When Dad found a jackknife in Dori’s pocket, he burst into laughter.
—What can you even do with something like this?
Dad mimed opening a can with the jackknife without wiping the patronizing smirk off his face. But when Dori said she had escaped Korea and traveled on foot from Ulan-Ude with Miso, he was briefly at a loss for words.
—Without anyone’s help?
Dad eyed Dori’s blank expression.
—Without killing anyone?
Dori didn’t answer. Miso, despite the scared look on her face, smiled a little when she met my gaze.
—How long did it take?
—I didn’t count the days.
Recalling those days . . . time collapses on itself. I can’t recall the events in order . . . No, there is no order. Everything happened at once. Gunji’s dad and my mom and my relatives and our neighbors all died in an instant. The sun came up even when I did not sleep. I could not breathe, but I did not die. I was in a state of consciousness where I could not distinguish whether the things I was seeing and hearing were nightmares or reality. Looking at a burning building, I wondered if it was something that I had done. Looking at the people who had died, I trembled with fear, unsure if I had killed them. The world spun on in a macabre dance. A distorted melody sounded from every direction. Though I did not speak, a spell of curses leaked out on their own. Though I didn’t cry, tears flowed down my cheeks.
I could picture that whole scene so well that I was giggling for awhile, then stifled myself mid-laugh. I felt the adults’ icy stares.
We who had lost our family and become refugees could not laugh.
We had left our jokes and our laughter behind in our hometown.
The self-recrimination and guilt—the belief that it was a sin to have survived and a further sin to continue evading death, that you and I were wicked humans all the same—had struck deep into people’s dim eyes and speech. I knew. That our misery made us like this. That we were pinned down by death. That we could not be free from memory, that we were too exhausted to look out into the future. For those reasons, I was even more certain that I did not want to gradually resemble misery. I did not want to belittle life. I did not know what death or life really was at this point, but I at least did not want to think of it as some kind of mistake or punishment. With that sort of thinking, I could cope with neither Mom’s death nor my life.
Back in Korea, I wanted to be a fashion designer, but now a dream like that is useless. A warm ocean where I can build a house and swim around and catch fish and . . . I must dream such dreams. Because fashion designers may no longer exist, but an ocean that’s warm year-round must exist somewhere. Because regardless of how much time passes and whether humans go extinct, the ocean would be there.