By Oh Yong-su
Translated by Lee Kyung-sik
“Chon and Paek” is one of the short stories by O Yong-su (1914-) who advocates “return to nature” in his writings. O was editor of the monthly literary magazine “Hyondae Munhak” in 1955. The translator, Yi Kyong-sik, specializes in the translation of contemporary Korean short stories. —Ed.
Chon and Paek were next door neighbors, their houses separated only by a hedge.
Chon was a farmer. He had a widower father and a farm hand besides his own family. He had only one acre of his own farm and tenanted two acres. The farm’s total output was far from enough to give him a comfortable living. In addition, he was not much of a farmer. He did not plow as well as other farmers; nor did he carry a heavy load on his back. As the saying goes he was neither a monk nor a worldling.
Paek loaned money for a living. He had earned a small fortune and with it, of course, a reputation. The obese Paek was an aggressive, greedy and persistent niggard. He made a good contrast with the droll and open-hearted. Chon, who could also become a little wily at times. People called Paek a tick. This was because Paek sponged on others and never bought anyone a drink or a bowl of rice. Paek even looked like the insect with the round stomach of an overfed donkey and arms and legs that were unproportionately short and thin.
Chon and Paek had not had any significant business with each other. Only when their eyes met did they hastily say hello.
An incident occurred three years ago which brought them very close together and made them as good as sworn brothers. They did not formally take an oath or anything, but they began calling each other “Brother.” Chon was forty-three, two years younger than Paek.
It was late autumn and Paek was returning from a round of visits to his debtors when he encountered an assailant near the tomb of Kim Tong-chi. Chon found Paek floundering in a miry rice paddy down the slope from the tomb, groaning with pain. Paek was lucky Chon passed there with his oxcart, hauling rice from the field. The assailant had beaten Paek so badly that he could not use his waist. The villagers advised Paek that dog meat was best for the fatal internal injury, so Paek’s Darky had to die to save the life of his master.
Paek told Chon that he heard a rustling in the pine bushes and then almost at the same time he was hit on the back of his head. Paek said as he tumbled down the slope he heard the unmistakable sound of a cow’s neck bells. He boasted that lucky ones never died. He then complained that robbers stalked the village even before the sun hid itself in the west and deplored the fact that world was becoming worse everyday.
Many villagers whispered among themselves that the assailant must have been the son of one of Paek’s debtors, whose rice Paek had seized. They said a boy who recently returned from Japan must have done it out of spite for Paek.
Whatever the cause, the incident made Chon and Paek very good friends and soon they became so close that they exchanged delicacies over the hedge on birthdays and other festive occasions.
Chon went to Paek for a lean whenever he needed money. Paek did not approve of Chon’s visits to the village gambling house, but nevertheless lent him money, sometimes quite a fair amount, because Paek somehow thought Chon was worthy of it.
Chon did his very best not to lose his credit, not only because Paek’s interest was relatively low, but Chon might need Paek’s money again in the future. For instance, if Chon borrowed money from Paek in the spring he usually paid back the money without fail in the fall.
At this time, sad things began to happen to Chon. His seventy-year-old father stupidly became a fanatic believer in the heretical Taeul-gyo Religion. The father visited the Taeul-gyo shrines in Chongup and Kyeryong-san and kept offering money to the insatiably greedy heresiarch until the only acre of farm that Chon owned was turned over to someone else. The father and his belief sent Chon to the brink of bankruptcy. It was true that Chon was not the only victim of the Taeul-gyo in the village, but he was the most unfortunate one. There was a bad drought that summer and all he reaped in the autumn from the two tenanted acres was a big heap of dry grass.
Chon took to drinking, which caused Paek to become very uneasy. Paek was worried because of the two hundred won he had lent to Chon. The house which Chon still owned was the only source of relief for Paek. He would fold his stubby hands behind his back and look over the hedge to watch what was happening at Chon’s house.
Chon did not come to the hedge as often as he had before. He apparently was avoiding Paek. Paek did not particularly mind this. On the contrary, he liked it. Dissociation from the debtors was sometimes necessary. When the earth began to thaw, Paek planted thorny trifoliate orange trees along the hedge, so Chon would stay further away from the hedge.
One night Paek called Chon to the hedge.
“Little Brother,” he said. “We are brothers, but I say business is business.”
Chon pleaded with Paek to wait till the harvest season and assured him that he would give Paek the deed for his house as Paek suggested if Chon should fail to pay him by fall.
Chon’s father now had clear symptoms of senility, and life became more and more difficult for Chon.
The best crop expected from the tenanted paddies was nine bushels of rice and from this the land owner got the better half directly from the threshing ground.
Chon had been out of food since early fall and he had been cutting rice when it was not quite ripe. Now all he had left was two bushels of rice. There were the fertilizer bills he had been dunned to pay, let alone the rice to last till the New Year’s Day. Paying money to Paek was out of the question. It was not just possible from the beginning that Chon could pay his debts from the two tenanted acres.
“Don’t call me Big Brother,” Paek snapped at Chon. “You must show me something so I could believe what you say and wait.”
Chon had nothing to say. He could not give Paek the deed to his house, because Chon was sure if he did he would have to pay the entire amount of interest, every penny of it. There would be no discount on the interest. It was a foregone conclusion.
That night Chon thought about selling the house and discussed it with his wife. They would sell the house and move to a rented room. But there were problems. It would be not only hard to find a room but if they found one they did not know how they could possibly live in the same room with their nubile daughter and the senile father. There had even been proposals for the daughter. And the old man’s health had been getting worse everyday. They finally resolved to mortgage the house and obtain a loan from the credit union in town.
Chon went to the union the next morning, offered the house as a security, and three days late managed to obtain a loan of two hundred won. Chon was not sure how Paek would respond to it, but he made a bet that Paek was not an animal after all.
Instead of the deed to the house that Paek had wanted, Chon produced before him the two hundred won, the principal, and pleaded with Paek for more time on the interest.
Paek was furious. He threw his abacus on the floor, put the I.O.U. note back into his pocket, and turned his back to Chon.
Chon deplored the fact that Paek had completely forgotten what he owed him in the past, but he did not say it. He hid his indignation and pleaded, “Please, Big Brother!” Paek made no response and Chon again said, “Please, Big Brother.” Still no word from the pouted lips of Paek.
While Paek sat motionless like a stone Meitreya image, Chon aimed his fist at the back of his head and in his mind imagined himself hitting Paek with repeated blows. He then left Paek’s house and came home.
The more Chon thought the way Paek had reacted the angrier Chon became with him. Had he still had his old temper, the paddies and the pile of rice he had before, Chon thought, he would have broken Paek’s neck. Chon clenched his fist, but on second thought decided against doing anything that might arouse Paek’s bile. It would be like striking a match to a powder keg, he thought. Chon reckoned that the principal and the interest put together would amount to well over three hundred won. This doubly discouraged Chon from defying Paek.
Chon stole his father’s glasses, sold them for twenty won, and offered the money to Paek as part of the interest, and then entreated him, half in tears, to accept the money and give him time for the remainder of the interest.
Paek had an entirely different idea. He told himself that Chon had sold his house. Paek asked himself how else Chon could have obtained the two hundred and twenty won in a lump sum. Chon must have received at least four hundred won at a giveaway price, Paek convinced himself. Paek then murmured, “Whom does the brazen face think he can fool? He can stop calling me Big Brother. There is a limit to audacity. How can he do this to me when the interest is almost as much as the principal?”
That very night, Chon went to the village gambling house and was stripped clean of the two hundred and twenty won. He began with the twenty won, which he lost without even getting a chance to deal. Recovering the twenty won, he was determined to quit after he had recovered the twenty won, but soon he found another bundle of one hundred won gone. He was angry as a mad man and the angrier he became the worse were his cards.
Towards dawn, Chon returned to his house exhausted and depleted, with two badly blood shot eyes. He crawled under his quilt and mulled over what to do all day long. He was tremendously vexed when he thought of the loss. He could not stand the anger. He had mortgaged the house, the money had disappeared, and the debt remained unpaid. He cursed Paek and blamed him for all his misfortune.
Chon cried out, “Plague take him!” He also admitted it was true that he himself was to blame because he went to the gambling house and lost the money.
Towards the sunset, a novel idea flashed through Chon’s mind. He told himself that nobody was a born villain. He kicked the quilt off and sprang to his feet. After a quick supper, Chon went to Paek’s house.
Paek saw him coming and told himself, “Just as I had expected. I wonder how much he is bringing this time. He will put up another act, I am sure.” Paek then furtively studied Chon’s face.
Chon announced that he wanted to pay off all the money he owed Paek and asked him how much it was altogether, interest and all.
Paek smiled at Chon for the first time in many months and said, “Now you are talking like you ought. I knew you were a man of sense and you would come back and behave like a good Little Brother. Money cannot hurt our ties, could it, my good Little Brother?”
Paek then took out a creased I.O.U. note of thin rice paper from this pocket and produced a large abacus.
Chon quietly told himself that plague was now here to take Paek.
“Well, let me see,” said Paek. “Two hundred won by one point five interest is…Oh, yes, look here my Little Brother, look at the figure closely.”
No sooner had Paek uttered his last word than Chon Snatched the I.O.U. note from Paek with lightning speed, crumpled it, and tucked it into his mouth. It was accomplished in a blinking second. Paek was dumbfounded. Not until had Chon almost swallowed the paper did Paek come to himself.
Now Paek knew what Chon was up to. Paek threw away the abacus, pushed Chon down on the floor and jumped on his chest. Paek then strangled Chon’s throat. Chon opened his mouth as if to show Paek that he no longer had the paper in his mouth. Panting, Paek put his fingers into Chon’s mouth and tried to recover the paper. It was gone!
“You robber, give me my paper!” cried Paek. He then put fingers back into Chon’s mouth and searched under the tongue and in the throat. It was gone for good. There was no doubt that Chon had swallowed it.
“Oh, you robber! Where is my paper!” Paek cried.
“I ate it.” Chon replied simply.
“You shameless scoundrel!” roared Paek. With a madman’s look on his face, Paek sat on Chon’s abdomen and hit him hard in the side with his fist. Paek did this to make Chon disgorge the paper.
Paek had a heavy body, but Chon could easily stand the weight. Chon thought that in a situation like this it was best to cry for help.
“Killer! Help!” Chon yelled repeatedly at the top of his voice.
“You big liar!” Paek retorted.
Chon kept crying for help. Paek now suspected that if he hit him and left him a bruise of a scratch Chon would use it against him. So Paek stopped his attack and asked him if he admitted having swallowed the I.O.U. note.
“Certainly I have!” Chon replied.
“You stupid! You are out of your mind,” roared Paek.
“No, I am not,” retorted Chon. “It is you who is out of his mind.”
“What? How dare you talk like that, you shameless idiot!” “Because you are an ingrate” Chon told him, “You have forgotten how I saved your life in the paddy down the slope.”
“You lying scoundrel! Fortune-tellers will tell you I was not to die on that day! Furthermore, you were fully rewarded. Did you not have all the leftover dog meat?”
Chon told Paek he should have placed a big rock on him so he would have sunk deep into the mud and died.
Incensed, Paek lifted his fist high to hit Chon. Whereupon Chon teased him, “If you don’t hit me, you are a fool!”
At this time Paek began to realize that Chon was up to some trick. So Paek thought he would make sure Chon still admitted he had destroyed the I.O.U.
“You still say you ate up the paper?”
“I told you I did,” Chon again assured Paek.
“Very well,” said Paek.
“You must not forget that.”
Paek climbed from Chon’s stomach. Chon lay there motionless, his wideopen eyes staring at the ceiling like a man under a spell. His mouth was tight shut. Soon, Chon fell asleep in that position. Paek sat up all night watching Chon, without a wink of sleep.
The next morning, when Chon awoke, stretched, and sat up, Paek reminded Chon, “You do remember you ate up my paper, don’t you?”
“Yes, I do,” Chon answered yawning. “It should have turned into waste by now.”
Paek grabbed Chon by the collar of his coat and dragged him out of the house. Paek said he was taking Chon to the law.
It was a little too early in the morning and there was nobody in the sheriff’s office. So, Paek took Chon to the sheriff’s home. The officer was walking hurriedly to the latrine with an ivory cigarette holder in his mouth.
“Officer,” Paek called him. “This stupid fellow ate up my paper.”
Chon could waste no time, He said, “Please, officer, you know what kind of a villain this man is. Do you believe what he says?”
The sheriff told them that he was in a hurry and rushed into the latrine asking them to wait.
Paek did not heed the sheriff’s words. He dragged Chon to the latrine door and cried, “Officer! I bring you a robber. I lent him two hundred won and he ate up the I.O.U. note for the money. I tell you the truth, officer. This man is a thief. Arrest him!”
Again this was quickly refuted by Chon. He said, “Please, officer, can you imagine this man lending me or anyone any money without an I.O.U. note? Do you believe what he says?”
No answer came from inside the latrine but the groan of a man suffering from a bad case of constipation.
Paek could not wait. He suggested that if the sheriff locked Chon up behind bars he would get a confession out of him.
Chon advised the sheriff not to believe a word Paek said and told him that Paek was out of his mind.
As the officer stepped out of the latrine, Paek and Chon rushed towards him and began excitedly jabbering at the same time.
“Quiet!” the sheriff shouted at them both. “You two black crows! How am I to tell a female crow from a male?” The sheriff then pushed them out of the way and proceeded to his room. Faltering, Paek repeated, “Listen to me, listen to me, officer!”
“Oh, you, shut, up! And scram!” the sheriff growled.
As the two stepped out of the gate of the sheriff’s house, Chon teased, “I ate up the paper, didn’t I, my Big Brother?”
Paek lit up with delight and brought Chon back to the gate.
“Officer, now this man talks,” Paek beamed.
The sheriff came and when he looked at Chon he told the sheriff he did not know what Paek was talking about. “Officer, I told you this man is out of his mind,” Chon reminded the sheriff.
The officer finally lost his temper. He threatened that he would lock up both of them if they did not go home.
True, the law was helpless in a case such as this. Paek could not get justice. Discouraged, he came out of the sheriff’s home, but he never loosened his grip on Chon’s sleeve.
As they came to the crossroads, Chon asked, “Now, any more places you want to visit?” Paek did not know what to do with him. Then Chon went on, “now that we have seen the sheriff at your wish, how about going to a doctor now at my wish?” Paek did not know what to make of this.
“I suspect you cut off my uvula with your fingernail,” said Chon wrily. “I must see a doctor and I guess I will get a medical certificate.”
Paek stopped. He was completely taken in. He started at Chon’s face for a long time, and then said with a sign, “I guess you won. Now how about you trying to recover your conscience?” Paek then told Chon that he had better do it quick lest a thunderbolt would strike him on the head.
Chon did not hear Paek. Chon said, “Oh, yes, I have pains in the side, too. It is beginning to hurt badly.”
Paek loosened his hold on Chon’s sleeve and let go of him. Paek then staggered into a back alley as if he had just gotten rid of a very bad fever.