The Wayfarer Never Rests on the Road
by Brother Anthony of Taizé
The sun was setting on a day a couple of weeks before the lunar New Year; the year of the Black Pig (1983) was hastening to its end. A Sokcho intracity bus stopped briefly at the Mulchi crossroads and several passengers alighted. A few men obviously equipped to go hiking in the mountains, with rucksacks over their shoulders or carrying utility totes, exclaimed at the cold as they straightened their thermal jackets and donned their hats, then began to walk toward the roadside shops; following behind them, a somewhat older man trudged along, seemingly on his way home from buying fish downtown; he was carrying a parcel. The man who got off last simply stood there blankly, looking as though he had been hit by a tram. Before him, stretching as far as the eye could see, lay nothing but the sea.
He had boarded a bus at the Seoul terminal almost on an impulse, and had been looking out at the water occasionally as they rattled along, but now, when the sea suddenly loomed beyond the window as the bus came to a halt, it provoked totally different feelings in him. And so, at the very last moment, driven by a sudden urge, he quickly descended from the bus. It was like a cliff that had appeared out of nowhere, blocking the way ahead.
Though the road was not as busy as in Seoul, here, too, vehicles, whether tourist buses or whatever, whizzed by; the water began right at the edge of the asphalt of a road that looked like a wide open plaza, being three times the width of a four-lane highway. Unconsciously, he shuddered once, then hesitantly began to cross the road cautiously, as though skirting a cliff.
Perhaps for the safety of vacationers, trough-like cement planters lined the roadway, but as they were buffeted by gusts of wind so strong that it seemed like the tarmac was about to rise and stand upright, they looked extremely small and crumpled. After clambering down the two-foot-high embankment, he walked out onto the ten-meter-wide strip of gravel and put down the bag he was carrying. Just as he was bending down, a shout rang out: “Stop! Don’t move! Step back three paces! Leave that where it is.”
The sentry who had approached, with his gun drawn, glanced into the bag he had been opening and then relaxed his expression.
“Godammit . . .” he replied, “Can’t you see? A table of number codes and roasted rice flour.”
Inside the bag there was nothing but a few sets of underwear, a toiletry kit and a plastic bag. As the soldier crouched down, examining the plastic bag, the thought, “You might have been dead by now,” flashed through his mind. If he had been a spy, he would not have let the chance pass. What idiot would carry his gun in his bag?
“What’s this? Looks like powder . . . quicklime?”
He glanced scornfully at the soldier who was rubbing together the fingers he had withdrawn from the bag.
“Didn’t I tell you? It’s rice flour.”
“Stop fooling around with me! Oh, what the hell . . . Scatter it somewhere and get back up there quickly. Go on, get back up there, quick.”
During his military training, some fifteen or so years back, he had witnessed an accident when a recruit, at a loss what to do holding a grenade with the pin pulled out, had thrown it awkwardly and blown off another recruit’s arm. All around people were stamping and pointing and shouting, but that recruit merely sidled away with his face flushing ever more deeply; the moment he grabbed the plastic bag from the soldier he felt anger rising in him, as if his face too was blushing like the recruit’s. He picked up his bag and climbed back up toward the road without a word.
The windows of a couple of restaurants, on which were stuck paper signs for maeuntang (hot fish stew), could be heard rattling hard despite the distance.
When he opened the door of the restaurant to his left and went in, the men who had gotten off the bus with him were sitting around the stove. They paused in their drinking to look around at him. One man, who had been carrying a rucksack, looked as though he recognized him and did not at once turn away again, but he paid no attention and made his way to a corner, where he set himself down on a rickety chair.
“Why’s the guy still not here? Does it mean he’s failed?”
“No way! There’re so many of them around here . . . it’ll be the opposite.”
“I only hope those girls won’t be all over us . . . you know, if you make a pass at one, the whole lot of them come and stick to you.”
“He’ll surely have calmed them down in advance. General Kim knows what he’s up to . . . if there are too many, we can enjoy them too, I don’t mind two or three . . . .”
“Hey man, you shoot the moment you’re in, quit bluffing . . . .”
“What do you mean? I’m not done yet. It depends on what you’ve got. Once it finds the right pipe for itself, it’ll go for an hour or more . . . .”
“Hey, stop bickering now, we’re all getting older. It’s over now.”
From behind the men, who sniggered and began to be noisy again, an older man opened a side door and approached him.
“You want a maeuntang? It’s all there is.”
“What kind of fish?”
“Flatfish . . . that’s all we’ve got, too. And soju”
“A big bowl of that, just one bowl. And some rice . . . .”
He gazed briefly at his clasped hands, then unfolded them and from force of habit took out a cigarette.
“Can I have a word, please?” The older man approached him again from the direction of the side door when he had finished the soup and rice the serving woman had brought him, and was smoking another cigarette, with his eyes closed wearily. By then, the companion the group of men had been waiting for had arrived noisily, they all left, still chattering, and the place was empty. They seemed to be a rowdy bunch, intent on lechery under the pretense of mountain climbing. The fellow wearing a beret who had appeared midway had brought along with him four or five young women, when the others began to squabble as the pairing didn’t work. “Didn’t I tell you I don’t need one?” the man with the rucksack said, sullenly. “I said I didn’t need one; what are we supposed to do now you’ve brought too many?”
“Don’t make such a fuss. . . Show me anyone who’s against it. I brought one each, so what are you going on about? You really don’t need one?”
“Don’t bother if you don’t need one. I’ll deal with it . . . Anyway, no one will lay a finger on your girl. All you have to do is pay.”
“You goddamn pitiful excuse for a man . . . .”
“You’d better say that to your wife, I mean, all that eunuch-talk . . . .”
Calling the women by their names, “Yeong-ja,” “Chun-ja,” as they sat around with deliberately wide open eyes, the man with the beret led them outside; the last to leave was the fellow with the rucksack, who turned to him as he was going out.
“Coming up the mountain?”
He did not reply, hesitant, at which the rucksack-man pulled down the brim of his hat. “If you take the same road, come up to the White Snow Inn. You can play go-stop with us, or whatever you like . . . .”
Outisde, the men could be heard calling a taxi. He put down his spoon and listened. Despite the fact that they had come to sell their bodies, the laughter of the women that mingled with the men’s was much livelier than theirs.
“Don’t say anything; just come with me.” The older man led him to a room beyond the side door. The restaurant seemed originally to have been a kind of lean-to shed projecting forward, and beyond the side door there lay the yard of a small old house with flat eaves. Apparently there was no separate kitchen, for here and there on the back porch and in the yard were strewn shabby bowls and steaming cauldrons. “This is the room . . .” after wrenching the door open the older man said, and he looked in but then made no sign of further movement, and instead, merely standing in front of the stone wall, turned his head toward the older man.
“Could you escort that gentleman to somewhere near Wolsan?” the older man said. “He said he would pay a hundred thousand won. He’s over eighty and he’s been like this for the past three days.”
“He’s really sick!”
He glanced once again into the room, then made a move to turn away, thinking to himself that today was a really ill-fated day. “Why do you ask me?”
“After waiting three days, I couldn’t find anyone fit for the job. I reckon you could do it, couldn’t you?”
“There are taxis, why ask me?”
“Cars can’t get up to Wolsan. There’s no road . . . No telling which side of the Armistice Line you’re on . . . .”
“. . . ”
“It’s a matter of getting somewhere close. You can go as far as Seohwa.”
The person “fit for the job” the older man referred to should clearly be someone who looked physically strong enough.
In the room, an old man with his head twisted to one side was lying down, his eyes wide open as if in a state of shock, while a woman with an expressionless face, wearing a nurse’s uniform, was sitting with her back against the wall, looking at them.
“Surely you could take him?”
“Carrying him on my back?” The older man looked angry. “Didn’t I tell you they’ll pay a hundred thousand won in addition to the fare?”
“I’m on my way to the mountains. It’s not possible.”
“You’re too uptight and hard to people you’ve met on the road. How much do you want?”
“What do you mean?”
“Won’t you do it?”
“Find someone else.”
“Please don’t try to force him, mister.”
The woman dressed as a nurse spoke in a dull voice from inside the room. Unclear whether it was the sick old man or the nurse who had offered to pay, he turned on his heel and made his way out, feeling uneasy.
Once in front of the restaurant, he looked across the road but the sea, which had been a dark green color, had changed to a thick gray, and there was no sign of the sentry. But surely if he sets one foot on the gravel of the beach he would emerge from somewhere with his grating voice.
Having caught a bus heading for the mountains at the road junction, he gazed out at the fields that were already being consumed by the spreading dusk, but found himself unable to shake off that feeling of unease. It might just have been a discomfort emanating from the sick old man, but his feeling seemed rather to have been caused by something about the woman dressed as a nurse. He had been unable to tell at all whether her face was that of a girl barely twenty years old, or whether she was thirty, or nearly forty. In the room, a low sound of pansori singing could be heard from a radio cassette, and even under the naked light bulb he had been unable to perceive clearly the outline of her face, but it had awakened in him a strange sense of repulsion. The old man, with his thick overcoat and luxurious fur muffler, looked to be the fastidious patriarch of a wealthy family. His condition seemed to have worsened while he had been convalescing in the hills and they were apparently on their way back. It was clear at first sight that he had suffered a stroke, and if the older man had not mentioned the Armistice Line and if he hadn’t seen those wide open eyes of the sick old man, he might perhaps have accepted the proposal.
Getting off at the stop where the inns were, he found the White Snow Inn and the man with the rucksack, who seemed to have been expecting him, beckoned from a second-floor window, his back to the light.
“Come on up, you can’t miss it.”
As he was going up, the man was standing at the head of the stairs, about to come down. “Don’t take a separate room,” he said, “we’ve plenty with four. We only asked for three rooms, but the landlord asked us to take an extra one for gambling . . . even though this is the place we stay every time we come, damn it . . . those guys will just sit up all night. I don’t enjoy go-stop. Why don’t you come along to view the waterfall tomorrow morning? Get some exercise?”
“Didn’t you invite me to play go-stop?”
“Just play for a couple of hours, then get some sleep. It’s no fun, anyway. When you go somewhere you ought to come back with a clear head; not that, all day, all night . . . .”
He glanced around the room the rucksack-man showed him into, but without putting down his bag he followed along behind him. The second room seemed to be the man’s room, and the gambling was going on in the third room. The girls, one squeezed between each of the men, were laughing, serving drinks and snacks, or helping count the winnings; that seemed to be why they had been summoned. “Hey, you there, schoolgirl, today you look after this man in place of me . . . by the way, have you eaten?” Still speaking, the rucksack-man caught hold of one of the girls and made her sit beside him. “If you’re going to stick to him, stick like a rice cake,” another girl said, throwing an odd glance at him.
“Win or lose, make sure you’re asleep by midnight; if you get overheated you’ll ruin yourself. I’ll call you tomorrow morning . . . I must go and practice yoga in my room.”
Having arranged for him to join the party, the man went out.
One member of the group briefly summarized the rules of the go-stop game they were playing using the flower cards. He made no comment and pulled out his wallet, realizing that the stakes were quite high. At the least mistake, he might lose his fare home.
They say the fun of gambling lies in watching the players reveal their true character. Once the game started, they fell silent as if someone had poured water over them. They seemed to have invented various rules in order to raise the stakes, only the girls kept on chattering or at times burst out laughing, making the players raise their heads. The girl sitting beside him seemed very young but she looked as if she had been hit with a cotton bat. From time to time she would pass him a snack or refill his glass, but she did not say a word. Perhaps the fact that she was surplus to requirements had worn her down; they say a woman who can’t get caresses in her home will be unwanted even in a bar.
Around nine, one of the girls picked up some of the money that had been collected as a kind of tip at the end of each game, stood up and went out. Then, coming back, standing at the door she said, “Mr. Kim, phone call.”
“So early?” The man she had addressed as Mr. Kim frowned with a flushed face and stared at the girl, but the other men urged him on, “Don’t keep her waiting, have your fun and come back.” The man rose and went out. Some time later, they returned together.
At eleven, another man was called out to the phone, then came back; half an hour later another went out. By that time he had figured out what answering the phone meant, and unconsciously glanced down at the money piled before him. It was when they were losing that they went out, had sex and came back, as a way of exorcising their bad luck. It was past twelve thirty when the girl who had been sitting beside him called him from the door to answer the phone.
He followed along behind her without saying a word; when they reached the room at the end, where the bedding was already spread out, she began to take off her clothes.
“I’m not doing it,” he said. “Besides, I wasn’t losing, so why did you call me out?”
“You really don’t want to?” The girl looked at him, expressionless, her hands on her skirt.
“I can’t get it up. I’ll give it a pass.”
“I’ll bring you on. Come here.”
“Damn it!” he said, “I told you I was giving it a pass.”
“Really?” the girl asked. “Hey! Great!”
Still the same, her face showing neither the gladness she had expressed nor anger, the girl came up to him, put her arms round his waist and kissed the back of his head. “Let’s wait a bit before we go back in there; then please say that the reason the phone call took so long was because it was an overseas call. Promise?”
A lengthy overseas call . . . as he sat awkwardly beside the girl, he suddenly felt weariness sweeping over him. He was winning a little, but he reckoned that even if he left after staying just another half-hour, the others wouldn’t glare at him.
It was exactly two forty-five when he stood up and went to his room, where he passed out for about two hours, then near daybreak awoke to find someone shaking his shoulder. The rucksack-guy was looking down at him, pursing his lips with an odd expression.
“Get up. There’s been an accident. Some time after four thirty, one of the girls suddenly began to vomit, then fell back. Lying on her back, she passed away. Looks like a heart attack . . . .” As he listened, he unconsciously thought of the girl who had been sitting beside him and felt anxious.
“The girl called Miss Choi?”
“Did you have some kind of hunch? I suppose you had your phone call with her, but of course I’m not suggesting . . . .”
He tried to say “No,” then gave up and stared at the man. “Was that what gave her a shock?”
The rucksack-guy looked at him narrowly, as if at a loss for words, then forced himself to smile.
“You’ve had a shock, too, old friend. You should go on down first. The police’ll be coming, since we’ve reported it . . . anyway, we’re civil servants. There’s no need for you to get involved in any trouble, is there? You’d better get out of here first.”
He asked how things would be settled, whether a doctor had come, but the man with the rucksack merely replied that it had almost certainly been a heart attack, then fell into a heavy silence. Feeling uncertain whether he should express thanks or embarrassment, he left the inn. It looked like the other men were sitting together in their room debating what should be done. There was no reason why he should remember the names of each of the men he had been introduced to in such a setting, but on realizing he had not even had a chance to introduce himself to the rucksack-man, he stopped heading downhill and instead started walking up again. After about a mile, he reached the resort area, where the Swiss-style building of the Park Hotel struck his gaze. Children with weird hairstyles on a school outing were peering out from windows here and there or loitering in front of the closed souvenir shop. The low-lying, slate-gray sky was streaked with red in one direction, but with the shadow of the mountains that hemmed in the valley on both sides, and the icy chill in the air, the scenery was still veiled in hazy mist. On the grounds of the hotel, a grotesque statue of E.T. towered over him, crude and obscene, while from the valley rose the sound of nearly frozen water. He regarded the monster, which could have come hundreds of thousands of light years from some distant star, with a sense of horror.
The words “Anyway, we’re civil servants” refused to leave his mind. When he said those words, there was no knowing whether the rucksack-man meant that since they were civil servants they would take full responsibility, or with that status the matter could be easily resolved. If they said that someone who was not part of their group had been involved, surely the matter could become unnecessarily complicated. Such situations are bound to become nasty for people involved in delicate public procedures, like it or not. Even if the result of the investigation was clear, the police would keep asking what that person was doing there, why he was there. If by any chance the cause of the girl’s death had something to do with the gambling, matters could become even more complex. You mean you bought women with those coins from the stake money? I am not sure how thick-faced you all might be, but wash your mouth out first before trying to tell that crap to the judge. Certainly no one would believe you.
He loitered near the cable car station waiting for the hotel’s coffee shop to open, then drank a cup of tea, so that it was nearly eleven before he got back down to the inn. It was completely deserted.
“Those people from the culture department?” The landlord pretended not to know that anything out-of-the-ordinary had happened, then perhaps realized that he had been a guest too, and grew angry. “Those rotten hicks said they were from the culture department; my, what a filthy world. . . They went down together with the policeman.”
“The police station of course, where else?”
“Did a doctor come?”
“What could he do if he came? I feel sorry for the girl. Why are you asking? Did you do it with her too?”
The landlord kept grumbling about the culture department but he could not gather whether he was talking about a newspaper or a broadcasting station or what. By police station he must mean the one in Sokcho.
He boarded a local bus heading for Sokcho but then changed his mind and got off at Mulchi; he pushed open the door of the restaurant and went in. It was completely empty. After throwing himself down on a seat carelessly, he waited for the older man to emerge. He guessed that Wolsan must be a remote village somewhere at the far end of Inner Seorak Mountain. Once he had passed close to Inje and he recalled having heard a similar name there, Wolhak or Wolsan, and although it must be near the Armistice Line, he did not know how far the road went before it was blocked, but if he hurried he could take the old man somewhere near there, at least, and perhaps then take the boat across the Soyang River as far as Chuncheon. From Chuncheon he would be able to catch an early morning train to Seoul.
He finally had to shout through the side door before the older man came out, and looked at him blankly, with no sign of recognition.
“Are those folks still here, the sick old man?”
“Did you find someone?”
“No way . . . They left at daybreak, saying they would just go to Wontong and wait. They took a taxi but it’ll be even harder to find anyone up there. What use is money when you can’t even get to your land? Go and ask up there. Why, did you change your mind?”
“You said it was possible to get in as far as Seohwa? From there, could I get to Chuncheon today? I really have to . . . .”
“It might be difficult. They’ll be checking everyone thoroughly.”
Even if the road checks were intense, the trip should not take half a day. He looked impatiently at the man and moistened his lips.
“That’s no good. I have to work tomorrow.”
He was on the verge of saying something like “even if the world ends” or “I’m a civil servant,” but restrained himself and ordered something to eat.
It was already two by the time he boarded a bus for Gangneung in front of the restaurant; at Gangneung he changed his mind and took a bus heading for Gyeongpo, just after four. He got off at the lakeside and began to walk absently toward the sea.
He had to admit that although he had kept his wife’s ashes for a long while, it was not because he was attached to it but because he had so far not found where to dispose of it. He might have gotten rid of it at the crematorium or somewhere on a hillside, but that day he had come out carrying it and then, because he was feeling weary, had simply gone home, stuffed her remains among a mass of junk, and had completely forgotten it for some three years.
“I’m not from Wonsan.”
Recalling something his wife, confined to her room for five years with what the doctors called valvular disease, had carelessly muttered one day, he thought of looking for the plastic bag, but he was not completely sure that his wife’s birthplace was anywhere along the east coast.
He had asked her: if not Wonsan then where? But she had been unable to reply. Even though she had been tossed here and there in confusion soon after her birth, she should have retained some memory of when and in what village she had been born, but she knew nothing. There were times when the dialects of the southeast and southwest were uttered together, at other times his wife spoke casually using the accent of the northerly Pyongan province, so that perhaps her speech gave support to her tales of endless bleak wanderings, but he had never been able to really accept his wife’s total ignorance of her roots because when he first came to know her in a street full of bars in the midst of a market, where she was working as a peddler, he had been attracted by her intelligence. If she had grown up in an orphanage, she might have heard something by hearsay or someone might have given her some information, wrong though it might have been. If not, surely a couple of place names ought to have been lurking in her latent memory? His wife used to grow flushed as though she had suddenly become a stutterer and then struggle, muttering nonsense, before finally shaking her head.
Talking of Wonsan was her improvised response to his saying he was from Kaesong, she explained. At the time he had only laughed, but the way that memory had risen heavily in his mind only now, as he was about to cast away the last remains of his wife, made him feel strange.
They had come just once to Gyeongpo, some ten years ago, on their honeymoon. Then, as now, the off-season holiday resorts were likely to be dreary, and this place, with the song “The moon rising in your wine glass, blah blah” attached to it as an extra attraction, was no exception. The shuttered sashimi restaurants along the deserted seafront looked crushed as they bowed their slate roofs and endured the wind, while in front of the few that were open a few fish were cowering or floating motionless in cement tanks sheltered under the eaves, bathed in fluorescent light even in broad daylight, reminding him of bleak deserts.
After pointing to one fish that had its snout cut off, he went upstairs to the dining room and ordered a drink. The floor was unexpectedly warm. The woman explained it was a needlefish and that they did that because it kept poking all the other fish with its sharp pointed beak. He opened the window and took out the plastic bag. In the southern regions, usually the wind reversed direction at nightfall and blew seaward, but when he tilted the bag, the ashes swirled around, rose, then passed over the roof and went blowing off in the other direction, toward the lake. He tossed the empty bag into the wind and sat staring out at the darkening horizon.
It was already dark when he awoke from a drunken doze, sprawled across the table. The thought that he ought to go back and the idea that in that case he ought to go into the town kept nagging at him in turn, yet he did not feel inclined to get up. After inquiring whether the restaurant was also an inn, and at what time the first bus for Seoul left in the morning, he washed his feet downstairs then climbed back up the stairs, with the woman following him, carrying bedding, and explaining that they had no registration cards on hand, before she added, “There’s a young lady if you want.” He shook his head and spread out the bedding.
He thought she had given up but soon after he turned out the light and lay down, the telephone lying abandoned in a corner rang. “Sir, There’s a nice young lady.”
He hung up abruptly without answering, but when it rang again about ten minutes later he unthinkingly sat up. Eager to put an end to the woman’s rambling persuasion, he asked, “How much for a short time?” Then he added, “I need to sleep some more. I dislike whining so send her up later, around ten, after telephoning first.”
As abnormal relations with his wife had lasted a long time, he grew accustomed to relieving his physiological tension about twice a month. Since that had also been the time when he was studying on his own to pass the class B exam for the fifth level of the civil service, it might have been inevitable. Once his bread-earning day’s job was over, he would sit down at his desk, for he had quit drinking, and his eyes would glaze over. He wondered what he was doing, living just like a schoolboy preparing to retake the college entrance exam, and would go out for a breath of fresh air. That led to him giving in to the temptation of buying a woman. By the time he discovered how that sort of aberration actually helped him to concentrate on his study, it was too late to stop anyway. For something that was really no better than masturbation, he naturally turned to bar girls or women in alleys, and he usually took precautions, but today he felt uneasy since he was not prepared. Awakened at ten by the sound of the phone ringing, for a moment he thought of asking her to bring a condom, but then gave up, feeling too awkward. Perhaps for that reason, once the woman arrived he went rolling downhill and came in a flash. After paying the woman and sending her away, he turned off the light and went back to sleep.
In the grim weather, a portion of the lake was glittering in the morning sunlight, as though it was frozen over. The road curved past it, circular like a playing field, then stretched ahead, while in the middle of the road some ten yards ahead a woman was walking at the same pace as himself, her back and shoulders visible. His consciousness was awake but he could not decide if it was a dream or if he had just awakened from a deep sleep and was on his way to catch a bus downtown. Apart from himself and the woman, there was nobody else out walking; the whole background seemed to have withdrawn into the distance and was covering everything in a kind of misty slow motion. He had the impression that all the movements and all the sounds around him were coming to a halt together.
“Why have you come here on such a cold day?”
“Really I’m not sure . . . but come to think of it today is my wife’s death anniversary . . . .”
It had been the woman who asked and he had replied, yet clearly the woman walking ahead of him had not turned her head. That was not all. He could also hear the faint sound of pansori music like that he had heard from behind the side door at the Mulchi restaurant. At that, he felt that it was all irrational and realized that the remarks were from the conversation he and the woman had the previous evening before they embraced. That had been the end of their talking and the woman had lain back with a very strange look on her face. Now it was being replayed as though it had been recorded and stored up. Moreover, seeing how that was overlapping with the sound of a radio from another time and place, it was evidently an auditory hallucination. Ahead of him, his field of vision shrank as if a screen was being spread in front of him, while the air grew thick like a burning sand storm. The woman’s back view rushed speeding backward toward him at an alarming rate, as if it was being enlarged, while her pace changed into a run. She was racing toward a vehicle that was looming larger as it approached. Ignoring his foreboding, with all his might he kept himself from turning around and setting off toward the road leading seaward, then, exhausted, collapsed at the foot of a pine tree at the uphill roadside. Even without lifting his head, he could bring to mind the scene with people shouting and children noisily heading in that direction. He saw the woman of the previous night falling dead, blood trickling from her nostrils, and the large hands of a policeman covering her with a tarpaulin.
“She ran right into me, deliberately,” the driver was gabbling, standing with unfocused eyes before the car she had rammed her head against sideways. Wondering hesitantly if he might check the woman’s face once more, after a desperate effort he rose to his feet.
There was nothing in sight. The road beneath his feet went stretching ahead but the woman whose back he had seen and the vehicle that had run her over were nowhere to be seen; neither was there any trace of the people who had gathered far away out there and made such a noise. He shook his head and finally realized that his wife’s death a few years ago had suddenly come sweeping over him as a phantasmagoric reality. He fumbled for a cigarette with a sweating hand.
Once in central Gangneung, having gotten off at the wrong stop, he walked a mile or so to the terminal. There, changing his mind again, he hesitated, wondering whether he should buy a ticket back to Sokcho or whether he should take the route to Inner Seorak, branching off at Yangyang. If Sokcho came back into his thoughts, it could be because he was still troubled about the affair of the rucksack-guy and the bargirl. His intention was to snoop around the police station to see if he could peek inside, before crossing over Jinburyeong pass and heading for Wontong.
He bought a ticket as far as Yangyang, then with an unpleasant feeling, as if he had failed to brush his teeth, he bought some bread and milk for his breakfast; now he was staring out through the bus window. He realized that the city that had looked so clean during their honeymoon, seen again ten-odd years later was not really so clean. He soon realized that it was not so much the city that had changed, that the difference was mainly in his own heart, yet he was quite unable to understand why, or calculate just when, in what amounted to a really short period of time, the quagmire in which his heart was so deeply sunk had begun to form. It might have been pity for his wife, or something triggered by his own feelings toward a world from which his wife had vanished. Despite her physical condition, what might be seen as his wife’s vitality, her clinging to life, had been tough and strong as eulalia grass. Despite repeated miscarriages, his wife kept wanting to get pregnant, and up until the very moment when she was finally incapacitated, she held onto her stretcher. Once she was forced to remain bedridden, as the years passed by in that condition, she constantly fretted about everything; perhaps it was another form of that same obsession. Living like this, I’d rather do away with myself . . . when she would roll her eyes and grumble like that, it was not that he did not at times rebuke her with “okay then, go ahead and die.” But if he never once made such a remark even to himself, how could she have had the heart to commit such violence against herself?
“The buses have stopped running for today. You can only go as far as the spring village.”
Even after the woman behind the ticket counter, which he had headed for after arriving at the Yangyang terminal, said that, he simply remained standing there blankly, his money held out.
“They can’t leave because there’s a blizzard warning; how many times do I have to tell you? The snow’s about to start. Shall I give you a ticket as far as Osaek spring village?”
“Any tickets for Seoul?”
“You’ll have to go to Gangneung and take an express bus there. But in the afternoon they’ll probably stop running from there too.”
If it was going to snow, how much did they expect to fall? If the roads were blocked around here, there’d be no going anywhere. The safest step would be to return quickly to Gangneung and head for Seoul at once. Avoiding a man who was pursuing him, repeatedly urging, “Take my taxi, I’ll give you a good price,” he asked himself why he still wanted to head for Wontong, when that meant making a mess of everything and being away from work for at least one day, perhaps three or four. If that goddamn old man had not had such wide open eyes, if the luxurious muffler wound around his neck and that overcoat had not aroused his resentment, or if that cheeky nurse with her stuck-up expression had not so shamelessly offered him bait . . . all those things had stirred up bad feelings, still they did not add up to a good pretext for not going, while an ominous feeling was telling him that he could not simply head for home with this uneasy feeling bothering him. . . .
“Didn’t I say I’d take you, even risking that we’ll be blocked at Wontong?”
“Is that why the buses aren’t going? It seems they’re going as far as the spring?”
“Nothing doing there. Do you know how many people will be coming down off the mountain to the spring? You’ll have to pay whatever they ask.”
“If I get to Inje, will I be able to catch a boat?”
“Would the boats not leave just because of some snow?”
It seemed the taxi driver was merely saying whatever came to his mind, but he had made up his mind, so he stopped walking and gave in to the man who was pursuing him.
He knew that it ought to take two hours or less to reach Wontong. He would have accepted the fare the driver charged if he intended to see the scenery on the way or if he felt he could trust what he had said. Still quibbling over the fare and not really trusting him, when they finally reached the spring at Osaek, people who had come down off the mountain could be seen here and there beyond the car windows.
“Look at them; rushing about like frogs before it rains, aren’t they?” The driver stopped the taxi, lowered the window and put out a hand. “It’s coming down hard.”
He felt that the man was exaggerating to a ridiculous extent, but for some reason he experienced an odd feeling of release at that moment, as if he had finally stepped off a treadmill that until then he had been trudging on.
As they crested the Hangyeryeong pass, snowflakes glistened in the sudden blast of swirling wind. Lowering the window, he took out a cigarette.
In fact, it was not until the taxi had come all the way down as far as Wontong that snow really started to fall in earnest. Together with a blinding wind, it soon grew into a blizzard and within two hours white walls were piled up in all directions, so that he and the village he had reached were completely imprisoned.
Intending to send a wire, he asked where the post office was, but the woman at the restaurant who brought his stew made no reply, merely looked him up and down, turned on her heel and hurried back inside. Dumbskull, looking for a post office in a place like this, her face seemed to express utter amazement, so that he was overcome with embarrassment and fell silent. With the traffic blocked by the snow, he would be absent from work for three days . . . he felt almost dirty at using such a lame excuse when he was merely one of the lowest-ranking employees; perhaps for just one day, but not for three days, he thought, as he stared blankly at the snow-filled wind as it kept rattling the store window like slaps on the cheek. The three-way junction seemed to form the center of the village and among the houses in sight at most only three or four seemed to offer accommodation, yet he felt awkward at the thought of searching one house to another. Should he happen to find the old man and the woman, what would he have to say to them?
He dashed into a store he noticed across the road from the restaurant, bought a plastic raincoat for hiking, slipped it on, and when he came out again the wind seemed to have grown slightly less violent; by then it was around three in the afternoon. Despite signs announcing themselves as “inns,” the majority were ordinary family homes where, in rooms and yards, snowbound hikers with anxious expressions were chattering loudly or shaking off the snow, while empty rooms loomed dark as caverns.
In the sixth house, which looked like the last, where he looked and inquired, there was again no sign of the woman and the old man, but there he encountered two men on the same quest.
“Those people are looking for the same folks,” he was told, and on turning around saw through the snow flurries two men perched on the ledge of a wooden porch looking across at him.
“Are you looking for Mrs. Choi?” The slimmer of the two stood up.
“. . .”
“Have you asked at all the inns here?”
“They’re not here.”
He answered vaguely, without thinking, then with a perplexed expression looked at the man as he approached him.
“We’ve looked for them all the way from Seohwa.” The man reached under the projecting eaves and spoke in a sociable tone as he looked up at him, then smacked his lips: “There’s no sign of them.”
Suspicious questions as to why he was looking for them ought normally to have come from their side in challenging tones, but as they walked together back to the junction and sat down in a coffee shop, nothing was said.
“Seohong, Wolhak village. . . we’ve looked everywhere. You know, the guys have been checking extremely intensely.”
By “the guys” he seemed to mean the soldiers making road checks. The slim man sipped his tea, occasionally stared outside and smacked his lips, while the more heavily-built man, apparently the driver, kept his eyes lowered, barely moved and said nothing.
“I happened to see the sick man in Sokcho for a moment and so I’ve come after him.”
As the man chattered away, he sensed the overall situation and when a chance came he felt obliged to tell the whole story on his side in simple terms.
“Well now,” the man spoke in an admiring tone. “So that’s how it was. It’s only human to want to get near your birthplace, isn’t it?”
The enthusiastic reply seemed pointless so he just stared at the man. The nurse called Mrs. Choi, who on her own initiative had taken a patient away, was trying to escape to somewhere with the moribund old man. So the only solution was to catch her and bring them back . . . The reply did not fit with what he had been chattering about just before. “This is who I am,” the man had said as they sat down, handing him a card on which he was identified as “Executive Director, S Company.”
“Was the nurse named Choi in charge of the old man?”
“She was seconded from the company hospital. That girl’s impossible . . . that’s why she’s acted like this.”
“That girl, Mrs. Choi” struck him as a strange mix of labels but since it was none of his business, he looked out of the window.
“What shall we do?”
Finally the other man said something.
“What shall we do? We have to get to Inje . . . They’ll be there without a doubt.”
“But we looked pretty much everywhere in that direction as we were coming up here, didn’t we? Won’t they have headed for Baekdamsa temple?”
Probably they had driven up via Hongcheon. Even without unfolding the tourist map bought at the terminal, it was clear that the road up to Baekdamsa temple via Outer Gapyeong would by now be hell fit to make even ghosts tremble. Wicked woman . . . he was pretending to grind his teeth, but the man looked so much like an actor playing the role of a child that he had to keep himself from laughing aloud.
“You can come with us. After all, if you intend to head for Seoul that will save you the fare.”
“How, in this snow? I mean, thanks, but . . .”
“We should be able to get through. We can. If we don’t get to Seoul by tomorrow the president will be furious.”
He was at a loss how to respond to the man’s offer. With things growing increasingly tangled, supposing that they did find the old man, once the nurse started to present her side of the story, he might find himself caught in an even stickier situation. He was only guessing, but he had a clear impression that the men’s relationship with the nurse was not the usual employer-employee relation. Dimly sensing a serious conflict between the old man and his son, he followed the two men, hoping they would be unable to find them at Inje either.
The Mercedes they had come in managed to force its way through on what had looked to be a hopeless journey. Though the wind blew fiercely and the snow continued to fall in white sheets, the car forced its way through without any particular trouble, but that very stability only plunged him into deeper gloom. Neither driver nor companion said anything further. Outside it was already growing dark but he felt increasingly convinced that he should not ride with them all the way to Seoul, even if they drew a blank at Inje. If the snow slackened off during the night, the boats would be running the next day.
“Wait here. I’ll just take a look . . . .”
Stopping the car at the first inn as they entered Inje, the man went inside, then emerged and beckoned to them, standing with his back against a street lamp. “I’ve found them. They’re here. Come on . . . .”
Then something unexpected happened. The driver lowered the window but made no attempt to do as the man said.
“Why aren’t you getting out?”
As the man drew nearer with an agitated expression, the driver said, “Let’s just drive on.”
“What are you talking about, you filth?” The man slapped the driver’s cheek through the open window. Holding a palm to his slapped cheek, the driver bowed his head for a while then meekly got out. As he watched the two walking together, he hesitated for a time, completely at a loss.
Up until now, he had been nothing but a total outsider, but now, feeling that if a fight were to begin he should try to stop it, he too got out and hesitantly walked toward the inn. He paused in front of the room indicated by the shoes left on the step outside, then feeling embarrassed he went and perched on the nearby wooden porch.
“Take this and give me the contract.” He could hear what the man said but, unexpectedly, he spoke in a low voice. “Does that mean that everything is settled?” The woman’s voice too was quiet. He heard the man say, “The president admires Mrs. Choi,” then the woman replied, “It can’t be helped; please thank him.” He moved to one side as the door of the room opened and the driver emerged carrying the old man on his back, together with the other man, while the woman stood just inside the door as if seeing them off.
“Ah, you again!” the nurse spoke in that same voice devoid of any hint of emotion. “What are you doing here?”
The driver with the old man on his back looked unsteady, so he was obliged to follow them under the pretense of providing support; the old man with his eyes still wide open made his heart thump again. It looked as though his lower body was completely paralyzed, as well as the region of the eyes.
“Aren’t you getting in?”
As he was getting into the car, the man turned and noticed that he was standing some distance away. He nodded to indicate that he wasn’t. The car advanced some ten yards then stopped and the man again put his head out.
From the man’s lips came curses flying in a kind of roar. He unconsciously started to move toward him, at which the man’s head vanished and the car drove off.
The woman, who had come out of the inn, approached. He was looking at her, perplexed. He simply could not understand why the man had suddenly acted that way.
“You didn’t leave, I see,” the woman said, “Why have you come here?”
Embarrassed, he mumbled like an outcast child. It was the second time he was asked this question. He could have replied that he had followed them because he had felt uneasy about the way he had neglected the sick old man. But the old man was no longer there, after all. The woman seemed to have paid for the room and was now standing there with her suitcase in her hand. She still had her white cap perched on the back of her head and a black coat draped neatly over her uniform, but despite the growing darkness she showed obvious signs of weariness, almost as if she had been beaten.
“Didn’t you ask me to take him to somewhere close to the Armistice Line?”
She laughed weakly. “You are a step too late. If you had come yesterday, things would have turned out differently . . . .”
“Didn’t you say you would be at Wontong? That old fellow at the restaurant in Mulchi . . . ”
“We were in Wontong,” the woman replied.
He looked at her oddly, wondering if she was lying. “You didn’t take a room anywhere?”
“I found a room but not in an inn. I didn’t like having people coming and going, all staring. Then I gave up and brought him down here. If you had arrived yesterday we would not have been able to meet. You would never have thought of asking at ordinary houses, would you?”
Sensing a trace of mockery in her voice, he said nothing.
“Still you meet those you are destined to meet,” she observed, and sensing his sullenness laughed again. “Let’s go somewhere else. I’ll buy you supper. You’ll be leaving for Seoul tomorrow?”
“Maybe, it depends if the boats are running.”
“I have to go to Gangneung then head for Jeongseon. I need to see my father first.
“Is that your home? Everyone’s from Gangwon Province, it seems . . . .”
“Are you from Gangwon too? I’m from Yeoryang, not Jeongseon . . . Have you never heard of Auraji River?”
He was on the point of saying, I’m not from here, but my dead wife was . . . then gave up. “Auraji River?”
The woman, who was by now covered in snow, led the way, not to a restaurant but into another inn. Uncertain, he paused but the woman, looking back, urged him on. “There’s no proper restaurant here. Why don’t you have supper here, then you can go and sleep in another inn?”
The woman went out to shake the snow from her coat and order food, and in the meantime he spread his hands on the heated floor where two cushions were laid. Perhaps due to the pointless fatigue he had endured for the last two days, his eyes closed. What excuse was he going to offer once back at work . . . .
“What did that guy say when he swore at you before running off?” The woman seemed to have washed up, she looked fresher when she came in, then sat leaning against the wall looking at him.
“Didn’t you hear?”
“I heard something, but it wasn’t clear. What did he say?”
Wondering why she was so interested in the curses, he merely stared into her face.
“I knew it. You bastard . . . or something like that, perhaps? I knew it. Enjoy yourself with that whore . . . right?” She repeated the words clearly.
He looked hard at the woman before turning his face away, as if he saw something he was not supposed to see.
“If you heard that kind of language, I deserve it. That’s what I did, even preparing the documents . . . .”
“Was it the contract the guy talked about?”
“Yes,” the woman lowered her eyes. “I was charged with caring for that old man for two years. They made a request at the hospital I worked for. I had no choice, it being the firm’s hospital. They asked if I could undertake a special job, not a matter of washing him or taking care of his bodily functions. The moment I heard what was involved I thought I should have a contract. It does not exactly specify the dirty things I had to do.”
“Would an eighty-year-old have the strength for anything of that kind?” He asked, suddenly feeling angry or at least bad-tempered. “Hadn’t he had a stroke?”
“Have you ever heard of what they call a hot pack? A water bag applied as a poultice . . . a kind of hot-water-bottle. What the Japanese call yudanpo is a bit different but . . . I spent two years acting as a hot-water-bottle. The contract called it ‘special nursing.’ I insisted absolutely on inserting that term . . . Recently they began to feel uneasy about the contract. I had forgotten all about it, but the boss, being such an asshole . . . .”
“So you ran away?”
She nodded and returned his gaze with an odd expression. “They all knew we were coming here. Where else would he go, if not here? Even before he fell ill he had been saying all the time that he wanted to go to Wolsan village. That was why he kept fighting with the boss . . . Since you made your fortune here in Seoul, you should think of Seoul as your hometown; the boss used to bully him and the old man only grew more stubborn . . . it was just an excuse. It was merely his way of getting back at his father for all he had against him. Do you know what the old man’s nickname was in the old days? ‘The Jindo Bulldog,’ a combination of a Jindo dog with a bulldog, you understand? Then this winter he collapsed. Feeling sure he wouldn’t last till the end of the year, I took him away. Even if he can’t speak, once he starts to pester . . . .”
“With all those worries, you still brought along the contract?”
She laughed sadly. “Who knows what may happen? I’ve had hard times enough in the hospital from people who make trouble because of greed, even when they can’t walk or move. And the boss was looking for an excuse to sack me, too . . . The boss means to stand for the National Assembly next year. Every topic of gossip has to vanish . . . .”
Supper was brought in on a table. The woman poured out beer but he did not feel like drinking so put the glass aside and picked up the chopsticks.
“And I came following after, without having any idea . . . .”
“I knew you would come here, didn’t I?” The woman, who had been eating busily, lifted her head with an undefinable expression. “I had thought of going to Seorak Mountain for a few days of rest, but it was no good, it was beyond my strength. I was waiting there because I remembered something I heard once from a fortune-teller in Myeonmok-dong. Why Mulchi? At thirty I would meet someone bearing three coffins beside water . . . that person was my husband in a previous life . . . .”
“Do even nurses say things like that?”
Her expression turned playful.
“Look at this.” She laid her chopsticks aside and held out her palm. “Have you ever seen palm lines like this?”
He looked casually at the jumbled lines that seemed to have been cut with a sashimi knife, then asked mischievously.
“You mean that before and after I dropped by there, nobody appeared to take your hundred thousand won? Still it’s not me, surely, and what’s that about someone bearing three coffins or something?”
“Who said it was you? Don’t count your chickens too soon. . . I just knew you would come . . . Show me your palm; you never know . . . .”
She stretched out her hands as though dealing with a patient. As she began to behave like a child, obviously with her guard down, he gazed at her.
“So, are you still a virgin?” Pulling his arms back, he casually asked, then regretted it.
“Does a virgin think nothing of talking like this? When I first arrived in Seoul I didn’t even know how to eat bibimbap. I thought the vegetables and the rice were supposed to be eaten separately . . . In those days I was a virgin.” Her tone suddenly became dejected. “I am no virgin.”
Seized with an awkward feeling, he looked down and began to force food into his mouth. She too kept silent. After she had carried the meal table out and come back, she took a paper from her pocket.
“They gave me my severance pay just now. What should I do with this check?”
Not understanding her reasoning, he looked up, at which she went on, still standing, “Shall I tear it up?”
“Are you out of your mind?”
“Tearing up the money I’ve earned doing that, is that something that makes me a mad woman? It’s three million won . . . I could rent a room for Father with that, but . . . .”
“Don’t be silly,” he said. “What do you solve by destroying it? It’s only making a fool of yourself. How old are you for goodness sake?”
“Then I’ll tear it up. Far better to be a fool.”
The woman’s hand that held the check began to tremble. She was weeping as she said, “I can’t do it . . . .”
Her body came crashing down. At a loss what to do, he grasped her in his arms but sensing the deep groan that was sinking down into his bowels, he had to keep his eyes wide open. If they had been on the road, she might have died too.
He did not know how he escaped from the room. As soon as he started to rub her back, the woman stopped crying, and he vaguely recalled how, between sobs, she had repeated “I can’t endure being alone any more . . . .” It was certain that he had repeatedly rubbed his cheek against hers, but he could not be sure if he had said he would come to fetch her the next morning, nor if he had asked her whether she would go up to Seoul with him.
Once outside in the alley, he found he was carrying a bottle of beer; he must have brought it with him from the room.
He went into the first inn that struck his gaze, took a room, and once the bedding was spread on the warm floor, he undressed and sat down on it and, leaving the door that looked onto the yard slightly open, began to drink from the bottle as he watched the snow falling outside.
The woman who brought in the table with breakfast, which he had not ordered, informed him that a boat would be leaving at ten thirty. He heard the faint sound of a drum being beaten which seemed to have awakened him.
“It’s a ceremony for the dead,” the woman told him, “Last year a kid slipped on the icy road and fell into the lake. The child was from the scholar’s family, just over the hill . . . .”
Shaking off the woman, who was offering to carry his bag, he went across to the other inn, where the nurse was apparently waiting, for she immediately opened the door and emerged as he arrived. Avoiding each other’s gaze in embarrassment, they walked down the alley and he set off quickly for the landing stage. During the five or so minutes it took to reach the landing along the path they did not speak a single word.
While they watched the boat with the shaman slowly coming toward them from farther out, he handed a note with his address and office phone number on it to the woman.
“Will you come up straight away, once you’ve visited Yeoryang?”
“We have to be prepared to make a double income for a while, I guess. If we’re going to set up house . . . .”
“Are you talking about that already?”
“I have to catch this boat. Can you find a bus?”
“They should be running. They’re already clearing the snow, it seems.”
Even though only one boat had been canceled the previous afternoon, the railing of the ship was already crowded with hikers and other passengers who were chattering with anxious faces as they shifted their weight from one foot to the other. The ceremony seemed to be over but as the boat used for the ritual drew in, the shaman stepped ashore and began to sprinkle water around from a gourd. Then she threw aside the gourd and snatched a fan and a bell from her assistants, who were carrying an hourglass drum and a barrel drum. She began to ring the bell and the drummers began to beat the drums again.
“Be careful,” the woman said. Unable to tear her eyes from him as he crossed toward the ship, the woman suddenly began to smile as she stood on the jetty, so he turned his eyes away as if dazzled and lit a cigarette.
Dragon King, god of the East Sea, the East,
Ksitigarbha, god of the West Sea, the West,
Naraka Hell, the world of woe and tumult,
Behold and see, behold and watch over us!
Smoothly come down please, smoothly . . . .
A fire was lit near the shaman; people who had come to see others off and some local children gathered around it.
By the time he realized what was happening, the shaman who had approached the woman, dancing all the way, was holding out her fan.
“Take this,” the shaman screamed.
Boundless expanse of blue water,
Sacred tree, souls of the wretchedly dead,
I never expected to see you again.
Oh, my daughter, my pitiful daughter,
To the netherworld ninety thousand leagues away,
You left and now have come back . . . .
After reciting her lament, the shaman once again screamed with glistening eyes. The nurse’s face was flushed crimson. The shaman kept holding out her fan as if she were pushing it toward the nurse, whose body staggered backward, floundering. The nurse then dropped her suitcase and seized the fan with both hands; she seemed to be shuddering violently. The cap fell from the back of her head.
“Hey, what’s going on there? Isn’t that a spirit coming down into her?”
“Why, that’s a nurse . . . .”
From among the onlookers along the rail of the passenger ship could be heard sympathetic voices as well as clacking tongues. Cries of “Darling!” rang out, either from his dead wife or from the nurse.
Just as he took one step forward, about to leap from the ship, the woman’s gaze changed. Tearing at her clothes with one hand, waving the fan with the other, she set about dancing.
The ship listed as it floated on the water. A sound of water ebbing from beneath the keel rose up, while above the snow-covered peak across the water a giant palm was suspended.
Unable to tell whether it was a dream or an illusion, he stared with wide open eyes at the lines on his hand, which he had hitherto taken no notice of; they were running confusedly, crisscrossing his palm, forming three squares.