It was February when he went down south to view the plum
blossoms in Gwangyang. Around February 15.
He was sure that plum trees bloomed in February. Why
did he think he knew that? The only possible explanation is because
he had graduated from a Korean language and literature
department. Or, to be precise, wasn’t it a department of Korean
He sometimes used to quote passages from books such as
the Gu Wen Zhen Bao (True Treasures of Old Literature). Or a
woodblock edition of The Story of Chunhyang. Or it might be
The Tale of Hong Gil-dong, or the Maecheon Yarok (Unofficial
Records of Maecheon).
Boring quotations. That was what people who knew him
used to say — all of them titles anyone would have heard at
least once while studying for the university entrance exam,
even without being in a Korean literature department. But only
the titles, without ever reading them. Or just glimpsed as the
source of texts selected for the linguistic aptitude test during
Yet he tried to show that he really knew them. It was not so
much that he knew a lot; rather, the less other people knew the
more he could claim to know.
And even if he knew, he did not know fully. So he went off
to view plum blossoms in February. That was not necessarily
something linked to the Korean literature department. If there
was a connection, it might have had more to do with his character
than with his college major.
It can be conjectured that in one or another of the books he
had read, it said that the second month of the year was the flowering
time for plum trees. It probably eluded him it meant the
second lunar month. His graduation thesis was about classical
But he went to Gwangyang in February by the solar calendar,
and about that it can only be said that it had nothing to do
with his college major. His choice of “around February 15” can
be seen from the same logic. Probably he was unsure if it was
early or late in the month so he chose the middle. That’s the
kind of person he was.
Anyway, until he arrived in the plum orchard in Gwangyang,
the words inside his head never lost certainty: “Plum trees
bloom in the second month of the year.”
“I’m coming down to Gurye.”
Shooting out a brief remark then waiting for the
other person’s response was his usual method of talking
on the phone.
“To see me?”
It was Song-ju. Kim Song-ju. Thirty-five. Teaching on a shortterm
contract in Gurye. Her husband was a clerk in an agricultural
cooperative down there. With one son attending nursery
school. His relationship with Song-ju was limited to a phone call
once in a blue moon. This call was made the day before he left
“Yup. Well, something like that, anyway.”
Something like that . . . There was something hidden behind
those words. The plum blossoms were ready to emerge as needed.
He knew that Gwangyang was not far from Gurye.
The reason why he wanted to go down south was not to see
plum blossoms but to see Song-ju. The plum blossoms was a
pretext. Afraid that his intention would be too obvious, he spoke
as he did, ready to bring up the plum blossoms if needed.
“What’s up, Bach Ajeossi?”
“You’ve never once said you were coming down here before.”
“Well, you’ve never asked me to come down, either, have
“Oho, is that why you’ve never come?”
“Like I said.”
“So what’s suddenly made you say you’re coming down?”
“It’s plum blossom time, isn’t it? The flowers, that’s why.” On
the point of saying that, instead, he continued,
“I’m going down because I want to see you, what other reason
do I need?” he insisted.
Song-ju asked lightly: “Do you like duck stew?”
“I like the broth.”
“What about the meat?”
“So long as there are lots of chives in it, I finish it off, meat
“There’s a place that’s always crowded. I’ll have to book.”
So it was he went down to Gurye without ever mentioning
plum blossoms. That was very fortunate. If he had mentioned
plum blossoms at the start he would never have been able to go
down to Gurye or Gwangyang. Since it was only February. And
then he would never have been able to see Song-ju.
“I said there have to be a lot of chives, mind,” he added.
“Show me a duck stew restaurant that doesn’t cook it with
chives. Better than that, the spicy salad of wild parsley this
place serves will really make you sit up,” Song-ju chimed in.
Song-ju was thirty-five, he was thirty-nine. They were
only four years apart in age. Yet, Song-ju had called him
Ajeossi — Mister, a friendly term for a middle-aged guy
— ever since they were in college.
There, Song-ju had been the only female student to call him
Ajeossi. Why? Everyone else called him Hyeong, Oppa, or
Seonbae (elder brother or senior student); Song-ju alone called
him Ajeossi. He had entered university a year late after repeating
the entrance exam, then came back after completing his
military service, so he was a bit older — but still he was only
twenty-five, yet she called him Ajeossi.
You might wonder what difference it made; the fact was he
really liked Song-ju, a lot. But the way she called him Ajeossi
got in the way. Of coming close. Just like a yellow card.
Not only had they been in the same class, for him everyday
university life was a matter of mixing with everyone for better
or worse, regardless of age and so on, as it was a matter of meeting
the same students and professors every day. Yet, whenever
he heard himself being called Ajeossi, he felt himself shudder.
He felt as though he was in a game of freeze tag.
“Why call me Ajeossi? I’m only twenty-five.”
Two months after his return from military service, he had
barely managed to say something to Song-ju. Only barely, because
whenever he was in front of her, he began to tremble.
“Well, Bach Hyeong won’t do, neither will Bach Oppa and
Bach Seonbae . . . doesn’t suit you.” Song-ju spoke slowly. “Mr.
Bach is just right but it’s awkward, calling you Mr., so I say
Ajeossi. It’s a lot better than calling you Grandfather Bach, isn’t
“Do you really have to call me Bach?”
“Would you rather be called Bong-han Ajeossi?”
Song-ju’s heartlessness almost brought tears to his eyes.
“But do you have to add Ajeossi, I mean?”
“It makes me feel comfortable.”
Heartless Song-ju was pretty, so he felt like crying. “It makes
me feel uncomfortable . . .” was something he could not bring
himself to say.
He had become Bach after submitting an assignment without
writing his name. A lecturer who was unfamiliar with his
name asked during class one day:
“Who submitted an attached file with the name BH.hwp?”
Somebody called out in jest: “Bach?”
Once the laughter died down, in one corner of the classroom
a student raised a hand. It was his. From that day onward, Songju
called him Bach Ajeossi. Later, she shortened it to just Ajeossi.
He reckoned Bach was not a bad nickname. It was because
he did not like his given name, Bong-han, that he used to write
the initials BH. Bach felt like an acceptable kind of tag. The
problem was that it did not really go well with familiar honorifics
like Hyeong or Oppa. Later it dropped off like a propellant
stage from a rocket, leaving Ajeossi dangling on its own, and
that was an even bigger problem.
When the new semester began, the number of students back
from military service increased to three and he was able to free
himself a little from his Ajeossi obsession. Because, perhaps
feeling a bit apologetic, Song-ju called all the returning students
“Right. Speak up.”
Once they had finished eating the duck stew,
Song-ju challenged him.
“It was delicious, really, the wild parsley.”
“Not about that.”
“No? What then?”
“Why you’ve come down to Gurye.”
“I told you. I wanted to see you.”
“You expect me to believe that?”
“You find it hard to believe?”
“If I said I wanted to see you . . . would you believe me?”
“You see . . . So come on. Quickly.”
Her “quickly” left him at a loss for words. Because he understood
she did not mean “speak fast.” “Speak frankly, Ajeossi,”
was what he understood.
Of course, he had come down because he wanted to see
Song-ju. The plum blossoms had merely been an excuse he
was going to produce if necessary. But if he said he had come
because he wanted to see Song-ju, that would only bring things
back to the starting point and their quarrel would most likely
start all over again.
The fact that it was bound to become a quarrel made him feel
rather sad. Because he was not unaware of what Song-ju meant
when she told him to speak quickly. She meant neither “speak
quickly” nor “speak frankly.” “Can’t you be a bit more straightforward?”
That was what she meant. That “a bit more” was what
mattered. Because Song-ju already knew. That ever since their
university days he had always been keen on her, and that his
feelings were no different now.
But Song-ju and he both thought the same. It was not likely,
even if he spoke “a bit more” directly, that their relationship
would change from what it had been before. Even though he
was unattached, unmarried, Song-ju was a married woman with
a husband and child, so what could they do?
If Song-ju urged him to speak quickly, it was not because she
too was wondering what should be done. She simply wanted
to hear a reply containing a little more clarity. No matter what
might follow after. Surely people are like that? First, she wanted
to hear the words. After all, it wasn’t something that can’t be
By comparison, he was much more timid. Even though he
had come down to Gurye in order to see Song-ju, he had prepared
his excuse involving plum blossoms to the best of his ability.
“Let’s be going.”
He stood up first.
“Where are you going?”
“There’s somewhere I want to go.”
“I knew it.”
He drove rapidly southward, following the river. He reckoned
that now he could say he had come to see the plum blossoms.
Since he had come to Gurye and met Song-ju, the plum blossoms
had ceased to be an excuse.
“Gosh . . . that’s the Seomjin River, isn’t it?”
He exclaimed in surprise, looking out through the window.
“Didn’t you come down to see the Seomjin River?”
Song-ju asked, as if to say, “Stop pretending.”
“If I’d come down to see the Seomjin River, why would I be so
surprised? It’s the first time. Why did I feel that I knew it so well
when it’s the first time? Is it because poets have written about it
so much? But now I’ve seen it for myself, ah, a thousand poems
are worth nothing. It’s only now that I see such a lovely river for
myself . . .”
“You’re a photographer and this is the first time you’re seeing
the Seomjin River?”
“I only take photographs of watches, jewelry, electronic
goods, nothing else. I earn a living in my studio. Of course, I’ve
seen the Seomjin River in photos. Often.”
“If you didn’t come here to see the Seomjin River, what else
is there? Where are we going?”
“Do you still paint sometimes?”
He tried to change the subject.
“One of these days I’m going to paint a thousand pictures of
the Seomjin River. It might seem impossible but sooner or later
I’ll do it, against all the odds. Why did I marry a man from down
here in the backwoods? At present I’m held back by that husband
and our child but one day . . . Ah, rural life is hard. People
living in Seoul can’t imagine. Do you still write poetry?”
“Without poetry I can’t get through a day.”
“Pooh . . .”
Song-ju must surely have known that ever since university
days he had been called “a flunked poet.” He was all the time
trying to write poems for literary contests and all the time tasting
the bitter cup of failure. He kept saying he could not live
without poetry, and that made him happy. It was as if at present
he was more in love with loving poetry than writing it.
“There’s a line that goes, ‘In a previous existence I was the
bright moon, How many more lives must I go through before I
become a plum blossom?’”
“I was wondering why those quotes weren’t flowing.”
“That’s from one of the more than one hundred poems the
scholar Toegye wrote about plum blossoms. Wow, comparing
himself to the moon is already awesome, and then he says that
a plum blossom is something unattainable. How could anyone
avoid seeing plum blossoms?”
At last he had mentioned plum blossoms. But Song-ju’s reaction
“Do you still enjoy reciting that kind of stuff?”
“If you heard the story about Toegye, who was mad about
plum blossoms, and the singer Duhyang, who expressed her
love for him by giving him a present of a plum tree, you would
But Song-ju simply replied:
“There’s no point in just reciting, you have to write yourself.”
Whereas he had been expecting her to exclaim, “Ah, you
came down because of the plum blossoms!”
It was only when they reached the entrance to the Blue
Plum Orchard that he suddenly realized that all the way
down along the Seomjin River he had not seen a single
There was no reason why the trees in that orchard alone
should be in bloom. As they sped along the deserted roads he
had not been paying attention. In part because of the river, and
more because of pretty Song-ju.
Since he had been heading for the orchard, there was nowhere
farther to go. He parked. Feeling absurd and wretched,
he looked around at the slopes of the orchard and the river.
“I see it all, now.”
He feigned ignorance.
“It was all for nothing, right?”
“Sin Heum wrote, ‘Plum blossom never sells her fragrance
though she be cold all her life long . . .’ Plums blossom when it’s
cold, don’t they?”
“Surely the poem’s more concerned with fragrance than cold
“Although ‘Without cold that pierces to the bones there is
no way the fragrance of plum blossoms can prick the nostrils,’
Lacking in confidence, he failed to add that the words were
from a poem by the Zen Master Hwangbyeok.
“That one’s focused on fragrance, too, not cold weather.”
Song-ju was not easily defeated. Wasn’t Bach Ajeossi saying
that he had come down to see plum blossoms, not her?
“Surely Master Bou was not lying when he wrote these lines?
‘The lunar year’s last snow fills the air yet the plum is blooming.
Snowflakes scatter, I cannot tell if they are snow or plum blossoms.’”
“He wrote the last month of the lunar year?”
“Yes. The last month’s snow.”
“But still A-jeo-ssi . . .”
“You know, in this situation that Ajeossi sounds just right.”
“Indeed. You think so, too?”
“Because I’m feeling a bit embarrassed.”
“No matter what Shin Heum or Master Bou says, what’s
plain is that the plum trees here are not in bloom.”
“Plum Blossoms in the Snow is only a figure of speech. Plum
trees don’t flower until next month.”
“Indeed. As you say.”
He wondered what difference it made. Plum blossoms
had only been an excuse in the first place. He had
come down because he wanted to see Song-ju; now
he had seen her, so it didn’t matter if plum trees bloomed in autumn.
Song-ju might be a thirty-five-year-old mother, still to his
eyes she was as pretty as ever. She had said that rural life was
hard, yet Song-ju showed no signs of developing wrinkles —
which he thought charming, really — or growing fat. She was
there, before his eyes, a dazzlingly pretty woman.
He recalled something that happened during a student group
outing, the blandly named “membership training,” the college
bonding rite at the start of one semester. It had been somewhere
in Yangpyeong, by a stream flowing slowly in a grove of
poplar trees. Or were they willows?
He could not recall anything that happened before or after.
The shock had been such that whatever had happened, before
or after, all seemed to have completely vaporized from his memory.
The only thing stamped like a brand on his mind was Songju’s
extraordinary performance. Almost the only other thing he
could recall were crimson flowers like poppies blooming here
They had been playing some kind of game and Song-ju had
been caught. The penalties were as boring as the game itself.
Either a song or a dance. He had expected a snatch of song, but
suddenly Song-ju began to twist madly.
Madly might be an extreme way of putting it, but that had
been the impression he got. It was so incomprehensible; he felt
he was being betrayed. He just couldn’t stand watching her.
Every time he saw Song-ju he used to mutter to himself,
“During the Japanese occupation female primary-school teachers
must have been just like that . . .” She was so like a school
teacher, one produced from a mold dating several generations
back. He thought she was the most typical student of the Korean
Education Department (that was the right department).
Then when she represented her team and reported their
homework assignment she was always so nice and tidy, her
speech mellifluous. Every time she did it, the pink glimpsed inside
of her mouth was like a freshly washed, well ripened peach.
Whether she was wearing a skirt or blue jeans, they always
looked as smooth and neat as if they had just been taken from
the wardrobe. She looked as though she wouldn’t run, even
in an earthquake. It was that Song-ju who had sprung to her
feet and danced, shaking the earth on its axis. Shoulders and
breasts, waist and behind all shimmied violently. The students
sitting around cheered and applauded madly. The response was
the more heated for being so unexpected.
His feelings at that moment were shame and mortification.
He felt that his own special sweetheart was dancing vulgarly,
recklessly revealing herself to the bloodshot eyes of drunkards.
But in fact Song-ju was not his sweetheart, and the dance
was not vulgar at all. It was simply the natural talent of someone
who had been learning to draw and to dance since childhood.
He alone was shocked and ashamed. Sorrow that he could not
monopolize Song-ju’s immense sensuality, shame that she allowed
the male students’ glittering gazes, a feeling of defeat for
not being able to control even a tiny fraction of all that. That was
what he felt.
He felt sick, as though he had been stepped on and beaten
up by hundreds, by thousands of people. As if a scream would
burst out if touched by just a fingertip, his whole body (though
it was really his heart) felt like a wound that had swollen like
a balloon. However, far from being disappointed with Song-ju,
while he was feverishly having such a hard time his whole body
had grown full of that same irresistible Song-ju. That was what
he realized once he had pulled himself together. His body had
become a complete host to Song-ju.
He had been sensing that it might happen, as soon as he returned
after military service. There were just the faces he saw
first as he entered the classroom after an absence of two and a
half years. Among them was Song-ju, and as soon as he saw her
he found himself afflicted with a sudden, persistent loss of will power. If there is such a disease.
“It’s a haiku!”
He exclaimed as they walked aimlessly up a path in
“You’re making leaps as ever, I see.”
“Poetry is always a matter of leaps, isn’t it?”
“I’d have a hard time trying to keep up with your leaping. A
haiku out of thin air . . .”
“Look! Over there.”
He pointed to a place where huge boulders were sitting together,
natural rocks, wide and round, beneath the branches
of the plum trees still devoid of blossom. Not just a few, either.
Here and there in the orchard countless others lay scattered.
“It’s a stone orchard, not a plum orchard!”
“The plum blossoms falling, Mother of pearl is spilt on the
He recited in a slightly nasal tone.
“I forget who it’s by. Was it Yosa Buson? The sight of fragments
of mother-of-pearl set in a black table reminded him of
“But what about it?”
“I used to wonder that, too. But look there.”
Song-ju’s eyes focused. For a time she said nothing. On each
of those many large boulders, all alike, plum blossoms seemed
to have fallen, have piled high.
“Goodness . . .”
“They can’t have deliberately looked for fields with all these
stones to plant a plum orchard. Yet, obviously . . .”
“Certainly plum petals have fallen onto the rocks and seeped
into them for a long while. Is that what you mean?”
“The stillness, a cicada’s cry seeps into the rock.”
“Is that another haiku?”
“By someone really famous. Bashō. Though the quotation
They hurried toward the pile of boulders. As they came closer,
the plum-blossom patterns in the rocks grew clearer. They
looked around in all directions. Every stone was full of plum
Unable to close her gaping mouth, Song-ju gazed at him. The
face he had so longed to see.
“I have loved you for a very long time.”
“You have seeped deep inside me, too, Ajeossi.”
Did they nearly play out such a scene? They had never gazed
deeply enough into each other’s eyes. The moment was too
short; they ended up resolutely looking away from each other.
If he had come to Gurye taking the plum blossoms as an excuse,
it was because of what might be called a space Songju
had opened. He called her sometimes, but mostly Songju
had been the first to phone.
“I don’t know why I’m living like this.”
She had been on her way home after classes were over when
suddenly she had thought of Ajeossi, she said, and so she called
“I was just catching my breath while the car was stopped at
a traffic light when I caught sight of my fingers on the steering
So she had begun.
“The nails on two fingers of my right hand are untouched.
This morning I trimmed my nails but I skipped two. The ring
finger and the little finger. Really!”
His reply: “Countryside traffic lights don’t stay at red for
long. Can you keep talking?”
At which Song-ju immediately raised her voice.
“Now I’m parked by the roadside. What do you think?”
He already knew that Song-ju did not dislike him. Ever since
university days. But they had never come to be a “campus
couple” or sweethearts. Intense shyness, a degree of defensive
obsession, the subsequent loss of opportunities, Song-ju’s marriage
and move to the country, then later the possibility of impropriety,
as well as the distance between Seoul and Gurye, had
all been seen as reasons, but actually neither he nor Song-ju
knew the real reason. One hesitation after another had brought
In their university days he had been a really well-liked person.
When he rose to report on an academic excursion, the
female students sitting at the back would scream in the way
pop idols are cheered nowadays. For that reason, once when
a female student was sick and had been absent for a long time
from several classes, he visited her rented room and urged her
to return to school. He took his ukulele with him and played
Carnival’s “Goose’s Dream” for her and the next day she came
back to school.
He studied so well that he kept winning merit-based scholarships
(nobody could equal him in memorizing, he was a genius
at quotations) while he was bold enough to argue with professors
or older students. The main reason was the way he looked
something like Won Bin, the young actor who in those days
was making his début in the KBS series “Propose.” “Something
like” was what he might have said, in all modesty, while others
pointed out they looked “very similar.” There being no special
reason why she should, Song-ju did not dislike him. The problem
was that when it came to Song-ju he lacked almost all willpower.
Not that it was really a lack, for the fact was that he was
intimidated by his excessive willpower.
Once, after his return to school, during the second class
of the Ancient Sijo course, he was reporting his research into
the activities of the singer Yi Se-chun from the time of kings
Yeongjo. At that time he could still not recognize
the new faces.
“Yi Se-chun, a famous singer early in the reign of Yeongjo
. . . ” as soon as he began to speak he froze. “If you could give
me a chance to present during the next class . . . ” that sentence
he was likewise unable to complete; he left the podium awkwardly.
Head bowed, he quickly returned to his seat. All because
of Song-ju. In those days he did not even know her name.
She was just quietly blooming in the middle of the classroom, a
small, bright, crimson flower. Haughtily.
Haughty, the word seemed made for such a moment. Not
that she looked arrogant. She was simply a student serenely attending
a class she was registered for. She was quite calm and
collected, it was to his eyes alone that she looked haughty.
If thanks to DNA or some such he had a perfectly round circle
in his subconscious, Song-ju had forced her way in and settled
there and filled that circle completely. In today’s lingo, he’d
lost it. Perhaps that was why still now he could not forget the
name Yi Se-chun. Because it was the name that had stamped
itself on his mind in that moment of confusion when the image
of Song-ju had come and embedded itself in him like a thunderbolt.
It was also why the name of Song-ju’s closest friend had become
transformed into Yi Se-chun. He had completely forgotten
that friend’s real name.
It was the name he recalled when he had been engrossed
in rapturous thoughts of hoping for nothing more in the world
than just a chance of sharing even a single glass of beer with
Song-ju. Yi Se-chun. She wasn’t called Yi Se-chun, but Yi Sechun
was the only name he remembered her by. So he spoke to
Yi Se-chun. “How about having a beer today? My treat.”
Just as Yi Se-chun came to mind whenever he thought of
Song-ju, Song-ju was always beside Yi Se-chun, being her closest
friend and dormitory roommate. He lived in the dorm too.
The three of them met at six in front of the library, walked down
the university’s long central avenue and out through the main
gate. Along both sides of the avenue far too many overblown
roses were shedding their petals like bubble gum syrup.
The evening breeze felt cool and the lights were beginning
to come on in the bars in front of the campus. After slowly walking
down the food alley, they drank draft beer and ate Germanstyle
sausages in a beerhouse at the far end. Yi Se-chun was
from Gangneung, her father a middle-school Korean teacher. It
was her father who had decided she would study Korean Language
Education, too. Her mother ran a piano academy. “She’d
said her fingers were too short, she could never become a pianist;
sometimes that made her cry like a baby,” Yi Se-chun said,
at which he asked, “Can’t you become a pianist if you have short
In between talking with Yi Se-chun he was able to learn, for
example, that Song-ju was from Jeonju. That was how it had
been since. The conversation consisted almost entirely of lively
talk between him and Yi Se-chun. Although he was bursting
with curiosity about Song-ju. In the bar, too, Song-ju kept calling
As a result, Yi Se-chun misunderstood. She thought he liked
her. When she finally discovered the truth she exploded in anger.
Feeling sorry and wanting to comfort her, he had offered
to sing for her. Only the song in question, accompanied on his
ukulele, was “Goose’s Dream.” But everyone already knew the
story of the “comforting concert” he had offered the absentee
student in her room.
Hearing the rehashed song, Yi Se-chun felt justifiably hurt
and for a while stopped going around glued to Song-ju as she
had before. About a month passed before they were again inseparable,
but he continued to feel apologetic for a very long while.
To Song-ju, not Yi Se-chun.
“You don’t know how terrified I used to be of going to
the dorm cafeteria.”
Sitting down on a large boulder studded with
plum-blossom patterns, he spoke. The sand banks along the
shores of the Seomjin River shone cool below them.
“Don’t know? Behind my back I sensed it all.”
“Behind your back?”
“You never arrived in the cafeteria ahead of me, did you,
“Of course, I knew.”
It was inevitable. Being incapable of approaching Song-ju
directly, he followed her around at a distance. His only means of
access had been Yi Se-chun but now she would not so much as
look at him. So in the cafeteria he always came in after Song-ju
and stood in the queue separated from her by at least ten other
“I almost never sat at the same table with you. Even if I did, I
would be sitting at the farthest end diagonally across from you.
In those days the tables each held about ten students.”
“Did you notice how awkward and uncomfortable I was while
“I noticed. Since you were diagonally opposite me.”
“Since I was diagonally opposite?”
“The way you were always able to get the end seat diagonally
opposite . . .”
“Get the end seat?”
“On your own it would have been hard, surely? It’s when two
people feel the same that ‘the end seat diagonally opposite’ becomes
Suddenly feeling a chill, he hunched his shoulders. Twelve
people . . . Song-ju’s memory was sharper.
He did not dare watch Song-ju eating but Song-ju had seen
him. Despite “feeling the same” he had been much more timid.
Song-ju, knowing everything, would arrive first at the cafeteria,
then cope with his gaze staring at her back from further behind
in the queue.
Tearing his gaze away from the Seomjin River, he glanced
stealthily at Song-ju’s profile. Why was she telling him this only
now? He longed to ask but once again the same dread got in the
way. Just then Song-ju suddenly spoke and he was startled.
“You should have stopped eating if you were that scared of
going to the cafeteria.”
Hearing what sounded like a reproach, he finally looked
straight at Song-ju. She was smiling brightly as a flower. He too
smiled as he replied.
“But that sort of fear came from the premise that I absolutely
had to go to the cafeteria.”
“Absolutely had to?”
“Yup. Absolutely had to.”
Moreover, there can hardly have been a student who ate
in the dorm as regularly as he did. Especially in the morning,
he invariably went to the cafeteria at the right moment. Long
before classes began, the barely awake female dorm students
would come thronging to the communal dining room, pushing
through the quiet morning air that had not yet lost its dawn
vigor. Along the path to the cafeteria, depending on the season,
magnolias, hydrangeas, canna and wisteria would be blooming.
The students’ still not completely dry hair gave off the smell
of shampoo. On such mornings, the sight of Song-ju’s freshly
washed rosy cheeks was a source of tremendous dread.
A strange dread that he had no wish to avoid. On all those
days, eating all those meals, his heart would pound and he
would have no idea how the food tasted. Did Song-ju really
know about all that, even? He was curious but the question that
emerged from his lips was completely off the mark.
“What’s Yi Se-chun doing?”
“Your closest friend.”
“Her name is Hye-jin. Yi Hye-jin.”
Perhaps dreading something, as in the old days, he once
again gazed down at the slowly flowing river.
She replied that Yi Hye-jin, who was not Yi Se-chun, was
working at a high school in Anseong. She had married
two years later than Song-ju then got divorced a
few years ago, after falling in love with a man she had met at a
teachers’ training session.
“So now?” he asked.
“Still at the same school.”
“Is she all right?”
“What’s all right? She’s okay.”
“She’s living alone. Her parents look after the baby.”
She had quickly gotten divorced while the man kept postponing
his own divorce. “He probably doesn’t want to break up the
family.” Song-ju said. “Anyway, it’s like a boring melodrama,
“At the same time she keeps saying she’ll never forget him,
more melodramatic stuff, I guess. Yet still they meet secretly
from time to time, inventing all sorts of pretexts. Her face is
only half the size it was. You wouldn’t recognize her if you saw
her. Yet she doesn’t seem fed up.”
“Really. Yi Se . . . Yi Hye-jin.”
“Yet for some reason I’m really jealous of her, she being a
regular teacher. It’s grim being a temporary teacher. No other
temp is treated as we are. Do you realize that temporary teachers
have absolutely no human rights?”
“Is it that bad?”
“Take the way they wait for a woman teacher to become
pregnant. When she comes back from maternity leave the temporary
teacher has to leave the school, giving up the position.
Quite often it means they lose touch with kids they had grown
close to. I’ve even had to drive halfway across the country to
work every day. Rushing about with no time to trim your fingernails.
I’m thinking of quitting it all and taking up painting. The
deputy head once demanded a meeting at ten in the evening
and I had to comply.”
“You’ve got a husband earning money, and do you really have
to do that kind of work where even your basic rights aren’t respected?”
“Don’t talk about my husband. He assumes that I married
him because there was nobody else. A guy in charge of
a backwoods branch of an agricultural co-op. I have to cook
even ramyeon for him, with kimchi, egg, leek, seaweed, too.
In the bathroom, if a bottle of shampoo or rinse is empty, unless
I clear it away the empty container just stays sitting there.
Likewise, toothbrushes, soap, towels just go on being used
and left there accumulating. When the toilet paper runs out,
in the end I’m the one who has to put in a new roll. Otherwise
he pulls some tissue out of the box and goes into the bathroom
with it. I ask you! If I were him, I’d change it. His hair is falling
out in tufts, but if I tell him to clear out the hair caught in the
drain after a shower, he doesn’t do it. Once he’s taken out and
worn a pair of shoes, they stay lying about in the entrance hall
and I have to put them away. Then after he’s used the portable
telephone he just throws it down so it doesn’t get recharged and
starts to beep, so in the end I’m the one who has to put it back
on the stand . . . I should have taken the qualifying exam for a
regular teaching job earlier and given up on housework, but I’m
too old now.”
“You say all that, yet you don’t look a bit unhappy. Besides,
you’re only thirty-five.”
“There’s no point in keeping on at someone who doesn’t have
a way to understand my situation.”
“Even when you say that, you’re still laughing.”
“Laughing? Lost for words, that’s why.”
“Even though there’s no plum blossom, your laughter makes
the world brighter.”
“It’s the Seomjin River that makes the world bright. One day
my ambition is to paint a thousand pictures of it. It’s my reason
for living. When I look at the river I can breathe freely. It’s a really
pretty river. A very pretty river.”
Because you’re pretty, he murmured to himself. It had been
like that already at university and Song-ju’s expression was
almost never somber. She looked just as she had before. “Anyway,”
she asked, “Don’t you feel lonely, living alone, Ajeossi?”
“It’s . . . so so.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean I’m utterly lonely.”
“You don’t look a bit lonesome. You look smug and selfish.
Just like someone who’s made a name for himself in his field.”
“Shall we have an affair? You’re unmarried so I won’t agonize
He laughed loudly and a moment later Song-ju followed suit,
guffawing. Then abruptly, as if realizing something, they both
stopped laughing and stared at each other. It was almost as
though they were unable to disguise completely the desire hidden
behind their exaggerated show of good or bad.
The silence that took the place of the laughter once it ceased
One, two . . . three seconds or less was all that glance lasted,
but it was already the second vivid look of the day. It was as
though the sound of a plum blossom opening could be heard
coming from somewhere.
“That’s really amazing, isn’t it?”
He was the first to look away. He pointed at the plum-blossom
patterns engraved on every rock.
“What are these if not plum blossoms?”
“They must be plum blossoms?”
“Yes, plum blossoms.”
“I came in February and saw plum blossoms!”
“You saw indeed.”
“We can come at any time and still see plum blossoms.”
“If we think so, then it’s true.”
Their exchange went on endlessly. Neither of them pointed
out that the white fragments embedded in the granite were
not plum blossoms. They insisted. An icy winter wind was still
blowing, the river flowed slowly.
He returned to Seoul with a busy mind. It was because
of one thing Song-ju had said that he held onto firmly.
They parted in front of the duck restaurant where
they had first met. Standing there, against a backdrop of a
group of middle-aged men picking their teeth as they left the
restaurant, Song-ju waved.
“Write lots of poems.”
Song-ju spoke through the open car window.
“Paint lots of paintings. You can do it.”
He stretched his neck as he spoke. It was not that they were
not sorry to part, yet their farewell words seemed neither ardent
The words that stayed with him had not been part of Songju’s
Song-ju had asked a question: “I’m curious about one thing.”
“What?” he asked.
Song-ju looked at him briefly. Her eyes were full of mischief.
He was wondering whether he might come back again when
the plum trees were in flower. They were slowly walking down
the path through the orchard.
“What is it?” he asked again.
“Why didn’t you reply?”
Song-ju explained her question. She had occasionally written
to him, baring her heart. Her words were clear. She had bared
her heart. Whenever she had the time. Occasionally.
“Oh, I never received anything. Where did you send them?”
“To your Cheollian email address. I sometimes read what
you wrote in a photo magazine. To the email address printed at
the end of the essays.”
He explained that, unfortunately, he had stopped using that
Cheollian address a long time ago. Confused by too many IDs
and passwords, nowadays he only used one portal. Not Cheollian.
Belatedly, he handed Song-ju his business card.
“I see . . . . That’s what it was.”
“But did you, really?”
“Send me emails?”
Song-ju seemed to be delaying her reply. It was only after
they had come all the way through the orchard and reached the
road that she spoke.
“Yup,” not “Yes.”
He did not even realize that what had stayed in his heart
was that one word of Song-ju’s, Yup. All the way back to Seoul,
it seemed to keep coming, welling up from the bottom of his
heart. Yup. Yup.
As soon as he reached Seoul, he could not help turning
on his computer. Recalling his old ID and password,
he tried logging on to Cheollian several times but without
success. Either the account had been closed after some
time had elapsed unused or he had forgotten the password.
Although he had been able to verify his ID from a back issue of
the photography magazine without difficulty.
He let two days pass like that. Song-ju’s heart was either
imprisoned in the depths of an old email account or it had vanished
completely somewhere in outer space.
If it had been an ordinary letter on paper, instead of an email,
it would still be wedged somewhere, even if he had been unable
to read it. If he had burned it, there would still be ashes. Online
data that had been deleted was a weird kind of absence, not subject
to the law of the conservation of mass.
On the morning of the third day after his return from Gurye,
as he was eating his breakfast of toast, a fried egg and coffee
while watching television, he had the impression that a word
was slowly rising up from the depths and gradually becoming
It was a program called “Walking into the World,” dedicated
to Ireland. As he kept hearing the word “Ireland” in the narration,
the country’s name did not immediately become clear but
with the passage of time seemed gradually to become plainer.
It was because what was rising up from deep inside him was
not that country’s name but the title of a movie. The spelling
was different but in Korean both words were written in the
After seeing that movie, he had used “island” as his password.
With his mouth still full of bits of toast, he logged on to Cheollian.
At last, the firmly closed lock opened. He nearly spat the
scraps of toast on the floor. There were forty-six emails from
Song-ju. All those emails had arrived on their own, waited so
long that they had fallen asleep hoping to be freed from their
The mouse clenched in his hand trembled. “It’s raining.” “Today
I was really angry twice.” “I steamed some potatoes.” “I’m
out of coffee.” “I’m bored.” “I drank two cans of beer.” “Have
you died, Ajeossi?” “I hate summer.” “I fried too many pancakes.”.
. . the subject lines were awaiting just a click, as if about
to open shining eyes at any moment.
He read them one by one. Just the titles, slowly. Spending
about twenty seconds on each one.
After he had read all the subjects, a long while, the word
“plum spring” suddenly came to his mind. That did not mean “a
spring where there was plum blossom” or “plum blossoms beside
a spring.” “Plum spring” meant plum blossoms bursting up
like a spring or becoming a spring and flowing. If he clicked on
those forty-six emails, he felt that plum blossoms would come
bursting forth like a spring and go flowing endlessly; then,
overwhelmed all of a sudden by inexhaustible petals, he would
have a stroke.
Although she had seemed to be remote, in fact approaching
silently like an underground source would be Song-ju’s heart
that had retained and accumulated a bouncing force corresponding
to all the time it had waited and delayed.
Quickly, he opened a file with the name “Jade Dew of Crane
Forest” and found a poem by a Buddhist nun that he vaguely
All day long I wandered seeking spring, but could not see it;
Till my shoes wore through, I walked on treading on clouds
above the hills;
Returning home weary, I smelled plum blossoms laughing in
Here on the top of plum tree branches, spring was already
He went back to his emails. Slowly, without haste, he selected
the option “All” in his “Received Mail” menu. In a flash, a
check appeared before each of the titles.
Fifteen at a time, three times, he clicked “Delete.”
Down to the last remaining one, all of them.
Those moments when their eyes had met in the orchard.
Two glances, brief but profound. He reckoned that by
their vividness they would provide sufficient nourishment
for him to go on being happy while yearning for her for
several more years.
“No emails arrived.” He phoned Song-ju.
“I finally squeezed out the password and logged in. Nothing.”
“There was nothing there?”
At that, Song-ju burst out in a lengthy fit of laughter. She
laughed so hard it sounded as if she was crying.
Song-ju stopped laughing with a hiccup.
“Did you believe that?”
“Of course, I believed.”
“Your hopes were dashed.”
You are so like me it makes me feel sad, were words that did
not pass through his lips. He did not want to say it, nor did he
feel sad. Because he reckoned it was for the sake of a happier
life for both of them, in order to love that life.
“Anyway, I guess it’s good to phone like this,” Song-ju said.
“Me too,” he said.