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Elegy for My Brother

Artwork by Jenna Tse, staff artist

“The Special Forces ‘black berets’ were dispatched to Gwangju by military strongman Chun Doo-hwan to enforce the martial law he had declared nationwide on the night of May 17, 1980. Over a two-day period, those troops used their M-16s and bayonets to kill and injure hundreds of people in Gwangju’s streets demanding an end to military rule and seeking the restoration of democracy.”

– Tim Shorrock, American journalist

i. May 18, 1980

Persimmons taste better when they’re frozen,

my grandfather explains. Ice softens

their flesh from honey to amber

under the hum of our electric fans, while my brother

rubs his stomach under his college T-shirt

and complains about the distance

between Gwangju and Seoul,

the space

the government has put between itself

and our taxi drivers, the gap that is widening

between truth and illusion, the chasm stretching

from safe to invisible.

He grips his textbook

like it’s a Bible, and shakes his head

at the nine-tailed fox we’ve let creep through

the rice paper door panels of our home. Legend says

the kumiho devours the livers

of their bewitched human lovers, but my brother is

the only one in our family who believes

in fairy tales, anyway.

Can you blame us? (Can you

forgive us?) Look at how the fox

rests its head on my lap. It’s

a comfortable weight, and I tell my brother

what I’ve heard the neighbors say, Democracy

doesn’t write you a paycheck.

The fox tries to lick

my brother’s fingers, but he strikes its nose

with his hardcover book. You will not have

my soul, he warns.

My mother says college is for fools

and idealists. And my brother

kisses her on the cheek to tell her

he is both.

ii. May 19, 1980

Persimmons taste better when they’re shared,

my grandfather insists.

People spill out of their homes

like soju from green glass bottles,

into the sun and the clotheslines that have always

protected us.

My brother says every kumiho carries

a marble in their mouth. If you can take it from them

and swallow it, he tells me, it will lose all of

its powers. What a fool my brother is, for believing

he could be a hero strong enough

to beat a fox.

I bring my grandfather’s fruit to

the women sitting on the front steps, to the children

playing cat’s cradle in the streets, to the young men

complaining about their conscription dates.

When the troops arrive, they must mistake

the orange fruits in their hands

for small fires, the kind that can burn

through even their bulletproof vests.


that is why they aim their rifles

and shoot.

iii. May 21, 1980

Persimmons taste better when they’re preserved,

my grandfather scolds. Save them

for later, when the rest of the family

come home.

My brother says he will graduate

before he is conscripted.

But every boy in South Korea learns the proper way

to shoot a man from their fathers:

pull the trigger silently, without


But in the night, death finds him


and I imagine it is the noise,

rippling through empty streets

like a dog’s mournful howl

and bringing a flush

to my mother’s kiss-deprived cheeks,

and not the soldier’s bullet

that tears him apart.

It is a full moon

the night I begin to believe

in fairy tales.

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