By Han Malsook
The following short novel was provided by the author for publication by The Korea Post media, publisher of 3 English and 2 Korean news publications since 1985. The author, famed Korean lady novelist Madam Han Malsook, is widely known in Korea and around the world for the English and other foreign-language translations of her works in the Korean language, which are rated to be among the most prolific in Korea. For further details on the author, see pages 30-33.--Ed.
In the black street the line of headlights had thinned to a trickle.
Again the band switched to a waltz. The time dragged, but Chin-yŏg didn’t particularly care. At first she had thought it was a mistake to get a job as a dance hall hostess, but then it wouldn’t do to have to work a whole month to get paid. She needed money for dinner and a room to sleep tonight… Two thousand hwan would be enough but she needed it now, not in a month’s time.
I’ll stay here a bit longer. Last spring there were lots of latecomers. I’ll work for ten days like I did then, and earn enough for half a year. I’m cold. Her small nipples, shrunken and hardened against the cold, pressed against her sweater. And I’m hungry. Come to think of it, I haven’t had a thing to eat all day. I’m cold and starving… She became acutely aware of her own existence.
“I’m alive,” she said, and after some thought repeated, “alive.” She gazed out the window of the five-story building. Seoul looked warm and inviting.
“How about a dance?” Someone touched her shoulder. She turned around to find a fair-skinned young man smiling at her. The chandelier shone faintly through the thick cigarette smoke as the band swayed and the dancers drank and talked loudly. It was so crowded that they were bumped several times by other couples before they’d even taken a few steps. The man wasn’t very good at leading so the mambo was no fun. Still, Chin-yŏg followed the music and danced energetically, hoping only to shake off the cold. The man gradually tightened his hold, squeezing her closer. The smell of liquor hit her full in the face. His beard was scratchy. What rotten luck! Some tip this guy will give.
“I gotta catch me some draft dodgers.” His voice was slurred from the liquor.
“That’s my job…”
“Yeah, I’m a detective.”
“Is that so?” Chin-yŏg’s voice trailed off. She was certain such a green detective wouldn’t have any money.
Hell! I thought I’d finally hooked one! Chin-yŏg’s steps became even slower and more subdued than the mournful blues they were dancing to.
“The night the carnation petals fell…” sang a girl with snow-white breasts on the stage.
“I’m a draft dodger myself so I feel really guilty catching others. But what can I do—it’d be my neck otherwise.”
“Crying over fond memories…” wailed the singer.
“I’ve gotta catch one by tomorrow. I’ve got to… Hell! Everyone looks like one and then nobody does! Whew…”
The man’s liquored breath was unbearable. Taking a step backward, Chin-yŏg exclaimed, “Isn’t that one? Isn’t that a draft dodger?”
Jerking his face away from Chin-yŏg’s cheek, the detective looked around. “Where?”
Chin-yŏg pointed randomly with her chin. “Over there.” In the direction she’d indicated, a tall young man, who looked from behind as if he would be very handsome, was making a beautiful turn.
“Um,” mumbled Chin-yŏg. Of course she didn’t know who the man was, nor whether he was a draft evader. She was just glad to be rid of the nasty smell of alcohol and the prickly beard.
The blues came to an end. Chin-yŏg drank some whiskey. It was cold going down her throat but it warmed her body. The closing song began but the detective still wasn’t back from the toilet. Chin-yŏg sat lost in thought in the thick cloud of cigarette smoke.
“Are you a part-timer?” A young man with burning eyes towered over her. Chin-yŏg nodded. “There’s not much time left, but…”
As they wove their way between the tables toward the middle of the dance floor, Chin-yŏg saw the man from behind, and her heart sank. He was the very man she had randomly pointed out as a draft dodger.
He danced well. His arm moved gradually down her back to her waist and held her tightly.
“You’ve got a lovely figure!” he said, his eyes passionate yet reflecting a certain coolness. “I noticed you earlier.”
“When I’m dancing I like to check out the girls the other guys are squeezing!”
“Are you a student? Are you single?”
Chin-yŏg just smiled at his questions. The young man took this as an affirmation of both.
“Shall we live together for a week?” he asked, smiling. “A hundred thousand hwan should do it. From tomorrow,” he added with foolish arrogance.
“Huh!” Chin-yŏg snorted in surprise. A hundred thousand hwan! A hundred hwan would be plenty for now, she told herself.
“You’re an expensive one. Two hundred thousand hwan then!” he exclaimed, misunderstanding her laugh.
“Huh?” exclaimed Chin-yŏg in amazement.
“Well then, three hundred thousand hwan.” He released her as the music stopped. Chin-yŏg didn’t say a word. She didn’t know if she would even be alive a week from tomorrow. She didn’t even know how she was going to make it through the night.
Before she knew it, some paper bills were pressed into her hand—six hundred and ten hwan. “That’s all I have left,” said the young man as they quietly descended the stairs with all the other dancers.
The street was cold. A chill swept over Chin-yŏg’s body and she began to shiver.
“Come to the Hoshim tomorrow morning! Nine-thirty!” the man said suddenly, turning on his heel.
To get up and out, nine-thirty is perfect, thought Chin-yŏg. If he’d said afternoon or evening, she probably wouldn’t have kept the appointment; she wouldn’t have needed to if she’d found some money during the day to live on. Chin-yŏg turned to go as well. She was starving.
The pre-curfew siren had sounded so chances of finding a place to eat were nil. Besides, almost all of Myŏg-dong was dark. A crescent moon hung in the black sky. Chin-yŏg realized it was late.
On the road leading up the hill to the cathedral, a vendor of baked sweet potatoes was busily preparing to leave. The vendor’s oil lamp spat and sputtered. Chin-yŏg bought all the potatoes that were left—here were only five or so—and began eating one as she walked away. She wondered if anything else could be so delicious.
Where should I go? No inn will put me up for five hundred hwan. Even if they did, it would be cold. No one would heat a room for that money. What a pity to let my body freeze on such a cold night! If I die, that will be the end. Every moment counts. There won’t be a second chance. Must I freeze at this moment, this precious time that can never be again? That would never do. I’ll go and sleep at Kyŏg-il’s. No doubt his room will be cold, but at least sleeping together we should be much warmer.
Books and paintbrushes were scattered all around the room, which felt no bigger than a cardboard box. Chin-yŏg hesitated; the floor was so messy there was nowhere to put her feet. Kyŏg-il didn’t often pay her much attention, and now—true to form—he didn’t even look up from his canvas.
Chin-yŏg put the leftover potatoes on the desk and slid her feet under the pallet. She was surprised to find that the floor was warm. Did he sell a painting?
“What’s this? The room’s warm.”
Kyŏg-il jerked around and punched her in the back.
“What’s wrong? What’s the matter?”
“You bitch! Chun-sŏ bought some firewood!”
“That’s nice! He’s such a good friend.”
“I heard it all last night! Chun-sŏ slept here, you bitch! He told me everything!”
“So what! So what if I did!” Chin-yŏg glared fiercely at Kyŏg-il.
He looked sullen. Without batting an eyelid, he started beating her on the back with his clenched fists.
The night before, she’d been kicked out of her boarding house and the landlady had taken her paints, brushes, books and everything else because she hadn’t paid her room and board. She’d had nowhere to go but Chun-sŏ’s boarding house when the curfew sounded. She’d gone there only because it was closer than Kyŏg-il’s and certainly preferable to a police cell. Already half a year had passed since she’d lost her citizen’s card. Without that she could only prove her identity by showing the police her student ID. That would have been so embarrassing that she’d been desperate to avoid it.
“Please let me stay here tonight,” she’d said, looking squarely at the wide-eyed, pajama-clad Chun-sŏ.
“Uh—” Chun-sŏ fidgeted, his eyes darting back and forth.
“Uh, Kyŏg-il, uh—”
“What does he have to do with anything?”
Though he hesitated to say anything, the glint in Chun-sŏ’s eyes showed his extreme pleasure, disgusting and angering Chin-yŏg.
“You—ou and me? You think I’m here to make love? Never! I’ve no place to sleep so I just thought I could spend the night here!” she snapped, drawing herself up to her full height.
“That’s not it. Uh, if Kyŏg-il finds out, he might misunderstand…”
“What does it matter if he doesn’t understand? I don’t have a place to go now, so what do I care who understands or not!”
Chun-sŏ stood there a moment and then, without a word, grabbed his overcoat from a nail in the wall and went out, throwing it across his shoulders.
Should I stop him? I’d better let him go.
A woman’s muffler was hanging on the nail where Chun-sŏ’s coat had been. Chin-yŏg thought it must belong to the woman who she’d heard came from time to time to sleep with him. She found the pink hue very sensual.
Chun-sŏ had sent her a letter only two days before. It had been just as puzzling as all the others: “I understand your relationship with Kyŏg-il. I won’t say anything more about it… I know this is pointless but I had to write… Just a short note.”
The content of his letters was always equally vague and confusing. She didn’t know what he was trying to say. If he wants to live with me why doesn’t he write it in a way that can be easily understood? And, if that’s the case, why did he leave without a word? He could do anything he wished with me tonight.
Chun-sŏ hadn’t come back in and Chin-yŏg had enjoyed a warm and comfortable night’s sleep. The idea that Chun-sŏ might go to Kyŏg-il’s had never crossed her mind.
“Stop hitting me! Stop! Stop!” she cried, but made no move to dodge Kyŏg-il’s fists. The beating didn’t hurt much; in fact, it massaged the frozen muscles of her aching shoulders. When the hitting stopped, she felt better. The floor was hot and her body was burning.
“Oh, that made me nice and warm.”
Chin-yŏg was just being honest but Kyŏg-il grimaced to think that his beating had warmed her instead of hurting her. As though discarding something disgusting, he pushed her with his feet toward the hottest part of the floor. Her body slid like a piece of paper.
Kyŏg-il took up his brush again. Chin-yŏg took off her skirt and sweater and folded them up neatly, as rumpled clothes would never do for a dancer. Tomorrow I have to get out early and earn some money, she vowed to herself.
As she relaxed, her back began to feel stiff and sore from the beating. Last spring she had received a similar beating when she’d said she was going to work as a dancer, and this time because she’d slept at Chun-sŏ’s boarding house. She wondered why she cared more for Kyŏg-il, who beat her without saying a word, than for Chun-sŏ who sent her letters professing his love.
Lying in the warm room, having fed her hunger with sweet potatoes, Chin-yŏg felt content.
I’m happy now. Now all she wanted was to sleep, but as usual when she had nothing else on her mind her thoughts turned to love and longing. Am I in love? Do I love Kyŏg-il? Kyŏg-il, she whispered his name. My boyfriend, I yearn for you, really yearn for you. This made her think that he really could be her boyfriend and she longed for him. She wanted to have the feeling of yearning and longing for someone.
“Shall we kiss?” she said, sliding under the coverlet.
“Shut up!” shouted Kyŏg-il.
Chin-yŏg turned to face the wall. What about the dance hall guy? Three hundred thousand hwan! That’s ten times thirty thousand. For Chin-yŏg who usually only ever lived from day to day, that was a lot of money. I can pay my room and board. I won’t have to worry about my registration fee… She could think no further, as Kyŏg-il had suddenly grabbed her.
Whenever Kyŏg-il took her in his arms she felt really good. Still, she couldn’t help thinking how gently the handsome young man had held her and how good it had made her feel.
From afar came the sound of nine o’clock. Kyŏg-il had already gone out. He was painting movie billboards in a warehouse behind X-Theater. It was a part-time job he had landed only yesterday.
A small round sweet potato lay on the desk. Chin-yŏg ate it as she left the boarding house.
As she walked past the cathedral, she felt the urge to pray. Though not a churchgoer, she thought it couldn’t hurt. “Holy Mother Maria, please give me a sweetheart, a man I can love forever,” she whispered reverently to herself. Noticing the poor workmanship of the statue, she felt bad and added, “Maria, be patient just a little longer, I’ll sculpt you.” Standing alone under the cold sky, the white Maria seemed to be weeping with the eternal agony she must endure. A virgin mother! Chin-yŏg thought. What a pity to suffer the pain of childbirth without having known the joy of love! What a pity! A real pity!
Although it was early, there were lots of people in the tea room. The oil stove was already glowing bright red.
“Good morning!” someone called. It was the young man from the night before. His white chin showed traces of a fresh shave.
“Here!” He put a small bundle on the table. “It’s cash. Three hundred thousand hwan. I thought you’d prefer cash instead of a bank note. It wasn’t easy to get so much cash. How do you like my thoughtfulness? Ha! Ha! Ha!” He laughed loudly. Chin-yŏg didn’t say a word. She just wanted a drink of water. Her throat was dry from the steamed sweet potato. She suggested they have some coffee or something before taking care of business. She gulped down two cups.
“Let’s go.” The man stood up. Chin-yŏg thought he looked younger and more handsome than he had at the dance hall. She stood up. The people at the nearby tables watched them as they left the tea room.
They caught a taxi, and as soon as they got inside he wrapped his arm around her waist.
They pulled up at a hotel. The lobby was very grand. It had a dazzling red carpet and the columns and ceiling gave it a modern feel. At the front desk he checked in, paying for a week in advance.
“Room 309!” the desk clerk called out and a bellboy appeared to help them to the room.
As they walked up the stairs Chin-yŏg enjoyed the weight of the money in her hand, the smell of the man’s aftershave lotion, and the feel of the soft red carpet under her feet. When they were halfway up the stairs, someone called from below: “Hey, look here!”
The man said he was a detective. He examined the young man’s I.D. card and ordered him to come with him to the police station. He claimed the young man was a draft evader and must go with him right away.
The young man sneered at the detective. “Let’s go,” he said and strode confidently down the stairs. Even the back of his head looked charming.
Perplexed, Chin-yŏg ran after them. “Hey!” she called after him.
“Here,” she said, holding out the bundle of money.
“No. That’s yours,” he said, smiling. “I’m the one who can’t keep the promise.”
“It’s too much.”
“Don’t worry about it. From the beginning the three hundred thousand hwan wasn’t just for your lovely figure. Can’t you see that death is following me? Even if I had enough money for a year, I would spend it in a day. I haven’t much time left to live. I’m in a hurry.” He smiled and turned to leave.
Chin-yŏg stepped closer to him and with a serious look said, “Don’t go!”
He smiled at her. “I love you.”
“I love you too,” she parroted. But having said the words, she genuinely felt that she did love him. “Don’t go! Please don’t go!”
“When you have money, nothing is impossible. I’ll be back soon.” He patted her cheek and left the hotel. The detective followed him out. Then Chin-yŏg noticed a man standing at the front desk. He lit a cigarette and walked toward her. She wondered why his face looked familiar. Oh, yeah! The detective from last night! Then she realized that the scene she had just witnessed hadn’t happened by accident. She snapped at him impulsively, “It was you! You dirty bastard!”
“What’s the matter? Is he your husband?"
She shook her head vehemently.
“Then your sweetheart?”
“A man!” She walked away.
“Since I’m about to leave for the Nonsan military training center, perhaps I’ll propose too,” he said as he trailed behind her.
“Don’t even think about it,” Chin-yŏg retorted, and walked haughtily up the stairs.
Chin-yŏg ate fried chicken at the hotel restaurant. She thought there would be little pleasure in life if one couldn’t enjoy delicious foods.
She bought an overcoat and a pair of shoes. She also bought a lipstick, thinking she would wear it the next time she went to the dance hall. She also bought a handbag. Still she had some money left.
She went to her boarding house. The landlady was knitting. She was a widow with three kids. Her husband had died in the war. The floor of the room was as cold as ice, and cold air was coming in through the cracked windows. Chin-yŏg paid her what she owed, but for some strange reason she didn’t feel comfortable, so she gave the woman an extra fifty thousand hwan. The landlady thanked her and began to cry. Chin-yŏg thought it was odd that she herself had barely felt anything when she’d acquired three hundred thousand hwan undeservingly, yet the landlady was moved to tears by a gift of fifty thousand hwan. It was not that she wanted to help the woman. She just wanted to rid her of the gloominess caused by her poverty.
She bought some art supplies. It came to forty thousand altogether. She had a sudden urge to paint. She thought of Kyŏg-il and the Minister’s Award he had won at the National Art Exhibition some time ago. She recalled that his composition had been quite good. Her school grades were better, but her painting had not been accepted. A sort of jealousy coursed through her body.
“I must paint!” she exclaimed.
She stopped at a bookstore. She leafed through a book of Van Gogh’s sketches. There was a sketch of a flying crow, a bird of bad omen that lives off dead flesh. The smell of rotten flesh seemed to be hanging in the air. She felt as if she were a crow herself. Living off tips made her feel that way. She shivered. Her breasts trembled as her body shook, reassuring her of her own existence.
She bought a bottle of whiskey and went back to the hotel room. The double bed was too gorgeous for her to sleep alone. She could live there for a whole week free of charge. She could paint undisturbed. But what if he came back? He said money could do wonders. Well, let him come if he wants. I’ll worry about that when the time comes.
She downed a double shot of the whiskey, and instantly she felt elated. It felt good to lie down on the warm cushy bed. Energy surged through her. She felt so confident that she would even have flirted with ghosts. She had nothing to worry about and nothing to fear. Only what to paint!
She wrote a letter to Chun-sŏ. She told him the bed was so soft he should bring his lady friend to spend a night there. She wanted to pay him back for the warm bed of the night before. She began a letter to Kyŏg-il, but she could not think how to continue after opening with “I love you.”
Love! Love… She wanted to feel it, but it escaped her. In her head the abstract noun was arranged in a row like numbers with no meaning.
Love was not the word she needed. Right now she just wanted Kyŏg-il to hold her. So she concluded the letter by writing “Please come right away. I miss you and need you.”
She rose from the bed and sat down at the tall window, sketchbook in hand.
It was night. Numerous lights twinkled like stars amid the darkness.
(1957, Hyŏdae munhak)
Translated by Suzanne Crowder Han