from Winter in Sokcho

Elisa Shua Dusapin

Artwork by Jiin Choi

He arrived muffled up in a woollen coat.

He put his suitcase down at my feet and took off his knitted cap. Western face. Dark eyes. Hair combed to one side. He looked straight through me, without seeing me. With an air of lassitude, he asked me in English if he could stay for a few days while he looked around for something else. I gave him a registration form. He handed me his passport so I could fill in the form for him. Yan Kerrand, 1968, from Granville. A Frenchman. He seemed younger than in the photo, his cheeks less hollow. I held out my pencil for him to sign and he took a pen from his coat. While I was booking him in, he pulled off his gloves, placed them on the counter, scrutinised the dust, the cat figurine on the wall above the computer. I felt compelled, for the first time, to make excuses for myself. I wasn’t responsible for the run-down state of this place. I’d only been working there a month.

There were two buildings. The first housed the reception, kitchen, lounge, and guest rooms in a row, upstairs and down. Orange and green corridors, lit by blueish light bulbs. Old Park hadn’t moved on from the days after the war, when guests were lured like squid to the nets, dazzled by strings of blinking lights. From the boiler room, on clear days, I could see the beach stretching all the way to the Ulsan mountains, ballooning towards the sky like a matronly bosom. The second building was down a few alleyways, a traditional house on stilts updated to make the best of the two rooms with their heated floors and paper dividing walls. An internal courtyard with a frozen fountain, a bare chestnut tree. There was no mention of Old Park’s in the guide books. People washed up there by chance, when they’d had too much to drink or missed the last bus.

The computer froze. While it spluttered, I told the Frenchman what he needed to know about the day-to-day running of the hotel. Old Park usually did this. He wasn’t there that day. Breakfast from 5:00 a.m. to 10:00, in the kitchen adjoining the reception, through the sliding glass door. No charge for toast, butter, jam, coffee, tea, orange juice, and milk. Fruit and yogurt extra, put a thousand won in the basket on top of the toaster. Items to be washed should be left in the machine at the end of the corridor on the ground floor; I’d take care of the laundry. Wifi code: ilovesokcho, all one word, no capitals. Convenience store open twenty-four hours a day, fifty metres down the road. Bus stop on the left just past the shop. Seoraksan National Park, one hour away, open all day until sunset. A good pair of boots recommended, for the snow. Bear in mind that Sokcho was a seaside resort. There wasn’t much to do in the winter.

Guests were few and far between at that time of year. A Japanese climber and a girl of about my age, fleeing from the capital to recover from plastic surgery to her face. She’d been there about two weeks, her boyfriend had just joined her for ten days. I’d put them all in the main house. Since Park’s wife died last year, the hotel had been operating at half-strength. Park had cleared out the rooms upstairs. What with my room and Park’s, all the rooms were taken. The Frenchman could sleep in the annexe.

It was dark. We set off down a narrow alleyway past Mother Kim’s stall. Her pork balls gave off an aroma of garlic and drains that lingered in the mouth all the way down the street. Ice cracked beneath our feet. Pallid neon lights. We crossed a second alleyway and came to the front porch.

Kerrand slid the door open. Pink paint, plastic faux baroque mirror, desk, purple bedspread. His head brushed the ceiling, from wall to bed was no more than two steps for him. I’d given him the smallest room, to save on cleaning. The communal bathroom was across the courtyard, but he wouldn’t get wet, there was a covered walkway all around the house. It didn’t bother him anyway. He peered at the blemishes in the wallpaper, put down his case, handed me five thousand won. I tried to refuse it but he insisted, wearily.



On my way back to the reception, I took a detour through the fish market to pick up the leftovers my mother put aside for me. I walked down the aisles to stand number forty-two, ignoring the looks people gave me as I passed. My French origins were still a source of gossip even though it was twenty-three years since my father had seduced my mother and vanished without a trace.

My mother, wearing too much make-up as usual, handed me a bag of baby octopus:

“That’s all there is right now. Have you got any bean paste left?”


“I’ll give you some.”

“No need, I still have some.”

“Why don’t you use it?”

“I do!”

Her rubber gloves made a sucking noise as she pulled them on and peered suspiciously at me. I’d lost weight. Old Park didn’t give me enough time to eat, she’d have a word with him. I told her not to. I’d been consuming vast amounts of toast and milky coffee every morning ever since I’d been working there, I couldn’t possibly have lost weight. Old Park had taken a while to get used to my cooking but he didn’t interfere. The kitchen was my domain.



The octopus were tiny, ten or so to a handful. I sorted through them, browned them with shallots, soy sauce, sugar, and diluted bean paste. I reduced the heat to stop them getting too dry. When the sauce was thickened, I added some sesame and tteok, slices of small sticky rice balls. Then I started to chop the carrots. Reflected in the blade of the knife, their grooved surface blended weirdly with the flesh of my fingers.

I felt a chill as a draft blew through the kitchen. Turning round I saw Kerrand come in. He wanted a glass of water. He watched me work while he drank it, a baffled look on his face as if he was struggling to make sense of a painting. I lost concentration and nicked the palm of my hand. Blood welled onto the carrots and formed a brownish crust. Kerrand took a handkerchief from his pocket. He stood close to me and held it to the wound.

“You should be more careful.”

“I didn’t do it on purpose.”

“Just as well.”

He smiled, pressing his hand against mine. I broke away, feeling uneasy. He nodded towards the pan.

“Is that for this evening?”

“Yes, seven o’clock, in the next room.”

“You’re bleeding.”

Irony, statement of fact, distaste. I couldn’t read the tone of his voice. And besides, he’d already left.

At dinner, there was no sign of him.


My mother was squatting in the kitchen, her chin pressed to her neck, arms plunged into a bucket. She was mixing fish liver, leeks, and sweet potato noodles to make the stuffing for the squid. Her soondae were known to be the best in Sokcho.

“Watch me work the mixture. See how I spread the stuffing evenly.”

I wasn’t really listening. Liquid was spurting out from the bowl, pooling around our boots and running down towards the drain in the middle of the room. My mother lived at the port in one of the apartments reserved for fishmongers, above the unloading bays. Noisy. Cheap. My childhood home. I went to see her on Sunday evenings and stayed over until Monday, my day off. She’d been finding it difficult sleeping alone since I moved out.

Handing me a squid to stuff, my mother placed her liver-stained glove on my hips and sighed:

“So young and pretty, and still not married . . . ”

“Jun-oh has to find work first. We’ve got plenty of time.”

“People always think they have time.”

“I’m not even twenty-five yet.”


I promised her we’d get engaged officially, in a few months’ time. Reassured, my mother went back to her task.


That night, between the damp sheets, crushed by the weight of her head on my stomach, I felt her chest rising and falling as she slept. I’d grown accustomed to sleeping alone in the hotel. Her snoring was keeping me awake. I counted the drops of spit leaking out one by one from her parted lips onto my side.


The next day, I went for a walk on the beach that ran the length of the town. I loved this coastline, scarred as it was by electric barbed wire fencing. North Korea was only sixty kilometres to the north. A wind-scraped figure stood out against the building works in the harbour. The name in the passport flashed through my mind. Yan Kerrand. He was walking towards me. A dog sprang up from a pile of nets, and began to follow him, sniffing at his trousers. One of the workers called the dog back. Kerrand stopped to stroke it, said something that sounded like “That’s OK!” but the man put the dog back on the lead, and Kerrand carried on walking towards me.

He drew level with me and I fell into step beside him.

“It’s beautiful, this winter landscape,” he shouted into the wind, taking in the beach with a sweep of the arm.

He was probably lying but I smiled. Over at the landing jetty, the screech of metal could be heard from the cargo ships.

“Have you been working here long?”

“Since I left university.”

A gust of wind dislodged his woollen cap.

“Can you speak up?” he asked, pressing the hat down over his ears.

All I could see of his face was a narrow band. Instead of shouting, I moved closer to him. He wanted to know what I’d studied. Korean and French literature.

“You speak French then.”

“Not really.”

To tell the truth, my French was better than my English, but I felt intimidated at the thought of speaking it with him. Luckily, he did no more than nod in agreement. I was on the verge of telling him about my father, but I held back. He didn’t need to know.

“Do you know where I can find ink and paper?”

The Sokcho stationery shop was closed in January. I told him how to get to the nearest supermarket.

“Will you come with me?”

“I haven’t got much time . . . ”

He peered at me from beneath his brows.

I said I would.

We walked past an expanse of concrete. An observation tower rose up in the middle of it, pumping out the wailing of a K-Pop singer. In town, restaurant owners dressed in yellow boots and green baseball caps stood in front of their fish tanks, waving their arms around to attract customers. Kerrand walked past the window displays that lined the streets without seeming to notice the crabs or the octopus with their tentacles suctioned against the glass.

“What brings you here to Sokcho in the winter?”

“I need peace and quiet.”

“You’ve come to the right place,” I laughed.

His face was impassive. Perhaps I bored him. I told myself his mood was no concern of mine. I didn’t have to fill the silences. He’d asked me for a favour, I owed him nothing. A mangy-looking dog came shambling towards him.

“Dogs seem to like you.”

Kerrand nudged it away from him.

“It’s my clothes. I’ve been wearing the same ones for a week. They must stink.”

“I told you I do laundry.”

“I didn’t want you getting blood on my clothes.”

If he was trying to make a joke, it was lost on me. I thought he smelled fine. A mixture of ginger and incense.

In the Lotte Mart he took hold of a pen, turned it over and over in his hand, put it down again and then started picking up blocks of paper, ripping open the packaging and sniffing the sheets. I looked up to make sure there were no cameras. Kerrand tested the different textures. He seemed to like the roughest ones best. He scrunched up the paper, touched it to his lips and the tip of his tongue, tasted the edge of one of sheets. He seemed satisfied and went off to another department. I hid the blocks he’d torn open under some binders. When I caught up with him, he hadn’t found what he was looking for. He wanted pots of ink, not cartridges. I asked the assistant and he went to fetch some from the stock room. He came back with two bottles, one Japanese and one Korean. Kerrand didn’t want the Japanese ink, it was too fast-drying, he wanted to test the Korean ink. No, that was not possible. Kerrand raised his head. He asked again. The assistant responded with annoyance. I repeated Kerrand’s request in Korean until the assistant gave in. Kerrand took a clothbound notebook from his coat pocket and traced a few lines. In the end he bought the Japanese ink.

At the bus stop, there was no one but us.

“So you’re French.”

“From Normandy.”

I nodded to show I understood.

“You know it?”

“I’ve read Maupassant.”

He turned to look at me.

“How do you picture it?”

I thought for a moment.

“Beautiful. Rather melancholy.”

“It’s changed since Maupassant’s day.”

“I suppose it has. Like Sokcho.”

Kerrand didn’t reply. He could never know Sokcho as I did. You couldn’t know it unless you’d been born there, lived there in winter, the smells, the octopus. The isolation.

“Do you read a lot?” he asked.

“I used to, before I went to college. I used to read with the heart. Now, I read with my head.”

He nodded, tightened his grip on the package he was holding.

“What about you?”

“Do I read?”

“What do you do for a living?”

“I make comics.”

The word comics didn’t sound right coming from him. It conjured images of conventions, readers queuing up. Maybe he was famous. I didn’t read comics.

“Is your story set here?”

“I don’t know yet. Maybe.”

“Are you on holiday?”

“There’s no such thing as a holiday in my line of work.”

He stepped on to the bus. We sat down by the window, on either side of the aisle. The light had faded. I could see Kerrand reflected in the window, his package on his lap. He’d closed his eyes. His nose stuck out like a set square. Fine lines fanned out from his thin lips, traces of future wrinkles. He’d shaved. I cast my gaze up towards his eyes and realised that he was looking at my reflection in the glass too. That same look he’d given me when he arrived at the hotel, friendly and weary at the same time. I looked down. Our stop was announced. Kerrand brushed his fingers to my shoulder before he set off towards the annexe:

“Thanks for this afternoon.”


That evening he wasn’t there again at dinner. Feeling emboldened after our walk, I took him a tray of food that wasn’t as spicy as the meal served to the other guests.

He was sitting on the edge of the bed, his stooping figure silhouetted against the paper wall. The door was left ajar. Pressing my face to the doorframe, I could see his hand moving over a sheet of paper. He’d set the paper on top of a box in his lap. The pencil between his fingers was finding its way, moving forwards and backwards, hesitating, searching again. The point hadn’t touched the paper yet. Kerrand began to draw, with uneven strokes. He went over the lines several times, as if to erase and make corrections, etching them into the paper with every stroke. The image was impossible to make out. Branches of a tree, or a heap of scrap metal perhaps. Eventually I recognised the shape of an eye. A dark eye beneath a tangle of hair. The pencil continued in its path until a female form emerged. Eyes a bit too large, a tiny mouth. She was beautiful, he should have left it at that. But he carried on, going over the features, gradually twisting the lips, warping the chin, distorting the image. Then, with a pen instead of the pencil, he daubed ink slowly and purposefully over the paper until the woman was nothing more than a black, misshapen blob. He placed the sheet of paper on the desk. Ink dripped down on to the floor. A spider started to run up his leg, but he made no move to brush it away. He gazed at his handiwork. In an instinctive movement, he tore off a corner of the sheet and started to chew it.

I was afraid he’d see me. Without making a sound, I put the tray down and left.

translated from the French by Aneesa Abbas Higgins