Cho※ng Yo※n-hui was born in 1936 in Seoul, Korea, and earned a B.A. in Korean literature at Ewha Womans University. Her career as a novelist began in 1957 during her junior year in college when she won the grand prize at the Dong-A Ilbo's Novel Contest, one of the most prominent accesses to the literary profession in Korea. She won public reputation with Paryusang, the prize winner, which questioned about God's will upon war, death and poverty. The title, Paryusang, is a word indicating a state of human consciousness.
After working several years as a reporter for a daily newspaper, Cho※ng taught at her alma mater from 1964, and in 1968 she took a five--months trip around the world, which was aimed to study human cultures and customs, while writing a series of travel sketches for the Kyunghyang Shinmun. The trip included sixty different regions of thirty-eight countries. She also wrote a series of interviews with the leaders of eighteen countries around the world, including Ernperor Haile Selassie I of Ethiopia, during journey in 1971.
From her three journeys around the world, Cho※ng witnessed that humans had begun to destroy the environment, and wrote novels on the continuous deterioration of human morality which had begun since the industrial revolution. She won the Korea Literary Award with Nanjido in 1984. Nanjido was the waste-dumping site for the ten-million Seoul citizens. She also won the Yun Dong-ju Literary Award with The Horn, accusing human greed of cutting horns of rhinoceroscs in Africa.
As the president of the Korea Christian Literary Women's Association, Cho※ng formed a theatrical group consisting of members of the Association and led its performaoces for two years. She worte Ryarnshajin, a novel recounting the stories of the Protestant missionaries in Korea a hundred years ago.
Cho※ng has regularly written novels for a number of newspapers including the Chosun llbo and the Joongang Jlbo, and continuously contributed novels to literary jownels including Hyo※ndae Munhak(Modern Literature) and Munhaksasang(Literary Thought); in addition, she has written short essays for forty years since her debut. She has been adrmired by readers for the way she employs the most beautiful words in writing novels. Among her works, a short story was translated into English and published in Columbia University's quarterly, Translation, and Ainu Ainu, a collection of short stories, was published in English. Ainu means human beings in the language of Hokaido aborigines in Japan.
Cho※ng has incessantly explored to find the fundamontal freedom of human being. With her pen, she has exposed how convenience and affluence for men derived from developments in science and technology destroy mankind, and emphasized that love for human spirit and pursuit of eternity are the only solution. Cho※ng currently publishes Letters to Housewives, a monthly newsletter of which circulation amounts to fifty thousands in number. The newsletter is aimed to deliver a message of Christian love to Korean woman.
In Cho※ng Yo※n-hu※i's four decades of literary life, in contrast to the first half covered by human realism, the latter half has been devoted to a struggle to recover the fundamental human spirit. She currently serves the Korea Literary Women's Association as a vice-president.
A sound was filling the space between heaven and earth. It was not a sound he heard with his ears but with his whole body. No, it was more than that. He heard it with something hidden in the innermost part of his body.
The sound tingled in the air on a very cloudy day. It was sharp and yet it spread over the space like a throb. He was certain that it came from nailing something down, but it was hard to figure out what that something might be.
The sound came at regular intervals. There was something anxious and cruel about it. The sound while it lasted was painful but bearable, but the intervals were torture.
He stopped walking and stood still. What on earth was being nailed to produce such a sound, he wondered? It was as if something were being nailed into his head. He tried to walk faster to avoid it, and then began to run. He covered his ears with his hands. Nothing worked.
He wanted to run toward the sound, but it didn't seem to come from any direction. It was simply there, all around.
He slowed down his pace and looked around him. No one else on the street seemed to hear the sound. It was hard to tell whether they really didn't hear it or merely pretended not to, for fear that other people would find out they heard it.
He grew frightened, thinking he was the only person who heard it. There was a sound, of that he was certain. It occurred to him to ask someone if they heard it, but he changed his mind. He was afraid they might think he was crazy. He began to try to walk as serenely as the others.
The day was very warm for November. The clouds hung low, looking as if they were about to lie down. The air was damp in the light rain, but it felt rather cozy. The world was wet: houses, people, trees, dogs on leashes, all were drenched. But how warm and cozy the world looked, as if embraced in the feathers of a hen covering her eggs. Ah, this cloudy day would have been blissful were it not for the sound.
He began to hurry to his room so as not to hear the sound. It surely wouldn't be able to reach him there. On a damp day like this, his room would be especially warm and cozy. He felt better already, thinking he'd change into loose and comfortable clothes. He'd relax in an armchair, yawn and stretch out his legs. He'd cover himself with a light blanket and, leaning back, quietly read a newspaper or one of the recent magazines he hadn't had time to read. Later he'd boil sweet potatoes or eat yams cooked with oil. Maybe he'd boil chestnuts. It would be nice to doze off when he felt drowsy・・ But he had an engagement that evening. What time was the appointment? Ah, yes, six o'clock. He looked at his watch: two o'clock. Since he had several hours on his hands, he could afford to be lazy.
As he entered the front door of his building and walked toward his apartment, a middle-aged woman with a queer look on her face stopped him. "You don't live here, do you?"
"What do you mean?"
The woman repeated herself firmly, "I mean you don't belong here. You don't live in this wing. Don't you understand what I mean?"
He was taken aback by the woman's harsh manner, but he collected himself and said, "I've been living here for three years."
"Ha, what a man! Then go ahead and look at every door to make sure. I'm telling you once again, you don't live in this building. Well, go in and see for yourself."
Something was terribly wrong. The woman was arrogant and imposing. Stealthily looking at her, he entered the corridor that led to his room. It was without doubt the familiar hall he'd always walked down, but as she had predicted his room was nowhere to be found.
"Wasn't I right? Listen, what did I tell you?" she said.
He thought: Could she be right? It's true, I've never seen this woman before who rails at me as if she's in charge of the entire building. Perhaps I don't live here.
He went outside, groggy and bewildered, and looked around once again at his surroundings. It was undoubtedly his building, the second one from the entrance to the complex. He turned around and looked at the street where shops were clustered. It was sensuously alive as if it were a part of his body. The shops, which weren't usually lit during the day, were lit up this afternoon because of the cloudy weather, and the things inside took on a warm color. He saw the grocery man sitting in his store from whom he had bought milk and eggs that morning. The interior decorating store was still there with its interesting display window. It had always evoked delight and fantasy in him with its expensive, imported furniture in the Louis XV style, rococo love seats, tea tables, gilded wall mirrors. Sometimes people bargained and bought something. Others pouted over the high prices and bought anyway. He was neither of these people and enjoyed the store in secret.
He gradually regained his composure as he saw the bank, the automobile accessories store, the drug store, the signboard--everything was familiar to him. He appealed for their support: "You know me・you have known me."
He turned around to see the middle-aged woman, arms crossed, watching him. What is going on? he wondered. It doesn't make sense. Why in the world was I kicked out of my own place? For what reason?
Again he walked toward the building entrance, where the woman was standing like a gargoyle. He was determined not to be pushed away. But after a couple of steps he felt embarrassed so much that he wanted to hide. He wanted to be rid of his body because he felt naked walking toward the woman. Ah, these two arms, these two hands・is there any way I can get rid of them? he wondered.
He quickly pushed his hands into his coat pockets and heaved a sigh. The pockets were a refuge. Then his hands touched something. What is this? A key! Indeed, it's the key to my apartment. But has the room this key will open disappeared? That doesn't make sense. Here is the key.
He grabbed it. At this moment when his heart was sighing with relief and assurance, he again heard the sound. It seemed to say・what relief?・what assurance?
Stopped by the sound, he couldn't go forward. He murmured in desperation, "Don't worry, there's the key. You can assert your ownership of the room when this key unlocks the door. You've got the key. Aren't you holding it in your hand? Don't bother with the sound, just go right in. That woman is not going to stand in your way."
He walked forward as if he were rushing toward the sound and the woman. But he felt intimidated by the woman standing like a pillar by the door. What are you so afraid of? he asked himself. It'll be okay once you're inside, won't it? Ignore her. When you get to your room, quickly push the key in the keyhole, turn it, jump inside, and lock the door immediately. Nothing to be afraid of. You've got your place. You've got a room that will welcome and protect you. You should behave honorably and with dignity.
The woman was watching him, with her arms still crossed, as if she pitied him, her eyes glaring at him with an electric force. He thought, Ah, why can't I become the wind at a moment like this? Why can't I become smoke?
Suddenly the woman's body seemed to enlarge and loom over him. He wriggled like a man who had shrunk to half his size. His insides did not succumb to her at all, but still he trembled on the surface as he moved toward the entrance.
The woman said nothing when he passed her in the vestibule, but his skin acutely felt the twang of her snort. He rushed to his room--but again it was not there. There was no my place, no my room. How was this possible? Was he dreaming? Was he having a nightmare? He felt suffocated. He was like a mouse robbed of its hole for retreat. It was not here, or there. It was not this door, or that door. Neither these stairs, nor those stairs. His place had vanished. The air was thinning out in the corridor. Gasping, he wandered about trying to find his room.
"Let's go outside," he told himself. "I have no choice but to get out of here."
His body urged him to agree, but his mind hesitated, lingering over an attachment to the place. "If I go out now, that means I give up my place, my own apartment. That's a defeat. I'd never be able to come in again." He felt as if he were slowly drowning as water filled a wrecked ship. Now his breathing was getting shorter. "Let's get out of here," his body shouted with his last drop of strength.
When he passed the woman, she turned her neck like a rusty screw and sneered at him, "What did I tell you? You're such a foolish person, aren't you?"
What do you mean, "Ah, yes?" he asked himself. He tried to be cool, as if nothing had happened and walked out with a light-hearted step. He looked around at the building. Strangely, it seemed as if it were not the building he'd been living in for the past three years.
"Wasn't it here? Strange・"
Murmuring, he left. But he kept looking back at the building as if he feared it would completely disappear as soon as he took his eyes off it.
On the other side of the street, a man from the repair section of the building management office was carrying a pigiron tool.
"Where is building number 86?" he asked him.
"Around the building on this side, and go behind," the man answered with confidence. It didn't seem right to him, but he had no other choice than to follow the man's direction.
When he turned the corner, he came upon a shelter for elderly people and a playground. He couldn't remember such a place. The children were chattering, and the scene was lively and beautiful. There were a slide, a swing, mottled tires, and an artificial well colored yellow and green for hide-and-seek. The children were like a brightly clothed flock of birds. Ah, he hadn't known such a place existed and he was heartened by the scene. Having lived for three years in the same block, why didn't he know this place? As he looked around carefully, he realized he was at the back of the playground. Slowly he realized the scene was not entirely unfamiliar to him. He recalled he had passed the playground once in a while. Seen now from a different angle, it looked fresh and special.
He felt silly to have fallen under the spell of a cheerful playground while neglecting his desperate situation. In the octagonal arbor, some of the elderly people played chess, some read newspapers, and some chatted idly. Such a pleasant place・ He was struck by its idleness. He wondered why he had never looked at this place carefully. He himself was a workaholic. What was he trying to earn and what did he gain from the rat race? From moring till night, he worked. Asleep at night, he still worked in his dreams. It was with hard-earned money that he had bought his apartment three years ago.
Continuing his search for Building 86, he came upon a park with a bridge over an artificial pond. People seemed to be floating around with no worries. The hammering sound was there in the park, filling the space. But no one complained about it. He left the park, chased by the sound.
"I have to find my place. My task is to find the door my key fits."
The sound pursued him out of the park. Even while he tried to escape the sound, he was searching for it too. He believed he would be able to identify it as soon as he found his place. He walked quickly, holding the sound in an embrace.
The day was still cloudy, but no one was complaining about the weather. The children were romping about and the old people all looked content. They looked as if they didn't know the sun existed.
A new worry entered his mind. Was there really a sun? Or was the sun only an illusion? This weather, these clouds, haven't they always existed?
He began to feel miserable and defenseless. Was it an illusion that he had his own place? Wasn't he mistaken to believe that he had his room? No, no. The sun existed. It still does exist. It's only covered by clouds. These people also know this.
But they are all so carefree. He could understand the children. But how could these old people be so unconcerned? Do they have thier own rooms? How could they attend to playing chess with such contented looks? Should I ask them whether they've seen the sun? No, there's no need to. For the sun exists with no doubt. He believed it.
A room exists for me as surely as the sun exists.
He continued walking, past many buildings, but none of them was his. As he turned around the fence of the elementary school, a construction site appeared. He had passed it several times before, and he always wondered what kind of building was being constructed there. Since the place was familiar to him, he thought his building must be somewhere nearby. He looked in every direction, but his building was nowhere to be found. Clothes were hanging on some apartment balconies; plants were lined up in their pots; petunias which had bloomed in the summer were now wilted.
He grew tired, his legs were heavy, his breath grew short. Because of the damp air, he began to feel chilly, and he missed his cozy place even more.
At the entrance of the construction site were several trucks spattered with mud. Some workers with yellow helmets and a man who looked like a supervisor were sitting, smoking. Since construction had been going on around there for several years, the supervisor must know the area like the back of his hand. Feeling encouraged, he walked toward him. "May I ask you a question?"
The man, strong and energetic, rose, putting out his cigarette.
"You must be very familiar with this area. Can you tell me where building number 86 is?" He pronounced the number of his nest with spirit, and felt as if he had met a savior.
The man grinned. "You must be a prospective tenant. We're building it now."
"You mean Building 86?"
"That's right. Number 86 is in the seventh block." The man smiled good-heartedly and continued, "You seem to be impatient. Is this the first time you've ever owned an apartment?"
"You mean Building 86 hasn't been built yet?"
"That's right. If you don't believe me, why don't you go to the construction office? Take a good look at the layout for the site. Then you'll be convinced."
"Ah, yes." He opened and closed his mouth meaninglessly and peered into the construction site.
Surprisingly enough, this was where he found the sound. The sound that filled the place between heaven and earth and that filled his head came from there. Ttang, ttang, chic, chic. Chic, chic, ttang, ttang. A diesel hammer, belching out black smoke, was soaring up into the sky and pounding the ground, as if trying to break the earth's axis. The sound, spreading underneath the cloudy sky, was pressing on his breathing, his blood vessels, his pulse. No one else, however, seemed to be suffering. The sound was beating his soul. But・ the supervisor had said that that sound was the sound of his room being built. That sound was going to give birth to his room. The site was groaning with labor pains in the desolate field. Iron pipes were piled up; chunks of steel, with mold, were lying around. Trucks were moving back and forth, and a crane was shoveling earth. All these sounds and movements were going to build his room.
Does this mean I've been a homeless person? he wondered. But surely I have a room, a safe and peaceful room to lie down in and think about things. As surely as there was a mother's womb that gave me life. Ah, Mother, mother. As I had a mother, the room should be here for me.
His memory began to blur. Was Eden only an illusion, a Utopia? or was it now a fait accompli?
Ah, my memory is in turmoil, like a hen unable to find her eggs. She's wandering desperately in search of them. Dear memory, please sit on the eggs that you laid. And hatch them. Hatch a new life.
He left that place hastily. It seemed that his memory would revive if he didn't hear the sound again. But the sound persisted. He walked and walked. Fear and difficult breathing made him falter.
They are swindlers, they're ghosts, he thought. I have to wake up from this dream. Isn't there anyone who will save me from this nightmare, this quicksand?
One of the men from the construction office was passing by him.
"He・ Hello, where is Building 86?"
"Building 86? We haven't reached that number yet. There's no such number in this area."
"Is that place over there the site where number 86 will be?"
"Well, I don't know what they want to build there. Let's see, when was it that all that noise began? Many years・"
"You mean you hear that sound too?"
"Unless I'm deaf, how can I help but hear it?"
"But how then can those people be so carefree and indifferent?"
"It's because besides this sound, there are hundreds and thousands of sounds to listen to. Don't they simply bypass that sound while listening to other sounds?"
"If that sound began a long time ago, how come Building 86 hasn't been built yet? Isn't that the sound of house building?"
"How can you be so dense? How can a sound build a house by itself? A house becomes a house only when someone wants it."
"If no one wants it, why then did the sound begin so long ago?"
"Perhaps it's calling to a person who wants a house."
The man went away as if he'd been telling jokes.
He grabbed the key in his pocket once again. The number 86 was clearly impressed on it. It was smooth and clung to his hand as it had been much used for a long time.
The apartment complex ended at the riverbank. He had crossed this bridge every day for the past three years. Once in a while, he stopped here for some fresh air. The bank was a withered yellow. The scene on the other side cast a dark reflection in the somberly flowing river. The field, which used to be a vegetable garden, was so desolate that even the wind avoided it. Leaves swayed, hanging sparsely on the branches of the willow on the bank. He sat down under the tree and faced the river.
A few days ago he had seen migratory birds here. And he had heard their chirping. The evening sun hung over the bridge. The river, embracing beautiful pillars of fire, was preparing a bedchamber, and he confirmed its promise above the bridge. The evening sun was not announcing darkness, but a preparation for rest: a faith which embraced longing and promise.
But the birds were gone and there was no life in the water or on the bridge. He looked at his watch. It had stopped at three. When he looked up in sudden fear of the dead watch, he saw the river flowing like death. When he buried his face, overwhelmed by a chill, the broken time grew like a corpse before his eyes. What was the difference between time and existence after time stopped? Does time really exist? Was it an illusion that one could make use of time?
As he couldn't look at the river, or his watch, he realized that the only thing he could do was cry. I'll cry, I'll cry, he thought. Sitting on the riverbank, I'll cry since I can't watch the river. I'll cry now since I will have to stop looking for my room when night falls. The river with no more migratory birds・sitting at the riverbank where I can no longer see red pillars of fire, I'll cry alone in secret like a prophet who's lost his message.
His tears would flow more abundantly than the river. Once he started crying, his lament would be darker than night.
Hammering at his thoughts, the sound seemed to build. But this time there was another sound. It was the sound of a voice.
"Give it to me, give it to me, give me your despair. Nail it here so it can never again accompany you. Rise, rise, and go again to the entrance. There will be someone who will enter, Someone who will guide you to the room where you lived. He who will testify to you will come. He who will prove the existence of the room for you will come. He will come."
That's right, even if I don't cry, when darkness falls, all these things will become as soundless wailing, become tears. The sounds will become tears too. So will the cloudy sky.
He rose from the bank. No sooner did he rise than he became a person who searches for his own room. Why did I turn back so easily? In fear of what? I was a slave of phenomena, one who obeyed and followed what was visible.
He turned around and began his search.
But・to me・did he exist? He who knows me, my room, and knows that my life began from my mother's womb?
The night will soon fall. Then that sound will also stop. What's going to happen if night falls and the sound stops without my ever knowing if he had existed? What happened to my memory? Why is it so confused? Although I remember that I had my room, I can't find it. And why did I forget so completely about him who might have existed?
He walked toward the entrance and squatted down. He fumbled with the key in his pocket. Since he had the key, if the other man came, He must find him. Perhaps he was the man with whom I lived, he thought. He must also need his room. He must have shared this key. Probably he should have kept it.
People were coming toward the entrance. They walked slowly as if the cloudy sky pressed upon them. They are familiar to me, he thought. They live in the building next to mine. Out of joy, he sprang from his seat. But his neighbors passed by without recognizing him. He was not sure whether they saw him or not. Another person walked deliberately as if he carried a heavy package.
"That man lives in the same building I do," he said. He jumped to his feet. But this man too just passed by him, looking at him with a blank face.
Why can't they recognize me? I recognized them, was pleased to see them, and even rose to greet them. Again lonely feelings, like dark fog, entered his mind. Won't it be useless to stay here? Does he really wait for me? But I have to find my room. This is one thing that is certain. To find my room is proof that I exist, and that I exist is a reminder that I have to find it. And for that, I have to wait for him. Since I believe that there is a person who will enable me to use this key, I will wait here.
People with familiar faces kept coming and passing with blank expressions. But he could not help rising from his seat. It was his own way of worship in which he was waiting for a savior. The savior will come someday. Even if he had to rise hundreds or thousands of times in vain, he couldn't skip even one time. He might get tired of rising, but it was already keeping time with the sound that was driving a nail into the earth. The nailing sound・was it a signal, and a promise that it will become the door of his room as the supervisor told him?
The sky was still cloudy. Darkness would come when the earth dies, completely nailed. Darkness would fall like death. Like death. But the death would open a new door. The earth wouldn't just die. Since it was being nailed, it would open a new door.
He would never be able to leave the entrance. For he will come this way when he comes. He couldn't leave the entrance. And he had to listen to the sound with his whole body. The sound would be the spur of his imminent coming; He would recognize him.
Grabbing the key in his pocket, once again he jumped to his feet, toward a person who looked familiar.