The old man must have been in high spirits, because he filled Reseng’s cup with whiskey until it was nearly overflowing then filled his own and raised a toast. They downed their cups in one gulp. The old man picked up the skewer and fished a couple of potatoes from the hot ashes. After taking a bite of one, he pronounced it delicious and gave the other to Reseng. Reseng brushed off the ashes and took a bite. “That is delicious,” he said.
“There’s nothing better than a roasted potato on a cold, winter’s day.”
“Potatoes always remind me of someone...” His face reddened by the alcohol and the glow of the fire, Reseng caught himself as he started to babble.
“I’m guessing this story doesn’t have a happy ending,” the old man said.
“Is that someone alive or dead?”
“Long dead. I was in Africa at the time when we got this emergency alert in the middle of the night. We jumped in a truck and headed over. It turned out that a rebel soldier who’d escaped camp had taken an old woman hostage. He was just a kid—still had his baby fat. Must’ve been fifteen, maybe fourteen? From what I saw, he was worked up and scared out of his wits, but not an actual threat. The old woman kept repeating something to him. Meanwhile, he was pointing an AK-47 at her head with one hand and cramming a potato into his mouth with the other. We all knew he wasn’t going to do anything. But just then the order came over the walkie-talkie to take him out. Someone pulled the trigger. We ran over to take a closer look. Half of the kid’s head was blown away, and in his mouth was the mashed up potato that he never got the chance to swallow.”
“Oh my, he must’ve been starving.”
“It felt so strange to look into the mouth of an African boy with half his head missing. What would’ve happened if we’d waited just ten more seconds? All I could think was, if we had waited, he would’ve gotten to swallow the potato before he died.”
“Not like anything would’ve changed for that poor boy if he had swallowed it.”
“No, of course not. But it still felt weird to think about that chewed up potato in his mouth.” Reseng’s voice wavered.
The old man finished the rest of his whiskey and poked around in the ashes with the skewer to see if there were any more potatoes. He found one in the corner and offered it to Reseng, who gazed blankly at it and politely declined. The old man looked at the potato; his face darkened and he tossed it back into the ashes.
“I’ve got another bottle of whiskey. What do you say?” the old man asked.
Reseng thought about it for a moment and said, “Your call.”
The old man brought the other bottle from the kitchen and poured some for him. They sipped in silence as they watched the flames dance in the fireplace. As Reseng grew tipsy, a feeling of profound unreality washed over him. The old man’s eyes never left the fire.
“Fire is so beautiful,” Reseng said.
“Ash is more beautiful once you get to know it.”
The old man slowly twirled his cup as he gazed into the flames. He smiled then, as if recalling something funny.
“My grandfather was a whaleman. That was long before they outlawed whaling. He didn’t grow up anywhere near the ocean—he was actually from inland Hamgyeong Province—but he went down south to Jangsaeng Harbor for work and ended up becoming the best harpooner in the country. This one time, he got dragged under by a sperm whale. Really deep under. What happened was, he threw the harpoon into the whale’s back, but the rope tangled around his foot and pulled him overboard. Those flimsy colonial-era whaling boats and shoddy harpoons were just no match for an animal that big. A male sperm whale can grow up to eighteen meters long and weigh up to sixty tons. Think about it. That’s like fifteen adult African elephants. I don’t care if it were just a balloon animal—I would never want to mess with anything that big. No way, no how. But not my grandfather. He chucked his harpoon right into that giant whale’s back.”
“What happened next?” Reseng asked.
“Utter havoc, of course. He said the shock of falling off the bow made him woozy, and he couldn’t tell if he was dreaming or hallucinating. Meanwhile, he was being dragged helplessly into the deep dark depths of the ocean by a very, very angry whale. He said the first thing he saw when he finally snapped out of his daze was a blue light coming off of the sperm whale’s fins. He forgot all about being underwater and just stared at that light. When he told me the story, he kept going on about how mysterious and tranquil and beautiful it was—an eighteen-meter-long behemoth coursing through the pitch-black ocean with glowing blue fins. I tried to break it to him gently—he was practically in tears just thinking about it—that since whales are not bioluminescent, there was no way its fins could have glowed like that. He threw his chamber pot at my head. Ha! What a hothead! He told the story to everyone he met. I told him they all thought he was lying because of the part about the fins. But all he said to that was, ‘Everything people say about whales is a lie. Because everything they say came from a book, but whales don’t live in books, they live in the ocean.’ Anyway, after the whale dragged him under, he passed out.”
The old man refilled his cup halfway and took a sip.
“He said that when he came to, there was a big ol’ full moon hanging in the night sky, and waves were lapping at his ear. He thought luck was on his side and the waves had pushed him up onto a reef. But it wasn’t a reef, it was the whale’s head. Crazy, right? There he was, lying crosswise on a whale, staring at a buoy, a growing pool of slick red blood, and the whale itself, propping him up out of the water with its head, that harpoon still sticking out of its back. Can you imagine anything weirder or more incomprehensible? I’ve heard of whales lifting an injured companion or a newborn calf out of the water so they can breathe. But this wasn’t a companion or a baby whale, or even a seal or a penguin, it was my grandfather, a human being, and the same guy who’d shoved a harpoon into its back! I honestly don’t get why the whale saved him.”
“No, it doesn’t make any sense,” Reseng said, taking a sip of whiskey. “You’d think that whale would have torn him apart and then some.”
“He just lay there on the whale’s head for a long time, even after he’d regained consciousness. It was an awkward situation to find himself in, to say the least. What can you do when you’re stuck on top of a whale? There was nothing else out there but the silvery moon, the dark waves, a sperm whale spilling buckets of blood, and one man up shit creek. My grandfather said the sight of all that blood in the moonlight made him feel guilty. And how could he not? He wanted to pull out the harpoon, but you know, easier said than done. Harpoons are like bad life decisions: so easy to cast, so impossible to take back. Since he couldn’t pull it out, he cut the line instead with the knife he kept on his belt. The moment he cut it, the whale dove away and resurfaced, then headed straight back to where he was clinging to the buoy and struggling to stay afloat. He said it watched as he flailed pathetically in shame, all tangled up in his own harpoon line. According to my grandfather, the beast...
Kim Un-su has written three novels and one short story collection. He won the Munhakdongne Novel Award in 2006. His books have been translated into French, Japanese, and Chinese. He was invited to the Saint-Louis Literary Festival and the French literary festival, “Meeting.”