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FICTION

"The Walk of Light"

  • onNovember 16, 2014
  • Vol.19 Spring 2013
  • byYoun Dae-Nyeong
Many Stars Drifted to One Place
2010
436pp.

* Youn Dae-Nyeong, from Many Stars Drifted to One Place, Munhakdongne Publishing Corp., 2010

 

The Walk of Light 

I was 11 back then, so the house must have been built in 1972. That makes it all of 25 years old. A small, slate-roofed house: floor area 30 pyeong on a 50 pyeong plot. The ground plan looks something like this:

 

At first I wanted to draw it like one of those sketches of an excavation of Gaya or Balhae dwellings, but I thought people might miss my point. I had to convey the overall balance, even if there were slight inaccuracies in the individual sections radiating out to the north, east, south, and west from the maru, the wooden-floored space where we ate our meals. Only then is it clear exactly where and at what angle the light passes through each room between sunrise and sunset.

Seen from a light airplane or a hot air balloon perhaps even this old house would appear like a lavishly prepared meal, just as this polluted earth still looks beautiful with its multi-colored patches when viewed from far up in the sky. At least I hope so. Twenty-five years of my family's past and present live side by side in this house. Only recently have I realized that a family too is a small universe, or maybe a lonely planet.

There are five of us: my parents (64 and 62 years old), my older sister (38 years old), my younger sister (33 years old) and myself in the middle, the only son (36 years old). My father was 27 and mother 25 when they produced the first of us. When we built this house my older sister was a pretty adolescent in junior high, I was a fifth grader with a permanent scowl, and my little sister owned three pairs of white trainers and rarely spoke. Yes, you were in second grade then.

The Sunflower Room

At first there were three rooms. But just before my older sister's wedding 10 years ago we had another room of six or seven pyeong built in a corner of the yard by the gate. And so there were four. My father had long felt that we needed another room for special occasions, as even if we hired somewhere for the reception we needed a place for the older relatives, who invariably came up from the countryside to stay before making their way home again. And, of course, special occasions would continue to crop up, as family events only increase with age.

Sadly we lost something when we had that big hut-like room built. We had planted sunflowers in that spot year after year and also used it as an unfenced chicken run. Every spring we set chicks free in the sunflower patch and in fall roosters would push their way out from between the thick stalks.

When there was some kind of event, those white-bearded people who never failed to come up from the countryside would sit amidst the sunflowers, drinking and playing cards before lying down to sleep.

One summer's day Mother stopped a photographer who happened to pass by the gate and had a picture taken of me with my sisters, standing in a line in the sunflower patch. Was that the year I graduated from elementary school? With black sunburnt faces and each scowling in our own way because we weren't used to cameras, we looked like we belonged to one of those documentary photographs the UN Food Program distributes around the world. To top it off, I wasn't wearing any shoes. I wonder what time of day it was? It must have been morning, judging from the way the shadows cast by the sunflower stalks leaned towards the west at about 20 degrees, and so it must have been a Sunday or a national holiday when we didn't have to go to school.

Until I left home at the age of 20 I took good care of that precious photo in an album in the attic over the kitchen. Even though it was black and white, the lost sunflower patch of my childhood survived there. Once the lonely light had shone through the lens to make an impression of the three of us on the film, we could have made as many prints as we wanted. But when the photographer returned to our house a few days later, he didn't leave behind the negative. When I went up to the attic to look for that one and only photo on my first visit home during my military service, it had disappeared from the photo album without a trace. Had one of my sisters taken it? As long as no one deliberately threw it away surely it must still be lying in an album somewhere.

When I'm lying in the new room on my occasional visits home, I invariably dream I'm standing barefoot in that yellowed photo. That room is like a greenhouse in the tropics; it is the first to catch the light, the perfect place to have a sunflower dream. The ticklish steps of a chick rush diagonally across my feet. Oh, and your red lips!

Our house was a slightly shabby affair, consisting of some slate on top of a bunch of bricks and noticeably deteriorating with age. As it was our father's nature to be unable to resist fixing everything, he would spend every minute of every Sunday repairing the house. Over time he must have climbed up onto the roof at least five times with a bucket of yet another color of paint. Sky blue, dark blue, yellow, orange, pale mugwort green. But the front gate always remained a deep red. So some people called our house the "house with the red gate."

The sunflower room at the house with the red gate.

From the time I was 26 was like a cheap hotel room where I stayed three or four times a year. At my age I was naturally half a stranger to my family, and it felt uncomfortable and unnatural when I went into the side rooms to the east or west, let alone the inner room. Now I harbored well-kept secrets that could never be shared with them.

Noon, Saturday, June 7th

My mother was discharged from the hospital this morning and is now lying down in the inner room. My younger sister, who finally married last year, is in the east room recovering from the birth of her first child. My older sister now lives in the west room, having divorced in February.

It's June and all three rooms are sizzling hot because of my younger sister recovering from childbirth in the east room. The boiler out the back is connected to the inner and side rooms, so if we turn the heat on in the inner room it comes on in the east and west rooms too. There's no separate control allowing us to turn the heat off in each room. The house was built that way and there's no changing it unless we pull up all the floor tiles.

I took the express bus down from Seoul last night, dropped in at the hospital, and then arrived here at midnight. About a fortnight ago I heard that our mother was suffering from exhaustion. At first she went to the local health clinic for a shot, thinking that she had overdone things after losing her mother last month, but when the fever persisted my father took her to a hospital near his office, where he goes to be treated for his angina and stomach problems. The initial examination showed a kidney infection, and the doctor advised going to a university hospital for further tests. Our mother had been admitted to a university hospital several years ago with pleurisy, and now the very mention of the word made her shudder. As she refused to go anywhere near such a place again, there was no choice but to treat the inflammation alone. Before she finally made it home, our mother visited a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine and was given some ridiculous tonic. Last night she had fixed her hollow eyes on me and repeated over and over that she did not understand why she could not bear to stay at the hospital this time.

Even before this turn of events I had planned to come home for Mother's birthday next Tuesday, and we had arranged a special breakfast for her tomorrow. But what's the point of forcing a birthday party on someone who's bedridden?

My older sister looks like a criminal doing forced labor as she takes care of both our sick mother and our recuperating sister. It's been a long time since the whole family gathered and every room was full, but the atmosphere is hardly festive. My younger sister is upset that our mother has fallen sick at just this moment, but she can't go to her in-laws as her mother-in-law is a severe diabetic with complications who can't even open her eyes properly. Our mother must have her own worries because she's been snapping at everyone for a while now. Each time a still silence, like the silence in an empty pot, settles down over the maru before disappearing again. Father went back to work after bringing Mother home, but he'll be back again around three in the afternoon.

I'm looking out through the window of the sunflower room at the sun shining down almost vertically onto the flowerbed. Three or four late-blooming dandelions, a pomegranate and a date tree, Chinese pinks, gentian, peonies, dahlias, lilies, and opium poppies…all growing as they please in a tangled mass. In the very middle of the flowerbed there are several stepping-stones leading up onto the platform where we keep our saucepots. These opium poppies, now blooming like fresh blood splattered under the summer light, are like a secret Mother lovingly nurtures. When summer arrives each year she bolts the front gate firmly.

It's finally noon, and a few straw-like strands of shadow hang amidst a riot of colors, all sparkling like broken pastel crayons scattered around the yard. For an instant the riot of day fills my ears.


The Briquettes

It was shortly after my older sister had taken her a bowl of rice gruel when our mother began to snap again. It was not snapping so much as cursing. Damn you, you idiot! The words suddenly leapt out onto the maru. I pricked my ears and quickly stuck my head out of the window. It was a harsh voice I'd never heard before. Our mother was known throughout the neighborhood as a soft-spoken woman who always chose her words carefully. When my sister came back out of the room carrying the gruel her eyes were visibly bloodshot.

"You think gruel that thick will go down my throat, you stupid girl!"

My little sister's swollen face peeked out of the east room before she quietly closed the door, the baby pushed to her breast. I went into the kitchen and quietly whispered behind my sister's back as she placed the pot onto the gas burner.

"Don't take it to heart, she's got a lot of things on her mind."

Without even turning around, my sister replied in a sour voice.

"But why does her dear abused daughter have to be here on top of everything else? It makes my blood boil… Ever since we were little Mother's always been like that with me. Just like that. Only none of you knew."

"What are you talking about?"

The kitchen was narrow with a low ceiling (you could climb up the steps from the inner room to an attic over the kitchen) so that with just one gas burner lit the sweat poured down my neck. My sister's back was already drenched.

"You remember when we lived in rented rooms, before we moved here?"

That was a long time ago, in fact, at least 25 years ago.

"One day Mother said she was going shopping and asked me to boil some noodles. But you know how it is with noodles. Even women who've been cooking for years can never get just the right amount. There's always some left over. So I tried to boil enough for the five of us, but they filled up half a bucket. They swelled up so much it was enough to feed 10 men. I was so scared I was crouched in a corner shaking when she came back. She was holding a basket of groceries and just stood in the doorway for a while. But for some reason she didn't get mad."

That was the mother I grew up knowing. At least until I left home at the age of 20.

"But that wasn't the end of it. When everyone had gone to sleep at night she woke me up and led me out to the kitchen where she told me to eat the rest of the noodles left in the bucket. She said we don't have a dog or a pig in our house."

"!…so what happened?"

"What do you mean what happened? What could I do when she was standing behind me? I picked all those swollen noodles out of the bucket with my hands and swallowed them. You remember…that kitchen just had a dirt floor. In the end I threw them all up and went to sleep crying. I still can't eat noodles, even now."

So things like that had happened. It was different, of course, but occasionally when I was young I had also been woken up at dawn and led outside by our mother. She would make me wash my face and bow in front of a dried pollack head and a candle protruding out of some steamed rice cake, which she had placed in front of the saucepot platform. Exhausted and with no idea what was going on, I would prostrate myself on the ground and then hurry inside to crawl back under my blanket. Even now this is a secret between our mother and myself.

Was it because she was the oldest daughter? Even though my sister had graduated from a well-known high school and entered a top university, she had dropped out before the end of her second year when our family finances hit trouble. She sat the civil service examination and quietly supported our younger sister through university. Despite all this she had never uttered one word of complaint. Why would our mother behave like an evil mother-in-law or widow towards such a model daughter? And without any of us knowing at that.

After the thinned-out gruel had gone into the inner room and we had sat down around the table on the maru, there was a creak of the front gate and Mr. Pak from the charcoal briquette store walked in, pulling his cart behind him.

"We still burn briquettes here?"

I turned to ask my sister, putting down my spoon.

"The boiler's always burned briquettes. Only the new room has oil heating."

Holding tongs that were designed to carry two briquettes at once in both hands, Mr. Pak began to pick up the briquettes four at a time and pile them under the eaves behind the house. The briquettes shone like tanned leather as they greedily soaked up the sunrays. Pak was extraordinarily thin and his hair totally white. He was an alcoholic. When I was young, he had kept several grape fields.

"Why's he still delivering briquettes at his age?"

My sister was careful to reply only after he had disappeared behind the back of the house.

"He used to be really rich so he can't be that badly off even now."

"So?"

"You remember when we were in junior high, and he had an affair with the woman from the barber shop? Some people say that he sold the grape fields without telling his wife and bought that woman a house. Later she resold the house and ran away."

The whole neighborhood was in an uproar for a while. My sister stopped talking each time Pak returned to the yard to fetch more briquettes, and then continued:

"His wife has made him deliver briquettes ever since."

"You mean for 20 years?"

This meant she would work him until he died of old age. I guess it must have been that long now, my sister said, and cast a pointed look in the direction of the black briquette cart. I hurriedly put down my chopsticks and stepped into the yard. Pak returned from the back with a reddish face, reeking of alcohol, and quickly waved me away from the briquettes with his tongs.

"Leave it alone. That soot'll stick to your hands."

After we had seen the cart off through the front gate, I swept up the soot in the yard. When I heard my sister washing up in the kitchen I walked round the back. In the corner of the back wall there was an iron cauldron and a stack of firewood. The sun was just passing over the kitchen and a pungent heat rebounded off the cement wall. Through the window of the inner room I could see Mother had fallen asleep with her blouse undone.

It was cool out the back, where an awning had been hung between the wall and the eaves of the roof to keep out the rain. The briquettes were stacked up neatly under the awning in the west corner. To one side a persimmon tree pressed up against the wall, passing the roof at a diagonal and spreading out towards the sky. Since our father had celebrated his 60th birthday I had come down every year to pick the persimmons for the Harvest Moon Festival. Now the tree is as thick as a mortar, but when I was in junior high it was no more than the width of a finger. Our mother had dug it up when she went to her family home to celebrate her mother's 60th birthday. It was under that persimmon tree one summer day that I slowly pulled down my trousers and masturbated for the first time, and that same day I smoked my first cigarette and leaned against the wall shivering. What were those cigarettes called? Milky Way, Pigeon, South Gate, or was it Scenic Site? I think it was Scenic Site, with a photo of Bulguk Temple on the packet. Anyway, I had no way to dispose of that half-smoked cigarette and had to push it into a hole of one of those briquettes piled up to the side, without even extinguishing it properly.

That night I dreamt that our house was on fire. I rushed outside barefoot to see several hundred briquettes piled up under the eaves blazing like red-hot coals. The flames charred the green persimmon leaves and then began to take root next door. There was an uproar on the other side of the wall as the villagers all ran up carrying buckets of water.

Just after that disgusting hairs began to sprout one by one from under my armpits and my groin. While I was in junior high I would creep around the back after midnight in the rain or the snow and masturbate next to the pile of briquettes, or squat down beneath the persimmon to smoke a cigarette…and sometimes I would cry for no reason. Sitting there in the dark, without a spot of light, I was a sad teenager.


Ears

When Father returned, the ripe afternoon sun was pushing its way up onto the saucepots and a strand of cloud covered part of the yard and the flowerbed. I was in the sunflower room stealing glances at the burning light splashing out of the red mouths of three or four open pomegranates, when Father opened the front gate and shouted out as if angry, did the briquettes come? There must have been some soot left in the yard, even though I'd swept up carefully. Out on the maru the baby in my little sister's arms immediately doubled up crying. Mother woke up then as well.

"Oh, why does he always have to shout?"

It was hard to tell from Mother's hoarse voice whether this was a rebuke or a grievance, but Father pretended not to hear, and after washing his hands at the water tap, he suddenly walked over to my room. I quickly stubbed out my cigarette in the ashtray.

"Haven't you given up those cigarettes yet? You keep saying your lungs are giving you trouble."

His voice was still angry as if something had happened.

"So, when are you leaving us?"

"I was thinking of taking the bus tomorrow afternoon."

"When?"

"Tomorrow!"

I shouted with exasperation and looked at Father leaning against the door with his hands behind his back. He frowned, pointing to his ear, and then again all but shouted, I can't hear too well! On top of angina and stomach problems his hearing had been deteriorating for a long time now, but it seemed as if the situation had taken a turn for the worse in the past few months. Several years ago, after he had gone to the hospital with bloody pus flowing out of his ear, Father had given up in a single day the alcohol and cigarettes that had been his lifetime companions. But there was no way to combat old age.

"You think my ears are my only problem? These eyes are so bad now I can barely see!"

He waited for the cigarette smoke to disperse and then stepped into my room as if he were a guest.

"This is a mess, isn't it?"

It was the atmosphere in our house to which he referred.

"She was kicking up such a fuss I had to bring her home, but I think we'll have to go to a big hospital before long…she's just not her usual self…since spring she's been constantly losing her temper…and, as if that wasn't enough, your big sister's been deserted and come back home…you can't sit still for a minute like any normal person would…and who knows what's going on inside the little one's head, even the spirits couldn't figure that out."

Behind that obstinate exterior there was probably any number of problems she was brooding over. We were exchanging such thoughts when Mother's voice resounded once more.

"Would someone go and turn the heat off until evening! You'd think you were trying to boil me to death."

I didn't even have to look to know my older sister had come out of her room and was standing on the maru, unable to keep anyone happy.

Father groaned and stood up with a few dry coughs.

"If you can't give up completely then at least try sucking on a piece of eundon."

I wondered if they still sold those tiny silver capsules that were supposed to help you give up smoking, and picked up a box of matches to take aim at a stray cat, which had climbed over the wall and was poking around our saucepots. The matchbox landed between the flowerbed and the saucepot platform. The cat scampered over the wall with a meow. The next moment my father appeared from around the back and walked out the gate carrying a briquette burning with blue flames.

I opened the door to the east room and carefully asked my sister if she would like to move to the sunflower room. Then we wouldn't have to heat the inner room in the daytime. She hurriedly covered her breast, blushing, and shook her head in refusal. The east room had been hers alone until she married and left home. A print of Claude Monet's "Impression: Sunrise" had hung on the wall like a crest since she was in junior high. She had hardly ever ventured near the west or sunflower rooms while she lived at home. No one told her to stay away, but she would shut herself up in her room like a silkworm in a cocoon. Inside that Monet print hanging on the wall. Inside those wrinkles of quiet light steeped in mist.

She seemed to think of our house as somewhere to stay for a while before moving on. But that while had turned into 32 long years. She had taught art at a junior high school before her marriage. When she finally gave in to demands to meet a prospective marriage partner, introduced by a friend of my mother's, they said she had agreed to marry like a child being sent away for adoption. She said she would stay just one more day and leave the next morning. She lives in Cheongju with her husband, who works for Korea Electric Power Corporation. I was in no position to ask her to stay longer, so I merely nodded and came back out onto the maru. Mother lay on her side looking out onto the yard. Father returned after disposing of the briquette and sat down on the maru. Mother immediately began to moan at him to move his back out of her way. Then, sometime after a cockerel suddenly called out in the distance, despite it being daytime, mother began to mumble to herself like someone out of her mind.

"Four blooms on the pomegranate and the Chinese pinks will soon be over. Once the dahlias and poppies have bloomed, it'll be time to take the lids off the saucepots, oh, but it's such a nuisance when it rains in the summer… Where did those ants on the door hinge go when it rained?… Ha, ha, they must have hid in the rose moss. I'm sitting under the Buddha's hand, looking up at the pink willow-weed."

The colors in the flowerbed were still changing by the hour, like Monet's brush strokes. Now Father started to mumble as if in reply.

"Oh, there go my ears."

I glanced over at the flowerbed, taken aback by these words, just in time to see a breeze quietly passing over the flower heads.

“Really, those flowers don’t hear very well."

This bizarre conversation between my mother and father continued for a while longer.

"Should I wear my shoes?"

"You were barefoot with straw sandals tied over your head."

"Look, I've been barefoot ever since you didn't buy me shoes when our eldest was born. Who wears straw sandals these days? I just carry them around and when my arm feels as if it might fall off then I tie them on my head."

"So that was you who went by just now?"

"Yes, I went on ahead."

"So, is it nice there?"

"Maybe I'll just lie down here behind you for a little while."


The Old Maid

Someone pushed open the gate and walked into the yard. The moment the gate opened I was gripped by the feeling that a woman had walked straight out of that old photo album up in the attic. It was the old woman with a harelip who used to run a bean curd shop in the village down the road. She had a split upper lip, which curled up to her nose, and was blind in one eye. She had never married. No one knew her name or how old she was, so we called her the old bean curd woman, the woman with a harelip, or the old maid. She had closed down the bean curd shop a long time ago because of all the work it entailed, and now grew potatoes and sweet potatoes on a patch next to her house in the winter and picked roots in spring and summer, which she exchanged for rice around the neighborhood.

She stood in the middle of the yard waiting for someone to come out, a black bundle in her arms. She was wearing a cotton jacket over a tube skirt and black rubber shoes, just as she used to. I hadn't seen her for several years, in fact I had completely forgotten about her and was not even aware she was still alive.

Mother had been lying down inside, but now she jumped up in a fit and began to shout savagely, "Why have you come so soon?" The cat that had disappeared next door reappeared on the top of the wall. It was not clear whether the old maid heard Mother's shouts or not, as she simply turned an expressionless face towards the cat on the wall. A chill slid down my spine while behind me Mother looked as if she'd seen a ghost. What was going on?

I can still remember how our mother used to feed the old maid freshly-cooked rice, and even send her away with a bowl full of rice from our rice chest when she came to our house. So why was she insulting her so coarsely today?

"Miran! Give that woman a bowl of rice and get her out of here now!"

My sister came running out of the kitchen holding a yellow plastic container and lifted up the lid on the rice chest with visibly shaking hands. My eyes met Father's for a second; they were filled with a sense of ill-boding. In the rough air that had been kicked up, I turned around to watch from behind as the old maid bent down over the flowerbed. My sister stepped down into the yard, hurriedly pulling on her slippers, but even though she held out the container, saying "Here you are," it was hard to tell whether the woman heard or not.

"I know what she wants! What are you doing? Why don't you chase her away and sprinkle some salt in the yard!"

The light that had been pouring down into the yard now quietly slipped up onto the saucepot platform, just as the old maid snapped off a poppy stem under the pomegranate and stole a glance into the inner room. Mother's voice sounded strained, completely withered.

"You didn't say anything a few days ago."

Even the cat on the wall stood still and watched the old maid.

"So, now you're telling me to go?"

Mother kept on spitting out words, but the woman did not reply. She took a long look at the container that my sister hesitantly held out towards her, and said, "Put this in your mother's mouth tonight." With that she opened the gate and left.

I'm not sure whether Mother heard or not. Even though our father had instinctively stepped down into the yard the moment the poppy head had fallen, he may not have heard either. My sister turned her hollow eyes to meet mine, but I shook my head, not knowing what to do. The cat disappeared from the wall and we heard the door to the inner room close behind us.

I wonder what our father was thinking as he stood next to the pomegranate tree with his hands behind his back, staring at the poppy that had lost its neck. I went into the sunflower room and watched the languid afternoon sun soak into the saucepot platform and then slither over the garden wall like a snake. Was that the unfamiliar sound of Mother sobbing that I could hear coming from the inner room?

My older sister was in the kitchen preparing dinner while Father was out the back stoking the briquettes with a fan. My younger sister sat quietly behind the closed door of the east room, alone as usual. As we all sat around the table to eat, the light in the yard slowly lifted and darkness fell down over us like a blanket.

Father turned on the maru light with the same hand that held his chopsticks.

The table was cleared and we each went to our own room. In the sunflower room I quietly listened to Father, who sat on the maru, mumbling to himself.

      The cat came over the wall
      A black bundle in the yard
      Just one moment, and then
      When the poppy falls
      The smell of charcoal on the maru


Blood and Bean Curd

By the time my sister came to my room after finishing the day's work, the baby in the east room was pestering its mother for a final time before going to sleep. My older sister had divorced four months ago and her former husband was bringing up their two children. He imported liquor from overseas and was about to remarry, she said. She was still young enough to meet someone else too.

"I'm almost 40…You call that young? I just want to stay here and help out Mom and Dad."

"Don't you want to see your kids?"

Her daughter was in fourth grade and her son in second grade. She just wanted to bury them deep in her heart and forget about them, she said. But burying her children deep in her heart was easier said than done.

It was just as if some stranger had given her a balloon in the park one holiday and walked away, leaving her standing in the same spot for 10 years. She summed up her past this simply. But just as it was time to close the park that person had suddenly reappeared and told her to return the balloon.

Her eyes were red again.

"I had a really tough time last spring."

She had coughed up a lot of blood around the time the azaleas were in bloom.

"The azaleas?"

I stubbed out my cigarette and sat up clumsily. The baby suddenly stopped crying.

"I'd gone to bed one night when something kept rising up my throat. I swallowed hard several times, thinking that my stomach must be upset. But there was this strange bloody taste in my mouth. Then I threw up, and all this sticky stuff came pouring out of my mouth. When I turned the light on, the blankets and mattress were splattered with specks of blood."

"!…"

"He saw it. The first thing he said was, do you have TB? Then he turned his back on me…he was scared."

Tuberculosis.

"When I went to the hospital for an X-ray, they found two holes the size of a coin in my lung. You wouldn't believe how much raw bean curd I ate when I got home. But why does eating bean curd make you cry so much?"

It was only natural to cry, but why bean curd?

"They say there's no food cleaner than bean curd."

Even so, what good was bean curd going to do against tuberculosis? When we were little we ate an awful lot of that bean curd the old maid used to make. That soft, warm bean curd that she would bring to each of us in a gourd dipper early in the morning.

Could a balloon and memories of bean curd be all there is to life?

"For a whole year I swallowed seven different pills on an empty stomach every morning. And I kept on eating a block of bean curd every night too. We didn't get along that well anyway, but one day he suddenly asked for a divorce and said he didn't want to talk about it. I was in shock. I didn't even cry until I was on the train coming down here with my bundle of things. I don't know why, but I couldn't stop thinking of that song we used to sing when we were little, "Thoughts of Older Brother."

You know the one that goes, 'You said you would bring me a pair of silk shoes.' You know it, don't you?"

Know it? I must have been in elementary school. Didn't we sing it together as we sat on the tiny porch of our rented house, looking up between the eaves at the red evening sky?

"You know our mother had TB once too. That must have been before you started school. Father used to give her a shot in her near every night and eventually she recovered."

She was only two years older than me, but she could remember so much more. This was the first time I heard that our mother had suffered from tuberculosis.

"Mother was always hardhearted towards me, but for some reason I never resented it. Isn't that strange? But recently I feel like I'm finally beginning to understand."

Was there a reason for that too? I suppose there must be.

"I was the closest to her. She was having a hard time making ends meet. So when she was upset, she used to take it out on me."

Once our mother was gone, this sister would be the mother of my heart. As warm as bean curd.

"What are you going to do with your life?"

"What?"

"How much longer are you going to wander around without a home or any kind of structure to your life? If there's someone suitable, then why don't you settle down? You're 36 now, aren't you?"

Someone suitable. There's no one like that. But there is someone I'm thinking of in Kuta. One week from now I'll be on a plane flying there. I hadn't told anyone about her yet, and so now I confessed to my future mother that I had found someone I liked.

"Where's Kuta?"

It's a seaside resort on Bali. This past January I was in Bali for 12 days. It was so cold in Seoul that I just had to go somewhere warm.

"You mean she's Indonesian?"

My sister's eyes opened wide and she looked right at me. I nodded. Her face turned pale.

"So what's her name and how old is she?"

So?

"She uses her English name Suzanne, so I don't know her Balinese name. She's 22."

"Twenty-two? That's…well, have you made any kind of promise?"

The conversation was becoming more serious. It seemed what I had said had been quite unexpected.

"I promised I'd go back, of course."

Since the age of 26 home had been somewhere I returned in order to leave. On the other hand, all the places in the world I had gone were places I left in order to return.

"And will you?"

"I miss her, so I think I'll end up going back somehow."

This time the first thing I'll ask is her Balinese name. Meanwhile my sister looked like she was approaching resignation. Women are pretty quick to reach resignation when it comes to such affairs.

"What does she do?"

"To put it our way, she graduated from high school and works in a hotel restaurant."

"What's the name of the hotel?"

She really asks all kinds of things.

"Bali Summer Hotel."

She repeated it to herself slowly, Bali Summer Hotel, and then gave me a doubting, worried look that bore right through me.

"Why do you still live like you're in a dream even now you've grown up?" The question was unexpected.

For me my dreams are my waking time and my waking time is a dream too. There's nothing I can do about it. Anyway, the person I'm thinking of is in Kuta.

I was eating braised sea bream in Kuta's Bali Summer Hotel when my eyes met hers from a distance. She was small and pretty, with darkish skin and wearing a sarong that suited her well. When I left, I gave her my CD player and Zoltán Kodály's Solo Cello Sonata.

Since I've been back I sometimes have this dream, where the two of us are sitting in beach chairs, sipping on Bintang beer and listening to Kodály's solo.

"I'm coming!" My sister jumped up in response to our mother's call. As she stood up she said to me,

"Have you told Mother?"

How could I tell her?

"I'm just worried you might get hurt. The two of you I mean."

Hurt. Well, longing is the source of all hurt. With time the longing turns to hurt and lingers in your heart to the degree you longed. We all carry such wounds.

She came back five minutes later, but just stood outside the door saying there was something strange about Mother. What?

"All of a sudden she said, go see if the grinding stone is out in the back. I mean, how long has it been since we used that?"

"…and is it?"

"Yes."

"Then, what's the problem? Why don't you try to get some rest? Oh, and I wanted to ask you one thing."

What? She appeared to be swaying under the outside light.

"You don't by any chance happen to have that picture of us in the sunflower patch when we were kids?"

Unfortunately she couldn't even remember what picture I was talking about.

Once she had gone into the west room silence fell over the whole house.


The Bali Summer Hotel

She wore white lace-up shoes and waited on me whenever I went down to the restaurant, mornings and evenings. On the fourth day she brought me braised sea bream, and I whispered to her discreetly that I had waited all night for morning to come. All the time I was looking down at those white shoes under the table. Her legs trembled at my words.

The next morning she again brought the tray to my table. I told her it was snowing heavily now in Korea. Finally she spoke, laboriously repeating the word snow. Snow as white as your shoes, I said. She twisted her feet in towards each other and laughed quietly. Then she watched from a distance until I finished my meal.

On my fifth morning at the Bali Summer Hotel she brought me fruit, coffee, and toast, and I suggested we meet that evening in front of the offices of the private phone company Wartel. There were many outdoor cafes in that neighborhood. I wanted to drink Bintang and talk late into the night. She blushed madly, shook her head, and returned to her place. She continued to watch me from where she was standing.

That evening she came to my room. We spent an hour somewhat awkwardly listening to Kodály, and then just as we were both getting thirsty we slipped off our clothes. I held her like a baby, and she spoke to me in awkward English.

"I want to see snow."

"Right, the snow."

"Shoes falling lots and lots from the sky?"

Yes, that's right, I laughed. White shoes pouring down from the sky. I spoke to her in Korean.

"I've loved you since long ago. You silent, little thing."

Of course she couldn't understand, so she just listened to me quietly.

"You're still hiding in those Monet strokes. In the shadows of that strange light. You little dumb thing."

The curves of her breasts and buttocks were beautiful beyond words. Outside the window coconut palm leaves gently swayed under the lights. If I closed my eyes, it seemed those palm leaves would turn into huge fish and slowly float over my head.

The next day she arrived at noon. Again she begged me to talk to her about snow. Stealing glances at the tropical roses and palms over her naked back, I thought of my love in the east room.

After a week I left. Leaving behind the white shoes and Kodály. And the promise that I would return. But she didn't seem to believe me. I spent four days in Uluwatu, and then on the day I was to return to Seoul she surprised me at Denpasar Ngurah Rai Airport where, eyes brimming with tears, she said she hoped I was not a snowman.


The Shoes

When I went to the bathroom shortly after midnight, Father followed me outside. No, he didn't follow me. Even after I'd finished my business and was returning to my room, he was still standing in the dark in front of the maru, holding something in his hands. I took a closer look and saw Mother's shoes. I could not bring myself to ask why and had to force myself to look him in the face.
"She asked me to bring these in."

His voice quivered.

He carried the shoes into the inner room and all the lights went out.

The Walk of Night

Hey Sister, I drew a ground plan of our house today. I suppose someday it'll be yellowed by the light and curl up into a roll of dry paper. Just like our lives. Then the memories of our time spent in this house will gradually fade too. But somehow I know that you will be the only one who remembers everything later. I know it's you who's got the photo of the sunflower patch. Didn't we kiss fearlessly between the green sunflower stalks one summer day? You've been watching me through your big eyes for a whole lifetime. Or I've been watching you.

A few days from now I'll go to meet you again. On that far away tropical island. Yes, tropical. There I'll meet you again at the age of 36.

Outside I could hear the sound of the night passing over barefoot. Treading on the sunflower roof, across the yard and the flowerbed, up onto the saucepot platform and then over the wall to the side.

It must have been three or four in the morning when I heard footsteps approach my pillow and someone shook my shoulders. We had been sitting together in easy chairs listening to Kodály when suddenly my eyes opened wide and I sat up. A voice from the dark spoke into my ear.

"She's gone!"

He could have spoken quietly, but instead he shouted. How can he still be deaf on a quiet night like this? I stood up and went to turn the light on, when a cold hand grabbed my wrist.

"Just come on out!"

I went outside with him still grasping my wrist. He didn't step up onto the maru, but repeated what he'd said in the sunflower room.

"Your mother's gone!"

That's when I realized that something had happened in the inner room. They were still deep asleep in the east and west rooms. When I entered the inner room, barely able to steady my trembling legs, the first things to catch my eye were the white rubber shoes on Mother's pillow. 

 

* Translated by Janet Poole.

Author's Profile

Youn Dae-Nyeong was born in 1962 in Yesan, South Chungcheong Province. He made his debut in 1990 by winning the New Writer Award sponsored by the monthly Munhak Sasang (Literary Thought). The recipient of Today’s Young Artist Award (1994), Yi Sang Literary Award (1996), Modern Literature Prize (1998), and Yi Hyo-seok Literary Award (2003), he has written the short story collections Sweetfish Fishing ReportsBehold the Southern StairsMany Stars Drifted to One Place, and There Walks Someone; essay collections Things I Want to Tell Her and Mother’s Spoon and Chopsticks; and novels I Went to See an Old MovieMi-ranA Traveler in the Snow, and Why Did the Tiger Go to the Sea?