|The Naked Tree
Although Ock Hui-do and I didn't have a standing appointment,
we met every evening in front of the chimpanzee. When it snowed or was
especially cold, we were the only onlookers at the toy stall. On those
days we didn't have the heart to ask the vendor to wind the toy up. We
just stared at the chimpanzee's dull expression.
In fact, I didn't care whether the chimpanzee drank the
whisky, or whether the black doll pounded his cymbals next to him. I was
preoccupied with seeing Ock. I grew weary of all other things.
The weather seemed to have let up a bit. It had been
cold for quite a while in spite of our old belief in the winter cycle of
"Three Cold Days and Four Warm Days," but now it started to snow. All in
all, that winter was especially cold and snowy. The painters began to grumble.
"Damn it, it's snowing again. We're already weak from
hunger, and then it snows so we can slip and fall on our faces."
"Has a hunger demon attached itself to you? Why are you
always harping about food?"
"Fool! What in the world is more important than food?
Tell me if you can think of anything more important."
"Money, of course. If you have money, what food can't
you eat? Who cares if you play the harmonica on spareribs from morning
till night? The target is money. Money. Don't you agree, Mr. Ock?"
Kim and Cash drew Ock into their squabble. Recently they
and been trying to include him in their conversations, for no reason other
than they felt that good manners dictated it.
Ock Hui-do put down his brush, saying, "That's hard to
say," but he didn't continue. He pounded his shoulders with an exhausted
expression and gazed warmly at the Yankees coming in the door, covered
with snow like snowmen.
"It must be snowing really hard," said Misuk as she walked
toward me with a bright face.
"Do you like it when it snows?"
"Yes, I wish I could make snowballs and throw them anywhere
I wanted. At the back of the GI's heads, at the display windows of the
She laced her fingers and jumped up and down, as if she
were about to do that right then and there. She was more attractive when
she was talking about a snow fight than when the topic was international
marriage. She was still so young. It didn't look like jumping up and down
on the tiled floor would satisfy her. She rushed into our shop and pushed
the grimy grey curtain to one side.
"Oh, isn't it lovely!"
The snow was no longer a novelty, but everyone turned
to look out at the snowy landscape, attracted by Misuk's childlike enthusiasm.
The snow fell calmly and abundantly. The environment
that I had seen too much of looked barren and sad, like the final scene
of some sentimental movie set against a blurry background of snowflakes;
the passers-by, mostly clad in military uniforms, the makeshift gift shops
on the other side of the street, the ugly, skeletal trees lining the thoroughfare.
Misuk grew quiet, and everyone seemed to imagine a sad, low music to accompany
"If there's a lot of snow, the barley harvest is supposed
to be good." Chin's remark sounded hollow and pathetic, maybe because we
were indulging in the luxury of emotion, however fleetingly.
"I know a story that has to do with snow," Kim said in
a low voice.
"You mean it was a snowy night when you met her and it
was a snowy night when you parted?"
"Hey, fella! I didn't part with her."
"Then the girl you met on a snowy night is your wife?"
"That's right, sir."
"What a silly fellow! You broke the mood."
Misuk dropped the curtain regretfully when we noticed
that we were being watched from outside. Some boys holding shoeshine boxes
and boards that displayed packs of chewing gum and American cigarettes
were clustered at the window, gazing in at us curiously. They must have
heard that the PX was filled with expensive goods, like Ali Baba's cave.
Their eyes were filled with incomprehension and disappointment at the sight
of a few shabby men sitting around painting pictures.
The painters resumed their work. It was snowing, but
nothing extraordinary occurred that day, except for the momentary disappointment
of the boys in the street. Only Ock Hui-do seemed to be oblivious to the
drawn curtain. He sat gazing at the curtain for longer than usual. I fixed
my own eyes on the back of his head, curious about his gaze, but he remained
preoccupied. I grew more curious. I was anxious, longing for him to turn
his warm eyes on me.
The longing transformed itself into a feeling of emptiness
and hunger, which in turn brought about an impulse to cry out. I wanted
to shout that I longed to meet his kind, honest eyes. I suppressed the
impulse by piercing a sheet of notebook paper into small pieces with the
end of my pen, taking up the habit Misuk employed when she was deep in
Then I decided, if he didn't turn to me by the time I
counted ten, to go to him and shout hysterically. I felt like I could cry
out in a hundred different tones, in a hundred different emotions.
I started counting slowly. He remained as still a rock.
I forced down a scream. Then I made another bet with myself. If he didn't
look back by the time I counted to ten again, I wouldn't go to the chimpanzee
Why did I risk such a precious thing? Our gratifying
encounters before the chimpanzee, Ock's passionate breath on that dark
street, my indiscreet attraction to that passion, and all the uncertainty
laden with fright. I wagered all this and counted more slowly than before.
I went up to ten, each number counted more slowly than the previous one.
After counting, I felt gloomy and disoriented, as if
I had gotten off the train at the wrong station. Because no one had peered
into my heart when I was counting, I was free to meet him, but I decided
to stick to my contract. I was irritated enough to be persistent about
my disappointment in him. I was nothing more than a small container waiting
to be filled by his glance, but this time he refused to give me even that.
Was it because of the snow?
Misuk polished the display case, blowing her warm breath
on the glass. The arcade was almost deserted. Misuk's rosy cheeks glowed
so beautifully that I began to envy her. I went to visit the brass section,
as if I were drawn by her cheeks. Hugging her from behind, I buried my
face in her back. The fluffy texture of her red sweater and her warm temperature
were pleasing and gradually lifted my spirits.
"Have you sold anything today?"
"Nothing. What about you?"
"Same here. Do you still want to have a snowball fight?"
"Yes, I'm itching for some exercise."
"That must be why you're polishing the glass so hard."
We laughed. I suddenly felt wonderful about having this
girl, who was healthy both physically and mentally, as a friend. Only a
few days ago she had wept about her turmoil, a burden too heavy for her
age. Amazingly, she was completely recovered in such a short time.
When she had wanted to share her distress, I had ignored
her plea, an act I now regretted. I tried to think of something that would
help her, but nothing presented itself. It was not that I couldn't remember
a few famous maxims. I simply wasn't sure that I could utter them with
a serious expression on my face.
I could see Diana Kim's neat profile in front of us.
She was filing her nails earnestly, while Linda Cho yawned loudly and then
put on another coat of lipstick. It was a slack afternoon, with only a
few GIs browsing around. Sergeant Balcom, who was in charge of the first
floor, and Susan Chong were giggling together.
"Isn't she beautiful!" exclaimed Misuk, gesturing toward
Diana Kim with her chin.
"No, not a bit," I answered shrilly, shaking my head.
As a token that I thought Misuk was one hundred times
better looking than Diana, I squeezed her short, slender fingers.
"She looks so young, but they say she has two sons."
"Really? I didn't know that. They must be mixed-blood
"I heard they are not. I heard the cleaning women say
they were surprised, too. They said the kids looked like full-blooded Koreans
no matter how they looked at them. And very handsome Koreans at that."
"They said the reason she'll do anything for money is
because of her kids."
"What an evil woman! Does she think she can do all those
terrible things in the name of motherhood? Thick-skinned bitch!"
"Oh, my, my. You're being too harsh. Everyone says she
is being so heroic." Misuk shot me a sharp glance.
I couldn't control my anger at all the good, naive people
who were swayed by the word "mother." The fact that she was a mother couldn't
reduce my contempt by even one-tenth.
"You're too cold sometimes. You don't seem to try to
understand other people."
"Is that what you think? I don't care, but I will say
I'm sorry if I've behaved that way to you."
"You've always been kind to me."
"I should have been more helpful the other day, but actually,
I was not sure what to say next.
"I was grateful for that."
"What did I do? Actually at that time..."
"You reacted most appropriately." She cupped my hand
in her plump hands as if I needed comfort and assurance.
"I thought I couldn't bear it if I didn't do something
outrageous. If you had accepted my babyish plea, what would have happened
to me? You didn't try to preach. You let me think it over and calm down."
"So what did you decide?"
"I decided not to flee. I will endure my problems at
home and in my own country. That's the right choice, don't you think?"
For want of the right words, I had to nod.
"You've never asked about my problems."
"That's all right. You didn't meddle with my problems,
but you've already taught me how to live."
I was puzzled. How could I have taught anyone how to
live? She understood and solved them on her own. Perhaps because she was
young, she might want to believe that she had followed another person's
directions instead of trusting herself to take the freedom to make up her
mind. Anyway, she herself clearly knew how to live. Perhaps Diana Kim and
Susan Chong knew it, too. The painters Kim, Cash, and Ock Hui-do must know
it, too. Everyone must know except me.
I removed my hand from Misuk's grip but didn't know what
to do. I felt as if I were excluded from other people's comfortable confidence
and their frames of reference.
I was living amidst the cries and shouts of my many selves,
selves that I had no control over. I hadn't thought of sorting them out
or repressing them. Instead, the cries and shouts divided me up, spinning
me to the point of dizziness.
Ock Hui-do was drawing something now. With his eyes fixed
on a foreign woman, the eyes I had longed so ardently to have directed
at me, he worked carefully. I was always envious and worried about the
fact that everyone, including Ock Hui-do, knew how to live, but the question
itself, "How to live?" sounded as difficult as a complicated philosophical
I wanted to stand on my hands. I wanted to walk around
the arcade on my hands, asking the people who lived according to their
own rules whether or not I should go to see the chimpanzee this evening.
I wanted to tell them I didn't even have an answer to that simple question.
But instead, I sat there debating about whether or not I should go.
"A customer. Go ahead." Misuk poked at my side.
Several Yankees were looking at the portrait display.
One of them, an older sergeant, handed me a family photo. An affable couple
and three lovely girls, close in age, sat in the streaming sunlight on
a green lawn, all smiling brightly. Bright and beautiful, the sure thing
to bring a smile to an observer's lips, it looked more like a picture drawn
by some amateur painter who loved life passionately. I asked the sergeant
about his relationship with the happy family. He said it was his family
and he was the father of the three girls. Because I looked surprised, he
pushed his affectionate and innocent face closer to mine, as if wanting
to prove that he really was the man in the photo.
"I'm sorry," I mumbled, embarrassed.
"That's okay. The uniform makes people look different."
"I said it's okay. Don't worry about it."
I wasn't sorry about not recognizing him in the picture.
Instead, I shrank back, filled with remorse, thinking he had given up his
happiness and family in order to face death on brutal foreign battlefields,
like "goddamn Chorwon," or "goddamn Changdan," or on a nameless plateau
where the temperature fell to 30 degrees below. If he were to die, what
would his cause have been? This war was a crazy thing created by the worst
He chose a silk scarf for his family portrait and asked
how much it would cost. We called it silk, but it was nothing more than
a cheap coarse summer material, stiffly starched and ironed. I wanted to
give it to him free of charge. Asking him to wait a minute, I looked back
at the painters. In a gloomy mood they were drawing with the most calculating
eyes, as if they knew what I had in mind. How about Ock Hui-do? He would
agree to my suggestion. I hurriedly suppressed that thought. I needed to
be calculating for Ock's sake.
Finally I realized that I couldn't give anything to the
sergeant and that he was the one who had things to bestow on us. I sighed
out of sorrow, out of sadness that we had to be the party that takes, never
having the latitude and satisfaction of giving. Perhaps giving was the
reason the sergeant was risking his life in a foreign land.
He seemed to think I was slow at arithmetic. Helpfully
and generously he suggested that since the price for an 8-by-12 silk was
five dollars, it would be 25 dollars for the five members of his family.
I accepted the 25 dollars and his photo and studied the
photo for a long time after he left. Besides being a picture that brought
a smile to anyone's lips, it produced a nostalgia for family and home in
general. The green lawn lit by sunbeams, the good wife, and the angelic
daughters. He was separated from them, now standing somewhere on a foreign
street in the cold snow.
"Shit." Kim stretched his back.
"Damn." Cash threw down his brush, put a cigarette to
his lips, and flicked his lighter. The old lighter produced a scattering
of stray specks instead of a flame.
"Hey, fella. Do you call that a lighter? How about using
flintstones instead? Flintstones, eh?" Kim lit his cigarette first and
then threw his squashed matchbox to Cash.
"I thought my eyes were growing blurry. No wonder. It's
almost closing time." Paek, the oldest and slowest painter, who rarely
spoke to the others, wiped his nickel-coated pocket clock with his dingy
His was the only clock in the portrait section, but no
one credited it as such. Kim collected his tools one by one, but in order
to certify that he wasn't doing so because of that clock, he muttered,
"Ahh... My stomach's grumbling. My stomach clock never fails."
The cleaning women sprinkled water on the tiled floor,
while the salesgirls made up their faces for the evening. A sudden darkness
descended outside and the shutters began to creak slowly down.
I no longer enjoyed watching the salesgirls put on their
red lipstick. Instead of watching them, I began to do the day's arithmetic.
It was one of the slowest days in a long while, but the figures came out
wrong over and over again. I bit down on my lower lip and clasped my head
in my hands, alternating between the thought that I should go to the chimpanzee
and the thought that I couldn't. I was unable to concentrate on anything
"What's the matter? Aren't you feeling well?" Tae-su
slapped my shoulder. I pushed the sheets of paper and the abacus toward
him and said, "I can't add them up correctly today. Will you do it for
"What? You have a problem with only this much? Oh, I
know. You're depressed because business was bad today."
Burying my head in my arms on the counter, I sensed he
was looking down at me with pity. I lifted my head and gave him a dull
"You look really tired. Are you sure you're not sick?"
He put his head next to mine, so close that his breath
tickled me, and studied my face. It was then that I realized how tired
I had grown of debating whether or not I should go to the chimpanzee. I
wanted to rest a bit, to escape that monotonous, incessant worry. I leaned
my head against the back of my chair because his face was too close to
mine. His hand touched my forehead. It was cold.
"I think you have a fever, too. What shall I do? I was
going to ask you to spend some time with me," he murmured in disappointment.
"Why? Was there something special on your mind?"
"No, I was just thinking of having dinner with you and
chatting. But you look like you have a cold. With that fever, I'll bet
it's the flu."
"No, I'm all right. I'd like to eat something delicious
tonight. I'll go with you."
I felt cheerful, having made up my mind. Finally I could
escape the tedious question of going or not going.
"Thank you. I also have something to tell you, but it
can wait until later. Are you sure you'll be all right?"
"I'm all right. How about checking my forehead again?"
"Thank you for coming with me."
I looked up at the young face filled with longing and
desire. I pitied his eagerness and reached up to hold the hand on my forehead.
I caressed his large, manly hand. It didn't have to belong to Tae-su; it
could have belonged to any man. The mysterious power of the opposite sex
stirred me; I loved caressing his hand. Tae-su pulled his hand away, stuck
it in his jacket pocket and turned his head, embarrassed. I could see part
of his flushed cheek. I suddenly wished I had another Tae-su. I thought
I needed one Tae-su whom I could neglect and another Tae-su whom I could
love and touch when I wanted. It was cruel of me to alternate between attachment
and neglect for one. Still, the pleasure of touching lingered in me.
"Let's go somewhere quiet and have dinner together,"
I whispered sweetly.
"Wha... what?" He was flustered, as if I had caught him
I finished the accounts with Tae-su's help and went out
with him. It had stopped snowing but the snow on the ground reached our
ankles. I made several snowballs with my bare hands and flung them toward
the streets. The muscles in my arm felt refreshed.
"What are you going to buy me today?"
I wanted to eat pungent vegetable, hot and spicy fish
soup, and a thick and tender steak broiled just right, all at the same
time. My mouth watered with an intense appetite.
"Would you mind if we ate Chinese?"
"I've never eaten Chinese food except for black bean
noodles, you know. How about something else?"
"To tell you the truth, I have another appointment tonight.
My brother and his wife are waiting in a Chinese restaurant."
He seemed so distressed that I decided to give up my
hopes for a good meal today.
"That's all right. You can buy me dinner tomorrow. I'll
just go home. Don't worry about me."
"No, it's not that." He grabbed my sleeve. "You should
be there. To tell you the truth... Please don't get angry with me. I told
them that I'd bring you with me to dinner. I'm sorry for not asking you
first. But please don't say you can't. Please?"
He clung to my sleeve frantically like a child.
"It's all right with me, but why do I have to be there?"
"It just happened that way. It's not important, so please
don't worry. Just come with me."
"If it's not important, they won't mind if I don't show
"Well, the truth of the matter is, it's not like that.
My brother and especially his wife wanted to meet you. That's why it was
arranged this way." He was utterly at a loss, still holding onto my arm.
I grew interested. "Why? Why do they want to meet me?
Don't act so embarrassed. Just tell me." I walked along beside him, without
trying to get away any longer.
"My brother's wife is a very good person, but she has
a wide skirt, so to speak. She's always worrying about other people. She
says she can't get a decent night's sleep because of me."
"You should be grateful to her, but what kind of terrible
things have you done to make her so anxious?"
"I'm sorry. So I lied to her. I told her I have a girlfriend,
someone I've promised to share the future with. I thought it would satisfy
her. But no, she insists on meeting my girlfriend. I told her she didn't
need to, but she says to think of it as a chance to meet the future in-laws,
not as a formal viewing by the future in-laws. I guess they mean the same
thing, and I'm sorry. Nothing will happen. Just sit there next to me. You
don't have to say anything. Please go with me!"
I had heard such dull stories many times before. I yawned
and nodded my head.
"Thank you. It won't be too difficult for you. You can
just sit next to me. My sister-in-law is very talkative and can be a bother,
so just keep smiling and think of other things."
I nodded again.
"And don't treat me too coldly. Pretend we're in love.
He grew bolder just because I kept nodding. I snorted,
looking at the display windows of shops and at the grey sky. After a while
he pushed open the glass door of a Chinese restaurant called Poksun-nu
in a back alley of Myong-dong. I couldn't help but laugh because it sounded
like the name of a country girl and suggested what I'd have to endure that
evening. Humorous and somewhat boring, friendly and clumsy, I thought.
as we climbed the creaking steps to the second floor, Tae-su winked and
offered his arm. I linked my arm in his and walked up carefully, entering
the room, before which a pair of men's and a pair of women's shoes were
His brother, who looked like an aged nervous petty clerk,
remained seated, but Tae-su's sister-in-law jumped up and exclaimed, "Oh,
my, my Brother-in-law, you..."
She kept smiling in a strange way. When I was sure that
they had seen us arm in arm long enough, I took my arm away and bowed deeply.
I tried to smile as sweetly as possible, as I sat in a docile pose on a
Tae-su's sister-in-law had a large mouth, and her front
teeth stuck out. Her teeth gave the impression that she was good-natured,
but at the same time she was very talkative, as Tae-su had said.
"Why, Brother-in-law! You really do have a girlfriend.
I can believe it now that I see her with my own eyes, but what in the world..."
"Why, you don't like my girlfriend?"
"What are you talking about? I'm just amazed and pleased.
I thought in the Hwang family, where all the men are so proper and decorous,
they would die bachelors if their parents hadn't found brides for them.
Oh, my word, Brother-in-law found a girlfriend on his own. Oh, my gosh.
You can see her now, too, darling, can't you? What a bore you are!"
She pinched the leg of her husband, who kept blinking
his small, cautious eyes.
"Yes, but how old are you? Let's see if your horoscopes
match up first." She was flexing her fingers, ready to count out the Sixty
"I was born in 1932," I said rather maliciously.
I thought it would take her some time to figure out my
age first, and then I could be at peace while she made predictions about
my future. She didn't fall for my trick, though. She didn't try to figure
out my age, let alone tell my fortune, but kept asking whether my parents
were alive, which school I graduated from, and so on, without waiting for
"Why don't you order some food, eh?" muttered Tae-su's
brother for the first time, and as Tae-su raised himself rather self-consciously,
she exclaimed, "Oh, my, what am I doing?"
She clapped sharply to summon the waiter. It seemed that
she would take charge of ordering the food, too. She ordered what she wished
without consulting us. The oddly named dishes she asked for didn't include
black bean noodles. In a way, I was relieved. When the food arrived, she
stopped speaking completely, which was fortunate.
It was a pleasure to watch her eat, for she ate so ravenously
that it whet our appetites. I ate a lot of the sweet, greasy food. I began
to like the woman with the buck teeth, if only because she had the good
sense not to combine eating and talking. I even put twinkles in my eyes,
thanking her after we finished eating. I didn't know what she had on her
mind when she moved next to me, She held my hand and began to rub it with
Her gesture was not awkward, and it revealed a kind of
trust and affection that couldn't be expressed by words alone. Her palm
was rather rough and scratched my hand with a pleasing coarseness.
"I can't believe this pretty girl will become my sister-in-law."
She stopped rubbing, squeezed my hand until it hurt,
and said to her husband, "Darling, let's hurry up the wedding. Let's welcome
this fine girl into our family as soon as possible."
"They have to decide on their own."
"What a silly man! Do monks shave their own heads?"
Listening to them disinterestedly, I remembered that
Tae-su's brother was an old friend of Ock's. I grew uncomfortable and began
to lose confidence in my false role. I fretted because I couldn't play
the part Tae-su had asked of me.
"Marriage is the most important event in the course of
human life. Should't the elders start the process? What if they make a
mistake in some hot-blooded moment?"
She refused to leave her husband alone. She was even
kicking him under the table.
"I should go now. My mother is waiting for me." I managed
to speak politely, but I shook her hand away firmly.
"What's there to be embarrassed about? You're a modern
girl. In fact, the process should be discussed with the elders. Isn't that
right, darling? When can I visit your home? I will come soon, so tell your
mother to expect me."
She gathered her long skirt and moved next to her husband.
She discussed the process with a "don't you think?" at the end of every
sentence, and he responded only passively, either with "yes" or "well."
I felt nauseated, as if the greasy Chinese food and her
chitchat had mixed to cause indigestion.
"Let me go," I whispered.
"It'll be over soon. Please hold on for a minute. Just
a little longer."
"I don't think I can take it any longer. I think I might
make some terrible mistake. I'm sorry."
I stood up, tired of asking in whispers for Tae-su's
permission to leave. He stood up along with me, awkwardly. I leaned against
him because I had a headache. I left the room, holding Tae-su's arm just
as when we had entered.
Without a word his sister-in-law followed us with her
eyes, as if to say, "What an impertinent thing! Why does she have to show
off, holding onto him like that in front of us? Who does she think she
As we walked along the snow-covered street, I kept holding
onto Tae-su because it was slippery. We had never shared any passion, and
yet we were walking arm in arm. Nothing had changed, but we walked as if
we were enjoying an amiable stroll.
I was unconsciously leading Tae-su to the toy stall.
The vendor had already gone home and only the board that normally held
the toys, including the chimpanzee, was leaning against the wall under
the eaves. There was nobody, no Ock.
There weren't many people in Myong-dong late at night,
nor were many lights on. It was hazy, as if a drowsiness had descended
over the neighbor-hood. Tae-su and I parted in front of the toy stall.
leaving Myong-dong, I had no choice but to head for home.
The darkness was grey because of snow and the snow was
grey because of the darkness, and as I lifted my head the sky was dark
grey, blocking the lights of the stars from coming through. I walked on
hurriedly, enveloped in different shades of grey. Hard as I tried, I couldn't
free myself from the layers of greyness, but I experienced some splendid
lights that were like fantasies or recollections. The lights were those
encounters with Ock Hui-do at the toy stall. They were too splendid to
be recollections, too alive to be fantasies. I soon forgot about Tae-su
and what had happened with his family. They were only a part of the obscure
Today I wanted to be there for him in order to make up
for his futile wait the day before. I hurried out of work and stood at
the toy stall. Before long, I felt him behind me. I was relieved, and everything
around me took on an interesting, exciting look. When the performances
of the chimpanzee and the black doll came to an end, I enjoyed the vivid
colors and movements of the other toys. I squeezed the belly of a blond
doll to hear her monotonous cries, pushed a red fire engine, and pulled
the trigger of a pistol. If at that moment Ock Hui-do had handed me the
miniature dish set for three, with its small stove, pot, bowls, and plates
decorated with yellow flowers, my joy would have reached its peak. I could
have asked him to give it to me as a present, but I refrained. I was cautious
about attaining happiness so easily.
After enjoying the show, we started to walk away slowly.
The passers-by hurried along, their heads buried in their collars. Most
of the men wore military uniforms or thick dyed military jackets and the
women were dressed, at best, in coats made of dyed military blankets. The
mannequin in a display window, however, was dressed in a gorgeous spring
coat, the color of azaleas. I bought a handful of peanuts from a boy in
front of that impatient mannequin. I mashed the nuts between my molars,
swallowing the juice as slowly as possible. With lingering steps I approached
the darkness of the cathedral.
I clung to him, shifting my weight.
"Let's walk slowly. I'm tired."
"Are you? Pitiful girl!"
He supported me calmly. The brightly lit stores came
to an end, and the dark hill that led to the cathedral started. The steep
slope made us pant, but we were both careful to hide our gasps from each
"Why didn't you come yesterday?"
His voice was hoarse and split like somebody else's.
I chomped the nuts noisily, quickly sucking in the juice.
"Do you know how long I waited?"
He grabbed my arm. He seemed so manly I was afraid of
his sudden change and I stepped back a little, but he grasped me again.
"Do you know how long I waited?"
I tilted my head back, trying to see the cross at the
top of the cathedral, but all I could see were ugly square houses. Those
square roofs couldn't bring back the lines of the poem I had forgotten,
with which I could cool his passion. Defenseless, I submitted to his rough,
unbearably sad touch, but he didn't go any further. He hugged me violently,
released me, hugged me again, with the bristle of his chin rubbing my forehead
until it hurt. Gradually I began to think that the object of his sad touch
was not me but himself.
"Why didn't you come? Do you know how long I waited for
It was a soliloquy that didn't require an answer, but
I had to say something, however useless, as I couldn't stand his pathetic
"Yesterday... I met the people who might become my in-laws."
I regretted saying it even before I finished, but it
was too late. His arms slackened, and I was released.
"I didn't mean to go, it just... happened. I really didn't
intend to go. You know Tae-su's brother. I was viewed by him and his wife."
"Tae-su's brother?" He had finally spoken.
Encouraged, I began to make excuses in earnest. "Tae-su
made up the whole thing, pretending I was his future bride, without my
knowledge. Without even telling me what was going to happen, he took me
to meet his family."
The slope down to the street was very icy. I slipped
several times, and each time he supported me calmly and led me to a less
"If I made a mistake, please forgive me, I really didn't
mean to go. Please don't think of the relationship between Tae-su and me
as something strange."
"What do you mean by strange? I always thought you two
looked good together."
He had regained his composure and was being affectionate
"I don't like it when you joke. What's the point of looking
good together? I love you. You know that."
I spoke clearly, but I was shocked by my own words. It
was the first time I used the word "love" to him, but it sounded very hollow.
It had been used by so many people that it was too worn-out to describe
my passion for Ock Hui-do.
People were spilling out of the theater where the last
showing ended, and they dispersed reluctantly. I felt heartsick as if I
were one of them.
"I think it's a greater blessing to look good together
than to be in love."
His words rang sad and hollow, as if he, too, were one
of the moviegoers heading home reluctantly. I swallowed a sigh and looked
up. I tried to imagine the hundreds and thousands of light years that separated
those densely packed stars. The words I had said to Tae-su, just for the
sake of saying something, rang hollow now, but I shook my head as if that
would push them away.
"I love you. I could die for you. You love me, too. That's
the important thing. All other words are meaningless and superfluous."
I had no choice but to emphasize the word "love," but
I felt we needed another word to describe our feelings. Sad, strong words
that no one had used before.
"For me, now, looking good together seems better than
anything. Harmony and balance."
I covered his mouth with my palm, pulled his hand toward
me, and showered kisses on the back of it for a long time, as if I were
a poor dog pleading for her master's trust and affection.
"Ah... What are we going to do? We... I'm not some immature
boy." His deflated voice trembled with weariness.
"I'm not a child, either."
"I have a daughter who's almost your age."
"We shouldn't. Really, we shouldn't."
He determinedly stopped in his tracks but he grew despondent,
as if he were not confident.
"Why? Does Not-Looking-Good-Together mean we have to
worry about appearances?"
"Not-Looking-Good-Together isn't restricted to mere appearances.
The relationship between a man and woman is like the foundation of a tall
building. You can build up a future as you please, but in our case we're
building a sand castle that will crumble before our eyes. It is all right
for me, but I can't lead you to ruin. What am I doing? I should have some
"But, if it's my fate to live a short life, that's all
right, isn't it?"
"What do you mean? You're so young, Kyong-a. You're so
young that I'm afraid and envious."
He put his arm around my shoulder and caressed my cheek
with his palm. He was again trembling a little. I wanted to reassure him,
so I pulled his trustworthy hand from my cheek and kissed it with reverence.
"Don't worry, just love me and take me. I won't have
a long life, anyway."
"Why? Why are you thinking like that? Is it because of
"It is not because of you. It's because of the war. This
insane war will kill us off one by one. Nobody can be free from its crazy
I spoke as confidently as a shaman possessed by a spirit.
"Don't say such a thing! The war will end soon, and you
will live on, Kyong-a, and you will live a long, happy life."
"I had no idea you were thinking such strange thoughts.
It's because of me. Yes, of course. Of course, it's because of me."
I mumbled to myself. I didn't insist that it was not
the case. The fortune I was telling revealed the life deep inside me, which
belonged only to me and did not require anyone else's understanding or
sympathy. Furthermore, clarification about whether it had to do with someone
else was unnecessary.
We reached the fork of the road where we had to part.
I leaned against the gaunt trunk of a naked tree. He stopped and looked
down at me for a long time. I looked up at him. What joy and at the same
time what heartache there was in gazing into his eyes! I was the first
to avert the gaze. I sighed into the grey opaque space. I knew he was sharing
himself generously, but he was not willing to give me his complete self.
Besides he seemed to be keeping the most important part of himself from
Suddenly I wanted to gaze up at the stars through the
thickly tangled branches of the trees. The stars seemed to be hanging form
the tops of the branches, but they were so far away. I could see signs
for sollongtang soup and komtang soup and ttokmanduguk soup under the lamp
in the distance and followed the lights of the passing trolley with my
"Well, it's time we went."
"Go ahead. I'll rest a little here."
"You can rest at home. Your mother will be waiting for
Insulted, I hurried across the street. I wove around
several corners in order to be out of his sight quickly and then began
to think. How did people in love get to the ecstasy and satisfaction of
becoming one from the terrible sadness and hollowness of being only a half?
Couldn't I stop being my mother's daughter, just once in a while? Couldn't
I make my mother wear her false teeth again? Yes, I'd make her wear them.
As I couldn't avoid being her daughter, no matter how cumbersome it was,
my mother couldn't be free of her false teeth even if they were a bother.
I'll make her wear those false teeth, by force if necessary.
I'll plead. Then I thought I wanted to die. Then I changed my mind quickly,
thinking I wanted to live. My conflicting desires, death vs. life, were
equally strong so that I couldn't settle on either side.
My mother came to the gate like as shadow and opened
it. I wondered what she had been thinking during the long day but didn't
ask. I already knew her answer. Nothing. I was sure that would be her answer.
A being without a thought. Complete hollowness. I couldn't even imagine
what it was like. Perhaps it was because of my mother's complete emptiness
that I hated her, at the same time fearing her might.
I didn't pull my eyes from my mother's face as she ate.
Tangled strands of grey hair hung over her forehead and ears, but there
wasn't a wrinkle on her face except for a few spidery lines around her
toothless mouth, making it look like an old wound sloppily sewn up.
Suddenly I felt the courage to bring up the false teeth.
"Mother, what did you do with your false teeth?"
Since the two of us had begun to live alone. I had taken
on the habit of alternating between calling "Mother" and "Mom," depending
on my mood. Today it was "Mother."
"False teeth? What do you mean?"
"Well, I haven't worn them for so long."
"Find them and put them in."
"They're uncomfortable. Do you realize how they make
my gums hurt?"
"But you always wore them before. Nobody even knew you
had false teeth."
"Did I? Well, but it's different now."
"What's different? I'm asking you what's different!"
"Child, you know perfectly well what's different! Tsk,
tsk." She clucked and put down her spoon.
"Different? What's different? Put them in. Find them
and put them in. I'll find them myself."
I pulled open the wardrobe, the blood rushing into my
head. I searched the large drawers of the three-tier chest, the drawers
of the low desk, the large drawers of the quilt and clothes wardrobe, and
into the deep corners of a small chest. She didn't show any interest. She
simply gathered up the bowls and plates and slowly raised herself with
a crack of her knees. She left the room carrying the tray.
As I dug through the darkness of the drawers, I began
to notice something extraordinary. They were neatly arranged. My mother
had always been a diligent housekeeper, but she had often elicited my father's
complaints for messing up the drawers trying to find something. The drawers
had been always messy, and nobody but my mother could find anything.
We had hardly lost anything since we were among the last
to flee Seoul and the first to return. It was amazing that she could find
the time and energy to straighten the overflowing drawers. Drawers which
used to be filled with mainly useless items now held neatly folded clothes
arranged according to seasons. Had she thrown out all the junk? The drawers
were so neatly arranged that she could be ready for an outing in no time.
Everything was arranged perfectly, and yet the drawers lacked a living
smell. They seemed to be enveloped in cold, like the relics left behind
by my mother as well as my father and brothers. These drawers looked as
if they had been preserved in the same condition forever and would never
perform their original function again. Deflated, I stopped searching. Those
lifeless drawers, so like my mother's empty head, didn't seem to allow
any thoughts. I gave up searching altogether. I felt the relics in the
drawers didn't welcome my touch. I shut the wardrobe door as tightly as
before. I realized how meaningless it was for me to try to force my mother
to wear her false teeth. It was obvious that the false teeth were among
the trash she had thrown out.
She was still washing the dishes, occasionally clattering
the aluminum bowls. I thought I could imagine her lips in a derisive smile.
I tore at my hair and went into my room to sprawl on the floor. I had a
terrible feeling that I was living all alone in this old, haunted house.
I tried to appease myself by remembering that people lived outside of this
house. I decided to communicate with one of them. I pulled out some writing
paper and a fountain pen.
I wrote, "To my beloved..." and considered whose name
I should put in the blank. The longing to love someone was so strong that
I had to start the letter that way. At first, I thought of Ock Hui-do.
But "my beloved" was not glorious enough to crown his name. And "To my
beloved Tae-su" sounded exaggerated.
How about writing a letter to Pusan? "To my beloved Mal."
As she was always anxious about other people, I certainly would get an
answer. But I wanted to write a letter that didn't solicit an answer. I
wanted to write a letter that wouldn't make me worry about getting an answer.
"To my beloved Cousin Jin." I pictured his metallic eyes
and thin pursed lips. He would never bother writing back. "To my beloved
Cousin Jin." Come to think of it, he might be my favorite relative.
To my beloved Cousin Jin,
Before even saying hello, I want to tell you how normal
my mother is. She has the most carefully arranged drawers. I just realized
this today. I believe that a woman's drawers and purse reflect her frame
of mind. My mother must be pure and peaceful, both inside and out. People
are crazy when they have too many things on their mind, when their mind
is messy and convoluted. I have been thinking of so many things today.
I thought of the rather embarrassing things that girls my age often think
about and some things nobody might have thought about before. I wanted
to live and to die. Both those wishes were completely sincere. Do you know
why I say this? Because I imagine you've had similar contradictory wishes
in the past. If I am wrong, don't be offended. I wonder what you did in
your case. You don't have to answer, though. My beloved Cousin Jin, I want
to address you this way, though it's a little embarrassing. It might be
because I'm living in a vast house where even the bark of the neighbor's
dog can't be heard. I believe that in order to endure this perfect quiet,
I need many people to love; a man to love, a friend to love, and relatives
to love. Goodbye.
I heard my mother's dry cough and the cry of the paper
doors and the rattle of the shutters in response.
"Lately I often think of strange things," said Ock Hui-do,
holding my hand as we stood absentmindedly in front of the chimpanzee after
his performance, which had long since grown boring, had finished. By Ock's
voice, I knew that his eyes had a disheartened shine, a bleakness, instead
of their usual warmth. My heart ached just imagining his eyes. We had no
other choice but to meet in front of the chimpanzee, never missing a day.
We really had no alternative. I stood next to him in silence.
"I want to buy something for you," he said.
I felt depressed, somehow thinking that it might be our
last meeting there in front of the chimpanzee.
"Tell me. Anything you would like?"
"Well, I don't know."
"Silly! Don't you know what you want?"
I wanted to shout that I wasn't child who wanted a toy.
Today he seemed to want to make me a child who would like a toy, and I
thought I couldn't go against his wishes.
"Will you buy me the dish set?" I pointed to the set
with the stove, pot, and the plates with yellow flowers. When Ock asked
for it, the vendor looked surprised, as if thinking, "I thought he was
a permanent onlooker, but he's actually buying something. Of course, he
should act his age once in a while. How could he watch so long without
buying anything?" The vendor's thin smile seemed to say these thoughts,
while his hands moved swiftly, wrapping the purchase.
Even after Ock had received the package, I found it hard
"Just a minute."
"Do you want anything else?"
"Yes, I want to buy something for you."
"For me? A toy?"
For the first time, I found him detestable.
"No. For your youngest son."
I thought of the solid boy who had crunched an apple
on my lap, of his vigorous appetite, his health, and his lovely smell.
We were trying to restrain ourselves by doing silly things, I fingered
the toys without thinking what kind of things the boy might like. I decided
on a red truck at random and asked the keeper to wrap it up. The truck
was big enough to hold the pretty stones the boy might pick up in the street
and it could even cradle his shoes. We left the toy stall and walked away,
slowly exchanging the gifts.
"Are we wise or stupid?"
Since I was thinking of one of O. Henry's stories, Ock's
comment didn't come as a complete surprise.
"We're neither. It might make sense if we said we are
sly," I said to hurt him a little. Fingering the stove, pot, and plates
through the wrapping paper, I deliberately walked a little apart from him.
A good-looking couple was stepping out of the Western
dress shop with grins on their faces as the shop owner bowed deeply behind
them. The women was holding a gift tied with a beautiful red ribbon in
the shape of a plum blossom. I followed them with my eyes until they were
"Are you envious?"
"At least she had something better than a child's dish
He sighed deeply.
"Forgive me for saying that."
"No, I'm envious, too."
"Of them looking good together. Of them being a lovely
This time it was me who sighed. He was about to start
again on his dull old theory, and I was not sure if I could draw him into
my crazy ideas. We started up the steep hill toward the cathedral.
"I always have strange thoughts when I see that chimpanzee."
He returned to the same topic he had brought up at the toy stall.
"What kind of thoughts?"
"I feel as if both you and I have turned into chimpanzees."
"Isn't that reverse evolution?"
"Yes, that's right. At first it was wonderful to watch
him drink when he was wound up, but then it grew boring and hateful. He
seems to hate himself. That's why he has such a sad face. Still, he has
to do his silly routine whenever someone winds him up. That endless, boring
repetition. Isn't he the same as us? Every time we smell dollars, you speak
halting English with a sad face and I draw the same damned mongrel faces
over and over again."
He shuddered. His trembling was not because of me now.
We reached the cathedral. He embraced me. I could feel the pulse on various
parts of his body. Of course, I didn't recite a poem or talk about a meeting
with my future in-laws. I couldn't do something regrettable three times
in a row.
I entrusted my body to a sense of joy and fulfillment.
As his lips approached me, the toy truck clanked down onto the street.
Soon the dish set dropped from my hands, and I wrapped my arms around his
neck. We desired each other painfully, shivering with a yearning that couldn't
be satisfied. He pushed me away and picked up the toy truck. I gathered
up my dish set, which was strewn a little further away.
After the ecstatic kiss, a painful, deep sorrow lingered.
We walked down the hill, cooling our passion. The last show was ending
at the movie theatre. The audience surged out and scattered. The dark theater
could be seen through the wide open doors. On the huge billboard at the
theater, Moira Shearer was dancing a crazy fateful dance, her swollen bloody
feet wrapped in pink toeshoes.
"Let's come a little early tomorrow. Let's stop watching
the chimpanzee and see a movie instead," I suggested.
He fumbled around for a cigarette in silence, lit it,
and took a long draw. His expression was not different from before the
kiss, but he was immersed in an agony that I couldn't fathom. I was nervous
"What are you thinking? I wish you wouldn't put on that
kind of expression. If you can't be sure that I'm real from an embrace
alone, do whatever you want with me. But please, don't look like that."
He threw his cigarette butt far away, ran to it, and
crushed it with his heavy boot much longer than necessary.
"I need to have a break for a few days. A few days will
do. That's all right, isn't it?"
"Why? No, you can't do that." I opposed quickly.
"I must," he said more firmly. "I want to find out whether
I'm still an artist."
"What? What do you mean?"
"I haven't been able to paint for a long time. Too long!
It's been so long that I wonder if I'm still an artist. I'm more afraid
that I'm not an artist than that I'm not a person. I can't imagine what
I would be if I weren't an artist. Let me be an artist for a few days."
"Do you want to be an artist that badly?"
"I just want to paint. I'm going crazy because I'm not
painting. I want to be engrossed in hard work and concentrate for hours
He was sizzling, panting without the slightest embarrassment.
It was not because of me any longer. He had his own work and he didn't
need a companion. We parted at the same corner as always.
Once alone, I felt the breathless scene near the cathedral
was no longer real. It didn't seem that the strong man had trembled because
of me, that he had flushed because of me. It could have been a fantasy
I imagined in the middle of a night. Like the poor match girl's dream,
her hungry fantasy about a turkey and a warm stove, her lonely fantasy
about a warm-hearted grandmother. I must have been imagining what I craved.
The gift of the toy dishes was the only thing I had for
sure. I hurled it at the frozen ground. That was not enough for me, so
I ran to each of the pieces that were rolling on the ground and crushed
them with the heel of my shoe. It sounded like a freshly baked, crispy
Japanese cookie being crunched between molars, and a similar pleasure traveled
all through my body.
Holding the rail of the center staircase, Sergeant Balcom
appeared to scold Tae-su. Tae-su, with several tools peeping out from his
back pocket, was smiling sheepishly, scratching his head. Then Balcom replaced
his serious expression with a generous one and rapped Tae-su on the shoulder.
Then the sergeant circled the arcade, still wearing that benevolent face.
Tae-su looked somewhat subdued. He leaned against the
rail the sergeant had been holding. He searched his pockets for a cigarette.
The houseboy, the sergeant's helper, was ascending the stairs. He put his
hand up to his neck pretending to chop at it and asked in broken English,
"Not yet," and, with that short exchange, seemed to recover. His face regained
its usual comical look as he pulled some tools from his back pocket. He
clattered them against each other, approaching me.
He slid onto my desk carelessly. I pulled the remaining
tools from his back pocket with a clatter and asked about their purposes.
"What do you use this for?"
"To strip electrical cords."
"To cut electrical cords."
"To cut iron pipe."
"Hmm, you could rob a bank safe with all these."
"What! Do you think robbery is easy? You don't know what
I just went through."
"What was it?"
"I was spotted sneaking out with some bulbs in an empty
box. Did I steal them? No, sir. I paid for them in dollars, but they treat
me like a thief."
"Where did a mere Korean think he was, presumptuously
buying something with dollars?"
"It's more difficult to make money than it looks."
His expression grew dark and confused. It did not become
"Did you get the axe?"I asked him, pretending to chop
at my neck like the boy had done earlier.
"He said he'd let me off this once. Damn it."
"He's giving you another chance."
"Other people do that kind of thing all the time, by
the truckload, but I get caught with a box of bulbs! Do you know how much
I had to invest? I followed Susan Chong at the electric goods section for
days and days to get this first bit of business, but all I got was disgrace."
"Shit!" Kim stretched and threw his brush down.
"Mongrels!" Cash seconded him, throwing down his brush.
The boredom and exhaustion of the afternoon was settling
"Shit, what mongrels!" Tae-su outdid them all with his
loud curse, arched his back, and laced his hands behind his head as he
tilted it back.
The one-hundred-watt bulb under its dirt-covered glass
shade sent its light right on top of him. He seemed to be preoccupied for
a while. His eyes were still clear. I wished the point on which his eyes
rested was something other than the bulb. Even a piece of sky would be
"Aren't you sick and tired of it all? Don't you want
to escape like Mr. Ock?" I asked.
"What? Mr. Ock has fled?" he asked, straightening himself
"Not really," I muttered vaguely. I wanted to be the
only one who knew about Ock's business.
"He's not in today. Did you say he's fled?"
"I said no. He said he'd take a few days off. Anyway,
haven't you ever wanted to be something besides an electrician?"
"How can I dream of becoming something else when I'm
not even a good electrician? Why? Is there a good opening or something?"
"I don't mean changing jobs. I'm not talking about making
a living. What I mean is... don't you want to be engrossed in something?"
"Well, that's a vague question."
"Even if it's vague, and if only sometimes, wouldn't
you like to be something else other than the person you are at this moment?"
"What are you leading to? I have one thing that I want
to be. If I could be your boyfriend or your fiance', I wouldn't mind being
an electrician for the rest of my life."
His eyes were pleading, like those of a child. I put
the wonderful tools back in his pocket one by one.
"Now go. You've been scolded by the sergeant, so it won't
do you any good if you idle away your time like this."
He obediently went back to being an electrician, and
the painters started drawing again. I waited earnestly for a naive GI to
materialize in front of me. Readying my mouth for a "May I help you?" I
swallowed a yawn.
Everyone seemed to be tired of working, but nobody was
able to break out of the routine. Yawning, Misuk approached me.
I squeezed her plump hand and asked, "How's it going?
Anything special happening? You haven't done anything outrageous, have
I released her hand slowly. At this point I was not interested
in people who never caused trouble. Gradually I came to wish I could stir
up some trouble. But the trouble I could make wouldn't amount to much.
I wished I could sweep around the arcade on my hands or scream from the
top of the central staircase. However, these were only ideas, and I knew
I would never act on them.
A sturdy Yankee dumped an armful of goods he had bought
onto my desk and began to write addresses on a pile of envelopes. It looked
like a good chance to improve our business, and I gulped and waited for
him to finish writing.
He wrote addresses rapidly in typical reckless Yankee
handwriting. I couldn't stand watching, and I blurted out, "Be careful."
"I'm afraid that the letters and the addresses might
be mixed up."
He stopped writing for a moment, twisted his mouth in
a frown, and shrugged, spreading out his arms in the typical Yankee gesture,
which meant he didn't care.
I still hoped to make him my customer, so I smiled sweetly
and commented, "Is it really all right if you write so fast?"
"No problem. The contents are similar."
"But the people who get them are all different."
"They're all girls. I know what kind of things they want
Amazed, I couldn't continue. He had deep green eyes.
They were beautiful. His nose was arrogantly high with the end bent a little
like a hook, and his thin lips were closed, tucked inward. He looked as
selfish as Cousin Jin.
I gave up the idea of selling him a portrait. From my
experience, I could tell potential customers after exchanging a few words
with them. Either they had to be on the stupid side or they had to be so
curious that they wanted to do everything in sight. Or they had to be the
excessively sympathetic type, disgusting enough to assume every transaction
with a Korean as an act of charity. This fellow didn't belong to any of
His eyes didn't look like they belonged to someone who
could be easily bought, and they were shrouded with a boredom that wouldn't
be easily stirred by curiosity.
"If you send so many letters out, you'll get as many
"What kind of answers do you usually get?"
"Something similar to mine."
"I wonder what they are."
"I love you. I'm thinking only of you."
He smirked and shrugged again.
"You have good luck with women. Must be a happy man."
"No, not at all."
"I don't believe them."
"I lie to them. If I don't believe what I tell them,
how can I believe their answers?"
"Then why do you bother at all?"
"Bother? It's not. Sometimes I have an urge to say 'I
love you' even to the thin air."
I suddenly glimpsed a hunger hidden behind his boredom.
I was jolted. Confused, I said something I should not have.
"You should have bought a woman."
"Who said I haven't bought women? Who in this country
could avoid that? The cheap women. Five dollars, okay, one dollar, okay.
The cheapest sex in the world. But afterwards, I feel like it's all a waste
of money. Korean whores are the world's worst! They're like vending machines.
They don't know the first rule of business: That products should offer
the buyer the pleasure of shopping in addition to being practical. These
women just go crazy when they see dollars."
He challenged me as if I too were a sham, his penetrating
beautiful eyes burning with anger.
"I'm sorry." I apologized in confusion, as if I had cheated
"Why are you sorry? You look like a tong bang yeui jiguk
His Korean pronunciation was awkward and I assumed he
was saying some difficult English words I was not familiar with. I kept
asking, "I beg your pardon?" Finally I realized he meant "The Country of
Courteous People in the East, " Korea's nickname, but I was still in the
"What do you mean?"
"The women who aren't whores. When they see GIs, they
put on such demure faces you'd think they'd had their sex organs removed
long ago, and if a GI as much as winks at them, they act as if he's trying
to rape them." No longer in a fury, he explained this haltingly and with
such a bored expression that it could have induced sleep.
"Bye, bye, tong bang yeui jiguk," he said dully and was
gone. I watched him as he raced up the stairs two at a time. He was one
GI I would not easily forget.
Perhaps he went to the post office upstairs and mailed
all those love letters, knowing that he would have to buy from a vending
machine that very night. I began to regret that I didn't tell him I was
neither a whore nor a tong bang yeui jiguk.
It had been three days since I had seen that GI, so it
was the third day Ock had not been in.
"He must be sick again. He looks strong and sturdy but
he's not even as healthy as we are. Tsk, tsk."
"Miss Lee, let's all go and see him. Talk one of the
Yankees into buying a few cans of fruit for us."
"What nonsense! I'm already nervous because all the GIs
have their eyes on Miss Lee. Why should we make it easy for them to buy
her for the price of a few cans of fruit?"
"What are you talking about? Do you think she'd fall
into their hands for a couple of cans of fruit? She's pure gold. Right,
I gave each painter a larger work load and told them
not to worry about the fruit because Ock was not sick, that he had some
business to take care of at home.
How many more days would he need to prove that he was
an artist? I sat in his chair, staring at the grey curtain. Originally
it had been pale blue, but now it was a faded grimy grey. He had escaped
this greyness, enjoying the opportunity for concentration and hard work,
experimenting with vivid colors to his heart's content.
I felt anxious as if I were stranded all alone in the
midst of confusion. I was so anxious I wanted to shout to him for help,
but he was as far away as my dead father where my shouts could not be heard.
The grey curtain didn't flutter even a little, and I
was stirred by the desire to do something. If I couldn't escape this greyness,
I at least wanted to crack or chip away at its thickness.
"Miss Lee, a customer." Chin poked me with the end of
A young, disagreeable-looking PFC handed me a receipt.
He didn't ask me to wrap the portrait up but gazed at it with a frown,
his head cocked as if he were about to cause trouble. I pretended not to
notice his expression because I decided I'd rather have his portrait drawn
again than try to placate him in my broken English.
"Ah, this looks great. A work of art."
I looked up and found Joe, the green-eyed man I had met
a few days earlier.
"Hey, Miss, which painter drew this?" he added, pointing
to the portrait the PFC was holding.
He winked at my surprised face. I went along with him,
pointing at Chin, who had the most dignified appearance of the painters,
and said, "He drew it. He's a very respected artist. Anyone who can have
one of his paintings is lucky."
"That's great. Ask him to do mine."
Joe fumbled noisily in his inner pockets, presumably
looking for a picture. The PFC slowly lost his frown until his face went
blank and asked me to wrap his portrait up. I mischievously said if he
was not happy with it, I would ask one of the other painters to do it again,
but he said he liked it all right.
After the customer left, Joe slowly returned his photo
to his pocket.
"You don't want a portrait?"
"I know the worth of a dollar better than most people."
"Thank you for helping me, anyway."
"Anytime. Don't hesitate to ask for help."
"I'm glad to see you again."
"Really? Have you thought of me?"
"No, but I think I will from now on."
"Thanks," he grinned for the first time. Unexpectedly,
his smile revealed a dimple on his right cheek. That dimple didn't diminish
his masculinity a bit, but softened his brashness and made him look so
sweet that I could have plunged into his arms.
I felt a fondness for him. We didn't speak to each other
but looked at each other. The curtain of boredom in his eyes began to open,
and I felt myself being sucked into them as they showed unrestrained hunger.
"I want to whisper in your ear that I love you." His
voice sounded very sexy all of a sudden.
"Didn't you write any love letters today?"
"I might be able to skip them today, thanks to you."
I disguised the shortness of breath I felt with a sigh.
In his hunger I saw myself, and I interpreted it in my own way. He was
an insatiable person. He had an extravagant spirit which couldn't be consoled
by sex from a vending machine, and at the same time he possessed a sex
drive which couldn't be satisfied no matter how many love letter he wrote.
He was an insatiable man who insisted on pursuing both at the same time.
He shifted his eyes, which had been locked with mine,
pulled out an Old Gold, and inhaled it with pleasure without the slightest
movement. I felt a strong physical attraction.
I found myself waiting for Joe all the next day. Finally
he came and squeezed my hand hard with his strong, hairy one. His thirsty,
hungry eyes, like those of a starving animal, seemed to lick. As if by
magic, I felt I was being transformed into a female animal.
I retrieved my hand from his, remembering the watchful
eyes of the painters. I couldn't extricate myself, however, from the embarrassing
consciousness that had been awakened within me.
"What do you want from me?" My voice sounded strange
"I want to love you. We can have lots of fun. I want
to love this country through you," he whispered enthrallingly in my ear.
Dreams began to form in his hungry eyes, making them
shine with a dazzling light. My thoughts wandered wildly as I shuffled
through the paperback he had brought.
His arrogant high nose and selfish-looking thin lips
didn't suggest that he wanted a lasting love with a foreign woman. Perhaps
he simply wanted to enjoy the feeling of love, to have a woman in his arms.
A love affair in a foreign country, something more than
simple sex. Did I need to be the victim in his love affair? I could be
a co-conspirator. I could conspire in a fantastic love affair with him.
I could enjoy conversation with him, and better yet, I could listen to
music, looking into his eyes. Sitting by a warm stove, listening to stories
about his childhood. My own childhood would make him laugh. I could enjoy
his dimple to my heart's content.
I closed the book. Slowly the flashy color illustration
on the cover began to register in my mind. A woman with one strap of her
slip hanging from her shoulder was leaning back on a bed, and a man was
kneeling at her feet, tearing his hair. By the way their faces were distorted
with lust, it was clear they were in a prostitute's room. I read the title
of the book. Unexpectedly, it was Crime and Punishment by Dostoyevsky.
I hadn't read Dostoyevsky's works carefully, but influenced
by my brother Hyok, who had been a literature fanatic, I had a deep respect
for him tinged with awe. As I thought of Crime and Punishment's Sonja as
a saint, I was offended by the illustration. I turned the title page face-down.
"Why the sour expression? You don't like the illustration?"
"It's too much for Crime and Punishment even if it is
only a cheap paperback."
"What's wrong with this picture? This is the true nature
of a man and woman," he challenged, furious.
"You're a tong bang yeui jiguk. I almost forgot."
His anger cooled as quickly as it had erupted, but for
some reason his face took on a strange look. His eyes, full of expression
only a moment ago, were suddenly hidden behind a blanket of boredom.
"I almost forgot that you're a tong bang yeui jiguk,"
He said again.
"Why do you have to bring up that tong bang yeui jiguk
all the time? What right do you, a foreigner, have to slander this country
by ridiculing its time-honored values by turning them into some trashy
"At least I came to fight for this country. I could die
here although I don't want to. I want to know more about this country,
especially the women. But the women are hidden behind a thick taboo that
a foreigner can't ever penetrate. I use the term tong bang yeui jiguk to
refer to women who can't be bought. If I was wrong, forgive me," he said
"You're exaggerating about the awkwardness between strangers."
"Exaggerating Hardly. I was curious about the life behind
the windows and high walls. I wanted to peep behind the curtain of mystery
through you. But you can't do it. If you are not a whore and if you're
from a good family, you can't invite me to your home, can you?"
"Well, that's... "
I was embarrassed. I couldn't imagine knocking on the
gate of my house and introducing this man to my grey mother.
"I fantasized about walking with you in the beautiful
palaces when the grass turns green. I wanted to caress you, roll on that
grass. Are you brave enough? If you are, you're a whore."
I remembered Misuk worrying about being called a Yankee
slut even if she legally married an American soldier. She was more afraid
of other people's criticism than of the marriage itself. Come to think
of it, we were all so sensitive to what others thought. Yankee slut. Would
I have the courage to ignore the derisive eyes?
"Would you walk with me on a busy street, go shopping
with me, and listen to music at a coffee shop? Would you permit that? If
you did, you sure aren't from a good family."
He kept jeering at me. He insulted me squinting his eyes,
on which the boredom had already descended.
"And finally I wanted to strip off your clothes. Like
He turned the paperback face-up.
"You'd never do anything so terrible. One look at the
picture and you flush. A woman of tong bang yeui jiguk would never take
her clothes off in front of a man. Right?"
His taunting stopped there. It seemed our meeting had
come to a disastrous end.
Still, the next day I waited for him. I went about my
work listlessly trying to spot him among the military uniforms milling
in the PX. I knew he would come back. He had left his paperback behind.
We had an excuse to see each other again.
I wanted to see him. But at the same time I felt uncomfortable
as if his hungry eyes had remained on my body like a sticky liquid.
My recollections of him weren't clear, so I couldn't
decide how I felt about him. In my confusion, I was directing my nervousness
to the act of waiting for him. The sense of waiting was vicious, quite
different from waiting I had experienced before. Perhaps I had been contaminated
"Shit!" Kim wadded a scarf in a ball, shoved it aside
and stretched. It was the second scarf he had ruined that day.
"Hey, what's wrong? Did you eat something you shouldn't
have before coming to work this morning?"
"Shit! My wife nagged me this morning, so now I can't
do a decent job."
"Same here. The day after tomorrow is lunar New Year's.
We've got to work harder if we're going to provide rice cake soup for our
families and buy our wives velvet skirts or something." Cash sounded weary.
I was suddenly conscious of Ock's empty seat. Was he
willing to starve his children in order to prove that he was an artist?
Even if it meant no rice cake soup for New Year's? And had he ever imagined
how much better his long-necked wife would look if she took off those shabby
army fatigues and wore something more feminine, if not a velvet skirt?
What was he looking for? My disappointment in him surged inside me, like
an uncontrollable cry.
I realized that I was waiting for that sticky Yankee
because of Ock Hui-do. I wanted to do something out of the ordinary because
of him. I could have remained a good girl if he had kept his gaze on me,
but he had rejected my wish and sought his own work. Just to spite him,
I had to do something.
I was determined, even if nobody cared about what I did.
Joe hadn't appeared by the end of the day, and I kept his paperback deep
in a drawer.
"Please help me," Misuk called out from behind.
"Please go to a tavern with me."
"What are you talking about?"
"Do you think I'm asking you out for rice wine? I want
to buy some mung bean pancakes. Pure mung bean pancakes."
"Do you crave them so?"
"No, my mother loves them. She's had a terrible cold,
and now she simply doesn't have an appetite for anything. I want to buy
some for her. My boss says there's this tavern where they fry pure mung
bean cakes with lots of pork in them, but I don't have the nerve to go
there by myself."
My heart warmed, and I thought I might buy some as well.
My mother used to like them, too. I remembered that around the end of the
year, when she made mung bean pancakes, my mother, who rarely sampled anything
in the kitchen, would squish up her eyes and eat the first fried cake,
dipped in the soy-vinegar sauce, without bothering to offer it to anybody,
saying it tasted best straight from the frying pan.
"There it is."
Misuk pointed to a tavern with a shapeless wooden board
instead of glass. The door opened smoothly. It was warm inside, and the
dim light was hazy, either from the smoke or the heat.
It was not that we weren't curious about the men drinking,
but we headed straight to the proprietor inside without giving the men
a second glance. In a vast frying pan, several pancakes and a yellow lump
of fat sizzled together. The pan was as big as the lid of the cast-iron
cauldron in every kitchen.
I felt flushed with the noise mixed with singing and
the thick odors of food, wine, and people.
"Give us hot ones. The freshest ones."
Misuk bought five pancakes and I ended up buying five
myself. We left the tavern as if someone were chasing us, breathed a sigh
of relief and smiled at each other. We were proud, as if we had just accomplished
something very difficult.
As I walked, the pancakes became a burden. I was irritated
and blamed Misuk for making me buy them. Oblivious to what I was thinking,
Misuk opened her coat and clasped the cakes to her chest.
"What are you doing? Your clothes will smell."
"That's all right. Mung bean pancakes are no good if
After saying goodbye, I didn't know what to do with my
five pancakes. They were gradually losing warmth in my hands. At a corner
I finally opened my coat, and going one step further, I pulled my sweater
to put the cakes against my undershirt. I adjusted my sweater and closed
my coat, hugging the pancakes in my arms.
"What a pain! All because of her."
I still blamed Misuk for the purchase, but as I neared
my house, I found myself expecting something extraordinary to happen. Perhaps
I could bring some kind of emotion to my mother's dull eyes.
I shook the gate, calling out for her loudly. My chest
felt warm. It was because the pancakes were still warm. I drew close to
my mother, one hand holding hers and the other hugging my chest.
"Mom, Mom, do you smell anything? A good smell. Can you
guess what it is? Hum, hum?"
"Smell?" my mother answered flatly. The dry wood of her
hand didn't respond to my squeeze. I stood on the front step, and my mother
went into the dimly lit kitchen.
"Mom, mung bean pancakes!" I handed them to her quickly.
"Have some before they get cold. I put them under my clothes to keep them
I stared in her eyes, hoping to find some meaning. She
simply put the bundle down, and went about her regular routine, warming
up the soup, setting out the spoons, chopsticks, and bowls on the tray.
Her eyes revealed nothing but a stubborn determination that said she was
living only because she couldn't kill herself. I regretted buying the mung
bean pancakes. And embracing them under my clothes.
And I especially regretted telling her, "I put them under
my clothes to keep them warm." If words were tangible, I would have snatched
I stepped into the house. The spot on my chest where
the pancakes had been was burning with fury. I shoved open the northern
window, which hadn't been open all winter.
The fierce, cold wind whipped in. I should have brought
that Yankee home. Maybe Joe will come tomorrow. If I knocked on our gate
with my arm hooked in his, my mother's eyes couldn't remain expressionless.
They would have to show some emotion. I had to invite him here behind these
high walls, behind these intricately latticed window.
She couldn't help but be shocked. I'd ignore her reaction
and walk with him around the house. She would be horrified, of course.
I would let him sit down on my father's overstuffed chair, let him touch
my brothers' things, and I would broil marinated beef for him in the kitchen.
The trees in the backyard sent out a blast of wind toward
me, shaking all over. Still, the spot where I had held the pancakes had
I would tell him what a splendid yellow the trees once
were, although they're miserable now. How they spilled their yellowness
to the earth continuously. I would whisper to him in front of my mother.
Then she wouldn't be able to gaze at her daughter with those lifeless eyes.
The event that was to shock my mother didn't happen the
next day, either. Joe didn't show up although I thought he surely would.
Since it was payday for the painters, I had Ock Hui-do's earnings with
me. The painters were discussing the best way to utilize their meager earnings
over the holiday season.
In my head I tried to squeeze rice cake soup and new
clothes for the children out of Ock's earnings, less than 50,000 won, but
there were so many children that I gave up in dismay. Fortunately, the
allocation of his earning was not my job. The only use that money had for
me was that it provided me an excuse to see Ock.
I left work with the money in my inside pocket, but it
wasn't easy for me to go to Yonji-dong. I wished I didn't need an excuse
to see him. I wished I didn't have to see him in the presence of the five
children and wife.
Perhaps tomorrow he would surprise us by coming to sit
in his chair. Maybe he was standing in front of the chimpanzee at this
very moment. Yes, he must be there. Savoring that hope, I went to the toy
stall. It was deserted. There were no spectators. The vendor looked up
at me, half-dozing, and seemed to recognize me. The chimpanzee and the
black doll were gone. They must have brought the vendor some money, finally.
I felt helpless as if I were a lost child. I pressed
the belly of a doll my hand happened to touch and said, "You must have
sold the chimpanzee."
"They're expensive but they go as soon as I get them.
I haven't been able to get hold of any lately, "he explained kindly with
Then it had not been one chimpanzee but a series of chimpanzees,
coming and going.
"But have you seen the man who used to come with me?"
"No, I don't think I have."
"Think harder, please?"
I wanted to believe that he had rushed from his concentration
and hard work to wait for me here, but the old man shook his head three
Then hadn't he stepped away from his concentration and
hard work even once? I was swept up by a desire to do something. I headed
"Oh, my. What brought you here at this hour?" Mrs. Ock
"Well, how thoughtful of you!"
She squeezed my hand. I couldn't shake her hand away.
Dejected, I was angry at myself for not being able to dislike her.
"To tell you the truth, I couldn't say anything to the
children's father, but I was dying for the money, knowing today's payday."
I whispered in her ear, "Why didn't you tell him to go
and get it?"
"How could I? He's painting for the first time in a long
while, and I couldn't worry him with a trivial thing like money. It's been
so long since he painted."
Her face was happy as if she wanted to be congratulated
because her husband had started painting again.
"Yes, that's right. And as he was off this week, he won't
be paid next week. What will you do?"
"Thank you for your concern. We'll get by somehow."
She put aside the worry about money as trivial and said,
"Please come in. I'd like to serve you tea."
She was excited. Was it because she had money or was
it because her husband had started painting again? She looked much younger
and more vivacious than the last time. She was wearing something more feminine,
a purple Korean blouse with a neat white collar. Over it she wore a shabby
yet feminine sweater. She was certainly aware of her appearance. That was
why she always accentuated it with clean collars.
"Darling, it's Miss Lee. Today is payday, she says. She
came here because of that. We had forgotten all about it, hadn't we?"
"Tell her to come in and warm up before heading for home."
The whole family was together. Ock Hui-do, who was reading
the newspaper with the youngest son on his lap, looked rather gaunt. As
I entered, the other children slid back toward the colder part of the room
and only the youngest remained on his father's lap.
"Didn't you bring apples this time?" he asked.
"What an impudent boy!" Ock said, bouncing up the boy
with his thigh. The boy's bottom landed on his father's lap with a slap,
and everyone in the family laughed. They were the picture of the happy
family enjoying an evening together.
I smiled with them and looked around the room. There
wasn't a trace of his painting to be seen. She served me ginger tea in
a thick heavy cup. The yellow liquid was hot, spicy, and sweet, perfect
for the cold weather.
"Have you finished painting?" I cautiously brought up
the subject. That was what I was most curious about. "Where is it? Can
The youngest bolted from his father's lap and slid open
the paper door leading to the next room. Then I realized why his wife hadn't
sent the children to the other room. It was not clear whether there was
no electric light or whether it was not turned on, but the room was dark.
A large canvas was leaning against the wall and things were strewn about
in the tiny space, with hardly an inch to spare. I could smell turpentine.
On the canvas was a tree. It gave me a terrifying sensation.
The old tree, with neither flowers nor fruit, stood bleakly against an
almost grey space. That was all. The whole space had a sandy texture, with
different shades of black and white, like a mosaic. Neither the sky nor
the earth were visible, and the old tree floated like a monster in the
The tree might have died from the dry-spell demon; if
so, where was the cruel sunlight? A dry spell without sunlight. If such
a thing were possible, it was a dry spell in thick mist. The sandy grey
texture was like a thick mist.
Why had I seen a dead tree killed by a cruel dry spell
on his canvas? The fragrant ginger tea had cooled, but I had lost my appetite
I didn't have any specialized knowledge of art, but I
had always loved it. I loved paintings, from the ones on the wall of my
elementary school classroom, to professional painters, famous and nameless,
to the beautiful prints in albums of famous artists' works.
I didn't understand the language of those works, but
I enjoyed their light and colors. I loved paintings that expressed the
joy of life in various colors and shapes. My taste for art was as simple
and down-to-earth as a child who longed for colorful balloons or a woman
admiring bright colors in front of a fabric shop window. My simple taste
was perplexed by his painting.
The boy sat on my lap.
"Will you bring apples next time?"
I gave him two 1,000 won bills and stood up, leaving
the cold ginger tea untouched. I wanted to sort out my bewilderment alone.
Ock Hui-do and his wife didn't try to hold me back. They had been silent
since the child opened the sliding door.
The wife followed me to the alley.
"Why did he paint that kind of thing?"
"Why? Don't you like it?"
"Of course. It's his."
"Don't you think you should do something more for him?"
"Of course I do. I'm embarrassed that I can't fix it
so he can paint without having to worry about the family finances. We have
so many children that..."
"You're talking about his difficulty making a living."
"I'm ashamed, but, yes."
"You should be ashamed of something else."
"What are you trying to say? I don't understand."
"In my opinion you're not qualified to be an artist's
She halted in her tracks. I stopped and we faced each
"What? I've been taking care of him for almost twenty
"Ha, do you think you can be proud of that?"
"What does a young lady like you know? You mean I shouldn't
be proud of taking care of a man who knows nothing but painting for twenty
"You're really confident."
"Listen, young lady. You're making me nervous. Why do
you want to argue with me all of a sudden?"
"I'm not trying to argue. I simply pity Mr. Ock."
"Don't say everything that pops into your head. Why do
you pity him? There's no reason why a young lady like you should pity him.
I know because I've been the wife of an artist for twenty years."
We faced each other, eyes burning in the dark night.
There was not even a waning moon in the sky. Twice she called me "a young
lady like you." I tried hard to get back at her for her insult.
"You couldn't even read the desperate poverty in his
"Is our poverty my sole responsibility? It's difficult
enough for me to act as a buffer, protecting him from feeling the poverty
on his skin."
"I'm not talking about material poverty, but about the
poverty of light and colors that indicates starvation for the joy of life."
"You are too young, and you don't know much about works
of art. Colorful paintings aren't always the best."
She was trying to teach me in a dignified manner. I wanted
to crush her.
"Painting is a visual language. In his painting, I see
poverty and desperation. You could have given him more of life's joy."
"Nobody can take care of him better than I do."
"How? What do you want?"
"I'd rather take off my clothes and let him paint me,
instead of watching him paint dead wood and things like that."
I hadn't thought before I spoke, but once the words were
out, I thought that was what I really wanted and in order to save both
myself and Ock Hui-do I really had to do that.
"What? I'd take off my clothes before I'd let you do
"Have you forgotten you've given birth to five children?
Who do you think he would prefer?"
"Who on earth are you?" She clearly was terrified. Her
In the dark I could see the white collar and her slender,
elegant neck. I knew that neck could carry a burden several times her own
weight if it were for him.
And I liked this woman. Still, I had to make her angry
with me. I was rebelling against her for no reason. I had not expected
or planned to do it, but I couldn't stop once I had started.
"Don't you realize who I am?"
"No, no. Who are you? Who?"
"I'll tell you by and by."
I ran down the alley, leaving her standing there. Immediately
I forgot about her distress and thought only of that tree standing dead
in the mist.
Of course she wasn't to blame for that painting. It must
have been that grey curtain, that glum curtain blocking his view. That
curtain must have repressed his inspiration, his imagination. No, maybe
it was those painters. How he must have suffered because of those impoverished
Maybe it was the war. Perhaps it was the bleak streets,
the grey buildings, and the skeletal trees.
It could have been all of these. They could have combined
to drive him to starvation. He must be suffering from a hunger, different
from that of the green-eyed GI. I sadly realized that I couldn't relieve
Ock's hunger, although I could alleviate the GI's.
It was Joe, back after a long absence. I had been waiting
for him earnestly, but once I saw him I was neither happy nor sad.
I pulled his book from my drawer and handed it to him
calmly. It was to convince myself that he had just come for the book.
"I missed you."
His deep eyes licked my whole body. I hurriedly lowered
my eyes. My attraction to him was shallow and sensual, so I could forget
him when out of his presence, but when I was with him, it pained me.
"Me, too" I whispered, betraying myself with a complicated
I was ashamed that my voice sounded hoarse, ringing strange
to my ear. If he wanted me to, I had a feeling, well, rather a belief,
that I might do something with him.
Under his sensual gaze, I felt all the joints of my body
loosen, making it easy for him to break me apart. I was not the least bit
frightened or sorry about imagining myself broken apart.
It wouldn't be my responsibility if I were broken apart.
It was not important that I was the one who might be broken apart. To me,
the fact that I was not responsible was important. I wanted to shout it,
so everyone could hear.
What really mattered to me was having an excuse, to be
able to say it was all because of Ock Hui-do, that nothing like this would
have happened if only he had been with me.
"Can we meet somewhere today, somewhere besides here?"
"Shall I invite you to my home?"
"Are you serious?"
"Of course. This evening is fine."
He seemed to think for a while and said, "Let's forget
it. I mean let's forget your invitation."
"Why? I thought you wanted me to invite you to my house.
"You shouldn't be so easy. You should remain a girl from
a good family. I don't want to think of you as a whore."
"How about walking together in a busy street? How about
going shopping together? You could buy me some beautiful shoes and drape
a beautiful silk scarf."
"That won't do, either. You should be wrapped in layers
of mystery. That way you won't seem like a whore to me."
"You are being very difficult."
I studied him carefully. What was he trying to say? Beautiful,
but hungry eyes. I felt an inexplicable chill and thought of the naked
tree Ock was painting.
"Can I have a pen and paper?"
He drew a map and put in the street names before explaining
it to me. He apparently wanted to show me the way to a hotel in a back
alley of Hoehyon-dong.
"It's called the Kyongso Hotel. If you are thinking of
a large building, you won't be able to find it. It's a Japanese-style building
with a rather large garden. Room seven. I have a reservation. You can come
right in. You don't need a key. The room has a Japanese sliding door. I'm
telling you, don't picture a real hotel just because it calls itself a
hotel. There's a sign. It's an old Japanese building hidden behind the
trees in the garden. I'll be there. You'll come to see me, right?"
"What do you want?"
"Well, I want to take off your clothes."
"Do you really think you can? I'm a girl from a good
family, no whore. Besides, who knows? I might be a tong bang yeui jiguk.
" I mimicked everything he had said.
"I don't care."
"You sure are confident."
"You bet I'm as confident as you have a belly button."
I opened my mouth wide and let out a high-pitched giggle.
He laughed along with me. His cold, thin lips opened and a dimple appeared
on his cheek. I suddenly felt conscious of my belly button.
"What about it? You do have a belly button, right?"
"Well, I'll have to check. If I do, I'll go to room seven,
and if not, I won't. I don't want you to waste your time."
"You have one."
We laughed again. Gradually I felt as if my belly button
were growing larger. I laughed once more, thinking of the old saying, "The
belly button is larger than the belly." Giggling like an idiot, all I could
feel was my belly button.
"Why are you laughing?" he asked, puzzled by my prolonged
However, I didn't try to explain why the old saying asking
made me feel light-headed. It seemed that was something that would be funny
only to me, and that we couldn't laugh about it together. He left, confidently
reminding me that I had a belly button. I folded up the map he had drawn
crookedly, putting it in my purse.
After closing, I carefully brushed my teeth in the rest
area on the second floor and chewed a piece of gum which a cleaning woman
had given me, rolling it into every corner of my mouth.
Once in the street, however, I turned my back on Hoehyon-dong,
and headed for Myong-dong. I rushed to the toy vendor as if I had some
urgent business there. It was almost deserted. I felt dejected because
there was no chimpanzee.
"Excuse me. Don't you have the chimpanzees any more?"
"They aren't available any more, They are not made in
Korea. They are imported directly from Japan. Did you want to buy one?
If I happen to spot one, shall I hold it for you?"
The toy stall didn't provide me with relief any more.
I climbed up the hill to the cathedral and then continued down on the other
side. I didn't go home directly and I felt myself consciously resisting
the call of my belly button. I walked the avenues and roamed the alleys
lined with taverns exuding the smell of mung bean pancakes. I was cold
and a bit tired. I opened the door of a pretentious-looking Western cake
shop, with a decorated cake in the shape of a building still in the display
window, although it had been made for Christmas. I slumped down near the
stove. The green tea was fragrant and hot.
I was finally at ease. With the tension gone from my
body, I grew drowsy. I leaned back in the chair and closed my eyes.
"Are you alone?"
Diana was sitting on the other side of the stove. I smiled,
embarrassed to be caught dozing, and opened my eyes wider than was necessary.
Opposite Diana sat two cute little boys side by side. They must be the
sons of the Korean father, as Misuk had said. The children were healthy
and even had an air of elegance about them. Diana, wearing subdued makeup
for once, was gazing at her sons with warm, calm eyes.
"If you are by yourself, come join us."
I was looking at the boys distractedly.
"Are you waiting for somebody?"
"Then come on. Let me treat you to some pastries."
She laughed a warm, natural laugh. Today her wrinkles
didn't look ugly, possibly because her sons were sitting with her. In fact,
she and her sons looked quite happy together. I moved next to the boys,
not next to her.
"Say hello to Mommy's friend. This auntie works at the
same company as Mommy does."
"How do you do?"
"What nice manners you have! Who's older?"
"I am," said the bigger boy, puffing his chest out.
"They look like twins."
"Yes, they are only a year apart."
She ordered some cakes and pastries and warned the boys,
whose cheeks were already bulging, to slow down and chew carefully, and
to drink some water between bites. Her warnings didn't sound like nagging.
Goodness, is it because she's a mother? Shit, how could
she be a mother?
My anger boiled up and a curse lodged in my throat.
"How old are you?"
"They're so smart and so handsome. They don't take after
"They look exactly like their father."
She was unruffled. I was not particularly curious about
their father. The conversation stopped. I was uncomfortable because I was
not familiar with this woman who was affectionate and almost elegant.
They left before me. She made her sons say polite goodbyes,
walked them in front of her proudly, and paid my bill along with hers.
Ripping open an eclair to lick the cream, I pondered
who the real Diana Kim was. She had several selves, changing them frequently,
as if she were changing outfits. Which was the false Diana and which was
the real Diana? The name Diana must be false as well. Her real name could
be something as provincial as Poksun or Sunduk.
She clung desperately to money, slept with niggers, and
had given birth to two sons only a year apart. On top of that, she was
wife to their father, and she had insulted Ock Hui-do. Some of these roles
must be faked, and she must prefer that of mother, wanting it to be the
real her, but I made up my mind not to be deceived by her lies.
Maybe she was a fake through and through, and if you
peeled off the mother, the whore, and the miser, she wold be a hollow cave,
completely empty like my mother. I felt good imagining her like that.
Having finished the eclair, I kept eating more pastries.
There wasn't anyone to tell me to drink water between bites so I stupidly
kept eating until my throat was stuffy and dry. I sat there for a long
time after I had finished everything. Suddenly my coat was unbearably heavy.
The stove was hot and all the windows were covered with
thick wool curtains. I took off my coat, rolled it up, and put it on my
lap. I wanted to take off all my clothes.
I wanted to peel them off one by one and kick them away.
It was not solely because of the pleasant room temperature. I would have
felt the same way if I were roaming about in the street.
Yes, I wanted to go to the Kyongso Hotel. I wanted to
be stripped by Joe. He would certainly take off my clothes. At the same
time he would help me get rid of all the layers of taboo. My heart pounded
with another expectation, perhaps the most important of all. Through him
I wanted to step out of all those superfluous layers of myself. I wanted
to throw off those selves, the ones that sometimes tore me to pieces, that
hid behind myself and transformed with such dizzying speed without ever
With Joe's help I believed I could. He certainly would
show up the real me. I wanted to see my body and soul in all its nakedness.
I wished I could gaze boldly at the distorted roof without
I wished I could look smack at the hole on the ridge
and at the splintered tiles. And most of all, I would have liked to have
been able to face my mother without hating her.
Joe would take off my clothes, and through him I hoped
I could rid myself of the tatters of my soul.
I put on my coat and pulled out the map from my purse.
Having memorized the way from the map, I stepped out to the street.
The red neon sign on the iron gate made it easy to find
the Kyongso Hotel, hidden behind the evergreen trees and otherwise indistinguishable
from the other Japanese-style homes in the neighborhood.
The gate was wide open. There were stepping stones to
the entrance. The garden, without lights, was dark and the evergreen trees
were snowcapped. The spacious glass-doored room at the entrance was empty,
and I could see some clothes hanging from the wall.
I found room seven without being seen by anyone. I hesitated
for a moment. I was only thinking of lucky seven. It was a Japanese-style
house, but contrary to what Joe had said, the sliding door had been replaced
by a Western-style door. I twisted the handle open smoothly.
Joe was sitting on the window sill reading a thick book.
I sat next to him. The tatami room was large. On the platform was a flower
arrangement, yellow chrysanthemums interspersed with pine branches. A double
bed, with a pink spread, occupied one end of the room. I felt a bit apprehensive
at the idea of a western bed in a tatami room. Furthermore, the pink bedspread
was a shade too tacky for my taste.
"Is it cold outside?" Joe asked, helping me off my coat
and expertly hanging it on the rack. I shook my head and leafed through
the thick brown book he was reading.
"Is it a novel?"
He pushed the book away and stared at me with his hungry
eyes. The handsome eyes of a male animal were changing me into a female
animal very fast, but when he leaned toward me, I pushed him away abruptly
and asked him another question.
"What is that book about? I'd like to know what you were
thinking about before I came here."
"It's a kind of history book."
"Which county's? Yours, of course?"
"No. A history of the human race. It's a story about
how people evolved from animals to create culture and the arts."
"Sounds interesting. Will you tell me about it?"
"I want to teach you something more interesting."
Joe opened the top buttons of my warm sweater and ran
his lips along my neck. I twisted my body to extricate myself from his
embrace and pulled my collar together.
"You must have studied something like that in your county.
What's it called? History? Sociology?"
"I was just reading it because I was bored waiting for
you. Please don't put such stupid things between us."
He pushed the thick book further away with his foot.
His green eyes were bloodshot with anxiety and thirst. I was nervous, too.
I didn't have to know about that brown book, but I wanted to know more
about him before I took off all my clothes. I thought I should know something
more about him than that he was an attractive male.
"I love you," he whispered in a sexy voice.
The bristles on his chin pricked my neck. The front buttons
of my sweater had opened, I couldn't pull it closed again. I suppressed
my panting with all my strength, however. It seemed like I had to do something
before taking off my clothes.
More conversation or something to deepen the thoroughly
superficial attraction between us. I had no idea why I began to feel I
needed that kind of step before taking my clothes off. If I had known,
I would have put off the visit to the room with the pink bed for a few
The room was designed for taking off clothes, nothing
else. The pink bed eloquently said that, and the crimson shade on the lamp
next to the bed said that, and the nude photos of people that were attached
to the low walls at the eye level of someone lying on the bed said that.
The brown book was too far away to be of any help to
me. I began to respond to his caresses more fully. My violet sweater came
off and was thrown on top of the book. It would take ages to remove all
the undershirts I was wearing, though, for I was more sensitive to the
cold than most people. He caressed me leisurely, peeling my clothes off
one by one. I abandoned myself to the pleasure of having my clothes taken
My varied colored clothes were strewn all over the tatami.
I had selected them so carefully, but now they looked like mere rags on
the floor, ugly and useless rags. I had the vague feeling that something
was being cast off within me. No, I hoped that it was so.
I thought it seemed as though I had wings that could
carry me out of that thick cocoon. Wings that could free me from the stifling
Finally I floated up to the air, as if I really had wings.
There was no resistance that could deter my flight. I was weightless.
I was in his arms with only a thin slip, hanging by one
strap over my shoulder. He was carrying me to the pink bed.
It was fine with me. I would have wings. I would spring
out from the narrow confinement of my chrysalis. The soft bed engulfed
almost half of my body. I could feel his weight as he lay beside me. His
lips and hands explored every part of my body. Like a magician he found
the hidden points of sensuality and offered me a fascinating feast of the
senses. His breath came in gasps.
Still, I was the guest at the feast. For a guest invited
to a gourmet meal, I was a shade too conscious. I knew too much about the
flavors of the food. I tasted the flavors so clearly, distinguishing between
the savory taste and all the other different flavors.
Perhaps one could get sick and tired of a gourmet meal
too easily. A gourmet meal was a gourmet meal, and it could not change
the fact that the host was the host and the guest was the guest.
Something was missing in our feast. A flavorful, exquisite
wine that could enhance the feast and intoxicate the host and the guest,
and that could transform the tastes of other dishes to a perfect harmony.
Joe seemed to sense that. He kept whispering "I love
you," but his caress grew more nervous and intense. I accepted his expert
caresses with delicate appreciation, but they didn't intoxicate me.
"How about turning off the light?" I suggested, growing
The switch was on the wall next to the door. He sauntered
to the door and flicked the black switch.
Darkness wrapped around us. His breathing grew
shorter and louder. His strong body smell, like that of an animal, assaulted
my nose. I was afraid of him changing into something fierce in the dark.
"Turn the light on. The light!"
He didn't answer, but snatched down the strap that was
hanging precariously from my shoulder.
"Turn on the light, I said!" I screamed, grabbing hold
of my slip.
He mumbled something that sounded like a curse, and raising
his upper body, he fumbled about at the head of the bed. He must be looking
for the lamp with the crimson shade. The switch clicked on. The crimson
bulb came to life under the crimson shade. Before looking into Joe's face.
I saw the bedspread dyed in a deep blood-red. The blood-red sheet... the
blood-red sheet. Ah, the blood-red sheet!
My memory dashed into the past like water flooding down
from a broken dam. The yellow ginkgo leaves. The yellow ginkgo leaves dropping
endlessly to the ground. The splendid yellow, beautiful to the point of
sorrow, couldn't manage to stop my memory going back.
Like a smack on the face, I encountered the memory that
I thought I had forgotten, that thought I had been avoiding so skillfully.
I then accepted this memory, giving in like a person cornered in the dead
end of an alley.
The ghastly blood stains on the bright white sheet that
my mother had so carefully beaten to a stiff smoothness with her ironing
bats, the young bodies so mercilessly ripped. Those gruesome bodies that
showed in full horror how tender young bodies could be mangled before their
souls departed, the crimson blood, still warm, which had flowed from those
horrible bodies. I had seen them.
"Ahh!" I screamed with all the might my lungs could muster,
and fell to the tatami floor, clutching my slip.
"What's the matter with you?"
Shocked by my sudden outburst, Joe raised his body from
the bed and approached me.
"Ahh!" I shrieked again, shaking the whole building.
I couldn't express the horror I felt. I felt as if my
body would be mangled by Joe at the very moment. Like my brothers Hyok
and Wook, I thought I would be hacked to pieces, drenching the bed with
I had to flee. I had to.
"What's the matter?"
He came closer again.
"Oh, no. Please, please don't break me."
I pleaded, rubbing my palms together. Joe, with his hairy
arms and chest, looked like a huge gorilla. I could hear talking outside,
and there was a knock on the door. It grew noisy as if the whole building
had been awakened by my screams. Joe opened the door a crack and said something.
I quickly put on one of my undershirts. The door closed, and I was left
alone with Joe.
"What's the matter? Are you crazy?"
I nodded, gathering up the clothes. I didn't mind being
crazy. I wanted to get away from the squirting blood, the butchering, the
ugliness, and the pain.
"Don't be scared. I'll help you put on your clothes."
"Oh, no. Please don't break me."
I pleaded, rubbing my palms together and slipping on
my layers of clothes numbly. When I was finished, he tried to put my coat
on, but I jumped and shrieked, "Don't come any closer. Just throw it to
He cursed, using a word I could't understand, and threw
the coat to me. I picked it up and pushed the door open. Several people
were gathered outside. I flew down the corridor without giving them a chance
to ask any questions, put on my shoes in the foyer, and ran through the
Having passed the gate, I hurried up the steep road.
Looking back, I could see the vivid neon sign "Kyongso Hotel."
I dashed on again. When I got to the main street, I looked
back again. Nobody was following me, and the red neon sign was no longer
in view. Exhaustion engulfed me, and for the first time I felt the chill
of the night. Not bothering to put my arms into the sleeves, I hung my
coat over my shoulders, hugging a tree trunk in the street. I rubbed my
cheeks on the rough bark and shed tears of relief.
My head cleared and those forgotten days rushed back
to me vividly.
(to be continued)
Translated by Yu Young-nan