THE OLD WELL
By Oh Jung-hee 
Translated by Jung Ha-yun
On the morning of my forty-fifth birthday, I opened my eyes to the sound
alarm clock, set to go off at 6 a.m. like any other day. I awoke amid habits and
objects, at once familiar and intimate, and the light of dawn spreading delicately
into the darkness, which had been growing fainter every day, layer by layer, as
winter passed and the sun was up longer bit by bit, as if it were stretching on
tiptoes. As I moved around the rice cooker, the gas stove, the frying pans and the
old refrigerator that made increasingly clamorous humming noises-each placed
here and there, at its most seemingly appropriate spot without a hint of doubt-I
thought for a moment that when I was born, I never would have imagined myself
like this at forty-five. That was probably the only thing different about this morning.
One early spring, on a day not much different from this one, I broke out of the
womb of a thirty-three-year-old woman who had been giving birth every other
year for a decade since she was twenty-two and who would have hoped this to
be her last-then I got caught in the web of time.
My mother continued to have children for almost ten more years. After delivering
baby boy for the last time when I turned eight, her womb finally shriveled up like a
There is nothing special that reminds me of the day I was born. It is meaningless
to ask whether it had been windy, rainy, sunny or cloudy, for now my senile
mother cannot even remember how to climb the stairs. As the last descendant of
a farming tribe blessed with fecundity, having a child must have been a most
natural, ordinary thing for her, like a full-grown chestnut falling out of its bur or ripe
balsam seeds scattering at the slightest rush of wind.
I have a clear memory of the time my youngest brother was born. After filling
spotless dipper carved out of gourd with rice and laying a sheet of dried seaweed
over it, Grandmother placed the gourd on a shelf in Mother's room as an offering
to the Samshin God of Birth and also sent in a clean bundle of straw. Then she
loaded the kitchen stove with wood and boiled water in the huge steel pot. All
evening, the kitchen was hazy with warm steam and the low, steady sound of
boiling water. Without ever being told, the children were bound to realize from the
bustle and the cautious hushing that Mother was about to give birth.
Grandmother told my eldest sister to fetch water from the old well and
fill up the
clay jar before sunset. Don't let your hair fall into the water. Don't chat needlessly
lest your saliva splatter on it. Such impurities will break the ritual of cleanness,
Grandmother added sternly. My fifteen-year-old sister was ashamed of
water-fetching chores and would always wear a big pout on her face, but this
time she picked up the water pail without complaint and I tagged along carrying
the well bucket. All the way to the old well, past the tall tree whose shade was a
gathering place for villagers, she never once opened her mouth. When we
returned with the water, Grandmother first poured some into a white bowl after
checking for any leaves or dust floating on it and took it to the terrace in the
backyard where we stored cooking sauce in clay jars. Then she filled another
bowl for the Chowang-kaksi Kitchen God and put it by the cooking fire. My father
was nowhere to be seen. Why don't you go for a walk? Having a baby is a
woman's job, Grandmother had said, and waved him off. She probably meant that
men had a role only in making babies.
We were gathered in the corner room where there was never enough heat and
pretended to play games we now found boring, our ears drawn to the moans
leaking out of Mother's room. Cat's cradle and jackstones were no longer fun. We
did not fight, either.
Every time we heard Mother's painful cries, Ai-go, Mother, ai-go, Mother,
overlapping intermittently with Grandmother's announcements-that her dewdrops
were showing, that her water broke, that it was not open enough yet or that she
still had far to go-my older sister cringed and said with a hard look on her small
face, I'm never getting married, I will not have babies.
I was crying and gasping because my older brother pinned his knuckles on my
head for saying that Jung-ok's mother, the undertaker's wife, died while giving
birth. Mother's room remained lit deep into the night and as we listened uneasily
to the murmuring and moaning from the other room, we fell asleep on the floor this
way and that without changing out of our clothes, but we all woke early. Although
the sunlight had not spread far yet, the mulberry paper on the screen door of our
room seemed bright white, as if it had snowed all night.
A sense of peace surrounded us, like an earth-shaking event had blown past.
We were reassured from our breakfast table of fat-floating seaweed soup and
white rice that Mother had indeed given birth while we were sleeping. In the cold
corner of Mother's room was a suspicious heap of blood-stained laundry and a
straw bundle. The baby was asleep in the layette handed down from each of us
siblings as if it were a small piece of life we had just grown out of, or escaped
from, breathing in the pain of a wakeful night and the warm, pungent air, mixed
with the smell of blood and sweat and breast milk.
In the backyard, Grandmother burnt the bloody straw and the placenta. The
we had left behind blossomed into black smoke and soot, floating and landing on
the white bowl of water on the sauce jar terrace, even on the water inside the old
well. That is how we part with a world that remains inevitably an eternal code, a
Our front yard of packed dirt had already been swept clean and Father made
straw rope, intertwined with pieces of charcoal and red peppers and hung it
across our gate as a sign to prohibit visitors. As we headed out to school, we
made little footprints on our yard, the strokes left by the bush clover broom still
fresh and vivid. We whispered softly to every boy and girl we met on the way, as if
we were letting them in on a secret. My mother had a baby. I have a little brother
now. It's a boy.
There, in the landscape of a new birth, lies a certain sense of lucidity
stillness, a certain sadness. We are all born from between a pitiful woman's legs,
soaked in blood. Then we move into our lives, step by step, as if we are walking
down a thoroughly familiar path. What we imagine about life is, in most cases,
either too far-fetched or too obvious. The dates of birth and death on a
gravestone can make us wonder whether a person's life is something more or
less than those numbers, but epitaphs describing the life and accomplishments
of the deceased can seem superfluous, like clumsy excuses.
What does forty-five years mean in one's life? In that time, one can become
or poor, or become a president, or a magician; not only that, it is long enough for
one to die and be scattered over mountains and rivers, as water and fire and dust
and wind. In that time, I could have gone to the Isle of Galapagos, a thousand
kilometers across the sea below the Equator, to search for evolutionary patterns
since Genesis, or I could have traveled to Africa and practiced medicine as a
service of love.
I could have lived like Robinson Crusoe on a lonely island, or like a prophet of the
desert. I could have written a brilliant book on nature's rule of blooming flowers
and falling leaves, or could have become a dancer performing barefoot on the
green plains. Perhaps I could have written about the law of the constancy of
mass or the soul, about reincarnation and transmigration.
I could have become an alchemist who makes gold from lead and steel, or could
have realized my true calling while gazing up at the stars in the night sky. But I am
now living the life of a middle-aged housewife in a small city, suffering from
chronic migraines and hemorrhoids acquired from constipation during
pregnancy. I read popular poems and essays, watch the nightly news on TV and
subscribe to two newspapers, one considered conservative and the other
progressive, which I consider as my windows on the world. Once a month I
attend the mothers' group meeting at my son's school, go grocery shopping
twice a week, take the exact same road and alley every week to the herbal steam
sauna and on Thursdays I volunteer at the local rehabilitation center as an
assistant physical therapist for the handicapped. Once in a while, though not very
often, my husband and I dress up and go out to catch a renowned orchestra or
performer making an appearance in the city.
The reason I thought of Galapagos in the first place was nothing significant,
mere remnant left behind on the surface of my consciousness from a scene on
the TV news about a week-long fire on the islands that had taken the lives of many
rare animals. Or perhaps it was because of the name Dodo, with which my son
had marked his belongings. When I asked him what a dodo was, he told me it
was a bird that disappeared four hundred years ago, that it became extinct after
losing its ability to fly. Who would not think about his life as a young man as that of
an extinct bird, a bird from a legend? Who would not use the metaphor to express
one's fear of, and resistance against, entering a world of conventions and
The customs that rule our lives are fickle and shallow, relying on such
impoverished imaginations. That I pondered for a minute, without much regret,
about the possibilities that life's selection process had taken away from me,
probably means that I momentarily got my foot stuck in the latest ring added to the
tree of my life. But now, I am perfectly capable of playing the role expected of me
at weddings or funerals, in the same outfit for either occasion, and I take pride in
the order created by my own hands. I know how to harmoniously mix the taste of
garlic and ginger and love the orderly distinction between a kitchen cloth and a
floor rag, but I also know that from time to time, seeking shelter in chaos can be a
As I started to clean the bathroom after my husband and my son had hurriedly
finished their breakfast and left for work and school, I let out a faint laugh.
My husband is a tidy man, but, contrary to his usual traits, he often forgets to flush
the toilet. However, I have never pointed this out to him. As a relatively successful
salaried executive who has reached the mature age of thinning hair and
increasing body weight, who handles everything from work and drinking to sex in
a skillful and sophisticated manner, my husband carries almost no reminder of
his younger days-just as no trace of my childhood can be found in myself, of the
extreme hunger, kleptomania and the roundworms that would make me vomit
But when I watch my husband sleep, curled up in a ball on his side with a hand in
his crotch, when I look at his shit lying still in its innocent form inside the toilet that
he forgot to flush, I see the unchanged boy in him living deep inside an old man's
body like a seed, the boy who would have looked blankly into his own shit with
wonder and awe-I see the traces of childhood poverty. We once visited a friend of
my husband's who ran an orchard in the Kyongsang-do countryside. When we
arrived, the friend and his wife were making a compost dump by mixing grass with
excrement. Perhaps the wife felt apologetic about the smell. The colors turn so
lovely when the stool begins to decompose, she said.
I replied that maybe people begin to lose their essence once they stop looking
into their own stool.
The couple had been doctoral candidates in Germany, long before the
reunification, majoring in education and German literature, when they were
summoned back to Korea for complicity in a political incident. They were freed
after serving a year in prison, but my husband's friend had developed a strange
affliction, a phobia of long distances. If he traveled further than two kilometers from
his usual surroundings, his heart began pounding and he would suffer from
terrible anxieties. Even after he returned to his hometown in the country, he had to
keep his eyes covered with a black scarf and familiarize himself with everything in
the radius within which he was to live. It was his wife who drove us to the bus
terminal when we left. Life is ironic, you know, it was my dream to live a bohemian
life, he said, then added that he had been selected as a pride-of-the-region
second-generation farmer. He said good-bye to us at the orchard, apple
blossoms in full bloom, and let out a hollow laugh.
It felt more desolate and quiet when I finished cleaning. I placed a kettle
stove for tea and picked up the receiver from the kitchen wall. First I dialed the
area code, then pressed the numbers, quickly, with force. The ringing echoed in
distant space. Ten, twelve, twenty rings. I put the receiver back in its place and
slowly stirred the hot water in my cup.
The river formed a border between the northern and southern parts of the
and a produce market opened regularly on the approach to the bridge that
connected the farming community of the north with the consumers in the south's
residential neighborhood. Since my husband and son started to drink
home-squeezed green vegetable juice, I had been coming to this market for its
low prices and, more than anything, for the fresh goods.
In the early morning hours, the market greeted me with produce, from leafy
vegetables to bulbs, adorned with dewdrops on the leaves that created an illusion
that they were still safely rooted in the earth. They filled me with satisfaction as if I
were standing amidst the green plants at sunrise, my feet moist with dew. It was at
these moments that I wished for a small garden to nurture with my own hands.
The thought did not escape me, even after I learned that these vegetables were
not grown with sunlight and wind and rain but with artificially controlled light,
temperature and humidity inside greenhouses, and that the vendors sometimes
sprayed water over withering greens to make them look deceptively fresh.
As I left the market, my hands heavy with plastic bags full of Swiss chard
and comfrey, I thought for a moment about getting a driver's license before
summer arrived. Neighbors and friends who had taken up driving early on had
been telling me how much change a car brought about in their routines and
lifestyles, how much efficiency and freedom they experienced. But the plans
vanished from my mind when I arrived at the foot of the bridge.
The cars were lined up in a complete halt, not budging an inch. It was
bottleneck spot with three arteries into downtown parting in different directions at
the end of the bridge, so traffic jams were common. But it was rare for an endless
row of cars to be entangled like this, brought to a standstill.
A woman with a shaggy nest of uncombed curly hair shooting upward was
standing in the middle of the street gesturing hand traffic signals with both arms,
wearing a heavy winter coat and three or four unlit cigarettes dangling from her
mouth. The pedestrians jeered while irritated drivers honked horns. It was then
that I spotted the familiar marine blue sedan. It was my husband's car. There
were other men in the passenger's seat and in the back. He was probably
returning from lunch at the restaurant that served raw fish on the other side of the
bridge. Meals with clients were undoubtedly an important part of his job as a bank
manager. His hands on the steering wheel, my husband wore an expression of
fatigue and ennui, unseen by the passengers in his car. The men in the back
seat were sticking their heads out the window, laughing at the woman on the
Without realizing it, I took a step back, away from my husband's line of
was unlikely that he had seen me. He was looking straight ahead. Although he
was wearing the exact same clothes as when he left in the morning, seeing my
husband outside our home felt strange and unfamiliar. I was all the more
perplexed by my own attitude and reaction. The distance between us was so
close that if I had stared at him a bit longer or called out to him even in a very soft
voice, he would no doubt have noticed me.
The mad woman's traffic duty must have been customary; she showed no
resistance and was unabashed as she was dragged away by a policeman
grasping at her shoulder, waving her hand at the cars backed up like a row of
black water beetles. The cars began to move and the marine blue sedan
gradually disappeared into the traffic. I followed it with my eyes until I could no
longer see it, then slowly walked away.
Even after several of my buses had come and gone, I was standing aimlessly
the bus stop. The coins I held in my hand for the fare felt damp with sweat. I told
myself that the bags were too heavy for me to take the bus. It was only three
o'clock, I did not have any urgent chores waiting for me at home and I still had
plenty of time before I needed to start dinner, I thought, feeling like I was making an
excuse for myself. The light on the crosswalk had turned green, but I stood at an
angle with no thought of crossing the street, and heard myself say in a low,
hoarse voice that a hot cup of coffee would be nice. Catching a taxi was not easy.
One or two empty cabs drove by, but they passed me before I could hold out my
hand. I spotted many unoccupied taxis headed in the opposite direction. I
decided that even if I had to make a detour it would be easier to catch one on the
other side, and crossed the street. I walked on, looking for a taxi stop sign, then
came to a sudden halt.
Sudden is not the right word. I cannot deny that the long road from my
this place had been a detour, going on for many years now. I stood close to the
window, pressing my forehead against the glass as if I were about to break
through it. On the table on the other side of the window facing the river lay an
indifferent array of a cigarette pack, a half-empty teacup, a key chain with several
keys hanging. And smoke rising from a cigarette resting on the ashtray.
The chair was empty. My reflection from outside the window seemed to rub
against the objects, looming over them like a ghost. I took in a deep breath and
opened my eyes wide. Was it the vast vacuum of emptiness that I saw, the fear of
disappearing? That was the world on the other side, where a falling apple never
makes a thumping sound. The occasional ringing I hear on the receiver, being
sucked into the infinite, deep end of darkness and then disappearing. The
impersonal pronoun that I must now forever refer to only in the past tense. The
one that I still call, however, with all my strength-'him.'
The place was a coffee shop, where lovers come and sit staring at the river,
into the sunset. When I pushed the heavy wooden door, it finally opened up with a
squeak, after all these years. At this time of day it was quiet inside, with hardly any
customers. Just as before. Everything was the same, like theatrical devices used
on the stage as reminders of the past. The only change was that the
well-groomed shop owner, dressed in an ivory-colored shirt with cufflinks, had
now grown a beard. Everything was the same, only now they were slowly aging
and sinking. I took the table in the deepest corner. It faced the table with the
teacup. The man whom I assumed was occupying the spot was on the phone in
the booth next to the cashier, his back facing my way. I could not hear his voice
over the glass walls of the booth.
When the owner came by with the menu bound in leather and said, Spring
definitely in the air, it was me from many years back who ordered "a cup of blue
mountain," in a low, hoarse voice that sounded strange even to myself. If I were
with him, the shop owner would have said, The color of the river is lovely today,
just like before. Yes, it really is, he would have replied, and the owner would have
added, We have no spring or fall around here. Spring skips into summer and as
soon as fall arrives, it starts snowing. The shop owner had noticed at first sight
that he came from the bustling big city. People here did not talk about things like
the color of the river being lovely. Those were words for a traveler passing
through, who would stay for a short while, then leave for good. The traveler who
would stay in my sight only while he smoked one cigarette, sipped one cup of tea,
drank one glass of beer. The cigarette in the ashtray no longer sent off bluish
smoke and the precarious curve of its burnt end instantly fell into white ashes.
I stared into the river that he used to look out over my shoulders, and
island floating on the water, covered with a field of reeds.
A man with half-white hair stepped out of the booth and made a flopping
he took his seat. He placed a cigarette between his lips and lit it. The shop owner
brought my coffee. I could feel its dark and heated fragrance spread into the
heavy air, shaking subtly like thread-thin capillaries. Perhaps the man in the next
table had noticed the aroma, for he looked up towards me and for a moment, our
eyes met in the middle of the vacuum. The look in his eyes was somewhat vague
and insecure. I did not take my eyes off him while I stirred sugar and cream into
my cup. I was well aware of the fact that the shop owner brewed great-tasting
coffee. Not only that, I also knew that he slept with men. In this small city, nothing
could be concealed. Things like his abundant beard, which almost looked fake on
his still-youthful face, was a mere attempt at hiding.
The plaster death mask of Beethoven hung high up on the wall, as it used
might have spoken to him, from across the table, about making a plaster mask of
my own face in art class back in middle school. I would have described how it
had felt to have my face covered with the thick plaster mix, my nostrils blocked
and my eyes tightly shut, the cold and dark feeling as if a screen had gone
blank-perhaps that was what death would be like. I had stuttered, trying
desperately to capture his distant eyes over my shoulder. Finishing his cigarette,
the man stood and returned to the phone booth. I turned away. The river had
donned its spring colors in full. The distant mountains appeared blurry in soft
brown tones, still awaiting new leaves, but shades of light green had settled like
fog on the branches of the willow trees along the embankment. Halfway across
the bridge, a woman was looking down at the water, leaning far over the river.
Suicides occasionally took place at this bridge. The local newspaper printed
short bottom-page stories of these incidents with phrases like despair over
illness, financial hardships and brokenhearted lover in the headlines. Because
the current became a rapid whirlpool below the central supporting column, they
reported, the drowned body was swept deep into the water, only to appear much
later at the river's lower stream where the current slowed down.
When I was young, death was a white envelope to me. Once in a while when
was returning from school or heading outside, I would see the white envelope
folded in half and slipped in between our gate and the side post. No one in the
family knew who had put it there or when. The grown-ups never told us that it was
a report of death, but the children learned on their own that it was something
ominous and impure that should not be touched or opened. Death was an
unfamiliar secret, put inside a blank white envelope and slipped into a door gap
without anyone noticing.
Lying on his deathbed, my father kept saying he could hear the cracking
of tree branches breaking, even though the warm season was filling up all of
nature's creations with water. His ears had opened up to the other world; they
were as thin and transparent as sheets of cellophane, listening to the sounds of
a world other than ours- a world that others could not see, a world that existed
only as an image. No one paid attention to the dying man's phantom hearings, but
as the family gathered around Father's death bed, we tried to comfort him by
pretending to look outside and search for the source of the sound whenever he
made his claims.
We did not know then that it was the sound of death that he was hearing. We were
too young to recognize death. He went in such a clean, dignified manner, my
mother said proudly before the coffin rites, but Father began to give off a smell as
soon as she spoke those words. Just like his habit of laughing with his entire
body, shaking it back and forth, it seemed that his whole body reeked odor.
Mother did not realize that she should not have made such a comment. However
old a superstition might be, the ancient people were right. They knew how to
bestow dignity upon death. It was taboo to speak about the dead. We held an
invocation ceremony for Father's spirit, climbing on the roof at midnight to wave
his white shirt and call out his name into the stark black heavens. My young son
told me that night that he had seen a huge white bird flap its wings and fly away
into the dark sky.
After 'he' died, I was cured of the ringing in my ears that had been tormenting
for so long. After hearing my symptoms-of feeling my ears swell up endlessly, of
the pain caused by all kinds of noises from this world whirling, boiling up and
piercing my brain uncontrollably-the young ear, nose and throat specialist had
apprehensively diagnosed that a problem might have developed in my cochlea.
Now I live an ordinary life, without any trace left of him. I eat, sleep and have short,
habitual sex, like a sigh unintentionally sputtered out in times of solitude. But just
as the dead continue to dwell in the genes of the people they have left behind
long after their memories have perished, he still remains, in my most insignificant
gestures and habits. Since that unexpected day when I saw his death in the
newspaper's obituary section, which could be used by just about anyone, I
developed the habit of recalling his drifting telephone number and pressing each
digit with a forceful push. I kept sending the signals, endlessly, to the heart of the
darkness, and the set of numbers, which he would never again be able to use,
would ring inside the dark vacuum, endlessly. It would be pointless to ask why,
and how he died.
For a while after he died, everyone seemed like a corpse to me. Corpses
and drinking, boisterously laughing, corpses walking around, corpses that felt
pleasure and pain. Perhaps my childhood friend Jung-ok's father was right.
People said that Jung-ok's father, the drunkard undertaker, slept inside a coffin
I pulled my eyes away from the bridge, noticing the man's stare as he walked
of the phone booth. His eyes were not those of a man glancing at a woman,
looking as if they were lost in confusion. As the years passed, whenever I was
met with an unfamiliar glance, I came to feel that it was not merely a man looking at
me as a woman. It was a projection of someone's own reflection them, brushing
past like an arid, meaningless glass marble. I took this as an indication that I was
no longer a young woman.
I looked up at the man, straight in the eye. His eyes seemed to be losing
and the man flustered, running his fingers through his neatly combed hair and
rubbing his face. The shop owner put a record on the turntable, as if he could not
bear the silence locked inside the cafe, so solid that one could almost touch it.
The needle made scratching sounds on the record, then Ravel's Bolero came
The man ignored my glance with difficulty and held up the newspaper and
opened it. But I could feel his eyes still looking at me on the other side of the
paper, his breath slowly growing unsteady, almost as if he were panting. It was
evident that he was caught up in a state of extreme confusion. If I were a beautiful
young woman he might not have been so perplexed. Who is that woman, he was
probably thinking. And why is she looking at me so intently? Searching into his
jumbled-up mess of memories, he would be sweating to recall the faint faces of
women he had known, women he had held and women he had abandoned.
But he would get even further lost in the labyrinth as the accelerating rhythm of the
castanets scattered away what little clues he had pulled from his mind.
Finally he put down the newspaper on the table and lifted himself, as if
come to a decision. As he turned towards me, his body lost its balance for a
second and bumped into the table. His teacup hit the floor and fell to pieces with a
sharp, exploding noise. The man had now completely lost his composure. The
shop owner rushed to the man, making his way through the Bolero and its
breathtaking round of eighth notes and sixteenth notes, and stopped the man from
trying to pick up the broken pieces with clumsy motions. The man and the shop
owner exchanged some words. Drowned in the accelerating rhythm and the
heightened tone of the music, their conversation did not reach me. The man did
not let himself look my way, not even for a second. With his back determinedly
turned towards me, he crumpled up his empty cigarette pack, reached for his
keys, paid the check and walked out.
Through the large window, I could see him crossing the street, his footsteps
unstable. After getting another pack of cigarettes at a store, he took out his
handkerchief and wiped his face.
I left the coffee shop. Filled with an anxiety that I could not quite identify,
the man with hurried steps, across the street and onto the river embankment.
He was standing on a flat piece of land on the embankment covered with
grass, holding on to a willow tree. He was rubbing his chest with his left hand,
trying hard to breathe. He seemed about to throw up, as if he was fighting an
irrepressible force inside of him that was on the verge of bursting out. His face
was so pale that it was scary. Whether he had seen me, I could not be sure.
Frowning with a wrinkle between his eyebrows, the man looked past me, his eyes
landing on the sun, which had already begun to set.
The man loosened his tie, in agitated, unsteady motions. For a moment I
he might be trying to hang himself, but he put the tie into a pocket, took off his
jacket and folded it up. Then he lay down, resting his head on the folded jacket. It
was apparent now that he was gasping and panting. Covering his face with the
handkerchief from his pocket, he let out a suppressed scream, his body twisting.
Ugh. His white dress shirt and light-colored pants were soon covered with dry
grass and soil. Witnessing this entirely unexpected scene, I stepped back,
shouting in a choked up voice, What, what is the matter, are you ill? Passengers
waiting for the boat and street vendors from the platform below the embankment
gathered around. They were quick to dismiss my plea to call the police or to take
the man to the hospital. He was an epileptic, they said, and he was preparing for
a fit so that he would not fall and have a concussion. The fact that he laid himself
down in an isolated place showed he was a chronic case, who had probably
suffered numerous previous fits, they added, and that he would soon lift himself
up, as if nothing had happened.
The man's arms and legs were twisting and quivering like a dying frog.
surfaced as a wet silhouette from beneath the white handkerchief. While we
waited to see in what form this man, wriggling by our feet, would emerge from the
attack, people argued whether epilepsy was hereditary and exchanged stories
they had witnessed or heard?f a man who had a seizure while being introduced
to his prospective bride by a matchmaker, of a bride who ran out on her wedding
night after seeing her groom having a fit.
The whole scene seemed somehow fictional and unreal. I too had heard stories
of someone getting a seizure during the final interview for a position at a
prestigious corporation, or right at the moment when the woman he loved finally
accepted his heart. Had it been five minutes? Or ten? The convulsions gradually
slowed down, then all of a sudden, a tremor ran through the man's body and he
breathed out a long sigh, like he was whistling a tune. It's over now, someone
said, and as if the man had heard those words, his pants became wet around the
visibly erect zipper area. The stain grew darker, spreading uncontrollably.
The man stood up. Ignoring the sudden silence and the people standing around
him, he brushed the soil from his clothes and straightened his hair. He picked up
his jacket and turned around?t that moment, had his eyes met mine, for a short
second? I would never forget the look in his eyes, filled with solitude and
? At the dinner table, my husband said the day had been extremely hot and
me if his summer suit was pressed and ready to wear. But I insisted that it was
still spring and that the weather was unpredictable this time of the year. During the
meal my husband said this year he would like to take a trip to some quiet place in
the woods in June, before the vacation season moved into full swing.
If our son went away to college in the big city, he also said, we should go on
overseas trips, like other couples. Reading the paper after dinner, he commented
that air and water pollution were an abominable acts of violence towards
ourselves, and I concurred. Printed in the paper was a picture of residents
protesting the decaying water source and worms found in tap water.
The conversations we had about quiet vacations, clean water and air, about
pension plans and a house in the countryside, made me feel we were growing
old. My husband, whose Catholic name is 'Peter,' has maintained a cool distance
from religion since his teens, but has told me that when he retired he would like to
spend his late years peacefully, rendering his service to the community through
church activities. It would be more fitting to call it his plan, rather than a dream.
One can never predict a person's life or future, but as long as we avoid any
unusual risks, like we always have, my husband and I will probably spend the
coming years as he pictures them. My husband's wish to grow old in an
uncluttered fashion, without greed and with integrity, gives me assurance. I
recently found out by chance that he has signed up for a church campaign to
donate his organs upon death. He has not told me, I assume, out of respect for
my right to choose. For me, it is still difficult to accept the prospect, of laying my
body bare to strangers before it has even lost its warmth, then being buried as an
empty sack with all contents pulled out. If my husband dies before me, I will be
burying a piece of taxidermy.
My husband and son discussed global warming and abnormal weather patterns,
the war overseas and issues surrounding the possession of nuclear arms, and
a newly discovered planet that lay even further away than Pluto, and I was
enjoying listening to their conversation, about things that I did not know about. It
made me realize that we were living in a different, new world and made me feel,
simultaneously, a slight sense of fear and pride. The fad over Indian culture is
passe, it seems, but meditation is really popular now.
When you reach a high state of enlightenment, they say, anything is possible.
You can experience sex sitting all by yourself, even have orgasms. How is that
any different from masturbation? I was talking to my husband, with my eyes on an
advertisement insert from the paper.
It's certainly not productive, my husband answered. Is anything productive any
more in our life together?he things that make up the contents of our life?
Together, we watch our son, born out of a legitimate tie, growing everyday like a
tree full of life, and share hopes and worries, petty problems of daily life and food
and sex. Of course, there is probably room for betrayal and disillusionment and
anger. There is peace found in the stillness of water in a bowl, and there is mold
bubbling in the sauce jar like a nasty protest, but most of all, we have order, the
loyal conventions that embrace all those things. Relying on the virtue of enduring
habits, I put to sleep my symptoms of mild insomnia and my helpless memories of
pain. We fall asleep lying side by side, but no longer talk about the dreams that
we each have?ince when I do not know. How do you put up with me, in my heart I
ask him from time to time, though it is a question that could also be asked of
myself. But I have never said it out loud. A swimmer unconfident about holding his
breath should never go under water. There is the danger of drowning.
Still, it would be dishonest to say our relationship is merely a habit
or the taming
effect of time. That would be cowardly and hypocritical, like self-deprecation
displayed to win the favor of others. Clearly there is something insufficient in
saying that was all.
My husband and I were born the same year. We grew up respectively in the
eastern and western regions of the country but we shared the experiences of
being born during the war and growing up in the ruins. We both knew the hunger
and loneliness of long spring and summer afternoons endured without lunch, and
the dull sweet taste of bind weed flower roots, dug from the soft earth with rough
handknives or scraps of raw metal, that would comfort our loneliness. We also
knew the sound of night watchmen's wooden clappers that kept us awake with
inexplicable sorrow on long, cold winter nights, the rueful dizziness of waking up
around sunset after a late nap, the fear of the steel hook that had replaced a
wounded veteran's hand and the beating and cursing of weary parents. We were
little children who grew up memorizing timetables and historical dates, the Oath of
Citizens and Pledges of the Revolution.
Now I see in my seventeen-year-old son my husband as the boy I never knew,
and every time, I am shocked by the horrid desire embedded inside each human
gene, the desire to duplicate oneself.
My husband mentioned the afternoon's traffic jam at the bridge entrance,
criticizing the city's narrow streets and officials who failed to see things ahead of
time. Then he said we should sell the small apartment before the moving season
was over. I replied without objection that I would tell the realtor the next day to put
the place on the market.
It was only after I finished the dishes that I realized I had left the
the market by the bridge at the coffee shop.
? On the other side of the hill facing our high-rise apartment, thick with
bushes and various scrubs, stands the Yesong Apartment complex. We have a
place there, which we call the ?mall house?for convenience. And on the way to
the apartment is the pond house.
To get to the Yesong Apartments, one has to walk to the street outside the
entrance of the complex where we live then go around the surrounding fence, but
most times when I go there, I climb the hill, even though there is no hiking path
running though it. Not only because this is a shortcut, but also because there are
wonderful large trees on the hill, I crawl through the dog hole in the steel mesh
fence, ignoring the sign that says this is private property and that trespassing is
prohibited. There are pine trees and oak trees and paulownia trees, which stop
me in my tracks every time I visit the Yesong complex. Even during the seasons
when the trees turn bony and naked, standing beneath those trees makes me feel
like I am a person of wisdom and I take my time gathering my breath, staring into
the spreading darkness.
The wooden fence of the pond house started where the slope of the hill
an end. Except for the northern tip skirted by the hill's edges, the entire site had
been encircled with a fence of logs as thick as pillars of houses, trimmed to adult
height and tightly woven together with heavy wire. But as the season moved into
spring, they began to take the fence down, starting from the eastern end. There
were rumors that they were going to tear down the house and open a restaurant
specializing in raw trout dishes. As I passed by the pond house on my way to the
Yesong Apartments, I suddenly lifted up my eyes. My scarf, at once familiar to my
eyes, was tied to the fence by the front gate. It was already many days ago that I
had wrapped it around the Fool's leg and had completely forgotten about it.
The scarf was old, with faded colors and tattered ends; I had set it aside to be
thrown out but had worn it around my neck when I went out that day. Placed at
such an unexpected spot, the old scarf, with its gaudy red patterns, appeared as
something alien and shameful. Perhaps because it was familiar to me, something
I had worn on my body.
The Fool, who, until yesterday, had been spending entire days pulling up
fence, was nowhere to be seen. I call him the Fool, as other people do. He is
probably past the age to be called simply by name. I am never disturbed or
apologetic about calling him the Fool, though it is something I do only in my mind.
Just as a name belonging to someone I do not know is a mere combination of
consonants and vowels, I have no feeling about calling him that, except as letters
that make up the word, the Fool. Thirty? Forty? I sometimes try to guess his age,
but it is hard to figure out.
Several days ago, I was watching the Fool pull up the fence. The Fool was
struggling with a small saw trying to cut the wires that tied the logs together. It
would have been useless to tell him that he had to use a wrench instead of a
saw. Once he started working, the Fool never listened to anyone. As always,
neighborhood children who were not in school or kindergarten had gathered
around the Fool. Every single thing the Fool did, the children said it aloud in
words?he Fool is smoking, the Fool is peeing, the Fool is laughing. He was trying
as hard as he could to cut the steel wires, without success, when he fell to the
ground, wrapping his arms around his leg. Blood smeared through his dirty
sweat pants. The saw had broken into half and stabbed his knee.
The fool scowled, as if he was wringing his face, and cried in loud bellows. There
was no sign of anyone in the house. As the blood kept spreading out darker and
redder, I took off my scarf and after making the Fool tuck up one leg of his pants, I
tied the scarf around his bleeding wound. Compared to the heavy bleeding, the
wound was not that deep.
The hem of his trousers kept crawling back down, so I pulled it up for him tightly
above his knee. When my hand touched his taut, muscular flesh, the Fool flinched
and twisted his body, as if he was ticklish. The Fool has hair, too, just like my
daddy. The children kept chattering, pointing to the Fool's legs, and having
stopped crying, the Fool put on a proud look upon his frowning face. Although I
did not believe he would understand, I advised him to disinfect the wound and put
some ointment on it. He's a fool so he doesn't know anything. The Fool grinned
and the children answered for him. Maybe the Fool had tied the scarf to the fence,
as a trick to return it to me. I turned my eyes away with a vague sense of shame
and headed to the Yesong Apartments.
? I picked up the water and electricity bill, with the usual basic charges,
mailbox?omething I opened without any expectation or thought, for the simple
reason that it was marked with the number of the apartment that belonged to
me?nd was on my way up the stairs when I ran into the woman from the third
floor who headed the apartment resident committee. Hearing her say she hadn't
seen me in so long, I suspected that she had been over to see me many times
and also that she disapproved of me, because I was not an official resident here.
As the committee head, it would be a hassle having to deal with someone like me,
who merely kept a name on the empty apartment and took no part in residential
affairs, from cleaning the staircase to signing joint letters, participating in
occasional rallies or marches to the City Hall for a civil appeal. But she was
wrong about the apartment being empty. It was merely that I was in and out
irregularly. The woman demanded from me overdue committee fees and other
charges having to do with this or that cause, and I promised that I would pay up
soon. The thought crossed my mind that she would be happy if I asked her to
keep a lookout for a suitable buyer since I was planning to sell the place, but I
offered a simple good-bye and climbed up the stairs, passing her on my way.
As I unlocked the green steel door at the furthest end of the top floor,
the fifth, and
entered inside, I thought for a moment that perhaps I still hadn't sold this place,
which we had no evident use for, because of the strangely lonesome, and yet
fulfilling, feeling that I got from opening and stepping inside the door of a vacant
My husband insisted that we should sell it, citing the disadvantages of a single
family owning two homes, but I had been procrastinating the sale day by day,
trying to persuade him with the prospect of the profit we could land once
redevelopment plans for the apartment complex came through, as was eagerly
anticipated by the residents here, though I never really believed in the possibility.
The truth was that I needed some space for myself.
It was an old apartment built a long time ago for low-income households,
eleven pyong in size. I could feel the warmth of the heated floors, but the sense of
chill and desolation of a house where no one lived, had settled on them, along
with a fine layer of dust.
Two years ago, our family lived here for three months. In an attempt to make the
most of the housing market during moving season, we had sold our old house
before the newly constructed apartment was ready to move in. While looking for a
temporary rental, we bought this apartment instead because we could afford it
with the money we would have to spend on renting a larger place on a deposit
basis. We put the place up for rent when we moved to the new apartment after
three months, but since the tenants left last winter, it had been empty again.
The apartment was just as the former residents had left it. I had done
the place except sweep and mop, just once. The task was easy, for the young
couple, who were proper and straightforward in their ways, had left nothing
behind, not even a rag.
Except for one thing, the notebook inside the kitchen cabinet drawer. They had
probably forgotten it. The thin notebook had a ball point pen tied to a rubber band
hanging from a hole made with an awl on the top corner and looked like a book of
credit notes kept at a small corner store. Apparently they had used it to record
their household expenses.
One cube of bean curd, three sauries, a bunch of spinach?he items were written
in detail, along with the dates. A toy car, one kilo of bananas, one box of
condoms?nd here and there some jottings of what appeared to be poems or
lyrics to a popular song, though I couldn't be sure. There was also a passage
where the wife had written down words of remorse, about hitting their child and
her resentment towards her husband. ?e is a good, pitiful man. I have to try to
understand him. Poverty makes us feel wasted. Makes us forget our loving words
and gazes. Especially today, I hate myself unbearably and feel depressed. Is it
because of the rain? I just want to take off somewhere?I smiled, reading the young
couple's everyday life in the unskilled handwriting. Somehow I couldn't simply
throw it into the trash, so I had put it on one of the shelves in the cabinet hoping to
return it to them if and when I ran into them.
I came to the apartment almost every day during the past winter, putting
excuse that the hot water pipes might freeze and burst if the fire in the briquet
furnace was not kept going. There was nothing here except for a broom and a
dustbin and the notebook that had been left behind. Oh, and on the walls there
were square- or rectangular-shaped traces of where the dresser once stood
and framed pictures used to hang, the color of the wallpaper slightly darker than
the rest of the wall, faded by sunlight.
Traces of an existence that are revealed only after it has disappeared. I spent my
time here not doing much, taking naps or looking out the window. Sometimes I
listened closely to the melody of ? Maiden's Prayer?coming from the laundry
delivery van, the holler of the truck vendor and the sound of a child crying
somewhere in the distance, a sound now forgotten to me. When the sun seeped
through the window facing west, the hours that made up our family's brief stay
here came alive like a hallucination in the golden sunlight that would quickly fade
away, and filled me with sorrow.
The pond house could be seen directly below my eyes with the window open.
The people in the neighborhood called this huge old traditional tile-roofed house,
well over two hundred years old, the chinsa house, or the Fool's house, or the
pond house. The family had produced five high-ranking chinsa officials during the
Chosun Kingdom and also nine fools, and now with children living successfully
as teachers and civil servants and merchants in separate households all over
the country, the old mother had been left alone with her unmarried fool of a son
helping out with odd jobs around the house.
I had heard these stories from the owner of the corner store by the entrance of
the apartment complex. The neighborhood was where he was born and had
been living for sixty years, so he knew everything about the pond house. He also
said that the hill between the high-rise apartments belonged to the pond house
family, that the site of the Yesong Apartments and the high-rise where I live had
once been theirs, but they had sold the land little by little, as if they were slicing
up a piece of rice cake to eat, and that the children created a scene fighting over
the estate on the rare occasions when they gathered for memorial services, and
that the declining house was soon going to be torn down to open a ?arden
restaurant.?The world has changed. Making money comes before everything.
They can carry around their family tree and show off their lineage for a hundred
years, but that won't earn them a single coin, the store owner had added,
glancing over at the pond house.
At the pond house, withering grass peeked out from between the majestically
layered tiles of the roof, swaying to the wind from time to time as if they were
suddenly reminded to move. An unkempt bush of forsythia was blossoming in
yellow in the back garden and azaleas were showing their bright-colored flower
buds. The spring sun was flowing all around. The aged trees that surrounded the
far end of the house and the plump, reddish sprouts on the apricot and pear
trees around the pond were swelling up as if leaves were about to burst out any
minute. The house, built on a spacious site with a pond and a pavilion?lthough
much of the ample front and back yard had been turned into vegetable plots?tood
in the splendid spring light, shedding its years, decaying quietly like ashes. It was
clear to see no descendant could manage to keep this house.
The Fool came out of the quiet house, which was devoid of human sound.
washed his face at the tap in the yard and, grasping a shovel, walked over to the
eastern fence which had now been torn open. It looked like he was going to
resume pulling up the wooden fence. Having been injured by the saw, the Fool
would probably never touch it again. My old scarf was still tied to the fence, its
colors ruddy, next to the gate which was left open and hollow. The Fool was
strong. The way he pulled up the logs, swiftly and effortlessly, made him look like
he was dancing. The Fool was always working somewhere in the vicinity of the
house, as if he was tied to it by an invisible string. So when I looked out the
window, the Fool was always there in the landscape, in the wind.
? Inside the steam-filled sauna, narrow wooden benches were installed along
walls and naked women sat silently with a towel over the mouth, their faces filled
with pain. In Auschwitz, people probably died in this manner. But the ripe,
peach-colored bodies, with pores open wide, looked like flowers in full blossom.
Bunches of mugwort hung here and there to provide the satisfaction of being
treated to a real herbal bath. I covered my mouth with a cold wet towel and
counted to a hundred. At first, it was hard to count up to twenty, but now one
hundred was not that difficult.
I walked out of the sauna and washed off my sweat with warm water. It was
always crowded here, because the water was kept clean and the facilities were
high in quality for a neighborhood bathhouse. There were young virgins and
middle-aged women with round, fatty bodies, women in their last trimester of
pregnancy and old women with layers of skin wrinkled from numerous births;
everyone was working hard, scrubbing, massaging, rubbing soap. My husband
brought back a folk craft doll from his trip to Russia last fall. Made of thin wood, the
doll was simple in shape like a round-bottomed toy?ts face that of a young
woman's, red in the cheeks, and the patterns and colors of a folk costume
painted on the body?ut inside, there were layers of the same dolls, inserted one
after another in the order of size. It appeared to me to represent the layered
images of life.
I wondered how many other women lay inside the body of an old woman, with the
loose cover of flesh hanging over her spare bones like a shabby overcoat a size
too big for her. A woman slightly younger, a woman growing old, a young woman,
a girl approaching puberty and finally, a small young girl existing as a secret
inside a fruit, as a seed waiting for someone, or something, to burst its buds open
Next to me was a young mother with a slightly swollen belly scrubbing a
The girl, four or five years old, was tirelessly scrubbing a plastic doll, her own
body entrusted to her mother. Was motherhood an innate, biological instinct for a
woman? When I got married, I quickly shifted my seat over to motherhood. As if I
were crossing the hallway from room to room without a hint of suspicion.
This morning, as I watched my son rush out the door, I had felt an inexplicable
chill in my heart. I called out his name in a flurry, but when he turned his head
and looked at me, I said it was nothing and waved him off with a smile. It was only
after I locked the door and turned around that I realized, what had swept past my
heart with such force was a sense of pure sexuality spurting from the boy,
virginity budding like radish sprouts.
Since I had a baby, I no longer had the dreams I used to have so frequently,
dreams of flying or falling. I no longer dreamt that I was shrinking, smaller and
smaller, trying to hide in some corner.
The girl's mother splashed clear water on the girl's body, covered with
suds. Ow, that's hot, you bitch. The water must have been too hot, for the child
bounced up like a ball and let out a scream. The child's unexpected cursing, in a
voice clear and ringing, was thrilling and merciless. The women, who had been
quietly going about their washing, turned around, suppressing a laugh. The
mother looked about with a perplexed expression, abruptly holding back her
hands. The girl was at a loss, having spit out a swearword in momentary reflex,
and burst into tears. Mommy, I'm sorry, I didn't know it was you. The sound of the
child's shrill crying hit the ceiling, filled with steam but at the same time high and
hollow, and resonated all around.
I stood under the shower, giving my body over to the warm streaks of water,
was suddenly aghast with shock. I could not see myself in the mirror. Though I
knew it was because the steam had blurred the mirror, it was frightening not to
find something that would certainly be there.
I remained standing there staring at the mirror, long after I turned the
As the steam gradually lifted, the silhouette of my face slowly came back to life on
the clearing surface of the mirror, as if it was closing in from a faraway distance.
A face of broken symmetry, like a cloth that had been pulled in the wrong
direction. The minute change that appeared in me after his death.
When I saw his name in the obituary page of the newspaper that I was
half-heartedly glancing at while folding the laundry, the first thing I had done, after
repeatedly confirming his place of work and telephone number locked between
the parentheses, was to look in the mirror. I had no way of knowing why I had
done so, what sort of movement inside my heart led me to the mirror.
Approaching the mirror almost unconsciously, I saw the reflection of a face that
had been shattered to pieces. It wasn't that my wrinkles were suddenly more
apparent, or that the mirror had cracked, as was my first reaction. It was a face in
which all the habits and customs that it had long been tamed by, had been
shattered in a single moment. Ah, before a cry broke out from inside me, the
shattered face vanished and the thoroughly familiar face appeared. It was
something that belonged to me, but impossible to recognize except through a
mirror or a photograph.
I left the mirror and finished folding the laundry, then mixed the seasoning with the
lettuce I had pickled with salt earlier in the day to make kimchi. What else could I
have done but to continue to do what I had been doing? I made side dishes for my
son's school lunch, exchanged jokes while I watched TV with my husband, and
let out a moth that had squeezed in through a loose gap in the window screen
and was circling around, its wings flapping in desperate, unsettling motions.
His death was announced to me in this casual manner, through such a
completely impersonal method.
The typical and peaceful evening hours, no different from any other day,
at a leisurely pace, without any hint that he, someone who had existed, had
disappeared from this world forever.
After he died, something inside of me died. I did not know what that was.
did not even have the desire to know. I developed a habit of stopping to stare
blankly into my face reflected in shop windows, in the mirror at the supermarket or
on the water. His presence and absence had now faintly dissolved into my habits,
as insignificant as a single drop of blood spreading in water, as when I lifted my
eyes from rinsing the rice for dinner and looked out at the woods or the sunset in
the growing darkness. He existed as a remote vanishing point, dissolved out of
sight at the far end of the landscape in a painting adopting a model perspective.
As I had been in days past, presently, I was happy at times and at times had
feelings of unhappiness. I would grow old like this. In a manner of aging not much
different from others, in a manner that was equally recognized as acceptable.
Returning home after my bath, I lay down on the long chair in the living
fell into a deep sleep. In my dream, I was a small girl, standing by the old well
crying. I had dropped my bucket. I stood on tiptoes like a magpie and looked
down, hanging on by the edge of the well which came up to my chest, but could
not see anything inside the distant depth of the well. Not the lost bucket, nor the
golden carp that was said to secretly rise to the surface at night when no one
was around. The desolate feeling I had in my dream did not go away even after I
woke up. Nowadays I dreamed of the old well from time to time. The story was
always similar. I would be crying because of the lost bucket, or looking into the
well with my dead friend Jung-ok, where the water had sunken, boundlessly
round and solitary, or watched scenes of the well being cleaned.
It was probably my great-grandmother who told me about the old well and
golden carp that lived in it.
There had been a large well in the center of the village where I lived
when I was
small. It was sometimes called the sweet well for its sweet-tasting water, or
sometimes the big well because of its size, but people called it the old well, as
was the custom from the old days, probably meaning that it had been there since
very old times. Its water was deep and had a pleasant taste. My
great-grandmother told me: There is a golden carp living inside the well.
In a thousand years it will become a python and after another thousand years, on
a night roaring with thunder and lightening, it will turn into a dragon and fly up to
the sky. When black hair began to grow on Grandma's ninety-year-old head and
clean, white teeth sprouted out inside her hollow mouth like silkworm eggs,
Mother saw it as an ominous sign of misfortune. She said it was senility. She did
not respond to Grandma's words or look at her straight, and gave her only small
amounts of food. She was scared of the common belief that senile old people
lived long. But Grandma was not like Kwang-ja's grandmother who was
possessed by a cat's spirit and ran around trying to catch mice every night,
crying like a cat.
She did not pick up her own stool to eat it, as O-dol's grandfather did. When I
looked inside the well, filled with moonlight, I thought I could hear the golden carp
moving in the water in slow swishing motions.
When we returned from school after our morning classes, it was the girls' job to
fetch water before sunset. If we dropped the bucket in the well, we would get
spanked or had to skip supper, but the children were always dropping their
buckets, and would stand next to the well crying, helpless, desperate, filled with
fear. Negligence was always an unforgivable vice. The undertaker's daughter,
Jung-ok, who came out to fetch water with her stepmother's baby on her back,
dropped her bucket frequently.
There was a proper sign hanging at Jung-ok's house, which read, ?onghae
Mortician,?but the villagers called Jung-ok's father the undertaker. There were
also rumors that at night he slept inside one of the coffins stacked in the shop.
Perhaps that was true. Because people did not die all that often, the undertaker
was always drunk, not having much work to do. Her stepmother sold rice cake at
the market so Jung-ok had to cook and wash the clothes, and her hands looked
huge all the time, swollen from working with water.
The baby was always tied on her back, but there was no stopping Jung-ok, who
had a fun-loving, merry nature. We never had to go to Jung-ok's house, which
seemed to give off a frightening, strange smell, and call her out to play. No matter
how many times she was told to stay home and watch the baby, as soon as the
stepmother left, Jung-ok would appear five or six steps behind with a grin on her
face, the baby on her back. Ever since the baby bit its tongue while Jung-ok was
jumping rope, she would tie the baby to a telephone pole while she played
jumped rope or hide-and-seek. Once, while playing hide-and-seek, she forgot
about the baby on the pole, so the baby was left hanging until after dark and fell
asleep there. When Jung-ok dropped her bucket in the well, she was chased out
of the house with an empty pail. She would often be standing by the well, crying
until sunset. The women and the older girls of the village who were out fetching
water, would scold Jung-ok for her carelessness then let her borrow their bucket
as if they were doing her a big favor and warned her, 'If you drop this too, you
have to climb inside the well and pull it out yourself.'
Sometimes when I was struggling to pull up the bucket full of water, a
strapping force suddenly pulled me into the well with a jerk and the rope slipped
out of my strained grip, or the tightly knotted rope broke loose from the bucket and
the only thing that would be pulled up was the empty end of the rope. Even when I
got it right, my heart would jump with a flutter every time I let the rope fall from my
None of the children believed my story about the golden carp living inside
and called me a liar and a bluff, but Jung-ok believed me. She even added that it
was probably 'a carp that could make our wishes come true.'
After the flood passed that summer, the well had to be cleaned. The taste
water had turned bad. The flood was severe that year. The children all rushed out
to the river. The grown-ups came out carrying a long pole and a straw net bag.
Our school was closed. It had been turned into a shelter for the flood victims. On
an island across the river, only poplar trees stuck out in their spiky shapes, with
large birds flying over to sit on the treetops. The river, with its overflowing brown
water, looked like a plain.
The grown-ups could not sleep all night, worried that the overflowing river might
tear down the embankment. But in the morning they would head back to the river
with their poles.
The children sang by the river: Pieces of shit floated down with the flood,
out their own name, shwoosh, shwoosh, shit, shit, shit. We joined our voices
together for the last chorus, singing at the top of our lungs as if we were
screaming. Our faces and lips blue from the wind and the rain. There was nothing
that could not be found in the river. Squash and dressers and nickel silver pots,
chicken and rabbits still locked inside their cages, all came flowing down in the
fierce current. In-ja's father almost died, trying to catch the pig floating down the
stream, crying oi--nk.
After the flood, the well was cleaned. We waited for the muddy brown water
had filled up to the top of the well to sink back down, then picked a date for a kosa,
offering rice cakes and a pig's head and fruits as sacrifices to the spirits. After the
ritual, the men pumped the water out. Then Sun-ok's uncle, who had just gotten
out of the military, took off his socks and shoes and went down the well on a tightly
woven straw basket, like a character from a folk tale. The children anxiously
watched him descend to the distant bottom.
It was as if he was being sucked into an infinitely deep and dark circle. Frogs the
size of fingernails jumped out from between the green moss-covered rocks inside
the well, and the empty well cried in deep, generous roars. Following the sound of
the bottom being scraped, the sound of Sun-ok's uncle calling out, Pu-ull u-up,
clambered out from the bottom, hitting the walls a few rounds on its way, and the
men standing around the well pulled up the rope. Things like mud from the well
bottom, a rusty bucket and hooks for the buckets, a rubber shoe that had begun
to melt, a block of rotten wood and broken pieces of porcelain were pulled up
endlessly in the straw basket. Seen from up where we were, Sun-ok's uncle,
scooping at the deep bottom of the well with his back bent low, looked as if he
was flattened like a dwarf. Everyone carefully examined the contents each time the
basket was pulled up. Perhaps we were anticipating something grand that we did
not know existed inside the deep well. When a basket full of nothing but fine,
sandy mud was pulled up, the job was over. Finally, Sun-ok's uncle came up in
the basket, with a face that seemed to have aged over five hundred years. As if he
was dazzled by the light, he looked around with an unfamiliar glance, then broke
into an incomprehensible laugh, ahaha.
Sun-ok's uncle and the rest of the men left to have a drink and the children
by the edge, looking in silence into the empty well, left with nothing inside.
There was no golden carp inside the well. Still I could not shed the thought that
the golden carp would live there once clear water filled it up again. Jung-ok said
that the golden carp had probably hidden inside the deep hole where the water
sprang from, because it was not supposed to be seen by people, and that it
would come back once the water filled.
Jung-ok fell into the well and died that year in late fall. Someone who had gone to
fetch water before the first spread of sunlight found an empty pail by the well and
Jung-ok floating inside. Because the villagers considered it taboo to fetch water
after sunset, they said Jung-ok died in the middle of the night. Her stepmother
said she never sent her out to fetch water at night, but there was no doubt that
Jung-ok had gone out to fetch water in the middle of the night. The grown-ups
spoke in whispers that the young child had clearly been possessed by
something. They also said she'd been called by her mother who died early, and
that maybe something impure got in the way while cleaning the well. The well was
closed up. For a whole day, we held an exorcism ritual and filled the well with soil,
burying the water ghost tight. The children did not go close to the well even during
the day and wet their pants in the middle of the night. It was because when the
winds outside made swooshing sounds, Jung-ok would come to visit as the
black, spiky tree shadow reflected on the paper screen doors and kept calling us,
waving her large, water-swollen hands, carrying her stepmother's baby on her
back. Maybe Jung-ok had gone to the old well in the middle of the night to see the
The elderly villagers missed the cold, sweet taste of the water from the
but the growing children easily forgot about the dead friend and the fear of the
closed-up well. Because soon each house had a pump installed and we no
longer had to go and fetch water or get spanked for dropping the bucket.
When my husband took up fishing, I learned that carps lived in dirty, muddy
among moss and rotting water plants. It was always my job to clean the fish my
husband caught. Each time I cut the stomach of the fish, with the sense of
debasement and tension that entails the opening of a sealed object, a faint sound
would let out?hee-ew. What would then be revealed was the inside, something
that had been seen by no one, created then sealed as the rest of us had been.
There was the darkness of closed space, then a moment of first light. The red
and blue intestines twitched, shocked by the sudden flow of open air, and the
smaller living creatures, having sensed the demise of the world that they had
been relying upon inside the dark wet body of a cold-blooded animal, scattered
with painful wriggling motions, like Jonah inside the whale.
When we used to live in a house before moving to an apartment, I buried
intestines and head in the flower plot of our garden after trimming the fish. I
thought they'd make a good fertilizer. Through the night, herds of rats crowded the
garden. Numerous rat holes left hollow vacuums beneath the plot, making my feet
sink in helplessly. When I set up mouse traps, the fat rats caught in the trap
circled around all night, dragging the trap, screeching out sharp cries of death.
Perhaps memory is like a stone taken out of the water. Even though it shines
many beautiful colors inside the water, once it's out of the water it is merely a
stone drying up drearily, revealing plain patterns and textures. Just as we end up
after all as white bones inside a tomb. I know that it is the water and the passing of
time that puts the splendid patterns on a stone. But even nowadays, from time to
time, I dream of the old well and the golden carp.
The spring drought was continuing. The weather had been unusually hot,
mercury shooting above 30 degrees Celsius. At the pond house, magnolias
blossomed overnight and the fence, which was being pulled up from the eastern
end toward the gate, was now almost gone. My scarf, which had been tied on the
fence beside the gate, was now hanging high from a branch of an old apricot tree
by the pond. Is the Fool playing tricks? I let out a bitter laugh. Having long forgotten
whom it belonged to, perhaps all he had left now was an ardent faith that it must
The Fool was watering the vegetable garden, dry and crumbling in the drought.
he sprayed the water with a hose connected to the tap, he turned to the road that
now lay open with the fence torn down, and peeked out unsettlingly. The fence
logs that had been stacked in a corner of the yard were sent out in a truck. There
was an air of sudden liveliness around the house, which had always been quiet
and devoid of human sound.
Men in rugged work clothes or military jackets or jeans were around the house
constantly, along with a middle-aged man in a proper suit. Seeing from the way
he was dressed and the carefree manner with which he entered and exited the
house, it looked like he was the eldest son who had moved out with his family. A
silver mid-sized sedan was always parked in the yard. The sacks of cement and
sand stacked in the yard seemed to prove the rumors that they were going to
open a restaurant.
I spent most of my time at Yesong Apartment looking out at the pond house
through the window. The day before, when I went down to the corner store to buy
some tissue paper, I had tacitly asked the store owner if the pond house was
really going to be torn down, as if it was just a passing thought. He answered that
the house had been built with such high-quality old-style lumber that many
people had their eyes on it, and that a rich man had set his mind on building a
magnificent traditional weekend home with the lumber transported straight from
this house, so everything, from crossbeams to pillars to doors, had been sold
early on. Building it is hard, tearing it down takes only seconds, he added.
I could not understand my own obsessive interest in the pond house and told
myself that it was simply because I had nothing else to do, because that was the
only thing I saw when I opened the window and because it was distressing that
such an old, beautiful house was disappearing.
The Fool put down the hose, with the water still flowing, and squatted
he stared blankly into the earth. He had his eyes nailed to the ground and did not
turn to notice the water spattering out of the hose, wetting his feet and flowing
away, forming a ditch. Several times, he motioned his fingers, as if he was
digging something out. It also looked like he was determinedly searching for
Under the ground flows water and fire, and beneath the cross-shaped tombstone
lie the bones, tossing and turning, awaiting resurrection.
? The days grew increasingly hot and the flowers blossomed as if they were
clamoring, unable to bear the spring light. The trees surrounding the house
turned greener and greener, sprouting out leaves by the hour, and the Fool
became increasingly busy. The separate quarters beside the main house
disappeared and the next day, the small tile-roofed house, which appeared to be
a hut, had been torn down to a heap of broken roof tiles and a lump of earth, and
was now left as an empty plot of land. The pond house was being erased of its
site and shape day by day.
Three or four workers began building a brick wall along where the fence
be. In the yard, people were busy mixing cement. Cement particles and sand dust
incessantly rose into a haze above the workers' shadows, short and crumpled
under their feet beneath the mid-day sun high up in the sky. The vegetable plot
was turned upside down then flattened out, and the green heads of lettuce, grown
to the size of a hand, had been mixed into the earth and buried.
The Fool was now working on chopping down the trees at the back of the
Wielding his ax like a lumberjack, this mighty Fool had no time to rest all day,
striking the old trees above the roots and pushing them down. He seemed to be
faithfully carrying out someone's orders. But also, the Fool looked like he was
rushing about in a flurry. In the middle of chopping a pine tree, he hurriedly ran to
the sansuyu tree as if he had forgotten something and embracing the trunk, tried,
with all his strength, to pull it out. In between wiping off his sweat and in between
resting his ax to pound his back, he would suddenly look around at the house
and shake his head, as if something seemed strange. Could it be that he was
troubled by the change, the disappearance of a world where he was born and
had lived?he one place he had nested?
Perhaps a troubled mind is contagious. I kept breaking glasses or cutting
hand working with a knife on trivial jobs like chopping scallions or slicing a cube
of bean curd. I tried to make excuses, that it was because of the warm weather,
or because of my headache, but it was no news that my headaches got worse
with the arrival of spring. My husband asked again if I had put up the apartment for
sale, saying we must sell it before summer arrived, and I gave an obscure nod,
but I made no attempt whatsoever to sell it. I climbed the hill more often than before
to come to this apartment. Sometimes I secretly slipped out in the middle of the
night while my family slept. When I stood among the trees, whose leaves had now
grown rather thick, my head would strangely clear up. As the time I spent in this
apartment grew longer, my husband would complain about my staying out, asking
me where I'd been and saying he had called me about something but couldn't
reach me all day. It would never occur to my husband that I spent my days in the
empty apartment, doing nothing. A motorcycle entered the garden, making rattling
sounds. Judging from the tin case carried on one side, it was probably a delivery
man from a Chinese place. The workers left what they were doing and gathered
by the tap. One of the men called out to the Fool, who was still holding on to a
thick tree trunk with all his strength. A yellow excavator entered through the wide,
open road in front of the pond house and the noisy commotion of the crawler
tracks drowned the voice calling out to the Fool.
? A redness had filtered in throughout the room. Had I fallen asleep? I
up in a flurry. Outside the window, which had been left open, the sky was all red,
as if someone had set a fire. I must have fallen asleep while lying on the floor,
without even a pillow. I sat up and gazed up at the sky, filled with the rich colors of
When the sun sets, and when it rises, we shall remember them. Epitaph for
unknown soldiers of World War I. This is how people make excuses for being
Why did I feel a sense of defeat when I watched a majestic sunset?
As a child, I used to cry horribly when the sun went down and the sky began
don its colors of sunset. I would get a spanking, for it was considered an
abominable sign of wretched fate for a girl to cry, but I wept with abandon all the
same, overcome with an inexplicable sorrow?erhaps it was the recognition of
inescapable fate, a sense of defeat or fear as a human being, left with no choice
but to be craven and weak.
That summer, I was nursing the baby when I received a phone call that he
come to see me. The child instinctively read the mother's flustered emotion and
desperately kept sucking, refusing to let go of the nipple. Then with a shudder, he
bit hard. His teeth had begun to come out and the force of his bite was frightening.
Ah-h! Before I knew it, I screamed and struck the child's cheek. When he started
to cry as if he had a fire burn and I was able to get him off, blood rolled down and
it felt as if my nipple had been cut off. There was blood also on the child's mouth. I
put a sheet of gauze in my brassiere to hold the bleeding and I left the child,
crying with an acute sense of agitation, in the care of a neighbor and ran out to
see him. Together, he and I crossed the river and set out along a deep valley to
visit an old temple.
In the mid-day of summer, in the garden of the temple, declining from its
years' time, youngsanhong flowers were in full bloom. The red glow of the
youngsanhong blossoms reach all the way to hell, he said, dazzled by the glare
of the flowers. I'd go all the way to hell, I'd try to reach the end of light and sound
and darkness, I might have answered in my mind.
On our way down from the temple to the boat yard, the valley was swarming
tourists. A row of tents was lined up along the river, vendors serving beverages
Evening was approaching, but the sunlight was still hot. He and I entered
the tents. Inside, there were three or four tables on the floor covered with plastic
and a group of men and women and children, appearing to be a party of two
families on an outing, had taken seat. Guessing from the sleeping children and
the hwatu cards scattered on a folded military blanket, it seemed that they had
decided to entertain themselves here instead of going into the crowded valley.
The shop owner woman brought a bottle of soju and a plate of acorn jelly and
asked him if he would like to try some badger liver, her voice suggesting it was a
special offer, saying that it was very good for men. This is really rare stuff, a man
in the next table added, picking up a red, slithering slice, but he smiled awkwardly
and shook his head.
The evening sun was withering slowly. He looked out at the water without
speaking and slowly emptied the bottle of soju as the sun went down, a rich
sunset draping across the sky. Seen from up close, the river was dirty. Shallow
waves endlessly pushed up dirty trash beneath our feet.
When I asked at what time the last boat was to depart, the shop owner answered
that boats ran until late during this season and that there was no need to worry,
for there were bungalows and nice clean private houses up the valley with rooms
to rent. The people at the next table stepped outside the tent saying they were
going to buy a badger that had been captured alive, leaving behind the two
sleeping children. Such a loving husband and wife, the shop owner said to us,
trying to make an ingratiating remark, but I knew that she was speaking something
other than what she was thinking. In her eyes, we were probably another one of
those couples, their relationship of a suspicious nature?im with eyes red from
alcohol and I, sitting in front of him, silent and desolate, with my arms around my
knees. Both unskilled in hiding the desire to go somewhere with no one around
and become tangled into one. The expression on our faces, as unaffected as an
actual married couple, probably owed to the discomfort we both felt inside, as a
result of the shop owner's remarks. Did that feeling of discomfort come simply
from having stepped aside from order and system? That would not have been all.
Had it not been the disgust with all relationships, capable of hiding such
discomfort with unaffected faces?
I peed at a dirty make-shift toilet and opened my brassiere to look inside.
lifted the sheet of gauze, stained with a clot of blood and breast milk, two tooth
marks appeared, clear and sharp. Overcome with a sudden nausea, I felt an
upheaval of vomit in my throat.
The children awoke and began to weep, letting out sorrowful cries. Their
still had not returned from their venture to buy a live badger. The girl, probably the
older sister, stopped crying first and comforted the smaller child. She put his
shoes on for him and holding his hand, led him along the river, away from the
tent, soiled with liquor and the blood from the badgers. Soon the children
disappeared from sight. Dusk spread, pushing and lifting the rich colors of the
sunset, and erased the silhouette of the children, growing small and distant.
If only the river hadn't been so dirty, if the sunset hadn't been so full
of color, if it
hadn't been for the two children, we probably would not have seen straight
through the essence, the falseness, of the desire that we had been trying so hard
to hide. We might not have seen the other face of bliss, for which we were willing
to be thrown in hell. He and I must have been thinking the same thing that moment.
I thought of my house and my child, and his family whom I had never seen and
the dinner table and the lights that would greet him. He would have thought the
same. He looked at his watch. Despite the time we had left until the last ferry,
despite my desperate longing and effort to extend my time with him for just a little
longer, I stood up, feeling a sense of relief at the ferry approaching us, to take us
safely back to the place we each had left.
? The pond house beneath the window had disappeared. While I slept deeply,
without dreams, while the mid-day sun went down, two hundred years in time
collapsed like ashes. The majestic sunset was withering into splashes of purple
and darkness was filling up, but strangely, the spot where the house used to
stand, where it had crumbled to pieces, appeared dimly white, as if it was floating.
The construction was going to continue through the night, it seemed. On a line
hanging across the yard, several naked electric bulbs were shining an early light.
The Fool rummaged through the remains of the fallen house then walked about
the ruins in agitation. As if he was searching for something. Calling out in a
frustrated voice that rumbled in his throat, he hugged the few trees that were still
standing and shook them. Why, why, why? What was it? What was it? The Fool's
movements resembled a huge question mark. But the Fool would not know what
he was looking for. He would not understand the disappearance of something
familiar, the strangeness of it. Did I cry a little? Probably I did.
Then closing the door behind me and making my way down the stairs, I might
also have thought I would soon put the apartment on the market. As I was about to
step onto the road where the pond house fence used to be, I turned around and
stepped inside the phone booth by the entrance of the apartment. Before the
ringing sounded twice, I heard a woman's unfamiliar voice. Was it the wrong
number? Not knowing what to say, I quietly put down the receiver. I inserted more
coins and carefully pressed the numbers one more time. Again, the same voice
answered, before the second ring. I must have the wrong number, I stuttered, and
said that I was sorry, and the woman gently told me that they had recently gotten
this number. I slowly walked away. It felt bizarre that the series of numbers that he
had long possessed was now being used by someone else. Would those
numbers remember him? Would they remember his voice and speech habits, the
infinitely complicated emotions conveyed by, or hidden beneath, his words?
Wouldn't they be startled someday, by the familiar voices calling out from a distant
past, and search their memories, thinking, Who are they? I'll be there. It's raining
here, what about where you are? I just called. I'm okay now. I'll hang up?
Standing in the middle of the forest where darkness was falling, I felt
like I was a
person of wisdom. I pressed my ear against a tree trunk and tried to listen. But I
had grown too old to understand what the tree was saying. Pulling my ear away, I
opened my arms and embraced the tree. It was as if I could almost feel its warm
energy. I took my shoes off and climbed up the tree. I could smell the fragrance of
its sap, flowing deep inside the rough branches. The tree was growing in an
upright direction, so I was nervous I might slip swiftly downward or fall off. I
wrapped my legs tightly around the thick trunk. My body suddenly grew hot with
an abrupt and absurd desire. I hugged the tree and pressed my legs harder
around the tree, twisting them with all my strength. Ah-ah, a suppressed shriek
exploded and I felt my body sag, in a short moment of rapture, as if I were
dissolving into scattered fragments, like a bouquet of white light. Had I cried a
The purple flowers on the paulownia trees were blossoming in the dark,
On a night glorious with the splendor of the stars and the flowers, he died.
Flowers will bloom and leaves will sprout and birds will nest on this tree, even in
times when I will no longer exist.
I gazed at the hills and the trees and the stars, bound to outlast the
life I had. I
finally remembered exactly what my great-grandmother told me a long, long time
ago. Long ago, a maiden dropped her golden hairpin in the old well and,
brokenhearted, the maiden died and the golden pin turned into a golden carp?