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The Young Zelkova

Kang Sinjae's work appears in Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology (Univ. of Hawaii Press)

Kang Sinjae's work appears in Modern Korean Literature: An Anthology (Univ. of Hawaii Press)

by Kang Sinjae

He always smells of soap. Well, not quite. Not always anyway. He gives off a soapy odor whenever he steps out of the bathroom after dousing himself with water upon return from school. So I know without looking that he is coming near, even if I am sitting still at the desk, facing the other way. I can even guess what kind of expression he is wearing or what sort of mood he is in.

After changing into a T-shirt, he saunters into my room to flop onto the sofa or to stand leaning with his elbow against the window sill, flashing a smile at me.

"What's new?" he asks me.

He smells of soap when he says that. And I know that one of the most saddening and tormenting moments has come upon me. A tingle spreads in my heart along with the mild fragrance of soap that his body emits -- this is what I would have liked to say in reply. Then he gazes at me, wide-eyed. His eyes seem to be spying on my feelings or beckoning me to cheer up, smile, and be gay. Or else they could be nothing more than an indication of his cheerful mood. Which is it exactly?

I cannot help gazing into his eyes, focusing all my sorrows, pains, and wisdom at one point in each pupil. I am anxious to know how I appear to him. Just like the sound of the breakers that wash the rocks on the shore day in and day out, this one obsession of mine lashes my heart and sets my body and soul on fire. No matter how hard I try every day, I cannot find out. I cannot fathom the meaning of his gaze. Only my sorrows and torment turn into something so heavy that it sinks to the bottom of my heart. And then I realize that, after all, I must return to being what I apparently am, his younger sister without nothing on the surface to be awkward or uneasy about.

"Is that you?" I ask him in a cheerful voice as if he wanted it that way. I know how ungraceful it is to be anything but cheerful in a situation like this. Relieved at my cheerful voice, he stretches his legs saying, "Yeah, I'm dead tired. How about bringing me something to eat?"

"Gee, you sound impatient. I just got a breakthrough on my English composition homework and I've been scribbling along," I mumble as I sit back from the desk.

"Let me see whether you show any promise of becoming a woman writer." He leans forward, reaching for my notebook.

"My goodness, no!" I hide the notebook under a stack of books and go downstairs to fetch some food from the refrigerator. As I put a frosty bottle of Coke, crispy crackers, and some cheese on a tray, my heart begins to throb with secret joy. Why should he come to my room to ask for food? He always bypasses the refrigerator on his way and badgers me to fetch food for him. Certainly he is not too lazy to open such a simple device; or if he wanted someone else to do it for him, he could easily ask one of the servants. At least that would be easier than making me work, putting up with all my grumblings, tardy movements, and spilling and dropping things. (Somehow I am not adept in these things. I try to be neat and prompt, but in vain.)

When I return with the tray he is sitting down with his face half turned, peering through the window at the rose bush outside. Now he is in such a pensive mood that his eyes look placid and relaxed, unlike the ones I am used to. His tanned face and finely chiseled features viewed from an angle appeal to me. Even the side of his countenance that he would rather not reveal to me looks attractive. His head is shaped like that of Apollo, and a few curly hairs are drooping over his forehead.

"They say curly hair means a violent temper," I once said to him.

"No, not really, Sukhui. That's not correct," he replied in all seriousness to what I meant as a mere joke.

After repeating the routine of sitting down for relaxation in my room, he sprang to his feet, saying, "How about a game of tennis?"


"No. Wait. Didn't you say you're having midterm exams from tomorrow?"

"That's all right. It doesn't bother me."

To tell the truth, I didn't have any exams or anything like that. I pulled a pair of white shorts and a blue shirt out of the upper drawer of my bureau.

"You might flunk," he said as he stepped out of the room to pick up his racket.

The sun's rays were warm, but a cool breeze kept the fresh green leaves in the yard stirring. We walked to the fence at the foot of the hill in the back. Turning the corner where the stone wall has started to sag, we slipped into our neighbor's courtyard. By "our neighbor's" I mean the property belonging to the old royal household, most of which is an idle tract of land except for a couple of tile-roofed houses in the distant corner.

The residents of the old tile-roofed houses sweep and clean the yard religiously every day so that it is kept as clean as the ondol floor. "It's a shame so large a piece of land should he idle," I said one day, sitting on the stone fence, looking down at the yard. "We should make a tennis court here. Don't you think it's a good idea?"

At first he didn't go along with me, but later he gave in, and we walked over to the house to consult with the warden of the property. The following day, we drew lines by sprinkling lime. A few days later, we set up a net and leveled the ground to turn it into a regular tennis court. The warden couldn't have anticipated that so much work would be done on his property. If he should complain, we were ready to give it up any time. So we worked with more hesitation than dispatch.

But the silver-haired, good-natured old man of the house, not only did not express his displeasure but from time to time watched our games, leaning on his walking cane. On one or two occasions he spotted me climbing over the stone fence and appeared to be about to reprimand me, but said nothing. Perhaps he thought that I wouldn't abide by his instructions anyway. At any rate, the yard was our favorite playground.

As a physics major in college my brother was under constant pressure to keep up with his studies. But he was no bookworm to shy away from games. Although I had played tennis even before I joined his family, I owe most of my sophisticated skills to him. I was so happy to learn that he could play tennis better than the coach at my school in the country.

Dull brains do not appeal to me, nor do people with little or no athletic inclination. Athletic games enable us to taste the joy of life. There is nothing so sweet as the air we breathe while we jump around in pursuit of the ball. But that day, I was in the poorest of condition; I was not playing well, I relied on his ability to adjust his pace to none and skillfully to lead me to finish each game.

"Shucks! I ought to be playing better than this. I wonder if I am deteriorating."

"You're playing quite well. How would you like to play a game with Chisu before it gets warm?"

Soon after the sky turned lilac we picked up our balls and headed toward the valley where there was a spring of medicinal water. The water seeping through cracks in the rock was so cold it chilled my teeth, and it tasted of minerals. We scooped the water in our cupped hands and guzzled it down our parched throats. Our manners added a jarring note to the scenery there: the willow's light green leaves drooping over the rock and the clusters of red blossoms on the lone branch of a nameless tree. It's a pity we've never learned to improve our manners.

"Drink a lot! Spring water might do you some good."

"What good?"

"For one thing it might improve your tennis."

But this time there was a little gourd dipper at the side of the well. The old man must have put it there.

"From today on we have to drink nicely."

"The mountain god is watching us."

So we took the rest properly. And then he bent down to scoop a gourdful of water. He put the dipper close to my mouth, looking serene and strange. The face I saw then was one I had never seen before, one that was totally of his own. I had a sip and looked up at him. He slowly drank what was left in the dipper. As he put the dipper back where it was, he appeared to be overtaken by a gush of emotion in that short span of time. He didn't look toward me. All of a sudden, I was seized by confusion. But there was something that never eluded me in that confusion. Happiness.

I walked along the stone fence with a racket on my shoulder. "Brother," for that is what he is to me in terms of formal kinship, but it was a symbol of irrationality and unreasonableness. My existence was entangled in that irrational and unreasonable relationship!

I jumped down from the stone fence, which is taller than I am, and walked straight into the garden without looking back. I walked barefoot, with a pair of tennis shoes in my hand. The turf was so smooth and tender that it tickled but slightly, and I felt like taking my stockings off too.

"How would you like to have your feet shod so you can go anywhere without shoes?" he said to me whenever he found me barefooted.

"Walking barefoot on the grass takes me back to my hometown. It makes me feel as if I've reclaimed myself."

On an afternoon like this my mutterings would give way to a surge of mixed emotions so that I would purse my lips like a grandmother and remain taciturn. I come to the terrace, looking glum. The purple carpet in the spacious living room, the large pieces of furniture in an impressive array, the mysterious calm that reigns in it, the peonies in full bloom around the house, the fragrance of lilacs, the deepening odor of the fresh green plants -- all these make me perceive painfully the meaning of my existence afloat in that ethereal purple air.

The brief moments of cheerfulness and happiness I have experienced cannot be mine for long; aren't they manifestations of my own sorrows and torment? I am at a loss. Such terms as "younger sister" and "elder brother" evoke hatred and terror in my mind. I abhor them. The joy and happiness I have been groping for are not permissible in this category of kinship.

There was something pathetic about my daily illusions of myself as a lone figure in the ethereal purple air. I no longer had the courage to be beside him. He would blink his eyes and crack a joke. He would bid me to cheer up, smile and be merry, without explicitly saying so. This is all he could do for me.

Today I felt more miserable because my heart had been filled with bliss. I stood there for a while. As I stepped onto the shiny wooden floor, puffing out my cheeks, I left my footprints along the way. Soiling the clean floor gave me an ironic pleasure.

After taking a bath, I stole a glance outside the window while dressing. I saw him sitting on a bench under the wisteria. He looked lonesome, with his elbows on his knees and his eyes riveted on the laurel bush. Could he be suffering too, even a little? Well, what could he do? I said to myself. For no obvious reason, I became cruel to him.

I sat down in the comer of my unlit room and looked out at him. He stood up when darkness began to lap him; he stood there for a while, his face turned toward the window of my room. I kept the room unlit and did not go down for supper. Instead, I picked up the glass of Coke he left unfinished. I brought my lips to the rim of the glass just as his lips had touched the rim of the gourd dipper in which I had left some water at the well.

How should I address him? Destiny compels me to call him "brother." I was escorted to this place by Monsieur Lee one day late in winter two years ago, when houses in Seoul were glittering like ice candies with snow and ice piled on tops of their roofs. My mother introduced the young man to me then. "Sukhui, I would like you to meet your brother. His name is Hyongyu."

I gazed at him standing on the purple carpet. Mother continued, "He's a top student at the College of Arts and Sciences of Seoul National University. I know you've been called a gifted girl in the country, but now that you're in Seoul, things will look a bit strange. I want you to get along well with him." Although she said this in a gay tone, a shadow of fear hovered about her as she gazed into the young man's eyes.

He wore a brown V-neck sweater with the collar of his shirt, a shade lighter, turned up over the neckline. His thick eyebrows were spaced wide apart so that they gave an air of intimidation. His eyes were cool and yet generous and poised, betraying wit and self-confidence. The overall contour of his face was one of neatness tempered by vigor and tenacity. Only the soft and delicate lines of his jaw and neck were exceptions.

"Of medium height and build, he does look like a prodigy," I rated him to myself, although I was not so foolish as to evaluate a man on his physical appearance alone. When I stared at him, he wore a faint smile on his lips, narrowing his eyes as if dazzled by the sun. The smile was an awkward but sturdily individualistic one. Perhaps he was reading my heart as I was trying to size him up. I grew tense at being subjected to his keen observation.

What he said then was quite simple. "It's a pleasure to have you with us. We've been much too lonesome in this house." He shook hands with me.

This was evidence enough that he took me for a child and that he wanted to honor my mother's feelings. Relief and gratification surged on my mother's face, as if to vindicate my observation. I viewed the relationship of Hyongyu to mother as being pretty much an artificial one that could be upheld only with minute consideration.

Monsieur Lee, a man of easygoing nature, didn't seem to take things seriously. With a smile on his face, he kept glancing at us, reminding us time and again that I must be tired from the journey.

At any rate, from this time on, the young man has been calling me by that easy and simple name, Sukhui -- sometimes simply, "Hey, Suk!" And he has been generous to me to the point of making me feel embarrassed from time to time.

Lately, important changes have taken place in his relationship to me, such as his coming into my room to ask for food and to ask me to dress wounds on his fingers.

Friendly and unreserved as he was to me, I could never for the life of me bring myself to call him "brother": in the beginning, because we were total strangers, later because of other reasons. To call him "brother" was many times more difficult than to call Monsieur Lee "father". I was not sure whether I was obstinate or sheepish. Both he and mother understood my predicament, for they phrased their questions in such a way that I did not have to struggle to avoid using the term "brother" in my replies. The only person who added relentlessly to my predicament in this regard was Monsieur Lee.

I changed a good bit in many ways during my first year in Seoul. I grew taller and learned to look stylish, and my complexion turned fairer. Last spring, I was crowned queen of E. high school and reigned one whole day over campus activities. I felt that my bust measurement fell short of the title, but the votes were overwhelming in my favor and I was amazed. Of course mother was extremely pleased, and Monsieur Lee bought me an expensive watch.

But Hyongyu didn't have much to say, not even a joke. All he said was that he wanted to congratulate me and he said that in an awkward and self-conscious manner. And I liked him for it.

Also, my personality had appreciably changed. I felt things more intensely in this new and quiet atmosphere than in the country, where I used to have a lot of friends to play and sing with.

I now understand what joie de vivre means. The atmosphere in the new home is pleasant and cozy with a touch of romantic air emanating from the relationship between mother and Monsieur Lee. I like the suburban setting of the home, in the woods away from the center of Seoul, and this old ivy-mantled brick house itself, in which Monsieur Lee is said to have lived alone for years.

Hyongyu is well mannered and courteous toward mother, and Monsieur Lee is content so long as I look healthy and happy. A professor of economics at a private university, he is a little chubby and looks every inch good-natured. Even though he has nothing to do with France or the French, I call him Monsieur Lee because he reminds me of the hapless father in a French movie I saw. But Monsieur Lee is not hapless; in fact, he is quite happy now. It is possible, though, that such a good-natured person may become wretchedly miserable if thrown into adverse surroundings.

In the tragedy of a young man like Goethe's Werther there is acute beauty; in the sorrow of a man like Monsieur Lee, nothing but wretchedness seems to prevail. How fortunate for him to have the companionship of my mother!

Mother looks happy even though she spends most of her time cooped up in our new house. Her voice, which was noted for being tender, has grown more so. She must be harboring a sense of guilt in her newly acquired happiness, for she refrains from going out or even from laughing aloud. Nevertheless, she is always well dressed and her light makeup is pleasing.

But there was something unexpected here which tormented me. It was my feelings toward Hyongyu that bore down on me day and night. When the crushing feeling was too painful to bear, I wished I hadn't come here. But such a feeling did not last long. I shudder to imagine my life without ever meeting a man like Hyongyu. Just meeting him has made me happier than any other woman on earth. I wouldn't trade the happiness of being near him for anything in the world.

It is true that I am at the same time sad and restless. To be more honest, my feelings keep changing every minute. The absence of Monsieur Lee, who is now traveling overseas, is a welcome relief, for I don't have to greet him every morning looking royally happy, or go downstairs for supper on schedule.

"Mother, you know I don't like fixed schedules," I said immediately after Monsieur Lee had departed on his journey. "I want to eat when I feel like eating, and I don't want to eat when I don't feel like it. So will you please excuse my manners as long as he is away?"

While the well-mannered Hyongyu was keeping mother company in the dining room, I sat by the window, staring blankly into the darkening sky. There was a faint glimmer of the river flowing beyond the vast plain dotted with small houses, patches of woods, and shimmering lakes. The river was as whimsical as the weather, glittering like platinum one day and becoming shrouded in fog the next. When the sky turned from purple to light grey, the river merged with the soft grey of the hanging clouds.

Viewing the dark river, I thought I must extricate myself from the confusion of tangled emotions. I couldn't let my whims be my guide, nor could I make any sense out of my conflicting claims. I was not bound by any sense of guilt in loving Hyongyu. That was out of the question. But to betray mother and Monsieur Lee in that sense was tantamount to ruining the lives of all four of us. I trembled at the dismal and horrible connotation of the word "ruin".

Before moving to this new home, I had lived in the country with my maternal grandparents. Until three or fours years before that, mother used to live with us, but after she left for Seoul there were only three of us, my grandparents and me. We had a few workers and several watchdogs for the orchard. One of the dogs, a Chindo, was my pet. But I was always unbearably lonely, especially after mother went to Seoul.

Even when mother was with us I really didn't feel that our life was reassuring or joyful. It pained me that mother, a beautiful young woman, should devote all her time to the monotonous routine of a rural home. Although she usually had on her lap beautiful pieces of cloth or woolen yam to make or knit something for me, and spoke about me often, I felt unhappy and uneasy about her.

If only she would stop sewing or knitting for a change and act like other mothers -- shouting at me or scolding me under the pressure of household chores or of carrying a baby on her back -- and live a life of her own, I would be content.

I cannot recall when mother began to live a shadow-like life. It was already like that about ten years ago when the Korean War forced us to move to my grandparents' place. I remember it was like that even before the war, when I started elementary school in Seoul.

I know nothing about my father. Someone had once told me that he was dead, but I never really believed that. It was only after the war, when grandmother told me in a convincing tone, "Your daddy has passed away," that I tended to believe it was true.

Probably my parents were separated when I was a baby, and the eventual death of my father made the separation permanent. At any rate I have no more information, curiosity, or feelings of any kind about my father. All that I have inherited from him is my surname Yun, which is nothing unique.