In the Mood for Love
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
Introduction: The title of this story presents something of a problem for the translator. The original Korean title consists of four Chinese characters, 花樣年華, (flower-like-years-bright), a conventional Chinese expression meaning “the most beautiful or happiest time of one's life” and often used to refer to the moments of beautiful but short-lived youthful love. In the year 2000 the phrase was used as the Chinese title of a famous Hong Kong movie. The subject matter, with two unhappily married people falling in hopeless love, and the outstanding performances by Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung, made it a movie that long remained in the minds of those who saw it. The original Chinese title is the title by which the movie was also known in Korea, and it is therefore also the Korean title of this short story. However, when the movie was released with an English title, it was called “In the Mood for Love,” the title of a popular song from the 1930s which the director Wong Kar-wai heard while finishing the post-production. The link between the movie and the title of this story is therefore probably best preserved by using the movie’s English title. Memories of the film remind readers of the impossibility of extra-marital love. Presumably Gu Hyo-seo took this into consideration when he was writing his story.
It was February when he went down south to view the plum blossoms in Gwangyang. Around February 15.
He was sure that plum trees bloomed in February. Why did he think he knew that? The only possible explanation is because he had graduated from a Korean language and literature department. Or, to be precise, wasn’t it a department of Korean language education?
He sometimes used to quote passages from books such as the Gu Wen Zhen Bao (True Treasures of Old Literature). Or a woodblock edition of The Story of Chunhyang. Or it might be The Tale of Hong Gil-dong, or the Maecheon Yarok (Unofficial Records of Maecheon). Boring quotations. That was what people who knew him used to say — all of them titles anyone would have heard at least once while studying for the university entrance exam, even without being in a Korean literature department. But only the titles, without ever reading them. Or just glimpsed as the source of texts selected for the linguistic aptitude test during the exam.
Yet he tried to show that he really knew them. It was not so much that he knew a lot; rather, the less other people knew the more he could claim to know.
And even if he knew, he did not know fully. So he went off to view plum blossoms in February. That was not necessarily something linked to the Korean literature department. If there was a connection, it might have had more to do with his character than with his college major.
It can be conjectured that in one or another of the books he had read, it said that the second month of the year was the flowering time for plum trees. It probably eluded him it meant the second lunar month. His graduation thesis was about classical literature, too.
But he went to Gwangyang in February by the solar calendar, and about that it can only be said that it had nothing to do with his college major. His choice of “around February 15” can be seen from the same logic. Probably he was unsure if it was early or late in the month so he chose the middle. That’s the kind of person he was.
Anyway, until he arrived in the plum orchard in Gwangyang, the words inside his head never lost certainty: “Plum trees bloom in the second month of the year.”
“I’m coming down to Gurye.”
Shooting out a brief remark then waiting for the other person’s response was his usual method of talking on the phone.
“To see me?”
It was Song-ju. Kim Song-ju. Thirty-five. Teaching on a short-term contract in Gurye. Her husband was a clerk in an agricultural cooperative down there. With one son attending nursery school. His relationship with Song-ju was limited to a phone call once in a blue moon. This call was made the day before he left for Gwangyang.
“Yup. Well, something like that, anyway.”
Something like that . . . There was something hidden behind those words. The plum blossoms were ready to emerge as needed. He knew that Gwangyang was not far from Gurye.
The reason why he wanted to go down south was not to see plum blossoms but to see Song-ju. The plum blossoms was a pretext. Afraid that his intention would be too obvious, he spoke as he did, ready to bring up the plum blossoms if needed.
“What’s up, Bach Ajeossi?”
“You’ve never once said you were coming down here before.”
“Well, you’ve never asked me to come down, either, have you?”
“Oho, is that why you’ve never come?”
“Like I said.”
“So what’s suddenly made you say you’re coming down?”
“It’s plum blossom time, isn’t it? The flowers, that’s why.” On the point of saying that, instead, he continued,
“I’m going down because I want to see you, what other reason do I need?” he insisted.
Song-ju asked lightly: “Do you like duck stew?”
“I like the broth.”
“What about the meat?”
“So long as there are lots of chives in it, I finish it off, meat and all.”
“There’s a place that’s always crowded. I’ll have to book.”
So it was he went down to Gurye without ever mentioning plum blossoms. That was very fortunate. If he had mentioned plum blossoms at the start he would never have been able to go down to Gurye or Gwangyang. Since it was only February. And then he would never have been able to see Song-ju.
“I said there have to be a lot of chives, mind,” he added.
“Show me a duck stew restaurant that doesn’t cook it with chives. Better than that, the spicy salad of wild parsley this place serves will really make you sit up,” Song-ju chimed in.
Song-ju was thirty-five, he was thirty-nine. They were only four years apart in age. Yet, Song-ju had called him Ajeossi — Mister, a friendly term for a middle-aged guy — ever since they were in college.
There, Song-ju had been the only female student to call him Ajeossi. Why? Everyone else called him Hyeong, Oppa, or Seonbae (elder brother or senior student); Song-ju alone called him Ajeossi. He had entered university a year late after repeating the entrance exam, then came back after completing his military service, so he was a bit older — but still he was only twenty-five, yet she called him Ajeossi.
You might wonder what difference it made; the fact was he really liked Song-ju, a lot. But the way she called him Ajeossi got in the way. Of coming close. Just like a yellow card.
Not only had they been in the same class, for him everyday university life was a matter of mixing with everyone for better or worse, regardless of age and so on, as it was a matter of meeting the same students and professors every day. Yet, whenever he heard himself being called Ajeossi, he felt himself shudder. He felt as though he was in a game of freeze tag.
“Why call me Ajeossi? I’m only twenty-five.”
Two months after his return from military service, he had barely managed to say something to Song-ju. Only barely, because whenever he was in front of her, he began to tremble.
“Well, Bach Hyeong won’t do, neither will Bach Oppa and Bach Seonbae . . . doesn’t suit you.” Song-ju spoke slowly. “Mr. Bach is just right but it’s awkward, calling you Mr., so I say Ajeossi. It’s a lot better than calling you Grandfather Bach, isn’t it?”
“Do you really have to call me Bach?”
“Would you rather be called Bong-han Ajeossi?”
Song-ju’s heartlessness almost brought tears to his eyes. “But do you have to add Ajeossi, I mean?”
“It makes me feel comfortable.”
Heartless Song-ju was pretty, so he felt like crying. “It makes me feel uncomfortable . . .” was something he could not bring himself to say.
He had become Bach after submitting an assignment without writing his name. A lecturer who was unfamiliar with his name asked during class one day:
“Who submitted an attached file with the name BH.hwp?” Somebody called out in jest: “Bach?”
Once the laughter died down, in one corner of the classroom a student raised a hand. It was his. From that day onward, Song-ju called him Bach Ajeossi. Later, she shortened it to just Ajeossi.
He reckoned Bach was not a bad nickname. It was because he did not like his given name, Bong-han, that he used to write the initials BH. Bach felt like an acceptable kind of tag. The problem was that it did not really go well with familiar honorifics like Hyeong or Oppa. Later it dropped off like a propellant stage from a rocket, leaving Ajeossi dangling on its own, and that was an even bigger problem.
When the new semester began, the number of students back from military service increased to three and he was able to free himself a little from his Ajeossi obsession. Because, perhaps feeling a bit apologetic, Song-ju called all the returning students Ajeossi, democratically.
“Right. Speak up.”
Once they had finished eating the duck stew, Song-ju challenged him.
“It was delicious, really, the wild parsley.”
“Not about that.”
“No? What then?”
“Why you’ve come down to Gurye.”
“I told you. I wanted to see you.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“You find it hard to believe?”
“If I said I wanted to see you . . . would you believe me?”
“You see . . . So come on. Quickly.”
Her “quickly” left him at a loss for words. Because he understood she did not mean “speak fast.” “Speak frankly, Ajeossi,” was what he understood.
Of course, he had come down because he wanted to see Song-ju. The plum blossoms had merely been an excuse he was going to produce if necessary. But if he said he had come because he wanted to see Song-ju, that would only bring things back to the starting point and their quarrel would most likely start all over again.
The fact that it was bound to become a quarrel made him feel rather sad. Because he was not unaware of what Song-ju meant when she told him to speak quickly. She meant neither “speak quickly” nor “speak frankly.” “Can’t you be a bit more straightforward?” That was what she meant. That “a bit more” was what mattered. Because Song-ju already knew. That ever since their university days he had always been keen on her, and that his feelings were no different now.
But Song-ju and he both thought the same. It was not likely, even if he spoke “a bit more” directly that their relationship would change from what it had been before. Even though he was unattached, unmarried, Song-ju was a married woman with a husband and child, so what could they do?
If Song-ju urged him to speak quickly, it was not because she too was wondering what should be done. She simply wanted to hear a reply containing a little more clarity. No matter what might follow after. Surely people are like that? First, she wanted to hear the words. After all, it wasn’t something that can’t be said.
By comparison, he was much more timid. Even though he had come down to Gurye in order to see Song-ju, he had prepared his excuse involving plum blossoms to the best of his ability.
“Let’s be going.”
He stood up first.
“Where are you going?”
“There’s somewhere I want to go.”
“I knew it.”
He drove rapidly southward, following the river. He reckoned that now he could say he had come to see the plum blossoms. Since he had come to Gurye and met Song-ju, the plum blossoms had ceased to be an excuse.
“Gosh . . . that’s the Seomjin River, isn’t it?”
He exclaimed in surprise, looking out through the window.
“Didn’t you come down to see the Seomjin River?”
Song-ju asked, as if to say, “Stop pretending.”
“If I’d come down to see the Seomjin River, why would I be so surprised? It’s the first time. Why did I feel that I knew it so well when it’s the first time? Is it because poets have written about it so much? But now I’ve seen it for myself, ah, a thousand poems are worth nothing. It’s only now that I see such a lovely river for myself . . .”
“You’re a photographer and this is the first time you’re seeing the Seomjin River?”
“I only take photographs of watches, jewelry, electronic goods, nothing else. I earn a living in my studio. Of course, I’ve seen the Seomjin River in photos. Often.”
“If you didn’t come here to see the Seomjin River, what else is there? Where are we going?”
“Do you still paint sometimes?”
He tried to change the subject.
“One of these days I’m going to paint a thousand pictures of the Seomjin River. It might seem impossible but sooner or later I’ll do it, against all the odds. Why did I marry a man from down here in the backwoods? At present I’m held back by that husband and our child but one day . . . Ah, rural life is hard. People living in Seoul can’t imagine. Do you still write poetry?”
“Without poetry I can’t get through a day.”
“Pooh . . .”
Song-ju must surely have known that ever since university days he had been called “a flunked poet.” He was all the time trying to write poems for literary contests and all the time tasting the bitter cup of failure. He kept saying he could not live without poetry, and that made him happy. It was as if at present he was more in love with loving poetry than writing it.
“There’s a line that goes, ‘In a previous existence I was the bright moon, How many more lives must I go through before I become a plum blossom?’”
“I was wondering why those quotes weren’t flowing.”
“That’s from one of the more than one hundred poems the scholar Toegye wrote about plum blossoms. Wow, comparing himself to the moon is already awesome, and then he says that a plum blossom is something unattainable. How could anyone avoid seeing plum blossoms?”
At last he had mentioned plum blossoms. But Song-ju’s reaction was merely:
“Do you still enjoy reciting that kind of stuff?”
“If you heard the story about Toegye, who was mad about plum blossoms, and the singer Duhyang, who expressed her love for him by giving him a present of a plum tree, you would be heartbroken.”
But Song-ju simply replied:
“There’s no point in just reciting, you have to write yourself.”
Whereas he had been expecting her to exclaim, “Ah, you came down because of the plum blossoms!”
It was only when they reached the entrance to the Blue Plum Orchard that he suddenly realized that all the way down along the Seomjin River he had not seen a single plum blossom.
There was no reason why the trees in that orchard alone should be in bloom. As they sped along the deserted roads he had not been paying attention. In part because of the river, and more because of pretty Song-ju.
Since he had been heading for the orchard, there was nowhere farther to go. He parked. Feeling absurd and wretched, he looked around at the slopes of the orchard and the river.
“I see it all, now.”
He feigned ignorance.
“It was all for nothing, right?”
“Sin Heum wrote, ‘Plum blossom never sells her fragrance though she be cold all her life long . . .’ Plums blossom when it’s cold, don’t they?”
“Surely the poem’s more concerned with fragrance than cold weather?”
“Although ‘Without cold that pierces to the bones there is no way the fragrance of plum blossoms can prick the nostrils,’ surely?”
Lacking in confidence, he failed to add that the words were from a poem by the Zen Master Hwangbyeok.
“That one’s focused on fragrance, too, not cold weather.”
Song-ju was not easily defeated. Wasn’t Bach Ajeossi saying that he had come down to see plum blossoms, not her?
“Surely Master Bou was not lying when he wrote, ‘The lunar year’s last snow fills the air yet the plum is blooming. Snowflakes scatter, I cannot tell if they are snow or plum blossoms . . .’?”
“He wrote the last month of the lunar year?”
“Yes. The last month’s snow.”
“But still A-jeo-ssi . . .”
“You know, in this situation that Ajeossi sounds just right.”
“Indeed. You think so, too?”
“Because I’m feeling a bit embarrassed.”
“No matter what Shin Heum or Master Bou says, what’s plain is that the plum trees here are not in bloom.”
“Plum Blossoms in the Snow is only a figure of speech. Plum trees don’t flower until next month.”
“Indeed. As you say.”
He wondered what difference it made. Plum blossoms had only been an excuse in the first place. He had come down because he wanted to see Song-ju; now he had seen her, so it didn’t matter if plum trees bloomed in autumn.
Song-ju might be a thirty-five-year-old mother, still to his eyes she was as pretty as ever. She had said that rural life was hard, yet Song-ju showed no signs of developing wrinkles — which he thought charming, really — or growing fat. She was there, before his eyes, a dazzlingly pretty woman.
He recalled something that happened during a student group outing, the blandly named “membership training,” the college bonding rite at the start of one semester. It had been somewhere in Yangpyeong, by a stream flowing slowly in a grove of poplar trees. Or were they willows?
He could not recall anything that happened before or after. The shock had been such that whatever had happened, before or after, all seemed to have completely vaporized from his memory. The only thing stamped like a brand on his mind was Song-ju’s extraordinary performance. Almost the only other thing he could recall were crimson flowers like poppies blooming here and there.
They had been playing some kind of game and Song-ju had been caught. The penalties were as boring as the game itself. Either a song or a dance. He had expected a snatch of song, but suddenly Song-ju began to twist madly.
Madly might be an extreme way of putting it, but that had been the impression he got. It was so incomprehensible; he felt he was being betrayed. He just couldn’t stand watching her.
Every time he saw Song-ju he used to mutter to himself, “During the Japanese occupation female primary-school teachers must have been just like that . . .” She was so like a school teacher, one produced from a mold dating several generations back. He thought she was the most typical student of the Korean Education Department (that was the right department).
Then when she represented her team and reported their homework assignment she was always so nice and tidy, her speech mellifluous. Every time she did it, the pink glimpsed inside of her mouth was like a freshly washed, well ripened peach. Whether she was wearing a skirt or blue jeans, they always looked as smooth and neat as if they had just been taken from the wardrobe. She looked as though she wouldn’t run, even in an earthquake. It was that Song-ju who had sprung to her feet and danced, shaking the earth on its axis. Shoulders and breasts, waist and behind all shimmied violently. The students sitting around cheered and applauded madly. The response was the more heated for being so unexpected.
His feelings at that moment were shame and mortification. He felt that his own special sweetheart was dancing vulgarly, recklessly revealing herself to the bloodshot eyes of drunkards.
But in fact Song-ju was not his sweetheart, and the dance was not vulgar at all. It was simply the natural talent of someone who had been learning to draw and to dance since childhood. He alone was shocked and ashamed. Sorrow that he could not monopolize Song-ju’s immense sensuality, shame that she allowed the male students' glittering gazes, a feeling of defeat for not being able to control even a tiny fraction of all that. That was what he felt.
He felt sick, as though he had been stepped on and beaten up by hundreds, by thousands of people. As if a scream would burst out if touched by just a fingertip, his whole body (though it was really his heart) felt like a wound that had swollen like a balloon. However, far from being disappointed with Song-ju, while he was feverishly having such a hard time his whole body had grown full of that same irresistible Song-ju. That was what he realized once he had pulled himself together. His body had become a complete host to Song-ju.
He had been sensing that it might happen, as soon as he returned after military service. There were just the faces he saw first as he entered the classroom after an absence of two and a half years. Among them was Song-ju, and as soon as he saw her he found himself afflicted with a sudden, persistent loss of willpower. If there is such a disease.
“It’s a haiku!”
He exclaimed as they walked aimlessly up a path in the orchard.
“You’re making leaps as ever, I see.”
“Poetry is always a matter of leaps, isn’t it?”
“I’d have a hard time trying to keep up with your leaping. A haiku out of thin air . . .”
“Look! Over there.”
He pointed to a place where huge boulders were sitting together, natural rocks, wide and round, beneath the branches of the plum trees still devoid of blossom. Not just a few, either. Here and there in the orchard countless others lay scattered.
“It’s a stone orchard, not a plum orchard!”
“The plum blossoms falling, Mother of pearl is spilt on the table.”
He recited in a slightly nasal tone.
“I forget who it’s by. Was it Yosa Buson? The sight of fragments of mother-of-pearl set in a black table reminded him of plum blossoms.”
“But what about it?”
“I used to wonder that, too. But look there.”
Song-ju’s eyes focused. For a time she said nothing. On each of those many large boulders, all alike, plum blossoms seemed to have fallen, have piled high.
“Goodness . . .”
“They can’t have deliberately looked for fields with all these stones to plant a plum orchard. Yet, obviously . . .”
“Certainly plum petals have fallen onto the rocks and seeped into them for a long while. Is that what you mean?”
“The stillness, a cicada’s cry seeps into the rock.”
“Is that another haiku?”
“By someone really famous. Bashō. Though the quotation isn’t exact.”
They hurried toward the pile of boulders. As they came closer, the plum-blossom patterns in the rocks grew clearer. They looked around in all directions. Every stone was full of plum blossoms.
Unable to close her gaping mouth, Song-ju gazed at him. The face she had so longed to see.
“I have loved you for a very long time.”
“You have seeped deep inside me, too, Ajeossi.”
Did they nearly play out such a scene? They had never gazed deeply enough into each other’s eyes. The moment was too short; they ended up resolutely looking away from each other.
If he had come to Gurye taking the plum blossoms as an excuse, it was because of what might be called a space Song-ju had opened. He called her sometimes, but mostly Song-ju had been the first to phone.
“I don’t know why I’m living like this.”
She had been on her way home after classes were over when suddenly she had thought of Ajeossi, she said, and so she called him.
“I was just catching my breath while the car was stopped at a traffic light when I caught sight of my fingers on the steering wheel.”
So she had begun.
“The nails on two fingers of my right hand are untouched. This morning I trimmed my nails but I skipped two. The ring finger and the little finger. Really!”
His reply: “Countryside traffic lights don’t stay at red for long. Can you keep talking?”
At which Song-ju immediately raised her voice.
“Now I’m parked by the roadside. What do you think?”
He already knew that Song-ju did not dislike him. Ever since university days. But they had never come to be a “campus couple” or sweethearts. Intense shyness, a degree of defensive obsession, the subsequent loss of opportunities, Song-ju’s marriage and move to the country, then later the possibility of impropriety, as well as the distance between Seoul and Gurye, had all been seen as reasons, but actually neither he nor Song-ju knew the real reason. One hesitation after another had brought it about.
In their university days he had been a really well-liked person. When he rose to report on an academic excursion, the female students sitting at the back would scream in the way pop idols are cheered nowadays. For that reason, once when a female student was sick and had been absent for a long time from several classes, he visited her rented room and urged her to return to school. He took his ukulele with him and played Carnival’s “Goose’s Dream” for her and the next day she came back to school.
He studied so well that he kept winning merit-based scholarships (nobody could equal him in memorizing, he was a genius at quotations) while he was bold enough to argue with professors or older students. The main reason was the way he looked something like Won Bin, the young actor who in those days was making his début in the KBS series “Propose.” “Something like” was what he might have said, in all modesty, while others pointed out they looked “very similar.” There being no special reason why she should, Song-ju did not dislike him. The problem was that when it came to Song-ju he lacked almost all willpower. Not that it was really a lack, for the fact was that he was intimidated by his excessive willpower.
Once, after his return to school, during the second class of the Ancient Sijo course, he was reporting his research into the activities of the singer Yi Se-chun from the time of kings Sukjong and Yeongjo. At that time he could still not recognize the new faces.
“Yi Se-chun, a famous singer early in the reign of Yeongjo . . . ” as soon as he began to speak he froze. “If you could give me a chance to present during the next class . . . ” that sentence he was likewise unable to complete; he left the podium awkwardly. Head bowed, he quickly returned to his seat. All because of Song-ju. In those days he did not even know her name. She was just quietly blooming in the middle of the classroom, a small, bright, crimson flower. Haughtily.
Haughty, the word seemed made for such a moment. Not that she looked arrogant. She was simply a student serenely attending a class she was registered for. She was quite calm and collected, it was to his eyes alone that she looked haughty.
If thanks to DNA or some such he had a perfectly round circle in his subconscious, Song-ju had forced her way in and settled there and filled that circle completely. In today’s lingo, he’d lost it. Perhaps that was why still now he could not forget the name Yi Se-chun. Because it was the name that had stamped itself on his mind in that moment of confusion when the image of Song-ju had come and embedded itself in him like a thunderbolt.
It was also why the name of Song-ju’s closest friend had become transformed into Yi Se-chun. He had completely forgotten that friend’s real name.
It was the name he recalled when he had been engrossed in rapturous thoughts of hoping for nothing more in the world than just a chance of sharing even a single glass of beer with Song-ju. Yi Se-chun. She wasn’t called Yi Se-chun, but Yi Se-chun was the only name he remembered her by. So he spoke to Yi Se-chun. “How about having a beer today? My treat.”
Just as Yi Se-chun came to mind whenever he thought of Song-ju, Song-ju was always beside Yi Se-chun, being her closest friend and dormitory roommate. He lived in the dorm too. The three of them met at six in front of the library, walked down the university’s long central avenue and out through the main gate. Along both sides of the avenue far too many overblown roses were shedding their petals like bubble gum syrup.
The evening breeze felt cool and the lights were beginning to come on in the bars in front of the campus. After slowly walking down the food alley, they drank draft beer and ate German-style sausages in a beerhouse at the far end. Yi Se-chun was from Gangneung, her father a middle-school Korean teacher. It was her father who had decided she would study Korean Language Education, too. Her mother ran a piano academy. “She’d said her fingers were too short, she could never become a pianist; sometimes that made her cry like a baby,” Yi Se-chun said, at which he asked, “Can’t you become a pianist if you have short fingers?”
In between talking with Yi Se-chun he was able to learn, for example, that Song-ju was from Jeonju. That was how it had been since. The conversation consisted almost entirely of lively talk between him and Yi Se-chun. Although he was bursting with curiosity about Song-ju. In the bar, too, Song-ju kept calling him Ajeossi.
As a result, Yi Se-chun misunderstood. She thought he liked her. When she finally discovered the truth she exploded in anger. Feeling sorry and wanting to comfort her, he had offered to sing for her. Only the song in question, accompanied on his ukulele, was “Goose’s Dream.” But everyone already knew the story of the “comforting concert” he had offered the absentee student in her room.
Hearing the rehashed song, Yi Se-chun felt justifiably hurt and for a while stopped going around glued to Song-ju as she had before. About a month passed before they were again inseparable, but he continued to feel apologetic for a very long while. To Song-ju, not Yi Se-chun.
“You don’t know how terrified I used to be of going to the dorm cafeteria.”
Sitting down on a large boulder studded with plum-blossom patterns, he spoke. The sand banks along the shores of the Seomjin River shone cool below them.
“Don’t know? Behind my back I sensed it all.”
“Behind your back?”
“You never arrived in the cafeteria ahead of me, did you, Ajeossi?”
“Of course, I knew.”
It was inevitable. Being incapable of approaching Song-ju directly, he followed her around at a distance. His only means of access had been Yi Se-chun but now she would not so much as look at him. So in the cafeteria he always came in after Song-ju and stood in the queue separated from her by at least ten other people.
“I almost never sat at the same table with you. Even if I did, I would be sitting at the farthest end diagonally across from you. In those days the tables each held about ten students.”
“Did you notice how awkward and uncomfortable I was while eating?”
“I noticed. Since you were diagonally opposite me.”
“Since I was diagonally opposite?”
“The way you were always able to get the end seat diagonally opposite . . .”
“Get the end seat?”
“On your own it would have been hard, surely? It’s when two people feel the same that ‘the end seat diagonally opposite’ becomes possible, no?”
Suddenly feeling a chill, he hunched his shoulders. Twelve people . . . Song-ju’s memory was sharper.
He did not dare watch Song-ju eating but Song-ju had seen him. Despite “feeling the same” he had been much more timid. Song-ju, knowing everything, would arrive first at the cafeteria, then cope with his gaze staring at her back from further behind in the queue.
Tearing his gaze away from the Seomjin River, he glanced stealthily at Song-ju’s profile. Why was she telling him this only now? He longed to ask but once again the same dread got in the way. Just then Song-ju suddenly spoke and he was startled.
“You should have stopped eating if you were that scared of going to the cafeteria.”
Hearing what sounded like a reproach, he finally looked straight at Song-ju. She was smiling brightly as a flower. He too smiled as he replied.
“But that sort of fear came from the premise that I absolutely had to go to the cafeteria.”
“Absolutely had to?
“Yup. Absolutely had to.”
Moreover, there can hardly have been a student who ate in the dorm as regularly as he did. Especially in the morning, he invariably went to the cafeteria at the right moment. Long before classes began, the barely awake female dorm students would come thronging to the communal dining room, pushing through the quiet morning air that had not yet lost its dawn vigor. Along the path to the cafeteria, depending on the season, magnolias, hydrangeas, canna and wisteria would be blooming. The students’ still not completely dry hair gave off the smell of shampoo. On such mornings, the sight of Song-ju’s freshly washed rosy cheeks was a source of tremendous dread.
A strange dread that he had no wish to avoid. On all those days, eating all those meals, his heart would pound and he would have no idea how the food tasted. Did Song-ju really know about all that, even? He was curious but the question that emerged from his lips was completely off the mark.
“What’s Yi Se-chun doing?”
“Your closest friend.”
“Her name is Hye-jin. Yi Hye-jin.”
Perhaps dreading something, as in the old days, he once again gazed down at the slowly flowing river.
She replied that Yi Hye-jin, who was not Yi Se-chun, was working at a high school in Anseong. She had married two years later than Song-ju then got divorced a few years ago, after falling in love with a man she had met at a teachers’ training session.
“So now?” he asked.
“Still at the same school.”
“Is she all right?”
“What’s all right? She’s okay.”
“She’s living alone. Her parents look after the baby.”
She had quickly gotten divorced while the man kept postponing his own divorce. “He probably doesn’t want to break up the family.” Song-ju said. “Anyway, it’s like a boring melodrama, you know.”
“At the same time she keeps saying she’ll never forget him, more melodramatic stuff, I guess. Yet still they meet secretly from time to time, inventing all sorts of pretexts. Her face is only half the size it was. You wouldn’t recognize her if you saw her. Yet she doesn’t seem fed up.”
“Really. Yi Se . . . Yi Hye-jin.”
“Yet for some reason I’m really jealous of her, she being a regular teacher. It’s grim being a temporary teacher. No other temp is treated as we are. Do you realize that temporary teachers have absolutely no human rights?”
“Is it that bad?”
“Take the way they wait for a woman teacher to become pregnant. When she comes back from maternity leave the temporary teacher has to leave the school, giving up the position. Quite often it means they lose touch with kids they had grown close to. I’ve even had to drive halfway across the country to work every day. Rushing about with no time to trim your fingernails. I’m thinking of quitting it all and taking up painting. The deputy head once demanded a meeting at ten in the evening and I had to comply.”
“You’ve got a husband earning money, and do you really have to do that kind of work where even your basic rights aren’t respected?”
“Don’t talk about my husband. He assumes that I married him because there was nobody else. A guy in charge of a backwoods branch of an agricultural co-op. I have to cook even ramyeon for him, with kimchi, egg, leek, seaweed, too. In the bathroom, if a bottle of shampoo or rinse is empty, unless I clear it away the empty container just stays sitting there. Likewise, toothbrushes, soap, towels just go on being used and left there accumulating. When the toilet paper runs out, in the end I’m the one who has to put in a new roll. Otherwise he pulls some tissue out of the box and goes into the bathroom with it. I ask you! If I were him, I’d change it. His hair is falling out in tufts, but if I tell him to clear out the hair caught in the drain after a shower, he doesn’t do it. Once he’s taken out and worn a pair of shoes, they stay lying about in the entrance hall and I have to put them away. Then after he’s used the portable telephone he just throws it down so it doesn’t get recharged and starts to beep, so in the end I’m the one who has to put it back on the stand . . . I should have taken the qualifying exam for a regular teaching job earlier and given up on housework, but I’m too old now.”
“You say all that, yet you don’t look a bit unhappy. Besides, you’re only thirty-five.”
“There’s no point in keeping on at someone who doesn’t have a way to understand my situation.”
“Even when you say that, you’re still laughing.”
“Laughing? Lost for words, that’s why.”
“Even though there’s no plum blossom, your laughter makes the world brighter.”
“It’s the Seomjin River that makes the world bright. One day my ambition is to paint a thousand pictures of it. It’s my reason for living. When I look at the river I can breathe freely. It’s a really pretty river. A very pretty river.”
Because you’re pretty, he murmured to himself. It had been like that already at university and Song-ju’s expression was almost never somber. She looked just as she had before. “Anyway,” she asked, “Don’t you feel lonely, living alone, Ajeossi?”
“It’s . . . so so.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I’m utterly lonely.”
“You don’t look a bit lonesome. You look smug and selfish. Just like someone who’s made a name for himself in his field.”
“Shall we have an affair? You’re unmarried so I won’t agonize like Hye-jin.”
He laughed loudly and a moment later Song-ju followed suit, guffawing. Then abruptly, as if realizing something, they both stopped laughing and stared at each other. It was almost as though they were unable to disguise completely the desire hidden behind their exaggerated show of good or bad. The silence that took the place of the laughter once it ceased was sharp-edged.
One, two . . . three seconds or less was all that glance lasted, but it was already the second vivid look of the day. It was as though the sound of a plum blossom opening could be heard coming from somewhere.
“That’s really amazing, isn’t it?”
He was the first to look away. He pointed at the plum-blossom patterns engraved on every rock.
“What are these if not plum blossoms?”
“They must be plum blossoms?”
“Yes, plum blossoms.”
“I came in February and saw plum blossoms!”
“You saw indeed.”
“We can come at any time and still see plum blossoms.”
“If we think so, then it’s true.”
Their exchange went on endlessly. Neither of them pointed out that the white fragments embedded in the granite were not plum blossoms. They insisted. An icy winter wind was still blowing, the river flowed slowly.
He returned to Seoul with a busy mind. It was because of one thing Song-ju had said that he held onto firmly.
They parted in front of the duck restaurant where they had first met. Standing there, against a backdrop of a group of middle-aged men picking their teeth as they left the restaurant, Song-ju waved.
“Write lots of poems.”
Song-ju spoke through the open car window.
“Paint lots of paintings. You can do it.”
He stretched his neck as he spoke. It was not that they were not sorry to part, yet their farewell words seemed neither ardent nor serious.
The words that stayed with him had not been part of Song-ju’s farewells.
Song-ju had asked a question: “I’m curious about one thing.”
“What?” he asked.
Song-ju looked at him briefly. Her eyes were full of mischief. He was wondering whether he might come back again when the plum trees were in flower. They were slowly walking down the path through the orchard.
“What is it?” he asked again.
“Why didn’t you reply?”
Song-ju explained her question. She had occasionally written to him, baring her heart. Her words were clear. She had bared her heart. Whenever she had the time. Occasionally.
“Oh, I never received anything. Where did you send them?”
“To your Cheollian email address. I sometimes read what you wrote in a photo magazine. To the email address printed at the end of the essays.”
He explained that, unfortunately, he had stopped using that Cheollian address a long time ago. Confused by too many IDs and passwords, nowadays he only used one portal. Not Cheollian. Belatedly, he handed Song-ju his business card.
“I see . . . . That’s what it was.”
“But did you, really?”
“Send me emails?”
Song-ju seemed to be delaying her reply. It was only after they had come all the way through the orchard and reached the road that she spoke.
“Yup,” not “Yes.”
He did not even realize that what had stayed in his heart was that one word of Song-ju’s, Yup. All the way back to Seoul, it seemed to keep coming, welling up from the bottom of his heart. Yup. Yup.
As soon as he reached Seoul, he could not help turning on his computer. Recalling his old ID and password, he tried logging on to Cheollian several times but without success. Either the account had been closed after some time had elapsed unused or he had forgotten the password. Although he had been able to verify his ID from a back issue of the photography magazine without difficulty.
He let two days pass like that. Song-ju’s heart was either imprisoned in the depths of an old email account or it had vanished completely somewhere in outer space.
If it had been an ordinary letter on paper, instead of an email, it would still be wedged somewhere, even if he had been unable to read it. If he had burned it, there would still be ashes. Online data that had been deleted was a weird kind of absence, not subject to the law of the conservation of mass.
On the morning of the third day after his return from Gurye, as he was eating his breakfast of toast, a fried egg and coffee while watching television, he had the impression that a word was slowly rising up from the depths and gradually becoming clearer. “Island.”
It was a program called “Walking into the World,” dedicated to Ireland. As he kept hearing the word “Ireland” in the narration, the country’s name did not immediately become clear but with the passage of time seemed gradually to become plainer.
It was because what was rising up from deep inside him was not that country’s name but the title of a movie. The spelling was different but in Korean both words were written in the same way.
After seeing that movie, he had used “island” as his password.
With his mouth still full of bits of toast, he logged on to Cheollian. At last, the firmly closed lock opened. He nearly spat the scraps of toast on the floor. There were forty-six emails from Song-ju. All those emails had arrived on their own, waited so long that they had fallen asleep hoping to be freed from their spell.
The mouse clenched in his hand trembled. “It’s raining.” “Today I was really angry twice.” “I steamed some potatoes.” “I’m out of coffee.” “I’m bored.” “I drank two cans of beer.” “Have you died, Ajeossi?” “I hate summer.” “I fried too many pancakes.”. . . the subject lines were awaiting just a click, as if about to open shining eyes at any moment.
He read them one by one. Just the titles, slowly. Spending about twenty seconds on each one.
After he had read all the subjects, a long while, the word “plum spring” suddenly came to his mind. That did not mean “a spring where there was plum blossom” or “plum blossoms beside a spring.” “Plum spring” meant plum blossoms bursting up like a spring or becoming a spring and flowing. If he clicked on those forty-six emails, he felt that plum blossoms would come bursting forth like a spring and go flowing endlessly; then, overwhelmed all of a sudden by inexhaustible petals, he would have a stroke.
Although she had seemed to be remote, in fact approaching silently like an underground source would be Song-ju’s heart that had retained and accumulated a bouncing force corresponding to all the time it had waited and delayed.
Quickly, he opened a file with the name “Jade Dew of Crane Forest” and found a poem by a Buddhist nun that he vaguely remembered.
All day long I wandered seeking spring, but could not see it;
Till my shoes wore through, I walked on treading on clouds above the hills;
Returning home weary, I smelled plum blossoms laughing in my garden;
Here on the top of plum tree branches, spring was already ripe.
He went back to his emails. Slowly, without haste, he selected the option “All” in his “Received Mail” menu. In a flash, a check appeared before each of the titles.
Fifteen at a time, three times, he clicked “Delete.”
Down to the last remaining one, all of them.
Those moments when their eyes had met in the orchard. Two glances, brief but profound. He reckoned that by their vividness they would provide sufficient nourishment for him to go on being happy while yearning for her for several more years.
“No emails arrived.” He phoned Song-ju.
“I finally squeezed out the password and logged in. Nothing.”
“There was nothing there?”
At that, Song-ju burst out in a lengthy fit of laughter. She laughed so hard it sounded as if she was crying.
Song-ju stopped laughing with a hiccup.
“Did you believe that?”
“Of course, I believed.”
“Your hopes were dashed.”
You are so like me it makes me feel sad, were words that did not pass through his lips. He did not want to say it, nor did he feel sad. Because he reckoned it was for the sake of a happier life for both of them, in order to love that life.
“Anyway, I guess it’s good to phone like this,” Song-ju said.
“Me too,” he said.