|Father and Son
Thousands of holes pierced Chu-ch'ol's body, like the
holes in a bamboo flute. An icy wind blew through them. Chu-ch'ol slumped
in his seat and pulled his parka around him. A metallic whistling rose
in his chest. It hurt.
The bus was rounding Ch'on'gwan Mountain. A broad expanse
of newly reclaimed land unfolded before it. Another hilltop rose in the
distance. It was Tokdo, the island where New Town, Chu-ch'ol's native village,
was located. Chu-man had lived there but now he was dead. The sight of
the island revived memories from the past, like the whistling of a bamboo
Dark clouds filled the sky. A thin fog hung over the
mountains and fields. Hye-suk was staring in the direction of Temple Hollow
on the northern slope of Hanje Mountain. Chu-on was seated next to Chu-ch'ol.
He was looking in the same direction. Yun-gil was hiding there.
We have to get a message to Yun-gil. He's got to find
another place to hide...Hye-suk thought.
I'd better get there before they have a chance to warn
him... Fearful Chu-ch'ol and Hye-suk might realize what he was thinking,
Chu-on tried to distract them. "Speaking of Cousin Chu-man, when I was
a kid..." He glanced at Chu-ch'ol. "Every time he got drunk, he'd say his
heart was punched full of holes."
Chu-ch'ol closed his eyes. A woman's face rose before
him. Her skin was puffy for lack of sleep. Her breasts were bound in a
cotton corset to keep them from protruding from her blouse. She slumped
slightly, as if ashamed of her bulging breasts. The woman was Chu-shim,
Chu-ch'ol's younger sister. She had died twelve years ago. Chu-man was
devastated on the day of her funeral. The image of his grieving brother
was still clear in Chu-ch'ol's mind. That day Chu-ch'ol finally understood
the holes that pierced his brother's heart.
As he headed for Chu-man's funeral, the same flute-like
holes pierced his own.
Chu-man was as stubborn as a brick wall and unpredictable.
He was like a machine whose screws had come loose, like a sweater that
was slowly unraveling, stitch by stitch. He was disconnected, at loose
ends. It was as if the stitches that were supposed to hold him together
had come undone.
From Mother's reports on her infrequent visits to Seoul,
it was clear that Chu-man was living by fits and starts. For example, every
year after he set a date to transplant the rice seedlings, he was a nervous
wreck. He felt compelled to run from house to house, asking the neighborhood
women to help with the transplanting and the men to carry seedlings from
the beds to the paddies. There was no telling how many people he actually
asked, but come transplanting day, thirty or more people showed up at his
paddies. The problem was Chu-man had less than an acre of paddy to transplant.
Once they set to work, there was barely enough room to move.
The same thing happened when they harvested the rice,
when they scooped out the latrine and when they took compost to the fields.
When it was time to set posts for the seaweed harvest, he always managed
to scrape together the money for the materials, but when it came time to
move the frames from patch to patch, to change the ropes or to bind the
posts, he wasn't interested. They never had a decent harvest. And then
Chu-man would start drinking and cursing.
"Lousy world! Life's too short for all this grunting
and groaning," he sputtered, only to drop off to sleep and stay in bed
until noon the next day.
Chu-ch'ol had left his mother in Chu-man's care. A few
years back, when Chu-man got married, Chu-ch'ol could tell his mother was
behind his brother's offer to "take care of her."
"I'll live with you. I can take care of the kids and
help with the seaweed harvest. It'll be good for you. And your older brother's
sure to buy you more land if you support me."
In reality, Chu-man wasn't supporting Mother; she was
supporting him. She didn't have a moment's ease when she was away from
him. On the rare occasion she came to Seoul, she invariably rushed back
to New Town at the crack of dawn the following day.
MOTHER DEAD. RETURN HOME FOR FUNERAL ASAP.
It was a cold day in early winter when Chu-ch'ol received
the telegram and returned home. The first snow had just fallen at the summit
of Ch'on'gwan Mountain. Dark gray clouds hung in the sky; the wind was
sharp. The weather glowered like an old woman who had skipped breakfast
to spite her daughter-in-law. Snowflakes were falling, fat and white as
Chu-ch'ol took the money that his co-workers had offered
in condolence, borrowed some more, and bought a bolt of thick white cotton
for wrapping the corpse and two rolls of hemp cloth for mourning clothes.
When he stepped from the bus in Hoejin, he wasn't prepared for the reception
that he received from Yong-man, a second cousin.
"I'll bet that telegram was a real shock, eh?" Yong-man
asked with an embarrassed smile. Chu-ch'ol thought of Chu-man and all his
antics, but he couldn't believe that someone would say Mother had died
when she hadn't.
"So how did she die?" he asked.
"To tell the truth, Auntie ain't the one who died."
Chu-ch'ol was stunned. Luckily he had managed to shake
off his co-workers when they offered to come with him. His face must have
twisted in anger because Yong-man looked like a frightened child as he
"Chu-shim died, but Chu-man figured you wouldn't come
if he said that, so..."
Chu-man may have been right. Chu-ch'ol never came down
for Father's memorial rite in early spring. He could hardly blame Chu-man
for sending the telegram.
Chu-shim was only twenty-nine. She had been living at
home with Chu-man and Mother since leaving her husband's family five years
earlier. Chu-shim and Mother had visited Seoul a month before. For treatment,
of course, though her condition hadn't been particularly serious.
Over the years, Mother had kept Chu-ch'ol up-to-date
on his sister's illness. He had taken her to a major university hospital
for a check-up once already. This time they went to a well-regarded psychiatrist.
"She's suffering from paranoia and psychogenic angina.
There's no need to worry, though. It will take some time, but she should
After offering this diagnosis, the doctor paused, lips
pursed in thought as he fingered the pen lying on Chu-shim's chart.
"By chance, has anyone close to the patient displayed
similar symptoms? A maternal aunt or an aunt on her father's side? A grandmother
or her mother perhaps...?"
Chu-ch'ol said he didn't know of anyone. There weren't
any crazy people in the family as far as he knew. He sometimes wondered
if Chu-man didn't share some of his sister's symptoms, but he could hardly
say that. Chu-man had never complained of a problem.
The doctor nodded and prescribed a tranquilizer and some
vitamins. It wasn't a congenital heart condition. All she needed was peace
and quiet. Chu-ch'ol could almost see Chu-shim-seated in the doctor's office,
dressed in a jade green sweater and light green pants-but now she was dead.
It was hard to believe.
"How did it happen?"
"I ain't sure myself," Yong-man answered as he piled
the bolts of cloth into his A-frame carrier.
Apparently it wasn't something that could be explained
in a few words. Chu-ch'ol didn't press his cousin.
Chu-ch'ol's family home, where Chu-man had been living,
was burned to the ground by communist party members during the Korean War
and hastily rebuilt after the South Korean army retook the area.
The house looked like it had a gaping hole in the middle.
From the front, the main building, a four-chamber structure consisting
of two rooms, a central wooden porch and a kitchen, was obscured by a shabby
outbuilding, which stood across a small courtyard. The main gate was at
the center of this outbuilding. On one side of the gate were the outhouse
and a storeroom; on the other the cow shed and an extra room. Both doors
had fallen off the gate, and as you stepped in the courtyard, you saw that
the kitchen doors were gone too. The walls of the kitchen were black with
soot. The kitchen's back door was missing too, but that wasn't apparent
right away because the earth in the backyard, which rose behind the house,
was a dusky brown, as dark as the kitchen.
From the front gate, the kitchen looked like a dark lifeless
cave. Not the kind of cave that had a stream running through it, not the
kind where hibernating pythons turned into dragons and flew away, not the
mossy home of a mysterious spirit; rather it looked like a ghastly stone
tunnel where, during the war, people were roped together like dried fish
on a string and burned to death. It was dark and dead, without a single
blade of grass, without a single drop of water.
On that winter afternoon several years back, when dark
clouds hung low and heavy over the tin roof, Chu-ch'ol felt as if an enormous
hole, as large as that gaping kitchen, was being drilled through his heart.
The courtyard and back yard were filthy. The ground oozed with pig urine.
The chickens pecked at the compost piled next to the gate. The earth in
the front and back yards was rough and unraked with rocks poking up here
and there. The wooden porch at the front of the house was covered with
dirt. The latticed paper windows were full of holes. That night, Chu-ch'ol
scolded his younger brother.
"Look! Isn't it about time you fixed the doors on the
front gate? You've got two perfectly fine doors. How come you don't hang
them? Same with the kitchen. All you have to do is fix the hinges, but
you just leave them there... Why, you can see right into the house from
outside! It looks like it's been abandoned!"
"I kinda like it. Nice and open." Chu-man stole a glance
at his brother and smiled foolishly. "I've been so busy, just haven't gotten
around to puttin' the doors on," he added with a wrinkle of his nose.
"And how come you leave the yard full of pig piss?" Chu-ch'ol
demanded. "You've got to keep the pigpen scooped out and the backyard clean.
It's a fire hazard, and it looks awful! Clean this place up so it looks
like people live here! And what about those chickens? Are you just going
to leave them to dig around in the compost?"
It was Mother's turn next. "He finds time to drink and
run around, but he never has time to shovel the manure. I can't leave the
house for a minute."
Chu-man frowned slightly, puffing out his cheeks in irritation.
His bulbous nose twitched like an old alarm clock ready to go off.
"Geez, Mama!" he cried. "How can you say something like
that? Life's too short..."
"Look how he talks," Mother grumbled to Chu-ch'ol. "And
he's supposed to be running this household! Why, if it weren't for me,
this house would fall apart. Nothing would get done. If I didn't fix the
cow's slop, the poor animal would starve. And that's not all!"
Chu-man refused to give in, though.
"Brother, listen to her! She makes it sound like she
does all the work around here! No wonder the neighbors all think I'm some
kind of half-wit." He turned to his mother. "All right, Mama. I'll leave
and you can live as you please."
Mother looked up at Chu-man. Her mouth dropped open in
disbelief. How could he say such a thing when she was working her fingers
to the bone for him and his family?
"Brother, take Mama back to Seoul with you. Please. You
don't have to worry about me. I'll make a life for my woman and kids. I
don't care if I have to beg or borrow to do it! Just take Mama with you!
I can't get along with her anymore. Damn this lousy world! Life's too short
to make such a fuss night and day. I just can't take it! You take Mama
and I'll go off and make a life for myself. I can't stand living in this
lousy house! It's driving me crazy! You're angry 'cause I don't hang them
doors, but you know what? I feel like I'll suffocate if I put them up!
You don't understand how I feel, Brother. No one does!" Chu-man's voice
broke and his eyes filled with tears.
As they climbed toward the pass leading to the village,
Yong-man explained what had happened to Chu-shim.
"I just can't figure Chu-man out," he began.
The narrow path through the pine woods was steep and
slippery with gravel. As the local people said, you had to "huff and puff"
to make it over that pass, but Chu-ch'ol had crossed it often enough as
a child. He knew he had to pace himself.
"I just can't understand him. If it weren't for Auntie,
he wouldn't be able to run that house. But one drink and he's complaining
about how she refuses to live with you in Seoul, how she's always making
life miserable for him. Who knows? Maybe none of this would have happened
if it weren't for that fight the other night."
There had been a celebration in Hilltop Village three
days earlier. Chu-man had spent the entire day drinking, and when he returned
home around sunset, Mother scolded him.
"Everyone's already moved their seaweed nets. They've
got their drying frames up and are ready to harvest, but you haven't done
a thing! Please, I beg you! Pull yourself together. You should have had
one drink and gone back to work. How can you be so stupid-drinking all
day like that?"
Her anxious tone must have bothered him, or something
may have happened at the party earlier. Chu-man reacted in anger.
"Stupid? If I'm so stupid, how come you insist on living
with me? Go live with your smart son!"
Chu-shim was resting in the main room, and Mother was
afraid Chu-man might upset her. "Oh, shush and go to your room. I can't
stand the sight of you."
"A person can't even enjoy a drink around here, huh?
It's too much, just too much," Chu-man grumbled as he climbed onto the
porch separating the rooms. "Can't stand the sight of me? So why don't
you go live with that smart son of yours? Then I can live as I please.
Damn this lousy world! Work like a dog but your hard-earned money always
ends up in someone else's hands... Well, I ain't gonna let myself be used
no more. Just take everything and get out of here!" he shouted as he sat
down on the edge of the porch.
The fool's mad because I spent some money on herbal medicine
for Chu-shim, Mother thought.
"You ungrateful brat! Quit that whining! Where do you
think the paddy land we're living off came from? Someone had to buy it
for you." She steered the conversation in Chu-ch'ol's direction, hoping
to protect Chu-shim's feelings. Chu-man refused to give in, though.
"Brother didn't buy me that land out of the goodness
of his heart. He owed it to me. He's the one who sold off his parents'
paddy and made me work like a slave to pay for his education. He owed me!"
Chu-man was right, but Mother couldn't stand by in silence.
"Since when did your brother sell all the paddy land?
Your father sold off more than half an acre when he was sick. Your brother
sold much less than that. He's a good person. That's why he bought you
six nice fields, so why don't you shut up?" she said, shoving him toward
"I don't want your paddies or fields. I don't want nothing!
Go live with that smart son of yours. I won't starve. Take Chu-shim and
get out of here!" he hollered. He seemed to want his sister to hear.
Mother beat him on the back with her fists as she pushed
him into his room.
"Just shut your mouth and you'll be fine. How come you
have to spout off about everything? Don't you realize you owe him?"
She convinced him to lie down, half scolding, half cajoling,
then returned to the main room. Chu-shim was lying on her stomach. Sometimes
it helped her heart stop fluttering.
"Don't mind him. He's worse than a dog when he gets drunk."
Mother was afraid that Chu-shim might have misunderstood what had been
Chu-shim sighed. "Why should I mind?" she asked in a
"There's nothing to worry about. I still run this house.
Don't pay attention to what anyone says. Just listen to me 'cause I'm going
to make you better." Mother knew how her daughter felt. After all, she
looked into Chu-shim's heart a dozen times a day.
"Your brother's all right. He just causes trouble when
he's been drinking. Why, only yesterday he brought home five shad and told
me to fix them for you. He said raw fish is good for sick folks. You know
how much he cares for you. It's just when he gets to drinking. He's a fine
person at heart."
But Chu-shim left the house that night.
Mother checked the outhouse first. Then, on a troubling
hunch, she rushed to the shed and fumbled around the shelf where they kept
leftover pesticide. It was gone. Mother woke Chu-man and dashed to Uncle's
house. The two families spent the night combing the hills, fields and beach.
They found Chu-shim the next morning, as the sun rose
over Sorok Island and the Noktong Peninsula across the bay. The sunrise
was as red as the blood she had vomited on the dry grass. She was lying
in front of Father's grave in Persimmon Hollow.
"It broke my heart to see Auntie crying so. Bad enough
she kept beating her chest, but then she'd cry out, 'Oh you miserable witch,
you just tried to save yourself!' I don't know who she was talking about,
but it near broke my heart. She hasn't eaten a thing. Don't look like she'll
You just tried to save yourself! Just tried to save yourself!
The words echoed through Chu-ch'ol's heart.
He looked up at the cloud-filled sky. The cold had come
early this winter. It had started with a rain that felt more like the late
spring monsoons, then changed to snow. And just as the snow began to melt,
a new storm brought more, which melted again, only to be covered with still
more. The clouds peeking through the pine branches promised another storm.
A cock pheasant strolling through the bushes by the side
of the path caught sight of the two men and took flight, its purple-feathered
mate flapping behind him. The image of Mother pounding her chest rose with
the pheasants over the woods toward the facing hillside.
You just tried to save yourself! Just tried to save yourself!
Chu-ch'ol understood what she meant.
The hill behind the house was terraced. The terraces were
used for drying seaweed more often than farming, but the villagers planted
peppers, zucchinis and sweet potatoes there in the off-season. The poles
and straw used for the drying frames were piled like grass tombs along
the edge of each terrace and at the bottom of the hill.
Long ago Chu-ch'ol had spent many nights hiding among
the poles and straw with his father. It was late summer the year he turned
nine. The sun was hot during the day, but at night the air turned chill.
Father hid in the pantry off the kitchen in the daylight hours. The pantry
had been used as a granary since Grandmother and Grandfather had passed
away. Its bamboo slat window was lined with a sheet of tin to keep rats
out. The tiny room was as damp and dark as a cave. Father spent the day
there, confined like a leper, and when the light faded, he took Chu-ch'ol
up the hill behind the house and hid under a stack of poles, sweating and
shaking like an ailing ox. Chu-ch'ol disliked the cavernous darkness of
the pantry, but he hated the chilling darkness under the poles just as
much. The darkness came from the pine grove, where the village's tutelary
guardian stood among a cluster of stone baby graves. The darkness rode
a stream down the hill, flowing past the upper village to creep around
the terraced fields like the spindly legs of a goblin. Chu-ch'ol couldn't
see a thing: the straw thatch protecting the poles from the rain blocked
his view. All he could do was listen-to a pinging sound that rang through
the darkness, to the crickets, to the pained groans of his father rustling
in the straw.
Chu-ch'ol was afraid of his father then. The man was
too silent. The boy couldn't understand why his father dragged him to the
hill each night. All he could understand was his father's labored breathing,
the heat of his hands, and the way they trembled as he bent to pull his
son over the edge of the terrace.
Communist soldiers, clad in khaki uniforms and carrying
rifles, came to the village. They gathered the villagers on the beach and
gave a speech. It was summer when the cry of the cicadas in the trees by
the beach reverberated through the entire village. That was the day Sam-ch'ol's
father and Sun-hui's older brother started wearing red arm-bands and carrying
swords as long as a man's arm, and that was the day Chu-ch'ol's father
stopped going out. He began hiding in the pantry after a trip to Hoejin
with Sam-ch'ol's father, Sun-hui's brother and Uncle Kae-dong.
Ten days after the communist soldiers' visit to the village,
Chu-ch'ol returned home from the beach, where the children had been gathered
to learn "Glorious be the Morning," to find three pairs of unfamiliar black
rubber shoes under the porch off the main room. He could hear people talking
in low tones inside. Mother was squatting in the kitchen with Chu-shim
strapped to her back. She was listening to what was being said as she fed
the fire. She rinsed a raw sweet potato and pressed it into his hand. Chu-man
stood behind her, chewing as he sniffed up the thick yellow mucus that
dripped from his nose. Chu-ch'ol had just taken his first bite when the
brusque voice of Sam-ch'ol's father filtered through the door.
"Just do as we ask, all right?"
"Why should I hand myself in?" Father responded in a
firm tone. "I haven't done anything wrong. Since when is being village
chief or director of the Fishermen's Association under the Japanese a crime?"
"I know. I know. But you're part of the bourgeoisie.
You've got to hand yourself in," Sun-hui's brother retorted.
"Bourgeoisie? And what's that?" Father asked incredulously.
There was silence for a moment.
"This is ridiculous," he continued. "Since when does
a couple of acres make someone a capitalist landlord? When did I exploit
the poor laborers or farmers? I was never involved in usury. I never had
any sharecroppers. You need at least ten acres and sharecroppers to be
bourgeoisie, don't you? Just think! I only have a couple acres! When did
I exploit anyone? You know, when I was village head and director of the
Fishermen's Association I tried to help people. That's why I hired servants
I didn't need and paid them more than the going rate. Think about it! It's
all because our village is so poor. You know, I'd be a middling farmer
in a larger village. No matter how you look at it, there's no reason I
should hand myself in. I didn't touch a single penny of public funds when
I was village head."
"Oh come on! Do you think people hand themselves in 'cause
they're guilty? Look at the world today!" Sun-hui's brother replied. He
had been a farmhand in the upper village his whole life, but after the
communists' arrival, he had come to New Town wearing that red arm-band.
"Just come with us tomorrow morning," Sam-ch'ol's father
"You ain't committed no crime. Why, you saved a lot of
skins during the right-wing's rule! You can hold your head high at a people's
trial," Uncle Kae-dong added.
The following day Chu-ch'ol's father, dressed in a white
hanbok reserved for special occasions, crossed Hanje Mountain with Sam-ch'ol's
father and Uncle Kae-dong. Sam-ch'ol's father was head of the People's
Committee. The security police had given him the job because his oldest
son had been killed during the Yosu Rebellion in 1948.
"Don't worry. I'll stay with him," he whispered to Chu-ch'ol's
mother as they left.
"If there's a people's trial, I'll take his side," promised
Father didn't return that night. Uncle Kae-dong came
to the house late in the afternoon.
"He's going to sleep there tonight so you'd better send
him some supper. The people's trial went real well," he said before leaving.
As the sun dipped over Hanje Mountain, Mother prepared
the children's supper, then drew Chu-ch'ol aside.
"I'm going to take Father his supper so you and Chu-man
lock the gate and go to sleep."
Chu-ch'ol's heart sank. He was afraid of the funeral
bier ghost. His father stored the bier in the outhouse. He had gotten the
bier years before when Chu-ch'ol's grandfather died, and now he lent it
out when there was a funeral in the village. The dusty old bier had carried
Ho-ch'ol's grandmother and Kil-ho's father too. Mother often complained
that Father didn't burn it, but he simply snorted, "What's wrong with letting
them use it to cart off those pitiful corpses?"
The local children said the funeral bier ghost came out
at night. Kil-ho said he had heard it once on his way to market.
As Mother took Father's supper to town, little Chu-shim
strapped on her back, a bloody sunset lit the mackerel sky, then stained
their courtyard and roof red. It was almost as if Mother had been sucked
into the fire.
Sunset passed and darkness descended. Chu-ch'ol locked
the front gate and took Chu-man into the main room.
"It's scary, isn't it?" Chu-ch'ol whimpered. "Let's hurry
up and go to sleep."
They lay down on the floor and pulled the blanket over
their heads. Like most children with large eyes, Chu-man was easily frightened.
He lay his head on his brother's chest and held his breath.
The following morning Chu-ch'ol woke at dawn to find
Mother sleeping beside him, Chu-shim in her arms. Father had not returned.
When it grew light, Mother rose and began bustling around the kitchen.
After feeding Chu-ch'ol and Chu-man, she rushed off with a basket containing
Father's breakfast. She returned at midday, her face as pale as a blank
sheet of paper, and rushed to the saltflats. It wasn't long before she
returned with Uncle Kae-dong, his face hardened like steel. Kae-dong wandered
around the courtyard as he waited for Mother to cook Father's supper, stopping
from time to time to roll a cigarette and sigh. Mother wrapped Father's
supper and headed across the pass once again, this time with Uncle Kae-dong
following in her footsteps.
That night Chu-ch'ol woke to his father's groans. He
was lying at the other end of the room, moaning in pain. The sound echoed
strangely, bouncing from the ceiling to the floor to the outer walls. It
echoed through Chu-ch'ol's heart as well. Mother sat at her husband's pillow,
preparing some herbal medicine to relieve the bleeding. The stench of the
medicine filled the room. A kerosene lamp flickered in the corner. The
shadow around its base looked like a deep black hole. Chu-ch'ol sat up
and looked at his father. His features were contorted in pain. He looked
like he was having trouble breathing. An oppressive numbness occupied Chu-ch'ol's
heart like the dark shadow at the foot of the lamp. He straightened up,
took a deep breath and crawled closer. His father took Chu-ch'ol's hand.
The corners of his eyes glistened in the lamp light. His breathing was
uneven. Each time he drew a breath, his nostrils dilated, large and dark,
as if they were drawing in the shadow from the lamp.
The following day Mother stuffed some pine needles in
the mouth of an empty bottle, tied a stone to it, and lowered it on a long
string into the outhouse hole. That was the day Chu-ch'ol stopped going
to the beach to learn the communists' songs. His father wouldn't let him
go anymore. Chu-ch'ol was bored, but he sat by his father's side blinking
in wonderment as his father drank the yellow liquid that Mother had collected
in the outhouse.
As he watched his father suffering, his face contorted
and dark, Chu-ch'ol imagined him dying. His father's eyes rolled back in
his head, and they put him in a coffin and buried him. Mother wailed and
pounded the ground. Then she pulled Chu-ch'ol into her arms. He felt an
electrifying thrill when he entered her sweet embrace.
He hated himself for these thoughts and turned from his
father, biting his tongue. Chu-man and Chu-shim were sleeping beside him.
He imagined them dead too. They had drowned in the well. The villagers
wrapped their corpses in white cotton cloth, placed them in large jars
and carried them to the mountain. Mother flung herself on their graves,
wailing, then pulled Chu-ch'ol to her and hugged him.
Chu-ch'ol hated himself for thinking that. He bit down
on his tongue again. He squeezed his eyes shut and turned over. This wasn't
the first time he'd had such thoughts. They occurred to him at the strangest
times, as he played with his pasteboard cards, as he sat in the outhouse.
He secretly enjoyed the thoughts. He enjoyed them on the way to and from
school, he enjoyed them as he took the ox to graze, as he cut grass for
the newborn calves. He relished them, then bit down on his tongue in guilt
and anger. Sometimes he beat the pigs oinking in the sty with a stick or
thrashed the ox with the reins as he took it to the fields. And other times
he squashed frogs in the rice paddies and stoned snakes he found crawling
through the grass.
He felt that he was committing a sin against Father,
Chu-man and Chu-shim. He prayed for his father's recovery in hopes of freeing
himself from the guilt. "Oh gods in heaven, oh revered ancestors, please
make our father well." He even prayed for Chu-man and Chu-shim. "Oh Heaven!
Please heal the boil on Chu-man's head. And heal my sister's measles."
He prayed out loud so he could hear the words. He prayed in the outhouse
and as he cut grass for the calves. "What are you mumbling about?" his
mother and friends would ask.
Ten days after returning home, Father had recovered enough
to walk to the outhouse by himself. That very evening Sam-ch'ol's grandfather
came to their house. The old man had been like a brother to Chu-ch'ol's
grandfather. His bamboo pipe trembled as he climbed onto the porch and
entered the main room where Father lay. Chu-ch'ol had been playing pasteboard
cards with Chu-man, although his little brother was hardly a worthy opponent.
He left the game to follow the old man into the room. Father shooed him
out, though. He sat on the front porch pretending to count his cards while
he listened to what was being said inside. Sam-ch'ol's grandfather whispered
something but Chu-ch'ol couldn't understand what he had said. A moment
later the old man spoke again. "Take my words to heart," he said as he
stepped from the room, the long pipe protruding from his white beard.
That night Chu-ch'ol's father took Chu-ch'ol to hide
in the stacks of bamboo poles for the first time. Years later Mother told
him what happened that night.
After Chu-man fell asleep, she put Chu-shim on her back
and climbed to the stand of bamboo behind their house. There was a pile
of firewood lying on the ground. She hid there. She couldn't go any further
because she was concerned about Chu-man, of course. She had the baby on
her back and was afraid a burglar might break in while she was away.
The main gate and front yard were visible through the
bamboo. She crouched on her knees watching. She had lost all track of time
when the sky brightened to the east. Was the moon rising already? Dogs
were barking on the beach in the lower village. Sam-ch'ol's grandfather
was right: they were purging the reactionaries that night. Her hair stood
on end, and goose bumps covered her flesh. She heard a rustling at the
corner of the house and the main gate squeaked. Then she heard someone
jump over the wall. Through the bamboo she could see a dark shadow enter
the dimly-lit yard.
That was when Chu-shim began to fuss. Mother shifted
the baby to her lap and offered her breast, but the baby arched her back
and whimpered as she took the nipple. A bug must have bitten her. The shadow
in the yard approached the house. She heard the door of the main room open,
then the door to the kitchen. Chu-shim kept arching her back and whimpering.
The shadow looked inside the outhouse. Mother covered Chu-shim's mouth
with her hand. The baby struggled for breath. Mother took the corner of
the baby quilt and covered Chu-shim's face. The shadow went around the
back of the house and circled the large condiment jars stored there. He
hesitated by the back door to the kitchen, then returned to the front yard
and climbed back over the wall.
The following morning when Father returned to the house
and heard Mother's story, he sighed.
"Let's get out of here! Let's take a boat and get out
of here!" she begged. Mother was terrified.
"And where would we go?" he asked. To another island,
she replied. He just shook his head.
Father spent the next day hiding in the pantry, and as
darkness began to seep down from the rocky pine grove to fill the shed
and kitchen with black shadows, he took Chu-ch'ol's hand and climbed through
the bamboo grove to the stack of poles on the hill.
The house burned down that night. Local party leaders
from Hilltop Village and New Town thought they could flush Father out by
setting the house on fire.
Mother spent the rest of her life grieving over what
happened that night. After having so much trouble quieting Chu-shim the
night before, she put Chu-man and Chu-shim to bed in the main room and
went to hide behind the pile of firewood alone. The moon rose around midnight.
The sea rippled with silver waves, but the hills of New Town were submerged
in darkness. Several black shadows climbed over the wall. Once in the yard,
they scattered, banging doors as they searched the house. Mother's heart
ached at the thought of the sleeping children. What if the black shadows
stepped on them? She closed her eyes and rubbed her hands together. "Oh
gods in heaven, please, please keep them safe," she whispered over and
The door-banging stopped and the black shadows scampered
back and forth between the front and back yards. All of a sudden Mother
heard a rumbling sound, like a battleship. Ah, the police are coming to
save us, she thought. Then she smelled gasoline. A large black object seemed
to be floating over the silver waves stretching across the strait to Sorok
Island. But why the gasoline smell? Could the smell of the battleship's
fuel reach all the way up the hill? Mother kept rubbing her hands together
and praying. Then, whoosh, the scene below was lit by a brilliant light.
Flames engulfed the roof of the house. A man touched a torch to the eaves,
then ran to the back of the house. The firewood in the kitchen was burning.
The porch was burning. The ribs and paper on the bamboo door to the room
where the children were sleeping were burning too. Then she heard their
cries, shrill like cloth ripping. "Fire!" she shrieked, dashing down the
hill. Her voice seemed caught in her throat.
"Oh no, my children! What should I do?" she screamed
as she darted from the back yard to the front, oblivious to the danger.
A black shadow popped over the wall. He whispered something to the men
in the courtyard, then fled back over the wall. The other men followed
Mother broke through the burning door and went into the
room. The crying children shrieked at the sight of their mother and retreated
into the corner. She gathered them up and dragged them outside. Chu-man
kicked and struggled, screaming, "Mama, Mamaaa!" Chu-shim jerked and gasped
for breath as if she were having a convulsion, but Mother didn't have time
to console them. She left them by the front gate and returned to the house,
hoping to salvage some of their belongings. The fire had engulfed the wooden-floored
room at the center of the house. Suddenly Father appeared and pulled her
to the ground.
"Water, get some water!" he cried, then ran to the back
yard. Only then did Mother realize that she had to put out the fire. She
followed Father to the back of the house.
Chu-ch'ol awoke to the sound of a woman crying "Fire!
Fire!" Somehow he knew it was Mother. He groped among the straw mats lining
the pile of poles, but Father was gone. Looking down the hill, he saw the
house on fire. He could almost see Father, Chu-man, Chu-shim and Mother
in the flames. Suddenly a dark phantom appeared before him-a monster as
large as the pile of poles that they had been hiding in. Its hair was tangled
like a mass of dried weeds; its eyes, nostrils and mouth gaped open like
a huge mortar. The monster leaped in the air, flailing its arms and shouting.
The sound rang through the hollow mountain valley like an echo. Chu-ch'ol
understood what it was saying. Heave ho, heave ho! Die, die, die right
now! Die, Papa. Die, Chu-man. Die, Chu-shim. Die, die, die... Chu-ch'ol
repeated the monster's call in his heart. His chest pounded, his blood
seethed with a gloomy whine. He frightened himself as he shouted along
with the monster.
"Papa!" Chu-ch'ol called as he bounded down the terraced
fields. In his head he pictured his father, mother, brother and sister
struggling inside the red ball of fire. Mother was the only one to escape.
Heave ho, heave ho! Burn, burn, burn! Die, die, every one of you! was all
When he reached the bottom of the hill, the yard was
bright as day. Someone was hauling buckets of water from the well and pouring
them on the roof of the house. It was Father. Mother was wailing beside
him. "The house is on fire, the house is on fire." Her sobs seemed to alternate
with those of Chu-man and Chu-shim. It looked as if the two younger children
were inside the fire. Chu-ch'ol jumped from the bamboo grove into the yard.
He ran to the front of the house to find Chu-man and Chu-shim locked in
each other's embrace. He picked up Chu-shim and lifted her onto his back.
She attached herself to him like a leech, and Chu-man clung to his leg,
It didn't sound like crying. It was a deathly scream,
a knife in the heart. Chu-ch'ol looked up at the burning roof and broke
As a tongue of black smoke and fire lapped onto the outer
porch, Chu-ch'ol heard the roof creak, and flames shot into the sky. Suddenly
the roof crumbled. The cracking sound and whoosh of the flames seemed to
echo through his body. Chu-man and Chu-shim let loose a new chorus of wails
and clung even more desperately to their older brother. It almost sounded
like the cry of a chicken as its neck was wrung. His chest crackled like
the fire, his body trembled as a wave of vertigo and nausea swept over
him. He wanted to weep out loud, but the sound would not come. The monster's
call kept ringing in his ears. Heave ho, heave ho! Die! Die! All of you!
"It's my fault," Mother once said. "I'm responsible for
what happened to Chu-man and Chu-shim. Imagine how they felt when they
woke up and saw that fire burning through the door! They've never been
the same since." She must have been referring to herself when she cried,
"You tried to save yourself!"
Chu-ch'ol's back was dripping with perspiration by the
time they reached the pass. "Let's stop and rest," he suggested. Yong-man
leaned his carrier against a tree and plopped down wearily in the dry grass.
The pine grove at the top of the pass overlooked New
Town. Several houses were roofed in slate. A narrow road snaked over the
hill at the entrance to the village, slithered through the dark earth of
the surrounding rice paddies and twisted its way out of town. Beyond the
hill lay the sea. The water, flat and gray as the sky, was encircled by
the faded ink-color shores of Sorok Island and the Noktong Peninsula.
Chu-ch'ol gazed at his brother's house in the upper part
of the village. The black coal-tar tin roof lay flat on its belly; a hill
rose like a staircase behind it. Dark yellow bamboo frames formed another
set of stairs, but there was no seaweed on them. It wasn't time for the
seaweed harvest yet. Chu-man's house was the only house without bamboo
Chu-ch'ol recalled how Chu-shim used to remove the seaweed
from the drying frames. She caught cold easily. One winter, he returned
home to find her working at the frames, a white wool muffler wrapped around
her head and neck.
They shouldn't have had her get married. She'd never
had a decent night's sleep. She tossed and turned the night away, sighing
"Mama, please send me to a Buddhist temple." She had
pleaded with her mother on several occasions, but her mother tried to console
"Oh baby, what are you talking about? Don't you worry!
Mama will make you better. You're not cut out for a nun's life."
Mother had tried every medicine known to cure chest spasms
and insomnia. Not only did she buy the finest over-the-counter drugs, she
also tried everything that the local herbal medicine shops had to offer.
Chu-shim's illness didn't seem to improve, though. On overcast days, she
beat her chest, complaining that she couldn't breathe. Sometimes she hid
under her quilt to escape visions of great black things. She paced from
room to room, from the house to the yard, and when it was really bad, she
ran to the stream and spent the night walking the ridges between the rice
paddies or the beach, only to return at dawn, clothes damp with the dew.
When Chu-ch'ol returned home after completing military
service, Mother told him about the medicine she had been buying. She said
she had tried everything. She had taken her daughter to the finest acupuncturists
who pierced the girl's soft flesh in every imaginable place. Now she didn't
know where to turn.
Chu-ch'ol took Chu-shim to a university hospital in Seoul.
After registering at the front desk, she was given an X-ray and blood and
urine tests, then she was called to internal medicine. She told the doctor
of her symptoms, about the pain in her chest, about the black things that
came after her when she was trying to sleep, about her heart palpations.
"Your heart is perfectly normal," the doctor explained.
"Don't worry, you're not suffering from heart disease. You just have a
bad case of parasites. All we need to do is get rid of them. Get some rest
and take this medicine," he said as he handed her a prescription. Chu-ch'ol
took the prescription to a pharmacist and learned that it contained a sedative
and some vitamins. He bought her a month's supply of pills, then sent her
home. He had to stay in Seoul to look for a job. Chu-shim had reached marriageable
age, and her mother had received a matchmaking inquiry from a neighboring
village. Determined not to miss the chance, Mother pushed Chu-shim to accept
the proposal. Chu-shim, who seemed to have improved thanks to the medicine,
acquiesced, saying she would take the leap since her mother was so anxious
for her to marry.
Thrilled to have recovered the daughter she had lost
so long ago, Mother made a list of dowry items for Chu-ch'ol to get in
Seoul. She spared no expense and provided her daughter things that only
the richest country folk could afford-a sewing machine, a radio, a wardrobe,
a vanity table, a kitchen cabinet.
Mother believed Chu-shim's symptoms would gradually disappear
if she married and had regular relations with her husband. She had seen
many girls whose mental problems cleared up with marriage.
Chu-shim was different, though. When she got pregnant
and began to experience morning sickness, her symptoms reappeared, more
seriously this time. Then one night she came running home. She had taken
two or three sedatives but still couldn't sleep. To make matters worse,
she had a miscarriage at three months. Soon she began to lose weight, and
her heart palpitations worsened. She never returned to her husband's house.
The doors on the front gate still hadn't been hung. The
kitchen gaped dark and sooty like a cave. Chu-man's wife, a stocky woman,
and Yong-man's wife, who was slender, were working in the kitchen. Smoke
from the firepit and steam rising from the large iron kettle crept through
the kitchen door, over the eaves and onto the slate roof. Relatives had
gathered in the front yard to make straw ropes for the funeral, and several
pairs of rubber shoes were resting on the threshold of the side room where
Chu-man and his wife slept. The family elders had gathered to discuss preparations
for the funeral.
When Chu-ch'ol stepped in the gate, the people in the
yard stood and greeted him.
"Well, you sure got here quick."
"Took an express bus, eh?"
They were all distant uncles or cousins.
Chu-ch'ol entered the main room to find Mother leaning
against the wall at the far end of the room. She straightened up at the
sight of her eldest son and began a new chorus of weeping.
"Chu-shim, oh my poor Chu-shim, your big brother's come!"
she wailed, pounding her chest. "Oh you miserable witch, you just tried
to save yourself!"
Chu-ch'ol's heart ached. Uncle Tal-jin's wife, herself
distraught, leaned over and tried to console his mother. "Don't cry. Let
her have a peaceful journey."
Chu-man stumbled into the room. His breath reeked of
drink. "What are you crying for, Mama? Chu-shim's lucky to be dead," he
growled. He then took his brother by the hand and told him that the elders
in the other room wanted to see him.
After receiving Chu-ch'ol's bow of greeting, Uncle Tal-jin
turned to the business at hand.
"We all feel sorry for her, but there's nothing we can
do now. We were going to bury her today but your mother wanted to wait
for you, even if it meant putting it off a day. But now that you're here,
what's the point of waiting? Everything's ready. Why don't we get the funeral
The others agreed. Chu-ch'ol glanced at his watch. It
was almost four.
They carried Chu-shim's unadorned coffin up the hill
behind the house and around two neighboring knolls. "Careful now!" someone
cried, and the pallbearers answered "Yes, up and over carefully."
"Careful now. Be gentle with her. Higher in front! Yes,
up and over. Lower in the back! Yes, gently now..."
As the coffin crossed the ridge beyond the village, blossoms
of snow began to fall, covering her bare coffin with white flowers.
Her grave was to be located in the pine grove below Father's
tomb at Persimmon Hollow. The funeral took place quietly amidst the falling
When the grave mound was finished, the entire hill was
covered with a blanket of white. The needles on the pine trees were enveloped
with a delectable layer of white, and the snow kept falling, rustling like
a woman's skirt.
They returned to the house by the light of Yong-man's
flashlight. Not long after the relatives had finished eating and left,
The snow in the courtyard made everything light. Inside
Mother pounded the floor, lamenting the fate of her poor daughter buried
in the snow. Yong-man and his wife sat in the corner by the door, their
heads bowed. Uncle Tal-jin's wife sat next to Mother, blowing her nose
from time to time and wiping her hand on the sole of her sock. Chu-man's
wife sniffled as she sat next to Yong-man's wife, nursing her baby. Chu-man
was nowhere to be seen. The others assumed he had passed out in the other
room. Chu-ch'ol sat awkwardly; he didn't know how to console them.
An oil lamp, chimney dark with soot, hung from the ceiling,
dimly illuminating the walls. The rest of the room was hidden in its shadow.
All of a sudden Chu-man burst in from the other room
with a large bottle of soju in one hand and a bowl in the other. He had
been finishing off the liquor that the pallbearers had left behind. The
bottle was still one-quarter full. He staggered into the room and collapsed
under the lamp.
"Mama, stop your crying! Chu-shim's lucky to be dead,"
he said as he poured some soju into the bowl. Chu-ch'ol didn't want to
scold his brother or tell him to stop. Chu-man had quit elementary school
in the fourth grade to help pay his older brother's university expenses.
He had never had a chance to learn good manners.
Still, Chu-ch'ol couldn't help frowning. He hated the
sight of his brother tottering around with a bottle. "There's nothing left
to eat. Who is going to drink now?" he asked. Chu-man turned to Yong-man
who sat uncomfortably in the corner.
"Want a shot?"
Yong-man declined and turned to the corner. Chu-man snorted
and thrust the bowl in Chu-ch'ol's direction.
"Here, Brother, have a drink."
"No one wants a drink," Chu-ch'ol snarled.
"All right, all right. I'll drink it,"Chu-man said, hanging
his head as he picked up the bowl.
"Without any food to go with it?" Chu-ch'ol demanded,
grabbing the bowl.
"Oh, that's all right. Don't worry," Chu-man retorted.
"Damn this lousy world. Life's too short for all this." He jerked his brother's
hand away and tossed the soju down his throat. Chu-ch'ol picked up the
bottle and gave it to Yong-man.
"What are you trying to do?" he asked Chu-man, then turned
to Yong-man and told him to get rid of the bottle.
Yong-man put the bottle on the porch and returned.
"Don't you understand how I feel?" Chu-man asked, glaring
at his brother. "I can't live without booze. I can't!"
"How come? Please, I beg of you. If not for your own
sake, quit drinking for our poor old mother. Why can't you stop?" Chu-ch'ol
pleaded. Chu-man fixed his bloodshot stare on his brother, then dropped
"Brother, listen to what I have to say and then do as
I ask. Take Mama with you. I can't live with her anymore. You don't have
to worry about me. I'll manage one way or another, me and the wife and
Uncle Tal-jin's wife spoke in Mother's place.
"Chu-man, you shush up and do what your mama tells you.
You can't do a thing without her. What about the kelp beds? What about
the seaweed nets? What about the fields? You couldn't do anything without
Chu-ch'ol spoke next.
"You know when I see how you treat Mother, I feel like
taking her back with me. I know she doesn't want that, though, so I'll
just leave things as they are for now. Understand?"
Chu-man glared at his brother.
"Do I have to spell it out for you?" he cried, then turned
to Mother. "Mama, please go with Brother. I just wanna sell off this land
and try livin' on my own. Don't you understand?"
All eyes converged on Chu-man's face. What are you talking
about? they seemed to ask.
"Chu-ch'ol, don't pay any attention to him!" Mother whispered
in a mosquito-thin voice, then dropped her head.
Chu-man tore open his overcoat to reveal a gray undershirt.
He ripped the buttons open and exposed his pale chest.
"Look at this!" he moaned, thrusting out his chest. "Chu-shim
was lucky to die." He was crying. The lamp sputtered noisily as it sucked
up its oil. The sound seemed to come from the black shadow that billowed
from the cave-like kitchen.
"I wish I could cut open my chest and show you how I
feel!" Chu-man wailed. No one spoke. All of a sudden Chu-ch'ol heard the
voice again: Die! Just die! Stab a hole in your chest and die!
Suddenly Mother collapsed against the wall as if she
were short of breath. "Oh you miserable witch! You just tried to save yourself!"
she cried, beating her chest. Outside, the snow illuminated the night as
it piled deeper and deeper, rustling like the starched white skirt of a
woman in mourning.
A Festival for the Living
Chu-on picked up a broom made of millet stalks, the tiny
husks still clinging to the stems like drops of dried blood. He moved slowly
as he swept, but his gaze was trained on Chu-ch'ol and Hye-suk. From time
to time, the sleepy eyes lit up as if by a flash of lightning.
Chu-on was watching for a meaningful glance from one
of the relatives gathered for the funeral, for a furtive poke in the ribs
as someone passed, for a note changing hands, for the exchange of words
in a dark corner. He was especially alert to Tal-gyun, Chu-ch'ol's youngest
uncle, who lived in a Buddhist temple on the slopes of Mt. Hanjae. He walked
with a slight limp and was actually five years younger than Chu-ch'ol.
Tal-gyun was born of Chu-ch'ol's great uncle's liaison with a woman who
cooked at the temple. As a young man, he had wandered the country, from
Kwangju to Seoul and Pusan, but returned home at the age of forty, with
a pretty woman in tow. They now lived at the temple with his mother, who
was almost ninety.
Chu-on gathered up the straw mats and feed sacks that
were piled against the wall between the porch and the main room. He was
clearing a spot for the coffin. Beneath the mats and sacks were a layer
of leftover feed grain and dust, a few dried brown persimmon leaves and
a dingy plastic bag.
When he saw the plastic bag, something crashed inside
Chu-ch'ol's heart. The blood rushed to the top of his head and he felt
Chu-on leaned forward to sweep up the dust, then paused,
picked up the bag and looked inside. Its contents were visible from the
outside; it was several lengths of iron chain. Chu-on reached into the
Of all people, why did he have to find that? Chu-ch'ol
muttered to himself. His heart pounded, almost as if he had been caught
stealing, and his face began to burn.
Chu-on coiled the chain around his hand and pulled it
from the bag. The chain was quite thick: a grade thinner than those used
to control traffic in front of fine office buildings or factories policed
by uniformed guards with gold-fringed hats, and a grade heavier than those
used on German shepherds or guard dogs. Here and there the silver paint
had worn off to reveal coffee-colored rust. Two pairs of cuffs were attached
to the ends of the chain, and a gold padlock was fastened securely to each
Chu-on's face hardened as he studied the chain. Chu-ch'ol
grimaced, and a groan escaped his lips. He pulled out a pack of cigarettes,
hoping to calm himself with a smoke. Chu-ch'ol and his mother were responsible
for the chain.
One day early last summer, his mother had called from
the village post office. "I can't take it anymore. You've got to come down
here. And bring something to tie him up with. We can't live like this any
longer." Her voice was trembling.
"Do you mean you want me to bring chains?"
"You wouldn't believe how strong he gets when he's drunk.
Why, two or three strong young men can't hold him down! We need chains,
and no ordinary chains at that. I know it won't be a pretty sight, but
what can we do? This is no time for pity. Just do as I say and bring something
The next day Chu-ch'ol stopped at the hardware store
on his way to the bus terminal. He had gone there many times-for a briquette
stove, a coal bucket, a piece of stovepipe, a gas exhaust pipe, some wire,
a few nails-and he depended on the store owner when it came to installing
things. Neither he nor his wife knew the couple who ran the store by name,
but they always exchanged nods when they met.
The owner wasn't in but the door was open. "Anybody here?"
Chu-ch'ol called as he stepped inside and looked around. He spotted a collection
of chains hanging in the doorway like a bamboo curtain, chains of all descriptions,
from thin ones perfect for tying a cat to thick ones that might be hung
across a factory driveway. Next to the chains were row after row of dog
and cat collars, ranging in size and color from dainty artificial leather
collars fit for a small poodle to sturdy leather contraptions meant for
large shepherds or hounds.
"Are you looking for a dog collar? How big is your dog?"
The owner's wife asked as she emerged from the quilt shop next door. She
began sorting through the collars and chains.
Chu-ch'ol felt a cold wind rise in his chest. No, it's
for a person. A person. I'm looking for a chain to tie up my crazy brother.
The cold wind was a strange tangle of sorrow and guilt.
Do we have to chain him up? Isn't there some other way
to stop him from drinking? No, Mother wouldn't have suggested this method
if there had been any other way left. How many times had he fallen into
a coma, forcing them to put him in the hospital? When he got out, he always
promised to quit drinking, but it never lasted more than three months.
He would start drinking on the sly, and it wasn't long before he was guzzling
at all hours of the day.
The woman, with her white blouse and permed hair, gave
off a distinct smell, but Chu-ch'ol couldn't tell whether it was from soap,
shampoo, water or simply her own unique odor.
"It must be a large dog," she said as she took down a
chain of the second thickest grade. Chu-ch'ol had been fingering it with
the thought that it would be just right for locking a bike or pushcart.
He pretended not to hear what she had said. Chu-man is
stronger than a German shepherd, he thought. A dog might pull on the chain
or chew at it, but Chu-man would try to cut it with some kind of tool.
We'll need something thicker.
"This strap should hold even the largest dog. Most people
get leashes like this, not chains. It's made of rope covered with soft
artificial leather. It doesn't hurt your hand when you take the dog out
for a walk, and it looks nice too. Why don't you try it?" She took down
a stout brown leather leash. It was as thick as a new-born baby's wrist.
Chu-ch'ol shook his head. How are we going to tie him
down? he wondered. An image from a television program rose in his mind:
mental patients shackled in chains because they threw violent fits. Their
hands were locked in cuffs. We might have to do that with Chu-man, he thought.
They would have to put him in the main room, lest his children see. They
would have to drive spikes into the door frame to hook the chains on and
put shackles on his ankles. They would have to tie his hands too so he
couldn't remove the shackles or use some kind of tool to pull out the spikes
and break the chains.
Chu-ch'ol bought two lengths of the chain that the woman
had first offered: one for Chu-man's ankles, the other for his hands. He
also got four large spikes, four leather dog collars, and four padlocks
to fasten the chains to the spikes in the door frame. Better safe than
sorry, he thought.
The woman put his purchases in a large plastic sack.
It sagged as if it were about to burst. Chu-ch'ol put the sack in his travel
bag and hefted it onto his shoulder. The weight nearly pulled him over.
On the bus south, he kept imagining Chu-man, wrists bound
and shackled, gnashing his teeth with a wild fury in his eyes. How did
he end up like this? Chu-ch'ol's heart was weighed by something much heavier
than the chains in his bag. He was shackled himself.
Chu-on stared at the tangled chains, then glanced at
the pencil-thick spikes in the door frame. One of the locks was still fastened
to a spike. Chu-on's eyes flashed. Chu-p'yong, Chu-ch'ol's youngest brother,
was seated on the porch. He turned to look at Chu-on, then snatched the
"What's this?" he protested in a mixture of tears and
anger. "What is this?"
Chu-ch'ol wet his lips and stared silently at the corpse
lying at the end of the room. He was seized by a bitter sense of disappointment,
guilt and anxiety. Chu-man's body lay covered with a sheet. Alcoholism
may not have been the sole cause of death, Chu-ch'ol thought. Chu-on and
Chu-p'yong probably thought he was responsible for his brother's passing.
"Get that stuff out of here. I can't stand the sight
of it! Go bury it or throw in the reservoir. Just get it out of my sight!"
Uncle Tal-jin snarled. His face was flushed from the soju that he had drunk
earlier. His younger brother Tal-gyun grabbed the plastic bag from Chu-p'yong
and went out to the yard. His limp was more conspicuous than usual.
Snowflakes, as soft and plump as cherry blossoms, were
falling sporadically. The thick dark clouds overhead seemed part of the
Tal-gyun threw the chains into the corner of the shed
adjacent the ox stall and returned to the house. Meanwhile, Chu-on, who
had been staring intently at the spikes, suddenly turned to Chu-ch'ol's
mother, who was rummaging through the wardrobe like an old mother dog.
He looked back and forth between the old woman and the spikes. His eyes
shone with a bluish glint, like a hungry wolf that had discovered something
good to eat.
The old woman pulled a bundle from the wardrobe. It was
Chu-man's shroud. Her dark pupils were small as peas, her face the color
of lead. A white towel was wrapped around her wiry gray hair. She spread
the shroud on the floor, carefully unfolding the hemp pants and shirt and
neatly arranging the waist and ankle ties, the overcoat, the long roll
of silky hemp cloth, the ball of cotton, and a parcel of mulberry paper.
Her body seemed enveloped in a strange eeriness, as if
she had been waiting for Chu-man to die, as if she had been preparing for
"Why couldn't you do as I asked? Why? It didn't have
to come to this!" Chu-p'yong whimpered. His voice was tinged with frustration
and anger as he stared at the snowflakes whispering down in the fields
beyond the wall. No one acknowledged him.
"Oh Father who art in heaven! Oh Father!"
Chu-p'yong's face contorted as he clasped his hands together
in prayer and murmured into the sky. The snowflakes kept falling, like
flower petals on a spring breeze.
Chu-p'yong was the only Christian in the family. In a
sense, by becoming a Christian, he had chosen to isolate himself from the
household, which had long been dedicated to the Confucian tradition. Chu-ch'ol
and his mother had vehemently opposed Chu-p'yong's marriage into a devout
Christian family, but he insisted on marrying the young woman, a deaconess
in her church. In the end, Chu-ch'ol gave them permission to marry. "You
and your family can believe what you like, but don't you breathe a word
of that Jesus talk to anyone else in this family," he had warned. In fact,
he didn't grant his permission so much as surrender to his brother's wishes.
From a Christian's point of view, a seed had been planted
in the Pak clan, until then ignorant of Jehovah, and the Savior's hand
was set to work. However, from the Confucian Paks' point of view, Chu-p'yong's
marriage signaled an invasion by the Christian god. Ever since Chu-p'yong
joined forces with his future wife and embraced Christianity, he had pressured
his older brother to accept and respect them as Christians. At first, Chu-ch'ol
resisted. He was stubborn and conservative. "If you marry a Christian,
I won't think of you as my brother anymore." Chu-p'yong, however, insisted
that he wouldn't marry anyone else, then their mother intervened. "Let
him do as he pleases. What if we hold out and he does something really
awful?" Chu-ch'ol came up with the condition-that Chu-p'yong never breathe
a word of Jesus to the rest of the family-but with absurd results. It was
like asking a wolf with a lamb in its mouth not to hunger after more sheep-an
empty and powerless appeal to the Buddha. Since his marriage, Chu-p'yong
had been a messenger of the Good News to the Pak clan.
At first, he was mindful of Chu-ch'ol, but gradually
his evangelizing grew more blatant. Every time he came to the house in
Hoechin, he sweet-talked their mother into going to church. He even succeeded
in getting Chu-man and his wife to go. He visited all the relatives, preaching
It was only natural that Chu-p'yong should be saddened
and bitter upon discovering the chains. He had called Chu-ch'ol when he
learned that Chu-man had started drinking again, this time after being
hospitalized for liver failure.
"Brother, please send Chu-man to live with us. I'll take
care of him and make him go to church. There's a good religious retreat
center near here. We could send him there. Why don't you send Mother along
Chu-p'yong worked as a high school English teacher in
Ch'unch'on. Chu-ch'ol promised to discuss the matter with their mother,
but he knew he could never send Chu-man there. Chu-p'yong left for school
early in the morning and didn't return home until late at night. Chu-man
could rush out to a bar at any time. Chu-p'yong's wife may have thought
she could transform her brother-in-law by the power of her faith, but she
was off visiting church members and preaching door-to-door as soon as Chu-p'yong
left the house in the morning. Why, she even enlisted her husband's help
with the baby's bath and diaper washing! How could she keep that drunkard
in his room, convert him, and make him quit drinking? No doubt they planned
on committing him to a religious retreat center recommended by a fellow
believer. One of those places where they lock up mental patients and senile
old people for several million won a head...
"It's obvious. They're going to send him to that retreat
center. How can they possibly take care of him at home?" Hye-suk said.
After tossing and turning all night, she had come to a conclusion. "We'd
better let your mother decide. After all, he's her son. Just tell her what
Chu-p'yong said. We don't want to get blamed for something later on."
It seemed to make sense, so Chu-ch'ol called his mother
and relayed his brother's suggestion. Mother was vehement.
"I've heard about those retreat centers. Why, they drive
normal people crazy there! I don't care if he dies drinking, I'm not sending
him to one of those places."
Chu-ch'ol agreed and called his brother to relay their
mother's decision. Chu-p'yong called several times after that, begging
him to send Chu-man to Ch'unch'on. He swore that the retreat center wasn't
what they thought, and he promised to turn Chu-man around on the strength
of his belief alone.
"It's Mother's decision," Chu-ch'ol replied. "What can
I do? We just have to leave him at home and hope we can keep him from drinking.
Besides, I don't trust those places anymore than she does..."
Chu-ch'ol made his opposition clear. Of course, he sometimes
wondered if Chu-man might actually quit drinking if he went to one of those
places. Maybe he would stay off the stuff if he got a little religion,
but Chu-ch'ol refused to believe it. He wanted to believe that even if
they could get his brother to stop drinking without beatings or drugs,
he wouldn't stay sober for more than a month after he was discharged. To
tell the truth, he didn't want to lose another brother to the Christian
god. If Chu-man gave up drink for religion, his mother would be the next
to go, then it would be Hye-suk's turn. Maybe he was simply afraid of losing
his family to Christianity.
Chu-ch'ol bit his tongue and thought. If we'd committed
Chu-man to a retreat center maybe he wouldn't be lying here dead. No. He
might have died even sooner, depressed and helpless. Maybe it's all for
the best. Maybe he was supposed to die.
"Brother, it's your blind conservatism and obstinacy
that got our family into this mess," Chu-p'yong sobbed. The words pierced
Chu-ch'ol's heart like knives, but he ignored them. Chu-man was dead. Further
discussion was useless.
"You pushed him toward death by giving him the money
for that factory. He wasn't cut out for that kind of thing. He didn't have
the brains or the ambition. You knew that," Chu-p'yong said as he stared
out from his place at the end of the porch.
That might be true, Chu-ch'ol thought. When he first
gave Chu-man the five million won for the factory, he was uncertain.
It was a seaweed processing plant, a cooperative project.
Seven partners invested five million each and managed it together. The
problem was, to run the machines efficiently, the shareholders had to harvest
between 50 and 100 mats of seaweed each. A small boat wouldn't do for that.
They needed a three-ton engine-driven vessel at the very least. That would
take another 3.5 million won to build. The seaweed factory had state-of-the-art
technology. It was powered by an electric motor imported from Japan and
burned oil to dry the seaweed. With a good harvest, the equipment would
pay for itself and yield each partner five million won in profits the first
In late summer two years earlier, Chu-ch'ol's mother
had rushed to Seoul to plead with him.
"Everyone has a share in a factory these days. Why'd
anyone want to peel off those sheets of seaweed by hand? Why, you'd have
to be crazy to do that. You know how cold it can get out there by the drying
racks. Lately I'm ashamed to walk through the village! Why, even the dogs
seem to have a share in a factory! Your brother's the only one who doesn't.
Why don't you give him a little push? It would make him wake up and get
to work. All you have to do is give him five million won. If he can't pay
it back, I'll sell off the land and pay you myself. All he needs is a share
in a factory. After that, it's as easy as pie. You boys shouldn't ignore
him just because you're educated and he's not. Chu-man needs your help."
Chu-ch'ol knew why Mother tried so hard to help Chu-man.
It was because of her debt to him.
Whenever Chu-man or Chu-shim acted strangely, Mother
pounded her chest and sighed, "Oh, you miserable witch, you just tried
to save yourself!" After Chu-shim drank the pesticide and died ten years
ago, Mother had repeated the same words.
She felt guilty. That's why she prompted Chu-ch'ol to
help Chu-man, to give him the money for the factory. She was tortured by
her guilt. After Chu-man married and set up housekeeping, Mother often
badgered her eldest son for money. Something had to be done about the paddies.
The irrigation was no good, the land infertile. Could Chu-ch'ol help them
pay for improvements? It was hard to make ends meet on a half-acre of paddy.
Could Chu-ch'ol buy another half-acre? Just think of it as a favor to your
old mother. Chu-man needed 300,000 won to set up his seaweed nets but where
else could they go for money in the middle of the long, hot summer?
Chu-man must have known how his mother felt. He often
complained how hard it was to live in the country, how he was sick and
tired of it all. And then he would get drunk and start wandering through
the village. Mother tried to placate him by getting Chu-ch'ol to help.
Chu-ch'ol did what he could. He knew that Mother took care of Chu-man,
not the other way around, but he bought Chu-man the paddy that Mother had
asked for, always making sure that it was the best land available. He sent
money whenever she asked and bought them clothes, socks and underwear for
every season, as well as school supplies for Chu-man's children. They kept
saying that they would pay him back at harvest time or after they brought
the seaweed in, but soon the loans-a hundred thousand won here, two-hundred
there-added up to more than five million won. One day as Hye-suk studied
the family account book, she confronted Chu-ch'ol.
"Look at this! Are you going to give all your money to
your brother? He's a full-grown man!"
She often reminded him of the dangers of his actions.
"It's not like paying off a gambler's debts. You know what they say-At
least a gambler wins every once in a while. A drunk will eat you out of
house and home."
"Stop giving him money!" she would cry. "For his sake
if nothing else! You have to stop, cold turkey!"
Chu-ch'ol ignored her, though. He too felt a certain
debt to his brother. In fact, it made him feel small and timid, like his
fear of water.
Chu-ch'ol had always thought of water as a living thing.
It had the power to paralyze people by creating a mysterious atmosphere,
like the night fog that covers the mountains, fields and villages. Flowing
water in a river or stream, standing water in a pond or well, deep blue
water in a reservoir, ghostly green water at the foot of a waterfall-it
lured passersby with its magical powers, then drowned them. At times, it
employed the water demon who lived deep within its shadowy depths to lure
young men or women from sleep and swallow them. On nights in late spring
or summer it wept sorrowfully like a young widow or wailed like a pair
of copulating animals.
Salt water was no different. It shrieked, it cried, it
rumbled like a witch or evil spirit, to drown fishermen, to wreck ships,
to sweep away women, young and old, who went out to collect alone clams
or squid. Those waves and swells didn't occur naturally. They weren't caused
by wind or currents. They were the product of the sea's dark will. The
waves were like scales on the back of a monster. The sea was a living,
breathing monster. The stones on the edge of the sea were alive too, as
was the seaweed sprouting from them. They gave in to the sea's dark intent,
trapped in an endless cycle of birth, growth, death and extinction. And
the people living at the sea's edge yielded to those same dark waters,
fishing, digging clams or collecting seaweed.
Chu-ch'ol was trapped within this consciousness. From
early childhood, he had felt dizzy whenever he went near the sea. He was
afraid to swim. The other children plunged into the water and dog-paddled
from the age of five or six, but Chu-ch'ol didn't learn to swim until he
graduated from high school. And even then, he couldn't bring himself to
swim into the deep water. He swam a few feet out, only to return in haste,
overwhelmed by a terrible fear that he might be swallowed or caught in
some mysterious conspiracy of the sea. His body shrank whenever he went
in the water, as if he were developing a cramp.
This fear of water continued to rule his life, even after
he left the sea and moved to Seoul. For a man born and raised on an island,
it was a source of great embarrassment and humiliation. It kept him from
the sea; it made him ignorant of the sea. He couldn't help feeling that
this ineptitude was tantamount to an ignorance of his roots and a major
hurdle to his literary development. And so he devoted himself to the study
of the sea. He tried to understand the lives of the fishermen and the people
of the tideflats. He studied the marine animals and plants near his home
village. He searched for poetic inspiration in the sea there and soon found
that his soul resided in his home village, though his body was in Seoul.
In the end, he couldn't be sure if he had overcome his
phobia or if he was forever trapped inside the dark, mysterious atmosphere
created by the water.
Chu-ch'ol was also afraid of the villagers' wagging tongues.
They had the power to create a vast forest as terrifying and mysterious
as anything that the oceans produced.
"He got a chance to study thanks to his poor widowed
mother and his dim-witted brother and sister. It's time he woke up and
started takin' care of them."
"Yep, he'll suffer the wrath of the gods if he doesn't
take care of those poor things."
"You're right there. Why, they didn't even finish elementary
school 'cause his schoolin' cost so much."
His mother relayed what the villagers said. She wanted
him to feel an obligation to his family.
"Everyone in the village says Chu-shim wouldn't have
died such a terrible death if we'd sent her to a temple for some learning
or taught her to read. We never should have kept her at home like that."
After Chu-shim died, Mother sang the same tune whenever
she saw Chu-ch'ol. They couldn't let poor Chu-man take the same cruel road
as his sister, could they?
Chu-ch'ol sympathized with his mother, and in an effort
to ease his guilt, which plagued him as much as his fear of water, he did
as she asked. Chu-man bought into a seaweed factory and set up fifty seaweed
nets as part of the bargain. He had a three-ton boat built and borrowed
five million more to pay for it, playing on the guilt of his mother and
"Do you really think you can save a man with money alone?"
Chu-p'yong cried. "He died because of that money. You're responsible. You
were wrong. You're a selfish egotist who thinks of nothing but his own
reputation and writing. You don't understand the true meaning of life.
You used your poor brother and sister as tools in your writing. You sacrificed
them for your poetry. You're a sham, a fake who doesn't realize that true
salvation means salvation of the soul!"
"You little upstart! If you wanted to save your brother's
soul, you should have come down here when he was alive!" shouted Uncle
Tal-jin, his neck taut with anger. "What's the point of showing up after
he's dead and blaming your older brother? Everyone knows Chu-ch'ol did
everything he could for poor Chu-man. Heaven and earth know it too."
Chu-ch'ol nudged his uncle in the side. "Leave him be.
He's just bitter and sad."
Chu-on was still standing in the middle of the porch,
glancing back and forth from the kitchen to Tal-gyun, who was meandering
around the yard. Chu-ch'ol smoked in silence, ignoring his cousin. Uncle
Tal-gyun hadn't acted the slightest bit suspicious.
"What's keeping you, Nephew? Hurry up and get in here!"
It was Uncle Song-ho, one of the relatives gathered in the room next to
the kitchen. There, several family members and Yong-sam, the head of the
village funeral cooperative, were seated around a small table of drinks
and food. Eager to discuss the funeral procedures, they had been calling
Chu-ch'ol for some time. The relatives were unhappy because Chu-ch'ol had
dipped into his own pocket and sent two younger cousins to Kwansan for
the coffin, a bier and the food needed for the funeral ceremony. Tal-gyun
had already told Chu-ch'ol and Uncle Tal-jin that the relatives planned
to raise the money for the funeral themselves.
"Damn them," Uncle Tal-jin spat, his features drawn in
a fierce scowl. "What's there to talk about? It's your decision. After
all you're practically the head of the household. You already gave the
money for a bier and food, so what more is there to do? Those cretins are
making a fuss 'cause they ain't got nothing better to do now that they've
drunk all that free booze! What a bunch of fools..."
"That Song-ho butts into everything. I can't stand the
way he's always stickin' his nose in other people's business," Tal-gyun
snarled in agreement. He turned to Chu-p'yong at the end of the porch.
"It's gettin' cold. Let's close the door. Are you comin' in?"
"Go ahead and close it," Chu-p'yong replied sullenly.
"Hey, Chu-p'yong, why don't you go ask your Uncle Song-ho
what that dead man has to show for himself?" Uncle Tal-jin called out sarcastically.
"Hell, the poor fellow didn't have no property and his kids are still small.
That's why we want a quiet funeral, with just his family and a few close
neighbors. Why do we need to appoint a funeral director and invite the
folks from the funeral cooperative? You tell them I said to have a quiet
drink and get on home."
He paused for a moment, then muttered on. "Why, there
are twenty-five people in that funeral cooperative. If we have a three-day
wake, that'll take at least a 250-pound pig, ten boxes of booze and one
hundred packs of cigarettes. Do those fools really want that kind of funeral
for Chu-man? Why, he was practically a beggar! They'd better remember who
died here. I know people like to sponge off a funeral, but those guys are
going too far!"
Chu-on, who had followed Tal-gyun back into the main
room, agreed. "Yeah, Song-ho is old enough to know better," added Tal-gyun.
Chu-p'yong must have agreed too because he went to the
other room to relay his uncle's message. As his footsteps faded, Uncle
Tal-jin pulled a cigarette from his pocket and turned to Chu-ch'ol.
"Your mother and Chu-man's wife already know what happened,
but I better tell you, so you don't misunderstand." He paused, drawing
silently on his cigarette.
They heard someone emerge from the kitchen and cross
the yard to the faucet. Chu-ch'ol caught a glimpse of black and yellow
through the crack in the door. It must be Hye-suk, he thought. She was
wearing black corduroy pants and a yellow sweater. Tal-gyun, who was sitting
with his back to the door, sprang up, as if prompted by a sudden thought,
and stepped outside.
"Just forget about that... you know, that chain thing,"
Uncle Tal-jin said, blinking repeatedly as if the smoke had gotten in his
eyes. Chu-on, who had been staring at the pictures on the folding screen
concealing Chu-man's body, stood up and went outside.
A noisy quarrel had erupted in the other room. Chu-on
acted as if he were on his way to settle the argument, but Chu-ch'ol thought
otherwise. He knew Chu-on had gone out to see what Uncle Tal-gyun and Hye-suk
were doing outside. That stinking rat! Chu-on clearly thought Yun-gil was
hiding at Uncle Tal-gyun's house.
"You bought them, so we used them, but only once. He'd
been drinking for ten days straight. He went crazy, beating up the kids,
ripping the house apart. Then he took a kitchen knife and said he was going
to kill the village head. Went after me too... It got so bad we called
Tal-gyun and Song-ho over and tied him up with those chains. But it was
only for two days. Couldn't stand to leave him like that. The poor fool
cried his heart out. He promised he'd quit drinking and never do anything
like that again, so we let him go. After that, we threatened him with the
chains a few times, but we never tied him up. Thinking back now, I'm glad
we didn't tie him up the other day when he started running around with
that knife again. How would it have looked if he'd died in those chains?"
Mother sat in the corner, spreading out Chu-man's shroud,
then folding it neatly, patting the bundle, and unfolding it again.
The voices in the other room grew louder. They could
hear Chu-p'yong and Chu-on talking, and Tal-gyun's sarcastic remarks. Uncle
Song-ho's husky voice, pompous and scolding, rose above the others.
"What do you fools know? We don't need garbage like you.
Go get Chu-ch'ol!"
Uncle Tal-jin rose at Uncle Song-ho's words. Apparently
he felt only he could settle the matter. Chu-ch'ol stood up. Uncle Tal-jin
told him to stay, but he followed Tal-jin to the other room. Why were they
making such a big deal about the funeral? Why did they think they had to
take care of everything? As Chu-ch'ol stepped out onto the porch, Tal-gyun
rushed over from where he had been standing by the other door.
"Don't listen to Song-ho," he whispered. "I don't know
what they hope to gain by takin' over this sorry funeral, but you just
tell 'em you wouldn't call in the funeral cooperative if it meant carryin'
Chu-man to his grave on your back! If you hire all the members from the
funeral cooperative, there's no way you'll get by on one pig!"
"Lousy bastards!" Chu-on grumbled. "Can't they work on
the funeral without all this meat and booze? You know, the Family Rite
Law was enacted so poor people like Chu-man could have a funeral without
spending a fortune on it."
Chu-p'yong was standing on the threshold of the other
room. "Uncle Song-ho, how can you call me garbage?" he cried.
Chu-ch'ol advised Tal-gyun, Chu-p'yong and Chu-on to
keep their mouths shut as he followed Uncle Tal-jin into the room. Uncle
Song-ho, Yong-sam, the head of the village funeral cooperative, Chu-hwang
and Chu-ch'an, two distant cousins, and Kil-sun, a friend of Chu-man's,
were seated around a small table. They reeked of alcohol after several
bottles of soju accompanied by kimchi and salted seaweed.
"Brother, you can't leave out the funeral cooperative,"
blurted Kil-sun. "We'll take care of everything."
"Hey! Keep your mouth shut, Kil-sun. We elders will handle
this," Yong-sam snapped, then turned to Chu-ch'ol. "First of all, you have
to appoint a funeral director. You can't pay for everything out of your
own pocket. How about making Song-ho the director?"
From outside, Chu-on shouted, as if he had been waiting
for this moment. "Stop all this nonsense! Poor old Chu-man doesn't need
any funeral director or funeral cooperative. His relatives and a few close
neighbors can bury him just fine. Quiet and simple, that's all he needs!
They've already sent someone for the bier and coffin and the food for the
ceremony. All we need now is some booze."
"Hey! You keep out of this," Yong-sam yelled toward the
door, the vein in his forehead contorting like a worm. "We villagers'll
take care of everything. What the hell would someone like you know anyway?"
"I was born and raised here too, you know."
"No, you're a Seoulite now. You aren't one of us," Kil-sun
intervened. "Chu-man carried a lot of funeral biers in his time. Now it's
his turn. He may not have had any money and he wasn't too smart, but that
doesn't mean you can just sling him over your shoulder and bury him like
some kind of beggar. He has a wife and children, so why shouldn't he ride
a bier like everyone else? If you're going to have a funeral, you have
to do it right. What would the other villagers think? Besides, I want to
do what I can for my friend, and the people in the village want to do the
neighborly thing. That's the way it's always been. Call us in and you can
be sure we won't come empty-handed. We donate as much as we eat, you know."
It was Uncle Song-ho's turn next. "He's right. The corpse
doesn't belong to the Pak clan now. It belongs to the village. The clan
can't bury him on our own." Despite his uncle's dignified tone, Chu-p'yong
wasn't going to accept defeat.
"There's no need for more talk. We're not calling in
the funeral cooperative and that's that. If the villagers won't carry the
bier, I'll stick the coffin in an A-frame carrier and bury him myself."
"Yeah, you and I can take turns carrying him," Chu-on
"Right. You two smart-asses try carrying him up that
hill! That'll be a sight to see," Chu-hwang straightened up and yelled
in the direction of the door.
"You don't understand us. You're outsiders, plain and
simple. Just sit back and watch!" Kil-sun sputtered.
Yong-sam placed Chu-ch'ol's hand on his knee and gave
it a firm slap. "Chu-ch'ol, you decide. Are you going to appoint a funeral
director or not? Are you going to use the funeral cooperative or not? If
you really don't want us, I can make sure no one shows his face around
here, but you know, that would be a sad and regretful thing for the deceased.
You have to use us. If you don't, we'll pitch in anyway. We'll butcher
a pig and have some booze brought over... Of course, it'll all come out
of our own pockets. And wouldn't that be a pretty sight? Anyway, the rest
of you keep quiet and let Chu-ch'ol decide. You just say the word, Chu-ch'ol.
What'll it be?"
Yong-sam's voice cracked as he spoke. Everyone waited
in hushed silence.
Chu-ch'ol bowed his head. All eyes were on his face.
He could feel it burning. His heart was burning too. Yong-sam's words were
full of truth. For these people, life wasn't something to be lived alone.
It was something to be shared. The warmth of their feeling moved him deeply.
Yes, Chu-man's funeral wasn't his personal responsibility; it belonged
to everyone in the village.
"The same goes for the expenses," Uncle Song-ho added.
"I don't know how much you brothers were thinking of contributing, but
this is what we planned on doing. We'll collect donations from the villagers
and add it to what you boys put in. Then, when all the funeral expenses
have been paid, we'll hand over what's left to the widow and her children.
You just wait. I'll bet the villagers' donations add up to a lot more than
what you brothers put in."
Uncle Tal-jin shook his head. "I don't care if the villagers
end up giving three times as much as us. We're not the kind of people who'd
want to profit from a funeral. We don't need a funeral director or anybody
from the funeral cooperative. If you really felt sorry for Chu-man, you'd
carry his bier for a lousy cup of soju."
"Why do you have to be so damned stubborn?"
"Stubborn?" Uncle Tal-jin countered. "Since when am I
stubborn? I just can't stand the sight of you invading poor Chu-man's funeral
like a swarm of flies! Stop smacking your lips over his misfortune!"
"Are you finished?" Uncle Song-ho asked with an angry
"You just watch your mouth, Tal-jin!" Yong-sam sputtered.
"Do you really think we came here to sponge off you? This isn't a family
matter. Chu-man was a member of the funeral cooperative. We have a right
and an obligation to take part in his funeral!"
Uncle Tal-jin ignored him and turned to Uncle Song-ho.
"Yes, I'm finished."
Uncle Song-ho gritted his teeth and glowered at Uncle
Tal-jin, then turned away with a sigh, as if he realized he had to control
his temper. Wetting his lips, he took out a cigarette and lit it with a
blood-red disposable lighter.
Uncle Tal-jin grumbled on. "You keep gobbling up everything
in sight and you're going to be punished, believe me."
Chu-ch'ol sensed some unresolved feelings between the
two men. It seemed to have originated long before Chu-man's death. Perhaps
they had quarreled over who controlled the family's affairs, or maybe Uncle
Tal-jin realized that Uncle Song-ho, who usually handled these matters,
had been less than scrupulous when it came to family finances. However,
he couldn't let them bicker just so he could learn what had happened.
"That's enough. It's my turn now. This is my brother's
house. I'll make the decisions, and I hope you'll cooperate," Chu-ch'ol
announced, looking earnestly from face to face. "I'll appoint a funeral
director and engage the services of the funeral cooperative. Uncle Song-ho,
I'd like you to be director and finalize everything after discussing it
with Uncle Tal-jin. The issue of the funeral cooperative, how they're to
be fed, whether we're going to feed them beef or pork, how big an animal
we'll need, what kind of liquor we'll buy and how much, how long the wake
will be, where we bury him... I'm leaving everything to Uncle Song-ho.
Of course, there will be things that you'll have to discuss with me, but
I don't want to hear any more arguments. That would be an insult to Chu-man,
to our mother, and to us, her unfilial sons."
Yong-sam gave Chu-ch'ol's hand a friendly whack. "Good
thinking," he said. "Good thinking. You know, when it comes to a wake,
we country folk are like the blind man who kills his own hen for supper.
Still, it'll be a good chance to wash the dust from our throats. All thanks
to Chu-man, eh? You brothers just sit back and watch. We won't disappoint
The people who had been sent for the coffin and food
returned. As the body was readied for bathing and dressing, a pig's squeal
pierced the air, drowning out the din from the kitchen and the visitors'
laughing and talking.
Mother, who had been gazing absently at the corpse lying
on the seven-star board in the middle of the room, suddenly slapped her
hands on the floor and began to wail.
"Oh, my poor son. Now they slaughter a fat pig! After
you're gone! If only I'd bought more meat and made you soothing broth when
you were drinking... maybe you wouldn't have died so suddenly! Oh, you
stupid fool, you stupid fool!"
She buried her face in the shroud, then lifted a corner
of the sheet covering the corpse and stroked Chu-man's feet and legs. No
one in the family had ever bathed or shrouded a corpse before, so Yong-sam,
the head of the funeral cooperative, was called in. Reeking of soju, he
asked for a hemp mourning hat, then blinking his blood-shot eyes, he crouched
over the body.
"Chu-man, I'm going to give you your last bath and dress
you in some fine new clothes. Then we'll send you off on a pleasant journey
to the other world."
A basin of warm water and a bowl of pungent mugwort tea
were brought on Yong-sam's instruction.
Mother crawled slowly to the head of the corpse and leaned
forward on all fours, like some kind of animal. Chu-ch'ol and Chu-man crouched
across from Yong-sam. Chu-on stood at the corpse's feet, and Uncle Tal-jin
and Tal-gyun stood behind Yong-sam. Chu-man's wife left her work in the
kitchen and kneeled beside her mother-in-law.
Yong-sam removed the sheet. Chu-man was stretched out,
hands neatly folded over his stomach and eyes firmly closed. He was dressed
in off-white long underwear. Everyone held their breath, except for Chu-p'yong
who was sobbing, "Oh, Lord help us."
Suddenly Mother cried out. "What was I thinking? He wasn't
going to live forever! How come I didn't dress him better? How come I didn't
feed him better? I treated him like an ox, like a work horse! Why did I
make him harvest the seaweed in that icy water? Why did I force him to
work those poor fingers to the bone?"
All eyes lingered on Chu-man's face, then his throat,
wrists and ankles. There were bruises on his face, scratches on one side
of his forehead and along his cheekbones. Blood had dried dark-red along
the scratches. But it was his wrists and ankles that captured their attention.
They were swollen, like the limbs of an obese person, and were ringed with
bruises. Some were red, tinged with pale pink and purple; others were dark
blue and lavender. Everyone seemed to think Chu-man had died struggling
against the cuffs and chains. Uncle Tal-jin rubbed his hands together,
unable to conceal his embarrassment.
"Wh.. wh.. why are his wrists and ankles like that? His
mother and wife know. Those... you know Chu-ch'ol, the stuff you brought
down from Seoul... We only used them for two days, and that was three weeks
ago. We never used them again. But look! The bruises have shown up after
he's dead! I don't get it."
"Oh, Lord help us," Chu-p'yong exclaimed.
"Come on now! Chu-man's mother was with him until the
end, so don't go pretending you know everything," Yong-sam muttered as
he bathed the corpse's orifices with mugwort tea. "In ordinary times, no
one gives a damn, but when something happens, everyone's a know-it-all.
You all stop that second guessing. Chu-man went in his own time. You just
pray that he has a comfortable journey. Om Namo Amitabhaya Buddhaya, Avalokitesvara
"Don't worry, Chu-ch'ol!" said Uncle Tal-jin. "Heaven
and earth know what happened. So do your mother, your wife and kids. I
swear he didn't die in those chains."
Mother snuffled her agreement and caressed the bruised
wrists and ankles. As she leaned forward to brush her cheek against them,
Chu-ch'ol felt as if his heart would break. The bruises on Chu-man's body
spread to his own heart. He had killed his brother with those chains.
One day in early spring two years ago, Mother had called.
"He's left it all-the factory, the seaweed business,
the boat, the house, the paddies, the fields. He just up and left everything
behind. He said he couldn't stand to live here any more. He told me to
ask you to come down and sell it all to pay off his debts. He said he's
going to find a job as a farmhand and send for his kids later. Doesn't
make any sense to me. I know you're busy but you have to come down here
After Chu-man bought into the factory, the seaweed harvest
failed two years in a row. Then a typhoon wiped out the seaweed mats as
soon as they were set up the third year. They had to borrow more money
to rebuild the frames. The typhoon grounded the boat too, despite Chu-man's
efforts to save it. It took one million won to fix the hole in its side.
Chu-man idled away the autumn and winter drinking, and
the following spring, he left home to find work as a farmhand. He turned
his back on the sea where he had invested more than ten million won.
Chu-ch'ol hurried down from Seoul. He squeezed the travel
expenses from his office on the pretense of visiting bookstores in Pusan
"There's nothing else to be done. You've got to sell
the factory, the boat, all the equipment, the paddies and the fields to
pay off the high-interest loans," Mother said. "The money you've sent from
Seoul, the private loans from the village and the loans from the Fisheries
Cooperative add up to twelve or thirteen million won. He just can't manage
it. He asked you to come settle his debts 'cause he's scared. It's all
my fault. I shouldn't have made him buy into that factory."
Chu-ch'ol went straight to the factory and met the other
shareholders, then visited his uncles. It was a bad year for seaweed cultivation,
and no one was willing to buy Chu-man's share in the factory or boat, not
even the land.
"The interest on his loans from the Fisheries and Agricultural
Cooperatives was piling up." Uncle Tal-jin had explained. "And then all
the people who'd loaned him money began asking for more interest. I guess
he just got scared and ran. You've backed him this far. Why don't you settle
his debts one more time and get him to come back and start over?"
Uncle Song-ho agreed. If they sold everything, Chu-man
would be left as rootless as a floating weed.
"What'll people say when they hear Chu-man's draggin'
his wife and kids around workin' as a farmhand? Imagine what they'll think
of you!" added Tal-gyun. "Sure, you could pay off his debts by selling
all the paddy land, but no one'll buy it now. You'd never get what it's
worth. I know you bought the land in the first place, but just pretend
you're buyin' it all over again. You got to figure out a way to pay off
Chu-ch'ol had ten million won in his savings account.
He could take out seven million and ask Chu-p'yong to chip in the rest.
He went to Hoejin and caught a taxi to Songch'i Village
at the foot of Ch'on'gwan Mountain, where they said Chu-man had gone. The
taxi left the main highway after passing through the town of Kwansan and
headed up a narrow mountain trail, weather-worn and pockmarked with rocks
the size of a man's fist. The trail wound around the steep cliffs. After
crawling up a twisted ravine, the taxi emerged in a small basin surrounded
by mountains, as tall and majestic as those portrayed in traditional screen
paintings. Most of the cultivated land was in dry fields; there were few
Songch'i Village sat at the foot of a steep slope, a
cluster of thirty-some houses, all battered and crumbling. Most of the
houses were thatched; less than a dozen were roofed in slate or tin.
On the outskirts of the village were several abandoned
thatched houses. It looked like the villagers were leaving their homes
and land for the big city. Much of the land lay fallow. In a field at the
middle of the village, sprouts of barley stood dwarfed and brown for lack
Chu-ch'ol saw a man heaping soil around plants in a barley
field on the side of a small hill, which rose like an island at the center
of the basin. His heart tightened. From a distance, the man seemed no bigger
than a kid goat, but Chu-ch'ol knew it was his brother. He didn't bother
to go to any of the houses or wait to ask a passerby for information; he
hurried straight toward the farmer in the field.
You stupid imbecile! How could you do this without a
word to your older brother? Did you really think I'd let you work as a
farmhand? Chu-ch'ol's heart burned. The tip of his nose stung at the thought.
The man's hair was a magpie's nest of tangles; his face
bristled with black stubble. He wore a faded brown jacket and ragged pants
splattered with white spots of mud from the tideflats. It was clearly Chu-man.
A gust of wind caught the soil that he was shoveling and tossed it in Chu-ch'ol's
direction. It did not reach his eyes but they stung just the same. He couldn't
control the tears. When he reached the edge of the field, he kicked over
a bag of fertilizer that was standing between the furrows. Startled, Chu-man
paused from his work and froze, staring into his brother's face.
Head bowed, Chu-ch'ol walked up to Chu-man and grabbed
him by the wrist. "But wh... what..., " Chu-man stuttered, still carrying
the shovel in his other hand as his brother pulled him along, snorting
like a bull. Chu-ch'ol felt as if their arms were fused together, like
a grafted tree, as if Chu-man's blood were rushing into him like the incoming
tide only to ebb back into his brother's body once more. A wave of dizziness
swept over him, but he didn't know how to control it.
They went to see Chu-man's employer, a graying man dressed
in a white hanbok. Chu-ch'ol tried to apologize. "This fool owns an acre
and a half of paddy land and nearly five acres of dry fields. He shouldn't
be working someone else's land."
He snatched the shovel from his brother's hand and threw
it into the man's yard, then marched from the village, Chu-man huffing
and puffing behind him.
After they had left Songch'i Village, Chu-ch'ol sat his
brother down in a sunny patch of grass and plopped down across from him.
He had to talk some sense into him. Chu-man stared at the ground. He seemed
"If you're afraid of the sea, you don't have to cultivate
seaweed. Just farm and raise animals. I'll go get the money in Seoul. I
can clear your debts. All you have to do is take good care of Mother. I'll
hold onto the paddy land and help your kids in the future. You just do
as I say. Understand?"
Chu-man plucked the dry grass blade by blade.
"I'm sorry," he whimpered in a mosquito-thin voice, "I
can't face you or your wife."
"You're such a fool! Is that why you drink yourself sick?
Is that why you came here? Because you couldn't face us?" Chu-ch'ol looked
into Chu-man's leaden face. His eyes were gummy and lifeless. He reeked
of alcohol. The words began to take shape in Chu-ch'ol's heart. Die! Die!
If you can't live like a decent human being, better that you die now. No,
it wasn't just that. Chu-ch'ol felt like killing him. He could strangle
him, smash his head in with a rock, throw him in the reservoir, push him
off a cliff... But how would he live with himself afterward? No, you bastard,
don't make your brothers murderers! Kill yourself!
After cleansing the corpse's orifices, Yong-sam stuffed
them with cotton and carefully covered each one with a piece of snow-white
mulberry paper. Chu-ch'ol thought of their relatives and the villagers
as he watched. They all must have hated Chu-man for the way he acted.
"I know it's wrong, but I can't tell you how many times
I've thought of putting rat poison in his booze." Mother had confessed
as much on several occasions. The others felt the same way, no doubt. Perhaps
Chu-man had died from their curses.
Yong-sam wrapped the corpse in a long piece of white
cloth, beginning at the head, then binding the neck, arms, torso, thighs
and feet. Mother slapped the floor and muttered in the shrill whistling
voice of a shaman. "You can go now. Don't worry about a thing. Your brothers
will settle your debts. You don't need to pay them back. It all belongs
to the family, no matter what they say."
As he listened to his mother, Chu-ch'ol thought of the
sense of obligation that must have tortured Chu-man. Perhaps this was his
way of escaping it. Yes, all our lives Chu-man, Mother and I have been
struggling to free ourselves from that feeling of indebtedness. We were
always struggling to dump it on someone else in the family. And in the
end, it was Chu-man, the least intelligent and most innocent, who was sacrificed.
Yong-sam was dressing Chu-man now. First pants, then
shirt, vest, socks, ankle straps around the cuffs of the pants and overcoat.
He's free now, Chu-ch'ol thought. He doesn't have to take the burden with
him. He can hand back the guilt that we have heaped on him. In that sense,
Chu-man had gotten his revenge and Chu-ch'ol had lost.
Yong-sam seemed to be reading Chu-ch'ol's thoughts. "Remember
this, Chu-man," he said as he picked up the straw rope used to bind the
corpse. "Your brother Chu-ch'ol bought you land, he backed you in that
factory deal, and he came back and paid your debts when it all fell through.
You may be going now, but you have to remember what your brother's done
to help you."
He then wrapped the rope around the body, binding Chu-man's
arms tightly to his sides. Chu-p'yong sat next to the corpse, eyes closed
and hands clasped in prayer.
"Oh Lord, please embrace my poor brother's soul. Lead
him to your world and lay his weary soul to rest."
After the corpse was placed in the coffin, the whispering
and shuffling in the kitchen quickened.
"Man, I can't believe this!" Chu-on said as he burst
in the room, shaking his head in disbelief. No one had noticed him leaving.
"They paid some guy for a 250-pound pig and it only weighed
220. You know, as a 'favor' to the pig's owner!"
"What? Who the hell'd do a thing like that?" asked
"Imagine! Trying to rip off a dead man!" Uncle Tal-jin
"Let them do as they please," Chu-ch'ol said coolly.
After all, a funeral was for the living, not the dead,
he thought as he stepped outside to urinate. The smell of pork broth assaulted
him at the door. A group of men had gathered around the entrance to the
kitchen off the side room. The women of the family were rushing around
the main kitchen, steaming vegetables, cooking rice, soup and rice cakes.
They reminded Chu-ch'ol of plump flies swarming at the smell of food.
As he returned from the outhouse, Hye-suk approached
him in the yard. She looked around anxiously, wiping her hands on her apron.
He leaned forward to listen.
"Yun-gil's at Uncle Tal-gyun's house, but I think Chu-on
has already figured that out. We'd better send someone to tell him to leave
the island tonight."
"No, just let him be. If that bastard gets anywhere near
our Yun-gil, I'll kill him," Chu-ch'ol sputtered. He stalked across the
yard to stand by the wall. He gazed out toward the sea, visible around
the curving slope of the hill in front of the house. Had Chu-on come to
arrest Yun-gil or was he there for the funeral? The sunset was fading.
By the side kitchen, the neighborhood men were feasting on pig's intestines
and soju, mindless of those around them. They laughed and talked as they
plucked slices of intestines from the steaming broth and exchanged glasses
of soju. Someone was reeling off a list of villagers who had died from
drinking too much. The secret to a sound gut was eating along with your
drink, the man explained. The villagers drank the pig's blood, extolling
its benefits for the sickly, then sliced up the penis and testicles, claiming
they were good for virility. Black clouds passed through the sky overhead,
scattering a few snowflakes.
After eating and drinking their fill, the men moved the
boiled meat to the shed and began working in the front yard in groups of
two or three. They brought out straw mats to spread over the ground, then
pitched an awning. They hauled firewood to the center of the yard and started
a bonfire, wet some straw and set it by the fire, took the bell from the
From the loudspeaker at the top of the tree by the village
meeting hall came a man's voice, somewhat slurred. One of the men from
the drinking party must have gone to make the announcement.
"Attention, members of the funeral cooperative. Will
all members please gather at Chu-man's house by eight o'clock this evening?
In addition, we ask all village elders and friends of the deceased to attend
the wake. Members of the funeral cooperative who fail to attend will be
fined fifty-thousand won. If you are unable to attend, please send a substitute
or pay a fine of ten-thousand won to the head of the funeral cooperative,
five-thousand for missing the wake and five-thousand for not participating
in the burial."
Darkness descended. The bonfire blazed under the awning
that stretched high above the courtyard. Members of the funeral cooperative
and people from the village sat around the fire. There must have been at
least thirty of them. Someone had a drum. They were discussing ways of
entertaining themselves through the night.
Chu-ch'ol stood at the wall, his back to the fire, as
he gazed into the darkness settling over the mountain and fields. It's
a festival, he thought. Chu-man was dead and they had come to confirm that
they were still alive. They wanted to laugh and talk and enjoy themselves
as they looked into each other's living faces. They paid lip-service to
Chu-man, of course. "Poor fellow," they said. "Too bad he had to die."
But they ate and drank, demanding more meat and vegetables and liquor,
as if that was the way it should be.
The coffin was moved to one end of the porch, and the
folding screen was placed in front of it. There they arranged the ritual
food on a table. At the center of the table was a framed photograph of
Chu-man. He had it enlarged and put in a frame himself. Perhaps he had
anticipated his death. Yes, Chu-man had been preparing for this.
The ritual table was piled high with fruit, rice cakes,
vegetables, colorful cookies, meat and fish. A pair of bowls, one of steamed
rice, packed round and high like a fluffy white flower, the other of soup,
was placed in front of the photograph. A candle burned at one corner of
the table, and an incense burner sat on the ground in front of the table.
The smoke from the incense sticks, tall and thin like tough green paddy
weeds, permeated the air under the awning. Chu-man's eleven-year-old son,
officially the chief mourner, sat on a straw mat between the incense burner
and the bonfire. He was dressed in a mourner's coat and hat made of stiff
yellow cotton and held a mourning staff in his hand. Chu-p'yong stood beside
him, a mourner's hat on his head. Chu-man's nine-year-old son wore neither
a mourner's coat or hat. He scampered back and forth between his brother
and uncle, laughing and hitting his brother. Mother's wails drifted from
the main room to mix with the clatter of the women working in the kitchen
and the voices of the men gathered around the bonfire.
"It's all right, children. It'll be quiet now, like the
calm after a storm. No one's going to beat you. There's no need to run
off to someone else's house to sleep. No need to go to the tavern to get
his booze anymore. You can finally lie down on this nice warm floor and
sleep in peace. Oh my poor baby... "
Uncle Tal-jin was trying to comfort her. "Chu-man can
rest now. He doesn't have to fight those demons anymore. He's better off
now. He's finally gone where he was supposed to go," he murmured in a slurred
"It's time for me to go too," wailed Mother, pounding
her fists on the floor. "This heartless mother was waiting for you to die!
You were right. I didn't trust you. That's why I couldn't go to live with
Chu-ch'ol. But now that you're dead, I'll leave it all behind and follow
you. Ohhhhh, my poor son."
Chu-on stepped from the room and ambled over to Chu-ch'ol.
After a few drinks, the visitors began to rise one by one. Yong-sam, the
head keener, rang the ox bell.
"Hear ye, hear ye. The first bell has rung," he called,
drawing the words out long and clear. People entered the gate in groups
of two or three to join the others under the awning. The crowd circled
the bonfire, following Yong-sam in the dirge.
"Sweet briar of Myongsa, don't mourn your falling blossoms!"
"Ooho, ooho, ooho, ooho, owayo," the funeral cooperative
members replied to the beat of a drum. One by one the mourners began to
imitate Yong-sam's dance-like gestures, gently waving their arms as they
sang. The melodious sound lifted the threads of darkness that hung over
the awning and disappeared into the night sky. Black clouds floated overhead.
Between them winked blue and yellow stars. Chu-p'yong stood stock-still
before the ritual table, his head bowed in prayer. Chu-man's elder son
bent to the ground, the mourning staff in his hand. Chu-man's wife, dressed
in mourning too, wailed. Uncle Song-ho stood to the side, instructing them.
In the storage shed, some of the younger relatives were setting a table
for dinner. Pork was sliced, vegetables were heaped on plates, fruit cut.
From the kitchen came pork soup, thick with tofu, sliced turnips and starch
jelly. It was for the keeners who had worked so hard.
"Look at this !" Chu-on exclaimed as he approached Chu-ch'ol
by the wall. "It's just a party to them. They don't feel sad. They don't
try to comfort the bereaved. They don't try to save on funeral expenses
or pay for anything. They don't give a shit about anything except who eats
the most and rips us off for the biggest share of the funeral expenses.
I can't take this. It's too much!"
Chu-ch'ol tried to ignore him, then shook his head.
"You're wrong. It may look vulgar to you. Like they don't
have any manners... Like all they care about is food, but maybe they're
simply being honest. Maybe this is what it means to be human. When you
think about it, a funeral is just a convenience, a festival for the living
who want to be sure they're really alive."
He paused for a moment, then continued in a sarcastic
"I'm more frightened by people who pretend to be upright
and proper. They try to kill their targets from within, cutting off their
oxygen so they suffocate, secretly informing on them..."
As he spoke, Chu-ch'ol noticed something he wasn't meant
to see. A shadow slipped around the corner of the shed. It was a woman
with a large bundle under her arm. She dropped the bundle over the back
wall with a loud thud, then snuck through the crowd and pretended to head
for the outhouse before slipping out the front gate. At first, he didn't
recognize her. Unsightly folds of fat covered her cheeks and neck. As he
stared at her fleshy features in the reddish light of the gate, Chu-ch'ol
sifted through his memory, trying to remember who she was. Yes. He had
met her in the street about a year before. She was Uncle Song-ho's second
wife. He had remarried after his first wife died. The woman picked up the
bundle on the other side of the wall and stole noiselessly into the darkness.
"That bitch... They can't do this," snarled Chu-on. He
turned to go after her, but Chu-ch'ol grabbed his arm.
"Just pretend you didn't notice."
The mourners stopped singing and circling. The young
men from the kitchen lifted one edge of the awning and carried in the table
of food. Large bottles of soju were lined up next to the table. The women
squatted in the kitchen and began to eat from bowls of soup and meat brought
in from the shed. Some called their children and began feeding them as
they continued to chew, cheeks bulging, like hungry ghosts.
Song-ho was in charge of the food in the shed. "Can't
mourn on an empty stomach," he said, raising his voice as he sent his nephew
Chu-ho into the main room with a tray of food. "You go tell the Seoul uncles
and cousins to eat hearty." It was strange: a silence fell over the household
as soon as the food was served.
Chu-ch'ol forced down a bowl of rice mixed with soup
and drank several glasses of soju. His body felt heavy. He lay down in
the corner of the room, and his mother covered him with a blanket. The
dead may die, but the living have to eat, drink and sleep.
Through a thin veil of sleep, Chu-ch'ol heard the second
bell and the mourners' keening. He then heard the people eating again.
Some time later, the third bell rang, then the keening and eating once
more. The fourth and the fifth bells followed with the sound of hungry
ghosts filling their bellies one last time.
He turned on his side. I wonder how much pork is left.
Are they going to leave enough for the burial procession and grave digging
tomorrow? Are we going to have to get more for the third memorial rite?
How much will that cost us? What's it matter? Uncle Song-ho will handle
everything. After all, the villagers will pay for it. Chu-ch'ol was drifting
off to sleep once more when he heard fighting. He listened more carefully
and realized someone was being beaten.
"You bastard! Who are you tryin' to fool? What do you
have against me anyway? Why would you want to spy on my house at this ungodly
hour? You wretched whelp of a crazy woman! You don't deserve the name Pak!"
Chu-ch'ol stepped outside to find Tal-gyun yanking Chu-on
around by the collar. No one intervened because Chu-on was letting himself
be tugged around without a word in protest. He laughed nervously as he
flopped from side to side. Tal-gyun grumbled on, unable to suppress his
rage. The mourners were getting up to leave now that they had eaten their
fill; they made way for the two men. Above the gate, the sky was growing
lighter, though the snow kept falling.
"Chu-ch'ol! Look at this son of a bitch! He's been actin'
funny ever since he got here so I've been keepin' an eye on him, and you
know what? I caught him sneakin' off to my place. He was gonna search the
temple, and the day hasn't even broke yet!" Tal-gyun tightened his grip
on Chu-on's collar and growled, "You bastard! Why would you want to go
to my house? Figured Yun-gil was hidin' there, huh?" Tal-gyun growled as
he shoved Chu-on into the main room. Hye-suk ran from the opposite room
and pushed Tal-gyun back outside.
"Uncle, Chu-on isn't that kind of person. You don't understand.
I know him. Please don't make a scene."
Chu-on laughed nervously as he wiped the blood from his
lips with the back of his hand.
"Do you want me to tell you where I was going, Uncle?
I was on my way to my father's grave. I didn't want anyone to know. You've
got it all wrong! What would I want with Yun-gil? You don't understand.
It's not fair. I'm telling you: I came down here for Chu-man's funeral.
Nothing more. I'm not after Yun-gil."
Swiping at the blood once more, Chu-on sat down against
the wall where Chu-man's corpse had lain the night before. Hye-suk grasped
his hand and shook it.
"Don't worry. I believe you."
"Son of a bitch. No tellin' where his parents came from.
He ain't no Pak as far as I'm concerned. I'd like to kick the shit out
of him. That bastard would have turned my house upside down, and if he
didn't find Yun-gil, he would have come after me with his questions. 'How
come you hid him? You helped him escape! Where did he go?' I know he would!"
Tal-gyun shouted over his shoulder as he strode toward the bonfire. He
was drunk and angry. Chu-ch'ol grabbed him and dragged him toward the other
"Can't you keep quiet? Think of poor Chu-man and my mother.
She hasn't taken a sip of water, much less any food. This is no time to
worry about Yun-gil!"
"What? How can we not worry about Yun-gil?" Tal-gyun
bellowed, the veins on his neck and forehead bulging. "To tell the truth,
people like me and Chu-man, and scum like Chu-on, and all the dimwits in
this village could drop off the face of the earth and it wouldn't make
a lick of difference, but bright young kids like Yun-gil have to be free
to do and say what's right. You know what I mean? He's already gone so
it doesn't matter now. He went to hide somewhere else, but I learned a
lot from him while he was with us. He's a smart boy. Let me tell you: Our
family has produced a remarkable man. You just wait. He's goin' be a lot
smarter than you, Chu-ch'ol. A lot more successful too. And that's the
way it should be. Your son is gonna' be an even greater man than you."
Tal-gyun's words refreshed Chu-ch'ol, as if he had drunk
a cup of peppermint tea, but fear soon spread over him like a dark cloud.
Yun-gil wasn't trying to build on his father's accomplishments. He was
trying to sweep his father away completely. His was an act of betrayal,
As morning broke, the snow began to fall more heavily.
The world was white, as if covered in a quilt of cotton. Lovely white flowers
clung to the gaunt trees.
"Ooooh, ooooh. How can you bury my baby in this snow?"
Mother sobbed. "Wait until it's melted. Let him sleep here one more night."
Uncle Song-ho ordered the pallbearers to carry the coffin
from the house. They circled the yard three times, then headed out the
gate, toward the beach where the bier was waiting. The bier was pure white.
Not a spot of black showed under the blanket of fresh snow and the white
paper flowers that were used to decorate it. The snow continued to fall
until the pallbearers had completed the road rite and turned to leave the
The bier headed up the snow-covered hill. The pallbearers
stumbled on branches and crevices hidden by the snow, but they kept climbing.
Song-ho had paid a man from Changsan eight-thousand won to lead the dirge.
He sang in a clear, high-pitched voice, and the drunken pallbearers echoed
his tune in their own merry voices.
The grave was to be dug at the end of a ridge overlooking
the sea and the village. The procession rested three times before it arrived
at the grave site. Each time they paused, the pallbearers feasted on thick
slices of pork and more soju.
Chu-ch'ol and his wife trailed the procession at a distance.
Chu-p'yong followed closely on the bier's tail, clasping the hands of Chu-man's
Chu-p'yong hadn't bowed at the ritual table or at Chu-man's
coffin. He had simply kneeled and lowered his head in prayer.
"Come on. It doesn't look right," Chu-ch'ol had said
impatiently. "Just bow. Is it going to taint your religion to get down
on your knees and bow to your dead brother? Just make up your mind and
do it! Do you have to insult him? Chu-man could be superior to your god
for all you know. Get down and bow. Do it, eh?"
Chu-p'yong refused. "It's my choice. Just leave me alone.
My prayers are more likely to get him to heaven than your bows. I've learned
a lot from this experience. I've been too passive in my belief. I bent
under pressure from you and let Chu-man die. From now on, I'm going to
take an active role and save my nephews from their suffering. I'm going
to guide them to the church."
"He's completely nuts," Chu-ch'ol felt like muttering,
as he watched Chu-p'yong following the bier, their nephews' hands in his.
"I wonder how he got to be such a fanatic?" Chu-ch'ol glanced at Hye-suk
and decided it was better not to express this opinion out loud. Perhaps
he and Chu-p'yong weren't so different after all. Chu-p'yong was just trying
to repay his debt to Chu-man.
After a rest and another drink, the pallbearers hoisted
the bier to their shoulders once more. Chu-on walked to the right of the
bier, Tal-gyun to the left. What the hell does Chu-on do? Is he a detective?
Has he come to get Yun-gil, or is he really here for Chu-man's funeral?
Where was he going when Tal-gyun caught him?
"I'm not sure if I should tell you this, but Yun-gil
came to the house last night," Hye-suk ventured, looking to the procession
ahead of them. "He said he's staying at Uncle Tal-gyun's in Temple Hollow.
Uncle Tal-gyun dug a cave in the hill behind the house. He says no one
will ever find it. He hides there when he feels something in the air, but
usually he stays in a nice warm room. He told me not to worry."
Chu-ch'ol couldn't believe what she was saying.
"I'm so grateful to Uncle Tal-gyun's wife," she continued.
"They barely have enough to eat themselves, but she fries him an egg everyday
and washes his clothes... And Uncle Tal-gyun's been especially kind to
him. Once a week he goes out and traps a rabbit or butchers a chicken to
Chu-ch'ol was helpless against the confusion that burned
in his heart. It soon turned into an awkward feeling of obligation, constricting
him and making him feel guilty. How am I supposed to pay him back? Suddenly
Tal-gyun looked so lovable, so noble as he limped along of them. At the
same time, Chu-ch'ol felt the arrogance pounding in his temples. I'll slip
him a couple hundred-thousand won when I leave for Seoul, he thought. Chu-ch'ol
didn't want to feel indebted to anyone. But would two hundred-thousand
repay Uncle Tal-gyun for his kindness? The image of his uncle attacking
Chu-on rose before him.
As the coffin was lowered into the ground that day, Chu-ch'ol
thought of that immeasurable gratitude. "Don't worry," he murmured. "I'll
take care of your kids. I'll put them through high school, college too
if they want. Don't worry. I'll make sure they have a good life."
He also made another promise, too profound for Chu-man
"I'm going to write poems that transcend the sufferings
of wounded people like you. I'm going to write poems that will prevent
more people from being hurt, that will stop the ideological war and bring
unification, that will pull the Korean people together by confirming their
He bit his tongue. Could a poem do that?
Chu-p'yong had once accused him of using his siblings
as fodder for his writing. Chu-ch'ol regretted that he hadn't told Chu-p'yong
that he was using his brothers as targets for his evangelism.
Chu-ch'ol smiled bitterly. He realized that he simply
wanted to rid himself of the sense of obligation he felt toward his dead
brother. He wasn't alone in that. They all felt the same debt-Chu-p'yong,
Chu-on, the other relatives, the people from the funeral cooperative, the
"There's no better gift to the dead than laying one more
piece of sod, one more shovel of dirt. We want him to stay warm on his
"Chu-man and I always took turns helping each other with
the fertilizer and pesticide."
"Yep, Chu-man had a heart of gold."
"There ain't a man in the village that didn't get a free
drink off Chu-man at one time or another. Why, when he sat down for a drink
at the corner store, he'd invite the crows to join him!"
"He never rode that new boat of his, but we sure made
good use of it. 'First come, first served,' remember?"
"Yeah! Everyone who used Chu-man's boat, bring over another
piece of sod!"
The young villagers bantered back and forth as they stumbled
through the snow carrying sod. They were happy to do the job.
The winter sun fell quickly. They worked hard but the
earth was frozen and the snow slowed their progress. Dusk had settled by
the time they finished, and with it came more snowflakes, as white and
fluffy as cotton balls.
They hurried down the mountain and gathered at Chu-man's
house once more. At Uncle Song-ho's direction, the younger relatives and
the women who had been waiting at the house laid another table of food.
It looked as if they were all going to stay there, enjoying themselves,
confirming their existence, as long as there was pork, soup and soju to
"That snow's covering my baby like a blanket," Chu-ch'ol's
mother cried, pounding her chest. "He must be frozen stiff out there!"
Chu-ch'ol and Chu-p'yong sat in front of her. They didn't
know what to say. She pulled Chu-man's sons to her bosom. "Where'd you
boys put your father? You can sleep sound from now on. No need to hide
Chu-ho entered with a tray of food. He called Chu-ch'ol
onto the porch.
"Something strange is going on. Chu-on snuck out around
sunset, and Uncle Tal-gyun went after him. Looks like they've gone to Temple
Hollow. Folks are saying Chu-on has a pistol. Somebody saw it fall out
of his jacket pocket when he was digging sod for the grave."
The grave diggers huddled over the food, their spoons
and chopsticks flying. The room off the kitchen was filled with people
too. A few drunken voices rose above the others.
"I'm not kidding. They'll never be able to pay Chu-man
"Right, right. Now shut up and eat."
"What do you mean? Chu-ch'ol did everything he could
"Still, it wasn't enough. He could weave sandals with
his hair and it still wouldn't be enough."
Snow was accumulating on top of the awning now. The snowflakes
sparkled gold and silver in the light of the lamp hanging from the eaves.
Beyond the awning, the yard was ankle-deep in snow. Chu-ch'ol stared at
the yard and thought of Chu-on and Tal-gyun running through the dark snow-covered
fields: Chu-on ahead, Tal-gyun chasing behind him. They joined in a tangle
of fists, hitting, kicking, biting. Soon they were covered in blood. Chu-on
pulled out a pistol and a shot echoed through the ravine.... Was Chu-on
a detective? Was he one of their snitches? Had he come for Yun-gil? Isn't
there something I should do? I can't just sit around like some kind of
idiot. Maybe I should go up to Temple Hollow. Chu-ch'ol felt helpless.
Impatience and despair spread through his body like wildfire. Uncle Song-ho
emerged from the shed and came to his side.
"What are you doing out here? You know, I can't be sure
till tomorrow morning, but it looks like the meat won't last through the
third memorial rite. We're going to have to buy a side of pork at market
or butcher another pig."
As Uncle Song-ho spoke, a heavy-set woman dashed back
and forth between the shed and kitchen. In a tinny voice, she asked the
women in the kitchen to prepare five more bowls of soup, then scurried
toward the group seated outside under the awning. It must have been cold
up there, she said. Eat hearty! She was Uncle Song-ho's second wife. Chu-ch'ol
remembered her dropping the bundle over the back wall and disappearing
into the darkness.
She rushed up, skirts flying. "Nephew," she pleaded in
a regretful tone, "what more can you do for him? He's dead, but everyone
knows how hard you tried to help him. Don't be so sad. Think of your health.
Go in and have something to eat. You know what they say: You have to keep
Suddenly Chu-ch'ol remembered the spikes in the door
frame. I've got to take those out, he thought as he turned away, but the
woman stood in his path.
"I'd better tell you before you hear from someone else,"
she whispered. "You mustn't give any of Chu-man's things to Tal-jin. Not
the factory, not the boat, not the land, not anything. Why, before Chu-man
died, everyone was already talking about how Tal-jin was after Chu-man's
property. He's already using Chu-man's seaweed harvesting equipment. If
you must, let him manage the factory and the boat, but we'll take care
of the paddy land. You won't regret it."
Chu-ch'ol suppressed a wave of nausea and dashed inside.
"Uncle, did you see this?" he cried to Tal-jin, pointing
to the spikes. "How can you just sit there? How can you eat and drink with
these things around?"
Uncle Tal-jin lowered his spoon. Chu-ch'ol turned to
shriek at Chu-p'yong.
"What are you doing? Go get a hammer and pull these things
Chu-p'yong remained seated by the table of food and closed
his eyes. He was running to his god.
Uncle Tal-jin called Chu-ho and asked him to remove the
spikes. The young man brought a long lever and pulled them out with little
Chu-ch'ol grabbed the spikes and ran from the room. He
gathered the bundle of chains from the shed and dashed out the front gate.
The snowflakes felt cold on his face and neck. A monstrous thought rose
inside his brain like an angry viper. It's all because of these spikes
and chains. First they bound Chu-man and now they were trying to shackle
Slipping, sliding, tumbling along, he crossed the snowy
ridges and dark ravines. When he reached the small pond near the path leading
to Temple Hollow, he threw the bundle of chains into the water and dashed
onward, toward Uncle Tal-gyun's house at the temple. The snow blinded him.
Chu-p'yong's words filled his brain with white, like the blossoms of snow.
"You used Chu-man and Chu-shim as fodder for your writing.
You just sat by and watched as they unraveled, stitch by stitch, like a
couple of old sweaters. And then you wrote about it."
The words echoed through the ravine like the scornful
cackle of a ghost. They turned to cold snowy dust and poured down from
the dark sky, piercing his spirit like sharp particles of steel. (to be
Translated by Julie Pickering and Yu Young-nan