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Lines

Fiction

  1. Lines
  2. Fiction

When I Start Weeping

by Kim Ji Yeon Translated by Cho Yoonna March 7, 2023

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  • Kim Ji Yeon

Kim Ji Yeon

Kim Ji Yeon’s literary career began after winning the Munhak Dongne New Writer’s Award in 2018 for her short story, “Records of Garden Making.” Since then, she has published a short story collection titled You Don’t Mean It and has twice won the Munhak Dongne Young Writer’s Award.

I once formulated a number of hypotheses on life after death. I was in high school and a few of us had skipped evening study hall to hang out on the steps of the middle school next door, on the corner side where the streetlights didn’t reach. There were the usual complaints about our plight as high school students in Korea, on the meaninglessness of life, how death put an end to everything anyway. We were a mixture of Christians, Buddhists, and atheists. I was more of an agnostic. The conversation continued in a desultory way, with no one holding back  their opinion.

    Maybe dying is just your heart shattering to pieces, someone said in the darkness.

    What does that mean? someone else asked.

    After your body stops working, your feelings don’t have a place to return to, so they just scatter away. And that’s when you’re really gone. Because you’re a kind of collection of all these different feelings.

    I wondered who had said that. Six or seven of us were on the steps. At first there were two of us, but others had joined in. Only their footsteps announced them in the darkness as they came and squatted down. No one bothered to say their names and there was no light to show their faces, so there was no way of knowing who was who. Then someone muttered that a teacher had spotted us. I clasped my knees to my chest, trying to disappear into the darkness as I thought about the last remark that had come out of the conversation. “Because you’re a kind of collection of all these different feelings.” Could it be that those feelings already existed before I was born, traveling around the world, from the ends of our Milky Way to the ends of the Andromeda galaxy, searching for a place to stay until they finally found my body? Some feelings might still be on their way. My body might actually be the deepest part of me. My body was my deepest self. An abyss of feelings. No, my train of thought did not go as far as that at the time; I was just thinking what a nice voice whoever made that remark had.

    All of us were waiting with bated breath when the teacher’s flashlight shone over the steps where we were. Just as I thought that we were done for, the yellow light disappeared and I looked up to see the teacher walking the other way.

    Didn’t they see us? someone whispered after we were sure the teacher was  gone.

    I thought we were busted for sure.

    Me, too. How could they not see us?

    We snickered and the conversation picked up again. I was hoping we’d continue where we had left off, but the subject changed to the latest scandal in the class next to ours. I didn’t really listen, hoping to hear that kid’s voice again, but they didn’t speak up after that. And so I never found out who made that remark. By the time evening study hall was almost over, most of us had scattered off and there were only two of us left again. 

    Aren’t you coming? my classmate asked, dusting themself off as they got up. Coming, I was about to reply, when someone else spoke.

    Coming.

    Is that all of us? A shadow stood up next to me. I remained squatting, watching the shadows of the two as they slipped away from the school grounds, walking side by side.

    One day after my death, I feel as if I have lost an abyss.



*


Sahm’s real name was not Sahm, but that was what he asked me to call him not long after we started going out. It wasn’t a name I would have called a boyfriend and I flatly refused, telling him to stop being ridiculous. Sahm persisted, however, until I ended up calling him that a few times, to the point that I got so used to it that I forgot his real name.

    Sahm and I first met at a drawing class. Sahm would come over and talk to me, mostly about whatever I was working on. You draw a lot of trees. You must like blue. Maybe you could try cutting down just a bit on the straight lines? At first I thought he was a teaching assistant. He only drew straight lines for days on end, but I assumed he was just doing it to keep his hand limber. So I tolerated his comments until I saw the teacher come up to Sahm, who was still practicing straight lines, and suggest that he was ready for spheres, at which point I realized he was a complete beginner. I quit listening meekly when Sahm spoke to me after that. In the hopes that he would shut up and clear off, I spilled out my deepest thoughts without any filter, especially stressing the point that I was going to kill my ex-boyfriend. Why, Sahm wanted to know, and I told him in graphic detail. Sahm nodded and agreed that he could see why I would want to kill him. For his part, he wanted to kill his father. He thought about how he might do it often enough. Those were only thoughts, however, and you couldn’t be punished for thinking them, Sahm said. The two of us bonded over our murderous desires, swapping ways we might kill our respective victims. Most of them were impracticable and didn’t interfere with the spite we held so dear.

    Sahm did not attend the class long. He quit as soon as he finished the basic course, as if straight lines and circles were all he needed to learn. I quit as well, as it seemed like my drawing wasn’t getting any better. It also wasn’t easy to spare the tuition on my salary as a part-time cram school teacher of elementary school students. I put my drawing things away when I quit the class, never to take them out again, but Sahm continued to draw at home. His drawings consisted solely of lines and circles. Sahm did not draw things that he saw, but rather things he did not see, or things that were visible only under a microscope.

    The only things on top of Sahm’s small, tidy desk were a microscope of the kind used in school labs, Kent paper, and well-sharpened 2B and 4B pencils. When Sahm came home from work, the first thing he did was to check if the microscope was still there. Since he lived alone, in a semi-basement apartment that hardly seemed a target for burglars, I asked why he bothered and Sahm told me it was because he still couldn’t believe he had actually bought a microscope that cost that much. My curiosity aroused, I asked Sahm how much he had paid for it, but getting no answer, I decided it must have cost around one hundred thousand, no, two hundred thousand won, which seemed like an astronomical price to me.

    When I wasn’t working I spent most of my time at Sahm’s place. Sahm would sit at his desk and draw tiny things he placed on the stage of his microscope, peering at them through the eyepiece. He would pick up sahmnamu1  leaves on our walks in the park to draw. Sahm said it was because sahmnamu was his favorite tree. I asked him if that was the reason he asked to be called Sahm, but all he said was that it wasn’t just because of that. When I asked Sahm why he liked sahmnamu, he reached for a book called Kinds of Minds from the shelf under his desk where he had been resting his feet, and began to read aloud:


    We are mammals, and all mammals have descended from reptilian ancestors whose ancestors were fish whose ancestors were marine creatures rather like worms, who descended in turn from simpler multi-celled creatures several hundred million years ago, who descended from single-celled creatures who descended from self-replicating macromolecules, about three billion years ago. [. . .] You share a common ancestor with every chimpanzee, every worm, every blade of grass, every redwood tree.2   


    Sahm finished his recital with every appearance of satisfaction, but I could only ask again, why sahmnamu, then? Why not chimpanzees, worms, or blades of grass? Sahm made no answer but went back to his drawing. Long, straight lines, a few circles, and ovals crisscrossing over each other like a tangled web appeared under the sharp point of his pencil as he silently drew. His eye pressed against the ocular lens, Sahm drew his spidery lines and circles across the Kent paper over and over again. Once, I compared Sahm’s drawing with a sahmnamu leaf under the microscope and found it to be a flawless reproduction, without any mistakes I could see. He was good at this. What was the use of it all, though? That’s what I found myself thinking more often than not.

    Sahm didn’t have much time for drawing. He worked as a collector for a thrift organization. His job consisted of knocking on the doors of debtors and doing surveillance in front of their houses, either in his car or standing outside, to cut off any attempt at running away. Sahm worked hard but was always short of money. Besides still paying off his student loans, he regularly sent money to his grandmother, while his younger sibling often came to borrow money from him. I told him he shouldn’t, that he should just ignore them, but Sahm said he couldn’t do that to his only sibling. He added that they never asked for a large sum but only fifty or one hundred thousand won at a time. Even so, all those times must have added up to at least ten million won.

    While Sahm drew, I would lie on his bed and connect my phone to his Bluetooth speaker and play music. One time Sahm said, Look, they’re trembling because of your music. He meant that the cells would tremble because of the vibrations. I told him to draw that, too. Is trembling something you can draw? I certainly didn’t know how. Sahm didn’t either. I would ask if he wanted me to turn off the music, but Sahm said no, he didn’t mean that. I was used to Sahm’s way of speaking by then, so I knew it was his way of asking me nicely. I once asked him if he was like that at work, too. When he went to inform a debtor that he had come to collect, if they asked if they really had to pay the money back, would he say, no, that he didn’t mean that? Sahm said that was work, so if someone were to really ask him that he would tell them yes, they absolutely had to pay the money back. It was a relief to learn that he could act so decisively when it came to work.

    Another time, Sahm told me about the etymology of Bluetooth. According to Sahm, the technology was named after a tenth-century Viking who unified the Scandinavian Peninsula. It stood for a unified wireless technology standard, he said. As for the Viking’s name, he was called that because of the way his teeth were so white that they gleamed blue on moonlit nights. Just like his blue teeth that served as a guiding light in the night, Bluetooth technology guided wireless devices to each other. Really? I asked, and Sahm paused in the middle of perusing leaf veins through his microscope. Lifting his face from the ocular lens, his pencil moved across Kent paper as he replied, Just kidding. When asked why he had bothered to come up with such a silly story, I was a little surprised to hear that he wanted to make me laugh. Then he said that actually, it was because he wanted to see if I was paying attention when he was talking. I stopped myself from asking why he felt the need to check up on something like that. Sahm told me anyway, though, as if he’d read my mind. I didn’t really listen to his answer as I hadn’t asked the question in the first place. When Sahm told me that Kent paper was named after Kent, England, where it was first produced, I nodded and said, Oh, really, but looked it up on the internet afterwards.

    I didn’t switch off my music and Sahm said nothing more about it. Perhaps he had managed to capture the trembling of the cells. Or learned how to ignore it. Later, after growing used to drawing to music, he would sometimes hum along with a familiar tune or ask me the singer or title of this or that song. I took note of those songs and created a new folder called “3” for him.3  I would play those songs when Sahm was busy drawing, and sometimes listened to them on my own when I was in the mood to ponder what was going on in Sahm’s head.


    You wanna hear a song? Sahm said.

    Yeah, I replied.

    Sahm sang it for me. The song, which I’d never heard before, went on without stopping every time I thought it was over, so that in the end it felt like an old friend.

    It’s nice, I said simply, and Sahm stopped singing to ask, You like this singer?

    No, I don’t know them. I meant your voice, not the song. Your voice is nice.

    Sahm laughed a little and that sound was nice, too. Kind, gentle Sahm.  Sahm who got up every morning and went to serve collection orders somewhere.


    Sahm’s job meant little to him. He rarely mentioned work, as if it didn’t matter to his life at all or ever cause him any stress. When I brought it up to him once, Sahm said that I was right, that he considered his work meaningless and felt no need to talk about it, as it didn’t influence his life in any way. Yet he spent at least nine and sometimes up to fifteen hours a day doing that meaningless job. Half of Sahm’s day was spent on meaningless work-related tasks, and the rest of the time he mostly slept. His few remaining hours were dedicated to meaningful activities. Eventually Sahm got used to it all. Isn’t it hard? I asked, and Sahm lifted his head up from his drawing of stomata and said that it wasn’t. Sahm’s eyes, seen up close, were pink from all the veins that stood out against the whites. When he stayed up all night drawing, his eyes would be completely bloodshot.

    One summer night, lying in bed watching Sahm’s back as he drew, I fell asleep and woke in the early hours of the morning feeling parched. I asked Sahm whether he had stayed up all night, and he said he was waiting for the streetlights to go out before going to bed. Still under the covers, I looked up and noticed a streetlight outside the window next to the bed. The sky was still a deep indigo. Soon the streetlight went out. It did not go out at once, but dimmed slowly. Sahm said it was an optical illusion that made it appear as if the streetlights brightened and dimmed slowly instead of coming on and going out at once. It was the eye that failed to catch the light or lack of it, because it happened too fast. I didn’t need Sahm to tell me that he was kidding then. Sahm added that an average of five people a night passed under streetlights in an alley like this. I was thinking in my sleepy state that five seemed too small a number when Sahm said that it was the law to have streetlights in places as dark as this, no matter how few the passersby. A surprisingly humane law, I thought, filing it away to look up on the internet later, only to forget about it by the time I woke up. I said I was thirsty and Sahm fetched a bottle of water from the refrigerator and poured me a glass before burrowing under the covers, saying that he had not seen a single passerby all day. I was too sleepy to ask if he meant it and snickered instead, to which Sahm replied, Just kidding. I gulped down the water. The piercingly cold liquid seemed to flow into every corner of my body. It must have been thirst that made the water taste so sweet. My parched tongue was soon wet again.

    Sahm kills his father that day. Strictly speaking it is a failure, as his original plan was to run as far as he could after making sure his father was dead. Instead, Sahm is discovered in the dark living room in a catatonic state and appears on the news. I go to visit him in jail and Sahm says he regrets it. Why didn’t he run away? He could have run and he didn’t. He can’t stop dwelling on the missed opportunity.

    I woke up from my dream and embraced Sahm who was sleeping next to me. As I breathed in his smell, slightly sour after a sticky summer night, the reality that Sahm had not killed anyone sank in. It may have been funky, but his odor was not unpleasant to me. I could bury my face against his shoulder and take in deep breaths without gagging. It was a fact, however, that Sahm smelled even from a distance. He needed to mask his odor to keep it from spreading. Sahm, who smelled after just a night’s sleep. Sahm, who diligently showered every morning, washing away the smell of the night before.

    I was telling Sahm about my dream and suggested adding another item to our list of ways to murder people when Sahm told me to stop. What was the point? We no longer needed to kill anyone. A few days later, we were watching an American series together when the scene shifted to a teenage girl, about fifteen years old, pointing a gun at a man. The girl had just discovered that he had murdered her mother and was about to shoot him dead. That was when a cop showed up from behind her and started to talk her out of it. Her mother wouldn’t have wanted this, if she pulled the trigger she was no different from that murderer. Her resolve broken, the girl burst into tears and dropped the gun. If I were her mother I would have wanted her to do it, I told Sahm, who asked if I didn’t think that was too cruel for a child. It was the law that was cruel, I explained. It was only the law that refused to recognize the difference between the girl’s actions and those of the murderer’s. Sahm continued to shake his head, however. You say that, but there’s no way you would ever want that. Sahm was right. I would go through the rest of my life unable to kill anyone. I didn’t need to kill anyone. That was good, wasn’t it? But at night, lying in the dark with the soft covers pulled over my head, wriggling my toes as I waited for sleep to come, unwelcome memories would swarm into my head, making it hard for me to remember why I shouldn’t. There being no way for me to carry out those impulses, however, not now, not ever, I contented myself with breaking Sahm’s freshly sharpened pencil leads or rubbing my palm across a carefully finished drawing. That was all. Sahm would sigh when he saw the snapped pencils and ask if I had any idea how much they cost as he got out his box cutter again, but wouldn’t say a word about his smudged drawings. Sahm always spoke by telling jokes and avoided any kind of confrontation. 

    Sahm said that people who borrowed large sums of money that they struggled to pay back usually had a terminally ill family member. If you wanted to live, you’d better make sure you have a lot of money. The more money you had, the better chance you had at beating the kind of misfortune that could happen to anybody. If poverty were an illness, it was the government that allowed what could be a minor illness to become incurable, Sahm said. Tell me something I don’t know, I retorted. For someone who criticized the government, however, Sahm didn’t watch the news, didn’t vote when elections rolled around, and had no expectations whatsoever that anything he did could possibly make a difference. He simply showed up for work every day, sent texts and made phone calls to debtors, and went to their homes to serve them with collection orders. Every time, Sahm said, it made him feel as if he were blaming them—Why are you still poor? To which Sahm knew the answer better than anyone, being poor himself. He could have worked twenty-four hours a day and still would have fallen short of the bare minimum for survival. It didn’t pay to fall sick, Sahm concluded. He made it sound like a choice.

    After that, when Sahm asked after my parents, what I had once taken for polite concern felt more like inquiries into how much money they had. One day, in answer to his question, I finally told Sahm that my father had had an upper endoscopy that showed he might have a problem, and that he was awaiting the results of a biopsy.

    We broke up not long afterwards. Not because of Dad’s biopsy, but because I ended up feeding Sahm dry ice. I didn’t really mean for him to eat it, but Sahm, waiting for me to pop a spoonful of ice cream in his mouth with closed eyes, sensed its chill as the spoon approached his mouth and snapped it up, only to spit it out immediately in shock at the sensation that his tongue was on fire. Sahm opened his eyes to see the lump of dry ice on the floor, where it would sublimate without a trace, leaving only a spot of damp cold. Eventually it would be impossible to tell that it had ever been there. I really don’t know, Sahm said. Of course he didn’t, I thought. I don’t think I’ll ever know, he continued. That was unexpected. Then he buried his face in his hands and said we should break up. I wondered how many times he had thought of saying that before finally getting it out.

    Sahm called me after some time to say that he seemed to have lost his sense of taste, and asked if I knew that dry ice absorbed the heat of everything around it. He also mentioned that his tongue still felt cold. Was that a joke, too? When I didn’t say anything, Sahm said that he had called just because. So I began to talk like we always did, about everyday things. The head of the cram school was now making the teachers clean the toilets without compensation in the name of cutting down on maintenance, a duty from which he excused himself from. Oh, that asshole, Sahm chimed in, but I couldn’t be sure if he was really listening.

    At one time the two of us had shared everything. There was a special attraction between the two of us. We created lists of things to do together, went out for meals, had coffee, laughed, went to bed, spent time together. We had no other reason for being together other than that we wanted to. We did all the usual things most couples did. I probably shouldn’t use “we” to refer to us anymore, but I’m too lazy to think of another word. This way, I don’t have to. It’s like saying “I love you” to mean approximately what you feel, because it’s too hard to find another way to say it.

    If we loved each other, as I believed we did, we didn’t show it that much. We never said “I love you” out loud. Why didn’t we? Of course I loved Sahm. Sahm must have loved me, too. He showed it to me in every way except in words. I still longed to invent a secret language for us. It was so we could better communicate our feelings to each other, I explained, and Sahm said that the whole point of language was to deceive the other person. To lie to them. To say that your face was flushed because you were too hot, not because you were embarrassed. To say that you loved them when you didn’t.

    We were silent for a moment and, groping for something to say, I told Sahm that my father had been diagnosed with stomach cancer. That the cancer itself would not have been too bad, but that it had spread. Sahm didn’t say anything for a long time before wishing my father a swift recovery. I cried after hanging up, unable to believe he could have really meant it. Except that Sahm probably was sincere. I was the one who struggled to wish my father well, even in that situation. What was wrong with me? I cried all over again, and when I was finished it was as if all the worries that had been preying on my mind had dissolved away. Crying like that took an untold amount of effort and pressure. It felt as if my darkest, most persistent thoughts had been wiped out by sheer force. If tears sometimes have a cleansing effect, it might be because it is also a kind of obliteration. For the longest time I stared blankly at the ceiling of my room, my eyes burning from all that crying, before rising to pack my bags. I told my boss that my father was in critical condition and headed home for a few days.

    Nobody cried except my aunt, and even she cried just a little. Not Mom, not my younger brother, not Gran. If grief could be measured by how long and how loudly a person cried, the only person who grieved my father’s death was my aunt. She was also the quickest to get over her grief and bounce back to her regular self.

    After Dad died, Mom practically stopped eating, my brother chain-smoked, and Gran suddenly aged overnight. I always used to say to her, you haven’t aged at all, Gran, when I saw her over the holidays, and then Gran would say that it was because she had pretty much finished aging by the time I was born. After my father died, however, it was as if the rest of her had aged all at once. On the way home after the cremation, I held hands with Gran in the backseat of the taxi and said, You’ve gotten old, Gran, but she was as quiet as if she were asleep. You’ve gotten old, Gran, I said again, when Mom shushed me from the front seat, Shh, Gran’s sleeping. My brother leaned his head against the window and kept his eyes on the scenery outside. Come to think of it, it was the first time I had ever used informal speech with Gran.

    My father died soon after receiving his diagnosis, having shown few symptoms prior, which made me think that it was the diagnosis that had killed him. Mom wondered if it was the meals she’d served. Gran blamed herself for passing on poor genes. My brother thought he had contributed to Dad’s stress and worried that he might be predisposed to stomach cancer, too. You know that family history is the first thing they look at, Noona, he said. I replied that he should give up smoking if he really cared about his health, which earned me a smile as he said, I just smoke the odd one now and then.

    Over the few days I stayed at home, the two of us shared a beer every night, facing each other over the kitchen table. My brother went out on the balcony to smoke, and every time the apartment security would call over the intercom to inform him that someone had made a complaint. Mom spent a lot of time lying down. She had the TV on but didn’t seem to be watching it. When I mentioned I was worried about her being so listless my brother said it was only normal. We might have only seen them fighting, but our parents had dated for eight years before marrying, against Gran’s wishes. I hadn’t known that. I knew that theirs was a love match, not an arranged marriage, but eight years? Could something that had happened so long ago have any influence on one’s feelings now? I didn’t think so, but acknowledged that there might be something left over. I think that’s called a grudge, Noona. Only if you mean hard feelings, I said, and my brother took a swig of his beer and went out for a smoke. There are things that sink to the bottom, undissolved even after a good cry. If a grudge is what’s left after hard feelings, what might the residue of good feelings be? My brother came back inside and said, I’ve thought about it, Noona, and I don’t think good feelings would leave anything. It would all melt away. The intercom buzzed again, and then, as always, my brother gave his usual perfunctory reply. So the days passed as we each coped with our grief and I didn’t return to work as scheduled, after which I was told I was fired.

    I no longer had a job, but decided to go back to Seoul without telling my family. My brother begged me to stay, saying that Mom would miss me so much. I refused, reminding him that our hometown held no good memories for me, and he apologized. Mom slipped me an envelope of cash. It must have come from Dad’s condolence money.

    While I was waiting for the express bus back to Seoul, Sahm called to tell me he had sold his microscope. I was shocked when I heard how much he had gotten for it. I didn’t know it was worth that much, I said, and Sahm said that it was. I asked why he had sold it and Sahm said that he needed the money. I didn’t dig any further but Sahm told me anyway. He had quit his job. Oh, I said, and when I didn’t say anything else Sahm also told me why he’d quit. Someone had died. Who? A debtor. Why? It was an accident. What kind of accident? She was crossing the street early in the morning, drunk, and was hit by a car. So why did you quit your job? Sahm had gone to see the debtor the day before she had gotten drunk. A single mother, she had begged Sahm on her knees. Sahm’s boss, who had gone with him, excused himself to go out and smoke. Sahm had no authority whatsoever, was more of a debtor himself when it came to the company he worked for. Please don’t do this, Sahm said. The woman must have known that Sahm couldn’t do anything, either. She wasn’t crying at that time, but Sahm said she must have cried before he’d gotten there, or after he’d left. I asked why he thought so, but Sahm couldn’t explain. Well, you see, um, he muttered before changing the subject.

    Sahm said that he had a drawing of one of my hairs that he wanted to give me. I asked if he was sure if it was my hair, and he said that he was since it measured over thirty centimeters long when he picked it off his pillow a while ago. I didn’t want the drawing. Why would you want to draw your ex-girlfriend’s hair under a microscope, anyway? I blurted out. Sahm said he did it in a moment of boredom. He couldn’t be bothered to go outside to collect leaves when he found the hair, which reminded him of the leaf of a conifer, so he decided to draw it. It looked even more like a conifer leaf under the microscope, he said. You mean we share a common ancestor with every blade of grass, every redwood tree, I said, and Sahm laughed. The familiar sound of his laughter made me laugh, too. Sahm said he needed something to concentrate on to get rid of the nagging thoughts of cause and effect that wouldn’t leave his head. Even drawing my hair, however, couldn’t stop those thoughts, so he shared them with his boss, who told them he had gone through the same and worse. Sahm knew then that if he stayed in his job, he would face the same thing, so as he was drawing the outline of my hair he decided to quit. The microscope was a luxury he could not afford to keep now that he would not be earning for the time being. Was it really necessary to sell it so quickly? I asked, and Sahm admitted that he was going to stop drawing. I asked why. Sahm made no reply except that he hadn’t thought that I’d ask him that.

    I told him about quitting my job at the cram school, then, and Sahm hesitated for a moment before asking after my father, so I said that he had passed away. Sahm offered a few words of condolence that came out almost mechanically. It felt as if the words were second nature to him, and therefore somehow more sincere. It was because of that feeling that I was able to find real comfort in those conventional, set phrases. When he had finished saying them, Sahm asked if I was alright. When I heard that it was as if something inside me melted away, and I began to weep on the bus going back to Seoul. I didn’t make any noise, but as the silence grew, Sahm guessed what was happening and asked if I was crying, so I said that I was. Sahm didn’t tell me not to cry and waited for me without hanging up until I had finished. After crying myself out, I hung up without saying anything and sent Sahm a text to say thank you. Sahm replied to take care of myself. I couldn’t in the end, though, for which I am sorry.

     I’m also sorry that I wasn’t able to offer Sahm any comfort when he was down. I don’t feel sorry that I wasn’t able to understand him. At first I thought it was because I hadn’t made the effort, but that wasn’t it. Sahm said that going all the way back, all of us shared a common ancestor, and that we could all be traced back to the explosion of a single dot. It was always possible to find similarities with others, no matter how alien they might be in their present state, since all of us started out from the same point anyway. Wouldn’t it be equally true, I asked, to say that we were descended from a single entity that had split, no longer able to cope with an alien sensation? In the beginning, there was something that kicked off a great division one day. One became two, two became ten, splitting faster and faster into irreconcilable parts that spilled out without an end. And so I believe that if there was something in the beginning, and if that something exploded for whatever reason, it was because it had found something it could not possibly understand or relate to.


    One person dies by suicide in Korea every thirty-seven minutes, it said on the news we were watching one day. Sahm asked me if I had ever thought about it myself. We were demolishing a half-gallon of Baskin-Robbins at the time, which prompted me to say, No, because I wouldn’t be able to have any more Mom is an Alien or Gone with the Wind.4 Sahm, who had been shaking his head at the company that would give such strange names to its flavors, asked me if such a trivial reason was enough to keep living. Not only are trivial reasons enough, they’re why people keep living, I said. People might have dozens of reasons for wanting to die, kicking themselves for being useless, crying themselves to sleep every night, but in the morning they got up and ate and drank to satisfy their hunger. Sahm gazed at my face for a minute before telling me to close my eyes and say, Ahh, so I did, and then he popped a spoonful of Gone with the Wind in my mouth. Was this sweetness why I wanted to live? Sahm asked, and I nodded, feeling the cool sweetness melt away on my tongue, but to tell the truth, I was the kind of person who would rather be alive even if it was only to drink plain water. So it wasn’t suicide.

    All of this was a very long time ago.



*


On the second morning after my death, I wish that someone would come wake me up. This is unlikely, though, as I lived alone. There is a cacophony of birdsong at daybreak that recedes while I am not paying attention. Someone’s front door opens and closes. I hear another door about thirty minutes later. I hear footsteps crossing the alley, motorcycles, someone singing. Apart from these sounds, all is quiet on this residential street. During the daytime it is virtually silent except for the rattle of screen windows from the occasional gust. It comes back to life in the evening, when people come home from work. Then I hear the noise of  TVs, rice cookers, phones ringing. My phone also chimes that a message has arrived. It sounds one, two, three, four, five times in a row . . . and then once more. I wish I could check my messages, see who sent them not knowing I was dead. 

    On the third morning I am still optimistic. Surely somebody will come find me soon. Life still has a certain hold over me. At night, the glow of streetlights shine into my room. It is a nice kind of glow. Anyone who has witnessed the instant a streetlight goes on as day gives way to night will know what I mean. A yellow ball of light, determined to hold on even in the midst of darkness. On the fourth day, the smell of baking bread wafts through the entire neighborhood. It’s not a smell I was familiar with before my death. On the fifth day, there is a metallic taste on the tip of my tongue. I can taste something like it in the air. On the sixth day, tiny bugs swarm out of my body, so perfectly formed as to be off-putting. I keep thinking about certain things. I place them on my tongue, rolling them slowly until they melt away. On the seventh day, the smell of baking bread is gone completely, leaving only a nasty odor. Is it my smell? And then I give up on counting the days.

    The person who found me might be Sahm. He makes a phone call somewhere and sinks to the floor, weeping as if helpless to do anything else. His sobs, hot with hard things molten and dripping away, tug at my heart, and the thing that used to be me shatters to pieces. At the time my feelings still had a few places to return to, though, so people going about their lives as usual were reminded of me from time to time.



Translated by Yoonna Cho 





[1] Translator’s note: Japanese cedar, also known as Japanese redwood, or sugi. 

[2] T/N: This passage, from Daniel C. Dennett’s Kinds Of Minds (1996), is quoted in its Korean translation in the story, which translates “redwood” as sahmnamu.

[3] T/N: The number 3 is pronounced “sahm” in Sino-Korean.

[4] Originally called Puss in Boots and Twinberry Cheesecake, respectively, the flavors were renamed for the Korean market.


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