Born in Seoul in 1931, lady novelist Han Malsook made her literary debut with two works, Season in the Starlight and Cliff in Myth, which were both published in the leading Korean literary magazine Hyeondae Munhak. In 1964, Madam Han won the Hyondae Munhak Literary Award with her short story Trace.
This short novel, translated by Lee Kyung-sik (now publisher of The Korea Post meida), was first published by The Korea Times on May 20, 1973--Ed.
It had rained hard for four straight days, flooding the river and bringing all the rice paddies and cropped fields under the muddy water. If the streaming rain should continue for three more days, even Tae-sik's home would not be spared. Tae-sik stood on the wooden veranda and watched the upper village being washed away in the flood water. There were thatched roofs and borer-eaten wood posts carried away on the muddy water. And then there were wooden furniture, doors, and wooden lids of cooking pots. The yellow torrent bore them all in the same direction with tremendous force.
He watched them going, speechless. His bride sat on the edge of the earthen oven in the kitchen and watched the back of her newly gotten man, also speechless. They had had their first night together only last night. They had their breakfast together this morning but she was unable to see the face of her man. She had never had looked him in the face. She was unable to face him from shame. Tae-sik would not say anything Probably he, too, was bashful. At breakfast, Tae-sik gave her two large spoonfuls of rice from his bowl. She blushed at the thought that giving one two spoonfuls of rice in the old saying was intended to kindle love in the recipient.
Rats dashed to the veranda from the kitchen, climbed up the wood post and them came back down to the floor. They then ran about down under the veranda squeaking noisily. They said the rats were most sensitive to floods, probably because the water would fill up the ratholes.
There was no room in her to worry that the flood might sweep away her house. She was too busy observing her man to worry about the water.
They had met only once before their wedding and all she could see of him at the time was his feet. Even last night the bride could not look at her husband. Though she had spent the whole night with him, she did not know how he looked. All she could tell was he was neither tall nor small. One thing she felt sure of was that he had a healthy body. She never saw how his eyes or nose looked. She had only heard the matchmaker say that such a `manly-looking` man was hard Tae-sik had been a servant of landlord Yi in the upper village since youth. The landlord liked him very well because he was an honest and hard-working man.
The bride had a dark complexion and was by no means beautiful. However, the village youths had said of her that her wet-looking, dark eyes always gave them strange shocks, and overwhelmed them.
They were married ten days after their match-making, Tae-sik had never seen the girl but he said he would not be choosy and he would take her because it was the first marriage proposal. As for the bride, her impoverished parents hastened the marriage from the dire need to reduce the number of mouth to feed.
"Young man, you really have wanted to get a wife, haven't you?" the landlord teased Tae-sik. The landlord then hastily had somebody repaper the inside of the thatch-covered, one-room hut with newspaper for Tae-sik, The house was located over the mountain and had been used by the landlord's forest ranger.
There was no special food at the wedding because of the pouring rain. In the spacious hall of the landlord's house, Tae-sik and his bride made two bows to each other before a table on which were placed one dish of rice cake, two bowls of rice and two bowls of soup. This was all there was in the wedding. There were no guests. Notwithstanding, Tae-sik was so happy that he was beside himself.
The bride brought no trousseau with her, not even a piece of rag. After the wedding, Tae-sik put two sets of spoons and chopsticks, two rice bowls, one can of hot pepper sauce, and one can of soy sauce into a cooking pot. He then put the pot on his shoulder and left the landlord's house for the forest ranger's grass-roofed house over the mountain.
The bride bundled up the two blankets and one pillow which the landlord had given them and which were about all the bedding they were to have. She put the load on her head, and proceeded to her new home, sharing an umbrella with the match maker.
The rain had become somewhat soft. Then all of a sudden it started pouring again. She was startled at the noise. The next moment she smiled to herself, happy in the knowledge that her husband had not caught her startled look.
A millipede dropped on the floor of the kitchen from the ceiling and flipped over its white abdomen on the ground. When it began to creep on the ground moving its dozens of legs, the bride stamped on it and killed the worm. Another one dropped from the ceiling, this time on the bride's shoulder. She brushed if off with her hand and again killed it under her foot. With the air so humid, the millipedes squirmed in swarms in the straw roof of the house.
The hills were denuded of trees so much so that she could not hear one cicada singing all summer and it left the village at the mercy of floods every summer. But the naked hills had one redeeming feature. Because there was no forest there were no snakes. Chased about by the water, the snakes would coil themselves around men. In floods, water was dreadful but the snakes were more dreadful than the water. The bride said it was fortunate that they did not have snakes.
Some more rats ran from the kitchen to the veranda and scampered about under it squeaking.
The bride watched the muscular, tanned shins of her husband standing on the veranda and found him reassuring. She remembered how she spent last night and she felt her heart palpitating with shame.
Now more things came downstream in the swift currents of the flooded river. Large earthen jars would come drifting in the water and then sink under the muddy surface some way down. Then came pans drifted upside down. Probably, Tae-sik was seeing only the things which he wanted.
He opened his eyes wider and wider and shifted them slowly from upstream to downstream His eyes followed the item of his interest till it vanished out of sight downstream. He then moved his eyes back upstream for a new thing.
He saw something white coming down, followed by a colorful bundle. It was a quilt and mattress. There were straw ropes still hanging on the bundle, indicating that they had been bundled together. Quilt and mattress! Tae-sik repeated them in his mind many times. Quilt and mattress. They were things he needed very badly. They came moving gradually in the direction of his house.
His big eyes gleamed. He suddenly turned his eyes to his bride. He caught the wetlooking, dark eyes of the bride looking at his. He felt strange shocks in his body. The bride covered her face with her hands. She felt her face burning like a fiery ball. It was the first time that she met the eyes of her man.
The quilt and the mattress, They drifted away downstream, sometimes close together and sometimes far apart. When they were about to vanish from sight, Tae-sik turned his eyes back upstream.
The bride was for a moment overwhelmed with shame, but the next moment she thought she could now see the back of he husband in a more daring manner. "My man!" she called him inside her mouth.
"Wow!" Tae-sik exclaimed all of a sudden in a strange shrill voice. Next moment, he jumped from the veranda to the ground with a thud and dashed beeline to the river in the rain. The bride jumped up from the oven in astonishment.
Tae-sik had gone barely ten paces when he threw himself into the muddy water with a splash.
"Darling!" The bride called her husband from the edge of the veranda. But the word did not actually came out of her mouth. She did not know what to do. She fretted, her heart aching with anxiety.
Heavy showers started pelting down on the water.
Tae-sik had already swum to the middle of the river and was holding a wooden pigsty about four yards square. Now she knew what her man was up to. She remembered the words of Tae-sik's landlord. He had said that he was going to give him a pigling if he wanted to raise it.
Tae-sik was thinking in the water. The pigling would grow up and be ready to breed in six months. It would bring forth five or six young ones at a litter. The young ones at a litter. The young pigs would grow up and be ready to litter more piglings in another six months. He would then sell the boars and keep the sows. They would give him other things. The waste of the pigs was the best manure for the crops. He would give only the pig's waste to his rice paddies. He had been unable to get a pigsty. It had to be a strong one because otherwise the pigs would break out of it. This must not happen. He would rather not keep pigs than let them escape from his pigsty.
Tae-sik grabbed hold on one corner of the pigsty and tried to pull it ashore. The pigsty would not easily came but kept drifting downstream because of the rough current.
The pigsty was built of hard sticks of about two feet long, which were fastened together with steel wire to form a cage. It was of a pretty good size, big enough to shelter well over ten pigs. There could not be a better pigsty in the whole village.
"Come! Come!" Tae-sik tugged at the pigsty with all his might. Rainwater trickled down from his head and face. He wiped the water from his eyes and nose. The rain pelted down on the muddy water making bubbles.
When a big wave pushed the sty closer to the shore, Tae-sik exclaimed in delight and pulled the thing toward the land. However, a still bigger wave came the next moment and swept the sty back into the muddy water. The thing slid further down into the torrent.
"Oh, you! Come back here! Come back here!" cried Tae-sik desperately. Once it was lifted up on the water, the thing began drifting down with incredible speed. Tae-sik was carried away by the wave together with the sty. Now Tae-sik could neither let go of the sty nor pull it. If he lost hold of the thing, he would be drowned because the water was so deep now. However, if he held on to it, the water would carry him away endlessly. He thought he would yell for help, but he decided against it. There was no house near the shore. There was not a living thing moving in the downpour. He could not even locate his own house.
Tae-sik looked around to see if there was a raft on the water. Raftsmen sometimes did well at times of flood. The would pick up things from the flooded river, sell them in the market, and make a good living out of it.
The rain had thinned a little and now he could see fairly well in the water. However, there was no raft visible.
The pigsty kept drifting meanderingly in the ever stronger torrent. Each time the sty turned, muddy water fell on the head of Tae-sik. He shut his eyes and mouth, lest the muddy water should come into them. When the pigsty kept still, he let the rain wash the mud from his head and face. Now Tae-sik had no idea how far the water had carried him downstream. The mounds and hillocks on the shore were all strange to him. He could not make out where he was. He was scared.
Tae-sik had no time to worry about the pigsty now. He wanted to swim back to the shore and go home. The water came up to his chest. His body became goose-pimpled all over. He felt could and it worried him most because if he shivered with cold he would not be able to swim. He became impatient.
He gave another searching glance over the water. Then suddenly he jerked his head and cried out, "Help! Heeeelp!"
His eyes gleamed with hope. He saw a raft barely fifty yards from him. There were two man on the raft.
The raftsman, however, made no gesture to come to Tae-sik; probably they were too far away to hear him or they were merely affecting not to. He had heard that at times of flood the raftsmen did not show much interest in rescuing a drowning man. It roused his indignation. He admitted that money was a good thing but thought that the raftsmen should not place it above the value of a man's life.
"Ahoy! Help! Plague take you!" Tae-sik cursed them.
He now let loose the pigsty and swarm toward the raft. It was very hard for him to approach the raft because he had to swim upstream buffeting the torrent. The muddy water came into his eyes, nose, and ears without reserve. He blew his nose, raised his head up, and swam on with all his might.
When he thought he had swum a good distance toward the raft, he lifted his head and tried to locate the raft. Alas! It was moving in the opposite direction. It had changed course to shun him and sped downstream away from him. He resolved in his mind that the moment he grabbed hold of the raft he would knock the two men down and toss them into the water.
Tae-sik made an about-turn and began swimming downstream with the current for the raft. He had barely swum a few fathoms when he caught sight of the top of what once had been a dike sticking out of the yellow water like an islet. He reached for it and dragged himself up the top of the earth. Out of the water, he felt he was saved. He stretched out his arms and drew several deep breaths. He then moved his hands up and down, turned his head left to right, and bent his waist to and fro, to see if they were all right. The dike was in the middle of the yellow water and this meant the river had swollen to about double the usual width.
The rain had now thinned to drizzle.
"Ahyo! Save a man's life!" cried Tae-sik towards the raftsmen. He then murmured, "Dragon God take them!"
The raftsmen made no response to his call for help. They kept on picking up things from the water. “Help! Save a man’s life!” Tae-sik yelled at the raftsmen. He felt heavy in the chest with anger. It suddenly started pouring down again. Almost at the same time, the earthen dike gave way and sank into the water. Startled, he began swimming again. He measured the distance with his eyes and determined that the raft was much nearer to him than the shore was.
Tae-sik swam with all his strength. Finally, he put his hand on the raft. One of the raftsmen helped him aboard the raft with a look of surprise.
"Why, aren't you the bridegroom of landlord Yi? What has happened?" asked the other raftsman coming towards Tae-sik. Tae-sik could not tell who they were. He guessed that they were. He guessed that they lived up in the landlord's village.
Tae-sik said nothing. Instead, he breathed deeply a few times. He then lay down flat on the raft. He was exhausted. He no longer remembered his earlier decision to push the raftsmen into the water.
He lay still on the raft for some time with his eyes closed and then rose, A sleeve on his right arm was all that was left of his jacket. Probably it had all been torn away by the water. He looked down at his trousers. He no longer had them. He only had his waist belt and the waist portion of his trousers. All the rest was gone. He realized that he was stark naked.
There were cooking pots, pans, picks, and shovels on the raft, but nothing he could hide his naked body with.
"Whereabout is this?" asked Tae-sik.
"This is a little way past Tang-goul," answered one of the raftsmen.
It meant that where he was now was not very far from his house. He realized that the mountain behind the shore belonged to his landlord and his house was located at the bottom of the other side of it. He was south of the mountain. He felt very much relieved.
Dusk was gathering. He thought it was supper time. It meant he had spent almost all afternoon battling with the muddy water.
"Was not yesterday the selected day? Were you wedded?" asked one of the raftsmen.
"Yes," said Tae-sik.
"In spite of that rain?" asked the other raftsman.
"Yes," Tae-sik replied.
The raft came near the shore. They said that after they put him ashore they wanted to do some more work.
When the raft came very close to the shore, Tae-sik suddenly jumped into the muddy water. There it was! The pigsty had been stranded on the shore. He beamed with delight.
He hastily said "Thank you, folks," and jumped ashore. The raftsmen looked on with wide-open eyes.
Tae-sik hugged at the pigsty. It had absorbed so much water that it was very heavy. He thought that he would never make it to his house dragging the water-drenched pigsty as he was doing.
He looked for the knot of the wire that held the sticks together. He undid the knot. The sticks came loose. He stacked them up neatly and bound them into a bundle with the wire. The bundle was still heavy, but it was much easier for him to carry. He headed for home dragging the bundle. He had virtually nothing on him and he was very cold. The rain was fine but it was like ice to his body, which had been in the water all afternoon. It suddenly started pouring again, washing all the mud from his body.
Tears gushed from the eyes of the bride who had been desperately searching for her man in the flooded water from the veranda. Her eyes had swollen from long weeping. Tae-sik tried to smile at her, with no success. Instead, he collapsed flat on the floor of his room.
He shivered violently from cold. The bride spread one blanket on the floor and put another over his body. But he kept shivering. There was nothing more she could put over him. She wanted to cry. She tried to make a fire to heat the room but the wet wood would not burn. She came back to her husband. The blanket rose and fell as Tae-sik shuddered. He apparently was unconscious.
She fretted and racked her brains, not knowing how to stop his shivering. She held his hands in hers. She felt ashamed but she could net help doing it. His hands felt cold. It struck fear into her. She at once began rubbing and kneading his hands and brought her body close to his. She felt her heart throbbing at the thought that she would try to warm him with her own body temperature. Tae-sik shuddered more violently with the passing of time.
Worried and scared. She stopped rubbing his body and undid her blouse button. She then brought her warm bosom close to the chest of her husband. He kept shuddering, nonetheless. She was more worried. She removed her skirt and then her underwear. She had no time to worry about modesty. There was nothing she cared now except the pressing need to warm the frozen body of her husband. She pressed her body fast to his.
The bride warmly covered the body of Tae-sik with hers. She covered his frozen shoulders, elbows, and ankles with her armpits and legs.
She brought her lips to the livid lips of Tae-sik. They felt like ice. He was unconscious with eyes closed.
With her mouth on his, the bride felt his upper lip stiffening. She was startled. She had heard that when a man was about to die his upper lip stiffened.
She sucked the upper lip of Tae-sik and his nose bridge to keep them from becoming stiff. At the same time, she busily ran her hands all over his body rubbing it. There was nothing she could find in her mind's reach but her own flesh which she could use to save her shivering husband. There was no medicine, no fire, no quilt, nor a neighbor whom she could ask for help. The night had deepened. And it drizzled outside.
"Please, do not die. Please, do not die!" she begged in her heart. Tears had filled the wet-looking, dark eyes of the bride.
She felt her arms aching from overwork. Her lips ached. But she never ceased sucking.
Finally, Tae-sik's body began recovering its warmth. His body temperature kept rising and even had a slight fever. Soon his fever was so high that he felt like a mass of flames. He then lapsed into delirium. He repeated something, which she did not understand. She thought that his lips were so dry that they might burn crackling. The bride kept sucking his lips. She feared the fever might dry up all the moistness from his lips.
It kept raining throughout the night.
Not until had the day broken did the fever begin to abate.
The bride made some rice gruel. Tae-sik washed his face. He had lost some weight overnight but he still looked manly.
The bride stared at his face affectionately.
Tae-sik grinned at her and sat before the table.
The rain poured again in showers.
A millipede fell from the ceiling and into the soy sauce bowl. And Tae-sik had not even put his spoon in the bowl. The bride wanted to cry.
Tae-sik picked up the worm with his knuckly fingers and flung it out of the room. He then lifted the sauce bowl and poured soy sauce into his gruel. He finished the whole bowl of rice gruel in no time.
He carried the table out of the room and put it on the veranda. He then hastily grabbed hold of the skirt strings of his bride and pulled her down towards him as she was just about to go into the kitchen.
Her wet-looking dark eyes gave him a burning stare of affection casting a strange spell on his eyes and lips, Tae-sik felt heavy in the chest.
A number of rats ran into the room, climbed on Tae-sik's back, and made away through the window.
The rain started pouring down again.
Brief personal history of Novelist Han Malsook:
Han has been a prolific writer, ever since she debuted in 1956 with the publication of her short story Pyŏlbit sok ŭi Kyejŏl (The Starlit Season) in the journal Hyŏndae Munhak (Modern Literature). Eight years later, she was presented Hyŏndae Munhak’s Outstanding New Writer of the Year Award. During that same year, 1964, her short story “Food” (or “The Long Rain” in another translation) was included in The Language of Love (New York: Bantam), an anthology of fiction from around the world. Within a short time, it was also published in German and French. In 1968, she was awarded one of Korea’s most distinguished literary prizes, the annual Best Literature Award given by the newspaper Hankook Ilbo. She has published 7 collections of short fiction, 3 novels, and 2 collections of essays, in addition to numerous newspaper columns and essays on social and political issues. She was presented the Republic of Korea Order of Cultural Merit—Jewel Class (Taehanmin’guk Pogwan Munhwa Hunjang) in 1999. In 2009, she was elected a member of the Korean National Academy of Arts and Letters. In 2016, to commemorate her 60-year literary career, a collection of her short stories written from 1956 to 2012 was published under the same title as her first short story, The Starlit Season. Most recently, in 2017, the Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea) published Chocolate Friend and Other Stories, an e-book collection of Han's short stories in English, available at Google Play Books, Overdrive, and the LTI Korea Library website. Han’s most acclaimed work is the novel Arŭmdaun Yŏngga, which was first published in 1981 and then in English under the title, the Hymn of the Spirit, in 1983. In addition to Korean and English, her novel Arŭmdaun Yŏngga has been published in Chinese, Japanese, Czech, French (UNESCO EDITION), German, Italian, Polish, and Swedish.