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FICTION

The Moving Fortress

  • onDecember 17, 2015
  • Vol.30 Winter 2015
  • byHwang Sun-Won
The Moving Fortress
Tr. Bruce and Ju-Chan Fulton
2015
322pp.

Chunt’ae proposed to Kwŏn that they divide the potatoes the next day. The other two asked for a share. Sure, no problem.

Chunt’ae’s eyes felt like they were popping out of their sockets. All he wanted was to lie down. He felt languid, and his head was spinning. The lady innkeeper brought water and he took his medicine. For want of an appetite he had skipped lunch, and taking the medicine on an empty stomach nauseated him. He felt uneasy not drinking with the others, but the more important consideration was eating, which he needed to do to restore his energy, so he asked the innkeeper to cook some rice porridge.

Alarmed, the men asked if he was sick. He seemed to have picked up a bad cold, he responded. Then he leaned back against the wall.

The three men returned to their drinks. They liked to put away several rounds of makkŏlli and then, suitably tipsy, lighten up the conversation. Now they were swapping yarns about farm life. So-and-so had sold out to someone in town and would have to rent land starting this year, but he thought it was the smart thing to do when you add up all the expenses of farming your own land, and the price you get for your grain is too low and you end up in the hole. And would the fertilizer be provided on time this year, and they hoped to high heaven that godawful useless Yongsŏng wouldn’t get dumped on them, because it was no damn good no matter what the officials said, and weren’t they just shelling out money in vain, plus there weren’t enough farmhands—so-and-so had gone in the army, and this other fellow got discharged and ran off to the city . . .

The innkeeper returned with a huge bowl filled with porridge. Chunt’ae could not finish a fourth of it, and even that small amount he ate out of a sense of duty.

By now the other men were wisecracking and mimicking rustics similar to themselves, telling a rerun of a story Chunt’ae had heard at another drinking session with the locals. A backwoods fellow was about to begin a meal at his in-laws’. The dinner table was brought in, and after his first quick spoonful of rice he kept peeking under the table. When his father-in-law asked what he was doing, he said his spoonful of rice had disappeared so fast he was trying to figure out where it went. That’s what happens the first time backwoods chumps eat a bowl of nice glossy rice without the barley, millet, and other stuff. By poking fun at farmers like themselves, maybe they were trying to dispel their anxiety that they might turn out like the chump.

With enough porridge in his stomach to make it back home, Chunt’ae paid, over the protests of the innkeeper, then left. As always these days, the warm air of daytime had chilled as evening set in. He didn’t mind the cold air, though it probably wasn’t doing him much good.

At home he spread out his bedding and lay down, only partially undressed. His knees stung and throbbed, and he felt his consciousness slowly bubbling away. And then something was grabbing and tugging on him. It didn’t seem as dark—was it dawn already? No, it was the moon shining on the paper pane of the window. He didn’t feel as feverish and his body felt lighter. He closed his eyes again.

Hands grasped his hand, the hands that had pulled at him in his dream just now. Those hands placed his on a vast expanse of skin. Her body was large, her breasts especially so. They began near her shoulders, and when she lay down they projected from her chest.

He tried to remove his hands from hers but she held them tightly and began rubbing her huge breasts with them. After a while she gently released his hands so they could move by themselves. But instead they slid off her. Again she took his hands and massaged her breasts with them. Again she released his hands. Feebly he pulled them back. The woman groped at his crotch.

“You’re not even alive,” she spat, gasping from the heat of her passion. “You’re dead meat, a carcass!”

“I wasn’t going to tell anyone. But it’s not just in my mind—something’s happening to him.”

“I wish you’d told me earlier.”

“Me and my bravado. Anyway, I have to go back.”

“Good idea.”

“Could you go with me?”

“I was thinking the same thing.” Sŏngho was ready to take a day off from the brick-making operation he’d set up in a distant residential district.

“Thanks, really. I was prepared to go by myself.”

“No need to thank me.”

“Could we go now? I don’t want to wait.”

“All right. It’s a good thing I didn’t leave yet—you almost missed me.” The previous afternoon Sŏngho had gone to see Myŏngsuk, who had yet to rally from her relapse. He had bought bellflower and cassiotora seeds on the way home and had planted them that morning.

Asking the family next door to look after Yŏngi, he changed out of his work clothes. Disentangling himself from the girl, he and Chiyŏn hurried down the hill from Starland Village. At Seoul Station they were fortunate to catch a train on the Changhang line immediately. Their compartment was not crowded.

“Thanks to you, I get to see Kunsan for the first time. Are you going to show me around?” Sŏngho ventured as the train pulled out. He had noticed how depressed Chiyŏn was.

“I don’t remember much about it—I only went there with one thing in mind.” She smiled wanly, then gazed off into the distance. “I wonder how he’s doing.”

Chunt’ae felt clear of mind and clean of body, incomparably peaceful. How long had he been lost in that nightmare? His fever had died down and he had distributed the potatoes to Old Kwŏn and the others, but then the fever had flared up and he’d developed a pounding headache and chest pains and had become virtually comatose. At the same time, he discovered the woman had disappeared and that Tori was crying for her. Now the boy was asleep, his legs under Chunt’ae’s quilt. Chunt’ae sat up, thinking he should cook something.

“Oh no!” Chiyŏn blurted out.

“What’s wrong?” said Sŏngho.

“We have to get to him!” Her eyes were fixed on a far-off point.

As Chunt’ae tried to get up he grew dizzy and his hands, planted on the floor to support himself, gave way. He groped along the floor, thinking he had sunk into it and needed to get out. His right cheekbone tingled. Only then did he realize he had fallen on his face trying to prop himself up. He crawled back to bed and once more sank into a stupor.

“Remember Mingu? He’s getting married and abandoning his research on shamanism. Looks like he has a job in his father-in-law’s company. He’s practical, no matter what he does, so . . . Don’t you think Mr. Ham ought to move to Seoul? Agricultural development probably isn’t the best idea if his health isn’t good . . .”

This attempt to distract Chiyŏn was no more successful. Sŏngho flinched. It wasn’t just that she was inattentive; it had suddenly struck him that he himself was the one who needed help.

Chunt’ae’s spirits soared but his eyes remained shut. In his mind’s eye he saw a little boy shivering as he clung to his mother beside a frozen lake. The mother’s grip on his hand was painful. But the boy wasn’t upset. His mother lay down. The boy raked the frozen earth with his fingers and began to cover her. With each scoop of dirt his mother said, “More, more.” His fingertips were numb and bleeding, but he kept raking dirt over his mother. Finally she was covered, all but her face, and still she said, “More, more.” He watched without emotion. The next moment he found himself confined in a tiny windowless room. He couldn’t stand up and he couldn’t stretch out his legs and lie down. A dim light filled the room. He crouched and looked into a hole in the floor. How long had he been digging at that hole? He waited for a rat. Finally he heard it scampering toward him, and its feet appeared from the hole. He caressed those feet. Then realized they weren’t the rat’s feet but his own hands. The two hands caressed each other in their loneliness, and finally they were gone from the hole. He gazed dejectedly into the empty hole.

Sŏngho searched Chiyŏn’s eyes. There was something familiar about them. And then they changed into Mrs. Hong’s eyes, confronting him and shivering in fright. But she was dead and gone, and Chiyŏn was bound for the man she loved, worried sick about his well-being. Mrs. Hong’s face and Chiyŏn’s hovered one before the other, and then their eyes shivering in fright grew large and covered all else. They were the eyes of the Creator, and those of the women, one and the same. This revelation was the manifestation of myriad thoughts that had long been collecting in Songho’s mind. And they weren’t just the eyes of the Creator. They were everything involved in humankind: life and death, good and evil. It is through people, who in form and mind are the image of the Creator, that the Creator carries out the struggle between thesis and antithesis. To achieve love—the synthesis in our earthly life—the Creator carries on the struggle in countless forms and to no end. Sŏngho prayed to God to realize her desire, to allow this trembling young woman to fulfill her desire on behalf of her love.

You don’t know how to be loved or to love—you only know how to love yourself. Was it true? Chunt’ae heard a flapping sound. Two winged creatures were locked in a seesaw struggle. A hawk and a pheasant. Neither had the advantage. The hawk was on top, the pheasant underneath. Hey,getoutofhere!Chunt’aescreamed.

“I should have gone earlier,” Chiyŏn murmured deliriously. The passenger opposite looked askance at her.

Chiyŏn, you’re here. Just in time. You want me to open my eyes? But I can see well enough even when they’re shut. You haven’t changed at all. Let’s leave, you say? Sure, why not. We’ll take Tori, too. I didn’t plan on this little fellow, but he’s with me now. Let’s all of us go.

“It’s too late,” Chiyŏn murmured disconcertingly. Tears pooled in her eyes as she stared into space.

Chiyŏn, don’t cry. You’re not too late. You’re right on time. We’ll never leave each other again—ever. Chunt’ae felt saturated with happiness. At the same time, his breathing grew labored and he erupted in a brief spasm of coughing. His chest was racked with pain that alternately died down and flared up. His raspy breathing became feeble and less frequent. Suddenly he cried out: Let’sgo,now!

Her head dropped, and she covered her face with her hands. Far off in the distance a man drifted away, his feet floating along the ground. 

 

pp. 298 - 303