At the Beginning of the Blizzard
By Jang Hee Won
Translated by In Young Jung
In that winter, Yeo Jung’s father invited us to visit. He had recently moved to a place in nature with fresh air and water.
“I miss you,” he said suddenly, after asking this and that on the phone.
Was that so? This time, I told him that I would visit him without any excuses. It seemed that spending some time in a place with fresh air and clear water after being so long without them could change one’s mood. When I told him that I would go with Jaehee, he went into raptures of pleasure. He told me that he would wait until we arrived.
However, scheduling the right time was not easy; when I had time, Jaehee was busy, and when Jaehee was free, I had work on my hands. After postponing the visit several times, I was struck with the thought that I wasn’t doing anything at all. Half lying on the sofa, I was staring blankly at the TV. I called Jaehee and asked, “What are you up to?” After a short pause she replied, “Nothing.”
“Are we on the right track?”
As soon as we hit the highway, Jaehee asked as if something was wrong. I told her that I had followed the navigation, but the cursor was out in the middle of nowhere. “Look, you have an issue.” She scolded me for not updating the navigation even though it had been a while since I purchased the car. Then she pulled out her phone and searched for the destination. Thanks to her, we were able to reorient towards our destination to the northeast. A few moments later, we were still on the unpaved road though it was narrower and straighter than the one before. We gradually sped along the road. Jaehee, after hesitating for a moment, opened the window and put her hand out. It was a chilly, crisp day like early autumn. “Nice,” Jaehee murmured with her eyes closed, with the cold wind hitting her face. The fields were vanishing quickly outside the window. “Yeah,” I answered after taking a peek at a dried yellow field. A silence ensued. Our reflections in the mirror seemed more like sisters than friends. We were both staring at the barren scenery, turning channels of the radio, bent over to turn the heat up or down. We drove and drove until the scenery became dull and monotonous, and that was the moment we arrived.
“Welcome,” Yeojeong’s father greeted us. On the whole, it was a bleak and remote place. It was also a quiet place.
As soon as Jaehee saw him, she smiled and greeted him by saying he looked better. Standing on a concrete yard, he smiled timidly. “Do I?” He stuck his hands in his front pockets after zipping the jacket up to his neck. The jacket seemed small as he seemed to have gained weight. He had a generous impression in general, but under the gray hair was an older man with a weathered face. I cringed and shivered as soon as I got out of the car due to the cool air. I liked, however, the chilly yet refreshing ambiance and could understand why Yeojeong’s father moved there. As I inhaled deeply, Jaehee also stretched her arms in the air, saying she was sore from staying in one position for a long time. She murmured as she stretched her arms, “Has it rained?” She probably thought so because of the damp air of the place. There was a strong scent of damp grass everywhere. No, this must just be the way it is here. Yeojeong’s father suddenly pointed at a far-away mountain. I was not sure where he was pointing as the only view of the countryside was fields and mountains. I just stared at the pinnacle of one of the mountains in the middle.
“Because of that mountain, the shade always falls here. So it’s always dark. The sun also comes up late.”
The sun comes late and sets late due to its northerly aspect; it’s always damp and dark here, he said. Listening to his words, we nodded as we thought, “I see.” We did not know much about life in the country, and I first thought that the weather must be the early morning’s chill, but as the time passed by I thought the place was shady and moist. I heard the flow of the water from somewhere. There must be a waterway nearby. I imagined last year’s fallen leaves remaining in the waterway, having been trapped in there. The waterway may have been blocked by the leaves accumulated from the past. Therefore, the reeking smell slowly, little by little, might be hovering in the air even if you tried to get rid of it.
He seemed a little excited, showing us around here and there. On the left side of the utility pole is the field of sesame, and on the right is the field of black peanuts. There is a man who grows lots of peppers in the town; he seeded 450 pepper plants this year, and 250 of them were planted in that house, and 200 were planted in the field. Hearing his stories, I reflected on the vinyl houses and the buildings resembling the factory warehouses we saw on our way there. I had thought that the houses were understandable, but the warehouses were somewhat haphazard as they had been randomly built here and there.
“What is that?”
I pointed at a building with paneled walls. “That?” He narrowed his eyes and answered, “That’s a barn.”
I was surprised at the unexpected answer. On the surface, it seemed to be an ordinary warehouse, unlike the barns I had known. When I asked what was kept there, he answered pigs. I stared at it with my face hardened. I was spending busy days at work due to the epidemic spreading through farmhouses at that time. I spent more and more days on the field, counting the dead livestock. In most of the fields, I was the only woman and knew that the local officials and staff I worked with were peeking at me or exchanging glances with each other, but the real difficulty was facing the miserable and terrible scenes of death. Death where the head and the body were indistinguishable. From time to time, I would blink my eyes slowly, looking at the unbelievably disastrous situation. What am I looking at? What?
He approached and patted on my back and said,
“It’s still fine here.”
Don’t worry, said his innocent smile.
We could not stay long outside and entered the house due to the cold weather. A moment later, he told us that there were many other places that he would like to show us and suggested that we go to the valley and the nearby hill. A small stone pagoda in a cave on a small hill, designated as a national treasure, was one of the must-sees in the area, he said. I wanted to say, “Aren’t those things usually in a temple?” but instead, I agreed and said it sounded good. As soon as I entered the house, I noticed the particular musty smell of the old house, but I gradually got used to it. More than that, the warmth in the house made me sleepy. He told us to put our feet in the blanket laid in the middle of the living room, so Jaehee and I did as we were told. It was warm in the blanket as the boiler, which had been turned on ahead of time, heated the floor. Jaehee wriggled her toes in her socks and whispered, “Awesome. I was freezing.” It was an old house, yet very clean and tidy, which showed his skill in house chores. On a small console there was nothing, not even a speck of dust, but a number of books that he had been reading, and on a thick television, which are rarely found these days, was a white knitted-cover, which must have been handmade. I had seen that numerous times before so I expected it to have been made by Yeojeong’s late mother or her grandmother. Under the big window, corn silk was drying on some newspapers. Jaehee wondered, “What is this?” and she took a little end of the corn’s hair and sniffed it. Yeojeong’s dad, who was in the kitchen, told her that it was for tea.
“So, you received the plums, yeah?”
Handing over the tea, he asked us casually. Plums? Warming my frozen fingers with a saucer, I gave a puzzled look at Jaehee. She gave me a ‘you-don’t-know?’ look and asked me if I had not received any plums in the summer. Then I recalled a delivery box laid in front of my porch this summer.
It had not yet been two years since he started farming in earnest. It was around three years after Yeojeong’s funeral. It was probably then that he started to contact Jaehee and me. When Jaehee first told me that she received a call from him, a call that he had started farming and wanted to send what he had cultivated, I thought it was somewhat unexpected. As long as I remembered, even though he did not become a principal or vice principal, he had been a teacher for a long time, and I was expecting him to continue teaching. Of course, these thoughts hovered for only a moment and I spent most of my time without thinking of Yeojeong and her dad. I, therefore, had forgotten to tell Jaehee my address, and she received my portion of plums and sent them to my house. Unfortunately, the plums were rotten as they had passed through Jaehee’s place.
“Who on earth sends plums like this?”
Mom asked with shock when she opened the box. I told her that it was from the supervisor from my team, whose father is a farmer, and I just told him to send them when he asked me whether there are people to share them with.
“The old man is quite nasty.”
How can he send these to others? Mom complained and told me to throw them all away, but I hid them in the corner of the refrigerator, and I would flesh out the fine parts every night. The swollen plums were sweet and sticky. I was bothered when the juice stained my T-shirt, but I just let it be. Three of them were edible, but the rest of the plums were too swollen, and I had to throw them away.
“It would have been better if you’d visited this summer,” he said with pity when we told him the plums were delicious. We needed more hands this summer as fruits like plums and Korean melon had a rich year. A backhoe plowed over the field full of the overripe melons. It was filled with crushed melons. Farmers were weeping, stepping on their own fruits.
“Come next summer.”
Jaehee and I couldn’t answer, as we were busy sipping tea. I burned the roof of my mouth with hot tea. The tea was burning hot. I was first puzzled, but soon I realized how extremely hot it was. I just had to swallow cold water without even being able to moan. Slowly, very slowly, a burning tea was spreading through my chest. Starting from my throat, I could not feel the temperature, but I could still feel the hot liquid welling up in my chest. Maybe, my throat was swollen immediately as the liquid went through. He was looking at us, expecting the answers.
A moment later, Jaehee had another sip of tea and sighed quietly. Then, blowing on her teacup, she answered that she would.
As we conversed over tea, I heard water dripping and falling on a rain gutter on the roof. In the afternoon, it started to rain. The raindrops got bigger and bigger, and it started to form a mist over the wet ground. His plan to show us around came to naught.
“What shall we do?”
He stared out the window vacantly. Although we told him that this was nice, too, our words didn’t seem to console him. He wilted like dead grass. Jaehee and I exchanged glances for a while and told him that we would like to walk a little. He perked up again and told us that he had collected things that he would like to share with us in the warehouse.
We went outside wearing the galoshes and raincoats that he lent us. Although he told us it was a brisk walk, he took a sack and a sickle with him and treaded forward, swinging his arms. Jaehee and I carefully grabbed each other’s hand and walked along with the farm. Fearing that we might lose our footing and fall into the canal, we held each other tightly and followed him together. It was a winding path, which was unpaved along with the fields. With rank weeds blocking the sight, we were afraid that we might step on something wrong. However, as we got used to the way, we started to fool around by pushing each other. The screams that we yelped with fear turned into laughter and giggles. We were worried that our laughter was too loud, but there was no complaint. He turned back from time to time to check on us and laughed and smiled with us. Oddly enough, I could see that he was smiling even though he was far away.
It was chilly and cold due to the winter showers, but the inside of the raincoat was humid and hot. “It’s too hot,” Jaehee complained quietly, grimacing. Yet we could not take the raincoats off because we both knew that it would be too cold without them. As the fog vanished, the tops of the mountains became clearly visible. A moment later, a winter bird sitting on a wire flew away. I could see Yeojeong’s dad’s back as he walked far ahead in the rain.
“They were gone.”
I crossed, following Jaehee without saying anything.
“The awards are gone, too.”
They were all on the walls in the previous house. We used to play under the pictures of Yeojeong’s childhood or medals that she received from track and field, pictures of her parents’ wedding, or a picture of Yeojeong’s late grandmother wearing a hanbok and no expression on her face.
“They must be somewhere.”
I looked back to check how much we had walked. I could see the house far away in the fog. They must be somewhere in the house.
Jaehee picked up a stone in front of the road and threw it, as if she brought up the wrong topic. Cling. Cling. I heard the stone rolling down the mountain.
Jaehee said that she was surprised to take his call, but it didn’t take long for her to calm down. She said this as if she had been expecting the call. He didn’t talk much after checking her recent issues. I recalled the time I met him after the funeral. At the café, making a glum face, he opened his mouth and closed it several times, holding a saucer lightly. The last people Yeojeong contacted before her death were Jaehee and me, and as he had already checked, the messages were normal, nothing odd or different from usual. It was the same. Nothing different from any other day. We repeated the lines over and over.
It was really strange that Yeojeong drove there, even thinking of it now. Yeojeong told us that she just wanted to leave. Without any reason, by herself. The original plan was that we all go on a trip together, but Jaehee and I were both busy, so we could not accompany her. Reflecting on the past, I wonder what had kept us from going, but Jaehee and I both could not remember. Probably something unremarkable, tedious and ordinary. When we told her that we were canceling the plan, she shook her head.
“I would like to do something I’ve always wanted to.”
Yeojeong told us that she would like to go to Mulgeum, Muju, Sokcho, Gangneug, or Cheorwon with her dad’s car.
“Aren’t they too many?”
We laughed at her absurd plans. Why don’t you take a plane and have fun? That would be faster. She answered with laughter and agreed on our jokes; she crossed out some of the ridiculous plans and put asterisks on some others. Yet, she acted out exactly as she planned. She often sent pictures of where she was to our group chat.
-We are together right now.
I often smiled at her messages while I was working, for she sent the pictures of where she went such as views of piers, a popular restaurant known for its mulhoe, a cold raw fish soup, a small temple at the beach, or the night sea. That really made it as though we were travelling together, and Jaehee and I sometimes felt like we were next to Yeojeong. And two days before her return, under a low hill in Cheorwon, someone found the buried car with Yeojeong in it. A downpour had turned into a storm, and there was her car under the mountain that the storm had hit directly. With the front seat leaned back as much as possible, Yeojeong was lying as if she were asleep.
It was eventually ruled to be an accident. After that, a lot of things changed, but at the same time, nothing changed as well. We lived our lives without her; Jaehee and I did not meet each other for a while, but we started to reach out as time went by.
The laid-back front seat next to Yeojeong comes to mind from time to time. Every time, I try my best to focus on the seat, and nothing but the seat. The hard, black leather the chair was made of, a comfortable headrest, the angle of the waist pad, which seemed comfortable enough, a scent that would suddenly be noticeable after being forgotten for a while, old dust, coins hidden everywhere, crumpled receipts, gum wrappers, toothpicks… The thoughts would linger, making chains of thoughts. And they always end with me lying down comfortably in that place. I would recline the seat, which covers my buttocks comfortably, massage my calves, and ask Yeojeong, “Aren’t you tired from walking too much?” and would raise my head to look at her face.
Of course these are only thoughts. Something that I would never be able to tell anyone. There are times that I could not recall Yeojeong’s face, but even then, I could feel that she was looking straight at me from the side. The thoughts can be mixed and jumbled up like this.
That’s what they can do.
So Yeojeong is always looking at me that way.
“Here it is.”
Yeojeong’s dad was squatting and waved his hand when he found us. We slowly followed the farm road into the entrance of the field. He seemed to have been working while waiting for us. The sack was filled with green grass. Looking closely, I realized that they were cabbages.
“I should have done this in the autumn, but I left them except for the ones that I would eat. Take these with other stuff later.”
He began to cut the base of the cabbage haphazardly with the knife. Most of the leaves were large, but even I, who know nothing about farming, could see that many were withering. Jaehee and I groped the ground and held the cabbages to help him cut them. He told us to stay still, pointing at our bare hands. After a while, our hands were frozen and turned red. We couldn’t do anything but watch him working, with our hands in our pockets. Along with the black vinyl on the ground, the cabbage was growing close to each other. He put the cabbages in the sack, almost lying on his face. Even though we said, “They are enough, Papa,” he did not stop. The sack was full, and the rain had stopped.
After a while, we began to hear someone. Someone was coming up that way. We stuck our heads out alertly to check who was coming up. After quite a while, an old woman with a ferocious look and bent back came up. As soon as she saw us, she frowned, pointed to Jaehee, and began to scold her with a harsh accent. Because of her unfamiliar accent, we could not understand her. Not knowing what she was angry at, we winced and moved aside, but it seemed to make her even angrier.
“She’s telling you not to step on the field.”
Yeojeong’s dad approached and told us to step out of the way. It was only then when we realized that we were stepping on the seeds of something, something that the old woman had taken the effort to plant. It was a surprise that the entire field was not his, and we were somewhat perplexed. There was nothing where Jaehee had been standing. There was only a bunch of black mud. He explained that it was a field of garlic. The old woman bent over and looked around, muttering in a furor.
“Who are they?”
She looked at us and asked Yeojeong’s dad.
“They are my nieces.”
He smiled and bent over and repeated the same tasks he had been working on.
She looked at us with wonder and began to look over the field. In a few moments, she rose up and told us to follow her and walked. “Pardon?” Jaehee and I stood awkwardly, looking at each other with puzzled faces.
“I said follow.”
The old woman muttered and walked away. Being more puzzled, we looked back at Yeojeong’s dad. He smiled and waved his hand, indicating that we follow her.
“Follow along,” he said casually. “There is her house right under the hill. Follow her. I’ll be there soon.” He gestured at us as if he was telling us there is nothing to worry about.
The old woman’s house was right under the nearby hill. It was a relief that the house was not far from both the field and Yeojeong’s dad’s house. The falling wall and old wooden floor gave an impression of a haunted house, but the plastic buckets stacked under the water tap showed that it was a place where someone was living. She entered without letting us in, and we stood in the yard for a while. Then she brought out a plastic cup filled with chestnuts.
“You must have come from afar, take it.”
Taken aback by receiving a sudden gift, Jaehee took the cup and thanked her.
“Why haven’t you guys come more often?” She murmured with a slight sense of blame in her tone and clicked her tongue in disapproval. Not knowing how to respond to her reaction, we hesitated, and she glanced at our faces and murmured, “You two look alike.”
Dad broke into a smile when he saw the chestnuts we brought. On our way back, he carried the filled sack, which seemed quite heavy, on his shoulders all by himself. When we opened it later, there were not only cabbages but also apples and squash. Even though we told him that it was okay, he put the vegetables in the trunk and on the backseat. Jaehee told him that it was too much for her, as she lived by herself, but he was very determined.
After having dinner, which he made, we sat in the yard. Although we were too full to eat anything more, he handed over a basket of tangerines, boiled peanuts, or dried ginkgos. Jaehee received them with both hands and ate them little by little and eventually ate them all. A few moments later, Yeojeong’s dad collected small branches of wood and lit up some newspaper to set a fire. A yellow fire crackled and gradually turned red. He put foiled chestnuts into the fire. Although the size of the fire scared us, we were both mesmerized by the scene which we had never seen before. The surroundings cringed with the heat, and the objects started to wiggle. It seemed as if they were going into the fire and becoming one.
The crackling sound of something burning calmed me and even made me feel better. It was very hot as I got nearer and, at some angle, it was burning like it would skin my face off, but I could not stop staring at it. It was a strangely odd feeling.
“I just burn things sometimes,” he said solemnly.
I asked him, surprised at his sudden confession, but nothing came back; he just stared at the fire. In the silence, only the fire got bigger and bigger.
“Yes, I burn things.”
He brought kindling and pushed the chestnuts deeper into the fire.
“I burn chestnuts, ginkgos, and waste papers….”
In the dark night sky, the small seeds of fire sparked randomly. White dots sparkled and dispersed into thousands of different ways.
“I sometimes set fire to nothing.”
“What’s that?” Jaehee said, smiling. He grinned, too and continued to stare at the fire, solemnly. I stared at the sparks shipping into the night sky with worry. The fire was getting hotter and hotter and I was worried that someone might call the police for arson. He looked into my face for a while and told me as if he knew what I was thinking.
“What are you worried about? There’s no one anyways.”
He looked around. As he said, it was quiet. Barren and lonely.
“There is no one here.”
We looked at the burning wood and flames for a long time in silence.
When we began our way home, he warily sent us off, telling us several times to drive safe so late at night. Unlike when we came, the car felt heavy because of the packages and boxes piled up on the back seat. Come again. Not in the winter like today, but on a warm, sunny day, he said. And we replied that we would. I could see him standing still on the same spot through the mirror as I drove through the path where we came. From some point, I fixed my sight back to the rail ahead, but I knew that he would be standing still on the spot. Even quite a while after we left. He was there, standing.
Since it was late at night, there were not many cars on the road. I drove swiftly in the dark. There were a few cars passing by, but somehow it felt as if there were only two of us. Staring straight at the front, at some point, Jaehee asked me to stop the car as she wasn’t feeling well. I pulled the car over, and Jaehee swayed to a quiet place and began to dry heave. I think I ate too much, Jaehee said. Drinking bottled water from the glovebox, she told me she was feeling better. Yet we could not drive right away, and instead, we began to climb the nearby hill for a brisk walk. We were wondering whether the hill was the one Yeojeong’s dad told us about, but there wasn’t any sign, and it was a remote hill where we could hike by climbing the guardrail.
Normally we would not be so spontaneous, but it was late at night, and we both felt that no one would care. We climbed up on the hill into the mouth of the darkness. We walked slowly with Jaehee’s flashlight app as our only navigator. The leaves rustled as we stepped on them. The longer we walked, the more scared we became—we even had goosebumps—but we could not stop walking.
There was a big rock on our way. We decided to take some rest there. The rock was freezing cold as if it would freeze our butts off, but we stayed there and viewed the scenery. In silence, we looked at the large fields that we must have passed by and the flickering lights of the country houses. As it was dark here, the faraway lights seemed much brighter. A faint but cold wind sounded close by.
Are you cold? Jaehee whispered. No, I said in a clear voice. However, the faint shiver could not be concealed. Why don’t you close your eyes and open them again, Jaehee told me as if it would make some difference. I did as she told me. And looked at the scenery that had not changed even a little. A silence ensued.
“It’s snowing,” she said.
I looked around but could not see anything. A small white dot hovered in the darkness along with the wind. I saw it disappear after a dim twinkle. It might have been a spark from a fire. A vestige of something burning from afar. It might burn everything down with its dim twinkle. Even the wide field down the hill. With all these preposterous and ridiculous thoughts, I was silent. I thought of an old house burning down in the dark. Then I looked up to see the dark sky. With more caution, yet at the same time with a very earnest desire to see the tiny light.
Time went by, and Jaehee and I could not see each other often, as always. We met sometimes for tea and visited each other, but we gradually could not meet often as things got busy. So I could not tell Jaehee that I went to the place once again after the winter. A couple of months later, I went to a barn nearby for work. It wasn’t exactly where he pointed at, but there were numerous barns around the place, and I went to one of them and confirmed that 16 pigs died of an infectious disease. Yet I did not want to visit the house. I had changed my phone anyway, so I did not know his number.
But I did pass by the place, though not on purpose. I looked at it for a moment as it got nearer from afar. He seemed to be away at the moment, as there was no indication of his presence. Unaffected, I drove the car slowly away from the place. And I returned to my routine. From time to time, when I am alone at night, I fall into unstoppable chains of thoughts. They start from a small empty black seat. After a while, I finally realize that there is a small ember in my heart, and it burns and burns to form a flame of human shape. And after a while, I finally realize that something has quietly been blown down in the flames. (*)
Jang Hee Won was born in 1993. She debuted with the short story Scrap Car, which won the 2018 Dong-a Ilbo New Writer’s Contest. She has received Excellence Award at the 11th Young Writer’s Award.