Kim Yu-jong was born in 1908 in the village of Chungni
in Kangwon Province and studied at what is now Yonsei University in Seoul.
He has left us with some thirty stories, most of them published in 1935
and 1936. The playfulness of some of these works masks a profound sorrow:
at an early age Kim lost his parents and then contracted tuberculosis.
He died in 1937.
Many of Kim's works have rural settings and are characterized
by wit and irony. In stories such as "Tongbaekkot" (Camellias, 1936) Kim
writes with affection of Korean farming villages and the foibles of their
denizens. Other works are more serious. The budding sexuality implicit
in "Tongbaekkot" becomes more overt in "Sonagi" (Rain Shower, 1935). Still
other works, such as "Ttaengbyot" (Scorching Heat, 1937) are downright
gloomy. Whatever the tone, the writing is rich and earthy, for Kim had
an excellent command of native Korean vocabulary.
"Wife" (Anhae) first appeared in Sahae kongnon in 1935.
It is an inspired, uninhibited monolog, rife with scenes of domestic violence,
narrated by an unlettered, sexist woodcutter who is not afraid to poke
fun at himself. In bringing alive the character of his wife as well as
himself, and in evoking familiar Korean ballads, this man gives us a taste
of the kwangdae, the narrator of the traditional oral narrative p'ansori.
Kim was a true original, and there is little else like this story in modern
My wife ain't the type you look at and say, "Hey, she's
pretty!" That is, unless you're just plain skirt-crazy. I mean, I live
with her, and I could look at her through the rosiest-colored glasses and
she's still not the least bit pretty. But you know, there's more to a skirt
than just a cute mug. Hell, I wouldn't bitch if the woman would just turn
out a string of boys as strong as oxes. To be honest, a dumb fuck like
myself, I get old, no kids, what's going to happen to me? I'll starve,
for god's sake. I got no land, physically I'll be shot to hell, I won't
be able to work-who'd want to do even a half-assed job of feeding me? So,
while we're still young, I want to produce a passel of kids. Turn 'em out,
one after another. Get the idea?
Thank god, there's no law that says kids have to be ugly
just because their mom is. You'll see when you look at that little Smarty
of ours. His mom's mug looks like a rice cake somebody stepped on by mistake,
but he's a smart little fellow and a good-looking boy-even when he's pestering
you for more food. In fact, the little guy is just plain indescribably
precious to me-more than my own father or grandfather. Problem is-and this
ain't easy to put up with-the bitch is putting on airs, and it's all because
she had a boy. The same woman, mind you, who wouldn't produce a squeak
out of that puss of hers before the boy came along. Like they say, when
it comes to a woman's face, it's all in the eye of the beholder. But with
her face, it doesn't help even if your eyesight's rotten.
She has a wide forehead and her eyes are pretty far apart-and
don't they say that makes you broad-minded? That's all well and good, but
there's really nothing soft and cute about her face. Her jaw's as round
and broad as the bottom of a cabbage, and she ain't about to gain no admirers
the way her mouth pokes out of it. That thick upper lip of hers is practically
inside out, and those crooked upper teeth are all out in the open saying,
"Hey, look at me!" Okay, I'm willing to put up with that. But is it asking
too much for her nose to be a little more attractive? I mean, it's stuck
right in the middle of her face-it's the first thing that draws your attention.
But if I keep carrying on like this, people might think I'm carping at
the bitch's faults. I try my best to give her the benefit of the doubt,
but that nose just plain reminds me of a pig gaping at some mountain way
Things being as they are, is it any wonder that at night
she hangs back trying to read the old man's mood? "Is he going to let me
have it again tonight?"-I'm always making her worry. But she's such a pitiful
mess to look at, I got to say something to her. Like, "What have you been
up to all day?" "Did you fix the brushwood gate like I asked?" "How come
your nose looks so cute tonight?" That kind of thing. It's an effort, believe
me, 'cause I'm dog tired. But it works like magic: her face lights up,
she cozies up beside me, she rubs up against me with her shoulder and then
she rubs some more.
When I say her nose looks nice, she gets all hot and
bothered: "Really? Really?" You see, it does her heart good to hear it
one more time, 'cause she can't quite believe it herself. I know, I ought
to be ashamed of myself, but when I tell her her nose don't look squashed
no more, the bitch is beside herself with joy: "Whenever I go to the outhouse
I pull on it, so maybe it's coming out!"
There are times, though, when half a day between the
furrows does me in. It's all I can do just to sprawl out on the floor back
home-I sure don't have no energy to chitchat with her. Well, the bitch
thinks it's all because of her face and she goes and sulks in the corner.
Then she turns her face to the side and sticks up her chin like she wants
me to admire the scenery. Damn you, I think. If you got a notion that your
profile's any improvement over your front view, you're dead wrong!
This same bitch started acting so high and mighty as
soon as she turned out our little Smarty. I get home from the fields and
no hello, no glance, zip. Who the hell are you?-that's the impression I
get. Keeps her head down and just gives the boy her tit. And if I so much
as pat him on the head and say something like "Ever wake up, you little
bugger?" she punches my hand away and says, "Cut it out-you want to wake
him up?" First time she did this I couldn't believe it-just gaped up at
the ceiling. All I want to do is touch my own flesh and blood, and she
punches me-what gives? But now that I think about, I got no cause to complain.
'Cause I learned, little by little, that the bitch deserves the right to
act like she's something.
And so from that point on it was like we had an agreement-every
time I'd say "Hey, woman!" she'd bark back at me. The neighbors started
calling us Mr. and Mrs. Pester. Well, they don't know the half of it. I
mean, she and I is always ready to go at it. These days we're hard put
to have a single day of peace and quiet. Just seeing each other gets us
going-"Bastard!" "Bitch!"-and both of us want to start up first.
With other people it's like this:
"Hello, my loving wife-did you eat yet?"
"No, my dear, I was waiting for you." And she jumps up
But not us. You're not going to find us crawling up to
each other and talking sweet. When I get home I give her fat ass a swift
"Bitch-get up and fix me some supper!"
"Bastard-what's the big idea! I'm going to break your
leg!" And then she graces me with a look and says, "What did you do with
the money you got for the firewood, guzzle more booze?"
See? Now that's high and mighty for you. Truth is, it's
our way of being affectionate with each other. And it's my idea of having
fun with my woman. Baby-faced greenhorn husbands acting chummy with their
wives make me want to puke. What's a wife for if you can't cuss her up
and down and use her for a punching bag now and then? From the way I talk,
though, maybe you think I'm a poverty-stricken guy with a gut full of hate.
Well, I got news for you-we're not all that different from others. We all
have times when we can't do what we want, and we get churned up inside.
In farming you got nothing to show for your labor, you got a pile of debt,
you get home and your little guy is whining, your woman is shivering 'cause
she ain't got no clothes to wear-times like that you don't want to put
up with no shit. And so we're at each other's throats, me grabbing her
by the bun of her hair and thrashing her. After I get over this fit, the
sweat runs down my backbone, I'm panting, and that's when I sort of cool
down. Then I push her away, and if I can have me a cigarette then all's
well with the world.
That's me with my woman, and I guess I ought to be thankful
for her. Which is why I feel like something's missing when she ain't around.
Else, why would I pat her on the back, or tell her once in a while that
godforsaken nose of hers looks nice? Boosts her spirits, see? And on the
other hand, it's not much fun when the bitch is huddled up sniveling and
crying. You see, it don't matter who picks the fight, it's always her that
catches hell, 'cause whether she comes at me with fists or with jabbering,
she's no match for me.
"Lay yourself down here-time to go to sleep," I'll say
"Forget it. Lay your own self down." She sounds like
poison, won't look at me, just sits there. But after I ask her a few more
times she eventually comes around, and crawls right up to me without me
asking. And then what do you know-she lifts up her weepy face and glares
at me out of the corner of her eye. So maybe from the bitch's point of
view, she gets knocked around, she sulks, and that's the way she likes
But don't think 'cause we always fight like cats and
dogs that we're lacking in affection. Speaking of which, you're not about
to find folks as close as us-why, we're like sticky rice. The more ugly
we get with each other, the more we scrap, the more our affection glues
us together-it's hard for us to be apart for a second. Now I'll admit I
don't know if this is what people mean by conjugal affection, but we're
like leeches in our affection, and I can't explain why. After she's gotten
the usual working over and we're finally in bed together the bitch'll say:
"I'm not really that ugly, am I?"
And she cozies right up to me, as if she really is good-looking!
Well, what am I supposed to say? About all I can do is shake my head in
amazement and stare up at the ceiling.
"You call that a face, woman?"
"Then what is it?"
"Listen, woman, if it wasn't for me, who else would have
you for a wife? Who'd put up with that mug of yours?"
"What about you and your chestnut-burr face! If it wasn't
for me, who else would have you for a husband? Good grief!"
Times like that I don't got much choice 'cept to get
up, let her have it till I work up a sweat, and then flop down again. "Chestnut-burr"!
Some nerve! Why, my mother who brought me into the world likes this face
so much she says, "Now that's the face of a fellow who's going to get hisself
some land one day." But instead of going to the bother of getting up and
giving the bitch a slap or a kick, I usually just let it go.
"All right, I'll tell you what-I promise to think you're
good-looking, and you just keep turning out the babies."
"What's the use of turning out babies when you can't
even feed us? You want us to starve?"
"Look, bitch! You can borrow food, you know." There I
go, yelling again, but it's all bluster. She's right-what the hell's the
use of having a lapful of kids if you can't feed 'em? I ought to know by
now the bitch's got a much better angle on things than me. I mean, she
can see that kids aren't something you abandon-they'd all end up dead.
Well, everyone knows that the farther apart your eyebrows are, the more
broad-minded and sensible you are. And hers are a damn sight farther apart
What we eat these days comes from what I make selling
firewood. Summers and such I can hire out for day labor, but when snow
piles up, what am I supposed to do, eat the ice? What else can a guy do
who lives way out in the woods, 'cept spend one day cutting wood and the
next day going to town and peddling it. You got to understand it takes
some muscle to pack a couple of backracks that're stacked full up. The
idea is to tote them one at a time-you pack the first guy a ways, take
a break, go back for the second guy, take a break, bring the second guy
up, and before you know it you've covered a good seven or eight miles in
half a day. Sure, you could pack just one backrack, but then how the hell
are you supposed to eat? You get your pay-eighty chon for two loads if
you're lucky, sixty or sixty-five if your luck is shitty-and off you go
for millet, beans, laver, and whatnot. You can stretch your meals out if
you eat gruel, but we're not that hard up. For us it's got to be real food,
even if that means we got to pinch in the gut waiting for the next meal,
whenever that is. Little Smarty's four years old, so he's got hisself a
pint-sized bowl. I'm his father, so I get a regular bowl and then half
a bowl more, but the bitch is in a class by herself-she shovels down a
couple of bowls. And she has this way of gobbling up hers before I finish
and then digging into mine too.
I used to think it was nice to have a woman around, but
then it occurred to me that maybe the bitch was just a useless mouth-now
that kind of gave me the chills. People who don't have nothing can't afford
to eat like there's no tomorrow. So when the bitch shovels down her food
and I ask her how in the dickens she can eat so much, she says her belly's
still big from when she had the baby, and I'd know what it's like if I
had a baby, and she screws up her face and sulks. Well, well, says I, then
go ahead and gobble. As long as we're going to spend money on food, it
might as well end up in your belly.
Sometimes I don't eat so much in order to give her what's
left over. Damnable woman! I says to myself. But the fact remains, she
gobbles too much.
The bitch didn't get to be as old as she is for nothing.
She's got more worldy wisdom than me, and when it comes to scheming she
does me one up. What good's this two-bit farming? she asks. We ought to
be peddling booze by the drink instead. Well, that's a damn good idea,
something resourceful old me ain't never dreamed of. With the proceeds
we could eat honest-to-goodness rice, we could have meat, we could wear
decent clothes-luxury! But when I examined the bitch's face, all the starch
went out of me. You see, the reason men buy drinks from a booze peddler
is to get a look at the woman's face. Well, it'd take a pretty stupid bastard
to get worked up by that mug of hers. It made me hopping mad-if only the
bitch was born with a better-looking face, we'd have a way. I must of been
wearing a hangdog look to go with the bitter taste in my mouth, 'cause
she could guess what I was thinking.
"You know, booze peddlers need more than a pretty face;
the face can be ugly as long as they have a way-"
"So, you got yourself a way, do you?"
"What's wrong with trying?"
That's some gumption she's got. With this bitch, there's
noooo problem. I knew her scheme-peddling booze, she could eat her fill.
I kept after her about it, and she was sure she could do it, so what the
hell, I says to myself, we might as well give it a try. We wouldn't need
much start-up money-all I'd have to do is teach her a few songs and have
it sink in, and then we could hit the road. And so I figured when I come
home at the end of the day I'd sit the bitch down in front of me and teach
her to sing.
Well, the first number I sang was "Arirang" and I beat
out the time on my knee:
Arirang, arirang, arariyo,
So long to Ch'unch'on and the mountains of spring,
Board the Shinyon River ferry and farewell.
Every woman who comes from the hills has at least got
to do a decent job of Kangwon "Arirang." But the bitch couldn't learn it.
So I went to the easiest version-what else could I do? The bitch sat with
her legs crossed, imitating me and beating out the time on her butt. The
noise that came out of her throat was like a clay bowl cracking. Well,
with a little training, that voice might not be half bad for the old songs.
I just wished she could carry a tune, but there was no way on God's green
And so I taught her, but the worthless bitch sang like
she's reading a story. What the hell was I supposed to do? I just keep
working her, often till the rooster crowed, sometimes till daybreak. The
bitch was simply awful, so I tried to show her how it's done, and I tried
some more. I'm supposed to be teaching her how to be a booze peddler, but
I wound up learning more myself.
Damnable woman-she'd cover her mouth and yawn and then
yawn again. I knew she was dying to go to sleep.
But she'd never own up to being sleepy unless she heard
me say it was time for bed.
Who brought up this idea of booze peddling to begin with?
I says to myself. The anger would build up inside me and sometimes I'd
go after her with my fists.
"Wake up, bitch! I'm not going to stay up all night and
sing by myself!"
"Bastard-I'll break your arm!"
"Listen, bitch, you're the one who benefits if you can
get this song down. Not me. Don't act so big."
And this time I jabbed her right in the forehead and
knocked her backward. Normally, the bitch would give me a look full of
poison, then run off to the corner. But not this time. She knew she was
the guilty party, and she bucked up and waited for me to teach her some
Well, we dug ourselves into a hole. I had my doubts whether
this scheme of ours would work out, we was constantly yawning in each other's
face, but since we was already into it we couldn't not follow through.
Shit! I says to myself, you and me had better change our luck, and fast.
And so I gave it my best effort, once and for all. I hollered out the songs
loud enough to roust the mountains and streams, then had the bitch sing
the "Hung" ballad along with me.
I got to give the bitch credit-once she gets going on
something she takes it serious. That's her saving grace. Otherwise, forget
about her as a weed picker, not to mention a booze peddler. As a matter
of fact, whenever she could squeeze out some time during the day she'd
practice singing by herself. If she was doing the wash, she'd sing "Youthful
Sixteen" and beat out the time with her laundry sticks. Or she'd hunker
down in the corner and sing a tune while she sewed herself some quilted
socks. For every beat she'd sew a stitch, moving her shoulders in time.
At that rate, we're talking ten days for one sock. We ain't going to make
a living from socks, I says to myself. Just concentrate on those songs,
woman. Well, the bitch was just aching, as much as me, for a taste of honest-to-goodness
rice and meat, and sometimes I'd hear her humming merrily along in the
outhouse while I was out in the fields nearby.
It took her till now, and she just barely learned the
"Hong" ballad to go with the "Norae karak" ballad. How long would the next
one take her? Damn woman-really! What's more, the bitch's got so forward
she's asking people to teach her these modern songs. A booze peddler has
got to know the old standards, she says, but the way you get popular is
to know the tunes that are popular now. Well, that's easy for her to say,
but how the hell am I supposed to know what's popular now? "I'm a guy who
digs dirt in a field-I don't know stuff like that!" I says to her. Well,
a few days later the bitch comes home singing one of the latest songs.
She sits herself down around the brazier and beats time on the edge, proud
as a peacock.
She bloomed, she bloomed, the lotus blossom bloomed,
But while I was watching she shrunk.
I was amazed. Where in hell did you learn that? I says
to myself. Woman, you've got me beat!
The next thing I know, the bitch's found time to go to
night school. They call it night school, but it's really a little hut at
the foot of yonder mountain where they teach the farm kids to read and
write in winter. The bitch goes over there for music hour and she don't
mind the cold. I seen her standing outside the door with our boy on her
back, listening to the teacher sing and following along. You ought to see
her carry on when she gets home. These modern songs, she practices 'em
for a few more days and she'll get 'em down.
But no matter how I look at it, I'm still worried about
that mug of hers. She's developing a pretty good set of vocal cords, but
with that damn face there's no hope. If the damnable woman had just been
turned out halfway decent-looking, this scheme of ours would be her big
chance. Once in a while when I think about this, my temper gets the best
of me and instead of saying something I belt her in the gut a couple of
times-I can't help it. The bitch has no idea what's got into me, and just
looks stupid at me. Damn punching bag of a woman, you got some nerve marrying
me with that mug of yours, I says to myself. I know the bitch sometimes
gets exercised on account of her face, though she won't admit it. And I
know she takes out that chipped hand mirror of hers and gawks at her face
from this angle and that angle, but what's she supposed to see that I can't
see? And then she heaves these spooky sighs that sound like someone who's
had rat poison, and gets all discouraged. But if I happen to be there,
she turns my way and says:
"Look at me! Don't you think my face is getting any better
"Yeah, it looks that way."
"Be serious, or else-"
And then the bitch is pinching my arm and coming at me
from every direction. She's a sly woman in her own way and she's sharp
enough to know she can count on me to tell her what she wants to hear.
If she thinks I'll tell her straight out how she looks, she won't ask me
in the first place. So I says her face really did get better, trying to
be a bit sly myself, and this pleased the bitch so much she said it was
probably 'cause she's been prettying it up with face powder lately, and
she said booze peddlers don't have to be that pretty, etcetera, etcetera,
etcetera. Damnable woman! You'd think women are more scared of being told
they're ugly than they are of getting knifed. I mean, I can call her every
name in the book, beat her like a dog, and in a few minutes the woman's
back in my arms again with an idiotic grin on her face. But if I so much
as find fault with her face she'll avoid me like the plague for three or
four days, and I find myself in one sticky situation. If the damn woman's
going to get so aggravated when I tell her she's ugly, she might as well
go around with her wedding veil on. Like I say, the bitch's sly, and if
she was the least bit pretty, she'd give me my marching orders and run
off with any son of a bitch that has money. If your woman is pretty, you'd
better be prepared to pay the price. Yeah, I got to admit it-it's my bad
luck she's got an ugly mug, but things could be a hell of a lot worse.
I'll bet broads have the time of their life when they
two-time their husbands. The bitch swore she had what it takes to make
it as a booze peddler, and maybe she thought she could do a little of that
herself. One morning I'm up early, taking a crap, and I hear her somewhere
singing a tune. From the outhouse I look through the straw mat into the
kitchen, and sure enough she's practicing while the chow's cooking. A snowstorm's
howling outside, and she's hunched up in front of the stove beating out
a rhythm with the poker on the lid of the ricepot. She sure looks pitiful
singing those modern songs. When the food's boiling full tilt she takes
it off the stove and starts right in again:
Pasqueflower, granny-flower, young or old,
Don't you look funny, all bends and folds.
Damnable woman! She's crazy about these modern songs,
but when I tell her to apply herself to something more folksy, like "The
Miller's Tune," nothing doing. Well, just as long as she learns a lot of
them, I don't care which ones. But now get this: She's fumbling with the
front collar of her jacket, and lo and behold, out comes a pipe. She peeks
front and back, left and right, looks once more for good measure. No sign
of yours truly. She sticks her face into the firebox, lights up, and takes
a puff. Then all of a sudden it's ahchoo, ahchoo, ahchoo, and she blows
her nose-quite a fit! Day before yesterday I caught her pinching my tobacco
again, and lit into her. Scolded the hell out of her. I tell the damnable
woman it don't cost nothing to learn songs, and what does she do-she steals
my tobacco. I was about to run out, but nature called. These days our little
Smarty has the dickens of a cold. But oh, no, the bitch has places to go,
things to do, she carries him on her back to night school, and now look
at the shape he's in. Damn woman ought to be hogtied. She don't know how
precious my boy is to me. Just goes to show you, start peddling booze and
your behavior is bound to turn rotten. You should hear the damnable woman:
it's not enough to know how to sing, she says-you also got to know how
to smoke, you got to know how to drink, you got to know how to give a man
a squeeze, blah blah blah. All of it nonsense she heard from a booze peddler
who came through the village a while back. So she can't wait to practice
all these things, one at a time. The bitch has got a notion that she's
quite the singer, and she still can't do a decent "Miller's Tune"!
That damned Mung-t'ae, who lives down below us, knows
all about this, and he's been fooling with my woman. He's as much of a
dirty no-good as she is. What else can you say about a guy who'd get hot
on my wife with that mug of hers? Why does he have to get chummy with her-is
she the only broad on the face of the earth? The damned son of a bitch,
I bet I know what he's up to! He comes over and finagles the bitch out
telling her they can booze it up for free 'cause everybody's celebrating
the end of the year. "Nothing doing," she says, "the old man's due home
in a little while." "Just till sunset," he says, pulling her by the wrist.
"If you're going to go out peddling booze the first thing you need to do
is see how it's done." See, he's got this line, and the bitch's hooked-she's
only too happy to tag along. That's about the size of what happened, I
reckon. The bitch is going to be the ruin of our family. Husband's out
selling firewood and comes home late, don't he have the right to expect
his woman to be fixing his supper while she waits for him? Here I am staggering
home seven or eight miles and it's nighttime. Snow's piling up, ankles
are about to go out on me, I'm getting numb. By the time I get back to
our village I'm so starved I could drop, believe me. Got to get home, gobble
down a bowl of chow, sit myself down, and start working her with the songs
again. As I'm thinking this I pass by the tavern and get the surprise of
my life-the bitch is laughing her head off in one of the rooms near the
street. I make tracks inside, peep through a crack in the door, and there
she is, the damnable woman, drinking with Mung-t'ae.
Up to that time, the whole affair seemed so ridiculous
that I sort of left 'em alone, but now I couldn't hold back. I throw off
the backrack, fling open the door, and the first thing I do is slam the
son of a bitch on the floor. Of course the table gets kicked over and smashes
against the wall. Then I grab the bitch by the bun of her hair and drag
her outside. Got to sober up the drunken bitch with a good scolding, so
I plant her face in the snow. I sit down on her and give the damnable woman
a royal tattoo on the back. The more I hit her the more she sinks into
the snow-she's too drunk to fight back. Well, this is kind of boring-half
the fun of beating the bitch is seeing her put up a fight. I leave her
be and go back inside for Mung-t'ae, but the asshole has snuck off like
the mouse he is. I tell you, it's because of sons of bitches like him that
the village is going to hell. You play around with someone else's woman,
it's only proper you show up in front of her husband and take your licks.
But this guy scuttles off. Huh! Too damn many of them plug-ugly assholes
in this world. Nothing left to do now but plop the bitch on my back and
totter on up to the house-feel like I'm fixing to die.
The night air is godawful cold, my empty stomach's killing
me, I want to get more mad but ain't got the strength. And if that's not
bad enough, on the way up the hill to the house I fall down and scrape
the hell out of my knee. And when we get home there's little Smarty all
by hisself crying his head off for Mommie. Damnable whore, I says to myself,
what the hell do you think you're doing raising my boy that way? Look at
her-she'll never be a straight woman. I can see myself now, going out booze
peddling with her, and she'll have me asleep by her side and off she'll
run to another man. The proper thing for you, woman, is to forget about
booze peddling and keep yourself at home. Live within your means, take
care of your health, and turn out more kids for me. I ain't asking much-maybe
fifteen tall, broad-shouldered boys. Let me figure this out-in a year one
guy can grow himself about ten sacks of rice, so fifteen could come up
with a hundred and fifty sacks. And if a sack can fetch you at least ten
won, then you're looking at fifteen hundred won all told. Holy shit, fifteen
hundred won! That's a lot of money! I didn't realize that! I can grouse
all I want, but she's carrying around the makings of fifteen hundred won
right in her belly. That's more than you can say about me.
Translated by Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton