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.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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.
“Travel at night?”
“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.”