Chapter 2 : Chapter 1 Kim Hae-won
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Kim Hae-won crept through the hallway on her tiptoes, doing her very best not to wake up everyone in the house. Her feet were bare, for she did not want to risk even the soft noise that slippers would create, and even though she was still completely pajama-clad, she wore her glasses so that she would not to bump into anything. One light was on at the very end of the hall was where Hae-won had her sights set on.
She pushed the cracked door open and peeked inside. “Grandmother?”
Hae-won’s grandmother looked over her shoulder and smiled at the sight of her granddaughter. “Hae-won, what are you doing up? It’s well past midnight!”
“There’s no school tomorrow,” Hae-won explained as she made her way into her grandmother’s room. “And I can’t sleep.”
Even when everyone else in the house would be long since asleep, Hae-won knew her grandmother would be awake. She had always said she did her best work at night, and even now, she was seated at her studio desk and Hae-won could see her watercolors out and a preliminary sketch taped to the tabletop.
Hae-won’s grandmother was a children’s author and had written more than thirty books. Hae-won could find them in the school library and all of her classmates could remember having her books read to them growing up. And her granddaughter still read them, even though, at the age of nearly eleven, she was probably getting too old to be interested in picture books. But still, Hae-won refused to give them up. She knew them all by heart. She had read them so many times, and they were so familiar that sometimes the fairytales about palaces, magic, and talking animals felt more real and more like home than reality did.
“Is that for the new book?” Hae-won pointed to the sketch-scratched of paper. “Can I see?”
“Of course,” her grandmother told her. “Maybe you can help me; offer a little input. I can’t help but feel something’s missing.”
At the invitation, Hae-won rushed forward and wrapped her arms around her grandmother’s neck, resting her chin on her shoulder as she looked down at the picture so far, pushing her glasses into place.
People often said the reason Hae-won and her grandmother were so close was because they were so much alike. Just like her grandmother who made her living writing fairytales, Hae-won was a thoughtful little girl who liked to spend her time daydreaming. Even though she wasn’t yet interested in boys or make-up, she had also never been very interested in dolls or jumping rope. She had just never seen the point of any of those activities. For a while, it had worried her parents—when Hae-won’s birthday parties never drew more than four children and when she didn’t see what was so fun about a computerized kitten who lived in a keychain—but Hae-won’s grandmother said she was just an old soul, that she had already figured out what was important in life.
Further evidence of this was the way Hae-won would often spend more time with her grandmother than she would with children her own age, but her grandmother didn’t complain. The best way to write a story that appealed to the wonder and imagination of a child was to actually have a child help in the process.
“What’s this one going to be about?” Hae-won’s eyes darted over the drawing. “I see the roof of the palace behind the mountain peaks. Is this going to be a story about the Stolen Princess?”
The Stolen Princess was Hae-won’s favorite of all the stories her grandmother had written. It was the story of a princess who lived inside a palace surrounded by very high walls, but the princess longed to see the outside world which she was never allowed to venture into. On day, a traveling merchant came to the palace, and the princess gave him some of her jewelry to take her with him when he left the palace. He was only supposed to take her to the market and bring her back in the evening. But instead, the merchant took her to a town miles and miles away and left her in the surrounding woods while she was sleeping.
When the princess woke up, she was completely overwhelmed. She had never seen a forest before and didn’t know what to make of it. She had never seen wild animals before, and she had never known days without food or nights without a bed. In spite of her very sheltered life, the princess had to call upon all her inner strength in order to survive and find her way back to the palace, learning she was stronger than she ever thought she could be.
The only problem with the story was that the ending made it feel like the story wasn’t really finished. Even though the princess did find that she was a strong person, she never did find her way back to the palace. The book ended with the princess still wandering in the wilderness with no idea of how to find her palace and her subjects were nowhere close to finding her.
“No, Hae-won,” her grandmother told her. “That story doesn’t have an ending yet.”
Hae-won sighed to herself. Deep down, she had a feeling her favorite story would never have an ending.
The princess from the story was based on her grandmother’s twin sister. Hae-won’s grandmother had never told her this directly, but her mother told her that her grandmother did have a twin sister and in the dedication, her grandmother had written To my dearest friend, Eun-cha, who I lost across the parallel.
The story was too painful to talk about for her grandmother, but Hae-won had pieced the story together from bits and pieces told by her mother and her uncles. The twins had been sixteen years old when World War II ended and when Korea was split. Somehow, Eun-cha had ended up on the North end of the thirty-eighth parallel. No one was willing to risk going across the border to search for her for fear of not being able to leave, and after the North invaded, there was absolutely no chance of being able to find her.
Hae-won had only seen one picture of her great-aunt, Eun-cha. It had been taken when Hae-won’s grandmother was fifteen-years-old, of the two of them in their Japanese-style school uniforms, as traditional Korean clothing was still outlawed at the time. Hae-won’s grandmother was the calm twin, serene with a smile on her face like the one on the Mona Lisa. Her sister, Eun-cha, was the livelier-looking twin, even in the still picture. Her teeth were just barely showing in her smile, even though it wasn’t considered proper at the time. She looked like the picture had been taken right on the verge of her bursting into laughter, probably from some joke she had just played on her twin.
Hae-won had often wondered to herself if they were still as identical as they had been back then. Whether there was some woman walking through North Korea with her grandmother’s face.
“Alright!” Hae-won’s grandmother finally shooed her off her shoulder. “If you have nothing more to offer than pestering me about finishing your favorite story, then you can go back to bed.”
“There’s no school til Monday!”
But her grandmother wasn’t swayed. “Bed!”
“Eonni, wait!” Hae-won’s bulky book bag weighed her down as she struggled to keep up with her older sister, the fifteen-year-old in her brown school uniform sprinting ahead as though her very life depended on it.
Hae-won and her sister, Eun-kyung, used to be very close, but Hae-won barely saw her sister anymore. Eun-kyung had just started high school that year, and it wasn’t unusual for her to be at school until well past ten. The only time they would see each other these days was in the morning at breakfast and during the race to school where Hae-won struggled to keep up.
This morning, Hae-won lucked out, however. Eun-kyung lost her shoe turning a corner and the time it took the high schooler to scramble for it was just long enough for Hae-won to catch up.
Neither of the girls was anywhere near late for school, but every morning Eun-kyung was determined to be the first one through the doors so she could have the biggest head start on the day. Eun-kyung was a very ambitious student; she wanted to go to Seoul National University, the best college in Korea. But sadly, her obsession with school was not at all unusual. Nearly all high school students practically lived at school. At least the ones who wanted to go to university did. Earning a spot at any school was very competitive and students went to all sorts of lengths to give themselves an edge.
“Hae-won, I can’t get my shoe back on!” Eun-kyung struggled to put her shoe back on with one hand while standing. “Stand over here so I can balance on your shoulder.”
Obediently, the eleven-year-old rushed to her sister’s side, feeling slightly indignant at being used as a glorified human shoehorn.
Hae-won tried to start a conversation. “Grandmother’s starting work on a new book.”
“Hmmm,” her sister remarked, not really paying attention.
“I thought it was going to be about the Stolen Princess, but she said no.”
Eun-kyung finally began making some progress with her shoe. “Well, Grandmother said that story will probably never have a real ending.”
“Because the story it was based on doesn’t have an ending yet either.” Of course, Hae-won knew this already, and it was part of what made the ending of her favorite story so sad. The fact that it might never have a real ending, and the pain the people in the story felt didn’t stop once the pages had been shut. The pain that their grandmother felt about losing her twin sister was what had breathed life into The Stolen Princess in the first place, and it didn’t have a happy ending because Hae-won’s grandmother had yet to have her own happy ending.
“Eonni,” Hae-won asked suddenly, “you remember how we saw on the news once, that gathering where families from North and South Korea would be able to see one another again?”
“I remember.” Eun-kyung finally forced her shoe back on, but didn’t take off running.
Hae-won decided to take advantage of the situation. “Do you think Grandmother would somehow be able to go to one of those gatherings so she could see her sister again?”
Eun-kyung sighed in the manner of someone who was about to answer a question they really didn’t want to answer, but she didn’t run away. “Hae-won, what you need to understand is that there was a reason that the gathering we saw made the national news. Those sorts of gatherings are extremely rare, once-in-a-decade sorts of things. You need the complete cooperation between the North and South, which almost never happens, and then there’s all the work of actually finding all the relatives in two different countries, each with millions of people.
Her sister continued to speak. “And the honest truth, Hae-won, is that we don’t even know if Grandmother’s sister is still alive. Remember, there was a war and that terrible famine a few years ago where so many people died. Think about it; there’s starvation, no modern medicine, and complaining about anything is a political crime.” Eun-kyung looked down at the ground, fidgeting as though her shoes suddenly became very uncomfortable. “And to think our great-aunt somehow survived all that, even in her old age…well, you can see how unlikely it would be for her to still be alive.”
Hae-won nodded thoughtfully. Even if she and Eun-kyung weren’t as close as they used to be, she could still count on her sister to always tell her the truth. On uncomfortable topics, adults would either sugarcoat the truth or flat-out lie, but Eun-kyung saw no value in being dishonest about anything. No matter what the topic, she never treated Hae-won with kid gloves.
It was both a blessing and a curse.
In spite of this, Hae-won was still young enough to keep a shred of optimism in even the darkest scenarios. “But there’s still a chance our aunt and her family are alive, isn’t there?”
Eun-kyung nodded, even after all the grim words she had given her sister. “Of course, there’s still a chance. Something can’t be ‘unlikely’ if there’s chance of it happening the other way.”
Hae-won smiled to herself. The one thing about Eun-kyung always being so honest with her was that whenever her sister gave her good news, Hae-won knew it was something she could count on.
It was at that point, Eun-kyung looked down at her watch and shrieked in horror. “Ah! Do you know how long we’ve been standing here?”
It hadn’t really been that long, but all the same, Eun-kyung took off running again, even faster than she had before. Hae-won wondered why her sister wasn’t on the track team. Hae-won began taking a few steps after her sister, but Eun-kyung somehow knew she was being followed.
“Other way, Hae-won!” Hae-won’s sister didn’t even look over her shoulder. “Now!”
Pouting, Hae-won kicked at the loose stones on the street as her sister disappeared down the street before beginning her own, much slower pace towards the elementary school.
In the classroom, Hae-won was the only one who was actually sitting at her desk—everyone else was running up and down the aisles and shouting at their friends—but with Hae-won’s mother in the room, she felt rather nervous about giving into peer pressure. Normally, they would be having social studies right now, but today, instead, they would be listening to Hae-won’s mother give a presentation on life in North Korea. She even gave her daughter a smile and a wave as she prepared her materials for her speech.
Hae-won’s mother worked for an advocacy group called Floating Bridges, which helped defectors from North Korea resettle and find new lives in the South. They came fleeing hunger, famine, political and religious persecution, and oppression from the dictatorship which ran the country. Hae-won had been hearing about all this since she was little, but her mother had promised she would try and make the presentation interesting if Hae-won promised to let her classmates have a chance at answering some of the questions.
“Everyone to your seats!” their teacher, Mrs. Park, shouted over the collective noise. “Quickly! Quickly!”
“Hello, everyone.” Hae-won’s mother bowed to the classroom. “My name is Pae Soo-min; some of you may already know me as Kim Hae-won’s mother.”
She made sure to point out Hae-won to anyone who didn’t. “I work for an advocacy group called Floating Bridges, and your teacher, Mrs. Park, was kind enough to allow me to come and speak to you today about something I believe is very important.” Hae-won’s mother took a deep breath before beginning again. “What can you tell me about North Korea?”
As promised, Hae-won stayed quiet and still as her classmates’ hands shot up and they took their turns telling what they knew.
“It’s a communist country.”
“We fought a war against them in 1950.”
“It was founded by Kim Il-sung, and he’s still the ‘Eternal President’.”
“My brother’s stationed at the DMZ and he says we’re still technically at war.”
“Those are all correct answers,” Hae-won’s mother told the students. “You all seem to know so much about North Korea already. I hope I can still teach you all something.”
She then began moving onto the actual presentation. “Floating Bridges’ main purpose is to help refugees escaping from North Korea resettle in the house. That’s because relocating from the North to the South is not as simple as just moving from Seoul to here in Jeonju. They have to adjust to a whole new way of life, from new political freedoms to learning how to use a lot of the modern technologies you already use every day.”
At lot of the students seemed confused at this, so Hae-won’s mother elaborated. “In North Korea, there’s no internet, cellphones are banned, very few families have television sets, and the government controls all media and the press. No outside information is allowed. It’s actually estimated that, technologically speaking, North Korea is at least thirty years behind the South.”
“They can’t even go to the supermarket to buy groceries. Everyone receives food rations from the government, and it usually isn’t very much. Families in North Korea are entitled to one chicken and five eggs per person per month.”
Hae-won glanced around at the looks of horror on her classmates’ faces, especially the ones who must have been used to having eggs for breakfast every single morning.
“A lot of it has to do with outdated farming techniques.” Hae-won’s mother placed some photos on the overhead projector that showed people on a cooperative farm, plowing and planting fields by hand and using oxen to pull wagons and heavy loads. “As you can see, there are no tractors and few machines of any kind. The North Korean government can’t produce or manufacture something themselves, they just do without it. It’s part of the North Korean self-reliance principle of Juche. The same goes for food. This helped contribute, along with a lot of poor government decisions, to the terrible famine North Korea suffered in the late nineties.”
It was at this point that Hae-won’s mother began playing a video that brought an audible gasp from the entire classroom. Even Hae-won was disgusted. It was footage taken by a German doctor during a humanitarian trip to the North. It was all images of Korean children who looked just like the children shown on sponsorship commercials to feed starving children in Africa and other third world countries. But really, they were just children living in the countryside, right on state farms, but it was evident that the children weren’t getting any food.
Hae-won could actually count the ribs and see the breastbone on a baby being held in its mother’s arms. A ten-year-old—the same age as Hae-won and her classmates—lay on a cot, her eyes glazed over and gasping for breath. The doctor also talked about working where there were no antibiotics or anesthesia, even hospitals where there wasn’t any soap.
At that, Pang Cho-hee raised her hand with a perplexed look on her face. “But why don’t the other countries send food to the North?”
“There are actually many countries that do,” Hae-won’s mother told her, “but the government sends most aid workers away, or even confiscates the food. They believe accepting such help shows that the country can’t function by itself, and if they don’t accept the food, that means there’s not a problem.
“Of course, that is not at all true, and starvation is a major problem in the North. The average eleven-year-old is about eight inches shorter and twenty-two pounds lighter than any of you.”
“How is there even anyone still living in North Korea if this is what’s happening?” one boy, Kim Tae-yul, asked. “Why don’t they all just leave?”
Hae-won already knew the answer to that question, but she let her mother tell him. “The North Korean government spends a lot of money and effort to make sure no one does leave. Common citizens aren’t allowed on airplanes or commercial ships, and the borders to South Korea and China are heavily patrolled by North Korean soldiers whose orders are shoot-to-kill. The borders are also blocked by miles of electric fences and thousands of landmines. Trying to cross from either side is certain suicide.”
But there was more. “And for those who somehow do manage to make their way across, it’s their families back in North Korea who end up paying the price. The government sets up concentration camps like the ones that existed in World War II. If any citizens defects from North Korea, their entire extended family—parents, siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins—will be sent to one of these camps for life, where they are either worked to death or die of starvation or disease. Of course, people and their families can also be sent to these camps for speaking against the Korean Workers Party, for practicing Christianity, or even complaining about the month’s rations.
“North Korean citizens know these places exist; the government doesn’t keep them a secret. The government also makes sure it’s citizens know that as long as they follow the Party and love the Dear Leader with all their hearts, they have nothing to worry about. And most people are more than happy to do so.”
Hae-won’s mother moved to show the class yet another video. This time it was shot at a school in the capital city, Pyongyang. Ten and eleven-year-olds marched in step as they chanted pledges of loyalty to the Dear Leader and the dead Eternal President, Kim Il-sung. In a classroom, those same students were later listening intently to a teacher giving a very warped civics lesson in which the South were the ones who first invaded during the Korean War and where Americans were responsible for everything from splitting up the country to the continuing food shortages that still plagued the communist nation.
Afterwards, individual students were interviewed, talking about how proud they were to live in the last true socialist country in the world and how their Dear Leader would help them overtake the American imperialists. The last girl who spoke about how she hoped one day Korea would be united once again under the rule of their beloved Eternal President.
One look around Hae-won’s classroom showed exactly what the South Korean students thought of that!
Her mother’s presentation ended mere seconds before the bell rang, signaling the end of the day, Mrs. Park taking hold of her class once again. “If you have any further questions, Mrs. Pae will be staying after class and I’m sure that she will be more than happy to talk to you.”
A few students looked as though there were debating staying to ask questions, but they soon got caught up in the rush and excitement of being able to go home. And so Hae-won decided to be the one to let her mother feel like she had reached the youth of Korea. “Eomma!”
Hae-won’s mother took a break from gathering up her materials when she saw her daughter. “Hae-won! I hope you weren’t too bored having to listen to so many things you’ve already heard at home.”
“No, it was a great presentation!” she told her mother. “Everyone liked it.”
Well, actually they had all been disgusted by her mother’s presentation, but they certainly weren’t going to forget it.
“I’m glad you thought it was entertaining,” her mother said. “If you could think this is all interesting after hearing it a thousand times, I’m not worried about your classmates.”
Hae-won’s mother always seemed worried about giving presentations, but she had given hundreds just like these before, and nothing had ever gone wrong. They were usually either given to schools for the purpose of education or at benefits for the purpose of begging rich people for money. But this was the first time her mother had spoken before one of Hae-won’s classes. While Hae-won had been hearing all about human rights violations in the North since kindergarten, her mother had always worried her classmates might have.
“Do you want a ride home?” her mother suddenly asked. “I can give you one if you can if you can get your things all together.”
Hae-won shook her head. “No, that’s alright,” she said. “I want to walk with Ho-sook and Cho-hee.”
Pointing to the doorway, she showed that her two best friends were already waiting for her at the doorway. Hae-won’s mother nodded her head once she saw them too. “Well, I have to just run home quick, but then I have to be back at the office. I probably won’t be home when you get there, but you’ll see me at supper.”
“Alright!” Hae-won bowed to her mother as she ran backwards towards the door. “Bye, Eomma!”
As soon as they got into the hall, Hae-won and her two friends were swept up in the crowd of elementary school students all anxious to flee the constraints of the classroom. At some point, they got separated in the chaos, but this was also something typical. It had happened enough times that Hae-won and her friends knew to just make their way to the front gate; that they would meet up there.
It was less than five minutes before the girls all met up again, and began walking home. It was a beautiful day. The heat from the summer was still clinging to the mid-September air. Ho-sook kicked off her shoes and peeled off her socks.
“It’s not going to be warm like this for much longer.” She pushed her hair behind her ear, which she bragged was dyed. “I don’t want to go back to wearing long sleeves again.”
Hae-won knew her friend was prone to wearing clothes that were much too…mature for her age. Granted, she didn’t go terribly over the top with outfits she wore to school, but even her shorts usually showed a little too much over her legs and her blouses too much of her arms. “Cold weather isn’t going to stop you from wearing your favorite clothes and you know it.”
Yi Ho-sook was the sort of girl who couldn’t grow up fast enough. Anytime she wasn’t in school, she could often be seen wearing her sloppy attempts at make-up. Sometimes she would even wear make-up to school, which would always end in a rough face scrub by the school nurse and a lecture from the school principle.
Pang Cho-hee, on the other hand, seemed to be terrified of absolutely everything that Ho-sook so worshiped. Cho-hee was a religious girl, very active in the church that Hae-won’s family also attended, though Hae-won wasn’t nearly as observant as her friend.
“You’re going to get in trouble.” Cho-hee shook her head, her long ponytail whipping back and forth. “And even when we’re not in school, you shouldn’t be dressing like that anyway!”
Ho-sook’s expression began to twitch, and Hae-won sensed a fight about to happen. It had certainly happened enough times for her to be able to spot the signs.
If Ho-sook and Cho-hee had just met at school, they probably wouldn’t even speak to each other, but the reason the three girls had all become friends was because their fathers all worked at Chunbok National University. Ho-sook’s father was an economics professor, while Cho-hee’s father worked in the admissions office. Hae-won’s own father was an administrator, and even at the age of eleven, Hae-won still wasn’t sure what that meant.
Quite possibly, the only reason the two girls were friends was because Hae-won acted as a sort of middle ground; a happy medium between the two polar opposite personalities. All it took was a look from Hae-won in each direction in order to defuse the fight. They respected Hae-won enough for that.
Ho-sook spoke up. “My parents are planning one of their salon nights for Saturday.” This wasn’t the sort of salon where people got their haircut, but a rather old way of referring to a gathering of friends who met for lively and very academic discussion. “You both have to come too! I don’t know if I’ll be able to take being locked in the house all night with a bunch of adults talking about things I don’t understand.”
But Hae-won wasn’t paying attention. There was something tucked behind a dumpster that was catching her eye. Something brilliant red, shining unnaturally in the sunlight…
“Ho-sook, Cho-hee, would you two mind going the rest of the way on your own?”
Cho-hee appeared confused at this, especially at the foggy look in Hae-won’s eyes. “Are you sure? You don’t look like you’re feeling…quite right.”
“Yeah…I’m fine…,” she said as her voice trailed off. “You both can go ahead. I’ll see you tomorrow.”
The two girls shrugged their shoulders, but continued on, leaving Hae-won alone in the alleyway. It was only once she was sure that she was alone that Hae-won raced for the glinting light she had never broken eye contact from. When she got closer, she saw that whatever it was had been wedged beneath a garbage can, as though it had already been lying their when the family had taken the trash out. The can was incredibly heavy, and Hae-won struggled to pry it free.
The force of the effort was so great that when Hae-won finally did succeed, she was thrown back onto her backside by Newton’s Second Law. Hae-won spent a few minutes nursing her sore backside before her attention finally returned to what she had fought so hard for. It was a scale, like you would see on a snake, but it was about as wide as Hae-won’s outstretched palm.
It was a dragon scale!
Hae-won knew this because she had seen a real dragon before. She had been seven years old at time and was at the park with her family. Hae-won had wandered away to watch some boys sail toy boats in the pond. Eventually, finding shapes in the clouds became more interesting than the boats, and she started listing off a car, a butterfly, a soup bowl, a feather…
But when Hae-won noticed a long dragon shape, she also noticed it was brilliant red and gold, like the dragons in old Chinese and Korean paintings, and it was moving faster than all the other clouds, weaving up and over them, and much more defined in shape.
It was when Hae-won actually saw the shape breath a ball of fire that she actually knew what she was seeing was real. “A DRAGON!” she had shouted to everyone around her. “EVERYONE LOOK UP! IT’S A REAL DRAGON!”
But by the time Hae-won had looked up again, the dragon had completely disappeared. Everyone in the park assumed she was just a little kid making up stories, but even after her family had gone home, Hae-won kept insisting the truth of her story.
“Eomma, Appa, there really was a dragon! It had a mustache and a long body like a snake and little bitty wings!”
But her parents just alternated between ignoring and indulging her: hanging her drawings of the creature on the refrigerator, taking her on ‘dragon hunts’ which were really just walks in the park, and pretending to listen to her stories while actually reading the paper. Eun-kyung was less accommodating, laughing in Hae-won’s face or telling her to get lost whenever she tried to talk about the dragon in front of Eun-kyung’s friends.
Then, two weeks later, when Hae-won was playing out in the rain, she was jumping in the puddles when she noticed something catching much more like than a wet stone could. When she went closer, she saw whatever it was was a very pure shade of gold, which led her to at first believe it was some kind of jewelry. But when she pulled it out of the water and rinsed the mud off, it wasn’t like any sort of jewelry Hae-won had ever seen before. It was incredibly large and almost a perfect oval, except for a curve cutting through the bottom half, almost like the shadow over the moon.
It was then that Hae-won remembered the field trip her class had taken to the zoo the week before and had been chosen hold the boa constrictor during the reptile show. The snake had had scales in the exact same shape.
This was a scale from the dragon she had seen at the park! She was absolutely certain of it, and now she had proof she was telling the truth!
But instead of going straight to her parents, Hae-won first went to her grandmother. It seemed like the logical choice. Hae-won’s grandmother actually wrote about dragons, so she would know more about them than any of the other adults in Hae-won’s life.
“I told you I was telling the truth!” Hae-won had said as her grandmother examined the scale. “There’s not a snake in the world that’s that color and definitely not one that’s that big!”
“You’re probably correct, Hae-won,” her grandmother had agreed. “If there is such a snake, it’s one I’ve never come across.”
“So it has to belong to a dragon then! There’s no other explaination!”
“I’m not sure if that’s completely correct either, Hae-won. I’m sure we haven’t gone through every other explanation that is out there.”
Hae-won had been confused by this. “So you don’t think it belongs to the dragon I saw?”
“I didn’t say that either.”
By then, Hae-won had been starting to get tired of all these cryptic answers. “Then what do you think?”
Then Hae-won’s grandmother had given the scale back to her granddaughter. “What I would do is hold onto this; keep it somewhere safe. Even if we don’t know what it is now, it could prove to be very important one day.”
Even though Hae-won still hadn’t been sure why her grandmother wasn’t answering her questions directly, she did heed her advice, hiding the dragon scale in a locked treasure box she had hidden under her bed.
Over the years, though, her single dragon scale turned into a collection. Hae-won had once found three scales inside of a week, and then didn’t find another one for two more years. All the same, Hae-won was seeing too many of them to dissuade her from the belief that dragons were real, and now she had found another.
Hae-won emptied her pencil case into her backpack so she could keep the scale safely in the box until she could get home and lock it in her treasure box. She wasn’t sure how many scales she had now, but she was running out of room in the box under her bed. She would either have to get a new box or empty out her toy chest to hide them in.
It was at that point that Hae-won started running home. She hoped to get home before her parents did. Hae-won was terrible at being sneaky, and if her parents were to see her try and creep off to her room as soon as she walked through the door, they would know she was up to something.
The houses on Hae-won’s street were modern and fairly large with backyards hidden by tall fences. The houses were all built in different styles, but they were all painted in the same white,off-white color spectrum, which made picking one out rather like trying to find one special stone on a beach full of rocks. Hae-won knew her house; it was the third one from the corner, with one of the top windows filled with gel cutout shapes in Hae-won’s bedroom window on the second floor, a bright blue door with a brass knocker, and chalk drawings on the driveway that her father was always very lax about washing off.
Hae-won opened the fence gate so she could take the door that led through the kitchen. If her parents were home, she could at least bypass their office by taking that route.
“Appa!” Hae-won called out to her father before trying for her mother. “Eomma! Are you home yet?”
When she heard no answer, Hae-won assumed she was safe and bolted towards the staircase. But she was stopped dead in her tracks when she saw she was certainly not alone. Her entire family was sitting in the living room, as though they had been waiting for her. Even Eun-kyung was there…changed out of her uniform no less.
“What’s going on? Is somebody dead?” That was usually what happened when a whole family stopped what they were doing to come home, sharing the same shocked, confused expression.
Hae-won’s first thoughts went to her grandmother, but breathed a sigh of relief when she saw her sitting off to the side in her favorite armchair. Her parents were seated side by side on the couch with Eun-kyung perched on the armrest. There was one piece of furniture left—the loveseat—was taken up by…a woman Hae-won had never seen before; and she seemed like a woman she would definitely remember seeing before.
“Ah!” she remarked once Hae-won noticed her. “I see Young Miss Kim has finally joined us.”
She was a very pretty woman, just a bit younger than Hae-won’s mother, but it was a very regal and refined sort of beauty, like the sort belonging on someone of royal birth who would never mix with mere commoners. In spite of this, there was nothing higher-than-thou about her; she sat comfortably on her family’s furniture, drinking tea from a rather plain cup. If she were a character in one of her grandmother’s books, she would be the queen who would insist that her driver stop the carriage so she could hand out coins to beggar children on the street.
“Appa, Eomma?” Hae-won’s voice was low and grave. “Who is this?”
Hae-won knew she had just been incredibly rude to their guest, but her parents didn’t scold her. In fact, they even seemed afraid to speak up at all.
Her father was the first to break the silence. “Hae-won, this is Professor…”
“Professor Moon,” the woman reminded them. “Moon Hyun-jung”
“Professor? Are you a teacher?” Hae-won thought to ask. “Do you work at the university with Appa?”
Because Hae-won’s father worked at the university, and many of his friends that came to their home were professors and other university employees. If that were true, then the unusual costume—traditional silk hanbok and heavy braided hair knotted at the top of her head, help together by colorful pins—might be somewhat explainable, especially if she were a teacher of Korean history.
“No, actually,” Professor Moon admitted. “I’m actually a teacher at Angaeui Gyeonglo Magic Conservatory.”
“Hae-won,” her grandmother suddenly spoke up with an authoritative tone that Hae-won had never heard from her before, “come sit down.”
She was all seriousness, in a sort of way that was not to be argued with. Eventually, Hae-won moved toward the couch, taking a seat between her sister and her mother.
“Miss Kim, as I have already said, my name is Professor Moon,” the woman spoke up again, as though even she were taken aback by the tone of Hae-won’s grandmother, despite the fact that she didn’t even know her. “And I’m here today because I have something very important to speak with you about.”
The professor reached into a satchel at her side and extracted…a scroll. A silk scroll like the kind that people wrote on in old historical movies.
“This is for you,” she said, standing to her feet and placing the scroll in Hae-won’s hand. “Might I suggest you read it with your parents?”
Hae-won looked around at her family. It seemed like her parents already had some idea of what the letter was going to be about, though her grandmother seemed to be surer of the situation while her parents and sister were bewildered. But it was clear that no one was just going to tell her what was happening, so she pulled at the silk cord and broke the wax seal, letting the scroll unfurl.
Author's Notes: There are some Korean phrases in this story that you may wish to have the translations to.
Ennoi: a title younger siblings call their older sisters, ‘Big Sister’
hanbok: refering to traditional Korean clothing which can be for males or females.
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