Blue Crab Grave

Kwon Ji-ye
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé

Korean Literature: Translations by Brother Anthony Published in Koreana: Korean Art & Culture (The Korea Foundation) Vol. 26, No.1 Spring 2012 pages 86 - 98

The shadow cast on the ivory-hued vertical blinds by a branch of the magnolia tree outside the window is swaying in the wind. Whenever the wind rises slightly, the shadow comes closer, a darker shade of black. When the wind eases briefly, the shadow of the magnolia tree grows fainter as the branch returns to its original place. He stares in fascination at the patterns produced by the interplay of the bright, delicate April sunlight and the spring breeze. On closer observation, he has the impression that he can even detect the shadings of individual petals of each magnolia blossom as they smile upward, like a painting in light ink wash.
    He has been checking the proofs of a translated book, holding a red pen, but now his eyelids slowly droop. Sleep overtakes him gently, like cool waves. The red pen falls from his grasp. The computer screen, still on, has turned to screen-saver mode. On the transformed screen, bubbles emerging from the mouths of fish swimming in a blue sea are bursting, plop, plop. From somewhere downstairs, almost inaudible, comes a steady drone of Buddhist chanting.
    On the page of the proofs that has fallen to the floor are several traces of the red pen:

The Fiddler Crab
One of the most favorable environments for a romantically inclined young male to meet a young lady of like mind is on the sunny sands of a beach. That’s exactly where the male fiddler crab hangs out, with not much more on his mind than meeting females. He evinces his desire by brandishing a large brilliantly colored claw in the air. In fact, except for brief interruptions for feeding and mating, most of his day is spent in waving his claw… *
Behind closed lids, his eyes are moving. He is dreaming. A seaside beach. In the sunlight the sand gleams like gold dust. The waves of the far-away, dark blue ocean surge landward showing white teeth, but near the shore the sea is shallow and transparent. The surface of the water reflecting the sunlight is quiescent, dappled, mirror-like. There is some slight movement; the tide is ebbing.
    Amid the gradually retreating tide shining little crabs emerge like an army of armored scouts. In the golden sand from which the water has withdrawn, round holes gape open like so many gun muzzles. From them out come crawling endless streams of crabs with shells transparent like a baby’s finger nails. They emerge wriggling their eight claws, two pincers. Crawling sideways, the crabs climb up past the pale, hair-covered calves revealed below his shorts, toward his thighs…  
    His face, eyes still closed, begins to twitch, as though he is being tickled or is about to sneeze. Then suddenly he opens his eyes. His eyes are open but for a moment he is lost, caught between dream and reality, wondering where he is. An itchy feeling remains in his calves. He slowly reaches down and runs a hand over the calves below his shorts. No sign of any crabs. Finally he feels he has come back to reality. He stands up and pulls on the beaded cord of the window blind. Sunlight comes pouring in like a waterfall. He wrenches the window open, then sneezes several times.
    Through the open window, as though it had been waiting, the sound of the Heart Sutra left playing by the old lady downstairs comes drifting in:

“The Maha  Prajna Paramita Hrdaya Sutra. Avalokitesvara Bodhisattva when practicing deeply the Prajna Paramita perceives that all five skandhas are empty and is saved from all suffering and distress. Shariputra…”
The old lady is crouched in the sunny little vegetable patch in front of her ground-floor home. Seen from above, her tiny, hunched figure looks like a woodlouse as she slowly sidles along, still crouching, between the pale green vegetables. The sound of the chanting is louder than usual, perhaps because the slightly deaf old lady has turned up the volume so as to hear it from her vegetable patch. But what’s this smell? Mingled with the measured flow of the chanting a smell is rising too. He sniffs the air. It’s the smell of soy sauce being boiled. He shuts the window.
    The sound of the chanting has grown fainter but the smell of soy sauce seems to have seeped in through a crack and has already infiltrated the room like a virus, lurking everywhere. He looks weak, as though suddenly infected by a virus.


Evening. He opened the wardrobe and brought out the woman’s clothes.
Because of the smell that had drifted in through his window together with the Buddhist chanting in the afternoon, he felt the symptoms of some kind of flu. He felt light-headed, had a slight fever, and was lethargic. He had sprayed air freshener but the smell of boiling soy sauce was fearfully tenacious, almost like the stench from a decaying corpse. The smell kept nagging at memories he had been trying to ignore.
    As the sun was sinking low, the old lady had come up. In a pink plastic strainer she had arranged pale green lettuce leaves so that they overlapped like flower petals.
    “Just look. Aren’t they pretty? The leaves have come up really pretty. Today I picked some for the first time. They’re tender, you should use them to wrap rice that’s cooled, not too hot. Eat them with this fresh bean paste. I prepared soy sauce today, you know. After I’d taken the soy sauce and boiled it down, I made doenjang with the remaining bean-paste cakes and put it into a crock; I’ve brought you a bit that was left over; the taste will improve with time, of course. Shall I give you some sauce too? But you won’t be needing that now…?”
    All winter long, the old lady’s house had emitted a corpse-like stench. Whenever he went down to pay the rent, he saw bricks of crushed boiled soybeans suspended here and there in the hot room. The smell was coming from those hanging meju. Then some while before, looking down from the second floor into her veranda, in the round mouth of a crock he could see pieces of black charcoal and red sun-dried peppers floating on top of the brine in which the meju had been immersed. The old lady might live alone, but she always made soy sauce when spring came around, then in late autumn she would prepare winter kimchi and store it in a crock buried in the ground.
    The lettuce leaves really were pretty. Almost too pretty to eat. In a flash, like an arrow leaving a taut bowstring with a zing, that woman came forcefully into his mind. The tension that had been nagging at him nervously ever since the soy sauce smell came wafting in abruptly burst wide open. How could he endure such pretty, tender lettuce leaves with the soy sauce smell permeating the house?
    The woman’s face is unclear. Instead, the image of her eating crab arises in his mind with a life-like reality. She is eating crab marinated in soy sauce. Holding a claw, she first brings the end where it has been ripped off to her mouth and sucks noisily. The escaping sauce drips from the tip of the claw, runs over her hand and on down toward her bare elbow. Ceasing to suck the claw, she quickly sticks out her tongue as far as she can and brings it toward her elbow. It cannot reach the elbow. She licks from near the elbow toward the wrist. At such moments her red tongue is extremely long and pointed. He always wondered how such a long, elastic tongue could hide inside her tiny mouth.
    It must have been around this time in spring last year. They were eating crabs and the old lady had come in with the first leaves of the lettuces she had sown, saying she had just picked them. The woman had exclaimed: “Why, they’re cute!” Then she stacked the little fresh green leaves on her palm.
“They’re like babies’ hands, aren’t they?”
    As she spoke, she spread some of the meat she had scooped from inside the crab onto the fresh green leaves.
    “When all’s said and done, crab’s good. Spring crabs are delicious. That’s before the spawning season begins. Actually, the male is far better than the female, with its sweet flesh and intense fragrance, its mellow taste.”
    That spring evening, as she ate the crab meat wrapped appetizingly in lettuce leaves, the mere sight of her tightly closed lips and dimpled cheeks was more than enough to make his mouth water.
    She knew a great deal about crabs. She was mad about crabs. Especially about crabs marinated in soy sauce. As a child, he several times got a rash after eating boiled crab. He really used to hate crab. Especially marinated crab, or anything like that; any raw, salty, fermented food would make him feel slightly sickened and nauseated. But once he was living with her he overcame his allergy and came to know the true fragrance of the crab’s succulent flesh. Just as he began thinking about how loving someone could bring about incomprehensible chemical changes, and even such physical transformation, she left him. But the chemical reaction was obviously irreversible. The changes in his appetite and body did not return to what they had been before. Just as you can’t turn the clock back. Sometimes, he feels his hunger for marinated crab is a way of [omit his] longing for her. There are times when he is unsure whether his longing is for her or for the taste of marinated crab. Then he would visit a crab restaurant, and sit alone, slowly biting, sucking, and picking at the crabs. It may not be as good as having her, but at least now he knows how to make short work of crabs. The shells prodded by his chopsticks and picked clean rise in piles on the table, intact, in their original form. By the time he is full after eating a double serving of rice, a vivid sense of repletion comes surging through his body, as though somehow he is full of eggs, whereas before he had felt nothing but emptiness and longing, like those empty crab shells. He starts to feel, as the poem says: Right, now I have to go on living.
    The woman left him late last autumn. Actually, it did not really surprise him. Just as meeting her had been easy, she was also a woman who could easily leave as well. He knew almost nothing about her. He had still not disposed of the clothes she left behind in the wardrobe. It was not so much a matter of still having feelings for her; rather it was because he wanted to give them back to her if she ever returned. There in the wardrobe were a really pricey leather jacket he had bought her and a woolen coat purchased in advance for the winter during a sales event. Just as she had come to his home practically empty-handed, so too she left those things behind when leaving. The few summer dresses hanging in the wardrobe were one thing, but last winter has been particularly cold and she had left those things hanging as though she intended to walk bare-bodied like a slug through the cold winds. She seemed to have taken the key to his home with her. Perhaps it was because of the key that he thought she might come back one day. But he rather wished she would come in briefly while he was not home and just take away her clothes in the wardrobe.
    Her clothes hang silently in the wardrobe. Those garments, which her body had filled so completely then escaped from, and left hanging like shells, look as intact as the shells of the crabs she would set aside after cleaning out the meat. Like the hard shells of crabs, uncrushed, impervious to rot, almost as though stubbornly hanging on to, perhaps forever, the memory of the body once contained therein. He runs his fingers over the black leather jacket that she had worn all autumn. It looks as though her body was still inside the jacket. The softly curved waistline, and the rounded sleeves, slightly bent forward as though her arms were inside, with creases on the lining creating small ridges. He undoes the jacket’s buttons and takes a sniff. It still seems to retain faintly the scent of her flesh. In actual fact, her scent must have vanished by now. It must have slowly dissipated. Instead, what he detects is the insidious smell of soy sauce.


In the year or more that she lived with him, they had several times prepared marinated crabs as home. It was an extremely expensive dish, not something they could regularly afford. They used to drive to Sorae harbor in Incheon, or down the newly opened west coast highway to a harbor on the Yellow Sea coast to buy blue crabs.
    It was she who decided what day they went:
    “Crab meat is thin at full moon and plump at the end of the month, they say.”
    She drew red circles around the last days of the lunar months on the calendar. Sometimes they would view the crabs that had been caught laid out on the decks of the boats in the harbor, but sometimes, when they were lucky, they would go out on a boat catching crabs. They used to haggle with the fishermen on boats teeming with crabs when the net was pulled up. As they sped back, with a big plastic bucket holding the fresh crabs on the rear seat, she would look immensely happy. She kept kissing him on the cheek as he drove. At such moments his body and heart would grow restless, his hands on the wheel would lose strength. One evening he could not endure it and turned off the expressway, taking her in his arms at the side of a dark highway. In the pitch dark, moonless night the crabs also rattled about noisily in the plastic bucket, turning it into a drum.
    Washing the crabs clean, then snipping off the tips of the live crabs’ claws so that the soy sauce could penetrate properly; this was his job. She loved eating crab but she was quite terrified of live crabs. Eager to see her in a frightened state, he would sometimes deliberately set free the crabs after trimming their claws. Crabs with the tips of their claws cut off scuttle about more franticly. Fortunately, crabs do not bleed, but depending on how you think, the headlong approach of claw-trimmed crabs can be even more terrifying. She would scream and run outside, while he stared down for a while at the crabs as they sidled along somewhere, filling the kitchen floor with a sense of panic, and seeing them as just one example of life’s blindness. Then very slowly, as fear subsided, his mouth would fill with a bitter taste of grief.
    What comes next is her job. Once he has neatly laid the crabs in a glazed pot, belly-side up, she pours in the old-fashioned soy sauce obtained from the old lady. The crabs marinate in the covered pot for twelve hours. After the soy sauce is poured off, proper quantities of soju, hot pepper, spring onion, garlic, jujubes, ginger, kelp, and grain syrup are added and then boiled, allowed to cool, and strained. Then the original soy sauce is poured back over the crabs in the pot. After a few days’ maturation, the sauce is again boiled, once or twice.
    With each boiling, the smell of the soy sauce takes on a slightly different character. The smell and flavor becomes more concentrated, taking on more and more of the fishy smell of crab meat with the juices leaching from the crabs growing thicker. Whenever they re-boiled the sauce, the old lady from downstairs would come up and let them know, “There’s an old saying that crabs in soy sauce are enough to make anyone’s mouth water,” while smacking her pursed lips. Since the soy sauce they used had been generously provided by the old lady, the woman would offer her a good half of the crabs. Perhaps because she had no teeth, the old lady would eat these crabs mixed with rice, then after sucking the claws for some time, she would call out, “Pussy, come here,” and offer them to her cat.
    After he brought the woman into the house, the old lady at times would poke him in the ribs and say: “You’ve made good use of my soy sauce. It may not be my place to say this, but don’t grow too fond of her. That woman’s face may be pretty but it’s an unlucky face. Her complexion is too pale and clear, her dark eyes have far too strong a yellow gleam in them. Her jaw is too shallow, her earlobes are thin, her eyelids are far too thin. There’s nowhere for good fortune to lodge. Her face is no good.”
    After the woman left him, the old lady could not resist vilifying her.
    “Forget her. She was a man-eater. There used to be a woman who looked just like her; she would gobble up every man she met. In the end she threw herself into the sea. One full-moon night her plum-red velvet skirt rose to the surface and drifted on the sea for several days, it seems. But they never found her body.”
Once when they had made marinated crabs, the woman disdained all other side dishes and simply ate one crab with some rice. The smell of the crabs would permeate the narrow space. It was not only in the air; the pungent, fishy, sweetish taste and smell of marinated crab soaked into her mouth and hands. Late at night, the smell seemed to emerge from deep inside her.
    One night, he was awoken by an odd noise and upon opening his eyes he found her sitting beside the bed digging away at a crab. She was sitting on the floor, stark naked just as she had been before he fell asleep, extracting the meat from the claws with chopsticks. He observed her profile as she quietly picked at the crab. She looked like someone engaged in an extremely delicate task. Holding the claw close to her eyes, she scratched off the meat with considerable care. With each movement of her chopsticks, the ribs buried within the thin skin of her lean body briefly showed their outlines. Depending on how you looked, she seemed to be removing ancient earth filling a fine bone excavated from an old tomb, or cleaning a long-stemmed pipe. When she dug out meat from the gnarled joints, she took even greater care, as if removing earwax from the ear of a loved one. When the meat was half exposed, she would use her lips to suck it out.
    The sight of her eating a crab in the middle of the night is weird, grotesque even, but at the same time quite erotic as well. At that moment her entire being is absorbed completely in every move of her own. That moment strikes him with an utter sense of loneliness. Her partner may be nothing but an insignificant crab’s claw, yet he briefly feels an incomprehensible mournful envy. He finds himself thinking that all the sexual interaction they had been engaged in a little while ago, locked in a tight embrace, biting, sucking, was nothing but one huge lie.
    “I couldn’t sleep. I was feeling empty somehow…”
    When finally aware of his fixed stare, she laughs as she offers an excuse. Empty… His heart sinks; before he fell asleep, he had filled her and then fell asleep with a sense of fulfillment. He cannot help sensing the hollowness, the emptiness of this woman who not even sex can satisfy, and he begins to feel woozy. At times like this he becomes aware of the dry skin of this sylphlike woman. Like the shells of crustaceans, like the hollow walls of bamboo. What can there be inside her, in the part that he cannot touch, enclosed as it is in a hard shell? If he had ever loved her, would that have entailed a pitiful curiosity, indicating a desire to touch what lay behind that impenetrable barrier?
    He removed all her clothes from the wardrobe and laid them neatly in a box. But he had no idea what he was going to do with the box. Remembering her shoes in the shoe cabinet, he took them out, too. As he put down the pigeon-gray shoes, which were alive with a vivid sense of the shape, look, and even wrinkles on the skin of her feet, as though she had just now taken them off, he briefly wondered if her soul was somehow imprisoned within the shoes. After turning them upside down and shaking off the dust, he placed them in a plastic bag and laid them in the box. After hesitating about whether to tape up the box, he simply pushed it under the bed.
    After that, he returns to the proofs he had been working on during the day. He has to get them to the publisher by tomorrow.
     The female is smaller, with symmetrical claws, and colored drab brownish-gray, while the male has asymmetrical claws (the one he waves is much larger than the other) and overall coloring of several vivid hues. Upon awakening in the morning and when frightened, the male adopts the same flat hues as the female. When the sun is up, the tide is out, and the beach is dry, the male rapidly changes to a beautiful medley of dazzling colors.
These colors announce that the crab is in the mood for romance. When an attentive female responds to his invitation, the sex hormones in his bloodstream cause his colors to become even more spectacular. The drab little females find these undulating, multi-hued pincers irresistible. When the females show up, the males explode in a frenzy of claw-waving and frenetic dancing…
The objective of this terpsichorean display, to no one’s surprise, is to rouse the female’s sexual desire to the mating pitch. When the two reach this point, they sensuously stroke each other’s legs. Then the male heads for his beach house, which is a hole in the sand. The female follows him down this hole. A moment later, the male appears at the entrance with a gob of mud in his claw which he uses to plug up the opening.
At last, they’re alone. *

    Before correcting the spelling of the words for “female” and “male” crabs in the translation, he again refers to the dictionary. The translation has the male crab using a magnificent “toenail” to seduce the female ― do crabs have toenails? Should it not be “claw”? He wonders, but since he does not have the original text he gives up trying to check. The translation feels too loose, but all he has to do is proofread the text that the publishers received from an outside agency. Still, the action of the male fiddler crab in blocking the opening into its home while mating, and the final sentence, “At last, they’re alone,” leave a deep impression in his mind.


On the broad tidal flats, clusters of purple-hued glasswort stretch endlessly, forming a vast velvet skirt. The sky is the same color as the glasswort. The sun has already dropped into the sea. The sea is sparkling wanly, the color of a silvery hairtail fish. The setting sun, which had been ablaze with a searing blood-red, is now poised [omit set] on the edge of the horizon, gradually fading from dark red to a purplish hue.
    The woman gazes out to sea, while eating a blue crab. The steamed, rose-colored crab is beautiful. She is submerged in a huge pile of crabs, almost like a bouquet of roses. At the sight of her in that shiny leather jacket eating red crabs, he feels really delighted.
    “But… where were you?”
    She says nothing.
    She is completely absorbed in eating the crab.
    “And how did you find that jacket? I couldn’t go on waiting forever; I’d taken it out of the wardrobe…”
    “Under the bed. You’d put it in a box.”
    “I was so very, very…cold.”
    Her thin lips are blue.
    “You’re as fond of crabs as ever. Piling them up like that, it’s like a prehistoric shell mound.”
    “You’re right. It’s a blue crab grave.”
    Her lips sketch a faint smile. The pile of crabs is up to her neck. On closer view, all the shells are empty inside, scraped completely clean. He lifts his head after looking inside the empty crab shells. There is no sign of the woman who had just been sitting there eating blue crabs; she has vanished. The blue crab grave is empty.
    He dashes out madly, rushing toward the sea. He hurls himself headlong into the black mud of the tidal flats but there is no sign of the woman. The sky has already turned a dark purple. Suddenly his toe strikes something. He kneels down and seizes it. It is one of her pigeon-gray shoes. The shoe, which reproduces the exact shape of her foot like a mold, is still warm. Has she neatly removed her shoes and gone into the sea? Turning toward the sea, he calls her name in a plaintive voice.
    But his heart is weighed down heavily as if by a boulder. Breath comes wheezing out but the voice squeezed from his throat produces no sound, as though it has been absorbed by the darkness like a sponge.
    He shudders and wakes from his dream, his face covered with cold sweat. It is morning. He woke as he was anxiously calling her name in his nightmare. He shivers as if he had a chill. He often has dreams, but did this one come because he had been thinking so deeply about her as he was falling asleep the previous night? The day had been really strange. Perhaps it was only natural for him to have dreamed of her. It was a day when various hidden allusions had appeared, like hidden pictures in a puzzle. Perhaps they had provided the raw material for his dream: the smell of soy sauce boiling, the baby lettuce leaves, her black leather jacket, and her pigeon-gray shoes…
    He pulls the box out from under the bed and has a rather odd feeling. Why? The black leather jacket that he thought he had placed at the very bottom was now at the top, while the shoes that he thought he had put in a plastic bag are lying unwrapped on top of the jacket with no sign of the bag. It’s as if she had taken them out, worn them briefly in his dream, then replaced them in the box before leaving. His head suddenly seems to be filled with a haze. Could he have taken them out during the night? It’s so confusing. On account of the proofs that he had to return to the publisher, he had stayed up working frantically almost all night. He shakes his muddled head, closes the box, and puts it back under the bed.
    Later that morning he barely managed to deliver the proofs to the publisher. His sleep-deprived body felt heavy, like sodden laundry, yet his dream remained so clearly in his mind as if it had really happened.
    Perhaps the dream had been an MRI image of his deep unconscious? Might the dream have revealed what had been hidden in his unconscious all this time? Ever since the woman left the house, has he not had a foreboding of her death? Something like the smell of primordial death had hovered round her. To her, completely empty as she was, death was as ethereal as the air inside a bamboo stalk; succulent like the fragrant meat inside a crab, it had lurked dormant inside her. He had seen it in her eyes the very first day they met. If she had followed him in such a passive manner, it might well have been because he had found that out about her.


That afternoon, he loaded the box of her clothes into his car and set off for Ganghwa Island. Provided that the boat departs at the right time, he should be in time for sunset, like in the dream. Lunchtime had passed but images from the dream had still not faded from his mind. Like the previous day, the spring sunlight was bright and cheerful.
The images of the pigeon-gray shoes left behind in the fading twilight and the mounds of blue crab shells kept appearing everywhere, illuminated by the bright spring sunshine. Above the magnolia blossoms, among the plants in the old woman’s vegetable patch, in the sea-scene screen-saver of his computer, on the white walls of his room as he stared blankly at them. A blue crab grave… He rolls around in his mouth the words spoken by the woman in his dream. Right. A blue crab grave, indeed… and her faint smile on the verge of vanishing… The place in the dream was Seokmo Island, where he had first met the woman two years ago.
    In the autumn of the year before last, he had visited Seokmo Island to take pictures of the glasswort fields. Glasswort is a wild plant that thrives on the tidal flats along the Yellow Sea coast. Among land plants, it is unique for flourishing along the seashore despite its high salt content. Glasswort grows in salt pans and tidal flats by absorbing sea water; when chewed, it yields a savory juice. As a small company that was planning to use glasswort to produce a line of diet foods had commissioned him to take photos for their web page and publicity materials, he made his way there.
    In autumn, glasswort with leaves like purple flowers can be seen in vast plains along the expressway to the international airport on Yeongjong Island. But in addition to taking the glasswort photos, he felt a longing to quietly watch the sun setting. The sunset seen from Seokmo Island was supposed to be gorgeous, yet he had never once gone there. Besides, if time allowed, he wanted to visit Bomunsa temple, too.
    Arriving on Seokmo Island after a quick, barely ten-minute trip on the ferry from Oepori on Ganghwa Island, he drove to where the glasswort formed a purple carpet over the mudflats that had once been salt farms. The magnificent expanse of mud covered with glasswort and what looked like a variety of sea blite was indeed well worth the journey. Having found a suitable spot, he had taken several shots when a woman’s form flashed across his viewfinder a couple of times. Since she was wearing a purple duffel coat and blue jeans, she did not stand out against the glasswort fields. Using the zoom, he could see that she was nibbling on some glasswort leaves that she had picked. When a flock of mallards went shooting skyward like shrapnel from an explosion, the woman shaded her eyes with a hand and gazed steadily up at the sky. She looked so natural that he furtively clicked the shutter several times.
    After he had finished taking the glasswort photos, he stopped off at a café with large windows facing the sea, obviously built for viewing the sunset. Looking out through the westward window that was directly lit by the sun, he drank a cup of hot coffee, then immediately felt like having a beer. The color of the sky made him want to get a little drunk. Just as he was finishing a bottle of Capri, the sun, looking like a ripe persimmon, grew ever more flushed and began to cast rays in variegated colors toward the horizon. Perhaps because he kept staring so intently at the setting sun, it seemed to stand still, a span’s breadth above the horizon.
    Feeling a bit bored, he took out his digital camera and viewed the photos he had taken. Then, wanting to smoke a cigarette, he reached into his pocket. But he could not find his lighter. He must have dropped it somewhere on the mudflats. With that came the realization that he had left his tripod out there, too. Satisfied that he had gotten some attractive shots, he had put away his camera and left his tripod standing while he smoked a cigarette. His memory stopped there. He suffers from this kind of chronic forgetfulness. The lighter did not matter, but he had to retrieve the tripod.
    He would have to return there while there was still an afterglow, before darkness fell after sunset. He drove back to the mudflats; luckily, the tripod was still standing there. But he had nearly lost it to the sea as it had started to surge relentlessly. He gave himself a smart rap on the head, and picked it up. But as he was walking across the flats back to his car, his eyes glimpsed a small object glistening in the twilight.
    In the final glimmer of sunset, summoning all its strength, it glistened again, a final spark. Drawing closer, he saw it was his lost lighter. To think that such an insignificant thing could gleam like a jewel in the black mud of the tidal flats. But just as he was about to seize it, he had an even bigger surprise. A pair of women’s pigeon-gray shoes had been neatly placed alongside it. Beside the shoes were scattered three cigarette butts. The owner of the shoes seemed to have used his lighter, smoked three cigarettes, and then vanished.
    Seized with an odd premonition, he scanned the incoming sea. The setting sun was by now half hidden by the horizon. The sky was taking on a deep purple hue. Yet, inexplicably, in that languid purple light, the woman wearing a purple duffel coat suddenly came into sight. It was the woman who had briefly flashed into his viewfinder. He raced toward her. She seemed to be sliding naturally into the sea as if she was part of the purple atmosphere. With eyes closed, she was welcoming the incoming sea. Just as the sea had reached her chest, he ran up to her, seized her shoulder and pulled her arm. Unexpectedly, she came along lightly. She offered no resistance as he pulled her to the edge of the tidal flats. She sank limply to the ground and he did not know what to do. Covered in mud, soaked with seawater, the woman looked exhausted. After staring out at the sea without a word she buried her head in her knees. She might have been weeping, her whole body was trembling. He looked at her hands on her knees. A few traces of summertime balsam-flower dye remained at the very tips of her nails. He absent-mindedly pulled out his cigarettes. Just then on the horizon, the sun plunged into the sea and the far ends of the sea took on the color of the balsam dye on the woman’s fingernails. In the brief moment it took for him to light a cigarette with the lighter, draw on it and exhale, the sun had completely disappeared.

Later that day he ate crab with the woman. Having missed the last ferry back to Oepori, they had to stay the night at a guesthouse and restaurant combination. Once she had washed herself and roughly dried out her clothes, he asked what she wanted for dinner. He had asked without expecting her to reply, but she answered. Ever since she had emerged from the sea she had seemed to be in a half-conscious state, keeping her lips tightly shut; but she replied clearly that she wanted to eat crab. To which the landlady said she had some good crabs and recommended the crab soup.
    He remembered he was allergic to crab but simply ordered the crab soup. He had never eaten crab since his childhood days, a long time ago, but on seeing the fresh blue crabs turning red as they cooked in the table-top pan he thought that he would try some. At the sight of the crabs cooking, the woman’s expression seemed to slowly brighten. Once the soup was ready, she showed a fierce appetite. Actually, crab is a dish that men and women ought not to eat together. After all, aren’t women an instinctively coy species who seek to conceal from men their appetites, for food as much as for sex?
    Yet despite their having met for the first time that day, the woman displayed a seemingly insatiable appetite, utterly incomprehensible insofar as she had just revealed her personal weakness. While he mainly ate the soup, the woman devoured the crab meat. Slurp, slurp… the sounds she made sucking her fingers and the crab legs, the sound as she scraped out the guts and meat from the shells, embarrassed him such that he could not look directly at her. Inwardly, he was laughing. To think that only a short while ago this woman had thrown herself into the sea, intent on drowning herself… Once she had doggedly extracted with her chopsticks the last shreds of meat, she eyed the pile of crab legs and shells which he had put down on the table after cursorily digging out the meat, but finding it too troublesome. She seemed to hesitate, then laughed lightly. He saw her laughing for the first time. It was a very shy laugh, yet it produced a disarmingly intense emotion in him.
    “Hey… what about those?”
    Only then did he understand her laugh. As soon as he nodded, she took possession of the various crab legs and scraps of shell he had left half-eaten. Then, unhurried, she set about digging out and eating the remaining meat. Yet, oddly, he did not feel upset. This woman’s a pig with crabs. She’s really odd, the way she goes so crazy over crabs. No such thought came to him. The way she ate crabs was actually neat and graceful. She aroused a very special feeling within him. Watching her carefully sucking and licking things that a short time before he had put in his mouth, sucked, then discarded, made him feel really strange, almost as though he was being caressed. It might be an absurd illusion, but he began to feel as though he was loved. Ever since he and his wife had divorced three years earlier, he had given up all thought of ever being loved by anyone. He imagined himself turning into a huge blue crab in front of the woman.


He headed for the glasswort fields he had visited in the autumn the year before last. The area, which had been a purple splendor then, was now green as a spring meadow. Glasswort is green in spring and summer; it only takes on its purple color in autumn. He did not get out of the car but sat looking at the scene, smoking a couple of cigarettes, then headed for the nearby guesthouse where they had stayed. In the meantime, the proprietor had gained weight; she did not recognize him. After ordering crab soup, he drank soju as he gazed out at the spring sea through the window. The owner, seeming to feel he ought not to be drinking alone, comes over to clink glasses with him. He asks:
    “Have there been any reports of people disappearing in the sea around here?”
    The woman frowns, then slaps her knee.
    “Come to think of it, last winter a young couple that looked like lovers left their shoes side-by-side, walked out and never came back. Was it a disappearance or a suicide? People reckoned it was a double suicide. It seems they never found the bodies. I can’t tell you how dangerous the sea here is, with the tide coming in so fast. Before that we’ve had accidents from time to time. From long since, occasionally, people out gathering clams have sat down, nodded off, and been swept away in a flash.”
    He raises the glass to his lips and puts it down again without a word.
    Once, the television had shown a memorial ceremony for people who had drowned at sea being held on the deck of a ship, with people throwing chrysanthemums into the sea. The woman had been watching with him and she said:
    “Those people’s bodies will have broken up and vanished by now, surely? Do you think someone who dies like that feels sad?”
    “Once people are dead, what do they know? Even if they become food for the fishes and their flesh gets eaten up, the dead can’t feel anything, can they? It’s the living who feel sad. I reckon a grave’s not a resting place for the dead, but for the living. If we’re talking about which is more gruesome, rotting inside a grave is more unbearable than being thrown into the sea. Just think of flesh buried in the ground slowly decaying for decades. The fluid seeping from a corpse makes maggots grow, fattens tree roots…”
    “But just think. What happens to the souls of crabs or fish that eat the flesh of dead people?”
    “Who knows…?”
    “Did you ever bury someone at sea?”
    He suddenly noticed tears coming beneath her eyes.
    They had been living together for a year, yet he knew almost nothing about her. Nothing about why she had gone running into the sea, the first day they met. Or about why she craved crab meat so intensely. He felt it would be wrong to ask about such things. He could only guess: she had an empty grave inside herself.


When he first brought her back home and they began to live together, his idea had been a simple one. Certainly, he felt sorry for a woman who had nowhere to go, but the woman had entered his house meekly. She prepared meals and did housework quietly. Besides, she had not once refused to have sex with him. He came to think she was a woman worth having beside him. But he felt that he did not want to keep her simply as a sexual partner.
    When he divorced the wife whom he had loved madly, married and lived with for several years, all he had left was a rented home near Seoul and a loathing of women. This woman did not nag him like his former wife, did not compare his pay with what others earned, did not whine that he no longer loved her. She was selflessness itself. Indeed, apart from her obsession with crabs, she was by and large as quiet as a monotone still-life painting. She spoke little and if their eyes met, she would sketch a faint smile.
    However, as time went by he began to fret. He could feel himself gradually falling in love with her. It was his fault if the woman, who seemed unwilling to give her heart, got hurt. He had not wanted love to begin with, but once love sprouted and steadily grew, it scratched him. Even though he dominated and possessed her flesh completely, he felt that a portion of her soul, like a breath of wind, was never within his grasp. Although he bought clothes for her, let her eat whatever she liked, and gave her his heart unstintingly, he grew increasingly empty, all the time feeling that something was escaping from his grasp. If people say love is a kind of calamity, it may be on account of obsession.
    She warned him several times:
    “Don’t get too hung up on me; I might leave one day.”
    When she did leave, it was a calamity caused by his own obsession. One day he secretly rummaged through the backpack that was her only luggage and discovered a man’s photo. He was suddenly ablaze with hatred. That evening they had crab for supper; he finished eating first and as he lit a cigarette he gazed at the woman who went on and on sucking the crabs. He began to detest this woman with her craving for crabs. He approached the table and suddenly pulled out the photo. The woman, who was sucking a claw, stiffened, lifting her head in surprise and looking up at him. Her expression was a look of fear and resignation. But only for a moment, then she casually went back to picking at the crab. At that moment, the thought came to him that her casual attitude was unbearably maddening, while his hand smacked against her cheek. The claw she was holding fell to the floor. Her hair fell forward so that he could not see her expression, but he did see three large teardrops fall onto the table that was littered with crab shells.
    For a moment, he gazed in amazement at his hand that had inflicted such violence. He held her head in his arms, stroking it gently, and apologized profusely. That night in bed, just as he was about to climax, he asked again about the man in the photo. Immediately, the woman’s mouth clamped shut and she glowered at him. When he asked, “Someone you love?” her eyes began to fill with tears.
    Why did he do what came next? Regret always comes too late. His hands shot out and grabbing the woman’s slender neck he began to strangle her. His body was trembling with a desperate urge to take her body, her soul, her very life. Her slender neck within his grip felt unbearably pathetic. She gasped as she gazed up at him with utterly blank, forlorn eyes, but did not fight back. At that sight, the fight seemed to go out of him; he abruptly let go of her, and ejaculated. If she had resisted in earnest, he might have killed her on the spot. Once she closed her eyes, tears cascaded down her face. It was at dawn the following morning that she vanished.
    As he slept, he seemed to hear her faint sobbing. He seemed to hear her talking to herself. But no, it must have been a dream.
    That wide sea… Where are you? Where on earth has that fresh body of yours vanished?


Carrying the cardboard box, he went out to the sea as the sun was setting. The sunset is not as red as on the day he first met her. Rather, it is yellow like an egg-yolk. Perhaps for that reason the sky is pink. The tide is coming in. He does not know if she is dead or not. Probabilities are half and half. But he wants to think she is dead. Only then, it seems, can his heart find peace. The woman who died with her lover in the cold sea last winter might have been her, or might not have been her. But in his early morning dream, the woman had told him… she was so very, very cold.
    He opens the box and lays her pigeon-gray shoes side-by-side on the tidal flats. The shoes neatly laid on the twilit shore… he has a feeling that he is entering the scene in his dream, that moment when he first met her the autumn of the year before last. He removes from the box the black leather jacket, the woolen coat, the other garments she had left behind, and spreads them out neatly beside the shoes. It is as though just a moment before she had stripped off everything she was wearing and was hastening [omit her] naked [omit body] toward the sea.
    The sun is slowly drooping toward the horizon and the sea is gradually coming closer. He puts a cigarette between his lips and flicks his lighter. As the flame emerges, the metal parts of the lighter glare sharply, stinging his eyes. The sun seems about to set, is poised to fall below the horizon, but, like tenacious life, hangs on. He knows that it vanishes in a flash, just when you lower your guard.
    Suddenly the waves grow rougher. He retreats. The rising tide nudges her clothes, gradually scattering them about. The current grows stronger. A wave carries away her shoes. After retreating, the waves return and carry off, one by one, her summer clothes, the leather jacket, and the woolen coat. Avoiding the incoming waves, walking backward, he watches the scene intently. Now nothing remains on the shore. As it drifts seaward, the black leather jacket gleams like a whale’s back in the twilight. The rest of the clothes slowly sink but the black leather jacket stays afloat on the sea for a long while. Why should the old lady’s words come to his mind just then? “One full-moon night that woman’s plum-red velvet skirt rose to the surface and drifted on the sea for several days.”

He caught the last ferry and returned to Oepori. Now, he has buried the woman in the sea. Now, he feels he will be able to forget her. He feels he will not have any more dreams. She no longer exists. Anywhere. Not even in his mind. Not even in his recollections, his memory. Now, they are all empty. Could what is called love really be like that? A blue crab grave, completely empty, leaving nothing but debris after craving flesh so madly…
    Ah! Tonight, he wants to eat crab. He is feeling empty. He wants to dig out and eat the meat of crabs, soaked in soy sauce until they are thoroughly marinated. How long does it take to overcome this appetite? Crabs eat a lover’s body; then another lover eats the crabs… Suddenly he feels a fierce appetite arising in him. He drives toward the port to buy crabs in soy sauce.

* Hy Freedman, “Sex Link: The Three-Billion-Year-Old Urge and What the Animals Do About It,” 1977.