- A Sick Butterfly
Old Man Chŏng’s afternoon walk begins when he grabs his cane and steps out through the alleyway. Outside is a small street, and northward, not far up on the left side, there is a carpenter’s shop. Not a small shop—it makes mostly coffins—and Old Man Chŏng doesn’t just pass it by when he goes out for his walk. He stops inside. So frequently, in fact, you might say that was the sole purpose of his afternoon walks.
He had ordered his first coffin there. Afterwards, if he happened to hear that a new one was coming in, he would stop by in the morning, and if the new one was better than the one he had already ordered, he would pay extra and exchange his for the new one. And then, while the new coffin was being made, he would stop by every day to keep vigil. He would help plane the wood, as long as his strength would last, and when the new coffin was finished, he would help paint it. When a coffin of premium knot-free white pine arrived one day, Old Man Chŏng paid nearly 50 wŏn for the exchange, and when it was finished he came by—again and again—to paint it with his own two hands. To stop at the carpenter’s each day on his walk—to caress that smooth, gleaming coffin—was one of his great pleasures. He didn’t just run his hands over it. He would picture himself lying inside that gleaming, smooth coffin. And that left him purged of all other desire. [End Page 147]
But it never occurred to Old Man Chŏng that he had become a lover of coffins. Truth was, when he saw his old wife take leave of this world and enter her coffin, he had thought to himself, “Ah, how peaceful it must be.”
He had certainly not loved coffins in his youth. He had developed a fear of them when he was twenty-three, the first time he had seen a friend being interred in one. The instant they pulled away the sheet that covered the corpse, Chŏng’s hair had stood on end. His friend had been healthy in life, and now his body was only slightly puffy; otherwise he was no different than he had been when he was alive. Chŏng quickly got used to it. He wet his sleeves in the water his young friend’s wife had mixed with incense and he washed the face of the corpse. They had dressed the body, wrapping it in a shroud, and to provide his friend with food for the journey into the next world, they had opened his mouth and filled it with rice. They tried to close his mouth afterwards, but it would not stay shut, and grains of rice trickled from between his stiff lips. They bound the corpse’s face with the wife’s blouse and then they folded its hands together over its chest and tied them with a black cloth. Then they bound it from head to toe in winding sheets, not only to keep its bones together for as long as possible, but because dead bodies bloated easily and would sometimes cause a coffin to move. Chŏng knew all this, but still, they wrapped the body so tightly it made gristly, crunching sounds. And that wasn’t the worst of it. They lifted the corpse, placed it inside the coffin, and covered it with money. Then they attached the sturdy lid, which was heavy—even to the eye. Chŏng felt a shock deep in his heart as they hammered the four corner joints in place. He remembered a story about a man whose burial had been delayed for lack of a suitable coffin; he’d come back to life in the time it took to order it and wait for its delivery. What might have happened to him if he’d been buried straight away? The thought gave Chŏng goose bumps. He imagined the shock of the hammered...