Bae Suah trans. by Janet Hong
the dream of a child before she was set on fire
I found myself standing before a truck, as if the earth had opened and heaved me out.
The truck, originally a horse trailer, looked as big as a mountain. The cargo area was already filled with people. Still a hand reached out to pull me up—a yellow hand, sticking out from a wide sleeve, with gold rings on all ten fingers. But I couldn’t see whose hand it was.
Everywhere thick fog came together in the shape of a hawk’s head and scattered, repeatedly. It was cold and dank inside, as if the truck could not escape the mist, and the stench of ash and horse manure was made worse by the dampness. I realized only after I’d climbed on that my big black suitcase was already on the truck. I clambered onto it, since there wasn’t any room to sit. The leather was slippery from the rain, and as the truck built speed, I bounced up in the air like a light bone. I reached for the railing and held on. A film of moisture covered the rusted railing. The earth was spewing heavy drops of water, which the wind ferried up.
The people sat on the floor with their backs against the railing. Those in the middle held onto a rope strung across the length of the truck, but each time the wheels sped over the steppe rocks, their bodies pitched wildly in the air. On their heads were scarves or triangular blue silk hoods trimmed with yellow fur, so I couldn’t see their faces. Occasionally when they raised their heads, dark gray clouds hovered over their faces in the shape of a hawk’s head.
The truck raced along the roadless steppes for a long time. A river appeared. I heard it first, before I saw it. The truck rushed headlong into the gray current, as murky as steel and so rough it looked as if big rocks would fly out. The river was shallower than I had thought. Below the railing, the truck’s large wheels churned the water into a seething whirlpool of froth and spray. The smell of gasoline made it hard to breathe. Everywhere I looked, a dark wet cloud formed in the shape of a hawk’s head, then scattered. The moisture from the air mixed with the river. I bounced up in the air like a light bone. The truck stopped on the other side of the river. A wide, low hill littered with rocks and white bones spread before us. At the top of this hill stood a hut of stone and moss, with pointed, cone-shaped crags soaring behind it. I asked where we were.
“We’re at the Scythian tombs,” said a faceless voice.
They got off the bus. These people lived scattered throughout a vast region, but made the long journey to the tombs once a year by truck, gathering on the day of the festival. Today was that day. I struggled along the rocky path with my suitcase—someone had already unloaded it from the truck. My wet coat dragged heavily on the ground. Water dripped from my hood. I was now forced to use both hands to lug the suitcase up the path, which sloped more steeply as I neared the top. With each labored step, the suitcase grew heavier from the rain.
When I finally made it to the top of the hill, the wind whipped in gusts, as if it meant to shred the air apart. The green leaves and branches of the Japanese cypress covered the ground. Because of the lashing wind these trees grew close to the ground, twisted and bent. The circular patterns on the bark stared up at me like eyes. Small yellow flowers bloomed secretly below, hidden from every gaze, and beneath their frail stems, light green moss carpeted the ground. I sat down, clinging to my suitcase to keep from flying away in the wind. At last, I lay down crookedly, as if I’d become a young Japanese cypress. I smelled its fragrance on me. White smoke rose in the air, together with a strong odor of resin, as if a cypress tree had been set on fire. Someone stepped on my back as he walked past, mistaking me for a tree. At the base of the crags covered by rain and fog I heard the singing of people with faces like hawks.
Mountain soaring above clouds of white,
its peak covered with pure white snow,
like the beard of my dear father
who left for that mountain yonder.
This is an excerpt. The full text of Read Bae Suah’s “The Dream of a Child Before She Was Set on Fire,” translated by Janet Hong, can be read in the print edition of The Arkansas International 6.
Bae Suah is a highly acclaimed Korean author and translator of German literature, described as “Korean literature’s most unfamiliar being.” She has introduced authors such as W.G. Sebald, Franz Kafka, and Jenny Erpenbeck to Korean audiences. She received the Hanguk Ilbo Literary Prize, as well as the Tongseo Literary Prize.
Janet Hong is a writer and translator based in Vancouver. Her translation of Han Yujoo’s The Impossible Fairy Tale was a finalist for both the 2018 PEN Translation Prize and the 2018 National Translation Award. She has also translated Ancco’s Bad Friends, Seong-nan Ha’s Flowers of Mold, and Keum Suk Gendry-Kim’s Grass.