If one were to single out a writer who more than anyone else has contributed to the success of woman fiction writers in Korea today, the likely choice would be O Jeong-hui (b. 1947). O is one of the most accomplished writers of short fiction in modern Korea. She is one of the few authors to have captured both the Yi Sang and the Tongin awards-Korea's two most prestigious prizes for short fiction-and translations of her works into Japanese, English, French, and other languages have begun to garner her an international reputation. English translations of her works have won her favorable comparisons with such writers as America's Joyce Carol Oates, Canada's Alice Munro, and England's Virginia Woolf.
O was just out of her teens when she burst onto the literary scene by winning a competition for aspiring writers sponsored by the Chungang ilbo, a Seoul daily, in 1968. The prize-winning story, "The Toyshop Woman" (Wangujeom yeoin), concerns a high school girl's descent into madness punctuated by kleptomania and an obsession with the crippled owner of a toyshop. That this remarkable debut story was begun while the author herself was still in high school suggested the arrival of a prodigious literary talent. There is very little like it among previous Korean fiction writers, male or female.
O has since published some four dozen stories and novellas. This is a comparatively meager output for a writer whose career covers three decades. But it is also an oeuvre of consistently high quality, consisting of provocative, densely textured stories, many of them infused with a restrained intensity that is unsettling, sometimes shocking. Not until 1977 did O publish her first collection of fiction, River of Fire (Bul ui Gang). There followed an especially productive period in which many of her most memorable stories were composed-"Evening Game" (Jeonyeok ui keim, 1979) "Chinatown" (Chunggugin Geori, 1979), "Words of Farewell" (Pyo¢¨lsa, 1981), "The Bronze Mirror" (Donggyeong, 1982), and "Wayfarer" (Sullyeja u¢¨i norae, 1983). The first three stories appeared in her second volume of fiction, The Garden of Childhood (Yunyeonn ui tteul, 1981), the latter two in her third collection, Spirit on the Wind (Param ui neok, 1986). O's production has since been more sporadic, but works such as "Lake P'aro" (P'aroho, 1989), "The Old Well" (Yet umul, 1994), and "Birds" (Sae, 1996) suggest that the author has maintained the high standards she set for herself at the very beginning of her career.
Technically, O has few peers among contemporary Korean fiction writers. Her command of language is formidable-her vocabulary impressive, her word choices deliberate and suggestive. Stories such as "The Cookout" (Yahoe, 1981) and "Morning Star" (Saebyeok byeol, 1984) reveal a good ear for dialog, something that is neglected by many Korean fiction writers in favor of narrative. Flashbacks, stream-of-consciousness technique, and interior monologues constitute much of O's narratives. Long paragraphs juxtaposing images and points of view of family members past and present are not uncommon. "Words of Farewell," which depicts separate but parallel spiritual journeys by a woman and her lost husband, is a striking example. This concern with the interior landscape of the characters is for O a means for dealing with her characteristic themes of abandonment and loneliness. Heightening the impact of these themes is the author's typically dispassionate narrative tone, which in her earlier stories takes the form of a nameless first-person narrator (every story in her debut volume, River of Fire, is told in this manner). These nameless narrators become Everywoman and Everyman (some of her narrators are male), struggling in an emotionally parched landscape that is sometimes specifically Korean, as in "A Portrait of Magnolias" (Mongnyeoncho, 1975), sometimes not, as in "The Toyshop Woman." That is, without ignoring the upheavals that have attended Korea's rapid modernization, O's stories transcend cultural boundaries to speak to universal themes of emotional rootlessness and a yearning for permanence, whether in the immediate context of the family or in the larger society.
O, in fact, has been fascinated with family relationships ever since her literary debut. Her best stories are powerful yet sensitive portraits of families strained to the breaking point by hidden emotions and invisible external forces. In these works, O penetrates the surface of seemingly pedestrian lives to reveal nightmarish family constellations warped by divorce, insanity, abandonment, and death. Darkness is prominent in these stories, representing among other things these family nightmares. In "The Toyshop Woman," "The Cookout," "The Bronze Mirror," and elsewhere, darkness creeps upon the scene like a sinister beast, unleashing black memories among the characters.
O is by no means a writer of historical fiction, and yet her stories reflect, albeit obliquely, the familial and emotional costs of Korea's headlong industrialization since the 1960s. For in most of her stories the support network traditionally offered by the extended family is absent, leaving the characters to struggle on their own for emotional sustenance. The loneliness of the aged couple in "The Bronze Mirror" and their torment by the kindergarten girl who lives next door are as vivid as almost anything in contemporary Korean fiction. In "Fireworks" (Pullori, 1986) and "Lake P'aro" O touches on the theme of younger people suffering for the political misadventures of their elders-a themed mined with success in recent years by many of O's male contemporaries. In the case of "Lake P'aro," an American setting provides added interest as we see some of the difficulties a different culture poses to immigrants and foreign students. Finally, "Lake P'aro" contains hints of the author's own two-year sojourn with her family near Albany, New York, in the mid-1980s.
Why, I feel so exposed in here, almost down to my intestines. As I thoroughly scrubbed the stains on the gas range where the rice had boiled over, first using a wet dishcloth, then a dry one, I suddenly feigned resentment towards the so-called Western-style layout of the house that opened fully onto the living room. It was an attempt to ignore the apprehension I felt at the way my back was exposed to view. A few faint marks still remained sprinkled around the gas range. They were probably the result of Father's carelessness last winter when he spilt the medicine he had been preparing. He had mixed angelica roots, red-bellied frogs, black beans and toad oil in an army pot, added honey when brown froth bubbled, and stirred slowly until the solution hardened to black jelly. This will purify my blood and relieve constipation, Father had said as he drank the jelly-like solution throughout the winter. Clad in underclothes, he had looked exactly like a medieval alchemist as he stirred the sticky liquid congealing darkly like coal tar with long wooden chopsticks.
A bitter and fishy stink had permeated into every nook and cranny of the house while the solution boiled, and the flesh and bones of the frogs had risen in an acrid steam that settled heavily and stickily like resin. Dizzy from anemia and panting from the reeking smell that made me nauseous, I'd stood before the mirror, studying the fine wrinkles and filthy patches of ringworm on my dry skin. The stains on the gas range tarnishing the stainless steel would prove more malevolent and last longer than my memory of them.
Everything was fine, just like yesterday. The hands of the clock on the kitchen shelf pointed half past five, the rice was steaming, and faint wisps of smoke rose from the charred scales of the fish broiled to a golden brown.
The sunlight slanting through the west window into the kitchen scoured out the dregs stuck in the shallow grooves of the wet chopping board, deadened the glint of the chopping knife, and refracted in the water in the sink, exposing opaque sediments floating in the water.
It was just like any other day in that I could see, through the low, long window without having to stand on tiptoe, the procession of boys returning to the reformatory through the field after their work.
All the boys there were at least seventy or eighty of them were wearing work clothes in faded gray and caps of the same color. Could it due to some preconception I had about prison uniforms being clothes for the dead, or was it because I imagined wind was blowing in the field? For I always felt the forlorn sensation of having touched the bodies under the loose-fitting work clothes to find coarse bare flesh covered with goose pimples. The slowly moving procession of boys, their uniforms fluttering like ragged strips of unevenly cut cloth, reminded me of a huge cement wheel without an axle rolling slowly and heavily, or of someone whistling a long drawn-out melancholy tune in D minor.
Two men in windbreakers, seemingly superintendents, were guarding the boys at each end of the line, one step ahead and behind respectively.
Had I not seen them up close before, I would have simply assumed there was a military barracks somewhere nearby. I certainly would never have tormented myself with the childlike fantasies of a cement wheel rolling slowly without an axis, or of a millstone in hell worked by beasts, forced to turn for eternity by an unseen hand of retribution.
I saw the boys for the first time during one of my evening walks with the dog. Ah, I exclaimed and nodded, suddenly recalling the reformatory on the other side of the low hill nearby. Then I turned away in embarrassment, pulling tautly at the leash. A surprisingly young face had looked out at me from the center of the line. I could not even begin to guess the boy's age, but his eyes were astonishingly and beautifully clear. Perhaps I had gained that impression because of the refreshing crispness I unexpectedly perceived from his uniform, or perhaps because I was suddenly conscious that I was getting on in my years none too prettily, a fact brought home sharply by the cold paleness of the boy's round cheeks.
The boy passed me by, mingled in a group. I now cannot recall what he looked like at all. Even if I had lined them all up and studied them closely, I still wouldn't be able to pick him out. His beautifully clear eyes, however, remained with me as a distinct feeling, and every day at the same time, I looked out through the kitchen window in a vain effort to spot him.
They had almost crossed the field when a small commotion developed from the center of the line. A boy was squatting down, pretending to put on a shoe that had come off. The line behind the boy suddenly faltered to a stop. The man in the windbreaker approached the boy from the back of the line. I thought perhaps the boy had picked up something shiny and stuck it rapidly inside his sleeve or his shoe. When the man approached, the boy straightened up and shook the dust off his palms. They went on talking, but from where I was, it looked like they were using sign language.
The man returned to his place, and the boys in the rear started moving faster to narrow the widened gap. It probably wasn't anything. Anyway, how could anything be shining when the sunlight had receded from the field?They walked over the hill where the field ended and a housing construction site began. The houses stood far apart, some of them half-finished and others undergoing hurried last-minute finishing touches before the cold weather began. As they disappeared from my sight, the heavy wheel and the long drawn-out sound of whistling vanished as well.
I pulled the plug from the sink and looked down with satisfaction as the water bubbled, swirled and drained away instantly. The plumber had come earlier in the afternoon to unclog the sink. The sink had not been draining properly and had begun to give off a stench. A few pumps with a funnel-shaped plunger had extracted a lump of vegetable fibers and a mass of tangled hair. Father had come up behind us and stared at the mess a long time with an expression that said, "See, I told you so."It was now almost six. Out of sheer habit, I set three spoons and three pairs of chopsticks on the table pushed up against the kitchen wall. Then I realized what I had done and returned the third set to the spoon container. There was no need to make a big deal out of it. It was just that my hands had acted out of the force of habit, though I clearly knew that my brother would not be coming home today either.
"Which direction is that magpie facing to caw?" Father asked.
I looked up at the tall poplar in the field where the boys had passed through. There, the bird was cawing on top of the tree among the leaves that had begun to turn yellow-brown.
"I took out my contact lenses," I said as I banged dishes. Though he knew I was practically blind without my contact lenses, he persisted stubbornly again.
"Spit in the direction the magpie is cawing toward. You know a magpie in the evening is bad luck.""I said I cannot see.""What did you do with your lenses? You lost them again, didn't you? Didn't I tell you to soak them in water when you are not using them?" It was a lie. I hadn't taken out my contact lenses. Through the lenses firmly attached to my pupils, I could clearly see the magpie crying toward me from the top of the tree. I could also see its black feathers, glistening as if they were coated with oil, and the way it was ruffling its wings that looked as strong as steel.
I frowned briefly at Father, slumped deeply in his chair in the dark living room from which the sunlight had retreated. But I wasn't really feeling irritated with him. Then I pressed the play button of the cassette player on the shelf, thinking about the first movement of a Codai symphony that had been resounding in my head. At first, all I heard was a slow and faint hiss as the cassette tape wound. I was wondering if the music was not recorded on the tape after all, when the music began all of a sudden.
I had heard the familiar melody that afternoon during the Request Music program on the radio. I suddenly thought of taping the music. The cassette player was an old Sony that belonged to my brother. By the time I had found the long unused cassette player from where it had lain forgotten, dusted it off, rummaged in a drawer for a blank tape and put it on, the first movement of the symphony was over. The music sounded scratchy, the record must have been an old one. Perhaps I should have stopped recording the music, but I simply could not be bothered to press the stop button until the symphony had ended. The taped music took up less than half of the sixty-minute tape.
After listening to what I had recorded for about ten minutes, I pressed the stop button.
"Dinner is ready," I said in a slightly wooden voice.
Without looking, I could visualize Father's movements just from the sounds he made: flicking the nail of his little finger, which he had been poking out his ears with, against his thumb with a snap, and rising from his chair with difficulty.
Through the wall, I could hear sounds of water running in the bathroom. Listening to the water draining, I scrubbed the clean table again with a dishcloth.
"Is there a towel?"Father entered the kitchen, shaking his dripping hands.
"Why didn't you use the one in the bathroom?""It was filthy and wet."That was a lie. I had replaced the towel the plumber had used when he unclogged the sink in the afternoon with a fresh one. The magpie continued to cry from top of the poplar. The sound must have gotten on his nerves for he gazed towards the window.
"The kitchen window looks out the wrong way. It is no good for the evening sun to get in," he muttered as if talking to himself.
It took Father a long time to eat ever since he had more than half of his stomach removed about two years ago. No matter how slowly I tried to eat, I always ended up finishing my meal before Father was even half way through his.
The sunlight gradually receded and finally only a thin sliver of light remained near the front door. Even that line would vanish soon like water seeping away.
For some reason, I felt distressed as I watched Father's jawbone that became firmly prominent every time he chewed and at the weakly sagging wrinkles on his neck submerged in shadows.
The sun sets early in fall. Before you know it, it is dark already.
"Shall I turn on the lights?" I asked, pushing the dish of bone-picked fish towards him.
"The soup is cold."I turned on the gas and put the pot of soup on the stove. The consistent blue light of the gas range burning steadily in the dark kitchen always reminded me of a magic flame. The faintly hissing flame looked cold, like the reflection of metal.
Father's face looked somewhat mournful in the darkness and the bridge of his nose, which sagged at the end, seemed to lengthen in the shadows. The fact that my face would also look the same made me nervous.
I set the heated pot of soup on the table, got up quietly as I always did and pressed the play button of the cassette player. Father raised his head briefly at the blaring tunes of cellos and violins that sounded as though they were quarreling, and lowered it again. The third movement of andante began. Father chewed slowly, like a cow chewing its cud, and took little sips of the soup.
The music ended but the tape continued to wind. The hour-long tape will soon come to an end and the play button switch will snap up.
"Give me water."Father finished his meal, burped, and held out his cup.
Pouring water into the cup, I suddenly stilled my hands and Father reflexively turned his body to look towards the living room. Seemingly out of nowhere, a deep voice, hoarse from a night of cigarette smoking, came from the cassette player.
"He has no particular hobbies or pastimes, finding his sole pleasure in life from the gun. He waits until all the creatures are asleep to strip naked and to hold a gun loaded with five bullets under his ear, simply for the love of absolute freedom and sense of urgency. No, perhaps not freedom but for the sake of amusement. He hooks a finger around the trigger, the blood vessels in his head becoming charged with thousands of volts of electric current as the realization dawns that he could pull the trigger out of reflex if he discovers prying eyes, or if he is stung by a mosquito in the small of his back."The visitor suddenly disappeared. Father and I simultaneously looked at the empty place at the table for three. The now silent tape kept on winding softly. I poured rest of the water into Father's cup.
It was some time before I realized it had been my brother's voice.
Are all reproduced sounds like that? His voice had come to us from a distant place, like the soul of the dead, but also with a strange sense of urgency.
My brother had a habit of recording his writings to listen to them. Since he had always thoroughly erased them afterwards, however, I could not believe he had left some intact.
"Shall I turn on the light?" I asked Father in a more cautious voice, blinking in the sudden darkness when the softly winding tape came to an end and the play button jerked up with a click.
The table seemed to leap under the electric light covered in a lampshade, and the refrigerator, the kitchen shelves and the walls pasted with ko-hemp receded into the darkness beyond the light, like props being changed during a stage blackout.
After swishing the water around in his mouth, Father went to his room and returned with a pack of hwat'u. Unable to wait until I finished clearing the table, he began to slap down the flower cards nervously.
Under the circle of light, his thick shoulders clad in a furry woolen sweater cast a huge shadow on the wall.
"Why do you want to try your hand at the day's fortune when the day is gone already?" I asked as I washed the dishes with a clatter.
"Just because the sun has set doesn't mean the day is over yet."Not over yet? What does he mean? Even as I was asking myself, I also felt ridiculous for being so sensitive to try to discern some extraordinary hidden meaning from his casual statement.
When I put away the clean dishes in the cupboard, took off my apron and turned around, Father started gathering the spread out cards.
"What reading did you get?""A visitor," Father spat out without enthusiasm.
"Do you want some fruit?""No, I'd rather have some coffee."Anxiety glinted in Father's raised eyes. He wanted me to hurry up and sit beside him. I put a kettle of cold water on the range and sat down opposite him.
"Do you want to go first?""No way, we must cut to decide the dealer."I removed a large stack from the deck of cards Father had assembled. A five-point Plum. Father turned over a zero-point Black Bush Clover and pushed the deck of cards towards me. The forty-eight cards, worn and thickly inflated, filled one of my hands completely. The faded old cards no longer had the initial crispness when they used to cascade down smoothly, and instead clung to my palm damply and stickily.
"Shuffle them thoroughly. I tried the fortune-telling game, so they will be bunched togetherthat's enough now. If you overdo it, the cards will be back to where they were."Without taking his eyes away from my hands, Father removed the card on top of the deck, flipping it over with a light snap.
I eased Father's anxiety of being dealt with a series of worthless zero-point cards by dealing the cards one by one alternatively instead of lumping them in two groups of five.
"The water is boiling."Father did not touch the turned over cards until I had dealt out all of his ten cards.
The water was bubbling over from the spout of the kettle.
I put down my cards and poured water into the two cups I had set out. As I stirred with a spoon, I knew Father was sneaking a look at my turned over cards.
"Put saccharine in mine.""Yes, I know."Of course Father knew I would not have put sugar even without his reminder. It was just an act to throw me off guard while he stole a look at my cards.
Father was a serious diabetic who had to take regular injections of insulin. Even after constant intake of the nostrum of his own prescription throughout winter, the toilet bowl would fill with frothy yellow sugary urine every morning, and Father would gloomily dip the end of the litmus paper in it.
Father took up his cards and cautiously spread them out one by one as if unfolding an old fan only when he had seen me take up my own cards after I returned with the cups of coffee. A satisfactory smile played briefly around his lips. The eight play cards were spread dazzlingly on the table.
"So many worthwhile cards for the taking on the table, but what use are they when I have none to pair them with?" Father exclaimed as he stole a look at my cards from the corner of his eyes. Firmly clutching my cards, I also glanced towards Father's fiercely guarded set of cards. But there was no need to look, really. I could plainly see what they were just by studying their backs. No doubt Father could as well. The card with a slightly askew crease on the back would be the five-point Iris. That one with the rounded left corner would be the zero-point Peony, and the one with a cracked right edge would be the ten-point Red Bush Clover with the picture of a boar. Father and I were so familiar with the backsides of the cards that we could cheat just as easily as if we could see the painted fronts.
"Points for all the three tan, seven tti and four kwang.""Of course."Father was gazing at the twenty-point Earth and Sky with the full moon among his cards, which also included the five-point Peony with the blue banner and the ten-point Maple. Now waiting quietly to be flipped over on top of the deck was the zero-point Earth and Sky. Father was putting up an act, embarrassed at his luck of having a twenty-point card in his hands, which he could take by turning over the matching zero-point card. After a long deliberation, he played the twenty-point Earth and Sky, turned over the matching card and took them in with an aggrieved face as if he thought it was unfair.
"What, twenty points already? Father, you have the nerve. You plan to take in all the four kwang?" I said, though I really wanted to say it was shameless of him. Father laughed, opening his mouth wide like a child.
I matched the five-point Red Bush Clover from among the cards on the table and almost flung them down.
"So, you are planning on seven tti then?""I only have one of them. It is not so easy, you know. I have no other cards."But I was busy calculating, trying to figure out how to prevent him from getting the three yak, or at least get them for my own. I had to stop him from getting the rest of the Maples and force him to give up the five-point blue Peony in his hand.
"Play up to a thousand points?""Fine."
The nights become increasingly longer as autumn deepens, and one thousand points would not be enough to pass the long hours.
Sounds of steady footsteps came from above our heads. Then came the cries of the whimpering baby and the low murmur of the woman's lullaby as she tried to soothe the cries.
The window had become pitch black as if pasted with a carbon paper, and I had the sensation that Father and I, sitting under the light, were sinking endlessly into the darkness. I felt that we had been sitting opposite each other at the table and playing flower cards like this since the far distant past. The long-ago memories were remote and vague, mingled with reality and fantasy like childhood dreams. Like a gambler who goes to the bathroom when the cards are bad or when things go wrong, my brother had sneaked away from his place to forecast his hand.
"It's bad when a baby cries at night. When children throw tantrums, something unlucky always happens to the family.""I used to cry a lot, didn't I?" I said as I took a zero-point Chrysanthemum from the table.
Sleep well, my baby, sleep soundly through the night, until morning comes to the window.
"Your mother had a good voice."That was true. My mother had been a kindergarten teacher and knew many songs. She loved to sing because she knew she had a pretty voice.
Sleep, my baby, my baby precious as gold, precious as silver, close your jewel of eyes, close your starry eyes and go to slumber land.
"Your turn," Father said abruptly in an irritated voice, as if he too had been listening to the lullaby. Above our heads, the womanwithout ever hurryingpaced back and forth on the balcony, her movements as precise as those of a metronome.
I could count on my fingers the number of times I had seen the woman who rented the second floor about four months ago. The stairs to the second floor were outside, and the tenants used a side door, so we rarely had the chance to run into each other. But the baby, always fussy about going to sleep, would start crying early in the evening, and the woman would comfort the crying baby with her low and monotonous lullabies, sounds of her footsteps audible from above our heads until deep into the night while we played the flower cards. Touching each of the three cards remaining in my hands, I glanced at the zero-point Paulownia Father was holding, and almost flung down the matching ten-point Paulownia. Father pounced on it as if he had been precisely waiting for it and happily faked annoyance.
"Well, they say a glorious beginning always fizzles out to a bad ending, but""The first mouthful doesn't make you full.""The light is weak. Perhaps we should use a transformer.""Maybe it's your eyesight that has become weak."Father and I were performing in an endless play, following a faded and tattered script. Each encamped with ten cards, we worried about the weather, became concerned about each other's health and the well-being of everybody, and deplored the state of the world we perceived through the inaccurate and inferior information network of TV news or the society pages of newspapers.
"I don't know what I have been doing. I don't have enough to give you the points for the yak you took."I stretched out my arm to count the yak, tan and the zero-point cards Father had amassed. Appearing appalled, Father slapped my hand away.
"You cannot look at another person's points before it is over. I haven't managed to come up with anything yet either.""Well, it's the end anyway. I am finished."When I played my last card, Father tossed down a ten-point Cherry Blossom with bravado and raked in all the remaining cards.
"Going first doesn't help at all when there is nothing worthwhile in your hands. None of the cards I flipped from the deck matched, either."I wrote down the score on a piece of paper, gathered the cards and pushed them towards Father. While he was shuffling the cards, I turned on the TV in the living room. The screen came on hazily like smoke, and flitting shadows of busily moving people appeared for a moment, then vanished.
"It is not working properly because of the low voltage, what has happened?""A fire in a day nursery. They say babies died.""Bloody murderers. Who'd think the world would come to this?" Father said heatedly.
"But is that our fault?" I muttered in a low voice through my teeth, as if to suppress Father's voice. Was it really our fault? Baby, my baby, my baby precious as gold, precious as silver, Mother used to sing with a flower-shaped pin in her hair. "Having several children was too much for your mother. She was a very small woman," Father had said.
"Look, the card is stuck," I said a bit sharply, pointing to a card wedged inside the plastic covering of another, which had peeled off more than half way.
"We have used them for too long. We should replace them with a new deck," Father grinned as he pulled out the card. "They said she was possessed by the spirit of a dead baby," Father had once said. "But that is nonsense! We shouldn't have left her there in that phony prayer house." The man, who was neither a preacher nor a shaman, had thrashed her with peach branches. "Help me, Daughter, help me!" Even after she returned home, Mother never got over her fear of those peach branches.
"It's your Father's fault, for being so promiscuous," Mother had said in a sing-song voice to my brother, a precocious junior-high school student at the time, as she pointed to the soft-boned newborn baby with a head swollen and soft as a water bag. Once when I returned home angry because one of the straps of my schoolbag had broke, Mother was combing her hair in front of a mirror placed by the windowsill where the sunlight shone through. "Where's the baby?" I asked. "Never mind, I will buy you a doll," she said as she placed her fingers as cold as icicles on my nape. When the van came from the hospital, Mother crawled under the table. "Daughter, I don't want to go. Please stop them!" Then as the guards pulled her out by the shoulders, she twisted her head back and shouted until she could no longer see me. "Why are you laughing? Why are you laughing?" Father had once asked me. "Don't you think it was too cruel?" "I don't know what you are talking about. There was nothing else to do. You were too young and I didn't know what else she might do. Didn't she do away with the baby? You talk as if it was entirely my fault that your mother turned out like that." "We could have looked after her." "Your mother is more comfortable there. She has her friends there and one's family is not so great as you think. And didn't you secretly think it was lucky that you didn't have to see your mother up close? You surely must have resented your mother when all your prospective marriage talks broke up, one after the other." I frowned. Father was vainly trying to smooth out a crease in the back of a card with his fingernail.
"Why don't you deal?""Yes, let's."Father began dealing the cards one by one.
"She began to show the signs after you were born. You were all right only thanks to your brother.""Do you have anything good?" Father looked over at me as he turned over the twenty-point Rain from the deck and paired it with one of the play cards.
"Zero-point cards are worthless, no matter how many of them I have."Taking up the twenty-point Pine with the crane, I suddenly listened. I thought I could hear sounds of whistling coming from across the field. I even thought I could detect the smell of dried flowers borne on the wind. No, it couldn't be, I shook my head.
"Why, nothing good?""Not at all."Was it about ten years ago when he came to me with the sounds of whistling? Or was it only in my dreams even before that? Late at night when I heard the sounds of whistling from across the field, I would open the door and go out to find him standing there, smelling of dried flowers. After he stopped coming, I often dreamt of walking beside the 19-year-old boy on the banks of rice paddies where the Chinese milk vetches blossomed. Usually, I was in my pajamas, my hair tied in a red ribbon, and the wind was always blowing, with a faint smell of flowers coming from somewhere. The soft earth slipped and writhed like earthworms beneath my bare feet. He blinked his eyes at the lush singing of skylarks and said, "The ribbon does not become you." "Yes, I am too old to tie a red ribbon in my hair. Only a crazy woman or a prostitute would do that. I am going to catch butterflies." The boy looked at me with limpid eyes. "Your mother was like a butterfly," Father had said. I watched a Cherry Blossom card spinning like a pinwheel between Father's fingers.
"I am only taking what is going to be mine anyway.""What is left for me if you are so relentless?""Where could my brother be?" "Don't you ever mention him again," Father had said in sudden anger. "Everything had been fine until he was born." Was he angry at my brother's absence because two people playing cards was less fun than with three? "This game sucks." One day, my brother had suddenly gotten up from the table and let go of the one end of the tautly pulled string, thus breaking up the triangular structure, Father and I stumbling helplessly at the force of recoil.
Could I just leave like my brother had done? Could I run away, like someone in a life jacket escaping from a sinking boat? I looked at Father's face, filled with tension as he tried to decide whether to take the Plum or stop me from getting the seven tti. His face was narrow and long. The tip of his nose, bent like that of a hawk, seemed to sag even more now that his cheeks had lost flesh. "Daughter, take me home. It is frightening and lonely here." "But it is the same everywhere." The card passed from Father's hand to mine.
"Why, your luck has taken a turn for the better all of a sudden," Father sniggered angrily when I won two rounds in a row.
I moved my hands rapidly while trying to ignore the damp warmth absorbed into the cards. Father's hands were always clammy with sweat.
When I feebly tossed down the last card, a zero-point Chrysanthemum, Father energetically took in the cards.
"Here, four kwang! What have you been doing?"I wrote down Father's score, that meaningless number on paper. The ten o'clock program, Happiness Show, began on TV. When Father's score exceeded one thousand points, I collected the cards.
"Time for your medicine."I stumbled as I got up and held on to the edge of the table.
"What's the matter?"Father put down the cards. He looked strangely old and dismal. His nose seemed to droop even more and almost appeared to be touching his upper lip.
"I just felt dizzy."Sounds of whistling came from afar. When I was suffering from symptoms of my pernicious anemia, which made me feel as though the veins in my head were being squeezed empty, I always thought I was hearing someone whistling.
"What son of a bitch is whistling at night? This damned world. Those houses better be finished soon. All kinds of vagrant hoodlums are swarming around the place"Father's hands reached for the cards out of habit. Then he suddenly became aware of my eyes on his hands, curled them in, and laboriously took out a piece of paper from his pocket instead.
"Look at this. This bill has been sitting in the mailbox for several days. You know we have to pay extra when we don't pay on time. You have to deal with these things on time to prevent trouble. And I don't know why the electric bill is so high. You can save electricity with careful use, you know."Father was once again referring to the time when I had to pay surcharge on the electric bill.
"You know I turned off the refrigerator some time ago," I became angry even as I thought it would be futile to explain, and my voice trembled slightly.
Father was being unreasonable when he said the electric bill had been sitting in the mail for several days. He always opened the mailbox at least ten times a day, hanging over it with futile hand gesturing. Hadn't I watched him with both the malice and familiarity of an accomplice, and ever ready to be disappointed from a sense of betrayal? The mailbox always stood open as if it was perpetually hungry, for it had never contained any letters other than the monthly electric and water bills.
Father threw the bill down on a corner of the table, and took the cards with dignity. He began to arrange them in a pyramid. I sat on the opposite side with my chin in hand, and watched his hands turning the cards over one by one. Father knew every kind of game one could play alone with the cards.
"What reading did you get?""A lover and a walk."Suddenly, Father looked over at me with affectionate but darkly glinting eyes.
"Are you still dizzy? You look tired. Why don't you go to bed?"The sounds of whistling cutting through the empty field became more distinct as it penetrated the darkness. "We must get a new deck of cards. It is no fun playing the game when you know what the cards are," Father said.
The measured sound of the woman's feet halted above our heads, then moved away.
"Looks like she is ready to put the child to sleep by carrying him on her back all night. That's a bad habit."I yawned hugely and rubbed my eyes.
"I will turn in first. Don't stay up too late. Here's your medicine. I will lock up."I thumped my way to the bathroom and turned the water on full force. I washed my hands for a long time. Then, though fully aware that Father would not look up, I pressed myself against the wall to avoid the light from the kitchen and walked away quietly.
The front door opened noiselessly. I went out, and hopped the several stepping stones one by one. Feeling anxious about the woman who was still pacing the second floor balcony and singing lullabies, I walked close to the wall.
Several bonfires were burning here and there in the housing construction site at the flat hilltop where the field ended. The construction workers were probably doing night work, probably rushing to finish the houses before winter arrived. I quickened my steps, trying to look away from the bonfires and the light from the bare light bulbs.
There, next to the half-built house, he was standing between a pile of sand and cement bricks stacked as high as his head.
"I was waiting for you. You are a little late," he said as if he had been watching my progress for some time. Without looking at me, he poked the tip of his shoe into the sand.
"I came at the same time as yesterday," I whispered as though talking through a veil.
"I finished work early, thinking that you would come."There was a hint of liquor in his voice. Were the dews falling? I could feel damp coldness seeping in from the sand. He held my hand for a moment as if he didn't know what to do. The calluses in each knot of his palms were as hard as pieces of metal. His hands were big and firm. They would probably look extremely dirty and rough in the daylight.
"It's cold out here, but the house is empty. The night guards are having the time of their lives at the bar."Despite the liquor, he was trembling, perhaps in excitement.
His palm began to sweat damply. I went into the house, my hand still held in his grasp, and stepped over broken pieces of cement bricks and wood. Damn, he spat out roughly.
"What's the matter?""The wiring is not finished yet."But it was not so dark inside because of the open roof and two walls with a large opening for the window frame. He shoved aside shavings and pieces of wood with his feet with a grating sound to make room. His hard hand crept up inside my sweater sleeve. He was still trembling and rushing, as if embarrassed of his excitement. After failing to open the second button on my sweater, he cursed again and pushed up the sweater. I was breathing quietly, but felt a chill creep over the insides of my legs. I huddled on the cement floor that felt painfully cold against my flesh bared to the armpits. He took off his work jacket and placed it under my back.
Great lucid stars in the sky sank down to my eyes through the open roof. I could always smell dried flowers in the dark of the night. Andromeda, Orion, Cassiopeia, Ursa Major. "What's your sign?" "Scorpion." "You will have a house with thick walls and small windows, and enjoy sex in a car. Your are shy and introspective, but you are always dreaming of romantic love." "Flowers don't become you." "Yes, I am too old to be wearing flowers in my hair. Only a crazy woman or a prostitute would do that.""It is getting cold. If it gets colder, we won't be able to do it here anymore," he said, caressing my hair as if it was a natural thing to do. "It will be about another fortnight before the work finishes here. But it won't get too cold until then.""I don't like being cold," I giggled.
"But you like the other, don't you? Perhaps you are a widow in heat, huh?" He also chortled.
Sounds of rowdy singing by several men came from afar.
"They are coming now." He got up, shook out his jacket he had placed under my back, and put it on.
"Will you come back tomorrow?" He asked as he stood between the cement bricks and sand.
"Give me some money, if you have any."He hesitated. I decided to press on.
"I am not feeling too well, I have to buy some medicine. I am not asking for much.""Damn!" He muttered, spitting through his teeth. "I should have known when you were so docile from the start. Well, you should come cheap since you don't have to pay any taxes."He searched for a cigarette, stuck it between his lips, and struck a match as if to light it, but brought the long flame close to my face instead. Looking into the flame, I opened my mouth wide and laughed.
"Shit, you are way past your prime. I don't have any with me today. Come back the day after tomorrow if you have a mind since that's when I get paid."He spat roughly again, appearing deeply offended. I hurried away. A group of drunken workers passed by, brushing against my shoulder.
The front door was still open. The woman on the second floor was still pacing the balcony, mumbling lullabies to the whimpering child. I quietly opened the front door and tried to rub away the cold air from my body with my palms.
"What reading did you get?""A lover. Go to bed," Father said without turning around. He continued to slap down the cards.
I entered my room and turned on the light. For a moment, I looked up at the light dumbly, then opened the desk drawer as if I had suddenly remembered what to do.
"Daughter, take me. It is frightening and lonely here," Mother screamed out in her large and crooked writing, which resembled that of a child who has just begun to learn to write. In the empty spaces, she had also drawn stick figures of people doing handstands, their heads as round as a ball and their arms and legs sticking out like tree branches. I brought the piece of paper up under my nose and inhaled the faint smell of dried flowers. When I opened the lid of the unadorned locket, the smell of dried flowers also came from the ash-gray lock of hair inside.
They had begun to nail down the coffin when we arrived, as if they had been waiting for that precise moment. The sound did not resound loudly as I had imagined. A bitter scent of flowers, like smoke, came from Mother whose body had begun to turn putrid. "She was even filthier than a Chinese woman," Father had said. "She loathed taking a bath, but she always sprayed herself with perfume. She was a vain and extravagant woman." Was the smell a mixture of her perfume and the smell of her dry skin then? I lay down on the cold room floor. Recalling that I had not heard any sound of Father going into his room, I pulled up my skirt and rolled the sweater up to my armpits as I had in the empty house. Above me, I could hear the woman walking and singing the child to sleep. My baby, my baby precious as gold, my baby precious as silver, the most precious baby in the world. Still lying on the floor, I reached out my hand to pull down the light switch. The room plunged into a quiet darkness. Finally, the entire house began to sink slowly, creaking into the boggy darkness. The woman upstairs will flutter throughout the night, like a faded strip of cloth fixed to the mast of a sinking boat, signaling vainly for help. Panting rapidly at the desperate sensation of disintegrating into a thousand pieces under the relentless pressure of the water bearing down on my body, I suddenly opened my mouth wide and laughed faintly, as I had in the flame of the man's match.