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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)


"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?"

I nodded.

"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.

The Author

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.