Stars Shine in Earth’s Sky
- onOctober 5, 2021
- Vol.53 Autumn 2021
- byKim Bo-young
- On the Origin of Species and Other Stories
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell & Joungmin Lee Comfort 2021
I received your letter with much joy. Forgive me for not having replied sooner.
You don’t need to be so concerned about my health. Though I understand why you are worried, I have no desire to start treatment. What chance of cure it promises is of no consequence to me. It’s not the potential risks or side effects that bother me. My condition is simply a part of me, and I am not at all inclined to tinker with it at this point. Please do not take seriously what our mother and father have been saying. They’ve always talked about me as if l were cursed with a terminal illness. Even my thirty-year survival thus far has not succeeded in persuading them to relax and give up this belief. If anything, each additional birthday of mine seems to have further solidified their conviction that my good luck is drawing to an end and that this might be the year that I meet my doom.
Photograph by An Woong Chul
It’s true that people afflicted as I am often don’t live very long. It’s also true that I fatigue more easily than others, that my nerves are quick to fray, often diminishing my mental acuity. And yet as long as I stick to my routine of going unconscious from time to time, none of these issues bother me. The only tricky part for me is syncing my daily rhythm to those around me.
Following my move to this island, I’ve built myself a box very much like the one I used in the dormitory. It’s made of wood and stands two meters high and nearly ten meters wide, and boasts a viewing slot and a breathing hole. When the proper hour comes, I climb in and latch the door from the inside. This box keeps me safe while I am unconscious and prevents me from being disturbed by others.
Fortunately, people here seem to regard my ritual as just another eccentricity of someone who has studied too much. They probably think I’m meditating inside. I’d be curious to see the looks on their faces if they were ever to learn that, once inside the box, I plummet into a state of total oblivion for a minimum of five to six hours. I don’t bother to inform them of my condition, however, as some might believe it to be contagious. Of course, it is not. One in every thousand babies is said to be born with it. If you include children who have only mild symptoms and those who’ve suffered without knowing what afflicts them, the number would be much higher.
Each time I lose consciousness, our parents worry that I’ll never come to again. They used to prod me into alertness, but I’d soon faint again, and they would have to shake me until I recovered. We’d repeat this performance over and over again. Their fear was much stronger when I was younger, but trying to prevent me from one of these spells only seemed to contribute to their frequency.
Before you were born, I was a frail, sickly child who could barely sit or stand properly. My brain always felt shrouded by a thick fog, making it impossible to think clearly. I had frequent hallucinations, and my nerves were so frayed that I couldn’t tell the difference between what was real and what was imagined.
My “controlled fainting” ritual was inspired by a housekeeper who briefly stayed with us. Though uneducated, she was very wise. Having suffered from asthma since childhood, she knew the trick to living with an illness. She advised me to stop fighting it. She said that having an illness is like having a friend with a bad temper. Then she offered to help me find a way to get along with mine. Had it not been for her, I would’ve died young, like so many others with my condition. Even if l had somehow managed to stumble along in the manner I did before she taught me otherwise, it’s unlikely that I would have been able to maintain a sound body and mind.
What she did was simply allow me go unconscious. During the six or eight hours that I was in that state, she did not try to rouse me.
When our parents found out about this, they were so furious and distraught that they almost reported her for child abuse. But in the weeks that followed, my health and appetite improved. I grew strong enough to play outside on my own, and I even learned how to control the times when such spells would take place. That was when I finally realized that nothing was wrong with me.
Our parents still find it difficult to accept that I faint regularly, almost as if on schedule. They feel shame each time I go into my box. They try to insist that I not give up, that I can get better. That’s why I left home and found a place of my own. I only hope that you will know that my love for them and for you has never diminished.
I have recommended my method to others with my condition, but it’s never easy to get the parents on board. Most are shocked by the idea of letting their children stay unconscious. And yet those who do subscribe to my method have written to tell me all about the improved health of their children. I suspect that parents who claim to see no improvement are unable to trust the method wholeheartedly and tend to prematurely rouse their children from unconsciousness. Few are those who can stand on the sidelines and simply watch their kids lie seemingly lifeless for hours.
Some of the books I’ve consulted suggest that those with my condition have lower IQs. That’s nonsense. Shouldn’t a person who has lived with this condition her whole life know more about it than so-called experts who have only studied it for a few years? Symptoms are only a problem for those afflicted who resist the condition. That is to say, people with my condition need to lose consciousness, and yet treatment is always focused on preventing that from happening.
One book even asserts that people like me exhibit symptoms of schizophrenia, I assume because of the often bizarre hallucinations we experience during our spells. I do not yet have an explanation for these occasional hallucinations, but unlike with schizophrenia, they never appear while I am not unconscious, and moreover, they have never caused harm to me or anyone else.
All this is probably new to you, as I’ve never talked to you about it before. Our parents didn’t want me to. Their preference has always been that I show only the side of me that is normal and more or less in step with others. All these years, they took pains to keep you from seeing me unconscious. They thought that this would be better for you. And in a way, they may have been right.
In the end, however, I insist upon my right to be the master of my own circumstances rather than be mastered by them. Perhaps you take it for granted that you live in a world populated by people who are like you. But that very same world appears completely different to people like me. For us, there are no teachers and no students, no colleagues, nowhere to call our own. We must spend our lives teaching ourselves, studying alone, and working to craft a system and an environment to accommodate our needs—all the while fending off those who never tire of saying, “You can beat this.” It is a demanding task. You have no idea how many innocent children have run them selves ragged both in body and mind while fighting a losing battle against this condition.
From where I stand, “beating” what we have looks a lot like turning ourselves into someone we’re not. Not that this matters to those who aren’t like us, since it doesn’t mean losing one of their own. But for me, it would mean abandoning myself. Throwing away everything that is truly me.
[. . .]
Stars shine in Earth’s sky.
What I think the Earthlings meant to point out in that sentence was not so much the stars as the darkness. I also believe that the message was a reply. As in, there had already been communication between us a long, long time ago, and Earthlings knew that our sky was always bright. Can you think of a more sensible response addressed to a planet with an eternally luminous sky?
I’m sitting outside my wooden box and looking up at the sky as I write to you. It shines as brilliantly as ever. There isn’t a single gap in the light, every inch is gilded and studded with jewels. No question it’s beautiful to behold.
But I imagine that Earth’s sky possesses a beauty different from ours. A lone star hangs in their sky by day. It is so close and so colossal that it swallows the light of all the other stars. The light shining down on the planet would change with each hour. Depending on the height of that star, the temperature and landscape would vary, too. Earthlings wouldn’t dare call that star “Star.” They would give it the greatest name known to them.
Their satellite wouldn’t be hidden in the light like ours is. They wouldn’t have to determine its whereabouts in the sky by calculating tidal forces, orbital shifts, or axial precession. When darkness comes, their satellite would hang alone in the sky. They would only have to look up to see it. They would know the shadows on its surface as well as they know the backs of their own hands.
Both satellite and star would be named for deities. They would pray to the satellite, they would sing and dance in its soft light. And when the time came for them to turn their gaze to outer space, the satellite would be their first stop. After setting foot on that tiny, airless, lifeless, empty rock, they would gather its precious dust in their cupped, spellbound hands.
And they would see stars.
They’d count them one by one, pointing at each with an out-stretched finger. They’d know each star’s color, size, and brightness. Everyday people, not just astronomers, would be compelled to name the stars. They’d remember the stars’ positions and connect them to draw pictures. They’d gaze up at those pictures and give them all stories. On Earth, each star would be named after a god. There’d be as many gods as there are stars.
Every time my unconscious spell approaches, I think of Earth. A world that alternates regularly between light and dark. A world where warmth and cold, activity and rest, change places every day.
Perhaps you’ve already guessed it. If there’s only one star that lights the Earth, and if Earth rotates once daily, then darkness comes every clay. Much like the entrance to the cave that I discovered. The star’s light varies in intensity with each hour. It’s a place where light and dark coexist.
It’s my belief that most creatures on that planet have the same condition I do. Some of them may be active while it’s light out, and others may be active after dark. Having adapted to one of the two phases, however, they’d pause all their activities for the duration of the other phase.
I sometimes wonder whether our ancestors could have hailed from a place such as Earth. If, indeed, there was communication between the two planets in the ancient past, it is not outside the realm of possibility that some of our ancestors might have migrated here from the outskirts of the galaxy. And if they lived in periodic darkness, then they might also have had a condition like mine and like the creatures in this cave. By this logic, I could have inherited my condition, a natural adaptation to the environment from which they originally came, from them.
How wonderfully bizarre . . . Imagine! When darkness falls, Earthlings casually retreat to their private quarters to enjoy a period of unconsciousness. No one ridicules this habit. No one grips a person by the shoulder and tells them, “You can beat this.” No parents weep as they tried to shake their child back to consciousness. No child has to live in shame because of a condition they can’t overcome. No one even thinks of any of this as an affliction that needs to be cured. When the dark phase begins, and stars appear in the sky, Earthlings tell each other, “Go unconscious well.” And when the sky turns light again, they ask each other if they’d gone unconscious well. They rest happily without being disturbed, as if what they were doing was perfectly natural. “Rest” is a term I’ve begun using; I felt it was time we found a more positive way to express this state.
I know that you care deeply about me. I’m a native of this planet, so it’s not as if I don’t yearn to be like everyone else. But at the same time, I simply do not see my condition as being a problem.
It’s getting late. I, too, must rest like an Earthling. If, one day, you find yourself ready to accept my ideas, I hope that you will greet me by saying, “Rest well.”
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell & Joungmin Lee Comfort