Yi Hyo-Sok (1907-1942) is one of the talented group of
young Korean writers whose flame burned brightly in the 1920s and 1930s
only to be extinguished by the time of the Pacific War. Much of his early
fiction concerns the urban poor and the destructiveness of city life. But
by the mid-1930s he was taking inspiration from the Korean countryside
where he was born.
"When the Buckwheat Blooms" (Memilggot p'il muryop),
first published in 1936 in the literary journal Chogwang, is his best-known
story. Set in the Kangwon-Ch'ungch'ong border area that the author knew
so well, it depicts the lives of rural peddlers and the colorful sights
and sounds of market day-still a feature of Korean villages and towns.
Its rich language, vivid descriptions of rural Korea, and masterful plot
development have made it a favorite of readers and critics alike.
When the Buckwheat Blooms
Every peddler who made the rounds of the countryside markets
knew that business was never any good in the summer. And on this particular
day, the marketplace in Pongp'yong was already deserted, though the sun
was still high in the sky; its heat, seeping under the awnings of the peddlers'
stalls, was enough to sear your spine. Most of the villagers had gone home,
and you couldn't stay open forever just to do business with the farmhands
who would have been happy to swap a bundle of firewood for a bottle of
kerosene or some fish. The swarms of flies had become a nuisance, and the
local boys were as pesky as gnats.
"Shall we call it a day?" ventured Ho Saengwon, a left-handed
man with a pockmarked face, to his fellow dry-goods peddler Cho Sondal.
"Sounds good to me. We've never done well here in Pongp'yong.
We'll have to make a bundle tomorrow in Taehwa."
"And we'll have to walk all night to get there," said
"I don't mind-we'll have the moon to light the way."
Cho counted the day's proceeds, letting the coins clink
together. Ho watched for a moment, then began to roll up their awning and
put away the goods he had displayed. The bolts of cotton cloth and the
bundles of silk fabrics filled his two wicker hampers to the brim. Bits
of cloth littered the straw mat on the ground.
The stalls of other peddlers were almost down, and some
groups had gotten a jump on the rest and left town. The fishmongers, tinkers,
taffymen, and ginger vendors-all were gone. Tomorrow would be market day
in Chinbu and Taehwa, and whichever way you went, you would have to trudge
fifteen to twenty miles through the night to get there. But here in Pongp'yong
the marketplace had the untidy sprawl of a courtyard after a family gathering,
and you could hear quarrels breaking out in the drinking houses. Drunken
curses together with the shrill voices of women rent the air. The evening
of a market day invariably began with the screeching of women.
A woman's shout seemed to remind Cho of something.
"Now don't play innocent, Saengwon-I know all about you
and the Ch'ungju woman," he said with a wry grin.
"Fat chance I have with her. I'm no match for those kids."
"Don't be so sure," said Cho. "It's true that the young
fellows all lose their heads over her. But you know, something tells me
that Tongi, on the other hand, has her right around his finger."
"That greenhorn? He must be bribing her with his goods.
And I thought he was a model youngster."
"When it comes to women, you can never be sure....Come
on now, stop your moping and let's go have a drink. It's on me."
Ho didn't think much of this idea, but he followed Cho
nonetheless. Howas a hapless sort when it came to women. With his pockmarked
mug, he hesitated to look a woman in the eye, and women for their part
wouldn't warm up to him. Midway through life by now, he had led a forlorn,
warped existence. Just thinking of the Ch'ungju woman would bring to his
face a blush unbefitting a man of his age. His legs would turn to rubber,
and he would lose his composure.
The two men entered the Ch'ungju woman's tavern, and
sure enough, there was Tongi. For some reason Ho himself couldn't have
explained, his temper flared. The sight of Tongi flirting with the woman,
his face red with drink, was something Ho could not bear. Quite the ladies'
man, isn't he, thought Ho. What a disgraceful spectacle!
"Still wet behind the ears, and here you are swilling
booze and flirting with women in broad daylight," he said, walking right
up in front of Tongi. "You go around giving us vendors a bad name, but
still you want a share of our trade, it seems."
Tongi looked Ho straight in the eye. Mind your own business,
he seemed to be saying.
When the young man's animated eyes met his, Ho lashed
Tongi across the cheek on impulse. Flaring up in anger, Tongi shot to his
feet. But Ho, not about to compromise, let fly with all he had to say.
"I don't know what kind of family you come from, you
young pup, but if your mom and dad could see this disgraceful behavior,
how pleased they would be! Being a vendor is a full-time job-there's no
time for women. Now get lost, right this minute!"
But when Tongi disappeared without a word of rejoinder,
Ho suddenly felt compassion for him. He had overreacted, he told himself
uneasily; that wasn't how you treated a man who was still but a nodding
"You've gone too far," said the Ch'ungju woman. "Where
do you get the right to slap him and dress him down like that? To me you're
both customers. And besides, you may think he's young, but he's old enough
to produce children." Her lips were pinched together, and she poured their
drinks more roughly now.
"Young people need a dose of that now and then," said
Cho in an attempt to smooth over the situation.
"You've fallen for the young fellow, haven't you?" Ho
asked the woman. "Don't you know it's a sin to take advantage of a boy?"
The fuss died down. Ho, already emboldened, now felt
like getting good and drunk. Every bowl of liquor he was given he tossed
off almost at a gulp. As he began to mellow, his thoughts of the Ch'ungju
woman were overshadowed by concern for Tongi. What was a guy in my position
going to do after coming between them? he asked himself. What a foolish
spectacle he had presented!
And for this reason, when Tongi rushed back a short time
later, calling Ho frantically, Ho put down his bowl and ran outside in
a flurry without thinking twice about it.
"Saengwon, your donkey's running wild-it broke its tether."
"Those little bastards must be teasing it," muttered
Ho was of course concerned about his donkey, but he was
moved even more by Tongi's thoughtfulness. As he ran after Tongi across
the marketplace, his eyes became hot and moist.
"The little devils-there was nothing we could do," said
"Tormenting a donkey-they're going to catch hell from
Ho had spent half his life with that animal, sleeping
at the same country inns and walking from one market town to the next along
roads awash with moonlight. And those twenty years had aged man and beast
together. The animal's cropped mane bristled like his master's hair, and
discharge ran from his sleepy eyes, just as it did from Ho's. He would
try as best he could to swish the flies away with his stumpy tail, now
too short to reach even his legs. Time and again Ho had filed down the
donkey's worn hooves and fitted him with new shoes. Eventually the hooves
had stopped growing back, and it became useless trying to file them down.
Blood now oozed between the hooves and the worn shoes. The donkey recognized
his master's smell, and would greet Ho's arrival with a bray of delight
Ho stroked the donkey's neck as if he were soothing a
child. The animal's nostrils twitched, and then he whickered, sending spray
from his nose in every direction. How Ho had suffered on account of this
creature. It wouldn't be easy calming the sweaty, trembling donkey; those
boys must have teased it without mercy. The animal's bridle had come loose,
and his saddle had fallen off.
"Good-for-nothing little rascals!" Ho yelled. But most
of the boys had run away. The remaining few had slunk off to a distance
at Ho's shouting.
"We weren't teasing him," cried one of them, a boy with
a runny nose. "He got an eyeful of Kim Ch'omji's mare and went crazy!"
"Will you listen to the way that little guy talks," said
"When Kim Ch'omji took his mare away, this one went wild-kicking
up dirt, foam all around his mouth, bucking like a crazy bull. He looked
so funny-all we did was watch. Look at him down there and see for yourself,"
shouted the boy, pointing to the underside of Ho's donkey and breaking
Before Ho knew it, he was blushing. Feeling compelled
to screen the donkey from view, he stepped in front of the animal's belly.
"Confounded animal! Still rutting at his age," he muttered.
The derisive laughter flustered Ho for a moment, but
then he gave chase to the boys, brandishing his whip.
"Catch us if you can! Hey, everybody, Lefty's gonna whip
But when it came to running, Ho was no match for the
young troublemakers. That's right, old Lefty can't even catch a boy, thought
Ho as he tossed the whip aside. Besides, the liquor was working on him
again, and he felt much too hot inside.
"Let's get out of here," said Cho. "Once you start squabbling
with these market pests there's no end to it. They're worse than some of
Cho and Tongi each saddled and began loading his animal.
The sun had angled far toward the horizon.
In the two decades that Ho had been peddling dry goods
at the rural markets, he had rarely skipped Pongp'yong in his rounds. He
sometimes went to Ch'ungju, Chech'on, and neighboring counties, and occasionally
roamed farther afield to the Kyongsang region. Otherwise, unless he went
to a place such as Kangnong to stock up on his goods, he confined his rounds
to P'yongch'ang County. More regular than the moon, he tramped from one
town to the next. He took pride in telling others that Ch'ongju was his
hometown, but he never seemed to go there. To Ho, home sweet home was the
beautiful landscape along the roads that led him from one market town to
the next. When he finally approached one of these towns after trudging
half a day, the restive donkey would let out a resounding heehaw. In particular,
when they arrived around dusk, the flickering lights in the town-though
a familiar scene by now-never failed to make Ho's heart quicken.
Ho had been a thrifty youth and had put away a bit of
money. But then one year during the All Souls' Festival he had squandered
and gambled, and in three days he had blown all of his savings. Only his
extreme fondness for the donkey had restrained him from selling the animal
as well. In the end, he had had no choice but to return to square one and
begin making the rounds of the market towns all over again. It's a good
thing I didn't sell you, he had said with tears in his eyes, stroking the
donkey's back as they fled the town. He had gone into debt, and saving
money was now out of the question. And thus began a hand-to-mouth existence
as he journeyed from one market to the next.
In the course of all his squandering, Ho had never managed
to conquer a woman. The cold, heartless creatures-they have no use for
me, he would think dejectedly. His only constant friend was the donkey.
Be that as it may, there was one affair, and he would
never forget it. His first and last affair-it was a most mysterious liaison.
It had happened when he was young, when he had begun stopping at the Pongp'yong
market, and whenever he recalled it he felt that his life had been worth
"For the life of me, I still can't figure it out," Ho
said to no one in particular. "It was a moonlit night...."
This was the signal that Ho would begin yarning again
that night. Being Ho's friend, Cho had long since had an earful of what
was to come. But he couldn't very well tell Ho he was sick of the story,
and so Ho innocently started in anew and rambled on as he pleased.
"A story like this goes well with a moonlit night," said
Ho with a glance toward Cho. It wasn't that he felt apologetic toward his
friend; rather, the moonlight had made him feel expansive.
The moon was a day or two past full, and its light was
soft and pleasant. Twenty miles of moonlit walking lay before them to Taehwa-two
mountain passes, a stream crossing, hilly paths along endless fields. They
were traversing a hillside. It was probably after midnight by now, and
it was so deathly still the moon seemed to come alive; you could almost
hear it breathe, right there in front of you. Awash in moonlight, the bean
plants and the drooping corn stalks were a shade greener. The hillside
was covered with buckwheat coming into flower, and the sprinkling of white
in the gentle moonlight was almost enough to take your breath away. The
red stalks seemed delicate as a fragrance, and the donkeys appeared to
have more life in their step.
The road narrowed, forcing the men to mount their animals
and ride single file. The refreshing tinkle of the bells hanging from the
donkeys' necks flowed toward the buckwheat. Ho's voice, coming from the
front, wasn't clearly audible to Tongi at the tail end, but Tongi had some
pleasant memories of his own to keep him company.
"It was market day in Pongp'yong, and the moon was out,
just like tonight. I'd taken this tiny little room with a dirt floor, and
it was so muggy I couldn't get to sleep. So I decided to go down and cool
off in the stream. Pongp'yong then was just like it is now-buckwheat everywhere
you looked, and the white flowers coming right down to the stream. I could
have stripped right there on the gravel, but the moon was so bright, I
decided to use the watermill shed instead. Well, I want to tell you, strange
things happen in this world. Suddenly, there I was in the shed, face to
face with old man Song's daughter-the town beauty. Was it fate that brought
us together? You bet it was."
Ho puffed on a cigarette, as if savoring his own words.
The rich aroma of the purple smoke suffused the night air.
"Of course she wasn't waiting for me, but for that matter
she didn't have a boyfriend waiting for her, either. Actually she was crying.
And I had a hunch why. Old man Song was having a terrible time making ends
meet, and the family was on the verge of selling out. Being a family matter,
it was cause enough for her to worry too. They wanted to find a good husband
for her, but she told me she would have died first. Now you tell me-is
there anything that can get to a fellow more than the sight of a girl in
tears? I sensed she was startled at first. But you know, girls tend to
warm up to you more easily when they're worried, and it wasn't long until-well,
you know the rest. Thinking back now, it scares me how incredible that
"And the next day she took off for Chech'on or thereabouts-right?"
Cho prompted him.
"By the next market day, the whole family had vanished.
You should have heard the gossip in the market. The rumors were flying:
the family's best bet was to sell the girl off to a tavern, they were saying.
God knows how many times I searched the Chech'on marketplace for her. But
there was no more sign of her than a chicken after dinner. My first night
with her was my last. And that's why I have a soft spot in my heart for
Pongp'yong, and why I've spent half my life visiting the place. I'll never
"You were a lucky man, Saengwon. Something like that
doesn't happen every day. You know, a lot of fellows get stuck with an
ugly wife, they have kids, and the worries begin to pile up-you get sick
of that after a while. On the other hand, being an itinerant peddler to
the end of your days isn't my idea of an easy life. So I'm going to call
it quits after autumn. Thought I'd open up a little shop in a place like
Taehwa and then have the family join me. Being on the road all the time
wears a man out."
"Not me-unless I meet her again. I'll be walking this
here road, watching that moon, till the day I croak."
The mountain path opened onto a wide road. Tongi came
up from the rear, and the three donkeys walked abreast.
"But look at you, Tongi," said Ho. "You're still young-you're
in the prime of life. It was stupid of me to act that way at the Ch'ungju
woman's place. Don't hold it against me."
"Don't mention it. I'm the one who feels silly. At this
stage of my life, I shouldn't be worrying about girls. Night and day, it's
my mother I think about."
Downhearted because of Ho's story, Tongi spoke in a tone
that was a shade subdued.
"When you mentioned my parents at the tavern, it made
my heart ache. You see, I don't have a father. My mother's my only blood
"Did your father die?"
"I never had one."
"Well, that's a new one."
Ho and Cho burst into laughter.
"I'm ashamed to say it," said Tongi with a serious expression,
forced to explain himself, "but it's the truth. My mother gave birth to
me prematurely when they were in a village near Chech'on, and then her
family kicked her out. I know it sounds strange, but that's why I've never
seen my father's face, and I have no idea where he is."
The men dismounted as they approached a pass, and fell
silent while climbing the rough road. The donkeys frequently slipped. Ho
was soon short of breath, and had to pause time and again to rest his legs.
He felt his age every time he had to cross a pass. How he envied the young
fellows like Tongi. Sweat began to stream down his back.
Just the other side of the pass, the road crossed a stream.
The plank bridge had been washed out during the monsoon rains, so they
would have to wade across. The men removed their loose summer trousers
and tied them around their backs with their belts. Half naked, they presented
a comical sight as they stepped briskly into the stream. They had been
sweating a moment ago, but it was nighttime and the water chilled them
to the bone.
"Who the devil brought you up, then?" Ho asked Tongi.
"My mother did. She had no choice but to remarry, and
she opened up a drinking house. But my stepfather was a hopeless drunk-a
complete good-for-nothing. Ever since I was old enough to know what's what,
he beat me. We didn't have a day's peace. And if Mother tried to stop him,
she'd get kicked, hit, threatened with a knife. Our family was one big
mess. And so I left home at eighteen, and I've been peddling ever since."
"I'd thought you were quite a boy for your age, but to
hear all this, it sounds like you've really had a hard time."
The water had risen to their waists. The current was
quite strong, the pebbles underfoot slippery. The men felt as if they would
be swept from their feet at any moment. Cho and the donkeys had made quick
progress and were almost across. Tongi and Ho, the younger man supporting
the older, were far behind.
"Was your mother's family originally from Chech'on?"
"I don't think so. I never could get a straight answer
out of her, but I've heard say they lived in Pongp'yong."
"Pongp'yong....What was your dad's name, anyway?"
"Beats me. I never heard it mentioned."
"I suppose not," mumbled Ho as he blinked his bleary
eyes. And then, distracted, he lost his footing. His body pitched forward,
plunging him deep into the stream. He flailed about, unable to right himself,
and by the time Tongi had called out to Cho and caught up to Ho, the older
man had been washed some distance away. With the sodden clothes on his
back, Ho looked more miserable than a wet dog. Tongi lifted him easily
from the water and carried him piggyback. Soaked though he was, Ho was
a slender man, and he rested lightly on Tongi's sturdy back.
"Sorry to put you to this trouble," said Ho. "I guess
my mind's been wandering today."
"It's nothing to worry about."
"So, didn't it ever seem to you that your mother was
looking for your dad?"
"Well, she's always saying she'd like to see him."
"And where is she now?"
"In Chech'on-she went there after she split up with my
stepfather. I'm thinking of moving her up to Pongp'yong this fall. If I
put my mind to it, we'll make out somehow."
"Sure, why not? That's a swell idea. Did you say this
Tongi's broad, agreeable back spread its warmth into
Ho's bones. And then they were across. Ho plaintively wished Tongi might
have carried him a bit farther.
Cho could no longer suppress a laugh.
"Saengwon, this just isn't your day."
"It was that donkey colt-I got to thinking about it and
lost my balance. Didn't I tell you? You wouldn't think this old fellow
had it in him, but by God if he didn't sire a colt with the Kangnong woman's
mare in Pong-p'yong. The way it pricks up its ears and prances about-is
there anything as cute as a donkey colt? There are times I've stopped at
Pongp'yong just to see it."
"Must be some colt to make a man take a spill like that."
Ho wrung a fair amount of water out of his sodden clothes.
His teeth chattered, he shivered, he was cold all over. But for some unaccountable
reason he felt buoyant.
"Let's hurry to the inn, fellows," said Ho. "We'll build
a fire in the yard and get nice and cozy. I'll heat up some water for the
donkey, and tomorrow I'll stop at Taehwa, and then head on to Chech'on."
"You're going to Chech'on, too?" asked Tongi, his voice
trailing off in surprise.
"Thought I'd pay a visit-haven't been there in a while.
How about it, Tongi-you and me?"
As the donkeys set off again, Tongi was holding his whip
in his left hand. This time Ho, whose eyes had long been weak and dim,
couldn't fail to notice Tongi was left-handed.
As Ho ambled along, the tinkle of the donkeys' bells,
more lucid now, carried over the dusky expanse. The moon had arched far
across the heavens.
Translated by Kim Chong-un and Bruce Fulton
Kim Chong-un is former president of Seoul National
University and currently president of the Korean Research Foundation. He
is also the translator of Post-war Korean Short Stories(Seoul:Seoul National
University Press, 1983)
Bruce Fulton is co-translation with Ju-Chan Fulton
of Words of Farewell, Stories by Korean Women Writers(Seattle: Seal Press.
1989) and with Marshall R. Pihl, Land of Exile Contemporary Korean Fiction(Armonk,
N.Y: M.E Sharpe 1993) and the recipient of a 1995 U.S.National Endowment
for the Arts Translation Fellowship.