Festival of Ashes
Brother Anthony of Taizé
in Koreana: Korean Culture & Arts (The
Korea Foundation) Vol. 34, No. 2 Summer pages
in Koreana: Korean Culture & Arts (The
Korea Foundation) Vol. 34, No. 2 Summer pages
Sinae came to a stop at the road junction and hesitated. Going up the hill, the road divided into three before reaching the Opo Garden Cemetery, their destination. It was only now that she realized she had just driven past a signboard. It had been hanging partly concealed by the leaves of roadside trees that seemed to be dripping with a brownish fluid. It was entirely due to the chatter of the person sitting beside her in the passenger seat. She let down the window to get some air, put out her head and looked around, but no other signs were visible. A cool breeze came sweeping in through the car window. The breeze helped relieve the oppressed feeling of being suddenly trapped in a car with someone whom she had known for a long time but who could not be said to be a close friend. That person had been busily rehearsing memories of himself and Sinae’s husband ever since he got into her car at the Express Bus Terminal. Various anecdotes of youthful days full of bravado that Sinae, for her part, felt free to listen to or not, it didn’t matter. Her reactions varied, either nodding, or making little critical exclamations: Oh, really? Wow, there was no stopping them, was there? or, How big-headed! She wondered if reeling off endless stories of one’s youthful days was a courteous exchange for getting a free lift? Sinae reckoned he was rather overdoing it, as she stared at his face.
Suddenly, the scene back in the parking lot of the Express Bus Terminal came to her mind. The way she had held herself as they exchanged an awkward handshake, he having come close to the car, while she stayed sitting in the driver’s seat. “Get in quickly,” she said, and she had been too preoccupied with driving off because of a car blowing its horn just behind her to have time to observe his face. It so happened that the sun setting in the western sky was shining through the windshield on his face as he sat in the passenger seat. Seen from the side, bathed in sunlight, Hyunwoo had felt strangely unfamiliar. The large eyes, with their double eyelids, and the high nose were just as before, but this classmate of the old days seemed to have completely lost the countrified atmosphere he’d had before leaving to work abroad. Perhaps because of his long years in Europe, his complexion had grown paler, slightly flushed, and it looked rather unreal, bathed in the light of the setting sun. Even if he had returned as handsome as Adonis in Greek mythology, Sinae wanted to regard him as someone completely devoid of interest to her. Yet her heart fluttered. She was rather regretting that she had not taken a closer look as they shook hands.
Sinae remembered how she had rather grudgingly taken his call some time previously, saying that he was coming up from the farthest southern region to visit his friend’s grave. Already five years had passed and she said there was no need for anything of that kind, but he had insisted stubbornly. He’d said that he couldn’t attend the funeral as he was working overseas, so now that he was back in Korea it was only proper that he should pay formal respects to a friend who had died early. As it happened, the day in question was a Saturday, today. It was one day after she had learned she would have to go to pay a condolence call for K., who had suddenly died of a heart attack. To tell the truth, the funeral she really wanted to run to attend ahead of anyone else was his. … His face had not left her mind from the moment she heard of his death. Someone like a haven in life, who would disarm and dissolve inner resentment in a flash, no matter how desperate or breathtaking the stress she might be feeling. They had been in different departments but had first met and grown close in the student club room. Things having somehow gone wrong it didn’t work out in the end, but all the time she was married to her husband, he was still firmly fixed in her consciousness as her first love. His words spoken one day a few years later, when both were married and they met by chance in the street, still remained clear in Sinae’s mind. “It’s weird how things turn out, isn’t it?” He said with a hollow laugh, while she nodded silently with a slight smile. After that, while remaining faithful to their marriages, they often used to meet. The love between the two, that did not hurt at all because it did not wear the clothes of reality, continued after that, always keeping a slight distance.
At 3:00 pm, after a planning meeting with the other team members about a new soup product, just as she was preparing to leave for Korea University Guro Hospital, where the funeral home was, a call came from Hyunwoo. I’ve just arrived at the express terminal. He had said he was going to come, but she had not expected him to come up on just this day. Sinae was torn in three directions. Her husband, who had passed away five years ago—she had never gone to visit his grave after the first anniversary—and his friend Hyunwoo, who said he would express belated condolences, and her first love, who had died yesterday, K., her heart was at a loss on where to focus her attention.
Sinae kept feeling uncomfortable because it was rare for things to be as complicated and unbearable as today. The autumn season was in full swing, with crowds leaving to enjoy the colored foliage, and in addition it was a long weekend, so that it took two and a half hours to drive from the terminal as far as the southern suburb of Bundang. If the traffic continued like this, she might end up visiting the funeral home for K very late at night. The problem was that nowadays many funeral homes did not allow late-night visits, so that the family of the deceased could get some rest. In addition, at midnight, there would be no other visitors, so that it was bound to look odd to anyone if she came rushing in and stood all alone in front of K’s photo on the altar. The funeral was at dawn the following day. Sinae had wanted to perform her own farewell ritual standing inconspicuously among other alumni. However, with the appearance of Hyunwoo, she was becoming increasingly impatient at the thought that it would be hard today. She swerved and went blindly speeding along the right-hand road where hills were visible. As she drove toward the top of the hill, the sun in the western sky was shining brightly on the mountains to the right. The garden cemetery must be somewhere among those hills bathed in the sunset. Hyunwoo sensed that Sinae was lost.
“Take your time. You only come occasionally, so you don’t have it fixed in your mind, right? I always get lost when I go to visit my father’s grave in my hometown.”
“In actual fact, this is my first visit since the first anniversary. Let’s keep driving then come back if it’s not the right road.”
She spoke frankly. There was no reason not to be honest. She had no time to bother about his grave in the mountains far away while she was busy repaying various debts her husband had left as well as raising their children alone. In addition, today Sinae was sharing a moment of unutterable truth with Hyunwoo, who had suddenly turned up. Though she didn’t know if he still remembered. If it really was the truth, he could not help remembering. What had happened not long after she was married. She had invited some friends to a party to celebrate her husband’s birthday and their move to a new house. After dinner, men and women sat down together to play poker. Hyunwoo said he would skip a hand while he went out and smoked a cigarette, then as he was coming back from the veranda and returning to the poker game, he came face-to-face with Sinae who was on her way out after laying a dish of grilled squid on the table. He gazed at her in her embroidered apron with an odd look in his eyes, then raised an arm, blocking the doorway. It was still early evening and surely he was not already drunk. Her husband and the other friends were busy laying bets, each pretending to have a good hand, and had no time to look outside. Obviously he was a classmate of Sinae and her husband, but at that moment, setting aside any such relationship, he was simply a man. Feeling that, she quickly avoided his eyes and came out into the living room. Had he seen her as a woman rather than as a friend’s wife, she wondered. Or had she seen him as a man rather than her husband’s friend? She could not tell. In any case, even though it only lasted a moment, it was certainly true that there was a feeling of awkwardness and embarrassment hovering between them.
After that, Sinae had never met him alone. They were always surrounded by friends and acted as if nothing had happened. But she had never forgotten that moment. She could not forget it. Perhaps that was because of the thought, whether it was a moment of impulse or a stroke of childishness, that it might be the call of a life force they neither of them knew. The call seemed to have gone drifting away and vanished with time, but as soon as she met him, it came alive again in her memory.
Lost in all these thoughts, Sinae couldn’t tell how long she had been driving, but she realized she was definitely on the wrong road. There were no more signs for Opo Garden Cemetery decorated with clouds and cranes to be seen anywhere. She had been wrong to set off without turning on the GPS, convinced that once she had passed the crest of Taeje hill the way would be obvious. Now she turned on the navigation system and immediately the woman’s voice instructed her to make a U-turn. Even with the help of the GPS woman she went winding along mountain roads so that by the time they arrived at the cemetery, the sun was already about to sink behind the western hills. Sinae spread out the mat she had taken from the trunk and took from the plastic bag the soju and paper cups she had bought at the convenience store in front of her office. Hyunwoo poured soju into a paper cup and stood facing his friend’s photo in the third row of the columbarium. It had looked okay on the first anniversary, but now the coated photo had turned yellow and it looked like someone who had passed away fifty years before, rather than just five.
“Hey Seunghee, it’s me, Hyunwoo. Now have a drink. I’m sorry I couldn’t attend your funeral as I was working in the Paris office. Seunghee, have you really left us? I can’t believe it. Of course, it’s embarrassing to tell you now you’ve gone on ahead, but I reckon that with life being as hard as it is, there’s no great difference between you who’ve gone on ahead and me who still have to struggle here below. I don’t seem to be living at all. Come on, down the hatch! Now, would you like one of those cigarettes you were so fond of?”
He sprinkled the soju from the paper cup onto the grass between the columbarium walls, lit a cigarette, and addressed the photo on his friend’s niche.
“Right, draw on this. Inhale deeply, then let out the smoke. It was quite a sight, you with a cigarette. You were the most gallant one among us. You were like a film star, holding a cigarette clutched between your index and middle finger, drawing in the smoke, inhaling deeply, then puffing it out through your nose.”
For a good while he held out the cigarette his invisible friend was smoking, until the ash grew long, then he put it into his own mouth. There was no telling if that was one of the ways of mourning he wanted. Sinae was sitting on a square marble chair set there for the mourners. After driving for several hours on a drowsy afternoon, she was overcome with fatigue and closed her eyes for a moment. She wanted to let Hyunwoo perform alone his farewell ceremony while she rested. Suddenly, she heard ringing in her head some music she had been listening to during the day. After lunch, she sat down on a couch in the staff lounge and closed her eyes. While music flowed from the FM radio, she seemed half-asleep. Perhaps because she was planning to go to K’s wake in the afternoon, or triggered by the music or something else, Sinae woke up feeling a piercing sense of longing in her heart. And she was staggered to feel strongly that what was so piercing was a raw feeling of eagerly wanting to touch someone’s skin. For her it was truly a new discovery about herself, something unforgettable, that she must inscribe deep in her heart. Soon she heard the voice of the presenter saying that the piece had been Brahms’ cello sonata No. 1, Opus 38. The performers were the cellist Jacqueline du Pre and the New London Symphony Orchestra. It was not the first time she had heard it. Only it had sounded different today. The presenter added that it was a romantic work in which the passion of the composer, who seemed to have been struggling, was clearly expressed through the restrained yet gentle cello of the soloist. Had it felt more poignant because it was a performance by a genius, a cellist who died while still young? In any case, Sinae knew full well that, as far as Brahms was concerned, he was a composer who had only been able to burn inwardly, having fallen in love with his teacher’s wife Clara, but being unable to say a word. For Sinae, the suppressed impulses and emotions in his work seemed to be evidenced in her own body listening to this music today. If so, this special feeling about K’s death, which she felt so sorry about, might perhaps have been similar to what happened in her body as she was listening to the music during the day. It was something she herself could not be sure of.
Hyunwoo stubbed out the cigarette, pulled a harmonica from his pocket and started to play. At first, she didn’t know what song it was. She followed the melody for a while and finally recalled the lyrics. ‘My love, stay by my side / you are the only one in this world / if you should leave on this hard day / in whose arms will I find rest as I stagger on?’ She recalled the opening words thanks to the phrase, “in whose arms will I find rest as I stagger on?” He was a bit out of tune but Sinae reflected that she could not deny the weight of this hillside performance. The low harmonica sound rang out deep and far, like a song dedicated to all those sleeping there. The surroundings grew quiet at the sound of the music and seemed to her to grow warm as they received comfort. She had never once hummed a song for her husband, even when he was alive, let alone after he died. While she greeted the visitors at the funeral home, and even when the body was being shrouded, she had only been preoccupied about living with the children, and her own sorrow. After completing the performance, Hyunwoo took out his handkerchief, wiped the instrument and put it in his pocket before addressing his silent friend.
“Seunghee, I don’t know if my performance reached you okay. You’re the one who should be singing. When you used to sing Kim Hyun-sik’s “I Loved You” while you accompanied yourself on the guitar, all the others felt so intimidated that they didn’t dare sing anymore.”
Sinae tilted her head to one side. He used to sing well? Songs by Kim Hyun-sik, who she was so fond of, even accompanying himself on the guitar? Come to think of it, after their marriage, she reckoned that she had never once heard her husband sing. It was the first time she had heard talk of it. Theirs had never been the kind of marriage where songs would spontaneously come flowing out. Hyunwoo kept pouring out words.
“Hey, man, you should have waited a bit longer, until I got back. Once I was back, I was planning to have a great booze-up. I owed you big. I was so taken up with the band that I missed the English poetry exam and was in deep shit. But without me even knowing, you took several friends and knelt in front of the professor’s house for several days, begging, until I was allowed to submit a report instead. That professor, who was rumored to be so strict, gave up when he saw your friendship. And that allowed me to avoid being expelled from the ROTC, which in turn helped me get a job later. Hey, man, that’s the kind of guy you were. So why on earth were you in such a hurry to go?”
He was talking about things that couldn’t even be imagined by a selfish individualist like Sinae, who never saw anything that was not directly in front of her nose. It seemed there had been that kind of side to the worthless gang who lived in the billiards salons, hanging out in a crowd while skipping class. But what was the use of coming here now to lament like this? Sulking, Sinae turned her head away. He continued to confess something to his friend, but Sinae had stopped listening. To be honest, she didn’t want to hear all that whining. Rather she wanted to be absorbed in her own thoughts. Is this how I’m parting from K? I’ve been trusting that no matter where I end up, so long as he’s in the world I’ll find the strength to keep on living.
Absorbed as she was in thoughts of K in her own mind, she only turned her eyes back toward Hyunwoo when he started to clap in applause. Then he began to talk about a quite extraordinary incident.
“Do you know why I clapped? I applauded you for admitting your skill at billiards that no one knew about. Had you lived a bit longer and kept playing billiards, you could have discovered some amazing pocket ball geometry. When you were drawing charts in the billiards room in front of the school, setting aside study for the final exams, engrossed in the five-and-a-half system, I used to think you were a guy who was really fully alive. Nowadays it’s increasingly rare to see our teen-aged kids playing with their friends on playgrounds or sports fields. Very rarely, I see kids playing soccer, baseball or basketball with their peers, and that’s when I feel they’re really alive, with no other purpose, no pretending. That’s what you did at the billiard room. That’s when you were alive, I mean.”
Sinae had nothing but negative thoughts. This is a kind of sophistry. It’s a beautification of a craze for billiards that meant he squandered his tuition fee in the billiard room. Moreover, both she and Hyunwoo were more than middle-aged, both approaching fifty. She slowly began to have unpleasant thoughts. Hyunwoo was using words such as ‘Take the ball,’ ‘Angle Line’ and ‘Three Cushions’ as if to encourage his dead friend to take up his cue again.
“You used to say you’d make a billiards dictionary, changing all the Japanese terms into Korean. At that time, we mocked you for wasting your time, but it wasn’t so. Now billiards is in the limelight as one of the ‘cue sports.’ The sight as you lowered yourself to the height of the ball, held the cue firm and gazed at the ball suggested that you were on the verge of becoming a god of billiards.”
His farewell ritual, going all the way back to talk about billiards, showed no sign of ending. Sinae felt that her patience had reached its limit. But she suppressed her annoyance and spoke in euphemisms.
“After such a long time, you must have a lot to say. But instead of expressing everything all at once, suppose you came back and continued then? He’d probably prefer that more. It’s going to take us quite a while to get back to the terminal. Did you say your bus left at 10 o’clock?”
He didn’t give a damn that it was gradually growing dark. He went on chattering resolutely, as if it would be a grave discourtesy to his dead friend not to do so.
“We were dead souls from the moment we prepared to get a job, started carrying books on TOEIC, marketing principles and accounting. Do you remember? Once you began studying for job tests, you quit billiards, and your face began to turn dark. I reckon the urn with your ashes ought to be in the billiards hall you used to frequent.”
Sinae couldn’t take any more. The intensity of the anger welling up inside her was growing ever stronger at the thought that because of Hyunwoo, with his nonsensical chattering, she might not be able to get to the funeral hall she absolutely had to visit tonight. She wanted to shout aloud, ‘That’s enough!’ She felt that people were right when they said that even after a man is an adult, he’s still just a kid. It was because John Lennon knew that so well that he had written: “Woman, I know you understand the little child inside the man; please remember my life is in your hands.” Sinae was obliged to spend the time all alone, thinking that whether he said farewell to his friend or not, it did not matter. This clueless man without any such ideas now turned toward her, and suddenly the previous eloquence turned into a stutter.
“Shi- . . . Sinae, I . . . I have something to confess.”
The moment she heard that, Sinae felt flustered. She turned her head toward the hills in order to avoid his gaze. She wondered what unseemly words she was about to hear, here on this hillside, just the two of them, and moreover on the very spot where her dead husband lay buried. She really wanted to get away, if only she could escape. She longed to stop her ears so as not to hear whatever he was going to say. However, remembering that he was her guest anyway, she turned her head back toward Hyunwoo, and this time it was his turn to raise his head and look up at the sky. He too seemed to be trying not to make eye contact with her.
“Do you remember how, when we were freshmen, we went to Daesung-ri for membership-training and someone went into the girls’ tent at night and slipped a minnow into your hand as you slept?”
Sinae replied vaguely, as she was not sure whether she remembered or not.
“Well, suppose that did happen, so what?”
“The culprit who caught the minnow and slipped it into your hand. . ..”
Hyunwoo got to that point and stopped. After a moment, he lowered his head and went on again.
“That was me. There’s no point in hiding it after all this time. I’m really sorry.”
To see him struggling to talk about an incident that had left no trace in her memory only made him look yet more foolish.
“But it happened over 20 years ago. It was just a silly childhood prank.”
Yet it seemed to matter to him a lot. Perhaps because when she screamed the friends who were sleeping beside her all screamed loudly too. But she spoke as if it was no big deal.
“I was just taken by surprise for a moment, that’s all. Why do you still remember it?”
He looked as though she had missed the point. With his head still down, he drew something on the mat with his right foot as he went on:
“No. The fact that I didn’t confess on the spot has been weighing on my mind all my life. I’m really sorry. But I hope you just understand this. At that moment, I just wanted to make you feel the touch of the wriggling minnow. Minnows live in clear sinae (brooks), don’t they?”
It was only then that Sinae realized that the reason the fish had been thrust into her hand was because of her name. She broke into a smile. Yet she had absolutely no memory of the incident. If he had not spoken it would have remained a childish happening that she had completely forgotten about. But Hyunwoo was apologizing to Sinae as if he had committed some great sin. Then suddenly a thought struck her. If there was a problem right now, it was surely his strange behavior on the day of the party. The way he had looked at her with the eyes of another man, not her husband’s friend. Had he really forgotten that? Then he brings up the innocent fish incident from their freshman year, so much earlier, and apologizes? She even wondered if he hadn’t deliberately brought up and made a fuss about that insignificant incident in order to cover up something more serious. Or was she alone in still keeping what happened at the party folded up and stored between the pages of her memory? If that were so, she even wondered if the incident was not telling some truth about herself. While she was thinking about all this in her heart, he started muttering to his friend again.
“Seunghee, if you’re bored over there, remember that autumn night, we were in second year, when we went streaking in the middle of the night from in front of the College of Humanities as far as the front gate, along the ginkgo-lined road. That was your idea. It was really thrilling. As if the whole world was ours.”
She really didn’t want to hear any more, but the mention of streaking had Sinae hooked again. Streaking on campus at midnight? Sinae seemed to be increasingly unable to understand the world of men. She also felt rather disappointed that she had graduated without doing anything of that kind. But she was no longer prepared to listen to him, no matter what other shocking things might emerge. So she stopped paying attention, started packing up and preparing to leave. It also felt increasingly creepy that the two of them were alone up in the hills like this. Some dark shadow seemed all the time to be lingering nearby. Just then the antennae in her head detected some kind of unexpected movement. As he continued to intone some kind of confession, things around seemed to come strangely alive. The maple trees standing between the columbarium walls bathed in the twilight glow appeared fresher and redder. A mountain breeze charged with the buzzing energy of the cemetery wove its way round Sinae’s breast. At the same time, she seemed to hear something totally unexpected. It was as a poet once said, “The dead murmur beneath the ground,” and “the nails and hair of the dead grow silently.” It was a phenomenon that would never be experienced if you came out of a sense of duty, offered wine, bowed, then wiped the stone slab clean following the standard procedures. For a moment, Sinae felt as if the ashes were stirring, as if they were trying to hold a festival of their own.
It was extremely disconcerting. Hyunwoo, who had seemed rather flippant when they were in university, looked rather different, though still talkative, here before her husband’s grave, and was now leading Sinae to some strange place. She closed her eyes. The cemetery suddenly turned into the billiards room in front of the school. Seunghee emerged from his urn and began to play billiards with Hyunwoo after sending out for Chinese noodles. There were three balls on the pool table: white, red and yellow. Being left-handed, he lowered himself to the level of the table, grasped the tip of the cue with his right hand, drew his left hand holding the grip of the cue as far back as possible and was staring at the balls with the eye of a falcon. He struck the white ball, which hit the red ball lying directly in front of it, collided against the left wall and rolled on energetically, until it touched the yellow ball lying in front of the opposite wall, then a moment later the red ball that the white had struck came rolling gently until it too touched the yellow ball. Sinae’s whole body thrilled to the smooth texture of the balls as if she were touching them with her hands. Hyunwoo raised his hands in surrender, and Seunghee smiled in satisfaction. At such a moment, Seunghee seemed to be lucidly solving the billiard balls’ invisible geometry in his head. People said that solving such an equation had been a long-standing dream for physicists. Now Seunghee, having solved it, looked more cheerful than ever. Sinae nearly reached out her hand for a high five. Suddenly she remembered the Père Lachaise cemetery in France. A friend who studied in Paris had told her that the cemetery was a place of communication between the dead and the living. She said that when she had problems with a report or when she felt lonely and homesick, she would visit the Paris cemetery and talk to the poets, novelists and musicians buried there. She said it was a place where everyone was only given a small space of the same size, no matter how wealthy or famous they might be, celebrities such as Edith Piaf, Yves Montand, Chopin, Proust. But with its beautiful centuries-old trees and ever-flowering gardens, it had become a popular destination for citizens to relax in. Did that mean that the ashes of dead people like Chopin, Yves Montand, or Proust came back to life and talked to the visitors?
Perhaps the bizarre energy of the ashes of the dead coming alive for a party might be applied to Truman Capote, author of Breakfast at Tiffany’s. She had recently heard in the news how a friend and his lifelong partner had shared his ashes between them, and then, thirty years later, after both had died, the ashes had fetched a high price in an auction. There had been people who worried that selling ashes at auction would be disrespectful or over-commercial. But his acquaintances said: ‘True would never have wanted the urn with his ashes to lie asleep on a shelf.’ The moment Sinae imagined people making bids at an auction for someone’s ashes, she felt like smiling. It was not an auction, but a party bringing the ashes back to life. As she listened to the news report, Sinae had seemed to see Capote kick his way out of his urn, put on a mask and start to dance in the auction house. In his lifetime he had lived to the full, creating a sensation wherever he went.
While she was imagining Capote growing warm again, she recalled the tepid feel of the urn containing her husband’s ashes, when it had been handed to her at the Seongnam Crematorium a few years before. That’s right, tepid. It had probably been the temperature of her breast. But even that tepid feel seemed to have been quickly forgotten in the stress of having to bring the urn to where relatives and friends were waiting at the burial place. After placing the urn in the niche in the columbarium wall, which was like a chest of drawers, then closing the door, and bowing twice to the sound of a monk’s chanting, the funeral ended very simply. Sinae completed the procedure slowly but without any farewell gestures, such as caressing the urn affectionately or gazing at it profoundly. For Sinae, the urn had been nothing more than a pot holding ashes, the cemetery nothing more than a simple physical space holding the remains of dead people. But now that space was gradually being turned into a festival of ashes with the appearance of her husband’s rather unwelcome friend. To be honest, Sinae reckoned it was a ‘revenge of the ashes’. And it wasn’t happening on “Ash Wednesday,” but on an ordinary Saturday.
Once he had demonstrated his skill at billiards, Seunghee’s ashes, which had grown scorching hot like Capote’s, seemed determined to show Sinae another kind of festival. Suddenly, he stripped off his clothes and stood naked, his middle leg dangling, then started gently warming up. He seemed about to reproduce the streaking of the distant past. Determined not to see that, Sinae opened her eyes that had been closed. Hyunwoo was still whispering something to his friend’s ashes. She took the bottle from the altar and put it in a plastic bag and rolled up the mat. Even though she stirred up a chill breeze as she roughly rolled up the mat, he kept muttering something to his friend.
“I’ll be in the car. Finish saying goodbye and come out. “
After saying that, Shine turned away somewhat impatiently and went striding toward the parking lot. There was still no sign of Hyunwoo after thirty minutes. Sinae was obliged to walk back to where he was. As she entered the pine grove surrounding the columbarium, she saw him emerging with his hands deep in his pockets. Feeling relieved, Sinae stood waiting for him to come out. He obviously knew she was standing there, but pretended not to see her and passed by without a word of apology for keeping her waiting for so long, although it was certainly not dark enough for him not to recognize her. Just as Sinae had done to him when he stood in her way back at the party early in her marriage, swiftly and furtively, yet decisively. Then Hyunwoo got in and sat down in the passenger seat. Sinae felt strange. Had Hyunwoo misunderstood something? Is it because he assumes that I have some different interest in him? No way, it can’t be. Sinae persuaded herself to endure for a little longer. But then he started chattering again.
“Do you realize how much Seunghee cared about you? He decided that he would not be like his father, who had been crazy about nothing but business all his life. The family counted for nothing. So he decided that he would put the happiness of his family first in his life. So he opened a small store, only it didn’t work out, which meant you had to suffer a lot. But he always felt sorry toward you.”
Sinae felt that if he had been holding a mike to his lips she would have torn it from him. Who wanted to hear such talk after all that time? Rain began to hit the car windows noisily. It was already getting too late for her to go to the funeral hall; the whole situation was really frustrating. There were so many cars on the expressway entering Seoul from Bundang that it took an hour just to reach the Yangjae Interchange. From there, the congestion was even worse. With the express bus terminal just ahead, they were immobilized for a full thirty minutes. Perhaps realizing the seriousness of the situation, he kept quiet for a while, then remarked.
“The traffic in Seoul is really a pain.”
For Sinae, there was nothing he could say that would bring any comfort. Rather, she felt like telling Hyunwoo that he was the epicenter of her pain today. After crawling along, she finally dropped him off at the Express Bus Terminal. Sinae felt as if she was being relieved of a pain in the neck. After turning on the GPS she tuned in to the traffic broadcast. Because the traffic on the Olympic Highway was too heavy, they recommended taking the Southern Ring Road or Hyeonchungro. Unable to decide which way to go, Sinae was once more confronted with a choice between three roads.
While she was wondering which route would have less traffic, she was thinking of Hyunwoo, whom she had just dropped off at the terminal. When he was sitting next to her, he had been just so much useless luggage, but it was as if he had thrown something at her as he got out. In addition, he was the one who had provoked the festival of ashes. She was troubled by the way he had deliberately ignored and avoided her as he passed by her at the cemetery. She longed to ignore it all. So what big deal was it, anyway? Nevertheless, in her head she continued to feel anxious, as if something might or might not come into her mind. Finally, she concluded that there had always been something awkward about her life. She didn’t know what it was, but because of it, she had always considered life suspiciously. It was the same today. After groaning a while, something came to her mind. Something she had never done well and that Hyunwoo had spent the whole day putting into practice, the act of mourning. By doing so, Hyunwoo had testified to the times when her husband had lived, like a young kid, maybe, but fully alive, living a real life. That was the festival of ashes Seunghee had celebrated today. Suddenly she wondered. If that was the case, had Seunghee been dead all the time they lived together?
In fact, Sinae had known nothing about his humanity, his habits, what he really liked, that Hyunwoo had been talking about today. She had never even imagined stories about his smoking habits, his favorite karaoke song, pocket ball geometry, or streaking across the campus. Their relationship had started as classmates, but after they got married, they had imprinted on each other nothing but responsibilities and duties. She had done nothing but scold him and grumble about his weak showing as head of the family. Come to think of it, his friend Hyunwoo had probably known him better than she had, though she was his wife: he must have known how Seunghee should have lived in this land where he had received his life. Sinae began to regret that she had come away instead of observing Seunghee’s ash festival carefully to the end. Yet she felt that it was something she could never rid herself of, that could forever be replayed at any time in front of her eyes, remaining intact for life. Even now, she thought, she maybe ought to put his urn in the billiards room as Hyunwoo had said. After all, it wasn’t only Capote’s urn that had to be brought back to life by being cherished and revered.
Anyway, Sinae had certainly never grieved over anyone as Hyunwoo had done today. It had been the same at her mother’s funeral. She had known how her mother’s body had grown light enough to be lifted up with one hand after several months of hospital treatment following a difficult operation. However, she merely followed the customary funeral procedure, crying and bowing, never comprehending the meaning of the body that had grown so light. How after marrying the oldest of a family of eight her mother had worn her knuckles to the bone slaving until her back was completely bent. She had not once embraced that mother, who had grown as light as a ghost.
With the word “grieving” Sinae thought of K, whose wake she was on her way to attend. His face was reflected in the car window. On such a dark night, his face appeared to Sinae almost identical to when they were students in their twenties. When she was with him it seemed to Sinae that she would never grow old. She couldn’t begin to imagine what had taken him away so fast. Their last meeting had been when they went to hear the Berlin Philharmonic and he had looked so healthy. After a delicious dinner and the concert, they shared happy smiles over tea as the evening drew on. Meeting him had always made her heart pound. She wondered why, and suddenly something struck her. It was the fact that they shared no bitter memories of floundering bogged down together. The fresh thrill and excitement that came from there being no dark shades, no wrinkles, were no bad thing. Enjoying together what each enjoyed in pleasant surroundings then each returning to their own place. There was only one thing that troubled her. Whenever they met in the lobby of a concert hall for a performance, he always approached from a little way off, with an arm ready extended at full length to shake her hand. There was no telling if it was an ingrained social habit, something he always did when he met people. But to her eyes, it looked like a gesture designed to let the people around them know that they were not a couple living in the same space every day. That had always brought a trace of emptiness to her heart. But what more could she hope for? It seemed to be a condition that Sinae had to accept in order to keep their relationship intact. Even running at maximum speed, the wipers failed to cope with the rain pouring down the windscreen. It was fortunate that the traffic was so heavy. At that point a question came into her mind. Hadn’t she been living her life upside down? That overturn came flooding before her like a river, suddenly swollen by heavy rain. Every moment of the apparently squalid daily life that she had rejected seemed to be taking its revenge. She was so concerned about the lives of others that her motto was to make instant food as delicious and fresh as food freshly cooked at home, yet in fact her own life was all a sham.
Her married life with her husband was passing in front of her eyes. Apart from times when they were dating, they had never sat alone enjoying a cup of tea together—their days of marriage had been cold and unfeeling. His simple smiles and sighs and the exclamations of “Why, how soft!” when they gave their first child its bath together. The sound of his breathing, a music more precious than any other sound. Sinae was now dimly feeling something she had never realized before. That living is not a space set aside for something great apart from everyday life. The failures and frustrations of one person, the falls, watching all of them standing beside that person, quiet moments immersed in good music, moments when every cell of the body seems to swell in the warmth of the sun. Sinae had blown all those moments away. She wanted to cry out, appeal against the injustice, say she had had no choice in order to earn a living. She wanted to protest that if it were at all possible, she too would have loved to go to a billiards hall on a free day, play billiards with her husband, order Chinese noodles, wield the cue and the chopsticks in turn, whispering together. But no matter what excuse she made it was useless. It was all so many pomegranate seeds scattered in the air. Sinae could not figure out what to do about such a mess. Including Hyunwoo’s actions, the world was really full of unknowable things. The rain was still splashing against the window. Stopping in front of a tightly jammed, three-way intersection, Sinae closed her eyes. Naked, Seunghee had finished warming up and was standing side by side with his friends at the top of the ginkgo-lined road. The festival of ashes was about to begin once again.