A Bale of Salt
by Ku Hyo-sŏ
Translated by Brother Anthony of TaizéPublished in Koreana: Korean Art & Culture (The Korea Foundation) Vol. 22, No.4 Winter 2008 pages 88 - 99 (See Introduction)
『恐怖と戰慄』, キルケゴオ-ル 著, 飯島宗亨 譯, 白水社.
He told me once that it was a book my mother had read. I was never able to ask my maternal cousin again if that was right, if really it was a book mother had read? When I found the book in my cousin’s bookcase, he had been dead for three days. It was like a bequest from him. If I had found it only three days earlier, would I have been able to ask him about it? Had it really been mother’s book?
It was not possible. Even if I had heard it directly from my cousin, as when I had first came across that book in his bookcase, I would have stared blankly down at the cover, at a loss for words. No matter what answer I heard, it would surely not have relieved the doubts in my confused mind as I held the book. Was he saying that my uneducated mother had read Kierkegaard, and in Japanese?
Until just before he died, my cousin had told me this and that story about my mother but he had not gone so far as to explain why she had read Kierkegaard.
In addition to that book, there were a few more of mother’s books: “Dream of Kŭmsan Temple,” “The Sad Tale of the Kisaeng Kang Myŏng-hwa,” “The Legend of Kim In-hyang,” “Autumn Moon Sympathy,” “Kim Ok-Yŏn” . . . that kind of thing, nothing particularly surprising. Novels, in Korean. She had not attended school, so she had not learned to write as a child, yet mother had no difficulties in reading and writing. However, because she had mastered writing in her twenties or thirties, she was weak at spelling and knowing where to divide words. While I was stationed at Ch’up’ung Pass during my military service, mother wrote a letter including the usual opening phrase: Inho, sea what I have written. The platoon leader, noticing that, asked what kind of sea she thought there might be in Yŏngdong, North Ch’ungch’ŏng Province. I, being accustomed to mother’s spelling, had no difficulty.
Still, Kierkegaard was not what I would have expected. As for Fear and Trembling, I remember reading it when I was about twenty-two. I still have it, wedged in a corner of my bookcase, but I do not recall her ever saying that she had understood it while I was reading it.
Why Kierkegaard? How much could she possibly have understood of Kierkegaard? I examined the passages underlined here and there. The underlining was in pencil. Occasionally short notes were visible. Clearly they were in mother’s handwriting. But I cannot read Japanese. I was obliged to check against my old Korean translation. Amazingly, the portions that mother had underlined and the portions I had underlined were frequently identical.
There was one who was great by reason of his power, and one who was great by reason of his wisdom, and one who was great by reason of his hope, and one who was great by reason of his love; but ‘he’ was greater than all, great by reason of his power whose strength is impotence, great by reason of his wisdom whose secret is foolishness, great by reason of his hope whose form is madness, great by reason of the love which is hatred of oneself.
Kierkegaard was the youngest child, born when his mother was already forty-five. Strangely enough, I too was the youngest, also born when my mother was forty-five. Therefore mother might have felt an affinity with Kierkegaard. But that was not all. They were also similar in having had six children in all, of whom several had already passed on. The way the daughters had not received an education on account of the father’s opposition was the same, too. Even the way I, like Kierkegaard, suffered from back problems was the same. If she had read that book before I was born, then at least those similarities with me could not have been the reason why she read it. But even without that, the other similarities were sufficient for mother to have felt an interest in Kierkegaard. None the less, the fact that a work by Kierkegaard was sandwiched between popular novels of the time left me with a strange and uncertain feeling.
Finally, my unrelieved apprehensions received the beginnings of a solution in the three characters of a name inscribed on the last page, while developing at the same time into suspicions of a quite different order. Not that it was really a different order. These were ancient suspicions that I had ignored, not wishing to examine them closely, and that I had therefore forgotten as life went on.
“Property of Pak Sŏng-hyŏn.” The name was written in the margin of the copyright page containing the date of publication and the name of the publisher. The penmanship was elegant. Despite the long passage of time, the writing still preserved the turquoise hue of the ink. That dimly emerging turquoise hue tugged gently at my thoughts, which were struggling to go on ignoring something.
So originally it had not been mother’s book. Whether the owner had lent it to her or given it to her for good so it had become hers, the situation was necessarily quite different than if the book had originally been mother’s. It was a moment testifying to a substantial relationship between mother and the owner. Heard as a rumor. I had been a child born of rumors.
Uneducated, an avid reader of popular novels, mastering Japanese katagana and hiragana scripts, finally even reading Kierkegaard, and in those days there had been Pak Sŏng-hyŏn, the only Christian in the village and the only person to have studied in Japan, the father of the rumors.
Mother’s intellectual level must have been far higher than I had realized. Besides, there would have been the book owner’s constant, prudent care and discrete guidance. Judging mother’s educational level and estimating what had been the level of her relationship with the book’s owner came down to the same thing. It could be that Fear and Trembling, which had left me with a strange, curious feeling, might in fact have been for those two neither strange nor curious.
That mother’s skill at deciphering what she read was out of the ordinary was a fact that I had experienced at least occasionally since childhood. There’s the T’ojŏng Pigyŏl (土亭祕訣, a work of divination by T’ojŏng Yi Chi-ham (1517~1587))—an ancient book I still own—well, mother was the only woman in the village who had read it and could explain its meaning. Calculating the relevant signs of the sexegenary cycle from the numbers of a person’s birth date then deducing good and bad fortune was not something just anybody could do, while interpreting unhesitatingly the most significant sentences, made complex by analogies and symbols, was quite impossible without considerable experience.
In the first ten days of each new year, the womenfolk used to come crowding to our house. They reckoned that consulting the Book of Divination would show them their fortune for the year. The reason they all came crowding together into our house was partly because the only copy of the Book in the village was there, and besides, mother was the only person capable of reading it. The fact that they knew there was no husband around also made it easier for the womenfolk to gather in our house.
Once the winter sunlight began to shine onto the door with its paper lining ornamented with leaves of mugwort and morning glory, mother would open the Book and put on her reading glasses.
You say you were born in Kimyo year, in the eighth month?
In addressing older people or younger people, when they consulted the book mother’s style of speech varied subtly. She talked down to them.
Ah, well, let me see . . . the eighth month, the twenty-ninth . . . I think.
In contrast, whether younger or older, while they were consulting the Book they addressed mother in honorific language. Between a person discerning fortunes and her clients such an exchange of covert granting and tacit acceptance of power was considered necessary.
Coming to the third month, cast fishing line into river or lake, catch fine fish; Board a raft, cross the sea, clouds scatter, bright weather comes . . . .
Once she began to cast the fortune for the coming year, month by month, the client inevitably grew tense. Chrysanthemum and maple are better than peony; Wind passes through reeds, flocks of geese scatter. Naturally, with words such as those, whose meaning could not be grasped no matter how hard one listened . . . .
Whether the message was good or bad, with their fortune for the whole year depending on the Book, anxiety was inevitable. Still, mother did not readily disclose the meaning.
Unvaryingly, a client’s expression would gradually darken, her head grow heavy. If mother just left it at that, it seemed the client would stop breathing for good. As time passed, the face would harden, the cheeks sag.
At the wintery start of the new year, curiosity, misery at being illiterate, fear of the future would start to fill the room. Until mother gave at least some little hint, the women would sit there as if about to drop dead. That was how it looked to me.
Only when the tension filling the room seemed to be on the verge of exploding would mother utter a cautious, “Very good!” The client would be so unnerved by that time that she would not hear her. She would only come back to life after somebody sitting close to her had poked her in the ribs, repeating, “She says it’s good.” Then the client would let out a loud, long sigh. The atmosphere in the room, that had grown quite rigid, would abruptly relax and the women’s faces would grow bright with understanding like the sunlit window-paper.
Irrespective of what was actually expressed in the Book, mother’s “Very good!” alone would set free the client’s constricted breath. Such was mother’s unlimited, unsurpassed power as she played with those women’s life and death by that single “Very good!” or else “Ah, good!” On the other hand, the owner of the book by Kierkegaard had once been fascinated by her far from common appearance.
Infinite resignation is that shirt we read about in the old fable. The thread is spun under tears, the cloth bleached with tears, the shirt sewn with tears; but then too it is a better protection than iron and steel.
Pak Sŏng-hyŏn, there, fascinated, behind the image of mother. Was that what had made father unable to take it any longer? Born posthumously, I had only been able to gain a sense of my father from the memories of mother in her lifetime, my sisters and, finally, my maternal cousin.
Father had been a strange kind of person. Yet from what I’d heard about him, I always found mother even stranger than father. In the course of a life in which she had endured the unspeakable from him, had she never once answered back?
Father violently mistreated mother, all the time proclaiming an ancestry of which he was in fact completely ignorant. Every time he beat her up, father boasted of an ancestor, a general, who was falsely rumored to have been awarded the posthumous title of Second Minister in the War Department after dying in an attack against the enemy during the Chinese invasions of the seventeenth century. General or ancestor, whatever he might be, to mother he was nothing more than a demon or ghost that troubled people. After she had been beaten up by father, mother’s face would be swollen like a pumpkin in autumn. The village shaman used to clack her tongue, saying, “Why, that husband of yours takes his wife for an enemy warrior.”
Less than three days after the birth of a daughter, father dragged her out into the yard by the waist of her pants, cursing her for lying around at her ease when there was no one to help with the work. You wonder where that daughter came from? In a millet field swept by an icy mid-winter wind, father, drunk, was sitting astride mother, throttling her. Unable to breathe, mother’s face had gone a bronze color. The red remains of dried millet stalks shaking in the wind were like streaks of blood emerging from mother’s body. Father was raping her with explosive fury. I had just turned twenty and my eldest sister’s face was expressionless as she told me the story of the origin of my second sister, two years older than myself. When I realized that the births of their various children were all uniformly nothing more than the dregs of hatred, resentment and anger, I felt fortunate that I could not so much as remember my father’s face. Several times he gave mother a sudden kick in the behind that sent her toppling face down into the cauldron where tofu was boiling, and he frequently shoved her face into the tray of tofu she had spent the night making.
Father used to take the money from the sales of tofu and hand it all to the woman who was the last bar-girl in the village. She boldly, brazenly served as his whore. Even when the bar-girl approached mother at the communal washing-ground and addressed her in familiar terms in the hearing of several people, mother did not so much as bat an eyelid. The tongues of the other women wagged about how the descendant of the Second Minister in the War Department beat his own wife and apparently stuffed the bar-girl’s nether hole, but mother mutely went on with her washing.
Father had wanted to marry but he owned absolutely nothing. He had spent a year doing farm work for the parents of his future wife, who lived on the far side of the hill and were as poor as he was, then married her. As he went to and fro to his work, he came to know of the existence of Pak Sŏng-hyŏn: he had returned after studying in Japan, no less, the good-looking son of the richest farmer of the district. He adored my mother but had come up against his family’s objections. That was all. Mother never so much as cast a careless glance in the direction of the Parks. It was only after their marriage that father discovered that mother could read and write Korean and even had a good knowledge of Japanese. Father’s sexual mistreatment and his debauchery did not involve his children. Father’s impotent fury, unable to vent itself against the strict Park family, manifested itself in a craven violence against mother.
If I reflected on how father’s wrath could have lasted unchanged for so long, perverse though it may seem, I used to wonder if it was not because of an affection for her that he could not let go of: something that could hardly be sensed from the harsh memories of my mother, my sisters, or my cousin.
At any rate, even without being fully convinced, given father’s weird personality, it was not completely impossible to guess at the reason behind father’s violence. Rather, what was utterly incomprehensible was what lay behind the method and attitude of mother in dealing so ineffectually with father while she lived with him.
Beatings that went on for hours on end behind the room’s locked door used to take their children’s breath away as they waited outside. Father’s shouts and curses seemed about to bring the house tumbling down. Punches and kicks rang out against mother’s body and each one made the children wince. What was strange was the way mother was never once heard to groan or cry out while she was being beaten like that. When at last the door opened and mother was tossed out, she would always be looking as wretched as a sheaf of rice emerging from the threshing machine. With her face swollen and red like an old pumpkin in fall, the first thing mother looked for was her children as they waited outside the door. In the midst of that maelstrom, spreading her arms as wide as could be, she would gather her children to her breast. No sound of sobbing or groaning could be heard from her. What the children hugged to her breast could feel after a short time was the far too rapid thudding of her heartbeat and the hot, chestnut-sized tears falling onto their heads.
Mother blamed nobody. She never uttered any complaint. She soaked a huge quantity of soy beans and ground them on a hand mill. All day long she fed the fire beneath the cauldron. When all was done, she would first of all bring father a block of hot, thickly steaming tofu. Once he had downed the whole block of tofu with makkolli, father would go out to piss. Once she grew older, that was how mother lived and I longed to be able to understand her but my oldest sister said there was no way of knowing a mother like her.
Living in that way, mother’s insides must have gradually deteriorated yet, incomprehensibly, she was never once sick until she died, and she lived to be ninety-seven. As she was dying, her expression was bright and peaceful. It was like the death of a queen who has never once in her life known hardship.
One became great by expecting the possible, another by expecting the eternal, but he who expected the impossible became greater than all.
Not that she was fully consistent in showing a resigned expression and a serene face in every circumstance. When my second sister fell out of the jujube tree and died, mother went crazy.
Sister had climbed the jujube tree fearlessly. She had gone up to collect eggs from a birds’ nest, then slipped on a branch soaked by rain, fell headlong to the ground. Striking the ground, she lay spread-eagled and her breathing grew intermittent.
Ever since shrikes had started to bring bits of straw and pile them up on a branch of the jujube tree, the children’s eyes had begun to shine. It was because of the thoughtless bragging of a neighbor’s child, claiming that birds’ eggs wrapped in spring onions and baked in a fire were so delicious they were just out of this world. It was less because of the appetizing way he mimed chopping onions into pieces with a knife than because they were mad about any meat baked in a fire. The eggs laid by the two hens were carefully controlled by mother; without exception they were enclosed in a long twisted-straw pack and sold on the next market-day. If ever a hen failed to lay, the whole family fell under the darkest suspicion. Meat, even on special festivals, was excluded from inhuman, cold-hearted father’s table. As for eggs, there was nothing left to share with the children, who had to make do with the luxury of smelling them. To such children, even the eggs laid by the ownerless shrikes in the sky might be considered a bounty.
By the time mother arrived at the foot of the jujube tree, the child was already dead. The villagers who had got there first shook their heads. She had already lost her eldest son to a disease, then the two-years younger daughter had died after being pulled down into the well by the bucket; it looked as thought she was doomed to have her children die in a series of misfortunes.
Mother picked up the child and put her on her back. She glared with bloodshot eyes at father when he said she was already done for. Do you think that because they were born as the dregs of anger and hatred, it doesn’t matter if another of them dies? she screamed. Father tried to stop her, saying it was too late, there was no point, but she pushed him out of her way. She pushed with such force that father, who was bulky in size, was tumbled ten furrows’ distance.
She had often urged father to cut down the jujube tree, since snakes clustered at its roots, but father insisted it was needed for the offerings in honor of his distinguished ancestor. Now it seemed he had killed a child for the sake of a few jujubes. White foam gathered on mother’s lips as she shouted she would either cut it down with an axe or burn it down. Not just father, all the villagers told her it was hopeless. It was already growing dark, it was too far to the hospital in the main town. If she ran those ten miles, mother would die too. They said she should kill a chicken, boil lots of eggs, and perform a ceremony for the repose of the child’s soul.
Mother paid no notice. She swore harshly at the people there. Foam flew from her lips. Mother went darting off like an arrow into the dark, while rain kept falling, carrying the child on her back, as if she was possessed.
If they said there was no hope, it was in part because the distance was too great for the condition the child was in, but mainly because the local stream was swollen at the end of the rainy season. The stepping stones had been submerged long ago and the fierce current was strong enough to engulf an ox. Father and the villagers all knew that after just a few miles, she would be stranded. Only mother in her madness knew no such thing.
Day dawned and she had not returned. They believed she must have fallen into the stream with the child and drowned. A few of the villagers set off with father at daybreak to look for mother and child. One man said he had heard someone screaming fit to cough blood close to the stream late in the night. He said that the voice, mingled with the sound of the wind, was no human voice, it had sounded like the ghost of the fellow who had fallen into the stream and drowned a couple of years before.
Then the villagers with father came across a huge willow tree that was lying across the stream. Beside the stump of the tree, that seemed just to have been felled, there lay an old saw with bloodstains on its handle.
Every time she recalled that day, mother would display the scars etched deep in her palms. Climbing along the willow tree, crossing over the stream, mother hastened on along in the dark. As she sped heedlessly along the muddy road, mother heard the darkness calling out: Sorry, I’m sorry, mom . . . the girl on her back was weeping in fear, mingled with groans. The mad jolting of her mother’s body had stimulated the girl’s weak diaphragm. She revived, hacking and coughing. Her mother squatted in the mud, embracing her daughter and weeping : My little girl, my little girl.
Here now, if you’re going to die, eat well first. As the eggs emerged from the hens, mother fed them to the child after she left hospital. She ate so many that boiled eggs became the food she detested most of all. Even now sister refuses to eat eggs, saying they smell of chicken shit.
The frenzy that had threatened to possess her completely and her reckless optimism had saved the dead child. Thus mother was sometimes fierce, frightening, so tough that even father and the rest were no match for her.
As a matter of fact, she was capable of browbeating others into submission without so much as a word or the slightest change in her expression.
Sun-dŏk’s mother, chattering away at the backdoor, saying I was Pak Sŏng-hyŏn’s child, told how she had been kidnapped by mother in broad daylight. She had dragged her as far as the shed where the bier was stored, out in the middle of the fields, had gone inside, then after about the time it would take to smoke a cigarette emerged rubbing her hands. She looked as though she had simply relieved herself. That day Sun-dŏk’s mother came creeping home on shaky legs like someone who had been possessed by a spirit then released again. No one ever knew what had happened inside the bier shed. Neither mother nor Sun-dŏk’s mother ever spoke of it until they died. But from that day, whenever Sun-dŏk’s mother came face to face with mother she used to wet herself as if she had just seen one of the great guardian spirits in the flesh. While the village women would stop their smiling as they calculated the dates of father’s death and of my birth.
‘He’ keeps silent—but he cannot speak. Therein lies the distress and anguish. For if I when I speak am unable to make myself intelligible, then I am not speaking–even though I were to talk uninterruptedly day and night. Such is the case with ‘him.’
In our house there used to be three straw bales full of salt. There were always three of them. In the dark shed behind the kitchen, at half a step intervals, they stood enshrined in a row on a platform of large stones. As time passed, their girth would gradually shrink, and by their height or by the way they were raised up on pedestals, they were like three buddhas in a temple. That is why I feel obliged to say they were enshrined.
They had been there long before I was born. From time to time they were exchanged for new bales, of course, but to my eyes they seemed always to have been there without any change. A white pottery bowl was placed beneath each one. Into the bowls the golden brine fell drop by drop.
The shed was always dark. A trickle of water issuing beneath the outside storage terrace flowed through there, so it was always thoroughly damp. Even when it was not the rainy season the bales of salt kept up their flow. They let fall their brine like tears.
Unlike sacks for rice, the bales of salt were loosely woven of old straw. They had to absorb plentiful darkness and moisture if brine was to be produced. The brine served to make the tasty tofu that everyone enjoyed. The tofu mother made was famous in the region around. It was her tofu that fed the family and kept it alive.
Chill dark, downright damp, together with solitude. If I happened to enter there, that grim atmosphere would lick disagreeably at the nape of my neck. For a while I was held motionless by the dark and damp, then with a shudder I would make an effort and violently escape. Cold, salty brine emerged from that space. The way such brine consistently produced warm and savory, soft and white, tasty tofu was for me mysterious and strange.
That shed brought out goosebumps even on the hottest days. Going in there might have been a way of avoiding sweltering heat, but our family rarely or never frequented the place. Only mother spent her summers there. When mother emerged from the shed after a lengthy period inside, her appearance was that of a bale of salt impregnated with dark and damp and solitude. When she had been beaten up by father and her whole body was a mass of bruises, she used to spend long hours there. Indeed, it seemed certain that her body found healing there.
The North Korean people’s army came south. They demanded food from mother. There was already tofu in the house, and piles of beans. Overnight, mother turned all those beans into tofu. They held an untoward party. By that time father was already in hiding. Mother was branded a traitor. She was not the only one. Her younger brother, my maternal uncle, who had managed the boat that night was also labeled traitors. They had transported the North Koreans’ supplies to the far side of the stream. When the South Korean army advanced north again, her uncle fled, leaving behind his old mother and two-year-old son, the cousin who had shown me mother’s book, as well as his wife. The boat, their livelihood, was confiscated, their house demolished. Our aunt was executed in the village peach orchard by the rightist youth brigade using a heavy scythe.
Mother too was tied to a peach tree. Even when she was coughing blood, our aunt kept denying her husband’s treason, insisting they had been forced to do it at gunpoint, but mother did not imitate her. Even when her clothing had been torn off and she was being beaten with a peach-tree branch so that scraps of flesh were torn off, mother remained silent.
Once father emerged from the cavity beneath his sister’s privy, claiming he had hidden to escape being requisitioned by the people’s army, he became a member of the youth brigade’s action corps. For him that meant tagging along at the rear of the group, casually carrying a stick, but on the day mother was taken to the peach orchard there was no sign of him. Someone told me he had been instructed to stay away. The person watching from among the peach trees as mother faced imminent death had been Pak Sŏng-hyŏn.
Pak Sŏng-hyŏn was not a casual member of the action corps like father. He was the son of the richest farmer in the region, a Christian who had experienced intimidation while the people’s committee was in control; the motivation for his participation in the corps was bound to be different from that of people like father. His family’s property, entirely confiscated by the people’s committee, had already been returned to them, but since his religious beliefs had been harshly threatened, he was unable to let those troubled times pass quietly. As a result, the woman he adored was here before him in a situation in which she seemed sure to suffer severely.
Yet this paradox turned to mother’s advantage. The authority temporarily bestowed on him was mother’s salvation. That the members of the action corps were all starving was something Pak Sŏng-hyŏn knew full well. Just as the people’s army had done, he commanded her to make tofu for them. When she said she had no beans, he replied that they could use the beans in the storeroom in his house. Freed from the peach orchard, mother once again boiled tofu day and night. The two main rooms in our house were being used as a shelter for wounded soldiers. Those soldiers survived on the tofu mother made while they were waiting to be evacuated.
Mother, snatched from the jaws of death, reckoned the bales of salt were her benefactors. Clearly the tofu and Pak Sŏng-hyŏn were also benefactors. Through this incident, mother could feel once again that Pak Sŏng-hyŏn’s mind was unchanged. It also served to confirm the still unallayed suspicions of the villagers and of our father. The families of the dead victims viewed mother, the only traitor to have been spared, as an immoral woman.
Mother simply made tofu. Just as she had said nothing when tied to a peach tree, she endured the villagers’ whispering and the now even fiercer violence of father in silence and indifference. As for Pak Sŏng-hyŏn, who had saved her life, she never so much as looked at him, let alone utter a word of thanks. The eye of the storm had passed through the heart of the village, but mother just went on, after the uproar as she had before, making tofu. She winnowed the beans in a wooden dish, turned the hand-mill all night, poured out brine and boiled the cauldron. Setting a plank on a trivet, she would lay on it a cloth bag full of fresh tofu. To give a good appearance, she would set twenty pottery disks with a lotus-flower pattern in rows on top of it, lay another plank on top and weigh that down with a millstone. For mother, sleeping, waking up, breast-feeding the baby, making tofu was all in a day’s work. Like breathing, done in silence.
In order to safeguard his faith, Pak Sŏng-hyŏn became leader of the patriotic youth association. Having realized by bitter experience that without the state his faith could look for no safeguard, he took the lead in becoming a loyal citizen devoted to the Republic of Korea. Mother’s brother was among the missing, his wife had been wretchedly executed. His mother once dead, mother’s three-year-old nephew was as good as orphaned. Their property had already been confiscated. Thus her own family had been destroyed. Therefore it was strange that Pak Sŏng-hyŏn’s book had come into mother’s hands. She clearly did not enjoy preparing the food for ancestral rites, but mother had never shown any interest in Christianity, either. In addition, there was father ever ready to respond violently with blows and kicks to the slightest suspicion. And she had a book of his, one even signed with his name. Why? How? Besides, when could she have read it? As ever, here too mother was silent.
It is great to give up one's wish, but it is greater to hold it fast after having given it up. It is great to grasp the eternal, but it is greater to hold fast to the temporal after having given it up.
Maternal grandmother built a shack of mud and reeds on top of the demolished house and lived there with her little grandson. Our aunt was buried in a hole in the ground with the bodies of the seventy-three other traitors. All hope of our uncle returning seemed to have vanished. Not owning so much as a hand’s breadth of land, grandmother could not even plant vegetables. She boiled a soup of wild millet rubbed between her palms and horsetail grass. In winter there was not even that. That long-drawn out penury, lasting from the summer drought, through autumn and winter was more terrible that the troubles had been.
Her own mother, shriveling up like a dried pollack and her nephew, his belly sticking out like a dried pollack’s, might be close nearby, yet mother could do nothing. She already had nine mouths to feed. More fearful still was father’s glare, ever on the watch in case any provisions might leak out. If mother said she was going to visit members of her family, she could not help being acutely aware of father’s stern expression glued to the back of her head. Standing at the side of the yard, father would watch mother’s retreating back until she was out of sight.
When mother was cooking gruel, she used to add an extra measure of water. She managed in that way to obtain one extra serving of gruel. This she would place inside an empty water jar. When my oldest sister went to draw water, she carried the jar on her head. By great good fortune, the house of our grandmother was beside the spring. On her way to draw water, sister would deliver the bowl of gruel hidden inside it to the house. Equally fortunately, water had to be fetched every day. In this way, grandmother and cousin were able to escape dying of hunger.
Every time she went to the spring, bearing the pot on her head, sister’s legs would be shaking dreadfully. Father seemed to be glaring at her from all sides. Every time fifteen-year-old sister, who always used to be hungry from the watery gruel, thought of the bowl of gruel inside the water pot, she would swallow her saliva. Mother always used to worry whether she might not put her lips to the bowl of gruel along the way. Yet my eldest sister never once put her lips to the bowl. Mother called my admirable sister a good daughter. She called her that until she died. I remember sister sobbing at the rites for mother. Since she kept calling her a good daughter, I used to challenge her, asking if she realized how hungry and weary she had been all her life.
When grandmother finally died, our then five-year-old cousin necessarily came to live with us. It meant one more mouth. Since everyone in the village knew him to be an orphan with nowhere to go, father had no choice but to put on a show of accepting our cousin. Inside the house, it was another matter. He furiously asked why he should be obliged by fate to have to feed someone from his wife’s family.
Our cousin was unable to sit straight at the meal table, he was always twisted, with one eye on father. He would even jump at the sound of father just putting his spoon down. Mother could do nothing to protect him. It was the same as if he had been made to eat out of doors. Had he eaten? Had he slept? On account of father’s threatening attitude, nobody dared show any interest in him. Even mother pretended indifference. She made as if she could not see him gnawing at sorghum stalks to fill his hungry stomach, and she took no notice when his lips and fingertips were smeared all over after he had been catching and eating grasshoppers. Mother must have realized that the only way to keep him near her at all was to ignore him completely, almost as if he was not there.
At primary school, that he entered at the same time as my older brother, he soon showed outstanding ability. He knew Chinese characters they had not studied, he displayed such outstanding skill in calligraphy that he wrote out in formal style the memorial inscription 江湖砲手參戰碑. On the day when the county magistrate and township mayor, amazed by the advent of such a prodigy, came to offer their congratulations to father, he went into a rage like a man who has been disgraced.
Wanting to belong in our household, cousin acted as if he was stupid. For even the simplest calculations he would ask my brother about each step. In the presence of our family he never looked at anything resembling a book. The only time he could read or write was when he was alone at home with mother. Having no paper or inkstone, he would write in the sand with a twig from the persimmon tree. He knew, as the family did not, that mother had books concealed that she read.
Cousin left home when he was fourteen. My older brother had started middle school but the moment cousin completed primary school, father dragged him off to the fields. One winter’s night, having been forced to spend a whole year working like a borrowed ox in the fields, cousin left carrying a bundle of books mother had prepared for him. Mother’s last exhortation to him was: Come what may, you must read and write. Inside the bundle were the old books that mother had read. In addition, seeing he was only a cousin, there was a really amazing sum of money in there, too. It was incomprehensible. Money was entirely under father’s control, as cousin knew very well. It was too large a sum for her to have collected penny by penny without any help.
In actual fact, if he had held on just a little longer, cousin would have been free of father’s contempt and ill-treatment. For only half a year after he left, father died.
But that was after he was gone. For a long time no one heard any new of cousin. By the time the newspapers announced he had won the President’s Prize for calligraphy, mother was no longer alive. He had become a professor in some provincial university. I had thought mother might have kept in touch with him, but when I visited him, he did not so much as know that father had died so soon.
Even when I told him of mother’s death, he showed no great surprise or sorrow. He simply gazed up at the sky in silence for a while. Then he asked me: Do you know what your mother’s hope was? Had mother ever had a hope? If she had, surely it had vanished the moment she married father. Seeing that I had no immediate reply, he went on: My hope, your hope, that’s what it was. What is your hope? I asked. He laughed awkwardly. Since you and I can read and write freely, it’s been fulfilled. If I still have a wish left, it’s to write a memorial tablet to be set up in that peach orchard over the grave of those seventy-three poor souls. Will you do that if I can’t?
In the end he died without fulfilling that wish.
He who loves God has no need of tears, no need of admiration, in his love he forgets his suffering, yea, so completely has he forgotten it that afterwards there would not even be the least inkling of his pain if God Himself did not recall it, for God sees in secret and knows the distress and counts the tears and forgets nothing.
I have the impression that someone once told me I was not my father’s son. Because I was born ten months after father had left this world. Counting by the solar calendar, not the lunar, he said. If it was really so, and if so how, I don’t know. Mother never said anything. And I never asked her. How could I ask mother whose child I was? I might ask myself, it was not something I could ask mother.
Father died ten months before I was born. Father had been forty-seven. It was because of the clan register.
Once the war was over, a new clan register was published. In the register, brought up to date after thirty years, all the recently born children’s names were recorded in full. In the old days, not even the main branch of the family had a copy of the clan register. Until then, if someone wanted to consult the register, they had to go all the way to Yŏnghŭng township where the tenth generation of the Sunchŏl family line was living, walking, then by bus, then crossing the river. The cover of the newly revised register was not only thick, it was black and shiny. It was no longer called a Clan Register but a Genealogy, the word printed in gold letters. One set of ten volumes was allotted to each senior household for the first time. There was no longer any need to go all the way to Yŏnghŭng. Father coveted that genealogy. He longed for our house to have a copy, even though we were not a senior household. Father, who every time he beat mother up would drag in a mention of his ancestor, the Minister for War, and never did cut down that snake-ridden jujube tree because he needed it for offerings to his ancestors.
Father was waiting for an opportunity. The eldest grandson of the senior family, father’s second cousin, was fully aware of father’s intention. Father, who knew there would be neither opportunity nor justification for simply removing it, finally took decisive action and stole it. The eldest grandson, realizing the genealogy had vanished, came running after father. The confrontation took place on a bridge, and father rolled off the bridge together with the genealogy. He struck his head on the stones of the dried up stream-bed, spent four days without recovering, then breathed his last. The grandson was twice summoned by the police but at the family’s insistent entreaties, father’s death was classified as having been caused by an accidental fall.
Father died on mother’s knees. There was no way of knowing what last words they exchanged but until his last breath father clasped mother’s hand tightly. All his life long, he had done nothing but beat her up, but she did not withdraw her hand from his until the strength had completely gone out of him. Nobody could guess what might be the meaning of the tear that flowed from father’s closed eyes. Even in death, father seemed a riddle.
Pak Sŏng-hyŏn, mistakenly thought to have been my father. In every way his life was the antithesis of my father’s. After being head of the patriotic youth league he once even ran for election to the provincial assembly but finally his end was no different from father’s. Carrying a shotgun, he was out hunting deer when he fell into a boar-trap and his heart was pierced.
The man who had set the trap was a pockmarked guy named Ch’ŏn from the lower village. During the war he had gone missing together with our uncle, but then had reappeared, minus one arm. He earned a living by hunting and slaughtering. The nickname One-arm was added to the original Pock-face. He used to be better able to do hard and difficult jobs than people equipped with two arms.
Among the seventy-three poor souls buried in the peach orchard had been his father. He could not avoid the suspicion that the boar-trap had been a deliberate plot, a means of revenge, but after being questioned more than twenty times, he was cleared of suspicion and released. Whether or not there had been a plot, the death of Pak Sŏng-hyŏn, falling by accident into the boar-trap and dying on the spot, had been the end of him, neither more nor less.
The only one to enjoy a full span of life and close her eyes peacefully was mother, who had spent her whole life exhausted and in misery. Her skin was amazingly white and soft for someone of ninety-seven. His daughters exclaimed: My, so soft, my, so pretty, stroking mother’s face as she lay there. As her consciousness began to waver, her children clung to her, shedding tears. You mustn’t die. You should live another thousand years, ten thousand. You’re entitled to it.
Whether or not she heard them, mother spoke, barely moving her lips: You’re . . . still . . . alive . . . . then she named the sons and daughters who had died more than sixty years before, and as if absorbed for a moment in some private grief she twisted her lips. There were sons that even we had forgotten and could not recall. So you can go now and see those sons and daughters, my oldest sister said, wiping away tears. Mother smiled faintly, as if to say she understood. Immediately after that her ninety-seven years of life here below ended.
To the very end, I never was able to ask mother whose child I had been. I did not ask. That spring day, with pink azaleas covering the hills, mother rode in the bier to lie beside father. The white paper flowers decorating the four corners of the burial place fluttered in the breeze. All her life long she had willingly accepted the dark and humid as though she detested herself, protecting her children with love, and now her body, purified like pure white salt that has given up all its brine, was lying in the flower-adorned bier. Her twenty children and grandchildren in cotton mourning dress followed behind lumpily, like fresh tofu. Watching those lives, so abundant, solemnly continuing, I finally murmured, as I wept alone: Your life was great.
The many tears that came pouring on then were salty and sour like brine, but also sweet and tasty like mother’s tofu. Now, as I compare the underlined portions in the two books, I finally realize: Although I could not understand properly, what had made it possible for me to underline precisely those portions was the fact that mother’s hand was guiding mine.
The quotations from Fear and Trembling are taken from the English translation published as: Fear and Trembling by Johannes de Silentio, 1843 (Søren Kierkegaard) tr. Walter Lowrie, 1941. This is available online at http://www.mv.helsinki.fi/home/tkannist/E-texts/Kierkegaard/fear.htm