October 21, 2009
The voice had come from behind me suddenly, and startled, I turned around quickly. There was a familiar face, but a changed one, like gradually chipped and worn household items I had seen. Suspicious, she narrowed her eyes and studied me slowly, from top to bottom. There she was, the wife of the vice principal, the Soonchun lady. I bowed.
“How are you, ma’am?”
“Who are you? I think I know you but I can’t quite place you.” “I’m . . . I’m the one who was preparing for the big exam.”
I was sure she knew everything by now, but Yoon Hee had introduced her companion as her boyfriend who was studying for government exams. The Soonchun lady’s mouth was wide open, she clapped her hands lightly. Finally, a sound came out of her mouth.
“My goodness, my goodness! Are you really . . . ? Mr. Oh? Mr. Oh Hyun Woo?”
She grabbed my hands and stroked them with hers.
“What you must have gone through. But when were you released? My God . . . and you never got to see Miss Han.”
The Soonchun lady pulled me to the porch and made me sit down. For no reason, I looked at a photo frame on the wall. In it were a number of old and yellowed pictures. Her eyes welled up, she gazed at me for a little while.
“Miss Han’s sister came here once. I thought it was strange that she waited a year, but I just assumed she’d been abroad. And she closed her eyes without seeing this day . . .”
I humbly bowed my head and waited for her grumbling to end. Finally I turned my head toward the house and blurted out, “This place has changed a lot, too.”
“It’s a different place now. The power of money.”
“And your husband . . .”
“He had a stroke. He suffered for a while and passed away a while ago. My first and second sons went to the big city, and I live with my youngest now. He runs the tea salon over there. He’s trying to make a living.”
Her husband had been the vice principal of the neighboring village’s elementary school. He was a man of few words, badly nearsighted, always wore a pair of thick glasses, and if he had one weakness it was that he loved to drink. I liked him, with his stubby nose and squinting eyes, and on several occasions we went fishing together in the levee over the mountain. He never asked me anything, but he had an idea I was not staying there to study. Once, when the local government was doing a survey, he covered for me by saying that I was a distant relative.
“Let’s go inside. Did you eat lunch?”
“Yes, I already did. I just want to go see the house in the back.”
“Oh yes, it’s still there. Miss Han fixed it up nicely about three years ago. She bought the house and the yard a long time ago. Her sister looked in on it, but we don’t know what she plans to do with it.”
The Soonchun lady took the lead and walked out the door. She turned onto a narrow path next to the trifoliate orange trees. Behind the bamboo forest I glimpsed the house surrounded by the familiar sight of persimmon trees, chestnut trees, and alders. Entering the courtyard, I saw a spigot connected to the water supply. It was standing on cement ground, the edges raised to forma barrier, complete with a low basin and a drain. It was unnecessary, but the Soonchun lady turned the water on to demonstrate that it worked. Water gushed out.
“Look, this winter’s been so warm it didn’t freeze. I think it was done about ten years ago. The village collected money to dig a well and install a motorized pump and all that.”
The courtyard was covered with tall weeds, dried yellow and trembling in the wind. There were remnants of my own renovation of the place so many years ago. The house was originally used as a fruit shed. When we moved in, we divided it into two and remodeled one side as living quarters and the other as Yoon Hee’s studio. After laying a foundation for the wall, I inlaid the leftover stones from the front porch around the house to the outdoor restroom to act as stepping stones and a gutter. Over time, they had settled into the ground nicely, surrounded by weeds. Originally the wall of cement blocks was bare, but now it was insulated with bricks and painted white. The front porch and the latticed entrance door were still there, even the glass panel between rice papers still remained. I opened the door. The window that looked out onto the mountain was now made of glass, instead of a board one pushed up. The linoleum floor was no longer there; it had been replaced with traditional paper treated with bean oil, which retained a subtle sheen. What did remain was a double shelf supported by a pair of triangular brackets on the eastern wall. It was something I made when I bought a piece of board and logs in town and smoothed them with a plane. On top of the shelf were old books and odds and ends wrapped in a cloth. I turned toward her studio. Instead of the old wooden door was a sliding door with glass panels, which allowed me to look inside. The studio previously had a hard, concrete floor, with a tiny door and a raised wooden floor so small it could only fit one person. Now the whole floor was covered with wood, and the old-fashioned hearth was replaced by a modern kitchen sink. I also saw in the studio a coal briquette stove, a sofa and chairs, an easel and canvases, pails and wooden boards covered in paint. I turned to the Soonchun lady who was following me around.
“Would it be possible for me to stay here for a few days?”
“Of course, as you wish. This is your house, too. We need to heat up the room, though.”
“Is there a furnace?”
“No, she wanted to keep that as it used to be. We got rid of the hearth in the kitchen, but put a new fuel hole in the back.”
I went around the house to the right. There was a small shed with beams attached to the house and topped with a slate roof. The fuel hole was covered with blackened aluminum. The shed was protected from the wind by a simple wall on the northern side and inside were stacks of logs and kindling.
“We used the room from time to time, when our children came to visit or if we had a guest. It’s been empty for a few months, though. It needs to be cleaned.”
“If I can borrow a broom and a mop, I’ll do it.”
“No, no, no, you shouldn’t do that. Go for a walk or something, I’ll do it as quickly as I can.”
“That’s okay, I can do it by myself.”
Then I added, a bit forcefully, to forestall the Soonchun lady from prevailing, “I want to think about her while I clean.”
As I expected, she gently gave in.
“Of course . . . I understand.”