- Too Bright Outside for Love
Tr. Sophie Bowman 2016288pp.
Yanghee didn’t show up at the language academy. For a day or two Pilyong thought she must be ill, she must be busy, and then he turned pale. She’s gone. She’s disappeared. Pilyong was in a bad way. He came down with a summer cold, the kind of cold they say even dogs don’t catch, and couldn’t leave the house. He spent feverish days listening to songs like Queen’s “Too Much Love Will Kill You.” His mother went out to open up her snack stall but didn’t get far before coming back to ask, “Can’t I at least get you some medicine?” But Pilyong said he didn’t want any. He wouldn’t take anything. That night his temperature rocketed to 38 degrees. Though he was shuddering with the chill, Pilyong vowed he wouldn’t go to the doctor. His mother came back from her snack stall and, with the smell of tart pickled radish and wheat flour still lingering on her hands, she felt Pilyong’s forehead and worried for him, “What can I do to help? You really should go to the doctor.”
“Mum,” Pilyong managed to call out, feeling his consciousness coming and going like someone pumping bellows.
“Yes, my boy, what is it?”
“How did you get better Mum? When you were suffering even more than this, how were you saved?”
“You mean me?” Plumping up Pilyong’s pillow, his mother said proudly, “God saved me, of course. And I lived to have a son as fine as you.”
A few days later, when his fever had subsided, Pilyong borrowed an old Daewoo Lemans from a friend. The friend said he would be right over but only turned up at nine at night, well past the time they had agreed on. The rain that had been falling all day had thankfully stopped, but the whole city was dripping wet. That wet city landscape had a lot in common with Pilyong’s state of mind.
To go or not to go, Pilyong thought it over once more, seriously. What he’d heard from one of the other juniors in his university department was that Yanghee had gone to her parents’ house in Munsan. They said Yanghee’s family farmed ducks, or maybe it was geese, and she’d gone up there because they’d suffered damage from the flood caused by the summer rains. Whatever the details, it seemed that Pilyong had been pushed aside by poultry. But still, he had to go. He couldn’t not go. In that case, what would it mean to go all the way to Munsan to meet Yanghee? It meant a beginning. The start of dating, the start of love, compassion, restraint, promises, obligation, sex. It wasn’t that something which had once been there was disappearing, but that something which wasn’t would appear. Thinking for the first time in his life about recklessness, Pilyong started the ignition. While he was driving, of course, Queen played on the stereo. Love of my life, you’ve hurt me, you’ve broken my heart and now you leave me, as he listened intently to the lyrics, he put his foot down on the accelerator. You’ve taken my love, bring it back, don’t take it away from me, as he sang along to the song, Pilyong thought. Thought he would try his luck. When I get to Munsan I’ll tell her. Yanghee-ya, I love your husky voice, I love your skinny body, I love your light pockets and lack of appetite, I love your lethargy, I love your futility, I love your no tomorrow.
The rain had stopped up in Munsan too. Frogs croaked in a pealing chorus, and the smells of greenery, water, and mud tangled to create a kind of primeval feeling. Pilyong thought that everything in Munsan bore a likeness to Yanghee. Perhaps the smell that came from Yanghee’s camouflage jacket wasn’t actually the musty smell of basement student digs or dark theatres, but Yanghee’s own natural body odor, imbibed from Munsan. With that, it struck him that perhaps he’d been misreading Yanghee’s lethargic, passive demeanor. He could hardly believe that such futility, such lethargy could come from a place like this, a place where everything was growing so vigorously.
After wandering for a while, when he found Yanghee’s house with the help of a neighbor, Pilyong was dumbfounded, as though he’d taken a blow to the head. Yanghee’s house—if you could call something like that a house—looked more like a cave. It was put together out of plywood and all that distinguished the boundary between the kitchen and the inner room was that the room was raised about four bricks worth higher, with a heated lino floor. The kitchen was covered in mud, without a single tile in sight. By the looks of it, the drain in the floor was blocked, and bits of cooked rice, swollen noddle strands, and other muck was trickling down a slope from the plughole into a small stream. They had ducks. It wasn’t a farm but a wire enclosure set up on one side of the small stream, with a few ducks being raised inside. The ducks were quacking away. They might have all just been ducklings, the noise was so feeble.
Yanghee, who had been watching TV with her family, came out to meet Pilyong. Both of Yanghee’s parents were inside the room, and although her father was very tall, he looked infirm and judging by his appearance he must have been around seventy. Yanghee᾽s mother had a dumpy body and round face. Her black hair was tied up on top of her head in a bun. The neighbors who had led Pilyong to the house didn’t leave and instead rolled out compliments for the family, while getting a good look at the young man who had shown up late at night, looking for their neighbor’s daughter.
“Yanghee was good at school, so good that a scholarship came down from the provincial authorities. As for Yanghee’s father, although he may be living like this, he’s a real gentleman. One of the noble poor. When he does have money he pays it all to campaigns for helping the needy and gives donations to collections for repairing flood damage. He was even generous with Yanghee’s scholarship money, giving some to help those more in need, such a gentleman. Although he might not be in great shape now, he’s been a real patriot since the day he was born.”
On the wall hung colorful thank you certificates, with words of admiration and gratitude across them. But, people more hard up than Yanghee? It looked as though theirs was the most squalid and ramshackle house, actually it looked nothing like a house, in the village. A bowl filled with tinned syrupy peaches was brought in, with ice bobbing among the slices. Why did you come here? Where are you from? Who are you? What’s your relationship to Yanghee? Yanghee’s parents didn’t ask Pilyong any such thing. Although it was Pilyong who had come all this way, he didn’t say a word. They all sat there and watched a comedy program together. She’d never laughed even once when she was with Pilyong but Yanghee laughed along with all of it. Somehow the two comedians who had come on stage in tracksuits and started slapping each other’s foreheads must have been pretty funny.
Turning towards Yanghee her father asked, “Yanghee-ya, how much have you got in your bank account?”
“About 380,000 won,” Yanghee responded without taking her eyes off the TV.
“How on earth have you got that much?”
“I just do I guess.”
“How much d’ya think it’d cost to fix the duck cage?”