Choi Cho※ng-hu※i was born on November 12, 1912 at Yejin (in what is now North Korea), but she received most of her education in Seoul. She attended Sukmyo※ng Girls's High School and then trained as a kindergarten monitor in Jungang Teachers Training College. After graduating she worked in a kindergarten in the country. Then she was transferred to a nursery in Tokyo, Japan. One year later, she returned home and took an editorial job in the monthly magazine Samcho※nri. At this time, she married the poet Kim Dong-myo※ng, the chief editor and publisher of the magazine.
In 1944, after being imprisoned for a while by the Japanese, she entered the Chosun Ilbo in the editing section. At the same time, she published her first literary work, The Haunted House, and became a writer. She resigned from the Chosun Ilbo after publishing her second work, Human Relations, and hid herself in the countryside until Korea's 1945 liberation from the Japanese occupation.
After Korea was emancipated from Japan, she published many short stories. Her first collection of short stories, Ch'o※nmaek (Ways of Heaven) appeared in 1948 and her second in 1949. However, the Korean War brought her a great pain, when her husband was kidnapped by the Communists and disappeared for ever. Once the the Korean War was over, she devoted herself to creative writing and became one of the major writers of her time, producing a number of novels and many short stories. Her first full-length novel, Noksaek u※i mun (The Green Gate) was published in 1954. Other major novels include Kkut'o※pnu※n nanmang (Endless Romanticism, 1958) and Ingansa (History of Humanity, 1964). Her last collection of short stories, T'aptori (Circling the pagoda) was published in 1976.
She was appointed a member of the Culture Bureau for Seoul in 1954 and was elected a member of the Korean Academy of Arts for her brilliant literary achievements. She was also awarded several prestigious prizes such as the Seoul City Prize for Culture in 1954, the first Prize for Korean Woman Writers in 1958 and the prize from the Korean Academy of Arts in 1971. She also served as President of the Korean Women Writers Association. She died in 1990.
Choi Cho※ng-hu※i was a talented writer caught up in the tragedy of modern Korean history. As a result, her writing not only reflects the natural and social forces which were imposed upon her, but also deals with human endurance to cope with inhuman powers. The theme of the social forces influencing individual existence appears as a topic in most of her works; her main characters are very often intelligent women obliged to endure the harshness of life in a male- centered society. Her works are very strongly centered on the female viewpoint and experience of life; she is one of the first Korean writers to be so overtly concerned with issues now included in the term 'feminism'. One of her best works, A Moment of Stillness, deals with the difficult life of an old woman who has lived out the Korean War.
In many of her works, Choi Cho※ng-hu※i explores those human values which have been destroyed by the conflict of ideologies and emphasizes that human life, love and humanity are more important than anything in the world. The main emphasis in her works is on the freedom of the human will as well as that human dignity which men and women have to sustain as they endure the blind ways of history.
When the Cricket Chirps
CH'OE CHO※NG HU※I
Sungnye, their daughter, went out of the house hurriedly as soon as breakfast was over, shouting the usual "I'll be back" in the general direction of their room. Their son and his wife had already gone out. As was customary with so many Korean homes, the old couple was living with their son's family in the same house.
"Where are you going? These young kids must think that Sundays are for nothing but outings. I don't understand," said the mother, looking toward the gate through which her daughter had already disappeared. She had been plucking gray strands from her hair, using a small hand miror to reflect the back of her head in a large wall mirror. The old man could easily sense from her tone that it was not so much their daughter's going out as their son and daughter-in-law's departure that aggravated her. Living together with a married son in the same house has its advantages and disadvantages. The father thought that this was one of the bad instances.
Take breakfast that morning, for instance. Their daughter-in law had been thoughtful enough to make some extra of the seaweed rolls which she had packed for their picnic lunch to put out on the breakfast table of the elder people. The mother had plainly shown. Her disgust while the father munched his roll savoring its taste. He knew, but he had pretended that he had noticed nothing.
That had been the basic attitude of the father throughout his long married life. He knew so well his wife's rather nagging disposition and her constant habit of finding fault with other people. He had always been very careful when he sensed she was in one of her moods. Sometimes he tried to cope with the situation by making some facetious remark. She was eleven years yonger than he.
"What's bothering you? Have you pulled out a black hair instead of a gray one" he asked, looking up at his wife with a smile.
"Don't make a fool of yourself. You don't even resent impudence."
"I know how exasperating it is to pull out black hairs," he went on as if he didn't know what she was driving at.
"I don't know where you got this notion of pulling out black hairs, but can't you see that our family is floundering?"
"Floundering? What's wrong with our family? Since the coming of our new bride you haven't had to fight with the housemaid I notice. Don't you like it?"
"I don't like anything. Sungnye used to be a good girl. Now she goes out every Sunday with all her finery on. Bad influence, that's what I say."Apparently she was referring to their daughter-in-law.
"That's an unkindly thing to say. She's already a college sophomore, don't forget. It's about time she began to make boyfriends too, you know. It's nobody's teaching. I wish you wouldn't speak ill of our new bride."
"That's enough. Always our new bride, new bride. That's why she becomes so unruly and impudent. You don't want to ruin your own daughter, do you? " She slammed the hand mirror down on the dresser.
"Ruin what daughter? You used to wish to see the day when Sungnye would become grown up. Just when she is turning into a lovely young woman, you speak of ruin." This time the father deliberately left out any reference to their daughter-in-law.,
"My God, you are the damnedest happy-go-lucky man I have ever seen, and I have grown old because of your happy-go-lucky attitude."
"I don't know if I made you grow old or not, but isn't everyone doomed to grow old sooner or later?" It was easy philosophizing, but he uttered the last phrase with a small sigh in spite of himself.
It wasn't certain whether she was moved by what the husband had"
said or whether she was simply pressed for time, but she picked up the hand mirror again and walked over to the wall mirror.
He looked up at her from his prone position. He could see the reflection of fleeting white clouds in the large wail mirror. While watching the white clouds he became envious of his wife pulling out white hairs. For he himself had given up long ago.
"Pulling them out won't help. Kim Chaewi used to pull out an awful lot of gray hairs, but he died," he mumbled half to himself, but he was startled by what he had said. A cold shiver ran down his spine.
This was a new symptom he had acquired since he attended Kim Chaewi's funeral not long ago. It was a fear of death. Over two weeks had already passed since the funeral, but the fear did not lessen. The old friend's image, pulling out gray hairs with his trembling hands, came back to him abruptly several times a day. He used to make some facetious remarks seeing him do it while he was alive, but now after his death the thing was altogether hideous and ghoulish.
After putting on makeup his wife went out. She said she was off to attend the wedding of a friend's daughter.
The house became suddenly quiet after the wife's departure. Even the maid, who had been busy cleaning the house all morning, seemed to have retired to take a nap or something, now that the moody mistress of the house was absent.
Then out of nowhere a cricket jumped into his room. The old man was startled at first, but soon he decided he should drive it out because of what he had heard long, long ago from his grandmother She had said that winter rushes in exactly three months after the first cricket crawls into the house. Another winter could only mean that he would be a year older, he figured.
He went after the cricket, trying to catch it, but soon he found that it wasn't such an easy job. He was out of breath in no time, and that only made him realize that he was not as fit as he used to be. Then the cricket accidentally fell into the unemptied wash basin his wife had left in the room. "Now I've got you," he thought, putting his hand into the water. But it jumped in the water too. After poking and grabbing several times he finally got hold of the cricket, but when he examined the captive, he found that he had broken off a leg in the excitement of the chase. He put the cricket just outside of the room. It did not budge. He touched its tail end softly to send it off. He wished it would go away to a far-off place. It started to jump, but its former vigor and deftness were gone. It staggered.
It staggered like palsied Pae Ingi, another of his old friends. Of course, he had not actually seen the palsied and decrepit friend walk; he had only seen him lying in his bed.
He had visited this friend two weeks ago on his way back from Kim Chaewi's funeral. He had heard the news much earlier that this friend had had a stroke, but he simply could not gather the courage to go and face him. When he was young he was the first to go and see sick friends. But now, for some reason, he was apt to put off such visits as long as possible. There were too many sick friends nowadays for one thing.
His friend Pae Ingi was in bed alone. His wife had died a year ago. The room, facing west, was very, hot but the window didn't even have a rattan blind. Pae Ingi was crouching in a corner of the room probably to avoid the shaft of the sun setting through the window.
His face was swollen and a line of saliva down his jaw could be seen from the drooping corner of his mouth. With this mouth he asked if he was on his way home from Kim Chaewi's funeral. He could not articulate sounds clearly either. When he asked him how he could have known about the funeral lying in bed and all, Pae Ingi did not answer. He merely looked back at him blankly for awhile. Finally he said, "I wanted to go. . . " He could not finish the sentence.
He recalled the day Pae Ingi's son was married. Ingi had caught him just in front of the wedding hall."Say, none of us are getting any younger,are we?" he had said. "They are making us into old men. Now that my son is married, I'll soon have grandchildren and they will call me grandpa in no time. When kids start to call you grandpa, you've had it. Then you are a grandpa whether you wish it or not, you know." Recalling this incident now, he looked at Pae Ingi. Then Ingi said something about getting well soon and sharing wine with old friends like the old days. But he could feel the false, pretended cheerfulness. Saying "Sure, sure," to his friend's suggestion, he had gotten up to leave. "You are not leaving already," said Ingi disappointedly, but he had some other errands to look after. Pae had reached out his feeble hand. Apparently he had wanted to shake hands. He grabbed the flabby hand. It wasn? the springy and vigorous hand it used to be.
He looked for the cricket again, but it had disappeared. Lame as it was, it mush have hopped off. Resuming his former reclining position he looked into the large wall mirror. The white clouds had disappeared too, and he could see the reflection of the blue sky and occasional dragonflies flitting around.
Watching these things in the mirror, he soon fell asleep. In his dream he met Yu Ongnye, the girl Kim Chaewi used to run around with.
She was wearing a green dress though he couldn't recall what kind of shoes she had on. There were so many tall trees around her that she was almost hidden among them. If it hadn't been for her unusually fair complexion, he wouldn't have recognized her. In the woods she beckoned to him. The hand was as white as the face. Just as he was ready to go over to her he noticed the river flowing between them.
When he signaled to her that he could not cross the river, she spread her skirt as a bird would spread its wings and flew over the river toward him. There was a halo of rainbow-colored lights, bright and beautiful lights.
He stood in the bright and beautiful lights, spreading his arms to receive her. As soon as she was in his his arms, he embraced her with all his might, rolling on the grass. He had experienced ecstasy.
When he awoke, the block of wood he was using as his pillow was on the other side of the room. He got up limply. In his confusion the first thing that came to his mind was that he should find out if Ongnye was still alive. Somehow it did not seem right to make love to a dead womanΑnot even in a dream. Then he thought he had heard somewhere that it was a sign of death in the near future to dream of making love to a dead person.
Sitting up on the floor, he tried to figure out when he had last met Ongnye. It was two years back. She looked altogether hideous with her hair dyed black. Her withered face was covered with brownish spots, but her hair was pitch black and one could not quite make up one's mind about her age. It was unnatural. They talked about many things, but he could not recall anything except that she said she was living in Ch'ungju at the time. He even forgot whether it was a funeral or a wedding that he had met her. Anyway, he could vaguely remember that many others were around.
He and his friendsΑKim chaewi, Pae Ingi, and several other classmatesΑhad met Ongnye for the first time while they were attending college. They had formed a reading circle and through someone's introduction she had joined it. Since she was the only female member of the set, she soon became the center of attention. Everybody was interested in her, but the custom of the country being what it was, nobody dared to do anything about it. Each knew how the other felt about her, and no doubt the boyish code of honor was working too.
This could not have lasted very long, however. Kim Chaewi had secretly violated the code and made the first move. Of course, not everyone in the group was aware of the affair. But he, Pae Ingi, and another fellow had found out. Now he could not even remember the name of this third fellowΑthere was a rumor that he had died in Manchuria. Another version had it that he had died in a prison after fighting against Japanese colonialism. Anyway, he was dead he thought.
When they found out about Chaewi's sly move, they decided not to disclose it to the other members of the group. Instead, they were content with the occasional treat to wine by Chaewi, who was forced to do so under the three roguish friends's threat to bring it out in the open. Moreover, Chaewi himself had seemed to enjoy being blackmailed.
He wondered if there was any way to find out whether or not Ongnye was still alive. He had to count out Pae Ingi, who in his present condition wouldn't be of much use. Other friends had all drifted off. "When Ingi dies, I will be the only one who knows anything about Ongnye, and when I die. . ." He stopped short at this point. The same recurring fear gripped him. And before he knew what he was doing he called the maid.
His voice sounded unusually hollow and loud. The startled maid ran to him with an equally loud "Yes."She had probably thought it was the signal for the return of the mistress of the house or some such grave event. She looked around, dazed.
"I am going fishing. Lock up the front gate, all right?" He wasn't thinking about fishing at all. He merely said so because he couldn't think of anything else to say when the maid arrived. Now he had to get out of the house with his fishing pole.
He thought that it wasn't a bad idea after all. He decided to go to the nearby pond. Then he remembered a young man he used to run into at the pond who always talked about interpreting dreams. He attributed everything to his dream the night before. A bad dream, bad luck, a good dream, good luck. He figured he would be able to get something out of the young man about the strange dream he had had awhile ago.
He went around the pond looking for the young man. He had gotten to know quite a few people at the pond besides the young man, for he had been visiting the place at least four or five times a week since his retirement as a school principal.
Being Sunday, the pond was quite crowded with people fishing. Although he made nearly a full circle of the pond, he could not spot the young man. Instead, he was hailed by another man with a dark face.
"Good afternoon, sir. You've late."
He stopped and went down the bank to the water edge where the man was fishing. Although it wasn't the young man he was looking for, he was very glad at least to run into someone who knew him. The man was probably twenty years younger, but age rarely mattered around fishing spots.
"Hello, there! How's it going?"
"Not so good. Too many people to begin with. Why don't you settle down here? This is as good a place as any or I should say just as bad amg," said the man good-naturedly. The man probably thought that he was looking for a good spot.
"There are many people, true, but I don't see any of the usual crowd." Saying this he began to settle down by the man with the dark face.
"They must have gone to other places expecting this on to be crowded." the younger man said. He agreed. He wanted to ask this man about the dream he had just had.
"Listen, do you know anything about dreams? What happens if you fool around with a woman in a dream? Is it a good sign? The important thing is she may be a dead woman."
"Well, that's the best dream you can have! That's a sign of great fortune. You'll catch a big fish, wait and see."Saying so, the younger man went back to watch his line. Among these people good luck automatically meant a big fish.
"No, no. You've got me wrong. This particular woman, I used to know her, but the trouble is she might be dead now. If you fool around with a dead woman in a dream. . . " He stopped in the middle of the sentence. He didn't dare finish it and say, "Aren't you supposed to die soon too?" The fact was he was afraid to say it.
"A dead woman. A dead woman, you say?" The man repeated this a couple of times and the old man was all ears, listening to what the man with the dark face was going to say. But the man did not say anything further. Instead, he concentrated all his attention on his line. Something was jerking it. The old man watched silently.
"Man! It's a big one. I can feel it. Your good luck has already started to work for me too. "The man pulled hard at his pole:Sure enough, it was a big fish. It jumped around on the grass with shiny, bright scales. Triumphant, the man with the dark face looked about him boastfully for spectators. He seemed to have forgotten completely the interpretation of the dream the old man wanted.
Knowing it was useless to wait for any further development in their conversation about the dream, the old man decided to do some fishing himself. The water in the pond reflected heavy white clouds. There were many more clouds than there had been in the wall mirror back home. He was watching the clouds, but before he knew it, his mind wandered back to the dream.
"Your bobber! It's jerking!" cried the man beside him. Then he realized his line was taut. He gave a careful tug at his pole. He could feel a heavy sensation in the palm gripping the fishing pole, and then it went through his entire body. It was not unlike the sensation he had when he embraced Ongnye in his dream. He felt a sudden strength well up within his body. He pulled hard at his pole. A big fish with white and blue scales came out of the water.
The old man turned to his companion with a smile. The man also looked back at the old man with a broad smile. Although their expressions looked quite alike, what they were thinking was quite different. The old man's was an uncertain smile denoting his fear and hope that this was all the dream really stood for and nothing more, nothing really drastic and fearful. But his companion's was triumphant, a didn't-I-tell-you confidence.
"You'll catch bigger ones yet. Just wait and see," he said to the old man and went back to his fishing.
He didn? catch any bigger ones after that, but he caught many, many smaller fish. He fished them out one after another. As soon as he threw in his hook, the line jerked. Then, all of a sudden he thought the motion of the white bobber seemed to resemble that of Ongnye's beckoning hand in the dream. He didn't have the heart to go on fishing. As he was getting ready to go home, his companion said that he had caught more fish in a shorter time than usual, taking a quick glance into the old man's creel. He seemed to imply that he should get the credit for interpreting the dream correctly. The old man left the pond with a noncommittal attitude.
When he got off at the bus stop, he went into the bar he always visited after such fishing trips.
"Oh, it's you. Come in, sir."
Just as at the fishing spot, he had gotten to know many faces in the bar too. The owner of the place, an old man with a mustache and a broad forehead, was always glad to see him. Of course, any proprietor would be glad to see him;he was a guiet drmker and always paid cash.
But tonight he didn't feel like drinking in silence as he usually did. After drinking four or five bowls of rice wine in a row, he called all the familiar faces to his table. He bought several rounds of drinks for everybody. Then some of them returned his hospitality by buying more drinks for everybody.
"Let's drink to our hearts' content. Ah, let us relish these delicious potions. Good wine and good snacks, aren't these good?" He honestly thought they were good.
"Say, young man, have another drink, " he handed his empty glass to a young man in the group. The young man took the glass.
"Youth is what counts. One is a man while he is young;he is no longer a man when he gets old. He is just an old man. You follow me? Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha." The old man laughed heartily. He laughed hard, because he happened to recall an incident right after the May 16 military revolution. There had been a notice from the town office calling for the attendance of one male member from each family at the early morning calisthenics. Since his son had to go to work, he went to the announced place himself, thinking he represented his family. The town official looked him over and asked what he was doing there. He asked back if there wasn't an announcement calling for one male member from each family to come."Sure, one man from each family. . ." the offical did not finish the sentence, but it was plain what he had started to say. "We said one man, not one old man,"he meant to say. It was a foggy morning. Walking back home in the fog, he felt very, very depressed.
When he came out of the saloon, the street was dimly lit by moonlight. The mon was hidden by thin clouds.
In the clearing many children were playing as usual. He went among them. Suddenly he realized he had spent nearly forty years of his life among such kids.
"Come on everybody! I am going to hand out fish. Some are big, some are small."
He was soon surrounded by children. Just as he was with his wine in the saloon, he was now very liberal with his fish. His creel was empty in no time.
"Thank you, Grandpa."
Everyone referred to him as "grandpa." None of them recognized him as the former school principal. Of course, none of them were old enough to have known him while he was still in office. But still, he was vaguely disappointed.
He left the clearing and took the road leading to his house. It was a dusty stretch of road during the day, but now in the moonlight it was not without some of the idyllic features of a country road. The moon had come out from behind the clouds. He could see the landscape looming up in silhouette.
The old man started to hum a tune. It was the school song of the last school he worked at before his retirement. He had worked there for seven years, the longest he worked for any one school at a stretch. Because of all this, it was now the school to which he was most sentimentally attached.
He kept on humming as he staggered along. He didn't even try to straighten his inebriated steps. The empty creel shook drunkenly at his waist.
He straightened himself up a little when he reached the gate. The housemaid opened the gate for him while his son and daughter-in-law came out of their room to greet him. The daughter-in-law stepped down to help him in, taking up his fishing gear and helping him off with the old coat he was wearing.
"My, you didn't catch any today?" remarked the daughter-in-low looking into his creel. He swayed a little.
"That's right. I'll do better tomorrow though."
"No. I'd think it much more poetic if you didn't catch any,"said the daughter-in-law, giving out a pretty, coquettish laughter. She always acted this way in front of her husband.
His own wife was in the room but did not look out. He sensed right away that she was in one of her cross moods when he stepped into the room. She asked sharply why everybody was making a noise in the middle of the night. She had heard what their daughter-in-law had said to him awhile ago, and her coquettish laughter had hurt her feelings, but he didn't say anything.
He lay down on his bed after a light supper. He could hear music coming from his son's room. Was it the radio or the record player? The young couple liked to listen to music very much. Then he figured that his wife's ill humor had its origin in the music, partly at least.
"Why don't you lie down, too?" he said softly without looking up, or opening his eyes.
"Your daughter is still on the loose," she said sharply. Then he realized that their daughter was still out and that had been the prime cause of his wife's ill humor.
"Sitting up won't make her come home sooner, you know," he said softly with his eyes still closed. His wife said nothing.
He could hear the chirring of a cricket in the yard. It chirred on and off in a sad, lonesome way. He then thought of the lame cricket he had driven out of the room that morning. He hoped this chirring cricket was the same one. Do not die, cricket, and keep on chirring, he wished. Then he opened his eyes for the first time and looked out into the yard.
It was drenched in moonlight.