Hwang Sun-won was born in 1915 near Pyongyang and educated
there and at Waseda University in Tokyo. He was barely in his twenties
when he published two volumes of poetry, and in 1940 his first volume of
stories was published. Since then he has concentrated on fiction, producing
seven novels and more than one hundred stories.
In 1946 Hwang and his family moved from the Soviet-occupied
northern sector of Korea to the American-occupied South. He began teaching
at Seoul High School in September of that year. Like millions of other
Koreans, the Hwang family was displaced by the civil war of 1950-53. From
1957 to 1993 Hwang taught Korean literature at Kyung Hee University in
Hwang is the author of some of the best-known stories
of modern Korea : "Pyol" (Stars, 1940), "Hwang noin" (Old Man Hwang, 1942),
"Tok chinnon nolgoni" (The Old Potter, 1944), "Hak" (Cranes, 1953), and
"Sonagi" (Showe, 1959), among others. In a creative burst in the mid 1950s
Hwang produced the story collection Iroborin saram tul (Lost Souls). This
volume, a series of variations on the theme of the outcast in a highly
structured society, is unique among Hwang's story collections for its thematic
Hwang began publishing novels in the 1950s. During the
next two decades he produced his most important work in this genre. Namutul
pit'ale soda (Trees on the Cliff, 1960), perhaps his most sucessful novel,
deals with the effects of the civil war on three young soldiers. Irwol(
The Moving Castle, 1968-72) is an ambitious effort to synthesize Western
influence and native tradition in modern Korea.
Also in the 1960s and 1970s Hwang's short fiction became
more experimental. Some of his most memorable and challenging stories date
from this period : "omoni Kainnun Yuwol ui taehwa" (Conversatons in June
About Mothers, 1965), "Makun naeryonunde" (The Curtain Fell, (But Then..,1968),
"Sutcha p'uri" (A Numerical Enigma, 1974), Hwang's creative powers were
undiminished as late as 1984, as the highly original "Korimja p'uri" (
A Shadow Solution) demonstrates.
Indeed, the length of Hwang's literary career, spanning
seven decades, is virtually unparalleled in Korean letters. But it is his
craftsmanship that sets Hwang apart from his peers. It is safe to say that
Hwang is the consummate short story writer of twentieth-ecntury Korea.
His command of dialect, his facility with both rural and urban settings,
his variety of narrative techniques, his vivid artistic imagination, his
spectacularly diverse constellation of characters, and his insights into
human personality make Hwang at once a complete writer and one who is almost
impossible to categorize. If there is one constant in Hwang's fiction,
it is a lyrical humanism that is affirmative without being naive, compassionate
without being sentimental, and spiritual without being otherworldly.
"The Mule" (Nosae), set in the author's Pyongyang, was
written in the late spring of 1943, at a time when Koreans were forbidden
by the colonial Japanese government to publish in their own language. It
did not appear in print until 1951, when it was published with "The Wild
Once again young Yu saw a fresh pile of trampled-down
dung where the mule had been tied up next to his house the previous night.
And once again he reminded himself it was high time he gave the owner a
piece of his mind and stopped him from bringing the mule there. That way,
if his family ended up buying it, the owner could probably be persuaded
to part with it dirt cheap. On the spot, young Yu sought out the old gentleman
who lived next door, on the other side of where the mule had been tied
up. As was his habit, the man was taking in the sun, pipe in hand.
"Grandpa, we need to do something. Either that damn little
mule goes or my people go, one or the other.
"Irregardless, how come we got to put up with it? This
very morning the neighbors come by and tell us to clean up the damn mess.
We ain't said nothing to the owner, and the whole village is getting filthy...
You being an elder, the folks here won't speak up to you. Instead they
come to us.
"How come we got to put up with it?"
The head with its horsehair hat liner nodded. The old
gentleman seemed to have been put on the spot.
"Well, it's been an eyesore for so long, I wish we'd
stopped it from being tied up there once and for all. The man who owns
it keeps asking people to give them a break and bear with them a little
longer, until they can move it...
"But from now on he's going to gave to clean up after
"That's what I like to hear. But he's going to need some
convincing. You know, this cooler weather we been having is a luxury. But
the dog days are coming, and that's when we get a real problem. Then that
manure attracts every fly in the village."
"Yes sir, it does."
"I wish Yu wouldn't talk so polite to me, sir."
"Well, for the time being..."
"There's all sorts of diseases from Manchuria going around,
and people say it 's because of that damn manure.
"When it gets real hot, that's where they all start.
Well, if he can't afford a place to keep that mule, the least he could
do is tie it up in his own yard. Why the hell does he have to keep it next
to someone's house? It's a nuisance."
"Well , why don't we pay him a little visit this evening
and tell him what Yu said?"
"Instead of going to his house, could you please tell
him right here this evening when he comes to tie it up? See, it'll be harder
for him to turn you down than me."
So saying, young Yu, as if he had just thought of something,
produced from his pocket of Changsu tobacco he had bought for the old gentleman.
"I just come across some of this--why don't you try it?"
As always, the old gentleman waved off the gift with
the hand holding the pipe式"Now why are you always..."式 but accepted it
with the other hand.
"Grandpa, please tell him flat out to stop leaving his
animal here. That mule owner feller won't get the message if you beat around
But the old gentleman, though he knew about the mule,
couldn't bring himself to confront the owner at the scene. Instead, he
gave the man enough time to return home for dinner, then visited his house,
located in a hilly area some distance off.
The mule owner was taking his meal in the breezy room
beside the front gate.
"I've caught you in the middle of supper," said the old
gentleman, and he turned to go.
"No, no" said the mule owner ready to rush out and lead
his visitor inside. "You couldn't of come at a better time. We got a few
odds and ends from the meal left over; how's about having em with a drink?"
"Now why are you always...," said the old gentleman.
How could he tell this man, who always welcomed him so
heartily, to stop tying up his mule in the accustomed place?
Feigning reluctance, he went inside.
"That's it, come on in," chimed in the man's wife with
obvious pleasure. Knowing they had put the old gentleman and his family
in a fix by tying up their animal next to his house, the husband had told
her they should treat him to a drink whenever visited. And so out she went,
to return with a bottle in her arms.
" Afraid there's not much for you to munch on, though..."
With only kimchi and some scraps of dried pollack for
snacks, the liquor soon took effect.
The old gentleman began to feel flushed. "You know, we
have a problem," he ventured.
As if expecting this, the mule owner broke in: "I know
I've gone and put you on the spot, but if you could give us a break and
bear with us a little longer... That mule is our livelihood. What else
can we do? As you know, uncle, that little mule is all we have in the world.
I've said this before, but without that little mule we'd of starved a long
No matter how drunk he felt, the old gentleman didn't
have the heart to tell the mule owner not to tie up the animal in its usual
place because of the mess it made. The man had said he couldn't survive
without it. And besides, wasn't himself always accepting warm hospitality
"Well, sir, there's been all sorts of talk from the neighbors,"
he ended up saying.
"I figured as much. But uncle, sir, I wish you wouldn't
talk so polite, me being just a young guy and all."
"Well, for the time being..."
"I'm no dummy. I know the neighbors for who they are.
And I'll bet it's the one next to you that's making the most noise... What
does he do, that one?"
"Doesn't look like he works at much of anything these
days. Used to be at the rubber factory..."
"Is that a fact?"
"From what I hear, his little sister's being sold off
to a tavern, and with the money he gets, it looks he's going to start up
something on his own."
"Is that a fact? Well, a man has got to do something
for hisself, big time or little. How much do you get now, anyhow, for selling
a girl into whoring?"
"Forty-six hundred nyang is what I hear."
"Forty-six hundred--that's four hundred sixty won Not
bad. Though it wouldn't get you too far if you decided to blow it all."
"For sure. You know, you folks must have sank a good
bit of money into that mule, and you have steady work to show for it."
"Yeah, else we would have starved a long time ago. Fact
is, if you're young and don't mind a lot of legwork, you can make money.
All you got to do is lead the mule on. Honest, uncle, you've given us a
break so far--won't you give us a break from now on? As you know, uncle,
we have a house like other folks, but our yard's no bigger than a pussycat's
face. Where are we supposed to keep a mule? There's not even room for a
"To be honest, it really doesn't matter to me..."
"Uncle, sir, would you please explain our situation to
the neighbors? Our livelihood depends on that little mule..."
By now the old gentleman was nodding in agreement, but
as he filled his pipe with the Changsu tobacco he thought of young Yu.
"Let's call it a might--I'm good and drunk," he said,
refusing the drink that the mule owner was about to pour him.
"Just a couple more."
But the old gentleman rose.
"We don't mind it, you know, but in any event why don't
you move it where you can and keep it there?"
After the old gentleman left, the mule owner's wife cleared
the drinking tray.
"Get the old fellow to sell the mule for you. We just
can't afford to feed it anymore."
"Now hush up, woman. It's all planned out. If we just
keep saying we'll starve without the mule, then we can squeeze out a good
price for it." A smile played beneath his brownish beard. "In any case,
I think we can sell that mule soon, and I got it all figured out who's
going to get stuck with it."
The following day was the day young Yu's sister was to
be sold to the tavern.
Young Yu left his house in the morning. On that particular
day there came into view many girls of his sister's age, And, oddly enough,
many horse carts as well. Yu tried to ignore them. But he was in no mood
to go to a remote place such as Moran Peak, where you couldn't see a soul.
Nor did he want to lose himself in a crowd watching someone hawk medicines.
He could only roam the streets, where all sorts of people were going every
Not until evening was near did young Yu drag his tired
body home. As he had expected, his sister was gone. With trembling hands
his aged mother silently held out a tightly wrapped wad of banknotes. And
Young Yu silently accepted it. He went next door to see the old gentleman.
Excitement had replaced his fatigue.
"How did it go?" Yu began.
"We have a problem. He kept giving me a sob story."
"I'll be darned. Didn't I say, sir, it wouldn't do to
go to his house? You got to tell him no, then and there, when he ties up
that mule of his."
"He begged me to give them a break. Said their lives
depended on that mule. He asked us to bear with them."
"I'll be darned. There's a limit to what a feller can
bear. How are we supposed to do that? The mule's been there day in and
"He said without the animal they would have starved a
long time ago. He just kept begging. What was I supposed to do?"
"I'll be darned. Grandpa, if your people or mine had
a mule, we could put up with each other. But how are we supposed to put
up with something belonging to a man we don't have no traffic with? And
that mule's been there day in and day out."
"Well, sir, I guess you're right."
"I wish you wouldn't talk so polite to me, sir."
"Well, for the time being..."
"I'll be darned. Somebody tell me : How can a guy have
the gall to keep a damn mule when he don't even have a place to tie it
up? You know, it tells what kind of man he is. If I were him, I'd sell
that mule off real quick cause it's such a bother."
"There you go." said the old gentleman, the ever-present
horsehair hat liner bobbing up and down. And then he was struck by an idea.
"Mr. Yu, why don't you buy that mule?" He speared the air in front of Yu
with his pipe for emphasis.
"Me? What am I supposed to do with a mule?"
"Why, you'll get a decent income from it. For a young
buck with strong legs. it's the best thing you could hope for."
"I'll bet he'd want a bundle for that worthless animal,
"Well, since it's their lifeline, he may not want to
sell it. Anyway, how about if I bring it up with him?"
"If you could please wait on that, sir, and instead,
give it to him straight, one last time. See if he's going to take it somewhere
else or not. And tell him if he don't, I'm going to turn it loose myself.
At some point we got to draw a line and stand firm."
Again that evening, instead of approaching the mule owner
when he arrived with the animal, the old gentleman waited for the man to
return home and then visited.
After the usual welcoming drinks, the old gentleman spoke
up : "Why don't you just sell that damned mule and be rid of it?"
The mule owner gave him a look of dubious surprise.
"How are we supposed to get by if we just up and sell
"Well, I guess you have a point there."
"And who's going to buy it?" broke in the owner's wife.
"Now keep still, woman," said her husband, pretending
to scold her. "What do you want to know that for when we can't sell it
anyway?" And to the old gentleman, as if talking to himself, "Now I'm in
"I guess you have a point, but the folks in the village
don't want that little mule kept there forever. Personally, I don't mind
it at all, honest I don't, but everyone else does. One of them said if
it wasn't moved this very day, he'd turn it loose."
"And honest, Uncle, I knew you'd be the only one who
wouldn't mind us keeping the animal there. When I think about how I can't
take care of that mule, I feel like selling the damned thing off, come
"Well, sir, I understand."
"I wish you wouldn't talk so polite, sir, me being just
a young guy and all."
"Well, for the time being..."
At this point the mule owner again spoke as if to himself
: "It's hard to get an honest price these days."
"What's the going price for a mule like yours?" asked
the old gentleman.
"Well let's see. Considering what I put into it and add
in the cart, I wouldn't sell it for less than five hundred won if they
"That's five thousand nyang, right?"
"These days no one in his right mind would sell a decent
horse for less than seven or eight hundred won.
Grant you, mine's a mule, but five hundred is rock bottom.
And it's a fact that mules carry more for their weight."
"Mr. Yu, why don't you buy that mule? You could make
a fair living with it," said the old gentleman when young Yu visited him
the following day.
"What am I supposed to do with a mule?" said Yu in a
tone of surprise. And then, as if to himself, "I'll bet he'd want a lot
for that worthless animal."
"He won't sell for less than five thousand nyang."
"That's five hundred won!"
"He's out of his mind!"
"Well, sir, I don't know. I hear these days you can't
get a decent horse for less than seven or eight thousand nyang. In the
case of a mule, they say five thousand is rock bottom, And mules always
carry a lot for their weight."
"I really wish you wouldn't talk so polite to me, sir.
After all I'm just a youngster..."
"Well, for the time being..."
At this point young Yu again spoke as if to himself :
"Five hundred won? Damn, that's a lot of money!" At the same time, he produced
a packet of Changsu tobacco and offered it to the old gentleman. "I got
my hands on some of this式please help yourself, sir."
As always, the old gentleman waved off the gift with
the hand holding the pipe式"Why are you always..."式but accepted it nonetheless.
Again young Yu spoked as if to himself : "Five hundred
won? Damn, that's a lot of money!" Then, with the same hand that had produced
the tobacco he squeezed the roll of banknotes in his pocket. "Well, if
it was four hundred I might consider it."
That evening the old gentleman brought together young
Yu and the mule owner at a soup-and-rice shop on the corner of the main
Sitting around a bowl of broth to take with their liquor,
the men poured one another a couple of rounds of drinks.
Young Yu spoke up first : "I came along just to oblige
Grandpa here, but any one'll tell you five hundred won is pushing your
"No way, sir, I came along just to oblige Uncle here
too. Now if I take my time and a good buyer comes along, it's a cinch I
can get six hundred式at least. And besides, if I sell it we'll be in a
fix right away."
"Then way don't we call the whole thing off. it's not
like I had my eyes on that little mule. I just thought I might do you a
favor, you not having a place to keep it and all, and buy it off you if
the price be right式"
"Just a minute," broke in the old gentleman. "Now Mr.
Kim here is asking five thousand nyang, and Mr. Yu here is offering four
thousand, so let's meet halfway and settle on forty-five hundred. And I'm
not looking for a commission or anything, as long as you two gentlemen
can put up for the drinks."
The old gentleman looked expectantly at young Yu and
the mule owner in turn.
"Well, I don't know, but if you say so, grandpa," said
Yu, whereupon he extracted the tight roll of bills from his pocket.
The mule owner just as deliberately ignored the money
and said disinterestedly, "I don't know either, uncle, but it's your say-so,
and that's the way it's going to be, I guess." But then he began to gaze
at the money as Yu counted it.
By now they were full of liquor, and at the old gentleman's
suggestion they rose and left. The old gentleman walked uncertainly, more
because of the alcohol than the darkness. Young Yu and the owner of the
mule followed. For once, the drinks had no effect on either of them.
The old gentleman arrived at his house,but instead of
going in he walked up to the mule. The other two followed him.
Standing in front of the mule, young Yu found himself
thinking of his little sister. The former owner of the mule, for his part,
clutched the roll of banknotes in his pocket, thinking that tomorrow he
ought to buy that fancy pushcart with the rubber tires he'd been eying
The old gentleman, scratching the mule's neck, congratulated
himself for closing the transaction. He looked at the two men standing
in the darkness. They should have made that deal a long time ago, he thought.
In spite of himself, he chuckled in satisfaction.
The old man's had a few too many, thought the other two.
"One of you boys got a light?" asked the old gentleman
after he had stopped laughing. And then he said, "From now on, I'm going
to talk less polite to you boys. Hope you don't mind." Then he affected
a series of coughs with an air of self-importance.
The next day young Yu set right to work with his mule
and cart. he had decided to try West Pyongyang Station first. But several
horse carts were already there in the station plaza, so he lined up with
other carts on one of the main streets. But his turn never came. Have to
be an early bird tomorrow he told himself.
As he set off down the street he kept noticing the horse
carts, as on the day his little sister had been sold, but the matter involving
his sister didn't occur to him now. He was interested only in whether the
horse carts were loaded or empty. Most of the carts he noticed were carrying
He had turned toward Taedong Gate Boulevard when a middle-aged
man hailed him. Could he haul a gravestone as far as Kambugi? Yes, said
Yu. For how much? asked the man. Whatever he thought was reasonable, said
Yu. Whereupon the man suggested one won eighty chon. The way the man talked,
Yu gathered he had already bumped heads with several other drivers over
the freight fee. Doubtless the offer was much too low, But he couldn't
let this customer slip through his fingers, thought Yu.
The slab that was attached to the base was small, but
then stones are often heavier than they look. By the time they gained Karuget
pass the mule was sweat-soaked and laboring. Young Yu felt as if he himself
were carrying the burden. The owner of the gravestone complained that the
"damned mule" was just being contrary and told Yu to give it a taste of
the whip. But Yu didn't have the heart for that, no matter how slow they
After delivering the stone, Yu followed the streetcar
tracks back to the old Pyongyang Station, But found no customers. No matter,
though, for he had a load to show for that first day.
The following day he turned out early at West Pyongyang
Station. No other carts were there. Today might turn out all right. No
other carts were there. Today might turn out all right. But no sooner had
he told himself this than a dozen horse carts gathered.
Noontime arrived, and with it the timber merchants. But
it was the horse cart drivers appearing after Yu who negotiated the price,
leaving Yu out, and half a dozen horse carts loaded up and left. Again
it seemed useless to remain, and so young Yu headed toward the city center.
He stopped at the bank of the Taedong River, where he
could see many horse carts carrying raft logs. But all of them were four-wheeled
carts. The loads they carried were out of the question for a two-wheeled
cart, and especially a mule cart.
While following the riverbank he looked back expectantly
at the tombstone works, but no business offered itself there. Again he
passed the Taedong Gate, then turned down a street. He took advantage of
the mule's relieving itself to squat beside the street and rest his legs.
The day had grown steadily hotter, and he felt more tired. All he wanted
was to sit awhile. But then someone from behind shouted at him to get his
cart off the street while he took his nap. Startled, Yu rose to see the
procession of four-wheeled carts loaded with raft logs. When they had all
swaggered past, Yu left with his empty mule cart. He was drained of energy,
legs and all.
The next two days young Yu was kept at home by rain.
The third day he went early to West Pyongyang Station, and there he happened
to meet a horse cart driver hired by a family moving to P'yongch'on-ni.
The man asked Yu to help him, and although the destination was several
miles distant along a muddy road, Yu put all thoughts of hardship out of
his mind. They had just arrived at P'yongch'on-ni when it happened. Encountering
a mud puddle, Yu's mule couldn't manage the sudden rocking and faltering
of the cart, and sank down onto its foreleg. Yu and the horse cart driver
managed to pull it up, only to see dark blood running from its mud-covered
knees. The horse cart driver took some coal-tar axle grease from his cart
and applied it to the wounds.
That night young Yu rose several times to apply axle
grease to the mule's legs.
The next day the mule looked as if it had withered overnight.
Yu decided to take the day off. He fed the mule bean fodder.
The next day he decided he had better earn enough to
at least pay for the expensive fodder, so there was nothing to do but lead
the mule out again.
The day was waning when young Yu managed to deliver a
small load to a place beneath the Taedong Bridge. On his way back, as he
was gazing absent-mindedly toward the bridge, he caught sight of a horse
galloping his way. Trailing behind it was a loaded four-wheeled cart.
Galloping toward him, mane bristling, gritting its white
teeth, it was the last thing he expected to see. Bits and pieces of the
load flew out of the cart and onto the bridge. The horse, as if reacting
to a murderous enemy pursuing it, kicked at the crosspiece. Again and again
it kicked at the cart in annoyance as it galloped along. The horse had
passed the Choson Bank and turned toward Pyongyang Station when the cart's
rear wheels came rolling off one at a time and crashed into the streetside
The next morning the story of this horse came out among
the horse cart drivers at West Pyongyang Station. To begin with, the animal
was carrying a load it couldn't handle, and when it stopped cold at the
foot of the hill leading to the bridge to Songyo-ri, the driver and the
freight owner, assuming the horse was being contrary, whipped the animal
and with much effort got it up and over the hill. At that point the horse
for some reason galloped madly off, kicking at the crosspiece and though
it broke one of its hind hoof joints in the process, it kept running and
kicking at the crosspiece, and eventually it broke its other hoof joint.
Even without the use of its hindlegs it galloped a ways
farther, finally collapsing dead in front of the courthouse.
The legs of young Yu's mule grew steadily worse and the
mule itself seemed more haggard by the day. But Yu couldn't afford to apply
ointment and rest it for a few days, or feed it bean fodder.
One evening Yu was passing West Pyongyang Station on
his way home and thinking he should graze his mule when he encountered
the horse cart driver he had helped before. The man had some short logs
to haul and invited Yu to join him. Taking into account the mule's injured
legs, Yu gave it a light load. But the animal hobbled no more than a few
steps before kneeling down. They tried to pull it up, but the mule gave
no indication of budging. Damned mule's up to its old tricks again! thought
Yu, and he applied the whip. The mule stirred under the first few blows,
but then lay still, only the area being whipped quivering. Yu finally realized
the mule was not simply being contrary, but he nevertheless gave it a furious
whipping himself instead of the mule, and he kept thinking that even if
the animal were to die a spiteful death, like the horse with the broken
legs, he could at least hope to make it run free just once, as the horse
A short time later young Yu led the mule and the empty
cart home. He wept silently and tried to avoid looking at the mule's back
where he had whipped it.
And as if that were not enough, at home his mother tearfully
reported that his little sister whom he had sold to the tavern was sick
Young Yu was seized with a blind fury. He ran outside.
For a time he stood there like a man possessed. A thought occurred to him.
He found a club. Then he ran to the mule and began beating it on the back.
"I'll kill you first!" he wanted to shout over and over, but the sound
that escaped his lips was little more than a moan.
Someone grabbed the arm with the club. It was the mule's
former owner, headed for home with his empty pushcart. The sad truth was,
for several days he's had nothing but a flat tire to show for his day's
labor, and an inexplicable anger was eating at his heart.
"Where do you get off whipping it like that? No animal
deserves that kind of treatment."
His words were barely out of his mouth when young Yu
screamed furiously, "You again? What do you want!"
Instantly the two men were tumbling about on the ground,
mule dung and all.
The old gentleman next door had just finished dinner,
and he emerged from his house patting down some of Yu's precious Changsu
tobacco in his pipe bowl. Witnessing the fight, he rushed over, but didn't
dare try to separate the two men.
"Hey, you two, what's the reason for this? If you have
something to say, then out with it."
He began walking in circles around them.
"Talk it out, you two--huh? I said talk it out!"
Translated by Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton.
Kim Chong-un is a former president of Seoul National
University and currently president of the Korean Research Foundation. He
is also the translator of Post-war Korean Short Stories(Seoul:Seoul National
University Press, 1983)
Bruce Fulton is co-translation with Ju-Chan Fulton
of Words of Farewell, Stories by Korean Women Writers(Seattle: Seal Press.
1989) and with Marshall R. Pihl, Land of Exile Contemporary Korean Fiction(Armonk,
N.Y: M.E Sharpe 1993) and the recipient of a 1995 U.S.National Endowment
for the Arts Translation Fellowship.
Time for You and
It had been two days already.
The only view was of endlessly crooked mountain ridges
and gorges. Nothing seemed to stir, not even the wind.
Captain Chu's body began to sag, though he was supported
on both sides. Rather, he was being dragged along on the shoulders of his
two companions. A bullet had torn through his leg two days earlier. He
and his companions had managed to get through the encircling enemy lines
with only a rag binding his thigh to stanch the flow of blood. The bullet
had, mercifully, missed both the bone and the nervous system, but an awful
numbing pain had set in since that morning-was the leg becoming gangrenous?
It wasn't a journey with a set distance or goal. They
were merely heading southward. Captain Chu was well aware that a definite
sense of distance and a goal could help the wounded a great deal. Once
he had seen a soldier with a bullet hole in his lower abdomen make it back
to friendly lines over a distance that would normally take a good half-hour
walk, covering up the wound with his shirttail, slumping down only when
he knew he was in the hands of friends. The sole reason he was able to
struggle on with such a serious wound was that he had been aware of the
whereabouts of friendly lines. In other words, he had an immediate goal
They, however, were denied that definite goal. But the
captain dared not tell Lieutenant Hyon and Private Kim that they should
leave him behind even though he could no longer walk and consequently was
only a burden to them. To be left behind alone meant sure death.
Thus when the private suggested carrying him on his back,
the captain didn't hesitate a moment but let himself be carried without
saying so much as a word.
The private was seventeen years old, a mere stripling,
but being a country boy he showed considerable prowess in carrying the
captain on his back. Then it was the lieutenant's turn to perform this
Before he turned his back to the captain, however, the
lieutenant gave a quick glance to the pistol which hung from the captain's
side. The three had already cast aside their knapsacks, helmets, rifles,
and, indeed, even their jackets, long ago. The only weapon left was the
The captain could easily guess what the lieutenant meant
by that glance. In all fairness he couldn't blame the lieutenant. Ever
since he became incapable of going on alone he had indeed become a burden
to his companions. But the two had not had the heart to desert their superior.
It boiled down to the fact that they were waiting for him to make good
use of the pistol in order to expedite their own flight.
But the captain simply ignored the lieutenant's glance.
He merely took off his trousers and boots and entrusted his weight to the
Of course, Lieutenant Hyon was no match for Private Kim,
but still he was heavier and stronger than Captain Chu and could carry
a man on his back for a considerable distance. Both officers had originally
been with the Student Volunteers Corps.
What they had eaten during the past two days was quite
meager: mostly various kinds of herb roots and occasional spring water
to quench their thirst. Moreover, the scorching early summer sun did not
help them any.
The streaming sweat flowed into the eyes and mouth of
the carrier. Since he had no free hand, the only thing he could do was
to close his eyelids tight in order to squeeze out the sweat, spit it out,
or shake it off with quick, jerky shakes of his head. Gradually, each step
became shorter and they had to take turns more and more frequently.
The captain could feel the unpleasant, sticky and damp
sensation of the carrier's back through their wet T-shirts, but oddly enough,
it was through this sensation that he felt assured of his remaining alive.
The lieutenant, who had just taken a turn at carrying
the captain on his back again, thought of the same thing he had been thinking
over and over. It was the scene he remembered from a brief dream he'd had
two nights earlier just before the enemy began to make that horrible noise
with tin pans and flutes.
The sun was burning down from a greyish sky, and under
that a brownish and barren wasteland spread to the horizon. For no reason
at all, he had been standing in the middle of this wasteland, and the dust
was so deep as to bury his legs halfway up to his naked knees.
He was much troubled. There was something on his calves
that he cherished. On the night before he joined the army his sweetheart
had seen his naked and hairy legs and had asked him to take good care of
the longest hair on each shin because she would like to think those were
her own. And now those two hairs were in danger of being buried under brownish
That was not his only problem. There was an ant hole
just in front of him in the dust. For some strange reason he was under
the impression that he had to watch that ant hole though no one had ordered
him to do so. An endless line of brownish ants crawled out of the ant hole.
Just outside the hole, however, stood a huge brownish ant which was biting
off the heads of the ants crawling out of the hole. The place was filled
with the bodies of ants in no time at all. In the next instant they weren't
the bodies of ants any longer; they had turned into brownish dust. This
vast, barren wasteland might well be made up of their bodies, he thought.
The jaundiced sun was still burning in the greyish sky, and he was doomed
to watch the ant hole without budging.
This scene in his dream kept coming back to him. He was
painfully conscious of the weight of the captain pressing him down. There
was one way, only one way, to get rid of this unpleasant burden, if only
the captain would give up his reluctance to face reality. If he would only
realize... Otherwise, all three of them would surely meet their deaths
on a nameless mountain.
He felt a burning thirst.
Then he thought of the letter he had received about five
days earlier from his sweetheart. She had written, "The blooming flower
of my lips never withers, for the joyous memory of the past that you have
given me waters it constantly." Once he had whispered into her ear after
a particularly long kiss that her lips were a flower, not of a single petal
but of many layers of petals, for there was no end to the joy of exploring
There was a noticeable change in the letter too. She
now used a more familiar term in addressing him. This change could mean
only closer ties between them. He now remembered that while reading the
letter he had looked at his hairy shins and been conscious of a girl's
smiling eyes fondly gazing down on him.
Carrying this man on his back in the scorching heat,
he now tried to quench his thirst with memories of the past and of the
touch of his sweetheart's lips. He also tried to see her loving and smiling
eyes directed toward him, and in following her imaginary eyes, his sweatstained
eyes seemed to brighten up considerably.
They came up to a crest in the ridge. It was the private's
turn to carry the captain.
The terrain was such that they could either take a short
cut by going down into the gully and making the steep climb on the other
side or make a detour by following the long but easy ridge line.
Lieutenant Hyon proposed crossing the gully, which was
reasonable. They were in a position where they had to think about saving
their strength even if it was a matter of only a few steps.
But the private's idea was different. If they lost their
way and direction in the thick bush down in the gully they would only lose
time and energy, he reasoned. While they were still hesitating, the captain
"Lieutenant, let's follow Private Kim's advice."
The lieutenant snatched a glance toward the pistol at
the captain's side. His dream flashed back again.
The jaundiced sun was high in the greyish sky and the
endlessly barren wasteland stretched out under it. He was standing in the
middle of it sweating profusely. The ant hole just in front of him was
still producing its endless line of brown ants, and the huge brown ant
by the entrance to the hole was still biting off the heads of the emerging
ants. It was as if the huge ant was mechanically working his mouth and
the ants in the line were automatically putting their heads into it. The
bodies of the ants were turning into brownish dust. The dust deepened accordingly,
and the hairs on his shins were being buried under it.
He fretted, but there was nothing for him to do but stand
by the hole and watch.
Then suddenly he found another fresh hole, not far from
the deadly one, that was connected to it by a secret path. This new one,
of course, had not been part of his dream. It was the result of a conscious
plan. But the foolish ants kept coming out through the old hole and getting
their heads cut off.
Lieutenant Hyon, though he wasn't carrying the captain
on his back, then felt a cold and sticky sweat cover his entire body.
Just before dusk they caught a snake, roasted it, and
shared it. When they had finished eating, the lieutenant got up and left
as if to go and relieve himself. After a little the captain spoke to the
"You run along too." It was the first time he had ever
mentioned such a thing.
The private looked up at him as if he did not understand.
"Lieutenant Hyon's gone. Got tired of waiting, I suppose."
"Got tired of waiting?"
"Yes, got tired of waiting for me to kill myself."
Indeed, the lieutenant did not come back.
"I said, you run along too." the captain said, avoiding
the private's eyes.
Private Kim thought a little, but looking up once at
the setting sun, he silently offered his back to the captain.
Now that there was nobody to relieve the private, they
made very little progress. They had to rest frequently
When thought set in, they slumped down completely exhausted.
They thought of the packages of crackers in their knapsacks,
which they had thrown away earlier to lighten their load, but they seemed
to do so merely from habit; in fact, they had passed beyond the point where
a person was capable of feeling hunger.
They also thought of Lieutenant Hyon. How far had he
gotten by now? Private Kim thought it was cruel of the lieutenant to desert
them like that. But the captain had the vain hope that the lieutenant would
perhaps reacl friendly lines soon and arrange to have a rescue party sent
out for them. Of course, neither of them spoke of what they were thinking
in so many words.
The captain could not fall asleep until long after the
private had done so. His wound no longer bothered him. He simply had the
strange feeling that once he fell asleep he might not wake up in the morning.
Then, for no reason at all he began to think about the
woman. It was quite odd that he should think about her at this particular
It was the woman he had bought for a night in pusan while
he was on a three-day pass. It was after particularly hard fighting in
which he had played a key role in securing a hill.
Without being asked, she narrated an experience she had
in Seoul around the January evacuation. She had been working as a hostess
in a bar. One day a girl ran into her house around dusk chased by three
American soldiers. She had let the girl escape through the back door, and
she herself had borne the unpleasant and animal-like lust of the three
soldiers. She wasn't even capable of distinguishing one soldier from another;
she had fainted and it was not until daybreak that she came to. Oddly enough
she had run into the girl that day on a street in Pusan. Of course, it
was the girl who had stopped her and who burst into tears of joy at the
unexpected encounter. The girl wanted to know if there was anything she
could do to help.
When she finished telling her story, she said she was
very grateful to that girl and overwhelmed by the girl's graciousness,
for, after all, most girls would snub a woman like herself under the circumstances.
While the captain was listening to her story, a laudable
enough anecdote, he felt a sudden urge to twist her heart. So he asked
her if she would willingly do the same now and lie as in a faint till dawn
broke just to experience such gratefulness and graciousness again.
The woman lit a cigarette in the dark and said quietly
and simply that she didn't know, but she didn't think such things happened
just because one wanted them that way. All she knew was that she had stepped
into the shoes of the girl without realizing what she was doing, that people
often did things on the spur of the moment which they themselves might
wonder about later, that she might or might not react in the same way if
she were in the same situation again, and that it all depended on the circumstances
at the time.
And now lying on the ground in the darkness on a nameless
hill, the captain was thinking over what the prostitute had said that night.
Now that he gave it a little thought, he could think of many instances
in which he himself had acted in a similar way. Many times the complexities
arising from hard fighting had caused him to react unexpectedly in many
Then a new thought flashed through his head. When he
had asked her that spiteful question, had he not really taken it for granted
that she would act the same way in a like situation? Had he not really
expected her to do the same because she was a sullied woman?
Now with death just around the corner, lying flat on
a nameless ridge line in the darkness, he felt he had no right what-soever
to expect the woman to act one way or another. By the same token, he thought
no one had any right to pass judgment on his own conduct during the past
fighting and to have expected him to perform his duty one way or the other
in the diverse situations engendered by battlefields.
Suddenly he felt an urge to protest to somebody, anybody,
but all around him he found nothing but ever-deepening darkness.
He, too, soon fell asleep.
They set out again on their journey at the crack of dawn.
They were forced to stop and rest more frequently. The private, too, shed
his fatigue trousers and combat boots. He was well aware of the difficulty
of treading rocky mountain paths barefooted, but the weight of those boots
had become quite unbearable.
Soon the soles of his feet were cut and bloody, but it
was impossible to carefully pick one's way and protect one's feet.
Nothing was in sight but endless peaks and immobile gullies
and gorges. Hadn't this godforsaken region ever been inhabited by humans?
Instead of the sound of friendly artillery, which they had so anxiously
awaited, only a deep and endless quiet and the labored breathing of the
private met their ears.
Nevertheless the captain was all ears. He could not afford
to miss the sound of a pin dropping, he thought.
Once the captain suggested taking a rest and having a
drink of water. The private did not know what the captain was talking about,
but directed by the latter, they came upon clear spring water trickling
from a crack in the rocks.
The entire distance they covered that day was less than
three miles. During that time they had only eaten three or four raw frogs
they had caught.
The private's knees became more and more bent and his
back was so bent that he now seemed to be crawling
The captain felt death coming closer and closer as the
private's slouch became deeper and deeper.
Rounding a bend in the ridge late in the afternoon, they
saw a crow overhead. They found the path abruptly cut short by a deadly
cliff. They nearly stepped over its edge.
Turning away from the edge, the private looked down at
the far-off bottom of the cliff. There he saw several carrion crows eagerly
pecking at something
It was a human body, and there was no mistaking that
it was the body of Lieutenant Hyon. It had the same T-shirt, fatigue trousers,
and boots that the lieutenant was wearing when he deserted them the previous
The crows pecked at the face of the corpse. Then the
ferocious birds looked up at the two men on the top of the cliff, flew
off, but soon returned to their repast.
The eyes were already gone from the face and only two
gaping, dark holes remained. The two stepped back a few paces and slumped
down on the ground. Seeing the body of the lieutenant seemed to drain the
last bit of strength from their bodies.
After a while the private got to his feet and scrambled
to the edge, from where he threw rocks down the cliff. Every time he threw
a rock the crows fluttered up from the body, but they returned immediately
with a few dissatisfied and ominous caws.
The private came back to slump down again. He gave a
quick glance at the captain. The captain was lying down with his eyes closed.
The private could feel death closing in. It was odd to
feel it now, for he had not felt it in the severest fighting on the battlefield.
Tomorrow those carrion crows would peck out their eyes. He thought he would
much rather die first than see the body of the captain picked over by those
crows.He wanted to cry but he hadn't the strength to do so.
The private was awakened by the captain's voice. When
he opened his eyes, he could see the starry sky above.
"Listen to that," said the captain in a hoarse whisper.
Fully awake now, the private sat up to listen. Indeed,
a faint artillery rumbling like that of distant thunder could be heard.
"Whose guns are they?"
"Ours, 155s, I believe."
There couldn't be any mistake if the captain said so.
Just as the private was going to ask, the captain spoke up:
"But it's far. A good fifteen miles."
It was no use then if that was the case. Private Kim
resumed his prone position, disappointed.
Captain Chu now felt that he was slowly dying. He could
feel it in an absolutely lucid state of mind. Then he squarely faced the
idea he had so carefully avoided. He would now put the pistol to good use.
If he had killed his doomed self long ago, things would have turned out
well for the others, he thought. Lieutenant Hyon might not have stolen
away and fallen off the cliff in his exhaustion, Private Kim still stood
a chance of making it back to friendly lines if he were given a free hand.
He turned to the private.
"The artillery is to the southeast. Go down the left
side of the cliff. Run along. It's an order," he told the private. That
said, he slowly and limply pulled his pistol from its holster.
Then, just then, he picked up another sound, quite distinct
from the rumbling of guns. At first he doubted his ears.
"What's that sound?" he said to the private after a while.
Private Kim raised his head and listened.
"What sound, sir?"
"It's stopped. I can't hear it now," said the captain.
Then he heard the sound again. "There it goes again. It's coming from that
direction." But still the private could hear nothing. "It sounds like a
dog barking," the captain said.
A dog! Despite his exhaustion, the private came to his
knees and crawled to the edge of the cliff. If it was a dog barking, there
had to be a house and humans in the vicinity.
"It's over that ridge," said the captain
But the private still could hear nothing. He backed down
to the spot where he had lain before. He slumped down.
"The private is a good soldier and a real man," thought
the captain. He wanted to do something for the boy now, and he wanted to
do the same for himself if he could. But now the private was mumbling to
"Tomorrow there will be more crows. Then we won't have
But even before he finished saying that he heard the
cocking of the pistol right by one of his ears. Startled, he turned around
to see the captain aiming the pistol level at him in the darkness.
"Carry me," ordered the captain in a hoarse but strong
The private did not know what was up, but at gunpoint
he had no choice but to offer his back to the captain.
The private felt the muzzle of the gun touch his right
ear. They went over the ridge and descended into the woods.
"Halt!" The captain listened for a while.
"Turn left a little!" Then after a while he said, "Wait!"
Then, "Go ahead!"
Thus, the private blindly followed the captain's commands,
to the right, to the left, halt, go ahead. All the while he was struggling,
however, the private could hear nothing. The captain, at the point of death,
might be losing his mind and hearing things, he thought. "If so, what's
with me now?" He had never borne a grudge against the captain till this
moment, but now a furious rage began to well up in him against this man.
But he had to keep on walking; the pressure of the gun
behind his ear never slackened. His progress, weak and shambling as it
was, seemed to be spurred by gun point.
Finally they reached the foot of the hill.
"To the right." Then, "Straight ahead."
Then the private began to hear something. He slowly realized
that it was a dog barking. But he could not guess the distance.
His throat was dry and each step was like falling into
an ever deepening abyss. He felt like giving up and flopping down. But
he couldn't afford to; the gun behind his ear pressed harder and harder.
He could see nothing. He wasn't even aware of taking each step. Then just
as he became conscious of the silhouette of a house, a man and a barking
dog ahead in the darkness, he felt the slackening of pressure at the back
of his ear. He sagged down to the ground under the dead weight of the captain.
Translated by Kim Chong-un