Born in Seoul in 1924, Kang Shin-jae published her first
short stories, "Face" and "Chong-sun," in 1949, with the recommendation
of the novelist Kim Tong-ni. Her early works date from the time of the
Korean War, and already show a remarkable degree of emotional and literary
maturity. Since then she has published more than thirty novels as well
as numerous short stories. The story "The Young Zelkova Tree" dates from
1960. She is most highly esteemed as a writer of short stories, a literary
form which she herself considers capable of the highest perfection.
Her plots are mostly love stories, where the course of
love is often complicated by a love triangle or by some external factor.
In many of her works the Korean War looms in the background as a source
of suffering, but she remains far from the harsh social realism that has
so strongly characterized much modern Korean fiction. Instead, she concentrates
on portrayals of the inner, psychological evolution of her principal characters,
which are mainly women.
In many of her works, the central female character is
shown suffering pain, alienation, and even death, in the course of an unhappy
love relationship. Much of this suffering derives ultimately from the social
pressures under which women must live, so that Kang's work constitutes
a quite radical denunciation of the inhumanity of modern society.
In earlier works we find many depictions of the effect
of social pressures on women, but later she also began to depict more clearly
the way in which the same forces reduce male Koreans to passive helplessness.
Even there, the narrative voice frequently depicts events from the woman's
point of view, as if to say that even in the midst of pain, women remain
more actively perceptive of the truth than men.
Kang's narrative style is allusive, and her work has
often been praised for its poetic qualities, the way she uses foreign words
and sensory stimuli to evoke an atmosphere that mirrors the inner state
of the main character. She is thus able to leave much of the task of understanding
what her characters are feeling to the reader, without lengthy explications.
The Young Zelkova Tree
... Brother... He was my brother...
For me, this word was the very representation
and all things illogical, and I was the thing
entangled in its deadly web, hopelessly...
He is always enveloped in the smell of soap. No, I'm wrong.
That isn't entirely true. I can't really say "always." It is when he comes
home from school, runs into the bathroom, and comes out having battled
and tussled with the water that he gives off the smell of soap. Even as
I sit motionless in front of my desk with my back turned to him, I can
feel him coming toward me. I can anticipate beforehand what mood he's in,
and even tell what kind of expression he's wearing on his face.
Marching into my room in the T-shirt he's just changed
into, as he throws himself into the armchair, or else leans against the
window sill with his elbow, he turns to me and smiles.
"What are you doing?" he asks.
It is on these occasions that he smells of soap, and
it is then that I realize that my saddest and most painful hour has arrived.
As the sweet, fragrant scent of soap starts to fill the
air around us, I feel a tingling sensation start to bubble up inside and
slowly diffuse through my whole body. Oh, I want to tell him so...
"What are you doing?"
As he throws that question in my lap, he always opens
his eyes a little wider as a matter of course, and gazes into my face.
That gaze... I have often wondered what it could be doing. Perhaps it's
urging me to be just that little bit more jovial, or possibly, its purpose
is no more than the mere expression of his uncontrollable mirth.
At these moments, something compels me to stare back
into his eyes, despite the turmoil inside me as I focus all my available
resources in an effort to stem the flood of grief and unmitigated agony.
I want to know... I want to know what he sees when he
looks at me. I throw myself yet again at the mercy of this query. Day and
night, time after time, like timeless waves crashing into a timeless rock,
this inquiry hurtles into me again and again. But each time I fail hopelessly
in getting the answer. I cannot read the meaning in his eyes and so yet
again, I can feel my pain and sadness turn into something heavier and slowly
sink to the bottom of my breast.
But the very next moment, I realize that I must bring
myself down to that position where no embarrassment or awkwardness exist式that
of his younger sister.
"Oh, are you back?" I respond in as bright a tone as
possible, sensing this is what he wants most. I also know that it would
be cruel and ignoble of me, were I to act awkwardly here.
As if relieved with my reply, he gives himself a big
"Yeah, I'm tired out! You couldn't get me something to
eat, could you?"
"Oh, you're impossible! I was only just getting myself
into the rhythm of this English composition homework..." I stand and walk
away from the desk pretending to moan.
"Really? Let me have a look. I'll tell you if you could
make it as a writer!"
"No, don't!" I hide the notebook under a pile of other
books and come downstairs. Opening the door of the refrigerator, I take
out a frosted bottle of Coca-Cola, together with some crackers and cheese.
As I arrange these on a plate, I am overwhelmed with
a sense of joy式a "secret" joy, hidden and unknowable. Why does he always
come into my room to ask for something to eat, especially when he passes
in front of the refrigerator on his way? Even the laziest of dogs would
have no trouble opening the fridge door, and if he really did want someone
else to fetch it for him, he would do better asking someone in the kitchen.
Besides, anything would be better than asking me to do it. I mean... I
grumble, moan, and I make him wait ages for his snack, and what's more,
no one could be as clumsy as I am, spilling, and sometimes even tipping
the whole thing over on the floor. Come to think of it, I really am very
clumsy at doing things like this, no matter how much I try.
When I come back with the the tray, he is looking out
of the window at the rambler rose with the side of his face turned toward
me. Sitting there, deep in his reverie, I detect a strangely calm and tranquil
look in his eyes式a look that he doesn't show when he's near me. His face,
with its strong contours and darkish complexion is very appealing from
this angle and there is something about the way he looks when he is in
private meditation that attracts me with its fascinating charm.
His well-sculptured head is as handsome as Apollo's must
have been, and a few strands of his wavy hair lie intertwined over his
"I hear that curly-haired people are violent by nature,"
I told him once.
"No, that's not true, really Suk-hui, that's not right..."
he protested in earnest, when all I was doing was poking fun at him...
After having a rest in my room as usual, he picked himself
up from his seat.
"Shall we play tennis?"
"Ah, I just remembered, I thought you said you were taking
mid-term exams from tomorrow."
"Oh that, well... It doesn't really matter."
Frankly I couldn't have cared less about them. I pulled
out a drawer, and took out a pair of white shorts and an orange-colored
"You know you'll fail with that kind of attitude..."
Even as he said this, he went out of the room to get
The sun was shedding its fiery light, but a somewhat
chilly wind could be felt from time to time blowing through the fresh greenness
of the leaves. We walked to the wall at the foot of the hill, and slipped
into the yard opposite. I've heard that this neighboring estate used to
be a part of the land held by the old royal family. The couple of old tile-roofed
houses that sat in this estate were so far off that they were almost out
of sight, leaving this side of the grounds a big empty space.
Whatever motivated the people living in those houses,
they certainly swept and polished that piece of land.
"What a complete waste... It would make a first class
tennis court. How about it?" I said one day sitting on the stone wall.
He wasn't very enthusiastic at first, but later he walked
over to the house and talked it over with the owners. The next day, we
took some chalk and a few days after that, we leveled the land and installed
a net, making a complete tennis court out of the piece of land.
The owner, a grand old thing, wasn't quite happy with
how far we had gone, and protested as if anything could have been done
about it, but he soon gave up. The next thing you know, he would come out
supported by his walking stick and watch us play.
I have always found it difficult to read the expression
on an old face, but it was especially difficult with him. To spell it out,
it was a face which seemed as if it was laughing one moment and marveling
the next at this curious game that unfolded itself in front of his eyes.
And also at the same time, he looked as if he were a million miles away
floating around in his own little world, somewhere beyond the sky.
Once or twice, at seeing my masterly skill at jumping
over the wall, he opened his mouth as if to speak, but closed it again
without saying anything. Possibly, it was because I didn't look as if I'd
pay attention to him, whatever he said. Anyhow, that place was an excellent
place to while away our time.
A student of physics, my tennis companion often seemed
pressed with his work, but he wasn't a feeble-minded milksop who would
shriek away at the very mention of the word "sport."
I had been playing tennis before I came here, but the
sudden improvement in my play is mainly due to him. One couldn't imagine
my gratification when I realized just how much better he was than the coach
I'd been learning from in the country.
I don't think I can really fall for anyone who is dull-headed,
but at the same time, I'm not attracted by those that profess total separation
from all physical activity. I think sport, in some of its aspects, shows
without doubt the very joy of living reflected in itself. The refreshing
sweetness of the air as I run round the court in pursuit of the ball is
like nothing else.
But today, I really couldn't put racquet to ball. The
only thing admirable on the court was his usual skill in pulling me along
at my own pace, erratic as it was.
"Phew! I'm certainly not with it today, am I..."
"Oh, that's all right, I don't mind... I think it'd be
a good idea to arrange a match with Chi-su soon, don't you think so?"
As the sky was turning a deep yellow, we picked the balls
up and walked down to the mineral water spring. The icy water, flowing
out of a crack in the rock, made our teeth numb with its coldness, and
had a bitterish flavor.
We made water dippers out of our hands and drank to our
hearts' content, all the time holding our nostrils closed. A willow spread
its graceful pea green leaves over the rock, and an anonymous tree, covered
in bright red flowers, was also spreading its branches over us.
We had always thought that in these surroundings, it
wasn't quite right for us to drink in such a rowdy manner, but still we
"Drink up, they say it has medicinal qualities. Who knows,
you might even benefit from some of its effects."
"What for? Well, for a start it might even make you a
little better at tennis."
It was a spring where we would never fail to stir up
some racket or another.
But today, we were surprised to find a gourd dipper placed
on the edge of the rock. No doubt the old man had put it there.
"We'll have to be better behaved when we drink here from
"Yes, the guardian spirit of the mountain is watching
So we sat there and took a long break. We were ever so
well behaved... He leaned forward and scooped out some water with the dipper,
and put it against my lips. He was wearing an unfamiliar face, deeply engrossed
in some private thought, and it was carrying an expression so private so
personal... It was one of those that he never shared with me.
I just took a sip and looked up at his face. He drank
the rest slowly and deliberately. As he was replacing the gourd dipper,
I thought I saw for an instant fiery emotion shroud and blanket his face.
He didn't answer my look. I was suddenly swept away into utter confusion.
But even in that state of the amalgam and hodgepodge of feeling, I was
aware of something strong and distinct... It was joy.
I threw my racquet onto my shoulder and walked toward
... Brother... He was my brother...
For me, this word was the very representation of absurdity
and all things illogical, and I was the thing hopelessly entangled in its
deadly web, hopelessly...
I jumped down from the wall which was taller than I was,
and without casting back a glance, walked on through the garden. I was
barefoot with my shoes in my hands. The bristly and yet soft texture of
the grass was so exciting that I did not want to miss the sensation of
walking on it wearing anything on my feet.
He likes to joke... If he were with me now, I bet he'd
start teasing me. I remember once when we were walking side by side.
"Shall I fit a pair of soles on your feet? Then you could
go around everywhere without your shoes on!"
"You know, walking on grass barefoot always makes me
feel as if I'm back home... No rather, it makes me feel as if I've finally
come back to my Self..."
I would mumble a few words like this, but later that
day, I would become all mixed up inside, all of a sudden. So nowadays,
I just keep my mouth closed like a stubborn old woman.
When I arrive at the terrace all sulky式seeing the purple
rug laid across the wide room, the weighty pieces of furniture placed here
and there, and the stillness floating around them, and when the fragrance
of peonies in full bloom, the scent of lilac, and the smell of freshly
hewn grass combine to produce that intoxicating aroma式I feel the painful
reality of my position slowly float toward me in this purplish air. I cannot
help but just stand there flustered and frustrated as I open my eyes to
the bitter irony of my situation. Were those fleeting moments of cheerfulness
and joy, in fact, my grief and agony disguised?
Brother and sister...
I hate these terms because they only invoke fear and
aversion within me. The joy and happiness I have been feeling are definitely
not allowable within these categorizations.
The irony that I experience in this purple-tinted air
would be tinged with that little bit of sadness, and I would soon lose
the courage to remain standing by his side. No doubt he would crack a few
jokes blinking his ebony-colored eyes and tell me in unspoken words to
laugh and be merrier. Indeed isn't this all he can do for me?
The strength of the elation that I'd felt earlier today
had, I think, plunged me that much deeper into a sense of tragedy. I just
stood in front of the house, dumbfounded, and then slowly walked up onto
the polished wooden floor of the house, puffing my cheeks out a little.
The shiny wooden floor became marked by my footsteps, but funnily enough,
I got a strange thrill seeing it dirtied.
I had washed myself and I was changing. I threw down
a glance through the window.
He was sitting on a bench underneath the wisteria vine,
supporting his chin, looking into the bay tree forest. In the way he was
directing his gaze, there was something which made him look awfully lonely.
Could it be that he was suffering from the same torment
as I was? But then I was suddenly pushed by a streak of cruelty. Ha, but
what use is there? What can be done...
I didn't turn on the lights. I placed myself in a spot
where I couldn't be seen from the outside, and watched him placidly.
It was only after darkness had blanketed the surroundings
that he stood up from the bench. He looked up at my window and froze. He
was there for some time before he finally disappeared out of sight.
I didn't turn on the light. Nor did I go downstairs for
supper. Instead, I picked up the coffee cup that he'd sipped from and carefully,
so carefully put it to my lips... Just as he had put the gourd dipper to
his lips earlier.
What term would be the most appropriate in referring
to "him?" It is my fate to call him "brother."
It was late winter of the year before last, when ice
and snow had sugared over the houses of Seoul making them glitter like
grated ice candy, that Monsieur Yi brought me (perhaps it would be better
to say "dragged" me) here. Mother introduced "him" like this.
"Suk-hui, this is going to be your brother from now on.
Say hello, he's called Hyon-gyu."
I stood on the vivid purple carpet and inspected his
"Do you know he's known as the genius of the college
of Liberal Arts and Science at the University? Come to think of it, our
Suk-hui, too, has quite a reputation of being a very accomplished young
lady back home... Only, I think she's lost her feet a bit coming to a place
like Seoul. Try to get on well together, won't you?"
Mother's voice was soft and light, but her eyes appeared
full of misgiving. I began to study the young man's eyes alertly.
He was wearing a brown V-neck pullover over a lighter
colored shirt. In those thick eyebrows of his and the look on his forehead,
he gave the impression of being a little overbearing, but his eyes were
cool and refreshing to observe, in that there was a sharpness and a generosity
in them: the sort of generosity that comes out of confidence.
The contours of his body seemed to show a neat propriety,
but at the same time seemed to expose a tough and stubborn character underneath.
Only, the lines around the chin and the neck seemed sensitive and very
He looks normal enough, I thought式height, shoulder-breadth,
and hmmm... He does seem to have that certain quality suggestive of a genius...
All the time, I was giving marks out of a hundred. But then, I wasn't so
stupid as to judge the merits of someone on his outer appearance only.
As I pierced his eyes with my look, a corner of his mouth
twitched a little, like someone a little overcome by a sudden flash in
his eyes. He seemed a little embarrassed but at the same time looked as
if he was squeezing out a bitter smile against his will. Was it because
he could look right through me? I suddenly feared that I was being probed
under a detailed examination.
But at length, the tone in which he greeted me was simple
in the extreme.
"Hello, I'm very happy that you came. The house has been
feeling very empty recently..." he said as he took me by the hand.
This only suggested that he looked on me as a child,
probably did so out of respect for Mother's feelings.
All so predictably, a great flood of relief and satisfaction
could be seen surging over Mother's face, and I began to have some idea
of the kind of connection that had been forged between this young man and
my mother. It was an unnatural mother-and-son relationship which obliged
both parties to respect and venerate each other in every small detail,
triviality, of everyday life.
Monsieur Yi seemed broad-minded enough, and appeared
to take an easy-come easy-go attitude in all aspects of his daily dealings,
so that while all this was going on, he just stood there with a broad grin
on his face, urging me to rest, saying how tired I must be.
Anyway, what is important is that from then on, "he"
has been able to call me by my name without any inhibition. Sometimes,
he would even call out, "Hey, Suk!"
He has been very cordial and hospitable to me: sometimes
even too much so, which pained me a lot. The fact that he had started to
come into my room to ask for something to eat, or to ask me to put some
medicine on his hands or somewhere, was a very significant change, and
a very valuable one for me.
Be that as it may, I couldn't bring myself to call him
brother, no matter how much I tried. At first, it was because of the awkwardness
arising from unfamiliarity, but later it was for another reason... This
was many times harder than calling Monsieur Yi "Father." I'm not sure if
I am a stubborn bigoted ass, or worse still, someone who's lost control
because of bashfulness. Which could I be I wonder...
However, it appeared that Hyon-gyu and Mother recognized
my peculiar predicament, and would phrase their questions in such a way
that I would not have to struggle and twist trying to avoid that which
I felt so abashed to say. In this context, the only person that did put
me into impossible positions from time to time was Monsieur Yi himself.
I think in the little over a year that I've been here,
I've changed in many ways. I have learned to make the most of my looks,
I've also grown a little taller and my skin seems to have become a little
whiter. Last year, I was even voted "Miss E High School," and played queen
for a whole day. I had feared that perhaps my bust would be too shallow
and I, more than anyone else, was startled to find myself winning and by
such a big margin as well! Mother was so excited she didn't know what to
do, and Monsieur Yi bought me an incredibly expensive watch, but "he" didn't
say much: not even a joke. All he did was utter a word of congratulation,
but even that, very shyly. Seeing him like this, I got a great sense of
satisfaction. I felt good.
I think my character has also undergone change. The girl
who used to have so many friends and who used to sing such a lot, has become,
I think, I a little more impetuous and a little more aggressive since moving
here. I think I can at last begin to understand what is known so simply
as "the joy of life."
The atmosphere in this house is very cozy and pleasing.
Also, because of the unusual circumstances which bound my mother with Monsieur
Yi, there is that slight tinge of the romantic fused.
S district in which we live is far from the hustle and
bustle of the city center, and the way the creeping ivy式which according
to Monsieur Yi was already thriving when he came式covers the whole of this
brick house has a very comforting effect, giving me a sort of solace that
I had never experienced before. What's more, he is always kind and polite
to Mother, and Monsieur Yi would express his great satisfaction whenever
I looked healthy and happy.
Monsieur Yi was a tutor in economics at some university,
and was a plump and good-natured man. The reason I call him "Monsieur"
even though he had no connections with France is because he reminded me
of a piteous father I once saw in a French film. Monsieur Yi is not pitiful.
Indeed, he's very happy. But it is exactly this perennial munificence that
seemed so vulnerable. I fear that with just one slight mistake, he might
tumble down into utter misery and degradation.
In the tragedy of someone like Goethe's Werther, there
is a poignant beauty in the pain he suffers, but I have only fear as to
what Monsieur Yi's sadness would be like. I can only see wretchedness...
It was indeed fortunate that my mother was able to come and stand by his
Mother spent most of her time indoors, but she seemed
happy enough. Her gentle tone of voice, so characteristic of her, had,
I think, grown even gentler. Only, it seemed she was suffering from guilt
at the actual greatness of her bliss itself, and in consequence would not
go out very often and even strained herself not to laugh too loudly. But
she was always in pleasant clothes and also indulged in a little bit of
vanity with a little make-up on her face. This pleased me.
But, however, I have an unanticipated anguish. My feelings
toward Hyon-gyu are always weighing me down. Sometimes, when the distress
becomes too strong to bear, I wish that I had never come here in the first
place. But this wish doesn't last long. What if I die and never see him
again in my life? I shudder at the thought. It didn't matter if nothing
came to alter the situation. I was the happiest girl in the world by the
mere fact that I had met him... and how could I ever exchange with anything
else the exhilaration that I feel, simply breathing next to him? But it
is also true that I am always under a shadow of anxiety and misery... To
tell you the truth, my sentiments change by the minute.
The fact that Monsieur Yi is traveling abroad these days
seems to have lessened the weight of that burden on my shoulders a little.
No longer am I obliged to feign happiness to please him every morning,
or go downstairs to the dining room at the regular prearranged times.
"Please Mum, just turn a blind eye to it until he returns
could you? You know how I hate being bound up in schedules... I'll eat
when I want to, that's all right isn't it?" I negotiated as soon as Monsieur
Yi had left. But I knew only too well that the real reason behind this
reluctance to go down to have regular meals was the fear I'd soon be afraid
to meet Hyon-gyu face-to-face. So it appeared that he was the only companion
Mother had at the supper table.
As the well-mannered young man accompanies Mother at the
supper table, I gaze out blankly through the window at the falling sun.
The little hamlets here and there composed of tiny dots that were once
houses, the reflections on the lakes in the forest, and a winding river,
all come, rather blurred into my sight. Depending on the time of day and
the weather, that river might show itself as clearly as a flashlight would
in the dark, or else, become milky and blurred beyond recognition as if
inside a thick, opaque envelope of fog. At about the time when the sky
turns into a mellow gray from a purplish blue, the river merges itself
with the warm gray clouds into one evanescent mass.
And here I was again, as usual, looking into the dark
waters of the river and pressing myself to find a way to free myself from
this sticky web of entanglement. I wasn't in a position where I could leave
myself at the mercy of those capricious propensities of my mind, and at
the same time, I couldn't help holding contradictory inclinations as to
the very nature of these propensities.
I don't feel guilty about being in love with Hyon-gyu,
but taking into consideration the nature of the affinity between Monsieur
Yi and Mother, that sort of a betrayal would almost certainly spell the
utter destruction of all four of us. The harsh and dangerous sound of the
word "destruction" makes me shiver...
Before I had come here, I was staying at my grandparents'式that
is to say my mother's parents' house in the country. Even up until three
or four years ago, Mother was able to stay with us as well, but when she
went, it left just the three of us式my grandparents and me.
There was companionship it is true式we had many hands
working for us, and also guard dogs in the orchard, among them my favorite,
Pok-dong, but I was always pursued and engulfed by emptiness. As a matter
of fact, after Mother left us for Seoul, I had to endure great pain inside
me. This was funny, because all the time she was with us, I wasn't exactly
overwhelmed with a feeling of security and contentment.
It had pained me every time I looked at her, still young
and beautiful, just wasting her life away with us. On her lap was always
a fine piece of cloth or some woolen thread, making something for me, and
words of concern for my well-being never left her lips, but strangely,
I found all this very irritating. I even felt hostility toward her sometimes.
I wanted to tell her that she didn't have to do all those things for me,
but just live the life she wanted式to live for her own sake and not for
mine. She should, I thought, get angry sometimes and scold us, as the other
mothers did. And it was the same thing with my grandparents. They too were,
I think, too gentle to me.
I can't remember when this lifeless shadow-like existence
of my mother's had started. As far as I can reach back in time式the time
we had to come down to my grandparents because of the war, that is, about
ten years, and even before that when I was entering elementary school in
Seoul式I was aware of something similar.
Concerning "Father," I know absolutely nothing. Someone
once explained to me long ago that he'd died, but I remember I had the
feeling this wasn't wasn't quite true. After the war, I was told again,
this time by my grandmother.
"Your father has passed away..."
There was something in the tone of voice that told me,
this time it was for real. As I have figured it out, Mother and "Father"
were probably separated when I was very young and somehow never got together
Anyway, all that I am sure about my father is that I
have no knowledge of him, and hold no emotions for him. This surname of
mine "Yun" is the only thing I've inherited from him, but even that...
I can't help feeling it's just another surname and a common one at that.
I don't know what had happened to tie Monsieur Yi to
my mother, nor what drove him to visit her at the orchard.
That day, I remember, I was straddling over a branch
of the apple tree, munching an apple, when a slightly plump gentleman I'd
never seen before was walking in our direction. He seemed to be hesitating
a bit as he stopped outside the front gate, but then, seeming to muster
up a little courage, he took off his hat and walked in.
I dropped an apple seed when he was about to pass beneath
the tree. He stoped and looked up. But as if in total confusion, I remember,
he didn't even smile. Later, as we were formally introduced to each other,
it was plain that he'd forgotten everything about that little informal
welcome he had received earlier that day.
He went back without even spending the night, and it
was from then that I was able to see Mother strolling about alone among
the apple trees at night.
Monsieur Yi came back once more, and not long after that
Mother left for Seoul.
One night, I was a little startled to hear Grandmother
sobbing in the next room.
"I he'd only come and married her earlier... she wouldn't
have had to go through all that suffering."
"Now, what are you talking about... then we would have
lost having Suk-hui here with us..."
"Well, that's called fate... Oh, I don't know. I don't
know whose fault it all is... but I do think Kyong-ae had much to blame."
It was a little funny to hear my grandparents calling
my mother by her first name instead of the usual "the child's mother."
It made me smile as I ruminated over what her young days must have been
So, the grief at seeing my mother waste away was gone,
and I even felt a certain contentment at seeing her become, as I thought,
a little bit happier, but it was also true that I was desperately lonely
Day and night, something drove me to sing式when I was
coming home from school, when I was underneath the white blossoms of the
apple tree, and also when I was in the yard full of scarlet touch-me-nots.
"My dear child, people'll laugh if you sing your head
off like that, you know," Grandmother would tell me sometimes looking quite
When Monsieur Yi came in the late winter, the year before
last, and insisted on taking me with him, it was I who was startled more
than anyone. I could feel that my grandparents were somewhat hesitant,
but they couldn't make a stand against the onslaught.
"The most important thing is that her mother wants it.
She never says it outright, but I can always see it in her eyes..."
I was a bit tickled by this all-too-sincere attitude
of his. My grandparents appeared as they'd been persuaded and if he'd have
stopped speaking for a minute, they would have given him their answer,
but here he was, as though thinking that they would hold on to me with
As he glanced at me, I nodded a little, whence he stopped
and put a broad grin on his face and took out his handkerchief and wiped
the sweat off his forehead.
And this is how I came to be transferred to "E High School
Monsieur Yi and Mother are husband and wife.
The reason I find it difficult to call him my father
is, I think, mostly because I have never got into the habit of uttering
that word. But this is not to say that I dislike him. As a matter of fact,
I feel a sense of security (and even a sense of fatherly watchfulness)
in him式something that I'd never been able to savor under Grandfather.
But we are not related by blood.
It is the same with Hyon-gyu. In that respect, he and
I are total strangers式the fact that he is a twenty-one-year-old young
man and I am a seventeen-year-old girl is the simple truth, nothing more,
and nothing less. Why is it that I'm not allowed to accept this, so painfully
I don't want to give him away to anyone... Never. Nor
do I want to offer myself to anyone else. All I know is that the convention
which ties us together shouldn't be...
Of course, I am hoping all the time that he's asking
himself the same questions式the same things, perhaps not the same "pleasures"
but at least the same "sufferings." So it is that anything, absolutely
anything that has the slightest pertinence to this "mutual suffering" of
ours式the slightest memory, the most insignificant fleet of change in his
countenance, the tiniest of observations式are all vividly recorded and
stored for posterity. Ah...! am I destined never to savor the sweetness
of happiness...? Isn't happiness that thing whose sole reason for existence
is for itself alone...? Its causa sui?
The rich concentrated aroma of flowers comes flowing
in, wrapped in the opaque darkness of the early evening air. I fall face-down
on the bed and drown myself in passionate tears.
"Suk-hui, I happened to pick this up..."
One Sunday morning, when I went downstairs, Mother was
waiting for me with these words, holding up an envelope.
"What is it?"
I went a little closer, and although it was a little
embarrassing, I stretched out my hand and tried to get it from her.
"Where did you manage to pick it up?"
"Not so fast... Could you seat yourself for a minute?"
Mother was pointing to the chair in front of me, trying
to hide her obvious anxiety. I was hit by a wave of contempt, but I suppressed
it and sat down as she ordered.
Chi-su was Minister K's son, and lived in that estate
at the other side of the hill式that comic place with its walls like the
Great Wall of China. He was a simple, rather bulky-looking boy, who was
attending medical school somewhere, and played tennis with Hyon-gyu once
in a while.
He crammed the jeep with his younger brothers and sisters式from
kindergarten upwards式and would drive them back and forth from school,
I myself had received a couple of lifts in his jeep.
Once I was with Hyon-gyu, so that I had no reason to refuse, and the other
was when I was on my way home from town, and it would have been even more
awkward if I had refused his offer.
"I can't see the little ones today, where are they?"
"If they can fit themselves into my schedule I cart them
home, but when they can't, they have to come home by themselves. You know,
it's just like a train..."
It was not because this boy had written an unbecoming
love letter that drew forth my cynicism. It was the slightly nonsensical
attitude of Mother puffing this thing up out of all proportions that caused
"That's funny, I wonder where it could have come from..."
"I found it under the bench in the vine."
"Oh, now I remember, so I'd left it there!"
"What do you mean 'Oh, now I remember!' You should be
a little more prudent in your actions. Look for example at what you do
after playing tennis. Your brother always seems to clear up after you."
I only giggled in reply.
"Don't you at least think it is being discourteous to
the person who sent it? Well don't you think so?"
"Yes, you're right, Mum," and I took the envelope from
"Is it secret? Do you mind if I read it?"
"No, I don't mind. If it was anything I wanted to hide,
do you think I'd leave it lying around?"
I was becoming a little indignant.
"That's a relief... To tell you the truth, I'd already
read it myself."
"Oh, that's not very fair of you, Mum..."
"The only thing I want to tell you Suk-hui is that anything,
absolutely anything that bothers you in the least, don't just handle it
by yourself but come and tell me at least the important parts and let's
discuss it, okay? That's the way it is supposed to be you know..."
As I stood listening, I became more and more depressed,
and only wanted to leave that place as soon as possible.
"You know I'm always on your side, Suk-hui, don't you?"
I gave this automatic reply and slowly walked out of
the house. I wondered how much she would be on my side if I went and said,
"I'm in love with your son!" How would she come to my aid then? This question
was out of Mother's reach, and even that of Monsieur Yi.
I crumpled up the letter in my pocket and walked down
the sloping meadow, getting myself quite wet up to the knees because of
the dew. I walked in a direction where I couldn't be seen, past the acacia
grove, the barley field and the shrubbery.
As I walked, I was thinking to myself of Hyon-gyu and
just how much our standing with each other had deteriorated recently into
a gloomy, pessimistic, all time low. I was avoiding him like the plague
because I couldn't endure the pain as I had to part, joking, as if nothing
existed between the two of us. So I would get angry with him for no reason
and this would stop him talking to me.
The birds were singing above and the sky was a deep blue式as
blue as the sea, and would reveal itself through the leaves in small patches.
Summer was ripening.
The oak forest was concealing the direction where the
swamp lay, so I sat down on the grass, and fell into a deep reverie.
Shall I become a ballerina and sparkle like a gem on
the stage? Although I'd never heed her, my instructor always reminded me
that I should have ambition... If I did become a world-famous dancer, when
he comes with his plain-looking wife to watch me, he would be sorry, wouldn't
For a moment, this seemed a good idea, but it disappeared
as easily as it had come式evanescent as a bubble on the surface of water.
Then I'd think of being his servant, and nothing more.
Giving him everything and expecting nothing in return, but even before
sadness had a chance to enter my breast, a tear had already rolled onto
I picked myself up to head back home. It was then that
I heard leaves rustling behind my back, and a fine setter came out on a
lead. At the other end of the lead was Chi-su. The warm gray shirt seemed
to go well with his robust body. Behind him came running a little boy and
girl, both about ten, playing with some pebbles that they'd presumably
picked up on the way.
Chi-su seemed to panic a little when he saw me, but presently
walked toward me revealing his white teeth.
"Good morning, are you out for a walk?"
"Yes, I am. I was just on my way back."
The children played and chattered between us. He gave
the end of the lead to one of them and signaled them away.
We walked side by side for a long time without uttering
a single word. But passing the acacia grove, he suddenly shoved a question
"Did you get my letter?" seeming a little embarrassed
as he said this.
"Aren't you giving me a reply?"
"Yes well, I didn't really know quite how to write it
he nodded his head before the end of my reply, out of
embarrassment. I saw his ears flush with color. He spoke again.
"But you know my feelings toward you...?"
I told him that it was so. And I told him in the same
breath that Hyon-gyu had wanted to play tennis with him, and would he come
"Yes, I'll be there soon..."
He replied as if he'd recovered a source of energy that
he had lost. He began to whistle, and whistled all the way up to the house.
"Thank you very much, it was wonderful this morning,"
he said, no sign at all of any awkwardness, and flicked off an insect that
was climbing up my shoulder.
"Goodbye, and don't forget to practice! We've improved
He nodded, biting his lips as if submerged in some thought.
I ran up the narrow steps and went straight to my room. I was whistling
as Chi-su had done. I felt that I mustn't lose my strength. My elbows and
skirt were still giving off the scent of the morning dew and fresh grass.
I pushed open my half-closed door and marched in.
There, to my surprise, I found Hyon-gyu. I wasn't startled
only because of the fact that he didn't normally come into my room without
me there, but because he looked angry.
I was stoped so suddenly in my path, that I simply froze,
not knowing what to do.
"Where have you been?" he asked in a low, deliberate
I remained silent.
"Did you leave that letter there on purpose so that I'd
go and read it?" He came a step closer. My face was nearly touching his
I said nothing.
"Where have you been, I said!" I just closed my lips
tighter. I felt contempt running through me. "See if I ever tell you,"
He suddenly lifted his arm, and there was a sharp noise
on my cheek. I felt something burst into flames and instantly pools sprang
up in my eyes, but he went out without giving another look in my direction.
I turned my head toward the window and gazed out dumbfounded.
I could see Chi-su walking along the forest path. The spot where he had
flicked the insect off me seemed so close, I could reach it.
A sudden swareness rushed through me like an electric
current. I realized. I realized why Hyon-gyu had lost control of himself
so completely... I felt as if my heart would burst open with the joy that
was swelling up and expanding inside me... I threw myself on the bed and
crouched up like a shrimp, legs on chest. I didn't want any of this to
escape. I wanted to keep every drop of this raging torrent of elation that
I could hear rushing through me.
What am I to do?
We took a walk in the woods at night.
We held hands as we walked through the darkness.
And I let him embrace me.
What am I to do?
The answer to this question seemed harder to get as time
went on. The only thing that could be said with certainty was that I should
stop seeing him at night.
Coming home from school, I was told that Mother was waiting
for me in the main room. I suddenly felt faint. Did she know anything?
"Oh, are you back? But what's wrong with you, your face
is almost blue! Are you ill?" Mother put her hand on my forehead.
"You know, it's so hard to see you these days, what with
your brother coming in so late, and you so busy that I can only see you
by calling you like this..." Mother laughed a little as she spoke. It was
a smile of innocence. She hadn't found out.
"I got a letter today, and it looks as if I might have
to go to America for some time... In fact, for about a year. If I do, I'll
have to leave you by yourselves and... I did send many replies refusing
the offer, but..." She turned away a little. "But, what do you think? Your
brother has already said yes," she said, looking into my eyes.
"It's fine by me as well," I answered.
I was in a daze by this time with nothing but blackness
in front of my eyes.
"Oh, thank you! We'll discuss the details tomorrow. Shall
I ask the old grandmother from our uncle's to come and stay? Hmmm, but
even that seems a little useless..."
It was true. She would be of no use either here or there...
Then what was going to happen between me and Hyon-gyu without mother in
the house? I felt the blood drain from my face at this thought. How was
I to stop the might of my fate by merely refraining from seeing him at
I couldn't get to sleep. It felt as if my whole nervous
system was just one big wound, one that would bleed at the slightest touch.
It got worse as time went on, and it soon became unbearable.
I left Seoul saying I was going visiting my grandmother as an excuse.
I told myself that I was never going to go back to school
again. It looked to me that my mind would only be allowed to rest if I
put an end to all my hopes, and made myself believe that my "life" as such,
was finished... forever. It was painful... As painful as a knife carving
flesh from my body, but what alternative was there left?
Every day, I climbed the hill at the back of the house.
At about an hour's distance, there was a nunnery. I wasn't very fond of
temples, but walking a little further, there was a spot which particularly
pleased me. It was a slope where wild roses lay about in bushes, and the
refreshing greenness of the young trees would meet the wind face on.
I would sit there with the wind in my face. Between the
young zelkovas, the mellow scent of wild roses was spreading, diluted by
I picked a white flower petal and placed it on the hem
of my Turkish blue dress, and many more on top of that... many. But they
were soon bleached by the brilliance of the sky above, and withered in
I lifted my head, and the next moment, I was up on my
feet... It was Hyon-gyu.
He was walking up the steep slope. His mouth was firmly
closed and his expression was rather like that time when he once got angry
with me. No, it was rather a sad face than an angry one.
He stopped a couple of yards in front of me. Suddenly,
I felt as if I had been pushed into him. In fact, I was embracing the trunk
of a young zelkova.
"That's right Suk-hui, don't let go of that tree, just
listen to me." He took a couple of steps back. There was something pathetic
in his eyes.
"You must go back and continue school... Forget everything
and go to school. I've told Mother to lease the house out, and I've found
somewhere to go. You can stay at Mother's friend's, Suk-hui, though we'll
have to live apart, there's still a way for us... Suk-hui, can you understand?"
He planted his feet firmly on the ground.
I was shivering a little holding the trunk in my arms.
"The things that happened between us... We know they're
true and we'll never be able to forget it or deny it... We are parting
so that we can be together again... Can you see? We still have a chance!"
I wiped my face with my fist.
"Can you see, Suk-hui?"
I nodded to him. My eyes were welled up in tears. So
my life wasn't over after all... I can carry on loving him.
"Can you promise me that you'll come back? Tomorrow or
the day after as soon as possible..."
I nodded again.
"Thank you, then I'd better be..." He forced a pained
smile on his face, and turning around, ran down the steep slope of the
A wind blew into my face. I was laughing with the young
zelkova tree in my arms.
Tears were pouring down my face, but I was laughing...
with laughter that was spreading and filling the blue void above.
Ahh...! I can still love him...
Translated by Shin Hyun-song