The Road to Sampo
- onJuly 16, 2015
- Vol.28 Summer 2015
- byHwang Sok-yong
- The Road to Sampo
Tr. Kim U-Chang 2012118pp.
"Well, I must be on my way.” The man didn’t even look back as he walked away towards the bank of the stream. He climbed onto the bank, changed his sack to the other shoulder and started down the other side. He disappeared over the bank, first the lower part of his body and eventually the tip of his dog-fur hat. Yŏng-dal stood at a loss for a while, unable to decide upon a particular direction or road to take. What he needed was a fellow traveller. It would be better, even if the company lasted just for a little while—just somebody to talk to, while he was on the road. Coming out of his bemusement, Yŏng-dal hurriedly followed the man who had just disappeared beyond the river bank. As he reached the top of the bank, he could see the man in the dog-fur hat walking very fast in the distance. He was already entering the path leading to the roadway lined with two symmetrical columns of poplars, looking like bamboo brooms standing upside down. As he ran down the bank, Yŏng-dal called out, “Hey, you there!”
The man in the dog-fur hat paused a moment and turned around, but then kept on walking, Yŏng-dal ran after him. When he caught up with him, he said, gasping for breath, “Let’s go together. I’m going in the same direction as you are, at least up to Wŏlchul.”
The man did not answer.
“Damn it. I never saw a winter like this,” Yŏng-dal spoke again to the back of the other man’s head. “It was good last winter. We had a room, there thousand won a month, me and the barmaid with whom I lived. This winter is terrible. Frozen stiff, that’s what I may become any moment now.”
“Well, one gets used to that sort of thing,” said the other man. “Do you have any idea how far Sampo is? At least several hundred li, that is, to the sea coast, and then we have to take a boat."
“How long has it been since you left Sampo?" asked Yŏng-dal.
“Over ten years,” answered the other man, and he continued, “There won’t be anybody who will recognize me there.”
“Why do you want to go back then?” asked Yŏng-dal.
“For no particular reason,” said the other man. “As I’m getting old, I just feel like visiting it.”
The two men turned onto the roadway. It was easier to walk on the street, as the road was covered with gravel and clay. Yŏng-dal kept his hands in his pockets. He constantly worked them to keep them warm as best as he could. “So damned cold! If only there was no wind,” he said.
The man in the dog-fur hat did not seem to feel as cold as Yŏng-dal did. It was true that he was heavily dressed with a fur hat and a field jacket, but he also looked unusually healthy and robust. He spoke to Yŏng-dal, showing some warmth for the first time: “Did you eat anything for breakfast?”
“No,” Yŏng-dal smiled shame-facedly. “I could barely make my escape in the dark.”
“I haven’t eaten yet myself,” said the other man, “But we’ll have to wait at least until we get to Chansaem. I should have left earlier this morning. I’m now getting to the age when one doesn’t like moving in winter.”
“I didn’t introduce myself. My name is No Yŏngdal,” said Yŏng-dal.
“I am Chŏng.” The other man gave him his family name.
“I know how to work machinery. Once I get a job, I’ll have nothing to worry about him,” said Yŏngdal to let Chŏng know that he had no intention of sucking around.
“I know,” said Chŏng. “Didn’t you work with the rock-drill? As for me, I can do carpentry, welding, and cobbling.”
“Wow, having all those skills, you must feel very secure,” Yŏng-dal said admiringly.
“I’ve been doing them for more than ten years,” said Chŏng.
“Where did you learn them?” asked Yŏng-dal.
“There’s a very nice place where they teach you all those skills,” answered the other man.
“I wish I could go there,” said Yŏng-dal naively.
But Chŏng said with a bitter smile, shaking his head: “It’s easy to go there, but I’m not sure you would really want to go. It is a very big place—only too big.”
“Too big?” Yŏng-dal stopped in the middle of his sentence and looked at Chŏng’s face. Chŏng was walking steadily in silence, with his face lowered a bit. The uphill road became a downhill road. Below them, they could see the road winding along a stream and distant fields. The winter fields lay bleak with hardly a farmer’s hut as far as the eye could see. The dry rushes swayed in tangled confusion and the wind whirled up sands on the other side of the stream. “The village of Chansaem lies over that mountain there,” said Chŏng. “We had better cut across the stream if we want to make better time.”
“Do you think it is frozen solid enough?” asked Yŏng-dal.
The stream was, in fact, frozen very solid. The ice was rough and not slippery, the water having frozen over several times after repeated freezing and melting. The wind picked up loose bits of ice and slapped the two men hard in the face.
“Perhaps we should have waited for the bus by the bridge,” gasped Yŏng-dal, out of breath from walking too fast.
“The buses are never on time,” said Chŏng. “Besides, we must watch where our money goes. Even when you haven’t eaten, it feels good and secure to have money on you.”
“You’re right,” agreed Yŏng-dal.
“At Wŏlchul we can take a southbound train,” said Chŏng. “Are you going south or what?”
“I had better wait and see,” Yŏng-dal hesitated.
“Which way is Sampo?”
“South, that is, as far south as you can go,” said Chŏng, vaguely pointing his chin to the south.
“How big a place is that? Are there many people living there?” asked Yŏng-dal.
“Ten houses or so,” explained Chŏng. “It’s a pretty island, Sampo is. The soil is good, lots of land. Fishing is good, too. You can catch as much fish as you want.”
“If it’s as good as you say, why not pitch our tents there and call it home?” said Yŏng-dal, skating over the ice on the road.
“Why not, indeed?” said Chŏng. “But not you.”
“Why not?” Yŏng-dal looked up.
“Because you’re not a native.”
pp. 19 - 29