Elaine H. Kim received an M.F.A. from Sarah Lawrence College and a B.A. from Brown University. Kim has received fellowships from the Fulbright Foundation, the New York Foundation for the Arts, the Jerome Foundation, and was a Wallace Reader’s Digest Fellow at the Edna St. Vincent Millay Colony in upstate New York. Kim has also won residencies at the Edward Albee Foundation, the Blue Mountain Center, and the Anderson Center. She has work published in So to Speak, upstreet, and Guernica, and was a finalist in the 2007 Storyquarterly Fall Fiction Contest. She currently lives in Brooklyn.
Photo credit: courtesy of the artist
Excerpt from Gwangju, a novel-in-progress
Thinking back on that last night, I realize you may have already been dead. But at the time the possibility didn’t exist. It couldn’t. I saw you in your close-fitting polo shirt: three buttons, collared, white with vertical blue lines. I remembered you last left the house wearing dark brown pants and your favorite sneakers. Did you bring a jacket? If you did, it would have been the navy one, light enough for the balmy spring afternoons and warm enough for the cooler evenings. That was something I worried about: did you have a jacket. It wasn’t until I went over these details aloud, with the soldier who couldn’t have been a day over twenty, that I saw how I had memorized you. I described your hair – long in front and back, shaggy and layered, as was the style then – your lack of jewelry, no watch. I told them about the three moles on the left side of your neck, how they formed a perfect triangle. I described the way your upper right incisor protruded slightly and overlapped with its neighbors. I didn’t tell them of your habit of flicking your tongue to that tooth when nervous or self-conscious. At that point those living details were considered irrelevant. I described the shorts you must have been wearing; they were the only pair not in the hamper or folded in the top right-hand drawer of your dresser. They asked about this because many of the young men had been ordered to strip down to their underwear. I never did see that navy jacket again, so you must have had it with you when you left. It was not on your body when I finally got to you. I wonder where you were and what you had been doing when you left it behind.
You may well have been alive.
Sometimes I think it doesn’t matter. That I don’t need to know exactly when you died because the fact is you were killed. Cause of death: massive loss of blood due to severe injuries sustained to the abdomen and head. It was obvious you had been shot; less obvious was the damage inside. The doctor told me he couldn’t be sure if it was the bullet wounds or the internal bleeding that had gotten to you first. Steel-toed boots, he speculated. Getting kicked repeatedly in the stomach and back with army-issued steel-toed boots could have done it. I can’t help but think about it sometimes, even now, even after all these years. Your tender organs, the ones I had nurtured and fed through the flow of blood between us; how soft and fragile they proved to be, the kidneys letting loose their bile and poison, the great, floppy liver rupturing and splitting in defeat, the pancreas shaking loose its veiny roots and floating adrift, functionless and meaningless, unmoored from the coherent body. But then again it could have been the bullet. Even this, I’ll never know.
But it does matter, most of the time. I want to be able to trace your last days, your last hours, as I have by now accounted for every hour and every minute of the last possible days I could have shared here on earth with my oldest son.