October 15, 2009
The driver checked out his passengers and climbed into his seat. Yoon Hee told him the destination, and I closed my eyes and pretended to sleep. The taxi traveled on an unpaved road, clouds of dust trailing behind, and crossed a hill. Our destination was the next village. It took about twenty minutes. We arrived at a tiny depot that looked like any other depot in any other town and got out. Yoon Hee left the taxi stand and walked down the main street, again just like in any other town.
“I think it’ll be better to take a bus from here. We could have continued in the taxi, though. With a direct bus, it takes about forty minutes to my school.”
“Where are we going now?”
“Just follow me. I’m taking you to paradise.”
There was a movie theater, its door tightly shut and looking more like a dilapidated warehouse. Maybe it opened only in the evening. We waited for a bus at a stop in front of the movie theater. Yoon Hee opened her mouth.
“I found it while I was roaming the countryside to draw. I have a studio there.”
“Then why don’t you move in, too? You said the school is not too far.”
“I’m going to.”
The bus approached slowly. It was not a market day, and there were not many people in the bus. A few students here, a few women there, each occupying a seat. As soon as we sat down, the bus left. A driver’s assistant tottered over to collect our fare.
“Two for Kalmae.”
From the main road the bus took a narrow pass between mountains. On one side was a deep valley, where melted snow from the mountaintop formed a stream and flowed down, bubbling up here and there. Up on the rolling hills, farmhouses and neatly trimmed fruit trees stood in rows. This village was so affluent because it had the most orchards in the province. On both sides of the valley were narrow rice paddies in steps, and around the stream were eulalias that had flowered last fall but were still holding on to their white tufts, gently dancing in the wind. Yoon Hee and I got out of the bus above the valley, in front of a cement bridge, before the bus clattered away into the distance.
We crossed the bridge and, after the bend in the mountain, what had been hidden by the valley was finally exposed. Directly in front of us, a round hill sat like a person with both arms and legs wide open. Scattered on the southern end of its foot were a handful of houses. No one from the other side of the valley would have guessed that there was a hamlet like this across the bridge and down the narrow path. A small stream slowly glided down from the valley, and on its bank there was even a water mill with a thatched roof. Behind the orchards was a dark green bamboo forest. We were at the threshold of spring, the wind was warm and murmuring, and it carried the fragrance of earth. A couple of magpies cheerfully chirped while flying up and down a persimmon tree with only a few, dried-out fruits left. Yoon Hee took a deep breath, as if she was tasting the wind, and she whispered:
“This is Kalmae.”