Sohn Chang-sop was born in Pyongyang, Pyonganbuk-do, in
1922. After an unhappy, poverty-stricken youth in Manchuria, he attended
Nippon University in Japan dropping out to return to Korea and find work.
He taught at an elementary school and later edited a literary magazine.
His career commenced with a relatively well-received serialization of Yalgujun
Bi (A Strange Rain, 1949) to continue with such noteworthy works as Konghyuil
(Holiday, 1952), Hyolsuh (Written in Blood, 1955), Ingan Dongmulwon Cho
(A Sketch of the Human Zoo, 1955), Nakseojok (Scribblers, 1959), and Bubu
(Husband and Wife, 1962). Sohn received the Hyundae Munhak (Contemporary
Writing) Literary Award for Beginning Writers in 1955 and the Dongin Literary
Award for his short story Ingyoingan (Superfluous Men, 1958) in 1959.
Sohn Chang-Sop is a prime exponent of the poignantly realistic
stories of the post-war period of the 1950s. The stories represent his
chief contribution to modern Korean literature. Set some ten years after
the Korean War, they depict indick and at the same time indic the decade's
corruption and social abuses. The author's versatility is exemplified in
his masterly creation of characters, at times eccentric and even psychotic,
yet perpetually groping for the meaning of life. Often jobless and physically
disabled, they fail to adapt to the society which more often than not shatters
them. It is a world filled with orphans and prostitues along dark streets;
death and poverty; moral corruption-all pervaded by complete despair.
"Superfluous Men"(1958), one of Sohn's most representative
stories, paints a gloomy picture of the post-war period.. It deals with
misfits estranged from society by their own choice or by some outside force.
But it is unique among Sohn's stories for its essentially affirmative portrayal
of character. The ultimate irony is that society dismisses these characters
as "superfluous." The tone of the story is pessimistic with an underlying
yet unmistakable human pathos.
In Man-ki's Dental Clinic, two other people-apart from
Suh Man-ki the dentist and Hong In-suk the nurse-regularly occupy the office.
One of them is Chae Ik-Jun, the indignantly righteous moralist and the
other is Chun Bong-woo, the man of obscurity.
Both of them went to the same middle school as the dentist,
Suh Man-ki. There were times when these two would arrive and read the morning
papers even before the dentist himself came to the office. Ik-jun would
stand in front of the entrance which was locked with a big American-made
lock, and greet the nurse, "I beat you today, Miss Hong."
On days like this, it was easier for In-suk to carry
out the regular morning cleaning ritual since Ik-jun insisted on helping
her out. Even though the hospital waiting room and the examining room added
up a mere five pyung, Ik-jun would personally wet the wooden floors and
sweep the corners and even sweep under the tables. At such times, it was
easy to see his ruthlessly dominant character that always took the initiative,
regardless of the nature of the work. After the cleaning, Ik-jun would
practically throw his short plump body on the waiting room couch and read
the morning papers. Meanwhile the hospital head and Chun Bong-woo would
arrive at the office one after the other.
Today, Ik-jun once again helped the nurse clean up the
office, took his usual seat in the waiting room and got down to the morning
papers. It would be hard to find such a devoted newspaper reader. He took
more than an hour to read the two newspapers to which the hospital subscribed,
starting from the very first letter of the first line to the very last
word of the last line, leaving out nothing, be it an article, an advertisement,
whatever. He didn't just stop at reading the papers. He also never failed
to severely criticize the articles in his own ruthless manner. Even at
this very moment, Ik-jun, while reading the newspaper, punched the small
table in front of him with his fist and exclaimed in anger, "These scumbags
should all burn in hell!"
Not able to overcome his emotions, he stood up still
holding the paper. He rushed to the examining room and shoved the paper
into the nurse's face.
"Miss Hong, take a look at this. These rascals deserve
to be hanged!"
He glared fiercely and gnashed his teeth. In the local
section of the paper, there was an article about a pharmaceutical company
which smuggled large quantities of packets from overseas, filled them with
counterfeit stuff that was harmful to the body and sold them as high-quality
foreign medicine, amassing a large amount of illegal won. While In-suk
read the article, Ik-jun, unable to suppress his anger, walked to and fro
between the examining room and the waiting room, grumbling to himself.
When In-suk gave the paper back to him, he rolled it up and slapped the
chair next to him.
"So what do you think, Miss Hong? How should we punish
"Well, it's obvious. They'll be punished by the law."
Then, Ik-jun got even more furious and confronted In-suk
as if she herself were the criminal.
"What? Punished by the law? How could we give these lowdown
assholes that kind of lukewarm legal treatment? How could you be satisfied
with that treatment? That's bull shit! Not on your life! Those scumbags
should have their throats twisted at once. Or even better, they should
be shot to death. Yeah, we should just kill them on the spot. On top of
that, their heads should be cut off and hung in the quad, like they used
to do in the old days. They should really be condemned to capital punishment."
"Why sir? Why be so hard on them?" Miss Hong asked.
"Hard on them? You mean we should grant them some years
in prison, allow them to eat and sleep well, and then set them free?"
Angrily glancing at In-suk, Ik-jun asked, "Look, Miss
Hong, do you know why we are so poor? Do you know why our country is becoming
more and more impoverished like this? All this is because of these rascals.
They are traitors just like Lee Wan Yong. They don't care whether the country
is ruined or whether our countrymen die from using fake medicine as long
as their stomachs are kept full. They are worse than murderers. These sorts
of crimes happen because these scumbags are not given the capital punishment
treatment. Even if I could literally grind their bones and eat them, I
still wouldn't feel half satisfied...."
Ik-jun, still unable to get rid of the anger inside him,
continued to gnash his teeth. Returning back to his seat in the waiting
room and getting back to other articles in the newspaper, he suddenly groaned.
"Those rascals really deserve to die...."
By the time he had read all the articles and calmed down
considerably, the dentist, Dr. Suh, entered the office with his usual gentle
"Come on in!" Ik-jun greeted him as usual, and as soon
as Man-ki put on his white gown and sat down, he started to moan.
"Look, Man-ki, have you ever seen such shameless crooks!"
As Ik-jun opened the newspaper and sat next to Man-ki,
his face once again flushed with excitement. Man-ki responded, smiling
gently, "I figured you'd be outraged when I read the paper at home." He
opened the cigarette case on the table and offered it to Ik-jun. Ik-jun
picked up one cigarette.
"Am I the only one enraged by this? You mean this is
merely the same old thing to you and the rest of the world?"
"That's not what I mean." Man-ki said painfully. "Since
you are more righteous than any of us, it's only natural that you're much
more enraged by the news. But what's the use of all this fuss?"
They lit their cigarettes.
"It's not a matter of being more or less righteous, my
friend. How can you just sit there and observe these wicked villains? How
can I just sit here and do nothing when there is a ball of fire burning
inside my heart?"
Ik-jun seemed to be annoyed by the lack of support on
Man-ki's part. Just then, Bong-woo silently walked in the doorway. As usual,
his tame face seemed to be deprived of sleep. He first looked toward In-suk,
then he turned toward Man-ki and Ik-jun, and grinned flatly. Then he went
and carefully sat in his designated seat, which was at the corner end of
the sofa. At the same moment, Ik-jun, as if he had found the very man to
share his excitement, picked up the newspaper from the table, and shoved
it under Bong-woo's eyes.
"Hey Bong-woo, take a look at this. Look at these criminals
that deserve to be ripped to pieces."
Ik-jun started to get worked up again, the veins on his
forehead popping out. Bong-woo, looking dazed like a man who has just woken
up from deep sleep, glanced at Ik-jun, smiled faintly and then took the
paper from him, but without any interest.
"What is it?"
"What do you mean what is it? You thick-head! Do you
mean to say that your eyeballs cannot make any sense out of this?"
Overcome with anger, Ik-jun pointed at the headline with
his fingertips. Reluctantly but obligingly, Bong-woo murmured the headlines
to himself. He forced himself to read a couple of lines. He then quickly
browsed through the headlines, folded the newspaper, and put it back on
the table. Then he took turns looking at Man-ki's and Ik-jun's faces and
attempted a small smile.
Unable to withhold his anger, Ik-jun yelled at him. "Well,
don't you have anything to say ?"
Bong-woo peeked at Man-ki and Ik-jun as if seeking their
"Doesn't it bother you?" Ik-jun insisted. "It doesn't
matter whether you get ripped off with your eyes wide open?"
"Who says I got ripped off? I didn't really read it yet."
Bong-woo quickly picked up the newspaper once again.
Just then, Ik-jun snatched it from him and threw it back on the table.
"You, gutless, good-for-nothing reject... I never want
to talk to you guys again!"
He turned around haughtily, kicked the door open, and
briskly left the office.
When Ik-jun seemed to have left for the day, Bong-woo,
who remained quite baffled for a while, picked up the newspaper once again,
and scanned the headlines again. It was always the same with Bong-woo.
He arrived at the waiting room looking rather hazy, picked up the papers
which Ik-jun had gone through word by word, and browsed through the headlines.
Then he would pass time, sitting quietly and aimlessly like a patient waiting
to be examined. But his gaze often paused at the nurse. And it was at such
moments that one could notice his eyes beaming with rapture. When his gaze
met with the nurse's, he always looked away awkwardly. Scrawny and tall,
he was a man of few words and as quiet as the shadows, with an absent-minded
expression of one who has just gotten out of bed. Not surprisingly, he
frequently enjoyed napping in his corner seat.
It is interesting to observe him take a nap. He sits
on the sofa with his eyes closed; with his back and neck stiff; and with
his fingers neatly clasped on his lap. Sleeping just like that. Even when
he sleeps at home at night, he is said to remain still without any movement.
He lies flat on his back, facing the ceiling, and sleeps until the next
morning without even the slightest movement. Interestingly enough, however,
this man seemed to lack sleep all the time. This was said to have become
more notable especially after the Korean War. Even when he takes a seat
on the streetcar or the bus, he habitually falls asleep. Even so, he never
misses his stop. In his sleep, he can faintly hear the conductor's voice
as if in a dream. The same is true even at home at night. He is able to
hear all sorts of sounds around him. In his sleep he can hear the clock
ticking, the mouse moving across the ceiling or in the kitchen, his wife
and children talking in their sleep and even the sound of the wind outside.
In other words, of all Bong-woo's five senses, the hearing organ seems
to stay awake while all the other sensory organs are sound asleep. It's
no wonder that he cannot sleep well.
He blamed the cause of this symptom on the Korean War.
He had missed the chance to flee to the south for refuge, and instead he
had spent three months under communist rule, hiding in Seoul. Out of fear
of communists and air attacks, he failed to fall asleep deeply even for
a minute. Twenty-four hours a day, be it night or day, he had never been
able to relax his nerves completely. Such a state of insecurity and tension
became chronic, and this symptom still continued up to this date. As a
result, he was asleep yet awake and awake yet asleep. Therefore, even though
he seemed to be sleeping night and day, he always felt deprived of sleep.
This symptom did not seem to be merely physical but more psychological,
resulting from emotional causes.
Naturally, Bong-woo could not pay much attention to anything.
Although he had been active and ambitious in his middle school days, he
started to lose interest and motivation for things as he came to confront
the real world. After he lost both his parents and brothers in the war,
he became a completely different person, one who seemed to have lost all
interest in human affairs. For example, he couldn't even be a husband to
his wife. His wife - who was away at least half a month either on business
or at her parents' home - was the source of various ugly rumors around
the neighborhood. She had never had a good reputation. It was a known fact
to people that the baby she bore eight months after her marriage to Bong-woo
was not his own child. Bong-woo didn't even know if the second-born was
really his child. It remained a mystery why they still hadn't separated.
According to Man-ki, however, there was quite a good
reason for this. Bong-woo had lost all his vitality and motivation to live
and had to depend on his wife's support. And as for his wife, Bong-woo
was actually quite handy as a husband since he never fussed about his super-industrious
wife who went roaming around doing all the ugly things she wanted to do.
Anyhow, Bong-woo didn't care about his family affairs nor did he care about
worldly affairs. Yet, one strange thing was that when Bong-woo looked at
In-suk, the nurse, his sleepy, hazy eyes seemed to regain the glow of a
wide-awake person. It seemed that Bong-woo was in love with her. Perhaps
the reason he came to the hospital every day was just to see In-suk. This
may be justified by his behavior.
It was almost time to go home and Man-ki and In-suk locked
up the office and went out. Bong-woo, as usual, followed them like a shadow.
In-suk bid farewell to Man-ki and Bong-woo, and walked toward the streetcar
stop. While she was waiting for the streetcar, she noticed that Bong-woo
had followed her and was standing next to her.
"Um.... Where are you off to, sir?"
When In-suk asked him with surprise, Bong-woo pointed
in one direction like a child and mumble, "Over there....."
And he also waited for the streetcar. When In-suk got
on the streetcar, Bong-woo promptly followed her. In the car, Bong-woo
quietly stood next to her and when In-suk got off, he too got off. In-suk
walked ahead until she almost reached her house.
Then she stopped, bowed and bid him good night, and quickly
walked toward her house. Bong-woo sadly watched the back of her figure
as it disappeared into the alley, and when he could no longer see her,
he turned around downheartedly and went back his own way. Bong-woo did
this almost every day. When Man-ki happened to hear this story from In-suk,
he couldn't just let it pass as a mere joke.
Even though Ik-jun and Man-ki had been close since Middle
School, their family backgrounds, hobbies, personalities and attitudes
toward life were entirely different. Man-ki was not a person to get worked
up so easily. He wasn't exactly active either, but he certainly wasn't
fragile like Bong-woo. On the contrary, he might appear delicate on the
outside but he was actually a man of steel on the inside. Fully conscious
of his limitations, he never acted ruthlessly nor did he yield easily.
He worked things out step by step with his ability, effort and sincerity.
He never lost his calm nor his self-righteousness, even when faced with
the most unexpected incident or with the most distasteful person. This
may be a gift of nature, but it is also owing to a well-cultured upbringing.
Born to a high-class family, Man-ki was brought up under
the devoted care of his parents and elders who treated him like a delicate
flower. Good manners and etiquette were natural to him, and he was learned
and cultured in not only art, music and literature, but also in dance,
sports and movies. He was different from the mainstream doctors who regarded
the smell of creosol as the only dignity in life. In addition, Man-ki was
tall and well-built like the Westerners, with a fair countenance and noble
features. His broad and even forehead and his clear, quiet eyes exhibited
his intelligence and nobility. When he spoke to people, he carefully selected
suitable and wise words one by one, like a chess player who selects his
moves. He always treated others with a gentle smile and calm words. Simply
put, he was a British gentleman. In a crowd, his nobility stood out even
more like the sun amidst other lights. Not only that, his skills also excelled
among other dentists. And yet, he was losing his patients to other dental
hospitals at the moment. The reason was simply that his hospital was shabby,
lacking modern facilities and equipment. However, there was nothing Man-ki
could do. In order to attract more patients, he had to get a decent building
in a well-to-do neighborhood and buy the latest dental instruments, but
given the present financial circumstances, this was a remote dream. Not
only the building itself, but even the hospital equipment did not belong
to Man-ki. They belonged to Bong-woo's in-laws. Bong-woo's father-in-law
took it as a mortgage on liability when he was alive, but since it was
too old-fashioned and worn-out to sell, he had rented it out since the
Korean War. Eventually, Man-ki came to rent it through Bong-woo.
It was always Bong-woo's wife who came every month to
collect the rent. Overpowering her brothers, she had practically put the
building and the facilities under her ownership. Because of this outrageously
unbridled woman, Man-ki had been put in an awkward situation on more than
a few occasions. She was apt to visit the hospital. Besides collecting
the rent once a week, she would frequently visit the hospital on the account
of tartar building up in her teeth, cavity, etc. On every visit, she was
heavily made up and elaborately dressed to decorate her ample body. On
such occasions, she and Bong-woo briefly ran into each other in the waiting
room, but that was all. They were as indifferent to each other as strangers
and rarely talked to one another. Bong-woo would immediately retreat to
his half-awake state when his wife approached Man-ki with an intimate smile.
Sometime ago, she had paid a visit to have the tartar scaled from her teeth.
When Man-ki tilted her head backward to scrape between her teeth, she pulled
at his gown with her eyes closed. Then she laughed coyly, with her eyes
still closed. Man-ki, feeling rather perplexed, tried to brush her hand
off, but she pulled at his gown even harder. Helpless, Man-ki went on with
his business trying to cover up the scene so others wouldn't notice anything.
He managed to get the scaling done, and had her rinse her mouth. Only then
did she finally let go of his gown and gargled. She looked at Man-ki, and
"It was so painful, that's why."
Previously, there had been another incident. Decked out
brilliantly, Bong-woo's wife once again showed up with a cavity. She sat
in the examining seat even before Man-ki had offered it. When Man-ki asked
her to open her mouth, she smiled brightly, squinting her eyes. Then she
wiggled her lips and at last deliberately opened her mouth just about one
third of the way.
"Open a little bit wider, ah..."
But even then, she curled her lips and opened her mouth
only one third. She kept smiling with flirting eyes. From then on, Man-ki
couldn't help but be on his guard around her. Actually, Man-ki had always
been popular with women. They always wanted to do him one too many favors.
Although he was an impoverished dentist who had been wearing the same old
suit for several years, his noble features, good build and sophisticated
manner seemed to attract women. Even his sister-in-law seemed to be in
love with him. It was no wonder that his wife occasionally commented, "It's
not really so great to have a handsome husband."
"What on earth do you mean by that?" Man-ki would respond.
"Well, since all the women have their eyes on you, I
feel both guilty and embarrassed."
"That's ridiculous.... Do you really think that I'm that
They joked about it naturally, but Man-ki himself could
not deny that strangely enough, many women were after him. The fact that
most of his regular clientele were young women could not be ignored. Among
the many women patients, there were quite a few who had tried to get him
in various ways. Some of them volunteered to be treated for 10-15 days
when the treatment only needed a week. Others visited with a shirt or some
fabric as a token of appreciation. Man-ki tried to refuse these not-so-innocent
gestures. Some of these women were quite pleasant and attractive, stirring
up little waves in his peaceful heart. But that was all. Man-ki never wanted
to hurt anyone dear to him. Moreover, his wife was very loving and devoted,
and just thinking of her calmed those little waves in his heart.
Despite ten years of a tight, impoverished life, his
wife had supported him with constant love and devotion and looked after
the children with all her might. Just thinking of her worn-out figure,
Man-ki could never even dare look at other women, not even in his dreams.
On days when he refused a beautiful woman patient's favor, Man-ki went
back home to his wife with a present that he knew she'd like. She ran out
to meet him at the gate as usual, and he gave her the present, held her
hand tightly, saying, "I'm sorry you have to work so hard!" or "You get
more beautiful as you get older."
And this would bring a warm spring smile back to his
Being the type of man he was, Man-ki was always on his
guard when it came to Bong-woo's wife, but recently, she was giving him
more trouble. Her subtle approaches became more and more persistent and
daring. Just yesterday, Man-ki had no choice but to meet her outside the
hospital. For the past couple of days, she kept asking him to meet her
to discuss the hospital building and equipment. Man-ki had asked her to
come into the hospital since he was busy and not feeling well enough to
meet any place else. But she persistently sent notes by a messenger saying
that she could not come to the hospital, and asking him to meet her somewhere
else. Yesterday, she sent a threatening message that Man-ki was trying
to insult her publicly by avoiding her. So after work, Man-ki went to meet
her at the tea shop she had mentioned. As usual, he found her sitting there
dressed up like a queen.
"Thank you for coming all the way here, Your Highness."
She offered him the seat facing her and greeted him sarcastically
with a suggestive smile.
"That's an interesting remark," he responded.
"Well, I guess you don't really care for interesting
comments, being such a gentleman."
"I'm afraid I don't know how to respond to such clever
Man-ki smiled lightly. Bong-woo's wife ordered two orange
juices without bothering to ask him want he wanted. Sipping the juice,
Man-ki started the conversation, asking her what was wrong.
"Well, it's none other than the hospital building. It's
become too old and it needs complete renovation."
She had decided to raise the rent of the neighboring
offices and shops downstairs, and to collect three months' rent in advance.
"But I felt bad about delivering this news to you so
I wanted to discuss the matter with you in person."
She paused to peek at him. It was indeed painful news
for Man-ki. It was difficult enough right now to afford the rent every
month. And three months' rent in advance was almost impossible.
"How much of a raise were you thinking of?"
"At least 30%. Most places in the area get more or less
"Did you come to an agreement with the other tenants
of this building?"
Then she looked straight at Man-ki's face.
"Mr. Suh, let's talk about these business matters some
place else. I don't like to talk about such matters here. Let me treat
you to dinner. You know, I owe you a lot."
Not waiting for Man-ki's response, she stood up, went
to the cashier, paid the bill and left. Puzzled, Man-ki followed her as
she signaled a cab.
"Go ahead, you get in first."
Man-ki wanted to arrange a meeting for another day, so
he tried to talk her out of it.
"You know, a gentleman should not refuse an innocent
offer." Saying this, she practically pushed him inside the taxi. It wasn't
like him to make a scene in a busy street so Man-ki couldn't help getting
in the car. In about ten minutes, they arrived at a restaurant. It was
in a residential area and despite its shabby exterior, it was decorated
cozily with several private rooms. Bong-woo's wife exchanged casual greetings
with the owner whom she seemed to know quite well.
"Are any of the special rooms available?"
The owner glanced at Man-ki curiously and replied.
"I think Special Room No. 3 is available. You can take
him in there."
She then shouted toward the inside, "Two guests in Special
Room No. 3!"
A young girl who looked in her mid teens came out from
inside and led them to the room. It was a neat room past a small hall beyond
the long corridor.
"The owner and I went to the same school. I come here
from time to time when I have to entertain a special guest."
Speaking freely, she approached Man-ki and started to
take off his jacket. Man-ki quickly took it off himself, and tried to hang
it on the wall. Just then, she all but snatched the jacket from him and
hung it neatly on the hanger. Facing each other with a small table between
them, she seemed to be tired as she looked at Man-ki and sighed with a
smile. The young girl brought in washcloths and water for tea. Bong-woo's
wife mentioned that the specialty of the restaurant was Kalbijjim and ordered
it along with rice wine and side dishes. When the young girl left the room,
Bong-woo's wife leaned toward the table and sat still with her two hands
supporting her chin. She looked exhausted for some reason. The sight of
a voluptuous woman in her early thirties gave off a sensual, even toxic
air. Man-ki automatically became tense with some unknown fatigue.
"There's someone who wants to buy the hospital equipment.
It's a dirt-cheap price but I am thinking of getting rid of it since it's
practically become a piece of junk."
The woman uttered a completely unexpected story as she
peered at Man-ki. Man-ki was taken aback. It was hard to interpret her
intentions. Was she serious? Or was she just trying to get to him? Either
way, it would damage him since the hospital was practically his lifeline.
However, Man-ki calmly listened without revealing his inner feelings.
" Your great skills are too good to be wasted on those
antiquated facilities. That's why I want to get rid of it while there's
a buyer. I want to supply you with the latest high-tech facilities. I can
afford that kind of money, you know."
How could she sound so calm and look so composed? It
must be that she was desperately exercising some sort of psychological
breathing technique in order to stay calm. Anyhow, he could not tell her
that this scenario was miles apart from what she had said at the tea shop.
"I'm afraid I don't have the financial means to borrow
the latest facilities."
"You mean the rental expenses?"
She laughed without pause and said, "I'd be happy to
loan you the money until you can afford it on your own. For five or ten
years, it doesn't matter."
Man-ki had nothing to say. Since she was getting more
and more preposterous, he had to be on guard even more.
"You don't have to take it the wrong way. Since I have
some extra money, I just want to help out a doctor I respect very much."
Suddenly, her expression became surprisingly serious.
Man-ki had never seen her look so serious before.
Just then, they started serving the food. While dining,
Bong-woo's wife, with her sleeves rolled up, waited on him as a wife would
wait on her own husband. Man-ki felt uneasy, sensing that something bizarre
would happen. And alas! Something did. When they were almost finished,
Bong-woo's wife gently put one of her feet on his lap under the table.
Then she pressed on it hard with an inviting smile. Her eyes flamed. Perplexed,
Man-ki moved back gently, avoiding her stare. She pushed her toes into
Man-ki's crouching lap and wiggled her shoulders. She was already turned
on. For a short while, she sat there gracelessly, poking at the leftover
food. Then she suddenly left her seat and went outside. She didn't come
back for some time.
Man-ki, feeling disturbed and anxious, kept sitting down
and standing up, trying to pull himself together. More than ten minutes
had passed, and she returned. It was obvious that she had been drinking.
She entered the room and locked the door from the inside. The click of
the lock sounded strangely daring. She even drew the window curtains and
sat in her seat. Although it was an early fall evening, the room, which
had been shut tightly, seemed as hot as sauna. She lifted her glass toward
"Pour me a shot!"
It was an order. Since Man-ki was not much of a drinker,
the kettle of wine was almost full. Man-ki held on to the lid of the kettle
with one hand.
"We should be getting back. Thanks to you, I really enjoyed
a good meal today."
Man-ki was nearly pleading with her.
"Leave me be. I bet I don't even seem like a human in
your holy eyes."
She took the kettle from him forcefully, poured for herself
and drank again and again, as if she were drinking water. Man-ki was frightened.
Who knows what kind of scene she'd make if she got more drunk? Man-ki managed
to snatch the kettle from her and hid it behind him. She came at him and
hung onto the kettle to get it back. The kettle was dropped and the wine
was all over the floor. Not bothering to wipe the mess, she fell down on
Her shoulders heaving, she started sobbing like a baby.
A boy was peering inside the waiting room.
"Who are you?" The nurse asked him. Without answering,
the boy carefully pushed the door open and entered the office. About six
or seven years old, he looked cute but his clothes were very shabby.
"This is the hospital, right?" The boy asked in a small,
"Yes, and where did you come from?"
Again, the boy didn't answer her but looked searchingly
around the waiting room and the examining room and then asked a puzzling
"Didn't my father come here?"
Man-ki, who had been fumbling through a foreign magazine,
asked him, "Who's your father?"
The boy looked around the room again and replied, "My
father is Chae Ik-jun."
"Oh, so you must be Ik-jun's son!"
Man-ki stood up and approached the boy. He held the anxious
boy's hand and sat him down on a chair.
"You must have come to look for your father. What's your
The boy seemed pretty relieved to see that Man-ki talked
to him kindly.
"Didn't my father come here?" He asked again, worriedly.
"Well, he was here briefly in the morning. Why?"
"Mother told me to find him and bring him home. She might
die any minute!"
The boy had a younger sister and a younger brother, and
together with his grandmother, there were six in his family. But now, the
mother, who had been supporting this family, had been sick in bed for almost
half a year. She had been selling fish before she took ill. She arrived
at Inchon by the very first bus early in the morning and then returned
to Seoul to sell them. After she had been taken ill, her mother, who was
over 50 years old, took over the job and barely managed to feed the family.
And so the boy's mother was sick in bed without getting any proper treatment.
Her condition got worse with each passing day, and she had called the boy
earlier in the afternoon, asking him to look for his father, for she felt
that she would die shortly. When Man-ki asked the boy for details, he told
him the story in snatches and burst out crying. Man-ki soothed him and
asked, "How did you find out about this hospital?"
"I 've been here before with Father to borrow some money."
"Borrow money? Here?"
"Yeah. One time Father started crying while he and Mother
were discussing something, and then he brought me here."
"So did he borrow the money?"
"No. He asked me to wait by the road, so I waited for
a while. Then he came back and told me to just go home. He said he would
get the money and come home at night. He told me to tell Mother to be patient
and wait a little longer."
Man-ki closed his eyes, something he did whenever he
felt confused or upset. The pathetic figure of Ik-jun with his faded army
trousers and marine workman's clothes flashed before his eyes. Ik-jun had
never come to him for money. Moreover, he had never even mentioned the
dire conditions of his home. Man-ki had had no idea that things were so
bad at his home.
"What grade are you in?"
"I quit school."
"Then you stay idle at home?"
"I sell newspapers."
Man-ki was sorry he'd asked such a question. His heart
felt heavy even after he had consoled the boy and sent him home. It seemed
no different from his own troubles. Even though he had managed to establish
the hospital in a rented office, Man-ki himself had been severely short
of money. After all, there were ten in his family with him being the only
breadwinner. It was hard enough feeding the family but he also had to provide
for his brothers' and sisters' tuition fees. One of them was in college,
two were in high school, and then there was his first born attending primary
school. The total cost was outrageous. He had miraculously managed to pay
for it, but with such painful efforts. On top of it all, he was obliged
to help out his aged mother-in-law and her dependents by sending them monthly
checks for rice. But however serious the situation may have been, he was
practicing, which meant he still had an income. But as for Ik-jun, who
had been unemployed since the war, it was a wonder that the family had
survived at all.
Ik-jun had long given up his search for a job. He had
barely managed to finish middle school when the Japanese administration
took over. He had no special skills, no patrons to back him up, and he
was already in his mid-thirties. Getting a job was next to impossible for
him. Furthermore, he was a man of exceptional righteousness and integrity
who could not bear to let even the pettiest corruption and injustice go
unpunished. Even if he'd found a job, he probably wouldn't be able to hold
it for long. In fact, even before the war, he had never been able to keep
a decent job for a considerable period of time, due to his peculiar personality.
He didn't have the money to start his own trade, and even if he did, it
most likely wouldn't work out for such a naive and honest person. Once,
as a last resort, he had even attempted manual labor. That too was useless
since he'd never tried it before, and when he found out that the head office
cheated the employees of their income, he went after them and got into
a fist fight. So, for the past year, he went around the streets looking
for a conscientious and compatible financial backer who could help him
start a business that could not only support his family but also benefit
the country. This business that was supposed to support and benefit the
national welfare was a grocery store that sold goods to foreigners stationed
in Korea. Among his relatives was a Christian man who was in frequent touch
with foreign missionaries. According to the relative, most of the foreign
civilians in Korea ordered groceries and household necessities from Tokyo
or Hong Kong. Though a big waste of money and time was involved in this
process, not to mention its inconvenience, it was unavoidable since Korean
goods were not to be counted on in terms of price or quality. Accordingly,
foreigners were said to be in desperate need of an honest Korean grocery
to supply them directly with daily groceries and goods. The minute Ik-jun
heard this story, his face instantly flushed, and he came running to the
hospital, lamenting this dishonorable act that had promoted our own loss.
After a few days, Ik-jun was busy going around looking for an honest investor
who would support him in operating a store for the foreigners. Aiming for
a maximum profit of 10 %, he would serve the foreigners with complete trust
and render friendly service, helping redeem Korean dignity. Plus, business
would prosper owing to the trust and support of foreign customers.
Since then, Ik-jun had been roaming the streets looking
for a scrupulous investor. But this rich and trustworthy companion failed
to appear. Skipping lunches and returning to the waiting room in low spirits,
Ik-jun was exhausted from wandering about the streets looking for this
investor who was nowhere to be found. When he returned in the evening,
he plopped himself down on the waiting room sofa and started miserably
to deplore the world.: He went to see a man-who was supposed to have some
money to spare-who was introduced to him by an acquaintance. Ik-jun subtly
disclosed information about the potential business, but the man didn't
even bother to hear him out, saying that no one in his right mind would
put up his money for a mere 10 % profit. The man also mentioned that when
it comes to doing business with Americans, one should aim to make a fortune,
and that no level-headed person would do such a stupid thing that wouldn't
even earn so much as bank interest. Ik-jun proclaimed all men thieves.
Then he inevitably showed his sorrowful indignation again, saying that
if they thought that they could cheat and ruin others for their own interest,
what would ultimately happen to this damned world? At such times, he always
condemned the present administration and advocated what he called a "DDT
Policy." Just as we exterminate lice or fleas with DDT, the nation should
use a severe extermination policy on its harmful insects. This policy implied
that pickpockets and sales profiteers should be shot to death; fraudulent
swindlers should be shot to death; public officials who take bribes for
corruption should be shot to death; smugglers should be shot to death;
those who steal and sell military goods should be shot to death; public
officials who embezzle national funds should be shot to death. Likewise,
most criminals who are conscious of their unlawfulness and yet are blinded
by self-interest to do harm to the nation must be shot to death. If not,
law-abiding citizens would not be able to live in peace and furthermore,
the future of the country would surely be in danger.
Whenever Ik-jun advocated this theory in an excited tone
of voice, his eyes always blazed with ferocious wrath. If someone opposed
his theory on the spot, his face turned scarlet with rage as if he'd found
the very criminal who should be shot to death. Once a rather rash foreign
journalist referred to Korea as a 'country of thieves'. At that time, the
tone of the press was biased toward condemning the foreign journalist to
cover up and defend the current Korean social situation. During that period,
Ik-jun was excited almost every day. He asserted that the foreign journalist
had keenly seen through the reality and rightfully criticized the country.
And that we should be ashamed of the corruption in our country which was
seen as a "country of thieves" by a visiting journalist who did nothing
but tell the truth. Before we accuse and attack the foreign journalist,
we should calmly reflect on ourselves, and in order to prevent ourselves
from being subjected to such disgraceful remarks, we the citizens should
return to our senses and make new efforts. After all, if we don't want
to be called thieves, all we have to do is not steal. Man-ki tried to voice
some opposing opinions. After all, the foreign journalist didn't seem to
have a good impression of Korea and considering the relationship between
the two countries, he shouldn't have made such a careless remark. Also,
every country has its share of thieves, and supposing that our country
has more than other countries, the fact that this journalist labelled Korea
as "a country of thieves" was simply based on his superficial observation
and prejudice, not on an objective and careful analysis of underlying causes.
Asserting these two arguments, Man-ki tried to refute Ik-jun's opinion.
But Ik-jun immediately turned pale and attacked Man-ki.
"How dare thieves defend themselves? How dare you still
argue that Koreans are not thieves? Is there any other country on earth
that has more thieves than ours? Look, Man-ki, just defending and praising
your country doesn't make you a patriot. You've got to speak out the truth.
Once you get on a streetcar or bus and get off, your wallet, watch or pens
are just gone like magic - even if you are extra careful. And you still
argue that Korea is not a country of thieves? When you walk on the main
street in broad daylight, your hat just disappears even when there is no
wind; or some guy just appears from nowhere and drags you around the corner,
beats you up and takes off with your suit. And I guess you'd still consider
this country not a country of thieves but a country of well-mannered people.
Here, they cheat you in price, quality and quantity, not only in the markets
but even in the best downtown department store. And still, you'd say Korea
is a country of gentlemen. Ha! That's being too self-centered. Here, you
can get cheated with your eyes wide open since nine out of ten of us are
thieves. And still you shamelessly insist that this is not a country of
thieves? Well of course, we all know that every tombstone has a story to
tell, and that there is an excuse for everything. And as you say, there
is perhaps an excuse even for a thief. Say, who wouldn't steal after three
days of starving? But there are others who hold out not merely three days
but five or six days of starvation. Why is it that a Korean man steals
after missing just one little meal? Some people can afford to stuff themselves
with four or even five meals a day and still steal. Don't you think they
deserve to die? Doesn't it just make you sick?"
Like a mad man, Ik-jun foamed and rolled his eyes, veins
It was nearly time to finish up for the day. Miss Hong
mentioned she had something to discuss in private. Man-ki felt quite guilty,
thinking that it was because of her salary that had been overdue for the
last three months. Hong In-suk was a valuable assistant. After he finished
his dental school, he had several nurses in his ten-year dental career,
but skillful help like In-suk was very scarce. She helped Man-ki in every
way possible, scratching every itch. Quick-witted and adept, she not only
exercised the knowledge and training of a nurse but also displayed masterful
skill equaling that of a fine doctor. Except for critical cases, she could
easily assume a doctor's role when it came to diagnosing and treating the
patients. In-suk assisted Man-ki devotedly, even when the work stretched
far beyond her range of duty. To put it simply, In-suk was an exceptionally
competent and sincere nurse who was too good to work in this dingy private
hospital. In terms of personality, she easily appealed to the patients
because of her gentle and friendly manner. Man-ki always felt sorry that
he could not compensate her financially. However, for the past three years
she had been with him, In-suk had never shown any discontent and never
complained. Instead, she seemed to console Man-ki, saying that her living
conditions weren't bad at all. Regrettably, however, he had not been able
to afford to pay In-suk, who was so understanding and sacrificial, for
the past three months. Feeling extremely bad and apologetic, Man-ki offered
to buy her dinner, but she firmly refused the offer.
"Well, if you feel you must, let's make it tea," she
They locked up the hospital and stepped outside. Of course,
Bong-woo-who was sitting on the waiting room sofa-followed them. They went
to a nearby tea room. Bong-woo followed them, as usual. Just then, In-suk
paused awkwardly and glanced at Man-ki, who correctly understood the gesture
and turned toward Bong-woo.
"Bong-woo, I'm afraid we need to discuss some hospital
matters in private...." He said, expecting Bong-woo to go about his business.
"Do you want me to wait outside then?" Bong-woo asked
back as naively as a child.
Man-ki asked, "Don't you have some other things to do?"
"No, nothing," Bong-woo responded. "I'll just wait outside
He was about to turn his back and leave when Man-ki stopped
"No, that won't be right. Why don't you wait over there
in that empty seat?"
Bong-woo looked so miserable that Man-ki felt bad. With
Bong-woo sitting at a distance from them, Man-ki ordered some tea and listened
to what In-suk had to say. It wasn't about the overdue payment. The story
she disclosed uneasily was about Bong-woo. It seemed that Bong-woo followed
In-suk around almost every day. He followed her to the streetcar after
work, followed her to her house, and then he turned back dispirited after
she'd disappeared through the gate. Man-ki recalled having heard this story
previously, but he had thought that perhaps Bong-woo had some business
to attend to in that area. But now that he heard the story in detail, it
seemed evident that Bong-woo's business was none other than following In-suk.
Just as coming to the hospital lounge and taking a nap was a daily routine
for Bong-woo, so was seeing In-suk home. In-suk said she didn't pay much
attention to Bong-woo's odd behavior at first, but now it was driving her
crazy. Most of all, she was scared of what other people would say. Already,
there were all sorts of rumors going around in her neighborhood, and her
parents reproached her about it. To avoid Bong-woo, she sometimes took
different routes instead of going home directly, but still Bong-woo trailed
her as a baby followed its mother. This didn't mean he tried to make some
silly moves toward her. He discreetly showered dreamy, infatuated looks
all over In-suk. At first, Bong-woo's behavior seemed rather ridiculous.
Then it became creepy. Recently, it started to scare her.
"The strange glow in Mr. Chun's glaring eyes really gets
to me. It gives me the creeps!"
So, now, In-suk couldn't even go out her house in peace.
Even in her dreams, she'd come upon Bong-woo's eyes and wake up frightened.
On Sundays when the hospital was closed, Bong-woo stood in front of her
gate to guard her house. When In-suk found him there, she was so dumbfounded
that she went to him angrily and demanded an answer.
"Mr. Chun, what on earth are you doing here again?"
"What else could I do? You know the hospital is closed
His appealing eyes seemed to tell her that he had no
choice but to be there since the hospital was closed.
"I'm worried about what the neighbors might say, not
to mention my parents. Please go, please!"
When she pleaded with him, he'd lose his spirits and
walk away slowly. Then after a while, he'd be back at the gate, guarding
it faithfully. Worrying over this night and day had driven her up the wall.
"What do you think I should do, doctor?"
After she had finished telling the story, she looked
up at Man-ki. He didn't see the usual pleasant face, but one that looked
gaunt and worn-out.
"Well, Bong-woo is an unhappy man both at home and in
society," Man-ki tried to defend him quietly.
"I guessed as much."
"He really is a good man at heart. Ever since middle
school, he has been used and abused by others. But he himself never did
any harm to others. So Miss Hong, you should not have any animosity or
bad feelings toward him."
"I know. That's why I'm discussing this with you after
putting up with it all this time."
"It seems obvious that Bong-woo loves you. But he is
not courageous enough to openly confess his love. After all, he has lost
all of his self respect. And yet it seems that he can't help being hopelessly
attached to you. You know, he really can't seem to stand not being able
to see you. This doesn't mean that you have to be responsible for this
blind love directed at you. But in settling this problem, we should look
for a solution to prevent even greater suffering and pain. Of course, I
am aware of your unpleasant and insecure situation, but please try to bear
with it for the time being. I will talk to Bong-woo in private when the
time seems right. Being an outsider, you know that I can't just bring up
the subject out of the blue. So please be patient for a while. In the meantime,
I will look for an opportunity to bring up the subject with him."
Looking down, with her face flushed, In-suk listened
to him quietly. When they had finished talking, Man-ki asked her to leave
first. As In-suk went out the door, Man-ki got up and was about to move
to Bong-woo when Bong-woo, with his eyes wide open, quickly stood up and
almost pushed Man-ki aside as he rushed out the door. Nonplussed, Man-ki
paid for the tea and went outside. He found Bong-woo hurrying after In-suk,
who was walking toward the station. The scene reminded him of a child afraid
to lose his mother. Man-ki let out a sigh as he watched them silently.
He felt pity for Bong-woo, who was hopelessly infatuated, and who couldn't
help it. At the same time, he felt confined and trapped since there was
another tangle of love and lust that centered around himself. The reckless
approach of Bong-woo's wife was a big headache of course, but what disturbed
him even more was the problem with his sister-in-law, Eun-ju.
Eun-ju was working as a clerk in a government office and
had been looking after her mother and two younger siblings. For about three
to four years after the war, they had been dependent on Man-ki which meant
he was providing for a large family of fourteen members, including his
in-laws. Since he'd been paying his own siblings' way through school, he
couldn't just ignore his wife's siblings. Including Eun-ju and two younger
ones, he put all six of them through middle school, high school and college.
Man-ki squeezed out the last drop of his energy to provide for their tuition
and living expenses. Of course, the young siblings tried to help themselves
and earned their pocket money through various part-time jobs, but that
could not rid Man-ki of his responsibility.
Naturally, Man-ki was pressed for money each passing
day. The little money he earned from the hospital didn't even come close
to making ends meet. When things got really bad, he couldn't help borrowing
money from various places. He sold the house, the only thing he had inherited
from his parents, and moved into a rented one in Yu-chook. Even under such
dire circumstances, Man-ki never fretted nor complained in front of the
family. He never frowned, not even once. But a problem that couldn't be
shared with anyone was bound to exhaust the soul. When things got worse,
he lost his appetite and couldn't even sleep properly. His wife was the
only person who knew his innermost feelings. When her husband tossed about,
not being able to fall asleep at night, she held him quietly and sobbed
silently. At such times, Man-ki himself would gently pat her back and console
"There is a passage in one of Rolland's novels called
Jean Christoph. It says 'A man does not live to be happy. He lives to go
about his own way.' As long as I have a wife who can really cry for me,
I will never give up. So don't worry about me and stop crying like a baby.
When Man-ki consoled her and wiped away her tears, she
burst into tears and sobbed even more sorrowfully. She understood, respected,
loved and sympathized with her husband more than any wife in the world.
But there was another woman who respected, loved and
sympathized with him as much as his wife, and who also lived under the
same roof. It was his sister-in-law, Eun-ju. Eun-ju looked up to him and
adored him with a girlish admiration. In her eyes, there seemed to be no
other man who could equal her brother-in-law in any aspect: his princely
appearance, well-built figure, refined manners, solid will and strong conviction,
as well as sound righteousness and humanity. It upset her to think that
such a person was being sacrificed for a family that didn't deserve him.
For his sake, it would be better if the family just disappeared to some
remote place. Or it would be even better if all the ugly people surrounding
him would just vanish. This was what Eun-ju secretly whispered to herself,
weeping, when she thought of her sister's tormented husband who worried
for this family in an unfair world. Her heart really suffered for him.
And she hopelessly fell in love with him. She couldn't help her love for
him. For him and for his love, she felt that she could die smiling without
a minute's hesitation. After considering and reconsidering for a long time,
Eun-ju on her own quit school after her freshman year and got herself a
job. Then she moved to a rented room with her mom and two siblings and
started to live independently from Man-ki. She wanted to help relieve the
burden of her beloved brother-in-law in any way possible. On moving day,
after eating, she challenged her sister in front of the whole family: "Would
it be all right with you if I loved your husband?"
Everyone laughed. Naturally, they took it as a joke.
Man-ki and his wife managed to laugh on the outside but they couldn't do
the same inside. They sensed that what Eun-ju said was not merely a joke.
Since last year, the subject of Eun-ju's marriage had come up quite often
amongst the family members. Her mother worried about Eun-ju's age whenever
she visited her daughter and son-in-law. Ever since the death of Eun-ju's
father, it was up to the older sister and her husband to be mother and
father; so they had to attend to Eun-ju's marriage. Man-ki and his wife
had kept their eyes open for an eligible bachelor all the time. When they
did find someone, they would get hold of his picture and show it to Eun-ju
when she came to visit them. However, Eun-ju didn't even bother to look
at the picture saying, "I'm sorry. But who says I want to get married at
all?" Then she'd shrug her shoulders and laugh like a naughty child.
Her sister retorted with a scolding look, "But you surely
don't want to be single all your life, do you?"
Then she simply said, "Well, if you find me a nice husband
like my brother-in-law over here...." And she shrugged her shoulders and
"This man is many times better than I am," Man-ki shoved
the man's picture up to her face. "Take a look at the picture at least."
"How can I get married and leave my beloved behind?"
Saying like this, she threw the picture away.
"Well that's too bad," Man-ki's wife made a not-so-innocent
joke and managed a subtle smile. "We can't both be married to the same
person..... Do you want me to just give him up?"
"No, never. I love you too, Sis.!"
Then she'd gently come up to her and kiss her lightly
on the cheek as Westerners often do.
"Well, I must be the luckiest man in the world," Man-ki
said. "I not only have the love of my wife who is divinely pretty and wise,
but I also have the love of Eun-ju who is as charming as Venus."
Eun-ju was aware of Man-ki's attempt to treat her comment
lightly, and as if to ignore his intentions, she playfully asked her sister.
"Is it all right if I kiss your husband just once?"
"Darling, why don't you grant her the wish?" The elder
sister managed an awkward smile looking up at her husband.
Eun-ju rebuffed her.
"You liar, you're lying!"
Then she covered her face with both hands and fell straight
into her sister's lap. When she lifted her head, Eun-ju's eyes were wet
with unexpected tears. Man-ki and his wife exchanged glances with a trusting
smile, yet the same complicated and awkward look was on both faces. Fortunately
amidst the complications, Eun-ju never expressed a hint of passion when
she was left alone with Man-ki. She always strictly treated him as a brother-in-law.
It was when her sister was present that she expressed her passionate love
for him. She was pure and clean. And so was Man-ki's wife, who could not
help acknowledging Eun-ju's love for her husband, yet she never doubted
the relationship between the two. Given the present situation with his
wife and Eun-ju, Man-ki couldn't' help but feel ill at ease. Even though
people around her urged her to get married, Eun-ju never listened to them.
She decided to love Man-ki all her life without getting married. This was
not a transient fling on her part, but a solemn declaration for life. Accordingly,
people around her felt uneasy and Man-ki, being the very one concerned,
felt even worse. On top of all this, there was Bong-woo's wife who openly
threatened him; the problem concerning Bong-woo and Miss Hong; the gloomy
situation of Ik-jun's family that couldn't be overlooked; and the financial
situation that seemed to get worse every day-all these problems were interlocked,
weighing down on Man-ki's shoulders, and disheartening him even more. However,
Man-ki never lost his calm appearance. With the constant gentle smile,
he never failed to be kind to the people around him.
A couple of days after Man-ki met Bong-woo's wife, a man
who seemed to be in his early thirties came to the hospital with a letter
from Bong-woo's wife. Man-ki offered him a seat and opened the letter.
The letter was written in a good hand, freely and in big strokes resembling
a man's handwriting. It read as follows:
"I am sorry about what happened. You probably sneer at
me as a cheap girl. But that's okay. After all, I don't dare get in the
way of such a sophisticated and virtuous moralist as you. On the other
hand, even a nobody like me deserves the right to laugh at a person as
dignified as yourself. Can you imagine a ridiculous figure of a gold-plated
junk sitting, immersed in self-satisfaction, among the people who can boldly
enjoy life? Well, you yourself represent the very example of that human
being. I'm afraid that you will mock me again, so I will get right to the
"As I mentioned the other day, there is a man who wants
to purchase the hospital and the equipment, and I intend to sell it to
him. Please show the hospital facilities to the person who delivers this
letter. The sales contract will be signed today and I will notify you as
soon as the contract is completed. You are kindly requested to vacate the
hospital within a week from the notification.
"I had wanted to supply you with the latest equipment
and facilities if you so desired, and this wish still holds true in my
heart. But since you'd rather choose to spit on my heartfelt offer, I guess
I have no choice but to back off."
At the end of the letter, the P.S. said, "If you have
any further business to discuss, you may reach me at this number at any
time," and there was a phone number written in small print. After reading
the letter, Man-ki calmly folded it back into the envelope. The tips of
his fingers trembled lightly. Only In-suk was able to perceive it. Man-ki
placed the letter in his drawer and kindly showed the hospital equipment
to the person who had brought the letter. The man said he was running a
medical equipment store, but he didn't seem to be well informed. After
the man had left, Man-ki took his seat and lit a cigarette. He looked very
tired. His face had become noticeably pale.
In-suk approached him cautiously and asked, not hiding
her worry, "Why has he come to visit the hospital?"
"He came to check out the facilities."
"They may sell this hospital facility to him."
It was not only the nurse who was dumbfounded by this
remark. Bong-woo, who sat half awake and half asleep on the sofa, opened
his eyes wide and looked at Man-ki.
"Is that for real?" He asked.
"It seems that way."
"You mean this hospital is going to close down?"
Bong-woo looked at Man-ki in amazement, his mouth open.
"Then what's going to happen to you and Miss Hong?"
"Well, who knows what will happen?"
Bong-woo was alternately looking at Man-ki and In-suk,
full of despair.
"Mr. Chun, please ask your wife not to sell this hospital,
In-suk pleaded with him earnestly.
"Me? Would she listen to me?"
"She is your wife," In-suk insisted. I am sure she will
listen to you if you plead with her."
"What should I say to her?"
"How should I know? You think hard about it and talk
Bong-woo, not knowing how to respond, just hung his head.
For him, persuading his wife was as impossible as moving the sky. But if
he failed to persuade her, he would be deprived of this lounge sofa which
had become his only resting place and home. Furthermore, he would lose
Miss Hong, the only light and the purpose of his life. Bong-woo became
almost lifeless with desperation.
A few hours passed. Man-ki treated a patient and came
back to sort out the patient charts when he noticed a shabby boy standing
by the waiting room door and looking inside. It was Ik-jun's son who had
been there once before.
"What brought you here?"
As he asked, Man-ki immediately perceived something ominous.
The boy silently pushed the door open and entered the waiting room just
as he had previously. There were traces of tears on his face. He looked
around the waiting room and then turned to look at Man-ki.
"Didn't my father come here?"
"No. He hasn't been here for a couple of days."
The boy had a rubber shoe on only one foot and, strangely
enough, he held the other shoe in his hand.
"He hasn't been coming home either."
Sensing something strange, Man-ki asked him, in haste.
"Really? Since when?"
"Yesterday and the day before, he hasn't come home."
"I wonder what happened?"
It was a mystery. The boy was about to say something,
but instead he turned around to leave. Man-ki quickly stopped him.
"How's your mom?" he asked, dreading the response.
The boy dropped his head and replied quietly as if he
were saying something dishonorable. Although Man-ki had somehow expected
this response, he felt his heart sink. He asked him when it happened.
"A short while ago."
The boy replied and looked away. Listening to him more
closely, Man-ki learned that his mother had died about two hours ago. At
home, his two younger siblings and the old landlady were said to be guarding
the dead body. The boy's grandmother, who left the house in the morning
to sell fish, still hadn't come home yet. Man-ki held the boy's hand firmly,
"I wonder where your father has gone?" He asked the boy
"I have no idea."
The boy let go of Man-ki's hand and tried to leave.
"Wait, let me come with you."
Man-ki took off his gown and put on his jacket. Then
he emptied all of the day's earning into his pocket.
"Bong-woo, why don't you come with us as well?"
Bong-woo asked in bewilderment like a person who had
just woken up. He hesitated for a minute and then got up to follow them.
Man-ki left the closing up to the nurse and was about to lead them out
of the hospital when a man who seemed to be about twenty came into the
hospital. He asked for the person in charge, and then delivered a note
to Man-ki. It was a notice from Bong-woo's wife, saying "The sales contract
has been concluded. Please vacate the hospital within a week."
Again, there was a phone number and a message telling
him to reach her for any further business. Man-ki silently gave the note
to the nurse and left the hospital.
Out in the street, Ik-jun's son was still walking with
one bare foot, holding one of the rubber shoes in his hand. When Man-ki
asked him to put it on since it might offend others, he replied in embarrassment.
"My foot is sweating. That's why."
Then he stealthily hid the rubber shoe behind him. It
was only then that Man-ki carefully studied the rubber shoe in the boy's
hand. It was so worn out that its heel was split and the top part of the
shoe was torn so that it was impossible to wear it. Man-ki felt his heart
ache. He wanted to buy him a pair of rubber shoes before they got on the
streetcar. But there weren't any shoe stores in sight, and just then, the
streetcar arrived and they got in.
The house that the boy's family occupied was a tiny mud-hut
with greased paper for a roof. His two younger siblings, looking as shabby
as tramps, cheerlessly sat by the door step. In the dim-lit room, which
stank with some nauseating smell, the old landlady who lived next door
and a neighbor were sitting face to face, near the corpse. The body, which
seemed to be stuck to the floor, was covered by a piece of old blanket.
After Man-ki exchanged condolences with the landlady, he thought of all
the things that needed to be done. Even though the head of the family wasn't
there, they had to undergo the process for the diagnosis of death and death
certificate. Fortunately, these procedures could be completed with the
help of the head of the neighborhood association.
It became dark, and the grandmother came home with her
stinking fish basket. She didn't grieve much for the death of her daughter.
There was a sign of extreme fatigue all over the woman's old figure. According
to her, Ik-jun went to a construction site near Inchon a few days ago.
He went to work there, hoping to earn some money for injection shots for
the patient. Therefore, it was left to Man-ki to carry out the funeral
procedures. Money was the first problem. Man-ki emptied his pockets to
pay for the immediate expense. Bong-woo just sat sulkily, observing Man-ki
and following him everywhere like a shadow. After he had spent the night
at the miserable house, Man-ki dropped in at the hospital briefly the next
morning. Of course, Bong-woo came with him and was sitting in the corner
seat of the waiting room sofa. Man-ki felt as if every drop of energy had
been drained out of his body. In-suk watched Man-ki with a worried look
and was about to say something, but she didn't. Man-ki remained lost in
thought for some time, then went to the waiting room couch and sat next
"Hey, let's go pay a visit to your wife."
"What on earth do you mean?"
"We're going to need some money to pay for the funeral,"
Man-ki explained.. "So you'd better come with me and help me out."
Man-ki meant to get some funeral money from Bong-woo's
wife. Even if they'd minimize the funeral cost, they would still need to
buy a coffin, make mourning clothes for the three children, and hire a
funeral carriage, and there was no other way to raise that kind of money.
Man-ki pulled Bong-woo-who was more than reluctant about it-up on his feet
in order to make a phone call before they visited her. Just then, In-suk
stopped him with a determined face.
"Doctor, may I have a minute....."
"What is it?"
In-suk took Man-ki to the corner of the examining room
and softly whispered to him.
"Has the sales contract been concluded for the hospital?"
She seemed to demand an immediate answer.
"It seems that way."
In-suk dropped her head, a solemn expression on her face.
She stood there silently for a while. Man-ki figured it was because of
her concern over the delayed payment or because of the fear of losing her
"Miss Hong, you've assisted me for more than three years
as if this were your own business and I will never forget your hard work.
I know that it is only right that I make it up to you, but as you know,
with the present financial condition, it's rather difficult at the moment;
but I'll make sure you get the overdue payment. And about your reemployment,
I will do my utmost to check out other hospitals and you should also feel
free to ask around."
Man-ki seemed to be apologizing and consoling at the
same time. Then, In-suk suddenly raised her head high and looked straight
at Man-ki and when his eyes met hers, Man-ki felt a heart-aching sensation.
In-suk's accusing eyes were filled with tears.
"Is that how you think of me?"
She looked away and dabbed her tears with her fingers.
"You've completely misunderstood me."
She bit her lips.
"Miss Hong, I must have said the wrong thing because
I am exhausted. Please forgive me if I was being too explicit."
"Doctor, it is you, not I, who is in deeper trouble.
To provide for the tuition and living expense for so many family members....
It was hard for you even when you were practicing; now what will happen
if you leave the hospital?"
"Thanks for your concern. But as they say, God helps
those who help themselves. I will first take care of the funeral at Mr.
Chun's and then I will find a way to live in every way I can, so you needn't
worry about me!"
In-suk looked at Man-ki with a strange glow in her eyes.
"Doctor, what's the minimum capital you need to start
a new hospital?" She asked hesitantly.
"I suppose it will cost about 800,000 won to open a hospital."
In-suk stood there for a moment biting her lips, and
then she suddenly lifted her head and gazed appealingly at Man-ki,
"Doctor, I have 500,000 won. I will give it to you. And
I can ask my brother to borrow the 300,000 won from somewhere at low interest.
Please, doctor, open your own hospital!"
When she had finished talking, tears rushed down her
face. Without bothering to wipe them away, she gazed hard at Man-ki with
her wet eyes. It seemed that if Man-ki were to move just a little, she
would fall with her face in his chest and cling on to him.
"How can you spend so much money so freely?" Man-ki asked
her, trying to sound calm.
"I have saved up all my income without spending a dime.
My parents regarded it as a fund for my wedding, but I've saved up the
money for the sole purpose of providing you with a hospital."
In In-suk's eyes which had been fixedly stationed at
Man-ki's face, new tears started to well up. In her eyes, flaming behind
the tears, Man-ki witnessed his wife's affection and Eun-ju's passion.
Shining in her bright and wet eyes was the innermost secret that a woman
can only reveal to her loved one. Man-ki felt something hot flushing in
his heart but held it back.
"Miss Hong, I don't know what to say at the moment. Please
wipe away your tears. Everything's all mixed up in my head today. Let's
talk later when we have cooled down."
He barely managed to mumble this and left to follow Bong-woo,
who was waiting by the door.
When he called Bong-woo's wife, someone else answered
the phone, but he had arranged to meet with her. They went to a tea shop
and found Bong-woo's wife waiting there. She was glad to see Man-ki but
seemed rather surprised when she saw her husband following him. Man-ki
got to the point as soon as they were seated. He explained that Ik-jun
had been close friends with them ever since their middle school days, and
told her of his abject family situation. Then he asked her if she could
kindly donate or loan him the funeral expense.
"It's all true," Bong-woo, quite courageously, ventured
to help Man-ki. "It's just like what he said. I couldn't just sit there
and do nothing. I don't mind giving up my pocket money for a few months,
so spare us."
Bong-woo pleaded with her like a baby whining to its
mother. Meanwhile, the face of Bong-woo's wife changed color many times.
"Well doctor, even a good-for-nothing woman like me can
be useful at times. Very well. I really don't have the nerve to turn down
a fine gentleman like you!"
She expressed more things with her suggestive face, and
was about to move to the other side when she said,
"50,000 won can be readily made available. I guess you'd
prefer cash, of course."
Without waiting for a reply, she disappeared behind the
counter and returned shortly with the cash wrapped in newspaper. When Man-ki
thanked her and got up, she said, "You see, this is not a donation."
"I understand. I cannot set a date at the moment, but
I will definitely pay you back."
Then Bong-woo's wife walked them to the door and said
in a playful manner, "This naive doctor of mine, paying back the principal
won't do. I need a lot of interest. You know what I mean, don't you?"
It was flattery, almost coquetry. Man-ki glimpsed Bong-woo's
face sideways and rushed out uneasily as she shouted at his back.
"Drop in again in the near future. There is something
that I must discuss with you."
In any case, it was fortunate that they could carry out
a simple funeral with that money. They bought a coffin and some cotton
to make mourning clothes for the kids, as well as some rubber shoes for
them. They decided to bury the body in Mangwoori Cemetery instead of cremating
it. Man-ki lamented Ik-jun's absence on the way to the burial site. But
Ik-jun's mother-in-law remained indifferent. She nonchalantly said, "He
was never a good husband when she was alive, and now that she's dead, it
really doesn't matter."
Although it was a little bit too late, however, Ik-jun,
who was 'never a good husband,' did return home that day. It was almost
dusk when the funeral party returned from the mountain and got out of the
car near Ik-jun's house. There was a shabby man with white bandages wrapped
around his head approaching toward the house. The children instantly recognized
him and shouted, "It's Father!"
Then Ik-jun paused for an instant, and the party all
at once looked in his direction. He seemed to have injured his head. In
one hand he had a package of rubber shoes for the children. Facing his
family, he stood there still, his face blank, almost a stone face, with
no trace of human qualities.
"Oh, why didn't you take that useless creature instead!"
Ik-jun's mother-in-law began to wail. "Oh, King of Death, how unjust you
are!" She finally shed tears.
The kids were the happiest to see him. "Dad!" The youngest,
seven-year-old, ran after him and hugged him. "Dad, I put on new clothes,
rode in a car, and went to a mountain!"
The young one proudly lifted the hem of his mourning
clothes, but Ik-jun just stood there like a statue, not moving.
Translated by Chang Young-hee, who is Teaching English
at So'gang University.