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FICTION

The Sound of Thunder

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.13 Autumn 2011
  • byKim Joo-Young
The Sound of Thunder
1990

The sun was nearly down when at last she arrived back in Hamyang. After the journey, Kil-nyo was skin and bones and her clothes were little better than rags. She pushed open the gate and walked in to find the whole house a wreck. Murderous looking men wearing red armbands were busily ransacking the house.

What little furniture there had been in the main room had been thrown into the yard along with all the kitchenware. As the men rushed about they kicked things out of their way. Kil-nyo’s mother, the baby held tight in her arms, was sitting there vacantly watching the house being turned inside out.

Among the men running amok, Kil-nyo spotted one who looked familiar. It was the short man who had come when her father was arrested and taken away. She recognized him first, but he was the one who first spoke to her. A cigar was in his mouth as he emerged from the outbuilding where her father had been staying. There was nothing out of the ordinary about the man’s behavior. As soon as he saw Kil-nyo come into the yard, he rushed over to her and, pulling the cigar out of his mouth, said, “You’re the daughter of this family, aren’t you?”

Pointedly, as if to preempt her fabricating an alibi, he went on immediately.

“You are Shin Kil-nyo, correct?”

Through the wide-open door Kil-nyo could see her seated mother’s hand patting the baby’s back. The sight made her feel calmer.

“I am the daughter.”

“Where have you been? Where did you hide Cha Pyong-jo?”

Inside, her mother was shaking her head back and forth.

“Hide who? I have no idea what you’re talking about.”

“Cha Pyong-jo. You know that reactionary, don’t you?”

As Kil-nyo moved over to the edge of the wooden floor and sat down, the man summoned the others from inside to come out into the front yard. After sending them outside the gate, he continued, “Cha Pyong-jo is your husband, isn’t he?”

“….”

“Isn’t he?”

“Yes.”

“Where is he?”

“I’ve been gone for eight days to get some food and just got back.”

“You’re lying.”

“I swear on my ancestors’ name.”

“Swear on their name? You think that’ll save you? I’ll kill you.”

“….”

“Listen, comrade, if you mean to lie, you’d better do a better job than that. You say you’ve been gone for eight days in search of food. So how is it you’re coming back here empty-handed?”

“I failed.”

“You didn’t just walk out of here on a whim, did you? You had a plan. And here you are, eight days later, with nothing but empty hands. Where did you hide that bastard?”

“I never hid anybody.”

“Very well. Show me some proof, then. You’ve got to have some evidence that you actually went out to get food.”

Proof. Who could have had more proof than she? But when pressed, Kil-nyo couldn’t come up with a single piece of evidence to satisfy him. Like a crow pecking away at a hatchling in its own nest, she had swallowed every bit of proof there ever was.

If she had not, all those ragged bits and pieces of half a lifetime would have hounded her ‘til the end. In a way, her whole life up to that point had been an endless series of struggles to bury the signs and clues of her past: to forget. There was not a single trace of her past about which she could feel proud.

And yet, the monumental efforts she had made were all melting into air. To conceal the fact of her coupling with Cha, she had abandoned a newborn baby—but Hwang Chom-gae was still around to testify to that. And the second baby, a child still unnamed, was living evidence of her tie to Chi Sang-mo. And starker than any such physical evidence was the fact of her wretched fate itself, now had become an incurable disease of some kind, penetrating to her very marrow.

Compared to these traces of her shameful past, what the short man wanted from her was a mere trifle. Still, as the man said, it was a trifle that would determine whether her entire family lived or died.

What would her mother expect her to do, Kil-nyo wondered. Would she want her to produce something to prove she had hidden Cha away? Or would she accept the evidence that her daughter had gone off to see yet another man? In the end, however, the one actually in control of this desperate predicament was not Kil-nyo but the short man.

She fumbled through the folds of her skirt, took out the silver ring and laid it down on the edge of the floor. The man looked down at it.

“What’s this?”

“A silver ring, what else?”

“You know what I mean.”

Kil-nyo knew.

“The family I went to see gave this to me. Times are sobad they were more willing to part with this than to give      away any food. They told me to sell it for my trip back.”

The short man picked up the ring. He rubbed it against his pants and held it up in the air. No matter how long he examined it, the ring was not going to turn into a precious jewel. Still, he went on rotating the tarnished metal this way and that in the twilight. Then he put it in his mouth and bit, leaving a tooth-mark on the edge of the silver. Abruptly, he said, “Try it on.”

“What?”

“You have to prove it’s not your own ring.”

Kil-nyo felt her heart sink. Why had she not thought of trying it on these past four days? Since leaving Kanggu, her only thought had been to get back home as soon as possible.

In fact, the ring didn’t even cross her mind during the journey. If only she had slipped it onto her finger just once, she would not have felt so utterly lost now.

If it hadn’t fit her finger, she could now smile secretly to herself. What’s more, if it hadn’t been the right size for the ring finger of her right hand, she might have tried her left hand, instead. What Chi had said flashed back into her mind: show your left hand to the bastards who like left hands, and if you run into a bastard who likes the right, put your left hand in your pocket and stick out your right.

Only four days had passed since she heard those words from Chi Sang-mo. At the time she’d paid them little heed, but now she’d fallen into a fix she could neither ignore nor escape. A dead end: she hadn’t the slightest idea whether the man wanted her right hand or her left.

Chi must have been the kind of man who could sense which hand might be better to offer. But she, a woman who knew no better, could only wait in vain for revelation. To stick out your left hand to another would be unseemly—but more to the point, there was no time to dwell on such things. If the lifeline of the whole family depended on which hand she now extended, she might as well go with both.

The short man stared at the two hands held out before him. Now it was he who had to choose. Suddenly he raised his left hand and slapped down her right.

“Take that away. No woman wears rings on her right hand.”

Then, like a blacksmith’s helper working at a bellows, he tried the ring on every finger, slipping it on and off of each with astonishing speed. It fit none. A look of embarrassment replaced the expression of smug anticipation plastered across his face just moments before. Disappointed, he briefly glanced at Kil-nyo and muttered to himself:

“Well, seems the reactionary sneaked out of here at dawn today, after all.”

It was not until much later, long after the short man was gone, that Kil-nyo realized he had taken the ring with him.

“Close the gate and come in, dear.”

Her mother’s voice was soft. 

 

* Translated by Chun Kyung-ja.

Author's Profile

Kim Joo-young is a novelist who began his career as a writer with the publication of “A Period of Dormancy” in 1971 in the monthly Literature magazine. His published novels are TradesmanThe Sound of ThunderA Skate Fish and GoodbyeMother; his short story collections are Winter Bird and In Search of a Bird. He is the recipient of the Korea Culture and Art Award and Yi Sang Literary Award as well as numerous other literary prizes. In 2007, he received the Eungwan Cultural medal.