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    I emptied the basin of water from the room and rinsed the towel with clean water, hanging it on the long clothesline. Beside it, some familiar clothes caught my eye. Pondering it, I suddenly recalled taking off my own clothes as soon as I arrived here. Seeing them dried stiff and fluttering, grandmother must have washed them for me. Looking closer, even the borrowed clothes were all hung up too. Such an imposition on my part.

    I tried to drag a rubber basin and fill it with water so that I could wash the sweat-soaked blanket myself.

    “You’re sick, child. Don’t trouble yourself with such things.”

    Grandmother gently scolded me as she brought over the low dining table for the simple breakfast tray. A delicious aroma wafted over. An appetizing scent. As I tightly turned off the faucet, the water trickling from the rubber hose ceased.

    I was drawn to the good smell, or rather, to help her carry the table, but the grandmother’s strength was amazing despite her white hair. She lifted the table like she was moving a plate, and I couldn’t do anything.

    Hesitantly, I entered the room, closed the door, and glanced at the breakfast table. It did look delicious as expected.

    “You’ve prepared so much food.”

    “Not that much. It’s nothing special.”

    It seemed like quite a lot to me. Rice and soup bowls of the same size. The side dishes were so plentiful that I couldn’t even see the pattern on the plate, and the jeons (savory pancakes) were stacked layer upon layer like a cake.

    Though grandmother didn’t say anything, I felt self-conscious unintentionally getting two nights’ accommodation plus meals. Also, I really needed to contact home soon. More than worrying my parents, the thought of my bound-to-be-bawling younger sister came to mind first. Having dreamed of my childhood last night, I felt sentimental.

    I really must miss her, having dreamed about her without a single day’s break.

    …But now wasn’t the time to leisurely eat breakfast. My restlessness made my legs tremble more.

    “Grandmother, um, when will grandfather return?”

    “Hmm. He’ll be back, I’m sure.”

    “…”

    “Sometimes he comes late because he’s playing. There’s nothing to do around here for fun. Don’t worry. It’s not that far from here to town. Once he’s had his fill of fun, he’ll come right back when he gets bored.”

    It seemed my anguish led grandmother to a misunderstanding. She probably thought I was concerned something had happened to the grandfather. Of course, I did worry about that, but her carefree demeanor about it felt odd.

    I slowly looked around the room of this remote house, far from any amenities or hospitals, with no communication access.

    “Why are you just sitting there? Hurry and eat up to regain your strength.”

    “Ah, yes.”

    She didn’t miss even a moment of me setting my spoon down lost in thought. Her grandchildren must be fortunate. She treats a complete stranger like me so well, that I can only imagine how doted upon her own grandchildren must be.

    After the meal and some snack that could have been a continuation of lunch or dessert, I went outside. Not that I could really do anything with these legs, I just wandered about the house interior.

    But even that quickly sapped my energy until I had to stop. I didn’t clean or anything, just looked around at the crumbling walls, burnt-out lights, rickety doors, and dust piled where grandmother’s hands didn’t reach… yet I felt utterly drained.

    Slumping to sit on the porch, my grandmother gestured to a large rubber tub.

    “If you want to take a bath, I’ll boil some water for you.”

    “It’s okay.”

    None of the basins could fit my entire body, so I gently declined. Ultimately, the best way was to wipe your body with a damp towel. After cleaning up and coming out of the room, I saw grandmother dressed simply, apparently preparing to go out.

    “Where are you going?”

    “Hmm.”

    There was a field down below. Perhaps she’s going there. As I lingered behind her, she gestured for me to hurry along.

    “Let’s go eat lunch.”

    “Go where?”

    Naturally, I imagined laying down a mat and forgetting a packed lunch, but I don’t think that was true. I carefully follow the grandmother with legs that are still shaking from where she is going.

    “There’s a tractor…”

    Yes, there was a tractor.

    “We’re riding that.”

    She even knew how to drive it. Her white hair was indeed a misrepresentation of her age. With a slight shock, I climbed up quietly behind Grandma, who was driving. Suddenly, a sense of injustice overwhelmed me.

    “Grandma.”

    “Don’t talk unless you want to bite your tongue off.”

    She shut me down before I could even say anything. Speaking during the trembling ride on the unpaved road, especially while she was driving the tractor, seemed like a surefire way to get my tongue bitten off. I had no choice but to keep my mouth shut the whole way.

    Using her old cloth bundle as a cushion and my faded backpack as a pillow, we slowly advanced forward. Upon arrival, I planned to borrow a phone first. I wanted to call home first, but couldn’t remember the number so that was impossible.

    “…”

    Perhaps because our destination was still far, I started to feel drowsy from boredom. Fatigue I hadn’t shaken weighed down my eyelids. To stay awake, I fiddled with my wallet, unnecessarily counting out enough money for two meals, taking out and putting back my card. Despite these efforts, I eventually dozed off.

    It was when the noisy tractor finally stopped moving. I suddenly snapped out of it and tried to get off.

    “…Grandmother. Is there really a store out here?”

    “A store? You’d have to go another 40 minutes further for one of those.”

    “…”

    Not the city or town, just a small village. The few houses all lacked gates, making the walls look purely decorative. Long-established large trees flaunted their majestic forms, and under the unfenced bridge flowed a shallow stream.

    While I was looking around, grandmother boldly opened the door to one house as if it were her own, yet none of the elderly women casually gathered inside seemed surprised. No warm welcomes, as if utterly routine. Empty dishes on the low table suggested they had been eating lunch.

    “You’re here?”

    An old woman with black hair styled up approached the grandmother while she was cleaning dishes. Even though she glanced at me, she took grandmother to the seat where she was sitting.

    “You have such a handsome grandson?”

    Her tone mixed puzzlement and suspicion. Though I was an outsider, how did she recognize that? In a tiny village like this, did they know every grandchild’s face?

    “Why is he so handsome? He’s better looking than the kids on TV.”

    “What’s your name, kid.”

    “My name is Seo Seung-won.”

    Recalling the name printed on my ID, I spoke, the unfamiliar feel of my tongue’s movements making it seem like uttering a stranger’s name.

    “Even his name is handsome.”

    “Whose son is he? None of your daughters-in-law had such a fine-featured face.”

    I awkwardly bowed my head towards the smiling grandmothers who were sitting together in order and quickly walked up behind grandmother. By chance, the grandmothers who had finished their lunch left their seats, so we were able to sit comfortably. However, one by one, they quietly approached me, stroking my head, patting my knee, and looking at me quietly. I feel like I have become a spectacle. But I didn’t feel bad because I could see that everyone was loving it as if they were looking at their grandchildren.

    “There was a lot of dumpling soup left, but it was good. Everyone’s mouths became shorter. Child, eat a lot.”

    “Thank you.”

    I bowed my head to the lady and lifted the spoon, but with all eyes on me, I felt like I might choke. However, once I started eating, I didn’t pay much attention to it. I was quite hungry because everything I had for breakfast had been digested.

    The dumpling soup made with kimchi was delicious down to the broth, and even though they had cooled, the nicely browned and crisped mackerel and spicy marinated clams were so tasty I scraped the bowls clean.

    After finishing lunch, I wanted to rest a little, but I couldn’t move because I was answering all kinds of questions from the old ladies playing Hwatu (Korean card game). At that time, the old lady who was washing the dishes approached me wearing rubber gloves and handed me a 10,000 won bill.

    “Can you go to the supermarket and buy me some salt and a bottle of sake?”

    “He’s sick. Don’t ask him to do it.”

    Grandmother, who was quietly playing Hwatu, slowly waved her hand.

    “He’s sick? Now that I think about it, his complexion looks bad.”

    “No, I’m okay. I’ll go.”

    I hastily shook my head at the frowning old lady. But then I paused. There’s a supermarket here?

    “There’s a supermarket around here?”

    “Yeah. Just a short walk away. Go out that way and turn right.”

    “Okay.”

    I figured I could ask to borrow their phone for a call while there. I could have asked the grandmothers to borrow theirs, but feared another barrage of questions. As I headed for the door with my bag, I realized my wallet was enough and set the bag down. I scratched my forearm unconsciously. Actually, I could have just taken my wallet and left when I left grandmother’s house. I was wondering why I even brought a bag.

    “Hey, kid. Get me a pack of cigarettes too while you’re at it.”

    The most stylishly dressed old lady called me over and stuffed another 10,000 won bill into my pocket. Before the grandmother could say another word, I quickly asked what brand I should get. When I tried to back out after being told that they would give it to me if I just asked, one of the elderly ladies playing Hwatu clapped her hand.

    “Hey, get me a bottle of soju and a pack of snacks too. Get whatever snack you want for yourself.”

    “You don’t have to do that. I have money. I have plenty.”

    I was shocked when I saw that she gave me 50,000 won out of nowhere. This was way more than enough, with lots left over. In fact, my entire wealth consisted of just 30,000 won cash and whatever unknown amount was on my card, but even that would suffice for a bottle of soju and some snacks.

    “Why is everyone being so generous with their money today?”

    “Because he’s so handsome. So very handsome.”

    Leaving behind the laughing grandmothers, I slowly walked forward, dragging my slippers sluggishly.

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