- 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.”
As I said that, I squeezed my hands hard, and the spoon actually did bend a little. If I squeezed harder, I probably could have bent it just like Uri Geller did.
“I got superpowers, too. Give me that. I’ll snap it in two for you,” Dad said.
“The important thing is that all he did was rub it gently. He bent it using his mind. His mind! He just thought about it. He also fixed a broken clock using telekinesis. He said that with practice anyone can do it. Do you think that’s true?”
“Even without practice, you can do anything as long as you have money. If you have super-powers, you should use them to pick a winning number in the Olympic Lotto. Who cares about bending a perfectly good spoon?”
Dad drove out of the marketplace and merged onto the main road. There were no other cars out at that hour.
“It’s not true that you can do anything you want if you have money. No matter how rich you are you can’t go back in time. I want to go back in time.”
As I spoke, I held the stem of the spoon in my left hand and gently rubbed the part of the metal right below the bowl between the forefinger and thumb of my right hand. The spoon would never laugh at me, right?
“You’re barely fifteen. Why are you going on about the past as if you’ve got something dark in yours?”
“I mean before I was born. Don’t you ever wonder, Dad? I’m so curious. For instance, where were you and who were you with and what were you doing?”
My father coughed several times like something had gotten caught in his throat. I pretended not to notice and focused on the spoon. Bend, bend.
“What do you think I was doing? Getting drunk on soju, that’s what. Shall we have a drink when we get home?”
“I told you I quit.”
“You have to have been a real drinker before you can say you quit. That time didn’t count. Let’s have a drink later, and I’ll teach you how to keep drinking without throwing up.”
“No thanks. I can’t stand the thought of having to learn something.”
“But if you learn how to drink, you’ll have a trusty friend for life…”
Dad roared with laughter. I raised my head and rolled my eyes at him. Beyond his laughing face, the road was dark. There were few streetlights. But the lamplight spilling from the windows of every house in the distant hillside villages full of darkened buildings that we passed glittered like the Milky Way. A speck of light, another speck, and then sometimes a cluster. Against that backdrop, my father looked like an astronaut making his way across the galaxy. An astronaut laughing so hard that the entire universe bounced with excitement.
“By the way, about that article you read to me earlier,” I asked as I lowered my head again to concentrate on the spoon.
When I met my father at his truck earlier, he had been reading his notebook by the light of a carbide lamp. It was a large notebook the size of a textbook that he used to record what happened every day, and he also pasted articles in it that he had clipped from newspapers and magazines. Each time he filled up a notebook, he bought a new one and wrote“備忘錄” on the front cover. I asked him what it said, and he explained that the characters meant,“A Record of Things You Should Remember No Matter How Time Passes.” That night, Dad read to me from his memorandum a news article entitled, “Animals in Exile: 237 Deaths over 11 Months in Seoul Grand Park.”
237 animals of various species housed at Seoul Grand Park have died due to neglect and poor conditions, park officials admitted. These deaths took place over the past eleven months, after the zoo began importing animals from foreign countries in September. The largest number of deaths were the ‘gentoo penguins.’ Five of these rare animals were imported last November. Three were already dead when the park officially opened on May 1, and the remaining two died soon after due to the hot weather. One orangutan, a favorite of young visitors, died late last month when it started a fight with the other orangutans and drowned in the moat surrounding the animals’ play area.
“What are you trying to remember by saving that article?” I asked.
“A long time ago, I learned that ‘orang’ is Malay for ‘person,’ and ‘utan’ means ‘forest.’ Someone told me orangutan means ‘person of the forest,’ and I don’t want to forget that someone,” he said.
“So it’s not the orangutans you want to remember. The people of the forest would be sad to hear it. You must’ve been really grateful to the person who taught you that.”
“How can you tell?”
“Because people always say things like, ‘I am forever grateful to you.’ Since you never want to forget this person, you must’ve been really grateful. What else did you write down in there, in your memorandum?”
“I wrote down things that will happen in heaven.”
“Such as, hmm, let’s see. Going on a hot date with a young lady before I die?”
“You can’t die in heaven!”
“If you can’t die whenever you want, then what kind of heaven is that?”
“Are you starting another wishing contest?” I asked, still rubbing the spoon.
“Sure. Tell me your wish.”
“In that case, I want to go on a hot date with a young lady, too.”
“Young lady? No matter how young she is, she’ll still be an older woman to you. That’s your loss. How about someone in elementary school?”
“What difference does it make? None of this will ever come true anyway.”
“Why do you say that? I’m single. It could happen for me. Fine, then. My wish is to cross the Pacific Ocean in a yacht with that young lady from my other wish.” He started to sing, “One fine spring day, Mr. Elephant was riding a fallen leaf across the Pacific…”
My father was always going on about young ladies, and I hated it.
“My wish is to go to Seoul Grand Park on Sunday and watch the dolphin show!”
“Miss Whale saw Mr. Elephant and fell in love at first sight…”
“While holding hands with you and Mom.”
Dad stopped singing. As soon as I said it out loud, I regretted it. I knew I shouldn’t have, but the milk was already spilt. Embarrassed, I rubbed harder at the spoon. Hard enough to rub the tip of my finger raw.
“Is that really so impossible…?” he mumbled.
That’s when it happened. I began to feel a strange heat in the tip of my thumb. The neck of the spoon slowly began to bend. My eyes widened. I was so focused on it that I did not hear what my father said next. It might have been, “The thing about your mom…” Or maybe he said, “What’s that guy doing?” Anyway, what I do remember clearly was that the spoon miraculously started to bend. But when that moment finally came, what I felt was not so much awe at having bent the spoon with my mind, but more the feeling of my entire body breaking out in goose bumps.
“Oh, oh, Dad, look… Dad! Dad!”
As the neck of the spoon snapped right before my eyes, I shouted for my dad to look. But by then, it was already too late. I had missed the opportunity, for the first and only time in my entire life, to tell my father that I didn’t want him to die. The last I saw of my father’s face was his profile, just like an astronaut’s, as he flew into the light.
* * *
After a few days, I admitted to myself that the wishes my father and I had taken turns telling would never come true now. During those few days, I couldn’t stand how pathetic I felt for stupidly believing in stupid things like supernatural powers while my dad was dying. Telepathy was useless. I was an orphan now. When Colonel Kwon brought me the head of the broken spoon that had been found in the truck, I wanted to throw it out the window. But I couldn’t bring myself to do that. That object held my last memory of Dad. Colonel Kwon told me the vehicle that collided head on with our truck was driven by an armed spy. That strange and stupid spy, who lived on the outskirts of Seoul and worked as a boiler repairman, took a pistol equipped with a silencer into a local restaurant and murdered the owner, then broke into a neighboring beauty salon and fired three shots at the lady who worked there, leaving her in critical condition. The owner of a nearby shoe store heard her screams and came running. The spy threatened him with the gun and then tried to strangle him to death, but the shoe store owner kicked him in the leg and knocked him over. The spy sprang right back up, ran in front of a passing Bongo to stop it, pulled the driver out, stole the Bongo, and fled towards downtown.
When Colonel Kwon got to this part, he examined the look on my face then pushed his glasses up and said if I didn’t understand any part of it, I should go ahead and ask.
“I don’t understand any of it,” I went ahead and said.
“Of course. All sorts of things happen in this world that you can’t understand,” he said.
“If he was a spy, then why did he only shoot a local restaurant owner and the lady at the beauty salon?”
Colonel Kwon looked annoyed at my question, but he said, “According to the joint investigation, it seems that the North sent him here on a mission to kill the restaurant owner. The fact that they target ordinary citizens just goes to show how vicious the North Korean puppet regime really is.”
“If he was sent here to kill the restaurant owner, then he would have escaped right after killing him. Why did he also go into the beauty salon and shoot the employee?”
“Your teacher should have taught you this in school! Spies are brutal, cold-blooded killers who view human life as lower than a fly’s. That’s why we have to eradicate them.”
“But why didn’t he shoot the shoe store owner to death? Why did he strangle him instead?” I went ahead and asked again.
“Guns aren’t the only way to kill a person. Spies are killing machines. Their entire bodies are deadly weapons. They can kill someone using a single plastic bag and not leave a trace.”
“But the shoe store owner kicked him in the leg, and he wasn’t able to kill him even though he had his hands around his throat. Why is that?”
Colonel Kwon raised his voice. He sounded annoyed.
“There is no logic to killing a person. It transcends logic. When it comes to killing, I know this better than anyone. Listen up. You are now an orphan. Do you know what that means? If you laugh, the world laughs with you, but if you cry, you cry alone. So you have to make a choice. Do you want to laugh with the world? Or cry alone? Now, I will explain this to you one more time and then we will never speak of it again. The spy went into the beauty salon and murdered the employee and then tried to strangle the shoe store owner but got kicked in the leg. Right at that moment, your father was passing by in his truck and witnessed that awful scene. And out of devotion to his country and to his people…”
If you asked me what my father loved best, I would probably say orangutans. His country and his people? C’mon. I realized for the first time that I was Wonderboy because my father had knocked out a spy with his truck.
“Hold on a second,” I interrupted Colonel Kwon. “We didn’t see any of that. We were just on our way home.”
“You said you had your head down when it happened. You had no way of knowing what was going on. Just because you didn’t see it doesn’t mean that your father didn’t. According to the investigation, your father served in the forward ranks during his military duty, so we believe he grasped the situation instantly. Furthermore, all of the witnesses, including the shoe store owner, already testified that the truck driven by your father charged headfirst into the oncoming Bongo. Think about it. Did you see it? Did you witness your father’s death?”
I stared at Colonel Kwon. I tried to remember the details of that night, but all I could recall was my father’s wish to go on a hot date with a young lady. And how he told me that his wish would never, ever come true, even though it could have if he only put his mind to it. I missed him so much. Not only did I not get to say goodbye to my father before he died, but I wasn’t even looking at him when it happened. Goddamned spoon.
“I can’t remember. We were just driving fast down a dark road.”
“Take your time. There’s no rush. Your father clearly saw something. Just never forget that you have only one choice to make: laugh with us, or cry alone. Now then, that’s enough for today. Get plenty of rest, and think about what I told you. And don’t forget that you’re an orphan now.”
Yes, I was an orphan. My fate was my own to determine.
“Can you do me a favor?”
Colonel Kwon turned and asked, “What is it? “I’m anemic. The medicine I usually take for it is at home. Could someone bring it to me?”
“You’re in a hospital. Why do you need to go all the way home to get medicine? That’s like looking for a tree to hang yourself from in the middle of a minefield.”
“It has to be those pills.”
Colonel Kwon looked at me like he smelled something fishy. I was shocked by his comment about the minefield.
“I also need my schoolbooks and my notebook. Oh, and if you look through my notebook, you’ll find an essay on anti-communism that I wrote for a school assignment in June. I could probably put that essay to some good use now.”
“Makes sense. If you show your essay to the reporters, it will probably help them to further explain your father’s splendid feat. Okay. Where can I find your anemia medication?”
I told him where the box that held my father’s poison was hidden in the wardrobe. After jotting down my directions in his notepad, Colonel Kwon said he had to be going and walked to the door. But before he got there, he suddenly stopped and turned to look at me.
“By the way,” he said. He stared at me, and my heart jumped.
“Your anti-communism essay. That’s a great idea.”
Kim Yeonsu is a novelist. Kim debuted in 1993 by publishing a poem in Writer’s World. He published the novels Walking While Pointing to the Mask, Goodbye Mr. Yi Sang, Route 7, The Night Is Singing, and Wonderboy and the short story collections I Am a Ghost Writer, Twenty, and World's End Girlfriend. Kim has received a number of literary awards, including the Daesan Literary Award and Yi Sang Literary Award.