“Gwangju” is a novel-in-progress by Elaine H. Kim, and it was guest-edited by Alexander Chee
Thinking back on that last night, I realize you may have already been dead. But at the time the possibility didn’t exist. It couldn’t. I saw you in your close-fitting polo shirt: three buttons, collared, white with vertical blue lines. I remembered you last left the house wearing dark brown pants and your favorite sneakers. Did you bring a jacket? If you did, it would have been the navy one, light enough for the balmy spring afternoons and warm enough for the cooler evenings. That was something I worried about: did you have a jacket. It wasn’t until I went over these details aloud with the soldier, who couldn’t have been a day over twenty, that I saw how I had memorized you. I told them about the three moles on the left side of your neck, how they formed a perfect triangle. I described the way your upper right incisor protruded slightly and overlapped with its neighbors. I didn’t tell them of your habit of flicking your tongue to that tooth when nervous or self-conscious. At that point, those living details were considered irrelevant. I described the shorts you must have been wearing; they were the only pair not in the hamper or folded in the top right-hand drawer of your dresser. They asked about this because many of the young men had been ordered to strip down to their underwear. I never did see that navy jacket again, so you must have had it with you when you left. It was not on your body when I finally got to you. Did you forget it somewhere, swept up in shouting slogans while marching down Geumnam-no? Was it torn off you? Did you give it to some girl whose blouse had been ripped off of her?
You may well have been alive.
Sometimes I think it doesn’t matter. That I don’t need to know exactly when you died because the fact is you were killed. Cause of death: massive loss of blood due to severe injuries sustained to the abdomen and head. It was obvious you had been shot; less obvious was the damage inside. The doctor told me he couldn’t be sure if it was the bullet wounds or the internal bleeding that had gotten to you first. Steel-toed boots, he speculated. Getting kicked repeatedly in the stomach and back with army-issued steel-toed boots could have done it. I can’t help but think about it sometimes, even now, even after all these years. Your tender organs, the ones I had nurtured and fed through the flow of blood between us; how soft and fragile they proved to be, the kidneys letting loose their bile and poison, the great, floppy liver rupturing and splitting in defeat, the pancreas shaking loose its veiny roots and floating adrift, functionless and meaningless, unmoored from the coherent body. But then again it could have been the bullet. Even this, I’ll never know.
But it does matter, most of the time. I want to be able to trace your last days, your last hours, as I have by now accounted for every hour and every minute of the last possible days I could have shared here on earth with my oldest son.
When I am feeling bitter and gloomy I choose May 20. It was a Tuesday but didn’t feel like one: no bustle, no chatter, no rattling open of steel security gates. Nothing came awake, as nobody had slept. I lay under the blanket, watching the light change on the other side of the window. The drizzle that had begun the night before continued. I could hear your brother breathe in the room he shared with you. Your bedding remained folded and put away as it had been for two days. I thought of what I would make for breakfast; I hadn’t been able to get fresh vegetables, no bread or milk. Rice, then, and melchi cooked with soy sauce and sugar, kimchi chigae, pickled radish. Should I open the last can of tuna? I listened to your brother’s solitary slumbering and decided to put it aside it for later.
He was sullen at the table. I had told him nothing; he had asked me nothing. I know he understood the seriousness of what was happening regardless of what he actually knew–he obeyed with no complaint, kept quiet, stayed indoors. The urge to draw him to me was strong over those days of your disappearance, to cup his still small head in my palm, to feel his arms around my waist, his boyish hands grasping for each other at the small of my back. I longed to cradle him as I had you and your sister, to feel his weight against my body, drawing comfort from being the source of solace for my child. But I held back. And something was hardening in him. I see now how this is where loss begins. The steeling of self against future memory, the refusal to bear ghosts.
After breakfast, I took him next door; the schools were closed. “Be good to imo,” I said.
Your brother made a face. “She only gets three stations.”
“So then why don’t you study instead of watching television?” I said. He shrugged and looked away. I wanted to say more but didn’t. Instead: “I’ll be back before dinner.”
I watched him walk up to the door, swaying his shoulders side to side the way young boys do sometimes. His hands were jammed into his pockets and I could see from the way he held his head how unhappy he was. He missed you. He was worried about you. He was worried about me. Do you know what that was like?
But I can’t ask. I won’t.
I turned to make my way to the main road when I heard someone calling my name.
“Uhn-ni, where are you going? You’re not going downtown today, are you?” It was Soo-gyung, her face wrinkled up with concern. Do you remember her? She took to us as soon as we moved in, alone as she was, bringing apples or tangerines whenever she came to visit. Soo-gyung had been married but soon after the wedding her husband had been called into the service. He died nine months into it when a faulty rifle backfired; a shard of the barrel had severed an artery.
I let her catch up to me. “Stay home, uhn-ni,” she said. “Don’t be foolish.” The curls around her face vibrated with each breath.
“I can’t stay home anymore. I’ve done enough waiting.” I started walking.
“But there are rumors,” she began.
I cut her off: “And they’re probably just rumors,” though I wasn’t as sure as I was trying to sound. Overheard at the market: A 12-year old boy pulled off his bicycle and stabbed. Told on the corner: A middle school girl walking home, breasts cut off and left to die in the street. Heard everywhere: the Special Forces all have Kyungsangbuk-do accents, are on stimulants, are brainwashed, are going to assassinate Kim Dae-Jung. They’re killing and beating anyone who looks college-aged, anyone looking on, anyone daring to help the injured. Even grandfathers and aunties were not safe: stories had come in about an old woman pulled from her house, accused of harboring demonstrators. They say she was beaten unconscious and left bleeding on the doorstep of her empty home. The rumors literally rained down on us: leaflets warned of infiltration, contamination, impure elements, North Korean spies.
People said blood ran down Geumnam-no in streams but MBC ran its regular evening program of comedy shows, dramas, and commercials for skin whitener and instant coffee. All of the rumors were our attempt to explain, to provide some rationale for the madness that had engulfed our city, our nation. That, or the rumors were true, fact that had been passed from citizen to citizen as a warning: stay home, protect your children, be afraid. Or: now is the time, fight back, rise up. To this day, I cannot say what it was that determined which warning a person decided to hear, and to heed. All I believed, all I knew at the time, was that you were alive and it was a mother’s duty to find her son and bring him home.
Soo-gyung sighed. “It’s not safe. That’s a fact.”
She was afraid. This sturdy, thick-waisted woman who had lived through occupation, war, widowhood, and poverty–she was frightened.
“That’s why I have to find him,” I said.
“What if something happens to you?” she asked. “What about Kyung-bin?”
“Nothing will happen to me,” I said. “I’ll be fine.”
Soo-gyung took hold of my elbow with strong fingers. “Come on,” she said. “Don’t be stupid.”
I jerked away without thinking. “No.”
I could see the surprise and disbelief in my friend’s face. I knew she couldn’t understand: why would I take such a risk when another child was depending on me? Her own experience of loss, how everything had happened to her–no choice, no control, no possibility of other paths–made her think only of the sure thing. Stay home, be safe. But I had already made the biggest gamble possible with my daughter, and would never know how it turned out. And I loved you, loved you fiercely, deeply. My love was a red, pulsing thing I could not control.
“Please take care of Kyung-bin.” I squeezed Soo-gyung’s hand. “Don’t worry. I promise to be careful.”
She made one last attempt: “What are you going to do if you find him?” She made her voice gentle. “He’s chosen to be gone,” she said.
“I’ll get him home,” I said. “Somehow.”
As I continued on my way, I pushed Soo-gyung’s question out of my mind, thinking instead of where I might discover you. I didn’t come up with a strategy or run through arguments in my mind; I was simply focused on finding you. And perhaps this single-minded determination reveals some truth I wasn’t ready to face then, that some small part of me, deep down, was fully aware of the possibility–no, the probability–of danger and harm. I was looking for you not only to bring you home but to see you intact, to make sure you were safe. I hadn’t thought of what I would do when I found you, only that you had to be found.
The closer I got to downtown, the more trash littered the street. Bottle caps, broken glass, torn paper. And later, a cracked bicycle helmet and a single bloodied slipper. Later still: bricks cracked in two, bullet casings, a pair of pants. The pavement was stained, and the bitter, acrid smell of burnt rubber permeated the air. A phone booth looked as if it had been bombed–the folding doors were spiderwebbed with cracks and the two other sides twisted brown and black.
And the people. Oh, the sounds. I will never forget.
We had been transformed into a vast river, some of us flowing swiftly through the streets, carried along and buttressed by the others, clear in our purpose and direction while others meandered and drifted, looping and gurgling around felled telephone poles and burnt cars, lost and wailing, looking and looking, and still others ended up banked and stranded on the sides, hugging the concrete walls, hiding in doorways, fearful of being seen or seeing too much, so afraid, so afraid. We were at the mercy of whatever current we had stepped into, or chosen to be carried away by, and there seemed to be no turning back; I couldn’t stop for those weeping, for those bleeding, for those simply laying there spreadeagled on the street, for more than anything else, I did not want to see them, did not want to know their pain.
Before I knew what was happening I was in the midst of a great crowd, in the belly of some vast beast. We pulsed forward, advanced, then, almost with a great sigh, fell back again. Rocks flew through the air like small planets seeking their orbit, followed by flames licking and curling. A young woman next to me, her hair in a twist up the back of her head, bright pink lipstick on her face, was singing at the top of her lungs: Arirang, arirang. The middle-aged man on my other side swung his bare forearms back and forth and sang so hard I felt his spit on my cheek. I was surrounded by song. Everywhere, everyone was singing: their faces lifted up, mouths open wide, some throwing fists up into the air. And all the while, in the midst of all that movement and cacophony, I was looking for you.
I pushed my way out to the side and got there just in time. Something rippled through the crowd and I heard screaming and shouting. The river flooded its banks and rushed out the side streets, fleeing the thudding batons, the rain of blows. I ran up an unfamiliar alley and found myself pushed to the side, too slow and old for the rapids.
“Uhn-ni,” I heard. “Uhn-ni, over here.”
A group of women like myself, faces creased and hands roughened, bent over great plastic bins of rice. I could see steam curling up between their lowered faces.
“Come help,” the voice said, and a woman with her hair held back with a square of cloth gestured to me. She barely glanced at me, waving at me with a big hand. I think it must have been this cursory acknowledgment and how loaded it was with simple expectation that brought me to her. There seemed no choice but to obey. And I had not seen you and did not know where to go. I was beginning to fight desperation, and a task gave me some direction.
They were scooping and cupping balls of rice in their hands, patting them into shape. I pushed up my sleeves and dug four fingers into the steaming mass. We soon had a large pile stacked into a neighboring bin, and the woman who had called me over hefted it onto her hip. She gestured at a box on the ground with her chin.
“Take that,” she said, “and follow me.”
The box was filled with dented tubes of toothpaste. I didn’t understand, but did as she said.
I followed her back to the main thoroughfare, trailing behind the opening she made with her bulk, her baggy pants a kind of a flag. Before we emerged she put down her load, untied the cloth covering her hair and used it to cover her nose and mouth.
“Do you have something?” she asked. Her eyes were bloodshot and red-rimmed, a deep crease folded between them.
I looked down at myself, took off the cardigan I was wearing. She nodded at me, turned me around with a push and tied the arms together behind my head. I could smell the detergent we used, the faint medicinal scent of our home.
The woman reached into my box, opened a tube and smeared some on the exposed parts of her face.
“It helps with the tear gas,” she said, and reached over to me. The toothpaste and her fingers were cool and minty against my skin.
Even with it on, my eyes began to water as soon as we got to the street. Smoke lingered in the air but I knew it wasn’t the smoke I was reacting to. Hundreds of feet thundered by, some in sneakers and socks, others in heavy, lace-up boots. We were in a storm of bodies, arms, and legs pumping here and there, shouts and chants interspersed with cries of rage and screams of pain. I heard orders being called, felt the endless rhythm of “forward, forward,” like waves on a stony shore. A young man’s voice amplified over the street and an echo of rumbling pulsed back towards him. They were trying to take Provincial Hall, trying to tear down the barricades.
My partner was a machine, transferring rice balls from one hand to the other, offering them up without looking. They were snatched up by the passing bodies. One young man stuffed one whole into his mouth, bits of rice sticking to the bloodied corners of his mouth. He licked them off as he passed me by.
I held out the tubes of toothpaste, feeble oblong offerings. “For the tear gas,” I called, “For the tear gas.”
Another young man stopped in front of me. He wore a white undershirt and black pants rolled up to the middle of his shins, a streak of dried blood crusted in a slant across his forehead. He grinned at me, rubbed at it with the back of a fist.
“Please don’t worry, ajumoni,” he said. “It’s not mine.” He wore no shoes or socks, had nothing in his hands. “But I could use some toothpaste.”
I couldn’t speak as I spread the white paste under his nose and around his mouth. His skin was pale under a thin gray layer of ash. He closed his eyes as I worked, and I felt the urge to take his tired head in my arms.
“Take it,” I said. “For the others.” I was thinking of you, that this young man seemed like someone you might be friends with, a hyung you might drink with late into the night.
“Thank you,” he said, taking two tubes. He looked right at me then, his eyes sunk deep into his face. “We’re saving Gwangju,” he said. “You and me.” And then, before I could say anything, he ran off, the bottoms of his feet tough and dark.
I don’t think it’s an accident that I so often come back to this day, as I see now it was when some part of me died and another part was born. I remember that young man, as I remember the girl with the lipstick and the man whose spit I bore. I remember the hunched over bodies, inelegant lumps protecting more vulnerable areas. I remember the soldiers towering over them, bringing their batons down on those backs with all of their strength, pulling back and winding up as if getting ready to hurl a baseball across a vast field. I remember the shimmering crackle of bones breaking, the snuffle of bloody wounds stopped and tended. I remember the running, the fear. I remember the quivering hope in those songs and the unforgettable sound of a thousand voices moving forward. I remember the feeling of looking for you among both the still and the running bodies and being engulfed by a great tsunami of relief not to see you in the middle of that chaos. I believe it was what I saw that day that led me, that last, fateful night, upon hearing a young girl’s voice call out to those of us safe and afraid at home, “Citizens! Rise up and fight! Do not forget us!” to reach out to you across distance and fear and sorrow and my own desire and to say to you, my eldest son, sequestered there in the darkness of Provincial Hall, sure of death and the desertion of mercy: Stay. Fight.
ELAINE H. KIM has won fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, and the Jerome Foundation. She has work published or forthcoming in So to Speak and upstreet, and was a finalist in the 2007 Storyquarterly Fall Fiction Contest. Elaine recently returned to New York from South Korea and currently lives in Brooklyn.