|The Naked Tree
The next day and the day after, Ock Hui-do's seat remained
empty. The days without him dragged on endlessly, and I suffered from the
despair that I might never again have the painful joy of meeting his uniquely
good natured eyes, eyes without a tinge of stupidity.
I had come across Tae-su that morning.
"Have you found out where Mr. Ock lives?"
To my relief, he nodded his head vaguely without launching
into his usual chatter.
Every American soldier who came that day seemed to find
some fault, big or small, with their portraits. I sent each portrait back
to the painters, even the ones I could have talked the soldiers into accepting
if I had put in a little effort.
"Miss Lee, what's wrong with you today? Do you want to
see me and my family in a row, smothered by these rayon cloths with mongrel
faces on them because we can't afford to buy the ingredients for rice cake
soup for the holiday?"
Of course, it was Cash, the one with the dirtiest mouth,
who had the most rejected portraits. He raised his voice, looping one of
the rejected scarves around his neck and pretending to yank it. The other
painters began to grumble along with him. Ignoring their protests, I lifted
up a corner of the grey curtain that was drawn over the display window.
It was snowing outside. The fluttering snowflakes sometimes
hit the window, but they didn't touch the cheek that I pressed against
it. It was only natural because between me and the snow flurries was the
window, albeit thin, but for a while I was anxiously hoping that the flakes
would touch my cheek, hoping to be swept away by the joy of snowy days.
"Miss Lee, a customer!" Chin called out.
I returned to my desk and took the photo, asking the
color of the eyes, hair and the clothes, and recording the delivery date.
I stifled a cry, a cry for help. I was afraid I would go crazy because
of this boring work.
The painters were whispering with one another.
"She was crying behind the curtain."
"What did you expect? Pushing a girl around like that?
"As if you were not part of it."
Why were they so nice, so terribly nice at times? I couldn't
put up with anything today.
Tae-su stood waiting for me, shoulders hunched as the
large snowflakes fell around him. I ran toward him. My empty lunch box
clattered in the shapeless postman-like bag I carried, slung from my shoulder.
I dashed up to him and caught his arm with my hand. He tottered a little
and smiled gloomily. I slid, hanging from his arm, giggling for no apparent
I knew I couldn't subdue the tickling ecstasy that I
felt right now, just as I had not been able to free myself from the depression
I had felt all day.
"Did anything interesting happen today?" he asked, brightening
a little. I shrugged and licked the flakes with my stretched-out tongue.
"You were frowning all day."
"What a fickle girl!"
Instead of answering, I clung to him more closely. What
a blessing it was to have someone waiting in the snow! I gazed at the dazzling
dance of the snow caught in the headlights of the passing military trucks.
I could see glittering slices of past moments, twirling
around. Just slices, unconnected, with no emotional strings attached, so
I could enjoy them freely. The mysterious harmony of the bright sunlight
on the lush green leaves I spotted when I accidentally tilted my head back
on the way to school...My father in his traditional black serge overcoat,
and my elegant mother, clad brightly in a pale blue silk overcoat, walking
a few steps behind him whenever they went out together... A tray full of
row after row of fat dumplings prepared on the last day of the year. Hyok
and Wook in their first custom-made Western suits, so handsome I barely
recognized them... My mother's belongings that she and I had both loved
dearly. The white otter-skin collar, the thick gold ring she always kept
on her finger... The purple paulownia flowers dropping into the middle
yard on a bright day...
I was puzzled by the thickness of the stack of postcards
hidden inside me, but I was joyous. I looked at them like a child looking
at pictures. I was not so stupid as to try to piece them together to make
"We should get something for the patient, shouldn't we?"
I was jolted back to reality when Tae-su stopped in front
of a vendor. The woman was polishing small, firm red apples with a cloth.
I picked the prettiest ones and dropped them into what had once been an
old cement bag. I kept finding pretty ones, and the bag grew heavy before
Tae-su paid for them. As we walked, I felt such a strong desire to bite
into the firm red flesh of an apple that the roots of my teeth tickled.
I handed one to Tae-se and bit into one myself. Crunch, crunch. That tart
flavor, the pleasure of biting into the crisp flesh. I ate several in a
"You eat too many cold foods," Tae-se remarked as he
took the bag from me and shifted it into his other hand. He wrapped his
arm around my waist and said, "Don't you want to have a little boy who
crunches apples, a boy who has red cheeks?"
"Who do you think that boy will look like?" I realized
it was the most preposterous response.
"What are you talking about?"
I pretended to be genuinely surprised, but I felt sorry
for Tae-su. Nothing was wrong with a red-cheeked boy, but it would take
so long to have a baby. It was so far in the future. Five, ten years. With
a war raging just over the hill, how absurd it was to stand in the middle
of a bleak street dreaming of a future five or ten years away!
I wouldn't be able to lead such a slow-paced life. I
wanted to jump the tracks of everyday life and live a bold life in the
Tae-su removed his arm from my waist as if he were snubbed
and walked in silence. After passing several streetcar stations, he asked,
"Shall we take a trolley or shall we walk?"
"Where does Mr. Ock live?"
"Some place called Yonji-dong, I think."
"Are you good at finding houses?"
"I've been to that house several times. It turns out
he's staying in the house of a friend who took refuge in the south."
When we arrived at the next station, an empty trolley
came to a halt, and we stepped aboard. We got off at Chongno 4-ga and Tae-su
walked briskly ahead. As we turned into an alley, he stopped, looking around.
It seemed we were almost there.
I was gradually enveloped by some kind of heat. It was
an urgent longing, so urgent that I couldn't wait five or ten years for
the red-cheeked boy. I was being chased by a longing, a longing like self-abandonment.
Finally Tae-su stopped at a low tile-roofed house and
held his flashlight up to read the nameplate. It didn't say Ock Hui-do.
"This is the house. I've come several times before,
but never at night."
We shook the gate a couple of times, and a girl, who
was almost the same height as me, removed the bolt and peeped out. Smaller
children spilled out after her, making a fuss. By the way the children
behaved, it seemed they rarely had visitors. The inner quarters were closed
off with shutters. Only the outer quarters were lit and not very brightly.
"It's Tae-su. Is Mr. Ock in?"
"Oh, Tae-su? What brings you here?"
"I came with Kyong-a. Are you very ill?"
"No, only a little. Come in. It's cold outside."
We spoke through the sliding paper door, removing our
coats and shaking off the snow. After a rustling sound of straightening-up
in the room, the door opened quietly. A woman I thought must be Ock's wife
looked out. The children surrounded us with curious eyes, talking and giggling
"Come in, please," said the wife.
"Come in, although it's messy," said Ock. He was leaning
against the wall on a mat spread out on the warmest part of the floor.
His wife took our coats politely and hung them on the wall.
"It's just a cold. And you came all the way in
this snow. Thank you, anyway."
Ock burst into a fit of coughing before he could finish.
His wife placed her hand on his back, and as soon as he stopped, she brought
a porcelain ashtray to his mouth so that he could spit out the phlegm.
He seemed to have the flu that was going around.
"How's your brother these days?"
"Well, he keeps busy."
"We're so preoccupied with our own lives that we can't
seem to find time to have a drink together."
"My brother says the same thing."
While they exchanged dull pleasantries, Ock's wife handed
each of the children an apple and sent them to the other room. Then she
peeled some apples, cut them up, and arranged them on a plate. I studied
every move she made.
She was wearing a dark pleated skirt and a man's khaki
winter jacket, which somehow seemed to accentuate her delicate neck and
face. Her neck was long and slender, and I caught a glimpse of her freshly
washed undershirt inside her baggy jacket. I kicked myself for being drawn
to her, but her white, slender neck didn't look as if it could bear anyone's
For a long time I chewed the piece of apple she handed
me. She hadn't spoken a word. She had sent her children to the other room
and offered me the apple with her eyes alone. Her eyes and her gestures
were rich with expression. I began to grow angry. I couldn't imagine her
nagging her husband.
The pristine undershirt, peeking out from the drab, loose
winter jacket. Why did her long neck and delicate face have to resemble
the Modigliani women I liked so much? Frustrated and anxious, I shifted
my sitting position, biting my lips nervously, for I couldn't define my
feelings toward her.
"The floor must be too cold. Oh, dear." Embarrassed,
she put her hand under my knee to check the temperature of the floor.
"Ah, come over here," said Ock Hui-do, lifting one side
of his mat.
I moved next to him, put my hand under his mat, and looked
at him. He smiled slightly when our eyes met. I smiled good-naturedly,
"Kyong-a has been worried because you haven't been coming
to work. Today she fretted so much about coming to see you that I showed
her the way to your house."
"It is the busy season now. I had no idea business was
so good. They hassle her all the time and she's grown quite irritable.
I hope you get better soon."
"I'm almost completely recovered. I need a few
more days at most."
"Were you very sick?" I addressed him for the first time
"I think it was the cold and exhaustion. I hadn't been
sick for a long time. I'm almost recovered. I hope the cough stops, though."
He stopped to cough again. Without thinking, I was about
to put the porcelain ashtray up his mouth and rub his back, but of course
his wife was already doing it.
How I wished I could do that for him! When his coughing
fit subsided, Ock leaned against the wall in exhaustion, and the children
opened the sliding door and took turns peeking in. It must have been time
for us to leave.
At last the youngest child flung open the sliding door
and entered. He felt the apple bag with his hand. He was a friendly-looking
boy. I pulled the boy gently to my lap and gave him an apple, then lightly
pressed my nose onto his clean, soft hair. He had a nice smell. The child
chomped the apple vigorously. I grew glum. The nice smell and the chomping
sounds were refreshing, and yet depressing at the same time. I embraced
him tightly in order not to show my tears. The healthy boy finished the
skin first and began working on the flesh. When the seeds were revealed,
I felt like bursting into a wail.
"We should go," I pushed the boy aside roughly and got
to my knees.
"Why, can't you stay longer?"
"My mother is waiting for me," I blurted, surprising
"What a baby! Do you miss your mother already?" Tae-su
teased, winking at me, and playfully stabbed my cheek with his finger.
He helped me into my coat and wrapped my scarf securely around my head.
He didn't forget to arrange my bang, as before.
I had to endure the generous smiles of Ock and his wife,
for they seemed to find us really cute. An insult would have been easier
to put up with. I stamped my feet as I put on my shoes at the stone entryway,
but I was still furious. Even when the children spilled out from the other
room, saying goodbye loudly, I remained silent.
At the dark middle gate, the wife's rough but warm hand
grabbed mine. "Thank you for coming. You've been so helpful to our children's
I shook off her hand, jumped over the threshold, and
grabbed hold of Tae-su's arm.
The snow had stopped, and the clear sky was lit by cold
stars. A brusque gust of wind tossed the snow on the ground into the sky.
Snowflakes crept into my sleeves and skirt. I was cold. As we walked, my
The trees along the street, towering like huge skeletons,
trembled, wailing in the blast. The wind grew stronger, howling like a
fierce animal. Tae-su took off his jacket and placed it over my coat. Still,
I shook uncontrollably. I was afraid that I might be blown away like the
snow, so I held tight to his waist. Still, I trembled.
"Let's share your jacket," I said.
"I'm all right. It's not that cold."
"What's the matter? Maybe you're getting sick?"
We clung to each other, the jacket over our heads. There
was nobody and no light in the street, as if we were left all alone after
the end of the world, and only the snow churned skyward in the desolate
street. Tae-su massaged me, as if he truly expected to thaw me out. The
light of a police box spilled out to the street in the distance. We let
go of each other near the police box and grabbed hold of each other as
we walked on.
"Please walk me home. I don't think I can make it by
"Don't worry. Pull yourself together."
He kept rubbing my body, as if I were freezing
to death, and said, "Don't be so quiet. Say something."
"Are you afraid that I might lose consciousness?"
"No, of course not. But perhaps you can forget about
how cold you are."
"Mr. Ock's wife is a beauty."
"She's all right."
Our conversation stopped again. The old palace wall on
one side was endless, and the trees inside howled like hungry animals.
After a long while, Tae-su started again.
It was funny that he seemed so anxious.
"Shall I sing?"
"If you want."
Three-brother-stars in the darkening evening sky
The song seemed so pathetic because of my hoarse voice
that I stopped singing. Not only the three brothers but numerous other
stars, densely spaced, shone from the moon-less sky.
"Do you know what a light year is?" I asked.
"Who wouldn't know?"
"Tell me about it."
"Well, uh, the light year sounds like a time unit but
it is a unit of distance. Light can circle the earth seven and a half times
a second, and one light year means the distance the light travels in a
year, not a day or two, mind you."
"I know that much."
"Then why did you ask?"
"I meant, can you understand that kind of distance? Can
you grasp what it means? Millions, billions of light years. Can you even
"What are you talking about?"
"You asked me to say something. I'm just overwhelmed
by the fact that the three-brother-stars are so far away."
"You could call it infinity, I guess."
I caught sight of my house with its disfigured corner.
We had already arrived at my alley. I stopped walking and took in a deep
breath. I withdrew my body from the warm jacket and stood straight.
"We're here? Which is your house?"
"Go now," I ordered firmly.
"Which house is it? Don't I deserve some hot tea?"
"My house is a long way from here. Now go."
"You asked me to walk you home. Are you shooing away
the person who accompanied you in this cold? This is too much."
"Please go now," I demanded more loudly now.
I was cold, but not cold enough to make my teeth chatter,
and my grave determination to be alone from that point on made me strong.
Tae-su was about to turn to go, but said dull-wittedly,
"I'll stand here to watch you go."
"I said go now," I shouted, stomping my feet.
Puzzled, he muttered, "Damn," and turned away. He disappeared
around the corner without looking back. When I could no longer hear his
footsteps, I boldly faced my house. The large Korean-style structure, with
its missing eave, looked like a great legendary bird that had lost a wing.
Having given up flying, it lay like a useless monster. I was so frightened
that my hair stood on end, but felt I was right not to share my fright
with other people yet. I dashed up the long alley as if I were charging
toward something. Only when my body bumped into the gate did I stop. I
shook the gate with my whole body until it hurt.
"Mother, Mother," I cried.
"I'm coming, I'm coming. What's the fuss?" My mother's
low voice answered, a voice without longing or welcome, and as always her
dragging footsteps approached and the gate squeaked open. I grabbed my
mother's hand. Her rough hand, neither cold nor warm, never returned my
squeeze, yet I still hoped.
The gusts of wind had swept the snow from the middle
yard to the bottom of the stone wall, making a large mound. The paulownia
tree swayed as if exhausted, its limbs drooping to the ground. The snow
must have fallen here also. It was almost midnight, but my mother must
have forgotten all about me.
"I'm late today. What time is it?"
"I don't know."
"It was a terrible wind. I was almost swept away by it."
My mother didn't respond, but trudged to the kitchen
like a shadow and began to set out food on a tray. Standing at the stepping
stone by the entrance, I stood awkwardly, looking up at the sky and at
the snow-covered yard.
'My mother is waiting for me. My mother is waiting for
'What a baby.'
My mother came out with a tray. It was only then, as
I was taking off my snow-covered shoes, that I noticed the light was on
in my room. Taken aback, I rushed inside, not bothering to shake off the
snow from my clothes, and flung open the door.
The guitar lay on the floor. Several photo albums were
scattered around open, with photos spilling out to the floor, and in one
corner a-judo uniform lay in a pile. I instinctively sensed body heat radiating
from the uniform.
So this was why my mother didn't have to wait for her
daughter. Clutching the judo uniform to her bosom, looking at the pictures,
plucking the guitar... I couldn't suppress the feeling that surged in my
throat. Was it pity or rage?
My mother slowly entered the room, shoulders bent, holding
the tray in her hand.
"You were in here before, weren't you?" My voice was
shrill. "I've told you a million times. Don't come into this room. I told
you never come in here by yourself."
My mother smiled strangely.
"Why were you in here? I told you not to enter. I told
you never to come into this room by yourself."
"I was sitting in my room and I heard the guitar. It
sounded like Wook playing."
"That was the wind. I walked home through that storm
and nearly froze to death. It was not the guitar."
I stressed each word in the sentence. I had to suppress
the impulse to pick up the guitar and smash it to pieces on the floor.
"It was not this damned guitar."
I swung the guitar over my head.
"No, no," my mother's voice rang with metallic urgency,
suddenly twenty years younger. She charged toward me to win back the guitar.
I shivered with the impulse to smash it, turning round and round and holding
it high above my head. My mother attacked me. She was not a shadow any
more. She was a healthy, passionate woman with a strong throbbing pulse
Finally my mother grabbed hold of the neck of the guitar,
scratching my arm. I desperately pulled it away, holding one side, and
when she yanked it, I was thrown to the floor. Still, I didn't let go.
It was a desperate fight, the guitar wedged between us,
as we rolled around like lunatics, panting like a pair of winded animals.
I finally lost hold of the guitar and stood up, panting and gasping. My
mother had won. The long-awaited attempt to sever our ties with the past
went up in smoke.
When the guitar and judo uniform were returned to their
proper places and the photo albums occupied their corner of the bookshelf
once more, the room was no different from other times. We sat down to the
dinner tray as if nothing had happened and began to slurp the kimchi soup,
"There was a letter," my mother said, with a grotesque
movement of her mouth, in a tone as dull as usual.
"I think it's form your uncle's family in Pusan."
My mother took the letter from the wardrobe drawer after
she finished her slow, unappetizing meal. It was from Mal. Mal was the
only cousin who was younger than me. How proud I had felt when she first
called me "Older Sister."
My Dear older sister Kyong-a
It is almost four months since you left Pusan. How are
you? I miss you. You are so far away and so close to the front line that
I'm afraid for you. Aren't you afraid of the war? Oh, I hope your mother
is well, too. Did she make her delicious winter kimchi this year? Our kimchi
is terrible this year. My brothers say it is because our aunt didn't help
make it. If her hand had swished through the spice mixture. it would have
been different, they say. I agree. But my mother blames the weather. She
says kimchi can't possibly stay tangy in this warm weather.
I'm not writing to talk about kimchi. I hesitated several
times, but I had to write. Remember when my father went to Seoul? I heard
my parents whispering late into the night. My father thought he should
take your mother to a doctor, and my mother said it would take a shaman
to exorcise her, not doctors. He mentioned something about a mental hospital.
I was so shocked. Then they talked about you. That you're leading a tainted
life, so it will be impossible to marry you off to a good family.
Older Sister, I'm afraid. Why do these things happen
to a happy family? I can't believe it. My brother Jin will go to Seoul
soon. Please come back with him. Even if you have led a tainted life, I
understand. I realize it's because you didn't want any help from my family.
Older Sister, don't worry. Take our help. We are family. My mother and
father also feel it is their duty to help your family. We're doing very
well economically. They say everything is going really well.
Older sister, I miss you. Please come back to Pusan.
And let us be happy like before.
I wanted to talk to somebody, so I answered the letter
Mal, we had an amazing storm tonight. I saw the spectacle
of snow twirling up from the ground into the sky. On a night like this
I'll bet the kimchi wouldn't spoil even in Pusan.
My darling Mal, I just can't understand why you worry
about us. My mother is very healthy. She looks ten years older because
she refuses to put in her dentures but she's as strong as a person twenty
years younger than her age.
I stopped to massage my aching shoulder and back, and
This evening I arm wrestled with my mother, but I lost.
I was so bored, that's why I asked her to do it for fun, but I lost. I'll
bet you can't believe it, but it's true. As I said before, your aunt is
stronger than many young people. If anything has changed, it is that she
won't put in her dentures. As you remember, my mother was very particular
about her appearance. She tried very hard to look pretty and young for
her husband and sons, but she won't do it for me. But what can I do? My
father's three-year mourning period hasn't come to an end, so it's only
Am I tainted? I think your father is going senile. I've
just become a little more careful about my appearance, that's all. Your
father doesn't seem to understand the fact that girls grow up to be women.
Mal, I haven't even thought of independence or anything
like that, even vaguely. I guess I'm shameless. It's simply that I like
Seoul and I find my own house comfortable. That's all. So whatever Cousin
Jin says, I'll stay here. I know he's busy, so tell him he doesn't have
to visit us.
I'll close now. Goodbye.
I stopped writing. It was late. The night would usher
in an empty tomorrow, so empty that nothing could fill it. I wished there
were no tomorrow.
The wind continued shaking the weak spots in the old
house, the corrugated iron shutters, the doors, and windows. My mother
finished with cleaning up and slammed the sliding door shut.
"It sounds like an attack, tsk, tsk," she muttered as
she went to her room.
Tonight's storm really did sound like a war. I wished
the angry waves of war would surge over us, cutting today from tomorrow,
rampaging mercilessly, reducing people to misery. A violent pleasure swept
through me, and I laughed like a witch. I also trembled with the fright
that the war would rush over me. If only I could avoid that blind devil
The two wishes, forever contradictory, lived in me always,
plunging me into a frenzy every once in a while. Soon I would be cut in
two. I felt a physical pain that really seemed to sever me into two. I
paced around the room to forget the pain, taking my memory back to the
time when the pain had begun.
Our refugee life, quite comfortable at my uncle's house...
No, it was before then. The bleak moments as we fled Seoul... No, it was
not then, either. Back at Christmas time, when I packed my bundles, unpacked,
and packed again without telling my mother, not knowing whether we should
flee... No, it was not then. Further back, after Seoul was re-taken by
the UN forces, the empty house and the yellow ginkgo leaves in the back
yard, the vivid blinding yellow, the yellow against the cobalt blue sky,
the yellow streaming down endlessly, my eyes still hurt with the yellow...
No, it was not then, either. Then it was before then, before, before...
But I stopped my memory from running further back. Why
had those old ginkgo trees been so miserably yellow? Why had I looked up
at those leaves, thinking that I wanted to die and then, that I wanted
to live? I was still uncertain about that when my memory stopped and melted
into the yellow.
With the dawn of the year 1952, I turned 21 years old.
On New Year's morning I sat down to a breakfast tray that held only kimchi
soup and rice. I had pleaded with my mother to make some dumplings for
New Year's for several days, but she had only answered vaguely. In the
end, she failed me.
I dumped the rice into the sour kimchi soup and tried
to spoon some into my mouth, but it was not easy. An unappeased desire
was lodged in my throat.
"You could have made some dumplings. White rice
cake may have been too much, but..."
My mother chewed slowly, finishing the same amount of
food as usual and then muttered as if to herself, "What's so important
about New Year's? What nonsense! You're not a baby any more!"
The hot lump in my throat lurched up. I tugged at the
end of my mother's skirt as she rose slowly with the tray in her hand.
"Mother, we're still alive. Living things change. We
can prove that we're alive by changing."
"Why? We're still alive this way."
"Change gives life. Mother, I'm starving for life. If
only you had changed the rice into dumplings... It would have been easy
for you to do. Can't you understand that such simple, easy things might
give your daughter life?"
Mother's dull eyes were unfocused, and I couldn't tell
if they were gazing down at me or at the wardrobe behind me. It occurred
to me that she was simply waiting for me to let go of her skirt. I also
realized how obstinately my wish had been rejected and how powerless I
was in the face of that rejection.
I let go of her skirt, muttering weakly, "I am not asking
you to do it all the time. Just sometimes, Mother, just sometimes..."
But my mother had already gone down to the kitchen with
the tray. The sound of the aluminum bowls clattering and water running
drifted out of the kitchen.
It was my first day off in a long while. I mopped the
floor and polished the mother-of-pearl wardrobe with a rag. I paid special
attention to the long-life herb, the deer, and the cranes inlaid on the
wardrobe. These symbols of longevity glistened mysteriously when I was
However hard I polished my ancestors' dreams, my own
desires could not be satisfied. On the grey wall I hung a cola company's
calendar that I'd gotten from some Yankee. Having just slid down a ski
slope, a healthy-looking couple was quenching their thirst with a cola.
The vivid colors of their skiwear caught my eye. I began to feel an uncontrollable
longing for the colors. My longing had been suppressed, dormant for a long
time, but now it flared up like an inflammable material meeting a flame.
I flung open the wardrobe door and began rummaging through
the clothes. White, grey, at best, jade; that's all there was. Finally
I found the Korean dress I had worn for New Year's two years before. The
deep orange skirt and the rainbow-striped blouse with the deep orange cuffs
seemed so new that if I just ironed out the folds, they could be transformed
into a dazzling New Year's dress. The rainbow-striped sleeves excited me.
My heart raced, and I took out a white rayon slip and
a pair of my mother's thick cotton socks before going into the room across
the hall. Having plugged in the electric iron, I carefully ironed the brocade
skirt as if caressing it. I took a long time to do the skirt and blouse,
enjoying the elegant sheen so typical of the silk fabric, appreciating
its soft, light texture.
I took off my navy blue pants and grey sweater and kicked
them across the room before I put on the white slip, the skirt, and the
blouse. Perhaps I could have used a bit of makeup, but except for that,
everything was perfect. I stood in front of the large mirror that reflected
the whole length of my body.
I lowered myself to the floor gently in a deep dignified
My father had grinned broadly and said, "Now she looks
like a lady, dear. It's about time for us to look for a son-in-law, don't
"Daddy, don't tease. Please," I spread out my hands in
front of me, playing the baby.
My father looked at me and then at my mother, who sat
elegantly next to him, and said in feigned ignorance, "Dear, why is she
behaving this way? Do you know why?"
My brothers grinned and teased, "I'll bet she will dance
around to get the New Year's bow money from her father-in-law even after
she's married. Tsk, tsk, Father, it won't work. Let's not be too hasty
about marrying her off. Look how she gets when she hears she's not ready
to be married yet. So she wants to get married, eh?"
After I had gotten enough bow money, I had come back
to my room, taken off the confining Korean dress, and changed into comfortable
clothes more fitting a tomboy.
I had forgotten all about that pretty outfit. The me
I saw in the mirror didn't look like my contemporary self. It was the "me"
from two years before. I felt distant, and because I had been so pretty
then, I was even a little jealous.
I stole out of the house. The wind on those days before
Small Cold, the 23rd division of the 24 part lunar calendar, was so bitterly
cold it hurt. However, the skirt of my Korean outfit billowed in the wind
like a winged dress. I floated along lightly, almost unconscious of my
The Utopia tea room was not busy. Johann Strauss's "Waltz
of spring" was playing at just the right volume. In the far corner I saw
Tae-su raise his hand. I felt like a butterfly as I approached him.
"How could you keep me waiting for so long? My eyes nearly
popped out looking for you."
Nevertheless, he was grinning. I sat down cautiously,
pulling the back flap of my skirt carefully to the front. He kept smiling
and looking at my gorgeous dress, but he didn't tease or praise me as I
"I've been waiting for two hours. Even a cat can pretend
to be embarrassed, so how about pretending to be sorry? You're one shameless
I was not sorry at all, so I smiled just a little, looking
up at the familiar landscape on the wall. It had been Tae-su's idea to
meet today, and I had never said yes, so there was no reason for me to
feel sorry. I hadn't come of my own free will. Perhaps the winged New Year's
dress had flown me there.
The day before Tae-su had been excited about the coming
"How about meeting somewhere tomorrow?"
"What do you mean why? Tomorrow is 1952. Tomorrow is
next year. It's a holiday, too. Let's meet somewhere. We can figure out
something fun to do then. All right? Come to that place, Utopia. Ten o'clock.
The earlier we meet, the better."
I hadn't thought about whether I would be seeing him
or not. The next year he was talking about seemed so far away. It didn't
seem like the next day but like some time in the future that had nothing
to do with me.
"I was all dressed in my New Year's dress, but I didn't
have anywhere to go."
"What? I asked for an apology and this is what I get?"
Tae-su snatched my frozen hand but released it gently.
The waitress came with the coffee, then opened the cast iron stove, and
gave the red coal briquette a poke or two before closing the damper and
walking away. The stove sizzled and the surface turned a rosy red.
My body gradually thawed. My flesh, covered with goose
bumps under my clothes, grew warm as my blood began to circulate, and the
coffee warmed my lips and throat. The coffee was very flavorful. I didn't
dislike sitting opposite Tae-su.
"Hey, waitress, can I have some matches?" He called to
the counter, snapping his fingers and forefinger. He pulled the thin tape
from the new Lucky Strikes.
"Why can't you buy a lighter? They're everywhere."
"You don't know what you're talking about. I go around
without a lighter or matches, with only cigarettes, so I'm dying for a
smoke, I'm a nervous wreck. Then, if I find someone lighting a cigarette,
I bow and ask for a light. That first drag is the best in the world. Besides,
it's an excuse for flirting with the waitresses in tea rooms."
"Have you ever been slapped on the cheek when you asked
an old man for a light?"
He breathed out smoke rings into the air. He was one
year older today, but he was as frivolous as ever. He still had the air
of a naughty boy who had sneaked into a closet to smoke his father's cigarettes.
I doubted if he could really appreciate the taste of a cigarette. I probably
knew more than he did about different brands. I recalled my father's elegant
smoking. I had yet to meet anyone who smoked with the dignity of my father.
In the summer, he used to lean back in the wicker chair
with the north window wide open, smoking his pipe, as if he didn't have
a thought or a worry in his mind. Actually, it was difficult to tell whether
he was deep in thought or simply worry-free.
Ock Hui-do smoked elegantly enough, although not nearly
as nicely as my father. When Ock smoked, one could get a glimpse of a heartache
too deep for words. The painters loved smoking as much as anybody, but
they clung to it desperately, creating an impression of poverty. Because
of this unexpected image of my father, I began to dislike Tae-su. Dressed
in a grown-up outfit, I wanted to sit across from a man of more experience.
"Where shall we go? Do you have any interesting ideas?"
"I don't care where we go."
"Let's go to the movies, have lunch, then wander around.
That's all I can come up with."
He yawned widely. I wanted to yawn along with him.
"Isn't there something more intimate we could do?" He
"I don't mean anything particular. I just want to feel
contented. I miss the feeling of loving someone and being loved by someone.
We don't have that between us."
"That's only natural. We're not in love, you know."
"Don't tease me, please."
His silly expression was transformed into the innocence
of a boy. I gazed at him in silence. Perhaps he was more sensitive than
he looked. The anxiety and anguish on his brow grew. Perhaps it was because
of my gaze. I couldn't look away, however, and his discontent was infectious.
My heart ached terribly. But my pain was not for Tae-su.
I was thinking of Ock Hui-do. His wife with the white
slender neck and their five children. The youngest one, with the nice smell,
so healthy. I couldn't endure the passionate longing and frustration I
felt. I played with the long tie on the front of my silky dress, rolling
and unrolling it over and over again.
"Let's go somewhere, anywhere." I stood up, making an
effort to relax my contorted face.
He hastily picked up his cigarettes and gloves, looking
a little regretful. From the way he didn't even bother to wink at the waitress,
I could tell he must have been quite serious.
We went to see "Homecoming" at the Sudo Theater. I didn't
care for the movie much, but I felt as if we had been driven out of the
theater when it ended. The street was filled with a sense of bleakness.
We peered into several eateries, trying to find a place to have lunch.
My feet were numb from the cold floor of the unheated theater.
"How about some Western food?"
"No, I'd like to sit comfortably on a heated ondol floor."
"Because your majesty is wearing a hanbok, eh?"
"Right. Imagine me sitting on a chair, taking off my
rubber shoes and lifting up my feet in their cotton stockings to warm them
at the stove. You wouldn't like that."
"Well, I don't think I would dislike it."
My feet were frozen, almost to the point of total numbness.
At times they slipped out of my rubber shoes, touching the asphalt. Not
many restaurants were open on New Year's Day.
After a lot of wandering, we finally found a place with
a warm ondol floor, although it was not very clean. A waitress brought
in the tea, which looked like murky dishwater. I tucked my feet under the
floor cushion and massaged them.
"What would you like?"
"As it's New Year's, I think I'll have the rice cake
and dumpling soup," I said.
The skins of the dumplings were thick, with the corners
still uncooked, so that I could taste the raw wheat flour. I pushed them
to one corner and ate a few slices of rice cake, then stopped altogether.
Tae-su ate voraciously. He looked miserable eating the
bad food with such relish. It made me sad. Was it because I knew so well
what it meant to eat solely to fill one's stomach? I gazed at him eating,
wondering if he knew the food tasted terrible.
"How was it?"
"Fine, I was hungry. Why didn't you finish yours?"
"I wasn't that hungry. Do you always eat with such an
"Sure. What would you do with a man who's picky?"
"I heard the dumplings Hwanghae-do people make are as
big as a person's foot." I laughed, surprised at my own words.
"It is true that our sticky rice cakes or crescent rice
cakes are bigger than those in Seoul, but that's because we are simple
and down-to-earth. You know, it's the people who make the food, the same
way the slick Seoul people spread out an array of side dishes just to please
the eye when there's not much to eat. But why do you have to compare my
hometown's food to a person's foot?"
He pretended to be offended, but he made sense. And what
about the women of Kaesong, so neat and charming? I wanted to brag. About
Kaesong women, about my mother.
"Have you ever tried Kaesong food, real Kaesong food?"
"Well, I'm not a connoisseur. I just eat to fill my stomach.
I never thought about where certain dishes originated. Are you from Kaesong?"
"No, but my mother's family is. My mother is an expert
at cooking the most delicious food." I pushed my remaining dumplings around
my bowl with a spoon and continued. "Kaesong dumplings look kind of funny.
They have thin, chewy skins, made with dough worked long and hard. The
filling, rich with the flavor of sesame oil, is stuffed to make fat, round
dumplings. First, you make a crescent shape, then you bring the two ends
together, and it looks like a person with a fat belly, holding his hands
together behind his back. The rice cake soup is even better. It is called
chorang-ttok. You roll the well-pounded rice powder into a thin log and
then rub it with sesame oil. It is much thinner than the Seoul variety.
It's pressed with a bamboo knife once, then cut further down, so it looks
like a small silkworm cocoon or a figure 8..."
I gestured, pretending to cut the rice cake. I felt like
an art lover discussing an exquisite work of art. Tae-su didn't show much
reaction, however, despite my enthusiasm. From the way he had devoured
the terrible food, I would have expected his mouth to water, but he looked
rather bored, even though he wore a grin on his face.
"When will I have the honor to be invited to such a delicious
feast? That's what I'm wondering."
My enthusiasm dampened immediately. I pictured my grey
mother and her sour kimchi soup. Would there ever be an invitation to the
feast, and if so, when? I was the one who wondered more about that than
"By the way you talk, my future mother-in-law must be
an amazing cook. I expect I will enjoy fine food. And they say a mother-in-law
loves her son-in-law the most."
"Don't be silly. Crescent rice cakes that look like human
feet are more your style."
Tae-su's silly joke brought me back to reality and I
felt nauseous at the sight of the cold dumpling soup in front of me. The
girl cleared away the bowls and wiped the table clean. We stepped out onto
the street again and wandered about in the bleak winter alley.
There was nothing wondrous there, only the invisible
cold, dry wind whipping black soot up from the grey sidewalk. Clark Gable's
smirk on a movie poster, which flapped about with one corner unglued, was
nothing new as we had just seen the movie. The unexpressive grey buildings
had their windows shut tight, looking like so many match boxes, their only
distinguishing features being wether they were horizontal or vertical.
I should have stopped at some corner to say goodbye,
but I hesitated. It was too light to go back. I couldn't envision myself
walking home, gazing at my house in the daylight. One side of the roof
gone, the gap on the ridge yawning like a hole leading to hell, the shattered
roof tiles. Looking at them seemed as sacrilegious as picturing Confucius
without a stitch of clothing on his body.
My house must stand under the black sky in the dark.
I would feel scared, almost awed, standing in front of it. The climax of
my day was embedded in that very moment, and I couldn't change it.
"How about going to my house? We can warm up there."
Tae-su's low voice rescued me. I nodded deeply and followed
him without speaking. His arms encircled my waist intimately.
"Aren't you cold in this thin, pretty dress? You were
shivering so much the other night."
Perhaps he was waiting for me to shake again. But I didn't.
"Do you want my jacket?"
He wanted me to shiver. I shook my head, pulled away
from him, and walked along, leaving a little distance between us.
In a Hoehyon-dong alley, dotted with restaurants, Tae-su's
room was in an old two-story Japanese building. It stood out because of
the urologist's sign on the ground floor. He said he rented a room on the
A narrow staircase led from a glass door on the street
to the second floor, so Tae-su could reach his room without going into
the clinic on the first floor. While he was opening the large lock. I gazed
at the sign, "Hoehyou Urology Clinic."
The four-and-a half tatami room was chilly. Tae-se hurriedly
ignited the wood in the stove. I assumed he didn't need my help, so I sat
on the window sill. Tae-su lit some paper and dropped it onto the thin
pieces of wood, building a large fire. Then he began adding logs, warming
up the room in no time.
He whistled as if building a fire was his favorite pastime,
and with a clang of the lid, it was done. He brushed the dirt off his hands
"Do you live here by yourself? I thought you lived with
you brother's family."
"I lived with his family before I went into the military,
but after I was discharged and began working, I found this place for myself.
I have nephews and nieces and I felt bad about taking up space in the home
of my brother and his wife."
"How many nephews and nieces do you have?"
"Is that so? The same as the Ocks. Maybe Hwanghae-do
people like having big families."
"Five isn't so many. My sister-in-law's work is still
"The species preservation project. She's not even forty
"Do you think Mr. Ock is still in progress, too?"
I suppressed a deep sigh. My body adequately warmed now,
I looked around the room. It was a simple room without personality. The
grey walls displayed a single picture, the kind one would expect in a country
barber shop; the rest was empty. Imagining Tae-su buying the landscape
from a frame shop, I couldn't help but smile and the tension disappeared.
"How do you like it? Cleaner than you expected?"
"You must be disappointed, then. I cleaned up and even
decorated in preparation for your visit."
I smiled broadly, thinking that by decoration he must
mean the picture.
"Did you think I was living in a decent place?"
"No. To be frank, I hadn't thought about where you lived."
I told the truth.
"Really? I thought women daydreamed about their boyfriends
all the time. Don't you?"
"Well, maybe you do."
"What else can a young bachelor do when he's alone except
think about women? If I say women, you might feel offended, but sometimes
I picture the bedroom of a pure woman like you, and other times I imagine
Diana Kim rolling around with a nigger."
I gazed out the window at the approaching dusk. As the
lights in the shops came on one by one, the passersby looked even colder.
The torch on a peddler's cart began a pale dance, and a woman next to it
began to collect the chewing gum that she had laid out for sale.
It will get even darker soon. The distorted dark roof
and the sharp thrill. I was measuring the darkness with the delicate sensitivity
of an artist.
"Are you angry because of what I've said? But believe
me, I think of you all the time."
As always, I didn't know what to say when Tae-su got
serious. The conversation died and everything felt awkward.
At the small desk next to the window, arranged in a pile
according to size was a dictionary, an English magazine, and a photo album.
I picked up the album and flipped through it quickly. He immediately came
to sit next to me on the window sill. Undoubtedly he wanted to explain
the photos to me. I would get to know him better. Know about his past,
his friends, his family, all the unnecessary details of his history. I
didn't want to bother to learn about any of that, so I turned the pages
quickly, never giving him a chance to butt in.
The cast iron stove glowed red from the heat, and the
small room was stifling. I pressed a flushed cheek against the pane to
cool it. One by one the lights were coming on.
The darkness thickened visibly like water colors spreading
"Kyong-a, you're so pretty today."
He slowly turned my face toward his. He was trembling.
He pulled me into his arms. I could feel the pounding of his heart against
my cheek, but my eyes were glued to the outside, measuring the density
of the darkness. His hot lips brushed my cheek, cool from the glass, and
moved down to my mouth. He seemed anxious, as if he were searching for
me in an almost rough way. My eyes remained fixed on the window, still
measuring the density of the darkness outside.
Nothing in my body opened to him. My heart beat quietly,
never breaking its normal rhythm and my temperature didn't rise more than
the stove had already raised it.
He caressed earnestly, with growing impatience. I let
him touch my body, but my eyes were glued to the outside. Without feeling
anything particular, I could see everything clearly. He finally knelt down
on the floor and buried his face in my skirt.
"How can... Kyong-a, how can you..., "he wailed.
He seemed to have finally begun to realize how meaningless
and miserable a one-sided passion between a man and woman could be.
I pulled my silk skirt toward me little by little from
where it lay crumpled mercilessly in his arms. He looked even more pathetic
with his face in my white rayon slip. After a while he turned on the light
and lit a cigarette
"Do you dislike me?"
I was so shocked by his forlorn expression that I said
emphatically, "No, no," even shaking my head.
It was not a lie, but I was distressed because I knew
I would have answered the same way if he asked to opposite question. He
moved his lips as if trying to say something more, but he ended up simply
taking a long draw on his cigarette.
"Shall I make us dinner? You'll help me, won't you?"
He asked, having regained his composure.
He slid open the closed closet door. A folded mattress
and bedding were stuffed on the shelf, and on the bottom shelf was a shabby
array of cooking utensils and ingredients including a bottle of soy sauce.
"I have to go."
It was completely dark out now. The world was engulfed
in a thick darkness.
"Because your mother is waiting for you, right?" he responded
wearily as he shut the closet door.
He didn't attempt to make me stay. I picked my way down
the steep stairs, and when I stepped out into the street, illuminated only
by the light of the red cross over the entrance, I took a deep breath of
the cold night air.
"Goodbye. I had a nice time today," I said, as he followed
me down. Then I walked away fast without waiting for a response. After
a while, I looked back to make sure that he was not following me and began
enjoying a slow walk, looking around.
I passed a street permeated with cooking odors, not unpleasant.
Then I came out to a brighter, more exciting street, lined with Western
dressmaking shops and haberdasheries. I would have liked to linger to enjoy
the sights, but I kept smelling something.
It was the smell of kimchi soup. I could smell the sour
stench even when I pinched my nose with my fingers. My anger at my mother
and the misery I had felt that morning flared up inside me.
Was my yearning for dumplings simply a matter of appetite?
No, it was more urgent than appetite, like a thirsty tree's craving for
sweet rain, or a burning desire for affection and tender love. How could
she be so blind? My own mother?
My hatred for her, suppressed so far because she was
my own flesh and blood, surpassed the limit of my patience. Her unbelievable
stinginess, her frightening obstinacy. No one had the right to hurt another
human being that much. How could she be so tightfisted with her affection
and tender love?
I took several deep breaths to cool my seething fury.
Suddenly a realization stoped me in my tracks. I remembered Tae-su's expression
when he was kneeling on the floor. He must have been as miserable as I
was when I didn't get dumplings on New Year's morning.
Was that possible? What if he were as hurt as I had been?
What difference could there be between his desperate sigh, "How can...
Kyong-a, how can you..." and my plea, "Sometimes, just sometimes..." as
I clung to my mother's skirt?
I pressed my head against a display window where a mannequin
in a pink spring coat was spinning. The pink coat rotated round and round.
The mannequin kept turning without feeling dizzy, wearing a permanent smile.
I was dizzy, my thoughts turning this way and that. I felt that the rotation
of the pink coat must be preventing me from thinking. I closed my eyes.
I saw that grey mother of mine and breathed in the odor of kimchi soup.
The decision came easily. I retraced my steps. I felt
like sobbing because of the sympathy I had for Tae-su. I wanted to give
him everything I could. Why hadn't I realized it before? I told myself
nobody should be as miserable as I was when I couldn't have those dumplings.
I raced down the street lined with the western dressmaking shops and haberdasheries,
and turned into the alley filled with eateries.
While running, I tried to think of ways I could avoid
another failure. How could I open myself to him? I recalled the moments
he had looked attractive. I liked the recollection of his firm, manly jaw
with its shadow of a beard. If I pressed my forehead against it, a miracle
would happen to me, like a bud opening up in a warm breeze. Hadn't I once
wished to press my forehead against his chin and listen to his heartbeat?
That's what I would do first. I wouldn't worry about what came next. Tae-su
would take care of the rest.
I finally came to a halt at the urologist's sign. Tae-su's
room was dark, and a large padlock hung on the glass door leading to the
The first thing I saw as I stepped in to the PX was Ock
Hui-do. I bounced across the arcade. Good things are so much better when
you don't expect them.
"Happy New Year!"
"Happy New Year!"
I greeted everyone I met as I crossed the PX, including
the cleaning women and laborers. The painters were shaking hands with Ock
Hui-do, as if they were meeting him for the first time.
"I'm sorry. We didn't even go to see you while you were
ill. Are you feeling better?" said Chin politely, who was usually quiet
"You must have been really sick. For the poor, getting
sick is worst."
"You've grown thin. You used to look so good. Tsk, tsk,
have a cigarette."
Kim and Cash were being very kind. They had ignored Ock
until then. I wanted to be part of it, too.
"Happy New Year!" I greeted each painter happily, for
I really wanted to bless them. I turned to Ock Hui-do and repeated the
greeting. Afterwards I added in a small voice. "Are you all right now?"
"Yes, thanks to you," he answered, also in a low voice.
And that satisfied me.
"Miss Lee, you're much prettier now that you're a year
"Miss Lee, you should get married this year. It's not
good for a girl to work here too long."
"Why? Are you afraid that Miss Lee will be whisked away
by a mongrel?"
Now, like Cash, all the painters called the Yankees mongrels.
"Damn this miserable world! Korean boys get dragged off
to war and the mongrels get all the pretty girls."
"Hey, don't worry about them. If you don't want to lose
your woman, you'd better draw those mongrels' pictures as fast as you can."
"That's for sure. You finally said something right for
They smoked, joked around, then began to get their tools
ready. I started sorting the photos. I had taken only one day off, but
my hands didn't move as fast as before. It was satisfying to realize that
Ock Hui-do was behind me, but I was queasy because I wasn't used to that
kind of feeling.
The Christmas tree, still clothed in its strips of gold
and silver paper, sent out an endless display of red and blue winks. The
transistor radios that the Yankees carried over their shoulders emitted
"Puppy Love" in a hoarse voice. I didn't dislike the mood but wanted to
believe I couldn't calm down because of it.
At the candy counter in front of us, Diana's diamond
glittered on her ring finger as she sold cookies to American soldiers and
counted the dollars. Her hands were delicate and beautiful, as if they
were meant for diamonds.
Suddenly she placed her elbows on top of the display
case and rested for a while, with her hands clutching her hair and covering
part of her forehead. The red fingernails and the diamond, in the midst
of her black hair, looked indescribably beautiful. I thought how beautiful
she could be if only she thought of something besides money.
Tae-su passed, carrying a screwdriver, a pair of pliers,
and some other tools, He didn't greet me or wink; he acted as if nothing
had happened. I didn't feel anything particular toward him, either. The
time that I wanted to be more generous and charitable to him had already
passed. He may have looked somewhat tired, but it seemed to have nothing
to do with me.
Ock coughed from time to time. His cough was not as bad
as I had heard at his home, but sometimes he coughed for a long time.
"For a cough, radish juice steeped in honey is the best.
That is, if you can find real honey," Chin muttered out of pity for Ock.
"Don't you kinow how expensive honey is? Why don't you
drink water boiled with green onions and apricot pits?"
"What a foolish thing to say! Where can you get apricot
pits at this time of year? Where I'm from, people steep eggs in vinegar
and drink it."
The painters offered their remedies one by one.
Cash, who had been quiet, stretched and said, "What strange
cures! If they all worked, doctors would starve to death. At least you
didn't recommend anything like a combination of dog shit and cow dung.
Don't you agree. Mr. Ock? The best thing to do after an illness is to eat
well. When there's no fat in your stomach, you get weak and the cough won't
go away. At night you have cold sweats, you feel dizzy, and something in
your belly seems to suck your voice in so you can't speak sometimes. Isn't
that so, Mr. Ock?"
"So now you're into fortune telling, eh?"
"If you perform an examination, you are supposed to offer
"All right. Then in order to help Mr. Ock build his strength
up and since we're all hungry, how about going out for some sollongtang
soup with lots of delicious fat floating on top? How does that sound? We
may have fallen on bad times and have no choice but to paint mongrels to
make ends meet, but our hearts haven't dried up, have they?"
They were all very kind today.
"What about me? Can I go along too?" I asked, smiling.
"Sure, but somebody has to watch the store. Miss Lee,
can we bring some sweet rolls for you?"
"All right. I'll watch the store, but be sure to bring
lots of rolls."
They scrambled out the door together. A group of Yankees
passed by, sipping Cokes and chomping on hamburgers. I hated their glistening
I called out to Misuk in the brassware section. "Doesn't
it seem like something good is going to happen this year?"
"Why?" she asked as she ran toward me. "Where did all
the painters go?"
"For lunch. They said they would bring back some rolls,
so don't eat your lunch."
"Really! How nice!"
She sat right next to me. I put my arms around her shoulders
and pressed my face into the nape of the neck. Several strands of the hair
tickled my nose, and a pure human smell, not clouded by cosmetics, reached
Breathing in the milky fragrance, a kind of a combination
of wild flowers and newborn animals, I was filled with a longing for people,
a longing so urgent that I grew sad. Inhaling her odor, I caressed the
end of her long braids.
"What kind of good things will happen, do you think?"
"It's just a vague feeling."
"I think everyone feels that way on New Year's." She
sounded very grown-up. "If a woman marries an American legally, do people
still call her a Yankee slut?" The direction of her conversation shifted
suddenly. "I think I'll marry an American."
Instead of giving her a response I snorted.
"I mean it."
She looked as if she were confessing a grave secret,
when I simply wanted to relieve the fatigue of a long afternoon, breathing
in her comforting smell of puppies and wild flowers.
"You must have seen him. The PFC who comes to my shop
every day for an hour or so. He wants me to marry him and go to America."
"Do you like him?"
"I'm not sure whether I like him or the idea of going
"Do you want to go to America that badly?" I was taken
"It doesn't have to be America. I simply want to leave
this country. I'm sick and tired of war, evacuation, and starvation. I
wish I never had to see these miserable things again."
She pierced a piece of paper with the point of a pencil
as she spoke, repeating the motion on ever-shrinking spaces.
"It's so dirty, like sewage. Real sewage. So dirty and
miserable," She murmured, wetting her dry lips with a flick of her tongue.
"What is?" I asked, simply because it seemed rude to
"My house. It's a sewer. You probably couldn't even imagine
I chuckled to myself behind her back, without asking
why her house was a sewer. I couldn't resist laughing since she herself
was fragrant, since she was fragrant in the midst of sewage, and because
she only knew the smell of sewage, not her own fragrance.
"Why are you laughing? I'm not joking. I'm trying to
have a serious conversation."
She had yet to discover that I was not the right person
to talk to about serious things.
"What's an international marriage like?"
"You mean the process?"
"No, the forms can take care of themselves. I mean what's
it like in practice?"
She stammered, but her piercing pencil grew swifter and
surer. Her flushed cheeks looked so fresh it seemed they might emit a fruity
fragrance at any time.
"You'll find out after you get married."
"Well, I want to know in advance. I can't figure out
what the future with him will be like. I was just attracted to the idea
of going to America, but I can't figure the rest out. I wish someone would
guarantee our future together."
It seemed like I was supposed to be that "someone" but
I didn't have the slightest desire to be.
"Everyone has some fears before marriage. That's why
they made up the Four Pillars of Fortune and why they check people's horoscopes
before they get married."
I had been leaning comfortably on her shoulder, but now
she yanked her head up and spoke in an uncharacteristically hysterical
voice. "I don't mean that. This is totally different."
At that moment the painters piled in, picking their teeth.
Kim thew me a large bag of rolls, and Cash winked and said, "Miss Lee,
we all pitched in for those rolls."
"Now that our bellies are full, it's time we started
drawing those damn mongrels again, right?"
I handed a roll over to Misuk and stammered, "What can
I say? the only thing I can guarantee is that if you marry him and have
his child, it will be a mongrel. That's one thing for sure, I guess."
I blurted that out, having heard the painters mentioning
"mongrels" so often, but Misuk shuddered as if pierced by a sharp skewer.
"How could you use such a word. That word is used for
animals. I'm surprised at you."
She dropped the roll she was eating and fled to her shop,
her eyes brimming with tears. I followed her with some rolls, but she was
so furious that she refused to look at them.
The painters started working, but Ock Hui-do was staring
at the grey curtain. I approached him. I couldn't tell whether his tired
eyes were gazing at the curtain or at something behind it. He was engrossed
in something anyway, something that had nothing to do with me.
I paced around him and cleared my throat. He was immovable,
like a rock. If only I could shift his focus toward me. Pacing around him,
I straightened the painting tools and spread out scarves. Still, he didn't
awaken form his reverie. Perhaps I would have to stand on my head on the
tiled floor to get his attention. If I walked on my hands, sweeping the
floor with my black hair, everyone, including Ock, would look at me. I
could do that. You bet I could. I wished I could, but I simply sighed deeply,
standing on my two feet.
Misuk sat slouched forward, her forehead almost touching
the display case. The parting in the middle of her black hair was straight
and neat. I sighed again for Misuk. I was so distant from Ock Hui-do and
from Misuk. They were not absorbed by distress, but dissolved into a time
that didn't move forward; I was the only one who was swept away by the
passage of the anxious seconds. Thinking that I was in a different time
frame from theirs, I became as chilly and lonely, as if I were caught in
a spring wind that blew only to spite the blooming flowers.
A comical-looking GI was leaning over looking at the
portraits on display, crunching popcorn noisily.
"May I help you?" I asked, slipping back into my sales
The arcade grew busier as the afternoon customers arrived.
Misuk and I had to speak to them in English, adapting our tongues to its
peculiar twists and rolls. After some time I noticed Ock Hui-do had started
"I can't forget what you said this aftermoon." Misuk
ran to me after the shutters had come down.
"I'm sorry, I didn't realize that is was a curse word
and that it is normally used for animals. I've heard it so often it didn't
mean anything to me. When it comes to people, you say half-breeds, I guess."
I apologized, stammering as we walked out onto the street together.
"It's all the same whether it's a mongrel or a halfbreed.
The important thing is the prediction that I will give birth to children."
"Is that a prediction? It is only logical that married
couples have children."
"That's what I mean. That's why I'm afraid."
"What do you mean?"
I was irritated because I knew she was going to get into
something complicated. I wanted to be free from everything that had nothing
to do with me. I needed to think of my own affairs, swaying my drooping
limbs gently and gazing up at the stars and the lights in the stores. Then
I would get on with business of my life, plunging myself into the darkness
"Where do you live? Don't you ride the bus? I walk home,
I pulled her frozen hand toward the bus stop in a friendly
manner. If she walked home, I could always take another road. The important
thing was making clear that we were merely heading in our separate directions.
"Please, please talk with me for a while." She clung
to me, her face puckered.
"You should go home now. Isn't your mother waiting for
"Let her wait. Do you think I'm a child? Let's sit and
talk in a tea room. It doesn't matter if I go home late."
I had no choice but to sit with her in a shabby second-floor
tea room. Perhaps because of the whipping wind, her normally pink cheeks
had grown pale. My face, reflected in the black windowpane, looked very
tired. I was afraid that she would exhaust me. I closed my eyes, leaning
the side of my head against the window. A sweet drowsiness spread over
"Your coffee is getting cold." She hurried me without
touching her own coffee. I covered the lukewarm cup with my hands, but
I didn't know how to bring myself to drink that black liquid.
"I don't think I'll go to America."
"Why?" I was glad.
"Because of what you said... because of the mongrel business."
"Not mongrel again. Half-breed, I said. I don't expect
prejudice against mixed blood is the same in America as it is here. Actually,
America is made up of people of mixed blood."
"It's not that. I'm not afraid of that. What you said
this afternoon made me realize something, something that I had forgotten."
"There is something other than going to America. I began
to think of marriage in more concrete terms. About the process of having
babies. It gives me the creeps thinking of doing it with that PFC."
She frowned prettily, squeezing her eyebrows together.
I was exhausted, and I didn't understand what she was
"I want to go to America, but there' s something more
"What's that?" I forced myself to ask.
"The dream that the first contact between a man and woman
will be lovely. I can't let that PFC ruin that dream."
"You've been thinking those wild thoughts all day."
"No, that thought flashed through my mind the moment
you said mongrel. Actually, I was thinking of that all along but I covered
it up stupidly on account of my dream of going to America. You lifted the
veil for me."
I smiled awkwardly, at a loss for words. Not knowing
whether I had done a good deed or not, I just wanted to be free of her.
"All day I was thinking of ways to escape from the sewer
without going to America. I decided to have a talk with you."
She gulped down the cold coffee as if drinking water,
and her cheeks grew flushed.
"Can I stay with you at your house?" She asked it as
if she had finally gathered up enough courage.
I turned toward the pane. The window didn't show any
details of the dark back alley but my reflection. I pressed my foregead
on the cold window pain and then my nose, distorting it. I shut my eyes
and tried to devise a way to get out of an embarrassing answer, but I grew
sick and tired of making silly excuses. I shook my head until the loose
windowpane clattered. Drowsiness enveloped me like mist.
"I'll pay for my board." Having moved next to me, she
was whispering, blowing a warm breath into my ear, her arm draped around
my back. Her unique body smell reached me. It was a shame that she didn't
know she was so fragrant in the midst of the sewage.
If the ground she was standing on was a sewer, what I
was standing on was a terrible land parched by a long dry spell demon.
How could I explain that to her? It would be easier to explain Korea's
sijo poems in English.
I really hated to feel burdened and distressed by other
people's problems. I decided to ignore it.
"Let's go now. Our mothers will be waiting for us." I
stood up, pulling her hand.
"Yes, your mother and my mother," I said nonchalantly.
"You'll think about what I've just asked, won't you?"
"Put on your scarf. It's cold outside."
I wrapped my hair in my scarf, as if giving her a demonstration,
pulling down several wisps of bangs over my forehead.
"I'll pay for my board. I earn enough for that."
"I'm rather hungry. All I had for lunch was a few rolls.
Aren't you hungry?"
Ahead of her, I climbed down the dark, steep stairs expertly.
The street was cold, and I hated to be alone in the cold. I wanted to be
more friendly just because it was cold, but decided I'd better not. She
seemed to expect to hear a definite answer. I said firmly, "Goodbye."
Walking alone, I sucked in my stomach, pulling my head
into my coat collar. It was only then that I turned to look inside myself.
My field of vision was as dark and narrow as that of a snail hiding inside
its shell, but it was only there, inside that confined range, that I could
feel at ease with the world around me.
I stood absentmindedly at a trolley stop. The trolley
hadn't come for a long time, but the number of people waiting didn't increase.
I was so tired that I wanted to ride if only as for as Hwashin. I was completely
exhausted, having drummed up sales amounting to almost 200 dollars that
I suddenly realized that the most exhausted part of me
was not my legs, but my mouth. After a day of repeating the same phrases
over and over in my seventh grader's English, by evening my tongue was
ready to go into fits.
"How beautiful she is!"
"May I help you?"
Thinking back, I realized that I may not have spoken
my mother tongue all day. I was extremely busy, Misuk and Tae-su didn't
come to talk to me, and I didn't have time to talk to Ock Hui-do. All of
a sudden I was seized with the compulsion to speak my own language. I moved
next to a middle-aged man who was standing nearby, although it was not
clear if he was waiting for the trolley.
"How beautiful your wife is!" I muttered under my breath
"What's her eye color?"
"What's her hair color?"
Fortunately, he couldn't hear me because I kept my voice
so low. Low as it was, it was the first Korean I had spoken that day. But
even if it was Korean, it wasn't my own words. I felt I would go crazy
if I didn't say something that conveyed my own feelings. If not in words,
I wanted to express myself in a cry or even a gesture.
The middle-aged man ambled toward the other side of the
trolley strip. The trolley didn't come, and the number of people waiting
for it didn't increase or decrease. I paced a while, then started walking.
A boy working as a hawker at a gift shop for American
soldiers had latched onto a black man. I stopped to listen to his sad English.
"Hallo. Preese come, come, come. Rook, Rook. We have
meny, meny, berry nice present."
"I don't have money. You give yourself a present, okay?"
The boy slammed down the brass ashtray and pipe he was
hawking on the counter, and cried, "Damn it, you son-of-bitch!"
It was in our own refreshing tongue. I felt much better
and asked him, grinning, "Hey, little boy, have you sold a lot today?"
This seemed like the first meaningful Korean I had used
all day. Not waiting for his answer, I went on wearily, looking at the
Bamboo baskets, pipes, A-frame carriers, wooden baskets,
jackets with flashy embroidery on both front and back, faded pajamas made
of coarse fabric, a grandfather with a horsehair hat, a wooden farmer doll
with a fertilizer carrier on his back. All the goods were supposed to be
typical Korean products, but they looked strange and foreign to me. There
was not much to sell, but you couldn't survive without selling what there
was; that must be the mark of poverty. I passed the shops and stood in
a dark corner.
And then I ran. It wasn't simply because I was afraid.
Something more urgent than fear had overcome me. I wanted to see the chimpanzee
at the toy stall. I wanted to be with that pleasant friend caught in that
frenzy of whisky drinking until he slowed down and returned to total emptiness.
The toy stall was surrounded by spectators as usual,
most of them adults. I felt better seeing other grown-ups who liked toys.
Among the piles of cars, trains, dolls, airplanes, swords, and guns, the
chimpanzee drew the most attention, but he didn't seem to generate any
income for the vendor. Today he had a helper beside him. A wind-up black
doll, with bulging eyes and white teeth, was waiting for his master's festival
to begin, a pair of cymbals in his hands.
The vendor yawned languidly, eyed the crowd with a sidelong
glance, and stretched his dry wooden hand toward the chimpanzee, as if
he were being forced to please the spectators. I held my breath like someone
in a theater audience waiting for the opening gong. The vendor wound the
screw on the back of the chimpanzee first, then he wound up the black doll,
before setting them up side by side. They moved their shoulders rhythmically,
one pouring and drinking whisky and the other clanging the cymbals. They
were a becoming pair, for one poured and drank whisky faster and faster,
while the other pounded the cymbals faster and faster.
The onlookers swayed their bodies to the rhythm, laughing
and laughing. I laughed so hard that tears flowed from the corners of my
eyes. While the onlookers held their breath, the pair's movement slowed
down. When they came to a complete halt, I felt the energy draining form
my body, almost melting to the ground. I brushed away my tears, while the
crowd moved away and newcomers arrived. I kept staring absentmindedly.
Nothing crept into my empty brain. Suddenly I realized that I could stand
without crumpling to the ground because I was being supported by somebody.
The support was so expert, so comfortable. A sense of recognition flashed
"Let's go now," said Ock Hui-do.
A pair of warm, good-natured eyes was looking down at
me. Happiness surged through me, as if we were meeting after a long, long
separation. Side by side we threaded our way through the crowd.
"Do you still look at toys just like a child?" he asked.
"What about you?"
"Suddenly I had to see him. That drunkard...," he said
"Me, too. I ran all the way."
"I did the same thing. Why? I wonder. I couldn't resist
"Maybe we expected to see each other," I said.
"What do you mean? We've just been together all day."
As if showing that he had been really with me, he held
my small hand. It thawed inside his thick, warm one, and his heat, his
breath, his eyes conveyed an ecstatic joy almost as in a dream.
"It's been a long time."
I was thankful to see him there. He seemed to be a new
person, different from the one I had been with the whole day.
"We've always been together." He squeezed my hand.
"What's the use of being together? We were so busy that
we couldn't find a moment to talk. I was so lonely."
"Pitiful girl," he said in a half-joking tone, grinning,
but his words had a special power that stroked my heart.
"Please, please don't make me a pitiful girl again,"
I spoke like a child, walking with my head against his shoulder. He didn't
After the glittering lights of the dressmaker, the haberdashery,
the shoe shop, and the jewelry shop, came the dim Chinese bun shop and
the dark hill that rose toward the cathedral. I looked up at him by the
30-watt light of the bun shop. Usually good-natured, bright, and calm,
his eyes were now burning with a strange fever.
Shocked, I shifted my glance. When I looked up at him
again the next time, we had passed the brightness, and with the street
lights behind, his face was shadowed, but his eyes were still burning.
I held my breath. Throughout my body, I could feel that
this rock-like man was trembling from deep inside. I was trembling also.
My hand in his was feeling something completely new. For a minute, I felt
a resistance to the new feeling. I tried to pull my hand from his, but
he was much stronger than I expected. I couldn't help but sense his masculinity.
My heart began to pound uncontrollably. I pressed on
the left side of my chest with my free hand. My heart, suddenly transformed
into a separate being, was about to jump from the ribs that confined it.
He was dragging me. I missed some steps and lost my balance. He stopped
abruptly and pressed against me firmly with all his weight.
I could see and feel his fever close up.
"Pitiful girl. You're trembling," he whispered in a shaky
voice, which tickled my ear.
I knew he was deeply frightened of something. And I was
frightened of whatever he was frightened of. I waited for the frightening
thing to happen. I felt his breath, hesitating a little. I tilted back
my head and looked up at the cross on the roof of the cathedral before
accepting his breath. Strangely, I remembered the phrase of the poem I
had forgotten when I had stood at that spot. Before I knew it, I was reciting
the poetry haltingly.
Maria, only you should be merciful to us. We were born
of your blood.
Who knows better than you how heartbreaking longing
I had no idea why I had to spoil that precious moment
by doing such a silly thing. His breath didn't come closer. I felt regretful
and relieved at the same time. We started walking again down the hill and
around the corner.
"Today is Small Cold by the lunar calendar, isn't it?"
"It's strange that Small Cold is always colder than Big
"That's one of the tricks our ancestors played. They
sneaked in Fall Begins in the middle of the hot spell. They figured they
could alleviate the cold or heat by the use of language."
We crossed the street again and passed an alley without
"How far below zero do you think it is today?"
"This morning they said it was minus 15."
We regained our composure by exchanging such meaningless
pleasantries. Finally we said goodbye politely, not having found the words
that could connect the moment beside the cathedral to the present.
There was a strange jeep parked in front of my house.
A jeep in front of that haunted house was as inappropriate as a reality
that suddenly jumped into a dream. I hesitated about going inside the house
and was irritated by the fact that this unexpected visitor wouldn't leave
me in peace, but it was minus 15 outside and I didn't want to suffer in
the cold. The gate stood open, and on the entryway step was a pair of shiny
military boots and another pair of shabby boots. My cousin Jin was visiting
us. As I took off my shoes, I noticed the long rows of holes for lacing
the boots. I felt sorry for Jin who had to put on and take off such boots.
It was a good thing that I could feel sorry for him,
if only a little. It made me more comfortable in facing him, something
I had been worrying a lot about.
Jin was sprawled on the warmest part of the floor, and
a sergeant, apparently his driver, sat awkwardly on the colder side.
"Do you always come home this late?" Jin spat with a
disapproving air as he pulled himself up.
"I'm rather late today."
I was in the habit of acting subdued in front of him
and I couldn't help it today as usual. The rows of holes on his boots weren't
any help. His handsome face was pale, unlike a soldier's, and it still
had its dignity and elegance. It wasn't simply because of his rank as lieutenant
colonel; his unique dignity and refinement would have shone, even if he
were thrown into a public bath. The so-called UN jacket, a shapeless winter
coat that resembled a Chinese outfit, looked very good on him and didn't
alter his appearance a bit.
As I took off my coat and put my lunch box aside, I could
feel Jin's twisted smile following me, so disdainful of others and yet
so becoming to him. But how could I escape being imprisoned by his smile?
I put my frozen hands under the quilt on which Jin was
sitting and spoke to the sergeant first.
"It's cold. Why don't you come sit here?"
I felt closer to him sitting awkwardly in a corner than
I did to my cousin. The sergeant pushed himself further away to indicate
that my invitation was out of the question.
"How do you like your work?" Jin asked me.
"I like it well enough."
Conversation died, and I was as ill at ease as the sergeant
in the corner, although I was sitting in a comfortable position.
Jin pulled out a Pall Mall, lit it and exhaled gracefully.
The cigarette sent out a thin, bluish smoke. For no apparent reason it
My mother must have given kimchi soup to this precious
eldest son of my father's older brother, the one who ate only the most
delicious foods, who slept on the softest mat, who thought only the most
refined thoughts. Or had she given him soy bean stew, with shredded kimchi
in it? I regretted missing his face when he sat down to such a meal, but
it cheered me to no end to imagine him being served kimchi soup.
"Shall I bring your dinner in?" asked my mother, sliding
the door halfway open.
"Yes, but did you feed Cousin Jin?"
"No, he said he'd eaten already," she said in a bored
"Oh, I've eaten, too. I forgot for a moment."
I hated the idea of lapping up kimchi soup in front of
"How can you forget eating your dinner so quickly?" he
asked, twisting his cigarette stub out.
It sounded derisive, but what could I do? The more I
thought about not feeding him kimchi soup, the more wronged I felt. It
seemed unfair to have to skip a meal because of him, but it was better
than drinking kimchi soup in front of a man who had such a lustrous sheen
on his skin, as if he always had his fill of the most delicious food.
After rejecting the meal, I felt even more awkward and
crushed. I found myself slouching as clumsily as the sergeant on the other
side of the room.
"How can you live like this? Actually, I have been ordered
to bring you back with me, by force if necessary." He smiled briefly, moving
only the corners of his mouth.
"You can't ," I retorted, looking him straight in the
"You don't have to be afraid."
"Who's afraid? You always think everyone trembles in
fear at the sight of you."
"You haven't changed a bit." He smirked briefly. "My
father thinks it's his duty to take care of your family since you've lost
the head of your household. He's afraid that other relatives will criticize
him later if he neglects his obligations. That's why he made Mal write
a letter and asked me to come and see you. I know my father's hypocrisy
only too well."
"Why are you telling me this?"
"Because you're so cold. You seem to think I'm as hypocritical
as my father for coming here. I came willingly. I kind of wanted to see
you and I was curious about this old house." His smile seemed more gentle
"I wish you and your father would leave us alone. We'll
"That won't do. My father doesn't care if Nan frequents
dance halls or Min causes trouble with women. His only concern is your
family in Seoul. I mean the only concern he expresses. It's getting embarrassing.
In fact, everybody knows that we owe your family a lot, so you can understand
my father's distress, can't you, Kyong-a?"
I was suddenly afraid of where he was heading, but fortunately
he must have been thinking of other things. He didn't delve any deeper.
"But it's all a waste of energy," he muttered.
"Yes, you're right. I won't go."
"I don't mean that. I mean it wouldn't make any difference
whether my father worries about what other people think or not. Even if
you do become a Yankee slut because of your poverty, the relatives wouldn't
blame us. It won't affect us. After the war, everyone will be busier and
Baffled, I watched his mouth, which was twisted in a
"The concept of the family will shrink, too. Nobody will
blame someone for not taking care of his niece. Forget about his authority
as the head of the clan; people will have enough trouble disciplining their
He spoke carelessly, pulled out another Pall Mall, and
lit it. The metallic gleam in his eyes took on a shade of sorrow. Was it
because the smoke was in his eyes? He had said some cruel things, but he
looked more distracted than I was. He eyed me indifferently for a long
"Maybe in the future young people will be bolder in disregarding
their family ties and breaking away from the bondage of convention. They'll
take more responsibility for what they do, bravely and seriously. It will
become the world of youth."
He seemed to be engrossed in his own problems and telling
his own story. He was still a bachelor because he couldn't overcome his
parents' fierce objection to his first love's inferior family background.
But I couldn't tell whether he was simply reminiscing or if he was truly
in pain. When he finished his cigarette, the sorrow I thought I had seen
was not there. His eyes were still cold and his perfectly handsome face
was expressionless. I wondered what kind of woman could have wounded this
cold and impenetrable man, but he looked so unshakable that nobody's curiosity
could find its way inside him. His dignity and elegance weren't part of
his character. Rather, he was hiding behind those qualities.
I managed to ask, "What are you trying to say? How can
I understand you if you speak in such an obscure way?"
"It's simple. You're free. You don't have to pay attention
to adults," he said matter-of-factly.
I was suddenly furious.
"Ha! What a waste of energy! It's more a waste of energy
than what your father's trying to do. My dear cousin, so cultivated and
cool, came all this way to make such a long speech. I've been free for
a long time, long before you proclaimed it. Do you think there's anything
I couldn't do because I had to think about family appearances? I'm only
concerned with my problems. I live as I please and I'll keep living as
I please, so don't worry. I won't accept your family's help with our living
expenses any more. Do you think I don't know what your family is up to?
You've mouthed all this nonsense because you hate to part with money. Good!
I won't accept it. I make my own money."
"Why are you so narrow-minded?" His low, chilly voice
suppressed my fury. "Accept it. Your uncle is rich. You can even ask for
more. Actually, we owe your family. Can't you read between the lines?"
He stopped and seemed to concentrate on my mother's room.
It was quiet. There wasn't a hint of human life there.
"You don't understand. You have to free yourself from
your mother and then from this old house."
"What?" I was jolted by his remark.
"First, free yourself from your mother."
"What are you telling me to do?"
"Your mother is already part of this old house. If she's
most comfortable here, what can we do? But you're too young and too spirited
to be part of this house. So don't bind yourself to any obligation."
"Then what happens to my mother?"
"Your mother is physically healthy."
He reduced my mother's health to her body. I didn't like
hearing him speak like that.
"Anyway, she can take care of herself, and my father
will contribute to the grocery bills. As I said before, your uncle is rich,
and although I criticized him from time to time, he is a good man. He takes
pride in keeping up appearances with his relatives. In other words, he
is a good fellow representing the older generation. Lean on him. You and
your mother can lean on him. Understand? You must come down to Pusan. You
can continue your schooling and enjoy a life suitable for your age. Life
can be a little brighter for you."
He pronounced the word "brighter" with such a fascinating
stress that my heart began to pound. My longing for light and joy wrenched
its head up inside me. The sergeant, who was dozing awkwardly in the corner,
suddenly sprawled out and began to snore. His limbs spread out comfortably,
he fell into a sweet sleep, pleasing to look at. A genuine smile spread
over Jin's lips for the first time.
"That fellow, he must have been really exhausted."
I tried to calm myself by flicking Jin's lighter on and
off until my thumb hurt. He observed me at leisure, confident of the effect
of his words, but I tried to put on the most bored expression I could muster.
However, I was severely torn between the longing for a brighter life and
the resignation that I might never escape from my situation. I knew that
this feeling, this pain, was obviously meaningless. I would never become
a new person through that pain.
No matter what anyone said, I might never be free. Looking
up in fright, as the war raged on, at the dark roof with one side shattered,
hating my mother, eating kimchi soup; I might never be free from any of
Once again I realized that layer after layer of chains
bound me. Where had those chains come from? Sometimes I tried to trace
them back to the beginning, but I always gave up. With Jin's help, perhaps
I could get a glimpse of their origin. But I was afraid of looking at them.
I hadn't forgotten about them. I was just avoiding them as deftly as possible.
"The day after tomorrow when I head south, I'm taking
you with me," he said in a bored but confident tone. "It looks like we
are going to take someone along with us to help my mother with her chores.
I heard that the sergeant's sister is quiet and nice, and I asked him to
bring her along, so it's almost certain," he said, indicating the sergeant
with his chin.
As if his mission were through now, his thin lips pursed
and his eyes shone with their characteristically selfish gleam, completely
uninterested in anyone else's affairs.
I kept flicking the lighter. The flame had long since
been reduced to a putter of sparks. I pushed the lighter toward him, and
blew on my thumb, red and swollen.
"I'm not going." I said firmly.
He didn't seem surprised, and he didn't try to talk me
into going any more. He looked at his watch and told me to wake up the
sergeant. It seemed that the slot of time he had set aside to pay attention
to others had passed.
The sergeant was snoring noisily. He had stretched out
completely, his big feet rudely directed to his arrogant superior. He was
so deep in sleep that he wouldn't even have noticed if somebody had carried
him away, but I felt as if he were the only one alive in the whole house.
"Let him sleep a little more, if you don't have to hurry,"
"I guess so."
Jin yawned languidly and pulled out his third cigarette.
I struck a match for him. It was nice to look at the cigarette release
a wisp of smoke between his delicate and yet masculine fingers.
"Have you ever been in a battle where people actually
killed each other " I asked contemptuously.
"Of course, but I'm not on the front anymore."
"Killing people and firing guns?" I showed my contempt
"I hate war stories."
He brushed aside my taunt in a matter-of-fact tone, but
I was insistent.
"Still, you must have retreated and fled once when Seoul
fell into communist hands. Calling it a strategic retreat. Ha! I can't
imagine you fleeing." I wanted to crush his arrogance with my derision.
"Then how about imagining me charging into an enemy camp
all alone, beheading tens of them? I'm sorry, but I'm not a noble hwarang
warrior from the Shilla Kingdom or a righteous soldier from the Yi Dynasty."
He avoided my disdain with cunning and skill. The conversation
stopped. We held our breath, listening to the stillness that filled the
old house. It was not that we couldn't hear the wind blowing; rather we
were listening for a human movement.
It seemed as if nobody lived there, nobody had ever lived
there. Even if a goblin materialized to search the house with his sensitive
nose, he wouldn't have been able to sniff a human scent in this house.
The stillness lasted a long time before Jin broke it.
"Are you planning to go crazy as well?" He spat out the
words as he stuffed the lighter and gloves in his pocket.
"Sergeant Kim!" he called sharply.
The sergeant bounced up like a wound spring. As the two
soldiers laced their boots, my mother stood silently at the edge of the
wooden floor. I whispered to her that she should ask them to stay overnight
to indicate her hospitality. Clearly Jin thought my mother had gone mad.
I wanted to show him that she could be normal. However, she pretended not
to hear me, accepted their bows wordlessly, and followed them to the gate
with me. She gazed at the jeep until it turned at the end of the alley,
then locked the gate and went into her room without a word.
I was hungry. I was sad, thinking that I was still hungry
for kimchi soup, and I couldn't pretend I was not.
Are you planning to go crazy as well: Ha! I'm this hungry,
so how can I go mad? Who does he think he is? Everyone knows the truth,
no matter how he denied it. He fled at the beginning of the war, of course.
He left us under that cruel, depraved rule. And now he pities uo for having
to endure all that and suffer from the aftermath. Disgusting! Who does
he think he is, idiot! He looks down on my family because it's made of
women and ghosts.
I tossed and turned on my mat, flinging one insult after
another at him. But I didn't feel any better.
Coward. Bastard. Deserter. Everyone knows it.
I like the word deserter and felt much better for having
said it. I could hear a cough from the other room. A shutter clattered
a few times. Then a deep stillness without even a rustling encroached again.
I knew I wouldn't go crazy. I knew I was intent on finding
the joy of life, hidden deep in my heart. It lay deep inside, never losing
its force, although it sometimes acted as if it were a separate entity,
ignoring the fact that I had to pretend to live a dull life because I was
not supposed to have any other choice.
That was why I fell in love. What a blessing, what a
salvation it was to have met Ock Hui-do. If I hadn't met him, I would have
crumbled all to pieces, the perfect target for Jin's pity.
I remembered an incident from my childhood. My father
had loved me best. But because he was afraid that other people would criticize
him for spoiling me, he somethimes acted with sudden severity, and at other
times I was punished harshly for trivial things. I remembered he often
argued with my mother because of that.
One day, when I was in the first grade, I was punished
for having bought sweets with the money left over after I bought my school
supplies. I was locked in the attic in the outer quarters. The door was
locked outside. I knew if I cried loudly enough, I would be forgiven, but
I didn't cry. I put up with the fright, pressing down on my pounding heart.
I began to notice that it was not really dark inside the attic. As my eyes
got used to the darkness and began to discern the shapes around me, I was
surprised to find that the things inside the closet were more interesting
than things outside. If you brushed off the dust, the toys my brothers
had played with were almost new and all of them were in working condition.
I could become a driver, a pilot, or put on a military uniform. I did it
all, but I grew tired soon. I was anxious because I felt I had to examine
the piles of wondrous goods that had been forgotten by the other members
of the family.
A couple of times I dipped my finger into a honey jar
and sucked it. Then I moved on to the books piled high in one corner. They
looked fascinating but there wasn't enough light to read. At that very
moment a beam of light miraculously streamed in. It was the afternoon sunlight,
pouring through the gap between the west wall and the post at the corner
the room. I shuffled through the musty books looking for one with pictures.
That was how I first got to know Hans Christian Anderson.
In that crowded attic a glittering and wonderful land
of fantasy opened before me. I was a mermaid, a swan, a princess, all rolled
Then I heard my mother's shriek as she returned home.
The attic door was flung open and I was embraced.
"Oh, my, my, Kyong-a. Poor baby, you must have been scared
to death. Did you cry?" She hugged me to her breast. Her heart was racing.
"What a rigid man. He's so inflexible. How could he lock
our precious Kyong-a in here? Something terrible could have happened. What
if you fainted out of fright? It was a good thing that I came home early.
For some reason I wanted to come home early. Now I see why."
She fussed over me, pressing her cheek to mine and wiping
my tear-less eyes. I sniffled a little.
"Poor baby! Even your tears have all dried up. Where
is that father of yours hiding?"
I missed the chance to tell her that I had not been miserable
at all, so I had to burst into tears just to go along with her. My father
rushed to me from his hiding place, and gave me a spoonful of liquid medicine
mixed with red powder. He said it was good for the nerves.
I couldn't remember whether or not I swallowed the medicine,
but I was proud to remember that I hadn't felt dejected during my confinement.
No, I couldn't let myself become the object of anyone's
pity. I began to appreciate myself. I couldn't let myself suffer from hunger.
I bolted up and went to the kitchen, where I laid out a tray for myself
quietly, so my mother wouldn't know.
Translated by Yu Young-nan.