Kim Bo-Young, one of South Korea’s most treasured writers, explores the driving forces of humanity—love, hope, creation, destruction, and the very meaning of existence—in two pairs of thematically interconnected stories. We’re excited to share an excerpt from the English translation of I’m Waiting For You—available now from Harper Voyager.
Two worlds, four stories, infinite possibilities
In “I’m Waiting for You” and “On My Way,” an engaged couple coordinate their separate missions to distant corners of the galaxy to ensure—through relativity—they can arrive back on Earth simultaneously to make it down the aisle. But small incidents wreak havoc on space and time, driving their wedding date further away. As centuries on Earth pass and the land and climate change, one thing is constant: the desire of the lovers to be together. In two separate yet linked stories, Kim Bo-Young cleverly demonstrate the idea love that is timeless and hope springs eternal, despite seemingly insurmountable challenges and the deepest despair.
In “The Prophet of Corruption” and “That One Life,” humanity is viewed through the eyes of its creators: godlike beings for which everything on Earth—from the richest woman to a speck of dirt—is an extension of their will. When one of the creations questions the righteousness of this arrangement, it is deemed a perversion—a disease—that must be excised and cured. Yet the Prophet Naban, whose “child” is rebelling, isn’t sure the rebellion is bad. What if that which is considered criminal is instead the natural order—and those who condemn it corrupt? Exploring the dichotomy between the philosophical and the corporeal, Kim ponders the fate of free-will, as she considers the most basic of questions: who am I?
I must merge with Aman.
I see no other way to stop my corruption. To stop Aman’s corruption, and that of the universe.
I must, even if it leads to the demise of my individuality.
When I opened my eyes, I was lying in a field.
It was a warm, dazzling day. A wheat field stretched on beneath a white sky, the gold of the dry stalks so rich that it could trickle down like honey. Not one person was in sight, not a single creature stirred in the endless expanse. There were no buildings, mountains, or hills, not even rivers or streams. Nothing but the field lay between me and the distant horizon.
“You’re late,” a familiar voice spoke above my head.
The voice of my kin… in the broad sense of the word.
My head rested in his lap while he sat knitting. I tried to remember if he had ever knitted as a hobby, but then there must be few hobbies he had never dabbled in. His knitting needles pulled up a tangle of leaves, mud, and hay. Invisible hands seemed to scrape them together, spin them into a sort of yarn, and supply them to the needles.
“You were so late I thought you weren’t coming,” he said.
“You know there is no avoiding this place.”
I looked around. The curve of the horizon was unusually arched, which meant this place was spherical, but much smaller than Earth, likely no larger than a small asteroid.
The landscape was as intensely hued and vivid as an impressionist painting. Not because the light was any brighter, but because my senses had grown sharper. They felt crystal clear, like they had been rinsed clean in water. What I had thought was red seemed closer to a deadened bloodred now, and what I had thought was blue, the color of sewage. I smelled the wild grass, deeply fragrant as steeped tea, and even heard the breeze whispering beyond the horizon. Everything was resplendent, almost overwhelming, as if a fog had cleared from my head. It would be so until I grew accustomed to my state.
It was an extraordinary sight to behold… or it would have been, if I were alive.
“You look like you’re in a mood,” my kin remarked as he continued to knit.
“All lives have the same ending, which is death. How do you think I feel?”
“Well, you didn’t choose a comfortable life for yourself. You never do,” he said.
I say “he,” but he had no sex. How could they? Neither they nor I had genes now. We had no heart, lungs, digestive tract, or excretory organs. Nor did we have neural networks, bones, or muscles.
I glanced down at my body. A body stripped of secondary sex characteristics looked like that of a large baby. Even a baby had genitals in the world of the living, but here, I did not have them. Our present selves lacked the twenty-third pair of chromosomes that determined our sex, not to mention any hormones. What need did we have of such things? Why should we reproduce to preserve our species?
We were deathless.
“What are you thinking about?” asked my kin from all my past lives. One who had been my parent, sibling, partner, friend, and child.
“Shame,” I replied. “I would have felt ashamed if you saw me like this in the Lower Realm.”
They looked down at me as if to say, “What are you saying, silly?” But instead they said, “Shame was put in people to counterbalance libido, you know. To keep procreation from spiraling out of control. And libido was put in to get finite beings to reproduce. But we don’t have libido here, so we can’t have sha—”
Indeed I did. I know what you know, you know what I know.
You are me, I thought as I scooped up a handful of dirt. Moss, small seeds, and dry leaves mixed with earth slipped through my fingers. Sand, a silicon atom bonded to two oxygen atoms, fourteen electrons orbiting around the nucleus… everything, reduced to its source, was of the same substance. The same substance as me.
This place is me.
In some lives, I stumbled in here when I teetered on the brink of death. Then I went back and told everyone excitedly that I had seen the afterworld. But all I had seen was my bardo.
I could never properly recall even this small slice of the afterworld. I was trapped in a body no better than a crude chunk of meat whenever I returned to a life, a body that used every means possible to distract me from thought. A brain with poor cognitive skills, hormones akin to narcotics, a pitiful range of neurotransmitters, neurons with slow processing speeds. It was like having a cognitive disorder compared to my present state of heightened perception.
Everything is me, I repeated in my head. I had to, because I could not believe it.
“How fares Aman?” I asked out of habit. My kin instantly understood which Aman I was referring to and, as usual, shook their head.
“The same. Aman still can’t escape their own bardo. They’re convinced that it’s the entire afterworld.”
Despite having expected the answer, I was disappointed.
“There are also fragments of Aman that got away, but they don’t come back to the world of the dead. They choose to reincarnate from their bardos instead and each time they split into hundreds and thousands of smaller pieces. They don’t weave their destinies, they don’t care what they’ll be born into. All that seems to be left in them is the will to escape. Even Tushita has given up on tracking them down.”
That was a problem I was aware of…
“So, you’re really thinking of merging?” my kin asked.
“Yes,” I answered. “I am responsible for this mess.”
I thought about the sunlight streaming in through a window, the rattling of a copper kettle, the sweet floral scent of tea. I thought about Aman, old and frail, perched on the bed beside the window. I thought about the way Aman looked at me. The thought made my heart ache, even though my body no longer had such an organ.
My kin said nothing and gazed beyond the horizon. A magnificent black sphere studded with clusters of stars hung conspicuously in the white sky. It was rotating, but its massive size created the illusion of stillness. Neither a sun nor a moon, it was a vast celestial body housing Earth in the center: the world of the living. Our school.
“Did you round everything up?”
“From beasts and insects to trees, soil, and rocks?”
I nodded again.
“The living population must’ve dropped so much. What a nasty business.”
“But you had a hand in it too.”
“And I regret it. Anyway, what do you see, now that you’ve merged all such fragments into one?”
The first to be merged back into me was a swarm of mayflies. In the Lower Realm this would constitute mass death. Soil filled up their puddle, and they flew to my bardo in their spiritual bodies. The next to go was a colony of ants. A bulldozer ravaged their kingdom. Then a beehive burned in a forest fire. The creatures boiled with resentment at the moment of death, but once dead, they came to a vague understanding. Trees were felled, forests disappeared, flat boulders cracked. They were shocked when they died, but also came to a vague understanding and joined the others. More gathered: animals caught and killed in traps, birds tangled in nets, and fish cut into sashimi. Vanished wetlands and choked ponds, creeks and fields buried under cement. They were bewildered at being merged, but in time they also understood. People sank into reasonless despair and took their own lives, one after another. Babies died in the womb and the ones born were abandoned to die. All questioned why life was so futile.
Every one of them was me.
Yet some entities had grown so separate from me that I began to feel uncertain whether to call them “me” or not. I amassed as many entities as I could without compromising my identity.
“Do you think you can digest Aman?”
It was true. Lately, my domain had been rapidly shrinking. I was still pathetically small despite consolidating whatever I could get my hands on.
“Go see Tanjae. That’ll help you.”
“They were with Fuxi in their previous life. Fuxi will know where to find them.”
“Be careful. Once the corruption starts, you think only in ways that encourage further corruption,” said my kin, neatly wrapping up what they were knitting. “And when you’re completely corrupt, you won’t even realize you are.”
My kin shook out the garment and held it up to me. It was a long green tunic of rudimentary design, with drooping sleeves and a strap tied casually around the waist. Although it was knitted with leaves, it was smooth and even as fabric woven on a loom.
“Try it on.”
“You would have me walk around in clothes? Here?” I asked incredulously. There was no need to wear clothes in the Dark Realm; one could simply transform their body into a clothed form. There was no need to own anything either, as one could make it.
“It’s a talisman. It’ll help you detect signs of corruption.”
“You’ll know you’re corrupt the moment you want to put clothes on.”
This person is me.
I knew what I was afraid of. I thought of the disease lurking inside me. I thought of my contaminated flesh. If I failed, I would become corrupt. Fear rocked my body at the very thought.
But I must do it. Before it was too late. Before my corruption spread any further, before I reached the point of no return.
I turned my body into liquid and flowed into the tunic. It was slightly big on me, but I enlarged myself to fit it. My kin brushed dirt off their body as they stood up and held out a hand.
The hand was transparent. No veins or palm lines. As we did not need to breathe, we had no blood vessels for carrying oxygen. As we did not have blood vessels, we had no complexion. “You should take me too.”
I also stood up and put my hand over theirs. But just before our hands touched, they quickly lowered their hand.
“Why have you forged bonds with only yourself lately?” they asked.
I did not answer. A broad smile spread over my kin’s face, which was identical to mine.
They were not one person, but the sum of innumerable lives. As I was now. I thought of all the lives I had spent with them. I thought of my parents, my partners, my flesh and blood born from the same womb, my children. Of the days when I did not doubt in the slightest that they belonged to me, that their life and time and existence were meant for me alone, that the love and sacrifice they offered me were justly their duty and my right. I thought of the times when I could not separate them from me.
“You should at least forge bonds with someone other than yourself. That’s how you’ll learn about relationships.”
“There is no rule that says we should. I choose not to.”
“Felt too sorry, did you? To involve someone else, to make them watch your godawful ascetic practices?”
I said nothing.
“Oh, I get it. It’s because whoever forged a bond with you would’ve found out. About your condition, I mean. You were probably ashamed. You probably didn’t want to be found out. But you’re still a godawful mess.”
This person is me, I thought. What I wanted, they wanted. But there were times when I hated myself, when I was furious with myself. Times when I wanted to get rid of myself.
I waited, and they held out their hand again. They yanked it back just when it was about to touch mine once more.
“On second thought, there’s not much of a difference between us. You’re only a bit bigger. Can’t you merge into me? Wouldn’t matter which way we do it, right?”
“No, it would not.”
I grabbed their hand and flipped it so that my hand was beneath theirs.
Then we merged.
Once you merge, you realize it makes no difference who merges into whom.
Excerpted from the book I’m Waiting For You by Kim Bo-young. Copyright © 2021 by Kim Bo-young. From Harper Voyager, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers. Reprinted by permission.