"The Walk of Light"
- onNovember 16, 2014
- Vol.19 Spring 2013
- byYoun Dae-Nyeong
- Many Stars Drifted to One Place
* 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.
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."
"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.
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."
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.