Born in 1937 in South Kyongsang Province, Lee Je-ha studied
at Hongik University. He received the Yi Sang Literary Award in 1985 and
the Hankook Ilbo Award in 1987. He has published a number of works in a
variety of genres, ranging from novels and short stories to poetry and
children's books. Initially he wrote short stories, his first collection
being published as Ch'osik (Vegetable Diet) in 1973. His first novel, Kwanghwasa
(A Mad Painter), was not published until 1986.
He is mainly famed for the experimental techniques he
employs in his narrative works. While the settings are perfectly familiar
ones, his fragmentary style and use of surrealistic metaphors challenges
any too simplistic notion of what is real in today's world. The distortions
of reality found in his work serve to draw attention to the distortions
inherent in the system of values dominating society.
Critics have generally seen his works as indirect satires
of the dehumanized aspects of modern Korea's materialistic society. The
superficiality current in certain milieu forms a central topic in some
works, while the madness of those involved in politics formed a main focus
of his earliest work.
An overall term sometimes used to qualify his literary
technique is "fantastic realism" and he is certainly to be counted among
the most original writers of fiction in modern Korea. His originality is
such that readers have at times been intensely shocked, disturbed by his
refusal to follow the conventions of dogmatic schools.
A Traveler Never Stops on the Road
It happened around sunset on a mid-December day in 1983.
A few passengers got
off the Samchuk-bound bus that had started at Sokcho.
The brief stop was made in Mulchi at a point where three streets met. Two
or three men looked like hikers in ski jackets and winter hats, carrying
backpacks or small toiletry bags. As they got off, they loudly complained
about the cold weather and hurried to a small roadside store. There was
also a middle-aged man obviously coming back from shopping raw fish for
his store. He followed the hikers.
The last one off the bus was a man who stood still, as
if stunned by a blow. He wore a corduroy jacket and carried a ragged old
bag that seemed to belong to a town clerk of the past age. He seemed to
be watching the tail end of the departing bus, but in fact he was gazing
across the street at the endless horizon of the ocean spread right in front
This last man had boarded the bus in Seoul at the spur
of the moment as if someone were pursuing him. Since the bus left Seoul,
he had seen patches of the ocean all along the way, but the sudden appearance
of the entire ocean jolted him. It was in truth the ocean that made him
get off the bus at the last minute. This desperate feeling was hard to
describe, like facing a rock cliff at an unexpected moment.
The ocean began at the edge of an open asphalt square,
about four times as wide as a four-lane highway. Tour buses and cars were
passing busily on the highway. The man shivered once and began to walk
cautiously across the street. His steps were uncertain, as if he were teetering
on a cliff.
Small cement flower beds were here and there obviously
for the tourists, but in the whipping gust of wind, they looked small and
useless. The wind was so strong that it seemed to raise the ground upright.
The man jumped over a two-foot-high barrier and walked
right into a pebbly beach about ten meters wide. He put down his bag on
the ground and was about to straighten up when someone yelled, "Stop! Don't
"Step back three paces! Leave the bag alone!"
A soldier rushed to him, aiming a gun at him. He looked
gingerly into the bag and relaxed a little.
"What is this?"
"Shit... Can't you see what it is? Secret code numbers
and ground rice powder."
In the bag were some underwear, toilet items, and a small
vinyl bag. While the soldier was poking the vinyl bag, the man thought
to himself, "You are already dead." If he were a North Korean spy, he would
take this moment to run. But what fool would carry a gun in his bag?
"What is this? Looks like some powder... Is it lime?"
The soldier asked and rubbed it between his fingers. The man got angry
and walked resolutely toward the soldier.
"I said rice powder."
"What the hell...? Ugh, it's bones."
"Sprinkle them and go away."
"... go away right now."
About 15 years ago when the man was a new recruit in
an Army training camp, he saw a trainee who pulled the safety pin off a
grenade, didn't know which direction to throw it in, and ended up blowing
another man's arm off. Soldiers near him shouted and pointed to the right
direction, but he got all flustered, reeling from side to side.
Now the man felt like that trainee and was infuriated
at himself when he snatched back his bag from the gun-toting soldier. He
slowly walked back to the highway.
He could see white paper signs with "Hot Fish Soup" handwritten
on them, being almost torn by the wind off the windows of a couple of small
eateries. He entered the left eatery only to find the men who had gotten
off the bus. They sat around on old coal heater, loudly dividing the expense
of drinking. One of them, the backpack-carrying man, didn't turn away,
as if he knew the last comer. But the newcomer didn't pay any attention
to them and flopped himself on a backless chair in a far corner.
"Why the hell isn't this guy back yet? Maybe he didn't
get it, huh?"
"There are lots of them around... Maybe he found too
"I hope they don't haggle too hard... If you are too
nice to them, they stick to you like flies."
"I am sure General Kim would kick them in order before
they come here... Hell, if there are too many, each of us can lick two
"You make me laugh. I know you jerk off as soon as you
stick it in."
"Oh, yeah? Mine is just fine. Shit, I'm not over the
hill yet. I can last an hour...."
"Shut up your dirty mouths. You are all getting old.
Just zip up."
While they were giggling, the middle-aged store owner
came out of a small door and approached the last comer.
"Will you have hot fish soup? That's all I have."
"What kind of fish?"
"Flatfish, that's all I have. How about soju?"
"A large glass of warm rice wine. Just one. And rice."
After ordering, he unlaced his hands and lit up a cigarette,
a habit. He sat there after eating and lit his second cigarette when the
store owner approached him.
"Look, can I talk with you a moment?" he asked.
By this time, the store was empty because the hikers
had left as soon as their friend came back. It was obvious that they were
on a sex tour disguised as a hiking trip. The friend they had been waiting
for came back with several women, a couple too many and they noisily argued.
The women-procurer wore a black beret.
"I said I didn't need one," the backpack man complained.
"Why did you bring so many?"
"Hell, stop pretending! I've never seen a guy who doesn't
hike a cunt. I've brought just the right number and you complain? You really
don't need one?"
"No, I don't."
"Hell, if you don't want it, I'll take care of it. I
won't touch a fingertip of hers, but you must pay."
"You dirty son of a bitch."
"Go tell your wife you didn't do it! You gutless eunuch."
The beret man herded the women out of the store, but
the backpack man turned around and asked the last comer.
"Are you coming to the mountain?"
When he hesitated to answer, the backpack man pulled
his peak down and said, "If you are coming our way, come to the Baiksul
Inn and play 'go-stop'1. You can sell your 'gwang'2."
He could hear them hailing a taxi. The women's giggles
sounded much more spirited than the men's. He didn't know why the backpack
man acted as if he knew him. "Shall I sell my 'gwang', buy a woman and
go in the mountain?" He thought to himself.
"Please follow me," the store owner said and took him
through the door to a back room. The eatery must have been a small barn
made into a store. The door led to a tiny yard of an old crumbling house.
Here and there dingy cooking utensils were scattered around as if there
were no kitchen to hold them.
"This is the room," said the owner and opened the door,
but he stood still beside a wall and stared at the owner.
"Will you take the gentleman as far as Wolsan? He says
he will pay you a hundred thousand won. He's over eighty and has been like
that for three days."
"A rich man," he said and glanced at the old man. Thinking
this must be his unlucky day, he turned around.
"We've waited for three days, but found no one. I think
you will do," said the owner.
"There are taxis."
"Cars can't go to Wolsan. There are no roads. Besides,
I don't know whether it's north or south of the 38th parallel. It's a pity."
"The old man insists he wants to go there. If not, near
there. You can go as far as Suwha."
The store owner must have thought he had the strength
to do the job. Inside the room, the old man lay on his back with his eyes
open and glaring, and a woman in a nurse's uniform sat with her back to
the wall. Her face was completely blank.
"Why don't you take him yourself?"
"I can't carry him," the owner said angrily. "He says
he will pay for the transportation in addition to the hundred thousand
"I am sorry I can't. I am on my way to the mountain."
"You are both travellers who happened to run into each
other. Have a heart. Can't you relent a bit? Oh, you want more money?"
"No, let me go."
"You really can't?"
"No, find someone else."
"Don't be so stubborn, please," said the woman suddenly
in a monotonous tone. He could not tell whether it was the old man or the
woman who had offered to pay. He left the store, uneasily.
In front of the store, he gazed at the dark blue sea.
He didn't see the soldier, though. But he knew as soon as he stepped onto
the beach, the soldier would pop up with his gun ready.
It was near dusk when he got on a bus going toward the
mountain. He looked out at the darkening fields but he could not get rid
of his uneasiness. He felt bad that he had neglected a sick old man, but
what bothered him more was the woman. He couldn't tell whether she was
a young girl in her early twenties or a middle-aged woman over thirty,
close to forty. There were in the room a radio playing old Korean folk
music and a dim naked bulb on the ceiling. Her face against this background
aroused a strange aversion in him. The old man was wrapped in a heavy coat
and an expensive fur scarf. He looked like the patriarch of a wealthy family.
He and the woman must have been resting in the mountain for health, and
he probably took a turn for the worse. It was obvious he had had a stroke
and was paralyzed. If the old man hadn't had glaring eyes and the store
owner hadn't mentioned the DMZ line, he might have accepted the offer.
When he got to the Baiksul Inn, the backpack man waved
at him from a brightly lit second floor window. He acted as if he had been
anticipating his arrival.
"Come on up. I knew you would...." As he went up, the
man was waiting on the staircase and said, "Don't take another room. We've
already taken four rooms. We wanted three, but the innkeeper wouldn't hear
of it. We stay here every time we come, but the son of a bitch... The guys
are staying up all night. I have no taste for 'go-stop.' In the morning,
will you come with me to the waterfall? For exercise, I mean."
"Didn't you invite me to play 'go-stop'?"
"You can play a couple of hours. It's not fun to me.
I want to have a clear head when I go down, but those guys... oh, hell."
He looked into the room to which the backpack man took
him, but didn't go in, instead he followed him, still holding his bag.
The next room seemed his, and the game was going on in the third room.
One woman sat beside each man. The women giggled and cackled, fed the drinks
and some eatables to their men and counted the money. They had been brought
for this purpose. "Hey, you girl, you take care of this gentleman here,
instead of me, get it? By the way, have you eaten?" While he was being
introduced, the backpack man seated a woman beside him.
"If you're going to spend the night together, have the
best time," a woman said, making a strange gesture to his woman.
"Win or lose, stop at midnight. If you get too excited
about the game, you'll ruin yourself. I'll wake you in the morning. I'm
going to practice yoga in my room," the backpack man said and left the
room as he was about to join the game.
"I don't know why the son of a bitch comes hiking. He's
always like that," the beret man said, resentfully.
"We've got 'kodori', 'kumbak', 'tongsagei'3 and jaekyu,
you know these? Oh, 'gwang' is five won."
"What is 'jaekyu'?"
"If you turn over 'gwang' and don't have a match, you
take a card from each one, but you can't take another 'gwang'. It's doesn't
"What are you talking about, it's a lot," a player said.
"In a deal where you take cards away, you can't 'stop.'
After a round, if a possessor comes up, then you are dead."
"That means somebody else will 'stop'. You lose double.
Why, you haven't played this before?"
He didn't answer him and took out his wallet. Antes were
quite high. "Gwang" was five thousand won, one point was a thousand won.
There was even "nangari" which meant that he might lose all his travel
Once the game started, everybody was quiet. They had
apparently made all kinds of rules to raise the winner's pot, and they
became deadly serious. Only the women talked and laughed once in a while.
The woman beside him looked very young but had a face that looked like
it had been beaten by a soft club. Occasionally she fed him snacks and
poured drinks for him, but she never said a word. Just like what they say¦ˇif
a woman doesn't get fingered by a man during a game, she would be ignored
in the bar, too. She was obviously discouraged by the fact that there were
more women than needed. She didn't come here as the partner for the backpack
man; still, he had left, and she was downcast.
Around nine o'clock, one woman stood up with part of
the money that had been set aside out of each round for common use. She
went out of the room, came back soon, and said, "A phone call for Mr. Kim."
"At this early hour?" Mr. Kim grimaced and glared at
the woman with feverish eyes.
"Your hands are lousy. Why don't you go and finger 'it',
huh?" Other players teased him. In about an hour, Mr. Kim and the woman
At eleven o'clock another man was called out for a phone
call and came back. In half an hour, another. By this time, it dawned on
him what "a phone call" meant. When one was on a losing streak, one went
to have sex with his woman for luck. It was half past midnight when his
woman said, "There's a phone call for you." Without saying a word, he followed
her to the last room where, without a word, she began to undress, sitting
beside the futon and covers, already in place.
"I don't want it. Why did you call me out when I wasn't
"You really don't?" She looked up at him.
"'It' won't stand up."
"I'll make it."
"I said I didn't want to."
"Honest? Oh, I am so glad."
She didn't look glad, but came around and hugged him
from behind. She even kissed him on the back of his head.
"When you go back, please say, 'It was such a long call.
Was it an overseas call?' Say it, will you, please," the woman pleaded.
"Overseas call?" He thought as he squatted awkwardly
beside the woman. He suddenly felt very tired. He had been winning a little,
but if he left the game in half an hour, the other men wouldn't resent
him, he thought.
Exactly at 2:45 a.m. he stood up and went to bed. He
had been in deep sleep for about two hours before someone shook him awake.
The backpack man was looking down on him with oddly compressed lips.
"Wake up. There was an accident."
A little after four o'clock, one of the women began to
vomit and fell backward, dead. It looked like a heart attack. Stunned,
he remembered the woman he had been with.
"That girl called Miss Choi?"
"Why? Did you sense something? You did phone with her,
I guess.... "
"No, I didn't" he almost blurted, but, instead, said,
"She died of that?" The backpack man looked at him closely with an odd
smile and said,
"You are shocked, aren't you? Why don't you go down the
"Just slip out."
What's going to be done, did a doctor come, he asked,
but the backpack man simply said, "It was a heart attack." He didn't know
whether to be grateful to him or to be embarrassed. Hesitantly he left
the inn. All the men were quietly discussing how to resolve the situation.
He hadn't had time to properly be introduced to each of them, but suddenly
he realized he didn't get the name of the backpack man. He turned around
and began to climb back up. When he hiked up about a mile or so, there
emerged a cluster of motels. A Swiss-style park hotel stood conspicuously
among them. A large number of teenagers with dishevelled bushy hairdos
were looking out of the motel windows or strolling outside a closed souvenir
shop. They were obviously on a school field trip.
A tinge of red was seeping into the dark blue sky, but
the tall mountains cast dark shadows, making the place somber, chilly and
misty. In the hotel garden, a model E. T. statue stood as if it were mocking
him. From below, a stream made a trickling sound. In awe, he stared at
the extraterrestrial monster from a far star many light years away.
"You may not believe this, but we are government bureaucrats"
kept ringing in his ears. He did not know whether the remark meant that
they would take responsibilities for the matter. Things could get hairy
if a stranger were involved in it. Such a situation would inevitably get
complicated. Even if autopsy came out right, the police wouldn't let go
of the matter and insist on asking, who was this odd man? If the woman's
death had something to do with gambling, things would really get bad. Gambling
for illicit sex? The police would say, "How thick-skinned are you guys?
Say that in court. No one would believe you."
The backpack man looked about forty. His eyes were mild,
but the teeth he flashed between his sideburns shone icily. He was thankful
to the backpack man for helping him escape, but his bossiness rubbed him
wrong. That was why he did not go to bed at the time the backpack man told
him to. The word "bureaucrat" should have come out of his own mouth because
he was one himself.
After strolling around the cable car station, he waited
for the coffee shop to open. He had coffee and went down to the inn. It
was almost eleven o'clock. There was no one in the inn.
"Oh, those men from the Department of Culture?"
The proprietor said as if nothing had happened. The moment
the proprietor recognized him as one of the guests, he blurted, "Shit.
Those dirty sons of bitches are supposed to be from the Department of Culture!
Can you believe that? They went down with the police."
"Do you know where they went?"
"Where else? The police station, I guess."
"Did a doctor come?"
"What for? The poor girl. By the way, why are you asking?
Did you do it, too?"
The proprietor kept cursing and complaining. Whether
the hikers were in newspaper or broadcasting, he couldn't tell. If they
had gone to a police station, it must be in Sokcho.
On the way to Sokcho by bus, he changed his mind
and got off at Mulchi, but the eatery was empty. He threw himself on the
first available chair and waited for the middle-aged owner. He guessed
that Wolsan was a village near the end of the inner Sorak. Once he was
passing near Injei, he remembered, he heard the name of a place called
Wolhak, Wolsan, or something like that. Even if Wolsan happened to be north
of the DMZ, he thought he could take the old man near there and ride a
ferry boat to Choonchun before nightfall. From Choonchun, he could make
it to Seoul by dawn.
When he shouted at the door, the owner came out, blankly
staring at him.
"Are they still here, I mean, the old man and...."
"They found a man?"
"No. They left early by taxi to Wontong, but I know it's
harder to find someone there."
"What's the use of money? He can't go there anyway. Why
don't you go to Wontong and ask. Did you change your mind?"
"Didn't you say we could go as far as Suwha? Can I go
there and get to Choonchun before the day is over? I must go to Choonchun."
"I doubt it. Roadblocks are so strict."
However strict the military police might be, it wouldn't
take all day. He looked at the owner nervously and wet his lips.
"I guess I can't do it. I must go to work tomorrow morning."
"Even if the sky fell down, I must... I am a civil servant,"
came to the tip of his tongue, but didn't say it. He just ordered some
It was two o'clock in the afternoon that I got on a Kanglung-bound
bus. In Kanglung, however, I changed my mind and went instead to Kyungpo
and arrived a little after four o'clock. I got off in front of a lake and
began to walk toward the sea.
I have been keeping my wife's bones all these years not
because of any lingering love but because of having failed to find a suitable
place to dispose of them. I should have discarded them near the crematorium
or some spot on the mountain, but I was too tired to do even that. Since
then the bones had been forgotten for three years along with other useless
"My hometown is not Wonsan," she once said. She had been
an invalid with a mitral disease. I remembered her remark and thought of
the vinyl bag of her bones. Even though she never said exactly where her
hometown was, I guessed it was somewhere on the eastern coast.
"If it is not Wonsan, where is it?" I asked but she didn't
answer. Ever since birth, she had lived from hand to mouth, begging here,
eking out a meager living there, merely trying to survive. Still, I thought,
she should have known her birthplace, but, believe it or not, she didn't.
There were times when she spoke a mixture of Honam and Youngnam dialects
or a pure Pyongan dialect, which showed that she had had a hard life. She
had been a peddler, then a serving woman in a back alley bar, before I
met her. I was attracted to her for her intelligent-looking face, but I
could not understand her total ignorance of her birthplace. If she had
been raised in an orphanage, someone might have told her a name, any name,
or she might have subconsciously kept a name in her mind. But she would
stammer, say some nonsense, finally blush and turn her face away from me
when I asked her. I guessed that she improvised the word, Wonsan, because
I was from Kaesung. At that time, I laughed it off, but now that I was
about to dispose of her bones, my memories of her blank response as to
her birthplace strangely bothered me as never before.
Kyungpo was his honeymoon spot some ten years ago. Then,
as well as now, the resort town out of season looked deserted. Kyungpo
has always boasted of its moon and the ocean, but was not different from
any deserted resort town. All the raw fish eateries were closed to endure
the gusty wind, weighed down under their slate roofs. Miraculously there
were a couple of open eateries in front of which stood fish tanks eerily
lit by fluorescent light. Several live fish, resting in a corner or slowly
swimming, reminded me of a desolate wasteland.
I pointed to a fish among several whose mouths had been
lopped off. Then I went upstairs and ordered a drink. The floor was unexpectedly
warm. The name of the fish was "hak-kong-chi," the proprietor said, the
most aggressive fish that attacked other fish. That was why its mouth had
been cut off. Even without a mouth, he was still more active than other
fish. If it had had the kind of poison that would knock out other fish,
it might have tasted better, I thought. I looked down at the sea and took
out the vinyl bag.
If the place were in a southern coast, the wind would
blow toward the sea, but as soon as I opened the bag, the ashes flew around
and into the inland lake. I threw off the empty bag into the wind and stared
at the darkening horizon. If the town had been in season, I would have
felt dreary, but I had a more urgent problem of finding a place to stay.
When I woke up, hunched over a table, it was night. "I
must go back. I must go into town," I kept thinking but I didn't want to
stand up. Apparently this eatery doubled as an inn, so I asked the owner
when the first bus came around in the morning. I washed my feet and came
upstairs when the owner woman brought up beddings and said, "I haven't
got guest registry yet, but we have women available." I refused and got
ready for bed. I turned off the light and lay down to be immediately startled
by a phone ring. "Sir, there is an attractive woman," the caller said.
I slammed down the receiver. About ten minutes later it rang again. I sat
up. In order to interrupt the woman's long explanation, he asked, "How
much for a quick one? I've got to sleep now. I don't want any more calls.
Send her up at ten o'clock."
Because of my wife's illness, I had been used to releasing
my sexual tension once or twice a month with another woman. During the
time I was preparing alone for a G-5 Civil Examination, it was necessary
for me. After a day's work, I would sit at desk to study, but I found myself
dozing off. I wasn't a serious college entrance exam repeater, but all
the same, I needed some fresh air. While out in the air, I first sought
a woman. Then I found that releasing sexual tension helped me concentrate.
Not much better than masturbation, such sexual encounters were usually
with a bar girl or a prostitute. I used precautionary measures against
venereal diseases, but tonight I didn't have any and felt extremely uneasy.
At ten o'clock the phone rang, but I couldn't bring myself to ask for condoms.
When the woman came, I immediately fell into the act, paid her, and went
back to sleep.
An overcast day. Over across the lake, one spot glimmered
like a patch of ice in the morning sun. A road stretched out around a playground-like
open space. In the middle of the road about ten meters ahead of me walked
a woman at the same slow pace as mine. I could see only her back and shoulders.
I knew I was awake, but I could not tell whether the scene was in a dream
or I just got out of a heavy sleep and was walking into the town.
There were only the woman and me. The surroundings seemed
so remote and bleary that I felt as if I were looking at a slow-motion
movie scene. All movements and all sounds seemed to have stopped at that
"Why did you come here in this cold weather?"
"Well, I don't know... Maybe because today is the day
my wife died."
It was the woman who asked and I who answered, but she
didn't even turn around to look at me. That wasn't all. I even heard the
same old Korean song I had heard in the sick old man's room. This couldn't
be real, I thought, then realized that it was the very conversation the
woman and I had before we had sex last night. That was all we said. She
looked at me with an odd expression and laid herself beside me. That brief
conversation came back to haunt me and the music from another time and
another place overlapped the present scene. I was having a hallucination.
There suddenly popped up a screen before my eyes, narrowing my range of
vision and heating up the air around me. The woman's back expanded in a
moment and she began to run. She was rushing toward an oncoming bus. I
suppressed a terrible premonition and stopped myself from stepping toward
the loop of the road. Too tired, I flopped down under an old pine tree
beside the road. I didn't look up but I saw people shouting and children
running, the dead woman bleeding from her nose and the policeman covering
her with a large piece of waterproof cloth.
"She ran into it," the bus driver mumbled, blank-eyed.
The bus stood with its nose stuck on a roadside hill. Wanting to identify
her face again, I tried to stand up. A round face, a checked jacket. Before
the sex act and afterward in bright light, I saw her but now I seemed to
have erased her, perhaps a conditioned reflex against such complications.
I finally opened my eyes to a complete void. There was
no woman nor the bus, but an empty street. There were no people who had
gathered around the accident. I shook my head and realized that I had relived
my wife's death several years ago. I searched for a cigarette with sweaty
hands. I had been contacted the day after the accident and rushed to the
hospital morgue. I saw my wife there. They couldn't find the hit-and-run
car and she was classified as an accident victim. That was that.
The bus I was on reached Kanglung. I got off at the wrong
exit and had to walk quite a distance. There, I hesitated whether to buy
another ticket to Sokcho or get back on the bus to Yangyang. The reason
I thought of Sokcho was that I was still curious about what happened to
the backpack man and the dead prostitute. If I could, I wanted look into
the police station and then veer off to Wontong over the Jinboo Pass.
I bought a ticket to Yangyang and some drinks and rolls
for breakfast. I felt unclean as if I hadn't brushed my teeth, and blankly
looked out of a window.
On my honeymoon, the town looked so clean but now it
was dingy and dirty. The town itself was the same as ever, but in the few
years past, I seemed to have developed deep gorges in my heart; why, I
couldn't fathom. My pity for my wife or perhaps my sorrow in the wifeless
world might have been the cause. My wife's hold on life was tenacious even
when she was quite ill. After a series of miscarriages, she still wanted
to get pregnant. She would not let go until the day she was killed. When
she was a bedridden invalid, she would break out in hysteria, which was
an indication of how much she wanted to live. "If I am going to live like
this, I will just put an end to it all," she said once in a while with
her eyes full of anger.
"Okay, go on and do it," I used to taunt her. She must
have meant what she said at least once; otherwise, she could not have put
such a violent end to her life.
At Yangyang, "There are no more buses today. Some can
go only to Yaksoori," the girl behind the ticket window told me when I
pushed in the money.
"Snow storm warning is on. How many times do I have to
tell you. One bus is leaving right now but only to Osaekri," she said.
"Is there a bus going to Seoul?"
"Go to Kanglung and catch a highway bus. Even there,
all roads will be closed by this afternoon."
How much snow are they expecting, I wondered, if roads
are blocked here, I can't go anywhere. The safest way is hurry back to
Kanglung and to Seoul. "I'll give you a good deal," a taxi driver kept
bothering me. I couldn't understand myself for wanting to go to Wontong,
which would inevitably force me to miss my work three or four days. That
damn old man hadn't had such glaring protruding eyes, his expensive fur
scarf hadn't caused nausea in me, that impertinent nurse hadn't offered
me money, all these negative responses I had had couldn't be the reasons
why I shouldn't go there. I didn't particularly care what I was going to
do for the old man, but I could not just go away in this unresolved uneasiness.
"I said I would take you to Wontong even if I wouldn't
be able to come back," the taxi driver said.
"Is that the reason why buses are not going there? They
say they will go as far as the medicine water fountain."
"No way. Do you know how many hikers will be trapped
there? I can raise the price as high as I want."
"If we leave now, will I be able to catch a boat?"
"Snow doesn't stop boats."
This man says whatever he likes, I thought, and followed
It wouldn't take more than two hours to Wontong, I knew.
Since I wasn't doing any sightseeing, I didn't think anything would happen
on the way. The taxi driver and I argued over the charter fee, and though
I wasn't quite willing to trust him, I got on the taxi. When we got to
the fountain, sure enough, there were quite a few hikers coming down from
"See? They crowd up this place like frogs before rain,"
the driver said stretching his left arm out of the window. "Whew, it's
coming down in buckets."
I was blown over by his exaggeration, but in a strange
way, I felt freed from the hamster's wheel of my life I have led so far.
Those lucky hikers who could take their time even after the holidays were
over... Even such lucky people were chased down by a snow storm, and here
I was trying to go back up. Because of the oppressive air pressure, I might
be feeling a kind of reaction to it all, a kind of rebound.
Rounding around several mountain roads, we reached the
Hankei Pass. There were snow flakes whirling this way and that in the wind.
I lowered the window and lit a cigarette. A really heavy snow fall began
as we neared Wontong. Within a couple of hours, the snow turned into a
wild storm and built up high walls, imprisoning us in the town.
I asked where the post office was in order to send a telegram,
but the waitress of the tavern looked me over up and down, without saying
a word and went away. "You sorry idiot," she seemed to say, "how could
you ask about the post office in this catastrophe." I was so embarrassed
that I kept my mouth shut. If she had said "You must go to Injei," I would
have been more at a loss, anyway. Roads closed due to snow storm, three
absent days... If I missed one day, it might be understood, but three days?
For a lowly clerk like me? I blankly stared at the whipping snow flakes
that slapped at the window panes. We stopped at downtown where three streets
converged and could see a few lodging places among the snow-covered houses.
Searching for a place to stay in the snow seemed too much. Even if I found
the old man and the woman, what would I say to them?
Across the street from the tavern, I found a store where
I bought a vinyl raincoat. It was about three o'clock and the wind was
beginning to subside. Most of the lodging places were ordinary houses where
snowbound hikers, with long faces, were sitting in rooms or shaking off
the snow in the yard. One empty room was dark as a cave.
The last house, the sixth he searched, didn't have the
old man and the woman, either. But he ran into two men who were looking
for them, too. "Those men are looking for them, too," the owner of the
house said. He turned around to see in the whirling snow two men eying
him across the yard.
"Are you looking for Miss Choi?" the slender one of the
"Have you searched all the inns?"
"... They weren't anywhere," I mumbled a vague answer
and watched the man coming toward me.
"We have been searching everywhere all the way from Suwha,"
the man said in a friendly but perplexed manner. "Nowhere." The two men
could have asked me why I was looking for them, but they didn't, even after
I sat down in a coffee shop where they led me.
"Suhong, Wolhakri... We looked everywhere. The guys were
really fastidious," the man said. He meant the military policemen. The
thin man occasionally craned his neck between sips of coffee and watched
the street. The big man sat with his eyes downcast and never said anything.
He must be the driver. "I saw them briefly in Sokcho and have followed
them here," I said. The thin man told me scattered bits of a story about
their search, so I had to say something.
"Oh, really?" the thin man said. "It is only natural
that one wants to go back to one's hometown." I didn't quite catch his
meaning, so I looked him over carefully. He had been saying that the nurse
woman, a Mrs. Choi, had tried to spirit away a sick man without permission,
and unless he caught them and took them home, he would get in trouble.
So, his last remark about the hometown was out of character. As we first
sat at a table in the coffee shop, he had given me his name card. He was
a managing director of S¦ˇ business company.
"Was that Choi woman in charge of the old man?" I asked.
"She was picked from the company hospital. An arrogant
bitch.... So arrogant that she dared.... "
The girl Mrs. Choi? A strange title, but I said nothing.
"What can we do now?" The big man asked.
"What indeed? Let's go to Injei. I'm sure they are there."
"On the way here, we searched there, too. Maybe they
went to the Baikdam Temple."
"Are you kidding?" the thin man raised his voice, angry.
"Do you know how old the chairman is? How could he go up there, huh? I
think we missed each other somewhere. While we were on our way to Suwha,
they slipped away, I am sure. That sneaky bitch. I'll find her no matter
They must have driven by way of Hongchun. Even without
consulting the small map, I knew the road to the Baikdam Temple would be
an icy hell where even ghosts would be trembling in cold. "The sneaky bitch,"
the thin man cursed, but his manner was so childish that I could hardly
"Why don't you join us? Since you are going to Seoul,
we can save you your bus fare," the man said.
"How can you, in this snow? Thanks anyway."
"We can manage. Yes, we can. If I don't get back, I'll
get in trouble with the chairman," the thin man said.
The chairman he had mentioned was the old man and the
chairman he alluded to now must be the old man's son. This man probably
is the chairman's nephew or some other relative. I didn't know how to respond
to his kind offer. Things have gone in an unexpected way and once they
found the old man and the nurse, if the nurse were obstinate, what would
I could easily guess that the nurse was not just a hired
hand. It was against common sense that a hired nurse, no matter how arrogant,
could have ventured such a daring thing alone.
There must be a serious feud between the old man and
his son. I knew they would not find the old man in Injei, either, but I
decided to go with them.
A Benz, their car, drove through what seemed to be an
impassable road. The wind had subsided, but snow poured down like heavy
rain. Still, the foreign car drove on without jolting or tossing. Perversely,
this oppressed me. The two men didn't say a word. It was getting dark.
Their visit to Injei would turn out vain, I thought, and decided not to
accompany them to Seoul. If the snow storm receded a little, I could catch
a boat. "Wait here. I'll look," the thin man said and went into the first
inn at the mouth of Injei. Entirely contrary to our guess, he waved to
us standing against a street lamp. "I've found them. They are here. Come
A strange thing happened at that moment. The driver lowered
the window but would not get out.
"Why don't you come out?"
When the man angrily came to the car, the driver said,
"Let's just go back."
"Are you crazy, you son of a bitch," the thin man screamed
and slapped the driver through the open window. The driver put his hand
on his cheek, sat with his head lowered, then slowly got out of the car.
As they walked toward the inn, I hesitated a moment. I was now an outsider,
but if a fracas happened, I could help, I thought, and stepped out. By
the shoes outside the room, I guessed the right room, and squatted down
on a wooden floor beside it. A woman, most likely the owner of the inn,
opened her door, peeked out, and closed it.
"Accept this and give me back the contract," the thin
man was heard saying to the woman in a calm, low voice, and the woman answered,
"Then everything is straightened out, right?"
"The chairman is quite moved by you."
"Please tell him I am thankful."
Before I could move, the old man was carried out on the
back of the driver and the thin man came out. The woman stood leaning at
the door post in the manner of saying goodbye.
"Oh, mister, why are you here?" the nurse asked me in
her monotonous voice.
The driver with the old man on his back faltered a little,
so I followed him, steadying him from behind. The sick man still had wide
open glaring eyes. Apparently he was paralyzed in the lower part of his
body and around his eyes. "Aren't you riding with us?" the thin man looked
around to ask me, as he was getting into the car. I shook my head. The
car went forward a few yards when he poked his head out and began to roar
terrible curses. Unconsciously I stepped forward when the man's head was
drawn back into the car.
The woman walked slowly to where I was. I stood there,
stunned, and couldn't understand why he had done what he did.
"So you didn't leave. Why in the world are you here?"
I didn't know what to say. My lips moved like those of
a child driven out of his house. I could have said, "I couldn't stand deserting
a sick old man on the road." But the old man was gone. She had her bags;
obviously she had paid already. She wore her nurse's cap on her head, a
nurse's white uniform, and a black overcoat. I could see in the dim light
that she looked dead tired as if she had been beaten up.
"Didn't you say you wanted to go near the DMZ?"
The woman smiled weakly.
"You were one step late. If you had come yesterday, things
would have turned out quite different."
"Didn't the store owner in Mulchi say you would be in
"We were there."
I looked at her suspiciously. She might be lying.
"No inn said you were there."
"We didn't stay at an inn. We got a room in a house,
because we didn't want people to see us. Then we gave up our original idea
and came here. If you had arrived here yesterday, we wouldn't have been
here. It didn't occur to you that we would stay at a house, did it?"
The woman's tone had a tinge of mocking in it, so I said
"But people destined to meet end up meeting, anyway,"
the woman said and laughed.
"Why don't we go to a place where we can talk. I'll buy
you dinner. You are going to Seoul, aren't you?"
"Well, I am not sure if the boat can.... "
"I'm going to Kanglung and from there to Jongsun. I must
see my father,"
"Where is your hometown? Everyone seems to be from Kangwon
"Are you, too? Mine is not Jongsun. It's Yoryang. Have
you heard of the River Auraji?" I almost said, "my dead wife.... ," but
instead, asked, "The Auraji River?"
The snow-covered woman led me not to a restaurant but
to another inn. She looked at me, hesitating at the entrance and said,
"There is not a decent restaurant here. It is better to order a meal at
an inn. After dinner, you can find another place to stay."
After she went, as she said, to dust off the snow on
her coat and order our dinner, I sat down on the floor and pushed my hands
under a couple of cushions provided in the room. Yesterday and today I
had been so continuously tired that my eyelids drooped heavily. What am
I going to say at the office?
"What did the son of a bitch curse about?" the woman
asked me when she came back, face freshly washed. She sat leaning against
"Didn't you hear?"
"I did, but not clearly."
"What did he say?"
What's the use of repeating such curses, I thought, and
"I knew you would, you dirty dog. Something like that,
"I knew you would, you dirty dog, stick it to that whore,"
the woman pronounced every word clearly.
I felt as if I had seen something I shouldn't have and
turned my face away.
"I deserved it."
"I did a bad thing. I even forged a document."
"Is that why he said something about a contract?"
The woman looked down.
"I nursed the old man for two years. I was called out
from the hospital. Because it was the company hospital, I had to obey or
quit. My job was not only bathing him, cleaning his urine and excrement,
but also some other special duty. They asked me whether I could do it.
There was a female cousin of the president who ran a Korean restaurant.
She told me that I should get a contract. Of course, the real dirty duty
was not mentioned in the contract."
"Could an old man in his eighties do it?" I asked her,
whether out of anger or perversity, I didn't know. "Because, he is paralyzed."
"Do you know something called 'hot pack'? You use it
to massage a patient. It's sometimes called 'yudampo'. This Japanese one
is a little different, though. I served as a human hot pack for two years.
In the contract, which I insisted to have, it was called 'a special nursing
duty.' Lately, that contract has begun to bother the president. I nearly
forgot about it, but the president is a low-down son of a bitch."
"Is that why you ran away?"
She nodded and looked at him questioningly.
"They knew we were coming here. Where else would the
old man want to go? Even before he got sick, he used to say day and night
he wanted to go to Wolsanri, and it became a bone of contention between
him and his son. His son, the president, would yell at him that since he
had made a fortune in Seoul, he should consider Seoul his hometown, whereas
the old man wouldn't hear of it. But that was just an excuse. The son was
hitting back at his father for all the abuse he had suffered from his father.
Do you know what the old man's nickname was? Jindo-Bull-Dog. The famous
Jindo dog plus the bulldog. You get the picture, don't you? Then this winter,
he got paralyzed. I thought he would not survive this winter, so I took
him away. The old man can't speak, but once he starts whining.... "
"In the middle of that uproar, you were cool enough to
bring out the contract?"
"You are inquisitive." She laughed a sad laugh. "How
could I know what might happen? At the hospital I saw many paralyzed people
suffering because of their greed. And the son wanted to use this chance
to fire me. That director guy kept asking me to cooperate by pointing out
that there are other hospitals. You know, the son will run for congress
next year and he doesn't want any kind of gossip."
Dinner was brought in. The woman poured beer for me,
but I didn't feel like drinking it. This woman called Mrs. Choi must be
a very patient person, I thought, perhaps she was paid as highly as the
"Then, I was the fool to follow you here."
"I knew you would come," she stopped eating and eyed
"At first I thought about going to the Sorak Mountain
to rest a few days, but it was too much for us. Then, I remembered what
a fortuneteller in Myonmok-dong had told me once.... So, I waited there,
you know, in Mulchi. The fortuneteller had told me that at the age of thirty
I'd meet a man near a sea. He would be carrying three coffins. He would
be my husband of my former life."
"In a sense, the fortuneteller was right."
"A nurse believes that?"
The woman's face became naughty.
"Look at these, please." She pushed aside her chopsticks
and showed me her right palm.
"Have you ever seen a palm like this?"
I looked down on the criss-cross lines rather dumbly
and asked jokingly, "So, there was no one before or after me who wanted
the hundred thousand won? If that's the case, the man carrying three coffins
must be me."
"Who said it was you? Don't be presumptuous. I simply
said I knew you'd come back. By the way, let me read your palms. Who knows?"
As if she were dealing with a hospital patient, she stretched
both of her hands to me. She was acting like a child and letting down her
"Then, are you still a virgin?" I withdrew my hands and
asked. Immediately I regretted it.
"How can a virgin talk like this? When I first went to
Seoul, I didn't even know how to eat 'bibimbap.'4 I thought you ate rice
and vegetables separately. Then, I was a virgin. But not now." She became
I felt so uncomfortable that I ate in silence. She didn't
say anything, either. In a little while, the inn woman took the portable
table out. The nurse helped her. When she returned, she got something out
of her uniform pocket.
"I got my retirement pay. What am I going to do with
Faced with a blank look from me, she asked, "Shall I
tear this up?"
"Are you crazy?"
"Am I crazy to tear it up? It was money for that awful
service I did. Three million won. I guess I can get a room for my father
"Don't be silly. Tearing it up doesn't do anyone any
good. Only you become a fool. By the way, how old are you?"
"In that case, I'll rip it up right now. Being a fool
is much better,"
But her hands began to shake. Crying, she said, "I can't."
The next moment, she fell into my arms. I held her for I didn't know what
else to do, but I kept my eyes wide open as I heard her deep, gut-wrenching
moans. "If she did this on the road, she'd die," I thought.
I didn't know how I escaped. When I patted her back,
she stopped crying, but between sobs, she mumbled, "I can't stand this
alone," but I couldn't recall clearly what I said to her. Did I say "I'll
come back in the morning" or "Will you go to Seoul with me?" When I got
out of the alley, I found myself still holding a beer bottle in my hand.
I went into the first inn that came into my sight. Sitting
in my underwear on the futon, I opened a window a little to watch the snow
and sipped the beer. The inn owner brought in breakfast, unordered, and
told me a boat would leave at ten thirty. I could hear dimly a drum beating.
"Oh, that's Ogoo Exorcism Rite," she informed me.
"Last year, a boy slipped on the ice and drowned. He
was the son of an old civil servant who lives over the hill."
I refused the woman's offer that she would carry my bag
for me. When I arrived at the other inn, the nurse was ready. In awkward
silence, we walked out of the alley. I turned to the pier. I could see
the boat bringing in shaman dancers and musicians. I scribbled my address
and office phone number on a piece of paper and gave it to the nurse.
"After visiting Yoryang, will you come to Seoul?"
"We'll both have to work for the time being... in order
to afford a decent lodging."
"You don't have to say that now."
"I'll have to get on the boat. Are buses running?"
"I'm sure they are. I saw the snow-removing crew."
The boat had missed only once yesterday afternoon, but,
because of the returning hikers, it was filled. The passengers were talking
with a strangely tense expression on their faces.
The boat with the shaman dancers and musicians anchored
beside my boat. The shaman sorceress splashed water here and there from
a gourd dipper. Then she threw it away and picked up a fan and a bunch
of bells from the drummer. As soon as she shook the bells, the drummer
began to beat. "Be careful," the nurse shouted. She stood on the bulwark
watching me and smiling at me. I felt so overwhelmed that I turned away
and took out a cigarette. The shaman began to sing.
God in the East, God in the Sea
God in the West, God on the Earth
Hell-like is this world
Please look down on it
And pour down, please....
Near the sorceress was a small fire around which stood
people who were seeing their relatives off and some children. Suddenly
an intuition flashed through me, and I turned around to witness the sorceress
dancing toward the nurse, holding out her fan.
"Get this!" the sorceress shouted and sang again.
... Who'd have thought to see again
the sea and the mountains
Oh, my daughter, my poor daughter,
How have you come back
From that far, far Netherworld.
"Get this!" the sorceress bellowed with eerily shining
eyes. The nurse's face reddened. The shaman pushed forward her fan insisitently
and the nurse teetered backward. The nurse dropped her bag and began to
tremble violently. The nurse's cap fell on the ground.
"Wow, what's she doing? Isn't that what's called 'the
descension of the spirit'?"
"My God, it's a nurse."
The people on the boat showed their surprise and pity
at the same time. To my ears came a piercing scream "Yobo!"5 I couldn't
tell if it was from my dead wife or from the nurse.
The minute I stepped forward to get off the boat, I could
see the nurse's eyes change. She began to tear off her clothes, while at
the same time, she began her first dance steps waving the fan the shaman
had given her.
The boat rocked violently once, and water loudly sucked
out from under the boat. Up above the mountain hung a huge hand.
I couldn't tell whether it was a hallucination or a reality.
Unconsciously I glared down on the web-like criss-crossing of the lines
on my palms.
Translated by Choi Jin-young. She is Professor of
English at Chungang University in Seoul