Like a moth flying toward a dim light.
It was a failed life.
Of course, it could have been seen as a victorious journey from another person’s perspective.
Yet, if life’s balance was burdened with additional weight, it would inevitably struggle to maintain equilibrium, ultimately becoming twisted.
I was fittingly known as a country bumpkin, having grown up surrounded by the hearty accents and salty sea air of sailors of Yeongdo, an outskirt of Busan, the so-called second capital of South Korea.
“Ah, our Yeongguk has claimed first place again!”
My mother, who sold fish at the Namhang market, received my report card with her wrinkled hands. Little did she know that her son was adept at lying and had been forging report cards to squander his allowance.
As a child, I felt embarrassed by my mother selling fish at the market and despised the lingering fishy odor on her hands. I attempted to distance myself from it as if it reflected life’s lowest points. Still, like my dark complexion, it eventually became an inseparable part of my existence.
“Yeongguk, would you like to help at the market?”
Even after closing her stall late into the evening, my mother never hesitated to prepare dinner. She meticulously deboned thick mackerel and placed them in my bowl of rice. Her heart ached to give everything to her only son, but at that time, I was too naive and clueless to grasp the depth of her love.
“I need to purchase some study materials.”
“How much do you need?”
“Ten thousand won.”
My mother took a crumpled ten-thousand-won bill from her pocket and handed it to me. She gave away her entire day’s earnings without a hint of sadness. Instead, her eyes brimmed with regret for not being able to provide more.
During middle school, my mother believed I excelled academically. My forged report cards consistently ranked among the top of the school, raising her expectations. But when I entered high school, her anticipation gradually morphed into disappointment.
Eventually, I began smoking and socializing with other delinquents. Having squandered my school years in such a manner, all that remained was a college entrance exam score too shameful to reveal to others. Would my guilt towards my mother have lessened if my entrance exam score had been satisfactory?
[Jang Yeongguk, applicant for the Department of Theatre and Film, Hanyeong University.]
In the first place, I never wanted to become an actor. I simply completed the application form after seeing the glamorous lives of famous actors basking in the spotlight and living in opulent apartments with breathtaking views of the Han River. Since the Department of Theatre and Film didn’t emphasize college entrance exam scores much, it was a viable option. To my surprise, I uncovered a latent talent during the admission interview.
“Acting is an innate gift. Although it can be developed, inherent talent is of utmost importance. Today, we are here to assess the extent of Yeongguk’s capabilities. Would you like to perform the lines and dialogue from the script?”
I glanced down at the script in response to Professor Noh’s question. The role was that of a murderer, a cynical and thoroughly calculated psychopath who had no qualms about killing people as if it were as simple as having a meal. It was the story of someone who had lived a life he had never truly experienced. Despite the short lines, I unknowingly became one with the character as I read the script.
I wanted to become an actor, a famous one at that. But, as time passed, I came to a realization.
My talent was as minuscule as a firefly’s light, and the world was filled with individuals who shone as brightly as the sun with their talents. But I didn’t give up. I was confident that I would do anything for success. Even when I skipped meals and filled my stomach with tap water, I never left the theater. Eventually, my once feeble talent ignited like a firefly’s glow.
Perhaps the heavens were on my side. One day, I caught the eye of a famous producer and was offered a supporting role in a weekend drama. But the drama failed due to the poor acting of the idol cast as the lead.
It was unheard of for a terrestrial weekend drama to record single-digit viewership ratings. Fortunately, industry insiders who took notice of my acting led to me getting roles in other dramas and movies, albeit as supporting characters, not leads.
It might have been too much for someone like me to take on a lead role. Everything about me was awkward. Though society may have favored men without double eyelids and dark skin as sexy, it was a far cry from my reality.
Though I was over 180cm tall, that was more of a hindrance. If I had been shorter, I might have had more diverse opportunities as a supporting actor. My fierce-looking face and towering height made me appear like a gangster to strangers, and I simply didn’t fit the mold of a lead actor.
But I didn’t give up. I wanted to give my all, even with those conditions. As a result, my nickname during that time was simple.
I acted in both dramas and movies without discrimination, regardless of the size of the role. I read the script until it was worn out and tried everything to immerse myself in the given parts. Thanks to this, the staff on set openly called me a “madman” for my dedication to acting. They didn’t mean it in a bad way. After all, acting was an actor’s face and life.
“Son, can I come over with some side dishes?”
“No, don’t come.”
Even as I approached forty, my mother looked after me like a hedgehog protecting its offspring, focusing solely on her good-for-nothing son. However, your son was ashamed of you.
At the year-end awards ceremony, when I won the Best Supporting Actor award, which was unusual for a supporting role, I didn’t even mention my mother in my acceptance speech. I had intentionally erased the shadow of poverty from my life, convincing myself that sending her money every month was enough to fulfill my filial duty.
Although I had become a renowned actor and acquired an apartment with a great view of the Han River, I disliked facing my mother. To be precise, I hated revealing my impoverished past to others. More than any other foul smell in the world, what I once despised the most was the fishy smell I had been exposed to growing up.
A solid path.
Jang Yeongguk had become so famous in South Korea that no one didn’t know my name. I achieved great success in acting and accumulated the wealth others envied.
But it was around that time when another storm hit my life.
“This is Yeongdo Hospital. Are you Jang Yeongguk?”
The unexpected call from my hometown informed me that my mother had collapsed because of a stroke and heart attack. Her frail body, exhausted from years of hard work, finally gave in. Only when I arrived at the Yeongdo Hospital in Busan could I finally face my mother again.
She looked much older than I remembered, with her face weathered by the sea breeze, appearing as if she was over 80.
“Son… your face looks gaunt.”
My mother weakly raised her hand and touched her son’s face. It was then that I realized what I truly wanted to erase from my life wasn’t the shadow of poverty but my mother. I was an unworthy son. Regret filled me as I caressed my mother’s face, now covered in liver spots.
My mother passed away less than a week later.
She didn’t want to burden her son with the heavy legacy of poverty, so she hid a bankbook containing her hard-earned savings deep in a closet. When I saw them, my uncontrollable tears turned into wailing as they surged over me like a tidal wave.
The world seemed dark, and I relied on alcohol to get through each day. No one sought me out, neither in the film industry nor the broadcasting stations. I lived the remainder of my life like a vagabond. I was sorry for my mother, who was watching over me from heaven, but I had nothing left. Everything felt empty as if black paint had been poured into my brain.
I longed for the end of this life. I had no confidence to face my mother, even in death. The pride of succeeding as an actor turned into dust and disappeared, leaving only the scars of being an unworthy child. I was sure I would end up in hell even after death.
I cautiously climbed onto a chair and hung my neck on a rope attached to the ceiling. Ending my life this way didn’t seem too bad. My body, soaked in alcohol like a salted fish, looked pitiful, and my eyes had long lost their light.
Was it an illusion that my mother’s face faintly appeared between my out-of-focus eyes? Then, a moth appeared from somewhere and flew toward the dim light on the ceiling. A moth as a companion on my journey to the afterlife.
“What are you flying for?”
I made up my mind and kicked the chair.
And like a moth flying towards the pale light, my emaciated limbs flailed in the air before hanging limp.
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