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FICTION

"A Trip to Mujin"

  • onNovember 16, 2014
  • Vol.18 Winter 2012
  • byKim Seungok
A Trip to Mujin and Other Stories
2007
405pp.

The Bus to Mujin 

As the bus curved around the mountain slope I saw a signpost that read “Mujin 10 km.” There it was sticking out of the weeds by the road, just as it used to. The people conversing in the seats behind me started up again. “So, just another 10 kilometers.” “Yes, we should arrive in about thirty minutes.” They seemed to be agricultural inspectors of some sort. Or perhaps not. In any case they were wearing short color-patterned shirts and polyester trousers, and making observations about the passing villages and fields and hills that only agricultural specialists would make in their specialized language. In my half-sleep I had been listening to them drone on in a subdued, formal tone, very unlike that of the local farmers, ever since I had got off the train at Gwangju and boarded the bus. There were many empty seats on the bus. They were saying that the bus was empty because it was farming season and nobody had time to travel. “Mujin isn’t really known for anything, is it?” They continued on. “No, nothing in particular. Funny that so many people live there.” “It could have developed into a port, perhaps, since it’s so close to the coast?” “No, you’ll see why not when you get there. The location isn’t quite right. The sea is too shallow near Mujin and you’d have to go miles out to reach a decent depth and face an open horizon.” “So it’s a farming town?” “One can’t really say it has any plain worthy of that name, either.” “But then what do the fifty to sixty thousand people in Mujin live on, I wonder?” “Isn’t that why there’s that expression, ‘by hook or by crook?’” They shared a controlled laugh. “Still, I’d say it should have at least one memorable product to be remembered by,” declared one man as their laughter faded.

It’s not that there is nothing to remember Mujin by. I know what it is. The fog. When you woke up in the morning and stepped outside, there it was, an entire enemy troop laying siege on the town, as if it had spent the whole night creeping up on you. The fog had sent all the hills surrounding the town into exile in a faraway land. It was like the steaming breath of a female demon who bore you a grudge and sought you out night after night. No human power could disperse it before the sun rose and the wind from the sea changed its direction. You could not grab it but it was clearly there. It engulfed you and separated you from all distant things. The fog, the Mujin fog, that its people meet every morning, that makes them ache for the sun and the wind. What could be more memorable about Mujin than its fog?

The bus was rattling a bit less now. I could gauge the rattling of the bus by the shaking of my chin. I was slumped in my chair, all limbs relaxed, so as the bus rattled and shook along the pebbly roads my chin would bounce along with the bus. I knew of course that riding a bus in that position would tire me a good deal more than if I were to sit rigidly on my seat. But the June wind that streamed into the bus windows, mercilessly tickling all my exposed skin, was putting me half to sleep, making it impossible for me to sit up straight. I considered the wind to be composed of an infinite number of small particles, each one filled to the hilt with sleep-inducing drugs. In that wind, I thought, there was fresh sunlight and a coolness that had not yet brushed against human sweat, also brine that told me that beyond the surrounding mountain ridge that seemed to be rushing toward the bus there lay the sea. The mixture of all these elements melted into the wind was strangely harmonious. The fresh brightness of sunlight; the cool temperature of the air, just cool enough to make your skin feel taut; the taste of brine mixed into the sea breeze. I thought to myself, if I could make a sleeping pill out of the mixture of these three things it would be a more refreshing pill than all other sleeping pills sitting on the shelves of all the pharmacies in the world. And I could be the managing director of the most lucrative pharmaceutical company in the whole world, since everybody desires a quiet sleep and it is refreshing to be able to enjoy a quiet sleep.

At that thought I could not help a bitter smile. At the same time I sensed I was really about to arrive in Mujin. Every time I came to Mujin it was like this, all my thoughts were mixed-up, wild daydreams. In Mujin I would find myself shamelessly, tirelessly thinking up wild ideas that never occurred to me elsewhere. Or rather, it is not that I would think up this or that in Mujin, but that in Mujin thoughts that were independently invented outside of me would force themselves into my head.

“You look so worn out, I’m really alarmed. Why don’t you go stay a few days in Mujin. We can say you’ve gone to visit your mother’s grave. Father and I will take care of everything at the shareholders’ meeting. Go take a break, and by the time you come back, you will be the managing director of Taehoesaeng Pharmaceuticals.” When my wife had suggested this trip in all good will a few nights ago while stroking my pajama collar, I had not been able to stop myself from complaining under my breath the way children do when they are forced on errands against their will. I did so out of reflex, because my past experience had taught me that in Mujin I could never help losing myself.

Not that I had visited Mujin that often as an adult. But the few trips I took to Mujin were always occasioned by my need to escape from a failure in Seoul or, in any case, to make a kind of fresh start. It was not at all an accident that I went to Mujin when I needed a fresh beginning. Not that new courage would automatically well up in me once I was back in Mujin, or that new plans would spring up effortlessly. On the contrary—in Mujin I was always holed up indoors. Clothes unwashed and face all sallow, I would idle away entire days there. During my waking moments an infinitely long file of hours would pass me by, mocking me as I stood limp and helpless; during my sleep unending nightmares would whip my prostrate body. If I were to draw up scenes of myself in Mujin, they would be scenes of me snapping at the elderly folk tending to me or masturbating to chase away delusions and insomnia, smoking nasty cigarettes that caused my tonsils to swell, waiting anxiously for the postman, or doing something related to these things. Of course this is not all I recall about Mujin. In the streets of Seoul, when I would stagger at the cacophony mercilessly assaulting my ears (when my ears suddenly turned to the world outside), or when, late at night, my car climbed up the paved alley to our house in Sindang-dong, I would think of the countryside where a river flows brimming with water and a grassy embankment stretches out miles to the sea: a place with a small wood and many bridges, back alleys and mud walls, schools with playgrounds surrounded by tall poplars, office buildings with small yards filled with black pebbles from the seashore, and bamboo beds sitting out on the streets at night. That place was Mujin. And the times when I felt a sudden longing for quietude, it is Mujin that came to my mind. But that Mujin was a place of comfort I had made up in my head, not a place where real people lived. What I inevitably associated with Mujin, in the end, was my own bleak youth.

But this association did not always trail after me. It would be more correct to say that, now that my bleak years are past, I am almost always forgetting Mujin. In fact, I should say that I had forgotten about Mujin even yesterday evening when I boarded the train at Seoul Station. Of course this was partly because I was busy giving my last instructions to the company employees and my wife, who had come to see me off, and I therefore had no attention to spare. But in any case the dark associations I had with Mujin were not all that vivid in my mind. Early this morning, though, when I got off the train at Gwangju and walked out of the station, a mad lady seized those memories, as it were, and threw them right in my face. The mad lady was stylishly dressed in a traditional dress made of nylon and was carrying a fashionable handbag. Her face was quite pretty and she was splendidly made up. I would not have caught onto her madness if it hadn’t been for the ceaseless rolling of her eyes and the crowd of shoeshine boys who were standing in a circle around her. Yawning with boredom, they were making fun of her. “She studied too much, that’s why she’s gone crazy.” “No, it’s because a man dumped her.” “She speaks American English really well. Want to ask her?” The boys talked in loud voices. An older, pimply boy poked at the woman’s breasts, making her cry out. Her face remained devoid of expression. Listening to her cry, I suddenly recalled a phrase from a diary I kept in a small backroom in Mujin, years ago.

My mother was still alive then. The last train from Seoul had already departed. The university was shut down due to the Korean War and I had no choice but to walk all the way from Seoul to Mujin—a distance of over 400 kilometers. The trip destroyed my toes several times over. My mother shut me up in a backroom and I thus escaped from the summons for the volunteer army as well as the army draft. Even when the older students of Mujin Middle School, from which I had graduated, filed into trucks stationed in the town square, their fingers wrapped in cotton bands after their blood pledges, chanting “If I were to die and save my country . . . ,” all intent on joining the front, I was crouching in the room, listening to them march by our house. Even when the front moved north and we heard that the university courses had resumed, I hid in the backroom in Mujin. This was all due to my widowed mother. While everybody went to war, I stayed home, pressured by my mother. I hid in that backroom and masturbated. When the next-door neighbors were informed that their young son had died in battle, my mother rejoiced that I was safe, and if I received an occasional letter from my friends at the front she would secretly tear it up. She knew that I would have preferred to be at the front than in that backroom. The diary I kept then does not exist now, for I burnt it later, but I recall that its contents were about my self-loathing, about how I was holding up by laughing at my own ignominy. “Dear mother, if by chance I should go mad the reasons will probably be the following, so please treat me accordingly . . .” The madwoman I saw in the train station early this morning thrust before me the memory of the days when I kept that diary. She made me feel I was nearing Mujin, and the signpost we had just passed—heaped with dust, sticking out of the dust—made that feeling all the more real.

“This time it’s certain that you will become managing director. So do go down to the country for a week and take a break. When you’re the director, you’re bound to have more responsibilities.” So my father-in-law had said. Unbeknownst to them, my wife and father-in-law had actually made a very clever recommendation. It was clever of them to choose Mujin as a place for me to relax, for in Mujin I could indeed relax, or rather, I could only relax.

The bus was entering the town. All the roofs of Mujin— tiled, tin, straw—were shining, gleaming silver in the strong late-June sun. The sound of hammers from the ironworks briefly invaded the bus, then faded. The smell of feces seeped in from somewhere, and when the bus passed by the hospital the smell of cresol wafted by. A slow popular tune was creaking out of the speakers in a store. The streets were empty; the people were sitting, crouched in the shade of the eaves. The naked children were tottering about in the shade. Even the paved town square was nearly empty. Only the June sun was boiling blindingly in the square. In the dead silence of that blindingly bright sunlight, two panting dogs were copulating.

 

Night Encounters

A little before dinner time, I awoke from my afternoon nap and walked to the street where most of the newspapers had their subscription offices. My aunt did not subscribe to a newspaper. The newspaper was now an essential part of my daily life, however. Like all other city dwellers, I began and ended each day with a newspaper. At the subscription office I left my aunt’s address and a hand-drawn map. As I was walking out of the office I heard behind my back the voices of people whispering among themselves. They seemed to be people who already knew me. “. . . really? He looks arrogant . . .” “. . . so he’s become a success?” “ . . . a long time ago . . . tuberculosis . . .” Listening to them whisper, inwardly I waited for them to say a few words. But in the end there was no parting greeting. That was the difference between Mujin and Seoul. Forgetting their very selves, the gossips should now be falling into the vortex of whispers. Unaware of the void they will feel in their hearts when they are thrown out of the vortex of whispers, there they are, whispering and whispering and whispering . . . A wind was blowing from the direction of the sea. Compared to when I had descended from the bus a few hours ago, the streets were much busier. Students were walking home from school. Some were twirling their schoolbags around as if they found the bags a nuisance; others flung the bags on their shoulders or hugged them with their arms. Some blew bubbles with their saliva and blew them into the wind. Schoolteachers and office employees were also passing by, limp with fatigue, carrying their clinking, empty lunchboxes. Suddenly everything seemed like a charade. Going to school, teaching students, going to the office and then returning home. All these things seemed like idle play. How laughable that people should live out their lives chained to such routines.

While eating dinner at my aunt’s after returning from the town center, I received a visit. My visitor was a Mujin Middle School graduate like myself, a few years my junior, surname Pak. He continued to show great admiration for me. During his schooldays he had been a so-called literary chap, and myself a manic reader. His favorite writer was F. Scott Fitzgerald. He was an unusual Fitzgerald fan, however, being such a shy, withdrawn fellow, always solemn, and so very poor. “I heard from my friend at the newspaper office that you were in town. What brings you here?” He was genuinely happy to see me. “Why, is there any reason why I shouldn’t come here?” I answered, immediately regretting my tone. “I only said that because it’s been so long since you paid us a visit. I saw you that time when I had just come out of the army, and this is the first time since then, so . . .” “I guess it’s already been about four years.” Four years ago, I had come down to Mujin after losing my job because the pharmaceutical company I had been working for as an accountant had merged with a larger company. Actually, it is not that I left Seoul just because I had lost my job. If Hee, whom I had been living with, had stayed by my side, I would not have made that trip of despair to Mujin. “So you’ve married?” Pak asked. “Um-hm, and you?” “Not yet. People say you made a very good match.” “They do? Why aren’t you married yet? How old are you this year?” “Twenty-nine.” “Twenty-nine . . . They do say that having a nine in your age does not bode well. Still, why don’t you try this year?” “I’m not sure.” Pak scratched his head like a little boy. Four years ago means that year I was twenty-nine myself, the year Hee ran away from me around the time my wife’s ex-husband died. “So it’s not bad business that’s brought you here?” Pak asked, knowing something about the reason for my past trips to Mujin. “No, I think I’ll be promoted, and I got a few days off.” “That’s wonderful. I’ve heard that, of all the alumni of Mujin Middle School, you’re the one who’s turned out to be the most successful.” “Me?” I laughed. “Yes, you and Cho hyeong, who was in the same class.” “Cho? Do you mean that fellow I was close to?” “Yes, about two years ago he passed the civil service exam and started working here as the head of the local tax office.” “Oh, did he?” “You didn’t know?” “We didn’t keep in touch. Didn’t he work as an employee in the tax office here some time ago?” “Yes.” “That’s great. Shall we pay him a visit tonight?” My friend Cho was a short, dark-skinned man. In the past he used to tell me quite often that he felt inferior to me because I was tall and fair-skinned. Cho was the sort of fellow who would be most touched by stories like this: “There was once a boy who was told that the lines on his palm were very unlucky. He worked hard, digging lucky lines into his palm with his fingernails. In the end he was successful and lived a comfortable life.” “By the way, what are you up to these days?” Pak reddened. After hesitating for a short while, he mumbled, almost as if he were ashamed, that he was teaching at our former school. “Isn’t it great to be a teacher? It must be so nice to have the time to read books. I have no time, not even for a magazine. What are you teaching?” Pak seemed encouraged by my words and replied in a slightly brighter voice, “I’m teaching Korean.” “You made a good choice. I’m sure the school would have a hard time finding a teacher like you.” “No, that’s not really true. Even if you have a teacher’s certificate, it’s difficult to get a job these days because there are so many graduates of teacher’s colleges.” “Is that so?” There was no reply. Pak only offered a wan smile.
 

After dinner, we each drank a glass of liquor and walked to Cho’s house. The streets were very dark. As we were crossing the bridge I looked down at the dusky, dim reflections of the trees in the water. Years ago, crossing this bridge in the night, I had cursed the very same hunkering, black trees whose standing shapes looked like they might at any moment start running screaming at me. I used to wish trees would disappear from the world. “Everything is the same,” I said. “You think so?” Pak murmured.

There were four guests in Cho’s living room. I was looking at Cho, who was shaking my hand so hard that he was almost hurting me. His face had become shiny with a new luster, his skin fairer than it used to be. “Come sit down. Sorry it’s so drab here . . . must find myself a wife soon . . .” But the room was not at all drab. “What, you aren’t married yet?” I asked. “No, I spent all my time poring over law books. Do sit.” Cho introduced me to the other guests who were already there. Three of them were male employees from the tax office. The fourth, a woman, was talking about something with Pak. “Hey, you two, no more secret talk. Ha seonsaeng, say hello to Yoon Heejung. He’s a friend from middle school, a manager at a big pharmaceutical company in Seoul. Ha Insook seonsaeng teaches music at the middle school. She graduated from a music college in Seoul last year.” “Hello. So you’re teaching at the same school?” I asked, looking in turn at Pak and the music teacher. “Yes,” replied Ha, smiling cheerfully while Pak lowered his face. “Is Mujin your hometown?” “No. I was posted here. I came down alone.” She had a face full of character. She had a tapered, slender face with big eyes and yellowish skin. Overall she gave a rather sickly first impression, but her tallish nose and plump lips enjoined you to abandon that impression. Her voice, steely and clear, added to the impression of her nose and lips. “What’s your major?” “I studied vocal music.” “Ha seonsaeng is an excellent piano player as well,” Pak intervened in a cautious voice. Cho concurred. “She sings really well. Marvelous soprano voice.” “Oh, you’re a soprano?” I asked her. “Yes, I sang ‘One Fine Day’ from Madame Butterfly at my graduation concert,” she said in a voice that suggested she felt nostalgic about that concert.

There were silk cushions on the floor and on the cushions flower cards lay scattered about. I was indeed in Mujin. These were the cards I used to peer at with teary, half-closed eyes because of the smoke from the cigarette burning into my mouth, cards with which I foolishly used to tell my daily fortune after rising late, close to noon. Or, on that day I pushed myself to a gambling table as if determined to throw myself away, cards that made me lose all sensation in my body except for my hot head and fingers. “You have flower cards,” I murmured as I took one card. I threw it down so that it made a snapping sound, then threw it down again and again. “Shall we play a betting game?” suggested one of the employees from the tax office. I had no desire to play. “Another time.” The tax office people grinned. Cho disappeared and then returned. In a short while a table with food and beer was brought out.

 

“How long will you be here?” “About a week.” “How could you get married without even sending me an invitation? I probably wouldn’t have been able to come since I was a mere accounting clerk at the tax office back then, but still.” “Don’t follow my example, you must invite me to your wedding.” “Don’t worry. An invitation should reach you within the year.” We drank foamless beer. An employee asked, “Pharmaceutical companies make medications, right?” “Yes.” “You’ll never have worries about catching a disease.” The employees whooped with laughter and beat the floor with their hands as if they had come up with something really funny. “Hey, Pak. You’re really popular with the students. Why don’t you ever come visit? I’m only five minutes from your place.” “It’s always on my mind . . .” “I hear all about you from Ha seonsaeng, over there. Come, Ha seonsaeng. Beer doesn’t even count as alcohol, please have some. Why are you being so shy tonight? Usually you’re not this way.” “Thank you, just leave it there. I’ll drink at my own pace.” “You do drink beer, don’t you?” “When I was in college I even drank soju with my friends behind locked doors.” “My, I never knew you were a drinker.” “I didn’t really want to drink. I just wanted to see what soju tastes like.” “So how did it taste?” “I don’t know. As soon as I put down the soju glass I fell fast asleep.” They all laughed. Only Pak’s laughter seemed forced. “You know, this is what I think, what’s so great about Ha seonsaeng is that she’s always trying to tell stories in an amusing way.” “I’m not trying to be amusing on purpose. I fell into this way of talking in college.” “Aha, now here I have to say this is one of Ha seonsaeng’s faults. Can’t you say anything without adding ‘when I was in college’? Why, someone like me who never even got close to a college gate should die of despair.” “Oh, I’m so sorry.” “Then will you sing us a song as an apology?” “Great idea.” “Bravo.” “Give us a song.” They all clapped. Ha hesitated. “Sing for our guest from Seoul . . . That song you sang the other day, it was really fine.” Cho prodded her. “All right. I’ll sing, then.” The music teacher began to sing with a nearly expressionless face, moving her lips only slightly. The employees from the tax office started to rap the table with their fingers. The music teacher sang “Tears of Mokpo.” How much resemblance was there between “Tears of Mokpo” and “One Fine Day?” What was making a popular tune emanate from those vocal cords trained to sing arias? As she sang “Tears of Mokpo” her voice did not snap like a barmaid’s voice, or break in that manner that enlivens popular songs. Neither was there in her singing any of that plaintive complaint that such songs are full of. Her “Tears of Mokpo” was already far from a popular tune. But it was not like a Madame Butterfly aria, either. Her singing style was altogether new, a style that had never existed before. It was a style that contained not the plaintiveness of a popular song, but a much more ruthless kind of plaintiveness, a lament octaves higher than the lament of “One Fine Day.” There was in her style the scorn of the mad lady with wild hair, and above all, that smell of Mujin, the smell of decaying bodies.

When she stopped singing I clapped, deliberately putting on a foolish smile. Meanwhile, perhaps it was sixth sense that told me that my junior Pak wished to leave this place. When I gazed at Pak, he immediately stood up as if he had been waiting for me to cast him a glance. Someone asked him to sit, but he declined, smiling innocently. “Please excuse me. I’ll see you tomorrow, hyeong.” Cho accompanied him to the gate and I walked Pak to the road. It was not that late but the streets were deserted. We could hear a dog barking somewhere. We surprised some rats eating something on the road. Frightened by our shadows, they scattered. “Hyeong, look, the fog is descending.” And so it was. At the end of the road, the dusky scenery of the distant residential area, sparsely studded with lights, was becoming increasingly blurry. “You like the music teacher, don’t you?” I queried. Pak put on his innocent smile again. “Is something going on between her and Cho?” “I don’t know. She’s probably one of the women Cho hyeong is considering marrying.” “If you like her, you’ll have to be much more assertive. Good luck.” “Well, not really . . .” Like a little boy, Pak fumbled for words. “It’s just that I felt sorry for her singing among those philistines. So I just left.” Pak spoke in a low tone, as if he were suppressing his anger. “Why, it’s probably just that there is a time and place for classical music, another for popular music. Do you need to feel sorry for her?” I comforted him with my lies. Pak left and I returned to the company of ‘philistines.’ This is how people think in Mujin. The others are all philistines. I, too, think that way. The actions of others are all play, as weightless and futile as inaction.

It was very late by the time we rose from our seats. Cho suggested putting me up at his place. But imagining how awkward the process of waking up in his house and leaving would be, I insisted on returning home. The employees went on their separate ways one by one, leaving just me and the woman. We were crossing the bridge. The white shape of the stream stretched out in the dark scenery, and disappeared into the fog in the distance. “At night it’s really lovely here,” she said. “Really? It’s fortunate you like it here,” I replied. “I can guess why you say ‘fortunate,’” she answered. “How much have you been able to guess?” I asked. “You mean Mujin is in fact not such an appealing place. Is my guess correct?” “Almost.” We had crossed the bridge. We had to part ways there. She needed to follow the road stretching along the stream, and I needed to take the road straight ahead. “Oh, are you going that way? Then . . .” I said. “Please accompany me part of the way. This road is so quiet, it frightens me.” Her voice trembled slightly as she spoke. I started walking by her side. I suddenly felt we had become close. Right there where the bridge ended, right when she asked me to accompany her in a trembling voice as if she were really frightened, at that very moment I felt that she had thrust herself into my life. Like all my other friends, those I could no longer claim not to know, all those friends I had sometimes injured but who had more often injured me. “When I first saw you, how should I put it, shall I say you smelled of Seoul? You seemed like someone I had known for a long time. Isn’t that strange?” She spoke suddenly. “Popular songs . . .” I said. “Sorry?” “Why do you sing popular songs? Don’t classical singers try to stay away from popular songs as much as possible?” “Those people always tell me to sing popular songs.” After responding, she laughed softly as if she were embarrassed. “If I were to tell you that if you don’t want to sing popular songs you shouldn’t go to that place, would I be taking liberties?” “Really, I’m not going back. They’re really worthless people.” “Then why have you been hanging out with them?” “Because I was bored,” she said weakly. Bored. Yes, that must be the most accurate expression. “When you were singing that popular tune Pak left because he felt sorry for you.” I scrutinized her face in the dark. “Pak is so straitlaced.” She laughed in a high voice, as if in merriment. “He’s good-hearted,” I said. “Yes, too good-hearted.” “Ha seonsaeng, has it ever crossed your mind that he may be in love with you?” “Please stop calling me Ha seonsaeng. You’re old enough to be my older brother—my eldest brother, even.” “Then what should I call you?” “Just call me by my name. Insook.” “Insook, Insook.” I murmured her name softly. “I like that,” I said. “Insook, why are you evading my question?” “Did you ask me a question?” she said with a laugh. We were passing by rice fields. On summer nights, listening to the sound of frogs chirping in the rice fields both near and far—like the sound of an infinite number of clam shells crashing together all at once—I would realize the cries of the frogs had turned into myriad shining stars in my sensate body. On these occasions, I had the peculiar sensory experience of auditory images mutating into visual ones. Why were my sensations, in which the chirps of the frogs had become shining stars, so mixed up? I do not mean, though, that when I looked up at the stars shining as if they were about to descend on me, I felt I heard frogs chirping in my ear. As I gazed at the stars, the pitiable distance between me and a star, and between that star and other stars, became clearly visible to me, by which I mean not the scientific distance in science books. I mean it was as if my eyes were becoming more and more powerful. I used to stand still, entranced by that unreachable distance, with a heart pounding as if it would burst. Why was it that in those days, looking at the night sky studded with innumerable shining stars, I was filled with unbearable rancor? “What are you thinking of?” she asked. “The sound of the frogs,” I answered, looking up at the night sky. The stars hung dimly behind the descending fog. “Oh, the frogs. Really, I didn’t hear them at all until now. I thought that the frogs here in Mujin start up only after midnight.” “After midnight?” “Yes, they’re all I hear after midnight. That’s when they turn off the radio at the house where I’m renting my room.” “Why are you awake so late? What do you do after midnight?” “Sometimes I can’t fall asleep.” So, she can’t fall asleep. That’s probably the truth. “Is she pretty?” she asked suddenly. “You mean my wife?” “Yes.” “She is,” I replied, laughing. “You must be happy. You have money, a pretty wife, and cute children . . .” “I don’t have children, so I must be a little less happy.” “Oh, you don’t have children yet? When did you get married?” “A little over three years ago.” “Why are you traveling by yourself without any particular business to take care of?” Why is this woman asking me such a question? I ended up laughing silently. She spoke in a more cheerful voice. “If I call you big brother from now on, will you take me to Seoul?” “Do you want to go to Seoul?” “Yes.” “You don’t like Mujin?” “I think I’ll go crazy. I’m going crazy. I have a lot of college friends in Seoul . . . Oh, I’m dying to go back to Seoul.” She briefly grabbed my arm, then quickly let it go. I was suddenly aroused. I frowned. I frowned and frowned and frowned. I managed to calm down. “But it’s never going to be like your college days wherever you go. Insook, you’re a woman, so unless you hide yourself in a family you’ll feel crazy wherever you go.” “I’ve thought of that. But right now I feel that I will go crazy even if I have a family. If my husband’s not someone I really like. And even if I were to find someone like that, I don’t want to live here. I’ll plead with him to run away from this place.” “But in my experience life in Seoul isn’t necessarily so good. It’s just one responsibility after another.” “Here, though, there is neither responsibility nor irresponsibility. I want to go to Seoul in any case. Will you take me with you?” “Let’s think about it.” “You have to take me, okay?” I just laughed. “Seonsaengneem, what are you doing tomorrow?” she asked. “Not sure. I should pay a visit to my mother’s grave in the morning. After that, I don’t have much to do. I might go to the shore. There’s a house there that I used to rent a room in, so I might drop by to say hello to the people there.” “Seonsaengneem, go in the afternoon.” “Why?” “I want to go, too. Tomorrow’s Saturday, so I only teach in the morning.” “Okay.” After arranging a place and time to meet the next day, we parted. I plodded back to my aunt’s place filled with a strange melancholy.

When I had just snuck into bed, the curfew siren started ringing. It made a sudden, piercing sound. It went on for a long time. All things, all thoughts, were sucked into the sound of the siren. Finally everything disappeared, leaving only the sound of the siren. It seemed as if it would continue to go on until finally nobody noticed it any longer. And at that very moment the sound suddenly became weaker, breaking down until it vanished with a long moan. The only thing that revived was my thoughts. I tried to think again about the conversation I had with the woman just a short while ago. I felt we had talked about many things, but only a few pieces of our conversation remained in my ear. How many more pieces will become lost when the words move from my ear to my head, and from my head to my heart? In the end, perhaps all pieces will become lost. Think again slowly. She said she wanted to go to Seoul. She said those words in an anxious voice. I suddenly felt the desire to embrace her. And . . . no, that was all that would remain in my heart. But even that would vanish from the surface of my heart as soon as I left Mujin. I could not fall asleep. It was partly because I had napped. I lit a cigarette in the dark. I glared at the wall where white clothes were hanging, peering down at me like dejected ghosts. I let the ashes fall on the floor near my pillow. Somewhere I would be able to clean up with a rag in the morning. I heard the faint sound of the frogs ‘that start up only after midnight.’ Somewhere in the distance I heard a clock chime once, faintly. Somewhere in the distance I heard a clock chime twice. Somewhere in the distance I heard a clock chime three times. Somewhere in the distance I heard a clock chime four times. Soon after the siren rang out again, lifting the curfew. Either the clock or the siren was inaccurate. The siren made a sudden, piercing sound. It went on for a long time. All things, all thoughts, were sucked into the sound of the siren. Finally everything disappeared, leaving only the sound of the siren. It seemed as if it would continue to go on until finally nobody noticed it any longer. And at that very moment the sound suddenly became weaker, breaking down until it vanished with a long moan. Somewhere spouses were copulating. No. Not spouses, but a whore and her client. I didn’t know why I was having such absurd thoughts. After a while I slid into sleep.

 

The Long Embankment Stretching Out to the Sea

That morning a light dewy rain was falling. Before breakfast I opened up my umbrella and walked to my mother’s grave on a hill near the town. I rolled up my trousers above my knee and bowed down on my knees in the falling rain. The rain made me into a very filial son. With one hand I pulled out the long leaves of grass growing on the grave. As I was pulling out the grass I imagined my father-in-law doing his best to make me managing director, laughing noisily as he paid visits to the people who would be voting. The thought of my father-in-law made me want to crawl into the grave.
 

On the way back I decided to take a detour along the long road by the embankment covered with fine grass. The blowing wind had turned the drizzle into a white haze. The scenery shook in the rain. I folded up the umbrella. As I was walking along, I saw students gathered in noisy groups on the grass by the water, beneath the sloping embankment. They were students walking to the town school from other villages. There were a few elders mixed in, also a policeman in a raincoat, squatting on the embankment slope and smoking as he peered into the distance, and an old woman who was muttering “tsk, tsk” as she pushed her way out of the student crowd. I made my way down the embankment slope. As I passed the policeman I asked, “What happened?” “Someone’s committed suicide,” the policeman answered without interest. “Who?” “A woman from town who worked in a bar. There are always a few who commit suicide in early summer.” “Oh.” “That woman was a malicious bitch, I didn’t think she’d kill herself, but I guess she was human just like everyone else.” “I see.” I went down to the water and pushed my way into the student crowd. The dead woman’s face was turned toward the water, so I couldn’t see it. Her hair was done in a permanent wave and her arms and legs were thick and white. She was wearing a thin red sweater and a white skirt. It must have been cold late last night. Or perhaps she had been fond of those clothes. Her head was lying on white rubber shoes with a blue flower print. She had dropped a white handkerchief in which she had wrapped something. It lay at a short distance from her limp hand. The white handkerchief was drenched with rain and did not blow in the wind. Many students had waded into the river to look at the dead woman’s face and were standing in the direction of the embankment. Their blue uniforms were reflected upside down in the water. Blue flags were standing guard by her dead body. Lust for the dead woman stirred within me. I left the scene in a hurry. Passing by the policeman, I said, “I don’t know what she’s taken, but perhaps there’s a chance even now . . .” The policeman retorted, “Women like that take cyanide. They don’t take a few sleeping pills and create a noisy spectacle. We should be thankful for that, at least.” I remembered that I had daydreamed about making and selling sleeping pills on the bus to Mujin. If I could make a sleeping pill out of the mixture of the fresh brightness of sunlight, the cool temperature of the air, just cool enough to make your skin feel taut, the brine mixed into the sea breeze . . . but did this sleeping pill not exist already? Suddenly it struck me that the reason I had tossed and turned in my bed, unable to fall asleep last night, might have been to see the dead woman through her last living moments. It must be that just when the siren lifting the curfew had sounded, she had swallowed the sleeping pill, and only then I had managed to slip into sleep. Instantly I felt she was a part of me, a part of my body that pained me, that I nonetheless had to take care of. Taking up the folded umbrella, I shook off the raindrops as I walked home. A note from Cho at the tax office was waiting for me. “Drop by the office if you’re not busy.” After breakfast I went to the tax office. The light rain had stopped but the sky remained dark. I thought I could see through Cho’s intentions. He must want to show me what he looks like sitting in the head office. No, perhaps I am twisting things around. I decided to think again. Is he satisfied with the life of a superintendent of a tax office? Probably he is satisfied. He fits in here, in Mujin. No, I decided I should think once again. To know someone well—to act as if one knows someone well is, from the perspective of that other person, a misfortune. The person we feel entitled to criticize or at least judge is only that part of the person we think we know.

Cho was fanning himself, dressed only in his undershirt, his trousers rolled up above his knees. I thought he looked shabby, and pitied him for seeming so proud of sitting on his swivel chair covered in white. “You’re not busy?” I asked him. “Me, I don’t have much to do. Apparently all it takes to occupy a high post is to keep muttering you will take responsibility.” But he was not at all idle. Many people came in to ask him to stamp his seal on their documents; yet more documents were piled onto his desk to await his decision. “We’re rather busy because it’s Saturday, and also the end of the month,” he apologized. But his face was proud to be so busy. Busy. Busy, without even the time to be proud of being busy. That was me in Seoul. So could one say that here in Mujin, people were clumsy at living? They were even clumsy at being busy. I then thought to myself, to be clumsy at what one does, whatever that is, even at stealing, for instance, is pitiful to watch and gets on the nerves of the person watching. Above all, we are relieved to see something handled smoothly. “By the way, is Ha seonsaeng from last night going to be your bride?” I asked. “Bride?” He asked in a high voice, laughing. “You think she’s the best I can do for a bride?” “Why, what’s wrong with her?” “You clever dog, you snatch up a widow with lots of money and connections, then tell me you’d be glad to see me hitched up with a skinny music teacher from no one knows where?” He laughed away, in paroxysms over his own speech. “With your job, isn’t it okay even if the woman has no money?” I asked. “Still, it’s not like that. If there’s nobody on my side of the family to pull me along, there should be someone from my wife’s side,” he replied. From the tone of his voice, it was clear that he saw me as a co-conspirator. “You know, it’s a really funny world. As soon as I passed the civil service exam, I started getting so many requests from matchmakers . . . but they were all worthless. It’s damnably insolent of women to think they can fund their marriage with their vaginas.” “So you think the music teacher is another one of those women?” “A very good representative. She’s been chasing me around so much she’s become very tiresome.” “She seemed quite intelligent.” “Intelligent, sure. But I checked her family background and her family’s completely unconnected. Even if she were to die here there wouldn’t be anybody at all distinguished to come fetch her dead body.” I suddenly felt the desire to meet her soon. I felt she could be somewhere dying away. I wanted to go see her soon. “That foolish Pak knows nothing and is in love with her,” Cho said with a grin. “Pak?” I pretended to be surprised. “He sends her letters and she shows them to me. Pak is writing me love letters.” My desire to meet her vanished. But a few moments later I again wished to go meet her. “Last spring I went with her to a temple. I tried this and that but, clever thing, she insisted that she absolutely couldn’t before getting married.” “So?” “I ended up thoroughly embarrassed.” I was grateful to her.

At the time we had agreed upon, I went to the place I had promised to meet her, the embankment stretching out to the sea. I saw a yellow parasol in the distance. That was her. We walked side by side under the cloudy sky. “I asked Pak several things about you today,” she said. “You did?” “What do you think was the most important thing I asked?” I had no idea. A moment later she chuckled lightly. “I asked what your blood type was.” “My blood type?” “I have this strange belief about blood types. I wish people conformed exactly to the personality represented by their blood type—isn’t it all in the biology books? Then there would be only a few personality types, and you would be able to count them on your fingers.” “How does that count as belief? I’d say it’s a wild hope.” “I end up believing in what I hope for, that’s my personality.” “What blood type does that correspond to?” “A blood type called ‘foolish.’” In the hot, humid air we laughed painfully. I stole a glance at her profile. She had stopped laughing now and was looking straight ahead with her big eyes, her nose moist with sweat. She was following me like a small child. I took her hand in mine. She seemed surprised. I quickly let go of her hand. After a moment I took her hand again. This time she was not surprised. Between my palm and hers a faint breeze managed to squeeze by. “How will you manage if you go back to Seoul without any plans?” I asked her. “I have such a sweet big brother there, I’m sure he’ll do something to help,” she said with a bright smile, looking at me. “There will be lots of marriageable bachelors around but . . . don’t you think it would be better to go to your hometown rather than stay in Seoul?” “Better to stay here than go to my hometown.” “Better stay here then . . .” “Oh, seonsaengneem, you’re not going to take me with you after all.” She thrust my hand away, her face crumpling. In fact, I did not know my own self. In fact, I had passed the age when one stands before the world with sentimentality or pity. In fact, as Cho had said just a few hours ago, I was someone who, in the end, thought it a stroke of luck that I had ended up with a ‘rich widow with connections,’ even if that had not necessarily been my intention. I felt a different love for my present wife than the love I bore for the woman who had run away from me. Still, walking along the embankment stretching out to the sea beneath the cloudy sky, I took the hand of the woman by my side. I explained to her about the house that we were going to look for. A long time ago, I had rented a room in that house for a year in order to clean out my dirty lungs. My mother had already passed away. A year spent by the sea. In the letters I wrote that year, people could easily find the word ‘desolate.’ A shallow word, a dead word that had lost the ability to touch people’s hearts. But at the time there had been no other word to use. The tedium I felt while walking on the white sand in the morning, or the emptiness that filled me as I wiped off with my palms the cold sweat pouring down my brow after a daytime nap, the distress of waking from a nightmare in the middle of the night and pressing down with one hand the pounding in my rushing heart while listening to the pitiful cries of the night sea—such feelings had latched onto my life like so many hard oyster shells that I had substituted for them what now seems like a phantom of a word, ‘desolate.’ In a dusty city where the sea lies beyond the imagination, what would that person caught up in his busy daily routine have been able to think or imagine after receiving from an expressionless postman my letter inscribed with the word ‘desolate’? Suppose I had sent that letter from the coast and then received it myself in the city, would my city self have been able to sympathize with the state of mind in which my coastal self had staked so much on that word? Or would that have been necessary at all? But to be accurate, even back then, when that past self of mine approached the desk to write those letters, he had dim doubts and suppositions similar to the ones I am now having, and I think he knew that the answer to the question was ‘No.’ And yet he wrote letters in which he had inscribed ‘desolate’ and at times he mailed off in all directions postcards on which he had roughly sketched a blue-black sea. “What kind of person do you think wrote the first letter in the world?” I asked. “Ah, letters. Nothing brings so much happiness as a letter. Really, who do you think it was? Probably someone lonely like you?” Her hand stirred in mine. I thought to myself that her hand was saying, “And like Insook.” I responded, “Yes.” We turned our faces to each other and smiled.

We arrived at the house we were looking for. It seemed as if time had not touched the house or the people in the house. The owners treated me like my past self and so I became my past self. I brought out the presents I had prepared and the couple who were the owners let us into the room I had occupied in the past. In that room, I stole angst away from her, as you might steal a knife from someone running to you in despair, ready to sink the knife into you if you did not steal it from her hand. She was not a virgin. We opened the door again and lay there for a long time in silence, looking at the rough waves of the sea. “I want to go to Seoul. That’s all.” She finally spoke after a long pause. I was drawing a meaningless picture with my finger on her cheek. “Are there good people in this world?” I relit the cigarette that the sea breeze blowing into the room had extinguished. “You’re chiding me, aren’t you? Without a heart that is willing to consider other people good, there would be no good people in the world.” I thought of us as Buddhists. “Seonsaengneem, are you a good person?” “As long as Insook trusts me.” I thought of us once again as Buddhists. Still lying down, she came closer to me. “Shall we go to the beach? I’ll sing for you,” she said. But we did not get up. “Can we go to the beach? It is so hot here.” We rose and walked out. We walked on the sand and sat on a rock from which we could not see any houses. Beneath the rock we were sitting on, the waves were spraying foam they had secreted away. “Seonsaengneem,” she called to me. I turned my face in her direction. “Have you ever had the experience of disliking yourself more and more?” She asked with a false cheerfulness. I searched my memory. I nodded. “Once a friend who had slept next to me told me that I snored in my sleep. I really wanted to run away.” I told her the story to make her laugh. But she just nodded quietly, without smiling. She spoke after a long time. “Seonsaengneem, I don’t want to go to Seoul.” I asked her for her hand and held it in mine. I held her hand in a strong clasp and said, “Let’s not lie to each other.” “It’s not a lie.” She smiled. “I’ll sing you ‘One Fine Day.’” “But today is not a fine day— it’s overcast,” I said, thinking of the two people separating in that song. Let us not separate on overcast days. Let us extend our hand and, if there is someone who takes that hand, let us pull that person close, close, a little closer. I wanted to tell her, ‘I love you.’ But the awkwardness of the words chased away my impulse to say them to her.

It was dark in the evening when we returned from the shore. A little before entering the town we kissed on the embankment. “Just to let you know, I’m just going to enjoy a fine love affair while you’re here this week,” she said as we separated. “But I’m stronger than you, so I think you won’t have a choice, I’ll be dragging you to Seoul,” I replied.

When I returned I discovered that Pak had paid me a visit during the day. He had left three books with a note, “So that you will not be bored while you are in Mujin.” My aunt told me that he had said that he would be back in the evening. I told her that I did not wish to see anyone, using fatigue as an excuse. She said she would tell him that I had not returned yet from the shore. I did not wish to think about anything. Anything. I asked my aunt to buy me some soju and drank it until I was drunk and fell asleep. I woke up very briefly in the early morning. My heart was beating with anxiety for a reason I could not decipher. “Insook,” I tried murmuring. Then I fell back asleep.

 

You Are Leaving Mujin

It was late morning when my aunt shook me and woke me up. She handed me a telegram. Lying on my stomach I opened it up. “Need to attend meeting on 27th. Return immediately. Young.” The 27th was the day after next. Young was my wife. I lay my throbbing forehead down on my pillow. I was breathing heavily. I tried to calm my breathing. My wife’s telegram was showing me more and more clearly all that I had thought and done since coming to Mujin. It was all because of prejudice, my wife’s telegram told me in the end. I shook my head in disagreement. It was all because of the freedom granted so often to travelers, said my wife’s telegram. I shook my head in disagreement. Time will erase everything in your mind, said the telegram. But there will be a wound, I shook my head. We argued for a long time. So I devised a compromise. Just once, just one last time, let me affirm this town of Mujin, the fog, the going-mad-with-loneliness, the popular tune, the suicide of the barmaid, the betrayal, the irresponsibility. Just one last time. Just once, and then I promise to live within the limited scope of the responsibility that I have been given. Telegram, hold out your smallest finger. I will hold out mine and hook it around yours and promise. We made a promise.

But I turned around and wrote a letter, avoiding the eyes of the telegram. ‘I have to make an unexpected return. I wished to pay you a visit to tell you in person about my departure, but conversation has a way of leading us in unexpected directions, so I am writing instead. I will be brief. I love you. The reason is, because you are my own self, at least my past self that I still have a vague love for. Just as I have made every effort to drag my past self into the present, I will do everything to bring you into the sunlight. Please trust me. And when I contact you after making preparations in Seoul, please leave Mujin and come to me. I think we will be able to be happy.’ I read over the letter after writing it. I reread it. Then I tore it up.

Sitting in the rattling bus, at some point I looked out and saw a white signpost by the road. On it were written in clear black letters, “You Are Leaving Mujin. Good-Bye.” I burned with shame. (1964) 

 

* Translated by Eun Kyung Min.

 

Author's Profile

Born in Osaka, Japan in 1941 and raised in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, Korea, Kim Seungok graduated from the Department of French Language and Literature at Seoul National University. He made his literary debut in 1962 when his short story “Practice for Life” won the Hankook Ilbo New Writer’s Award. In the same year, he founded The Age of Prose, a small literary magazine, along with his friends, such as Kim Hyeon and Choi Ha-rim. Kim launched into a literary career by publishing the short stories “Geon” and “Fantasy Notebook” in the magazine. Throughout the 1960s, he continually published short stories, including “Yeoksa,” “A Trip to Mujin,” and “Seoul-1964-Winter.” In the 1970s, however, he began winding down his writing career while intermittently publishing short stories such as “The Moonlight of Seoul, Chapter 0” and “Our Low Fence.” Kim received the Dongin Prize in 1965 for the short story “Seoul-1964-Winter,” the Yi Sang Literary Award in 1977 for the short story “The Moonlight of Seoul, Chapter 0”, and The National Academy of Arts Award (Literature) in 2012 for his significant contribution to the arts.