Featured Fiction

Azaleas

By Robert Perron

Downhill a few kilometers, at the edge of the village, Sang-min found a drinking house. Outside leaned bicycles piled high with thatched baskets. Inside men sat on mats around low tables, the room warm, twisting with tobacco smoke. Heads turned to take stock of the young stranger: worn combat boots, faded field jacket, military knapsack.

A familiar voice said, “So I guess you’re discharged.”

Sang-min smiled. He had stopped to inquire but here sat Jae-wook, the object of his inquiry. Jae-wook, businessman of necessity, poet and philosopher at heart, or so he proclaimed. At the start of the war, Sang-min had been drafted to the infantry (despite two years of university), wounded by shell fire, and transferred to a supply depot run by Jae-wook, older, a civilian. The two men shared talk and books. They reviewed their woes, how the slaughter of his platoon pounded Sang-min’s ears as medics evacuated him, how Jae-wook watched his father and brother blindfolded and shot on charges of collaboration. Sang-min would recite: “‘If man is born to live, / what should I worry? / Man lives till he dies.'” Jae-wook’s eyes and lips would glisten: “Ah, the poetry of Kim So-wol.”

Soju was poured and wine bowls lifted.

“My young friend, what are you doing up here?”

“You invited me.”

“Hah. But I never thought you’d take me up on it, come to such a godforsaken place.”

“There’s no work in Seoul. And Pusan?” Sang-min’s family had fled to the bottom of Korea ahead of the first invasion and stayed. But Sang-min, the lesser son, rebellious, never getting on with his father, jaded by the ways of war, had no desire to join them. He wanted to make his own life.

“So I thought I’d walk north and look up my old counselor.”

“Well I’m glad you’re here.” Jae-wook tapped the side of his head. “I’ve had an idea brewing.”

Sang-min laughed. Always a plan.

Jae-wook leaned forward. “But it may take some time. There are contingencies beyond my control.”

Sang-min drank from his wine bowl then motioned south in the direction of the back road he had descended. He described a small farm on a sharp corner in the hills with a woman and two foreign-looking children. “They seem to be alone. Do you think she’d take on help?”

An old man coughed and spit on the floor. He wore the white flowing robe, white baggy pants, and high black hat of a provincial elder. His goatee fluttered wispy white and he smoked a long, bamboo-stemmed pipe.

Jae-wook said, “Let’s take a walk.”

Outside, shops bent into the dust of the main road. Traffic moved by foot, bicycle, and ox cart. Bouncing mini-buses converged at a plaza of packed dirt in the village center. Military vehicles abounded, mostly American – jeeps and diesel-spewing trucks. On the far side of town, Sang-min made out the middle expanse of the Imjin River and its far bank where the no-man’s land between the two Koreas began.

Jae-wook produced cigarettes and a narrative. The old man inside headed the Hwang family and controlled what wealth remained along this section of the river. The war had cost him both sons. His three daughters were married off, his wife dead. A mess for the future of the family, Jae-wook explained, with nephews and sons-in-law vying for power as old Hwang, indifferent, spent his time in drinking houses and brothels.

Jae-wook raised a finger. “But where there’s a mess, there’s opportunity.”  He had a cousin, daughter to his mother’s sister, close in age to Sang-min, named Hyo-chu. Jae-wook suggested to Hyo-chu a match with old Hwang, was sure he could pull it off, that Hwang would not be able to resist a last conquest, a young bride of allure and elegance. Hyo-chu reacted with red-faced anger not about to waste her life on an old man. But that’s the point, Jae-wook told her, he was old.

“I’m guessing you pulled it off,” said Sang-min.

Indeed. Hwang slobbered in anticipation of the wedding night. The nephews and daughters expressed dismay but had no sway over the old man. As for Hyo-chu, she came to appreciate the folly of romance over security. After the wedding night and a few more nights, Hwang returned to the brothels. While he drank and fornicated, Hyo-chu secured leadership of the household, by nature gracious, not flouting her beauty. The daughters now adored her. Even the nephews had mellowed.

Jae-wook and Sang-min stripped their cigarettes military style, extinguishing flame with thumb and forefinger, tearing the paper, letting the tobacco flutter to the ground. Sang-min enjoyed Jae-wook’s story-telling, the subtle changes of tone and facial expression, the sweeping gestures and intimations of confidence, but grew anxious as the talk drifted from his immediate concerns of food and shelter. He asked again about the woman in the hills with the small farm.

“She’s Eun-mi,” said Jae-wook. “Her family stayed put ahead of the first invasion. Big mistake. The northerners ripped them from their land. Eun-mi ended up in Tongduchon as a prostitute.” Jae-wook paused. “But a savvy one.”

“How so?”

“She came back with enough money to reclaim the farm. Although. Why bring those bastards? One looks half Chinese, the other American. Maybe not so savvy.”

“What of her family?”

“Dead. Or taken north. Who knows? So she has title to the land, even as a woman. Hmm. Why not? Go see if she needs help while I sort things out here. Let me know if it doesn’t work out.”

 

Sang-min retraced his steps on the primitive back road, steep and barren but for copses of leafless saplings, and arrived at the sharp corner above the small farm, where level ground formed a rough square a hundred meters to the side, sufficient for house, outbuilding, two small rice paddies, and a vegetable plot. Sang-min saw no oxen or pigs, but hens pecked the ground with alacrity, one strutting and squawking like a rooster. The narrow house had four raised rooms in tandem and a sunken kitchen whose stove pipe ran under their floors. A slim portico, no more than a shelf, fronted the house, with sliding doors giving entrance to the bantam rooms. A thatched roof extended over the portico.

Sang-min squatted and observed, not to spy, but to gather wit and nerve. A boy, close to four, with pronounced eye folds, on occasion glared at him. A round-eyed girl, two or three, waved. The woman, Eun-mi, ignored him. Her age seemed mid-twenties like his. They might have been siblings, both short with oval faces, flared nostrils, and wide mouths.

Sang-min squeezed the flame from his cigarette and sprinkled the remaining tobacco on the ground. He dropped from the road and approached Eun-mi who was striking the early spring earth with a hoe.

“It looks like you have a lot to do, what with the planting season upon us.”

Eun-mi continued striking the ground. Sang-min saw that the round-eyed girl stood next to him and bent over extending his right forefinger.

“What’s your name, little one?”

The child wrapped her hand around Sang-min’s finger. “Hana.”

“Hana, a beautiful name. My favorite.”

Eun-mi stopped swinging the hoe and turned to Sang-min. “I see you’re a great charmer.”

“Look,” he said, “I need employment. You need help.”

Sang-min stood arms at side as Eun-mi made several more swipes at the earth before responding. “First, I can’t pay much more than room and food.”

Sang-min remained silent.

“Second. How do I know you’re not a freeloader, or worse? Okay, we’ll try it, but on probation.”

 

A week later, Sang-min stood across the road by a stream, the water source for the farm. For washing, Eun-mi brought over clothes, soaking and pounding them on rocks. For other use, the water needed to be carried. Sang-min sank two buckets and pulled them out full. He ran a bamboo carrying pole under the handles, hefted, and balanced the buckets on his right shoulder. Crossing the road with the slopping water, he shook his head. Soon the paddies and field would require many such buckets.

Eun-mi looked up from the kitchen. “I have good news. Your behavior being exemplary, your probation is lifted.” That evening Sang-min sat for the first time on the floor of the first room with Eun-mi and her children, Kyung-wan, the wary master, and Hana, as yet ebullient, holding bowls to their mouths, pushing in rice, kimchi, and boiled eggs.

“Is your room okay?” said Eun-mi.

“A bit cold at night.”

“Yes, too far from the kitchen. Move next to us, to the second room.”

Next day Sang-min dragged from the outbuilding a back carrier and addressed Kyung-wan who followed his movements. “Hey, little warrior. Do you want to help me today? Ask your mom if you can go into the hills.” Sang-min hoisted the wooden frame to his back, crossed the road with Kyung-wan, and climbed for half an hour, until the farm appeared toy-like. “A little higher. On the top of this hill I’m sure we’ll find many dead branches.”

Sometimes the boy helped and sometimes he grew restless or tired. If restless, he ran across the hilltop with a stick fighting an imaginary foe. If tired, he lay on his back with arms askew. The warmer days made lying on the ground in the sun a comfort. Sang-min worked a steady pace, gathering thin, dead branches broken by winter’s harshness. He cut or snapped them into meter lengths and laid them on the arms of the back carrier until they rose to its height.

 

One morning, Eun-mi placed in Sang-min’s hand a crumpled thousand-hwan note. They needed seeds and seedlings for planting as well as rice and vegetables to hold them over. Some dried fish if there was enough money.

“Cigarettes for yourself.”

“Maybe some meat,” said Sang-min.

“Too costly. We have kimchi and eggs.”

In response, Sang-min addressed a delicate matter. The hen that strutted like a rooster was not laying eggs. She seemed to have the status of pet but these days pets were luxuries. And yes she would be a bit tough, but sufficient boiling would take care of that.

Eun-mi interrupted. “You want to kill Hye-su?”

Sang-min closed his mouth, retreated to the second room, retrieved his knapsack, and set off for the village. He stopped at the drinking house and found old Hwang but not Jae-wook. Hwang’s face was gaunt and his eyes red; he coughed and spit. Several men called out hello.

Sang-min found a grocery where he obtained everything, even dried fish. As the transaction concluded, Jae-wook appeared.

“It’s about time you came down, Sang-min. We need to talk.”

The two men ambled to the edge of town, arms behind their backs, chatting and nodding, down a path to the bank of the river. They peered across at American GI’s in combat gear. They ambled back.

The Hwang family again. Jae-wook reviewed its current state, no sons, contentious nephews, sons-in-law who wanted a share of the wealth, Hyo-chu more and more the backbone of the household. Sang-min nodded, yes, he understood, had heard it before. Jae-wook previewed the state of the family once Hwang died. As his widow, Hyo-chu would be secure, in fact, rise to a position of semi-dominance. But Hyo-chu and the Hwang family would find the lack of a central male figure difficult. A marriage would be desirable but not a traditional one requiring Hyo-chu to leave the Hwang household with a dowry.

“Why are you telling me all this?” said Sang-min.

The men had stopped walking and were looking into each other’s faces. Jae-wook laughed.

“Sang-min, we’re looking for an upside-down marriage. Where the husband becomes part of the wife’s household. We need a young man of small means but good ancestry, hard-working, amiable. It would help if he were handsome and literate, had some university. Knew some poetry.”

Sang-min felt his face flush but regained composure and decided to join his friend’s game. With flourishes of hand and voice, he told Jae-wook of a dream. Of the one dream that came every night to his cramped room on the impoverished farm. To some day take the hand of beautiful Hyo-chu and assume the role of patriarch of the mighty Hwang dynasty.

“I’m glad you’re in good humor about this,” said Jae-wook.

 

Upon return, Sang-min found Eun-mi in the kitchen. On the stove churned the stock pot letting off steam and a fragrance of knobby meat. A glance inside revealed Hye-su bereft of feathers and entrails. Eun-mi said, “I thought about it and you’re right. That old hen was not pulling her weight.”

At evening meal, Eun-mi asked about Sang-min’s friend, the poet and philosopher Jae-wook, what plots was he hatching these days? How he had a toehold in the great Hwang family having arranged a match between its head and his cousin Hyo-chu. Had Sang-min heard the story?

With chopsticks halfway to her mouth, Hana said, “Mama, where did Hye-su go?” Kyung-wan chortled. Eun-mi raised a brow and bore its eye into Kyung-wan until he withdrew his smirk.

“Hye-su,” Eun-mi said after a few seconds of thought, “has gone to the village to live with the great Hwang family.”

Following supper, Sang-min crossed the road to the stream, removed his clothes, and washed everywhere despite the cold. The army had taught him hygiene. He could hear his squad leader exhorting him to cleanse all body parts including the covert. Sang-min thought back to the day he was wounded by mortar shrapnel and placed on a stretcher as Chinese bugles blared their advance. His squad leader squatted next to him and said, “Good luck, Sang-min. Maybe we’ll get together in Seoul in better times.” Two years later, discharged in Seoul, Sang-min found the residence of his former squad leader. His mother said he was still missing in action. Sang-min wanted to stay a while but the family didn’t have enough to feed itself. That’s when he decided to walk north and look up Jae-wook.

Sang-min recrossed the road and sat in the middle of the second room as the last daylight filtered through the small rear window. In front, the door slid open and Eun-mi entered carrying mat and blanket. She had decided to give over the first room to the children.

“The other rooms are cold. Do you mind if we sleep together?” Sang-min watched as Eun-mi squared her mat against his. He could smell the vigor of her body – she had given herself a good scrubbing too.

“This can’t be permanent,” said Sang-min.

“Nothing is permanent.”

Several nights later they lay under blankets side by side, bare shoulder to bare shoulder.

“The children like you,” said Eun-mi.

Sang-min was silent.

Eun-mi said, “Go ahead, say what you’re thinking.”

“I just wonder why you didn’t give them over to one of the orphanages supported by the Americans?”

“Ha! You think I’m mushy-headed, don’t you?”

“A bit. The children are a burden.”

“They’re not a burden. They’re easy to care for. A bowl of rice, a pat on the head, a pat on the behind. As they grow, they’ll help me on the farm. In my old age, they’ll take care of me.”

“So. You have it all worked out. And here I thought you were mushy-headed.”

“Far from it.” Eun-mi rolled toward Sang-min. She put a hand on his chest and her head on his shoulder. “I’m a practical woman.”

 

Sang-min planted radishes, leeks and turnips, cabbages and sweet potatoes, cucumbers and beans. Rice seedlings filled the paddies. Soon Eun-mi made summer kimchi, salty and sour with pungency to bring a tear. Sang-min sold Eun-mi’s kimchi at market. He sold eggs and bought chicks.

The hot months of summer passed.

Following the rainy season, the rice, cabbages, and turnips moved to maturity. Sang-min and Eun-mi spent their days bent over in the field and paddies. They stored cabbages and turnips for winter kimchi, keeping enough vegetables to cook fresh. The green rice stalks they cut by hand standing past their calves in the water of the paddies; by hand, they threshed and dried the stalks.

No news from the village.

One night during rainy season, Sang-min and Eun-mi had joined in intimacy and afterward lay talking as monsoon waters pummeled the roof.

“I must tell you something,” said Sang-min. “Jae-wook thinks he can make a match between me and Hyo-chu when Hwang is gone.”

Eun-mi said, “That’s Jae-wook, forever looking to the main chance.”

Sang-min sat up and scooted to the door. He slid it open, lit a cigarette and, sitting cross-legged, blew blue smoke toward the sheets of water. Eun-mi came up behind and laid an arm over his shoulder. A surge of fondness enveloped Sang-min for this wartime prostitute.

“A dilemma,” he said.

“No, it’s not complicated at all.” Eun-mi kissed the back of Sang-min’s neck. “You’d be a fool to pass up such good fortune.”

 

Before the time to start making winter kimchi, Jae-wook appeared on the path above the farm. He dropped from the road to where Sang-min and Eun-mi had unbent themselves in the field.

“Old Hwang has died.”

Jae-wook wanted Sang-min to accompany him for a change of clothes then to pay respects. Sang-min countered that his attendance would be inappropriate.

“To the contrary, it’s imperative.”

Sang-min turned to Eun-mi, but she was gone, her hoe upon the ground.

The Hwang compound lacked the size and elegance of many Sang-min had seen in his travels, but north of Seoul appeared as Shangri-La. The rooms formed three sides of a large square with kitchens at both ends and a gated wall to the front, the courtyard clean and well packed, the covered portico that ran in front of the rooms wide.

“The Hwang family enjoys a first-rate homestead don’t you think?” said Jae-wook. “They work all those paddies out back and have their hands in half the shops in town. See those two men in western suits?”

Jae-wook pointed to two men in the middle of the courtyard smoking cigarettes.

“Nephews. One owns a grocery and is always traveling to Seoul. The other is in the local government.”

Jae-wook guided Sang-min across the compound to a large room with many sliding doors. They sat on the portico to remove shoes. Jae-wook placed hwan notes in Sang-min’s hand. “So you can make an offering.”

They stood and Jae-wook opened a door. He put a hand in the small of Sang-min’s back and his mouth close to Sang-min’s ear. “You must be your most charming.”

Jae-wook and Sang-min went first to the closed coffin where they made bows and offerings. After a time, they turned to where on the floor in mourning dress of white hemp sat the three daughters from the first wife, nieces, nephews, sons-in-law, and Hwang’s widow, pulled back hair accentuating the delicacy of her face.

Hyo-chu stood and bowed. They sat, Sang-min facing Hyo-chu at two meters with Jae-wook between them back a little. Rice cakes, fresh autumn kimchi, and meat from a young dog appeared, along with tea. Hyo-chu thanked Sang-min for his presence. Sang-min extended condolences. There was talk of the weather, affairs of the village. Hyo-chu spoke in a low voice of moderate pitch.

“My cousin tells me you recite poetry.”

Sang-min felt his face warming.

Jae-wook said, “Don’t be bashful now. Give us some lines from Kim So-wol.”

“‘Azaleas’ is my favorite,” said Hyo-chu.

Sang-min put aside bowl and chopsticks. He knew the poem, everyone knew it. Jae-wook nodded. The words to the first verse came. “When you leave, / weary of me, / without a word I shall gently let you go.” Sang-min evoked the second verse. “From Mount Yak / in Yongbyon / I shall gather armfuls of azaleas / and scatter them on your way.”

“So melancholy,” said Hyo-chu. “So lovely.”

Jae-wook laughed. “Okay, Sang-min, we’ll let you off the hook for now.”

Afterward, in the courtyard, Sang-min and Jae-wook lit cigarettes.

“That went very well,” said Jae-wook. “They’re taken with you.”

“Yes,” said Sang-min, peering into the mountains.

Jae-wook followed his gaze. “Sang-min, there’s nothing up there. Your future is here.”

The nephew who owned a grocery and wore a western suit approached, bowed to Sang-min, and said, “Welcome, uncle.”

Jae-wook said, “Please, no bad jokes at this time.”

The grocer laughed addressing himself to Sang-min. “When Hyo-chu came here as Hwang’s wife, I called her aunt even though she was ten years younger. Now I’ll be calling you uncle. But you strike me as a man we can rally around. I’ll be happy to show you the ropes.”

When they were alone again, Jae-wook said, “See that. He’s a joker but he likes you. Inside, didn’t you see the faces of the nieces and nephews? Even Hwang’s daughters swooned as you recited from ‘Azaleas.'”

“‘Azaleas’ is beautiful,” said Sang-min. “Do you know the last two verses?”

“Of course,” said Jae-wook and recited the third verse. “Step by step / on the flowers placed before you / tread lightly, softly as you go.”

Sang-min recited the final verse. “When you leave / weary of me, / though I die, I’ll not let one tear fall.”

 

Days shortened and morning earth frosted. Eun-mi chased the communal spirit for making winter kimchi, enlisting Kyung-wan and Hana to join her and Sang-min in soaking and pasting the cabbage leaves with salt and red pepper, and layering them in earthen jars. The days closed with cold hands, red faces, runny noses, and broad smiles. Sang-min worked at other chores to prepare for the great cold. Numerous trips to the hills with the back carrier and Kyung-wan filled the outbuilding with firewood. The remaining root crops were dug out and secured in a small cellar.

One morning near the end of November, Sang-min rose early, crossed the road, and washed in the cold waters of the spring. He put on a clean shirt, brushed his padded jacket, and departed for the village. The mourning period for Hwang had passed; the nephews wanted a parley.

Sang-min sat in a room in the Hwang compound with Jae-wook and the two nephews he’d seen before. Jae-wook said, “There are some concerns and it’s best to speak frankly.” The nephews nodded. “The family worries you might barge in where you know nothing and start giving orders, try to take over.”

Sang-min shook his head. “I see my position as a student in the household.”

The nephew who was a grocer laughed. “Well said. But let’s talk about the woman.”

“Eun-mi,” said Jae-wook. “You can’t be going back to see her. They don’t want you following in old Hwang’s footsteps. They want someone responsive to the business and faithful to Hyo-chu.”

“I understand that,” said Sang-min.

The grocer put a hand on Sang-min’s back. “Hey, we’re getting too serious. Let’s get some food in here. Some Soju.”

Sang-min stayed until early evening. The children were asleep when he picked his way around the sharp corner, dropped down to the farm, and slid open the door to the second room. He sat in the dark feeling Eun-mi’s eyes.

“I leave in the morning.” There was much to do, he explained. Formal meetings. Tour the Hwang holdings. Learn their business ventures. Hyo-chu wanted a proper wedding with all preliminary ceremonies.

“Let’s not talk about that now,” said Eun-mi.

Sang-min shed his outer clothes, shed his long underwear, and slid under the blankets. Eun-mi touched his arm then his chest as she had so often. Sang-min turned to her and Eun-mi took him in coition with embraces and kisses. As the urgency increased and the point of withdrawal approached, Eun-mi said, “Ah, Sang-min, hold off. A little longer.”

 

In the morning, Sang-min and Eun-mi sat on the floor of the first room with Kyung-wan and Hana. Eun-mi put aside her chopsticks and clapped her hands.

She had an announcement: Sang-min was moving to the village to live with Hyo-chu and the Hwang family.

She had a small speech: through three seasons, from planting to harvest to winter kimchi, Sang-min had been friend and benefactor. Thanks to him, their root cellar and wood bin were full, and they had no fear of winter.

Hana interrupted with excitement in her voice. “You’re going to live with Hye-su and the great Hwang family?”

Eun-mi lost the thread of her speech then fell to laughter. Sang-min laughed too but Kyung-wan tumbled his rice bowl and crossed to the door, sliding it open and bolting before Eun-mi could intervene.

“Well,” she said, “that didn’t go as planned. One has a tantrum and the other thinks you’re marrying a chicken.”

Eun-mi gathered the remains of the meal and scooted to the portico. Slipping into rubber shoes, she stepped down to the kitchen. Sang-min repaired to the second room to gather his knapsack and few belongings. He sat on the portico tightening the laces of his old combat boots, then stood, shouldered the knapsack, and walked toward the kitchen.

He looked about but saw no sign of Kyung-wan. Hana was running in circles, outside arm raised, inside arm down.

In the dimness of the kitchen, back to the doorway, Eun-mi tended the stove. Her shoulders heaved once and Sang-min’s right hand tightened on the knapsack strap.

“Sang-min,” Eun-mi said without turning. “What? Are you still here? It’s time to run along.”

END

Robert Perron lives and works in New Hampshire and New York City with attendance at Gotham Writers’ Workshop and 92Y Creative Writing. Past life includes high-tech and military service (with a year on the Korean DMZ). Present life includes travel and hiking. His work appears in Prick of the Spindle.

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