To the Warm Horizon
- onMarch 25, 2021
- Vol.51 Spring 2021
- byChoi Jin-young
- To the Warm Horizon
Tr. Soje 2021
In the city, we moved only by night. We crouched around its darkest corners. The buildings were dark, the streets dirty. So much sewage, so many corpses with missing eyeballs or exposed intestines. Humans hunted dogs and cats for food; dogs and cats preyed on human corpses. There will come a day when humans eat humans. Someone’s probably at it already. Spring needed to come quickly. Rivers and fields needed to thaw. Humans may try to push one another into the pit of hell, but nature can slow the process.
Sometimes I heard the hoarse voice of someone wailing or the lament of someone gone mad. People wandered the streets like ghosts. I wanted to find a map and a dictionary and get out of the city as soon as possible. We got lost inside a deserted building and found an already looted supermarket. We painstakingly combed through it. Joy found a box of cereal and a box of biscuits that’d fallen behind the display shelf. Overjoyed, we cheered silently. We also found a bunch of broken candles. But no shoes.
Many buildings had been torched. They actually seemed safer than intact buildings. To get out of the wind, we entered a building blackened with soot. We saw firelight not far in. I heard people, too. I grabbed Joy’s hand, snuck back out, and sprinted without looking back. They could’ve been nice people. We could’ve helped each other. Or not—that was more likely.
After trudging awhile, we found ourselves before a high-rise building. It looked at least thirty stories tall. Joy grabbed my hand. Too big and scary, she said. We found a small building in an alley, in a row of similarly sized buildings. I asked Joy if this was okay. She nodded. We hid in the building farthest down the alley. I briefly considered starting a fire but gave up that idea. We ate cold canned food and waited for daybreak. I fell asleep sitting upright, watching the space slowly fill with light.
At last, we found a bookstore. It was relatively unscathed, but we still couldn’t find a dictionary. Neither a Russian-Korean nor a Russian-English dictionary. Not even a Russian-Japanese one. I couldn’t recognize the other languages. We didn’t find a map, either. Joy picked out a picture book. It was a small, thin book with illustrations and no text. Near the entrance, there was a magazine section with stiff copies scattered about. My eyes gravitated to a photo of a woman with red hair wearing a black cape coat. Only then did I grow curious. Why was Jina’s hair red? I felt the familiar ache that faintly spread throughout my body every time I saw Jina. Her beauty had felt otherworldly from the moment I saw her, but she’d talked to me. She’d held my hand first. That sensation will linger, torturing me for the rest of my life. It will make me miss her. It will make me pitiful, the rest of my life dull.
Joy liked the bookstore. We hid there for a day.
We scoured the city for several more days but didn’t find a map or a dictionary. I didn’t feel that sad or desperate. It occurred to me that I could make a wrong decision even if I did have a map I could read. What would change by knowing where I was and what would appear whichever way I went? Would I come up with a destination? Wouldn’t it be more confusing? Wouldn’t I worry and hesitate? If the place I wanted to go, the place I wanted to avoid, and the easy path were all set, then I’d probably end up doing whatever everyone else was. If I knew about a walkable path, then I’d only chase after that. My mind was limited to basic information. West was Europe, south was Kazakhstan, south of that was the Middle East, crossing the Red Sea would lead to Africa. That was it. It seemed like enough information, and I actually didn’t want to know more. I wanted to stay and put things off. I wanted to quietly hide somewhere and hibernate like a squirrel.
—Let’s go find a library.
I readily accepted Joy’s suggestion,
—Is it too hard to walk? Are you in pain?
—I’m feeling low energy, but it’s fine. I can walk.
I flashed a slow smile. Darkness descended on her face. Joy replied,
—Let’s take it easy today and look for a library tomorrow. You need to sleep.
Joy’s hand gripped mine tight. I followed wherever she took me. Just past an old cathedral tucked between low-rise buildings, we hid in a small house buried in shade. I couldn’t bear the chill penetrating my body, so I made a fire. I felt the cold even more intensely as my body relaxed. The frozen pain thawed and coursed through my entire body like blood. Every breath burned. Like there was shattered glass in my lungs and heart. My hands and feet and lips trembled so much that I couldn’t even take a proper sip of water.
I slept without a single dream.
When I opened my eyes, Joy was massaging my hand.
—How long did I sleep?
She was crying. I extended my hand to wipe her tears. Joy’s face felt so warm and my hand so much colder that I wondered if I’d maybe died. Was I touching Joy, having died without realizing it? I wasn’t scared by these thoughts entering my mind. I was just relieved to see Joy safe and sound.
—Why are you crying, Joy? Did I sleep for too long?
I asked again. If Joy replies, then I must still be alive. Wiping her tears, she held out two fingers.
She shook her head furiously, her shoulders shuddering.
—Two days. Two days without opening your eyes.
Joy must’ve placed her hand on my heart hundreds of times. I have to get up. I have to show her that her big sister’s doing just fine, that her heart is still beating. I pushed myself off the floor and straightened my back. The picture book from the bookstore lay open on the floor. Its blank pages were now filled with Joy’s handwriting.
I don’t leave my big sister on her own.
My big sister doesn’t leave me on my own.
When she wakes up, I’ll make a promise.
I’ll promise to love her.
Joy will remember me. She’s strong, and she’ll keep growing. She’ll become a respectable adult. I’ll grow younger and younger in her memory. One day she’ll realize, I’d thought Dori was an adult back then, but she was barely in her early twenties. She’d been young, too. We need to live through each and every day in order for such a day to come. We can’t skip over time.
We slipped out of the small house around sunset. Because my body hadn’t recovered, I struggled to walk for long periods of time. It’d take quite a while to leave this city. I was definitely ill, and although I wouldn’t die right away, I was growing weaker. One day I’d become a burden to Joy. Where did I have to go to meet Jina? We parted without making a single promise. I’ll wait for you, let’s meet again, I’ll come back . . . We didn’t even get to say goodbye. Did we meet on this cold land just to become passersby? Was that why we’d shared ourselves with each other and fallen in love at first sight? Should I have not run away like that? Joy stopped in her steps and dragged me into a building. I followed helplessly. Joy signed,
—There’s a person over there. Just standing there, watching us.
We peeked outside. The sun had set, but it wasn’t completely dark yet. A blue dawn-like light still remained. Someone was at the building entrance across the street, at our ten o’clock, looking at the place we were just at. I took out the gun. I’d never once shot a gun. I didn’t want to shoot one in the future either. I didn’t want to kill any more people.
The wind blew, scattering trash. It was silent and dark. The person didn’t even try to hide herself and just blankly stared at the ground where we had stood. As if gazing into an untouchable past. A small child popped out of the building and clung onto her arm. Only then did I recognize her. I held Joy’s hand and headed out to the street. I heard the faint sound of someone crying from afar. No, was it the wind? The notes were sustained plaintively like a clear, high-pitched aria.
—Do you remember them? I added,
—They gave us candy.
Only then did Joy nod her head. The woman’s husband also walked out. The woman slowly waved at us. Our first time receiving a greeting like that on Russian soil. With the road between us, we watched each other pass by.
We could meet like this.
We can meet like this.
If she’s alive. As long as she’s alive.
A river appeared after we trudged awhile. We’d followed one to the city, and here we were before a river again. Back to the starting line, I thought. It was so dark that we couldn’t see the other side. I signed to Joy,
—Let’s decide in the morning whether to cross.
We entered another low-rise building and made a small fire. Joy fell asleep in no time. I didn’t want to think about anything. I was tired. Yet my thoughts kept rushing towards death. No matter how hard I tried, I still only thought about death. I sang to block out the thoughts. I sang as softly as I breathed, then closed my mouth. I heard something in the distance. I strained my ears. I couldn’t tell what it was. It sounded somewhat like thunder and trains and the earth splitting. It was a very heavy sound. I stared at Joy sleeping as I focused on the sound. Was I losing my mind? I looked out the window, but found only darkness. I stopped myself from killing the fire and waking Joy. It may be more dangerous to go outside right now. I have to go find the woman in the morning. I have to ask her if she heard the same sound. I have to check, through her, whether I’ve lost my mind. In case something bad happens to me, I have to ask her to look after Joy. I have to hold onto these passing acquaintances. Staring down the darkness with a revolver in my hand, I waited for the day to break.
They kept carting people over. They killed them as easily as they brought them. A trench was built around the city. Father told me he was going to the border and never showed up again. Some nights I wasn’t dragged to the apartment. I couldn’t say I was lucky. What luck? On my way back to the shipping container after work, I was ordered to get on a truck. People were boarded onto dozens of trucks and driven a few hours northeast. Passing mountains, a river, and fields, we occasionally spotted villages comprised of small wooden houses and vegetable gardens. The trucks reached the entrance of a city well into the night. On a field blanketed with pure white snow stood a concrete building, and a row of tall leafless trees separated the building from the road. Armed men herded everyone from the trucks into a red cathedral. We were going to build an encampment here, they said. Trucks and tanks loaded with equipment arrived overnight.
Work began as soon as the sun came up. We collected all the corpses lying around the streets and buildings, and burned them with the trash. Our work was concentrated on the eastern outskirts of the city and around a large river to the west. We carried dirt, stones, and trees from a low forest and dug trenches. We filled sunken asphalt and repaired the city. The electricity was promptly restored. There were fewer soldiers compared to the last city we were in, which meant the surveillance wasn’t as meticulous. In the evening, strangers entered the cathedral. They’d been captured from the road earlier that day. There was a Korean person among them. She had a child with her. She said her husband had been taken somewhere, but she didn’t know where. I told her what I’d been through. The woman told me what she’d heard from a pack of people she’d met on the road: their warnings and laments, their songs. Being able to talk with her, that alone gave me a lot of strength. The child cried for his dad. I was scared that the soldiers might kill the crying child.
—Your dad is here somewhere. You’ll see him again someday, but only if you don’t cry. Let’s wait a little. Let’s try holding in our tears just until we’ve slowly, silently counted to a hundred.
Dori had taught me that strategy. To wait just until I’d slowly, silently counted to a hundred.
Starting the next day, I never left the woman’s side. She never expressed her pain or confusion. She worked in silence and ate what she was given. I have to find my husband, she’d said in a resolute voice. And so she had to survive this now. On the fifth night, the woman mentioned a pair of sisters. She’d initially met them near Baykal and saw them again in this very city not too long ago. She never thought she’d see them again on this vast land, but they’d walked towards her at sunset, like an illusion. The way they walked hand in hand was just magical, as pure and poignant as a fairytale that ends with a happily ever after. Simply watching them from afar had consoled her. They could’ve been captured and brought here, too, but since she hadn’t seen them around, it must’ve meant that they managed to escape to safety . . .
The cathedral doors opened, cutting the woman off mid-sentence. New captives walked in.
Among them was Dori.
Choi Jin-young (b. 1981) was born on a snowy day in Seoul and moved around often during her childhood. She made her literary debut in 2006 by winning the Silcheon Munhak New Writer’s Award and has since won various awards, including the 2010 Hankyoreh Literary Award, the 2014 Shin Dong-yup Literary Prize, the 2020 Baek Shin-ae Literature Award, and the 2020 Manhae Prize for Literature. She has authored the novels The Name of the Girl Who Brushed Past You Is . . ., The Never-Ending Song, Why Did I Not Die, The Proof of Ku, To the Warm Horizon, and Dear Yi Jeya; the novella A Dream of Becoming Me; and the short-story collections A Spinning Top and Winter Break. The English translation of To the Warm Horizon is forthcoming from Honford Star in May, 2021.