As soon as he stepped onto the estate, the two pairs of women who flanked the entrance greeted him in a single voice. He frowned, startled by the abrupt chorus. Although they hadn’t meant to shout, when their high-pitched tones trained for years in customer service came together, the effect was harsh. He could even pick out a voice that was thick, murky, and unpleasant. Together the women bowed deeply from the waist and then straightened, arranging their features into pretty expressions that looked like question marks, as though waiting for him to give them their cues.
He blinked slowly, his face still set in a half frown. A man of average height in his early fifties, he had a classic and elegant face, like that of a veteran actor in an old movie. Just as a flawless structure is bound to have, his appearance had a precarious edge and brooding silence. He gazed at the women with eyes so clear and direct that it was impossible to guess what he was thinking.
The women in dark blue mini-dresses to his left were completely different in both face and figure, but their smiles were identical like a pair of gloves. On his right the women were dressed in light blue mini-dresses. The one with the puffy eyelids who looked older than the rest stepped forward and bent her knees in a small curtsy. But his gaze moved past her and landed on the girl standing behind her.
She was tall, but looked very young, and her dress, from which a delicate ribbon hung, was the most risqué out of all the dresses the women were wearing. Just as you might be able to see through the flesh of a young fish to its bones, her skin was so pale and translucent it seemed the outline of her ribs would show if the piece of fabric that barely covered her body were removed. Her flesh was both dangerous and provocative; it invited you to touch it, but also elicited a violent urge that made you want to wreck that delicate and tender flesh, the way you might be tempted when holding a young fish in your hands.
“Can I see your invitation please?” asked the woman with the puffy lids. Her thick voice, which had stuck out immediately from the rest of the voices, did not match that of a service representative, but it had an elastic quality, like that of a trigger that would release a rusted bullet. He turned his gaze from the young fish to her. He felt the thorny sadness and stubbornness given off by women who had long been ill-treated. He started to put his hands in his pockets and then shook his head.
“I don’t think I brought mine with me.”
A bitter smile spread across her lips. “You mean you don’t have an invitation?”
Her voice cracked on the last syllable, as her customer service etiquette waned. One note shot up, while the other came out flat and low before it finally cracked, so that it seemed as though there were two different speakers. He grinned at the bizarre duet.
“If you don’t have an invitation, I’m afraid you can’t come in.”
She added a reluctant apology and then looked down at him sardonically, as though she’d forgotten her manners completely, with an expression tall women reserve for short men. They stood staring at each other’s faces, faces that lost more appeal the longer each of them stared. Right then, from the direction of the banquet hall, a skinny man approached, stirring the air with his lanky crab-like legs, making his pants billow.
“Representative Park! Welcome!”
At the title “representative,” the woman with the puffy lids glanced at his suit. He wasn’t wearing a parliament pin. She took a step back.
The skinny man bowed deeply. “Thank you for attending, sir. We know how busy you must be. Why don’t we head inside? Mrs. Yeom has been waiting for you.”
“Ah, Mr. Koo! I forgot my invitation, you see, so I’ve been stuck out here.”
“What do you mean your invitation?”
Koo, Mrs. Yeom’s secretary, glared at the woman with the puffy eyes. Behind lids that were shaded with the color of raging waves, her eyes filled with the terror of a shipwrecked person. Somehow placated by that expression, Park stepped forward and said, “Actually, we were having a nice little chat, weren’t we? Not having my invitation on me was just an excuse.”
Before Koo could say anything, he added in a quiet, suggestive voice of an accomplice that was loud enough for the women to hear, “Where on earth did you find such beauties? Remind me to ask Mrs. Yeom. By the way, I heard she isn’t feeling well. How is she?”
Changing the subject, Park glanced to the right. His gaze passed the woman with the puffy eyes who looked as though she were about to weep with gratitude, and stopped on the young fish girl, her blue ribbon drooping like a graceful fin. Her pink jelly-like lips formed a cute and dazed O. That small round hole was probably several times smoother and softer than the exterior which resembled silken tofu, bringing to mind another rapturous opening, which would surely be like mist or soap suds; it looked like an irresistible invitation to that translucent abyss.
“She broke her arm…” Koo said respectfully.
“What? How?” Park asked, removing his gaze reluctantly from the girl.
“She was skiing in Sapporo…”
As though he didn’t want to hear Koo’s tiresome explanation, Park straightened his somewhat narrow shoulders and started to walk quickly. “What? Skiing in Japan during a time like this? I really don’t understand her sometimes. But anyway…”
They headed toward the blue banquet hall. “Those girls were really something…”
The four nameless models strained their ears, aware that the men were talking about them, but they could hear nothing except for Mrs. Yeom’s warm greetings and Park’s laughter.
The dishes rattling on the carts that rolled across the blue carpet, the guests’ conversations, the music the band played, and the occasional bursts of muffled laughter, like the sound of the TV coming from next door. The smells of meat and fish cooking on the grill and the different sauces and spices, the faint scent of alcohol, and the subtle perfumes and air freshener announced that the blue summer gala held at the estate of Mrs. Yeom, the widow of the late Kim Seongwon, was in full swing.
“Welcome, Rep. Park!”
“It’s been a long time, Mrs. Yeom.”
“If you didn’t come tonight, I was planning on never seeing you again.”
Park laughed briefly at Mrs. Yeom’s attack that zinged like a tart fruit. She touched her splinted right arm and stretched out her left hand.
“I know you’re a busy man. Thank you for coming.”
“You always seem to have the air of a female warrior about you. And now you’ve even suffered a wound. I have to admit, I’m a little afraid to set foot into your fortress.”
Despite his words, Park stepped easily into the air-conditioned blue banquet hall and grasped Mrs. Yeom’s outstretched hand.
“Oh, please. To think my arm was in this condition with the gala night looming closer. The stress made my ulcer come back. I’ve been surviving on congee for the last several days. I could just crawl into a hole, greeting important guests in this sloppy manner.”
“In my humble opinion, the sling really becomes you.”
“Now what kind of nonsense is that? How could you mock an old, injured woman?”
Those were her words, but Mrs. Yeom knew full well that she had not yet lost her loveliness. Just as Park had said, she was, with her sling that was wrapped in dark blue velvet, making a bold and original fashion statement that night.
Mrs. Yeom was an expert at transforming herself, just as one would expect from a famous designer who dominated the fashion world. Behind her angular face lived various women who were of the same age. However, he felt as though that night’s contestant, whose jet-black dyed hair was twisted up in a French pleat and whose shoulders were sheathed in a dark blue shawl the color of stormy clouds, was perhaps the most arrogant of the women he had been presented with so far; everything declared it, from her sling studded with small crystals to her navy blue leather dress that was lined with sapphires down the sides, and even her velvet heels from which dangled silver rings.
On the stage a band played, sitting in a semicircle around a short woman, and on top of a marble plinth in the center of the hall was a giant blue ice sculpture of the Buddha in lotus position. The tables and chairs that lined the walls around the hall were covered with blue cloth, which was obviously that night’s theme color. There were roughly fifty to sixty guests.
“Mrs. Yeom, I have to say you’re causing a lot of problems…” Park said, as he settled into the seat he was shown.
Immediately Mrs. Yeom jutted out her chin as though preparing herself for a challenge. He continued by saying that Mrs. Yeom suffering an injury was in essence an anti-national activity, that if someone such as herself got injured, it counted as a state loss, just as the death of her husband had been. When he continued on in this flattering manner, as a sign of satisfaction and modesty, she looked at him with affection and sat down beside him.
“That’s that, but Park…” Mrs. Yeom said in a friendly manner, removing the honorific from his name, as though they had been on intimate terms for some time. “Let me pick your brain about something. In the aftermath of the Cheonan and Yeongpyeong incidents, what are your views on the strained relations with North Korea? Do you think they will improve any time soon?”
“This is what I think, Yeom,” he said, following suit and addressing her in a casual manner. “It’s a matter of great concern. If we look at the stance that our current government is taking toward North Korea…”
Like a spokesperson making a public statement, he said what was common knowledge in a clear yet languid tone, while Mrs. Yeom pretended to be an earnest and attentive listener. She then interrupted him abruptly, raising her palms in the air as though to tell him to calm down.
“Hold on a minute there!” she cried.
While Park—who wasn’t at all worked up and didn’t need to compose himself—was struck with bewilderment, Mrs. Yeom began her counter-argument. However, he couldn’t make heads or tails of her argument; after all, her sole purpose for questioning him was to announce to all those present that she was able to engage in a lively debate with a politician. Even while making an impassioned speech, she took notice of who walked in and out of the hall and was even able to, like a praying mantis, signal a server who was passing their table with just one look.
“Let’s see here, what would Rep. Park like to have? Steak? Or maybe some sashimi?”
Park cringed inwardly at Mrs. Yeom’s voice, which had the syrupy quality of lounge madams addressing their male clients.
“I normally don’t eat anything raw during the summer, but since this is your home, I can rest assured—”
Before he could finish speaking, she interrupted with a witty proverb, “But one must still eat before attempting Mount Kumgang! Ha ha ha!”
Mrs. Yeom’s pride swelled at the thought that not many hosts could use a more fitting allusion to offer their guests refreshments while discussing inter-Korean relations. Because that pride was about to shoot through the roof of the banquet hall, she had no clue that her opponent didn’t consider her comment to be the least bit witty and that he especially couldn’t stand the shrill, hearty laughter of middle-aged women.
“Sure, Mount Kumgang,” he said dryly. Frowning, he gazed at the voluptuous figure of the waitress. Her silk pants that looked just as filmy as a woman’s scarf revealed every line and curve; he was certain she wasn’t wearing any underwear.
“I read somewhere, what was the book called? It was a very well-known book, but the title escapes me now. Anyway, the author said…”
Because he was watching the waitres...
Kwon Yeo-sun has published five short story collections and three novels. She has received the Oh Yeongsu Literature Award, the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, and the Tong-ni Literature Prize. English editions of her books include “Spring Night.”