Chapter 1: The Island
Jeno had never seen a place where the green of the trees seemed to so wholly consume the blue of the sky until he stepped onto the warm sand from the rowboat. He’d been in tall forests before, heard monkeys chirrup from the highest branches, only feeling the sunlight in narrow slices from between the leaves; but still, he’d felt the press of the sky above him. This place, rather, was one where the island was everything, the outside world was nothing -- the sky was irrelevant when surrounded by such dense overgrowth and such dense silence.
The man in the boat watched to make sure Jeno had his footing, then tipped his hat in farewell before beginning to row backwards into the current. Jeno waved until the boat was a fleck of dust on the horizon, then turned away from the sea.
In front of him, the forest parted along a narrow pathway lit by paper lanterns, which burned with a gentle golden glow like summer fireflies. It felt, in some way, like a path of no return; as if, if Jeno took one step down it, the island would be his home forever. Jeno was not accustomed to such a thing. He found homes limiting, confining, uncomfortable. For the past year, since he’d become old enough to live on his own, he’d traveled on dirt paths and over rivers, seeking new adventures. Each place he visited was another feather in his hat, another piece of his heart to wear on his sleeve. He wouldn’t be complete until he saw everything, crossed every hill, shook hands with a million people. Maybe he was idealistic, but what use was there in being young if he did not take full advantage?
Moss-eaten cedars caged in the footpath like a tunnel. Jeno ran his fingers along the damp bark and wondered how old these trees were. The air around him felt ancient, like it had been kicked up by an old god as he turned in his sleep. Aside from the buzz of bugs, Jeno heard no noise, not even a breeze.
He did not see the sky again until he came out on the other side of the forest, into a clearing of tall grass. It was sunset now, the island cloaked in black shadows cast beneath orange clouds. Standing squarely in the center of the clearing was an old wooden building, similar to the shrines Jeno had stopped in at occasionally on the mainland, with a sloping roof held up by red pillars. It was just as the man in the boat had described when Jeno asked where he could stay the night.
He rang the bell at the front door. Moments later, an old man answered him, bald and dressed in burgundy robes. His face was deeply lined, but between those lines Jeno found twinkling black eyes and a soft, welcoming smile.
“Are you a traveler?” the old man asked.
“Yes. I was wondering if I could take shelter here.”
“For the night?”
“Perhaps a few.” Jeno offered a bashful grin as recompense.
The old man, unbothered, stood aside and waved Jeno in.
The building looked larger on the inside than the outside. The central room was mostly bare aside from a vase of tiny white blossoms and a circle of wine red cushions. At the back and sides of the room, Jeno saw several short, square doors that he guessed led into the sleeping chambers. It was a minimalist design if he had ever seen one, though that made sense; monks weren’t known for their extravagance.
The old man stretched an arm towards the cushions, and Jeno took a seat. “You have excellent timing,” the man said. “I was about to call my brothers for dinner. You are welcome to join us, unless you want to turn in early.”
Jeno shook his head. “Dinner sounds great. Thank you.”
The man left, and returned five minutes later followed by ten or so others, who carried with them shallow bowls and a large pot that steamed over its sides. Each of the men bowed to Jeno before seating themselves in a circle on the floor.
“So then.” The old man sat across from Jeno and folded his legs. “This is all of the men who stay here. Sometimes we have visitors. But for the most part, it’s only us. I’m the abbot -- you can call me Eun.”
Jeno gave a slight bow as he was handed his bowl. Plain white rice. Eun chuckled and said, “We often prepare nicer meals when we know we have company. You caught us off guard.”
“No, no, this is perfect.” Jeno was used to eating light on the road. He was perfectly happy, so long as he had something in his belly.
“Where do you come from?” Eun asked.
“The mainland, near Jemulpo. Though I’ve been traveling ever since I came of age.”
“Most don’t give into their wanderlust so young.”
“Better now than later, I think. I’ll settle down sometime. But for now, I want to see new things.”
Eun nodded approvingly. “How is it that you heard of our little island? We don’t often get visitors.”
“I’d come to a tiny village on the coast, and asked a fisherman if he knew of a place to stay,” Jeno said. “Once I offered a little coin, he told me that there was a monastery on an island to the south, and that he would row me there if I forked over the rest of my pockets.”
“Sounds like a greedy man.”
Jeno laughed. “I nearly didn’t believe him. Thought he was a conman. But here we are. I think the cost was worth it.” He took a bite of his meal and looked around the room at the other men. “So everyone here is a monk?”
Opposite him in the circle, a gray-haired man raised a hand and responded, “I’m a botanist. Though I’ve taken a somewhat permanent position here on the island, so I’m not sure I’d call myself an outsider.” He was the only man there dressed as Jeno was, in a collared shirt and trousers.
“A botanist?” Jeno repeated.
“This island, as I’m sure you’ve noticed, has a lovely variety of flora. I’ve been studying it for eight months.”
“Wow.” Jeno had known there was something special about this place. “Well, if you have the time over the next few days, I’d love to see some of what you’ve been studying.”
“Of course. I’ve talked most of these men to death about it. I’m sure they don’t mind me having a new student.”
The monks around the table laughed in unison. One clapped the botanist gently on the back. Jeno thought botany might be a nice addition to his journal. Often, he wrote down his favorite things about his travels, like the names of people he met or the most delicious dish he ate. Sometimes he drew pictures of stray dogs he encountered, or the shapes of the leaves on the trees. Someday, when he did settle down, he would pass them onto his child, let them experience his travels through his notes. Maybe then, they could understand every corner of the world without even leaving their living room.
“There aren’t only monks here,” Eun added. “You ought to take some time to visit nunnery. If you go down the hill to the north, you’ll find it, close to the water.”
“A nunnery?” Jeno asked. The fisherman had said nothing about a nunnery.
“Yes. It’s small, but lovely and quiet. And the nuns are much better cooks than any man here. If you help them to prepare it, they’ll make you an excellent lunch.”
“Then I’ll have to stop by.” Jeno took another bite of his plain rice. Something more substantial suddenly sounded enticing.
When he went to his room that night (he had to duck through the square doorway), he lay on his mat and opened his journal. Inside, he wrote, Don’t need the botanist to tell me -- this island is an ecosystem all it’s own. Then he set the notebook to the side, lay back, and fell asleep.
In the morning, a gentle rain fell over the island like an unfurling mist. Jeno stared out his window at the green of the wet grass and breathed in deeply. The air seemed to cleanse his lungs, fill his heart. When he squinted through the fog, down the hillside towards the sea, he thought he could make out the shape of the nunnery.
As he was about to leave, Eun knocked at his door. He handed Jeno a small pile of letters.
“If you’re on your way to the nunnery, would you mind giving these letters to the prioress? All mail is delivered to the monastery -- we have to pass it on.”
“Of course. That’s no problem.”
The two of them walked together to the door, out onto the beginning of dirt path that led down the hillside. “They’ll be happy to see you,” Eun said. “Sometimes I think they get bored of us monks being the only men they see. They may be maidens, but they won’t mind having a handsome young man to fawn over.”
Jeno blushed. “Well. I’m glad to be of company to them.”
“And it will be nice for Renjun. I’m not sure he’s ever met another boy his age.”
Jeno turned his head quickly. “Who?”
“Did I not mention it at dinner last night?”
“Not that I recall, no.”
Eun paused, staring down at the nunnery, which, now that the fog had cleared some, could be spotted close to the island’s edge, where the land fell away sharply down into the churning blue of the sea. “There’s a boy who lives at the nunnery. Lived there all his life. He’s good-natured, but quite shy to strangers.”
“Huh.” Jeno had never heard of such a thing. Why did a boy live in the nunnery, rather than the monastery with the monks? He found himself intrigued at the notion. “What was his name?”
“Renjun. It’s a small place. You’ll run into him.” Eun turned back towards the monastery. “Thank you again for taking the mail. I’ll see you at dinner.” Then he went inside.
The nunnery was smaller than the monastery, but surrounded by a short bamboo gate, where Jeno stood with the letters in hand. He saw no bell, so he waited at the gate for a few minutes, wondering if someone might see him there. When no such thing occurred, he finally took up the courage to enter the yard and go up to the door. He hoped he was not being impolite.
When he knocked, the door was answered by a tall woman wearing long green robes. Her silver-streaked hair was tied back into a tight bun, drawing all attention to her sharp cheeks and nose, and her thin, straight lips. What Jeno first perceived as an intimidating face quickly broke into a look of surprise as she observed the stranger at her doorstep.
“Excuse me,” Jeno said. “I’m a traveler staying with monastery. Monk Eun asked me to deliver these to you.” He held out the mail to her. “And I thought perhaps I could be a help to you here, if you’ll have me.”
Behind her in the doorway, Jeno spotted two younger maidens, who had stopped mid stride to try and peer over the prioress’s shoulder. One giggled, and the other pushed her playfully towards a side door, both of them red in the cheeks.
The prioress turned and watched this with a slight roll of her eyes. “I’m sure you’ll find yourself welcome here. Though I expect you to fulfill your offer to work.” By which she clearly meant, You won’t be distracting my nuns all day if I have something to say about it. “What was your name?”
“Lee Jeno, ma’am.”
“Jeno,” she repeated, in a chiding voice. Then she curtly took the mail out of his hands and went inside. She left the door ajar. Jeno took that as his invitation.
The nunnery was not as barren as the monastery. The walls were decorated with painted scrolls, and at the center of the room was a short table. Along its surface were candles, a bowl of fruit, and a vase full of daisies. The cushions were not deep burgundy like those of the monks, but rather all different colors; clearly, each one belonged to a different girl. The place simply seemed more lived in, more personal.
He could see now that the two maidens from before were sitting on the ledge of the porch, beyond an open doorway to his right. When they saw him enter the sitting room, they came back in, mischievous smiles plastered on their faces.
“Hi,” Jeno said.
“Are you staying here?” one girl asked. She had a tiny mole on her left cheek.
“At the monastery.”
They both giggled again. They looked to Jeno to be a bit older than himself, perhaps twenty-five. Like the prioress, both kept their hair in buns, and dressed in pale silk robes that fell in a straight column to just above the floor, exposing their bare feet.
“Where do you come from?” said the girl with the mole. She and her companion sat at the table.
“All over. I’m a traveler.”
“All over?” The second girl, who had thick, straight brows, perked up at this. “Have you seen the northern mountains?”
“Ooh,” she said. “I’ve always wanted to see them. My mother told me they look beautiful in the snow.”
“They do.” Jeno went to sit at the table with them, on the pale purple cushion. “Actually, I —”
“Ah!” the girl with mole exclaimed. “That’s Renjun’s cushion!” As Jeno had thought, everyone had their own spot.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Here — let me get a spare from the closet —” The girl scurried to the back of the room and down a long hallway.
The thick-browed girl let out a little gasp as a thought occurred to her. “Oh! I should go get him!” She hurried past Jeno to a doorway behind him, on the left side of the room. She slid it open a hair and called, “Renjunnie! We have a visitor! Come say hi!” Then she raced back through, down the hall, mumbling something about a teapot.
Jeno, now alone in the sitting room yet unable to sit, stood in the sudden silence, feeling distinctly out of place. He wondered where the other nuns were; perhaps they were already at work. They must have awoken awfully early to be busy at this hour. Looking outside through the porch doorway, he could see the prioress walking along the cliffside with an armful of cascading white jasmine flowers. Further down, near a thicket of trees cut through by a footpath, he saw the silhouette of another nun, lugging a bundle of sticks on her shoulder.
He was caught off guard by the sound of shuffling footsteps behind him. Jeno turned back around to the half open doorway to see a boy standing there, mouth open in surprise. The boy, as Eun had said, seemed to be around Jeno’s age, though thinner and more soft-featured than Jeno himself. His hair fell just to his brows, and below that his dark eyes widened from crescents to full moons in surprise.
“Hello,” Jeno said.
Renjun seemed to consider Jeno for a moment, mouth closing and twisting into a suspicious frown, before stepping back and shutting the door.
“It was nice to meet you,” Jeno said.
After the mole-cheeked girl, Kyunghee, returned with a cushion (this one moss green) and Insook, the one with the thick brows, came back with tea cups and a freshly brewed pot, the three of them sat at the short table. “Where’s Renjun?” Insook asked. “I called for him, didn’t I?”
Jeno produced an awkward laugh. “Ah -- I think he may have returned to his room.”
“As expected,” said Kyunghee. “He doesn’t like visitors.”
“You don’t have them often, though.”
“No. I suppose that’s why he doesn’t like them. He isn’t used to them.” Kyunghee poured Jeno a cup of tea. Jasmine -- he knew why the prioress had been gathering it now. At that thought, the prioress herself appeared at the porch, stepping up and joining the three of them at the sitting room table. Behind her trailed another nun who Jeno had not yet met, this one fox-eyed, smirk-wearing, forty-something.
“Unlike the rest of us here,” the prioress said, “Rejun was born on this island. And he hasn’t left it since.”
Surprised, Jeno nearly dropped the tea cup as it was passed to him. “Not once?”
The prioress shook her head. “Every two weeks, the courier comes with our mail on a rowboat. A kind man, he often asks if Renjun would like to come back and visit the mainland village for the day. Renjun always declines.”
Jeno could not imagine staying in one spot for so long, especially a spot so small. Even as a child, before he had the freedom to travel, Jeno had been exploring and memorizing every nook and cranny of his home village, inventing secret passages from one side of town to the other. How long would it have taken him to map out this island? Surely only a few days; it must not have been much more than a mile across. Little, curious Jeno would have been bored of it after one week, let alone nineteen years.
“Then he must be happy here,” Jeno replied, though he could not quite fathom it.
“I think so.” The prioress took a long sip of her tea. “We have everything we need here. We grow our own garden, fetch our own water. All of us are quite content.”
Jeno tapped his fingers contemplatively on the side of his tea cup. “May I ask you a question? About Renjun.”
“Are you about to ask why he stays with the nunnery rather than the monks?”
Jeno froze. “That’s exactly what I was going to ask.”
“Well. That may have been due to a failure on our part,” the prioress said. “He was raised here at the nunnery, seeing as we thought it more proper for a baby to be brought up by women. This place was his home. As a boy, he never liked to stay at the monastery. He thought it too boring, too lifeless. We continued to baby him, telling him he didn’t need to leave the nunnery before he was ready. By the time he became old enough to make the choice, he decided he wanted to stay here with us. We tried to change his mind. But he insisted he was one of the maidens.”
The woman at the prioress’s right side, the fox-eyed one, let out a gentle snort of a laugh. “I’m still not sure what he means by that. But as you must know by now, this island operates on its own, under its own rules. If the boy wanted to be a maiden, we would not stop him.”
The prioress nodded. “It’s not as if he’s known any other life. Besides, I think he may be too gentle for the monastery. Their life is strongly disciplined. Harsh.” She paused. “That isn’t to say we have no discipline here. Only that we’re a bit…”
“Warmer?” Jeno suggested.
“That may be the right word. The nunnery is a warmer place. More colorful.” The prioress took another sip, and her eyes darted up to a place above Jeno’s head. He followed her gaze to see the door once again cracked, Renjun’s solemn face framed there. “Yes, we were talking about you,” the prioress said, one eyebrow raised.
Renjun looked back at her mildly, then his eyes met Jeno’s, for the second time that day. Very quietly, the boy walked past the table, to the porch at the other side of the room, where he slipped on his sandals. Then he crossed the yard, towards the back of the nunnery, where he disappeared behind the garden gate.
“You may not believe it,” Kyunghee said, “but sometimes we can’t get him to shut up.”
i promise renjun speaks in chapter 3
Chapter 3: Renjun
After tea, Insook took Jeno to the well to fetch water. It was down the little footpath he’d observed earlier, through a dense thicket of trees and brambles. It was similar to the forest he’d navigated when he’d arrived from the boat, but smaller, and here he could still feel the sun streaming between the branches. The well was just off the path, nestled between juniper bushes. Jeno worked the pump, while Insook plucked some berries, which she would carry back by lifting her skirts to make a cradle. Jeno noted how resourceful the nuns were, using every plant, every piece of the island at their disposal.
The woodstove was outside, in a little open-faced shed that the nunnery used as their kitchen. The fox-eyed woman, Jungsoon, was placing a large aluminum pot on the stove top, while another maiden stood beside her, chopping celery. Jeno handed them the water bucket, then leaned against a roofpost, watching where Renjun worked further down the yard. He was shaking out the sleeping mats and blankets and hanging them along the clothesline, where the gentle breeze brought by that morning’s rainstorm lifted their corners. Jeno made his way down, careful not to slip on the dewy hillside.
He didn’t speak to Renjun, only pulled a blanket from the basket and began to spread it over the wire. The other boy gave him a sidelong glance, but continued to work.
Jeno found it interesting how well Renjun seemed to blend in among the maidens. He was taller than them, of course, but he wore the same modest robes with the long, trailing sleeves. Jeno studied the way they fell loosely from Renjun’s wrists, which were thin, almost fragile-seeming, while he adjusted a clothespin on the line.
Finally, Jeno asked, “Is this how your days go by? I mean -- there must be plenty of busy work to be done around the priory, huh.”
Renjun stared warily back at Jeno before answering, “We live on our own here. Of course there’s plenty to do.”
“Weed the garden. Dust the house. Scrub the floors. Cook the meals.” Renjun rattled off the chores with no more than a half-lidded, purposefully standoffish expression. “Tend the shrine.”
“It’s in the forest. Down the path, past the well.”
“I had no idea.”
“Why did you think we gathered here, then?”
“I guess I never really thought about it.”
They finished hanging the the rest of blankets in silence. Jeno let out a yawn, stretching both arms over his head, watching a white gull soaring in the sky over the priory. “What’s after laundry?” he asked.
“It isn’t done,” Renjun said, bending to retrieve the basket. “I haven’t washed the dirty clothes yet.”
“Let me do it,” Jeno stretched out a hand, expectant.
The other boy simply pushed past, stepping up onto the porch and disappearing down the hallway, basket balanced against his hip.
For the next few hours, Jeno found himself scurrying back and forth, from garden to kitchen, kitchen to sitting room, carrying crops and pots and bowls. There was nothing Jeno hated more than being unhelpful in a place onto which he was imposing; so he took great pleasure in doing as the nuns instructed, and doing so with a smile.
He discovered that the actual number of maidens here was seven, eight if one counted Renjun (which Jeno had to remind himself to do). All of them seemed to know exactly what they should be doing at any given time -- there were no slackers, no troublemakers, only women with rough hands from hard work. The prioress was the most diligent of them all, despite being the oldest. Even so, her strict appearance betrayed the soft, affectionate smile she offered to her sisters every time they spoke to her.
When lunch was ready, everyone gathered at the sitting room table. Jungsoon, however, pulled Jeno aside.
“Follow me,” she said.
She held up a small bowl. “We’re to bring this to the shrine. Then we can eat when we return.”
As Renjun had said, the shrine was down the path through the woods, far past where Jeno and Insook had stopped at the well. It was perhaps a five minute walk from the edge of the trees to the path’s end, where the shrine was nestled between a tight grove of skinny trees. It was a small thing, only about Jeno’s height, inconspicuous until its doors were opened. Inside was a statue of a god, shined to golden perfection; many candles with blackened wicks; and dried herbs hanging from the lip of the doorway. Jungsoon set the bowl of food on the ground in front of the shrine. Then she stooped down to her knees and pressed her hands together in prayer. Awkwardly, Jeno fell in place beside her, watching her closed eyes and moving lips, wondering if a god was really listening.
When she finished, Jungsoon did not stand straight away. She stared peacefully up at the shrine and said, “Do you find yourself at home here? At ease?”
It took a second for Jeno to realize she was speaking to him. He answered, “Yes. Everyone I’ve met has been very welcoming.”
“But more than that.” Jungsoon lifted her chin, peering up into the sky. “It’s like this island knows who you are. It gives you everything that you need. It makes itself into a home, just for you.”
Jeno wasn’t sure what she was talking about in particular; it sounded like something personal. But he did understand her meaning, in a way. The island was at once comfortable and inviting, all-consuming and inescapable.
“I think that’s why Renjun was brought here,” she said. “I’m not sure if he’s told you--”
“He’s spoken about ten words to me.”
“Ah, of course.” She chuckled. “Well. His parents were travelers, not unlike you. His mother was getting far along in her pregnancy, and they decided they wanted to stop somewhere for awhile, somewhere peaceful for her to have her child. So they came here. A beautiful young couple -- but this place was not made for them.”
Jeno tilted his head at this, but did not ask what she meant.
“The night she gave birth was agony,” Jungsoon continued. “Horrible. Her husband could not even stay in the room. She died just a few minutes after Renjun was born. At the very least, she got to hold him in her arms for a moment. See her baby before…” She trailed off, sounding very close to tears. Jeno had not seen this softness in her face before; it was much unlike the sharp smirk she usually wore. “Anyhow. His father would not stay after that. He couldn’t bear to look at the baby whose birth killed his wife. So he left. Got on a boat and disappeared into the mist. Never been back since. Renjun remembers neither of them, of course.”
Jeno swallowed and stared at the ground. He had suspected Renjun’s parents might be out of the picture, since he knew the boy had been raised there; but the truth still seemed terribly cruel. “Does he ever mention them?”
“Never,” Jungsoon said. “We made sure he did not feel alone. We all raised him like he was our own child. In particular, I was late into my twenties at the time. An age where most women are married, starting families… and while that would never be part of my path in life, I did sometimes think how lovely it would be to have a baby. And there he was. In some ways, I think of him as my own child.”
“He must adore you,” Jeno said.
Jungsoon smiled. “I hope so. That would mean I raised him right.” She finally stood, brushing dirt from the front of her robes. “Let’s go now. Before they’ve eaten everything without us.”
When Jeno and Jungsoon arrived back at the nunnery, the others were still seated around the table. Renjun was giggling at something Kyunghee had said; and then when he saw Jeno in the doorway, his laughter died and he quietly went back to eating. Jeno did not know whether to find this amusing or offensive.
Afterwards, the prioress exited the sitting room and returned shortly carrying a basket of vegetables and herbs from their garden. “Renjun,” she called. “Would you take these to the monastery?”
“Yes.” He stood and took it from her, then went to walk out the door.
“Hold on,” the prioress said. “Take Jeno with you. He ought to return to the monastery anyway.”
Jeno found himself somewhat disappointed at his dismissal. He was growing to like the friendly atmosphere of the nunnery. Despite this, he stood to follow. Renjun did not acknowledge him, only continued out the door.
The walk back was longer that Jeno remembered it being, likely due to the excruciating silence. Renjun spent most of that time staring straight ahead, chewing on his bottom lip.
Suddenly, he asked, “Do you like it here?”
Jeno was taken aback. Barely avoiding a shocked stumble, he answered, “Yes. It’s a beautiful place.”
“What do you like about it?”
“It’s simple, but in a good way. Tranquil. The people are kind.” Jeno paused. He almost didn’t say what he said next: “I’m glad I’m able to talk to you now. I thought maybe you didn’t like me.”
A blush rose on Renjun’s cheeks. “I’m sorry.”
Jeno realized then that perhaps he had misinterpreted Renjun’s coolness. He wasn’t unfriendly. Just shy, as Eun had said.
“No, no. I understand,” Jeno said quickly. “I’m the stranger who came in and disrupted things.”
Renjun shook his head. “It’s just strange. I’ve never really met a boy my age before.”
“I’m the youngest person here. Most of our visitors are much older.” Renjun hefted the basket in his hands and let out a fatigued huff, which lifted his bangs from his forehead. “It’s just different. That’s all.”
The way he said it, Jeno thought, made it seem as if he was reassuring himself.
They entered the monastery through the back door. A tall monk was sweeping, and looked up at them as they arrived.
“We have some crops for you,” Renjun said.
“If it isn’t our fair little maiden Renjunnie.” The monk set his broom against the wall and took the basket from Renjun’s hands. “You ought to have asked Jeno here to carry this for you. It’s heavy.”
Jeno nearly protested at this, but stopped when he saw the look on Renjun’s face. He was clearly annoyed, but his jaw was set in a way that said he was refusing to complain, refusing to acknowledge the monk’s remarks. Instead, he simply gave a small bow, then left the way they had come in.
Jeno walked back towards his chamber, intending to write in his journal about his experience at the nunnery. On his way, he passed by the botanist’s room, which was also set apart from the monks’ sleeping quarters. The door was open; curiously, Jeno poked his head in to see the botanist sitting on the floor, many books spread around him in a state of slight chaos.
“Jeno,” he said, raising his head with a smile. “Did you enjoy your time at the nunnery?”
“They definitely have better food.”
The botanist laughed. “I was just going through my notes -- thinking what I’d like to do today.” He stroked his chin, expression thoughtful. “Ah -- how would you like to come with me?” he asked.
“On your research? Are you sure I won’t be a bother?”
“Of course not.” The man began to gather his notes into a haphazard pile. “In fact, I’d love to have the company.”
Jeno smiled. He was always up for a little adventure.
Chapter 4: Hydrangea Blossoms, Part I
The botanist, Dr. Cho, led Jeno westward from the monastery, a side of the island Jeno had yet to explore. The trees were balanced on a steep ravine, roots poking out of the ground like thin, twisted fingers. Both men took their time working their way down, dodging the roots, and kicking up loose black dirt.
The forest continued on for a stretch before they came to the sand. Unlike the nunnery, where the coast fell away like it had been chopped by a hatchet, here it was flat; a narrow, but beautiful, little beach.
Reeds crowded around the shoreline. Jeno ran a hand through them. Somewhere nearby, a frog let out a crooning croak.
“Is this where you’ve been studying?” he asked.
“You’d have to go further out in the water,” Dr. Cho explained. “There’s a type of aquatic herb that grows just beyond these reeds; I haven’t encountered them anywhere else in my travels. Very large leaves with white rings at the edges. When I leave, I want to try and plant them somewhere else and see if they’ll grow.”
“When is it that you're leaving?”
Dr. Cho chuckled. “That’s yet to be decided. I suppose once I feel that I’ve exhausted everything this island has to offer. What about you?”
“Hmm. I guess my answer is the same.” Jeno usually tried not to spend more than a week in one location. By then, he was usually itching to get going. “Though, I want to make the most of my time here.”
Dr. Cho continued onward, pushing past a curtain of hanging moss at the beach’s end. “Come here,” he said, beckoning to Jeno with his index finger.
Behind the moss was a darkened path that led back into the trees. Jeno kept his eyes on the ground, afraid of tripping, though he couldn’t see all that well anyway. The path had the damp, cool smell of a cave, though he could still feel a gentle breeze. Suddenly, the sun broke through; ahead, the path opened into a small clearing where the treetops parted to let in the light.
Jeno’s jaw dropped. The clearing was full of vibrant purple flowers, tall enough to reach above his waist. Small white butterflies fluttered about, from blossom to blossom, fairy-like. It was like a scene out of a storybook. Jeno reached out to cradle a flower in his hand, and he saw then that it was actually many tiny flowers, with petals in blue, pink, white, violet.
“What are they?” he asked, awestruck.
“Hydrangea,” Dr. Cho answered. “The most beautiful crop of them I’ve ever encountered. I’ve been tending to them since early this spring, and they’ve really flourished.”
“I think this is my favorite place on this island,” the botanist continued. “It’s so separate, so private -- it’s unlike anything else here, but all the more beautiful for it.” His smile was warm, almost wistful. “I haven’t shown it to anybody else. I think of it as my own shrine -- a place where my mind feels most at ease.”
Jeno’s hand slid down from the blossom to the thick green stalks. “Are they allowed to be picked?”
“Of course. There’s plenty here to go around.”
“I think the nuns would love them.”
Dr. Cho smiled. “I think they would, too.”
Jeno gathered a large bouquet of the hydrangeas, choosing the ones he thought the most full and bright. When they returned to the monastery, Jeno put the flowers in water, to keep them fresh until he returned to the nunnery in the morning.
When he next left his chamber, Eun was sitting in the main room, penning a letter. “Jeno,” he said, looking up with a gentle smile. “Come.”
Jeno sat beside him. “What is it?”
“I wanted to ask how you liked the nunnery this morning.”
“It was nice,” Jeno answered. “I think I’ll go to visit again tomorrow.”
Eun nodded approvingly. “Did you meet Renjun?”
“He’s a bit of a strange boy. I hope he didn’t make you uncomfortable. He’s really very sweet.”
Uncomfortable? Jeno raised an eyebrow. “No. I think we had a nice time. He wasn’t strange at all.”
“I only wish he would join us more often here at the monastery,” Eun said. “Surely he doesn’t intend to live with the women forever.”
I think that’s exactly what he intends, Jeno thought. And I don’t blame him.
“Well, no matter.” Eun set down his pen. “I’m glad he’s made a friend.”
In his journal that night, Jeno wrote:
Excellent food at the nunnery. Do not sit on the wrong cushion. Renjun is shy, not strange. Then he began to draw a little map, making sure to mark both the shrine and the hydrangea garden.
Renjun answered the door when Jeno arrived the next morning. The other maidens were outside, already on the move. Renjun had been scrubbing the sitting room floor.
“I brought a gift,” Jeno said, lifting the bouquet of flowers in his arms. “I thought we could put them on the table.”
Renjun stared at them with huge, starry eyes. “They’re pretty.”
“Do you like them?” Jeno recalled Renjun’s purple cushion; the hydrangeas were the same color. “If you really like them, you can have them.”
“That’s okay,” Renjun said, pink-eared.
“We can put them in your room. Where is it?”
Jeno followed the other boy through the doorway on their left. Renjun retrieved a skinny vase, and they placed the flowers on the window sill.
“There.” Jeno tried not to peer too obviously around Renjun’s bedroom. It was quite small, with little else other than his bed, and a stack of books beside it.
“Do you like to read?” Jeno asked.
“Yes.” Renjun continued to fiddle with the bouquet, spreading out the blossoms to look fuller. “When the mailman comes, I always give him a coin and ask him to bring me a book when he returns. If he gets me one I don’t like, I give it to Insook.”
“Have you never thought about going with him back to the mainland? It seems easier to pick a book for yourself. That way you always get one you like.”
Renjun shrugged and said nothing. Silence hung in the air.
Quickly changing the subject, Jeno said, “Where do the others sleep? I don’t think I’ve passed their rooms -- I still feel like I’ve seen so little of this place.”
“Their chambers are down the back hallway. The prioress has her own room. The others share one.”
Jeno wondered if Renjun noticed how separate he was from them; it seemed very intentional that his room was placed on the other side of the house. Perhaps it was improper for a boy to share a room with the women. Still, he found himself feeling a little sorry for Renjun. This was the only world he had even known, yet he was only allowed to exist in it halfway.
“Is that Jeno?” The prioress’s voice rang in from the porch. “I thought I heard your voice. Come and help me in the garden, please.”
Jeno offered Renjun a crescent-eyed smile. “I guess I’m too popular for my own good.”
The garden was larger than Jeno had expected, and full to bursting with plants. He strolled along the edge of the tilled dirt, surveying the selection.
“Watermelon!” He crouched where one was growing, almost ripe enough to eat.
The prioress stood beside him. “I think we’ll harvest it soon. We’ll be sure to invite you to join us.”
Jeno looked up at her. “What did you need help with?”
“Weeding.” She knelt beside him and pushed back her sleeves. “It would be disastrous if we ever let out garden be overgrown. It’s the best resource we have.”
They both set to work. Jeno found this kind of mindless, repetitive task relaxing, especially when he was able to do it outdoors. During his travels, he’d found himself doing similar jobs for a little money: patching roofs, repairing fences, raking lawns. The kind of work that left him tired, rough-handed, but perfectly content.
“I think it’s so interesting,” Jeno said, “that you all manage to live here all your own.”
“It’s what makes this place special.” She yanked a dandelion from the ground, dirt clinging to its roots. “It makes us all very close. We rely on each other to survive, and no one else.”
“I can see that,” Jeno said. The sun was beating down on their backs. He rubbed the sweat from his forehead with the back of his wrist. “This may be rude of me to ask, but have you ever considered living somewhere else?” He sat up straight to meet her eye. Her lips were set in a straight line. “Not that there’s anything wrong with it here,” he clarified. “Just -- you know -- do you ever wonder if things could have turned out differently?”
The prioress tilted her head towards the sun, and the gray strands of her hair turned brittle white in the light. “This priory has been here for fifty years. When I was eighteen, I’d made my vows and committed to live as a maiden, at a priory on the coast. It was then that me and two of my sisters were sent to settle here and create a new shrine.” A shadow of sadness passed over her face. “The two of them, older than I, have since passed. I’m very lucky that others have joined me here, even though we are few in number.”
“I didn’t realize you’d been here since the beginning,” Jeno said. “This must be an important place to you.”
“It is. I think when one is eighteen, it’s difficult to know whether you’ve found your path in life. Perhaps I was naive to think I knew what I wanted.”
Jeno had not thought about it that way before. Maybe that was why he never settled, never committed to one person or place -- because he was afraid of making the wrong choice so young.
“The life of a maiden is not easy,” the prioress continued. “It is full of regret; regrets which begin at a young age and accumulate over time. But it is a life certain people are built for, and I am one of those people.”
“Has a nun ever decided to leave the island?” Jeno asked.
The prioress shook her head. “I’m blessed to have many sisters here who have not faltered. In a way, it would be a betrayal. Though I think it would be hard to remain mad.” Her straight line of a mouth broke into a slight smile. “The thought of living another life can be terribly tempting.”
Chapter 5: Maps
Days on the island passed in lazy wonder. Jeno found that even small moments felt serendipitous: looking out his window to see a dove perched in the fork of a tree; wading in the shallows of the water and being swarmed by minnows, who nibbled at his toes; walking into the nunnery to find Renjun brushing Insook’s hair, both indulged in carefree laughter.
“Stop for a second!” Insook whined. “It hurts!”
“It isn’t my fault you have a huge snarl.”
“It isn’t my fault either! You think I did it on purpose?” She turned around with mock anger on her face. “You think I spent all night twisting it into tangles? ‘Ah, yes, Renjun’s never battled a snarl like this before!’”
Renjun broke into another fit of giggles.
It was because of moments like those that Jeno hardly noticed the passing of time. Furthermore, the monks and nuns both kept him busy, nearly running him ragged with chores. It wasn’t until he’d been there one full week that it really occurred to him how time had flown. Eun had stopped at his room and asked him how much longer he intended to stay, and Jeno had to give the honest answer of, “I don’t know.”
I don’t know was not comfortable for him. He’d never experienced a dulling of his wanderlust quite like this, an obliviousness to how big the world really was. So that day, when he walked to the nunnery, he brought along with him his journal and his map (the worn, smudged one he carried with him everywhere he went). With the soft afternoon breeze blowing, he settled on the edge of the porch, kicking his legs off its edge, and began to plan his journey.
“What is that?”
He turned and saw Renjun settling beside him.
“My map,” Jeno replied. He unfolded it fully and laid it out flat.
“What does the black mean?”
“Every place I’ve been.” A large swath of the top of the mainland and a strip down the coast was blacked out in ink, obscuring what had laid underneath. That way, even if Jeno wanted to go back, he could not; he would not know what roads to follow to get there. He would not rest until he’d seen everything, the whole map blacked out, nowhere left to go.
“Wow.” Renjun traced his finger over the ink, wide-eyed.
“I’m trying to decide where to go next.”
“You’re leaving?” Renjun looked quickly up at him.
“I don’t want to impose here forever.”
“You’re hardly imposing.”
Jeno shrugged. “I’m no good at staying put.”
“Hmm.” Renjun’s gaze shifted to across the porch, to where Jeno had set his journal. “What is that?” He picked it up and flipped through the pages. “A diary?”
“It’s not a diary. It’s a journal.”
“What’s the difference?”
“Honestly, I have no idea.”
“Can I read it?” asked Renjun, looking all too excited at the prospect.
“No. It’s private.”
“I thought you said it wasn’t a diary.”
Jeno rolled his eyes. “Arguing with you is no fun.”
“Haha.” Renjun claimed his victory by settling on the first page. “What is it? A record of every place you’ve gone?”
“Yeah. Just little stuff. Like what the weather was like each day or the types of animals I saw,” Jeno said. “The stuff about the island is at the end.”
Renjun shook his head. “I’m going to read it in order.”
Jeno looked at Renjun’s giddy smile and realized how fascinating that kind of stuff might be for someone who had never left home before. He probably didn’t know much about how people lived outside the island. Maybe, by reading what Jeno had written, he could feel like he had seen the world, too.
Jeno turned back to his map. He searched for the island on it, where it should be, across the strait from the little fishing village. Perhaps it was because it was too small, or too insignificant; but the island did not appear on the map at all.
Jungsoon and Renjun were peeling cabbage in the kitchen shed. Jeno, who lay in the grass nearby, pretended to watch the clouds; really, he was watching the way Jungsoon ruffled Renjun’s hair when he said something witty, and the way Renjun seemed to glow golden at the touch. Jeno knew little about the affection a mother held for her child, or the other way around, but he thought it might look something like this. He remembered Jungsoon’s face when they were at the shrine, softened by both the sun through the trees and the memory of Renjun as a baby, abandoned. The two of them may not have been related by blood, but Jeno figured family stretched beyond such simple boundaries.
It caused a slight ache in Jeno’s chest. His mother had left home when he was only four years old. He could not remember her face clearly. It seemed to grow fuzzier with each recollection. On the other hand, he knew his father’s face all too well, particularly the way it looked when asleep, passed out in the living room, alcohol heavy on his breath.
A gentle wind passed over Jeno, catching in his dark hair. The smell of it was somehow nostalgic, a combination of clover and oncoming rain clouds. He looked back at Renjun. His eyes always ended up on the boy’s hands. Delicate, thin-fingered, tanned from the sun. One had a birthmark on the back, dark like a bruise. In Jeno’s imagination, it was the thumbprint of a god, a tiny gift of individuality.
“Jeno,” Renjun called. Jeno looked up at his face -- sweet, unassuming, with a hint of a crooked grin. “Stop being so lazy.”
“I was only laying down for a minute,” Jeno said.
Jungsoon tsk-ed. “He’s no use at all, this one.”
“You guys can’t both bully me at once,” Jeno complained. “I’m outnumbered.”
“The rule of this island is survival of the fittest,” Renjun said. “Sit around too long and --” He dragged his thumb across his throat. “The prioress will have your head.”
Jeno laughed, then forced himself to his feet with a groan.
The dull light of evening yellowed the surface of Jeno’s map. He’d been staring at it for a long time, sitting with legs crossed on his bedroom floor. Next to it was his coin purse which was turned inside out -- he had only two bronze coins left. The rest of it, he’d given to the fisherman who’d brought him out to the island. He knew there was not enough left to last him once he made it back to the mainland. And at that thought, he found himself feeling somehow relieved at having a little more time on the island. The fact that he was relieved struck a weariness in his heart: why was this place different than any else? Why was he finding it so hard to move on?
Digging up a little resolve, Jeno tracked down Eun, who was removing his sandals at the front door, having just returned from the shrine. The monks visited it every sundown and meditated in that little forest clearing. According to Eun, meditation allowed them to refocus their energy, bringing them closer to God; it encouraged modesty, devotion, piety.
“Eun,” Jeno began, a little nervous at asking a favor. “I’m incredibly grateful that you’ve allowed me to stay here for so long, asking nothing in return.”
“Nothing in return?” Eun echoed. “You’ve been very helpful. Do not undersell yourself.”
“Well.” Jeno scratched the back of his head, slightly abashed. “I only say that because I need to ask something of you.”
“What is it?”
“I’m in need of money. Once I leave the island, I’ll have no more funds for my travels. I was wondering if there was some kind of work I could do for you -- in exchange for a little money --”
“Strictly speaking,” Eun said, “you’re already doing more than enough. We give sanctuary here to anyone who asks, regardless of whether they are any help to us. The only reason I’ve asked more of you is because I know you are willing to do it. If you want to be paid for your work, I take no issue with it.”
“Still -- I would feel bad,” Jeno said. “Let me do more.”
Eun tapped a finger to his chin and raised his eyebrows. “Hmm. If you insist, I think I can find a few more things for you to do around here.”
Jeno broke into a relieved smile. “Thank you.”
Eun stood and turned to go inside. As he did, he placed a hand on Jeno’s shoulder and said, “Be up bright and early tomorrow, then. Sunrise or so?”
The sun rose at six in the morning.
Jeno was yawning when Eun pushed a shovel into his hands and directed him out the side door, to the hillside that sloped down to the nunnery. “As you can see,” Eun said, “the path here is in desperate need of some work. There are some stones piled along the eastern beach -- you can use them to pave it.”
“Alright then,” Jeno said. He rubbed his eyes and tried to picture the process. How far was it to the nunnery? A hundred feet? Five hundred feet? He was no good with distances. As it existed now, the path was no more than a dirt trail, worn down by footsteps. Paving the entire thing would take him a while.
He had asked for extra work. Jeno shook his head to try and dispel his sleepiness, then made his way down to the beach.
It was just Jeno’s luck that it was a very hot day, without a cloud in the sky to offer sanctuary. By the time he had laid five stones (lugging them up from the beach, digging a hole the proper size, making sure they laid flat and were properly set into the ground), he was exhausted. He slumped into the grass, leaning back on his palms, trying to let the breeze cool him, though, as it turned out, there was no breeze that day to be cooled by. He wondered how many hours, how many days it would take him. He shut his eyes and laid back.
He looked up to see Renjun leaning over him, his figure silhouetted against the sun. In his hand was a cup of water. “I brought this for you,” he said.
“Thanks.” Jeno sat back up and took it, taking a long, blissful sip.
“Why are you paving the footpath? I thought you were supposed to be leaving.”
“Need money.” Jeno drained the rest of his cup and wiped his mouth with his sleeve. “Didn’t realize what a hassle I was getting myself into.”
Renjun knelt in the grass beside him. “Do you want help?”
“No. I can do it myself.”
The boy’s face fell. “I can be useful, you know.”
“What? I didn’t mean it like that,” Jeno said reassuringly. “I mean it would be cheating to have you help me. Since it’s my job now.”
Renjun’s mouth was still curved in a pout, and his eyes downturned.
“Don’t tell me you think people are saying you’re useless.” Jeno lowered his head slightly, making sure Renjun was looking him in the eye as he spoke. “You do just as much work around here as anybody.” He grinned, trying to raise the mood. “Twice as much, even. Three times as much!”
Renjun allowed himself a small smile. “You’re right. I’m pretty incredible, aren’t I?”
“Let’s not take it too far.”
Renjun shoved Jeno over into the grass.
Sunday morning, Jeno was surprised to find Renjun sitting on the front steps of the monastery. Other than the day they had delivered the crops from the garden, he had not seen Renjun there since; he suspected the boy only went there when he had to. Presently, he was facing the tunnel of trees that led down to the main beach, turning a silver coin over between his fingers. When Jeno approached from behind him, Renjun jumped at the sound of his footsteps.
“What are you doing?” Jeno asked.
“Waiting for the courier,” Renjun responded and held up his coin. “For my book.”
“Oh, right.” Jeno still found it curious the way Renjun would rather wait for a book to be delivered than to go and buy one for himself, but said nothing. He was too preoccupied by the realization that the arrival of the courier meant it had been exactly two weeks since he had first arrived at the island, and still he had no plans to depart. He had received a little money from Eun for his work, yet still not enough for him to feel comfortable being back on the road.
From between the trees came the courier, a kindly looking middle-aged man, who waved at the two of them as he approached. First he handed Renjun the pile of letters and took the silver coin. Then he rummaged in his bag and retrieved a small, used-looking softcover book. Renjun took it and immediately began to shuffle through the pages, trying to gauge if it was something he was interested in; he sat down again while he did so.
“Renjun,” the courier said. “The offer still stands. If you ever want to come see the village for the day, just let me know.”
A monk, who happened to be straightening the slippers at the doorway, called out, “That would be a miracle if I ever saw one.”
“I could go if I wanted to,” Renjun said dejectedly. The words sounded empty from his lips.
“What would the villagers think of a boy maiden?” the monk said. “They’d think we’ve lost our minds out on this island.”
Renjun busied himself by pretending to read the page he was on. The monk shuffled away, muttering self-righteously under his breath.
Finally, the courier offered Renjun and Jeno an awkward smile, bowed, then turned back the way he came from and disappeared into the forest.
“So? What do you think?” Jeno asked.
“It’s a romance,” Renjun said.
“Is that good or bad?”
“Hmm.” Renjun chewed absentmindedly at a fingernail while he studied the text. “Not good. I’m not really interested in them. Maybe I’ll give it to Insook.”
Jeno, frankly, was not sure that a romance novel would be of interest to anyone on the island, considering they were all sworn to celibacy. Though maybe that was part of the appeal -- being able to experience through a book what they never would in real life. It was the same thing Renjun found fascinating about Jeno’s journal.
“You’re not interested in it at all?” Jeno asked.
Renjun shot him a suspicious look and answered, “Why should I be? Insook likes this kind of thing. Flowery stuff.”
“What kind of stuff do you usually read?”
“I don’t know. A lot of stuff.” Renjun shut the book in his lap. “I like adventure books. I like books with pictures in them, too.” He stood, gathering up the letters in his arms.
“Anything for you?” Jeno asked.
“No. I don’t get letters,” Renjun said. Then he went inside.
Jeno frowned. Of course Renjun didn’t get letters. He should have been more sensitive than to ask.
The sun was rising over the trees. Jeno retrieved the shovel, which lay propped against the monastery wall, and went to work.
When he returned to his chambers in the afternoon, Jeno found a letter inside his door. Renjun must have mixed up his and the botanist’s rooms, because the letter was addressed to Dr. Cho, with the return address labeled, Seoul University Department of Environmental Sciences.
Jeno picked it up to deliver it next door; however, he stopped when the sunlight from the window struck the envelope in the exact way that it turned it transparent. In that moment, he happened to catch a few words, the black writing showing up through the paper -- ignoring our mail, fail our research department, and cut your funds.
Jeno was not a snoop. But this piqued his interest.
Quickly closing his door, Jeno sat on the floor, tore open the envelope, and began to read.
Dr. Cho Jungho,
We are writing to inform you that we require a response from you within the next month. You seem to have either been ignoring our mail, or not receiving it -- however, we have confirmed its delivery to the island, so we can only assume the silence on your end is intentional.
Your trip was originally outlined as being two months long, yet you have been away for eight. This is an unacceptable extension, unapproved by the committee, which is costing far more money than originally set aside. Additionally, we have not received any research updates, including data sheets, diagrams, or reports, for nearly four months. If your research is not yielding any noteworthy results, we ask that you simply return to the university and stop using our funds for your impromptu vacation. If you continue to fail our research department, we are prepared to cut your funds off completely and sever all ties with you from here on out.
Please respond shortly, including any recently collected data, if you have it at all.
Dr. Park Sangchul
Chair of the Seoul University Department of Environmental Sciences
Jeno suddenly felt extremely dirty for having read the letter. He also felt a gnawing curiosity. Why was Dr. Cho ignoring his mail? He had told Jeno about his research -- had he been lying? What reason did he have for extending his research trip for so long?
After taking a moment to allow the guilt to wash over him, Jeno replaced the letter in the envelope. Then he took the glue from his bag, which he sometimes used when he needed to paste something in his journal, and resealed it.
He slid it under Dr. Cho’s door before he left for the nunnery.
Late that evening, the prioress cut the watermelon that had been growing in the garden, which was finally fully ripe and large enough to feed all nine of them. It was the first time Jeno had felt such a relaxed atmosphere there; the girls were sitting around the table, laughing while recounting old memories. Renjun, meanwhile, was alone on the porch, eating his slice while staring out towards the sea. Jeno joined him, sliding the door shut behind him.
“What are you doing?” he asked.
“I don’t know.”
“It’s nice out. I want to stay here.”
Jeno didn’t badger him -- he could see something was on his mind. Instead, he sat down beside him, kicking his legs over the porch’s edge and continuing to nibble at his rind.
The windchime rattled softly in the breeze. Jeno watched Renjun, who watched the chime, expression vacant. Jeno had never really looked at the boy’s face for so long before -- he was usually distracted by his hands. His eyes were half-closed, lashes dark on his cheeks, and the soft, downward curve of his nose was outlined by the black of the trees behind him. The light from a lantern danced across his face, his neck, the silk of his robes; for half a second, he seemed unreal. Jeno blinked and looked away.
“What do you think you’ll do,” Renjun asked, “when you’ve seen everything there is?”
“I guess I’ll choose somewhere and settle down.”
“I don’t know yet.” Jeno hated to admit that he never felt truly comfortable anywhere he’d been. Even the loveliest places, deep in the solitude of the mountains or where he could smell the vastness of the sea, never really felt like a home. Maybe it was because he never allowed them to. Or maybe it was because no place was made for him. Those were Jungsoon’s words, he recalled; and he found himself confronted by the thought that perhaps some people were not meant to exist anywhere.
“I didn’t think you would want that,” Renjun said. “I didn’t think you would ever want to stop moving. You’re like a little beetle. Constantly buzzing around.”
“Gee, thanks. A beetle.”
“That’s not an insult,” Renjun said, laughing. “I meant it nicely.” He took another bite of watermelon, chewing it slowly, contemplatively. “Settle down. You mean get married?”
“Don’t you ever think about getting married?” Jeno asked.
“No. I can’t get married. You know that.”
“But don’t you ever think about it?” Jeno tossed his rind into the grass and laid back across the porch, hands clasped behind his head. “You’re telling me you’ve decided you won’t ever be married, but at the same time you’ve never really thought about it?”
Renjun gestured across the island, sleeve dragging behind him. “Who am I supposed to marry here? We’re all monks and maidens.”
“Who said it had to be here?”
Renjun eyed Jeno skeptically, but didn’t answer.
“Who knows. Maybe you’ll fall in love, and then you’ll change your mind about this whole thing,” Jeno said, taking slight satisfaction at the way Renjun’s ears turned pink at this. A soft summer wind rattled the chime again and lifted Renjun’s hair, feather-light.
A thought occurred to Jeno then. “I have a question.”
“Why do you keep your hair short if you’re a maiden?”
“What kind of question is that?” Renjun raised a hand to his head, suddenly self-conscious. “Because I’m a boy.”
Jeno sighed in exasperation, wondering if Renjun saw the irony of it all. “That doesn’t make any sense. I don’t think I understand it.”
Renjun leaned in slightly, peering down at Jeno’s face. His eyes were cold in the way they had been when he and Jeno first met: withholding, fearful, sensitive. “I haven’t asked you to understand it,” he said.
“But I want to.”
Renjun’s lips parted in surprise, then settled into a tentative smile. “Why?”
“Because you’re my friend.”
The smile solidified; soft, certain, snaggle-toothed. “We are not friends,” Renjun corrected.
“I thought we were making progress here,” Jeno groaned.
“Just kidding. You’re my friend.”
Renjun laid down on the porch beside him. The stars, beginning to bud in the sky above, seemed somehow warm and tender, like a million suns.
next update will probably be a bit slower as i haven't written it yet orz
also braces don't exist in this universe so renjun gets to keep his snaggle tooth
The sky was an idyllic blue, laced by wispy white clouds. Renjun was sitting on his bed, Jeno’s journal open in his lap. By now, he was about halfway through it. Jeno, who stood at the window, arranging a fresh bouquet of flowers in their vase, found himself repeatedly distracted by the way Renjun read: mouth moving silently to the words, finger tracing the cut outs and drawings.
“I can’t imagine there being so many people,” the boy said, mesmerized. “Did you like the city?”
“It’s alright,” Jeno responded. “There’s always something to do.”
“There’s always something to do here.”
“In a different way.” Jeno leaned back against the wall. “More like there’s always people to meet.” He considered briefly how many people Renjun must have met in his lifetime -- twenty? Thirty? Such a number seemed impossibly small; nearly that many could fit inside Renjun’s bedroom, if they stood close together.
Renjun shut the journal and walked to the window. He leaned in and smelled the hydrangeas. “Thank you,” he said quietly.
Jeno had noticed the day before that the flowers he’d picked the previous week were no longer a majestic purple but a dreary, wrinkled brown. So in the morning, he went by himself to the grove by the beach and gathered some more. When he’d arrived at the nunnery with them in his arms, Renjun’s face had lit up with a bright, surprised smile, and for Jeno, that had made it more than worth the trip.
“Boys,” called the prioress from the sitting room. She was carrying a pot of rice for lunch and setting it on the table.
Jeno and Renjun went to join her, while the other maidens trailed in from outside. The prioress filled a tiny bowl, then peered around, seeming perplexed. “Where is Jungsoon?”
Everyone shared an unknowing look. “I haven’t seen her since early this morning,” Renjun said. “Maybe she took a walk.”
“It’s her turn to tend the shrine,” the prioress said, eyes narrowed. “Well, anyhow. Renjun, would you take it down today?”
He took the bowl and walked to the door, then turned and waited for Jeno. There was a certain naturalness to their friendship now that made this seem obvious; where Renjun went, Jeno would follow.
The sun was even brighter in the sky now, though the clouds at the edge of the blue sky had darkened to a hazy gray. Jeno wondered if rain was on its way. As they walked down the hillside to the forest, they passed by a deer that bent its neck to reach the tall grass, and though Jeno and Renjun were not walking quietly, it seemed unbothered by their presence. It was another thing that made the island seem so perfectly in tune with itself -- all the life there coexisted peacefully, seeming at once totally used to but also totally oblivious to each other’s presence.
At the forest’s edge, Renjun plucked a sprig of mint from the ground and placed a leaf on his tongue. Then he offered one to Jeno.
“Thank you, nature boy,” Jeno said.
“Nature boy?” Renjun repeated, with an incredulous little laugh.
“You’re Nature Boy. You live off the land.”
“What does that make you? City Boy?”
“I kind of like the ring of that.”
At the shrine, Renjun lay the bowl on the ground and said his prayers. Like everything he did, he did it plainly, sincerely, like his life was built for it; and in a way, Jeno thought, it was.
“What do you think about,” Jeno asked afterwards, “when you pray?”
“Well, we’re supposed to do the same prayer every time. It’s like a mantra.”
Jeno shook his head. “Then, not when you pray here. When you pray at home. Before bed or something.”
“I couldn’t tell you that. It’s personal.”
Jeno crossed his arms in mock irritation. “No fun at all. What’s the point of friendship if you don’t spill all your secrets?”
Renjun shot him a look that made Jeno think he had taken his needling too far. Then, he looked up towards the sky and said, “Sometimes I pray that my dad would write me a letter.”
Jeno couldn’t help but be shocked at how easily he said it. He felt a twinge in his gut; was it pity? He didn’t want to pity the boy, but every so often Renjun would say something like that, something so gut-punchingly honest that it made Jeno feel terribly sorry for him.
At that moment, Renjun blinked twice in surprise. A raindrop had landed on his cheek, trailing downward in a straight line. And then there were suddenly hundreds, falling down between the tree branches in a noisy patter that strengthened into a furious pounding against the leaves.
“It’s raining,” Renjun said, as if Jeno hadn’t noticed.
Thunder clapped overhead. Jeno grabbed Renjun by the sleeve of his robe and pulled him into a denser thicket of forest, where the treetops were pushed closely enough together to block out a decent amount of the rain. Still, by the time they had wedged themselves inside, both were wet. Jeno’s white button-up clung to him uncomfortably. Renjun’s hair stuck to his forehead.
“This was all very sudden,” Jeno said.
“I could smell the rain coming, actually.”
“Oh, that’s right. Nature Boy. Why didn’t you run for cover, then?”
“Maybe I like the rain.”
Jeno snorted, and then they were both laughing. Lightning cracked above them, lighting them up. Jeno realized he was still clutching Renjun’s sleeve. Quickly, he let it go.
“Should we go back?” Renjun asked.
“In the thunder? I don’t think so.” Jeno tugged at his collar to loosen his wet shirt from his skin. “We ought to wait it out.”
A branch above them creaked in the wind. “It sounds bad,” Renjun said.
“Do you get storms like this a lot?”
“Not quite so strong.” Renjun began to wring out the sleeves of his robe. “We get a lot of rain, but not a lot of thunderstorms.” His face brightened suddenly. “What about you?”
“Did you get a lot of storms where you come from?”
Jeno shrugged. “Sometimes. I don’t know.”
“Oh, come on. I know so little about your hometown,” Renjun said. “You didn’t even write about it in your journal.”
“It isn’t that exciting.”
Renjun said something else then, but Jeno could not hear it, because there was another bang of thunder and suddenly the rain came down even harder and the wind was roaring in their ears.
“What did you say?” Jeno shouted.
Renjun placed his hand on Jeno’s arm to steady himself against the storm. Then he leaned in closely, so his mouth was by Jeno’s ear, and repeated, “I want to know more about you.”
Jeno suppressed the strange, pleasant shiver that passed over him.
He could smell the mint on Renjun’s breath.
“Like what?” he asked.
“Like about your parents. You’ve never told me about your parents,” Renjun said.
“There isn’t much to tell.”
Jeno, especially recently, found that he had trouble denying Renjun what he asked. Something about softness of his eyes combined with the clever crookedness of his smile. Now more than ever, being so close to him.
“Well,” Jeno began. “My dad builds houses.”
“And your mother?”
“I don’t know.” Jeno looked away, fixing his gaze onto a filling puddle. “She left home when I was four.”
“You’re just like her, then.”
“I didn’t leave anybody behind,” Jeno whispered bitterly.
“But maybe you will, someday.” Renjun’s grip tightened on Jeno’s arm.
The storm died after about fifteen minutes. When they emerged from the grove, Jeno and Renjun discovered fallen branches littering the footpath, and some of the smaller trees having been uprooted altogether. It was lucky, Jeno thought, that the two of them had not been hurt.
As they reached the edge of the forest, Renjun picked up the pace.
“What is it?” Jeno called after him.
“I just remembered…”
As they crested the top of the hill, Jeno saw what Renjun had meant. The maidens were sitting on the porch’s edge, hair frayed from buns, robes soaked, and expressions sour. Nearby, the garden was covered by a large gray tarp, though clearly not quickly enough -- across the lawn, plants were scattered, torn up and destroyed.
Renjun ran over. “Is everything okay? I’m sorry, we should have hurried back --”
“It’s alright, Renjun.” The prioress shook her head, loose gray hairs trailing. “You were smart to wait the storm out. But there were too few of us here to cover the garden in time.” She peered off into the distance, eyes narrowed. “If Jungsoon was here…”
“She isn’t back yet?” Renjun looked around, confused.
“No. And we have no idea where she went. She could have been caught in the storm, for all we know.” Though her voice was harsh, Jeno sensed the worry in it.
It was then that they all heard the nunnery’s front door open, and of course it was Jungsoon standing there, hair mussed and clothes wet like the others.
“Where were you?” the prioress asked. “Are you alright?”
“I’m sorry,” Jungsoon said, head bowed. “I was taking a walk along the beach, and then the storm started --”
“It isn’t like you to disappear without a word,” the prioress said stiffly.
“I’m sorry,” Jungsoon repeated.
Jeno, meanwhile, turned towards the garden. “Will you be able to salvage it?”
“Some of it,” Kyunghee said. “We’ll survive. But we’ll need to buy some more seeds and replant.”
Jeno looked at Renjun, whose eyebrows were still lowered and his mouth drawn into a pout. Jeno did not know if it was from guilt at being absent during the storm, or residual worry over Jungsoon’s disappearance. “It’s alright,” Jeno reassured him. “See? Everything’s going to be fine. It’ll just take a little work.”
Renjun offered an apprehensive nod, then went inside.
in which jeno is whipped for renjun
sorry for the slow update!! back to school this week so i've been super busy....next few updates should be more timely!
Jeno trekked back to the monastery through wet grass. He stepped over a few tiles which had been blown from the roof and lay broken on the hillside. Up ahead, he could see the monks gathered out front, raking debris into piles.
“Did it hit bad here?” Jeno asked.
Eun raised a hand over his brow to block out the sun, which had returned in full force after the storm had passed. “It could have been worse. Nothing we can’t fix with a little work.”
“If you want, I’ll help out in a minute,” Jeno said. “Just let me change.”
“We’re fine,” Eun said. “Nearly finished.”
“Are you sure?”
Eun nodded. Jeno shrugged and went inside.
He passed the botanist’s bedroom on the way to his own. Dr. Cho poked his head out from his doorway, scrubbing his damp face with a towel. “Nasty little tempest, wasn’t she?”
“Were you out during it?”
“Down at the water, taking notes.”
Jeno raised an eyebrow at this. According to the letter, the botanist had stopped recording and sending his notes long ago. Was he lying, or finally getting back to the work he’d been neglecting for months?
“Well, it’s good luck that you made it out safe, then,” Jeno responded, and continued on to his chambers.
There was a puddle on the floor below his open window and fallen leaves scattered on top of it. With an inconvenienced groan, Jeno bent to clean up the mess, using his blanket to mop up the water; he could always put it out to dry that afternoon. A few of his supplies had also been tossed about by the wind -- his map lay half-unfolded by his bed, and his fountain pen had rolled to the wedge between wall and floor.
Jeno lifted his pack and rummaged around inside for his spare change of clothes, which were near identical to the ones he wore now: white collared shirt, black trousers. He peeled his damp shirt off over his head, using its dryer patches to wipe the last bit of moisture from his chest and arms.
He turned to see Renjun standing in his doorway. The boy was perfectly still, staring at him with wide eyes. He’d changed out of his wet blue robes into robes of pale pink, and his hair was slightly ruffled as though he’d just passed a towel over it.
“Hey,” Jeno said.
“I just --” Renjun looked pointedly down at the floor. “Are you going to work on the footpath?”
Jeno slipped his clean shirt on and began to button it up. “Hmm. I don’t know. I was thinking of going back to the nunnery to help you guys clean up.”
Renjun’s face lit up a little. “You don’t have to do that. We can do it ourselves.”
“Frankly, I’d rather do that than lug those stones up from the beach.”
Behind him, two monks passed, carrying loose tiles. One poked his head in Jeno’s door. “Renjun, no need to follow our guest around like a little lost puppy. Don’t you have some sort of maidenly duties to attend?”
The other monk let out a soft snicker and tugged teasingly on Renjun’s pink sleeve. “The color suits you.”
Renjun went still again, smile gone.
Jeno did up his last button, then looked up at the monks with a straight-mouthed expression, no playfulness in his eyes. “There’s really no need to say that kind of thing, is there?”
There was a beat of too-long silence. One of the monks scratched the back of his head, then they continued down the hallway, sharing a bemused look.
“Don’t worry,” Renjun said, cheeks red. “That happens all the time.”
“I know,” Jeno responded. “That’s the issue.”
Jeno had expected the mood at the nunnery to be dour and pessimistic. However, when they arrived back, the maidens were back to work as if nothing had happened, raking up scattered roots and dirt as if they did it everyday. By mid-afternoon, the yard was clear, the garden re-tilled, and all damages repaired.
The prioress appeared at the porch doorway with a coin purse in hand. “I’ll be back soon. You can begin dinner without me.”
“Where are you going?” Jeno asked.
“The village. Eun and I will be taking the boat to buy more seeds.”
“You have a boat here?”
“Of course.” She smoothed down her hair and tugged at her bun to ensure its tightness. “We keep it behind the monastery, in case we need to go to the mainland. It doesn’t happen often.”
“Good luck, then,” Jeno said.
With the prioress gone, the day suddenly became lazy. Renjun sat beneath the chime, reading Jeno’s journal. Insook lay on her stomach, chin propped on her hand, the romance novel Renjun had passed on to her open before her.
“What’s it about?” Jeno asked her. He sat between them, repairing a hole in his pair of trousers from that morning -- he must have snagged them on something during the storm.
“So there’s this woman,” Insook began, “whose husband dies at war. And she’s really sad about it for about a month, but then she meets this new man -- this mysterious, handsome, reckless man, but she’s afraid of falling in love with him. She thinks she’s not good enough for him, because she’s barren --”
“Now hold on.”
“Oh, I forgot to mention.” Insook propped herself up taller, eyes full of mischievous excitement. “So, she and her dead husband had been trying to have a baby for a long time, but they couldn’t, because the doctors told her she was barren. But then --”
“Let me guess,” Jeno said. “She marries the mysterious man and suddenly, she’s not barren anymore.”
“Exactly. You’re good at this. But now --” Insook tapped a finger against the page. “Now, the mysterious man’s ex-lover is back in town.”
“And she’s causing all sorts of trouble.”
“Do you really like that kind of stuff?” Renjun piped up.
“I mean, it’s silly, but it’s kinda fun. Where’s your romantic spirit, Renjunnie?”
“I don’t have one. And neither should you.”
Insook rolled her eyes. “There’s no harm in a little daydreaming.”
“Daydreaming?” Jeno let out a tiny huff of a laugh while he tugged on his needle. “I didn’t know maidens were all that interested in daydreaming.”
“Just the little stuff, you know?” Insook sat up and shut her eyes. “Like, I’m walking along a pier, and then a beautiful young man tucks a strand of hair behind my ear. Also, it’s sunset. I forgot to mention that, but it’s a very important detail.”
“That’s sweet,” Jeno said.
Insook inhaled sharply with the rush of a new idea. “Jeno! Tell us about your romantic escapades!”
“Surely you have some.”
“Whatever you’re imagining is probably more exciting than reality.”
Renjun lifted Jeno’s journal. “I have access to his escapades right here.”
“Hey.” Jeno blushed and reached out a hand. “Alright, give that back to me now.”
“You said I could read it.”
“You have too much power.”
Renjun smirked. “I’m only teasing you. You spend more time writing about the clouds than girls.”
“I’m still waiting for the escapades,” Insook said. “What about kisses? Any great kisses you’d like to share with the group?”
“No thank you,” Jeno answered quickly.
“I think I would have liked to kiss a boy, just once. Just for the experience. Is it really as special as they say it is?”
“It’s alright, I guess.” Jeno had kissed a handful of people during his travels, though those kisses were burdened by the thought that he would likely never see any of them again. Some people might have found the idea of spending a single evening with someone romantic in its transience. To Jeno, it was mostly sad -- one of the few things about traveling he found unsatisfying.
“Hmm.” Insook put her hand to Jeno’s cheek, turning his head towards her. “I bet you usually have girls all over you, with a face like that.”
Jeno put on the ugliest, goofiest face he could muster. Insook giggled and swatted him on the arm.
“I’m going to go pick some berries,” Renjun announced, standing.
“I’ll go with you,” Jeno said.
“You don’t have to.”
“It’s fine.” Jeno set his half-sewn trousers on the porch and stood, too.
“I think the hawthorn trees are ripe,” Insook said.
Renjun slipped on his sandals and walked towards the forest.
Jeno had never been this way yet, out in the woods behind the garden. Here, the trees were grouped sparsely, and the ground littered with fallen fruit. Even with the crops damaged, Jeno thought, the nunnery must have more than enough food to survive -- it seemed it could be found nearly everywhere.
Renjun walked a few steps ahead. Jeno watched his hands, which poked out from the heavy curtains of his sleeves. On one, his thin fingers were twisted into a fist, full of tension. His other hand carried a wicker basket, his grip on it white-knuckled.
“Are you mad?” Jeno asked.
“Oh, come on. I can tell.”
“I just think,” Renjun said carefully, “that Insook ought to know better. She shouldn’t be flirting when she’s made her vows.”
Jeno sighed. “She was only playing around. She didn’t mean any of it seriously. Besides, it’s not like anything would come of it anyway, so stop worrying about it.”
“Oh?” Renjun slowed slightly, falling in step with Jeno. “Nothing would come of it? Don’t you think she’s pretty?”
“Of course I do. That doesn’t mean I’m interested in her.”
Renjun, seemingly satisfied at this, let his shoulders relax and his fists unfurl.
When they reached the hawthorn trees, there was already a short stepladder by one’s trunk. Renjun passed Jeno the basket, then stepped up. The ground, made soft by the rain, shifted slightly beneath the ladder. Jeno nearly placed his hands on Renjun’s waist to steady him, but thought better of it; since that morning, when Renjun had spoken against his ear, the thought of touching him gave him an uncomfortable prickle in his stomach (he did not stop to wonder, though, why Insook’s touch did no such thing).
Renjun watched where Jeno’s hands hovered near him, his face cool, distant. Then he began to pluck the hawthorn fruit from the ends of the branches, careful not to snag his sleeves on the long, intimidating thorns.
“What do you use these for?” Jeno asked. “You don’t just eat them, right?”
“You can eat them. Usually, we put them in jams and tea.” Renjun tossed a handful of them down into Jeno’s basket. “Sometimes, we candy them.”
“I’m interested in that last one.”
“Maybe we can candy them tonight, then.” He pulled an especially shiny red fruit down, and instead of putting it in the basket, held it out to Jeno. “Here. Try one.”
Jeno took it; even then, he made an effort to not let his fingertips brush Renjun’s. He took a bite, and said, “They’re kind of tart.”
Renjun’s empty hand still hung in the air. He seemed to be studying his own fingers with narrow-eyed suspicion before turning back to the tree.
Jeno took another bite of the fruit, then dropped it in surprise when Renjun let out a sharp cry.
“What is it?” he asked.
“I pricked myself,” Renjun said.
“Are you okay?” Jeno quickly set the basket on the ground, then took Renjun’s elbow and helped him to sit down on the stepladder. Crouching beside him, Jeno gently took Renjun’s hand and found the wound on his index finger, where a large bead of blood had risen.
“It’s alright,” Renjun said.
“You should’ve paid better attention.” Jeno dug in his pocket for his handkerchief and pressed it to Renjun’s finger, grip tight to stop the bleeding. “You scared me.”
“Sorry,” Renjun said. Jeno looked up at his face. He had said it with a smile, staring at the place where Jeno’s thumb pressed into his palm. Somewhere nearby, a bird began to warble a sweet, sorrowful song.
“Did you do it on purpose?” Jeno asked.
Renjun didn’t answer, only continued to stare at where their hands overlapped.
in which renjun has so little game that he only knows how to flirt via self-injury
thanks to everyone keeping up with this! i think this may be roughly the halfway point of the story, which means we're getting to the juicy stuff......stay tuned!
Chapter 9: Jeno
When Jeno was nine, he once woke in the middle of the night to discover his dad passed out on the sofa. This was not an unusual occurrence; in fact, it happened once or twice a week. This particular time, Jeno went to the closet to retrieve a blanket, and tossed it over his father’s weak, muttering form. As he did so, his father reached out and latched onto Jeno’s shirtsleeve.
“What is it?” Jeno asked.
His father said something unintelligible.
Jeno knelt down beside him and turned his ear to his father’s face. “What?”
“I want her back,” his father said. His breath stank of soju.
“I know,” Jeno said. He was used to this sort of this; his father never let him forget that there was a missing piece in their family. “Do you want a glass of water?”
His father let out a hoarse groan and turned onto his side.
At the sink, Jeno stared out the window. The moon hung as a dull crescent in the sky, its light cold and distant. Jeno studied the way it turned the water from the faucet white, then disappeared into the dark of the drain. It occurred to him then that his mother, wherever she was, was underneath the same moon. Maybe she was looking at it, too. The thought should have been comforting, but it was not. It only made him quietly angry.
When he returned to the sofa, his father was asleep. Jeno perched on the cushion’s edge by his father’s feet and cradled the glass of water in his hands. The clock on the wall read two thirty-six.
Jeno went back to bed. He did not dream about his mother, but rather of some place far, far away.
At the beach, the stones had become sparse. Jeno had picked them over for weeks while working on his path. He wondered if he would need to search out some more in the water. It would be a hassle, but it would be worth it; Jeno’s coin purse now made a near-satisfying clinking when he shook it.
He turned to see Renjun standing nearby, leaning against the trunk of a cypress. In his hand was Jeno’s journal.
“I finished it,” Renjun said.
“Has your curiosity been quenched?” Jeno turned a rock over in the sand.
Renjun offered a coy, closed-lip smile. “I have all sorts of questions.”
“You called me strange.”
“I do not remember this.”
Renjun gave a fake little cough and flipped Jeno’s journal open. “'Renjun is shy, not strange,’” he read. “What’s that supposed to mean?”
“I said you were not strange.”
“Well, the implication is that at one point, you found me strange.”
Jeno sighed dramatically before attempting to lift the heavy stone from the ground. “Frankly, I can’t believe I ever thought you were shy. That’s the real revelation here.”
Renjun hid his laugh behind Jeno’s journal.
“Are you gonna stand there all day or help me carry these rocks?” Jeno hefted the one in his hands, arms straining at the weight.
Renjun came over, gently placed Jeno’s journal on top of the stone in his hands, then walked away with his chin raised snootily.
“You said you wanted to work alone, remember?” Renjun called from up the path, his voice echoing through the trees.
Jeno rolled his eyes, but could not suppress the smile on his face.
When he returned to his room that afternoon, sweaty and worn out from work, he sat on his bed and opened his journal. He had not written in it since he’d let Renjun borrow it, over a week ago. In that time, he’d thought of a million things he’d wanted to document, but now that he had the chance, the only thing he could think of was the playful light in Renjun’s eyes.
Jeno opened to the last entry. There was his description and map of the monastery; and then on the page opposite it, was a note.
Hi Jeno! Thank you for letting me read this. I didn’t realize how big the world was. But the thing is, even though I liked everything you wrote, none of it was about you. I’m more interested in that than maps and mountains and oceans. So I made a list of Jeno things, to make this journal more Jeno-y.
1. Lee Jeno has a very distinctive smile. He gets so happy that his eyes disappear. At first Huang Renjun thought it was goofy but now he kind of likes it.
2. Lee Jeno has a mole beneath his right eye. It adds character.
3. Lee Jeno’s dad builds houses, and his mother left home when Jeno was four. Huang Renjun had to bully this information out of him.
4. Lee Jeno is good at a lot of things, including sewing, drawing, talking to strangers, and lifting heavy objects.
5. Lee Jeno likes to pretend he isn’t lazy but when no one is looking he flops down on the ground and watches the clouds instead of doing his work.
6. Lee Jeno is Huang Renjun’s personal flower delivery boy.
7. Lee Jeno is also City Boy.
8. One time the prioress told Huang Renjun that she was glad that Lee Jeno came to visit the island because he’s kind and helpful and decent to look at. She said this to Renjun in confidence, but Renjun betrayed her and wrote it here because he thought it was funny.
9. Lee Jeno once told Huang Renjun that he wanted to understand him better, and Renjun was too shy to say it at the time, but he really, really liked that.
10. Lee Jeno is going to be leaving the island soon, which makes Huang Renjun very sad.
Beneath all of this were two crudely drawn stick figures: Jeno in a collared shirt, Renjun in his robes. Renjun’s face was drawn with a frown.
Jeno stared at the page for a long time. Then he shut his journal without writing anything.
Once, Jeno’s father had taken him fishing. They sat on big gray rocks by the stream that ran through their town, the late evening sun casting slanted, sparkling light across the water. Jeno, thirteen, was bored at the quietness of it all. Even then, he wanted to always be moving. His father, meanwhile, stared plainly over the stream, pole in his hands, hat hiding his eyes in shadow.
The two of them only spent time together like that every so often. Jeno’s father was usually at work, and when he wasn’t at work, he was downing soju and sleeping on the couch. For that reason, Jeno thought that being able to sit beside his father, spend time with him, should have felt more special; but it did not.
Jeno’s fishing pole lurched forward. He stood, holding it tightly, suddenly alert and excited. “It’s a bite!” he said.
His father leaned over his shoulder, putting his hands over Jeno’s, showing him how to reel it in. The line straightened with tension. “It’s a big one,” his father said. “We’ve almost got it!”
With a forceful tug, the hook erupted from the water’s surface. There was no fish attached, and no worm, either.
“Damn it,” Jeno’s father said. “She got away.”
Exasperated, Jeno fell back into the sand. The first bite all evening, and no reward.
His father looked down at him, his face upside down in Jeno’s vision.
“Come on, get up.”
“Is she ever coming back?” Jeno asked.
His father did not speak for a long moment. Then, he answered, “I don’t know.”
“Why did she leave?”
“Because she felt trapped.”
Jeno swallowed. “Was it my fault?”
“I don’t know,” his father repeated.
Jeno threw his arm over his eyes.
Presently, he sat along the island’s shore, the memory sharp like glass in his heart. His bare feet were submerged, and minnows danced around them, sometimes stopping to bite at his toes. Above his head, the branches of the trees wove together like a canopy. Jeno wondered if, when he left, he would miss their refuge.
Behind him was the sound of approaching footsteps. He expected Renjun, but found it was Jungsoon, her robes hiked up slightly so as not to get sand on them.
“Oh,” she said, surprised. “Jeno. What are you doing down here? Enjoying the last days of summer while you can?”
“Something like that.” He picked up a small, flat pebble and tossed it. It skipped twice before drowning.
“Your visit has become quite a lengthy tenure.”
“Trying to get rid of me?”
She laughed, fox-like eyes bright. “Of course not. We like having you here. And you’re good for Renjun.”
“In what way?”
“You make him more open. More at ease.” Beside him, she settled into a crouch, and ran her fingers through the water. Jeno looked at her profile -- elegant, long-nosed, full-lipped -- and thought she might have been beautiful when she was younger, though she certainly was still lovely now. “I’ve known that boy all his life, been the closest thing to a mother he’s ever known, but sometimes I still feel like he keeps secrets from me. Like there are some things he just can’t trust me with. But maybe, he trusts you.”
Jeno shook his head. “Don’t be silly. He loves you like family. Me and him are only friends.”
“I don’t know. Perhaps it's because he’s a boy, and he’s growing up, but we just don’t get along in the same way as we used to.”
Jeno thought, that if Renjun heard her say that, he would feel terribly hurt.
“Then maybe you should talk to him, not me,” Jeno said.
Jungsoon raised her eyebrows. Then she stood and walked away.
Jeno tossed another rock. It crashed against the waves, and sunk to the bottom of the sea.
Jeno visited the nunnery late in the evening. It was often the best time to do so, because by then the busyness had died down, leaving it in a quiet, lazy lull. He was surprised to not see Renjun around. When he asked the prioress about it, she told him that Renjun had gone to bathe at the stream, while the water was still warm from the afternoon sun. Jeno took notice that Renjun had gone alone; the other maidens typically went together. It made sense, of course -- a boy could not bathe with the women. But Jeno wondered if Renjun felt that isolation like the constant prick of a thorn.
He sat down at the sitting room table on his pale green cushion. By now, it was a permanent fixture of their arrangement, placed right between Renjun and Insook’s seats. Jeno took his map from his pocket and laid it out across the table. It had gotten to the point where he did this every night, like it was ceremony: unfold his map, stare at it for what felt like hours, then put it away without having made a single decision about where he was going. He had no excuse now, with his funds replenished, so he had begun making them up. I can’t leave, he would tell himself, because they need me here to help replant the garden. I can’t leave, because I promised Renjun that I would teach him how to do a pick stitch. I can’t leave, because I want to see the island when the leaves on the trees turn orange.
That last thought was a dangerous one, because after the leaves turned orange, they fell, and after they fell, the strait would freeze over, and then there would be no way of crossing back to the mainland. Jeno knew this, yet he ignored it.
The front door shut behind him. Jungsoon was there, a small smile on her face, and in her arms a bouquet of purple hydrangea blossoms.
“Where did you find those?” he asked her.
Her smile faltered, “Oh, Jeno -- I found a little bush of them in the forest. Past the shrine. Sort of out of the way.”
“Is that so?” Jeno willed himself to remain straight-faced. “They’re pretty. I think Renjun would like them. You should show me where they are some time.”
“Yes. Maybe.” She walked quickly past him, down the back hallway towards her chambers.
Jeno let out a silent, disbelieving huff of a laugh.
Renjun returned from his bath with damp hair and the loose white robes he wore to sleep.
“You smell like moss,” Jeno told him.
“Haha, very funny,” Renjun said. “What’s that even mean?”
“I dunno. Like, you smell like nature, Nature Boy.” Jeno propped his chin on his palm and offered a teasing smile. “Don’t worry, it’s a compliment.”
Renjun settled beside him and studied the map. “So, what’s the plan?”
“No plan?” Renjun cocked an eyebrow. “What do you mean, no plan? It’s already September.”
“I don’t know. Maybe I’m just lazy.”
“Well, that was already obvious.”
Jeno gently jabbed Renjun with his elbow. Renjun giggled and leaned into the touch, his shoulder pressed against Jeno’s, his smile concealed behind his hand. Jeno’s eyes settled on the boy’s birthmark like always, then drifted down his arm, up his sleeve, to where his robes had slipped slightly from his shoulder, exposing the fine line of his collar bone.
It occurred to Jeno suddenly why he could not bring himself to leave.
“Renjun,” he said.
“What is it?”
Jeno turned his face back to his map. The black of the ink confronted him.
“Nothing,” he said.
Renjun frowned and readjusted his robes.
“Have you seen Jungsoon lately?” Renjun asked. “I’ve been meaning to talk to her, but she’s never around.”
“She just went to her room.”
Renjun stood as if to make his way down the hallway. Jeno recalled the bouquet cradled in Jungsoon’s arms and the introspective smile on her lips. He wondered if those flowers were now perched on her windowsill, just like they were in Renjun’s room.
Jeno reached out and grabbed Renjun by the sleeve.
“What?” Renjun asked.
“Ah -- you should leave her alone. She said she had a headache.”
“Oh. Okay.” Renjun put on a puzzled pout and sat back down.
For some reason, Jeno thought Renjun should never find out.
When Jeno returned to the monastery that night, he did not go to his room. Instead, he knocked on Dr. Cho’s door.
The botanist answered with a long yawn. “What is it, Jeno? I’d just turned in for the night…”
“I had a question. It’s urgent.”
Dr. Cho considered Jeno with sleepy eyes, then finally stood aside and allowed him in.
On the left of the door was a crate, and on top of the crate was an oil lamp, which Dr. Cho lit with a match. The room was cast in a golden glow, which crept silkily along the floor like a slithering snake. It’s only opponent was the light of the stars, which shone from the window, but that night they seemed uncommonly dull, like someone had tried to snuff them out with their thumb.
Dr. Cho sat on his bedroll. Jeno joined him, cross-legged on the hard floor.
“What is it?” the botanist asked.
“I wanted to know,” Jeno began. “Those beautiful hydrangeas -- they don’t grow anywhere else on the island, do they? Apart from that clearing by the western beach you showed me.”
Dr. Cho produced a surprised laugh. “That is your urgent question?”
Unnerved by the serious tone in Jeno’s voice, Dr. Cho hesitated before answering, “Not that I know of. I’ve studied every inch of this island, and --”
“That’s interesting,” Jeno interrupted, “because Jungsoon said she found them out past the shrine.”
Dr. Cho’s face froze. Then it fell into a deeply-lined scowl. “And?”
“I’m only telling you so that you know: you are not sneaky, and you are not clever enough to hide.” Jeno leaned in slightly closer. “If someone like me, who’s been here only a little over a month, could figure it out, then everyone else certainly can.”
“This does not leave this room,” Dr. Cho warned, voice grave. “You know what would happen if Jungsoon was found out.”
“I’m not the one who needs to be careful,” Jeno said. “You are. Your affair does not exist in a vacuum. Should the secret get out, it would harm more than you two.” He thought of what the prioress had told him weeks ago, as they weeded dandelions from the vegetable garden -- the thought of living another life can be terribly tempting. The prioress, perhaps, would be forgiving of a nun betraying her vows. But he wondered how Renjun would feel, knowing that Jungsoon had kept such a secret from him. Insook simply playing around, placing a hand on Jeno’s face, had earned her a cold shoulder. But Jungsoon? The woman who raised Renjun from his infancy? Jeno thought the truth might cut like a blade.
And so, Jeno would keep this secret, but not for Dr. Cho’s sake, or even Jungsoon’s.
When he left the room, he blew out the light from the lamp. The stars were not enough to keep the room from full dark.
Dappled sun played upon Renjun’s dark hair, the wind shifting it about like the current of a deep river. Jeno watched from a short distance, unable to look away from the boy’s small form as he stretched to reach the jasmine branches high on the shrub. By now, the flowers on the lower part had shriveled and fallen, leaving only the ones closest to the sun still in bloom, just out of Renjun’s reach. Jeno wondered, had Renjun always been so thin, the line of his arm nothing more than a shred of straw? Had his eyes always been so bright, so clear, so much like mirrors that when he met Jeno’s eyes, he saw his own face reflected back? Had the pink of his lips, the crookedness of his smile always been so hard to look away from?
Jeno did not allow himself to answer these questions, because if he did, he thought it might make his heart beat too strongly.
“I can’t reach,” Renjun whined. “Help me.”
Jeno walked up behind him. Where Renjun’s fingers still hung, outstretched by a thickly-flowered branch, Jeno reached beyond to tug at the stem. His chest pressed against Renjun’s shoulder, and he became all too aware of how close his cheek was to Renjun’s ear, the smell of his hair, the way their wrists bumped awkwardly as Jeno pulled down the jasmine bough.
“Here,” he said, handing it over.
Renjun took it, then waited as if he expected Jeno to say something else. When he did not, Renjun tucked the branch into his basket, then began to lead the way back to the nunnery.
“Just in time to make tea,” Kyungsoo said, standing at the woodstove. She took the basket from Renjun’s arm. To Jeno, it seemed the island continued to move on in peaceful, blissful ignorance. He looked up to where Jungsoon sat on the porch, weaving daisies into a crown. He could not blame her for being in love with someone she should not, because that would be hypocrisy. But it still felt wrong the way maidens kept working, blind to the secrets just under their noses.
Just then, Jungsoon came down from the porch and into the kitchen shed. “Renjunnie,” she said sweetly, and placed the crown on his head. At first he seemed a little surprised at her affection, as if he had not felt it in a very long time. Then his face softened into a smile.
Jeno watched with pained, tentative tenderness.
Renjun tried his best to not visit the monastery during the day.
He went sometimes, should he need to run an errand or collect his book from the postman. But usually, he did not like it there. Eun always looked at him as if he was something pitiable, or naive. Renjun did not expect Eun to understand why he lived the way he did. But somehow, it still hurt. And worse were the snide remarks, the whispers and laughs, ill-concealed behind hands, which passed among the other monks everytime Renjun was around.
The best time to visit the monastery, Renjun determined, was at sundown. It was the time when all the monks left for their meditation at the shrine, which meant the building would be vacant aside from the botanist, and Jeno, who had left after tea that afternoon with an odd, conflicted look on his face.
It was strange how monotonous the nunnery seemed without Jeno. Whenever the other boy was not there, Renjun found himself at a loss of what to do. Only two months ago, he would have been content to work on any chore, to fill his time by sitting at the table with the other maidens, listening to them chatter about the weather that day or an old, dust-covered memory. But now, those things seemed not enough. Renjun always tried to bury that feeling as deeply as he could. But that night, it had crawled to the surface, gnawing at him: the want for even just one more minute of Jeno’s company.
Renjun removed his sandals at the monastery door. Inside, as expected, the place was empty. Renjun turned down the hall, towards the guest rooms.
He stopped when he heard a woman’s voice.
Renjun pressed himself to the hallway wall at the corner. The words slipped from under the botanist’s bedroom door in a frantic, muffled rush.
“I told you, I need more time,” the woman said.
“I don’t know if I can believe you anymore,” Dr. Cho responded. “I’ve waited for months. The university is going to revoke my funding, and I’ll be stranded out here. I’ve done so much to make this work, but we’re still stuck sneaking around -- this isn’t what I want.”
“It isn’t easy.” The woman’s voice rose. “You’re asking me to uproot my entire life. You’re asking me to leave everyone behind --”
“What’s more important? Me, or this place?”
“That isn’t the problem,” she said. “It isn’t you or this place. It’s you, or my entire family. I know you don’t understand it. But my sisters -- and Renjun --” She broke off, voice hoarse. “And my faith. I made a vow, Jungho.”
Dr. Cho was silent. There was a shuffle of footsteps, and then Jungsoon was bursting from the bedroom door, face tear-streaked. Renjun made himself as small as he could against the wall, his heartbeat thumping quickly; but Jungsoon went the other way, to the far end of the hall and out the back door.
Renjun did not move. He could not process what he had just seen.
Beyond the botanist’s room, Jeno’s door slid open. Renjun could see from the look on his face that he had also heard the whole thing, but he seemed unsurprised by it.
Jeno’s eyes found Renjun’s in the dark of the hall. His breath seemed to catch.
“Hey,” he said.
“Hey,” Renjun echoed.
SURPRISE!! an update in under a week! just like the good old days!
i bet y'all thought jeno and renjun were gonna kiss this chapter.......BUT.............
thanks again to everyone reading! only a few more chapters left!
Renjun stayed stock still at the hallway corner. The only thing that moved were his eyes, back and forth from Dr. Cho’s closed door to Jeno’s face.
“Did you know?” he finally asked.
Jeno anxiously licked his lips. “Come in. We’ll talk.”
“No.” Renjun shook his head. “I shouldn’t.”
The boy backed up, down the hall and out of Jeno’s vision. The outside door slid open and shut with a heavy thud.
The botanist left the next day.
When Jeno awoke, he discovered Dr. Cho’s belongings stacked in a neat pile outside his bedroom door. Dr. Cho himself was doing up the buttons of his jacket beside them.
“Oh,” Jeno said, because he could not think of anything else to say.
Somehow, the botanist knew what he meant. “It’s about time, huh?”
“I’m sorry it happened like this,” Jeno said.
“It was bound to.” The botanist picked up his suitcase and carried it to the front step. Then he was gone.
Jeno was nervous to visit the nunnery. He was nervous to see Renjun again. He was nervous to see the look on Jungsoon’s face. But he knew there was no avoiding it forever, because even if he tried to resist, he was always pulled back by a nagging, aching feeling in his gut; something like a gravitational pull.
Surprisingly, he found that business carried on as always. He wasn’t sure why he expected any differently. Insook was hanging laundry on the line. The prioress was sweeping the porch. Renjun stood far off in the kitchen. He turned to see Jeno standing in the sitting room, then turned pointedly back around.
Jungsoon entered from her chambers, face impassive. “Hello, Jeno,” she said.
“What’s that look for?” she asked him.
“What do you mean?”
“You have the look of a man attending a funeral.” Her lips bent into the slightest hint of a smile.
“Yes. Very dour.” Absentmindedly, she examined a loose thread that hung from the sleeve of her robes. “No one’s died, have they?”
Jeno had the sudden, distinct impression that she did not know what had happened.
“I think we ought to talk,” Jeno said.
Jungsoon tilted her head. Then she raised a hand, gesturing for him to follow her down the back hall.
The maidens’ shared bedroom was large, the floor covered in bedrolls. Jungsoon’s bouquet of flowers sat in the window, as Jeno had suspected. She leaned against the wall beside it, arms crossed. “What is it?”
“Dr. Cho left the island.”
While her face did not move, Jeno could see a flicker in her eyes as she registered his words. Carefully, she asked, “Why are you telling me this?”
“I know all about it,” Jeno said. “I happened to pick up on a few hints. It’s difficult to keep secrets on an island as small as this one.”
Jungsoon bit her lip. Then, realizing that there was no use in hiding it, she allowed herself to cry, in a silent, almost serene way, as if she knew all along that this had been inevitable.
“I’m sorry,” Jeno said.
She dragged her index finger along her cheek, collecting her tears. “You must think I’m an absolute fool,” she said. “What on earth was I thinking?”
“Were you in love with him?”
“Something like that.” She leaned back, turning her face towards the ceiling. “Maybe this island’s just driven me mad. Maybe I was just stir-crazy.”
“You shouldn’t blame yourself.”
Her head jerked back down. Looking Jeno in the eye, she said, “I live a life built around self-control. It’s my skill and my trade. Even though you want to sympathize, and I appreciate that, it was my fault. I should have done better.”
The breeze from the window stirred the hydrangea flowers. Jungsoon took a long, deep breath, drinking in their scent.
“I must say,” she said, “I’m pretty impressed with your detective work, Jeno. What was your first clue?”
A small, guilty smile rose on Jeno’s face. “Well. I guess when I found out that Dr. Cho had extended his research trip by six months without permission. That was my first tip off. Though it took a little longer for me to put all the pieces together.”
“Did he tell you that himself?”
“No. I read his mail.”
Jungsoon laughed. “My, my, Jeno. I didn’t know you were such a troublemaker.”
“Don’t tell anyone I’m a mail thief. I don’t want to get kicked off the island.”
She walked to him, and placed a hand on his shoulder. “A secret for a secret, then?”
“Come along, then. There’s work to be done, of course.”
Jeno followed her back into the sitting room, where she put on her sandals, left through the open porch door, and met Renjun at the woodstove. Jungsoon said something to the boy, but he did not acknowledge her; he only pulled his pot from the stove, and carried it far to the edge of the field to drain it. Jungsoon stood alone, her face fallen.
Jeno could tell, even from such a distance, that Renjun’s shoulders had slumped, weighed down from weary, betrayed heartache.
Renjun did not speak to Jeno until late that evening.
Jeno was inside, stitching a cushion at the prioress’s request, seated at the table. Around him, the maidens shared candied hawthorn fruits, just like Renjun had mentioned before, though Jeno did not partake; he was not in the mood for sweets.
Suddenly, he felt a hand on his shoulder, and turned to see Renjun bent over him. When Jeno met his eye, Renjun looked away shyly, and Jeno saw an echo of the boy he’d first met, withdrawn into himself, fearful of a stranger’s attention. But they were no longer strangers; Jeno, with a smile warm enough to melt all frostiness, said, “What is it, Renjun-ah?”
The ice shattered. Renjun returned Jeno’s smile and said, “Come with me. The fireflies are out.”
He led Jeno out to the porch, sliding the door shut behind them, so that, for a moment, the world was only him, Jeno, the dark expanse of the island at night, and a hundred fireflies, flickering over the grass like flying sparks. The two of them sat close together, braced against the slight oncoming chill of autumn wind.
“I thought this might be the last time they’re out,” Renjun said, “before it gets too cold for them.”
“They’re pretty,” Jeno responded.
“I used to try to catch them.” The fireflies’ glow shimmered like candlelight in Renjun’s eyes. “When I was little. I had a net, and I’d chase them like they were shooting stars. Once I caught them, I’d put them in a jar, place it by my bed, and watch them glow until I fell asleep.”
Jeno laughed. “That’s cute. It sounds like something you would do.” He shifted, so his shoulder pressed against Renjun’s. Renjun did not move away.
“But then, I wouldn’t want to let them go. Jungsoon always told me to, but then I would hide the jar. And of course, they would die trapped like that, and I would start bawling. It was so silly,” Renjun said, his voice with a wistful waver, “because of course I knew better. I knew they would die if I didn’t let them go, but I kept them anyway.”
Jeno looked at where Renjun’s hand lay, folded in his lap. He wondered what Renjun would do if he took it, interlaced their fingers, traced Renjun’s birthmark with his thumb.
“I’m sorry I didn’t talk to you last night,” Renjun said. “I was scared.”
“Of things changing. Of Jungsoon leaving.” He pasued. “Of secrets being kept from me.”
“Are you mad that I didn’t tell you?” Jeno asked.
“No. I never was, really.” Renjun sighed, the heaviness of his heart almost tangible. “I just couldn’t believe it. The whole thing. It wasn’t your fault.”
“I’m sorry,” Jeno said. His knee bumped Renjun’s, and the boy brightened slightly at the touch.
“Don’t be,” Renjun said. “I’m okay now. She’s still here. I guess that’s what matters the most.”
“Has she talked to you?”
Renjun shook his head. “She doesn’t know that I even found out. And she hasn’t told anyone about it. In a way, I feel a little bad that’s she’s keeping a secret from me. But I suppose everyone has secrets, right?”
Jeno wanted to ask Renjun what secrets he kept. He wanted Renjun to tell him every little thing, every sorrow he’d ever hidden away, every memory that had ever brought a shy smile to lips, everything he’d never told anyone else before. But Jeno said nothing, the questions hanging silently in the air like a ghost.
“So I forgive her,” Renjun continued. “Things can just go back to normal now.”
“I’m surprised,” Jeno admitted, “that you’ve forgiven her so easily.”
“Since she broke her vows.”
Renjun paused. “What do you mean by that?”
“They were sleeping together.”
“Well. I know they were seeing each other for about six months. Not to be crude, but that sounds like a lot of time spent for only a peck on the lips.”
“Oh.” Renjun blinked. “I guess I don’t really know anything about that kind of stuff.”
“Do you blame her?” Jeno asked. “Maybe it’s different for you, but most people don’t live their lives without once thinking about love and sex. It’s human nature.”
“You said to me once,” Jeno continued, “that a maiden shouldn’t even be having those kinds of thoughts.”
“I know,” Renjun repeated. “Jungsoon made a mistake. I know that.”
“I’m not trying to convince you to be mad at her,” Jeno clarified. “I’m just -- do you ever think, even for a second, that some of you are not meant to live like this? What if Jungsoon would be happier if she had left with Dr. Cho? What if, when she came here, she was too young to know what she really wanted?”
“I don’t know. Maybe she would be happier somewhere else.” The fireflies continued their dance, surreal in the night. Renjun was not looking at them. His eyes were fixed on the ground instead. “But you say that like it’s the only way to be happy. I don’t think that’s right. I could leave now and fall in love and get married, and it would be an easier life than this one, but I couldn’t be happy that way.”
Jeno felt those words like a slap to the face.
“You really think you can’t fall in love and be happy?” Jeno asked, voice low and pained. “That’s really what you think?”
Renjun sharply met Jeno’s eye, and drew himself away from his touch, their shoulders parting. “Stop it.”
“I said, stop it.”
“Listen to me.”
“No,” Renjun said firmly. “Listen to me. I know you think I don’t ever think about love and sex and marriage or whatever, but I do.” His cheeks were flushed, and his eyes dark with frustration. “I think about it all the time. And I hate it. It hurts.” His fingers twisted into the fabric of his robes, making fists. “But I’m not taking the easy way out, Jeno. I’m not giving up on this place just because you want me to.”
“Why do you want to stay somewhere that makes you miserable?” Jeno felt his voice rising in desperation, but he couldn’t help it. “You’re not happy here, Renjun, I can tell. The only reason you think you are, is because it’s the only place you’ve ever known. Ever since you were a baby you’ve thought this island was the entire world, but it’s not.”
“I was happy,” Renjun insisted. Jeno had not noticed when the tears had risen in the boy’s eyes, but now they had spilled over; bitter, angry tears. His voice shook as he said, “I was perfectly happy here until you showed up. You’re what’s making me miserable.”
“Renjun,” Jeno pleaded.
Renjun slid off the edge of the porch, standing in the blinking light of the fireflies, here then gone, here then gone. Then he marched off towards the forest, without looking back, his silhouette swallowed by the night.
Behind Jeno, the screen door slid open. Kyunghee looked down at him and said, “What happened? I heard yelling. Where’s Renjun?”
“I don’t know,” Jeno lied.
Kyunghee raised a brow, but said nothing else. She shut the door, and left Jeno with the fireflies as his only company.
me, titling this chapter: ehehehehehehe.............i will fool them all......
SURPRISE AGAIN!! i'm really on a roll now.......
thank you all again for reading ❤❤
Chapter 12: Secret Places
For Jeno, the best solution to a nagging mind was hard work. Shovel in hand, he continued to dig up shallow holes down the footpath. He was so close to finishing now that the priory gate stood only twenty feet or so away. The changing season had brought better weather for such a task, the cool breeze a relief as it ran through his hair.
Every so often, his thoughts would slip back to the previous night. He could see the fireflies' glow swallowing Renjun’s figure like flames, illuminating the teardrops on his face so they shone like diamonds. It was beautiful and agonizing at once. Jeno wanted to erase it.
Back and forth he went from beach to path, lugging jagged stones that cut his fingers like glass. With each one that he tucked into its hollow like a piece of the puzzle, he felt a growing satisfaction that outpaced the aching in his arms and the slowing of his legs. When he finally pressed the last stone into the ground with his foot, he was fully spent, though not empty; the sense of accomplishment had filled him up, and he fell back into the grass with an exhausted, exhilarated smile on his face.
He turned his head, his eyes tracing the path he’d built from the nunnery to the monastery, a tiny bridge from one world to the next. It dawned on him them how final everything seemed, like if he went down to the beach he wouldn’t be surprised to find a boat there, awaiting his departure. If he left today, what would Renjun do? Would he be happy that Jeno was gone, no longer there to make him miserable? The thought of it was like a rope coiling Jeno’s heart, pulling taught in a noose, choking the happiness he’d felt a minute ago right out of him.
He did not want to leave Renjun behind, yet he could not imagine looking him in the eye again after the previous night. He wanted to stay, yet he wanted to run away. Frustrated, and with a stinging deep in his chest, Jeno threw his arm over his eyes, killing the tears before they could appear.
There was a rustling in the grass beside him. Quickly, he uncovered his face and looked up at their robed silhouette, half-hoping it was Renjun, half-dreading it. It was not him, but the prioress, who stood with her hands folded behind her back.
“You’ve finished it,” she observed.
“About time, huh?”
“Nice work, Jeno.” There was a touch of warmth in her voice. “Does a cup of tea sound good?”
Jeno had never been to the prioress’s quarters before. It was a small room, mostly empty aside from her bedroll and a short desk in the corner, tidily kept, with a pot of ink resting atop it. She sat, then invited Jeno to join her, setting the freshly boiled pot of tea down and beginning to pour two cups.
“You’ll be leaving soon, then?” she began.
“Oh. I suppose so.”
She slid his cup across her desk. “I wanted to thank you for your help over the past two months. You’ve been a very valuable resource to us here.”
“You’re welcome. I was glad to do it.”
The prioress took a long sip of her tea before saying, “Are you and Renjun at odds right now?”
She’s too clever for comfort, Jeno thought. “How did you know?”
“He’s been in a bad mood all morning. Every time I look at him, he’s scowling.”
“He wears his emotions right on his face, that one.”
“I’ve noticed.” Jeno stared down into his cup, watching the steam rise, curl, and dissipate in the air. “Yes. He’s angry at me.”
“It’s a shame,” the prioress said. “You two always get along so well. He seems to brighten up when you’re around.”
“He does?” Jeno asked too quickly, unable to hide his pleasure.
“Haven't you noticed?” She cast him a thoughtful look. “He adores you. And as much as us maidens adore him, sometimes we can’t be enough for him. No matter how long he lives here, he’ll always be one step outside of our world. And he knows it.”
“You could be enough for him,” she said. Her eyes were sharp, knowing.
Way, way too clever.
“Whatever it was you two were fighting about,” the prioress continued, “you ought to settle it. You don’t want to leave while you two are on bad terms, do you?”
“You’re right. I’ll talk to him, if he’ll let me.” Jeno set his cup back on the desk, having not taken a single sip. “Where is he now?”
The prioress’s gaze flickered past Jeno’s head. “Renjun,” she said loudly, “do you perchance happen to be standing behind my door?”
“No,” Renjun said.
The prioress smiled wryly. “Come in now, please, eavesdropper.”
Renjun did as he was told, wringing his hands in embarrassment while he stood in the doorway. Jeno met his eye, and was surprised to find that Renjun held it, his face apprehensive but sober.
“Come with me?” Renjun asked.
Jeno was led out from the porch, north as if heading towards the shrine, but Renjun took a slight right, towards a far stretch of trees. Somehow, the silence was not uncomfortable. Perhaps, with everything having been said, the storm had passed, and now the two of them were walking in the proceeding calm, accepting of each other’s spilt-over hurt.
“I’m sorry about last night,” Renjun finally said.
“I’m the one who should apologize. I was trying to make you mad.”
Renjun shook his head. “You were right about a lot of things. I just didn’t want to hear them.”
They crossed the threshold of the trees into the forest. Renjun was a step ahead at first, leading the way, but he slowed to keep by Jeno’s side. Then, as if it was the most natural thing in the world, Jeno reached out and took Renjun’s hand. They did not meet each other’s eyes, because they did not need to; the press of their palms together said enough.
Jeno did not know where Renjun was taking him. He remembered how, when he’d first come to the island, he thought he would be bored of the place in a week, having exhausted every inch of it. But his time there had been full of distractions (namely, a certain boy with soft eyes and a softer smile), and he had never bothered to wander this deeply into the woods on his own. Here, the trail was plush with thickets of ferns, still deep green even into the beginning of autumn. Distantly, he heard the swirling spill of a stream, and could smell its clear, fresh scent.
Surely enough, they came upon it, inside a small clearing where the sun shone through the branches in small beads, speckling the tree trunks like raindrops. The ground there was covered in moss, pillow-soft underfoot. The stream ran around smoothed brown stones that shone like bronze coins. On the other side, a tawny rabbit chewed on a clover flower, unalarmed at the boys’ arrival.
“Is this what you wanted to show me?” Jeno asked.
“Yes.” Renjun squeezed his hand, fingertips tracing over knuckles. “This is a place I come to a lot. Whenever I’m feeling sad, or angry, or I’m about to cry, this is where I hide. It makes me feel better.”
“Is this where you went last night after I made you mad?”
Without looking at each other, they both smiled.
“I’ve never brought anyone else here before,” Renjun said. “It’s my secret place. It has been, ever since I was little. I wanted you to see it. I don’t know why.”
Jeno wondered if everyone on the island had a secret place. Being surrounded by the same people everyday, going through the same routines, sharing all the same things, must be terribly tiresome. It made sense that everyone should have their own hideaway, a place where they did not need to sacrifice themselves for the sake of everybody else. Some place that belonged only to them.
Jeno turned to look at Renjun. He was staring demurely downward, shy at his own vulnerability.
“I’m glad you showed it to me,” Jeno said. “I’m glad you trusted me enough to.” He took a moment to memorize every detail, every blade of grass, the very scent of the breeze in the trees. He tried to imagine how many times over the years Renjun had come there, laid down in the moss, allowed himself to break because he was too scared to do it front of someone else. That little clearing suddenly seemed to hold so much importance, as if the whole world had been built around it.
Jeno did not notice that Renjun had come closer until the boy was already pressing a clumsy kiss to the side of Jeno’s mouth. It took him a second to register what was happening; but when he did, he turned his head so their lips met properly, placing his hands on Renjun’s waist and pulling him in. Jeno could no longer hear the rush of the stream or the call of the birds, because Renjun’s kiss made them nothing. He could not feel the ground under his feet, because he could only focus on Renjun’s mouth and Renjun’s hand, which had found Jeno’s cheek in a careful, covetous caress.
For a moment, they parted, catching their breaths. Renjun’s face was flushed and hot, turned slightly away, and he bit his lip as if he was savoring the kiss. Jeno lifted Renjun’s chin, forcing him to meet his gaze. He did not have to ask, are you sure this is what you want? because the answer shone like a light in Renjun’s eyes.
Jeno kissed him again. The island was perfectly still around them, as if the world had stopped turning.
Renjun sat across the table, his chin perched on his hand. It was lunchtime, all the nuns having gathered to eat, and Insook was telling a story about the time her sandal had been stolen by a mischievous fox and she’d had to chase it all the way to the beach, except Jeno was not really listening, because Renjun would not stop staring at him. When the maidens laughed, Jeno joined in, though he had not heard what was funny. Renjun continued staring. Jeno considered kicking him under the table, because could he be any more obvious?
Jeno met Renjun’s eye. Renjun bit his lip. Jeno shook his head as subtly as he could manage.
Jolted back to reality, he responded, “Yes?”
“Kyunghee wanted to know what day you’re leaving,” Jungsoon said.
“Oh, sorry. I was zoning out.” Jeno offered a bashful smile. “I think some time next week. Before it gets too cold on the water.”
“That reminds me,” Kyunghee said. “Remember the time Insook wanted to go swimming in November? So she put on her thick coat and --”
“Hey,” Insook whined. “Don’t tell that story!”
The maidens fell back into conversation.
Renjun continued to study Jeno’s face. Then, he stood, walked around the table, and tapped Jeno gently on the shoulder before walking into his bedroom. Jeno peered quickly at everyone’s faces, but none of them seemed to notice Renjun’s disappearance; they were too wrapped up in their memories. Silently, Jeno stood too, and followed Renjun.
Once Jeno closed the door behind him, Renjun immediately threw his arms around Jeno’s neck and pulled him in for a kiss. Surprised but pleased, Jeno leaned into it, pressing Renjun’s body back against the wall, cradling the boy’s face in his hands.
“We’ve gotta stop doing this,” Jeno said between kisses.
“Shut up,” Renjun responded. His hands slipped to Jeno’s chest, grabbing onto the front of his shirt, desperate for their lips to meet again. Jeno did as he was told; there was no arguing when he could smell the flowered scent of Renjun’s skin, and feel the shiver-inducing press of their tongues. Somehow, he was still amazed at the thought of Renjun is kissing me. Every time felt like the first.
The last few days had been just like this, all secrets and stolen kisses, hiding away in the trees or behind closed doors. Each time, Jeno felt a distinct thrill when Renjun would slip his hand into his, lean against his shoulder, peck him on the cheek. It was strange how, just a week ago, Jeno thought Renjun’s affection might be impossible, dangerous, doomed to exist only in his imagination; now that he had the real thing, every day was like walking in a dream.
Jeno broke the kiss. “I just think we need to be more careful. You’re a little too obvious sometimes. I thought you were gonna stare a hole right through my head.”
Renjun giggled, then pressed his lips to the side of Jeno’s jaw. “I can’t help it. I like you too much.”
“I kind of figured that out.”
“But I’ve never told you it. How much I like you.”
“How much is that, exactly?”
“Very, very, very, very much.”
“You forgot a very.”
“This is all feeling rather one-sided,” Renjun complained.
Jeno smirked. “I also like you very, very, very, very, very much.”
Renjun could not respond, because a huge smile had overtaken his face, rendering him speechless.
There were footsteps behind the door. Quickly, they broke apart before Jungsoon walked in.
“Oh,” she said. “I was wondering where you went.”
“Jeno wanted to borrow one of my books,” Renjun said.
“I see. Will he have time to read it before he leaves?”
Jeno and Renjun both remained quiet for a moment, quickly catching each other’s eye. Then Jeno answered, “Yeah. I’m a fast reader.”
Jungsoon stepped out and shut the door. Renjun, his face having fallen, stared down at the floor.
“I don’t want you to leave,” he said.
Jeno shut his eyes. “I know.”
That night, Jeno ate dinner at the monastery. He had become spoiled by the colorful, fresh food of the maidens; the only thing on the menu among the monks was white rice.
There was less warmth in the conversations here. Every little thing was a reminder of why Renjun preferred the nunnery: clipped responses, judgemental stares, the uncomfortable silence as everyone chewed. Jeno found himself missing Dr. Cho’s company -- at least he had been decent to talk to.
“So, Jeno here will be leaving soon,” Eun finally said, killing the empty air with put-on disappointment. “We’ll be sad to see you go.”
“Thank you,” Jeno responded.
“I thought you seemed to become quite at home among the nuns. Perhaps they softened you.”
Jeno raised a brow. “In what way?”
Eun shrugged. “You’ve seen Renjun for yourself. Babied all his life, and now he’s chosen to live as one of the fairer sex.”
“That isn’t true,” Jeno said. “He hasn’t been babied. He works as hard as any man here. And he doesn’t think himself a girl, either, if that’s what you’re implying.” Jeno thought back to what Renjun had said to him weeks ago, sitting in the tall grass, hurt written on his face with knife-sharp clarity. “Rather, he lives with the maidens because they’re good to him. They never tell him he’s useless.”
Every monk became perfectly still.
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Eun said.
“You know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Eun grimaced, the lines of his face becoming deep and forbidding, a vein pulsing at his temple.
Jeno placed his chopsticks across his empty bowl, then left for his chambers.
He sat on the floor and pulled his journal from his bag. Before he began to write, he looked around, thinking how used he was now to staring at this particular ceiling, sleeping on this particular bed. In a short time, he would leave, and never return. Part of him was wistful. Part of him thought, Good riddance.
From his window, he heard the howl of a coyote. Another answered it, creating a mournful duet. Jeno dipped his pen in ink, and wrote:
I will never understand how Renjun existed here for the full nineteen years of his life.
Maybe, someday, he would ask him. He wanted them to be close like that, where no feelings were buried too deep to reach, where sadness was not shamed away.
Jeno stood and left for the nunnery; or rather, for Renjun.
The beach sand was turned to gold dust by the setting sun. That day it was warm, thought the breeze off the sea was an icy breath, an overhanging reminder of the oncoming winter. The sky was picturesque, a messy, beautiful splattering of pink and orange oil paints which trickled towards the horizon. To Jeno, it seemed somehow sad.
He and Renjun lay together, thankful for a moment alone. Renjun’s head rested on Jeno’s arm like it was a pillow. Jeno combed his fingers through Renjun’s hair while he studied every detail of the boy’s face: the freckle on his forehead, the soft curve of his cheek, the sloping bow of his lips. Jeno leaned closer and kissed him. Three times on the mouth, twice on the hollow beneath his ear, once to the soft skin of his throat.
“Jeno,” Renjun said, voice tinged with warning. He had not yet decided whether he wanted to break his vows. Jeno sometimes forgot this, caught up in the moment, and became too intimate. Immediately regretful, he would push no further, for fear of scaring Renjun away. Besides, kisses were enough for now; they were more than he had ever thought possible.
“Sorry,” he responded.
They both looked up into the sky. A flock of gulls circled like a halo, brash and noisy, unaware of the solemn quiet beneath.
“I don’t know what to do,” Renjun whispered.
“Come with me.”
“It’s easier said than done.”
“Please.” Jeno turned his head. Renjun was chewing on his bottom lip, his eyebrows slanted into a sorrowful expression. “We can leave, and we can go anywhere, just the two of us. Together.”
“I’m afraid,” Renjun admitted.
“Of what? New places?”
Renjun hesitated, but ultimately decided there should be no secrets between them. “I’m afraid that I’m not enough for you,” he said.
Jeno blinked. “What do you mean? Don’t say that. It isn’t true.”
“It is.” Renjun narrowed his eyes, a feeble attempt at holding back tears. “Jeno, I’ve lived in one place all my life. This island is the only thing I have. It made me who I am. Once I leave it, what’s left? Nothing. I won’t have anything at all. And that isn’t enough for you. You deserve more than that.”
“You won’t have nothing,” Jeno said, voice wracked with concern. “You’ll have me.”
Renjun shook his head. A tear trickled towards his ear. “You know that’s no good, Jeno. I can’t have only you. It sounds romantic and all, but it’s dangerous. What if we fall out of love? Then I’ll really have nothing.”
Jeno knew this was true, and it scared him. He didn’t want to steal Renjun’s everything away. He didn’t want to think about how they might not stay together forever. He breathed in, and it stung, somewhere deep in his chest, like a needle threaded through his heart.
“I’m sorry, Jeno. I just need time to think.”
“Are you mad at me?”
“No.” Jeno wriggled his arm from beneath Renjun’s head, and instead took the boy’s hand. “We’ve been mad at each other enough, over silly things. From now on, let’s be kind to each other.”
Renjun sniffled, then smiled. “Okay.”
Jeno lifted Renjun’s hand, and pressed his lips to the birthmark on its back.
another pretty short chapter; i hope all the kissing makes up for it lmao
only one proper chapter left, and then an epilogue after that! it's crazy to think it'll be over soon.......but then onto new projects!
thank y'all again for reading!!
When Jeno arrived at the nunnery in the morning, he was carrying a bouquet of hydrangeas.
He found Renjun outside, hanging the laundry on the line, just as he had been doing the first time they ever spoke. Jeno remembered the way Renjun had dodged his eyes and stood far away, afraid of being known. What had been the moment that wall had broken down? Jeno did not know; all he knew was that he felt a profound, indescribable gratefulness that he was the one the wall had broken down for.
When Renjun saw the flowers, his face lit up with love, and he ran to meet Jeno at the gate. “Thank you, Delivery Boy,” he said, taking the bouquet in his arms.
“I’m always right on time, aren’t I?”
“If you weren’t, I’d have fired you by now.”
Jeno snorted, then leaned in as if he might have kissed Renjun, but caught himself. Just beyond where they stood, the other maidens were all about, busy with morning work.
“Careful,” Renjun said softly.
“I know. Let’s go for a walk?”
Once among the trees, they took each other’s hands. That day, the sky was half-clouds, half-blue, and seemingly endless. The branches that tickled it were beginning to turn brown, as if dyed by the sun. The wind that blew through became colder everyday, lifting Renjun’s sleeves and making the branches above their heads sway in a gentle dance. Things were changing. Jeno took comfort in this.
“Have you thought about it?” he asked.
Jeno squeezed Renjun’s hand, wondering if the boy could feel his giddiness. “And?”
Renjun stopped walking. Jeno faced him, and saw in Renjun’s eyes a conviction so firm, so bright it nearly knocked him over, and no matter what Renjun’s answer was, he knew then that he loved him more than anything.
“I’m coming with you,” Renjun said.
Jeno was so shocked, he could not move for a moment. When he finally did, it was to sweep Renjun right off his feet, pressing a million kisses to his cheeks, his forehead, his nose. His arms circled tight around Renjun’s waist as if he would never let him go. The hydrangea blossoms in Renjun’s hand scattered petals on the ground at the sudden movement.
“Hey!” Renjun broke into a fit of giggles. “Jeno!”
“Can’t help it,” Jeno murmured. “Too happy.”
Renjun, still held high, put his free hand to Jeno’s face to keep it steady, and placed a proper kiss to his lips. It was difficult to do, as they both had to keep from smiling; quite a struggle considering the circumstances.
“You’re for real?” Jeno asked. “This isn’t a joke?”
“Not a joke. One hundred percent for real.”
“I can’t believe it.”
“It’s true, whether you believe it or not. Now, put me down before you crush my bouquet.”
Jeno obliged. Still dazed at the news, he allowed Renjun to lead him onward.
“What made you decide?” Jeno asked.
“I don’t know. I guess I just…” Renjun trailed off. His eyes became distant with thought. “I was thinking how I’ve never left, and… I was imagining what it would be like if I was an old man, and still here on this island, and it was the only place I had ever seen. And that scared me more than the thought of leaving did.”
Jeno could hear that very fear in his voice, a subtle tremble that laced every word. He linked their fingers, hoping Renjun might find solace in the touch.
“I always read about places in books,” Renjun continued, “and when I tried to imagine them, I found it to be so hard. Pictures help, but a lot of books don’t have them. I wonder if I’ll be shocked by what the world looks like.”
“What do you want to see most?” Jeno asked. “We can go anywhere. Where should we go first?”
“Well.” Renjun raised a contemplative finger to his chin. “I’ve always wanted to go to a library.”
Jeno laughed. “A library?”
“Did I say something stupid?” Renjun’s cheeks went red.
“No --” Jeno scrambled to find the right words. “It’s just -- libraries are so ordinary. Though not to you, I suppose. I was just surprised.”
“We’ll go to a library, then. That will be our first order of business.”
“Where do you want to go, Jeno?”
Jeno frowned. Before he’d come to the island, he had an endless list of places he’d wanted to see: the East Sea, the plains of Honam, Mount Jiri. Now, it didn’t seem to matter where he went, so long as Renjun went with him.
“How about Seoul?” he finally offered.
“Haven’t you been to Seoul already?”
“Yeah. But I think you should see it at least once.”
“Whatever happened to your black ink?” Renjun asked. “I thought there was no going back, once you marked it on your map.”
“I’ll make an exception, for a rookie traveler.”
Renjun smirked. “In that case, can’t we stop in at your hometown? We could visit your father.”
“I see what you’re trying to do, Renjun.”
“Oh, come on.” Renjun tugged on Jeno’s hand. “I want to see the house you grew up in. I want to see the school you went to. I want to see all that stuff.” When Jeno didn’t agree, Renjun tried a new tactic, putting on an exaggerated pout. “You got to see all that kind of stuff for me. You even got to see my secret place. This would make us even. Please?” He batted his eyelashes.
Jeno groaned. There was no denying Renjun, especially when he begged so cutely. “Alright, alright. We’ll go to my hometown.”
Renjun whooped and kissed him on the cheek.
Jeno soon realized that Renjun was leading him to the shrine. They came upon it, and Renjun stepped forward and opened its doors. The golden statue sat inside, just as immaculately shined as it had been the last time Jeno saw it. Renjun slipped an incense from a jar beside it, and lit it in its dish with a match. The clearing was filled with the scent of burning sandalwood. Through the rising smoke, Jeno saw a look of sorrow pass over Renjun’s face.
“Are you alright?” he asked.
“Just a little sad,” Renjun answered. “I’ll miss it here.”
“Do you feel bad? About…”
“Leaving?” Renjun offered. “Quitting? Breaking my vows?”
That third one had not happened yet, at least not properly. Jeno blushed at the way Renjun said it aloud, unashamedly. “Yeah.”
“I do. But I’ll get over it. If our god is real, I think he’ll forgive me.” Renjun lifted his bouquet, then set it down on the altar beside the incense dish. He turned to Jeno. “Is it okay? If I leave them here?”
“Of course.” Jeno smiled. “They’re yours. You can do what you want with them.”
“Alright.” Renjun returned to Jeno’s side, and they began to walk back towards the nunnery. He kept turning to look back, watching where the hydrangea blossoms sat tucked in the shrine until they were too far away to see, lost among the trees.
When they returned, the prioress stood at the crest of the hill, apart from the others, watching the boys with a bemused expression.
“I was wondering where the two of you went,” she said.
“Ah -- just for a walk,” Renjun said. “Did you want something?”
“I thought maybe you had something you wanted to tell me.”
Jeno and Renjun looked at each other, unsure. Then Jeno swallowed his apprehension and said, “We’re leaving the island. Both of us.”
The prioress didn’t even blink, perfectly unfazed. “When?”
“Um.” Jeno looked at Renjun again. “I was thinking the day after tomorrow. When the courier arrives. We could ride back to the mainland with him.”
Renjun seemed a little surprised at how soon it would be, lips parted in a sharp inhale, but he ultimately remained resolute and nodded.
“Do you have everything you need?”
“Yes,” Jeno responded. “Renjun will have to pack, but --”
“Do you want me to pack you some food? Some rice and fruit for the road?”
“Yeah. That would be great. Thank you.”
“I’ll do that then.” The prioress smiled. “Don’t be strangers during your last days. Come and visit with us.”
“No one else knows,” Renjun said, “that I’m leaving.”
“Then it isn’t my secret to tell. That will be your responsibility.” With that, she turned and went back to the yard.
Renjun looked at Jeno, incredulous. “How’d she know?”
“I think she’s had an inkling for a little while.”
“Eery.” Renjun gave an anxious little shiver, then stared down at the ground.
“Is it okay, what I said?” Jeno placed a hand on Renjun’s shoulder. “If the day after tomorrow is too soon, we could always wait a little longer.”
“No. It’s fine.” Renjun put his hand over Jeno’s. “I’m nervous. But I’m excited, too.”
The breeze pushed them onward, up the hill and back to the nunnery.
Renjun did not tell anyone he was leaving the rest of the day.
It almost happened a few times. He would catch Kyunghee’s eye, feel the words rise on his lips. But then she would smile and say something like, “I can’t wait to see the island in the snow again this year. Can you?” and he would lose all his courage.
Every so often, he could feel Jeno looking at him with a sideways expression. He was waiting for Renjun to break the news, as it was his news to break; yet Renjun still could not bring himself to.
When the sun rose in the morning, he knew he had only one more day.
He dressed, walked out from his room, and found Jungsoon having just done the same thing, still adjusting the tightness of her bun.
“Renjun-ah.” She wrapped her arm around his shoulders, leading him out to the porch. “It’s a pretty day today, isn’t it?”
“Yeah.” The sky was so grey it was white, soft like an angel’s wings stretched over their heads. Out in the field, a family of deer bent over the grass, chewing lazily and flicking their tails.
In the way of a mother preening her child, Jungsoon combed her fingers through Renjun’s hair. “You’re quiet,” she said. “What’s wrong?”
“Renjun,” she said firmly. “You can’t fool me.”
He sighed, then peered around. It seemed he and Jungsoon were the first two up; the other maidens might be five or ten minutes from waking. The timing was perfect. Renjun chewed his lip, trying to be brave.
“I have something to tell you, actually.”
“What is it?”
“It’s important. I… you’ll hate me, once I tell you.”
Jungsoon’s eyes widened in concern. She took his elbow and pulled him down, so they both sat on the porch’s edge. “What do you mean? I wouldn’t hate you over anything, Renjun.”
“But you will. I know it.”
Jungsoon squeezed his hand. “Tell me.”
“I’m leaving,” he finally managed. “I’m leaving the island tomorrow. For good, maybe.”
Jungsoon’s mouth hung slightly open. “I never thought it would really happen,” she admitted.
She looked away. “Why? Why now?”
Letting the words down gently, carefully, as if they were made of fine china, Renjun said, “Jeno asked me to come with him.”
Jungsoon froze. “You’re going with him?”
She looked into his eyes, searching for the meaning of it. Then, her voice sharp, like the edge of broken saucer, “Renjun. Don’t -- don’t make the same mistake I did.” Her eyes shone with budding tears. “I never told you -- but I --”
“I already know,” he said.
“You do? Jeno told you?”
Renjun shook his head. “I found out myself.”
Jungsoon swallowed, her eyes narrowed as if it had hurt to do. “I regret it all the time, Renjun. After -- what I did -- things won’t ever be the same for me. Every day since, I’ve felt like an impostor.” A tear trickled down her cheek. “I’m afraid you’ll regret it, too.”
“I know.” Renjun put a hand on her arm, pleadingly. “I know you’re worried about me. But Jungsoon-ah, you raised me so well. I work hard. I listen well. I always do what I’m told. So let me make a choice on my own. Just this once.”
“You won’t regret it?” she asked.
“There’s no way to tell right now.” Renjun reached out, wiping the tears from her face with his sleeve. “If I didn’t do things because I thought I might regret them, I would never do anything. And I don’t want to like a life like that. Not anymore.”
Jungsoon nodded. Then, she let out a little laugh and said, “We’re so easily swayed by love, aren’t we?”
“Is that a bad thing?”
“No,” she answered. “I don’t think so.”
That night, there was a small party at the nunnery. The maidens lit lanterns and cooked dumplings, filling the air with raucous laughter. With no secrets to keep, Renjun felt a weight lifted from his shoulders (though he did feel a little bad when Insook started crying; “Don’t forget me once you’ve made new friends!” she wept). And while it was a sad occasion, it was a hopeful one too.
Renjun savored the taste of the tea and the smell of the cool autumn wind. Across the table, he saw Jungsoon place a hand on Jeno’s shoulder and whisper an approving word in his ear.
Renjun found he did not regret anything.
In the morning, Jeno fetched Renjun.
They walked along the path he had paved together, through the tall grass, back to the monastery. It was strange, knowing it was the last time they would walk it. It was strange to see Renjun, carrying a little cloth that held his books (the only thing he was taking with him). It was strange for Jeno to feel the weight of the prioress’s basket on his arm, filled with food, a final gift.
They went to Jeno’s room. There, Jeno very politely turned around while Renjun undressed and began to pull on Jeno’s spare clothing. The loose-sleeved robes of a maiden seemed too impractical for travel, and though Jeno’s clothes were too large for Renjun, it was all they had. When Jeno turned back around, Renjun was fumbling with the buttons of his shirt. He realized then that he had never seen Renjun wearing anything but his robes; and, furthermore, that it was likely Renjun had never worn anything else his whole life.
Jeno came forward and helped Renjun button it the rest of the way. The shirt just about swallowed him, but it would do.
“Does it look alright?” Renjun asked.
“More than alright,” Jeno responded. He did up the last button, and placed a kiss to Renjun’s forehead.
The two of them went and sat on the front step, watching the tunnel of trees where the courier would appear. From behind, they heard the door open, and turned to see Eun standing there.
“What’s this?” he asked.
“We’re leaving,” Jeno said.
“The both of you?”
Eun regarded them with an open-mouthed expression. “Really. That’s unexpected.” He raised his chin. “You’ve given up, then, Renjun? On your dreams of being a maiden?”
Renjun cast him a wary look and responded, “I’ve decided I’m not interested in discipline and secret-keeping and dying unloved. That may be fine for you, but not for me.”
Eun opened his mouth again, but said nothing and returned inside.
The courier arrived fifteen minutes later. He handed Renjun the mail, and asked, “What’s with that get-up, Renjun?”
Renjun set the mail on the front step. “I’m taking you up on your offer.”
“We’re going to the mainland,” Renjun said, jabbing his thumb towards Jeno.
The courier hefted his bag on his shoulder, face still confused but accepting. “Alright, then. Are you ready to leave?”
Renjun and Jeno gathered their things, and followed the courier back through the trees.
Just as Jeno remembered, the forest was a perfect tunnel. Empty lanterns hung from tree branches, unlit during the morning. The shade was dark and cool, a comforting embrace that filtered the sun into only the narrowest beams, which shimmered over roots and fallen leaves. Renjun dragged his hand along the tree trunks, memorizing the way they felt, as if his fingers might remember the touch of the rough bark long after his brain had erased their image.
The little boat rocked on the gentle current. Jeno stepped in first, and then Renjun, who was apprehensive. Jeno took his hand to help him maintain his balance. They sat facing each other, on opposite benches.
“Have you never been in a boat before?” the courier asked from the beach.
Renjun shook his head. “I’m trying to get used to firsts. I’m about to experience a lot of them.”
The courier undocked the boat from the shore and climbed in, oar in hand. Then he began to paddle, pushing them further and further away from land.
Mist was heavy over the water, as if they were rowing through a cloud. Renjun kept turning back to try and catch one last glimpse of the island, but it was nothing more than an indistinct blur among the white.
“Renjun,” Jeno said. “Look at me.”
Renjun did. His brow was knitted with worry as he chewed his lip.
“Are you okay?” Jeno asked.
“Yeah.” The boat rocked, and Renjun braced his arm against its side.
“Here.” Jeno looked up to make sure the courier was faced away towards the sea; then he reached out and took Renjun’s hand, leaning in so their heads were close together and their voices could be heard above the sloshing current. “Why don’t you tell me a story, to pass the time?”
“I’ve told you enough stories. I want you to tell me a story.”
Jeno laughed. “Alright, alright. Any requests?”
Renjun toyed absentmindedly with Jeno’s fingers, lacing and unlacing them with his own. “Tell me about the day you left home. Were you nervous?”
“A little bit,” Jeno admitted. “I guess I just kept thinking about my mother. She left and she never came back and… it hurt.” He leaned more closely, looking into Renjun’s eyes with soft, vulnerable affection. “I didn’t want to be like her. I didn’t want to leave my father behind. But there wasn’t anything for me there. So the hardest part wasn’t figuring out new places or finding roads to travel. It was getting up the courage to leave in the first place.”
Renjun smiled, feeling perfectly understood.
The mist did not thin. Locked inside it, Jeno thought he heard the distant, muffled lilt of a bird, as if it was calling for its mate through the fog. The current rolled forever on, lapping at the boat’s sides, distorting his and Renjun’s reflections in its surface. Once or twice, he caught Renjun trying to use the water as a mirror, to see what he looked like in Jeno’s clothes; but the image was too muddled to tell. Time crawled slowly, seemingly content at keeping them waiting, like it knew they were itching for new places, new adventures, new memories to replace the old ones. But when they finally did hit land, the world opened up before them, like the first blank page of a book.
Renjun stepped down onto the sand from the boat, Jeno’s hand still held in his.
there's still an epilogue left, but i think i'll leave my final notes here.
thank you to everyone who read this! this was my very first fic i've ever published, and it was an amazing experience. a special thank you to everyone who has left comments for me -- getting to read your reactions made everything worth it!
if you didn't already know, i've started another noren fic here. it's pretty different from maps, but i hope you check it out and tell me what you think!
thank you all again ♥♥♥
Chapter 15: Epilogue
Renjun occasionally woke with a stabbing, sorrowful unease in his chest.
Some days, it went away shortly, once he shook his head to clear it and felt Jeno’s arm circling his shoulder. Other days, it persisted. He might pass a particularly beautiful chrysanthemum growing along the path they walked, and it would occur to him how Insook would love it and want to braid the flowers into her hair; or he might see a huge maple that seemed to touch the sky, and it would remind him of how, when he was little, he climbed a tree just like it by the nunnery’s garden and Jungsoon had tried to call him down, tempting him with taffy. And those thoughts were crushing, dredging up memories of a life he would always miss.
He began to keep a journal. Every time such a thought would come to him, he would write it down, draw a picture, and preserve it. That way, when he someday returned to the island for a visit, he could pass the journal around, and everyone would know he had never stopped thinking of them.
It helped to ease the heartache, at least a little.
They went to the library in Gwangju.
Renjun could not quite fathom how so many books could exist in one place. He walked up and down the aisles, trying to see where they ended, but he could not find it. He looked up, and realized there was a second floor. Though he was always shocked at the size of the world (perhaps he shouldn’t have been at that point), he was more astonished at how many stories there were, and how each one was different from the one next to it.
“Do you like it?” Jeno asked. “Is a library what you imagined it to be?”
“No. It’s better.” Renjun trailed a finger down one of the forward-facing spines. “How is anyone supposed to know which book to read, with there being so many?”
“I suppose people learn their own tastes. You, for example, should stay out of the romance section.”
“You know,” Renjun said. “I think I may be more interested in romance now.”
“Is that so?” Jeno smirked and leaned in closer. Renjun was thankful for the privacy the shelves provided.
“Don’t get too excited. I’m more interested in the books than you.”
Jeno snorted and playfully jabbed Renjun in the stomach.
In Seoul, the intensity of the lights was dizzying, almost hypnotizing. Renjun wondered what it was like for the people who lived there, who saw those lights everyday, immune to their shine. He tried to imagine a life where he had been born there instead, where he had gone to school with the other children in the neighborhood, where he had not felt fated to choose a life limited by tradition and circumstance.
Jeno kissed him beneath the full dark of the city sky, but Renjun found he did not miss the stars.
There was a touch of comfort in staying put again. They’d moved nonstop since they first left the island, and Seoul was the first place they dared to be idle, renting a room at a small inn on the city’s west side. It was there that Jeno discovered that the pack-up-and-go, the endless search for a place where he belonged, was not important to him anymore. He decided, if he was meant to exist somewhere, it was by Renjun's side, wherever that happened to be.
Behind the inn was a tiny garden. Though there were no hydrangeas, Renjun loved it there, and Jeno often found him cutting flowers into arrangements (the woman who owned the inn allowed it as she used them to decorate the dining tables). Once, Jeno joined Renjun in the garden to find him holding a bouquet of precious white daisies in his hands. The boy studied them, lifting them, almost as if he was testing their weight; the expression on his face was solemn, clearly distracted by far-off thoughts.
Jeno walked up beside him and put his arm around his waist. “What’s the matter?”
“Nothing. I’ve just been thinking.”
Renjun fumbled with the bouquet, nervous fingers busy. “Just about how…” He looked away. “How we can’t be married. But I wish we could.”
Jeno lifted a hand and turned Renjun’s face towards his. “Renjun. You used to live as a nun. You’ve been breaking the rules for years. Why not now?”
It seemed this was the first time such a thought had occurred to him. With a surprised smile, he leaned against Jeno’s shoulder, burying his face in his neck. “Well, when you put it that way--” And he placed a kiss to Jeno’s collarbone.
Eventually, they began to pack for Jemulpo. Jeno was nervous about going home, to say the least. But he felt less nervous whenever Renjun’s hand slipped into his own.
On their last night in Seoul, they lay curled in bed, Renjun’s head on Jeno’s arm. He was crying. This happened sometimes, because the unease in his chest would overflow, and he would long for the island and his family and his childhood. But on the road, there were no secret places for him to cry and hideaway his heartbreak. Instead, Jeno held him close and kissed the tears away, whispering warmly in his ear. Eventually, as if Jeno’s words were a lullaby, Renjun quieted, falling fast asleep with his hand on Jeno’s chest. And Jeno wondered, with the giddiness of a lovestruck child, if Renjun could feel the fast, forever tender beating of his heart.