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The Old Woman with the Knife

by Gu Byeong-mo July 1, 2021

The Old Woman with the Knife

  • Hanover Square Press
  • 2022
  • 9780369718853

Gu Byeong-mo

Gu Byeong-mo made her literary debut with the novel Wizard Bakery, which won the 2008 Changbi Award for YA Fiction. She has since published the novels Agami (Gills), Pagwa (Bruised Fruit), A Spoonful of Time, Four Neighbors’ Dinner Table, A Story Embroidered in the Heart, A Poem of Needle and Leather; the YA novels Come to Bangju, The Children of Pygmalion, and Bird Strike; and the short-story collections As Long It’s Not Me, The Red Shoes Party, and Just One Sentence. Pagwa is set to be published in the US by Hanover Square Press as The Old Woman with the Knife in 2022.

At this point she only goes to the mineral springs in a nearby wooded park, as the range of exercise she can do shrinks with every passing year; now only jogging remains as a possibility. Simple exercise equipment like bars or steppers or the elliptical machine, installed for public use by the walking path, only help in maintaining baseline fitness, and she can’t remember the last time she used a bench press or a pec-deck machine.


Photograph by An Woong Chul


Of course, she can always get a three-month gym membership if she wants to. Her bones and muscles are still strong and it won’t be too hard to work those machines. You can see old people sweating and working out in any gym, and near her are two gyms with a few aging machines. But because they’re coed, men are always hanging on the machines she needs and she never gets a chance to use them, and on top of that these gyms function less as an exercise space and more as a neighborhood gathering spot. She could go closer to Gangnam and find a fitness center primarily serving senior citizens in a large mixed-use building, but she doesn’t want to unless she starts feeling a sense of crisis that she is physically falling apart; in fact, she’s already stopped by one of those places and was miffed when the employee at the check-in desk said, “What’s your building and unit number?” As if it was a given that she lived in the complex. The clincher was the employee’s surprise when she learned that Hornclaw not only didn’t live there but wasn’t even from the neighborhood, and asked, “Oh, I see, ma’am, how did you hear about us?” That could have been her way of being friendly and warm as well as asking if Hornclaw had heard of the place by word of mouth or online, but Hornclaw took it to mean This is not a place for someone like you. Then the employee went through the various options for maintaining and strengthening aging muscles and told her, “I’m glad you’re here as we have a special class that you won’t find anywhere else—it’s an excellent choice for you.” But Hornclaw had already turned away, snapping, “Don’t call me ma’am!”

All of this is just an excuse, really, and there’s another reason Hornclaw doesn’t go to the gym. This is what happens frequently: a male trainer, who isn’t even assigned to her, will come up to her as she lies on her back lifting dumbbells and, surprised by her bulging muscles, say, Ma’am, I can’t believe you’re over sixty. I’ve seen few men your age who can do this, let alone women, most of whom think, why bother exercising at this age when the membership fee—honestly, it’s not even that muchcan buy sweets for grandchildren, and anyway what kind of workout have you been doing? Or other women exercising in the gym will gather around and act too familiar, saying that their mother-in-law who’s the same age as Hornclaw refuses to exercise; or invite her to tea, confiding that every week the older folks in the gym get geared up to go hiking together but end up picnicking and drinking and dancing and singing and playing cards, and once, a young woman on the treadmill next to hers held out her business card and said she was a producer for a program that aired at six in the evening and that featured unusual people, and she asked her to come on the show to talk about being an older woman with a killer body. Instead of tearing up her membership card—which still had twenty days left—in front of the producer’s eyes, Hornclaw simply chose to stop going to the gym and changed her phone number in order to avoid her trainer’s calls.

Once spotted at the gym, younger disease control specialists could probably go on TV and show off their physique and pick up fans or detractors, and smile professionally while freely continuing to do their jobs behind the scenes. Though it’s not exactly the same, she knows that the husband of an online retail store CEO, who appeared on cable last year on a show about successful entrepreneurs, was a disease control specialist. Maybe he was just shy—he tried not to be on camera for more than a few seconds at a time, and he didn’t look at the camera or smile. But he did end up holding their product and flashing a thumbs-up sign. They made baby food with a mother’s care every morning with fresh ingredients, and delivered it, and the man, who steamed sweet squash and ground meat and crushed tofu and chopped carrots with the very hands that completed his disease control assignments, brought out feelings of derision and pity in Hornclaw. But as she imagined how his experience with grinding and chopping must have come in handy in this new venture, her thoughts turned magnanimous—it took skill to perform a devoted husband’s passivity as he helped his talented wife grow her business, then turn around and become an entirely different person. The key was to create and maintain multiple separate networks that never overlapped. For Hornclaw, whose use of the internet is limited to sending emails and reading articles, this level of duality would be too difficult and exhausting to execute, and altogether unnecessary for her to master at this late stage in her life.

It couldn’t have been because of the broadcast—he was only on screen for less than two minutes total—but Hornclaw heard that he left their line of work at the beginning of the year. Clearly he’d failed to maintain separate spheres. Is he still making baby food with his wife, having accepted that he is now devoted to the family’s wholesome business of funneling nutrition and love into their products?

As dawn retreats, the objects around her reveal their forms and the endless comings and goings of the middle-aged and elderly make it harder for Hornclaw to hog the exercise equipment for herself. She leaves the park.





At home, she finds Deadweight’s bowls on the floor, properly filled as they should be; the dog must have had breakfast, as the mound of kibble is dented in the middle. The dog drops the cloth doll she was gnawing on and jumps up on Hornclaw, and once she feels Hornclaw’s hands and the heat of the living she settles back and focuses on her toy again. It’s not that she’s not fond of her owner; she’s learned her human’s preferences and understands that she still finds it strange to feel the warmth of a living being and how unbearable it is for her to get used to it. Deadweight is there so that she doesn’t lose her way, so that she comes home after work. The dog always maintains an appropriate distance, demonstrating that she is alive in the least intrusive and most optimal way.


Translated by Chi-Young Kim


Copyright © 2018 by Gu Byeong-mo
Translation copyright © 2022 by Chi-Young Kim
Published with permission from Hanover Square Press

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