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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)

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.