Claude Monet, Waves Breaking, 1881, oil on canvas. San Francisco: Legion of Honor. Image via WikiArt.

“The Man Who Touches Waves” is a short story that can be read as a sonic map drawn by a man who has gone blind. The narrative follows a nameless narrator who sets off alone one day to find his way to the sea. In Korean braille, the word for “sea” is constructed in four dots, resembling the ellipsis in the English language; this story is infused with ellipses, offering a careful balance between sound and silence, the visual and the tactile. On the way to the sea, there are signposts: familiar sounds and their absence, remembered colors and the felt shapes of objects, and the narrator’s longing to see and to be seen. In fractals, the writing makes intuitive connections between the world and the language with which the narrator reads his way through it.

Written by Kim Soom and first published in full in Korean Literature Now, the story crafts a narrator who remains hypervisible even as the text’s fragmentary structure shreds apart the unity of meaning that we often ascribe to things around us. The story complicates our notions of arrival while showing us another way of reading, and of seeing, the world.

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Is it open?
Is it opening?

My face.

Is it in front of me?
Is it behind me?

My face right now.

I’ve seen a green apple. I want to put a green apple on my desk.

Playing on the radio was “Yesterday” by the Beatles. In the fish tank were two goldfish, one red and one pink. I sat at my desk and with a magnifying glass peered into the picture on my junior high school student ID card. I was fourteen then. My chin was sharp…A different place…My right eye is looking at a different place. My right eye has never seen light. When I was in the incubator, the ventilator supplied too much oxygen, damaging the blood vessels in my retina. I was brought into the world at seven months and was immediately put inside an incubator.

I was standing.
I was just standing.
I just continued standing.

I was five years old and standing in front of the eye chart with a yellow cloche hat on my head. I could see the number four. That was all I could see. I couldn’t even see the stick pointing at the number four.

When I was eight and in Gyeongju with my family for summer vacation, I was standing in front of a gigantic gray rock.

And when I was twenty, I was standing at a bus station near Seoul National University of Education’s subway station. It was a cold day in winter. And it was late on Sunday night. At that time, I was living at the dorms at the college I got into after retaking the college entrance exams. I was on my way back to the dorms after spending the weekend with my family. I needed to take the 5001. There were quite a large number of people waiting at the bus stop. A bus came up, and two or three people ran to catch the bus. The bus left in a hurry, and then the next one came. Several people boarded it. I don’t know how many. The bus left, and three or four more came, bumper to bumper, but I couldn’t board any of them. I needed to take the 5001. I couldn’t see the number plates, which I had been able to see up till I was seventeen and on summer break. I was afraid of getting on the wrong bus. I stood and looked on as buses and people came and went. I couldn’t ask people which buses were stopping in front of the bus stop. I didn’t want people to know I was blind. Another bus came and stopped. It seemed like this was the 5001, but I didn’t get on. After all, I could have been wrong. I stood there for more than an hour and a half watching the buses and people come and go. The buses started becoming less frequent. When the next bus finally came, all the people got on and left, leaving me alone. Another one came and stopped in front of me. I could hear the rattling as the door opened. It seemed to be waiting for me to get on. I couldn’t see the people riding. It seemed like there were only empty seats. I stepped toward the door. I wanted to get on. I wanted to be caressed by the bus’s empty chairs, close my eyes, and fall into a deep sleep. Hoping the sun would be shining brightly when I woke, hoping the bus would take me to the sea, hoping I could get off the bus, extend my hand, and touch the waves, I attempted to get on the bus. But I couldn’t. It had already left. I looked at my surroundings. I could vaguely see a very tall, slender person standing behind me. I walked up to this person and mustered the courage to speak up: “Hello.” There was no answer. I spoke again: “Hello.” Still, no answer. Finding this strange, I tapped the person with my hand. But it wasn’t a person. It was a telephone pole.

I’m still standing.
Where should I be standing?

It’s not that I’m waiting for someone.

I’m waiting for the sound of birds.
Birds I’ve never seen,
Birds I can’t see.

The sound of birds will show me the way.

I wait. When I go to an unfamiliar place, I wait for its sounds to show me the way. The sounds of the world show me the way. Cars on the street, shop music, footsteps, announcements from the digital timetable at the bus stop, restaurant fans, a noisy construction site, shutters being raised, shutters being closed…When I hear high heels descending stairs, I realize I am near the entrance to a subway station. It’s confusing when they come at me all at once. I pick out sounds. I pick out one sound like picking out a single strand of thread from a tangled mess of yarn.

I wait. Until I can’t hear any sound, in front of a crosswalk with no signal, until the sound of zooming cars cuts out and there is silence.

I stop. When I walk and listen to the sound of cars, I stop as soon as I hear people. And when I hear people running, I unknowingly start to run.

When I hear a bus but don’t see it, it feels like the bus is racing toward me. When I hear a subway train but don’t see it, it feels like the train is racing toward me.

I like the paths that the sound of birds paves for me. I like the paths that the sound of small birds, like sparrows, paves for me. The paths that sparrows pave for me are narrow. I want to walk narrow paths. It’s hard to walk straight down a wide path.

* * *

I didn’t see the sparrow. It was too small to see. I didn’t see the bee, either.

The pigeon flaps its wings and takes flight.

There is a java sparrow at our home. When I open the door and enter our home, I hear a bird. The chirping is loud, so I think it must be a large bird. But it is smaller than my hand. They say the java sparrow is white. I imagine the color white as I imagine the java sparrow. I touch white inside the cage as I imagine a java sparrow. But it only has one leg. They say it had only one leg before coming to our home.

I saw the wings of a dragonfly.
I didn’t see the face of the dragonfly.

I can’t catch things that fly.
I don’t want to catch things that can fly.

I wonder, can birds be blind, too?
I wonder, can birds be born blind, too?

Blind birds can’t fly. They can fly, but because they can’t see where to land, they can’t fly.

Birds that are born blind stay in the nest. Their siblings leave, their mother leaves, and birds that are born blind are left alone in the nest. All by themselves, they cry in the nest. They fall asleep, grow old, and die alone in the nest.

There is no nest.
I’ve never seen one. So they don’t exist.

I wonder, are there birds who go blind while flying?

What if a blind bird flew to me…

* * *

It’s a sound that’s always there.
A sound that was there every time I passed by that place.

But one day, I couldn’t hear it anymore. I heard an unfamiliar sound that hadn’t been there before.

What could it be?

* * *

At what should I be looking?

After I lost the ability to see light, I would often forget the fact that I couldn’t see.

When I used to be able to vaguely see the silhouette of objects out of my left eye, I would look at trees, people walking toward me, and empty chairs in front of me and think to myself that I didn’t see anything. I was envious of my brother who had normal eyes. He asked me to lend him an eraser and scissors once. I hid them in the drawer and told him I didn’t have them. I didn’t want to share. He went to the school supply store and bought two erasers and two scissors, one for each of us.

I’m not blind because I’m lacking.
I’m not blind because I’m being punished.

I didn’t know.
I don’t know.

I need to find it.
I must find it.

* * *

One day, her voice came to me.
Then one day, it left me.

* * *

“Will you let me hear your voice?”

And wait…

And believe…

“Who do you want to see the most?”

Just before she left, this is what her voice asked me.

Now that I’ve lost the ability to see faces, people enter my dreams as their voices. When someone visits my dream, I tell them:

“I heard your voice in my dreams last night.”


I’m afraid your voice will leave me.

Just one voice…just one…I’m not sure.

* * *

The sea is made of four dots. I know how to write the word for sea, but I don’t want to write it. I’ve written it before. I can’t see the sea I’ve written. My mom cherishes that sea.

The sea I wrote is together with the wave I wrote.

And it’s together with the moon.

Today, I wore a new T-shirt. My mother laid the new T-shirt she bought for me on my bed. It has three buttons, short sleeves, and a collar. I don’t know what color it is. I’m forty, but I still wear the colors my mother buys for me. I vaguely remember the color scarlet. I saw a full moon. I didn’t see a half moon. I think I know what purple looks like. But I’m not confident when it comes to the color emerald.

As my left eye went dark, and after I lost all sight in my left eye, I made up colors that didn’t exist. Rose gold was one such color. People say it’s a mix of gold and red. Roses are red. I know red. Gold is a dazzling yellow. In my head, I mix the colors red and gold to imagine a new color.

According to the eye examination I took when I was five, the vision in my left eye was 20/200. When I entered elementary school, I could see the green chalkboard, but I couldn’t see what was written in chalk. So I sat in the front of the class and wrote in my notebook what the teacher said. Sketchbook when the teacher said “sketchbook,” and gym clothes when the teacher said “gym clothes.” I didn’t write with a pencil. Handwriting in pencil is fuzzy. I can’t see fuzzy things. I wrote with a black pen. Black was easier to see on white than blue or red. I transcribed the contents of my textbook into my notebook one letter at a time. To see the letters, I had to bring my eye so close that my eyelashes would brush the paper. As the letters of my textbook got blurrier and squished, they started to look like dark smudges. I couldn’t see the chalkboard. My left eye dropped to 20/1000 in the vision test. With magnifying glasses for lenses, I read words one by one. The letters I saw beyond the magnifying glass swelled to five or six times their normal size. I remember staring at the Chinese character for heart () through the magnifying glass as I transcribed it into my notebook. I haven’t forgotten the letters I saw through my magnifying glass. When I was seventeen, I had to get an operation to reattach the retina in my left eye. After the procedure, I couldn’t see words even with the help of a magnifying glass. So I just listened during class. I just sat there without moving and listened.

While my left eye could still see light, I avoided going out during the day because the sun blinded me. I walked by following the light from the street lamps. Their light showed me the way. Over the course of twenty years, I slowly lost sight in my left eye. Like a lamp slowly being dimmed, the light in my left eye became fainter and fainter until it disappeared. Faces became squished and distant until they vanished. Even though I knew things were becoming more distant, I never imagined I would completely lose sight in my left eye. The thought never crossed my mind. I didn’t want to think about it. I hated the thought of losing my sight completely.

* * *

Only she left…
She’s the only one who left…

* * *

I don’t know how many people are sitting in front of me.
I don’t know how many people are walking in front of me.

Is there a reason for losing my sight?

Perhaps losing the ability to see light is for a reason and an answer. And perhaps there’s a reason my prayers weren’t answered…

Pray for me,
Keep your prayers as late as possible.

People exist because they think of someone,
People exist because they love someone.

I want to feel what it’s like to exist.
I want to live life feeling what it’s like to exist.

Do you see me?

“Why am I here?”

* * *

I want you to look at me like I’m a person.
I want you to look at me like I’m one whole person.

Do you see me?

I believe people,
I want to believe the people I meet.

The year I graduated from university, I sent out about twenty different job applications, each to a welfare center for the disabled. I was twenty-five at the time. I was interviewed at six of those places. I was hired at the very last one where I interviewed. It was a newly opened welfare center for the disabled. I had entered college through the Department of Public Administration and double majored in social welfare. I wanted to become a social worker and help blind people like myself. I didn’t know how many people were sitting in front of me at the interview. There was only one person asking the questions. The voice asking questions was always the same. “Are you sure you can do it?” the voice asked. “I can do it, I can do it,” I answered. It took more than two hours to get to the center from my home. At six thirty in the morning on the day of my interview, I rode the subway for four stops. Then I got off and rode Bus 1007, which went from Seoul to Gyeonggi Province, for an hour and forty minutes all the way to the second-to-last stop. I fell into a deep sleep, and when I woke up, I was at my destination. The building was located far away from the city center. On my first day, a single empty desk was waiting for me. I went to the desk and sat down. I had no way of knowing what was in front of my desk. Although I couldn’t see out windows, I wished I had one. Even though I knew windows were distant from me, I wished I had one. I sat at my desk until it was time for lunch. No one gave me any work. They didn’t give me anything. There were about forty employees at this center, but I was the only one who was disabled. I sat at my desk as I listened to the sound of people running around busily, talking about work and joking with each other. I sat there listening to the office clock’s second hand and the ringing of other people’s phones. There was a telephone on every desk. There was even one on mine. But mine didn’t ring. As no one gave me any work; I just sat at my desk until it was time to go home. On my second day, I again just sat at my desk all day as I listened to the clock’s second hand and the ringing of telephones. No one gave me any work. They didn’t give me anything. An entire month passed like this…The sound of the clock’s second hand felt so slow. Each second was like an hour. Why am I here? One day I arrived at work and sat down at my desk. I just sat at my desk all morning. Someone’s telephone started to ring. And it kept ringing. I reached out toward the telephone on my desk. I picked up the receiver and brought it to my ear. “Hello?” From that day on, I started taking other people’s phone calls if they weren’t at their desks. “Hello?” I found work for myself. Once I did this, they finally started giving me work. What I did was writing letters to sponsors. Then one day, when the entire office was out for drinks, I heard my team manager’s drunk voice: “You shouldn’t be here. We have no work for you. Go somewhere else.” After drinks, I went to Suwon Station, even though I knew the last train had already left. This was the only familiar place to me. I would come here to ride the subway whenever I worked late. I sat on the steps and cried. There was no wind on those steps. I quit after working for four years at the welfare center. But I didn’t leave because I was told to leave. Years after I left, I contacted my old team manager, who had been kind to me, and asked a question:

“Why didn’t you give me any work?”

“I didn’t know what work to give you.”

The year I turned thirty, I started working for the Department of Special Education at a local university in Nonsan. I wanted to teach blind children like myself. One day when I was out, I lost my way in a place where I knew no one. Then suddenly, I heard a voice calling my name. “Let’s go together.” From that day on, I was no longer afraid of going to a place where I knew no one. Let’s go together. These words were bright yellow. Whenever I went to an unfamiliar place, there was always at least one person there to help me. They would come to me and extend their hand, even if I didn’t ask. After a while, I realized something. It was like magic…I now believed that no matter where in the world I went, there would always be someone waiting there to help me.

* * *

The desire is still there. The desire to see hasn’t left me.

No matter how much I feel and touch, the desire to see hasn’t left me. Touching and seeing are different. Perhaps I think this way because I used to be able to see. Because I used to be able to see.

When I’m alone, I sometimes touch my face. My forehead, eyebrows, eyelids, nose, cheeks, lips, chin…No matter how much I feel and touch, the desire to see hasn’t left me. “Whose face do you most want to see?” If she came back to me and asked me this, my answer wouldn’t change.

I want to see my own face.
Right now, I most want to see my own face.


Excerpted from “The Man Who Touches Waves,” written by Kim Soom and translated by Sean Lin Halbert. Originally published in March 2022 by Korean Literature Now, a quarterly produced by the Literature Translation Institute of Korea that describes itself as “the world’s only English-language quarterly with the objective to help readers around the world experience and appreciate Korean literature content.”

Kim Soom

Kim Soom has published six short story collections and thirteen novels, most recently When Has a Soldier Wanted to Be an Angel? (2018) and Sublime Is Looking Inward (2018), the third and fourth novels in her Comfort Women series. She has received the Yi Sang Literary Award, Hyundae Literary Award, Daesan Literary Award, Heo Gyun Literary Award, and the Tong-ni Literature Prize.

Sean Lin Halbert

Sean Lin Halbert received his BA in Korean language from the University of Washington and his MA in modern Korean literature from Seoul National University. He is a recipient of the GKL Translation Award, the LTI Korea Award for Aspiring Translators, and the Korea Times Modern Korean Literature Translation Award. His translations of Korean authors Yun Ko-eun, Park Sang Young, Kim Soom, and others have appeared in Azalea and Korean Literature Now. His major translations include Kim Un-su’s novel The Cabinet and Yun Ko-eun’s “The Chef’s Nail.” He currently lives in Seoul, where he works as a full-time translator.

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