Born in the island of Wan-do, South Cholla Province, in
1954, Im Chol-woo studied English Language and Literature at Chonnam University,
Kwangju, and Sogang University, Seoul. He first began to write in the early
1980s, after being present at the traumatic events marking the 1980 Kwangju
Democratic Uprising. This experience, and the ensuing sense of guilt at
having survived while others died, combined with the pain of the enduring
division of Korea and the harshness of military dictatorship, to inspire
a series of novels and short stories in which the burden of pain is expressed
in a variety of symbolic ways.
His first novel, Abojiui ttang (Father's land, 1984)
is centered on the desire for reunification and expresses the dramatic
separation that exists between the generation of the parents, who fought
the Korean War, and that of the young who are forced to endure its consequences
This was followed by another seven novels of which one,
Ku some kago sip'ta (I long to go to that island, 1991) was made into a
widely-acclaimed film. It evokes some of the most painful memories of the
Korean War, when soldiers of one side disguised themselves in the uniforms
of the other, forced simple villagers to declare their allegiance, then
executed those who chose the wrong side. It poses in stark terms the question
of how Korea can overcome the wounds of the past.
Inevitably, Im finds the most intense expression of such
tensions in the difficulties of the father-son relationship and this is
the subject of stories in his latest publication Tungdae areso huip'aram
(Whistling under the lighthouse, 1994).
The short novella published here was originally published
under the title Ku pam horongpul palkhigo. It represents a particularly
harsh attack on the futility of war, which is shown to be utterly meaningless.
Against the background of the ruins left by the Korean War, the author
stresses the value of human relationships, of simple brotherhood. Amidst
intense suffering, he portrays an archetypal tale of death and rebirth.
With Her Oil Lamp, That Night
As the night deepened the moon rose.
Swollen tight as if about to burst, it was the pregnant
full moon of the last month of the year. With the moon it became bright
in the wooded hillside. Though packed with trees whose trunks were of an
arms' circumference, most of them were deciduous, and through the gaunt
leafless twigs the moon cast dappled light on the ground, revealing scrubs
and dried-up brambles.
Reflecting on the snow that had fallen a couple of days
before, the moonlight was also creating mystic patches of luminosity here
and there. On this particular night, apart from the occasional rustling
of dry oak leaves, all around was so quiet. It was almost eerie.
Not a sound came from the foot of the hill. He laid down
his gun, leaned against a rock and looked down towards it. Opposite, in
the distance, he could see a bulky peak which he reckoned to be Red Cliff,
and nearer, on the level ground, he could make out dimly, under the moonlight
the paddies and dry fields. At the point where the fields met the bottom
of the hill, there nestled in a dip the village of Chong-pungni.
So the white ribbon that edged round the field below
must be the road to Dongbokmyon. Follow it up the slope of the hill and
you would be at the entrance to Chon-pungni, and from there you saw the
thatched roofs coming into sight one after anther. All these now dimly
seen beneath the moonlight he could see vividly with his eyes closed. The
four hundred year-old zelkova tree at the entrance to the village and the
stone monuments beneath it, honouring some person's virtue or another's
filial piety. The thin stream that runs alongside the road and the ridge
between the fields where he used to twirl a tin-full of fire on the night
of the Moon Festival in the first month of the year. And past the shrine,
the dyke of the reservoir, the only spot where you could fly a kite high
even on a windless day. In the evening, when you came home, after working
all day in the fields, as you walked past the zelkova tree and turned into
the village you saw those friendly thatched cottages standing close, cheek
to cheek, and from each chimney smoke rising white like tressess of cotton
In this familiar village he had been born and lived until
he was nineteen. The alleyways covered in ox dung, every stone of the garden
walls-there was not a corner that his eyes had not touched. Until then
he had hardly been away from home except for odd market days when he had
gone as far as the District Office. He could count on his fingers the number
of trips he had made to the town, which was a half day's journey through
the mountain paths. That was the extent to which he had been bound to his
Ah, what a state to be in - home right here in front
of my nose, and yet I can't go down there...
The more he thought about it the more helpless he grew.
He felt as if he could leap down the slope and walk through the familiar
brushwood gate calling "Mum!" The chilling touch of metal on his side stifled
his impulse. He let out a low sigh. Then he started involuntarily as he
cast a sidelong glance. Not far off, beneath a tree two of them were talking
to each other about something in whispers. Their voices were too low for
him to catch. He once again dropped his eyes to the foot of the hill.
The village was as quiet as death. Under the moon the
thatched roofs gathered close, globular, like the domes of graves and there
was no sign of life or movement.
It was now three months since an evacuation order had
been declared within a fifty-li perimeter of Mudung Mountain. In the village,
there were only empty cottages looking desolate. Most of them were burnt
out and few were in their proper state. Even the common sound of barking
dogs had ceased and when morning came no cock crowed. Not only at Chong-pungni
- but even in the direction of the District office, near the Red Cliff,
there was not a single light to be seen. The chain of hills starting from
Mount Mudung lay like a huge reptile with deep creases.
At an unexpected sound behind him, his neck automatically
twisted. Something slipped swiftly into a heap of dry grass - probably
Bloody creature! It frightened me to death.
A little way off, Choi subang grumbled as he squatted
down again and the boy also rubbed his chest with relief as he sat down.
The moon was now much higher.
Again he looked down at the village. Then his roaming
gaze became fixed, unaware of himself, on a single spot. There was a grove
of bamboo at the northern end of the village. Shortly before you reached
it there was a particularly low cottage set apart from the rest. You could
just distinguish its outline, with paddies and vegetable patches in front
and behind, nearly hidden in the shadow of the hill.
Involuntarily he clenched his fists as his body trembled.
He felt a smarting in the bridge of his nose.
It was his home. It was where his navel cord had been
cut, the one-roomed hut where he had lived alone with his mother, through
his childhood, the crusty scabs on his head attracting blue bottles, and
snuffling yellow snot in and out of his nose, till the time when the hair
beneath it began to turn dark.
He was silent as he watched it. Familiar scenes from
inside it began to float before him. The ivy-covered stone walls and the
platform of sauce-jars; the persimmon and the date trees that used to yield
not ungenerous amounts of fruit in autumn; and the treadmill in the vegetable
plot in the backyard. There should also be the pig-sty that he had made
himself - was it two years ago? On the earthen wall behind the house would
be hanging tools such as the plough, the pick, the sickle, and the ropes,
every one of them steeped with his sweat - they must be still waiting for
their master's return.
What would have become of mother? Is it possible that
He shook his head as he tried to rid himself of evil
premonitions. But as he looked down on the village gloomy like a cemetery,
or the fields with no sign of human activity, ominous thoughts continually
tugged at the back of his mind.
He tried to work out how long it was since he had come
into the hills. Paddies with advanced rice plants had begun to turn yellowish,
so it must be roughly four months. On the morning when the news came that
the Police had entered the town, he had run away, in confusion, to the
hills with the Communist members of the Youth Defence Force who had straggled
behind at the District Office. The retreat of the Northern Army had been
rather a hasty affair, and they had hardly expected the advance of the
Southern Police to be so rapid. So they retreated in a rush but the escape
routes had all been cut off.
In the meantime autumn came. The mountain ridges were
white with reeds in flower in abundance. Now snow was piling up on them,
and it was already the middle of the last month of the year.
Since they had dug holes in the hills and started to
live like moles, their situation had undergone great changes. At first
there were forty-five of them who had come up through the hills behind
Chong-pungni. Within a few days, the number increased to over seventy for
stragglers from other villages as far as Damyang had joined with them.
They were a disorderly rabble, more than a half of them people who had
eked out a living by digging the soil. Only twenty-two of them had rifles.
The rest had to cut spears from bamboo. Each time they went down the hill
to get food, the captain repeatedly stressed that a bullet was to be used
only in exchange for their life. Pillage started and the buildings in the
town such as the police station, district offices and village offices were
burnt down. And the number of the force had dwindled to just over forty.
Somebody approached. It was Choi subang.
"Is everything OK here?"
"Yes. It's all quiet."
He looked out, behind Choi's back, for the other man.
He was still where he had been and was having a pee. He was said to be
a native of Nam-myon and they had become acquainted. He was about the same
age as Choi subang. Choi came over and squatted beside him as he lay on
"Poor boy. Hungry, eh?"
To avoid the whiff of bad breath from Choi's mouth, he
stealthily turned away and gave a wry smile. Come to think of it all he
had had was a lump of rice mixed with soya bean at about mid-day.
"Young ones like you, what crime have you committed?
You and me, it's all because we were born in the wrong world."
"Hush, uncle. Somebody might hear you."
He cast a quick glance over his shoulder with an embarrassed
look. The man pissing pulled up his trousers as he settled down where he
"I don't care, they can't do anything worse then kill
The young one uneasily scanned the side of his face.
Under the moonlight it was somewhat puffy and the colour of lead. His beard,
not shaved for a long time, was bushy around his jaw.
He noticed that Choi was also staring down in the direction
of the village, probably looking for his house. Maybe he was listening
for the thump of the machinery in the rice-mill. He had an unusually shy
wife and a daughter. It seemed only a couple of days ago that he had seen
him with his wife in the courtyard of the rich man, Hwang's mill-house,
their heads covered in white powder as they worked on the harvest grains.
As if by agreement the two of them abstractedly fixed
their eyes in the direction of the village. Below the cliff face, through
the gaunt branches of a mixture of scrubs, Chong-pungni came into view.
At the entrance, he was sure, the unsightly remainder of a burnt out roof
must be the mill where Choi had worked. The clear moonlight distinctly
showed up the buildings and the square front yard.
Momentarily he fancied that he was hearing the familiar
sound creeping up through the valley. Every year, in spring and autumn
the thumping of the refinery machines used to flow through the alleys day
and night. But now the whole village lay in ruins. With no sign of life
or breathing it seemed truly dead.
"Ah, really! How bright the moon is tonight. And no wind."
Choi subang muttered suddenly as if to himself, and the young man responded,
"Yeah. If it was like this every day, it would be a bit
easier to get by, wouldn't it."
"Look, all the fields show up so clearly. Just down there,
by the reservoir, that blackish spot - that must surely be 'Middle Boulder'
"And round it, the side path that goes over the rapids
- can you see it?"
The two of them stayed in the same posture for a long
time, bent forward over a boulder on the top of the cliff.
Somewhere an owl hooted and the moon had slightly shifted
its position. They remained silent where they were with their heads bent
forward and their gaze fixed on the same spot. No sound came form the other
man near by. He must have dozed off.
Beneath the hill, the fields lay revealed in their entirety
with patches of snow remaining here and there, and the ridges of paddies
and plots curved like the backs of tortoises. Spring, summer, autumn and
winter - each year these fields, without fail, used to greet people draped
in different clothes in different seasons. The silvery waves riding on
the wind over the deep green barley fields and the people standing in line
like dried persimmons on a skewer as they planted out the rice seedlings
in the water-filled paddies - these scenes floated before their eyes as
if in a dream. When the sun rose to its highest point you could see far
off at the entrance to the village children and women hurrying their steps
as they carried on their heads the lunch things for the workers. How the
excited farmer's song broke out swelling and floating over the fields!
"Eiee ehera edoo sangsadeer
One piece at the edge is the share for the youngest,
"Eiee ehera edoo sangsadeer
One piece by the dyke is the share of the father..."
In the wood, the wind had dropped. The calm. All things
on earth held their breath while in the sky the pregnant moon alone was
getting fuller and fuller as if ready to burst.
Then it happened. "Uh!" Choi subang was the first to
utter a moan.
"Why? What on earth was that?"
He lifted his head in a flash as he let out a moan himself.
Something amazing had happened before their eyes.
Far below, in a corner of the village, almost tucked
away by the edge of the hill, a light had appeared. It was an empty village.
More than two months had passed since the evacuation order was declared
and everyone had left. There was no reason to believe that a light could
be lit in anyone's house. Not only had the people all left but even the
animals had been dragged away. Some people had gone as far as to set fire
to the houses they were leaving - there was no explanation at all for the
"How... what on earth is going on down there." Choi subang
mumbled as if in delirium and the boy kept rubbing his eyes. However incredible,
there was no doubt that it was a light. On the edge of the village of huddled-up
cottages - from the lone hut set aside, close to the bamboo grove a thread
of light was filtering out.
"Wait a minute. Come to think of it, it is..."
No sooner had Choi opened his mouth than the boy's jaws
had started rattling violently.
"Why, surely that is... your house?" Choi let out a low
cry as he forcefully gragbbed the boy's shoulder.
"I don't think so. How could it be..."
"I'm sure, it is. Absolutely sure."
The Choi, with a sudden jerk of his head, examined the
movement of the man a short way off. At last, it seemed that he had also
noticed the light.
"Comrade Choi, what is that?" he quickly came up to them.
"When did that appear?"
"Do you think it's the police?"
"Maybe... But why would they show a light?"
"You never know. It could be that they are sending out
Saying that he ought to report it, he hurriedly disappeared
towards the cave. The two of them were left alone.
He still stared incredulously at the light, his eyes
wide. It can't be... He tightened his fists. They were shaking like aspen.
There was no doubt about it. It was his own house. The
chink of light, the colour of a soft persimmon that leaked through the
gap in the sliding doors pasted with layer after layer of old rice paper
- however you wiped your eyes to make sure, it was his house.
Ah, mother, mother!
To keep himself from bursting into tears he bit his lip
till it bled. Even so, he ended up by breaking down. He knew. It was his
mother. This night, with the oil lamp on, his mother was sitting alone.
She was waiting for her son.
He buried his face in his hands. The choking sound of
a strange moan began to issue. Suddenly there was the disorderly sound
of running feet.
"Stop it, boy. Be careful or you'll die. Say that you
know nothing. Whatever happens, you must say it's not your house, got it?"
Frightened Choi's voice was vigorously trembling. The son closed his eyes
tight. The moon glinted beneath his eyelashes.
Somewhere the owl hooted again. The moon was now at its
highest point in the sky.
The mother brought her hands to a stop. An owl was calling.
It was from the direction of the woods. For a few minutes she was stockstill,
in an uncertain manner as she listened. A strip of paper torn off the door
lay across the threshold, sinister like a thin snake, and pieces were missing
from the lattice. The dim lamp lit the worn paper pasted on it, with several
holes. It was all quiet outside. Not even the whisper of a breeze brushing
through the reeds.
A deep sigh issued from between her lips. She turned
her eyes away from the door as she resumed her work. Left for so long,
the floor was covered in dust. Unlike others, she had left it without nailing
it up just in case her son might come. He would be walking through rough
mountain paths if he did. What if he came home only to find not only that
his mother was not there, but the room nailed up so that he could not even
for a short while step out of the mid-winter wind that pierced his bones,
and had to turn back - she could not let that happen.
As she roughly wiped off the dust with a damp rag, she
examined every corner hoping that she might find some sign that he had
been back in her absence, but there was none.
"Aigo, poor child. In this cold what can he be eating
in the woods? and what does he have to wear?" With a half sigh and half
lamentation, she mumbled as with one hand she wiped away her tears and
with the other mopped up the dust.
A flutter - even though there was no wind, the flame
of the lamp collapsed and came up again. With a start she turned her head
toward the door. It was just as it had been shut. She clicked her tongue,
put aside her rag and brought out from a corner a small parcel which she
began to unwrap.
Some sweet potatoes, dried fish and an old wooden container
in which were several side dishes of dressed vegetables. For the last she
took out from the bottom of the bundle a small parcel wrapped in cloth.
Inside it was a half measure of millet that she had scrounged off a relative
a few days ago. Admittedly, it was war-time, but it was a world in which
getting hold of a handful of rice was harder than it might be at the end
of three years of famine. Rice had been taken away from people voluntarily
and involuntarily so that the rice jar got low anyway, and those who had
some left kept it in deep hiding as they ate it little by little. For the
others, without rice, a handful of mixed grain was the highest luxury they
could hope for. You were lucky if you could manage to find sweet potatoes
or make gruel of dry cabbage leaves.
The mother went round to the kitchen. She fumbled for
the oil lamp, lit it and took a large gourd bowl, covered with dust, from
the shelf and stepped out through the back door. The well was in the backyard,
close to the fence. It was more like a spring than a well. You did not
need a pail to drop in to draw water. The water was covered with a thick
sheet of ice. She fetched a stone from the jar-stand and broke the ice.
Each time the stone and the ice clashed a sharp clang resounded, piercing
the darkness and dispersing pointlessly in all directions. At last the
ice split into two, she scooped out small pieces of it, fallen leaves and
bits of straw.
Squatting she was about to dip her gourd in the water
when her hand was suddenly suspended. There was the moon. Whenever it had
come, the pregnant full moon, tight as if to burst, was lightly floating
in the well. She abstractedly stared at the white reflection. Around it
there were also reflections of the thin branches of the persimmon tree.
It looked as though the moon was trapped by them, unable to go further
and kept in captivity. Momentarily someone's face was about to overlap
the white and lovely face of the moon when she dipped with a splash her
gourd. The moon broke into small pieces.
"Oh, dear. Seven Stars and Mountain Gods, tell me how
and why my fate turned out to be this misery." She muttered a sing-song-like
lamentation as she rinsed the millet while the moon was again creeping
up into the water.
Back in the kitchen, she set the grain in a cooking pot,
a Japanese one from which one handle was missing. Then she began to make
fire in the ondol stove. As she fed it with wood she was again snuffling.
It was the firewood her son had gathered in the early summer of last year.
"That'll do. You don't have to pile up so much all at
once. You'll be wearing yourslf out."
"While I am at it, I might as well make sure there's
enough. Once the rainy season starts, it'll be tiresome to go about."
The vision of him, speaking light-heartedly as he put
down with ease his jigye flared up with the bright flames in the stove.
She had still regarded him as a child but when she saw him carrying on
his back the bundles of firewood piled higher than his own height and entering
with ease the gateway, she had been so proud. As she said to herself "He's
nearly a man," the pride and happiness she felt had been as great as the
load he was lowering. At that time how her heart had swelled at the thought
that when hopefully the war was over very soon, she would search for a
smart young lady and get him married...
When she had put more wood in the stove she went into
the room where she set out a table at the warm end. She searched her memory.
"Wait a minute, where did I put it?" After opening and rummaging through
a chest of drawers at the other end of the room she produced a photograph
in a frame. It was her husband. Turned yellow, it had hung on the wall
until the day of the evacuation order, when she had hidden it among the
She brought it close to the light and looked at the man
in the picture for a long time. Were her eyes matted or was it due to a
cobweb? Her vision became blurred. Then at last tears rose to her bleary
"Eigoo. You, heartless man. It was just as well you went.
This blighted life - what is there worth struggling to live on for? You
don't have to face these horrible things one way or another. It was really
best that you went."
She mumbled on to herself as she stroked the photo with
her rough hand.
Her husband, Oh subang, had passed away even without
leaving his body behind. It was as if he had offered his good life to some
foreign soil for no good reason at all. He who had said that he would come
back within half a year as he gave her a big smile and walked over the
brow of the hill had for no rhyme or reason floated back in the form of
a piece of paper. It informed her that he had died somewhere in one of
the islands in the Southern Sea. That was all. She did not receive so much
as a piece of his bone or a strand of his hair. When the men were returning
home from their compulsory labour after the country's liberation from Japan,
she had waited, hope against hope, with outstretched neck for his return
squeezed amidst the homecoming band, but it was all in vain. From then
till now, she had lived alone with her son.
She carefully stood the framed picture on the table and
set on it the dishes she had prepared. After all, she thought, it was such
a mean table for an offering, not good enough even for a common labourer
in good times. The twisted end of a dry pollack, dried marrow and bean
sprouts... that was all. Thanks to the millet she had been able to get
hold of, she reckoned she was lucky for she could offer at least some cooked
grain, not the gruel of dry cabbage leaves. She brought in from the kitchen
the cooked millet as the main dish. After taking out a bowlful there was
still about half left in the pot. If only my son was here now... With such
futile thoughts she kept turning her wet eyes to the door.
"Look dear. You must be starving, coming all that long
way. Those damned 'South Sea Islands' or whatever they call them - I hear,
they're far far away beyond the seas. Do take some of this meagre food,
rest a bit and then you must depart again." As she said this, she put a
big spoonful of the millet in a bowl of wather and offered it with the
spoon to the dead. It was an intimate and caring tone of voice as if to
someone sitting beside her. Then she sat back from the table and absentedly
stared at it. She could almost see the face of her husband who used to
shovel in mouthfuls of rice. Then the face changed into that of her son.
The owl was calling again from the direction of the wood.
Flap. There was no draught but the flame of the lamp
fell low and then picked itself up. Her shadow on the wall momentarily
lengthened and then contracted.
Listen. She jumped. She thought she heard a sound. Hurriedly
she opened the door. The yard was overflowing with moonlight but there
was no movement there. Raising her eyes she looked at Moodung Mountain
in the far distance. The great bulk of it came in view crouching dark.
Above its ridges, the sky was studded with stars, unusually clear. On this
particular night the mountain seemed pitch-black. The mother felt that
only the hills were covered in the blackest of the black while all things
on earth were revealed under the moonlight.
She closed the door and weakly sat down.
"Aigoo, a bad son. I wonder whether he's even remembered
it was his father's anniversary?"
The dream of last night kept bothering her. She had been
sitting in the room just as she was now. Then suddenly her son appeared.
"Mother, it's me! I've come back." He stood there with a bright smile.
He was wearing white cotton clothes. As she closely examined them, she
recognised them as those of her husband. She was sure about that. It had
been such a vivid dream and after waking she felt as if her son was really
lying beside her.
Is it possible... Yes. That's right. He may really turn
up. He'd know it's his father's anniversary. He will find out that I am
waiting for him like this. He will come at once. Of course, he will.
Suddenly her eyes were full of life. She raised the wick
as far as it would go. The room became brighter. Yes, this light will reach
the middle of the wood. As soon as he sees it he will run down in one breath.
Running down the hill, coming past the shrine, going round the bamboo grove
and now he's running along the bank of the paddy. "Mother. It's me. I've
come home." At any minute now he will push back the brushwood gate and
rush in, calling me breathlessly.
Ah, my son!
She ran to the door and flung it open. The chilly night
air scraped her cheeks like blades. Flap, the flame on the lamp collapsed.
Her body leaning as if lost against the door flopped down to the floor.
The yard was totally empty. The moonlight, moonlight. The white light from
the full moon of the last month of the year, tight pregnant as if ready
to burst, alone in all its richness poured down before her eyes.
At last bitter sobs burst forth from her lips. The hairpin
holding her bun slid to the floor but she did not make any move to do it
up again. Each time she swallowed her sobs the long, loose tress of her
thin hair, half of it white, shook ominously.
"How I brought up that child... What does he mean to
me... A sob... Whether one is red or yellow it doesn't mean a thing to
me. Whatever such a thing means. I just don't care, only let my son come
back to me."
Tears streamed down her cheeks as she tore at her clothes.
Then she suddenly held up her face. A strange smile rose to her lips.
"This won't do. Why am I being so thoughtless. Of course,
he's coming. If things are really difficult, the spirit of his father will
set out and bring him back. Of course, it will."
"It is no time to be idle. They say, don't they, that
people from the woods drop in and leave again like the wind. I ought to
feed him solidly first and then clothe him warmly before sending him away."
She quickly opened the chest of drawers and took out some
clothes. They were the very ones, the cotton clothes that she had seen
him wearing in her dream. They were all that was left from her husband's
clothes. She had meant to give them to him some day. As she stroked them,
she thought the cotton padding was rather thin. She got out of the chest
her own cotton-padded bloomers and tore open the seams to pull out the
cotton wool. She settled down with a needle and thread. She found it very
hard to thread the needle. Screwing up her dim eyes in the light she aimed
and aimed at the hole but it looked as if it was a holeless needle. She
wetted the end of the thread and pushed it again and through what she guessed
was the hole. After trying dozens of times, she luckily succeeded. With
deep sighs, she began to sew the padding with neat stitches.
The night grew deeper. The moon was now at its highest
point and the owl called intermittently. As the whole world slept in silence
the dim light squeezing through the crack in the sliding doors of the cottage
at the foot of the hill stayed on till the night was quite advanced.
Now and again she stopped her sewing hand and pricked
up her ears to the outside of the door.
Her body started and then convulsed. A sound. For some
time now, she had sensed there was some strange sound. With the needle
in her hand she pricked up her ears again. But there came no sound now.
Probable my mind is going. She shook her head as she resumed her sewing.
Was the wind rising again? All around was unsettled. The wind as it swept
through the bamboo, swished the leaves.
"Ahh, uhh." The sound again. At the same time the needle
stuck deep into her thumb. Crimson blood oozed out and dropped onto the
white cotton staining it. There was definitely someone outside. She slowly
rose to her feet and hesitated for a moment before opening the door. No,
there's nobody. She stepped out of the room, put on her shoes, stepped
down to the courtyard and looked round. The gate was half open. She clearly
remembered closing it earlier on. Her body shook spasmodically.
There was that sound again. There was someone in the
yard. She took her shaking steps in the direction of the shed.
"Who is it? Who is in there?" She managed to say this
before the shed. Her jaws violently rattled.
"Aw, it hurts. It hurts."
The mother's heart sank. It was no imagination. A woman's
voice came from inside the shed.
"Who are you and what are you doing in the middle of
She could not finish her sentence as she let out a shrill
scream. A dark human shape came crawling out before her feet. When the
body was fully out of the shed the moonlight revealed its identity.
"My goodness, who's this? This crazy thing - how did
she get here?"
She recognized the face at once. It was the mad woman
known to everyone in the town. It was not clear just when this woman of
about twenty two or three, first came into the town. No one knew where
she came from or what drove her to such a state. They gathered that she
was from the north and had drifted in with the waves of refugees. She was
with child. With pitiably swollen belly she just kept smiling meaningless
smiles to everybody, but when asked questions she never gave a sensible
answer. To tell the truth, in a world where human hearts had turned hard
due to the on-going war, you could hardly expect much hospitality to be
spared for a mad woman like her. If after roaming the alleyways of the
market she was found dropped dead beneath a bridge on a bitter winter morning
it was hardly likely that anyone would bother to stop and look at her.
"I can't believe it. How on earth did this crazy thing
drop in here?"
The mother was dumbfounded. Come to think of it, she
now remembered that she had happened to see her in the earlier part of
For the past few days, as her husband's anniversary approached,
there had been an inward struggle. Unless she herself was out of her mind
and had forgotten it, she could not let it pass without offering a memorial
table. She had thought of doing it in the backroom of the relatives's house
where she was staying as a hanger-on, but decided otherwise. She could
not hold a memorial with only a bowl of water in someone else's house.
Besides, she was suffering all sorts of insults and humiliations from the
village people thanks to her son who had turned out to be "a man in the
hills." Several times she had hoped to bite her tongue and die. Even so,
she had gone on till now carrying on her miserable life. It was only because
of her cherished hope that one day she might see him again.
So on this evening, she had secretly crept into Chong-pungni.
The offering was one thing but on the other hand was that vague hope that
she might find some trace of her son having been down - it was indeed this
vague expectation that made her take such a dangerous risk, for since the
evacuation order, Chong-pungni remained an area where all entry was strictly
The mother had come across the mad woman shortly before
she reached the small turning into the village. Squatting by the roadside,
her hands round an enormously swollen belly, she was trembling. The mother
nearly passed her by but checked by some feeling of pity, she had stopped.
Her big belly looked as if the delivery was due today or tomorrow. Her
heart was uncommonly sore at the thought that if, in her wandering, it
started by the road side on this bitter night, what would happen? The mother
pushed a few sweet potatoes into her hands and saw her smile despite her
sick mind, before biting into them like a starving devil.
"Tst, tst, poor thing. You must have had some sense even
momentarily. To save your life did you follow me up?" The mother helped
her up and propping her brought her into the room. Once in the warmth,
she opened her eyes wide and then collapsed weakly on to the floor. The
mother got out an old quilt and covered her. As the mother looked down
at her, her teeth chattering and eyes closed, she reflected how terrible
it must have been for her out in this cold. She blamed herself for not
having gone earlier to look out. She went to the kitchen and put an extra,
generous supply of wood into the stove.
When she came in shortly after, she encountered an extraordinary
scene. The mad woman must have suddenly got up and now held in her hand
the bowl of millet from the sacrificial table, and was tucking in to it
with her fingers.
"Look at this bitch. Whose food do you think that is?"
But it was too late. The grain was stuck all over her
dirty fingers. The mother was at the end of her wits. The mad woman, frightened,
feebly retreated backwards casting sidelong glances, her fingers thrust
into her mouth. Then she suddenly started screaming.
"No. it's not. I don't know. I, I am not a Red, I'm telling
you." Her face contorted in fear, the woman kept rubbing her palms together.
The mother weakly dropped her raised fist as her own memories came flooding
"You old bitch, hand him over. The bastard that came
out of your hole killed my husband."
"No. The bitch is one of the pack. Kill her, finish her
off! Ask her what good times she has come to after killing off innocent
people like chickens."
The blood-shot eyes of the women darted towards her.
Someone grasped hold of her hair by the roots. With a snapping sound the
ribbons of her jacket were torn off. Gripped in the hands of the women
she was dragged along the ground. They were the same people who, until
a few days ago, had called her elder sister, aunty and so on.
"This is madness. The whole world has turned upside down
and gone stark mad. Everybody's out of their minds." The mother mumbled
to herself as she looked down at the mad woman constantly rubbing her palms
and repeating "No, I don't know." Unexplainable waves of sorrow surged
up in her.
"Oh, dear. Poor thing. I see now that you must have been
in the wrong world, just like me. Never mind whose it is. Eat it and get
your strength back. You will need it, to give birth to a baby. Come on,
finish it off. It's all right."
The mother thrust out the bowl of millet with a gesture
encouraging her to eat. She examined the situation for a moment and then
snatching up the bowl started gorging herself. Then suddenly she threw
it away as she grasped her waist and broke into shriekings.
"It's hurting. It's hurting."
She pounded the floor as she screamed. The mother, after
casting a glance at her belly hurriedly went out to the kitchen.
"Oh, dear. She's going into labour. What must I do? What
a thing to happen on this particular night, of all nights."
Above all they would need hot water. As she went to the
well with quick steps, carrying a water crock, the thought of her son flashed
through in her mind. He appeared in my dream last night. Was it to foretell
this? She dipped her gourd withe a splash into the well where the moon
"Isn't it going to be another wasted operation?"
Hiding behind a ridge of the field Lieutenant Kang muttered
to himself. He looked at his watch. Bending his hand over its face to keep
out the reflected moonlight he saw the hands. Eleven-thirty. Damn it, already
as late as that! It means we've been hiding for exactly four hours. Still
it's not too bad really compared to other times when we spent the whole
night during field operations. Besides, it is incredibly warm tonight.
It's supposed to be the last month of the year but the air brushing my
skin is far from being bitter.
He looked around him as he pushed his helmet slightly
back. Close by him, also leaning against a furrow was Yang and a little
further down with just over ten metres' gap a whole squad was in hiding.
The third squad had been left in charge of the opposite side, around the
bamboo grove on the righth and side of the isolated cottage. He had also
posted the second squad at the rear of it. A short while ago the liaison
officer had been with the message that so far no suspicious movement had
been spotted. Kang sent him away with instructions to pass round: "Tell
them to be alert. The bastards usually come down at this time. It is crucial
from now on. Also tell the squad leaders that they are not in any circumstances
to shoot before the signal."
The wind was beginning to rise. It came from the direction
of the woods. He flared his nostrils as if he detected hidden in the wind
a whiff of a sinister animal. After leaving a bitter chill on the back
of his neck, the wind swiftly died down. He pulled up the zip of his battle
jacket. Damn, it's turning cold. Hunching his shoulders he shot a sharp
look at the foreground. White beneath the moonlight were the furrows of
vegetable plots at far end of which the slope leading up to the mountain.
On the left were scattered several burial mounds. It would be roughly a
hundred and fifty metres. Thanks to the bright moon, observation was easy.
So must it be for the enemy too. No, it's even more advantageous for them
with the hills behind them. It's most important that we should not be seen.
If they get the slightest inkling of us the whole thing will turn to nothing.
He was glad that at the outset of the operation he had stressed this point.
This time his eyes turned quickly to the isolated house.
A dim light still showed. He tilted his head to one side as he pondered
It's too bold an act. However you think about it, you
can't understand how anyone would keep a light on so recklessly. It is
too open a place to be a contact point, and if the light was to send out
a signal it was not merely dangerous but suicidal. So... was it after all
a false alarm? As he thought that this seemed the only conclusion, Lieutenant
Kang creased his forehead.
When the first report came in it had been seven-thirty.
It said that a woman carrying a bundle had stealthily entered the village.
Chong-pungni at the foot of Moodung Mountain was regarded as a vulnerable
spot where appearances by Communist guerrilas were most frequent. The person
in question was soon identified. A woman in her fifties whose son had joined
the guerrillas in the hills and was required to be watched. Instantly the
alarm was sounded and Kang was ordered to go into action taking a platoon.
From the beginning, however, he had not expected it to be a significant
matter for he had guessed that it was just a bold action by an ignorant
But a hasty conclusion was taboo. He had learned this
through his experience of so many strange and unexpected turns of events.
A fifteen-year-old child could pierce people with a bamboo spear; one lying
word from a sixty-year-old man, at a critical point, could turn a major
operation into a farce - Lieutenant Kang had seen himself and heard such
Trust no one and nothing. You must never relax in the
slightest even if things seemed to be absolutely clear. Whoever it was
could only be either a foe or one of our own. From since some immemorial
time he had been pledging himself to this.
He felt the wind growing stronger. The sound of it brushing
the bamboos disturbed the quiet that surrounded him. He lay down his rifle
and took off his gloves. His finger-tips were really cold. He warmed them
with his breath. His feet inside the boots had frozen stiff long since
but there was nothing he could do about it.
The wind rose again. The Lieutenant nonchalantly looked
up at the sky. Not a speck of cloud. It was cold and clear like a sheet
of ice. And there was the moon. White and round, swollen to bursting. Suddenly
the face of his dead wife overlapped it. He closed his eyes. She had been
shot along with other police families. While he was away at Chongsan-do
with his retreating unit she had taken refuge at her parents' home and
there she had met her fate. The spot where she died was the playground
of the primary school she had attended as a child. He had found out much
later that she had been carrying within her their first child.
Involuntarily his body shook. He could see the faces
of his wife's murderers. Her frightened eyes as she stood facing the muzzle
of the gun. She is collapsing.
"Long live, long live our country," the flushed faces
of the bastards as they raised their arms, leaping like mad - he could
see them before his eyes. the murderers. He gripped the gun in his hands
as if to crush it. Come on. Any one of you bastards, just show up. He gritted
his teeth, his gun aimed at the whole dark mass of the mountain in front.
He put his eye to the sights. At once the huge body of
the mountain closed up to his view. It was black, like a huge monster.
It is the hiding place of those bastards. During the past three months,
there had been over twenty incidents of pillage and arson in the villages
and attacks on public buildings. Kang recalled the faces of his victimised
colleagues. His wife falling to the ground, the child in her womb. At the
thought of this child that he had never seen, he bit his lip. His eyes
were taking on a strange glitter. it was not only tears that squeezed out
of them, it was more like a chilly vemon.
How long had he been like this?
Suddenly he felt his hair standing on end.
"Sir, look over there!" Sergeant Yang by his side whispered
with urgency. They had seen it almost at the same time. Something had emerged
from the scrub at the foot of the hill. It was human. This suspicious figure
was stealthily crawling down the slope past the shrine.
"Wait. Don't fire in any circumstances without the signal."
He issued an order in a lowered voice. Cold sweat broke out all over his
body. The figure had now entered the furrows of the vegetable plot. I see,
so that was that. He was just turning towards that lone house.
At that moment, something quite unexpected occured. The
shadowy figure that had until then been crawling cautiously suddenly leapt
up and started to sprint towards the house. As if being chased by someone,
he was running with all his might across the ridges. He had reached a point
about half-way between the house and the foot of the hill.
Unexpected reports of gun fire tore up the night sky.
Lieutenant Kang, watching with bated breath started. It was quite extraordinary
that the sound of the shots should come from the direction of the hillside.
He gave the order to fire. At last tremendous sounds of rifle fire tore
apart the fields of Chong-pungni and the mountain valleys loudly echoed
them. It was at this moment that the figure running towards the lonely
house fell to the ground. It seemed to have stopped moving for a while
but it got to its feet once again. Whit a severe limp it took a few steps.
Another round of shooting ensued. With the house in the middle bullets
shot from both sides of the fields and the foot of the mountain fell like
rain. Amidst this the figure was seen finally collapsing to the ground.
It never rose again. Over its prostrate body bullets busily flew to and
fro between the two sides. It was not at all possible to tell which side's
bullet had finally felled him.
Collapsed between the rows of furrows of the plot, the
man still had some breath left for a little while.
"Mother, it's me. I've, I've co... come home."
He doggedly tried to drag his body towards the house.
The colour of a well-ripe persimmon, the light squeezing through the door
flew warmly into his dimming vision. "Ah, mother." He stretched out his
hand but his voice feebly faded in his mouth. It was at that very moment
that through the crack in the firmly shut sliding doors a new-born infant's
feeble cry began to flow out.
Translated by Dr. Agnita M. Tennant, who is teaching
at Sheffield University (U.K.).