tubes are black and donut shaped. A young boy is carried toward the horizon on his inner tube.

 

I saw the horizon.

I couldn’t see the land.

 

The boy with his innertube is carried farther and farther toward the horizon.

It’s possible I didn’t see the horizon. It is as far from me as my bedroom window. I couldn’t see faraway things. Had Gaeul sensed that I was going to the sea by myself? It was two weeks earlier. Third period English had ended, and Gaeul came up to me in the hallway:

“Teacher, are you sure you can go by yourself?”

 

7. 4th Grade English - 1[1]

 

It’s ten past twelve, but the hands of the clock hanging on the white wall of the classroom point to 8:24. Sitting in the middle of the room are six children[2] in pairs of two with their desks facing each other. They are all nine years old, and five of them are completely blind, unable to even see light. The remaining child, Yuri, is just able to make out objects.

Each of the six children looks in a different direction.

 

Misol, who has her head dropped and turned outside of the group, suddenly shoots up from her chair.

Me: (in a higher-pitched and faster voice than usual) [in English] Long time no see, everyone.

Children: (in bright, high-pitched voices) [in English] Long time long see.

Me: I missed you all. Did you miss me?

Jiwoo and Minhee: (as though singing a duet) No.

Gaeul: (raising hand above the desk, and in a faint, somewhat halting voice) I missed you, Teacher.

 

Misol sits back in her chair. Her shoulders droop like a deflating balloon.

 

Gaeul: Teacher, I moved yesterday.

 

Misol shoots up from her chair again.

 

Gaeul: I moved far away.

 

Misol steps back from her chair as though jumping from it.

 

Gaeul: Well, not that far.

 

Jeong-wook mutters something to himself in a slow, deep voice as he drops his head.

 

Me: Today we’re going to practice buying and selling things in English. Did you all remember to bring something you want to sell? Shall we go around and share what we brought today? Let’s start with Misol.

Misol: (flapping her arms as though she’s dancing) I brought salt to sell. I brought salt to sell.

Yuri: (sitting up straight, looking forward, and in a voice as though she were scolding a cranky child) Misol, Misol. (petting her blue dolphin stuff animal) I brought my dolphin stuffed animal.

Gaeul: I brought a four-leaf clover keyring.

Jiwoo: I brought a hand towel.

Gaeul: There’s no key on the keyring. The key… is missing. But I didn’t lose it.

Minhee: (holding colored paper with both hands) But Teacher, I think time is almost up.

Me: Everyone, repeat after me. [In English] This is my skirt.

Gaeul, Yuri, Minhee [in English]: This is my skirt.

Me [in English]: I like this skirt. This skirt is seven hundred won.

Minhee: That’s so cheap!

Me: Jeong-wook, would you like to try? [In English] This is my sweater.

 

Jeong-wook’s grumbles louder. Misol stands behind her chair and pouts.

 

Yuri: (looks toward Jeong-wook  like a mother trying to coax her whining child) Jeong-wook, Jeong-wook… Try it.

Minhee: Teacher, what is saekjongi in English?

Me [in English]: Colored paper. Everyone, repeat after me. [In English] Colored paper.

Misol: I brought salt to sell. I brought salt to sell.

Yuri: Misol, Misol.

 

 Misol flaps both her arms as though she were about to take flight. But she doesn’t go anywhere, she can’t.

 

Minhee: (in an anxious tone) But Teacher, I think time is almost up.

Me: Everyone, repeat after me. [In English] This is my colored paper.

Gaeul, Jiwoo, Yuri, Minhee [in English]: This is my colored paper.

 

Jeong-wook purses his lips and stares down at his desk as everyone speaks in unison. There is nothing on his desk.

 

Me: So, who wants to go first?

Misol: I brought salt to sell.

Gaeul: Me, Teacher, I’ll go first.

Me: Shall we say it in English? In English, yeolsoigori is ‘keyring.’ [In English] This is my keyring.

Gaeul [in English]: This is…

Jiwoo (in a coy tone): Me next.

Gaeul: But, Teacher, about my key… I wasn’t the one who lost it… You see… The keyring was in my jacket pocket… I was on my way to school… I remember clearly seeing it when I put the keyring in my pocket. I remember clearly seeing the key dangling from the keyring. But when I returned home and took out the keyring from my pocket to open the lock to my bedroom door, the key was gone. The key was the key to my bedroom. Where do you think my key is, Teacher?

Me: Good question. Where could it be?

Gaeul: I remember clearly seeing the key dangling from the keyring.

Me: Well, keys aren’t snow. They can’t just melt and disappear. It must be somewhere. I hope you find your key, Gaeul.

Gaeul: Actually… It’s okay if I don’t find it. Well, what I mean by that is… The reason why I don’t need to find it is… The key is to my bedroom door. But I have a new bedroom now that we moved. The reason why I lock the door to my bedroom is because my younger sister always sneaks into my room to steal my stuff animals… My duck, my puppy, my bear… That’s why I lock my bedroom door…. She sneaks into my room and steals my stuffed animals…

Misol: I brought salt to sell.

Minhee: But, Teacher, I think time is almost up.

Gaeul: My mom had to call a locksmith to open the door for us. She asked him to make us a new key, but we moved before he got to it.

Minhee: But, Teacher, I think time is almost up.

Me: Okay, everyone, shall we ask Gaeul together? Eolmayeyo? [In English] How much is it?

Gaeul: Um… 500 won.

Minhee: That’s so cheap!

Me: Yigeoseunobaekwoniya. How do we say that in English?

Yuri [in English]: This is five hundred won.

Me: Shall we say it together? [In English] This is five hundred won.

Gaeul, Jiwoo, Yuri, Minhee [in English]: This is five hundred won.

Jiwoo: Me next.

Me: Gapsissaneyo. [In English] It’s cheap.

Yuri, Minhee [in English]: It’s cheap.

Gaeul: (rising from her chair) Teacher, I’m going to go to the bathroom.

Me: Are you sure you can go by yourself?

Gaeul: Yes.

 

Gaeul gets up from her chair. She walks toward the classroom door. She slides it open and goes out into the hallway.

Gaeul’s footsteps are so quiet that they disappear in the hallway. Across the hallway in a cavernous classroom is a black piano. The white keys are as quiet as day. And the black keys are as quiet as night.

 

Minhee (puts down on the desk the colored paper she was holding): Teacher, I’m going to go to the bathroom, too.

Yuri (turns her head toward Minhee, who is getting up from her chair, and says in a warm tone): Minhee, don’t take too long.

 

Minhee leaves her chair and walks toward the classroom door. She feels around, checking to make sure it’s open, then exits into the hallway.

 

Jeong-wook: Me, too… Bathroom…

 

Jeong-wook leaves the classroom, and a moment later, Gaeul returns.

 

Yuri (mistaking Gaeul for Minhee): Minhee, you’re back. (Pats the empty seat next to her) Minhee, get over here already and sit down.

 

Gaeul hoists up her brown pants and finds her seat.

 

Yuri: Minhee, get over here already and sit down.

 

Minhee enters the classroom.

 

Yuri: Minhee.

Gaeul (sitting in her chair): Teacher, what are you going to sell?

Minhee (as soon as she sits down): But, Teacher, what time is it?

Me (checking the time with the braille information instrument): Would you look at that. It’s already 12:30.

Gaeul: We only have 10 more minutes.

Jiwoo: Me next.

 Minhee: Teacher, it’s Yuri’s turn.

Me: Yuri, what did you bring to sell?

Yuri (stroking the dolphin stuffed animal on her desk): A doll. Inhyeong in English is ‘doll.’ [In English] This is my doll.

Me: Shall we all ask Yuri how much her doll is? [In English] How much is it?

Yuri [in English]: This is three thousand won.

Me: Is that expensive or cheap?

Minhee: Expensive, expensive!

Me: Expensive. Bissayo in English is ‘expensive.’

Jiwoo: Me next.

Me: Who wants to buy the doll?

Misol: I’ll buy it!

 

Misol repeatedly rises and sits in her chair. Each time she does, the feet of her chair scrape the ground.

 

Minhee (looks directly to her left): But, Teacher, who just came?

 

The hands on the clock are still pointing to 8:24. They don’t move, as though held in place by invisible hands.

 

Yuri: Teacher, I can’t sell my dolphin.

Me: Why can’t you sell your dolphin?

Jiwoo: Me next.

Yuri: My dad gave it to me as a birthday present. He’ll be sad if I sell it to someone.

 

The breaktime bell rings. Jeong-wook has yet to return to the classroom.

 

Minhee: Teacher, class time is over.

Me: That was quick. Sorry, but we’re going to have to end it here today. Next time, we’ll talk about the rainbow in English.

Misol (going out of the classroom the first): I brought salt to sell, I brought salt to sell.

 

Yuri and Minhee hold each other’s hand and walk out of the room. Jeong-wook has yet to return.

Only Gaeul and I remain in the room. The hands on the clock point to 8:24.

 

Gaeul (feeling the top of her desk with both hands): Teacher, I’ve lost my stylus. Can you help me find it?

Me: Oh, Gaeul… I can’t find it either. I can’t see.

Gaeul: You can’t see?

Me: That’s right. I’m blind just like everyone else.

Gaeul: You’re blind, too?

Me: I am. You didn’t know?

Gaeul: No. (pausing for a moment) Teacher . . . Take your white cane with your left hand and grab my hand with your right. I’ll guide you to the hallway.

 

Gaeul and I hold hands and stand in the hallway.

 

Gaeul: Teacher, can you go by yourself?

Me: Yes, I can go by myself.

Gaeul: I want to help you more, but I need to go to my next class. I have music next.

 

Gaeul and I are still holding hands and standing in the hallway.

 

Me: Gaeul, I told you. I can go by myself.

Gaeul: Teacher, you must find your way.

 

Gaeul and I are still holding hands and standing in the hallway.

 

Gaeul: Teacher, you must find your way on your own.

 

8

 

*

 

I can’t tell how many students are in the classroom. I just can’t. I can’t because I can’t count them. It’s just not possible. Just like stars in the night sky. I’ve never seen stars before, but I know it’s impossible to count stars. I thought the students knew I couldn’t see. I can’t see them. I can’t see their hands in the air when we play rock, paper, scissors during class to decide who goes first.

On the first day of class, I introduce myself to the children.

“I’m just like you. That means I can’t see what you all look like. So would you all let me hear your voices?”

And then I wait. I wait for them to speak so I can hear their voices. I wait for all the children in the classroom to speak.

And then I say:

“Let’s remember everyone’s voices.”

 

There are no terrible voices.

 

*

 

I am drawn to Gaeul. I only found out that she was much smaller than other children her age after I held her hand for the first time. After all, I couldn’t see what she looked like, because I can’t see. Her voice sounds like she’s playing house. After I told the children that I was blind like them, this is what Gaeul said to me: “Teacher…Take your white cane with your left hand and grab my hand with your right.” I could feel her extending her right hand toward me. I hesitated for a minute, but sensing how pure her heart was, I extended my left hand and spread my fingers to grab her hand. But it wasn’t there. She spoke again to me: “Teacher, grab my hand. I’ll guide you to the hallway.” Her hand was far beneath me. Beneath me… It was below my knee. Finally, when I held her hand, I realized that she was incredibly small.

 

*

 

The child didn’t return

Even after I left the classroom, the child didn’t return.

 

*

 

I don’t think about what the children look like.

I don’t think that I want to see what they look like.

 

Did that child not return?

 

9

 

Is it open?

Is it opening?

 

My face.

 

Is it in front of me?

Is it behind me?

 

My face right now.

 

I’ve seen a green apple. I want to put a green apple on my desk.

 

Playing on the radio was “Yesterday” by the Beatles. In the fish tank were two goldfish, one red and one pink. I sat at my desk and with a magnifying glass peered into the picture on my junior high school student ID card. I was fourteen then. My chin was sharp… A different place… My right eye is looking at a different place. My right eye has never seen light. When I was in the incubator, the ventilator supplied too much oxygen, damaging the blood vessels in my retina.[3] I was brought into the world at seven months and was immediately put inside an incubator.

 

I was standing.

I was just standing.

I just continued standing.

I was five years old and standing in front of the eye chart with a yellow cloche hat on my head. I could see the number four. That was all I could see. I couldn’t even see the stick pointing at the number four.

When I was eight and in Gyeongju with my family for summer vacation, I was standing in front of a gigantic gray rock.

And when I was twenty, I was standing at a bus station near Seoul National University of Education subway station. It was a cold day in winter. And it was late on Sunday night. At that time, I was living at the dorms at the college I got into after retaking the college entrance exams. I was on my way back to the dorms after spending the weekend with my family. I needed to take the 5001. There was quite a large number of people waiting at the bus stop. A bus came up, and two or three people ran to catch the bus. The bus left in a hurry, and then the next one came. Several people boarded it. I don’t know how many. The bus left, and three or four more came, bumper to bumper, but I couldn’t board any of them. I needed to take the 5001. I couldn’t see the number plates, which I had been able to see up till I was seventeen and on summer break. I was afraid of getting on the wrong bus. I stood and looked on as buses and people came and went. I couldn’t ask people which buses were stopping in front of the bus stop. I didn’t want people to know I was blind. Another bus came and stopped. It seemed like this was the 5001, but I didn’t get on. After all, I could have been wrong. I stood there for more than an hour and a half watching the buses and people come and go. The buses started becoming less frequent. When the next bus finally came, all the people got on and left, leaving me alone. Another one came and stopped in front of me. I could hear the rattling as the door opened. It seemed to be waiting for me to get on. I couldn’t see the people riding. It seemed like there were only empty seats. I stepped toward the door. I wanted to get on. I wanted to be caressed by the bus’s empty chairs, close my eyes, and fall into a deep sleep. Hoping the sun would be shining brightly when I woke, hoping the bus would take me to the sea, hoping I could get off the bus, extend my hand, and touch the waves, I attempted to get on the bus. But I couldn’t. It had already left. I looked at my surroundings. I could vaguely see a very tall, slender person standing behind me. I walked up to this person and mustered the courage to speak up: “Hello.” There was no answer. I spoke again: “Hello.” Still, no answer. Finding this strange, I tap the person with my hand. But it wasn’t a person. It was a telephone pole.

 

I’m still standing.

Where should I be standing?

It’s not that I’m waiting for someone.

 

I’m waiting for the sound of birds.

Birds I’ve never seen,

Birds I can’t see.

 

The sound of birds will show me the way.

 

I wait. When I go to an unfamiliar place, I wait for its sounds to show me the way. The sounds of the world show me the way. Cars on the street, shop music, footsteps, announcements from the digital timetable at the bus stop, restaurant fans, a noisy construction site, shutters being raised, shutters being closed… When I hear high heels descending stairs, I realize I am near the entrance to a subway station. It’s confusing when they come at me all at once. I pick out sounds. I pick out one sound like picking out a single strand of thread from a tangled mess of yarn.

I wait. Until I can’t hear any sound, in front of a crosswalk with no signal, until the sound of zooming cars cuts out and there is silence.

I stop. When I walk and listen to the sound of cars, I stop as soon as I hear people. And when I hear people running, I unknowingly start to run.

 

When I hear a bus but don’t see it, it feels like the bus is racing toward me. When I hear a subway train but don’t see it, it feels like the train is racing toward me.

 

I like the paths that the sound of birds paves for me. I like the paths that the sound of small birds, like sparrows, paves for me. The path that sparrows pave for me are narrow. I want to walk narrow paths. It’s hard to walk straight down a wide path.

 

10

 

I didn’t see the sparrow. It was too small to see. I didn’t see the bee, either.

The pigeon flaps its wings and takes flight.

There is a java sparrow at our home. When I open the door and enter our home, I hear a bird. The chirping is loud, so I think it must be a large bird. But it is smaller than my hand. They say the java sparrow is white. I imagine the color white as I imagine the java sparrow. I touch white inside the cage as I imagine a java sparrow. But it only has one leg. They say it had only one leg before coming to our home.

 

I saw the wings of a dragonfly.

I didn’t see the face of the dragonfly.

 

I can’t catch things that fly.

I don’t want to catch things that can fly.

 

I wonder, can birds be blind, too?

I wonder, can birds be born blind, too?

 

Blind birds can’t fly. They can fly, but because they can’t see where to land, they can’t fly.

Birds that are born blind stay in the nest. Their siblings leave, their mother leaves, and birds that are born blind are left alone in the nest. All by themselves, they cry in the nest. They fall asleep, grow old, and die alone in the nest.

 

There is no nest.

I’ve never seen one. So, they don’t exist.

 

I wonder, are there birds who go blind while flying?

 

What if a blind bird flew to me…

 

11

 

It’s a sound that’s always there.

A sound that was there every time I passed by that place.

But one day, I couldn’t hear it anymore. I heard an unfamiliar sound that hadn’t been there before.

 

What could it be?

 

12

 

At what should I be looking at?

After I lost the ability to see light, I would often forget the fact that I couldn’t see.

When I used to be able to vaguely see the silhouette of objects out of my left eye, I would look at trees, people walking toward me, and empty chairs in front of me and think to myself that I didn’t see anything. I was envious of my brother who had normal eyes. He asked me to lend him an eraser and scissors once. I hid them in the drawer and told him I didn’t have them. I didn’t want to share. He went to the school supplies store and bought two erasers and two scissors, one for each of us.

 

I’m not blind because I’m lacking.

I’m not blind because I’m being punished.

I didn’t know.

I don’t know.

 

I need to find it.

I must find it.

 

13

 

One day, her voice came to me.

Then one day, it left me.

 

14

 

“Will you let me hear your voice?”

 

And wait…

 

And believe…

 

“Who do you want to see the most?”

Just before she left, this is what her voice asked me.

 

Now that I’ve lost the ability to see faces, people enter my dreams as their voices. When someone visits my dream, I tell them:

“I heard your voice in my dreams last night.”

 

And…

 

I’m afraid your voice will leave me.

 

Just one voice… just one… I’m not sure.

 

15

 

The sea is made of four dots.[4] I know how to write the word for sea, but I don’t want to write it. I’ve written it before. I can’t see the sea I’ve written. My mom cherishes that sea.

The sea I wrote is together with the wave I wrote.

And it’s together with the moon.

 

Today, I wore a new T-shirt. My mother laid the new T-shirt she bought for me on my bed. It has three buttons, short sleeves, and a collar. I don’t know what color it is. I’m forty, but I still wear the colors my mother buys for me. I vaguely remember the color scarlet. I saw a full moon. I didn’t see a half moon. I think I know what purple looks like. But I’m not confident when it comes to the color emerald.

As my left eye went dark, and after I lost all sight in my left eye, I made up colors that didn’t exist. Rose gold was one such color. People say it’s a mix of gold and red. Roses are red. I know red. Gold is a dazzling yellow. In my head, I mix the colors red and gold to imagine a new color.

According to the eye examination I took when I was five, the vision in my left eye was 20/200. When I entered elementary school, I could see the green chalkboard, but I couldn’t see what was written in chalk. So, I sat in the front of the class and wrote in my notebook what the teacher said. ‘Sketchbook’ when the teacher said sketchbook, and ‘gym clothes’ when the teacher said gym clothes. I didn’t write with a pencil. Handwriting in pencil is fuzzy. I can’t see fuzzy things. I wrote with a black pen. Black was easier to see on white than blue or red. I transcribed the contents of my textbook into my notebook one letter at a time. To see the letters, I had to bring my eye so close that my eyelashes would brush the paper. As the letters of my textbook got blurrier and squished, they started to look liked dark smudges. I couldn’t see the chalkboard. My left eye dropped to 20/1000 in the vision test. With magnifying glasses for lenses, I read words one by one. The letters I saw beyond the magnifying glass swelled to five to six times their normal size. I remember staring at the Chinese character for heart () through the magnifying glass as I transcribed it into my notebook. I haven’t forgotten the letters I saw through my magnifying glass. When I was seventeen, I had to get an operation to reattach the retina in my left eye. After the procedure, I couldn’t see words even with the help of a magnifying glass. So I just listened during class. I just sat there without moving and listened.

While my left eye could still see light, I avoided going out during the day because the sun blinded me. I walked by following the light from the streetlamps. Their light showed me the way. Over the course of twenty years, I slowly lost sight in my left eye. Like a lamp slowly being dimmed, the light in my left eye became fainter and fainter until it disappeared. Faces became squished and distant until they vanished. Even though I knew things were becoming more distant, I never imagined I would completely lose sight in my left eye. The thought never crossed my mind. I didn’t want to think about it. I hated the thought of losing my sight completely.

 

16

 

Only she left…

 She’s the only one who left…

 

17

 

I don’t know how many people are sitting in front of me.

I don’t know how many people are walking in front of me.

 

Is there a reason for losing my sight?

Perhaps losing the ability to see light is for a reason and an answer. And perhaps there’s a reason my prayers weren’t answered…

Pray for me,

Keep your prayers as late as possible.

 

People exist because they think of someone,

People exist because they love someone.

 

I want to feel what it’s like to exist.

I want to live life feeling what it’s like to exist.

 

Do you see me?

 

“Why am I here?”

 

18

 

I want you to look at me like I’m a person.

I want you to look at me like I’m one whole person.

 

Do you see me?

 

I believe people,

I want to believe the people I meet.

 

The year I graduated from university, I sent out about twenty different job applications, each a welfare center for the disabled. I was twenty-five at the time. I was interviewed at six of those places. I was hired at the very last one I interviewed at. It was a newly opened welfare center for the disabled. I had entered college through the Department of Public Administration and double majored in social welfare. I wanted to become a social worker and help blind people like myself. I didn’t know how many people were sitting in front of me at the interview. There was only one person asking the questions. The voice asking questions was always the same. “Are you sure you can do it?” the voice asked. “I can do it, I can do it,” I answered. It took more than two hours to get to the center from my home. At 6:30 in the morning on the day of my interview, I rode the subway for four stops. Then I got off and rode Bus 1007, which went from Seoul to Gyeongi province, for an hour and forty minutes all the way to the second to last stop. I fell into a deep sleep and when I woke up, I was at my destination. The building was located far away from the city center. On my first day, a single empty desk was waiting for me. I went to the desk and sat down. I had no way of knowing what was in front of my desk. Although I couldn’t see out windows, I wished I had one. Even though I knew windows were distant from me, I wished I had one. I sat at my desk until it was time for lunch. No one gave me any work. They didn’t give me anything. There were about forty employees at this center, but I was the only one who was disabled. I sat at my desk as I listened to the sound of people running around busily, talking about work, and joking with each other. I sat there listening to the office clock’s second hand and the ringing of other people’s phones. There was a telephone on every desk. There was even one on mine. But mine didn’t ring. As no one gave me any work, I just sat at my desk until it was time to go home. On my second day, I again just sat at my desk all day as I listened to the clock’s second hand and the ringing of telephones. No one gave me any work. They didn’t give me anything. An entire month passed like this… The sound of the clock’s second hand felt so slow. Each second was like an hour. Why am I here? One day I arrived at work and sat down at my desk. I just sat at my desk all morning. Someone’s telephone started to ring. And it kept ringing. I reached out toward the telephone on my desk. I picked up the receiver and brought it to my ear. “Hello?” From that day on, I started taking other people’s phone calls if they weren’t at their desks. “Hello?” I found work for myself. Once I did this, they finally started giving me work. What I did was writing letters to sponsors. Then one day when the entire office was out for drinks, I heard my team manager’s drunk voice: “You shouldn’t be here. We have no work for you. Go somewhere else.” After drinks, I went to Suwon Station even though I knew the last train had already left. This was the only familiar place to me. I would come here to ride the subway whenever I worked late. I sat on the steps and cried. There was no wind on those steps. I quit after working for four years at the welfare center. But I didn’t leave because I was told to leave. Years after I left, I contacted my old team manager, who had been kind to me, and asked a question:

“Why didn’t you give me any work?”

“I didn’t know what work to give you.”

 

The year I turned thirty, I started working at the Department of Special Education at a local university in Nonsan. I wanted to teach blind children like myself. One day when I was out, I lost my way in a place where I knew no one. Then suddenly, I heard a voice calling my name. “Let’s go together.” From that day on, I was no longer afraid of going to a place where I knew no one. Let’s go together. These words were bright yellow. Whenever I went to an unfamiliar place, there was always at least one person there to help me. They would come to me and extend their hand, even if I didn’t ask. After a while, I realized something. It was like magic… I now believe that no matter where in the world I went, there would always be someone waiting there to help me.

 

19

 

The desire is still there. The desire to see hasn’t left me.

 

No matter how much I feel and touch, the desire to see hasn’t left me. Touching and seeing are different. Perhaps I think this way because I used to be able to see. Because I used to be able to see.

When I’m alone, I sometimes touch my face. My forehead, eyebrows, eyelids, nose, cheeks, lips, chin… No matter how much I feel and touch, the desire to see hasn’t left me. “Whose face do you most want to see?” If she came back to me and asked me this, my answer wouldn’t change.

 

I want to see my own face.

Right now, I most want to see my own face.

 

20

 

For whom do I live?

For whom am I living?

 

I want to live for myself. And I want to live for someone else, too.

 

I’m still standing.

 

Do you see me?

 

I feel the hand that leads me.

The hand that leads me is a hand as small as Gaeul’s.

I’m afraid of letting go of the hand that leads me.

 

21. 4th Grade English – 2

 

It’s already past 12:25, but the hands on the clock on the classroom wall point to 8:24.

 

Minhee: Teacher, my chair is too high.

Yuri: Teacher, my chair is too high, too.

 

Misol (lifting her drooping head and without raising her voice): My hair’s dangling. My hair is dangling.

 

Me: Today, we’re going to talk about the rainbow in English. Do you all know what a rainbow is?

Gaeul, Yuri, Jiwoo, Minhee: Yes.

Me: Have you seen a rainbow before?

Gaeul, Yuri, Jiwoo: No.

Minhee: Me neither.

Misol: I’ve seen a rainbow.

Me: Where have you seen a rainbow, Misol?

Misol: I don’t remember.

 

Misol feels the chair next to her. Realizing the seat is empty, she gets up and sits down in the empty seat next to her.

 

Me: How do you all know what a rainbow is if you’ve never seen one?

Minhee: I just know they exist.

Yuri (in a downtrodden voice): My mom told me about them.

Me: We all know what rainbows are even if we haven’t seen them. So, what is a rainbow?

Minhee: ROYGBIV!

Me: Ah-ha, so rainbows are ROYGBIV. What is ROYGBIV?

Everyone: Colors!

Me: Ah-ha, colors…

Gaeul: Teacher, why is there no white in ROYGBIV?

Me: Good question. Why isn’t there white in ROYGBIV?

 

Jeong-wook starts stomping on the floor.

 

Yuri (in a scolding tone): Jeong-wook! Your feet… stop it.

Me: What is mujigae in English?

Yuri and Jiwoo [in English]: Rainbow!

Me: Good. Correct, mujigae in English is ‘rainbow.’ Let’s say the colors of the rainbow in English. Everyone, pick a color.

Minhee: Purple.

Yuri: Yellow.

Gaeul: Hey, I want yellow.

 

Misol feels the seat next to her. She thrusts her face into the empty seat and sniffs it.

 

Me: Shall we talk about red? Bbalgang in English is ‘red.’ What do you associate the color red with?

Minhee: Cherry tomatoes.

Gaeul: I think of kimchi. Really spicy kimchi!

Yuri: Apples.

Gaeul: Blood! I think of Blood!

Me: And how does red make you feel?

Jiwoo: Red feels angry.

Gaeul: What is anger? What is sadness?

Misol (gets up from her chair and walks around the room): Let’s go there. Let’s go there.

Gaeul: Teacher, I have a question.

 

Gaeul: Teacher, I have a question.

 

Gaeul: Teacher, what is anger?

 

Gaeul: Teacher, what is sadness?

 

Jeong-wook continues to stomp on the floor.

 

Me: Juhwangsaek in English is ‘orange.’

Everyone [in English]: Orange!

Me: Shall we talk about orange?

Yuri: Orange reminds me of umbrellas. It reminds me of when it rains.

Gaeul: It reminds me of rain.

Me: Ah-ha, so it reminds you of rain. Why does it remind you of rain, Yuri?

Yuri: Because people wear bright clothes when it rains. People are happy when they wear bright clothes. Orange feels happy.

Me: Jiwoo, what does orange feel like to you?

Jiwoo: It makes me proud.

Gaeul: Teacher, why didn’t you ask me?

Minhee: Gaeul, you already answered. You said it reminds you of rain.

Me: What does the color orange feel like to you, Gaeul?

Gaeul: It reminds me of rain.

Me: And why does it remind you of rain?

Gaeul: It reminds me of rain because… orange is… really… similar to rain… like… it just feels like that…

Minhee: Ducks, ducks, ducks!

Me: Why does it make you think of ducks, Minhee?

Minhee: Because duck bills are orange.

Gaeul: Chicks!

Me: Why does it remind you of chicks? Why does it remind you of chicks, Gaeul?

Gaeul: Because… Chicks make me think of yellow. I started liking the color yellow because chicks are so cute.

 

Jeong-wook continues to stomp on the floor.

 

Yuri: Jeong-wook! Your feet. Stop.

Jiwoo: Teacher, what did you say?

 

Misol sits down in the chair. After looking out into space with a sullen look on her face, she lies face down in her desk. She draws something on her desk with her finger. The hands on the clock point to 8:24.

 

Yuri: Trees.

Jiwoo: Tree leaves.

Yuri: A forest.

 

Gaeul: Green… I’m not sure.

 

Yuri: I think of the sea. The sea is blue. And so is the sky.

Minhee: I think of the sea.

Gaeul: Me too.

Me: Why do you think of the sea, Minhee?

Minhee: Because the sea is blue.

Gaeul: It makes me think of the sky, too. (Talking to herself) I don’t remember if I said the sea or the sky.

Me: The sea and the sky are slightly different colors.

Gaeul: Teacher, I don’t remember. Whether I said the sky or the sea…

Me: The sea is deep blue.

Gaeul: Teacher, did I say the sky?

Me: The sky is lighter than the sea.

Gaeul: Teacher, did I say the sky?

Me: Yes, you said the sky.

 

Misol lays face down on her desk as she draws something with her fingers and mutters to herself, “Indigo, indigo.”

 

Minhee: Indigo… I’m not sure.

Gaeul: Me, too.

Minhee: Chocolate isn’t indigo.

 

Jeong-wook (dropping his head and stomping on the floor): I don’t know.

 

Minhee: Violet is kind of sad… like…

Jiwoo: Violet tickles… like…

 

Me: Okay, shall we each pick a color we like?

Yuri: I like yellow.

Jiwoo: I like violet.

Gaeul: I want yellow. I want yellow.

Minhee: I’ll take red.

Jiwoo: I want red, too,

Me: What about you, Gaeul?

Gaeul: Yellow.

Me: Someone already took yellow.

Minhee: Gaeul, take something other than yellow.

Yuri: Teacher, Misol says she’ll take blue.

Gaeul: Such babies…

Minhee: Gaeul, do you want orange?

Me: Gaeul, how about doing orange?

Gaeul: I don’t want any other color but yellow. I don’t want any other color but yellow.

Yuri: Gaeul, are you angry?

Gaeul (in an angry tone): I’m not angry.

Yuri: Gaeul, then you can have yellow.

 

The breaktime bell rings. The hands of the clock still point to 8:24.

 

Gaeul: Teacher, why is there no white in ROYGBIV?

Me: I don’t know why white isn’t in ROYGBIV… I’m sorry I don’t know the answer to that question.

Gaeul: I have three chicks. Their names are… I forgot… I named them… It’s a secret, it’s a secret.

 

The hands on the clock point to 8:24.

 

22

 

I want to look at a different place. A different place… A different place than where my right eye is looking.

 

Have I passed that door?

What color was that door?

 

I’ve seen a black door. I’ve never seen a yellow door. There are no yellow doors. If there were one, I would want to put it next to my bed, so I can see it all the time, so I can open it whenever I want, so I can close it whenever I want.

 

And I want to put the yellow door next to the sea. It is next to my bed and next to the sea. At high tide, the waves will carry it away. The boy on the black inner tube was carried out to the horizon, then at low tide, he was carried back to shore.

 

I would get up from my bed, open the yellow door, and go to the sea. There, a man is touching the waves. Waves are white. White is neither hot nor cold. White is cotton, notebook, bunnies. I don’t want to raise white.

 

A yellow moon is like the full moon. I’ve seen the full moon. I’ve never seen a half moon. I imagine a half moon. I can’t see what I imagine. And I haven’t seen a rainbow. Because I only imagine them. I haven’t seen a rainbow, but I know what rainbows are. Rainbows are ROYGBIV. Why is there no white in ROYGBIV?

 

I must find it.

I must find it.

 

And…

 

Do you see me?

 

I’m still standing.

 

Do you see me?


 

1  I was teaching English and massage theory and practice to blind children at a special-education school.

2  Misol, Gaeul, Yuri, Jiwoo, Jeong-wook, and Minhee.

3  retinopathy of prematurity (ROP)

4  In Korean braille, the word for sea is constructed of four dots. 

 

Translated by Sean Lin Halbert

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