Korea, Joseon Dynasty, 1768
The young fifteen-year-old girl looked around the market, accompanied by her maid who tried to keep up with her mistress’s short attention span. "Mistress." She bowed a little as she spoke. "How about you slowly look around." She suggested with a bit of begging in her tone.
"I can't Na Na; there is far too much to look at!" She said and picked up her jeogori so she could hurry to the book shop. The building was made of wood that had splintered from age, with a shabby wooden roof covered with a layer of dry hay.
"Dal! Kim Dal!" Her maid called after her.
The curious girl hurried inside, paying her maid no mind. This was her first time seeing the market outside of her litter, and she wanted to see everything. She looked around at all the books. There was a person posted at every shelf with a book in hand. Many young ladies were giggling over romance novels, and even more, scholars were studying for the upcoming exam.
"Na Na wait outside, I want to read in peace." The independent girl commanded.
"But mistress..." The maid stammered as Dal closed the door on her.
She looked around at the extensive collection of novels in awe. There were so many stories that to a young girl like her it seemed it would take a lifetime to read them all. She kept looking around till she came across a young boy about nine years of age. She could tell he was below her class by the way he dressed in dirty clothes and his unkempt hair.
Dal had never spoken with a lower class before, nor very many boys. She was still quite inexperienced. She found herself becoming so curious that she sat down beside him and looked over at what he was reading. "Hi! I'm Kim Dal, Official Kim’s daughter. What is your name?" She asked.
The boy looked up at her then turned back to what he was reading. She drew her brows. "Hey did you not hear me? It's rude to ignore people you know." She waved her hand in front of his face. He sighed then glanced back up at her. "My name's Go Yoo Shi." He muttered.
She smiled. "What are you reading Yoo Shi?"
"I'm not… I can't read." Her eyes widened in surprise. She had watched the lower class from inside her litter, she saw how poor they were but never imagined how deprived they were. Here she was sitting beside a young nine-year-old boy looking longingly at the words written in a book with no hope of even understanding them. It filled her with sorrow to watch.
"I could teach you." She said, her tone changing to one of sincerity.
"Really… but wouldn't it be strange to be taught by a girl?" He raised a brow.
"Not at all my Mother taught me to read!" She said and scooted closer pulling the book close so she could see the words as well. "Hmm, what are we reading?" She asked and turned the book over to see the cover page. "Confucius's Words of Wisdom. I love this book." She opened to a random page and pointed to one of the passages. "Say it with me."
He followed her stumbling over the words a bit. "Better a diamond with a flaw, than a pebble without." She sat and read with him for an entire hour. No one had ever been that patient with him nor had anyone ever shown him such kindness. "You are such a fast learner; I bet that you could be a great scholar someday if you wished. I better go my maid has been waiting for a long time." She stood up.
"We should read together again sometime. You are an amazing student." She giggled and bowed.
"Thank you..." She started to walk away when he asked, "Hey Kim Dal, do you truly believe I could become a scholar?"
She nodded and smiled. "The will to win, the desire to succeed, the urge to reach your full potential, these are the keys that will unlock the door to personal excellence." She quoted then walked away. The boy pondered her words and took them to heart as he returned to his practice.
Dal hurried out the door when her maid grabbed her by the wrist. "Hurry Mistress or we will be late and won't have time to change you." The woman requested.
"Late for what?" Dal asked confused, but the maid did not reply, she just pulled the girl along with her as she ran outside the market. They were met halfway by her litter. "Hurry, get inside we do not want you to be too sweaty and dirty." She said. The men lowered her ride enough so that she could enter.
She sat down and made herself comfortable as the woman closed the curtains so that the market dust would not get inside. The ride was not excessively long as they headed toward her grand home.
The litter shook and swayed. She never liked to ride inside of it, but her family was quite insistent upon it. They were a bit protective which only made her spirit more restless. They stopped in front of her lovely home, and her maid slid the screen door open for her as she stepped out of the ride. She took off her shoes and slipped into some comfy slippers. "This way mistress, I had a bath prepared for you and a new dress. Ah, and some new hair ornaments." Dal raised a curious brow.
"Come, come we mustn't keep your Father waiting." She said as they stepped into the her room.
"What is this about Na Na?"
"Master Kim Hwan instructed me not to say a word; he wanted to tell you himself."
"I see… let's go then." She said and went through all the treatments her maid wanted her to go through.
After she was dressed in the new white and pearl pink chima and jeogori, her hair was braided and tied with a cream colored ribbon embroidered with golden birds. Na Na even started preparing some makeup. "Na Na, you know I never wear makeup." She said irritably.
"Yes I know, I just want to make sure you look lovel-"
The girl stood up. "This is enough, can I just see my Father now and find out what's going on?"
"Yes, yes… of course, mistress." She nodded in agreement as she stared down at the floorboards.
Na Na followed behind Dal as they walked toward her Father's room. She stood there wondering why he wanted to see her; what was so urgent? She slid the door open and stepped inside to see her Father sitting at a table. He wore his gwanbok, so she knew he was expecting another government official. He gestured for her to have a seat.
Na Na knelt down outside the room and slid the screen door shut. Dal knelt down and faced him. "Father, may I ask what you wanted to see me about?"
"Ah yes of course, well you see my friend Mr. Jun Woong, you have met him before."
Dal nodded her eyes never leaving her Father's. "Well, he has been looking for a good wife for quite some time now, and he thought you would be a fine choice." The girl's eyes widened in shock at her Father's words. "But... Father, I am still so young. I have so many things I wish to do and experience. I have not even met any other men to choose from, I..." Her Father put up his hand. "Let me finish! This is a great opportunity for you Dal. He is a good and wealthy man, not to mention your Mother was a year younger than you when we married. You are fortunate to marry young. There's less worry about you losing your beauty so as not to attract a man at all!"
"Father… please, I beg you do not force me like this..."
"Enough, he will be here shortly; I do not want to hear another ungrateful word from you."
Dal felt her world was collapsing around her she hardly knew this man, and he was only a few years younger than her Father. She felt frightened and insecure. What was she to do?
The screen door slid open from behind and the man walked in. He sat beside her, and she had never felt more uncomfortable in her entire life. Her Father had given her away to this stranger that she knew nothing about, without a second thought.
"It's settled, she will marry you tomorrow." He said. Dal closed her eyes as tears fell down her cheeks against her control. "Ah, yes that is great." The man said with a cheerful look that made her feel a sense of anger and despair, but she held her tongue.
"Come, let us drink; we are now in law's!" Her Father said, pouring them both a cup of soju.
"Father I...I will leave first." She stood up and without waiting for a reply, left the room. Her maid moved aside, and the girl hurried outside the house.
Dal stood on the patio, caught in a shower of plum blossom petals. Her eyes filled with tears and she tightened her fist. Didn't anyone care how she felt about this matter? They talked and laughed about it as if she were invisible as if her feelings meant nothing? How long had they been planning to do this to her?
She suddenly felt a comforting hand on her shoulder. She turned around to see her Mother and her Father's concubine Kim Yoon Shik. "Mother... Yoon Shik..." Dal wept, and her Mother pulled her into a warm embrace. "I am sorry...I tried to convince him but could not; he thought this deal too good to pass up." Her Mother said worriedly. Yoon Shik wiped the poor young girl's tears away.
"I tried as well, and there was nothing I could do...I am sorry dear sweet Dal." The women stood with her for a few moments and wept along with her. Their hearts ached to lose her like this, especially to this stranger.
Concubine Yoon Shik stayed in his room that night drinking soju with him, hoping it would make him a bit more reasonable. "Dearest, please...she is your daughter, why are you so eager to send her off like this?" She asked carefully pouring him a cup more.
"Yes, I know and becoming family with him will make us far more wealthy, and make her higher class. Everyone wins." He said, bringing the cup to his lips.
"Yes...but she does not want to marry him please-" He banged the cup down on the table.
"I told him already she could be his woman; what’s done is done!" He raised his voice.
"Why are you so concerned with Dal's welfare anyway, it is not as if she is yours?"
The woman set the pitcher on the table and looked away. She could not have children and so Dal was the closest person she had to a daughter, even so, she was less favored for it.
"Yes...I am sorry to have questioned you further." She replied, then left the room.
"I am sorry Dal...I tried, but there was nothing I could do for you. You have always been kind to me and yet I could not even help you in your time of need, forgive me." She thought as she remembered herself lying in bed, feeling barely alive. Dal took her hand and smiled, she seemingly shined like a light in the darkness.
"Kim Yoon Shik...I know I can not replace your baby, but let me be your daughter. I do not mind having a second mother, and you have always been so kind to me." The poor woman sat up and hugged Dal who sat there and held her till she could stop crying.
Yoon Shik had accepted Dal as her child, and now her husband had given her away to a man who was a mystery to her.
The next day Dal sat dressed in her hwarot and hwagwan. She never thought she would marry like this. She never thought she would be dressed in these wedding clothes so soon, to a stranger no less. Dal had hoped it would be for someone she had chosen herself. Someone she loved and wanted to remain by her side. Her maid wept as she applied her mistress's makeup. "Please, do not cry Na Na."
"I am crying for you mistress since you can't seem to." Dal reached out her hand and wiped under the worried woman's eyes. "I did all my crying last night, but if you cry you will just make me cry again and I do not want ruin the makeup you worked so hard on." She managed a smile.
"Mistress you are too brave."
"There is no need to work so slowly; it will happen no matter how long we stall it."
"Mistress." The maid cried more.
After being dressed, Dal walked out to meet her new husband. Dal's mind was far from her. She merely went through the motions. The next thing she knew she had finished the final bow, then, they were married.
She was married to this stranger and leaving with him to his house; how had she ended up there…? Was the wedding over already? When did this happen?
He laughed and by the way he was carrying himself she could tell he was drunk.
"Oh my, you sure are a cute little woman." He said and pinched her cheek.
She pulled away. "And feisty too I see." He laughed and stumbled away.
"Eh, where did I put that bottle?" He muttered and collapsed next to a left out bottle of rice wine.
"I...I'm going to go get some rest." She said and bowed once before heading into the open screen door, which led to a spare room. He waved his hand in her direction.
"Do what you want." He spat and gulped down more liquor before collapsing completely.
She fell to her knees and looked around trying to absorb everything that had happened to her.
She was bound to this new life forever; there was no way out. Where would this new path lead her?
Dal's life had taken a turn for the worst though she was thankful that he ignored her, his habits brought shame upon her and what was suppose to be her new family. She couldn't stand it he was making her into a complete disgrace. He came home drunk after a visit to a brothel far too often after working in the king's court. Had her Father known about this, he had to of she was certain everyone in the town did she had heard women say things against her and him?
Whether she liked it or not this was her new life, and she couldn't just let it go on like this and die a complete disgrace she had to say something to him. One night he came back drunk again fully intent on ignoring her existence as well as the meal she had set once again. She wanted to make this work somehow. She could not get out of this new life, so she at least wanted to find some positive.
"Jun Woong you're back, I need to talk to you." She said boldly.
"Shhh I have a headache; I don't feel like talking tonight." He said and brushed past her to sit down at the table. He never felt like talking any night. "Jun Woong I want you to please stop these habits of yours. They are giving both you and I a bad name, and frankly, I am utterly ashamed."
He turned to her and glared. "You brat! I let you live here, do and buy whatever you want, and now you are trying to tell me what to do?" He stood back up.
Dal backed away, and her bold expression changed to one of fear. "Jun Woong please I can't live like this I feel too ashamed and..." He slapped her, and she fell on her side. She looked up at him, eyes brimming with fearful tears as she wiped the blood from her lips.
"Don't you ever tell me what to do again!" He said firmly and went into the room.
She tried again and again until she couldn't bear it anymore. She had hoped that she could live with a bit of pride and that he could at least treat her with respect, but she had neither.
She would run into him flirting with gisaeng women at the market in broad daylight, in front of everyone. She had lost all her pride, and he embarrassed and shamed her constantly. One day she stood in front of a vendor selling ribbons, her mind was far from her she saw no point in dressing up nicely anymore. She saw no point in living anymore when suddenly she heard a warm and familiar voice. "Dal!" She turned to see her Mother running over to her. "Mom..." She hurried over to the woman and hugged her close. Her eyes burned with tears she hadn't seen her in two months. "Oh, my Dal my sweet Dal." She said, and as they pulled away, she examined the girl's face closely and felt her cheeks and head. "You look terrible have you been eating well." She checked the girl's hands and arms. "Is...is that a bruise." Dal pulled away.
"Mother, don't worry about me I'm fine." There was no way out of her marriage, so there was no need to worry her Mother about it. She'd rather her believe she was living a pleasant and happy life. "Dal...are you alright please tell me honestly?"
"Yes, I'm fine Jun Woong treats me quite well don't worry about anything." She said with a cheerful look. "Dal..." The Mother soothed her daughter's hair. "My brave Dal." She kissed her forehead. "Please be happy and please come and see me."
Dal nodded and watched as her Mother walked away. "...I would Mother but just seeing you was fortunate." Jun Woong never wanted her to see her parents for fear of them catching on to the wounds he had inflicted on her. Though the marriage would not be broken off, there would still be trouble for him. Dal though mature was still so young and innocent; she did not know what to do for herself.
Dal stepped into the bookshop which wasn't as full as when she last visited.
She walked to the very back where she had met that boy before and remembered.
"How nice it would be if I could meet my friend again." She said and gave a sad smile.
She looked for one of her favorite novels and set it down where they had read together last time.
"I hope he finds it...this is my favorite novel." She walked back to her house Jun Woong would be back soon. On her way to the house, she ran into a group of gisaeng women giggling.
"Oh, I heard that's his wife hmm quite plain if you ask me." One said.
The other laughed behind her fan. "And her cheeks are too round, no wonder he feels the need to get away for awhile." They all laughed and brushed past her. Dal felt a strong sense of embarrassment and shock at their words, but she held her tongue. Dal was condemned to this hell like life for an entire year.
One day in the middle of the night when Jun Woong was very drunk, on his way back home an unknown person attacked and killed him. Dal did not find out until the next morning when two prosecutors arrived on her doorstep. The housemaid came over to her while she was reading a novel. "Mistress two prosecutors are here to see you." She said.
"Me?" She stood and walked over to the door.
"Mrs. Jun Dal we have come to inform you of your husband's death and ask you some questions. I am prosecutor Jin, and this is prosecutor Dae." The one said.
Dal's eyes widened in shock. "Jun Woong is… dead?"
"Yes I'm afraid, so if you would let us in, we must ask you a few questions."
"Uh...of course." She said and welcomed them in. The two men sat at her table, and the maid poured them all some tea. "How long have you been married to Official Jun Woong?"
"Uh, only a year."
"Is it like him to be out so long why did you not go look for him when he never came home."
"Because Prosecutor Jin it is very like my husband to stay out all night." She said with little emotion and took a sip of her tea. She turned her head slightly, and Dae noticed a scar on her neck. "Did your husband treat you well?" He asked.
Dal set her cup on the table and avoided the man's gaze. "I know you are in the middle of a case but could you please leave a poor widow to mourn?" She said quickly.
"Of course," Jin said, and they both stepped out.
"Jin did you see the scar on her neck?"
"She had a scar on her neck, perhaps from a knife or a shard of glass I think that her husband may have been violent with her. My Father was the same way and the way she avoided the subject was not unlike my Mother."
"Do you think she may have killed him?" Jin asked.
He shook his head. "I'm open to suggestion, but most abused young wives are far too afraid to even talk about it. I doubt that someone as young as her would be brave enough to attempt something like that." He said.
The case went on, but they did not find the killer and Dal was left a young widow. Everyone looked down on her wherever she went, and there were those who said she killed her husband. No one wanted to marry a young widow especially one that may have coldly murdered her spouse.
Nine years passed, and she had grown into a fair and lovely young twenty-five-year old woman. Though it was no longer talked about, people still avoided her and made sure to tell newcomers of what they saw as a dark past.
Though her life was completely lonely because of it, Dal kept to herself everyone looked down on her for being a widow and blamed her for something she did not do. She even had to move out of the town and only visited when going to the market. Her home and possessions were taken from her because she had no means to pay for the land and had no husband. Even her Father had severed ties with her. He never let her come anywhere near her old home for he was far too ashamed and worried about gossip tainting his station as a Government Official. It was by mere chance that she was able to see Yoon Shik at the market looking at perfume.
Dal now lived in a field of ginseng which she harvested and sold at the market to make a living. She even made it into tea powders. She did a great deal of study on the plant in the bookshop after moving into her small but comfortable house. Her hands were calloused and rough from years of hard labor in the fields. Her clothes were often stained, and she couldn't afford to buy new ones, or rather she was more worried about food and good shoes to do her work.
Dal knelt down in her field pulling at the ginseng one by one placing them in her basket. She enjoyed the smell of working the field, it smelled of trees and earth. Working helped take away her worries, but of course, she had a sense of loneliness.
She wiped the sweat away from her brow; she needed to stock up for tomorrow. The market would be quite busy it was time for the scholars to take a break and enjoy visiting the market and other parts of the town. Although what a scholar would want with some tea or fresh and dried ginseng root she'd never know, unless he needed help with fatigue or something, maybe a boost for exams. "Well, my powder makes the best tea." She smiled a little as she looked at the white root before putting it amongst the others in her basket.
The young scholar laid his back against a tree while he read aloud. "Meetings can appear to be new when in reality they are simply a crossroad that re connects after a long journey full of experiences that make us forget what at one point was dear." He looked up from what he was reading, and a smile touched his lips. "I wish our paths could once again cross."
"What are you reading, looks worn I think it's about time to replace it?" His friend said looking over his shoulder while eating a steamed bun. He closed his book looked up and took it from him.
"I can't… it's too important." He stared at the page with a fond smile.
"Fine okay, I get it I was just wondering why the great scholar Go Yoo Shi is reading something so old is all." He stretched his arms over his head then sat down next to him. Yoo Shi laughed slightly and looked off into the distance.
"So you ready to go into the market or are you once again going to stay behind and study some more?" The friend asked.
He sighed. "Will you stop bringing it up if I do go Bae Woo?" He turned to him and bit into the steamed bun.
"Yes." He smiled and nodded.
"Fine, I will go."
"Great we shall shop around and drink to our heart's content." They both stood.
"You know I can't hold my liquor."
"Exactly that will be part of the fun watching the great Yoo Shi make a fool of himself." He patted him on the back.
"And you think I'll still drink after hearing you say that?"
As the sun began to set Dal finished gathering her ginseng, but she still had a lot of work to do. She spent half the night preparing the ginseng for tomorrow.
She made and packaged fine powder for tea, and gathered the dried up ginseng which had been in the sun's direct light for a few days. She kept the fresh ginseng in a few inches of water so that it would remain perfectly fresh and crisp. She had been working so hard she had completely forgotten to eat, nor did she ever remember to eat the rest of that day. She simply bathed in the nearby river and washed away all of her worries and stress and then went to bed.
She laid comfortably in her pallet and watched the silver moonlight drift in through the cracks in her old splintered wall. It was the last thing she saw as she drifted into her dreams. She dreamed that she was in another world. Somewhere safe and beautiful not perceived as an inferior husband murderer, she was just like everyone else a woman trying to live their life in peace. But of course all dreams must end, and it did the same way it did every day. She awoke to the warmth of sunlight on her skin.
Dal uncovered herself then stood, she usually put her work before herself, and though Dal would never admit it, it was most likely because her work was all she had these hard and lonely nine years. And so before even changing and fixing her hair, she packed her supplies in her three baskets. She got dressed in her less dirty Chima and jeogori.
She didn't have a lovely ribbon to tie her hair, so she used a ragged strip of cloth. Dal had learned to live with humiliation and being told to kill herself for the chastity award, so when people noticed and laughed she did not care. Though there were times, was not sure why she was alive what was the point in living if you live alone? Her work was the only thing that seemed to keep her going.
She slipped into her shoes grabbed her basket then headed out the door. Dal enjoyed walking a great deal though it was a bit tiring since the market was a few miles off. She smiled to herself and started to sing a song her Mother would sing to her when she was younger.
“Whispering winds dancing over green valley's that sing in reply. Plum blossom petals weary from hanging on all spring long, finally let go releasing a colorful shower, sing farewell to the lovely flower. Rain drops pitter patter on leaves of tall trees that dance in the breeze. This is the lovely song of the vast green fields.”
Dal felt it did not sound as good as when her Mother sung it. She suddenly heard a sound and turned to see someone riding on a horse through the reeds. He was dressed in a po and gat which gave Dal the impression he was a scholar, most likely still studying to become one judging by how young he appeared. What was he doing down this road? Was he lost? Well, she wasn't about to start any small talk she did not like talking, especially to men she did not know. So without stopping she simply turned her head back and avoided eye contact. "Um, Ma'am." He started, and she let out a sigh as she stopped and turned around to face him. "Yes?"
"I was wondering if you knew how to get to the market from here, I haven't been there in awhile, and my roommate let me sleep in after we got drunk during the celebration last night. So everyone kind of just left me." He said embarrassedly.
"That is where I am heading now, just follow this path." She said hoping they were done talking.
"Oh, thank you." He smiled as he started on the dirt path. He rode his horse up beside her, and she drew her brows irritably. "Um, sir aren't you going to ride off?"
"I prefer to take in the scenery while I ride." He said and looked around himself in wonder.
"Isn't this place just inspiring?" Dal looked around it was full of thick lovely reed's all the way to the river which framed the ginseng field. She agreed it was to her at one point, but her heart and soul did not feel the way they once did, if they felt at all. She had lost her vibrance long ago. "It is quite lovely the blades of grass, and the reeds are each like a brush stroke in a painting when blowing in the light breeze."
"And as I glance on at rolling hills strewn with white flowers..." He started.
"I will remember your hair braided with spring blossoms." She said and smiled slightly, he turned to her and went on. "And as I write with ink so black I will reminisce about your deep dark eyes against fair skin." He replied.
"And In these reminders, I will find you, and in my memory, you will remain." She continued.
"So you have read Ever In Springs Sunset?" He asked.
"Yes, it was my favorite book growing up." She replied avoiding his gaze she wasn't entirely comfortable being around strangers, but at the same time he did not seem like one at all. "Really? It was mine too I came across it through someone very important."
"Really? An old mentor or one of your scholar professors?"
"I guess you could say that." This woman she wasn't much like other women he had come across she was well versed in old literature and very calm, and she listened intently instead of gawking at his looks.
Dal turned to him noticing he had gone silent and found he was looking at her. She quickly turned away, what was there to look at she wondered? He was much younger than her and was also a student she was a twenty-five-year-old widow. "So where are you studying?" She asked.
"Uh, at Soo Sung."
"Really? Good for you that's a great school I hear."
"Yeah I've learned a lot there it's kind of like a home to me."
"Hmm, you make money there don't you?"
"Yes, if you do well and once you graduate you become a true scholar."
She smiled. "It would be nice to study and write for a living." She gasped, had she just said that to a man out loud?
"Yes, it is nice so what do you do?" He asked. She was surprised that he didn't act shocked or look down on her. "I collect ginseng in the field and sell my wares at the market," Dal said and felt no twinge of shame. She was used to people trodding down on her like she was nothing. He stopped as they reached the edge of the town near the market.
"Wait." He said, and she turned to him.
"What is your name so that I may find you again?"
"You are new here right? Then I am sure they will tell you for me. And please don't try and find me again...just ignore me if you see me. Then...I'll leave first." She gave a slightly sad smile bowed then continued on her way. He drew his brows as he watched her walk off.
Who was she why did she seem so sad and lonely? He rode into the market to find he had lost her. He got off his horse tied it to a tree and gave some money to a man to look after it.
He looked around at his old home it had been many years since he was last here.
He could have gone his entire life without going back there. He was a street rat then, with nothing but the clothes on his back. He walked around and looked at all the interesting things the street vendors were selling. He sighed when he saw the warm steamed buns being sold by an old man. He remembered the last time he saw his old friend and mentor. He saw her walking by she looked unwell. He ran up to her the moment he saw her face. "Hey, Kim Dal!" He called and ran up to her. She smiled, and her eyes brightened up. "Go Yoo Shi." She knelt down in front of him.
"Thanks for that book." He had said.