A constant drizzle soaked the dusty road where cattle hooves had stove the dirt, leaving small holes that caught raindrops from the ashen sky. The cows that passed over, the people who walked by, the motorcycles that drove through – every movement agitated the puddles of water in these clay cups, rippling outwards beyond the track, into the rice fields and beyond. In the horizon, the city’s skyline rose its unfinished head.
Despite pollution and expansion, the year was once more to supply a rich harvest. The farmers were happy; the monks at the Confucian temples weren’t hungry, and the vendors who took the produce to the city limits were making money. The village was imbued with a novel optimism: men drank beer and watched women dance and every weekend there was another cause to celebrate. Yet fewer musicians came from the city to play and mothers found it harder to find husbands for their daughters.
Bon-Hua, a young farmer, finished his morning in the rice field and went home for lunch. His mother poured out a full bowl of soup and sat down opposite her son.
“Are you going up to the city after all?”
“Yes. I bought my ticket yesterday.”
His mother took a slight breath, but the two carried on with their meal in comfortable silence.
“What are you going to say to that girl?”
For three evenings a week, Hyun performed with a traditional dance troupe at the main tavern in the village. Their skill and beauty were a source of pride for the villagers, who would flock to the show on the weekends to unwind. Bon-Hua was there every night, keeping one eye on Hyun and the other on the more presumptuous men. He knew them; he had grown up with them and worked with them in the fields. But as more and more moved out to the city, this tie of kinship frayed so thin that the lovers’ romance was threatened.
Nonetheless, after the shows, Bon-Hua would wait for Hyun and accompany her home, stealing kisses whenever he could, while she briskly dodged and ignored the gauche remarks of drunk men.
“Bon-Hua, I’ve heard you’re moving up to the city.”
“Yes, I hope to have enough from this harvest to invest in something up there, Seoul-way.”
“We’ve worked together as a team before, surely we can do it again?”
As they walked along the damp street, Hyun thought to herself about the future he had been promising her. Bon-Hua was not so confident and with a heavy heart held the hand of a woman he would love to love: six months ago he had sworn to her an absolute faith, but then the city called.
Once back at Hyun’s apartment, they took off their wet shoes and sat on the worn-out sofa. Her mother made tea in the dimly lit parlour, from where she could see the concrete high risers, so close was the delimitation between the urban and the rural.
“We can earn enough here,” she pleaded with him.
“I’m sorry – I leave tomorrow. My bus is early; I’ll be out of here by dawn.”
Hyun held Bon-Hua close to her as he fell asleep in her arms, drained from bending over the paddy fields all day. As soon he was snoring, she went to the kitchen table and wrote him a letter.
“Bon-Hua, I will wave you off at the station and kiss your hands as you leave; I will see your bus fade into the horizon, with me wondering when you will walk again on these pastures. I will kiss the very memory of you on my mantlepiece and stoke fires, thinking how nice it would be if you came into the room with your usual cheerful smile.
“But if you wish to hold good the deal you made to me, of loving me always and honouring our pact, then I want no other woman to taint your bed.
“You go away and leave me to the lurid calls of the locals, as I lead a troupe of girls across the stage. Your presence kept them from getting too excited, but now with you gone, I do not know what sort of excitement the men will have. Though I have learnt to defend myself, you never know what can happen to something you are not watching.
“I see what you are doing; don’t try and pull the wool over my eyes. You are yearning for greater things, with youthful ambition. Do I not satisfy you? Do you search bigger game in a bigger arena? Or are you looking for a cage to hide in? While you race off into the horizon, ever faster, I will stay here and deepen my connection with the land, but I will always be faithful to you.
“I can see you now, being a businessman in those big towers, earning money sitting down, and joining the right crowds; you have a cousin there you can stay with. I will keep entertaining the villagers; that’s my job and evidently yours is to be the star of your own show.
“If you become tired of this life, you will be able to find me by the riverbank, tending my nets that I put out every morning to catch a little more for lunch, a trout or pike, that come swimming too close. You will find me there and I will be waiting for you. But respect my wishes, if you truly agree to this pact.
“Fare well, dear lover, and take my words to heart.”
Hyun sealed the envelope and put it in the inner pocket of his coat that was hanging by the door. She went to her room to sleep, but heard Bon-Hua’s guilty footsteps leave the apartment as the cockerels crowed and the infamous drizzle still pattered against her window.