The narrator, a manager at a factory in the city, is sent on an urgent business trip to his wife’s hometown. As the hapless narrator sets out on his journey, his wife pressures him to visit his in-laws while he is there, to take care of various family matters including playing matchmaker to her younger sister.
It makes me shudder just to look back on that day’s journey. I had been walking for about half an hour when the fickle mountainside weather suddenly brought on rain. Quickly I stepped underneath an alder tree by the road, which kept me dry for a while, but as time passed, its leaves gathered rain and began pouring water on me one after another. The tree practically turned into the Nine Dragon Waterfall, and I was soaked, as if I had stepped out from under the eaves on a rainy day and got hit smack on the face by the water from the gutter. No one was around, not a house in sight.
I had no choice but to leave the tree and start walking again. My clothes were wet all the way through.
Fortunately, in a while the rain stopped and sunlight shone through the gaps between the clouds. But then, soon after, clouds hid the sun again and a wind started up. I was disgusted by this mountainside weather. Here in the mountains, even the sky seemed to take after the uneven shape of the land, causing the weather to change two, three times within an hour.
Soaked to the skin and attacked by the wind, my body started to shiver and shake.
And the road, how slippery it was. For every ten steps I took, at least once I narrowly escaped falling. Those who have ever traveled long distances on foot will know that almost falling can be even more devastating than actually collapsing.
“Damn it!” The words darted out of my mouth with every step I took. Everything I saw in front of me made me angrier: the rock curled up like a big, dumb bear; the pointlessly tall and upright larch tree; the dog soaked in rain running to who-knows-where; the busy brook causing such a racket that it hurt my ears.
A crow sitting in the middle of the road fluttered its wings and flew up to the telephone pole. He looked down at me suspiciously and cried, “Gaw–aw–” Mixed with the sounds of the rain, the stream and the winds, it seemed as if the crow were asking, “Going where? Going where?” He kept repeating the same thing, over and over, as if his suspicion would go away only when he got an answer out of me. I stomped my foot, mad as hell, but the clever crow would not budge, screeching the same sounds again.
I glanced at the bird with a sneer and muttered, “I’m headed to my in-laws’, you wretched bird, looking like a mouse about to drown, all for my wife’s little sister . . . ”
Only then the bird flapped its wings and flew up, crying, “Gaw, gaw,” as if to tell me to keep going, then, flew away, heading somewhere unknown to me.
I grumbled in anger. “What a wretched animal.”
Perhaps the words came out of my desire to break out of the tedious silence that had accompanied me for tens of ri, which I had walked without encountering a single person or a single spoken word. Silence was harder to bear for me than commotion. The deafening roar of the wind and the valley’s stream seemed to deepen the silence, making me feel as if my own existence had turned into a part of the wind or the water, devoid of language skills.
This was how I came to engage in a conversation with a crow in reality-this was no fairy tale or a legend.
But what was strange was that, after I took out my frustration on the crow, it felt as if I had shed the weight from my chest. I was going through all this trouble not for myself but for another human being (though it was only a sister-in-law). This thought was comforting to me. All sufferers in history, either renowned or unknown, must have sought the same comfort. Then I pictured my wife, who would click her tongue and heave her frail chest, aching for me when I returned home and told her about the misery I went through. Like any member of this class called husbands, there was a part of me that longed for my wife’s pity.
I began to wish that the wind would keep blowing and the rain would keep pouring, until I arrived at my in-laws’. My clothes were already soaking wet and if this was the price I had to pay, I wanted them to see for themselves the trouble that I had put up with.
When I reached the brook at the bottom of the village where my in-laws lived, however, the wind had ceased and the sun had begun to warm the air. It was a pleasant evening with a soft breeze blowing, without a trace of the earlier nasty weather.
I looked down at my shoes and my pants, covered with mud, feeling completely betrayed for no good reason. But whatever mood I was in, I had to clean up a bit before entering the house. I walked down to the brook, making my way through the thick willows.
There was a red tractor parked in the middle of the stream. Between the tractor wheels, I saw two pairs of legs, making dabbling sounds in the water. The two people were washing their hands and feet.
I squatted down on the opposite side of the brook, slightly upstream from where the couple was. Now and then as I cleaned my shoes, I glanced at the two pairs of legs moving between the wheels. The pants were rolled up on both pairs of legs. The first pair was dark and the other pair was thin but smooth and supple. The stream seemed to slow down when it reached those legs, as if taking extra care. I could sense a fresh and warm glow on the skin. These legs belonged to a young woman, most likely unmarried. My wife’s sister would also be washing her legs right now after a day’s work, just like this woman.
I began to rub the mud off my pants. Upon my arrival at the in-laws’, there would be a rowdy welcome. The sister-in-law would hold on to my hands and stamp her feet like a little girl. “What brings you here, so out of the blue? Such a nice surprise.”
“I’m here because of you.”
“Me? Oh my, what does that mean?”
“Take a look at this and you’ll know what I mean. I’m sure you’ll be pleased.”
I stopped my thoughts here and reached my hand inside my pocket. At that moment, a reflection of my frowning face appeared on the stream. The photograph in my pocket was crumbled up and wet with rain.
The young man’s charming face was wrinkled in a frown deeper than mine. He looked as if he had only one eye and his nose formed a staircase, folding over on to the lips.
“What am I going to do?”
I could still hear the merry murmur of splashing water from the other side of the tractor, oblivious to my worries. Drops of water, colored scarlet by the sunset, fell on the rocks with a patter that sounded like laughter.
“Here, why don’t you wash your face, too.” The voice sounded somewhat familiar. Could it be . . . , I thought, and listened closer.
“That’s okay. For a driver, the real face is his tractor. I’m sure my mother-in-law would like this ‘face’ better.”
“Mother-in-law? Comrade, what do you mean you have a mother-in-law?”
The voice was similar to my sister-in-law’s.
“Of course, I do-your mother.”
Hands like maple leaves cupped up water and splashed it, over and over. What followed was the other voice, delighted as if the man had been showered by flower petals in the wind.
“Well, that feels nice and cool!”
“I’m going to go.”
“What do you mean, where?”
“Let go of my hand . . . ”
“Are you still going to go or not?”
“I said let my hand go. People will see!”
“Well, give me an answer.”
“I won’t go, I won’t!”
There was a hearty laugh.
“Oh, comrade, you are impossible!”
Then the merry splashing of water again.
I let out a sigh. My reflection on the stream was wearing a smile, something I hadn’t noticed myself. Men of letters would call this love in full blossom. The only thing left for this young couple was to announce their love in legitimate union, marriage.
“No, it can’t be,” I decided. My wife’s sister would be waiting to hear from me and no one else. I was about to lift myself up quietly when I heard the man’s voice.
Yeong-ok?! Yeong-ok was the sister-in-law’s name.
Dumbfounded, I stared blankly under the vehicle at the two pairs of legs standing side by side. Those soft, supple legs had taken strides on their own and found love.
“What is it?”
“What will your sister and her husband do when they find out about us? I know they want to take you to live in the city . . . ”
“The city? Where did you hear that?’
“From you, wasn’t it?’
“That time when we were transporting grain fertilizers.”
“Oh, that? That was just something I said. And it makes sense, doesn’t it? Wouldn’t you want to live close to family, Comrade?”
“Well, that, yes . . . ”
“I wish my sister and her husband would move here to live close to everyone. Isn’t it great here? Next time I see them, I’m going to bring it up.”
“Wonderful. I’ll fire my own cannons in support!”
I hadn’t noticed that the photograph had slipped out of my hand and had floated away.
“My, what is this picture?”
I realized the situation only after I heard the sister-in-law’s startled voice. Then I saw a small hand pick up “the young man” from the water.
Hurriedly, I hid behind the willows. I had no other choice.
“My, what a funny face. He looks like a fool.”
I walked up to the road, where I would be out of their sight, and headed toward the village, trudging.
My rain-soaked clothes slapped my body, sticking heavily against it. My legs were weak and shaky, as if they were about to give any minute, and my whole body was shivering.
“My, what a funny face. He looks like a fool.”
To me, these words sounded like “My, what a fool my sister’s husband is!”
There was a cow on the side of the road, and when it saw me, it mooed so long and loud it scared me. Dogs barked from the houses by the road. Farm chicken scattered this way and that, clucking noisily. A gray cat, its back curved round, jumped like a shadow over a ditch made by a wagon wheel and disappeared. The dogs barked more fiercely, sticking their heads out from the houses. One had its head lifted up high, its bark like a wail; one barked with so much rage that it sounded like it was coughing; and one made giggly barking sounds, as if it were trying to suppress its laughter.
I let out a hollow laugh, unaware of the laughter myself. It was as if the cow and the chickens and the dogs were all laughing at me and how much trouble I went through, all for nothing.