The bench halfway up the hill was already occupied by an elderly grandmother, so Hye Mi had to climb up two more twists of the footpath for the next one, trying not to hobble. She sat down with relief, and slipped her right heel halfway out of her shoe. It had been a mistake to wear the new ones, but there was no denying that they were the most chic of all the pairs she owned, and she could at least look sharp. It was the part of the argument she was carrying on nonverbally.
Though it was even odds whether Yoon Hwa would ever notice. Hye Mi rummaged in her purse for her cigarettes.
The pack was nearly empty; she would have to go through them more carefully, or start spending more time in the bars down by the American base again. She'd stopped going down there quite as often once she'd discovered how much fun democrats were to drink with.
The sun was starting to go down, and the temperature with it. She tucked her coat in tightly and crossed her arms, savoring the slow warm spread of smoke in her chest.
She caught sight of Yoon Hwa when Yoon Hwa was no more than halfway up the path, striding swiftly and politely past the old grandfathers out for their evening constitutional. Her head was bare and her hands in her coat pockets.
Hye Mi smoked and watched. Yoon Hwa's shadow, long in the slanting light, glided up the hill ahead of her, pointing always uphill even as Yoon Hwa turned according to the path. There was no point in anticipation; there was nothing to be surprised about, and surely Yoon Hwa would not be surprised either. But Hye Mi did slip her heel back into her shoe.
Yoon Hwa, in flats, was still taller than she was. Hye Mi didn't stand up. She lifted her eyebrows and said, "Hello, eonni. Enjoying your circuit? I saved you a seat."
"Well?" Yoon Hwa made no move to sit. "What did they say?"
Hye Mi shrugged. "About what you'd expect."
Yoon Hwa's gaze on her became abruptly more intent. "Which is."
"No thank you," Hye Mi said, sucking on her cigarette, "and fuck off."
Yoon Hwa closed her eyes, and when she opened them she said, more resigned than upset, "I see. You did try?"
"I tried perfectly well," Hye Mi said, "I will have you know. And democracy owes me 2000 won for the bus."
Yoon Hwa said, nettled, "How did you get such an answer? Did you do anything?"
Hye Mi smiled, and tapped the ashes off her cigarette. "Well: I rode the bus halfway across the entire city; I walked around for twenty minutes looking for the right room and got my ass groped into the bargain; I found the Democratic Society; I asked if they wanted to coordinate a protest with us; they muttered and gave me fish eyes for a bit before they decided that waving signs around in the street was far too vulgar and risky for men who wanted a good industry job some day and they didn't want to have anything to do with it; I came back."
Yoon Hwa's mouth worked, but instead of speaking she took two abrupt steps away, then swung back. "In so many words, Hye Mi? Is that truly what they said?"
"Well, there weren't all that many words to begin with, so I may have added a few to make a quorum." Hye Mi leaned back on one elbow, and blew smoke up at the sky, where the blue deepened down towards sunset. "Eh, Gyunggi Tech's a bunch of sensitive second-placers who are anxious about the size of their dicks; what were they supposed to make of someone like me?"
"You could have tried," Yoon Hwa said, "you can be convincing when you try," which was about the nicest thing Yoon Hwa had ever said to her, except she kept going, "but you never try when it really matters, do you?"
"I," Hye Mi said, and Yoon Hwa went on, "Do you truly believe in what we're doing? Tell me truly, Hye Mi."
Yoon Hwa stared at her demandingly, chin high, the fine outer curlicues of her hair blazing like a halo in the setting sun behind her. She was sure and savage and resplendent, and could have stepped from a painting hundreds of years old, an emissary sent from the hand of the heavenly emperor, swept down from heaven on a fervent wind to revoke the right to rule.
"What if," and Hye Mi had to stop to clear her throat -- "what if I said I believed the greatest virtue had the manifest right to lead?"
Yoon Hwa simply stared at her, and Hye Mi was not sure whether she was more afraid that Yoon Hwa had understood what she meant, or that she had not; and then the corner of Yoon Hwa's mouth pulled down with something too weary to be frustration.
"I would ask you to come back and try talking to me again once you remembered what century it is."
"Oh, it's the twentieth century," Hye Mi said. "And what a splendid century it is. The great Korean nation has discovered how to band together and get shot efficiently en masse. Then again, who knows? Progress marches on! We might just get gassed."
Yoon Hwa's arms were crossed. "And have you a modern notion of virtue to go with your modern notion of tactics?"
"Why, true virtue is timeless," Hye Mi said, smirking. And then she looked up into Yoon Hwa's face, Yoon Hwa who would have walked unhesitatingly into that room at Gyunggi Tech, that wall of crossed arms and derisive eyebrows, and after ten minutes would have had them behind her to a man, chanting slogans in full-throated unison; and Hye Mi said, "But I daresay I could bring myself to believe in virtues no older than you are, if I set my mind to it."
"Tch!" Yoon Hwa turned away, her whole body one long line of impatience. "We don't have time for this. All of Masan is rising, there are riots in Busan -- Seoul is simmering, and we have to make it boil now, now while we still can, now before Rhee has a chance to shut us down. If we can't make the protests happen now, when he stuffs ballot boxes openly, when the police are murdering students and the hospitals lie about it, when will we ever? Now is not the time for your little rhetorical games! Now we march, or we will never have free elections again!"
Hye Mi said, "So how many of your esteemed juniors did come back with agreements? Or does it even matter? After all, you would take to the street all by yourselves if you had to, wouldn't you! Striking righteous terror into the hearts of the regime with thirty students and bad calligraphy on a bed sheet."
"All thirty of us would march alone on Thursday," Yoon Hwa said, with calm and iron surety, "or so I hope. And if we have to, we will. But there will be more of us than that."
"Not from Gyunggi Tech," Hye Mi said.
But Yoon Hwa had finished with irritation. "Hye Mi. I won't deny that our greatest strength lies in numbers; but I would not have anyone with us who is unwilling, and if you are afraid, there is no shame."
Hye Mi snorted. "I'm not afraid."
"Then I believe you. And I will not think less of you if you would prefer not to come." Yoon Hwa's voice was serious, withholding guilt or blame, and Hye Mi knew she should be grateful; knew she was grateful, and inexplicably angry to be so. She fumbled in her purse for a second cigarette, and had to flick her lighter twice to get it to catch.
Yoon Hwa waited as Hye Mi lit the cigarette, waited as she closed her purse back up, waited for her to raise her eyes from her hands, and as Hye Mi kept looking at her cigarette, Yoon Hwa turned to go.
"Eonni," Hye Mi called.
Yoon Hwa turned halfway back. Her profile was an outline against the florid sky, and a finger of sunlight slanted over the stretch of her coat between her neck and the point of her shoulder.
Hye Mi took a long drag on her cigarette and drew out her smile like an argument. "See you at the meeting on Monday."
Yoon Hwa watched her for an even moment, her eyes tight with something that wasn't quite a frown, and then, with a tilt of her head, resumed her way downhill.
Hye Mi watched Yoon Hwa until she could no longer pick out the spare line of her shoulders threading down the path; and then she lifted her eyes, up and out to the city, a jumble of roof tiles and dark windows, faintly glimmering with lamps now as the twilight settled in.
It had gotten cold. She went down the hill fast, hobbling and not caring now to hide it, wanting only to get downtown faster. She needed loud music, fast music, and alcohol, needed to dance with men who didn't know her family name and didn't care that her laugh was too loud, needed hands and noise and the harsh haze of cigarettes, because it was Friday, one more Friday in an unending chain of Fridays, and she was going to show up to the meeting on Monday, because she always did, because she always had; as if anything could ever change, as if she would ever stop wishing the world were different, as if Friday after Friday after Friday would ever be more than a hiccup in the crawl of days that turned into months that slid into the slow calcification of centuries; as if Yoon Hwa and Hyun Su and Keun Myung and all the rest of them weren't going to shatter and break when they cast themselves up against these deep solid bones of time.
She reached the pavement. She had scuffed her shoes. She laughed, clutched her coat closed at her collar, and limped toward the bus stop, the thin glow of the street lights flickering on before her, one by one.