"Mothers" by Kim Yi-seol

  • onApril 3, 2019
  • byKim Yi-seol
What No One Tells You
Tr. Janet Hong

“You’ve been screened for hepatitis, rubella, syphilis, AIDS, and cancer, and all test results are normal,” the nurse said. She gave me a professional smile and handed me the medical report.

The woman had instructed me to come to this hospital, where she’d booked the assessment. From here, my university was an hour away. I now needed to get a copy of my proof of enrolment and transcript.

“Do you really have to do this?” he’d said the other day, when I’d applied for a leave of absence. According to him, what I was doing wasn’t right.

“What do you suggest I do? Sell an organ?”

He had nothing to say and turned away. He stopped following me around. The end of our relationship couldn’t have been clearer.

Scrawny trees dotted the campus. I knew tiny buds bearing moisture were hiding somewhere, but there was no trace of green. I walked faster to avoid being late. This was my second leave of absence, and my grades only went up to the first semester of my junior year. As I walked past the entrance gates, several girls burst into laughter. They looked cold in their thin skirts. I had never liked spring.

Illustration ⓒ Amy Shin

She had large pupils as deep as wells. Her navy-blue business suit accentuated her gaunt frame, making it look as if she were barely holding up her clothes. Even her voluminous wavy hair made her appear unsteady. She told me to drink kiwi juice. I handed her my medical report, proof of enrolment, and transcript. She scrutinised each document. The coffee placed before her smelled strong. I didn’t want to drink my juice. What I wanted was a cup of coffee, bitter enough to make my head hurt. She pushed the contract toward me.

“You have no objections?”

“No,” I said.

I took a sip of the juice and signed. Kiwi seeds got stuck in my teeth, bothering me.

“I booked an appointment for tomorrow. Please don’t be late.”

She was the first to leave. Steam rose faintly from the coffee. I got up only after I’d drunk the rest of her coffee and smoked two cigarettes.


Though it was a short procedure, my body felt noticeably heavier. She tried to take my arm, but I shook her off. She grabbed hold of my arm again. I couldn’t stop her this time. She opened the car door.

“I’ll drive you home.”

From a certain point, she had started to address me informally. It was her way of letting me know I now worked for her.

Her sedan looked out of place in the dark, narrow alley. Somewhere, a baby cried savagely. She frowned. She strode through the metal gate I pointed at. Below a set of stairs, small doors were huddled closely together. She straightened her shoulders and followed me inside. She spread open a blanket.

“Lie down.”

I didn’t want to, but I couldn’t refuse her. She placed two pregnancy books and a plastic bag filled with kiwis by my feet, and strode to the kitchen sink, where she found a fruit knife. She sat down next to where I was lying and started to peel the kiwis. It seemed she meant to leave only after she had watched me eat. Her hands were clumsy, as if she had never peeled a thing in her life.

“You don’t get much sun here.”

She was wrong. Not even a single beam of sunlight made its way into the basement suite. She gazed around the room. In the corner sat two suitcases that I still hadn’t unpacked.

“Let’s move after the implantation. Stay here for now. I’ll come by often.”

She left after she’d watched me eat two of the kiwis. It seemed she might call or visit every day and never leave me in peace. After all, I had signed the contract. Regardless of whether it had any legal power, if I wanted to get paid, I needed to follow the conditions it outlined. I forced myself to sleep. If all went well, I’d be getting some money soon. Maybe it wasn’t much to her, but it was a large sum to me. I breathed in the smell of kiwi and mould.


The transfer was a success. I was moved to a studio apartment. There was a convenience store and food court opposite the building, and a grocery store nearby. I felt as if I’d landed in some remote vacation spot, but instead I’d officially entered the woman’s territory. Maybe I’d got lucky this time. Compared to my first client, this woman was an excellent employer.

The first intended parent had demanded I abort when she learned the baby wasn’t a boy. Such circumstances hadn’t been clearly outlined in the contract. I objected and said the fact was immaterial but was unable to reach her after that. Preoccupied with trying to track her down, I ended up terminating the pregnancy at five months. From the very start, the contract had been little more than a formality. Less than three months after the abortion, I had to post my profile once more: Twenty-six years old, L University law student, single, 165 cm, 54 kg, non-smoker, non-drinker, no history of genetic diseases/psychiatric disorders, direct transaction without agent required.

All I had to do was hide out for a year. It didn’t matter that getting paid for my services was illegal. Becoming a surrogate was the only way to make 50 million won in one go without racking up debt or falling into a pit from which I’d never escape. I’d do it another ten times if my body allowed it.

I read the emails of intended parents and went back and forth with several, discussing whether I could be paid in instalments upon a successful transfer and at different points during the pregnancy, as well as receiving a monthly allowance for living expenses. Until I actually signed, I had the right to choose who I carried for. I needed to be extra thorough, in order to make up for my first mistake.

The woman began her first email by saying she liked me because her husband was an alumnus of my university. After we exchanged a few emails, I chose her, mainly because she agreed to my conditions. And I didn’t mind the things she proposed. At the very least, I was prepared to bear it all, since she was meeting my requests.

She called every day and drove me to the hospital every week. After five weeks, an abdominal ultrasound produced a clear image of the uterus. A single speck was embedded in the black well. That day after the doctor’s appointment the woman dropped me off at my new studio apartment. It was already furnished. She said she would cover the rent and utilities, on top of the monthly bill for the new phone she handed me. I had nothing besides food to spend the monthly allowance on.

“I’ll fetch your things for you.”

The two suitcases containing clothes and books were all I had in my basement room. I didn’t answer. Suit yourself. After all, isn’t my body yours for these forty weeks? The woman turned on some Mozart and left. I stood to the side of the window and watched her in secret from two stories above. Before she went into the parking lot, she glanced up, her eyes narrowed. The unforgiving June sunlight, which revealed everything in sharp detail, flooded the alley.


I watched my mother scrub the tiled walls through the misted glass door. I took off my clothes and stepped into the bath. The water was lukewarm, and I could feel every draft of cool air. My skin broke out into goose bumps. The empty bathhouse at the start of summer was bleak. My skin started to prune once I poured hot water on myself. Mother came to scrub my back after she started refilling the four baths with clean water. Her hands weren’t as strong as they used to be.

By the time I came out of the baths, it was past two in the morning. There were a few people in the sauna, but most were sleeping in the resting area. I spotted a young couple tangled together in a corner.

“You might as well have your birthday soup while you’re here,” Mother said.

We sat across from each other with bowls of seaweed soup in front of us. My right side up to my armpit prickled. I rolled up my short sleeve to find that blood had gathered under the skin.

She had given birth to me and my little brother in the spring. On top of that, her own birthday was a week later. All of a sudden, I was struck by the sad picture we painted: mother and daughter sitting opposite each other at the bathhouse, hunched over bowls of soup. Mother gulped hers down, as though she had skipped dinner. She straightened her back and let out a burp, and then immediately started to peel the hard-baked eggs. I barely touched mine.

“What’s the matter with you? You don’t look good,” she said.

She looked worse. It wasn’t easy for someone who had been a homemaker all her life to start running a bathhouse past the age of fifty. I was going to ask about Father but decided not to. He’d told our anxious relatives he would find a way to live somehow, sounding much too confident for someone who dumped his debt on us and fled soon after. That was the last time I saw him. I suspected Mother kept in touch with him, but she always said the same thing: If you’re alive, you’ll find a way to live. So just like that, my family dissolved. How could blood ties be so flimsy? I didn’t get the chance to be baffled. Hate, rage, and even resignation disintegrated, like limp seaweed. The present was the problem.

Mother left one egg for me and ate the remaining three, one after another. If you’re alive, you’ll find a way to live. Is that why she could keep eating? I watched her, thinking it was a good thing she could eat like this. The fishiness of the soup didn’t agree with me, and I found it difficult to swallow. I put down my spoon before I finished even half.

I thrust my new phone number, what I’d saved of the allowance, and the entire implantation payment toward Mother. She no longer said sorry or thank you. This meant she was leading an exhausting life too. In the end, weren’t we all in the same boat—Mother pushing sixty and scrubbing the backs of young things, me in my mid-twenties carrying the embryo of two strangers, and Father roaming aimlessly without friends or family? It was all the same in the end. No one knew what would happen next. Happiness or unhappiness, it wasn’t something you could choose, so wasn’t everything fair after all? Mother watched television, clutching the bills in her hand.

Snores reverberated softly through the resting room. Mother was drunk with sleep. They say women get sick every year the same month they gave birth to their children. Since she had two kids in the spring, her joints probably felt as if they weren’t even hers. I reached out to stroke her face but stood up instead. I was scared I’d start feeling bad for her.

Outside the bathhouse, the thick fog rose, almost tickling me. I stuck a cigarette in my mouth while I waited for a taxi. Nausea welled up. It was the night of my twenty-sixth birthday.

Illustration ⓒ Amy Shin

“Now this is rather problematic.” The woman’s abrupt switch to formal language signalled her anger. “It would be helpful if you explained where you went and why, so that there’s no misunderstanding.”

I knew this was part of the agreement but didn’t want to say. I didn’t want to tell her about my elderly mother’s appetite, or the last time I saw my father, or my little brother, who was finishing his army service soon but would no longer have a place to live. If I could win her pity from talking about these things, I would do so gladly. But I knew from experience that pity wouldn’t solve reality. I told the woman I’d gone to the bathhouse. That, at least, wasn’t a lie.

“The bathhouse? What if you had got an infection? Did you even look at the books I gave you?”

I said nothing. She didn’t question me further. She left, muttering about how she couldn’t believe I’d spent the night out.

Inside the shopping bags she left behind were two housedresses, vitamin supplements, a bag of walnuts, and a bag of pine nuts. I had read the pregnancy books, so knew the walnuts and pine nuts were good for the development of the baby’s brain, and the folic acid in the vitamin supplements was good for me. I had nothing else to do other than read those books while listening to Schubert and Mozart. Or look out the window or skim the take-out menus and decide what to eat. My days passed the way they must for a terminally ill patient.

After the woman had waited up for me all night, she started coming to the apartment every day. I had brought it on myself. But it didn’t affect my life; it was all the same to me. The housedresses were splashed with bright pink flowers.


Around the time the woman started coming every day, I started experiencing morning sickness. This overlapped with the withdrawal symptoms of quitting smoking. I didn’t try to quit; my body rejected cigarettes. Still, the cravings were bad. A habit your body remembers can be terribly stubborn, even when it’s trumped by an instinct of the body—or in this case, the uterus. My morning sickness worsened. On top of that, I started getting migraines accompanied by pelvic pains. They said these were common symptoms as hormones increased and the uterus expanded, and so there was nothing the woman nor I could do. The egg and sperm weren’t mine, but the uterus was. Therefore, I had to deal with all the signs that went along with the embryo settling into the uterus.

When I could no longer keep down restaurant meals, the woman started bringing me food. It was probably her housekeeper’s cooking, but I was able to eat it. The only thing was, when I finished eating, I was back to feeling queasy. I would have felt better if I’d vomited, but I wasn’t able to do even that. Every time we went to the hospital, the woman held me by the arm, supporting me. I limped because of the pelvic pains. I grew used to the women’s smell.

When I lost two kilograms in one week, the doctor said it was common in the first trimester, and that I would start gaining weight once the morning sickness stopped after three or four months. The woman put her arm around my shoulders, her expression brightening. I gazed at her blankly. She stayed glued to my side whenever I spoke to the doctor or received an ultrasound. Anyone would have assumed she was a devoted sister.

It was probably that same day the woman asked about my mother.

“Did she have bad morning sickness as well?”

My mother had stayed in bed the entire time. She vomited everything she ate, and for a few days all she could tolerate was a few sips of water. She found every smell in the world nauseating. And so, compared to her, my morning sickness wasn’t at all bad.

“Is she still alive?” A shadow flickered in her eyes. “My mother had only me. Imagine not being able to give birth to a son back then. My grandmother brought in a surrogate, and eventually that woman established herself as the wife. Tired old story, isn’t it? They say a woman shares her mother’s fate, and look at me now.”

Even as she drove, her gaze seemed empty.

“Still, my mother remarried and in the end everything worked out. So who knows? Maybe the same thing will happen to me.”

She gave a small smile. The expression was free from bitterness and contained vestiges of hope. It was not the bright smile she had flashed when the doctor said the appearance and location of the gestational sac were normal, as were the yolk sac and foetal heart rate. For some reason, I was relieved. It made me feel she could somehow understand the gloom inside me.

“You see, my mother didn’t have morning sickness.”

With those words she was letting me know that while the embryo was hers and her husband’s, carrying the embryo was up to me. I wished she hadn’t said anything. An awkward, uncomfortable silence settled over the car. We were stuck in traffic, and I began to feel queasy.

As soon as we returned to the apartment, I crawled into bed but then had to get back up to eat the orange she gave me. She stood with her back turned, gazing out the window. Standing at the window was her daily routine. I would often fall asleep watching her and, when I woke, I’d be alone.

While I was still suffering from nausea and groggy with sleep like a sick hen, summer arrived.

Climate change meant that this year the sweltering nights started before July. My phone rang as I was working on a patch of sky above the Mediterranean Sea. The woman had left behind the 1000-piece jigsaw puzzle, saying it was a good prenatal activity. The sea and islands were finished, and just the sky was left. Because all the pieces were the same color, the going was slow, but the puzzle helped me focus during sleepless nights. If she hadn’t called me that night, I might have finished the Mediterranean sky. Outside my window the sky was already brightening. Though her voice sounded different, I knew right away it was Mother.

I waited all morning for the woman to arrive. It was the first time since our family had scattered that Mother had called me. I didn’t want to make the woman anxious like the last time, so I had no choice but to tell her.

“Your mother?” she repeated.

I was already dressed. She looked at me, as if she found it unbelievable that my mother was still alive.

“I just need to check on her. I won’t be long.”

“I’ll go with you.”

There was no need for that, was there? I might have worked for her, but she didn’t have control over my personal life. No, that wasn’t right, I had sold off my personal life. I followed the woman in silence. Since I was in my first trimester, I still needed to be careful. It was the woman’s duty to protect the embryo.

Perhaps because of the sudden onset of tropical nights, the entire bathhouse was empty. Mother was sick, alone in the corner. She was lying flat on her back, gasping for air, her mouth wide open. I shook her by the shoulders, but she didn’t open her eyes. The woman was standing behind me. I looked at her in desperation.

Mother, whose fatigue and drawn-out cold had turned into pneumonia, was discharged after four days. Mother and I decided to each have a bowl of oxtail soup in the cafeteria. We hardly touched the rice and meat but refused to get up until all the broth was gone, as if we were honoring a vow. If you’re alive, you’ll find a way to live. I needed to repeat these words over and over. I knew the only place she could go back to was the bathhouse. In front of the bathhouse building, I put a few 10,000-won bills in her hand and turned away. The air smelled fishy. I felt a little faint, as if I had a slight fever.

As soon as I stepped inside the apartment, I was met with the savory smell of beef bone soup.

“What a rough couple of days. You must be tired,” the woman said, helping me to the table.

Though I’d just eaten, I started salivating when I saw the minced scallion in the hot milky broth. I paid no attention to how her sympathy bothered me, or how she marvelled, watching me polish off a whole bowl. But being full felt similar to being anxious. Yes, it was a good thing I could eat like this.

“How do you feel?” she asked. “Is the nausea still there?”

I told her my morning sickness was gone.

As she cleared the table she mumbled, “Looks like your mother got sick so you wouldn’t have to.”

I didn’t feel grateful for those words. The seascape puzzle was finished. Even though I was full, I still felt hungry. A terrifying appetite raged through me. I broke the puzzle apart, the pieces scattering into a thousand pieces.

(Excerpt from pp. 37-51.)

Translated by Janet Hong
“Mothers” appeared in The Lifted Brow #39.
Reprinted with the permission of The Lifted Brow.
Illustrations ⓒ Amy Shin

Author's Profile

Kim Yi-seol has published the novels Bad Blood, Welcome, and Seonhwa and the short story collections What No One Tells You and Quiet Like Today. She received the Hwang Sun-won Literary Award for New Literature. Welcome has been translated into French (Philippe Picquier, 2012) and German (Cass, 2015).