Sun-mi Hwang NUISANCES IN THE BACKYARD E ng l i s h
NUISANCES IN THE BACKYARD (뒤뜰에 골칫거리가 산다) sakyejul Publishing corp. / 2014 / 27 p. / ISBN 9788958287247 For further information, please visit: http://library.klti.or.kr/node/772
This sample translation was produced with support from LTI Korea. Please contact the LTI Korea Library for further information. firstname.lastname@example.org
NUISANCES IN THE BACKYARD Written by Sun-mi Hwang
THE RASCALS OF CHERRY HILL
It happened almost at the same time, practically instantaneously. Sang-hun gave the soccer ball a good kick toward Pierre, the bus appeared from around the corner, Jang came out of his store, and an elderly man stepped on the topmost stair of Cherry Hill. “Oh, no!” The world stood still for a moment, paused like a scene in a movie. The only thing that kept moving was the soccer ball. It bounced off a bus window, hit the store sign, and fell to the ground, spinning. Everything restarted at once, erupting into chaos. “Go! Run!” “My window!” “Stop, you rascals!” The boys in question fled past the elderly man, Kang, who gripped the railing and stepped aside. His legs were tired from climbing the steep hill and now the boys were whirling past him like a tempest. Their footsteps pounded down the stairs, ringing like hooves, as Jang ran after them; he only managed to catch two. Luckily the window of the bus was unscathed. Because Cherry Hill was the end of the line, the only passenger was a young girl who got off the bus as if nothing had happened and skipped into the store. “I’m home!” she cried in greeting to her grandfather, Jang, whose face was flushed in anger as he held the two boys by the nape of their necks. “You rascals!
Do you listen to your elders with your nostrils? Didn’t I tell you not to play ball here? You’ve ruined my sign!” “Let go!” Sang-hun said, squirming. “Where are we supposed to go? There’s nowhere else we can play. That sign was already broken!” “What? How dare you? Even if you plead with me and tell me how sorry you are, I may not forgive you. But here you are, talking back.” “I know that the truck smashed it yesterday. And you were paid for the damage, too!” “You’re still talking back?” Jang let go of the kids and looked around as if for a stick to beat them with. Anyone could see he was brimming with annoyance, at a loss as to what to do. The true reason Jang was making such a fuss was because of the bus driver. Although he came through several times a day, the driver never even bought a measly pack of gum as a courtesy. He hung out on the old man’s low platform, sneaked a bite if food was laid out, and sometimes even used Jang’s to dispose of the trash accumulated on the bus. And now the soccer ball had given Jang a reason to vent. “You rude boy!” shouted Jang. “Is this how your grandmother taught you?” “What does my grandma have to do with anything?” “How dare you? Why don’t you see what it feels like, then.” Jang glared at the boy and gave the ball a hard kick, causing it to shoot over the squat makeshift buildings and the tangled thicket of forsythia, even clearing the thick, tall, ungroomed privet fence surrounding the sloped forest behind House Number 100. The giant’s house. “My soccer ball!” cried Sang-hun, stomping his foot in distress. Jang remained unsatisfied. He forced the boys to kneel and raise their hands above their heads as punishment. Sang-hun glared at the old man and Pierre stared after the ball, frowning.
The bus driver bought a cup of coffee from the vending machine that stood outside next to the shop. He settled on the platform. “Boys, if you’d just apologized you wouldn’t have lost your ball.” Sang-hun turned to the driver. “It’s your fault, too. Why did you have to drive up right then?” “Aren’t you rude!” the driver exclaimed. “You little rascal! Do you always talk back and glare at adults like that? Stop it. You should be more respectful.” “That’s what the adults always say,” the boy grumbled. “If you say the right thing, they just say you’re talking back.” “Huh? What are they teaching you in school these days? You deserve to lose that ball!” yelled the driver, crumpling the paper cup and standing up. Pierre murmured, “We didn’t lose it.” “Wait. You’re a foreigner but you can speak Korean?” “I am Korean,” Pierre said, annoyed. The driver studied Pierre’s dark complexion before clearing his throat and tossing his cup into the trashcan. “Look here,” Jang complained. “I have to pay for trash bags, you know. You’re not completely innocent in this mess, either. How could you just get coffee from the machine? At the very least you should buy a box of beverages!” Ignoring Jang, the driver got back on the bus and drove away with a rumble and a puff of exhaust. “What a shitty day!” Jang spat on the ground. This was the last stop of the line in name only. In reality, the stop was a vacant lot at the top of Cherry Hill, the only wide-open space in Cherry Village, a tiny town nestled into a mountainside. The vacant lot was where the bus stopped before resuming its route, and it was
also used as a front yard by Jang; he left piles of his wares lying around and had placed a low platform. There was no better place for a pack of kids to play, which was why the lot was filled with this kind of ruckus from time to time, although it was rare for all of these things to happen at once. Old man Kang, who had been silently watching the entire scene, came up slowly. He placed his bag on the platform and sat down. He wiped his forehead. “Would you like something cold?” Jang asked, looking at the unfamiliar man with curiosity. Kang stared at Jang for a while before he finally nodded. Jang took out an ice cream cone from the freezer; he didn’t see a small smile flit across Kang’s face. Kang’s face crumpled just like the cone that was dented in the middle. It wasn’t the dented cone that caused him displeasure; it was the manufacture date stamped on the ice cream. It had been made a year and nine months earlier. Jang noticed. “Don’t worry,” he said soothingly. “Frozen things don’t go bad. It’s just dented because the ice cream cones were piled on top of one other. You know, just because no one buys this kind of high-end stuff in this neighborhood.” Kang reluctantly handed over some money. “And a brand-new bill at that! It’s two thousand won, but why don’t I give you a 500-won discount?” Jang handed over the change, including a 500-won coin, but Kang gave back the coin. Jang grinned and tossed the coin into a jar. Without realizing that the coin had missed the jar and had fallen to the ground, he settled down near Kang. The coin rolled toward the boys who were still on their knees, and Kang saw Sang-hun grab it and pocket it. Their eyes met briefly. Sang-hun looked away, as if nothing happened. “Did you walk all the way up?” Jang continued solicitously. “The bus comes all the way here, you know. Eh, I guess your rump is still young.”
Kang’s eyebrows furrowed. Jang quickly changed the subject. “There are one thousand eight hundred seventy seven steps to get up here, you know. What I mean is, it’s got to be better to sit on that bus no matter how many detours it makes.” He smiled in a friendly way and looked Kang over. Kang merely took his hat off, wiped his sweat with a handkerchief, and put his hat back on again. “You don’t live around here, and there’s nothing to see here, so you must have come to visit someone. I’m one of the VIPs in this neighborhood, you see. I basically know how many spoons a household has.” Kang looked at Jang with curiosity. Although Jang didn’t really like this stranger who kept staring at him like this, a shopkeeper couldn’t turn away customers. “A VIP?” Kang murmured. “That I am! Who else do you think has stayed here in Cherry Village all these years? And operating this respectable store? So, tell me. Who have you come to see?” “That’s not it.” Kang’s voice was dignified. Sensing that this stranger was unlike him, Jang felt chastened and annoyed. This was his home turf, and the rascals he’d punished were watching him. “Ah, then you must be here to find out about our real estate market. Everywhere else has turned into apartment buildings so you’re thinking it’s worth angling for because this is the only unchanged place. But you got it wrong. This all here has been bought up by Mirae Construction. Soon this will all be apartment buildings, too. If they could get rid of us, that is.” Kang kept staring but didn’t open his mouth. Jang, thinking that his oration had kindled the other man’s curiosity, became animated. “See that banner over there? The one hanging on the townhouses? ‘Guarantee Citizens’ Right to Live! Apologize for Thievery!’ That’s my doing, you see. Looks pretty good, doesn’t it?” Jang laughed triumphantly.
Seeing that Jang was distracted, Sang-hun and Pierre scuttled away like crabs, limping a little from their legs having fallen asleep. “Or maybe you’re moving here?” Jang’s eyes twinkled as he continued to dig. He was someone who believed his honor lay on knowing more about the neighborhood before anyone else. “Right,” Kang spat out as he got up. “Ah! So you need a room! We have a lot of rooms around here because everyone’s leaving. Hey, Chang-sik!” Jang shouted. A pale man emerged from the real estate office next to the store. He had a dazed look, his expression childlike as if something important had flitted away. Sang-hun stopped creeping away and stood up tall. He glared at the men and balled his hands into fists. Kang looked from the boy to the man and thought they looked quite alike. If he were the boy’s father, why hadn’t he looked out? It had been quite loud and there was no way that the glass door was soundproofed. “Despite his looks he’s very smart. He can show you appropriate rooms and will handle lease contracts very thoroughly,” Jang began yammering on. “I can show you some very nice places,” Chang-sik said as mildly as his expression indicated. “No need,” Kang snapped, and turned around to leave. Jang felt ripped off, his pride trampled on by this stranger. He became even more irritated when he discovered that the man had left the unopened ice cream cone behind. “Who does he think he is, that rude old geezer…” “Did he ask for help finding a room?” Chang-sik asked. “What?” “Was he looking for a room?”
Jang blinked a couple of times before shaking his head. Chang-sik quietly stepped back into his real estate office and Jang glared at the old man’s retreating back, his nose flaring. He shoved the melted ice cream cone back in the freezer and sat down to eat some boiled potatoes. Down the street, Sang-hun and Pierre were peeping in the privet fence from under the forsythia thicket. A thick white perfume wafted off the fence like late-season snow. “Damn it. It couldn’t have gone far, but I can’t see it,” Sang-hun grumbled. “Wait, Sang-hun—someone’s coming.” When old man Kang stopped in his tracks by the bushes, the two boys crawled out. They knew the ball was in the giant’s property; one couldn’t just enter whenever one wanted. A barbed wire fence was slung around the entire hill and was festooned with signs that said Private Property: No Trespassing. Trespassers will be punished severely. —Owner Cherry Village was an outdated name; the town was packed with apartment buildings, which had uprooted every last cherry tree, just like insects chewing through the greenery. House Number 100 was undeveloped because it was an empty house sitting on the top of the hill, surrounded by the vast forest. It was also because the owner of the house was as stubborn as a mule. Although that last part was merely a rumor, because nobody had ever seen the owner, let alone met him. Pierre’s cell phone rang right then. “Oh, it’s my mom. I have to go. Sorry, Sang-hun.” He began backing away. Sang-hun shot his friend a look before glancing up at the old man. He quickly averted his eyes from Kang’s sharp, probing look. “What is it?” Sang-hun mumbled, glancing up again. He wasn’t completely surrendering yet.
Kang just looked down at the tough little boy. “Is it about the coin? It isn’t yours, and it isn’t Grandpa Jang’s either.” Sang-hun began to sweat. “Because Grandpa Jang gave you a discount and you didn’t take it. So there’s no owner. And so it rolled over to me.” Sang-hun took the coin from his pocket and held it out. He was dressed shabbily but his fingernails were clean. “But if you really want it, I can give it to you,” Sang-hun said, his head cocked daringly, sounding more confident. “Hm. Aren’t you something?” Kang’s voice was dry and stern as if he had never once smiled. He continued walking along the privet fence. Sang-hun watched the old man walk away and turned around, heaving a sigh of relief. He slid the coin back in his pocket. “That was weird. Acting all scary like that!” he groused before darting off like a chipmunk. Kang stopped where the privet fence turned into a brick wall. He watched as darkness descended on Cherry Village and the windows were lit one by one. He stood there for a long time. Then he ambled along, slowly, one steadying hand against the wall practically carpeted with vines. He couldn’t tell where the vines started. New vines climbed over dead branches and spread out, sprouting leaves, making the tall wall even spookier, the dried up leaves hanging darkly between the young fresh ones. Kang stopped in front of a gate buried in the vines. It was the giant’s house, House Number 100, locked firmly with an old-fashioned padlock. Kang unlatched the gate and tilted his head in disbelief. It glided open more smoothly than he’d expected. It didn’t feel bad. In fact, he became certain that he had come to the right place. A childlike thought flashed in his head; the gate had recognized him and was greeting its owner. Nobody saw Kang go into the giant’s house. The gate closed quietly behind him.
THE INTRUDERS IN THE BACKYARD
Cock-a-doodle-doo! The noise jostled old man Kang out of sleep, but he didn’t open his eyes. A rooster crowing? He must be having a nightmare. It had taken him a long time to fall asleep the night before in this unfamiliar place. He’d been plagued by nightmares. He’d even heard frogs croaking, of all things. Cock-a-doodle-doo! It was even more insistent than before. Kang’s eyes flew open. “Could it be?” Could it really be a rooster? It can’t be. Kang blinked, thinking. Nobody had been allowed to enter this place. It had been strictly enforced. There were no people, and certainly no chickens! But what was this? There was no such thing as a wild chicken, so the very fact that a rooster was crowing meant that someone had come and gone in this property. It can’t be. Kang closed his eyes again. It must be coming from a neighbor’s yard. That rooster, whoever owned it, had a pair of lungs on him. Cock-a-doodle-doo! The few hairs on Kang’s head stood on end. The ringing, reverberating crow sounded as if the rooster were perched on his very head. There was no better reveille. His sleep had completely evaporated. Kang gripped his blanket and waited, blinking, listening carefully to figure out where it was coming from. The ruckus had to be coming from inside the privet fence. He knew this house was set far away from the neighbors. He wasn’t in the heart of the city but it wasn’t the countryside, either. A rooster? Somewhere nearby? How could that be? He had paid so much to maintain this place. The management company had been sending him the same report every month. Maintaining the property perfectly, keeping to the original state.
Kang’s head ached. He hadn’t imagined that something like that would be on the property. If his suspicions were correct, it meant that he had been conned by the useless report without even realizing that he was hemorrhaging money! “That idiot Mr. Park,” he grumbled. “Is he even doing his job properly?” No matter how long he waited, the crow never came again. “Why is it so quiet?” Kang sat up. He listened intently. It was still quiet. He wandered around the room, waiting. He wanted to forget about it and get back to sleep, but he couldn’t. If he had known the rooster was quite regular and only crowed three times each morning, he wouldn’t have been on edge like that, but he had no idea. Eventually, Kang went out to the living room, dragging his sagging pajamas. “So much stress,” he complained to himself. “I’m surrounded by enemies!” He tiptoed into the kitchen to ensure he would hear the rooster if it crowed again. He poured himself a mug of milk and warmed it in the microwave, and looked at the daily special menu devised by his nutritionist pasted on the refrigerator door. “Hmph.” Kang returned to the living room with his warm milk, his pajama bottoms sweeping aside the flour sprinkled liberally on the floor. The previous night, he had eaten hand-torn dough-flake soup, not what the menu dictated. He’d made the late dinner himself, emerging covered in flour. I will cook what I want to eat. When he decided to come here, he’d written down a list of rules, and this one was the first one. Kang settled quietly in a rocking chair and looked out at the yard bathed in darkness. The sun wouldn’t rise for a while. “An impatient rooster, he was.” From somewhere a faint flower scent seeped in. That managed to reassure the old man, enough for him to fall asleep.
Woof! Woof! Kang’s eyes flew open at the sound of barking. His jerking awake made the chair rock quickly. The morning sunlight that shined through the window was so bright he had to turn his face away. The dog kept barking. “What in the…” Kang sprang up and followed the noise. His pants were damp. He must have spilled his milk when he fell asleep. But he couldn’t be bothered with that now. It was coming from the north, the back yard. In order to see the whole yard he had to go up to the attic. A northern window was in the kitchen and also in the room next door, but they weren’t good enough. One was by the stairs but it was covered in vines, making it impossible to look out. Not to mention he would be relegated to peeking out from behind the vines. Kang’s mind was clear but his body was still sluggish with sleep, so he tottered, unbalanced. He held the railing for support as he walked up the stairs. The spacious attic had a pointed ceiling, tall in the middle and sloping downward on either side. The curtains on the east-facing windows were dyed red from the morning sun. Kang gently parted the curtains on the northern window and opened it. He looked around. The trees in the forest were sunning themselves, adorned with new shoots. The leaves on tall, thick oak, cherry, alder, plane, walnut, and persimmon trees glistened with dew. The dense scrub, wild rosebushes, and white acacia flowers spread out below him. But Kang noticed none of them. Because in there somewhere was a dog. And maybe even that rooster. “Something’s wrong,” Kang moaned, looking around carefully. But he couldn’t spot anything. The dog had stopped barking. Had he hallucinated? “Am I too jittery? I suppose it wouldn’t be surprising if I began to hear things.” Kang looked around the attic at the old furniture and the lidless harmonium, the paintings on the
walls and a padlocked wardrobe. The bed was made, neatly covered with a clean blanket. It was the same as it always was. As far as he knew, that is. Dejected, Kang came down the stairs slowly, one at a time. His friend Dr. Kim had told him that a tumble at this age could prove fatal. He’d been displeased about being treated like an elderly man and didn’t listen to his friend. And now here he was, all by himself. Halfway down the stairs, as he passed by the window, Kang thought he saw something white go by outside. He plastered his face against the glass. He couldn’t see anything clearly because of those vines. But still, he thought he saw a girl running off, her skirt flapping. First a rooster, then a dog, and now a girl? “Goddamn!” He stomped down the stairs. He flung open the door and went outside without pausing to slide on some shoes. He stepped on the neatly trimmed grass of the big front yard, looking past the swing with a fat-cushioned seat tied to the zelkova tree and thick grape vines forming a long tunnel from the northern wall where the gate was. He didn’t notice the blossoming azaleas or the lindera flowers glowing like gold. He just fumed as he strode to the left of the house, then to the right, then to the left again, back and forth, his pants getting wet from the dew. He couldn’t find his way to the back yard. On one end a pile of bricks covered by sweetbriar was blocking the way, and on the other the shed was flanked by so many bamboo trees that he couldn’t find a way through. “No report even when the wall had collapsed?” Kang spat out. “What was that idiot Park doing? All he did was use up all my money!” He felt short of breath from anger. “They’re going to have to pay for this! It’s clearly a violation of a contract! Were those bamboos there before?” he yelled in front of the bamboo grove, which was three times taller than he. “Why can’t I get to the back yard?”
Kang kicked a bamboo tree, forgetting he was barefoot. Neither did he notice that he had aimed at a sharp broken branch. He gasped as the pain sliced through his body. He collapsed to the ground and watched the wound ooze blood. He sighed. He lay down on the grass, defeated. The dew soaked into his back. A cool breeze slid past his cheeks. The chirping birds and the blue sky calmed him. “Look, Kang Dae-su,” he addressed himself, closing his eyes. “Aren’t you known to be level-headed and calm?” He sighed. “Say, Mr. Lump. Don’t be so gleeful. I’m fine.” Tears trickled down his cheeks. Kang raised his fingers to his temples and grimaced at the wetness. “And now Mr. Lump is pitying me.” Did he still have tears? Fascinating. Or had he reached a worrisome stage? Mr. Lump was the tumor that had been growing in Kang’s brain for some time, the very tumor that made him come here. Kang couldn’t accept the presence of this tumor, which had settled in his brain without permission. But he didn’t want to open his skull to take it out, afraid he would lose the battle with this sneaky intruder. This malicious growth that staked out a very sensitive part of the back of his head was a nuisance he had to live with for the rest of his life, coaxing it along, like Dr. Kim said. “How dare he pity me. So presumptuous,” he mumbled. He heard something coasting along with the wind. It sounded like someone humming. But Kang remained on his back. If he got up to investigate who on the other side of the wall was singing in passing, the tumor in his brain would swell and burst from the annoyance. If Kang raised his head a little he would have seen a white-haired woman holding a basket. He would have seen her opening the gate as if she were entering her own house and passing through the tunnel of vines. He would have seen her walk through, next to the sweetbriar.
The wound from the bamboo was deeper than he’d thought. His swollen foot ached and he was feverish. Kang didn’t believe in medicine. But when his foot became so swollen that it was uncomfortable for him to walk, he rummaged through his medicine cabinet and found some antibiotics. The reason he took it was simple: it would only benefit Mr. Lump if the wound grew worse. Getting in bed, Kang tried prayer. “Please make my foot as good as new when I wake up. Whoever God you may be. You can make that happen. Because you’re God.” For a prayer it was pretty arrogant. But that was the best he could do. He hadn’t prayed since he was ten years old. He hadn’t believed in God or even Christmas since then. In any case Kang slept for three days. That wasn’t because of the antibiotics but because the doctor came. Kang was under the impression that unless summoned nobody could come to the house, but that wasn’t the case. He only knew half of it. He merely knew that a professional management company oversaw the care of the property; he didn’t realize that he was under professional supervision, too. Because he couldn’t know about it, the professionals came and went quietly and gently, when he wasn’t home or when he was sleeping. It couldn’t be said that Kang slept deeply. Every dawn he had nightmares. He opened his eyes and grumbled because of the din coming from the backyard—the rooster that screamed three times each morning, the dog that barked its head off like a mischievous kid, and children’s laughter. He didn’t know whether that was reality or a dream, but still Kang made a decision. He made a phone call as soon as he woke clear-headed. “Mr. Park! You must come to House Number 100.” Kang spoke calmly and firmly in a cold voice, the way he did when he made a very important decision and signed paperwork. “You need to handle the problem in the
backyard as soon as possible. I need you to twist the rooster’s neck so I don’t need to hear that racket again!”
THE LITTLE GIRL ASKS WHY
“Say, have you been out back?” old man Kang asked as he tied his shoelaces. The swelling had gone down a bit and he was feeling better. Today he had to walk quite a bit, and briskly at that. It was already after 3 pm. Kang was upset that he had spent all this precious time sleeping; whenever his temper overflowed, something regrettable like this always happened. “Yes, of course,” Park replied carefully as he waited for Kang’s next words. Park had eyes that gently sloped downward and lips that closed firmly. As he shadowed Kang year after year, Park’s expression stiffened more and he remained exceedingly polite. “And how do you get there? I mean, what I was wondering is whether you have a shortcut you like to use.” Kang looked up at the younger man, not wanting to reveal that he didn’t know how to get there. After all, Park thought Kang grew up here. That was true but not entirely so. Kang didn’t want others to know everything about him. “It’s a little hard to find but there are actually several ways to get there,” Park began, but stopped when Kang frowned. “So you discovered that. And which path do you like to take?” Kang asked as gently as he could, although he was gritting his teeth. “Well, I’m allergic to rose thorns and I don’t want to get my clothes dirty, so, well, I’ve been using the back door through the pantry in the kitchen.” Kang furrowed his eyebrows. It was a curious answer but he couldn’t ask him to elaborate. There was a route to the back yard, and an easy one at that, inside the house! Kang grunted. “I’ll be back by six.” That meant Park needed to handle the issues in the backyard then make himself scarce. He wouldn’t have called Park it weren’t for the nuisances in the backyard. This was
an emergency. Kang left the house through the front gates and stopped short. He glared at the wall, or rather at the house ensconced behind it, with displeasure. He had discovered a few facts he didn’t want to acknowledge. The management company had been vigilant ensuring that the property was kept in the original condition, which Kang felt the most important. That meant that when the company began overseeing the property, the brick wall had already crumbled and bamboos had been growing next to the shed. He felt increasingly irritated. It was as if the house was taunting him: did you think I could be yours? How could it be already thirty years since he bought this house? He’d never come by since he hadn’t purchased it to live in it, but the house remained carved in his mind. And here he was, an owner who didn’t even know how to get to his own backyard! “And there are many paths?” Kang grumbled to himself. He set his teeth and walked on, hitting his heels on the ground with annoyance. He stopped at the sight of children playing soccer in the vacant lot. “Here it comes!” “Pass to me! I’m open!” That was the very soccer ball that had entered his yard a few days ago. Kang’s cheek trembled from gritting his teeth so hard. There were seven kids here. If all those kids could come and go in his yard as they pleased, that meant everyone in the entire world could! In his house! Ignoring the tall barbed wire fence and the warning signs hanging everywhere! Kang glared at each of the children and walked on, noting Sang-hun. But the kids didn’t pay any attention to him. They were focused on playing until the bus pulled in, until the kids who lived in the nicer area filled with apartments had to go to cram school. So when the ball rolled over to Kang and he placed his foot on it, they even dared to yell to him. “Could you kick it here?”
“Not too hard!” Kang’s eyebrows furrowed. But it wouldn’t be dignified if he gave in to his urge and scolded the kids. There were always experts who could handle such problems. He kicked the ball back to them, feeling angry. He hoped it would hit someone in the face, to at least make him feel better. But the ball went sideways like a balloon leaking air, and it made his foot throb. Kang had to sit down on the low platform in front of the store. “You should learn something from me,” Jang laughed, eating a vegetable pancake. “I used to be a big fish around here.” “Why? How come you were a big fish?” a clear voice rang out from behind Jang. It was only then that Kang spotted a small girl lying on her stomach on the low platform, drawing. “How come you were not a small fish or a medium-sized fish?” Kang almost laughed. What a funny child with wide-open eyes. Were kids always like this? He had no idea. Of course, he had been a child once but he wasn’t a typical boy; he was sad and lonely. A typical child would be like the kids running around and shouting like banshees in front of him. Not many kids spoke clearly like this girl, her eyes twinkling like glass. At least, he didn’t think so. “Oh, Yu-ri, you’ll understand when you’re older,” Jang told the girl. My god, Kang thought. Even her name meant glass! Jang smiled kindly at Yu-ri. It wasn’t the same crotchety old man who had screamed at the boys a few days ago. He went back inside and came out with a lollipop. He handed her the now empty plate that had held the pancakes along with the candy. “Thank your grandmother for me. Tell her it was delicious. If it weren’t for her, I wouldn’t be able to eat something this amazing!” Jang smacked his lips, glancing at Kang triumphantly. He let out a loud burp. “I mean, how many people are lucky enough to eat acacia flower pancakes? I wonder sometimes.”
“Why? Why do you wonder about that?” Yu-ri asked, but Jang merely stroked her hair. Kang was bothered by the mention of acacia flowers. “Let’s go, Sock!” Yu-ri bounced away. A puppy sprang out from under the low platform and followed her away, barking. A puppy? Barking? That had to be the culprit. Kang’s face constricted. The bus pulled in right then and the kids stopped their game. “Intruders are swarming everywhere,” Kang moaned to himself, glaring at the girl as she entered a townhouse where Jang’s banner, “Guarantee Citizens’ Right to Live! Apologize for Thievery!” flapped like a flag. In his estimation, it was an old building that deserved to be torn down. Those damn kids. The puppy. The girl. Acacia flowers. Kang’s teeth ached. There was only one place where one could get acacia flowers. The fact that the girl’s grandmother came into his yard to pick them grated, and as if that wasn’t enough she made pancakes out of them and shared them with everyone! And the recipient of the pancakes even bragged about them! To the owner of the property! Clear evidence that everyone was using his yard was all in front of him. But these were mere hypotheses. Perhaps you could buy acacia flowers from the market, like cabbage. His head throbbed. He should have followed Dr. Kim’s recommendation and gone into a state-of-the-art sanitarium. He’d come here to rest. He wanted to do the small daily things that he’d put off because he was busy working. He wanted to quietly live out the remaining days of his life. But thus far, all he encountered were problems. He was surrounded by headaches and nuisances. “So where are you staying?” Jang asked, using a toothpick to fish out remnants of the food.
Kang got up to leave. A smart-looking girl, her hair in a bob, came out of the store with a backpack on her shoulders. “Grandpa, I’m leaving.” “Okay. You’re going to article writing class, right? It’s good to study, but don’t stay too late,” Jang said, emphasizing article writing class as if conscious of Kang’s presence. Kang knew nothing about schoolwork anyway, so he didn’t pay much attention. All he noticed was Jang’s dignity; he was like a regular grandfather, kindly and stern. “That’s my granddaughter, Mi-ho,” Jang explained. “She’s the top of her class!” Kang pretended not to note Jang’s pride and followed Mi-ho onto the bus. He sat in the back and watched the girl. He couldn’t say he knew everything about Jang, but he could tell that Mi-ho was a jewel in the old man’s life. As the bus twisted down the hill, they passed by several apartment complexes. People got on and off. This small bus was a much-needed transportation method for this village. Almost all the passengers got off in front of the subway station, as did Kang. Today he was going to take the subway to the music store.
Learn how to play an instrument. Even if it’s one song!
That was second on Kang’s to-do list. He was leaning toward a trumpet or cello. These instruments had never left Kang’s heart. Their large sizes might prove a bit cumbersome but nothing in the world was easy. He wanted to do something he’d always wanted to do. He had to do it; he didn’t have time to put if off. Kang paused at the top of the stairs leading into the station to watch Mi-ho run to the park, her dazzling hair bouncing. She looked as healthy as the trees with new green leaves in the park. Kang walked toward the park and strolled along the path. Mi-ho had gone into the library in the park. Nobody took notice of Kang going in. He looked in the reading room and
took in the computer room and study rooms. There was a room filled with kids reading intently, one where senior citizens practiced their calligraphy, a room filled with women doing yoga, and a room for drawing. There was also a room where someone was learning how to play a guitar. Mi-ho was looking inside so intently that she didn’t notice that Kang was behind her. Kang smiled and turned around. Did Jang know what Mi-ho was truly interested in? It sure wasn’t studying.
Kang returned home around nine, a guitar on his back. He’d had to accept that neither the trumpet nor the cello was a good fit for him. He decided to re-bury the trumpet in his heart, the way he’d done all this time. He’d heard the trumpet for the first time when he was a child, when he was outside in the dark, crying after having been scolded by his father; the music was rapturous, something romantic that vaulted over his poverty and loneliness. It told young Kang that there was more to the world. He couldn’t ruin that beautiful memory with feeble attempts. The cello—the woman he loved played the cello. She who reminded him so much of a girl he could never forget. But she loved the instrument more than him and left. As soon as he held the cello, Kang gave up his desire to learn how to play that instrument. Painful memories reemerged—the sad, difficult times he wished he could be the cello. On top of that, his childhood hurts became more acute. He decided not to even try. He had chosen the guitar because he didn’t know what else to do. It wasn’t right to leave empty-handed when the employee at the music store had showed him everything and explained each instrument so kindly. The guitar was a good instrument, and now he also knew where he could go to learn how to play.
It had been a tiring day. It was too late to make something for dinner so he was going to just drink a glass of milk. But he found a boiled chicken soup on the table, warm as if it had been just set out. “Park left not long ago, then. Stupid man. He didn’t listen to me! I guess he must have been working late to handle the problem.” Kang began eating ravenously but then put his spoon down. Chicken. Could this be the rooster from the backyard? Of course, boiled chicken always required a chicken. But it felt wrong to sit here in front of that bird that had crowed so loudly until this morning. This was a huge difference from buying the ingredients at the market. It signified a very unpleasant encounter between Park and the rooster. Kang went to bed, feeling unsettled. He prayed he wouldn’t be plagued with insomnia. Since he was praying anyway, he prayed for the chicken’s soul. He was able to sleep deeply, without any nightmares.
Cock-a-doodle-doo! Kang’s eyes flew open. He was so surprised that he was instantly alert. The rooster. He was still alive. Cock-a-doodle-doo! And he was really frantic this time. What happened? Park had not handled the problem. He heard the rooster squawking. It was strange that he was still making a racket, but it was even stranger that he was making a noise different from every other day. He’d kept Park around for so long because the younger man was good at handling all sorts of problems. But here was the rooster, still crowing, now sounding nervous. Kang hurried into the kitchen. He opened the door to the pantry. He hadn’t actually looked in the pantry before, so he had to turn on the light. The pantry was large and cool. He
passed the shelves stacked with boxes, small jars, and glass bottles, and turned slightly. There was the door. Which was half open. As if someone had just gone through it. He threw open the door wide. “Ah!” A beautiful, lush wilderness. It was a large overgrown forest rather than a backyard, complete with beings running about and shouting. The chickens were fluttering and racing around, screaming, and Park was running after them, waving both arms. “What are you doing?” Kang shouted. He shoved his feet into slippers by the door and stepped out. The slippers sucked in the overnight dew and Kang’s pants grew damp as well. Surprised, Park came running up to him. His hair was unkempt and his pants were wet. “What in the world are you doing?” “Oh, well, that is—” Park looked uncomfortable. Kang had never seen him like this. Park was always the same, neat and sharp, although not as much as the old man himself. “I am fully aware of the problem I need to take care of—” Kang frowned at Park, who was sweating and uncomfortable, and turned his gaze on the chickens that were regaining calm. It wasn’t just one rooster. There were at least four or five hens that came with him. “You’re incompetent,” Kang snapped. Park’s face crumpled. “Being competent in this matter means—” Kang frowned. He knew what that meant. He shuddered, thinking about the soup from last night. He found himself glad it hadn’t been this rooster. “So I decided I would come every morning and—” “This is a desperate measure,” Kang said, cutting him off. Park didn’t say anything but sniffled from the exertion of running around.
“Don’t ever do this again. It’s more of a racket.” “Yes, sir. So then, about the rooster crying every morning—” “Just leave it be. There are always professionals.” “Yes, sir.” Park moved away. “And it isn’t crying,” Kang corrected. “It’s crowing.” “Of course.” Park disappeared into the pantry. Kang shrugged. He gazed at the rooster eating breakfast with his family. “So this is what the backyard looked like…” Kang strolled the dew-blanketed yard, his wet pajama legs dragging in the grass. The yard he knew hadn’t been this large. The original yard probably stopped at the walnut and the plane trees. Did it? Under the plane tree, Kang stopped short. He could feel a moan rumbling in his throat, pain that had been hidden for so long that even he couldn’t do anything about the emotion that wrenched upward. The thick branch still hung overhead, even thicker than that fateful day long ago. The branch on which his father hung a swing for the owner’s daughter. If it had been this sturdy then, his father wouldn’t have fallen off. Kang shook his head and walked on. He had to be wary of falling into reveries like this. Irrelevant thoughts only made Mr. Lump happy. He walked past the walnut tree and took in the low hill and the forest he’d bought little by little. Every time he bought a new piece of property he enclosed it with a wall, and he surrounded the forest with barbed wire to ward people off. But there was an entry made by kids, of all people. And it welcomed those hopeless chickens and a dog. Maybe everyone was coming and going as they pleased. “I need a more foolproof method,” Kang told himself as he headed back to the walnut tree. He stopped in his tracks.
The girl was staring at him from under the acacia tree. Next to her was a tense puppy poised to attack at any moment. Yu-ri. She was wearing a red skirt with shoulder straps and red boots, holding a small basket. Kang squinted in disbelief. The acacia flowers were blanketing the ground in white. To Kang, the small girl standing in the middle looked like a painting. The dog barked, pulling Kang into the present. “Good morning, Grandfather!” Yu-ri greeted him, bending her knees in what seemed to be a modified curtsey. Her voice was so clear that Kang was dazed. Grandfather? Nobody had ever called him that. To begin with, he had never thought of him as that old, and he didn’t know any kids. She had sneaked into his yard. He could drag her by the scruff of her neck to her parents, or he could hire a professional to handle it legally. But she was so young. And she looked so confident. “Why are you here?” she asked, puzzled. “Why are you here?” “For the eggs. Four today. Why are you here?” Kang looked in Yu-ri’s basket. Eggs. From the hens. A hen was clucking around, instinctively knowing where her egg was, but unable to approach because of the puppy. Kang felt a little bad for her. “Because I’m the owner,” he snapped. “Wow!” Her eyes and mouth flew open in awe. “And you’re not a giant!” Kang frowned. He didn’t know what people said about the house and the owner. “I’m glad you’re not. But I have to go now. There’s a lot to do in the morning.” Yu-ri bent her knees again. “Let’s go, Sock!” “Wait, wait!” It was as if she didn’t hear him. Yu-ri skipped toward the privet fence, her skirt and hair flapping.
Kang followed, still frowning. There must be a hole somewhere and if that were plugged up that would take care of things easily. Yu-ri stopped at the fence covered by white flowers. There was no hole. Instead, there was a board stuck between the branches, complete with a handle. When Yu-ri pushed on the handle, a gap appeared, enough to let her through, and she stepped out. “You’ve got to be kidding!” Kang set his teeth and examined the board. It wasn’t makeshift. It was pretty sturdy, secured to the branches with wire. It must have been here a long time; you couldn’t tell it apart from other branches, and because it was inserted horizontally it was hard to spot if you didn’t look carefully. If you yanked on the handle, the branches pushed back like an accordion and created a gap. “Coming and going whenever they want!” The branches shook suddenly and the gap appeared again. Yu-ri poked her head in. “Here.” An egg was nestled in her small hand. “It’s a present.” Surprised, Kang accepted it. The hand disappeared, but there was a brief shriek; the door had closed too suddenly. Kang pushed the handle. The branches bounced open. Yu-ri was still standing there, blowing on the back of her hand. “I’m okay.” Kang stared at the smiling girl. It occurred to him to tell her, “You mustn’t go in and out like this in other people’s houses,” but he didn’t say anything. Because of the child’s eyes, which became thin like a crescent moon when she smiled. But it wasn’t that he was taken in by the child’s smile. It was only that he was taken aback. “That girl…” Kang glared at the ingenious door and walked away. The egg cupped in his palm, its warmth, bothered him. He didn’t know if it was warm from the girl’s hand or from the life within. He felt embarrassed to keep it in his hand; it was fundamentally different from one taken from the fridge.
As soon as he spotted the hen looking for the egg in the weeds, he gave it back without a second thought. That was the clean solution.
Published on Nov 17, 2015