by Yi Sang
translated by Heinz Insu Fenkl & Walter K. Lew
©1997 Heinz Insu Fenkl & Walter K. Lew
Twenty-three years old -- March -- coughed up blood. The beard I had cultivated so carefully for six months I trimmed off with a razor one day, leaving just a butterfly under my nose. And with my packets of Chinese medicine prepared, I went to a secluded hot-spring called B, which had just opened. And I might as well have died there.
But my yet unfurled youth grabbed hold of the medicine crock and dragged me back with a big fuss about "Saving my life" -- there was nothing I could do about it. Every night, I brooded resentfully under the cold lamplight of the inn.
Unable to last three days, I had the old innkeeper lead me out to the house where I had heard the sound of drums at night. And that's where I met Kum-hong.
"How old are you?"
She was no riper than a green chili pepper, but the fallen girl was quite fierce. Sixteen? I was thinking nineteen at most, when she said,
"Then how old do I look?"
"I don't know -- forty? Thirty-nine?"
I just went, hnnngh! and, folding my arms stiffly in front of me, I pretended to be more and more dignified. We parted without incident that night, but --
Next day the artist Mr. K came. He's a friend I play around with, so to speak. Admitting that I couldn't help but be like that butterfly, I finally reaped the mustache I had been dangling under my nose. And as soon as it got dark, we hurried to meet Kum-hong.
"You look like a man I've seen somewhere."
"The gentleman with the mustache who came here last night? I'm none other than his son. Even our voices are the same," I said, trying my wit. As the party began to break up, I stepped down into the courtyard, whispering into K's ear.
"What do you think? Nice, right? Why don't you try playing around once?"
"Forget it. You play around."
"Either way, let's haul her back to the inn and decide by rock-paper-scissors."
But K side-stepped the affair by pretending to go out to the toilet, and I won her by default. That night Kum-hong didn't try to hide the fact that she had borne a child.
"I was sixteen when I put up my hair, seventeen when I had the baby."
"Where is she?"
"She died in her first year."
I put aside the medicine that had been prepared for me and became completely immersed in making love to Kum-hong. It may sound awful, but the power of her love put an end to my bloody coughing and so --
I never left Kum-hong tips. Why? Because night or day she was either in my room or I was in hers --
I advised her of the philandery of Mr. Wu, who had studied in France. Kum-hong went to a "private bathhouse" with him as I suggested. The bathhouse was a rather obscene facility. But when I saw Wu's shoes neatly lined up with hers on the doorstep of that obscene facility, I didn't feel bad.
I also recommended Kum-hong to Mr. C, a lawyer who was staying in the room next to mine. C was so inspired by my ardor that he couldn't help but burgle into Kum-hong's room himself.
But my beloved Kum-hong was always with me. And sometimes she would play the coquette, showing off to me the many ten-won notes she had received from Wu, C, and the like.
But then the first anniversary memorial of my uncle's death forced me to return to Seoul. Kum-hong and I searched out a pleasant spot under fully-blown peach blossoms where a mineral spring trickled around a pavilion and we enjoyed our day of parting there. At the terminal I pressed a ten-won note into her hand. Saying she would use it to reclaim a watch she had pawned, she burst into tears.
Kum-hong became my wife and we loved each other very much. We agreed not to ask each other about bygones. The past! There was no reason to be concerned about my past, and so one could say it was just like promising not to ask about hers.
Kum-hong was barely twenty-one, but she was better than a woman of thirty-one. She was better than a thirty-one-year-old woman, but to me Kum-hong looked like a seventeen-year-old girl, and to her I looked like a forty-year-old man when I was really only twenty-three -- and what's more, because I was a little screwy, I seemed like a teenager. In the whole world, there was no couple as wonderfully cute and cuddly as we were together.
Idle time --
A year passed, and in August, that convulsive time that's too late for summer and too early for fall --
A nostalgia for bygone days came over Kum-hong.
Since I just lay around sleeping all day and night, I was boring as far as she was concerned. So she went out and met people who weren't boring, and she had fun doing things that didn't bore her, and when she came back --
Well, it wouldn't be too much to say that her constrained lifestyle began to make progress in leaps and bounds, but backwards into her nostalgia.
This time she didn't show off to me. Not only that -- she hid things.
It must have been that Kum-hong found the business unbecoming of her. What was there to hide? Hiding nothing would have been fine. Even bragging would have been fine.
I didn't say a word. To help her entertain more conveniently, I often went out and slept at Mr. P's house. I remember now that P must have already been pitying me then.
And it's not that I didn't think such thoughts. I mean, a man's wife is supposed to guard her virtue!
"Kum-hong was having good-natured affairs in order to wake me out of my stupor" is how I want to rationalize it. But for Kum-hong the pretense of maintaining wifely decorum -- with which the world is rife -- was her one and only mistake.
Naturally, since she wanted to make a placard of her virtue, I went out more frequently, and to promote free enterprise, I even left my room wide open for her. Time flows by even under conditions like these.
One day, though I had done nothing wrong, I got a terrible beating from Kum-hong. I went out crying from the pain and couldn't come back for three days. I was too afraid of Kum-hong.
When I returned on the fourth day, she had gone away, leaving a dirty sock in the unheated corner of the room.
Several of my friends came to me -- now pathetically widowed -- and consoled me with unpleasant gossip about Kum-hong, but I found their interest completely incomprehensible.
Someone had seen Kum-hong and a man boarding a bus and heading off to far-away Mt. Kwanak in Kwach'on, but if that's really the case, the guy was apparently afraid I would come after him and make a racket, so he must have been quite a coward.
I had temporarily renounced humanity, and since I didn't exercise my memory, after two months I entirely forgot Kum-hong's name. One day, during this period of suspension, she divined an auspicious time and came back to me like a returned letter. I was shocked.
Kum-hong looked so incredibly emaciated that it made me very sad. Without rebuking her, I ordered some beer, fish crackers, and beef soup for her, and tried to be comforting. But Kum-hong didn't vent her anger as she used to in the past -- she wept as she recriminated me. I couldn't help but break down and cry myself.
"But it's too late. At least we've had two months together, haven't we? Let's separate, hmm?"
"Then what will happen to me, hmm?"
"Get married if you find the right man, hmm?"
"Then will you get married, too? Hmm?"
Perhaps even in breaking up, she wanted to leave me some consolation. That's the style in which I separated from Kum-hong. When she left, she gave me a pillow as a present.
But about this pillow --
It was a pillow for two, which she forced upon me even though I refused. For two weeks I tried my head on it alone. It didn't fit because it was too long. Not only that, but it reeked of a stranger's greasy hair and disturbed my sleep.
One day I sent Kum-hong a note. "I'm terribly sick, I'm on my deathbed. Come quickly," it said.
When she came to see me I really was pitiful. It must have looked like I was certain to die of hunger in a few days if left alone. She rolled up her sleeves and said that, starting that day, she would go out and earn the money to feed me and keep me alive.
"O -- K -- "
It was heaven on earth. The day itself was a bit chilly, but I was so lazy I didn't even sneeze.
Two months like this? No, it must have been at least five. Kum-hong fucking left again.
After about a month of waiting for Kum-hong to get homesick, I got sick of waiting and threw together our dishes and household things, sold them all, and went back "home" for the first time in 21 years.
When I returned, our house was in ruins. I, Yi Sang, unworthy firstborn, had turned the decrepit household into a patch of wormwood. And during those two years --
All of a sudden I too had become decrepit. I had consumed 27 years.
That all women in the world have some whorish element in them, I alone am firmly convinced. Nevertheless, when handing silver over to a prostitute I never once thought of her as one. This may seem like a theory discredited by my life with Kum-hong, but it is in fact true.
I penned a few short stories and a few lines of verse, doubling humiliation into my decomposing mind and body. On top of this, it had reached the point where it was too hard for me to survive in this land. Anyway, to put it nicely, I had to exile myself.
Where to go? I bragged to everyone I met that I was going to Tokyo. Not only that, I told some friends I was going to study electrical engineering, and when I met my school teacher I said I intended to investigate the printing of high-quality limited editions; to close friends I said I was going to master five foreign languages, and when it got serious, I even took a shot in the dark and said I was planning to study law. Most of my friends seemed to fall for it. But there were a few who didn't believe my false advertising. At any rate, it was a fact that Yi Sang -- now a pauper with forever empty, flapping pockets -- wasn't past firing off a few final blanks.
One day as I continued to shoot blanks as usual while drinking with some friends, a man tapped me on the shoulder. He was somebody known as "Kin Sang."
"Kin Sang (Yi Sang is really Kin Sang, too), it's been quite a while.1 Say, Kin Sang, there's someone who would really like to meet with you once. What do you say?"
"Who is it? A man? A woman?"
"Like they say, if it's a woman, isn't it more interesting?"
"Kin Sang, it's your old oksang."2
In other words, Kum-hong had shown up in Seoul. But if she was here, she was here -- so why was she looking for me?
I got Kum-hong's address from Kin Sang and vacillated about what to do. The address was her younger sister Il-shim's house.3
Finally having made up my mind to meet her, I found Il-shim's house, and,
"I heard your sister's here."
"Oh -- Brother-in law, I thought you had passed away! It's about time you showed up. Come on in."
Kum-hong was still haggard. The exhaustion from her battles on life's frontlines shone in her face.
"I came to Seoul because I missed you, you bastard. What else would I come to Seoul for?"
"So didn't I come to see you, too?"
"I heard you got married."
"Hey, I don't want to hear that sour note."
"Then, you mean you didn't?"
Immediately, a wooden pillow came flying at my face. Just as I had in the past, I gave my ungainly grin.
We had a drinking table brought in. I had a drink and Kum-hong had a drink. I sang a verse from Yongbyon-ga and she sang a verse from a Yukjabaegi.4
The night was already deep, and the consummation of our talk was that this would be our final separation in life. Beating the table ttak, ttak with her silver chopsticks, Kum-hong sings a sentimental ch'ang'ga I have never heard before.5
"Cheating is dreaming, cheated is dreaming, winding, wending wandering world, set your shadowy heart on fire, unnh, unnh!"
1. Kin is a Japanized pronunciation of the Korean family name "Kim," while Sang here is a Koreanized pronunciation of the Japanese particle -san, affixed to people's names.
2. Oksang is a Koreanized pronunciation of okusan, a Japanese word for "wife."
3. "Il-shim" is represented by Chinese characters meaning "single-minded/-hearted."
4. Yongbyon-ga and Yukjabaegi are folk songs from, respectively, the northwest and southwest regions of Korea.
5. A p'ansori-related form of singing.