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from the December 2010 issue

The Boy in the Cave

Each and every person’s eyes all shine in the sky.
The sea under the sky
is limpid through and through.
It seems the crying of countless newborn babes can be heard
emerging from the sea
230 feet down
260 feet down
that far down everything can be seen in the sea

Above the sea the sun eventually sets.
It will rise again tomorrow.
and set again tomorrow.

Ah, the sunset glow over the whole East Sea!

Some hundred miles out from the shore
out in the East Sea’s open sea
the surging of golden, fire-hued sunset waves,
an island
beginning to breathe—
Ulleung Island.

Ulleung Island’s Taeha Cave.

There was a child
born at sunset.
Soon he had grown to be a boy.
Possessed by spirits, he would talk with the stars
when the wind dropped
he kept company with ghosts.
When one fisherman sailed out and failed to return
he comforted his sorrowfully weeping wife:
Your husband’s alive.
No one believed his words.
Nine days later the fisherman came back home alive.

In the evening sunset
spirits invariably came down into the boy’s face.
When night fell he kept company with ghosts.

He’s possessed, they said,
he’s crazy,
and in the end the boy was rejected by the village.
He can’t catch squid, they said,
he can’t row either
all he does is play with the stars
play with ghosts
forgetting errands he’s given
he reads and rereads old books
till they’re worn to shreds
he reads books that are no earthly use
out here in the middle of the sea,
he’s cursed with bad luck, they said
spitting as they spoke.
He was forbidden to go near the racks of drying squid.

His mother grieved.
His father often beat the boy.
Returning late
he’d beat the sleeping boy with a stick.
Finally he turned the boy out of the house, saying:
There’s no place here for any ghosts.
His mother wept as she dressed him in leather clothes.
My dear little Surei!
She sobbed.

The boy Surei was obliged to live in a dugout high in the hills.
He spent all the summer nights
bitten by gnats
bitten by mosquitoes.

In a dream his deceased grandfather appeared to him.
In his dream
he raised up the reclining Surei.
In his dream the beard, that had been black in his lifetime,
was a white beard reaching down to his breast.

Quick, go into that cavern further up.
There is your place.
you’ll find a book to read to your heart’s content.
A book containing tales of your great-grandmother
your great-grandfather
thousands of your ancestors.
A book where some day
will be written tales of tens of thousands of your future descendants.
A book you will have to read without end
is there waiting for you.
Get in there, quickly.

He woke from his dream.
The sea sunset was at its peak!
Gazing out at that blazing sea
that blazing sky
he called out:
Then he entered the cave his grandfather had indicated in his dream.

The moment he stood before the cave
the boy’s soul changed completely.
Every kind of ghost vanished,
every kind of nonsense was abolished.
He found himself with a quite empty heart,
a quite empty, blank-page soul.
He grew full of memories of tens of thousands of years before
presages of things to come in tens of thousands of future years.
All is limpid beneath the sea.
Surei gained a new soul from the darkness down beneath the sea.

A blind owl flew up above the cliff.

The boy Surei entered the cave.
At first he crawled forward.
Then he began walking.
Bats swarmed past him.
Surei advanced as though someone was guiding him.
He felt no trace of fear or uncertainty.
The familiartity of things new
familiar novelty.


The space inside the cave reverberated.


In the darkness a bluish light vibrated.


There was a stone slab
and on the slab a stone book.


The grandfather he had seen in his dream appeared then vanished.
From that day on young Surei
turned page after page of the stone book
and the cavern resonated
with the sound of his reading.

From that day on, whenever the boy
turned over one by one the heavy pages
one tale after another
passed ponderously over.
The world’s lives
the world’s joys and angers
all the world’s tales
the world’s deaths
tales of all the world’s sentient and insentient beings
one by one all those dew-like stories
one by one all those cloud-like stories
one by one stories
like flowers
like floods
like hurricanes
like breezes
like tears and laughter
so short-lived
so short-lived
and by that shortlivedness avatars of eternal nature one by one
every time he turned a page
passed over, without lingering.

Gradually the pages of the stone book grew lighter
light as butterfly wings
as dragonfly wings,
as leaves that dance as they fall.

The world’s time did not exist inside the cave.
No telling if it was autumn or no
if the winter had come and gone
when all the island cried out and howled
in blizzards
if the next year’s spring had come
if the wild poppies had blossomed and shed their petals
or how many years had passed.

In the outside world
one year went by
another year came
a century ended
another century came
a thousand years passed.

Because of you, this world is full of sunsets,
this world’s long-lasting long stories will never end.
This evening too the stories
of ten thousand lives, of people’s living and dying, will have no end.

At this moment the outside world is in the hair-ruffling wind.

Eternity’s young boy Surei! Eternity’s stone book that knows no end! Stone songs! Stone tales!

From Maninbo [Ten Thousand Lives], volume 30. Copyright Ko Un. Translation copyright 2010 by Brother Anthony and Lee Sang-Wha

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