TheFar mer s
Tr ans l at edbyPet erLee
The Farmers By Cho Myung-hee Translated by Peter Lee
Originally published in Korean as Nongchon Saramdeul in Hyeondae Pyeongron, 1927
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Peter Lee
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and Literature Translation Institute of Korea.
The original manuscripts to these translations were provided by Gongumadang of Korea Copyright Commission. The National Library of Korea Cataloging-in-Publication Data Cho, Myung-hee (The) farmers [electronic resource] / [written by] Cho, Myung-hee ; translated by Peter Lee. -- Seoul : LTI Korea, 2013 p. 원표제: 농촌 사람들 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-24-0 05810 : 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21
About Cho Myung-hee Cho Myung-hee (1894~1938) was born in 1894 in Jincheon, North Chungcheong Province, as the son of a poor scholar. His pen name was Poseok. He graduated from Jungang High School in Seoul and studied philosophy at Toyo University in Japan. In 1919 he was arrested and jailed for participating in the March 1st Movement. He first established himself as an author in 1925 with the publication of “Into the Ground” in Gaebyeok magazine, and published his most representative short story “The Nakdong River” (1927) in Joseonjigwang magazine. He went into exile in 1928 in the Maritime Province of Siberia in the Soviet Union in order to escape the Japanese crackdown. In 1934, he served as an executive of the Far East chapter of the Soviet Union of Writers and also published his epic poem, “Goryeo Trampled.” He was arrested by the Soviet military police in 1937 and deported to Tashkent in Uzbekistan. In 1938, he was reportedly executed by firing squad at a Khabarovsk prison. His publications include a collection of poems, On a Spring Lawn, and a collection of stories, Into the Ground. Cho Myung-hee is a representative writer of the Japanese colonial period who followed the communist ideologies of KAPF (Korean Federation of Proletarian Art) and fiercely depicted in literature the dark reality of farm life in those days. “The Farmers” (1926) is one of his representative stories. It highlights the harsh life of farmers in the colonial period who are driven from their land and migrate to such places as Gando in China and Japan or into a life of poverty in the cities. Through this short story Cho vividly depicts the cruel reality experienced by farmers in colonial Joseon, despoiled by imperialism and ruined by famine and drought. When one of the farmers in the story cries, “Should we all starve and die? Let us have some sprouts to sell at least,” it symbolizes the impoverished plight of colonial farmers who were forced to leave their homes and go to foreign countries simply to survive. Their wretched existence contrasts sharply with that of the Kim Chambong character, who has become rich by working for a Japanese colonization company. Wonbo, the main character, ends up divorcing his wife due to extreme poverty, when she starts having an affair with Kim Chambong’s son. In the end, Wonbo tries to rob the rich man’s house but gets caught by the Japanese military police and hangs himself in his cell. The story closes with the depiction of the villagers leaving their homes for Seogando. Cho Myung-hee’s “The Farmers” is a work that succeeds in painting a detailed portrait of the dark, hopeless reality of a polarized farm life during the Japanese colonial period.
1 In the morning the sun rises quickly above the summit of the eastern mountain beyond the fields. As big as a large straw cushion and tinged with a reddish glow, it rises like the first spectacle of some terrible revelation in which the earth is changing into a world of fire. In the summer, when things dry up and wither away, all living entities in this wide world raise their heads and stare into the fiery orb with squinting eyes, shuddering once more. â€œThis is a disaster! This will finish us for good!â€? This is what the people in the fields are saying, whether their mouths move or not. The bright, white terror has descended upon them once again today. By the time the sun starts to decline and half a day has gone by, everything is parched, not just the crops in the fields and the paddies but also the grass along the roads, the green patches by the streams and the mountain meadows for the horses. It is all withering, twisting, warping out of shape. Some patches of grass have become burnt yellow as in autumn. The leaves on the trees are also wilting away. The large creek winding through the middle of the long plain, stretching out for miles, has all but dried up, its bed lying helplessly exposed like the belly of an enormous, twisted snake. Bukmang Mountain runs all the way from west to east, bordering the north side of the plain, and here stands the reddish Satae Mountain, almost naked, only small trees sparsely standing here and there, looking like a manâ€™s back with the skin all peeled off, more an unseemly mound than a mountain. When the scorching sun blazes down on the southern range of this mountain ridge, the red earth seems to bake and glow even redder and it feels as though the sun is burning hotter still. The heat beating down from the heavens meets the heat spewing up from the earth to mingle and engulf the mountains and fields. Even the leaves on the trees fluttering from the intermittent breeze appear to be quaking. The drought has already lasted a month and a half. Other than some corner of a fertile field fortunate enough to get whatever remains from the nearly depleted reservoir, or the small pits used as paddies into which are poured buckets of spring water dug up from underground, all the paddy fields have become white and parched with cracks running through. The heads of the rice plants are twisted and entangled. Some are as dry as brushwood and would burst into flames if lit. Farming this year is utterly hopeless. Some farmers stand motionless, hidden under their bamboo hats and grasping small spades, staring at the earth in their paddies as if they cannot bear to give up on their dying crops. Restless dark-yellow faces, hollow eyes, expressions of some inscrutable pain that cannot be made out from afar but can be guessed. An elderly woman sits near a ridge between the paddies with her legs sprawled out, wailing and beating the ground with her hands. The agitation of the farmers, which started when the paddy water started to dry up, continues to scorch them from within even to this day, to this very moment. Like parents looking on while 4
their children are dying, the sight of their shriveled-up rice stalks makes them want to cry and feel as though they are going insane. “If it’s not going to rain, then let it rain fire!” Exclamations like this burst from people overcome by anger and frustration. Standing erect in the middle of the field, overlooking the cruel scene unfolding before it, is an old shade tree in front of the village. The solitary zelkova tree, famous for its welcome shade, has branches and leaves that stretch out wide, and a trunk under the limbs that takes many arms to encircle. This tree alone seems to tell all the stories of the village’s long history. In another time, during this busy season, only transient idlers who knew nothing of hard work and spent all their time loafing about would gather under this tree, letting the long year slip by as they played Chinese chess or Go. But now, even strong, healthy young workers known for their diligence join the farmers gathered here, staring at each other with anxious faces and worrying about the drought, their favorite conversation topic. They are not only worried but also fearful in the midst of the gloom, sensing the terrible panic that the failed harvest will unleash. At the thought of what is to come, their hearts quietly tremble. When people become fearful and panic-stricken, they feel an urge to come together more often. “There’s no doubt about it, this truly is a terrible year.” This is said by Yi Bulryang, a retired petty provincial officer whose only talent is drinking, being lazy and shameless, interested only in entertaining himself. He lives in the village and yet knows nothing of farming. When he served as an official he made his living lying to the villagers, wheedling and embezzling from them so often that he eventually earned the nickname “Bulryang,” meaning delinquent. He has now become a loafer who manages to get by somehow by spending time and ingratiating himself with the farmers, keeping his distance while engaging with them in what could pass for friendship. “A terrible year,” comes the mild reply of an old woman. “Everyone already knows it’s a terrible year. But if it would just rain, even now, of course the ones dried up beyond hope can’t be helped, but there would still be some that would revive. Then we’d at least get a few gourds of rice to eat out of a paddy …” She is a manly-looking woman, her hair pulled into a small topknot. She cools herself by lightly waving a folding fan in her left hand. “How many people would be lucky enough to get that bit of rice?” asks a middle-aged man. “And even if they did, how many days would that last?” The man is known as Wink-eye due to his frequent blinking. He sells melons in summer and firewood in winter. “It doesn’t matter what happens,” says another man with a triple topknot who appears to be around the same age as Wink-eye, “because in the end we’re all going to die anyway.” “Damn it all,” Wink-eye says, licking his lips. “If I had known, I wouldn’t have weeded those paddies. Wasted all the rice to make rice wine when there’s no food or money …” “What’s the use of sitting here, worrying like this?” says the manly-looking woman, 5
now puffing on a long pipe, lighting it using tinder she has sparked to life by striking metal to flint. “Should we all starve and die? Let us have some sprouts to sell at least.” This is from a pockmarked young man with a Yeongnam accent. They say it has been only a year or two since he came up from that region to work as a farmhand. The chatter continues, words tumbling out of many mouths here and there, at a dizzy flow sometimes, sporadically at other times. “Let’s just move to Japan then.” “No, no, don’t say that. How will you get back once you’re there? You can make good money they say, but if anything goes wrong, then they take people to...where was it? They’ll fool you and drag you to a place like prison, lock you up and make you work until you drop dead. They don’t give you much money or food, and once you’re locked up in there, it’s hard to see the outside world again.” “It can’t be as bad as all that. But I did hear that if you’re unlucky, something like that could happen.” So says a young man in a pigtail, who until now had been only listening in silence. He looks to be about twenty-four or twenty-five, a good person with a lot of energy, but has not been able to marry. His hair is thickly braided, wound like a rope and fastened with hemp cloth on top of his rather ridiculous-looking head that resembles an old mop, earning him the nickname the pigtail bachelor. When his appearance is compared to that of the young, newly married son (the boy just thirteen or fourteen, but living in his family’s guest house and combing his hair into a messy topknot to show his newly married status) of a rich family in the village, a family said to have sacks of rice piled up in the storeroom, something seems amiss about this backward society. “They say that in Seogando1 this year there’s no drought and the crops have done very well. You know Cheonbo who went there a couple of years ago, the one with the pretty daughter? Well, his cousin’s family in the other village, they received a letter from Cheonbo the other day … Maybe we should go there.” “You think it’ll be different over there? I heard those Chinese bastards will beat you down. Even those who’ve lived there for years are being chased away.” “Damn it, so us Joseon people have no place to live and no place to go, is that it?” These last words reverberate with a note of intense pain. The farmers sitting around together all fall silent, gazing down at the ground. They are lost in their own thoughts, their eyes filled with deep anxiety and pain. The silence drags on. “Damn it all,” one of them finally says. “Maybe we should join a rebel army like in the old days.” “If we go hungry just a little longer, see what crap we won’t do out of spite.” “Lightning strike me dead and be done with it!”
Seogando or the western part of Jiandao (間島), also called Yanbian (延边) in China. 6
“Just look at that,” cries another in disbelief, looking out across the fields. “Everything’s burned to a crisp!” The others look up and gaze at the fields, frowning as though sick of looking at the sight any longer. The terror they had momentarily forgotten floods back again. “God save us!” exclaims an old man. “Kill us! Just kill us!” cries a young man. “See how we’ll survive this. To hell with it all!” The bitter silence returns. “Seogando, Seogando … Maybe we should try going there anyway. But you know what? I heard that Eumjeon’s family who went with that pretty girl’s family isn’t at Seogando anymore. I heard they went further in and disappeared, no one knows where.” “So there’s no news of Eumjeon and her family at all?” asks a young man who had been sitting to one side, drawing Gonu game patterns2 on the ground. “No one knows …” The reply comes from Wink-eye, drawing out his answer as though heaving a long sigh, lamenting the fact that the ones who left seem to have disappeared without a trace. “Three years … it’s been three years already!” The young man speaks with a note of frustration in his voice, staring vacantly at the path leading up the mountain on the far side of the plain. “I …” He starts to say something, but then lowers his gaze to the ground, a hint of sadness in his face and his eyes. Perhaps in his heart the memory of a past romance is rising, the thread that had been wrapped around it unraveling. Might he be thinking about the young girl Eumjeon? A wagon appears along the newly constructed road in front of the village. One, two, three—it has three carts that are linked. The cow hauling the heavy wagon seems tired as it trudges along. Such a load, at a time when the drought has parched even people’s hearts and entertainment of any kind is unimaginable. “What is that, barley?” the pockmarked man asks the wagon driver in his Yeongnam accent. “Rice,” replies the driver, flicking the cow on its rump. “Whose rice?” Before the wagon driver can answer, the man with the triple topknot, who had been sitting and scraping a short smoking pipe with a reed stalk, cuts in. “You don’t need to ask,” he says. “That rice is for Kim Chambong’s family.” “When did they become so rich?” The question comes from Wonbo, who until now had been sitting silently among them
Gonu is a popular traditional Korean game usually played on the ground. The rules are generally the same, but there can be many different patterns for the game. 7
with a deep scowl on his face. His hair is cut short. People say it is because he had worked in gold mines and been in the cities. “Hell, it’s no surprise they’re rich,” says Wonbo’s friend. “That father and son have been doing all the moneymaking around here, and they even started lending out money last year. And now they’ve become an agent for the Oriental Development Company. They’ve been raking it in like crazy, so of course they would be rich … And they have good connections, too. Even if you forget about noble families or the rich sticking together like in the old days, those Kims still have the county office, the colonization company, the military police—whatever connections there are, they’ve got them, so how can you go against that?” “Those bastards deserve to be tortured. Father and son, they’re both terrible …” “They’re terrible, that’s how they get all their money. The crooks hide behind the law and steal. It’s only the stupid fools who steal rashly and get caught.” This from Wonbo, who claimed to have gone far and wide and learned much from his travels. “That’s true,” someone says. Several people sitting around chime in, as if approving Wonbo’s strong words. “My friend couldn’t get even a single grain of barley from them. Got all yellow and puffy from starvation, so his face—” “And some bastards get to go and buy whole carts of rice?” says Wonbo’s friend, a short, stumpy man whose eyes reel and open wide when he talks. “Doesn’t matter what we do or how we do it,” says Wonbo. “If we could steal from such crooks, why not?” “No, you’re wrong to say that,” says an old man, sounding tired. Looking to be in his sixties, he had been sitting motionless, blinking like a hen brooding over her eggs in mid-summer, unable to move even a single feather in the stifling heat and simply gasping for breath. “What do you mean ‘wrong’?” Wonbo spits back. “Damn it, if people are starving to death, it’s natural they should want to take things from those rich bastards so they can eat and survive. Pretending to be honorable and then dying of hunger—what a load of crap!” “What you’re saying isn’t right,” says another young man, siding with the old man. “Whether you’re rich or poor, that’s just one’s fate or luck.” The young man is said to have amassed a bit of wealth selling fish. “What? One’s fate?” Wonbo stumbles over the last word. He gets worked up, his face red with anger, and argues his case with a long speech and strong opinions. The other side, not wanting to lose the debate, counters everything he says. The argument grows noisy and flares for a long time. Toward the end, Wonbo and the old man become emotional in their confrontation and start to bicker. The old man finally says, “Stop it, all of you! All your words are false and your thinking is wicked. You won’t live long if you go on like that.” At this, Wonbo jumps up as if he had not heard anything and disappears down an alley 8
leading into the village. With him gone, the people fall into bitter silence again. 2 Some time after Wonbo disappeared down the alley, a loud voice is heard from an old hut on the verge of collapsing. A woman is also heard, crying. The villagers under the shade of the tree say to each other, “They’re at it again!” “That Wonbo. He’ll argue day and night with his poor old mother.” The crying grows louder. One of Wonbo’s friends gets up and runs over to the hut. Sitting on a straw mat thrown down on the cramped dirt floor between the rooms, an elderly woman close to sixty is making a scene, overcome with emotion. “You scoundrel! How dare you yell at me when I haven’t had anything to eat for two days?” she wails. “You can’t kill me fast enough? What little land we had, you got rid of, with no care as to whether your mother should live or die. You abandoned me here and then wandered around for years. Now you come back saying that this is your home, lie around all day doing nothing and keep harassing me. I starved myself to sell some sprouts so that I could buy that piglet with the money. I raised that creature, but you go sell it to get money to drink! Your mother is dying of starvation, but is there an ounce of pity in that heart of yours? And your little baby is sick and dying, but do you buy any medicine for her? I couldn’t stand it any longer, that’s why I went to Kim Chambong’s house to borrow whatever money I could. I got chased away and I was crying, because I was so frustrated and upset, but you come here and treat your mother like this? How dare you?” Beside her, a girl of six or seven lies on the ground crying, making a feeble choking sound. Her arms and legs hang limp as if she has no strength to get up. Her skin is soft like old, crumpled silk and she is filthy and so emaciated that her flesh seems to be shriveling. Frowning down at his daughter, Wonbo curses out of spite. “Go to hell, you wretched thing and just die already!” “Stop it!” screams his mother. “What has she done? What’s this poor child ever done to you?” “What kind of stupid idiot are you to go begging for money at that house of all places? Those bastards! Damn it! Damn it!” Wonbo jumps to his feet and kicks over a brazier in the walkway. It breaks and rolls away. “Stop it! Kill me, why don’t you!” The mother grabs her son’s ankle. Wonbo shakes her off as if kicking her. Pushed to the other side, the older woman rolls on the ground, writhing and wailing, but Wonbo ignores her. At that moment Wonbo’s friend enters and drags him away to the village tavern. Whether from hearing stories about him or from witnessing a scene such as this, there can be no mistaking that Wonbo is indeed a miserable man. The story of how he came to be this way is as follows. It all started many years before, back when Wonbo was well-known as a good worker, 9
diligent and clever. He was exemplary in his conduct and was never in any trouble, and everyone said he was an honest man. He made money selling wood and used the profits to buy a calf. In this way his wealth increased and he bought a small plot of farmland. He was a trustworthy farmer even when working on other people’s rice paddies. He lived with his pretty young wife and elderly mother, and whether at home or out he always worked hard and enjoyed life, so much that all his friends envied and admired him. Then, three summers before, there was a drought, not as severe as the one this year but bad enough that people went mad scrounging for water for their paddies. Wonbo stayed awake each night that season, watering his own paddies. There was only a thin stream that trickled into the paddies through small conduits, which could get blocked up by grass, and so he sat on the grass to make sure the water was trickling in. Then Kim Chambong’s family decided to divert water to their paddies, ignoring the many farmers in the area. In those days Kim Chambong’s son, who had become a military police assistant and often abused his power, walked around carrying a club in one hand as if to threaten the farmers. Without any sense of decency, he plugged up the conduits in the other farmers’ paddies and diverted away their water. When Wonbo saw this, his eyes blazed with cold fury. He rushed to his paddies and unplugged the conduits that Kim Chambong’s son had blocked. The son saw what Wonbo was doing and immediately pounced on him, striking him with his club. Wonbo was no fool. He knew never to disobey an order from someone in such a position of power. But when he saw the water for his paddies being diverted away, field water that was more precious to him than the water he drank to quench his thirst, and that he had been struck for trying to stop it, he no longer cared even if a thunderbolt struck him down. In a rage, he rushed at the rich man’s son, grabbing him and shoving him into the water. The two men struggled and fought, kicking and punching each other. Some of the other farmers finally pulled them apart. Wonbo returned home, but soon afterward two military police assistants from town came to his house. They held him down, struck him in the face and kicked him with their boots. They beat him like a dog, then bound him with rope and hauled him away. Wonbo spent many days in a holding cell before being transferred to a district prosecutor’s office in a provincial government building. He was convicted and sent to prison for a year of hard labor before being finally released. But something happened while he was in jail that left Wonbo utterly dumbfounded. He was served with a petition for divorce from his wife, whom he had so trusted. Perhaps she had fallen for the stately appearance of the man and his powerful connections, but she had somehow begun an affair with Kim Chambong’s son, the very man Wonbo so detested. This he found out later when his mother came to visit. Because of the terrible trouble he had to endure on account of this man, Wonbo was disgusted by the shocking turn of events. Perhaps that is why, when he was hauled into the courtroom, he gladly gave his consent to his wife’s divorce petition. After he returned home upon his release, Wonbo found the little daughter that his wife had abandoned and his elderly mother trying desperately to survive. There was nothing of the pleasant tranquility they had enjoyed before. With no wife to take care of the house, the place looked desolate and forlorn, like a chicken coop raided by a wildcat. There was no place where Wonbo could rest his heart. So began his life of dissipation, of drinking 10
and gambling, and the more he lived like this, the more his mother began to nag at him. Arguments between them became frequent. The villagers said Wonbo was becoming a nasty man. But the more they criticized him, the more he drank and got into trouble and picked fights. He could no longer work in other people’s paddies. The few possessions he had, whether it was some leftover tools or a scrap of paddy, he ended up selling. And whenever he came home he would start fighting with his mother again. Then he started staying away altogether. He simply left one day and wandered for a year. Then perhaps he started feeling something inside, for he returned eventually. Things were not as severe after he came back, but he still fought with his starving mother from time to time. The fight that he just had with his mother tells much about his character now. Wonbo’s mind has become fierce and violent, and it is not difficult to find the reason. Wonbo changed because, first of all, he lost his wife and could no longer find a place to rest his heart. And he lost her because of Kim Chambong’s son. Once he realized that the rich man’s son could do such things, and that no one dared to lay a hand on him even when such atrocities were committed, he began to hate the cursed world he lived in and everyone in it. He came to think nothing of going hungry and being lazy, of being cold-hearted and cruel. And so his life and his heart changed dramatically. But the more his life slipped through his fingers, the more reckless he became in doing whatever was necessary to keep himself alive, no matter how vicious his actions. He forgot such things as traditional morality and conscience, and in return, he regained the brute power of primitive vitality. 3 That night, Wonbo returns home at a late hour. He quietly opens the worn-down twig gate and enters the yard. Every summer, the family is driven out of their rooms by bed bugs and fleas to sleep on the dirt floor between the rooms, and then is forced all the way outside by biting insects to sleep in the yard. Wonbo sees his mother sleeping there now on a straw mat, holding her granddaughter. He goes to the dirt floor between the rooms, squats down and stares at her sleeping figure. The twentieth moon of the lunar cycle, which rises very late on this night, has already climbed halfway up the sky. Moonlight shines down on one half of the dirt floor and yard. Wonbo looks at his mother’s moonlit face, thin and dry. He can see that it is also puffy and has a yellowish tinge, likely caused by malnutrition. He has been told that his young daughter is dying. Even in her sleep she holds tightly to her grandmother’s wrist as if the old woman is the one thing in the world she must never lose. Wonbo feels awkward and becomes weary of gazing at them. He looks away. Near where his mother is resting her head is the brazier that he had kicked over earlier that day. His mother has fastened the broken pieces together with something and lit a smoky fire with twigs to drive away the mosquitoes. Even now, a tendril of smoke is swaying gently up toward the moon. As Wonbo stares into the brazier, thoughts of the past flash through his head like lightning. They had always taken this brazier out with them when they did farm work, keeping a rice-husk fire going in it for cigarettes. But it’s pointless to dwell on such useless thoughts about the past. He turns his 11
gaze elsewhere, as if to chase away the shadows of the memories flickering in his mind. His eyes alight on the hoe that he used to carry when he went to let water in or out of the paddies. He had that very hoe with him when he got into the fight with Kim Chambong’s son. Seeing it again, he remembers the rage he had felt. His eyes are downcast and hidden in the darkness. If it were broad daylight, people would surely see malice glimmering in them. Wonbo sits like this for a long time, then puts some tobacco in a short pipe and goes to the brazier to light it. He puts the pipe in his mouth and returns to the spot where he had been squatting. He carelessly turns his head and looks toward the kitchen. Something like a soot-blackened straw mat is in front of the kitchen door, and beside it a wooden frame for carrying loads, its neck broken. It makes him wonder why such an old, useless wooden frame hasn’t been chopped up for firewood already, when they live in such dire poverty. But perhaps there is some reason why they are hesitant to burn it. This frame, this simple tool for laborers, could tell the entire story of how hard he had worked, starting from ten years ago to about three years ago. When he was still a young boy in a pigtail, perhaps the year he had turned ten or eleven, his father had died. His mother, widowed in middle age, placed all her affection on her young son and endured every kind of hardship to raise him. During those years she worked as a day laborer and he sold firewood. Mother and son toiled endlessly to save money, and it was on account of what little they managed to save that people considered them reliable and that he was able to marry well. After he got married, he worked even harder. He would rise even on snowy winter mornings before the sky brightened, load his frame with the wood he had piled up during the fall and walk all the way to town, nearly two and a half miles, to sell it. Then on his way back, even though they were always short of money, he would spend some of his earnings on a dried pollack or some beef to take home. Sometimes he bought his pretty wife some perfumed pomade or powder, perhaps a needle and thread. On occasion he would be extravagant and buy her purple silk from China or a piece of silk ribbon with large circular patterns. Returning home alone with the empty frame on his back, he would forget about the cold and lose himself in his thoughts. “If I give her this pomade, this powder, how happy she will be.” When he thought of these things and imagined his wife’s smiling face, this poor firewood seller, trudging along by himself with his arms folded and head down, would suddenly break into a foolish grin. And if he had some silk ribbon he would say to himself, “When I give her this, she’ll be so happy she won’t know how to contain herself!” He would draw in his head a portrait of his wife with the beautiful ribbon sparkling in her soft, shiny black hair, twisted and coiled up. As if this image were right in front of him and he could not be satisfied with simply looking, he would reach out and pretend to caress her. Once home, he would stamp his frozen feet near the dirt floor between the rooms and shake off the snow. Then he would wait until his wife opened the door and came out to greet him, timing it so that he could give her what he had bought without letting his mother know. And sure enough, her face would light up and her lips, the loveliest in all the world, would part in a delighted smile. “Heavens, why are you so late getting back?” his mother would say, following her out. 12
“How cold and hungry you must be. Dear, go quickly and make him his breakfast.” After his morning meal, he would stay home rather than go into the village like the others, especially on snowy winter days. It was truly wonderful to lie on his stomach in their room, making straw shoes, looking from his mother to his wife, laughing and talking. Then, when his mother went out and he and his wife were finally alone, they would make the most of it and become playful with each other, crackling with laughter. It was one of those rare joys in life. Now, in his head, he keeps repeating the dreams of the past, the warm and cozy days that felt as though he were lying on a heated floor, bundled under a quilt during winter. But these are useless thoughts. His wife is gone. He does not even know where she is. “That bitch!” A long pause, then he mumbles to himself again, “That damn whore. Where is she now?” Just then his young daughter rouses from sleep and quickly buries herself into her grandmother’s side. “Grandma, Grandma!” she cries. Listening to her, Wonbo feels a numb sensation grip his heart. Then his mother wakes up, straightens the little girl and holds her close. “Baby, baby, are you sick? Are you sick again? Poor little thing, can’t even get a sip of water, always sick …” Her voice is faint and shaky, her words ending with a long sigh. Wonbo’s heart quivers. “Mother, didn’t you eat anything for supper?” His voice is trembling plainly now. “Oh, is it you? You surprised me. Where would we get anything to eat? But you must be hungry, too!” “No, I’m …” His words grow indistinct. He looks down, lost in thought for a long while. Then a fierce look colors his face and he stands up, his mouth tightly pursed as if he has come to some decision. “What, where are you going again at this hour?” “It’s okay, I’m just going somewhere …” He steps outside. The next day, a new fear even more terrible than the drought takes hold of the village. Countless military police and assistants have descended on the village and are rounding up people. They ask questions and interrogate, they ransack Wonbo’s house and his friend’s house and arrest anyone who looks suspicious. The village is so filled with fear that not even the dogs dare to bark. All day long the streets remain deserted. Then, as evening approaches, a few people gather under the old shade tree and start to chatter noisily, exchanging bewildered looks. According to the stories, it appears some robbers entered Kim Chambong’s house in the neighboring village the previous night and tried to steal his money, but some people got injured instead and the robbers were arrested by the military police. Judging from how the police had searched Wonbo’s house, and from the fact that Wonbo and his friend had 13
never returned after having gone out last night, it is clear to the villagers, even though several others have been arrested, that Wonbo and his friend are the robbers. While they are still talking, one of the farmhands, the pigtail bachelor who had been taken in by the police as a suspect sometime in the morning, comes running breathlessly up the newly constructed road leading to town. Passing the many people gathered there, he shouts, “Wonbo is dead!” “What! Dead?” “He hanged himself in the holding cell,” says the pigtail bachelor, hurrying on down the alley. A little later, an old woman rushes out from the same alley, staggering as if about to fall over. It is Wonbo’s mother. She passes by the shade tree, moving erratically, as if insane. “You scoundrel! You scoundrel! Dead? You’re dead? Wonbo! You scoundrel! You goodfor-nothing scoundrel! How could you?” She keeps wailing, her voice choking as if she’s suffocating. She walks toward the road that winds around the mountain on its way to town, staring at the setting sun. The sun is slowly descending. “Wonbo!” She falls. She gets up. Again, she falls. “Wonbo!” The sound echoes from afar. The sun has completely disappeared. Her shadow has also disappeared into the shade of the mountain. It is another late autumn this year. One day, early in the morning, in the distance almost too far to see from the village, a crowd of people moves along the path leading up to Bukmang Mountain rising beyond the fields. They are leaving their village. They are carrying their bundles, their little children and their large bowls, the young and old, the men and women; it is not a small crowd. The people are all moving to Seogando. They all take turns, one after another, to glance back at the village, until they have passed completely over the hill. With every few steps they turn to stare blankly at the village where they used to live, now faroff in the distance. Then they continue on their way. Some of the women’s eyes are swollen from crying. Wonbo’s mother and his little daughter are among the crowd.