The House with the Sunken Courtyard
- onNovember 14, 2014
- Vol.13 Autumn 2011
- byKim Won Il
- The House with the Sunken Courtyard
Now, to enumerate the inhabitants of that house is no small task. They were legion. But I remember every one of them as distinctly as if they were items in my pocket.
The room right next to the city water bin was occupied by the Gyeonggi family who had fled the war from Yeonbaek, Gyeonggi province. There were three people in the family. The mother of the family was in her early fifties, and she was a graduate of a high school in Gaeseong, which means that she was exceptionally well-educated for a woman of her generation. Her son Heunggyu, a tall and thin bachelor, was a dental technician working at a dental clinic on the outskirts of the city. Like most tall and thin men, he was always smiling good-naturedly. His sister Miseon flaunted a buxom and sinewy body line and dressed stylishly. She was always chewing gum, and was constantly making small clacking noises from popping the bubbles against her teeth.
The room next to that was inhabited by a retired military officer who was a wounded veteran. That family also had three members. The veteran, who had two steel hooks attached to a rubber arm for his right hand, stared at people with hostility, as if he were looking at an enemy on a battlefield, and was a man of few words. His wife was in an advanced stage of pregnancy when I joined the house, so her belly was greatly swollen. Their only child till then, Junho, was five-years-old, about the same age as Boksul, the son of the Gimcheon woman who ran a snack store, so the two constantly quarreled and made up. My youngest sibling Gilsu tottered after them all day long and exhibited his low intelligence. This wounded veteran’s family was from Pyeonggang, Gangwon province, and joined the house last of all the tenants, moving in during the spring of the year I came to live in the house.
The room next to that was occupied by a family from Pyongyang. There were four in the family. The mother of the family, who was in her late forties, mended and sold old military uniforms on the black market. She had a daughter and two sons. The daughter, Sunhwa, had an oval face and attractive double-lidded eyes, and was of marriageable age. The eldest son Jeongtae, who was gaunt and always looked to be seething with fury, was loafing at home because of his bad lungs. The pimply second son, unlike the eldest, was stocky and was a senior at Gyeongbuk High School, located not far from the house.
So, the four families occupying the middle quarters knew each other’s circumstances just as if they were one family. Each family knew what the other families were having for side dishes at each meal, and what ratio of Vietnamese rice and barley the other families mixed with white rice for their staple diets. When dividing up the electricity and water bills there were disputes as to a fair division, but we were all families doing our best to make an honest living. There was gossiping, inevitably, and a little hypocrisy, but we all understood what hard work it was for refugees to keep alive, and did not stint emotional support to one another.
The landlords were a family of prestige originating from the Euiseong area of the North Gyeongsang province. The great-grandfather of the present owner had been a high-ranking official of the city of Daegu in the last years of the Joseon era. It was this dignitary who built the house in Janggwan-dong. The gentleman retired to his hometown after serving in the office, but the house in the city was used by his son, who was an important officer in the Orient Settlement Company, the Japanese outfit for land exploitation in Korea, and by his grandchildren who went to school in Daegu. The present landlord, who was the grandson of the officer of the Orient Settlement Company, was the lucky inheritor of the house. It was in the year of liberation that he became the owner of the house, and he was already a businessman of note by then.
The landlord’s family consisted of eight members. The head of the family was a very busy person, so we only caught glimpses of him when he went out in the morning or returned home in the evening. He often slept out, and when he returned home at night he was usually heavily drunk. He ran a textile factory in Chimsan-dong, on the outskirts of Daegu. His wife, our landlady, had a fair and glowing face and was well-built. She seemed to have no aptitude or taste for housekeeping, and her arena of activity was outside the home. With the help of her businessman husband she was able to open a shop near Songjuk Cinema selling jewelry and timepieces, and she also managed private mutual aid financial associations. As she added to the household income but neglected household management, her mother-in-law ran the house. The mother-in-law was in her seventies, but she was erect of stature and mentally alert, so that when going to the market she took the helper with her but made the purchases herself. The mother-in-law roundly abused her daughter-in-law behind her back for neglecting the household and paying scanty respect to her mother-in-law. The Gyeonggi woman, who did not have to work because her son and daughter earned their living, was her conversation companion. Owing to her educational background, the Gyeonggi woman was able to give the old lady appropriate cues and sympathetic responses.
The landlord and landlady had three sons. The eldest was a college sophomore, and the youngest was in the second year of middle school. Seongjun, who was rumored to have been admitted to the law department of a private university by making a hefty donation, went to school in a formal suit and tie, hair sleek with pomade oil. He was never seen to study, and when at home he always played the stereo at full volume and practiced dancing on the living room floor, so we tenants of the middle quarters nicknamed him “playboy.” The second and third sons of the house, a junior in high school and an eighth grader in middle school, were tutored by Jeongmin, the younger son of the Pyongyang woman, for two hours every day of the week. Of course, Jeongmin thereby earned money. There was also a high school girl in the family, a niece of the landlord, who came from Euisong to attend high school in Daegu and was in her senior year. Lastly, there was the helper, Mrs. An, who originated from Goryeong, North Gyeongsang province. Although she had her hair done in a bun like a matron, she was a young widow in her mid-twenties, and was diligent and kind-hearted.
So, this was the make-up of the inhabitants of that house—sixteen in the middle quarters after the baby was born to the military veteran and his wife, and eight in the inner quarters. Besides these, there were the two members of the Gimcheon family in the outer quarters. Twenty-two people preparing for the day in the morning created a bustling scene, just like a marketplace in the morning.
As there was some distance between the inner quarters and the middle quarters, of what went on in the inner quarters, we only heard the old lady waking up her grandchildren in the morning, but we could hear every small exchange going on in any of the rooms in the middle quarters. I can still vividly recall the mornings in the sunken courtyard. When the day began to brighten, the four households made fires in their portable stoves first of all. Smoke then veiled the front of the rooms, and the whirl of fans working at fires resounded in the courtyard. My sister Seonrye, who was in her final year of middle school, woke up early and began studying for the high school entrance exam, so I was the one who made the fire in my family. The Gyeonggi family was the latest to rise, so Miseon, their daughter, often went around the other rooms to exchange three or four pieces of unused charcoal for two lit ones. Miseon sometimes gave me a piece of American chewing gum as a bribe when she asked for a live piece of coal from my stove, smiling prettily and showing her dimples. I liked the chewing gum, but I liked the good trade in charcoal exchange even more. So, being anxious for Miseon to buy live charcoal from me, I sometimes made the offer on my part, saying “Miseon, my stove is lit.” Unlike Sunhwa, Miseon was sophisticated and always emitted a whiff of fragrance.
The most remarkable feature of the morning scene involved the use of the toilet. In front of the improvised toilet near the middle gate, built with pieces of planks stuck together, there was always a queue. The toilet was built for the tenants of the four rooms in the middle quarters and the family in the outer quarter, but some busy mornings the students of the inner quarters came across the courtyard to use it, too. Therefore, in the early morning there were always one or two people fidgeting in front of the toilet. Of course, the inner quarters had a clean tile-plastered indoor toilet, but it was not available to the tenants. So, the families in the middle quarters had chamber pots and used them in emergencies. The one most often seen fidgeting in front of the toilet was the Gyeonggi woman. Her sallow and puffy face indicated that she had digestive problems, and sure enough, she was the first to use the toilet in the morning. Then, within half an hour she had to use the toilet again. By then the toilet was sure to be occupied by someone or other, so she had to wait. At those times she would smoke, squatting in front of the toilet till the cigarette almost burned her finger, and complain about people who could stay so long in the toilet inhaling the stench of feces. She claimed to have begun smoking after she had her first child because she suffered severe stomach pain. She must have had grave digestive problems, for she not only used the toilet frequently but also broke wind a lot.