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FICTION

"My Sister’s Menopause"

  • onNovember 16, 2014
  • Vol.21 Autumn 2013
  • byKim Hoon
The 5th Hwang Sun-won Literary Award Anthology
2005
379pp.

* A short story excerpt from The 5th Hwang Sun-won Literary Award Anthology, JoongAng Ilbo, 2005.

 

On the days she visited my apartment, my older sister would pass the evening seated at the table in front of the balcony window. Around dusk she would grow more chatty. Well, not exactly chatty. She was just barely managing to get her mouth open. I read in a special issue of a women’s magazine that menopausal women get anxious for no reason around dusk. Maybe my sister’s chattiness had something to do with that. The things she talked about in the evenings were mostly gibberish. Like the wind or the dusk's red glow, her words were vague and elusive, as if spoken from far away. Maybe it's not so accurate to say I heard her words; they seemed to just brush by me. I never knew how to respond to her.

She would say,

—Hey, the plane looks just like a fish. Just look at those fins.

appearing massive, like a shark, over the mouth of the river, until it eventually shrank to the size of a carp, receding into the dusk’s thick glow.

—Hey, it looks just like a minnow. Look at the head shimmer. Like it’s got a lamp on its tail? Come look.

Though she called out to me, she was staring out the window with her back towards me. She passed the time at the window while I prepared dinner by the kitchen sink.

—Hey, how can it disappear like that? Like it's melting into the sky?

The mouth of the Han River was widening to an unfathomable breadth, and flocks of birds had gathered in the mudflat laid bare by the evening ebb. Shadows of the mountain ranges receding towards the West Sea seemed to flicker in the darkening dusk. On a cloudless night, the evening glow would fill up the empty sky completely, so that the glow seemed like its own emptiness, a void drawing me in indefinitely. The slowly shrinking planes vanished into that thick glow, and the inbound planes, each a single speck, dripped out of it, emerged towards Gimpo. Just as my sister liked to say, the sky beyond the balcony window did sometimes resemble an aquarium, with various fishes flying in it.

—Hey, are there really people in the plane?

My sister continued to gaze at the sky until dusk had burnt itself out, and across the river, the town of Gimpo became illuminated. I usually brought over wine or heated milk to her table. She would lick daintily around the glass’s lip.

As she got older, my sister became increasingly fussy about what she ate. Even from an early age, she’d found the smoke from cooking meat revolting, and now that she was going through menopause, she refused kimchi stew that had even a single morsel of pork in it. Even when I'd removed the meat before serving her, a sniff of the broth was all it took for her to catch on. She could hardly eat any meat or fish, or anything for that matter now that she had gotten older. In the spring, she would mince wild chives and shepherd's pouch together and mix them over white rice with soy sauce and sesame salt. In the summer, she would dump her rice in water and eat it with individual servings of pickled shrimp or seasoned green laver. Another summer favorite was pickled cucumber slices dipped in hot pepper paste. The side dishes she could enjoy without raising a fuss were dried anchovies broiled in soy sauce with kkwari peppers, white kimchi topped with minced parsley, and pan-fried lotus root.

Before his death two years ago, my sister’s husband had been an executive at a steel manufacturing firm located in the free trade zone in the South Seas. He'd spent his whole life buried in work. As the head of his team, and later, his department, he'd been in charge of export operations for the company's steel products as well as importing raw materials. Once promoted to the post of managing director, he oversaw the labor disputes and personnel management of over ten thousand employees involved in production. My brother-in-law always wore a necktie emblazoned with his company logo, along with the company badge on his jacket lapel. He spent most of his life working in the South Seas; only on the weekends would he visit Seoul. Every time he was back in town, he brought home parsley or sea produce like dried anchovies, sea lettuce, and seaweed. Afterwards my sister would send me white kimchi with parsley and leaf mustard, as well as dried anchovies simmered in soy sauce. Her white kimchi juice was a shade of pale purple. The parsley was soft, tenderized in salt, and its chlorophyll, redolent of soil and sunlight. Living alone, I couldn't finish all the food my sister sent me, so I would have some of it delivered to our uncle's.

My brother-in-law's company always paid for his f lights to Seoul. He was killed in a plane crash two years ago, on his way back to work after spending Chuseok in Seoul. My sister had gotten her driver's license when she was young, but she rarely drove, using the car only to chauffeur her husband to and from the airport. On the night he died, she had driven him to Gimpo Airport and seen him off. The plane, which had taken off from Gimpo, never arrived at its destination, colliding into a hill nearby. The crash happened a mere fifty minutes after take-off. One hundred thirty out of 150 passengers were killed. I helped my incapacitated sister into the car and drove her to the crash site. The rescue workers were loading on to stretchers dismembered limbs and body parts scattered over the mountain and carrying them down. My brother-in-law's body was relatively intact

On the days she visited my apartment, my older sister would pass the evening seated at the table in front of the balcony window. Around dusk she would grow more chatty. Well, not exactly chatty. She was just barely managing to get her mouth open. I read in a special issue of a women’s magazine that menopausal women get anxious for no reason around dusk. Maybe my sister’s chattiness had something to do with that. The things she talked about in the evenings were mostly gibberish. Like the wind or the dusk's red glow, her words were vague and elusive, as if spoken from far away. Maybe it's not so accurate to say I heard her words; they seemed to just brush by me. I never knew how to respond to her.

She would say,

—Hey, the plane looks just like a fish. Just look at those fins.

She 'd be looking out the balcony window over Gangwha Island, at the plane being absorbed into the reddening sky. She continued gazing at the plane, which had taken off from Gimpo Airport, appearing massive, like a shark, over the mouth of the river, until it eventually shrank to the size of a carp, receding into the dusk’s thick glow.

—Hey, it looks just like a minnow. Look at the head shimmer. Like it’s got a lamp on its tail? Come look.

Though she called out to me, she was staring out the window with her back towards me. She passed the time at the window while I prepared dinner by the kitchen sink.

—Hey, how can it disappear like that? Like it's melting into the sky?

The mouth of the Han River was widening to an unfathomable breadth, and flocks of birds had gathered in the mudflat laid bare by the evening ebb. Shadows of the mountain ranges receding towards the West Sea seemed to flicker in the darkening dusk. On a cloudless night, the evening glow would fill up the empty sky completely, so that the glow seemed like its own emptiness, a void drawing me in indefinitely. The slowly shrinking planes vanished into that thick glow, and the inbound planes, each a single speck, dripped out of it, emerged towards Gimpo. Just as my sister liked to say, the sky beyond the balcony window did sometimes resemble an aquarium, with various fishes flying in it.

—Hey, are there really people in the plane?

My sister continued to gaze at the sky until dusk had burnt itself out, and across the river, the town of Gimpo became illuminated. I usually brought over wine or heated milk to her table. She would lick daintily around the glass’s lip.

As she got older, my sister became increasingly fussy about what she ate. Even from an early age, she’d found the smoke from cooking meat revolting, and now that she was going through menopause, she refused kimchi stew that had even a single morsel of pork in it. Even when I'd removed the meat before serving her, a sniff of the broth was all it took for her to catch on. She could hardly eat any meat or fish, or anything for that matter now that she had gotten older. In the spring, she would mince wild chives and shepherd's pouch together and mix them over white rice with soy sauce and sesame salt. In the summer, she would dump her rice in water and eat it with individual servings of pickled shrimp or seasoned green laver. Another summer favorite was pickled cucumber slices dipped in hot pepper paste. The side dishes she could enjoy without raising a fuss were dried anchovies broiled in soy sauce with kkwari peppers, white kimchi topped with minced parsley, and pan-fried lotus root.

Before his death two years ago, my sister’s husband had been an executive at a steel manufacturing firm located in the free trade zone in the South Seas. He'd spent his whole life buried in work. As the head of his team, and later, his department, he'd been in charge of export operations for the company's steel products as well as importing raw materials. Once promoted to the post of managing director, he oversaw the labor disputes and personnel management of over ten thousand employees involved in production. My brother-in-law always wore a necktie emblazoned with his company logo, along with the company badge on his jacket lapel. He spent most of his life working in the South Seas; only on the weekends would he visit Seoul. Every time he was back in town, he brought home parsley or sea produce like dried anchovies, sea lettuce, and seaweed. Afterwards my sister would send me white kimchi with parsley and leaf mustard, as well as dried anchovies simmered in soy sauce. Her white kimchi juice was a shade of pale purple. The parsley was soft, tenderized in salt, and its chlorophyll, redolent of soil and sunlight. Living alone, I couldn't finish all the food my sister sent me, so I would have some of it delivered to our uncle's.

My brother-in-law's company always paid for his f lights to Seoul. He was killed in a plane crash two years ago, on his way back to work after spending Chuseok in Seoul. My sister had gotten her driver's license when she was young, but she rarely drove, using the car only to chauffeur her husband to and from the airport. On the night he died, she had driven him to Gimpo Airport and seen him off. The plane, which had taken off from Gimpo, never arrived at its destination, colliding into a hill nearby. The crash happened a mere fifty minutes after take-off. One hundred thirty out of 150 passengers were killed. I helped my incapacitated sister into the car and drove her to the crash site. The rescue workers were loading on to stretchers dismembered limbs and body parts scattered over the mountain and carrying them down. My brother-in-law's body was relatively intact brightness reaching all the way to the back of the multi-purpose area. There was nothing between the moon and the window, so the room felt like the moon's interior, and the moonlight looked cold against my sister's calico sheet. In that moonlight, various objects in the room like the dressing table, calendar, floor lamp, and TV set appeared far away from one another, and it seemed I would need some unknown kind of ruler to truly measure the distances between them. When the curtains were drawn, the moonlight was so bright that my sister didn't feel uneasy even when the lamp was off. She lay by my side. The moon looked close enough to brush our foreheads, and I could even look into the shadowy blots on its surface.

Around dawn, my sister began menstruating again. I woke up from the sound of her rustling to find that she was trying to clean up, pulling aside the sheets ever so carefully as not to wake me. Her naked thighs and buttocks glowed bluish under the moonlight.

—I’m sorry.

She curled her naked body like a shrimp and exhaled. I gathered the damp sheet and put it in the washer. I stood her up and pushed her into the bathroom. I turned up the boiler, brought a pair of underwear with an overnight pad in place and placed it in the bathroom. Once she had everything under control, she returned to her spot on the mat and lay down.

—Let's close the curtains. I think it happened because of the moon.

I closed the curtains and turned on the small lamp. I took out a quilt and laid it over my sister, while she muttered to herself like she was talking nonsense.

—I woke up and suddenly saw the moon before my eyes. I thought I was in the underworld. Where am I? I asked... I tried calling someone's name, but I couldn't figure out who it was. And I couldn't get any sound out of my mouth. Then my body grew hot like a ball of flames and it all came out gushing.

—Okay, Unni. That’s enough now.

She reached out and stroked my hair.

—Do you feel ill, Unni?

—It feels like my insides have spilled out.

Her flushed face suddenly blanched. She wheezed at the end of every breath.

—Now whenever it happens, it feels like a fireball is shooting through my body. Like a little spark gets bigger as it comes closer until I feel the whole thing bursting out from under. How about you?

Me? Sorrow and darkness that I can’t control or explain seep out like mist from my insides, fattening my body’s capillaries. They ooze from my body, just barely, like drips from a saturated sponge or the foam that forms around the eyes of a crab. When I feel like this, I draw the curtain, even in the middle of the day, and lie alone in the dark room all day long.

I couldn’t explain how my body felt to my sister and I couldn’t make sense of what she meant, when she said it felt like a fireball gushing out of her. When she had fallen asleep, I felt around under the sleeping mat. The floor was warm.

 

Mom,

I found out through Dad’s letter (which arrived yesterday) that you and Dad are living apart with the plan of getting divorced. Since it's been over ten months, I guess you two have been living apart since I left for the United States. Mom, I hate you for not telling me anything about it when I was calling you for the past ten months. I found out your new address from Big Aunt. I broke into tears when I was writing the new address on the envelope.

It was depressing watching you and Dad live together without love, just from force of habit. And I wasn't particularly thrilled that fate had made me the daughter of you two. You should know that I am also a victim here. But I'm wondering what difference it would make now for the two of you to go your separate ways. Do you really think this will fill your lives with happiness? This might sound insolent coming from your young daughter, but it might serve you well to think about the link between what you’re gaining and what you're losing, what you can gain and what you can't.

It’s only been a year since I’ve come here to study abroad and I still have a long way to go before my degree, but I can hardly concentrate on my studies after hearing that you and Dad have separated back in Korea. Dad says that when the divorce becomes official, our assets will be divided 7 : 3 between Dad and you, that I should get seventy percent of my tuition from him and thirty from you. How do you expect me to do well in school when I'm so embarrassed about getting money separately from you two? You know very well, Mom, that I don't have the constitution to study while working a job in the evenings. Mom, please give it another thought and try to find a solution within our current pattern of life. I sent Dad a similar letter. I hoped that my letter can be a small seed that will bring your two lives together again. I love you, Mom.

—Your daughter, Yeon-ju

[···]

—Sorry...

That's how my husband told me that he wanted a divorce. His tone was casual, as if he was saying,

“...Is it already time for another haircut?”

“...These pants are too tight for my bulging stomach.”

“...I'll be away on a business trip starting next week.”

“...Shipping is behind schedule because of the strike. My boss is getting annoyed. It's the business manager who's in charge of labor management disputes, so I don't know why he's on my case so much.”

When my husband returned from a business trip, I would find a strand of woman's hair on his undershirt. It was on his summer and winter undershirt. I could tell from the hair's texture that it had come from the same person. It was long enough to come down to the shoulder. It wasn't dyed and the strand was shiny and plump. It looked well-nourished and full of life to the tip. It was straight in the summer and wavy in the winter. When I removed the strand with my fingernail from the fabric of his winter undershirt, the hair appeared to wiggle on the floor, made elastic by the warmth. An image of a young, healthy woman's naked body sprang to mind. It wasn't a particular woman, a woman with a name. Rather, she was a distant ancestor of the race called 'woman' or a collective woman standing for all unknown, anonymous women of the world. It was as if the woman had leapt out from a fossil into this world, writhing before me as a single strand of hair. The illusion soon went away. In the space where the illusion had been, I felt no anger or sorrow; there was only the desolation in the emptiness left by all the years that had snuck away from me. I picked up the two strands by stamping them with a strip of Scotch tape. A shiver went down the nape of my neck when I tossed the tape in the trash.

While my husband was busy bringing home long and lustrous strands of hair on his undershirt, while that hair was switching its style from straight to wavy, I was making visits to my husband's hometown during his family's hyangsa, the memorial rites for his grandfather and his father, the wedding ceremonies of his cousins and cousin-in-laws, as well as during Chuseok and New Years, for which I dressed up in a hanbok. He'd grown up in a small town in Gyeongsang Province, on the inland side of the mountains. My brother-in-law, who was the eldest son, was taking care of his mother, who had been widowed early, and had been taking care of the ancestral rites going back three generations. He had carved up the inherited farmland and woodland, preserving the dignity of an elder by selling them off. He knew all about the family's sons-in-law, the nephews, the grandchildren various degrees removed from him like the back of his hand—for example, about who among them had become a government secretary, commissioner, a director, or an executive director of a company. I remember my brother-in-law telling me one year during one of the ancestral rites, how the second son among the three boys of a female cousin, eight degrees removed, who had married the county's new magistrate (who, by the way, happened to be his high school alum), ended up going to the same high school with my brother-in-law's oldest son.

Every time he went to his hometown, my husband borrowed the black company car with an eight-cylinder engine, reserved specially for VIP clients. He would call out an employee of the company to act as chauffeur, and I would sit quietly in the backseat by my husband's side and make the trip to his hometown.

—You look better in a hanbok now that you're getting older. Maybe you're just too pretty to bear a son...

The year before last, during the annual ancestral rite for my husband's grandfather, this was what my mother-in-law had said to me, taking hold of my hand as I entered the front yard of my in-law's house. I threaded a wrinkled tie around the waist of my skirt, cinched it tight and began roasting some fish patties, hot pepper patties, and liver patties in perilla oil. In the main hall, the male in-laws sat in a circle, telling stories and laughing in an exaggerated manner about the past antics of their nephews, who were now grown up and successful, or arguing about the county’s policy for irrigation system improvement. The flour batter must have been too coarse, because every time I placed a patty on the frying pan, oil spurted everywhere. I turned my head to avoid it.

—Why don't you stir the batter more. First turn down the flame a little...

My mother-in-law told me, sitting on the stoop from the next room.

The family had an ongoing tradition of wrapping up assorted dishes from the offering table for the elders returning home, as a parting gift. The elders receiving the parting gift would give the head family's daughters-in-law envelopes of about fifty to hundred thousand won, to help out with the cost of holding the ancestral rites, and also to give thanks to the effort and behind-the-scenes labor by the women. This is why, at the in-law's house, more food had to be prepared than what would actually fit on the offering table.

On that day, I was in the front yard of the in-law's house until the day grew dark, frying up patties in perilla oil. The patties piled up high enough to fill two bamboo baskets. If an older in-law came in while I was by the butane cooking stove, I would stand up to greet them properly. One of them—whose degree of kinship to me I couldn't recall—greeted me.

—How's it that you never seem to age at all? Would it kill you to look a little older?

Another distant relative came in to greet me, helped up by a young man.

—So you're Yun-shik's wife? I heard Yun-shik's a managing director of a chaebol. They're right to call you pretty. You've fried up a good amount here, haven't you? We were blessed with a lot of sun this year, so the oil's got a ton of flavor.

The flame must have been too strong when the perilla seeds had been roasted, because the oil gave off a burnt odor. The oil became so sticky that when I dunked a piece of raw fish in the flour batter and put it on the pan, the edges of the patty would start burning, creating smoke before the middle could be properly cooked. In the steam rising from the oil, I could smell rice straws drying in the sun. In the smoke I could smell what seemed like particles of sunlight being fried up. The smell of oil permeated my hair and body, but I couldn't grasp the nature of that smell—what it was exactly or how I was supposed to react to it. It would draw out a few words only to block me from speaking them when I'd just barely opened my mouth. Surrounded by this smell, I was reminded of a spring day when I was carrying Yeon-ju, how, after having lost my appetite from morning sickness, I'd had the sudden urge to feast on the dirt dry and swollen under the hot sun. I saw a vision of the naked woman who had appeared in my head when I watched a strand of hair on my husband's undershirt, how it had turned on the warm floor, the vision of the woman, who had resembled some distant ancestor of womankind, or a woman trapped in fossil. These visions appeared in the smell of perilla oil and disappeared shortly after. When I looked into the oil sizzling on the frying pan, I became nervous that time would pass, get erased or spill out before I could even say anything, so that my groin tingled and tightened as though I was about to wet myself. Was it a kind of premonition? If it wasn't, I didn't know if there was a word for it when you realized something after it was already too late. My mother-in-law used her crutches to come down into the front yard and said,

—Why don't you tie your hair. Or your hair's gonna smell like oil.

—It's okay, Mother. I'm going to have to wash it anyway.

—Just tie it back like I tell you. Your hair's going to be a mess if you don't.

I gathered the strands falling over my face and tied them back with a rubber band.

My mother-in-law had been suffering from arthritis and osteoporosis for a long time. In the final years of her life, she was diagnosed with bronchitis and glaucoma. She passed away in her sleep in the middle of the night. There would be no difference in her mind, between sleep and death. My in-laws seemed to accept the old woman's death peacefully, as if she had chosen to pass into the next world on a balmy spring day when the ground had completely thawed, as if her death had been a sleep within sleep. Her shrouded corpse, tied tightly in hemp fabric, was no larger than a child. When her body was brought into the coffin, there was so much empty space that the mortician had to fill it up by placing scrolls of mulberry paper around the head and feet.

After the corpse of my mother-in-law was bathed and dressed, I kept weeping as I watched them put floral-printed paper shoes on her feet, considering the lightness of that death and recalling the odor of perilla oil from when we'd held the ancestral rites for my late grandfather-in-law. The relatives, who had come together for my mother-in-law's funeral commended me, remarking that I had mourned more genuinely than her own daughters. On the harvest moon festival before she passed, as though aware of her imminent end, she gave my eldest sister-in-law and me each a jade hairpin, and even my daughter Yeon-ju a set of rings. My mother-in-law used to attend Buddhist service at the temple in the town across the river, provoking the disapproval of her in-laws. When I married my husband, who was her second son, she visited the Nahan shrine and the small temple for the mountain god every day for three days to make offerings. After her death, her daughters tried to give her a Buddhist funeral, which entails seven ceremonies over seven weeks, but the family elders would not allow it.

A month after the funeral, Yeon-ju left for the United States. The night after her departure my husband said, “I'm sorry....” and brought up the subject of divorce. His timing seemed appropriate. It had been my husband's opinion that we would lessen the pain felt by our family by separating only after both his parents had passed on and while our child was away. Since I couldn't tell him myself why we had to stay together, I couldn't ask him why we had to separate. The word “why” felt so impotent that I hesitated to let it out. Separating, having your life just flow away, felt like clouds turning to rain, that rainy day darkening into dusk, and night rain falling. “I'm sorry...” Those three syllables my husband had used to bring up the subject of divorce seemed like a suitable opening. I wanted to tell him too that I understood, that I was sorry, but I couldn't form the words. I never brought up the long lustrous strand of hair stuck on my husband's undershirt; it was probably wise to leave things that way, for the sake of decorum. Divorce proceedings would not be brought to court, and would be settled by mutual agreement. Separation was to begin immediately until everything was settled. He and I would take care of the remainder of Yeon-ju's academic career and her wedding together, maintaining the proper dignity of parents. Until the divorce was finalized, I was not to let my husband's company or my in-laws suspect our separation. During the period of separation, I would receive a stipend of two million won per month from my husband, and the division of assets would be negotiated later but always under the guiding principle of mutual agreement. These were my husband's requests and I agreed to them all.

My older sister found me my new place. It was in one of the apartment complexes along the mouth of the Han River. My sister lived across the river in an apartment in Gimpo. We faced each other with the river between us, and my new place was easily accessible by taxi or bus for my sister, who didn't drive. Luckily, one of the thirteen pyeong units was still available for sale; though there was no premium, it still cost hundred twenty million won. I secured seventy million won by closing out my installment savings account and my sister helped me out with the remaining fifty million won. After my brother-in-law's death, she'd received reparations from the airline company; a retirement grant from the company where he'd worked tirelessly for thirty years; compensation payment recognizing his death in the line of duty; from my brother-in-law's life insurance; and condolence money from visitors at the funeral, all of which added up to over twenty billion won. My sister gave the bulk of the money away to her two fully-grown sons who were married and the men in her husband's family. It might be more accurate to say that the money was snatched away from her. She'd never been good at confronting people, and she was incapable of squabbling over money. Her sons demanded their share as their right, and her husband's parents took the money, driving out their newly widowed daughter-in-law like a stranger. I learned later that during the funeral, members of her husband's family had come by to take all the envelopes enclosed with condolatory money, while her sons had been occupied with the duties of chief mourners, receiving guests who had come to pay their respects.

During the descent from the mountain after samujae was over, my sister’s two sons grabbed their cousins and grappled with them, demanding half of the condolatory money, but my sister wouldn't even glance at them. She was at the tail end of the group on the way down, and I was holding a parasol over her head. Once a fight broke out at the front, she turned around and gazed blankly at her husband’s naked grave, not yet covered in grass. She never wore any color makeup except foundation. The exposed age lines on her face were almost frightening. Her countenance as she looked upon her husband's grave looked so vulnerable, she seemed hardly able to endure the gaze of those around her. Then, as I removed stray pollen from the hem of her funeral garb, I became nervous that she might get her period again. Even distant relatives joined in and the spat only escalated. I took the roundabout path and helped my sister down the mountain.

The fifty million won my sister put into my new apartment came from what remained of the money after most of it had been snatched away. When I moved in, the mini-fridge and air conditioner, the dining table set and dresser suitable for the cramped apartment cost six million won altogether, which was also taken care of by my sister. She had visited the store and paid in full, so that the new furnishings could be delivered on the day I moved in. She picked out linen curtains trimmed with vine lace and hung them on the balcony window. She also brought two bottles of soy sauce for broiling dried anchovies with kkwari peppers. The apron she brought over on the day of the move-in was made of soft cotton that flowed gently over her body. It had no pockets in the front and the neckline was cut low and round so that it looked more like a nightgown or a slip than an apron for doing dishes.

Unni, are you sure this is an apron?

—Why? You don't like it?

—It looks just like a slip.

—Then feel free to wear it like one.

My sister had been on all fours wiping the floor with a rag when she looked up to see me standing in that apron by the sink and laughed. The sound of her laughter just barely scratched the surface of real laughter before subsiding. The laughter trailed off in such a lonesome way that my arms went weak even as I roasted the peppers.

By evening, when we had finished organizing my things, my sister and I sat facing each other at the table in front of the balcony, with a glass of wine set before us.

—Are we on the eighth floor? And this is fifteen pyeong, right?

—No, it's the ninth floor, Unni. And thirteen pyeong.

—The river's so wide that the apartment feels like it's about three hundred pyeong.

She swirled the glass gently in a circle. Smelling the aroma, she licked the thick liquid from the rim of the glass.

—It tastes a little jumpy. Try some.

I took my glass, wet my lips and sucked the roof of my mouth. The aroma of wine spread. Sour and uneven, the wine was young and needed aging.

—Doesn't it squeak in your mouth? It's too skinny. Thin and flat. Kind of slippery at the end too.

That's when I first felt my sister growing too chatty around evening time. Her words weren't meant for anyone. They were understandable and valid only to herself. So it was as though she wasn't speaking at all. I couldn't figure out a way to join the conversation.

The river made a huge turn around the edge of its mouth, veering westward. Though the ocean wasn't visible, the strength of the sea was felt in such a way that when it pushed, the water would flow back to the city and down towards the sea during low tide. During high tide, when the flow was reversed, there would be a collision between the river trying to flow downstream and the sea trying to push upstream, stirring up the river with white foam. In the evening, during low tide, we would hear the water from the river bottom getting sucked out all at once. Once the water had all drained, the wet shore on both sides of the river would be exposed, the river would become tranquil and just the bare bones of the winding river would remain. From a distance, where the river's curve wasn't visible, the tide would start coming in again, little by little.

Around evening, when the tide was at its lowest, the river would expand to its maximum width. The mountains on the other side would grow more distant as the sunset seeped through the hazy hours. Far away by the river's curve, the sunset would be darkening and the plane coming into Gimpo would emerge from the glow. Whether the planes were leaving—turning into dots and vanishing into the glow—or coming—emerging as dots on their way to Gimpo—each plane resembled an embryo, or some organic trace prior to conception, so that they looked identical.

—See, they all look like fish. Look at those fins. They even have fins on their tails. How can they disappear like that? Like the sky's absorbing them. Are there really people in there?

Yes, my sister was definitely becoming talkative around evening.

 

I wonder if I ever did send him home with my angora fur on his undershirt. When his wife removed the strands of fur, did they squirm on the heated floor of his house?

Simply calling the man “him” makes me feel like I'm referring to nothing and nobody, no more substantial than the distant memory of my morning sickness. Calling the man “him” makes it sound like he's just anyone, like it makes no difference whether he's this man or that man. But it's too soon to address him informally and it doesn't match the man in flesh, who is living and breathing before me. So I will stick with “him.” Something tells me that would be more honest. I guess it can't be helped.

But when I think I've settled on “him,” I am angered by how that sounds, like what’s happened between us is completely insignificant, as if he’s some alien thing that has nothing to do with me. I can’t take it anymore, so I have no choice. I decide to refer to him as “lover.” Now that I've made my decision, I can feel my anger subsiding. It can't be helped, because it can't be helped.

I met my lover the day after I moved into my new apartment. He showed up when I was dealing with the aftermath of Yeon-ju leaving for the United States and my separation from my husband. He appeared in my life and came towards me but I'm not sure how close I feel to him.

A few days before I moved, Yeon-ju finalized her decision on which college she would attend. She said she needed an affidavit of support to register. She asked me to send via express mail her father's certificate of employment in English and the income tax receipts for the past two years. Yeon-ju's voice reached me across the ocean by phone. It was filled with excitement over her new school and the seduction of the strange and magical future it represented.

—Mom, this is an Ivy League school, a prestigious university in the Northeast. All of the buildings are made of old-fashioned marble, and the Western kids are so cool. You should come visit next year.

—Honey, I know all about the Ivy League. And didn't a professor from your school win the Nobel Prize in chemistry? Or was it medicine? The one who did his research on the essence of smell?

According to the newspaper article I read once, the professor had concluded that smell is something imprinted inside the subconscious that could bring out distant memories.

—It's called medical chemistry, Mom. His major's the same as mine. They say I can take classes from him if I go to graduate school.

—You're majoring in smell too? It sounds like a difficult subject.

—No. Smell's way too hard, Mom, but I don't have to decide yet.

—You're right. You should take your time deciding. By the way, aren't the desks and the chairs at the school too high for you? Can you reach the apartment sink okay? Since you're a little short?

—Mom, are you serious? Like that's even an issue? Can you hurry with the documents? They have to be originals, they don't accept faxes. You can send it through express mail.

—Alright. Does the income tax receipt have to be in English?

—We just need accurate numbers, payment dates, the official seal of the tax office superintendent. Dad's been paying so much in taxes, so there shouldn't be a problem getting the papers through. How's Dad doing?

—Fine. We're all fine here. Your dad's going to be happy to hear about you starting school. Your uncle and the other adults out in the country will be happy too. They'll want to fry up some food and have a party again. As for the documents, I will send them.

My husband's office would have to provide me with a copy of the proof of employment. And I would have to get the receipt for the income tax payments from the company and go to the government tax office for the notary stamp. I hadn't been able to decide, when I called the office, whether I should ask my husband or ask one of his staff members. His secretary answered the phone. She was an astute, quick-witted woman, and she recalled my voice from having run errands between my husband and me for a long time.

—Oh, Mrs. Han? Everyone missed you at the company-wide directors' wives party. I've been holding on to your present from the chairman’s wife.

I waited for the secretary to say something like “I’ll put the director on the line” or “the director is out of the office.”

—I heard that your daughter has gone to study abroad. You should just pretend she got married. You must be feeling lonesome since the director is abroad on a business trip as well. A fax came yesterday, saying that the director might be returning a few days later.

My husband was abroad on a business trip. Luckily, I hadn't asked her to put him on the phone. My husband had requested that I don’t let the staff at the office catch on that we had separated. The request suited me fine too. I had to use some cunning.

—Since my husband's out of town, I’m afraid I’m going to have to bother you…

I prefaced my request with this casual excuse and asked the secretary for the documents.

—I’ll have them ready by tomorrow. There’s also the gift from the chairman’s wife, so I’ll have the driver deliver the documents with the present to your house.

By house, she meant my husband’s house where I used to live.

—It’s okay. I have to go into town tomorrow anyway, so I’ll come by the office and pick them up.

I managed to avert that crisis.

—Oh, really? The documents are to be prepared by the personnel department, so call Mr. Kim when you come into town. I’ll let him know what you need. You do know Mr. Kim, right?

—Yes, I might have met him once quite a long time ago...

—It’s Mr. Kim Sun-kil. He’s the head of the personnel department.

Kim Sun-kil. That's the name of my lover. It started like this, when the separation was almost complete. That day, we were swarmed by Chinese yellow dust. Below the balcony, the far end of the river seemed to unravel into the hazy sky and the mountains flickered amidst all that dust. The space was thick yet empty, empty yet thick. I stood before a mirror wearing my white scarf and gray trench coat, and I looked like a middle-aged monk. I replaced the white scarf with a purple one and drove to the front of my husband's company. My lover was already there, sitting in a dimly lit café by the window. He was very thin and his limbs, neck, and fingers were so long that he reminded me of those birds that stand on one leg. His gaze seemed to be turned inward. He gave off a feeling of being on the brink of extinction. I had read in a book once that birds that straggle from the flock during winter migration can't return to Siberia even when spring arrives; they spend the rest of their lives settled among unfamiliar species.

He placed the documents I'd requested on the table. The fingers pushing the files across were marked by dark spots. I opened the documents to take a look. The official seal of the tax office superintendent was already stamped on the income tax receipt.

—I can’t believe your daughter's grown up so fast. I held her at her first birthday party but you don't seem to remember.

At the time of Yeon-ju's first birthday, we were living in a rented house in Jangwi-dong. My husband's young colleagues had come to our house for some drinks, but I couldn't remember his face from twenty five years ago. A vague and feeble smile played about his lips and he spoke again.

—I joined the company in the same year as Director Han. We were the first group to be publicly employed. Though I work under Director Han...

—I see.

—It happened like that... …by itself.

I wondered what smell would draw him to me from twenty five years ago. I couldn't remember him from twenty five years ago, but I did remember him from two years ago. He had run up to my husband with some documents when I accompanied him to his promotion ceremony, when he was being named director. My husband who'd been sitting on the hall platform screwed up his face and said, “There will be time for this later,” and returned the documents without even taking a look. I had appeared before him as his boss's wife.

—If you write me your daughter’s address in the U.S., I can send the documents along with the company documents by messenger service to our New York branch. That's part of my job as the head of personnel.

—No, you don’t need to. I’ve got other things I need to enclose.

Barely managing to keep his awkward, piteous face under control, my lover tried tending to the needs of his boss's wife. It was written all over his face: why he'd fallen behind while my husband, who had entered the company in the same recruitment cycle, was promoted to director. My lover said,

—Your daughter must be very bright and able, if she takes after her father.

His voice sounded feeble, as if he hardly believed that his small talk had been well-intentioned. The faint smile at the end of his words again called to mind fear from being on the brink of extinction. I offered him a sharp reply, as if I was cross.

—No, actually she takes after me in being timid and narrow-minded. She's always falling behind her peers.

My lover's face crumbled, as if on the verge of tears. What's wrong with me, I thought. My heart was sore from a guilty conscience.

—This is from the secretary, he said and set two shopping bags on the table. There I found a Gucci handbag from the company chairman’s wife, two complimentary tickets for a Russian ballet performance addressed to my husband’s office, and ten department store gift certificates. In another shopping bag was Ulleong Island beef ribs sent by the head of a subcontracting company. Since I was no longer the wife of Mr. Han Yun-shik, the Executive Director of Haeyang Group, I knew none of these things belonged to me, but I couldn't return them either. I became very embarrassed. My lover said, addressing my embarrassment,

—Ma'am, if it's too much trouble to carry all this home, I could send them by the company driver.

—No, I brought my car.

A waitress brought a kettle of green tea. My lover poured the tea into my teacup. His fingers were long and thin. Holding the knob of the kettle in his right hand with his left hand supporting its base, he poured the tea slowly, little by little, along the teacup's rim. Reminiscent of an ancient priest from a forgotten era presiding over a religious ritual, his act of pouring the tea had a focused tranquility. It was the tranquility of a person who had quietly accepted time's winds and waves as they blew and crashed against him through his life. Old staff members would all be dismissed during company restructuring, and it suddenly occurred to me that since he was still just director after entering the company at the same time as my husband, his days at the company had to be numbered. Maybe it was the tranquility of his hands that made me think that. I was about to ask him if his wife was employed and how many kids they had, but then changed my mind. I thought I’d seen the wife at a company family picnic or sporting day or a commendation ceremony for long-term service, but her face didn't come to mind. I drank the green tea my lover had poured me. A faintly fishy odor passed through my body. The odor wandered inside me, reaching far and low. I felt him appear before me like a spot in the evening glow, seeping out from it like a plane making an evening flight. Before he could come any closer, I stood up. I gave a nod of recognition towards his disarmed gaze.

—Thank you for the documents.

—If you ever need assistance when Mr. Han's not here, please don't hesitate to call. I take special care to serve him properly, since we were in the same recruitment cycle.

He didn’t seem to be saying these things purely out of etiquette. Yet he seemed to be having a hard time getting these words out. He carried the two shopping bags up to my car. When I started the car and began moving, he bowed his head to his superior's wife. Seeing his long torso bend, the image of a bird came to me, standing on one leg, licking under its wing with its lowered beak.

The yellow dust in the air was growing thicker as I drove along the riverside highway. The rear lights of the cars floated like fireflies in a fog of yellow dust. The traffic station reported that airplanes had been suspended from taking off or landing and that wireless phone communication was experiencing technical problems. The flow of traffic was slow, practically bumper-to-bumper, the cars lined up like a procession of the blind.

Words floated up in my heart, targetless and seething, “Long-legged bird. Don’t come this way and fly back to Siberia. Don’t stand there up on one leg. That’s not where you’re meant to be…”

Siberia or Alaska, whichever it was, the place wasn’t important. Wherever it was, whether the place existed or not, it made me sad and uneasy that my lover had to stand on one leg before returning to that unknown place. My sadness hadn’t been fated. It had come into being out of the blue, and there was nothing anyone could do about it. On the riverside highway hazy from the yellow dust, I felt the sadness gather around my ankles; the anxiousness made me press down on the accelerator.

That’s how it began. It came out of the chasm I was in when my husband and I were separating, and we were sending our daughter away. It wasn't destiny, or even a coincidence. It just couldn't be helped. Even when my lover's body filled me up inside, swelling, lost, disengaged, I always felt that he was a bird on one leg.

 

[··· ]

 

The last bus for Gyeongju was available. It’s where my sister’s eldest son was living. My sister had come down to visit because he was having the first birthday party for his firstborn, and I had arranged to meet her there. The eldest son of my sister was technically my nephew, but his personality made it hard for me to comfortably call him that. He’d graduated from college and was unemployed. He drove imported cars and burned through money, but my sister couldn’t get him to change his ways. After my brother-in-law’s death from the plane crash, his company, as a gesture of honoring the company’s founding member and employee who had died on duty, passed on the right to run the company refectory to my nephew who is the eldest son. He ended up settling in Gyeongju, which wasn’t far from Pohang, where the factory was located. My nephew who had no experience in operating dining halls, hired a manager, leaving him in charge of operations, and simply collected the profit. The dining hall for five thousand factory workers must have brought in a sizable amount of earnings. The nephew claimed to be fascinated by Gyeongju's historical relics and Buddhist cultural treasures, and roamed around with his camera in his Landrover. He even had a darkroom set up in his house. When he was on leave in the middle of his military duties, he said he'd dropped his rifle in the river and had to pay the army back and took five million won from my sister. Scared that he might be punished for losing the gun, my sister obediently handed over the money. Later, I heard from a schoolmate's son that soldiers who lose their military supplies are punished by being sent to military prison, but there are no rules in the books about repayment. Most of the compensation money and retirement pension given to my sister after my brother-in-law's death was taken by my nephew. He fought with the in-laws and managed to get back half of the condolence money that they had taken for themselves. I heard that he called his mother on the day he got the money back and said, “That's why women can't be trusted to take care of family business.”

—This would probably look better on a taller person. You should take it.

My sister gave her Gucci handbag as a present to her young daughter-in-law at the first year birthday party held at the nephew's house. It was the bag that my lover had delivered to me, telling me it was a gift from the wife of the company president. I had somehow felt the bag wasn’t meant for me, so I had given it to my sister, telling her it had been a present from a friend who came back from travels overseas. It was an enamel-coated handbag for summer use.

—It’s Jackie O's style!

My sister’s young daughter-in-law hung the bag over her shoulder and looked at herself in the mirror from various angles. The contours were round and the straps were long—a style Jacqueline Kennedy had made famous during her First Lady years, when she wore it to social gatherings. Seeing the nephew’s wife stand before the mirror, I felt that the Gucci handbag had finally found a home.

The baby was a boy. He'd developed pretty fast, so he was already tottering along, a few steps at a time, and a stream of babbling flowed from his mouth. At the dining room table, my sister and I listened to the nephew go on about the significance of Hwangryong Temple and its establishment, Seokgat Pagoda's proportional and symmetrical grace, the beauty of the embossed carving of Apsara on Emile Bell, and the place Kamun Temple's Three Storied Stone Pagoda holds in the history of Korean stone pagodas. Everywhere on the walls of the kitchen and the living room, photographs the nephew had taken of Gyeongju's cultural relics were hanging on panels.

Then at the dinner table, the baby began choking on a scallop he’d picked up and put in his mouth. The suffocating child flailed about on the floor, his face growing flushed, unable to even cry because of the choking. Not knowing what to do, the young mother went on shrieking. The nephew picked up the phone to dial the emergency number. My sister took the child in her arms and spread the child's mouth open and stuck her finger inside. The baby couldn’t throw up the morsel and the child’s limbs writhed. My sister held him upside down, gathering his feet in one hand, and struck his back with her palm. I wondered about all the agility and strength that had been stored away inside her all this time. She struck the baby's back again, and he threw up the morsel with some half-digested breast milk, staining my sister's skirt. The baby burst out crying. The nephew called the emergency number again to cancel the ambulance request. The boy let out a long, robust cry. My sister hugged the baby and cooed into his ear and looked into the mouth of the crying baby. Three front teeth had sprouted like grains of hulled millet, penetrating the pink membranous gums. The teeth were white and small. My sister put her fingers into the baby's mouth and pressed down firmly on the teeth, and as if captivated by them all over again, looked inside the mouth.

—Hey, look at these teeth. Don't they look like grains of rice?

She had a faraway look in her eyes as she gazed into the baby’s mouth, as if quietly contemplating something. She seemed to be on the verge of smiling, but then her expression turned into one of inexpressible sorrow. It was the saddest expression I’d ever seen my sister make.

—See how they’ve come up? Like little shoots of grass?

Before going back up to Seoul, I took my sister to the mountain south of Gyeongju. Because of the wind and the chilly air when we started climbing the mountain trail around Samleong, we were unable to climb all way to the top and had to turn back midway. The information post standing at Samleong said it was the site of royal tombs, where three emperors with the last name of Park, the eighth king Adala of Silla, the fifty-third king Sindeok, and the fifty-fourth king Gyeong-myeong were buried. Seven hundred years had come and gone between the eighth and the fifty-fourth king, but the tombs all looked exactly the same, not to mention the autumn light falling over them. The area around the royal tombs was shaded and cool from the pine trees curving up into the sky, and light soaked through the space between the pine branches. I said to her,

—These are the famous pine trees of Gyeongju.

The older sister gazed at the autumn light falling between pine trees with the same faraway look in her eyes I'd seen before. I had my sister stand between two trees on the light-soaked grass and took a photograph. In the view finder, the autumn light seemed to simmer over my sister's head and shoulders—the same autumn light that had soaked through the pine branches back in the days of the eighth King Adala of Silla.

Unni. Try smiling a little.

My sister appeared to force a smile. I clicked on the shutter before the trace of mirth could fleet from her face. After about fifteen minutes of hiking up the mountain trail, we began seeing images of Buddha, lacquered in light, in every clearing we came upon. The Buddhas were engravings in sheets of rock, so they looked more like pictures than statues. The hem of Buddha's robe and the corners of his smiles didn't look like engravings; they looked more like they had emerged naturally from inside of the rock, as if leaked through tiny pores in the surface. The autumn sun came down concentrated around these lines on the rock, and light seemed to be burrowing into it. As though muttering to herself, my sister spoke, standing in front of the Buddha who held his open palm facing out at the world below the mountain.

—Look at that face. Look at that palm. Doesn't it look like the lines are just oozing out of the rock?

At that moment, I was afraid that my sister might start hemorrhaging again, but nothing like that happened.

In the souvenir shop at the entrance to the hiking trail, my sister bought a small guidebook. It had been put together by a museum in Gyeongju to provide background information on the city's historical sites. It introduced palaces and Buddhist temples, as well as old tales about the land that made for good stories. My sister, who had been flipping through the book, thrust it towards me, saying,

—Look at this. It tells you about the world that exists underground, according to what Buddhists say.

I looked at the page before me.

 

When the Buddhist monk Wonhyo was still alive, a cripple by the name of Sabok lived in a poor mountain village in the outskirts of Gyeongju. When his mother passed away, he called upon Wonhyo to hold a funeral service, and said to him, “The old cow in our house that had been carrying the Buddhist scripture on her back has passed on.” Bearing the funeral bier on their shoulders, the two men climbed up the mountain. When Sabok pulled a blade of grass by the roots, a pure and peaceful world opened up below. Sabok went into the opening, bearing the funeral bier on his shoulder, and performed the funeral rites.

 

The book included a story like this. When I read the words “The old cow in our house that had been carrying the Buddhist scripture on her back,” I burst out laughing. The thought of a cow with a Buddhist scripture on its back was just too much.

It suddenly occurred to me to ask,

—You know the Chinese characters for menstruation—wol-gyeong—why is it that we use the gyeong that means Buddhist scripture?

She answered:

—What kind of question is that?

The sun was setting at the base of the mountain and a plane that had taken off around Pohang was being immersed in the evening glow. My sister looked off for a long time where the plane appeared to be melting into the sky.

—Let's go down. I'm getting cold.

—Do you want my scarf?

—It's okay. Do you wear that cashmere sweater I got you?

—I do. I'm actually wearing it under this right now.

We came down the mountain and went to the Gyeongju train station. While waiting for the express train back to Seoul, I got a call from Yeon-ju on my cell phone. She sounded giddy about something.

—Mom, I got a call from Seoul. It was my high school teacher. He said they have my name hanging on a banner over the school entrance because I got into an Ivy League university. It has your name and Dad's name written on it. You should go there and check it out. You have to take pictures.

—I'll make sure to go see it. I'll take some pictures.

I thought about how far the river had flowed from the base of my apartment. I thought about the pitch black darkness before you open the door and flick on the lights. Before getting on the train, I stopped by a pharmacy and got some pads for my sister and put them in mypurse. I snuck into the restroom without my sister's knowing andgave my lover a call.

—I'm in Gyeongju right now. It will be midnight by the time I get back to Seoul. Can you still come?

He answered briskly, as though he had been waiting for me to ask.

—I'll be there.

The day began to darken when we passed Daegu. In the fields where night was falling, lights from the lamps streamed past us, and when the train crossed over a river, Through the car window, I saw the figure of a tall bird standing on one foot by the water's edge. Next to me, my sister was fast asleep. 

 

 

* Translated by Jaewon E. Chung.

Author's Profile

Kim Hoon is the author of eight novels, one short story collection, and an extensive range of non-fiction. He received the Dongin Literary Award in 2001 for his breakthrough historical novel Song of the Sword, which was followed by many other honors, including the Daesan Literary Award. His books have been translated into Chinese, French, German, Japanese, and Spanish.