It had been raining for days. It seemed as if the whole world was soaked, unable to budge. She could not prepare a shed to shelter the chickens from the rain. To avoid being pelted by another drop, they kept huddling under the apricot tree. Ah, that apricot tree. Until the flowers on the tree blossomed and the green fruit ripened, until she harvested the fruit and made “plum wine,” Chŏng-ok did not realize that it was actually an apricot tree. She knew she needed green plums to make wine, so she plucked green fruit and poured soju over it. As long as the fruit was green and soaked in alcohol, she figured it would all turn into the same thing. After she had gone into town to buy some soju for the basket of “plums” she had filled to the brim, Chŏng-ok later heard that her friend Sun-ah had come over with her husband and after looking around, grabbed their bellies and laughed heartily.
Having bought three one-liter bottles of soju, a set of summer clothes for each child, a hair band for her second daughter, who had developed a strange habit of squinting upward due to her long hair covering her eyes, and 1000-wŏn worth of plums, Chŏng-ok took the once-daily bus home, where her second daughter told her what happened: “Mom, Chu-ri’s mom said that these plums aren’t plums.” Chŏng-ok first handed her the hair band. The second Single Mother By Kong Sŏn-ok Translated by Laura Ha Reizman 74 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok daughter resolved to say nothing more after she saw that the hair band was black, rather than the pink she had wanted. “Then what did she say they were?” The child stuck out her lips like a carp and wouldn’t make a peep. But I bought three bottles just to ferment this fruit.
More than anything, Chŏng-ok was humiliated that the couple knew she ignorantly tried to make plum wine with “non” plums, and her face began turning red in blotches. As soon as her daughter sealed her lips, Chŏng-ok promptly pounced on her and snatched the hair band. “Well, then, what did she say they were?” “I’m not telling.” “Are you going to snub your mom too?” “If you change the hair band to pink, then I’ll tell you.” “Forget it. The hair band? Fine, here’s the hair band!” Chŏng-ok broke the 1000–wŏn hair band right then and there. Pretending not to notice the tears that instantly welled up in her daughter’s eyes, Chŏng-ok, with her three-year-old on her back, dashed off to Sun-ah’s house, which sat on top of a hill. “Hey Sun-ah, why did you have to go and shame me in front of my daughter, huh?” Since Sun-ah and her husband were naturally gentle people, they merely gazed at Chŏng-ok, who was huffing and puffing like a gorilla. Sun-ah’s husband then brought out a bottle of their homemade wine, placed it in front of Chŏng-ok, and as he calmly sat down, said, “Now, how about taking a look and seeing for yourself the difference between our plum wine and the plum wine you were about to make.”
Chŏng-ok, fuming in vain, hastily guzzled one glass after another, and ended up drunk. She staggered home. The instant she arrived, her young ones began crying and making a fuss. The first child turned her back to her mother, sighing heavily as if the world was ending, while the second child beat her little fists—kong kong—against her mother’s sunken chest, bitterly exclaiming that 75 if Mom acts like this who can we trust and how can we survive? Whenever she thought of that day, Chŏng-ok would shudder and the corners of her mouth would twitch, a symptom that only appeared after that incident. Every time the wind blew, the apricot tree would shiver, and large drops of rain would splatter on the poor chickens’ heads and wings. What should I do? Arms crossed, standing in front of the chicken coop, Chŏng-ok pondered, over and over, this inquiry of all inquiries.
But it’s raining. I don’t feel like doing anything. I already got rained on fixing the broken pepper rack, climbing up on the roof and laying out the vinyl, unplugging the sewage drain—I ran around so much I could hardly breathe. I’ve had enough. It’s worrying, though. Chŏng-ok had not been able to sleep well, thinking about the chickens getting wet. What’s worse, she once woke up in a fright, having dreamt that all the chickens were dying. Even so, seeing that it was raining again, Chŏng-ok flopped down with exhaustion on the classroom floor. In truth, the classroom was no longer a classroom. It had been over a year since the space was used as such. Against one of the walls stood the bedding cabinet, the children’s desk, and the clothes rack. The school was closed down. Until last year, it had been an annex school, and after the last two students—Sun-ah’s children— had switched to the principal branch 10 li away, the building became a home for Chŏng-ok, who had moved from the city. Dampness kept permeating the floorboards and clung to the soles of her feet. As if she had stepped on some animal of the creepycrawly reptilian persuasion, Chŏng-ok was in ill humor. She tried to turn on the fan. It didn’t work. When something doesn’t listen to you, whether it’s a machine or your kids, you need to give it a good smack to bring it back to its senses, and just as she was about to strike the fan, Chŏng-ok remembered the heater.
She wasn’t sure if it still worked. Maybe because it was creaky even when she lived in the city, the thought of taking it out was burdensome. But she could not stand the dampness, and since the fan didn’t blow any air, there 76 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok was no other choice. It was no ordinary undertaking to drag out the rusted heater. Sweat broke out little by little. She plugged the cord in and pressed the on button. She knew it. It would not turn on. She tried pounding all around the broken heater, then kicking at it. Rust was flaking all over the floor. With the hand that hit the rusted heater, Chŏng-ok smacked her head even harder. She had forgotten that the power had been cut off. A drink would make things a little better in this cold and damp. Maybe it was because the electricity wasn’t working, but it was downright stubborn for this thing to hold out on her. Drained of energy from dragging it out, she decided that even the thought of putting back the disobedient heater required a little drink beforehand.
Because liquor makes even difficult tasks possible. As if it were some big secret, the grannie living on the hill above the school had once whispered this to her. With a face so wrinkled it was hard to tell whether she was crying or laughing, the grannie had brought, hidden and dingle-dangling inside her pajamas, some liquor “just for you and me.” “You need to watch out for that young widow, you see. What black magic that cunning fox is conjuring up I tell you, here, come closer . . .” It was just idle chatter, so why make Chŏng-ok put an ear to her lips? But thanks to the grannie’s eccentric way of amusing people, Chŏng-ok was able to endure the past year. Anyway, when times were tough, liquor was a tonic. Sun-ah always worried about Chŏng-ok’s drinking. On a day like this, Sun-ah would usually drop by. Rainy days gave Sun-ah more free time, so she made food for Chŏng-ok and her family in addition to her own, and called to tell her to come over. When Chŏng-ok did not come after the phone call, Sun-ah sent her child.
When she still didn’t come, Sun-ah wrapped up the food and went over herself. She opened the door without knocking, barging right in. She asked Chŏng-ok what she was doing. Chŏng-ok hastily put away the bottle of booze, and stubbed out her cigarette. Sun-ah began to worry. 77 “You need to eat something. You can’t just drink alcohol and smoke cigarettes. If you want to live in the countryside as a single woman you need to watch what you do. Don’t do things that will just become fodder for gossip.” The food Sun-ah made was tasty. Like mice, the children clustered around the meal. In an instant, the room was filled with the savory aroma of food, a happy smell. For Sun-ah, it was a joy to make a family so happy just by creating something with her own hands. She lived for these moments.
With a contented smile, she gazed upon Chŏng-ok’s young ones, but shot a look of worry toward Chŏng-ok. Whenever she got those looks, Chŏng-ok—although it sounded like she was making excuses—would reply with sincerity, “Now, little by little I’ll become more like you.” Sun-ah didn’t believe those words. Once the children, having gobbled up all the food, left for the classroom with the TV, and only the three-year old remained, she said, “Somehow, you only living with your children, well, you can’t even feed them properly, and this just isn’t living. You need to get remarried. Don’t you think you need a man? Especially out here.” “Don’t worry.
I have three children. That’s more than enough.” “It’s not that easy for a woman to live alone in the countryside. See how the villagers look at you. It’s icy. Living out here isn’t all fun and games.” “Who’s living alone? With the kids that’s a family of four. And I didn’t come down to the country for fun and games. As you know too well, I’m running around so much my feet are on fire.” “That’s why I’m saying this. Why are you living like this? Live in comfort. And do the writing you want. But to do that you need a husband who can provide for you, a husband!” “I’m going to survive by writing. Plus, I’m even raising chickens and dogs. And I have a vegetable garden. We don’t have a single expense these days. Of course, with a little help from you.” Her advice spurned, Sun-ah smacked her bitter-tasting lips.
But it was all due to her friendship with Sun-ah that Chŏng78 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok ok, the single mother, could unburden her load onto the village floor. A woman with three children, and with a newborn at that, to come live in a mountain village alone. While they were from different hometowns, Sun-ah and Chŏng-ok had both attended an elementary school not far from the village. Afterward, they moved to Pusan together and worked at a shoe factory, attending a special night middle school and, later, a high school for factory workers. This village was the hometown of Sun-ah’s husband, whom she had met on a blind date while still working at the factory. It wasn’t common to meet someone from the same region, but she did, got married, and then returned with him. After their move, they had two babies, and now lived well. Meanwhile, Chŏng-ok had married a Pusan man.
He was a city slicker, born and bred in Pusan. For the past twenty years, his mother worked at an eatery that served the fishmongers of Chakalch’i Market, while his father, having sold his truck and paid off his debt after realizing that the interest on the loan payments for the truck was more than he was earning as a driver, sat around unemployed, getting old. Chŏng-ok’s husband was the son of such parents and the eldest brother of six siblings. While this was purely Chŏng-ok’s opinion, it was because he was a city slicker who had never once gotten his hands dirty that he grew up resenting his parents to no end. As he got older, this grudge was directed at society, and soured into open hostility.
If she were to name a reason for leaving him, that would be it. Rather than try to make an honest living, he just wanted to make a quick fortune. Chŏng-ok believed that their double blind date—Sun-ah going with the country bumpkin and she going with the city slicker—was the moment that their lives, at twenty, diverged. That twenty-year-old factory boy was someone she could tolerate living with. But once he passed thirty, something in his eyes changed. He became lazy. At night he would drink and come home late, and in the morning, he would wake up late and not go to work. That was how he got fired. The dismissal became the official reason Chŏng79 ok used to divorce him. After he was fired, he would beat Chŏngok, who had just had their third child. It was common knowledge that wives became the target of men who were failures in society, and Chŏng-ok got goose bumps when she realized she had become just such a wife. So, with Sun-ah and Sun-ah’s husband acting as witnesses, she divorced.
Watching the family that he should be caring for leave so willingly, the husband cracked a relieved smile. Chŏng-ok, who secretly worried whether he would agree to a divorce, actually felt grateful for that despicable smile. It was already bad enough for these pitiful wretches to be thrown together in such miserable circumstances, but to then attack each other— well, only in a world like this. After the divorce, Chŏng-ok, feeling sorry for him, shed a few tears. Two other households beside Chŏng-ok’s had moved to this village from the city. There was the man whose wife supposedly abandoned him as soon as he lost his job. He brought with him his two children, tiny as baby swallows. And then there was the young man who came with his son—or maybe it was his nephew—and at some point began living in the mud hut that stood a small distance from the village, which, prior to Chŏng-ok’s arrival, had been abandoned by a man who left in search of his runaway wife. In retrospect, it seemed that the world was bursting with unemployed husbands and runaway wives.
Last Saturday, Chŏng-ok watched a TV program about this very subject. It was called “Sŏh Seh-wŏn’s Creating a Better World” or some such. Wherever you looked it felt like there was always at least one household like that. Mommy, please come back soon, daughter-in-law—your poor children, as soon as you see this, call us, at least. The thick tears clinging to some old woman’s eyes as she anxiously called out to her daughterin- law who had left home and abandoned her children. Whenever that sort of scene appeared, Chŏng-ok would get annoyed. Because as you were watching, you couldn’t help but judge these “hussies” as just plain bad, no matter what. There was no effort to understand the woman who had to desert her children. Returning was the only 80 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok solution. If she returned, what would change? How was a woman supposed to eke out a living with her children and elderly in-laws in the god-forsaken countryside? And apart from figuring out how to make ends meet, if she were to come back, how could she bear the accusing stares of villagers? One hill over from the closed-down school is Chŏng-ok’s hometown. If you go there, you can even see the house where her parents had lived. But returning to one’s hometown is difficult enough with an average modicum of courage. They say there’s no place like one’s hometown, but that’s only the talk of successful people. When Chŏng-ok told her aunt she wanted to return, Big Aunt, who still lived in their hometown and was married to Chŏngok’s father’s oldest brother, responded without hesitation like this: “You want to come back home after your husband kicked you out? Aigo, shameful, just shameful. Just go somewhere where no one knows you. If only you had no kids this is the kind of business where you should bite your tongue and just kill yourself.”
That’s how Chŏng-ok ended up here in the mountains where her friend Sun-ah lived instead of going back home. Without her husband knowing, Chŏng-ok had entered and won the local paper’s annual spring literary contest for emerging writers. That became her reason for relocating to the countryside. That night, after she signed the divorce papers, she remembered the wish that had lain dormant in her heart for so long. Suddenly, everything became clear. I must become a writer. I mean the kind that can make a living. And if I’m going to do that, I’ll need to go to the country where the cost of living is low. Like a revelation, that thought cleared a path for her. Of course, the biggest help was Sun-ah. Chŏng-ok threw away what she could, packed up just what was necessary, and moved into the closed-down school that Sun-ah had brokered on her behalf. The idea that she could make a living by writing was pretty dubious, but that very plausibility, that improbable possibility, was the last card she was left holding. With that one card, she gambled all her chips, so to speak.
That had happened last summer. What happened 81 after that? Sun-ah, who in the beginning was Chŏng-ok’s strongest advocate when she declared her far-fetched aspiration, was the first to turn on her. Entering Chŏng-ok’s house one day, Sun-ah asked, as if by habit, “Did you get any commissions to write today?” She hadn’t. But instead of admitting this, Chŏng-ok replied, “I’m not going to write by getting commissions.” Sun-ah: “Then has someone offered to buy your own work?” Chŏng-ok: “Not yet.” Sun-ah: “So you aren’t getting any commissions and you aren’t getting any offers to buy your writing, so how are you going to live?” Chŏng-ok: “I’ll just live like this for now and figure out another job later.” Sun-ah: “If you plan to get another job, don’t you need to move back to the city?” Chŏng-ok: “I don’t want to do that.” From that moment on Sun-ah began quietly broaching the subject of marriage with Chŏng-ok. But Chŏng-ok just let Sun-ah talk. She wanted to say something but decided it was best to keep her thoughts to herself.
When Sun-ah blabbed on and on, Chŏngok didn’t feel like divulging that something inside her, again that burning powerful something, was slowly welling up. It’s my loneliness, my poverty, that’s actually my strength. And it was this strength that had compelled her to come to this place. In any case, what happened to the boiler repairman I called yesterday? Such an irresponsible person. That shop will go under before long. Running a business like that, huh! Does he think it will last? Even the electrician had called saying he’d come all the way to the village nestled at the foot of the mountain but had had to turn back. Apparently, the road connecting the lower village and the upper village where Chŏng-ok lived had been blocked by a landslide. Someone operating a business should at least be able to deal with this, hiccup. These days, Chŏng-ok was talking to herself too much because her mind was frazzled by unstable life. They say the road is blocked? Hiccup. Then where can I report this? 82 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok Maybe at the county office, county office where? Disaster prevention department or whatever, am I supposed to report that there? She picked up the phone. “Hello? Please transfer me to the department of natural disaster prevention.
You see I live in the closed-down school in Upper One Rice Paddy Village next to the Sumjin River. I’d like to report something, hiccup. Because of the landslide between the upper and lower villages, the roads are blocked. Excuse me? When did it happen? Hmm, I’m not sure, but probably last night sometime. Around one in the morning, right with the rumble and clap, the electronics in the house went out all at once, my goodness! The repairmen just come and leave. Please restore the electricity in my house soon; if not my whole family is going to freeze to death.” “Since it just happened at o’one hundred today . . . alright. I’ll file a civil complaint. If you can just wait a bit we’ll do a follow-up.” “Ah, yes, thank you. Then I’ll just trust you and wait. Hiccup.” The custodian’s quarters at the deserted school were where Chŏng-ok and her brood had taken up residence, and the classroom was where all sorts of stuff from their time in the city was stored, and under the apricot tree in one little corner of the school field was where Chŏng-ok and her kids had built a hen house. It had already been two days since the main living area—where the kitchen and boiler room were situated, both with rice papered flooring for ondol heating—lost electricity.
Ah, wait a minute. It was yesterday night but since it was at one in the morning, it hasn’t been two days yet. To correct a wrong, one must correct it precisely—that’s how I should live, otherwise no doubt I’ll pay for it down the road. Huh ung, why do I feel like snorting all of a sudden. Whether it’s your words or your heart, when you have to fix something you’ve got to do it fast. Otherwise, another “persimmon episode” might happen. Even now, whenever Chŏng-ok thought about this episode, her blood would run cold, immediately followed by an urge to sneeze. 83 It had happened last fall—so late in the season it was practically winter—when Chŏng-ok took the kids on a picnic in the woods. It was a picnic with a purpose. The day before, after sending the two older ones to school, Chŏng-ok, with the third one on her back, was returning from the mountainside when she discovered the persimmon tree. Even after a torrent of sleet, persimmon trees ripe with fruit dotted the ravine. Well, well what are all these persimmons? The next day, Sunday, she put an empty rice sack in each child’s hand and set out in earnest to pick persimmons. It never occurred to her that the persimmon tree, nestled in a site so steep, so dense with growth, and with fruit still dangling from its branches at this time of year, had an owner. The sacks quickly filled up. Perhaps because of the recent snowfall, most of the persimmons were overripe.
Even so, there were more than enough for the children’s snacks. Feeling like they had suddenly struck gold, they hiked down the mountain with a spring in their steps, like soldiers with war booty. But that night, Sunah went down to Chŏng-ok’s house and asked whether she had gone to the mountains to pick persimmons. As soon as Chŏng-ok replied “yeah so what,” Sun-ah, her face contorted, told Chŏng-ok that she must go to the persimmon owner at once and beg forgiveness. The persimmon owner, his back turned, without once looking at Chŏng-ok, rambled on and on. When Chŏng-ok pieced together the gist of what he was saying, she realized the old geezer was accusing her of stealing, and even getting her children to help. Catching even a little of his jabber, it was clear that he was treating her like a thief. Since it’s come to this, he might as well just ask to be reimbursed for the persimmons.
What a clean ending that would be for us both. If she had to listen to much more of his yammering her insides were going to twist. So, after deducing that the old man’s babbling was a round-about way of demanding money, she promptly asked him how much for one sack. Sure enough, the old man, who had up till now acted polite, speaking in that tortuous manner, suddenly changed his tune, and as his shriveled-up 84 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok cheeks twitched in anger, said, “If that’s your attitude, let’s drop the ceremony and you pay me 50,000 wŏn.” 50,000 wŏn for one bag of rotting persimmons. Chŏng-ok’s family of four could live for a month on that kind of money. Tears spilled from Chŏng-ok’s eyes. Not because the persimmon owner asked for 50,000 wŏn but because it hurt to think that 50,000 wŏn a month was considered a feasible sum for her and her children.
Chŏng-ok went to Sun-ah and asked whether 50,000 wŏn for a sack of persimmons is a normal price. Sun-ah responded that no, not really, but if you consider the mental anguish the persimmon owner went through, such a price was plausible. Where, exactly, is a scrap of evidence of this mental anguish?! Chŏng-ok, who was unable to say or do a thing in front of the elderly persimmon owner, unleashed her wrath on innocent Sun-ah. Sun-ah glared at her and coldly replied that for an outsider trying to take root in a town—isn’t that a small price to pay? Plus, she said, fair or normal, in this case you’re not in a position to squabble about the money.
Even if the persimmon owner demanded 100,000 wŏn, what are you going to do about it when you’ve gone and plucked his persimmons without his permission? She spoke as if she’d turned into the persimmon owner’s daughter. Whatever affection Chŏng-ok had for Sun-ah vanished. But Chŏng-ok took the hint and went back to the persimmon owner. “Since you’re asking for 50,000 wŏn per bag, please understand that I’m not lying when I tell you I don’t have that kind of money. Dear elder, if you can please forgive me this one time, I’ll make sure this won’t happen again.” In that manner the curtains were drawn on this incident, otherwise known as the “persimmon episode.” But it wasn’t just this mishap when a single wrong word almost made her pay dearly, and another saved the day. In any case, since the electricity had gone out at “o’one hundred,” as the county clerk termed it, even the gas boiler was inoperable. But the boiler had already been in disrepair prior to the outage. And with the lightning strike, all the electric appliances inside had stopped working.
The first that came to a grinding halt after making a big koong sound was the boiler. 85 Then the computer, the washing machine, the television, in that order, ceased to operate. Voluntarily or not, the appliances had gone on strike. Daily life had become one big mess. Indoors, from the laundry line strung up like a spider’s web, the hand-washed laundry gave off a strange smell and after two days was still not completely dry. If only that damn heater would work I could do something about the laundry. Dammit, I did it again. All she could do was hit herself on the head again. It wasn’t normal that she had forgotten twice already. Electricity, or the lack thereof, was the source of all her problems.
After having tinkered with the fuse box and circuit breaker, Sun-ah’s husband had bowed out, admitting that he couldn’t fix it. Now, there was nothing left to do but wait forever for the repairman. The crunch-crunch of footsteps must be Sun-ah coming. Chŏngok bolted out of her tipsy state. Whether or not she knew what was going on inside Chŏng-ok’s head, Sun-ah, after glancing at the swaying laundry, then at Chŏng-ok, squatting and anxious, said, “I see you’ve moved from the custodian’s quarters to the classroom. Oh boy.” Chŏng-ok could tell that once again Sun-ah was up to something by her perturbed expression and heavy tone. Since I’m already having to listen to your annoying remarks I might as well prove that I’m doing just as much as you are as a mother, and with the intention of preparing side dishes for dinner ahead of time, Chŏng-ok took out the potato and yam stalks the grannie had brought over earlier and began peeling the skins. “It’s just . . . remember that man with the two kids who live above us?” When the yam stalk skin came off in one peeling, it felt really good.
But such a thing only happened once every ten times. More often, the skin would snap off halfway. Even with her attention focused on this endeavor, it was questionable whether the skin would peel off in one round. Unlike on other days, Sun-ah’s heavy tone was getting on Chŏng-ok’s nerves. 86 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok “I told you, you can’t peel yam skin like that, but you keep doing it. Now, look at how I do it. First you cut the leaves, don’t put pressure and if you just gently peel . . . see, it doesn’t break. But anyway . . .” “Wow, it’s like magic. Isn’t there a place that holds a yam stalk peeling contest? If there is I bet you’d get first prize.” “Stop changing the subject and listen. That man, well I don’t know about other things, but he can do laundry like no one else. The underwear he hung all in a straight line under the eave of the house—they were so white, I was in awe I tell you, in awe!” “You think he only does laundry well? He cooks and cleans well, too.” “So you’ve noticed. You know how dirty country men are.
Our Chu-ri’s father was clean enough when we lived in the city, but after we moved to the countryside, I’ve never seen such a beast.” “That’s because it’s been less than a year since your neighbor moved in. It’ll be the same for him soon enough.” “I don’t think so. He keeps his home so clean: go take a look at his toilet. My god, that’s the first time I’ve seen such a clean bathroom out here in the country.” “Why are you using his bathroom instead of yours?” “Yeah I know. I paid a neighborly call since it didn’t seem right that I couldn’t pop in just because it’s a widower’s home, and well, I also took a look at the bathroom is all. But good heavens, that bathroom is more comfortable than our bedroom. That bathroom made me understand that cleanliness is comfort. After that, whenever I needed to go, it was agonizing because I’d always think about that bathroom.
” While Sun-ah brought up miscellaneous accounts from here and there hoping to make Chŏng-ok laugh, Chŏng-ok scraped at the potato as if trying to wear out the old spoon even more. “Why are you so stubborn, huh? I told you to take one of our potato peelers.” “I know there’s such a thing as a potato peeler. But even if it’s harder, it’s more fun scraping with a spoon.” 87 “That’s because you haven’t properly experienced the wonders of the specialty potato peeler. Isn’t it the same with how you live?” “Well, we all think differently.” “At any rate, he said he used to do electrical work up in Seoul. So, I was thinking of calling him over, but I had this feeling that I needed your permission first. So here I am.” She concluded in an unusually coy manner. “Since when do you come only when you’ve needed permission? If he knows how to fix electrical problems, that’s great. Bring him over.” Sun-ah fluttered off, her exit not suiting her ajumma mannerisms. Before long, Sun-ah returned with the widower, who looked so tidy your eyes hurt just looking at him. For someone who had worked on wiring, his hands were exceptionally white and his fingers rather long. The minute Chŏng-ok saw his snow-white hands she got goose bumps all over.
Meanwhile, who knew what she found so funny, but Sun-ah was chatting and giggling and hopping about. “I think there’s a leak somewhere. You’ll need to call the repairman when it’s not raining and have him put in a new line.” The widower acted like he had committed a crime by not fixing the electrical problem, rubbing his palms together as if begging forgiveness and chuckling nervously. “Actually, I did call the repairman but he went back because of the landslide.” “I guess I should be leaving then . . .” Sun-ah began sending signals to Chŏng-ok to not let him go, gestures that implied she would never leave Chŏng-ok alone if she did. “Since you’re already here, my place is not much but would you like to come in?” Without hesitating, he said, “Sure.” What nerve. As if she lived there, Sun-ah swiftly brought out a cushion for him to sit on.
“I don’t have much to offer. How about a drink?” 88 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok The widower waved his hand. “I can’t drink. Actually, I won’t drink.” “Do you have something against alcohol? . . .” “That’s right. My family was ruined because of it.” Sun-ah began putting away the bottle Chŏng-ok was about to bring out, as if to say you see. The widower left without even glancing back once. The possibility was now over, not unfolding as Sun-ah had hoped. I bet she won’t be talking about marriage anymore. But then, “In that case!” “Who’s it now? Go ahead and bring him. I’ll deal with him as much as you want.” “That hut way out there with the cattle shed, you know that young man who can drink like you can’t believe . . .” “Uh huh.” A smile began creeping over Chŏng-ok’s face. She wondered how young that fellow was.
“These days who cares about age? Man, woman, you just meet and live together, that’s all.” Apparently, Sun-ah was also conscious of the young man’s age. “No need to call him over. In fact, I was thinking of meeting him tomorrow and going into town together.” “Oh yeah? Hey that’s great. Why didn’t you tell me you already had this going on?” Sun-ah gave Chŏng-ok a sly look. “It’s not what you think. I have to go to the education bureau. Your kids get transportation support, but my kids and that man’s kid, no I think he said nephew—I wanted to ask why they weren’t providing for our fees too.” “Didn’t you ask the school?” “Of course I did. I called so many times and went in person, but they keep saying they don’t handle that kind of thing.” “How much is the transportation fee for you to bother with this? This is humiliating. Someone might think you’re destitute.” 89 When Sun-ah acted like that it was best to not respond. What was the point of getting angry at someone with such a different mindset? After dinner, Chŏng-ok headed over to the mud hut to see if the young man could make time tomorrow, as she figured if they went during the day there wouldn’t be many people. She thought someone must be home, for even from afar a light was flickering. When she made a sound to signal her presence, the young man, snickering with his nephew, opened the front door looking disheveled.
Even at first glance, there was something disturbing about the negligible conditions inside the hut, so Chŏng-ok refrained from entering. In consideration of a poor person’s pride, wasn’t that the least she could do? He did not press her to come in. They lived nearby but had met only once last spring, and this was the second time. Chŏng-ok deliberately directed her gaze toward the cattle shed and got to the point. “The thing is, I’ve been asking the school repeatedly but what do I get but some drivel about them not being responsible? It’ll be summer vacation soon, so before it gets to that I thought it best to figure out a solution for the children’s transportation fees. Since tomorrow is market day and all, I thought we could also go to the education bureau together and . . .” Her children had told her that this young man had had a huge fight with the vice principal of the school—she wasn’t sure about what, exactly—so Chŏng-ok was extra cautious in bringing up the school. “Actually, I did think we should go together at some point.
But I got wrapped up in other things and never got around to asking.” “OK good, then why don’t we go tomorrow morning when the kids leave for school?” “Sure.” When Chŏng-ok returned home, her two daughters were squatting under the carbide lamp, sobbing. “What’s wrong?” 90 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok “Ju-ri’s mom said that you’re gonna get married? Then what will happen to us? Uh uh ung!” “Stop talking nonsense and let’s go to bed.” It was not like she could discipline her crying kids over something like this, and the best balm for an uneasy heart was sleep. The next morning Chŏng-ok opened her eyes to a clanging sound coming from somewhere. The day was sunny and clear. The chickens, which had been rained on for days and miserably trembling underneath the apricot tree, were clucking and flapping about in animal bliss, oblivious to their former plight. Chŏng-ok felt guilty about having to sell some that had survived the rain at the market today, but a person had to live, so what could she do? After grabbing three plump chickens and shoving them into a cardboard box, she got the kids ready for school and debated whether to just wash her face—I should at least put on some lotion, why my skin looks so rough.
Feeling self-conscious about talking to herself, Chŏng-ok, after applying some lotion, ended up powdering on some light foundation. But with her face powdered, now her lips appeared too pale—like a sick person’s. Chŏng-ok nicely asked for her lipstick back from her second child (who no doubt had stolen it for some wicked intention), but when she refused, before she knew it Chŏng-ok smacked her backside and grabbed it back. Glancing over at her daughter who was sniffling and giving her a sidelong scowl, Chŏng-ok assured her, “I’m not running away anywhere so don’t you worry.” Even as she spoke, Chŏng-ok’s hand was diligently applying a coat of red on her lips. It felt like a lot of time had been wasted. Chŏng-ok, feeling rushed, told her second child—who was still sniffling—that if she ran the wind would dry her tears, got her first and second to run ahead, bound the third child tightly to her back, and with the box of chickens balanced on her head, at last, Chŏng-ok, the single mother, began walking down the mountain road.
The bright 91 and clear morning sun that soared up after the rain radiantly illuminated the family of four. When they reached the landslide area, the villagers were gathered with their shovels. She hadn’t heard a call to come out— was the clanging she heard that morning a gong signaling that? Feeling a bit sheepish about wearing makeup, and a bit guilty for going out when the villagers were all gathered together, Chŏng-ok, without even asking, approached the village head. “Excuse me, I actually reported the landslide to the district office yesterday. So I’m sure that even if the neighborhood folks don’t come out, someone from the district office is scheduled to arrive.” “Speaking of that, the district office did contact me. Said some drunk woman called, I see it must’ve been you. Reporting something like that sober wouldn’t sit right in the first place, but a woman drinking at that—why’d you go and make our village a laughing stock? Do you know what kind of village our village is for you to go and do that?
Up till now, any problems we had we never asked others for help.” “Why, how is the district office an “other”? It’s not like fixing these kinds of problems is coming directly from the pockets of the civil servants, we’re paying for it through our taxes . . .” “Aigo, why would we bother reporting something we can finish in half a day ourselves? If you don’t know anything you should just stay put instead of taking things into your own hands, as if you’re better than everyone else, and a woman at that. We don’t behave like that. I notice city folk start swearing at the government the minute one little thing goes wrong. We country folk don’t do that. If you’re gonna live in the countryside you should start by fixing that attitude, or . . .” Chŏng-ok felt her face burning. She had completely forgotten the bad feelings that arose from the persimmon episode, but the old persimmon owner, snickering, came up next to the village head and added his two cents. 92 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok “That’s not the only thing she ought to fix. She needs to right that head of hers trying to solve everything with money. Seems like there’s plenty to fix.” If she stood there any longer, there was a high chance Chŏngok might burst into tears.
She now realized that Sun-ah’s talk of marriage wasn’t a lot of hot air. “I won’t ask you to help here, but on your way home, why don’t you bring back a couple bottles of makkŏli1? As a villager, that’s the least you can do, don’t you think?” She nodded meekly but as she broke away from the situation, things went from bad to worse as her young ones, who had been going along without a ruckus, started bickering. “You see how your mom is living but instead of helping you make me out to be the neighborhood fool, you runts!” The girls scampered away from their mother like little ducklings. In that way, they all arrived at the village entrance. The mud hut man was already in front of the Sumjin River Love Supermarket with his nephew. Upon seeing Chŏng-ok, Sun-im, the store lady, called out to her. “Looks like you’re going to the market? Hee-ing.” That woman always had a habit of sounding like a horse either before or after she spoke. Sometimes, her giggle sounded nice, other times it annoyed Chŏng-ok to the point of wanting to smack her good. “Yes, I’ll be going to the market, and today I also have some other business.” “What’s that?” She sure had an insatiable curiosity. “Do you really want to know?” “Hee-ing.” “I’m going to the education bureau with that young man over there.” 1. Makkŏli is fermented rice wine with a milky, mildly sweet texture. 93 “You mean with Kap-chŏl?” While there was no reason for it, Sun-im’s familiarity with this mud hut fellow named Kap-chŏl annoyed Chŏng-ok. She got it in her head that Sun-im was wary of the women hanging around him.
Otherwise, why refer to him by name? Because the villagers had put her in an impetuous, devilish mood, Chŏng-ok made unseemly associations. As expected, Sun-im gave a quick, searching glance at Chŏngok’s made-up face. “You did your make-up so nicely today, hee-ing.” “Ah, make-up? I put on a little since I figure if I’m going to go to the education bureau I can’t go looking like a hillbilly, but this heat is so miserable.” “You’re right. If you go lookin’ like a hillbilly those workers will look at you as gullible. Kap-chŏl, shouldn’t you at least wash your face or apply something? How could you go there looking like that? Let me see, you should take that off and put on the buttondown short sleeve I was planning to give you. I have it lying around somewhere, just wait a minute.” As Sun-im went inside to find the shirt, the bus approached.
The bus was already leaving when Sun-im’s pitiful figure came running out waving a multi-colored button-down tee. “Why didn’t you change into the shirt Sun-im bought you?” “Please don’t worry about it.” “It’s just that she was so sincere.” Kap-chŏl said nothing more. At that point, Chŏng-ok kept her mouth shut. They dropped the kids off in front of the school and proceeded to town. Chŏng-ok wondered what to do about the box of chickens, and ended up hugging it to her chest, stepping hesitantly into the office. The weather outside was like the inside of a steam pot, but indoors the office had about three or four fans whirring violently and as such, it felt tolerably cool. Chŏng-ok respectfully approached 94 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok one of the clerks who had from time to time called on her home to oversee the closed-down school. “Well well, I was planning to go to your place with the headmaster of our central branch, but I see you’ve come to us.” The clerk then brought out some kind of notice. Entry is forbidden without the permission of the school headmaster. In the case of trespassing, if school property is damaged, the guilty must compensate for damages and receive additional penalties. “Why? Were you planning to post this in front of my house?” “Not much I can do, just following orders.” “You’re saying I have to get permission from the headmaster every time I enter my own place?” “We just follow orders so I can’t really advise you. Anyway, what was it you came all the way out here for?” Chŏng-ok related her request. The clerk escorted her to the something-something deputy chief.
The deputy chief noted he was busy and pointed to the sofa. With no other alternative, Chŏngok sat waiting on the sofa when the deputy chief, having busily returned from somewhere, abruptly remarked, “Why did you take the trouble of coming all the way out here for such a matter?” “I asked the school repeatedly, but they said they couldn’t help and told me to go to the education bureau.” “You can’t expect the education bureau to deal with each and every parent who has a complaint like this, can you? In any case, since you came all the way over here, I can tell you that since we haven’t received any guidelines on transportation allowances for students who’ve registered after a school has been closed down, I myself can’t give you a different answer.” “Even though it’s been nearly one semester since I brought up this issue?” “At any rate, the budget for the transportation allowance or whatnot has been set already. I’ll try somehow to put this 95 on the agenda for next semester. You can’t expect us to forecast the number of new incoming students and earmark the budget for this, now can you?
To be honest, isn’t it the parent’s duty to at least take care of the costs associated with their child going to and from school? For the students who had been attending, we were obliged to offer them assistance once the school closed down, but for those students who know full well they are moving to an already closed district and then demand that the education bureau take responsibility for their transportation costs, seems a bit far-fetched in my opinion. Frankly, the fact that the children have to commute so far to go to school is really the fault of the parent who’s moved to a closed district, not that of the education bureau.” “Sir, you’re really out of line. So, if I want to be a good parent I shouldn’t be moving to any closed district in the whole Republic of Korea, is that it? I’ve been sitting here patiently listening to you, and it sounds like what you’re really saying is that our move here is just one more headache for you to deal with.” “Why the nerve of this woman . . .” “If that isn’t it then what is it? You’re just annoyed that one more child under your jurisdiction means one more thing to handle, your attitude conveys no concern about the actual education part. Yet you put food on your table calling yourself a public servant of education.
A public servant who doesn’t even know he should be grateful for having one more child in his district, you call that a public servant . . .” “You think you’ve got it all figured out with that talk? I can’t believe this.” “I’m done talking to you, I want to speak directly to the superintendent.” And why was this young man just sitting there this whole time like a mute with his mouth full of honey? “What’s wrong?” “I’m not good at talking.” 96 Azalea Single Mother by Kong Sŏn-ok “Just live a little longer. If you want to make ends meet, soon enough you’ll become like me.” The office of the superintendent was on the second floor. Chŏng-ok didn’t think she should bring the box of chickens in with her, so she left it in front of the entrance and opened the door with a jerk. Here, it didn’t feel cool so much as chilly. The superintendent first ordered the young office lady to bring some tea and had Chŏng-ok and Kap-chŏl sit on the sofa. The sofa was quite soft. “We’ll take care of your request. First, why don’t you drink some green tea and calm down?”
The superintendent did not seem like the deputy chief in the least. The green tea was hot. On a hot summer day, drinking hot green tea in a cool office. And it didn’t taste bad either. At the superintendent’s kind words and demeanor, Chŏng-ok felt considerably subdued and her voice softened. What with the green tea treatment and all, she even felt a little sorry for having yelled earlier in the office below. The superintendent called down for the deputy chief. The deputy chief still hadn’t cooled down. “Now now, Chief Kim, please apologize to this parent. So how did you end up moving way out here anyway?” “Ah, well, that is, um, in so many words, to write.” “Oh really? What kind of writing?” “A novel.” The superintendent sat astonished. To the deputy chief who still hadn’t apologized, “Hey now, hurry up and apologize to the writer. When I was young I used to write a bit myself. My genre was the essay, I think I have it somewhere . . . if you wouldn’t mind waiting. I can show you my unworthy manuscript.” Chŏng-ok stood up from her seat, leaving the superintendent rummaging around his bookcase searching for his “work.” “I’ll take a look at your work another time. In any event, we’ll assume that starting next semester, our children’s transportation costs will be taken care of. We should get going.” 97 Exiting his office, Chŏng-ok, whose mood was lifted by the superintendent’s impeccable manners, figured that she might as well offer him a chicken as a show of generosity but as she opened the lid, “Chief Kim, when does the lease contract end for that man? When it expires don’t renew it. If we hadn’t rented out the school we wouldn’t be saddled with these problems.
If you’re going to rent the spaces out you have to first size up these applicants instead of creating more work.” “Yes sir.” Chŏng-ok’s lips twitched as she debated whether to barge back into the office when Kap-chŏl, who had been taking everything in up till now, shattered the glass door wa-jang-chang! before she could stop him. “If they don’t listen, you have to show them with actions, not words. That’s my motto.” In the confusion, the chicken Chŏng-ok had been holding broke away with a flap and took off like an arrow. Chŏng-ok and Kap-chŏl chased after the chicken; the education bureau clerks chased after Chŏng-ok and Kap-chŏl. Upon the chicken being chased, the two chasing after the chicken, and those chasing after the two, the sun shone mercilessly.