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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)

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.