Born in 1962 at Yesan, South Chungcheong Province, Yun Dae-ryeong graduated from Danguk University majoring in French Language and Literature. However, in his college days he attended more Korean literature classes than French, he confesses. His early boyhood had been spent with his grand-parents before he joined his parents at the age of eight. Since his parents moved a lot, he lived in many different places in poverty. His habit of reading seems to have been established very early and by the time he attended junior high school, he devoured all the books that he could find around him.
He wrote his first story when he was a senior high school student. During his senior high school days he kept writing stories, and was anxious to win the entry prize at spring literary contests. In 1988, while he was a senior of Danguk University, his novel, wo※n(A Circle), won the second best award at the spring literary contest sponsored by Daejeonilbo. However, it was with his short story, "Mother Forest," that he was recognized as a promising young writer of the nineties, since it won the new writer award at the literary contest held by Munhaksasang in 1990. Since then, he has written many novels and short stories. Among his works are Uneo nakksi tongsin(News of Sweetfish Fishing, 1994), Namjjok gyedaneul bora(Look at the South Stairs, 1995), Yetnalyeonghwareul boreogatta(Gone to See an Old Movie, 1995), Chueogui aju meongot(The Memory of Far Away, 1996), Cheonji gan(Between Heaven and Earth, 1996), etc. In 1996 he won the prestigious Yisang literary award with Between Heaven and Earth. He is also a recipient of the Award for Young Artists.
As one of the leading young writers of the 90s in the Korean literary scene, Yun, Dae-ryeong, in his works, mainly deals with the alienation of people and their desert-like surroundings in an industrialized society and also the impact of the structure of power and the ruling system on an average man's life. In many of his works he uses a journey as the pattern of his stories. His characters often lose their identity and roam around like sleep-walkers, people who have lost their dreams. These people tend to go back toward their past where their memories loom far away. This journey back to their past is characterized by incidents taking place contingently. He uses, adverbs connoting "suddenly" repeatedly. Also one of the important themes of his stories is the tie of destiny or coincidences working in the human relationship.
Though he has been now working for about ten years as a writer, his ability to trace the lives he has seen around him has already proved that he is a writer of great calibre.
Between Heaven and Earth
How did I come here? Believe it or not, I walked. Of course I knew when I arrived at the county bus terminal I could have taken a local bus. Yes, it was snowing. It was such a heavy snowfall. But that woman walked all the way from the bus terminal to this place. Yes. It took more than an hour. Well, I don't know why I followed her. I just followed her blindly, even though I didn't know where she was heading. What did you say? Are you asking me whether she was someone I had met somewhere before? No. She was a total stranger to me. I saw her for the first time in Kwangju. I took an express bus with her from Kwangju to the town of Wando. It took more than three and a half hours. At any rate, I was on my way to pay a call of condolence. The departure of the funeral procession? Perhaps it's tomorrow. Well, I don't know for sure yet whether I should go back to Kwangju on the first bus tomorrow morning. Somehow at this moment, I cannot guarantee even that.
This is Kugaedong, Chungdori in the town of Wando, County of Wando, in Chollanamdo. I arrived here at eight o'clock this evening.
Yesterday afternoon I received the news of my aunt's death. She died of a stomach cancer at the relatively young age of fifty. Nine months ago her cancer was diagnosed. Her doctor had said that she would have less than three months to go, at the longest, but she survived six months longer than he had predicted. It was probably because of her elder son, who was preparing for his college entrance examination. There was no other explanation for her prolonged survival, especially since she passed away two days after she had heard the good news of her son's being admitted to a college.
My mother had gone to pay our respects. This would have been considered acceptable, even though I myself did not go, but when I thought of my aunt, I felt it was not really true. When I entered my university and also when I was discharged from the army, my uncle sent me a bag of rice by freight train. Nowadays the price of those two bags of rice would not be so dear, yet somehow it was true that at major (and even minor) events in my uncle's life, those bags of rice subtly evoked in me a feeling of indebtedness. On the day when my aunt's cancer was diagnosed at the Paik Hospital in Seoul, I stayed with my uncle. That evening on our way to Kwangju, he said to me,
"You should marry soon. For the occasion I will send you a bag of rice again." I did not know what made him say such a thing on this occasion.
My uncle seemed to consider rice as a sort of sacrifice. It's a safe bet that my mother also regards rice and needle bags as money.
My uncle, the owner of a paper store, had gone to Japan to study painting when he was young. Nobody knew why he had suddenly given up teaching and western painting at the age of forty. I just remember that I heard once that he gave up painting because he was madly in love with the color white. I don't mean pure white, but milky white. My uncle thought pure white and milky white, which seemed to be different only in words, were two entirely different colors.
The 10:30 morning express bus from Seoul to Kwangju. I was wearing a black suit, black tie and even black shoes. Anybody would have known that I was on my way to make a condolence call. These days most people don't pay much attention to what they wear when they visit to express their sympathy after a death, and I was also reluctant to wear black clothes, because with them you always attract dull looks. But my mother had forced me to go to a tailor and have this black suit made several years ago. Her reason was you never knew when something serious would take place. It might be said that because she had prepared her shroud, I had to prepare my mourning suit. I seldom wore it, but when somebody in our family passed away, as I thought it was better to wear mourning, so I put the suit on a couple of times. Nevertheless, whenever I wore it, I couldn't help feeling that my face got stiff.
It was at about three in the afternoon, when I had first arrived at the Kwangju bus depot, that I saw her. "Saw" might not be the correct word. I had gotten off the bus and was going to a taxi stand. There was a crowd of people and I was emerging from the crowd when I was hit on my shoulder by another person. It was rather a hard hit, and it caused her whole body to tremble, reeling. and soon a shriek, "ah-," flew to my ears. It was a sound of deathly agony, as if she had been terribly hurt. I spun around and saw a woman in a yellow trench coat, holding her stomach with her hands, her brows knit in a pained expression. Apparently my body had also made contact with her stomach. Right away my mouth expelled the words, "Excuse me," but she pretended not to hear it, and straightening her body, she walked to the ticket window.
About five minutes later, I came across her again.
Those who have visited the Kwangju main bus terminal know that a series of shops divide the main terminal from the express bus terminal. Heading for the express bus terminal, she was just passing the taxi stand in the middle of the sidewalk in front of the shops. She was dressed simply in a trench coat, without even a handbag. I stared at her, trying to decide if her trench coat was beige, but it was pale yellow. She may have sensed that someone was watching her, since she turned her head and looked back at me momentarily as she passed the taxi stand. However, it was only momentary encounter, such as commonly takes place between strangers everywhere. She turned her eyes away immediately and hurried along her way. She didn't even seem to notice that I was the one whose shoulder had hit hers several minutes ago. No, she seemed to pause for a moment, but it didn't appear to mean anything.
Since I thought that the afterimage of yellow had remained rather long in front of my eyes, I turned them slyly toward the direction in which she had disappeared. It was then that I realized she was watching me. She had stopped and was standing absent-mindedly at the entrance of the bus terminal. She was about ten meters away from me. Perhaps this distance had made her feel that she would be able to turn her eyes away safely at any time, for she was watching me with a rather bold face. I looked around, but there was nowhere to escape her stare at all. Why had she stopped to stare at me? Soon I remembered that I was wearing a black suit, but even if it was because of my black suit, she was looking at me too long. In line at the taxi-stand, only two people were ahead of me. In a couple of minutes, I could have been well on my way to the house of the deceased. And in 30 minutes I would have been sitting among other mourners, playing cards or drinking soju.
When a taxi stopped in front of me at last, she turned and disappeared into the terminal. And then what happened to me? I stopped opening the rear door of the taxi, and as if somebody grabbed me by my collar, I retreated hesitantly. I stared at the entrance of the express bus terminal gloomily, and leaping over the guardrail, I followed her.
On her expressionless face I could peep into the same cold shadow of death I had seen on my aunt's face when her cancer was diagnosed nine months ago. The great sense of shocked confusion passed like thunder, and shortly after, her face was covered with the lonely shadow of resignation. It might be said her face was that of one who had accepted death.
Looking at the timetable posted above the ticket window, she bought a ticket for Wando. She didn't hesitate at all, as though Wando was her destination from the beginning. Apparently she came to this terminal, because there was no faster(highway) bus to Wando, or else, if there was one, the departure time was not convenient. She didn't look more than twenty-five or-six. Her hair was done in a body perm, and she had a purple scarf around her neck. After she glanced down at her wristwatch, she sat down in an orange plastic chair and didn't move until three in the afternoon. She must have sensed that someone was hanging around behind her. Before checking in, she turned back and looked at me, as if casually. She must have known that I was the very man who, only a short time ago, had been in line at the taxi-stand, and that that man, all of a sudden, had changed his mind and now was behind her.
If I had read fear or apprehension in her eyes at that moment, I might have gone back to the taxi stand. In short, if she had in any way reminded me of my being a stranger to her, I might not have been able to stand there any longer. She did seem to be embarrassed for a moment, but she regained her composure quickly. When she turned her face away again, a face both of assistance and connivance, I was greatly disconcerted, unable to make heads or tails of her intentions. When I heard the sound of the bus engine starting, I quickly bought a ticket and got on the bus. With a half unconscious and half resigned mind, I murmured to myself this excuse:
Unfortunately as I stood there in my black suit, I accidentally saw a woman covered with death. Being a stranger, I could have passed her by averting my eyes with a great effort. But if she was trailing the long, unseen thread of lingering attachment to life? Weren't you on your way to pay a visit of condolence? Yes, on my way to go and kneel in front of death, I hit living death shoulder to shoulder.
A long, long time ago, somebody happened to save my life.
She was sitting in the middle of the bus by a window. I passed her seat clumsily and sat down at the back of the bus. The bus immediately started with only about ten passengers. I closed my eyes for a while, until the bus was out of Kwangju. How had this sort of thing suddenly happened? What excuse should I make to my mother? Perhaps it had happened because I wore a black suit. Just as sorrow recognizes sorrow and love recognizes love, so death is bound to know death when they meet. Thus, I understood now that when you are on a road, sometimes your destination changes because of an unexpected incident. However, nobody knew where I was going to. Of course, not even I knew it.
When the bus was passing Naju, though I was exhausted, I reminded myself of the brushes that I had had with death during my life. I almost drowned when I was nine or ten. I had gone to gather shells with my friends on the day after a rainstorm. My friends and I had walked along some railroad tracks under the scorching sun, for about half a day, and arrived at a big river. It was the place where fresh water and sea water merged and there were many shells, some as big as my palm. I dove into the water to collect shells at the bottom of the river. I chose a depth where I could still feel the surface of the water with my fingertips; However, on that day the current was enormously strong. Suddenly my body was twisted around and pulled into the powerful current. No matter how hard I tried, I couldn't get my balance back. When I was utterly exhausted, I opened my eyes wide in the water and watched the last struggle between life and death. While life and death were tossing each other about like a naked man and woman, what felt like my last breath came up to my nose. Soon colors as soft as a silk curtain began to press and tie my hands and feet. The dark blue of the silk curtain was increasingly turning to violet. At about the same time as the violet changed into white, I lost consciousness.
When I came to, I was lying on a river bank in a bed of wild flowers. At first, I didn't know which world I was in. After a while, when I noticed blood flowing down from my hand, gripping shells tightly even then, I barely realized I was alive. Beside me, there lay one of my friends covered with a straw mat. He had dived into the river to save me and met his death, for my sake. Trembling all over, I raised the straw mat to see my dead friend. And I was clearly watching on his face the blue and violet which I had witnessed in the water. But the scene of white had already disappeared and was nowhere to be seen.
A long time passed before I witnessed the white color again. I was in the army. Not long before I was discharged from the army, I went out on a search mission and stepped on a mine. Fortunately, only a detonater exploded and I escaped death and lameness. At the moment the detonater exploded with a great bang, I really was face to face with the transparent, undescribable white color again. A rather gorgeous and soft white color it was. Many years later, when I visited a museum and came across a white Chosun porcelain, I was once again enamored with the ecstatic white color. Perhaps the white color that had bewitched my uncle had been this sort, too.
We were probably in Yo※ng-am, since I saw a part of Wo※lch'ul mountain. Foolishly, at that point I fell asleep for a short time. On the way from Naju to Yo※ng-am, I had seen snowfall. When I awoke, the bus was already passing Haenam. The snowfall had become heavy and it was now difficult to see more than a few meters ahead. The inside of the bus was dark as if it were evening. Because perhaps all the passengers were asleep, not a whisper could be heard. I lifted my chin to look around, and found her with her neck turned toward the window, looking out. Had she by chance looked back while I was sleeping? The bus sped along the coastal route, passing Chunghaejin and arriving at Wando shortly after six in the evening.
As soon as I got off the bus, I asked the timetable of the Kwangju bus at the ticket window. It was not because I had changed my mind and decided to go back to Kwangju, even then. I only wanted to know the schedule, in case my feelings changed. The last bus was at seven thirty. Taking into account the bad road conditions, the last bus could get me back to Kwangju by about eleven. That was not too late to pay a visit of condolence.
The woman had been walking up and down outside the bus terminal ever since we'd arrived. Though she had seemed to come to Wando purposefully, now she just shook her head when a taxi driver approached her, as if she had no destination. Furthermore, she didn't seem to be waiting for anybody. As I watched her stealthily, I indulged in a sort of gamble. I thought if she did not look back at me in five minutes, then I would take the bus back to Kwangju.
Perhaps her thoughts were running similar to mine. After a while, pretending to follow a bus passing in front of her with her eyes, she, of her own accord, looked inside at me through the dusty glass door.
As if led, I went outside. She quickly turned around and started walking. Her attitude was that she would let me follow her, but she would never let me come near her. Leaving the town, the woman and I, keeping fifty meters between us, started to walk on a snowy road together. It was a road without any intersections all along, and judging by the faint sound of waves heard once in a while on the left side, the sea seemed to lie far away. Giving up the road leading to the waterfront, she walked aimlessly unto a road at the foot of a mountain where there were no houses at all. I followed her indifferently as if I were following a hearse. In the meantime I suddenly realized I had lost the sense of time passing, and whenever I looked back, I only knew that I didn't know where I had come from or where I was going. I had gone too far already to turn back now and the evening was getting dark quickly. Consequently, I couldn't think of anything else, except following the obscure sight of her back.
I don't know why she walked that long distance instead of taking a bus or taxi. At any rate, when we arrived at Chungdori after walking one and a half hours, the snowfall came slowly to a halt. I felt as if I had lived entire thirty two years again in those several hours. Considering the fact that it was long after the first day of spring and March was only two weeks away by the solar calendar, the snowfall was really heavy. The next day I heard from the owner of a raw fish, sasimi, restaurant that Chollanamdo had suffered a dry winter. This was a good snow.
It was an inn with a raw fish restaurant. The sea floated diagonally in the reflection of the big glass window which looked out over a balcony. After the snow stopped, the sky was suddenly quite clear and the moon, almost full, was shaking the sea of the middle of the last month on the lunar calender. The woman went to her room on the second floor as soon as she arrived and didn't come back down. I had ordered a dish of sliced raw black porgy, and was drinking Chungha by myself. The owner of the restaurant, who was in his forties, came slowly to me and sat down on the opposite seat. His hair was already salt and pepper and I wondered when he had last shaved, because his beard was a bit grown.
The sliced raw black porgy on the table was from the fish he himself had caught out in the sea. Because it was a raw fish restaurant, they didn't serve kimchi or soybean paste stew. Moreover, even if they cooked hot fish soup, they had to kill the fish, so what he suggested was to have sliced raw fish first. A man, on his way to pay a visit of condolence, came and sat in this ridiculous place instead. And he had to eat raw food! As soon as the raw fish was put on the table, I was uncomfortable and took off my necktie and jacket.
"These days it is not easy to catch fish. Some flounders and flat fish are there, but black porgies are dear. They move to Chuja Island at late autumn and come back in the spring to lay their eggs. The black porgies we catch these days are fixed ones. They live at the same place all year round. It should be delicious. On spring porgies, there's nothing much to eat once you remove the skin. One of the reasons fishermen and epicures like the black porgy is because of this color. As you see, when the skin is cut thin, you can see a red spotted pattern. The meat at this part is the best. It is so both in appearance and in taste. Look at this. Isn't this an exquisite color?"
The gills of the black porgy lying on the radish strips were still moving. When I looked down again at the fish, I thought it was really vulgar. The fish, sliced alive with a knife, lay there naked and exposed. It couldn't be said to be either alive or dead that way. I slowly turned the meat of the red spotted part mentioned by the man upside down. Subtle whiteness. It was strange that I had to face that damned whiteness here again! I trembled. I asked the man whether it was pure white or milky white, as if I were making a deliberate chess move.
"How could I say that? But it is true that when the fish dies up to its head, its color becomes dull. Of course it depends on the fish, but as for a black porgy, it is better to eat it right after it is butchered."
"Is that in terms of appearance as well as in terms of taste?"
"Yes, it is. Well, take it. No, you should not eat it wrapped in lettuce with a piece of garlic. Though, since our guests demand them, I put pepper and bean paste on the table, those who know the taste of it do not eat it that way. It is not only the case with raw fish. When you put too much spice in any dish, it doesn't taste right. I will help you. Like this. Dip the meat slightly into wasabi and radish juice, and eat it. Radish juice detoxicates raw meat and also makes the tip of your tongue nice and cool without affecting the flavor of the meat."
He was an extraordinary man. Continually refusing my offer of a drink, he had already sat like this for an hour. Maybe he hadn't had a guest for a long time.
"In winter there are no guests at all. Sometimes on the weekends there are some guests, but they stay one day at the most. Today I only have two -- you and the woman."
"Is this the only inn around here?"
"There is one more tourist class inn called Kugae Garden at the opposite end of the beach. There are homestay places and they are in the same situation. They live on what they earn during the summer."
"This is my first visit to Wando."
"A while ago, I mistakenly thought that you and the woman were together. Though the woman arrived first, I couldn't believe that she was alone."
". . . Considering it over and over, I can't say that we are not together."
"It really is a strange act of Providence. Met on your way to pay a condolence call."
"An act of Providence?"
"Could it be anything else?"
"How can I call it an act of Providence? Perhaps I've been bewitched by my own doing and am unexpectedly sightseeing in the other world."
"You'll see. It is not often that a woman comes here alone. On top of that, a man on his way to a condolence visit followed her. Can you say that this is ordinary?"
". . . . "
"It is not necessarily after a thunderstorm that people come across each other. You can't say an act of Providence must always be something dramatic."
The way he talked showed that he was not from this part of the country. A curious impulse came over me all of a sudden. What did this man do before? Where? Was he married or not? There was only one woman working in the kitchen and she looked twenty-two or so. The raw fish was sliced by the man himself.
"Me? My birth doesn't have anything to do with Cholla Province. While I was young, I roamed a lot. And then somehow I ended up here."
"Did you have any reason to settle down here . . . ."
"There isn't any special reason. I only realized that wherever you go, it is never your hometown. I wonder whether it is not my destiny to stay here and run an inn for the people who float through. You will find out soon, but Kugaedong is not a bad place to study and drill The Thousand Character Text."
"The Thousand Character Text?"
"My knowledge is so limited that I have not even mastered the thousand characters. Until I came to this place all by myself five years ago, I had wandered around and had dipped my finger into everything. Is there any trace left when a man comes and goes in between heaven and earth?"
Though he might not have been well educated, he talked skillfully. So be it. But when it came to this place, I didn't even know the meaning of "Kugaedong" yet.
"There is not one grain of sand on the coast of Chungdori. Along the coast blue stones called chungwhansuk (blue-round-stone) cover the beach. The length of the coast is only 700 meters, but they say under the sea there are nine furrows of stone bed. It must be spectacular. That is why they call this place Kugaedong."
A blue stone bed stretched into the sea in nine furrows.
"According to people here, stones eventually become blue after they are washed by sea water for thousands of years. If you take one stone, even absentmindedly, out of this island, you will be humiliated."
"Are you talking about the round blue stones?"
If you take one away from here, the blue color might soon disappear. Everything is better when it is in the place where it should be. On the dish white color was being stained with pale green.
"Because of the deep snow on the road, a taxi wouldn't be practical. Since it is too late to go to Kwangju tonight, you'd better go up and have a rest. Though this is an inn, we have only ten rooms on the second floor. I warmed up room 210."
Ten o'clock. It seemed it was time for him to close the restaurant. Rising from the seat with a tray, the man, as if to himself, murmured.
"That woman seems to have decided not to have dinner."
". . . ."
"Her face was rather somber. I don't know when she will leave, but I think I should watch her carefully."
I didn't realize he was addressing me until he had reached the kitchen. On my way up to my room, I went outside to get some fresh air.
Since the snowfall had stopped, even the sound of the waves had subsided and the coast was silent. I went down to the shoreline which was bent like an arrow. The round blue stones were getting increasingly smaller as I went down, from the size of watermelons to that of clenched fists, until they became more like eggs under the sea. At my feet, moon drenched waves broke and ran up to me with silvery foam. Suddenly I heard the sound of the rising wind at my back and I turned my head to see a windbreak forest trembling under the moon. I didn't know how long it had been since I'd last seen the night sky, but countless stars were sitting above my head as if a wicker basket full of gold sand had been turned upside down. Thus, 700 meters of round blue stone bed was sparkling like a king's waist band. I slowly stepped onto the waist band. From below, a golden blue glow spread upward brilliantly. Because I was fascinated with the color, for a while I couldn't even hear the sound of the sea.
After I had trodden one third of the coastline I stopped walking and silently strained my ears to listen to the sea. A sound was regularly repeated, as if a host of shells had emerged from the tide and were airing their grievances. Was it the sound of winnowing beans? No. It was the sound of the round blue stones, as they were retrieved by the waves. My ears were wide open to that sound for a long time, and then as if I had forgotten it, I looked up at the moon above. As I started to move again, I chanted the stories I had been told, by old men a long time ago, as if I were copying the Thousand Character Text.
Stars travel across heaven in the shapes of an eagle, deer, and bear.
When I reached Kugae Garden, I looked back at the raw fish restaurant from which I had started to walk. There was a light on in a room on the second floor. Tonight there would probably be no more guests. What was she doing now without having had her dinner? No. What was she thinking about. Not only because of the restaurant owner's comments, but in my own mind I thought perhaps it was time for me to go back and be near her.
After returning from the sea, I took out the key the owner of this place had given me, and I found that my room was right next to hers. For several minutes I shook my head, and then I quietly opened the door and went into room 210. I pressed my ear against a wall, but nothing could be heard. Did she fall asleep with the light on?
At about two in the morning, I finally drifted off to sleep after hearing her small coughing sound.
I woke up because I heard somebody wailing from afar. When I slowly opened my eyes it was six in the morning. The next room was silent. I opened the window and looked around outside which was still dark. Immediately together with the sound of waves, a woman's lamentation could be heard from a very short distance away. Because the moonlight was fading, the stone bed looked gloomy like a mine bed. For a while I lay with the window open and then put my clothes on and went out. I carefully pressed my ear on the door of room 209, but I couldn't hear any human sound.
When I came down the stairs to the first floor, I found out that it was not the sound of wailing, but that of a pansori-singer, who had come out early in the morning, and was fine-tuning her voice. Yesterday the restaurant owner hadn't told me that pansori-singers had come down to this place. Looking up at the window of room 209, I saw that the light was still on.
The sound came from the wind break forest on the stone bed that looked down at the sea lengthwise. I staggered along the corner of the stone bed toward the sound. But once I stepped inside the forest, I couldn't distinguish which was which. In whichever direction I took, everything looked the same to me and I felt as if I were in a labyrinth. Moreover, since my feet fell into deep snow and dry leaves poked my face, I became really nervous. I decided to get out of the forest directly and then trace the location of the sound.
Just like solving a riddle, I found my way out of the back of the forest after a long struggle. Morning field, made faint by a rolling mist, lay in front of me. At the end of the field, the lights of a far away village flickered like glowworms. Here I could see many short cuts through the forest all over. If I stayed on a path, it didn't seem very difficult to find the pansori-singer. I went into the forest, following one of these paths.
When I came near to the sound, I stopped silently and was enraptured by the husky voice of a woman singer. In my school days, I had lent my ears to the Pansori, a Korean solo opera drama, for a short time. But nowadays, I couldn't even master the five kinds of Pansori, I couldn't understand the meaning of them. Secretly listening to this voice from the deep belly, tongsung, or husky voice, surisung, even my mind was sorrowfully moved. Soon a vulgar curiosity that I should see her face came across my mind. Paying close attention to the sound only, I slowly and silently stole into the forest between trees like a lost cat. And when I progressed forward about 30 meters, I suddenly froze, because the sound had stopped abruptly. Maybe the pansori singer sensed that somebody was in the forest. As I held my breath and stood still for a long time, the mournful pansori sound resumed at last. As if going toward an enemy lying in ambush, I moved discreetly one step after another. However, I made a critical mistake: Under my foot a branch of a tree broke with a snap. Even to my ears the snap was rather loud. The pansori singer must have noticed it. The lilt of Pansori vanished immediately and stopped dead altogether.
When I emerged from the forest, the light of dawn was just slightly visible at the far end of the horizon. Was she, too? After standing aimlessly with her back toward me on the stone bed washed by waves, the woman in room 209 was returning to the inn, stepping on the king's waist band which I had walked along the night before. Smoothing my careworn chin with my hands, I thought that as soon as I got to my room, I should look in the mirror. My body trembled perhaps from the chill of the morning air.
While the woman had her breakfast at a table by the window, I washed my face and went out for a walk on the stone bed. Tucking her hair behind her ears every now and then, she ate her breakfast very slowly. On the balcony, in a red sweater the woman employee was washing windows devotedly. A fisherman's boat returning from the sea could be seen through the cleaned window glass. Thinking about making a telephone call to Kwangju, and then shaking my head, I went into the yard of the raw fish restaurant. It was not quite certain that I could make it to the funeral procession anyway, even if I started immediately.
As I went through the glass door into the restaurant and sat down, the restaurant owner walked up the stone bed carrying a fishing rod dripping with water. The woman who had been cleaning the window glass brought me the hot black porgy soup which I hadn't finished yesterday. Since the inside of my mouth was sandy, I didn't have an appetite and my spoon didn't go at all into the rice bowl. As the owner opened the door with a whistle and came in, he greeted us with a ringing voice.
"Both of you are early birds."
Was I an early bird? Damn it! The man brought a bowlful of rice, saying that he hadn't had his breakfast, and sat down opposite me without any reserve.
"Were the fish biting?"
Since I didn't have anything to talk about, I asked about the fish.
"They didn't bite at all. Tomorrow, I will stick to a rock on the shore."
". . . ."
"Are you thinking of going back to Kwangju?"
Stopping the spoon halfway to my mouth, I stared at the face of the owner. What would he like to ask me? I simply answered in a roundabout way.
"I'll think about it after breakfast."
The hot fish soup was rather to my taste. But I finished breakfast with half of the rice still left in the bowl. As I drew a cup of water to my mouth, I casually asked the man.
"Perhaps she is a pansori singer?"
"Who? The woman who came with you?"
When I nodded, the man gestured with his chopsticks.
"No, the pansori singers are another group. There are about five or six, including a drummer. They came down last autumn and have been at Kugae Garden for three months now. Since I heard they would stay for 100 days, I assume its almost time for them to leave. They meant to leave after the blooming of camellias."
When the camellias were in full bloom . . . . Anyway, that meant she was not a pansori singer. I had roamed around the forest early in the morning for nothing.
"The woman came down after you had gone outside. Maybe after about 30 minutes, wasn't it?"
"How did you know that?"
The man, while fishing out at sea, was watching me and the woman coming down from the inn. As I listened to him, a strange feeling came over me. And then, as I pondered what I should do next, my eyes turned toward the sea. The man talked to me furtively.
"As a matter of fact, I have a feeling that I have seen her once before."
I turned my eyes from the sea to look at the man, face to face.
"Possibly, she visited Kugaedong once before."
"Then, why didn't you ask her? You could have also asked where she came from."
"I can't ask my guests that sort of question."
Then he, all of a sudden, assumed the face of an elder and threw these words at me.
"If you are not planning on going back to Kwangju, why don't you stay a bit more? To be frank with you, I am talking about her. I have a feeling that at the most it will be a couple of days. If it is today and tomorrow, isn't that only a weekend?"
". . . Why are you talking to me about this?"
The man smiled sheepishly and changed his tone with great pain.
"Please do not scold me for my uninvited interference. I think if I could, I would like to save her."
As he saw my wondering face, he again interrupted.
"You don't seem to have had a good night's sleep. Go up and take a good nap. Would she commit anything in a broad daylight?"
". . . Did you also think so?"
The man nodded silently. I was saved too. Moreover, my life was saved at the cost of a very young life.
On my way to my room I met the woman face to face in the second floor corridor. She was going outside. I fell into a heavy sleep, and slept until two in the afternoon.
She was sitting on the stone bed all afternoon, watching the high tide. Opening the window, all at once I heard the arias of pansori singers keeping time with the slow rhythm of a drum, choongmori. Sun-rays, reflected brightly on the surface of the sea, seemed like a whole crowd of fish jumping on the water. I looked in the mirror with bloodshot eyes. The front of my wrinkled shirts was stained with several drops of fish soup. Since I felt I had caught a cold, I filled the bath tub with hot water and lay down in it.
When I had come across her in the corridor, she had really been surprised. Though her hair had been combed neatly and she had even put on lipstick, in her sunken eyes under thin eyebrows the red veins were squirming like a thin earthworm. What history was there in her life? Her face was so terribly dark. She had probably thought that I was in the raw fish restaurant. Or she was coming down out of curiosity to see whether or not I had left after breakfast. When I walked up the steps, I faced the woman, who was walking along the corridor. All of a sudden as if she heard thunder, her lips opened slightly. Since I, myself, did not know what to do, I stood at the end of stairs awkwardly, in utter confusion. She dropped her head and pulled her body toward a wall, meaning that I should pass first. With a dry swallow, I passed her stiffly. The front of her coat was open obliquely. Inside her trench coat could be seen a part of her white blouse and black skirt. She must have known that I looked at her furtively with my sidelong glance. When I stepped away a couple of strides, the woman exhaled in a low voice. It seemed that she whispered something toward me. I strained my ears stiffly to hear better. . . . But, no. Looking back when I arrived at my door, I saw her still standing there with her body pressed hard against the wall. But because of the cream-colored backlight coming from the end of the corridor, I couldn't see her face. As I tried to shield my eyes against the light with my hand, she turned and went down the stairs to the first floor. After watching from my window, as she walked toward the sea, I lay down on a sleeping pad and fell asleep.
The deceased would be going to Jangsung now, her burial place, in a hearse.
Coming downstairs, I found the owner of the restaurant drinking sojoo all by himself in broad daylight. I didn't know when he had started to drink, but his face was already burning reddishly. Right at the table he had sliced up two raw fish, flounders or flatfish, as big as my palm, and was already drinking the second bottle of soju. After my eyes swept the stone bed, I sat down at the table with the owner. The arias of the pansori singers were still going on.
"You didn't leave."
"I think those who went to the burial place must be coming back by now."
Accepting the soju he offered me, I asked where those camellias were, as the thought had dawned on me suddenly.
"You couldn't see them at dawn. There are many of them scattered all over the forest."
It was so. But when I was there, I couldn't see.
"If you decide to stay a day longer, go to the forest before the snow melts away. Those blooming in the snow are really genuine."
"Do you think they are already in blossom?"
"Some are and others are not, I guess. Like those pansori singers."
"What do you mean by that?"
"All of them come down here to improve their voices, but not all of them go back after witnessing the camellias blooming."
The man tossed the soju down his throat and chose one of the short songs in a minor key that floated in from outside, and sang it in his own way. Since that song seemed familiar somehow, I listened to it silently and discovered that it was the song I had heard when I had roamed in the forest at dawn.
"Maybe it is a part of "The Song of Somnambulism."
The Song of Somnambulism. I silently lent my ears to that song.
"Do you think the woman singing now saw the bloom of the camellias?"
"I don't know. I've only learned by ear a little, like a dog at school, since I've been sitting here listening to songs for several years."
Opening the third bottle of soju with his teeth, he turned his eyes to the woman, who was sitting on the stone bed. She had been tirelessly looking at the sea since this morning. It appeared to be windy on the beach since her hair was flying about.
"I should watch her carefully tonight. She might walk directly into the sea like a mad woman, all along to the end of nine furrows after sitting like that."
". . . ."
The high tide was now reaching the place where she sat.
"Was it three years ago? Once an old woman, who had stayed in this inn, hanged herself in the forest. I couldn't do anything about it, but anyway the fact that I didn't prevent her from doing it has been with me ever since. At that time there was no one following her like the woman there now."
The one who followed. He meant me.
The old woman had come here by taxi and stayed for four days.
"Returning from fishing in the morning, I saw the white clothes of the old woman hanging in the forest. It was a day of the full moon, in January by the lunar calendar. She had committed suicide, after having come out to the forest on her walking stick. I was told later that she'd gone to the camellia forest to see a Chinese phoenix there."
"A Chinese Phoenix? Isn't that a bird you find in a story?"
"That old woman was blind."
"! . . . ."
Looking suddenly at the calendar on the wall, I found it would be full moon tomorrow. Then I could vaguely understand that this raw fish restaurant owner had detained me here yesterday and today.
Drinking many glasses of the soju he offered me and chatting with him about this and that, I glimpsed outside only to find that she was gone. In a half sitting posture I looked around the stone bed, but she was nowhere to be seen. Putting my unemptied soju glass down on the table, I stood up. The restaurant owner also stood up, but he didn't seem to be greatly concerned. He said, "She must be somewhere around here." Saying that he must clean the rooms, he staggered up the stairs to the second floor.
I went along the stone bed down to the place where the woman had been sitting. The silvery sea was slowly changing to pale green. A black cloud appeared, in the shape of the chinese numeral character one, hanging at the end of the horizon.
Maybe because it was Saturday, visitors from outside Wando were slowly increasing in the afternoon and there were already 14 or 15 people. They were mostly young people from high school students to some in their early twenties, but there was also a couple with a child. I walked along the coast and carefully watched the outskirts of the forest through my eyelashes. Maybe it was because of the drink I had taken during the daytime that the border between the forest and the stone bed seemed awfully blurred. After gust of wind swept through my hair, a crowd of water birds flew up in formation from the forest toward the horizon.
The woman was sitting on a bench in the shade of the pine trees at the end of the forest. I didn't know how long she had been there. Listening to the waves that scattered the stone bed like a harrowing rake, I stood and watched the woman in the distance while I smoked a cigarette. As the sun glaring upon the stone bed slowly lost its power, the husky voice of a pansori singer standing on the crest of a rock was just rising from a very slow to less a slow rhythm. The woman craned her neck, apparently looking in my direction. So I took a deep breath and, avoiding her diagonally, I went into the forest to look for camellias.
The camellia trees were panting heavily under the weight of their many flower buds. The branches on the sunny side seemed ready to burst into red in just a couple of days. If this were the central region of Korea, the blossoms would be actually a fortnight to a month away. But here, by the time the pansori singers left, even the faces of visitors to Kugaedung would be red from the bright light of tens of thousands of camellias in full bloom. Hearing the pansori singer straining his voice in the middle of the forest, I emerged from the woods and walked toward a spot from which I could see the sea, going around the forest.
Because the wind was gaining force in the meantime, the black cloud floating over the horizon was now spread wide enough to demand notice. The sea, embracing dark blue stains, possibly the shadow of clouds, was raising its voice. Did she mean to play hide and seek? Leaving the bench in rickety strides, the woman was going down to the lower part of the stone bed again. What was the meaning of her walking on the round stones with her hands in her coat pockets? With every step forward, her shoulders lunged left and right. Going on that way, I said to myself in a dry voice, she would soon fall down, and I stared at the pitch black cloud which was just about at my eyebrows. At that very moment, her upper body bent forward, and a sharp cry rang out. All at once the eyes of the people grouped here and there were staring at her. What did I think? I quickly ran to the woman who had fallen down.
The eyes of the spectators were restored to their usual position, as they assumed I was the companion of the woman. She seemed to have a nasty knock on her left knee bone. As if shocked. she only panted, with her hand on her breast. Though I went to her, I didn't know what to do, so after standing there stiffly, I sat in an awkward squatting position beside her, asking "Are you all right?" Her eyes flashed up at my face. At that moment I had the impression that it was this woman who made me come out here when I was drinking sojoo with the owner of the raw fish restaurant. Perhaps she had fallen while moving from the bench to the stone bed in order to attract my attention. Even if she didn't mean to narrow the distance between us, she might have meant to tighten the slack rope so that I couldn't leave her. If so, for what reason did she so stubbornly grasp the tether of either coincidence or fate that could only lead to awkwardness.
I offered help. As I tried to hold her arm, as if with lobster claws, she struggled to get up by herself, waving her hand. I boldly gripped her under the arm and helped her to her feet.
"Of course, I am to leave tomorrow morning."
I do not know why these words popped out of my mouth suddenly. Again she looked at me with a flash with her sunken eyes. Her face was flushed. Looking down, she wiped several drops of blood from her knee with her handkerchief. Already, a dark blue bruise could be seen where her stocking was torn. Thinking it must hurt terribly, I asked her again if she was all right and she nodded her head gently. Unable to help her any further, I stood back and looked up at the changed sky that was somber now.
"It looks like it will snow or rain tonight."
Of course, I didn't expect any answer to my words. Several camellia flowers made red stains on the white handkerchief she held.
"Did you come from Seoul?"
It was just a guess. She shook her head slowly. But I didn't ask her again where she came from. I didn't want to know what she didn't feel like offering. Folding her handkerchief and putting it back into her pocket, she faintly spoke, "Around Seoul." Where was "around Seoul"? I started to walk down toward the surging waves. The woman followed me, by my side, looking around distractedly.
"Is this your first visit to this place?"
Again she shook her head. Then perhaps the restaurant owner was right. If so, when did she visit here?
"Even for the seaside, this weather is really kaleidoscopic."
". . . ."
"I thought I might look at the full moon at dawn in a black suit."
She looked back at me furtively. But I did not turn my head toward her. The taut rope we held between us was trembling. But there would come a moment soon, at which either of us might let go the rope in a moment of confusion. Perhaps it would be her that left first. But nobody knew yet who would abandon the rope first. With our mouths tightly shut we were returning to the raw fish restaurant. There was dampness in the wind and the fishy smell of the ocean got thicker. Water birds that had flown over the horizon yesterday did not seem to return today. At five in the afternoon when the pasori singers' arias were gradually coming to an end, all of a sudden her voice struck my ears.
"Why didn't you leave this morning?"
Not believing my ears, I quickly turned to look at her. She pretended not to notice, just watching the fishing boats floating on the sea. She must have been gathering her courage to speak those words. To calm down my own trembling, I tried to control my breathing.
"Since I changed my destination while I was on my way to pay a call of condolence, and moreover, since I even ate raw fish, I might have been afraid to go back directly."
What I said was partly true and partly not. I added stealthily:
"As a matter of fact, there must have been an other reason. But I don't know what it is yet."
"! . . . ."
To the end, she never asked why I had followed her from Kwangju. She didn't have the heart to ask that question. The degree of real knowledge or understanding between people depends on their honesty with each other. If they don't speak frankly, much remains unknown. In other words, if I hide what I'm thinking, I can't gauge an other's mind. Furthermore, If I don't know the true state of my own mind, it's impossible to see an other's inner thought. That's why I couldn't ask her why she had drawn me to this place.
Coming up to my room first, I stood at the window indifferently until evening, watching the dark black cloud that was sinking over the sea. It was not until seven that the woman came up from the shore. She talked to someone on the phone for more than an hour in the telephone booth in front of the raw fish restaurant. The moon must have risen by then, but since it was cloudy, the visibility was low. As the night grew later, the sound of the waves grew louder. I was thinking of the night I had come to Koogaedoong, following her. Only one day had passed, but that night seemed long ago, as if it were a part of a different, faraway time. Picking up my ringing telephone, I discovered that it was the restaurant owner, calling to ask me to come down to dinner.
When I went down, the woman was already there, eating her dinner with her back toward me. Finally, raindrops pounded on the glass of the balcony window. Sitting in a corner of near-empty restaurant and eating hot flounder stew, I stealthily looked at her bowed back once in a while. It would be full moon tomorrow night. But my mind was made up to leave early tomorrow morning.
Before I finished my supper, she picked up her coat and went back to her room. The owner came out from the kitchen, and staring at the supper table left by her, he shook his head slowly. Then his eyes met mine. I didn't understand what he meant by that. His face was normal, as if he had recovered from his drunkenness.
"This supper table looks as if a ghost ate here."
". . . ."
"I saw you two were together a while ago. Did you have any chance to talk?"
"About what? Anyway, we are strangers."
I spat out these words sulkily, for no reason.
"I think I will leave early tomorrow morning. As for me, I don't have to see the camellias bloom."
The man stared at me.
"If that's what you think, then that's what you must do."
"I think two days are enough for an unplanned trip."
" . . . ."
"It is not wise to interfere in an other's business when you don't know anything about the situation."
"In that case, I may have spoken out of turn."
"No, even though I don't know what it is, I must have come to this place for a reason. But I don't think it necessary to find out."
"Listening to your words, I think there is a sense of truth in what you said."
"I am not talking like that because I know something. What I mean is that I can't stay here forever."
A couple in their twenties, who came in a car, pushed open the glass door and came into the restaurant. I couldn't tell whether they meant to stay overnight. But the license plate on their car was from Seoul.
The woman's T.V. was on from the early evening. The sounds from her television seemed rather loud, but thinking that she must have come back to her usual self, I spread my white shirt and underwear that I had washed on the floor to dry. And then, trying to see what she was watching, I turned on T.V. and found the channel. It was a common talk show in which entertainment people chat with each other. But acually, I found it quite amazing. Somehow I felt disheartened, and turned off the television and went to bed at about midnight. Then, moving my pillow toward the wall of her room and lying down, I heard the sobbing of a woman along with the noise of the television. At first I wondered whether it was the sound of a pansori I had heard during the daytime, or the sound of the love-making of the couple in room 206. But it was not. Certainly it must have been the sobbing of the woman in the next room. The reason she had turned the T.V. up so high seemed to be to hide her sobs from me in the next room. I half stood up from my bed, turned on the fluorescent light and sat down, pressing my back to the wall. There wasn't anything that I could do, but I couldn't go back to sleep. I couldn't tell exactly when she had started crying, but she sobbed for a long time. After the national anthem signalled the end of the broadcast day, the sobbing of the woman mixed with the chuff chuff sound of short waves was very eerie.
It was two in the morning when she stopped. But when the crying stopped, that's when fear surged upon me,. I put on my trousers and went outside silently. I pressed my ear to her door, but I couldn't hear anything except the chuff chuff sound of the television. Had she fallen asleep with the television on? For a while I thought I'd better knock on her door, but it was too late to do so. Eventually I went back to my room. Feeling a heavy weight on my chest, I drew back the curtain and opened the window, but all I could see was the darkness filling the space between heaven and earth. It really was a solitary and silent night.
Was it about three in the morning? Rubbing my closing eyes in order to make them open, I heard her going into the bathroom and taking a shower. And then I fell asleep. I was being troubled by a nightmare, and in a cold sweat. A crowd of camellias appeared and disappeared in front of my eyes, as if they were in underworld. And then when was it? I heard somebody knocking on my door. Saying no, no and shaking my head on the pillow, I was haning on to sleep with all my strength. I thought I heard somebody knocking on my door once or twice more, and then the sound of knocking stopped, followed by the low shuffling of feet.
I didn't know how much time had elapsed, when the dang, dang of a gong started outside my window. What a dreadful nightmare, I murmured like a ghost, and I started counting, one--, two-- . . . . But even after I counted to ten and then twenty, the gong sound repeated persistently. Suddenly, I opened my eyes wide and jumped up nimbly. Immediately, an extraordinary omen popped into my brain to stay. I looked at my wrist watch and it was almost five. Though I was untidy, I went out as I was. I realized then that the knocking sound I'd heard before was not in my dream. As I didn't have time to think about anything, I knocked on the woman's door. There was no response, so I turned the handle and opened it stealthily. Hang it! The television was still making noise in a corner, and she was nowhere to be seen. The bedding was neatly folded, as if she hadn't slept the whole night. Hearing the gong sound again, I ran down to the first floor. The lights in the restaurant were already on. The wind and rain blew in through the half opened glass door. I could not find the restaurant owner. I felt a gloomy foreboding.
When I went out, I saw six or seven people gathered and standing like ghosts in a circle below a rock on the shore. With no coat or umbrella, I walked through the cold rain down to where the people stood. The stone bed was slippery as if oil had been poured on it. Hunched forward as I walked, I almost stuck my head on those stones twice.
It was a man in his fifties who was playing the gong. Beside him an old woman was whispering unintelligible words and bowing repeatedly toward the sea. Later I was told that both of them were shamans. Around them were young women who seemed to be about 20 years old, all of them wearing sad faces and sniveling. I didn't know what had happened, but I didn't dare ask anyone. While I was looking around the group for the woman from room 209, the restaurant owner came walking heavily out of the sea, with the rain falling on him. Rain was pouring down from his moustache. Wiping rain from his face with the edge of his sleeve, he came over to me.
"I was told that somebody committed suicide after all."
I grabbed his arm and asked him as if I were about to attack him.
"Who do you mean?"
My voice was trembling.
"They say it was one of those pansori-singers. The singer went out at dawn and threw himself into the sea. No matter what the situation might have been, he died at such an early age."
Clicking his tongue, tut, tut, he let out a dry cough.
"They found the body below a rock over there a few minutes ago."
The pansori-singers were performing an exorcism to redeem the soul of the drowned person. A couple of candles were burning, their flames shaking violently, and the woman shaman was strewing rice continuously into the sea. I stared at the peoples' wet backs with horrorible eyes. Soon, the man who had been playing the gong bent forward and set a small piece of korean paper afloat on the water. Swirling in the waves, the paper soon disappeared into the black sea water. I didn't understand what they were doing, and so I turned to the man.
"They say that when the paper returns in the tide, there will be some hair of the deceased on it."
"Is it true?"
"I haven't seen it yet, but they will see it."
Together we returned to the raw fish restaurant. It was not until we reached the yard that I told the man, who was about to go in, that the woman in 209 had not been seen all morning. I added, as if it were an excuse:
"Though I meant to stay awake last night, I drifted off to sleep for a short while. Coming downstairs, I knocked on her door, but she had already gone."
The man rebuked me strongly in an accusatory tone for not having told him this sooner. Taking a broken umbrella and a flashlight from the restaurant, the man came out and hurried ahead of me.
"When was it?"
"Since I was awake until three in the morning, it must have been after that."
"Then it was right at the moment the pansori-singer threw himself into the sea."
His face turned pale. I couldn't form the words to say that the woman had knocked on my door before she went out. It was still dark outside. It wasn't easy to catch up with the man, who walked across the stone bed nimbly, as if he were an animal on four feet. In the light of the flashlight shaking violently in his hand, a whole crowd of dark purple camellias appeared and disappeared as if in a dream. Struggling with my arms and legs, I followed the man desperately. When we arrived at the middle of the forest, the man turned back to me and cried out.
"Leave the forest to me and go to the sea."
I could hear the raindrops being blown across the surface of my umbrella by the fierce wind. The soles of my shoes became muddy, so going down the stone bed, I slipped and fell several times.
After closely examining every crack of a rock standing like a kitchen knife below the Kugae Garden, I went splashing in the surf, up to the place where they were performing the exorcism. But the woman was nowhere to be seen. Broken light like the separated joints of a finger, escaped from the forest intermittently. At that time, as if to avenge the grudge of the deceased, a female pansori-singer started a part of "Simchung-ga"("The Song of Simchung") in a slow rhythm.
She follows and follows the seamen. As she holds up the dragging skirt desultorily, a flood of tears, flowing like the pouring rain, touch her blouse front. Following the seamen recklessly, falling backward and forward, she looks at the opposite village and says to the small daughter of the scholar Lee of the village, "Have you forgotten the time we played and picked cherries at the last Tano festival? At the Chilsuk festival this year we promised to meet, but now I can't keep the promise. With whom will you do the saddle stitches.
The restaurant owner who had gone into the forest was coming back the way he went.
. . . I ask that Oriole, crying sadly, "are you calling your friend from whom you were separated?" Oddly, a cuckoo is singing on a tree branch, "I'd better not come back". But when can I, sold for money, come back . . . .
When I came back to the restaurant yard, "the Song of Simchung" was taking on an even slower rhythm. The scene of Simchung floating on Indangsu and praising the scenery around her. At that moment the song was depicting the scene in which Simchung, on a public passenger ship, was about to sail out into the sea.
The woman was sitting in the middle of the dim hallway. She seemed to have returned from outside shortly before, and rainwater dripped from all over her body. Perhaps she had gone into the sea to step on the blue stones. She looked at me with a vacant face. Remembering again the knock on my door before dawn, and passing beside her, all I could do was, to murmur, "You came back." Unable to ask any question, I returned to my room, coughing.
Wiping my face with a dry towel, I looked out at the sea, in which a pansori-singer had drowned, with a shudder. Swallowing all the sound, the sea was silently moving and tossing its body. The pansori-singer, avenging the grudge of the deceased, was still raising her voice, causing her throat to be red, but at the scene of Simchung, her face wrapped in her skirt, trying to throw herself into Indangsu, the exorcists in their rain gear were preparing to leave the beach. At about that time, wet footsteps approached my door. . . Who could it be? Soon, there was knocking sound, tok,tok. This time, there was no question whether it was a dream or real. The woman next door? The restaurant owner? As though I were on the edge of a knife, I held my breath for a moment.
Opening my door, I found the woman standing there with her face fallen and her shoulders trembling. Through the window, I could hear the sound of Simchung throwing herself into the water.
I didn't ask her why she had come to my room that morning. It seemed to me that such a thing could not be asked or answered. I did not think she could see herself very clearly at that time. It had been that way between us. It was so when I had first met her and it was so when we parted. There seem to be so many ways of meeting in this world, and if they can be called destiny, my meeting her surely belonged to a strange destiny. After opening the door, I stood aside slightly so that she could come into the room and then I closed and locked it behind her. Neither of us said a word. After taking off her wet clothes one by one and hanging them on a hanger, the woman now naked, got under the comforter and lay down on her back. When the curtain was drawn and the light was turned off, the remaining darkness engulfed us like a net.
However, I really did not know. At dawn there was a full moon in the remaining darkness. Only after I had slept with her did I realize it. Right in the middle of my palm was the full moon.
It was probably so because it was unplanned and unexpected. Lying beside her, I first groped for her hand and grabbed it, trembling and ashamed of myself. She did not respond. After a while, she reluctantly responded, also trembling. I turned and embraced her neck with my left arm, and smoothed her wet hair with my right hand, and pressed my lips against her face. At that, she seemed to hold her breath and her body wriggled a bit. My hand had already moved toward her breast. I moved downward and touched her breast with my lips. Embracing my head with both of her hands, she at last released a low groan. Her heartbeat pounded in my ear vividly. With the movement of my hands and lips, her lower body slowly opened, turning towards me. My hand, caressing her breast, was moving to her lower part. When my hand reached her navel, she gripped my hand with strong force and placed it between her legs. Her pubic hair was already very wet and from then on she hurried wildly. Turning her body, she pressed my waist tightly and fiercely groped for my breast with her lips. Because her hair touched my body slightly, I could not wait any longer and went hurriedly between her legs, raised listlessly.
The scene of Simchung floating on Indangsu and praising the scenery around her. Feeling an ecstatic lightheadedness on top of her, as if I were floating on water, my brain seemed to be emptied, white. At that very moment, I was caught in a whirlpool of lava. And why all of a sudden did the color of the sliced raw black porgy come across my mind? I mean that subtle milky white.
Putting my hand on her belly, I whispered something as if talking in my sleep. Holding my fingertips, she answered me and sighed in between. I felt like I was lying down with Simchung at the bottom of Indangsu and we were talking to each other. And then, seeing the moon in my palm, I fell asleep.
When I awoke later that morning, the woman had already gone away. Absentmindedly, I flipped the comforter over and there I saw several hairs left by her. A horrible feeling . . . . Ah, was her soul redeemed at last? But as though I had done something I shouldn't have done, I trembled terribly.
It was her fourth month of pregnancy. She had visited Kugaedung three months ago with a man and slept with him for the first time. He had promised to marry her when the barley sprouted, but a month ago he left her. She told me that it was not until she saw me, in black, in Kwangju, that she realized she was on her way to commit suicide. It was also at that time that she thought of the baby inside her. The reason she let me follow her to Kugaedung was because she was thinking of her baby. That was, she thought somebody might keep her baby alive. Perhaps, she said, that was why she had led me on purpose to come to this place. The reason she walked to Kugaedung was she could not make up her mind even after she had gotten off the bus at the county terminal. On the other hand, it had also meant to give me a chance to go back. But, if I kept following her, she decided to consider it beyond her control.
She murmured that she wanted to sleep with me to erase her previous life, and that by doing so she could keep the baby alive, but be free of its father. And then she fell into a heavy sleep in my arms.
Dressing in the clothes the woman had folded, I came down to the restaurant and sat at the breakfast table set by the owner. The rain had already stopped and the sun-rays were dancing on the sea. Saying, "You slept late," the owner looked at the clock on the wall. It was already ten.
"The woman came down earlier, had her breakfast and left. All the pansori-singers are said to be leaving today," he murmured as he cleaned the fishing rod.
His face did not reveal whether or not he knew about our early morning affair. I only kept moving the chopsticks and spoon without answering him. In the balcony the woman in the red sweater was cleaning the window glass today again.
When my breakfast was almost finished, a woman pushed the glass door open and came into the restuarant. She seemed to be alone and approaching the restaurant owner hesitantly, she asked him whether she could rent a room for several days. As if bewitched, I turned and looked back. She was a slim woman of about thirty, with a scarf around her head. After paying, she went directly up to the second floor. Hiding my expression, I faced the owner and said,
"There seems to be another visitor again."
"What can I do with people coming to my place? I only hope they visit here without making any fuss."
After finishing my breakfast, I rose from the table.
"Why don't you go around and see whether the camellias are blooming before you leave? I think the flower buds may burst open today."
"I'd rather go away without doing that. Perhaps I saw them already."
Confused, the man looked at me. But he did not ask me what I meant by that. He only talked at my back, while I was putting on my shoes.
"I knew from the beginning. She was the woman who had visited my place once before. Several days after the pansori-singers had arrived here, she came with a man and stayed for a day."
". . . ."
"At any rate, I thought I had to save a life. Ever since she first came through the door, I felt like that."
Without answering him, I pushed the door open and went out. Following after me, he gave me directions.
"You'll hit a wide road, when you go up to that zelkova tree. There you can take a county bus and it will take about twenty minutes at the most to reach the town ."
"No, since I came on foot, I have to go back on foot, too."
I shook his extended hand. Halting my stride, I turned back and asked him,
"What did you do before, and where? I mean before you came to Kugaedung."
The man smiled and answered.
"What is the use of asking such a question now? Everybody is someone. Please come have a dish of sliced raw fish later, when you have a chance."
When I thought about it again, I realized that I didn't even know the name of the woman with whom I had spent this morning together. I didn't know where she came from or what her job was. Saying, "We will meet again, if destiny allows us to do so," the man turned his back first and disappeared into his restaurant.
Groping along the road with my feet awkwardly like a blind man, I was returning from that place alone.