October 14, 2009
I went to see Han Yoon Hee, trusting the address Bong Han had gotten through numerous layers of contacts. I was going to quietly disappear if I detected any hesitation from her. She came to the inn around sunset. Yoon Hee was wearing a turtleneck sweater, a down parka, and a pair of casual pants. She did not look like someone going to work. In fact, carrying a little backpack, she looked more like a traveler than me. When Yoon Hee arrived, I had briefly fallen asleep in my room at the very back of the inn warmed by the wood furnace. Still, even in sleep, I felt the gentle movement and opened my eyes. The footsteps stopped on the porch, followed by a muffled cough. The sliding door cracked open silently. I stayed lying down, I just lifted my elbow from my forehead to turn my head and looked through the crack.
“Did I wake you?”
She opened the door a bit more but did not come inside. She sat down on the tiny porch and talked to me from there. I lazily stretched and got up.
“Get your stuff,” was all she said and closed the door. I put on my jacket and socks and packed my bag. She was waiting for me standing outside the main gate of the inn.
“You didn’t eat dinner yet?”
“No, I had a late lunch.”
“Good. I’m very hungry.”
Four or five hikers with huge backpacks passed us by. We went down toward the village, where stores and restaurants lined the street. There was a bus stop. The tourist bus stood still, while the local bus let out blue smoke, waiting for its scheduled departure. Three taxicabs, their drivers gone, were lined up.
“We’ll go somewhere,” Yoon Hee said. “We’ll take the car from over there. After we eat, that is.”
There was no one in the restaurant.
“What did you do all day?”
“Went to the temple, took a nap, things like that. Are you coming from work?”
“I went home and changed. Tomorrow is Saturday, so I have no class to teach. I don’t have to go back to school until Monday.”
“At school, what do you teach?”
She grinned a little, a bit bashful. From the first moment I met her, I liked Yoon Hee’s mouth when she gently smiled.
Then Yoon Hee took out a cigarette box from her parka pocket, put a cigarette to her mouth, and lit it.
“You can never trust an artist’s talent. That’s something I found out accidentally among the ruins of other numerous trials. You realize that at once at a school out here in the countryside. There are always a couple of students who have amazing potential.”
“Who would believe in a self-deprecating artist?”
“Oh no, I’m not one yet. I’m thinking maybe I should try. There was this one girl, a real genius, and she dropped out of school last semester and went to the city. Something about working at a beauty salon. She never had a brush or anything for the class, so I bought her some. Her grades were awful. Her parents are farmers, she has three older sisters, and they all left to work at a factory or be a maid.”
When Yoon Hee concentrated on talking, she pointed her index finger like a gun and swung it.
“Of course, her talent would be ruined if she went to art school.”
“Are you from around here?” I asked her. I had been wondering. It was very important for me to know where my protector was from. If someone who knew her well saw me with her, there would be questions.
“Unfortunately I’m from Seoul, born and raised. Now, aren’t I allowed to ask some questions, too?”
“That name is really . . . are you really Kim . . . Jun Woo?”
“What’s wrong with my name?”
“That’s the name of the guy who disappeared into the Hwarang cigarette smoke, like the one in that song?” (The word “Jun Woo” means a fellow soldier or a “war buddy” in Korean. The Hwarang cigarette was a brand of cigarette specifically supplied to the military. There is a famous song from the fifties that ends with the following lyric: “My dear fellow soldiers [jun woo] who disappeared into the smoke of a Hwarang cigarette.” —Ed.)
I almost burst into laughter. Instead I asked, “How do you know Mr. Yoon?”
“I don’t know him that well. I can’t tell you how or where, but I met him once, just once. You should know this: I’m not an activist.”
“You should know—you may get into trouble later if you help someone in hiding.”
Yoon Hee replied with her usual gentle smile. Her teeth peeked through her lips for a second and then disappeared again.
“I saw the tape from Kwangju. The NHK version. The local priest lent it to me.”
Her expression had changed. There were shadows under her eyes, and she opened her mouth a little and shook her head as if she was weary.
“I can’t forgive them. And I could finally understand my father.”
“No . . . he drank his life away.”
“What happened to him?”
“He was a casualty of history. Let’s change the subject. Why are you avoiding answering my question?”
“Which was . . .”
“If you are trusting me with your safety, you should tell me about yourself. Your real name, and since you don’t look like a student, what your job was, what did you do, meaning why did you go into hiding? Isn’t it natural for me to be a little curious?”
“Yes, of course.”
I felt a bit apologetic as I answered.
“My name is Oh Hyun Woo. I’m thirty-two years old. Until a couple of years ago I had a teaching post in a middle school in a small village, like you, Miss Han. I got involved in the student movement while I was at university. I went to prison briefly, then I was forced into military service and served at the demilitarized zone. And the rest I’ll tell you later.”
“My goodness, too much information for such a short time!”
We left the restaurant. We climbed into the backseat of a taxicab, the driver’s seat still empty.
“Is it okay to do this?” I asked. Uneasy, I looked around. Yoon Hee smiled.
“He’ll be here soon. And you’re single, of course?”
The taxi driver, wearing only the top of his uniform, was walking slowly toward us. Yoon Hee added quickly, “From now on, I’ll do all the talking.”