The Unlikley Friends - Part 1
As soon as the war ended, Min-Jun put his General's sword and his teaching skills in storage, and he retired to his countryside farm. He could not bring himself to leave the child with the blue eyes behind and planned to raise her as his granddaughter. The god of war who had taken so much from him seemed to finally have given something back. Later, he would tell Soo-Ah that she was reborn in the war, though the girl was most likely born in spring.
After his first years of military service were completed with honour, the king rewarded General Ming-Jun with a fertile patch of land, in the province of Wiryeseong, together with several slaves. The property was tucked away behind the hills of the northern territory, between two rivers, near a prosperous village.
The general settled here after the war, appreciating the great distance he put between his new home and family and those prying and judgmental eyes from the capital.
"Soo-Ah! Soo-Ah!? Where did you hide, you ungrateful child? Come out this instant! What no-good thing are you up to with that rascal, Jung-In? I swear I will tell the ol' master, and he will leave you both without supper! Soo-Ah! Jung-In! Come out right now!" The reprimands of Ha-Rin Noona, the housemaid, could be heard echoing all around the general's manor, every day.
She sat in front of the open gate, under a canopy of blanched clay tiles, shielding the entrance into the courtyard. The maid took a couple of steps and stopped in the middle of the road, which connected the manor to the village and, eventually, the rest of the kingdom. Looking along the traditional white fence, until it turned into a clump of closely intertwined trees, she saw no trace of the two children.
Perhaps they were hiding in one of the three buildings that made up the complex of the manor, as they did every so often. She returned to the courtyard, no longer noticing the weather-worn wooden sign that greeted any traveller knocking on the front gate. It held a meaningful blessing scrawled over its surface: "In a world filled with dreamers, the bravest are the ones who follow their dreams."
"Jung-In, you naughty boy, you better not have brought Soo-Ah near the river again. You just watch as I tell your papa, Han-Gyeol. Your butt will feel the sting of that administrator's rod," she continued to call, after looking for the two all around the courtyard, knowing how they liked to hide to make her seek them out. Though she knew it was not as much an issue of having Jung-In bring Soo-Ah anywhere since the little girl tailed him everywhere.
"Ol' master better start giving you lessons soon, and set you both on the righteous path." she grumbled in a voice meant only for her ears to hear, as she passed by the building that housed the principal sitting area, the master's study and the kitchen.
Finding no trace of the children in the living quarters, the young servant headed with hastened steps on the old worn path leading from the back entrance, past the animal pen, all the way to the cultivated fields.
Only the small grove, shielding the river that peacefully carved its way through the bedrock, could be seen as she skimmed the horizon. But, even here there was no trace of the almost five-year-old girl and the unruly boy.
Taking one deep breath, Ha-Rin got ready to give one more try calling, "Soo-Ah! Jung-In! You better not be playing again in the old burrow. Remember how you two got head lice? Want me to shave your heads again? Your hair should have been all the way to your waist by now. Don't you bring shame to the ol' master's name again!"
Ha-Rin remembered how the children sat together in their chairs, with tears streaming on their cheeks and holding their hands for comfort. The locks of hair came down in the same rhythm as their teardrops and carpeted the slab floor in the kitchen. There was something about that image of the two of them, sitting together, that stuck with her.
Not getting any answers, she shrugged her shoulders before returning to prepare dinner. If all else failed, hunger would guarantee that the naughty pair showed up at the table. Every day followed the same pattern for those two. And tomorrow would be no different.
Soo-Ah chased and climbed after Jung-In through every nook and cranny as if they were glued at the hip. The administrator's boy had taken on his shoulders one unsought responsibility: to act as Soo-Ah's big brother. And he did not know how to better dodge his duties. Being a Big Brother was a role unfit for this unruly child because he could not behave any less like a big brother. He was mildly interested in his peculiar blue-eyed play companion but whenever they would play together he would end up teasing her and that spelt trouble for him. So he tried to ignore her as much as he could.
The games he had in mind always ended up in disaster anyway, or with the two of them fighting. He was two years older and demanded obedience. She, in turn, was stubborn and never wanted to upset her grandfather. Yet, she could not help herself not follow Jung-In's lead. Not a day would pass by where Soo-Ah was not running after him in tears, yelling after the boy, with a lisp, "I will tell Grandfather!"
Most often she was enraged how Jung-In made fun, calling her a toothless duckling because of the way she was speaking after she'd lost her two front teeth. And they would take a long time to grow and would leave her with a tooth gap.
Playing around the manor, they could go unseen from morning until dusk. The sun was about to set, yet Jung-In showed no intention that he was willing to break away from the "fast egg - sturdy egg" competition.
"Jung-In, we need to go home. I think Noona is looking for us. Grandpa will scold us again." Soo-Ah's small quick steps were not fast enough to catch up with Jung-In wide and sure strides, as he climbed the mound to reunite with his village friends at the top.
He was in second place in their race, and the egg he'd stolen from the chicken coop this morning was still in good shape. Plus, it looked so interesting after painting it with the old master's ink stick and inkstone. It left his fingers smudged but all was worth it to gloat in the admiring gasps he got from the four other boys he was racing against. Second place was not good enough for such a cool-looking egg. Or for his ego.
"Stop nagging me, Soo-Ah. Go home by yourself." He yanked his white peasant blouse from the girl's hand, as soon as she grasped it between her delicate fingers.
"What's the matter, Jung-In? You ′bout to go home a loser 'cause of a girl?" one of his friends teased, making all the others laugh.
Soo-Ah resentfully stuck out her tongue at them. She did not care about what those rude boys were saying. They had never liked her anyway. And the feeling was mutual. Her grudge took root when they did not let her take her turn in playing with the kites at the seasonal fair held in the village.
"Jung-In, it is only a stupid race. It's getting dark. I am scared to go home alone," and Soo-Ah turned to search with her eyes for her home.
The gentle slopes of the hills around were littered with paddy fields, already restored to their rectangular shape after the caprices of winter. The villagers' and slaves' chatter, while sprinkling rice seeds on the barren soil, could be heard all around, together with the whistles and tongue clicks that cautioned the oxen to behave. On occasion, chants were sent towards the honeyed colored sky, blessing the upcoming harvest. It was the season of the ploughing and another day was coming to an end.
The manor was not far and the outline of the familiar buildings called to Soo-Ah from behind. She was unwilling to answer that call, not because she was afraid, but because she was dead set on not returning without Jung-In.
Already annoyed by his friends teasing him, Jung-In snapped at her. "Leave me be, stupid! I told you not to follow me today. This is boys' business. Shut up and wait, or just go!"
Jung-In left her in her spot, midway. He knew too well how she was pouting and staring with resentment at his back as he got acknowledgement from his friends for putting a simple-minded girl in her place. This was a serious competition and a sheepshead such as her could not comprehend its importance. Jung-In crouched and analysed the barren pathway down the small hill. He already had in mind the trajectory. Only two more wins in this race and he would be declared the victor. His adversary did the same and was brimming with confidence.
The other boys started to count, spreading the tension and deepening the concentration. "One egg roll! Two egg rolls! Three egg rolls!" On the count of three, the boys let their eggs roll away and held their breath in anticipation to see which one would get to the finish line first. If the fragile eggs changed direction and hit a rock everything would be lost. Soo-Ah followed with her eyes as they came wobbling past her and got an idea. She dashed to catch the dark painted one.
"No! What is she doing?" the boys began lamenting and came running after her. By the time they were all at the base of the hill Soo-Ah already had the egg tight in her palm, keeping it safe behind her back. The boys surrounded her and began to nag and shove, demanding to return what she stole.
"Give me back my winning egg!" Jung-In tried to take a hold of her hand.
Stepping back to evade him, a cracking sound was heard. Soo-Ah's plaited sandal was covered in egg yolk.
"Oh, no! My egg!" shouted the owner of what was now a cracked shell mixed in with some dust. Jung-In's friend jumped at Soo-Ah and pushed her hard, angered out of his wits. Her bum landed on the rugged surface of the earth. Jung-In's egg was also smashed in the process.
Here they were, three of the boys, looking quizzically at each other, two eggs and one girl's tush slammed to the ground, one boy fuming and another about to get his ass whooped.
Jung-In's face reddened with fury. No one was allowed to touch his Soo-Ah in this manner. He launched at his friend to tackle him in the middle of the field. Everyone else got excited about having found a new distraction and began chanting, "Fight! Fight! Fight!"
The two boys were rolling around, raising clouds of dust in the air like a fine mist. They winced as they pulled at the hair and clothes, pinching and smacking each other. Soo-Ah was the only one who tried to break them apart with her tiny hands, yanking at whatever part of their bodies she could lay hold of and begging them to stop. She tried her best until one of the boys chanting stopped her from ruining their fun.
A faint reddish glow on the horizon illuminated the pastoral setting. By now, the oxen had been set free from under the burden of their ploughs and were goaded towards the stables, taking along the flies that had been pestering them all day. The workers were picking up their bundles, ready to get home and wash off the sweat and the smell of manure and stirred soil from their skin, for one night at least, until the next day.
Trailing behind them, two wee silhouettes walked on the dirt path, bordering the cropland. The boys' fight eventually ended when Jung-In could not be budged from sitting on top of his friend and he was declared the winner. At least he'd managed to win something today, apart from a busted lip and dirtied clothes. Soo-Ah walked by his side, peeking at his sour expression, guilt chewing at her conscience. She tried to take him by the hand but he jerked it away, letting out a displeased "Ntz!"
"Your clothes are all stained, Jung-In. And how are you going to explain your face to your father?" the little girl asked, in an attempt to appear caring, yet above everything that had happened.
"What's it to you? You did not care much when you dared to touch my precious egg."
"I'm sorry. I wanted to make you come home with me."
In his exasperation, Jung-In stopped and threw his hands in the air. "Why do I have to do everything with you? You should have stayed home when I told you so," and he started walking again, with purpose. It was indeed getting late. A miracle would be required for them not to get an earful from Noona.
"But I don't like to play alone," she muttered under her breath.
Jung-In heard her well enough to sting her with his reply. "And I don't like silly girls sticking their nose in my business. What if I don't want to play with you anymore?" He was angry at her. If it wasn't for her dummy head, he would have already won his race and they would be home by now.
Frustrated, Soo-Ah raised her voice, "I will tell grandpa! And he will tell the magistrate to give you a straw-mat beating."
"Why he gonna' beat me for?" Jung-In asked her, puzzled.
"For not playing with me!" Soo-Ah replied, crossing her arms.
"Who says I should play with you?"
"The law. Big brothers should play with their sisters."
Jung-In creased his forehead trying to recollect something. " I never... That's not the law!" he snapped, "They don't give beatings for that."
"Yes, they do!"
"No, they don't!"
"Then I'll... I'll..." She snarled at him and shoved his shoulder. Instead of budging the sturdy boy from his spot, she ended up pushing herself away unwillingly. It was like shoving a rock, immovable in the ground. But she did not care. So what if he was chubby and taller than her. How could he say he would not play with her anymore? He was her big brother. It was his duty.
Jung-In could not abstain from laughing at her puny attempts, easing his inflamed state in the process. "What are you trying to do with those tiny hands? How stupid are you? You cannot fight me." He amused himself at the possibility. After all, he'd just fought one of his friends for her.
Soo-Ah thought teaching him a lesson for laughing and for not playing with her was not a bad idea, while her disappointment laid fuel on her anger. "I'm going to spank your butt for being an idiot!" she spat out, every word forceful with her determination.
"You would not dare. You are only a stupid little girl," Jung-In goaded her, feeding on every reaction he could get from his unique, life-long companion.
So, now he was provoking her. Fine. She would show him what she was capable of. Soo-Ah looked around and picked up a sturdy stick and chased Jung-In with it, yelling after him, "You promise you play with me tomorrow!"
The boy loved the chase and his distinctive pair of amber eyes lit up. Those eyes were the most beautiful asset of his face as they had the magical power to project whatever he had going on inside, making anyone looking at them empathize.
"Na Na Na. I am too fast for you! Not gonna' play with you!" Jung-In melodically teased the girl who was tailing him and making futile swings with her stick.
In a fit of despair, Soo-Ah threw the stick at the boy's head, and somehow the stick did not miss its target. Jung-In fell to the ground with the left part of his back-head throbbing. The pain hurt him less than the fact that she had dared to hit him. He rubbed the lump and ruffled his brownish hair.
"Look what you did to me, stupid! It hurts. What if I die from all this pain? I am telling on you. You just wait, Soo-Ah!" Once he got up, he started to run for the house.
After a brief feeling of triumph, Soo-Ah soon realized what she had done. Hearing Jung-In would snitch on her she became furious. He was the one making all this trouble, and she was only trying to teach him a lesson. She ran after the boy to catch him before he could reach her grandfather.