Born in Chongju, North Chungchong Province, in 1939, Kim Moon-soo graduated from the Korean Language and Literature Department of Dongguk University, Seoul. He began his literary career by winning three major newspaper prizes for short stories in 1958, 1959, and 1961. Since then he has received many important literary awards, including the Dongin Literary Award in 1989. He is at present Professor of creative writing at Hanyang Women's College, but he worked for many years as an editor and publisher.
Kim Moon-soo is principally known as a writer of short fiction although he has also published several full-length novels, as well as a collection of essays.
His early work seems mainly to focus on depictions of the darker side of human existence, with illicit relations, distortions of religion, and sensational plots. Such stories as "Revival of Heresy"(1961) and "Steamed Cat (1972) exemplify such a direction.
The story translated below, which was awarded the Dongin Literary Award in 1989, is representative of more recent work in which he has come closer to the mainstream of Korean fiction. Here the central concern seems mainly to be the conflict between past and present, tradition and newness, and the loss of happiness. In some of his most recent writing an openly satirical tone has become more pronounced.
The Chronicle of Manch'uidang
It was the most moonless night of the month but the road was a straight stretch of two-lane blacktop with rice paddies on either side, so I managed to find my way, more or less.
As I walked along I hummed whatever pop songs chanced to float into my head. Still, my mind was anything but at ease. I felt a certain trepidation as if entering a world never set foot upon by another soul. Venus in the eastern sky became a consolation for me - nothing to sneer at under the circumstances. Venus became my wonderful travelling companion on that road.
When I left Seoul it had been nearly midnight. Before the last train slipped off, I climbed on in time to greet this new day.
Before boarding the train I had stopped at a stall in the station to buy a half-pint of soju and a dried cuttlefish. I hoped to dull the razor edge of the rotten nerves that left me sleepless whenever I was away from my own familiar bed. But there was not even a chance to open the bottle. As if to besiege me, three old men sat down in front of and next to me. Judging from their conversation, they were on their way back home after attending a seventieth birthday gathering for a hometown friend of theirs who had moved up to Seoul. Speaking in a thick southern dialect, they were remarking on the lavishness of the festivities and envying the prosperity of their friend's sons and daughters. Without thinking I took out a pack of cigarettes, but at once I hastened to cram it back in my pocket. The old man sitting across from me noticed my behavior and asked:
"Where are you headed, young man?"
I told him the station where I meant to get off. He kept silent for a moment and then, as if granting me a dispensation, raised his voice, saying,
"As the old saying goes, 'The young and the old share joys' so go right ahead and smoke and what not!"
"Sounds like he's a Ch'ungch'ungdo yangban, and I tell you no aristocrat from Ch'ungch'ungdo would do such a thing,"the old man beside me interjected.
"No call to be marking aristocrats and commoners these days, is there? You saw that commotion back at the hotel a while ago, didn't you? See how those youngsters carried on right under the noses of their elders?"
"All the same, I tell you, Ch'ungch'ungdo yangban aren't like that, you know."
A bitter smile in my heart, I leaned back in my seat and shut my eyes. I had no wish to linger on their cutting board any longer. I summoned Father's face before my eyes. If Father had gone down to our hometown, where would he be staying now? This question had vexed me for quite a while. The house where I grew up was the only place I could think of. But I erased the image of that house, shaking mentally. Father could not stay there, no way. Then the forest by our village spread itself before my eyes. The trees were covered with white birds as if shrouded in snow. That forest was known among the villagers as Sorim, meaning "West Forest" and the white birds were herons. This much I had learned from Father as a boy growing up in Seoul, for I had no recollection of it myself.
Father used to tell me lots of stories about our hometown. So fond was he of telling about Sorim and the house where we used to live that the endless tales scarred my ears. According to him, that forest had been planted ages ago by an ancestor of ours who had restored our clan to dignity after it was ruined. Upon settling in that place, this forbear had planted saplings knowing a stately forest would rise there one day. As likely as not, the trees were planted as a windbreak, but Father declared they were planted in accordance with geomantic strictures. The geomancer had warned that no great man ever would be born in the village if its western side remained barren. And so the woods situated toward the west were named "Sorim"
Just as the villagers christened the forest, they also gave our old house a name. But as soon as Father announced to me that our house had been called "Manch'uidang" I burst out laughing. I could not help it, for the picture of Father still vivid in my boyhood memories was of a man forever soaked in alcohol. When Father asked what was so funny I gave him the ready answer: the villagers had bestowed that name on our house to tease Father for his constant drinking. Quite against my expectations this reply infuriated Father. Never before had I seen him so enraged. My bare calves were thrashed so hard blood flowed that day. My offense allegedly was unseemly disrespect in speaking to a grown-up, but I felt grievously wronged. As far as I could see the punishment was outrageously excessive.
A few days after this incident, I came home from school to find a framed piece of calligraphy with a poem written in Chinese characters. Neatly inscribed in two columns in this frame half as wide as a scroll were these lines: "Ch'ich'igan songban ululham manch'ui. " I was told that the calligrapher was a member of our own clan who was now up in Seoul. Before I even had the chance to take off my backpack, Father called me in, made me kneel down in front of the wall where the calligraphy was hung, and began explaining the meaning of the poem.
His reading was: "The pines by yon stream grow slowly, slowly, yet full and green they stay till late." Father showed me a phrase from The Primer of Classical Chinese Characters: "Pipamanch'ui odongjojo" The meaning of this, he told me, was "Loquat foliage stays green even in winter, but paulownia leaves wither early." Father then proceeded to his point. "Both in this poem and in the Primer "manch'ui" has one and the same meaning, namely, that even in winter the leaves keep their greenness, you know. I tell you, the name of our house in the country, "Manch'uidang" is none other than this very word, manch'ui, along with the character dang for 'house' You get what I'm saying, don't you?"
I felt I understood a bit better why Father had been so angry. Still, it did not dispel my sense of being wronged by the whipping he gave me. Far from it. At the time the thought that he could explain it away like that made me rebel against Father twice as much. The notion kept running through my mind that the "manch'ui" in the name of the house really meant "thoroughly drunk" and not anything as lofty as Father's "always green foliage"
As though he saw through me, Father fastened a stern expression on his face and went on: "True, you weren't even school age, so you couldn't have known, but out in the wing of that house of ours back home there was a little alcove where a wooden plaque hung with the house's name, "manch'uidang" carved into it. That, you see, was where people got the name "manch'uidang" for our house. Now can you understand what I'm telling you?"
I understood what he said, all right, but the rebel writhing inside me could not help grunting a few words more. Basically, what I did at that moment was to ask Father why in the world he kept harping on a place sold to others so long ago, calling it "our house" or "our place back home" as if we still owned it. As I knew it would, this made him very angry all over again. "Listen, you brat! Who ever sold it, who, tell me?! It was not sold, I tell you, I was done in by the bastard! It was snatched away by that thieving son of a bitch! What damned beak has been squawking such foolishness?! Your mother?" Father was so livid that his fists were clenched and quivering.
My lips were sealed. Had I told him the truth, Mother surely would have fallen prey to Father's ire. Fortunately, he pursued the issue no farther. He just howled, loudly enough to shake the rafters: "Out this instant! Out of my sight!" Like a hare freed from a snare, I bounced up and raced outside. Only later did I learn that shortly before we left our hometown Father had been caught in a terrible bind because of debts to a usurer. The debts grew and he had mortgaged the house. The moneylender was only supposed to hold the deed, but things got out of hand and the mortgage was foreclosed. Suddenly the house was gone with the wind. That was why Father cursed the man, calling him a highway robber and swearing he would chase the bastard down and reclaim the house by any means necessary. He was determined, he said, that before his eyes were covered with dirt he would recover that house without fail.
The raucous voices of the old men speaking in their thick southern dialect were still at it. Unable to stifle the urge to smoke any longer, I rose and walked up the aisle. Maybe because it was the last train, I spotted a few empty seats here and there. So I changed my plan of going outside the carriage and instead headed for a vacant seat near the exit. Rather than steal a smoke out on the landing between the cars, I liked the idea of enjoying a cigarette at my leisure while lounging in a comfortable seat. Across from the empty seat were a young man and woman appearing to be a couple. They were fast asleep leaning against each other in the shape of an inverted V. In the window seat next to the empty one sat a youngish man with his head turned toward the window as though he were gazing into a mirror, oblivious to his surroundings.
"Pardon me, is this vacant?"
Startled by my question, the young man shifted his gaze from the glass and peered up at me. Then he said in a dispirited voice:
"Has been so far, but . . . ."
Like his voice, his face seemed worn out. But to guess his age was not hard. Around twenty-five or six.
"Please, sit down. Nobody's taken this one yet."
Either the young man thought I had not understood what he said or else he felt awkward with my stare planted on his face, for this time I detected a bit of force in his voice. Hastily, I lowered my impolite stare and sat down beside him. He waited until I was seated, then asked,
"Where did you board the train that you couldn't get an assigned seat?"
"I do have my own seat over there. But it's with old folks so I couldn't smoke."
"So, you're kind of a refugee, I guess ?" he said with a smile, but his smile, too, was weak.
"Well, a refugee is someone fleeing from war, flood, persecution and what not, and here you are running away from old people. So you're a refugee, no?"
"I see what you mean now."
I tagged a smile at the end of my words, and he grinned, too. Thinking his sense of humor was not bad at all, despite the first impression he gave, I took out a pack of cigarettes and held it under his chin.
"I don't smoke."
The young man shook his head. I lit a cigarette and said, as if to myself but in fact directing the remark to him,
"I'm afraid there may be a refugee from the smoke."
The young man just grinned. Unsure what that meant, I felt bound to open my mouth again.
"If you don't plan to exercise your anti-smoking veto I'll stay put, otherwise . . . . "
"Tobacco smoke is the last thing I'd call a problem."
Still unsure what he meant, I scanned his face with a quizzical glance. There and then he satisfied my curiosity.
"I'll tell you what. For the past five years I've been living in poison gas. I mean, I've been breathing not air but poison gas. And in exchange for breathing poison gas, I was given what they call 'wages?"
When he briefly paused that peculiar grin of his appeared again. Judging from what he had said, I had a vague idea of his present predicament.
"You know what posgen gas is?"
I shook my head.
"In plain words, it's poison gas."The young man started explaining about posgen gas. According to him, posgen was a colorless, powerfully asphyxiating gas used as a raw material in synthesizing organic products or as a poison, hence extremely toxic to the human body. In low concentrations it smells like dried grass, but when it's dense it can kill you by suffocation. No matter how low the concentration, if you breath it over a long period of time it accumulates in your blood and causes malfunctions in the circulatory system, or an edema of the lungs. He went on with his story.
"I worked at a plastic factory. In the process of manufacturing those products, that gas is an inevitable by-product. Now one problem is the smell of the gas. Since it's toxic to humans, the smell should be nasty, but it isn't, I tell you. That crap, when the concentration is low, smells no worse than dried hay. And, all along, we never dreamed that that hay smell could be something so lethal, you know? Anyway, after breathing those goddamned fumes for five years I ended up in the hospital. The doctors told me I had an edema of the lungs."
'"Goodness . . . did you have industrial accident insurance?"
"Well, yes. I got some help from the insurance and also was paid what they called 'compensation for living expenses'. But, do you know how hospitals treat patients relying on industrial accident insurance to pay for their treatment? And that so-called 'compensation' was no more than a pittance. You get what I'm saying?"
His face was all flushed with indignation. I could not bring myself to puff on my cigarette any longer. As I extinguished the cigarette, he said,
"I'm afraid I've gone too far with the sorry story of my misfortunes. I just wanted to make the point that a little tobacco smoke is nothing to somebody who's been exposed to posgen gas for five years, but looks like I ended up spoiling the taste of your cigarette."
"No, I was done with it. At any rate, are you cured?"
"Cured? I was sick and tired of hospital life. No, the hospital was one thing, but Seoul was something else I couldn't stand for another minute."
Once more he flashed that grin of his. I looked at his haggard face for a long time. The color of his complexion reminded me of my dead mother's face.
Back then Mother had one thing she always blurted out at the drop of a hat, that she could never figure out how she ended up spending her last days in Seoul so far from her hometown back in the country. But Mother never would escape from Seoul, after all, from that city she dreaded so much. She never became a person of the world beyond - sometimes she sounded as if she'd rather just draw her last breath if she was doomed to stay in Seoul.
The young man's stories about Seoul were endless. He knew a million stories I had no clue about. The truth was I had lived in Seoul twice as long as he had, but how could I tell him the Seoul stories I knew? I could not help thinking what I knew were not really stories of Seoul but just rotten stories. How could I tell those rotten stories to a man like him, a man worn out from an honest life of hard work?
Nobody appeared to claim the seat until I got off the train.
How on earth, I wondered, could it take this long to cover a mere fifteen li? Once more I felt uneasy. I asked myself whether I had not been hypnotized by the road somehow. I was no longer in the mood to hum catchy old tunes. Up in the eastern sky, Venus had been guiding my way, but I felt I could not even trust that beacon any more. It occurred to me that a soldier might feel this way if he were lost after battle and struggling to find his unit again with only the stars to light the path.
I began having regrets. Earlier, as I left the plaza at the train station, a gaggle of women had cast the bait my way. The bait was "a warm room" and "a pretty girl" By this time it was no use to regret I had not grabbed that "warm room" at the time. True, I should have avoided the taxi driver's net. He was shouting the name of my hometown, saying the fare was five thousand won. Whichever route the taxi took, the distance from the station to my hometown was not far enough to charge five thousand won. But on the sole pretext of the lateness of the hour, the taxi driver had rounded up four passengers and extracted five thousand won from each of us.
I should never have taken a cab in the first place. But when I heard him yelling that he was heading off right away, as soon as he got one more passenger, I hopped in before someone else got the place. At the moment it seemed not to matter where I ended up sleeping. Even crows are more handsome if they're from your hometown, they say, so I told myself why not sleep a little closer to my hometown if I could? But once the taxi delivered me there, I could not find a place to stay for the night. An innkeeper told me that even the security guard offices in public buildings were flooded with people, let alone the inns and hotels. Wondering what sort of sleepy gibberish he was feeding me, I demanded an explanation point blank. His drowsy eyes all at once grew wide and wakeful.
"what brings you here?"
"I've come down from Seoul to look into some business, what's it to you?"
As if flabbergasted at my irritated reply, the innkeeper kept his lips sealed and busied himself sweeping for a while, trying to size me up from my appearance. Luckily, I must not have struck him as a suspicious character. He pointed with his chin toward a poster on the wall across the street from his inn. The picture was a close-up scene of a famous song player striking his instrument. The poster advertised a big nationwide folk music festival, a competition among the provinces. Indeed it turned out I had chosen a perfect day for my visit.
As I stood there crestfallen, staring at the contest dates on the poster, the innkeeper gave me a tip,
"Coming here on business, like you said, you must know somebody in these parts. Relatives, friends, you know, somebody."
"Actually, my business isn't here in town, it's over in Dongch'on."
"Well, in that case, you can go to Dongch'on, right? I'm telling you, there's no place at all to sleep in town, really."
"But at this hour of the night . . . can't I squeeze in somewhere, anywhere? I'll pay the regular rate."
Quickly I took out my wallet, plucked out a ten thousand won note and slipped it into the pocket of his pajamas. I was mimicking a commonly-used trick, one that made the impossible possible.
"As for the charge for the night's stay, I'll pay that separately."
I directed a knowing smile his way, a smile saying there's no problem money can't solve.
"Why, look at you! So you imagine this will get you a room that's not there, eh?"
He removed the money and jammed it into the pocket of my parka. Truly, I had never thought this could happen. Even so, I couldn't just back away there and then.
"I said I'd pay for the room separately."
Even if cash were worth no more than manure, the sum I offered would have to be deemed a windfall for a country innkeeper, especially when all he had to offer in exchange was to squeeze me in for one night. Nevertheless, his refusal was loud and clear to the end.
"You really are dense, aren't you? Forget the money, even if you could make me President, I tell you, what can' be done can't be done."
"But this is not anything that can't be done, is it?!"
"How can you expect me to conjure up a room that's not there, tell me that, huh? Give me a break, will you, and hurry over to Dongch'on. From here to Dongch'on is only fifteen li, so go and sleep there."
"How can I wake people up at this time of night?"
True, Dongch'on was my destination, but I had no friends or family there. I was just so exasperated and peeved that I vented my frustration on him.
"If you're so sorry to wake people up, then do as you like. That village has a fine forest nearby. You can go into the woods and spend the night there. Anyway, please, hurry up and go. I need to get some sleep, too."
The innkeeper pushed open the front door and stood there waiting for me to leave. I could not keep it up any longer. Anyway, it was not a problem persistence could solve. As I walked out, I asked for directions to Dongch'on. That was all the help I could get out of him. A businessman has to sell even when he makes no profit, the innkeeper said, so why would he turn away a guest if he had the space? Having clarified his position one last time, the innkeeper turned kindly and explained the way in great detail.
Neither the provider of directions nor me, the follower, could possibly have made a mistake. The route was that obvious. And now that crystal clear path was making me anxious. For I kept on walking but the road seemed endless. My uneasiness deepened with every step I took. I feared I would never reach my destination, even if I walked the whole night through, even if I walked for days, for months. It even occurred to me that perhaps I had been doomed to walk this night road as long as I lived. As I trudged on in that state of dread, Venus suddenly vanished. Not only Venus, but all the stars glittering around it had disappeared all at once. It was as if an enormous monster, lying hidden in ambush, had pounced and gobbled up the entire eastern sky in a single bite. I halted in my tracks. Or rather, in spite of myself, my body froze stiff. I longed to turn back. I longed for a place with people. At that very moment I discovered what had swallowed up the stars. It was no monster; it was the forest. Every step I took toward the forest made the trees loom higher, shrouding more of the eastern sky. It's Sorim! I shouted joyously and broke into a run. The distinctive scent of pines enveloped my senses. "That village has a fine forest. You can go into the woods and spend the night there ."The innkeeper" words echoed in my ears, reminding me I had little choice but to walk into the woods and spend the rest of the night there.
Now I could afford to take my time. The paved two-lane road curved sharply off to the right just in front of the forest. I had to abandon that road where it headed away from the woods. For my destination was the village of Dongch'on, the village crouching on the far side of the forest, and the road did not go there. At the spot where the road began to curve I easily found a narrow footpath. The bus stop, with a cement structure erected to provide shelter from the rain, made it impossible to miss. The innkeeper had said that this narrow path wound down through the forest and ended at Dongch'on village.
I set out down the forest path. It was as dark as a cavern. I stumbled over a stone at the mouth of the path. The forest was not exactly welcoming me, I thought. I used the flame of my lighter to check the time, then peered about to try to find a likely place to spend the night. My mind was more at ease, for the warm sunlight would be shining on me after four hours at most. Possibly thanks to this positive frame of mind, I soon found a spot to rest for the night without much difficulty. I came upon a large stone flat enough to prop myself against. Sitting there with my back against the stone, the forest path was right in front of my nose. I decided to settle down there and make a bonfire. The ground was littered with dead leaves and fallen branches from the trees. There was no need for light. All I had to do was stretch out my arms to gather plenty of fuel for the fire.
As the fire began burning, dogs over in the village started to bark. It was because of smoke blown there on the breeze, I guessed. The thought flashed through my mind that one of those dogs might belong to Manch'uidang.
Manch'uidang was the house where I was born. The spot where the house stood was said to be an auspicious site: eventually it would be the birthplace of three prime ministers of the nation. The mushrooming flames of the bonfire made that old tale blossom anew in my mind.
It was a true story, they told me, that had happened to an ancestor of mine five generations in the past. He was a yangban with a daughter and two younger sons. As was customary, his married-off daughter came back to her father's house to give birth, but he refused to let her palanquin enter the main gate of the house and practically chased her off back to her in-laws. He did not want a grandchild by his daughter to be born in Manch'uidang. He had a firm faith in the geomancer's ancient prophesy that three chongsung (the Choson dynasty title for the King's chief minister) would be born at Manch'uidang. By that time, indeed, two of the prophesied three chongsung had already graced the family tree. With only one more left to be born, the old man feared a son of his daughter might take up the final slot. If his daughter gave birth to a boy, and if, due to the auspicious site of the house, that boy grew up to be a chongsung, it would be like handing over a supreme honor, the most prestigious post in officialdom, from his own lineage to the clan of his son-in-law.
Now the pregnant daughter, who had returned to her home to give birth only to be shooed away before she could even get down from the palanquin, was on her way back through the forest called Sorim when suddenly she went into labor. The bearers put down the palanquin and the daughter, after terrible travails, gave birth right there in the midst of the forest. Even before the umbilical cord was cut, both the mother and the baby were lost. After this tragedy, there was no longer any danger that the in-laws would misappropriate the promise of a chongsung in the family. But that owner of Manch'uidang lost his daughter and his grandson (the stillborn baby was a boy). He also made his in-laws turn into mortal foes.
As Father told it, the moral of this story was that the chongsung slot preserved for the family back then was still waiting to be filled. Father's great hope was that I would be the one climbing up to fill that slot. From the day Father first explained to me the meaning of "Manch'uidang" he was forever saying, day in and day out, that I should be the one to fulfill the prophesy and become a chongsung.
"You must appreciate why your mother and your elder sister are enduring all the hard work they're doing. Your success in life, that's all they live for. So, you just study, study to death. If only you study hard, your destiny is to be a chongsung. Never forget, you were born in Manch'uidang. There's no doubt that you'll be a chongsung if you just study hard. Once you've done that, you will have repaid your mother and your sister."
This chongsung sing-song was constantly on Father's lips without a break. When he was drinking, especially, you would hear no end of it. It was like a broken record. On the other hand, when Father was drunk I could say things I would never dare say when he was sober. Sometimes I drove a wedge into his chongsung claptrap: "For goodness sake, stop it, Father. 'chongsung' was a title way back in the olden days of the Chosun kingdom. However auspicious your birthplace may be, how can anyone be a chongsung in a world where there's no such post?"
At this, Father first would shake his head and then, in all seriousness, would say, "Listen, you're a middle school student, don't they teach you anything at school? I mean, don't they teach you that the title of chief minister, chongsung, in the old days is same as that of prime minister, what is it, chongni or something, nowadays? If you do well in your studies, mark my words, then you'll rise up to an official rank that's today's equivalent to a chongsung in the old days. You don't get what I'm saying, do you?" By then I did not feel like giving in too easily. "But, Father, that house passed to others over ten years ago. During that time, surely, other children have been born in that house, and not just one or two, right? What I'm saying is, there's no law against one of them, with the grace of the auspicious site, becoming a minister or a prime minister. Who knows? Maybe a boy who will be President someday already has been born there."
Yet again Father shook his head violently and raised his voice. "Look, not just anyone born at an auspicious site grows up to be a chongsung. There must be a perfect harmony between the site and the family line, see what I mean? Our ancestors lived in that house for generations, and think how many servants worked under their roof over that many years. But, I'm telling you, the servants' sons born in that house became nothing but servants themselves. You can be born at an auspicious site, but it means nothing if your family line is lowly, get me? What I'm saying is, even if that bastard has been living in our Manch'uidang, it means nothing, not a thing. Let alone a chongsung, nobody born in that bastard's family will ever get a peek at a chongsung's heel, house or no house. You understand what I'm saying, don't you?"
Feeling drained by this point, I would just clam up. But then father would start a different chorus of his chongsung sing-song. "I should go to bed, so you can do your studying, is that it? If so, I should go to bed. Sure, I'll go. I have to be off to bed for you to study. And you have to study to become a chongsung, so I must go to bed. Indeed, I ought to go to bed, no question about it. But, my boy, remember one thing. The one thing you must remember is this, namely, once you become a chongsung, do not think lightly of your father. The truth is, you see, if I hadn't fallen into this state, it wasn't your turn to be a chongsung, but mine! " At this, Father's brow invariably wrinkled into a frown. He was getting ready to weep. "Please, go to bed, now, Father. I'll never forget what you've said. So, hurry to bed, please."
There was nothing I hated more than Father's tears. But he never seemed to make it to bed without shedding tears aplenty. His doleful, weeping complaints tapered off into the grouchiness of a sleepy child. "If I weren't in this sorry state, I'd have been a chongsung for sure. How on earth did I fall this low, ruining my lot in life. If not for this, I never would've lost the house . . . . "Tears streaming down, Father would lift his right hand in front of his eyes. A fingerless stub of a hand it was, with all five fingers missing. In 1953, the year of the truce, Father had brought home a grenade he found in the rice paddies. It happened while he was trying to take it apart. From Mother I had heard in great detail everything that happened to Father in the wake of that accident.
At the time Father had been in the third year of middle school, but after the accident he quit school and never left the house. Grandfather wanted it that way, for he could not bear the family's only son for two generations being a laughing stock. Still, Grandfather was in a position to leave Father quite a fortune, from rice paddies to forest lands. Besides, despite the armistice, in those times war might break out again at any moment, and Grandfather thought it fortunate that his only son's stub hand would spare him from the draft. With his ample inheritance and good pedigree, as well as a sure exemption from military service, Father was able to marry a woman he could be proud of. Father was wed at eighteen. But Grandfather passed away without seeing me, the grandson he had awaited so eagerly. Had he lived to be eighty, he still would have laid eyes only on three granddaughters, my older sisters. Anyway, as soon as Grandfather died, Father seldom stayed at home. Consequently, his inheritance was dissipated as the years passed until finally, when I was seven, even the house was lost.
Today I can still remember that we had frequent visits from Father's aunt around that period. It was a mystery to us how Father always seemed to learn in advance about her visits and manage to be away. Grandaunt would stay for days and days, waiting to see her nephew. Not even once did she get her wish. And each time she left without accomplishing her mission, she repeated the same lament: "He had the makings of a chongsung, but now, so far from becoming a chongsung, that stub-hand is bringing disgrace to the family! I've heard of cripples stealing eggs, but old as I am never once have I heard of a stub-hand gambling at cards. My heart breaks for my brother, poor man, may his soul rest in peace. I'm so sorry for his sake."
Perched on Mother's back as she saw Grandaunt off , trees covered with white birds as with snow, many a time I listened to the old woman's laments. And then, at the sight of the bus trailing dust as it approached from the distant highway, Grandaunt rubbed my cheek with a toothless kiss and tearfully said, "Young man, you're the chongsung now. Please, grow up strong and healthy, my little chongsung. Bye-bye, chongsung!" Grandaunt never took her lips from my cheek until the bus stopped right before us. And then, with Mother supporting her, she would wobble up onto the bus. And Mother stayed there motionless on the spot, crying inside, until the bus was completely out of sight From her shoulders, from her back, and from her whole being, she let out a silent wail.
I meant to summon up an image of Mother from that time, but what flickered above the bonfire was the sunken, wasted face she wore on her sickbed. "You know, most people don't give a thought to what they call 'occupational diseases' I didn't, either, until I was hospitalized. Then, visiting an occupational disease ward for a year or so, I realized it was a place for people who had been cannibalizing their own flesh and now were facing death. There was a girl from an ice factory with a wrecked nervous system, an iron foundry worker with brain damage after breathing carbon monoxide for over twenty years, a glassworks girl suffering from an edema of the lung, just like me . . . the cases are countless, you know. The Qin emperor searched high and low for an elixir of perpetual youth, and these days in our country, just think how many people are breathing toxic air just to earn enough to stay alive another day, that's my point. Well, it's not just the Qin emperor, is it? Tell me, what kind of people are they who to live a little longer will drink nothing but pure, spring water flown in by airplane from some mountain valley down on Cheju Island? I tell you, these are the very same people who pollute our rivers and our air to make money." What I had heard from the young man on the train made me think Mother may have died from that pulmonary edema. According to him, glassworks employees also are exposed to toxic posgen gas.
Mother had been working in a glass factory until a few months before she passed away. For the benefit of her stub-handed husband and his future-chongsung son, Mother not only went to work herself, she also had my sisters slaving at the same factory. Even after she fell sick and was obviously dying, she could not bring herself to spend money on medicine. We had been living in Seoul for seven years when the first signs of disease appeared on Mother's face. That was the year I entered middle school. Mother passed away the following year. Since she never stayed in the hospital for tests, there was no way of knowing exactly what illness killed her, but I vividly remember that she suffered from foamy saliva and difficulties in breathing. At the time Mother told us several other workers at her factory had similar symptoms and quit their jobs. But for years Mother kept it a secret and went on working, lest she be fired once her symptoms were known to her employer. From the blazing bonfire Mother's face and the face of the young man on the train gazed back at me.
My whole body shivered. From the heap of wood I had gathered I picked out some pieces likely to burn well and piled them onto the fire. Then, from my parka pocket I took out the bottle of soju and dried cuttlefish that had completely slipped my mind until then. I moved a few charred branches from the fire and put the cuttlefish on them. Then, just like Father always did, I opened the bottle with my teeth, spat the cap away, and took a drink of soju. Had my wife seen this spectacle, no doubt she would have made some crack. Once when she saw me open a bottle that way she said in disgust: "Your father does that because he can't use one hand, but why on earth do you do it, too?" Recalling the look of disbelief on her face, I broke a tentacle off from the cuttlefish and started to chew.
My wife had been dead set against my taking the last train. Actually, whether the train was the last or the very first was of no consequence, she did not want me to travel down to my birthplace at all. She was suspicious, thinking I was using Father as an excuse to carry out a scheme to buy Manch'uidang back. She believed I had given Father a lot of money behind her back. About a month before, she had openly raised the issue, pressing me strongly: "How much in all have you given your father up to now? Even if you won't say, I already know. Do you really think we can afford to buy a house down in the country? What we need to do is to save every penny so we can move to a bigger place here in Seoul. Just what are you thinking, I wonder, even to think about buying a place in the country? Moving down there to live? Is that it? I'd rather die than live in the country. And you're no different, can't you see? What would you do for a living down there? Come on, speak up. So, a chongsung is destined to be born down there, right? Well, if the place is auspicious, then you'll willy-nilly become a chongsung, is that it?'
My answers to her questions were brief, for the most part. I gave Father pocket money often enough, but that was all. And that was no lie. But my wife refused to believe me. "This is what I heard from your father himself. His savings account at the bank contains thirty-two million won. Thirty-two million won!" I was shocked. If what she said was true, Father had saved virtually everything I gave him for years, ever since I graduated from college.
That Father was buried under a pile of debts back while I was in school, nobody knew that as well as I did. After Mother passed away, Father started hanging around a small real estate broker's office in our neighborhood. At first I thought he was just joining other old men in games of cards or Chinese chess. Only later did I find out it was his way of learning the ropes of the real estate business. A few years later, Father went into business as a real estate broker. But the job barely brought home enough to put food on our table. Along the way he had to marry off two daughters and put me through college, so how could he not have gone into debt? So now, to hear that not only had he paid off the debts but had saved thirty-two million won, that was amazing to me. What a frightful obsession he has, I thought. Hearing all this from my wife, I prayed over and over again that Father would succeed in recovering Manch'uidang not a day too late. It was no small joy for me to see his lifelong dream coming true. My wife, quick and alert, could not have overlooked this wish in my heart of hearts.
When Father, who had walked out of the house without a word, did not return home by the next morning, my wife grew more suspicious about me. "Your father has gone down to your hometown, it's pretty obvious. What do you think, dear?" I also thought that was very likely, so I answered her with a nod. "You knew of this in advance, didn't you?" Stifling an outburst of anger, I went into Father's room. I checked the top of the shelf. His bank passbook was not there. I knew that was where he kept it, but I searched the whole room thoroughly, just to be sure. It was gone.
"There's no doubt your father's gone to your hometown because of the house. It's unlikely he would have left without saying something to you, right?" Her suspicion was open by now, but I only replied: "Right. But, who knows, maybe he had some other business. " My wife went on skeptically, "What do you mean, other business? It's not like he has a woman hidden away somewhere!" Unable to suppress my irritation any longer, I yelled at her and stormed out of the house to the office. At the end of the day, I looked several people who might have some idea of Father's where abouts and also phoned others who lived in other parts of the city, but nobody knew anything.
I concluded that Father had gone back home, so I bought a ticket for the last train, departing Seoul at 11:50 p.m.. My aim in taking the trip was to confirm Father's where abouts, and to check out my hometown, a wonderful place to live, they say, with clean air and clean water, as well as to have a look at my birthplace, Manch'uidang. I ended up with a ticket for the last train because I had to drop by home to pack a few things before heading for the train station.
While I was busy preparing for the trip, getting out my parka and so forth, my wife said, "If you really want to go down there, leave at dawn tomorrow and go by car. Shall I call Mr. Kim? I can tell him to bring the car early tomorrow" I shook my head firmly. "Why not? If you take the car down, it'll be comfortable when your father comes back with you, right? I'll call Mr. Kim." Mr. Kim was the chauffeur who drove the sedan assigned to me by the government for my job. My wife was making me angry. "I'm not going there on official business, am I?! Enough nonsense, just give me my socks!" She brought me some socks and resumed her babbling again. "You really suppose someone out there will give you credit for following the rules, don't you ? That you alone are clean . . . "That's enough!?" shut her up. "Stop your nonsense! What's all this preaching to a man who's headed out onto the road!" Again I raised my voice and turned to the front door.
Erasing the memory of my wife, I kept on taking slugs from the bottle. By the time I hit bottom, the liquor consumed on an empty stomach had diffused evenly through my whole body. The effect of the alcohol and the fatigue accumulated over the long day just past were melting me as I sat in front of the fire.
Awakened by a deafening cacophony of birds, my eyes were dazzled by sunshine penetrating through the trees. My teeth were chattering so badly I could not keep my mouth shut. Amazingly, I had fallen asleep in that cold weather. Now the fire was completely out. I gathered some more leaves and twigs and rekindled the fire. It flamed up nicely right away, and the warmth made my eyelids droop again. The ear bursting noise of the birds was gradually fading into the distance.
How long had I been dozing, I wondered. This time it was the sound of people that had awakened me. As I opened my eyes I saw a half dozen children walking toward me from the direction of the village, chattering loudly. They were kids headed to school. At the sight of me, they all stopped talking at once. As they passed by wearing deeply suspicious looks, I spoke to them, deliberately chewing on the leftover cuttlefish to demonstrate my composure.
"Already off to school, aren't you? Where's the school?"
One of the boys answered me curtly, "In town" He was the tallest in the group.
"Does any of you, by any chance, live in Manch'uidang?"
At this second question, the boys busily exchanged glances.
Wondering if they hadn't understood what I said, I asked again.
"I said, does any of you live in Manch'uidang?"
This time, again, the same tall boy answered.
"This is Dongch'on. There's no Manch'uidang here."
"It's not a village, it's the name of a house, Man, ch'ui, dang!"
As the tall boy looked around, they all shook their heads at once.
"We don't know, sir."
As the boys started walking away, suddenly I thought of the herons, so I called out a last question to their backs.
"How come there are no herons to be seen?"
"Did you come to take pictures of herons, sir?"
The tall boy turned around and replied to my question with one of his own.
"No, just curious. Used to be lots of herons in this forest, right?"
"Right. But not anymore. From three years ago, they stopped coming."
"From three years ago? Why?"
I asked in a voice more surprised than was called for.
"A factory was built up over there. So the water in the brooks got polluted. And these days there's no food for them in the bottom of the rice paddies, because of the agricultural chemicals."
Just then someone in the group shouted that the bus was coming. At this signal the boys all took off running toward the bus stop up on the highway. Meanwhile the fire was getting pretty low, so I turned back from the boys, broke up some more wood and diligently piled it onto the fire. As the dew-moistened fuel burned it sent smoke spreading far and wide through the forest. Watching the smoke, I mumbled to myself,
"Stupid boys, how can they not know Manch'uidang? How could they not know that famous house where not just one but two chongsung were born?" Father's image rose before my eyes -sitting with his spine erect, scribbling on a property deed. Though he was left-handed, his longhand was superb. Once the paperwork was done, the first thing he always did was to light up a cigarette. I thought I might be in time to catch father savoring a smoke. Perhaps he already would have completed the deal yesterday. Then again, maybe he did not even come down here at all. To fortify my wavering faith, I shook my head. The fact that Father had left with his bank passbook meant one thing and one thing only. He must have come down here to recover Manch'uidang, thus I firmly concluded.
It was a little strange that Father, leaving the house on a mission of such grave importance, had said not a word. When you think of it, however, it was not entirely beyond comprehension. The house had been lost to another solely due to his blunders, so as a matter of pride, he needed to recover it on his own with no help from anyone. That was one possible explanation.
Five years ago, when I passed the higher civil service examination, Father was as exultant as if he had conquered the world. He said, "See" The future is open wide for you now. You can be a minister, you can be a prime minister. That's just what a chongsung is, isn't it? All this is thanks to your birth in Manch'uidang. I'm telling you, all this is from the auspicious site of that house of ours!" Father could not have been more excited. But for some reason, I, the one who should have been jubilant, felt I was losing something precious. I felt like someone had snatched a real gem from me and left a fake in its place.
Father seemed to see all the way through me. He tapped me on the shoulder and said: "The way things work in this world these days is beyond me. I'm told even a painter can be filthy rich, but an artist never can approach the stature of a chongsung. Whatever kind of world it is, once you are raised up high, money is supposed to follow you of its own accord. " Father drove a wedge like this because he feared I might still have lingering regrets about not becoming an artist. But I already had given up the idea of being a painter back when I entered high school. It was not so much blind obedience to Father, who had insisted that I study public administration or political science, rather our family finances were far from conducive to pursuit of the fine arts.
When I thought of Mother, who had passed away after a life full of misery, or of my sisters, who under Father's master plan were sent to work in factories as soon as they were barely past childhood, bearing every hardship imaginable, how could I possibly insist on taking up painting? In the end, just as Father had hoped, I was admitted to a so-called first-class university and majored in public administration. I did encounter several crises of having to quit school temporarily due to lack of money. Each time Father asked for help from one of our relatives from Dongch'on, a cousin of his who had opened a calligraphy school in Seoul and was living rather comfortably. His remarkable skill at calligraphy was something my grandfather had taught him, and that was why he always was willing to help. Even without being asked, every now and then he sent rice or coal for my family.
Thanks to the aid from Father's cousin I was able to graduate from college and pass the higher civil service examination that same year. I could not just accept my success as good luck, however. I had premonitions of misfortune of some kind lurking down a mistakenly chosen path. And, life being uncanny the way it is, the worse forebodings are the more likely they are to come to pass, hence my premonition came true. It happened last summer. I came very close to losing my government post. My head was on the chopping block for what in bureaucratic slang is called a "crime of insolence" I defied an order of a certain powerbroker who could drop birds from the sky with a single cough.
This so-called "order" concerned a matter which, viewed broadly, was damaging to the national interest, and at the same time, viewed narrowly, it might if revealed easily become a snare that would entrap the man in question. Needless to say, it was something prohibited by law. My decision was to observe the law, even at the risk of having my head taken off. And now, though my neck was still intact on my shoulders I cannot say my head is connected all that solidly.
There came a time when I had no choice but to tell my wife about my predicament, for she was intending to quit her job due to her pregnancy. If I were I to get chopped through the neck after she already had left her job, that would be a real catastrophe. With what money the two of us had scraped together over the last two years, we recently managed to move from a rented room in to a little flat of our own, but that left not a penny of savings. With things this way, if both of us were out of work we would have no means to live. So, I explained the trouble I was in and asked her to postpone her resignation for the time being. I also begged her repeatedly to keep it a secret from Father.
My wife, however, soon proved the truth of the old saying, "Your oxen may keep a secret, but never your wife" After being filled in by my wife, Father called me in. "How many times have I told you! It's the jutting stone that gets chiseled. And now, why couldn't you just behave yourself so that . . . that's one thing, and what about the wretched life we've all had to go through, tell me that. And now, before you've even had a chance for promotion to a lofty post, we have to worry about your neck! Do you want to be like your ancestor of long ago? He, too, spoke self-righteously at court, and for his principles he was dismissed and kicked down into exile in the countryside. If only he'd played his cards right, becoming a chongsung would have been a piece of cake for him. While he was down in the country, lamenting his lot that made him fall too early like a paulownia leaf, he named our house "Manch'uidang" hoping his descendants, unlike himself, would like pines keep their greenness even in old age."
Hearing this preposterous story of Father's, I could not suppress a burst of laughter. Had I still been a young boy, he would have given me a good whipping on the calves. Father wore an indignant expression but said nothing. Carefully observing his countenance, I paused so as not to anger him further. Then very cautiously I spoke. "You're right, father, that the "manch'ui" in "manch'uidang" means an evergreen that keeps its color even in winter. But here it's used as a metaphor - it means an upright man whose convictions remain unshaken in adversity and in old age."
Father frowned at my explanation. Then he grew unreasonable. " "The world today is different than in the old days. If you live by your convictions, you'll end up a laughing stock. You have to live in accord with the flow of the times. Then, like an evergreen tree, even in your old age you can still enjoy luxury. Our house was named Manch'uidang with this lesson in mind. By the way, what you said just now, who told you that ?" I could not answer Father's question.
The person who had told me that interpretation was none other than the calligrapher, Father's cousin. Naturally, Father also must have heard this old gloss on "manch'uidang" from him long ago. Still, never once had Father told me the real meaning of the name "manch'uidang" It must have been quite intentional on his part.
Ever since father heard from my wife that my neck was in peril, he had become visibly nervous. Father was sure I would lose my post for my convictions, just like our ancestor. About a month ago, Father called my wife and me together and spoke to us in grave tone: "When a dragon's out of water, even ants attack him, and that's the law. Just how did you commit such a blunder?" I told him it was no blunder. The nature of the case was such that I could not in conscience go against the law, so I took care of it the best I knew how. And that really made him blow up. "It's like a child born after endless prayers turns out to be blind! Listen, you! You call yourself a son who cares even a bit for your father, eh? No need for another word. You, my dear little daughter-in-law, get ready to go down to Manch'uidang to have the baby. You understand what I'm saying, don't you?" Picturing my wife on her way to the house, going into labor and delivering the baby right in the middle of the forest, I could not help but grin bitterly inside.
Father's face kept appearing in the bonfire. I prayed he had succeeded in recovering Manch'uidang. And then, I began thinking over what steps I needed to take to locate Father.
Two motorcycles were approaching at high speed from the direction of the town. It was like watching a race. As they approached the bus stop they slowed down, and the two motorcycles came nose and nose as they turned onto the narrow path into the forest. I thought they must be headed to Dongch'on village, but they stopped in front of me. Two men in jumpers got off the motorcycles. One seemed to be in his thirties and the other in his forties, and both were wearing firearms, the tips of their holsters were just sticking out from under their clothes at their right hips. As soon as I saw the guns, I thought of the boys who had passed me on their way to school a little while before. It looked like those boys upon reaching town had gone straight to the police to report a suspicious stranger in the forest. I knew the boys had looked at me with suspicion in their eyes, but I never expected they would report me to the police, so I was at a loss.
"What do you think you're doing here?"
Asked the officer who approached first, the younger of the two. When I did not immediately respond, for lack of "right" answer, he spoke again, much ruder this time.
"who told you could make a fire here?!"
I had not made the fire because anyone told me to, so once again, I was at a loss.
"Are you mute?"
Only then could I give him an answer, saying "no"
"Why didn't you answer me, then? What's your profession?"
I was angry. Naturally, my tone was not very nice.
"I can guess what your job is, but does it entitle you to be rude to just anybody?"
At this unexpected response from me, the younger man was taken aback for an instant. Then the older officer spoke more formally,
"We're the police. It's prohibited to make fires in this forest. Are you aware of the penalty for causing damage to a forest preserve?"
"I did not know this is a forest preserve."
"Let me see your identification, please."
I took my ID out of my wallet and handed it to him. He took it and as he examined it his face became tense. No doubt, the tension was due to my work place and my position. After comparing the ID photo with my face one more time, he snapped to attention, saluted and apologized respectfully.
"Pardon me, sir. I failed to recognize you. I am Corporal Lee from the information desk at the main police station."
I took back my ID and studied his expression for a while. There was still a tinge of suspicion in his eyes. It might have stemmed from the fact that I seemed too young for the position I held. In a strained voice he told me, in the form of a report, why they had been dispatched. As expected, they had received a report from the boys.
"Excuse me for asking, sir, but how come, this early in the morning . . . ."
Corporal Lee did not finish his question, but he had said enough to convey an idea of what he was suspecting..
"The truth is, I spent the night here," I said, smiling.
He was greatly surprised.
"Let's have a cigarette first, and I'll explain."
I took out a pack and offered smokes to both of them. Then I squatted down beside the fire. Following my example somewhat hesitantly, Corporal Lee issued an order to the younger man.
"Hey, Patrolman Kim, we need more wood for this fire here."
We lit cigarettes and took a few puffs. In the meantime Patrolman Kim swiftly brought an armful of firewood. Then he stooped down next to the Corporal and began rekindling the dying fire.
"You must have been awfully cold, sir."
"Yes, I had a taste of hard times."
I laughed and then proceeded to satisfy his curiosity. I told him in some detail that I had come from Seoul on a last train the night before to look into some business here in Dongch'on, when I arrived in town, how, after failing to find a place to stay, I had ended up spending the night in the forest, and so on. After hearing me out, they both nodded.
"With the folk music contest in town and so many visitors from other districts, we have pandemonium with the lodgings problem. But you could have saved yourself some trouble if you had contacted the local government building or our police station."
"You should have heard what the innkeeper said. Even if the President showed up, how could he come up with a room that did not exist? He was right."
"Which inn was it, sir?"
"I'm sure he had no other choice than to put it the way he did."
"In any case, we're sorry about it. We apologize for him. Obviously, he had no idea who he was talking to. Because of the event, the whole town is turned upside down with people pouring in from various districts. Private houses with spare rooms have turned into inns, and even the night guard's room at the train station is being let out. Everyone's so terribly squeezed, some even talk of getting arrested so they can have a comfortable night's sleep in a jail cell. By the way, who are you visiting in Dongch'on, sir?"
Before answering, I told him I was born in Manch'uidang in Dongch'on, and, without standing on ceremony, I went ahead to say I had come to look for my father after he left our place in Seoul without a word.
"To tell you the truth, I came here on a mere hunch that my father might be down here. Do you think there's some way to check this out?"
At this, the two men exchanged awkward glances, then got up and moved some distance away from me to talk privately for a while. At the end of their consultation, Corporal Lee came back over to me and Patrolman Kim went over to his motorcycle. Corporal Lee asked me whether I wanted to have breakfast. With all the restaurants in town packed with people from out of town, he suggested eating in Dongch'on, even if it meant having a simple country meal.
"Sounds good. But is there anyplace to eat in Dongch'on?"
"There's no restaurant, but we can ask a favor from the village chief."
"I don't want to be a nuisance."
"Hardly a nuisance, sir. Rather, for an important guest like you . . . ."
"It'll only make me feel uncomfortable, so be sure they take no special trouble, just a meal like they would have for themselves, please. I'll pay generously for the food. You, two, probably haven't had breakfast yet, so let's eat together. We can chat, then, too. What do you say?"
"That's what we had in mind, too, sir."
Corporal Lee lifted his arm and gestured for Patrolman Kim to go ahead to Dongch'on. At this signal, Kim sped away through the forest on his motorcycle. As he left Corporal Lee started to put out the fire.
"I'm pretty positive my father came down here . . . maybe we can confirm it when we get to the village chief's house."
"Well, sir, the truth is . . . ."
Corporal Lee, who had been bent over the fire, paused for a minute to straighten his back, then went on,
"Your father, sir, came down here, that's certain. His last name is Lee and his first name is Taek-Hee, right, sir?"
"why, how do you even know his name?"
I was indeed astonished.
"The name stuck in my mind because it's my own name, too, but your father . . . well, yesterday we had to arrest your father, sir."
"What? Did you say 'arrest'? "
I could not help doubting my ears. I thought I might have heard him wrong, after being surprised just before.
"The truth is, sir, your father had too much to drink yesterday, and then he went to the district hall and went on a rampage in the office of the magistrate's secretary. Well, the district office contacted us, saying he was creating a disturbance, sir."
"What do you mean 'rampage'? What kind of a rampage did he go on?"
In spite of myself, I raised my voice.
"There's something you should know beforehand, sir. Manch'uidang is to be razed. Not just Manch'uidang, but all the houses in Dongch'on are set to be torn down, sir."
"Just what are you talking about?"
"An industrial complex is moving in here, sir."
According to Corporal Lee, relocation expenses already had been paid to the Dongch'on residents, and construction was scheduled to begin the very next day after they completed evacuating the village. His story continued,
"Your father, sir, found out about this and was so outraged he got drunk. Then he went to the district hall and demanded to see the magistrate, but the secretary refused his request because he was so intoxicated with alcohol. So your father, sir, got angry and made a ruckus, throwing the telephone and tossing around chairs in the secretary's office."
Taken to the police, Father was investigated after he sobered up. As a result the reason for his conduct was clarified. Under the circumstances, and given the fact that he was an old man native to the area, the police consulted with the district office and released him with a warning.
"It's quite possible, sir, that your father went back to Seoul on the late train last night. It seems you and your father just missed each other, him heading up as you came down. The village chief has a phone at his house, so why don't you call home when we get there?"
All at once my I felt totally unwound, partly because Father and I had missed each other, but more because the loss of Manch'uidang was forever irrevocable now. If I was this disappointed, I could well imagine how Father must have felt.
By the time we arrived Patrolman Kim already had finished cleaning up the guest room of the chief's house. The village chief was waiting for us. He was a man about my age and, unlike a typical farmer, his clothes and his bearing were quite refined. After the introductions by Corporal Lee, the chief and I shook hands.
"I heard everything in detail from Patrolman Kim. So you lived in Manch'uidang?"
"Well, it's be more accurate to say I was born and grew up there until I was seven."
"At any event, now that the house is set to be demolished, you must be awfully sorry to see it go. Actually, it's the rarest, most ancient house in our village, so we tried to have it recognized as a cultural treasure. A group of gentlemen, members of a Commission on Cultural Treasures, paid a visit down here, but the house was too old to begin with, they said, and the people who were living there maintained it so poorly that it's now seriously damaged. Even if they wanted to relocate it elsewhere, not much of the wooden structure could be salvaged, they said. So, we were left with no choice."
"That house is known not so much for its structure as for its auspicious site . . ." I said, as if to myself. My own attachment was more to the site than to the house itself.
The village chief took my words as a cue to continue.
"I don't know much about it, but there used to be a lot of talk about the house: it was said Manch'uidang was destined to produce three chongsung from among those who lived there, but two of the three already were born way back in the old days, so that now only the last one was left and that was Park so-and-so."
"Park is the eldest son of the family who lived in the house until recently. He ran for the National Assembly and lost miserably. I'm not sure if it's a proper thing to say to you, but in rural areas like ours, the ruling party candidate usually is guaranteed to win the elections."
Corporal Lee added: "I shouldn't say this, but we gave him a lot of support, but he still lost big all the same. You see, his father had long since lost the hearts of the people."
Then the chief spoke up again.
"If I may be blunt, this Park only had a flashy college degree and he himself also seemed to have alienated many people. Because he was so arrogant. Anyway, before he lost the election, everybody was excited that we would have a big shot from our village, but now that he's lost, everyone says in unison that the real bigwig born in Manch'uidang is the one who now lives up in Seoul. Excuse me for saying it to your face, but they have you in mind, sir."
I could not help but laugh at this. When I laughed, the chief assumed a serious expression and to emphasize that what he had said was in no way false, he again spoke,
"This is all true, sir. It's straight from the mouth of the village elders."
I did not want to remain the hero of this embarrassing epic any longer, so I asked the chief to change the subject.
"Can I use your phone to make a call to Seoul? I'd like to find out if my father has arrived back there..."
"Your father, sir, is still here in the village."
I was shocked.
""He sure is. Being the so-called chief of the village, I meant to invite him to stay here yesterday, but he was so stubborn that in the end he spent last night at Manch'uidang. Since he was determined, I sent a man over there to the house to make a fire to warm the place up. But the house had been vacant for so long, I'm afraid it wasn't warm enough for him."
"I asked some boys on their way to school but they didn't know Manch'uidang. Where exactly is the house? I was so young when I lived here, I can't recall how to get there."
"It's not far from here, but you can't see it because it's around the foot of the mountain. The children wouldn't recognize the name "Manch'uidang" If you had said "the chongsung house" they would have known what you meant."
I could not remain sitting there any longer, so I got up.
"What? Are you going to go over to Manch'uidang?"
"Yes, I must see my father."
"But I'm afraid he's not there now."
"What do you mean? You just said he spent the night there, didn't you?!"
Before I knew what I was doing, I had raised my voice. I could not make heads or tails of what was going on.
"I didn't see him myself, but my wife told me that about an hour ago she saw your father drop by the village store, and then head up the hill with a bottle of soju"
Seeing my puzzled look, he went on,
" i think I can guess where your father is now. When you go up the hill, about midway there's a big, flat rock. From there you can look out over the whole village. Maybe you recall the place. Anyway, there's an old story that one of the ancestors in your clan went up to that spot to survey the geomantic features of the area, and he was the one who chose the site where Manch'uidang was built. Of course, at the time the house wasn't called that, but at any rate he built a house where Manch'uidang stands today. I'll wager your father is up there sitting on that rock right now."
For a change, it was Patrolman Kim who butted in this time.
"Chief, for someone who've been away most of his life and only returned to his hometown a couple of years ago, there isn't a single thing you don't seem to know."
"Well, I'm not the village chief for nothing. I heard these stories from the old folks around here. Besides, it's a famous legend in these parts. And that's not all. There's another interesting tale they tell about Sorim forest."
Before the chief could finish that story, I went out and put my shoes on. I practically tore the chief off me when he insisted on being my guide. With directions from him, I walked up an alley past the village store and began to climb up the hill. After about ten minutes of walking uphill, sweat was begin to trickle down my brow when Father came into view. Just as the chief had said, he was sitting on the flat rock on the side of the hill. I was so glad to see him that I kept calling out "Father" even before I caught my breath, but Father only turned a fleeting glance my way and turned his gaze back to the scene below at the foot of the hill. Even after I was standing right beside him, he would not take his eyes off from it. Judging from his eyes, he must have been had quite a bit to drink. With nothing better to do, I looked down the hill, too. An old house with a square-shaped tile roof was visible surrounded by mountain trails, as if cradled in a basket. Beyond the fields and rice paddies spreading out before the house was a wide stream that flowed off along the highway. Though I knew not the first thing about geomancy, even I could see it was a fine site for a house.
"My son, how can I go on living? I've failed to preserve the house handed down for generations . . . ."
His words, moist with despair, trailed off into silence.
"Please, try not to dwell on it, father. How can one man stop a project carried out by the nation?"
"Even if it's the nation's doing, the thought that a factory will be built on that auspicious site . . . ."
"Forget about it, please."
"Look, if only you had behaved, it wouldn't hurt me this much. If only my grandson could have been born in that house ,it wouldn't haveÖ"
"That's enough, Father. Let's go down and have some breakfast now. Before I came up here for you I had them get breakfast ready at the chief's house."
"Listen to you! Can you shove food in your craw at a time like this?!"
Father's anger erupted. I shut up and tried to figure out some way to console him. I racked my brain but drew a blank. My disappointment could not for a moment compared with Father's, but I was also dismayed that Manch'uidang was lost for good. And suddenly what I had heard from the boys that morning came to mind. Encouraged, I opened my mouth.
"Father, however auspicious the site once was, what good is it if we can't live here? Because of factory wastes, because of agricultural chemicals, the herons stopped coming here three years ago. What used to be a fine site for a house is now spoiled. This is now a place where no birds fly and no fish can survive, so however good the site was, we can't live here, can we?"
After I finished saying this, I awaited thunderbolts of cursing from Father, but he fell silent and said not a word. For a long while Father kept still. At last he said gravely,
"I've given a lot of thought to it, but there's no other way. Listen to me, you take this and use it to bribe them."
From the inside pocket of his jacket, Father took out the passbook for his savings account at the agricultural cooperative bank and handed it to me.
"Who am I to bribe, Father?"
" Who else but the guy who's wringing your neck! Don't worry about the money. If this is not enough, I'll get more for you. Yesterday I went to the house and took down the Manch'uidang plaque. I called my cousin at the calligraphy school, and he said he thought he remembered that the calligraphy was by the famous Han Sok-Bong, or at least Han's school. If he remembers rightly, it'll bring a lot of money. That plaque, I'll sell it too and give you the money, so, for goodness sake, do all you can to save your neck."
I said to myself, "This is it! This is my one and only chance to get out of the stinking water, and not a day too soon. I'll fight to the bitter end. If I lose my post anyway, I'll open up a hole in the wall store. If I can't rid myself of the stink for fear of losing an official post, then my life is sure to rot. Far better to run a tavern with the Manch'uidang plaque hanging on the wall. Manch'uidang Tavern, not bad, not bad at all!"
Hurriedly I collected my wits, smiled and answered in a voice full of spirit.
"I'll do as you say, Father. Thank you. But, don't sell the Manch'uidang plaque, please. We should at least keep it to be able to face our ancestors, don't you think? I think we should preserve it intact and hand it down from generation to generation. The money in this bankbook is enough, I can tackle the guy, I'm sure!"
In spite of myself, I was extremely excited.
"Father, let's hurry down. They're waiting for us with the meal ready. I'll follow your advice without fail."
As I helped Father to his feet, I was lying right and left in great spirits. In all my life, I don't remember ever before having lied like that. At the change in my attitude, Father also seemed to have regained his spirit somewhat.
Once on his feet with my support, Father once more gazed down the hill. My eyes followed his glance as it came to rest on the green pine forest. The pines spread out along the highway stood out greener than ever against the surrounding vegetation with its withered and discolored leaves. With the forest fully in view, I thought of the framed poem hanging on the wall of my room: "Ch'ich'igan songban, ululham manch'ui. "The pines by yon stream grow slowly, slowly, yet full and green they stay till late." Mindful of these words, I reflected that the man who planted that pine forest must have been the same person who named our house "Manch'uidang"