By Riva Kim í98
My dear daughters, I cannot understand the reasons for your quarrels. These things will pass and become unimportant. Why do you think only of television and playing games here in America? Focus, instead, on love and our family, for they will always be a part of you. I was very young when I learned this lesson. It was during the Korean War, an event that means nothing to you. But to me, it taught me something valuable, and now I wish for you to learn from my experience.
As the morning sun rose over the vast ginseng fields of Kanghwado Island, I awoke with the light draping its warm rays around my face. I relished the early silence and tranquillity. Today was Chusok, the Harvest Moon holiday, one of the most important days of the year.
I gazed out the window, where I had a view of the Han-gang River to my left. Quaint little boats drifted along, dragging nets in the clear water behind them. Fishermen already lined the docks, their goods displayed in broad straw baskets. On my right lay the pebble path leading to the house. I saw the cook bustle along the stone trail, carrying a package overflowing with fish and vegetables for the evening meal.
The calls of my mother penetrated the barrier of placidity as I turned from the window. "Kyung-chu! Wake up. Itís time to go to the temple. Today is Chusok, remember?" Suk-jin, my older sister, entered the room with her usual cheerfulness. "Good morning, Kyung-chu. Did you sleep well? She continued without letting me reply. "Weíre going to the Chondongsa Temple this morning, so get ready. I think you should wear this hanbok. You must look respectable in front of our relatives." I smiled. Suk-Jin was always so good-natured and responsible. Our family teased her for being middle aged. Her face lit up when she saw me smile. "Come, Iíll help you dress." She helped me put on my hanbok and combed my hair tightly into two neat braids.
My family walked to the temple where we offered our gifts to Buddha. We gave thanks for his blessings and the rich harvest. Buddha looked on peacefully at the excitement of Chusok. We returned home quickly for breakfast and the dayís preparations.
"Iíve always wanted to see the chariot fights. Can I go see the Chajonnori? Will you take me, Suk-jin, please?"
"Yes, I will take you, but only for a little while. We need to come back home and prepare to dance in the Kanggansuwollae. Itís quite an honor for our family to participate this year. Let us hurry."
An enormous crowd surrounded us as we approached the village center. We crossed the bridge over the small stream which branched off from the main river. Up ahead, tall thatched "chariots" wavered on long poles, held up by large throngs of young men in white. At the reins of each chariot was a bearded man masterfully maneuvering his horses. The drivers reared their horses and bucked on each other until, finally, one man lost his grip and fell. The younger men below caught him, while the victor was cheered by the masses.
I shouted enthusiastically for the winner. Suk-jin reminded me of the time. The dance would begin soon and we needed to prepare.
Suddenly, loud cries and screeches pierced the air. "Theyíre here! Everyone go home! Theyíre here." I looked up, alarmed. A tremendous explosion burst near us while large airplanes crossed above, dropping bombs on the scurrying figures below. The roar of their motors drowned out the wails of the panicked swarm. Suk-jin clutched my hand as we attempted to break free from the crowd. "Whoís here? Why canít we stay and watch more fights? Why are we leaving?" I shouted. We pushed our way through the hundreds of people racing chaotically to and fro. I tried to keep hold of Suk-jinís hand, but the force of the fleeing flock tore her away from my grip. Her cry rang out above the noise, "Kyung-chu! Go home!"
The bridge sagged under the weight of so many people. I saw Suk-jin pushed onto it in the center of an immense drove. People stalling at the foot of the bridge prevented anyone from moving while the rushing mob continued to push forward. Fear gripped my body as people swarmed around Suk-jin, hiding her from my sight. Shrieks of agony came from those being trampled to death on the bridge. Some attempted to jump into the stream but the aggressive pushing from behind made this impossible. "Suk-jin! Where are you?"
I managed to wander back home, taking a more circuitous route. As I neared my house, I heard several ear-splitting explosions. Nearby gunshots resonated clearly and consistently. The sight of the path leading to our doorsteps did not provide me with its usual comfort as the door stood ajar and the interior looked deserted. I went into my room and peered once more out of my window. There were no longer any fishing boats. Instead, expansive anachronistic flags fluttered like butterflies in the wind, lighted on sleek warships. I recognized the waving flagóit was North Korean. So, they had come. But where were Suk-jin and my family? Were they safe? Where should I go?" What should I do? Stay here? Go out? A shout came from a soldier outside. I made up my mind and headed for the temple. I hoped to find my family there in the sanctuary of Buddha.
As I crossed the bridge, I observed the blood stains streaked on its wooden planks. The dead bodies had been removed, but their marks remained. I quivered as I walked across the bridge, fearing for Suk-jin.
The temple stood in front of me at last, towering and protective. Originally built as a fortress, it reassured me with the passive strength of its stone walls. It urged me forward. The main sanctuary overflowed with wanderers who, like myself, were also hoping to find refuge.
"Kyung-chu! Kyung-chu! Thank Buddha, youíre alive." The ecstatic wails of my mother engulfed me as she took me in her arms.
"Whereís Suk-jin? Is she here?" I asked.
"No. Wasnít she with you? Oh, where can she be? My little baby!"
"I held her hand while we watched the Chajonnori. Then people began screaming and running all over the place. Air planes dropped things on us and we just started to run. I tried to stay with her, but then she got away from me and I donít know what happened to her." I started to speak more rapidly, almost babbling, crying.
"Sshhh. Donít worry. We will find her later," my mother whispered reassuringly as she held me. I closed my eyes, wrapped in her warm touch.
We never found her, though my mother and I looked everywhere after the bombings had ceased. We searched in the fields and in the pile of dead along the river without any luck. Suk-jin had disappeared without a trace. In my motherís heart flickered a hope that some sympathetic soul had taken little Suk-jin into their home and that she remained alive and happy. But in my soul, I felt her loss like a hole in my body. My daughters, you may never understand me here in America where you can have everything. But when you quibble amongst yourselves about such trivial matters, you do not know how much it hurts me. You do not understand pain. There is so much you need to learn about love and about the nature of life and death. I only wish that you will come to realize these things someday.