On Destiny

Lee Chang-dong

Artwork by Lee Wan Xiang

The story I want to tell you is about my strange destiny. I understand that you are a novelist, so I assume that you must have heard all kinds of strange stories about all kinds of people. But for all I know, my story is the strangest.

Do you believe in fate or fortune telling? Those who do say that a person’s destiny is predetermined at birth, no, even before birth, as if it were written on a ledger, meaning that no matter the struggle, people are destined to live and die according to their palm lines. Similarly, Christians say that there is nothing in human affairs that does not go according to God’s plans. But what those people say has never made sense to me. I mean, if it is true, how unfair is human destiny?

For example, some lucky man is born with a silver spoon in his mouth as the only son of a wealthy businessman while another man is abandoned on the street without knowing who his parents are and even what his name is. That poor orphan has no choice but to accept his fate, as if it were a card dealt to him in the draw. Christians say that whatever lot you are born with, God has plans for you. That would be great if you were the only son of a wealthy businessman. But wouldn’t that be unfair if you were born as a beggar on the street? I mean, wouldn’t he say, “What have I done to deserve God’s disfavor?”

I am saying this because I myself was born with no parents. Technically, of course, I must have had parents, but I barely remember what they were like or how I was orphaned because I was no older than four or five when I was abandoned on the street. It was around the time of the Korean War, so I suppose that I lost my parents in the war. My name, Kim Heung-nam, is the only thing I can remember about myself, although I am not sure if that is even accurate. To be honest, I don’t even know exactly how old I am. I grew up in a small, rundown orphanage by the seaside of a port city on the southern coast of Korea. The orphanage was terrible: its building a converted old barrack from the war days with no glass in the windows, and its director a drunkard veteran said to have lost a leg in the war.

When the director became drunk in the middle of night, he would wake up the orphans for military drills, shouting, “Emergency, emergency!” If the half-awake children couldn’t stand up straight, he would beat the hell out of them with his crutch. But in the orphanage getting beaten up was as much a routine as eating and shitting. That was not the hardest part of our life. Hunger was.

When we were old enough for school, we would walk along the long bank of the sea to the nearby primary school, sometimes stealing the dry fish off the embankment to appease our hunger. Since we were ostracized and bullied like lepers for being orphans, we would always stick together in a group of three or four.

In the winter of fifth grade, I was cast in a school play—called something like “The Prince Who Became a Toad”—to play that poor prince, the main character.

The story—I’m sure you know—is about a prince who turns into an ugly toad under the curse of an evil wizard. No one realizes that the ugly toad croaking in the palace backyard is actually the cursed prince from the neighboring kingdom. The poor prince has to keep out of people’s sight and hide in dark places lest he be kicked out or trampled to death. One day, a beautiful, kind-hearted princess takes pity and gives him a teary kiss. Instantly, the curse is lifted, restoring the toad to human form.

I think, young as I was, I identified myself with that poor toad in the play. After all, I was also under a curse, destined to be orphaned and abandoned on the street.

The princess was played by the daughter of the richest man in the neighborhood, a man who owned many ships. She had long eyelashes and a face the color of the American milk powder that we received in rations. She was called “Maria,” a Catholic name of some sort. Basically, Maria was as out of reach as a star in the sky, unapproachable to an orphan like me. In rehearsals, when the kiss scene approached, I would become so nervous and weak as to almost wet my pants, but there would be no actual kiss because Maria would always pretend.

“Maria, you should actually kiss him when you are on stage. Remember that, okay?” the teacher in charge of the rehearsals would say. Then Maria would throw me a glance full of contempt, but it would never hurt my feelings.

To this day, I have no idea why I was cast in the role of the prince. The teacher may have seen some parallels between the prince who became the ugly toad and the poor orphan. In any case, it was quite a change for me, going from being ostracized and bullied to receiving a kiss from a beautiful girl from a rich family, albeit only in a play. More than a mere kiss, it allowed me to fantasize—during the nerve-racking wait for the girl’s approaching mouth with my eyes closed—that the poor, lowly orphan might actually be transformed into a prince or someone equally noble.

Finally, the day of the school play arrived. The makeshift auditorium, created by removing the partitions from two adjacent classrooms, had a stage set up as a beautiful palace garden. That day, we happened to have a lot of snow, piled up ankle-deep. But the seats were filled by many people who came in brushing the snow off their shoulders, including the director on his crutch.

I was watching all of this from behind the dark, curtained stage. It was a stunningly beautiful world—completely different from the one I was sick of living in, where I had to sleep cramped with four to five other orphans under one old military blanket, or listen alone to the window-rattling sound of the waves once I woke up to hunger in the middle of the night. That was probably when, for the first time in my life, I understood, however vaguely, what it meant for life to be beautiful.

The lights went out and the play finally began with music from the old record player. As the toad, I was wearing an ugly, mottled skin on my back and the princess a white dress as translucent as dragonfly wings. I must have looked a sight in that toad’s skin made of a flour sack—a food donation with “U. S. A.” printed on it in large letters.

When I stepped onto the stage, wearing that sack, everyone cracked up, especially Seong-man, my fellow orphan and schoolmate, whose laughter was the loudest. As I crawled around the stage, croaking like a toad, Seong-man continued to laugh hysterically, stomping his foot on the ground. I didn’t mind the laughter from the audience; I just concentrated on my performance, looking forward to the thrilling moment of transformation into a prince. It was for that single moment that I endured crawling around the stage, croaking myself hoarse, to the point where my knees were grazed and bleeding. I didn’t even feel the pain.

Finally, the play reached its climax where the princess would kiss the toad on the face. In the princess’s arms, I watched her eyes welling up in tears that glistened in the lights. The throbbing of my heart was as loud to my ears as the sound of thunder. Then, all of a sudden, when the princess’s mouth was about to touch my cheek, the world was plunged into darkness.

There was a power outage. Needless to say, it created confusion both on stage and in the audience. Although power outages were common at that time, the audience didn’t have the patience to wait for the lights to come back on and for the play to resume.

After they had all stormed out, clamoring and knocking over the chairs, I found myself alone, squatting on the dark stage. Everyone had left, abandoning the poor boy in the dark, the curse still in place . . .

That night, I had to walk back to the orphanage in the heavy snow alone. It was a long, lonely, painful walk. As the snow whipped around me, and the raging waves crashed against the banks, I shuddered in despair that I might forever remain the ugly toad under the curse.

This was how my destiny played out. It would drop the curtains of darkness in front of me whenever I saw a ray of hope and eagerly took a step forward.

From that day on, I went by the nickname “Toad” in school as well as in the orphanage. This was Seong-man’s idea. He would teasingly call me “Toad” in a loud voice, especially when Maria was around, even in the distance. Although I hated that nickname, I ended up accepting it, just as I accepted my destiny, because I was a wimp, then as now, and he was much stronger and bigger than I was.

In the following year, another chance came to test my destiny. On a sunny, warm winter Sunday morning, we orphans were suddenly ordered to wash and gather inside. We were nervous and excited, knowing this was a sign of visitors to the orphanage.

As we sat and waited, sniffing and looking all nervous, our faces and hands and feet washed clean as instructed, a middle-aged couple showed up in surprisingly shabby clothes. We were slightly disappointed that they were not our usual visitors—people in nice clothes with a Bible under their arm or Westerners with their prominent noses and an armful of presents. But they turned out to be special guests.

We quickly realized—as orphans often do—that the couple was here to adopt a child. Indeed, they started carefully inspecting each of us as they, along with the director, slowly walked up and down our seated rows. The man was shiny bald and wearing a pair of jogger pants with grease stains. His scanning eyes struck me as menacing. By contrast, his shabby wife tagging along beside him seemed like a kind-hearted woman. On passing each of us, she went “Oh, my!” or “Oh, no!” as if we were the most pitiful creatures she had ever seen. Suddenly, the man stopped in front of me and asked, “How old are you?”

“I . . . I’m ten . . . ”

I was nervous almost to the point of tears. Becoming a foster child—though a scary thought in a way—was the dream of everyone raised in the orphanage. It meant kissing goodbye to the horrible life of hunger and abuse and leaving for an unknown world. Most importantly, it meant getting new parents. And this seemed to be the moment when that dream might come true for me.

Once they had finished taking a look at each of the orphans, I was called into the director’s office. Apparently, they were looking for a boy of my age. But after another careful inspection, the man seemed to change his mind about me. “This boy looks as if he hasn’t been fed for three days. What if he gets sick all the time?”

In order to appeal to my potential foster father, I put my best effort into pretending that I was strong, my back straight and my teeth clenched. Although this failed, I managed to appeal to my potential foster mother. She asked me in a very soft voice what my name was, what my favorite food was, if I was doing well in school, and so on.

I did my best to answer each of her questions in a clear voice. She told me to come and sit beside her. When I did, she stroked my head and took my hand. I can still feel the warmth of her hand.

“Do you want to come and live with me?” she asked in a kind voice. Those words made me forget for a moment that I was pretending, because I felt in them the mother I had never known but had always missed. Instead of answering her question, I ended up bursting into tears, my lips wobbling.

“What’s the matter with you? Why are you crying like a girl?” the man said, clicking his tongue disapprovingly. But his wife seemed to take even more pity on me, and said, “Why so picky? Let’s take him. I like him.”

“I think he’s too weak to be useful.” “But he seems like a good boy.” Eventually but reluctantly, the man seemed to decide to take me, as his wife suggested. While they were discussing the adoption process with the director, I was sitting with my back straight to the point of aching, my heart racing with suffocating tension and anxiety. I feared that everything was going too well, and that such good luck coming to me so easily was too good to be true.

My fear turned out to be justified. The arrow of destiny had just missed the target; the door of the director’s office opened and Seong-man entered. He was returning from his job at the docks. When ships came into port the director sent him out to work, on the grounds that Seong-man, already the size of a grown man, should earn his own keep.

The man’s eyes suddenly lit up at the sight of Seong-man and started scanning him up and down.

“Is that boy also one of yours?” the man asked the director. “Yes, he is.” “Then how come I didn’t get to see him earlier?” “Because he was out working. Older ones need to start learning to earn their own keep.”

“Absolutely. I can’t agree with you more. A man should earn his own keep,” the man said, nodding several times. Then he gestured for Seong-man, standing at the door, to come closer and started touching his hands, arms, and shoulder blades. What was I to do then but to watch resentfully as the clueless Seong-man let the man touch his body? Finally, the man made up his mind. “I’ll go for this one. We need a boy like him who looks healthy and manly.”

When Seong-man left the orphanage to live with his foster parents, the director and everyone else gathered around to say goodbye and see him off, but I holed up in a corner of the dark barrack building, crying silently, wiping away tears that streamed down my cheeks. The next day, I ran away from the orphanage and boarded the night train to Seoul.

Words cannot describe the hardship I went through after that. Once in Seoul, I picked up an empty can and panhandled for quite a while in front of Yongsan Station. I also spent months following gangsters around. Then I moved from job to job, as a gum seller, a shoeshine boy, a ragman, a newsboy, and so on, sometimes receiving kicks, insults, or spit on my face. I struggled not to be swept away by the wild stream of that world. I will not get into the details of my story of suffering from that point on, although it is, as people often say about their life stories, enough to fill several books.

As the years passed, I began to get the hang of how to at least survive in this strange and tough world. But sometimes, when I roamed the streets at night with an empty stomach, I would feel completely lonely and sad at the fact that while the lights were many and twinkling like stars in the sky, none of them beckoned me warmly. The only way to relieve my feelings of loneliness and sadness was to save money.

It was as if money gave me a license to live in this world into which I had been flung like a nameless spore from nowhere. So I pinched pennies, going months on end in my ragged clothing and eating noodles, instant or otherwise, three meals a day, spending no more than 300 won per bowl. The money thus saved was put in the bank and never touched. I was so proud of the growing sum in my bank account. It felt like both proof that I was alive and a guarantee that I could continue living in this world. When I lay in bed alone at night, I would draw great comfort and courage from touching, over and over again, my bankbook tucked away in my inner pocket.

I was twenty-eight when a new opportunity came into my life. I was then working at an inn on Toegye-ro Street in Seoul. The inn had an older gentleman as a long-term guest in a corner room on the second floor. Since I cleaned his room twice a day and ran errands for him, we started talking and getting to know each other. At first I thought it strange that a seemingly normal-looking man like him was living alone in an inn. As it turned out, he was a Korean American who had come back to his home country after thirty years living in the US. Maybe that explained why he spoke in rather awkward Korean and smoked only imported cigarettes.

“I’m sorry . . . for smoking imported cigarettes,” he would say to me with a smile whenever pulling out a cigarette to smoke.

“After spending half of my life in the US, I still prefer Korean food, like bean paste stew. But when it comes to cigarettes, I can’t change my taste for American brands.”

Despite all the money he had accumulated through all kinds of hardships in the US, the gentleman said he had begun to lose his appetite for life and had become increasingly weary of living in a foreign country. So he had come to Seoul, leaving his family and business behind in the US. He couldn’t feel more comfortable living here, even though it was an inn. Maybe he had missed having some company; he often invited me into his room at night for a conversation.

I recounted the story of my miserable life to that gentleman. I may have found in him the father I never knew, just as I had felt my mother in the woman who had visited the orphanage many years ago. Destiny was playing tricks on me again, I just didn’t know it yet. One day, when I visited him late at night, he seemed restless, worried sick about something. He wouldn’t tell me why until I begged him several times.

“Since I started living in Seoul, I’ve realized how nice it is to be back home. I can relate to the saying that even animals return home when it’s time to die. So I’ve made up mind to wrap up my life in the US and settle down here in my home country for good.”

That was why, he said, he had decided to start a business in Korea importing items that he used to sell back in the US. They had sold like hotcakes, he added. He had already rented an office, except that he was having trouble accessing money in his US account due to a delay in the paperwork.

“I don’t understand why it takes the Korean authorities so long to process it. I need the money to pay the rest of the deposit tomorrow. I’m in trouble because if I fail to pay, I’ll lose the office as well as the down payment. I was simply trying to settle down in Korea. I had no idea I would run into such a problem from the outset.”

The gentlemen’s eyes looked at me, even welling up with tears. I felt so bad for him that it broke my heart. So I got up the courage to ask him if there was anything I could do to help.

“Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t think there’s anything you can do to help. The problem is money. I just didn’t expect it to ruin my plan to start anew in my home country. I wish God wouldn’t let it happen.”

While the gentleman drank and sobbed like a child, I looked at him for a while. Then I pulled my bankbook from my inner pocket and handed it to him. Startled, he looked at me. “What is this?”

“This is my entire fortune. It’s not a lot of money, but I’ve saved it little by little. I’ll lend it to you so you can pay the rest of the deposit.”

He was three million won short and, as it happened, that was about the amount saved in my bank account. After looking into the bankbook, the gentleman suddenly grasped my hand, and said, “Thank you. You’re my savior. I’ll think of you as my son for the rest of my life.”

That was how my bankbook left me after ten years of safekeeping. The next day, the gentleman accompanied me to the bank to withdraw the money, and then to a tall building in Myeong-dong where he said he had rented an office. After he went inside to make the payment, I waited alone outside. I waited and waited but he didn’t come out. Finally, I entered the office, but he was nowhere to be seen, having disappeared through the back door. I asked around and learned that none of the rooms in this building had ever been rented out. I realized that I had been cheated out of my entire fortune.

I had trusted him too much. Maybe I had been too stupid and ignorant of how the world worked. As I learned later, he was a professional scammer. There were many fools like me who had fallen prey to his scheme. That he was a Korean American was also a downright lie, of course. He had never been to the US, but simply learned to speak some English while working as an interpreter for the US forces during the Korean War.

Still, he shouldn’t have done that, made away with the money I had worked so hard for. From that day on, I became obsessed with the idea of tracking him down. I started searching every inn and coffee shop in Seoul while carrying a bag of items to sell, such as American-made lighters, nail clippers, bottle openers, fountain pens, and the like. But searching for him in such a big city was like looking for a needle in a haystack.

Two years passed before I would run into him one night in front of a bar. I was passing through a busy street of bars and drunkards, when I saw people crowding around in front of one of the bars.

“God damn you! If you have no money, don’t you dare order drinks, understand? Not to mention expensive side dishes. You look perfectly normal, but what a crook!” a hostess said to a middle-aged man, shaking him roughly. The man was simply repeating, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry,” slurring his words. Struck by an uncanny feeling, I took a closer look at the man. Sure enough, it was him.

I pushed through the people to stand in front of him. He was noticeably shabby even in his usual suit and tie. He gave me a blank look that said he didn’t even recognize me. It made my blood boil. Immediately, I grabbed him by the collar and said, “I’ve finally found you. Give me back my money. Right now!”

But it was pointless. What did I expect? I had already seen him grabbed and shaken by the hostess. Obviously, he didn’t have any money, even for his drink. Turning his still dull, unfocused eyes on me, he repeated, “I’m sorry, I’m sorry . . . ” At his slurred words, I decided that I had just had enough of him. I took out an American-made hiking knife—which I happened to be carrying around, along with other items for sale—and ended up stabbing him. For a moment, I thought I was going to kill him and then kill myself.

The stabbing didn’t kill him, and I was caught by the police and sent to jail, without getting my money back. When I was handcuffed for the first time in my life, I felt pathetic. Since my arrival in Seoul as an orphan with no roof over my head, I had struggled to live a good life, but where had I ended up? I had lost the motivation to live.

I was dressed in a blue uniform that gave me the creeps, and was pushed by the guard into a cell. As the steel door clanged shut behind me, a damp, musty smell assailed my nostrils. I saw eyes looking up at me in the dark, glaring like those of ravenous animals. My legs began shaking.

Then, suddenly, a voice rang out from among those bloodthirsty eyes. “Well, I’ll be damned. Look who’s here! Toad, is that you?”

I truly couldn’t believe my ears. There was only one person in the world who would call me by my nickname, “Toad.” I looked up to see the voice’s owner, with a dark complexion and a blue uniform like mine, approaching me. After all these years, and despite the hideous uniform, I still immediately recognized him—Seong-man, the one who had stolen my luck back in the orphanage.

So here we were, back together again, fifteen years after parting in the orphanage. Seong-man said he had been a trucker before coming to prison for hitting and killing someone.

According to the story he told me, his life after the orphanage had been as tough as mine. While lucky enough to have replaced me as a foster son, Seong-man had found himself to be more of a servant, slaving away at his foster father’s ironworks in the outskirts of Busan.

“It looked like he’d adopted me not as a foster son but as a slave. But you’d think even slaves would be fed, wouldn’t you? Instead of giving me food, he beat me up all the time for slacking off . . . The orphanage was heaven by comparison. Can you imagine that?”

“What about his wife? Was she also hard on you?” I asked, recalling the woman who had given me the first human warmth I’d ever felt. “At least she was kind. She was the reason I managed to stay there for as long as two years. But I ended up running away once she died early of some nasty disease.” Evidently, Seong-man had been as unfortunate as me. After leaving his foster home, he had struggled, as I had, to survive on the bottom rung of society before ending up here. Anyway, so began our life together in prison. The former “orphanage mates” had become “cellmates,” so to speak. Fortunately for me, my prison life was made a little bit easier by Seong-man, an old-timer of the cell. He also tried to encourage and inspire me to regain my appetite for life, by saying, “Hey, don’t imagine that we will live like this forever. Someday, when the time comes, we will have a chance to get rich quick and turn our lives around.”

Seong-man always looked forward to getting rich quick. Fed up with the bottom rung of life, he daydreamed about breaking free. But I couldn’t do that. I didn’t allow myself to even dream that such good fortune might come to me.

I knew too well that I was not destined to be lucky. But, to be fair, my life of failure after failure was not always bad. It had its share of good things as well, such as marriage. I should consider myself lucky to have met my wife.

She is not an attractive woman by any means, but I appreciate her for being my wife. Before going to prison, I had rented a small, twenty-thousand-won-per-month room in a house on top of the hills in Changshin-dong. The person I would marry happened to live in a room right next to mine. She appeared to be a bar hostess who went out only at night. So I barely had a chance to see her, let alone talk to her. One day, I saw her cooking dinner, crouching down in front of her room. A strong smell greeted me, reminiscent of one I had smelled wafting from a house ten years earlier when I had first arrived in Seoul. I hadn’t eaten in days and was staying in front of Yongsan Station with nowhere to go. That irresistibly tantalizing smell, which had triggered hunger pangs in my empty stomach, was seared into my memory.

“Excuse me . . . What’s that smell?” I asked her.

She lifted her eyes, watering due to the sooty smoke from the old portable oil stove, and looked at me before answering, “This is . . . fermented bean paste stew.”

“What’s that?” “Don’t you know?” “I’ve never had it before.” She seemed incredulous. When I told her about my experience associated with that smell, she quietly stared at me with a dumbfounded look that was neither a smile nor a frown. That day, I tasted the dish for the first time in my life, thanks to her. From that day on, she started to cook and bring me a bowl of fermented bean paste stew from time to time. But I never had a chance to talk to her properly because she would leave without a word as soon as she put down the bowl.

Once I was arrested, it became impossible for me to see her, let alone eat her stew. About a month into my prison life, a guard came to tell me that I had a visitor. At first, I didn’t believe him. I mean, who would visit a man like me? I was sure it was a mistake, until I entered the visitor’s room to find, to my surprise, that woman waiting for me.

“I’ve brought some fermented bean paste stew for you, Mr Kim. But they say food is not allowed. I don’t know what to do,” she said, with that dumbfounded look that was neither a smile nor a frown.

We got married only fifteen days after my release from prison. Not that we had a formal wedding ceremony. We simply moved in together. Once I had started what they call a family, though in a humble room that cost fifty thousand won per month, I felt the courage to start anew and live on. But getting a job was not easy for an orphan like me with no connections, no education, and no money, especially since I now had a record. I searched everywhere for a job until finally I landed one as a janitor at an apartment building. It was only a temporary position that involved menial tasks, such as unclogging toilets, but I worked hard with no complaints.

I decided to live by the old saying, “Don’t bite off more than you can chew,” telling myself that an unlucky man like me should be grateful and content with what little I was allowed to have. But my life from then on was still plagued with a series of failures and misfortunes of varying degrees. I felt like the piece of bread that always seemed to fall buttered side down. There were many times I had a decent job offer and it was cancelled at the last moment. My wife had a miscarriage when she was five months pregnant. In the basement where we lived, it was always our room rather than the one next to ours that had problems like a coal gas leak or no under-floor heating. I can go on and on giving such examples. When I went shopping, I would end up with a defective item. In my daily commute, I would arrive at the bus stop to see my bus just leaving.

One day, my wife suggested that I consult a fortune teller—a blind guru in Miari Ridge who was said to have the ability to “see” people’s pasts and futures. I couldn’t blame her for coming up with that idea because it would occur to any woman living with a man as cursed with bad luck as I was.

“I’ve heard of blind people telling other people’s fortunes, but I’ve never heard of a blind fortune teller who also reads palms. How can he do that when he can’t see?”

“Exactly. That’s why he’s so brilliant. Remember our neighborhood president? She’s sick all the time, you know. She wanted to find out why and visited the guru, who instantly and correctly said, ‘You’ve abused your sick mother-in-law before, haven’t you?’”

My wife went on to say that there was definitely some unknown reason why I had such bad luck and failed at everything I did. It may be that my ancestors had been buried in the wrong place or that there was a wandering ghost who wanted justice brought to those responsible for their unfair death. Whatever it was, it needed to be discovered and fixed, or nothing would ever work out for me. There is no flushing a toilet, so to speak, if the pipe is clogged.

“That’s all bullshit. Superstition. I don’t even know my parents, let alone my ancestors. What’s the point of discovering something wrong with their grave site?” I said to my wife, but she eventually persuaded me to visit that blind guru.

The bus took us to a district packed with fortune teller shops with signs that read “Virgin Fortune Teller,” “Pine Needles Fortune Telling,” “Tortoise Fortune Telling,” or “Fortune Teller’s Office.” It was strange to see the fortune telling business still thriving in a world that was said to have entered the electronic age or the space age. We followed my wife’s map into a house to find a blind old man sitting in a bizarre outfit, posing as a guru.

“Give me your hand,” the guru demanded, not bothering to be polite. I quietly obeyed, feeling odd about expecting the blind man to “see” the future of the seeing man. Anyway, the blind fortune teller spent quite a long time kneading my palm, before saying, “You’ve had quite a tough time. Nothing has worked out for you.” I was taken aback.

“But not to worry. Eh . . . a phoenix sits on eggs, so a sweet smell fills the world.”

“What does that mean?” my wife asked, inching forward in her seat.

“It means he’ll be a very rich man thanks to his wealthy parents.”

That was absurd. Wealthy parents making me rich? I was an orphan, for crying out loud! I was going to leave immediately after swearing at that charlatan. But my wife thought otherwise. With her eyes suddenly lighting up, she begged the fortune teller to continue, even offering him more money. Women tend to be drawn to such absurd yet intriguing stories. Shaking his body from left to right, rolling his eyes into the back of his head, the fortune teller said that I would inherit a fortune from my parents. This was getting too much. I finally snapped, “Hey, mister, I’ve had enough of your nonsense. Do you expect me to believe you? An inheritance? To an orphan? Are you kidding me or what? If you’re not going to take responsibility for what you say, at least try to make it convincing.” Then I said to my wife, “Let’s go,” pulling her up by the arm. She reluctantly followed me out, but seemed to still want to believe that charlatan fortune teller. “Honey, you never know. What if your biological parents show up with a lot of money?

“Will you please stop being so silly? It’s getting on my nerves.”

“You don’t have to get mad at me. I’m just saying you never know. I can dream, can’t I?”

But guess what? Not long afterwards, my wife’s wild dream came true! Incredible, isn’t it? Before I continue, let me take a deep breath. Simply recalling what I thought was just a memory still makes my heart burst with excitement.

It was about three years into my marriage, around the time when the “Find Your Lost Family Members” phenomenon was sweeping the country. It all began with a phone call from Seong-man. We had kept in touch since our release from prison.

“Hey, Heung-nam, we need to meet right now. Something’s come up. It’s very important. What it’s about, I’ll tell you in person,” Seong-man said, extremely excited.

Since I was curious, and this was also a chance for a get-together after a long time, I agreed to meet him at a coffee shop. When I arrived at the appointed time, everyone was crowded around the TV watching the “Find Your Lost Family Members” program, and Seong-man was sitting alone in a dark corner, waving to me.

“What’s the big deal? I thought I’d walked into a movie theater,” I commented sarcastically, sitting down. In fact, the customers filling the coffee shop were all turned toward the large TV on the wall, their eyes red, as if watching a movie in a theater. I noticed particularly sympathetic ones taking out a handkerchief, ready to burst into tears. At that time, as you probably remember, that tearjerker of a program was on TV day and night, for hours on end, with all the soap operas and sports coverage cancelled.

“Movies are nothing compared to what we’re watching here. It’s the tragedy and trauma that no other nation could have experienced.”

I looked at him, surprised to hear him say such things. “Tragedy? Nation? Wow, I never thought I would hear those words from you. Makes me rethink my opinion of you.”

Seong-man replied to my sarcasm with a feigned serious look that was at odds with his usual style. “What are you talking about? Did you think I would be indifferent? I’m Korean, too. I should sympathize with my people for their pain.”

Then he suddenly leaned toward me and asked, in a hushed voice, “By the way, your old scar on the top of your foot, is it still there?”

Now he was confusing me even more. “What in the world are you talking about?” I asked him. “I’m talking about the scar the size of a coin that was on your left or right foot. Is it still there?” “Sure. It’s not like I can take it off like a stamp or something.”

“Good. So it’s still there, nice and safe.”

There must have been something very exciting about a scar on someone else’s foot because Seong-man flashed a triumphant smile, and said, in a suddenly lowered voice, “If things go well, our lives are going to change.”

Here we go again. I frowned, drinking the hot tea that had been served. This was the same old line of his that I had grown tired of hearing since our reunion back in Seodaemun Prison three years ago: If things go well, our lives are going to change . . . Needless to say, things had never gone well, nor had our lives ever changed. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be a janitor unclogging toilets and he a driver of someone else’s car.

“Look at that. What a tear-jerker!” Seong-man continued, turning his eyes toward the TV screen where some family members, reunited after thirty years, were crying in each other’s arm, saying “Yes” over and over again. But Seong-man’s face appeared to be flushed with excitement rather than tearful. Only then did it occur to me that he might have been serious when he had said earlier, using words not in his usual vocabulary, about sharing in the tragedy of the nation.

“You know my boss, the old man I’ve told you about a million times. A Scrooge,” Seong-man said, finally coming to the point. His boss—the owner of the car he drove—was an old man nearing seventy, one of those North Koreans who had crossed the 38th parallel to come down alone to the South immediately following the Liberation. The old man had saved hard to build a fortune worth billions, but he was still extremely frugal with his money, even on a cup of coffee. This was a story I had grown tired of hearing from Seong-man. Apparently, the old man was a usurer who also collected rent from the several buildings he owned somewhere in Jong-no. Seong-man complained about his boss’s stinginess, not only with raises but also with his food allowance during breaks. The amount would never exceed—even by a hundred won—the price of a bowl of black bean noodles.

“I’m telling you. It’s the exact amount to buy a bowl of black bean noodles, not even a double portion. He’s worse than any miser I’ve ever heard of,” Seong-man would grumble. Nevertheless, he had continued to work for this penny-pincher for several years, something I found strange, knowing that he was always dreaming of getting rich quick.

“You don’t understand. I, Jang Seong-man, have some ideas,” he had told me when I had once asked him why he was still working for that miser instead of looking for a better job.

“My boss has no relatives, let alone wife and children. His parents and brothers are in the North, but he doesn’t know if they are dead or alive. After coming down to the South, he met and married a woman. But while they fled from the war, his wife ended up dead and their only son, about five years old at that time, ended up lost. This means that if my boss dies today, there’s no one to set the table for his ghost. After his wife’s death, he met and lived with another woman for some time. She couldn’t stand the nasty old man and she packed up and left. Since then, I don’t think he has even dreamed of marrying again. So you can see now why I’m still with that Scrooge, putting up with his insults. I, Jang Seong-man, am not doing it for nothing. I have a hope that if things go well, it might change my life forever. Think about it. No matter how much money you have, you can’t take it with you when you die.”

Basically, Seong-man was harboring the hope that his boss might decide to give him a tiny share of his wealth before he died. Essentially, Seong-man was waiting for a persimmon to fall from its tree and into his mouth. While trying hard but failing to win favor with his boss, who either saw through him or, in his words, “had a heart of stone,” Seong-man had grumbled about how he was hopeless because the persimmons were showing no signs of ripening, let alone falling. Now, he had evidently hit on another brilliant idea that had something to do with my scar. I was quite curious what this was about.

“Get this. My boss can’t sleep at night these days because of that Find Your Lost Family Members thing,” Seong-man continued, a twinkle in his eyes. “Every night, he’s in tears watching it on TV with a glass of soju in front of him. Who knew that stony old man could be so emotional?”

“But how does that have anything to do with the scar on my foot?”

“I’m getting to it. As I told you, his wife died and his only son was lost during the war. My boss had figured his son was dead, but I think he’s beginning to have second thoughts, what with all the talk these days about lost family members being reunited on TV. What if his son is alive and shows up from somewhere? The son’s life will completely change overnight because he’ll inherit billions.”

“So what? What are you so excited about? The persimmon is about to fall into someone else’s mouth instead of yours.”

“Hear me out. What I’m proposing is that you, Heung-nam, become my boss’s son. What do you think about that?” Seong-man said, lowering his voice further, looking cautiously around.

Dumbfounded, I gave him a blank look, my mouth agape.

“Obviously, my boss doesn’t remember much about his five-year-old son. But he told me yesterday that his son had a scar on the top of his left foot. Immediately, I had a whatchamacallit? A eureka moment! I remembered seeing a scar on your foot in the old days. And I thought, ‘If this isn’t an opportunity from heaven, I don’t know what is.’”

“Wait. But how can I become his son when my name is Kim Heung-nam? That’s not his son’s name, is it?”

“Hey, use your head, will you? If you want to succeed, you must use your head,” Seong-man said, irritated, pointing a finger at his head. “Tell him your name was changed in the orphanage. Let’s face it. You’re an orphan. Who’s there to contradict you?”

“Are you serious?”

“What do you think? It’s a better deal than being a janitor. Even if things don’t go as well as planned, we have nothing to lose. No one will sue us for fraud over this.”

“So you’re proposing to capitalize on the scar on my left foot. I have another, even larger one on my buttock. Why don’t we take advantage of that too?”

“Ssh! Someone’s going to hear you. Keep your voice down,” Seong-man said hurriedly, pretending to put his hand over my mouth. “Listen. I know this is a crazy idea. But I’m too desperate not to try it. In fact, there’s an emergency. My boss has gotten himself a wife.”

“A wife? Do you mean your pushing-seventy boss has remarried?”

“Let me explain. My boss has always had heart problems. So, a few years ago, he hired a nurse—a widow who also served as his maid. She acted like a wife, staying with him day and night and even beginning to go around collecting rent or daily interest for him. I always knew she was no ordinary woman and suspected she was manipulating my boss like a puppet, but didn’t know, until only a few days ago, that she has even had her name put on my boss’s family register as wife. I wonder how she talked him into letting her do that. They’re officially married on paper! It’s like the old saying about ten years’ study going down the drain. All my efforts over the years are about to be wasted. How frustrating and unfair!”

“Oh, I see what you’re saying. Now that a new wife has appeared out of thin air, there’s no reason why we shouldn’t create another son out of thin air, too.”

“I’m serious. If you think I’m talking nonsense, just look at what’s on TV right now. Life itself is nonsense in the first place. We are all pathetic living things in this world, aren’t we? Besides, my boss is going to die before long. Then where do you think all his wealth will go? To that foxlike woman! Why not us? What’s wrong with trying to get a share of it ourselves?”

I was speechless, overwhelmed not only by his preposterous proposal but also by the frustrating, indescribable feelings of what seemed to be anger or sadness weighing down on my chest like a rock.

In fact, my wife had suggested several times that I also appear in that TV program to look for my lost parents. However, I had no intention of doing so. Watching the reunion of lost parents and siblings on TV only exacerbated my frustration.

Despite the confusion of the war, they still shouldn’t have abandoned their children. If a reunion was such a big, tear-inducing deal, why did they spend over thirty years doing nothing? Everyone’s survival was at stake during the war, but they still should have cared as much about their parents or siblings as themselves. If they had, then there wouldn’t be so many displaced families now. This was my line of thinking. That was why I felt uncomfortable watching displaced family members bursting into tears as soon as they were reunited. I didn’t understand why they had feelings and tears left for their lost family members after more than three decades of living apart, virtually estranged from one another. They would jump into each other’s arms crying as soon as they were “confirmed” to be family by such flimsy evidence as a scar. I mean, I bet there were a lot of people with scars out there. So I avoided watching that TV program altogether and argued with my wife several times while she was glued to the TV day and night watching it in tears.

My wife seemed to find me incomprehensible. In fact, I didn’t understand myself well, either. Perhaps my resistance was driven by the thought in the back of my mind that such good luck would never come to me. How was I supposed to find my parents or siblings when I wasn’t even certain about my name or age?

Early the next morning, I left for the broadcasting station in Yeouido. After all, I had agreed to follow Seong-man’s outrageous instructions and put on an act. To this day, I have no idea what possessed me to even try. Perhaps I, too, harbored a pipe dream of getting rich quick. Or, I wanted to silently laugh at all this fuss about the reunion of displaced families. In any case, I went, after calling in sick and without telling my wife. They might spot me on TV later on, but I decided to worry about that when the time came.

I had a sign that, in large letters, read:


Seong-man had dictated it to me. As it happened, I was about the same age as the real son whose name was Kim Kwang-il. According to Seong-man’s plan, I would appear in the program holding up the sign and he would make sure that his boss would be sitting in front the TV ready to watch.

Once I arrived in Yeouido Square, waiting in the endless line for my turn, exposed to the many stories of displaced families with their deep sighs and tears, I started to experience mixed feelings about my sign.

On one hand, I wished it were telling the truth. On the other hand, I felt increasingly guilty, struggling with the urge to cross out the name Kim Kwang-il and write in large letters my real name Kim Heung-nam. After hours of waiting, I almost crouched down and set about rewriting the name when my number was finally called out. So I ended up pretending to be Kim Kwang-il looking for his father.

Curiously, after my TV appearance, I felt my heart racing and my mouth parched, as if actually waiting to hear from the real father I never knew. The next day, I received a call from Seong-man, who said, “Hello? Is this the Kim residence? May I speak to Mr Kim Kwang-il, please?”

I thought at first that he was kidding me. “Kim Kwang-il? Oh, it’s you, Seong-man.”

Ignoring me, Seong-man casually continued, “Oh, is this Mr Kim Kwang-il? Who appeared on TV? Someone wants to speak with you. Hold on, let me put him on.”

Soon enough, I realized what he was playing at.

“I . . . I’m calling regarding your sign on TV . . . ” came a cautious yet high-pitched North Korean-accented voice from the other end of the line. “Is your name really Kim Kwang-il?”

“Yes, sir, it is. I’m Kim Kwang-il,” I lied, surprised at how easily the words came out.

“Then you have the same name as my son . . . What about the scar on the top of your left foot? Are you sure about that, too?”

“Of course. Why would I lie about something like that?” “Anything else you remember?” “Uh, no, not much . . . I was too young . . . ” He was quiet for a moment, seemingly debating whether to ask more questions, before saying, “How about we meet up, then?” “Where? At the broadcasting station?” “No, not a good idea. I want to make sure first, but I’d rather not do it in front of the cameras. Will you please come and see me? I’ll send a car to pick you up.” I also preferred this arrangement and agreed to meet him where he was. His driver who came to pick me up was, of course, Seong-man, already visibly excited. “Look, you don’t know me, okay? This whole plan depends on how well you act. Cry your heart out in his arms like they do on TV,” Seong-man said enthusiastically, driving me in his boss’s car. But I was not sure if I could pull it off. I was afraid that such a ridiculous scheme would fall apart before long. At the same time, I was strangely determined to go all the way. “Watch out especially for that woman I told you about before. She’s a pain in the neck. Greedy as a pig and crafty as a fox. I used to call her Ms Oh, until she started threatening to kill me unless I call her Madam Oh. She’s no ordinary woman, I’m telling you.”

Seong-man took me to an old dingy four-story building with a Chinese restaurant, a coffee shop, a Go club, and so on, as revealed by their signboards hanging in a disorderly manner outside. Located on the backstreet of Jong-no in the heart of Seoul, the building was said to be significantly more expensive than it appeared. According to Seong-man, his boss owned a few other buildings like this one. Expensive or not, the building was dilapidated, its wooden staircase rickety, and as dark as a cave even though it was daytime. I followed him up those narrow stairs to a space on the top floor that was partitioned into rooms, separated by plywood walls. The corner room, shabby as a storage unit, seemed to be an office and home for the building’s owner, Seong-man’s boss.

As we stood at the door, Seong-man reminded me once again, saying in a low voice, “Don’t forget this. Your name is Kim Kwang-il, not Kim Heung-nam. I repeat, you are Kim Kwang-il, okay?”

I let out a laugh, amused by his anxious eyes and serious attitude.

“Hey, this is no laughing matter. Our lives depend on it. Get serious and focus. Remember that all our hopes rest on you,” he said, reminding me once again, and carefully knocking on the door. It opened into an empty, shabby office no larger than seven square meters with a small, dust-covered window facing the street, a desk, a steel cabinet, a dirty leather sofa, and a small blackboard hanging on the wall. There was another, dented door presumably leading into the old man’s living space. Seong-man shouted toward the door, “Boss, I’m back.” The door opened and out emerged a short, bespectacled old man, who appeared to be incredibly shabby and unkempt for a billionaire. My first impression of him, how he looked at me with a wet rag in his hand, as if he was about to wipe the desk or something, is still vivid in my memory. While his hair was grey and so was his complexion, his small, mouse-like eyes were sharp for an old man.

“Are you sure that your name is Kim Kwang-il?” the old man asked, incredulous, scanning me from behind his glasses. I took a deep breath, trying to remain calm, and said, “Yes, I’m sure. That’s about the only thing I remember about myself.”

“Oh, yeah? Then, could you take off your sock for me?” the old man said, pulling another pair of glasses out of his vest pocket. After scrutinizing the scar on my foot through the two layers of glasses, he looked up at me, his eyes full of suspicion, and asked, “Do you have any other scars?”

“Uh . . . well, I don’t think so . . . ” I lied, flushing without realizing it, confused as to if I should tell him about the other scar on my buttock. I caught a nervous look on the face of Seong-man standing behind the old man that said things were not going as well as planned. Seong-man made a gesture that seemed to suggest that I should try bursting into tears, throwing myself into the old man’s arms. But I was too stiff to try something like that as I hadn’t done any acting since my orphanage days.

“Mr Jang, will you excuse us for a moment? I’ll call you later,” the old man said to Seong-man.

After the anxious-looking Seong-man left, the old man straightened up and asked me again, with even more suspicions in his small eyes blinking behind his glasses, “Are you absolutely sure that Kwang-il is the name you remember from your childhood?”

I found myself hesitating to answer, feeling exposed under the old man’s piercing glare. It hit home that this ludicrous scheme was doomed to fail. Even if it succeeded, I thought, it would be an unforgivable sin to cheat over something like this. I was debating whether I should confess the truth to the old man and ask for his forgiveness or leave without saying anything further, when the old man continued, “Kwang-il is my son’s name in the family register. If you are really my son, there’s no way you can remember that name. My son was called a different name at home when he was young. Before coming to the South, I lived near Heung-nam Pier in Hamgyeong Province, famous for Heung-nam Evacuation. So I named my son after it.”

Heung-nam Pier? Named his son after it? I was completely blown away by what the old man was saying. Suddenly, my mind went blank and my body felt weak. In my fuddled state, I barely registered him saying, “I’m sorry to ask, but could you take off your pants for me? My son had his buttock burned badly by a brazier when he was two. So if you are my son, you must also have a scar on your buttock, even larger than the one on your foot . . . ”

I was simply trembling and couldn’t move an inch. Puzzled, the old man lifted his head up and asked, “What’s wrong? Are you feeling ill?”

“My name . . . my name is Heung-nam,” I managed, my shaking voice rendering the words unintelligible to the old man, who asked, “What did you say? Your name is what?”

“I said my name is Heung-nam. My real name is Kim Heung-nam.”

The old man’s jaw dropped as he stared at me, dumbfounded, as if I had made an absurd joke.

“I swear I’m not making this up. I’ll show you,” I said, and proceeded to unbuckle my belt and strip down my pants to show my buttock to him. At that point, I was already beside myself.

“You see a scar? It’s definitely a scar. It’s not a fake. It’s genuine. I mean, I didn’t make it up. It’s been right there since I was young. I never knew how I got it, but come to think of it, it probably was from a burn. It had to be. How else could I have gotten it?” I rattled on, almost deliriously, no doubt getting carried away. I don’t think it was entirely my fault. Seriously, how many people could keep their cool in a situation like that? The old man was equally dazed. Once he confirmed the scar on my buttock, he began quivering as if he’d had a stroke.

“L . . . Look, you’ve completely lost me. Could you slow down and say that again?”

“Okay, listen, I am Kim Heung-nam. Kim Kwang-il is not my name. I lied. In fact, I don’t even know that name. My name has always been Kim Heung-nam ever since I can remember. The orphanage didn’t give it to me. It was my real name. Do you understand me? Sir? No, Father?” “So you are. . . Are you claiming to be my son Kim Heung-nam?” “It’s not a claim but a fact. Take a look at this. It’s my ID. It says Kim Heung-nam right here. See?” The old man took my ID and stared at it, turning it over and back several times, as if to make sure that it was not a fake ID. Slowly, his face drained of color, turning as pale as paper.

“H, Hold on . . . Let me sit down and rest for a while. My heart . . . it has problems . . . ”

Apparently hit by a dizzy spell, the old man staggered toward the chair and sank into it. And he stared at me for quite a while without saying a word. His eyes were strangely unfocused, as if looking past me toward a faraway place unknown to me. For a moment, my heart sank, fearing that the old man had suddenly gone senile.

After a long while, the old man did something that I found to be quite strange; his hands shaking, as if palsied, he opened a drawer and took out a watch—an old, well-worn wristwatch with a touch of golden hue. Fiddling with the watch, he stammered, struggling to speak, “This may not look much, but it’s a special watch to me. It was the only thing I took when I left home thirty-five years ago . . . ”

As the old man droned on, as if launching into his life story, I wondered why he had started talking about his watch all of a sudden. Why did a mere watch matter when someone who could be his son was in front of him? Had he, perhaps, suddenly lost his mind and become unaware of what he was talking about?

“Like my father and his father before him, I was the only son in the family. But I did something unforgivable to my father. Before the Liberation, I had what they call these days ‘a girlfriend.’ She lived in Seoul. But we found ourselves separated by the 38th parallel. As my family started pressuring me to marry another woman, I decided to leave for Seoul. With no money on me, I ended up stealing my father’s watch. It was quite a valuable item because watches weren’t common at that time. It was also his favorite treasure. I thought I would give it back later and ask his forgiveness when I returned home after making money in Seoul. But after the war broke out, I forever lost the opportunity to do that, to make it up to my parents . . . ” the old man said, panting, his face completely pale. “In my first days in the South, this watch proved very useful; I pawned it twice when I was most desperate. But since I started making money, I have always had it with me, because someday I wanted to return it to my father and ask for his forgiveness . . . ”

Through the dirty window came a faint ray of evening sun. The old man’s panting was the only sound in the room. I was speechless. What was I to say? It all seemed surreal, as if in a dream.

“Words cannot describe how much I have suffered to this day living alone in the South. When I lost my only son after my wife died, I also lost my appetite for life. But what was I to do? I survived and lived on . . . People call me stingy or heartless, but they have no idea. Away from home with no family, I had no one to trust. Money has been like my family, my parents or children. But . . . now that I’m old and soon to be six feet under, I have begun to feel like everything is pointless . . . All the money I have worked so hard for feels useless . . . ” the old man said, almost whimpering. His story was interrupted as the door opened and in came a woman who appeared to be close to fifty, wearing makeup too thick for her age. Intuitively, I knew this was Madame Oh—the woman Seong-man had told me about.

“Oh, hell, I can’t do this anymore. These folks keep avoiding me. How am I supposed to collect money from them? . . . They beg for a loan but simply forget to pay it back once they get one,” the woman said loudly as soon as she entered the room. Apparently, she was returning from a round of collecting interest or something. She seemed to have noticed a strange atmosphere. Eyeing me suspiciously, she asked the old man, “Who is this guy?”

“No, nobody. He just . . . came to ask me a favor . . . ” the old man lied, apparently panicking. And he hurriedly said to me, “Look, I need some time alone to think about this. We can discuss it later, say, tomorrow morning. Okay? Could you come back tomorrow morning . . . ?”

Evidently, the old man wanted to keep our conversation secret from that woman.

“All right. I’ll come back tomorrow, I promise,” I said, almost adding, “Father,” but stopping myself since the woman’s eyes were boring into mine. After making a low bow to the old man, I walked out through the door, my legs shaking. Then he followed me out and said, in a lowered voice, “Don’t tell anyone about our conversation today. It will need confirmation when we meet again. Besides, if word gets out, things could go wrong . . . Do you understand me?”

Sensing the anxiety, doubt, and desperation for something indescribable in the old man’s small, blinking eyes, I gave him a nod. Feeling like I could fully understand him, I decided to keep my agreement. That was why I said nothing to Seong-man, who had been waiting in hiding for me at the entrance to the staircase before grabbing me by the arm, asking, “What happened? Come on, tell me. It hasn’t worked out, has it? Otherwise, he wouldn’t have just sent you away. What did he ask you? Don’t tell me he has seen through our tricks.”

In reply to his volley of questions, I said nothing except that I would be in touch with him tomorrow. Then I shook off his hand and walked out of the dark staircase into the slanted, dazzling sunlight of summer evening. I let out a deep sigh, feeling as if I had emerged from a long tunnel of darkness where I had been trapped for thirty years.

That night, I could not sleep. Tomorrow would come sooner if I fell asleep, but for the life of me I just couldn’t go doze off. It was driving me crazy. My wife and child were lying next to me, fast asleep, and I could hear the sound of their breathing. I had to suppress the urge to immediately wake my wife up and tell her what had happened that day.

While I lay awake in the dark, trying in vain to fall asleep, the thought of the school play from my childhood kept flashing through my mind. In an effort to banish that foreboding thought, I told myself that this was not a play but for real. But I was not reassured. I mean, how could something like this incident happen for real? And to me of all people? I had often imagined what it would be like to win the lottery. And I had always thought that if I did win, I would go crazy. But even winning the lottery was nothing compared to this. I even wondered if the sun wouldn’t rise tomorrow or the earth would suddenly come to an end tonight.

A panorama of my miserable life from my orphanage years up to the present flashed before my eyes, half-fantasy, half-reality. I feared that I was actually going crazy.

Then I must have dropped off. In a dream, I was back in the orphanage about twenty years ago. It was in the middle of the school play and I was the toad wearing the ugly skin. The princess who was supposed to kiss me was being played by that old man, or rather, my father. I was nervous and frightened that the play would end before my father could kiss me, interrupted not so much by a power outage this time but by my waking from the dream. Since I was aware of being in a dream, I was in a hurry to turn into a prince before waking up. So I cried out to my father to lift the curse from me as soon as possible, only to find my voice muted. My fear was eventually realized when, as my father took one labored step after another toward me, the dream suddenly ended.

I woke up with a start to the sound of the phone ringing loudly in the dark. Overwhelmed by that sound and a feeling of foreboding, I could not bring myself to pick up the phone. I checked the time. It was two in the morning.

“Hello? Is that you, Heung-nam? It’s me,” said Seong-man’s voice on the phone.

“What’s up at this hour?”

“I’m at the emergency room in a university hospital. My boss had a sudden heart attack.”

I felt as if something heavy had fallen with a thump. My heart almost stopped. My hand holding the receiver began to tremble.

“Yesterday evening, after your visit, he looked green and short of breath. Then, after midnight, he had a sudden heart attack. When I took him to the hospital, he was pronounced dead. I know they say life and death are in God’s hands, but how could a man go so suddenly? I feel kind of guilty and responsible for what has happened to him. Our show yesterday, you claiming to be his son, might have been too much for him to handle.”

“Look, Seong-man. You’re lying. You’re making this up to tease me, aren’t you? Am I right?”

“What are you talking about? Why would I call you up in the middle of night just to tell a lie? If you don’t believe me, come to the hospital and see for yourself.”

Hanging up, I flopped down like a scarecrow with his straw knocked out.

My wife woke up startled and took hold of me, saying, “Honey, what’s wrong? What happened?”

But I found no words to explain everything to her. Like a madman, I sprang to my feet and rushed to the hospital, only to find the old man already in the morgue. Obviously, he—or I should say, my father—was dead. I asked Seong-man if his boss had left any last words, hoping against hope that the old man had mentioned, even in passing, that I was his son. But my hope was crushed when Seong-man confirmed that his boss hadn’t had the chance to leave any last words because his heart attack had been so sudden that it had killed him before his arrival at the hospital.

I broke down crying, lying flat on the cold floor of the morgue. Once I started, there was no stopping. It was not that I had any great love for my father. I mean, I had met him only the once, after thirty years. I was simply bitter about my destiny and sorry for my father’s life. Think about it. Can you imagine anything more incredible?

People wondered why I was crying my heart out. After all, no one knew that I was his only family. That was a secret between the dead man and me. There was no way left to prove that I was his son. The lights had gone off and the play had been abruptly interrupted. Like that night from twenty years ago, I remained under the curse, left alone in the dark wearing that ugly and hideous toad’s skin.

But it seemed unfair that I should simply give up. So I started telling people that I was that old man’s son, enthusiastically explaining that the scars and my name Kim Heung-nam proved it. But their response was unsympathetic. Even Seong-man wouldn’t believe me. People treated me as a liar making up a ridiculous story to claim the old man’s inheritance. Madame Oh, or whatever she was called, who was said to be listed in the old man’s family register, was the most outraged. She reported me to the police as an impostor and even hired gangsters to beat me up. A number of people had appeared out of nowhere and flocked to her side. Every one of them struck me as a gangster or a con artist.

Undaunted, I did everything I could to bring the truth to light; I visited the old man’s every acquaintance, presented petitions to high-ranking government officials, and wrote letters to the newspapers, TV and radio stations asking for help. But every effort I made was thwarted. Everyone refused to believe me, as if they had agreed in advance to do so. They simply dismissed me as someone after the old man’s wealth.

Granted, my father’s wealth was one of the reasons why I went to any lengths to prove that I was his son. Legally, his entire fortune would fall into the hands of that woman. That was the last thing I wanted to see happen. It was not that I was eager to claim his inheritance. It was simply that I couldn’t bear to let her take away all the wealth that my father had spent his entire life accumulating. If it had been donated to an NGO or something, I would have felt a little better about it. But just letting that awful woman from nowhere take it? No way!

But the more I claimed to be my father’s son, the more I was treated as a shameless impostor or a lunatic. Much to my chagrin, even Seong-man wouldn’t believe me. On the contrary, he treated me like I was nuts. “Hey, what’s the matter with you? Could you please stop already? I understand how you feel. But it’s all over. It was a pipe dream. You’re taking it for reality. I hear this can happen if you obsess over it enough. Why don’t you go see a doctor?”

That was not all. Even my wife started treating me as a lunatic. “Honey, please come to your senses. Why are you doing this? Don’t you care what other people think about you and your family? It’s so humiliating. I can’t take this anymore. I think you’re sick, really sick.”

At that point, I also began to ask myself if I had gone insane. What if, I wondered, whatever I saw and heard when I was alone with that old man that day was in my imagination and had never actually happened? Once doubt crept in, I could no longer tell which part of what I believed was true and which part was false.

Slowly, as time went by, I actually became sick, losing confidence and motivation in everything, growing tired of meeting with people or even eating, not to mention going to work. Ultimately, I was fired from my job as an apartment janitor. But I was too sick of life to care what that meant to my family. I started talking less and less and eventually reached the point of staying holed up in my room all day staring into space like a caged animal.

My wife finally took me to a psychiatrist, who diagnosed me with severe depression and suggested hospitalization. But I didn’t want it, nor could I afford it. Since I had stopped working, it had been a challenge for my wife just to get by each day, despite her apparent struggle to make a living cleaning, working at a restaurant, and so on. As a mother striving to feed her child, my wife must have felt frustrated with me doing nothing all day but eating and shitting like an animal without saying anything or leaving the room. One day, I was lying on the floor when my three-year-old daughter, probably hungry, started crying, shaking my head. Before I could stop myself, I gave her a kick that sent her flying into a corner of the room, rendering her pale and breathless. By the time I realized what I had done, I was insufferably scared of myself.

As a result of that incident, I was committed to a “prayer house” far away from Seoul, although being there wouldn’t heal my mind. Seasons changed, winds blew, flowers bloomed, but none of that mattered to me. About a year later, my wife and child came to visit me bringing hand-made gimbap, rice rolls wrapped in seaweed. I was sitting on the lawn in front of the prayer house, blankly eating the gimbap, when I caught sight of my wife’s wristwatch. It looked oddly familiar. With a closer look, it was clear that the well-worn watch with a golden hue was what my father had shown me. I grabbed it, asking my wife, “This watch, what’s it doing here? How did it end up with you?”

“This watch? It’s from your friend Seong-man. He gave it to me before he went abroad.”

Recently, Seong-man had gone to find a job in Saudi Arabia or somewhere in the Middle East. This wasn’t news to me.

“From what he told me, this watch was his boss’s favorite treasure. So he took it when he left his boss’s house after the old man died. He probably figured that it was a gold watch worth something. But when he took it to a clock shop, it turned out to be a gold-plated piece of junk. The other day before he went abroad, he came and gave it to me, saying that I should give it to you because it’s ‘your father’s’ watch. I almost threw it away because it gave me a bad feeling. I’m wearing it because my wristwatch happened to break. It’s old, but at least it keeps good time . . . ” my wife said, apologetically. I took that watch off her wrist and stared at it in my hand, sitting motionless for quite a while. Many thoughts flashed through my mind. Before I knew it, tears were streaming down my face.

“Honey, what’s wrong?” my wife asked, in a scared voice, evidently surprised by my tears. In fact, this was the first time in months that I had expressed any feelings.

Look, here is the watch, my only inheritance from my father. The really strange thing is that once the watch came into my hands, I was able to slowly recover from what was ailing me. I have put it behind me now.

The media is buzzing about the reunification these days, as if it is imminent. Whether or not it will come to pass, a man like me is not in a position to tell. But if Korea is reunified, I wish to visit my namesake town where my unknown grandfather is buried, so I can return his watch and bow to him on my father’s behalf.

Even if Korea is reunified, though, I don’t think it will ever make up for my father’s life and what people like me have suffered. I may be dismissed as uneducated for saying this, but, honestly, how much do you think the Reunification will change people’s lives? Educated people talk about history and whatnot, but I doubt history knows anything about my father’s old watch.

I once met a college student who told me that destiny is of people’s own making. God may have been responsible for creating destiny in the past, he explained, but today the destiny of pawns like me is created either by the rich and powerful in their political games or by foreign powers like the United States or the Soviet Union. I thought that he had a point. It was because of the war that I was orphaned. Who started that war? People!

But I feel that something is still missing. If there is no God of Destiny, how else can I explain that this old watch, the only inheritance from my father, has come into my possession? Perhaps this was destined to happen. And if that was God’s will, what would that mean? I am pondering that question. What do you think about that?

translated from the Korean by Soyoung Kim