Born in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, in 1957, Yi Sun-won grew up in a strict Confucianist family where his grandfather introduced him to the traditional study of Classical Chinese while his father instructed him in more recent topics with the use of the Korean language and alphabet. He began his literary career with the publication of his first short story, Natdal (Moon in daylight) in the review Munhaksasang in 1988. He has been a prolific writer of shorter fiction since then and his talent was recognized by the Hyeondae Munhak Literary Award in 1997 and the Dongin Prize in 1996.
His themes are very varied but in many works he expresses the social criticism frequently found among Korea's younger generations: against the military, in Natdal or Jeolmangku yeonseupe so yeonseupeuro(Depair, practice after practice), against corrupt politics and the corruptions of capitalist society in Apkuj˘§ong-dongen pisangguga ˘§opda (No emergency exit from Apkujong-dong) , sympathetic portrayals of the Kwangju Uprising and the 1980s struggle for democracy in elgul (face) and Naktaneun mureupi yakhada(The camel's knees are weak) ; yet other stories are about the difficulties of romantic relationships, such as Mihonege bachinda(Devoted to unmarried cohabitation) or about his own family's inner dramas in Mareul chajaseo(In search of words).
Critics find it hard to encompass such varied themes but commend Yi Sun-won's skills as a story-teller and admire the firmly controlled, architectural quality of his narratives. He himself has accepted the architectural metaphor, explaining that just as the materials chosen determine the shape of a house, so in fiction-writing the style will vary according to the subject-matter. His work is above all characterized by an openness to life in today's Korea, and a readiness to embrace every aspect of that life in his literary activity.
The Soul Lays Itself to Rest at the Lake
Why of all places did he go there to die?
It was Kw˘§on with the sports-goods shop in Kangn˘§ung who first told me the news. He didn't call me with that in mind, but happened to bring it up at the end of our conversation when I called him one day a couple of weeks into the new year.
"Hey, you knew Y˘§onghae well, right?"
Why talk of Y ˘§onghae all of a sudden?
Why did all our friends still think that I knew Y˘§onghae so well? They probably would have brought the matter up in the same way. Didn't you know him well? In fact I could not remember even seeing him since we'd graduated from high school. If I had, then it must have been no more than a passing glance of him in the midst of a group of friends. When we were at school he had been the kind of friend whose presence or absence you didn't really notice, whether in the classroom or on the sports field. Since then I had not heard any special news of him from others nor asked after him myself. Probably my other school friends hadn't either. He was just that kind of person. A very ordinary school friend, the kind of whom I had no special memory, even though for two years we had been classmates in my hometown and had often talked as we walked together to and fro from school, and the kind of classmate whose picture I would not be able to find quickly amongst our 420 classmates in our high school graduation album, which I couldn't remember opening now in the past ten years. Yet even now, twenty years after our graduation, according to my classmates I was still supposed to be the one who knew him best. And that was the way in which Kw˘§on, after saying I should come down to Kangn˘§ung to go skiing with him some time when I was free, suddenly said, "hey, you knew Y˘§onghae well, right?". It wasn't "have you heard the news about him?" but more like, "you're the one who should know about him."
I was slightly curious, wondering whether there could be some surprising news about that friend who had been so quiet and ordinary.
"You're from Uch'uri too and you don't know yet!"
"And how many years has it been since he left Uch'uri?"
"Still. Apparently he died on Taegwan Pass last autumn."
This was truly unexpected news. Not just because another friend had died when I was only just forty years old, but also because it was that friend who was so unobtrusive that you didn't even know if he was with you or not, and because it was on Taegwan Pass that he had died. Even though I had just heard from Kw˘§on that he had died last autumn, I could not help thinking that someone who had seemed so utterly ordinary in our school days should not die until he had lived out an average life span in his usual ordinary way. Even Kw˘§on had not suddenly remembered him after our talk about skiing, but had only thought of him when we wondered whether to rent a condo on Taegwan Pass. Since Y˘§onghae had died the previous autumn Kw˘§on and I had talked on the phone about once every two weeks. And we hadn't just talked on the phone, hadn't I gone to Kw˘§on's shop twice, when I went down to Kangn˘§ung for a week at the end of last November, after finishing up some manuscripts? Once we'd had dinner and once we'd just sat in the shop and drank coffee his wife had made us. Whether Kw˘§on had already heard the news but forgotten to tell me then, or whether at that time he had not yet heard himself so he couldn't tell me, whichever the case it was because Y˘§onghae had been such a vague presence among us.
"Was he in an accident?"
Somehow it didn't seem like that would have been the case, but I asked anyway. Whether he had been in a car accident as he crossed over the pass.
"No, not an accident."
"I only heard this later, but apparently he'd been in hospital in Seoul for quite a while with cancer of the lymphatic glands, or something like that."
"So it was cancer?"
"Mmm. I don't know whether he had been told there was no hope or what, but he'd come back down to Kangn˘§ung, then one day last autumn he said he was tired of lying down and wanted to go outside for some fresh air. He left the house, and apparently was found dead on Taegwan Pass."
"Where on Taegwan Pass?"
Although I asked this, I was actually thinking of some village there like Hoengye, where he used to live, or Ch'ahang, rather than the mountain itself. But that was what Kw˘§on meant.
"You know where Maebong is on Taegwan Pass?"
It wasn't a village but the mountain itself. Maebong was the highest peak on Taegwan Pass; from the yard in my family's house you could see it right in front of you even now.
"Then, do you know S˘§onja Pass?"
"I'm not sure. Probably, if you explain."
"If you look up at Taegwan Pass from Kangn˘§ung, there's a slight hollow between Maebong and the hilltop, right?"
The hilltop was how we referred to the highest point of the mountain road over Taegwan Pass.
As I listened to Kw˘§on, I pictured Taegwan Pass, which I'd looked up at ever since I was little. Just above the hilltop, where cars went up and down, transmitter antenna were faintly visible to one side, and half way between the transmitter and Maebong was the ridge that Kw˘§on meant. It looked slightly sunken in.
"That's S˘§onja Pass. Apparently he was found dead half way between there and Maebong."
"You mean right on the mountain? Why did he go there?"
"I don't know. Dead people can't speak can they?"
"When did you hear?"
"Just a few days after you were down here last time, Mangch'i brought his wife to buy a bowling ball and shoes. He'd just heard from someone else a few days before that."
Mangch'i ran an electrical goods shop not far from Kw˘§on's shop, and was the president of the local alumni association.
"Well, you certainly hear news quickly in this small world. Thanks to the head of our alumni association, and you telling me now though we've called each other several times since then."
"And you wouldn't be the same if you lived here? You'd be worse than us, as all you do is sit inside all day."
"But still, hearing in winter that a friend died in autumn..."
"But Y˘§onghae was always kind of like that. He hasn't been to one of our alumni meetings in the fifteen years since they started after we came back from the army. And until he had to stop work because he was ill, he didn't even work in Kangn˘§ung at all, but somewhere in Sokch'o."
"How did they find him?"
"That I don't know. There's Samyang Livestock Farm just the other side of Maebong, so maybe the people looking after their fields found him, or maybe some mountain climber found him, seeing's as it was autumn."
"But Y˘§onghae... how could a sick man get up there? Up on the middle of the mountain."
"That's what I mean. That path is on the climbing track to Odae Mountain, but it's no easy path. And, even though we're always looking up at it, that path's not well-known even among Kangn˘§ung people. You probably haven't been there even once, have you?"
"Why would I go there? Whenever I go your side of Taegwan Pass I'm busy with my family."
"There are two paths that go there, but neither of them are easy. It's easiest to take the ridge from the hilltop, but even a healthy person would need four hours to go from there to where they found him. It takes five hours to Maebong."
"And the other path?"
"There's another path from Pohy˘§on Temple to S˘§onja Pass, but even though it's shorter it's so steep even we wouldn't conceive of trying that now. He must have taken a car as far as the hilltop, and then used up all his remaining strength to get as far as he did. Or, he went there intending to die from the beginning."
I felt something whip past my brain like a dart, and a twinge in the pit of my stomach. Pohy˘§on Temple...
"You don't know Pohy˘§on Temple? It's on this side of Pogwangni. It's in S˘§ongsan township too, just like Uch'uri."
"Of course I know it. That's why I asked."
"If you climb up from there for about an hour and a half at our pace, then you get to S˘§onja Pass. I went up there to pick wild grapes once with Mangch'i, thinking it would be good exercise ; it was so hard that now I can't bear to look at a wild grape even when it's right next to me. That's a really steep path."
"When did he die exactly?"
For some reason I just had to know.
"How would I know that? They said autumn, so I guess it was sometime in September or October."
"Mangch'i didn't say exactly?"
"What does he know? And anyway, what difference does it make now?"
"None, none at all, it's just...so he must have had a wife. And children..."
"I guess so."
"Right. Y˘§onghae, he... oh, I need to hang up..."
"It's just... I've suddenly got a headache..."
"Shall I find out for you?"
"No, forget it. It's just hearing news like that..."
"Okay. Take it easy."
Even after Kw˘§on had hung up, I just stood there holding the receiver in a daze.
Just below S˘§onja Pass...
So who was that woman I had met in front of the temple that day?
After I put down the phone I closed up the work I had been doing and led down on the floor, resting my head on my arm. I couldn't tell if my head hurt or not. The woman I had seen that day kept appearing before my eyes. Just when had he left home and gone to Taegwan Pass? And why on earth had that woman been at Pohy˘§on Temple that day? Was there some kind of karmic bond between Y˘§onghae and I that I didn't know about?
Even today my friends like Kw˘§on, who knew both Y˘§onghae and myself, all think that we grew up in the same village and must know each other better than anyone else, but actually I first met him when I entered high school, just like everyone else. Perhaps because we always walked the four or five li to school together, they thought we had grown up and lived in the same village. We shared the same nickname too?"uch'uri." Actually it was not only us ; at that time most of the kids from Uch'uri were nicknamed "uch'uri" in the schools in town. It was the same in the marketplace, on the construction sites, and in the back alleys. Except in those places, unlike in the schools, they weren't given that nickname because they were traders, labourers or layabouts from Uch'uri, but if their arithmetic was a bit slow, they looked stupid, or they moved too sluggishly, then people would say, "have you come from Uch'uri to sell potatoes?"
So to people in Kangn˘§ung, "Uch'uri" meant the most rustic of rustics. Uch'uri was at the same time the closest and the most remote village to Kangn˘§ung, and was synonymous with remote villages as such. In high school each autumn there would be an extra trip besides our school excursion, and on the pretext of training body and spirit we would go rabbit-hunting in Uch'uri.
But Y˘§onghae was not a true "uch'uri", who had both been born and grown up there. His whole family had moved there from the far side of Taegwan Pass the year he entered high school in Kangn˘§ung. His house wasn't in Uch'uri either, but in a hamlet called N˘§urimnae, which was just before Uch'uri if you came from the direction of Kangn˘§ung. And he didn't even live there a full two years before he moved again. Yet, until graduation he was known among us as "uch'uri", just as I was.
Even while he lived in N˘§urimnae and we walked back and forth to school together, he was a friend whose presence was strangely hard to notice. Even if I felt he was there when there were just the two of us, there only had to be one more person present and I wouldn't know he was there or not, even though we always walked together. Sometimes when he and I walked home with the other kids from Uch'uri we would have already passed N˘§urimnae when we would ask, "hey, where's Y˘§onghae today?" It's not easy to walk for an hour and an half four or five li through the hills and fields with friends your age and still not say a word, but that was the way he was. Yet he wasn't always listening to what we were saying either. Often if we asked him something as we were walking along, we'd have to ask once, twice, and sometimes even shake his arm or his shoulders and ask again. Even when several of us were all together, he would be walking alone thinking his own thoughts.
Despite the fact that he had moved from another place we did walk back and forth to school together for two years, and yet no particular events involving him came to mind. This was not because we ignored him, but because he chose to keep himself to himself. Both in and outside of school it was like he was always at a distance from us. I had never got up to tricks with him, joked about anything in particular, or even argued with him on the way home from school. He always kept out of our usual childish arguments about who was right or wrong. I had never once gone with him into the fields of strawberries, melon, water melon, peach or plum trees, grape vines, or apple, pear, or chesnut tree meadows, or, even worse, the radish fields just before the autumn kimch'i preparations, all these seasonal amusements that lay waiting for us along our route to school from spring through winter. If there were several of us up to no good he would always drop out and go on home ahead of us, and if there were just the two of us, then I never suggested going into other people's fields, as I knew what he was like. The other Uch'uri kids did the same.
Probably if I'd walked to school with any other friend for two years there would be so many stories to tell that I couldn't remember them all. And if I heard of the death of that friend so many incidents would come to mind that a whole book wouldn't be enough to tell them all. Of course there were some things that his death prompted me to recall. However, those things only came to mind after I heard that he had died on Taegwan Pass. If I had heard some news of him other than his death, or if I had heard that he had died of some illness in his own home, maybe I would not even have remembered the incidents I did.
If Kw˘§on had not earlier explained on the phone where S˘§onja Pass was, then I probably would never have known the name of that hollowed out ridge. Even though we grew up looking at Taegwan Pass several times each day, we didn't know the names of each peak or ridge. Perhaps because we never needed to know. We just called them Taegwan Pass, all those peaks and ridges, high and low, which spread out before our eyes like a folding screen. The place where at night car headlights flickered into sight for the first time was the hilltop, which we had not yet once crossed over, and it was enough to distinguish the highest peak from the others according to the way it appeared before our eyes, we called it the summit. It was Y˘§onghae who first taught me that the name of the summit was Maebong. We had stopped for a rest on the way home from school, I was sitting on top of somebody's burial mound, while he calculated its length with his feet.
"It's really quite strange."
"The highest place you can see up there on Taegwan Pass is Maebong."
"Mmm. And all the coffins in the graves here facing Taegwan Pass are lined up with Maebong."
"Of course. Because that's the summit."
Though I said that, I had not realised it before, despite the fact that my own family's burial site faced Taegwan Pass.
"That must be to receive the spirit of Maebong, as that's the highest point you can see from here."
Then he asked me what it would be like to be buried up on Maebong, whose spirit all these graves were trying to receive. I asked him whether they would be able to carry a bier up to there.
"Who needs a bier to have a grave? If you go there and lie down, that's a grave isn't it? If someone will just bury you."
"Don't talk nonsense."
"Nonsense? All the good graves were made like that in the past."
"Seeing's as you lived on the other side of Taegwan Pass, you must have been up to the summit."
"Of course. Several times a year from fifth or sixth grade until we moved here."
"Can you see these parts well from up there?"
"When you look down at Kangn˘§ung from up there it feels like this. The houses are like pebbles dropped in the fields, and the sea is like the sea, just as huge from up there too. But Lake Ky˘§ongp'o looks like water scooped up to wash your hands."
"It looks that small?"
"But if you look really well, it looks like everything on this side of Taegwan Pass is washed down into that lake, by the rain or something else. These graves too, once they're washed by the rain and the wind, their souls gather in the lake."
"Is there a geomancer in your family?"
"A geomancer? Why?"
"You sound just like one the way you're talking now."
"So, you still haven't been up to the top of Taegwan Pass, have you?"
"If you go up there and look down, you'll think the same thing. Looking down from the hilltop and looking down from Maebong are different things altogether. You have to go to Maebong to see the lake properly. From the hilltop you see Namdae River more than the lake. The old people say that the hilltop is not such a good spot. That's why there's a lot of car accidents."
"When you stand up on someone's grave and speak like that, you sound like a real geomancer."
"Then shall I check your grave site next? Go wash your hands and face up on Maebong."
"You don't talk much, but when you do it's something else."
"It's fun, isn't it? Looking at the mountains and at the water and thinking about these things. Let's go."
And with that he picked up his bag from the side of the grave and got up.
Another time we weren't in the mountains, but were facing Taegwan Pass as we walked home on the new road, which has now been made into a highway. I think it was about the time that talk began of his family moving again from N˘§urimnae to somewhere in Haksan. He said he probably wouldn't walk this road many more times, and I said that at least Haksan was much closer to school than Uch'uri.
"Do you know what my dream was when I was little?"
"What was it?"
"To cross Taegwan Pass and live on this side. Even when I was in middle school I used to sometimes ride my bike from Ch'ahang up to the hilltop on Taegwan Pass and look down over here."
"Is that why you took the entrance exam here too?"
"No. That was because we were moving here."
"That's the opposite to me. I didn't want to go and live there, but ever since I was little I was always curious about what kind of world lay on the other side of Taegwan Pass."
"And I was curious about what kind of people lived at the bottom of the mountain here."
"Our graduation trip was the first time I crossed over Taegwan Pass. On our middle school graduation trip we went as far south as Ky˘§ongju."
"As soon as I moved here I followed the water flowing in front of our house in N˘§urimnae, not the Namdae River, as far as Ky˘§ongp'o. I thought that water flowed into Lake Ky˘§ongp'o, but it also flows into the sea."
"The lake has its own water that flows into it."
"But I still believe everything here, whether water or whatever, flows into the lake. Even though I've followed the water by foot as far as the sea."
"You're really strange, aren't you? The sea is much bigger than the lake and much clearer."
"If you look down from Taegwan Pass, the sea doesn't look like it's lower than the earth, but like it's pushing the earth down from above. That's why I never thought anything flowed from the earth to the sea, but that the water in the sea flowed to the earth. Ever since I was little I only saw the sea above the earth, so it looked like that to me. But the lake was different."
"It's not exactly what you're saying, but the old people here say something a little similar. That if someone drowns in a rock pool, or in the ditches or irrigation ponds in the paddy fields, the body rises to the surface there, but the soul follows a secret path under the water and goes to the lake. So when I was little I thought that was really true. In elementary school one boy in our class drowned while he was swimming in a rock pool, and I thought his soul had also followed that path there."
"I reckon that everyone living on this side of Taegwan Pass, wherever they die, their souls all go there. Even if they're buried on the mountain, the rain and the water washes them down."
That time we talked about a lot of things unusual for children our age : about what people become when they die, what we would become when we died, whether there was another world or not, and whether our souls would gather in the lake or the ocean, and where we would go after that. And then, when we had reached N˘§urimnae and we'd both said good-bye, he called to me after he'd gone a few steps.
"Hey, Yi Su-ho!"
"When I die I'll give you the most important thing I have in the world."
"I don't know yet."
"Okay, well, thank you anyway. Bye."
These were the only memories of him and me together, and I would not have even recalled them if I had heard any other news of him. Still less if I had not met that woman at Pohy˘§on Temple the last time I went down to Kangn˘§ung.
There was no particular or unusual reason why I visited Pohy˘§on Temple when I went down to Kangn˘§ung last November. As Kw˘§on had said, that temple was in the same township as Uch'uri, and, unless there was so much snow that the road was blocked, I often visited that temple when I went down to Kangn˘§ung. The first time I visited that temple was in third grade. After staying overnight there with my grandmother that first time, I had gone there with a monk who came to our house to pick me up and stayed for several days at a time every winter. I continued going there for several years after the death of my grandmother, who was an enthusiastic worshipper at that temple. Even after that, before the monks' faces began to change, I had often gone there and stayed overnight, or just looked around the temple and come straight back. In the old days it would take a good three or four hours to walk there from our house, but now it took just forty minutes by car, although it was an unpaved road.
That day too I took the car and planned to look around the temple before getting water from the Angok Spring just below. I had left home just after lunch and in the hour since I had arrived I had first been to the Main Hall. I had then stroked the Master Nangw˘§on Monument To Protect Against The Earthly Senses, for what must have been more than the hundredth time, before walking down to the twenty or so large and small stupas below, which looked like stone pots placed upside down. I passed my hands over them one by one. When I was little I would scrape the moss off those stupas while the monks weren't watching and a red liquid like balsam would run down my fingernails.
Just then a woman said good-bye to a monk in front of the Main Hall, where the Three Buddhas were enshrined, and began to walk down towards me. She wore a brown coat over a white skirt. However I didn't realise that the white skirt hidden by her brown coat was worn for mourning. The woman walked slowly past the Monument where I was standing. For some reason, I suddenly thought that I should give her a lift down to the bus stop in Pogwangni. Even if you walked quickly it took a good forty minutes to the bus stop from the temple. The woman even looked somehow pathetic as she walked listlessly, holding a white handkerchief in her right hand. It would take more than an hour if she walked like that. I could drop her off at the bus stop and drive on down to the Angok Spring.
As she disappeared out of sight below the hill, I walked slowly to the car park. If I followed her too quickly it would look as if I'd planned this, so even after I started the engine I smoked a cigarette before setting off. Still the woman had gone no more than three hundred meters. She was walking along the left side of the road, holding the handkerchief to her face with her right hand, and brushing the dry wormwood stalks on the roadside with her left hand to make them shake. I carefully stopped at her side.
"May I give you a lift to the village?"
I asked through the window, which I had lowered in advance.
"Thank you, but I'm fine."
She lifted the handkerchief to her mouth again.
"It's farther than it looks. To the village."
But she knew that, as she had already come up that way. And on top of that the wind was quite bracing.
While she walked round to the side of the car, I leant over and opened the passenger side door. The strange thing was that until just before she got into the car I did not realise that her white skirt was for mourning. I don't know why. I hadn't noticed when she had passed by me in front of the Monument below the temple, nor as she stood facing me while I stopped the car and we talked, I asked her to get in, and she declined at first. Even though all that time her coat was undone I hadn't realised that she was wearing mourning clothes underneath. It was only when her white tie fell out of her coat and she tucked it back in as she got into the car, that I realised for the first time that she was in mourning. If I had only known before she got in I would have said she could sit in the back seat to make her feel more comfortable. Hadn't I been strangely careless in my attempt to be kind? Because of my careless kindness this woman, who should have been left to walk, would now have to take home with her those thoughts she would have scattered and left behind on the road down to the bus stop.
"I didn't realise. You're in mourning."
She looked about thirty-three or four years old, so I presumed it must have been one of her parents. It didn't even occur to me that at that age she might have lost her husband. If it had been her parents-in-law, then it seemed unlikely she would go to the temple on her own like this. And she looked to be in too much sorrow and pain for that somehow. The shade of sadness on her face seemed to mean something else.
"I'm sorry. It's the first time we've met, so I'm not sure what I should say to try to comfort you..."
"...it's all right."
"Have you always come to this temple?"
"...no. The day before yesterday was the forty-ninth day..."*
"I see. Was it a parent..."
I didn't know how to finish the question, should I say, "that you lost", or, "whom you are grieving"? Instead I mumbled something as I turned and glanced out of the window on my side.
"Do you often come to this temple to..."
She swallowed the end of the sentence too.
"Yes, I sometimes come here."
"Then, you're from Kangn˘§ung..."
"No, I live in Seoul."
If I said I lived in Kangn˘§ung it seemed as if she'd would feel more awkward because she had accepted a lift from someone local.
"I used to live here. So when I come to visit I sometimes come to this temple."
Then I said no more, and neither did the woman. However if we sat in silence like this until we reached the bus stop, even though it was not far, it would look as if I were indifferent while she was in grief, and we would both feel uncomfortable.
"Our parents always pass away before us."
"As we grow older we hope they will live on and on, but they..."
"How old was the one who passed away?"
She did not answer, but lifted her handkerchief to her eyes.
"I am sorry. I just..."
"...that's all right."
There was nothing I could do but keep quiet in this awkward situation. Although it was not far by car, as the road was unpaved it would still take fifteen minutes. However, when we finally reached the bus stop, there was neither a bus nor anyone waiting for a bus. Just like in Uch'uri, there were only three buses a day here, in the morning, at lunchtime, and again in the evening.
"It doesn't look as if a bus will come soon."
My words implied that it wasn't a good idea to get out of the car, even though she had already said thank you to me. It had been awkward to ride here together, but it also seemed awkward to leave her here when no bus was likely to come.
"Then, what should I..."
"Let me take you down to the main road. I have to go there anyway."
I thought of the empty water bottles in the trunk. I could always come back up from the main road, but it seemed more likely that once I got to the main road I would just drive home with those empty water bottles.
She switched the handkerchief to her left hand, and gripped the steadying handle above the window with her right hand.
"The village below is K˘§umsan, isn't it?"
I asked as if I was unfamiliar with this area.
"There will be a lot of buses there."
"Please don't be too sad. I lost my mother too a short while ago..."
I thought I would make her feel better if I said that.
"Grief can be overwhelming if we nourish it too much. Then the one who passed away also..."
"As we go through life, we all..."
"I...it wasn't that..."
I turned to look at her. She had raised the handkerchief to her face again.
"It wasn't my parents, it was my husband, who..."
"The day before yesterday was the forty-ninth day... and so I came to the temple..."
"I'm sorry. I..."
"...it's all right."
"I didn't think... It's not far from here. The main road."
From there until the village of P˘§od˘§ong in K˘§umsan, I didn't say a word, just stared ahead and concentrated on driving. Only now did it seem as if her sadness could somehow only have been of that kind all along, from the time I saw her at the temple. I regretted once again my carelessness in my attempt to be kind. As I had stopped by her she had no choice but to get in the car, but it must have been very uncomfortable for her. However when we reached the bus stop on the side of the highway in K˘§umsan, she made an unexpected request.
"Umm... if you know where Ky˘§ongp'o is... I... I wonder whether you would be so kind as to take me as far as Ky˘§ongp'o?"
"Where near Ky˘§ongp'o do you live?"
"Just anywhere will do..."
"Okay. Of course."
"He used to say... his soul would go to the lake..."
"Then, he... in the water..."
This time too, I couldn't bring myself to add the word drowned.
"No, on the mountain..."
"Oh, so he was in an accident. He was in the mountains and..."
"Yes... And so we... We spread his remains on Taegwan Pass where you can see the lake..."
"I went to the temple today because... I dreamt of him last night... He asked me to go to the temple."
"Oh, I see."
"As I haven't been going he said just to go once... And so that's why I went there."
"I had to go, as he said I'd forgotten him... And as I said I wouldn't go again... He was angry in my dream and said I should go often..."
"I didn't realise. I just saw you walking and..."
"As he said that... When I came out this morning I said I would try to forget him... I would go to the temple and this would be the last thing I would do for him... I came out thinking that... And then I met you in front of the temple... And now I've asked you to take me as far as Lake Ky˘§ongp'o... I don't know what I was thinking... But if I go there, it feels like there will be a part of him there... I'm sorry... It's the first time I've ever met you too..."
"Oh, don't mind about that. I'll take you there."
"...thank you very much."
"He must have liked the mountains. Seeing's as that was the last place he went."
"He grew up near Taegwan Pass. So he said that if he died we should bury him on Taegwan Pass where he could see the lake... He wasn't very well, and so he told me that before he went up to the mountain... He also said that if I wanted to see him after he died I should go to the lake... And then last night I dreamed of him and he said to go to the temple because I had forgotten him..."
Although the road from K˘§umsan to the sea, and then from the sea to the nearby lake, was farther than the road down from the temple, it took less than twenty minutes as the highway connected to the main road leading to the lake. I just kept saying "I see" as she spoke and sometimes very carefully added a word to try to comfort her. She, however, seemed no longer able to hide her sorrow, and talked the whole way to the lake, though she was conscious of my presence.
That day I took her as far as the lake. Nothing else happened. I got out of the car first and quickly walked round to the passenger side to hold open the door she had already began to open. It just felt like I should do that.
"I am really sorry. I should have let you walk down from the temple with your own thoughts..."
"No. You brought me all the way here..."
She now looked much calmer than she had in the car.
"Be strong. The wind is quite cold, so don't go back too late..."
"All right... you too..."
"Then, I'll go now."
I bowed to her politely. She placed her hands on her knees and bowed deeply to me. The wind blew her tie out of her coat again. After I got back into the car, I waved to her slightly. She bowed again. Her face was thin and frail-looking. I felt like I was deserting her, leaving her there all alone. If, once we had arrived at the lake, she had asked me to stay by her side, or to wait for her to go back, then something would have prevented me from refusing.
Until we parted, in fact while I was still driving back alone to Kangn˘§ung city centre, I felt as if I had been possessed by something, as if what had just happened had been a dream. In the old days, the old people used to say that if you crossed over Taegwan Pass alone at night, a woman in white mourning clothes would block your way. This was not Taegwan Pass, and she had not come forward to block my way, but that was the feeling I had as I kept glancing at the seat beside me where she had been sat just a short time before. That was the day I went to Kw˘§on's shop in Kangn˘§ung city centre and drank coffee. Somehow I did not feel like going straight home, and I had gone to Kw˘§on's shop to try to shake off that feeling that had taken over me. Kw˘§on had asked me why my face looked so strange, and I had replied that it was nothing. That I had just come out for a while.
"Hey, you should rest when you come down here. Don't struggle with those manuscripts even when you're down here."
"It's nothing to do with a manuscript."
"Do you know what your face looks like now? You look like you've seen a ghost or something..."
That day I sat in the shop with him and his wife for about an hour before going home. I wonder how I would have felt if Kw˘§on had told me the news then.
Of course, that woman did not necessarily have anything to do with Y˘§onghae. But until Kw˘§on called again, it seemed that Y˘§onghae would appear in my dreams, as he had in hers, and that she might too.
Hey, Yi Su-ho!
When I die I'll give you the most important thing I have in the world.
I wonder if he really did lie down on Taegwan Pass like that and was now washing his face and hands in the lake under our feet. And I wonder if he sent that woman to me that day.
Farewell. My old friend...
Until we meet again at the lake...
* The bereaved usually hold a Buddhist ceremouy for the dead forty-nine days after a death.