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TheSi ckRose


Tr ans l at edbySt ev enD.Capener

The Sick Rose By Lee Hyoseok Translated by Steven D. Capener

Literature Translation Institute of Korea


Originally published in Korean as Jangmi byeongdeulda in Samcheonli munhak, 1938 Translation ⓒ 2014 by Steven D. Capener

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 Lee, Hyo-seok (The) sick rose [electronic resource] / by Lee Hyo-seok ; tranlated by Steven D. Capener. -- [Seoul] : Literature Translation Institute of Korea, 2014 p. 원표제: 장미 병들다 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-52-3 95810 : Not for sale 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21



About Lee Hyoseok Lee Hyoseok (1907 – 1942) is counted among Korea’s best short story writers along with the likes of Hyun Jin-geon, Yi Taejun, and Park Taewon. His most widely read story, “When the Buckwheat Blooms,” is the tale of an itinerant peddler, going from market to market in the vicinity of Bongpyeong, Lee’s birthplace. The story unfolds against the lyrically depicted moonlight and blooming buckwheat flowers. Gasan (Lee’s pen name) was born in Gangwon Province and graduated from Gyeongseong First High School before going on to major in English Literature at Gyeongseong Imperial University. Together with his contemporary Yu Jinoh, he was classified as a “fellow traveler” writer. Such an epithet was used to describe writers who, while not officially joining KAPF, sympathized with its ideology and aims and reflected these sympathies in their writing. A number of his early novels such as “City and Specter,” “Siberian Coast,” “Correspondence from the North Country,” and “Mahjong Philosophy” are good examples of such works. However, with the decline of proletariat literature in the early 1930s, Lee became a member of the modernist coterie Group of Nine. The Group of Nine, that was begun by Yi Jongmyeong and Gim Yuyeong, included in the original nine Lee Hyoseok, Lee Mu-young, Yoo Chijin, Yi Taejun, Jo Yongman, Gim Girin, and Jeong Jiyong. Later, with the addition of Yi Sang and Park Taewon, this group became, both in name and in reality, the locus of Korean modernist literary activity. After joining the Group of Nine, Lee discarded his socialist leanings in favor of a powerful eroticism based on a lyrical style of storytelling. Characteristic of this style are the works “Pig,” “Bunnyeo,” “Mountains,” and “Fields.” As his career progressed, he focused even more on the themes of human desire and sexuality, using a style of writing often more redolent of verse than prose. Such works include the short stories “Wild Apricots,” and “The Sick Rose,” and the full length novel “Pollen.” Lee has been called the D. H. Lawrence of Korea.

About “The Sick Rose” “The Sick Rose,” published in Samcheonli munhak (Three Thousand Li of Literature) in 1938, is the first of two short stories that Lee Hyoseok names using the title of a poem in English. This one, of course, is named after a poem by William Blake. The other is “Leaves of Grass” titled after Walt Whitman’s seminal collection. Both short stories borrow themes from the poems they are named after. In the case of “The Sick Rose” the theme is prostitution and the venereal disease that can accompany the practice. Typical of Lee’s later literature, this story uses the theme of sex as a means to critique what he saw as a hypocritical sense of morality in Korean society.


The Sick Rose

Fights were common occurrences, but one as short and ridiculous as this, while still exhibiting all the characteristic of a fight, were rare. It wasn’t the kind of fight with head-butting, kicking, tearing, screaming, cursing, tussling, and then, when both combatants are too tired to go on, finally collapsing. No this fight didn’t go beyond getting hit, falling down, and giving up. As they had not seen the beginning or the end it was clear and distinct, like a tedious story that has had the beginning and end lopped off giving the fresh impression of several distinct frames of a film. Perhaps it was that fresh impression that had brought Hyeonbo and Namjuk to a stop on their way out of the movie theater. But by the time they wedged themselves into the crowd of onlookers, the fight was already over. They were in front of a restaurant that had dropped a beaded curtain over the entrance signaling evening on this back street lined with eateries, a cafe, a movie theater, drug store and the like. Judging from the white hats they wore, the fight seemed to be between two cooks from the restaurant. One was muscular and the other dark skinned and frail, and it seemed the fight had been decided by their two physiques alone. There was no way to know what had caused the fight, but it was obvious by their behavior that this was not the result of some sudden conflagration but was something that had been brewing for a long time. It was also easy to discern from the scrapes on their knuckles that an argument had lead to fisticuffs. The skinny fellow had launched a savage attack, filled with lethal intent that momentarily set muscles on his heels, but the big man’s response had landed with double the force on the skinny one’s face. Falling over backward with a yelp, he knocked over a potted tree that stood near the doorway of the restaurant smashing the pot, the juniper tree spilling out.…. Holding his face in his hands he staggered to his feet again and charged muscles only to be knocked flat again by a second punch. Sitting on the ground he rubbed his face as blood welled up in a couple of places and two thin rivulets ran down from his nostrils. In spite of being completely spent, he wobbled to his feet and lunged once more at muscles who nimbly stepped out of the way sending the skinny one tumbling to the ground again. He lay as he fell for a while sniffling in the silence, the blood that flowed from his nose quickly spreading on the dry ground. “You win.” It was just that one phrase, but he spat it out in anger indicating that the fight was over. “You give up?” Muscles stood there completely unperturbed, looking like he had just stepped out for a stroll, staring brazenly down at his foe. “I’m not giving up, I just don’t have the strength right now.” 4

“Well, when you get some strength back, why don’t you have another go?” “All right. Until then I’ll let you live.” As he replied in this unhurried and dignified way, the skinny one turned his blood covered face toward them, and Hyeonbo felt a shiver go through his body at the disturbing sight, causing him to grab a hold of Namjuk’s sleeve. Namjuk as well, turned her face away from the scene and, without waiting for Hyeonbo to suggest it, hurriedly walked away. They didn’t speak for some time. The shock of what they had suddenly and accidentally witnessed had been too much. The formula was so simple−strong and weak, winner and loser; the coin only had those two sides. When Hyeonbo thought about it, it seemed that the reality of the strong over the weak principle, that meant that the scrawny fellow had no choice but to curse and be knocked into the dirt by muscles, was a metaphor for the times they were living in. He felt as if he had been beaten and was lying in a pool of blood like the scrawny guy. “Isn’t it both sad and beautiful, like a movie?” Tears filled Namjuk’s eyes as she spoke about what they had seen. Was it sympathy for the loser that made it beautiful? Sad because it was beautiful and beautiful because it was sad. And this thought unavoidably lead to tears because it was the result of the reality that they faced in these modern times. So thinking, Hyeonbo stopped Namjuk and pushed open the door of a tea house. Until the tea came they sat without a word, absorbed in thoughts of what they had witnessed. They may have been more deeply affected by what they had seen because of the movie they had just watched. The movie The Witness was playing in the theater and they had stumbled on it accidentally. Namjuk’s eyes were filled with tears as she watched one beautiful scene after another. The movie was sad from start to finish and the pitiful plight of the male and female leads caused her heart to ache. The scene where the old mother took her young son, whose father had been put to death on an unjust charge, to look down on his grave; and the scene where the destitute gathered under a bridge in the evening dusk caused tears to pour down her face. In the scene under the bridge, the poor people of the neighborhood all came out of their houses and began to dance to the sad melody being played by a beggar on his harmonium. Hearing the noise of the music, a police patrol came running and prohibited the people from dancing. The old prosecutor that had tried his father made an appeal for the people out of a pang of conscience, but this was ignored and the people were forced to disperse. She was deeply moved by the pitiable sight of those people. In the dark of the theater, Namjuk wiped the tears from her eyes several times with a handkerchief. Then when she left the theater with her face still swollen from crying, the first thing she saw was the fight. Being bombarded with emotions like this had caused her to begin crying again. In fact, Namjuk’s current situation was one worthy of tears. She had only been released from jail a couple of days ago after spending more than two weeks locked up. She was in a tough spot. With her empty pockets, she didn’t have the means to get back to her hometown nor to do anything else for that matter. She was no better off than the people in the movie. She had come to see a movie with Hyeonbo because she 5

really had no other plans or options for how to spend the day. She was, in effect, flotsam, a rudderless boat floating aimlessly on the water. Only two weeks after it was formed, the drama group “Culture Place” collapsed. As it was a drama group formed for the provinces, it had been established in a city outside of Seoul, and this had actually brought it under greater scrutiny. The members and scripts had been selected and they had all come down for the first production, but the set had been raided for no discernable reason. Looking back, there was no reason for this, it was just the result of the black clouds of the times casting their dark shadows over everything. They were in the scriptwriter Hyeonbo’s hometown so he wasn’t detained long; and Namjuk was released fairly quickly as well. The others however, Minsam who had provided the funding, Insu in charge of casting, the lead actor Hakjun and several others, were still being held indefinitely. Even though they had been released, Hyeonbo and Namjuk were extremely dejected when they thought about their comrades and the situation they found themselves in. With nothing else to do, Hyeonbo wandered the streets all day, and Namjuk, who had found new purpose and motivation with the establishment of the drama group after trying her hand at being a singer and an actress, was hit especially hard by its dissolution sinking into a state of despair. The sky that had seemed so blue, had been smashed to pieces and pushed back into the dark abyss. Namjuk had been given the lead in both the play that Hyeonbo had written called “The Crumbling Stage,” and in O’Neill’s piece “Ile,” and she was overjoyed at how well these parts suited her. In addition to the excitement at being able to act, she had the unexpected joy of meeting her old acquaintance Hyeonbo after seven years. For his part, Hyeonbo as well was both surprised and delighted to see Namjuk again. When he saw the name of the lead actress, Hyeryeon, on the list sent down by the general manager Minsam, he had wondered about her, but when he actually came face to face with her and discovered that it was Namjuk, he was doubly surprised. Neither of them could have, in their wildest dreams, imagined that they would meet in this way after seven years. They spent the night talking and reminiscing about the past. He had met her and her sister Sejuk when they were attending school in Seoul when he had visited a bookstore run by Sejuk. She ran the store by herself, and Namjuk, who was attending a girl’s school, practically boarded at the store. Sejuk’s husband had been arrested, but he had prepared for that eventuality by buying the store as a means of livelihood for his family. While waiting for the eventual release of her husband some years in the future, Sejuk ran the store alone while devoting herself to the care of her child and younger sister Namjuk. Namjuk was a precocious girl and she had started reading politically themed texts at a young age. And so it was that she was expelled from school after being found to be the instigator of a political movement that was discovered in her last year. 6

Not being able to finish her schooling she could not return to her hometown and so she had no choice but to spend her days helping out at the store. She would read whatever novels came into her hands and sing in her best voice. Thinking that if she could train her voice she might become a classical singer, and being somewhat proud of her pleasant looks she had aspirations to be a movie actress as well. What Hyeonbo saw in the girl as she matured was the passion of the times, but in addition he was also able to discern a beautiful sentiment and powerful aspirations. She had a healthy body and wore her hair short, and when beautiful melodies flowed from her lips, she seemed like a happy flower filled with dreams. She was a healthy, yet easily damaged flower. Hyeonbo would look at Namjuk as if he were gazing on a beautiful flower. But after Hyeonbo had finished school, he left Seoul for home and then went to Tokyo for a few years and, when he came back, the only news he had heard during those seven years was that the bookstore had closed. After that there was no telling what had become of them, whether they had gone back to their home in Gwanbuk or not, and so, in this way she receded from his thoughts. In fact, he did not have the leisure to think about other people, he was too busy worrying about his own life and, like others living in these modern times, his thoughts were jumbled, torn, divided and mixed up. Meeting after seven years, it seemed they had both been buffeted by the waves of the times and had their dreams broken. And yet, meeting her as a stage actress now, he could see that while the embers of past dreams still glowed in her, something had clearly started to eat away at that once beautiful flower. After checking the time, Hyeonbo brought Namjuk out of the teahouse and headed toward the department store on the main street. He had an appointment to meet Jungu. Jungu was just a poor teacher and so borrowing money from him would be like squeezing blood out of a flea, but still he was the only friend that Hyeonbo could turn to for the money to get Namjuk home. It was not a matter of “to be or not to be” for Namjuk. She needed money to get home like the people in the movie needed music to dance to in the street. Now that the last remaining ember of her dream had been stamped out, she had no choice but to go home to rest her body and compose her mind. Her home was located on a broad plain and her sister Sejuk was farming there and raising goats. Sejuk’s husband had been released but then imprisoned once again and Sejuk had made up her mind to forget about the bookstore and raise goats in those fields. Tired now of the city, Namjuk wanted nothing more than to taste those goats’ milk. It was actually useless to borrow twenty or thirty won from his friend, but as it seemed it was his destiny to never become friends with the “modern devil” himself, he had no choice. He had thought about opening a teahouse but after a scolding from his father he avoided borrowing money and there were times he didn’t have the price of a cup of tea in his pocket. Of course nobody likes the subject of borrowing money and everyone wants to appear aloof when it comes to the topic, but lately Hyeonbo was embarrassingly obsessed with it. That “devil” had given him a kind of courage 7

and so, in spite of his embarrassment, he asked Jungu for Namjuk’s travel expenses, and had convinced her to write her sister for a one-way train ticket home. But when Hyeonbo actually came face to face with Jungu dressed in a shabby poplin suit and wearing a sweat stained hat, he immediately regretted having asked his friend for money. He saw his own tired face in that of Jungu. At any rate, they walked in a dignified manner up the stairs into the restaurant where they were seated. After the food had been served, Jungu took out a handkerchief and wiped the sweat off his face and neck. “I hope you understand. The kids are running wild at home, my wife is in her last month of pregnancy and I still haven’t found a midwife. Every month I have bill collectors clamoring at my door. I don’t know how I got in this fix, but if things keep going this way, I’m going to have to kill myself. What can a guy do? Well, I explained the situation to my principle and I managed to get this. It’s not much but I hope it helps.” Not having even bothered with an envelope, he pulled a limp, crumpled note from his pocket and put it in Hyeonbo’s hand. Hyeonbo felt a sudden pang in his chest and his eyes misted over. The strong feeling of friendship emanating from the limp note and the sweaty warmth of Junbo’s hand in his, caused a lump to form in his throat. Namjuk once again expressed her gratitude, her eyes fixed on the tabletop in embarrassment as she fidgeted with her hair. The pitiful yet brave sight of the poor Junbo, who had spoken without hesitation about his own destitute circumstances in front of a woman he had never seen before, made her want to quietly slink away from the table. After coming out into the street and saying goodbye to Jungu, Hyeonbo felt depressed. He didn’t feel like going home and Namjuk was not in a hurry to return to her stuffy room so they began strolling through the streets. The sweat soaked note that his friend had, at great effort, managed to provide them with could not be given back and he couldn’t really just hold on to it either. It would require about five times this amount to supply Namjuk with the travelling funds she needed. He decided to think of another way to get her home and the fate of that one banknote would be determined by where their feet took them that night. Namjuk wanted to put on a record and foxtrot to her heart’s content, but there was no place that could accommodate that request, and Hyeonbo, not knowing anything about dancing himself, entered an ordinary looking bar after wandering the back streets for awhile. Namjuk accepted several glasses of strong gin, gulping them down. Hyeonbo was both surprised and impressed by her drinking ability and he wondered when she had developed such a tolerance. She seemed right at home in the bar drawing the attention of the other men as she sat at ease, her face slightly flushed from the drink. After they had drank a considerable amount, Namjuk lost her inhibitions and, swaying her shoulder in time to the music for a bit, she got up from her seat and began dancing. Hyeonbo, being drunk as well, did not try to stop her but merely sat and watched in amazement. He couldn’t decide if it was that booze is filled with 8

sorcery and has the power to transform things or that the morality of places where people dance is questionable. Either way a man across the room that Hyeonbo had earlier identified to Namjuk with a whisper in her ear as the ne’er-do-well son of a millionaire rose from his seat and came over to Namjuk where he asked her for a dance. What was even odder was that Namjuk immediately accepted, took his arm and began to step in time to the music. Initially, Hyeonbo just watched thinking that must be what people did in dance halls. However, at the protestations of the other customers, the hostess came over and separated them with a scowl on her face saying that dancing was prohibited. At this, Hyeonbo came back to his senses and looked on with a scowl on his face. Namjuk’s behavior had been over the line, but the intention of the ne’er-do-well, who had suddenly appeared, struck Hyeonbo as particularly odious, and so, out of a sense of embarrassment and responsibility, he grabbed Namjuk’s arm and pulled her outside. He felt foolish for having taken her to such a place and his anger did not subside for quite some time. “Even a ne’er-do-well like him, coming on to a total stranger like that… What a jerk.” “There’s no reason to get angry. For people who like to dance there’s nothing wrong with asking for a dance, it’s actually a sign of respect. He was quite a good dancer by the way.” Hyeonbo had no idea how to respond to Namjuk’s retort; was his reaction the result of jealousy? If so that would mean he was in love with Namjuk and this thought caused him to begin to search his feelings. “I can’t take it. I can’t stand anymore of this. I can’t stay cooped up behind these walls like a prisoner. Take me home, David. If I can’t get out of here, if I can’t get off this ship I’ll surely go mad. Please, David. Take me home. I can’t bear it, bear the cold and the silence. I’m afraid. For the love of God, please take me home.” It was Namjuk but in a different voice. He realized that in her drunken state she was quoting the lines of O’Neill’s “Ile,” using the street as her stage. The appeals of the woman Annie to her husband, the captain of a whaling ship operating in the Arctic, had become the sincere entreaties of Namjuk. “This life is killing me. The cold, the terror, even the air feels threatening. The desolation. Yesterday, today, tomorrow, everyday is the same gray. I just can’t stand it anymore. I’m going mad. If you love me David, you’ll take me home…” The next day was an aimless continuation of the previous day. The memories of the night before were still fresh and Hyeonbo had still not completely come to grips with his feelings about Namjuk. It was late afternoon when he went to see her. She was red-eyed and groggy, but he agreed to her request that they go on a picnic to the river. The western part of the city had beautiful hills and the water of the river was clam so that in summer there were many boats on it. There were ferries and fishing boats, coal boats and pleasure boats with awnings, there were even motorboats dotting the waters. The sound of singing could be heard from the pleasure boats and people could be seen dancing on their decks so that the calm waters of the river, reflecting 9

the branches of overhanging trees, were transformed into a kind of amusement park. In the city just past those hills was real life and strife, while the waters on this side were a different world that resounded with laughter, song, and the sounds of pleasure. Hyeonbo and Namjuk rented a boat and joined the people enjoying themselves on the surface of the cool water. The branches of the poplar trees were gently drooping, tufts of white cloud floated in the sky, and the scenery of the river couldn’t have been more beautiful. Hyeonbo worked the oars against the current and headed the boat toward an island. Blue ripples of the river’s current, their intentions unfathomable, lapped against the side of the boat. “I got a letter from my sister. She said the goats aren’t producing much milk and so it’s going to be hard to come up with travel expenses.” She pulled the letter out of her sleeve and, ripping it up into four or five pieces, tossed it onto the surface of the water. Her face held no trace of animosity toward her sister, she was merely reporting in a matter of fact voice what the letter contained. “I’m thinking of getting a job in a café for a few days as a hostess.” This too held no note of disgust, but sounded like a mild joke. However, there was also a hint of despair in it as well. “There’s got to be a better solution. No reason to run off and do something rash like that.” Hyeonbo spoke brusquely and with emphasis in order to immediately dissuade her from such an unsavory thought. But Namjuk’s desire to return to her home was as keen as ever. “When you are trapped in the dark, your memories fade. Right about now, July’s lilacs should be blooming in front of the door, and the roses should be budding too.” This was one of Namjuk’s favorite lines from “Ile,” but she was not yet done with her commentary. Watching the pieces of the torn up letter recede on the current, Namjuk’s longing for home surged. “There’s a tall dike that stretches across the field from the sea to the front of the village. I’ve never seen such a long dike. There’s a stand of poplars by the station for the international train and it runs straight from there to the ocean ten li away. It takes twenty minutes to walk the distance between the pedestrian footbridge and the railway bridge. The dike follows the dry streambed, and it’s so broad and white and clean that it looks like someone drew an endless white line with a piece of chalk across the green fields. There are green fields of grass on either side of the dike, and mugwort and pearlwort grow there. When the evening sun is still warm, the crickets chirp and the starlings warble. Cows lie in the grass of the fields and birds whose names I don’t know fly low over the fields. Fields of millet, sorghum, and corn stretch toward the town and girls can be seen here and there working in the fields. In the summer my nephew and I take the goats out and, while we walk on the dike, they graze in the grass. When the international train that has just left the port makes the turn around the mountain, it lets out a long whistle and the goats lift up their horns and bristle their beards and bleat back at the train. I love that dike. And the fields. I really miss them.” 10

Sounding different than it would have if given from a stage, this lengthy description of Namjuk’s home flowed away on the quiet water. And if the music flowing from the records being played on the pleasure boats had been that of a symphony orchestra and not ordinary popular songs, then Namjuk’s elegy for her home would have sounded like the accompaniment to a country symphony. It wasn’t that he was completely captivated by this “country symphony,” but he could keenly feel how powerful were the attachments she felt for another life, not the one she was now living. Hyeonbo rowed the boat up the rapids between Nunra and Baewol Islands feeling a renewed sense of resolve to find her the money to get home. The water was shallow but the current strong, so he looked for a sandbar that he could land the boat on. “Early autumn is pine mushroom season. Soon the dike will be crawling with townspeople on their way to Solgol to pick the new mushrooms. Oh the joy of finding the new mushrooms as they push their way out of the ground! On the way back down the dike with my family, my basket full of mushrooms, their smell would fill the air and permeate our clothes. I miss the smell of pine mushrooms even more than that of the lilacs in “Ile.”” Even though he had never seen the place, as he listened to her talk about it he thought it sounded like a place worthy of longing. He headed the boat for a sandy spit. As he was trying to land the boat on the island, the sudden rocking motions jolted Namjuk out of the reverie she had fallen into. The island looked inviting, entirely green with a thick carpet of new grass growing between the poplar trees. Not wanting to get her feet wet, Namjuk was standing on the gunwale getting ready to jump onto the bank. Hyeonbo was in the back trying to steady the boat, but it was a long stretch to the bank and as Namjuk stepped out, her foot landed on a patch of grass. The grass was slippery causing her to lose her balance with one foot still in the boat. This caused the boat to list heavily and Hyeonbo sensed the danger, but before he could do anything Namjuk had landed in the water. Hyeonbo jumped in, shoes and all, and pulled her up out of the water. Her body felt as cold and heavy as an armful of wet laundry. The day’s plans for a day of fun on the island were suddenly ruined. The picnic had turned into a bath and, as they couldn’t really mingle with the other people on the island while they were dripping wet, they sought an isolated sunny spot. They had no choice but to try to dry their clothes out somewhere where they wouldn’t be seen. Hyeonbo took off his shoes and trousers and hung them up, while Namjuk stripped down to just her undergarments and laid her dress out on clump of grass in the sunshine. If they had been at the beach in their swimsuits, it would not have seemed so strange, but the sight of them both half naked and bedraggled like a couple of chickens that had been hit by a wave was good for a laugh. What was more, Namjuk was a pitiable sight standing there, her legs and shoulders bare and wet, and underclothes clinging to her. She didn’t seem shy about the situation, but Hyeonbo found himself frequently averting his gaze.


Having no other options, they wasted away half the day like that waiting for their clothes to dry and then, after the sun had set, they put on their still wet things and rowed the boat back down the river giggling at each other. Hyeonbo couldn’t bring himself to send Namjuk home in her state so that day became the first time that they were together until late into the night. Whether it was something they had both thought about or totally unexpected, that night they shared all the passion that a man and woman can share. The feelings were not stronger on one side or the other, they both experienced the same emotions; and this was no accident but the result of feelings that had been maturing for the past seven years now flowing together. When he finally came out into the late night street, he felt an intense fatigue that comes after visiting that shining world. The entire next day, Hyeonbo stayed in his room thinking about what he had experienced the night before. He wondered why the joining of feelings that had been growing for seven years should suddenly burst forth like that. Was it that they had been hiding those feelings up until now, testing their sincerity? Or was it that such feelings needed some sort of catalyst to be released? It was a case of finally, after a long wait, seizing the right moment to pull those feelings out and dust them off. It seemed a stretch to call it love, but, then again the reason he couldn’t rule love out was that, even though what had happened had been a spontaneous scene from a one act love play with no talk of the future, it had come about with the help of a long history. Wondering if Namjuk felt the same way, Hyeonbo’s newly awakened male desire caused him to harbor suspicions about the ease of her emotions. He wondered what secrets had filled the parentheses of those last seven years of her life. Just as he had sometimes had to fulfill his physical needs, he wondered if Namjuk had not needed the same thing. He entertained other thoughts as well such as whether she had been married and gotten a divorce, or whether there had been something between her and Minsam. But when he took a step back and thought about it again, he realized that such thoughts were the result of an excessive desire on his part for her to be pure and that he had no right to expect such a thing. Whatever secrets were contained within those parentheses, the parts of her life that were unknown to him were not something he should concern himself with, he thought, and decided to be satisfied with the affection she gave him, thus interpreting his own feelings as being broad and generous. Of course her affection was not being bought, but due to her difficult circumstances, Hyeonbo felt an obligation to help her and so he renewed his efforts to procure travel expenses for her. He felt that part of caring for her was to not try to keep her by his side but to help her quickly return home as per her wishes. He decided not to see her until he had put together the money for her trip so after that night he did not go around to her place for a few days. But as he also was practically destitute, there was really no way to come up with the money. He had already hit up his friend Jungu with disappointing results, and he had no other friends to whom he could make such a request. What was more, he had nothing of value that he could sell. There was only one thing he could do, even though he knew he 12

shouldn’t. After waiting all day for his chance, he managed to smuggle his parent’s savings account bankbook out of the house. Among their various accounts including the bank and the Co-op, the postal savings account book was the easiest to grab and so, after fabricating an authentication seal, he withdrew the appropriate amount of money. However, with all the scrutiny that surrounded him, it took him two days to pull off his caper. He was not free of remorse for this betrayal of his family, but he tried to put a shine on it by telling himself that his love required such sacrifice and service. He worried that giving her this money the first time he saw her after that night might be seen as compensation for her giving herself to him, but on the other hand, he did feel a sense of pleasure and largess to have this money in his pocket. That afternoon, Hyeonbo set off for the inn Namjuk was staying in with a spring in his step and a song in his heart. At the inn no one was about and he could find no trace of Namjuk. The room had never had much in it, and now Hyeonbo could see with one glance that it was completely empty. She must have gone out for the day he thought. Thinking he would check the teahouse and the department store and go back in the evening, he noticed a post card from her lying on his desk when he returned home. “Why didn’t you come by these last few days? Did I do something to make you mad? I’ve only been causing you trouble so as soon as I got the money I needed I decided to leave. I doubt if we will be able to meet again. I wish you all the best. Yours, Namjuk.” The contents of that unexpected postcard hit him like a punch and he immediately headed back to the inn. She seemed upset that he hadn’t come round for a few days, but what had caused her to suddenly pick up and leave? She said she had come up with the money but where in the world did she suddenly get fifty won? Had she ended up going to work as a hostess in a bar for a few days? These various thoughts revolving around in his head, he once again opened the door to her room in the inn and looked inside, but it was just as empty this time as it had been before. This was as he expected but he noticed that even her bag was gone from the corner. Chiding himself for his rash inattention on the first visit, this time he went to find the inn owner to ask about what had happened. The old woman who had been doing chores wiped her hands on the hem of her skirt and looked as if she had some kind of knowledge that she was dying to share. She came out of the yard and began to tell him about Namjuk’s sudden departure the night before with a knowing smile on her face. “Is she an actress? A student maybe? With these modern girls you can’t tell just by looking at them.” Wondering what the hell she was rambling on about, Hyeonbo didn’t like where this was going but he had no choice but to listen in silence. “Well, she did kind of look like a student.” And then a sudden reversal:


“But she was an actress. Her behavior made me suspicious. Even if she looked like a student, she sure didn’t act like one, and it turns out sure enough that she was an actress.” “What about her behavior?” “Well, that’s how they say actresses are.” It seemed as if the old woman was going to go off on a tangent, so he changed the subject. “Did she settle accounts for her room and board?” But his words only had the effect of forcing the cat from its bag. Words began to pour out of her mouth like water from a fountain. “It’s not even a matter of room and board. She had a wad of bills in her wallet. And the way she got them was really something to see. The way she had the no-good son of that millionaire wrapped around her little finger, she’s a real professional. I don’t know whether that rich man’s boy knew that about her or not, but he seemed smitten with her at first sight and was more than happy to spend one night with her. After one night she went from being penniless to having a wad of cash. She must have gotten what she needed because after one night with him she took off the very next day.” This was a bolt out of the blue. He was so surprised and dumbfounded by what he heard that he wanted to stick his fist in the old woman’s mouth to stop her from talking. However, assuming she wasn’t crazy, she was probably telling the truth, and Hyeonbo just stood there, mouth open in amazement. “Who is this son of a rich man that you are talking about?” His voice has suddenly begun to tremble. “Don’t you know? Deacon Kim’s son. Everyone knows that good-for-nothing.” Hyeonbo became dizzy and the world swam before his eyes. There was nothing else to say and he suddenly could not stand the sight of the hideous old woman a moment longer so he hurried from the inn without a backward glance. “So that’s where she got the travel money.” His lip curled of its own accord and he found he was laughing at himself in scorn. The son of Deacon Kim was the same low life that had asked Namjuk to dance a few days ago in that bar. Hyeonbo wondered how he had gotten to her so easily in such a short span of time. Even if it was only to secure travel funds, what was the difference between her and a common bar girl? The terrible thought caused a shiver to run through his body and he felt like plopping down right where he was and crying. Had she changed so much? It seemed that he could see exactly what had filled the parentheses of those seven years, and he now thought that he had really been taken in by her. His head filled with such thoughts, he wandered aimlessly down the street. Depressed and ill at ease, for a number of days he felt like he was going to go crazy. He regretted ever having met her seven years ago, and thought with disgust about the attempt to make a theatrical group. But when he realized that it hadn’t just 14

been his heart that had been deceived but his body as well, he really did almost go mad. The symptoms started to appear the very next day, and as Hyeonbo had never experienced anything like that before, the sudden visitation was a shock to him. In the first place, the pain was excruciating. The physical symptoms were disgusting, and when he urinated it felt as if his flesh was being torn open. So this is the disease that everyone talks about, he thought. The realization of what it was caused such a strong sense of embarrassment that he couldn’t bring himself to go to the hospital. So he went to a pharmacy, where they sent to see a doctor. The diagnosis was as expected, and so he had no choice but to stand in front of the doctor and begin the humiliating treatment while the image of Namjuk floated up into his distorted mind. Had Namjuk been aware that she was deceiving both his heart and his body? The initially deep impression and feelings of gratitude now had to be seen as a kind of emotional fraud. Who could have guessed that the part of that girl’s life that had started seven or eight years ago with such beautiful and healthy dreams would so easily become sick and damaged? He could not have imagined that the girl with such firm dreams would, seven years later, become a lady of the evening. The once beautiful flower had not only begun to wither but had become sick as well. When he thought of the Namjuk that, seven years ago, had studied by the light of a lamp in the backroom of that book store and then, saying she would join the struggle, would grab whoever was at hand and bombard them with half understood theories, only to go to school the next day and become a leader of the movement pulling any and all half interested classmates into a room to engage in endless discussion and debate, Hyeonbo could not help but feel a powerful sense of nostalgia. And he would momentarily forget the physical discomfort and his resentment, overcome with a sense of pity for what had happened to Namjuk. Thinking that every dream has a number of possible paths it can follow, he became overwhelmingly depressed when he thought that he had been shown by Namjuk an example of the most deviant and yet pitiable one possible. Hyeonbo ended up having to use the fifty won that he had procured by devious means for Namjuk’s travel expenses to pay for his treatment, and while cursing the fate that had brought that money into his hands, he went into a bar in the early evening to drink away his frustration. And in a painfully ironic twist, he came face to face with the ne’er-do-well son of the deacon who had caused all the trouble. His brazenly unctuous appearance always set Hyeonbo’s teeth on edge, but if he had been what Namjuk wanted, well then that was that. Besides, he didn’t have either the strength or the courage to bash his face in, and this thought deepened his depression. The man recognized Hyeonbo and inexplicably made his way to Hyeonbo’s table where he sat across from him, drink glass in hand and an odd smile on his face. “Since we are both here, why don’t we have a drink?” Before Hyeonbo could say anything, he had summoned the hostess to fill Hyeonbo’s glass. The smell of pine emanating from the clear alcohol in the glass told him it was gin and this irony as well seemed to be mocking him. 15

“I might as well be up front with you, there’s no reason to hide anything. That was a very expensive bit of fun for me. I’m not bragging but I’ve had quite a bit of experience and I never saw this one coming. I was completely taken in. I don’t regret her emptying my wallet, but this physical discomfort is too much. It’s humiliating having to go to the hospital everyday, and since they said beer helps I’m in here drinking it every night. God only knows how long it will take to get better.” Looking at the wry smile distorting his face, Hyeonbo was at a loss not being able to either teach him a lesson or commiserate with him. “It looks like we are comrades whether we want to be or not. So, let’s forget everything else and drink together tonight.” So saying he held up his glass. Hyeonbo wanted to throw his glass in the man’s face and leave the place, but with the awkward look of a man that can neither laugh nor cry, he had no choice but to sit where he was.


The sick rose  

Lee Hyoseok (1907 – 1942) is counted among Korea’s best short story writers along with the likes of Hyun Jin-geon, Yi Taejun, and Park Taewo...

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