After the bombs fell for ninety days and ninety nights—what would later be known as “Operation Insomnia”—Mrs. Shin, then known only as Kyung, somehow survived the devastation and eventual splitting of her country. When the bombing stopped, and she awoke, she called to her mother and father, to her younger brother, but only silence returned. It wasn’t long before she came upon their bodies, their home, pieces of her previous life. Her country was mountainous, but had she known what a desert looked like, she would have understood the devastation she now saw.
She did not cry in that moment because she understood something she should not have had to understand: that life, with all of its beauty, was also full of ugliness and silence. Pieces. She alone buried her family, and marked their graves with many, many stones. Still, she did not cry. She moved.
She fled southward, and whenever she heard airplanes above, took cover and expected to hear explosions and find more devastation. Over the days, she passed by many bodies, more desert, where once there were trees and lush rice fields, villages and life. She hadn’t eaten in some time, but she kept moving. She kept moving until her legs gave way, until she felt the gravel scraping her knees, until she could not move anymore. She awoke to find herself looking at the horizon sideways, pieces of gravel and dirt clinging to her lips and cheek.
Somehow a local farmer, who had also survived, came upon her small body. He’d only recently buried his son and daughter, his wife. Now, he tried to bury this poor girl who looked no older than ten because he thought she was dead and that was the right thing to do. But he couldn’t find the strength to dig another grave, so he covered her small body as best he could, then headed south until he finally succumbed to his injuries, wondering, if only briefly, in that final moment, where the girl he buried had come from, what she herself had seen.
But she coughed and woke up, spit out the dust and dirt that had collected in her mouth. She began removing the dirt and rocks. She tried to stand up, but she was too weak and soon the sun began to set again.
“Hey, hey there,” a voice said. She could barely open her eyes, and though she didn’t yet understand English, she understood an important thing when finally she saw the man’s eyes, blue, his friendly smile: she had been found, which meant, in so many ways, that she might survive. “Mul,” she said. “Mul.” The man gave her water, which stung the dryness of her mouth. But she drank as much as she could, with closed eyes. In a seminar decades later, she would learn that the very people who now helped her had dropped the bombs and split her country.
But, for now, though she was exhausted, she could finally rest. In the darkness, she heard the man speak more words she didn’t yet understand. Then, other voices. Trucks. The smell of diesel. They moved south, past more bodies, many more unknown families among them, until they came to the city. Then, somehow, soon, she was flying. She kept her eyes closed, existed in a darkness that, if she concentrated, allowed her to see the outline of her previous life.
Somehow, as if all she had done was wake after a long interval, a fever perhaps, as if someone closed one door, then opened another, Mrs. Shin sits in a park in Maryland on a warm summer evening. Her grandson, Andrew, is by her side. He is five and has known only one home, one country. America. He laughs and runs and eats more than any other child she has ever seen. But she will always ask him, as she has always asked all of her children, now adults in the backyard eating and drinking and talking. “Are you hungry, did you eat?”
And her children, those boys, ate and ate, and they grew up to be tall and strong and with very few questions about where their mother had come from. What had led her to immigrate. Why there were no relatives to visit or host. They grew up American; they spoke English (and sometimes Korean); and grew up with American holidays: Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Year’s, Valentine’s, The Fourth of July.
It has taken time to embrace the annual fireworks that now light up the sky every summer, that mark this country’s independence, the homeland of her late husband, a historian. A man who loved to discuss the Battle of Baltimore, the Star-Spangled Banner. The cost of freedom.
She understood why the family dog would run and hide beneath their bed, would not come out until the sounds had long lost that energy, and even then, he seemed unsure until she coaxed him out, her scent a comforting salve. “Let him be,” she’d told her children, of the dog, as she tells her grandson now with his.
“Look, Grandma,” Andrew says, as fireworks fly upward, explode, and dissipate into the darkening sky. “Look, pretty.”
She looks at him, then gives a little smile. “Yes, very pretty.” But after the bright colors diminish, she studies the lingering smoke and smells the sulfur, and thinks of her brother and her parents, her homeland. A mountain made desert. She touches her grandson lightly upon his head, looks at him closely. The future. And she’s reminded how loud life can be.
Mark L. Keats was born in Korea and raised in Maryland. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Maryland and a PhD in Literature and Creative Writing from Texas Tech University. He has received fellowships from Kundiman and The Martha’s Vineyard Institute of Creative Writing. His work has recently been published in storySouth and Puerto del Sol and is forthcoming in Portland Review.