The Goat Herding Woman

  • onJuly 16, 2015
  • Vol.28 Summer 2015
  • byJon Kyongnin
The Goat Herding Woman
Tr. Sophie Bowman

Though the tap in the kitchen was dripping, there was not a single speck of water on the gleaming sink, and not even a cup left out to dry. It felt like the kitchen of someone who was away on a long trip.

“It sure is quiet in the afternoon. What do you usually do? After you’ve done all the clearing up like this...”

“Not much… I don’t do anything at all. There’s nothing I can do.” Jeongyeon said, and heaved a deep sigh like a wilted vegetable. “Even the baby is sound asleep, so when I’m sitting here alone it’s as if I’m waiting for something. If only someone would show up… right now if someone could just come in and look around and just say, that’s enough now, give it up, and draw a full stop at the end of this repetition.”

My gaze was lowered to below her chin.

“I mean a complete, final finish,” she said.

“But that would be death. If it wasn’t that, what else would come along and say that’s enough now, time to stop.”

“Yeah, you’re right. But even so I wait. I don’t even feel like it would be death that came along. I’m just waiting.”

“There’s no way to be rid of it. All we can do is make the repetition something trivial. We need some other important task to do. We weren’t put in this world just to do nauseating housework two, three times a day, making our eyes grow wide and fraying away our fingers.


“Anyway, you can’t know until you’ve lived together. Because you build each other’s dreams as you go along. I don’t even know myself . . . whether I should call it a dream or a dud. One thing’s for sure, my dream reeks of failure. If I suddenly disappear one day you can just think, ah, that untameable egoist has finally had her dream come true. . . . Jeongyeon, by the way . . .”

Jeongyeon, who had once been an outrageous idealist, stared at me with a questioning look. I blinked a few times and began to speak. I have a habit of blinking to draw out time in awkward situations.

“What would you do if someone asked you to look after their goat for a few days?”

Excitement bubbled up in Jeongyeon’s eyes and her face became animated.

“What are you talking about?”

“You know, a goat. For three months now, some guy has kept calling asking me to look after his goat. He says it’s the soul of his late stepmother, that she came back as a goat.”

Jeongyeon’s eyes grew distant.

“It’s a strange story, huh? But it’s true. They really believe it. They say it came out from behind her tomb on the forty-ninth day after her death. Of course I don’t believe that. It must just be that the baby goat broke away from its herd and passed by the grave while the mourners were bowing down during the rites. The problem is that the widower adamantly believes that the goat is his late second wife reincarnate. He’s convinced that the goat is the vessel of her soul and he treasures it more than his own life. He’s sick and needs to go up to a big hospital in Seoul but he’s refusing to go because there’s no one else to look after the goat.”

Almost dumbfounded, Jeongyeon began to speak, “It’s so befitting, this kind of thing always happens to you. The egoist and the soul-vessel goat... it has a certain ring to it. It was just meant to be. Miso and the goat, sounds good to me.” At the end of her sentence, Jeongyeon broke into a smile.

“Do you think the goat really could be a reincarnation of his step mother?” I asked.

“Well, you never know, but the point is that those people really believe it. Didn’t you say he treasures it more than his own life?”

“There’s no denying that. But I can’t understand why they’re asking me of all people. Then again, he did say my voice sounded familiar. And I get that feeling, too. Like he must be someone I used to know.”

“You never know, he might be a friend’s relative or something.” Jeongyeon’s expression grew serious, and she muttered in a low voice, as if only to herself. “Some random guy pestering you to look after his goat isn’t that strange. If you think about it, living like this is so weird no one would believe it was true . . . In the quiet of the middle of the day if I look out at the other apartments, each separated with a single wall like some battery chicken coop, I’m arrested by the feeling that it’s even more absurd than the most eccentric story. There’s one woman inside each box, they make food for their husbands and do the cleaning, then at night when the man comes home, they let them have sex with them, and when it’s time to do ancestral rites they go off to help their husbands’ relatives . . . then they have one, two children, and the man starts to grumble on about how he can’t even die because he has to provide for his wife and kids. Inside that chicken coop, a woman in her prime is left in limbo for five, ten years at a time looking after her children without any help . . . then one day, she’ll wake up in the middle of the night and find her feet hardened stiff and be eternally unable to get up and walk out.”

Jeongyeon heaved a long sigh.

“The bigger problem that I just can’t stand is that those lined up boxes all shine so brightly. Like the weird brightness of women on display in the show windows of some red light district, posing happiness.”

“Yeah, the lights are really bright.”

We sat side-by-side facing the living room wall nodding our heads for perhaps a little too long. The baby woke up and as Jeongyeon was lifting her up in an embrace the thought suddenly struck me that looking after a goat for a few days wouldn’t actually be so bad. The sacred vessel of a soul and a raging egoist would be a fitting pair after all. 


Translated by Sophie Bowman

Author's Profile

Jon Kyongnin has published eleven novels, in addition to short story collections, essay collections, and fairy tales for adults. Her novel A Special Day in My Life was made into the movie Deep Loves in 2002. Jon has received the Hyundae Literary Award, Yi Sang Literary Award, and the 21st Century Literature Award. The English edition of her book I Drift on Unknown Waters in a Glass Boat was published in 2010.