An anthology of ten short stories by one of Korea's foremost living writers. Pak Wanso is the author of five novels, including The Naked Tree, and of several best-selling volumes of short prose. Her works have sold millions of copies in Korea, where the public and critics alike have applauded Pak as a masterful realist.
The literary world of Pak depicts the trials of the Korean War and the subsequent three decades of upheaval during which Korea was transformed from a military dictatorship and an agriculturally based society to an urban industrialized, albeit troubled, democracy. Pak offers a searching woman's perspective on radical changes in Korean family structures and social values, exposing the cruelty and hypocrisy of Korea's Confucian traditions, which have subjugated women for centuries. Her realistic prose also portrays the dehumanizing impacts of the capitalist market order that characterizes Korea today.
With rich insight, Pak presents moral ambiguities inherent in Korea's society today and encourages her readers to question the injustices that prevail in the more impersonal and often alienated world emerging in a "globalized" Korea.
|Publisher:||Taylor & Francis|
|Product dimensions:||6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.80(d)|
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My Very Last PossessionAnd Other Stories
By Pak Wanso
M.E. SharpeCopyright © 1998 Pak Wanso
All right reserved.
She Knows, I Know, and
* * *
"By the way, where's our bereaved widow? Could it be she's off somewhere stricken with grief?."
"Stricken? She's too busy planning the rest of her life, I'll bet. I hear she's not your average nice old lady."
"What a disgrace. Couldn't she at least wait for the full three days of mourning to pass? I mean, it's not like they're going to toss her into the street fight away."
"Couldn't agree more. I don't even ask for the full three days -- if she would just act the part of the dignified widow until the funeral tomorrow, the family at least could save face ..."
"How can you expect a person with no sense of human decency to behave like a human? From the very first I saw the sort she was. Jintae's mom pretends to be such a sly fox, but her slyness turned out to be in vain, or else she was hoodwinked when she brought that old bag lady home. What was she thinking?"
"At least she wasn't a real bag lady, they say. Used to be a street peddler -- you know, selling odds and ends out of a basket -- out by the Songnam Moran Market."
"It wasn't Songnam, it was under Chamsil Overpass. She soldvegetables there."
"No, no. Chamsil's fight, but not under the Overpass. Jintae's mom happened on her near the Saemaul Market -- she was peddling elastic belts and stockings from bundles spread on the sidewalk."
"Whatever you say, I know best what that old lady was when she came into this house. Let me tell you, she wasn't far from being a bag lady. Her hair was a rat's nest; her back salted with grime; and she let off a sour, rotten odor that stung your nose. She had enough black filth under her fingernails and toenails to make a brick of charcoal and then some."
"Oh, come off it. Really?"
The women cackled. They were all friends of Jintae's mother -- the woman of the house and wife of the late sir's eldest son. Some were old classmates from her schooldays, others were friends from her savings pool and the flower-arrangement club, and there were a couple of neighbors as well. Ever since her old father-in-law passed away, they had been streaming in and out of the house under the pretext of helping out, talking up a storm and often laughing loudly. The day before, their voices at least had been lowered and their laughter muffled, but by this time they at times seemed to forget that the household was in mourning.
"Won't they be upset if we laugh so loudly?"
"Why not laugh? He lived a long life. A cheerful wake is in order."
"Jintae's mom, you know, she just couldn't hold out."
"What do you mean?"
"It's not even three years since she brought that old lady in. If only she had toughed it out somehow and cared for the old sir herself, think how pure and worthy she'd be feeling now. Then it could have been a cheerful funeral, all right."
"Somebody else's three years may seem short to you, but how would you like to look after a widower father-in-law, paralyzed by a stroke, for three long years? And don't they say: 'Even the worst wife is better than the best child'? Jintae's mother did her daughterly duty by getting that old lady for him."
"Yeah, such devoted daughters-in-law are few and far between, I suppose. All day yesterday she wept such bitter tears, and today, she's still laid up back there, refusing to eat. What good are those daughters of his, anyway? They just sit there with their mouths clamped tight and pretend to choke back their sobs. As if we couldn't read anything from those dry, blank eyes of theirs. Daughters are useless and sons are no better. It's the daughters-in-law who really care and serve you till your dying day."
"By the way, we should at least warm up some milk for Jintae's mom. Filial devotion is all well and good, but she's so worn out from the fast."
"Good idea. Let's take her some milk and soup. People say that down through the ages there's never been a woman on god's green earth who followed her departed father-in-law to the other side, but Jintae's mom ... what a fool."
The ladies flocked in a drove toward the bedroom where Jintae's mother lay ill, leaving the kitchen empty. The old woman, Songnamdaek, who all this time had been lurking hunched and still in an alcove beside the kitchen, now cracked the door and peeked in.
"Those busybodies go everywhere in a gang," she muttered, tut-tutting to herself.
The kitchen, cleared at last of those women who were better at flapping their mouths than doing any useful work, or even realizing what needed to be done, was a mess. On each of the four burners on the stove something was furiously boiling away. Half-trimmed scallions lay strewn all over the kitchen floor, along with a chunk of radish and a mateless slipper. The doorway was half-blocked by a lacquered table, and from the mess on top of it one couldn't tell whether the table was in process of being set or cleared.
Considering the indignities she had endured the day before, Songnamdaek knew she should pretend not to have noticed anything. Still, she tiptoed quietly out into the kitchen, and lowered the heat on the stove to keep the soup from boiling over. On another burner, all the water had boiled off from the pork. She poked it with a chopstick and, judging it done, turned off the gas. Some fish stew was simmering nicely -- she had a spoonful. A bit on the bland side, but soothing going down. Her mistake, however, was to have opened her mouth for a taste. All at once, the hunger demon reared his ugly head inside Songnamdaek, and her insides started writhing like a coiled-up dragon, ready to scream in protest. Since the prior morning when the old sir died, she had had nothing at all that could properly be called food. The so-called wife of the deceased could not very well be stuffing her face when the daughter-in-law was observing a mourning fast. But, actually, back in the room where Jintae's mother was laid up there was no shortage of nourishment: milk, pine nut porridge, yogurt, ginseng tea, even health tonic drinks; but not a soul cared to tend to the needs of the widow. Not only had they banished her from the kitchen, but nobody summoned her at mealtimes; nor had it occurred to anyone to send a meal to her room.
The kitchen was a paradise of food. Just the leftovers on the lacquered table -- pork chops, filets of fish, steamed vegetables, stew, rice doused in soup -- made a handsome repast for a hungry stomach. Those ostensibly cultivated ladies would soon sweep all of this into the garbage in the name of hygiene -- the mere thought of it made Songnamdaek's heart sink. She was about to down a slice of pork wrapped in kimchi when the word "disgrace" popped into her mind. Reflexively, her hand pulled back. Over three long years of caring for the old sir, she had heard that word all too often from Jintae's mother: "Please don't disgrace our family."
Songnamdaek was not comfortable except in a simple box skirt belted at the waist with a cloth sash. She could not stand to cover her bare feet with socks or hose except in the depths of winter. A big eater, all she needed was nothing fancier than stale kimchi or miso soup to feel that rice tasted like honey. Her big voice clanged like a bell, and years of balancing heavy loads on her head had left her with the habit of wagging her behind furiously whenever she walked. If she heard a peddler out in the alley she had to rush outside and look over his wares, even when she had nothing to buy. Each sentence out of her mouth ended with a curse, and she felt positively nauseous if she dropped the curse. Such were some of Songnamdaek's nasty habits.
That this rough-hewn woman had been ground and polished into the semblance of a quiet, at-ease mistress of a normal household was due mainly to the icy admonitions Jintae's mother had constantly given her about not shaming the family. But the metamorphosis also was a testimony to Songnamdaek's powers of perseverance -- she could endure even the worst sessions of torture. Whenever her patience wavered, she thought about the one-bedroom apartment that had been promised to her. She had not been able to afford to give her son a proper education, so he had turned out to be a common laborer. With a few years of tenacity, she would be in a position to give him his own apartment -- something he could never buy on his own, not even with his entire life savings. The thought of this was enough to send Songnamdaek into a blissful state, even to make her wriggle her behind in her sleep.
That she had a son, a daughter-in-law, and a grandson of her own all this was her secret. She had not foreseen that her life would take this strange turn, but she had long pretended to be a luckless widow living on her own, fearing people would condemn her son for letting his poor mother lead such a hard life. Jintae's mother was very preoccupied with seeing to it that none of Songnamdaek's unseemly habits tarnished the family reputation, yet not once had she asked about her past. She seemed to bear an almost instinctive disgust for the past of a lowly woman like Songnamdaek. The older woman could tell as much from the remark Jintae's mom used to add without fail whenever she was pleading for propriety for the sake of her family,
"Grandma Songnamdaek, can't you please do something about that habit of swiveling when you walk, as if you're running from the guards with a heavy basket of vegetables on your head? Aren't you embarrassed? I haven't told anybody you have a background like that. Every time you show your tree colors, it makes me feel like fainting, after all the trouble I've gone through to hide your origins even from my husband and the children. Don't you see, if you'd just stop advertising what you are, would it be so hard to impersonate a seemly old housewife?"
Songnamdaek had heard those pleas often enough, but starting yesterday those friends of Jintae's mother had taken to gossiping about her past under their breath and then today they had raised their voices as if they wanted her to overhear. Had Jintae's mother, so prim and proper in her cold way, spilled the beans as soon as her father-in-law passed away? Or had she done that long ago, keeping up a facade for Songnamdaek alone? Songnamdaek, who was rather dull-witted, was at a loss to figure out the matter. In truth, she did not feel particularly betrayed or ashamed that her past had been revealed. Hers had been a sad and weary lot, of course, and she had spent more days being chased about with a load on her head than hawking her wares while sitting comfortably on the sidewalk, but she was sure of one thing: she had done nothing dishonest, nothing serious enough that she deserved to be chased. In the next life, she often told herself, the ones punished would be those market guards, the bullies who made life hell for peddlers, not the peddlers themselves. Songnamdaek felt none of the mortification that drove Jintae's mother to draw a cloak of secrecy over her "mother-in-law's" past.
"Let them chatter and cackle to their hearts' content. There's nobody alive who won't let off some dust when shaken, but I've done nothing that's so bad."
Songnamdaek had nerves of steel and was not at all gutless, but she was of no mind to berate Jintae's mother's circle of friends for mocking her in that malicious way. "If they are so interested in whether I worked at the Songnam Market, Chamsil Overpass, or the Saemaul Market, they'll die from shock when they hear my neck was strong enough to lug a thousand cloves of garlic around on my head," she told herself. She even felt enough at ease to have a laugh at their expense.
Maybe Songnamdaek was inclined to excuse the busybodies because she herself was beginning to have serious doubts about Jintae's mother. After making such a fuss about hiding Songnamdaek's background, something she hadn't even asked to have hidden, it was unspeakably two-faced for Jintae's mom to have revealed the story behind her back like that. Still more outrageous had been her abrupt change of character.
Early the previous morning, as the old sir met his end, his daughter-in-law's exhibition of grief had degenerated into an uproar. Her husband, by custom the chief mourner, and their two children, Jintae and Jinsuk, had their hands so full trying to console her and deal with her hysterical laments that they barely managed to look after the practical affairs of the deceased. Songnamdaek had been left alone to tend to the corpse, making sure the old sir was indeed dead. She straightened out his arms and legs, folding his hands together over his stomach and placing his feet side by side. She then propped his head up squarely on the pillow, and covered him with a single-layer quilt. She also took one of the dead man's shirts out from the wardrobe, recalling it would be used later when invoking the spirit of the deceased. These steps were about all Songnamdaek recalled from her experience with funeral rites, but she did know it was Jintae's mother's place, not hers, to leave off with the wailing and tend to the funeral arrangements.
All the same, the sudden liberation from looking after the old sir's needs left Songnamdaek feeling so empty that she felt real tears well up in her eyes. After sobbing quietly for a few minutes, she started looking for something to do, and so began to cook the funeral meal. She washed the rice and was about to turn on the gas stove when Jintae's mother, having finished her raucous laments, emerged into the kitchen. Sounding not at all like someone who moments before had been weeping, Jintae's mother interrogated her in a most hostile tone, asking, "Just what do you think you're doing there?"
"Getting the funeral meal started. By the way, you should hurry and contact all the people you need to notify. Don't worry about things here in the kitchen. I think the first invocation of the spirit of the deceased is supposed to be done by someone who hasn't seen the corpse. But, oh, I guess the undertakers take care of that, too, nowadays."
"Songnamdaek, get back to your room this minute! Just where do you think you are? How dare you tell me what to do!"
Venom dripped from her eyes as well as her voice. Songnamdaek was dumbstruck as if she'd been knocked over the head. While the old sir was alive, Jintae's mother had taken care always to call her "Grandma Songnamdaek." That was the name by which she was addressed by everyone in the family -- not only Jintae's mother, but his father and the children as well as the aunts. As a matter of fact, she had not been very fond of that form of address. It was not what originally had been promised.
Back when Jintae's mother had first brought Songnamdaek into the house, she had not brought her in merely as a servant to care for her father-in-law, but as a stepmother. She had sworn she'd treat her in every respect like a mother-in-law, and had repeated over and over that her father-in-law's one-bedroom apartment would belong to Songnamdaek after he died. The time Songnamdaek had spent living with the old sir in that apartment had been relatively happy. He'd had a stroke and one side of his body was affected, but he still could walk with support. His appetite was good and he had a kind heart. At first, she was put off by the way he kept nagging her about saving money, but soon she realized that he only did it because he wanted to set aside something for her future from the small monthly allowance his daughter-in-law gave him.
After Songnamdaek and the old sir lived for two years on their own, the old sir suffered a second stroke and collapsed into a near-coma. From that point Songnamdaek had the task of cleaning up after his bodily functions. Once things reached this stage, Jintae's mother had brought the old man back to live in his son's house, saying it was her duty as a daughter-in-law to do more to care for him. So Songnamdaek was forced to accompany the old sir and to leave behind the apartment where she'd grown comfortable. As far as she could recall, Jintae's mother had never called her "mother" when they had lived apart, and once the households were merged she was disappointed at first to be addressed as "Grandma Songnamdaek," though soon she got used to it. Sometimes she thought that "Granny" would sound warmer, but not even once had she voiced a wish for that name to be used. Songnamdaek was not that greedy; she had never dared to imagine that Jintae's mother, someone with her lofty, ladylike qualities, would be on daughter-in-law terms with her. Maybe that was why her anger at the patronizing attitude of the younger woman didn't last. Still, she thought it a shame that Jintae's mother lacked the patience to wait until after the old sir passed away and accounts were settled before beginning to sever their ties. Settling accounts meant, of course, transferring title to the one-bedroom apartment to Songnamdaek.
Alerted that the friends of Jintae's mother were about to come back into the kitchen, Songnamdaek scurried back to her room to hide. She left in such a hurry that all she took with her to eat was a radish. She peeled it as well as she could with her nails, and started chomping on it. The taste was on the stale side and, once down, the radish gnawed at her insides, making them burn and smart.
Of all the afflictions in the world, hunger has to be the worst, but Songnamdaek couldn't even finish the radish, thinking of the old sir. Quietly she told herself: "When my real husband, the one I rubbed skin with and whose son I bore, passed away, I was still so young. People called me hard-hearted when I shed not a single tear, terrified though I was by the future I faced, all alone with a baby to feed. Now, what a spectacle I am, crying like this! Sure, my tears may come cheaper these days when my stomach's full, but my dead husband would be hurt if he could see me crying for another man." She mopped her eyes with the hem of her skirt.
While living with the old sir on their own, Songnamdaek had shown him devotion and respect, making him whatever meals he wanted. To begin with, his appetite had been hearty enough; and perhaps the eating also assuaged the boredom of an old man with nothing to do. He ate a lot but nagged her at times about the amount they were spending on food. The old sir seemed unaware that his daughter-in-law had promised her the apartment when he was gone, and so he was eager to give Songnamdaek what he could set aside of the money from their allowance. Once she understood this, she hadn't minded his nagging. Even after his second stroke and their move to the son's house, the old sir's appetite hadn't diminished. Jintae's mother, however, never let him have more than a half-bowl of rice or a half-portion of noodles. How pitiless and unfeeling her voice was when she came into the kitchen as lunch was being readied, lifting the knife to chop the block of instant noodles in half, putting one part back in the wrapper and saying, "Here, make lunch for father." Served such a small portion, the old sir was silent but despair shone in his eyes. Lying back as Songnamdaek fed him curly strands of noodles, he kept glancing back and forth from her face to the bowl as it grew emptier and emptier. Thinking again of the misery and reproach in those eyes made Songnamdaek feel the fear of heaven -- how could she sleep peacefully on stormy nights?
But what could she have done? She turned excuses over in her mind, unsure whether they were meant for herself or for heaven. Truly, there was nothing she could have done. Jintae's mother only allowed her into the kitchen to boil the allotted half-package of noodles; she even had a lock installed on the refrigerator. Songnamdaek herself could eat all she wanted, but the housemaid always ate with her, there in the kitchen, so she had no chance to put anything aside to take to the old sir.
"It's for your sake, Grandma Songnamdaek. If you feed him all he wants, think what'll happen. It all goes in one end and right out the other end. How will you clean up the mess? You'll spend hours doing laundry."
Whenever Songnamdaek beseeched her to give the old sir more to eat, Jintae's mother always claimed to be doing what was best for her. But the old man's excrement was not much less for his being fed smaller portions. It's no exaggeration to say that Songnamdaek's days and nights were spent digging her way out from under cascades of crap and urine. Trousers, underwear, diapers -- he soiled garments at an alarming pace, and groaned with discomfort whenever she changed and cleaned him. Frequently she had thanked God for that marvelous invention, the washing machine.
As time passed, the old sir grew more and more emaciated. That once fine figure of a man shrank until his ribs showed, his knees were like gnarls on a tree limb stripped of bark, and his shriveled calves clung to the bones. To Songnamdaek, it seemed that he had not so much died as withered away.
While the old sir was still alive, Jintae's mother had not let Songnamdaek into the kitchen except to eat, and now that he was dead, Jintae's father had shooed her out of the room where the deceased was laid out. The coffin had been left in the room where he passed away, and so naturally she had thought she should stay with him there. But the son of the old sir had coldly ordered her to leave and stay out of sight, saying it would not do for the guests to run into her. What had he meant by "it would not do," she wondered. Had the order come from Jintae's mother, she would have objected, but she was a bit intimidated by the man of the house and had let herself be banished. She had not been allowed to attend the dressing of the body for the funeral or its placement in the coffin, even though she had been looking after that very body for years, washing excrement from it day in and day out. After the coffin arrived, she sneaked a peek at it over the shoulders of strangers. It was enormous, with mother-of-pearl inlays, and you could see your face reflected in the lacquered wood. The sheer size and opulence of the coffin reinforced her feeling that the old man had withered away instead of dying. She imagined the coffin was empty, that he had gone on shrinking and shrinking until in the end he vanished.
The women had returned to the kitchen. They gossiped for a time about Jintae's mother, praising her but also expressing doubts about the devotion she demonstrated through her histrionic grieving over her father-in-law's death. But soon their conversation took a peculiar turn.
"Hey, ever thought about this?" One women said, giggling.
"The mere idea of it makes me burst out laughing, I swear, even in my sleep."
"What? What's so hysterically funny? You're squirming like a mute who's seen something she shouldn't have."
"Well, that woman, Songnamdaek or whatever she's called, do you think she ever slept with the old man?"
"Slept with him? Aah, aah, naughty girl, the things you think about!"
"Well, I confess I've wondered myself. Back when they lived by themselves in that apartment, the old sir was still a fine figure of a man, wasn't he? Sturdy and vigorous, I'll bet he could've done it every night."
"Vigorous? Give me a break. He'd had a stroke already by that time. One arm and leg were wobbly, you know, limp."
"Doesn't mean the middle leg was limp, too. Did you see it with your own eyes, did you?"
"Ow, filthy mind you have! When you get started, my mouth gets a little foul, too. Should steer clear of the likes of you, I guess."
"So don't then. No matter how prim and proper you pretend to be, your husband is leading the pack upstairs in telling dirty jokes."
"How'd you find out?"
"I was carrying food up -- think I don't have ears?"
"You're a fool if you can't even tolerate a few jokes in a house in mourning. I bet your husband is holding a campaign meeting, eh?"
"My husband's gambling. Mouth shut and eyes lit."
"Hmph. I wish him luck. He'll add a tidy sum to his campaign war chest."
"Those two always fight whenever they meet, it doesn't matter where. Enough of that already, let's get back to the main issue."
"The main issue? What was that?"
"You know, whether or not the missus slept with the mister."
"Correction, could or could not."
"Think she would've stuck around this long if she couldn't?"
"How old is she anyway? Doubt she remarried looking for that."
"I don't know her exact age, but she's healthy enough and so uncouth."
"Don't know about health, but what's being uncouth got to do with lust?"
"Everything. Vulgarity means simplicity, and the simpler you are, the more you rely on things like that to get some pleasure out of life."
"There's something to what you say, I guess. You know my husband? He quit his job and got his M.A. and Ph.D. late, then barely landed a professorship at a no-name provincial college. Now, not only is his hair gray, he can't do it, either. I'm busy myself, what with charity work for this and that group, and I have a lot on my mind, so I haven't had much of an urge in that department."
"Look here. Think about your age and my age. It's not because you are particularly refined or anything. It's just time, that's all."
"So you're saying that at our age we're already at the end of the road in that respect?"
"That's right. Why? Feel sorry? We're from an era that grew up too fast and got old too soon, don't you think?"
"Well, it sounds grand, talking about our 'era' and all. Being such prematurely aged matrons yourselves, why dwell on unseemly matters between the missus and the old sir, who after all was no spring chicken himself?."
"I have my reasons. I guess you haven't heard the sordid story from Jintae's mother?"
The woman's voice faded and instead she burst out laughing, the sort of voluptuous laugh indicating a lewd imagination at play.
"Are you teasing me? Hurry up and tell it."
"I heard this from Jintae's mother. Seems the old lady was no ordinary pickle. When the old sir got to the point of shitting and pissing on himself, she got pretty self-important in her own mind. Guess she thought there was nobody else to clean up after him. And when he soiled himself, she used to bring several basins full of water into the room -- it's good, of course, to have him washed thoroughly and all, but Jintae's mother sometimes thought the washing was taking too long. So she peeked in, and there the old lady was, endlessly massaging him down there."
"Oh, God! How obscene!"
The ladies nearly doubled over as they let out shrill squeals like little girls.
Lord, what despicable creatures. They must've raised children themselves, so they should know what work it is to change a boy's diaper, much worse than a girl's. How could they concoct such vile stories about their elders? Old Songnamdaek's teeth were chattering with indignation. Washing the old sir clean of his own smeared excrement after he'd been sitting in it was a task unfit for a human, and it required no ordinary patience and strength of stomach to remove the filth from the old man's lower parts, so shrunken with age that little but wrinkles remained. More than once she'd been tempted to do a cursory job of washing him, especially when he was soiling himself so often, but she told herself that it wouldn't be right to do things halfway and still expect the apartment to be hers; that would be to reveal the heart of a thief and heaven would punish her for it. So she'd shaken off her nausea time and again to perform her duties with a thoroughness nobody could fault.
More strongly than what she felt about the silly chatterboxes in the kitchen, Songnamdaek felt outrage toward Jintae's mother for portraying things in such a light. She shuddered all over like a dog doused with dishwater.
"I knew it would be like that."
"Can't you tell from the way the old lady walks? She wags her hips so blatantly like this when she walks, you know."
The woman apparently was mimicking the way she walked. Songnamdaek could hear gasps and cackles of laughter. As she sat in her room almost quaking, the sound of that laughter was like a flame mercilessly burning her.
"I can't even imitate it."
"Yeah, with your rear end, it won't even be close."
"Anyway, you all have seen what I'm talking about, right? A walk like that is a sure sign that she's still very lively in that department."
What had led Songnamdaek to decide to take on caring for the old sir was, of course, the bait of the apartment thrown in front of her by Jintae's mother. At first glance, she had seen that the old sir had lost his capacities as a male. However much she coveted the apartment, she did not want to do that in her old age. Though widowed very young, Songnamdaek had always been so burdened with worries over how she was going to survive and raise her son that she'd never had much leisure to think about men physically. She had developed a very strong phobia about sex. If the old sir had turned out to be demanding in that regard, against her expectation, she would have fled in a hurry, even if she'd been promised not just an apartment but the whole building. Thankfully, he had treated her like a trusted friend, and she had no fears whatever about facing her long dead husband in the next world. No matter what lies others might tell, she believed her late husband would know she had been his alone.
"Well, at any rate, I feel sorry for the old lady in more ways than one."
"She must have gotten some enjoyment out of it, at least in the beginning."
"Really, how much pleasure could she have had? Hobbled by his stroke, the old sir could never have been a match for those strong, swiveling hips of hers."
"Come to think of it, the old sir must have had a hard time, too."
"Think he shortened his life by taking too lively a wife? Without her demands he might have survived several more years, at least."
"That old man lived long enough. And with his last years as hot as they must've been, what did he have to regref? Jintae's mother should be free at long last to live, shouldn't she? You all can't understand -- after all, you never had to live with your in-laws."
"True. I guess you're right. But Songnamdaek wouldn't be trying to hang around as a mother-in-law by any chance, would she?"
"I don't think so. Look how she made herself scarce as soon as the old man croaked. She doesn't show her face in the kitchen or in the funeral chamber, as though it's all somebody else's business."
"Do you think they recorded the marriage in the family register?"
"Register Songnamdaek? What a crazy idea! Jintae's mother wasn't born yesterday, why sow seeds of future trouble, wouldn't you say?"
"Well, then, I guess they can just give her some cash and send her away."
"About the money, seems Songnamdaek was shrewder than Jintae's mother. When the old folks were living by themselves in that small apartment, she took just as much for living expenses as they used for the big house, and even then she whined and whimpered every month as if she was being short-changed. Jintae's mother would go over there and find there was never enough to eat, it was impossible. Where did all that money go, then? They lived like that for over two years, and so Songnamdaek must have put away a fortune for herself. Even so, the old sir was always asking for more money to give to her, even if it was only a few coins, and he kept on holding his hand out to his daughter-in-law. Old they might have been, but I guess a married couple is still a married couple. Many times I heard Jintae's mother complain about him doing that."
"Do you think he really had to rely on his son and daughter-in-law for all his spending? I mean, he used to do well enough for himself when he was younger."
"I think he deeded almost all his property to his son. Maybe he felt bad giving up everything; he kept that little apartment in his name, and look what good use he made of it as a love nest in his last years. Lived just like newlyweds there. Anyway, shouldn't hand over everything to your children while you're still alive, I guess."
"I suppose then that the apartment is the only thing the old sir had left to pass along."
"Jintae's mother said she sold it some time back. When the old man moved back into the house after his second stroke, she went ahead and unloaded it. It looked like he'd have no occasion to live there again, and even if they'd kept it, it wasn't such a valuable asset. She did well to sell it, if you ask me. It wasn't that big a thing, but a lot of annoyances can come up, you know, with the legal succession and taxes and the like."
The apartment sold? My apartment? Who had the right to sell my apartment? How in the world could such a thing happen?
Songnamdaek sprang to her feet. She meant to run straight to Jintae's mother and confront her. She clenched and unclenched her fists, itching to grab that woman by her smooth white neck and shake her silly, Songnamdaek didn't know which way to turn. When she thought of those vicious rumormongers in the other room, her feet froze. She shuddered with loathing of the voices encircling her from just outside the door. "I must confront her. Of course I have to confront her. Do they think I'll cower on my belly like a corpse out of fear for the likes of them?" She stood there pawing the air, trying to face things squarely but terrified about what might be mere rumors. As she mustered her courage, the voices started up again outside her door.
"Miri's mother, are you going out for some rice cakes? Shall we order a few kilos?"
"Don't be silly, nobody eats so many rice cakes these days. And if you phone in the order, they'll deliver. Wait, that fish is for tomorrow. Put it aside. If we leave it out here, it'll be gone before you know it. Why don't you put some steamed pork out on the table? What, all gone again? What appetites! I think we might need to go ahead and use tomorrow's vegetables."
"Is it really necessary to make this much food, I mean, after all, we're just going to a crematorium, not to a burial ceremony."
"Naturally. Can't send guests home on empty stomachs, whether from a cemetery or a crematorium."
"Didn't the old sir even prepare a tomb site for himself during that long life of his? Think how much face his children will lose -- getting their father cremated!"
"If you want to be buried, cemeteries are convenient enough these days, even if you didn't buy a grave plot in advance. It's not that he couldn't; he didn't want to be buried. Seems the old sir left instructions to cremate his body. You know, his first wife, the mother-in-law, died when Jintae's family was still living in America, and I hear the old sir had a bad time of it, getting through the whole business with only his daughters around. He was obstinate about having the old lady cremated. In the years to come, he said, there wouldn't be any descendants who cared to look after the ancestors' graves. The daughters couldn't stop him and he had his way, but he kept on dwelling on it, apparently. He said there'd be no joy for him being buried underground all alone, and that he absolutely didn't want to be buried. Guess he told himself that since the wife became smoke, he ought to be cremated himself in order to meet her in the next world. Granted, it doesn't seem dutiful of the children to cremate their father, but don't you think they have an obligation to respect his wishes?"
Songnamdaek sank silently to the floor. As she listened to those faint voices, seemingly very far away, she felt the vindictive rage draining out of her. And when all her resolve had drained away, she felt wretchedly limp and powerless like a deflated balloon. That the old sir had wanted to be cremated and expressed such as his dying wish was an out-and-out lie. It was true that he'd insisted upon cremation for his first wife, but he'd told her that he'd done so out of anger at his son, who'd mortally offended him by refusing to return from America at the news of his mother's death. Jintae's father had made do with a phone call and dispatch of some condolence money. The old sir had never hidden the cherished love he'd shared with his late wife, and often he had complained to Songnamdaek that it tore him up inside whenever he thought about the flames engulfing her in the crematorium. He'd even said: "When I'm gone, I'm going to call my wife's wandering spirit into my tomb, beg her forgiveness, comfort her, and make up for my having wronged her." Hearing the old man recount his guilty nightmares -- of his wife in agony with her face ablaze or jumping about in burning robes -- Songnamdaek knew how deeply he regretted in his heart of hearts having chosen to have her cremated. That such a man would expressly ask to be cremated was the height of absurdity. What's more, from the day he suffered his second stroke until he died, he was never lucid enough to express a dying wish in any case. Hadn't she herself been the one who'd alerted the family to his approaching death?
But if she spoke the truth about this now, who would believe her? Those busybodies had her marked as a simpleton, and perhaps she was, but even to someone so simple the whole story was by this time becoming crystal clear. Finally, Songnamdaek grasped the clever conspiracy that had been laid, and realized that all the family had played their roles, while she was kept in the dark. That same plan was even now being carried out, and it was designed to obliterate without a trace the man who, only days before, had been the patriarch of the house, filling it with his wild cries and with the atrocious stench of his excrement. And how easy for Jintae's mother to deny that the promise to Songnamdaek had ever been made! Songnamdaek grew dizzy and fell to the floor as if someone had kicked her down. She felt she was being pulled into the ruthless gears of a diabolical machine, in a diabolical scheme which expunged from existence whatever did not serve its own evil ends. Perhaps she had surrendered too readily to the inevitable; she still felt the numbness of betrayal, but with that numbness came a certain release from the pain.
Songnamdaek slept well that night. The next day, she changed into a white mourning dress and, without asking permission from anyone, got into the hearse. Jintae's mother was still observing her fast, and was the focus of the attention and heartfelt sympathy of all the guests. Friends solemnly supported the weak daughter-in-law on each side. They were chattering glibly about taking her to the hospital for an injection to fend off a double funeral, but Jintae's mother, ever so dignified, shook her head and climbed into the hearse. Here and there the guests whispered about her, some marveling at the devotion of such an exemplary daughter-in-law, and other staring blank-faced as if at an actress's dramatic performance. Even during the funeral, all eyes were on Jintae's mother, not on the deceased. Her sisters-in-law outdid themselves by throwing themselves on the coffin and wailing loudly, but her position as the star was unassailable. Her face white as a sheet, she collapsed onto her husband's lap like a white handkerchief, creating yet another commotion. Jintae's father must have felt she'd hammed it up a little too much this time, for he felt it necessary to explain.
"She served father devotedly with all her heart and soul, and the shock of losing him was more than she could bear. Is it any wonder that she collapsed from the fatigue? She had to tend to his incontinence for more than ten months, and you know how obsessed with cleanliness she is? She never does anything halfway. Can you imagine how much she suffered?"
Upon hearing this, people were affected even more deeply and they exerted themselves to the utmost, jawing her praises. Songnamdaek felt so ashamed that her face burned. Knowing she was the only authentic "article" in the entire funeral procession, she felt edgy and out of place. Fearful lest her authenticity be revealed, she made herself as small as possible by curling up and concentrating on the passing scenes outside the window. Squalid buildings not worth a second glance; a dull-looking man standing idly, another walking purposefully with his wits about him; somebody pursuing a bus and doggedly trying to jump aboard; a motorbike zigzagging through traffic, bearing a load piled perilously high behind the rider; a panhandler showing off leg stumps like truncated lotus roots; a woman with a load balanced on her head; a man lugging an A-frame on his back ... how long since she'd witnessed such vistas of real humanity. As if famished in spirit, she took them in with ravenous eyes.
The crematorium complex was composed of two main buildings, besides some small annexes housing toilets, vending machines, and so on. The crematorium itself could be identified by its towering chimney. The interior of the crematorium was a dark and chilling gray, making it seem to be a realm entirely apart from the bright spring day outside. Corpses were queued up to wait their turns. From time to time a simple religious rite was performed, but there was nothing special to mark the room as a crematorium except for the five iron doors stretching across one wall through which the coffins were loaded to be incinerated. The atmosphere was one of desolation, and a breeze blew through the place as if it were an unfinished structure unfit for human use.
On a parallel with the crematorium and facing it was the other main building, which contained a cafeteria and a waiting room. The two buildings were joined by a concrete walkway covered by an awning. On either side of the walkway were brown beds of earth left empty except for some wilting orchids transplanted from a hothouse somewhere. The flowers were neglected. Unappetizing aromas wafted from the cafeteria into the waiting room. One family was opening stainless steel containers and lacquered boxes. They took out vegetables, griddlecakes, and fried bean curd and loaded them onto aluminum plates. A middle-aged man with a liquor-flushed face uncapped a bottle with his healthy-looking teeth. "The dead are dead but the living must eat," said a woman to an orphaned child with swollen eyes. She looked as if she herself had eaten already; there were traces of greasy red pepper around her lip.
The feathery cloud of smoke issuing from the chimney overhead didn't look at all like the residue from burning human beings, and the cafeteria seemed out of place at a crematorium. Having a cafeteria at such an establishment felt incongruous. People gobbling up food, loud yelps asking for more of this or that, kids pushing and racing around as they played, voices calling out names in search of acquaintances, the odor of kimchi ... To be sure, it was like a village wedding. From time to time one would spy a young man with an armband around his coat sleeve, smiling a smile as fatigued as if a little more cautious than a groom's grin.
The space in which families waited for their corpses to be burned was like a bus terminal -- busy, raucous and astir with the restlessness of waiting. People often paced back and forth between the crematorium with its row of waiting corpses and the other building housing the cafeteria and waiting room. Facial expressions were dexterously altered as the environment changed. From the crematorium came an incessant drone of Buddhist chants interspersed with weeping, and even the people who stayed silent draped sorrow around themselves like a ceremonial stole. Only the occasional sight of a weary mourner dozing off after a night without sleep broke the solemnity and slightly embarrassed onlookers.
Jintae's mother, who still could not steady herself, had been laid on a bench in the waiting room. She looked dignified and peaceful reclining there silently in the no-man's land between the crematorium and the cafeteria. The places of incineration and of feasting were like extremes: it seemed only reasonable to have a buffer zone in between the opposed poles. People who had difficulty adjusting their facial expressions could just lounge about near the devoted daughter-in-law with an ambiguous look, perhaps a smile, perhaps a look of concern, blurring their true feelings. Even strangers from other families in mourning could not pass by her without pausing for a long gaze at the unfortunate woman and expressing their heartfelt concern and sympathy. It was plain to see they were profoundly ashamed that the depths of their grief could never match the intensity of the sorrow felt by Jintae's mother. Anyone could see that her unique blend of silence, distress, and dignity was the very epitome of sorrow in its purest form.
After walking over to the crematorium and back, Jintae's father patted his wife's temple, saying, "Poor thing, how can you be so frail?" With pursed lips, he bent over her as if to straighten her hair, then whispered into her ear in a sharp tone, "We're not even close. Still a whole line of corpses in front of us."
"Spend some cash, then."
Their words were like arrows, each unerringly striking home by anticipating the expectations of the other. Jintae's father stole quietly off in the direction of the crematorium. Before long, the family was duly notified that their turn had come. They told Jintae's mother to remain where she was. In a voice that sounded as if it itself were on the verge of extinction, she protested that the wife of the eldest son could not possibly fail to bid farewell to her father-in-law as he took his leave of this world, and she tottered to her feet. People fought with one another to have the privilege of supporting her. When she came within sight of the corpse, her grief was refreshed and she began emitting loud, unearthly guttural shrieks. Her cries -- her tears were used up by now -- were more like hysterical yells than wails of mourning, and finally these gave way to manic paroxysms as the corpse was wheeled to the maws of the incinerator. She hopped wildly up and down as if to follow the corpse into the flames. People made a concerted effort to pry her away from the corpse, and the crematorium attendants quickly shoved the body through the grating. The door swung shut and above it a red light came on. At this, Jintae's mother twisted her limbs like a contortionist and swooned. Jintae's father let out a gasp, the two children burst out crying, and a young male relative rushed forward and lifted her onto his shoulder. She opened her eyes only after they had laid her down, back in the waiting room, and had massaged her arms and legs, given her a sip of red wine to revive her, and otherwise made a royal commotion for her benefit.
"Where am I? I really feel like I'm dying," she peeped. Her friends shouted that she should be taken right away to the hospital, given an injection, and be made to rest.
"Certainly, yes, we should've done so before now," said Jintae's father. Seeing that nobody disagreed, he had the car brought around and helped his wife into it. Jintae and Jinsuk followed. Once the family had departed, people's faces at once showed relief. The more genteel contingent of guests slunk away to their own cars, and the rest uncapped bottles of soju or cola. "Anything to nibble on with our drinks?" someone asked, and one by one the lids came off the lacquered lunchboxes.
Left all alone in the crematorium, Songnamdaek stood there staring at the iron door through which the old sir's corpse had vanished. She told herself it looked exactly like the door of the garbage chute in the apartment where they'd lived. The destiny of man, cast away once his usefulness is at an end, was no better than that of garbage, she thought. Once, she remembered, she had accidentally thrown a fruit knife into the garbage with the peelings. The old sir insisted that she take him down to the basement where the garbage was collected, and spent half the day looking through the trash to find that knife. He stank to high heaven by the time he found it. She'd had a hard time bathing him and cleaning his clothes, but the old sir was very proud of himself, as though he had achieved a tremendous triumph.
At this very moment, Songnamdaek was carrying wrapped around her body the money the old sir had saved up for her from the monthly allowances. The night before, she had made a pouch for it and secured it around her belly, which made her feel full even though her stomach was empty. As she stood there thinking of this and that, the red light over the iron door went out. She didn't know exactly what that meant, but her heart skipped a beat, as it had done when she discovered that the old sir had passed away. From the corridor behind the wall, a voice called out for Jintae's father. Startled, she looked around the room, but nobody from the family was to be seen. She walked over to answer the summons, though she was frightened.
The remains of the deceased had already been brought out. "Remains" wasn't really the proper term; it was only the ashes. All that was left on the rolling steel platform was white ashes with pink embers glowing here and there like a spent campfire. A clerk in a faded blue uniform asked her skeptically whether she would take charge of the ashes. In a moment of bewilderment, Songnamdaek nodded. The clerk was very normal looking. He began sweeping up the ashes with a normal-looking broom and pushed the fading embers into a normal-looking dustpan. Watching the clerk's movements, Songnamdaek thought this seemed not very different from ordinary sweeping; and she thought she had done well to watch. She felt the last remnants of her antagonism toward Jintae's mother being cleanly swept away, along with the petty regrets that made her feel she would have more to do if she stayed around. The clerk disappeared with the ashes he had gathered, and after a long wait he reappeared with a white box tied with a ribbon. Before Songnamdaek could tell him that she was not the right person to receive the box, one of the daughters appeared with her husband and hastened to take it.
Left alone, Songnamdaek did not go to the cafeteria, but instead immediately left the crematorium. She had to ask quite a few people on the street which bus she should take to get to the city without needless transfers, but finally she found out that the right bus stop was quite some distance away. Someone said she could take a taxi there for a base fare of 600 won, but someone else said the fare would be at least 1,500 won. The difference of 900 won did not matter to her: she had never taken a taxi in her life, and she had no way of estimating the distance, but she was confident that she could walk that far. Her head unburdened by any load, she wondered whether she couldn't walk a hundred li in a single day. Her life had been too easy the past couple of years, but gradually her old manner of walking came back to her. Soon she was swinging her hips in high spirits and she felt she could easily bear a load on her head if it came to that. She thought of the depraved insults the gossips at the house had spoken about her the day before. Bitches! She could feel only scorn for those spoiled ladies, whose lives were so frivolous that they interpreted any motion of the hips as what you do in bed. They could never even begin to comprehend what a healthy and tenacious rhythm of life hers was. The sway of her hips came back even without a load on her head, but somehow she was at a loss to think of further insults for the gossips, worse names than "bitches."
"Will they be looking for me at Jintae's house? Even if they do, wouldn't it be something like a search for a mutt that's wandered away from the house in search of its dead master?" Thoughts like this passed through her mind, too. But more than anything, she was savoring the thought of taking off her money pouch and handing it over to her son.
"Good thing I never mentioned the apartment to him. If he'd gotten his hopes up, he would've been greatly disappointed, but he knew nothing of it, so he'll just be thankful for what I give him. I won't give it all to him; I should keep some money for myself to start peddling again. Soon the season for making pickled garlic will be here. Ten kilos of garlic is enough for my head, but, Lord, there I was trying to carry an apartment away on it. When a person forgets her place, she gets punished for her sins. Still, how could she cheat me out of that apartment so brazenly, when it's something she knows, I know, and heaven knows? Damn her to hell, the bitch!"
Songnamdaek felt she needed to let fly with grittier and more pungent curses before she could feel purified, but her sweating was rusty after three years spent in the company of that cultivated household. The oaths she needed didn't come back to her easily. Instead of spewing out curses, she spat once with abandon and picked up her pace. There would be plenty of time to unload a string of curses one by one, but the desire to see her son, daughter-in-law, and grandson, a longing she'd long repressed as if enduring psychological torture, pulled her onward and made the innocent gyrations of her hips all the more uproarious.
Translated by Chun Kyung-Ja
Excerpted from My Very Last Possession by Pak Wanso Copyright © 1998 by Pak Wanso. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
With contributions by the leading presidency scholars, this book offers a comprehensive overview of the president's policy-making role and the ways this role structures the president's interaction with other institutions of government.