Born in 1959 in Gochang, North Jeolla Province, Eon Hui-gyeong completed her high school studies in Jeonju, then studied in the Department of Korean Language and literature at Sukmyeong Women's University in Seoul. She began to write seriously while she was enrolled in the Graduate School at Yeonse University. Recognition came when she received the Dong-a Ilbo's 1995 Spring Award for New Writers with the novella Ichungju(Duet). Since then she has published three volumes of fiction, Sarangeun cheonsangui yaksokilppun(Love is nothing but a wonderful promise), Saeui seonmul(Bird's gift), Tainege malgeolgi(Talking to a stranger)containing such important works as Anaeui sangja(My wife's boxes), Majimak chum nawa hamkke(Last dance with me), Keunyeoui sebeonjjae namja(Her third man). She received the Munhakdongne Award for Fiction in 1995 and the Lee Sang Literary Award in 1998.
Eon Hui-gyeong's work can often be characterized as a form of Bildungsroman, in which people's inner world is suggested through the ways they experience illusion, while her narratives depict in various dramatic ways the external world. She often focusses on the way individual identity is vanishing, and one of her main topics is the impossibility of communication in human relationships in the modern world. Central to her fiction is the loneliness of the individual in modern industrialized society, and she is particularly concerned to depict the psychology of women struggling against conventional attitudes to women in society.
The short story translated below evokes the figure of a psychologically troubled woman unable to have children, with her ordinary husband, depicting the pain of modern tragic existence using delicate language. It is a remarkable aesthetic achievement, one of the most significant recent works of fiction by a Korean woman writer.
My Wife's Boxes
Finally, I entered my wife's room.
Bluish wallpaper. German-style desk toward the wall. Comfortable chair near the window. Filling the spaces, a vague fragrance in the air. And, boxes.
My wife had many boxes. In one was a tablecloth she embroidered that took an entire season. Cross-shaped embroidery pricked her fingers so many times. In another box, letters. They were all yel!lowish. Ink spread out, smudged the papers. I had not seen any letters delivered to her in recent years. Yet another box held baby clothes for an infant, presented to my wife by her friend when she was three months pregnant. She lost the baby.
My wife's boxes contain her past scars.
Men and women remember pain through the scars on their bodies, even after they recover from their wounds. My wife kept her boxes in the corner as if she kept the scars.
I opened one box. A necklace made of shells was lying in it. I remembered. I bought this necklace at the beach souvenir store on our honeymoon. I remember the sea I stared out at. I would like to put all her laughter, clean and fresh, in a basket of memories dedicated to the sea.
My wife is no longer here. Her German-style desk is firmly closed. Her yellow pencil with eraser on top of the desk is gone. Like these things, my wife has been abandoned. Tomorrow, the moving company will wrap all the things in the room and move them somewhere else. My wife's room will be empty. I can stay in this place for several more months under the rent contract. But, I will leave. The landlord asked me why I chose to move out before the contract ended. He worried about the high rent costs and broker's fees needed to find a new place. But, he also thought I had good reason to move out. I did not have an answer to his question. I realize now why I did not have the answer. I am leaving this place because waiting for her return is too painful. If my wife's room is bare, then I do not need to wait for her return. That is not all of it, though. I cannot wait for her while doing nothing.
If I do something...
What I can do first is curse. I should not forgive her. I should sharpen my anger. I never thought I could use this rusty knife. Darkened water coming from the rusty knife wets the grindstone, pollutes the soil. Clean water cleanses the grindstone. A clean, silver knife sparkles. I should watch that shine. How can I forgive her?I go to the window slowly. As I walk, a strange smell enters the room and my nose. Insecticide inside a broken drawer or foreign perfume sprayed on a man-made flower. It is certainly not my wife's smell.
My wife's comfortable chair sits near the window. It is the only piece of furniture other than the desk. She used to sleep in the chair, balled up. She would pull her legs to her breast and sleep there, as if in the silence of a grave. Crouched like a worm rolling its body behind a leaf.
I remember the nights I had difficulty having sex with her. She was not open to me. We are a married couple. Sex is natural and pleasant, I told her. She would kiss me on the cheek and whisper, "Is that true? I would like to please you, honey."But, her body was cold. In order to soften her cold body, I would touch and lick her nipple carefully and patiently. When I penetrated her, she embraced my shoulder and whispered, "I love you." But, her words did not carry passion. Her eyes were tearful. What did she do to me?
I walk around inside the small room. I try to cover the floor with my footsteps. I feel the linoleum floor beneath my feet. Last week, I left my wife there. I did not kill her, but I did not save her.
I come out of my wife's room. When I hold the doorknob, I realize what the unpleasant smell was. Inside the door hangs a darkened flower decoration. The smell from the dry flower petals on the decoration had become stale. Darkened shadows of life after the spirit has evaporated. Stuffed flowers. A grave where the smell of preservatives is vague. I come out of my wife's room. She is not there. My stuffed wife is not there.
Last March we moved to this new city. Before !then, we lived in an apartment in Kangnam, where the famous fertility clinic was located. The rent at our new apartment was low so we could rent a three-bedroom. She was happy she had her own room. A new city, clean air and a new apartment. She was even happier because she could watch the train go by. Maybe she was happier because she did not need to go to the clinic. We hoped a new city would give us what we thought we needed - change and a fulfilling life.
In the beginning, she had various plans for our new life and new place. New curtains, new plants, new shelves. "What color curtains do you like?"I was changing the television channel by remote control. A group of dancers disappeared, and one man appeared as I was sitting on the sofa. Behind the man, the curtain was rose-colored, as was his rose-colored sofa. I continued to watch the screen while nodding my chin toward her. "How about rose?"I changed channels, and the next scene was an office. I changed my !mind. "No, I don't like curtains. I like blinds."She emphatically said, "no" to that. I quickly glanced at her. She was peeling an apple. I could see the slimness of the back of her neck. I returned to the television screen, watching aimlessly. After a few minutes, I understood her vehement reply. She did not like anything that reminded her of hospitals. But, she was calm when she gave me a piece of apple with a fork. While enjoying the apple, we watched the final evening news.
The anchorperson was laughing boisterously. The words, "long-awaited rain" appeared on the upper right corner of the screen. The anchor maintained his same posture and compared the rain to the shower of goals by the Korean soccer team during that night's international soccer contest. When he faced the camera again after reading the script, his face turned serious. He must be a talented anchor, I thought. So quick to change expressions from laughter to seriousness.
New letters appeared on the screen. "US to remove the three Kims."The government recently announced in the 1980s, Shin Hyun-hwak, according to US instructions led...
The anchor's voice and intonation emphasized the exclusive news segment on a "special operation." After a few seconds, one of the three Kims appeared on screen. He claimed to "solemnly swear" to be the president for environmental protection. But, his message seemed bigger than that. My wife told me, "All three presidents speak with that intonation. It makes them sound dignified."I put my fork in another piece of apple on the dish instead of responding to her. Next on the news was a raccoon and cuckoo. In the winter, they were under human care and protection. But in the spring, they were returned to the demilitarized zone. The words, "protect wild animals" covered the screen on the side next to a picture of the raccoon's mouth. My wife murmured again.
"I don't remember when exactly, but I once read that wild animals should be returned to the mountains in the winter. In the winter, food is not available. Hence, people would realize these animals are wild and able to adjust to harsh conditions quickly. I read a story about a man who was almost prosecuted for killing a rat. Was it a short foreign news brief? Anyhow, a man killed a rat that ate the tomatoes growing in his backyard. Some animal lovers' association sued him. He was freed because new legislation passed that made it clear that animals harmful to human harvests are not protected."I thought, who cares about the death of a rat? Why do people make such noise over these things? American people are funny because they are rich. But I did not speak out about my thoughts. News on the stock market continued, so I paid attention.
After I turned off the television, I returned to the bedroom with a weekly magazine. My wife came to bed after washing the fruit dishes. Her hands were cold. I pulled her hands to my penis. She faintly smiled. I loved my wife. I thought I knew everything about her.
She graduated from a two-year secretarial service college. She told me she did not remember anything from her college life. Originally, she wanted to go to art school. During her senior year, she went to a studio to practice drawing for the college entrance exam. The studio was located on the third floor of a wooden building. Due to the coal-burning furnace, the window had to remain slightly open. Her seat was next to that window. A steaming kettle sat on the furnace to her right. The open window was on her left. She did many sketches. She was accustomed to the coal-burning smell and air. Hot water from the kettle was placed near the open window from time to time. She needed the water to swallow her migraine pills.
College entrance exam day was very cold, as usual. Her mother knitted a wool sweater for her because she frequently got cold. Her mother's knitting skills were not sophisticated, so the neck was very tight. She had a difficult time fitting her head through the opening. And the sweater tightened around her neck like someone's suffocating hands. She could not freely move her neck. She could not breathe, but her mother was happy. The sweater forced her to keep her head straight.
When she was working on her watercolor painting, her headache became severe. She heard the constant flow of water. Outside the sketch testing room, there was a hallway. At the end of the hallway, there was a faucet. The students were washing their brushes in a water container. The sound of water originated from the hallway to her head. She thought somebody did not turn off the faucet.
She told the test administrator, "I will turn off the faucet."The administrator was curious about the young woman's behavior but allowed her to turn off the faucet. The young woman opened the door and ran to the faucet in the hallway. It already was tightly turned off. She returned to the room and picked up her brush. But the sound of flowing water continued in her ears. Again, she asked the administrator if she could turn off the faucet. She was granted permission to do so. But, someone turned it off before she arrived. The third time she went out to turn off the tap without permission. She hurriedly returned to the room, but the sound of running water continued to bother her. In her tight-necked sweater, she was extremely unstable and insecure. The administrator kept watching her behavior. This time she went to turn the doorknob, but the handle would not move. The door did not budge. The administrator changed his anxiety to sympathy and compassion.
"What's the matter with you?""The door is open," replied the young woman.
"The door is open?"The administrator looked at the tightly closed door and blinked his eyes. Then he sympathetically touched his student's shoulder. He understood. "Well, relax."She returned to her easel with the administrator leading the way. She picked up her brush. But instead of painting, she threw it away. She used her hands to try and tear apart her tight-necked sweater.
She shouted, "Please turn off the faucet! Please close the door, please. Door! Door!"She awoke in the University Hospital. This hospital was part of the university program she was applying for. It was a very practical diagnosis - obsessive-compulsive disorder triggered by the stressful college entrance exam. She was supposed to stay at the hospital for at least several days. Stability was absolutely necessary for her health. She slept most of the time. Strangely, she awoke when it was time to take her medicine. That was the only thing she did when she was awake. Otherwise, she slept.
She once mentioned a novel, Bell Jar. She forgot the author's name.
Like Pavlov's dog, humans obediently swallow their medicine at the sound of the bell. Saliva was made in order to swallow the medicine. Humans are programmed under these circumstances.
She was told nothing was wrong with her because she failed her college entrance exam. She was an average person. Nothing out of the ordinary - nothing more, nothing less. After graduating from a community college, she got a job in a trade office. She received a small receptionistís wage. She saved a little money each month from her paycheck.
She married me, also an average man. She was not bad at food preparation. And although she did not cook very many dishes, her cooking skills were acceptable. She controlled the heat well for the bean-paste pot stew, so that the anchovy and bean-paste taste were neutralized. The cutlass fish was well done - good flavor, never burned on the grill. Her eggrolls were always soft and firm under the low heat. She also was well organized. Nail cutters, extra small batteries, clothes, brushes, the drill - they were always in their right places. Dry towels were always on hand in the bathroom. Fresh ice cubes, untainted by food smells, were always in the freezer.
She did not like going out much. She did not welcome outsiders' visits. My parents moved to Canada where my brother lived the year I married. She was lucky because there were no in-laws to bother her. She had only a couple of friends. One who impatiently presented her with the baby blanket and an insurance sales person, who came from her hometown. Those who were nice and expressive in friendship, or those who had a clear reason to visit, came to see her. After we moved to the new town, she did not tell others our new telephone number. No one visited her then.
While she stayed at home alone, she cleaned the rooms or read newspapers and magazines. She read all kinds of books. But she did not seem to expand her knowledge and culture. She remembered only parts of the books she read and interpreted their meanings in her own way. She knew herself well.
But, she was not sure when she mentioned the Bell Jar. "I am not sure my memory is correct."She placed the books she had read in her boxes. She placed them in the boxes, not in her brain. She slept most of the time.
When I called her from work one day, she did not answer the phone. When I asked her why she slept so deeply that she did not hear the phone, she answered, "When I see the apartment buildings from the veranda, I fall into a deep sleep."Windows neatly aligned our apartment complex, reflecting playgrounds, benches, trees, parking lines and sidewalks. Patrons to the shops in our apartment building were always numerous, toting similar vinyl bags. Similar dress styles. Even the sky had the same tone - tired and unchanging. Smells in the air were the same. That's what my wife told me.
In the new town, there was no road. Tall buildings blocked the road. "When I take a walk, the road is not there. So, I just return home."Taking the only road, she crossed the driveway between the tall buildings. She claimed that the walking made her tired and sleepy.
Her sleep was strangely deep. She slept even when she was sick, worried or even angry. One Sunday before we moved to the new city, I became angry with her.
When I awoke late that morning, I opened the morning newspaper but the money section was already cut out. She had found a clipping on the other side of that page.
"How dare you cut out the page before I read it?"She thought my complaint to be trivial. She was not sorry. She attempted to defend her actions. Usually, I was patient. But at that time, I was the team leader of a new project at my company. I was under a lot of stress. I had not been generous or patient with my wife when she made contradictory statements to me or said strange things. That morning was no exception.
"Shut up!"She was surprised and shut her mouth. In a few minutes, she started the vacuum cleaner. I picked up my jacket and left.
I saw a new sign at the beauty salon in front of our apartment building and decided to have my hair cut. It was a timely visit. I was no longer angry when I finished. I stopped by the bakery and bought cream-filled pastries, my wife's favorite. I rang the bell, but she did not open the door. I could not find the key in my pocket. I returned to the store to use the public telephone and call her. She did not answer the phone. I ran back up to the apartment. I rang the bell next door instead. I asked my neighbor to allow me to enter our apartment from the veranda. But, it was not an easy climb. It required a formidable jump.
I called my wife again from my neighbor's apartment. My heart was pounding louder than the telephone rang. I noticed that my jacket was trembling. My neighbor gave me the local newspaper to try and locate a locksmith. My hands shook as I scanned the newspaper. While waiting for the locksmith, I called my wife repeatedly.
The locksmith arrived on a motorcycle with his toolbox. But he could not open the door because it was locked from the inside as well. I was so frustrated and angry; I was ready to jump from my neighbor's eighth-floor veranda to mine. My neighbor discouraged me and said I might fall to my death. I almost tried, but stopped. The locksmith came up with a solution.
"Can I break the hinges?"After he destroyed the hinges, he opened the door. She was still sleeping in the sofa, folded up as usual. She was only a few steps from the door.
Whenever I saw her sleeping in that comfortable chair, I thought of that terrible situation. She was sleeping next to the boxes she accumulated. She closed the door to the world that gave her pain, wounds and scars, and she slept. She was almost always the same.
One morning she screamed.
"Everything will be dried out."In her hands was a container with sand-like rice in it.
"Look at the soy sauce plate. The soy sauce is dried up. Only dark spots remain. The apple also dried up and wrinkled after one night. The cement wall is absorbing all the moisture. I will be dried out, too. All the moisture is being drained from my body while I sleep. I can hear the bickering sounds in my body."I comforted my wife, "Because we do not have good ventilation, the room moisture level is low. That is all."I suggested that she put a tropical fish bowl in the room. She was surprised at my suggestion.
"You are right!"I saw a news segment on television that said the water level of an aquarium in an apartment will drop several inches due to the dryness.
The cement wall is absorbing the moisture in the room. In the end, it will absorb water in the pipeline. This is not a wall. It is a leech.
I bought a humidifier Saturday for our room. But, my wife did not open the box. She thought it was only fit for a hospital room. I was not comfortable leaving it unopened. But, I did not want to confront her all the time, so I restrained. Home is not supposed to make people tired. So, I did not care if she used the humidifier.
My wife was sincere in offering news that was not interesting to me at all.
"There is a kindergarten near the supermarket. It is raising chickens for a children's nature education program. The rooster does not cry at dawn, but at high noon. I was surprised to hear a cock-a-doodle-doo in the daytime when I came out of the supermarket."She commented, "It is changing time. The rooster does not need to cry at dawn. These days, dogs and cats are not fighting. They are friendly."Whenever she spoke about these tidbits, I nodded absent-mindedly while reading the weekly magazine or watching the news.
Our lives were peaceful. Her daily life became the same as before. She did not install curtains until the end of spring. I did not complain. Then, a woman moved in next door. I was surprised to hear the barking dog on the way to our apartment.
"Somebody moved in next door," my wife explained. "Her husband is working in a branch office in a foreign country. She is here with two elementary-school children."The dog was still barking.
"We can expect a noisy environment."She hung up my jacket and handed me a cotton shirt from the drawer.
"That dog has been barking since their arrival. Whenever the elevator moves, the dog barks."But, my wife did not care much about the dog barking. It did not matter to her who moved in next door. Dog or human. But after she visited our neighbor, she changed. She began to show some interest.
"We had an apartment neighbors' meeting downstairs. After the meeting, she invited me to her place for tea. Her apartment is crazy.!""Is that so?" I said.
"In the foyer were umbrellas, letter boxes, keychains. In the living room is a sofa, stool, rocking chair, corner cabinet and wetbar. It's full of things. Furniture, a Thermo rice cooker. No empty spot on the wall. Rattan craftwork. Round flowers. Paper dolls. She might have attended all kinds of hobby clubs.""Maybe she likes decorating," I suggested, finding the remote-control and turning on the television.
"Her personality. She cannot tolerate emptiness," my wife said.
"Is that right?""She has already started swimming and massage. And because she is not home often, the dogs are there."My wife stopped there. She was pressing her fingernails into the corner of the sofa. She was thinking about something else. Then suddenly, her two arms embraced her breast and she said, "The two dogs are like small babies.""Two dogs?""Yes, two."She made a fist with each hand, holding her arms. She continued.
"She brought the dogs home, only four days old. She put them on a long metal chain, connected to the living room door. But, the children punished the dogs because they spilt the milk. They put the dogs on separate, shorter chains so the dogs could not move. They could not move even one step."I could imagine the baby dogs playing with each other, chained tightly. The metal chains are like twisted rope. Their necks tightly encased. I imagined the innocent baby dogs playing as the chain around their necks tightens. My wife's eyes became moist.
"They liked each other so much, they ended up tightening the chain on their necks."
According to her, the two dogs were quite different. One's hair was bright and fluffy; the other's was dull and limp. One was nice and had a wagging tail; the other was hostile and tried to bite her with its teeth. In that incident, the fifth-grade son had a cookie in his hand. The friendly dog was wagging its tail and approached with one step. The ugly dog was also pulled toward the boy because they were chained together. The ugly dog did not like the boy and did not want to go to him, but the chain tightened its neck. The cookie was given to the good dog. Pulled by the good dog, the ugly dog lost its balance and its upper body fell on its front legs. The ugly dog was making noise, balancing its body with its front legs. The little boy kicked the ugly dog without giving it a cookie. Then, the boy scolded the ugly dog. "You better change your personality if you want to eat and live, you stupid dog!"After that story, my wife bent over and covered her face with her two hands. Once in a while, she embarrasses me with those kinds of stories. I comforted her.
"All little boys are nasty. Don't cry like a child!""It is not that!" she wailed.
"Then, what - you cry because the boy miserably treated the dog. Right?"My wife denied it. After a while, she returned to normal and got up to prepare supper.
That night she placed her hands inside my pajamas. Her hands touched my stomach and caressed my nipples. My body became hot. My nipples were erect. My penis was erect. I pushed my weekly magazine to the floor from the bed. As usual, her body was cold. The arms embracing my neck were warm, but her lower body was unnaturally cold. When my hands touched her lower body, she whispered, "I love you, honey."She closed her eyes. Her wet eyelashes moved together. She closed her eyes, "Please enter me."Her skin was soft, but seemed to me like armor. Hard to break through. That night, her nipples were not erect. I could not get her excited. Painfully, she accepted me. Once I entered her body, she was warm inside.
She told me, "I am happy," when I reached satisfaction.
When I returned from the shower, she suddenly asked, "You have not given up on a baby yet. Have you?"We intentionally avoided conversation about a baby. This was the first time she brought it up. She regularly visited the clinic and followed all the instructions given to her. I never wondered if she wanted a baby or not. Frankly speaking, I was not serious about having a baby. I was content. I had what I needed.
"I thought about the reason why we can't have a baby," she murmured, while staring at the ceiling. "I don't know."What could she know, even after the doctors could not find the reason? I returned to the bed and lay beside her. She mentioned an American movie she saw more than 10 years before. As usual, she started, "My memory is unclear." This was her story:There was a family. Father was a wanderer. So, a tough mother raised three naughty boys. One day, the mother died. The children were put in an orphanage. The father came to find the children. He was a jobless alcoholic. The administrator despised him and rejected the father's pleas. She claimed that the children should be raised by the welfare system, and therefore, treated as orphans. The father loved his children. He determined to give up his wandering free spirit to bring his children back. He fought. But he could not win. He could not fight the system. But, he still tried to change his lifestyle. He tried again to find a job after being kicked out from one place to another. After many years, he returned to the orphanage as a decent, well-dressed man in an expensive tie. But by then the children were scattered all over the world. The center told him they could not be found. He was mad. After digging up all their papers, he visited all the families who took care of his children and the social workers. Finally, after a long struggle, he found his children. But he was too late. One child had been beaten to death for his bad behavior by the foster parents. One was autisric patient. And, the other boy was sterilized in the orphanage. They all had been trying to escape the system.
"That's a terrible story," I said. But I thought, how does that story relate to my wife's own story? I got up and lit a cigarette. I was looking for a weekly newsmagazine.
"I am also sterilized." She blinked her eyes. Smoking bothered her eyesight. "My body was sterilized at the orphanage because the bloodlines of outlaws should be stopped. My blood was no good, so I was sterilized," she explained.
"At the orphanage?" I could not control the reproach in my voice. My wife was not being logical. She tried to explain.
"That is not it. I will be eliminated by the selection theory. I read it in a book. Genetically dominant characters will survive and inferior ones will not. That is the theory of evolution."She was pitiful. I stretched my hands to her breast. She rejected my hands and got up. She spit out words she could not spit.
"Our neighbor's dog. That ugly dog will starve to death. Until its death, the ugly one will remain close to the healthy one. Shamelessly, the ugly one will retard the beautiful dog's growth. It is better to die as soon as possible. Why doesn't such a dog commit suicide?"She controlled her breathing and went to take a shower. Like a sleepwalker on a windowsill, her steps were accurate but empty. When she returned in a few minutes, her eyes were red. Even though she placed everything in a box, some things still were left out.
For the first time, I thought about something being left out. For the first time, I thought she would be something. Maybe that was the reason I let our frivolous neighbor influence her. The neighbor had a car. There are no dirt roads in a new city. Only paved. A car is a genetically dominant trait, according to my wife's hodge-podge theory.
She joined our neighbor on trips to the department store and mega-discount store. She went to a noodle restaurant near the railroad and an underground restaurant in the shopping center. When the weather was nicer, they drove out to a farm for the weekend. They were late one Saturday night. I had put in overtime at work and came home, but she still was not there yet.
I had every other Sunday off work. My wife went out even those days, while I stayed home. She would go to the grand opening of a new department store. She bought unnecessary items. I was surprised to see the new dried flower decoration. It was unnecessary. It was a trendy fashion, low-quality imitation, smelled like low-class perfume. It was not the kind of thing my wife liked. She told me it was a gift from our neighbor.
"Why did she give you a present?"I noticed our neighbor's heavy make-up, even at a distance. I noticed her mid-size car, more expensive than mine.
"No reason," my wife said.
My wife's response to my sarcastic remarks was simple and clear. But, there is no such gift that does not come with certain expectations. So I suggested that my wife give our neighbor a present. "You are the person who owes her. You should give her a gift. Not the other way around. You always get rides from her," I said.
She rose from her seat with the dried flower decoration, which she affectionately touched. "She likes me, so she gave me this gift. What's wrong with that?""Does she like you?""Yes, she does.""Why?" I probe.
She bites her lips. She steps toward her room with the flower decoration and stops. Then, she shouts, "Because she is lonely!"Because she is shouting, I am speechless. She awaits my response with penetrating eyes.
"Do you think you are lonely?" I ask.
"No!"Her impertinent response was immediate. She placed the flowers in her room and came out courageously and peeled potatoes. Did she believe she frustrated me? I did not fully understand her feelings, but I felt she needed something.
The next day was a rainy Monday. During my slow commute that morning, I thought about what I could do for my wife. When I arrived at my office, I called the clinic for an appointment. Then, I called my wife at home. She answered the phone faintly. She did not reject the appointment. She was not angry. And, I was not satisfied with my simple prescription for her.
I took the day off when I took her to the clinic. Two hours after my normal commuting time, we left our place. It was a pleasant May day. New leaves turned everything green. White and red flowers covered the hills. The sun was bright. We went down the same road I drove on to work, but it had a totally different feeling. Temptation was there. Suddenly, a white sports car in the next lane moved into my lane, cutting me off. I applied the brake momentarily. Right then, a red sports car snaked into my lane. These two cars were being manned by two young men in their early 20s. Next to the drivers were two young women. They were driving zigzagged, playing road games with each other like children. Then, they slowed down, side-by-side, in two lanes. The red car window opened first. A light-pink blouse sleeve stretched out. Next, a woman's long hair waved by in the wind. She threw something in the white car. The window of the white car opened. Out came a woman's arm in a short-sleeve red sweater. I could see something in her hand. She was aiming something at the red car. It was a water pistol. The two men played car tag, while the two women played water games. All four were laughing.
Ski racks were attached to their car roofs. Inside the trunk, they probably kept an icebox filled with canned beer and fruit. Folding picnic tables.
I used to drive this road like a bat out of hell, but these two boys enjoyed the pleasure of driving. They were praising life. I was mourning.
I was surprised to find such carefree drivers on the road. Their cars made a left turn at the next signal. They moved toward a grassy bank. I was heading straight, continuing on the gray pavement. They disappeared behind the green hill's narrow path. Their road was winding and flower-covered. My wife watched their path through a forest as the two cars disappeared. She watched them until the last moment she could watch.
"I would like to take that path," she said.
Her voice was melancholic. The path was only open to those who had privilege. But after the season, the path would disappear. It may be a fantasy road. I quickly glanced at her.
"We will come out this way one Sunday."Immediately, she responded, "Before the end of spring.""OK."
She sighed after a while. "I want to take that road whenever I see it.""Did you come out this way before?""Once in a while. When you go in that direction, there is a Central South American Cultural Center." She showed her gloomy expression at not being able to enter the center. Her neighbor was not interested in the cultural center. They passed it and stopped at a restaurant in front of the Bokwangsa temple to eat mountain vegetable-rice lunch. Kwangtan, the lakeside, was their next destination, where they enjoyed coffee.
I was hesitant to ask if there were more than just the two of them. She continued to talk. "There are many middle-aged women in the suburban cafe.""I was wondering about that, " I said.
"Some order their children to study by mobile telephone. Some talk about the books they read; some talk about health clubs or earrings. Others complain about too many ancestor-worshipping ceremonies - three in a month made their social meetings impossible. Still others talk about making money because rent incomes are rising due to their rising property values. Some talk about the cultural classes they took in which some professors were funny, and some sad. We kill time with silly conversations."I look at her with discontent. Strangely, her expression is sad.
"Some time ago, our neighbor hit a man's car in the department store parking lot. His car was damaged, but she was pardoned. She persuaded the man to a lunch meeting. She asked me to join. She met the man more than a couple of occasions. He listened to her problems in life."My wife looked sadder than before. I shut my mouth. I needed strong willpower to prevent my vulgar curiosity from leaping out. As we approached Seoul, I realized that it was not curiosity, but suspicion, that required willpower.
In the waiting room, she was quiet. When her name was called, she answered gently like a small school child and entered the doctor's room. She paused just before stepping into the doctor's office and gave me a brief look. Helpless and wishful eyes. I put my cigarette butt in the ashtray and walked to the coffee machine. I drank some coffee.
I came home early when my wife was ovulating. It was not easy for her to follow the doctor's instructions. She received my sperm. I realized she was no longer tearful in bed. She did not embrace my neck. She did not make excuses for a shower or cold sickness. When my sexual desire heightened, she used to push me away. "Wait a minute," she would say and run to the bathroom like a pregnant woman. But she did not do these things anymore.
After the autumn staff reshuffling, my workload became heavier. I did not have much time to spend with my wife other than her ovulation period. My sexual desire was regularly heightened under the circumstances. I was able to adjust to the changing situation. I was a very practical person. She was able to adjust, too. She did not need rides from our neighbor. After our neighbor's husband returned to Seoul before the fall, she was not going out as often as before anyhow. The dogs' barking was no longer there, but screaming in the night or dull sounds shaking the air came out from their apartment. In the mornings at 7:10, our neighbor gave her husband a ride to the train station. I saw them from a distance - the same every morning.
My wife had become speechless. She did not speak at all. No more funny remarks. The rooms were clean and quiet. My wife read books at the German-style desk and slept in the chair folded up. But, she did not put her books in boxes any more. I asked why. She answered that she rented the books and had to return them to the bookstore. Geo and Readers' Digest were delivered regularly but were not even opened. They accumulated. Her sleeping hours extended. Peaceful days ensued. My company's confidence in me was growing when my workload became heavier. I had some difficult tasks, but they were most often manageable. When I returned home, everything was in its right place, including my wife.
There were phone calls at midnight. My wife cut the telephone cord.
Her friend once presented her with a baby cloth full of decoration candles. Unfortunately, the candle accidenally burned our wedding picture on the wall.
Someone slashed the tires of five cars in our parking lot, including mine and our neighbor's. The vandalism forced me to introduce myself to our neighbor. He did not like this new city. He was surprised to see new highrises being built in just a few years. In Europe, that would be impossible. Man-made lakes in our city were amazing to him. He asked me if I liked it.
I answered, "It is just fine."Those were all trivial cases. The big story was my wife's burn accident. She was moving a boiling kettle from the gas range. The boiling water from the kettle burned her waist. It was not a serious burn, but it burned enough. Her sore prevented my physical approaches even during her ovulation.
She recovered in time.
I realized that autumn was deep while waiting at a red light on the way to work. My wife asked me to wear my Burberry coat that morning. Spring passed away some time before.
Now, it is spring again. I promised to take my wife to that forest path. Last week, we passed the road near it. Like last year, green leaves and white and red flowers covered the area. I was embarrassed, glancing at my wristwatch often. My wife was calm. She did not make any effort to prepare for our separation in one hour.
Last winter was very difficult for us. Since that quiet night in November, my wife became thin and small. Her body, balled up in the chair made her seem even smaller. I felt that she was shrinking. But I did not care.
The last night in November was windy with occasional rain, dreary and cold. I returned to the apartment at 9 p.m. I rang the bell several times. No response, so I opened the door with the key. I went into my wife's room. Her chair was empty. There was no light on in the room. The rooms were in darkness. She must have left the apartment during daylight hours.
I went to the kitchen. She did not prepare supper. It was not typical for me to try and understand her. But, something might have happened to her. Still, like any other day, I waited for her. I changed my clothes, washed my hands and turned on the television. She would return soon, I thought. I could be understanding if she was unusually late. But she did not return by 11:00. I went to the veranda to watch for her outside. I stood there for 10 minutes. I smoked three cigarettes. I thought about contacting a place she might be. But I was embarrassed, as much by the fact that she was missing as I was by the fact I did not know where to look for her. I did not have a telephone number to call.
I went into my wife's room. Everything was well organized and well placed. But, such an organized room did not say anything to me. Only a yellow pencil with an eraser sat on the German-style desk. Before opening her book, she picked up the pencil. If she did not hold the pencil, she could not read the book. The pencil helped her read. But I never saw her write with that pencil. Nevertheless, the pencil was shorter.
My wife's boxes were neat. Big and small boxes were neatly arranged in a rectangle. That night, I noticed dust on top of the boxes. Usually, there was no dust.
The kitchen, bathroom, my study - nothing seemed unusual. I did not see anything unique to my wife's personality. Any woman's personality can easily be detected in this setting. Itís a common and universal setting. But my wifeís taste was unrevealed. I lived five years with her. But I did not have any idea where she might be that night. I was able to guess the direction to begin searching. But, I could not take the first step in any direction. So, what were we? What did we do together? How could I say that I knew my wife perfectly well?I put my feet into my shoes. I could go to the apartment parking lot. It was full. Every car had returned to the parking lot for the night. I sat down in the flower garden. Raindrops fell on my shoulder, but I did not have the desire to return to the apartment and get my umbrella. One car drove up. I could see the rain in front of the headlights.
My next door neighbor got out of the car. He found me standing awkwardly in the rain. "Why are you standing here?""Oh, just..." I mumbled, making room for him to pass on his way to the apartment. I noticed his wife getting out from the driver's seat. I was encouraged by this and felt hope burst through me like the flash of a strobe light. I approached her with a sense of relief but she wanted to avoid me.
"Well, my wife has not come home yet. Do you have any clue where she is?" I asked. She was hesitant to respond. She gave me the impression that the presence of her husband bothered her. She quickly left the scene. I realized that she had some answers about my wife judging from her awkward and unnatural behavior. I hoped she would come to me. So I returned to my apartment. I was waiting for her visit.
She came by after about five minutes. I opened the door slightly, just as she did when she entered her apartment. Unlike her usual eccentric behavior, she was quite concerned about my wife's safety. It was an unnatural act for her to visit my apartment with such urgency. From the living room sofa, she dialed a number. Her fingers quickly touched the keypad. She knew the number well. It appeared to be a mobile phone.
No connection, despite several attempts. About 10 minutes passed. The only thing left was to contact the police and hospital emergency rooms. Public events may start where the private search ends.
Visiting a friend's home out of town. Maybe she missed the return bus. She might have gone to the mega-bookstore in Kwanghwamoon and then to a movie theater. On the bus ride home, she could have fallen asleep and rode all the way to the last stop. All of these were private affairs. But, searching for public records at the police station and hospital would be a public affair. How pleasant the private affairs would be!I did not hear my neighbor wife's words due to my despair. She was ready to leave, then closed the slightly open door completely again and told me seriously, "Please don't let my husband know this.""What?"
She gave me a hint. "Make a left turn at the apartment gate. You will meet the beltway. After several blocks, you will pass the bridge. After the bridge, you make a right turn. Go straight. You will see a sign on the right side for "Green Park." Go to the end room on the third floor. There are many cafes and other motels nearby. You will not miss it. It is easy to find Green Park."I listened to her as if I was on a rescue mission to save my wife from the stormy seas. When I thanked her, she asked me again to keep all her words a secret. She was uneasy about sharing this information. She wanted me to promise secrecy. I was relieved to know where my wife was and to be able to rescue her. I accepted the deal. I nodded. She looked at me once again while holding the apartment doorknob. Her voice trembled. "This is my fault. "Her eyes reflected terrible guilt. Fear and agony shone through. At that moment, I thought about the strange word, park. I held her shoulder. My fingernails penetrated her skin, deep into the collarbone. But she did not scream.
The beltway was fearfully dark and quiet. Headlights from the other side showed the wet road conditions. It was an easy spot to find. After the bridge, the red neon sign of a hotspring appeared in the darkened sky. The sign was like a fired brand on a cow's buttocks. I grinded my back teeth. I wanted to remove those scarlet letters and place them on my wife's breast. My hands pulled up the sidebrake, and I heard the familiar metallic sound.
The end room on the third floor was for special guests, according to my neighbor woman. A man she was acquainted with used this room on certain days. She did not say she used the room with the man.
"Your wife does not have a car. It's an isolated place. I am scared myself. Your wife has not returned home at this hour. It is my fault. I persuaded your wife to meet this man, so she went out - because of me. The man called her so many times ... she cut the telephone cord. First, go to the basement restaurant. She may be there. Your wife is not that kind of woman."I did not go to the restaurant. I took the steps to the third floor. The door was open. The room was dark. The television program was over, but the television was still on. The screen glowed over the bedsheets like moonlight. She was sleeping on the bed. I went to her. Her long hair was scattered on the pillow. Her sleep was deep. Her white profile. She was naked under the sheets. The mirrored ceiling reflected her naked body in the darkness.
She was trembling inside the car on the way home. She became sick. A severe cold. She laid on the bed for several days. She could not swallow water, but I did not care. After she recovered, she started to clean the rooms and do the laundry. She was so thin; she looked like a mummy.
I registered for an early morning class at the health club and an evening foreign language class. I left home early and came home late. When I opened the door with the key, the rooms were bright. But, it felt empty. When she appeared quietly from the kitchen or her room, I felt as if her spirit was floating in the room. I was angry that she was still alive. That shameless woman! Why not commit suicide? She once complained the dog did not commit suicide.
We did not talk. Why did I think I knew her well? I hated her.
I hated myself whenever I realized that I did not want to know what happened that night. My wife's sleeping was getting deeper. She could not sleep without sleeping pills. I did not care.
Once in a while, I listened to her breathing in her dark and deep slumber from outside the bedroom door. Her breathing continued after a pause. I had a desire to seal the door crack and prevent light and air from entering her room. I had a strong urge to seal the room with paraffin.
Once I took a long look at her. I returned home vary late. I could not see her. She must be sleeping in the chair, I thought. As usual, I changed my clothes, washed my hands and planned to watch the last television news program. But, I went into her room instead. She was asleep. I shook her body roughly. My hands could not feel her skin. I shook her even more wildly. She opened her eyes. The living room light was dim enough for her to recognize my face. She smiled faintly.
She got up and moved to the kitchen as if a ghost. She washed her hands under the faucet, washed the rice and placed it in the rice cooker. She took out some anchovies and put some bean paste into an earthen bowl, poured water and boiled them. She peeled potatoes, onions, carrots and garlic. When they had been sliced well, the bean paste stew was ready. All the vegetables were put into a bowl and the bean curd cut neatly and placed on a dish. My wife cracked three eggs, added salt, stirred them with wooden chopsticks and added sliced green onions. She turned on the gas grill and took the cutlass fish from the refrigerator, placing it on the grill in a frying pan. Next came the eggrolls. A few minutes later, she flipped the eggrolls over. Her hands and fingers had accurate speed. !She did not realize that I was watching her from the kitchen chair.
Dinner was ready. She prepared a bowl of rice for her and me. She began to eat. I watched her. She was peaceful - like I used to see with my eyes.
When she did these things peacefully, she was not herself. Something was wrong. Men believe that the sea is peaceful. Men do not see below the water's surface. Below the surface, the mullet may be swallowing half of the shrimp, which are trying to survive.
She eats hungrily. Afterwards, she goes to the refrigerator for cold water. She brings a tray of water bowls to the table and comes to a sudden halt. "When did I eat?"The winter was very difficult for both of us.
On the morning of our separation, she washed her hair. There was a telephone call. I was not expecting a call at that hour, so I did not answer. The phone kept ringing. She came out of the bathroom covering her wet hair with a towel. "Hello?" Her voice was dry.
She listened, standing still. The towel was falling to her shoulders from her head. Long black hairs peeked out. Her left hand held her wet hair, accumulating water, which she let drip into the flowerpot next to the phone. She was holding the telephone with her right hand and looking at the darkening soil in the flowerpot. She eventually hung up.
"Who called?""Wrong number." Her voice was calm.
She sat in the passenger's seat. As if she were headed for the clinic, she was peaceful and smiled when I helped her with the safety belt. When I drove out of the young city we lived in, the countryside scenery caught her attention. Hills colored with spring, houses making a neat row, small children playing in another car. She watched two trucks carrying chickens in two side-by-side lanes. The chickens had no room to move around because they were packed so tightly onto the truck. Vertically and horizontally - at the truck's maximum capacity. Only a few lucky ones could breathe. The spring wind floated chicken feathers through the air. After the trucks were gone, several feathers were left behind.
She watched this luscious scenery like a small child with youthful curiosity. Her thin, pale hands were like a forgotten pair of white gloves in an empty theater seat. They were perched on her knee without weight. She faced me when she felt I was watching her. When I looked forward, she lowered her eyes and then moved them toward the scenery again. All of a sudden, she screamed. I moved my right hand from the wheel to her shoulder. "Honey, what's the matter?"But in the next moment, she was normal. Like a person who just awoke from a dream, she looked forward with dull eyes for a while and spoke in a low voice. "All the chickens are gone."I looked. There were no chickens in the truck in front us. She aimlessly gazed at the chicken truck and murmured, "All the chickens are gone." It was no surprise. There must be two chicken trucks. One was empty, the other full. She probably saw the full truck. I explained the situation. She did not seem to accept it. She did not utter a word, but grimaced while touching her neck with her hands. She was irritated. Then, she fell asleep.
She opened her eyes when we arrived at our destination. She seemed to wake from a chloroform-induced sleep, removing a kidnapper's invisible blindfold. She was insecure. Slowly she relaxed. The building deep inside the forest was gray like the buildings in our new city - but peaceful. It did not take hope hostage.
I drove down the same dirt road, following the same tire tracks. Red flowers covered the roadside. They were all over the place. I lowered the window. I could smell the forest. I took deep breaths. Since we had arrived, she avoided eye-to-eye contact. She only uttered, "I did not know this place existed so close to us."
On the way home, I passed the road my wife once wanted to travel "before the end of spring." I saw the winding road. If I could go back to that spring, I could recover everything. A brief thought. I followed the car in front of me.
That night I did not go to bed because I had not watched the evening news yet. I realized time passed more slowly as I changed the channels. I placed the remote control on the table. "The World at this Hour" appeared on the television screen. The narrator's voice followed.
"Last Valentine's Day, a fierce fight broke out between a male fly and a female fly in a California research lab. The male approached the female for sexual intercourse, but the female rejected him with her head and wings. Later, she kicked him with her feet. The female did not lay eggs even after the male fertilized her."My wife would have liked this story. I looked vacantly at the screen.
The reason for this was a mutant gene. The research team discovered that the mutant gene affected the nervous system. They named it "discontent."I remembered the charred wedding picture and my wife's burn accident. I went to bed before the news ended. I did not sleep soundly.
The next morning, I called the real estate agent from my office and asked her to find me a new place to rent and a full-service moving company.
They arrived at my place at exactly 9:00 a.m. One fellow put on a pair of gloves while whistling. The other got out a map of the new place I was moving to and my office telephone number. I regretted not looking at my wife's room once more.
I started the engine. I saw the next-door neighbor woman washing her car.
I did not feel anything on the way out of that city. When I came across the green hills, I barely realized I had left the city. I turned into the left-turn lane and waited for the green signal. But, I could go straight since there were few cars out at that hour. But when I saw the green arrow signal, I made the left turn. I took the grassy bank road that my wife once wanted to take. Two sports cars hurried by. The road was winding. I could see a rough and narrow mountain path. The road was dusty and unsafe. I was thinking about going back down the hill. But all of a sudden, a massive mountain loomed in front of me - full of graves. The sky was low and frighteningly quiet. I followed the road without stopping. My armpits were damp with sweat. I saw a sign between the crematory and village. I made a sharp turn toward the village. The forest grew thicker. Numerous graves were scattered about. My back was sweating now, soaking my shirt. My face dripped with perspiration. As I lowered the car window, dust and dirt stuck to my body. The car was running along the mountain path like a drunkard.
That's right. I did everything for my wife. What did she do for me?She is probably sleeping now. She wakes up to take medicine. Until she falls asleep, the only thing she does is wait for me. She cannot leave without my permission. She is doing well there. She is waiting for my visit. That is my wife's love for me.
Today, her room disappeared.
Finally, I can see the vast sky. Luckily, the paved road comes into sight.