41st Korean Literature Translation Award Winner
"Spring Afternoon: Three Widows"
Written by Jeong Ji-ah, translated by Kim Yoon-kyung and Brendan MacHale
A spring gust swept through the courtyard like a bad-tempered child. The hydrangea, steady in normal wind, shook violently like a deranged woman on a seesaw.
The heavy hydrangea flowers hung on for dear life; it seemed as if they would break off at any moment. On a second look, she realized that it wasn’t the hydrangea shaking; it was the blue-violet skirt flapping on the clothesline. These days she was troubled by phantoms.
But when she mentioned phantoms to her daughter in Seoul, she got the inconsiderate retort, “Phantoms! Nonsense, just your worsening cataracts.” The miserable girl was probably right.
The illusions created by the cataracts were a momentary reality. Her eighty years flashed past like the rush of wind that had dried the clothes in half a day. She took the wash off the line. Maybe an observer from outside time was hauling in her lifeline like she was taking in the washing. That’s life.
“Nicely dry,” she muttered, sitting up onto the porch, and folding the clothes: A winter skirt, a few pairs of socks and the heavy winter underwear she still wore ― nothing else. In her younger days, she changed her clothes every day. Now, everything irked her. In winter, she wore the same clothes for a week. Could be the lack of sap; even a week’s wear didn’t soil her clothes.
In her youth, her skin glowed, even in the dry cold days of winter. Over time, her supple skin gradually lost its sheen, a scaly flakiness taking its place. Every morning, she wiped the flakes of skin off the floor with her hand ― her palm was caked white. Those white flakes, as if testament to her life on the slide, spoiled her mornings.
“What are you up to?” Kim the old scrivener asked, poking his head around the yard door. Two years her junior, he was still working. Running a scrivener’s office kept him occupied though there was very little money in it. In recent years, he’d taken to looking in on her on his way to and from work.
“None of your business,” she said.
She never allowed Kim inside the door. Too old now to be interested in men, thoughts of love at her age would just inflame past passions.
“The hydrangeas are pretty,” Kim said flatly and disappeared.
The hydrangeas were blooming perfectly in a corner of the yard. Thirty years ago she planted a slip from Haruko’s garden, and before long it took over part of the yard. Haruko hadn’t come yet. For the past two years, after the breakfast lull, Haruko appeared at the door every day.
Rain or snow made no difference; it was annoying. But worried now that Haruko hadn’t shown up, she hustled out of the yard. Last winter, an hour after a final smiling visit, Granny Cho next door had been stricken by a brain hemorrhage. In your eighties, you can’t predict the timing of the final call.
As she rushed past in front of the church, Haruko appeared, neck stretched out goose-like, staggering along. Haruko’s indifferent glance at her was one of total non-recognition.
At the sound of her name, Haruko stopped a few paces on. Fortunately, she appeared okay. She had no children to look after.
“What delayed you?”
“Ah, the old man wouldn’t have breakfast, said he wasn’t hungry. I had to spoon-feed him, that held me up.”
Haruko’s husband died two years ago. Thereafter she never failed to prepare his breakfast table. Yesterday, she served raw beef, a dish she didn’t like herself. She was in tears of self-recrimination all day: So fed up of cutting meat, she hadn’t prepared his favorite dish for years before his death. However, she had not ever confused the table setting with his being alive. Haruko was strange. The other woman knew this day was inevitable.
Haruko, who’d spread-eagle herself on the porch in a flood of tears, today just stared vacantly at the hydrangeas. Haruko liked hydrangeas from her youth; the other woman could not abide them. Lopsided, large purplish flowers, drooping languidly and shapelessly ― hydrangeas failed utterly to stir any feeling in her.
In the old days, when the hydrangeas were in full bloom in sunny May and June, she cut a few blossoms and took them along on every visit to Haruko’s house. Haruko, fourteen at the time, put the flowers in a bottle on a low table, cupped her hands on her chin and stared vacantly at the flowers, forgetting her friend’s existence completely.
“I hate hydrangeas. The petals are like tears.”
She was needlessly nitpicking, jealous of the way Haruko looked at the flowers. As in her younger days, Haruko had eyes only for the hydrangeas. The other woman took her arm and raised her to her feet. They had a common goal today.
“Haruko, let’s go to Sadako’s.”
“Yes, Sadako, our classmate.”
They had been in the same class in the town’s only elementary school. They used Japanese names then, and those names were still more familiar to them. She was Youngja, but to her two friends she was prissy Aiko.
“I don’t know her,” Haruko said, shaking her head, her unmoving eyes transfixed by the hydrangeas. She doesn’t know Sadako, Aiko thought. Impossible. Sadako and Haruko were bosom pals. Aiko knew how they liked to steal off to be by themselves. She was a very jealous woman, and the conduct of her friends often had her in a sulk.
“ Sadako the dummy. Of course you know her.”
Recently Aiko forgot things she thought she’d never forget, not even in death, and out of the blue she remembered things she had completely forgotten. Once she couldn’t find a bank deposit book that she had put away carefully. Like that hidden bank book, Haruko’s memory of Sadako was tucked away safely in her head. And as thread unravels when you find the right place to start, so Haruko’s hidden memory might unravel in time.
“Sadako came to your house a few days before her wedding and cried her heart out. You remember, surely?”
Haruko was a girl of few words but she was no match for Sadako in reticence. Sadako beat all the smart boys to first place, but she never opened her mouth first: Yes and no were her only responses. The students spent their boring schooldays betting sticky cakes on who would get the longest response from Sadako.
Along with being gentle and having brains to burn, Sadako was attractive and loved by her teachers and the boys in her class. She swallowed everything said ― like a dummy who had got the best honey; and she was so good at not divulging what she heard that she was popular with the girls too. With Sadako, a secret was leak proof.
Although a close friend, Aiko sometimes felt envious of Sadako’s popularity. When Sadako was to be married to a graduate of the prestigious Tokyo Imperial University, Aiko spent days in inner turmoil. She had just married Park, an assistant in Kim’s unlicensed pharmacy, but years of love for Park totally disappeared when she heard about Sadako’s TIU graduate.
It was probably anger that prompted Aiko to be sarcastic to Sadako, whose eyes were swollen from tears. She asked her whether it was TIU she disliked, or had she something against luxury.
Early next morning, Sadako took the Pusan train to connect to Tokyo, insisting on becoming a working student. She was arrested and ended up with a close cropped head on the day of her wedding.
“Sadako,” Haruko mused, rolling the name around her mouth a few times but apparently without immediate recall.
“I don’t know that name.”
“How can you not know Sadako!” Aiko shouted, thoroughly agitated, “Get up!”
She grabbed hold of Haruko’s arm and moved off. Haruko staggered fitfully in her wake, as she always did in days past, like a cow on a halter going to the slaughterhouse.
When Aiko set her eye on Park from Kim’s pharmacy, Haruko set her mind on the class leader Kamaymura Aichi. Of course, Haruko said nothing about it, but the whole class knew she liked him. Her white cheeks flushed if Aichi appeared anywhere nearby.
Early one summer’s night, when the schoolyard was awash with wisteria, Aiko made Haruko write a long love letter. Yes, Haruko wrote it, but not one sentence was crafted without Aiko’s attentive ministrations. And it was Aiko who rolled Haruko’s letter out with the iron — Haruko had crumpled it up in a ball at dawn ― and slipped it in Aichi’s school bag.
When Aichi found the letter, he summoned Haruko to the wisteria. Haruko ran off, her face ruby red, leaving her bag behind her. Aiko took her place on the bench under the wisteria.
“How can a woman behave like this?” Aichi said pompously, his face reflecting his status as the class leader when he handed back the creased out letter.
“Fool! What’s the point of all your study when you don’t know the heart of a girl.”
Aghast at Aiko’s sharp rejoinder, Aichi was struck dumb.
“In love with someone else, is that it? That’s why you dislike Haruko? Admit it!”
Thunderstruck by the strangely prescient attack, Aichi turned away abruptly from Aiko’s unrelenting stare. She was quick at understanding boy-girl relations, probably because she was the first of the 14-year-olds into puberty.
“Sadako, huh?” Aiko persisted. A shaft of early summer afternoon sunlight ― like a fishing net through the wisteria ― illumined Aichi’s face from above. He remained silent. Clearly, it was Sadako.
“Fool! What’s so great about Sadako the dummy?”
It wasn’t Aiko’s love that had been blighted, but when she came out from under the wisteria, her face was bathed in tears, probably due to her empathy for unrequited love the world over.
The aroma of the sweet wisteria flowers, even more fragrant that afternoon, intensified her sorrow. The wisteria scent and Aichi’s red face illumined by the sunlight were still fresh in her memory.
Haruko hesitated in front of Sadako’s house.
“Go in on your own, I don’t want to,” she said.