God Has No Grandchildren
- onOctober 23, 2015
- Vol.29 Autumn 2015
- byKim Kyung-uk
- God Has No Grandchildren
Tr. Sunok Kang and Melissa Thomson 2015256pp.
The man took the girl to a restaurant where pork was cooked on charcoal grills set into the tables. He couldn’t remember the last time he had been to a restaurant. He ate nothing and just drank soju, while the girl just ate meat. The man took a handful of cold charcoal and put it in a plastic bag. He slipped the empty soju bottles into his backpack. Then he took the girl home and went off by himself to reconnoiter the area. To avoid attracting attention, he left his scooter at home. This was the first time that he had ventured inside the So-and-so Palace apartment complex.
There were two security checkpoints: one at the main entrance and the other at the back gate. The guards were all slouching at their desks, their heads slumped between their shoulders as if their only responsibility was to protect their own necks. There were two underground parking garages, but there was no security booth at the entrance to either one. The man went down into the parking garages. They felt like huge foxholes. The cold, dark air, the concrete columns standing at intervals, the security cameras in almost every corner of the ceiling. He checked the location and direction of all the cameras and made a note of them on a piece of paper. He also checked the location of two of his targets. One was parked in front of the apartment building, and the other was in the underground parking garage. The third hadn’t returned to its base yet.
Finally, judgment day dawned. That night, the man put the girl to sleep early. In fact, he didn’t have to do anything, as she was already sleepy, maybe it was the medicine that had put her to sleep. The man squatted on the kitchen floor and placed a funnel into the mouth of an empty soju bottle. He poured kerosene from a can. When he had filled one bottle the can was empty. He removed a saucepan from the kerosene stove and unscrewed the cap from the stove’s fuel tank. He picked up the stove, tilting it over the funnel. A mix of kerosene and dark red rust poured out. The man watched solemnly as the kerosene filled the remaining bottles. Lastly, he took off his undershirt, tore it into strips, and stuffed the rags into the necks of the bottles.
The man stood the four bottles in a row and brought a cigarette to his lips. He had made a note of the three license plate numbers. The fourth bottle was there in case he needed to create a distraction.
The man lit the cigarette using the welding torch his son had left in the corner of the kitchen. Blue flames danced in waves from the tip. He thought of it as a ceremonial torch in a pre-battle ritual. He dragged slowly on his cigarette. Continuing the ritual, he went inside and put on his old army uniform. It was loose. He pulled the belt tight and tucked the frayed hems of the pants into his socks. He put on his coat, grabbed his backpack, and went back out to the kitchen.
The man crushed the pieces of charcoal into a powder and put it into a metal bowl. He added a few drops of honey, stirred it with his hand, and smeared the mixture onto his face. Looking at himself in the girl’s hand mirror, he made sure every inch of his face was blackened. His reflection looked back at him like a warrior from the dark underworld in a Scandinavian folk tale. A warrior who possessed a dark magic that no human weapons could defeat. The man put on a helmet and a face mask too. They were what his son used to wear when he worked with the welding torch. Now he looked less like a warrior from the dark underworld and more like a survivor of a post-apocalyptic battle. The man stuffed the bottles into his backpack and swung it onto his shoulders. It was heavy, as heavy as a flamethrower.
At 3:00 a.m.—the darkest time of night—the man approached the So-and-so Palace apartment complex. He turned off the engine of his scooter. The night was so quiet it felt as if all the stars in the sky had turned off their lights. Standing beside his scooter, he urinated against a wall of the apartment complex—just as he would have done in the jungle. When they were about to go into action, all the troops would stand in a row facing the direction of the enemy and open their flies, following an order from the staff sergeant. He said they must all empty their bladders unless they wanted to get shot in the head pissing on the battlefield. They agreed that whoever pissed the farthest would march in front. The sergeant’s urine went the farthest. Every time.
Pushing his scooter, the man went into the apartment complex. The guard at the security post had dozed off at his desk. The man stopped near one of the apartment buildings and parked his scooter there before retracing his steps. To him, this was not just any building, it was the building where the boy who wanted to be a cosmetic surgeon lived. It was to be the location of his second operation.
The man stopped walking when he got to the building where the other two boys lived—the one who wanted to be a professional gamer and the one who wanted to be a backup dancer. One of his targets was not visible in the parking lot in front of the apartments. It was the target he had been unable to verify the previous evening. There were two possibilities. Either the target vehicle had not returned yet, or it was in the underground garage. The man turned and approached the entrance to the parking garage. Nobody stopped him. It wasn’t a matter of luck, or even Providence. It was ninety-nine percent laziness, and one percent total carelessness.
He ran rapidly and nimbly down the ramp into the garage. It seemed to him to be pitch dark, just like in a foxhole. The darkness fueled the dark flames of rage. The man switched on a flashlight. Focusing the beam on a piece of paper he took out of his pocket, he confirmed the location of the security cameras. He turned ninety degrees to his right and took ten swift, purposeful steps forward, pointing the flashlight at each car license plate, one by one. Then he stopped and turned to the right. Now he had his back to a security camera. He turned ninety degrees to his left and walked forward fifteen paces before stopping and turning to the left so that once again his back was to a security camera. The target he had been unable to verify during reconnaissance was nowhere to be seen. The man turned slightly to the left and took nine paces forward, then hid behind a concrete column.
Behind the column, the man took out a lighter and lit the rag in the neck of one bottle. He hurled the bottle at his first target, hitting the windshield. The glass shattered, and flames flared up. There was a sudden, loud honking. It was a car alarm. The man hadn’t accounted for this noise so nothing had been marked on the map to suggest it. He couldn’t fight an enemy that wasn’t on the map. He swung round and retreated swiftly towards the entrance. The bottles in his backpack clinked against one another. He was panting when he reached ground level. Taking off his mask, he caught his breath and moved towards his second target.
When he reached the building where the boy who wanted to be a cosmetic surgeon lived, the man looked around. Nothing was moving other than the breeze. He lit another bottle and threw it at the second target. The bottle exploded and flames burst out in concentric circles. The man looked around and then started to walk towards a car that had a strange sticker on its windshield. The sticker showed an image of a red-faced devil. Its mouth was open wide and it was baring its fangs. Below the picture of the devil there were some words in English—“Be the Reds!”1— but the man had no idea what that meant. Although it wasn’t his third target, he hurled the third bottle at the car and turned around. Behind him, the alarm was shrieking.
Getting onto his scooter, the man slipped out through the back gate.
“Now, Father,” he muttered, “I need to get some rest.”
The next morning, the first thing the man did when he got out of bed was try to turn on the TV. It didn’t work. The electricity had been cut off. He switched on a battery-powered radio and listened solemnly to the morning news. There was no mention of the So-and-so Palace apartments. The man’s face crumpled.
Turning off the radio, he made two calls. The first was to the girl’s school. He said she had to stay home one more day because she was still sick. He wasn’t lying. The girl was burning up with a fever. The electric blanket was cold, so cold it felt like a sheet of chilled metal. The person at the other end of the line said that the girl had to attend school tomorrow no matter what, because it was the last day before winter break. The second call was to his office. The man said he was afraid he couldn’t go to work that day because he still wasn’t feeling well. That was not a lie. His feet had swollen up and his vision was blurred. He had a fever too. There was no response from the person at the other end of the line.
“Stay home and rest. Forever.”
The line went dead. The man grunted and went into the kitchen. He rinsed some rice and put it into a saucepan. He added enough water to make a thin rice porridge and put the saucepan on the kerosene stove. He lit the burner and turned it up to the highest setting, but the flames flickered. He was low on kerosene. He was low on everything. When the day that even the water was cut off came, they wouldn’t be able to manage any more.
The girl was so weak she couldn’t even hold her chopsticks. She wouldn’t eat any rice porridge, even with dried seaweed sprinkled on top. The man felt her forehead. It was burning hot. Perhaps because his hand was burning hot.
“Have to go to the doctor, no matter what,” the man said to no one in particular. There was no response, of course. But he hadn’t expected a response.
The man had three doctors’ offices in mind that morning, just as he’d had three license plates in mind the previous night. Two of the three targets had been burnt, and two burning hot bodies would go to the three doctors. Lifting the girl and carrying her on his back, the man groped his way down the steep alley. His first stop was a pediatrician’s office. Their regular pediatrician was nearby, at the entrance to the local market, but he deliberately went to the clinic in the shopping center attached to the So-and-so Palace apartment complex. As he entered the shopping center, he glanced in the direction of the apartments.
Two women in fur coats were chatting in the waiting room of the pediatrician’s office. The man strained to hear what they were talking about. He didn’t hear anything that sounded like “fire,” but he heard the word “gift” frequently. The girl was given a shot, and there were pills she would need to take. As the nurse handed him the bottle of pills, the man asked if everything was all right; she gave him a perplexed look as if she were wondering whether he was all right. She gave him enough pills for three days and said the doctor’s office would be closed until after Christmas. It would be Christmas in two days’ time. The man hadn’t had a call from his son recently. He couldn’t remember exactly where his son was staying; he wasn’t sure whether it was Dongtan or Sintanjin, or perhaps Yongin or Uijeongbu. Apparently his son hadn’t been drinking lately, because he hadn’t called.
The man left the shopping center and stared at the apartment complex for a while, as if to check that it was the same one he had been to during the night. The second clinic they headed for was the one where the doctor had talked about trauma or something. They took a bus and got off thirty minutes later. With the girl on his back the man went down some steps that led to an underground passage. At the bottom step, the man froze. He could see nothing but darkness in front of his eyes. He stood still and waited for the darkness to dissipate. Just as it had done in the past. But even time, which eventually dispels everything, couldn’t easily dispel the darkness now. The man’s legs shook with fear; fear that he would never again be able to see the light.
When it is time for darkness to descend on a man—a creature that cannot generate its own light—does it ever lift? For the man, who had no inner light of his own, darkness was not something that came and went. It was always with him. Light was what came and went, and came back again. Perhaps this time he would have to wait a long, long time for the light to return. Like a tree, like a solitary tree, carrying on his back the girl who had long ago lost her speech.
A throng of noises burst through the darkness, which now seemed solid as iron: footsteps, a Salvation Army bell, Christmas carols, the clinking of coins, the sound of someone gulping, trying to catch their breath, exhaling a long breath, eyes blinking, heart racing, the menacing roll of dice, time passing by like a crowd bursting out of the subway and bumping into him, and then, from over his shoulder, a weak voice like the voice of an infant.
“Are you all right?”
“I’m all right.”
“Are you waiting for someone, Grandpa?”
“Are you tired?”
“I’m all right.”
“May I sing for you?”
“You better watch out, you better not cry, better not pout, I’m telling you why, Santa Claus is coming—to town; He’s making a list, and checking it twice, gonna find out who’s naughty and nice, Santa Claus is coming—to town.”
1 The slogan of the Korean national soccer team during the 2002 World Cup. (Translators’ note)
Kim Kyung-uk debuted in 1993 with the novella Outsider published in the quarterly review Writer’s World. His short story collections are Is Leslie Cheung Really Dead? (2005), Risky Reading (2008), God Has No Grandchildren (2011), and Young Hearts Never Grow (2014). His novels are Like a Fairytale (2010) and What Is Baseball? (2013). He won both the Hyundae Literary Award and the Dong-in Literary Award.