The Plain by So Jong-in
Translated from the Korean by Brother Anthony, of Taizé
A train was drawing in. The ticket salesman came crawling out of the tiny booth where he had been sitting hunched up like an animal. He had a pair of old fashioned spectacles perched on the tip of his nose. Short of stature, with back bent, aged about fifty or so, the man looked like a hunchback as he gazed indifferently toward the approaching train, apparently not expecting many people to get off. All told, there were three people waiting for the train. They had been waiting for more than half an hour, sitting on the two long wooden benches beneath the slate roof supported by iron pillars. Two of them had bought tickets, the other one was there to meet somebody. This last was the eldest son of the late Master Kim from Sangch'i village, who had been a low-grade official back in the old days; it looked as though Master Kim's youngest grandson was coming home after completing his three years in the army. Nowadays they were at a level not much above starvation, yet back when they were children, why, Master Kim of Sangch'i village had been a rich man with a harvest of five hundred sacks a year. There was not a soul in the entire neighborhood, himself included, who had not earned a living by cultivating a patch of Master Kim's land. The two who had bought tickets were youths; one of them was undoubtedly the second son of the Chong family, from Hach'i village, but he had no idea at all who the other might be. Kids look different every time you see them when they're growing up; if they don't show a sign of recognition first, there's no knowing them; my, my, I don't know what the young are coming to nowadays, they don't seem to give a damn for their elders. Ah, how the years have flown.
The train came to a halt. The great red iron colossus emitted a series of panting gasps. The top half of the train- driver's body could be seen, like some kind of accessory attached to the locomotive. The agent from the welfare association, who sold raw and hard-boiled eggs, jumped down from the rearmost coach, while from somewhere in the middle a newly demobilized soldier got down. The egg salesman would be boarding the train that would soon arrive, coming from the opposite direction. With a great clatter, the train began to writhe like a snake. The conductor showed not so much as the tip of his nose; he was probably busy extorting two-pence a head from the fish merchants. The train disappeared around the hill. The sky was clouding over, it looked as though it might soon start to snow.
"You must have had a hard time. Come on, let's be going home. It's a cold day."
The thirty minute wait had irritated old Kim, but he could not help feeling proud at the sight of this son of his returning home looking so swarthy and grown-up, when he had not yet rid himself of the impression he was still nothing but a kid and downy as a peach. The youth was wearing the bluish outfit provided on discharge, the lower part of the jacket projecting from under the belt, with black basketball shoes, and he was carrying a large paper envelope.
"Why, Dad, aren't there any taxis here yet?"
"Taxis? What do you mean, taxis? Why, this bit of road only got made because the local people all slaved together to build it last summer."
The man wearing glasses, who had been lingering beside the ticket office, beneath a single gaunt wild apricot tree that had lost all its leaves, came sidling up, bending his already bent back even lower as he did so.
"You must have seen hard times? Still, you're looking fitter?"
"Don't you recognize him? It's old Chang from Rocky Valley."
"He was only a kid when he saw me before, how should he remember? It's a cold day, what about going over there and taking something to warm us up? You were waiting ages in that cold spot, your feet must be frozen?"
"Why, it's only two miles. Better to walk a couple of steps home and then warm up on the hot floor. Come on, let's be going."
Old Kim clasped his hands behind his back, coughed hoarsely, and set off along the path between the fields. His son followed silently behind him. He was not very tall, but of taut, stout build.
In the city, if you say somewhere is a couple of miles away, that means three or four bus-stops down the road, whereas the same distance, ten li, across fields takes you through empty country, or if you pass some hamlet all you see are bamboo fences, or a few stray chickens at best, and it does not seem so far. Yet out in the middle of the fields old Kim suddenly stopped. It seemed, as he had said, that one step was not enough, two were needed. He gazed into the distance. His son who was standing behind him did not realize it, but he was staring with blurred eyes at a piece of land that had once belonged to him. Certainly Kyong-ch'ol, his son, was not unaware of the fact that the place where he was standing had once been their land. Still, he had nothing to equal the emotions of someone who, with the harvest from that land, had fed and raised children, had married them off, had washed his parents' dead bodies and dressed them in their shrouds, and buried them in one corner of the ancestral burial ground.
"I've got much weaker lately; even walking just a few steps is no easy matter any more."
Old Kim muttered the words as if speaking to himself, and set off walking again.
"But why did you come out? It would have been alright if nobody had come, but if someone had to, surely there was someone else besides you?"
"Who was there to come? Your mother, perhaps? One of your elder brothers is away from home, the other's so sick he hasn't left his bed in three days."
"Have Hyong-woo and Pong-woo gone somewhere?"
"It may look like a big family, but when there's work to be done, there are not enough people to do it all. One of them is off fetching something to treat his father's condition, I think that the other has gone to their mother's home for some reason or other."
Kyong-ch'ol was on the verge of asking what had brought his father out, but restrained himself. For a while the two of them walked on in silence. The stubble in the paddy-fields had turned white, but once they climbed the gentle rise, barley was sprouting green in the sloping fields, while faded mounds of straw rose beside the spiny orange hedges.
"Today just take a rest. Then tomorrow early you can go and pay your respects at the tombs. On your way back you should call in at your uncle's house, and your aunt's too."
"I won't be able to call in anywhere on the way back. After visiting the graves I have to go straight to Chonju. I'm not completely discharged from the army yet, you know. It'll only be finished when I visit the reservists office and get my discharge papers."
For a while his father said nothing more. He had been thinking that there would be a tremendous amount of things to say once his son got back. Yet now the only thing to be heard was the slip-slap of his own rubber shoes and his son's basketball shoes on the ground as they walked along, sounding unusually loud, while his head was completely empty. It was not that a thought never struck him, but it was as if the twigs had all been cut off, the leaves had all fallen, so that the branches stood stretching bare, nothing was worth talking about. It was probably because he had been thinking too much in terms of "my son". And what had finally appeared was no abstraction, something called "my son", "my youngest", but a very solidly concrete object, an independent mass of flesh, a huge lump of protein.
"So which of my brothers is sick? The younger one?"
"No, your oldest brother. A few days ago the old in-laws over in Yangp'yong lost a son. I suppose he caught a chill on the journey there and back in the cold wind."
Who the hell were the in-laws in Yangp'yong? Using his foot, Kyong-ch'ol pushed aside the withered twisted skin of a bitter orange. A peasant dressed in threadbare clothes nodded a brief bow in greeting to old Kim as he passed. They walked on again for a while without speaking; more sand and gravel began to appear, covering the earthen path; here and there heaps of dog dung struck the eye, even human excrement. There were all kinds: some fully formed, some crumbling, some pulped, some dark colored, some pale, some faded. Then at every fifth step they came across a dung-pit roughly screened with a stone wall and a layer of thatch, while at every tenth step they encountered night-soil storage tanks full of greenish stagnant water littered with ramyon wrappers, screwed up cigarette packs, torn cement sacks and such. They were passing beside the village before theirs. Inside the houses the grown-ups might be twisting ropes or having their fortunes told, there were only children out in the alleys. Two kids that looked as if they were in second or third grade of primary school were competing for possession of a clothes-pole that got kicked in Kyong-ch'ol's path. He stopped, turned about, and fiercely kicked the clothes-pole in the direction he had come from. The pole rolled away, rattling. Neither of the kids made any move to go after it, but one of them called Kyong-ch'ol a "bastard" in audible tones, and stared hard at him. Kyong-ch'ol had no chance to go chasing after him, because the child never thought of running away. He thrust his clenched fist under the kid's nose. He simply pulled his chin back, with a "What's wrong?", and remained motionless. Kyong-ch'ol dashed back and seized the clothes-pole. Just then a three or four month old pullet came shooting helter-skelter like an ostrich out of a nearby alley, squawking for all it was worth, perhaps chased by a cock, or by a puppy, and just as he was placing the pole on the ground, it dealt a glancing blow sideways to the chicken's leg. At which the chicken, perhaps wounded, perhaps not, perhaps simply scared out of its wits, half flew half scrambled over the stone wall to one side of the path, making a great commotion, and disappeared. Kyong-ch'ol threw the pole at the feet of the two kids as they stood facing him and went rushing after his father, who was already leaving the eastern limit of the hamlet behind him.
From that village on, there was a highway with buses travelling along it. Until they reached home, old Kim had nothing much more to say. Kyong-ch'ol had the feeling he was checking things off one by one somehow. On the whole, expectations are never completely satisfied, and of course he had come home on furlough several times, yet returning here after three years spent living elsewhere, he found nothing that was in opposition to his expectations or his memories: one pile of stones at the street corner, one set of crooked tiles crowning the stone walls. Without the slightest trace of surprise, everything corresponded exactly with what he had expected. If something had slightly changed in some way, it was absorbed into his expectation that had anticipated just that degree of change. It was as if, had there not been that change, his expectation that had anticipated a change would have been contradicted and he might have experienced some slight sense of astonishment. But the changes too were all exactly as he had anticipated.
When they reached home, the second son, Hyong-ch'ol, had arrived. Old Kim had four sons: Son-ch'ol the eldest lived in the house and worked the land; Hyong-ch'ol was the second, he spent most of the time travelling around the local towns serving as a middle-school teacher; the third, Hwan-ch'ol, counted the wads of money at the farmers' Co-operative. Emerging from the kitchen, Son-ch'ol's wife said that Mother had gone to fetch makkolli. Old Kim went in to the main room to roast his back on the hottest part of the floor. Little Shin-ok greeted her uncle from behind her mother's skirts where she was hiding. When he asked her what class she was in, she seemed to reckon that after being away her uncle seemed to want to be affectionate and coming forward a few steps replied that she was in fifth grade.
"What, in fifth grade and still not able to run errands, so that Grandmother has to go to fetch makkolli?" Kyong-ch'ol bellowed. Old Kim's wife had just that moment come into the yard and standing behind Kyong-ch'ol explained, "If the kids go, they water it down first." With that she handed the big brass kettle full of makkolli to her daughter-in-law. Shin-ok moved from the folds of her mother's skirt to those of her grandmother's. Old Kim's wife stroked her grandchild's head and after enquiring if the train had been much delayed, and remarking on how cold the weather was, pushed the second and fourth sons, who were standing out in the yard, ahead of her into the room.
In the room on the opposite side the eldest brother, Son- ch'ol, was sitting with the eiderdown ibul spread over his legs. As befitted someone who has earned a living by working the land for twenty years, his face, that of a middle-aged man, was deeply wrinkled and tanned the color of the earth. The drink was brought in but he refused to take any, saying that he could still feel the effects of the cold about him. Like most farmers, he was foolish, honest, awkward and naive. He was also highly talkative. He talked so busily, it was a wonder he had survived in silence so long, then when the glasses in front of his brothers were empty he did not fail to remark "The glasses are empty. Drinking's no pleasure if you don't keep urging people to have some more." His brother knew that because he had kept on farming, his life had become increasingly difficult. At the same time, it seemed that he himself knew just why it was, because he had kept on farming, that his life had become increasingly difficult. And he also seemed to know how, by farming, life might be made better. Only when Hyong-ch'ol asked, "Then why don't you do it?" he replied, "How can I, there's no money." Then Kyong-ch'ol, who had so far been merely tossing back his drink, remarked, "If only there's money, anyone can do it. It's because there's no money that you can't," at which his brother flew into a rage, "You mean I ought to do things that someone else dares not?"
Unlike his elder brother, Hyong-ch'ol had no interest whatever in farming. He had been teaching for ten years already; since the previous spring he had been serving at Imdong Middle School and had had to work rather hard the year before to gain first-class certification as a teacher. He was not specially fond of hardship, but as things now stood with him he had felt that, in life, if you set yourself some kind of goal, or purpose, becoming a kind of education supervisor, for example, something good since it offers profit, and glory, and the possibility of shortening the time required to get there, but the cost is high and success is difficult; yet although I have not given it up, as a longer term objective, there would also be the possibility of a headmastership or something like that. Now in order to become a headmaster, he needed the proper qualifying certificate and in order to obtain it, although that still lay a long way off, he first needed to upgrade his second-class teacher's certification to a first-class one. In order to obtain the first- class certificate he had taken two sets of courses during the winter and summer, and in order to take those courses he had had to be nominated; in theory nomination was automatic, based on seniority, but the supervisors often played tricks and money changed hands, not only to help jump the queue, but also to keep on the list. During the winter break he had been nominated without incident and had taken the course, but when the summer break came, although he had been supremely confident, his name had been dropped from the list of participants. It was stupid to be left having taken just half the course. It was worse than not having taken any part at all, because of the wasted effort entailed. There was nothing to equal those bastards. Information duly taken, it seemed that a certain person living in a certain place had handed over ten thousand Won. He duly invested twenty thousand and at the very last moment his name appeared on the list.
"Doesn't that mean you jumped the queue?"
Kyong-ch'ol put down his glass as he spoke, he was already getting slightly drunk.
"Of course, originally. But once I was included in the first-class candidates' list there was a new order, wasn't there? I'd been displaced from that new order."
The first-class teacher finished his supper and set off for Imdong. Then Kyong-ch'ol went across to a room in the outer wing where a warm fire had been specially kindled and lay down to sleep although it was still quite early. His first day out of uniform had ended quietly. Nothing special had happened. He felt as if he had merely been off on a chicken-raid with some friends. He had killed a lot of people in Indochina. But that felt like something that had happened a very long time ago. In any case, it had been two thousand miles away from there as the crow flies. He blinked a few times, then fell asleep.
Kyong-ch'ol did not go to visit the family tombs the next morning. Neither did he go on the following day. Instead he stayed at home, holed up in his room, and slept. It was only on the morning of the fourth day, and already about ten o'clock, that he asked his father for the fare, saying that he ought to go to visit the tombs. Old Kim added a hundred Won to the return fare, and gave him two hundred. His wife handed him a bundle holding a large bottle of soju she had bought a few days before, a dried pollack, and a brass cup.
"Make the offerings," his father ordered, "then give what's left to old Chong."
Chong was the grave-keeper. He took the money and the bundle and left the house.
Once outside, he headed straight for the nearest store. The woman recognized him and was eager to gossip, but he ignored her, jerked the bottle from his bundle, and asked, "How much do you sell these for?"
"Kumgang twenty proof? That's two hundred Won."
Kyong-ch'ol set the bottle on the counter. The warped pine board was covered in white dust.
"Give me two hundred Won," he said, "I'll bring the money back and collect it again later. The woman stared at him, but he simply held out his hand just in front of her nose, at which she reluctantly drew back and opened a little wooden box that was black from being handled. She took out two hundred Won notes and gave them to him.
He took them and stored them away, together with the money his father had given him, in the inside pocket of his coat. He took out the cup and held it in one hand, rolled the pollack in the wrapping-cloth and stuffed it into the back pocket of his trousers, then left the shop without glancing back. The air was nearly at freezing point but the sunlight was dazzlingly bright. He strolled slowly toward the highway. As he went, he met a number of neighbors, who invariably stopped in their tracks, poised to make a fuss over him. But Kyong-ch'ol did not stop. On each occasion, he would greet them with a polite "Good morning" and continue on his way. Rather put out, they would peer back after him as they continued on their way. It was the same at the highway pharmacy that doubled as the bus stop. As soon as he entered, the pharmacist came rushing toward him with both arms outstretched, apparently feeling obliged to look delighted to see him. He made no response to the pharmacist's intentions, simply said, "It's been a long time," and heading for the telephone above the desk, seized the receiver. He addressed the pharmacist over his shoulder: "Ok if I use the phone?"
"What do you want?"
"To use the phone."
"No, where are you calling?"
"I want to get a car."
"A taxi? One went in to the next village a few minutes ago. It'll be coming out soon."
Soon turned out to mean ten minutes, but the car did finally emerge. At the store beside the pharmacy, Kyong-ch'ol got a small bottle of thirty-proof soju on credit, then climbed into the taxi. The driver looked none too happy on being told to go to Sambong but refrained from any remark as he started off. Sambong was a locality some three miles away, in the opposite direction to the township. The township was about three times that distance away. After driving a short distance, the driver turned off the meter. Kyong-ch'ol took no notice. He had scarcely time to settle in his seat before they reached Sambong. When he asked how much he owed, the driver replied, without glancing back, "Three hundred Won will do." Kyong-ch'ol gave him two hundred.
"The fare's a hundred and fifty. Take this and be thankful."
The driver did not say thank you, neither did he grumble much, as he turned the car. Kyong-ch'ol took out the bottle and held it by the neck in one hand, while he pulled out the pollack and carried it by the tail in the other. Then following a drainage ditch as it slashed red through the barren land, he sauntered a mile or more up into the hills. The family tombs were surrounded by a thick grove of pine trees, inside which a stretch of neatly tended grass formed a sunny space; down the slope, beginning at the top, stretched three tomb mounds in a line. Each of the mounds was surrounded by a ring of granite blocks, with a marble table for offerings set in front of it, together with a mossy slab bearing the name, and it was only on reaching here that Kyong-ch'ol could sense that his grandfather had been an official. It took barely ten paces to cover the distance from the lowest to the highest tomb, but either on account of the slope or as a result of having walked all the way up, his legs felt stiff as he climbed to the top.
"Damn it all! It's better than Vietnam, though."
He climbed to the highest mound. He was sweating and out of breath. He took off his shoes, and went in his socks to the slab for offerings, on which he laid the bottle, the dried pollack, and the cup. Then he turned and inhaled deeply as he gazed out at the hills that lay blue-tinged in the distance. The sunlight was very warm, but a cool wind was blowing that dried his sweat in a moment. He turned back and poured some soju into the cup. Then he knelt and bowed his head to the ground twice. The second time, he remained prostrate a little longer and murmured, "Grandfather, it's Kyong-ch'ol, I'm back. Judging from how things are at home, I really think you must look after us a bit. Still, thanks to you I have come back safe and sound, and as you've taken care of me so far, you're going to have to take even better care of me now. You will, won't you, grandfather?" Then he rose, advanced and picked up the cup. "Grandfather," he said, "I'm not sure how many cups you used to drink, but you must drink three at least, now. The wine from this cup I'll drink, grieving for you, unworthy descendant though I am," and he drained the cup. He then poured out and offered a second cup. After a moment's pause, he emptied that one too. He offered a third cup. After a moment's pause, he emptied that cup too. Suddenly his stomach grew warm. As the heat spread through his whole body, the world began to look a little bit worth living in. Again he made a double prostration, before gathering together bottle, fish, and cup, slipping on his shoes, and moving to the tomb below.
Just as he was depositing the bottle and cup on the offering table at his great-grandfather's tomb, a sound rose from the pine grove. Actually, a few moments before, as he was making his final bow, he had seemed to hear a sound suggesting someone was near. Grasping the dried pollack by the tail, bending low, nimbly as an animal he sped across the grass toward the trees. A sound could clearly be heard. Cautiously pushing the pine branches aside, crawling on all fours, he headed for the spot from which the sound was coming. Someone with his back turned to him was cutting off branches with a sickle. Kyong-ch'ol quietly crept closer, then without warning cried, "Scoundrel!" and brought the pollack down on the back of his head. At which the fellow exclaimed, "Who did that?" and looked round sharply. It was the son of the grave-keeper.
Kyong-ch'ol knew a lot about the grave-keeper's son. He was some two years younger than Kyong-ch'ol and for some reason, perhaps because he found the job of grave-keeper humiliating, his father, old Chong, had done his utmost to provide him with an education; only once he was attending the middle school in the main township some dozen miles off he had found himself inclined to use the money for his school fees on visits to the movies, then he sold his books to buy waffles and red-bean soup, staying away from school every few days, before he got himself a shoe- shine kit and headed for the nearest big town, only finally returning home at the end of a month when he was completely penniless. Old Chong had shrugged philosophically and given up, reflecting that everyone is born with their own way to happiness.
Still, he had been a close friend of Kyong-ch'ol's. Hitherto in life, Kyong-ch'ol had done little that had made his father glad, but if there was one thing that had, it was the way he had loved going to play up in the hills. While he was attending middle school, he had gone up into the hills almost every Sunday, and no matter how late it was when he got back home, he had only to say that he had been up in the hills, his father would murmur a contented "Ha..." and that would be all. During the school holidays, summer and winter alike, he virtually lived in the hills. He and the grave-keeper's son together would roam all over the hills, and if Kyong-ch'ol took with him a gun he had made that fired acorns, the other would bring a pocketful of acorns and follow cheerfully behind him, saying, "These are nearly as round as bullets," with the gentle voice of a thoughtful grown- up. They had never once taken a rabbit or a pheasant, but they had gone running after any number of both. Once, busy sawing at the stump of a huge pine tree, they had forgotten that night was falling and old Chong had come looking for them, shouting in that voice adults have when they are particularly frightened. It was true that in the hills it was dark as soon as the sun had set. On one ridge of the hills there was a spring whose water ran warmer the colder winter grew, so that if they went and towelled themselves down with it before sunrise it felt like a hot bath, not a cold one.
"You bastard, it's you, Odd-jobber!"
"Well! If it isn't Kyong-ch'ol. When did you get back? You know, you hit too hard."
"Why were you cutting off healthy branches?"
"Well, if they're too close together they have to be pruned out."
"If they're to be pruned, you get permission first, then you prune. You think you can prune as you like?"
"Heh heh, don't speak so roughly."
He raked together the branches he had cut off, moved away, loosened the belt of his trousers and pissed. Meanwhile, Kyong- ch'ol returned to his great-grandfather's tomb. There he briefly examined the pollack he was still holding, laid it on the offering-stone, and poured out the soju. "It can't be helped, grandfather. After all, you're supposed to pound dried pollack before eating it, aren't you? Really, I ought to have brought three of them but I don't think grandfather up there at the top has eaten all of it. I hope you leave a bit, too, and don't eat it all, grandfather. I've still got to make offerings at the tomb of grandfather down below."
As before, Kyong-ch'ol performed a double prostration.
"Grandfather, I already asked great-great-grandfather up there, but I hope you will help us too. According to my eldest brother, there's no way he can get a minute's rest unless he can get money from the bank, on account of the exorbitant interest that private lenders charge."
He rose to his feet, advanced, and took up the cup of soju from the stone slab. "Grandfather, the wine from this cup I'll drink myself, unworthy descendant though I am," and drained the cup. He offered two further cups. As he gathered together the offerings after making the final prostrations and headed down to the lowest tomb, his legs trembled a little. The grave-keeper's son had bound up his bundle of wood and brought it to the edge of the grass where he had propped it up, and sat squatting beside it. Kyong-ch'ol arranged the offerings and poured out the soju. Then, while he made the double prostration, he prayed that they would be able to get a loan from the farming co-operative. "We got through last year thanks to a few cents we borrowed as support to raise pigs, only before that money went into any pigs' snouts it all got swallowed up feeding people. That means there's no prospect of us getting any more farming support grants, we'll be needing a standard loan, and that's tremendously difficult." He stood up. "Grandfather, you must drink three cups too, just like your father and grandfather did." He divided the soju that remained into two parts and as he lifted them in offering, some of the liquor spilled over. He was happily drunk. After making the final prostrations, he packed the cup into his pocket, recovered his shoes and slipped them on, and headed down to where Odd-jobber was waiting, carrying the pollack.
"Is your father home?"
"He went into the village. Someone's getting married. You want to tell him I was cutting off healthy pine branches?"
"That too, and to say hello, that was what I was thinking, but it's just as well like this. You can tell him that I've been here and gone back home. And take this fish; give it to him and say he's to eat it."
"Heh, that pollack's served a lot of different purposes. Ok. You're sure you'll just go home without calling in at our house?"
"I'll just go home."
"If you don't see Dad, I'll be the better off for it, but I'm sorry."
"Tell him that if he finds anyone cutting off healthy branches, he's to give them a good hiding."
"Here, you bet, no one's going to dare take healthy branches in a hurry. Have a safe journey back."
Kyong-ch'ol tottered back down the hill. He slipped into the water a few times as he was crossing streams, but he merrily continued until he emerged at the side of the highway. If a bus was going to come, it would soon arrive, but otherwise he might have to wait half an hour or an hour. A jeep went past, a taxi sped by in the opposite direction. He had only to wait a little longer before a truck passed, followed by a taxi. On inspection, it already had passengers. But it had barely gone a few yards beyond Kyong-ch'ol when it screeched to a halt, and came reversing back impatiently. The window was wound down and a voice emerged, "Hey, it's Kyong-ch'ol! Come on, get in!" It was Tok-su. He was sitting in the back together with a stranger. Kyong-ch'ol got in beside the driver.
"Scoundrel! Surely I'm your big brother, the first person you should visit coming back? You prick."
It sounded as though he had been drinking a bit, too.
"How have you been, Ttok-swoi? You're always talking your way. Is my younger brother's wife well? And all my nephews?"
"How come a kid who's not even got himself a bride dares smart-lip adults? Why don't the two of you say hello to one another? This is the grandson of Master Kim from Sangch'i, so he's on the way to becoming a nephew of mine. While this fellow here is on the way to become a younger brother, he's Haeng-ch'ul from the township. You'll get to know more about each other by and by."
"We might as well wait until next year to shake hands. Seeing each other face to face like this is greeting enough, I reckon." Haeng-ch'ul made no attempt to raise himself from the seat in which he was deeply ensconced, and as he spoke he eyed Kyong-ch'ol obliquely from his place in the front.
"My, the wise guy sure talks smart," Kyong-ch'ol glanced back at him over his left shoulder as he spoke.
"Hey, you call someone 'wise guy' the first time you meet him? You'd better clean up your smart tongue a bit, before it gets damaged."
"Go on, fight, fight away. Kids grow up by fighting."
A few moments later they passed Sangch'i village but Kyong- ch'ol made no move to get out and Tok-su (or Ttok-swoi, as he pronounced it) made no move to stop the car. They rode on as far as the township.
"How much shall I give you, driver?"
Tok-su spoke as the car came to a halt in the town center.
"Whatever you feel like; nothing if you like."
"I liked the last bit. Haeng-ch'ol, give him the price of a pack of cigarettes."
They handed over a hundred Won and got out. They headed for a tea-room on the opposite side of the street. The owners seemed to have a taste for contradictions, since the tea-room's name was "The Royal Palace".
"What about resting here for a moment first, then getting a bite of something to eat, and going to see a movie?"
"Ah, Ttok-swoi still likes watching movies. What about having a drink when evening comes?"
"Great. That's when the smart talk really gets going well."
"Can't you talk any other way than smart talk? Ttok-swoi, if you're going to take him round with you a bit, you'd better teach him proper talking first. I must just call in at the Co- operative."
"Be sure to bring plenty of money back with you."
Kyong-ch'ol emerged, leaving the two youths in the tea-room. The town hall (as they called the regional administrative office), the Central Theater, as well as a few branches of different financial institutions, some stores, hairdressers, and such, were doing their utmost to look like a town, but in the smugly shining sunlight it became immediately obvious that it was not really a town at all. Kyong-ch'ol headed for the Co- operative.
His elder brother was over by the teller's window, counting money. His hair was oiled, he was freshly shaved, elegantly dressed, he looked really smart and clean. He took Kyong-ch'ol to the Co-operative's coffee shop. The coffee shop, which also served as a canteen, was as gloomy as a temporary classroom shack.
"Why, that's my suit you're wearing, and the tie, and the shirt."
"The shoes are yours too."
"That's fine, fine. If you've come to withdraw some money, don't waste your breath. There's not a cent left at present."
"When will there be some? And say something about the hard time I had in the army."
"You had a hard time, a hard time to be sure. I'm at death's door, too. I don't know how much you know about the way the family fortunes stand, but I'm repaying from my monthly salary the money the family borrowed last year from the Co-operative."
"Well, that's only as it should be."
"As it should be? Do you know what it is to be fleeced, kid?"
"Then you should offer to make a loan."
"Lend my money? Why, last year I intervened and got a loan for stock breeding."
"There's nothing odd about a farming family getting the money it needs from the Co-operative. You should help this time too."
"This time it won't work."
"Is it your own money?"
"If you want to do it without passing by me, go ahead, try."
"Who's the fellow in charge of loans?"
"Ordinary loans are arranged by the loans section. The top people are decent enough folk, it's the assistant manager who's the problem."
"The assistant manager? In the loans section? So if we can bribe him everything'll be ok."
"I rather think that father reckons it will take about five percent. That, and then if you take him out drinking, a cheap place won't do. I'm thinking all kinds of thoughts too. It makes my head ache. You'd best be thinking about getting a job quickly."
"Which bar does the fellow like best?"
"What fellow? The assistant manager for loans? There's certainly no special place to go. He often goes to the Okp'o bar. There's a doll called Yon-pyong there. He's keen on her."
"Won't you even give me the fare home?"
"You can have your lunch here before you go. I'll order something."
He handed Kyong-ch'ol a five-hundred Won note.
"I wish you'd give me money instead of lunch. I'd rather just be off."
He emerged from the Co-operative. In the tea-room the other two had each ordered a cup of tea of which they had drunk about half and were now waiting for him. They left, had lunch, and went to watch a long film from abroad that was supposed to last a full three hours.
By the time they came out from the movie, the weather that had been so fine had grown very cloudy.
"Ttok-swoi, what about buying a drink for me today?"
"I'll drink if you pay; otherwise, I'll pay."
"So whichever way it goes, today we're going to go drinking."
Haeng-ch'ul gazed heavenward as if scrutinizing the secrets of Providence as he spoke. They sauntered back to the tea-room.
"Now let's think; the kid's out of the army after all this time, so where shall we go?"
"Where we go is where we'll go, the biggest place of course."
"If we run out of money, will you fork out, Haeng-ch'ul?"
"You ought to be ashamed. Drink first, then talk about that; first of all, if we're going, it has to be the best place, surely?"
"Let's go to the Okp'o bar."
"How come you know about the Okp'o bar, Kyong-ch'ol?"
"If we go there, they have a pretty girl, called Yon-pyong."
"Hoho, he knows all about Yom-byong already. It sounds as though he and I have both been in the same bed."
"Don't worry, pal. I heard about her from my brother when I was at the Co-operative just now."
"So it seems that your brother is fond of Yom-byong?"
"Not at all. It seems it's a certain assistant manager who's fond of her."
"Assistant manager? What kind of skinny, twisted wretch is that?"
"Our family's very life breath depends on him."
"The wretch is good at squeezing wind-pipes."
"It seems that if he wants, he can supply money."
"Ah, you mean in loans? Let's take the fellow along with us."
"I've suddenly lost my appetite, for drink I mean."
"Haeng-ch'ul, you're from a well-to-do family, you don't know about what goes on inside bank people, it won't do you any harm to get to know one of them. Our family is talking about getting a loan or something, too. Well, ok. If he drinks, how much will he drink? Surely not much?"
"I don't mind bringing him along, but on one condition."
"Always a tail stuck on behind!"
"When we start to be drunk there must be no getting carried away; we have to stay in tune with the way that fellow is feeling. Otherwise it will be a waste of drink, a waste. And not just a waste, it will be a futile purchase of ill-will."
"That's as it may be. I'm not sure that I can."
"Let him keep out of our way."
"Ok. Let's just try. Ky'ng-ch'ol, you call him down. If it doesn't work, we'll squash him, the bastard."
The assistant manager seemed to have some kind of urgent business to attend to that very day, so that Kyong-ch'ol had to keep pleading with him to please come and drink with us before finally succeeding in dragging him along to the Okp'o bar.
"Sir, please be seated here. It seems to be the warmest place."
"Why, you don't have to take such pains."
"These are my friends. This is the son of the headmaster of Kalkum primary school. And this is Cho Tok-su..."
"I'm Cho Tok-su. Thank you very much for coming when you're so busy."
The assistant manager scrutinized the three of them, and the impressions seemed to be unfavorable; he soon began to look uneasy. He cleared his throat uncertainly a couple of times before venturing to ask Kyong-ch'ol, who looked the most reliable of the group: "You've been discharged, you say? recently?"
After a moment the drinks were brought in, and they were followed by two girls, one of whom was Yon-pyong. They made her sit between Kyong-ch'ol and the assistant manager, on the warmer side of the floor, the other girl taking her place on the side nearer the door, between the other two. A few glasses were duly emptied. The assistant manager seemed gradually to be growing happier. Why not, after all? The young men, although they could hardly be said to look very elegant, handed him his glass in a courteous manner, while Yon-pyong sat beside him and filled it.
"Well, yes, it's not something I haven't already heard, but you can say that the loans situation is in a bad way."
People are strangely forgetful animals. As glass followed glass, the assistant manager lost sight of any feelings of distance, timidity, fear on meeting strangers for the first time. He gradually began to grow arrogant in proper assistant managerial fashion.
"Discharged, you say? Ah, you must have had a hard time, for sure. Now you must get yourself a good job. Young folk can't afford to be idle."
Unfortunately, the assistant manager was not the only one who was getting drunk. First Haeng-ch'ul spoke up, half-closing his eyes: "Well done, very well done." Ttok-swoi meanwhile kept staring fixedly at the assistant manager's hand as it grew increasingly bold in its exploration of Yon-pyong's private parts while she sat beside him, the while murmuring in accompaniment as if to himself: "Nice game, playing's pretty." Kyong-ch'ol was sitting apart, concentrated wholly on drinking. Yon-pyong was entirely focussed on the assistant manager, the other girl served the remaining three.
"Hey, Yon-pyong, you're supposed to be filling that guest's glass too, you know."
The other girl spoke in a slightly vexed voice. At which Yon-pyong moved, as if she had only been waiting for a cue, away from the assistant manager's roving hand in the direction of Kyong-ch'ol.
"Hey, where are you going? Come back here, come on."
The assistant manager spoke. At that moment, Ttok-swoi thrust his own empty glass under his nose, saying: "Here, manager, let me pour you a drink in my glass."
"How dare you be so insulting?" the assistant manager fired back. From that moment the words exchanged went soaring. Still, there was a limit to how high they could go. Since the assistant manager was confronting the three others, things could not keep going higher indefinitely. That upper limit was in direct proportion to the combination of real courage and dutch courage inspiring the assistant manager, and in inverse proportion to that of the other three, so that they still seemed far from reaching that point, but then Haeng-ch'ul said, "Something hot had better come out of that nose of yours,: and Ttok-swoi added, "Ah, it's all blocked up; perhaps we'd better open it a bit," at which the assistant manager exclaimed, "You mean you've brought me here because you want a loan?" and stared at Kyong-ch'ol, only Kyong-ch'ol seemed not to hear but kept patting the behind of the girl sitting beside him, and said, "Yom-pyong, pour out some more drink for the assistant manager there, give him something to drink. That's the only way I'll get a loan," at which everything became clear. Once the assistant manager had paid for the evening's drinks and rapidly scuttled away, they gave each of the two girls a few coins and emerged from the Okp'o bar.
"I'm sorry, Kyong-ch'ol."
"It's alright, Ttok-swoi. If you hadn't started, I surely would have."
Kyong-ch'ol slept with them in the town that night.
When the next day dawned, Kyong-ch'ol grew very depressed. He could not possibly go back home. He went to the reservists office, where he received his discharge papers and pay. For a whole week he idled away his time in the town to keep off thoughts about his desire to go rushing off somewhere far away. At last he could endure it no longer. On the eighth day after he had left home, he came creeping slowly back.
"Kyong-ch'ol's coming," his mother exclaimed, on first spotting him. His father immediately threw open his door. "Where have you come from? Did you go to the reservists office?" he asked. Kyong-ch'ol sat on the far side of the wooden maru and answered "Yes" in a feeble voice.
"So did everything go alright?"
"Fine, form the start there was nothing wrong. They simply gave me my discharge papers in the usual way, that's all."
"Ah, you don't often find things work in the usual way in society nowadays, do you? It's cold, come on indoors quickly. Your mother's got a chicken all ready, to give you when you come, and she's been doing nothing but look out at the gate in case you were coming."
"Yesterday Hwan-ch'ol came bringing money. The day after you left here, the assistant manager speeded up the paperwork and the money became available a couple of days ago."
"What money is that?"
"Why, the money we applied for from the Co-operative, what other money could it be?"
"You mean the loan you applied for from the farming Co- operative was actually granted?"
"And he said you treated the assistant manager to an evening of drinks."
"Kyong-ch'ol went into an outside room. There he made no attempt to undress, but lay with his head on his arms, staring up at the ceiling. He reflected that now he could confidently leave for somewhere far away, and he felt at once a sense of relief. That evening, after enjoying the chicken gruel his mother had cooked, he left home, taking not a penny with him.