That Boy’s House
by Park Wan-suh
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
Published in Koreana:
Korean Art & Culture (The Korea
Foundation) Vol. 27, No.1 Spring 2013 pages 88 - 99
Published in Koreana:
Korean Art & Culture (The Korea
Foundation) Vol. 27, No.1 Spring 2013 pages 88 - 99
A younger friend who had been living in an apartment told me recently she was moving out to live in a house with a garden. I automatically replied that it sounded like a good idea, but I did not get the name of the neighborhood where she had bought a house. I seem to have fallen into the habit of not paying attention to what people say. Ever since I realized that one sign of growing old was a conspicuous decline in one’s ability to remember names and numbers, my habit of listening to such things absentmindedly seems to have grown worse. Instead, I became intensely curious about what the house and garden looked like, how many rooms it had, what the view was like. Yet that was not really what I wanted to say.
I too, several years ago, had brought to an end a lengthy period of life in an apartment and moved into a house with a garden. The first night, as I lay alone in that isolated house, wondering what on earth I had come all that way in quest of, my decision seemed so pathetic that I was unable to sleep. A beautiful view, fresh air, peaceful surroundings, some degree of solitude, surely those were things I had long been dreaming of? What more could I hope for? All the time I was living in the apartment, equipped with every kind of convenience, its value as an investment guaranteed, I had constantly felt that was not right. But what exactly was it that had not been right? The way my secret, silent memories slowly lost their significance until finally they were nothing, just an empty feeling, was not the apartment’s fault, and likewise the house did not breed such memories by itself. The more recently a house was built, the more it simply imitates the structure and conveniences of an apartment. Thus, one might expect to settle in without much discomfort; it ultimately depends entirely on the owner. Why was it only now that I realized that I was a helpless person who wasn’t even capable of replacing a faucet? Actually, that was the most terrifying of my anxieties on that first night in my new house.
But still, it was spring. The moment I stepped down into the garden the next morning, I saw lovely, delicate shoots piercing the ground and springing up. I seemed to hear them saying: We’re glad to see this world’s light, we’re happy together, so that I felt a response springing up inside myself: I’m glad I moved here. It was an unexpected joy, and a consolation. That friend was twenty years younger than me. She was still far from reaching an age when sacrificing practical interests and convenience to gain at most a few flowers, marvel-of-Peru or moss rose, does not seem to represent any kind of loss. Perhaps it was because of those cautious misgivings that I held back from asking forcefully: For goodness’ sake, what are you hoping to find, giving up an apartment and moving to a house? Irrespective of what I might or might not think, my friend moved and then told me about the new sights of her unfamiliar neighborhood. Since it was an old residential area mainly inhabited by respectable middle-class folk, she had been expecting a settled kind of atmosphere but, perhaps because it was close to a university, all day long she only had to look out the window at the bustling vitality of the streets to see there was never a dull moment. I asked the name of the university. She said it was Sungshin Women’s University.
Sungshin? But surely that’s in Donam-dong? I asked, slightly taken aback. That’s right, she replied. But now the neighborhood had been divided up into several parts, each one with a different name, and she told me the new name. I was very familiar with that area. I asked the exact location: it was between Sungshin Women’s University and Seongbuk Police Station. The last house I lived in before I married had been located between Sungshin Girls’ High School and Seongbuk Police Station. My family had moved to another neighborhood at almost the same time as I got married, so that I’ve never had a chance to go back there. Even if a chance had come, I would probably have avoided it. I left that neighborhood fifty years ago. Fifty years, that’s a long time. Donam-dong is no remote locality. It’s not far from the city center. In those fifty years, how could I not have traveled along the street up the hill beyond Hyehwa-dong, passing through Miari, Gireum-dong and Suyuri, more than just once or twice? It has been a long time since the Dongdo Cinema that I used to frequent regularly disappeared. I must have noticed it had vanished as I looked through the window of a bus or car. Squirming, twisting my head painfully to look behind, I bade a sad farewell to Jean Marais and Charles Boyer on the fuzzy black-and-white screen. Did that mean my friend had gone to live in a Korean-style house?
Since I have never once been back after leaving, I could still quite vividly recall the neighborhood as it had been then. Those tiled houses in Joseon style, dignified like an elderly lady with her hair drawn back in a bun, and suitably dilapidated. My friend said no, it was a modern two-story house, built so that the basement and the upper floor could be rented out separately. There were not so many Korean-style houses left, she added, and those that remained had mostly kept nothing but the traditional tiled roofs, the interiors having been transformed into cafés, fast food places, or fashion shops. She added that since a university had been established there, it was only natural that the residential area should turn into a student neighborhood. Well, yes. Had the things I could vividly remember as having been there ever really existed? I felt sad, and relieved at the same time.
My friend set a day for me to come and see the house. On account of repairs to the house and tidying up the garden, my friend often phoned me for advice, and each time, rather than reply to her questions, I would indicate curiosity about this or that aspect of the neighborhood, which bothered her since she took it to mean I was pestering her to hold a housewarming party. I was the only guest invited and since the repairs were not completely finished she suggested we eat lunch somewhere nearby then go home for a cup of tea. She came all the way out to the Sungshin Women’s University subway station to meet me. I told her that I could meet her anywhere, she only had to say where, but I was grateful that she did not listen and came all the way out.
The neighborhood I followed her into was not the old Donam-dong I had stored up in my head. It stretched out, bright, sophisticated, lacking nothing, a typical university neighborhood brimming with vitality. Given the university’s relatively short history, the vitality was not overflowing noisily; rather it gave the impression of classy poise, intent on self-restraint, perhaps on account of the traditional Korean tiled roofs that just occasionally struck my eye, sedately perched above shop windows decorated in modern style. My memory was flustered, trying to check if they were the same old Joseon-style roofs. My friend had gone exploring in advance and the restaurant she had chosen served seafood stews. It was an excellent choice. Various kinds of vegetables and seasonings could be added according to taste to a basic selection of seafood, and cooked on the table; the resulting taste had intensity and depth. The price, too, was reasonable. Cheap, tasty and plentiful, it was an outstanding meal. Our table was beside a large plate-glass window, and the feeling of being in an outdoor café was not at all unpleasant. Nowadays, society does everything for show, whether it be eating, dressing, earning money, or making love. In the distance, at the foot of the hill, could be seen the lofty campus of Sungshin Women’s University. When I emerged from the alley where my former home used to stand, I could see Sungshin Girls’ High School at just the same angle, just that far off. Had I been eating lunch on the site of my old home? I began to feel strange. When I said that, my friend suggested that we try to find the house where I used to live first, before going to her place.
I thought that it would be easy to find the house once I found the Angam Stream. That was what we used to call the little stream that emerged in the Seongbuk valley and flowed past our neighborhood after passing Samseon Bridge and Donam Bridge. Since the water was plentiful and clean, the local residents would head for the Angam Stream whenever they had to do a big load of washing. Alongside the stream ran a street wide enough for pedestrians and cars to pass each other, while beside the stream weeping willows dangled their branches, so that in those days, when cars were few and far between, it was sufficiently quiet and romantic for people from other neighborhoods to come and enjoy a stroll there. The Angam Stream, that pierced my mental map like a major artery, was nowhere to be found. It was invisible. What was I looking for, some kind of waterway? I should have known that it had been covered over long ago. Yet even if it had been covered, I felt that the stream and the road beside it taken together ought to have left space enough for an eight-lane highway.
When I first visited Europe, in the 1980s, and saw the River Seine, I found myself thinking: “Why, this famous River Seine is barely wider than the Angam Stream,” so much had the stream of my memories seemed like a wide river. Emerging from our house, I could see the grim rear view of the Seongbuk Police Station with its wide yard, just across the stream. Our family could surely not have lived very long with the view of such a building so close nearby. The modern neighborhood possessed no such wide side streets, however. After the covered-over stream, the next landmark was the police station. We found it at once. I was not the one to find it; from the spot we had been circling around my friend pointed a finger: There it is. It was only then that I realized we were standing midway between the Catholic church and the Sinseon bathhouse. My former home had been in the alley directly behind the bathhouse and that boy’s house had been behind the Catholic church. The church and the bathhouse had both stood by the streamside road. The church must have been enlarged or rebuilt, for although it was still in the same place, its exterior looked very different, much larger, but the bathhouse was exactly as it had been in those days, right down to the name. That bathhouse had remained just as it was fifty years before, although surely fifty years was time enough for it to have been turned into some kind of spa, sauna, or jjimjilbang. Because of that wretched bathhouse, I was obliged to believe that this not-so-wide side street was the covered-over Angam Stream. The street in my mental map was not a real street; it was nothing more than the street I had been hoping to discover. In the alley behind the bathhouse, the old houses with their Korean-style roofs had not survived. Multiplex housing had invaded the area and it was impossible even to identify the exact site of our house.
We went to my friend’s house, looked around, and drank tea. It had, indeed, a garden, though not a very big one. The previous owner had not looked after it, leaving it like an empty lot, but my friend seemed to have fallen for it. Since it stood on somewhat higher ground, it overlooked the whole neighborhood. Where would that boy’s family house have been? My friend went raving on about the various kinds of trees she was planning to plant there the following spring. Moving from pine trees, silver magnolias, flowering cherries, azaleas to fruit trees such as cherry, plum, jujube, etc., she then went on to perennials such as peonies, tree peonies and irises. I gazed at my friend as she went on multiplying endlessly the number of species she would cram in her palm-sized garden, but my thoughts were elsewhere. I am not sure why the thought arose, but I kept thinking that that boy’s family house might still be standing.
His family moved to the area beside the Angam Stream less than a month after we moved there. I had accompanied Mother to the hardware store and as we were returning home, carrying such humble items as a bucket, dustpan, shovel, and rat trap, we came across his family unloading their belongings. The owner of the house greeted Mother gladly. Mother grudgingly responded with a cold expression. She was an elderly woman some ten years older than Mother, with a very bent back. Apparently she was a distant relative. Even if Mother was above her in terms of their position in the family tree, she was clearly her senior in age, and such stand-offishness was not typical of Mother. Standing beside her, I was both disconcerted and amused. I knew why Mother was acting in that way. She had previously enjoyed living in ever larger houses, but now, for reasons she could not explain, she found herself in straitened circumstances and was obliged to make do with a far smaller house. Compared to the neighborhoods where she had lived before, the houses here were much cheaper, and moreover the house we had moved into was ridiculously cramped for three generations to live together, what with daughter-in-law and a grandchild “small as a nose-picking,” as Mother put it. So it was only natural that Mother should feel abashed in front of other people. Yet at home, she was more forceful than ever. If our large family had managed to avoid becoming homeless, and owned a home, even if it was just a shack, that was all thanks to Mother.
Regardless of whether Mother was happy or not, the old lady beamed as she urged us to come in and view the house, and insisted on taking us inside. Claiming she wanted to show her house to unwilling visitors amidst the hustle and bustle of moving, she appeared to be both overly kind and rather silly. A few strapping fellows were carrying bundles into the house. Some were workers, but others were sons and sons-in-law. Belongings packed for moving show plainly a family’s standard of living. Mother must have been disheartened at the sight of such elaborately decorated wardrobes, antique stationery chests, nicely finished étagères and so on, while I cringed before roughly tied bundles of what looked like several thousand books. The old woman’s house, too, that we toured, unable to resist her insistence, was on a different scale to the ordinary run of houses in that neighborhood. Although there were several trucks parked in front of the house, the street was wide enough for them not to be in the way of passing cars or people; the house was located in an alley leading off the main road. We could see that it was a blind alley, but it was wide and it was a space that the house had all to itself, there being no neighbors to share it with, so that it looked like an outer yard. Nor was that all. Looking toward the house, no front gate was visible; instead, as in old palaces, a stone arch could be seen. The arch opened onto the garden in front of the men’s quarters; the front gate leading to the women’s quarters was located at a spot where the wall attached to the stone arch made a ninety-degree bend. For some reason, I was more impressed by the graceful old arch than by the awe-inspiring lofty gate with its threshold of stone. Compared with ordinary tiled-roof houses, it looked to be in a different class.
One of the youths who had been unloading the furniture was lingering beside us, indicating that he wanted to be introduced, and the old woman presented him as her youngest son. He was affable and good-looking. As she gazed at him with a contented smile, her face was full of wrinkles. Given the difference in their ages, it would surely have been more suitable to say he was her grandson, so that she seemed even sillier. The youth was dressed in working clothes but he was wearing a school cap, so I immediately recognized he was attending a high school in the same neighborhood as the girls’ high school I was attending. In those days, there were more than ten middle and high schools for boys and girls crammed into the area stretching northeastward from Gwanghwamun and including Sinmunno street, Anguk-dong, Gye-dong and Susong-dong, so it did not strike me as some kind of strange coincidence. I felt relieved since the school he attended was considered by the kids in my school as being a not-so-special, mid-range kind of school, so I could get over any feelings of my inferiority. Something similar happened again afterward. On that day, since the whole house was in such disorder, we only peered at the main building from the middle gate then went out again, but the way the old woman had so kindly insisted on showing us around seemed to have stayed on Mother’s mind. She was six or seven years older than Mother, but she was only some kind of distant niece on the maternal side, so that it would be alright for her to treat her like a stranger, but since she had been so kind Mother seemed to feel that she had to return once, and had apparently gone bearing a gift of matches. That family’s eldest son is a high official working in the main government building, the daughter-in-law is extremely courteous, she reported, with indications of being seriously jealous. Still, she did not forget to add some tart comments:
“But so what? When she got married not only was her family of a lower standing, her husband was much better looking and had studied a lot, so that her older relatives worried they might not get on well together and even now she has a hard time with her old man.”
“You mean that old woman even told you that?”
“Do you think I have to be told before I know? Seeing how she can’t avoid getting her own hands wet when she has such a well-mannered daughter-in-law. The way she is good to others, too, has become a habit, showing how inferior she feels toward her husband and his family. I don’t know why a rich man’s wife lives such a miserable life, poorly dressed with hands like rakes.”
I reckoned this was my self-assertive mother’s way of consoling herself. Finally it fell to me to provide Mother with a sense of superiority. Soon after I became a university student, I went out with Mother to buy shoes and we met the old lady. Mother boasted that I had been admitted to Seoul National University and we were on our way to buy some shoes. When it would have been enough to say I was going to attend university, I suppose she added the name of my school because of her pride that no university could be more prestigious than SNU. The old woman’s youngest son was also entering university. It was a good school, but it was not Seoul National University. At the sight of Mother’s bragging, for the first time in my life I felt proud of being a good daughter, and took it as an encouragement.
When it was time for school in the morning, the peaceful, beautiful street leading from Wonnam-dong to Anguk-dong would be filled with students, boys and girls, in their uniforms. If I found the street less crowded than usual, that meant I might be late and I would start to run. The school I attended was well known for the way the principal himself would keep watch at the gate and scold any students who arrived late. Since I was particularly interested in the students from the school the youngest boy of the stone-arched house was attending, our eyes met several times along the way to school. But I would rapidly look away without seeing if he had recognized me or not. It was not that I was being especially good or sly; in those days such behavior was taboo. On learning that we had both entered university, the first thought that came to me was a foretaste of thrilling freedom, since we would no longer have to act in that way if we ran into each other. I was such an innocent that my heart would race when I only imagined the freedom of being able to go to the movies without tucking in the white collar of my school uniform, so it was no unusual emotion.
Repairs to my friend’s house were far from complete. Once an aluminum sash had been fixed to the rear veranda, a truck arrived bringing topsoil for the garden. As I was about to take my leave amid all the confusion, she came after me, insisting that she would accompany me as far as the subway station. Perhaps because the search for our old house had shown how little sense of direction I had, she treated me as a hapless senior who would never be able to find the subway alone. As I walked along I kept looking around and trying to refuse help until at last I mentioned that boy’s family house. The harder you try to hide or cut short any talk about something involving a boy and a girl, not a Mr. Kim and a Miss Lee, the more you arouse the other person’s curiosity. With the face of a girl just beginning to enjoy love stories, my friend became my guide. She reckoned that since we knew now where my old house had stood, it should not be difficult to find that boy’s house if we started from there. His house had been behind the Catholic church, across the concrete bridge beside the Seongbuk Police Station, beside the main road. Although the house had been a step or two off a side road, the main street had run alongside the outer garden. There could be no hope that such a spacious property would still be a family residence in such an increasingly thriving university district. Of course, the kind of family home I was thinking of was a two- or three-story Western-style building such as that my friend had moved into, not an old Korean-style mansion. Contrary to my expectations, aloof from the arrogant currents of time, that house had remained intact, an old-style, tiled-roof house. Perhaps because the other houses, their main gates shunning the main street, had all been transformed into four- or five-story buildings, the house which had formerly looked more impressive for being a step or two further back now looked sunken. The space in front, which had opened onto the main street, was now closed off by an iron gate; that was the only difference. The gate was firmly shut. Because of the gate, the old house behind seemed to have opted for seclusion, surrounded by modern buildings but refusing all contact with them. From breast height, the iron gate consisted of bars you could look through, but trees had grown so densely inside that the stone arch could barely be seen. The trees must originally have been planted so as to leave room at least for someone to pass between them but the branches had spread into such a dense tangle that there was not even space to peer through.
The thought that houses too might have a kind of soul made my heart shudder as though touched by a sliver of ice. The house with a stone arch had many trees and flowering plants, not only around the men’s quarters but in the main courtyard too. At the back of the house there was a cellar for storing oleanders, pomegranates, plantains and suchlike, plants that could not survive the winter out-of-doors. In May, when the lilac in the garden of the men’s quarters was in full bloom and came over the wall, people passing in the street would all look above the arch, flare their noses, then slow down or stop, as if hoping the fragrance might permeate their clothes and bodies. I climbed up onto the stone base of the iron gate, raised myself to my full height and peered inside, but apart from confirming that there was indeed an authentic traditional tiled roof, there was nothing else I could recognize. Traditional roofs take a lot of work. Nowadays it has become very hard to find good roof tilers. Even before, the pay for a roof tiler was three times that for a plasterer. It is easy to end up with someone who has not been properly trained, an unskilled worker who believes all the rumors about the rate of pay. When you see the hapless, dilapidated state of the roofs of the old Korean houses that have happened to survive among the city’s forest of high-rise buildings, you soon realize what irresponsible nonsense all this fuss about preserving traditional hanok houses really is. The rows of concave tiles on that house’s roof were so even and smooth that it seemed they must be overhauled almost every year. If a house owner did not grudge the money and effort needed for such troublesome upkeep, it would never be someone obliged to stay living there because they could not sell the house, it would be someone wealthy who loved such old houses. I was moved and happy that that boy’s old house had found such an owner.
The boy’s family had left the house soon after I left to get married, so that in the time since then its ownership might have changed ten times. Yet still, the way trees had become so thick in the outer yard that I could not so much as peek through the stone arch left me feeling sad. The trees had dense, glossy leaves like spindle trees, only taller. When I wondered aloud what kind of trees they were, my friend immediately said they were Bodhi trees. She knew all about the names of trees. And not only trees; I knew that there were times when she would not be able to simply pass by a flower whose name she did not know, but would insist on finding out its name. If she said they were Bodhi trees, that was surely right. Only they were nothing like the Bodhi trees I knew. I have seen a Bodhi tree just once. When I was much younger, I took a trip through a sultry region steeped in Hindu culture and our bus had stopped for a rest break in a remote village. The spot chosen for shelter from the scorching sun by the group of some twenty tourists, as if by common accord, was in the shade of a Bodhi tree. The towering tree, more than thirty meters high, had a gnarly, twisted trunk that soared upward without a single sprig of leaves then spread its plentiful foliage like an umbrella far above. Our guide told us that it was a Bodhi tree. There was no reason to suppose it was the same tree as that beneath which the Buddha had attained awakening, but this tree looked so merciful and majestic that it was easy to understand why it had been called a Bodhi tree. Perhaps that is what is meant by sacred. The impression I received that day had been so powerful that I had never once thought that there might be Bodhi trees in Korea. Our country does not have the climate for such gigantic trees to grow. So what about the Lindenbaum celebrated by Müller? But surely those trees growing so densely in the outer yard and blocking my view of the stone arch were too petty to dream sweet dreams under? Those trees were in no way similar to either of the two different images of what I had harbored, Bodhi tree or Lindenbaum. Yet I did not want to let go of the name Bodhi tree that my friend had produced so promptly. Perhaps the thought that a house may have a soul had not been a sliver of ice but embers instead?
Once back home, I looked it up in an illustrated guidebook. It was a comprehensive listing of the trees growing wild in Korea and the Bodhi tree was there. Yet although I looked at the photo and read the simple commentary, there was not enough to enable me to decide whether those were Bodhi trees or not. Still, I firmly consigned to memory the explanation that in autumn its globular fruit, some six to eight millimeters in diameter, took on a red color. One day, when the ginkgo trees along Sejongno street in the city center had suddenly erupted madly in pure gold, the purest yellow that they had been storing up deep inside themselves, I took the subway Line 5, but instead of going straight home I transferred to Line 4 at Dongdaemun Stadium. The bagful of books I had bought at Kyobo Bookstore was really heavy but I had no choice. I got off at Sungshin Women’s University station. There was no question of my having no sense of direction. I headed straight for that boy’s family home. Being alone, I had no need to hide anything. The iron gate was tightly closed as before. They were listed as being deciduous but those dense green leaves had merely lost a little of their gloss, while still perversely forming a screen between me and the stone arch. However, among the leaves bunches of three or four red berries were dangling from the jagged forked branches. Perhaps in the summer they had been the same color as the leaves, so that I had not noticed them. How long would it take for these trees to grow high enough for there to be room to dream sweet dreams in their shade? Some fifty years? Timewise, I went in the opposite direction to the Bodhi trees and slipped into an illusion that a young man as lovely as jade dreamt sweet dreams in that luxuriant shade fifty years ago.
The next time I met that boy, there were only women and children left in our house. I hated being lumped together with “women and children” but gradually accepted it. Such had our family become once the war swept over us. The men, departing via Seongbuk Police Station, were no longer of this world. The war had been on for over a year, but still the front line kept advancing and retreating just a few miles to the north of Seoul, with the people in Seoul who had not managed to flee all becoming paupers. Since everyone was poor, real paupers were quite rare. The working people were all women. It was not only our family; it seemed that women and children were the only people left in the city.
Having heard that you could earn the price of side dishes by picking radish tops at Ttukseom and selling them, I set off together with my sister-in-law at dawn. If you followed Angam Stream on and on, endlessly southward, the stream vanishing here, then reappearing there, you would reach Salgoji Bridge and Salgoji Meadows. Depending on how much we could pay, the owner of the perfectly square field allowed us to pick radish tops and carry them away. Thus far we had done like the other folk; from there on we could not do like the others. The others clamored to be given more; we held back, asking if we could not be given less. Because the bundles of radish tops we had to carry on our heads were so enormous, we would often drop them to the ground along our way back home. By the time we reached home it was getting dark. It was the time when the others had bought rice and side dishes with what they had earned by selling the radish tops and were already cooking their evening meal. Even if we had time to sell ours, the bundles suffered so much from constantly falling to the ground that they had lost their value.
After that I found a job on the U.S. military base. Even before, a woman from the neighborhood who did cleaning work on the base and who felt sorry for us had said she would introduce me, but that made Mother jump, declaring that she would rather starve than see me doing such work, and I was not allowed to go. The woman had actually said that there would be something better than cleaning for a university student like me, but Mother seemed to understand that to mean there was a vacancy for a whore. Either because the failure of our radish top gathering was a shock to her, or because hunger overcame her scruples, Mother finally allowed herself to be persuaded, as if surrendering, and I got a really easy job on the base. That solved the problem of food and housing but poverty grew increasingly sordid as the days passed, because the family felt humiliated at being fed and housed with money earned by a daughter working for the U.S. army.
That winter I met the boy again on a tram as I was leaving work. He looked glad to see me. He addressed me without hesitation as nuna, elder sister, which seemed odd. I felt at ease, and at the same time sad. It was late and the tram was almost empty, but while we were there we could do little more than express our extreme pleasure at meeting like that. Alighting at the terminus, we entered a dimly-lit bakery. It was a poky little store selling homemade donuts and steamed buns. Having ordered some steamed buns that gave off a sour smell of makgeolli, I began by asking why he had called me nuna. The reason was simple, he said. Since we entered university in the same year, we should be the same age, but he had begun primary school when he was only seven, so he was almost sure he must be a year younger. He was right, it was a plausible way of reckoning. He was wearing a military uniform. It was not the shabby uniform ordinary privates used to wear: above sharply creased blue serge trousers such as American officers wore, and brightly polished boots, he was wearing a fur-lined parka. It was a time when, as I was working on the base, I was really longing to make the acquaintance, if not of a U.S. officer at least a Korean officer. In wartime, an officer in a smart uniform exuded power, like a knight mounted on a white charger. It did not even have to be an officer. Any young man with unassailable status would be a gift from the gods, I felt. Before we had even started on the buns he asked the shopkeeper to wrap them and suggested we leave there. He said he knew a street-side cart-bar that was OK. Then why had he not suggested going there to begin with? I was not happy with his inconsistency but since he was a gift from the gods I did not want to lose him. I followed him one tram stop back to Samseon Bridge. There were lights beside the stream. They came from lamps whose pallid glare made faces look ghostly. I did not mind the smell of carbide. It was even plainer than the bun shop yet, oddly, it was not at all seedy. Later I learned that the boy was particularly averse to seedy places. Of course, nobody really likes them, but he had an instinctive aversion to them, like some eccentric who cannot stand a certain smell.
In the tent-covered bar that evening I saw for the first time a nine-hole briquette stove. On a stove where powerful flames were rising from every hole of a coal briquette perched an iron cauldron with odeng broth aboil. The aproned man in charge welcomed us nonchalantly. Putting into china bowls egg and tempura, chunks of radish, fried tofu and some kind of meaty sinew that he added a skewerful of, with odeng, he poured on boiling hot broth. The broth, the things on the skewer, even the eggs, were all a dark soy-sauce color. Yet the taste was strong and sweetish. The owner said nothing and seemed not interested in us.
“Has anyone in your family been wounded in the fighting? We only have women and children left….”
I spoke quickly, before he could ask.
“Only Mother and I are left….”
“Really? In that big house? How many were you before?”
“Seven. Mother, Father, my older brother, his wife and their two children.”
“That’s terrible. You mean even the children are dead? Yet you weren’t bombed….”
“Who said they were dead? They went North. Brother was a leftist, you see.”
“We heard he was a high official in the government; Mother was jealous. So even people like that can turn into leftists!”
“High official? Brother was generally recognized to have a brilliant mind; he could probably hold a post like that in the North, too.”
“Then what about you? Where do you stand?”
I simply could not put together the family of a defector deserving persecution and his slick military uniform, so I questioned him nervously. When it came to the suffering, humiliation and surveillance the family of a so-called commie had to endure, I had experienced it until I was sick of it. It just went to show that there are no gifts from the gods anywhere. My face fell with bitter disappointment. He said nothing in reply but started cautiously to gnaw at the sinew-like meat on the skewer, slowly, like an old man. His jaw movements were thorough and concentrated, as though he was determined not to miss anything of the faint flavor of the meat hidden within. Yet without the least sign of greed. Once he had completely chewed and swallowed everything, he addressed the owner: “Hey, fellow, the sinew I ate last time at least smelt like a boiled Yankee army boot; not this, though. Would it be too much to ask you to give us one of your old shoes from under the floor with a bit of a stench to it?”
“Here, that’s enough of that. Who knows, I probably stole my mother’s rubber slippers and served them boiled?” The two men sniggered. Their laughs harmonized well together. I grew tense as I listened to them exchanging banter. Unexpectedly, they began to discuss a book they were currently reading. They seemed to be close enough to lend each other books. I found myself thinking foolishly that they were conscious of my presence and making fun of me. He thrust some money toward the owner and stood up. When he tried to give him his change he waved his hands and told him to buy his mother some rubber slippers.
“Valiant disabled veteran, Sir! I know it is my duty as a citizen to serve strong beef-bone broth but funds are way down below floor level! I’m very, very sorry.”
The owner saw us off, scratching his head without the least indication of being sorry in his face. The moment we were outside, I questioned him:
“Why, he called you a disabled soldier. What does that mean? Your four limbs all look intact. Have you been lying to that simple fellow? Who are you, really? Come on, speak up, quickly!”
He replied in a low voice. We walked from Samseon Bridge along the Angam Stream, past the bathhouse, up the alley and by the time we reached my house he had finished, as though it had been made to match that distance. It was not far. So his tale was terse and condensed.
When the North Korean army entered Seoul in the summer, for some reason his older brother had not been purged and had continued in his regular job. But since a person only really has his own two legs, it is obvious that he cannot count on anything more than them, so when the Communist army retreated at the end of three months, he went North with them. At first he had gone alone, leaving wife, children and elderly parents behind. But the world was turned upside down again that winter, and when the Communists occupied Seoul a second time, his brother had turned up, intent on taking his family with him. His wife and children were ready to follow him without a word but for his parents it was different. The reason was that, after the Communists retreated and Seoul was liberated, their younger son had been drafted into the South Korean army. And because their son was in the southern army, the family had so far been spared much of the hardship inflicted on the families of those who had gone North. So the parents were confronted with an insoluble dilemma. Finally the elderly parents decided to separate. The father would go North with the elder son and his family while the mother decided to stay behind and wait for her younger son, the soldier. For that reason, on returning home after he had been wounded in the thigh and received an honorable discharge he found that his elderly mother was left alone in that large house. In the meantime she had turned into an old woman and far from embracing her in tears, he heaped abuse on her, asking what devotion she had expected to receive, waiting for him like that? The very thought of how free he would be without her took his very breath away so that even now, he said, he was constantly abusing her.
Such things happened in the turmoil as the world turned upside down, righted itself, then in a flash turned upside down again and again, and that was what had happened in his family. When a whole nation is writhing in agony, how many ordinary citizens can hope to escape unscathed? So we felt no sympathy for one another. The sufferings we endured were our daily bread, like kimchi and rice. If there was a family that remained intact, where nobody had died or been hurt, people would have found their self-satisfaction so intolerable that they might even plot to kidnap their only son.
That night I could not fall asleep. The carbide lamplight shimmered pale over his beautiful face, at once aloof and melancholy, his strong body still perceptible even through the thick parka; I sensed that a dangerous breeze had blown over me. We had not expressed mutual feelings or anything like that, but did we not sense a foreboding of similar misfortunes? Like a young girl walking down a street who encounters a strong gust of wind that sends her skirt billowing upward, I felt at the same time a sudden surge of yearning and a burst of shame making me want to pull down my skirt quickly and squat on the ground. In order to economize on firewood, our family all slept together in the main bedroom. I could hear the peaceful breathing of our surviving family, two widows and two small children, all sound asleep. Surely relief at having reached a state where things could get no worse could not coexist with peace. Still, peace is so much more sacred than the survivor’s feeling of sorrow. Thus, I confronted the yearning for danger that whirled within me.
Almost every day he was waiting for me when I came off the base. The people working there were a varied lot, ranging from illiterate to university graduates, but they were all people with some kind of guilty secret. Many were draft dodgers. It was not officially approved but they could wear a military uniform and received an illegible identity card so if they were determined they could shout and bluster their way out avoiding inspection. Those grubby, unsavory men wanted to know everything about the smartly uniformed, healthy and brash-looking young man. I ought not to have said he was a close relative, like a younger brother. Nobody believed me. As a disabled soldier with all his limbs intact, he was an object of envy. Think what you like; we enjoyed such things. They increased our happiness. Just as silk dresses and jewelry are meaningless unless people feel jealous at the sight of them, the same is true of a boyfriend who does not inspire envy. He was handsome, so the more I saw of him the more I wanted to become pretty. I could feel the sap rising inside my body. He said I was like a bead. That was a compliment better suited to a younger sister than a girlfriend. It was not very sexy, but I came to like the expression. Bead-like eyes, bead-like tears, bead-like dew, bead-like waves… no matter where you added it, the word glistened.
That winter was the most bead-like winter in my life. Apart from the banks of the Angam Stream, there were not many places where lovers could go. Once we entered university and could get to know the places that had been forbidden while we were in high school, the war broke out and Seoul lay in ruins. Fortunately there were cinemas that survived. Wartime cinemas had no heating. He would sit hunched up beside me and slip his fur-lined gloves, turned inside out, beneath my feet. If you just turn up the palm of a glove, the five fingers stay crumpled up inside and if you fit them over the tips of the toes even the coldest of frozen toes will melt and start to grow warm. I wonder how he came by such a wonderful idea. It killed two birds with one stone. Not only did my frozen toes keep warm, it allowed me to feel content at being that much cherished. Since we mainly watched movies at the Jungang Cinema, we could easily walk to Myeong-dong. The buildings along Jongno were all in ruins and almost all the inhabitants had left Seoul, so there were few houses still occupied on the residential streets; it was wartime and the silvery lights of Myeong-dong were unreal. We savored freedom in the light, like moths. We found a wonderful regular café, discovered an expensive bakery, came to know the delight of buying cute, unnecessary accessories in boutiques. Apart from such places, in Myeong-dong there were also imposing, showy jewelry stores where the main customers were high-class whores keeping company with U.S. officers. In their spacious recesses there were dim corners decorated like parlors so even from outside we could clearly see voluptuously made-up customers elegantly sitting cross-legged like Western film stars, basking in the shop owner’s flattery. Since there was no sign of any customers merely standing there looking around, we did not dare to venture inside. Instead, all the jewels that I laid eyes on, standing outside glued to the window, became mine in some later time. I liked his wild promises better than the jewels themselves. Even without any desire beyond ogling expensive jewelry, dating cost a lot of money. He was unemployed, unable to earn a penny, and although I was earning, I had my family of five to support. Our dating practices did not go so far as to despise the sanctity of family support. In those days, disabled veterans had no pension. His easiest source of money was his old mother. He had berated her, saying she should have gone North with her elder son and her husband, and not expect any devotion from him for having waited, and he kept tormenting her. He would have had a hard time surviving had it not been for her ingrained habit of always serving him rice with side dishes, yet he did not realize it was more than he deserved.
He kept pestering her for pocket money. I learned from my mother that she used to take clothes out to sell at the market, and even walked around with a basket perched on her head hawking vegetables. She was bent over almost double, far more than when they had moved into the house, and Mother said it was amazing to see her balance a heavy load on her head then spring to her feet and start walking. Sometimes my mother also used to take things to the market to barter. Even though Seoul seemed to be empty, if you went to the local markets they were swarming with people. In such places brimming with vitality, there was no distinction between those buying and those selling. Everyone kept spreading out things, selling them, then buying what they needed. Since the owners of the market stores had mostly fled south, there were only a few shops open. Fierce life-or-death bargaining contests took place everywhere, beneath the eaves of the closed stores or in the market alleys. After Mother had met that boy’s mother and helped her lift a load onto her head, her expression was bitter and blank for a time. She seemed to be able to feel pity for her now, seeing her as a mother whose pride had been wounded, instead of as the wife of a rich man with a successful son. However, my mother’s pity was only a comfort to herself, it was not meant for that elderly woman. On several occasions, when her son was being cruel to her, I saw that old woman with her bent back, looking far older than she really was, enjoying herself as if she were watching her last-born doing cute antics. As I watched her smile at her son, wrinkles spreading like ripples from the corners of her puckered lips, even after he had taken all she had in her purse, I realized that it was my mother who should be pitied. By simply coming back alive her son had completely fulfilled his filial duty. Perhaps for that reason, I did not tell him to stop cruelly exploiting his old mother, even though I disapproved of it.
Still, if he needed more than just pocket money, he would make an expedition to Busan, saying he was adapting to circumstances. Between him and his elder brother there were two sisters, one of whom was a doctor. She had fled Seoul and reached Busan, where she found work in a large hospital and was able to earn a regular income; she was his main source of cash. That doctor-sister was useful to him in many ways. If his mother would not give him enough money, he would threaten to go down to Busan and beg his sister, then she would sell some precious antique to raise money. His extremely refined mother intensely resented the way her son pestered her married daughter. But her kind-hearted daughter, wishing to help out with her mother’s living expenses, would summon her brother down to Busan. On days when he was in Busan, I used to feel lonesome and morose, so I would remain in bed, sobbing quietly in secret. It made no difference even if the people in the market raised the roof with their raucous noise, without him Seoul was just empty. It was absolutely intolerable that the last surviving couple should be separated. Even though I told myself to endure that fleeting meaninglessness, that feeling of emptiness for just one more day, I waited for him so desperately, so passionately, that I used to think death would be preferable. He never once came back later than the day he promised to return, but every time he came back he had to take his punishment. A greater consolation than usual, this meant enjoying extravagance that was beyond his means in some brightly-lit spot. So I cannot say that I never encouraged him to shamelessly exploit his mother and sister. And my demands for extravagant fun beyond his means were not limited to material things. He not only liked poetry, he had memorized a lot of poems. Walking down unlit alleys, mile after mile, or in the tent-bar by Samseon Bridge, on a spot illuminated by the pallid blue carbide lamplight like stage lighting, he would recite poems by Jeong Ji-yong or Han Ha-un in a low, intense voice. He had memorized poems by a lot of other poets, but those two were the only ones whose poems I recognized upon hearing them. Since he only performed when there were no other customers, the bar owner used to listen in silence. After hearing everything, I would thank him, saying I felt I had been enjoying some huge luxury. Such words were to him higher praise than any applause. If poetry was a luxury for us, might not the material luxuries we enjoyed together also be poetry? What enabled us to endure those grim, poverty-stricken, chaotic times was neither austerity nor resentment nor ideology; it was luxury. It was poetry.
Ultimately, though, the luxury that cost least of all was to be found in the men’s quarters of his house. The building, adjacent to the stone arch, was built in an L shape; the main house was likewise constructed in an L shape and if the two had been built close together the result would have been a square; but they were not, they were separated by a considerable space and were therefore independent of one another. Not only did the men’s quarters have its own yard, it had the stone arch so that it was possible to communicate with the outside world without using the main gate. Looking onto the yard, with a wooden toenmaru along its entire length, the main room had been a study shared by his father and elder brother; on the side toward the inner quarters was a smaller room where he said his brother had pursued his hobby alone, away from wife and children. His hobby seemed to have been listening to music. The room contained a record player, a rare household object in those days, and two walls were lined to the ceiling with vinyl records. My ears were not at all accustomed to classical music. For that reason I harbored a sense of inferiority with him, while he, sensing that, tried hard to be especially kind. But when he played Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, to see if it might appeal to me, I exclaimed that it was too noisy, it would wake his mother, and turned down the volume, at which he looked incredulous. Even so he did not give up. He began to play songs that I had been accustomed to hearing during music classes in school, such as “Heidenröslein,” “Largo,” and “Lindenbaum.” He treated the records with extreme care, seeming to caress them. While one record was playing he would choose the next, exhale on it and remove any dust with a small brush. That brush was not originally intended for cleaning records, it might have been used for applying make-up. It was a soft, delicate brush that reminded me of a Western woman’s eyelashes. I used to feel that if I touched that brush, seemingly soft yet stiff, an electric current might shock me. It was perhaps on account of his skillful yet sensitive fingers, making it impossible to decide if he did it because he wanted to stroke the records or to remove the dust. As he listened, he would quietly hum sensuously, as if caressing the rich voice of some foreign tenor whose name I had no need to know. I could never decide if the brush was the humming or if the humming was the brush. As sense of touch and sense of hearing blended together, the result was a moment of exquisite intoxication. The record he used to play most frequently was “Lindenbaum.” The lyrics were a poem printed in the textbook we had studied during German class in the last year of high school. Am Brunnen vor dem Tore, Da steht ein Lindenbaum; Ich träumt' in seinem Schatten So manchen süßen Traum ― as I listened to him humming along with those words, I felt as though every hair on my body was standing on end. How far have we come from those days? Did we really ever have such days? Where am I now? It was a kind of crisis consciousness. Once May came, the garden erupted in blooming profusion. I had not realized there were so many kinds of flowering trees and plants. In addition to the intensely fragrant white lilac and the purple iris, flame-like azaleas, sensuously scented oleanders, pomegranates with flowers like the lamps in the red-light quarters, breathless gardenias, all flung their blossoms wildly and passionately, as if flirting with abandon. Since the garden had only been planted after they moved in, he said that for him too it was the first time to see such a fine display of flowers. The excess of irrepressible energy that brought all those flowers into full blossom seemed to shake loose the foundation stones and the gates until the ancient house seemed to be rolling like a drifting boat. We sensed a premonition of crisis so strong we longed to embrace one another. Luxuries costing nothing are so dangerous.
Once the war was over, my family urged me to marry. I met men, scrutinized their qualifications, met a suitable man, got engaged, had wedding invitations printed. For me that was a natural order of things, like graduating from one school and moving up into a higher level. The first time I told him was when I gave him his invitation. His face expressed incredulity, disbelief, and he suddenly began to sob uncontrollably. He had been busy recently. The government had come back to Seoul, his sisters had returned too, if house prices were rising they meant to sell, so the house was put on the market, and so on; he seemed to think all this happened while he was so busy there had been no time to bother about a girlfriend. Yet it had been in the cards from the start. I wept with him. Because parting is sad. There was nothing false about my tears. But at graduation ceremonies, no matter how profusely children may cry, it’s never because they want to stay in school.
The moment I realized there could be no doubt about those leafy trees in the outer yard of his house being Bodhi trees, I walked away as if fleeing. But I could not go far and kept walking around the neighborhood that was centered on the now underground Angam Stream. It was some ten years ago that I heard he had died. We never met again. Just as he was for me an eternally beautiful youth, I might have been for him an eternally bead-like girl. At the time we had been blind followers of Platonic love. We had embraced it simply out of fear of pregnancy. I smelt a coal briquette burning somewhere. After the war, coal briquettes spread quickly and it is no exaggeration to say that for me married life had been a story of endless struggles with coal briquettes. But the smell drifting near was not that stale old odor, rather it was a longed-for smell, mixed with a whiff of carbide lamp. I relaxed my stride and went floating along, guided by the smell. In front of a store bearing a sign “Briquette Galbi” a series of briquette fire pots were lined up under the eaves waiting to be lit. Retro fashion has finally gotten as far as coal briquette stoves, apparently. The interior looked dark. I opened the door, made of planks to resemble the front gate of an old-style house, and went inside. A man sweeping the floor informed me that they did not open until five. There was no sign of a carbide lamp anywhere. I really just wanted to sit down somewhere and rest, but the man doing the sweeping looked so unenthusiastic that I said nothing more and went out again. The neighborhood’s ginkgo trees, their color just as beautiful as those in Sejongno, were lightly shedding their leaves. I longed for coziness. And for warmth. I pushed open the door of a brightly lit coffee shop and sat down near the window. Seen from inside, the street with its falling leaves was like a storybook scene from an animated movie, perhaps because of the cheerful, carefree movements of the young people passing by. The distance separating me from them was not just a matter of age, we were two species as remote from one another as East and West.
Occasionally I used to hear news about him, not very happy news, and I would feel ill at ease. Why had things turned out as they did back then? Thinking about it in retrospect, I loathed myself, my temperament too quick to make decisions, for falling out of love with him as if it had been someone else’s affair. Some time ago, watching a program on the National Geographic TV channel, I felt as though I had found the solution to something I had long been wondering about. Perhaps I had been wanting to find an answer for so long, not that it really was the right answer. The program showed how birds go about finding a mate. Everyone knows how usually the males try so hard to woo females by song, gestures, display ― but the most interesting was a bird that wooed females by building a house. That was the first time I had heard of such a bird. The males would snap off strong branches with bright green leaves, build a sturdy, square home, fashion an arched door to come and go by, even adorn the interior with sprigs of red or yellow flowers. Each female would inspect the various houses and then choose the one that pleased her best, and mating would occur.
Right, and in those days I was bird-brained.
It was the right answer, and it struck me like a thunderbolt. With no thought of saying small would be fine, I wanted to hatch cute chicks and live in a solid, safe house. His house, like my family’s house, leaked on all sides, was cracked and would soon collapse. The houses were wrecks, where chicks could never be hatched; for the sake of my still unborn chicks, I had no alternative but to reject such a house.
I began to feel uncomfortable sitting there. It was not a place for me. The tea room, that also served snacks, was full and some young folks, mostly couples, cast longing glances at the empty seats at my table before going out again. The owner could not help looking daggers at me. The Briquette Galbi place must be open by now. Vivid before my eyes I see an elderly person slowly walking past it, nostalgic for the smell of coal briquettes and carbide lamps. Who can it be? That melancholy old person with nothing but memories left to hold onto.
Reluctantly I stood up. The young couples sitting close together holding hands cared nothing if one elderly person came in or went out, but I felt embarrassed as I left, as though they were somehow mocking my obscene chastity in those days. The whole world is a mat spread out for those young folks to enjoy themselves on; so where should I go? Let them squander their youth, then. Squandering when the blood runs hot is no sin, it’s a virtue. Saving it up, unable to squander it, does not mean it will always be yours. I comforted my sulking heart like that before those young people.