The Story of Sand
- onDecember 10, 2018
- Vol.42 Winter 2018
- byKim Soom
- The Story of Sand
Tr. Janet Hong 2006231pp.
Father came back from the desert. Dressed in a blue-striped suit, he looked like someone who had been trekking across the desert for five billion years—a period as old as Earth.
As Earth aged, rocks would have split and split again to become pebbles. Then those pebbles would have split and split again to become grains of sand. Ferried by the wind, those tiny grains of sand would have scattered to form deserts.
The blue stripes looked like they had been scored by a knife, or by time traveling at the speed of light.
Father’s forehead gave off a pale glow under the dim fluorescent light. Long bushy hair covered his ears. I had the vaguest suspicion a part of his body had crumbled away while he crossed the desert. That, most likely, was his ears. Ever since I was little, I believed the ears were the source of all fears. If you were to trudge across the endless desert, you had to overcome your fears, which meant it was necessary for the ears to first become dull.
Father brought with him a suitcase. The size of an apple crate, it had four black wheels and was like some animal that walked on four legs, like a goat or camel. The wheels were severely worn down. I knew my father hadn’t been the one to drag the suitcase here; stubbornly, it had rolled its own wheels after him.
Inside the suitcase were old, dingy clothes and a shovelful of sand. He stared blankly at the contents. In the end, he upturned the suitcase and poured the sand onto the floor. Terror settled over his features, as if he were standing on the edge of a 10-meter diving board. He removed his blue-striped suit, like a snake shedding its skin.
For a long time, he stood in his white undershirt, sky-blue underwear, and navy socks. He looked up and gazed blankly at me. He finally yawned, as if he had managed to suppress his fear, and lay down, using the suitcase as a pillow.
As soon as he fell asleep, Mother picked up the broom. She bent over like a sickle and swept up the sand. At first the sand seemed to submit to her sweeping, but it ballooned up. It formed an abstract, geometric pattern in the air and scattered.
Mother straightened her back and thrust up the broom. She swept busily at the air, but the sand persisted.
Father was forty-two years old the year he came back. He had left home at thirty-two. Ten years was by no means a short time, but he managed to return safely to us. It was then that he became an idiot.
To be honest, I have no memory of him before he left. Not his expression, not his smell, not his spirit, not his voice, not even his gestures. More than anything, he was a void, a kind of emptiness.
In my first art class, I had to draw his face. I filled the entire white sheet with yellow dots as small as grains of millet.
“Didn’t I tell you to draw your father?” the teacher asked.
“Inside the sand.”
Anyhow, it was only from the night he returned that he began to take shape in my mind.
While Father was gone, I didn’t miss him. He wasn’t someone I could miss. And not once did I imagine he would return one day to live with us. Mother never thought to tell us he would be coming back. She said instead, “If your father had to go somewhere for your sake, that place would be the desert.”
I took these words to mean Father shared the fate of camels, that he was forced to live in the hot, dry land. I had never even experienced war, but I was relieved my mother hadn’t said the battlefield.
Father left for the Middle East to work as a manual laborer, but Mother called that place the desert.
I maintained a fixed distance from Father. That distance equaled several steps, though I was not the one to create it. It simply formed on its own. In a stadium, a few steps are nothing. But in a room of about 140 square feet, they represented a great, rather grim distance.
Mother, Younger Sister, and Elder Brother each maintained a fixed distance from Father. Mother at two steps, Younger Sister at three, and Elder Brother at five.
Elder Brother was situated at the farthest point from Father. They stood far apart from each other, like the two legs of a compass spread as wide as possible to sketch a large circle.
It seemed the distance of five steps, like some absolute measurement, would never, ever shrink.
Mother told our relatives that Father was back. Two months had already passed since his return.
All she said was that he had returned. She had never been a talkative person. They wondered when he planned to leave again. As if hoping he would head back to the desert. Instead of telling them that he wasn’t leaving, Mother said he was looking for a new job.
The sand Father brought back didn’t disappear, but drifted about him tediously.
Gukgyeong ajeossi, Manu ajeossi, Huiya ajeossi, Sojin ajeossi, Uncle Sunjin, Cousin Sang-gu. They were idiots, too.
But I didn’t know that until Father’s return. They were ordinary men I sometimes ran into on the street. The meek, simple folk from the neighborhood.
Uncle Sunjin came looking for Father, accompanied by the idiots. He lived close by, with just an alley between us. Mother said he, too, had planned to go to the desert shortly after Father had left home. But Uncle never ended up going.
When Uncle Sunjin stepped into our yard, Father was in the kitchen, making toast. In the desert, whenever he had felt hungry, he had made toast in his frying pan. He joked if you were to add up all the slices of toast he’d eaten, it would equal the number of camels living in the desert. But I didn’t know how many camels lived there. He sprinkled a pinch of salt and a pinch of sugar on the browned bread. The sight of him placing a piece of toast on a white dish and then sprinkling it carefully with salt seemed so full of reverence he appeared to be performing a religious ceremony.
While Father made toast, the men smoked in the shade of the magnolia tree, clustered together like badgers. Uncle Sunjin introduced them to Father. They had no information to offer, other than their name and age. The same went for Father. Not one possessed a shining quality they could flaunt or brag about.
“He might look like a wimp, but he worked in the Middle East for ten years.”
At Uncle’s words, the men opened their mouths in unison and let out a whoop. Father handed each person a slice of toast.
After they left, Father stood hunched over the washbasin all evening, gazing at his reflection in the water. As if the bronze-colored basin were an oasis.
Father went to the desert to survive, and he returned from the desert to survive. The desert was both a land of opportunity and a land of punishment. And just as going there wasn’t entirely his choice, coming back wasn’t entirely his choice either.
Before I go on about Father, I must confess that what I know about him amounts to hardly a grain of sand. That’s right, the part I do understand about his life amounts to a single grain of sand.
The only thing I can say with confidence is this: To me, he was at once the desert and a grain of sand.
I’m sure it has nothing to do with his name containing the character gu, the number nine, but Father experienced many trials and hardships.1
The first trial came the year Father turned twenty. He could have become a firefighter. In other words, he’d tried, but failed. He was a graduate of a technical high school in Daejeon where most of the students went on to become civil servants.
But his father’s oldest brother—Cousin Sang-gu’s father—had defected to North Korea during the Korean War, leaving his wife and children behind in the south. This became the decisive barrier to Father’s dream. Background checks were very strict during this time. Only as an adult did I learn about Great-Uncle’s existence; everything about him was kept hush-hush. That’s also when I learned about Father’s attempt to become a firefighter.
If Father had become a firefighter as he’d hoped, would his life have been any different?
What existed between Father and fire didn’t seem like any ordinary connection. Why did it have to be fire? Why did it have to be fire’s energy?
Father almost lost his life once. He’d been only thirty-four years old.
That day, Father had gone out to sea with the other laborers. Kuwait borders the Persian Gulf, and on their days off, they occasionally went fishing in a boat. For safety reasons, they all wore yellow life jackets. When they had been on the sea for about ten minutes, Father fell into the water. They had been speeding along at 120 km/hour. There were six other men on the boat, but no one saw him fall. The boat raced on for some time. Two hours went by before they finally discovered he was missing.
Father was an extremely shy, quiet man, whose presence often went unnoticed. To the extent it didn’t seem at all strange it had taken as long as two hours before anyone noted his absence. When they managed to locate him at last, he was unconscious, bobbing on the waves.
If it hadn’t been for his yellow life jacket, Father would have sunk to the bottom of the ocean and become food for the fish that teemed in the warm waters of the Persian Gulf.
Could he have jumped off the boat? Could he have soared like a bird, and then hurled himself into the ocean? Could he have wanted to put out his fire’s energy, which stalked him incessantly, with the force of water?
If it hadn’t been for Mr. Jeon, our family may have never learned about Father’s near-death experience in the middle of the ocean. Father simply didn’t inform us. Originally from Gwangju of Jeolla Province, Mr. Jeon shared a room with Father in Kuwait. Whenever he came home on vacation, he stopped by our house to give us any updates on Father.
After Mr. Jeon had come and gone, my brother and I spread open the world map to look for the Persian Gulf. The map was at a scale of 1:3,800,000. Not only Kuwait, but Iran and Iraq, Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, Qatar and the United Arab Emirates also bordered the Persian Gulf, the world’s greatest oil reserve. It loomed like a mighty fortress of oil tankers. Once Father sent us a picture of a bluefin tuna he had caught in the gulf. It was the size of a grown man’s arm.
Whenever I see an unusually tall concrete fence, I can’t help but think of Grandfather. All his life, he’d wished for a fence as big and strong as a fortress. Father and his siblings had been raised in a house where hardy orange trees had surrounded the yard instead. Grandfather got his wish in the end; he managed to build a fence before he died. This was only possible because Father went to the desert.
More than anybody, Grandfather hoped Father would go work in the Middle East. But Grandfather was in no way a harsh, stubborn man. Whenever there was a village feast, he would play the janggu drum or sing a tune to liven things up.
His generation had the misfortune of marching their children off to not only the desert, but also to the battlefield. His was a generation that had managed to survive Japanese colonial rule, the Korean War, and the period of great hunger known as the “barley hump.”
The third of six children but the eldest son, Father was the only one of his siblings lucky enough to finish high school. Grandfather let his other children go hungry for the sake of his eldest son’s education.
Grandfather, a tenant farmer with not even a small patch of land to his name, had believed the money would be rolling in once Father graduated from high school. And though it was not Father’s fault he failed to become a firefighter, his siblings resented him all the same. They had never learned to read or write properly, having been dragged off from an early age to the fields or mountains to work like cattle. Father’s two older sisters were forced to leave home before the age of twenty. They welcomed their twenties at Pyeonghwa Clothing Market in Seoul, from where they sent home the money they eked out as seamstress assistants. This went straight to Father’s tuition. In order to pay back the debt he owed to his family, Father had no choice but to leave for the desert.
Grandfather saved every bit of money that Father sent home, and the first thing he did was to buy concrete bricks and put up a fence with his own hands. Because the yard wasn’t big, the fence was completed in fifteen days. But he made the mistake of going beyond the yard until he found himself at the highway, and so he was forced to take down the fence he had painfully erected, only to start over from the beginning. Though there were complications, Grandfather ended up with the strongest, tallest fence in the village.
The fence compensated Grandfather for the disappointment and sadness he felt at Father’s failure to become a firefighter. His crumbling house looked ridiculous, enclosed by the freakishly big fence.
As soon as the fence was finished, Grandfather hired a photographer from town. He burst into anger when the photographer kept trying to take his picture. After snapping an entire roll of film of just the fence, the photographer said, “Since I’m already here, why don’t you take your funeral portrait in advance?” At those words, Grandfather barked with laughter so loud it shook the thin branches of the orange trees piled on one side of the yard.
On market day, Grandfather stopped by the photography shop to pick up the photos. He chose one where the fence presented the most imposing appearance, and then put it in an envelope and mailed it to his eldest son.
What must Father have felt as he held the photograph in the hot sand? As he tore open the envelope with his dry, dusty fingers? As he discovered the fence that spewed suddenly from the envelope?
That was the first and last letter Grandfather sent Father.
The sand brooded over the bedroom like fog. Father was dozing, hunched like some dying bird, with his chin digging into his armpit. Five steps away, Elder Brother sat on the floor with his back against the wall. He gazed at Father, blinking heavily. He slid sideways down the wall and fell asleep, doubled over like Father, his chin digging into his armpit.
The sand that had been swirling in the air swallowed Father up like a swarm of bees.
1. There is an old saying about surviving nine close calls with death, which is used to describe a tumultuous life.
(Exerpt from pp. 4-26.)
Translated by Janet Hong
Kim Soom has published thirteen novels, most recently When Has a Soldier Wanted to Be an Angel? (2018) and Sublime is Looking Inward (2018), the third and fourth novels in her Comfort Women series, and six short story collections. She has received the Yi Sang Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Daesan Literary Award, Heo Gyun Literary Award, and the Tong-ni Literature Prize. One Left (2016), the first novel in her Comfort Woman series, was translated and published in Japan in 2018. Her story "Divorce" is out from Strangers Press, UK as part of their Yeoyu Korean Literature series (2019)