Monday, July 21, 2014

Excerpt from Tendrils of Life (Chapter 53)


(December 1950)
It was cold and crisp on Christmas morning; their breaths made small white clouds in the half-collapsed room. Jimin recalled other Christmas Eves, when he’d roamed around the streets all night with his friends to enjoy the night without curfew—the only other such night was New Year’s Eve—while his mother and Misern caroled door to door with other church members. This year, it was nothing like the previous three years.
Rats scurried away as he came out to the courtyard. Sunlight penetrated through the debris, laden with fresh snow.
Misern followed him to the gate, shivering. “When are we leaving, Oppah?”
“When everyone does.”
“People are leaving now. Can we go too?”
“They are following the president’s decree. He wants to be on the safe side this time. He doesn’t want to make the same mistake as he did in June. We still have time.”
“How long?”
“Several days. Or even longer, people say.”
“It’s too cold here.” She shuddered, her haggard face turning blue. “We are too hungry and too lonely. Mr. Min said we have to get out ahead of other people.”
“But Father still might come for us.”
“I don’t think he will. We waited all this time and he hasn’t come.”
His sister was right. He had little hope that his father would come now, after more than five weeks since he was here last. Not having proper papers wasn’t a good excuse since the refugees from the North had been flooding the streets without any valid papers. He had started to trust him after they arrived at Hadong and after Mr. Min told them he’d been here twice. But that trust had nearly dissipated and the old grudge against him had returned. Why wouldn’t he come back, especially now when he should know the situation would be bad? Maybe he cared about Misern and him a little, but something more important for his ego came up. Perhaps a woman. Perhaps some dubious honor. He had always put himself above his family. Or he went back to Hadong for his own safety, thinking that Grandma was alive and she would provide a safe haven.
Jimin’s unspoken hope was more for the chance that Sora might turn up. He would never see her again if they went away from here. If she were somewhere in Seoul, it seemed likely that she would come by in case her relatives had come and left a message or something and she would see his note on the gate.
But now as he looked at his sister’s small skeletal frame, a sudden feeling of futility came over him. Maybe he’d dragged it out too long. Perhaps she had never come to Seoul. Or she had come and left after seeing the ruin of her former home. He wasn’t sure how he would feel when he actually saw her. How did she look now? Wasn’t he merely clinging to the feelings he had before the war? The more he thought about it, the more it seemed that he was trying to clench onto the past rather than the present.
“All right,” he said. “Let’s leave today when I come back.”
“Really?” Misern’s emaciated face brightened up.
“Yes, after I earn some money to buy food.”
“You promise?”
“Yes, I promise, Misern. I’ll be back soon.”
“Are we going to go to Ockdo this time?”
He narrowed his eyes. Ockdo had been on the backburner for quite some time. Meeting up with Sora had been his top priority. And if Sora didn’t want to go, he didn’t want to go either. But his little sister had been anxious to go there since Mother had died. She really believed that she was waiting for them right there, and he didn’t want to snuff out that hope in her. He had no idea how to get there without his father, but he resolved to go back one way or another soon. Even by wheedling the police chief’s men.
“Yes,” he said at length, looking his sister in the eye.
“You promise, Oppah?”
“Yes, I promise.” 
Before closing the gate, he stared at his sister, looking so small and helpless, her teeth rattling. He wondered what would happen if they couldn’t get on a train, either because of too many people or because of no money. He regretted not leaving with the old man a week ago.
“Bolt the gate tight,” he said, “and get under the quilt and try to stay warm.”
He listened to the sound of the wooden bolt sliding and of the dwindling footsteps inside the porch.
Then he walked away.
The thoroughfare was full of refugees coming down south and of Seoul residents leaving their homes with their luggage. He stopped by the bulletin board. As usual it was filled with the war news.
The Chinese Hordes Cross 38th Parallel.
General Walker Meets His Tragic Death: The commander of Eighth Army had been thrown into a ditch from his jeep that was speeding toward the frontline on an icy road congested with retreating troops.
A picture of Hungnam port engulfed in huge fireballs, set off by the allied forces after the evacuation of soldiers and their equipment and the refugees.
A picture of motley clothed men filing off at a run; the caption below said they were heading toward the Defense Militia training camps near Busan.
Jimin walked down the street, alongside the refugee column. At the roadside was a woman standing with a distressed look, a baby on her back. Beside her were two cranky children, about two and four.  An old man and an old woman, probably her in-laws, were sitting on the curb, looking exhausted. Beside them were two bulky cloth-wrapped bundles.
“Do you need any help?” he said as he approached them in the tone he used when he was seeking work.
“Yes, it would be great if you can carry one of these bundles for us,” the woman said, lighting up. “We’ll pay you.”
“To where?” Jimin felt Christmas was special after all, to find work this easy.
“Yongdungpo train station.”
“That far?” Jimin scowled. An hour or two to the river, another hour after that, two more hours to come back. It would be too long for his sister to wait alone in that cold place, worried sick. He’d never been able to get a job lasted that long.
The woman whispered something to the old woman, who took out her jumoney dangling inside her traditional white skirt and counted some money out loud, and then gave it to the woman.
“Would this be enough?” The woman held out the money in her hand.
It was roughly three or four times more than what he could earn from the marketplace, and he was tempted. He imagined how happy Misern would be seeing the money and food. Yet her agonized face five months earlier while waiting for Mother flickered in his head.
“It’s a lot of money. But I can’t be away from my place that long.”
“What about to the river crossing then?” the woman said.
He hesitated.
“Here, you take this money.” She thrust her hand that held the money out to him. “You look like an honest boy we can trust.”
“All this for up to the Han River?”
“Yes.”
He couldn’t believe his luck. Maybe this Christmas was extra special. Maybe his mother was looking after him and his sister. He weighed the two bundles with his arm. One of them was heavy and the other light. He lifted the heavier one onto his shoulder. The woman placed the other bundle on her head.
The trip to the Han River took a long time, more than three hours. Growing more anxious, he kept asking the woman, who was wearing a watch, what time it was. The toddler and the old couple were very slow and they had to rest often. When they reached the river, he couldn’t just leave the helpless people alone. So he helped them across the softened ice, slippery underneath, in a single column along a blazed trail of solid surface, then all the way to the train station while worrying sick about his sister. By the time he left them in front of the station packed with refugees, it was well into the afternoon.
As he ran along the street after crossing the river back, he saw an army truck with a melon-green canvas top standing by the curb. Two neatly dressed soldiers—their khaki pants freshly creased and the bold white letters of HUN BYONG (Military Police) prominent on their black helmets—were standing nearby. He’d seen such a scene at a distance, more frequently these days, and thought that they were after army deserters. But now they were blocking his way and he tried to veer off to an alley. One of them shouted, “Halt!” thrusting his carbine toward him.

Exasperated, Jimin looked at the man, who motioned him with his carbine toward the truck.
“Let me see your resident card,” the man said as Jimin approached him.
“I don’t have one. I’m sixteen.”
“You look older. At least eighteen.”
“I’m sixteen,” Jimin repeated, frowning.
“You are lying to avoid conscription. Into the truck!” With the muzzle of his carbine, he pushed him toward the back of the truck.
“I’m not lying,” Jimin protested and stepped backward, trying to get away from the truck, but instead getting cornered. “I was born in September 1934. I used to be—”
“Shut up and get in!” the MP shouted, pushing him with the barrel.
“My little sister is all alone in the cold at—”
The man stabbed his abdomen hard with the muzzle of the carbine, and Jimin doubled over with excruciating pain.
“One more word, and I’ll kill you,” the man screamed. “Get in!” Repeating his command he kept jabbing him in the haunches with his rifle as if trying to fork him over into the truck.
Jimin turned to his side and elbowed the man sharply in the ribs. The man faltered a few steps backward and Jimin darted forward. But the other MP was standing a few meters in front of him, his carbine leveled at him. Jimin turned back only to be confronted by the first man, just a step away, ready to discharge his rifle.
Jimin kicked him in the shin and tried to run past, but the man swung his weapon around, screaming in pain, and hit him hard in the small of his back. As Jimin tottered and tried to recover, the other MP rammed his rifle butt into Jimin’s belly. And the first MP swung his carbine into Jimin’s shoulder blades and screamed, “Gae saeki, I’ll kill you.” Jimin staggered and fell.
The two started to kick him with their shiny boots and thumped their rifle butts all over him. He tried to stand upright to fight back, but they kept thwacking him until he became limp. He thought they would really shoot him if he resisted further. He didn’t feel his own pain; only his sister’s. After a few minutes they lifted him up as they shouted obscenities and shoved him into the back of the truck.
The truck was nearly packed with captives kneeling under the watchful eyes of an MP standing over them, poised to discharge his carbine for any sudden move. After pushing in several more victims, the two MPs got into the front seats, and the truck sped to Yongsan Middle School, a short distance away.
The MPs corralled them into an unheated classroom, which was already crowded with other captives sitting on chairs or directly on the cold floor. Before they left, the MPs made Jimin and another man, who was as badly bruised as Jimin, stand aside, and told the soldiers in charge that the two were “vicious dogs” and must be handled accordingly.
As the door closed behind the MPs, one of the three soldiers, a corporal, told the two to go to the back corner where several others with cuts and bruises, their faces overwrought with anger and despair, had been squatting. Then the corporal said to the newcomers, “Welcome to Defense Militia. Thank you for volunteering to fight for our fatherland.” The captives all shouted their disagreements, and the other two soldiers leveled their rifles on them.
When the room became quiet, the corporal said, “You’ll start off for the training camp in the morning.” He then laid out the rules for everyone to obey: no talk, no disturbance, no infraction, and anyone who needs to go to the latrine should quietly raise his hand.
Jimin tried to appeal his case to the corporal, who said his job was to deliver them to the training camp, nothing else, and told him to shut up; otherwise, he would be punished severely. The other man who came with him tried to press his case as well, but the corporal said, “Shut up!” as soon as he opened his mouth.
One of the men squatting near Jimin, about forty years old, suddenly stood up, his face blue with anger, and shouted, “You think you can get away with this atrocity? Nobody in this room has volunteered. Each of us has come out for urgent matters. Drag your own fathers and brothers to fill your quota if you don’t want to be executed for this crime. Or shoot yourselves if you don’t want to go to hell.”
The corporal nodded at the other soldiers, who came toward the yelling man, and plunged their rifle butts into his belly.
The rifle butts were the answers to every complaint.
Trucks continued to come and go incessantly, bringing more people in. As daylight receded, Jimin became more desperate, but he could do nothing about the situation. Every bone and every muscle in his body ached, but he didn’t feel his pain. His mind was filled with anxiety about his sister—how cold, how hungry, and how confused and worried she would be. What would she do, alone in the darkness? He wanted to steal a rifle and storm out, but every time he looked up, the soldiers stared icily at him. If he had a weapon, he would kill everyone in this cruel country. He felt like his head would burst with worries about his sister. He felt like screaming his head off, but he was sure they would kill him. Calm down, he told himself. If you get killed here, what would happen to Misern?

The night was worse than any other night, a thousand times worse than the night he buried Shin Hoon.
In the morning the captives were divided into fifty-person platoons. Each man was given a ball of rice, about the size of a fist, with a touch of bean paste on one side. Then, as a unit of ten platoons together, they marched out of the school, at a run, and down the highway; soldiers, marching alongside each platoon, escorted them.
They crossed the Han River on a pontoon bridge—guarded by American soldiers at both ends—alongside the damaged railroad bridges and then marched at a run on the highway.
Around noon the officer and the soldiers who were escorting them tried to find a place to feed them. But with no success.
“The law was created without a budget,” one of the escorting soldiers said to the platoon while resting. “All we can offer to civilians are promissory notes. But who would honor the note from the government that’s running away? Who would care about the unknown future when they themselves are facing starvation right now?”
“Initially people sympathized with the poor draftees or they succumbed at gunpoint,” another soldier said. “But there’s a limit to what anybody can do, and there’s no way for the civilians along the way to feed all of the men, wave after wave, coming down the highway. As we go farther south, the conditions become worse because more and more draftees are converging from everywhere toward Busan. So you all must be prepared. Otherwise you won’t make it.”
Most of the five hundred men and boys were very weak by then, but they were ordered to march again with hungry stomachs. After nightfall, they stopped at an elementary school. When the sweat dried, everyone started to shiver, and some of the men brought out student desks and chairs to the schoolyard and set them on fire. By the time the escorting officer managed to coax the townspeople to provide a small ball of rice for each person, more than a dozen campfires were going. The soldiers left them alone. After all, they were responsible for delivering them all the way to the destination with as many people alive as possible, and a day of marching together had forged a semblance of human connection with their platoon. As the night deepened, they tried to send everyone to sleep in the unheated classroom without any blankets, but people came out to the campfires to warm themselves, bringing more desks and chairs and, when those ran out, the sidings of the school building.
In this way they marched on icy roads in the coldest weather in anyone’s memory. They were lucky if each man could get a small ball of rice a day. They slept in cold places without blankets, shivering, sometimes warming themselves with campfires. They burned whatever they could get their hands on. The escorting soldiers were humans, too, and they didn’t treat them too harshly and some of them went beyond their duties to protect their men.
On the way, many men succumbed to hunger and fatigue even though they had slowed down and rested often as everyone’s condition weakened. Of the fifty people in Jimin’s platoon, fourteen died before the sixth day. As time went on Jimin stopped counting how many days had passed and how many in his platoon had died. His physical condition had flagged badly and his body couldn’t bear the rigors of marching, but that was nothing compared to his mind and spirit, which had died before the first night on the road. He had tried various tactics to escape, to no avail. He struggled along only because of his determination to survive, thinking of his sister in the cold and dark place at night. He had to survive and go back and rescue her, no matter what.
Well before they reached Daejon, everyone in his platoon, including himself, knew that he would be the next one to die. He was so weak that he couldn’t keep up even when they slowed to a walk because of him. They stopped in front of a rundown roadside house for a short rest, and they proceeded without him, leaving him to die alone. He knew why. Digging a grave in the frozen earth made them delay more and caused more fatalities. They had to reach Busan before all of them perished.


Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Excerpt from Tendrils of Life (Chapter 25)




On the veranda, lit by a full moon that rose just above the ridgeline, Jimin started to pack. All he was thinking about now was the journey he and his sister were about to resume. He was a little worried about traveling at night, but the moon would guide them until morning, and he had no regrets about his decision to leave now. The girl was clearing the dishes after the supper—she’d insisted on preparing it for them for the last time—and Misern was ruefully sitting at the edge of the veranda. The only thing left to do was finish packing and say goodbye to the girl’s mother, which he dreaded. He’d been to her room a few times, and each time she reminded him of his mother lying sick in the dingy room all night and all morning, worrying about him and his sister.
As he started to roll up the blankets, he saw a shadow appear in front of him. The girl was standing on the terrace, looking at him.
“If you still want to hear it . . .” she said, her voice trailing off.
“Hear what?” Jimin said nonchalantly.
“What we’ve been through since the war started. That is if you still want to hear it.”
“Sure.” He stopped what he was doing and sat next to Misern.
“It will take some time.”
“Go ahead.”
“I mean a long time.”
“How long?”
“I don’t know. Maybe two or three hours?”
“That long? We have to be on our way.”
“That’s all right then.” She turned toward her room. “I just thought—”
“Wait. Can you shorten it?” He was no longer keen on hearing it, but he felt bad about leaving without hearing at least some of it.
“It’s okay. I’m not offended. Really.”
“Please don’t go away. I want to hear it.”
“You two better get going now.”
“No. I really want to hear it.”
“But I can see that all your thoughts are on your journey now. It’s my mistake to come forward with the silly idea.”
“No, please. Didn’t I ask you many times? The night is long and I can certainly spare two or three hours. Misern can nap while you talk.”
“You sure?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Misern, why don’t you take a nap in the room? Take the blanket with you.”
Misern quietly went into the room they’d slept in for the past four nights, dragging a blanket, and closed the door. Apparently, she was a little tired and sleepy. Or she was worrying about the journey.
The girl sat next to him and stared silently at the railroad bridge lit by the moon.
“Please go ahead,” Jimin said.
Just then a middle-aged woman entered the yard through the brushwood gate that was left open.
“Sora?” she said, coming toward them.
The girl, who hadn’t seen her coming, flinched. Then she turned her head and said, “Yes, Daejon Dack.”
“Is your mother up? I brought a bowl of sesame soup.”
“You didn’t have to. She just had a little bit of soup. But go right in. She’ll be glad to see you.”
When the woman disappeared into the end room, Jimin said, with a slight edge in his voice, “That’s your name?”
“Why? Is anything wrong?”
“Nothing.” Then, after an uneasy silence, “My next-door girl in Seoul, her name is Yi Sora.”
The girl stared pensively at the mangled beech tree.
“Some coincidence, huh?” he said after a while.
She continued to stare at the tree without speaking, perhaps thinking about what she’d been through recently.
“Well, why don’t you go ahead with your story,” Jimin said after a long silence.
Her eyes were glued to the tree interminably. Then she turned her head. “I know the music your mother loved most.”
Her words didn’t register in his head immediately. Then a latent awareness. “What?”
“Dvořák’s symphony, ‘From the New World.’”
He stared at her vacantly.
“I know she loved that music so much.”
“How?”
“She played that record most often. That was one of my favorites, too, especially the melody of an English horn solo in the second movement.”
The implication was staggering; it came to him in the same way an obscure image became suddenly focused through the lenses of binoculars. Speechless, he stared at her.
Yet, he had difficulty seeing the two entirely different personalities he’d perceived as one. “But she’s never lived in America,” he said.
“How much did you know about her?”
He fell silent. Practically nothing, except some loud voices he could catch over the cinderblock wall. Nobody he knew had lived overseas, so he had never imagined that the girl would be out of the ordinary. But now he remembered the large soulful eyes he used to see as she passed by him in the alley. He wasn’t perceptive enough to recognize that they were the same eyes.
“I should’ve known,” he said.
“No. You couldn’t have known.”
“But how did you figure out I had lived next-door?”
“I wasn’t entirely blind to my surroundings.”
“Then you knew me?”
“Yes, Jimin.”
“You knew my name?”
She silently gazed at him.
“For how long?”
“Two years? Three years? I’m not sure.”
Warmth flooded through his chest.
“When did you recognize me this time?”
“When I saw you under that tree. You were so emaciated and barely recognizable, but I knew it was you; I’d been trying to place your sister.”
“Why did you hide it from me then?” he said with an edge in his voice.
“All this time I’ve been debating with myself whether I should tell you or not.”
“Why?”
“I wanted you to remember me as I was before the war. Not like this. I had to constantly remind myself that it would be better for both of us if you just went away.”
Memories of happier days rolled into his head. “You know I deeply cared about that fake piano player . . .”
“If you cared about her because she was a fake, I wasn’t exactly her. I wanted to be a pianist. Schoolwork and piano. That was my life.”
“Why did you say those things then?”
“I don’t know. I got carried away.”
“When you were leaving your home on the night of June 27,” he said, “did you see me standing in front of my gate?”
“Yes.”
“What were you looking at?”
“You.”
“You were? Why?”
“I was saying goodbye to you silently. I thought it might be the last time I saw you.”
“You were . . . a pretty elite high school girl and I was a poor third-rate middle school boy, delivering papers twice a day . . .”
“We don’t know why we like certain people. Nor do we know why we fall in love.”
“You knew we lived in a rented room?”
“Yes. We, too, had rented our place. We did when we came back from America, intending to go back to our old home near Pyongyang when the country became reunited.”
They fell silent.
In his head Jimin listened to her playing piano over the cinderblock wall, a familiar melody of Rachmaninoff. But it seemed to come from a faraway place, from an entirely different world.
“You pretended I was a complete stranger for the last five days,” he said, breaking the silence.
“I was tempted to talk about the times when we lived in Seoul next to each other, but I suppressed it. I didn’t want you to remember me as I am now.”
“Yet you prodded me into revealing myself deeper.”
“I was tempted to look into your heart at times.”
“And you’ve found out it’s full of sordidness?”
“I was merely trying to see myself reflected in you.”
“That was all you cared about? Then why did you decide to blow your cover now?”
“That woman caught me by surprise. Then again, I was feeling very sad that we’ll never see each other . . . Sorry I disappointed you.”
“No. I’m not disappointed. I’m glad you told me. I’m truly glad you did.”
“Glad I was able to set you free at last.”
“Who said I wanted to be set free?”
She gazed at the white clouds above the distant mountains.
“Please go ahead with your story.”
“Are you sure you still want to hear it?”
“Yes, I’m sure. Now more than ever.”
She was silent for a long time, apparently trying to find the thread of her story.
“I remember standing on the Han River Bridge endlessly in the rain,” she began.

Thursday, July 3, 2014

Excerpt from Tendrils of Life (Chapter 24)




For nearly three days a storm raged on, throwing claps of thunder incessantly. On the first day a thunderbolt struck the beech tree and split the upper part of its trunk, stripping half of its limbs.
The girl stayed home during the storm.
Each day Jimin agonized over whether to leave or to stay. On the one hand he had the sense of urgency to meet up with his father. On the other, he dreaded being on the road again, especially in the midst of a storm. He feared, if the second half of the journey was anything like the first half, they wouldn’t be able to make it in their weakened state. He also thought Sinman and his gang had passed them now, alerting checkpoints and interior stations along the way for a murderer of an interior worker. What’s one more day? he told himself each morning.
The temptation to stay was augmented by the desire to be with the girl, his tenderness toward her growing stronger each day. Aside from her face, he liked everything about her. Her intelligence. Her emotions. Her yearnings. They talked about many things—war, politics, ideology, world history, their friends, their childhood memories, their aspirations, books they had read, places they had visited and wanted to visit. More about America, her friends there, and countless other things. She loved literature, loved arts, loved music. She had a wealth of knowledge, which intrigued him. She yearned to go back to her grandparents’ place near Pyongyang, which she’d left when she was five, in the same way he wanted to go back to his island. Her face no longer bothered him. He liked her as much as he liked the girl who had lived next-door in Seoul, whom he couldn’t help talking about. And he told her so.
He wanted to stay here and keep company with her as long as possible. But he knew he had to depart and the sooner the better. It wasn’t easy for the girl. This storm clearly worried her: Misern saw her borrowing more barley and potatoes from neighbors. He also had to depart soon because meeting up with his father and getting back to Ockdo was crucial for their survival.
Now they were sitting side by side on a flat rock near the damaged beech tree. The storm had ended several hours earlier and the sky was almost clear, with only feathery cirrus clouds and the sun hiding behind a bank of clouds above the western mountains. The brown floodwater roared like a constant stream of army trucks passing by, almost touching the tops of the riverbanks. Jimin had decided that he and his sister would resume the journey in the morning, no matter what, and he’d told the girl his decision.
The girl held her gaze at the puffs of downy clouds, painted by the setting sun to resemble patches of wild poppies. “Aren’t they pretty?” she said.
Jimin stared at the clouds for a while. “Sometimes nature displays such wonders.”
“Was the sunset on your island like this?”
“Yes, sometimes. Other times much prettier. It was what my mother loved most.”
Inside his mind Jimin watched the sunset from the veranda of his old home, his mother beside him.
“What was your mother like?” asked the girl after a while.
Jimin looked at her without knowing how to answer.
“I assume she loved other things too?”
“She loved music. She treasured her records; we had a hand-cranked record player when we lived on the island.”
“Classical music?”
“Yes. But sometimes those old songs of her childhood and of her school days too. I often wondered why she preferred European music.”
“Because it’s very sophisticated and pleasing, I guess.” Her eyes swept the distant mountains. Then she looked at him. “So, do you wonder sometimes where your girl might be?”
“She’s not my girl.”
“No?”
“She didn’t know me.”
“Yet you went out to see her leaving in the rain near midnight?”
“I was just standing in front of our gate to see a glimpse of her.”
“She didn’t notice you?”
“Before heading out she looked toward me and lingered around a little. But I’m sure she didn’t notice me. She was just moved by the thought of seeing the place for the last time.”
“It sounds like she was looking at you. Maybe she was bidding you a goodbye.”
“That’s not possible.”
“Why not?”
“I told you many times that she didn’t know me. She was a high school girl and I was still in middle school, a third-rate one at that.”
“But you were about the same age?”
“I guess.”
“You were taller than her I presume? And you were not like you are now—emaciated and skin peeling off?”
“But she was too pretty to notice me.”
“You had quite a crush on someone who didn’t know you.”
He blushed.
“I know you miss her a lot,” she said. “Saw that in your eyes. You want to see her again, right?”
He didn’t reply. What a dumb question, he thought. Maybe she’s jealous. Jealous? How?
Jimin reminisced the three years he’d lived next to the girl, turning over the memory of her going in, going out, and passing by him in the alley quietly. She was not the prettiest girl he’d ever seen, certainly not like the girls in movie posters. He didn’t know what made her so attractive to him. Maybe her soulful eyes. Maybe the faint smile on her visage, like Mona Lisa’s. Maybe certain rawness in her countenance. Whenever he knew she was home he’d felt like the place was filled with brightness, the air with fragrance, his heart with warmth. In the evenings when he could hear neither her voice over the cinderblock wall, nor her mother calling her, nor her practicing piano, everything had felt so dark and empty. He would kill to see her again, if only just to taste the happier times once more and to know she was alive and well.
“What would you do if you saw her now?” the girl said after a long pause.
“It would be a miracle to see her now. I think she’s in Busan or somewhere on the other side of the battlefront, far away from troubles.”
“But it’s possible that she could’ve fallen behind?”
“Yes, but unlikely. And I hope not.”
“It’s possible that she’s somewhere not far from here?”
“Yes, but highly unlikely.”
“Suppose she walks up right here at this moment.”
“That’s not possible.”
“And suppose she got injured in the war and badly deformed, and she comes down the path right now?”
“I hope not.”
The girl looked him in the eye. “But what would you do if she does?”
“I don’t know. I never thought about that possibility.”
“Think about it. How would you react?”
He stared at the jagged edges of the snapped parts of the beech trunk and its limbs, the whitish sapwood and the reddish pith in stark contrast against the gray bark.
“I really don’t know. Probably I would be very upset.”
“You’d rather not see her like that?”
“No.”
“You never want to see her again if she were deformed like me?”
“I don’t know . . . No. I don’t want to see her like that.”
She fell silent. She became moody and was brooding now. She obviously didn’t like his answer. Undoubtedly she was trying to pry out of him how he felt about her looks. Her expression made her look ugly again.
A sudden loathing swept over him. He’d grown to like her more each day and for a while her face didn’t seem too ugly and the deformity was obscured by her sweet voice, her deep eyes, her sensibility and intelligence. But her cheap trick of trying to see herself reflected in him ruined everything and now it awakened him from his delusion. Not quite like the first day but her face looked repulsive again. What was she trying to prove?
After a long silence she said, “I think you are pretty vain to like a girl just by her looks.”
“I guess so. But I couldn’t help it. And I enjoyed listening to her piano playing.”
“She could’ve been a fake piano player.”
“No.”
“You probably were attuned to the horrible noise she was making.”
“Absolutely not.” He was getting angry.
“You sure she wasn’t wearing a bogus school uniform? Did you see her in her class?”
“No. How could I?”
“She could actually have worked in a factory. Or even worse—”
“What the hell are you trying to pull,” he shouted.
She fell silent. After a minute she said, “I need to go check on my mother.” Then she walked away without looking back.
He sat there brooding until the sun went down below the mountains. He was thinking about packing up now and leaving. He felt a cold detachment from her. He was about to get up to get Misern, who was playing on the bank fifty meters upriver with two girls from the neighborhood, throwing stones into the swift brown water, when he saw the girl walking down the path.
“I’m sorry I said all those things,” she said somberly. “I wouldn’t blame you if you hate me.”
“Never mind,” he said. “We are going to leave now.”
“Now?” she said, alarmed.
“Yes, now.”
“Travel at night?”
“Yes.”
“It’s not safe.”
“What do you care?”
“You can’t forgive me?” Moisture appeared in her eyes.
“I forgive you. But we’ll leave now.”
“Please stay until morning. I beg you.”
“No, I can’t.”
She bit her lips. They were frozen in silence.
After a minute she said, “All right, then. Would you come with me? I want to show you something before you go.”
He stood up and followed her. They walked to a small house and stood near a dilapidated pine-branch fence that enclosed a vegetable plot choked with weeds.
“This house belongs to an old man who lives alone and has fallen ill,” the girl said. “Once in a while I come here and try to help him. He had a nephew who came to care for him daily but went to the People’s Volunteer Army. In the spring the old man had gotten a grapevine from somewhere and planted it. You see that there?”
They entered the plot through an opening behind the house and looked at the grapevine. There were some dead stems, but one of them had survived and was standing knee high among the weeds, swaying in the wind without any support.

“You see those tendrils? They are outstretching to grab something to coil themselves around. As if they have souls. Swaying in the wind, sensing the air out. You see how two green tendrils stretch out from each node, just like the antennae of a cricket? Isn’t this so mysterious and wonderful? Because there are no trees, the vine can survive by crawling on the ground, but it’s trying so hard to stand upright. Just like humans.” She paused and gazed at him. “If the roots and stems and leaves can be compared with our bodies, the tendrils are like our souls. They are like our desire to reach out, desire to cling to something—friendship, love, hope—and to be accepted in the society, to be associated. Like our yearnings. Without them, we are nothing. We can’t live without these tendrils of life. I think you and I have been trying to grab each other in our darkest moments.”

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