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  • Clever Else Melts into Oblivion
  • Koo Byung-mo
    Translated by Jamie Chang (bio)

She heard the sighs of the wind, the whispers of the falling rain, the laughter of whirling snowflakes. She could hear the buzzing wings of a fruit fly as tiny as a freckle and predict where it would land next, and consequently how to kill it with one blow. But what good is such talent, however astonishing, if it doesn't ripen the crops for tomorrow's food? As long as she was fated to live with her two feet planted somewhere in this world, if she was to avoid melting like a stick of butter in the honest yet unsympathetic and savage heat of the earth, she needed to fully understand the inevitability and finiteness of an ordinary life—a life bound to the land, tilling the fields. And so it was that the farmer returned home alone, leaving his wife trapped under a bird net with a dozen little bells. She would not be welcome anywhere else in the village, and she would have no choice in the end but to come crawling back to him and admit defeat.

No one knew how it began, but in the village where he lived, trapping a person in a net was the public penalty for idiocy, laziness, and less-than-human behavior. Once the corners of the big net made of tough material were knotted together, it was almost impossible for the miscreant, hands bound, to get free without help. Once or twice every season, villagers witnessed panicked children wandering around in a net for stealing somebody else's piece of [End Page 203] bread or killing the crops by forgetting to fertilize them at the right time. Once in a blue moon, a couple caught red-handed in a tryst would be dragged out onto the streets half dressed, chest or knees bare, like Venus and Mars caught in a net of cunning skillfully forged in Vulcan's smithy. Once entangled, the wrongdoers would go from house to house begging to be cut loose. Villagers would slam doors in their faces, keeping this up for as long as possible in a show of contempt for anybody who disrupted the community's sacred, solemn work habits and way of life. When a poor child caught in a net for a small blunder or negligence came knocking, he might be cut free with a knife at the first house, but such luck was rare. The villagers preferred to untangle the net by undoing the knot, for ruining someone's net was unacceptable when resources were scarce, but this wasn't easy to do. In the end, the captive had to return to the very person—usually a parent or spouse—who netted him in the first place. This made clear whose property the captive was, as well as the net, disgrace compelling submission to the master. When a tradition stands the test of time, there's usually a good reason for it.

But Else did not come knocking even as the last swatch of twilight was sinking below the horizon, and the farmer nervously paced the house, hands behind his back.

Thinking it over, he definitely chose Else for the ample gifts her family put on the table as dowry, but also for the unique person she was. He'd never met a woman on a farmstead who read books by the pile. Like someone trying to escape from the life unfolding around her, she read books on what he assumed by their titles were the history of mankind, culture, and religion—subjects he'd never taken an interest in or even daydreamed about. Periodicals were all one could find in an average farming household, and even popular serial novellas about romance, scandals, and revenge were too big a commitment for most. Oil had to be conserved at night. Lights went out in every house at six in wintertime and eight at the latest [End Page 204] in the summer. Most villagers fell sound asleep after a day of labor that began at dawn and ended at dusk, but sometimes a child or two who couldn't fall...