A Thousand Tales of Weeping Willows
- onSeptember 25, 2020
- Vol.49 Autumn 2020
- byKwon Yeo-sun
- The Quarterly Changbi 188 (Summer 2020)
Tr. Jamie Chang 2020
They decided to check out the stream by the inn and make their way up into the mountain. They talked about this and that, then Chaewoon asked: Banhee, when I was little, did you ever go away some place far on your own?
On my own?
Not far, but I did run away from home once.
And then what did you do?
Banhee appreciated Chaewoon not asking why she ran away from home. She said, Byungseok called and texted when I didn’t come home that night.
And then what happened?
I didn’t text him back, so Myungwoon texted me.
What did he say?
Where are you, why aren’t you home yet?
So did you answer Brother, I mean, Myungwoon?
I didn’t reply to his texts, either.
At first it sounded like he was worried, but then the texts got shorter and shorter and it just sounded like he was angry.
Shorter? Haha! What did he say?
What’s going on? What’s gotten into you, Mom? Dad’s really pissed! Argh, do whatever you want!
Chaewoon laughed out loud.
How old was he then?
Chaewoon secretly did the math with her fingers. She must have been in the third grade. Ten years old.
And then what happened?
And then . . . I waited a few more hours and went back home.
What? That’s so lame.
You should have at least spent the night someplace else. Why did you come home so soon?
Banhee gave Chaewoon a look.
Well, I got a text that you were crying.
Really? Was I really crying? Or did Dad, I mean, Byungseok, and Myungwoon trick you?
No. When I came home, you came running out crying. It looked like you’d been crying a lot.
But you came running over to me, and then stopped right in front of me, and turned your head.
Haha, dang. Chaewoon stopped in her tracks. I was pissed at you, huh?
That’s right. You wouldn’t look me in the eye for twenty minutes after that. You followed me around the house, but when I tried to look at your face, you wouldn’t let me.
Why was I being such a baby?
You were still sad. I understood how you felt.
But I couldn’t understand how you felt.
You weren’t supposed to at that age. I would have been far more miserable if you did.
Why don’t I remember crying?
I must have comforted you really well. Not even the tiniest bit of resentment left.
Getting kind of cocky, Banhee. I don’t think that’s it.
You don’t? Banhee laughed, Strange. Being cocky is the one thing I haven’t been good at my whole life.
Nope. You’re very, very good.
They came upon a narrow path in the woods, and Chaewoon led the way. Banhee asked as she followed, Is there anything in your life you’re having trouble with?
Having trouble with . . . lots of things. Hmm . . . food!
What about food?
Can’t believe I thought of something so stupid. Well, I don’t seem like that sort of person, but when there’s something good to eat, I can’t just eat with abandon. Without worrying about other people.
I wonder why that’s hard for you.
What do you mean? Chaewoon turned around and gave Banhee a mean look. I get it from you, Banhee.
Okay, I hear you. I’ve gotten better at it.
I don’t think so.
Really? I do try to eat whatever I want without concern for others.
That’s because you live by yourself. It’s not just about food. This morning, for instance. You were standing out in the street. You made kimbap. You brought all this food for us.
Because I’m too concerned about other people?
Exactly. Too self-conscious. You’re still very self-conscious, Mom.
That one’s hard to beat. I thought I got rid of it living by myself.
Ooh! Chaewoon clapped. Mom, what if we try this today?
At dinner, let’s fight over food. Like really go for it. No letting the other person have another piece. We’ll eat like ravenous animals.
Okay. We’ll train hardcore.
You’re getting tired, aren’t you? Should we head back down?
Sunlight was filtering here and there through the branches on the way up, and yet shadows were already descending over the hillsides. Chaewoon wondered on the way down if the day Banhee described was the same day she remembered. Chaewoon simply could not remember crying that day. Perhaps the day she remembered was more imagination than memory. The important thing was the years from third to eleventh grade. Her arms hanging at her sides, Chaewoon counted slowly with her fingers. Eight years. Her mother stuck it out for eight years. And from eleventh grade to the present day—she counted with her fingers—was seven years. Holy hell, it’s only been seven years since Mom moved out? Chaewoon couldn’t believe it. Eight years for Mom and seven years for her. Chaewoon somehow felt cheated.
While Chaewoon drove down to pick up liquor, Banhee prepared food. She prepared the broth for the dumpling soup she planned to make, and warmed up the pot stickers and kimchi pancakes. She arranged the seasoned vegetables on one serving dish and put out a good amount of pigweed.
Banhee had a smoke as she waited out in the yard for Chaewoon to return. The air was nippy and the surroundings were dark. Except for the occasional chirp of a bird or the rustle and snap of branches and the whoosh of wind, she sat in perfect, unadulterated silence. Without noise, it was as if time had stopped as well. Banhee heard a faint hum coming from a great distance. The sound was getting closer. Chaewoon was driving up. Time began to flow again. Banhee’s heart began to race as if something wondrous had happened. Her old self sitting alone in the silent woods was just as difficult to believe as her young Chaewoon coming up the mountain road in her car. She couldn’t believe they would be meeting soon and that they’d been spending the night together in these dark woods. Banhee clenched her fists as if to hang onto this moment forever, and whispered to herself as if vowing never to forget,
Chaewoon is coming to me. Chaewoon is coming.
Chaewoon slapped her chopsticks on the table.
This is no fun. We’re bad at fighting.
I agree, Banhee admitted.
Let’s just eat the way we normally eat, Mom.
Banhee wasted no time putting the last dumpling in the pot on Chaewoon’s plate.
Wow. See, this we’re good at.
Yes. And you can’t beat me.
You do hold an impressive record.
While Chaewoon did the dishes, Banhee washed up in the bathroom. She dried her feet with a towel and put it away so it wouldn’t get mixed up with Chaewoon’s towel. Banhee peeled fruit while Chaewoon washed up. Chaewoon said she was bored without her computer and phone, and flicked through the TV channels.
What are you up to these days, Banhee? Now that you’re not working at the sports center anymore?
At first, I just slept and stayed home, but I’m working for a deli.
You’re working at a deli?
No, I don’t work at the deli, but it’s close enough to my place that I can make simple dishes for them. Like a supplier.
Wow, really? I had no idea.
I just started.
What dishes do you make?
It was just spring onion kimchi at first, but the owner asked me to try other stuff as well, so now I’m making cucumber kimchi, chive kimchi, and the pigweed pickle we had for dinner.
Do you like it?
Too soon to tell.
Wow, Mom! Look at that, Chaewoon pointed at the TV. I’ve been there! It’s called the Upo Swamp. The view is incredible.
Golden reeds and wetlands stretched on as large white birds with long legs walked gracefully along the water. The corners of their eyes were red.
I didn’t see those birds when I was there. That must be the Ttaogi, the Crested ibis. Chaewoon turned the volume up and said, Mom, the Ttaogi bird really goes ttaog, ttaog!
The bird must have gotten its name from the sound of its song, but Chaewoon was impressed as if the similarity were an amazing coincidence.
Mom, listen! It goes ttaog, ttaog! Wow, can’t believe the Ttaogi bird actually goes ttaog, ttaog.
Banhee couldn’t help herself and burst into laughter. Chaewoon, puzzled, laughed with her.
Do you watch TV at home, Mom?
I don’t get the sense that you’re a TV person.
I watch TV quite often these days.
What do you watch?
Documentaries. Nature documentaries. There’s a channel devoted to that.
I knew it! That’s why you knew that Ttaogi birds cry ttaog, ttaog.
And you get all smug like you were born knowing all that. Tell me about an interesting animal you saw on TV. Name one. See if I know.
There’s a fish that lives deep in the ocean.
The top of its head is transparent.
Mm-hmm. Like the cockpit of an airplane with a spherical glass shield.
Yep, said Banhee, stroking the top of an invisible ball with both hands.
The surprising thing is that the structure helps the fish see better, as with cockpits. Fish have eyes on the sides of their body so they can’t see above them. But this fish must find out if a bigger fish is swimming above it so as to survive. So it turned its own brain into jelly and made it transparent.
Jelly brain, really?
Fish can’t make glass, so it turned its brain as transparent as glass so its vision could see through the brain. The head isn’t completely transparent. More like frosted glass. That’s enough to see large shadows swimming above it.
Wow. What’s it called?
I don’t know the name. Maybe most fish that live at those depths have evolved that way.
It’s pretty astonishing, though. The idea of turning its own head into jelly.
Chaewoon brought two cans of beer from the fridge. The two clinked cans and drank.
Mom, if fish can change like that . . . Chaewoon started with a serious look. Humans—we always look ahead of us—could also turn our brains into jelly if our predators always attacked from behind.
Well, turning the brain into jelly is a pretty difficult technique, so maybe humans will evolve to turn our heads 180 degrees really fast. Neck bones that spin 360 degrees.
Haha! You’re a genius, Mom! This is why people need to learn. It’s so fun talking with you. Women walking home late at night could spin their heads around to see if someone’s following them. Wouldn’t that be great?
Well, I don’t know, Chaewoon, Banhee said worriedly. People could turn around and look even now if they wanted to, but they can’t because they’re scared. Not because their necks don’t spin.
Really? So our only option is to turn our brains into jelly?
Right. And you’d have to shave off half your head.
Darn, you’re right. That would be a strange sight. Women walking around with half their heads like that. Like aliens.
Chaewoon was deep in thought for a moment, then said, Why do we think we turned out to be people who can’t fight over food, Mom?
Hmm. Banhee thought about it and said, Maybe the same reason as fish. To protect ourselves. To survive however we can.
Why so many sad stories in the world, damn it? Chaewoon took a long gulp of her beer and said, I wonder how much I’ve changed from what I originally was.
Banhee could not give her an answer.
The night was long in the mountains. Chaewoon drank a steady stream of beer while Banhee had to take a break in the middle because she was full.
Mom, Dad can’t stand it when I’m not talking. Even when both Brother and I aren’t talking, he only asks me what’s wrong, why am I not talking.
As Chaewoon got a buzz, it seemed she’d completely forgotten about their plan to refer to each other by their names.
Then what do you say to him? Banhee asked.
I say nothing’s wrong. I’m being my usual self.
I wish you wouldn’t say that, Banhee said.
It’s not easy.
It’s not easy. Banhee said after a moment, You know, it’s not easy for me either. Today, as I watched you drive and navigate so well, I thought that you’re trusty for a daughter. Better than a son. The thought just came to me naturally. And then I panicked and started sweating, worried I would actually say it out loud. I don’t know why I keep having these thoughts.
Chaewoon got up and fetched more beers from the fridge.
Mom, aren’t you going to ask me about Dad remarrying? Aren’t you curious who the woman is?
Is it a pride thing? Chaewoon asked.
No, Banhee said firmly. I’m just not that interested in Byungseok.
Do you still hate him?
I don’t hate him, but I’m just trying not to think about him so much. I hope Byungseok doesn’t think about me, either. Not just him, but people in general. I don’t want to draw attention. I don’t want to be all that visible.
Even me? Chaewoon’s eyes were wide.
Not you, Banhee said. Everyone except you. That’s why I meet up with you, Chaewoon.
Is that why you don’t go to Grandma’s?
Grandma to you, parents to me.
Fine. Your parents’.
I want to protect myself for now. Concern, meddling, whatever you call it, it feels like abuse. Like insults. My goal is to live a secure, quiet life safe from these things. This is my last shred of dignity, and I want to hold onto it until the day I die.
Wow, came Chaewoon’s short reply.
My mother—let’s call her Jungsook, Banhee continued even though she felt she was a bit drunk. According to Jungsook, I was such an easy child from the start. I did as I was told, played dead when told to die. I thought that was a good thing. I studied as I was told, went to a good college as I was told, and got a job and made money as I was told. I couldn’t put my foot down, argue with someone, or get something out of somebody. That must have been tough. I couldn’t change anything and nothing changed on its own, so I must have wanted to run away. I could have just ran away, but I made the mistake of running away through marriage. I was exactly your age, Chaewoon. Chunyoung and Jungsook were strongly opposed to the idea when I told them I was marrying at twenty-five. They said I was selfish. That I was going off and abandoning my younger siblings. When I divorced, Chunyoung and Jungsook were strongly against that, too. That I was spoiled. That I was abandoning my husband with his good paychecks and my smart son. I was most worried about you, Chaewoon, but I divorced anyway. I guess I am selfish. I thought I would die if I didn’t. I wanted to recover at least some parts of myself before I died.
Wow, wow. I am feeling so conflicted. So conflicted because you’re so clear about this, Mom. This is really tough for me, too. But I also understand you. I understand that I understand you. But you know, there are times when I suddenly really hate you, then feel so sorry for you, then it makes me crazy, and then I feel like you’ve died. It feels like a rock on my chest and I can’t breathe. I get feverish and break into a cold sweat. When I was young—I don’t know if that was the time you talked about today and I don’t know if it really happened—but I felt that you were gone. I was just sitting in my room when I felt with such certainty that you were no longer around. I don’t remember crying, but I realized you were gone and I couldn’t breathe.
Chaewoon, Banhee called, surprised.
Mom, I think “future perfect” is the saddest phrase in the world. I think I began to know at some point. That you would be leaving us. That you would leave and I would have to live without you. When you really divorced and left when I was in eleventh grade, that was the “future perfect” I had imagined. You gone and me alone at home. I think I knew this was coming, but pretended not to see it. And then an even worse “future perfect” happened not long after that. Something that hasn’t happened yet but you see happening. That feeling is so real it drives me mad. One day, you’re dead and gone, and I’m standing on an unfamiliar path on my own. When I think of this, it hurts so badly I can’t breathe.
Chaewoon, Banhee grabbed Chaewoon’s hand. Is that why you stopped the car today? Look at me!
Chaewoon looked at Banhee. Chaewoon’s eyes were as red as a Ttaogi bird’s, but weren’t teary. It rather looked as if there was fire inside her eyes.
Mom, you love me, right?
Banhee nodded. She couldn’t speak.
I know. When I look at you, Mom, I see you love me. And it’s hard on you because you love me. I love you, too, Mom. So it’s hard on me, too. But Mom, maybe I’m too dumb to figure this out, but why is loving someone not nice and happy? Why is this nightmare what you gain as a result of loving someone? You don’t have to suffer like this if you don’t love anyone, you can just hate people. So why do we love? Why do we carry on with this stupid love? The kind of love that stops you breathing, and even from crying? Why this love?
Chaewoon jumped to her feet and ran into the bathroom clutching her chest.
Kwon Yeo-sun (b. 1965) is the author of four novels: The Blue Opening, House of Clay Figurines, Legato, and, most recently, Lemon; five short story collections: The Virgin Skirt, Pink Ribbon Days, Red Fruits in My Garden, The Nutmeg Forest, and Hello, Drunkard; and a book of essays: What Do We Eat Today? She has received the Sangsang Literary Award, Oh Yeongsu Literature Award, Yi Sang Literary Prize, Hankook Ilbo Literary Award, Tong-ni Literature Prize, and Lee Hyo-seok Literary Award. The Japanese translation of Hello, Drunkard was published by Shinkansha in 2018.