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FICTION

“His House”

  • onNovember 10, 2014
  • Vol.5 Autumn 2009
  • byPark Wansuh
Kindhearted Bokhee
2008
302pp.

The following excerpt is from the short story “His House” in Park Wansuh’s short story collection Kindhearted Bokhee. The short story was first published in the 2002 summer issue of Literature and Society, and it was the basis of Park’s novel His House, published in 2004. The novel is a semi-autobiographical exploration of the writer’s first great love during her twenties.


 

That summer, even in the midst of the North Korean invasion, his older brother managed to maintain a stable status and avoid becoming a target of the purges. Still, as they say, we each have but two legs, and a man can only straddle one line at a time: when the People’s Army beat their retreat, he followed them north. It was a solo defection at first; he left his wife and children behind, along with his elderly parents.

The world, however, was soon turned inside out again, and when the People’s Army returned that following winter, reoccupying Seoul, the older brother showed up too, ready to take his family back with him. His wife and children could have been willing, but his parents were a different story – their youngest had been conscripted by the South during the North’s retreat. In fact, it was his presence in the national army that saved the family from much of the harassment their eldest’s defection would have caused. It was quite a dilemma, no single solution presenting itself, and, in the end, the old couple chose to part ways. They decided that the father would go North with the older son and his family; the mother would remain, waiting for the youngest to come home.

This is how the young man, returning with an honorable discharge and a wound in his thigh, found only his elderly mother left all alone in that huge house. She’d become a snowy-haired old granny in his absence, but he failed to take her in his arms or shed a single tear; instead he berated her, railing at her for staying behind just to reap the rewards of his filial gratitude.

How free he would be if only that old woman weren’t around – just thinking about it suffocated him, and he continued to berate her, day in, day out.

Just barely recovered from being turned inside out, the world, in the blink of an eye, was turned upside down again, and then, again, over once more; tossing and turning, rattling around the cracks of this topsy-turvy time, such things happened to our family, too. Just like they happened to his family. After all, when the gargantuan body of a so-called nation flips itself over and over, like a fish in a pan, how many of its subjects can possibly hope to survive unscathed?

So, you see, we never felt even the tiniest bit sorry for one another. The pain we endured was an everyday kind of thing: a table set with rice and kimchi. If there’d been even one family left completely whole, a family with no one dead, no one lost, I don’t know what we would have done; unable to stand the smug complacency of such a sight, we might have hatched a plot to kidnap one of them ourselves – an only son, maybe.

It was a sleepless night for me. The light of the carbide lamp quivering, pale across his beautiful face; his delicate expression, looking at once haughty and melancholy; his firm body, apparent even through the bulky parka: I felt a dangerous wind well up within me. Neither one of us ever wasted any energy on feeling sorry for the other, but I think we did sense something: the echo of fate, perhaps, reverberating through our parallel misfortunes. Like a girl who meets a gust of wind in the street and suddenly feels her skirt balloon up around her, I was torn; I yearned to soar, to float up into the air, but at the same time I wanted to yank my skirt back down, to sink to the floor in shame.

To save firewood, everyone in our family slept together in the main bedroom. They were deep in sleep, these few survivors, and I listened to the rhythm of their peaceful breathing: two widows, two little ones.

Actually, the relief of hitting rock bottom might have been something quite different from peace; but peace – it’s just so much holier than the grief of the survivor.

And so I stood firm, fighting against my longing for the danger that whirled inside me.

He waited for me almost every day in front of the American army base. The day laborers there were a motley crew, ranging from the truly ignorant to college graduates, but they all had one thing in common; they all had something to hide. Many were draft dodgers. It may not have been official, but with a military uniform and an ID full of curly English letters, all you needed were a few tricks and some big talk to evade any inspections. The worn and the ragged, so unsure of themselves, were always curious about the handsome young man, so suited to his uniform, so healthy, so confident. It would have been better if he hadn’t claimed we were related, calling me his young cousin. No one believed it. Any “disabled” veteran with all his limbs intact became the object of much envy and resentment.

Let them think what they liked – we enjoyed such things. Our happiness was elevated by such things. The way silks and jewels are pointless if no one sees and envies them, a lover that fails to inspire envy might be no better than no lover at all. The handsomer he looked, the prettier I wanted to be. I could feel the sap beginning to rise in my body.

He said I was like a pearl.

Pearly eyes, pearly tears, pearly dew, pearly waves... No matter where you put it, it made the word shine.

The winter of that year became the pearl of my life.

Besides Angam Stream, there weren’t many places for lovers to go. We’d both just become university students, but before we ever had a chance to get used to that spot forbidden to high-schoolers, the war broke out, leaving Seoul in ruins. It was sheer luck that the theater survived.

During wartime the theater was never heated. He would kneel down at my side and turn his woolen gloves inside out, putting them over the tips of my feet. If you turn just the palm of a glove inside out, the five fingers stay bunched up inside; when you put that on over the tips of your feet, it doesn’t matter how frozen your toes are – they thaw, softening, warming up gently. I wonder how he ever thought up something so marvelous. It killed two birds with one stone; not only did my toes get warmer, I got to taste the satisfaction of being cherished.

We usually went to Joongang Theater, so more often than not we would launch ourselves out into the streets of Myeongdong once the movie was over. The roads were completely demolished and almost everyone had evacuated the city; even in the residential areas, most of the houses stood empty. The silvery lights of Myeong-dong in wartime felt something other than real. Under those lights, like a pair of fluttering moths, we drank in the freedom of it all.

We found a fancy tearoom to frequent; we discovered an expensive bakery; we learned the fun of shopping for useless trinkets at a Western-style boutique. Myeong-dong had other diversions to offer, too. There was an extravagant, imposing jeweler’s, patronized by the kind of high-class women who set up house with American officers. In one spacious corner of the shop there was a cozy little alcove, decorated like a parlor. Even from outside you could see the customers there, wearing their sensual makeup, elegantly crossing their legs like western movie stars, delighting in the owner’s fawning. We never did see anyone just look at the wares, so we could never work up the nerve to go inside. But, you see, we didn’t need to; every precious piece of jewelry I marked as my own, standing there, glued to the shop window – it would all be mine someday.

His extravagant promise meant more to me than any jewel. 

 


* Translated by Chun Kyung-ja.

Author's Profile

Park Wansuh (1931~2011) was one of Korea’s most revered writers. She debuted at the age of forty and wrote over a hundred novels and short stories in a career that spanned almost forty years. She received several prestigious awards, including the Republic of Korea’s Geumgwan Order of Cultural Merit. Recently published translations of her books include Who Ate up All the Shinga? (Columbia University Press, 2009), Lonesome You (Dalkey Archive, 2013), and Was that Mountain Really There? (Kitaab, 2018).