If one were to single out a writer who more than anyone else has contributed to the success of woman fiction writers in Korea today, the likely choice would be O Chong-hui (b. 1947). O is one of the most accomplished writers of short fiction in modern Korea. She is one of the few authors to have captured both the Yi Sang and the Tongin awards-Korea's two most prestigious prizes for short fiction-and translations of her works into Japanese, English, French, and other languages have begun to garner her an international reputation. English translations of her works have won her favorable comparisons with such writers as America's Joyce Carol Oates, Canada's Alice Munro, and England's Virginia Woolf.
O was just out of her teens when she burst onto the literary scene by winning a competition for aspiring writers sponsored by the Chungang ilbo, a Seoul daily, in 1968. The prize-winning story, "The Toyshop Woman"(Wangujom yoin), concerns a high school girl's descent into madness punctuated by kleptomania and an obsession with the crippled owner of a toyshop. That this remarkable debut story was begun while the author herself was still in high school suggested the arrival of a prodigious literary talent. There is very little like it among previous Korean fiction writers, male or female.
O has since published some four dozen stories and novellas. This is a comparatively meager output for a writer whose career covers three decades. But it is also an oeuvre of consistently high quality, consisting of provocative, densely textured stories, many of them infused with a restrained intensity that is unsettling, sometimes shocking. Not until 1977 did O publish her first collection of fiction, River of Fire (Pul ui kang). There followed an especially productive period in which many of her most memorable stories were composed -"Evening Game"(Chonyok ui keim, 1979) "Chinatown"(Chunggugin kori, 1979),"Words of Farewell" (Pyolsa, 1981), "The Bronze Mirror" (Tonggyong, 1982), and "Wayfarer"(Sullyeja ui norae, 1983). The first three stories appeared in her second volume of fiction, The Garden of Childhood (Yunyon ui ttul, 1981), the latter two in her third collection, Spirit on the Wind (Param ui nok, 1986). O's production has since been more sporadic, but works such as "Lake P'aro"(P'aroho, 1989), "The Old Well"(Yet umul, 1994), and "Sae"(Birds, 1996) suggest that the author has maintained the high standards she set for herself at the very beginning of her career.
Technically, O has few peers among contemporary Korean fiction writers. Her command of language is formidable-her vocabulary impressive, her word choices deliberate and suggestive. Stories such as "The Cookout"(Yahoe, 1981) and "Morning Star"(Saebyo¢¨k pyo¢¨l, 1984) reveal a good ear for dialog, something that is neglected by many Korean fiction writers in favor of narrative. Flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness technique, and interior monologues constitute much of O's narratives. Long paragraphs juxtaposing images and points of view of family members past and present are not uncommon. "Words of Farewell," which depicts separate but parallel spiritual journeys by a woman and her lost husband, is a striking example. This concern with the interior landscape of the characters is for O a means for dealing with her characteristic themes of abandonment and loneliness. Heightening the impact of these themes is the author's typically dispassionate narrative tone, which in her earlier stories takes the form of a nameless first-person narrator (every story in her debut volume, River of Fire, is told in this manner). These nameless narrators become Everywoman and Everyman (some of her narrators are male), struggling in an emotionally parched landscape that is sometimes specifically Korean, as in "A Portrait of Magnolias"(Mongnyo¢¨nch'o, 1975), sometimes not, as in "The Toyshop Woman." That is, without ignoring the upheavals that have attended Korea's rapid modernization, O's stories transcend cultural boundaries to speak to universal themes of emotional rootlessness and a yearning for permanence, whether in the immediate context of the family or in the larger society.
O, in fact, has been fascinated with family relationships ever since her literary debut. Her best stories are powerful yet sensitive portraits of families strained to the breaking point by hidden emotions and invisible external forces. In these works, O penetrates the surface of seemingly pedestrian lives to reveal nightmarish family constellations warped by divorce, insanity, abandonment, and death. Darkness is prominent in these stories, representing among other things these family nightmares. In "The Toyshop Woman", " The Cookout" ,"The Bronze Mirror" and elsewhere, darkness creeps upon the scene like a sinister beast, unleashing black memories among the characters.
O is by no means a writer of historical fiction, and yet her stories reflect, albeit obliquely, the familial and emotional costs of Korea's headlong industrialization since the 1960s. For in most of her stories the support network traditionally offered by the extended family is absent, leaving the characters to struggle on their own for emotional sustenance. The loneliness of the aged couple in "The Bronze Mirror" and their torment by the kindergarten girl who lives next door are as vivid as almost anything in contemporary Korean fiction. In "Fireworks"(Pullori, 1986) and "Lake P'aro" O touches on the theme of younger people suffering for the political misadventures of their elders-a themed mined with success in recent years by many of O's male contemporaries. In the case of "Lake P'aro," an American setting provides added interest as we see some of the difficulties a different culture poses to immigrants and foreign students. Finally, "Lake P'aro" contains hints of the author's own two-year sojourn with her family near Albany, New York, in the mid-1980s.
"Lake P'aro" was first published in 1989 in Munye chungang
and was a finalist for the Tongin Literature Award that year.
Beyond the steep outcrop was a lake that was calm as a vessel of water. Leaves falling from mountains of crimson plenitude fluttered like confetti onto the dark blue surface.
The road had been carved out of the side of a mountain, and as the bus climbed, the driver down-shifted. As the lake-soyang Lake-sank farther in the distance, Hye-sun noticed a faint ringing in her ears. The bus lurched around a sharp curve, awakening Kim, who was dozing beside her, head buried in his chest. He yawned prodigiously, then retrieved the porkpie hiking cap that had fallen near his feet and donned it. He reached inside his windbreaker toward his shirt pocket, then fumbled in his jacket pockets. Finally, with a downcast look he produced a container of breath mints resembling tiny ball bearings and popped a few into his mouth. His eyes met Hye-sun's and he smiled sheepishly. Smoker's withdrawal.
Ever since they had greeted each other early that morning at the bus station, faces dampened by the fine mist, he had been chewing on gum and, in the absence of a cigarette to hold, rubbing his hands and cracking his knuckles. Hye-sun had wanted to offer some friendly advice. She had read in the newspaper that whenever you feel the urge, drink a glass of cold water; it will thin the nicotine that has settled into your bones. Of course nicotine wasn't the only thing that water could flush from the body.
Hye-sun knew something about water's purity and its cleansing properties. She had once been in the habit of drinking water whenever she had difficulty falling asleep. Because the water had a high lime content, she would bottle it and wait until the lime settled before drinking. She would drink to the point of gagging, then take a pinch of salt. The briny taste brought relief, and her worries faded. When the bottle was completely empty, she seemed to hear inside her the limpid sound of flowing water. If she drank water in abundance, her face the next morning would be puffy almost beyond recognition. She wondered about the sense of urgency that had compelled her time and again to empty and cleanse herself with water and to consume it with salt. It was as if she desired absolution.
The bus was bound for rural Yanggu, and because of its early departure there were only half a dozen passengers. Once in a great while there appeared a settlement nestled into the mountainside. Curious-looking structures stood at intervals along the road. To Hye-sun they resembled the lookout platforms seen in a melon field, only they were lower, closed at the sides, and pointed at the top. And they were coated with tar.
"The army uses them for emergency flares-This is a military road", explained Kim, now wide awake.
Hye-sun wondered exactly how they were used in wartime. To search out enemy planes? In that case maybe the structures themselves were set aflame to serve as a light source or a kind of signal flare.
"It's taking longer than I thought", Kim said. "You must be bored."
Hye-sun smiled, shaking her head. "Not at all. I'm enjoying the ride...and I never expected to see the leaves turning."
She had joined Kim in order to visit Lake P'aro, attracted by an article in a regional newspaper describing a stratum of prehistoric artifacts exposed by the partial drainage of that lake during foundation work on the new Peace Dam. Accompanying the article was a black-and-white photograph of the exposed lake bottom with a faint ridge of distant mountains in the background. What had captured her attention in this bleak expanse was a vague, abstract feeling that she could only describe as an "empty fullness." An impression perhaps fueled by a visit long before with her husband, Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n. "Valuable Resources for Studying Ancient History" ; "Shedding New Light on the Origins of Han River Culture" ; "Largest Old Stone Age Site in Nation." Such headlines reflected the interest generated among academics and journalists. But Hye-sun's quest was unrelated to these concerns. She had her own reasons for coming here.
Kim was an old friend of Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n. He owned a shop where he made traditional frames for artwork and catered to collectors of freshwater-polished stones. Among those who knew him, Kim had a reputation as a folk historian. Hye-sun had dropped by his shop the previous week to order a frame for a painting her children in America had sent her. The painting bore the title "Our Dear Mom " and a message: "Please come back before winter. We wanted to paint your face from memory, but it turned out we had to work from a photo." When Kim told her he had been thinking of visiting Lake P'aro to look for stones, Hye-sun had offered to join him.
The bus completed its hilly circuit and came to a stop at a terminal in a small town. Two passengers boarded. The bus driver poked his head out the window and called to the young woman in the ticket booth: "Go to the drugstore and get me some strong aspirin. And grab me a cup of coffee. I've got a killer of a toothache."
From the bus Hye-sun and Kim had an unobstructed view of a street lined with traditional dwellings. A broad expanse of fields lay beyond.
Kim indicated a three-story granite tower close before them.
"Mid-Koryo¢¨, I'll bet. Provincial cultural property number...oh, I forget."
"Well. It must have been a pretty good sized Buddhist temple at one time."
Hye-sun's knowledge of towers was limited to grade school readers. Tabo Tower epitomized feminine beauty, So¢¨kka Tower masculine beauty; that's how one of them had expressed it. And as far as she was concerned, this particular tower was decidedly undistinguished.
"Last weekend I went to Unju Temple," said Kim. "There's a reclining Buddha carved in an outcrop that you simply must see. It's probably because the eyes are the gateways to the mind, but when people start calling a fist-sized stone a Buddha, it takes on the appearance of a Buddha. And when they start calling a little pile of rocks a tower it takes on the appearance of a tower. I almost think you could put it like this: The emotions or disposition, let's say, of our people are manifested in such habitual behaviors as the piling up of stones. If we're walking along the road and we happen to pick up a stone, we always set it on top of another stone and make a wish. This wish dwells only for a moment in the mind of the traveler, and then it becomes a tower; it becomes Buddha. On my way home from Unju Temple I visited several places where there are Buddhas carved in rock walls. Quite a few of them worth seeing in the southern part of the peninsula. Back in the old days people believed that the Buddha inhabited any number of large rock walls, and so the act of carving his likeness in the rock in effect eliminated those parts of the wall that concealed the Buddha. What that meant was that the person hired to do the carving wouldn't have been a stonemason of great talent and skill, but rather a Buddhist of such perception and such sincerity of belief that he could see the Buddha dwelling in stone."
In Kim's words Hye-sun perceived the auto-didact's talkativeness, the desire to show off. But it also occurred to her that his readiness to talk might be an attempt to cover up any awkwardness he may have felt traveling with her. Or mightn't it instead be the failing of someone trying to quit smoking? That and the fumbling in pockets, the stroking of lips, the constant hand movements, the ceaseless chatter-all dictated by nerves on edge.
Hye-sun knew the feeling-a compulsion to talk indefinitely followed by a sensation of utter emptiness. In her experience, unspoken words and all that they designated had ossified in this emptiness, making her realize all too miserably how much her own thoughts, her own world, was ordered by words. She imagined her mouth forever widened in a desire to speak, her ears perking up at a breath of air, her eyes forever flashing with suspicion. Maybe she should put it differently: it wasn't words that were hardening in the gray matter of her brain but rather all the things symbolized by words, all the dreams, all the ardent desires.
The driver kept glancing at the street, gritting his teeth and grimacing as he waited for the aspirin. The engine continued to idle. The bus had sat more than ten minutes, but none of the passengers complained. Hye-sun rose. The driver asked where she was going; they were about to leave. His tone was sullen.
"I'll be right back,"Hye-sun retorted. "I need some fresh air."
The driver said no more. Perhaps his passenger needed to use the toilet.
The late-autumn sun wasn't as warm as it appeared through the window of the bus. Its rays, shimmering with a delicate light like a shard of transparent glass, came to rest on Hye-sun's eyelids. That the bright sunshine made her feel cold and clear-headed, as if it bore columns of frost, must have been the working of the fog that had risen from every depression along the serpentine mountain road, fog that had made all shapes-mountains, road, trees-suddenly vanish.
The tower stood alone, no sign to identify it as mid-Koryo¢¨ or as a provincial cultural property. Behind it was an undeveloped lot with the kind of posts you might see for hitching stock at a cattle market. The shops that lined the road on both sides of the tower fronted decrepit old houses in the traditional style. The front and side walls, unable to bear the weight of their roofs (or, more precisely, the weight of time?), had been torn out and replaced with large sliding doors. Their signs-"Convenience Store," say, or "Grocery"-were practically their only modern feature. Otherwise, they looked just as dated as the marketplace Hye-sun remembered from her family's refugee days during the war. The sundries shop, the purveyor of Chinese medicine, the modest inn, the Chinese restaurant, and the dingy-looking granite tower merged comfortably with this tableau from Hye-sun's memory and its associated images of rain, wind, sunlight, and time as inert as sodden ash.
There had been a time when Hye-sun, rubbing her sleepy eyes, had walked out into a morning such as this-the newly dawning morning that had repeated itself, changeless, since the day of her birth-and had found a world full of sound and light. I want to shout! her blood had told her as it coursed vigorously throughout her, and it almost seemed a shout would burst forth the way it did from her children. The act of venturing outside the house was surely the promised way, the way to the world of the future. But then she arrived at the numerous tomorrows she had awaited in days past. And now she hesitated to equate the new morning she welcomed, the world outside her door, with the future. Before going to sleep she would grit her teeth hoping for a night devoid of dreams, fake solace, false compassion, and the next morning her temples would ache miserably from the effort.
The first task Hye-sun had set for herself upon returning from her four years in America late the previous spring was to photograph herself in a fast-photo booth near a subway station in Seoul. Not that she had a sudden need for such a photo. Ordinarily, to her eyes the embarrassment on the faces of those who lifted the curtain and emerged from the booth suggested unemployment, poverty, the demands of a pressing life, vagrancy. It felt odd, this prejudice, similar to the way she felt when she saw someone glued to a pay telephone feeding coin after coin into the slot and making call after call. Hapless they were, people trying to plant their feet somewhere solid, awaiting a message, a person, a job, buying a newspaper and scouring the help-wanted ads, attaching the yield of the fast-photo booth to the resume ever present in an inner pocket, anxiously awaiting the postman for a reply, finally to receive the cheap, graceless yellow business envelope containing a courteous rejection slip.
Hye-sun had been aware of the glances of passersby as she entered the booth. She felt the twinge of awkwardness that accompanied a visit to a streetside public toilet. She drew the plastic curtain shut, shielding the upper part of her body, and turned to face the dark surface of the mirror. Following the instructions, she rotated the seat, sat down squarely, and adjusted herself so that the top of her head was exactly at the level of the red line above the mirror. She fed 2500 wo¢¨n in coins into the slot, and after setting her expression she fixed her gaze on the lips visible in the mirror. There would be two flashes in the space of four seconds. The instructions contained a suggestion Hye-sun considered helpful: the subject should produce two different poses. Well, why not look a bit devilish for the second photo? After all, no one was watching. She felt silly making all these adjustments knowing she would then have to wait expectantly for the smile in the mirror to be developed into a photograph, but she did as she was supposed to and pressed the button. For the first photo she produced a gentle smile; for the second she bared her teeth and glared fiercely. After she had waited patiently for the required three minutes and fifty seconds, the photographs slipped out of the machine. She let them dry. The face in the photos looked swollen, its outlines blurred. She had followed the suggestions to the letter, but the effort of producing her expressions and her momentary hesitation in doing so were visible in the photos.
Was it really necessary, this proof of her return? Into her billfold went two photos for which she had no use, and she proceeded to ride buses and subways about the city, like a good farmer surveying the land he would till. And then like a solid citizen she bought a newspaper at a newsstand and for good luck purchased an Olympic lottery ticket. More variations on the act of convincing herself that she was drifting no longer. At the same time, she felt suspended in ambiguity, as if she hadn't adjusted to the time-zone difference. Was she postponing the inevitable, like a diver terrified of falling?
The young woman from the ticket booth ran up to the bus, breathless. In her hand was a small white bag.
"Hey, girl," shouted the bus driver, "It's going to be dark soon. What did you do, make that stuff yourself?"
"What do you expect on Sunday? I had to go to the other
end of town to find a place that was open," she retorted indignantly, handing
him the medicine and a paper cup.
"It left ten minutes ago," said the woman in the ticket booth at the Yanggu bus terminal.
Hye-sun and Kim inquired about the next bus, their faces showing frustration.
The woman gestured with her chin toward the bus schedule posted on the wall.
There were only two buses a day for Wo¢¨lmyo¢¨ngni, one in the morning and one in the afteroon. The next departure was scheduled for three in the afternoon. The afternoon departure represented the bus company's token effort to cater to the people living up in the hills, so that they could come to town, see to their business, and return, without having to spend all day there.
Hye-sun and Kim didn't want to wait for the three o'clock bus on this short autumn day. And there was also the return trip to consider. The formation of Lake P'aro, resulting from the construction of the dam at Hwach'o¢¨n, had left the former highway underwater. Subsequently the local people had used the lake to reach most destinations, so that Sangmuryongni, site of the ruins Kim and Hye-sun were visiting, remained inaccessible by road. But now that Lake P'aro had been drained, boat travel was impossible. Instead, Kim said, you had to take the bus to Wo¢¨lmyo¢¨ngni,
where you left the main road and had a couple of hours' walk across the lake bed.
Over an early lunch of beef-and-rice soup they decided to take a taxi. The driver of the taxi they hailed was an aging man, and he was initially reluctant: he'd have to wash his vehicle after a trip to that out-of-the-way place, and it would probably be his luck to get stuck in the mud. They had to pay a round-trip fare and add extra for a car wash before he would agree.
As the taxi left the town and habitations became infrequent, quonset huts bordered by cement walls and barbed wire caught their eye. An occasional convoy of army vehicles appeared, headlights shining, bearing banners that read "Exercise" or "Driver Training." At these times the taxi driver pulled off to the side until the convoy had passed.
"This area's completely undeveloped," said Hye-sun. "All you can see are soldiers...."
"Well, there's tension here," Kim muttered plaintively. "The area was recovered from the North during the war, and it? a border area.... It's be different if we were unified.... Back in the old days these fields produced such good rice that it was served to the king. Now most of them are covered with water."
The taxi turned onto a narrow dirt road hidden from the highway by tall clumps of withering grass. The end of the drained lake began faintly to take form in the distance below.
"Look over there."
Hye-sun's gaze followed Kim's pointing hand. In the distant valley floor, a line of trucks was moving about the end of the lake, which was still fed by a shallow stream.
"The trucks, you mean?"
"No, they're hauling gravel to the Peace Dam construction site.... Those stones, I mean."
Where Kim pointed there was an irregular line of huge stones jutting out of a pool of standing water. They seemed to have burst forth like some mythical serpent or Paleozoic creature from a thick stratum of earth.
"So those are the dolmens that were uncovered, "Hye-sun exclaimed softly. The universal longing for eternity-wasn't that the essence of religion"
"Given an area of this size and the scale of those dolmens, there must have been a city-state with one or two thousand people here."
"There were a lot of those rocks when I was a kid,"the driver said, looking at Kim and Hye-sun in the rear-view mirror. -the grownups used to sit on 'em and take in the breeze after they finished supper. We kids climbed around on ?m year round. Now all this hullabaloo about them being some kind of fantastic remains-the tombs of prehistoric people, or altars, or whatnot. Back then all they were to me were ridiculously huge rocks. The elders used to tell us they were put there by the son of Granny Mago to show what a strong man he was. That was before the war. I'm trying to remember when those rocks ended up getting buried-maybe when they put in this road.... What brings you folks to Sangmuryongni Valley, anyway? Research? Can't be fishing, since the water's pretty much gone-there must be something to see if an outsider makes a point of coming here."
"We're looking for rocks."
"Rocks, you say? You came here to study rocks?"
Kim merely chuckled.
The taxi crept carefully down a slope. The occasional gaudy slate roof had vanished. All they saw were the scattered mountains that ringed the broad expanse of the lake bed. The mountains gave the impression of imminent collapse under the weight of their scarlet foliage. The highwater mark of the former lake had reached to their midsections, disfiguring what lay below and leaving the bases exposed like the layers of steamed rice cakes. At the bottom of the slope there appeared a paved road that traversed the lakeside mountains. The road that had connected Yanggu with Hwach'o¢¨n before the creation of Lake P'aro had been used during the Japanese occupation by charcoal trucks and horse carriages, the driver explained. Lining both sides of the road were trees that had been lopped off at the trunk, looking like so many ash-colored bones.
"Those poplars were chopped down before the area was flooded over. See those things sticking up in the fields over there? Dikes for the Hamch'un rice fields-they're very productive.... We had no objection to putting in the power plant, but they had to go and cover up all this good land with water.... Now see that foundation over there? That's where the grade school used to be, and over in that direction was the police box."
Born and raised in this area, the driver had never left Yanggu except for ten years during his youth. As he sifted through his memories of the time before the lake, he explained at length every detail that caught his eye. His native village had been submerged; in fact it no longer appeared on the map. Fields, villages, roads-the sediment of forty-odd years beneath the water. Lost villages, a lost way of life.
Kim's objective, Hye-sun reflected, was to find stones in an old stream bed newly exposed to the light of day after all these years. But what had she herself wanted to find here? What ardent longing, what thirst had drawn her to this dried-up lake?
The corn growing head-high on both sides of the road formed a grove of dried stalks. The fronds swayed desolately, producing a rainlike patter.
After crossing a succession of valleys and ridges they were now well into the drained area, when a village suddenly appeared. Hye-sun recognized it, and she uttered a low exclamation and peered at the surroundings.
"Here we are-Sangmuryongni, at the end of Lake P'aro."
They could have gone no farther anyway, since the village lay at the foot of a mountain. Promising to return at five, the driver swung the taxi around and left.
Hye-sun and Kim set out toward the village, intending to talk with the local people and learn where the excavation was being done. At the village entrance a pair of yellow dogs, alert to the approach of strangers, had darted out. They slunk about, tails between their legs, barking intermittently.
Hye-sun saw, perched above on the mountainside, a white one-story building. A banner reading "Love Your Country" in large letters hung from a window and a flagpole displayed the national flag and the flag of the New Village Movement. Deep within Hye-sun's memory the time and place associated with this annex school began to take form. She tried to match the rough sketch in her memory with the scene she now beheld. It was rather like trying to piece together a collection of scattered fragments. She was shocked at the gap between her memories and the reality. Was it the working of time? she asked herself. A matter of change? Or maybe both. In the absence of the water that had contained and mirrored the mountain, the lakeside dwellings and hill paths that clung to its midsection looked oddly out of place. The plank where Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n used to sit when he fished was now a teeter-totter with children jumping from its ends. Next to it, and likewise incongruously high on the hillside, was a dugout boat that resembled an upside-down Korean rubber shoe. Was it the second house in from the village entrance where she and Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had put up? The third?
Some seven years earlier Hye-sun had taken sick leave from her school and come here for a week with her husband. They had traveled up the lake by boat. Beneath the annex school were situated some twenty houses that followed the contours of the mountain, forming what might be called a natural village. The local people made a living by fishing the lake and farming the slopes above the waterline or by accommodating tourists who had come to fish. Every other day a boat motored up from the dam to purchase from the catch-mainly carp, trout, and mandarin fish. Hye-sun wondered if the elderly man whose racking cough they had heard every night was still alive.
When she had awakened at dawn to the rippling of the water, Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n would be gone from her side. Looking out the small window of their room, she would see him in the light of a carbide lamp, hunched up on the plank, bundled in a parka, fishing rod drooping toward the water. And she could hear the trickle as he poured himself a drink of soju in the lid of the lacquered lunchbox to ward off the chill until the sun rose. Hye-sun would leave the window open and watch the arrival of dawn. The blurry surface of the lake seemed to rise gradually, the water plants became erect as if energized by the water, and the outline of the mountains gradually grew indistinct.
Dawn beside the water was unbelievably calm. The mist blooming from the lake grew thick in the valleys, and the reflected mountains seemed to float along the surface. Clams had emerged overnight to meander about, but before they could regain the safety of the water their meat was often taken by a thick flock of white birds, and they were left as empty shells.
Before the fog had lifted, the children would row across the lake to the school proper in a leaf-light dugout. In a similar boat Hye-sun and Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had taken a couple of trips across the lake to the mountain on the far side. Rowing out into the lake, they saw water plants swaying long and rootless beneath the surface and, concealed among them like submarines, carp the color of gold swimming in leisurely fashion. To Hye-sun the dugout seemed to tip precariously even on delicate ripples, and she looked at Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n as he worked the oars, wondering if he felt as uneasy as she. She had been pregnant at the time; her nerves were on edge and she was easily irritated. It was their third child, and maternal instinct had left her with feelings of hostility and defensiveness and at the same time an excessive compassion and tenderness toward everything else-altogether a vague, confused state of isolation and loneliness. But despite her uneasiness and apprehension, she felt as if the baby inside her womb had granted her a charm, had become a safe anchor for a nervous mother crossing deep water in a tippy boat.
The morning of their last day here, Hye-sun, rubbing her sleepy eyes, had gone barefoot to where Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n sat. He made room for her on the plank and with bloodshot eyes indicated a spot on the shore about fifteen paces away. She saw there the daughter of the family with whom they were staying, a girl who couldn't attend school because she was a deaf-mute. She was stooping and straightening, throwing back clams that had emerged from the water, so they wouldn't be pecked open by birds. It was a morning ritual, Hye-sun had realized. After the girl's playmates had left for school she would wander about the vicinity of her home playing by herself. Because she made no sound, she seemed like a shadow, something weightless and insubstantial. A child born of the water, Hye-sun would think if she saw her at the shore; a child of the trees, she told herself when she saw her beneath a tree.
She reminded him of an old song from his childhood, Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had said as he gazed at the girl: "So still is the river in autumn, the o¢¨ryong falls asleep; oh, you in the pavilion, facing the autumn breeze."That was the verse his grandfather always used to sing. For some reason it had just come to mind and was repeating itself inside his head, Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n said. He did a parody of his grandfather singing the verse, and was left with a sheepish look on his face, which he tried in vain to erase. An o¢¨ryong was their word for a dragon that entered the water in autumn and fell into a deep sleep, he added.
Hye-sun wondered: On this still morning, had the far reach of the speechless girl's vision and the moisture rising from the lake like the respiration of a sleeping dragon somehow reminded Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n of that old song from his childhood? Did he harbor illusions about the distant object of the girl's vision, a place he couldn't see? Was he trying, by means of such expectations, to overcome the helplessness and frustration that confronted him? If so, it was a desperate mechanism indeed.
Never was he told why he and two other young teachers at the high school had been summarily fired. For a time after his dismissal he had avoided others, out of a fear of being victimized. He admitted, for example, to being afraid that someone having a friendly conversation with him might without warning change his expression and tone of voice and slap him or spit in his face. On the whole he had been considered a reliable social-science teacher, inconspicuous in his speech and conduct, but the school authorities had dealt with him in a conveniently roundabout way, charging him with incompetence. Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had survived the resulting humiliation and shame only because of the circumstances relating to the other two teachers. Those two had confessed in writing to having made radical remarks in class criticizing the establishment. Hye-sun's guess was that Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had been a convenient target for anyone involved in factional disputes between the school and the foundation that owned it, or that he had fallen victim to a reduction in force ordered by the school board. Whatever the reason for his discharge, Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n liked to rationalize the matter by saying he had gotten off lightly. In comparison, one of the other two teachers had been taken into custody along with his wife in the middle of the night and detained without cause, their baby left home alone to cry the night away, crawling until exhausted, inside the house and out, a mass of cuts and bruises. The second teacher had been seized in the middle of class one day, and thereafter his wife had appeared at the school gate every morning to wait in vain for news of him. Indeed, Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n considered himself lucky. In his mind he had narrowly escaped terrible misfortune.
The houses Hye-sun and Kim passed were empty, the gates barred or propped shut with rocks. The children playing on the teeter-totter shouted that all the grownups were out tending to the crops.
"Let's go down this way," Kim said, leading the way.
Hye-sun was surprised by the feel of the soil, different from what she had expected from her vantage point above. It felt tough and resistant, an accumulation of fine sediment so firm that their footprints seemed no less faint than bird tracks. This empty land was the domain of sage, fleabane, and reeds-plants that must have sprouted from windblown seeds and now were withering. The ground cover of shepherd's purse and plantain had stabilized the soil. Ants and mole crickets were busily crawling about the shells of clams and snails.
"We're walking where the water used to be, aren't we?" Hye-sun asked, sounding more breathless than she felt. In actuality it was an awkward situation, going to an indeterminate destination with a friend of her husband, and Kim's silence as they descended into what used to be the lake did not help matters.
"I'll say-we're a good twenty-five feet below the old waterline."
The land lay between two forks of the stream at the end of the lake bed. The stream gave the impression of having stubbornly held its course, not mixing with the lake water, even when the lake had been full. In a sunny area sheltered from the breeze, two people were bent over working the soil. At the sight of the visitors they straightened and stared. Scattered plots of Chinese cabbage were visible, the cabbages unsuitable for making kimchi abandoned and rotting.
Kim approached the couple, who appeared to be man and wife, and asked directions.
The man, short, balding, middle-aged, willingly obliged after lighting a cigarette. He seemed ready for a break.
"Just follow the stream till you get to a wooden bridge. Cross the bridge, go up the hill, and you'll see where they've working. Apparently, ancient people lived there.... They've been hard at it since the beginning of autumn-hillside's torn up but good and they've dug out all those big old useless rocks. TV crews been out here, and there was a big article in the paper. Those big rocks, you know, that's all they are to us-rocks. Can't be much more than a mile from here. They're working right below the villa where Dr. Syngman Rhee used to live."
When the autumn days grow short, night falls earlier in the mountain valleys. The sky remained bright but already the mountains were casting shadows and the breeze had stiffened. Propaganda leaflets from North Korea had given certain areas of the uncultivated earth a colorful covering almost as thick as the undergrowth. Kim bent, retrieved a couple, scanned them, then crumpled and threw them aside.
"An exchange of flower seeds would be better than this, for heaven't sake. Do you know what my children told me when they asked for a donation to take to school for the Peace Dam? They said it will pay for a shovelful of cement and a brick for peace. Well, I've never seen so much waste and consumption. And both sides are doing it. It's crazy.... Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n must be coming back this winter. Did he get a teaching job here? I understand he's studying political science...."
Hye-sun's face hardened in reaction to these questions. Those who knew her assumed she had returned from the States ahead of Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n to get settled in preparation for his arrival. They never doubted he would return once he finished his dissertation. But Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had different ideas. "Stay here another six months-that's all,"he had said to Hye-sun, who did want to return. He had sworn that six months would be enough time for her to identify her homesickness for what it really was (others had called it maladaptation) and to recognize the facade she adopted in order to hide it.
Early on, Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had taken to regurgitating an opinion expressed by a friend they had met upon arriving in the States, a man who had gone there to study but who instead had bought a burger shop: "Everyone and his brother have come here to study, and back home there are more poli sci Ph.D's than you can shake a stick at-who's going to give you the time of day? Cramming your brain for the sake of a degree won't make any difference there. But here, if you make a killing in the lottery, your status changes just like that. Korea's not the only place where a son of a bitch with money turns into Sir Son of a Bitch."Their four years in the U.S. was more than sufficient for Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n to adopt the man's tone and gestures quite convincingly.
Hye-sun found Kim's questions too bothersome to answer. Instead, she said, "He's changed his major to computer science. It's supposed to be easier to get a job in that field."
When Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n realized he couldn't persuade Hye-sun to stay, his standard approach with her disappeared and he became more serious: Why couldn't she be more flexible? Perhaps her rejection of life in the States originated in the false front she projected. And he asked what her plans were in Korea. On the surface he seemed concerned about how she would get along, but in fact he was reproaching her: "You leave the family, you give up this life we've worked so hard to build, and what do you get in return? Do you think you can make a new life for yourself?" And he had declared that he and the children had absolutely no intention of returning. "I'd like to write if I can," she had said. "Write?" he had replied in consternation. A peculiar smile had formed on his face. As if to ward off the smile, Hye-sun had stubbornly repeated, "Yes. I know it won't be easy, but I want to write."That this vague thought, unconvincing even to herself, had been expressed so readily, surprised her.
She thought of her life in America only in terms of suffering: the anxiety and the animal instinct involved in raising her children and surviving in an unfamiliar land. For ten years previous she had taught language and literature at a middle school, introducing her pupils to poetry and prose that was beautiful, conventional, and safe. So occupied was she with school and home that she had no time for desultory thoughts. And there was the matter of Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n's unemployment. Where was there room for the false thing called fiction? And what was so special about her that she could offer to the world? Writing was a different sort of enterprise from the business of everyday life; it demanded a special talent. Long ago she had entered a literary contest, submitting a story framed in textbook sentences. Her story had not been selected. Because of this and subsequent abortive experiences in her attempts at fiction, writing was for Hye-sun a scarring experience, one she did her best to hide. You could say that the more intense her hopes for success, the deeper the scars. She came to realize, albeit vaguely at first, that the world and life could not be depicted merely through a few beautiful, refined sentences, and that she herself lacked the strength (or perhaps the courage) to shatter that world and life. From that point on she lost confidence in her ability to write. She had been complacent about literature, considering it a thing of beauty, something to savor. Was it any wonder that her creative impulses had withered as a consequence?
But in the United States those impulses had been revived. Why? To Hye-sun the feeling was like the combination of a deaf-mute's urge to shout and anxiety over a hardening tongue. What had caused her to announce so forthrightly to her husband and children that she wanted to write and would return home alone? Was it a means of revenge toward the power of expression she felt she was losing? Or was it the love she felt for that power?
Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n didn't trust those who professed to reveal and express their inner selves, and he scorned Hye-sun for declaring her intention to write:
"It gets me how people think their life is so special. And how they're forever grousing about this nonsense or that. And some of them actually end up writing! So, what are you going to write about? How sad you are about the poverty in America? The loneliness? The racial discrimination? Or will it be your alienation?"
Hye-sun couldn't deny it: When Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had decided to go to America, she had felt an urge to see the world and experience a new life. Oh, the illusions that come into play at such a time: "It was spiritual poverty that made me leave; it was material poverty; it was loneliness; it was fickle despair." How vain! What better way to deceive yourself when you come up against a dead-end? The grass is always greener; what you get is not what you see. Maybe that's why an unvisited, unknown land is " he land of the future."And why there's a dragon sleeping deep down in the water where you can't see it.
After Hye-sun made the passage to America, she had learned how to say "Go to hell" in English even before memorizing the name of the city where they lived. Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had found a job at Yamaguchi's Fish Market, and if on a certain night he had class, he would shower, change (underwear and all), and for good measure apply after-shave to get rid of the fish smell, before leaving. He would return around two in the morning, after studying in the library. As for Hye-sun, when the children were asleep she would sit in front of the television and take her accustomed drink of water while she waited for him. At midnight it was time for "Tales From the Crypt,"a program dedicated to the bizarre and the prurient. As the name suggested, the series featured grotesque murders, sex, incest, and deviltry, as if inviting viewers to open the lid to their unconscious and reveal all manner of desire hidden in its deepest and darkest recesses. The episodes were superficial and second-rate, they lacked the logic of inevitability, and they ended with a psychoanalyst or a pseudo-psychic talking about the "Chaos," the "codes," and the "dark, boundless mysteries" that lurk beneath the thick layer of the human consciousness. These experts always sounded as if they were reporting the results of a clinical test. It was while she watched this program that the telephone had rung and a suggestive, low-pitched voice had asked, "Are you alone?" When Hye-sun answered in English, the caller knew from her thick accent and awkward pronunciation that she was a foreigner, and he became more persistent: "Are you lonely? Do you need a man tonight? I'm ready for love." "Go to hell, kaesaekki," she had replied. No language other than her native Korean could express so vividly the contempt and disdain conveyed by the last part of this curse. It wasn't difficult for Hye-sun to imagine a panting bachelor or a sex fiend at the other end of the line, watching a pornographic movie and clutching an erect or even a limp penis. She watched the remainder of the program, then went to the bathroom to wash her hands, which suddenly felt sticky. Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n still hadn't returned. Hye-sun opened the door to the children's room, and as she lingered to look at their sleeping forms she felt as if she, her husband, and the children were tiny islands all alone in the world.
Surrounding the apartment building were dense woods where hunting was prohibited. The long, plaintive calls of animals in heat could sometimes be heard there. A seldom traveled road lay nearby, and now and then, fanning out in the darkness, the headlights of a passing car found a dirty gray cat slinking out of the woods. It was a stray searching the vague warp of memory for a long-lost master, its domestic instincts stimulated by light and all that it suggested.
Kim and Hye-sun found themselves approaching a knot of men who were peering down at the ground. In the middle was an elderly man in a black traditional topcoat and felt hat. Flanking him were a middle-aged man in a windbreaker and two youths. They bore a family resemblance to one another. The focus of their attention was a scattering of large, flat stones no different from those Hye-sun had seen at other places she and Kim had passed. They were about to move on when the older man's muffled, sunken voice brought them to a stop.
"Look- the family room was here and this was the kitchen. The shed was over there, and that was the kitchen garden."
Faintly outlined where the old man pointed was the foundation of a house in the form of a right angle. Green moss carpeted the ground where the man had pointed out the kitchen garden.
"...From the front yard you could see the top of Samyo¢¨ng Mountain, and look, there it is, almost close enough to touch. Out back was a well.... I'll bet you could sink a hole right now and get water."
The man, probably in his forties, and the youths, who looked like his sons, nodded with looks of wonder.
"Do you happen to know what kind of tree this is? " Kim asked, indicating a light gray tree sawed off at the middle, its trunk forking in two like extended arms or a pair of upside-down legs.
"It's a persimmon. And this one's a Chinese date.... Trees can last centuries underwater without rotting."
"Did you live here?"
"Yes I did. This exact spot. Born, raised, married, and had children here. Forty-three, forty-four years ago it was, they ordered us out. We took their money and left. And then we heard they let the water out of Hwach'o¢¨n Dam and the old hometown is high and dry again. So I brought the boys over for a look-spent half the day getting here too."
"This must be a very special occasion for you," said Kim.
"Let's see now, that was Showa, but what year? I was thirty-three at the time, and we had to move the ancestral graves, then pack up and leave. Back then I never dreamed this day would come. Just goes to show, you never can tell what lies around the bend."The old man continued falteringly, as if reading from an epitaph, punctuating his speech with sighs-it was impossible to tell if they were laments or exclamations. "...Down there was a road with places where you could get a drink. Our village was actually quite large. And look here-a cotton plant, see?"The man took a withered plant that was poking out from his coat pocket and held it up. It was about a foot long, and its soil-encrusted roots were securely wrapped in plastic. "The land was good here, and the Japs made us plant cotton. In autumn that's all you saw, cotton fields. And look what I found on the way here. Forty years the seeds were buried in ground that was underwater, and to think they sprouted after all that time-yes, this world has its mysteries."
Hye-sun studied the cotton plant. How marvelous that the old man had instantly known it by its thin purple stalk and its few leaves, whose original shape was difficult to recognize. If, as the old man said, the plant could remain hidden in the earth for forty years, wait for the water to drain, then send forth sprouts, then this mystery was indeed unfathomable.
With great care the old man tucked the plant back into his pocket. Then he squatted and like a carefree child playing with dirt he scratched at the ground with his liver-spot hands until he had accumulated a handful of soil.
"Grandfather, why don't we take one of these home as a keepsake? Wouldn't it look good in the garden?"
The youth struggled to heft one of the foundation stones.
But the old man shook his head and waved him off. "Ought to leave it here, that's the least we can do. That way, even if it was underwater till the end of time, we'd know our house was here."
Wind began to fill the empty basin. Hye-sun turned in response to its fierce roar, so like the bellowing of a huge wounded beast. What she saw was not the evidence of the wind but instead the desiccated vegetation, stalks indomitably rubbing against each other and swaying, seed pods opening and launching their contents.
Kim and Hye-sun resumed walking and before long their steps had brought them far into the lake bed, which followed the former stream bed into the distance. Kim occasionally paused to turn up a stone. The wind now contained the faraway echo of explosions. At every boom Hye-sun looked about, trying to determine its origin.
"Dynamite," Kim said with a bitter expression. "We say it's the Northerners building Ku¢¨mgang Mountain Dam, and they say it's us making the Peace Dam."
The wind whirled and clawed like an unappeased spirit at the huge, light gray basin with the dry lake bed at the bottom, and at the mountains, which looked so forlorn with their lower parts despoiled. It was an odd, unfamiliar scene. How strange, then, that there was also something familiar about it, in spite of the sheer impossibility of imagining what would lie beneath the surface if the lake were full. It was a feeling similar to the surprising lack of unfamiliarity Hye-sun sometimes experienced upon entering an unfamiliar house. The farther she and Kim walked into the lake bed, the more she felt, as when adjusting a camera lens, that something blurry and unclear was coming into focus. Surely she was capable of writing about such devastation and dreariness. But then she realized once again just how long it had been since she had lost the ability to write. Her words had hardened like the liver of a cirrhosis victim. Fossilized words, lexical trilobites or archaeopteryxes, unborn words, words lost in darkness. Such was her vocabulary.
During the past month Hye-sun had copied out on manuscript
paper another author's lengthy novel, down to the last punctuation mark.
It was sheer foolishness, but she had justified the effort by telling herself
that painters in their period of training undertook to copy the best works
of other painters. What was even more dubious, after finishing with this
task she had experienced an inexplicable sense of fulfillment and achievement,
as if she had painstakingly collated the entire two thousand pages of her
creation and all that remained was editing. Afterward, though, she was
seized by the horrible thought that in every age there are authors who,
having completed their last work, give themselves up to empty bravado,
claiming they have written a manuscript of such mountainous proportions
that their writing hand will function no longer; and authors who fall into
carnal and alcoholic excess as well as redundancy in their work while parroting
to the end of their days the excuse that writing can have no meaning in
an era of political repression. What could have devastated her confidence
to such an extent? Was writing fiction the surest means of vengeance toward
the words that had deserted her?
In the States Hye-sun's apartment had become a weekend gathering place for Koreans. Yamaguchi's Fish Market was closed then, and Hye-sun had a respite from cleaning Marion's house. Guests came and went, invited or not-it was quite extraordinary. Most of the visitors were young students who had finished their exams or had no special plans for the weekend. A frequent visitor might stop coming, but a newcomer would nonchalantly take his place, with the result that Hye-sun always saw many faces to which she couldn't attach a name. Some callers marched in just as Hye-sun was finishing the dishes, and she would have to start cooking all over again. For Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had issued a blanket invitation to anyone hungry for rice, kimchi, and bean-paste stew.
Although Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n was hard-pressed to combine daytime work with graduate school at night, he was not treated with due respect. "Studying isn't going to guarantee you anything," his guests would tell him. "Why don't you just see the sights and enjoy yourself? Otherwise, what's so special about living abroad?" Ridicule was implicit in these words: What was Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n going to accomplish with a decrepit, hardened brain? On the other hand, the visitors were the only ones to address him politely as "Sir." To non-Koreans he was simply Moon, his family name.
Every weekend Hye-sun grilled beef, cooked bean-paste stew, and stir-fried potato noodles together with sliced vegetables and meat. At first she had worried about the odors of the soybean paste and kimchi, but after she had prepared several of these meals she became insensitive to the smell. Other concerns took precedence. "We don't have enough to live on," she complained. We spend much more on Saturday dinner than we do on all the other meals of the week combined." But Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n would cut her off, saying, Our guests are someone's precious children, each and every one of them. It's hard being away from Korea, so what's wrong with giving them a little home atmosphere once in a while?" Hye-sun wanted to tell him, but couldn't, that he was indulging in a flimsy rationalization, that she had heard their visitors also feasted at a Korean restaurant on weekends. "And now those two are serving sushi,"she had overheard one of them say. Her reaction to this was closer to pain than to outrage and shame. "It tastes wonderful," others would say. "At a Japanese restaurant it would cost more than a hundred dollars. And you wouldn't believe how stingy those restaurants are. They give you half a dozen pieces no bigger than rat turds and call it a serving."As he squeezed steamed rice into compact balls and added a slice of raw seafood on top, Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n allowed their praise of his sushi-making skill to go to his head. Next time, he declared, he would offer them fresh sea bream and lobster. "You've become Americanized quicker than we thought, Sir," the visitors would tell Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n, awkward-looking in an apron and earnestly absorbed in his cooking. At such moments Hye-sun watched him with a mixture of pity and exasperation.
At the fish market Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n wore rubber boots and a plastic apron. His work consisted of scaling, shelling, and deboning. The fish heads, innards, and bones, which would normally have been discarded, made excellent ingredients for a spicy soup.
The visitors behaved well when they drank. They made sure they observed the proper etiquette for invited guests. They ate their fill, then rose to leave. "You're welcome to spend the night," Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n would say. "We can stay up all night talking and have a good time, just like in Korea." But to these repeated offers the visitors would reply that they didn't want to put Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n to the trouble, or that they had to work on their dissertation. The only difference between these people and customers at a restaurant was that the visitors didn't pay.
The only one who became dead drunk at these gatherings, who when sad and sentimental would ramble on endlessly about most anything, was Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n. The one topic everyone enjoyed talking about was the situation in Korea. Memoirs and autobiographies packed with lies, books bearing such brazen titles as Witness to the Truth-titles never seen in Korea-passed from hand to hand among them. Sensational expose of the scheming and the immorality of influential politicians and financiers also circulated, the titles including such phrases as Fact and Fiction, The Inside Story, or Stand Accused. An author's use of anonymity or an alias to avoid liability signaled to the group just how much they were being deceived by surface appearances of the present situation in Korea. The tactic was all the more infuriating because of the possibility that the author too might be tricking them.
It didn't take long for Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n's guests, once they learned of his firing by the school, to begin treating him as something of an anti-establishment figure. But as far as Hye-sun was concerned, he was merely a timid malcontent. His inexplicable dismissal, his two years of unemployment, and the prospect of having to spend the rest of his life feeling he had been victimized were the practical reasons for his decision to go to America, she concluded. Out of helplessness he had revived the vague dream of studying abroad that he had entertained in his youth, and had begun applying like a madman to universities throughout the United States. Finally he was admitted by a graduate school in New York State. He had worried about how difficult it might be to leave the country, but it did not take long to obtain his passport. The day his visa interview was concluded, he said pathetically, sounding already like an exile, "They figure they can get rid of all the damned troublemakers this way." Arriving in America, he was asked by other Korean students about the situation in Korea. His reply became predictable: "The whole country's a mess, a police state through and through. That's the kind of establishment we live under. They barge into a classroom, haul away a teacher, and you don't see him again.... It's the Cancer Ward on a huge scale." He said he was amazed that no one had come to take him away. With meaningful looks in their eyes the students would ask him, each in their turn, "Were you in jail?" "We're you tortured?" Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n silently shook his head, gritting his teeth in indignation. It pained Hye-sun to see Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n, a man who had aspired to be a fine, trustworthy teacher, being cast as a combative antiestablishmentarian.
Hye-sun and Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n had once accompanied one of their more frequent guests, a student named Pak Chin-gyu, to a meeting of a human rights association. There Hye-sun realized that under the current dictatorial regime in Korea there were social problems, irregularities, and repression that could not be openly discussed. Whereas in America there was comparatively free and uncensored discussion of both domestic and foreign issues. This realization led her in turn to the understanding that freedom in America meant more than just being able to watch a Soviet film, see the uncut version of Emmanuelle, or sunbathe nude. It would be a sad situation if all you could see of America was what American movies showed you.
The human rights association was a group of radical Quakers, and the meeting that night had been devoted to Korea. In the small meeting room dark curtains were drawn and a video was shown. The image danced about the screen, and the outlines of people and vehicles were difficult to distinguish, but Hye-sun instantly recognized the setting-the southern city of Kwangju. Though she'd never been there, the video's opening scenes-the shapes of the mountains and the color of the sky-had been instinctively familiar. The dizzying scenes that followed were accompanied by a chorus of hoarse voices singing "Our Wish Is for Freedom," staccato rallying cries, and the sound of rifle fire. There was a procession of torches, burning buildings, corpses with mutilated faces, the eyes hardened in a glare. Rifle-bearing youths stood in utter isolation before the capital building on the final day. Later, all of them were discovered dead, the speaker explained. A row of people, strung together like fish on a line, were loaded onto a truck beneath a banner proclaming the May festival at a university. A young man lying prostrate on the ground, hands tied behind his back, jerked his gaze up at the sky. Bushy hair, limpid eyes overflowing with sorrow, not a hint of rage in his expression, no sign of imminent outcry, no urge to shoot. After a glimpse of the sky he buried his face in the ground. Women keened endlessly beside coffins shrouded in white. Rubber hoses washed away bloodstains as if in the aftermath of an evil plague.
The poor quality of the image prompted the group to rerun the particularly atrocious scenes, but to Hye-sun those scenes were inscribed clearly and instantly in her mind. For that sky, that earth, those faces were not the least bit unfamiliar. Here was the reality of rumors that had stubbornly persisted for years. Here were the roots of the grief and rage with which people asked, "Is there poetry after Auschwitz?" Only this time they asked, "Is there poetry after Kwangju?"
In the discussion that followed the video presentation, someone asked how many people were killed and how many injured. Wasn't there any response, any support from neighboring cities? someone else asked. A woman named Kim Yo¢¨ng-ju, one of the coordinators of the program, responded that the general public in Korea wasn't aware of the facts of the situation, because news reports were under the strictest government control and transportation and lines of communication to the outside had been cut off. People had gone about their business but had sensed something was wrong. "But how could that be Korea's a small country-from Seoul to Kwangju isn't like New York to Los Angeles," said a young blond-haired woman, cocking her head inquiringly.
Next on the program was the daughter of a retired general. She had immigrated to the United States ten years earlier, at age sixteen. She presented a video titled Korean Society and the Present State of Human Rights. The video showed people living near the Seoul city dump on Nanji Island; a community of blind people in To-dong, a neighborhood of cheap inns and boarding houses located behind the headquarters of the Dae Woo corporation; Moon Village in the heights of Shillim-dong; the 588 red-light district; the demolishing of squatters' homes; camp towns near the American military bases. Each year forty thousand Amerasian children were born in these camp towns, explained the speaker in an agitated tone. "Those numbers can't be right," came a voice in Korean from a dark recess of the room. "There are forty thousand American soldiers in Korea-are you telling us that every year each one of them produces a child?" Well, that's what a survey said, the woman responded without skipping a beat. "There's no rule in the GIs'service contract that says they have to produce children,"came the same thick, low-pitched voice. Then he raised his voice so that every Korean present would hear him: "Stupid, socialist bitch!" And he left the room. In the darkness, Hye-sun, sitting toward the front, couldn't identify the man. She turned to Pak. Why were he and the others involved in this sort of group? she asked. Well, of course there was some danger involved, and they were concerned about the future, but it was something they did for the sake of the country, he replied in a tone filled with confidence.
That night, Hye-sun subsequently learned, Pak and Kim had each received a threatening phone call: "There's something you don't seem to understand: keep up this shit, and you'll never see Korea again. And even if your father's not involved, don't assume his business won't be affected."It was widely rumored that there was an informer among the Korean students, and that a secret service agent had arrived from Korea.
And then something happened during one of the Saturday night dinners at Hye-sun's apartment that would remain vivid in her memory. Through that incident she caught a glimpse of the deep rift in the students' world. At first all seemed harmonious enough due to the closed nature of their lives abroad and a pervasive individualism in which the rules of conduct were tacitly understood. But in reality there was jealousy, hostility, and profound class hatred among them. There was an unwritten rule that they saw of each other's private life only what the other would show, and normally this rule was maintained. Even so, two rumors were flying everywhere. First, there was among the students an exclusive society composed of the "royal family." Second, a former dignitary's son, watchdog of a family fortune stashed away overseas, lived in an ultraluxurious condo, drove around in a hundred-thousand-dollar car, and kept a mistress. The mistress, who was indiscreet, was heard to whine, "I pity him. He has a Cadillac, but he's afraid of what others might think, and so he gets around in a beat-up old Chevrolet."
That evening trouble broke out between two men, Yi In-go¢¨l and Yo¢¨m Chun-gi. Yi was the son of a former general. Yo¢¨m was an embassy official enrolled in the university's Department of Communications and a man who gave everyone the impression of being rather frail. Hye-sun had never met either of them before. She was in the kitchen refilling serving dishes when from the living room came an outburst of shouting and the sound of dishes breaking. She found Yo¢¨m, eyes blazing but his face otherwise drained of color, screaming at Yi: "Pro-Japanese son of a bitch! Do you and your goddamn family have anything good to say about your country and your people? Look at your grandpa-look at your daddy! Your grandpa was in the House of Peers-had himself made a noble by the Japs! And your daddy's a chameleon, changing colors everytime someone new's in power. Doesn't he have any sense of shame, the old skunk! My father was a school custodian for fifteen years! I'd like to know where you assholes got all your money! Sons of bitches!"
The dinner table had been overturned, the dishes sent flying. The neighbors on the floor below rapped on the ceiling with a broom handle in protest. "Now calm down, Yo¢¨m hyo¢¨ng-you've had too much to drink."Some of the others had interceded, pulling Yo¢¨m away by the waist. But clearly they were waiting to see what would happen next, as if they were enjoying the quarrel. This confrontation between the descendant of an independence patriot and the offspring of a renegade, a pro-Japanese traitor, was erupting not in a movie or a novel but right before Hye-sun's eyes.
"While your grandpa was wearing all his medals and selling out the country to the Japanese, my grandfather was active in the independence movement! Thanks to your parents, you grew up in a greenhouse-don't know shit about the world -assholes, all of you-bourgeois assholes-sons of bitches with a little bit of money-and you think an embassy official is nothing but a ward-office clerk!" Yo¢¨m continued to screech at the top of his lungs even as he fell on his face vomiting and was dragged outside. "Come out here, you bastard son of a Jap-loving traitor. All of you yapping about politics, society, the masses.... If you're so concerned, so pained by it all, then what did you come over here for? You're a bunch of half-baked Yankee sons of bitches, shooting off your yaps about freedom, conscience, democracy in America! You insult your country once you're away from it, cozy up to the Yankees and squeal to them!... If you're so heartbroken over patriotism, then why don't you go back home and do something about it! You're babies playing the exile game-don't pretend you're patriots! I know the likes of you and your scheming little games-I know how good you are at covering your asses! All you cunning little princes! Don't you tell me we're the same blood!" Yo¢¨m continued to shout as he was loaded into a car: "Don't you tell me we're the same blood!" The words touched Hye-sun, chill and startling like the point of a spear.
It was an ugly, confused spectacle. No, that was too simple. It was a shameful, deep-seated, festering sore that couldn't be treated.
Yi tried to appear nonchalant as he wiped food from his clothing, but his face was hardening in displeasure and humiliation. As the others brushed off their clothes they told Yi not to let it bother him. It was like being bitten by a mad dog; Yo¢¨m must have had an ax to grind, and was taking it out on him. "Who is that guy, anyway?" "Got me. I've seen him in the dorm-oh yeah, and a couple of times in my poli sci seminar...." "Not much you can do with somebody who's that screwed up." "Maybe he's the informer-if so, then he better learn how to keep his cover." "What a jerk?s he sentimental, or what? Such a young guy, and already a Korean-style bureacrat through and through."
After everyone had left, Hye-sun stood vacantly. Where to begin to bring order to the chaos? The white walls were spattered with soybean-paste stew and kimchi juice, the carpet scattered with food, bits of porcelain, overturned beer bottles. Suddenly Hye-sun burst out to Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n in a fit of hysteria: "Please, please, don't ask anyone over anymore. What do you get out of it? Do you realize that before I can spend a dollar I've got to think about it dozens of times? Look at us-a part-time housecleaner and a man who works at a fish market. It's too much for me to live like this-what's the meaning of it? What did we come here for? The others are young, but we'll be forty before long. If we don't succeed this time, we won't have another chance. I always worry about that-I'm all tensed up. We're more and more like beggars. It's not just a lack of money-I'm beginning to feel wretched, spiritually impoverished-Where's my pride, my self-respect? I feel like I'm on the road to ruin. Are you going to spend the rest of your life making sushi? How long are going to read those stupid books and articles and argue with your friends about the situation back home? Is it some intellectual game you play for love of country? Even if you're sincere, where do you get the right to criticize if you don't love your country?... When I go to Marion's I don't take my handbag-just like in Korea, where the housekeeper doesn't want the owner to get suspicious.
"You say you won't go back-Well, I want to. I really do. I'm going to start writing again. And don't tell me Conrad produced masterpieces after learning English when he was past twenty. Don't tell me that experience is important. Don't tell me a vocalist can sing anywhere, that painters' eyes aren't opened until they go abroad. Don't tell me that birds will sing anywhere, that flowers will bloom anywhere, in any soil.
"I know a painter who's been here more than twenty years. He says he still can't do portraits! He always does snow scenes, and once in a long while birds and flowers show up in them. They're the kind of pictures a lot of people call barbershop art-they think they're hackneyed and run-of-the-mill-but those pictures give me an impression of honesty. On the other hand, I went to an exhibition where each canvas was filled with a picture of a Hahoe dance-mask-they had titles like Portrait of a Korean and Smile of a Korean. Now there's an artist whose imagination has dried up-I could tell he was impatient for the fame he'd get from that show. All ten minutes of it. It annoyed me to see a painter that hard up. I think it's the same with writing. And as far as the kids are concerned...."
The children had shut themselves up in their room but couldn't possibly have fallen asleep during the commotion. Not a peep could be heard from them, though. They were sensitive to unrest, and in the course of their silence and withdrawal during their father's sudden outbursts of anger and rough tone of voice and their mother's frequent irritation, they were learning how to deal with their parents. These responses were a child's way of protesting, of expressing a wish to disappear without a sound, leaving no trace. Hye-sun found it pathetic to see her children trying to grow up before their time. Children may represent false hopes to the parents, but there is nothing false about the children themselves. Hadn't someone once said that the living message sent by parents to a future they couldn't see was their very own children? Even so, Hye-sun nervously kept an eye on her children as they grew, and on the changes that accompanied their growth, as if these were explosives timed to detonate inside them. Her nervousness frequently erupted in violence toward the children. She slapped them for trivial reasons, and once when they didn't come in from playing until dinner was over, she stripped them to their underwear and sent them back outside. She often wept loudly or broke dishes on purpose in front of them. "There's something wrong with me,"she frequently muttered to herself. But the frightening thing was not so much the illness itself as the cruel pleasure she took from seeing herself grow ill. For the first time, she had become the object of her own revenge.
The stray cat that lived in the woods frequently emerged at night or at dawn to sit at the entrance to the four-plex across from the steps to Hye-sun's apartment and wail plaintively. Mrs. Thompson, who lived downstairs from Hye-sun, would leave food for the cat at the gate. "It belonged to Chris, the man who used to live in your apartment,"she explained when she set out the food. "He was a retired man who lived by himself, and then he went into a nursing home. While he was here, the cat stayed out at night. Apparently it found a mate. When a male finds a mate, it leaves its master. That's why they're usually neutered, but I don't think Chris had that cat fixed. Anyway, when it's really cold or hungry it tries to find its old home."
Every once in a while, early in the evening, this animal would prowl the apartment complex. When it encountered Hye-sun pacing restlessly about the neighborhood after dinner, it would hesitate a moment before fleeing. To Hye-sun it resembled a dirty rag. The time came when she could no longer stand the filthy cat, its mournful wailing at the entrance to the apartments, its abject behavior. Like embers gathering toward a flash point, all of her animosity, cruelty, and rage came to focus on that ashen-colored cat; Hye-sun herself couldn't understand it.
Hye-sun began to lure the cat with bits of ham and fish. The animal looked old and sickly. It was too heavy and moved lethargically. Its formerly long, sleek waist had swelled into a fat ball. The cat devoured the fish, then licked the bones, moving about in a friendly way. For a few days Hye-sun fed it fish and watched it eat. The animal relaxed its guard and its old habits reappeared: it would approach Hye-sun and rub up against her leg, purring in satisfaction and licking the back of her hand with its sandy tongue. It was at such a time that Hye-sun grabbed the cat. Holding it by the neck, she put it into a knapsack the children used for picnics and pulling the mouth tightly shut. Then she went deep into the surrounding woods, deeper than she had ever been before, continuing until the sound of traffic on the bordering road had faded into the distance. Every once in a while the cat tried to wiggle out of the knapsack, yowling louder than Hye-sun believed possible; the old cat finally seemed to have sensed it was in critical danger. Nonchalantly packing the knapsack, like girls on a delightful outing to would pick wildflowers and berries, Hye-sun continued into the woods until the path ended and human traces vanished.
Elsewhere on this spring day the fields were a yellow carpet of dandelions in riotous bloom. Here in the woods, untouched by the sun, where the snow had melted only recently, the ground was soggy. There were dank, gloomy clusters of pine, alder, and white oak. The ground was crisscrossed with trees collapsed beneath the weight of a winter's snow and uprooted trees whose unrestrained growth and shallow roots had doomed them.
As a girl Hye-sun had heard that no matter how far away you abandon a cat, it will certainly return to do you no good. So you must blindfold it first, or else put it in a sack and tie it up. And so she continued into the woods, and after making sure there was no recent sign of other people, she hung the knapsack from a pine branch. She tied it firmly, so it wouldn't fall and the branch wouldn't break. Then she perched herself on a fallen limb. As she wiped the sweat from her forehead and hands, her gaze was drawn to some gnarled roots nearby. No, not roots, she realized, but instead the long, spreading antlers of a dead deer. The head and antlers still bore a thin layer of velvet, but the hollow eye sockets had become a haven for insects, in which ants busily crawled about. Perhaps it had been hit by a car and had managed to find its way here to die. Or maybe it was an old animal that had died a natural death. For it to be so decomposed, quite some time must have passed. As Hye-sun tried fruitlessly to imagine how the empty sockets might once have looked, the cat struggled and yowled, fell suddenly silent, then struggled so convulsively that the branch seemed about to break. For a long time Hye-sun sat and sobbed.
The next day she returned to the woods. The soggy earth was carpeted with the previous autumn's leaves and she couldn't find her footsteps from the day before. Even so, she found her way straight to the place without having to wander-an indication that she must have been intent on memorizing her route while bringing the cat here.
The knapsack still hung from the branch; a dirty stain had appeared on its bottom. Her eyes may have been playing tricks on her, but Hye-sun thought she noticed faint movements inside. She thought she had heard weak meowing, but when she strained to listen she heard nothing. The woods seemed to grow more and more still, and then she seemed to hear a whistling like the wind and inside her something collapsed.
Hye-sun returned to the woods on her days off from housecleaning.
The contents of the knapsack gradually became smaller, and the knapsack
itself grew elongated and tattered and its slate color faded. The reeking,
rotting thing inside, no longer turning colors, no longer fat or long but
instead unspeakably formless, was not the cat. It was something that was
breaking down and growing depraved within her very self.
At a south-facing hill in the distance where the two forks of the stream met, human forms in colored parkas were visible. Some were bent over, others were standing. Hye-sun and Kim crossed the wooden bridge that spanned the river and began to climb a sunny slope covered with Spanish needles. There was no path, and as they forged through the spiky plants, the dark needles stuck to their sneakers, pants, and sleeve ends.
If not for the people working beside this rocky streamside slope, there would have been no immediate indication that this was a prehistoric archaeological site. Inside worksites some twenty-five feet across that were bordered with plastic tape, young people who seemed to be college students were scraping away the soil with shovels, prods, and hoes. They gave the appearance of spooning away the earth's surface.
"Must be from the television station."
Kim, stopping above Hye-sun, indicated a man with his back to him, and another man stepping backward, bent at the waist, a large camera on his shoulder. Both wore yellow windbreakers carrying a network logo. A grizzled, middle-aged man in knee-high boots who appeared to be in charge of the dig was holding up one by one the stones laid out on the ground and describing them to one of the men in yellow jackets.
"...the part that touches your palm is naturally round, but you'll notice that every one of them has been shaped so that it fits nice and comfortable between your thumb and index finger. Now this one here may have been used for meat that was tough-see, it has a chiseled edge, kind of like a saw. This is a site where man used percussion-flaking tools...."
The camera panned the site director, the back of the interviewer's head, the dry lake, the mountains, and the display of stones, then returned to the director. Hye-sun turned away and unobtrusively withdrew several steps so that she was outside the camera's range.
"...and in particular these tools made from obsidian, which originally comes from Paektu Mountain, were considered valuable by prehistoric humans, who took them along when they moved. And so, judging from the places where they've been discovered, we can speculate that prehistoric people migrated from Unggi in Hamgyo¢¨ng Province down the east coast to Yanggu on the upper branch of the North Han River, and along the Han River to the upper branch of the Ku¢¨m River, at So¢¨kchang-ni near present-day Kongju...."
Whether owing to the length of the interview or to the subject's awareness of the camera, the site director's voice occasionally sounded forced and shaky.
"It occurs to me that when you're excavating these artifacts and sites, your feelings about life in the present-day world might change somewhat-could you comment on that, sir?"
The site director grinned and asked some of his students digging a short distance away to stop. He pointed to a palm-sized stone half buried in the ground.
"Would you pick that up?"
Unsure of the site director's intention, the reporter picked up the stone, an awkward expression on his face.
"That could be fifty thousand years old-no, make it a hundred thousand years. What you have just picked up, Mr. Song, is a tool used by someone in Paleolithic times, a hundred thousand years ago. How does it feel? Can you feel the touch of the man who held it back then?"
The reporter stared intently at the stone, the reddish earth still fresh on it. As if to indicate that the interview was over, the site director removed his glasses and rubbed his tired-looking eyes. The camera scanned the piles of stones on the slope, then lingered an instant at the sight of the bare incline Hye-sun had ascended and the faint outlines of distant mountains everywhere obliterated by wind-driven dust.
Kim, bending over to inspect stones, was climbing farther up the slope when he was brought to a halt by a student following him.
"Can I help you with something?"
"Just looking at the rocks."
Kim adjusted his porkpie hat and produced a strained smile.
How many times had they heard that question since they had set out? Hye-sun wondered with a smirk.
"This dig is being sponsored by the province, and strictly speaking, anyone not directly involved is prohibited."
The student's tone hardened as he sent a suspicious look toward Kim's stout, sizable canvas knapsack. Below, the site director, arms crossed and haughtily erect, looked up toward them. Apparently the student was acting under his orders.
"Really? I wasn't aware of that. I'll be heading down to that stream bed now." Kim forced another smile. "Huh-never thought I'd see the day when I'd be accused of stealing rocks."He set off down the slope.
Across from where he and Hye-sun had climbed the slope was a brook, and beside it two young women were washing a bucket of stones. After they had cleaned the dirt from the stones and dried them with a towel they wrapped them one by one in white rice paper, as if attending to someone's remains.
Hye-sun squatted beside them. "Do you find this interesting?"
The two women smiled brightly, their faces bronzed from nearly a month of working in the sun.
"Not so much interesting as...well, it's hard to say. It's kind of like being shut up in a great big time capsule. Because they date back so far-all of fifty or a hundred thousand years ago. And the only thing you ever hear is the wind."
"It's not the usual wind," said Kim. "Wandering souls are crying out. Apart from the Paleolithic people way back when, tens of thousands of Chinese communist soldiers drowned here."
The two women pretended to be scared, than broke into a giggle.
Hye-sun suddenly recalled what the farmer had said to them on their way here, and she looked uphill from the ruins, wondering where the Syngman Rhee villa might be. She clearly remembered the farmer saying the ruins were below the villa. When she had come here with Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n, their host in the village had told them the origin of the name P'aro, and they had decided to visit the villa. During the civil war a division of Chinese troops had been drowned in the lake, and in the flush of victory President Rhee had created the name, which literally meant "smashing the barbarians."But when their host told them they would have to cross a rugged ridge to reach the villa, Pyo¢¨ng-o¢¨n held back out of concern for his pregnant wife. After returning home from the lake, though, Hye-sun had aborted the three-month-old fetus. She had considered the baby her hope for the future, but her situation at the time was too gloomy and uncertain.
In no sense had she come here out of an interest in prehistoric relics or water-polished stones. What had attracted her was the appearance of the bleak, empty lake in the fuzzy black-and-white newspaper photo. In fact, hadn't she expected to see, there where the water once was, a clue to what lay inside her?
"Mr. Kim, this doesn't seem to be a very good place for the stones you're looking for. Nothing but dirt here, wouldn't you say? I thought I'd head up toward the old stone villa. What do you think would be the best way?"
"You'll probably just get depressed. It's all rundown. The roof is gone, and the only things still standing are a few walls. That path through the pines will take you right there. All you'll see are the signs for the guard house and the gym, nothing else."
As he squatted beside the stream, absentmindedly dipping a hand in the current, he indicated a pine grove above the ruins.
As far as Hye-sun could tell from below, there didn't seem to be a path leading into the pines. The grove looked dark and dense, and she had trouble visualizing a building there. To reach her destination she would have to reclimb the lakeside slope where the excavation was under way. Up she went, following the path they had just descended.
"Next year they'll begin filling it up. Then this'll be underwater forever. We'll have to find a way...."
Hye-sun was surprised to see the television reporter lingering on the slope. Snatches of the site director's imposing voice rode past her on the wind. The sun was sinking and the wind felt all the more fierce.
"Look, sir, look at this!" cried a young woman in a navy-blue parka. From the pit she had been working she ran to the site director. "It's so odd."
A trace of excitement appeared on the site director's face as he examined the oval, palm-sized piece of white quartz handed him by the student.
"This is really something. It;s a person's face. This is quite a find."
Other students quickly gathered around the director.
"What is it? Some kind of treasure?"
Hye-sun turned her back to the pine grove, and before she knew it she was approaching the group with deliberate steps. The site director cleaned the stone with the palm of his hand, picked more dirt out of the holes, and a vivid expression came to life. It was certainly a human face, and a woman's at that. In this longish, unpretentious white stone, three holes had been chiseled with a sharp object, and the becoming expression thus produced was startlingly rich and profound. All of the students regarded the stone. Some said they felt it was smiling, some felt it was weeping, others thought it looked sad. But Hye-sun couldn't find words to describe that face. A profound grief, an extreme longing, an earnestness-if she were to admit to seeing these emotions in the face of this woman of antiquity, they would have been what she herself wanted to see there.
One day long, long ago a young man had left the common work area in search of a stone suitable for fashioning into a hunting tool, and had discovered a pretty white piece of quartz. On it he had carved the face of a young woman who had caught his attention. Had he kept it? Had he given it to her? Or had he simply made it for a lark, and thrown it away just as casually?
Hye-sun made her way through the students and brazenly stuck out her hand to the site director.
"Could I see it for a second?"
Momentarily surprised, he gave her a dubious look, then silently handed her the stone. Hye-sun rested the stone in her palm and tried to fathom its expression, as if observing a cryptic code. Through the eyes of that woman, who had risen from the dirt after tens of thousands of years, she tried to see the lake with no water and the swirling wind that murmured like an endless conversation.