The eldest brother was twenty years old when he left the island. His wife was eighteen. It was good fortune, the heavens smiling down upon him, that he was offered the position teaching sciences at a junior high school in Kyongju. He was young for the position, and less qualified than the other candidates, but the principal of the school was his wife’s great-uncle and wanted to give the young couple an opportunity to move to the city.
The eldest brother hated the island. He felt trapped, did not like the feeling of being watched, and known. He wanted his independence, to start his own family afresh, and did not want his children to suffer the boredom and small-mindedness of island life. He knew everything there was to know about everyone in the village and did not like any of it. He did not like that nobody cared what was happening in the rest of the world. He did not like that every young man knew his future from the time he was a young boy—that he would take over his father’s rocky plot of land, or rickety fishing boat. He did not like that learning to read and write Chinese characters, the standard pen for literature, was seen as a betrayal by the older generation. He did not like that the girls and boys were paired off when they were fifteen and sixteen years old—like animals, good only for procreation. He did not like that sometimes his uncle took one of his girl cousins into the back room and pulled the curtain closed, and that other men did the same with their daughters and nieces.
So when the opportunity came to leave the island, the eldest brother took it without hesitation. He and his wife packed a small trunk and were ready to leave within days of accepting the position. They did not yet know where they would live, but his wife’s great-uncle would allow them to stay with him until other arrangements could be made.
His younger brother Hyun-kyu—next in line among the three sons—was about to start high school. Hyun-kyu begged his brother to take him along to Kyongju, to the city. He was a good student and had been studying hard. He wanted to leave the island as well. He wanted to go to college. From the beginning, the eldest brother had discouraged him from clinging to such far-fetched ideas, but Hyun-kyu was determined. Now that he was almost fourteen, he knew that the village high school—ten slothful boys and an ajjummah who knew little more than her students—would be of no use to him. And the village library was running out of books for him to read. Hyun-kyu begged and begged, but his brother refused him. There would be no room at the great-uncle’s house, and certainly he and his wife would not be able to afford more than a one-room apartment. The eldest brother needed to make his own plans; he could not look out for anyone else. It pained him to think of it, leaving his sisters and brothers to fend for themselves, but he swallowed his guilt. He turned toward his own life.
The eldest brother and his wife arranged for the ferry to take them across the sea—a passage of some five hours, in good weather—early one Sunday morning. It was barely light out; the ferryman preferred to make the journey early, when the sea was at its calmest. The darkness of that morning was Hyun-kyu’s saving grace: no one noticed as he slipped onto the boat and hid underneath a wool blanket that was thrown over a pile of rope and life preservers. By the time his brother discovered him, they were too far along to turn back.
The eldest brother was angry to discover Hyun-kyu’s trick; but underneath his anger, he was also a little bit pleased. This boy knows what he wants, he thought. His wife defended the boy and pleaded with her husband for compassion. The eldest brother feigned an even greater rage at her defense, and then relented. “Very well,” he said, keeping back a smile. “We will help him along.”
© 2010 Sonya Chung