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from the September 2003 issue

from Friends on the Road

This story, written in 1960, is narrated by a middle-aged party committee chairman in the countryside who encounters a young woman on the train, on his way back from an important regional meeting. The narrator is quite taken by the maiden's vivacity and youthful beauty, and becomes interested in the tin pail that she has carried aboard the train, full of baby carp that she is transporting to her fish farm. The following excerpt begins right after the young woman, who got off the train at one of the many stops to fetch water for her pail, does not return in time and misses the train.

Soon our train reached the next station. Without giving myself time to think, I ran into the passenger car and came back out with my baggage, then before anyone could argue, I jumped off onto the platform, clutching my bag and the maiden's pail in my arms.

I did hesitate, because of my meeting in the morning, but quickly made up my mind. The night train should get me there by dawn, in plenty of time for the meeting.

The train departed. My friends on the road looked out from the doorway and waved.

"We'll leave it to you then!"

"Take care!"

I had taken only a few steps with the pail in my hand when a man wearing a stationmaster's hat with a red band around it ran out from the station. He came to a halt upon seeing the departing train, swinging his arm in disappointment. When he found me standing there, he seemed surprised and stared for a while, then walked over.

"Excuse me, but is this the pail with the fish eggs?" he asked.

When I said yes, the stationmaster explained that someone at the other train stop had called about the pail and asked him to take care of it until the owner came for it. I told him how I had taken on this responsibility and he said he was happy with the arrangement.

I rushed to the well in front of the station and brought over water in a gourd dipper, then poured in the fresh water, just as the maiden had done. When I pulled out the thermometer, the water temperature had gone down to 14 degrees. The fish in the pail seemed to be doing well overall, but there were a few floating belly-up on the surface. My heart ached as I scooped them out of the water.

Finally, I let out a sigh of relief and took the pail into the station. I placed the pail in the middle of the waiting lounge where it was airy, away from direct sunlight, then sat down on a bench. My back felt stiff. It struck me that I was really turning into an old man, an abai, as the maiden had called me. I lit a cigarette and looked around the lounge, feeling forlorn.

The lounge, a large, wide space, was completely empty.

And it was completely quiet, except for the tick-tock from the clock hanging high in front of me and the shrill, sporadic ringing of the office telephone.

All of a sudden, I started thinking that the roar of the train whistle might never again reach this lonely, isolated station. An inexplicable feeling of melancholy took over, as if I were left behind on a deserted island. But then I quickly brushed off this childish illusion with a laugh. There was still ten hours to go, until the night train arrived.

I should be angry at the maiden, I thought, my friend on the road who interrupted my journey. But I could not bring myself to get mad at her. Instead, I kept picturing her rushing to me, her face flushed with sweat, her figure so slim and swift. How surprised she would be to see me here . . . . These thoughts made me warm with expectation, even brought a smile to my lips.

I looked at the clock. Barely an hour had passed from when she would have started walking. The distance from the other station was 25-ri; it would take at least three hours, no matter how fast she walked. I took out a novel I had been reading from my bag and opened the book. But my eyes could not focus on the pages. I kept seeing the blue kerchief on the young maiden, who would soon be walking toward me, her small fists clasped tight by her side. I looked over at the tin pail and thought, "Perhaps I could also start a large-scale freshwater fish farm in our county . . ."

Actually, the party had recommended fish farming as part of the flood control development project. In our county, we had constructed twelve small and large reservoirs for flood control last year and I had sent down orders to start a fish farm but had not heard back whatever came out of it. To be honest, I never actually put together a plan for the project, so of course nothing came out of it, unless schools of baby fish had jumped out of the sky and into the reservoirs...That was too bad, really . . . I should pay more attention to all these matters. Just look at how much damage I caused with my negligence. Hundreds of tons of fish, to put it in the maiden's terms-or perhaps even thousands of tons.

I felt quite guilty. But there was nothing I could do about what had already been done. When the young maiden got here, I would discuss all this with her, tell her about the situation in our county . . . If people went to the trouble of digging new ponds just for fish farming, working with reservoirs that had already been built would be a simple job . . .

I kept thinking and thinking.

Suddenly, I heard footsteps stomping outside the door, and the waiting room door swung open. The young maiden ran in. I was startled, but the maiden, there in front of me, panting and out of breath, her eyes wide and round, seemed even more shocked. She stood there, speechless for a while, her mouth agape.

"My goodness . . . Abai! . . ."

Her face and body was smeared with dust and sweat, having run those 25-ri in an hour. I looked into her big eyes, cloudy and lifeless with concern, and my heart grew so hot that I could not find the right thing to say.

I put on a quick smile and pointing at the pail, said, "Why don't you take a look inside your pail. I'm not sure if I did things right, but . . ."

Only then did she rush over to the pail and looked in, lifting the cover at a corner, and pulled out the thermometer.

Then she abruptly turned her head, still wrapped in the blue kerchief, toward me. At that moment, her eyes were so full of joy and liveliness, glowing like wild grapes covered with morning dew. I had never seen such eyes before . . . The maiden lifted herself up and took a few steps toward me. Her voice was choking in tears as she called out, "Abai!" and ran into my arms. Her soft hands held onto mine.

"Abai . . . you even changed the water for me . . . thank you . . . thank you . . ." She was stammering. Tears fell from her eyes like clear drops of dew, as if she were unable to bear the overwhelming joy and gratitude. I felt like her warmth and happiness flowed into me, through her two hands tightly wrapped around my wrists.

"My, you are being a fool. A maiden like you, all grown up, crying like this . . ." I said, but my own eyes were also warm with tears. I guess tears are not simply expressions of sorrow, but of other clear and deep emotions as well.

The maiden now was slightly blushing, revealing dimples on her cheeks. We sat down on the bench, side by side.

"I feel so bad that you had to get off the train because of me . . . Now you have to take the night train. Were you on your way to attend some urgent business? I really am so sorry . . ." the maiden said with concern, over and over.

"No, no, I'm in no hurry . . ."

The maiden was so apologetic that I wanted to make up a convincing reason for my trip that would make her feel better, but could not think of anything.

The maiden took out a hard-boiled duck egg from her bundle, then after peeling off the egg white, broke the yolk into soft little bits and sprinkled them into the pail.

"So, where are you headed, abai?"

"I am getting off at Pungsan."

"What, Pungsan? . . . I'm going to Songbong."

I was startled at her answer. It turned out that we practically lived in the same town.

"Which co-op do you belong to?" I asked.

"The one at Cheongae village."

"Cheongae . . . I see . . ."

"What about you, abai?"

"Me? . . ."

I hesitated, unable to decide what I should say.

"I live in town . . ."

"Where do you work? I'd like to stop by and see you when I'm in town. How can I ever pay you back for everything you've done . . ."

"It's nothing really . . ."

I tried to avoid answering her question, but she was so earnest and persistent. How perplexed she would be, if I told her that I was actually the party's district committee chairman? The last thing I wanted was to turn this wonderful friendship into an awkward situation.

"I'm . . . a supervisor for the people's committee at the party. But more importantly, I still don't know your name."

"It's Myong-suk, O Myong-suk . . ."

"So, Comrade Myong-suk, how did you embark on this difficult project all by yourself? Don't you think, in some ways, it's an act of heroism?"

At this, the maiden let out a faint laugh, then for some reason she put on a long face. For a long time, she sat there quietly, her head hanging low, her right hand rubbing her knees. Her eyelashes fluttered each time she blinked.

Eventually she looked up with a smile.

"Abai, this is really nothing. You're right, it's just a silly act of heroism. Let's talk about something else...Oh, so are you returning from a trip? Were you attending some urgent business?" The maiden changed the subject and turned to me with concern. She still could not let her mind rest, because of me. I quickly thought of a good excuse.

"Don't worry. I'm coming back from vacation. So I'm in no hurry."

"Yes, I see . . ." The maiden let out a sigh of relief. "Which resort did you visit?"

"Uhm . . . uh, I was at Myohyang-san Mountain." I hadn't thought that far, so I had to answer her with the first thing that came to mind. I had always wanted to visit Myohyang-san Mountain.

"Oh my, Myohyang-san?" The maiden said excitedly, clasping her hands together on her chest. "Did you get to see the temple where the Great Monk Seosan lived?"

The maiden's eyes glittered with envy and curiosity. I pictured the scenic view of Myohyang-san that I had once seen in a book.

"Yes, of course I did."

"Oh, it must have been so great. I've never been there . . ." The maiden's voice was very soft and her dark eyes narrowed, as if she were dreaming. "You know, I am always thinking about traveling, to all the places in the world-all the famous temples and the ancient remains, the grand new buildings, mountain tops peaking out of clouds, the endless East Coast sea . . . and . . ."

"Well, you should. It can't be too hard. You could go to all these places, every year on your vacation, fly everywhere, free as wild geese."

"Wild geese? That sounds wonderful! I really would like to . . . but . . ." The maiden suddenly turned sullen again and stared at the tin pail in the middle of the waiting lounge. "But I can't right now . . ."

"But why not?"

" . . ."

"Because of that?" I asked, my own following hers, toward the water pail.

The maiden simply nodded, her face anxious with concern.

"Do you mean to say that you take care of the fish farm all by yourself?"

The maiden lowered her head and bit her bottom lip, looking down at her feet. Then she spoke, as if to herself. "Comrade Director, at our district committee, calls me a chicken egg vendor."

"Chicken eggs?"

"A long time ago, there was a man who crossed a frozen field with a bundle of chicken eggs, hoping to hatch those eggs and raise the hens, then get more eggs and raise even more chickens . . . thinking that in ten years he would save a lot of money . . . he was trying to decide whether he should buy a ten-room tile-roof house or ten patches of rich rice fields when he fell down on the ice, crashing his eggs, his tile-roof house, his dream, everything."

"What? So what did you tell the director? How could he be so insulting!" I was overcome with anger at this, more so than the maiden seemed to show.

"I kept explaining, that we can farm fish using the existing reservoirs in our co-op and the paddies and fields in Suri-an and the streams in Cheongae, and that in two or three years we will easily have fifty, sixty tons of fish, over a hundred tons in four or five years. But still he said that was no different from selling chicken eggs . . ."

The maiden let out a long sigh.

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