To Dream of a Mountain
- onAugust 3, 2016
- Vol.32 Summer 2016
- byPark Wansuh
- To Dream of a Mountain
Sister-in-law changed the dressing for the bullet hole in Brother’s leg in the main room. His calf was skinny but the hole was fresh and deep. The old gauze dressing, a centimeter wide, spiraled out endlessly from the hole, and the new one seemed to go in inch after inch with no end in sight. The suffocating pain of watching probably added to that feeling. It was difficult not to wish the bullet had pierced his heart instead. It was a fiery yet chilling thought. Brother asked what I saw outside.
“Nothing. I didn’t see anyone,” I replied. “We’re the only ones left. There are no signs of other people. Seoul is completely empty, but it looks like the North Korean army hasn’t entered yet.”
“That can’t be. Why don’t you go out and check?” Brother asked his wife.
She wrapped the old dressing that was stained with sticky ointment and blotches of dark blood in a sheet of newspaper and went out. Brother’s anxiety made the waiting seem to last forever. When she returned after making us wait for a long time, she reported something completely nonsensical.
“There’s a well right in front of the house. The water looks quite dark and deep.”
“I want to know if you saw any people! Any North or South Korean soldiers?” Brother cried.
She shook her head. Unable to stand Brother’s pestering, the three of us, including Mom, rotated in and out to watch the movements of the outside world, but we didn’t see a soul. His anxiety increased by the day. He didn’t even let us cook rice or go out.
“D...don’t you see which flag is on the flagpole? A...are you stinking blind?”
Brother started to stutter. It was a weak, empty sound, as if he were drawing it from inside, but to me, it sounded like an outcry. What he wanted to find out so anxiously finally became very clear to me. He didn’t want to know if there were other families aside from our own in the city; he wanted to know whose rule we were under. We were sent out in turn to find out if the sky we had over our heads belonged to the Republic of Korea or the Democratic People’s Republic. Other buildings besides the prison had flagpoles, but nothing fluttered on them. The South Korean army retreated after evacuating all the residents and left Seoul empty, but curiously, the North Korean army hadn’t made its entry yet. Was Seoul in a political vacuum, then? A vacuum state of ideology? Brother couldn’t follow the political right or left, lost favor with both, floundered in the cracks, and ended up like this. A world with no ideological pressure should have felt euphoric to him, but he was more afraid of that euphoria than of being accused as a commie. As I watched him turn pale, grow anxious and lose his ability to speak by the minute, I thought that euphoria should swiftly brush past like a hallucination; stretching it on day after day was much too long.
The water in the well in front of the house was indeed dark and deep. The cylindrical wall of the well was frosted white, and it seemed pure, even holy. The well’s mouth, which had a rope hanging from it, was a cement pipe that came up to my chest. I was often surprised by the clear reflection of myself in the gloomy surface of the water. Did anyone ever imagine a world in which nobody had to take sides? My image in the well undeniably, unflinchingly reflected that I, too, was fearful. Just because I wasn’t stuttering didn’t mean I wasn’t afraid.
Our family couldn’t eat a bite until evening. We were all huddled on our bellies under the blankets because Brother wouldn’t let us light a fire since the smoke would escape from the chimney. Fortunately, there was some used coal and cold rice in the kitchen. Before it got dark, Sister-in-law lit the coal in the brazier and boiled the frozen rice that had swelled like plump white lilac blossoms. We could feed my young nephews, but we adults barely quenched our thirst with cloudy rice soup. We didn’t feel hungry and the little ones strangely didn’t fuss either. Brother’s stuttering didn’t get better. He seemed to be aware that it was getting worse. He often just stuttered and didn’t finish his sentence. Listening to that was torture. His wife must have felt worse. She and I meandered outside to avoid Brother and eventually squatted on the kitchen floor.
“We’re so lucky. There is a well in front of the house and there’s plenty of firewood, too.”
She must have been afraid that she also might start to stutter like Brother; she spoke slowly and clearly, as though she were fingering Braille letters. How could we be so unlucky? I could go crazy thinking about the misfortune that followed us around for two, three days until only our family was left in the city. How could she say we were lucky? But I meekly agreed with her. I could feel the presence of misfortune near us, so I thought we had to appear relaxed and bold in front of that monster.
The kitchen ceiling was made into an attic so the floor was deep. When we opened the plank door, stones the size of a cornerstone were stacked into stairs so we could step on them as we came down. Rash-like scabs of mud peered through the scraped spots of cement on the wood stove over which two iron cauldrons and one nickel cauldron hung. The iron cauldrons were permanently fixed, but the nickel cauldron was removable. The bottom of the stove was a coal furnace decked with an iron plate that collected the ashes. Underneath the raised wooden floor at the entrance of the kitchen was a pile of powdered coal that had blackened the kitchen floor, but the lids of the iron cauldrons gleamed as if they had been polished with sesame-seed oil. On the raised floor itself, however, a dining tray with a broken leg, a cement-mended jar, a half-broken sieve, an earthen steamer, a gourd bowl, a tin pail, a box and other things were haphazardly scattered about in neglect. We crouched down as if we were miners trapped at the end of a mineshaft relying on each other with no hope until all these things sunk into darkness.
“I gave him some sleeping pills after dinner, so he should be able to sleep,” she said to me when she noticed me trying to make out the noises in the room. There were some painkillers among the medicine that we got from Gupabal Hospital. I think that was what she was referring to.
“He should feel better after he gets a good night’s sleep,” I comforted her quite cheerfully. “Where do you think the front is right now?” she asked with a sigh. She, too, must have felt frustrated that we didn’t know for sure whose rule we were under. I wondered what the front line looked like. It was a place where mortal enemies were stationed with their guns fatally aimed at each other. It would be impossible to cross the invisible line without being riddled with bullets. But Brother did it. If he left as a people’s voluntary soldier and returned to the South Korean army region, he must have crossed the line somewhere at least once. Did he think he was invincible? It was only natural that he came back as a total wreck. The leg wound was only symbolic. There was no way to avoid my love for Brother and when this love overlapped with my cold aversion for the dead, I felt an anxious and repulsive shudder.
“Wait. I hear something.”
Gyoha was an area where two large rivers met. Big and small brooks that flowed to the river drenched the large, fertile fields of this village. We walked slowly along the melted river. The fact that there wasn’t a single place to run to for cover even if a plane suddenly flew by made us walk even more leisurely. We were amazed and felt like we were in a different world when we saw a woman washing clothes on the riverbank and little children playing and poking something into the mudflats. I didn’t even remember the last time I saw children playing outside. Plus, they seemed like normal children, not starving orphans.
I made Sister-in-law rest on a hillock and went down to the mudflat. The children were catching crabs. They were toying with the crabs they had strung on a line after battling numerous bites. I was a glutton for crabs ever since I was little. I would lose my mind at the sight of seasoned female crabs and scarf them down in a second. I also loved the fried male crabs. The flesh of the crabs was delicious but the shells that covered their flesh were all so indiscriminately and hideously ugly. Like a true aficionado, every time I ate crabs, I marveled at the intelligence of the primitives who first discovered the soft flesh inside those ugly shells. From afar, it looked like what the children were playing with were king crabs. But as I got closer, I realized they were neither king nor shore crabs. They were smaller than the king crabs but bigger than the shore crabs. They were much uglier than other kinds of crabs with needle-like hair spiking out from their legs. But in my eyes, they looked delicious. Right now wasn’t the season for king crabs but in the olden days when they were in season, the royal family ate crabs from this region of Paju.
I approached the children and asked what kind of crabs they were. They said they were mud crabs.
“Can you eat them?”
“Who would eat a crab like this?”
“Then why did you catch them?”
“So we can play with them. There are tons of them here.”
“Do you die if you eat them?”
“Why would you die? You don’t eat them because they’re not very tasty.”
Of course they would turn up their noses to inferior crabs. After all, this was the home of crabs for kings. Surprisingly, the children didn’t seem even a bit suspicious of new refugees like us.
There was quite a large village nearby. There were people walking on the road and working in the fields. It felt like a dream to see a village functioning normally like this. It didn’t look like there were vacant houses but we didn’t want to go anywhere else. One way or another, we wanted to latch closely onto a place with a lot of people. Not only were we envious of the prosperous atmosphere, we could also sense a secret bustling of freedom that was a bit ahead of its time. But on the hill that overlooked this village a North Korean flag flapped in full, ostentatious display. There was also a square, two-story building with a large front yard that looked like an elementary school or a town hall. I had never seen a North Korean flag waving so boldly anywhere in Seoul or Gureongjae, but I didn’t believe for a second that there might be an authority figure in there. The audacious waving of the flag only looked shamelessly deceptive; I didn’t feel at all threatened by it. Except for the flag, there were no other signs of North Korean control—no soldiers, no signs for the National People’s Congress office or the youth league. I think Sister-in-law liked this village, too. But we were hopelessly trapped in a quagmire where we longed for people and feared them at the same time. We made it a point to decide whether we were going to act as leftists or rightists before we mingled with anyone. We felt nervous otherwise.
We were going around peeking in people’s homes when our eyes met a landlady who was hanging laundry in the yard. She was wearing a bright wrapped skirt and a traditional blouse.
“Hello, can I help you?” she asked in a familiar Gaeseong dialect.
“Hi, we are refugees.”
“We are refugees, too. Where are you from? We are from Songdo. We were on our way to another town but we fell behind the group so we decided to stay here.”
“We are from Gaeseong. We fell behind too and got stuck in Tanhyeon-myeon this whole time. They told us that there might be a battle in the mountains and sent us here. Do you have an empty room we can use?” I chattered away and cut Sister-in-law off as though it was my turn to lead.
“Oh, I am glad you came! We have lots of empty rooms. What are you waiting for? You can just grab any room, and it’s yours! You don’t have to worry about saving face. Look what kind of world we are living in!” said the woman as she led us to an empty room.
It seemed like there were plenty of empty rooms but I didn’t think there were many empty houses. The men had fled and only the women remained behind in the house we chose. She said we were the first refugees in this household because there were many vacant houses around. There was no need for people to stay in a house with an owner. As I had guessed by the Gaeseong dialect, the refugees here were of a different type than we were. I didn’t think it was necessary to tell them we were refugees who defected from our escape to the north. The best thing was to let them know that we were no different from them. It was such a shame that our differences could easily become a reason for hostility. Since it wouldn’t be too long until the world changed again, we decided to make sure everything was well planned and under control.
I acted like a refugee from Gaeseong just like I had blunderingly told the woman earlier. We were originally from Gaeseong so that wasn’t difficult. How nice it would have been if all refugees were considered equals. Being a refugee was already an exhausting task but since refugees fleeing north and south had opposite ideologies, it could cause problems. But we were the only ones who were actually anxious about keeping things straight. What the other women in the house really wanted to know was what we had in our bundles. As far as I could tell, they had grown used to exchanging grains for clothes and fabric with other refugees. One young woman prepared her wedding gifts this way without so much as lifting her finger. When they found out that we had more grain than fabric, they looked at us with confused eyes and asked us why we were carrying such a heavy load. This was such a different world. In the evening, the village maidens gathered in the main room around a lamp to work on their embroidery. This looked like a whole new world from the perspective of a runaway who had been chased by war and fear of hunger. The maidens embroidering pillowcases and garment covers as their future weddings gifts in a village with no prospective grooms seemed unreal and otherworldly indeed.
The next day, I borrowed a feedbag from the landlady and headed out to the riverbank. The bank was more like a mudflat probably because the mouth of the river wasn’t too far away. There was plenty of water but it was still like a lake and it was hard to tell which way it was flowing. When I took my shoes off and went into the mudflat, my body felt numb with the cold. But the warmth of the spring air made it bearable and it even reminded me of that famous line from a poem, “The water of spring filled every pond.” Then I started to catch crabs just like the way the children taught me when we first entered the village. The feedbag wasn’t sufficient to hold the crabs, and some escaped, poking me all over as I carried them home. When I put a little bit of soy sauce and stir-fried them in the thick iron cauldron, there was no better dish in the world. I didn’t even remember the last time I tasted fresh meat. The traces of my battle with these crabs left all over my body whet my appetite even more. Sister-in-law and I ferociously conquered the rough hard shells like starving demons and devoured the inner flesh until our stomachs were stuffed. I would remember this as the most unforgettably delicious, yet the most pitiful meal I’d have for decades to come.
Translated by Hannah Kim
(The first edition of this title was published in 1995) For publication inquiries, please contact us at email@example.com
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).