By Jeon Seong-Tae
Translated by Brother Anthony of Taizé
Published in Koreana: Korean Art & Culture (The Korea Foundation) Vol. 21, No.4 Winter 2007 pages 88-99
I heard this tale as I leaned against the raised sill of my door.
The hut’s back yard seemed to be dark as midnight. Ivy and woodferns drooped in tufts; it was infested with creepy insects, woodlice, grasshoppers, millipedes, and the like, so that I hated opening the door. Occasionally, though, on opening the back door of my room to expel the sharp tang of cigarette smoke, the breeze blowing in from the valley beyond the stream felt really good. One day, some old women from the nearby houses started to gather there, choosing the earth-floored space outside as a good place to pass the hot summer days. First there were two voices, then three, each seeming to have lived out a whole lifetime. Being extremely fond of stories myself, I felt mortified. Sitting in my room, I ended up eavesdropping through the thin layer of paper that covered the fretwork door. I had the impression that, after all, my teacher had had a serious intention, sending me to this remote corner to hold my tongue and wash out my ears.
So that back yard became an old folk’s shelter and my secluded room’s lonely feel evaporated. Those rough-mannered old women took no account of the fact that someone was occupying the room intent on studying; they went on chattering away and laughing among themselves. Sometimes, talking about things embarrassing for a young bachelor to hear, they would cackle, “Hush, someone’s listening!” After some four days had passed in that way, I heard a vexed voice, “Is he mad, keeping his door shut in this midsummer heat?” She seemed intent on being heard, so I coughed and opened the door. I felt quite relieved.
“Not mad, anyway.”
One of them spoke, scowling. The rough-voiced old woman seemed to be the one who had previously spoken loudly outside my door.
“Ah, they say one young guy staying here ended up going mad, possessed by a spirit.”
So I became acquainted with them. Nonetheless, I did not hear the whole of this frightening, sorrowful tale only from the old folk coming to the earth-floored space. Sometimes contributions to the tale came from an old man seen in the distance with whom I never exchanged a single word, or from the neighborhood dogs, or the woods and even, as a last resort, from the wind or the rain. As I listened to the tale all through that summer and autumn, two whole seasons, leaning on the raised sill, my back grew bent and a callus formed on my left elbow.
What brought you here? What are you studying? Whenever there was a pause, the old women would pester me. Sometimes they insisted as if they had been waiting for someone for a very long time, rather than in simple curiosity. I felt uptight inside, being unable to speak freely. It was not that I had some kind of problem I could not talk about. Mainly, I just did not feel confident that I could explain my complicated situation to them. It is not always the case that the words you speak are understood. At least, my problem belonged to the realm of the metaphysical. Still, it was not that I thought that the rural women, being ignorant, would not understand such things. They are people who comprehend everything with their bodies. The problem was simply that they had a separate language in which to communicate such things. For instance, I heard the old women talking about death like this.
“It’s been a long time since that old fellow went up the hill, hasn’t it? More than ten years, it must be.”
“For sure. Why, he was moved to that other hill two years ago so it must be more than twelve years ago.”
“He must have had three years extra in this world’s age?”
“Let me see; yes, he had three years of another’s age.”
They seemed to be talking of people who had gone to the world beyond. I later found out that that old man who’d died had been eighty-three. It was said that eighty was the limit a life could reach so if someone lived on beyond that, people borrowed another’s age for counting instead. For my part, I had spent my life pursuing the beauty of words that were straight or curved, that turned in circles and upside down, but compared with those women’s exuberant metaphors and images, my language was shoddy stuff. Even when I managed to grasp their full meaning after much head-scratching, there was still a problem that remained. It was obvious that these women would mock my studies for being completely unprofitable. So I finally invented an excuse that I was unwell and had come there to rest.
As I’ve already said, talking about my studies is so tedious that I’m not sure there is any point in trying. Officially, I had become a comedian but even after seven years I had failed, as people say, to make a hit. To such an extent that I was unknown to the old women, although they recognized faces that even occasionally appeared on television. Did I not have what it takes to be a comedian? That was not it, either. I was the owner of a career record that began with a magnificent debut, having been acclaimed for the lethal eloquence of my vocal mimicry satirizing a certain politician. I spent all my waking hours creating material satirizing politics and the state of society and getting my tongue round it. Yet the response of the audiences was never extraordinary. Someone asked me if that kind of joke would ever work, politics being so unpopular a topic. An entertainer who lives on popularity undergoes heartbreak every day, and I was finally obliged to quit the stage in sorrow after producing nothing but forced smiles at a long-awaited chance to perform. You can imagine how depressed I was if I say I went to consult a fortune teller.
There were people who dismissed him as a swindler and a fraud, but to those who frequented him he was a highly reputed fortune teller. There were even reports that he had grasped fully the order of cosmic providence at the youthful age of twenty-seven. My hope on the way to visit him was for some consolation. I had heard talk of a youthful fortune teller, so I could not help being taken aback on discovering someone who had just turned forty. Anyway, since occult powers probably take no account of a person’s age, I sat down, with considerable trepidation.
Still, our first encounter was a disappointment. Even though I did not expect his psychic powers to extend to guessing the reasons why a client was visiting him, I had been hoping that, if he had sharp eyes, he would recognize my face. Rather he kept asking things with an attitude suggesting he would freely take advantage of everything. Feeling grim, I exposed the tale of misfortune that had brought me to him. Sitting there, after listening quietly, he asked me to make him laugh. With a disagreeable feeling of absurdity, I replied:
“I’m someone who earns his living making people laugh.”
But not wanting to waste the money I was paying him, I told him a few well honed and polished jokes. He just sat there like the member of some jury, his lips not even twitching.
“It’s as though the words reach your lips alright, but they can’t make any real contact with life.”
I felt extremely ill-humored. This was meant to be a fortune-telling session and here he was, playing the sage.
“Today I met an old man who has spent his whole life writing; let me tell you what he said.”
Wondering what on earth he was getting at, I stared back at him.
“That old man said his lifelong wish in writing had been that the written words would vanish and the tale alone remain, but he had not succeeded. He meant he had been bound to the words and not been able to get free. Even more, then, when it comes to mocking the world and criticizing it; maybe it’s that easy. I say that because you’re someone who works with words. It may not be much fun but come back sometimes and we’ll talk some more.”
That was what he said at the end of our conversation. His words struck me. It had been my dream to become a comedian who would make others laugh and cry at the same time. After that, each time I went to visit him, he would repeat curious things he had heard from his clients and ask my opinion about them.
“There’s a woman from the coutryside who comes sometimes to ask about her fortune; she says her devoted husband is having an affair with the widow next door. It seems she discovered them winking at one another over the garden wall; at least, that’s what she said they were doing. Anyway, that husband of hers must be a bit of a weakling. His excuse was that a spirit had got possession of his eye, so that it seemed as if the other woman was beckoning to him, he says. And how wretched that woman next door must be! The wife says it would better if the three of them could deal with it in a less hurtful way; what do you think would be best?”
“For all three to deal with it in a less hurtful way?”
He nodded with an emphatic look.
“Tell them to make a hole in the wall.”
“That’s a funny thought.”
He laughed lightly.
“But what about the wife’s wounded pride?”
“What about it? In any case someone has to take the blame.”
“I told her to call a shaman and hold an exorcism ceremony, a gut. Bring in the neighbors, tell them that her husband was possessed and had set about tempting the woman next door! That’s what an exorcism amounts to. But still, I reckon she won’t forget the betrayal she’s suffered on the part of her husband. So I told her to make him pretend to be insane for three months, as a punishment. She gladly agreed and went back home.
I laughed, but not because I had understood. The mere notion of obliging someone to act mad as a punishment for an affair was amusing.
A gut in a household where the husband had flirted—it was a curious prospect. I pondered in detail about the benefits the three people might derive from that Gut. First, what benefit could there be for the wife in disclosing her husband’s misbehavior to the whole neighborhood by the gut? Exposing the two guilty folk to severe suffering would serve as a form of retaliation, and further love-making of that kind would prove impossible, putting a firm stop to it. Above all, by showing everyone that her husband had turned his eyes on the next-door widow out of infatuation, not love, she would be able to recover her self-respect. From the husband’s and the next-door widow’s viewpoint, it might seem they were being made fun of briefly, then once it was over and done with, they would feel they had been really fortunate, and their lousy or distressed feelings would be reduced to some extent as pasion cooled to mere affection. Only after reaching that point did I laugh whole-heartedy.
“Teacher, how can I get hold of jokes?”
I had suddenly grown serious and was addressing him as my teacher.
“Well, let’s see; you’ll have to undergo a dark life. After that, surely words will follow naturally. People today may seem to dislike dark talk, but in reality they can’t hear any because there is none.”
“In plain words, you mean I have to roll in the mud and suffer?”
“I don’t believe in that kind of stuff. It’s usual for self-pity to become pointlessly far-fetched. The only way is to listen with amusement to what people say. If you’re honest, isn’t it a matter of other people’s words becoming one’s own words?”
“You seem to be saying that I should pick up people’s words; is there a good place for that?”
“Well, for my part I pick them up here. Every day the most amazing tales emerge at this desk. When I was twenty-seven, I began to listen in a valley up north, and picked up a big meteorite. Since then, I keep myself alive with the pleasure of listening to people’s tales.”
I could not make head or tail of his words. I assumed that by ‘picked up a big meteorite’ he meant he’d come across some kind of great tale.
“Whereabouts was that?”
He did not reply to my question, he simply laughed, but a shadow lay across his face.
After I had been talking with him for about three months, he handed me a map he had sketched, saying:
“That’s a valley where lots of meteorites fall; if you’re fortunate, you should be able to pick up at least one, but don’t be greedy. You’ve had a lot of trouble with words, so keep your mouth shut and just meditate.”
The tale I have to tell now is the tale of a mad woman who used to live alone in this hut, and her son. I had heard that some two years after that woman died, a young man had appeared from nowhere and spent three or four months there before leaving again. That was more than seven years before. Nobody said that the young man had been the dead woman’s son. It was just something that could be sensed by reading between the lines of the tale.
As I listened to the old women talking, the most perplexing thing was the place names scattered through their words, Mubau-gol, Jeol-gol, Jireumpau-deung, Keunjae, Jaemitei, Sineukeori, Saengma-gol, Ikkibau, Mu-gol, Doindeung, Chottaebaengi, Gomudak-gol, Yeou-gol. They were the names of villages established by slash-and-burn farmers on the far side of the mountains, that had by now completely vanished, leaving only the names. I recalled having read somewhere that slash-and-burn farmers had been fond of giving unusual names to the land they farmed to mark the exact location.
Usually, people referred to the mother as Yeo’ggol-daek, the woman from Yeou-gol (Fox Valley). She had not originally been from this valley, but had come from Yeou-gol, on the far side of the mountain. Yeo’ggol-daek had seemed the easiest name for her. Yeou-gol had been a remote spot, and the farmers cultivating the land there were were said to be deep folk. That woman was unfortunate and lost her husband to sickness while she was still a young wife with a newborn baby. A farmer in Mupau-gol, twenty-four years older than she was, gave her tough jobs, such as plowing, before taking her as his concubine.When the slash-and-burn farmers began to settle outside the mountain, Sosil-daek (the woman from Sosil) had come to this village with her husband. From that day, Yeo’ggol-daek lived under the same roof as the legal wife. While the husband was alive, the two women treated each other kindly enough but once he was gone, they truly lived for each other like two sisters. When the wife fell ill from high blood pressure, the other looked after her in every way and when she died, after being bedridden for five whole years, she buried her beside her husband.
Yeo’ggol-daek had a nickname; she was was known as ‘Lying Grandma.’ People said that if two scoops of anything entered her house, they turned into two sackfuls. The expression ‘Yeo’ggol-daek’s two sackfuls of lies’ became a local byword that was heard everywhere. The oldest lie in her life was the incident of the false report of the armed spies. When they first received her report that two armed spies from the North had entered her house and gobbled up the gruel left over in her pot before bolting again, no one in the village doubted her. You only had to mention armed spies for the entire country to be thrown into confusion, with the whole population dropping what they were doing and crowding in front of the television.
For several days, the news was full of Yeo’ggol-daek and her mountain-valley village, her shabby hut with the autumn sunshine beating down on the beaten-earth floor. Cameras kep charging into the cave-like kitchen thick with soot. The receptacle for rice inside her rice-cooker, that she used to hold rice gruel, filled the screens. Inside the battered container the remaining traces of dark red-bean gruel were clearly visible. The TV cameras stared into that container for long minutes as if they were taking photos. After that came the warm spot inside her room with blanket and pillow lumped together untidily, followed by long shots of the cornfield and woodland beside her house that Yeo’ggol-daek’s gestures indicated had served as the escape route.
The villagers handed over the village and fields to the military, refrained from moving around, and waited for the spies to be arrested as soon as possible. They followed the progress of the intensive search and discussed the many tens of millions of Won in reward money offered to anyone reporting a spy. How on earth had such a stroke of luck befallen Yeo’ggol-daek, they wondered. Despite several days’ continual searching, however, they were unable to find any traces and once past the fourth day, the villagers started to question the ulterior motives behind the report. The military and police began to visit the village’s inhabitants, collecting detailed information about Yeo’ggol-daek. On the day the soldiers who had combed the nearby hills as if they were hunting lice withdrew, together with the helicopters, as well as the mobile units from the broadcasting stations, Yeo’ggol-daek was taken to the local town’s police station.
“I wanted the kid to look; I hoped he might cry if he happened to see how his mother’s living, that’s why. Now I feel sorry. I’m not a bit ashamed of how it all turned out but now I think of my son, I wonder why I bothered . . . You saw that rice-pot, didn’t you, Mr. Detective? I reckon that son’s so lost any affection he would’t come anyway.”
People who thought her child was just an excuse for something she had done in hope of a reward were furious. For over a fortnight Yeo’ggol-daek was kept locked up. During that time a village assembly was held, where it was decided to expel Yeo’ggol-daek from the neighborhood. But since she came back as a drowned corpse, that plan came to nothing. The younger son of the village headman, a high-school student, appeared with a sopping wet Yeo’ggol-daek on his bicycle, saying he’d come upon her on his way home from school as she was diving into the stream, so he’d saved her and brought her home. The old women noisily opined that that attempted suicide was a fabrication, too.
So she stayed on as before, but people did not have much to do with her. Moving about on her own, she worked in the fields and led a quiet life. Five years before her death, having lost her mind, she set fire to a hillside. There was an old man living nearby who was paralysed with no-one to care for him; Yeo’ggol-daek would call in morning and evening, prepare his meals, empty his chamber-pot. People reckoned that in her madness she did that under the illusion he was her husband. One day, after she had gone over the mountain to gather chestnuts in the valley beyond, she failed to come home. Four days after she vanished, her body was discovered in Yeou-gol, Fox Valley, and people said she must have been heading for her original home, like a fox is said to die with its head pointing toward its lair. She was seventy-one when she died.
There can be no doubt that the young man who people said had blown in like the wind two years later was her son. Unwilling to reveal his own identity, he seemed to have tried hard to find some sign of his mother in that valley. Why else would he have moved into Yeo’ggol-daek’s hut among the many empty houses, and wasn’t the only topic that interested him among all the topics of conversation precisely talk about Yeo’ggol-daek? He was said to have come and gone across the mountains every three or four days to visit slash-and-burn villages that the local people never visited. There were also old women who said they had seen the youth weeping quietly at the sight of the years-old corn-cobs hanging under the eaves of the hut.
He must have had the impression he had reached the end of the world as he entered that valley. He would have found that the village, which from the bus-stop looked quite close, was in fact far off as he walked on. Perhaps, like me, coming across a military camp, he had asked a soldier the way. Crossing the fields where the rice-thrashing had started, as he headed for the northern valley he must have come over the bridge.
Perhaps, seeing the cornfields extending along the path as it rose into the valley, he too had uttered a sigh. The high maize stalks with their male flowers raised aloft formed a dense forest and passing beside them the view was restricted like on entering a field of reeds. At the top of the field, inevitably, a farmhouse appeared with a stable attached. Houses for some fifteen households were scattered in sunny spots along the valley. They were uniformly old and shabby, houses that had not been touched since their roofs had been modernized, so that I was uncertain if people were living in all of them or not.
After climbing up the valley for some twenty minutes, I reached the top of the hill where the village seemed to end; a dog was barking down in the valley to the west. The house with the dog was out of sight, and one large chestnut tree was flourishing on the hilltop. I recollected how my teacher had told me to look for a chestnut tree. According to him, somewhere just below it there ought to be a low slate roof. He had mentioned gathering a bagful of chestnuts and a fair quantity of chestnut burrs were scattered around; I could not be sure but wondered if this was not the oldest and biggest tree in the village.
A yellowish cur appeared, snarling fiercely, so that I was obliged to pick up and carry a stick as I walked on. It seemed to be a village dog that was being raised by letting it roam freely, its owners having settled in an empty house. Until I reached the hut, the dog kept a respectful distance, barking as it retreated, then finally vanished into the cornfield.
Curiously enough, I only met two people in the village. Both were elderly and we did not so much meet as simply gaze at each other from far away. When I was halfway up the valley, I saw a white-haired old woman on top of a ladder set against a lotus-persimmon tree in the hedge of a vegetable patch. She was clinging on to the tree’s trunk and seemed to be busily sawing at the branches that were keeping off the sunlight. Branches with wilting leaves were piled on the bank, indicating that she had been doing that for several days. The villager I met after her was a crippled old man who was hobbling along a path between the soy-bean fields, leaning on a stick. He walked like a robot, advancing one foot, then the other, in a manner than looked both difficult and perilous. Since there were no houses thereabouts, it looked as though the old man must have left home walking like that long before. It struck me as being more like a punishment than a means of exercise. That sight, seen from far off, filled me with revulsion. Perhaps my sudden feeling of antipathy was directed not so much toward the old man with his twisted limbs as to the stubborn attachment to life that had driven him out into the scorching sunlight.
Apart from them, I encountered no other villagers. Since the sun had been declining toward the west for some time, the workers in the fields were not likely to be avoiding the heat in their rough shelters. The way the village was deserted and the appearance of the two old folk I had glimpsed suddenly made me think that this valley constituted an unreal space.
After living there for a while I learned that construction of a new golf-course had recently begun nearby and the villagers had been going there since the spring to lay the turf. It was only when evening came that the valley became noisy as an inhabited village should be. The sound of cows being driven home beyond the cornfields came echoing and the valley grew thick with smoke from fires boiling cattle-feed. Toward sunset, a truck selling fruit and vegetables would drive up playing popular tunes.
Some days later, a man named Mr. Ko came to visit, saying he was the village head. It had been raining all day long. The previous day I had pulled up the densely growing weeds in the yard. Insects were swarming, and I was feeling distracted, but in the end I’d simply done it to pass the time; I’m not sure what moved me but I thoughtlessly pulled up one handful of weeds, and finally that expanded into a general cleaning of the whole yard. The weeds had taken root in the hard ground so that they were difficult to uproot. At times I even had to use a spade. Rotting chestnuts like clam shells came up mixed with the roots. Once the weeding was done, the yard looked like a plowed field but as soon as the rain started it settled down. I was taking a brief nap after lunch when Mr. Ko came visiting. A middle-aged man, he identified himself as the village head; he entered the room quickly, as if driven by the rain, and sat on the floor, leaning against the wall.
“Everyone’s going out to work at the golf course, you’ll be lonely. They’re paying 45,000 Won a day, damn it, so farming’s become a sideline. They say it’ll be finished in time for the rice threshing . . .”
Mr. Ko went on in a monologue for quite a time. He was completely relaxed, as if he was just visiting a neighbor; it felt odd. He told me he had worked all over the country, and served in the military in Vietnam, and now he was happily making a living raising a herd of thirty-two beef cattle. Mostly, he talked about his youth.
“You might well call mine a vagabond youth, but in those days I was so hot-blooded I reckoned I couldn’t stand this valley. One winter, taking advantage of the quiet season, two of us walked miles through the snow to the coal mines in Jangnak Valley. Every dormitory was swarming with tough youths from all over the country. The weather was so cold that when we pushed the waggons out of the mine adit, the water on the iron wheels would freeze the moment it touched the icy rails. They wouldn’t budge even if two men were pushing. Hell, we ruined our health slaving away all day for a mere 270 Won.”
From there his tale moved on, with no apparent connecting link, to the time he’d fallen sick with consumption. It seemed as though he’d heard from someone that I’d come to live there because I was in poor health. He had come back home after falling ill; since he had saved a little money, he had purchased the cornfield beside the hut. From time to time he stopped talking to light a cigarette and at such moments the sound of the maize leaves rustling in the rain could be heard through the back door. The damp was soaking into the paper covering the door from the bottom upward.
“My mother cured my lung trouble; there’s not a single kind of snake or worm that I didn’t eat. Why I even went so far as to eat maggots from the privy. You want to know how I ate them? You know the big pots used for fermenting preserves like bean paste? She killed a mongrel, put it into one of those pots and placed it behind the privy. In less than ten days, that pot was seething with maggots that she emptied out and fried for me to eat. They tasted just like powdered charcoal. That’s how I got better. Have you seen my mother? She may look alright, in fact she’s got cancer. She’s old so it’s growing slowly but she insists she’d rather die than be cut so we’re helpless. She’s been like that for five years already.”
He yawned occasionally, as though he was exhausted. Hearing him talk, I was taken aback to realize that his mother was none other than the old woman I’d seen cutting branches by the vegetable patch. Mr. Ko abruptly brought his tales to an end, though it had seemed they would go on all afternoon, and stood up. He was looking very sleepy.
“How old are you now?” he suddenly asked as he was on his way out of the room.
“Be brave! You’re young; you can defeat disease if you have the right attitude.”
After unexpectedly speaking like that, he even went so far as to pat me on the shoulder.
Once he had left, I lit a fire in the firehole to heat the floor. On recalling Mr. Ko, for no special reason I raised a hand to my sparsely bearded face.
Late that evening, as I was on my way to the outside privy, I briefly glimpsed a dark shape as it went dashing into the night from in front of the fire hole. Startled, I slipped and fell on my behind in the gutter. There was a sound of maize leaves rustling together. I shone my flashlight in that direction but above the undulating maize there was nothing to be seen except thick mist.In the front of the fire hole, a patch of ground about the size of a towel was wet. It looked as though some kind of wild animal had been crouching there. For the first time I regretted having considered the valley in a slighting manner.
The next morning, I again saw the animal in front of the fire hole; it was the yellow cur that I had seen hanging about near the house. It vanished into the wet corn with its tail between its legs. It looked exhausted. I put some of my breakfast rice into a dish and placed it close to the field it seemed to favor. When I went out to look at lunchtime, the dish had been licked clean.
Of all the things in the valley, that cornfield was the most variable. The maize plants were the first to suffer from the heat. The leaves would drop dispiritedly while a smell like that of cattle fodder seemed to rise from the field. The moment a shower passed, their vigor would straightway revive as before and they would submerge the valley more than ever in green shade. On moonlit nights, the moonlight would pierce the cornfield like a knife and seem prepared to spend the whole night harvesting it.
In my view of the cornfield there was always the crippled old man, who dwelt in a house with a brownish tin roof on the far side of the stream. After breakfast he used to leave home and complete one full circuit of the village before midday; around three in the afternoon he would set out again and complete the same distance by evening. If rain fell, he was obliged to expose himself to it out on the road. The farthest the old man ever walked in a day was two circuits of the village. But he never once missed a day. I had the feeling that simply by watching him, I could describe exactly village paths that I had never walked along myself. The weird impression I had formed the first day soon vanished and turned into a feeling that I was watching a challenging spiritual discipline.
As I called to mind that old man whom Yeo’ggol-daek had served hand and foot during her last years, I vaguely realized that ten years had passed since then. But someone else serving him hand and foot had appeared and I occasionally began to notice an old woman washing a bedpan in the stream beside the tin-roofed house. I used to buy left-over water-melons cheap from the truck and cool them in the stream but in order to avoid the woman with her bedpan, I used to be obliged to climb up and find a spot beyond the next bend.
One day, that old woman from the tin-roofed house came up all alone and sat down in my back yard. I was eating a water-melon I had just split open, so I brought the dish over to her. Her face was small, her eyes deep-set, she looked homely and very timid. The fingers holding the melon were coarse. She simply gazed up at the remote hills and ate the melon. She munched away, carelessly throwing the rinds in all directions. Bits of rind lay scattered over the path and the clay-floored space. I had noticed that the local folk saved water-melon rinds and corn-cob hearts and put them in the cows’ mangers, so that the old woman’s action was rather unexpected. Feeling shy but none the less curious, I cautiously addressed her.
“You live with that old man, don’t you?”
There was no reaction. I wondered if she was deaf or dumb.
A rather awkward silence ensued. I looked down the road in the direction of the village. The old man from the tin-roofed house could not be seen; perhaps he was hidden behind a cornfield.
“Well, that way I get to eat all the corn I want.”
The old woman, who had hitherto been completely silent, threw away the last piece of water-melon rind and suddenly spoke. Unless I had misunderstood her, it sounded as if she was out of her mind. Then she suddenly rose to her feet and started to shout.
“Hey, you cur!”
Taken aback, I lifted my lips from the water-melon. I thought she was cursing me, but her eyes were turned toward the cornfield, from which the yellowish dog had just emerged.
Still shouting, she threw a stone at it. The dog whined and retreated back into the corn. The old woman pursued it as far as the edge of the field, where she continued to pour out curses, as she peered under the leaves.
“You won’t come crawling home? You refuse to come even when I offer you canned mackerel? Why won’t you let me tame you?”
Crouching at the edge of the field, muttering incomprehensibly, she seemed seriously upset.
Suddenly autumn arrived in the valley. Daytime temperatures hovered around thirty degrees, the sunlight was still strong, but in the evenings it grew cooler. The rustling sound from the maize leaves became increasingly harsh. Occasionally chestnut burrs would drop from the topmost branches of the chestnut tree. Mr. Ko began to bundle together the sesame plants growing along one side of the cornfield. They were the first things to be harvested. He said they would soon be stripping off the ripe maize cobs and picking the pepper pods. Once the heat had passed, the soy beans and pumpkins would ripen, yellowish-brown.
Mr. Ko took advantage of the early mornings, before he went to work at the golf-course, to cut the sesame plants little by little. The second day I picked up a sickle and went out to the field. Mr. Ko said that he had not been able to give them enough fertilizer, so this year the stalks were too short, he was not sure the bundles would stand up properly once they were bound together. The stems and leaves were still quite green, yet he complained that the harvest was late. Over the past few days, I had seen flocks of pigeons flying down to that sesame field. I helped with the reaping alongside Mr. Ko. Perhaps because my sickle was blunt, showers of sesame seeds went pattering down onto the plastic sheeting covering the ground and I felt ashamed. Still, the soft-hearted Mr. Ko gave no sign of displeasure. Finally, he put down his sickle, saying he had to be off to work. I said that I would go on reaping during spare moments. He told me not to, explaining that the reaping had to be done before the dew dried from the stalks. His elderly mother came up to tie the plants we had reaped into bundles. The next morning Mr. Ko arrived with a well-sharpened sickle that he gave me. After four days the harvest was complete and the plants we had reaped from the five rows were standing tied in bundles along the edge of the field. Once the sun was lower in the sky and it grew cooler, his mother beat the seeds from the bundled plants. Once the initial threshing was done, she showed me the bowl, saying that they had yielded only two measures, and shaking her head.
I was slowly growing bored with this utterly nondescript valley. Yeo’ggol-daek’s weary life was a common enough tale. The same was true of her son. He had come here driven by remorse and nostalgia, so surely he would have viewed every stone, every clump of grass as something special. Yet even if I could sympathize with him, it was nothing but a sentimental story.
Suddenly there were a lot of unfamiliar people going up and down the valley. When evening came, they would descend from the hills, each bearing a straw sack. I was told they were people gathering chestnuts in the valleys beyond the mountain where the slash-and-burn farmers had once lived. Seeing them, I recalled Yeo’ggol-daek; her son also came to mind. Then I thought how somewhere along that same path lay Yeou-gol, Fox Valley, the boy’s birthplace and also the spot where his mother had died; at that, I felt melancholic.
The chestnut tree at the top of hill near the hut let fall chestnuts with a soft plopping sound. Climbing the hill carrying a basket to pick up the chestnuts became a regular evening routine. Yet there were very few nuts. There were plenty of empty fallen burrs, but only a few chestnuts could be seen, as if they had all vanished into the ground. At first I thought it must be because of the different kinds of squirrel that swarmed thereabout. One day, foraging amidst the undergrowth as evening came on, I perceived that mine were not the only hands to have gone rummaging through the grass. Here and there I could see traces on the ground left by the tip of a stick, as if someone had been rummaging among the plants with a wooden staff. Whenever I heard the least sound near the house, I would open the door and survey the hillside. I kept watch like that for several days, but there was no sign of anyone picking up the chestnuts. Yet clearly someone was still taking them.
Then early at dawn one day I heard the tapping of a walking stick and the sound of shoes dragging. I guessed it must be the chestnut thief. Squinting through a hole in the door, I saw someone passing by, walking very carefully. Surprisingly, it was the old man from the tin-roofed house. He had a bulging plastic bag tied to the waist of his trousers. I decided that I would have to get up before the old man and gather the chestnuts first, but it was always the tapping of his stick that used to wake me. Finally I gave up collecting chestnuts. I felt foolish for having been so stressed up that I had wasted days pointlessly occupied in such a way.
Instead, I spent a whole day climbing the hill behind the village, carrying a sack. The hill path started at a point some way up the path between the fields. At its entrance there was an abandoned field with a single tomb in it. There I paused to catch my breath and picked up a stone. From a short way back the yellow cur had been following behind me. As soon as I threw the stone, it retreated with its tail between its legs. Once I was about half way up, I realized that it was still pursuing me. I had no intention of letting it accompany me. Again I threw a stone and this time it disappeared into the forest.
Reaching the top of the ridge, I saw serried peaks stretching into the distance. The old folk had told me that I would have to go down into one of the valleys, Sineu-geori or Saengma-gol, if I wanted to gather chestnuts. I was at a loss. I had no way of knowing where those valleys lay. To my left was a slope across which shadows were already lengthening; a larch grove stretched all the way down to the bottom of the valley. As I contemplated the sharply delineated larch grove amidst the vague contours and objects around me, I somehow felt comforted. I had long nourished a yearning for the coniferous forests of the northern regions of the globe I had never visited. Walking amidst the crunching sound of my feet on the snow through air cold enough to freeze the tip of my nose, if I raised my head I would be able to see fir trees piercing the deep blue sky. A forest with a spirit that raised pointed treetops like icicles. I had the impression that I would be bursting with energy at the prospect of visiting such forests. On seeing the larch grove, I felt as though I had just arrived in Siberia.
As I took the path among the larch trees, there was the yellow cur trotting before me; I had not noticed its reappearance. Aware of my presence, it hurried along the downward path. I suddenly realized that the dog was not following me, it was going its own way. The air, where the smells of resin and of rotting leaves mingled, tingled at the tip of my nose. The trees were lined up as if they had all been formed a long time ago and the forest was gloomy. After a while I stopped and looked up at the sky. The sky pierced by the tips of out-stretched branches seemed immensely deep. Could this be the feeling of existential solitude that the sight of an awe-inspiring landscape gives? I felt forlorn. I even wondered if this might be the big meteorite my teacher said he had picked up.
When I had nearly reached the foot of the forest, the sound of a stream reached me. I recalled the dog, that I had quite forgotten about, and looked around. The trail ceased following the stream and curved to the left; there was no sign of the dog. Intending to follow the stream, I quit the path. Here and there between the trees could be seen the remains of stone walls that must have surrounded fields or houses. Finally my foot caught in something and I fell. Thinking it must have been a rock, I turned to look and saw that it was a completely rotten tree stump. Judging by the coal-black marks on it, it seemed to have been deeply burned by fire. I wondered if I had sprained my right foot, since walking on it was painful. I hobbled down to the stream, removed the shoe and sock, and bathed it. Around the stream there were no visible indications that slash-and-burn farmers had lived there. There were also no chestnut groves, so it looked as though this was not Sineu-geori or Saengma-gol, Since there was no sign of anyone around, it did not look like the kind of place where I could pick up a tale like a big meteorite. I came back to the village empty handed.
One evening Mr. Ko invited me to his home. He explained he was having the village folk in for supper to mark his younger son’s departure for the army. Straw mats had been spread in the yard, where more than twenty of the local farmers were sitting together. There was no sign of the old women who used to visit my back yard; Mr. Ko’s aged mother waved at me as if I were a casual acquaintance. I sat down beside an old man.
“We’ll be harvesting the corn in a couple of days; young fellow, you should help us.”
I replied that it would be a pleasure.
On one side of the yard a cauldron of soup was boiling over a wood fire. Soon each one was served a bowl of meat soup. It looked as though at least one pig must have been slaughtered but the meat that Mr. Ko was cutting up on a chopping board was not pork.
“I made it through this summer well enough, but now I’ll get some stamina thanks to our headman.”
One of the farmers sitting beside me spoke, as he opened a bottle of soju.
“It’s all thanks to our grandson, not to our son.”
“True enough, Grandma.”
The man filled Mr. Ko’s mother’s glass and offered to fill mine too.
“The taste’s different from when it’s a dog that’s been kept tied up.”
When the farmer said that, I began to have a strange feeling; I put down my chopsticks and looked around. The old woman from the tin-roofed house was squatting mournfully alone in front of the cauldron as it rocked above the wood fire.
“Is it the yellow cur from the tin-roofed house by any chance?” I asked the farmer.
“When did they ever have a dog? This is the dog that old woman called Yeo’ggol-daek used to keep. Since its owner died, it’s roamed the village stealing other dogs’ food. The headman bagged it this morning with his airgun. It was a wise old dog and since it’s been roaming out of doors all this time its flesh isn’t stringy.”
I looked back at the place where the cauldron was hanging and felt my skin rising in goosepimples. The old woman, who had been squatting there just before, was no longer visible.
The following day I deliberately looked down toward the stream. The old woman who had invariably been there washing the bedpan was not to be seen. I thought I would ask the other old women but they did not turn up, apparently having something else to do. I began to feel troubled, wondering if I had not been seeing a phantom all this time.
The cornfields that had covered the valley were harvested and vanished one after another. Gradually the village paths they had concealed became visible. The old man from the tin-roofed house was down there walking. As always, the path looked very long for the old man. I even wondered about paying him a visit. But in one corner of my mind an ominous thought kept looming, a suspicion that he too might prove to be a phantom. I bolted my back door shut.
The day came for Mr. Ko’s family to harvest their cornfield.
“Are you sick?” Mr. Ko questioned me as I arrived at the field carrying a sickle. “Your face is so pale; you really look very ill.”
I gestured that I was fine. As I pulled back the sickle, I slashed a finger on a cornhusk. There was a throbbing feeling and drops of blood came welling out. As I sucked the finger, a view I had not previously been able to see struck my eyes. Across the middle of the hill behind the village there was an extensive larch plantation. It stood out conspicuously from the surrounding pine forests, yet I had somehow never noticed it before.
“Was there a forest fire up there?”
I casually asked Mr. Ko, looking toward him. He absently raised his head for a moment, then lowered it again.
“That old woman they called Yeo’ggol-daek set fire to the bank of a field and in a flash it spread to the hillside and burned it all. It must have been ten years or so ago.”
“Really? Why, that must have been a big fire?”
“Sure; it went over the hill and burned as far as Saengma-gol.”
I assumed that the larch forest I had walked through a few days previously must have been the result of that same fire.
“They even mobilized the army. The old woman would surely have gone to gaol if people hadn’t intervened and saved her.”
He explained that, intent on protecting Yeo’ggol-daek when the county office and the police station launched inquiries, the local folk had proposed calling her a crazy old woman as an excuse.
“You mean they made her act like a crazy old woman?”
“Yes, so nothing came of it. She was afraid too, so she acted mad very effectively. Only there’s one kind of puzzling thing that’s still not clear. She could have stopped after about three months, but she never acted sane again until she died.”
With that, Mr. Ko vanished back into his cornfield. I stayed standing there gazing up at the hills for a long time, my heart chilled.
Before Mr. Ko had finished harvesting his cornfield, I had packed my bag. While I was packing, the back yard filled with a murmur of voices. I did not open the back door but left the hut by cutting across the front yard. As I passed the stream, the old woman was washing the bedpan as before. I walked straight on. From behind my back I heard a dog barking but I did not turn round to look. Far away the old man from the iron-roofed house was walking beside the cornfields. The air felt cool on my brow, though I do not believe there was a breath of wind blowing. I simply walked on, firmly clutching my throbbing finger.