By Haerin Shin
There are myriads of Korean legends on the theme: “the bride in waiting.” These stories often come from times of social turmoil, when men had to leave their homes for war, for “greater causes”… The stories embedded in what we read in our history textbooks, quietly but persistently murmur the tales of those whose lives remain untold. Female tears and sighs buried in endless years of waiting, youth and life slipping through the petrified fingers of young brides, no one noticing the bright cherry glow on their cheeks slowly fading away….
My grandparents met for the first time on their wedding day. Was there love? Or, could there have been love. I can only guess, or for their sake, hope, for neither of them remained in this world long enough to give me a straight answer. Grandmother stayed home tending to household chores and raising children, as all good Korean women did in those days, while my grandfather, a politician and government official, plunged into the task of resuscitating a battered nation.
My grandparents’ generation lived through the most tumultuous days of modern Korean history. They spent their youth under the terrorizing reign of the Japanese colonial government, their long-awaited joy of liberation only to be shattered by the continuation of horrors in the Korean War. At the same time the tattered hope for peace and a return to tranquility became nostalgic as they were swept away in the storm and stress of industrialization.
In my earliest memories of my grandmother, she was always lying in bed, half paralyzed, as the aftermath of a stroke she had suffered when I was still a toddler. Nevertheless, she was the best grandmother one could ever wish for: generous, patient, and conveniently distant. Upon every visit, she would shower me with candy, little trinkets, and if I was lucky enough, shiny stiff paper bills. I would give her my little girl hug and run out, waving my trophies in excitement while she watched, twitching her twisted lips in quiet chuckles. I have no memories of her ever talking more than a few minutes – perhaps it was because of the physical toil she had to exert in order to organize and voice any long, logical sentence. But for such a bundle of mischief that I was, it couldn’t have been better, for less talk meant greater chance of getaway. She was never the one to yell at me for tripping over a carefully laid out tea table for some important guest, or launch into a lengthy tirade on the importance of grades. She was part of the scenery, serenely lying in wait for the warmth of someone’s touch, a pleasantry to brush away the pains of her bedsore.
But from others, I’ve heard differently. I remember my mother complaining about how grandmother could at times be so demanding and irritable. Her tea arriving a few minutes too late after she had rung the bell, a scrap of paper misplaced, or even the subtlest changes in the taste of her usual gruel would send her into fits of rage, mother would tell me with a shudder. I remember seeing mother huddled in a heap in the back kitchen trying to repress her sobs after a particularly bad day with the “old tyrants mood swings. My father was the only son in the family, which apparently means a lot in Korea’s patriarchal society, but he never got what only sons usually expect from their mothers; he used to tell me horror stories about how grandmother would make him spend nights camped out in the garden with her in the freezing cold, when grandfather was imprisoned by the opposing party after some bloody coup… she would tell this little boy, who barely understood what was going on, that as the sole heir and future head of the family, he had to suffer as much as his father did. He had no right to sleep under warm covers while his father was pining away on the cold, hard floor of a cell. I was baffled by the discrepancy between her attitude towards me and my parents; I used to ask her why she wasn’t as nice to my parents as she was to me, what made her so angry at them. What made her lash out at her closest blood kin, when she was so gentle and patient with her husband (well, I guess I wasn’t really sure how true that was, since he was never really around) and her grandchild. She would fall silent, and turn her gaze to the wall… I never got a clear answer from her, I may have heard her muttering, “but then, who else is there? Who else…. was there?” but I do remember once seeing a gleam of light reflected from her eye in the afternoon sun. As if her black, impenetrable retina was a shard of a broken mirror… I remember thinking, how pretty, but…wait, is that…? Just then some guest stepped into the room, and she instantly recovered her usual dignified equanimity. That brief moment of intimacy was never to be revisited.
When I was older, probably in high school, I had a chance to sit down by her and confess my ambition to study literature, to become a writer. She was encouraging, even excited, I could tell. “Guess all the artsy stuff went to the women in this family,” she chuckled, “perhaps you can use some of my paintings for your book?” I was flattered. After all, bedridden as she was, she used to be a fairly well-known calligrapher. “You know, I used to love reading too, before I…” she fell silent again. Unwilling to let go of that rare glimpse of buoyancy I had seen, I asked her what her favorite poem was. A flicker of light returned to her face, and without a moment’s hesitation she told me to go home and look up Jeong-ju Seo’s “The Bride.”
Here’s how that narrative goes:
On his wedding night, a groom decides to go out for some fresh air, to gather his thoughts and prepare himself before lifting the veil that conceals his bride’s face… At the threshold, he senses a tugging, and thinks his bride is trying to hold him back. This would be a serious breach of norms—women were supposed to be demure and passive and never show any signs of affection or desire. So the groom gets mad at this perceived offense and simply walks away without even once looking back. (Here, the imagination of the bard wanders off; maybe the groom had a secret lover and was upset with being forced into this marriage from the start. Maybe, being yet in his teens, he was going through one of those rebellious stages, resenting the shackles of familial duties looming ahead the horizon. But the tale must go on…) Years go by; a fine layer of frost sets in our protagonist’s hair, and his once-smooth face begins to display traces of the relentless brush of time. Grown tired of adventures and excitement, he returns to his native village, yearning to see the places he had roamed as a young, sprinting lad. He comes across the house he had left behind on the night of the wedding ceremony, dilapidated but still holding its ground. Memories of the fateful moment that triggered his long exile burns through his veins; he can’t resist, he decides to take a peek. Cautiously, he approaches… carefully, he places his hand on the doorknob…wait, what is this? A faint flitter of something white. A shred of cloth, a small piece of lace trimming wrapped around a nail head sticking out of the doorframe… Suddenly, everything clicks into place, it was never her, it was his own blunder all along… With tides of remorse sweeping through his entrails, he ventures a timid push. The door creeks open. And there sits his bride, with her veil still drawn over her face, demure as ever, hands clasped together on her lap, chastely waiting for her husband to return… He steps forward. A gentle breeze follows him through the door… and as he stretches out his hand to lift the veil for the very first time, with a slight tremor, as if letting out a long-suppressed sigh, the bride disintegrates into a heap of ash.
Haerin Shin (Helen) is currently in Stanford Univ.’s Ph.D. program (comparative literature), Helen works on contemporary fiction in the US, Japan and Korea, focusing on topics such as psychoanalysis, memory and history, ghost theories (boo), and transnationalism. In love with all the cool stuff – science fiction / fantasy, anime, graphic narratives, ghosts (but of course)….name it!