Seopyeonje: The Southerners’ Songs by Yi Chung-jun

When the singer had concluded another tan-ga with considerable effort, the traveller made a request. ‘I suppose you are ready for a real song, now that you have warmed up with your tan-ga. How about Chunhyang-ga or Sim Cheong-gaanything your heart desires, any passage from themI mean?’ He was now requesting her to sing pansori.

     However, she was already exhaustedbut not from singing songs in preparation for the pansori; she no longer cared whether she had any strength left to go on. As she had become aware that the guest’s breathing was growing increasingly harsh as he listened, she felt a strange flash of foreboding in her sightless eyes, and finally it immobilized all her movements.

     ‘You have such a deep desire for songs?’

     No answer came from the man. He flinched, suspecting she had read his mind. He recovered himself and fixed his sight on her. It was obvious that she did not wish to continue; she needed to rest her voice.

     ‘I wonder why you have come to enjoy listening to songs so much. I have never met a lover of pansori who does not have a reason for becoming one.’ The singer spoke with conviction.

     ‘What do you mean by “a reason”?’ He hesitated for a moment, then took a deep breath, struggling to speak. Finally, he decided what he should say. ‘If you ask why I have become so obsessed with songs, there is something in my life that you might think is the cause of it.’

     His expression remained withdrawn. When he spoke again, it was in a hollow voice. ‘Yes, there is a reason. I am over forty now and looking wretched. I have been everywhere in this region hoping to find songs. But tonight, meeting your voice this way, I know that all the days of wandering were worth while. I have no regrets.’

     ‘My humble songs do not deserve to be heard,’ the singer demurred.

     A hint of a smile surfaced on his lips as he shook his head. ‘Don’t deny it. There is something delightful and precious in your voice, something I value and cherish above anything I have ever known in my life. I feel that it is for this very dear thingmore than for the songsthat I have searched in vain all my life.’

     ‘What is it? What is so very precious and valuable to you?’ She was becoming increasingly agitated and anxious.

     ‘If you care to listen, I will tell you.’

     He began. It was the same story he had recounted years before to the proprietress of Song Pass Tavern in Boseong after he had listened to her songs all through the night. It was the remembrance of a flaming summer sun, a ball of fire that was lost with his childhood and beginning to fade from his memory. Anywhere, anytime he listened to a pansori song, the traveller experienced the heat of that sun beating down on him, the sun of his fate scorching his face and lashes.

     The man concluded his story calmly, as if it belonged to someone else. ‘My mother died when a bloody lump of flesh in the shape of an infant dropped from her womb, and...