Authors: Gong Ji-Young
Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do.
– Jesus, a condemned criminal facing execution at the age of 33
Harlem is there by way of a divine indictment against New York City and the people who live downtown and make their money downtown. The brothels of Harlem, and all its prostitution, and its dope rings, and all the rest are the mirror of the polite divorces and the manifold cultured adulteries of Park Avenue: they are God’s commentary on the whole of our society.
– Thomas Merton
I am going to tell you a story. It is a story of murder. It is a story of a family that was only capable of destruction, where screaming and yelling and whippings and chaos and curses were their daily bread. And it is a story of a miserable being who used to believe he couldn’t possibly be miserable—this is my story. The day it all began, two women and a teenager died. I was convinced that one of those women had no right to live, that she deserved to die. I thought that for her to have so much money all to herself was like dressing vermin in fine silk. I thought that if I, in this unfair and unjust world, could use that money for something good instead, I would be doing the right thing.
And there was another woman. She was a woman who had never had anything of her own in her whole life. A woman who had everything taken away from her
by others—that woman was dying. If only I’d had three million won, I could have saved her. But at the time, I had no way of getting that much money. With each day that passed, she was closer to death, and though I did not know if there really was a heaven or how long it had been since I last looked to it, I assumed heaven would understand me, and that this was justice. Justice.
he fine flurries of snow that started in the afternoon were turning to rain. A hazy bluish light flooded the streets, and the damp sky hung low, blurring the line between it and the earth. The clock ticked past five. I put on my coat and left my apartment. In the parking lot, the cars were as silent as graves, and the yellow lights flickering on one by one in the windows across the street began to glimmer like unreachable stars. The trees that lined the road, having long since dropped their leaves, looked like a barbed wire fence dividing the poor people’s apartments across the street from the wealthy apartments on this side. I paused before getting into my car and glanced up. The apartment buildings stood with their backs to the sky, their ponderous bodies blocking the clouds from view. Standing there in the fading light of dusk, the buildings resembled a straight, unmarred fortress wall. A thin winter rain fell on the frozen street. I got in my car. As soon as I turned on the headlights, shards of rain like finely shaved ice appeared in the cylindrical light. The dark evening was broken only by the cheerful, colorful rays spilling from the streetlights and store signs—for all
I knew, the rain fell only inside that light. In the darkness, after all, we had no idea what was really falling upon us.
Dr. Noh had called to tell me that Aunt Monica had collapsed and was back in the hospital, that the prognosis didn’t look good this time, and that I’d better prepare myself. That probably meant I had to get ready to let go of yet another person. I pictured Yunsu’s face as the engine turned over: black horn-rimmed glasses, pale faded-looking skin, lips still red with youth, shallow dimple that appeared in only one cheek when he smiled shyly. I didn't want to remember him. I had spent many sleepless nights trying to put him out of my mind. Nights when I could not fall asleep without hard liquor, blue dawns when I awoke to a strangling phantom.
I used to bury my face in my pillow and wait for tears, but all that would come out of me was a strange moan. There were some days when I thought,
Fine, better to remember, remember it all, remember every last bit of it,
but I would wind up drunk and passed out on the sofa.
After Yunsu was gone, I woke up every morning knowing that I could never return to my old ways. Everything had been turned upside down again; like it was in the beginning. But after getting to know him, I became sure of two things: that I could never again try to take my own life, and that this was both his last gift and the final sentence that he gave to me.
Just like the winter rain that was only visible in the glow of the headlights, there were many things in this world that were invisible in the dark. I learned this after meeting him: just because something was invisible didn’t mean it did not exist. After meeting him, I pushed through my own darkness and figured out what that darkness was that breathed inside of me like death. There were things I would never have noticed if not for him, and I would have never realized
that what I thought was darkness was actually a dazzling brightness. A light so bright that my eyes were blinded by it. I would have continued thinking I knew everything. Because I realized through Yunsu that if we can love truly, then it is in that instant that we are already sharing the glory of God.
He’s gone now, but I still thank God for giving me the chance to meet him.
I drove down the dark street in the rain. Seven years ago, there had been almost no traffic on this road where even the neon signs had held their breath, but now the lanes were packed with cars pouring in from all directions. There was no hurry. Everyone was going somewhere. No matter the destination, they all had to get somewhere. But did any of them really know where they were going? The same question I'd asked myself all those years ago returned to me like an ancient memory. Up ahead, a stop light lit up as red as the sun over the cars racing through the murky, fog-like rain. The cars all stopped at once. I stopped, too.
Poor little legless bird
who lost its mother,
where will you go
when rough winds blow?
Dear wind, do you know?
Dear rain, do you know?
What will carry them
from these woods?.
– Bang Eui-kyung, “Beautiful Things””
My hometown… You asked me about my hometown. But did I ever really have a home? I said that if by hometown you meant where I was born, then the answer would be Yangpyeong in Gyeonggi Province outside of Seoul, and I waited for your next question. But you didn’t ask me anything else.
It was a poor village
, I said.
There was a reservoir just past a small grassy knoll and our house was always cold.
I stopped there.
you don’t have to talk about it if you don’t want to.
But it’s not that I didn’t want to—I couldn’t. When I dig up those memories, it feels like a black clot of blood fills my mouth.
My little brother Eunsu and I used to play in the sun at the edge of the reservoir. One day, Eunsu was spanked by the woman next door. He had gone over there to beg for some rice, but she said he spilled it. So while she and her husband were out working, I took a long wooden stick from an A-frame carrier and used it to beat their kids until their noses bled. After that, none of the other kids would play with us. So it was always just the two of us. Sometimes, if a kind-hearted person gave us a lump of cold leftover rice, we would sneak into a neighbor’s barn so as not to wake up our father who was passed out from drinking, and we would take turns taking bites of the frozen ball of rice. The reservoir was always sunny, and when luck was with us, we even got instant ramen from the fishermen who came there
from Seoul. On even luckier days, we would go to a store about five miles away and bring back cigarettes for them in exchange for a few coins.
It took me a long time to realize that we were waiting for our mother, who had run away from home. It was only after a very, very long time that I realized that, even though all I remembered of her was her swollen face and the bruises that covered her body from our father’s beatings, I was waiting for her to come home, bruises and all, and kill our father who would start beating us again the moment he woke from his drunken slumber in that unheated room. I was waiting for her to rescue us. My very first memory in life is of wanting to kill. But since my mother was out there somewhere, in some faraway place, that feeling of waiting—even when I didn’t know what I was waiting for—never went away entirely. I think that was when I was around seven years old.
unt Monica and I were the black sheep in our family. Or should I say heretics? Or maybe bastards is more accurate? There was a nearly forty-year age difference between us, but we were as identical as twins. When I was a child, my mother used to tell me,
You act just like your aunt
. I knew she didn’t mean it in a good way. No matter how young you are, you can always tell from the way someone says a person’s name whether they like or hate that person. Why did she hate my aunt, whom she used to be friends with? Did I hate my mother because she hated the aunt that I took after, or had I decided to take after my aunt on purpose because my mother hated her? I was stubborn and enjoyed making other people uncomfortable. I would cuss in the peaceful faces of those who sickened me, and cackle with laughter and pity as the looks on their faces turned to shock. But what I felt was not victory, like occupying forces singing as they enter a savage land. It was more like an old, secret wound ready to spill blood at the slightest touch, the kind of hurt that would bleed at a moment’s notice even when there was no pain. In other words, it was closer to desperation, a parody sung by the surviving soldiers of a failed mutiny. But Aunt Monica and I were also different
in many ways. She prayed far more for our family than I did, and she never used them for material gain.
As for me, if I’m going to be really honest, I was a mess. I lived for myself, dragged other people into my life in the name of love or friendship, not for their sake but for my own, existed only for myself and even wanted to die for myself. I was a hedonist. Oblivious to the fact that I had lost myself and become a slave to the senses, I lashed out at the fortress of my strong family. I stayed out all night drinking and singing and dancing. I didn't know that this trivial lifestyle of mine was systematically destroying me, and even if I had known, I wouldn’t have stopped. I wanted to destroy myself. I was only satisfied if the entire galaxy revolved around me. I got drunk and kicked at closed doors, not knowing who I was or what I wanted. I had never said the words out loud, but if someone had held a stethoscope to my heart back then, they probably would have heard: Why can’t the sun revolve around me? Why aren’t you there for me when I’m lonely? Why do good things keep happening to the people I hate? Why does the world keep angering me and refusing me even the tiniest sliver of happiness?