Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
Published in Koreana: Korean Culture & Arts (The Korea Foundation) Vol. 29, No. 3 Autumn, 2015. Pages 92 - 103.
Right. Now it’s kneading time. A time when I have to add water to the lightly mounded flour, one, two, three, four spoonfuls at a time, mixing it in and molding it into a lump of dough. A time when I have to mix and knead until the lump, rough skinned as a blistered heel, grows smooth like a baby’s face coated with milk lotion. I have to give it a vigorous massage . . . .
I had just been rummaging in the kitchen cabinet, trying to find some perilla oil, when I came across a bag of flour. The moment I glimpsed the four-kilogram bag, its top sealed by a twist of yellow rubber band, I found myself seized by an urge to boil up a serving of noodles made with my own hands: kneading the dough, rolling it out, slicing out noodles one by one. At once I took a large brass bowl and poured the flour into it from the bag. I shook the bag until it was empty; there looked to be enough flour for three or four bowls of noodles. I could not guess how large a lump of dough that amount of flour would yield, or how many strands of noodles I would produce. If the bag of flour had not caught my eye, hunched there behind the packs of seaweed and glass noodles like some neglected old man, I suppose I would now be boiling up some rice gruel. After pouring a handful of soaked rice into a saucepan and stir-frying it in perilla oil, then adding the water saved from washing the rice, I would be stirring it with a rice paddle to keep the grains from sticking to the bottom of the pan, until they began to come bubbling up. Grains of rice rising like futile thoughts . . . all of them . . . .
I am waiting for the grains of salt to dissolve in the water. The grains of salt, that resemble grains of sand, have settled to the bottom of the drinking glass and show no sign of dissolving. In the glass, which is stamped with “Chilsung Cider,” the water is quite still. The salt may be melting, moment by moment, but far too slowly for my inept, impatient eyes to be able to see. Until the grains of salt have vanished without a trace, am I supposed to wait forever, absent-mindedly? To do that, with the time remaining . . . I finally take a spoon from the box. Using a spoon with a phoenix stamped on the handle, I stir the water in the glass. It must measure about five centimeters across. In the narrow glass a whirlpool forms and the grains of salt rise upward, around and around . . . As I stare into the vortex I start to feel giddy. I have the sensation I am being sucked into a powerful eddy.
Little by little, parsimoniously, I pour in the water, wherein the salt grains have finally dissolved, and blend it with the flour. The flour grows damp, clumps roughly, sticks to my fingers. Rubbing the flour between my clenched fingers, I shape it into a lump. Pressing until the joints of my fingers bulge like bulbs . . . using my fingers to scrape off the wet flour that is inclined to stick to the basin like chewing gum . . . Perhaps I had some vague premonition that one day a time like this, kneading time, would come to me; a time, I mean, when I would have to endure while I keep clenching then spreading my sluggish fingers. The kitchen window full of afternoon sunlight like a squashed persimmon . . . sitting like this, my back turned indifferently to the window.
As I keep kneading the dough hard, I look around the kitchen. The plain yellow linoleum, bulging and scratched in places, the gray sink, the wallpaper with its pattern of purple morning glories, the Goldstar fridge, the rice-cooker that could cook the rice then keep it warm, the green plastic pot with aloes growing in it, the pale-green trash can, the calendar from Nonghyup, and the bamboo good-luck charm coated with dust, the neatly stacked, darkly stained saucepans, the rice jar decorated with the ten longevity symbols, the round portable dining table with its legs folded, leaning against the fridge . . . kneading time must be different from vegetable peeling time, or the time spent scraping the scales from half-frozen croakers, or brushing perilla oil on sheets of seaweed spread on a tray. Or the time for rubbing hard at macerated dried seaweed, or the time for crushing a handful of garlic, or the time for dicing radish, or the time for peeling burdock stems, or the time for roasting perilla seeds in a frying pan. Five in the afternoon, when all the world’s shadows always fade . . . normally I would be out shopping or taking down and folding the washing. But I wonder why I feel as if I have mixed and kneaded flour in your kitchen like this regularly, not just yesterday but the day before and the day before and even the day before that as well?
For some reason the dough refuses to get less lumpy but keeps popping and splitting. I am still a long way from kneading the dough into smoothness, yet already there seem to be a smell of noodles being boiled. It is as though there is a cauldron somewhere in the house full of noodles tangling together and disentangling as they boil. The smell of noodles boiling . . . how can I describe that smell? The smell given off by noodles made of nothing but kneaded flour as they boil, I mean. Somehow serenely, calmly and subtly savory, that smell that slyly awakens a long-forgotten hunger . . . that smell is quite different from that emitted by boiling noodles produced and dried by machine — how to put it — just as the sounds of organ and piano are different. I recall a scene where a cauldron of noodles was set down near the meal table. Inclined to one side, with the cover off. The layer of newspaper cradling the smoke-blackened cauldron, a white cotton cloth wrapped around its handles, the pile of nickel bowls like a tower beside it, the noodles scooped into the bowls, the steam rising from the noodles, the finger casually sweeping up the noodles dangling from the bowl . . . .
The dough is still too dry, not soft enough. I’m going to have to add a little more water. Just a drop . . . no, not enough. Two drops . . . right, just two drops more . . . the more water I add, the soggier the noodles will be . . . and maybe the dough will be easier to handle, right, it will become more malleable, but on the other hand, the noodles I produce after all these efforts may become too floppy and not stay firm.
At last the dough seems to be coming together into a lump. Yet still I have the feeling that the dough may be too hard. I recall once again the sight of you huddled like a visitor at one side of the wooden-floored porch kneading dough. Pressing hard on the dough until I worried you would wear away the lines in the palm of your hand . . . things you dug secretly into the dough, obliged to just press and press . . . what could they have been? Was it really twenty-nine years ago already? That means that when you came to live with us you were the age I am now. You were forty-three then, now you are seventy-two and I am forty-three . . . The day you arrived, the family elders were gathered in this room speaking in hushed voices about the barren woman . . . was it because I overheard them talking about how you had been divorced because you could not have children? To my childish eyes you looked crestfallen, like someone merely brought in as a domestic servant. Father, who in those days was selling tools in the Central Market, brought you home then went back to work. Once the family elders left, you went into the kitchen and came out carrying a basin. In the bowl, which was used to serve sweet potatoes or kimchi, or for washing rice, you had put some flour. While shadows fell over the porch which had been full of sunlight, the dough you pressed and kneaded, the noodles you produced, then boiled . . . in those noodles there were no slivers of potato, pumpkin, or leek, no sliced egg. Without even adding any seasoning, you served them up and placed a bowl each before me and my younger brothers. I must have felt upset and angry about something, I am not sure what . . . Using a spoon I cut up the noodles you had worked so hard to produce. All the noodles in the bowl, chopping away . . . .
My wrists are already going numb. How much longer do I have to knead and rub until the dough is properly firm? How much more . . . thud . . . intent on keeping on working at the dough, I start to feel myself growing old. By the time I lightly sprinkle flour on the dough, before flattening it with a rolling pin, I may feel as feeble and old as you. Once your husband, who was like a cold chimney, was dead and your stepchildren had left home, how many kneading hours did you spend while you cared for this house all alone. As I was making some noodles, I began to think of you . . . thud . . . From time to time you used to phone me and mutter those words. Noodles, you say? I would reply. It seems you never realized that my taste in food was like Father’s, not fond of dishes made of flour such as noodles. Moreover, as the eldest daughter, I had inherited a hard-hearted character just like Father’s, hadn’t I? Still, you felt anxious that you could not treat me to a bowl of noodles you had kneaded and cooked with your own hands.
I wonder why my fingers look so unfamiliar as they knead the dough on and on? I feel as though I have stolen someone else’s fingers and am mindlessly using them as my own to go on kneading. Your fingers, I mean, as you lie in there sleeping. I recall the noodles you first cooked and placed in front of us; if there had been some sliced egg perched on those noodles, would I still have been able to cut them up with my spoon, I wonder . . . or if at least some scraps of dried seaweed had been sprinkled over them . . . ?
It’s my tongue . . . .
What about your tongue?
My tongue . . . .
. . .
It ached and throbbed so much that I had to stop eating noodles.
. . . ?
Even just touching the noodles made my tongue hurt as though it was being smoothed with a plane.
. . .
They say I need to be examined at a major hospital.
Seized by a sudden urge, I feel like throwing the dough away. If I go to the store, I can find lots of noodles that are softer and stickier than those I could produce with my own hands, so why make such a wretched effort? I feel myself growing irritated.
Not only the dough; I barely manage to control an urge to hurl down the brass bowl . . . maybe . . . thud. . . thud . . . it may be that I am enduring this kneading time out of a sense of repaying a debt. Indeed. Since some time ago, whenever I think of you, I start to feel as though I am running away charged with a debt that I can never repay, even if I keep on paying for a whole lifetime.
My tongue . . . .
. . .
Cut off my tongue, please . . . .
You called at two in the morning and after I hung up, you can’t imagine how shaken with anxiety I was. Not because of concern for your tongue that was hurting so intensely that you wanted to have it cut off and removed . . . not because of concern for your tongue . . . It was only two months later that I had you come up to Seoul and took you to a hospital. Blood tests, urine tests, ultrasound tests, all kinds of tests. The three hours of tests left us both exhausted. More than the tests themselves, it was going to each examination room, one after another, then waiting your turn, that wearied you. As though everyone in the world were sick, you remarked, every examination room was crowded like the waiting room in a railway station. Once we left the hospital, the place I took you was a noodle restaurant. The tests had you fasting since the previous evening and there seemed to be no other restaurant suitable for me to take you except for the noodle restaurant. The noodles that we were served in stainless steel bowls about ten minutes after ordering were different from those you would make. They were the same noodles, but a quite different kind of food. With one bowl costing seven thousand won, they served the flat, thin noodles garnished with zucchini in a milky bone broth . . . you only took a couple of spoonfuls of the broth.
The noodles you used to prepare . . . there were just two occasions when I really longed to eat those noodles. It was back in the days when I had moved up to Seoul and was cooking for myself while working. One evening, coming home from work, I bought flour from the store in front of my home and prepared some dough. Not having a proper bowl, I poured one whole pack of flour into a saucepan, and dribbled in water. Crouching before the television, I kneaded the dough until the moist mixture clung to my fingers. Cooking for myself, I had no rolling pin, so finally I wrapped the lump of dough I had prepared in a plastic bag and put it into the vegetable container of the fridge. When I took it out later, on cleaning the fridge, the lump of dough had turned hard as stone and was covered with dark blue mold. I reckon that lump of dough I tossed into the trash bag must be roaming the world like a stone. It must simply be rolling here and there about the world . . . rolling, rolling until it scatters as gravel . . . at last turning into grains of sand . . . I remember reading somewhere that there is sand that goes flying beyond Earth’s atmosphere and reaches Mars. Come to think of it, that lump of dough even looked like Mars. Mars, where sometimes sandstorms arise. To tell the truth, that day, I had been fired from my job . . . Perhaps because it was my very first job and I had only been working there for five months when I heard I had been fired, standing in front of the coffee machine, my only thought was that I wanted to eat some noodles. That I wanted to put a portion of noodles your hands had made into my mouth and chew them like a docile, sluggish ox . . . nine months passed before I was employed again but I never let you know my situation.
Perhaps because it is so quiet, I making dough and you sleeping deeply seem to be the only humans alive. How much longer must I rub and knead and mix before I have produced dough suitable for making noodles, I wonder. What you used to pour salty water onto in the basin and knead on and on, I think, must have been time, rather than flour. Suddenly such thoughts . . . thud . . . I never imagined I would really be kneading flour into dough in your kitchen . . . thud.
Just a bit more, a bit more pressing.
You came to visit my house only once, right? It was in my eighth year of marriage, when I was in bed recovering after losing the baby I had been pregnant with by AI after all sorts of difficulties. My husband contacted you as he was leaving for a few days away working in Busan; the next day you took the bus at dawn and arrived at my house. I said I wanted noodles to eat . . . so you kneaded flour into dough in my messy, unfamiliar kitchen and made noodles. Crouching huddled beneath the table, just as on the day you first came to us. Making broth with a chicken, cooking the noodles in that, slicing thin strips of the flesh, seasoning them with sesame oil and perilla seeds, using that as garnish . . . chicken noodle broth that seemed sure to act as a tonic if I only consumed one bowlful. You served it up with water kimchi you brought from home in place of a sauce.
If you wait quietly, one will come. If you just wait, it will come naturally . . . .
After you left, I flushed the bloated noodles down the toilet. Before even the elevator carrying you had reached the ground floor from the fifteenth, cursing your fate and mine. Flushing and flushing until the toilet had swallowed up every last strand . . . in that way I was transferring to you the blame for my not having a baby. Blaming you, with whom I had not a drop of blood, not a scrap of flesh, not a sliver of bone, in common. Perhaps because I wanted to believe that your fate had taken control of my fate. Just as two strands of noodle, that should stay separate, somehow stick together as they cook and form a lump, your fate and mine seemed to have clumped together . . . .
If I wait, you said?
Perhaps it was because I learned far too early that there are sometimes things that do not come, no matter how long one waits. My mother setting off for the house of her brother, who ran a dry cleaner’s . . . Mother had said she would be back before evening and though I waited she never came back. I waited as the evening grew ever deeper, festered, ready to burst, until day dawned bright just as mold blooms on a festering spot . . . On the day you came to us, too, I think I spent the whole day waiting for Mother. It simply seemed that if I only waited Mother would come back alive. If I waited earnestly . . . And I think I spent all the time you were in charge of us in place of Mother waiting for Mother. That might be why I never once called you Mother. While I had striven to repudiate you and keep you at a distance, it seemed that if I ate a bowl of the noodles you had prepared, my body that had so pointlessly expelled the baby would somehow recover. Noodles with clams, noodles with red beans, noodles with potatoes, noodles with dumplings . . . there are all kinds of noodles, but even one bowl of the exceedingly plain, austere noodles you prepared . . . That rolling pin you left behind in my kitchen . . . when we moved house, I left it behind.
The cancer in your tongue had already spread considerably, resection surgery was inevitable, but how should I tell you the doctor’s explanation? Would it be better to wait, saying nothing, until you had taken several mouthfuls of noodles and then bring it up? . . . thud . . . .
Maybe because the consistency of the dough has become so firm and sticky, I begin to feel as though I am kneading not a lump of flour dough but a lump of resentment. It’s as though I am engaged in a wrestling match with hard, tough resentment. Exerting reckless stubbornness in an attempt to see if you win or I win . . . The angrier I become, the more my fingers attack persistently and tenaciously, while this resentment only grows stickier. And yet . . . somehow, despite the resentment, something seems to be loosening up inside me. Something tight and deep like this cursed resentment . . . something that no other word comes to me to explain: resentment, softening . . . I wonder if for you kneading times were not also times to soothe and loosen the resentment inside you?
This lump of dough is the size of an average face. Perhaps because of that, I feel as if I am making dough, not to produce noodles but simply to make a certain form. If I shape this dough into a form, it would turn out to be your face, I guess. A resigned, inscrutable face, with joy and anger, sorrow and pleasure, various contradictory emotions, jumbled together until even one emotion can rarely be detected on it . . . Even if I leave the dough as it is, I have a feeling it will of itself take on a form exactly resembling your face. Indeed, it seems that the dough is, little by little, of its own accord, taking on the shape of your face.
I try to imagine piercing a hole in the dough, that looks exactly like you, and puffing breath into it.
I wonder how many strands of noodles I shall be able to produce from this lump of dough. The noodles you used to make were neither too thick nor too thin.
Shall I cook noodles for you?
At that voice, that sounded like a dried fish being torn, I turn around in surprise. Am I hearing things? Yet it had been clear . . . Beyond the sliding door, I do not see you in the living room. It must have been an auditory hallucination.
Will one hour be enough? The time for the dough to mature, I mean. During the time it is left unfussed, undisturbed, the dough would grow soft and sticky. Once the dough had been worked enough, you used to wrap it in plastic and set it aside, covered with the bowl. One hour, two hours, sometimes half a day might pass and you would leave it alone, as if you had forgotten it. You knew for sure that while it was being ignored in that way, the dough would grow deeper and come to full maturity. How else might I express that ripening time? A time of withdrawal? A time of alienation? A time of inner silence? A time for introspection? I remember reading somewhere that, scientifically speaking, four or five hours is the optimum time for dough to mature. Also that keeping it in a fridge rather than at room temperature is effective. Four or five hours . . . only I don’t have time to leave the dough that long. This evening I have to catch the express bus back home. At the latest, I have to leave here by eight if I am to reach Seoul before midnight. Then you will be alone in this house again. Feeling impatient, I long to roll out the dough, cut it into thin slices with a kitchen knife and make the noodles straightaway, but . . . just for one hour . . . I want to leave it alone for at least an hour so that the dough can have time to mature. I have kneaded it enough, so one way or another it ought to yield reasonably good noodles now, but I should wrap it in plastic . . . I feel sure that somewhere in the kitchen you keep a stock of wrapping cloths. Cloths folded the size of my hand, neatly piled in a drawer of the cabinet . . . pale green, golden, orange, purple. The purple one will do. After wrapping the bowl in the purple cloth and putting it in a dark corner of the kitchen, I feel numb and hollow . . . .
While the dough enjoys its ripening time all by itself inside the purple wrapping cloth, what am I supposed to do? I get pins and needles in my right hand. The fierce earthquake-like tremors that visited my right hand that felt like ruined land seem unlikely to subside for quite a while. I quietly clasp my right hand with my left. Is it because I have passed through the kneading time? My right hand seems like your hand, not mine. Just suppose . . . if the first food you placed before me and my siblings had not been noodles, what would have happened? If it had been, not mere plain noodles, but presentable, creditable food, I mean. Japchae, bulgogi, gimbap . . . or a saucepan full of well-boiled pork and kimchi stew. Or even noodles, only garnished with beef, I mean. Or if you had served up the noodles cooked in a broth made with dried anchovies and kelp, with chopped potatoes and leeks.
While I was kneading, five calls had come in and remained unanswered on my mobile. Three were from my husband, two from the gynecology unit. I did not tell you I had decided to make one more attempt with AI. The appointment for admission to hospital to have the procedure had been today. At about ten I left home to go to the hospital and took a bus that passed via the bus terminal. After spending an hour in the terminal’s waiting room, I took an express bus and came down here. Was something suddenly drawing me toward you? You were due to come up to Seoul in six days’ time, after all. You asked nothing, as though you had been expecting me. From your deeply-lined face, both cheeks sunken like ravines, I could vaguely guess the pain your tongue was enduring.
Blindly. Will there ever again be a day when I come visiting you blindly like this?
I once saw an old man eating noodles alone in a restaurant. It was not a restaurant specializing in noodles, it mainly sold rice and soup. The old man was eating noodles alone at a table in one corner. Clutching chopsticks in a hand shaking so much I wondered if he suffered from a hand tremor . . . lifting the noodles . . . inserting them into a mouth like a small dish. Lifting five or six strands at a time with difficulty, he seemed to be uprooting them from underground . . . the noodles were so barely caught between the chopsticks that by the time they reached the old man’s lips only a couple were left. How he must have wanted to eat them to have ordered noodles alone like that in a restaurant . . . the idea that he was not eating noodles simply to provide a meal seemed to come from something about the old man’s appearance, suggesting some kind of desperate effort. Was it that the old man looked needy and pathetic? If it had been at all possible I would have liked to slyly place a bowl of your noodles in front of the old man. I had been intending to eat soft tofu stew, but on an impulse ordered noodles instead. The noodles submerged in a broth tasting of artificial seasoning were a disappointment, not worth the five thousand won they cost. Not that I had expected anything better. The zucchini sliced into half-moons, three or four of them, was almost raw and gave off a metallic taste. The meat of the clams, perhaps deep-frozen ones, was shriveled and wretched like scraps of spat-out chewing gum. All other things set aside, the noodles themselves were dreadful . . . neither sticky nor soft, but slippery and tough, they were just like slivers of thick paper . . . when I exited from the restaurant, leaving half the noodles I had ordered uneaten, the old man was still silently consuming his noodles.
There is no time to stay gazing blankly into the distance; I have to prepare the sauce to go with the noodles. Why, I had nearly forgotten about the sauce. Hoping that there might be some sauce you had made, I explored the fridge but there was nothing besides some left-over bean curd refuse stew and a few side dishes. Surely the sauce was the highlight of your home-made noodles? Since you do not add any seasoning while cooking the noodles, without sauce there is nothing to savor but the taste of flour. You wouldn’t have forgotten how important seasoning is for food? No matter how fresh or fancy the ingredients used to make a dish, if the seasoning is wrong it ends up spoiled. The sauce you used to prepare separately to provide the seasoning . . . it was only after adding a couple of spoonfuls of that sauce and stirring it in that your noodles yielded their true taste. Finely chopped chives and chilis, chili powder, sesame seeds, starch syrup, perilla oil, Joseon-style soy sauce . . . I prepare a mental list of the ingredients needed for the sauce. I will have to go out to the store to buy the chives and chilis, at least. As I emerge onto the porch holding my phone and purse, I glance into the bedroom where you are lying motionless, turned toward the wall, before walking to the sliding door. I put on your slippers and pass through the entrance gate where my eyes suddenly fall on the doorplate . . . Father has been gone a long while but it still bears his name . . . and after all, the owner of the house is my younger brother, not you. In addition, this rundown neighborhood is bound to be redeveloped within the next few years. It was only when I was getting married and went to the local office to obtain the copy of my family register I needed to register my marriage that I realized you had never been added to the register, you had always lived as a kind of ghost. There was no sign of your name anywhere in the copy of the family register I received. I forgot to wash my hands. The flour that adhered to the fingers, palms and backs of my hands while I was kneading is now coming off like dead skin. After hesitating whether to go back in again and wash my hands, I go on walking down the alley. Though mixed with starch syrup, sesame seeds and perilla oil, still I always disliked sauce made with Joseon-style soy sauce; its bitter taste is stronger than that of the brewed soy sauce we call Japanese-style, and in addition I find its rich, stale taste and smell unpleasant . . . so I used to dislike mixing the dark brown sauce into the cloudy broth of the noodles, to say nothing of the way the noodles emerged coated with chili powder, chives and sesame seeds . . . .
One bunch of chives, one bag of chilis, a kilogram of flour, a box of soymilk in packs, a box of strawberries. Then going in the butcher’s shop beside the store, I purchase a pound of beef for making soup. Unable to just pass in front of the bakery, a castella and some red-bean jelly, too. The counter clerk at the bakery, who must have been about my age, flinched as she was about to hand over my change. She must have seen my hands and been startled by the bits of dough from the kneading that still clung to my fingers. I’ve been making noodles, you see . . . I muttered, embarrassed. My goodness, you mean there are still people who make their own noodles? At the clerk’s incredulous response, my face flushed and I quickly left. She seemed to be looking at me the way people look at old-fashioned or eccentric people . . . a pointless inferiority complex I had. All the while I was kneading, there had been one thought that refused to leave my mind, I could not rid myself of the thought that I am making a fuss over nothing . . . There is something we have never discussed, something I do not want to discuss, but once you are gone, where are you to be buried? The plot beside Father’s grave is occupied by Mother’s. She had been buried there early, after giving birth to the four of us, and had then been waiting for Father. What would have happened if even one of us had been your child?
Indeed, perhaps I had been wanting to ask you bluntly. And therefore . . . perhaps that was why I had so abruptly come to visit you. Perhaps I wanted to hear you answer while your tongue was still intact . . . what it was like to live a whole lifetime as a woman without ever bearing a child. Living in this world with its six billion inhabitants without a single being to whom you gave your flesh and blood . . . Without one being so absolute and intense that the words “My baby” come flowing out automatically . . . like a string. The idea that children are strings is something I once heard a friend say. Not simply a string linking you with your husband, but one serving as a link with the world, she said. Just as the bakery clerk’s words had suggested, unlike today’s women, the friend married early and had four children. Come to think of it, noodles do look like strings. Long and thin like the white laces of sneakers . . . I wonder if the noodles you produced were not your strings. It might be that you used to knead flour dough and produce noodles in place of the strings we call children. Maybe it was because you hated to see those strings swell up then droop uselessly that you used to stuff them into your mouth as you did? I no longer remember when it was that I noticed you did not bite off the noodles with your teeth. Instead, you somehow used to pull them up with your chopsticks till you reached the end. Hauling them up . . . rolling them into your mouth. Down to the last drooping, slippery strand. While I chopped up every one of those noodles with my spoon . . . all . . . Were you hurt? I once asked you that. As you were stir-frying chopped radish in perilla oil in a deep frying pan for Father’s memorial day offerings.
Hurt? Not in the least . . . .
You murmured, as if speaking to yourself, and poured a ladle of the water used to wash the rice into the pan. As I watched the half-fried chopped radish being swamped in the rice water, I thought that your reply was not sincere. How could one not be hurt? I asked abruptly, in a spurt of defiance. Were you really not hurt?
What could there be to feel hurt about . . .?
Probably the life bringing up us four children was the best for you. Having already produced three sons as well as a daughter, Father would not have had any desire to have more children with you, while you as a woman must have been content not to have to fear being abandoned again. Nowadays people declare frankly that they are not going to have children, but when you were young, things were not the same. One day, about four years after you came to live with us, your mother paid a visit, I recall. She suddenly came visiting, bringing seaweed and dried anchovies like some peddler, ate a bowl of noodles you prepared for her, then left for her home again. I can clearly recall her appearance, as she adamantly refused your urging to go into the main room and ate the noodles sitting on the wooden-floored porch. Her appearance as she stared at us four children with bean-like eyes while quickly scooping up the noodles with a spoon. One strand after another strand of noodles . . . one strand . . . one . . . I wonder if she was wishing we were children you had borne. The thousand-won notes she gave to me and to each of my younger brothers before she left . . . those crumpled banknotes were somehow like slices of her flesh . . . so similar were they to bits of her flesh sliced off and given to us that I immediately went rushing out to the store to exchange mine for cookies. Then only about two months later news came that she had died and you hurried down to a place called Jinan in North Jeolla Province for the funeral. When you came back five days later, you had a pin in your hair with a white ribbon attached. Have I ever told you how much I worried in suspense during those five days? I felt you might never return . . . Like Mother, you too . . . I wonder why her image has remained fixed so indelibly in my mind, although like you she and I did not have a drop of blood in common. Unlike the way the appearance of my maternal grandmother, whose blood I share, faded completely long ago.
Lifting the purple wrapping cloth, I prod the dough with a finger . . . then removing the plastic wrapping, I try feeling it. Is the dough still too hard, even though I added more water in the middle of kneading it? While it was maturing, it should have gained elasticity and consistency, and toughened up. If the dough is too dry to begin with, I think it is because I was afraid it would turn out too soft after all my efforts, so soft that the only solution would be to make dough flakes instead of noodles. Or the noodles might stick together even before they are put into the boiling water. Dough for noodles is a real challenge, though making dough for flakes is easy enough. In any case, surely there would be no point in trying to add more water then kneading the already matured dough again. Since its viscosity would have increased, the water would not be able to penetrate evenly into the dough. The surface of the dough might become so wet that it would make rolling impossible . . . in fact adding more water to already matured dough can only be thought of as sheer willfulness. Although I can’t say it is against the way of nature, it would certainly be like changing a procedure which is right and natural. Nevertheless, it is also impossible to start making dough again . . . you might wake up while I am making new dough, and besides, I simply can’t start all over again.
Just one strand of noodles. Yes, if only your tongue could roll up a single strand of noodles without any pain . . . that tongue of yours that smarts and stings when even water touches it, let alone a grain of rice.
Whether the dough is too hard or too soft, I must get on with rolling out and slicing the noodles. Noodles as fine as silk threads, if I have my way. For that, I will have to roll the dough until it is thin as a sheet of paper. Then I will have to fold the evenly, smoothly rolled out dough uniformly like folding diapers . . . and slice that while pressing skillfully with thumb, middle finger and index finger.
The way you sprinkled flour over the dough you had rolled thin and wide as a wrapping cloth, the way you folded it comes to my mind. Sitting with one folded knee raised, close to the chopping board, slicing the dough . . . with your head inclined to one side . . . .
One bowl of noodles . . . .
My brothers and I only realized that there were many kinds of food you had never even seen, let alone tasted, when we took you to supper at a shabu-shabu restaurant for your seventieth birthday. You said that it was the first time in your life that you ate shabu-shabu, all sorts of vegetables and beef dunked quickly in boiling broth at the table. You said you had never tasted monkfish stew, that so many people eat. Then have you ever eaten assorted seafood and vegetables in mustard sauce? Five-spice pork? Tuna sashimi? Puffer fish soup? Mung bean jelly with beef and vegetables? Steak?
The kitchen is so dark I have to have the light on. The sound of the noodles being sliced rings like a hallucination. I found a clean cotton wrapper and spread that on the kitchen floor, then laid the wooden chopping board on that. Opening the bag of flour I bought at the store, I take a handful and sprinkle it evenly over the board. I lay the dough onto that and press it down . . . as you used to . . . you would lay it on the board then, before rolling it out, you would pat it gently as though soothing it, press it down, shape it. As though helping it relax.
I recall the sight of flour-coated noodles scattered over a round, silvery tray. Also the sight of the noodles dancing and swaying as they loosened up in the boiling water. As well as the sight of the whitish noodles growing ever paler as they cooked, and the foam seeming ready to brim over the edge of the cauldron.
Ah, in the meantime, the dough has been hardening. Moving on my knees, I draw closer to the chopping board and sit down. I pick up the rolling pin, that has been accustomed to your hands for more than thirty years, and lower it onto the dough. Gently pressing down, I push the rolling pin forward. Your two hands, that would start resting together at the center of the pin used to slide outward. Just as positive and negative repel each other, your two hands would separate. Then bringing your hands together again at the center of the pin, rolling forward . . . after sprinkling flour like rain drizzling down, again rolling . . . all the time turning the dough so that it did not grow uneven but spread out in a circle . . . .
When you were rolling out the dough, it almost looked as though you were performing full prostrations in a Buddhist temple; if I told you that, you would surely shake your head from side to side.
Near the supermarket where I usually do my shopping, there is a man who parks his small truck at the roadside and sells ready-to-cook noodles. Dressed like the cook in a Chinese restaurant, he stands there energetically rolling out dough and making fresh noodles. I wonder what circumstances brought him to selling home-made noodles from a small truck. Not cooked noodles in broth, but just plain, uncooked noodles. Four or five helpings? Even when there are no buyers in sight, every time I see that man, he is busily making more noodles. Amidst all that noise and pollution and mess, standing there silently, rolling out dough.
For some reason, despite the effort going into my wrists, the dough refuses to spread properly. It seems as though, instead of a lump of flour dough, I have a lump of lead from somewhere that I am trying to roll flat. Was my aim of producing noodles thin as silk threads a mere wild ambition? The way the dough is refusing to spread properly, even though I apply all my strength in pressing down on the rolling pin, is surely not simply because the dough has hardened. It’s because my body linked to the rolling pin cannot get into the rhythm. Whereas when you rolled out the dough, your body was filled with rhythm. Not just your hands and wrists but from head to toe. With a slow yet heated rhythm you rolled and the dough gradually spread out.
The noodles you produced were neither too thick nor too thin. Not too tough, not so soft as to break easily, or swell up and burst.
Neither flat nor round, the dough seems to be stretched and pulled here and there in every direction at random. No matter how carefully I slice, it will be so irregular that I doubt if noodles of similar thickness and length will result. How was it that I could only roll the dough into something looking like this? With this self-reproach, despondency comes surging. What should I do? Unwilling to put down the rolling pin, I sprinkle the dough with flour and fold it in half. Then sprinkle more flour, fold it again . . . until it is half a span wide . . . then raising my right knee I draw close to the chopping board . . . snip . . . snip, snip . . . the stuff I am now cutting with the kitchen knife resembles cardboard or paper rather than dough.
I scatter the noodles on the silvery tray. I am supposed to separate and scatter the strands using slack fingers like someone combing their few remaining strands of hair. Fumbling as I raise them so that the strands hang loose between my fingers . . . I separate one by one strands that remain folded together because I pressed too hard as I was cutting. As I look down at the noodles floating in a white cloud of flour, the thought that they look like strings strikes me more acutely . . . like a connection linking you in there and me out here . . . long or short or thick or thin or crooked, one by one, all of them . . . all . . . .
A sudden urge comes to crumple together again the noodles I have cut as best I could.
Now I must quickly put a cauldron of water on to boil. To boil the noodles. Before my hands obey my whim and crush the noodles together. The kitchen echoes with the sound of the flame on the gas range flaring up. Now I only have to wait for the water to boil and keep the noodles from tangling together as I put them in; then it will be finished. I pick up the little folding table leaning against the fridge, unfold the legs and wipe it with a cloth. Taking out the bowls for the noodles, I rinse them and set them ready . . . To the previously chopped chives and chilis I add two spoonfuls of soy sauce, half a spoonful of starch syrup, half a spoonful of chili powder, half a spoonful of sesame seeds, and half a spoonful of perilla oil, and stir them together. It looks as though I will not be able to go back home tonight. It’s already past eight.
I hear the sound of the water boiling behind me. You still have given no sign of life and the noodles are hardening helplessly. From beyond the window comes the sound of feet returning home. Probably water will likewise be boiling in some other person’s kitchen, not only yours. The sound of water boiling seems to be issuing from inside of myself. From some time back, something seems to have been boiling somewhere inside me. Without my realizing it, something has reached boiling point . . . I stand up, carrying the tray. As I take off the lid, steam rises like a flock of freshly hatched white butterflies. It overlaps with memories of something I once saw on the television, a cloud of butterflies emerging like smoke from a tree whose stump alone remained . . . and I grow blank. Having been cut down, unable to stretch out branches, bloom with leaves and flowers, and thus incapable of bearing fruit, the trunk of the tree sending out a cloud of butterflies; the scene had been a quite wonderful spectacle. Clouds grew heavy like rocks, the wind raged fiercely like a wild ram all night long, then came the sight of it releasing into the air the thousands of butterflies it had been embracing carefully inside itself. Only suppose . . . if that tree had been a solid tree, if there had not been an empty space like a cavern inside its left-over stump, how would it have been able to embrace all those butterflies? Likewise, weren’t you a left-over tree stump for us? On a chaotic night when bats fluttered, gladly embracing us . . . no matter how wildly we raged, you put down strong roots. Never shaking . . . then once the butterflies had flown up from the tree stump, they scattered into the cobalt-hued dawn without once looking back.
I wait for the steam to disperse, then pick up a handful of noodles. I scatter the dry, stiff strands into the boiling water. I stir them well to make sure they do not clump together, then another handful . . . the noodles dance lightly, white foam rises, threatens to overflow . . . Turning down the gas a little, I go on stirring with the ladle . . . .
While I kneaded the dough, cut up the noodles then boiled them, much time seems to have elapsed. Not just three or four hours, much longer than that. It seems people began making and eating noodles around 2000 B.C. Traces have been found in the Yellow River basin, the oldest datable evidence of the existence of noodles, apparently. I remember hearing that those noodles were made with sorghum flour, not wheat.
From 2000 B.C. until now, a period of time too long to calculate, seems to be contained in one bowl of noodles.
I suppress a longing to improve things with a sprinkling of egg garnish. From the beginning I wanted to offer you a bowl of noodles no different from those you first served us, noodles no simpler and no more ornate than your noodles. Clasping the table, with nothing but the boiled noodles and the sauce on it, I cross the kitchen threshold. As the edge of the table touches the sliding door, the opaque glass shakes.
You must have woken up at some point; you are sitting forlornly to one side of the room. Perhaps you have been awake all the time . . . the sound of the grains of salt melting in the water, the sound of rubbing and kneading as I poured the salty water into the flour, the sound of the dough being pounded, the sound of the cutting board shaking and banging while I was rolling out the dough, the sound of the dough, folded like a diaper, being sliced with the kitchen knife, the sound of the noodles boiling, the sound of the table’s four legs being unfolded, perhaps you have heard all those sounds without saying a word . . . .
Why, you’ve cooked noodles.
Smoothing your disheveled hair, you approach the table. Holding the spoon, you scoop up the sauce and transfer it to the bowl of noodles. You stir it around in order to mix it in evenly. Changing to chopsticks, you stir again a few times, then lift up some noodles. Five or six strands dangle from the chopsticks as you raise them.
Before you can open your mouth, the noodles you have labored to pick up slip off. Even the last, barely remaining strand finally falls from your chopsticks. After all, it looks as though your tongue is not up to the task of dealing with the noodles, so I pick up the spoon. I begin to snip and cut the strands. Just as I did long ago to the first noodles you ever served to me. Only my feelings then and my feelings now as I snip at the noodles are clearly different. Snip-snip . . . snip.