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Bright Night

by Choi Eunyoung March 10, 2022

Bright Night

  • Choi Eunyoung
  • Munhakdongne
  • 2021

Choi Eunyoung

Choi Eunyoung has authored the short story collections Shoko’s Smile and Someone Harmless to Me. She has received the Writer’s World New Writer Award, the Heo Gyun Literary Award, the Kim Jun-sung Literary Award, and the Young Writers’ Award.

“Is this child Miseon?” the young woman asked my grandmother, pointing. Her cheeks were flushed, maybe from walking for so long. An old woman stood beside her. 

“May I ask who you ladies are?” my grandmother ventured.

“I’m Namseon’s ma,” the old woman answered, looking at my grandmother before turning her gaze to the child.

“I beg your pardon, but what are you talking about?”

The old woman motioned toward the young woman. “And this is his wedded wife.” 

The words elicited an awkward laugh from my grandmother. “What do you mean? I’m Namseon’s wife.”

“The wind is cold. May we come inside?” the young woman asked. 

My grandmother nodded slowly despite not properly registering what was happening. She trembled. The two visitors sat on the warm section of the ondol floor and looked up at her.

“Our Namseon was wed at sixteen. He went down first in the war and lost touch with us.” The old woman paused. “We went to live in Sokcho. We recently heard tell of him and came to find him here in Heeryeong. And now, he’s going to join us in Sokcho.”

My grandmother listened without interrupting. She found out that Namseon had already fathered a son—Juseong, born in the North. Namseon had welcomed his mother and wife to Heeryeong and promised to accompany them to Sokcho in the near future. He’d also given them a local address, with the directive to explain the situation to a woman named Park Young-ok. 

The young woman, his wife, said, “You may raise the child if you like,” as if granting her permission.

“True, things would be different if it were a son,” said the old woman.

“What are you after?” my grandmother asked quietly.

“We’re here to tell you, don’t you ever think about seeing Juseong’s pa again.” 

At that, my grandmother laughed softly, and the two visitors looked at her in surprise. 

“If you’ve finished what you have to say, then leave.”

With that, my grandmother opened the door and sent them on their way. They’d expected her to beg for her man. They thought her eyes would widen like a surprised rabbit at the sight of the true wife. Watching them go, she realized that her marriage to Namseon had lost meaning for her. She didn’t want to claim ownership of him and get into a competition with them. Her heart felt colder than it ever had. At that moment, she couldn’t even muster much anger at the man who’d concealed his marital history and taken her as his second wife.

My grandmother wrapped the child snugly in warm clothes, lifted her onto her back and went to the market where Namseon worked. He was moving a box when he saw her and stopped. As she approached, she could smell his familiar odor of cigarettes and skin.

“Say what you have to say,” she said.

“If I’d known Juseong’s ma had come south, this wouldn’t have happened. I thought she was in the North. It’s true. If I’d known she was in the South, why would I have gone and tried to get married again?”

“Did my pa know?”

“Yeah.” His voice trailed off. “He said it wasn’t no problem.”

“So you and my pa were in it together.”

“Don’t you get excited.” He looked around helplessly. “Juseong’s ma spent the war caring for my sick father and mother, and raising Juseong all by herself, on top of that. I’ve got to go to Sokcho where my pa is.”

“What do I care if you go there or not,” my grandmother said.

His eyes flashed with contempt. “So what would you have me to do?”

On her way over, my grandmother had expected he’d be surprised or scared to see her, at least. She expected he’d fall to his knees and ask for forgiveness. But he didn’t. He only justified his actions. She couldn’t see any remorse in him. She couldn’t see that he felt guilty for having deceived her. Years later, when she wondered to herself how he could have done it, she still came to the same conclusion. He did it because he could.

“In two days, I’m leaving for Sokcho.”

“All right, go. But you can’t take Miseon.”

“There are some things you should know. Keep her if you like but understand that you can’t never be her ma. The law says a child can’t be registered to a woman without a husband.” 

“I said you can’t take her, and I’ll say it again. I won’t let a bastard like you take Miseon from me!”

It was the first and the last time my grandmother yelled so loudly at anyone. She told me she would never again be able to defy someone that boldly, even if they threatened her life. He wiped his hands on his apron and went back into the shop as if he hadn’t heard.

He never gave her a sincere apology.

“I never got an apology either.” I let this slip out while listening to my grandmother’s story. “I found out he was seeing another woman behind my back, but he blamed me.” 

My grandmother was quiet.

“He said it was my fault because his heart was no longer in it, and if only we’d broken up earlier, he wouldn’t have had to be unfaithful.” I choked up at this point and had to pause briefly.

“He screamed, ‘Sorry, sorry!’ and called it an apology, but I wanted him to mean what he said.” 

“I know, I’ve been there.”

“I couldn’t stay after that.”

“No, you couldn’t because you’re my granddaughter. You could leave and not look back.”

“Grandma, how did you live? How did you get through it and keep on?” I covered my face, unable to hold back the tears.

“You may not believe it now, but a day will come when this means nothing to you,” she said.

The next morning, a call came from the vet. Oats had passed away in the night. “I didn’t think things would take a bad turn so quickly.” The vet could not hide his discomfort. If only I’d taken him home the previous evening and laid him to rest on his favorite checkered blanket, then I wouldn’t have felt so terrible. I wish he hadn’t met me in the first place. If only he’d just weakened and died a natural death, then maybe he’d have suffered less. I knew it was useless to speculate, but I couldn’t get rid of these thoughts. I’d thought I’d rescued him, but perhaps I’d only inflicted more pain.

Oats was lying on his side on a disposable pad. I opened the door, hoping that he would look comfortable, as if he were sleeping, but the pain of his last moments radiated from his lifeless body. The edges of his mouth were dark, and his teeth and tongue were visible between lips that couldn’t close. I felt him and he was cold. For a long time, I stroked the body that had been Oats. If I’d known the outcome, I’d never have sent him to the clinic. Or at least I’d have taken him home for the final night. “I’m sorry,” I said aloud. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry.”

I placed Oats in a carboard box and came out and paid the bill. I couldn’t stop crying even in front of the vet. 

“He was suffering from the time you rescued him. But thanks to you, he got treatment—and love, even if it was just for a short time.”

“How did he come down with this disease? And how did he get so thin and end up in the apartment flowerbed?”

I was rambling on to the vet, unaware of what I was saying. He looked awkwardly at me. My question meant nothing to him, and he wasn’t obliged to answer. I bowed my head in farewell and left. My heart was calm even if I couldn’t stop crying. In my mind, I was planning the work ahead. I thought I would wrap Oats in his beloved checkered blanket and bury him near the observatory. When I arrived home, I placed the box in the living room with him inside and sat and gazed at it for a long while. 

I checked my cellphone to find I’d missed numerous calls from my grandmother. Only then did I remember her offer to accompany me to the clinic and back. I called her, and it wasn’t long before she came by with a trowel.

For some time, she looked at the box without speaking. I told her he must have spent his final minutes alone in a dark room. Maybe he’d felt abandoned, waiting for someone who never came. 

“Maybe, but maybe not. They say dogs don’t want the people they love to see them in pain, so when the time comes for them to die, some leave home.” She paused. “We don’t know. Please don’t think Oats was lonely at the end.” She handed me the trowel. “Shall I come along?”

I shook my head. “I want to do it myself.”

“All right. Go and say your farewells.”

I lay beside Oats briefly. I’d cried so much that day and hardly slept the night before, so I was overwhelmed with drowsiness. Before I knew it, I’d fallen into a deep sleep, and by the time I awoke it was late afternoon. I wrapped Oats in the checkered blanket and placed him back in the box before adding in a bunny toy and a box of his favorite snacks. Then I carried it to the car and got in.

Was time a frozen river, as my ex-husband believed, with the past, present and future all set in advance? From the time before I met him, was it already foreordained that Oats would die in a clinic? I couldn’t quite bring myself to believe it even though it was a thought that could give me some comfort. 

On an impulse to show it to Oats, I went in the direction of my grandmother’s old house. For some time, I stood there hugging his box, watching the sun drop below the horizon. I picked a bouquet of daisy fleabanes that were growing tall on the property.

Then I drove slowly to the observatory, where I parked the car in the lot and walked to a spot beneath an out-of-the-way tree. I could dig there quite easily, perhaps because it had rained in the afternoon. After removing two fist-sized chunks of rock, I had ample space. I placed him there, wrapped in the blanket, with the bunny toy and snack box on top, and covered him with dirt. I trod over the earth several times until it was firm, then laid the daisies from my grandmother’s on top.

I sat there quite still and remembered that in the morning when the vet had notified me of Oats’ death, I’d felt relief as well as sadness. Part of me was relieved that Oats was no longer in pain, and that I’d no longer have to endure seeing him suffer. I couldn’t deny my own self-interest. 

I brushed the dirt off my hands, stood up, and went to the parking lot. I started slowly making my way down the dark mountain road. Halfway down, I saw the headlights of a car in the distance, picking up speed. It was only when we approached each other that I realized the other car was crossing the center line and heading into my lane. I quickly veered to the right. At that instant, there was a tremendous flash of light. It was an accident, so why don’t I feel any pain? I felt a gentle breeze and opened my eyes. It was night at the time of the accident, but now it’s day. 

My grandmother fills a basin with water in the courtyard and washes my big sister’s face. We are at her old house. She places a hand on my sister’s tiny nose and asks her to blow. This scene puts me at ease. I hear the giggling of a very small child, and when I go closer to look, I see it is me making the sound, a child riding on my mother’s back. I peer into the child’s face, but everything fades to black.

My sister and I ride a bicycle down a hill. My sister’s feet are on the pedals, and I’m riding behind, hugging her tight. She smells like strawberry bubble gum. I feel such comfort and tranquility that I forget ever feeling sorrow or pain. Don’t go, I scream, holding on to the moment. Don’t leave me, Unni.

Then the sky turns upside down and I see myself as a middle school student hanging from an iron bar on the school grounds. The child I see is trying to drag out the time before she has to go home. I can read her mind like the print on a page. She thinks she’s an embarrassment to the children hanging out with her. She’s whispering to herself, I’m too ugly and no one likes me. I try to tell her, That’s not true, but someone catches me from behind and pulls me away. 

When I open my eyes, it’s late at night once more. I’m on a bus, sitting next to the man I love. I’m twenty-one, and aching with desire for him, but I know he’ll soon tell me he’s leaving. At last, he speaks. I know, I know. I already know you’ll say this. I know, I know. Even after he gets off, I’m still saying it. I know, I know. Everyone leaves in the end. I want to wake up. I ring the bell, but the bus doesn’t stop. I call to the driver, but no matter how hard I pummel the exit door with my fists, the bus doesn’t stop. No one looks at me. 

I hear the front door closing behind my back. I know it’s the sound of my husband closing the door, leaving me. You . . . you were the only one I didn’t expect to leave. I sit on the floor crying, shaking with tears. 


My seven-year-old sister approaches, minus her two front teeth, and pounds on my back.

Jiyeon-ah, Ji-yeon-ah.

The world gets brighter every time she calls my name. 

It looks like the sun’s getting bigger. I forget what I was crying about just now and talk to her. It’s so bright I can’t see. How can it get so bright? 

When I say this, my sister laughs out loud in the brightness, as if she’s heard a funny story. 

Silly, she says.

Silly. I haven’t ever left you.

Translated by Kari Schenk

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