|Father and Son
Father and Son
The bus galloped across the wintry plain. There were
only five people on board: the driver and the bus girl, Chu-ch'ol, his
wife and Chu-on.
"So what happened to Yun-gil?" Chu-on asked with an air
of contrived concern. Chu-ch'ol stared out the window, pretending not to
hear. The frost-covered pane distorted the world outside; the mountains,
the clouds, the fields, the trees along the side of the road, the rivers,
the villages, they were all refracted in dizzying patterns. Grizzled patches
of snow lingered on the mountain slopes. The clouds were a murky gray,
heavy with snow. Piles of straw dotted the fields, and a bleak morning
fog hung over the dark brown earth, which lay plowed and fallow for the
winter. The trees lining the road twisted occasionally, their gaunt branches
stretching into the empty sky. Like an invading army spewing cannon fire,
the bitter cold had reduced the land to a desolate ruin. The mountains
and rivers were dying the way all living, breathing things die in the microbes
or poisonous gas released by an attacking army.
Hye-suk sat huddled to Chu-ch'ol's right, feigning sleep,
her face buried deep in her muffler. Chu-on sat to his left, across the
aisle. For some time, Chu-ch'ol had sensed Chu-on's eyes groping the back
of his skull, across his ear and left cheek like a cockroach's feelers.
A shiver ran through his body. He obviously didn't come for Chu-man's funeral.
He's after Yun-gil. Rage surged inside him. His stomach and chest burned.
Was it the anger or the beer? His stomach felt hollow, as if he was getting
hungry, and all of his energy seemed to be seeping away. He had eaten a
bowl of haejangguk before boarding the bus, but it hadn't calmed his stomach.
If only he had something to drink.
"I'm going to have to give that boy a good talking-to.
He's in big trouble if he gets much further out of line."
Chu-on seemed to have been waiting for the chance to
say this. Earlier in the ride he had taken out a cigarette; he was still
pinching it by the filter, rolling it back and forth between his thumb
and forefinger. His eyes rested for a moment on the tip of the twisting
cigarette, then darted to Chu-ch'ol's face again. Chu-ch'ol could feel
his gaze. He's toying with me, he thought. How am I going to get rid of
this ungrateful bastard? He clenched his teeth, bearing down on his rage
as he turned Chu-on's words over in his mind. If he gets much further out
of line... Was Yun-gil out of line? But how had it started?
* * *
The rats destroyed the family's peace. No one could sleep;
everyone was a nervous wreck.
"Water flows as dynamic energy, and any force that obstructs
it is reactionary energy. So what about you, Father? Where does your writing
It was nearly sunset on a Sunday afternoon, in the autumn
of Yun-gil's freshman year in university. Chu-ch'ol had practically dragged
his son from his room, where he had been ensconced for the day, and taken
him to the mineral springs on the hill behind their house. They sat down
to rest in a patch of eulalia grass. New stamen were just beginning to
sprout, round and hard like scabs forming over a scratch.
Chu-ch'ol pointed out the trees and plants to his sonΑthe
alders and cherries, the juniper, birch and beech trees, the poplars and
oaks, the bush clover, azalea and rhododendrons. He explained the unique
character of each species. He told the story of the mountain reeds, the
eulalia, the scouring rush, the asters and the wild chrysanthemums. Man
gives names to all things in this world, he explained, and using their
proper names helps us understand them and initiate a spiritual exchange.
Chu-ch'ol wanted to instill a sense of artistic sensitivity
in his son, a history major. It wasn't so much that he wanted Yun-gil to
choose a career in literature. He simply wanted to cultivate in his son
the eye of a scholar, in other words, the perception and wit needed to
see directly into the heart of all phenomena.
Literature isn't the only field that requires artistic
sensitivity. Politicians, businessmen, academics, merchants, bureaucrats,
people in the judiciary, doctors, industrialists, laborers and farmers
all needed it as far as Chu-ch'ol was concerned. He had always believed
that such sensitivity was beneficial not only to the individual, but to
society and the state as well. If politicians ruled with artistic sensitivity,
the country would be a more open and hopeful place to live. Judges and
prosecutors would better understand those living on the other side of the
law, and criminals could expect sympathy and would no longer need to worry
about unreasonable punishment. A patient treated by a doctor lacking in
such sensitivity would clearly suffer, and laborers would be exploited
at the hands of insensitive management. Chu-ch'ol had always thought Einstein's
extraordinary discoveries, Churchill's grand politics and Kennedy's youthful
vision were born of their artistic sensitivity.
Be that as it may, his son's question took him by surprise.
Stunned, Chu-ch'ol stared at the clouds floating between the tops of the
eulalia grass. "Reactionary"ΑIt was the term that stunned him. When he
was a boy, the village children had taunted him for being the "reactionary's
brat." A reactionary was someone who stood on the side of forces resistant
to change, someone who raised obstacles to the dynamic driving force of
the proletariat revolutionΑno simple middle-of-the-roader. It was only
after reaching adulthood that he understood what it really meant.
Chu-ch'ol's father had been a farmer who worked his own
land in their home village of New Town. With two and a half acres of paddy
and nearly five of dry field, he was the richest of the tideflat villagers;
the rest worked less than a half acre of paddy and only an acre or two
of dry field, or lacking that, depended on fishing or seaweed cultivation
for their livelihood. As a result, the propertyless villagers who had joined
the South Korean Workers' Party labeled Chu-ch'ol's father "a hindrance
to the creation of a new society where the wealthy's land is redistributed
to the needy."
"Wait a minute. Where is your 'dynamic energy' supposed
to be flowing anyway?" Chu-ch'ol asked.
What was Yun-gil thinking? The wind shook the tops of
the bush clover. The eulalia grass rustled metallically. The mountain shadows
were beginning to settle, pale and purple, over the grassy spot where they
were sitting. A desolate silence fell over the woods. The autumn wind made
Chu-ch'ol feel lonely. He was frustrated by the mood his son was creating.
"That's such an obvious question," Yun-gil replied. An
awkward smile played on his lips as he stared down at the short stalks
of cogon grass sprouting beneath his gray tennis shoes. Maybe he regrets
asking me about my writing, Chu-ch'ol thought. It's my fault if he does.
"I guess you're right," he said. "But do you know why
I asked? Because your question reeks of Marxism. Apparently you've been
reading a lot about Marx, Lenin and Stalin these days... but to tell the
truth, I don't care much for them."
Chu-ch'ol regretted his words immediately. Here he was,
a father trying to talk to his son, and he came right out and said he didn't
care for the very people his son respected.
"So if my father rejects someone, I have to reject them
Yun-gil reacted just as Chu-ch'ol had expected. His face
hardened, and a gloomy look, dark as the mountain shadows, settled over
his features. Why am I so tactless with this boy? Chu-ch'ol bit his tongue
in frustration. Yun-gil was a quiet, thoughtful child. What little he did
say ran deep and unseen, like an iceberg. He took after his mother in that
respect. Chu-ch'ol often got in trouble for his flippant remarks to Hye-suk.
"I'm not saying you have to reject who I reject. I'm
just saying I don't care for their materialistic interpretation of history,
the way they define human history as the history of class struggle. I'm
for a free market economy. I think capitalism is better than communism
in many ways. It makes life easier for people. It makes true human liberation
Chu-ch'ol babbled worthless theory. He simply wanted
to clarify his own position and turn his son around, if, in fact, the boy
was leaning toward Marx and Lenin.
Yun-gil glanced at his father, then stood up.
"Shall we go?" he said with an awkward smile. Eyes focused
on the path, he started down the hill ahead of Chu-ch'ol. His gait seemed
heavy, laden with discontentment. His movements spelled loathing and rebellion.
"You'd better keep a close eye on your son once he's
in university. Make sure he doesn't get involved with the student activists."
Chu-ch'ol recalled the advice of a professor friend.
Suddenly he felt dizzy. His face flushed at what Yun-gil had said about
his writing. Maybe his son had already joined the student movement. Chu-ch'ol
felt as if Yun-gil and his new friends could see right through him. He
had tried to reflect the pain of Korea's alienated masses in his poetry,
but each poem ended there; he never tried to touch the masses or offer
any real solutions.
Chu-ch'ol was forever the bewildered captive of a contradiction
only he understood.
As a child growing up in New Town, Chu-ch'ol was accustomed
to his status as the rich man's son, but when he left the village to attend
middle school in the city, he soon realized that he was really the son
of a poor man. His classmates' clothes, their spending habits, lunches
and books all proved it. Chu-ch'ol rented a room and had to cook and clean
for himself. His school uniform was made of muslin dyed and sewn by his
mother, and his winter underwear was stuffed with thin cotton wadding and
quilted at home. His lunch consisted of boiled rice and barley, with a
spoonful of bean paste or spiced anchovies on the side. He had only his
textbooks to study from, no reference books or dictionaries like the other
students. Snacks were an unthinkable luxury, there were no special treats
to take on school picnics, and he missed the senior class excursion because
his parents didn't send the money. Such were his middle and high school
years, then he went to Seoul for university, but there too he was forever
running out of food. He felt inferior to classmates who didn't suffer like
him and he detested people of great wealth. Still, when he returned to
New Town, he was the rich man's son. There was no getting around it. None
of the other villagers could afford to send their sons and daughters to
school the way his father had. They were dirt poor.
From a logical point of view, Chu-ch'ol's rich boy-poor
boy contradiction was hardly a problem. It was simply a matter of changing
the way he thought. The rich man's son was no more than a big fish in a
small pond. Far better to admit he was the son of a poor farmer and fisherman
and stand on the side of the impoverished masses wherever he went. As time
passed, however, he came to think like a member of the bourgeois elite.
He may have sung of the masses in his poetry, but he loathed the idea of
them ruling the world for he knew that they would attack him as a pallid
intellectual. He knew he would feel terribly wronged if they levied heavy
taxes on the wealthy, in effect nationalizing all property.
In addition to the house he was now living in, Chu-ch'ol
owned a plot of orchard land valued at 100 million won. His wife had inherited
it from her parents, and she and Chu-ch'ol were thinking of selling it
one day to finance overseas studies for one of their children, something
along those lines. But if the impoverished masses came to power, Chu-ch'ol
might lose that precious possession. Even if it wasn't confiscated, he
had the sneaking suspicion that he and his family would not enjoy their
present comfort. Chu-ch'ol resented being included among the ranks of the
"haves" because of his middle class fixation on security, but, while hardly
becoming a poet, it was a natural enough response for an ordinary man.
Thanks to Chu-ch'ol's stubborn contradiction and the
orchard land, the clash with Yun-gil was unavoidable. Their differences
surfaced the morning after Chu-ch'ol bailed his son out of jail.
Yun-gil had been picked up for participating in a sit-in
that had stretched on for several days. As it was his first offense and
he wasn't deeply involved in any key organizations yet, Yun-gil was released
into his parents' custody after they promised to take responsibility for
him and provide proper guidance. It was well past midnight by the time
Chu-ch'ol got Yun-gil into a cab and brought him home. Hye-suk was waiting
by the front gate. Yun-gil hadn't slept or eaten properly during the sit-in,
so his parents simply fed him and sent him to bed without showing any emotion.
The next morning they woke him a bit after eight and gave him breakfast.
"Why don't we have a talk?" Chu-ch'ol suggested as he
sat down across from the boy when he finished eating.
"I wish you'd leave politics to the politicians and get
on with your studies. Change has to come gradually. This idea that you
can get rid of obstacles, everything you don't like, by physical forceΑall
this stuff about revolutionΑit's just no good."
Chu-ch'ol had stayed up all night composing a detailed
speech, but he was rambling now. Even he found his argument feeble. It
wasn't going to convince Yun-gil of anything.
"You kids are like saplings just beginning to grow. You
have to cultivate yourself if you want to grow strong and tall. If you
rush out and get involved in the labor movement or some anti-American democracy
demonstration, you're just wasting time that you should be using to study.
That's no goodΑnot for you or the nation and the people. I'm not saying
your sacrifices and dedication are meaningless. I just think they'd be
a lot more meaningful if you waited until you've grown. I mean, throwing
rocks and shouting slogans through a cloud of tear gas can be meaningful,
but becoming a bookworm who studies in the library can be just as meaningful,
even if the other students look down on you for it. Actually, it might
take more courage to be a bookworm than to throw stones."
Yun-gil listened in silence, his eyes fixed on the floor
in front of him. When Chu-ch'ol finished, the boy shook his head slowly.
"I'm sorry, Father," he began in a low voice. "Your logic
typifies the deceptive appeasement measures of today's so-called intellectuals.
It simply echoes the fraudulent governing logic of our rulers."
Chu-ch'ol was speechless. The morning sun bounced off
the window frame and spread an amber light across the room like the ribs
of a fan. Hye-suk was standing with her back to the door. When did she
come in? he wondered. She hadn't slept or eaten for days. Her face was
gaunt, her lips chapped. Shadows hung like dark purple bruises in the triangular
hollows beneath her eyes.
"I can't believe he's our son!" she sighed bitterly as
she turned her head to the ceiling.
"Who knows? Maybe the spirit of one of your enemies,
or someone who hated Grandfather, has descended on me. Parents may give
birth to their children physically, but they can't give birth to their
spirits. Why do you even try to pretend to understand? Why do you try to
get involved? It'll just break your hearts. Forget about me! You may have
given birth to me, but I don't belong to you. In the end, my body belongs
to the wretched masses of this land."
Then the son began lecturing the father on political
"You may call me a communist sympathizer, but I believe
Marx was right in many cases. He was right about the conflict between the
relations of production and forces of production and how it forms the root
of the historical change that brings about human liberation. He was right
about the connection between conflict, confrontation and class struggle.
It's already been clearly proven. During the feudal period, the bourgeoisie
was the dynamic class representing the forces of production, and the aristocracy
was the reactionary class, right? In monopoly capitalism, the proletariat
is the dynamic class, and the bourgeoisie is the reactionary class. In
the collision between a dynamic and a reactionary class, the dynamic class
always wins. It's inevitable, all part of the great flow of history. The
problem lies with the forces that resist the natural flow of history. In
a class society, the state invariably strengthens its bureaucracy, courts,
police force and military, and serves as a mouthpiece for the interests
of the ruling class.
"In the clash between the forces of production and the
relations of production, the ruling class uses a variety of measures to
maintain the status quo. One method is to mobilize the state's legal force.
Of course, that doesn't necessarily mean physical force. First, the state
attempts to conceal class exploitation and suppress consciousness-raising
within the dynamic class. When that fails, it is forced to mobilize its
legal forces. That's why the struggle between the dynamic and reactionary
classes is never restricted to the economic arena. It always becomes a
struggle for political power. Lately that's what our new rulers have been
trying to do."
From time to time Yun-gil paused to moisten his lips.
The light from the window glistened off them as he spoke. His pale, swollen
face reminded Chu-ch'ol of a patient with kidney disease. A sharp, metallic
pain pierced his chest. He felt an excruciating regret, as if he had discovered
parasites on the branches of a chestnut tree that he had carefully watered
"I've read those books," he replied, his features crumbling
like fragments of a broken pot. "I know that theory backwards and forwards,
how Lenin developed the concept of a dictatorship of the proletariat, how
the proletarian masses are supposed to rule until the people's consciousness
has been raised, and how the 'reactionary' bourgeoisie will be purged."
Chu-ch'ol's heart fluttered nervously as he spoke. He
paused to light a cigarette.
"I know it too," his son replied in an icy tone. His
eyes were fixed on the floor still.
Chu-ch'ol swallowed hard."Well then, you must have read
all about the communist countries that are even more rigid and hierarchical
than the capitalist societies they despise... And you must know that the
Soviet Union and communist China are actually trying to introduce capitalist
Hye-suk was still standing at the door. She looked back
and forth between her husband and son. An even darker shadow had descended
over her face now. She moistened her blistered lips, and interrupted in
a pleading tone.
"Do you really think a few kids can change anything?
Do you realize how many people have been crippled and died for dreams like
yours? There've been hundreds like you since Korea was liberated from Japan,
but they just come and go like the morning dew."
"You keep out of this," Chu-ch'ol snapped. he turned
back to Yun-gil.
"When I was your age, I was tempted by that sugary idealism
too, but I gradually came to realize that it's all a lie. The communist
countries have all launched ruthless purification campaigns in the name
of their two-bit liberation, and they're all creating a new class society
within their planned economies. I think a system that promotes the gradual
creation of an ideal world, within the context of a free market economy,
is better than a system that forces change. Classes exist under all forms
of government, and left to themselves, they fall into a pyramid. I'm for
a free market system that would lift the people at the lowest echelon to
the middle to create an egg-shape. This can't be achieved through class
struggle. It has to be achieved gradually, the way a tree grows, on the
basis of the stability we have now."
Chu-ch'ol flushed. I sound like some kind of government
spokesman, he thought. But what could he do? Those were the ideas he'd
been brought up on. His son grinned and spoke in sympathetic tone.
"You needn't say any more. You must feel awful. I understand
the contradiction you face. I know how it's tortured you over the years."
Aghast at her son's impudence, Hye-suk looked at the
ceiling and laughed.
It wasn't long before Yun-gil was forced into the army
because of his involvement in demonstrations.
Winter's first snow fell the day he entered boot camp.
"Why does he have to go to boot camp in the middle of
winter, of all times? It's not fair. I knew this would happen... from the
moment he started acting up." Hye-suk was devastated. "Don't they see that
they're just a bunch of idealistic kids? Why can't they give them a little
leeway and try to guide them in the right direction? Why are they giving
them such a hard time? I can't believe this! How can they do this? How
can they drag someone off and force him into the army in the middle of
winter?" Spittle gathered at the corners of her mouth.
Chu-ch'ol tried to comfort her when she returned, teary-eyed,
from seeing her son off at the front gate of the army base.
"It's all for the best. By the time he's discharged and
returns to school, all his buddies will have graduated. He won't have a
reason to demonstrate anymore. It's better this way. They've actually saved
him from getting in worse trouble, from going to jail or getting expelled.
I know it's cold and it'll be hard going but... He'll just have to suffer
through it. After all, it's all of his own doing. It's part of growing
up. Don't let it get you too upset."
Yun-gil never wrote home. All they got was a mimeographed
note from the commander of an infantry company on the front line: Private
Pak Yun-gil is presently serving under my command and performing his sacred
obligation to the defense of his nation. He is in good health. There is
no need for concern. Thank you.
After a year in the army, Yun-gil came home on leave.
The following year he returned once more, then a few months later he was
Each leave lasted twenty days. He spent the entire time
holed up in his room. He seemed to be writing something, and judging from
the paper he discarded, it wasn't poetry. It looked like he was writing
"I guess you were right," Hye-suk said with satisfaction.
"Army life really has made him grow up."
But Hye-suk was wrong.
Chu-ch'ol was seized by a disturbing premonition from
the moment his son came home on leave. Something wasn't quite right. He
pretended not to notice, for fear his wife would start losing weight and
get fever blisters again, then one night before Yun-gil was scheduled to
return to the base, he snuck into the boy's room to talk.
"I have a feeling you're hiding something from me. You
know, I've always been very sensitive. You seem to be having a hard time
in the army. Why don't you tell me about it? I know someone high up at
army headquarters. Maybe I could pull a few strings for you."
Yun-gil was seated with his back to his father. All Chu-ch'ol
could see was the back of his son's crew-cut head. Suddenly Yun-gil spun
around and shot a murderous look at his father. The whites of his eyes
shone with a bluish glint. His pupils reflected the light like the steely
blade of a knife. He pressed his lips together for a moment, forming deep
dimples at the corners of his mouth, then spoke in a low, pained tone.
"Just try it and I'm deserting."
Chu-ch'ol didn't know what to say.
It wasn't until after Yun-gil was discharged that Chu-ch'ol
learned why his son had become so spiteful. He didn't hear the story from
Yun-gil himself; his son's girlfriend told him.
Yun-gil had been assigned to a reserve infantry regiment
on the front line as soon as he finished boot camp. That was when the t'aekwondo
training had begun. After learning a few basic moves, Yun-gil was sent
into matches against better-trained opponents. Agile and fierce as wild
beasts, they beat him relentlessly, pounding him until he collapsed. It
wasn't long before he became a vicious monster himself. He had to if he
wanted to survive.
Yun-gil returned to school immediately after his discharge.
Soon he didn't bother coming home at all. He'd had a heated argument with
his father. Chu-ch'ol had kept scolding and advising, advising and scolding,
all with the best intentions, but father and son ended up arguing. Yun-gil
refused to accept anything Chu-ch'ol said. He snarled at his father, spitting
and glaring like a crazed cat. Helpless to control his own resentment and
anger, Chu-ch'ol slapped his son several times across the face with all
"Get out of here! You can drop dead for all I care!"
Yun-gil let out a snort. "Fine," he answered in a husky
voice as he jumped to his feet. "I'm leaving this stinking reactionary
And he stalked from the room without a backward glance.
Overcome by the sense of defeat and rage boiling inside his head, Chu-ch'ol
ripped off his undershirt, tore it to shreds and flung it to the floor.
His skin was streaked with red as the rage coursed through his body.
"I don't understand you," Hye-suk cried. "You're acting
just like him! Why, he's only a boy! He hasn't even had a chance to recover
from the army yet. Why are you acting like this? Can't you control yourself?
Just wait! Do you think he's going to come back? What am I going to do?
I can't take this anymore!"
She's right, Chu-ch'ol thought as regret surged over
him, but then he snapped back in anger.
"Forget about him! Forget he exists! Remember? He's the
one who said he belonged to the 'wretched masses'! Our ties to him are
broken. We're not his parents anymore!"
Chu-ch'ol went into the bathroom. As he washed his face
and poured water over his head, he was seized by frustration and loneliness.
The misery and self-hatred made him retch. He pressed his eyes shut and
bit down hard on his tongue. Maybe his son was right. Maybe I'm just trash,
all contradictions and conceit... Nothing more than a chunk of rotting
flesh. Suddenly he felt like killing himself.
It wasn't long before life returned to normal, though.
After all, fathers and sons have their own lives to live, he thought. Who
isn't swayed by life's contradictions? Everything begins in contradiction,
conflict and confrontation. Life and death, creation and extinction, good
and evilΑthe significance of all being lies in the pendulum motion between
opposites. In the end, all things are one. Left is right and right is left.
There is no left and there is no right. That was how Chu-ch'ol rationalized
his actions. He tried to forget about his son and break free of those aggravating
On the night of the fourth day after Yun?il left home,
Chu-ch'ol returned from work late to find Hye?uk upset by a visit she'd
had during the day.
"She was just a wisp of a girl, no bigger than a sparrow."
Hye?uk's face twisted as she spoke.
"She said Yun?il sent her. I couldn't believe it when
I saw her. What is wrong with him? He's gone too far! That girl... why,
I couldn't stand the sight of her行her face, her hair, her clothes... She
couldn't be more than four and a half feet tall, and she's skinny as a
rail. Her skin's rough and drawn, and she has so many freckles it looks
like someone poured black sesame seeds on her face. She's got these frog
eyes行and they're the only thing about her that sparkled! Her forehead
and cheekbones stick out, her cheeks are hollow, and her lips are thin
"She's smart enough, I guess, but there's not a hint
of femininity in her. She could have worn something a little prettier,
but no... she was wearing a baggy old tee shirt on top of a worn?ut pair
of blue jeans and torn sneakers. Her hair's kind of brown, and cut... not
exactly in a pageboy or short like a man's. It's not even permed... It's
just cut in patches, like a rat gnawed it. And her hands are rough, like
she's been pulling grass or digging around in the dirt. Why, she looked
like some kind of factory worker! No, I take that back. I don't think you
could find a factory worker dressed like her in this day and age.
"Anyway, I figured as long as she was here, I might as
well ask her a few questions, so I sat her down and asked her about Yun?il.
You know, where he was, and does he have a place to stay, and is he getting
enough to eat, and is he going to school... Anyway, you would not believe
that girl! She referred to him as 'Brother!' Without the slightest hesitation!
I couldn't believe it! She said he'd been staying in her room and they
might get married someday. I asked what she did for a living, and she said,
'Me? I dropped out of school. I'm with the labor movement now.' She kind
of laughed and then nonchalantly added, 'Brother and I think alike. In
a former life, we must have shared the same body, like an earthworm. Everything
fits just perfect.'"
Hye?uk paused to see if he understood.
"So what are you saying?" he demanded brusquely, avoiding
her embarrassed gaze. "Are you saying we should run over there and get
"I know, but I can't accept a girl like that for my daughter?n?aw.
The very thought of it makes me want to die."
"Just forget about it. Our ties to that boy were severed
long ago. What he does is his problem, not ours," Chu-ch'ol said. But in
his heart he had already begun working on a speech to persuade Yun?il to
come home. He decided not to tell his wife about his plan. No point in
raising her expectations.
Chu-ch'ol lay awake at night, turning his scheme over
and over in his mind. Think of the dreams I had for that boy! I've got
to make him understand this contradiction of mine. He's got to realize
that it's part of me. Yes, that's what I'll do. I'll go to him, and we'll
open up and say what's on our minds. We'll find some kind of middle ground.
Chu-ch'ol stole the girl's address from his wife's note
pad, then went to her house late one night a few days later.
As he gazed out the taxi window, he saw the moon slipping
by, suspended between the roofs. Round as a ripe pumpkin or an advertising
balloon floating high in the sky, it reminded him of his son's face. When
Yun-gil was a baby, Chu-ch'ol used to take him to his hometown to see his
mother. The old woman would bounce her grandson in the air and exclaim,
"He looks just like a bright shiny moon!"
The moon made the dizzying labyrinths of the city seem
much larger. It awakened him to the existence of a distant, infinite vastness
on the other side of space. There was more to the world than what was found
here on earth.
It was late autumn. An unseasonable rain had fallen during
the day, and as evening progressed, the wind had grown cold. The clouds
had scattered, and finally, the moon peeked out. The asphalt was still
wet; ginkgo leaves littered the ground like yellow butterfly corpses. The
fluorescent light of the street lamps streamed down in icy threads. Chu-ch'ol
felt a flash of warmth at the thought of seeing the child he had abandoned.
When Yun?il had the flu as a little boy, Chu-ch'ol would lay his hand on
his forehead, hot as a brazier stone, and say, "You'll just have to wait
it out. Your body's trying to grow more quickly. That's why it hurts so
Chu-ch'ol believed that. Spring rains brought warm breezes,
late autumn showers prompted winter's arrival. Children lost weight when
they were ill, but once recovered, they gained quickly, growing by leaps
and bounds. When old people caught a cold or the flu, they got more gray
hairs and wrinkles. His son was suffering from an illness called youth
now. The ordeal would provide him with an opportunity to mature.
Yun?il agreed to see his father, but he was clearly annoyed
by the visit. He refused to meet somewhere quiet and cozy, like his girlfriend's
room or a restaurant; instead he insisted they meet in a wine stall on
the corner of a major thoroughfare, exposed to the damp, cold wind.
"The food at these stalls is outrageously overpriced,
but I make a point of drinking here. These people can't afford to rent
even the shabbiest little bar, so they're stuck on the streets. I figure
I'm doing a good deed, giving them my business like this."
Yun?il chuckled expansively as he perched himself on
the long wooden bench. The proprietor of the stall, a squat man in his
early forties, welcomed them with a good?atured smile. As Chu-ch'ol sat
down beside his son, he thought how naive and arrogant Yun?il sounded.
The boy speaks with the self?ighteousness and superiority of someone who
thinks he's one of the chosen, he thought. After all, Yun?il had always
been an honors student. He had gone to only the best schools, and people
were always raving about how intelligent he was. But did he have to flaunt
that sanctimonious attitude in front of his father? The little jerk is
trying to get back at me for slapping him!
They ordered chicken gizzards, roasted eel and mussel
broth to eat with their soju. Back in Chu-ch'ol's time, young men turned
to the side when they took a drink before their elders. Yun?il was insolent
by comparison, gulping down the liquor as he sat straight and proud in
front of his father. Chu-ch'ol hadn't had a chance to teach his son drinking
etiquette. It was too late now. He refilled Yun?il's empty glass, almost
as if he were a friend or acquaintance from school, and as he did, he recalled
how he had cared for his son when he was delirious with fever as a child.
"There's nothing to be afraid of," he said, squeezing the boy's hand and
smiling. "Everyone has to be sick sometime. It's part of growing up."
A gust of wind whisked under the sides of the tent covering
the wine stall. Chu-ch'ol felt the chill run through his body. A dark cloud
of steam and smoke rose from the eel the proprietor was roasting for the
customers next to them. He turned the eel over with a pair of thongs. The
man's face was deeply wrinkled. The flame in the kerosene lantern hanging
over the table writhed in the wind. Milky white steam rose over the kettle
of mussel broth. The people next to them smoked as they talked. Their conversation,
peppered with swearing, suggested they were boiler workers. The thin man
in a brown jacket with the dark stubble and unwashed hair spoke in the
Cholla dialect. His companion, a lanky fellow with a Ch'ungch'ong accent
who, while similar in age, seemed insecure, chimed his agreement to everything
the Cholla man said.
"Let's go home," Chu-ch'ol said. "I'm your father. I
can't leave you here like this, and you can't turn your back on your parents
forever, just because we disappointed you once. I know it sounds funny,
but neither of us have had any practice at this father and son business.
I guess the understanding and love shared by a father and son grow out
of situations like this."
Chu-ch'ol rambled on, almost as if he were talking about
someone else. His son took a noisy slurp of mussel broth before he spoke.
"I'm sincere when I say this, Father. I always thought
you were the greatest dad in the world. You were the one who gave me the
courage to leave home in the first place.... Don't get me wrong. I'm not
trying to mock you. It's just that... Life is a form of suffering, a kind
of penance, I guess. And no one can pay penance when they're cooped up
like a hothouse flower. That's why I can't go back with you. How can I
save the suffering without sharing their pain?"
As Chu-ch'ol listened, he sensed a profound distance
separating them, as if his son, who was right beside him, was sitting on
the opposite side of a vast river. He felt as if his voice would never
reach his son's ears, no matter how he shouted, as if the words would simply
scatter, meaningless, into the air. It wasn't only his relationship with
Yun?il. All his relationships seemed empty: his marriage, his relationship
with his daughter, a sophomore in university, his relationships with the
president of the publishing company where he worked, with the other editors
"I understand. It's up to you. But I have a couple of
requests to make. First, about that girl you've been seeing... Just think
of her as a friend. Don't plan on marrying her. A woman has to look gracious,
you know, pretty and good?atured. A marriage affects more than the bride
and groom. You have to think of the children!"
Chu-ch'ol figured he might as well achieve at least half
of what he had set out to do that evening, but Yun?il shook his head.
"Father, let me make this perfectly clear. I'm the one
who's going to live with the woman I choose to marry, and the children
she bears are going to be my children."
"Listen here, young man! She's more than your wife! She's
going to be my daughter?n?aw, and the children she bears are going to be
That was what Chu-ch'ol wanted to say, but he couldn't.
"All right, I understand," he said. "Let's say
you're right. There's one more thing. I don't want you to get involved
in any extremist activities. Violence is unforgivable, no matter what.
I despise the radical left and communist sympathizers. I hate radicalism.
Whether it's Marxist class struggle or liberation theory or Leninist revolution
or the dictatorship of the proletariat行I'm against it all!"
Yun?il glared at his father. His eyes narrowed to knife
points. A venomous blue light streamed from them, piercing his father like
tiny needles. Chu-ch'ol shuddered. Yun?il shook his head again and chuckled
as if it was all too absurd.
"So now my father's trying to make me out as the communist!"
he snorted. "You've got me all wrong, Father. I merely sympathize with
their ideas. I'm just advocating the overthrow of reactionary bureaucrats
who oppose the great flow of history. We've got to get rid of the foreign
powers who treat our bureaucrats like personal servants."
"You know that's the communists' logic, don't you? And
all those terms you're using行they're almost all pro?ommunist!"
Yun?il's eyes narrowed once more, streaming blue venom.
"Why shouldn't the people advocating democracy borrow
a few of the communists' good points?" He said in a patient tone laced
with sarcasm. "The communists often use terms like democracy and freedom,
just like we do. Creating a better life for the poor, for those without,
working on behalf of the laborers and farmers行do the communists have a
corner on those ideas? Class clearly exists in our society. So why is everyone
so suspicious of any discussion of it? Why is it pro?ommunist to talk about
"Korean Christians have borrowed plenty of terms from
Buddhism, things like devotion and emptiness. The Korean Bible is full
of quotes taken from Buddhist texts. 'Come unto me, all you that labor
and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.' That concept comes straight
from Buddhism行the idea of freeing captive animals and birds. And all that
business about 'Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom
of heaven...' That's taken from references to the pure?earted in Buddhist
texts. But that doesn't mean Christians are Buddhists. No one thinks they're
heretics. And yet, this so?alled free country of ours is riddled with preposterous
taboos. We're all so afraid of being called communist sympathizers for
using 'tainted' expressions like 'comrade,' or the 'propertyless masses,'
or 'class origins,' or 'self?riticism,' that we end up using substitutes
that are completely meaningless."
"But Yun-gil, people like us, who are good but powerless,
have to conform to reality. Remember that old saying: The virtuous man
flows with the times."
"What? How can you say we're powerless?" Yun?il snapped.
The veins in his neck bulged. "We simply don't use the power we have. And
why is that? Because of a few ridiculous preconceptions行the belief that
we're all middle class, that our lives are fine the way they are, that
nothing will change no matter who runs the government, the Korean people's
fixation with security... These ideas have robbed us of our passion!"
Chu-ch'ol didn't know what to say. As he gazed vacantly
into his son's face, he thought of a swamp. Yun?il refilled his father's
glass, then his own. "Perhaps you've had too much to drink, Father," Yun?il
said as he emptied his glass.
"It's a swamp," Chu-ch'ol sighed. "A muddy, boggy, frightening
swamp that every decent human being in this country has to fall into at
least once in his life. Just make sure you don't end up drowning. You have
to get out as soon as you can... but you'll have to do it on your own."
Yun?il was drunk too. "Oh, Father," he slurred. "You
and your generation are just a bunch of romantics. You think my generation
cares about nothing but ideological struggle, but you're wrong. We're fighting
to transform this immoral society into a principled unified nation."
Yun?il smiled awkwardly, then reached into his pocket
and pulled out a piece of newspaper folded into a small, thick square like
the pasteboard cards children play with.
"I may be a history major but I finally plucked up the
courage to write something. It's called 'The Riddle Story.' Why don't you
read it when you get home?" He placed the square on the table in front
of his father.
"Do you know what a riddle story is?" Yun?il asked. "It's
a new literary genre I invented: a combination vignette-riddle. I was going
to call it 'The Riddle Vignette,' but I changed the title to 'The Riddle
Story.' I figured we should respect our mother tongue and use a pure Korean
On the way home, Chu-ch'ol asked the taxi driver to turn
on the overhead light, and, eyes bleary with drink, he began to read his
The house sat in the middle of a field. When winter came,
the rats flocked inside. At night, they thundered about, waking the family
with their fighting and squeaking. From the day the rats moved in, the
family couldn't sleep.
The children were frightened by the rats banging and
squeaking in the ceiling; they didn't want to sleep in their own room.
"What? You can't sleep because of a few rats? Don't be
silly!" the parents shouted as they herded their children back to bed.
The children went to sleep, but during the night they returned, one by
one, to their parents' room.
The family bought mouse traps by the dozen and set them
where the rats frequented. They baited the traps with pieces of beef gristle
and squid dipped in sesame oil. They caught a few at first, but after one
rat was captured in a trap, the others would not go near it. They seemed
to smell the death of their comrades.
Next they tried rat poison. They mixed it with the rats'
favorite foods行rice, sweet potatoes, dried anchovies, cookies, and the
like行then placed it near the rats' hideouts and scattered it in the crawl
spaces above the ceilings in every room. They were going to wipe out the
whole pesky lot in a single stroke.
Their first attempt was a great success. The morning
after they laid the poison, the parents found rats staggering around the
wash basin and drain, bellies distended from the water they had drunk through
the night. Several had simply stretched out and died. They collected the
carcasses, counting more than a dozen all together. After burying the rats,
the family slept soundly for the first time in a long time.
"We should have done this from the very beginning," the
"Let's use poison again if they come back," the mother
The rats returned on the third day and began making a
racket all over again. The father and mother smirked knowingly and, the
following evening, set about mixing the poison again.
Things didn't turn out as they expected, however. The
rats did not eat the poison. It was as if they knew that it would kill
them. The parents stared in disbelief at the untouched heaps of poison.
The children trembled with fear.
How could they get rid of the rats now? There were so
many. The rats flocked in, fifteen or sixteen at a time, squeaking and
snapping, loafing about, chasing one another back and forth.
So the family got two cats. They borrowed a large female
from a relative who ran a shop and bought the second, a medium?ized male,
at the market.
They figured the rats wouldn't dare come in when they
heard a cat. "The cats'll catch'em. We should have thought of this long
ago," they thought. They were, however, sadly mistaken.
The father sent the male cat into the crawl space above
the ceiling. The mother tied the female on a string in the granary where
the rats often played.
The male cat fell from the crawl space and died with
its eyes rolled back in its head. It had eaten the rat poison. The rats
didn't go anywhere near the granary. They simply squeaked and scampered
in the ceiling or along the eaves and roof as before. At some point, the
rats learned to ignore the remaining cat's meows. In fact, the cat deserved
to be ignored.
The father and mother bought another cat to replace the
one that had died, but it wasn't particularly effective. They couldn't
send it into the crawl space with all that poison. They simply hoped it
would chase the rats away. But it didn't work. Finally, the father and
the mother gave up on cats and began looking for a surefire method to get
rid of the rodents.
By that time, the rats had come down from the attic and
were chewing holes in the rice bags, leaving urine and droppings on the
family's bedding, invading the closets, and gnawing holes in their clothes.
The family spent their days maligning modern cats and cursing the rats.
Then one day a well?ressed stranger with a large suitcase
appeared at their door. He said he had, until recently, been a high government
official and possessed an amazing solution to their problem.
"I'm thinking of taking out an international patent,"
he said, "so don't tell anyone about this. It's a rat extermination system
based on fratricidal logic."
His amazing solution worked like this.
"First, you need a large jar, then you make a balance
by suspending a lever across the mouth of the jar, and you fasten chunks
of tasty beef at each end of the lever.
"Once the balance is fastened to the mouth of the jar,
a rat climbs up to get the meat. He circles the top of the jar a few times,
then screws up his courage and crawls out onto the balance to take a bite.
The balance tips, and the rat falls into the jar.
"Now, people say there isn't a man alive who won't pick
up a knife and commit robbery after three days without food. As time passes,
the rat's eyes begin to burn with a frightening glow. And then another
rat goes after the meat and falls into the jar, just like the first one.
After a day or two, the two hungry rats start trying to eat each other.
The one who finally manages to eat his opponent is the victor.
"It isn't long before another rat is lured by the smell
of the meat and falls into the jar like the two before him. The rat that
has already eaten one opponent devours the newcomer. And so it goes. The
rat begins to eat his comrades, first one, then two, then three, then four...
then ten, twenty, and so forth, until he realizes just how tasty his fellow
rats can be. Soon he's mastered the art of killing on the first try.
"Leave the jar for a year and the rat will consume nearly
one hundred of his comrades. That's when you turn the jar on its side and
release him. He'll eat nothing but rats after that.
"And if you give him a shot of liquor or hallucinogens,
it's even more effective."
"That makes great sense!" the father exclaimed when the
traveler finished. The mother and children clapped their hands and jumped
up and down. The father and mother bought a jar so enormous the two of
them could barely carry it. Then they constructed a balance just as the
stranger had instructed. They placed two pieces of mouth?atering beef on
each end of the balance and fit it over the mouth of the jar. So began
their treacherous vigil waiting for the no?ood rats to turn into vicious
cannibals. This time they patiently endured the rodents' squeaky commotion
in the ceiling and yard.
But readers, do you think the family's dream came true?
The answer is located at the bottom of the editorial on page 2.
* * *
Chu-ch'ol turned the newspaper over and looked for the editorial.
At the bottom was the answer to the riddle.
Fratricide is based on human logic, not the logic of rats.
Chu-ch'ol got out of the taxi and trudged up the steep
path toward his house, hands buried deep in his pockets. He smiled bitterly
when he realized how miserable he must look: the stern patriarch deprived
of his authority. The cold wind raced up behind him and sent the dead leaves
scurrying along the path drenched blue by the street lamp. Just like the
rats scrambling to devour their brethren, Chu-ch'ol thought. The logic
of fratricide... the logic of rats...
"Have you read that ridiculous riddle story? The one
Yun?il wrote, I mean," Chu-on asked, as he finally stuck the cigarette
in his mouth and flicked his lighter. Chu-ch'ol stared out the window,
pretending he hadn't heard. He was lost in a dull confusion. Was his son
really out of line? Or were the people who thought he was out of line the
ones with a problem? Outside the window a wind, relentless as an army ready
for battle, whipped the plain; the gaunt branches of the trees thrashed
in the wind. Chu-ch'ol folded his arms across his chest and tucked his
chin inside the collar of his sweater. The wind rushed through a crack
in the window, a knife of cold. Grizzled flakes of snow mixed with the
wind. Through the flakes, a village appeared, nestled at the foot of a
low hill, as if wrapped in a winter muffler. At the entrance to the village
stood an old spirit tree. Its leaves were gone now. It seemed to be waiting
for something, eyes closed and quiet. Chu-ch'ol shut his eyes. His head
filled with cherry blossoms floating on the chill breeze of early spring.
White butterflies fluttered as they mated above a yellow field of rapeseed
flowers. Clouds drifted over the mountains, the fields were shrouded in
a misty haze, and sky larks soared above.
Chu-ch'ol's toes ached. He had suffered a severe case
of frostbite in the army. Eyes closed still, he wiggled his toes. The cockroach
rose before him. It transformed into an enormous black phantom, overwhelming
his senses. The ride from Seoul seemed like a long journey through a nightmarish
They had received a telegram: Chu-man, Chu-ch'ol's younger
brother, was dead. His death gave them the excuse they needed. Chu-ch'ol
and Hye-suk felt terrible: it was a shame to have to use poor Chu-man,
but they did. Free from prying eyes at last, they rushed to catch the night
For an instant, Chu-ch'ol was caught in a fantasy: he
was departing on a journey to another world where he could cast off his
troubles and feel completely unencumbered.
As he took his seat, he made his usual bet. Whenever
he traveled, be it far or near, on the bus to or from work, anywhere, Chu-ch'ol
always made a bet: Would he meet someone he knew or not? It was a way of
hypnotizing himself, of cheating time. If he ran into a familiar face,
it meant something bad would happen, and if he didn't meet anyone, he could
look forward to good fortune. The bets filled him with expectations, much
like setting out the pieces for a game of go. Perhaps it was because of
these expectations that he did not concern himself with the rules of fair
play. Whenever possible, he avoided looking people in the face. And when
he did look at them, he tried to avoid their eyes. He was afraid that if
he looked into their eyes too long they might turn into someone he had
once known. On public transportation he always adjusted his gaze so it
fell on the chest of the person facing him. Often he dropped his eyes and
stared at the floor or turned to look out the window. As a result, or perhaps
because he really was lucky, Chu-ch'ol never ran into anyone he knew. Nor
did he ever have any bad luck.
He decided to bet on this trip as well. The bet would
be effective from Seoul Station until they deboarded in Kwangju.
He knew his game was nothing more than useless superstition,
but still, he played it and soon was completely absorbed. The suspense
chopped the time, which could be so painfully boring, into small pieces,
and in the end, he was able to forget himself completely. It was a brilliant
notion-a self-imposed cure, a means of hypnotizing himself. His bets allowed
him to immerse himself in solitude, thereby escaping it.
At one time he thought of telling Hye-suk about this
brilliant idea, but he didn't. His wife had long since developed her own
secret formula. Every morning she got up at five and went to the spring
behind their house. When she got home, she poured water from the spring
into a white porcelain bowl and placed it on the rice box in the kitchen.
Then she knelt down in front of the bowl, pressing her forehead to the
floor in a deep bow. Sometimes she used another secret technique: she pretended
to sleep. It was a false sleep. When something bothered her, she swallowed
the torment in silence, as if in a dream. Chu-ch'ol realized that his wife's
false sleep was her way of escaping, and he didn't try to interfere.
The idea of passing time with clever tricks first came
to him as a student. He had learned nine-card solitaire from the woman
who ran the boarding house where he lived. The game was played with a deck
of flower cards from which eight cardsΑthe rain and paulownia tree suitsΑhad
been removed. He bet on whether he could get the cards to come out even
at the end. It was extremely difficult and tedious. He was lucky if he
could do it once in ten games. Waging one's luck on coming out even was
a pitiful business, so Chu-ch'ol applied a much simpler and more ingenious
standard to his game. He bet that the cards would get stuck in the middle.
It was impossible to come out even in nine-card solitaire unless you cut
the cards just right. And as a result, he always enjoyed the good fortune
of getting stuck in the middle.
It wasn't long before he was chastising himself for his
petty games of solitaire, and having listened to his own advice, he gave
up betting on cards.
He then developed a system of betting on books. It was
after he started working at the publishing company and had had some success
as a poet. One could say he had given up vulgar forms of gambling, such
as solitaire with flower cards, for a somewhat more sophisticated pastime.
But when he stopped to think about it, this new distraction was equally
ludicrous. Whenever he started reading a book, any book, he bet on how
far he would get before encountering a spelling error or missing word.
An error signaled great fortune in the near future; a flawless book meant
he was in for bad luck. Of course, there isn't a book in the world without
some kind of error, so Chu-ch'ol could always expect countless good fortunes
when reading. He sneered at the publisher's ineptitude each time he spotted
his prey, but at the same time, he thanked them for the good fortune they
offered. He realized how silly his bets were. He laughed at the thought
of himself betting on such foolishness, and yet he never gave it up. He
couldn't, and the older he got, the more thick-skinned he became. He knew
he was being foolish, but he didn't do anything about it. It was that hypocrisy
that caused him the most pain.
He had brought along one of his firm's new releases in
hopes of encountering that secret good fortune. He was responsible for
new releases so he had to look over the books anyway. Betting on books
made him feel comfortable and safe, as if he alone had a secret weapon,
an exclusive prescription from a wonder-working doctor, a magic talisman.
If he ran into a familiar face in his first wager, he could always recover
his losses by opening the book and betting on where he would find the first
The train rocked as it gathered speed out of Seoul Station.
Hye-suk was sitting by the window. Suddenly she grabbed Chu-ch'ol's wrist.
Her fingers sliced into his arm, as if she were twisting a cord around
it. Chu-ch'ol jerked to his senses and turned to her.
"Look! It's Chu-on," she whispered urgently, indicating
the entrance to the coach with a toss of her chin. She hunched down, pressing
her forehead against Chu-ch'ol's shoulder, and pretended to sleep.
Chu-on stepped through the door. His hair was shaggy,
covering his ears, his face long like a horse's, and his complexion was
dark. He studied each passenger's face as he headed down the aisle, one
hand plunged in his raincoat pocket. How did he find us? Chu-ch'ol wondered.
His first bet had fallen flat and useless. Chu-ch'ol felt his chest constricting.
He turned to look out the window. It had been bitterly cold for several
daysΑhovering around minus fifteen degrees. Snow had fallen three days
earlier, and white patches lingered in the shadows of the mountains and
on the roofs of the villages they passed. The frozen earth was blanketed
in darkness. The wind, cold and penetrating as a metal spike, barreled
through the darkness like a tank armed with machine guns.
The windows cut off the darkness and cold. They reflected
another world, like a scene from a black and white movie, a negative that
had been enlarged. Everything was swept up in what seemed a delicate ink
painting, all coarse and pockmarked details removed. The wrinkles, scars
and freckles on the faces in the window were gone. The distinction between
beauty and ugliness was unclear. Everyone in the window exuded an air of
It was sweltering inside the train. Hot steam ran through
the pipes beneath the seats by the windows. The passengers had taken off
their suitcoats and sweaters, overcoats and mufflers. Some sat in shirtsleeves,
chatting quietly, while others gathered in groups of four or five to play
flower cards. Still others slept, a sweater or overcoat covering their
chest and shoulders. Their reflections shone in the window, as clear as
a movie screen. Chu-ch'ol found his own image in the black and white scene.
Hye-suk looked like she was really sleeping, her face tucked behind his
shoulder. He stared at her sleeping reflection as he waited for Chu-on
to reach them.
"Aha! There you are! I nearly went crazy looking for
you, Cousin! I called your house and the kids said you'd left a half hour
earlier, so I jumped in a taxi and got to the station one minute before
the train left. I'm sitting in the next car."
Chu-on stood next to Chu-ch'ol's seat chattering in a
manner unseemly for such a large man. He bowed to the attractive young
woman wearing a maroon beret who sat across the aisle from Chu-ch'ol showed
her his ticket and asked if they might switch seats. She glanced at the
ticket and stood up.
"Once I heard Cousin Chu-man died, I couldn't stay in
Seoul. It's too bad. He was so young! You know how he doted on me when
I was little!"
Chu-on sat down in the seat vacated by the young woman.
"She must have had a hard day," Chu-on remarked, glancing
across at Hye-suk.
He called over the vendor and bought two bottles of beer,
some dried cuttlefish, peanuts and almond crackers. He also bought a bottle
of juice and a cola, for Hye-suk, he said, when she woke up.
"Actually, I came to comfort you and try to help you
in your time of grief. You shouldn't carry the burden on your own. There's
nothing like a good drink when you're faced with something like this. Have
a couple of beers and go to sleep, or just sit back and pass the time.
That's the best way to cope. Here you go! Have a beer!"
Chu-on handed Chu-ch'ol a cup and filled it with beer.
Hye-suk shifted to lean against the window, still feigning sleep. She was
wearing a silk scarf around the neck of her loose-fitting gray cotton blouse.
Tiny wrinkles, fine as strands of hair, creased her lightly powdered face.
A blue shadow clouded the hollows beneath her eyes. She was like an insect
that plays dead when in danger. Perhaps she's simply lapsed into a state
of false sleep, Chu-ch'ol thought. She was always closing her eyes like
that at home. She would take a sedative and lie with her eyes shut, but
she never fell into a deep sleep. She seemed to think all her thoughts,
dream all her dreams, and hear everything that went on around her.
It all started shortly after Yun-gil left home. He made
one last telephone call in early winter. They could barely hear him. Either
the phone was tapped or it was a bad connection. Something whirred in the
background, a combination of grass bugs whining and a ringing in the ears.
"This may be my last call," he said, "but don't worry.
I'm fine." He paused, and then, "Good-bye." He never identified himself.
Yun-gil sounded slightly out of breath. Chu-ch'ol's gasped,
temples pounding, at the sound of his son's voice. "All right," he said,
but there was a click on the other end of the line before he finished the
word. He must be going to hide down in the countryside, Chu-ch'ol thought.
When he mentioned this to Hye-suk, she seemed even more concerned.
"You know, it would be so much safer in the city where
there's lots of people. We never should have told him about that place."
Hye-suk bit her cracked lips nervously. Chu-ch'ol couldn't
help thinking she was right. He had suggested that Yun-gil hide in the
old fishing village, but now he wasn't sure. It was in the backwoods where
few people lived, at the end of a deep ravine. If his pursuers burst in
on him suddenly, he would have nowhere to run but the mountains.
"Maybe we should call and have them tell him to hide
somewhere else. Isn't there something we can do? Come on! We have to do
Hye-suk badgered her husband night and day. He didn't
know what to do. He thought about calling Chu-man or one of his uncles
down in the village, but he was afraid the phones were tapped. And if someone
ran down there with a message for Yun-gil, they were sure be to tailed.
He thought of sending a letter, but they would probably intercept it. His
hands were tied, he was helpless, and then came the answer to his prayers:
a message from his uncle in Tideflat Village. Chu-man was dead.
Cruel though it was, the news of Chu-man's death was
glad tidings to Chu-ch'ol and Hye-suk. They had been choking with frustration
since that last call from Yun-gil. No one could be sure when Chu-man would
die, but his neighbors knew he would go in the near future. Everyone secretly
expected him to die soon. It was obvious from his symptomsΑthe way his
face grew darker and darkerΑand his behaviorΑthe way he guzzled soju
and ran around like a crazy man. Chu-ch'ol and Hye-suk should have felt
sorry for Chu-man, but as they rushed to board the night train, they were
thankful for this excuse to visit their hometown without worrying about
what others might think.
And then Chu-on showed up, like a cockroach, quick-witted
and agile, crafty and sly. There was no way of catching him.
Hye-suk sometimes shook her husband awake in the middle
of the night. When she first woke him that way, Chu-ch'ol jumped from bed,
thinking there was a burglar in the house. He searched the room for something
to use as a weaponΑon top of the wardrobe, under the desk, on the dressing-table,
the television. Then he heard his wife whisper, "There are two cockroaches
as big as my finger in the kitchen," and the adrenalin drained from him.
Unable to control his anger, Chu-ch'ol glared murderously into her face.
"Oh, I'm sorry, darling! I didn't mean to startle you!
Please don't be mad. Come to the kitchen. They just came out from nowhere.
They're as big as rats and so quick, and their feelers are so disgusting,
I..." He could hardly be angry when his wife apologized so diffidently.
Still, he grumbled as he followed her to the kitchen.
"I can't believe this. Imagine waking your husband in
the middle of the night because you can't catch a couple of lousy cockroaches!"
Hye-suk poked him in the ribs. "Quiet," she whispered.
"They were digging in the garbage can by the sink, but they ran away when
they heard me coming." She pressed a fly swatter into his hand.
"I heard a rustling in the garbage can. Don't bother
looking anywhere else. Go straight to the garbage can and whack them when
they come out," Hye-suk said. They stood by the curtain that hung at the
entrance to the kitchen. She flicked on the light and pushed him forward,
as if to say hurry up and get it over with. He went straight for the sink.
A faint rustle came from the garbage can; it sounded like arthropods crawling
or rats gnawing grain. He bent over the garbage can, fly swatter poised.
I'll knock the crap out them. He had plenty of reasons to punish the insects.
A knot of ill feeling squeezed his chest. How dare they sneak into my kitchen
in the middle of the night! I'm going to kill the little bastards! The
thin sound of his wife's breathing seemed to refract the light of the incandescent
Chu-ch'ol grabbed the edge of the garbage can with his
left hand and gave it a cautious shake. The egg and cockle shells, onion
skins, empty milk packets and discarded cabbage leaves trembled slightly.
Every nerve in his body was stretched taut as a guitar string. He shook
the garbage can again, holding his breath as he waited for the roaches
to crawl over the edge of the can. As he had hoped, a puff of black wind
shot from between a cabbage leave and an onion skin. Chu-ch'ol swung the
fly swatter down as the cockroach came over the rim. Whoosh! He had missed.
In the blink of an eye, the cockroach slipped through the crack between
the sink and stove.
"Damn it!" Chu-ch'ol snarled. There are bound to be more,
Hye-suk cried. Determined to succeed this time, Chu-ch'ol turned only to
see another mouse-sized cockroach sketch a dark line in the direction of
the previous escapee. Chu-ch'ol didn't even get a chance to raise his fly
swatter. He shook the can again. There weren't any more.
Chu-ch'ol was desperate to relieve his rage. He poked
the fly swatter into the crack. It was pitch black, a cockroach paradise.
They were probably laughing at him, flashing their iridescent blue eyes
and twitching their feelers.
"How am I supposed to catch these things?"
"They're awfully fast, aren't they?" Hye-suk was careful
not to find fault with his technique, as if she feared her husband's temper.
"Can't expect much when you wake someone up in the middle
of the night! Next time you see a cockroach, grab the fly swatter and get
him yourself. There's nothing to it! Just whack him! Why do you have to
wake up someone who's just drifted to sleep?"
Despite his wife's efforts to console him, Chu-ch'ol
muttered angrily as he returned to bed. The next morning before leaving
for work he went to the drugstore and bought a can of their best insecticide.
"Go to work!" Hye-suk snapped. "I'll spray after I've
finished the dishes and covered the food."
Chu-ch'ol insisted on doing it himself. Accustomed to
her husband's impatience, Hye-suk wrapped the breakfast leftovers in plastic
and put them in the refrigerator. Chu-ch'ol doused the roaches' hideouts
with insecticideΑthe dank space behind the refrigerator, the back of the
stove, the space behind the rice box and cabinets, the cracks in the linoleum.
When he returned home from work that evening, he found the carcasses. There
was still something chillingly evil about themΑthe black shells, the stiffened
feelers, the light brown wings faintly visible inside the wing case, the
half-crumpled legs. The care with which Hye-suk had left them on the kitchen
floor reflected the depth of her animosity for the insects, and as he cleared
them away, Chu-ch'ol realized that she wanted him to share the thrill of
exterminating the black hordes. He thought of the insecticide he had used
to douse their dark, dank haunts, then tried to forget the unpleasant memory.
That night Hye-suk looked relieved as she went to bed.
But four nights later, Chu-ch'ol woke to Hye-suk's shaking
again. He rushed into the kitchen, fly swatter in hand, but he missed them,
just like the first night. Three cockroaches, as large as his thumb, scurried
like a pack of mice into the crack between the sink and stove. The next
morning Chu-ch'ol used the remaining insecticide, and not long after, they
discovered the carcasses scattered around the kitchen once more.
The commotion reoccurred once or twice a week from that
night forward, and the next morning Chu-ch'ol would spray again. After
repeating the process more than twenty times, Chu-ch'ol and Hye-suk were
exhausted. Yun-gil's problems arose around that time, actually, and they
could savor their disgust for the black hordes no longer. "We'll have to
seal off the house this weekend and spray an extra dose," they decided
as they watched the cockroaches race through the kitchen and bathroom.
In the days that followed they knew the cockroaches were dancing around
their kitchen in the middle of the night, but they waited.
"You just make sure the food's covered until we get rid
of them," Chu-ch'ol warned. Every morning as he poured water from the kettle,
a repulsive taste filled his mouth. The black hordes might have touched
the rim of the cup with their legs and mouths during the night, he thought,
but he swallowed anyway. Sometime later they stretched the interval between
extermination sessions to two weeks, then a month.
Chu-ch'ol sensed a strangely ominous connection between
the cockroaches, his son Yun-gil, and his second cousin Chu-on. Yun-gil
left home around the time the black hordes began their rampage, and that
was when Chu-on began wearing down their gate with his visits.
"Can't you just leave us alone? You're driving me crazy!"
Chu-ch'ol practically spat at Chu-on in naked irritation.
Even Hye-suk was openly hostile. "Uncle Chu-on, please
come back later when I've calmed down a bit. Why are you doing this? For
some reason I get goosebumps whenever you're around."
"Oh, what's wrong with you two? It's only natural that
I should come see you. After all, here I am in Seoul, where they'll steal
the shirt off your back if you're not careful, and you two are the only
people I know. You may dislike me, but I've nowhere else to go. You can
turn me around and push me out the door, but I'll keep coming back."
And so Chu-on kept disturbing them, bringing a bottle
of liquor, a pound or two of beef or a cake every time he visited. Perhaps
he didn't have anywhere else to go, but that didn't make him any less diabolic;
he was like the cockroaches. Chu-ch'ol and Hye-suk shuddered each time
they saw him. Chu-on refused to tell them where he worked or lived. He
wouldn't even give them his telephone number. He was just like the cockroaches.
It was impossible to tell where they lived or laid their eggs either. He
showed up under the cover of darkness, just like the black hordes sneaking
through the drainpipe or swooping in on the dark night fog. He telephoned
in the middle of the night asking how they were. The connection was always
distant and fuzzy, as if he were calling from a bottomless underworld.
If Hye-suk greeted Chu-ch'ol with a displeased look when
he returned home from work, it meant Chu-on had visited in his absence.
He showed up during the day and hung around in Yun-gil's room, reading,
sleeping, riffling through Yun-gil's desk drawers, sifting through his
notebooks and books, digging through his hiking equipment and bags, strumming
The train chugged through the muddy darkness. It blasted
its whistle and seemed to shudder down the tracks. Through the dark reflections
of the windows, reddish lights blinked as they slipped past in the distance.
The air was hot and humid inside the coach. Perspiration clung to Chu-ch'ol's
forehead, backbone, crotch and buttocks. It was hard to believe that the
cruel winter cold was clawing like a fierce beast outside. The beer had
made him dizzy; he felt as if he were dreaming.
Chu-ch'ol often dreamt of abandoning everything someday.
It was as if shadows were whispering around him, like evil cockroaches.
He put out two or three books each month but they just seemed to pile up
in the storeroom, never selling a single copy. He was sure to be driven
from his job. All the typographical errors he had discovered seemed to
return, dancing across the pages like evil monsters. Open the door! Where's
your son? Open that closet! Where's the attic? Who sleeps in this room?
Tell the truth! Where did you send your son? Are you going to talk or not?
Get up and put your clothes on! Get moving! He felt as if a gang of men
with crewcuts and beige parkas or leather gloves and corduroy jackets would
come crashing in at any time of the day or night.
He and Yun-gil were always arguing. His son's daring
and his own timidity were constantly at odds. Yun-gil's radicalism defied
him; it loathed his father's conservatism. Who knows? Perhaps Yun-gil's
contempt for his father's cowardice and conservatism had driven him to
become a radical.
"Don't even go near a demonstration. There's no point.
You have to think of yourself, of what's good for you. Get killed and you're
the one who loses out. I know you can contribute to the betterment of the
people and humanity by getting involved, but you can make a much more profound
contribution in other ways. Something much greater is waiting for you when
you've matured and finished your studies. In a way, I'm like a tree. I
don't want my fruit to fall before it ripens. I want to see it grow to
its full potential."
Perhaps he was acting out of selfishness, as is the habit
of the well-to-do. Yun-gil assailed his father's advice as worthless bourgeois
"I may have been born of your flesh but I'm not your
personal property. I belong to the masses. If our country or national history
need me, unripe as I am, then I have to serve and fall as I may. Who knows?
Maybe our country, this age we're living in, want more of the unripe to
fall. Just pretend that I was never born. You may be faced with great pain
because of me, but you have to resign yourself to it. That's your fate
for giving birth to me and raising me."
Chu-ch'ol soon felt a cold breeze blowing from Yun-gil's
younger sister and brother as well. He's right. I never should have expected
anything. The feeling of betrayal grows in direct proportion to my expectations.
Don't try to connect everything. Don't try to stick things together. Just
live your own life. Cut off and separate. Forget about eternity. Concentrate
on the moment. I have my life, and the kids have theirs. Sons and daughters
may stray from the framework that their parents have drawn out for them,
but that doesn't mean the parents have failed. Forget your expectations.
Expectations connect things. You can't cut off and separate when you live
on expectations. The more expectations you have, the greater the feeling
of betrayal. That's the bone-wrenching truth. Why should I torment myself
with such bitter betrayal?
But his heart wouldn't accept it. He knew no other way
of life. Living together as a group was the only way he knew. He hadn't
learned how to cut himself off and live separately. That was why he always
felt saddened by a certain betrayal.
It is said that he who walks well leaves no footprint.
Words chosen carefully are faultless. An accurate reckoning requires no
counting sticks. A door shut carefully will remain closed without a lock.
A well-wrapped package will stay wrapped without twine... But I am none
of those things. I leave footprints, I am at fault. I struggle to imprison
others in my locks and strings, but I can't even do that right....
The loss and frustration were inescapable. He was engulfed
in self-doubt. Somewhere deep inside, he felt his hatred for Yun-gil, his
condemnation, pooling like a poisonous juice. He couldn't help thinking
he was responsible for getting his son into this mess. After Yun-gil left
home, Chu-ch'ol kept imagining his son covered in blood, staggering along
some dark mountain path, blood dripping from a wound made by a knife or
gunshot. The image of the boy floating face down in a pond, like a discarded
cigarette butt, lingered in his mind, still and dark as a film negative.
Where can he be? Is he getting enough to eat? He need only hear the boy's
mother worrying and the image rose in his mind. He couldn't bear the thought.
What do all these images mean? Perhaps they proved that he really did wish
his son dead. Each time he had these thoughts, he tried to visualize another
Yun-gil, a happy healthy young man with a broad smile on his face.
But it didn't work. Who is the real me? he wondered.
Is he a wolf, a demon, while the nice guy, the generous angel, the bodhisattva
that everyone's always talking about is nothing but a phony? Who knows?
Chu-man may have died from my curses. Why don't you just drop dead, die,
die, die... How many times had I thought that? Every time he heard that
Chu-man had gone on another drunken rampage, that he had grabbed a knife
or sickle or ax or whatever he could get his hands on, every time he heard
that Mother had cut her hand or strained her back trying to stop him, Chu-ch'ol
prayed to himself over and over: Die, just hurry up and die.
"I can understand why Cousin Chu-man drank so much. Your
mother was living with him so you gave him money for land and seaweed nets
and you helped him start up the processing plant, but it all bothered him.
Everyone was always bawling him out for drinking too much. They didn't
understand how he felt."
Chu-on bought four more bottles of beer from the vendor.
His speech was slightly slurred now. Chu-ch'ol didn't want to discuss Chu-man's
death. There were more urgent matters on his mind.
"He had an inferiority complex," Chu-on continued. "And
he was frustrated. He was probably smothering in loneliness too. He knew
you were worried about all the things you'd paid for... You were afraid
he might sell them lock, stock and barrel. Who knows? He may have thought
you paid for that stuff because your mother was living with him, not because
you cared about him."
"Cut it out, will you? I'm sick and tired of hearing
about him." Chu-ch'ol glared at his cousin. Chu-on nodded deeply and apologized
for upsetting him. When Chu-ch'ol saw that subservient smile, he felt like
killing Chu-on. He imagined getting him drunk, dragging him out of the
coach and shoving off the train. And if that failed, at least he could
take him out in the dark where no one was watching and kick the crap out
of him. Then he chided himself for the thought and lifted his cup to his
I have to figure out what this jerk does for a living,
he thought. He had to know what to be on the look-out for. First he considered
Chu-on's hair. It was long, hardly the hairstyle for a man working within
a strictly regulated system. Next he studied his clothes. Chu-on was wearing
navy blue slacks with a wool shirt. His corduroy blazer and raincoat were
hanging on a hook next to the window. The outfit collaborated the conclusion
Chu-ch'ol had already made: Chu-on didn't belong to a group run according
to strict rules. And he wore the same low-top dress shoes as everyone else.
But you can hardly identify someone by the clothes they
wear, Chu-ch'ol thought. A person involved in criminal investigation or
surveillance would dress like an ordinary citizen to protect his cover.
Yes, Chu-ch'ol thought, I'll look through the pockets of his jacket next
time he goes to the restroom. Maybe he carries an I.D. card. Chu-ch'ol
waited for Chu-on to excuse himself.
"How much does it cost to publish a book of poetry these
days? You know, I've been writing poetry for some time. You influenced
me. When I was in high school, I was a member of the literary club and
our advisor was always raving about you. He said that Pak Chu-ch'ol was
a greater honor to his alma mater than any government official or business
man. When I told him I was your cousin, he took a special interest in me.
All my friends envied me. That's when I got the idea of becoming a poet
Chu-on offered cup after cup of beer. Chu-ch'ol felt
uncomfortable talking about his poems. Over the years he had played the
poet, writing and publishing his work, but he was never truly able to live
for poetry. He could hardly claim to have dedicated himself to his art.
It was a source of embarrassment to him, a sign he lacked confidence in
his work. That lack of confidence meant his poems were false, which, in
turn, meant he was living a double life, the life of a hypocrite. It was
a painful thought. The words he used in his poems betrayed him day and
night. No, he secretly betrayed those words himself. His poetry cried for
a pure life, for sensitivity, for the ability to feel pain and shame at
a breath of wind passing through the leaves, for unity with the common
people, for a bodhisattva's generosity, for poverty, for deliverance, for
rebirth. But Chu-ch'ol lived a filthy, trifling existence, the life of
a swarm of flies. He knew no shame. He was selfish, he lived for himself,
and he was constantly struggling with that burden. At some point he had
started living a divided existence: Pak Chu-ch'ol, the poet, Pak Chu-ch'ol,
the editor at a certain publishing company, Pak Chu-ch'ol, the husband
and father. He was told he wrote beautiful, fresh, powerful verse, but
at the same time he was forever maneuvering to make sure the books he made
for the president of his company sold well. He tried to select controversial
books and used every means possible, ethical and unethical, to make them
sell. It was all a matter of staging. He mobilized the services of popular
literary critics, he made sure the newspaper reporters covering literature
and publishing were writing articles... and soon the readers were eating
out of his hand. The publishing company where he worked had become a factory
that produced best-sellers, popular writers and controversial poets. He
and the president were constantly proclaiming their commitment to the advancement
of contemporary culture. The goal of a publisher was to sell books, wasn't
it? To attract the attention of readers who didn't know what they wanted
to read. They were like fishermen who used lights to attract fish at night.
But in the end, most of the books they produced (with a few exceptions,
of course) differed little from the literary achievements of other companies.
"Stop talking about poetry and tell me who you really
are! What do you do? Who are you working for? How can you afford to hang
around doing nothing? What job would let you spend all your time at our
Chu-ch'ol was feeling the effects of the beer now. Chu-on
stared intently into his face for a moment, then turned his eyes to the
ceiling and guffawed. The sleeping passengers jerked awake and glared at
him for a moment, then returned to sleep, smacking their lips.
"All right," chuckled Chu-on, ignoring the other passengers.
"I'll tell you everything. I may not look like much but I'm one of Seoul's
top jewel appraisers. Every two or three days I make the rounds of the
jewelry shops. I don't have to worry about money." He laughed again. "I'll
bet you're wondering how I developed an eye for jewels. Well, anything's
possible. You know what they say-Every man has his trade.If you don't believe
me, I'll take you on a tour of the jewelry shops. Now have some more beer!"
Chu-ch'ol peered into Chu-on's face as he filled his
cup. He wanted to believe him, but somehow he felt Chu-on was toying with
him. His face was cloaked in a veil of lies. Just wait, you little jerk.
I'm going to rip off that veil. I've made it through the last fifty years
on little more than my senses. And those senses tell me something's wrong
"So you still don't believe me, eh? Too bad my heart
isn't a sock-then I could turn it inside out and show you. Heh, heh...
Will you excuse me for a minute? I have to go to the john."
Chu-on bowed deeply as he rose from his seat. As soon
as his cousin had teetered down the aisle and out the door, Chu-ch'ol jumped
to his feet and began rummaging through the pockets of Chu-on's jacket
and overcoat. The middle-aged man in the seat next to Chu-on opened his
eyes in narrow slits and stared up at Chu-ch'ol. He wasn't asleep after
all. Chu-ch'ol's face burned and a shiver ran down his spine, but he simply
apologized and returned to his search. It ended in disappointment, however.
There was no wallet. He must have put it in another pocket when he took
off his jacket. Chu-ch'ol's thoroughness drove Chu-ch'ol even deeper into
that dark dizzying pool of suspicion. Of course! It had to be a lie. When
would that bastard have had the time to become a jewel appraiser?
"Nephew? Is that you? It's me, Uncle Kae-dong."
One Sunday in early spring six years earlier, Chu-ch'ol
received a call from Chu-on's father. His childhood name was Kaettong,
"Dogshit". The old man had devoted his life to raising and educating the
"What? Uncle, where are you?"
Chu-ch'ol had been lying on the warm floor looking through
some manuscripts. He bolted upright at the voice on the other end of the
line. Kae-dong's face rose before him. One of his eyes was milky-gray,
like the screen of a television that wasn't turned on. His face was tanned
dark-red. Kae-dong was built like an ox. Chu-ch'ol owed the old man. Chu-ch'ol
had started school at the age of five, and each day, rain or snow, Kae-dong,
a family servant at that time, carried him to school and met him at the
front gate to carry him home. When Chu-ch'ol went to middle school and
high school on the mainland, Kae-dong carried his book bags and bundles
of rice and pickle jars to the terminal in Hoechin. As they parted, Kae-dong
would squeeze his hand and give him a broad smile, revealing two rows of
yellowed teeth. Chu-ch'ol's heart always ached at the sight of him heading
home with his empty A-frame carrier after unloading his belongings in front
of the terminal at the end of the pier.
"I'm here in Seoul."
"Then come right over. Just get in a taxi and tell the
driver to take you to the entrance of the April 19th Monument in Ui-dong.
I'll be waiting with the fare."
Kae-dong arrived by taxi, as instructed, but when Chu-ch'ol
ran to open the door, the fare had already been paid. He handed Kae-dong
a five-thousand won note, but the older man waved it away, the light reflecting
off the amber lenses of his glasses. Chu-ch'ol stared at him in disbelief
for a moment. Kae-dong was completely changed. His hair had grayed, and
thick lines had formed on his grizzled face. That was only natural, of
course. What surprised him was how neat and clean Kae-dong's clothes were.
He was wearing a jade green dress shirt, a brown tie with red stripes and
a navy blue suit, along with a sparkling pair of wire-rim glasses.
After escorting him into the house, Chu-ch'ol was again
amazed to learn that Kae-dong's son was the cause of this transformation.
"Chu-on? I heard he graduated from high school several
years back. So he's found a good job?"
Kae-dong laughed, exposing the yellowed buck teeth, and
shook his head.
"Job? What job? Why, he's just started university."
Chu-ch'ol thought back to the Chu-on he had seen as a
child. He must be at least thirty, he thought. After finishing his military
service, he must have worked to make some money before going to university.
"Where does he go to school? I'm surprised he hasn't
come to see me, if he's going to school in Seoul...."
Frankly, Chu-ch'ol disliked it when people stopped by,
but Chu-on was Kae-dong's only son. He didn't say it out of affection for
Chu-on. He felt an obligation to Kae-dong.
"He goes to K University. He's already in his second
year. Must be mighty busy, though, 'cause I told him to come see you first
thing last year and the poor boy still hasn't found the time."
"At any rate, he's done a fine job. K University is a
good school. Just think of it, Uncle. You're finally enjoying the fruits
of all the hard work you put into raising him. How old is he now?"
"Twenty-nine. It's 'bout time I found a nice girl for
"Don't worry! He's sure to find one on his own."
"You think so? When'll he find the time to graduate and
meet a girl... I have never paid his tuition or sent him any pocket money.
I didn't even help him find a room. I'm just grateful that he's able to
go to school under his own steam."
Behind the amber lenses of his glasses, Kae-dong's eyes
misted over. There must be something I can do for his boy, Chu-ch'ol thought.
After all, Chu-on is his only child. We could ask him to come share Yun-gil's
room. Then he wouldn't have to live in a boarding house or find a room
and cook for himself. I'll have to discuss it with the wife, he thought.
"It sounds like he's a good student. How much is he getting
Kae-dong shook his head.
"I haven't the slightest idea. I hear he gets some kind
of monthly salary."
Hye-suk brought in a tray of drinks and food. Chu-ch'ol
offered Kae-dong a glass. He remembered hearing something about honor students
being paid to study. He looked at Kae-dong once more. How did Chu-on get
to be such a good student? he wondered. When Kae-dong was a servant at
their house, he made flutes from stalks of bamboo and played them whenever
he had the chance. He was a good flute player and he memorized the Thousand-Character
text by ear. Once he started working at Chu-ch'ol's house, he quit night
school, but he knew his numbers. He could add, subtract, multiply and divide.
Kae-dong was the product of the union between the stepson of Chu-ch'ol's
great grand-uncle and a widowed beggar-woman who lived in a hut at the
entrance to the village. The stepson had left home as a youth, only to
return years later, empty-handed and gray. Chu-ch'ol's grandfather had
set him up with the beggar-woman. Kae-dong was a big strong man, but he
had a bad eye. He worked in the family saltworks, and later ran errands
for the local arm of the South Korean Workers' Party. As a result, he was
dragged off to police headquarters, beaten senseless and tortured. Chu-ch'ol's
father got him released. After he recovered, he went back to work at the
saltworks and met a wandering crazy woman. Chu-on was born of their encounter.
When Chu-on was still a baby, the woman set fire to their house and died.
Kae-dong's life revolved around his son after that. It was amazing, though,
to think that Chu-on was so smart when his mother was crazy. Did Chu-on
get his brains from his father or his crazy mother?
As Chu-ch'ol sat gaping in amazement, Kae-dong stroked
the suit he was wearing.
"Last night he took me out and bought me this suit. These
So the gutter spawns mighty dragons after all, thought
Chu-ch'ol. If Chu-on was such a good student, he was sure to cut a fine
figure no matter what field he went into.
"What department is he in?" Chu-ch'ol asked. Would Chu-on
head into politics, the law, business or the cultural field? Kae-dong shook
"I'm not sure. Ain't told me a thing. He don't answer
my questions. But when I tell people he gets a salary for going to school,
they say he must be in the law department. Shoo-in for a post as prosecutor
or judge, they say. But I don't know. I don't have a hint. When I told
him I was coming to see you, he gave me enough money for the ticket home
and some pocket money and put me in the taxi. He said he had someone to
"Didn't you stay with him last night?"
"Yep, but we slept at an inn. Ain't been to his room.
He said something about living in a dormitory with twenty other students."
Maybe he lives in one of those lodging houses for students
preparing for the bar exam. Chu-ch'ol envied Kae-dong his bright son and
feared Chu-on. The people in their village had always pointed to Pak Chu-ch'ol
as the greatest success to ever come from their neighborhood, but it looked
like Chu-on would be taking his place in the future.
"Wait a minute... Your father told me you were in the
law department at K University..." Chu-ch'ol glared at Chu-on when he returned
from the rest room.
Chu-on looked up. "When did he say that?"
"A year before he died. He came to our house. In the
spring of your second year at university, I think."
Chu-on squinted, then burst out laughing.
"Ehhh, what did he know? Who cares where you go to school
or what you study? I just went to school because I was bored. It's a sad
story. Let's drop the whole thing."
Aha! Chu-ch'ol thought. He wasn't going to school after
all. He looked down and clenched his teeth. The bastard duped his poor
father and me. I may be a distant cousin, but he can't afford to ignore
me... What's he after? Never take in a stranger for he's not likely to
repay the favor. That's what the proverb said, and here was Chu-on, biting
the hand of his benefactor, as if he were trying to prove the old saw true.
Long ago, when Chu-ch'ol was staying at his parents'
home after being discharged from the army, he had seen young Chu-on playing
hide-and-seek and kite-hawk in the yard with the children of the other
farmhands. Chu-on was always the dirtiest and most ragged of the bunch.
The crotch of his pants was torn, and dirty patches of skin peeked through
the holes in his ragged shirt. His hair was like a crow's nest, teeming
with nits and lice as big as barley grains.
"Oh, will you look at that poor lil' thing?" Chu-ch'ol's
mother clucked. "Just look at him!" She had been preparing a snack for
the workers, but paused to grab Chu-on by the hand and drag him off to
the well where she filled a tub, stripped off his rags and bathed him.
She dug some of Chu-man's old clothes from the closet and dressed Chu-on.
The little boy was like a crow that had shed its black feathers to become
a magpie. That night when Kae-dong returned, happily drunk, from the fields,
he swept Chu-on into his arms and laughed out loud.
"You bastard! Do you have some kind of grudge against
me? How come you're so obsessed with catching Yun-gil? The boy is practically
Chu-ch'ol tossed down another cup of beer and glared
across the aisle at Chu-on. Chu-on looked up. His eyes were bloodshot."
What's that supposed to mean?" he asked.
"Don't play dumb with me! I know what you are. You're
like some kind of a hunting dog." Chu-ch'ol scowled. Chu-on's cheek flinched
for an instant, then a mocking smile spread across his face. He straightened
up, relaxed his contorted features and laughed heartily. Chu-ch'ol saw
the insidious wickedness of the cockroaches' feelers in his face. Chu-on
finally managed to control his laughter and filled Chu-ch'ol's empty cup.
"Oh, Cousin! Why can't you trust me? I told you: I make
my living appraising jewels."
Chu-on chuckled as he stole a glance across the aisle.
Chu-ch'ol tossed his beer in his face. Chu-on didn't seem the least bit
surprised. It was almost as if he had expected it. He sat stiff as a stone
statue for a moment, then slowly took his handkerchief from his pocket
and mopped his face.
"Wow! One cold splash in the face and I'm sober," he
laughed. Chu-ch'ol felt a shiver run through his body. That composure,
that self-assurance, that cunning-Did they teach them that? Well, let's
see how composed and cunning he really is! Chu-ch'ol jumped to his feet
and grabbed Chu-on by the wrist.
"Darling, what are you doing? Oh no, you're drunk! Uncle
Chu-on, I'm sorry. Try to control yourself."
Hye-suk stood up and grabbed Chu-ch'ol by the shoulders.
The passengers in the surrounding seats leapt to their feet to watch the
squabbling drunks. Ignoring the stares, Chu-ch'ol pushed Chu-on up the
aisle. Chu-on hurried along, almost as if he had anticipated this happening.
The other passengers craned their necks to see the two men stumble out
the exit. Hye-suk forged her way through the stares and followed Chu-ch'ol
and Chu-on out the door. Three or four curious young men pushed their way
ahead of her.
Chu-ch'ol and Chu-on had disappeared into the restroom
and locked the door before the others made it through the exit. Hye-suk
pounded on the door, shouting for them to open it, but there was no response,
only the sound of blows.
After pushing Chu-on into the restroom, Chu-ch'ol grabbed
him by the throat with one hand and slapped him across the cheeks with
the other. He punched him in the shoulders, kicked him in the shins, and
slammed his forehead against Chu-on's face.
"You lousy bastard! Tell the truth. Are you following
me or are you really going to Chu-man's funeral?"
"Will you stop? Haven't you let off enough steam?"
Blood poured from Chu-on's nose. He grabbed Chu-ch'ol's
arms, twisted them behind his back, unlocked the door and escaped. Chu-ch'olchased
"You miserable bastard!" he shouted. "You'd better get
off at the next station! We can get through Chu-man's funeral without the
likes of you! Don't ever show your face around me again, you stinking worm!"
His nose swathed in a handkerchief, Chu-on slipped into
the next coach. Hye-suk shoved her snarling husband back toward their seats.
"What's wrong with you? Don't you realize what he could
All of a sudden, Chu-ch'ol was sober and felt the hot
sting of the other passengers' stares. He returned to his seat and closed
his eyes. It all seemed like a dream. He hated himself for drinking with
Chu-on in the first place. On one hand, he felt he was right to beat up
the bastard, but on the other hand, he was afraid his outburst might trigger
some kind of retaliation against Yun-gil and himself.
He thought of the bet he had made as they boarded the
train that night. He should have done something. He should have read a
book. He should have wagered on those countless typing mistakes and misspelled
words. That would have canceled out the bad fortune he had anticipated
in his first bet. He never should have shared a drink with that sneaky
bastard. Turning his regrets over and over in his mind, Chu-ch'ol bit down
on the tip of his tongue and fell asleep.
"We're here," Hye-suk said, shaking her husband by the
shoulders. "Wake up! It's time to get off." The train had come to a stop.
A flutter passed through the quiet air as the passengers bustled to collect
their baggage. Their footsteps receded into the distance like an ebbing
tide. Chu-ch'ol closed his eyes again and pretended to sleep. He had learned
that trick from Hye-suk. "Come on. We're the only ones left," she said
angrily after a moment or two. The coach was completely empty. A cleaning
woman, her hair wrapped in a white towel, was removing the seat covers.
The bluish light of dawn etched dizzy ripples in the frost-covered window
panes. The memories of life's frustrating routine, forgotten in the night,
returned with the frigid wind blasting through the open door of the coach.
Outside the cold was armed for battle. Chu-ch'ol swallowed bitterly and
was slipping on his jacket when Chu-on stepped through the door.
"So Cousin, have you sobered up?" Chu-on crinkled his
nose in a smile. Thousands of tiny feelers seemed to squirm inside his
grin. Rage rose in Chu-ch'ol's throat like a wave of nausea but he gulped
Translated by Julie Pickering and Yu Young-nan.