Korean Short Stories
Kim Ae-ran Knife Marks 칼자국 Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Information This work was previously published in New Writing from Korea . Please contact the LTI Korea Library. email@example.com
About Ae-ran Kim Kim's stories feature young people in their 20s who have moved up to Seoul from other parts of the country. After industrialization and urbanization began in earnest in the 1960s, Korean literature frequently dealt with the subject of young people who turned their backs on their hometowns to come to Seoul. However, though young people continued to move to the capital after the new millennium, literary interest in their stories began to decrease. Because Kim spent most of her childhood growing up in a rural village called Seosan and only began living in Seoul in her 20s, she imbues the lives of the characters in her stories with a strong sense of realism.
LTI Korea eLibrary: http://library.klti.or.kr/node/68
Knife Marks The tip of my mother's knife holds the indifference of a person who has spent her whole life feeding other people. My mother, to me, was not a woman who cries or a woman who wears makeup or a woman who submits, but a woman who wields a knife. Who is healthy and beautiful but chomps on fish cake even when she is all dressed up. A country woman who does not realize how loudly she is chewing her food. My mother used the same knife for over twenty-five years. That's roughly as old as I am. Through the slicing, chopping, and mincing, the knife grew paper-thin. As I chewed, swallowed, and slurped, my intestines and my liver, heart and kidneys grew. Along with the food my mother made for me, I swallowed the knife marks that were left on the ingredients. Countless knife marks are engraved in the dark insides of my body. They travel along my veins and play on my nerves. That's why a mother is a painful thing to me. It's something the organs all know. I understand the word heartache physically. My mother sharpened her knife frequently. When it was time to split open blue crabs thick with eggs in April or sever the hind legs of a butchered dog, she took the grindstone out two or three more times that week. A rancid smell rose from the drain in the bare cement floor. When she squatted on the kitchen floor sharpening her knife, she looked big and round, like the mother of all animals. T-shirt rolled up above the flab around her waist, pale tailbone showing carelessly above her underwear. I saw the shadow of a disappearing tribe in my mother's sil-houette. Maybe that was because the language she spoke was one used by a smaller country of people within the small country of Korea. The same way that Bengal tigers have their own Ben-gal tiger language, and Siberian tigers have their own Siberian tiger language. My mother's language that I suddenly became aware of when I got older. I had a premonition that it would soon disappear, like a beautiful scenic spot. A mother usually dies before her cub, and the words she uses are older than her young. Oddly, this is what I thought of each time my mother sharpened her knife. Just as I constantly had to feed, my mother always had to be making something. When I saw her soaking, salting, and storing this and that in the kitchen even when there was nothing that had to be done, I wanted to be lazy and bratty, like a baby animal. So even though I knew she was busy, I would sprawl on the floor and watch TV or lean in the
door and complain. At sunset, the smell of cooking rice slowly filled the air. The house pulsed with the sound of chop-ping. It was a cozy and natural sound, like the faint whisper at dawn of uncooked rice being washed. I used to try holding the knife she used. For the simple reason that it was a dangerous object, I thought I was in control of it. The wooden knife handle was wrapped with yellow tape. Over the years, the handle had been replaced several times, but the blade was the same. The blade had lost its shine from being sharpened so many times, but after all that wearing down, it gave off a hardened glow from within. I wasn't trying to see love or sacrifice in her knife. I just saw a mother in it. And at those times, I wasn't her child but her cub. My mother sold noodles for over twenty years. The restaurant was called Sweet 'n' Tasty. She had taken over someone's failed bakery and kept the sign in place. Selling kalguksu, knife-cut noodles, is one business a woman from the countryside can start with a small amount of capi-tal. The recipe for kalguksu is simple. You boil short-necked clams, kelp, green onions, garlic, and salt in a pot, then add the noodles halfway through and cook it until they are done. But even as a kid, I knew that the simpler a dish is, the more the flavor can differ according to skill. My mother's kalguksu was superb. So was her kongguksu, chilled noodles served in a soymilk broth in the summer. All summer, while the noodles boiled on the stove, she chugged bowls of fresh soymilk with ice floating in it. The white milk dried and stuck to the peach fuzz around her lips. I would stare blankly at her until she fed me a bowl of sweetened soymilk. Sweet 'n' Tasty was booming. Farmers coming a long way to market, employees of the Community Credit Coopera-tive, Agricultural Cooperative, and Fisheries Cooperative, middle school teachers, and bar girls looking to sober up all ate noodles at our place. There were more than a few out-of-towners as well, and my mother could always tell what their relationship was from the way they ate. After serving the food out front, I would narrow my eyes and ask, "I bet they're having an affair." She would scold me first then agree, saying, "They sure are." My mother was proud of her own cook-ing. The noodles were important, but the secret to the broth was in the kimchi. She made kimchi once every four days. The image of my mother with her upper body thrust inside a large plastic basin, mixing the seasonings for the kimchi, was a familiar sight in front of our restaurant. She looked like she was squirming to avoid slipping into the underworld through the portal of the ba-sin. I remember how small bubbles and kimchi juice would
leak out from between the soft, wilted cabbage leaves whenever she took out a freshly ripened head and began slicing it. When she boiled the noodles, I stood at her side with my mouth wide open like a baby swallow. She would pluck out the freshly cooked noodles with her chopsticks. Then she would pick up a piece of kimchi with her bare hand and stuff it into my mouth any which way. The kimchi tasted sharp, like soda. The flavor of my mother's fingers when they entered my gaping maw, her flesh, tasted tepid and plain. I loved the clear, fresh sound and the crunch of the kitchen knife slicing through a whole head of cabbage. The inside of the dusky kitchen, the bones of sunlight slanting in through the ventilator, and my mother's profile as she stood close to that light, I loved that, too. There were five knives in the kitchen. My mother used only one of them to slice the dough into noodles. The rest of the knives were for peeling fruit or shelling clams, or were lent to others when it was time to make kimchi to store away for the winter. My mother could slice noodles even with her eyes closed. Her right hand chopped while the two fingers of her left hand inched backwards in time with the knife. There was no fear and no hesitation in her chopping. It held the confidence of a person who has mastered a single technique over a long period of time and the reassurance that she's putting food on the table, mixed with the weariness of doing the same simple task over and over. She used a metal spoon to scrape off the dough that clung to the knife. I put on dad's big sweatpants and helped out with chores. When I was a teenager, my legs shook whenever I ran into a boy I liked while I was out delivering trays of food. My feisty moth-er was a nagger. With green onions, you have to wash the crotch really well, she'd say. I told you to mop the floor, not flood it. Why didn't it occur to you to clean the spoon cases as well, since you were already wiping the tables? Just leave it, I'll do it, you don't know how. I would tell her I could do it if she would just show me, that it couldn't be that hard. But each time, my mother would act high and mighty. "Just leave it, I'll do it, you don't know how." I chatted while helping her. And I would talk back on purpose, because I liked getting a rise out of her. If she said, "It's hard to run a business," I would chide her, saying, "Did you think raising a kid would be easy?" She would smile sweetly then suddenly pretend to aim her knife at me. She didn't hesitate to say, "I'll gut you!" Like parents who give their kids noogies, she was theatrical in her scoldings. I was scared silly of the blade that swung my way with no warning. But behind the shock was the reassurance and
immense trust that she would never ever hurt me. My mother took delight in scaring and surprising her little cub. Once when I was six years old, she pretended to fall into a fit of convulsions and die. I was supposed to weep and wail beside her fake corpse all night long. Another time, my mother stuck a kidney bean down the back of my shirt and yelled, "Pillbug!" She couldn't stop laughing at the sight of me rolling around on the floor. Each time something like this happened, I cried loudly then was able to fall asleep with the most peaceful look on my face. My mother would point her knife at me, but she was the one who was often hurt by that knife. When the restaurant was busy, she would get flustered and cut herself. Once opened, the wound was slow to heal. That was because her wet hands never had a chance to dry and because she sprinkled most of the seasonings into the pot with her bare hands. She did all of the cooking, serving, cashiering, cleaning, and dishwashing by herself. But she said she never felt tired be-cause it was so exciting to see the money roll in. One day, she cut three of her fingers at once while slicing the noodles. She stanched the bleeding with a pained look on her face, and kept slicing noodles and serving them. The blood wouldn't stop flowing. Her thumbnail had already fallen off. Before long, there was a problem with one of the orders. Blood was smeared on the side of the white plastic bowl. Luckily, it had gone to a sweet country granny. My mother kept bowing her head and saying she would bring her a new bowl. The old lady neatly wiped the side of the bowl with her hand, which was as gnarled as tree bark. Then she said calmly, "My my, there's blood on here." The old lady slurped the noodles into her wrinkled mouth and turned to my mother. "Not too hurt, are you?" My mother said, before that day, she had never felt so grateful to a customer. One of her rules that she kept as keenly as her knife was the order in which food should be served. Of course, it would have been the same in any shop. Even when customers poured in at the same time, my mother knew whose foot had crossed the threshold first. Though part of it was that customers hated it when the order got mixed up, it was also because, a long time ago, there was a woman who took the bowl of noodles she'd just been served and went outside and poured it into the street. My mother seemed to have been wounded by that. All sorts of things happen when you run a restaurant, but she remembered even the little things like that. Even the customer she said she remembered
the most vividly wasn't that remarkable. One day, a man came in and ordered two bowls of noodles. He asked for a private room, so she set him a table in our house, which was attached to the restaurant. The only thing on the table was noodles, hot pepper paste, and a small bowl of kimchi. The man asked for an empty bowl. She watched him closely, wondering why he needed it. He turned the bowl over and used it to cover the noodles across the table from his. It seemed he did it to keep them warm. Soon, a woman showed up. She smiled and removed the bowl then lifted her chopsticks. The two of them ate with their heads touching in an intimate silence. My mother watched them in a daze. She saw them through the eyes of a woman who had never received that kind of small warmth, such an ordinary kindness. A good cook, a hard worker, and a great cusser, my mother felt something inscrutable. There is a time in our lives when a momentous silence passes over us, and for my mother, that would have been it. It was twenty-five years ago when my mother came across that knife. She found it in some marketplace in Incheon where my father worked. She had gone to the market holding her pregnant belly and ran into a knife peddler at the corner of a vegetable shop. A soldier's steel helmet was turned upside down like a bowl on top of an apple crate sitting in front of the man. He struck the helmet with the knife - thwack! thwack! - and shouted, "It's still sharp!" The women were all abuzz. My mother marveled warily at the knife peddler through the eyes of an inexperienced newlywed. The man held the knife aloft and said it wasn't just stainless steel but "special" stainless steel. Cast-iron knives are heavy and rust easily, and stainless steel is too flimsy, he said, but this knife was perfect, just right. The handle was round and sturdy, made from pine. My mother bought the knife for 1,500 won. She wasn't sure if it was a rip-off or not, but she needed it for her new home and had fallen for the knife's solidness-a certain dignity, perhaps. That day, as she climbed the steep path home, clutching the knife rolled up in cardboard, she said she felt her heart pound like that of a girl clutching a love letter. From then on, she clasped not the sparkle of a ring but the flash of a butcher's knife. I remember two incidents involving that knife. One happened when I was eight years old and had just come home from school. The restaurant was busy. I started to sulk. Whenever the place was filled with customers, I was supposed to go outside and pass the time somehow. But that day, I didn't want to. I kept hanging around her. I felt like I was invisible to her. I whined, "Mom, I'm hungry." She didn't seem to hear that either. I
felt sorry for myself, wondering how the daughter of a noodle shop owner could be left hungry. I wanted to make her feel guilty. So I yelled, "Do you love your customers more than your own daughter?" then bolted out of the shop. My plan was to go somewhere and off myself. She didn't come after me. I wandered the streets with my head down. Suddenly, a dog appeared out of nowhere and stood in my way. The size of a cow, it was black as night and terrifying, like it had come straight out of hell. It bared its yellow teeth and barked, "Woof!" My body seemed to freeze at the thunderous sound. "Argh!" I screamed. The sound of my scream was so piercing, I had no idea where it came from. Just then, my mother came flying. Still wearing her apron, she had the knife in her hand. I couldn't tell whether she ran out with it in the middle of slicing noodles or whether she meant to bring it. She frightened the dog away from me. I burst out crying-wah! She went back to the shop. It was nothing, but afterward, the image of my mother standing with her knife in front of the black dog stayed with me for a long time. The other thing I remember happened recently. I had been accepted to a university in Seoul and found a place to rent; we were shopping for household items. My mother and I took a taxi to a large discount store nearby. I had to buy everything I would need to live alone, from rice and instant noodles to toilet paper, detergent, and tampons. Neatly dressed for her day in the city, my mother lost her nerve amongst the mountains of things for sale and the labyrinthine aisles. She wanted to lead the way and nag at me like a mother should, but there wasn't much for her to do there. Instead, I was the one who was swiftly picking out items. She just pushed the cart and followed me in silence. She hadn't touched up her makeup, and her nose was shiny. A few strands of hair had slipped out of her neatly upswept bun, making it look frizzy. We stopped by the food court to eat fish cake. I watched her eat the fish cake with her mouth wide open and thought, so that's the way my mother eats, how she's always eaten... She looked around inno-cently. We pushed the cart around again. My mother was like a student driver, flustered by the other carts that bumped and shoved into ours. After a while, we came to the kitchenware aisle. I couldn't make up my mind which knife to buy, so she suddenly handed me a German-made knife and said, "Take this one." When I took the knife and studied it, she spoke plainly. "I know knives." My mother was popular in her youth. With her big eyes and pretty forehead, a lot of
guys came calling. She liked to get dolled up, so she used the money she made from digging clams to buy fake leather boots and a long coat. She wrote letters in chicken scratch to pen pals, and said that whenever her grandmother told her to cook dinner, she would "stare to the east as if she'd lost a baby." She was courted in various ways. There was the soldier who came with his helmet full of strawberries, and the guy who came by everyday to ask for a single dipper of water. If my proud, vivacious mother had one weakness, it was the nice, quiet guys. That was the whole rea-son my mother shrugged off the other men's passes and chose my father. He used to walk dozens of miles from his house to hers just to see her. He would carry a bottle of soju in each pocket and drink them along the way to keep his courage up. My father would then walk dozens of miles back without even telling her he liked her. It took over three hours on foot. In a word, that's the kind of person he was. He set it up, and she called the shots. Though she was good with a knife, there was one thing my mother could never cut-that was the link between husband and wife. The two of them lived in Incheon during the first years of their marriage. When she had to live off of rice sold by the scoop after being accustomed to having rice by the sackful in the country, my mother felt anxious and even sorry for herself. Back then, she could only bring home a kilo or two of rice at a time because my father's paycheck was too small. The night she bought her knife in the market, she laid out all her worries to him. The gist of it was that she was pregnant, her parents wouldn't help them, and their future looked bleak. My father retorted, as if their problems weren't that big of a deal, "Life is about starting from the bottom." She said that those words, from a husband who was four years her senior and a primary school graduate, impressed and reassured her, who had likewise only made it through primary school. "Bastard's got a way with words." Now, thirty years later, whenever she laments her lot in life, my father delivers his line like a movie star with a cigarette clenched between his lips: "Life is about starting from the bottom." Even when they had to cash in their deposit on the noodle shop and switch to paying rent monthly, even when the guy who borrowed money from him vanished, and even
when they had no way of coming up with my college tuition, my father always said the same thing. "Life is about starting from..." But before he could get all the words out, my mother would hurl a roll of toilet paper at him and shout,"You and your bottom!" Only once in my life did I see my father pick up a kitchen knife. That was the time he caused a scene and threatened to kill himself in the middle of the night. He had secretly bor-rowed 200,000 won, which had grown to 5 million in just a few months, and some threatening men had dropped by that night. We knew that he had spent the money on drinking binges. My father argued with my mother all night. He seemed to be explaining himself and reasoning with her, but at the same time, it just sounded like a lot of screaming. Suddenly, he ran into the kitchen and grabbed the knife from the cutting board. He bellowed, huffing and puffing, "I'll kill you all!" Then, "And I'll kill myself, too!" A strange gleam flickered in his eyes. He was wearing baggy, ivory-colored long johns. My mother knew that he wasn't going to die, but she tried hard to reason with him. He talked for over two hours about life and philosophy with the knife clenched in his hand before suddenly falling asleep. As he snored, he could not have looked more indolent or optimistic. When I was six years old, my mother took out a loan and opened the noodle shop. Having opposed it because it stepped on his toes as the family breadwinner, my father eventually liked the fact that it brought more money in and later turned everything over to my mother. She began using the "special" stainless steel knife she had bought in the marketplace in Songhyeon-dong in earnest. Just as the peddler said, it was a good knife. The knife swaggered across the chopping board. My mother's hands were quick, and the knife's rhythm was lively. They resem-bled each other in some ways, young and strong. There was something severe about the way she looked when she took up the knife and started cooking. I sometimes wondered what it was. But just as my thoughts began to deepen, she would stuff something in my mouth, causing me to lose track. My mother worked like an ox. But she was a shrewd, indulgent ox. She had her share of vanity as well and didn't skimp on buying cosmetics, saying that business owners had to look good. She liked hearing the words, "The boss is a beauty," and would brush it off then go into the storeroom to look at herself in the mirror. My mother was a realist. Everything
had to be done rationally according to an order and a plan. She had a plan for when to pay off her loan, when to buy a house, and how much to set aside for savings. She laughed easily and cared deeply, but would openly scowl if her first customer of the day was a party of one, and would grumble to herself in the kitchen if a couple with three kids came in and only ordered two bowls of noodles. In contrast, my father lived for the moment. He spent the money he earned mostly on himself, and was surprisingly optimistic. He had earned some recognition in the community. On top of being a local boy, he could be counted on to help put together weddings and funerals. But be-neath that recognition lay the truth that he was a man who couldn't say no. Called a man of few words and a dutiful son-in-law, my father's catchphrase was, "A'right." It was an abbreviation of "all right" said in the style of the Chungcheong province dialect. So even when an older acquain-tance with eyes as mean as a sashimi knife used to gut eels asked for a huge sum of money, and even when a man who was well-known in the neighborhood for being untrustworthy asked him to be a co-signer, my father listened mutely for a bit before finally opening his mouth. "A'right." Even when I asked if I could go to a private university, he immediately agreed. If my mother was the one who paid my tuition even after putting her foot down, my father was the one who gave his approval then didn't show a hint of concern. In a way, you could say he wasn't so much bad as impossible. My father disappointed my mother for the first time right after they were married. While drinking with friends, he pawned the gold ring that she had pressured him to buy. It happened after they'd been married for less than a day. He went searching for it several times, but in the end, it was lost. He couldn't even afford to buy her a copper ring. Then a few years later, he started wearing matching couple rings with some random woman. She was an older woman with a nice body who worked in a public bathhouse scrubbing other women. My mother heard about it for the first time from the woman next door while washing flour off her arms with a dipper of hot water. The woman said that she'd heard that my father had been seen standing out front with a cold bottle of banana-flavored milk from the store each time the scrubber woman gets off work. My mother listened with a blue washcloth in one hand. Bits of dirt were floating in the steaming dipper that sat below her expressionless face. I didn't hold it against him. I just
wished that my mother had a man, the same way my father had a lover. Someone who would rub her back for her and stroke her wrinkled face when she fell asleep after a long day of work. Maybe it was only natural for people to need that. The attitude in the neighborhood was largely to blame for my sense of morals. Strangely enough, all of the adults in our neighborhood had lovers. It was open-ly alluded to amongst the middleaged men, and not having one made them feel left out. The women were not much different. They were just far cleverer in their affairs. But the infidelity I saw in the countryside was not as serious and fatal as in the soap operas on TV. They were natu-ral and sometimes cheerful, and noisy at the same time that they were covert. The wind of infi-delity that blew through the countryside felt like a kind of sport that had kept the world in motion over the ages. Some called it a mistake, some love, and some an illicit affair. I didn't know what the right name for it was. But one thing was clear: our neighborhood was swirling with a passion that I didn't understand, like the currents of the Sea of Okhotsk where schools of herring are fattened up. What bothered me about his philandering wasn't the worry that he would leave us, or some moral standard. What made me sad was my hunch that my father would eventually hurt my mother. That he might destroy his sense of morality, not as a husband or a father, but as a person.
that that was why he shouldn't go around wearing a couple ring in front of her. As if she were trying to protect her pride, my mother pointed out that dating all came down to money. We owe more than a few people money, she said, so you need to keep bringing home the day's wages. That much you should do. My father didn't agree or disagree. She said the good thing about him was that, the moment he was driven into a corner, he kept his mouth shut. He placed the daily wages he earned at a construction site on top of the drawer chest, then after a few days, began skipping his payments. Then my mother would say something, and he would resume, then would soon stop again. My mother went to the bathhouse in town where the woman worked. Then, with just her head poking out of the tub, she studied the woman thoroughly, from the way she moved to her breasts, hips, and thighs. A few days later, she burst out laughing while slicing kimchi. "That woman is so old, goodness, a total grandma." But right after saying that, she started to sulk. "Why does he have to see her, of all wom-en," she said, while kneading the dough, salting the cabbage, shucking the shortnecked clams, and picking out the rotten beans. Perhaps to compensate for it, she
started playing cards with women who lied about their age so they would be addressed respectfully as elders, who played for money in beauty salons and pubs where they hid their shoes from view. But one of the wom-en's lovers ratted on them to the police. He was mad because she stopped meeting him and did nothing but play Go-Stop cards all day. At the sound of the cops banging on the door, the Go-Stoppers ran for their lives, and my mother came home covered in mud because she fell while running along the banks of a rice paddy with cash clenched in both hands. While my father's la-dy friend was primly sipping banana milk, my mother's stakes were climbing to 500 won per point. But there was one thing she never failed to do while that was going on, and that was cook dinner. I didn't quite get it. The restaurant was one thing, but I didn't understand how she could grill hairtail, season eggplant, and saut? carp for my father when he was cheating on her. Plus, she only cooked his favorite dishes. Maybe it came from a sense of honor that she had discovered in spite of herself. Or maybe it was because of me. Or maybe she just figured we had to eat something. One day, I was stunned to realize that I had never experienced true hunger. Beyond the question of need or plenty, it shocked and surprised me that someone's pure hunger, pure ap-petite, could be met by someone else for decades. For years, my mother marinated, pickled, packed, laughed aloud, and sometimes cried alone while scrubbing her arms clean. Sometimes while slyly noting that a woman dooms herself when she sharpens a knife, but that things were still okay since she hadn't yet butchered her husband and child. She shred brisket and boiled seaweed on birthdays, made sticks of rice cake on Lunar New Year's, rolled kimbap for picnics, and made dongchimi in the winter. All the while, my heart and liver, intestines and kidneys grew like shoots. The knife marks on her food likewise swam throughout my body, toying with my insides. I grew all the better for not knowing this. As another year passed, my mother sliced sticks of rice cake, and as another season passed, she boiled green soybeans to make green tofu. I grew up eating warm meals that gave off a fresh metallic scent from within. I once asked her, "Which kind of knife is best?" She answered, as if wondering how a college graduate could not know something as sim-ple as that. "Why, a knife that cuts well is a good knife, of course!" My mother frequently came and went from the storeroom next to the kitchen. I hated
the way it smelled, but everything I ate was in there. When I saw the wilted scallion kimchi and picked garlic inside their dusty glass jars, crabs pickled in soy sauce crouched and awaiting their moment of revenge, and water kimchi sloshing about in a clay jar as it ripened, I felt like I had turned into someone from a time long past. The dusty ventilator turned slowly. My mother sat hunched on the floor, sharpening her knife. I watched her move in front of the whetstone and mumbled to myself, "Mom is a good mother. Mom is a good woman. Mom is a good knife. Mom is a good word." * When I heard the news of my mother's death, at first, my mind went blank. It was as if she had never existed at all. The fact that I had had a mother felt more strange and frightening to me than the fact that she was dead. I called my husband. He said he would take time off and head home right away. It would take around three hours to reach the medical center in my hometown. The cause of her death was a stroke. In the last few years, my mother had been complaining that her knuckles hurt, making it hard to knead the dough for the noodles. I thought her body was sending a signal to itself based on a self-determined point. She probably had something like that. An internal clock that said "at least this long". An economic time scale such as until I finished school or until I got married. My mother was fading away faster than her self-appointed time. The first to go were her hands, then her knees. She was diligent about taking her calcium supplements. Recently, she seemed to have been getting more rest and exercising. But she didn't take her blood pressure medication. It was hard to find a medication that was right for her body, and she was annoyed with the pharmacy's policy of only giving out a week's worth of the pills at a time. We didn't give much thought to her blood pressure, either. What we worried about was her degenerative arthritis. Whenever my mother, who was not given to exaggeration if she could help it, mentioned the word "pain," I would get flustered and resort to blurting out some optimistic words. When she lamented her lot in life, this pansori tune would come out of nowhere. She would speak in a sing-song voice, drawing out or emphasizing certain words. Sweet 'n' Tasty wasn't what it used to be. The extra workers who had been sent in to the nearby petrochemical plant had since slipped out of town like an ebb tide, and a seafood kalguksu franchise opened up near the bus stop.
My mother said she felt ashamed of the lack of customers. Losing face in the neighborhood was worse than losing money. She said most of the restaurants in the area were in a slump. The effects of the financial crisis were supposed to hit the countryside late, and she said it looked like it was now time. I felt bad that the "now" had to be now. My mother seemed to take comfort in my saying that it would get better soon. But were I to sympathize with her, take her to task, or nag her, she would get mad and hang up. "What am I, your cub?" My mother collapsed while boiling noodles in the kitchen. The overcooked noodles boiled over and put out the flame on the gas stove, and the customers out front came running. They said there was a single spoon on the floor. Right before she died, she must have been checking if the food was seasoned properly. The funeral parlor bustled with people who had come for the wake. Though absorbed in their grief, the older relatives didn't disguise their glow of pride at the number of guests. Women in white mourning clothes were busily serving food. My aunt kept giving orders to and checking up on the funeral home director. There wasn't enough food because too many guests had flocked in once the sun went down. A table would be set and cleared, then set again, repeating the process. I watched people open their mouths and eat in chorus. Beef soup, rice, rice cake, dried squid, peanuts, fried fish, boiled meat, fruit, beer, soju, soda, salad, kimchi, greens... Suddenly, I remembered how I used to call my mother whenever some small problem arose while living on my own. "Mom, how do you make bean paste stew?" She would answer gravely, "Well, you just put the bean paste in and boil it." "..." I snapped at her, as if saying gee whiz, thanks so much for sharing such valuable information: "So I guess you boil kimchi for kimchi stew and seaweed for seaweed soup?" She cackled and gave me the full recipe. I acted like an imbecile, asking her the same questions over and over. She liked answering my questions. I thought about her sometimes while chopping garlic, slicing tofu, and cutting kimchi with the knife she had bought for me at the store. It wasn't long before I realized how happy something like one good knife or a frying pan could make a woman. The funeral was chaotic. Despite my aunt's direction, the women serving food were running this way and that. If my feisty mother had seen this, she would have rolled up her sleeves and risen from her coffin to
take over in the dining room. She would quickly assess the guests, determine the order, and serve them smoothly and fairly until everyone was satisfied-all while quietly counting the condolence money. I was pregnant at the time but didn't feel like eating anything. My husband kept pushing me to eat. I told him I couldn't stand the smell of the beef soup. The smell filled the funeral home and floated about like a bad dream. I felt nauseous and dizzy. My husband asked me to at least eat some fruit or rice cake. I said I wasn't hungry at all. He said it was crazy that I hadn't eaten anything all day, and he urged me to at least have a bite for the baby's sake. I said I was fine. He kept pleading with me then became angry. The older relatives seconded him. Some even told me to go rest at my parents' house. I complained, saying I was only three months along, so what was the big deal. My husband added some rice to a bowl of broth and set it in front of me. I forced myself to bring the spoon to my mouth, but my stomach lurched. I was on my way out of the bathroom after rinsing my mouth out when I saw my father standing in the hallway. He was discussing the funeral arrangements with his oldest uncle. He said the plan was to bury my mother in the family graveyard near the house. It used to be further away, but the family elders had recently pooled their money to move it to better land. They seemed to feel more relief than grief each time they visited the ancestral plot. Maybe it was because they thought to themselves, "There, that's my spot." My great-uncle was telling my father, "The spot next to her will be yours later." Like a singer who had only had one hit in his entire life, my father finally burst into tears. "A'right," he said. In his bamboo mourner's hat, my father looked more strapping than usual. While he cov-ered his long face with his long hands, I looked at my mother's funeral portrait. She was smiling mysteriously, the way she did years ago when she pretended to fall into a fit of convulsions and die in front of me. It was a lively and beautiful smile, but shady and wicked at the same time. The next day, we had even more guests at the wake. Members of a local social club, neighbors, my mother's gambling buddies, lovers who pretended not to know each other, and employees of the Community Credit Cooperative, Agricultural Cooperative, and Fisheries Coop-erative showed up. It was the same when I went to a younger cousin's wedding, but I felt dis-mayed for some reason to see all these people coming and going
who looked like me. It was a shyness felt in the presence of what you could call the face of a single family line, or perhaps ge-netics. I was surrounded by this cousin and that cousin and this second cousin. Their faces were my face. I ran into my forehead in the bathroom, my nose in front of the shoe cabinet, and my eyes in the parking lot. They walked by me awkwardly, saying, "I guess we're related." My fa-ther looked worn out. I looked tired, too, not having slept a wink. My mother's neighborhood friends flung themselves onto the floor and vented their grief with their whole bodies. Then they wiped away their tears, spread out a blanket to one side, and began dealing cards. I pictured my mother's spirit lurking around the card game with her hands clasped behind her back, fretting and butting in. My husband was still pushing me to eat. But even water made me sick. He seemed worried. I felt clear-headed and awake. My female relatives wouldn't let me join them in working. When I tried to help with something, they all smiled and pushed me out of the way. I started to get angry. After dark, my father called me out to the parking lot. He told me to go home and get some rest. I said I would just stay since the funeral procession was beginning in a few hours. Then he asked me to bring him something from home. I suggested he ask his son-in-law to do that for him. But he lit a cigarette and said that his son-in-law didn't know his way around our house. He wanted me to bring him some socks and underwear. I started to retort that he could buy that sort of thing around here, but changed my mind and said okay. The door to Sweet 'n' Tasty was firmly shut. I opened the restaurant door with the key my father had given me. It was a flimsy metal sliding door. I fumbled for the switch in the darkness. When I pressed the button, the empty chairs in the restaurant instantly took shape. Inside, there was the rancid smell of groundwater. I went to the kitchen and flipped another switch. The incandescent bulb hanging from the ceiling switched on. I left that light on and turned the rest off. The house was empty. The room was so cold, it had a forlorn air. I turned on the power to the boiler. It seemed like a good idea to warm up the floor for when my father came home. I stood in the darkness and looked around the room. The mismatched decorations were still there, from the pumpkin on top of the TV set to the free calendar given out at the farmer's co-op, stone figurines from Jeju Island, and candles. I spread a futon out on the floor. Then I sat down and thought absentmindedly about my mother. At first I sat with my legs crossed, then I stretched my
legs out, and after a bit, I lay on my back instead. As I lay still on top of the futon, sleep came over me. It was the first time I had felt tired since coming to the countryside. I closed my eyes, thinking I would just lie there for a bit then go. Images of the times I had spent with her in that room passed through my mind. The floor was gradually growing warm. When my body began to look like a grown-up's, my mother tried to take me everywhere with her. Her favorite place was the public bathhouse. My mother wanted to show off my naked body-that is, the curvy body of a grown child, not a baby-to the other women. She didn't say it, but I could read it in her face. Look, this is my child. She's got hair and breasts and hips! I shrank before the other grown women who had pubic hair and hips like mine. After the bath-house, we returned to Sweet 'n' Tasty. Then we turned on the boiler and turned up the heat to take a nap. She and I shared a pillow. Her body gave off the sweet, sleepy smell of fruit quietly rotting in a bin at the end of the season. The world was silent, and my body was like syrup. Visi-tors always dropped by when we were napping. My mother would get up slowly and chat with the other women over snacks. It was neighborhood gossip. I lay on the floor and listened in on every word. Their talk was earthy, and the scandals I heard in my half-sleep were sweet. After nightfall, when the women left and I had drifted alone into a deep sleep, I heard the faint sound of a chopping board. It was the sound of my mother cooking and packing food for me since I was leaving for Seoul the next day. Well-cleaned hairtail and corvina, frozen short-necked clams, black-eyed peas, kidney beans, meal-sized portions of pork ribs that could be easily reheated, wild rocambole, deveined anchovies, frozen cow hoof soup, young radish kimchi, new bean paste, pan-fried anchovies, crispy seaweedâ€Ś When I got up, I was drenched in sweat. The clock read 3 a.m. My body ached like I'd been beaten. My face was wet with either sweat or tears. Something dark in the kitchen seemed to move to comfort me. It said, it's okay. It's okay. It's okay to hurt, okay to feel. It's okay, so you can cry yourself to sleep now. It wasn't my heart that ached. Rather, the organ itself, my heart, kidneys, and intestines hurt. I was parched. It was because I hadn't eaten in three days. I put on my shoes, walked out to the kitchen, and opened the fridge. A rectangle of light from the refrigerator shone on my face. Inside the light, I saw cucumbers suspended like jellyfish, dried anchovies, eggs, and several containers of food. I took out the water and chugged it straight from the bottle. I could feel the bracingly
cold barley tea I gulped reaching each of my organs in turn. I closed the door to the house and took the bag with my father's underwear. Then I looked around the kitchen. It was a mess, as if to hold on to the way things were before she collapsed. Piles of dishes were stacked in the sink and a few withered onions and apples were rolling around on the shelf. My eyes stopped at the chopping board on the counter. My mother's knife lay in front of me. It sat askew on the chopping board. It glimmered silently in the dark. The blade had been worn down until it was thin as paper, but it still had a sharp, polished luster. Suddenly, I was overcome with an irrepressible hunger. A desire to take a bite of something. A desire to wet my insides. Just then my eyes fell on the few apples that were rolling around on the shelf. I grabbed an apple with one hand and the knife with the other. The handle fit my hand perfectly. Tuk-a small cut opened up on the green peel. I set the edge of the blade inside the cut and started to turn the apple. Snick, snick, snickâ€Ś The sound of the apple peeling spread quietly through the dark kitchen. The apple rotated in my hand, revealing its own universe. It smelled fresh. My mouth watered. I managed to peel the entire apple in one unbroken coil. The rolled-up apple peel fell on my shoe. I took a deep breath. Then I opened my mouth wide and took a bite of the apple. CrunchI felt the piece of apple enter my body. I swirled my wet tongue around to savor the taste. I bit, sucked, and swirled then swallowed in spite of myself. Then I closed my eyes. "Ah, that tastes good!" I murmured. I heard my cell phone vibrate. My husband was probably looking for me. Munching on the apple that I held in one hand, I slipped out of Sweet 'n' Tasty. The bite of apple was about to take a journey through the darkness inside me, whirling like a meteorite flying far off into the universe. Walking toward the funeral parlor, I really felt it was going to happen.
Copyright 2009 Literature Translation Institute of Korea