Authors: Kyung-Sook Shin
OTHER WORK IN ENGLISH BY KYUNG-SOOK SHIN
Please Look After Mom
Copyright © 2010 by Kyung-sook Shin
I’ll Be Right There
was first published in Korea by Munhakdongne in 2010.
Translation copyright © 2013 by Sora Kim-Russell
This book was translated with the support of The Daesan Foundation.
by Rainer Maria Rilke, from
The Book of Hours
Translation © Susan Ranson and Marielle Sutherland 2011.
(New York: Oxford University Press Inc., 2011).
Production Editor: Yvonne E. Cárdenas
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, including photocopying, recording, or by any information storage and retrieval system, without written permission from Other Press LLC, except in the case of brief quotations in reviews for inclusion in a magazine, newspaper, or broadcast. For information write to Other Press LLC, 2 Park Avenue, 24th Floor, New York, NY 10016.
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The Library of Congress has cataloged the printed edition as follows:
I’ll be right there : a novel / by Kyung-sook Shin; translated by Sora Kim-Russell.
First published in Korea by Munhakdongne in Korean in 2010.
ISBN 978-1-59051-673-7 (pbk.) — ISBN 978-1-59051-674-4 (ebook)
1. Students—Fiction. 2. Korea—Fiction. I. Title.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Who is that weeping, if not simply the wind,
At this sole hour, with ultimate diamonds?… But who Weeps, so close to myself on the brink of tears?
—Paul Valéry, “The Young Fate”
Can I Come Over?
t was my first phone call from him in eight years.
I recognized his voice right away. As soon as he said “Hello?” I asked, “Where are you?” He didn’t say anything. Eight years—it was not a short length of time. Broken down into hours, the number would be unimaginable. I say it had been eight years, but we had stopped talking even before then. Once, at some get-together with friends, we had avoided each other’s eyes the entire time, and only when everyone was parting ways did we briefly take each other’s hand without the others seeing. That was it.
I don’t remember where we were. Only that it was after midnight, summer, and we were standing in front of some steep staircase in a hidden corner of the city. There must have been a fruit stand nearby. The scent floating in the humid air reminded me of biting into a plum. Taking his hand and letting it go was my way of saying goodbye. I did not know what he was thinking, but for me, all of the words I wanted to say to him had collected inside me like pearls. I could not
bring myself to say
see you later
. If I had opened my mouth to say a single word, all of the other expired words would have followed and spilled to the ground, as if the string that held them together had snapped. Since I still clung to the memory of how we had grown and matured together, I was vexed by the thought that there would be no controlling my feelings once they came undone. But outwardly I feigned a look of composure. I did not want to spoil my memories of how we used to rely on each other.
Time is never fair or easy for anyone—not now and not eight years ago. When I calmly asked him where he was, despite not having heard from him in all of that time, I realized that the words I had not been able to say to him then were no longer pent up inside me. Nor did I need to pretend to be fine in order to mask any tumultuous emotions. I mean it when I say I asked him that question calmly. What happened to those words that once drove me to wander aimlessly, my mind filled with doubt and sadness? Those bitter feelings? Those aches that speared my heart whenever I was alone? Where did they finally trickle away to that I should be holding up so well now? Is this life? Is this why the relentless passing of time is both regretful and fortunate? Back when I was caught in the whirling current and could not swim my way out, someone I have since forgotten told me:
This, too, shall pass
. I suppose this was proof. That advice applies both to those who suffer and to those whose lives are filled with abundance. To one, it gives the strength to endure; to the other, the strength to be humble.
The silence lengthened between us. Too late, I realized that I had gotten things out of order. I should have said hello
first. It was strange. Saying things like
long time, no talk
felt too awkward. And though I figured he was probably taken aback by the way I immediately asked where he was, I wasn’t comfortable enough yet to ask how he’d been. Asking someone where they are the moment you answer the phone makes sense only if you spend a lot of time together. But there we were, he on one end of the line and I on the other, for the first time in eight years. Time is always bearing down on us; nevertheless, had I understood in my youth that we can never relive the same moment twice, things might have turned out differently. Had I understood that, I would never have said goodbye to someone, and someone else might still be alive. If only I had known that the moment you think everything has ended, something new is beginning.
I turned to look out the window.
While the silence between us continued, the window slowly filled with the morning light of winter. Yesterday’s weather forecast said it would snow today, but I didn’t believe it. It was early, the light of dawn still lingering. The time of day when you would normally hesitate before calling someone who was not family or otherwise very close to you. Calls at this time were either urgent or brought bad news.
“The professor is in the hospital,” he finally said.
“I thought I should tell you.”
I blinked and looked away from the window. His words—
I thought I should tell you
—swirled before my eyes like snowflakes. I concentrated on his voice, as if clinging to it, and
narrowed my blurry eyes to slits. To my surprise, snowflakes were casting their shadows on the lowered blinds.
“He’s been in the hospital for about three months now.”
I’d had no idea.
“I don’t think he has much longer.”
Three months? I let out a deep sigh. Resentment toward Professor Yoon welled up in me and subsided. I had not seen him in three years. As his illness progressed, Professor Yoon had insisted on being alone and refused visitors—just as my mother had done. He had become a lone figure in a room that could only be reached by passing through countless closed doors. In the face of death, he wanted to be strictly and faithfully alone.
Early one winter morning three years ago, I set out to visit Professor Yoon, but I never made it. I never tried to visit him again. That morning, on the first day of the new year, I had felt like paying him a holiday visit. Though I knew he was having trouble breathing and could not sit up for long periods of time, I wanted to see him in person, however briefly. The sky was dark that morning; large snowflakes had begun to fall. I wasn’t good at driving. I usually assumed it was my fault whenever something went wrong with the car. The snow turned heavy, and the wind was blowing from the north. The car began to skid and then plowed into a snowdrift. Since Professor Yoon’s house was not far, I left the car where it was and began walking the rest of the way. My cheeks felt frozen, and tiny icicles dangled from the hems of my pants. As I walked, I glanced back to see that the mountainsides were blanketed in white. The wind was swirling mounds of snow into the air and
sweeping it down into the folds of the mountains. It was getting harder to see. I told myself to keep going, but I became more and more frightened. Each time I heard a snow-laden branch snap and fall to the forest floor, my stomach dropped with it. Finally, when a large dead tree could no longer take the weight of the snow and collapsed with a boom, I turned back with a defeated heart.
What stopped me from reaching his house? Getting back was no easier. After giving up that night, I never got up the nerve to try again. Each time I thought about him, the idea that I would never be able to reach him spread through my mind like a shadow. And it seemed I was not the only one. One friend told me that he had driven to Professor Yoon’s house in the middle of the night, but as he got closer, he could not bring himself to go the rest of the way and drove to the top of a hill instead, where he looked down at the lights of the house before going home. He said he circled the house a few times and left, biting his lip the whole way. Why couldn’t we just barge into Professor Yoon’s house like we did in the old days? The phone still in my hand, I got up from the desk, went to the window, and pulled open the blinds.
Outside, white flakes were drifting down.
I was not surprised to hear he was dying. I had been nervously expecting to get that news someday. I just did not know it would be today. The snow had started off so light that I could have counted it by the individual flakes, but it grew heavier as I stood in the window. In the yard of the house across from mine, a Himalayan cedar tree that had remained a lush green even in winter was turning white. There
was no one out. The local neighborhood bus, which I had never once ridden in the four years that I’d lived there, was heading through the side streets, gliding carefully along the snowy roads.
Though I tend to confuse things that happened yesterday with things that happened ten years ago, and am prone to standing in front of the open refrigerator, trying to remember what I was looking for, only to sheepishly close the door again after bathing in the cold air, I could still remember seeing Professor Yoon for the first time all those years ago like it was yesterday. I was twenty at the time. Back then, I could look at a single book title and think of a dozen other books related to it. On that first day of college, the March sunlight was streaming into the classroom when Professor Yoon walked in. I had my head down on the desk as he walked past. His shoes caught my eye. They were so big that his heels slipped out of the backs with each step. It looked like he was wearing someone else’s shoes. Curious, I lifted my head and immediately felt ashamed. How could anyone be that skinny? The problem was not the shoes. No shoes in the world would have fit him. He looked like a plaster skeleton.
I looked up at his eyes instead. They gleamed sharply behind his glasses. He turned to look out the window. The shouting of the student demonstrators outside had been disrupting classes. Tear gas wafted into the room, carried on the still-cold March wind. Before class began, someone had struggled to shut the hinged windows. Professor Yoon stood in the window for a long time, watching the demonstrators. He did not move, so we all gradually joined him at the
window. Riot police were chasing a group of students. White clouds bobbed above their heads in the frigid air. That day, Professor Yoon had just one thing to say to us:
What is the use of art in this day and age?
I could not tell whether the question was aimed at us or at himself, but I saw his keen eyes grimace in pain. In that moment, when I first began paying attention to his eyes, a sharp, unfamiliar pain pricked at my heart. Back then, how could I have known what was in store for us? Or that the strange prick I felt that day would still be with me even after all these years? Though my memories of our time together have faded and lost their edge, his eyes still haunt me. Each time I picture them, the same old pain returns. That pain pierces my heart in a thousand places, bursts through the skin, and peppers me with the same question.