Wild Apricots
By Lee Hyoseok
Translated by Steven D. Capener
Literature Translation Institute of Korea
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
원표제: 개살구
Translated from Korean
ISBN 978-89-93360-51-6 95810 : Not for sale
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
“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.
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.
“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
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
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.
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
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.
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
“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
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
“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.
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
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
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
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
“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
“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
“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? ”
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
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
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
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
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.