Whenever I think of what I left behind in that place, I remember my father standing there all alone as I finally shouted, Father, I have to go, and ran for the bus. The bus had stopped, Father was still inside the store, and I shouted, Father, I have to go now . . . And there I was, climbing on board. Before the doors shut, I leaned out to look one more time at Father’s store. Inside, I tried to open a window, but they were sealed shut. With one palm pressed against the windowpane, I stared out to where Father stood in the dim light. He had rushed out of the store, a slipper on one foot and a shoe on the other, standing stock-still, too upset to even wave goodbye as he stared after the bus that was taking me away from him. I had let go of the rubber bands so abruptly that they were still swaying next to his silhouette.

The light coming from inside the store cast shadows and blotches on the dark expression on his face. The bus began to pull away before I had a chance to shout goodbye to him. I think about that moment from time to time. About how long he must’ve stood there after the bus had left. About what he must’ve felt staring down that dark road, long after the bus had dis appeared. About how long he must’ve waited before going back inside the store. All throughout my city life, when I think of how he must’ve gone back into that run-down little shop and wept, my hand goes to my forehead, my heart calms down, and I feel a kind of patience and endurance in the face of most things I may be dealing with in the current moment. The old bench inside the shop where people sat to drink makkeolli, the gourd ladle that bobbed around in the jar, the beer bottles he kept cold in the summer in a barrel filled with water . . . and inside the dark backroom of that store, his buk drum, his drumstick, and –

An almost black wooden chest with a lock.

Inside the chest was the money Father made from running the store. The 100 won bills with King Sejong’s face, laid flat and stacked over each other, the king’s face as flat as the bills. There were a couple of 500 won bills from time to time, and maybe even a 1,000 won note. And the coins. I first saw the faces of Admiral Yi Sun-sin and the philosopher Yi Hwang along with the armoured geobukseon turtle ship on those coins.

When I went to get spending money from him before school – for all those little things children needed to buy – Father would mop the floor of the shop before asking how much I needed. Saying the amount made my face go red and my heart beat fast. Regardless of my blushing or my beating heart, Father put the coins in my hand. He never bade me to be careful with it or to study hard in school. If he was wiping things down, he would dry his hands on a towel, open the chest, take out the amount I needed, lock eyes with me as he put it in my hand, pat my head – and that was it.

He made that wooden chest with his own hands when he first started working at that store in his thirties. It was just big enough to hold about five books. He was much younger than I am now. What was on his mind as he crafted its sides and hinges and lock? The chest, which I could sit on, aged beautifully as time passed. Admiring every detail including the neatly attached lock, I almost couldn’t believe Father had created it himself. Once he passed over the store on to someone else, the chest just lay around the living room for a while. I was once surprised to find a dead bird in it – one of my older brothers had put it there. The chest must’ve been used by my siblings from time to time to store things. But it was generally thought of as a useless object, with one person moving it here and another moving it there. It was waiting to be made use of until it became mine one day. I put my crayons inside to claim it, or I’d put early windfall persimmons so they’d ripen faster, or I’d store dog-eared books borrowed from school. Sometimes, I’d put my diary in there after clasping the lock shut with a satisfying snap.

When Father went back to running the store, the chest that had briefly been mine went back to being his cash chest again. It’s occurred to me now that the two times he stepped in to run that store were times when my family needed money the most. When his six children entered middle and high school, one by one. When Father gave up the shop a second time, did the chest return with him as well? That would’ve been after I had left home. I never saw that chest after he quit the second time. The person who succeeded him would need someplace to store their money, so perhaps Father left it behind.

Some objects just disappear like that. Not thrown away, not taken out, not donated or destroyed, just lost in time at some point and then they slowly fade from our memory. Leaving behind an echo of It was like that, it was like that back then . . .

Father was born in our house in J – in the early summer of 1933. He wasn’t always the eldest son. He had three older brothers and two older sisters – he was the sixth, in fact – but an epidemic one year took away his older brothers and he became the eldest son. Of a head family, no less. My grandfather, not rumoured to be a great physician but a licensed doctor of Eastern medicine nevertheless, was so filled with fear from having lost three sons at once that he forbade my father from attending school.

Keeping him at home, he taught him The Four Books and made him memorise sayings from The Mirror that Lights the Soul. Father can still recite the things he learned from my grand father. When one sleeps one does not sleep slanted, when one sits one does not sit uncentered, when one stands one does not lean on one’s left foot . . .The ears must listen not to bad tidings, the eyes must see not the faults of others, rotten wood cannot be sculpted, and a wall of rotten clay cannot be plastered . . .One must not find oneself precious and others beneath oneself . . .If it is not a good seat one must not sit in it, one’s eyes must not turn to flashy colors . . .Teach others, sprinkle water, sweep, be hospitable, know how to withdraw, love one’s parents, raise one’s teachers, keep close one’s friends. . .

Once he started to recite, it was like unraveling a spool of thread, and I would ask, How can you still recite all of this? And he would answer, Because my father taught me, and would pause in his recitation to say, I wish he’d sent me to school instead, briefly revealing his resentment toward his father. If my grand father had not been cowed by the fear of disease and sent Father to school, would Father have lived a different life? Would he have been able to leave home one day?

I tried to console Father by saying, If you had gone to school in those days, you probably would have had to change your name to a Japanese one. But Father did not go to school. He went out into the fields instead. He turned the loam and planted rice. When he was fourteen, there was another epidemic in the village. And my grand father, who had prevented my father from going to school because of disease, caught the disease himself. If only he had not visited family then, Father often said when he talked about my grand father. My grand father’s eldest uncle had caught the disease, and my grand father himself came down with it after having gone to his home with medicinal herbs to treat him. My grand mother, who had nursed my grandfather, also became infected. That summer, Father lost both his parents in just two days.

Father was working in the fields on the day he lost his father at fourteen.

Excerpted with permission from I Went to See My Father, Kyung-Sook Shin, translated from the Korean by Anton Hur, Hachette India.