• New short fiction, every week.
    The words you know and love . . .
    in a totally different order.

  • 22. Looking for the Elephant

    By Jo Kyung Ran

    Jo Kyung Ran is a winner of the Dongin Prize, Korea’s most prestigious literary award, and the author of the new novel Tongue. This story offers a vivid, arresting portrait of a family, the physical and psychic spaces it inhabits, and the vexing impermanence of memory.

    The Polaroid camera I have is a Polaroid Spectra. It uses film about 1.5 times larger than an ordinary Polaroid, and it’s more expensive. He bought it for my birthday a few years ago. I remember how happy I was when I unwrapped the present and saw it was the camera I had wanted so much. He took the first picture. I’m looking down a little, my head slightly bowed. The lipstick smudge on my wine glass is still plainly visible. I must have asked him, Should I take one of you? He shook his head. With one pack of film you can take ten pictures—there were nine left. He didn’t want me to, but I wish I had taken one of him to keep that day. Because we suddenly broke up shortly after that. And now I can’t love him, and I can’t hate him anymore.

    The camera—I brought it back home and got a shot of my family gathered around the table.

    *

    I usually sleep lying straight, flat on my back. When my stomach bothers me, I roll over onto my left side and fall asleep facing the wall. But no matter what position I sleep in, one of my arms stretches out—like it’s a habit—and ends up dangling down from the bed. Suddenly, I feel the sensation of someone gently holding my hand. I wake with a start. The room is dark. The warmth lingers on my palm. I try flexing the fingers of the hand that dangles from the bed. I feel like somebody sneaked in—he’s lying on the floor or sitting at the foot of the bed, not even a tremor of movement. But I don’t even consider leaping out of bed or quickly snapping on the light. For some reason I don’t think it would be right.

    It wasn’t easy at first. The presence terrified me—so much that I had to sleep with the light on for a long time. But now I’m quite accustomed to the presence. Slowly, I force out my breath. I mean, I’m hoping it will figure out that I’m awake. After a little while I switch on the light. There’s nobody there. Not a trace of anybody having been there. At first I wondered if it might be one of the spirits of this house. Or is it my dead grandmother, or my aunt, or my uncle? But now I know. He’s been here.

    *

    My father is from Yeosu. I’ve been there only once since I became an adult. I don’t like it because that’s where my father was born. Too many bad things happen there.

    My father’s half-brothers and half-sisters drink way too much—they’re always fighting and crying. One of my uncles goes out onto the savage ocean for months at a time to catch the fish he sells at market. My father left his hometown when he was nine, after his mother died.

    She died on her birthday. For once, my grandfather, my seafaring uncles, and my aunts all gathered together in one place. My grandmother must have waited a long time for that day. She cooked a puffer fish soup and committed suicide by eating it all by herself. And not just any day—it had to be her birthday.

    I saw my grandmother in the one picture that’s left of her. Like my mother’s mother, who died young from breast cancer, she was dressed all in white, frowning. Both my grandmothers had thick black eyebrows. I decided I liked my father’s mother—because I think her death was dramatic.

    After she died, my father left home and came up to live in Seoul, and when he got married, he registered this place as his permanent address. But I know he loves Yeosu. I know that he privately dreams of going back there someday. I also know that whenever something about Yeosu comes up on TV shows like My Hometown at 6, he looks at me. Ha! Not a chance! I jerk my head and look the other way.

    Aunt Yonsook is the youngest of my father’s siblings. She’s especially fond of my father’s children, that is to say, her nieces: my sisters and me. Every season, she would send us fish by courier—dried sole, croaker, and skate—and she called us all the time. She wanted to move up to Seoul, but after I was grown up, she never came even once. Every holiday or memorial service she’d say, I should go, I should really go and see you all, and she would cry. She was the one who cried the most among my father’s siblings. That’s why I was afraid of her.

    When she got married, she was prettied up in a long dress with her black hair grown all the way down to her waist. I heard that her sailor husband (I only saw his face once) used to beat her up. She had two kids with him before she got a divorce. I also heard that she was sending the money she made from her shop and her side job at the seashore to pay for the children’s education. They said she was tough. My mother liked Aunt Yonsook a lot. That young thing, she would say. Come to think of it, there wasn’t much difference in our ages even though I was her niece.

    Then Aunt Yonsook had a fight with her lover and jumped out of his fifth-floor apartment. A suicide. My father’s siblings berated her lover and accused him of murdering her. On the day of the autopsy, my father’s younger brother, Uncle Dosong, went to the morgue instead of him. My father was drunk—he couldn’t stop the dry heaves. Up to now, my father has given up smoking exactly three times. The first time was the day he came back after cremating my aunt. The autopsy wasn’t able to determine whether her death was a suicide or a homicide. They said that the man who had been her lover took care of the funeral. I guess that meant he paid the expenses. I heard all this from up here in Seoul. Go down to Yeosu? I shuddered.

    The funeral turned into utter chaos. The five surviving siblings were all drunk, and they yelled and cried, clutching each other by the collar. That was the night I first felt the strange presence in my room. After killing my breath and lying there for a long time, I floated up from my body. I looked at the foot of the bed and down at the floor. I called my dead aunt’s name in the dark room: Aunt Yonsook? I felt a coldness brush past my face.

    Those nights went on for a very long time. I didn’t say anything about it to my mother or my sisters. My family was afraid to talk about the dead. I just got used to it by myself. And after a while I didn’t feel the presence at all, not until the night after my uncle died.

    Uncle Dosong, who saw Aunt Yonsook’s autopsy with his own eyes—two years after she died, he was diagnosed with liver cancer at Severance Hospital. He came and stayed in our house while he was an outpatient. My father’s siblings are all tall and well-built, but now Uncle Dosong became emaciated; his face grew dark. In that condition, he turned down my parents’ bedroom and slept in a fetal position on the living room sofa. When I had to go to the bathroom in the middle of the night, I couldn’t go downstairs. I was afraid my uncle might be lying there dead. It felt like my bladder would burst.

    My uncle went back down to Yeosu with his face black as a goat’s. He died two months later. Even then, I didn’t go to Yeosu. My father quit smoking again. I started waking up often around dawn. I couldn’t shake off the feeling that somebody was sitting at the foot of my bed or curled up on the floor where there was hardly space for a person to lie down. My palms were always clammy with sweat. I tried calling, Uncle Dosong? Nobody answered—not Aunt Yonsook, or Uncle Dosong, or my grandmother who killed herself a long time ago. Finally, I fell asleep with my Polaroid camera still in my hand.

    *

    Every Polaroid picture has a serial number printed on it. The first picture he took—the one of me on my birthday, sitting in a local café with my head bowed—has the number 0318 4149 printed on the back. If I had gotten a shot of his face after that, it would have the number 0318 4150. But number 0318 4150 is the picture of my family. They had just returned home after their evenings out and were all gathered around the table with a small cake on it. All right, everyone, look this way! I had just broken up with him when I clicked the shutter.

    I took up to the tenth picture in the pack, number 0318 4158, a portrait of my friend on her birthday—and when my youngest sister’s boyfriend came over, I got a shot of the two of them posed in the living room. I shot a magnolia just beginning to spread its petals, and I shot my old sneakers. While I used up 4152, 4155, and up to 4157—having already shot number 0318 4151—winter passed, spring came, and summer went. I never got another chance to get a picture of his face.

    I was down to the last shot, number 0318 4158. I slept holding my Polaroid. I woke up. I held my breath and—click—I pressed the shutter as if I were on an ambush. The film popped out like I had snatched it from the camera. I quickly turned on the light, pressed the film hard against my hot, sweaty palm to make it develop faster. Slowly, faint forms started to emerge. The joy of Polaroids is the short time you wait while they develop, being able to see your pictures right away, right there. It’s like the anxious waiting at the door, and each time it opens, you think it might be the person you’ve been watching for. But I couldn’t feel that kind of excitement that night. Excitement! I was scared, like someone was clutching the nape of my neck with both hands.

    I look quietly at the picture, at the colors and the shape so vivid in those 9 x 7.3 centimeters. It isn’t my dead grandmother, or Aunt Yonsook, or Uncle Dosong, and it isn’t some spirit of the house. There it is—a great big elephant.

    *

    I started living in this house eleven years ago. It’s multi-family housing now, but then it was a small single-story home with a narrow yard. My father bought that house. He tore it down and built one based on his own sketches. While the new house was under construction, our family of five all lived in a single room nearby. When they had to raise their voices to argue about something, my mother and father would go to a local inn. My father built one more room, a rooftop room where I’ve lived until now, where I am writing this.

    This was supposed to be my youngest sister’s room. I used to write downstairs, squatting on the floor. I wanted to have a huge desk. When my youngest sister went away for a while, I called some of my other sister’s male friends and they helped me empty my room downstairs and move up here. That night I wrote my youngest sister a letter. Her reply: Well done, sis. The rooftop room had no space to put a desk, so I bought a shiny little table. Now the lacquer is peeling from the edges in spots and the legs wobble, but it’s still usable. Even if I get a bigger room, I don’t feel like changing my desk anymore. But I still do dream of a big desk with lots of drawers and compartments. People have to learn to be satisfied with less than enough, my mother always said.

    In my rooftop room I would read, write, and make phone calls in the middle of the night. Years passed in the blink of an eye. When I couldn’t write, or every time I had a bad fight with someone in the family, I felt like leaving this house. When I went downstairs at night to use the bathroom, I would accidentally step on the legs or stomachs of my family members sleeping in the dark on the floor of the living room. We’d startle each other in the dark and scream, Who’s there!? Who are you? I banged the wall of my room with both fists. It didn’t crumble. The house my father built was more solid than I thought.

    *

    Sunday afternoon I went to the Seoul Grand Park in Gwachon. It was a few days after I saw the elephant. A very windy day, and the park was jam-packed with people. In the zoo, a chrysanthemum festival was opening. People were taking pictures in front of the multicolored chrysanthemums in full bloom, and in the cage next door the flock of long-legged flamingoes were flapping their wings.

    I went straight to the front of the elephant pen. An African elephant, with its long trunk swaying, slowly walking around inside the broad S-shaped enclosure. I couldn’t help feeling disappointed. The elephant was farther than I had expected. It was too far—it wasn’t worth taking a picture. I got closer: when it went left I ran that way, when it turned around I quickly ran back to the right.

    The elephant is really popular. Every gap in the long, curving fence was jammed with children and adults. I guessed the elephant in that pen was an old bull. Old males live alone. In the early morning and evening they forage for plants, and they rest in the shade of trees during the day. They sleep standing up—though there are times when they sleep lying on their side. The elephant that came to my room had lay down on that cramped floor and slept with its massive body curled up tight. Its trunk was coiled and pulled inside its body. As if I might try to steal it or something. I couldn’t tell whether it had big tusks, so there was no way to know whether it was a male or a female.

    This elephant, in the pen, had been walking back and forth on the same path; once in a while it seemed lost in thought and paused with its thick legs bent, gazing out at us. Then, as if to say that it was nothing after all, it went clomping back again, retracing its steps. Each time the elephant flapped its ears, it sent a cold breeze through the front of my clothes. I took the Polaroid camera out of my shoulder bag. I put in a new pack of film. If there had been a Polaroid better than the Spectra, he probably would have bought it for me. But it wasn’t easy to find film for it. I ordered it specially from the owner at the photo shop. When I went to pick up the film, the owner told me that the Spectra wasn’t widely distributed, so it would always be hard to get film for it. He said if I took it back to the place of purchase, they would exchange it for a regular Polaroid. Like a refund. I ordered three packs of film at once. It was his last present to me.

    Suddenly, the elephant stopped walking and—with a thump—put its front feet up on the inner rail on our side of the pen. There was another pen two or three meters away; the gap in between was dug out like a ditch, but it looked as if the elephant could jump right across. I was tense. I couldn’t be sure if the elephant would come flying up at me like a bird. I pressed the shutter just as it raised its long trunk. The print popped out. The elephant took its front feet down and turned its body around. Clever beast. It’s unlikely it heard the sound of the shutter, but I’ll say it did, anyway. The zookeeper opened the steel gate and came out. He gave the elephant a bun, and the elephant took it in its trunk and ate it.

    4:40 P.M. The elephant followed the keeper in through the steel gate and disappeared. As soon as it was gone, all the people left the front of the pen at the same time. I went over to the next pen, to the Asian elephant. But the Asian elephant was already gone. I read: The Asian elephant has weak eyesight. Because its neck is short, it cannot look behind itself. Cannot look behind itself: Now I was sure. The elephant that came to me that night was not Asian but African. The elephant: It has weak eyes but its hearing and sense of smell are excellent. It can run up to 50 KM per hour. The surface of its body is covered with thick bristles. The front teeth in its upper jaw grow into long tusks. The elephant: largest land animal on the face of the earth.

    *

    I felt dissatisfied by something. But I didn’t want to know too specifically. I kept going out, eager to get out of the house, though there was nowhere to go. One day he came with a bunch of different self-improvement flyers. He took me by the hand and we went around looking at rooms. By coincidence, all four places we saw were rooftop rooms. I ripped the flyers to shreds right in his face. We ate some hot soup and rice. We crossed the street via the pedestrian overpass and went into a newly built twenty-story officetel building. The custodian gave us the key. There was a big desk, a wardrobe, a bed, a shiny sink. I pulled him by the hand. I pointed outside the window where cars were whizzing by.

    This place isn’t going to work out.

    Maybe not.

    Yeah, it’ll be too noisy.

    That’s what I was thinking, too.

    We returned the key and came out of the officetel. We went to eat some fried chicken. It was less than half an hour after we had dinner.

    *

    Even now my heart pounds when I hear my mother’s footsteps coming up the stairs to my rooftop room. That night, my mother came up to my room. She said we would have to leave our house. There was so much my parents had been keeping from us. She said our house was going to be foreclosed and put up for auction. My father’s older brother had borrowed money from him twice and then disappeared. I couldn’t blame my father. Everyone was just trying to get by. For the first time, I understood the expression, “One day we found ourselves out on the street.”

    My father quit smoking. Stayed in his room all day. Ate his meals by himself. His face became black and gaunt like my dead Uncle Dosong’s. My mother’s ears dripped blood. I only wished my little sisters could stay in school. I suppose it was no different from my parents keeping those dire things hidden from us three daughters. I stabbed a kitchen knife between the red bricks of the house. The house is very solid. We began the fight to keep it. I ran around—all over the place—to take care of things. It was important and someone had to do it.

    I’m sorry I can’t do anything to help, he said.

    I’m not as afraid of losing the house as I am of losing you, I blurted out to him, terrified.

    He cried. Don’t cry, I consoled him.

    I didn’t cry. My pent-up tears only burst when the elephant came to see me again. I buried my face in its big belly, and covering my mouth with my hand, I sobbed and sobbed.

    Once in a while he calls me. How are you? His voice is sad and tender. I give a dismissive laugh. How are you doing? He’s asking after me, but he’s also asking about the house. Then he asks another thing. Did the elephant come again? There are times when he seems to be more interested in the elephant than in me.

    *

    The day I went to the zoo, I took three pictures: The elephant with its front feet on the rail, the elephant suddenly raising its trunk into the sky, wriggling its buttocks as it walks, the elephant trudging toward the setting sun with its head bowed low. My lonely elephant.

    Sometimes I ask myself how I came to live in this house all this time. Surely, there must have been a chance for me to end up living somewhere other than here. Among those chance events was my turning twenty, and the incident that my family still remembers—my kidnapping. It’s strange, but I can’t seem to remember my twenties. Maybe it’s because I never told anyone about those days.

    Last fall, I went to give a guest lecture at S— University. As I was about to enter the lecture hall, someone blocked my way. She said my name. I stared a hole in her face, then said with a sigh, Ah, it’s Yonjong. She said she had seen a poster for the event on a campus bulletin board. I really wanted to know if it was you—someone I know. I was visibly uncomfortable. I took her business card and hurriedly said goodbye. She must have been studying computer graphics all that time. Looking at her card, I saw that she was now a senior researcher at the Electronic Visual Media Research Center at the university.

    I remember that even after I went into the lecture hall, I couldn’t speak for a while and just sat there. Yonjong was one of the people who knew me back then. I said I would get in touch, but I didn’t. A year went by. Finally, a little while ago, I sent her an e-mail: Yonjong, I wonder how everyone from back in those days remembers me. And where are they all now? Do you still remember what I looked like back then? I had just had dinner with the head editor of a website, and we were walking along a street in Shinsadong looking for a place to get some tea, when someone called me from behind. Hey, Fatty Jo! I didn’t stop walking. I didn’t even look back. Why was it so hard to find a teahouse? I walked faster, faster. My companion cautiously took my elbow. I think someone is calling you over there. When I heard the Hey! I instantly recalled whose voice it was. That’s odd. I was about twenty-two when I met those people—it had already been more than ten years. I can still hear that insistent voice calling me. I turned my head to look with an indifferent eye.

    Hey, Fatty Jo!

    Ah, how do you do?

    Hey, is it really you?

    It’s been a long time. I greet Director Jong and Assistant Manager Pak politely. Wow! Look at her! They laugh. I used to go to work with my hair in my first perm ever, tied in back like a country girl. I shampooed every morning and I wore stockings. Every time I dried my wet hair with the dryer, I thought to myself, Where shall I go today? I often didn’t show up for work. Once, I was absent for three straight days the same week. At lunchtime I went out by myself to a big bookstore in the building across the street, where there used to be a fast food place in the basement. I would eat a hamburger and read a book. A whole book. When I was tired of reading, I would call someone on the pay phone. I would also peek into the galleries near work.

    When I went back to work—sometimes four hours past lunchtime—my coworkers would look at me disapprovingly. I didn’t eat out with my coworkers and I didn’t socialize with them after work. Sometimes I would stay by myself at the office and read a book or spend a long time looking at the 4-D graphics they had been working on. With the computer, my coworkers created stars, they made camels walk across the desert, they built apartments. They also created CF animations. It’s not shown anymore, but there used to be a commercial for a cold medicine called Blupen made by a certain pharmaceutical company. It was an animated commercial that showed a bottle of Blupen rushing like a train toward a child with a fever. I had helped create the frames for that. There was nothing they couldn’t make.

    One day, I stayed behind after work. When I was alone, I grabbed the mouse and clicked buttons at random. In the morning, I heard my coworkers cursing, Who did this? Who erased everything? I was expressionless.

    When I went downstairs to the bathroom, someone grabbed me from behind and pulled my backside against his groin. Don’t you know how to smile? He was an interior designer who was often in and out of our office.

    After work, Assistant Manager Pak said he would drop me off near my house. I got into his car. He told me to put my seat belt on. I pulled out a length of seat belt, too long. I hesitated, then put it around my neck.

    Hey, don’t you know how to put on a seat belt?

    Is there a problem? I said. I looked at him with a sullen face. His flabbergasted expression is still clear in my mind. Even now, whenever I get a ride in someone’s car, I privately fret that I might put the seat belt on wrong like I did that time.

    So you write! Director Jong and Assistant Manager Pak knew about my present situation.

    Yes.

    Let’s get together with Yonjong and Assistant Manager Kim Jonghui sometime.

    Yes.

    They must have been truly pleased to run into me. Director Jong and Assistant Manager Pak kept chuckling. They asked me to write my down contact info. I wrote some phone number. I don’t even know whose it was. I hated myself for being fat, I hated myself for cutting work, I hated myself for not being able to understand the computer graphics manuals I was forced to read.

    I worked at that company for seven months. Then I turned in my resignation. It was Director Jong who said I should reconsider. What else are you going to do? he asked. Sometimes, when I go to Shinsadong or Gangnam, I look at the World Book Center. I can still see myself standing inside that bookstore at the age of twenty-two, lost in some book. I used to live in this city back then. I never got a reply from Yonjong. If I hadn’t been able to get back home after the incident, this is not where I would be living now. And my family would not be the family I have now.

    *

    I was kidnapped when I was four by a middle-aged woman who couldn’t have children. She took me to a beauty parlor to alter my appearance. She must have asked them to give me a perm. She stepped out for a while. That was my chance. I bawled my eyes out. Even at four years old, I was able to remember Bongshin Church. The owner of the beauty parlor held my hand and took me there, and that’s how I got back home. The house I lived in then was demolished, but Bongshin Church is still there.

    *

    I’ve started to eat before my father, before he even lifts his spoon. When my sisters get out of work late, they call me first, though I’m still asleep. My father is smoking again. In the morning my mother shines my shoes. In the room on the roof, the piles of books are steadily growing. There’s too much stuff in your room, my father worried. I didn’t care. I got myself a TV set, a printer. There wasn’t room to walk. I moved some of my books down to the living room. I bought some new bookshelves. I got rid of the living room sofa. There was another sofa by the refrigerator, and I put bookshelves there, too. Each time I put up a new bookshelf, I felt as if I were uprooting a grove of trees, but the feeling never lasted more than half a day. The things from the living room, and the wardrobe that the three of us sisters shared, got moved into the main bedroom. My father put up a column in the downstairs living room to support my room on the roof. But even then he paced back and forth every day, anxious that the ceiling would collapse from the weight, and meanwhile I wondered if my parents could stretch their legs and sleep in a room so crammed with their daughters’ stuff.

    On the same night he said, I’m sorry I can’t do anything to help, he wrote me a long letter. It was about himself, full of helplessness and regret. At the end of the letter he added this: Things deeply felt cannot help but last. He wrote: People cannot always live and love in the same way; nothing remains as it was at first. He wrote: We must change in order to remain the same. And he also wrote this: That is how love must grow.

    A letter. A very sad word, “letter.” After we split up, I never took that letter out to read it again.

    And there’s another letter I could never read again. Once in a while I think about it. And I think, So why did we split up? In the end, for saving the house, I lost him.

    I look at the picture of my family—the one I took on my birthday when I got home after breaking up with him. They don’t know that the table is the elephant’s head, the sofa the elephant’s back; they’re smiling, digging their sharp elbows into it. Look, I’m telling you this is an elephant! If I said that, they would all just laugh and say, She’s writing another story. The elephant is pretending to be asleep and his eyes are closed, but I know he’s not sleeping. I never forget to keep a butter-coconut biscuit or a banana, just in case. Because I don’t know when the elephant might come again.

    *

    My father went down to Yeosu, showing off his three daughters like medals. It was 1996, so I was twenty-six—it was the year I started college. That night there was a drinking party. Someone got drunk and burst into tears. I mingled with my relatives, and I drank a good amount myself. The next day, the entire extended family went together on a picnic. We rented a Bongo minibus and sped off a long way down the coast. We went on a boat ride there. Odong Island was visible in the distance. It was a hot midsummer day. No one can remember the name of that island now. Me neither—no matter how hard I think about it, I can’t remember where the island was that we went to that day. Yeosu is a place with so many nameless islands you couldn’t possibly count them all. But it occurs to me now that maybe the island wasn’t even in Yeosu.

    Aunt Yonsook organized and brought all the food. My uncles, cousins, and aunts stood in front of the grill and cooked the meat and blood clams. They ran into the ocean to swim and play with a ball. The cousins who took after their fathers were all slim and long-legged. They laughed merrily in the hot sun. The sound startled me. I dropped the parasol I was carrying, and for the first time in my life, I saw my father swimming. He was quick, confident, agile as a seal. The first time I saw him swim. I must have entirely forgotten that this was where my father was born. Uncle Dosong, just back from a stretch at sea, had a large bottle of soju dangling from his mouth. Uncle, please don’t drink too much—I told him what he didn’t want to hear, like I was talking to my father. I think it was around then that Uncle Dosong’s liver problems started. Leave him alone, said my father.

    Aunt Yonsook had brought the food, but she hardly had time to eat anything. She was too busy clearing away the meat grill, cooking the clams and seafood she’d kept frozen solid for months in the freezer, boiling chickens. My other aunts washed the dishes under the command of her loud voice. They were sharing a large bottle of soju too. They quickly went through a whole pot of Dolsan mustard leaf kimchee. My mother, drunk from three glasses of soju, spread out a mat and lay down. The sun was really hot. The ocean looked infinitely deep. My uncles and cousins waved to me from out in the water. I shook my head. Not one of us three sisters knew how to swim. They threw me in the ocean the day I was born, said Aunt Yonsook.

    I took off my socks and threw them aside. It took courage to go into the water. Holding my sisters’ hands, I walked into the ocean 1 step at a time. Then my third uncle, Doyoon, suddenly pushed me hard on the back and I fell in with all my clothes on. I could hear my aunts, uncles, and cousins all laughing even from deep underwater. I was not afraid. I couldn’t be sure, but maybe my arms and legs would move instinctively and I could and swim like Aunt Yonsook. I was my father’s daughter, after all, and he was an old salt who could look at an anchovy’s shit and tell you what it ate.

    I walked out of the water all flustered. Around me, my father, my three uncles, three aunts, and six cousins were all having a leisurely swim. Now, two are gone. Those who are left call my mother regularly. I hear that one of my uncles got water on the knee a while ago, and another hurt his back and can’t go out to sea anymore. It scares me that people keep dying. I hate the monsoon, I hate blizzards, and I hate wars. There are times when I’d like to see the faces of the dead once more, but that will only be possible in the distant future.

    The sun went down. The soju was finished, and the watermelon, the octopus, the grilled bulgogi, the lettuce—all finished. Aunt Yonsook’s husband took charge and cleared everything up. He did the driving, too. He didn’t look like the type who would beat a person like a dog, but the subtle slant of his eyes bothered me. We all went back to the house of one of my uncles. It was a long way. My father, my uncles, and my aunts stayed up drinking until dawn. And somebody argued and started crying, but then, right away, they were all cackling with laughter again. My father’s second mother is over eighty—maybe when she dies I’ll go down to Yoesu again. Black hairs are starting to poke up again on my grandmother’s head.

    When my father is drunk, he brings up that summer outing. And he talks about his younger days in Saudi Arabia, Iran, and Kuwait. He used to write us twice a week. My mother wrote him a letter every day, and because of her badgering, we three sisters dutifully wrote him once a week. Letters that read: Daddy, we’re all well and we’re doing all right in school, we’ll study hard—and nothing more to say after that. My father’s letters, which crossed the blowing sands of the desert, were the same: Listen to your mother and concentrate on your studies. Daddy is doing fine. Only the dates were different. The letters we exchanged like this for ten years are in a big earthenware storage jar on the rooftop. It’s like burying winter kimchee—a layer of plastic spread inside the pot with the letters sealed up inside. My father did it. To this day, I have never once opened that pot. But I’ve already started to worry what I should do with those letters after my father passes away.

    *

    Every day we’re paying off the house, and every day we’re losing the house, but fortunately there hasn’t been any real change so far. In the morning, my father brings in the paper from the front steps, my mother shines the shoes, and we three sisters leave for work. When I’m out of earshot, my father sadly complains that no one seems to notice the old cacti are blooming, and my mother gives us that look. She doesn’t come up to my room. When I get a phone call, she puts the receiver outside my door and goes back downstairs. How much longer can my mother climb up and down those stairs with the pain in her joints? I go downstairs a lot, even when I’m reading a book or writing. I wish one of us would hurry up and get married and leave this house. If a room were free, we could move the stuff from the main bedroom there and we could put the sofa back in the living room. But I’m afraid I may be the last of the sisters, remaining in this house until the very end. My father still worries that the room on the roof will collapse—his heart pounds—and I worry that his daughters’ possessions and books have invaded his bedroom.

    I’m not the happiest person in the world, but I’m not the most miserable, either. When I’m upset or my pride is injured, I sit at the table for an hour or two trimming anchovies. If we don’t have any, then I shell peanuts. Often I get dressed up and go to an Italian restaurant to eat pasta and drink wine. My mother still tells me that people have to learn to be satisfied with less than enough. Now I know what that means. Though I must admit it has a taken a long time. I’m still living in this house. This is where my happiest and unhappiest moments are. My room on the roof is warm. It’s winter now. I can hear the spoons being laid out on the table downstairs. Let’s eat! my mother shouts up to my room. All right! I answer right away. And I thump thump thump down the stairs.

    Sometimes I wait for his call. He’s the only one who understands my elephant story. He listens. I can pick up the phone and ramble on for an hour about my elephant. I don’t take pictures anymore, but something still appears. Now and then the house moves—it squirms—and I think to myself, Ah, the elephant has come.

    *

    Copyright © by Jo Kyung Ran. Translation by Heinz Insu Fenkl. Originally published in Munhakdongne. Used by permission of the author.

    Tongue will be published later this month.

    “Looking for the Elephant” also appeared in the international literary anthology Words Without Borders.



    Our Friends

  • They Come in Collections, Too

    New and Impending from Harper Perennial: