cycles of the moon spinning

Rumpus Original Fiction: The Turning of Celestial Bodies


Have I ever told you about the night your great-grandfather broke curfew? It’s a bigger deal than you think. After all, son, “curfew” is a bastardized term. You think of teen movies and groundings post-midnight joyrides when you think of that word, when in fact curfews were once tools of war, used by countries in conflict in order to buy and sell fear to people without means to understand it. And what was Korea, at that point? Not a country, certainly, only a spit of land carved into pieces, yes, tugged in all directions by bigger fish for centuries: Japanese emperors, Kublai Khan, all the way to the Americans, the ones who set the curfew in 1946 and did not lift it for thirty-six years. I suppose it doesn’t matter what Korea was. It was 1962 and your grandfather, my father, was five years old. He was born third, out of three boys, in Seoul. You look very much like him; all of us boys do. Same eyebrows, thick and peaked with a sharp angle two-thirds of the way like the black fin of a shark. I have only the one picture of him at that age. There were others. I don’t know what he did with the rest of them.

Your grandfather had been up all night, shrunk under the blankets in the corner of the room where he slept with his brothers. They lived in a three-room cottage and slept on the floor, toilet outside. Your grandfather’s throat was red. There was searing heat in his stomach, sharper and deeper than he remembered a common stomachache to be. He told me once that he never felt anything quite like it again, not for the rest of his life. It might have been food poisoning, maybe an allergy, a mix of things. Your grandfather exaggerated all the time, you know this, but about that pain, I’m not sure he ever did. Your great-grandmother found him first and forced his hands away from where he was clawing at his neck. His brothers, sleeping under the blanket beside him, tried to ignore the sounds he made. Your great-grandmother felt your grandfather’s head with the back of her hand, calling urgently for your great-grandfather, still working. They all felt heavy footfalls, through his closed eyes your grandfather saw the light from the lamp against the wall blotted out by broad shoulders.

Your grandfather heard his name. He was being told to open his eyes. When he did, he saw your great-grandfather bent over him. Your great-grandfather wore thick glasses when working and kept his hair clean-swept with a part on the side when awake. He was still wearing the heather grey suit and necktie from the school where he taught. Your grandfather clutched at his stomach, mouthing weakly, giving no voice. He wondered if he was dying; the heat inside him felt as though it was pulling him down through the floor. It was heavy air around him, like pressurized gas that threatened to drag him straight out of the world and down underground. They must’ve been afraid he had rheumatic fever. You couldn’t treat something like that in the home. A person’s temperature could spike without notice and kill them just as quickly, without anybody knowing. We are lucky people, you and I, unable to imagine that fear.

Your grandfather felt hands grip him by the shoulders and raise him into a sitting position. He was hoisted onto your great-grandfather’s shoulders, the motion knocking the wind out of his lungs. While he was being carried to the door, he heard your great-grandmother protesting. It was two miles to the nearest hospital. There were Americans in the street who liked to patrol the quieter roads with guns and ask questions of whoever opened their doors. Your great-grandfather silenced her, his voice calm and urgent, strode carefully to the door, and forced it open. It was cold that night, your grandfather told me. The kind that shook bones, claimed limbs. The kind that burned. Snow fell lazily toward the ground and gathered on the streets and sidewalks. Frigid air sucked away what little breath your grandfather had in his lungs. He bit his tongue, rolling and jumping on your great-grandfather’s back, trying not to cry out. They were to treat any noise as a threat. There was no telling what would happen to either of them if the wrong people saw them breaking curfew like this, so late at night. Your great-grandfather started off at a run down the jumbled street to the central roads down the block. They passed under strings of dark lights and lanterns; storefronts and bars lay dormant and dark by law.

Your grandfather whimpered. The pain was unbearable in his stomach. A fist held the tender parts of his insides and squeezed with monstrous force at regular intervals. He would cry soon, cry and not care who would be able to hear them. He wanted to go back home. Your great-grandfather slowed to a stop, as though he could predict what was about to happen. He said nothing, stood while the wind whipped them. Your grandfather shivered, wiping the little leaks from his eyes. “I want to go home, I can’t do it,” he said. “I can’t do it.”

Your great-grandfather was not angry. He was not quick to anger the way other boys’ fathers could be. Did you know this? You know, tempers are inherited. Fathers often pass down their anger: anger, often, that was passed down to them by their own fathers. But in all his life, your grandfather never once shouted at me, the way your great-grandfather never once shouted at him. What will that say about me? Maybe it’s not my place to say.

They were standing still on the edge of the pavement. The blocks around them were dark, not even the windows lit. A moment passed. Just then, your great-grandfather did a strange thing. They had just emerged from behind a block of buildings to the clear road, where, caught between a narrow gap in the pavement they caught sight of the clear, grey sky. Your great-grandfather raised an arm, pointing up. Your grandfather followed the line of the arm to the tip of the finger and found himself looking at the waning moon high above the clouds.


Woman reaching for the moon with outstretched arms


“Do you see it up there?” Your great-grandfather spoke in a soft voice he reserved for his sons after he came home, a voice with no harshness nor gravel yet the same that made his three boys straighten their backs every time he spoke. Your great-grandfather worked almost all day and night. He was not only a teacher, you know. He published his own exercise books for use in the local schools: math, science, reading comprehension. He wrote many of them himself. There are sentences he wrote that are being recited by kids your age in classrooms to this very day. Sometimes, I think I’ve settled on an idea of what he might have sounded like. Sometimes I find myself wondering if the grain of the photographs I have are too obscured even to know for sure what he looked like. Your grandfather didn’t like to talk about these things. This story is one of the only ones I know.


Do you want to know what your great-grandfather said, pointing up at the moon that night in the cold? He said: “I want you to do something very important. It will be difficult, but you will learn something from it, something I cannot teach you by telling you. It involves the moon, this moon. When I start running, I want you to keep your eyes on it, because you’ll notice something that may seem strange. You will find that no matter where I run, or how long, or how far, you will not see this moon move an inch in the sky.”


Man Pointing at the moon

Your great-grandfather laughed, looking over his shoulder at your grandfather’s cautious suspicion. A suspicion so cautious that for a moment, your grandfather had forgotten about the pain in his stomach. Your great-grandfather said: “Do you know why this is? When you think of big things, you think of buildings, you think of seas and mountains. But the moon is far bigger, bigger than anything you could ever imagine, big enough to fit every person and country in the world snugly on it with entire cities of room to spare. You see, when you consider the moon’s largeness in the sky you are thinking not about the scale of our world, but of the universe, of celestial bodies so large and so far away that no matter where I move on this little planet, it will make no difference to what you can see in the sky. What is one mile, or ten miles, or even a hundred miles that I could run in comparison to a million? To a hundred million?”

Your grandfather felt him nudge his cheek with his own, comfortingly, fixed, still, on the white disc high above them. “Do you believe me?”

Your grandfather shook his head.

His father nodded, knowingly. “You don’t believe blindly. That is a good trait, in a young boy. You must always ask questions, you must always obtain proof. I’ll give you proof. I’ll do you better, I’ll give you a bet. I’ll bet you that the moon will not leave its place in the sky. Keep your eyes on it. I’m going to run now.”

Your great-grandfather started off, the hard soles of his leather shoes echoing loudly on the concrete. Your grandfather hung tight off his neck, shielding his face from the cold, all the while he did his best to keep his eyes fixed above, on the moon high above the crooked rooftops. He watched, even as road signs and apartment buildings, even the dark blue hills off in the distance spun away as your great-grandfather ran. The sky that spun slowly in a circle, anchored by the moon above like the golden tip of a celestial top. Your grandfather wondered, entertaining for a brief, cautious moment the idea that what his father had said was true. It seemed to be. The idea made him feel small, looking up at it, unable to imagine exactly how enormous and far away a certain something had to be before one could make the world revolve around it like an axis. It made him dizzy. It held, then, that the moon was farther away than Busan, further away than the sea, than China, America. He didn’t know a farther place than America. He turned this over in his head, watching with wonder the soft blue light of the moon until suddenly, the awning roof of the hospital building blocked it swiftly from his sight. Your grandfather heard voices all around him and blinked, blinded by hard fluorescent light streaming in from above them.

“It’s past curfew. You should have called an ambulance.”

“I know,” he heard your great-grandfather say, “I panicked.”

“What is his temperature? Did you take his temperature?”

“When did you notice his symptoms?”

“Appa,” your grandfather said, catching their attention. He was lowered to the ground. “How does the moon get up into the sky if it does not move?”

A nurse pressed her latex fingers over his throat, rubbing his skin with her fingers in small circles. Your great-grandfather stepped out of the way; his hair hung in strands about his face. His glasses were fogged. His shoulders heaved; he took great, gasping breaths.

“And why does it change shape?” your grandfather asked, excitedly, when they wheeled a chair into the lobby. Your great-grandfather lifted him up by the armpits, placing him delicately into the seat. “Are there different moons that come up one by one into the sky? Is that why they are different shapes?”

“I can’t get a look down his throat,” the attending nurse complained. “Shut him up.”

Your great-grandfather bowed his head, straightened his glasses and knelt in front of the chair.

“What did you see?” he asked your grandfather.

“It didn’t move,” your grandfather said, excitedly. “Not one inch, just like you said.”

His ears and fingertips stung as feeling returned and blood flowed in the new warmth. Your great-grandfather smiled. “Then I’ve won our bet, haven’t I? You owe me, but since we didn’t wager any money, why don’t you save your questions until tomorrow? You can repay me that way.”

It was not the answer your grandfather wanted, but grudgingly, he nodded. His stomach still pounded: the fist in his gut had loosened but not all the way. A nurse approached with a tongue depressor, which he accepted, opening his mouth wide with his tongue out. He was wheeled down the hall through a pair of doors. He looked over his shoulder behind him and saw your great-grandfather with sweat stains bloomed under his arms and around his collar. They exchanged a look, just for a moment: it was all that was allowed before the double doors shut soundly on his face.

man running in a hoodie

Your grandfather was only twelve when your great-grandfather died, seven years later. Your great-grandfather was working in his office that night when his heart stopped. Nobody found him until the next morning. Your grandfather did not see him or his mother for two days and two nights afterwards: with no money for food, she had taken his place filling orders for the exercise books, running the office while at the same time making arrangements for the funeral. Your grandfather stayed home with his brothers, and when family or friends arrived at their door to pay their respects, he saw them inside and accepted their gifts kneeling on the floor with his back straight. You may not imagine what that must feel like. You are too young. Though I wish I could tell you I began to understand him better as I grew older, I don’t know that I ever did. You would have made him very proud in many ways, but none more than how well you can speak Korean. It comes so naturally to you, so much better than for me. And I believe, in some way, it is because you wanted deeply to learn it. You have sense that I did not have. I was interested in other things, things that I judged were more important than learning a language nobody around me spoke, none of my friends, not even your mother. That is, nobody but him.


There is a memory that he has never told me, rather a vision that I think to have happened. A memory in which your grandfather watches your great-grandmother’s calloused hands preparing dinner in time for his eldest brother to return from his after-school studies. A memory in which your grandfather can no longer take the silence, no longer look at her face waiting for explanations, and rises from his place in the corner of the room, locks himself in the bathroom outside. The only place—when he stands on the toilet back and looks out through the mailbox window—he can see the night sky above the canopy rooftops. In which curfew is falling, and he can hear the streets bustling with people returning home, steam rising from restaurants and bars as they begin to close shop.


It is a memory in which your grandfather remembers that familiar, icy air constricting around his chest, staring up at the dull white curve of the moon high above him. In which he had learned his father had in fact run almost three miles straight that night while carrying him on his back. In which your grandfather bites back tears, knowing his brothers would pummel him were they ever to catch him crying. He keeps his eyes on the unmoving moon, round instead of pointed like it was that night years ago, sure, but fixed all the same, in its space between the clouds. A memory in which your grandfather thinks about the vault of the spinning sky—him clinging to its edge—and wonders how he might grip its surface and pull it backward, stupidly, illogically, rippling time-fabric around that ivory axis until the cold had dripped away and he was again laughing, again resting his chin on his father’s knee the way he had done in the summer afternoons. The way he had known before the shift of the tilting planet had lurched forward and thrown them all, soundly, into matter-less space. Was it of any comfort to me, having imagined him this way, without proof? Did I think this was something he wanted me to know? Son, your guess is as good as mine. There are never quite enough stories to fill the gaps, are there?

Rumpus original art by Liam Golden

Jinwoo Chong is the author of the novel Flux, coming March 21, 2023 from Melville House. His work has appeared in The Southern Review, Chicago Quarterly Review, The Florida Review, CRAFT, and Salamander. He lives in New York. More from this author →