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Spring Days in the Countryside

Simple—not complicated—reasons move people to do things. To flip the table at a family reunion, as they say. Simple things are what linger after everything else has gone, branding themselves into our memory. The pursuit of complexity is wrongly estimated by many to be a primary human motivation. This is a miscalculation. It is not the whale that undoes us but the grass. It is an icy walkway, a bathroom fall that ruins a life.

What was that simple, singular reason that drove Kai to Mount Jiri on a long weekend after visiting his parents? He had told his family beforehand that the point of the trip was to study the chemical phenomenon of pearls forming in the human body. After a person is burned to ashes, pearls or stones of calcium can sometimes be found in their gelatinous areas. There are a number of famous monks who are buried at Jiri with plaques set up in their honor, detailing the number, size, and shape of any pearls these monks left behind. Temple-goers used to think these pearls were proof of piety. No one thinks that anymore. Human pearls are simply part of a physiological process like any other. Regardless, Kai had told everyone that he was going on a weekend pilgrimage to this region, home of the country’s largest national park, to walk on mountainous trails over pebbles that looked like these fire-borne pearls.

Jiri is known for its delicacy of wild black boar. Kai had some the night he arrived. The hotel he selected was once magisterial, but it had faded into a dusty fishbowl located at the base of the Jiri mountain range, slightly past the park entrance on land gained illegally through the use of bribes back before Kai’s birth. Still, Kai nurtured much nostalgia for this place. It had been a favorite family haunt. Kai’s parents would reserve a studio, laying out everyone’s mats in a row before the television set. The adults would drink beers and eat peanuts, amiably discussing the matter of when to rise for which activities. Kai was attentive if a movie was on, cranky if not.

That night, Kai ordered thin slabs of boar’s meat to be grilled in the hotel restaurant. He was impressed by how dark it was, though it was not that late. The sun set early in the mountains. The restaurant reminded him of another restaurant, which faced a private detective agency named Spring Days, in Jeonju’s Hanok district. The agency’s name made it sound as though it specialized in tracking down philanderers. It had been an amusing sight for Kai, who had been eating at a restaurant specializing in stone-pot rice dishes across the street. Spring days in the countryside, one does not say . . . And right across from one of the oldest eateries in the region. All this sense of history must inflame the locals.

The black boar was very fine. Kai was hungry because the day had been taxing. Hours earlier, he had walked less than a mile uphill to the largest monastery near his hotel. To control its mice infestation, this monastery was overflowing with felines. Hearing its bell toll as a monk kept striking it with a suspended beam, Kai had the urge to smoke. So that is what he did. He smoked at this temple that held up its roofs with slightly crooked logs while the bell pealed out. At that temple located at the base of Jiri, what was Kai thinking as the monk rang the bell, as the bell continued ringing?

Its vibrations went deep, but there was nothing much to them. That was this sound’s symbolic fullness. The feeling of nothingness was the cusp of it. There was nothing in particular to be remembered from hearing the bell ring as Kai’s cigarette smoke seemingly endlessly dissipated. There was no face for whom the bell was tolling. The bell was sounding for no one. That was why the statue of the golden one was smiling. Soon, the bell promised Kai, soon any memories of burning incense and icy tingling, of weightlessness compounded by the sensation of pearls hardening in one’s thorax, will mist into nothing. All nothing! But this nothing that encircles everything from the beginning will itself be something—or not. Is it enough to dissuade someone from sleeping until they die of starvation or from running out into oncoming traffic? Or from jumping from a high place, not aiming for the skies or sidewalks but for someone scurrying around below, a poor creature unaware that a big bird is falling? If it is not enough, the question will solve itself. People will either go on moving or suit themselves by stopping. Life does not transpire under coercion.

All this sense of history must inflame the locals.

Kai was listening to the bell, thinking, Stop reminiscing, deliberately working yourself into a nostalgic mood over the dead. These are irrelevant things. If you feel like you have lost everything, that nothing matters or makes you happy, it was all for nothing, then do yourself a favor and stop dawdling. If your life is over, get to it already. These were the words the bell was imparting. They made Kai feel cheerful. That metal piece was such a vicious casket. It was funny. I hear you, bell. If I do not want the elevator door held open, shut it snappily, snappily.

An abrupt turn—one of the reasons why Buddhism is slightly less popular in Korea than Christianity, Kai speculated, is because it does not force an eternal feeling upon its acolytes. Setting aside, that is, the practicalities of Christianity rendering itself more accessible—less remotely located, less solitary, emotionally hotter, more story-based—the revelations that Buddhism yields are trimmer. (These were things Kai liked to think about when not working.) But Buddhism gave Kai such a wonderfully liberated feeling. If life does not seem worth living, walk away without taking others with you. How exhilarating to know that one can leave behind everything at a moment’s notice without any fuss or the broader world ending! This feeling, for Kai, was real wealth.

But no matter, he had to go on living. Not because meaninglessness makes its own meaning or because living is something to do, like dying. No, the last line of defense was his parents: they would be inconsolable. How badly would they take it? This was a question that was very unamusing, an itch Kai left unattended.

The only reason that society outlaws suicide for the young and healthy has to do with the narcissism running throughout big capitalism. The rich will not stand for losing their stooges, and parents do not want their miniature versions caving in. So children, poor ones especially, are burdened with the task of living in a plodding fashion as various religious leaders drive by in sports cars.

Interspersed throughout Kai’s inner diatribes were prayers marked by their inconsistency. Inconsistencies were piling up even as Kai was contemplating dying. When my parents go, I want to go too. Or if that is too frightening, I want us to stay here together without end. No one leaves. If the water is good, I want to drink from that spring before it pours me out. I want to cling till the bitter end. Let us never let anything go.

Kai was the type to abandon all deities if they did not uphold their end of the bargain. If he had waited four decades to enter a land promised to him, and that promise was broken, that god would not be his god any longer. There is too much inner resistance. That says enough. Where had these words been spread? I am feeling strange lately, not myself of late. Lately, Kai was feeling strange. Kai had begun looking at himself strangely. He could understand why more people were looking at him strangely, the meaning of that look that had been unreadable until now. Kai’s eyes would start watering uncontrollably. His speech was gradually slurring more and more. In these mountains, the sun set early.

The bell was still sounding. That was quite a monk. That monk still had the strength to keep hitting the bell for half an hour as the sun was setting. Kai resisted the urge to go inside one of the buildings lest he risk being admonished again for sitting on a cushion incorrectly. This was a shame, as Kai felt like kneeling. There was something about the act of touching the ground with one’s forehead that felt gratifying. This pleasure was not indebted to a cosmic presence but the gesture’s physicality itself. It was a pleasure that quickened the sense that no one can win everything. This new lesson brought by the bell was refreshing. It was simple and direct. Kai sat for fifteen minutes or so to hear this bell, all the while smoking in the cold, thinking.

Occasionally, other tourists would irritate Kai’s sumptuous feeling by taking pictures obtrusively and loudly talking. Even locals who should know better did not abstain from these vulgar acts. One tourist commenced a video call with his son in front of the bell ringer, who was still swinging the hanging log in elegant figure eights. The tourist panned the phone around to show his son what he was missing, what the tourist himself was ruining. Kai was disgusted enough to get up and move away. He peered at the sky, the forests surrounding the temple, the pagodas, the statues, the stones, the steps, the closed coffee stand. They did not peer back. The monks who lived at higher altitudes had it easier in some respects. They were spared from having to accommodate these daily intrusions.

Maybe Kai had come to these mountains to find a fitting burial place. The obvious is often the answer. One desired a view before one finished it. Was that it? Tell us what you are feeling, people kept telling Kai. Tell us, please tell us. Then everyone stopped asking.

I do not know what it all was for. I do not know what I am working for. Someone I looked at all the time chose not to look at me anymore. The one who knew what I was to the core—still, he did not choose me.

Well, then! When Kai came back to the hotel for dinner, he spotted an eighty-something-year-old woman smoking. She had picked at the breakfast buffet in the basement that morning with him. Kai asked her, Why did you not go where you said you would today?

Why should I, she answered, when I am going to end up in the same place again? I just came for the air anyway. She took great puffs of her cigarette as she said these things, grinning toothlessly.

The next day, Kai resolved to visit a more remote temple, one of the farthest away. He was interested in feeling the mountain’s pearls biting into his feet. Would that feeling, coupled with the cold, bring him the clarity that people like to associate with pilgrimages? What was he thinking as he was walking upslope? Snow was falling. The day was still dark because Kai had decided to be ambitious and embark at dawn, when night lamps on the hotel’s driveway were yet shining. What a ghostly feeling. The darkness billowed before him. The dawn’s grayness seeped into the snow slowly, the dimness barely abating because Jiri’s forests are dense enough to prevent light from cascading. They pack the night away, hoarding it during the winters. Kai measured each step for fear of falling. There were stones to mark out the path forward, sometimes only notches on surrounding trees. Little had changed since he had come here as a child. There were no guardrails. If one went over the edge on a sharp turn, that was the end.

Snowflakes were tickling his cheeks. Their touch transported him back to that moment when he had sat on a stone staircase near Jiri’s summit. The snow brought back that summer for Kai, those memories of himself staring into the clouds as others trudged by, irritated by his partially blocking the stairway. He had been sweating profusely then; whether more or less than on this day, that was uncertain. The snow was mingling with his sweat, which summoned the remembrance of summer days.

The cold grew sterner. The incline steepened. There were still a fair number of people in Kai’s vicinity, mostly middle-aged women with permed bobs and walking canes. The snow was falling faster, more thickly, each particle thickening, contorting. It was not dancing or floating down but coiling into his nostrils. A light blizzard was forming. He had only walked three kilometers, and it was like this. The path was getting sludgy. Kai was not wearing hiking boots, just sneakers. These shoes were becoming soaked in their entirety, but he felt like walking on. He kept going. He opened his mouth to eat some of the blizzard before realizing it would be acidic and so hurried to shut it. There was nothing to quench his thirst since he had not packed anything. He had not been in the mood to be careful, had not been thinking ahead, which was a pattern with him. No proper shoes, no water, no provisions—nothing to taste save the frozen rain.

Kai had become thirst incarnate. He was so very thirsty, tormented by the sight of frozen water that could not be drunk. His toes had gone numb from the cold—how exciting. The flaming hunger for water, the sludge encasing his shoes distracted Kai from the climb ahead. There were kilometers left to go. Now there was no one accompanying him forward, only the occasional figure coming down the mountain, someone or another who had woken up at four or five at dawn to make the climb, returning in time for a warm breakfast. But because the blizzard was worsening, none ventured any farther at present. All were turning back. Kai felt exhilarated and not too worried yet. When he saw no one else around, either going up or coming down, then that would be troubling.

The incline was over forty-five degrees now on a stone trail that had replaced the original wood-paved one. Those who were descending were looking at Kai strangely. What, he wondered, was the look on his face? A whistling Kai shouldered on into the day that was turning reddish from the sun cutting through the clouds and snow. A haze was forming around his lips as his exhalations bled into the pinkish blur enveloping him. I am walking it out—but what was it that was trailing the Kai who was thinking this way? It was no longer anyone in particular. Was it time itself? Time’s arrow whistled one way, melting the world as it went. The incline was sixty-five degrees now. Kai was crawling on his hands and feet around boulders and trees. He had met two people in the last thirty minutes. Both had warned him to turn back. He did.

I do not know what it all was for. I do not know what I am working for. Someone I looked at all the time chose not to look at me anymore. The one who knew what I was to the core—still, he did not choose me.

But only when the second person, a fifty-something-year-old woman, looped back after a few paces to fetch him, yelling that he was being silly, that was enough now, there was nothing left to prove, who could be dressed so ridiculously, was that even a jacket, were those shoes? Kai could not win. So he laughed and acquiesced to this woman who would not let his jacket go and kept patting him downslope.

Kai followed this prattler back to his hotel, where she was also staying. They both headed toward the banquet hall that contained the breakfast buffet after drying off in their individual rooms. That morning was quieter than usual since it was a blizzardy weekday that was neither Christmas nor New Year’s. The hotel had sunk enough from its glory days that its verandas sported mold, the café in the lobby was permanently closed, and the gift shop had wares on display without anyone being behind the counter to sell them. Two people manned the front desk. Both were bored and indolent. A humidifier was coughing away in the background. The karaoke rooms were lighted without anyone being present to allow patrons in.

Sitting in the near empty buffet room, Kai saw again the woman who had led him down the mountain, sitting with her companions. Middle-aged women in the mountains often travel in groups of at least three. Why were you so stubbornly going up the mountain when you knew the weather was not right? she asked him. Her friends, it was apparent, had been informed about Kai. Before he had entered the room, while he had been in the shower bringing himself to an icy peak with his hand, they had already been seated. They were eating in silence now, politely avoiding eye contact with Kai, curious but stoking their curiosity in a disinterested way. They were reserved before this stranger, not being the welcoming sort, but they were undeniably curious. Kai could feel it. They kept looking at him indirectly.

Kai’s benefactress continued, Why did you do that? It almost looked like you were going to start something.

Kai answered, I had someone to meet at the top. I promised to meet that person there, like in the movies. That person was walking to our meeting spot from another base.

These words were unconvincing. In an era of mobile phones, who would travel separately to meet at such a distance on a wintry day? Friends would meet beforehand to make the climb together; and no one would wear sneakers in the winter. It was childish to want to appear hardened by the vagaries of life before custom-abiding strangers. Kai had wanted to be an eyesore to fellow travelers on the mountain that day. He had succeeded in a modest way. But this victory felt unpleasantly petty. What a pity. He had even stooped to wearing the hotel’s unattractive indoor slippers since he had ruined his sole pair of shoes during the climb. How had it come to this: Bothering random women who had planned on enjoying their weekdays together? Was Kai that starved for attention?

The women nodded in unison, nevertheless giving the impression that they thought his story was strange. Everyone kept munching. Well, I am sure your friend did not go there today. You should call them and have them meet you somewhere else. Kai made small talk as everyone finished their food. His comments were normal enough to not arouse further suspicion. No one looked at him strangely when they left, although he knew they would speak of him as someone strange when they were alone.

At least the room was emptying, thank goodness. It was not even ten in the morning. What should he do for the rest of the day now that he was snowed in and hiking anywhere was discouraged? He would go to a bathhouse—yes, that was it. But the hotel sauna was closed. Kai decided to drive to a nearby village. There was a public bath there, a proper one. There would be time to soak, to spend two or three hours dawdling before having a beer, then coffee as a cleanser. He would return to his hotel room afterward to watch television and more snow falling. His balcony offered quite a view despite being dirty and lacking privacy. Voices from neighboring balconies could be heard very clearly. So closely were the balconies arranged together that anyone could hear everything through their shut windows. Looking through his balcony doors, Kai could imagine himself floating outward and downward into the evening—or upward and sideways. Imagine if everyone were to walk out onto their balcony that night, ready to join the ascent or sink orthogonally. There was no telling where anyone was going. Everyone was waiting without hoping.

Before he knew it, Kai was chin-deep in hot water. It was funny: he did not remember having eased into the pool. The sensation of being enveloped by mist and churning water had jolted him into the understanding that he was at the bathhouse, sitting in an indoor pool bordering a glass wall that reminded him of his sliding balcony doors. Kai was steaming in water as it was snowing outside. How was it that he was alone there? It was such a view—the darkening skies, snow falling, water roiling, snow piling in the courtyard like the heavy smoke tendrils once ever present in his maternal grandfather’s house. Why did the image of Kai’s limbless torso floating in a cauldron, scalded to the bone, hover without warning before his eyes? But it did not perturb Kai too much. Kai’s thoughts kept drifting.

As a small child, Kai had never had a woman look after him. No women were ever hired as babysitters. This was the wisdom of Kai’s mother.

Middle school had been fun. There was heavy petting. It was nice walking to school, holding hands with friends.

Who had slapped whom across the face?

Who was getting spit on?

Why had Kai reveled in all that punching and cursing? Whose body had thudded on the floor above Kai while he was studying in the basement of his college library? As the authorities were clearing the building, Kai had caught sight of that person’s face. It bore an expression of surprise. Kai suspected that she had changed her mind midflight. Such deaths were typical of exam season.

What would Kai’s last words have been if he had been in her place? Is what I am feeling right now because I broke up with a Japanese divorcé on the second anniversary of her father’s death? Now I am as old as that divorcé was then and in a similar situation.

Is this compensation for disappearing from the lives of an anonymous many?

Is this punishment for striking my brother when we were young, for making him beg outside my door for me to play cops and robbers with him? How could I have sent that darling to the hospital twice for stitches?

Is this justice for fellating a college friend’s ex-lover a year after their breakup?

Is it karma for tempting others to call me, only to humiliate them over the phone once they do?

Or for how I treated my mother and father?

Is it for organizing a ring to stonewall a certain fifth grader when I was the same age because she was slightly dumpy and too eager to please?

Is this for cheating?

Am I a hyena or a zebra running the wrong way? This must be overdue retribution for being both the lighter and the flame. The great Kai is reduced to garden fodder. ’Tis the season for jolly locusts, truly.

Kai started smiling. The warm water infected him with another vision, one that genuinely thrilled him and made him afraid. He was placing his hand over a running gas cooker. What a fun game, Kai could see himself thinking in the scene. It was time to arise and either dip in the cooler pools or sit in some steam room before scrubbing his grime out with mitts. Kai stood up. He walked a few paces, performed a few ritual stretches, steamed, dunked, and rinsed in preparation for the scouring. No one else, it seemed, was coming in that day.

It was eerie in the empty bathhouse, but Kai eased into the space. The day had only just settled into the afternoon. Kai was being overly sensitive to the sound of pitter-pattering after having faced down the mountain. Would he dream that night that dream of being rocked on a boat by a faceless darkness that murmured, It will be all right. We are here where we are. Hello, Kai.

Kai giggled like a kindergartner as bubbles rose to the surface. I am an unhappy person. My unhappiness all too happily grows with time. Alone in the bathhouse, he sobbed with his lips utterly compressed. His agony never escaped that clenched mouth, concentrating in his throat, a fist of vibrations, of muted wailing.

Hours later, late that night, Kai would go to sleep, lulled by his stomach’s growling. Until then, keep scrub-a-dub-dubbing. Rubbing off one’s own film of dead skin did not instigate an inward purging. It was merely a mechanical process to prevent Kai from feeling moist flakes of himself peeling off when he scratched his heels together. Why was Kai wearing his locker key around his wrist when no one would steal it were he to put it down? The baths were deserted. Kai kept forgetting it was a weekday in the middle of winter. The mitt that Kai was holding as he stooped down to sit on a plastic chair appeared friendly to him. Kai waved to his image in the mirror with it. How peaceful it was. As he could see through the glass, the snow had not ceased falling. Kai did not feel like investigating the outdoor pool, which was closed. Or did he? He did.

Who am I friends with? I feel as though I am friends with nobody. Was I friends with the one who left? I think so. That must be why I am disoriented. We were not friends before, but we became friends as we became lovers. That is why the bye-bye feels more bitter.

Kai reminisced about friendship as he drove back to his hotel over slippery roads. The snow was not several meters deep. It was only a few centimeters high, still soft enough. Nevertheless, Kai drove carefully. The day had not made it past the late afternoon.

In the evening, Kai looked for stars from the parking lot. The air was exceptionally crisp. It was a night rare to find these days, the acidic snow having purified the air, acting as a blotter. Kai wanted to look twinklingly upward. That wish was thwarted. There were not that many stars observable, even deep in the Jiri mountains. There were no stars to make poetry out of. A few twinkles here, a few twinkles there—Kai started grumbling, feeling baleful. Those twinkles are looking down at me from an unimpressive sky. Are the stars pure or corrupt or nothing much of anything? To be corrupt was easy, but Kai wanted to be pure like his mother’s sleep-talking. Stop, dear time, so these figures huddled near me, nosing their pillows, do not melt away into transparency.

What was it that kept Kai awake that night? The mat felt thinner, as though it had shrunk. The floor crunched into his spine. The ground reminded Kai that it was there and unyielding. His back was aching. The room was dim. A moon that was not full shone through half-drawn curtains. The windows were closed to keep warmth in. Kai stirred on the floor, but that was not the same thing as being stirred. It was not the heat that kept open his eyes. It was not the room’s stuffiness.

Something was thrumming. It was not white noise. It was—what was it? The mat might as well have been absent. The television had only a few channels available. Kai was unwilling to pay this hotel for subscription erotica. Hardcore amateur videos online won out over the softcore professional variety on most days anyway. While the floor was warming nicely, it was time for Kai to push off his duvet. He was not perspiring.

I have come to the end of myself.

An hour later, his breathing was slowing. Kai sat up, scratching his scalp. That no one was in the room with him was a blessing, the heft of his breathing being inexcusable. There is nothing worse than loud breathers, especially of the congested variety. Big, big breathers do not care how their gulping infuriates others. Kai was being such a breather in that instant. Kai was sighing obnoxiously enough to be just shy of groaning. Enough was enough: he rolled over and went to the lobby. It was not more of the starless night that he was hunting for but a place less claustrophobic than his bedroom. Was there somewhere to rest from thinking?

Sitting in the darkness near the hotel’s glass doors that opened out onto a series of rusted terraces was soothing. The night was lovely, and sitting there like that gave Kai a quiet, holy feeling. The dark converged with moonlight and empty space. It felt like the world at large was empty save for himself in this crumbling kingdom past everything.

But what was it that was shimmering in the lobby with him? Who was there? As Kai was sitting, a breathless sensation broke over his body, the same he experienced whenever great mists erased the shore behind. There was someone else there with him. Kai was being watched from somewhere. But who—what—was looking, tensing? The thrumming in his ears became the sound of a train entering a tunnel. A presence as translucent as his reflection in a train window stared back at him. It was tenuous yet tangible, like a raindrop hitting the pane. There are many legends dedicated to the ghosts of students who kill themselves at school, all from the race to perform favorably on the nation’s university entrance exams. What had happened here at this hotel?

It was Kai staring. The spectral wisp was another Kai who was not a reflection. Or was it his reflection, a starlit Kai in the glass, an image like one glimpsed in a subway’s platform screen doors? Kai breathed out noisily again: I have come to the end of myself. I need to stop drinking. What is that? It was Kai, and Kai was it, sitting there so sadly, a faint torso that upheld a head that turned toward Kai when Kai turned his. As in certain sleep paralysis episodes, the future was collapsing into the present. The future was receding, a wave without an ocean.

What was Kai to make of this vision? He convulsed awake at around noon the next day. The balcony was snowed in. Everything outside was blasted in whiteness. There was no memory of how he had fallen asleep or how he had returned from the lobby. Who could say whether he could say with any confidence that he had not fallen asleep in the lobby? He may have never left his room to begin with.

No, these are not real questions. They are tame and affected. Everyone knows when a dream is a dream and when it is not. Its qualitative experience needs no explaining. Kai could not sleep, so he had wandered into the lobby. He was lying when he told himself that he could not remember how the night culminated. Kai had seen or felt something in the lobby and darted back to his room, locking the door and windows, closing the curtains, turning the lights on, turning the television on to some cooking channel, huddling under the duvet, making an extra cocoon for himself with the floor mattress, backing up against the wall, and watching the screen while straining to hear any footsteps in the hallway. The strain lessened as the night deepened until Kai, quite worn out, had turned off the television and lights and went to sleep, buried beneath his covers, sealing his hair and toes from what would seem to be the air itself.

Taking in the view from his noontime balcony, Kai vowed that he would not think about what had happened in the lobby last night. The event was too terrible to mull over. Kai would forget it all. He would not bother going into acts of exegesis. What had happened was not possible. That was what hallucinating felt like. The imaginary did not mean anything. Yesterday night had unfolded like a dog’s dream, proverbially speaking. But Kai had never been confident about that proverb’s meaning, about whether it gestured toward the dream nonsensical enough to belong to a lower life-form or so infuriating to its dreamer to render them rabid.


Excerpted from Spring on the Peninsula by Ery Shin. Copyright Astra House, 2024.