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Wi l dApr i cot s

LeeHyoseok

Tr ans l at edbySt ev enD.Capener


Wild Apricots By Lee Hyoseok Translated by Steven D. Capener

Literature Translation Institute of Korea

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Originally published in Korean as Gaesalgu in Jogwang, 1937 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 Wild apricots [electronic resource] / by Lee Hyo-seok ; translated by Steven D. Capener. -- [Seoul] : Literature Translation Institute of Korea, 2014 p. 원표제: 개살구 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-51-6 95810 : Not for sale 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21

CIP2014028978

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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 “Wild Apricots” Lee Hyoseok’s story “Wild Apricots” was published in the literary journal Jogwang in 1937. The work is noteworthy for its use of themes that pushed the limits of the social conventions of the times. The story involves infidelity, betrayal, female homoeroticism, and superstitious folk beliefs. In addition, Lee clearly mounts a critique of vested male privilege that he would develop more fully in later works. Interestingly, together with his critique of the backwardness of rural society, Lee also weaves a subtle critique of the increasingly oppressive nature of Japanese rule as the dark clouds of militarism and fascism spread across the horizon.

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Wild Apricots

The reason the residence of the Seoul mistress was called the apricot house was due to the fact that just behind it stood an apricot tree. In addition to its other uses, the house was supposed to protect the ancient tree, but in fact it was the tree that seemed to guard and snuggly embrace the house. The apricot tree was always the first one in the village to bloom, and as the blooming season approached, the house would be enveloped in the colorful flower buds and fragrance of the tree as if wrapped in a floral dream. And when the buds bloomed and the fruit started to appear, the house was even further engulfed to the extent that it could not be seen from outside. Apricot house or not, it was still a house within which the routines of daily life took place, but as the house was located in a secluded spot away from the village, the villagers had no way of knowing anything of the goings on within the house that lay in the shadow of the silent apricot tree. As the house was entirely concealed by the tree, not even the stars in the heavens could penetrate the tree’s canopy for a glimpse of what transpired inside. The sight of the wild apricots ripening was enough to make one’s mouth water. It was possible that what went on inside that house was just as mouthwatering as the apricots. It was common for people to sneak around to the back of the house in order to steal some of that fruit. The only tin roofed buildings in the town were the township administration building, the police station, the Co-op, and the school. And then there was the house of the Seoul mistress, fancier in appearance than the ordinary tile-roofed houses. The wide section of land behind the village was owned by Gim Hyeongtae, and the villagers talked about how he had built the house out there in that field for his mistress. The plastered walls and steel roof of the house, standing isolated in that green field could not but capture one’s eye and become an object of curiosity. Ever since they had started cutting timber on Odae mountain, the market for birch had gotten better and the long line of ox carts that carried the cut timber crossed the Daegwallyeong pass. The lumber was taken to Jumunjin harbor in Gangneung where it was loaded on steamers that would take it to the nearest port with railroad facilities for transport. Hyeongtae owned a section of mountain in the Odae range and, not having been aware of its worth, he became suddenly rich selling off the birch trees that grew there. With the profits he bought a few more rice fields and built the apricot house. He then donated some money to the school and was put on the board of trustees, and due to his credit with the Co-op, his son Jaesu was hired there as a clerk. The local townsfolk, who were unfamiliar with houses any other color than dark blue, were intrigued by the white plaster walls and the clean, cozy look of the house. A radio antennae had been installed in the yard and the sound of music flowing from a gramophone day and night left them speechless. They were all in awe of the benefits and development that the birch trees had brought to Hyeongtae. People started to 4


regard him differently, especially as he strolled leisurely back and forth between his wife in the tile roofed house at the rear of the village and his mistress in the apricot house in front of town. However, problems can arise even in the midst of such plenty: the mistress currently in the apricot house was the second to be brought to live there. The first one had been hastily brought in from Gangneung and, before the year was through, had run off one moonlit night. It was eighty li east over the Daegwallyeong pass to Gangneung. Only realizing she was gone the next morning, he set out after her but it was no use. She had no family to speak of in Gangneung and, therefore, it was impossible to find her. The rumor that she had had a lover made Hyeongtae give up completely on bringing in a mistress from the Gangwon Province and so his attention turned west. Seoul lay in that direction 500 li past Munjae and Jeonjae, beyond Wonju and Yeoju. It took two days to get there in the shaking car and, almost one month after his first trip to the capital, Hyeongtae returned over the successive mountain ridges with a beautiful Seoul maiden. She was as lovely as the local people had imagined a woman from the capital would be, white as polished rice, thin and delicate. They crowded around the car as she got out. In order to bring someone of her caliber all the way out here to the countryside, Hyeongtae had no choice but to use a considerable chunk of his resources. He had sold eight plots of land. The rumor was that he had bailed out a Seoul household that had fallen on hard times and, in repayment, had been given their only daughter. She was a beauty even by Seoul standards, so here in the countryside she was peerless and the locals, as if this was the first woman they had ever laid their eyes on, huddled nearby talking in whispers. After losing his first mistress, Hyeongtae kept the second one on a very tight leash. She was cooped up like a bird in a cage. Hyeongtae was completely taken with his new mistress and rarely moved his bulky body out of the house, no longer going to the gambling sessions he used to frequent. The house was surrounded by a black wall and the thick foliage of the apricot tree, and this made it impossible to see either out or into it. But as a rule, the tighter the restrictions placed on the heart, the more it wanders and, just as the Gangneung mistress had missed her home, the Seoul mistress pined for her’s in the capital far over the rows of mountains. It wasn’t even a month after she had left her home in Seoul that a small but noisy incident erupted. Discovering that the Seoul girl was not in the house, Hyeongtae cried out that she had run off, thus arousing the curiosity of his neighbors to the point that they spread out to search for her. It was the last night of the month and moonless, and the village was as black as if ink had been poured over it. The villagers brought out lanterns and searched every nook and cranny that could possibly conceal the girl. Here and there in the darkness the lanterns flickered like fireflies and the sound of voices floated on the air. They scrutinized the new road for the length of several football fields east and west and turned the entire village upside down. Behind the village they combed in turn the foot of the mountain, the millet field, and the fruit tree orchard; they scoured the stand of elm and zelkova trees in the 5


village; looked up and down the streets; and gave the woods by the stream and the water wheel house a good going over but there was no sign of the girl. Hyeongtae, who was anxiously leading the search, threw away his lantern in frustration and wordlessly turned back. The villagers who were following him, clicked their tongues and, losing their enthusiasm for the search, slowed their pace and swung their lanterns leisurely. It was the general consensus that she had gone west and that the best course of action would be to go after her in the first car that would come from Gangneung at dawn. Still hurting from the disappointment of losing the Gangneung woman, Hyeongtae in his fretful state was ready to do just that. He smoked one cigarette after another and muttered to himself, then, after passing a stony field and coming to the streamside, he first jumped then froze in place staring into the darkness. When someone brought up a lantern, a splashing sound could be heard coming from the water and a figure was seen frantically running into the woods. There in the darkness they could make out an exceedingly soft, white body. The night’s hunt had ended successfully in the unlikeliest of spots, and all were practically doubled over in laughter on the way back. The Seoul mistress, who was supposed to be on the run, had finally found a chance to leave the house and go to the stream to bathe. This had all happened a year ago already and since then, Hyeongtae had lost his anxiety and was no longer so mistrustful. When a house is effectively cut off from the outside, it becomes so wrapped in stillness and silence that it is impossible to tell what is going on inside. There’s no way to know how those inside are faring. When the green apricots turned ripe, the villagers would look at the yellow fruit hanging from the branches and, without realizing it, their mouths would begin to water.

2. The barley was ripening in the fields and the apricots as well were turning a deeper hue of yellow. On the morning of the second day of the halo moon, the spring behind the village was in pandemonium. The news came initially from Geumnyeo who was the first to arrive at there to fetch water. After her, Jaecheon was the second to pass it on. She told Chunshil, who in turn told it to adoptee Okbun who giddily told every last juicy piece of the story to the new wife of the mill owner. In this way news of the events of the previous night spread like wildfire. The women that arrived later to get water also showed no sign of leaving. Their water jugs sitting in a row in front of the stream, they sat there glancing sideways at each other and whispering agitatedly. Once the cat is out of the bag, there’s no getting it back in, and the women prattled on about what they knew and what they only surmised, unaware of the morning passing. The ordinarily prim and proper mill owner’s wife turned out to have quite a big mouth and she latched onto any and all latecomers, gossip pouring out like water from a faucet. 6


“Oh my word, have you ever heard the like? I always thought it strange that the house was so still, but who would have guessed this about Gim Seogi? Is such a thing possible? It gives you the willies.” On her way back for her second load of water, Geumnyeo was suddenly taken with a shiver of trepidation when she saw the commotion engulfing the streamside. She regretted her rashness in being the one to first tell the story, but there was no getting the genie back in the bottle. She had had no choice but to repeat what she had heard the night before, and while she was telling the story, she admitted to herself that she had felt a sense of boldness and excitement. “I don’t know what got into me. Bright moonlight never makes me think of apricots in the middle of the night. But I saw the most outrageous thing when I went to snatch a few apricots from that tree.” The reason that Geumnyeo had set her sights on the apricots of the apricot house was that she had noticed that Hyeongtae was leaving town to campaign in the election for head of the township. With the cantankerous Hyeongtae away from home, getting a glimpse into the house was not a difficult task. Hiding herself in the thick foliage of the apricot tree was a piece of cake. However, the bright light of the moon suddenly faded and the world cast into darkness. As it turns out, there was a lunar eclipse that night and at that moment it was as if a black dog were in the course of devouring the crimson moon in the dark sky. All was as quiet and dark as if submerged in deep water, and a flock of bats whirred past as if searching for their way home. The sound of an owl hooting from the mountain sounded unusually forlorn. The sound of a far-off dog howling at the moon floated eerily through the air. Not even being able to see her hand in front of her face, Geumnyeo forgot all about apricots and clung tightly to the branch she was on trembling in fear. It felt like a cursed night on which something terrible was going to happen. The dog in the heavens chewed on the crimson moon, gnawed on it for awhile and finally spit it back out. The whole universe felt black and heavy as if it had been sucked into the earth. When she realized that the owl had stopped hooting and the dog had stopped howling, Geumnyeo, taken with a new sense of terror, covered her face with her arm and closed her eyes. With her eyes now closed, her sense of hearing became more acute and shortly she became aware of the soft murmuring of people whispering. Concentrating as hard as she could on the sounds, she realized that they were coming from a broad wooden platform in the yard just below the apricot tree. As there were no lights on in the house and the eclipse had begun just as she arrived on the branch, she had had no idea anyone was beneath her. There was a high voice and a thick, hoarse one, clearly a man and a woman. The woman’s voice was that of the Seoul girl, but the man’s was a mystery. As the only two in the house were the Seoul woman and the kitchen help Jeomsun, and as even male relatives were not allowed to come and go as they pleased, Geumnyeo wondered who he could be, her fear now replaced by a powerful curiosity, but, try as she might her gaze could not penetrate the dark or the thick leaves. 7


While being somewhat overwhelmed by the situation, Geumnyeo had a lump in her throat and felt curiously squirmy as she waited impatiently for the moon to reappear. Shortly, the dog in the heavens that had eaten the moon could not swallow the ball of fire and spit it back out. The clouds began to part and, in that growing gap of clear sky, the ball of fire changed back into a full moon. Watching this change in the heavens, Geumnyeo became suddenly aware that she was now exposed causing her to contract herself in surprise. Looking down through a gap in the leaves, she was astonished by what she saw. It was like the time she was surprised by a snake in the forest. Except that here there was no snake, only a man and a woman sensuously entwined on the broad wooden platform in the back yard. It was the kind of private scene that Geumnyeo, being a virgin, had never seen, shouldn’t see. What was even more surprising was that the girl was the Seoul mistress and the man Jaesu the clerk from the Co-op, Hyeongtae’s son. There had been rumors about the Seoul mistress, and there was also a rumor that Hyeongtae did not know what was going on right under his nose. But nobody suspected that it could be Jaesu and this compounded Geumnyeo’s surprise. Not believing her own eyes, she took another good look down but there was no denying what the bright light of the moon was revealing below her. Feeling that, as if by seeing this, she had committed some enormous sin, Geumnyeo gave a shiver thinking about the fate the heavens had sent down to this father and son. There was no way the lovers could know that the secret that only the two of them, together with the heaven and the earth, should possess was also now shared by Geumnyeo, a living person and not a phantom. Suddenly the two of them, as if afraid of the sudden brightness of the moon, quickly left the broad wooden platform and moved back into the house. But watching their exposed forms retreating into the house, she became newly afraid thinking that if the heavens sent down a lightning bolt, it would land exactly where she clung to that tree so, her hair standing on end, she slid down the tree as quickly as she could forgetting all about apricots. She couldn’t sleep a wink the entire night but stared at the wall in the black of her room, her heart trembling at the secret knowledge that she alone shared with the heaven and earth. But in the fresh air of the morning, her trepidation dissipated and her lips loosened when she met her friends at the spring. It was too much to bear to be the only one in possession of that frightful knowledge. That morning was an unusually noisy one at the streamside, but after the early group left things had settled down a bit, only for the commotion to resume again in the afternoon. People came from all corners of the village to get water, and in the afternoon there were still one or two people left over from the morning team. “Was it his doing or hers? Well, it doesn’t really matter with something like this does it?” “The place is cursed. That damn apricot tree seems to be the cause of the house’s troubles.” There was one group that muttered such things. 8


“Well, no one can excuse betraying one’s own flesh and blood, but it was stupid of him to go off campaigning for head of the township. He’s going overboard trying to unseat Mr. Choi and take that position for himself. He should have been happy to make a bunch of money selling timber and buying some land, why does he want to be township head? He’s getting what he deserves for being so greedy. Is he buddy-buddy with the governor of the province or something? This time he left with a load of honey and mushrooms. They say the governor is going to decide this contest so he’s gone to suck up to him.” “The son is worse than the father. He hadn’t been married more than a couple of months before he beat his wife and kicked her out of the house. It took him seven years to finish middle school in Chuncheon. Is there any way to explain that away? And he got his job as clerk at the Co-op only because of his father.” “What do you think Hyeongtae will do when he finds out what his kid did to him?” A wild pear tree stood next to the spring. They sat prattling like this while throwing stones into the tree causing the unripe pears to drop, which they then tossed into the spring. “We should stop gossiping. If Hyeongtae gets wind of this there’ll be hell to pay.” Out of a sense of shame, Chunshil had made this suggestion, but before evening fell, she was the very one that relayed the whole story to Jeomsun. Jeomsun was the kitchen help in the Seoul mistress’s home, but she had spent the night before at her own place and had worked outside all day long so she had neither seen nor heard anything of the incident. She had then gone home and, after taking a nap, had met Chunshil while rounding a bend in a sorghum field where she was given the story. She had sensed something strange about Jaesu’s behavior and had her suspicions but still, she couldn’t help being surprised upon hearing the news. She felt bad about the gossip regarding the Seoul mistress as the woman had always been cordial to her, still this was too salacious a story to keep to herself. So she returned home and told her husband Manseon, then she went to the store and told the clerk Taein. Manseon and Taein were having an affair. Taein let a few words of the incident slip to those who came into the shop, and Manseon went that evening to the village where Hyeongtae’s main house was and blabbed to the local farmers. And in this way it didn’t even take a day for the rumor to reach every corner of the village. At this point, the only people in the whole village who didn’t know what had happened were the two culprits and Hyeongtae. They even knew about it in his main house having heard about it from the farmers who worked his land. Hyeongtae’s wife was extremely surprised at the news of what her son had done, but her rage was directed at the behavior of the Seoul mistress. While wishing that the devil would take her down to hell, she racked her brains as to how to deal with the situation when her husband returned.

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3. That night was the sixteenth of the month and, unlike the other night there was no eclipse. The moon rose somewhat late but was bright in the sky. The group who always met at the spring became inexplicably restless under the light of the moon and it was Okbun who instigated things, suggesting to Geumnyeo that they go to the apricot tree again. Okbun was more forward and open than Geumnyeo and was already familiar with the ways of the world. She was only able to meet Mr. Bak, who hauled wood down from Ode Mountain in an ox cart, a couple of times a month. If she couldn’t wait for him to come down for market day, she would find a way to slip over to Woljeong near the next village and see him, anxious to avoid detection as they were not married. She would give the story that she was going out to work in the fields and walk the five li up to where the road to the Woljeong Temple met the new road and wait for him there. They would go to the head of the millet field or the stream and unburden themselves to each other. Without having any real plan for the future, she just trusted that later on his income would be enough to support them and continued to meet him while avoiding detection by her family. There were numerous promises to set up house together in Gangneung once they had a little money set aside, but every time she saw him slowly trudging back up toward the Daegwallyeong Pass with his ox cart, her heart quivered. During that time they had become lovers, and unlike Geumnyeo, the thought of what went on between men and women gave her a strange thrill. As Okbun and Geumnyeo left the village and entered the road along the fields, the beards on the corn and the stems of the bean plants shimmered red in the bright moonlight. They met up with Jeomsun who was waiting for them at the paddy dike and together headed for the apricot tree. It wasn’t out of a sense of wickedness that Jeomsun was going along, it was just that she knew the workings of the household and so, after finishing her evening chores, she had promised to meet them here at the paddy dike. The tree stood as silent this night as it had the last, revealing nothing of the secrets it knew. Afraid to go up that tree a second time, Geumnyeo stayed below and kept watch while the other two went up. The sound of the gramophone flowed ceaselessly out of the house and, when a record ended, it was left to turn for some time emitting the scratching sound of the needle. Jeomsun was fascinated by the fact that the house looked totally different when looking down from the tree than from when she was working inside. The gramophone had been placed on the broad wooden platform and, just as Geumnyeo had described, the Seoul woman and Jaesu were sitting there as well murmuring romantically to each other. What was even more fascinating to her was that the inside of the house, which she could see through the open door, looked far more cozy and splendid when seen from the tree. While enviously observing this scene, Jeomsun was suddenly taken with the thought that Jaesu was vastly inferior to the Seoul woman, and him stealing her like 10


this amounted to him having stumbled onto a pot of gold. She thought the Seoul woman deserved better. She had once been caught by the Seoul woman stealing a gold ring from her dressing table and had been given a terrible scolding then sent away. But far from making her resent the Seoul woman, it gave her a new awe and respect for her. She had fallen for the Seoul woman in the same way that Jaesu had. She felt fortunate to have been born a woman so that she could wait on such a beauty that all the village men desired. After being sent away she had pleaded for her job back and been given another chance. The Seoul woman seemed like a perfect creature created by the hands of some fairy godmother and sent to earth. Her hands and feet were dainty and her skin was a white as a pebble on a streambed. She had a fine nose and when she opened her small mouth a row of white teeth shone like pearls. No matter how much make-up Jeomsun filched from the mistress’s dressing table drawer and put on her face, she could never match the Seoul woman’s skin. She had always had dark skin, a stout body and big hands and feet, but for some reason she was especially embarrassed of these things in front of the Seoul woman. She would never have such a body even were she to be reborn twelve times. Sometimes when she would prepare a bath for the Seoul woman, and while scrubbing her white back, Jeomsun would be overwhelmed by the desire to hold that beautiful body against hers. In summer, the Seoul woman would paint the fingernail of her pinky finger and the red nail, like a tiny cherry stone on the tip of that slender white finger was indescribably fetching. Looking down at the Seoul woman debasing herself in the hands of someone like Jaesu filled Jeomsun with sadness. She wanted to jump down from the tree and flip the platform over. She was suddenly filled with the desire to create a commotion that would put an end to this relationship that was so unfair to the Seoul woman. She regretted that she had kept quiet and let things develop this far. This feeling had nothing to do with Jaesu but arose out of a sense of jealousy regarding the Seoul woman. As it turns out, Jeomsun did not have to entertain these thoughts for much longer as a happening even more incredible than that of the previous night unfolded beneath them. Whether it was that the world always sends strange events one after another, or that it does not allow wickedness to go unpunished for long, but what transpired was wholly unexpected and unbelievable. Perhaps if things had not turned out the way they had, Hyeongtae would never have found out what was going on. In any event, Hyeongtae, who had been away in town suddenly appeared. He had been absent for a few days, so his sudden appearance could only be explained by a spirit alerting him. On the other hand, it was incredibly stupid of the two lovers to be leisurely cavorting there not knowing when he was going to come back. Maybe such infidelity makes people stupid. Seeing Hyeongtae suddenly throw open the door and step out onto the rear veranda, Okbun pressed her body against Jeomsun in surprise. The branch shook and apricots dropped to the ground with a patter, but the seriousness of the situation in the yard was such that looking up into the tree was the last thing on anyone’s mind. 11


The two who were leaning against each other on the wooden platform suddenly sat up straight and separated themselves. Hyeongtae’s large body standing in front of them seemed like a terrible phantasm and there was no way for them to escape the apparition. They shrunk back but did not utter a peep, Hyeongtae as well stood looking at them without a word, so for a short time the scene was enveloped in silence. It was that frightful moment when black clouds pile up just before the thunder comes. “Who the hell are you?” In his anger, Hyeongtae’s bellowed this ridiculous question. Perhaps in that moment he forgot that Jaesu was his son. “What are you doing?” As his huge body moved toward them the Seoul woman jumped quickly down from the platform and slipped her feet into her shoes. Attempting to run into her room she passed near the rear veranda and Hyeongtae wordlessly grabbed a handful of her hair. She didn’t stand a chance. Giving her hair one good shake he flung her helplessly to the ground. Having experienced Hyeongtae’s hand, Jeomsun was horrified, consumed by terror. It was a frightening thing to leisurely observe the events transpiring below in her master’s house while perched in the boughs of the tree, especially as there was no way to know what was going to happen next. She grabbed Okbun and sent her down the tree first, then hurriedly slid down after her. The voices in the yard could clearly be heard and it seemed as if some eruption was about to happen. Feeling for as if the events of the night before were somehow their fault, the three ran from the place as fast as they could without looking back. Two days later the rumor came, this time from the rear of the village. On her way to work at the Seoul woman’s house early in the morning, Jeomsun heard the story of that night’s events from Chunshil. Jaesu was beaten senseless then and there with the branch of an ash tree, and a farmer had to carry him on his back bleeding to the big house at the rear of the village where he did not recover consciousness until the next morning. He was so swollen from the beating that he was nearly unrecognizable, and his mother, weeping continuously, was so concerned that she boiled medicine for him and prepared an exorcism ritual that put the whole house in an uproar. Unable to contain her curiosity, Jeomsun rushed to the front of the village, but when she opened the gate of the Seoul woman’s house it was silent and looked deserted. Fearing the worst, she ascended the veranda and opened the door to the Seoul woman’s room. Her fears were confirmed. She pulled the blanket back from the form underneath it wondering if she weren’t already dead, but while she was still breathing, her mouth had been filled with gravel and gagged with a towel, and there were ghastly burn marks on her cheeks. She was moving but could not arise as her hands and feet had been bound to a stout bar. After Jeomsun undid her bonds and removed the gravel from her mouth, she barely managed to sit up as if slowly coming back from the dead. With her tangled hair, red eyes, and disheveled appearance she 12


looked like a critically ill patient in a hospital. Seeing her mutilated face, Jeomsun broke into tears. “This is too much. He’s not a person but an animal.” Clenching her teeth, tears appeared in the eyes of the Seoul woman as well. Red burn marks here and there on her face had transformed the once beautiful countenance. “Tying you up hand and foot, gagging you with gravel and burning you with an iron. I’ve never seen anything like this even from these country bumpkins. Of course your heart is different from his, you don’t change someone by heating up an iron and burning them with it. Who in their right mind would come to this backwater of their own accord anyway? This place and the people here are completely different from where you come from and, on top of that, he wouldn’t let you step one foot out of this house. You were as good as a prisoner here. If you are human how can you not miss your family and friends. Doesn’t a caged bird long for the sky? Whether you were wrong to do what you did or not, he is just plain evil. Does he think he can get away with this? This has to be reported to the police right away and he has to be locked up. On that day, I’ll leave this place too. The more I think about it the more furious I get!” Biting her lip, jewel-like tears flowed down over her burned cheeks. Jeomsun could not help but cry as well and a furious rage and hatred burned in her at the inhumanity of Hyeongtae’s actions. If she were a man, she would make him pay. She felt a bottomless sense of regret that she had not rushed down that night and done her best to prevent that tragedy from happening but had run away instead. And it was not that she felt this way because her situation mirrored that of the Seoul woman in that her husband was also having an affair with Taein. But there was nothing she could say now in consolation and so she merely sat sniffing back her running nose and squeezing the Seoul woman’s delicate hand that she had always wanted to hold in her large fist.

4. Outwardly, Hyeongtae had a gentle looking demeanor, but he possessed a powerful obstinacy and was quick to anger. He was often drunk, and his red-eyed face could be seen the whole day on the market street. He ignored the stares and murmuring of passersby and boldly went about his business. In order to forget his anger, he turned all of his attention to his campaign for head of the township. He would take the former village head Mr. Jang to a drinking place and the two would spend all day hatching plans and thinking up ways to get him elected. Jang had been the village head until Mr. Choi had replaced him after being elected head of the township, and so now he was in cahoots with Hyeongtae in hopes that he would be reinstated if Hyeongtae won. Hyeongtae’s campaign was not a recent thing. In fact, he had been planning it for a long time. He had desired the position ever since his status in the town had risen 13


with his newfound timber wealth. One of the reasons he wanted to be township head was that he could draft the villagers for the labor of building new roads and paddy dikes that would benefit the fields he owned behind his village and in the neighboring village as well. But the main reason he wanted to win the position was because of a grudge he held against Mr. Choi who had insulted his family line back when he was working as a manual laborer. This and the fact that he felt his son Jaesu was vastly inferior to Choi’s son Hakbu. Hyeongtae had been unable to learn how to read or write and, in a case of like father like son, it took seven years for his son to finish middle school in Chuncheon. This was a great embarrassment to Hyeongtae and he wondered if his son wasn’t an idiot. On the other hand, Hakgu, who was the same age as Jaesu had finished school in one year, finished middle school in Seoul and was now attending high school. This seemed to Hyeongtae as evidence of the difference between the house of a scholar and that of a common laborer and it caused him a great deal of grief. Mr. Choi’s situation was difficult and he had spared nothing in supporting his only son for a better future. He had sold the few rice fields he owned and, even while being the target of criticism, had maintained his position as township head for the sake of his son’s education. He had no intention of leaving the position under any circumstances until his son graduated. So even if this put him in conflict with Hyeongtae, there was no help for it. But that wasn’t all. Hyeongtae was in possession of a terrible secret regarding Mr. Choi. In order to pay for his son’s schooling he had conspired with the accountant to fix the books so that he could pilfer some money from the vault. When Hyeongtae had first decided to run for head of the township, he had dug for all the dirt he could get on Mr. Choi. In the process he had bought off the accountant and discovered the secret of Choi’s malfeasance. Whether Choi had figured out that Hyeongtae knew his secret or not, he insisted that he would only hold the position until his son finished his schooling, while Hyeongtae behaved with an arrogant confidence that came from the knowledge that if all else failed, he could always play that final card. In fact, Hyeongtae already knew that Choi would not easily yield and so had leaked the news of his embezzlement to Gunsu on his latest visit to town. Gunsu had promised to take the appropriate measures after launching an investigation into the affair and publicizing it. In order to get Gunsu to do his bidding, Hyeongtae had spent a huge amount of money. In addition to a gift of honey and mushrooms, he had secretly sold one of his paddies. Gunsu’s greatest wish was to be entertained by a famous gisaeng and drink expensive liquor out of a silver chalice poured from a silver flask. While the famous gisaeng was beyond Hyeongtae’s means, the silver flask and chalice were prepared at great expense. Of course there was no reason for Gunsu to refuse any of this, and now that he had taken Hyeongtae’s bribes several times, it was just a matter of waiting for a favorable outcome. If Hyeongtae could only relieve himself of this lifetime grudge, then every ounce of treasure spent would have been worth it. He trusted Gunsu to get the job done, but still he was constantly on pins and needles wishing it could be 14


settled quickly. And after what had happened at home, what made him even more anxious was the urgent need to accomplish his goal no matter what the cost in order to ward off the derision and laughter of others and forget the humiliation of that catastrophe. Everyday he would take his place in a bar, get drunk and harass those around him with bloodshot eyes. It was the evening of market day. Hyeongtae and former village head Jang were drinking in the back room of Yeongwol’s place when they decided to send someone to fetch Mr. Choi. Hyeongtae had been using drinking occasions to feel out Choi and provoke him. In fact, he had been leaking his private knowledge of Choi’s secret to one or two people at a time. His aim was to turn public opinion against him. There was no reason for Choi not to join them, and after a few glasses Hyeongtae’s tongue began to loosen. “You must be busy with your duties. Thanks to your hard work, I’m able to enjoy some drinks, spend some money and enjoy myself!” Subtly linking his comments to the topic of spending money, Hyeongtae continued, “How are Hakgu’s studies going? I hear he’s quite the scholar. He must be the pride of your family. Of course I’m sure I don’t need to worry too much about it but, if you’re not careful and you don’t pay attention, bad things can always happen. It’s easy to get stained when you are pure white. And we are living in dangerous times. I want to urge you to keep an eye on those around you.” Choi was at a loss, not knowing whether Hyeongtae was mocking him or commiserating with him. He sat between Hyeongtae and Jang with his mouth open in surprise. “I can imagine how hard it would be to leave your position, but people are talking and things look quite serious.” While Choi sat mouth still open at these insinuations, Jang put his mouth close to Choi’s ear and whispered ominously, “It pains me to say this, but now is probably the best time to resign. If you stay there’s no telling what kind of calamity might befall you.” Reeve Choi was startled, and at the unexpected words and unpleasant tone, his temples flushed with blood and his body became hot. He shot back a brief, curt response, “What are you talking about?’ “There’s no use getting upset, it’s become public knowledge. It’s not only the local folks in the village here, but people in town know as well, and everyone is talking about it.” “What in the hell are you talking about?” Before he knew it, Mr. Choi’s face was burning and his voice had gotten louder. Jang’s voice, on the other hand, had been low and soft. But the next words he spoke had steel shot through them. “I’m not sure but I think it all came from councilman Yun. Who can you trust in this world? ” 15


In an instant, the Choi’s red face turned an even more brilliant crimson and he lost the ability to speak. Both Hyeongtae and Jang sat silently watching and waiting for their words to have the desired effect. The uncomfortable silence lasted for some time but then, Choi regained his composure. His steady tone cut through the tension in the room. “I understand what you’re saying, but there is no need for you to unduly concern yourselves. When it comes to things like this, there’s no reason to be worried by rumors, we judge the rightness of things by what we actually see. I’m prepared to see things through so there’s no need for you to worry.” His irritatingly calm voice caused Hyeongtae to bristle. There was a subtle threat in his response. “I don’t know what you think you’re prepared for, but if this thing blows up you’ll be in a real fix. I hear that Gunsu is in town now preparing to start an investigation. And if that happens god knows what kind of nasty talk will be going around. I’m only saying this because I think you’d be wise to take the right course of action before this thing gets out of hand.” Hyeongtae hammered home every word, and this was finally too much for the Mr. Choi who bellowed in rage. “I’ve heard enough of what you’re trying to sell and I’m not buying it. You think I don’t know what you’re up to? And I know that you are the one pulling Gunsu’s strings as well, so go ahead and do your worst!” “I don’t know where you get the gall to talk so tough. You’re going to regret this later.” There was no use maintaining any further pretenses, both side’s intentions were clear and the fight was now out in the open. “There is nothing to be afraid of and nothing to regret. Go ahead with your stupid schemes.” The official’s face was scarlet, his lips purple, and he shook in rage. “You really are a fool. You don’t even realize how deep in it you are.” “You’re malicious brutes. You called me here for this nonsense?” Pushing away the glass of liquor that had been poured for him, he quickly rose. Not being able to suppress his rage at the brazen smile on Hyeongtae’s face, he kicked over the table that the drinks were set upon and left the building. His face crinkling in satisfaction, Hyeongtae looked at former village head Jang and let out a laugh of delight at the thought that their plan was working so well. Even though his scheme was succeeding, Hyeongtae’s anger over the incident at his house had not subsided and he had not returned to see the Seoul mistress’s even once, spending his nights at his wife’s home or in some bar. For her part, his wife was secretly delighted by all this and, while it pained her to see her son still in a sick bed, she considered all that had happened an opportunity to get the full attention of her husband back, and so she would perform a devotion to the spirits everyday for the bed-ridden Seoul woman. But in fact this devotion was not intended to help her recover but to cause her to expire in the bed where she lay. When deep night fell, she would prepare ritual rice in a brass kettle, draw some fresh water and, without her 16


husband knowing, go to a solitary tree on the mountain behind the house or to the woods or the streamside where she would entreat the spirits, rubbing her hands together in supplication. She would call down curses on the Seoul mistress crying out the names of the water spirit, the mountain spirit, the fire spirit, all the sprits she knew while searing the effigy of the Seoul mistress she had made in the fire, dunking it the water, or burying it in the ground. She had performed these same rituals when the Gangneung mistress had been in the picture and firmly believed that she had fled because of them. Since the Seoul mistress had arrived she had been even more devoted in these rituals, sometimes going the fifty li to Odae Mountain to perform the mountain ritual, and then she would stop by Weoljeong temple on her way back to perform the lotus ritual. And this time as well, she believed that this brouhaha with the Seoul mistress was not because of Jaesu’s wrongdoing but was the result of her supplications and a punishment sent down by the heavens. The intent of her ritual supplications to the spirits was to get rid of the Seoul mistress once and for all. Hyeongtae hated such rituals and every time he saw his ignorant wife engaging in such things he threw a fit. When Jaesu finally was able to get up, he quietly slipped away. This was the middle of summer when Hyeongtae’s mind was completely absorbed in his campaign. It wasn’t that he wasn’t worried about his son, but in a way he was relieved that he was gone as this was one headache he didn’t now have to deal with. It was better this way he thought. By leaving his job as clerk at the Co-op, one he wasn’t suited for anyway, and going off somewhere far away, he would fade from the villager’s memories and perhaps find a way to redeem himself for his misdeed. That morning, his absence caused an uproar and he was searched for everywhere around the village. A search team was formed and there was quite a commotion, but in fact, he had disappeared on the instructions of his mother who had hatched the plan. After finishing her early morning ritual to the spirits, she hurriedly summoned her son and sent him to Gangneung on the first available car. Afraid that if he got on the car in town he would be seen, she had summoned him outside of the village. She handed him a money belt full of cash that she had been saving up, entreating him in a tearful voice to go south and take in the sights or something until the rumors had all died down, the driver finally blowing the horn a couple of times signaling him to get aboard. Of course, when she returned home there was no trace in her demeanor of what she had been up to, rather she was surrounded by the household and put on a show of pretending to be worried about her son’s whereabouts. After Jaesu was sacrificed in this way, the pain in Hyeongtae’s heart eased somewhat, and the thought of the Seoul woman once again began to occupy his thoughts. But there was nothing else to be done other than to forget her for the time being. Because of the stain she now wore, he had considered getting rid of her once and for all, but couldn’t bring himself to do so. This wasn’t because of the seven paddies he had sold to get her, but due to the strong attraction he felt for her that he 17


could not sever. This attraction was like a tangled ball of string that could not be cut. Just when you think you have snipped it, you find another thread that is still attached. In spite of the atrocious way he had treated her, the threads of this attraction were still aggravatingly tangled in the folds of his heart. On top of that, life was a frightening thing. The rage that had almost driven him to murder gradually eased, and the heat of the humiliation that had caused his teeth to chatter and his body to burn had gradually cooled. If by around the time the cool breezes of fall started to blow, his anger had disappeared, his mind become calm, and his plan to become township head come to fruition, the wound might then be completely healed. He wondered, however, whether the Seoul woman’s heart could recover in the same way his might. There was no way for him to know whether what she had done was a one-time mistake or had happened because she had lost all feeling for him. It had seemed that her longing for the outside world caused some stirrings in her heart. She merely lay in the house treating the wounds on her legs and face with the medicine he got at the pharmacy and sent to the house along with the rejuvenating foods that were supposed to help her regain her strength. Hyeongtae had not been to visit once since the incident, yet whenever suspicion stirred in his heart, that flame of attraction also flared up and he had an overwhelming desire to see her. When that happened, he was consumed by a stronger passion even than his desire to become township head, and he went as far as to ask himself what use there was in being head if he didn’t have the Seoul woman.

18

Wild apricots  

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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