October 20, 2009
Now, I am going back to Kalmae.
Eighteen years ago on the night a typhoon arrived, I left for Seoul. Yoon Hee followed me to the bridge, holding onto an umbrella. Her peasant skirt with printed flowers was wet; her pointy rubber shoes kept coming off. The headlights of the last bus appeared out of the darkness. What looked like the eyes of a beast got bigger and bigger, reflected in the pouring rain. I turned around once before climbing up into the bus. Yoon Hee was going to say something but instead raised one arm halfway and meekly waved her hand. As soon as I got in, the bus departed. I tumbled and hurried toward the back window. For an instant I saw a trace of her body holding the umbrella, but it quickly disappeared into darkness.
The local route was now neatly paved, and the bus made only infrequent stops. When the familiar village came into view, I was somewhat depressed and bewildered by the changed scenery. The tiny depot had become a full-fledged bus terminal located at the outskirts of what had become a small city. The main street was much wider and lined with four- and five-story buildings. At intervals there were higher buildings with almost twenty stories, jutting like uneven teeth. I got into a taxi waiting at the station.
“Where would you like to go?”
“To Kalmae, please.”
The chauffeur seemed a little flabbergasted. He had not started the car yet.
“Why . . . is there a problem?”
The chauffeur clucked his tongue and started the car.
“It’s not a problem, it’s just not far enough.”
“But shouldn’t it take at least twenty minutes?”
He glanced at me through the rearview mirror.
“Maximum ten. I’ll have to double the fare.”
I began to feel uneasy. Passing through the downtown area, I looked at the new buildings, so straight and rectangular, the high-rise apartment buildings hovering where rice paddies and vegetable fields used to be. Would Kalmae still look like what I remembered? I could not ask the chauffeur. The sleek cement road extended to the outskirts, the traffic line clearly marked in the center. Passenger cars and trucks busily passed by. Was there still a stream coming down the valley? There were pillars and railings painted to glow in the dark. There were rice paddies and fields, but up on the hill where an orchard used to be was a factory.
The bridge was still there! But it looked different. The railing was now stone pillars, sleekly carved into flower buds. The taxi turned nimbly into a smooth and flat street, not a narrow passage in between mountains. As soon as we entered the hamlet, a pair of wooden pillars greeted us. The first thing I noticed was black words written on a plank announcing “Kalmae Garden,” a Korean barbeque restaurant. The orchards on the right side of the mountain were gone. Instead there was a new development with colorful rooftops and a few more billboards. There was a log house, a white house with a terrace and panel windows, even a thatched house, the color of its roof a strange, bright yellow. Cars were parked everywhere, and in front of the taxi I was riding a black passenger car moved slowly. Through the window I could see the heads of a man and a woman sitting side by side.
On the left there were still orchards, but half the size they used to be. There was a billboard with “Todam, Traditional Tea Salon” written on it. The house of the vice principal, the old house with trifoliate orange trees, was hidden behind this new building. I got out of the car and slowly climbed the hill. Passing by the tea salon, I looked in and saw some guests at a few tables. The newly paved road went up to the new building, but beyond it the old dirt trail remained. There was a house still surrounded by trifoliate orange trees. My heart was beating fast. I approached the house little by little, savoring the suspense. A yellow dog tied to the pillar wagged his tail and barked at the same time. There was a spigot where a hand pump used to be, but the house was the same, a long rectangular, Southern-style house with a long side porch made of wooden panels. The courtyard was empty and there was no sign of people in the house. I stood by the entrance and looked around.
“Who are you looking for?”