“Flower Dust” Lee Hyo-Seok (Chapter One – a Teaser) Transl. – Young-ji Kang

Lee Hyo-SeokThis seems publishable enough to me, and is out of Korean copyright protection (SUBSECTION 3. DURATION OF AUTHOR’S PROPERTY RIGHTS)? Both Young-ji Kang (the translator here, who has given me permission to post this) and I hope this is a case for some kind of crowd-funding to get the job finished? Or a lovely grant.

Lee Hye-Seok (Webpage of course created by the mighty Wikipedia Project!) is far and away most famous for his work When Buckwheat Blossoms Bloom (It has been translated under several slightly different names) and he also has a cultural village and festival.

In any case, we give you the first chapter of:

Flower Dust
Yi Hyo-sŏk
Translated by Young-ji Kang

The arrival of May transformed the little mansion into an emerald paradise, enveloped in the verdure of grass and tree. There were a thousand square feet of gardens, the green of the plants and trees ever deepening, and that of the vines too as they ranged about the four walls of the mansion—all but the red-brick chimney was draped in green. This house was different from a typical Western-style residence: it didn’t face due south and its main entrance was protected by an arched awning supported by poles painted green. These features befitted an extravagant hillside villa, of the sort you might find in a secluded resort area. If the aspen and white birch just off the entrance were of the mountains, then the white, cross-shaped path through the gardens belonged to the villa. The ivy coiled above the front door and over the window sills, the tips of its new growth flushed with red and angled toward the glass as if to peer inside, gave this little mansion the appearance of a cottage plaited with grass. Situated among a scattering of villas, it looked all the more quiet and lonesome surrounded by the lushness of the vegetation. Far off in front, vaguely perceptible, was the city, while rearing up close behind was Peony Peak, so that the moon shining down on the dense woods all around revealed the little mansion to be one with the natural landscape and no part of the city.

To the neighbors, this quiet residence was simply known as the Green House. Except for an occasional glimmer of clothing the inhabitants were rarely seen, even when they were outside in the gardens—small wonder with the dizzying profusion of plants, bushes, and trees. One might consider this a matter of leaving nature to its own devices, but the fact was that no one in the Green House could tidy up that jungle of greenery. The delicate hands of women could not manage the thousand square feet of garden. Seran, the mistress of the little mansion, neglected no part of her domain, inside or out, but was possessed of a thumb incurably brown, such that she had difficulty putting a seedling to bed. Her little sister Miran was of no help. Fresh out of a girls’ secondary school, spoiled Miran much preferred promenading in the shade of the white birches with her sister to weeding the garden. Even with the assistance of the young maid Ongnyŏ, managing three thousand square feet of home and garden was more than a match for the sisters.
There were occasional sightings of men in this queendom—Seran’s husband Hyŏnma and his protégé Tanju. Occasional because Hyŏnma’s eldest brother’s home, in the city, demanded priority. Whereas Hyŏnma had formerly managed to make an appearance every other day or so, nowadays he was rarely home at all, for he had launched a film production company with Tanju. When he and Seran had been house hunting, her plan had been to live as far from the in-laws as possible. And thus the Green House. More recently, though, Seran had come to regret not having a snug little house in the city—which for her meant any house with sufficient living space. In desolate, husbandless Green House, where Seran had to play mistress to two girls, many were the times she felt unsatisfied and empty. The vegetation around the house grew unchecked, and spider webs shrouded the front-porch pillars, the window frames, and the branches of trees—you could be forgiven if you took it for a deserted house. Seran’s assiduous efforts to clear the webs appeared doomed to failure so long as the spiders continued to dwell there. The ivy-twined brick walls were the playground of squirrels, who could be heard scurrying along them at any hour. Lamenting her role as queen of a few thousand square feet, Seran flailed at the spider webs brushing her face as she walked through the gardens.
No sooner had the forsythias wilted than the lilacs blossomed, as well as rose florets the color of rouge. The clusters of these claret-colored roses breathed a sensuous fragrance—how could such abundance of scent come from so few bushes? There was a single lilac bush, and whether you were inside the house or out, its aura tickled your nose with the same intensity. The smell of spring pervading the soil like the warmth of sunlight—how else could the scent of lilacs be described?
As Seran worked her way through the gardens she looked among the branches for Miran and found her beside the rosebushes peeling the juicy, scallion-like rose sprouts. All these years she had seen in Miran an innocent child, but now, observing how her sister’s body had developed—incredible, when did this happen? As if the end of her secondary school days also put an end to her childhood, Miran’s spindly limbs grew longer and her shoulders and hips filled out—this spring season had bestowed upon her a woman’s build. Her sister’s sudden development had taken her by surprise, and Seran now felt she had a friend rather than a little sister. No longer could she get away with saying, “I’m the adult, you’re the child”; her little sister was now on equal terms with her. Their worlds shared the same gateway, and once inside, Seran felt as if she could talk to Miran about anything, absolutely anything. She approached the rosebushes. Gorgeous, she thought as she eyed the slender legs revealed by her sister’s skirt. And how her face had bloomed, she mused as Miran, wearing a pert expression, held up a spray of lilacs.
“Ŏnni, what do these smell like to you?” Miran said with a gentle wave of the blossoms beneath her sister’s nose.

“Like lilies.”

Miran fixed her sister with a frown. “What do you mean?”

“I mean your face smells like lilies.”
“Don’t be silly. I meant the lilacs, not my face.” Again Miran had her sister sample the blossoms. “Don’t they smell like roses?”

“Well….”

“Or honey, maybe?”

“Where did you get this sense of smell all of a sudden?”

“Or musk.”

“What a little chatterbox you turned out to be.” Seran plucked one of the blossoms, held it to her nose, and drank in the scent. “I’d like to tell you something about lilacs: they smell like the body. The body in full bloom. Flesh full of secrets. Do you understand what I’m saying?”

“I understand that you’re the chatterbox!”

Miran turned her attention to the rose sprouts, smearing her fingers with their greenish sap and passing them through the grass. And then her hand was in Seran’s grip.

“Ah, one of these days some man will bereave me of your lovely body—what a shame.”
“Have you gone mad?”

“A flower bursts into bloom after a single night’s rain…. That’s something quite sad, you know.”

“Obviously you’re mad—and Ajŏsshi’s been gone only a few days.”

“Of course Tanju will be the cause of my bereavement—and the source of your good fortune.”

“Him and me? What are you thinking?”

“Oh, I know more than you think. There’s more to this dandy boy than meets the eye, I guarantee it. He got himself into Hyŏnma’s good graces at work, and I’d say he’s got Hyŏnma right there where he wants him.”

“To me he’s a merry sort,” said Miran. “Merry but well behaved.”

“It’s the well-behaved ones you have to watch out for—I have to wonder what he’s been up to.” With that, Seran gave her sister’s arm a pinch that was half playful and half cautionary.

“Who knows—Ŏnni, stop that!” scolded Miran, rubbing her arm as she retreated to the rosebushes. “Elder sisters should behave better than that!”

“Elder sister? No, we’re chums now. You’re a big girl and I shall not scold you anymore. Now that you’re all grown up, we’ll behave like chums and we’ll quarrel like chums. Oh! Tanju is calling today—come, take a bath and pretty yourself up, he’ll be barging in through the gate in no time.”

“The problem is, he’s coming with Ajŏsshi, and you never know when Ajŏsshi will show up—wait, let me get you some rose sprouts,” said Miran as she squatted beneath the rose bushes. She breathed in the smell of the grass and the soil, her eyes twinkling like stars. Where are you, my precious sprouts?

“Watch out for the thorns.”

“As if they’re going to do me harm.”

“One prick and you’ll make a scene.”

“Hardly. I’m not going to get pricked.” Miran’s arm shot through the grass toward the nearest bush. Just as quickly she pulled it back. Ai! And she plopped onto her bottom.

Seran grinned. “What did I tell you?”

Jumping to her feet, Miran ran to her sister and clutched her tight. She was shaking like a leaf.

“What’s the matter? You look like you’ve seen a tiger.”

“Not a tiger—a snake!”

A shiver ran down Seran’s spine. “A what?”

“It wiggled when I reached out for the rose sprout—and it touched my hand!”
Seran shuddered, and now she was clutching her sister.

“There it is—look!”

At the sight of the slithering snake Seran let out a cry; the sisters clung fast to each other and stepped back. A tiger redback! And a good-sized one, almost two feet long, with shimmering red spots on its greenish skin. It weaved its way through the grass and across the path before disappearing beneath the fence—and all this in such a sly and leisurely manner, as if to mock the sisters’ horror.
“Goodness gracious—what a sight!”

“That thing scared the wits out of me!” Miran grabbed a stone and flung it toward the fence, but the snake was long gone.

“Come on, those rose sprouts aren’t worth the trouble.” said Seran with a final shudder. Taking Miran by the hand, she led her sister back along the path.
“This is all your fault. You and your silly behavior,” complained Miran.
“How can we take a stroll when the gardens are crawling with all these awful creatures?”

“Do you think it could get inside?” Still quivering, Miran exclaimed in disgust.
Seran took both of Miran’s hands and her eyes lit on her sister’s face. “You’re pale as a ghost. You must’ve really had a shock.” So saying, she hurried Miran inside and had Ongnyŏ prepare a hot bath.

The bathroom, seventy square feet of space connected to the kitchen, was one of the sisters’ favorite places in the house. Through its windows they could see the corner of the neighbors’ red roof, and the distant hills. It would be hard to imagine people who enjoyed a bath more than they did—sad, angry, happy, no matter how the sisters felt, bath time put them in a better mood. But not Ongnyŏ, for whom heating water was one of the most difficult chores. Doing it every other day was already hard enough, but it was the in-between times when Seran ordered a bath for them that Ongnyŏ’s life became pure chaos. To get the fire started meant squatting in front of the firebox, the rising smoke bringing tears to her eyes. But her grumbling abated when she reminded herself that the bath would be all hers after the sisters were done—plus, watching them in the bath was one of her secret delights.

And now that she had a respite from her work in the kitchen, she went outside to steal a look through the windows at Miran, drawn to her silky flesh with water lapping at it. Fair like a daikon radish, and lively as a fish, she thought as she followed Miran’s movements among the cloud of steam. Her full arms, her cherry-like nipples—Ongnyŏ had an urge to run in and feel them. If she were a fellow, she told herself, the first thing she’d do is feast like an eagle on those porcelain legs. That jewel of a body—that would be the feast of a lifetime. Why, if that snake in the rosebush had a mind, it sure wouldn’t have left her untouched for long.

And then Seran replaced Miran in the windows. Their figures were alike, but if Miran’s body had a virgin’s firmness, Seran’s resembled a magnolia in full bloom, soaking in the steam as its petals widened to fill the space. Under which star do you have to be born to look that perfect?

As Ongnyŏ languished in these reveries Seran’s voice projected through the windows: “Dear me, what happened to the water?”

Ongnyŏ straightened up and reached for the windows just as they were flung open from within.

“Can you explain this?” said Seran. “I thought I asked you for a bath, not red tea! Come, see for yourself.”

Ongnyŏ hurried inside, stepped up from the kitchen to the bathroom, and when her puzzled eyes arrived at the white-marble tub they saw the water suffused with red! With the steam cleared up, the contrast between the red of the water and the pure clarity of the marble was all the more stark—like wine in a glass.

“Maybe something’s got into the water?” Bewildered, all Ongnyŏ could do was gape at her mistress.

“Nonsense! Unless someone put something in it?”
“There was only Miss Miran.”

“Did she cut herself or something?” Seran frowned. “There has to be an explanation! Oh –” It was the word cut that solved the mystery for her. “It’s blood! Good heavens!”

Ending her interrogation of Ongnyŏ, she rushed from the bathroom. The next thing Ongnyŏ heard, from Miran’s room, was the sisters murmuring—Seran’s teasing voice, punctuated by high-pitched laughter, and then Miran, who must have been exhausted, her voice almost beyond hearing.

“This…” Ongnyŏ’s voice trailed off as she scooped up the red water and let it run between her fingers. She counted the days to Miran’s next period. A bit early, but is was possible. That wicked snake must have frightened her, she told herself. Contemplating whether she should still use the blood-infused water for her bath flustered her; she felt too bashful to lift her head.

And all the while, so tender were the sisters’ voices from Miran’s room.

If there was anything like the intimacy shared by the sisters, it was the relationship between Hyŏnma and Tanju. Seran and Miran were at once siblings and best friends; Hyŏnma and Tanju were friends, but something more than brotherly love connected them. Hyŏnma’s behavior toward Tanju, his junior by more than ten years, was difficult to distinguish from that of a lover. Whether at their production company or out on the street, these two were practically glued to each other and seemingly forever in conversation. And so it was that day.

“Do you remember our plans for today?” said Hyŏnma.

“You mean the visit to the countryside?”

“You’re not in the mood?”

“Of course I am. Already on my way, see?” Briefcase in hand, Tanju sashayed outside. Hyŏnma followed, a smile on his face in expectation of the night they would spend there.

“Do you like our little mansion?” he asked.

“It’s a charming place. Thinking about all the trees and those lovely lilacs makes my heart thrill,” smiled Tanju.

“I’ll bet it’s more than just trees and lilacs.”

“Oh?”

“I’ll bet that’s not all that makes your heart thrill.”

Tanju looked at him inquiringly.

“Miran.”

The boy’s face turned red, and in that blushing his beauty was revealed, a beauty no less than Miran’s.

“She is… lovely. Like Venus,” he said.

“If Miran is Venus then you’re Adonis. The handsome youth Adonis—that’s you.”
Beautiful, like a figure in a painting, Hyŏnma thought as Tanju blushed anew. He hailed a taxi, and when the driver held the door open, he lifted Tanju in his arms and placed him on the seat. He couldn’t help but compare Tanju’s body with Seran’s—physically the boy was so much more subtle, so much slighter in build than his own wife. And then he hopped in after, landing beside Tanju and barely managing to avoid crushing him—you might have thought an eagle was about to snatch away a helpless sheep, or that Perseus, or Pluto even, would whisk away young Adonis. The peculiar contrast between the stout, almost bestial Hyŏnma and the beautiful Tanju was not a matter of difference in age or in weight but drew rather from this particular juxtaposition of loving and being loved. For their manner wasn’t that of brothers, or of master and servant—no, it was the conduct of lovers. Betimes, Hyŏnma would ponder who meant more to him, Tanju or his wife, the very idea striking him as positively scandalous.

Hyŏnma thought back on the first time he had met the boy. Tanju was a lad with dreams of becoming a writer, a film director, or whatnot, but who was idling his time away on the streets. The moment Hyŏnma cast eyes on him he had been smitten by Tanju’s appearance, a lad some twenty years old with a pretty face and long hair—a bohemian in the flesh. That very day, Hyŏnma had taken him on and given him a complete makeover, the unwashed bohemian with no place to live and no concrete plans for his future born again as the beautiful Adonis. There was no genius in Tanju, but even so, Hyŏnma, thinking he would someday prove useful, had put him in charge of secretarial matters at his film production company. A hobby that had grown into a business venture, the company mostly distributed films to theaters; film-making was yet to come. Tanju’s job inside the muggy third-floor office consisted of basic translation of articles from film magazines, or else clipping photos of actresses to post on the walls. When he wasn’t occupied with such chores, he shadowed Hyŏnma like a puppy, walking beside him on the streets, joining him for lunch or tea. During negotiations about distributions with cinema owners, he played the part of an actor, or just tried to look pretty. After Tanju found a place of his own, Hyŏnma made it a habit to visit, either leaving very late or spending the night there, sharing Tanju’s only bed. Whenever Hyŏnma observed this pretty youth who seemed to have spawned from Greek myth, his eyes took on a dreamy look.

Hyŏnma’s frequent absences began to stir suspicion in Seran’s mind. One day she caught him by the sleeve.

“Listen to me—something’s going on with you and you’re not telling me about it,” she had said.

“Got myself a pretty secretary,” he had smirked.

“You think you’re so sly—who is this woman?”

“Stop your fussing. If you behave, I’ll show you who it is.”

“As if I’d actually want to meet this woman! Don’t think you can gloss it over like that!” Seran had given him a furious pinch in the thigh.

“But the two of you simply have to meet. We’ll do it tomorrow. Don’t be surprised,” he had said, trying to calm Seran’s rage before leaving.

The following day Hyŏnma had brought his secretary home, and yes, Seran had been surprised. But in a different way.

“Pretty indeed,” she had said to Miran as they eyed Tanju. “I was wondering what kind of lovey dove Hyŏnma had captured this time, but I never dreamed he’d bring home a boy—and a boy this pretty.”

She and Miran had stared at Tanju as if he were a monkey in the zoo.

“He’s welcome here anytime,” Seran had said to her husband. “This can be a lonely place. We’d like to have some fun too.”

Hyŏnma had relayed the invitation to Tanju: “If you like it here, why don’t you come home with me once in a while.”

Hyŏnma’s words barely registered, for Tanju had not been able to take his eyes off the sisters.

How curious a man’s heart, Seran had thought as she gazed at her husband. It would have been less curious if he had brought a girl, being the ladies’ man he was. But an infatuation with this potential hoodwinker of a boy—the bizarreness of it seemed to transform Hyŏnma into a hungry sea serpent. If the sea was a monster, then Hyŏnma was the sea, she thought. Not that she resented or envied Tanju. Rather, a certain interest welled up within her.

So it was that they met. The sisters’ warm reception and their beauty drew Tanju to the Green House. It was for him an entirely new realm—something so fresh, so sweet for once who life until now had been his apartment, the film production company, and Hyŏnma.

The silhouettes of the sisters in the leafy garden appeared to Tanju like a pair of peaches in a heavenly orchard. Seran, now she’s dazzling, but Miran is like a sparkling jewel. Then, how curious must Hyŏnma’s feeling toward him be! Pursuing someone like himself while living with these two beauties. It always embarrassed him whenever he thought about himself negotiating the vastness of Hyŏnma’s heart.
To Hyŏnma, there was nothing strange about bringing Tanju to his queendom, nothing unnatural or dangerous, because to him, Seran and Tanju belonged to the same line. His feelings were one and the same when he spent time with Seran in the Green House or with Tanju at the apartment. If one thing had to be different, it was his constant awareness that his feelings for his wife and his feelings for the boy should not be the same. And thus his focus on Miran and Tanju. In his mind, they were a beautiful couple, beautiful enough that every time he brought Tanju to the Green House he would picture to himself Venus and Adonis.

As he did now, looming over Tanju inside the taxi.

“Miran—she who makes your heart thrill, correct? You might as well admit it. You do remember the beauty of Venus and Adonis’s love, don’t you?”

“But I’m scared when I see her. A brittle glass in my hands, she is.”

“You had better handle that glass very carefully.”

Ongnyŏ, out in the gardens looking for the snake that had terrified Miran, heard the roar of the engine as the taxi came to a stop. Her heart jumped as if she had actually found the snake.

“Master’s home!” Ongnyŏ yelled toward the Green House.

And as Hyŏnma and Tanju walked into the front yard, fending off the lilac branches that blocked their way, Seran came running out the door.

“How’s that for a welcome!” said Hyŏnma.

It was always a joy for Seran to see Hyŏnma and Tanju, almost like encountering people on a desert island. But that joy couldn’t silence the complaints that lay on the tip of her tongue.

“Having fun with your little helper?” she grumbled, but in no time Tanju’s smiling face, his dandy looks, his stylish attire charmed her. He looked like a groom before the floral arch on his wedding day.

No other simile would have been appropriate for the boy who stood before the lilac bush. And I thought Miran was the beautiful one, she mused. Tanju’s beauty is no less. These two really are a match made in heaven.

Tanju stretched out his limbs, his sparkling eyes observing the carpet of green under the canopy of shade trees. Spring! Did spring exist out in the streets? In his apartment? At the office? No—spring was inside these very gardens, inside this green realm, and he felt as if the air of spring were permeating every last cell of his body. Hyŏnma also took in this vernal air and picked a bunch of lilacs.
“Where’s Miran?” he asked as he followed Seran toward the little mansion.
“Inside. She had a frightening encounter with a snake.”

“Well, what do you expect? She’s always down on the ground hunting for those rose sprouts.”

“She was shaking like a leaf.”

“And growing like a rose sprout, thanks to her scare? Seeing the first snake of the year is supposed to be a good sign—maybe Miran gets all the good luck this year.”

“Good luck for lunatics maybe. You think you’re so smart.”

The carmine of the satin carpet on the parlor floor and the viridescence of the ivy- covered windows harmonized in a gorgeous hue. The chairs, the sofas, all the extravagant furniture was a product of the sisters’ sense of style. In this luxurious room Tanju took a seat near the window and placed a record titled Springtime—a present for the sisters—on the phonograph. That’s when Miran made her entrance, as if drawn by the sweet music of spring. Dressed in her Sunday best and meticulously made up, she had about her an air of calm, unlike the fussy Miran from before.

“There you are! That’s what you get for spending the whole day looking for rose sprouts,” chuckled Hyŏnma.

“You wouldn’t sound so jolly if the snake had bitten you,” countered Miran.

“Lazing away at home, that’s the problem. No wonder you’re friends with snakes.”

“Then let me study! Then I could be a pianist, or an actress maybe.”

“Look, Miss Cheeky! Do you think anyone can play the piano or act?”

“Why? What’s so special about it?”

“Aha. The shrewish tone tells me she’s recovered from her shock,” broke in Seran, with a grin. “If only it had stopped with the snake….”

Miran pinched her sister’s arm, begging her not to divulge anything.

“Oh, you want me to be quiet.”

“One word and you’ll get the worst of it,” growled Miran.

“She did something else?” said Hyŏnma in spite of himself. “What?”

“Guess!”

Blushing, Miran pressed her hands over Seran’s mouth almost to the point of pushing her over.

“Must have embarrassed herself royally,” said Hyŏnma.
Which was all the prompting Seran needed. Patting her sister’s hands, she said, “Have yourself a look at the bath water.”

“Stop it right there!” exclaimed Miran, too late.

”She made herself a bath full of red tea.”
“How could you say such a thing! I could kill you!”

Slapping her sister, Miran ran off in a rage. With Hyŏnma’s hearty laughter making her wish the ground would open up and swallow her, she threw on her shoes and stormed outside. How could they humiliate me like that. They can wait for all eternity; I won’t come back, ever.

She knew Seran bore her no ill will, but the shame of it—right in front of Hyŏnma and Tanju. She felt her ears flaming up anew. I’ll fix her; she’ll worry herself to death over me. And without a backward glance she marched toward the gate.
The sight of Miran stalking out silenced their laughter, as if they had finally realized the joke had gone too far. When their calls to her went unanswered, Hyŏnma raced out to the gate, but angry Miran was already a small silhouette on the far side of the road, growing faint in the distance.

Hyŏnma hurried back inside. “Tanju! Go fetch her and make sure she’s all right.”
A look of relief came to Hyŏnma’s face as he watched Tanju leave. “She’s a handful, that girl.”

“Dinner’s gone to hell—what else can happen?” Seran tsk-tsked and turned the record over. “You just threw a fish in front of a cat. I bet you something happens between them.”

“You’re jumping to conclusions,” he said. But the next moment, he thought that Seran might be right, after all.

“I’m not saying she pretended to be upset,” said Seran. “But don’t you think perhaps all along what she really wanted was to be alone with Tanju? I’d give a copper for the thoughts of a maturing child. There’s no way you can rein in a free spirit. Did you see how overwhelmed she is by her own emotions? Making a scene where it’s not called for.”

“Well, the power of passion, I suppose. Springtime is making her willful in everything—can’t confine a restless soul.”

“So, what’s the plan?” Seran sighed as she plumped down in Hyŏnma’s lap and put her arm around him. “The two of them seem to think they’ll eventually get married.”

“We’ll see. I don’t see where we have to hurry them along.”

“Except that you just sent one wild horse after another.”

“Come what may, and we’ll deal with it then. I’m flat out against them getting married, though.”

“I guess I’d have to say the same.”

Hyŏnma and Seran had their own reasons for opposing this match, reasons so deeply rooted in their hearts, that they couldn’t have articulated them.

“Do you have any idea how cruel it is to be all alone?” said Seran as she caressed Hyŏnma’s cheek and rubbed herself against him.

“Getting frisky, are we? What happened to my virtuous lady?”

“What’s happened to your virtuous lady is that she’s been all alone these past few days, and it’s killing her—to hell with virtuous ladies!”

“Sounds like you’ve got a bad case of springtime itch.”

“Don’t say that,” she mewed, the force of Hyŏnma’s being inflaming her. She covered his face with hers.

“Would you please stop following me,” said Miran.

“My orders are to calm you down and take you back home,” said Tanju.

“Your orders—are you a slave for life, or is it only temporary?”

Slave? The word was like a blow to his midsection. Her anger should have subsided by now—they were out on the main road, past all the villas—but her frosty behavior proved otherwise.

“Why do you let grown-ups keep you on a leash? We’re old enough to have our individual lives, you know,” said Miran.

“At this point, what else can I do?”

“You can be your own person instead of acting like a slave.”

“And how do you propose I go about that?”

Her answer was to board a streetcar with Tanju. Into the city they rode, and as if by tacit agreement, they got off at a department store. Here, they took the elevator up to a restaurant on the fourth floor, Miran apprehensive and Tanju pondering the word slave. And all this in utter silence. Only when they were settled at a window table and their orders placed did Miran turn on a smile and open up.

“Let’s see how many tricks you have up your sleeve. And I’ll tell you right now, I won’t go easily. No matter how clever you are, you can’t have your way with me.”
Instead of answering, Tanju looked out the window. Just below was the main street, and beyond it, the river and a wooded islet. Across the river was a vast stretch of uncultivated land. Watching the twilit landscape, he noticed murky clouds looming on the rugged horizon, and before he knew it, their immediate surroundings were shrouded in gloom. And the next instant, the landscape had turned monochrome, and the atmosphere dismal.

“Looks like rain,” he muttered.

Whereupon Miran said, “look! A flag just went up at the weather station.”
Tanju searched the dark expanse before them, until his eyes came to rest on the tiny flag flapping above the roof of the weather station, perched on a hill a good half a mile up the river to the left. “Definitely red, isn’t it.”

“Yes, red for a storm warning.”

“How come the weather’s acting up?”

“Perhaps just a passing shower.”

“We need the rain, that’s for sure.”

Miran vaguely realized she was looking forward to this change in weather, so restless in fact that she had lost her appetite, not even the cup of coffee that usually awakened her taste buds serving its intended purpose. They finished their dinner and still not a single drop had spilled from the swollen heavens. The leaden oppressiveness to the air offered them no courage, but then again, it failed to restrain their leaping hearts.

“Now what?”

Uncertainty flickered in their eyes as if they were high-schoolers on an outing in the hills who had come to a fork in the path and didn’t know which way to go. It wasn’t raining yet, so why hurry back to the Green House? But then where were they to go?

The darkening restaurant gave way to fluorescent lighting and music began to play. Tanju’s eyes brightened, as if he had received a revelation.

“Actually, I don’t want to be a slave. Taking you back to the house isn’t really what I want. What do you say we give Hyŏnma and Seran a good scare?”

“That’s what I’m saying.”

“All right then, follow me!”

Like a brave soldier, he led Miran to a movie theatre. They had been mesmerized by the conspicuous sign that said “Night of the Great Classic,” and indeed, the film classic Paradise Lost was enough to take their breath away. The simple yet dazzling scenes that filled the narrow screen spellbound every single person in the dark hall of the movie theatre. Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden—the paradise—their bodies partially covered in laurel leaves. Miran was so taken by their figure that her body kept leaning forward, as if sucked by the screen, only to realize her ridiculous posture and correct it, bashfully glancing around the dark space. There, the scene where the devil disguises himself as a snake and sneaks into the Garden! That wicked creature, Miran thought, remembering the snake she had encountered earlier that day. And I was Eve, she reflected, with a shudder. While the temptation scenes ran before her and Tanju’s eyes, questions began to pester their mind: What happens when you eat the forbidden fruit? There must have been a reason for forbidding it. And what kind of courage could prompt you to commit such a sin, no matter how irresistible the temptation? How did Adam and Eve tackle that fear, that uncertainty? What made them attain such courage, the courage to take that initiatory step toward committing the sin? How admirable their courage! They broke the law indifferent to the consequences. How, how do I acquire that courage? Overwhelmed by these unenlightened questions, their minds lapsed into confusion, making the following scenes nothing but futile images causing the spinning of their heads. Unless they figured out the significance, the subsequent events in the film bore no purpose.

While the two sat jittering, a continuous drumming rang in their ears. What was this noise? It was loud—it couldn’t be the reeling of the cine-projector.
Could it be rain?

Their ears perked up. Yes. Rain pouring down on the roof above them. At last!
It was the rumble of thunder that finally prompted Miran to jump up and leave, never mind that the film was still playing. Close behind her, Tanju struggled through the darkness for the exit. Once outside, seeing the rain beating down onto the streets and the wind prowling, Tanju panicked, grabbing Miran and jumping into a waiting taxi.

Where to was no longer the issue. Just about anywhere was fine as long as they could keep dry and catch their breath. Without a second thought, Tanju directed the driver to his apartment. And only after they had floundered through the rain and were inside Tanju’s apartment did Miran feel apprehensive. She plopped down on a chair, thinking it was all a dream.

An unfamiliar room. It was tiny, maybe a hundred square feet, with a bed, chairs, a wardrobe, and bowls and dishes scattered about the table. An orderly disorder, a mess that was somehow arranged—quite the novelty to Miran. The walls were covered with posters of actresses, some of them nude; magazines and books were strewn about; flowers wilting in their vase; a heap of clothing in the half-open wardrobe. All this mess revealed the real Tanju, the Tanju who outwardly looked so trim and tidy, but who inwardly simmered with a bohemian’s vagabond urges. But the air in that room was different: it seemed to hold Hyŏnma’s smell, an odor that became more pungent as a scene unfolded in Miran’s mind—Tanju was struggling to escape Hyŏnma’s domination over him, be it in the bed or on the chair. This chaos reigning in his room seemed a representation of Tanju’s resistant mind, the raging storm outside accentuating the effect. And then from the radio:

“This is the weather station. The time is thirty minutes past the hour of nine. A storm warning is in effect until daybreak. The south-eastern part of the peninsula and the coastal areas are off limits. The storm is blowing in from the south-east at 20 kilometers, with higher gusts capable of bringing down large branches. Repeat, a storm warning is in effect –”

Miran felt like collapsing. Feeling the storm’s force as it buffeted the streets, she began to fret. Why had they come here? Did Tanju think that by bringing her here he’d rid himself of the odor from Hyŏnma that permeated this little niche of his? Her heart throbbed, her body trembled.

Tanju was seized by similar thoughts. Fidgeting, he hurried to the radio and changed the channel; the roaring voice of the weatherman vanished, and music flowed out instead. A symphony! Beethoven’s Sixth, the Pastoral.

“Quite a storm going on there too,” said Tanju, recognizing the fourth movement, which depicted a violent thunderstorm. Sheets of rain striking the fields. High winds. Birds seeking shelter inside their nests. Flowers and plants succumbing to the harsh beat of rain drops. The brook overflowing with water, the vehement rainfall threatening to run fissures into a boulder. The crash of rain. The hiss of the winds. The roar of thunder. A storm so violent as to flood the entire scene. And then the merging of the instrumental thunder from the radio with the real thunder outside. Louder and louder, the deafening noise razing heaven and earth.

Bang! went the windows as the wind sent crashing down on the sill. And then sudden darkness—the power was out. The two of them cringed in the absence of light.
“Heavens!” cried out Miran and she hopped onto the bed, where Tanju was already huddled in one corner. Once again the thunder and the music merged, seemingly to sweep away the stygian-black room. That and the clamor of the wind grew to a monolith of sound that stifled the two. And then for a moment the room brightened—a streak of lightning nearby its beam diffusing through the windows. Ghastly bluish glints crept over them, and the boy and the girl couldn’t help but hide beneath the covers. There, face down like two burrowing moles, they felt safe from the lightning, the fear of incineration easing. At the same time their bodies grew hot, their minds confused. One second seemed like a thousand, a thousand like one in this underworld beneath the sheets charged with body heat. The nervousness, the fear they felt was no longer of the thunder, the lightning; it was of the world beneath these covers. Now the thunderstorm existed inside their very veins—their bodies trembled, their pulse throbbed, taking them to a dizzying terror.
Please, grant me courage! prayed Tanju, but Miran lying beside him felt to him like lightning itself. And she was a gift, a grail most holy, something not to be dishonored—and at the risk of divine wrath, he dared not lay a finger on her.
Tanju flung the sheets aside and jumped out of bed. The peals of thunder and the vehemence of the music offered no relief. In the darkness he fumbled for the bottle of whiskey in his desk drawer.

“Good for relieving fear,” he said, taking a couple of gulps before passing the bottle to Miran. Taking a swallow herself, she felt all the more hot and restless. In the meantime, Tanju wondered why, with his ever clearing mind, he was feeling more frightened; where was his courage?
For an answer, he looked to Paradise Lost.
His mind traveled back to the film. How had Eve, then Adam, found the courage to eat the forbidden fruit? Why had the author of Paradise Lost failed to explain that crucial mystery? Who can teach me that kind of courage? Satan, I call upon you. If you’re not equal to the task, I call upon God! Thus he tried to thwart his faltering mind, a wasted effort nonetheless.

A narrow brook. Shallow water, low hills. A single leap could take him over that brook, yet he didn’t dare. Brace yourself—that split second of courage would do it, but it just wouldn’t come. There had been a time Tanju had tried to break a fresh egg with his hand. He hadn’t been able to. Just shut your eyes and close your hand on it, he had told himself, but he had been too afraid. Another time he had wanted to inhale cigarette smoke but didn’t have the nerve. He had been afraid he might pass out, his head spinning the moment he sucked in the smoke. What could I do to break that egg, take in that smoke, and leap over that brook? How can I gain that moment of courage?

The storm seemed to have eased—the thunder and lightning calmed, the sheets of rain abated. The thundering fourth movement of the symphony had passed; the theme now was joy and thankfulness. Imagine an arching rainbow, gurgling streams, glistening dew, chirping birds—a tranquil countryside scene. But beneath the covers still lured the terror of the storm, and the two still trembled with fear, still hesitant to cross the line.

It was almost dawn. Seran awoke from a deep slumber. Sensing that Miran had not returned, she shook Hyŏnma.

“Wake up, I don’t think the children are back yet. What do you suppose happened?”
“I’ll bet it rained all night long,” replied Hyŏnma in a sleep-drunken voice. But the next moment, he was wide awake. “How could they have stayed out in that storm?”

“What did I tell you? A fish in front of a cat. You never should have sent Tanju out after Miran!” said Seran as she rose.

“Was I supposed to know things would turn out this way?” said Hyŏnma.

“It’s spring for goodness sake! Boys are frisky at this time of year!

“Oh, come on.”

“Don’t be so trustful of Tanju. He’s no ordinary boy. If you’re not careful, you’ll shoot yourself in the foot with him.”

“Well, if something happened, it’s a misstep for both of them—they’re both responsible. How can you say it’s the fault of one or the other?”

“If something happened to Miran, it’ll be your misstep.”

“Where could they be?”

Deep down, Hyŏnma had to agree that Seran was right—it was his fault. He pushed the sheets aside, got up and lit a cigarette. Last night’s lascivious scenes flashed by in his mind, making him feel remorseful, for that had been one of the reasons for his negligence.

“Fools rush in, as they say.”

“No chance of that,” said Hyŏnma, feeling a surge of uneasiness. He left the room and opened the front door.

The scene that unfolded before his eyes made last night’s violent thunderstorm seem like a mere dream. Crisp, gentle morning air; the sandy path already dry and soft; limpid dew droplets on blades of grass. The sprinkle of drops from trees resembled pearls against the illuminating sky. No mercy from a spring night’s rain, he thought as he scuffed through the grass. When he arrived at the lilac bush, he discovered that yesterday’s glorious blossoms had all dropped. The purple petals were strewn around the bush, and the scent had vanished—only dangling sprays remained. The doused leaves, though, were more vibrant than ever. Not as refreshing as the floral scent, but pleasantly tangy none the less, he thought as he plucked a leaf and took it to his lips. On the way back to the house, he heard the drone of an approaching vehicle.

When Hyŏnma opened the gate, he saw Miran getting out of a taxi. She looked just like when she had run out the night before, minus the makeup, and a little tired. Her bare face had lost its fragrance, but something seemed to have enlivened her.
“Where were you all night? We were worried sick,” said Hyŏnma.

His gentle tone pacified Miran, who was not scowling at him anymore; rather, with a tired expression she pushed herself through the wet bushes and minced toward the house.

2 thoughts on ““Flower Dust” Lee Hyo-Seok (Chapter One – a Teaser) Transl. – Young-ji Kang

  1. The original story might be public domain, but translation copyrights are usually held by the translator–e.g. you can post the original story in Korean, but for the translation, you should track down the translator and get permission. Kudos if you already did, but maybe make that explicit?

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