When The Storm Lay Gyeongju Low

My son and I were wandering the Bronze Age petroglyphs on the far side of the Hyeongsan River and the feeling in the air was already bizarre, as he had just pointed at one of the sheer cliffs and exclaimed “Buddha!”, despite having no apparent knowledge that the area was some kind of sacred fertility precinct thousands of years ago (in Korean it’s called “애기 청소 / Aegee Chungso / Baby-Washing”). The carvings on the rocks are visible if you look closely—I only discovered them after taking a picture, draining the colors, and then fiddling with the contrast—but I find it somewhat eerie that the boy found his own arcane way of sensing their spiritual significance. A nearby sign warns people, only in Korean, not to engage in shamanistic rituals, there are heaped-up graves watched over by broken tombstones carved with Chinese letters crowding the surrounding forests, and another nearby sign claims that all kinds of strange things have been seen here; that it was a retreat for poets as well as anti-Japanese guerrillas.


We made our way up to Geumjangdae, a reconstructed Joseon-style pavilion overlooking the river, and discovered at once that ominous stormclouds were looming over the mountains. They looked like something out of Ghostbusters or Independence Day; the special effects that God chose to employ on that Sunday afternoon were indeed somewhat cheesy and not quite up to the new standard set by Pacific Rim, which I had seen only a few hours before (and which was so awesome I may go to see it again tomorrow (with earplugs))…

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The storm moved fast, with the billowing wind, and I had only a few moments to snap some pictures with my iPhone (while my son had only a few moments to run around screaming and playing with the other children) before we had to rush in under the safety of the pavilion’s jade roof. The darkness covered the city, and rain burst out of the gales.

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There were about two dozen Koreans inside the pavilion, both children and adults, and most of them were flustered by the rain. For whatever reason the people here generally despise getting even slightly wet, and will carry umbrellas around en masse even in the mistiest drizzles, or when there are just lots of harmless clouds in the sky; I hear they do the same thing in Japan to conform to the divine pronouncements of that country’s trustworthy meteorologists; inside the pavilion the adults were yelling at their kids to get away from the rain, yelling into their phones that it was raining, yelling at each other that the rain was coming, yelling as if their voices could drown out the downpour itself, while the children laughed and ran and screamed—my son among them.

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The thunder boomed and cracked, the rain rushed down into the leaves in waterfalls, and my smiling son jumped into my arms and shouted: “Helicopter!” As I rested against one of the red pillars (after snapping about a thousand pictures) to wait out the storm, sensing that it would be over quickly—since that which comes quickly, goes quickly—texting my wife, who was relaxing at home after six straight grueling days of caring for seniors with dementia, to reassure her that we had not been swept away by any tornados, an older Korean man approached me and asked me what I was doing there. I told him I worked as an English teacher at — University, and that I could speak Korean because I was married to a Korean woman; his twenty- or thirty-something son then approached me and declared rather quickly, with his hands on his hips, that he was a math professor at Toronto University, while his wife held down the same occupation at Northeastern.

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When the old man asked me where I had graduated, I tried to say that it was no use, since in four years of living here not one Korean I’ve spoken to has ever heard of Hampshire College—which, with its written evaluations, student-directed creative projects, and gradeless testless radical ideas, all set in a wide patch of idyllic farmland, is the absolute antithesis of the multiple-choice exams that plague the cement high-rises of Korea—and then when I finally did tell him, he, of course, didn’t know what I was talking about. His pretty daughter (in-law?), who was like the Asian version of Jim Carrey’s lost love in The Truman Show, then asked me what my major was, and after wondering if I should say history, creative writing, or Greek / Roman / 19th Century European Literature, I settled on “English Literature”, and she nodded, and that was the end of that.

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The rain seemed to be letting up, and I said it was nice meeting them, and then went on my way with my son, walking down the steps past the soaking foliage, to meet my wife, who was walking up toward us in flip-flops with a pair of umbrellas, having driven out in her noble chariot to rescue us from the tempest. My son seized one of these umbrellas, and then on the walk back down to the car my wife slipped and fell in the mud, coating her rear with what looked like fecal matter. This might have amused my son, who has spent every day of the last two years doing the same thing to his own nethers with real fecal matter, but he was too transfixed with the power of the brella, as he calls it, to notice.

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We got back home, and all the swelter and tension in the air had been exploded, torn up, and carried away, by the storm, which was then pouring over the mountains and far away. Cool breezes flowed into the windows from the blue night, and my son fell asleep at 7PM, overcome with excitement, sleeping twelve hours into the next morning, and giving me a chance to finish Salammbo and get started on The Temptation of St. Anthony, in which I soon read—

Immediately he is cloyed with orgiastic excesses, sated with fury of extermination; and a great desire comes upon him to wallow in vileness. For the degradation of that which terrifies men is an outrage inflicted upon their minds—it affords yet one more way to stupefy them; and as nothing is viler than a brute, Anthony goes up upon the table on all fours, and bellows like a bull.