September 16, 2009
From the bus, I can see the town below and far away. A church steeple, gray Japanese-style two-story buildings, old gabled roofs and newer slate roofs, all the way down the steep road. Darkness is falling. The main road leading to the town has yet to be paved. It is at the southern tip of the peninsula, not far from the ocean. Although it is the middle of winter, the wind is warm and green bamboo trees and camellia plants are everywhere. When the bus finally reaches the main station in town, the central avenue is illuminated with fluorescent lights and bare light bulbs in every store along the way. I take a crumpled envelope from my coat pocket and make out the scribbled letters under a store light. I ask a man standing by the bus station. He gives me directions. “Walk along the central avenue until you see the junction in front of a pharmacy. Take a right. You’ll see the police station and the local office of the department of education facing each other. Go up the road toward the girls’ high school. That’s the entrance to Soosung village.” Around there I see the town mill. In front of the mill, I ask someone else for directions, this time reading the address out loud. Across the street on an empty field, children are celebrating the First Full Moon. They make a hole in an empty steel can, attach a string to it, fill it up with dried debris, light it, and spin it around. Sparks dance in circles in the air. There is a long, narrow pathway lined with low stone walls. The warm voices of happy people, chatting and laughing softly together and snacking on walnuts and chestnuts, escape into the street. Soon the full moon rises, clearly showing the low stone walls and the narrow pathway. As I was instructed, I stop in front of a pair of tall persimmon trees. They seem to sprout from the long stone walls. Instead of a gate, there are wooden pillars standing in front of a courtyard, and behind that a house with a gabled roof and a barking dog tied in front.
“Who is it?”
The house is southern-style, long and rectangular. A woman appears from the kitchen on the right side.
“The school teacher? She went out and hasn’t come back.”
I write down the house phone number.
“And whom shall I say came to see her?”
“Her brother’s friend.”
I walk out the way I went in. I eat a bowl of rice and broth for dinner and walk into the Hometown Café that I noticed before across the street from a pharmacy. I order coffee. I allow myself to be persuaded by a flirtatious waitress to order a cup of herbal tea, which costs a lot more than coffee. I waste at least two hours before I call the house. I give the phone number to the operator and wait. The person who answers the phone hollers her name several times. Finally I hear her voice. As always, she sounds calm and restrained. Based on her voice alone, I guess she is older.
“Mr. Yoon told me about you. I’ll be there soon.”
When she arrives, it looks like she didn’t have time to change her clothes. Her trench coat is unbuttoned, and underneath she is wearing light brown knits. She finds me right away since I sit facing the door, and walks straight over to me.
“Are you the one who phoned?”
“Yes, I am.”
“I’m Han Yoon Hee.”
I pause for a second, then manage to utter some words while I swallow.
“I’m . . . Kim . . . Jun Woo.”
A faint smile appears at the corner of her mouth.
“Of course that’s not your real name. Let’s get out of here.”