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Circle of Light

by Kim Eugene Translated by Kari Schenk September 8, 2023

빛의 자리

  • Kim Eugene

Kim Eugene

Kim Eugene debuted in 2004, winning the Munhakdongne New Writer’s Award for her short story, “The Mark of the Wolf.” She attended the International Writing Program at the University of Iowa in 2015. Her works include the short story collections The Mark of the Wolf, Summer, and The Invisible Garden; a novel, The Hidden Night; and a translation of Pascal Quignard’s The Hatred of Music. She has won the Munhakdongne Young Writer’s Award and the Hwang Sun-won Literature Prize.

Sumin heard from Jeong-woo while she was reading a concert program that began: “Enrique Granados disliked traveling.” She’d seen a banner ad for the solo piano recital on a reservations site and bought a ticket on impulse. The pianist performed seven pieces by Granados, playing for over seventy minutes without an intermission. He received long, loud waves of applause, but he did not grant the audience’s request for an encore even though he came back to the stage three or four times. He placed his right hand on his heart, maybe to ask them to understand that another song could spoil the lingering feeling. Sumin came out of the auditorium and was walking around the foyer when, belatedly, she purchased the program. She put it in her bag and forgot about it until the bright orange color suddenly came to mind a few days later, and she perused it carefully.

The Spanish composer Enrique Granados disliked travel, only leaving his home country twice. At age twenty, he went to Paris to study, but he contracted typhoid fever and the trip ended in disappointment. He took his second and final trip in the spring of his forty-ninth year, when he went to the US for the premiere performance of an opera. It was during WWI, and the ocean liner that he and his wife took for their return voyage was attacked by a German U-boat. The ship cracked apart. Granados had the good luck to be rescued, but when he saw his wife struggling, he dived into the water to save her, and they both ended up drowning. The write-up went on to add that Granados was especially scared of boats.

Working as an editor for the last six years, Sumin had the habit of searching for the crucial point of any kind of texts. In this case, she struggled whether to locate it in the tragedy sensed beforehand, or in love overcoming the fear of death. Ultimately, for her, the main point was that she’d only found out the context for the story after the concert had finished. She’d attended the recital without knowing anything beforehand, not even that the suite Goyescas meant “in the style of Goya,” having been inspired by Goya’s paintings. Sumin frequently learned things after the fact; this had also been true when she studied in France.


The feeling of time passing extremely slowlythat was the first thing that came to mind about that period seven years ago. It was a different feeling from boredom. Because she had such an acute sense of time, her impressions of it were more exact, just as an athlete with excellent dynamic vision can feel a speeding arrow pass by more slowly. Each day she finished four hours of study at the language school and attended a special writing class at extra cost or an open lecture on art history. The French level was so high that she could hardly make out any words besides the ones she’d learned in liberal arts classes at home, like “Surrealism” or “avant-garde.” She had time left over after that, and for once in her life, no money worries either. Not only was her mother enjoying some financial breathing room and sending her a monthly living allowance, but she’d also saved a sizeable amount of money working part-time while attending university. She wanted above all to learn French, but in practice, she felt buried under a variety of routines. Every little thing became magnified. She felt like she had become part of a giant painting of daily life in which every detail continued to expand. When she became somewhat familiar with the area around the language school, she began to walk endlessly along the riverbank, following the second-hand book stalls. Walking along, her gaze alternating between the tourist boats cutting through the murky, shallow water and the stall keepers selling used books in a line along the riverbank, she’d find herself at the Palais Garnier. She’d look around at the resplendent buildings, stop in at a Korean grocery store, buy ramyeon or instant curry, and head home. Then, time permitting, she’d go to a concert. Discounted tickets would be sold just before the show in the case of cancellations or seats with a restricted view. Jeong-woo, her roommate, told her this. She informed her that if you topped this off with a student discount, the ticket would cost no more than a sandwich. Jeong-woo exhorted her to learn about discounts and freebies, adding that this knowledge wasn’t just the right of a visiting student, but a duty.

Jeong-woo had been studying there for four years. As a female East Asian international student, there were ordeals you faced many times daily, like government officials glaring at you as if you were trying to sneak into their country, innocent-looking teens shouting abuse like “Bitch!” or “Whore!” and nonstop sexual advances from men on the street, so she said that using your student discount to access art and culture in the city was not so much an expression of enjoyment as a protest. Sumin liked Jeong-woo’s logic, perceiving the gap between the low status of a foreign student and the beauty and elegance in appreciating classical art as something to fight and overcome, rather than as vanity or extravagance.

This period was full of uncommon scenery in the greater context of Sumin’s life, but strangely, when she reminisced, her clearest memories were of routines, and Jeong-woo was ever present. Sumin was a morning person, and it was only around the time she started her day that Jeong-woo would gently place her empty beer bottles by the kitchen trash can and prepare for bed. Though her voice and movements were bold, Jeong-woo walked light as a feather. She told Sumin to walk on tiptoe or the woman below would come up one day and do away with them both. Jeong-woo often overslept and missed her language classes but since she had perfect attendance at the private atelier class she took for five euros, she was able to enter the École des Beaux Arts, the school of her choice, the same year that Sumin finished language classes and returned home.

As far as Sumin knew, Jeong-woo had only gone back to Korea once, in the summer break after her second year at the École des Beaux Arts. She hadn’t been home for six years or so before that, ashamed to show her face to her family. She ended her long exile only after entering the École des Beaux Arts. Sumin reunited with Jeong-woo at a chicken soup restaurant in Jongno. Sumin had been back for two years. It was a very simple place with only one item on the menu. Sumin had just found a full time job, and she would rather have taken her Unni to a cleaner, brighter Korean or Italian restaurant where they could chat comfortably for a while, but she could not prevail against Jeong-woo, who dearly wished to try the soup she’d seen on television several years earlier.

Even now she could recall Jeong-woo’s expression as she was gazing at the chicken in a large metal bowl. The whole chicken was placed intact in the broth, and the server lifted it out with a pair of tongs and expertly divided it into pieces with kitchen scissors. Jeong-woo watched closely, her cheeks flushed, maybe from the heat from the tabletop gas burner. She probably hadn’t had the chance to eat proper kimchi for a long time, and when Sumin pushed the side dishes towards her, she looked around and said shyly, “Sumin-a, Korean chickens are small and adorable, aren’t they?”

Sumin was on the KTX train bound for Gyeongju when she recalled the sentence, “Enrique Granados disliked traveling.” Was this true about Granados? Perhaps the article was just a biographer’s attempt to give his life meaning by twisting coincidence into destiny. Perhaps he did dislike traveling, but not because he thought a trip would cut his life short. Maybe it was because the uncontrolled variables in unfamiliar environments were an inconvenience.

If there was anyone who believed that traveling could change one’s life, it was Sumin. She’d decided to study abroad for this reason. But all that awaited her upon her return to Seoul was her small room and her school, which felt unfamiliar to her now that her close friends had all graduated and left. Whereas the year’s worth of experiences may have constituted an adventure to Sumin, her stories were perfectly ordinary to those around her. Even within her own department, several students had studied a language abroad. She hadn’t had enough time to become fluent in French, and she hadn’t even begun a romantic relationship of the kind her friends had anticipated. The ending had been quite flat. After her return, her professor gave her vague advice to keep both feet on the ground so as not to lose her bearings, which she’d interpreted in her own way, and in the last semester of her fourth year she started an internship, unplanned. For some time afterwards, whenever she had to do a reality check, she would think of the slow, rambling voice of her elderly professor. In the meantime, she regarded her time in Paris as anomalous, and so she pushed the memories out of the circle of her daily life. Naturally, this was followed by a sense of loss, and sometimes she had the impression she’d left something behind. But before long, she had relegated the memories to the back of her mind.

While Sumin was surrounded by galley proofs, moaning with the neck pain she developed when she turned thirty, Jeong-woo was graduating from the École des Beaux Arts. She went on to win a prize in a French regional competition the following year. Jeong-woo sent her links to newspaper articles, and much to Sumin’s amusement, gave her advice filled with terms she’d picked up randomly, like “housing subscription” and “term insurance,” things she knew nothing about. Whenever she felt that Jeong-woo was treating her like she did when they first met, and whenever she pictured her shy, childlike smile at the sight of the milky-white chicken, Sumin wondered what kind of adult she was becoming. This feeling was unrelated to growing up. One time, as she was perusing the dictionary, she came across the perfect wordgutae, meaning “old moss.”


“Welcome, Sumin. I missed you so much,” Jeong-woo greeted Sumin when she arrived at Gyeongju Station. Five years had passed. Jeong-woo embraced Sumin and kissed her lightly on both cheeks. It was the French style of greeting that they would have been mortified to use when they actually lived together in Paris. You’re really French now. She was wearing a black muslin scarf around her neck in the middle of summer, her long hair in a loose chignon. She had on black jeans and flats. This look was familiar to Sumin, but it somehow seemed foreign to Korea, like oil in water. Behind her, Sumin noticed bushes lining the well-paved road. Small, hard, glossy leaves were piled up in layers under red flowers the size of a baby’s fists, as though they were holding something precious. After winning the art competition, Jeong-woo had been invited to participate in a curated exhibition in Korea, and she arrived a month before the opening. The exhibition was supposed to be held in Anguk at an old bathhouse that had been converted into a gallery, but for some reason she’d gone to Gyeongju directly after arriving at Incheon airport. When Jeong-woo invited her down to see her, Sumin had mixed feelings as to whether to go or make an excuse not to. She hadn’t spoken to Jeong-woo much recently, probably because they were living in different countries doing different things. Jeong-woo, who’d moved to Auvers-sur-Oise, a suburb of Paris, spent her evenings with her boyfriend walking around different sites in the village where she lived looking for traces of Van Gogh, while back in Seoul, Sumin relieved the day’s stress by surfing internet shopping sites and drinking cans of beer with side dishes of blood sausages or mandu she’d buy on the way home. Even so, it was hard to turn down her friend’s invitation. Jeong-woo had given her a lot back then. Also, she found it reassuring to be in touch because Jeong-woo was the one person she could talk to about a time that was fading from her memory.

Jeong-woo said she’d been in Gyeongju for a week as she led Sumin to the taxi stand.

“Where’s the painting?”

Sumin had only ever seen the painting in a photo that accompanied the newspaper article that Jeong-woo had sent her. The work, which covered the wall of a gallery, was out of focus and blurry. When they lived together, all Sumin had seen of her work were a few acrylics done on palm-sized scraps of paper. Jeong-woo had boasted that they were her portfolio. Sumin didn’t know much about art, but had privately doubted whether her friend would ever be accepted to the École des Beaux Arts owing to age restrictions. Afterwards, Jeong-woo only painted large paintings, as if self-conscious about that time. Jeong-woo had been grumbling about how she was going to get the painting into the country in her last email.

“I sent the canvas to be re-stretched. That’s why I came all the way down here.” She knew someone in Gyeongju who’d introduced her to a craftsman, she added.


Jeong-woo said she’d been very lucky, but Sumin didn’t understand what she meant by this. Instead of explaining further, she spoke in general terms, saying she’d come down to prepare for the exhibition.

“Sumin, have you ever tried kong-guk? Warm bean soup? You can dunk rice ball doughnuts in it, or crack raw eggs into it.”

Sumin made a face, unable to imagine these combinations, and Jeong-woo patted her arm. Her skin was chilled from the air conditioning in the taxi, and this warm touch gave her goosebumps.

“You’re still just a baby.”

“That’s impossible.”

No one treated her like a child, then or now, except Jeong-woo.

“I remember you reciting the verb conjugation page every morning at dawn. You sounded like a child memorizing the Thousand Character Classic.”

Jeong-woo went on, adding that Sumin’s voice got louder and louder to the point that she was scared the tenant below would hear and complain. Sumin had never heard this story. Every morning she had written out verb conjugations and memorized them, but she hadn’t spoken louder than a whisper. She couldn’t be sure, though. She realized again that there was no privacy in the house. The apartment had no doors, so from her room, she could hear a fork hit a plate all the way over in Jeong-woo’s room. The only other door besides the front door was the one to the bathroom. She sheepishly turned her head toward the window. Even though they were well beyond the station, empty fields surrounded them on either side. Her gaze was drawn to the continuous row of bushes extending from the station, standing tall in the hot sunlight. The city was neat and notably clean, so clean that it was devoid of buildings.

“Crepe myrtle trees,” Jeong-woo said, and Sumin turned towards her. Jeong-woo’s eyeliner had smeared and darkened the area around her eyes, maybe due to the heat.

“Aren’t they what you keep looking at?”


Sumin turned back, and old houses started to appear in the distance one by one.

“Isn’t that a pomegranate tree?”


Behind their guesthouse was a garden with a pond and a variety of small trees. The garden was charming, with something of a foreign feel, perhaps because of the pomegranate tree next to the pond. The tree was a nice height, about 2 meters tall, dotted with unripe pomegranates. Sumin had never seen one before. The crown at the tip of the fruit made it look like a deflating balloon. “There are pomegranate trees in Gyeongju?” she wondered aloud, marveling at the sight. She circled around and touched the smooth green fruit hanging precariously from the slender branches. In the meantime, Jeong-woo stuffed Sumin’s travel bags in a corner and sat perched out on the narrow wooden veranda talking on the phone. Judging by the French she overheard, Sumin could guess that Jeong-woo was talking to her boyfriend. She’d heard a few things about him: how he was born to an Algerian mother and a French father, and how he’d trained as a skier until he was in high school when he seriously injured his spine at seventeen and had to quit sports. She’d also heard that he changed plans and became a high school teacher after majoring in mathematics in university. Early in the relationship, she’d also heard many complaints about him. One story she remembered was about how he went to London with a friend for a fortnight, and all that he gave Jeong-woo when he came back was a keychain engraved with a book shop logo. Sumin still associated him closely with this story.

“The French are like that. They’re so cheap.”

He’d presented the keychain to Jeong-woo with such reverence and care that she was expecting it to be an engagement ring. At the beginning, the more she’d thought about it, the more annoyed she’d been that he’d gone on a trip without her. Then, after a while, she tried to justify why he’d given her the keychain. After all, it might just have been a French custom to exchange trinkets. As more time passed and their relationship stabilized, she changed her interpretation and said that his frugality and his family-oriented nature were his greatest strengths. Other than this, the stories that Jeong-woo told her about him were bound up with her personal feelings, and Sumin often struggled to relate. Jeong-woo said she didn’t love everything about him, but the tragedies he’d suffered made him lovable. Whenever he wronged her somehow, she’d think of him lying in the hospital for six months or so without being able to move after he’d fallen off a cliff while in Switzerland for off-season training. If she imagined him as a boy grimacing in pain at night, worrying that he would never walk again, she felt her heart soften out of guilt. She thought she should have watched over him back then.

Sumin was confused, and asked her how she could have watched over someone she didn’t even know.

“Sumin, don’t you know? Love transcends time and space.”

Whenever Jeong-woo touched the long scar that ran along his spine, it felt like a crack that she could squeeze into. The year before last, they’d entered a civil union and moved in together.

In the meantime, Sumin began a short-lived relationship with a business associate ten years her senior. On the basis of his age and relatively high social position, this man tried to teach her everything, making her feel like dating was an extension of her work. It was exhausting. When Jeong-woo asked what his name was, she jokingly told her the name of the male protagonist in a late Joseon period enlightenment novel instead. It seemed like Jeong-woo had never heard the title of this book before. But even if she didn’t know what Korea’s first modern novel was, she knew much more about romance than Sumin did.

Jeong-woo’s romance was elevated to a sacred plane, and Sumin’s was mundane by comparison. But after it ended, she had to contend with the aftermath, and this was worse because they were business associates. The exhaustion and suspicion from those rumors went on for a long time and Sumin grew disinterested in any type of blind dates.

At this time, Sumin was thirty, and she thought she knew something about life. Monotony washed over her existence like a tidal wave, as if it had been waiting for her. She no longer expected coincidences or relationships ordained by fate. She didn’t think the future would hold any of the moments of the unexpected that she’d known when she studied abroad. However, Jeong-woo finished talking on the phone and took her to the restaurant, and they were immersed in conversation when Suchan opened the door and came in, and Sumin’s eyes grew wide, like someone encountering something new and strange.


She’d first met Suchan at a gathering of Korean students that Jeong-woo had known when she was taking language classes in Grenoble. They’d reminisced fondly about a night club van that used to pick them up outside of the language school dormitory every Saturday evening. Sumin was only a new arrival, and they looked socially well-positioned in her eyes. At a Korean drinking establishment, with great bravado, they ordered an overpriced chicken side dish to accompany several bottles of soju that cost 10 euros apiece. Jeong-woo spoke little that day, was stuck in the long, dark tunnel of life as a language student. Maybe this was why she’d pestered Sumin to come along. Sumin remembered Jeong-woo’s ambiguous expression at the gathering long after she returned to Korea. Thinking back on it, Jeong-woo’s most difficult time as an international student must have been when Sumin was there. It was just before she exited the tunnelpeople exiting a tunnel, or people climbing a mountain before the final peak, are at their most pessimistic. Besides, Jeong-woo was barely twenty-four years old even if she played the role of an older sister and guide to Sumin. If she could go back, Sumin would maybe pour Jeong-woo another glass of that expensive soju. She’d pat her on the back and tip her off about the future, telling her, “Hold on just a little longer and you’ll enter the school you have your sights on, and in a few years, you’ll come home triumphantly to your own solo exhibition in Anguk.” But Sumin knew none of this at the time, and was silent as a tree.

Sumin was even more uncomfortable after they moved to the noraebang, and she was scanning her surroundings looking for a chance to get up. There was a guy downing bottles of Orangina and talking quietly with his neighbor. She noticed him take the remote control and carefully punch in a number. She’d exchanged names with him, but that was all, as they weren’t curious about each other. Actually, she could sense that no one in the group wanted to get to know her. Gathered there were big sensitive egos, a mixture of accomplishments and hopes, and they swayed like a pendulum from self-confidence to worry about the future. No one had any reason to be interested in Sumin, who had yet to prove anything. The song started and the guy straightened up from where he’d been slumped on the sofa. He was someone her age, who clutched the mic in both hands and sang a heartfelt rendition of Boa’s “Amazing Kiss.” This was Suchan.


“What was the name of that Chinese girl who liked jangjorim? Was it Rangrang?”

Suchan glanced at Sumin as he corrected Jeong-woo. “It was Ringring.” Sumin looked at him from the side and then turned her gaze to the kong-guk on the table. Suchan had sat down beside her quite naturally upon arriving. He wore a polo shirt with jeans, and he reeked of sour sweat. Suchan glanced at the makgeolli and pajeon that had been pre-ordered, and expertly went through the complicated process of ordering kong-guk. The menu was posted on the wall, divided into different sections according to the many possible options: sticky doughnuts, black sesame seeds, sesame seeds, honey, and raw eggs. Sumin looked out of the corner of her eye at the watery kong-guk that came out in quite a large ceramic bowl. Suchan asked, “Would you like some?” It was the first thing he’d said to her.

As if given the signal, she started to feel attuned to Suchan’s presence. She listened carefully to the conversation the other two were having, as if she were straining to make out their voices from across the room. And she learned a few things; for example, that to “re-stretch a canvas” was to put a painting on a canvas frame after it had been removed and rolled up in a tube for safe transport, and that it was Suchan who’d introduced Jeong-woo to a craftsman renowned for his skill in this art. Suchan had worked at a landscaping firm in Seoul before moving down to Gyeongju a year ago. She listened to them talk about Suchan’s girlfriend Ringring, who’d liked jangjorim because it was reminiscent of food she had in China. While Suchan was sleeping, she’d eaten up the precious stores of it he’d had sent from Korea, and Suchan had called Jeong-woo about it and cried over the phone. Finally, their relationship came to an end when he returned to Korea to do his military service. Sumin also heard this, but it went in one ear and out the other.

“Let’s not talk about it. It’s been a long time since we broke up.”

Noticing that Suchan had lowered his voice, Sumin took several sips of makgeolli. Suchan filled her empty cup and pushed the pajeon dish towards her. Now that he was older, everything seemed to come naturally to him. This was likely true for Sumin as well. But maybe because she was tipsy, these bits of information were fragmented, quick to disappear or randomly jump to the fore. This state of mind was very different from her usual one as an editor who prioritized context. Unimportant words like “girlfriend” or “I fell asleep” would clump together in her mind before slowly dissolving away.

Sumin’s first date with Suchan was in the late fall, about two months before she returned to Korea. She’d heard that the first snow had fallen in Seoul, but in Paris it rained miserably, day after day. In the period just before she left, she’d wake up in the morning and think, I can’t believe such a dreary place exists. I just want to go home. Her coat was getting heavier and heavier with moisture in the tiresome weather. Owing to the high calcium in the water and the nagging of her language teacher, it seemed like half of her hair had fallen out, and if things kept on, she’d end up bald. Suchan was studying horticulture in Strasbourg, and he took her to the place he knew best in Paris, the Jardin des Plantes. Sumin still remembered her disappointment at seeing all the withered lilies when they reached the pond. After that, her relationship with Suchan cooled off to the extent that when she was returning to Korea they barely texted each other farewell. She blamed this entirely on the one lame date. Suchan, oblivious to her feelings, pointed to the shallow, dirty pond where dry flower stalks remained here and there like bent wire. It looked like a wasteland. He said, “I cleared those away yesterday, too.” Sumin asked, “What?” and he replied, “They’re called ‘bu.’ These days, I clear away bu from the school garden every day. When it’s all cleared away, then that’s the start of winter for the garden. It’s teeming with dead leaves and gastropods, and seeds that will sprout into something, we don’t know what.” Then he gently tugged on the stiff sleeve of Sumin’s wool coat and whispered, “Would you like me to show you a little slug?”


“Someone called to say they were selling a Zelkova tree. The owner boasted that the tree had been carefully tended for generations by a family whose ancestor had passed the first round of the national exam. So I didn’t think it would be anything special.”

The place where Suchan worked was technically a landscaping company, but a large portion of their business was in buying and selling trees, perhaps because the owner had been doing it for a long time. Sumin wondered how Suchan went from studying horticulture to coming down to Gyeongju and selling trees, but she didn’t ask. When you got to this age it was natural to have deviated a bit from your starting point. Sumin was used to this by now. Suchan said that the hardest thing about buying trees was going out to view them. The houses of the families selling mature trees were either abandoned or close to collapse, and most of the time they were located in mountain forests or on isolated tracts of land. Often, the location couldn’t be found by using GPS, or worse, the area wasn’t accessible by car. This was true for the client selling the Zelkova as well.

“They told me to sing in a loud voice when I came. They’d come out to meet me when they heard me singing. Doesn’t it sound crazy?”

However, Suchan did sing as he climbed the mountain. It wasn’t until he entered the forest that he understood his client’s instruction to sing out loud. The terrain was rough, and the forest was so deep that his cell phone didn’t have a signal.

“So what did you sing?” Sumin joined the conversation at this point.



“Yes. The theme song to that Studio Ghibli film, Ponyo on the Cliff by the Sea.”


They came out of the restaurant and were met by the warm, stuffy night air. While Jeong-woo was in the restroom, Suchan stood in a corner, took out a cigarette, and put it between his lips. There were no street lamps behind the restaurant, so it looked as if part of the village had been cut off. The cicadas made a high-pitched buzzing sound in the darkness.

“Would you like a cigarette?”

It seemed as if Suchan had forgotten she didn’t smoke. Or perhaps he was asking in case she’d somehow picked up smoking in the meantime. A lot of time had passed. Their conversation was stuck in a loop: cautious when they held out for the possibility of change and then quickly becoming more intimate when they recognized the same person they knew from the past. For example, the image of Suchan in the forest, shaking with fear, shouting out, “Ponyo, Ponyo, fishy in the sea,” was not drastically different from him as a student singing K-pop songs in the noraebang. Perhaps that was why she said yes. When he replaced the cigarette back in its pack and cautiously asked, “Would you like to go for a walk with me tomorrow?” Sumin nodded eagerly. Perhaps it was that the ordinary guy who’d taken her to the botanical gardens in Paris in early winter when there was nothing to see had appeared to her through time and space. Sumin’s attitude was the only thing that had changed.

That night, lying next to Jeong-woo on a mattress rolled out on the floor in an outbuilding of the guesthouse, Sumin thought about patterns repeating themselves in life. She thought of her favorite music. In general, all music, whether it be sonatas, concertos, or orchestral songs, was supposed to return to a theme. The key to the repetition was not the repeated melody itself, but the long musical journey between repetitions, resulting in two entirely different interpretations of the same melody. Sumin believed that this principle of musical form applied to life as well. Many years later, she would reflect on that night and deem it all a superficial rationalization for getting back together with Suchan, but until she was interrupted by Jeong-woo’s sleepy voice, her head was filled with abstract notions like the forms and principles of life.

“Hey Sumin, it’s the first time we’ve ever slept together under the same blanket, isn’t it? Even though we lived together for a year or so.”

“Why would housemates have a reason to sleep with each other?” Sumin would always regret things after she spoke, thinking her answers were too short and logical. “But every night I could hear you breathing as you slept. We didn’t have doors to our bedrooms, you know.”

“Right. Thank goodness for that. That’s why we were never lonely there.”


Even in the years after she married Suchan and then divorced him, she sometimes recalled the hike they took together that morning in Gyeongju. A cloud of morning fog was gradually clearing in a place with the sacred name Gyerim, which meant “forest where the rooster crows.” The trees in this place had long branches that drooped down, supported in places by stakes, and they looked to Sumin not so much like plants but animals, moaning in pain, unable to manage their large girth. They were spaced at regular intervals as if by mutual agreement, but their dense foliage blocked any light from coming in. This was probably why the only thing growing nearby was moss, covering the ground like a carpet as if tended by human hands. The forest felt magical, but dreary at the same time. Suchan told her that the forest used to have a large concentration of hackberry trees, and since jewel beetles had the habit of laying eggs in crevices in the hackberry bark, it was a jewel beetle habitat as well. But because craftsmen at that time were using jewel beetle wings as ornamentation on saddles for horses, the jewel beetles there had all died out. As she listened, the earth, wet with morning dew, rose around her feet, and she felt as if she would sink into the ground at any moment.

“I know it’s strange, but when my mother died, I thought of you.”

Sumin turned her head at these unexpected words, and Suchan fixed his gaze on the only pagoda tree in the forest and continued.

“I wanted to call you, but I couldn’t. You would have thought I was crazy. We weren’t even seeing each other.”

That day remained etched in Sumin’s memory, but it was not because of the bashful look on his face when he confessed his love. Nor was it because of the firmness in his voice as he told Sumin, who was awed by the size of the tree, that a forest dominated by a giant tree like that would have no future. Rather, it was because of his profile as he pointed at a round empty hole they’d come across in the middle of the forest. She couldn’t guess the purpose of this pit. The sun beat down on it, and the light looked like water pooling around it. Suchan said that he often stared at these holes. When he’d look at the pits that were left after he removed trees, he’d imagine throwing into them all of the senseless anger that flared up within him. Then the anger would fade, he said, his gaze slightly downcast. Sumin’s most striking memory from that day in the forest was his profile as he said this.

After they were married, Sumin encountered this look many times. At first, she thought that he was pondering something. He was absorbed in thought, keeping one ear cocked, and if given enough time he would arrive at an answer on his own. It wasn’t until they started to talk about divorce that she realized it was just his characteristic way of defending himself in a crisis. He just pretended to be listening carefully or thinking when he really was just biding his time. He’d probably been doing this for a while. When his mother suddenly died of a stroke right after he finished his military service, and he gave up on going to graduate school as a result; when he interned at his first landscape architectural firm and had to work nonstop on CAD design projects while his manager tapped him on the back of the head with a ruler; when his father became obsessed with family after his mother died and forced him to sit with his older brother at the meal table every Sunday afternoon even after he was married; when he had to endure his father’s complaints about Sumin, who didn’t attend church, bear children, or even call to say hellothen he would adopt this posture, pretending to be listening, while he was perhaps imagining the round hole left by an uprooted tree. He would cast his anger into it until he eventually became the hole himself. But Sumin had no way of knowing this and she just gazed at the circle of light, like a miracle, in the dense forest.


Translated by Kari Schenk


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