Inching Towards Yeolha

Sam-Shik Pai

Artwork by Olaya Barr



Village Seniors
HO-CHEH:  First Senior of Yeolha, 60s
GANG-RYANG:  Second Senior of Yeolha, 60s
Village Chief
CHOO-OH:  Chief of Yeolha, 50s
Village Men
CHANG-DAE:  YEON-AHM’s owner, 60s
JANG-BOK:  60s
BOO-HYEH:  40s
YOO-YOO:  40s
Village Women
CHO-MAE:  JANG-BOK’s wife, 60s
GEE-YUH:  A widow, 50s
GOO-YUH:  BOO-HYEH’s wife, 40s 
SAHN-YUH:  KYO-CHOONG’s wife, 40s
MAHN-MAHN:  Village “Educator,” 20s
Village Boys
GUH-BOH:  A teenager
SAHN-GOH:  KYO-CHOONG and SAHN-YUH’s son, a teenager
JEH-GUN:  BOO-HYEH and GOO-YUH’s son, a teenager

YEON-AHM:  A scholar of silhak (practical studies, promoting industrialization, commerce, and the introduction of foreign technology) from the Joseon Dynasty. The narrator of this play
INSPECTOR:  Touring Inspector of Internal-External-Private-Public-Individual-Communal-Commonplace-and-Mysterious-Affairs-Executive-Bureau
CHO-JUNG:  A tiger
MOO-KWAN:  A silkworm


An open field. A sandstorm has just come and gone. A bell rings from a distance.

YEON-AHM:  How it happened, what caused such a mystery, who could ever guess what God has in mind. Once upon a time in a tiny village called Yeolha, there used to be a spring, known for its limitless outpouring of hot water throughout the seasons. Yet over time, the village turned into a desert, lost its legacy, and fell into oblivion. Now all you can see is land, plain land, which directly meets the sky . . .

(The stage gradually lights up while YEON-AHM is speaking. A post at downstage center. A rope, tied to the post, is extended to both ends of the stage. Other than that, it is an empty stage.)

YEON-AHM:  . . . too small for a Manchurian horse, too big for a pony, not a donkey, not a mule, from a certain angle resembling a dog but is certainly not a dog, there was an eccentric four-legged beast embodying some characteristics from all the aforementioned animals. She had double eyelids, and while her hair was shiny and reddish, her ears were huge and whitish.

(While speaking, YEON-AHM turns into the “four-legged beast.”)

YEON-AHM:  It all started on a spring day when the beast’s senile owner, thinking she is fully grown, decided to put a yoke on her and gag her, a spring day when a sandstorm blurred the boundaries between land and sky, erasing what little was left of the barren landscape.

(Senile CHANG-DAE enters, with one hand carrying a fodder bucket and with the other holding on to the rope. CHANG-DAE is wearing sand-protection glasses. He puts down the fodder bucket, catches his overdrawn breath, and takes off the glasses.)

CHANG-DAE:  Mee-Joong! Mee-Joong . . . Are you deliberately starving yourself to death? (Putting fodder in front of her) Eat. Have a shot at it.

(The BEAST looks away. A GIRL with protection glasses swayingly enters, holding onto the rope. She is wearing high heels, surprising footwear for the desert. The heels get stuck in the sand, making it hard for her to proceed.)

MAHN-MAHN:  Mr. Chang-Dae!

CHANG-DAE:  Who is it? Mahn-Mahn?

MAHN-MAHN:  Yes! Can you help me?

(CHANG-DAE helps her to the post. MAHN-MAHN takes off her glasses and catches her breath.)

MAHN-MAHN:  What a sandstorm! I can’t see a thing.

CHANG-DAE:  You can easily get lost on a day like this. Why didn’t you stay inside?

MAHN-MAHN (approaching the BEAST):  Curiosity. Not yet?


MAHN-MAHN (hugging and rubbing the BEAST’s neck): Mee-Joong, Mee-Joong . . .

(The BEAST sullenly frees itself.)

MAHN-MAHN:  What is the matter with you?

(The village boys—GUH-BOH, SAHN-GOH, and JEH-GUN—noisily enter, holding the rope, calling after CHANG-DAE.) 

GUH-BOH:  Not yet?


JEH-GUN:  Did she?


GUH-BOH:  Two weeks!

SAHN-GOH:  Fifteen full days!

JEH-GUN:  No eat, no sleep!

GUH-BOH:  What a freak!

SAHN-GOH:  A wonder! A true wonder!

CHANG-DAE (boxing their ears):  You rascals! What’s so exciting about that?

GUH-BOH:  The thrill.

SAHN-GOH:  And the fun.

CHANG-DAE:  Fun? I am dying of anxiety, and you say “fun”? Can’t you find any other “fun” stuff?

SAHN-GOH:  No, sir.

JEH-GUN:  I’m bored to death.

MAHN-MAHN:  Hey. I play with you.

SAHN-GOH:  Yeah. Like every day.

GUH-BOH:  How come there is not a single soul getting lost and coming into the village this year? Remember last year? That three-legged man?

JEH-GUN:  Him? The village seniors hid him in the dugout, forbidding any contact with him.

GUH-BOH:  You are so stupid.

JEH-GUN:  What? Then you?

SAHN-GOH:  Went to see him every night.

JEH-GUN:  You, too, Sahn-Goh? Without me?

SAHN-GOH:  If we brought you, you would have told the seniors right away.

GUH-BOH:  Those weird stories he told. He wouldn’t shut up.

JEH-GUN:  What kind of stories?

SAHN-GOH:  None of your business.

JEH-GUN:  I can still tell the seniors. You know what they say. Anyone from outside this village is a spy from the enemy.

SAHN-GOH:  Traitor. We couldn’t tell you if we wanted to. We couldn’t understand a thing.

JEH-GUN:  Are you kidding?

SAHN-GOH:  You dumbass. That’s the weird part. Why would it be weird if we could understand everything?

JEH-GUN:  I bet he understood everything you said. Spies can do that.

GUH-BOH:  You think we’re that stupid? We did the same to him.

(GUH-BOH and SAHN-GOH speak to each other in nonsensical sounds. They laugh.)

SAHN-GOH:  All night long.

GUH-BOH:  Man. What fun we had!

JEH-GUN:  No way!

SAHN-GOH:  You have no idea. But we expect none from you anyway, Jeh-Gun!

(The village women—GEE-YUH, GOO-YUH, and SAHN-YUH—enter along the rope.)

GOO-YUH:  Are you here, Mr Chang-Dae?

CHANG-DAE:  Who is it?

GEE-YUH:  Not yet?


SAHN-YUH:  Did she die?


SAHN-YUH:  How bizarre.

GEE-YUH:  That’s it! She’s pretending to be sick so she doesn’t have to be gagged and put to work.

GOO-YUH:  That’s not it. I think she ate something bad. I’m sure of that.

SAHN-YUH:  Maybe a worm got in her head?

CHANG-DAE:  Cut it out, you handfuls! You’re not helping.

GEE-YUH:  We’re simply concerned.

CHANG-DAE:  Concerned? You’re just waiting, aren’t you? For this hairy thing to . . .

GEE-YUH (cutting him off):  Speaking of death—which, by the way, is just awful, awful!—if she does die, can I keep the tail? It’s supposed to prevent hair loss.

GOO-YUH:  I call foot!

SAHN-YUH:  Ribs!

CHANG-DAE:  Don’t even think about it. Even if she dies, you will not get a single hair. Because I will cremate her and throw her into thin air.

GEE-YUH:  What? You’re going to burn her?

GOO-YUH:  That’s not fair!

CHANG-DAE:  Why is it any of your business what I do with my pet?

SAHN-YUH:  Because she is all of our business! Where did all the millet stalks that she devoured come from? From our fields in our village!

GEE-YUH:  You said it! It is our business.

(From the other side enter the village chief—CHOO-OH—and village men—BOO-HYEH, YOO-YOO, KYO-CHOONG, and JANG-BOK)

JANG-BOK (yawning): I will kill myself first before seeing the damn donkey die!

CHANG-DAE:  Donkey? Watch your mouth! She’s a horse.

JANG-BOK:  Whatever that thing is, her whinnying keeps me awake all night long. How long has it been?

GUH-BOH:  Two weeks!

JANG-BOK:  Don’t I know that? We should do something about it!

CHANG-DAE:  I did everything I possibly could.

CHOO-OH:  Did she?

CHANG-DAE:  (Sighs.)

JANG-BOK:  I told you. She’s horny. She misses her other half!

CHANG-DAE:  That’s not what it is.

JANG-BOK:  I’m telling you!

CHANG-DAE:  Believe me. I took her to Boo-Hyeh’s horse, Yoo-Yoo’s mule, and Kyo-Choong’s donkey. You all saw that, didn’t you?

BOO-HYEH:  Yeah. How she fought.

YOO-YOO:  Tell me about it. She kicked and broke our mule’s front teeth. All of ’em.

JANG-BOK:  What happened to Kyo-Choong’s donkey?

BOO-HYEH:  Took off. Like the wind.

JANG-BOK:  Coward. Just like his owner!

KYO-CHOONG:  Shut your mouth! He’s smart like me!

JANG-BOK:  Then what is the matter? (To VILLAGE CHIEF.) Hey, Chief. Any clue?

CHOO-OH (examining the beast from all sides):  Even on close inspection, I don’t see anything wrong.

JANG-BOK:  It’s hopeless! There is no point in keeping this thing alive. Let’s eat her before she loses more weight.

CHANG-DAE:  Eat your wife!

JANG-BOK:  What did you say?

CHANG-DAE:  Your wife. There’s no point keeping her alive!

JANG-BOK:  You little . . . you better watch yourself . . . even when you tell the truth!

CHANG-DAE:  Look who’s talking about the truth! Do you know what she means to me? In my sixty years, my son Mee-Joong was all I had, and now it’s this hairy thing . . .

CHOO-OH:  Can we maybe leave her in the field?

CHANG-DAE:  What if she runs away, just like Mee-Joong? I won’t be able to catch up with her. (Sighs.)

GOO-YUH:  You pamper her too much.

SAHN-YUH:  She’s right. You regard her as your son but treat her like a village fool.

YOO-YOO:  Spare the rod, and spoil the child.

CHANG-DAE:  I tried the rod. Only I couldn’t. Look at her huge round eyes. They were filled with tears, begging me . . .

GEE-YUH:  Mr Chang-Dae’s a softy, and it’s no good.

YOO-YOO:  I’ve had it! Give me the rod. I will correct her in a second.

KYO-CHOONG:  Are you that stupid?

YOO-YOO:  What did you say?

KYO-CHOONG:  I am well aware of her symptoms. When hair first grew in my fire pot, I had the same predicament.

YOO-YOO:  Which is?

KYO-CHOONG:  Depression.

ALL:  Depression?

KYO-CHOONG:  One aggravated by insomnia and anorexia.

JANG-BOK:  When you had that, your father beat the hell out of you.

KYO-CHOONG:  That did not cure me. It rather . . .

GEE-YUH:  Okay, we get it. You had it and now she’s having it. But what the hell caused the depression? What’s the reason?

KYO-CHOONG:  It is . . . my father beat the reason out of me. Anyway, that beating ruined my life!

YOO-YOO:  That beating made you who you are! You should be thankful. Depression? What a joke! We should beat the hell out of her so that there’s no room for depression!

KYO-CHOONG:  What did she do? This is all Mr. Chang-Dae’s fault.

CHANG-DAE:  My fault?

KYO-CHOONG:  Just look at yourself! You’re like a ghost.

CHANG-DAE:  I don’t sleep, I don’t eat, all because of her.

KYO-CHOONG:  That’s the problem! A beast takes after her owner. But the owner shouldn’t take after his beast! Why don’t you try being all happy and smiley first? You show your melancholy, filthy face to her, and no wonder she doesn’t sleep or eat.

CHANG-DAE:  Is that so?

KYO-CHOONG:  Smile! Make her laugh! Try it!

CHANG-DAE:  (Laughs awkwardly.)

JANG-BOK:  What the heck! Did you chew sumac? What was that?

CHANG-DAE:  It’s been a million years since I laughed myself.

(CHO-MAE, JANG-BOK’s wife, calls for him from outside.)

CHO-MAE (voice):  Ao! Ao! Oe ou oe aa uu, uu ae! Aa uo oe ue eea! (Jang-Bok! Jang-Bok! Where the hell are you, you brat! I’m going to break your legs!)

(ALL are startled.)

SAHN-YUH:  Go! Before she catches you.

JANG-BOK:  On my way! (To CHANG-DAE.) If I hear her cry one more time when I’m sleeping, I am going to break her neck!

GOO-YUH:  Let’s hit the road! Or we’ll get the rod ourselves.

GEE-YUH:  Cho-Mae is so bizarre! She can’t hear! She can’t see! Oh God, here she comes!

YOO-YOO (exiting):  Listen to me! A kick in her ass will do the job!

KYO-CHOONG (exiting):  Laugh! And make her laugh! Don’t let a kick in the ass ruin another life!

GOO-YUH (exiting, to CHANG-DAE):  Speaking of kicks, I get the feet!

GEE-YUH:  I get the tail!

SAHN-YUH:  Ribs!

BOO-HYEH:  Women!

(The village people exit from CHANG-DAE’s house in all directions. CHO-MAE enters, holding the rope and swinging a rod. Her gait mimics an elephant’s. She is hard of seeing and hearing. Therefore, she is loud and swings her rod recklessly.)

CHO-MAE:  Ae eue ae ou! Ouo Ae uo uo ae ee een aa ae un ee ae oua uo ae! (Get here at once! Or I’ll put your head between my legs and piss all over your face!)

JANG-BOK:  I am right here!

(CHO-MAE grabs JANG-BOK’s nape.)

CHO-MAE:  Uou ue ie ou! Uea ou ea ae uou eae? (You useless bum! Where on earth have you been?)

JANG-BOK:  It won’t happen again. It is all my fault.

(CHO-MAE beats JANG-BOK with the rod. JANG-BOK does not resist.)

CHO-MAE (sniffing): Oaa? Oa ee oou uee? (What? What’s that odd smell?)

(CHO-MAE exits with JANG-BOK, tilting her head.)

CHANG-DAE:  Is that so? All my fault? I look like a ghost? Damn! It is all my fault. It’s always like this. If anything goes wrong, I am to blame. (Sighs.) Okay. I will laugh. Mee-Joong, Mee-Joong, look at me. Alright . . . laugh. What’s not to laugh about! So, look at me . . .

(CHANG-DAE tries to laugh for his BEAST (= MEE-JOONG = YEON-AHM). He laughs this way and that way and later uses his hands, feet, his whole body, and tries everything he can to make the BEAST laugh. While CHANG-DAE is making an effort, the BEAST speaks.)

YEON-AHM:  That’s right. This beast is suffering from depression combined with insomnia and anorexia. This critical condition started one morning, from the top of her nose. Just a regular itch. Something that would go away if she ignored it. But that morning, she just couldn’t let it go. It was unbearable! She would rub her nose on the stable post, roll on the floor, and do everything imaginable to stop the itching. Did it go away? It only got worse! This poor beast was a complete prisoner of the itching. All day long she would fight the itch, only to find herself totally exhausted in the evening. The strange smell of her own blood filling her nose, the beast lay her chin on the stable post, looked out on the sandy whirlpool in the darkness . . . and asked herself: “What is making me so itchy?” It all started from this question. The beast began to “think.”

(CHANG-DAE now sings and dances in merriment.)

CHANG-DAE:  Over the stove the millet rice is boiling, boiling, boiling.
Why not take a bite? Oh God, how yummy, yummy, yummy.
Over the stove the millet gruel is boiling, boiling, boiling.
Why not take a bite? Oh God, how yummy, yummy, yummy.
Over the stove the millet cake is frying, frying, frying.
Why not take a bite? Oh God, how yummy, yummy, yummy.
Over the stove the millet rice cake is ripening, ripening, ripening . . .

(While the song continues with the same cooking motif, the village PEOPLE enter from the back of the stage and enact what is happening in the BEAST’s mind. This can be referred to as “the brief history of the world. They pass through the storm and build a road with the ropes. They connect separated roads or build new ones. The ropes are entangled like a spider web. While all this is happening, the BEAST speaks.)

YEON-AHM:  The beast was snowed in with numerous questions, as many as the grains of sand from the storm in the dark field. That night she stayed up, with her eyes wide open. Also, the next day, and the day after that. Who can say that, among the many, many dayflies that ever set foot on the earth, not one of them learned the fundamental truth? Suppose there was one, then we can say what happened in its mind is now happening to this beast. On the seventh day, this beast became omniscient, and her greedy spirit transcended space and time and roamed between the past and the future. Among the memories of the past, the present, and the future, she got lost. On the second seventh day—that is yesterday—the beast couldn’t go on any longer. If only the senile owner had a little more patience, the countless memories jamming this beast’s head would have vanished—poof!—during a doze. Dulled by exhaustion, the beast felt terribly lonely. At that moment came the old man’s merciless beating and the lonely spirit had to hold on to that. At that moment, the beast recognized herself in the old man for the first time and chose to stay with him.

(The BEAST (YEON-AHM) absent-mindedly observes CHANG-DAE’s performance, clucks her tongue, and, like an almost subconscious habit from the past, tries to fold her legs and sit. However, she loses her balance and topples over. CHANG-DAE looks at this.)

CHANG-DAE:  Look at you. Your legs are wobbly, and you can’t support yourself! Up! Now! If you fall now, you will never stand again!

YEON-AHM:  Chang-Dae.

CHANG-DAE (looking outside):  Who is it? Jang-Bok?

YEON-AHM:  Something’s wrong. Very wrong.

CHANG-DAE (blankly stares at YEON-AHM for a few seconds and then shakes his head):  How bizarre. Well, this hairy thing kept me awake for days.

YEON-AHM:  My body, there’s something wrong with my body. Chang-Dae. Help me up. A terrific story just popped into my head. But then I got stuck. On such occasions, I must sit, fold my legs, and cup my chin in my hands to continue thinking. (She attempts the posture she just mentioned but keeps falling down.) Ouch. What is happening to me? I cannot sit.

CHANG-DAE:  No. This, this can’t be . . .

YEON-AHM:  What are you muttering to yourself? Like you’re crazy or something. Come help me up. Now!

(CHANG-DAE stares at YEON-AHM for a moment and starts screaming and swinging the rod, in order to keep the beast away rather than to beat her.)

CHANG-DAE:  Shoo! Shoo! (Runs out of the house.) Help me! Help! A ghost! A real ghost!

YEON-AHM:  Is he really crazy? Chang-Dae! Chang-Dae!

(YEON-AHM, in distress, tries her ideal thinking posture. She falls again.)

YEON-AHM:  Why can’t I . . . ? (She scratches her head with her front foot and then notices the foot.) Ahh! What is that?

translated from the Korean by Walter Byongsok Chon