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The veins of a leaf

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Down by the river mouth, at Incheon, the morning rose clear and vast, like the sea. Hye-mi walked through the reeds along the ocean's edge, her feet sinking in the uncertain coastline, and felt she was walking at the bottom of a great basin of light. The sea lapped at her ankles, and ebbed away again.

Yoon-hwa was there. The puddled line of her footprints stretched out behind her, blue and clear, reflecting the bright unsullied sky. She was clad all in white, and her hair streamed loose around her face. Half of her blouse was drenched in blood, and clung wetly to her ribs.

Hye-mi held her hands out. "Eonni," she called; "eonni -- "

Yoon-hwa smiled. She was the same as the dawn. She took Hye-mi's hands, and Hye-mi drew in a sharp breath, as if to speak, as if to cry.

She had a thousand and a thousand thousand things she had been storing up to say to Yoon-hwa, and they all cluttered behind her teeth and stuck there, too toad-like to drop into the brilliant air.

The gulls cried on the shore.

"I still believe in you," she blurted, except that wasn't what she had wanted to say.

Yoon-hwa had not stopped smiling, which was wrong as well. Blood soaked her sleeve like sunrise. She leant in, deliberately, and kissed Hye-mi on the forehead; her lips were like water, cool and pale and clear.

Hye-mi woke up.

Darkness. The second hand of her alarm clock thudded forward, and again.

Her chest was full of the need to cry. She got up.

Tea. She would make a cup of tea. She stubbed a toe against the door, and swore. In the hallway it was even darker.

At Hyeon-su's bedroom she paused, and opened the door, slowly so the latch wouldn't click, just to see him. Yoon-hwa, Yoon-hwa still and now the pole of her life, years later; and Keun-myeong, Tae-seong, Byeong-cheol, all of them, dead, or scattered, or simply disappeared. But Hyeon-su, at least, was here. She sagged against the doorframe, and could just make him out in the faint light from the window.

"Hye-mi?" She'd woken him after all. He fumbled on the bedside stand for his glasses.

"No, don't get up," she said. "It's not -- "

"What's wrong?" She could see his face dimly against the wall, and the steady shadows of his eyes, fixed on her.

"A bad dream. I'm sorry I woke you." She made to close the door.

"No. Would you like to stay here?"

The terrible thing about Hyeon-su was that he always understood. "Yes," she said thickly; "yes."

He rolled over to make space for her, and she slid in. The warm slope of his back beside her was familiar and strange at once, and the blanket smelled like him. She adjusted the pillow, and curled up with her back to his; and, looking out at the dim night-made shapes of his furniture, she asked, "Do you ever dream about her?"

Behind her he went very still.

"All the time," he said, at last.

Does she ever speak to you? she wanted to ask, and didn't. Either answer would have destroyed her.

"I'm glad," she said instead. She listened to Hyeon-su's breathing, and after a while she slept.


Sunlight woke her. She made a noise and rolled away, and sat up abruptly when she remembered it was not her bed. Sun streamed in through the open window, sun and with it the scent of grass, and the noisy morning argument of birds asserting their territory to the far corners of the world. Hyeon-su had already gone, and the duvet on his side of the bed was pulled neatly up.

She sat for a moment with her forehead on her knees, remembering a clearer, colder light, and aching for it.

In the kitchen, Hyeon-su, still in pajamas, was at the stove reheating a pot of jook. "There's hot water for coffee if you want it."

"Mmm." She slumped down at the kitchen table, and reached for her cigarettes.

"Go outside if you're going to smoke," he said mildly, without turning around.

"Oh, whatever," she grumbled, and slipped on her shoes to go smoke on the back steps.

She lit up, inhaled, and closed her eyes. She couldn't shake the image of Yoon-hwa, clad in white and fresh blood, out of her head. It was stupid to have a hangover from a dream.

Red for a wedding, and white for death.

White for a wedding, and red for death.

But it was all bullshit. There were no omens, there were no visitations; it was a dream, and only that. And Yoon-hwa had never died of anything as simple as a gunshot to the heart.

Did I get it right, eonni? Stupid question. She knew the answer to that, she always had.

A single blazing flare of possibility, followed by seventeen years of Park Chung Hee, and she was still writing sarcastic and anonymous columns like they made the slightest bit of difference. What was the use of writing love letters to a dead woman? What was the use of writing love letters to a future that would never come? How many columns did it take to make an indictment that perhaps the author was stupid enough to admit she believed in what she was saying? The government needed only one.

She had finished her cigarette. She flicked the butt into the grass, and went back inside.

She almost collided with Hyeon-su. "Hey, watch where you're going!" she said, shoving him off -- and then she noticed he was fully dressed and shrugging into his suit jacket, far too formal for a Sunday morning. His tie was around his neck and a wild, intent look in his eyes.

"What's going on!" Her head flooded with possibilities -- his students arrested, his office searched, an emergency meeting at the university -- a summons from the police --

"Jae-han is coming back to the country," he said. "I just got word. I'm picking him up at Busan this afternoon."

"Jae-han -- !" She followed him into the bathroom, where he squinted at his hair in the mirror and made a few halfhearted gestures at it with a comb. "Is he crazy? He's coming back, now? They'll arrest him at the airport. And you, too. They might even be waiting for you, you know they tap the phones."

"Well," Hyeon-su said, squaring the knot of his tie, "Jae-han never wanted to leave. Of course he had to come back when he could." He turned toward her, smiling his soft, rueful smile, the one that was impossible to argue with. "The Americans know him now, so he'll be harder to arrest."

"Tch. That'll work right up until he marches in his first demonstration, and then it'll be back to prison. America! Land of the free and home of the ineffectual. Should we place faith in America? A distant source of illumination, ever present, ever serene: I have just described the moon. If we schedule protests by the zodiac, we may as well claim protection from America."

Instead of listening Hyeon-su was tossing things into a small satchel -- toothpaste, his comb. "Do we have any spare toothbrushes?"

"Shit," she said, because this was a ridiculous pile of idiocy, but she couldn't help it; she was already thinking of the time she had picked up Byeong-cheol after he'd been released from prison. At least Jae-han wouldn't need bandages. "Yes, here. Take soap too. I'll get water."

The water Hyeon-su had boiled for coffee went into the thermos. She tightened the lid, and she was thinking now, not of the last time she had seen Jae-han, but a week or so before. They had all gathered in Keun-myeong's flat. She was supposed to be painting a banner, but it was late, and instead she and Jae-han were toasting each other with Keun-myeong's best soju, throwing stanzas of classical poetry back and forth, while Mi-sook picked out a wandering strand of chords on her guitar. And Yoon-hwa, leaning in the doorway listening, her elegant mouth soft at the corners, almost a smile --

She put two bottles of soju in a basket with the thermos, and went to ladle the jook into covered bowls for the car.

"I hope you didn't want more coffee," she told Hyeon-su when he came into the kitchen. "Will the jook be enough for the drive, or should I pack kimbap too?"

"That's more than enough," he said, distracted. "Listen -- you should be fine. If the police are watching us, it's me, not you. But I was planning to bring Jae-han back here. You might want to go stay with Byeong-cheol or Yeong-sik for a while."

She snorted a laugh. "Fat chance. I'm coming with you. It's six hours to Busan, and Jae-han can't drive."

"Hye-mi -- " he said, and then he smiled. "Thank you."

"You should've asked me," she said.

"Next time I will." A promise from Hyeon-su was a serious thing, almost too serious for her; but he was heading out to their little car, satchel in hand, and she had to hurry to catch up.

She locked the door, and turned around, wiggling her heel into her shoe. Eonni -- she thought, one more time on the doorstep -- but like mist the dream was burning away as the day grew older, and when she reached for the shape of Yoon-hwa's smile it had gone. Hyeon-su had the car out in the street already; and airplanes kept to a schedule, and the earth turned and kept turning, day following dawn and night after day, and this night they would be driving fast and relentlessly to make it back home from Busan before the curfew. Hye-mi stepped down to the car and buckled herself in.

"We swap when I need a cigarette," she said.

"As you like," said Hyeon-su. He pulled out, turning the car east, and the sun slid higher into the bright and cloudless sky.