In this excerpt from Choi Jin-young's To the Warm Horizon, Dori, fleeing a pandemic that's wiped out the country, meets the nonchalant Jina and finds herself desiring more than mere survival.
I opened my eyes. The bonfire had gone out. I could hear a babble of voices. Speaking Korean. It sounded like more than a couple of people. It was still dark outside. I woke Miso up and took a peek. There were two large box trucks parked in the vegetable garden. I did a head count. There were more than ten people. Several of them waved their flashlights into the house. I hid in the farthest corner of the room with Miso in my arms. People were busily lighting a fire and heating up their food. They made hot water from the snow and washed their hands and faces. The smell of grilled meat wafted in. I gagged. I held Miso tightly in my arms. So she wouldn’t be able to smell anything. So she wouldn’t be able to see anything. With only a wall separating us, these people ate and drank and spoke in Korean. They called each other honey, you, sir.
A man spoke in a low but resounding voice.
—It’s dangerous. Don’t go off on your own.
This “Jina” didn’t seem to listen to the man. The man called after Jina several more times. Along with a flashlight beam, a small head suddenly popped through the window. A little later I heard light, quick footsteps in the direction of the missing door. I hid Miso behind my back and took out my jackknife.
The flashlight beam that had suddenly appeared out of the black empty space shined on me.
—Jina, get back here. Don’t go just anywhere. I’m telling you, it’s dangerous.
The person who had lowered her flashlight before approaching me leaned out the window and shouted.
—Fine! I’m coming, I’m coming.
Jina turned from the window and looked over at me without a word. I held the jackknife up to my chest. Jina did not draw any closer. She laid down the flashlight, pointing the light at herself. With her face and body totally bundled up in bulky winter clothes, I could make out only a pair of eyes and a nose under the hat. Jina, who was staring at me intently, suddenly took off her woolen hat and revealed more of herself. Her hair was a dark blood red. I recoiled in surprise. Miso squirmed and stuck her head out from behind me.
Jina broke the silence.
—I see there’s a little kid, too.
She drew a little closer.
—Is she your little sister?
She asked without hesitation, as if to chat up a friend.
—Surely she can’t be your daughter.
She murmured like she was thinking out loud, combing through her disheveled hair with her fingers.
—Is it just you and the kiddo?
Jina did not put up her guard with me.
—You’re from Korea, right?
I did not let my guard down. Jina scratched her cheek, looking at me as I said nothing in response.
—A-im peurom Koria.
Out of the blue, she spoke English.
—Wheo al yu peurom?
I sensed a slight Gyeongsang dialect.
—Naiseu tu mit yu.
She took another step toward me and extended her hand.
—If it’s not this either . . . Hajimemashite.
After greeting me in Japanese, Jina quietly gazed at me for a moment, fixed her fur hat, and switched back to Korean.
—Don’t worry. We’re not bad people. No one’s infected, and we don’t eat kid liver. We’re going to spend the night right out there and leave in the morning . . . But still, I won’t tell anyone that I saw you here.
With a faint smile, Jina slowly backed away into the distance. The light faded, and the air fell dark again. I felt like I had dreamed with my eyes open. My heart was pounding hard. Not because I was afraid . . . No, I was afraid. No, it wasn’t that I was afraid . . . I was afraid.
—Are we leaving now?
I nodded, then shook my head. I signed back.
—Let’s stay here tonight.
Seated upright, I kept dozing off. Between my catnaps, the view outside the window gradually deepened into a black blue. At last I ended up lying down on my side. My consciousness poured into a black pit as if I were plunging into hell. Even in my sleep, I remembered Jina’s English and chuckled. My laughing surprised me, and I woke up. A small bonfire was blazing. I sat up. Jina held out a small cup.
Jina placed the cup in my hand. Wondering if this was a dream, I merely watched the pure white steam bloom and rise from the black liquid. Jina wrapped her hand around mine, tipping the cup to try the first sip. Then, without letting go of my hand, she tipped the cup to my lips. My lips were gently wetted by the black liquid. It was real coffee. Real. Coffee. I sipped it sweetly. I felt the warmth spread inside, and it felt like every cell in my body was startled awake. I did not take my lips off the cup and kept taking little sips.
Jina muttered, patting my shoes.
—Your shoes are a mess.
Her hair was blood red last night. I was thinking about how much I wanted to take off that fur hat to see if I’d dreamed it all up—just thinking about it—when my hand tugged at it, exposing her red hair.
—Agh . . . My hair’s probably super gross and oily and matted down . . .
She muttered again as she ran her fingers through her hair, but she did not show any sign of embarrassment.
—You’re also from Korea, right?
She warmed her hands by the bonfire.
—What should I call you?
I was flustered.
—You can call me Jina.
Jina came into focus, right before my eyes. Hers were the color of ash. She rubbed her nose.
—By the way, where are you going? Have you decided?
My eyes could not lie, and Jina kept trying to meet them. I lowered my head and drank the coffee. Jina laid her hand on mine and pressed down a little. It felt like she was saying, Lift up your head and look at me, so I looked up.
—Do you want to go with me?
Jina, with those gray eyes and that red hair.
—Let’s go together.
I knew. What it was I needed. Where it was.
The early risers were filling the open air with their voices and clatter. I stood outside the window and waved Dori over. She held Miso’s hand and walked up next to me. I pointed to each person, explaining who was who. Then I locked eyes with Dad. He remained unperturbed even when he saw Dori. My dad was a hard man to surprise. In Korea, my extended family all lived together in the same neighborhood. There used to be more than fifty of us altogether. More than thirty people died among us. In a matter of two days. Even then, Dad did not panic. My aunt who lost her parents and her children hanged herself. My uncle who lost his wife and his children jumped from his apartment building. My dad, who lost his parents, his wife, and his siblings, declared with a terrifying look on his face that he would not let anyone else die. Dad started accepting gold and diamonds left and right, selling off all the cars from his used foreign car dealership. Except for two box trucks, sturdy and large. He crammed our living relatives into those trucks along with a load of necessities, and we made our escape from Korea.
People used to tell me that I’m a lot like my dad. After hearing this repeatedly growing up, I really thought I resembled my dad. Now I see it differently. It’s not that I actually resemble my dad; it’s just that I grew up hearing that I resembled my dad. Which, in turn, made me a lot like my dad.
I said I wanted to take Dori and Miso with us. Dad didn’t think long about it.
—Just this once.
That was his answer.
—You can’t take anyone else now.
He added, to be safe.
—In order to ride with us, you’ll have to compensate us in some way.
He looked directly at Dori.
—If you happen to be carrying a gun, hand it over already.
Without a word, Dori opened up her knapsack and let my dad rifle through it. He then patted down Dori and Miso. When Dad found a jackknife in Dori’s pocket, he burst into laughter.
—What can you even do with something like this?
Dad mimed opening a can with the jackknife without wiping the patronizing smirk off his face. But when Dori said she had escaped Korea and traveled on foot from Ulan-Ude with Miso, he was briefly at a loss for words.
—Without anyone’s help?
Dad eyed Dori’s blank expression.
—Without killing anyone?
Dori didn’t answer. Miso, despite the scared look on her face, smiled a little when she met my gaze.
—How long did it take?
—I didn’t count the days.
He paused for a bit.
Dad put her jackknife in his pocket. Dori asked him to give it back.
—It’s too dangerous for you to carry.
—The itty-bitty thing that can barely open a can?
—Doesn’t matter. No.
—Please give it back.
—I’ll give it back to you when I can trust you.
—There’s no need for that. Please give it back now.
—What do you mean?
—I’m saying, it’s OK if you don’t trust me. Because I won’t be trusting you, either.
Dad fiddled with the jackknife and stared at Dori for awhile. She did not avert her gaze.
—I suppose it’s better than asking you to blindly trust me.
He returned the jackknife to Dori.
—You cannot disobey my orders from now on. If you do, I’ll have no choice but to kick you out. And it’s best that you not expect us to treat you like family.
Several of my relatives aired their grievances when they heard Dad’s decision to take Dori and Miso with us. The reproach: How many strays are you planning to pick up off the side of the road? The complaint: You must think there’s plenty of food to go around. The suspicion: Since you decided to give them a ride without knowing anything about them, what are you going to do once they start stealing from us? The concern: We might get randomly attacked just for having a little girl with us. But no one could really go against his decision.
I locked eyes with Gunji, who was reclining on a truck tire, combing his hair over his forehead, assuming a serious expression. He was the only one among us who wasn’t family. Gunji, too, came to ride in our truck because of me. We were neighbors for over a decade. Gunji spent more time at my house than his own. Gunji was often beaten up, both at home and at school. My mom even went to the school and fought with his teacher. She paid a visit to each of the parents whose children hit Gunji and argued with them one by one. But she could not fight Gunji’s dad. Such an effort could have led to her death.
After Gunji’s mom became sick and died, his dad drunkenly tried to kill Gunji and himself. Gunji hid in our cellar and refused to come out, even after his dad died. I was not able to look after Gunji, who had starved for several days, stuck in the dark cellar. Recalling those days . . . time collapses on itself. I can’t recall the events in order . . . No, there is no order. Everything happened at once. Gunji’s dad and my mom and my relatives and our neighbors all died in an instant. The sun came up even when I did not sleep. I could not breathe, but I did not die. I was in a state of consciousness where I could not distinguish whether the things I was seeing and hearing were nightmares or reality. Looking at a burning building, I wondered if it was something that I had done. Looking at the people who had died, I trembled with fear, unsure if I had killed them. The world spun on in a macabre dance. A distorted melody sounded from every direction. Though I did not speak, a spell of curses leaked out on their own. Though I didn’t cry, tears flowed down my cheeks. When I got on the truck to leave, I met eyes with Gunji, who had been quietly watching us from behind the cellar door. Only then did I realize that Gunji was still alive. I sprinted over and grabbed him by the hand. Gunji held on to the door and refused to come out. Even when I pulled so hard that I nearly fell backward in that high-stakes game of tug-of-war, Gunji would not budge one bit. Dad jumped out of his truck, threw me on his shoulders, and tossed me into the cargo hold. Shrieking at the top of my lungs, I ran back to Gunji. If they wanted to take me with them, they had no choice but to take Gunji along as well. My family did not take to Gunji, who was not family to them. But Gunji kept his head up. He grew much more assertive than he ever was in Korea.
The other day, Gunji had talked to me with a dazed look on his face.
—I just remembered this time I was watching soccer on the salon TV, a game against Qatar or something. Anyway, some old man getting a haircut was watching it too and got all riled up and started cursing. Then he said, “Ah, they’re such crap, it’s like they’re playing with their feet!”
I waited for Gunji to continue.
—He was mad that they were playing soccer with their feet.
Gunji said again, this time with emphasis. Only then did I understand and burst into laughter.
—So the lady was like, “They run around and kick the ball with their feet. What are they going to do, run their mouths like a certain somebody around here?”
I could picture that whole scene so well that I was giggling for awhile, then stifled myself mid-laugh. I felt the adults’ icy stares.
We who had lost our family and become refugees could not laugh.
We had left our jokes and our laughter behind in our hometown.
The adults did not speak unless it was absolutely necessary. To them, words were like a bucket used to draw from a well of emotions. The longer they talked, the more biting sentiments like criticism and resentment splashed past the brim. And though they never raised their voices or spat out horrible insults, conversations kept cooling off. The self-recrimination and guilt—the belief that it was a sin to have survived and a further sin to continue evading death, that you and I were wicked humans all the same—had struck deep into people’s dim eyes and speech. I knew. That our misery made us like this. That we were pinned down by death. That we could not be free from memory, that we were too exhausted to look out into the future. For those reasons, I was even more certain that I did not want to gradually resemble misery. I did not want to belittle life. I did not know what death or life really was at this point, but I at least did not want to think of it as some kind of mistake or punishment. With that sort of thinking, I could cope with neither Mom’s death nor my life.
—I might be wrong to think this way, but . . .
One night, Gunji spoke as if he’d entered a confessional booth. He said there were times when he actually felt relieved to live in the present, where he didn’t have to go to school and his dad was gone and everyone was equally unfortunate. That now he didn’t think about wanting to die, at least. That he felt confident about not getting beaten up by anyone if he were to return to Korea and attend school again, but didn’t want that sort of “what if” to materialize.
—So you don’t want to go back to Korea?
—There’s nothing good there anymore. Your mom’s not there, either.
—Do you have somewhere else you want to go, then?
—I’ve been thinking about that all this time, and . . .
Gunji was thinking about the future. The kid who used to have a habit of repeating, “It’s better for scum like me to just drop dead.”
—I think an ocean that’s warm year-round would be nice.
Gunji said even if it took a long, long time, he would keep moving forward and never give up and reach a place like that at any cost. He said he would build a house by the beach and swim in the ocean. He said he would catch fish and pick sweet, tangy berries and give them to someone he loves. Gunji had a dream. This dream that he’d never had in Korea he developed after the disaster.
—Sis, do you want to go back to Korea?
I thought I’d for sure go back to Korea once everything settled down. How could I have thought such a thing? What was in Korea? There was nothing there. Just as there’s nothing here. No. Here, there’s family. There’s an endless road before us, and a tomorrow we can’t predict. Back in Korea, I wanted to be a fashion designer, but now a dream like that is useless. A warm ocean where I can build a house and swim around and catch fish and . . . I must dream such dreams. Because fashion designers may no longer exist, but an ocean that’s warm year-round must exist somewhere. Because regardless of how much time passes and whether humans go extinct, the ocean would be there.
—Or, do you wanna come with me?
Gunji’s eyes shone with determination, something I’d never seen before in him. To dream. To share that dream. For Gunji, a dream was something new that he’d never touched before, something like first love that could be simply embraced without alteration or calculation because he’d never failed at it before. I tried imagining the warm ocean of a world in ruins. Like the silence that lingers after a long symphony, the image grew empty and forlorn somehow.
I tried to give Dori my shoes, but she wouldn’t take them. She turned away even when I slipped her some food that I’d saved for her. Dori didn’t touch anything belonging to the truck. She’d sit only on the outermost edge, where she could, at any moment, open the door and jump out; in the meantime, she sat in her corner like someone who could neither see nor hear, or like a bundle of blankets. Seeing Dori act that way, one of my aunts commented that “at least she knows her place.” My aunt-in-law was less forgiving, though, saying, “That girl is too cold-hearted. When an adult asks her something, she should at least say something in response.” Even as the adults exchanged such words with one another, Dori didn’t change her silence or her blank expression. She sat still like a doll and even breathed silently, and only appeared to become human when she looked at Miso. I, in turn, became a doll as well. I sat across from them and just kept staring at Dori.
Every part of Dori—her eyes, nose, lips, ears—was slender and long. Her slim, petite body looked like a sapling one would plant on Arbor Day. I wanted to comb the tangle of hair coming down from her fur hat. I wanted to comb it and put it in a nice braid or just cut it to her shoulders. I wanted to tell her, You’re really cute. How old was she? Where had she lived? What had she done for a living? What had happened to her parents? How had life in Korea been for her? Though I was curious about all of those things, I didn’t ask her anything. I didn’t ask; I simply gazed at her. Inside the bumpy car I’d made conversation only in my head, taking silence as a reply, and so I thought it was fine to not know those things. I didn’t know Dori’s wounds, and Dori didn’t know mine— perhaps that’s why we could see each other as we were in that moment. It was even possible for us to build a new story of our own.
After speeding down a two-lane expressway all day, we drove into a city in ruins. Like all the places we’d passed through so far, it was shrouded in snow and darkness. I occasionally spotted some people but couldn’t tell if they were locals who lived there or drifters stopping by. The streets were bleak and dirty, and every store bore traces of having been looted. We decided to repair the car and spend the night there.
Even when my family gathered for dinner, Dori and Miso sat far away from us as they ate a little bit of canned food and drank bottled water from their bags. And then they disappeared. I worried that they’d maybe left for good, but they returned before dark. Dori was wearing shoes that weren’t new but didn’t have holes in them. Miso’s shoes were different, too. Dori made a small fire using the building near our truck as a windbreak and laid out everyone’s sleeping bags. Watching her do that made me angry. Especially because I was wound up after spending the whole day fretting over Dori: where she was and what she was eating and how she was feeling.
—Go sleep in the car instead. If you’re uncomfortable around the adults, you can just stay by my side, y’know.
Dori tucked a blanket over Miso and checked on the fire.
—I’m telling you, even if something bad were to happen, it’s safest to be by my side.
Dori shook her head and muttered.
—There’s nowhere safe.
—Yeah. So let’s stick together.
—I’m fine out here.
—But I’m not fine with that.
—Don’t worry about me.
—How can I not worry about you? I’m the one who put you in this car.
—I really do appreciate it.
Dori spoke very slowly.
—I’m being careful for a reason. Everyone’s lost their family. They probably don’t like me showing up out of the blue and acting like I’m part of the family. Why did my kid die, and why is that kid alive. Why is that kid eating the food that my kid should’ve eaten. That’s how they look at me . . .
—Fine. Suit yourself.
Because I couldn’t tell Dori she had it all wrong, because I couldn’t hate her for saying what she said, because I couldn’t argue any longer, I was about to turn around when Dori held my hand and promptly let it go. A small box sat in my hand, like a magic trick. I opened the box. Lipstick. Glossy and rose scented.
—Where did you get this?
I murmured, unable to take my eyes off the tube. Dori gestured to my hair.
—I thought it’d go well together.
I put it on immediately. My lips being dry and chapped, I couldn’t apply the product as smoothly as I had in the past but felt better just smelling the sweet rose scent right under my nose. Dori cleaned up my lip line with her finger. I tried to put it on Dori as well, but she dodged and refused. Elated, I jumped around Dori like a filly, and then brought over my sleeping bag and blanket from the truck.
—Didn’t you say you didn’t want to sleep in the car? I can sleep here, then.
—Your dad won’t like that.
—If your dad doesn’t like me, then I can’t ride in his car.
—You should lie down soon.
Dori didn’t listen to me, and I didn’t listen to Dori either. I clutched the lipstick, lay on my side, and looked at her. The moment Dori gave it to me, I realized how much I’d been wanting it. On this desolate, frozen expanse of land—on this endless, endless road—amid these people weary from misfortune and despair, I’d been wanting exactly this sort of thing. Something that I couldn’t eat or wear, but made me more myself. Something that I couldn’t do without, like jokes and laughter, despite everyone calling me pathetic. And then I was filled with regret. When we left Korea I’d grabbed only a few photos as keepsakes of Mom, but I really should’ve held onto more things like the lipstick. Mom’s makeup, Mom’s scarves, Mom’s pajamas, items that bore Mom’s scent and trace.
My mom’s hair salon was a fun playground. I played with the brushes, wigs, and makeup there from a very young age. It always smelled nice in the salon. The yogurt in the fridge and the coffee mix never ran out, and there was always some snack, like pastries or rice crackers or boiled sweet potatoes, set on the old table in front of the sofa. Mom didn’t have to prepare the food herself because the neighborhood ladies kept bringing it over. They reminded me of the rabbit in a children’s song, who comes to the spring to wash his face, but leaves after only drinking the water; they would bring food to share, chat about all sorts of things, and then suddenly clear out of the salon saying, “Oh, look at the time.” The regulars were like sparrows that delivered all sorts of fun stories in their beaks.
The summer I turned fifteen, I was playing with the straightener, alone, when I completely burned off the ends of my hair. That was when Mom cut my hair short. I was very pleased with myself in the mirror. Because Mom had shaped my hair well, I sometimes cut my own hair. It was very easy. I just had to cut away my hair with salon scissors as I’d cut down weeds. Once I even cut Gunji’s hair. When I finished, he erupted like a volcano. I insisted on how cool and unique his new hairstyle was. Despite being persuaded, Gunji came back from school the next day and erupted again. I also learned how to do makeup from my mom. Mom was good at finding colors that complemented my skin tone. Mom was someone who loved beautiful things, was beautiful herself, and knew how to find beauty. Grandfather had left it up to Mom and Dad to choose a name for me because I was a girl. Mom named me in a heartbeat. I loved my name. Because it was the first present that my mom ever gave me. Even when I got into a fight with a friend, my annoyance would subside as soon as she called my name. I’d think, How important could this petty grudge possibly be?
Dori called my name, caressing my cheeks.
—Please, I’m asking you. Go sleep in the car.
Half asleep, I still managed to shake my head.
—We have to stay together. That’s the only way we can be safe.
I don’t know if I said that before I fell asleep or while dreaming. I’m not even sure if it’s something I said or something Dori said. When I opened my eyes in the morning, nothing else but those two sentences had stayed with me so vividly. Like a tattoo across my heart, of a maxim that only I could recognize.
From 해가 지는 곳으로 (Seoul: Minumsa Publishing Group, 2017). By arrangement with the publisher. Translation © 2018 by So J. Lee. All rights reserved.