The Song of the Earth
- onOctober 18, 2016
- Vol.33 Autumn 2016
- byLee Seung-U
- The Song of the Earth
Hu did not see the earth swallow the people. He was somewhere else when it happened. People said he was lucky, but from time to time he thought, It would’ve been better if the earth had swallowed me up. The thought came to him when he felt helpless or humiliated living above ground. He himself couldn’t really understand how he felt, wondering, It can’t be that different under the ground, but how do I know when I’ve never been down there? Sometimes he suddenly thought out loud, I wonder how those people are doing down there, even though there was no chance they were alive. When he did this, he would look around him, flustered.
He didn’t see the earth swallow the people, but he did not doubt it happened. It wasn’t just that the people who had seen it happen told him about it. When he returned to the village, part of it was gone. Houses were gone, and the school was gone. Fields and rice paddies were gone. The two-hundred-year-old willow tree at the mouth of the village was gone, and the village hall with the New Village flag flapping in the wind was gone. One side of the village around the brook, which cut across the village, got buried in the earth. Everything was wiped out clean and it was hard to find any traces of the people who had once lived there. There weren’t even any cracks in the ground. According to the people who had witnessed the bizarre incident, the ground around the community well suddenly cracked wide open around noon, and everything above the ground got sucked in instantly. They said it looked as if an enormous beast had quietly opened its gigantic mouth and swallowed the village whole. It happened suddenly, without any sign or warning, so no one who had been there escaped the wide-open mouth of the enormous beast. Hu’s father and mother were no exception, of course. The earth that had swallowed up thirteen houses and twenty-seven victims was silent, as if nothing had happened. The only indication of what had taken place was a ravine-like crater at the spot where the houses had stood. The villagers who lived in the right side of the village, which hadn’t been destroyed, evacuated in case of additional destruction and raised a fence around the crater, with about seven hundred meters in between. Red warning signs saying, “Danger! Do not approach,” went up here and there. Soldiers guarded the fence.
Hu went up to the fence and tried to see where his house used to be. He tried to see where the New Community flag and the willow tree used to be. The canyon below feigned innocence. He couldn’t tell where he should look. It’s dangerous. Get away from there, a soldier said, beckoning while walking up to him. Hu waited until he was near, then asked, Where’s the village hall? The soldier lifted his chin and laughed, as if to say it was a funny question, then said firmly, There’s no such thing. Go home, kid. Hu said, That’s where I live, pointing downward. An odd look, the kind that comes on people’s faces when they can’t tell whether they should believe something, crossed the soldier’s face. If he believed Hu, he would have to get serious, and if he didn’t, he would have to get angry. He looked part serious and part angry, but in reality, he was neither serious nor angry. He merely readjusted his hat and once again told Hu to leave. What determined his action was the humiliation that would come upon him if his judgment turned out to be wrong, the possibility of being a laughingstock for taking a stranger’s words seriously, or being embarrassed for not believing him and getting angry at him. He decided not to make any kind of a judgment. Before leaving, Hu said, I used to live there, I really did. The soldier did not reply.
Hu was born in the village, and lived there for fifteen years before leaving three years ago. He remembered a night three years ago when the rain poured down fiercely as if to wash away everything in the world. The world was dark, as if the devil had cast a black veil upon it. The village was in deep slumber. It thundered now and then, but the sound was buried in the pouring rain. Intimidated by the heavy rain, not even the dogs would bark. There was only one place from which light came. The light, leaking out through the shop’s glass door, struggled to make its way out through the thick rain, woven like a tight bamboo curtain. But the light was weak in the face of the heavy rain. Hu thought the weather was helping him. He rationalized what he was about to do, telling himself the weather was helping him because he was doing the right thing. He hid behind the tall two-hundred-year-old willow tree, and glared at the village hall where the shop was. He was wearing a raincoat and crouching under a leafy tree, but his body was wet with rain. The willow leaves were thick but the rain was thicker. Rain seeped into his sneakers. He moved now and then, shaking off the water.
He was waiting for Lieutenant Pak. He was certain Pak would show up. Whether it was groceries or school supplies, the shop was the only place that sold them. Even liquor was sold only there. What you couldn’t find there, you had to go to town to buy. Pak came to the shop in the evenings to buy some snacks and drinks. Sometimes he sat down for some ramen and soju. He had shown up two nights before, but not alone. Hu had been waiting behind the willow tree that night as well, but he couldn’t go up to Pak because there were others around. Hu merely watched, following from a distance as the soldiers in plain clothes walked toward the beach where the guard post was, drunk and singing. But tonight, he told himself he had to go through with it, whether or not there were others around. If he didn’t, he’d never have another opportunity. He knew that when morning broke, Pak would leave the village. He was in a hurry, thinking he would regret it forever if he let Pak go without doing anything. The fear that was rising in a corner of his heart seemed to vanish when he told himself it was his last chance. That was why he kept waiting behind the willow tree in the dark, even with the rain pouring down so menacingly.
He was thinking that Pak might not show up because of the bad weather, so when he saw Pak walking toward the shop, he was so glad he almost stepped forward to say hello. Pak was with two soldiers, wearing military ponchos. He was right; they were celebrating Pak’s last night there with a party. He thought that God was giving him this chance, because what he was about to do was the right thing. He encouraged himself, consciously trying to think such thoughts.
Pak walked quickly toward the shop. Hu could feel his brisk steps going past the willow leaves that hung down to the ground and tightened his grip on the knife he was holding to his chest. Pak was right in front of his eyes. What are you waiting for? Run out now, and use what you have in your hand, urged a voice inside him. Isn’t that why you were hiding on this dark night, in this awful rain? What, you can’t because there are others with him? What a coward. Who cares? You may never get another chance. You know that tomorrow, he’ll be gone. . . but louder than the voice was the sound of his pounding heart. He gritted his teeth but they wouldn’t stay still. His upper and lower teeth clinked together, making a great noise. He was shivering all over. He couldn’t get a grip on himself. It wasn’t because of the cold. Something urged him forward, but something else tied his feet down. As he hesitated, Pak and the others entered the shop. Hu bit his lip and smacked himself on the head.
Hu didn’t take his eyes off the glass door of the shop. Normally, he would have been able to see the faint movements on the other side of the glass door, but the thick rain made it impossible to see anything. He tried to picture what was on the other side of the door. They must be clinking glasses together, celebrating Pak’s discharge. They must be singing pop songs, not military songs. They must be drinking soju, with military biscuits and cookies on the side. There might be a pot of ramen in front of them . . .
Hu remembered the military biscuits and ramen Pak had treated him to. Every time they met, Pak would stuff a packet of biscuits into his pocket, and buy him cookies or pastries. Sometimes they sat face to face at the wooden table at the shop and ate ramen together. Military biscuits and cookies were nice, but the ramen was so good that Hu would nearly loose his senses. He had never known that something so good existed in the world, and was happy that he could eat something that good, and thought Pak must be a really good person. Ramen tasted different from anything else. It wasn’t like noodles, and it wasn’t like wheat flake soup, either. It was something that had never existed before. It had been just a little over ten years since ramen had first been produced. It was in 1963 that the president of a food company brought over two machines from Japan and began to manufacture ramen, but it hadn’t made its way to the remote village where Hu lived. If not for Pak, it still wouldn’t have made its way there. After Hu polished off every morsel and drop, Pak would grin and ask if it was good. Hu felt embarrassed, thinking Pak was laughing at him for gobbling it down, but he had to nod. There were things you couldn’t hide no matter how hard you tried, and ramen was at the top of the list, Hu thought.
It was Pak who first introduced ramen to the village. Pak returned from his leave with a box of ramen he’d bought in the city. He cooked some for the village foreman and the shop manager, and urged that ramen be added to the list of items to be stocked up at the shop. He guaranteed that as long as he was at the seaside guard post, he would buy at least one box of ramen a month, and in fact, he bought more than one box each month. Sometimes he ordered it to eat at the shop, and sometimes he cooked it himself at the guard post.
Hu once had some ramen at the guard post. Can I come in? he asked with his eyes wide open, and Pak said, Technically, no. What should I do, then? Hu asked again, and Pak said, Technically you can’t, but for you, I’ll make an exception. Then he said, Because you’re special, and added, And because we’re going to have some ramen. Hu couldn’t understand everything he said, but he did understand that they were going to have some ramen, and when he understood that it didn’t seem to be a problem that he didn’t understand the other things, he asked no further. The inside of the guard post, standing on a hill overlooking the sea, was surprisingly cozy. It was warm and quiet, like another world. Inside the barracks, you couldn’t even hear the sound of waves. There were three bunk beds, and cooking equipment in the kitchen. There were six soldiers altogether who had been dispatched to the guard post. They took turns standing guard, two at a time. Pak was the commander at the seaside guard post. As Pak entered, a soldier who had been lying on his bed in sweats, reading a magazine, jumped to his feet and saluted.
“Private first class Jang, cook up two orders of ramen. My little guest here likes an egg in his,” Pak ordered, hardly acknowledging the salute, and Private first class Jang made his way swiftly into the kitchen. Pak took out some biscuits from a locker by the bed and handed them to Hu. Hu munched on them until Private Jang brought out the ramen. The biscuits were savory and soft, but anticipating the ramen made it almost impossible for him to really taste them. His saliva turned the crunchy biscuits soggy, but welled up as he anticipated the ramen he would soon be tasting.
I shouldn’t have eaten. I shouldn’t have eaten the military biscuits, or the ramen . . . Hu reproached himself, knocking his head against the wet willow tree. The tree bark, swollen from the rainwater, smashed into pieces and stuck to his forehead.
For a long time after he became an adult, Hu couldn’t eat ramen. Just the smell of it made him sick, and he would have to leave the room. Ramen was something that stirred up guilt in him. The thought that what happened to Yeonhui wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t been so crazy about ramen, if he hadn’t eaten the ramen Pak gave him, if he had never known the taste of ramen, was groundless. You couldn’t say that it didn’t have anything to do with it, but if it did, it could be compared to the flap of a butterfly’s wings in Seoul causing a typhoon in New York. The typhoon would occur even without the flap of the butterfly’s wings. Trivial factors that wouldn’t be a problem had there been no typhoon became important factors because a typhoon did occur. This system in which the outcome called for causes at random tended to be supported and reinforced by psychological factors. In other words, the irregularity and spontaneity of human mentality created the basis for connecting nearly everything that happened in the world to nearly everything else that happened in the world.
What happened to Yeonhui would have happened even if he hadn’t eaten the ramen. There was no direct cause-and-effect relationship between his eating the ramen and what happened to Yeonhui. So he didn’t have to feel guilty. But if what happened to Yeonhui happened even if he hadn’t eaten the ramen, he would have thought of something else he’d done, and taken that to be the reason for the incident and blamed himself. Anything would have been reason enough. He would have looked for anything to make himself guilty. He would even have made something up. What he needed was a sense of guilt. If he didn’t feel a sense of guilt, a sense of guilt would have tortured him. He wouldn’t have been able to endure himself if he hadn’t felt a sense of guilt. Torturing himself with a made up sense of guilt was better than torturing himself and feeling guilty for not feeling any guilt. He needed a sense of guilt in order to evade a sense of guilt.
One day, Pak asked Hu, who was eating ramen, Won’t you bring your cousin here? Hu asked, My cousin? Wouldn’t she want some ramen, too? Pak asked, as if he really wanted to know. Hu didn’t know whether Yeonhui would want some ramen. He thought she might, and he thought she might not. But what Pak had said seemed somewhat unnatural, for some reason. Doubtless, Yeonhui had never had ramen. They had never cooked ramen at home. When Hu had pestered his mother for some ramen, his mother had scolded him, saying why they should pay money for something like that, and boiled some potatoes for him instead. Hu said that he didn’t know whether his cousin would want some ramen or not, but didn’t think she would dislike it if she had some. Pak mumbled as if to himself, You can’t like or dislike something when you don’t know it very well, then said furtively to Hu, If you like your cousin, shouldn’t you share something that’s good? Hu flushed, taken aback, for he felt accused of being selfish for not sharing with his cousin. That wasn’t the case, but it was strangely difficult to explain himself. He felt uncomfortable, as if something he’d been hiding had been found out. Without giving him time to think about what that something was, Pak went on, saying, Wouldn’t your cousin feel disappointed if she knew? His tone was softer than ever, but still, Hu felt cornered. It wasn’t that he thought he should refuse, but Pak was so coercive that he couldn’t refuse. Hu nodded. Why don’t you finish the rest, Pak said, pushing the pot of ramen toward him. But Hu didn’t finish, and put down his chopsticks.
Yeonhui’s immediate reaction upon hearing what Hu said was, Are you crazy? Then she said, Do you think I’m crazy, that I’d go there? Hu told her that Pak was a good man, that he was good to him. For some reason he felt embarrassed about asking her if she knew how good ramen was, so he didn’t. It wasn’t just because he remembered what Pak had said, that you couldn’t like or dislike something when you didn’t know it very well. In his mind he thought she just didn’t know how good ramen was, that she would change her mind if she tried it, but something he couldn’t put his finger on prevented him from saying it out loud. He felt it wouldn’t be honorable to say something like that, and that she might be disappointed.
“Tell him. That we’re not beggars. That he shouldn’t look down on people just because they live out in the country. And you shouldn’t go around letting someone feed you something like that. Don’t you have any sense of shame?” Yeonhui was so firm that Hu couldn’t say anything more, and hung his head.
Hu, however, couldn’t tell Pak what Yeonhui had said, that they weren’t beggars. To say that, he had to acknowledge he had been a beggar, and he didn’t want to. Hu thought his cousin was being too negative, too emotional. He thought she just didn’t know ramen or Pak well enough; she would change her mind if she did. Hu just told Pak his cousin didn’t want ramen. Pak frowned, as if thinking it over, then smiled, and said, Well, what can you do. But what he did was different from what he said. He took Hu to the shop and bought him a box of ramen and said, Take this home and share it with your cousin. Hu thought his cousin wouldn’t accept, and he wasn’t wrong. Yeonhui sent the box of ramen straightaway back to the shop.
Translated by Jung Yewon
Lee Seung-U, a former student of theology, made his literary debut in 1981 with the novella A Portrait of Erysichthon. Throughout his career, Lee has maintained an interest in theological and metaphysical issues, which is reflected in his writing style that meticulously depicts the inner workings of the human soul. His works deal with questions about morals arising in quotidian life as well as more universal issues concerning God, salvation, and guilt. In particular, Lee’s novels since 2000 have inquired into the meaning of reality and the everyday, thereby bringing together the sacred and the secular, and the mind and the body. Published translations of his books include The Reverse Side of Life (Peter Owen, 2005), La vie rêvée des plantes (Gallimard, 2009), Ici comme ailleurs (Gallimard, 2013), and The Private Life of Plants (Dalkey Archive, 2015).