He was a strange man.
He was born under a bridge, on the banks of a muddy creek. His father was a beggar who couldn’t even write his own name, and called himself ‘Noma.’ His father didn’t have a last name.
If someone asked him his name, he would answer, ‘Noma.’
If someone asked him his last name, he would answer, ‘Noma.’
Impossible to know who had given his father this name, or where. When he was a boy, he whined and begged, pleading with his father to give him a name as well. The father replied:
‘Your name is Noma.’
‘But isn’t that your name, Father?’
‘Then from now on let’s call you Little Noma.’
And that’s how he got the name Little Noma.
His mother was a mad woman. Immediately after giving birth, she licked the blood off his body, like a cat might, saying, ‘Years from now, this child will have a child of his own in a stable.’
There was a flood that summer. In the middle of the night they woke up to the water, which had reached their sleeping place under the bridge. Somehow the father made it to the top of the bridge, and when he looked back his wife and newborn were being swept away by the deluge.
‘Help! Help!’ he shouted.
People rushed over and tossed a long pole in the direction of the mother. With a great effort she caught hold of it, and said, ‘Please take the baby first!’
They reached out and took the baby from her, and the insane mother lost her hold on the pole and was sucked under a surging wave. That was how Little Noma lost his mother.
From then on, Little Noma’s one wish was to have a house of his own. A house that would never be destroyed by a flood, a house that could protect him from the rain and the wind – having that house was his dearest wish.
Little Noma and Big Noma went begging together, and the father found he earned more food with the child than by himself. Out of their tin can he would give the least stale things – and even the rare, somewhat delicious-looking things – to the child. He ate the very spoiled things, the fish bones and the like, himself.
They slept anywhere. Under the eaves, in fields, at the base of an old tree trunk in a glade – anywhere they lay became their house. In autumn, dew drops crept over them and mole crickets crawled by their heads. The sky resplendent with stars was their comforter, the dewy soil their cot. Their pillows were dry twigs bunched together, and in the morning when aurora spread its brilliant fan over the earth they left.
Little Noma, whose dearest wish was to have a house, began sleeping on top of trees. It was more comfortable and cozy there than on the damp, bare earth.
‘That’s no place to sleep,’ his father said. ‘A tree’s no house. It’s no sleeping place for humans. Trees are for bats and birds, the dusky thrush, insects.’
But Little Noma didn’t give up sleeping on trees. He liked them, because they gave him the sensation of being in the attic room of his dream house.
‘I’m just upstairs, Father,’ he shouted from the branches at the top of the tree. ‘You’re sleeping on the ground floor.’
‘Good night,’ the father would say tenderly, lying below the tree and looking at his son curled up on the second floor.
The tree top was the attic room that he’d dreamed of since he was very little. The moon was the motif in the allover pattern of its wallpaper. The leaves sprouting thickly from branches were curtains spread across windows, and the steeply descending trunk his staircase. Snakes sometimes climbed into the attic, bats hung upside down from his roof and the sleeping birds beside him were his toys.
When he lay on a sturdy branch and waited to fall asleep, the intensifying moonlight illuminated the fruits like bulbs of light, and he named them one by one.
‘You’re the wall clock, you’re the roly-poly on top of the desk, you’re the alarm – ding-ding at seven o’clock without fail. You’re the piggy bank, you’re the lock . . .’
After a while he fell asleep, and the next morning at seven o’clock sharp the alarm fruit dutifully fell off the branch and woke him.
In the winter it became very cold.
His cozy attic room became bare and bleak, but he wouldn’t leave it. The thick leaf curtains had disappeared somehow, and the snake toys and the bat toys no longer came by. He was the owner of an attic room without an alarm, a roly-poly, a wall clock or a lock, but he still had his hard bed of branch where he slept.
When he insisted on sleeping on this branch as it grew even colder, his father began slapping himself on the cheek.
‘I can’t beat you. But I will beat myself instead.’
His father slapped his own face until he cried out from the pain, and Little Noma agreed to come down from his attic room. They went to seek out the bottom of a chimney, because it was as warm sleeping there as on a stone-heated floor. But just as his father was falling asleep, Little Noma began sobbing:
‘Father, I’m going to go back to my house. I love my house.’
Sometimes in winter it would snow, which looked like a comforter made of pure white cotton, and this always sent him off to a peaceful sleep. His father liked to think that Little Noma’s habit of sleeping in trees was because of his childish wish to have his own house, but another, hidden hope lay behind it. The tree top was that much closer to the sky, which meant it brought Little Noma closer to his dead mother.
One winter, Little Noma woke up from the tree top in the morning and went to the chimney where his father slept to find that he wouldn’t get up. People said that he had frozen to death.
Although he had never had a house in his life, Big Noma was fortunate enough in death to possess a home as tall as he was. This was his grave, which was topped by a round mound that resembled the roof of a straw-thatched hut. Some kind people even set up a nameplate for him on his front door.
The things Little Noma’s father left behind were a dented tin can, a pair of broken glasses, a torn blanket, a threadbare shirt, a couple of coins found inside the breast pocket of that shirt, and the torn-out page from a Bible he’d discovered on the street.
Little Noma didn’t understand why his father, who couldn’t read a single letter, had kept that page from a book. He couldn’t read either, so he asked a passerby to read the words out to him.
‘Look at the birds of the air: They do not sow or reap or gather into barns—and yet your Heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they? Who among you by worrying can add a single hour to his life? And why do you worry about clothes? Look how the lilies of the field grow: They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these. God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the furnace, will He not clothe you much better, you of so little faith? Therefore do not worry, saying, “What shall we eat?” or “What shall we drink?” or “What shall we wear?” . . .’
Little Noma didn’t understand what it all meant. But the idea of this God who, with His strange powers and strange compassion, would provide him with things to eat, drink and wear, left a deep impression in his mind.
After that he stopped sleeping on top of trees and tried assiduously to acquire his own house on earth.
He went to the city and spent all night building a house on a sloping field. The next day people wearing iron helmets came with hoes and sledgehammers and destroyed the house he’d built overnight. He began to play hide and seek with these men, and built his house again that evening. This time he tried to make it look as though the shack had been there for some time by decorating it with paint. The next day a man wearing an iron helmet came and tore down his house.
He pleaded with him, sobbing, ‘This is my house. Please don’t touch my house.’
But the house was shattered in the space of a breath.
Little Noma realized he would never escape from the eyes of those under the iron helmets.
He decided to make money and build a proper house. He didn’t know anyone, and he didn’t know how to do anything; he couldn’t read. He didn’t even know his own age. The only thing he was sure of was that his name was Little Noma. He wanted to work, but no one would give him a job. So he sat in front of subway entrances and begged. He realized that in order to win people over he had to appear pitiable. When he saw that a disabled man with a limp got more sympathy than he did, he wished that he was disabled too. But he didn’t have the courage to cut up one of his perfectly functioning legs with his own hands.
So he simply sat there in silence and waited for the occasional passerby to toss him a coin. Most of the time his eyes were closed, and people began to assume that he was blind. He knew it was bad to dupe people like this, but it worked, so he sat there all day with his eyes shut.
The sound of footsteps coming up the stairs, going down the stairs, the sound of coat hems brushing against pants, the metallic noise of shoes hitting the iron edge of the stairs, the sharper sound of women’s heels, someone shouting something in the subway, the far-off notes of a singing drunk. With his closed eyes he listened to the sounds made by the people passing in front of him. They threw their coins like they spit out their phlegm. It got to the point where he’d know exactly how much he’d earned just from the sound of the coins falling at his feet.
He only ate one meal a day, and never spent a cent of what he earned begging. He worked tirelessly, begging as a blind man for fifty years.
By then he was nearly blind in fact, an old man with a completely bent back. Since he’d spent all his life trying to save enough for a house, he’d never had the child that his mother had foretold, and thus never christened a ‘Little Little Noma.’ But he hadn’t completely given up hope.
He believed that once he had the house, the rest would follow. He’d marry, and have his baby.
He was still only sixty-seven. What mattered was that his child would be born in a warm room inside a comfortable home.
But he was so old and exhausted, and people said that he was slightly insane. Nevertheless, at sixty-seven he finally succeeded in buying a very small house.
I went over to the house, which was the tiniest I’d ever been in. It was so compact it looked like an architect’s model for a real house.
The house had a bedroom, a kitchen and a yard the size of a handkerchief. The bedroom was so small that when Little Noma lay down his toes stuck out the door. It made me think of a man who was not in a house at all, but wrapped up in a silk cocoon. Nonetheless, it was a house.
In his yard he planted a thistle, and beside it a morning glory, which bloomed every morning with a sound like a horn. He framed his father’s Bible verse and hung it on the wall.
Since he was a very short old man with nearly blind eyes, I helped him nail the frame up.
That’s when he said, laughing, ‘I’m putting up a nail in my room with my own two hands. Little one, isn’t this wonderful?’
Although the nail was definitely sturdy, he gave it three or four more knocks with his hammer.
He seemed delighted to be hammering nails into his room. He went around putting nails all over the walls, until there wasn’t even a sliver of empty space left. He hung a yellow ginkgo leaf picked up from the streets on one, and on another the pair of broken glasses bequeathed by his father.
The only thing that remained for him to accomplish in life was having his child, which his mother had so deeply wanted. But the happiness he’d dreamed of did not come. He only lived in that house for a week.
One day, a group of iron helmets came over from city hall and said, ‘You must leave this house. We have to demolish it.’
‘Why?’ The old man cried out. ‘Is this house unlicensed?’
‘It’s not an unlicensed building, but it’s inside the city development area. According to our plans we must demolish it. We’re building a park here. Of course, we’ll compensate you. All the other residents in the area have already agreed, and you’re the last one remaining. Please sign here.’
‘I won’t. I’ll never do it,’ the old man firmly shook his head. ‘This land is my land, and this house is my house. Do you know how long it took me to buy this house? I’ve been begging since before you were born,’ he screamed.
‘Grandpa,’ they said, laughing. ‘This isn’t a house. It’s a bird cage. You can move to a bigger house now.’
‘Never,’ he answered. ‘No one will destroy this house.’
That night he slept on top of his roof, under the moon. He was afraid that the men would wreck his house with hoes and sledgehammers while he slept. He even began to plead with the rats who gnawed at his threshold.
‘Please, leave my house alone. If you wish you can chew on my bones after I’m dead. But leave the house.’ The rats understood, and stayed far away from then on.
One by one, Little Noma’s neighbors left the area, and city employees in iron helmets would demolish the empty houses. They tilled the empty plots, planted ornamental trees, and set up wooden benches. They fenced in an area and called it a menagerie, where they kept peacocks. Then they installed a carousel. Finally, the entire neighbourhood had been incorporated into the park except for his lone remaining house. Day and night, he sat on his roof and shouted in a husky voice.
‘You can’t destroy my house. You can’t.’
When the construction was nearly complete, a high-ranking official from city hall came to the park to inspect the proceedings. He was strolling around with satisfaction when he spotted the old man shouting on top of his roof.
‘What is that? Some kind of animal? I have never seen an animal that so closely resembled a human being.’
‘No,’ the site manager replied with a nervous expression. ‘He’s guarding his house. He says he won’t leave before he’s had a baby.’
‘He’s insane. We can’t ruin the park because of that one person. Arrest him.’
That night a group of people came and took Little Noma away in an armoured police van. They needed to keep him in jail while they demolished the house, but the cops couldn’t think of anything to arrest him on. In the end he spent a week locked in a cell for no clear reason; after that, the officers let him go and gave him some money.
‘Please sign here, Grandpa.’
Little Noma, who didn’t know how to write, took the pen offered by the cops. Instead of writing his name, he drew something like the graffiti he’d seen a long time ago when he was little, begging with his father, whom he most loved in the world. It looked like this:
He came out of the police station and walked to his house. When he arrived he understood why the cops had given him money. The house was gone. That small house he’d wanted so badly his entire life had disappeared without a trace, and become part of the grass fields of the park.
He thought maybe his eyes had become so bad that he simply couldn’t see the house, so he wandered around on the grass for a time. Where his house used to stand was a well-mown field with a patch of clovers. Little Noma looked like someone whiling away the afternoon, looking for a four-leaf clover.
His house was so tiny that the money he’d received for the demolition wasn’t enough for any other house on earth. There was no house in existence smaller than the one he used to own. The money was only enough for a cup of milk, two slices of sandwich bread, a dried fish and a single postage stamp.
The old man bought and ate for the very first time a cup of milk, two slices of bread and one dried fish, things that he had craved for so many years. It was as though he had eaten his house. With the remaining change he bought a single postage stamp. After that, he became resolute.
He marched back into the park. He drew a circle using his leg as the radius on the exact spot where his house used to stand. Along the boundary of that circle he scattered white chalk powder.
‘This is my house. This is my room. No one else can come inside,’ he said.
That’s where he slept. Since he was conscientious, he never trespassed on the land beyond his house. When children approached to get their stray ball, he shouted.
‘Children, please go play your games somewhere else. This is my house.’
They had no choice but to plead. ‘We’re sorry Grandpa, but our ball went inside your house. Would you please toss it back to us?’
‘Go play far away from here. You might break my window.’
On weekends happy people brought their children for a walk in the park and unwittingly trespassed inside his circle. When that happened, he shouted:
‘This is my house. Leave immediately.’
When I went to visit, the old man recognized me.
‘I’m glad to see you,’ he said sadly. ‘Would you please forgive me for making you stand outside? My house is so small.’
‘It’s okay, Grandpa. Is this your new house?’
‘Yes, of course. This is my house.’
‘How do I mail a letter to your house?’
‘You can send it to the address you used last time. But little one, in this house I have no walls to put nails in. That’s what makes me most sad.’
The old man planted a morning glory and a thistle in his yard, as well as one lettuce and two very tiny portulaca flowers.
‘Look at my garden, isn’t it beautiful? When the portulaca seeds ripen I’ll give them to you.’
Because his yard was so small, he couldn’t lie down and had to sleep standing up.
When I visited him again, he was filled with determination. ‘I’m going to rebuild the second floor.’ He took a day and a night to make the ladder.
‘Look, what do you think of my second-floor attic room?’ He said, climbing up the rungs and sitting down, slightly wobbling, on the top.
‘It’s wonderful. It’s lovely, Grandpa.’
He always fell asleep on top of the ladder, which we called the attic room. On its side he glued his postage stamp, which was the one framed picture adorning his house. It portrayed the queen of some faraway country.
I knew that the old man finally had his house, and that the week he spent in that house was the happiest of his whole life. What is happiness? Nothing other than passing your garden and opening the door of your drawing room, walking through the living room and pausing at the bottom of the stairs to admire the portrait of a beautiful queen from some distant, foreign land.
Eventually the park management sent a group of iron helmets to take the old man away. When they carried him to the car he was screaming.
‘This is my house. Take your shoes off please. You’re tracking mud over my floor!’
But they didn’t take off their shoes. Their military boots trampled the garden that he’d so carefully tended. The two portulacas were cruelly killed, and the morning glory had long since withered.
‘My garden . . . Ah – please don’t step on my flowers!’
Right before they carried him off, the old man – between sobs – said to me, ‘Little one, I’ll give you the second-floor attic room. It’s yours now. You can keep it.’
Grandfather never returned and I went home, carrying the ladder with me.
Last Saturday, I took my kids to the park. It was my first visit in years. Countless people basked in the afternoon light, like so many sunflowers. Children ran in circles like racehorses, fathers whistled and lifted their newborns high over their heads. The sound of laughter echoed all around, and families busied themselves taking photographs. In front of the cameras, the children wearing forced smiles looked as though they had toothpaste foam in their mouths.
I went to the old man’s house. It was still just a field of green grass. My son called out to me, elated to be running around.
‘Dad, come play with us.’
For the first time, I went inside the old man’s fence. The empty yard without house or owner was filled now with clover leaves and flowers. The white blossoms growing above the leaves looked like a crop of laundry that he’d washed overnight and hung out to dry. I plucked a flower and made a watch for my son’s wrist. For my daughter I made a ring. The children were overjoyed.
‘Dad can make anything out of clover flower! A watch, a ring . . .’
We searched for a four-leaf clover until the sunset; I didn’t find one, but my daughter found three.
‘Dad, this is my good-luck gift to you.’
Without any thought I looked down on Little Noma’s empty plot, which was radiant in the twilight.
Ah . . . Grandfather is still tending to many things on the grass field. He visits, carried on the wind, and pours rain with his own hands on the very spot where his garden vanished without a trace – you can see it in the clover flowers that sway delicately in the breeze, just there.
We’re not even as worthy as a single flower. Be still and listen. The winds are grazing past, plucking the strings of the grass. They sound the harp. They play their song on the instruments of the field.
‘Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his glory was adorned like one of these.’
For some reason I thought of that Bible verse I’d once read on Grandfather’s wall, when I was still very young.
Yes. All this belongs to him. They don’t belong to us. We are simply renting a room in his house. The whole universe is his house.
When I came home that night, my wife said, ‘Honey, could you please hang that picture up on the wall?’
She was pointing at a reproduction of a painting by a famous artist. I couldn’t reach that high, so I brought out the ladder from the storage room. It was the same one I inherited from that grandfather so many years ago. I went up the ladder and hammered the nail in; it was the first time I’d been inside his second-floor attic. In that room, I knocked the nail down three or four more times even after I was certain that it was secure enough for a frame.
Just as he used to do in front of me when I was little, a very long time ago.
Image © Kyung Seok Park