Northern Korea, 1941.
I stood with my big brother Changi at the foot of Heavenly Mountain. The summer air was warm, fragrant with jasmine. I could almost hear the earth moving as a thousand shades of green sang across the countryside.
Last year during our winter break, the earth was cold and still – only the smoke from my breath brought warmth. The lush beauty of Heavenly Mountain was gone. If someone told me that vultures had picked at the mountain until it was nothing but a dry old bone, I’d believe it. And Mother had fallen ill, far worse than in winters past. For weeks she had been unable to keep food down. Her skin sagged off her bones and turned yellow. No one knew what was wrong with her, only that death might come before spring.
So Father had brought her to our country home, perched high among the clouds. He was certain she would heal here, twenty-two miles from the noise and pollution of our city home in bustling Sinuiju. She would heal here, where God’s fingertips touched the sun.
Up Heavenly Mountain Changi and I had followed Father. He was carrying Mother’s frail body to our home, praying, “Gracious God, please heal my wife’s ills…” I had never seen Heavenly Mountain so gray, so frozen. I could hear angels sing the song of death.
But Father heard faith’s song. Every morning he would go to a natural spring that traveled in a sweet, peaceful rhythm down the mountain. There he would await the rising sun. When the sun’s rays finally glistened upon the water, he would kneel against the bank’s ancient rocks and scoop up a flask of icy, bubbling water, and declare – “The warmth of God has blessed the spring. This holy water will purify your mother’s body and revive her.”
Day after day, I would sit at Mother’s bedside, nurturing her with the prayers I had been taught.
Before I was born, when Changi was a baby, our parents were missionaries in China. Behind the Great Wall, they tried to spread the word of a Christian God. It was hard work in a land where Buddha ruled. Whether Catholics or Methodists or Presbyterians, Christian families like ours were in the minority.
So my parents were people of great faith. They believed God had blessed the natural spring and, in doing so, would bless Mother. And it seemed to be true. In a month’s time, a rose color returned to her face. She was miraculously cured.
“God has touched upon the earth,” Mother said, looking at the whole frozen world outside her window. “God has healed me.”
Whenever our parents’ words embraced the notion of God, Changi scoffed, sometimes to himself, sometimes not. My fifteen-year old brother only worshipped his own ideas.
But I drank their words; I believed God could heal every living thing. The first signs of spring were proof of that. And what about the spray of purple wildflowers growing between those rocks wedged at the foot of the mountain? That had to be God’s doing.
And now it was summer. Songbirds and flowering trees resurrected Heavenly Mountain. Again, God had touched upon the earth.
“Quit daydreaming and start moving!” Changi yelled.
I was bewildered, suddenly aware of my footing. This was not our usual route, the san trail. That trail I knew by heart. Every stone in the ground, every tree trunk. My favorite willow that welcomed me when the breeze blew. And at the trail’s end – our country home, basking in the shade of chestnut trees.
“Where are we going?” I asked him.
“Follow me.” Changi signaled and skirted ahead. “I want to show you something.”
Changi sensed my disapproving eyes boring through him. Though I was a mere girl of ten, he swung around defensively. “Okay, what’s wrong?”
I stood my ground. Exploring unfamiliar territory frightened me. “I’m not taking one more step, until you tell me where we are and where we’re going.”
“My poor lost little sister,” Changi joked.
I refused to smile.
“Look,” Changi said, “if you don’t trust me, then don’t come with me. I will happily go alone.”
“Why should I trust you? You might get me into trouble.”
How could Changi ask me such a question with a straight face? Trouble followed him like his own shadow. Just the other day he sneaked into our parents’ private quarters and took a wad of yen from Father’s chest. He had sworn me to silence.
“I am just borrowing the money,” he had said. “I will put it back before Father even notices it missing.”
But Father noticed the money missing right away. At supper his face was swollen with disappointment. He had confronted us, his children. “Do either of you know where the money went?”
“No,” Changi had replied, while I just sat there and said nothing.
“What about the money you stole from Father’s chest?” I now reminded Changi.
He groaned. “Oh, no, not this again.”
“How long do you expect me to hold my tongue?”
“Do you tell me this to make me feel bad, Heisook? Because I don’t. Father’s holy chest is filled with church money. And with that money he could feed the homeless on the streets. He could send me to school in China. But do you think he cares about you or me or Mother or the beggar he passes on his way to church? Our welfare comes second to his godless God. The honorable Reverend Pang in his finely tailored suit would rather build a bigger church for his congregation.”
Changi was wrong. The Sacred Heart Church was already as big and beautiful as any church could be. Everyone knew it was the most impressive church in all of Sinuiju. An outside staircase led to a grand hall that led to a nave where stained-glass windows brought in the presence of God. There were four private rooms, each on a separate tiny floor, meant for times when only a one-on-one prayer with God would do.
“That’s not true, Changi,” I argued.
“It is true, Heisook! You’re just brainwashed like all dumb daughters.”
Changi set off marching up the mountain.
It was not my nature to disobey Father, who had told us never to wander off the san trail. But my brother could read my mind. He picked up a rock and hurled it into the valley with great satisfaction.
“Grow up, Heisook. Don’t be afraid to think for yourself. If you are afraid you are lost, then you are lost.”
As I followed Changi, my eyes settled on the scar visible under his crew cut.
“My medal of honor,” he would sneer to anyone who might be listening – for that made him feel as empowered as any king. “I wear it proudly.”
Changi was a good student, not so long ago. Then signs of trouble, like a restless shadow, crept into his life. He began to skip school, refusing to tell me his whereabouts. When he did attend class, he was disruptive. One morning, when his sensai was conducting roll call, Changi would not respond to his Japanese-assigned name of Mifune Okawa. Instead, he stood before his classmates and condemned the Japanese Emperor.
“Death to Hirohito! Crush his Imperial Army!”
His sensei whipped him across the back of his head with a ruler until blood oozed down his neck and stained his white shirt. But Changi just grinned. He was as proud of the stain on his Imperial uniform as he was of the scar forming on the back of his neck. He hated everything and everyone Japanese.
Such thinking, such behavior, put fear in my parents’ hearts that Changi would become a Korean patriot, someone who challenged the Japanese by advocating Korean independence. Such dangerous activities could lead to a swift death. Father had pleaded with him.
“Changi, why must you cause trouble in school? Trouble in school brings trouble to our home.”
“They teach me nothing but Jap history. I do not need their education,” Chang coolly replied.
“But we must obey the law of the land,” Father tried to explain.
Changi leaped to his feet with a rebellious cry. “I am no obeying idiot. This land we call Korea is a no man’s land! I do not salute the filthy Japs! I salute my own gods.”
Despite Father’s pleas, Changi abandoned his Japanese school for the streets of Sinuiju, where defiant boys like himself marched in public denouncement of the Emperor. And when Changi wasn’t on the streets, he would often disappear to escape the frowns of our parents at home.
“Your brother is like a wild animal who must be set free,” Father would explain to me. “I cannot control the wind and rain. I cannot control Changi.”
But a cold world could tame even the wildest animal. After a day or two, Changi would always return home where a steaming bowl of tooboo chigae awaited him.
“Slow down, Changi!” I cried.
But Changi kept moving. Slowly down was a sign of defeat. Only when I slipped on a rock did he stop and turn around.
“Are you okay?” he asked, checking my ankles and elbows.
“I think so,” I said.
“Do you feel any swelling?”
“Do you feel any bruises coming on?”
Changi wiped away beads of sweat on his forehead. A smile broke out on my face, so I turned away – he wouldn’t like that. Deep down my brother had a delicate touch, one that produced a wall of morning glories on the iron gate of our city home. On a dewy day, the morning glories seemed to climb above the gate and into the open sky.
After we’d hiked for a lifetime, it seemed to me, I asked again: “Where are we going?”
“To my secret place,” he replied.
Whenever Changi felt trapped, he would escape to somewhere I imagined as mystical, musical, full of light.
Now we were going to see it together.
We came upon a great chestnut tree whose limbs stretched out like arms reaching for heaven.
Changi hugged it honorably.
“My two-hundred-year-old friend, if only you could talk. Then we could hear the truth about Korea’s history. Not the stinking garbage the Japs feed girls like Heisook at school. Great kings and great leaders once ruled our land. But we’ll never hear about it from Japs in Jap History class.”
I shuddered. “Don’t call them that.”
“Call them what, little sister?”
“Say it. Say Japs.”
“I will not.”
“Heisook, even when you gaze into the clearest pond, remember something: You see things backward. The Japs are not our friends. They are our enemy.”
I fell silent and tried to turn a deaf ear as Changi kept talking: “Look, here is the definition of Jap colonialism: We speak Jap at school and Korean at home and end up nothing but tongue-twisted dimwits!”
Why was it always this way? How could Changi – who knew the name of every wildflower cluster and every constellation in the sky – be so wrong? The Japanese were not our enemy. What about my sensei? She was so kind and soft-spoken. Her name was Hanako, and what I loved most about her was the way her voice would drop to a loving whisper when we were alone and talking about my flute-playing or our favorite haiku and tanka poems. In private, she addressed me as Heisook, not by my Japanese-assigned name of Yoshiko Okawa. Of course, I kept our friendship a secret from Changi. If he knew that saluting the Imperial flag was as natural to me as talking to my sensei, if he knew I didn’t mind my Japanese name at all, he would abandon me right here, right now. Where would I go?
“Up here I am free!” he now shouted while climbing the great chestnut tree. “Liberated from all bondage!”
Changi reached the top of the tree. He peered north and bellowed: “Hello, Manchuria! And hello, China, beyond the mountain range!”
All I saw was endless mountains and sky. “Come down from there,” I pleaded.
“Ha Ha!” Changi hollered again as he plunged downward, hit the ground and rolled into a ball of laughter. The sight of his bloody knees made him laugh even harder.
“There’s nothing funny about blood,” I said.
“Heisook, pain is a part of life! Sometimes pain can feel good if it is felt for the right reason,” Chang declared, moving on like a fearless soldier.
Now I was following my brother through a dark tunnel of trees. The sounds of strange animals swallowed me up. With each forbidden step I was afraid something wet and slimy might snatch me and carry me away to the center of the earth. But to my surprise, the tunnel opened up to a sun-blinding sky. And below, a vision glittered in my eyes.
It was a waterfall surrounded by majestic rocks carved for kings and queens and gods. Water splashed off the rocks like diamonds shattering. A faint rainbow arced over us. I was in awe.
Changi bowed. “Welcome to my secret place.”
After a long cool drink of mountain water, Chang led me to a giant quartz rock that sparkled behind the waterfall. Then he lifted me up on the rock like a princess to my throne. “This is where I sit and think,” he said.
“And what do you think about?”
“Oh, sometimes I think about the universe,” he said, hopping up to join me. “About how the stars are blinking all the way out in eternity.”
“What do you mean by eternity?”
“The universe has no beginning or end, Heisook. We could fly through space forever and ever and never reach the other side. And you know why? Because there is no other side. There is only eternity.”
“But what about heaven?” I challenged him.
“Christ! There is no heaven!”
“How do you know that?”
“Look, when we die, we turn to dust. Dust. Don’t plug your ears, Heisook! Hear the truth before you go permanently deaf.”
I wished Changi wouldn’t say such horrible things. If my brother had a little faith in God and the hereafter, perhaps he wouldn’t need to feel so much pain to feel alive.
“Heaven is above the stars,” I insisted. “I know it is, just like I know my prayers by heart. Our Father who art in heaven…”
“Amen,” Changi said. “So you know all your prayers along with all your silly church choir songs. You sing your heart out when there is nothing to sing about. I pity your soul, little sister. But time will surely change your way of thinking. If not time, then surely death.”
It was no use arguing with Changi.
“Close your eyes,” I heard.
I closed my eyes.
“Listen,” he whispered.
I listened. An orchestra of rushing water fell upon my ears.
“Do you hear the secrets of the waterfall?” he asked me.
I shook my head.
“Then listen with all your heart, Heisook. If you don’t hear its secrets, then you’re not listening.”
“What am I listening for?”
I closed my eyes and listened more carefully this time. Again, I heard only rushing water. No secrets.
“Changi, what does the waterfall tell you?”
My big brother closed his eyes as though he were hearing chimes in the wind and whispered, “The waterfall tells me that the world is changing and we must change with it.”
Before I could ask Changi what he meant by that, his mood abruptly changed. His face darkened as if thunder only he could hear was rolling in. Suddenly I felt unwelcome here, not at all like a princess on her throne. I was sure Changi regretted bringing me here and was wishing he had left me behind. He didn’t trust me to keep his secret. No matter what I said before, I would never tell Father who took the money from his chest and I would never tell anybody about this secret place. I would hold my tongue forever. Besides, I liked it here. Perhaps I could not hear the secrets of the waterfall but I could hear its beauty splashing and singing in my ears. When Changi leaped off the rock, the music ended.
“Let’s go, Heisook,” he said.
Without a word, Changi led us back to the familiar san trail. The silent was unsettling. Finally, I spoke up. “Changi, when you say the world is changing, what do you mean?”
As if he was alone, Changi wandered off the trail until he spotted what he was looking for: an azalea shrub in brilliant bloom. In all the times I had passed this way I had never noticed it before. But Changi’s eyes were different from mine; they saw things differently and saw different things. After plucking off several white flowers and placing them in my hands, he began to talk to the shrub. “You bloom, then wither, and you never bother a soul, sweet peaceful plant. That’s a noble way to live. People are not so noble. And that’s why we cannot stand still like you.” ∎
Author’s Note: Inspired by our mother’s experiences as a girl in northern Korea with missionary parents and a rebellious older brother under Japanese Occupation, this story is an excerpt from our out-of-print novel To Swim Across the World published by Miramax during the 9/11 era. However beautifully reviewed, the book, understandably received little notice. Our mother passed away in August, but her stories live on in us.