|Father and Son
An Abandoned Temple in Winter
The snow was ankle-deep and the narrow path leading to
Temple Hollow was slippery. The snow diluted the darkness, but Chu-ch'ol
still stumbled and fell, sometimes tumbling off the path. Anxious and afraid,
he felt as if he had left the secular world to enter a white snow world.
Would he ever find a way back to the life he had lived before?
The sky was dark and somber. The snow kept falling. Chu-ch'ol
was white from head to toe, like a snowman. Why did Chu-on have to go to
Temple Hollow tonight of all nights? He must be a police snitch. Why else
would he brave that treacherous path in the middle of a snow storm? He
was going to get Yun-gil. But why would anyone arrest his own relative?
His father used to work for our family. He spent his childhood in the shadow
of our roof. Would he really sell off a relative to make something of himself?
Heartless scoundrel! He has no conscience. Wait till I get my hands on
Chu-ch'ol slipped and fell forward. As he pulled himself
up by the branch of a dwarfed pine, he tried to get his bearings, but he
was lost. He had turned up the wrong valley. The snow had transformed the
path into different world. As a child he had taken the path many times-grazing
the ox, following his mother or grandmother to the temple. He had thought
he could find it with his eyes closed. There were fox holes in the stony
cliffs by Big Hollow on the way to Temple Hollow. Every summer Chu-ch'ol
went there to chase foxes or start fires at the mouths of their holes.
He was more familiar with Big Hollow than Temple Hollow, but now he did
not know where he was. He had lost all sense of direction and stood blinking
in the snow. Finally, after comparing the heights of the surrounding mountains,
he set off toward the southwestern ridge.
As he descended the slope on the other side, Chu-ch'ol
slipped and tumbled into a snow-filled depression. He wasn't hurt, only
a few scratches on his face and neck, but he was seized by the feeling
that he was falling down, down from a towering cliff. He struggled furiously
to escape the snow-filled hole. How embarrassing it all was! He despised
his son. People say a newborn pup has no fear of the tiger. That was Yun-gil,
all right. Chu-ch'ol owned a good-sized house and an orchard, albeit in
his wife's name. Yun-gil belonged to "the haves," whether he liked it or
not. But now he was trying to sell off his parents in the name of his own
ideology. He pointed to them and attacked the "rotten nature of the bourgeoisie."
He was ready to dedicate himself to the propertyless masses, if only to
cleanse himself of his parents' crimes.
Chu-ch'ol finally reached the entrance to Temple Hollow.
He saw a light. The village had electricity now. There was a street lamp
at the center of the village below the temple. A wave of foreboding swept
over him. Was it the right village? Had he turned up the wrong valley?
He looked around the snow-covered pine grove at the entrance of the village,
searching for the spirit posts that once stood there. When he visited the
temple as a child, he had always been greeted by a pair of huge stone spirit
posts. Their noses were as big as a man's fist, their eyes like brass bells,
their ears as long as cucumbers. One bore the inscription "Great General
Under Heaven," the other "Female General Under the Earth." Where were they?
Had he missed them in the snow? Had they been moved? Maybe this wasn't
Temple Hollow at all.
He looked up at the ridges surrounding the village; their
outlines were clear in the diluted darkness. To the east was Sunrise Peak,
piercing the sky like a hawk's beak; to the west, Moonrise Peak, its summit
round as an octopus head. Temple Hollow, a small village of twenty households,
stood on the slope of the ridge twisting to the southeast of the temple.
The houses crouched under the weight of the snow, lights glowing in their
windows. The temple never had been visible from the entrance of the village.
The spirit posts must have been moved, he thought as
he headed for the center of the village. To get to the temple, he had to
pass through the village. The snow kept falling. The street lamp stood
in front of the village hall, a few steps from the village spirit tree.
The snowflakes fluttered gold and silver in the stream of light.
Chu-ch'ol jerked to a halt as he stepped into the circle
of light. There was a small field behind the village hall and spirit tree.
Barbed wire stretched along the edge of the field, blocking the path to
the temple. Silver balls of snow had formed on the barbs. The fence posts
were jet black crosses. He couldn't tell if they had been painted black
or scorched in a fire. Each fence post was a crucifix. They stood tall
and proud, like telephone poles, their tops and northern edges outlined
in cotton-white snow.
A few paces past the village hall was a small store.
A dim light shone through its glass door. Three men sat on stools next
to the display window, drinking. They looked out as Chu-ch'ol passed. Conscious
of their stares, he brushed the snow from his head and body.
The path grew darker as it neared the temple. The street
lamp and the light from the houses did not reach far. He walked on, groping
through the diffuse darkness. The sound of televisions and radios flowed
from the houses. The path wound to the right, steering away from a large
forest of bare black branches that stretched eerily into the sky. It was
a grove of persimmon trees. Another barbed wire fence protected it from
intruders. Here too the fence posts were shaped like crosses. Three houses
stood to the right of the path; beyond them was a field. Barbed wire separated
the path from the field here too. He followed the black crosses another
100 meters to find a building towering before him. A single light burned
above its iron gate. "Temple Hollow Church," a sign said. A cross rose
above the belfry. Barbed wire wrapped around the southeastern edge of the
Chu-ch'ol headed in the direction of the temple. The
persimmon grove, with its dark branches layered with snow, stood on the
left, the church on the right. A brook, which flowed from the temple, flowed
between the church and the path.
A cement bridge led to the church across the brook, but
Chu-ch'ol did not take it. Instead, he continued up the steep path along
the edge of the persimmon grove. Suddenly a tall pole loomed before him
like a huge black phantom. He cried out and took several steps backward.
It was another cross strung with barbed wire. Why had they put it up in
the middle of the path? How were you supposed to get to the temple? He
examined the barbed wire. Six rows were strung at 20 centimeter intervals.
There was no way to get around it, and yet he couldn't climb over it or
stretch a hole wide enough to slip through. He paused and looked around.
The village was surrounded by barbed wire. There was no way to get to the
"Lost in time." For some reason, the phrase popped into
his head. When had he last come to the temple? He had left his hometown
after the Korean War, more than thirty years ago. The temple had been burned
down during the war. No one restored it, and the monks hadn't thought of
returning. Since that time, the old Widow Chong had lived with her son
Tal-gyun in the temple living quarters, the only building to escape the
In the intervening years, Temple Hollow, which used to
work the temple land, had been transformed into a Christian village. Not
only had the villagers been converted; they had blocked the path leading
to the abandoned temple with barbed wire. Chu-ch'ol remembered the days
when the villagers, young and old, used to clasp their hands together and
bow piously whenever they met the monks. Now they seemed to have rejected
the Buddha altogether. They must have removed the stone spirit posts as
remnants of primitive idolatry. Chu-ch'ol recalled the pagodas in the temple
courtyard. Were they safe? And what about the statue of the Maitreya Buddha
on the hill behind the main hall? With no monks to look after them and
the temple enclosed in barbed wire, they had probably been smashed to smithereens
Still, this was too much. How did Uncle Tal-gyun and
his family get in and out? Did they have any contact with the villagers?
A wall seemed to separate them. Chu-ch'ol turned back. He would ask directions
at the village store.
The men turned to look at him as he opened the glass
door. They had been waiting for him to return. They looked up together,
as if one of them had alerted the others. Then they averted their eyes,
again as if by prior agreement.
Chu-ch'ol sensed a barrier in their averted faces. All
three men appeared to be somewhere between forty and fifty. If they were
natives of the village, they should have recognized him, even if it had
been thirty years. They would have attended the same elementary school,
the only one on the island. Maybe they had started school late, after liberation
from Japanese rule. That would put them a few grades behind him. Still,
Chu-ch'ol had always been class president or weekly monitor. Of all people,
they would remember him.
"Excuse me, gentlemen" he began, immediately regretting
that he had used the Seoul dialect. They would resent him for that. All
three men studiously ignored him.
"How'd I be gettin' to the temple?" he asked in the local
vernacular. The men trained their eyes on the glasses in front of them,
pretending not to hear. They were drinking soju. A few pieces of roasted
squid and a half-empty package of shrimp-chips lay on the table.
"How'd the temple folk be gettin' there?" he asked once
more. "The road's closed."
"How should we know? Go ask somebody else," one of them
answered gruffly, without raising his head. He was a heavy-set man with
Chu-ch'ol felt as if he had been punched in the stomach.
The men began chewing noisily, as if on the large man's cue. They gnawed
eagerly on the squid legs, munched loudly on the shrimp-chips, and tossed
their drinks down with exaggerated gusto. The other two men were smaller.
One had a thin face, shriveled like a dried date seed; the other was even
shorter with crowded features.
"Look at that snow!" commented the short man. "When's
it gonna let up?"
"We're in for a fine barley harvest, that's for sure,"
the thin man replied.
"But the rabbits'll starve to death," said the large
"Let's go rabbit huntin' tomorrow, eh?" asked the thin
"I hope it keeps snowin' tomorrow and the next day too,
even if we don't go out huntin'," said the large man.
"Looks like they couldn't get here 'cause of the snow,
eh?" asked the thin man.
"Assholes! Why are they makin' a fuss now? The bell's
been gone for months," the short man complained.
The conversation was solely for Chu-ch'ol's benefit.
They've taken me for someone else, he realized. I'd better
tell them who I am.
"Don't you fellows recognize me? I'm Chu-ch'ol. I used
to live in New Town across the way."
"We know," said the short man in a haughty tone, "but
that don't make no difference. You could be your great-great grandfather
and we'd still have nothin' to do with you. Once we make up our minds,
there's nothin' you can do."
"I'll give you directions since your son's tried to help
us. You can't get to the temple from here no more. You know where the spirit
posts used to be? Head up the hill toward Sunrise Peak from there."
Chu-ch'ol stepped closer. "How did this happen?" he asked
in an irritated tone. "What's going on here?"
"It's a long story. Why, you could write a novel about
"Go ask Tal-gyun. You'll be up the whole night with that
"But you keep your nose outta our business, no matter
what he says. It ain't got nothin' to do with you. No point in you gettin'
on our bad side too."
Chu-ch'ol wanted to sit down and hear the whole tangled
story. He wanted them to realize that he hadn't come for that, but he didn't
have the time. He had to find Chu-on. He was afraid of what might happen
between Chu-on and Yun-gil. Chu-on and Tal-gyun might have ripped each
other apart before Chu-on ever saw Yun-gil.
"Let's meet again in the morning. It's not what you think.
I didn't come here because of that. Please don't get me wrong."
Chu-ch'ol pushed open the door and stepped outside. He
had forgotten the cold and tingling in his toes but now the sensation returned.
He was wearing regular leather shoes. He couldn't remember how many times
they had slipped off, forcing him to dig through the snow with his foot.
Chu-ch'ol returned to the spot where the spirit posts
used to stand, then climbed toward Sunrise Peak. There was no sign of anyone
preceding him. Perhaps he had taken the wrong path again. He was soon tripping
over rocks and tumbling into drifts. His shoe slipped off, and he crashed
to his knees. After fumbling for the shoe, he headed in what he thought
was the direction of the temple. The living quarters sat in a small basin
beyond the persimmon grove.
Sea Cloud Temple was small; its main hall was the size
of the average country house. On a hill to its right stood the shrine to
the Mountain Spirit, a small structure slightly larger than the look-out
sheds found in melon fields. About 200 meters from the main hall was the
living quarters, shaped like a long ship. There had been only three or
four monks in the best of times, but Sea Cloud Temple was well-endowed.
The land on which the village stood and nearly 200 acres of dry fields
and paddies belonged to the temple. The persimmon grove was temple property
too, as were the mountains surrounding the village.
It was because of this property that the temple had been
burned down and the monks had failed to return. Pak Ho-nam, Chu-ch'ol's
grandfather's older brother, had managed the temple's assets. He squeezed
high rents from the villagers, with the full support of the head monk who
belonged to a sect that permitted monks to marry. Not only was the rent
income plentiful, the persimmon crop and the rice contributed by believers
were abundant. It wasn't long before Ho-nam set up the young Widow Chong
in the living quarters to cook for the monks. She was his concubine, of
course. He spent his days in the village on the other side of the mountain,
but came to her each night. Gradually he lost interest in his household
in the village and spent more time at the temple, squeezing the villagers
With liberation, the young men who had left for the city
returned. Some had been tortured by the colonial police for arguing with
Ho-nam about their rents. Others were returning from labor camps or forced
conscription into the Japanese army.
Under Japanese colonial rule, when a tenant objected
to the rent, Ho-nam marked the house with a pine bough in the dark of night,
and the next morning the police arrested the man. Ho-nam also informed
on recalcitrant tenants, accusing them of refusing to worship the Japanese
Shinto shrine or of engaging in socialist activities.
Five days after Emperor Hirohito surrendered and word
of the Japanese's withdrawal began to spread, the young men of Temple Hollow
set fire to the temple's main hall. They dragged the monks from the living
quarters and beat them before driving them, and their families, away.
Pak Ho-nam and the Widow Chong managed to survive somehow.
The living quarters had escaped the fire. The young men had surrounded
it, hoping to capture Ho-nam, but he was as agile as a tiger, thanks to
his many years peddling goods from market to market. He leapt over a club
wielded by one of the young men, kicked him in the back, and fled into
The Widow Chong survived the attack thanks to the twin
sons she had born in her first marriage. Ssang-do, the elder twin, had
masterminded the temple fire. In the years between liberation and the Korean
War, a Patricide Society was organized by the sons of Japanese collaborators
and wealthy landowners. The people of Naedok Island all knew of it. Many
of its members had been drafted into the Japanese army or labor gangs to
save their fathers unnecessary embarrassment. Others had escaped to the
Most of these young men joined the Committee for the
Preparation of Korean Independence right after liberation and later became
members of the People's Committee and the South Korean Workers' Party.
Every village on the island had its own cell that secretly carried out
its patricidal duties throughout the Yosu Rebellion and the Korean War.
Pak Ho-nam died by the sword of a rebel who had fled
to the island following the Yosu Rebellion in 1948. His death and the liquidation
of reactionary elements around the time of the Inchon Landing in 1950 were
all related to the Patricide Society. The young islanders dreamed of a
social revolution that would do away with the uneven distribution of wealth,
but if they wanted to make a name for themselves in the resistance community,
they had to expose and eliminate the irrationalities of their own households
first. Otherwise, they would never find a place among the powerful.
Pak Ho-nam carried a shotgun with him wherever he went.
To shoot pheasants, rabbits and doves on his way back and forth from the
temple, he said. He dressed in riding jodhpurs, a Western-style jacket
and a hunting cap. His eyes were usually bloodshot. He stood six feet tall,
was immaculately shaven except for a magnificent moustache, and always
glowed with health.
Chu-ch'ol could hear his great-uncle's shotgun when he
was walking home from school or out grazing the ox. Ho-nam often strode
through the village with a magpie, pheasant or rabbit dangling from his
ammunition belt. Sometimes he went hunting on Ch'™n'gwan Mountain with
the local magistrate or police chief. People said that Nakamura, the Japanese
man who ran the village brewery, frequently accompanied them.
Pak Ho-nam slept with his shotgun by his pillow. In part,
he did it to protect himself from attacks from outside, but he was also
afraid of his stepsons, Ssang-do and Ssang-gyun. He sensed a murderous
glint in the elder boy's eyes. Ssang-do had never called him Father. Ho-nam
often dreamt that his two stepsons were strangling him.
Ultimately he died at Ssang-do's hand. Thanks to his
stepfather, Ssang-do had escaped the draft, but he had secretly organized
the local Patricide Society along with several other young men who shared
his beliefs. Pak Tal-ho, Chu-ch'ol's father had also died because of the
Society. Everyone who had been appointed local magistrate, head of the
Fishery Cooperative or county clerk on the strength of Pak Ho-nam's influence
was purged when the communists took over during the Yosu Rebellion and
the Korean War. Chu-ch'ol's father had followed in the footsteps of his
father and grandfather to become head of the Fisheries Cooperative and
later had little trouble entering the local government as senior commercial
Perhaps his own son's radicalism was rooted in those
events, Chu-ch'ol thought as he slid into another snowy hole.
Chu-ch'ol's father began buying up land when he was head
of the Fisheries Cooperative and clerk at the sub-county office. On a small
island where arable land was scarce, an acre or two of paddy and a half-dozen
acres of dry fields were impressive holdings. Ho-nam trusted his nephew
Tal-ho. He called him the "heart" of the Pak clan and bragged about how
Tal-ho would succeed him. Ho-nam was secretly planning to make his nephew
local magistrate. He paid off the county magistrate and governor from the
rents he had gathered for the temple.
"I'm too ignorant to be magistrate, so you've got to
do it for me. I'll do everything I can to help you get the job. It's about
time we had a great man in the family." Ho-nam called Tal-ho to his house
to encourage him. He assumed that all power in the township would fall
into his hands once his nephew was named local magistrate. "Small trees
may not thrive under a mighty oak, but under a great man, little people
grow like bamboo shoots. If you become a great man, you can help your cousins."
The close relationship between Ho-nam and his nephew
naturally alienated his stepsons and made them even more radical. Rumor
had it the twins' father had drowned in the sluiceway at the local saltflats,
a victim of Ho-nam's intrigue. The police said several suspects had been
questioned and set free. They all had airtight alibis, and the police had
no evidence to speak of. The case of An Chong-su's death was never solved.
Among the suspects were Pak Ho-nam and three men employed at his saltworks.
Pak Ho-nam and An Chong-su had been fighting over the
rights to manage the property held by Sea Cloud Temple. As they grew older,
the twins came to suspect that Pak was responsible for their father's death
and despised him for it.
People said Ssang-do killed Pak Ho-nam.
Ch'u Ch'ang-dong, a young man from Temple Hollow, and
Pae Il-do, from nearby Ox Mountain, had volunteered to serve in the 14th
Regiment stationed at Yosu. When they saw how easily the rebelling forces
advanced through Kwangyang and Posong, they were thrilled and rushed home,
confident that they could liberate their villages with the same ease.
After a night's journey they arrived at Temple Hollow
and went straight to the twins. The four young men did not bother to contact
the chairman of the local People's Committee; they killed Ho-nam as he
slept, set the temple on fire, then attacked the local police box. The
policemen were terrified and the police box fell with just two gunshots.
Pak Ho-nam died of stab wounds. While Ssang-gyun and
Pae Il-do searched the living quarters and backyard, Ch'u Ch'ang-dong and
Ssang-do crept inside without so much as a creak of the door. They had
decided against a gun for fear the shot would spoil the rest of their plan.
Ssang-do stabbed his stepfather through the heart with Ch'ang-dong's military
Miraculously, Chu-ch'ol's father escaped with his life.
He had a dream that night. His father appeared, dressed in a long white
coat. The old man told him to run and hide. Already suspicious of the twins,
Tal-ho leapt from his bed and ran to hide in the bamboo grove behind his
house. After a few moments, just long enough to smoke a single cigarette,
he heard a dog barking, and through the trees, he saw a pair of black shadows
climbing over the wall. Flashlights pierced the darkness as they tramped
through the house banging doors. Tal-ho could hear his wife and children
When the guerrilla suppression forces retook the village,
Tal-ho made a point of assisting the families of the twins and their two
associates. He helped the young men who had participated in the rebellion
get into the local Youth Association and tried to play down their actions.
Tal-ho knew it wasn't over yet, and he wanted to earn the affections of
as many people as he could while he was head of the Youth Association.
Pae Il-do and Ssang-gyun were working as farmhands in
Yong-am. Tal-ho made them return to the village and surrender, and whenever
Ch'u Ch'ang-dong's father or the twins' mother were taken to the police
box, he coaxed the police chief into releasing them. Of course, they paid
a good share of the bribes themselves by selling off land and livestock,
but Tal-ho's contribution was significant.
Confident in the power of these good deeds, Tal-ho didn't
bother fleeing when the communists came into power. Pae Il-do and Ssang-gyun
began working at the Security Bureau and did their best to protect him,
both covertly and overtly. During the early days of communist rule, this
worked, but in the end it wasn't enough.
Ssang-do and Ch'u Ch'ang-dong, who had been hiding in
a nearby cave like beasts in hibernation, returned to the village. They
weren't going to let Tal-ho get away.
Toward the end of the communist regime, he died of complications
from the beating he received after the People's Tribunal.
"I'm proud to be the grandson of a Japanese sympathizer
and reactionary element," Yun-gil had once told his father. "It gives me
strength to carry on the fight."
Chu-ch'ol was especially horrified by his son's sympathy
for the Patricide Society. "I'm sorry, Father, but it sounds like a good
idea to me. I've been thinking about what role the Society would play today.
Of course, we couldn't actually kill anyone. We have to overcome our fathers
with a kind of spiritual, ideological, historical and philosophical patricide."
It was snowing still. The thick, fluffy flakes thinned
the darkness but Chu-ch'ol could not see. He flailed his arms like a pinwheel.
The branches of bush clover, chestnut and oak trees scratched his face
After climbing some distance up Sunrise Peak, he glimpsed
a light flickering through a pine grove ahead. It must be the temple, he
thought. He should have been glad, but he felt weak. His life seemed as
treacherous as the snowy path he was climbing. The fateful ups and downs
of three generations-his father, himself, and his son-it all seemed so
pitiful, so sad.
What was happening at the temple? His impatience caused
him to slip even more.
Chu-ch'ol paused at the end of the temple living quarters.
It looked like an enormous ship. At the bow, on the northeast end, was
a kitchen, followed by five rooms, all in a row. There were two lights,
one in the room next to the kitchen and the other in the last room, in
what would be the ship's stern. The lights faintly illuminated the courtyard,
but the belfry at the far end of the courtyard was enveloped in darkness.
The bell was gone. Chu-ch'ol recalled what the men at the store had said.
"Looks like they couldn't get here 'cause of the snow,
eh?" "Assholes! Why they makin' a fuss now? The bell's been gone for months."
The living quarters were silent. Somewhere in the darkness
a branch snapped under the weight of the snow. From one of the rooms came
the sound of even breathing. It joined the rustle of the snow and brushed
over him. Where were Uncle Tal-gyun and Chu-on? Were they here or had they
managed to kill each other on the way up the hill? And where was Yun-gil?
Chu-ch'ol cleared his throat, then lifted a snowy foot
and thumped it on the stepping stone beneath the front porch. The second
door creaked open.
"Who is it?" scratched the voice of an old woman. The
pungent odor of feces and rotting flesh drifted from the room. She looked
like a ghost in the dim light filtering from the next room. Her hair was
as white and tangled as leeks, her face wrinkled, her cheeks hollow. She
leaned an ear toward him. Though nearly deaf, she wanted to hear what the
stranger had to say.
It was the Widow Chong, Pak Ho-nam's concubine and mother
of Ssang-do and Ssang-gyun.
Recalling her beauty in middle age, Chu-ch'ol stepped
closer. "It's me, Chu-ch'ol," he said. His voice carried over the snow-covered
"Who? Ssang-do?" she asked, turning her ear to him once
more. Her voice whistled like wind from a pair of bellows.
The door to the room next to the kitchen burst open and
Tal-gyun stepped onto the porch.
"How did you get through all this snow? Come on in. Are
you all right?"
Tal-gyun sounded like he was trying, unsuccessfully,
to hide his anger. As he showed Chu-ch'ol into the room, the old woman's
door creaked shut. Chu-ch'ol looked up to see a younger woman standing
with her back to the old woman's door. She was staring at him. It was Tal-gyun's
wife. How had she managed to get the old woman back inside so quickly?
"It's cold. Quick, come on in," Tal-gyun urged. The two
men used the respectful form of speech for the uncle was younger than the
nephew. Chu-ch'ol struggled to move his feet. His legs were shaking.
"You could have waited till daylight but I know... Son
of a bitch... What's he tryin' to do anyway? I can't stand this. I'm gonna
have it out with him tonight, whether it kills one of us or not," Tal-gyun
growled as he watched Chu-ch'ol clamber onto the porch.
Chu-ch'ol took off his wet socks, rubbed his feet with
a rag and stepped across the room to sit on the warmest part of the floor
as Tal-gyun directed. Chu-on stood just inside the door, looking down at
him. He seemed uneasy, as if he had done something wrong, yet his cheeks
and lips puffed out in a dissatisfied expression. Chu-ch'ol looked up and,
in an indifferent tone, told him to sit.
"I'm glad you're here," Chu-on said, sitting down. "Now
I can tell you how I really feel."
Chu-ch'ol tucked his hands under his buttocks and looked
around the room. A latticed window opened onto the backyard, and on the
wall next to it hung a woman's skirt and sweater. A child's ragged corduroy
jacket, a few pieces of underwear and some socks were scattered across
the floor. Next to them lay a dark red blanket and a crumpled quilt with
cotton batting poking through the seams. Two grimy pillows lay on top of
the blanket. In the corner next to the door was a flat bush clover basket
filled with boiled sweet potatoes. Brownish sweet potato skins and a few
half-eaten pieces sat along the edge of the basket.
Chu-ch'ol dropped his head. He remembered the taste of
the boiled sweet potatoes he ate on winter nights as a child. Tal-gyun's
wife and children must have been banished to the old woman's room when
Chu-on and Tal-gyun arrived. Where was Yun-gil? Was he down at the stern
of this unwieldy ship? Why wasn't he in here? Was Chu-on going to arrest
him tomorrow? Would he really do it, just to fulfill his duty? And would
Yun-gil follow him obediently to Seoul or would he run off? And what about
Tal-gyun? Would he just sit by and watch? What am I supposed to do? Chu-ch'ol
thought. Aren't I supposed to punch Chu-on out and rave at his cruelty?
"Your clothes are all wet and we ain't got nothin' for
you to wear! At least the room's warm ... don't have no decent blankets."
Tal-gyun bit his lip at his ineffectualness.
Chu-on sat with his head bowed and hands tucked between
his thighs, waiting for a chance to speak. When Chu-ch'ol took out a cigarette
and brought it to his lips, Chu-on flicked open his lighter and extended
it in Chu-ch'ol's direction. Tal-gyun reached for a sooty tin can and placed
it in front of Chu-ch'ol. The door opened quietly and a woman's face appeared.
She looked from face to face, without the slightest embarrassment or shyness.
Her eyes lingered on Chu-ch'ol, crinkling in a smile. The woman reminded
him of the Hahoe bride's mask, with her half-moon eyes, long face, and
guileless, yet wanton smile.
"Get to bed, woman! What are you hangin' round here for?"
She smiled nervously, seemingly intimidated by her husband's
tone. "Me? I figured our guests were hungry so I thought I'd make some
supper and heat the room a bit." The sluggish drawl and pouting lips suited
her shiny face and neck.
"We don't need any food. Shut the door and go to bed!"
Tal-gyun clattered, his eyes seething with anger. The woman ignored him
and stood at the door, glancing back and forth between Chu-ch'ol and Chu-on.
Tal-gyun jumped to his feet to push her out and slam the door. Chu-ch'ol
was embarrassed, but Tal-gyun smiled awkwardly. "Her problem's she likes
people too much. She's always tryin' to help out, even when I haven't asked
The room was still except for the sound of Chu-ch'ol
exhaling from his cigarette. Dishes rattled in the kitchen. A branch snapped
nearby. The three men sat in silence. Then Chu-on spoke.
"Excuse me, but I'd like to have a smoke."
Chu-ch'ol pushed his cigarettes in Chu-on's direction,
but Chu-on pulled a pack from his pocket. Tal-gyun lit up as well. A door
opened and shut at the other end of the building, then they heard a man's
gravelly cough. A pair of rubber shoes shuffled toward their door.
As he drew on his cigarette, Chu-ch'ol had an eery feeling:
Who was that coughing? Something told him it wasn't Yun-gil. Was there
another man here?
The door opened and Tal-gyun's wife poked her head in.
A cold wind rushed through the door. Chu-ch'ol had grown accustomed to
the warm room. Tal-gyun glared at his wife.
"I told you to get your ass into Mother's room and go
to sleep. Why do you keep stickin' your nose in here?"
The woman ignored him and stepped inside. She crossed
the room, placed an earthenware bowl in front of Chu-ch'ol, then sat down,
her legs folded neatly to the side, and looked at him. "Our tongch'imi
is famous," she beamed brightly. "We ain't got nothing but boiled sweet
potatoes, so if you get hungry, have a sweet potato and drink some of this
tongch'imi stock. It'll make the sweet potatoes go down better."
When she smiled, her thick lips pulled back to reveal
gums that were tinged pale green. She kept smiling and her eyes traveled
slowly back and forth, the whites showing around her irises. It wasn't
out of friendliness, Chu-ch'ol thought. Either she was a bit off in the
head or she was a nymphomaniac who went after every strange man she met.
The woman gazed shyly at him and swallowed several times. Her breathing
"All right, you've brought the tongch'imi, now off to
Tal-gyun gave his wife a poke and she left without protest.
Then an old man's face appeared at the door. Chu-ch'ol felt goose bumps
forming all over his body. Tal-gyun turned away as soon as he saw the old
man and began puffing furiously on his cigarette. Chu-ch'ol and Chu-on
stared at the stranger in mute bewilderment. He glanced from face to face,
then tottered inside.
Chu-ch'ol gave Tal-gyun an inquiring look, but Tal-gyun
was staring at the ceiling. Chu-ch'ol had no choice but to face the old
man, who by then had collapsed with his back to the door.
"I'm afraid I don't know you, but please come over here
and sit on the warm spot," Chu-ch'ol offered. The old man shook his head
in irritation and looked across at him. Chu-ch'ol smelled death on the
man. Suppressing a shudder, he studied the man's face. Who is he? A face
leaped from the depths of his memory. Yes, it was Ssang-do, the chief of
the commando unit during the communists' rule. The one who carried two
swords. No, it was Ssang-gyun. A stabbing pain pierced Chu-ch'ol heart
like slivers of ice.
"You're Uncle Ssang-gyun, aren't you?" he asked hesitantly.
He did not know how to act. He hadn't seen the man for decades. His father
had treated Ssang-gyun and his brother well but they had repaid him with
death. Actually, Ssang-gyun had gone to the Security Bureau several times
to see if he could help; Ssang-do was the one who had taken Father in.
Later, he went to hide on Chiri Mountain, and ultimately fled to North
Korea. No one knew what happened to him after that.
Chu-ch'ol stood and bowed deeply to the old man. Ssang-gyun
took Chu-ch'ol's hands. His eyes filled with tears, his lips and cheeks
trembled slightly. The old man looked like a corpse; his hair and eyebrows
were half-white. His cheekbones stuck out, and his cheeks and eyes were
hollow. His neck was no thicker than Chu-ch'ol's wrist, and his skin was
the color of dust. Chu-ch'ol looked down at the old man's hands. They looked
like gnarled rakes, as if they had been covered in artificial leather to
hold the bones together.
"Imagine seeing you before I die! The spirits must be
watching over me," Ssang-gyun labored to move his lips and tongue, forcing
the words out in a metallic whisper. His vocal chords were swollen. He
stretched his neck, as if trying to swallow. Gasping for air, he shook
Chu-ch'ol's hands. The passing years have filtered out much of the pain
and sorrow that had sliced at his bones and melted his skin, Chu-ch'ol
thought. I mustn't curse these people.
"Chu-on, get down and bow. It's Uncle Ssang-gyun. You
must have heard of him. He's the second son of this household." Chu-ch'ol
then turned to Ssang-gyun. "This is Uncle Kae-dong's son. You know, Uncle
Kae-dong, the one who used to work at the family saltworks."
Ssang-gyun shifted to face Chu-on who rose awkwardly
and made a deep bow. Ssang-gyun took Chu-on's hands as he had Chu-ch'ol's
and gathered breath to speak.
"So Dog Shit's son's all grown up! That old Dog Shit...
Do you realize how he used to look up to me? He was always calling me his
Chu-on's face hardened at Ssang-gyun's use of his father's
childhood name. Kindling snapped in the kitchen and an acrid smoke seeped
through a crack in the door. Tal-gyun's wife was stoking the fire that
heated the ondol floor.
"Your father's in paradise now, Chu-ch'ol. He did a lot
of fine things when he was alive. I owe him my life! I tried to get them
to take his name off the reactionary list, but they had me outnumbered..."
Ssang-gyun's metallic rasp grated Chu-ch'ol's nerves
like the scratch of a needle. Tal-gyun snuffed his cigarette out in the
tin can and turned to Ssang-gyun. "Just shut up and get out of here. We
have somethin' we need to discuss among ourselves."
"And why should I leave?" Ssang-gyun said with a scowl.
There was a mesmerizing light in his eyes. "I've got a few things to say
myself. I know they came here 'cause of Yun-gil. He's my relative too,
"Keep your nose out of it. Why don't you just try to
live the rest of your life in peace and repent all the terrible things
you've done? You should be spendin' your final days chantin' 'Om Namo Amitabhaya
Buddhaya.'" Tal-gyun snapped.
Ssang-gyun stared at Tal-gyun, gasping for breath.
"How many people have you killed anyway?" Tal-gyun continued.
"You lived by the mercy of this world and now it's time you bent in silence
and humbled yourself. How many dogs have you beat to death? That's a violation
of the Buddhist law against killin', ain't it? If you want to escape the
knife mountains and burnin' hell, you'd better chant till you take your
last breath! Now get the hell out of here!"
Ssang-gyun seemed mystified. His lips and cheeks quivered
as he struggled to speak.
"Can you really avoid hell by chanting?"
"That's what Mother says, and she's goin' on one-hundred!"
Ssang-gyun closed his eyes and lowered his head. Suddenly
the door burst open and a young face with shaggy hair and a sprinkle of
black stubble appeared. All eyes flew to the door. It was Yun-gil. He was
dressed in a dark brown corduroy jacket with a fur-trimmed hood and a pair
of baggy black pants.
"So you've come," he remarked sullenly, without so much
as a bow to his father, then sat cross-legged by the window overlooking
the backyard. Avoiding their eyes, he stared at a point over the door where
Ssang-gyun sat. After a few moments, he reached for the bowl of tongch'imi
and took a sip, then picked up a sweet potato and began to eat.
"I told you to stay put. Why'd you have to come in here?"
Yun-gil swallowed. "Just wanted to make my own case,"
he answered curtly.
Chu-on straightened up and looked at Yun-gil. "Thanks.
I came here to see you. I've got to talk to you. I don't care if it takes
"Ha," snorted Tal-gyun. Frowning deeply, Chu-on took
out another cigarette and lit it, this time without asking the older men's
"Don't you even think of draggin' Yun-gil to Seoul in
handcuffs!" Tal-gyun warned, then he turned to Yun-gil. "He's no relative.
He's a cop. He's got a pistol and he's goin' to take you in. I heard he
gets one million won and a promotion if he does."
Ssang-gyun's eyes flew to Chu-on's face. Yun-gil snorted
as he munched on the sweet potato. "What's wrong with getting arrested
if it helps Uncle Chu-on get a promotion?"
Chu-on tossed his head back and laughed. Chu-ch'ol snuffed
out his cigarette and straightened up. The back of his neck felt tight,
his chest full, his head heavy. He felt completely helpless. He simply
wanted to lie down on the floor, to forget everything and sleep.
"You've got me all wrong!" Chu-on said, turning to Tal-gyun.
"I'm telling you: I didn't come for Yun-gil. I came for Chu-man's funeral.
I just wanted to talk to Yun-gil as long as I was here."
"All right. Let's say you're tellin' the truth. You've
seen him, so now what are you gonna do? Are you gonna let him go or are
you gonna tell your buddies to come get him?" Tal-gyun was insistent.
Chu-on was equally determined. "That's none of your business.
I'll do as I like."
"Fine. Just remember this. You're in the middle of the
mountains here. The law's a long way off and the fists are right here.
You'd better watch out or you won't get out of here in one piece. Look
at my leg! Do you know how it got this way?" Tal-gyun spat out the words,
then clamped his mouth shut in a stubborn scowl.
"Why are you getting so worked up? Give him a chance
to say something!" Ssang-gyun rasped. He then turned to Chu-on. "You should
try to pay back the kindness your father got when he came to the Pak clan.
He found a job, thanks to them, and got married and was able to raise you
to what you are today."
No one appreciated Ssang-gyun's comment. Chu-on glowered,
stubborn as a mule, and Tal-gyun nudged Ssang-gyun in the shoulder, pushing
him toward the door.
"Brother, why don't you keep your nose out of our business?
You've got enough problems! Just take it easy and try not to make life
difficult for Mother. She's already got one foot in the grave. What did
she ever do to you? How come you're always bickerin' with her?"
Ssang-gyun did not answer. He simply struggled for breath.
Chu-on snubbed out his half-smoked cigarette and turned to Ssang-gyun.
"Kindness, what kindness did my father ever get from them? Don't you ever
mention my father again! And quit calling him Dog Shit!" Chu-on grabbed
the bowl of tongch'imi and took several gulps of the tangy stock. "To tell
you the truth, I can't remember how many times I wanted to kill my father.
Do you know why? I'll bet Uncle Ssang-gyun knows. My father was the most
pathetic man to walk the face of this earth. He was a fucking piece of
dog shit! You know why? Yun-gil's right here, but all these rich assholes
who run around saying they're part of the people's movement when they've
never had a single hungry day in their lives... they are no better than
my dick as far as I'm concerned. And now that I've brought it up... Yun-gil,
we've got things discuss tonight."
The sound of kindling snapping and fire crackling in
the firehole continued. The acrid smell of smoke filled the room. Chu-on
was seething; his face was flushed and his nostrils distended. Yun-gil
munched on the sweet potatoes as he listened. From time to time he took
a sip of the tongch'imi stock. Ssang-gyun must have decided it was going
to be a long night for he had crawled next to Chu-ch'ol and stretched out
on the floor.
"Brother, go lie down in your own room!" shouted Tal-gyun.
Ssang-gyun ignored him and closed his eyes. Tal-gyun poked the older man
in the side and jerked on his arm, but Ssang-gyun was immovable. Tal-gyun
hurled the immobile arm to the floor.
Chu-ch'ol thought of a large ship as he listened to Chu-on.
Buried in that blizzard, the temple living quarters were like a ship, slowly
moving out to sea. I must be patient, he thought, settling back on the
"Damn it! I may be the runt of a dog-shit beggar but
I've got literary talent. I could be a first-rate writer if I put my mind
So began Chu-on's story.
Chu-on's memories of his father began with the moaning
of reeds in late autumn, with waves roaring like a herd of wild beasts,
with the milky fog that lapped over the village like a living, breathing
thing. Father's hair was always as coarse and unkempt as the reeds in the
mudflats along the shore. One of his eyes was cloudy, like the muddy sea
peeking through a break in the fog. It was not uncommon for the men of
the village to beat him like he was a dog headed for a mid-summer's stew,
and for Kae-dong to writhe, worm-like, on the ground when they finished
"Those fucking bastards," Chu-on hissed whenever he thought
Chu-on didn't know his mother. He dimly remembered gazing
at the reeds and mudflats and sandy beach as he sat in his father's fish
basket or rode back and forth on his father's back, steeped in the sour
scent of his sweat. He often felt dizzy as he bounced along on his father's
back, watching the sea roll in like a herd of bulls.
Sometimes he woke to find himself riding through the
reeds. The white blossoms giggled, nodding their heads in the sunlight.
Bundled in a thickly padded coat, he gazed into the air; the blue sky and
white clouds swayed overhead, the lapping of the waves against the stern
of the boat and the faint whisper of the sea intoxicated him. The smell
of the tideflats was always with him.
Later, when he began to understand words, his father
told him the sad tale of a man who raised his son without a mother. Drunk
and sobbing, Kae-dong told the same stories over and over again: how he
chewed barley to make a milky solution to feed the baby, how he begged
the village women to share their milk, how he carried his son everywhere
in a fish basket, how the baby fell asleep sucking his father's tongue
like a nipple. Chu-on felt like he remembered it all.
He also remembered all of Kae-dong's own experiences
for his drunken father had tearfully recounted each one, from his earliest
Kae-dong grew up in the house of the Moon Cake Shaman
in Changsan. His mother left him there and never returned. His father had
been tortured to death by the Japanese security police. It was a cruel
legacy for a small boy. Kae-dong's grandfather had died fighting in the
Tonghak Rebellion of 1894. His grandmother had put out the boy's eye on
purpose. She did not want him to go out and become a leader of men.
He was named Kae-ddong, "Dog Shit." His family had given
him a humble name to protect him from jealous spirits.
He grew up with Knothead, the crippled son of the Moon
Cake Shaman. Kae-dong only had one good eye but he could play the flute
and the hourglass drum, gong and round drum more deftly than Knothead.
He could make paper ceremonial flowers without assistance, recite all the
words to the shaman's rites, and he danced well too. He learned the Ten
Thousand Characters from old Mr. No, Knothead's father, a shaman himself,
and could recite them backwards and forward. He also knew his figures without
the help of counting sticks. He and Knothead studied side by side, but
he was soon playing the role of teacher. From age of fifteen, he followed
the shaman to larger rites and filled in when necessary. He understood
immediately what needed to be done. He was a gong player when there was
none. He was the flute player when no one else could, and he played the
two-string fiddle when needed, too. He drank himself silly and, between
rites, sang to the beat of the hourglass drum. People looked down on male
shamans, but Kae-dong led an exciting life. And at big rites, he invariably
ran into Pyol-sun, daughter of the shaman from Wolp'yong, who always threw
him a shy yet meaningful glance. On his way home he looked forward to the
next rite in hopes of meeting her again.
If Kae-dong had continued to work as a shaman, Pyol-sun
might have been Chu-on's mother, but one day a farmhand from Pak Yong-nam's
house came for him. He followed the man back to New Town where he was forced
to kneel on the front steps and listen to a lecture from Yong-nam.
"You stupid fool! You've got Pak blood in your veins.
You can't go around playing shaman with those crazy folks from Spirit Hollow!
You quit this very minute and come work for us. If you keep playing around
with that hocus-pocus, I'll poke out your good eye and break both your
From that day forward, Kae-dong lived in a straw hut
by the saltworks.
One winter morning he found the body of a young woman
on the edge of the flats. Passing fishermen and salt merchants spat on
the body as they headed toward the pier. Some clucked in disgust. "What
a terrible sight!" one man said. "If you're not gonna bury her, at least
cover her with a straw mat or something!" Kae-dong found a mat to cover
the body. Her skirt and blouse were ripped open by the waves, her hair
was snarled like a tangled skein of hemp. He could see her pubic hair and
navel, the plump mounds of her breasts and the round nipples. The body
was swollen. She looked like a fat woman. No one claimed the body, and
after two days Pak Yong-nam came out and ordered Kae-dong to bury it on
the sandy hill above the saltflats.
Kae-dong wrapped the corpse in the straw mat and carried
it up the hill. He dug a hole in the sand, spread the mat inside, and laid
the body on top of it. He tore what was left of her tattered clothes to
cover her breasts, pubic hair, navel and face, then folded the mat over
her. A vision of the corpse opening its eyes and rising from the grave
passed before his eyes and he hurried to shovel sand over the grave. Kae-dong
met several women after that. Perhaps it was because of her ghost.
Chong-wol was the first. She was the kitchen maid at
Pak Yong-nam's house. It was her job to bring Kae-dong's meals to the saltworks
twice a day. Every morning she came, balancing a basket with his breakfast
and lunch on her head, and in the evening she returned with supper and
carried the empty dishes back again. At first she did not like Kae-dong
because of his eye. Still, she was painfully shy with him. While he ate,
she squatted in front of the hut, rolling the hem of her skirt as she gazed
out at Black Island. People said the densely forested island was haunted.
The Moon Cake Shaman went there to prepare for special rites. Whenever
someone had a new boat built or the fishing boats were heading out to sea,
the boat owners commissioned a rite from the shaman. And twice a year,
before the first and eighth full moons, she went to the island to prepare
for the village tutelary rites. Sometimes families hired her to conduct
three-day services to the spirits in hopes of protecting family members
or curing illnesses. Some rites lasted ten days. Kae-dong had been to the
island several times with the Moon Cake Shaman.
"Wanna watch her perform a rite sometime? Unclean women
ain't supposed to go, you know." Kae-dong often teased her as he handed
her the empty food basket. Chong-wol smiled bashfully and ran off, skirts
One day he heard Chong-wol was being forced into the
Japanese Comfort Women Corps. Man-su, who worked at the saltworks with
Kae-dong, said it was too bad, because she could avoid that fate if only
she had someone to marry her.
"I hear they're gonna ship'em out by boat. All you have
to do is go up to the officer and tell him you two are engaged. What do
you got to lose? Tell'em you already did it and she might be in a family
Early the next morning five girls, one from each of the
nearby villages, were marched past the saltflats, accompanied by their
respective village heads, and a policeman with a sword hanging from his
belt. Kae-dong approached Pak Tal-ho, the head of his village.
"Chong-wol and me... She... she might as well be my wife,"
Tal-ho, the son of Pak Yong-nam, seemed confused for
a moment, then he shook his head. "That policeman's not going to believe
Kae-dong went to the policeman and repeated what he had
said to Tal-ho. The policeman was Korean. His face flushed, then he began
to bellow. "You idiot! Throwing salt on this sacred mission! I ought to
kill you!" He slapped Kae-dong across the face and beat him with his sheathed
sword. When Kae-dong dropped to his knees, the man booted him in the head.
When he collapsed on his side, the policeman kicked him in the ribs. Kae-dong
was still writhing in the sand as the policeman loaded the young women
onto a boat and left.
Later Kae-dong learned that Tal-ho could have made the
policeman leave Chong-wol behind, but he had his own reason for volunteering
the family kitchen maid for service in the Comfort Women Corps: his father
had been sleeping with the girl for some time. Tal-ho was afraid word would
get out and had taken this opportunity to banish her from the village.
Man-su had seen Chong-wol being loaded onto the boat.
"She kept wiping her eyes and looking back at you lyin'
there in the sand."
Times were hard. Young men were conscripted into the
Japanese military and labor camps, and the colonial authorities demanded
regular quotas of brass, sappy pine, grain and cotton seedlings. Kae-dong
did not have to worry about being drafted. Shit, he thought, I wish I could
go. He envied the young men going off to war, surrounded by well-wishers,
dashing heroes in their blood-red headbands and sashes emblazoned with
the words "Victory in Battle!" But what could he do with only one eye?
He just carried load after load of grain and sappy pine and cotton seedlings
to the dock at Hoeryong.
After liberation, Ssang-do came to Kae-dong's hut and
asked him to do some errands. "When the good times come, I'll make sure
you get the saltworks," he promised, grasping Kae-dong's hand. "But don't
tell anybody I was here, no matter what. You and me-we got nothing. Our
fathers left this world bitter men. One slip of the tongue and the good
times'll never come."
It was Kae-dong's job to go from village to village,
summoning Tok-ch'il, Tong-man, Song-gon and Pu-ch'il to secret meetings.
Ssang-gyun and Pu-ch'il came to the saltworks to paint slogans on pasteboard
signs. Long Live Field Marshal Kim Il Sung! Punish Japanese Collaborators
and Evil Landlords! Long Live the People's Republic! Down with American
Imperialism! Under the cover of darkness, Kae-dong posted the signs around
the village, on the Spirit Tree and the walls of the mill, on the gates
facing the alleys. They buried the paintbrush, ink stone and leftover pasteboard
under a pile of straw mats in the salt warehouse.
One night the mimeograph machine was stolen from Taeri
Elementary School. Song-gon and P'an-gil, two young men from Taeri, were
responsible. After bringing it to the saltworks, they disappeared like
the wind. Kae-dong hid it among some old straw bags behind the warehouse.
Three days later Ssang-gyun and Pu-ch'il made flyers, and the following
night Kae-dong went through the village, throwing them over the walls of
rich pro-Japanese villagers' homes and pasting them on the Spirit Tree
and mill walls. The flyers demanded that the landlords and pro-Japanese
profiteers wake up and return what they and the Japanese imperialists had
Then the Yosu Rebellion broke out, Sea Cloud Temple burned
down and Pak Ho-nam was murdered. The young men connected to the murder
fled, and their underlings were arrested, to be beaten until their backsides
were bloody. Fortunately no one revealed that the saltworks was their secret
meeting place. The anti-guerilla forces streamed over the island like a
swarm of wasps, but nothing happened to the saltworks, Man-su or Kae-dong.
One afternoon in late autumn Kae-dong ran into Pyol-sun
on his way back from delivering a load of salt to the dock in Hoeryong.
To his great surprise she was dressed in a ceremonial green blouse and
red skirt. Her face was powdered, she had circles of rouge on her forehead
and cheeks, and on top of her head was a bride's crown. She was getting
married, and Knothead, the son of the Moon Cake Shaman, was to be her groom.
Shaman No, Knothead's father, was delighted to see Kae-dong
and asked him to let them use the salt skiff to cross the harbor. It seemed
the ferry was being repaired and they needed someone to carry the bride's
A northwesterly wind was roaring with the force of a
raging fire. The villagers believed that the wind god stirred the wind
to sweep away the layer of yellow sand that settled over the mountains
and sea at that time of year.
Since he had to return to the saltflats anyway, Kae-dong
rowed the bride and her guests across. His heart pounded the whole way.
If he had stayed at the shaman's house, Pyol-sun might have been his bride,
not Knothead's. He felt sad, depressed, angry. He despised Pak Yong-nam
for dragging him to that dilapidated hut by the saltworks.
Knothead and his mother were waiting at the ferry landing.
A shaman's wedding rarely had many well-wishers. Only a handful of old
women from Spirit Hollow accompanied the groom's party.
As Kae-dong touched the bow of the skiff to the broad
black rock that marked the ferry landing, waves crashed against the stern
and the skiff bobbed violently. The guests scrambled onto the rock, trembling
with fear. Soon everyone was hollering for someone to bring the bride ashore,
but no one volunteered.
"Hey, Bridegroom! Why don't you carry her over on your
back?" someone quipped. Considering Knothead's crippled leg, it was clear
they had only meant to tease him. Kae-dong stood on shore, clutching the
bow rope, but the skiff kept banging against the rock. It would splinter
apart if they waited for the bride to jump ashore herself. Pyol-sun shivered
in the stern, her face pale with fright. Kae-dong jumped into the skiff
and swept the bride into his arms. As he leapt back to shore he caught
a whiff of the camellia oil in her hair and the fresh powder that covered
her face and neck. That scent would torture him for years to come.
"Kae-dong, leave the skiff here and help carry the bride's
palanquin. We found someone to lend us a palanquin but there's no one to
carry it," the bridegroom's father explained as Kae-dong set the bride
down on the black rock.
Kae-dong was drunk on her fragrance. Unable to tell them
he needed to get back to the saltflats, he consented.
He threw the anchor into the waves and lifted the palanquin
to his shoulder. A bachelor still, he was setting aside his business to
carry the bridal palanquin of a shaman family everyone looked down on.
That was how he met the beggar woman. As he carried the
palanquin up the hill, a young woman, clutching a white bundle of clothes,
followed him. She picked some wild chrysanthemums and asters along the
edge of the road and stuck them in her hair and at the bodice of her dress.
When Kae-dong, dripping in sweat, finally set the palanquin down in the
shaman's yard, the beggar woman handed him a bunch of flowers. In the confusion
of the moment, he accepted it and someone called out, "Come on you two!
Why don't you get married today?"
"Yeah, why not?" laughed the others. "Looks like you
were made for each other!" Kae-dong felt the blood rushing to his face.
It was hot, as if someone had poured burning coals over him. He threw the
flowers to the ground and returned to the ferry landing. The woman followed
him at several paces. He drew in the stern line and pulled the skiff to
the rock. Just as he was about to climb in, the woman hopped past him and
settled into the seat at the bow. He ordered her out, but she just wrinkled
her nose and shrugged. He had no choice but to row back to the saltworks
When he reached the edge of the saltflats, he shooed
the woman onto the dike, anchored the skiff and went into his hut. The
woman followed him, still clutching the bundle of clothes in her arms.
The scent of Pyol-sun, now Knothead's wife, lingered in his nostrils. Her
weight and warmth remained in his arms and chest, her pale features blooming
in his mind like a magnolia.
"You miserable hag! Get out of here before I beat the
shit out of you!" Kae-dong snarled, shoving the woman away. She did not
want to leave, though, and when she turned to him, whimpering, he slapped
her on the shoulder. He struck her in the head and shoved her out the door.
She sniveled noiselessly and turned reluctantly toward the village. That
night she returned with a large bowl of rice she had gotten begging in
the village. He sent her away once more and went to Pak Yong-nam's house
for supper. Chong-wol had not returned after liberation. A widow, well
over forty, had taken her place in the Pak kitchen, but she was not as
spry as Chong-wol and never had time to deliver his meals to the saltworks.
The next morning he woke to find the beggar woman lying
beside him. He beat her once more and sent her on her way. She was clearly
half crazy. She grinned foolishly and devoured her food as if she were
starving. She followed him around like an obedient wife. When he beat her,
she shrunk back in sadness, as if her feelings were hurt. Who was this
woman? She had to be someone's daughter-in-law, someone's daughter. How
had she ended up like this?
After beating her and sending her off to the village,
Kae-dong set to work, scooping water from the saltflats, and waited for
Man-su to come with his breakfast. The woman returned with another bowl
of rice from the village. She watched him carefully as she settled down
to eat in a patch of sun by the corner of the hut. He debated whether to
beat her again, but decided to ignore her.
"Come on, Kae-dong, why don't you just shack up with
her and be done with it?" Man-su joked when he arrived. As Kae-dong wolfed
down his bowl of barley, Man-su packed his pipe with dried radish leaves.
"From what I hear, she's a real sad case. They say she's the daughter-in-law
of that Nok-dong granny across the way, but the family got wiped out in
the troubles. I know they were in cahoots with the Japs and everything,
but I feel sorry for her. She was the only one to survive. Her husband
and parents-in-law were all shot and burned."
Kae-dong looked at the woman. She wasn't bad-looking.
She wouldn't have given him a second glance if she hadn't been crazy.
"I'm serious! Why don't you sleep with her tonight? You
know, people say one night with a man can make a crazy woman snap back
Kae-dong fumed at the suggestion. Man-su looked down
on him because he had only one eye and no family.
"You sleep with her! I'll stay in the village tonight.
I'd rather slam my dick in a door than sleep with that crazy bitch!"
In the middle of the night, Kae-dong was dragged off
to the police station and beaten. They took Man-su too. Song-gon had been
implicated in the theft of the mimeograph machine, and in the process of
torturing him, the police had learned of the involvement of the saltwork
boys. Now the police wanted to know who had used the mimeograph machine.
They were trying to uproot the secret circle like a vine of sweet potatoes.
They tortured the boys with leg-screws, beat them with sticks, pinned them
to the floor and poured water spiked with red pepper powder up their noses.
Kae-dong and Man-su had to talk, but they only gave the names of men who
had already fled.
The police then told them to name anyone who had ever
visited the saltworks, for any reason. Illicit sales of salt were exposed,
and everyone who had ever stopped for a smoke or a joke on their way fishing
got a taste of the policemen's sticks. Kae-dong and Man-su were released
after three days, thanks to the good graces of Pak Tal-ho, but they couldn't
walk. Man-su's family and a servant from Tal-ho's house had to carry them
home. When Kae-dong returned to his hut on the back of Tal-ho's servant,
the beggar woman hugged him and wept.
Abandoned in his hut like an old mop, Kae-dong lay groaning
when Pak Tal-ho arrived with some medicine for the oozing sores on his
buttocks. He gave it to the woman, who squatted whimpering by the door,
then explained how to make a medicinal brew of fresh seaweed and dog droppings.
A servant brought a basket of food from the house every day, and the woman
set about gathering dog droppings. Five or six times a day she pressed
a chipped bowl of the pungent liquid upon him, and each time he would rise
on his knees like an animal and drink it. When he finished, she would giggle
with delight. She sounded like a baby in swaddling clothes, gurgling at
its mother when she clicked her tongue or nodded in fun. The woman helped
him eat and go to the outhouse, she washed his face and hands and neck
with a wet towel, and was always careful not to provoke his anger.
When the wounds healed and the pain began to recede,
Kae-dong went back to work at the saltworks, scooping water from the flats,
sweeping salt into piles, and carrying heavy bags. The night after his
first day back at work, he slept with the woman. It was his first time
and she clutched his shoulders and wept from start to finish.
The next day the woman went begging to the village and
returned with enough rice for two people. She asked him to eat with her
since the servant from Pak's house was late that day.
The rumor spread through the village.
The beggar woman went from house to house asking for
food. "Can I please have another spoonful?" she pleaded. "I'm gonna share
it with my husband. And how about a little more kimchi?"
"Who is your husband?" the village women asked. "Dog
Shit," she replied with a shy smile.
Sometimes the village women were naughty. "What do you
do with your husband at night?" they asked. "Which part does he like best?"
The beggar woman answered frankly. She even lifted her
skirt to reveal her white belly and proclaim, "I've got a baby."
She really was pregnant. Kae-dong had to act the part
of her husband. He started by preventing her from going to the village
to beg. He shared the food from Pak's house or smuggled a bowl of rice
after eating in the village. It didn't work as he planned, though. As her
stomach grew, she wanted more: meat and eggplant, cucumbers, melons and
persimmons. If she heard someone was making red bean porridge, she went
to ask for a bowl. When a family was holding ancestral rituals, she begged
for rice cakes, and if a household was hiring temporary farmhands, she
asked for a bite of the sour watercress they served with the workers' lunch.
She would have eaten even more, like a pig with its snout to the ground,
if people had not teased her. "Your baby'll die if you eat that," they
said, and she spat out whatever was in her mouth. She even tried to make
herself vomit. The kids enjoyed watching her and often gave her a piece
of rice cake or sweet potato, only to tell her they had put rat poison
in it just as she was about to finish. She clenched her teeth and rolled
her eyes and shook her fist as if she were going to beat the teasing brats
to death, then she stuck her finger down her throat and vomited.
In early spring, the year the Korean War broke out, the
woman gave birth on a straw mat laid on the floor of the hut. She lost
consciousness for a while, and when she awoke, she seemed quite normal.
She clutched the bloody bundle of a baby in her skirts and wept with uncontrollable
sorrow. When Kae-dong asked her to eat the seaweed soup he had made in
a pot hanging over a fire at the opening to the hut, she startled awake
and began grinning like a crazy person again.
She slipped back and forth between reason and madness
after that. When she was feeling normal, she clutched the baby to her breast
and cried. Then she shuddered and started to grin as if she had never been
Man-su's wife brought an old baby blanket and rags to
use as diapers, and Pak Tal-ho sent some baby clothes his wife had packed
away. The beggar woman wandered through the village with the baby on her
back. She flitted over the hills, across the fields, in and out of the
alleys like a butterfly.
My baby, what a baby, kanggang sullaeyeee.
My baby, a diamond plucked from the sky, kanggang sullaeyeee.
My baby's a divine peach, kanggang sullaeyeee.
Like the sun, like the moon, kanggang sullaeyeee.
His eyes are bright stars, kanggang sullaeyeee.
His mouth is a red cherry, kanggang sullaeyeee.
The song never left her lips.
"Oh, what a pretty baby!"
"Kae-ddong sure has a fine son!"
"His face is as bright as a full moon!"
The village women heaped their praises on the child whenever
they ran into her on their way to the well or in the alleys around the
village. And each time, she shifted the child from her back to look at
him, as if to confirm what they said. She remembered the women who praised
her child and later offered them the rice cakes, sweet potatoes and persimmons
she collected on her rounds through the village. Sometimes she would even
sneak some salt from the saltworks and give it to the women.
There was a long dry spell that year, and the saltworks
were particularly busy. One day in early summer she lay the baby down in
the hut, made a torch of an old straw mat, and began igniting fires in
the corners of the hut. The storage building next door, where dried fish
and anchovies were kept, was infested with mice, and their lice had invaded
the hut. The baby was covered with red bites that were fast developing
into oozing sores. He cried constantly. After getting the fretful child
to sleep, she decided to get rid of the lice once and for all.
She was thrilled to think she could burn the villains
that had been torturing her son. The walls of the hut were covered with
clay, and the roof was made of straw thatch draped over rafters and held
down by a few thick ropes. The end of one of these ropes ignited. She didn't
realize that the fire had spread to the roof and continued touching the
torch to the walls and piles of straw bags.
"You horrible lice! Leave my baby alone!" she shouted.
The hut filled with smoke. The baby cried fitfully. Red balls of fire leapt
from the white smoke. The woman was surrounded by flames. She shrieked
and fumbled around the floor. Finding the baby, she dashed out the door.
"Oh, my poor baby! You almost got burnt! Who set our
house on fire? They deserve to die!"
Clutching the baby she ran toward the sluice gate. Her
skirt was on fire but she didn't know it. The flames gradually crept up
her body. She screamed, never thinking to extinguish them. "Why's this
fire followin' me?" she cried. "What am I gonna do with my baby! Oh my
She collapsed and rolled in a ball of fire, the bundle
in her arms still. It was not her baby, though. It was the wooden pillow
her husband used in the summertime.
Kae-dong was pedaling the water wheel, like a squirrel
on a treadmill, the sweat dripping from every pore. He had moved more than
half of the water from one flat to the next when he noticed a cloud of
milky smoke rising from the hut. A red tongue of fire lapped through the
smoke, and at the same time he heard the baby's terrified screams.
He leapt from the water wheel and ran toward the hut.
That was when the woman emerged from the smoke. Her skirt was on fire.
"You stupid woman, jump in the water," he shouted.
She did not seem to hear him. She ran around in circles,
as if she had been stung by a bee. She was holding something in her arms,
but Kae-dong could tell it wasn't the baby. It was too small. She had reached
the middle of the bank between the saltflats but he still heard the baby
shrieking from the other direction. When he reached the hut, the roof was
on fire and the baby's crying had stopped. The corner where the baby usually
slept was empty except for the thick white smoke. He groped through the
straw on the floor and found the grimy blanket. The baby was laying on
it, but he wasn't breathing. Kae-dong wrapped the lifeless body in the
blanket and rushed outside. As he stepped through the door, the roof crashed
to the ground. The flames lapped even more fiercely now. Kae-dong ran for
the bank, shaking the baby, slapping his cheeks and buttocks, sucking his
He buried the woman on the sandy hill above the saltflats
as he had done with the woman's corpse that had floated in on the tide.
He lived alone after that, raising the son he had somehow managed to revive.
The communists came into power. The People's Army arrived
in the village and everyone was ordered to assemble on the beach. Ssang-do
and Ssang-gyun were there along with Pu-ch'il, Song-gon, Tong-man and Tok-ch'il.
Pu-ch'il strapped a red arm band on Kae-dong who stood holding the baby.
Kae-dong was confused. "The saltworks are yours now," Pu-ch'il explained.
"The time has come for the propertyless masses to live with dignity. Ssang-do
and Ssang-gyun are going to head up the security bureau and local people's
committee. I'll tell them to assign the saltworks to you and Man-su."
That night, when he returned home, Kae-dong danced a
jig with the baby in his arms. If he and Man-su split the salt harvest,
he would be a rich man in no time. He could buy a house, give his son a
good education, and live like a king. Knothead had been dead for a year
by then. Now that the communists were in control, shamans were no longer
untouchable so he could take Pyol-sun as his wife. The waves splashed against
the bank in front of the saltworks. There wasn't a cloud in the sky. The
stars blinked blue, yellow and red, like tiny eyes. No, like flowers or
tiny bells. They seemed to laugh, shaking their petals and ringing in celebration
of Kae-dong's overnight success.
It turned out to be nothing more than a dream, though.
The People's Committee, Security Bureau and local party committee all took
a share of the harvest, and when the right-wing police came back into power,
Kae-dong was nearly shot for trying to take over the saltworks and diverting
profits from the sale of the salt to the communists.
The police chief jailed the communist sympathizers in
a warehouse. Rightists, who had been persecuted by the communists or who
had somehow managed to avoid the earlier purge, sat in the jury's box and
named the rebels one by one.
"What shall we do with this bastard Kim? As vice chairman
of the People's Committee, he had Hwang Sang-su murdered for reactionary
Tribunal rules allowed the suspension of executions on
the word of a single juror, but when the jurors remained silent, the police
chief nodded to the door and the accused was taken to the killing field.
Kae-dong was saved on the word of Pak Sang-ho from Shinsang. Pak said Kae-dong
had testified on Pak Tal-ho's behalf when he was brought before the People's
Tribunal and had been rebuked by an officer from the People's Security
Bureau for his loyalty. Kae-dong was thus spared, but he could not work
at the saltworks anymore. He built a shack at the entrance to the village
and eked out a living fishing from the quay, trolling with an old wreck
of a boat and helping with the farm work at Chu-ch'ol's place.
That was the end of the saltworks. The real owner was
Chu-hong, Pak Ho-nam's eldest grandson. He had been a captain in the Korean
War and made quite a name for himself, but then he was wounded during the
January 1951 retreat and discharged. He sold everything-the house, the
land and the saltworks-and left for the city. The new owner of the saltworks
rented the land out to tenant farmers.
Kae-dong lived in his shack and did odd jobs around the
village. He emptied outhouses, embalmed corpses, dug graves, gathered old
bones when a grave was moved, buried the bodies of wandering lepers that
no one else would touch, killed dogs for summer stews, and slaughtered
pigs and oxen, all with the baby on his back.
He was often the victim of terrible and undeserved beatings.
When someone snuck into a young widow's bedroom, her relatives swarmed
over Kae-dong's shack and beat him to a pulp. From that day forward, he
kept his eyes to the ground wherever he went. He feared what might happen
if he looked at a woman carrying a water buckets or fish basket through
He was nearly killed one summer three years later. Chu-on
was six at the time. The seaweed harvest had failed three years in a row,
and the villagers decided to stage an extra large Sea Spirit Ritual. The
rite was held every year on the Harvest Moon, but this year was going to
be special. They selected the widowed shaman Pyol-sun to perform the rite.
The villagers took her a large bag of rice and asked her to go to Black
Island and offer a sacrifice to the Sea Spirit.
Kae-dong couldn't sleep the first night. This was a golden
opportunity to make Pyol-sun his own. But no, he thought, shaking his head
as he rocked Chu-on in his arms. He couldn't violate a shaman while she
was offering a sacrifice. Still his heart fluttered at the thought of her
alone on the island. All he needed to do was row across. She was sure to
accept him. The scent of Pyol-sun on her wedding day stirred in his nostrils
and his nerves seemed to tingle. That night he dreamt of a woman beckoning
him into a nearby forest. She was wearing the winged robes and red skirt
of a shaman. It was the beggar woman. No, it wasn't. He looked again: It
was the corpse that had drifted into the salt flats. He took a closer look
and it was Chong-wol. No, it was Pyol-sun. He followed her. She walked
across the water to Black Island. He tried to follow her and sank. Gasping
for air, he woke.
The next night he rowed his old boat to Black Island
but was caught by a band of villagers guarding the island. He hadn't realized
that the ceremonial masters of the village rite were standing guard, lest
anyone interfere with the shaman's preparations. When the sacrifice to
the Sea Spirit was over, a village assembly was called and Kae-dong was
beaten. He told them he had gone to the island to check his nets, but it
was no use. For the rest of his life he suffered from headaches and pains
in the chest and ribs because of that beating.
Pyol-sun decided to live on Black island after the rite
was completed. She set up a tent on the southern shore. The Moon Cake Shaman,
her mother-in-law, tried to coax her back, but Pyol-sun refused. When she
wasn't offering sacrifices to the Sea Spirit, she dug clams and gathered
seaweed, which she cooked in a pot balanced between two stones. People
said she had been possessed by the Dragon King while preparing for the
rite to the Sea Spirit. The villagers sometimes took her a bag or two of
rice in hopes of a good catch.
Kae-dong went out fishing with Chu-on every night, except
in winter. He moored the boat between Naedok Island and Black Island. When
Chu-on awoke in the middle of the night, his father would be smoking in
the stern, lonely and quiet as a ghost. In the early morning, he woke to
find the boat anchored at one end of the island and his father climbing
back in, smelling of the island grass.
Kae-dong did not go near the island before the annual
sacrifice to the Sea Spirit. At those times Chu-on jerked awake at the
sound of an enormous fish and a sudden listing of the boat, only to find
his father climbing over the gunwale, panting from the long swim. Kae-dong
would collapse in the bottom of the boat and start bailing the water that
had collected while he was gone. The shaman's candle flickered on Black
Island. Kae-dong swam to meet her in order to avoid the prying eyes of
the ceremonial masters guarding the front of the island.
Pyol-sun died that winter. She had contracted bronchitis
after spending so many nights in the cold damp woods, and she was weakened
by her pregnancy.
When the villagers learned Kae-dong was responsible for
the child in her belly, they threatened to kill him for violating the sacred
island and seducing Pyol-sun. When the seaweed crop failed, they got drunk
and beat him again. He never left the village, though. After the beating
he had a few drinks and cried, little Chu-on clutched in his arms.
From time to time, Kae-dong would pause from his chores
in the village and look down at Black Island. "Listen, Chu-on," he would
say. "You've got to make somethin' of yourself. Then you buy a piece of
land overlookin' Black Island and bury me there."
It was a modest wish, and yet his longing was palpable.
Chu-on had heard the wish so many times his ears ached. His father had
repeated the words every time he had a drink.
"I came home for winter vacation my second year in middle
school and Father was drunk. He grabbed hold of me and started crying again.
As I sat there in his arms, I wished he were dead. For no reason. Well,
I pitied him, that's all. From that night forward, whenever I ran into
one of the people who had beaten him when I was little, I imagined myself
killing them. That's why I became a government spy after high school. I
wasn't going to get into a reputable university after graduating from a
high school in the boondocks. Besides, I had hardly studied. So I entered
a second-rate community college and became a spy. I bought a backpack and
books with the money they gave me. I got a fake student I.D. and started
attending K. University. I was supposed to incite demonstrations. I'd get
things started, then sneak out the back and point out the student leaders.
I'd also report when and where the next demonstration was planned. I studied
Marxism and Kim Il Sung's Juche thought, and made friends with the students.
We'd start the demonstrations together, then I'd report on them when the
time was right. I was like a vine: I was going to grow up the string that
controlled me. I wanted to become bigger and more powerful than the people
I wanted so much to kill. That's how I became what I am today."
Chu-on chain-smoked as he talked. Ssang-gyun lay on the
floor, eyes closed, silent as a dead man. Chu-ch'ol was listening, though
he had to struggle to keep from collapsing from exhaustion. Tal-gyun leaned
against the wall, his hand to his forehead. Yun-gil sat with his eyes to
the corner, chewing on a sweet potato. From time to time, the sound of
snapping kindling drifted in from the kitchen. It was still snowing. They
could hear branches breaking under the weight of the snow. Chu-on exhaled
a puff of smoke and continued.
"Actually, I'm grateful to my grandfather and father
and that beggar woman and Pyol-sun, the shaman. They're the ones who made
me what I am today. I'm grateful to the villagers who were so cruel to
my father too. They gave me a taste for blood. They're the reason I'm a
Chu-on snickered and Yun-gil chuckled along with him
as he munched a piece of radish from the tongch'imi. Tal-gyun glanced from
Chu-on to Yun-gil. They seemed to have come to some kind of understanding.
"You could say I'm from the most basic class, " Chu-on
continued. "By birth, I should be leading the people's movement. But I
wouldn't do it. I know the far left is all a sham. When I was in high school
there was a gang. The sons of the local minister and police chief and the
school principal all belonged. Whenever there was trouble, those boys were
always in the middle of it. They were the ones who stabbed boys from other
gangs, they were the ones who gang-raped girls out on dates in the park,
they were the ones who put on masks and robbed their own houses. You know
why? Because they had a complex about not belonging to the basic class.
They were afraid that they would be isolated and ignored by the other boys
if they didn't take the lead and cause trouble. Their fear made them act
even more brutally. I came up here through all this snow because I wanted
to talk to Yun-gil. Heart-to-heart. He's leaning dangerously close to left-wing
adventurism and I want to talk to him. I want us to open up and be frank
with each other."
"It looks like that complex applies to you, too, Uncle,"
Yun-gil said, taking a sip of the tongch'imi stock.
The room was too warm. The floor had gotten so hot they
could barely sit on it. Chu-on mopped his forehead with his handkerchief,
then looked down, reflecting on what Yun-gil had said. He reached for the
tongch'imi. Ssang-gyun lay in silence.
"Hey, we're burnin' up in here," Tal-gyun yelled in the
direction of the kitchen. "Stop feedin' that fire!"
The sound of the snapping kindling had stopped some time
earlier. The door opened silently and Tal-gyun's wife appeared. The woman
created a strange mood as she stood in the shadow of the paper door, beyond
the warm pool of light streaming from the room. She was outlined by the
bluish cast of the snow and looked strangely sly and seductive. She was
smiling, a shy, innocent smile that had a way of mesmerizing men. Perhaps
she cared for nothing but the sensual pleasures of men and women. Was Yun-gil
safe with her?
"Why did you stoke the fire like that? Shut the door
and get to bed! Right now!" Tal-gyun bellowed, rising to pull the door
shut. His wife seemed accustomed to such treatment for she looked deliberately
from face to face before closing the door silently. She won't sleep as
long as she hears our voices, Chu-ch'ol thought. She'll toss and turn,
her heart pounding over the smell and sound of the two strange men. She's
like an animal, he thought. A wild beast living in a pristine forest, a
red-blooded female animal.
"As far as I'm concerned," Yun-gil continued, "Uncle
Chu-on is no more than a hunting dog for the far right. No matter how well
you perform on the job, they'll always distrust you for your roots. That's
why you've taken the front line, manipulating people in the student movement
and arresting them at all costs. You don't want to be accused of favoritism
toward your family, so you've decided to go after me, to prove your loyalty.
You said you wanted to be frank. How about being frank with yourself?"
"I didn't come here to catch you. You've got to believe
that. I swear, I came for Chu-man's funeral," Chu-on said in a plaintive,
yet firm tone. "There's something I want to tell you. The democratic movement
is good in the purest sense, but you have to avoid violence. Look what
happened at the U.S. Information Service demonstration. You were there.
Why throw Molotov cocktails at a cultural center? There's no excuse for
an armed attack on innocent civilians. A man was killed and two more were
injured. They were just using the library! You can try to glorify your
anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism, but that was murder. This isn't
Iran, or the Philippines, or Japan, or France. We're a divided nation.
Ideals are fine, but wait until Korea's unified. Ask your father. He'll
agree with me, and I think Uncle Tal-gyun will too."
Chu-on did not bother to include Ssang-gyun. Yun-gil
chewed more slowly now, as if he were getting full. His lips curled into
a smirk. Chu-ch'ol rolled a cigarette back and forth between his fingers.
"Well, I'm too ignorant for any of this," Tal-gyun said
gruffly, staring at the door. "But after listenin' to Yun-gil, I can't
help thinkin' he's right. If we're gonna unify this country and live together
in a real democracy, we've got to get rid of the blue-eyed foreigners who
back the dictatorship and treat us like slaves."
Chu-on snorted in reply. "You can blame whoever you like,
but Korea isn't going to be unified. The U.S. and Japan are on this side,
and the U.S.S.R and Red China are on the other. They'll never let us unify.
What's in it for them? No, all we can do is try to prevent another war,
increase our GNP and exports, and live a good life. Look! We've built all
these factories and the whole world's in awe of our exports. What's the
point of all this talk about anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism and
unconditional unification? Do you want Vietnam-style unification, where
they throw out everyone who's got enough to eat? If the United States turns
its back on us, our factories will collapse. If they withdraw their troops
and nuclear weapons, there'll be another Korean War and the whole country
will go communist. A lot of people will die, and everyone else will have
to start over from nothing. You can't just whine about nationalism; you've
got to be realistic. As long as Korea's divided, we've got to accommodate
the Americans. That's what I wanted to discuss with Yun-gil."
"Do you know what I feel when I hear you? Despair. That's
the most serious problem facing our young people today. We have to rise
up against that despair. Uncle Chu-on, how can you be so thoroughly corrupt?
Why did they bring nuclear weapons to our country? It wasn't to protect
us. They want to use our country as a bridgehead to take over the world.
"They're always saying North Korea has more weapons than
South Korea. 'They have more soldiers. They're moving troops to the front
line. They've bought dozens of MIGs from the Soviet Union.' The American
newspapers make a big fuss, then they sell their own expensive airplanes
and rockets to our government. Soon American products will be flooding
in without tariffs and Korea will turn into another American state. Our
culture will deteriorate, and all that will be left is American culture.
Don't tell us that there'll be another Korean War and Korea will go communist
if the U.S. turns its back on us. Don't tell us that our GNP is higher
than North Korea's. The North Koreans don't want a war. It's true! They
don't live as well as us, but that's because of Kim Il Sung's self-reliance
ideology. They eat less, they have fewer clothes, they don't enjoy themselves
as much, but at least they haven't sold out to the super powers. Do you
really think the North Koreans would prostitute themselves to the Chinese
and Soviets? Do you think they do everything the Chinese and Soviets tell
them to do? They don't. That's why their development has been a little
slower than ours. They aren't slaves to China and Russia, politically,
economically or culturally. They can meet the South Koreans and discuss
unification any time they want. They don't have to ask the Chinese or Soviets.
South Korea's the problem. The South Koreans have to go to the U.S. for
everything. Even the president needs their approval. That's why every young
man with a conscience wants the Americans out. We want the Americans to
take their nuclear weapons and get out of our country. We want Koreans
to sit down with Koreans and discuss unification. Get rid of the masks
and arms. And if we can't achieve this with words, we'll have to resort
Yun-gil paused to moisten his lips.
"Uncle Chu-on, why don't you take off that cloak of lies?
Who are you playing the hunting dog for? Don't tarnish your grandfather's
reputation. He gave his life for true human liberation. If he knew what
you were doing now, I'm sure he'd turn over in his grave."
Chu-on lit a cigarette and grinned. You know what they
say, the newborn pup has no fear of the tiger. Don't be a fool. Take my
advice. Besides, I've got you in my noose already. You think you're pretty
hot stuff but there's nothing you can do about the power that rules this
land. Chu-on's face betrayed both confidence and arrogance.
"Listen up 'cause I'm going to be frank with you. Some
time ago we had this discussion down at the office. I can't tell you who
was there, but we were talking about people like you, people with corrupt
thoughts. We were trying to figure out how many there really were. How
many people can you really call anti-establishment? We estimated there
are about ten thousand of them nationwide. Include their families and that
makes about thirty-five thousand. Of course, there's no telling for sure.
"So we were wondering what we should do with these people.
Should we clear off an island and stick them there? You know, intern them.
But what law could we use? The Social Stability Law. Put simply, we'd be
sweeping out the bad.
"Yun-gil, I'm just asking you not to waste your life.
You're like an egg throwing itself against a rock. It doesn't bother the
rock. The egg's the one that breaks. Ten thousand eggs can break but the
Korean people will live on. You guys talk about getting rid of the Americans
and the imperialists and all the conservatives and holding a constitutional
assembly to establish a unified nation, but wake up! Don't you realize
who's got the knife by the handle?"
Chu-on was getting excited. His words turned violent.
He seemed to imply that he was only telling Yun-gil this because they were
related. He puffed his chest out confidently for he believed that Chu-ch'ol
and Tal-gyun shared his feelings.
"I've listened to you two long enough. Now it's my turn,"
Chu-ch'ol said. "Let's say a beggar boy came into a tearoom but the waitress
sent him packing. What if he grew up to be a prosecutor? He might demand
a heavy sentence for any defendant who happened to work in a tearoom. What
if he became a general? He might be cruel and punish his subordinates unnecessarily.
What if he became the president of a big company? He might misuse his wealth.
He might put out a contract on someone or try to buy political power. Just
think what the world would be like if we were all bent on revenge. Revenge
is the most dangerous thing in the world. And Chu-on, you seem to be filled
with it. Your life is governed by your determination to revenge your grandfather
and father. You would have attached yourself to the ruling hierarchy even
if it were socialist or communist. Let's be frank, Chu-on."
Chu-on looked up and burst out laughing. Tal-gyun nodded.
"You're right," he said.
Ssang-gyun's breathing grew raspier. His eyelids, sunken
and blue, quivered. He was listening to everything that was being said.
Yun-gil was looking at the window, his back to his father. He knew where
Chu-ch'ol was headed. Now that he had finished with right-wing Chu-on,
he would push Yun-gil to the far left and launch his attack. His father
was conservative, rightist, nihilistic, opportunistic and revisionist.
He pretended to be pure but he never acted on his conscience. Men pure
in thought and passive in conscience stood by and watched the right-wing
fascists take power. His father had taken the middle-of-the-road approach,
fluttering back and forth between the right and the left like a bat. Yun-gil
knew why. His father had seen so many deaths in the turbulent course of
history. Yun-gil believed that a handful of rightists were able to run
the country because the middle-of-the-roaders had been rendered powerless
by nihilism and defeatism.
Chu-ch'ol cleared his throat and continued.
"I can't blame you for doing your job. After all, you're
supposed to be arresting the so-called anti-establishment element. I just
wish you'd act out of goodness instead of revenge. Why do you have to play
handmaiden to people like that? Can't you find another way to make a living?
Can't you change your direction? I feel sorry for you. You need to wake
up too. What do you mean: intern ten thousand people on an island? Are
Chu-ch'ol's voice trailed off in despair. It was impossible
to enlighten simpletons like Chu-on to the merciful love of the Buddha
or Jesus, he thought. The realization sent him tumbling into a dim sense
of discouragement. Chu-on simply smiled into space, his features as blank
and emotionless as an ox. Chu-ch'ol struggled for the energy to continue.
"The world operates on the law of opposites. If there's
a radical right, then a radical left naturally develops to counteract it.
The right came into power on the coattails of the Americans who came here
after dropping their nuclear bombs on Japan. Once they'd consolidated their
power, the right had to persecute their opponents with ever greater intensity
in order to stay in power, and the resistance grew in proportion to the
persecution. Finally, the far left decides all conservatives, starting
with the far right, have to be wiped out. Good people on both sides suffer
as a result. Frankly, I'm on the right. I believe that we need gradual
improvement, not radical reform. Yun-gil always criticizes me for my 'cancerous'
bourgeois thoughts but I can't help thinking the recent wave of democratization
started with people like me, invisible people who advocate gradual improvement."
"Now we have to be careful of a reactionary backlash
against democratization. If the surge for gradual improvement is a dynamic
force moving our society, then the radical theories of the far right and
far left, and the call for unconditional anti-Americanism and anti-imperialism
and unconditional unification are all reactionary forces. The problem is
we have to decide what is gradual improvement. What is the best path to
democracy? It's clearly not communism or socialism..."
Chu-ch'ol faltered. He felt a wave of helplessness spread
through him. He couldn't tell if that was what made him hesitate or vice
versa. He was speaking without conviction. He was afraid of what Yun-gil
might say. "Why should you align yourself with the haves, Father? What
do you have? A house? An orchard? A monthly salary of one million won from
your job as an editor at that best-seller factory? Is that what makes you
afraid to stand with the masses? That's peanuts... Are you really afraid
of losing it?" Chu-ch'ol wiped the sweat from his face with his handkerchief.
"Enough of this fightin'! It all sounds good to me. When
Yun-gil talks, he makes sense. When Chu-on talks, he makes sense, and now
that I hear what Chu-ch'ol has to say, he makes sense too... That's why
the world's such a mess: everyone thinks they're right. I just don't like
fightin'. And since I came back here to live, that's all there's been.
Fightin' and more fightin'. The people from Temple Hollow are tryin' to
beat the life out of me." Tal-gyun complained as he lit another cigarette.
Chu-ch'ol thought of the barbed wire and black crosses
he had seen on his way to the temple, the men he had encountered at the
store. Ssang-gyun burst out in a fit of coughing. Chu-on took a sip from
the tongch'imi bowl. Yun-gil kept gazing at the window, his back to the
"People just want what other people have. That's what
it all comes down to." The door opened silently as Tal-gyun spoke. His
wife peered in, her mask-like face outlined in the bluish light of the
snow. She was holding a tray of food. The rasping voice of the old woman
called from behind her.
"You stupid whore! Why don't you get to sleep? One whiff
of those men and you're back there like a bitch in heat! Get in here!"
"Who asked you to bring this? Why are you makin' such
a fuss?" Tal-gyun snapped.
The woman ignored him and studied each face in the room.
The smell of make-up wafted through the door. No, it was the smell of her
body. Tal-gyun limped to the door, grabbed the tray and slammed the door
in her face. She had sliced some radishes and sweet potatoes. Beside them
were a handful of wooden matches to pick them up with. Tal-gyun set the
tray in the middle of the room and went on with his story.
Tal-gyun longed to go home. He was exhausted. He made
his living junk-collecting: pushing a cart around town, clanking a huge
pair of scissors to announce his arrival. He carried a large bag of popcorn
to reimburse people for what they gave him. No one had ever taught him
how to use the scissors, but he played them well, making them sing like
a gong in one of the farmers' bands that he had heard as a child. And when
he clanked the scissors, he felt happy. His step grew lighter and his shoulders
danced to the rhythm. Soon his cart was piled high with old newspapers,
iron boiler pipes, door frames, broken tape recorders, cartons, empty bottles
and plastic containers. He exchanged these for cash, which he used to buy
a comforting drink of soju.
When he first left Temple Hollow, he had planned to return
as soon as he had saved enough to purchase an acre of paddy land. But money
wasn't easy to come by. With the sky his only roof, he wandered the country
until he was over forty, but he still didn't have enough money to buy a
single patch of land. He didn't have a wife either. It looked like he would
end up a nameless corpse in a public crematorium.
So what if I don't have any money? he thought. I can
farm the fields by the temple, tend the persimmon trees, and in winter
I can go down to Shinsang and hire myself out for the seaweed harvest.
I shouldn't be so greedy. What's so great about being rich? I'll go back
when I find a woman who's willing to live with a poor man. I'll go back
to my poor old mother. She's been waiting so long.
No sooner had he made up his mind than he began to hear
the iron bell at night. As a child, he had heard it every day, morning
and evening, but at the time he left the village, the bell at Sea Cloud
Temple was silent.
There was no one to ring the bell now. The monks had
not rebuilt the temple. They had not returned to live in the temple. I'll
go back and ring the bell myself, he thought.
I'll go as soon as I find a woman. But who'd want to
live in that poor village? As he pushed his cart through the streets, he
looked into the faces of the women passing by but none of them seemed right.
Then one sweltering summer day he parked his cart in
a shady corner of the junk yard and took a nap. He was bowing before the
Buddha in the Main Hall when someone came up and took his wrist. The hand
was as cold as ice. He looked up and saw a woman. Her face was painted
gold. "I am the Bodhisattva of Compassion," she said with a smile. "Let's
go to your village together. I will be your wife." Tal-gyun was afraid,
overwhelmed, and jerked from his sleep. It had been a dream, but a woman
was looking down at him. It was O Ch'un-ja, the woman who later became
his wife. She was eating a piece of corn. She broke it in half and thrust
one half at him. The smile never left her face; it reminded him of the
Hahoe bride's mask. She was wearing a purple blouse and a white slip-on
skirt. When he saw her smile, his throat tightened. That night he slept
with her in a cheap inn nearby. Even now, he didn't know where she came
from or what she had been doing before she met him. She wouldn't say. He
had named her O Ch'un-ja, the spring child. He watched her carefully, but
she seemed to care for nothing but eating, sleeping with her husband, and
flirting with other men. Sometimes he wondered if Ch'un-ja was simply dreaming
a long dream. That frightened him. What if she woke up one day and left
him to return to her old life? I'd end up a rooster crowing at the sky,
just like the lonely woodcutter who lost his fairy wife, he thought. His
mother used to say that the fairy was able to leave the woodcutter because
she had only two children to carry. If there had been three, she wouldn't
have been able to carry them into the sky. Tal-gyun wanted to have three
children as soon as possible, but it didn't work out. They had two children
in the first two years, but there were no more after that. A family planning
worker came from the local health center and tried to persuade him to have
a vasectomy or Ch'un-ja to have a tubal ligation. He felt like he was going
When he returned to the village, the bell was still there.
The problem was the villagers wouldn't let him ring it.
He couldn't believe how the world had changed. Before
he left Temple Hollow, everyone revered the Buddha. They went to the Buddha
for everything: for babies, for good harvests, for cures to their ills.
They even went to the Buddha when their oxen and pigs gave birth. The first
rice of the harvest was offered to the Buddha, and the first persimmons,
chestnuts, sesame seeds, melons and watermelons were placed on an altar
But now the path to the temple was blocked with barbed
wire. They used scorched wooden crosses as fence posts. They built a church
with a spire that pierced the sky on the path between the village and the
temple, and they took down the two stone spirit posts that used to stand
by the entrance to the village. They chiseled off the Buddhas carved in
relief on the rocks behind the village and spray-painted a red cross in
their place. The Maitreya Buddha on Sunrise Peak had been destroyed as
had the Buddha by the signal tower, and the villagers knocked down the
pagodas that once stood in the temple courtyard.
Then they broke Tal-gyun's leg for ringing the bell.
One stormy night soon after that, a gang of thieves broke
into the living quarters, tied Tal-gyun's family up, and stole off with
the bell. They wore masks and wouldn't let anyone turn on the lights. They
never spoke a word and disappeared like a puff of wind. Tal-gyun couldn't
tell if they were from Temple Hollow or if they had been called in from
a nearby village.
The next day Tal-gyun reported the robbery to the police.
According to the police, the bell was a valuable cultural artifact. Investigators
were sent from the local police station, the national police and the Office
of Cultural Properties. The strange thing was Sea Cloud Temple was not
listed with the Office of Cultural Properties. Nor was the bell. The people
from the Office of Cultural Properties, afraid they would be accused of
carelessness, told the police that the bell had no cultural value, and
the police hastened to close the case, declaring it the work of second-hand
dealers. Later, the owner of the bell appeared asking the police to reopen
the investigation, but it never was resumed.
The bell was owned by the foundation that ran the Buddha's
Light High School in town. The people of Temple Hollow hated that foundation.
When the monks failed to return after the temple burned
down, the villagers suddenly felt rich. There was no one to collect the
rents on the land or fruit trees. The Pak clan wanted nothing to do with
temple finances after Ho-nam's death. The land belonged to the tenants
now. Some people farmed an acre, others three acres or more. Some people
cared for just one or two persimmon trees, others ten or twenty. When the
persimmon harvest was good for several years in a row, people said they
wouldn't exchange their trees for paddy land. There was no need for fertilizer
or pesticides with persimmon trees, no transplanting or weeding or spreading
compost. Tending a persimmon tree was like shooting fish in a barrel. It
required none of the fuss of farming. The people of Temple Hollow paid
no rent for several years. They attributed their good fortune to the Buddhas
and Maitreyas carved in the surrounding mountains. The Buddha in the temple's
Main Hall was gone, but the villagers found their own Buddhas in the mountains
and made regular offerings with great care and respect.
Tal-gyun's family, on the other hand, grew poorer with
each passing day. They had eaten well when the monks were collecting rents
and watching over temple affairs, and the villagers were making generous
offerings of food to the Buddha. But now that Pak Ho-nam was dead and the
temple abandoned, they had nothing. It was this poverty that had driven
Tal-gyun to leave.
A year after he left, two men from the Buddha's Light
High School Foundation came. They went around the village with a list of
the temple's property, checking who worked which land and demanding rents
from that year's harvest. They even charged rent on the chestnut and persimmon
trees. The former head monk had donated all temple property to the school
foundation when the school was established. The villagers agreed to pay
the rents at first but then they held a town meeting.
"It's not fair. How could they turn over the temple's
assets to the school foundation without letting us know? After all, the
temple was already abandoned. The rents we paid over the years more than
cover the price of those fields. We can't just sit back and watch!" said
Ko Ch'ang-sok. He had been village head for three years after his discharge
as a sergeant from the army.
"We've got to stick together. Let's tell them we won't
pay, even if it means we can't work the land," said Pae Tong-jun. A chaplain's
assistant while in the army, he had failed in an attempt at seaweed farming
in Shinsang and had returned to the village to tend an acre and a half
of paddy land and ten persimmon trees.
"Let's just say we won't work the land if they charge
rent. Who'd come all the way up here to work this land?" added the current
village head, Song Chae-dong. A heavy-set man, Song had graduated from
agricultural high school and made a good income growing black mushrooms.
These three young men formed the nucleus of village resistance
to the foundation's demands. Pae brought his friend, the Reverend Kim Mok-ho,
to the village. They built a church in the field next to the path leading
to the temple. The field belonged to the temple, of course. Pae told the
villagers that every paddy and field, every persimmon and chestnut tree
belonged to God. If they wanted to tend God's possessions they had to become
God's children, and in order to become God's children, they had to renounce
Once they had built the church and started destroying
the stone spirit posts and the Buddhist statues in the mountains, the people
of Temple Hollow came to despise Tal-gyun's family for living in the temple.
The villagers had abandoned the Buddha and turned to God for the sole purpose
of taking over the temple land and trees.
With the bell gone, Tal-gyun lost his taste for life.
He could still hear it, reverberating across the fields to echo off of
Sunrise Peak before floating into the sky. He was determined to find it.
He went to the village and asked around; he snuck down to the village store
at night and eavesdropped on the people drinking inside.
One day Tal-gyun noticed that the villagers were all
carrying iron candlesticks as they left the church. He nearly shouted when
he saw them. The next day he went to the police. What if the villagers
took the temple bell to a foundry and melted it down to make candlesticks?
he asked. The policemen just laughed.
Maybe they buried it, he thought. He dug in the mountains
and fields and, thanks to a recent dry spell, was able to search nearby
ponds and reservoirs.
But then, beginning two years ago, Tal-gyun was faced
with a more serious problem. His wife had started roaming around the village
at night while he slept. At least, he first became aware of it two years
ago. For all he knew she could have been doing it for years.
Ch'un-ja grew restless at the sound of men laughing,
talking or singing in the mountains and fields. One night as she stole
from the house, Tal-gyun pretended to be asleep, then followed her at a
distance. She peered into the dark church and stood outside the store watching
the men drink and talk. Then she went inside and smiled coquettishly at
them, moistening her lips and batting her eyelids. When they offered her
a drink, she accepted it gratefully. When they took her hand, she wriggled
bashfully but never pushed them away.
One day Ko Ch'ang-sok's wife came running into the temple
courtyard. "I hear you're letting your wife run wild on purpose! People
say you let her run around like a bitch in heat because you can't get it
When Tal-gyun asked what she meant, the woman told him
what everyone in the village knew. "They say if a man hasn't done it with
Tal-gyun's wife, he must not have any balls."
Tal-gyun sent the woman on her way and confronted his
wife. He grabbed her by the hair and threatened her with a knife, demanding
to know who she had met and what they had done. She rubbed her hands together,
begging him for mercy and promising never to do it again, but that very
night he caught her sneaking out. He beat her, and she rubbed her hands
together and begged for forgiveness. He beat her every time he caught her,
but there was no use scolding her. She simply begged for forgiveness, and
in the next instant forgot everything. She didn't understand that what
she was doing was wrong. She didn't understand that it was immoral to have
sex with other men. Once he realized that, he simply tried to keep her
from going out. He didn't beat or scold her when she managed to escape
his watchful eye.
Instead, he did everything he could to find the lost
bell. He decided to join forces with the school foundation. They were happy
for his cooperation and sent an official letter to the police, urging them
to reopen the case. They even slipped some money to the detectives handling
the investigation. The detectives delved into the origins of the candlesticks,
but they couldn't find the bell. The very idea that someone stole the bell
and melted it down into candlesticks was the stuff of fiction, and the
investigation ran into a brick wall once more.
The school foundation had hoped for an easy solution
to the problem of its recalcitrant tenants in the investigation of the
stolen bell. Failing that, they took the matter to court. The school won
hands-down, of course. Late the previous autumn the villagers were ordered
to pay regular rents to the foundation.
The people of Temple Hollow did not appeal the verdict,
but they did not pay the rents either. Fearful of what might happen, the
school foundation refrained from sending a bailiff to settle the matter
with force. Instead, they tried to reach an agreement with the villagers,
offering a cut in rents and an extension of the due date. The tenants snorted
in disgust and sent notification that they would not pay a single cent.
As far as they were concerned, the rents they had paid over the years more
than covered the price of the land. The land should be turned over to them
free of charge. They even threatened the use of force if their demands
were not met.
"I don't understand how they can be so stubborn," Tal-gyun
sighed as he turned to Chu-ch'ol. Clenching his teeth in a grimace, he
drew a deep breath. He looked like he would do anything to get back at
"I'm not askin' for much. My dream's simple enough. I
just want to live in a peaceful village where the sound of the temple bell
fills the fields and mountains and sky. I wanted to make Temple Hollow
into that kind of village. Where people offer fresh grain and fruit to
the Buddha, where people share the rice cakes they make for family ancestral
rites with their neighbors, where the clear sound of the chantin' and the
wooden clapper never rests. But it ain't easy. I feel like I've run into
a brick wall. I don't like fightin', not with anyone. But I had to fight
for the bell. You just wait. I'm gonna find it. I'm gonna get rid of those
thieves and make this a quiet, beautiful village. I'm gonna do it, if only
for my own innocent little children."
Tal-gyun sighed and lit a cigarette.
"Huh?" Ssang-gyun snorted. "What's so simple about that
Tal-gyun looked down at him in loathing. Chu-ch'ol and
Chu-on turned to the old man too. Yun-gil was still facing the window.
"It's none of your business anyway. Why don't you go
sleep in your own room?" Tal-gyun spat.
"Dreaming of a quiet, peaceful village is the most frightening
thing in the world," Ssang-gyun murmured. "Your ambition is what's frightening.
Hitler wanted to make Germany peaceful for his own people so he started
a war and killed the Jews. And the Communists insist on class struggle
to create their own ideal society."
"What?" asked Tal-gyun.
Tal-gyun is being swept up in a kind of religious war,
Chu-ch'ol thought. There is nothing more sinister. When a believer becomes
a fanatic, he ceases to think. He's trained to believe his god like a hunting
dog, to attack people of other religions on command. Ssang-gyun may have
been right: Tal-gyun's dream could get him into a religious war.
"You fool, you don't have a house, much less a temple.
This house belongs to the temple and the Buddha's Light High School Foundation
got deed to it without you ever knowing. You stupid oaf, don't you realize
they could come here tomorrow and throw you out on your ear?" Ssang-gyun
paused to catch his breath.
"What a crock of nonsense!" Tal-gyun snorted. "Why should
they throw me out when I'm doin' exactly as they say? My mother's dedicated
her life to this temple. She cooked for the monks. Why would they throw
her son out?"
"That's why I called you a fool. Don't you realize why
the villagers are standing up to the foundation? They want to break free
from the slavery that they've lived under for so long! If they're successful,
the paddy land you're working will be yours. You won't have to pay rent.
It'll be yours outright."
"I know that! I just don't like the idea of takin' someone
else's property. It's just like the communists. Why are they tryin' to
take it by force, instead of earnin' money and buyin' it, fair and square?
It's highway robbery, no two ways about it. It's unthinkable under the
Korean system of private property." Tal-gyun's voice rose in irritation.
"Look at this! We're fightin' right now! Fight, fight, I'm so sick of it!
That's enough! I only told you about my problems with the people in Temple
Hollow 'cause I was hopin' at least our family could live in peace."
"How can you be so stupid? Don't you understand? If you
figure in all the rent the villagers have paid over the years, they have
a right to the land!" Ssang-gyun wheezed.
"Since when? A tenant pays rent for ten or fifteen years
and he has a right to the land? Whose law is that? North Korea's? The Soviet
"The temple's burned down and there ain't no monks, so
what's wrong with it?"
Tal-gyun looked up and laughed in frustration. "Brother,
you sound like those Jesus freaks in the village."
Tal-gyun paused for a moment, then seemed to remember
something. "Ah, I get it. You're the one who convinced the villagers to
have it out with the foundation."
"Huh? Like I got nothing better to do! What's wrong with
you? Don't you realize why I came in here tonight? I'm as good as dead
but I came in here 'cause I had something to say."
Ssang-gyun wanted to save Yun-gil. They had talked a
lot during Yun-gil's stay at the temple. They both agreed that wealth had
to be redistributed and the foreign powers had to be driven out before
Korea could be unified. Their biggest difference lay in the question: What
could be done now? He thought the situation was hopeless, but Yun-gil was
optimistic. Yun-gil spoke of revolution.
"Somewhere I heard about the Patricide Society. You know,
patricide began with Oedipus. It's rooted deep in the human subconscious.
I think it could accelerate the passage of history, push it in the right
direction. Killing one's father is an act of revolution. Compromising with
one's father means compliance and stagnation. History begins when sons
kill their fathers. It's the same principle as dialectic materialism: an
eternal struggle between father and son. That's why our generation is in
such agony today."
Ssang-gyun's life and the society in which he lived had
been ruined by radical ideas like that.
Ssang-gyun had achieved nothing. Everything in his life
had ended in failure. Like Yun-gil, he had dreamed of social reform based
on the logic of the Patricide Society, but he realized it was nothing more
than a fantasy. After hiding in the mountains for a while, he turned himself
in and changed his way of thinking. He tried his hand at all kinds of jobs.
He strapped a wire cage on the back of a bike and traveled around buying
dogs, which he then sold to dog soup restaurants. It wasn't long before
he tired of shouting, "Dogs, dogs, sell your dogs," and settled down on
the outskirts of Kwangju to raise them himself. If his mother had known
what he was doing, she would have been died of shock for she had spent
her life in a Buddhist temple. At any rate, he made lots of money and soon
bought extra cages to raise more puppies. A neighbor who was in the same
business helped him rupture the puppies' eardrums with a wire so they wouldn't
bark. It was an expensive venture raising the dogs to maturity. He was
forced to take out some high-interest loans, but he figured dog prices
would soar come summer and his earnings would pay off the loans and then
However, the dog soup business was wiped out in a single
day. The television news reported that dog meat had been found to contain
bacteria that destroyed the human liver. The following day officials from
the Ministry of Health and Social Affairs began inspecting dog soup restaurants.
It was just like the time people stopped eating raw fish because it was
said to contain vibrio bacteria. Everyone quit eating dog.
It all began when a foreign animal rights group threatened
to boycott the Seoul Olympics if Koreans kept eating dog meat. Fearful
of what might happen, government officials lied to the public, hiring an
unprincipled scholar to testify to the presence of the bacteria.
No one confronted the Ministry, though. The bottom fell
out of the dog market overnight, and suppliers and restauranteurs went
Ssang-gyun's wife died of a broken heart. His son, a
relief driver, was hit by a truck and killed. Ssang-gyun had them cremated
and drowned his sorrows in drink. Then one day his throat began to hurt.
It was swollen. He could not swallow and his voice grew husky, as if he
had been shouting. His tonsils swelled and then his lymph glands. There
was a lump on his glands the size of a ping-pong ball. His body felt heavy.
It was hard to move. Lumps developed in his armpits and groin. The local
pharmacist told him it looked like cancer of the larynx and urged him to
go to a hospital. My life's not worth the price of a hospital room, he
thought. It was all a matter of karma. Weighed down by that tremendous
fate, Ssang-gyun returned to his mother. She threw her arms around him
and cried. "Where have you been all this time? Did you marry? Do you have
any children?" She mistook him for Ssang-do who had escaped to North Korea.
Mother lived to see Ssang-do again, and Ssang-gyun struggled to suppress
his urge to kill her.
The previous morning Ssang-gyun had seen his mother devouring
the pork that Yun-gil had brought from Chu-man's funeral. He couldn't stand
it any longer. She had always been such a devout Buddhist. She wouldn't
even speak of meat. But her spirit had left her body already. There was
nothing left, only the spirit of an animal or evil spirit. Ssang-gyun was
returning from the outhouse when he saw her. A broken roof tile lay on
the ground before him. He picked it up and hurled it at her. "Why don't
you just drop dead?" he shouted.
When he opened his eyes, he was lying in his room. Yun-gil
was looking down at him. He had collapsed after throwing the tile.
"Everyone has their own share of life. Why did you try
to take your mother's away?"
He was lucky to meet Yun-gil now, as he waited to die.
Yun-gil showed him something he hadn't seen before. As he listened to the
young man, he felt as if his body was growing lighter and starting to float.
"Attachment can make you sick, but it can also make you
well. If you want to escape the physical and spiritual pain that you see
as your fate, perhaps you should shift your attachment to something larger,
something beyond yourself."
Yun-gil felt an obligation to liberate Grandmother Chong
and Uncle Tal-gyun from their lifetime of slavery. Ssang-gyun just closed
his eyes and listened.
"I've been meeting with the people in Temple Hollow.
I know you're sick, so just rest and wish me luck in my efforts."
Ssang-gyun took Yun-gil's advice and began to focus his
mind on the confrontation between the villagers and the school foundation.
He lay in the middle of the room, still as a corpse, but the more he thought,
the more he felt as if he were leading the villagers in their struggle.
He forgot his own pain.
When he heard that Chu-on had come to the temple, he
couldn't stay in his room. He had heard about Chu-on from Yun-gil. Yun-gil
was waiting for Chu-on. He knew that Chu-on would show up on some pretext
sooner or later.
Ssang-gyun opened his eyes and glowered at Chu-on. His
eyeballs looked as if they were made of glass.
"Even the blackest magpie knows how to be grateful, and
a snake never harms the man who saves him. You lay a hand on Yun-gil and
the gods will punish you. Don't you realize your father owes them? A son
has to pay his father's debts. That's the way it should be."
Ssang-gyun was holding Chu-on's hand. Chu-on nodded as
he looked into the black pits of Ssang-gyun's eyes.
"He's studied a lot," Ssang-gyun explained, "but he's
still young. You've got to protect him. Please. It's my final wish."
Chu-on nodded again. Tal-gyun snorted in disgust.
"You might as well pray to the wildcat not to eat the
family chicken." He trusted no one.
The door opened quietly again. It was the woman. She
was holding a small table. She had made ramen noodles. Tal-gyun snapped
at her in anger but took the table and placed it in the middle of the room.
The woman stood at the doorway studying the men one by one. Her grinning
face resembled a phantom waiting to bewitch them.
Chu-ch'ol avoided her gaze. Moistening his lips, he thought
of Yun-gil. The boy caused trouble wherever he went. I'll have to get him
out of here first thing in the morning. If the villagers kept refusing
to pay the rents, the police would come to investigate and Yun-gil might
be caught. They may have already started investigating the villagers. In
the bluish light of the snow behind the woman he sensed a dark conspiracy.
It seemed as if a wave of people were silently sweeping down on the temple.
Yun-gil was a carrot: the promise of a cash reward and a special promotion.
"Yeah, now I understand. People are always sayin' never
trust the human animal, and they're right," Tal-gyun's features had hardened.
They were full of the pain of betrayal as he scooped the noodles into the
bowls stacked on the table. He had done so much for Yun-gil. He had slaughtered
him a chicken at least once a week, he had dug him a shelter in the hill
behind the temple, he had bought him new bedding. He did all he could for
Yun-gil. Everyone knew the boy was brilliant. But now... How could Yun-gil
betray him like that? How could he conspire with the villagers he hated
so, the villagers who had caused him so much pain?
"I know you're young and inexperienced but how could
you do somethin' like that? I can't believe it!" Tal-gyun cried, after
he had finished serving the noodles. He looked into the air and sighed.
Chu-ch'ol felt Yun-gil was wrong too, although he knew
the boy had acted out of some kind of conviction. Obviously Yun-gil would
disagree. He had thoroughly rejected the concept of family loyalty. So
why had he come down here and stayed so long? Why did he have to hurt this
innocent man? Chu-ch'ol hated his son's cold-blooded selfishness. If he'd
known Yun-gil was going to end up like this he wouldn't have educated him
"Please don't be angry with me. I know you're upset but
try to be patient. You won't regret it, I'm sure." Yun-gil turned to look
Tal-gyun straight in the eyes. His face was filled with arrogance. He was
so self-righteous. As long as he was convinced that he was doing something
for the people, there would be no compromise, no yielding. He looked down
"Please try to understand. I'd never betray anyone. Sakyamuni
Buddha never hated or betrayed anything in his long struggle to serve the
masses, and it's the same with those of us working for the people today.
Sometimes it might look like we're betraying the reactionary forces, but
that's just temporary. In the end, everyone will benefit."
"I know I'm ignorant but don't try to trick me with your
fancy talk. I ain't gonna give in 'cause a bunch of talk. Anyway, I understand
what you're sayin'. You have your ideas and I have mine. I ain't gonna
let it get to me. Let's have it out, just you and me. Imagine an old man
and his smart-ass nephew fightin'-what a pretty sight that would be!" Tal-gyun
Yun-gil is like a cancer cell, Chu-on thought. This peaceful
village is covered with a black cloud because of him. The villagers are
the ones who will be hurt by the fight Yun-gil is stirring. Chu-on was
trying to convince himself that he needn't feel guilty about arresting
Yun-gil. Better to get him now, for his own sake and to prevent his father
from feeling any more pain. With cancer, early detection and removal of
the cancerous cells were best for the patient.
In the depths of sleep, Song Chae-dong, the village head,
heard branches snapping under the weight of the snow. His sleeping wife
in his arms, he thought of Pae Tong-jun. That night as he returned from
the store, he began to suspect Pae and the minister, Kim Mok-ho. Maybe
they had conspired to get rid of the bell. Who else would do it?
The people of Temple Hollow were puppets in their conspiracy,
he thought. They had abandoned the Buddha and replaced him with God and
Jesus. They had done it for the rents, no other reason. The people from
the school foundation had shown up, completely out of the blue, and demanded
the back rent. They had even levied rents on the persimmon and chestnut
trees. And now Pae and Kim were using the villagers for their own purposes.
The younger people submitted to them easily but the older
villagers said they couldn't give up the Buddha. The young people held
meeting after meeting. They decided that each person had to take responsibility
for his own parents. They told them that they had to serve Jesus if they
wanted the land that they had worked so hard over the years. It was only
right. They had to believe in Jesus if they wanted a better life. Some
of the older villagers accepted their sons' arguments immediately, but
others refused. They said they would be punished if they abandoned the
Buddha for a few measly pieces of land. Religious quarrels broke out in
Despite the elders' objections, there was no turning
back. The young men managed to overcome their parents and each claimed
a plot of land. Some took up knives and threatened to kill the whole family
when a parent was particularly obstinate. Others begged their parents to
simply pretend to believe in Jesus, while still serving the Buddha in their
hearts. That was what bothered Song Chae-dong. For nearly a year he had
been fighting with his old mother. Finally he told her, "I can't live in
this village if you're going to be so stubborn. I'm leaving. Have a good
life with your Buddha," and packed his belongings. Only then did his mother
give in. It was with such tactics that the young people convinced their
parents to forsake the Buddha.
Thinking back, Song felt as if he had been pushed by
some great force. He released his wife from his arms and turned on his
back. Her body hadn't changed, but somehow it felt colder and harder that
night. He thought of Tal-gyun's wife, her eyes half-closed in pleasure.
A few days earlier he had run into her in a field of
dry reeds at sunset. He was climbing the main ridge to Sunrise Peak to
check on the oak boughs he had cut for mushroom frames when he spotted
her. She must have seen him first for she was already smiling that droopy-eyed
smile of hers. As he drew nearer, he saw three oak boughs lying on the
ground beside her. You miserable thief! He stopped and glowered down at
her. Sensing his anger, she began rubbing her hands together, begging for
mercy. Suddenly the sight of her long face, the droopy eyes, the long,
thin grasshopper eyebrows, the full, pouting lips, the skin, white as the
inside of a gourd, sparked a fire in him. He recalled what the men in the
village had said: Just push her down and she'll put out right then and
there. They said her flesh was warmer and softer than anything they'd ever
felt before. The women called her the village pisshole. He had teased Ko
Ch'ang-sok and Pae Tong-jun for sleeping with her. "I'll lend you my dog
next time she's in heat," he said. In the past, he had always ignored the
But when he saw her alone in that deserted field, his
manhood was awakened. She smelled of dry grass, like a wild animal. She
seemed part of a wild, virgin forest.
He squatted down and the woman's body went limp like
a centipede that had been stung. As a child, he had stolen sweet potatoes
from other people's fields, frantically digging up the long vines, yanking
the sweet potatoes out one by one, like so many wild rabbits. He ripped
open her clothes with the same intensity, his heart racing as her hidden
parts were revealed. He felt dizzy. She lay on her back, blinking lazily
like a copulating sow. As he plunged into her, she cried out, like a doe
caught in a snare.
He couldn't get the incident out of his mind. It was
like the secret taste of tart berries picked on a desolate mountain in
winter. It was as if he were a wild dove that had soared high in the sky
and returned to the wintry forest. No, it was a dream. He sucked her tongue
and lips. She was no ordinary woman. She was like the woman from the legend,
the one who put the cintamani in the school boy's mouth. She had changed
Temple Hollow into a fantasy world, an unfathomable bewitching swamp.
He didn't say anything about her to others. He wanted
to find a way to meet her again, alone.
He turned in bed once more. Outside he heard someone
walking in the snow. He held his breath. Was it Tal-gyun's wife? People
said that she gave meaningful looks to the men she had slept with. She
even visited their houses. It must be true. His wife did not stir. I'd
better go out and get rid of her before the wife wakes up, he thought.
I'll take her to the shed and satisfy her. No, I'd better ignore her. Let
the wife get rid of her if she wakes up.
The footsteps drew nearer. It was more than one person.
He bolted upright. Suddenly he remembered the bell. He had heard the police
were going to reopen the case. Then he remembered Pak Yun-gil. Chu-ch'ol's
genius son was staying at the temple. They must have reopened the investigation
because of him.
The bell was only an excuse; the police were clearly
more interested in getting the villagers to pay their rent. When the school
foundation sent a man around offering a cut in the rents and an extension
in the pay period, Song had suggested they go along with it, on the condition
they write off the overdue rent. Almost everyone, except Ko Ch'ang-sok
and Pae Tong-jun, agreed, but then Yun-gil intervened. He encouraged the
villagers to fight for the land. Thanks to Yun-gil, Ko and Pae were able
to get the others to confront the head of the foundation with their demands.
"Song! Hey, Song Chae-dong!" a familiar voice called
from the gate. It was Constable Chi from the local police box. As he stepped
outside he saw two plainclothes officers standing beside the constable.
One was as large as Song; the other was stocky and of medium height. They
smelled of sweat and liquor. They must have had a drink before venturing
into the heavy snow.
"Sorry to wake you, but we need a guide," Constable Chi
whispered. He did not introduce the other men by name but said, "These
gentlemen came about the bell. They have conclusive evidence that Pak Tal-gyun
conspired with some outsiders to sneak the bell out of the temple."
Baffled, Song stared at the constable. As far as he was
concerned, Tal-gyun was honest and naive to the point of stupidity. How
could he do such a thing and pretend he didn't know what had happened?
Song couldn't believe it and was immediately suspicious of the constable.
"Take us to him," the large man rumbled.
As Song led them through the snow, Constable Chi drew
closer and whispered, "A college student named Pak Yun-gil has been staying
at Tal-gyun's house for some time, hasn't he? He helped Tal-gyun smuggle
the bell out. I heard he's hiding in a cave behind the temple. You know
all about it, don't you?"
Song looked into the sky. It had stopped snowing. Would
Yun-gil do something like that? The boy was always saying he had dedicated
his mind and body to the masses. Why would he go sneaking behind their
backs like that? Song shook his head. Something was wrong.
From the very beginning he hadn't approved of the way
Yun-gil, an outsider, had tried to interfere in their affairs. He had shouted
at him, telling him to mind his own business. City folks and poor country
folks are different, he had said. He had even thought of asking the police
to run a check on Yun-gil. He suspected the boy's motives. Still, he couldn't
believe that Yun-gil and Tal-gyun would steal the bell, though he could
hardly argue with the police about it.
Song knew it wouldn't be right to lead them straight
to the temple. The boy was probably fast asleep. I have to stall them,
Song thought. You have to protect the animals that take refuge in your
house. As they left the village and climbed the main ridge to Sunrise Peak,
Song deliberately stumbled and slipped.
"How come you blocked off a perfectly good road with
barbed wire and make people take this long way around?" Constable Chi complained
after taking an especially painful fall himself.
Ssang-gyun lay on the floor wheezing. Tal-gyun sat cross-legged,
looking back and forth between Chu-on and Yun-gil. Chu-on was waiting.
He was exhausted. For two months he had been plotting to meet Yun-gil face
to face. He had used up his patience. Now all he had to do was make sure
he didn't miss his chance. It was time to quietly reap his reward.
Where are those guys? he wondered. What's taking them
so long? He sucked peevishly on his cigarette.
"What did you plan on doing with me once you got here?"
Yun-gil sounded as if he were trying to start a quarrel.
Chu-on exhaled and turned to Yun-gil with a frown. What
a pathetic pup, he thought. Right, just keep playing the fool.
"What do you mean? You got me all wrong. I didn't come
to get you. I just wanted to make you realize that what you've done is
wrong. You're not helping our society or our people."
"Thanks, but you've come a long way for nothing," Yun-gil
replied in a disdainful tone.
"Come on! Let's talk this out. What do you think is going
on in our society? What is reality for you? People can't live drunken on
"If you want my respect, quit acting so haughty. You're
the one who said you're a member of the basic class so take off that mask
and start living the truth. Devote yourself to the common people, the people
of your own class. Life's too short! Why do you insist on living such a
despicable existence?" Yun-gil demanded.
Chu-on tossed back his head and guffawed.
"I may be jumpin' the gun but I'd like to tell you somethin',"
Tal-gyun intervened. "You boys can say what you like, but make sure it
ends in talk. I don't want nothin' bad happenin' here. Understand?"
Chu-on and Yun-gil did not answer.
Chu-ch'ol went outside to urinate. It's no use talking
to Chu-on, he thought. That filthy piece of scum! Still, Chu-ch'ol hoped
that Chu-on could open Yun-gil's eyes. He knew Chu-on wouldn't be able
to turn the boy around completely; he simply hoped that Chu-on could make
the boy a little less radical.
His shoes were gone from the stepping stone beneath the
porch. All that was left was a pair of men's white rubber shoes. He slipped
them on and headed for the outhouse. As he passed the kitchen, he paused.
A dim electric light burned inside. Tal-gyun's wife was
crouched by the firehole, doing something. She looked up and smiled. The
coals burned red in the firehole. Her face appeared flushed in the reddish
glow of the light bulb. Is she roasting sweet potatoes? He was about to
move on when he saw what she was doing.
Several pairs of shoes were lined up on the hearth. That's
where his shoes had gone! She was drying them. They were all men's shoes.
He felt something hot shoot up his spine. It wasn't because she was sacrificing
her sleep to dry the guests' shoes. It was because of the reddish light,
the gaping black firehole, the glowing coals. Strangely, it made him think
of a wild creature's womb. How often did you find a primitive woman drying
the shoes of her male visitors, with an idiotic smile on her face? The
temple was a mysterious swamp, he thought.
He hurried to the outhouse, but urinated outside, on
the white snow. As he headed back to the room, he sensed someone coming,
and hid around the corner of the outhouse. Four dark figures were moving
through the snow. One went around the back of the living quarters, another
to the front courtyard. A large man approached the outhouse. He must have
seen Chu-ch'ol. Chu-ch'ol felt the blood rushing to his head. They must
be part of Chu-on's gang, he thought. Yun-gil would be arrested now. He
had to do something. He had to get word to Yun-gil. Should he call out,
"Run, Yun-gil!" or demand to know who they were. He stepped out of the
shadows and approached the large black figure.
"You're from the police, aren't you? You've come for
Pak Yun-gil. I'm his father. My relatives are trying to get him to surrender.
Please don't make any hasty decisions. Yun-gil is almost ready to surrender,"
However, before the black figure could answer, something
"Pak Tal-gyun, I want to talk to you," Song Chae-dong
called from the front courtyard.
"Ssang-do, run! They've come to get you!" came the Widow
Chong's raspy voice.
The light went out in Tal-gyun's room, then they heard
the sound of the door being kicked open.
"Who is that?" hollered Tal-gyun. A shriek rang through
the darkness, then something tumbled and crashed to the ground. Chu-ch'ol
felt dizzy. Chu-on and the plainclothesmen must be beating Yun-gil and
putting him in handcuffs. The large man next to him drew a pistol and dashed
toward the living quarters. As he stepped onto the porch, a shadow sprang
from the darkened room and darted across the courtyard. The man with the
pistol called out, "Stop!" and fired two shots. The fleeing shadow headed
toward Sunrise Peak. The church bell in the village rang through the darkness.
It was time for early morning services.
Chu-ch'ol let out a sigh of relief as he watched the
shadow disappear into the snowy forest.
"Ssang-do! Hurry!" The Widow Chong's voice was drowned
out by the bell.
Yun-gil was barefoot. The snow reached his calves as
he trudged across the ridges and valleys. His toes and the soles of his
feet stung. They felt as if they were being cut to pieces by the sharp
stones and branches. I can't let them catch me. I've got to think of the
others. They're depending on me. That's my duty. It's more important than
my life. Anyone who was caught, even if he had no choice, had to submit
to self-criticism. It was your duty not to be caught. And if you were,
you must never give the names of your comrades, even if they threatened
to kill you. If someone was exposed, everyone believed that it was the
fault of the one who had been arrested. Sell out your friends to escape
torture and you were sure to receive severe criticism when you got out
of prison. If you wanted to avoid that criticism, you had to do your best
not to be caught.
Yun-gil felt like laughing out loud. Thanks to his uncles
and the t'aekwondo skills he had so painfully acquired in the military,
he had managed to escape Chu-on's noose.
Ssang-gyun had grabbed Chu-on's ankle the minute he heard
his mother's cries and the voices outside. Tal-gyun turned off the light,
and in the confusion, Yun-gil kicked down the man climbing onto the porch
and fled, fists flying, out of the courtyard.
He wanted to laugh but couldn't. He had nowhere to go.
He limped through the snow like a wounded leopard, leaving a clear trail
of footprints behind him. As he stumbled up the mountain, he longed for
the room that Tal-gyun's wife had kept so warm. Where do I go? Where do
I go now?
Chu-ch'ol followed the footprints up the ridge, Yun-gil's
sneakers in hand. His own shoes, so carefully dried by Tal-gyun's wife,
were soaking after a few meters. He slipped and tumbled in the snow drifts.
He rolled into the ravines more than once, and each time, he was overcome
by a ponderous feeling of despair. He refused to surrender to it, grinding
the despair between his teeth and scrambling after his son like a wild
beast. Their footprints twisted dizzily through the snow. For Chu-ch'ol,
the footprints were evidence of the destiny they shared as father and son.
He felt his son's warmth radiating from them. He wanted to cry out, he
wanted to vomit blood. When the red glow of the morning sun ignited over
the distant sea, Yun-gil's footprints were filled with bloody shadows.
(to be continued)
Translated by Julie Pickering and Yu Young-nan.