Han Mahl-sook was born in Seoul in 1931, the youngest
of four children of a scholarly family. She graduated from Seoul National
University with a degree in Linguistics in 1955. She taught literature
and Korean language at Seoul National University for fourteen years. In
more recent years she has written many newspaper columns and essays spotlighting
social and political problems.
She began her literary career in 1957 with the publication
of a short story, Shinhwaui tanae(Shattered Myths) in the journal Hyondae
Munhak(Modern Literature). In 1964 she was awarded the Outstanding New
Writer Award by the same journal and in 1969 she received the Best Literature
Award presented by the Hankook Ilbo newspaper.
She has published six short-story collections, three
novels, and a collection of essays. Her works have been translated into
English, French, Czech, Chinese, Portuguese, German, Polish, and Japanese.
"Shattered Myths" was made into a 1959, while another short story, Yosu,
1977(Travel Weary Blues), was filmed in 1978 and made into a television
film in 1989.
Her main interest lies in the wounded psychology and
disturbed ethical standards of the individuals portrayed in her tales.
The trauma of the Korean War underlies these topics, which in many stories
lead to a failure of love and human relationships in general. In one story,
Shinkwaui Yaksok(A promise to God, 1968), she depicts a mother's struggle
between faith and atheism, and in many ways the attitude to life found
in her work may be described as existential.
It continued to rain for four days, and the muddy water
from the flooded river covered the rice paddies and the fields. Three more
days of rain and Tashik's hut would be washed away.
Tashik stood on the porch and watched the whole village
that stood upstream being swept away by the water. The straw roofing of
huts floated by. Moth-eaten pillars were being carried off. Everything
was rolling wildly down the river in the same direction:broken cabinets,
torn-off doors, lids of pots....
Tashik watched them silently.
His bride was sitting by the oven in the hut. She stared
at her husband's back. She too was silent.
Several rats dashed out of the kitchen and onto the porch,
climbed a beam there, came down again, and darted away. The bride could
hear them squeaking underneath the porch. Rats are very sensitive to floods;their
holes are the first to be destroyed by the water.
The bride continued to stare at her husband, too absorbed
in him to worry about their hut.
They had been married the day before and had just spent
their first night together. At breakfast she dared not look at his face.
She was a bashful woman, and looked down while she ate. Perhaps he was
shy also, for he too had kept silent. However he had added two extra spoonfuls
of cooked rice to her bowl. There is a saying that two spoonfuls bring
a man and his bride closer together, and she blushed as she thought of
She had only met him once before they were married, and
all she had seen of him then was his feet. Nor could she see him last night
in the dark. So she did not know what he looked like, even though they
had already spent a night together. She knew that he was of medium height
and that his body was strong. But she had not yet seen his eyes and nose
and mouth, although once the matchmaker had said that there could hardly
have been a more comely man.
She herself knew she was not very pretty. But she was
dark-complexioned, and had heard it said in the village that the young
men there maintained that her dark dewy eyes made them feel numb and set
their hearts pounding.
Their simple wedding took place ten days after they were
engaged. Tashik had decided to marry her although he had never seen her
before. He knew she was the eldest child in a large family. Her parents
consented to the marriage. They were glad to reduce the number of mouths
they had to feed, even by only one.
Because of the rain, nothing delicate was prepared for
the wedding. There was only a plateful of rice cakes, two dishes of cooked
rice, and two bowls of soup, all placed on the table in the hallway of
the home of Mr. Lee, a landowner for whom Tashik worked. When the food
was set before them, Tashik and the bride bowed to each other and became
man and wife. There were no guests at the wedding, but Tashik was happy.
The bride had nothing to bring as a dowry, not even a
piece of cloth. After the wedding ceremony, Tashik came across the hill
to the hut with two spoons, two pairs of chop-sticks, two bowls, a can
of red-pepper mash, a can of soy sauce, and a cooking pot, which he carried
on his back. The matchmaker and the bride followed him. On her head she
carried two blankets and a pillow. This was their only bedding.
The rain let up for a moment, then it began falling harder
and harder until it became a forceful downpour. The bride was startled
as she suddenly became aware of the beating rain. She smiled to herself,
glad that her husband did not notice her fear.
A small centipede fell to the floor and landed upside
down, its white belly showing. It turned over. When it started to run away,
moving its scores of legs, she crushed it with her foot. Another one fell.
It landed on her shoulder. She brushed it off and stepped on it. The wet
straw roof was infested with centipedes.
The hills nearby were so bare of trees that one could
scarcely hear cicadas, even in midsummer. There had always been floods
in the region and no trees could grow. But at least there were no snakes.
Floods are horrible, but snakes make them worse. Snakes cling to men as
they are being washed away by the water. "It is a good thing that there
are no snakes," the bride said to herself.
More rats dashed out of the kitchen and darted under
The bride looked at her husband as he stood at the edge
of the porch. His sturdy, well-tanned legs were greatly reassuring to her.
She blushed as she thought of their first night together. And she could
feel her heart pounding as she began to think of the evening ahead and
what would take place again.
Tashik stood on the porch and continued to stare at the
water. Since his childhood he had worked as a farm hand for Mr. Lee. He
was an honest man, and he worked hard;he knew Mr. Lee was especially fond
of him. A few days ago Mr. Lee had come to the hut and found Tashik at
work papering the walls with newspaper. Formerly the hut was used by a
forest guard. "Well, well, you sure are in a hurry, aren't you?" Mr. Lee
Tashik smiled as he remembered Mr. Lee's good-natured
More and more objects came floating by in the muddy,
rapid water. A sauce jar drifted down and bobbed irregularly until it sank.
Bundles of clothing, wet pillows, hooks and pans, an aluminum pot... silently
and swiftly they floated past and disappeared down the river.
Tashik only noticed the things which he wanted most.
His eyes widened as he watched the debris float past.
He would follow a floating object with his eyes until it was out of sight.
Then he turned his head and looked upstream again, ready to follow another
Something white drifted by, and behind it came something
bright and colorful. It was a blanket and a quilt! Perhaps they had been
bound together with straw ropes before, for bits of straw cord floated
in disarray alongside them.
"Bedding," he mumbled to himself, "bedding bedding!"
That was something he really needed. The blanket and quilt drifted closer
to the hut. His eyes sparkled. Quickly he turned his head and looked back
at his bride. Her dewy eyes met his own. He wanted to speak but could say
nothing. She covered her face with her hands, and he realized that this
was the first time she had seen his face.
He turned and looked at the water again. "Bedding," he
said again. The quilt and blanket were far out of reach by now. They floated
away, now close together, now far apart. As soon as they were out of sight,
Tashik looked upstream again.
"My husband, my darling..." he heard his wife saying
But at that moment he cried out as if in battle, leaped
from the porch to the ground, and dashed into the rain. Glancing quickly
over his shoulder he noticed his bride jumping to her feet. But he kept
In no more than ten strides he reached the river and
plunged in. "Darling!" he heard his wife cry as he swam wildly towards
The rain began falling harder. It came in torrents.
Tashik swam directly into midstream and clutched at a
large pigpen. He clung to it, and knew now that his wife would understand
what he was doing. Surely she remembered what Mr. Lee had said:"I will
give you a little pig soon. Let's see what you can do with it."
The little pig will grow up. In six months it will be
ready to bear young. Sometimes a pig has as many as five or six in a litter.
They too grow up and bear. The males can be sold, the females kept. Sell
the males and keep the females! One pig brings in ten or fifteen thousand
yuan. And the droppings from the pigpen make the best manure. With pig
manure the rice crop will be a better one.
He had not been able to get a pigpen. They are expensive,
for they must be strong and well built. Otherwise the pigs break them and
get away. Tashik wanted to be sure his pigs would not get away What good
are pigs if they escape, he thought as he grabbed one corner of the pigpen
and tried to pull it ashore.
He pulled hard, but the pen was locked in the current.
The swift water would not yield an inch.
The pigpen was made of logs about two feet long and several
inches thick. They were fastened tightly together with wire. It was large
enough for perhaps ten pigs. This would be perfect for us, Tashik thought.
"Come on, let's go!" he shouted, pulling at the pen.
Water was being splashed all over his head. He wiped it from his face with
one of his big, hardened hands.
The water was up to his waist. The river seemed to be
boiling under the punishment of the pelting rain.
Somehow the waves pushed the pigpen up on the shore.
"Hurrah!" he cried, overjoyed. He scrambled up on the bank and pulled the
pen towards him. But at the next moment another wave carried it back into
the muddy water.
"Hey, wait a minute. Stop there!" he yelled out, clinging
to the pen. It rode on a surging wave and began to float wildly down the
river. He could not let the pigpen go;if he did he might drown. Nor could
he hold on to it either;how far would he be carried if he did? He was panicky.
He wanted to cry out for help, but that would be useless.
There were no houses along the shore, and no one would be out in such a
rain. Even his hut was out of sight now.
He looked for a raft. Often during the rainy season men
ride along the swollen river on rafts, pulling things out of the water
so they can sell them later. In a flood such as this one they make small
The pigpen rolled and tumbled crazily in the flooded
river. It would smack into a wave and Tashik would be splashed with a torrent
of muddy water. He closed his eyes and mouth tightly to keep mud out of
them. For a moment the water would be calm and the rain washed the mud
off his face.
The low hills along the shore were utterly strange to
him. He did not know where he was now. Only God knew how far downstream
he had come.
He was too frightened now to worry about the pigpen.
He could think only of getting back to shore somehow and going home.
He was completely soaked. A shiver shot through his whole
body. Above anything else the cold was to be dreaded. He would not be able
to swim if he became too cold. He was really afraid.
He looked around again and cried out for help. Suddenly
he saw a raft not more than fifty yards away. There were two men on it.
His eyes brightened.
He called out again. But the men on the raft either did
not hear him or pretended not to. They paid no attention at all. He remembered
having heard someone say that the raftmen were heartless, and it angered
him now. Money might be precious, but how can men ignore someone in danger?
"Hey there!" he yelled. "Help! Help!" He let go of the
pigpen and began swimming for the raft. But he had to swim against the
current, which made the going twice as hard. The muddy water splashed mercilessly
against his face, into his eyes and ears and nostrils. Tashik blew hard
through his nose, lifted his head as high as he could, and kept on swimming.
After struggling against the current for some time, he
looked up and found the raft floating further and further away. He was
hot with anger. If he should ever reach the raft, he thought, he would
throw those two bastards into the river!
But he kept swimming across the current towards the raft.
He could scarcely control his direction. At last he was thrown onto a sandbar
which was barely covered with water. He stood up, relieved to be out of
the muddy water. He breathed deeply for a while, swinging his arms back
and forth to get warm. He moved his arms rapidly, shook his head, and wiggled
his whole body to loosen up his muscles. From where he was standing he
could see that the swollen river had doubled its normal width.
It was not raining very hard now. He yelled at the raft
"Help! You lousy devils, help!"
Neither man responded. One of them was pulling something
out of the water with a hook.
"Help!" Tashik shouted.
Again there was no answer. He choked with anger.
It began to rain harder again. Suddenly the sandbar collapsed
under his feet and he tumbled back into the water, startled. But the raft
was much closer to him now, closer than either shore was. He swam feverishly
and reached the raft. He grabbed for it and hung on until one of the men
pulled him up.
Apparently they recognized him. "Aren't you the newlywed
who works for Mr. Lee?" one of them asked. "What happened? How do you come
to be out here?"
Tashik did not try to answer. He was out of breath and
exhausted. He had even forgotten his determination to push the raft-men
into the water. He did not know them, but he assumed they were villagers.
For a while he lay with his eyes closed, barely conscious.
At last he sat up and began to examine himself. Nothing was left of his
shirt except a little scrap of cloth which hung onto his right shoulder.
The rest of it must have been washed away. The same thing had happened
to his trousers. His leather belt and a fragment of cloth which had clung
to it were all that remained around his waist. He was naked.
There were pots, pans, hoes, shovels, and all sorts of
household utensils on the raft. But there was nothing to cover his naked
"Where are we?" he asked at last.
"A little past Dang Goul," one of the men answered.
So, he was not too far from his home after all. He looked
towards the shore and saw the hill which rose behind the hut. He was just
across the hill from his home;he had followed the bend of the river which
curves around that hill. He was relieved.
It was getting dark. It must be well past the supper
hour. He had been in the water for nearly the whole afternoon.
"Say, young Man," one of the man on the raft asked him,
"you were married yesterday, isn't that right?"
"In this rain?"
The raft drew closer to shore. The men said they would
let Tashik off before they picked up anything else from the flood.
When the raft was almost at shore, he suddenly spied
the pigpen that he had been trying to salvage. It had been washed up onto
the bank. His face lit up and he jumped into the muddy water.
"Thanks a lot," he shouted to the astonished raft-men,
dashing out of the water and across the river bank.
He pulled at the pigpen. But it was waterlogged and hard
to move. He realized he could never carry it home this way. He looked for
the place where the wire was knotted and loosened the knot. The pen fell
apart instantly. Then he tied the wood neatly together with the wire. And
although the precious bundle of wood was very heavy, he dragged it behind
Naked, he headed home, pulling the wood all the way.
He was shivering with cold. The rain was not chilly, but it stung him like
pellets of ice after his long hours in the water. But it did wash the dirt
off his body.
The bride burst into tears when he reached the hut. She
must have cried a great deal, for he saw that her eyes were swollen. He
looked at her and tried to smile, but he collapsed onto the floor.
She felt his body shiver violently. She put a blanket
under him and covered him with the other one. But he kept shivering. There
was nothing else to cover him with. She wanted to cry.
She tried to build a fire, but nothing would burn. She
came back to him.
She watched the blanket shake as he shivered. Tashik
was rocking with chills. He seemed to be out of his senses. The bride knew
that her husband had to be warmed somehow. She tried to think of how she
could give his body warmth.
She took his hands into hers. She felt herself blushing,
but told herself that it was not a time to be shy. His hands were icy cold.
Shocked and afraid, she frantically pressed her body against his as she
massaged his hands. Her heart pounded. Then she thought she could warm
his body with her own. But he shook more violently as she snuggled close
Wildly she rubbed his body everywhere. Then she took
off her blouse and pressed her breast against his. He kept shaking. In
silent hysteria she tore off her skirt and underwear. She no longer felt
bashful. All she could think of was how to make her husband warm. She pressed
her naked body hard against the cold, naked body of her husband.
Gently now, she covered his whole body with hers. She
tucked his shoulders under her armpits and covered his knees with her thighs.
She pressed her mouth upon his blue lips. His lips were
ice-cold, his eyes tightly closed. He was completely unconscious.
With her own lips still upon his, she sensed his upper
lip stiffen. They say the upper lip stiffens when one is about to die,
she recalled. Her heart sank.
To prevent his upper lip from growing stiff, she began
to suck it and her husband's nose. With one hand she rubbed his body. She
had no other way to warm him, no medicine, no fire. And there was no neighbor
to help her.
Outside it was dark. The rain continued to fall.
"Don't die. Please, don't," she repeated quietly, over
and over again. She felt the tears flooding her eyes.
Her arms ached, and her lips ached too. But she kept
Finally, his body began to get warm. But now it was becoming
too warm. He became hot as a burning stove. He began to cry out incessantly,
shouting unintelligible syllables. His mouth was burning, and now his lips
became dry whenever she took her mouth away. She moistened his dry lips
with her tongue.
All night it continued to rain.
As dawn came Tashik's fever began to subside. He awoke.
The bride made a bowl of gruel. Tashik sat up and washed
his face. It seemed to have grown thinner during the night. Still, it was
a full, strong face.
As she placed the gruel before him she looked up at him
lovingly. He sat there and smiled timidly at her.
Outside the rain fell violently.
A centipede fell from the ceiling into the sauce jar
on the table. Oh my goodness, she thought, even before he has touched the
gruel. She was ready to cry.
But Tashik picked up the centipede with his thumb and
forefinger and threw it out of the room. Then he poured the sauce in the
gruel and swallowed the whole bowlful in one long gulp.
He pushed the table aside and seized her as she was about
to rise to get him more. He held her tight.
Her dark dewy eyes were inflamed. They were fastened
against his own eyes as her lips clung to his. She could scarcely breathe.
The rain kept falling, harder and with more force than
Translated by Dong Sung Kim
Professor of English, Teachers College, Seoul National