- onJuly 16, 2015
- Vol.28 Summer 2015
- byKim Yeonsu
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell 2012320pp.
1984: When All of the Stars in the Universe Stopped in Their Tracks
The year I turned fifteen, I learned that time can stand still. If I had told people what I meant by that, they would have thought I was crazy. Wisely enough, I didn’t breathe a word of it to anyone. When time started moving again and I finally opened my eyes, the first words out of my mouth were, “The spoon broke.” The nurse in charge of the intensive care unit told the reporters camped outside of my hospital room, and the next day those words appeared in all of the newspapers. According to one article, I had been “declared clinically dead after a week in a coma,” but “thanks to the ardent prayers of citizens from all walks of life, including Our Esteemed President and First Lady, a miracle happened,” and I “was revived after ten minutes.” The spoon was mentioned at the end of the article. It read, “His first words upon awakening were, ‘The spoon broke,’” and added, “From these unconscious words, we can fathom the immense patriotism with which the late Kim Gi-shik charged into the suspect’s vehicle.”
I don’t remember saying those words, but I thought I knew why I might have. 1984 began with Nam June Paik’s video art installation “Good Morning, Mr. Orwell.” On January 1, through a satellite feed linking TV stations in New York, Paris, and Seoul, Paik showed 25 million viewers that the earth could shrink to the size of a bean. In the autumn of that same year, an Israeli psychic named Uri Geller visited Korea and appeared on a television show broadcast by KBS. As countless viewers watched, he bent a spoon and fixed a broken clock using only his mind. Through radio waves and telekinesis, the two men showed us how wonderful our world really is. And then it was my turn. I showed everyone that if they put their minds together and wished for something badly enough, they could make miracles happen. The news report did not lie. Every Korean from every walk of life really did come together as one to pray for my recovery. The headline read, “Wonderboy Opens Eyes of Hope.” Everyone started calling me Wonderboy after that.
The person who turned me into Wonderboy was Colonel Kwon. Called “Colonel” to his face but “The Mole” behind his back, he was a forty-something-year-old man who wore sunglasses even at night and had long hair and was always dressed in civilian clothing, quite unlike other soldiers, and was a two-faced member of the elite minority who ran Korean society, always with an extra face at the ready the way other people might have a double chin. Since his face was the first thing I saw when I awoke from my coma, I could tell at once how my new life was going to unfold. Colonel Kwon put his hand on my forehead and comforted me, feigning attentiveness, but his voice was low and dug down deep into the weakest roots of my heart.
“Son, stop your crying. You are now the mascot of hope for this country. If you feel like you’re about to start crying, picture a monkey in a zoo. Hordes of people walk past that monkey, but all the monkey does is hang from his branch and watch them go by. You are that monkey, son. The things that are happening to you right now are like those people walking by. It will all pass. Whether you laugh or cry has nothing to do with those people. Tears are nothing more than a bodily fluid to wash the dust out of your eyes.
At the time, having just awakened, I questioned everything: Where was I? Who was this person? Was I alive or dead? Why was the monkey hanging from a branch, and where was everyone going? Most of all, why wouldn’t these tears stop falling from my eyes?
“What do you mean I’m the mascot of hope?” I asked, as the tears continued to flow from my swollen eyes, my head wrapped in a bandage and tubes coming out of my nose.
“You’re like the Olympic mascot. You know how Hodori the tiger is always smiling and twirling the streamer on top of his cap? Now that you’re a mascot, too, you have to model yourself after Hodori: smile all the time and never show your tears. That way, you can fill people with hope. We need hope in this world because there are too many people who are weak. After all, who needs hope if you have strength? But do you know what those powerless people have done? They raised over 200 million won in donations while praying for your recovery. A boiler company even pledged to pay your tuition until you finish college. And another boiler company has not only offered to pay your tuition but has also promised you a job after you graduate. Maybe now you can tell just how much the people of this nation are hanging their hopes on you.”
Why boiler companies? But it didn’t matter. Instead, I asked, “Why didn’t they leave me to die?”
“Just because we live in the fatherland of Free Korea doesn’t mean that you’re guaranteed the freedom to die whenever you want. If you feel like sending anyone a thank you card, send it to the Blue House. The president showed a particular interest in your survival. You were even taking up the top spot on the nine o’clock news. The president yielded that spot to you. When he heard you were out of your coma, he said the fatherland created this miracle so that you might do great things for our nation. Those words left a deep impression on me.”
“This is considered a miracle? Where has the fatherland been all this time, and what does it want from me now? Things must be going pretty well in the world if there’s nothing better to report on in the nine o’clock news…”
I was still fuzzy from the drugs and wasn’t making much sense.
“Son, you showed us yourself that our country can overcome any difficulty if we put our minds to it. Your body is proof of that miracle. This country will take care of you.”
“Barely surviving a car accident, and coming out of it alone, without my father, is proof of a miracle?” I protested.
“That’s an odd thing to say.” Colonel Kwon stared at me.
Terrified of the dark sunglasses that hid his eyes, I started crying again.
“Surely no one has told you yet that you were the only survivor. How did you figure it out?”
“I know something happened to my dad. Nobody had to tell me. He’s the only family I have.”
“I, too, have a son… but he wouldn’t know if I was alive or dead. Too busy kicking around his soccer ball. I’ll admit that your situation is sad. But that’s not why we’re treating you this way. We’re doing it because your father did something great, on the level of the great martyr An Jung-geun, who assassinated Hirobumi. You are the great son of a patriot. The mascot of hope who conquered death and was reborn.”
In that case, I really should be spinning a streamer on top of my cap, but there I was with my neck in a brace. When Colonel Kwon talked about my father, I felt something start to burn inside my chest.
“Your life is going to be very different from now on. But regardless of what happens, you can be sure that it will be a great deal better than when you lived with that alcoholic father of yours. You’ll be able to do things that you couldn’t even imagine before. You’ve earned it. And in exchange, all you have to do is trust me and follow me, just as you would a father. Understand? From now on, I’ll think of you as my son.”
I had started crying loudly even before Colonel Kwon was done talking. I didn’t just weep but kicked the sheets and thrashed my arms and legs. I ripped the oxygen tube from my nose and tore off the bandage that secured the IV needle to my arm. Colonel Kwon held me down with one arm. I heard someone ask, “Is something wrong?” over the intercom next to the bed. Colonel Kwon said something in response, but his voice was drowned out by my screams.
I bawled at the top of my lungs, “What’s going on? I don’t know what’s going on! Where is my dad? I’ll do whatever you tell me to do, just please bring me my dad! Hurry up and bring him to me! Why did you save me? Hurry—”
That was as far as I got. Colonel Kwon pressed down hard on the pit of my stomach with his right thumb. With the wind knocked out of me, my body went limp. I was like the Energizer bunny after someone had yanked the batteries out. I wondered if I was dying, but the tears that kept streaming down my face told me I wasn’t. To tell the truth, I had somehow known from the moment Colonel Kwon entered my hospital room that my father was dead. When the two cars collided head-on, the steering wheel crushed my father’s chest, and his ribs splintered like twigs. Each one of those shards became a fine-tipped needle that ripped his heart and lungs and stomach to shreds. Pop! Boom! Bang! I felt like I was looking up at the night sky as it exploded with fireworks, standing alone in my hospital gown at the grand opening of Seoul Grand Park packed with crowds of people. The tears that would not stop were the dregs of my loneliness.
* * *
The reason I am so prone to crying is because I am my father’s son. My dad—who was, as Colonel Kwon said, an alcoholic—cried whenever he got drunk. When I think about the fact that he started drinking in order to hide his weaknesses from me, it’s so funny I could die. I used to think that my dad was the coolest man in the world. That is, as long as he wasn’t drunk. When he was in a good mood, he talked about his wishes. So as not to be left out, I told him my wishes too, and after a while, it became a game—one in which we took turns telling each other what we wished for. Winning a 100 million-won Olympic Lotto jackpot, pitching for the OB Bears, driving a Daweoo Lemans all the way across Asia to Paris, running a thousand meters in two minutes and three seconds in a pair of Nikes, and so on and so on. The key to the game was only naming wishes that could absolutely never come true. My father swore that if we kept talking about things that seemed impossible, they would gradually become possible. He had a point, and after a while, we moved on from naming our wishes to talking about what we would buy with a 100 million won, or how to sign an autograph to make it look like a professional baseball player’s, and other such things, as if those wishes had already come true. Other people would have said we were counting our chickens before they hatched, but in our minds we could already hear the clucking of baby chicks. One of my wishes was to go to the grand opening of Seoul Grand Park in May and watch the dolphin show, but I never told my dad for fear he would say, “Foul ball! It doesn’t count as a wish because there’s nothing impossible about it.” Did he really think my wish was just to go watch a dolphin show? I also had to have my mom and dad by my side. Now that was a wish!
Whenever I brought up the subject of Mom, my dad looked at me as if he had no idea who I was talking about. He would ask me, “Do you know why I started drinking?” How could I know what was in the depths of my father’s heart? “No, why?” I would ask. And after a moment he would say, “Huh. I used to know, but now I forgot.” Once, he said he remembered the reason. It was when I asked him what my mom was like. “Come to think of it,” he said, “I started drinking so I could forget someone’s face.” I knew whose face he was talking about. After one bottle of soju, my father had what it took to be a great man who could do anything and everything for his son; opening his third bottle of soju meant that the face came back to him no matter how hard he tried to forget it. I never asked, but when I look back on it now, I think that’s what happened. As he got drunker, my father would turn into the weakest man in the world. When I was younger—that is, up until the third grade—my father would get drunk and cling to me, and I would cling right back and cry with him. I didn’t cry because I was sad—I was sad because I was crying. I had never known my mother. I was told she died right after giving birth to me. There were no photos of her. The only person who remembered what she looked like was my father, and he drank soju everyday to try to forget it. According to our relatives, our father had shown up in his hometown, out of his mind, a total wreck, and with a baby in tow. I was breastfed by village women. Most of the time, I did not miss my mother. But whenever I got upset because of my father’s drinking, I always thought about her. I guess thinking about my mother was the same thing as feeling upset. If she had been here, she would have soothed my father instead of me. Of course, if she were here, he would not have been drinking to forget her face.
My father used to go through three bottles of soju at a time, up until the day I finished off the rest of his soju while he was in the toilet and proceeded to collapse on the floor and experience firsthand just how fast the earth was spinning. Those three bottles of soju were like Dr. Jekyll’s mysterious potion, and in short course they would turn Dad into Mr. Hyde. Violent when drunk, Dad would yell that he was too tired to go on living, and that I would be better off if he just died right then and there. Then he would get even more worked up and pull a medicine bottle out of the wardrobe. He told me the bottle, which was no bigger than his thumb, contained poison. At the time, I didn’t understand why he had to hold on to something so terrible, but when I look back on it now, I am struck by the irony that maybe that bottle was why he was able to go on. Since drinking the poison would kill him immediately, maybe, paradoxically, it was his way of telling himself to keep going, until he absolutely could not go on any more.
Whenever he was drunk to the point of passing out, he would get really weak and become convinced that that moment was the decisive moment. Without a second to spare on telling him just how stupid that idea was, I would squeeze his arms so he couldn’t move and yell, “Dad! Don’t die!” And I would drop to my knees in front of my dad as he was holding the bottle of poison and rub my hands together and beg. It would get so loud in our room that the landlord would fling the door open and curse at us, “Shut the hell up, take the damn rat poison, and drop dead so we can all get back to sleep!” In fact, the person who warned me that when my father got drunk like that he was no longer my father but a mangy son of a bitch who crept around in alleyways and therefore I shouldn’t even think of getting near him, and the same person, who taught me the trick to cutting off my father’s terrible drinking problem with a single stroke when I was in the sixth grade, was none other than our landlord. Only after having seen me projectile vomiting my skimpy dinner and the soju I had guzzled earlier, at the landlord’s silly advice, did my father come to his senses. After that night, my father stopped drinking to the point of threatening to kill himself, and only drank enough to lament that we were the loneliest, saddest, and most pathetic father and son in the world.
The blue, one-ton truck, which they said crumpled like a piece of paper, was my father’s store. He sold fruit year-round from the back of his truck. He worked in the street all day long and around ten o’clock at night when all that was left were drunks getting drunker he started packing up his goods. On the night that Colonel Kwon told me about, I had met my father around ten o’clock to help him pack up the unsold apples and pears and other fruits. Since fruit bruises easily if you handle them too roughly, I sighed as I transferred the fruit, but my father stopped me, saying that even fruit has ears. It took so long to transfer all of the fruit without bruising any that almost twenty minutes had passed before we managed to pack everything up.
“What’s that you got in your hand?” My father asked as he put the truck in gear. “A student like you should be holding a pencil!”
I didn’t know what he was talking about and stared at him for a moment before remembering the spoon in my hand.
“Oh, this? I saw a psychic on TV named Uri Geller who can bend spoons by rubbing them with his finger and chanting, ‘Bend, bend.’ He bends them with his mind. They call that telekinesis.”
“Television lies about all sorts of things. Don’t believe anything you see on TV. It’s all a trick.”
“But the whole country was watching, not just one or two people. How can he fool everyone? It’s not a trick. He said when he focuses his mind, energy comes out through his fingertips. Even if I try to bend it using both hands, like this, it doesn’t work.”