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FICTION

To the Warm Horizon

  • onMarch 25, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byChoi Jin Young
To the Warm Horizon
Tr. So J. Lee
2017
208pp.

Jina set her own silverware, washed it with the snow from the plains, and dried it clean after every meal. She dusted and folded the blankets every day, and always combed her hair before putting on her knit hat. She never shoveled or poured food in her mouth, not even to eat a can’s worth. She plated it neatly and sat properly as she chewed and swallowed slowly. She heated up and cooled off her food before eating. She put beans in a bowl and ate them one by one as if to confirm, Ah, this must be a bean. Even as she bit into a single roasted potato with her back turned to the wind, Jina’s meals reminded me of a leisurely weekend supper. She was born with such nonchalance. It was a peculiar nonchalance. She’d retain her sense of dignity even if she were to descend into hell itself. She may be more distressed now for that reason—if she couldn’t keep these routines, she’d be better off dying hundreds of times in hell. Meanwhile, I rushed myself. I hid in the corner to not let anyone else see me eat. If I could not heat something up, I just ate it. To eat as quickly as possible and not leave a trace. To erase hunger momentarily. That was the only reason why I ever ate. Jina thought of another reason.

I might have to live like this for the rest of my life. This might be my last meal. I don’t know. So I want to enjoy it properly, even if it’s just a potato. If every day is precious, and if every meal is precious, I want to treat precious things preciously.

That may be Jina’s hope. Hope beyond that of crossing the border or finding a bunker. The mindset to live well in the now instead of recalling the past and being miserable or anticipating things to get better and forcing hope on oneself.

What misfortune wants is for me to mistreat myself. To look down on myself and destroy myself. I’ll never come to resemble this disaster. I won’t live as the disaster wants me to live.

I wanted to resemble Jina.

I tried to eat and drink and walk like her. I tried to not rush myself, to see and feel and think slowly about what was in front of me. But I wasn’t Jina. Jina was unique; we were different. Though I could mimic the way she plated her beans before eating them, I could not imitate her mind. I was gradually coming to resemble the disaster. I feared that Jina would notice.

 

Yeah, I had to assume that everything had reached its worst-case scenario. The absolute worst was a world without Miso. But that world hasn’t appeared yet. The biggest misfortune was always a step away from me, and all I could do was keep a constant eye on it. Then I’d sometimes think hard to myself, Why am I keeping an eye on it? It’s like chanting a spell that summons misfortune, like I’m trying to get used to it or something. But it’s all too near, despite my attempts not to look. Every day I see corpses and ruins. What’s as frightening as the thought that I’ll one day become part of this hellscape is the hunch that I may live on, having to see such things for the rest of my life. I’m scared that I’ll grow indifferent, and scared that I won’t. Though surviving day after day is, in fact, miraculous, I don’t think miracles exist anywhere. There are no miracles. If miracles really do exist, they’ve lost their chance to appear. Too many people have died already. Let’s say that a few survive in the end. Could they call that a miracle?

But Jina kept throwing a wrench in the works. She made me think differently. She showed me that I could laugh and be happy, even in a situation like this. If someone gave me a tube of lipstick, could I react as happily as Jina did? If not lipstick, what could make me that happy? I couldn’t think of anything. Even if my parents were to come back to life right this minute, I wouldn’t be able to smile. Or cry. Even if they held my hands and called my name, I’d deny it all, calling it an illusion. Why wouldn’t it be? What I found precious, what I loved, what I must cherish and keep safe, what I missed—I feared all of those things. Having Miso was enough. But I always looked for Jina. Then, when our eyes met, I’d look away. As I secretly mimicked her way of speaking and remembered her laugh in the dead of night, I tormented myself. I couldn’t get close to Jina because she was like a painkiller, making me forget reality. Next to Jina, I often forgot about Miso. I accidentally let go of Miso’s hand on several occasions, and only turned around after the fact. Whenever that happened, I disliked Jina for no good reason. I disliked myself for disliking her. Dislike! On the road, there’s no reason to dislike someone. You only need to hate or fear. I was like that before I developed another emotion. Jina gazed at me with such clear eyes when I called her name. Whenever I saw her eyes, I wondered about mine. How do I look at you? What kind of look could it be, that you see me and smile?

—Jina.

Jina turned to me. I held out a card I picked up from around the last village. A small card with a red Christmas tree illustration. Inside, there was a short message in Russian that I couldn’t decipher. When I spotted that card in a scattered pile of trash, I’d been shaken. I felt nauseated, like I was carsick. I recalled the greetings I used to exchange during the spirited holiday season . . . I flipped through the diary pages I filled that year, and before I knew it, it’d be dawn in no time. I hung around stationery stores to buy myself a new diary. Surrounded by white and yellow fairy lights, and carols. Countlessly hearing “Merry Christmas!” and “Happy New Year!” as I walked down the street alone. I rolled those phrases around in my mouth. What’s the date today? Has the new year already begun? There’s no longer any meaning in such things. We were walking in the heart of winter. Here, no one ages, and time does not pass in increments of days and years. I wouldn’t be surprised even if spring were to arrive and suddenly turn into summer, and I were to look at a clear lake and see an old hag in my reflection. Looking at the handwritten Russian on the card, I recalled the merry Christmases and happy new years that I had to now forget. Jina wouldn’t be like this. She’d spend precious days preciously.

Jina laughed as Jina does, and accepted the card.

Thinking that I’d like to laugh like Jina, I found myself kissing her. It was cold and warm. Rough and soft. Surprised by our kiss, frostbite and hunger and misfortune and disaster all hid away.

My lips, too, smelled of roses.

 

After following up the river, we reached a small village. Like all the other villages we’d seen thus far, every vegetable garden had a small house stuck to it like a growth. There were vacant houses, and houses with people living inside. The villagers were wearing clean clothes. They looked healthy. They kept an appropriate distance from us, but didn’t try to drive us out. They seemed to wish that we quietly pass through. We decided to park the trucks in the vegetable garden at the edge of the village and rest for a night. Water trickled out when we turned the tap. Jina said she was happy to sleep in a place worthy of being called a house for the first time in a while. The others didn’t want to sleep indoors. They kept their guards up, saying the villagers could turn at any moment and rob us. The men did not let go of their guns, even as they started a fire and heated up food.

As soon as we stepped into the house, Jina held her knapsack upside down and shook its contents out. All sorts of junk poured out like scampering children. The things that Jina brought from Korea and the things we scavenged from the road were all tangled up together, forming a modest mound. I was startled to see a thin book alongside a pair of earphones. It felt like looking at inventions from the future. Jina had thought to pack a book and earphones while not only leaving home, but also fleeing from a disaster emergency. Seeing those earphones, I wanted to listen to music.

I missed listening to music.

Seeing a ballpoint pen, I wanted to write. I wanted to scribble, to write a letter.

Seeing that book, I wanted to read sentences. I wanted to melt down the sentences one by one in my mouth and swallow them. After petting the smooth cover and gazing at the title for a long time, I opened up the thin book to a random page. I held it up to the fire and read:

 

They died alone, far from their country, and far from war.

 

I put the book down.

The sentence came at me like a blade. One by one, the words rolled down and crashed like giant boulders before my eyes. Though it was a short line, I couldn’t swallow its meaning.

—Wanna read it? I really like that book.

I felt even more inclined to read it since Jina liked it—but considering how much a single sentence could shock me . . . I didn’t think I could read the whole thing. I slowly shook my head.

—Try it. I’ll give it to you as a present. A Christmas present. You gave me one.

With a playful chuckle, Jina placed the book inside my overcoat. I adjusted my coat as I recalled the sentence I’d just read. The words turned into sharp rocks that rolled painfully inside my head.

—But today’s not Christmas.

Gunji mumbled.

—Everyone has a Christmas of their own. If you don’t have one, you should make one, too.

Jina suddenly grabbed a plastic pouch from the pile she was digging through. It was a travel toiletry set, an object as astounding as the earphones had been.

—Let’s take a bath. And you should shave a little.

Jina held out a disposable razor to Gunji.

—I can give you a haircut as well, if you want.

Running his fingers through his hair, Gunji feigned a look of disgust.

—Don’t I look kinda like Won Bin with my hair grown out?

I was surprised again. Won Bin, he said. What an incredible thing to say. A name I hadn’t thought about even once since the disaster. Gunji made a habit of combing his hair in the side mirror. Had he been thinking about Won Bin all along?

—Sometimes like Kang Dong-won.

Gunji kept saying these incredible things. Jina didn’t even pretend to listen. Miso stared only at his lips. Inside this decently intact house—sitting between Jina and Gunji, who held their heads high even when met with misfortune and despair—I became childish for the first time in a while. I poked fun at Gunji and shared childhood stories ever so childishly. Even without dreaming, I laughed.

 

We lit a candle and put a glass cover over it, lighting up the bathroom. After filling the bathtub with water we boiled outside, Jina, Miso, and I undressed side by side. Bodies so scrawny that our bones looked like they’d protrude at any minute. Movements cast a shadow between each and every bone. Jina and I bathed Miso first with the warm water. We washed her body and hair with soap.

—You’re so thin, I don’t know where to touch.

Jina muttered, wiping Miso’s back.

We were all like that. How nice it would be if we didn’t die from getting thinner, but simply grew small like dust? Then no one would be able to hurt us. Jina looked at me and commented on my skin. My body was milky white, but my face and hands were the color of dirt. I wanted to take a look at my whole body, but I could only see down to my collarbones in the bathroom mirror. My reflection, which I hadn’t seen in a while, felt unfamiliar and awkward. But splashing myself with warm water and simply being close to Jina made me feel free. We exchanged trivial words and burst into laughter as though we were cursed by a spell. Miso looked at me uneasily, probably finding her laughing sister unfamiliar. I tapped my chin with my right pinky finger.

—It’s fine.

I dried Miso’s wet body, and added:

—It’s because you’re pretty.

—Does this mean “fine”?

Jina tapped her chin with her pinky.

—Yeah.

—How about this?

—“Pretty.”

—Ah.

Jina put her index finger on Miso’s dimple and rotated it slightly. I clothed Miso in her long johns and let her out first; only the two of us remained. Jina’s hair looked even redder when wet. White steam bloomed from our bodies soaked in warm water. I pulled her toward me and stood in front of the mirror together. I was more used to Jina’s face than my own. I could look at her with ease. Gazing at her reflection, I stroked her hair. She was warm. Her earlobes were soft, and the curve of her neck was like that of a violin. I traced my fingers against her skin as if stroking violin strings, before slightly rotating my index finger on her cheek. Suddenly I remembered Dad’s last moment. I remembered the people who’d died. I remembered the man whose neck I’d sliced with my jackknife. I was reminded of the blood that gushed forth—of the night I spent in the forest, covered in that blood, erasing the memory with blood-stiffened clothes and cold eyes. All at once I remembered the blows that had fallen like hail and the languages I couldn’t understand. I almost considered myself lucky. To be alive like this. Had the world remained as before, could I have met Jina? Noticing my frozen expression, Jina hugged me tight. She patted me gently on the back and stroked my head. She tapped my chin a couple of times with her pinky. That gesture, meaning “fine,” became a knock at the door, and we kissed as though we were magnetically drawn to each other. It felt like all the spite inside my body was melting away into a clear liquid. Jina led me to the bathtub. In the warm water, I leaned against Jina and found her lips again and again. I found her soft breasts, the bridge of her nose, her eyelashes.

We’re starting here, and now.

I remembered Jina’s words that’d been hidden in the shade. You only live once, and there’s no such thing as “what if.” The world is coming to an end, but we found each other. So it’s fine. It’d even be fine to consider ourselves lucky in this moment.

Gunji urgently knocked at the door.

Nuna. When are you coming out? I want to wash up, too.

I want to live each day as though it were a lifetime. I want to become Jina. If I can’t, I’d rather leave her side. I want to stop feeling the differences between us. Fearing separation, we embraced to become one, as if to pull out our hearts and show them to each other, as if to check what this was before naming it. As though sharing each other in this way was our only hope brushing past us.

(Excerpt from pp. 54-65.)

Translated by So J. Lee
 
For publication inquiries, contact: koreanlitnow@klti.or.kr

 

Author's Profile

Choi Jin Young (b. 1981) made her literary debut when she won the Silcheon Munhak (Literature of Practice). New Writer’s Award in 2006. She is the author of two novels, The Name of the Girl Who Brushed Against You Is… and Unfinished Song, and the short story collection, The Top.