Chapter 2: Big Brother
As spring made way for summer, the Old Master sat at his desk rummaging over some pieces of paper, while the children were running around outside. His attention was drawn to a sheer white folded letter, with an intricate wax seal. Glancing over its contents his face brightened up.
There was no time to waste as he got up and came to stand in the doorframe, with an ecstatic smile plastered on his face. “Han-Gyeol! Ha-Rin! Come quickly! We need to talk about something important.”
Ha-Rin and Han-Gyeol were close by, they left their current chores and headed towards the master’s study. “Yes master, we are coming!” They responded passing in haste by the children, who sat on the wooden deck to catch their breath after their game of tag.
“Why is grandpa so happy?” asked Soo-Ah, watching the adults’ commotion, and noticing her grandfather’s change of spirits.
“Don’t know!” answered Jung-In not giving much notice to what was going on.
The little girl didn’t need to wait long to uncover this mystery, as Master Min-Jun explained in a solemn note:
“Han-Gyeol and Ha-Rin, we are to have a distinguished guest. Do you remember me sharing stories with you about my brightest student? We have been writing to each other, and he just wrote to let me know he is accepting my invitation, and he will be visiting us together with his companion. From my calculations, they will be arriving in four days.”
He added as if speaking to himself, in a hushed voice, “Oh, what marvellous news this is, though I am afraid courtesy is not the only purpose for his visit.”
Old Master’s attention focused back on his trusted servants, addressing them in a mindful tone, “Anyway; please make sure you prepare the rooms, and Han-Gyeol, you will need to take care of some of the land taxing duty without me for a couple of days. Also, food! Yes! And drinks! We need to plan well for the young master’s arrival. Ha-Rin, do you have any questions, do you need anything specific for such a distinguished guest?”
Both servants looked at their master with stupefied eyes, barely grasping all the words he was blabbering in his excitement. They became apprehensive about their lack of experience receiving a guest at their house.
Soo-Ah was already standing in the doorway observing her grandfather’s reactions, “Grandfather? Can I ask you something? Do you have someone you like more than me?” asked Soo-Ah, on the verge of crying. She never saw her grandfather so excited for anyone else.
“Oh, sweet child, what is this now? You do remember my stories about how I used to teach a lot of young masters. And now, my brightest pupil is coming to visit us. I have invited him specially to meet my sweetest, smartest girl. Now, now, no need for you to brood over this. You will like him a lot, I am sure .”
Taking a seat on a chair old master motioned for the girl to come closer and took her on his lap. Having his granddaughter in his arms, to keep those unsettling emotions in check, he asked, “What do you say we ask him to be your big brother? You could call him Big Brother Ho, or Ho-Orabeoni?”
Jung-In, who had been listening to this entire conversation, felt a tug at his heart. Why would Soo-Ah need another big brother? Big brothers were only trouble and he was enough of a big brother for her. With an exasperated exhale he turned around and started towards the riverbank, thinking he should be alone to contemplate what he should do. That is what he told himself, but he knew he was going there to pout in peace over this new development.
As was mentioned by the letter, on the fourth day two young men knocked at the front gate of the old general’s residence. Everyone waited, anxious to meet them. Their traveling clothes were distinct, and you could easily distinguish the young lord with the fine materials he was wearing, and the hair clip adorning his head. Quite different from his manservant companion.
Ha-Rin Noona had already prepared everything for them to have an enjoyable stay, so now there was nothing to do but be curious about who this young man was, and why the old master held him in such high esteem.
Soo-Ah was a little shy and, as she moved her regard between the two men, she hid behind her grandfather, clasping at his clothes.
“Young master, I can hardly recognize you since you’ve grown and changed so much.” Saluted the Old master.
“Greetings, teacher Min-Jun,” said the young man bowing his head in respect before launching in a heartfelt hug, and asking with excitement in his voice, “How long has it been now, four or five years?”
Soo-Ah was mesmerized looking at this tall individual standing close by. Though years later she would not be able to remember his face, she would remember how this young master was the most beautiful person she had ever seen, with his black eyes and black slick hair, tied in a half updo, but for a couple of hair strands resting on his forehead, his beautiful travel clothes and his high stance. The young man turned his attention to her and froze when he met her blue eyes. His stare made Soo-Ah blush, lower her head and hide her regard.
“This shy little girl must be the reason I was left without the benefits of your teaching?” asked the handsome young man searching for Soo-Ah’s gaze.
“My dear boy, please meet my Soo-Ah. This little girl is the light of my life, and the peace of my old age, as much as an active youngling can bring peace, that is”.
Cordial in his approach towards the girl, the young man said, “It is nice to meet you, my young lady of the house!”
Soo-Ah liked the ring of “my young lady of the house”. She gracefully bowed and offered the man a bright smile, “Please take care of me, ′Big Brother.’” She looked at him and asked, in a coy fashion, “I like you, young master! Can I call you Ho-Orabeoni?”
“What an interesting name; and I love interesting things!” he offered with e a swooning smile. “Polite and educated I see, not that I would expect anything less from my tutor’s granddaughter” He laughed addressing Soo-Ah’s grandfather.
“Politeness and education are just a façade I am afraid, but you will understand what I am talking about soon enough.” replied the old master with a laugh, making the visitor laugh as well.
Soo-Ah would remember Ho-Orabeoni’s laughter in years to come.
After a short tour of the residence and its people, the young master was left to rest and change after the long road, before dinner. Soo-Ah was still very much impressed and could not stop praising the new guest to Jung-In.
“I am not blind you know, I saw him too, but I do not get what is so special about him,” he said pouting.
“Why are you upset?” asked Soo-Ah.
“I’m not upset!” Jung-In snapped, obviously annoyed.
“He is older and smarter than us. He must know a lot of stories and I hope he will teach you how to be a good big brother” said Soo-Ah, with satisfaction, knowing the last remark bruised Jung-In’s considerable ego.
That evening, after Ho-Orabeoni’s arrival, the dinner table was alive with conversations about shared experiences and past adventures. Soo-Ah listened to everything with her mouth opened wide in admiration. Jung-In left the table in annoyance early on, as he gained little attention from Soo-Ah. Slowly the conversation details reached the present day, and the tone got more solemn.
“Soo-Ah, isn’t it bedtime for you already?” asked the old master with a protective tone to his voice.
“No, I want to stay!” pleaded the girl.
Ignoring her plea, her grandfather added, “Go and ask your Noona to help you get ready for bed and say good night to your new big brother.”
The girl got up from the table with resentment. Not responding to her grandfather’s request she stomped out of the room, as she heard the two men starting to talk about more personal and important matters.
“You understand now what I was saying earlier about politeness and facades? Anyway, I remember from your letter there was something you needed to discuss with me, my boy. Do you want to talk to me about it now?” Fearing he was pressuring the young man, Old Master quickly added, “We still have many days ahead to debate such a dreaded subject.”
“You, considering my marriage a dreaded subject is not a good prospect for my future. It does not encourage me to go through with it. Are you against it like the rest of my family?” The young man tried to lift the seriousness from the air with a joke.
“I do not believe your entire family is against it. Your mother must have your best interest in mind if she urges you to go through with it.”
“The issue is not my mother urging me to marry or my uncle not approving of my choices. Since my father died, my uncle must give me his approval. But you should listen to their constant arguing: Marry that one! You cannot marry that one! It drives me insane. I feel like I live in a nest filled with snakes,” sighed the young master.
“Why does your uncle reject your consort choices?”
“I have been going round and round with possible answers to that question. The only thing standing out is that he hopes I will die soon, and without an heir, my cousin and his baby boy would inherit my name and status. Or that I would accept a consort he can control, so if I do die soon, he will still get control over my name and status through her. I am so tired of this I am considering giving up my name just so I can have some peace of mind.”
“So, your cousin ended up marrying and is now ahead of you already and having an heir.” concluded the old master.
“Yes, that damned bastard. I wonder if he knows the nightmares he is causing me. Like I told you, I am living in a pit of snakes. Having this time with you here feels like a breath of fresh air,” exhaled the young man.
“I hope you will be able to clear your head. I know you must adhere to endogamy, and based on your rank your options for an official consort are somewhat limited. My honest opinion is you should go and get yourself a concubine first and have an heir that way, if you care about heirs and inheritances. Somehow you seem more bothered about the quarrelling than the fact that you have not found a good woman for yourself yet.”
The young master knew having an official wife called a consort but also several concubines was a custom for noble families. It ensured a successful lineage and also provided them with offsprings who could be brides or grooms, used to make alliances with other families. “I feel my mother cares too much about this aspect so there is no more room for me to care,” replied the young man with a chuckle.
“You are a young man, and I remember how it is to be young. But listening to you say what you just said makes me reluctant to ask you about your intimate life.”
“Ha-ha, well, as you say, you remember my old teacher, intimate life is the easy part. All I can say is that I manage.”
“You are one slick scamp!” replied the old master, grinning from ear to ear, and giving an appreciative shoulder punch.
Their conversation continued late thru the night, switching tone frequently from serious whispers to loud jokes.
In the days that followed, master Min-Jun appeared to have been rejuvenated as he continued entertaining his guest. He enjoyed the intense discussion over politics, ethics, philosophy, and the camaraderie he felt towards the young master.
The young master could not remember the last time he was so relaxed, at peace and entertained. Being around Soo-Ah and Jung-In was pure entertainment. He gave the children a considerate amount of attention.
Soo-Ah could not decide what she liked best. Either when he took her galloping through the fields so fast she could barely breathe, or when he was telling them strange stories about places they have never seen. It may have been when they all came together at night to put on silly plays, or when Ho-Orabeoni took out his dizi and played songs for them as they marvelled at the wonderful sounds the flute-like instrument resonated. Ho-Orabeoni’s arrival had lifted the spirits of everyone in that house. Even Jung-In started to take a liking to the young master.
When the weather outside was too hot, the children, accompanied by Ho-Orabeoni, choose to cool themselves in the calm waters of the river near the house. Soo-Ah was at first apprehensive to enter the water.
“She is scared of the water, master. She never wants to go in!” Jung-In was happy to share.
Ho-Orabeoni kneeled near the girl, who was looking terrified, and asked while holding her hand.
“Why don’t you want to go in the water?”
“I tried once, and I almost drowned.” came Soo-Ah’s reply.
“She is silly, master. She just slipped in the shallows and went face down. Since then she never goes in.” Jung-In said then he started laughing remembering the event.
“I see. Soo-Ah, do you trust me?”
The girl nodded as she kept her eyes glued on Ho-Orabeoni, waiting to find out what would happen.
“Then come on, I will take you into my arms and we can jump together. Alright? We will jump on the count of three!”
And saying this he lifted the girl and started counting:
“One, two...” On three they were already splashing the water around, in the calm pool the river-flow built around the rocks of the landscape.
Soo-Ah was wet from head to toe and looked around scared, but Ho-Orabeoni lifted her in the air and started dipping her in the water, in a playful game. The girl kicked the water in his face and laughed out loud at his expression while he joked around, bribing her to stop. This was Soo-Ah’s new favourite moment, and she committed it to memory. From here on, whenever she would go swim in the river she would imagine o-Orabeoni was there with her.
All this time, with his head half-submerged in the water, Jung-In was sulking looking at the two of them playing. He wished he would have not been so verbal about Soo-Ah’s fear of the river. Maybe he would have avoided the fun those two were having by themselves.
After the refreshing bath, the slab nearby was a good place to sit and bask in the sun. Soo-Ah looked at the muscular build of Ho-Orabeoni, enhanced by the water dripping and drying under the heat bearing rays of light. When remembering the tales Jung-In had told her about the god of water, Habaek, she imagined the Water God would bear a resemblance to this beguiling young man. Sensing the girl’s cunning spying stare, Ho-Orabeoni locked eyes with Soo-Ah but was left mesmerized by how her colourful pupils glistened in the light, like a sapphire gemstone. It was an image he had never seen before.
When the weather was acting up and it rained outside, they all gathered in the main hall telling legends and stories from distant lands. Once the rain stopped, Ho-Orabeoni stepped outside and breathed deeply. The air felt so crisp after the rain and he wanted to make the most of it, so he had an idea.
“Who wants to go on an adventure with me?”
Soo-Ah was obviously the only one to answer, “Me! I want to go!”
He took her to the stable and they both got up on his horse. She sat in front and he gave her the bridle and told her to hold tight, while he was also keeping a firm grip. In control of the horse, he gently guided it towards the freshly soaked cultivated fields. When they reach their destination, he whispered in her ear, “Are you ready?”
“For what?” asked an apprehensive Soo-Ah, not knowing what was to come.
Ho-Orabeoni kicked the horse and started galloping as fast as he could. All they could see in front of them was a horizon of immaculate green sparkling from the rain droplets in the sun, as it moved in and out of the clouds. A horizon they never seemed to reach. The wind and tiny droplets splashed on Soo-Ah’s cheeks, and the fresh air filled her nostrils, tickling. The excitement left her eyes and mouth agape, wanting to laugh out loud but failing to do so due to all the sensations she was experiencing from the thrill. It was also the perfect opportunity to swallow a bug that sent her coughing, and feeling embarrassed the entire evening while Ho-Orabeoni was making fun of her about how she already ate her dinner.
On one of the last days of his visit, the young master caught Soo-Ah staring at a bird’s nest in a tree from the grove nearby. With care, he approached her and whispered, “What are you looking at so attentively?”
“Look, Ho-Orabeoni, there is a mother bird with her baby chicks. Grandpa says their mother will teach them how to fly. I want to look at how she does it, so maybe I can learn how to fly. Have you ever seen a man flying before, Ho-Orabeoni?”
“Hmmm, I do not remember hearing about anyone flying and living to tell the tale, no. But flying is something so easy for birds. We, humans, are too different from those birds - I for one do not have any wings. Do you have wings on you? Let me check and see!” He teased, tickling her while she almost choked with laughter.
“It’s like I thought. You have no wings either so it will be useless to learn how to fly from a bird. But what if I can teach you?“- he asked, with a mischievous look in his eyes.
“Can you teach me? How can you teach me?” inquired the girl, giving an untrusting stare.
“Like this!” answered Ho-Orabeoni as he took the girl and put her over his shoulders, and started running around while he was squealing, trying to imitate the sounds of a bird.
“No Ho-Orabeoni, don’t squeal like that - you sing so beautifully, so sing like a bird.”
“So, you like my singing then. How about I write you a song as a gift for playing with me, and for being such an excellent host?”
“Yes, but it better be a beautiful song.”
“I am sure I can sing a beautiful song even for an ugly duckling like you.”
“I am not an ugly duckling!!” screamed Soo-Ah while pulling on Ho-Orabeoni’s hair in contempt.
The night before leaving, as the last song, Ho-Orabeoni started playing a sweet melody that he never sang before. With his dizi, he echoed out the first notes of a tender lullaby that lingered in the listeners’ ears. Those notes were followed by his beautiful singing voice, as he took to his dizi again between every stanza of the song.
By the river, By its shore
There is a flower that I have never seen before
And when the wind comes blowing down
She does not break, she only bows
And when the snow falls from the sky
She does not wither, she does not die
She grows there waiting for the one
Who will pick her up and take her into his arms.
At the end of the song, he gave Soo-Ah a knowing look letting her know this was her song. She would go on singing this song from now on. Even more often when she knew Ho-Orabeoni was coming to visit them again.