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.”
“I mean a long time.”
“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.”
“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.”
“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?”
“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.”
“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?”
“What were you looking at?”
“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.