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Fiction

from “I’ll Be Right There”

By Kyung-sook Shin
Translated from Korean by Sora Kim-Russell
A young woman named Yoon visits her childhood friend Dahn, who has dropped out of college to join the military.

Dahn sent me the first letter a year after he joined the military and was selected for the special forces. It was more than five pages long. He didn’t mention anywhere in it that he was in a special forces unit. I unfolded the letter and put it on my desk. From GI Dahn to Civilian Yoon . . . I stared at those words for a long time. It pained me to realize that I had never written him back. I filled a fountain pen with ink, took out a new notebook, and wrote his name at the top of the page.

Dahn.

Dahn as a baby, Dahn as a child, Dahn as a seventeen-year-old, eighteen-year-old, nineteen-year-old, then a college student, then a soldier. Right after he joined the army, I didn’t hear from him for some time. I called his sister to get his address, and she told me he had been assigned to a special unit. She said they had nonstop drills every day, and that sometimes he had to survive in the mountains for half a week with only a canteen and a bayonet. You know how on Armed Forces Day, she said, the soldiers parachute in formation? His unit is one of those. But why Dahn? She told me he had the right physique for the special forces. But they must do aptitude testing as well? I pestered his sister with questions, but it made no difference. I wrote his name in my notebook again. I could not picture Dahn parachuting out of an airplane. How did he survive on his own for days in the mountains? In the space between the words civilian and soldier rested the sense of distance that prevented me from picturing him doing a road march or maritime training. I imagined his unit must spend so much time in the mountains that, after being discharged from active duty, the mere mention of mountains would make them turn their heads in disgust. To think that was where he was. Dahn the arachnophobe in the special forces having to survive for days on his own in the wild? Even after I had his address, I kept starting letters and abandoning them because I could not begin to imagine what he was going through. Then his letter arrived first.

Dahn.

I got your letter. I hope the night drills went OK.

Unsure of what to write next, I closed my notebook. How many times during those three weeks of hard training did Dahn have to recite Dickinson to himself so he could face down a spider? I started to put Dahn’s letter back in the drawer but paused and stared for a moment at the other letters stacked inside. I took them all out and placed them on top of the desk. They included lettercards and even ordinary postcards. I could not believe I had never written back to him, despite the many times he had written me. The image of Dahn at the waiting area flickered before my eyes. We had arrived at the training center two hours early and were waiting for him. Since we hadn’t arranged to meet, we thought there might be too many people and that we might not get to see him. There were only a few others at first, but it soon grew into a crowd. Most were friends of the new recruits. If we had not been standing in front of a military training center, it would have looked like we were waiting for a concert to begin. Myungsuh spotted Dahn before I could. While I was staring way off into the distance, he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to him. He even called out to Dahn before I did. Dahn was shocked to see us. It was so strange to see him with a buzz cut that I could not stop staring. His scalp, and even the underside of his chin, looked blue from where it had been closely shaved. He stared at me for a moment and then took the cat from Miru. I guess saying good-bye makes us reach out for those we would ordinarily ignore. Maybe we care about them more, too, when it is time to part. He cradled the cat in his arms and looked around at us. He had stayed away from Emily when the four of us were staying in the old house, but now it felt like she’d been his from the start.

Dahn did not put her down the whole time. Not even when we went to a coffee shop, which took forever for us to find, and not even when I handed him the book of poems and told him to sneak it on base somehow. Finally, just before returning to the training center, he handed Emily back to Miru. Then he walked away without once looking back. I caught myself chanting the words, Turn around! Myungsuh mumbled, “That’s cold.” I ran. Dahn was walking straight ahead in the crowd of blue-skinned heads when I caught up to him. “I’ll write to you,” I told him. “I’ll come visit you, too.” Dahn told me not to worry about it and smiled. Later, sitting in the bathroom at a rest stop on the way back to the city, I pictured Dahn disappearing into the crowd without looking back and had to close my eyes from the pain. Then, back on the bus, I thought about that time very long ago when a night train chugged past right in front of us, and I had to squeeze my eyes shut even tighter.

I put my face down on the desk. I remembered that night with Dahn so vividly. I had debated for several days whether or not to go. He had avoided contacting me, even when he was on furlough, because he didn’t want me to see him with a shaved head. To get to where Dahn was, I had to take a train and two different intercity buses. At the last stop, I met a civilian defense soldier who was on his way to night duty at the unit on the coast where Dahn was on patrol. He took me all the way to the unit where Dahn was stationed. Dahn rushed out, his rifle slung over his shoulder, hand grenades and bayonet on his army belt.

Armed to the teeth, Dahn and I walked along a forest path lined with dry pinecones. There was no one else around. We came down a path along the bluffs and followed the coastal ceasefire line until we had left his patrol route. We walked forever down that dark path along the waterfront. I had no idea where we were. We seemed to be moving away from the water, because the sound of lapping waves grew faint. The stars gazed down at us, shimmering as if they might spill down at any moment. Dahn walked beside me in silence. I didn’t say anything, either. For me, there was nothing stranger than seeing Dahn dressed as if he could be sent into battle at any moment. I could not think of what to say to the Dahn who was no longer Dahn the individual that I knew but Dahn the nameless soldier in khaki combat fatigues. We walked on and on but never came across another person. Suddenly Dahn asked, “Want to hear something scary?”

“Seeing you armed like that is scary enough.”

He laughed.

“I deserted my post,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“If they find out I’m with you, I’ll be court-martialed.”

“Is it that bad?”

Dahn laughed again at how serious I sounded.

“Don’t worry. When you do coastal duty long enough, you realize that everyone does what they have to in order to see their family or girlfriends. We all look the other way. The company commander and first sergeant probably know about it. No one believed me when I said I had a girlfriend, so they made a bet.”

“On me?”

“Sorry.”

“What was the bet?”

“They said if you showed up, they’d let me stay out overnight.”

“This is too dangerous. I don’t want something bad to happen to you because of me.”

“Bad? What are you talking about? I’m so happy right now. I can’t believe you’re here beside me.”

I was nervous, but talking to Dahn made me feel better.

“What was the scary story? More spiders?”

“I’m not afraid of spiders anymore.”

This was not the same Dahn who had worn a headlamp to accompany me to my mother’s grave, the Dahn who trembled in fear of stepping on a spider. He told me that his fear of spiders went away while he was in the special forces. He said that after all of that daily hiking, crawling, jumping, and soaring up in the mountains, he found himself grabbing spiders with his bare hands.

“Really? So there is some benefit to joining the army!”

Dahn’s laugh sounded hollow.

“So what’s your scary story?” I asked again.

Dahn pointed to some spot in the dark, to where the sound of the waves was coming from.

“There’s a guard shack down there, between the bunkers, where the soldiers take turns napping during their patrols. They say a soldier fell in love with a girl from one of the villages nearby. The girl would come by from time to time and spend the night with him in the shack. Whenever she came to see him, she always brought a pot of ramen for him as a midnight snack. But after the guy got out of the service, he took off without giving her his phone number or even so much as a glance back. She was so heartbroken that she hanged herself from the ceiling of the shack where they had been sleeping together. Turned out she was several months pregnant. After a while, rumors started to circulate. Whenever a new arrival fell asleep in the shack, he dreamed that a pretty young woman opened the door, smiled, and came inside. Carrying a tray with a steaming pot . . .”

“. . . And?”

“The soldier would take the tray and open the lid to find the pot filled with ramen. Bright red ramen boiling in blood.”

I shrieked and grabbed his arm.

“Is it true?” I asked. “Did you see her, too?”

“Of course not! It’s just a legend that’s been passed down in our unit. The Legend of the Blood Ramen Ghost . . . Soldiers probably made it up to tell their girlfriends when they visited, like you. The girls get scared, just like you did, and grab their boyfriends’ hands or leap into their arms.”

“What?!”

So he had been trying to scare me, too. I tried to shake off his arm, but he pulled me closer and said, “I’m so glad you’re here!” With the sound of the waves coming to us through the darkness, we passed a cornfield and walked single file along a ridge between two pepper fields until we came to a house. We decided to ask if we could stay there, since we couldn’t keep walking all night. The woman who lived there must have been used to overnight visitors from the base, because she immediately led us to a tiny corner room with a porch. Dahn asked if there was anything to eat. She was surprised that we had not eaten yet and told us to wait a moment. Soon she came back with a tray filled with battered and pan-fried slices of squash, steamed and seasoned eggplant, kimchi, rice, and soup. She set the tray down on the porch. As she turned to go back to the kitchen, Dahn asked if there was any soju. She started to say there was none, but then she asked if we wanted her husband’s half-empty bottle. Dahn thanked her. She came back right away with the soju, two shot glasses, and a small dish of pan-fried tofu. She told Dahn to take off his helmet and rifle. “Doesn’t that scare your girlfriend?” she joked, and looked at me as she laughed. She told us the room would warm up in a moment and turned to leave. We ate on the porch. The plates were old, but the eggplant smelled savory and aromatic, like it had been freshly seasoned with sesame oil. Dahn filled his own glass with soju and looked at me. As I shook my head to say I didn’t want any, I spotted a spiderweb dangling above the porch.

“Spider!”

Dahn took a look and stood up. With his bare fingers, he plucked the spider as it crawled down its web, trembling in the light, and tossed it into the yard.

“I’m not afraid of them anymore,” he said.

Dahn sat down again and drank his soju. He looked at the kimchi and tofu but didn’t touch any of it. I had a few bites of eggplant and then set my chopsticks down. I was hungry but couldn’t eat any more than that. While Dahn drank, I stared at his combat boots and my sneakers where we had left them in front of the porch. I stuck my feet out and slid them into his boots. They were loose. I got down from the porch and staggered around. Dahn laughed out loud. “How on earth do you wear these heavy things?” I asked. I took off the boots and opened the door to the room. On the yellow linoleum floor were two blankets and a flat pillow. It must have been past midnight by the time we went inside and spread out the bedding. Dahn’s helmet sat on the floor next to us. We lay side by side, Dahn still dressed in fatigues and me still dressed in my street clothes. When we were little, we used to go over to each other’s houses to play and wind up falling asleep. Either his sister or my mother would come find us and carry us home on their backs. The sound of the waves surged in through the small window and lapped the rim of my ear.

“The ocean must be right outside,” I said.

“Just the beach. The water’s farther off.”

“How are you doing?”

“Like I’m trapped in a spider web.”

“I thought you weren’t afraid of spiders anymore.”

“I’m not. Not of the spiders that live in the mountains. But I think I’ve found a much bigger spider.”

He sounded sad. I felt him move toward me, and suddenly his face was directly over mine.

“I hate the sound of rifles. And the feeling of my finger on the trigger.”

The smell of the soju on Dahn’s breath filled my nose. He stared deep into my eyes. They wavered, and then his lips were against mine. His uniform pressed against my street clothes, and his hand slid inside my shirt and over my breast. When his breathing grew rough, I pushed him away from me. I could feel the strength in his hands when he grabbed my wrists.

“Dahn, please.” I felt his breath against my skin. “Don’t.” I tried to push him away, but he wouldn’t stop. As I struggled, my hand brushed his cheek and I felt his hot tears. His lips pressed against mine again, and he tried to unbutton my shirt.

“You’re the only exit I have left,” he said.

The next thing I knew, my shirt was pushed halfway up my chest, and Dahn was trying to unzip my pants. I twisted away from him, but he climbed on top of me and held me down. I do not know if it was because of his tears on my fingertips, but I felt confused and lost all strength in my body. I realized that the whole time I had been debating how to respond to Dahn’s invitation, I had known deep down that this would happen.

“You don’t love me,” Dahn said finally, and rolled away from me. “It’s because of him, isn’t it?” he asked. I knew who he was referring to.

Embarrassed by what had happened, the two of us probably got no sleep all night. I reached out and felt for Dahn’s hand, but he did not move. At some point, it started to rain. If the sound of rain could be counted, I probably would have counted the drops. In the morning, our eyes met as we were folding the blankets up. His eyes were bloodshot. We took the same path we had taken the night before. I felt indescribably sad. We walked over the pinecones wet from last night’s rain, made our way along the deserted forest path, and stood at the edge of the cliff and looked down at the sea. Below the dazzling sun sitting just over the horizon, barges were rocking in the waves. The sun seemed to shine even brighter after the rain. A tractor made its way around the driftwood and fishing nets scattered along the beach. What was a tractor doing on the mudflats? It was an unusual sight for me, as I was more accustomed to seeing cultivators moving back and forth between rice paddies. Each time the wind blew, the water wrinkled and grazed the sandbanks, one fold after another. The distant sound of engines sounded like something in a dream. A flock of seagulls wheeled through the morning sky and called out to one another.

“About last night,” Dahn started to say, a glum look on his face. I quickly cut him off.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine. We’ll forget all about it in a few days.”

“OK.” He nodded gravely.

“So, have you caught a spy yet?” The question popped out before I could stop myself.

“No one in my unit has, but they say someone caught a whale a few years ago.”

“A whale?”

“Yes. We don’t normally get whales in the West Sea. But once in a while, one gets lost and crosses the South Sea to this side of the peninsula. They say that when whales swim toward the coastline in the dark, they sound like North Korean spy submarines infiltrating. The soldier on duty followed procedure and fired off a flare, then remote detonated a claymore and opened fire with a machine gun. After the sun rose and they went in for a closer look, they discovered that it wasn’t a spy, after all, but an enormous whale floating belly up and ripped to shreds.”

“Poor whale.”

“The colonel gave the soldier a commendation and rewarded him with a seven-day pass because he performed his guard duty properly without dozing off.”

After the story of the whale mistaken for a spy, we didn’t have anything else to say. It was the first time we had ever felt awkward around each other. We walked back between the cornfield and pepper field that we had passed the night before and arrived at Dahn’s unit. I told him I would be on my way and turned to leave. After a few steps, I glanced back to see that he was still standing there, glued to the spot, watching me go. After a few more steps, I glanced back again, and he was still there. I gestured at him to go on in, but he did not move. I got farther away and looked back again. His head was hanging down.

After that visit, I stopped answering his letters.


From
I’ll Be Right There, published 2014 by Other Press. Copyright © 2010 by Kyung-sook Shin. Translation copyright © 2014 by Sora Kim-Russell. By arrangement with Other Press. All rights reserved.

Read About Bios Context Explore Teaching Ideas

Dahn sent me the first letter a year after he joined the military and was selected for the special forces. It was more than five pages long. He didn’t mention anywhere in it that he was in a special forces unit. I unfolded the letter and put it on my desk. From GI Dahn to Civilian Yoon . . . I stared at those words for a long time. It pained me to realize that I had never written him back. I filled a fountain pen with ink, took out a new notebook, and wrote his name at the top of the page.

Dahn.

Dahn as a baby, Dahn as a child, Dahn as a seventeen-year-old, eighteen-year-old, nineteen-year-old, then a college student, then a soldier. Right after he joined the army, I didn’t hear from him for some time. I called his sister to get his address, and she told me he had been assigned to a special unit. She said they had nonstop drills every day, and that sometimes he had to survive in the mountains for half a week with only a canteen and a bayonet. You know how on Armed Forces Day, she said, the soldiers parachute in formation? His unit is one of those. But why Dahn? She told me he had the right physique for the special forces. But they must do aptitude testing as well? I pestered his sister with questions, but it made no difference. I wrote his name in my notebook again. I could not picture Dahn parachuting out of an airplane. How did he survive on his own for days in the mountains? In the space between the words civilian and soldier rested the sense of distance that prevented me from picturing him doing a road march or maritime training. I imagined his unit must spend so much time in the mountains that, after being discharged from active duty, the mere mention of mountains would make them turn their heads in disgust. To think that was where he was. Dahn the arachnophobe in the special forces having to survive for days on his own in the wild? Even after I had his address, I kept starting letters and abandoning them because I could not begin to imagine what he was going through. Then his letter arrived first.

Dahn.

I got your letter. I hope the night drills went OK.

Unsure of what to write next, I closed my notebook. How many times during those three weeks of hard training did Dahn have to recite Dickinson to himself so he could face down a spider? I started to put Dahn’s letter back in the drawer but paused and stared for a moment at the other letters stacked inside. I took them all out and placed them on top of the desk. They included lettercards and even ordinary postcards. I could not believe I had never written back to him, despite the many times he had written me. The image of Dahn at the waiting area flickered before my eyes. We had arrived at the training center two hours early and were waiting for him. Since we hadn’t arranged to meet, we thought there might be too many people and that we might not get to see him. There were only a few others at first, but it soon grew into a crowd. Most were friends of the new recruits. If we had not been standing in front of a military training center, it would have looked like we were waiting for a concert to begin. Myungsuh spotted Dahn before I could. While I was staring way off into the distance, he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to him. He even called out to Dahn before I did. Dahn was shocked to see us. It was so strange to see him with a buzz cut that I could not stop staring. His scalp, and even the underside of his chin, looked blue from where it had been closely shaved. He stared at me for a moment and then took the cat from Miru. I guess saying good-bye makes us reach out for those we would ordinarily ignore. Maybe we care about them more, too, when it is time to part. He cradled the cat in his arms and looked around at us. He had stayed away from Emily when the four of us were staying in the old house, but now it felt like she’d been his from the start.

Dahn did not put her down the whole time. Not even when we went to a coffee shop, which took forever for us to find, and not even when I handed him the book of poems and told him to sneak it on base somehow. Finally, just before returning to the training center, he handed Emily back to Miru. Then he walked away without once looking back. I caught myself chanting the words, Turn around! Myungsuh mumbled, “That’s cold.” I ran. Dahn was walking straight ahead in the crowd of blue-skinned heads when I caught up to him. “I’ll write to you,” I told him. “I’ll come visit you, too.” Dahn told me not to worry about it and smiled. Later, sitting in the bathroom at a rest stop on the way back to the city, I pictured Dahn disappearing into the crowd without looking back and had to close my eyes from the pain. Then, back on the bus, I thought about that time very long ago when a night train chugged past right in front of us, and I had to squeeze my eyes shut even tighter.

I put my face down on the desk. I remembered that night with Dahn so vividly. I had debated for several days whether or not to go. He had avoided contacting me, even when he was on furlough, because he didn’t want me to see him with a shaved head. To get to where Dahn was, I had to take a train and two different intercity buses. At the last stop, I met a civilian defense soldier who was on his way to night duty at the unit on the coast where Dahn was on patrol. He took me all the way to the unit where Dahn was stationed. Dahn rushed out, his rifle slung over his shoulder, hand grenades and bayonet on his army belt.

Armed to the teeth, Dahn and I walked along a forest path lined with dry pinecones. There was no one else around. We came down a path along the bluffs and followed the coastal ceasefire line until we had left his patrol route. We walked forever down that dark path along the waterfront. I had no idea where we were. We seemed to be moving away from the water, because the sound of lapping waves grew faint. The stars gazed down at us, shimmering as if they might spill down at any moment. Dahn walked beside me in silence. I didn’t say anything, either. For me, there was nothing stranger than seeing Dahn dressed as if he could be sent into battle at any moment. I could not think of what to say to the Dahn who was no longer Dahn the individual that I knew but Dahn the nameless soldier in khaki combat fatigues. We walked on and on but never came across another person. Suddenly Dahn asked, “Want to hear something scary?”

“Seeing you armed like that is scary enough.”

He laughed.

“I deserted my post,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“If they find out I’m with you, I’ll be court-martialed.”

“Is it that bad?”

Dahn laughed again at how serious I sounded.

“Don’t worry. When you do coastal duty long enough, you realize that everyone does what they have to in order to see their family or girlfriends. We all look the other way. The company commander and first sergeant probably know about it. No one believed me when I said I had a girlfriend, so they made a bet.”

“On me?”

“Sorry.”

“What was the bet?”

“They said if you showed up, they’d let me stay out overnight.”

“This is too dangerous. I don’t want something bad to happen to you because of me.”

“Bad? What are you talking about? I’m so happy right now. I can’t believe you’re here beside me.”

I was nervous, but talking to Dahn made me feel better.

“What was the scary story? More spiders?”

“I’m not afraid of spiders anymore.”

This was not the same Dahn who had worn a headlamp to accompany me to my mother’s grave, the Dahn who trembled in fear of stepping on a spider. He told me that his fear of spiders went away while he was in the special forces. He said that after all of that daily hiking, crawling, jumping, and soaring up in the mountains, he found himself grabbing spiders with his bare hands.

“Really? So there is some benefit to joining the army!”

Dahn’s laugh sounded hollow.

“So what’s your scary story?” I asked again.

Dahn pointed to some spot in the dark, to where the sound of the waves was coming from.

“There’s a guard shack down there, between the bunkers, where the soldiers take turns napping during their patrols. They say a soldier fell in love with a girl from one of the villages nearby. The girl would come by from time to time and spend the night with him in the shack. Whenever she came to see him, she always brought a pot of ramen for him as a midnight snack. But after the guy got out of the service, he took off without giving her his phone number or even so much as a glance back. She was so heartbroken that she hanged herself from the ceiling of the shack where they had been sleeping together. Turned out she was several months pregnant. After a while, rumors started to circulate. Whenever a new arrival fell asleep in the shack, he dreamed that a pretty young woman opened the door, smiled, and came inside. Carrying a tray with a steaming pot . . .”

“. . . And?”

“The soldier would take the tray and open the lid to find the pot filled with ramen. Bright red ramen boiling in blood.”

I shrieked and grabbed his arm.

“Is it true?” I asked. “Did you see her, too?”

“Of course not! It’s just a legend that’s been passed down in our unit. The Legend of the Blood Ramen Ghost . . . Soldiers probably made it up to tell their girlfriends when they visited, like you. The girls get scared, just like you did, and grab their boyfriends’ hands or leap into their arms.”

“What?!”

So he had been trying to scare me, too. I tried to shake off his arm, but he pulled me closer and said, “I’m so glad you’re here!” With the sound of the waves coming to us through the darkness, we passed a cornfield and walked single file along a ridge between two pepper fields until we came to a house. We decided to ask if we could stay there, since we couldn’t keep walking all night. The woman who lived there must have been used to overnight visitors from the base, because she immediately led us to a tiny corner room with a porch. Dahn asked if there was anything to eat. She was surprised that we had not eaten yet and told us to wait a moment. Soon she came back with a tray filled with battered and pan-fried slices of squash, steamed and seasoned eggplant, kimchi, rice, and soup. She set the tray down on the porch. As she turned to go back to the kitchen, Dahn asked if there was any soju. She started to say there was none, but then she asked if we wanted her husband’s half-empty bottle. Dahn thanked her. She came back right away with the soju, two shot glasses, and a small dish of pan-fried tofu. She told Dahn to take off his helmet and rifle. “Doesn’t that scare your girlfriend?” she joked, and looked at me as she laughed. She told us the room would warm up in a moment and turned to leave. We ate on the porch. The plates were old, but the eggplant smelled savory and aromatic, like it had been freshly seasoned with sesame oil. Dahn filled his own glass with soju and looked at me. As I shook my head to say I didn’t want any, I spotted a spiderweb dangling above the porch.

“Spider!”

Dahn took a look and stood up. With his bare fingers, he plucked the spider as it crawled down its web, trembling in the light, and tossed it into the yard.

“I’m not afraid of them anymore,” he said.

Dahn sat down again and drank his soju. He looked at the kimchi and tofu but didn’t touch any of it. I had a few bites of eggplant and then set my chopsticks down. I was hungry but couldn’t eat any more than that. While Dahn drank, I stared at his combat boots and my sneakers where we had left them in front of the porch. I stuck my feet out and slid them into his boots. They were loose. I got down from the porch and staggered around. Dahn laughed out loud. “How on earth do you wear these heavy things?” I asked. I took off the boots and opened the door to the room. On the yellow linoleum floor were two blankets and a flat pillow. It must have been past midnight by the time we went inside and spread out the bedding. Dahn’s helmet sat on the floor next to us. We lay side by side, Dahn still dressed in fatigues and me still dressed in my street clothes. When we were little, we used to go over to each other’s houses to play and wind up falling asleep. Either his sister or my mother would come find us and carry us home on their backs. The sound of the waves surged in through the small window and lapped the rim of my ear.

“The ocean must be right outside,” I said.

“Just the beach. The water’s farther off.”

“How are you doing?”

“Like I’m trapped in a spider web.”

“I thought you weren’t afraid of spiders anymore.”

“I’m not. Not of the spiders that live in the mountains. But I think I’ve found a much bigger spider.”

He sounded sad. I felt him move toward me, and suddenly his face was directly over mine.

“I hate the sound of rifles. And the feeling of my finger on the trigger.”

The smell of the soju on Dahn’s breath filled my nose. He stared deep into my eyes. They wavered, and then his lips were against mine. His uniform pressed against my street clothes, and his hand slid inside my shirt and over my breast. When his breathing grew rough, I pushed him away from me. I could feel the strength in his hands when he grabbed my wrists.

“Dahn, please.” I felt his breath against my skin. “Don’t.” I tried to push him away, but he wouldn’t stop. As I struggled, my hand brushed his cheek and I felt his hot tears. His lips pressed against mine again, and he tried to unbutton my shirt.

“You’re the only exit I have left,” he said.

The next thing I knew, my shirt was pushed halfway up my chest, and Dahn was trying to unzip my pants. I twisted away from him, but he climbed on top of me and held me down. I do not know if it was because of his tears on my fingertips, but I felt confused and lost all strength in my body. I realized that the whole time I had been debating how to respond to Dahn’s invitation, I had known deep down that this would happen.

“You don’t love me,” Dahn said finally, and rolled away from me. “It’s because of him, isn’t it?” he asked. I knew who he was referring to.

Embarrassed by what had happened, the two of us probably got no sleep all night. I reached out and felt for Dahn’s hand, but he did not move. At some point, it started to rain. If the sound of rain could be counted, I probably would have counted the drops. In the morning, our eyes met as we were folding the blankets up. His eyes were bloodshot. We took the same path we had taken the night before. I felt indescribably sad. We walked over the pinecones wet from last night’s rain, made our way along the deserted forest path, and stood at the edge of the cliff and looked down at the sea. Below the dazzling sun sitting just over the horizon, barges were rocking in the waves. The sun seemed to shine even brighter after the rain. A tractor made its way around the driftwood and fishing nets scattered along the beach. What was a tractor doing on the mudflats? It was an unusual sight for me, as I was more accustomed to seeing cultivators moving back and forth between rice paddies. Each time the wind blew, the water wrinkled and grazed the sandbanks, one fold after another. The distant sound of engines sounded like something in a dream. A flock of seagulls wheeled through the morning sky and called out to one another.

“About last night,” Dahn started to say, a glum look on his face. I quickly cut him off.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine. We’ll forget all about it in a few days.”

“OK.” He nodded gravely.

“So, have you caught a spy yet?” The question popped out before I could stop myself.

“No one in my unit has, but they say someone caught a whale a few years ago.”

“A whale?”

“Yes. We don’t normally get whales in the West Sea. But once in a while, one gets lost and crosses the South Sea to this side of the peninsula. They say that when whales swim toward the coastline in the dark, they sound like North Korean spy submarines infiltrating. The soldier on duty followed procedure and fired off a flare, then remote detonated a claymore and opened fire with a machine gun. After the sun rose and they went in for a closer look, they discovered that it wasn’t a spy, after all, but an enormous whale floating belly up and ripped to shreds.”

“Poor whale.”

“The colonel gave the soldier a commendation and rewarded him with a seven-day pass because he performed his guard duty properly without dozing off.”

After the story of the whale mistaken for a spy, we didn’t have anything else to say. It was the first time we had ever felt awkward around each other. We walked back between the cornfield and pepper field that we had passed the night before and arrived at Dahn’s unit. I told him I would be on my way and turned to leave. After a few steps, I glanced back to see that he was still standing there, glued to the spot, watching me go. After a few more steps, I glanced back again, and he was still there. I gestured at him to go on in, but he did not move. I got farther away and looked back again. His head was hanging down.

After that visit, I stopped answering his letters.


From
I’ll Be Right There, published 2014 by Other Press. Copyright © 2010 by Kyung-sook Shin. Translation copyright © 2014 by Sora Kim-Russell. By arrangement with Other Press. All rights reserved.

A young woman named Yoon visits her childhood friend Dahn, who has dropped out of college to join the military. (Trigger warning: attempted assault.) 

Definitions

Dahn: A childhood friend of the narrator, Yoon.

 

Myungsuh & Miru: Other friends of Yoon’s.

 

kimchi: A popular Korean food made of fermented vegetables (often cabbage) and various seasonings.

 

soju: A Korean alcoholic drink, often made from rice or sweet potatoes (Oxford Dictionary).

 

claymore: A type of land mine designed to kill people rather than damaging buildings (Oxford Dictionary).

Kyung-sook Shin

Kyung-sook Shin. Courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

Kyung-sook Shin, the author of seventeen works of fiction, is one of South Korea’s most widely read and acclaimed novelists. Her best seller Please Look After Mom has been translated into more than thirty languages. She has been honored with the Man Asian Literary Prize, the Manhae Prize, the Dong-in Literary Award, the Yi Sang Literary Prize, and France’s Prix de l’Inaperçu, as well as the Ho-Am Prize in the Arts, awarded for her body of work for general achievement in Korean culture and the arts. Her I’ll Be Right There was published by Other Press in 2014.

Sora Kim-Russell

Translator Sora Kim-Russel

Sora Kim-Russell’s publications include Kim Un-su’s The Plotters; Hwang Sok-yong’s At DuskFamiliar Things, and Princess Bari; and Pyun Hye-young’s The Law of LinesCity of Ash and Red, and The Hole, which won the 2017 Shirley Jackson Award for best novel. She lives in Seoul.

Meet Kyung-sook Shin
Kyung-sook Shin. Courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

Read an interview in which Kyung-sook Shin reflects on what it’s like to be part of a “traumatized generation” of student protesters who fought for democracy in Korea. Just when everything seems shattered, she says, “we have no choice but to start over again like a child learning to walk . . .”

Next, find out why “Shin is an obsessive writer in the best sense of the term” in a short essay by Sora Kim-Russell, published in Korean Literature Now.

Meet Sora Kim-Russell

Visit Sora Kim-Russell’s website (in English and Korean—the two non-English headings say “Welcome!” and “Nice to meet you!”).

Then, read an interview in which she confesses, “I don’t know if I’m a normal translator.”

Finally, read her best advice for people interested in becoming literary translators.

Hear the Names

Listen to pronunciations of the Korean terms in this story, read aloud by WWB Campus graduate intern Olan Munson.

(Listen on Soundcloud.)

About the Book
Book cover of I’ll Be Right There

The story published on WWB Campus is part of a larger work, a novel also entitled I’ll Be Right There, published in English by Other Press.

“[T]his is a story of love, a story of youth, and a story of struggles.” Watch a trailer in which Kyung-sook Shin describes what she hopes readers will get out of the book.

Then, read a summary and the very beginning of I’ll Be Right There (click “Excerpt” in the menu below the cover image) on the website of the book’s English-language publisher, Other Press.

Listening to 1980s South Korea

What kind of music might Yoon and Dahn have been hearing? Listen to the 1985 pop song “Girl” by Lee Moon-se, featured in the drama “Reply 1988.” (English lyrics on lyricstranslate.com.)

Then, compare “Girl” to a song Dahn may have often heard—”Real Man“—sung here by soldiers at Nonsan, where all South Korean soldiers receive their basic training. The lyrics state that men have the honor of protecting their country so that their families can sleep safely.

You can hear the same song—and see family members’ reactions—in a 1980s documentary that follows young draftees into military service.

Where the Military is Mandatory

Did you know that all South Korean men have to serve in the military for almost two years, with only a few recent exceptions for conscientious objectors?

Watch a contemporary video featuring man-on-the-street interviews about this facet of Korean life.

Some of the interviewees are less than enthusiastic, like Dahn in this story: “I even got dumped by a girl while I was in the military.” Others call the draft a “rite of passage.”

Finally, look at a photo gallery of South Korea’s Armed Forces Day celebration. About halfway down the page, you’ll see some soldiers parachuting down in formation, like Dahn’s unit in the story.

Background on Korea
Street painting in Seoul, by leifbr. License: CC BY-SA 2.0. Access at https://flic.kr/p/G4ggkp.

New to learning about Korea? Read a short profile of modern Korea from the BBC, or a more detailed, historical profile from the Asia Society.

For a quick trip through 2,000 years of Korean history, watch the video “All Korean kingdoms explained in less than 5 minutes.”

More about Kyung-sook Shin
Kyung-sook Shin. Courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

 

Read about the author’s teenage years (which included some factory work) in an article entitled “Giving Voice to Fragile, Introspective Souls: About Shin Kyung-sook” from the magazine Korean Literature Now.

Next, find out how her unique literary style enables her “to speak the unspeakable and to show the unshowable” in a profile from the same magazine.

Reflecting on her years as a writer, Shin comments:

When I was starting out, I was tense and overly sensitive, too eager to write something unlike what anyone else was writing, whereas after A Lone Room, I have been trying to write out of empathy for the other, to pursue the kind of writing that compensates and embraces, rather than antagonizes.

More from Kyung-sook Shin
Book cover of The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness by Kyung-sook Shin

 

In the introduction to the Korean collection on WWB Campus, Brother Anthony of Taizé notes that Kyung-sook Shin’s previous book, Please Look After Mom, was “one of the first Korean novels to become a worldwide best seller after it won the 2011 Man Asian Literary Prize.”

Read a Q&A in which the author is asked why this book, translated into English by Chi-Young Kim, was so internationally “relatable.”

Then, read a review of a previous, autobiographical novel by Kyung-sook Shin, translated by Hayun Jung: “The Girl Who Wrote Loneliness: An Almost-True Tale with Tenor of a Ghost Story.”

Finally, watch a video in which Anton Hur, the translator of the 2018 book The Court Dancer, explains why he was excited to “spread the love” to English-language readers. (For another Anton Hur translation on this site, read the sci-fi romance “Genesis.”)

More from Sora Kim-Russell
From “How to Translate Titles” by Sora Kim-Russell (story) and Yerong (artwork). Courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

 

Read Sora Kim-Russell’s essay “The Implicit I,” in which she discusses Yoon as a narrator and notes that “grief can become a dangerous political act.”

Or, look through a short comic about what it’s like to translate a book title. Sora Kim-Russell wrote the story and artist Yerong drew the cartoons. You might also like this comic about “wild times” in a translation workshop by the same writer-illustrator pair.

Finally, read a short memoir, also translated by Sora Kim-Russell, also about trauma and connection, and also available on this site: “A Meal of Solitude for a Restless Heart” by Jeon Sungtae.

More Korean Women Writers
Left to right: Lee Hyemi, Oh Jung-hee, and Koo Byung-mo. Photo of Oh Jung-hee courtesy of Korean Literature Now, the world’s only free English-language quarterly of Korean literature.

 

For many more Korean women writers, see this list from smokingtigers.com.

Fighting for Democracy in South Korea: Then and Now
An image from one of the 2016 “candlelight protests” in South Korea. Photo by Ken Shin. Available at https://flic.kr/p/Qi3mMy

 

According to a profile of Kyung-sook Shin in The Guardian, for members of the author’s generation, the Korean government’s violent suppression of students protesting for democratic reforms in the city of Gwangju “was a more devastating watershed than even the Korean War.”

For a summary of events and a personal story, listen to an NPR interview with one of the women protesters. Or, read day-by-day descriptions of exactly what happened in a scholar’s article on ThoughtCo.com. You might also take a look at this YA graphic memoir about college students fighting for democracy in the aftermath of Gwangju.

Then, read about and watch a video of more recent protests in South Korea, with a very different resolution.

Love in South Korea
Photo by Michal Kulesza from StockSnap

 

Find out “Why young people in South Korea are staying single despite efforts to spark dating” in a professor’s article published in The Conversation.

 

Then, get some background from the introduction to the collection of South Korean writing on this site, in which the scholar Brother Anthony of Taizé comments:

To understand modern love in Korea, it is first necessary to look back at the past. In traditional Korean society, a woman’s marriage was decided by her family, and the couple, still often in their early teens, had no say in the choice of a partner. . . In Confucian terms, the husband and the father were—like the king—absolute rulers. “Falling in love” was a startling new concept, first introduced through Japanese translations of Western novels. Today, although much has changed, relationships between men and women are far from easy. . . .

Finally, read another love story from South Korea. This one takes place between two young women in a post-apocalyptic future.

Real Men?

Watch a clip from The Real Men, a Korean reality show where celebrities who have not previously served in the Korean military (such as women or foreign celebrities) attend boot camp.

In this clip, the celebrities are going through Chemical, Biological, and Radiological (CBR) training.

 

Then, watch a CNN report about how the Korean military’s emphasis on traditional masculinity sometimes translates into abuse of those who do not conform (Trigger warning: includes accounts of sexual harassment and abuse).

Foods from the Story
Kimchi, a traditional Korean dish of fermented cabbage. Nagyman, a flickr user / CC BY-SA.

Look at recipes for pan-fried squashseasoned eggplant, and traditional kimchi, which Yoon and Dahn eat together after their walk.

Spiders in the Story (and in Dickinson)
Emily Dickinson. Unknown author, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

In the story, Yoon wonders: “How many times during those three weeks of hard training did Dahn have to recite Dickinson to himself so he could face down a spider?” Read one of Emily Dickinson’s poems about spiders on genius.com.

More Stories of 1980s South Korea

Watch the trailer of the Korean film A Taxi Driver, about the Gwangju uprising.

 

Read a review of the “gut-wrenching” novel Human Acts, also about Gwangju, by Han Kang, translated by Deborah Smith. (For another story from this author-translator pair, try “The Vegetarian,” published here.)

 

Finally, watch a trailer for the film 1987, about the mysterious death of a student protester.

More Stories Within Stories**
Scheherazade and Sultan Schariar, by Ferdinand Keller, 1880. Photographed by Sotheby’s London, 2006.

 

On WWB Campus: “Once Upon a Swing,” a magical realist story from Japan by Shinji Ishii, translated by Bonnie Elliot.

 

Elsewhere: The classic story collection One Thousand and One Nightsin which a character named Scheherezade tells a story every night.

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Stories of Growing Up**
A Korean temple similar to the one described in “A Meal of Solitude for a Restless Heart”

 

Literature on WWB Campus

  • “A Meal of Solitude for a Restless Heart”: A personal essay, also from Korea, about solitude and connection, trauma and consolation—and a transformative teacher from the same generation as Yoon and Dahn. Written by Jeon Sungtae and translated by Sora Kim-Russell.
  • Where Have All the Sundays Gone?“: In this story from Japan, news of a death sends a woman back to a place she used to visit with her first love. Written by Mieko Kawakami and translated by Hitomi Yoshio.
  • “Like a Body Turned Inside Out”: A short story from Iran that shows us glimpses of the same character as a boy, a young man, and a traumatized soldier. Written by Yaghoub Yadali and translated by Sara Khalili.

 

Literature Elsewhere

  • “Spring and Fall”: A poem addressed to a child crying about the leaves changing in fall. The speaker suggests the child’s perspective will change when she is older (like Dahn’s perspective on spiders). By Gerard Manley Hopkins.
  • A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, a novel about a girl’s coming of age by Betty White.
  • Soldier Girls, a nonfiction account of three women in the U.S. army. By Helen Thorpe.

**For Teaching Idea 1

More Stories That "Feel Their Way" Forward**
Photo of Virginia Woolf by George Charles Beresford, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

 

Literature on WWB Campus:

    • When My Wife Was a Shiitake,” a Japanese story in which a widower comes to understand his departed wife via an unusual cooking class. By Kyoko Nakajima, translated by Ginny Tapley Takemori.
  • The Guest,” an Egyptian story in which a woman looks back on the grandmother with whom she spent much of her childhood, trying to understand the other woman’s life. By Miral Al-Tahawy, translated by Samah Selim.

Literature Elsewhere:

**For Teaching Idea 2

Key Points
1. A Much Bigger Spider: Love, Fear, and Growing Up
2. A Story That "Feels Its Way" Through Character and Plot
To access these Teaching Ideas, please register or login to WWB-Campus.
English

Dahn sent me the first letter a year after he joined the military and was selected for the special forces. It was more than five pages long. He didn’t mention anywhere in it that he was in a special forces unit. I unfolded the letter and put it on my desk. From GI Dahn to Civilian Yoon . . . I stared at those words for a long time. It pained me to realize that I had never written him back. I filled a fountain pen with ink, took out a new notebook, and wrote his name at the top of the page.

Dahn.

Dahn as a baby, Dahn as a child, Dahn as a seventeen-year-old, eighteen-year-old, nineteen-year-old, then a college student, then a soldier. Right after he joined the army, I didn’t hear from him for some time. I called his sister to get his address, and she told me he had been assigned to a special unit. She said they had nonstop drills every day, and that sometimes he had to survive in the mountains for half a week with only a canteen and a bayonet. You know how on Armed Forces Day, she said, the soldiers parachute in formation? His unit is one of those. But why Dahn? She told me he had the right physique for the special forces. But they must do aptitude testing as well? I pestered his sister with questions, but it made no difference. I wrote his name in my notebook again. I could not picture Dahn parachuting out of an airplane. How did he survive on his own for days in the mountains? In the space between the words civilian and soldier rested the sense of distance that prevented me from picturing him doing a road march or maritime training. I imagined his unit must spend so much time in the mountains that, after being discharged from active duty, the mere mention of mountains would make them turn their heads in disgust. To think that was where he was. Dahn the arachnophobe in the special forces having to survive for days on his own in the wild? Even after I had his address, I kept starting letters and abandoning them because I could not begin to imagine what he was going through. Then his letter arrived first.

Dahn.

I got your letter. I hope the night drills went OK.

Unsure of what to write next, I closed my notebook. How many times during those three weeks of hard training did Dahn have to recite Dickinson to himself so he could face down a spider? I started to put Dahn’s letter back in the drawer but paused and stared for a moment at the other letters stacked inside. I took them all out and placed them on top of the desk. They included lettercards and even ordinary postcards. I could not believe I had never written back to him, despite the many times he had written me. The image of Dahn at the waiting area flickered before my eyes. We had arrived at the training center two hours early and were waiting for him. Since we hadn’t arranged to meet, we thought there might be too many people and that we might not get to see him. There were only a few others at first, but it soon grew into a crowd. Most were friends of the new recruits. If we had not been standing in front of a military training center, it would have looked like we were waiting for a concert to begin. Myungsuh spotted Dahn before I could. While I was staring way off into the distance, he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to him. He even called out to Dahn before I did. Dahn was shocked to see us. It was so strange to see him with a buzz cut that I could not stop staring. His scalp, and even the underside of his chin, looked blue from where it had been closely shaved. He stared at me for a moment and then took the cat from Miru. I guess saying good-bye makes us reach out for those we would ordinarily ignore. Maybe we care about them more, too, when it is time to part. He cradled the cat in his arms and looked around at us. He had stayed away from Emily when the four of us were staying in the old house, but now it felt like she’d been his from the start.

Dahn did not put her down the whole time. Not even when we went to a coffee shop, which took forever for us to find, and not even when I handed him the book of poems and told him to sneak it on base somehow. Finally, just before returning to the training center, he handed Emily back to Miru. Then he walked away without once looking back. I caught myself chanting the words, Turn around! Myungsuh mumbled, “That’s cold.” I ran. Dahn was walking straight ahead in the crowd of blue-skinned heads when I caught up to him. “I’ll write to you,” I told him. “I’ll come visit you, too.” Dahn told me not to worry about it and smiled. Later, sitting in the bathroom at a rest stop on the way back to the city, I pictured Dahn disappearing into the crowd without looking back and had to close my eyes from the pain. Then, back on the bus, I thought about that time very long ago when a night train chugged past right in front of us, and I had to squeeze my eyes shut even tighter.

I put my face down on the desk. I remembered that night with Dahn so vividly. I had debated for several days whether or not to go. He had avoided contacting me, even when he was on furlough, because he didn’t want me to see him with a shaved head. To get to where Dahn was, I had to take a train and two different intercity buses. At the last stop, I met a civilian defense soldier who was on his way to night duty at the unit on the coast where Dahn was on patrol. He took me all the way to the unit where Dahn was stationed. Dahn rushed out, his rifle slung over his shoulder, hand grenades and bayonet on his army belt.

Armed to the teeth, Dahn and I walked along a forest path lined with dry pinecones. There was no one else around. We came down a path along the bluffs and followed the coastal ceasefire line until we had left his patrol route. We walked forever down that dark path along the waterfront. I had no idea where we were. We seemed to be moving away from the water, because the sound of lapping waves grew faint. The stars gazed down at us, shimmering as if they might spill down at any moment. Dahn walked beside me in silence. I didn’t say anything, either. For me, there was nothing stranger than seeing Dahn dressed as if he could be sent into battle at any moment. I could not think of what to say to the Dahn who was no longer Dahn the individual that I knew but Dahn the nameless soldier in khaki combat fatigues. We walked on and on but never came across another person. Suddenly Dahn asked, “Want to hear something scary?”

“Seeing you armed like that is scary enough.”

He laughed.

“I deserted my post,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“If they find out I’m with you, I’ll be court-martialed.”

“Is it that bad?”

Dahn laughed again at how serious I sounded.

“Don’t worry. When you do coastal duty long enough, you realize that everyone does what they have to in order to see their family or girlfriends. We all look the other way. The company commander and first sergeant probably know about it. No one believed me when I said I had a girlfriend, so they made a bet.”

“On me?”

“Sorry.”

“What was the bet?”

“They said if you showed up, they’d let me stay out overnight.”

“This is too dangerous. I don’t want something bad to happen to you because of me.”

“Bad? What are you talking about? I’m so happy right now. I can’t believe you’re here beside me.”

I was nervous, but talking to Dahn made me feel better.

“What was the scary story? More spiders?”

“I’m not afraid of spiders anymore.”

This was not the same Dahn who had worn a headlamp to accompany me to my mother’s grave, the Dahn who trembled in fear of stepping on a spider. He told me that his fear of spiders went away while he was in the special forces. He said that after all of that daily hiking, crawling, jumping, and soaring up in the mountains, he found himself grabbing spiders with his bare hands.

“Really? So there is some benefit to joining the army!”

Dahn’s laugh sounded hollow.

“So what’s your scary story?” I asked again.

Dahn pointed to some spot in the dark, to where the sound of the waves was coming from.

“There’s a guard shack down there, between the bunkers, where the soldiers take turns napping during their patrols. They say a soldier fell in love with a girl from one of the villages nearby. The girl would come by from time to time and spend the night with him in the shack. Whenever she came to see him, she always brought a pot of ramen for him as a midnight snack. But after the guy got out of the service, he took off without giving her his phone number or even so much as a glance back. She was so heartbroken that she hanged herself from the ceiling of the shack where they had been sleeping together. Turned out she was several months pregnant. After a while, rumors started to circulate. Whenever a new arrival fell asleep in the shack, he dreamed that a pretty young woman opened the door, smiled, and came inside. Carrying a tray with a steaming pot . . .”

“. . . And?”

“The soldier would take the tray and open the lid to find the pot filled with ramen. Bright red ramen boiling in blood.”

I shrieked and grabbed his arm.

“Is it true?” I asked. “Did you see her, too?”

“Of course not! It’s just a legend that’s been passed down in our unit. The Legend of the Blood Ramen Ghost . . . Soldiers probably made it up to tell their girlfriends when they visited, like you. The girls get scared, just like you did, and grab their boyfriends’ hands or leap into their arms.”

“What?!”

So he had been trying to scare me, too. I tried to shake off his arm, but he pulled me closer and said, “I’m so glad you’re here!” With the sound of the waves coming to us through the darkness, we passed a cornfield and walked single file along a ridge between two pepper fields until we came to a house. We decided to ask if we could stay there, since we couldn’t keep walking all night. The woman who lived there must have been used to overnight visitors from the base, because she immediately led us to a tiny corner room with a porch. Dahn asked if there was anything to eat. She was surprised that we had not eaten yet and told us to wait a moment. Soon she came back with a tray filled with battered and pan-fried slices of squash, steamed and seasoned eggplant, kimchi, rice, and soup. She set the tray down on the porch. As she turned to go back to the kitchen, Dahn asked if there was any soju. She started to say there was none, but then she asked if we wanted her husband’s half-empty bottle. Dahn thanked her. She came back right away with the soju, two shot glasses, and a small dish of pan-fried tofu. She told Dahn to take off his helmet and rifle. “Doesn’t that scare your girlfriend?” she joked, and looked at me as she laughed. She told us the room would warm up in a moment and turned to leave. We ate on the porch. The plates were old, but the eggplant smelled savory and aromatic, like it had been freshly seasoned with sesame oil. Dahn filled his own glass with soju and looked at me. As I shook my head to say I didn’t want any, I spotted a spiderweb dangling above the porch.

“Spider!”

Dahn took a look and stood up. With his bare fingers, he plucked the spider as it crawled down its web, trembling in the light, and tossed it into the yard.

“I’m not afraid of them anymore,” he said.

Dahn sat down again and drank his soju. He looked at the kimchi and tofu but didn’t touch any of it. I had a few bites of eggplant and then set my chopsticks down. I was hungry but couldn’t eat any more than that. While Dahn drank, I stared at his combat boots and my sneakers where we had left them in front of the porch. I stuck my feet out and slid them into his boots. They were loose. I got down from the porch and staggered around. Dahn laughed out loud. “How on earth do you wear these heavy things?” I asked. I took off the boots and opened the door to the room. On the yellow linoleum floor were two blankets and a flat pillow. It must have been past midnight by the time we went inside and spread out the bedding. Dahn’s helmet sat on the floor next to us. We lay side by side, Dahn still dressed in fatigues and me still dressed in my street clothes. When we were little, we used to go over to each other’s houses to play and wind up falling asleep. Either his sister or my mother would come find us and carry us home on their backs. The sound of the waves surged in through the small window and lapped the rim of my ear.

“The ocean must be right outside,” I said.

“Just the beach. The water’s farther off.”

“How are you doing?”

“Like I’m trapped in a spider web.”

“I thought you weren’t afraid of spiders anymore.”

“I’m not. Not of the spiders that live in the mountains. But I think I’ve found a much bigger spider.”

He sounded sad. I felt him move toward me, and suddenly his face was directly over mine.

“I hate the sound of rifles. And the feeling of my finger on the trigger.”

The smell of the soju on Dahn’s breath filled my nose. He stared deep into my eyes. They wavered, and then his lips were against mine. His uniform pressed against my street clothes, and his hand slid inside my shirt and over my breast. When his breathing grew rough, I pushed him away from me. I could feel the strength in his hands when he grabbed my wrists.

“Dahn, please.” I felt his breath against my skin. “Don’t.” I tried to push him away, but he wouldn’t stop. As I struggled, my hand brushed his cheek and I felt his hot tears. His lips pressed against mine again, and he tried to unbutton my shirt.

“You’re the only exit I have left,” he said.

The next thing I knew, my shirt was pushed halfway up my chest, and Dahn was trying to unzip my pants. I twisted away from him, but he climbed on top of me and held me down. I do not know if it was because of his tears on my fingertips, but I felt confused and lost all strength in my body. I realized that the whole time I had been debating how to respond to Dahn’s invitation, I had known deep down that this would happen.

“You don’t love me,” Dahn said finally, and rolled away from me. “It’s because of him, isn’t it?” he asked. I knew who he was referring to.

Embarrassed by what had happened, the two of us probably got no sleep all night. I reached out and felt for Dahn’s hand, but he did not move. At some point, it started to rain. If the sound of rain could be counted, I probably would have counted the drops. In the morning, our eyes met as we were folding the blankets up. His eyes were bloodshot. We took the same path we had taken the night before. I felt indescribably sad. We walked over the pinecones wet from last night’s rain, made our way along the deserted forest path, and stood at the edge of the cliff and looked down at the sea. Below the dazzling sun sitting just over the horizon, barges were rocking in the waves. The sun seemed to shine even brighter after the rain. A tractor made its way around the driftwood and fishing nets scattered along the beach. What was a tractor doing on the mudflats? It was an unusual sight for me, as I was more accustomed to seeing cultivators moving back and forth between rice paddies. Each time the wind blew, the water wrinkled and grazed the sandbanks, one fold after another. The distant sound of engines sounded like something in a dream. A flock of seagulls wheeled through the morning sky and called out to one another.

“About last night,” Dahn started to say, a glum look on his face. I quickly cut him off.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine. We’ll forget all about it in a few days.”

“OK.” He nodded gravely.

“So, have you caught a spy yet?” The question popped out before I could stop myself.

“No one in my unit has, but they say someone caught a whale a few years ago.”

“A whale?”

“Yes. We don’t normally get whales in the West Sea. But once in a while, one gets lost and crosses the South Sea to this side of the peninsula. They say that when whales swim toward the coastline in the dark, they sound like North Korean spy submarines infiltrating. The soldier on duty followed procedure and fired off a flare, then remote detonated a claymore and opened fire with a machine gun. After the sun rose and they went in for a closer look, they discovered that it wasn’t a spy, after all, but an enormous whale floating belly up and ripped to shreds.”

“Poor whale.”

“The colonel gave the soldier a commendation and rewarded him with a seven-day pass because he performed his guard duty properly without dozing off.”

After the story of the whale mistaken for a spy, we didn’t have anything else to say. It was the first time we had ever felt awkward around each other. We walked back between the cornfield and pepper field that we had passed the night before and arrived at Dahn’s unit. I told him I would be on my way and turned to leave. After a few steps, I glanced back to see that he was still standing there, glued to the spot, watching me go. After a few more steps, I glanced back again, and he was still there. I gestured at him to go on in, but he did not move. I got farther away and looked back again. His head was hanging down.

After that visit, I stopped answering his letters.


From
I’ll Be Right There, published 2014 by Other Press. Copyright © 2010 by Kyung-sook Shin. Translation copyright © 2014 by Sora Kim-Russell. By arrangement with Other Press. All rights reserved.

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