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  • Butterfly Sleep
  • Kim Kyung Ju (bio)
    Translated by Jake Levine (bio)


This story takes place in the early period of the Joseon dynasty, in the summer, during the time when the fortress, the walls, and the four main gates of old Seoul were under construction. The chief carpenter was commissioned by the king for the project. During this period, although the kingdom was afflicted with drought and famine, a requisition was issued to the subjects of all the lands to provide labor. Unable to return to their homes, without lodging, workers were forced to work by day and sleep outdoors in the open at night. The fortress was divided into stone structures and earthen ramparts. The construction area measured 59,500 cheok (about 18 kilometers). As was promised in the terms of the requisition, some of the workers were sent back home after the first round of construction was completed. Around this time horrific rumors and infectious diseases circulated inside the fortress. Unable to endure the extremity of the labor, increasing numbers of workers fled through the fortress gate.


Unable to tell

whether it is day or night

it is as if the characters suffer from sleeplessness. [End Page 67]

As if moving within a time and space that cannot be distinguished, they're as hazy as clouds drifting on a white night.


Chief carpenterMusicianHigh priestBuddhist monkDalaeOld womanWatchtower soldiers 1 and 2Boy soldiers 1 and 2AstronomerCommanderSilhouettes4 VillagersSoldiers, bandits, workersMother's spiritSpirit of the soilChief banditBlind astronomerYoung kingOld subject [End Page 68]


White night.It is hazy.

In the wind, a bird with a black shadowperches at the end of a branchand vomits sand from its beak.

Sand flows out and piles on the ground.

When it darkens

in the stillnessa flame in a small lanterngradually grows bright.

All is quiet.

Act 1: Scene 3. Rooftop

Around midnight the gates openand the porters that carry timber on wood frames strapped to their backscarry out the corpses of children who died of the plague.Digging pits,shoveling portersbury the children.Occasionally glancing back,they run back inside the fortress. [End Page 69] Outside the fortress. A forest.Daybreak. In the East Gate of the fortress.On the rooftop.

The sound of a cow mooing.Slumbering houses.On a rooftop, sleeping in swaddling clothesthe baby being cradled by a man.Gently, he places the baby on the floorand runs away.

In the opposite direction from the running man,standing on the roof,a jester wearing a mask appears.He comes over, takes the baby in his armsand gently rocks.Wrapped in swaddling clothes,the baby smiles peacefully.

The jester paces back and forth on the roofas if to soothe the baby.

While cradling the baby,as if his movements were a lullaby,as if he was mumbling with the moon in his mouth,the jester dances as if to coax the baby.He stops swaying andfor a brief moment he lifts his headto stare at the moon.

Shining blue in the darkness, the maskpaces back and forth on the roof.

Across from the jester, [End Page 70] dozing in and out of sleep,two young soldier brothersthat guard the watchtowerare hiding from the rainunderneath a straw sack.

They scan the distance for a momentand lower their heads again.

Older soldier:

You sleeping?

Younger soldier:

I'm sleepy.

Older soldier:

You're not allowed to sleep.

Younger soldier:

I won't.

Older soldier:

It's hot.

Younger soldier:

It is hot.

Look, people are staring at the sky with their mouths open.

Older soldier:

They say that they are secretly throwing dead children away.

Younger soldier:

I'm scared. Will they throw us out, too?

Older soldier:

Come on. We're not children. We have weapons and we guard the fortress.

Younger soldier:

Yeah, that's right. We're soldiers.

Older soldier:

But, you never know.

Younger soldier:

What do you mean?

Older soldier:

If we get sick or die, who knows? The grownups...