[A]n was wandering about in an unsettling dream when he suddenly awoke. Right before awakening, he was being chased by a suspicious stranger who had sneakily followed and approached him. Whenever he thought that he had hid himself in a corner, he began to hear the footsteps of the suspicious stranger, who quickly found the hiding place. The footsteps had a constant dull and fuzzy tone, as if someone was softly pressing and releasing the lowest note of a piano with a cotton-tipped stick, but nevertheless they made him very nervous. Each time he heard a footstep, he trembled in fear of shortly being discovered. That was when he suddenly felt something heavy touch his side. It seemed he had been kicked, but even in the dream he vaguely knew that it was not a kick expressing hostility, not like a kick intended to inflict pain.
The first thing that pierced An’s eyes was the light beaming from a lamp on the table. Hadn’t I turned off the light?… An blinked his eyes and, only half awake, sat up, his upper body rising slowly, heavy as wet cotton. The next moment he felt dizzy. He saw a pair of black feet standing right next to his bed. When he quickly lifted his head, he found someone staring down at him! The man’s face was cast in shadow by the light behind him, but he was evidently a stranger. However, the man’s image, seen from the front, colored with gold along its dark outline, seemed far from reality for An, and when he looked up the man appeared tall enough to reach the ceiling, all this giving An the illusion that the man was a manifestation of the suspicious stranger who had followed him a moment ago in his dream. In a sudden fright, An was uncertain whether he was still dreaming.
“Hey, wake up!”
The low but highly menacing voice rolled down upon An’s face like ice cubes. This was followed by a light kick to his side. It was only then An remembered the sensation on the same part of his body which he had felt in his sleep, and he was suddenly flung into a reality that seemed no better than the dream.
“Who… Who are you?!”
“Hush!… Be quiet, bastard,” the man growled. “If I really need to tell you who I am, well… let’s just say I’m ‘a night guest.’”
A night guest?… A night guest! Suddenly An’s mind and body were frozen. No, only his mind was frozen—his body trembled like an aspen leaf.
“Hey, why are you trembling like an idiot? Be a man… Don’t be scared, you poor fool. Did I say I was going to kill you?” The man spoke to An as if he was scolding a feeble younger brother. “See what I’ve got in my hand. You see, it’s just a flashlight.”
The man shook the short stubby object in his hand. An, out of his mind, had not even noticed the man was holding something until the man had mentioned it. As the man said, it clearly was not a deadly weapon, but this did not relieve An, not even a little. He had never encountered a robber before, but even if he had he would surely feel just the same; he felt his heart beating so fast that he had difficulty breathing. The man watched this quietly for about ten seconds, and then spoke again.
“Stop trembling. You shouldn’t tremble. If you handle this situation so poorly, how do you expect to survive in this rough world? I mean it. Relax a little… But don’t try any tricky stuff now that I’m behaving like a gentleman. If you make any trouble, I’ll smash your skull on the spot. I’m good in a fight. A weakling like you, even ten of you, wouldn’t be able to beat me. Can’t you see this through the fact that I entered your house without a weapon? So I advise you, in advance and in earnest, that you’d better not think about making any dangerous move… What do you think? Are you ready to accept my advice?”
What kind of a man, however strong, could say no in this situation? Helplessly, An barely uttered, in a squeezed voice, “Yes.” He did not think that he was lying. It was self-evident that he did not have the mettle to test whether the man was only bragging that he fought well. Ever since second grade of elementary school, when he had fought with a classmate, gotten a bloody nose and started crying, An had never exchanged blows with someone. Even at high school when he had been cornered by hoodlums a few times, he had done nothing but take the beating while standing at attention. How can I go so far as to attack a robber? It was something An could never dream of doing.
“OK, then I’ll make a promise. If you act obediently, I won’t even hurt a finger. So cooperate in this business of mine,” the man said, still standing as straight as a totem pole.
“…How shall I do that?” An asked like an idiot.
“How can you be so thick-headed?” the man spat out at An. “Why do you think I visited your house at midnight? You think I came here to beg for an audience with you because you are so adorable? If I give you a hint, you should get my drift, huh?… OK, I’ll tell you. What I mean is that I’m asking you to share your money with me. I had no intention of waking you up, but things turned out like this because I couldn’t find out where you hid your money, no matter how hard I searched through this place. I’m sorry for waking you from such a deep sleep, but try to understand me. If you just give me the money, I’ll leave right away.”
“…I have hardly any money to give you,” An said, almost apologetically.
“Ah, why are you acting like this?” The man was beginning to anger. “Even if you transfer your money to me, it’s not like the money is leaving the country. It’ll still be in the country. You need to have a broad perspective.”
“I’m sorry for not cooperating with you. You seem to have come to the wrong house, sir,” An said, plucking up his courage a little, while wondering about the guest’s idiosyncratic manner of speech.
“Is that so?… Well, where’s the little bit of money that you mentioned?”
“Over there in the pocket of my trousers.”
An pointed at a tree-shaped clothes rack by the door and was about to stand halfway up when the man pressed hard on his shoulders, gripping with both hands.
“Sit still… I found it. Here it is,” the man said, tapping an outside pocket of his dark jacket. “By the way, there are only a few ten-thousand won bills. How much is it?”
“…It might be fifty or sixty thousand won.”
“So it is. How could I just leave with this shameful amount of money? Don’t you agree?” The man’s big thick palm brushed An’s cheek as if to stroke it. The tacit demonstration that the man would use force if An misbehaved sent a chill down his spine.
“But it’s all the money that I have.”
“If you think your behaving like a poor person can fool me, you’re making a mistake. If you behave this way, the gentleman’s agreement between us will be broken. Do you understand what I’m talking about?” His tone was very cold compared to earlier. An felt like desperately clinging onto the man’s trouser legs, and said, trembling all over, “I, I mean it. I’m not deceiving you in the least, sir. Money is really…”
“What the hell will you do if I find some money, even a penny, after searching this place again?” the man menaced An. “In that case, you’ve as good as dead. You got it?”
“…Yes.” As if he was not content with An’s intimidated answer, the man commented: “Your answer sounds weak. Say in a clear voice, ‘If some other money happens to be found, I will submit willingly even to death.’”
“If some other money is found, then I will submit willingly to death…”
“Why did you omit ‘happens to’?” And, I told you ‘submit willingly even to death,’ instead of ‘submit willingly to death,’ didn’t I? Once again!” The man had lost his temper.
“If some other money happens to be found, I will submit willingly even to death,” An chattered like a parrot, feeling cold sweat breaking out on his forehead.
The man had said in a ferocious manner that he would ransack the house again, but he did not take action instantly. Instead, he took a step backward from his position close to An, and seemed to think about how the situation would unfold. After a while, he blurted out these words, which made An all the more uneasy: “The child sleeping in that room is your daughter, right?”
As An answered that she was, an image of the man intruding into and lingering in his soundly sleeping daughter’s room entered his thoughts like a hideous nightmare. Now that she had entered high school this year, she was as delicate as a flower bud.
“Is she an only daughter?” It was gruesome that the man was mentioning his daughter, but An again could not help answering that she was.
“It wouldn’t hurt even if she got into your eye,” muttered the man, as if talking to himself, and then he suddenly babbled on in a solemn tone, “Hey, can you solemnly swear on your daughter’s life that you don’t have any more money? I’d rather take that than your life. It looks like she’s still a virgin, so she could improve my sexual stamina. It is said that a middle or high school girl in the highest grade is better than the highest grade of mountain ginseng.”
An flew into a rage and glared at the man. This was a surprising reaction, thinking things through by himself. Just as every hero has an Achilles heel, conversely, for every coward there is surely a situation or an object which can spark the resolve to sacrifice his life. For An, sexual harassment of his daughter was the occasion and his daughter’s safety was the object.
“What the hell are you looking at? Do you find my words insulting? Then come on. If you want me to break your neck… But hey, first of all, it might be wise of you to give me your money right now. If you do, you won’t hear anything you’d rather not hear from me, and you won’t get killed or hurt without reason. I’m a man of conscience, so I don’t ask for too much. It’ll be enough if you give me only as much as I deserve for staying up late, visiting your house, and bothering to unlock your door.” The man’s tone had become persuasive.
“If you put it that way, why wouldn’t I give the money to you if I had it? I don’t have any money, even if I wanted to stuff it down my throat and die. So what am I supposed to do?” An’s glaring eyes had also softened, and he had answered in a sincere tone. These two men, surely not on intimate terms, were eager to beg each other and plead for one another’s understanding, which was an odd circumstance.
“You really don’t have it?” the man asked again, as if completely discouraged.
“…No,” An answered.
“What about something like gold?” said the man, adding, as if he had been wondering about this already, “Well, your wife is nowhere to be seen and why are you alone?”
“…I am divorced.” Whenever An broached this issue, he became solemn.
“Oh!…” The man clicked his tongue quietly. “So no jewelry left in the house. You let her go with all of it?”
An could not figure out whether the clicking of the man’s tongue was an expression of sympathy for him because of his divorce, or a sign of frustration that there was no jewelry to steal. Anyway, An nodded his head.
“You did the right thing. When a man is splitting up with his wife, it is not manly to quibble over her jewelry in a petty way, disputing which one is yours and which one is mine. In this regard, I’m starting to like you.”
After saying this, the man perched on An’s chair at the desk, as if it were his own. Under the light, the man’s face was revealed for the first time. As An had guessed from the man’s voice, he seemed to be in his mid-forties, and except for his extremely small thin lips he was relatively good-looking, with a square jaw, deep-set eyes, and a prominent nose. When it came to his job, he appeared to be long past retirement age, but his stout and stocky figure offset this weakness. It had seemed that his head reached the ceiling, but the man was not actually that tall.
“Well, why did you get divorced?” the man asked in a quiet voice. An suddenly wondered what the man was trying to do. It got harder to understand the night guest. As An talked with the man, his initial fear died down.
“… My wife committed infidelity,” An confessed frankly, as he thought that there was no need to hide the fact.
“She committed infidelity…” the man intoned in a low voice, and said, “Have you ever thought about forgiving her?”
An could not answer. The image of her clinging to him, desperate and wailing, was still vivid in his mind. He felt something hot and wet smothering his heart. The man, who silently watched An’s downcast eyes, resumed speaking.
“Everyone makes mistakes. I don’t know, but you might be at least half responsible for your wife’s mistake. By any chance, have you ever cheated on your wife? Let’s speak frankly, man to man.”
“I’ve never done such a thing.” An was sure of this at least.
“Then, how about barber shops and massage parlors with special services? You might have gone to some of these?”
“See! I told you.” The man’s sense of triumph spread from his grin. “Do you think going to those places isn’t cheating? Are you making an excuse, saying it’s not cheating because all men, ten out of ten, do the same thing?”
“…You’re right, sir,” An said, feeling crestfallen, like a student being scolded by a teacher.
“By the way, do you write poems?” the man asked, this time rustling the squared writing paper on the table. An had the habit of scribbling a first draft of a poem on paper before typing it up with a word processor.
“Then are you a poet?”
“Wow, it’s an honor!”—the man made a slightly exaggerated gesture—“to meet a noble poet!”
“That’s a great compliment.” An forgot to whom he was talking for a while and showed signs of embarrassment, just as he would in the same situation on an ordinary day.
“I know nothing about the world of writing, but isn’t it hard to make a living just by writing poems?”
“I worked for a publishing company until last spring.”
“You’re saying that you’re out of work these days?” The man expressed some interest.
“Yes. There aren’t any good job openings. Nowadays the whole publishing industry is in a slump.”
“Hm, that’s what they say.” The man nodded, and tacitly asked, in passing, “You might have had savings? Because you’ve been out of work more than a year but still you’ve gotten by.”
“What I had was as small as a rat tail, but I spent it all and there’s nothing left.” As the money issue had been brought up again, An replied quite nervously. An’s bank account was not completely dry yet, but what he said was more or less true.
Whether the man had figured out the real situation or not, he quickly reverted to the earlier topic. However, the man said something, which caused An to look straight at him again. This was what he said.
“I do not know much poetry. But isn’t a single tear drawn forth through the profound anguish of life much more poetic than a hundred lines of verse? I mean a hot tear drop glittering like jewels. Isn’t that what a real poem is?…”
An looked at the man with his eyes wide open. He felt that the man’s views about poems were very original. He suspected that the man had picked up the words somewhere, but, at any rate, he thought that these were not the kinds of words that just anyone could express. It was after hearing the man say these things that An’s wariness of him eased, but perhaps not completely. The man, for his part, kept silent for a while as if to ruminate on the words that had come from his mouth.
“I’ll do it this way,” he began in a grave manner. “From now on, I am neither a thief nor a robber. Let’s say a ‘night guest,’ literally, who has visited you at night. I threatened you a while ago, saying you are as good as dead if any more money is found, but I’ll take that back. I don’t know yet whether you have some money hidden away. But what I’m saying is that even if some more money is found on you, I won’t punish you. How can I blackmail you in such a pathetic situation into giving me money? If you voluntarily chose to help me, that would be another thing… Well, I’m sorry for mentioning your daughter a minute ago. No matter what I do, do you think I’d ever do such a shameless thing?… Now I’ll confess everything. If someone asked me to point out a representative conscience of this age, I would point to the poets. I have the belief that you are indeed a poet so we speak the same language… To tell the truth, I am collecting donations.”
“What do you mean by ‘donations’?” At the appearance of this extremely incongruous word, An stared at the man blankly.
“Listen carefully now. Let me warn you in advance you’d better not repeat this to anyone else. Or your life might be in danger. What do you think? Can you swear you’ll keep this secret?” the man asked, showing an expression of pure solemnity.
The man’s attitude was so serious that it was an obstacle to willingly replying “sure”, but An met the man’s gaze and nodded. An sensed he would feel relief only after hearing what it was the man wanted to say in such a sententious manner.
“You don’t mind if I use the back of this squared writing paper, do you?” For some reason, the man picked up a sheet of blank paper, glanced at An, and scratched something on the other side with a ballpoint pen.
“Okay, read this. Well? Can you make it out?”
His irises had to be diligently adjusted to read the words on the paper. They were big English letters, but it was difficult to make them out immediately because the strokes were thin and the white blank space reflected the light. As An strived to read the letters, the man spared no effort to change the angle of the paper two or three times.
“…Cibiriun…Cojeu.” As An succeeded in reading the letters the man corrected An’s pronunciation, saying, “Not ‘Cojeu’—‘Co’: it’s the singular form,” and continued to say, “‘Cibiriun Co,’ in other words ‘citizen military group’… It is the name of the organization which I am forming, no, not forming—I have already formed the core group to be ready for operations within one or two weeks as soon as funds are secured.”
“If it’s a ‘citizen military group’… is it the same kind of social movement organization as the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy or the Citizens’ Alliance? Such organizations are called NGOs, aren’t they?” An pretended to know something.
“No way!” the man countered strongly. “Our organization, CC—from now on I’ll just use the acronym CC for Civilian Corps… no, it is an absolute rule that we should call it this… for the safety of our organization—ours is completely different from those others. It is a completely underground organization and we solely depend on force as a measure. That is made clear by the word ‘military’ in the name… Rather than my explaining it aloud, reading this will instantly allow you to understand what the aims of the CC are.”
The man fumbled with an inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a white envelope with slightly worn corners. He unfolded a piece of paper from inside the envelope and threw it to An. It was a thin sheet of A4-size paper with his small letters on it. An held the paper and shifted it so that he could find a position where the letters were well-illuminated.
Declaration of the Formation of the Civilian Corps
With much respect and veneration to the press, we would like to inform you as follows:
We patriotic citizens, outraged by the current state of this country, where all types of unlawfulness and corruption run rampant, have accomplished the formation of the aforementioned organization, and will start operations from this hour onwards. We boldly declare, to those who dominate the legal system by abusing their authority and wealth, those who have committed evil crimes but evade the law by using any means, and those who have committed any other shameless acts, that there will be no way of escaping from our ruthless iron mace. We will protect all good citizens and purify our society by warning, kidnapping, arresting, beating, and, in some cases, completely removing these people who are nothing more than the vermin of this society. You, the respected press, should certainly know better than anyone else why our decision to resort to force was unavoidable.
[the rest omitted]
Chairman of the Civilian Corps Supreme Leader Council,
An armed organization of justice to proclaim judgement upon evil,
“I do not know if the writing is good from your point of view as a poet, but anyway that is a first draft. When the time comes, we will distribute this to the press and broadcasting companies around the country. The whole nation might be thrown into utter chaos. Those whose backs are stinking will have a feeling of pins and needles on their legs, trembling with fear… Well, tell me your impression after you’ve read it,” the man said, as An looked at the writing, holding the paper close to his eyes, and raised his head again. An was not able to answer immediately.
“Do you think this is preposterous?” the man asked An.
“Even if you do, do you sympathize with the CC’s aims?”
“…Yes,” An answered.
“I suppose so. Because people with common sense hold similar views about our society. Only their ideas about solutions are a little different from one another’s. So you and I share the same desire when it comes to radical social reform. Any objections?”
“…No,” An answered. An felt overwhelmed by the man’s energy, and could not help but admit that he was strangely drawn to him.
“Good,” the man said. “In fact, I noticed at a glance that you are a reliable person. I accept you as a secret member of the CC. Congratulations.”
“What?…” At the man’s unexpected words, An cowered like a turtle hastily withdrawing its neck.
“Hey, Mr. Poet!” Suddenly the man’s eyes turned coercive. “You have already come to know our organization’s secret. Don’t let me down now. It’ll get very difficult.”
“There’s no need to worry. I know what it is you are worried about.” The man softened his tone. “No matter what happens, you will be safe. I won’t even ask for your name. You are connected with me as one independent cell, regardless of my subordinate action corps. Even in the one-in-ten-thousand chance that I get caught, if I keep my mouth shut that’s the end of it. If you come to know what kind of man I am, you’ll surely believe me… Okay, let me tell you. I was once a lieutenant in the Marine Corps. It may sound like I’m bragging, but I’m a man among real men. Most of my subordinate action corps members were my unit members in the Vietnam War, who survived countless life or death situations with me… Believe me. If you’re a real man, you’ll believe me, won’t you?”
The man’s voice gradually grew higher, and then it stopped at the apex of passion. He said he had served in the Vietnam War, so he might have been five or six years older than he appeared, almost ten years older than An. Thus, when theman pressed him for an answer with a strong sense of appeal in his eyes, An felt terribly perplexed.
“Please tell me. That you can believe me…”
His tone was friendly. This was harsher coercion than browbeating and pressing him. Unavoidably, but in a strange mood, not even caring to make the excuse to himself that this was entirely someone else’s choice, An said in a resigned manner, “I will believe you, sir.”
“You are so commendable,” the man said, flattering An. “There is just one thing I need to point out—you should not call me sir now that you are a member of our organization. Call me ‘Grand Master.’”
“Grand Master?…” When he heard it it was as unfamiliar to An as when he had seen it in writing right before.
“It might sound ostentatious, but just comply with this because it is the nickname my comrades use. During the Vietnam War, I fought very bravely in combat, keeping myself free from injuries, and my men as well, so my men called me by this nickname out of respect. I want to hear this honorable name from your lips as well now. Go ahead. Call me Grand Master.”
After An called the man by this name, he had the feeling that he had been made to mentally kneel down to the man. The man wore a delighted look on his face.
“Okay,” the man said, “I’ll call you ‘Comrade Poet’ from now on. If, in the future, someone asks for ‘Comrade Poet’ on the phone, you can assume that it’s me. Do you have any other opinions about this, by any chance?”
In response to the man saying that he would keep in touch, An could not help answering meekly, even though he felt nervous, thinking, How did I end up in this situation? The man crossed his arms, withdrawing both elbows from the desk, and kept silent for a while, looking up. Then, in a very solemn tone, the man started to speak.
“You may think it’s ridiculous. The fact that I’m the head of the CC, taking action to eradicate the poisonous weeds of society, but now having sneaked into your house just to filch things… No matter how much the end justifies the means, I admit that it’s a very nasty thing to do. But understand that the financial problems of our organization are really that serious. We need roughly one billion won in funds above all. We have to purchase a hideout, and buy a few cars like a Mustang or a Galloper. We also need money for operating expenses… But we can’t openly collect donations, so what can we do? The action corps members and I have decided to stoop this low. At this moment, each poor comrade is probably performing the same task as I am. So far, we have recruited many secret members like you, but the results have been really insignificant. In their minds, they all want to participate in our project, but they can’t back it up financially. What am I going to do?… I might be wasting another day. How can I settle for this, as the Grand Master, who has to achieve the best performance?”
The man looked very pitiful. An felt severe pressure again. The man scanned An’s face and said, “Can’t you give a small token of your heart? Please help me save face. It’s all for the country.”
“…I’m sorry. Things are tight right now.” An bowed his head.
For a moment, a flicker of perplexity mixed with fury crossed the man’s face. However, he smiled right away and turned the conversation in a very strange direction.
“Do you have any liquor?”
“Liquor?” An repeated his question.
“Why can’t we have a drink to celebrate this honorable occasion of your joining our organization? Come on, let’s have a drink.”
“I don’t have any.” An was telling the truth.
“You don’t? There’s no liquor in a poet’s home? How can you write poems then?” the man scolded An. “Then order something to drink and some food.”
“Now? Right this moment?”
“Hang on, what time is it?” The man looked at his wristwatch. “…It’s only three o’clock. Call up a late-night restaurant. I saw a free community paper lying on the desk in the living room. Well, let’s get out of here. Let’s not stay here, in this cramped room.”
An put on the trousers which the man threw over, was led by him into the living room, and turned on the light. The man plopped down on the sofa first.
“You’d better order something hot, a large bowl of seafood stew. Have them bring a few bottles of soju.”
An, with mixed feelings, searched for an advertisement for a late-night restaurant in the paper and dialed the number. The man pulled at An’s wrist to make him sit down by his side.
During the half hour until the food was delivered, An and the man each smoked two cigarettes. The man chattered on as if talking to an intimate friend, but none of it entered An’s ears. The moment the deliveryman comes in, I shout: A robber! Then, together with the deliveryman, I lunge at this man. If that happens, will I be able to catch this man or kick him out?… But, is this man that much of a pushover? This is a man who was so brave that he was given the nickname “Grand Master” in the Vietnam War. What he said didn’t seem to be a mere bluff, judging from his broad shoulders and the powerful grip of his hands on my shoulders. If things go wrong, I could easily end up with a broken nose and a cracked jaw. What’s worse, if the organization which the man mentioned really exists, how could I handle the consequences? And assuming that the organization actually exists, is it right to act against the head of this organization which seems somewhat far-fetched but claims to represent justice? By the way, why don’t I dislike him that much?…
All kinds of thoughts had become tangled up like a ball of yarn when the bell rang. An flinched suddenly as if a bucket of cold water had been poured over him. An’s heart beat wildly. Not yet sure what he was going to do, An nervously stood up, but the man suddenly blocked An with his arm.
“Don’t move an inch.”
While the man went to the front door, accepted the alcohol and food, and gave the money to the deliveryman outside, beyond An’s sight, An faithfully followed the man’s orders. In fact, An secretly let out a sigh of relief. Moreover, he worried that the man might discover what he was thinking.
“What a shame to have to empty my pockets. Your hospitality is really terrible,” the man grumbled, as if he had spent his own money.
A bowl of the steaming seafood stew was set on the table. When the man drank a shot, he forced An to drink two shots. The man told An that he should do so because this was a drinking party to celebrate An’s joining the organization. In order to avoid incurring the man’s disfavor, An did not dare to refuse a full shot glass handed to him. Thus, An was nervous but he gradually got drunk. Though less intoxicated than An, the more the man drank, the tipsier he seemed to become. He recklessly broke the late night silence, having not been able to control the volume of his voice.
“If you still think I am a thief, report it to the police right this instant. I won’t do anything. Report me! I said, report me!” The man was so bold as to press the phone into An’s hand. “Go ahead. Push down hard on the buttons 1-1-2.”
“Why are you acting like this?” An was perplexed, but spoke up under the influence of alcohol. “I already told you that I believe you, sir.”
“Damn, why ‘sir’ again? I am the Grand Master,” the man pointed out.
“Oh, Grand Master…”
“Thank you for calling me so. I was just testing you.” The man stopped joking. “I’m a good judge of character. No matter what happens, it is a promise between men…”
Again, the man diligently offered An some alcohol. The two bottles were almost empty. An was feeling quite intoxicated. However, he remained relatively clear-headed unlike his usual days, probably because he could not relieve the tension. The man glanced often at the complexion of An’s face and began to speak again.
“By the way, Comrade Poet! I saw three credit cards in your wallet. I could have just taken them, but I couldn’t bring myself to do that. What our organization needs is cash, not petty items.” The man glared at An for a moment, his face stiffening, and continued to speak, “It occurred to me right now that you still have a chance to make a donation. You can get a cash advance with your credit card, right? If you use three cards—I’m not completely sure—but you might easily be able to withdraw one million, no, two million won.”
“But, but that.” An uttered in a fury, but the man quickly interrupted An’s first words.
“I know what you’re trying to say. But think about the cause. Our undertaking is not about saving a few pennies. Donate with pride. You’re already a member. Don’t just be a nominal member—you have to show as much sincerity as possible. You are a man. And this is a good chance to prove you are a man. It’s no big deal. Go ahead and take the plunge. Do you understand what I’m saying? Just say yes or no.”
“…I understand,” An said, cornered.
“So what are you going to do?” He thrust his upper body up close to An.
“…I will send the money later,” An said the first thought that came to him, in order to escape from the current predicament. “If you tell me your bank account number, I’ll do it that way.”
“Thank you, Comrade Poet,” the man said, looking at him with a tough expression. “But that would be a problematic method. Under no circumstances should my bank account number be revealed. It’s not that I don’t trust you… Let’s do it this way. In a while, when it’s time for the banks to open, you and me go out together. In fact, one of our action corps members is on standby, hiding somewhere outside the door. Persuade your daughter not to go to school until you come back. I will order our action corps member to protect your daughter in the meantime, outside the house. This will prevent your daughter from figuring out what’s going on. In fact, we shouldn’t frighten her. As I said before, you’d better remember that I’m taking these measures not because I can’t trust you—a man who will courageously pay his donation. I’m doing this merely as part of the training process for any future operation. Because all our action corps members have had combat experience, but haven’t had experience in secret surveillance. Comrade Poet! Do you understand what I’m saying?”
“…I understand,” An answered unintentionally amid the chaos and hubbub.
At that very moment, An heard the faint sound of an elevator rising and coming to a halt. Then the bell rang, ding-dong. At the sound, the man suddenly showed a nervous expression.
“What’s this?” the man uttered quietly. “Has he come already to take the bowl?”
Then he sprang to his feet, approached the front door, and shouted, “Who’s there?”
“It’s the newspaper.” It sounded like a young man.
“What, I thought…” the man babbled as if he were being deflated. “If you’re delivering the newspaper, you can just leave it outside. Why did you ring the bell?”
“I’ve brought a gift. Open the door please.”
“Dammit. You should bring something like that in the daytime. At the crack of dawn, why do you…”
The man could not finish his sentence. As soon as the door opened, a powerful force stormed its way inside. With this sudden attack, the man was shoved straight back, but it was An, gazing vacantly, who was more astonished, and who nearly fainted.
Four robust men had thrust themselves into the house with swift movements. Two were in plainclothes and the other two were in full police uniform. A plainclothes policeman stood in the very front, pointing a gun.
“Who’s the home owner?” said the plainclothes officer with the gun. He looked alternately at An and the man with his sharp eyes.
“…I am,” answered An, only then staggering to his feet from the sofa. How on earth did the police know to come? All this was so strange for An that he felt like pinching the back of his hand.
“Then it’s this guy!” The plainclothes officer pointed his gun at the man, who immediately turned deathly pale. “You! Put your hands up! Up! If you pull any tricks, you’ll get hurt.”
“What’s the matter?” asked the man, meanwhile, wearing an obsequious smile and muttering. “You’ve misunderstood. I’m a guest. Look over there. We were drinking.”
The plainclothes officer glanced at the bowl and empty bottles on the table. And then he showed a slightly dubious expression.
“Detectives Kim and Bak! Hold this guy.” After giving the order, the plainclothes officer asked An, “Is what he said true? I mean, do you know this man?”
“I don’t know who he is,” An answered.
“What’s up with you, Mr. Poet?” fiercely shouted the man, whose arms were caught by two policemen, as if he had no idea what An was talking about.
“How can you do this? Why are you slandering me? Don’t we know each other?”
“Be quiet! Shut your mouth!” the plainclothes officer shouted loudly, as if he had just socked the man’s face. “Everything will come out in the investigation later, so don’t waste your energy in yelling.”
The policeman’s mention of an investigation might have worked, seeing that within an instant the man lowered his head slightly, feigning ignorance.
“Haul out this guy first and take him in the car.”
After the man, taken by the policemen, disappeared outside the door, the plainclothes officer looked over An’s shoulder and said in a soft voice, different from before, “Did you call the police?”
An’s daughter had been peering around a slightly opened door for some time. Her face was tense with anxiety and fear.
“…It looked like the man was threatening my father. I heard everything: he said, ‘If you have the nerve, report this to the police.’ I was scared…”
“You have nothing to fear. What would have happened if you were scared but didn’t report this? You did well. Good thing you had a cell phone.” The policeman patted An’s daughter on her shoulder and said to An, “You need to come with me to the police station for a bit.”
After having being exposed to the cold morning air for some while, An was now sitting beside the man in handcuffs in front of the desk of a detective who was ready to draw up a report; An was almost sober. Since lowering his head in An’s living room, the man had maintained the same posture and had not taken even one glance at An. It was very uncomfortable and awkward for An to sit close to him. An had the feeling that he had made a somehow unavoidable mistake. If the man were bluntly expressing his resentment and hatred of An for his betrayal, An might have felt more comfortable. Forced to witness this man, who had bragged that he was the “Grand Master” no more than half an hour ago, reduced to this terribly shrunken form, An considered himself unfortunate.
Deep in his heart, An felt the great weight of pity and mixed feelings about the midnight destiny which had to unfold this way, rather than enjoying relief because of the man’s arrest. With the consent of the detective, An smoked one cigarette after another.
The detective set a laptop in front of him and started to ask the man a few basic questions. Name? Address? Resident registration number? The man, perhaps judging that there was no benefit in annoying the detective since he was already caught, obediently answered without stalling for time. The detective’s fingers, tapping at the keys, suddenly stopped. The detective frowned heavily and stared at the monitor for a moment.
“Look, this guy is… How many previous convictions do you have? Fraud and assault, fraud again, fraud, fraud, theft… And then desertion when he was a young man! What an unbelievably rowdy career! Now, you’ve turned to robbery? Oh man, this guy…”
Suddenly the detective stretched his arm across the desk with his fist clenched and struck the man’s head with a fierce blow. At this sudden hit, the man groaned, “Ukk.” But it was An’s heart that felt a pang of pain. An heard, above the man’s groan, an unreal sound echoing from some place far farther and deeper than the groan. It was the sound of a vast empire collapsing in an instant, with a crumble.
Kim Byeong-eun was born in 1951 in Daegu, South Korea, and studied linguistics in Seoul National University. After graduation he bounced around from job to job, working at each company for only a year or two, before finally embarking on a career as a writer in his early forties. He made his literary debut with the story “Gleaning,” published by the magazine Literature and Society in 1992. The story is about a man who goes to North Korea during the Korean War, where he is trained as a spy. After being sent on a mission to South Korea, he is caught and imprisoned, before finally being “converted” to democracy.
From his first story onward, Kim has continued to depict losers who have difficulty adjusting to society. He has written three short story collections, Three Sad Incidents Featuring a Dog, Idiot’s Love, and The South Pacific, and one novel, Carpenter’s Knife. Though he has yet to emerge as a best-selling author in South Korea, he has received recognition from critics and was nominated for the prestigious Dong-in Literary Award in 2007.
“Grand Master,” which was published in The South Pacific, centers around two characters, a poet struggling to make ends meet and an intimidating con man. In the story, Kim Byeong-eun draws upon the rich tradition of Korean sagikkun – a word that means confidence man, swindler, or trickster. The story also taps into the skepticism and distrust of the governing establishment that seems to be a legacy of the country’s military dictatorships, but which also can be traced back to ancient times.
Matthew C. Crawford’s original one year in South Korea as an English teacher has stretched out to more than nine years – most of these in Seoul – since he arrived in the summer of 2003. He currently serves as a copy editor and travel writer at The Korea Herald, and enjoys spending weekends roaming the peninsula’s almost unlimited supply of mountains and islands. A former university professor and holder of an M.A. in English literature from the University of Victoria in his home province of B.C., Canada, “Grand Master” marks his first stab at a Korean-to-English translation project.
Illustrations by Alexander Draude (www.draude.com)