The Young Zelkova
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."
"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.
I have no idea how Monsieur Lee, then a refugee in the area, happened to visit my grandfather's orchard. I remember sitting on the branch of a tree one day, munching an apple, when a chubby gentleman, a stranger, walked into the yard. He stopped at the main gate for a while, took off his hat, and proceeded inside, hat in hand. As he was passing under the tree, I threw apple seeds in front of him, but he merely glanced up at me without a smile and walked away. He looked somewhat confused.
When I was later introduced to him inside the house, he appeared ignorant of the prankish welcome I had extended to him from atop the tree. He left before the day was over; and my grandparents had something very important to mull over. I often found mother taking a walk at night alone in the apple orchard.
Monsieur Lee paid one more visit to us, and mother went to Seoul shortly thereafter. "We should have arranged her first marriage like this," said grandmother in a soft but tearful voice to grandfather in the adjoining room. "And then it wouldn't have been so hard for the child." I was shocked.
"If so, Sukhui wouldn't have been born to begin with."
"It's all a matter of luck. We couldn't blame Kyongae for her poor judgment in the past."
Hearing my grandparents refer td mother by her maiden name instead of the usual "Sukhui mommy," I grew curious about her childhood and giggled. I no longer had to endure the sorrow of glancing at mother sitting like a shadow, mending my blouses or sweaters.
Although I was pleased that she had become appreciably happier, there was no denying that I myself was bitterly lonesome. So I sang aloud day and night; I sang on my way home from school, turning round the bend of the hill nearby; I sang in the garden where the crimson balsams were in full bloom.
"If you sing so loudly, people may laugh at you," grandmother said.
Two years ago, when Monsieur Lee came down late in the winter and insisted on taking me to Seoul, no one was more surprised than I. The old couple appeared hesitant at first, but soon gave in to the persistent demands of Monsieur Lee. But they looked dejected.
"More than anything else, her mother wants it that way," Monsieur Lee said to them in a serious tone. "She has never said so, but I know how earnestly she wants her."
I couldn't help smiling. My grandparents appeared fully convinced and were ready to consent as soon as Monsieur Lee should stop pleading. But he kept on as if they were dead against releasing me. When he stole a glance at me while talking, I nodded my own approval. At this gesture, he stopped talking, flashed a grin, and took out his handkerchief to wipe his forehead.
Thus I was transferred to E. girls' high school in Seoul. I ponder: Monsieur Lee and mother are man and wife. If I find it difficult to call him "father," it is because I am not used to uttering such a word.
I not only like him but also feel a kind of paternal tie toward him -- a feeling of protective tenderness several times more powerful than toward my grandfather. But he is no blood relation of mine. Nor is Hyongyu, for that matter. Hyongyu and I are totally unrelated. The crux of the matter is that he is a man of twenty-two, and I am a girl of eighteen. Why can't I accept these facts?
I wouldn't want to release Hyongyu to anyone else; nor do I intend to offer my love to anyone else. I know that what binds us together must not be my being his "sister." I wish he would feel the same as I do -- if not the joys, at least the agonies!
I cannot shake off trivial memories, expressions, or suggestions that seem to be responsible for my suffering. Would it be possible for me to become happy? Doesn't happiness stand for something for which a human being is born? The fragrance of the blossoms wafted into the room, shrouded in the darkness of an early evening. Lying face down on the bed, I finally broke into tears.
"Sukhui, here's something I've picked up for you," mother said Sunday morning when she saw me downstairs. She was sitting on the sofa, holding an envelope in her raised hand.
"What is it?" I said, stepping dose to her. "Where did you pick it up?" I was a little embarrassed, but I couldn't help being inquisitive. I tried to take the letter away from her.
"Wait, sit down over there." She tried to conceal her momentary strain as she pointed to a chair in front of her. I sat down, trying to control my giggles.
Chisu is a cabinet minister's son. He lives in a mansion ridiculously surrounded by a Great Wall of China at the foot of a hill. Burly and unsophisticated, Chisu is a medical student and a friend and tennis partner of Hyongyu's. He drives a jeep every morning, delivering his brothers and sisters to kindergarten and high school. He gave me a lift in his jeep twice: once when I was with Hyongyu and had no excuse to turn down the offer and another time when I was walking home from downtown and couldn't possibly refuse a ride without appearing foolish.
On my second ride I said, "I don't see any little ones today."
"Those who come to my stops on time get a ride, but those who don't are left to their own devices," he replied. "You see, my jeep runs on schedule like a train."
I didn't consider it funny that this simple minded young man should have sent me a delicately worded love letter. What was funny was mother's serious concern about the matter.
"Well. I wonder where you picked it up."
"On the bench under the wisteria tree."
"That's right. That's where I left it."
"Listen, Sukhui. You ought to be more careful. Don't you realize how careless you are when you get through with your tennis? It's always your brother who brings the rackets in." I smiled in acknowledgment. She continued, "Don't you think you're being discourteous to the man who sent the letter?"
"I certainly do, mother. You're right," I said, grabbing the letter.
"Is it something important, something your mother shouldn't read?"
"No, not at all. You may read it. Would I have left it there if it were something you shouldn't read?" I grew a bit annoyed.
"I am relieved. The fact is, I've already read it."
"My goodness, mother!"
"What I want to speak to you about is this. I wish you would consult me whenever things like this happen to you, instead of trying to solve them by yourself -- you can at least tip me off about what's going on."
Meanwhile, I grew melancholy and wanted to leave as soon as possible.
"You realize that mom is on your side, don't you?"
"Certainly," I gave a halfhearted reply, walking slowly outside. I wondered how she would feel about being on my side if I had said to her, "I am in love with your son."
It was something mother couldn't help, something Monsieur Lee couldn't help either. I stuffed the letter into my pocket and walked down the grassy slope, drenched to my knees in the morning dew. I trudged on toward the swamp in the distance, along a trail least likely to have people on it. I walked past the patch of acacias, barley fields, and wild bushes.
My relationship with Hyongyu about this time had reached a stage more pessimistic than at any other time. I tried to avoid seeing him. It was an unbearable pain to laugh, exchange jokes, and then part as though nothing had happened. I grew temperamental even when he didn't say anything unusual, and then he would turn away.
Birds were chirping overhead. The sky was dark blue like the deep ocean, and the leaves glittered in the sun. It was high summer. The oak forest concealed the swamp, and I sat down on the grass, brooding, with a hand propping up my jaw.
Should I become a world-renowned ballerina and stare at him from the stage, glittering like jewels? (I didn't pay much attention to my ballet instructor, but I remember her telling me to be ambitious.) I imagined him sitting in the audience, accompanied by an unattractive wife, and becoming heartsore at seeing me on stage. This kind of fancy -- my bright idea -- disappeared as rapidly as foam on water. And a new kind of fancy took its place: I ought to be thankful just to have a chance to serve him like a maid, expecting nothing in return. Soon teardrops fell on my toes before I became really sad.
I rose to my feet to go back home. Then I heard a rustle in the bush behind me. A slim hound on a leash nosed its way out of the bush, followed by Chisu. He was wearing a light grey sports shirt that matched his robust physique. From behind him darted a boy and a girl, each about ten years of age. Chisu was taken aback to see me there, but soon collected himself to greet me with a smile, showing a row of white teeth.
"Where have you been? Taking a walk?"
"Yes, I'm on my way home now."
The children started playing hide-and-seek, running round the two of us. Chisu stopped the boy and handed the leash over to him, motioning him to go ahead of us. Chisu and I walked together silently for a while. While we were passing by the acacia forest, he asked me abruptly in an embarrassed tone, "Have you read my letter?"
"Yes, I have."
"Aren't you going to give me a reply?"
"Yes, but I don't know what to say."
He nodded his head impatiently, blushing up to his ears.
"But you understand how I feel about you, don't you?"
I said I did. And to change the topic I told him that Hyongyu wanted to play tennis with him soon. "Certainly, I'll be there," he replied with renewed vigor. He started whistling. I heard him whistle all the way until I reached my doorstep. Brushing off an insect that was crawling on my shoulder, he said, in a sad tone, "I've had a wonderful time today. Thank you."
"Good-bye. Don't forget to practice a lot. Our team is quite good now."
He nodded blankly, biting his upper hp as if absorbed in some other thoughts.
I ran up the narrow flight of stone-tiled stairs toward my room, whistling all the way as Chisu did. I needed to keep my spirits up no matter what happened. The sleeves of my blouse and hem of my skirt were damp with dew and smelled of grass. I pushed open the half-closed door.
Unexpectedly, I saw Hyongyu standing there facing me. He normally didn't come into my room when I was not in. But this was not what really surprised me; rather, it was his deeply disturbed countenance. In front of his stormy appearance, I faltered, not knowing what to do.
"Where have you been?" he said in a low but firm voice. I didn't answer.
"Did you leave the letter there as a favor to me, so that I could read it?"
He stepped closer and closer until his chest nearly touched my face. I remained silent.
"Where have you been?"
I kept my mouth pursed tight. I was in no mood to speak up. In a flash, he raised his hand and slapped me in the face. A flame shot up inside me. Tears filled my eyes. But he walked out of the room without turning around.
I glanced outside the window absentmindedly. I saw Chisu in that light grey shirt trudging along the trail in the woods. And the place where he had brushed the insect off my shoulder looked as vivid as if it were within the reach of my hands.
My body tingled as if shocked by an electric current. I understood why Hyongyu had lost his temper. Happiness swelled in my heart, and I felt like bursting. I threw myself down on the bed, curled up like a shrimp, lest the pulsating stream of happiness leak out of my body.
What should I do?
We took a walk in the woods at night.
We held each other's hands in the dark.
And I let him hold me in his arms.
What should I do?
The answer to this question becomes more and more obscure. At any rate, I ought to stop going to the woods. This is all I can say now with confidence.
Arriving home from school one afternoon, I was told to go directly to see mother in her room. I was worried because I hadn't been greeting her whenever I left or returned home.
"Are you back now? You look pale. Is anything the matter with you?" Mother put her hand on my forehead. "Your brother comes home late in the evening, and you're hard to see unless I call for you . ."
She smiled softly, apparently unaware of what was going on. And she went on: "According to his last letter, it looks as though I might have to go to the United States. If I go there, I'll be away for a year or so. But I wouldn't want to leave your brother and you behind. So I've written him several times that I'd rather not go, but you see," She turned her face away.
"What do you think? Your brother has agreed to my going," she said, gazing into my eyes.
"It's all right with me, too," I replied, wondering what would happen to us in that event.
"I appreciate it. I'll take up this matter in detail with you tomorrow. Shall we ask grandmother to come and live with you? Still that wouldn't improve the security of the family . . ."
Grandmother, whose back is bent with age, would be of little use. What would happen in this house if mother went away? The thought of living alone with Hyongyu appalled me. Things, fateful things that no one could prevent, not even I could prevent by staying away from the woods, were bound to take place. I couldn't sleep. My nerves bled at the slightest touch like a fresh wound. As days went by, I couldn't bear it any longer. I left Seoul, insisting that I must be away for a while at grandmother's.
I made up my mind never to go back there, nor to return to school. I felt that it was best to look upon it as the end of a chapter in my life. It would be as painful as carving out a piece of my own flesh; but could I conceive of any other plan?
I made it a rule to often climb the mountain behind our house. An hour or so of climbing brought me to a Buddhist nunnery. That was not my goal, but past the nunnery, up on the crest, I found a place for myself where a thicket of roses and fresh green trees stood in the rushing wind. I would sit there in the wind. Between the trunks of young zelkova trees wafted the light fragrance of wild roses.
I plucked white blossoms, many of them, and put them on the lap of my turquoise dress. Under the dazzling sky the blossoms quickly lost their sheen and began to wilt.
Then I looked up. The next instant, I jumped to my feet in spite of myself. It was Hyongyu, climbing up the steep slope. He looked disturbed as he once was before, with his lips pursed tight. The tight lips made him look more sad than angry. When he halted within several feet Of me, I was overtaken by an illusion that I was rushing Out to him spontaneously. Actually, on the contrary, I was holding on to the hunk of one of the trees.
"Well, Sukhui. Don't let go of that tree. Hold on to it and listen to me," he said, retreating a few steps. He now looked miserable.
"You must come back and go to school. You must forget everything and study. I'm going to do exactly the same. We ought to be separated. We should study separately. Mother will need some money for her trip, so I suggested that she lease the house.
"I've decided where I'm going to stay. You can go to one of mother's friends, Sukhui, we must live apart, but that does not mean that there is no way out for us. Do you understand me?" he said, with his feet planted firmly on the ground. I was trembling, clinging to the zelkova.
"What happened in the woods at that time was really something that couldn't be helped. We can never forget nor ignore it as long as we live. We're parting to meet again. There's bound to be a way out. Such as going abroad . . ." He wiped tears away with the back of his clenched fist.
"Do you understand me, Sukhui?"
I nodded with tears in my eyes. After all, my life had not come to an end. It was all right for me to keep on loving him.
"Now, won't you promise you'll come back tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, or as soon as possible?"
"Thank you so much."
He forced a smile on his face. Then, turning around, he ran down the slope. The wind blew against me. Embracing the young zelkova, I laughed. With tears streaming down my face, I was laughing till my laugh rang through the sky. Ah, it was all right for me to keep on loving him.
The variations on "Flower Dedication Song" quoted in the first essay of this chapter are, themselves, student readings. Why does this story still enchant Korean readers? Can an old man be a hero in our literature? "The Young Zelkova" illustrates the universality of romantic feeling -here among not just Koreans, but younger and older Koreans alike.
Kang Sinjae was born on May 8, 1924, in Seoul and attended Ewha Women's University. Since making her literary debut in 1949 she has published a dozen novels, some fifty short stories, and several plays, and won prizes in 1959 and 1967. One of the recurrent themes in her works is the destiny of woman in love and marriage; some heroines submit to convention, but others escape from family or into the recesses of their minds. Her beautifully chiseled sentences and paragraphs, skillful exploration of human emotions and actions, sensitive responses to colors, smells and natural scenes that often figure as motifs of narrative make her one of the most readable women writers today.
"The Young Zelkova" was first published in the journal Sasanggye for January 1960 and was subsequently made into a movie (1968). Narrated by the eighteen-year-old Sukhui, the story concerns her relationship with her new stepfather's son from his first marriage. Sukhui follows her mother into her new home when the latter remarries and meets Hyongyu her mother's new "son. " Instead of accepting the bond artificially imposed by convention as brother and sister, they fall in love as man and woman. How they solve the differing claims of society and personality, convention and spontaneity, is told refreshingly from a girl's point of view.