It took them almost two weeks to walk to Seoul, such was their pace. Often, they were pushed off the road by the Americans in favor of their long caravans of men, supplies, and food. Sung always knew when the food trucks went by; they were the most heavily guarded. He tried not to look desperate and beggarly as they went by, but sometimes he could not help it and crept out onto the edge of the road, where soldiers threw candy and gum at them, but never the tins of beef that they really wanted.
Their first sighting of Seoul was not auspicious. Outside the Great North Gate was a makeshift camp of the poor, the lame, and the young. They put out their filthy hands as Sung and his family passed by. Sung’s mother told them not to stare and to keep on. Then she thought to herself, Well, there is still farther to fall.
Sung ran through the city gates expecting to see it lit up with golden lights while streetcars trundled by, casting their own cheerful music. Min cuffed him on the head. “Slow down, stupid,” he said. “The lights and cars are only in the better parts of the city. If they still work.” Min was right. Seoul was nothing like what Sung expected. Everywhere there was dust and animals underfoot, close smells and dirt. The streets were chaotic and confused, filled with debris, blackened ruins next to a normal-looking house, the tiles on the roof still red and whole. Soldiers and people lived crammed together like rabbits in a warren. There was scarcely any room for the newcomers. Sung’s hope of finding his father fled in light of the new grim reality.
Still, it was a relief to have reached their destination, not to be stuck in that mindless walking. Sung’s clothes were stiff with dirt and sweat, brown stains growing in ever-widening, darkening circles. So matted was his hair, it had to be shorn.
They knew only one person in Seoul, Sung’s aunt, his mother’s older sister. During the days, they searched the confused streets of the confused city looking for her. The address they had for her was crude, with only the name of the neighborhood and a description of the corner store. The neighborhood itself was much like the rest of Seoul—crumbling rubble where houses had once stood, gardens picked clean and turned useless and muddy, trash strewn everywhere, children running about half clothed, itchy with lice.
“I’m looking for my sister,” Sung’s mother would begin. But people were turned off, their faces closed. They didn’t want to hear about anyone else’s sorrow, didn’t believe they could help anyone but themselves. “I don’t know who you’re talking about,” they would say. Or: “I’ve only been here a short time myself. How can I know who was here before me?” Or even: “I’m looking for someone myself. Have you heard of a man named Kim Min-su?”
At night, they stayed in a corner of a room that had once been a dry goods store. It was crowded with other families and loud with complaints and rumors. Some said the Chinese were close to the city’s gates and that everyone should flee farther south. “Why don’t you go ahead, then?” someone else would shout out. “There’d be more room for us all if you left.”
The Americans were also hotly debated. Some considered them saviors, while others thought they were brutish and stupid. Parents put dirt on their daughters’ faces before sending them out into the streets, and forbade them from talking to soldiers.
Sung and his mother slept sitting up so the two younger children could sleep stretched out. Min was staying with a friend in a rented room. Jungho had recovered from his fever but was still weak and too pale. He had begun to cough incessantly, until he was all worn out. He stayed in the room and watched over Jisu while Sung and his mother kept up the search for their aunt.
At last, they found a woman who said she knew who Sung’s aunt was. They had been neighbors before the war began. She looked intently into Sung’s mother’s face and said, “Yes, I can see it clearly. You look just like her.”
This woman led them to his aunt’s battered house. It wasn’t much more than a long hut covered by rotting straw mats. There was a lone rust-colored hen pecking in the dirt. “Unni,” Sung’s mother called out. “Unni! It’s your younger, Hye-won.”
A door slid open and a woman with a dirty rag held over her mouth and nose stuck her head out. “Who’s that you’re looking for?”
While his mother was saying his aunt’s name, another woman was already putting on her shoes and calling out “Ya, is that you?” in a voice that sounded just like his mother’s.
There, in the small, crowded courtyard, the two sisters fell upon each other and cried with joy. “I never thought I’d see you alive again,” they said to each other, pinching the skin on the other’s arm just to make sure their eyes weren’t lying.
Watching the two women were Sung’s uncle and two older cousins, and then many more people Sung had never seen before.
“What a racket!” one woman complained after sticking her head out her door.
“Oh, let them have it,” another woman replied. “A reunion’s a reunion even if it isn’t yours.”
Sung’s mother and aunt went off into a corner of the courtyard and took stock of each other. “My husband was taken away,” Sung’s mother said, copious tears falling now that there was a sympathetic face.
“My two youngest were killed when a bomb fell on the house.” Sung’s aunt began hitting herself on the head and chest. “I don’t deserve to live,” she wailed.
They held each other and cried loudly. The neighbors watched and clucked, some in sympathy, some in disgust.
Sung turned to his oldest cousin, a boy of fifteen. “How do you live?” he asked. “Where do you get money?”
“My mother sells vegetables at the market. Me and him,” he said, pointing to his younger brother. “We do odd jobs. Carry bags at the train station, make deliveries.”
“But they chase us!” his younger brother added. There was something funny about him—he had bugged-out eyes and a startled way of speaking.
The older brother nodded. “The old guys have the entrances staked out, but if you’re not too picky you can always find something. The old ones don’t want to go too far, or carry anything too heavy.”
“Sometimes we work for the bad lady!” the younger brother said.
His brother hit him on the ear. “Shut up!”
The younger brother looked surprised and upset. “Why’d you do that?” he yelled, and ran away.
Sung slipped into the stream of Seoul as if he had lived there all his life. Even in wartime, he loved the city—the mess and noise of it, the smells, the constant movement, the strange sights he kept discovering. Like seeing two soldiers kiss in an alley near the Chosun Hotel one dawn morning. Or Black Americans on the street or the foot he found in the dark shade of a pine tree still wearing the small rubber shoe that was fused to it.
He followed his cousins as they hustled odd jobs in their neighborhood on the outskirts of Seoul or when they hung around in front of the city jail, sliding down the railings. They also played in the empty reservoir, wrestling with each other in an inch of stagnant water, for coins and honor, and then trading food, clothes, and information. The boys in Seoul had a city shine, a tough layer that was hard to crack. Sung stood back, not hiding but not calling attention to himself.
His cousins told Sung they hardly recognized their city, so much of it had fallen down. They themselves were lucky to be alive. Their house had been hit directly by mortar. Only the two girls were there, and only they died. The younger brother clamped his dumpling hands over his ears the whole time his brother was talking, but he kept his eyes fixed on his brother’s mouth. He cried when his brother got to the part about his sisters dying.
Nobody said anything about what was wrong with Jong, the younger one, but Jae, the older one, kept him by his side all the time. Physically, Jong looked normal except he was unbalanced—big body, small head. Sweet, slow smile, the dawning of ideas gradual and too easily discernible. He got excited about things big and small—sunny days, soup for lunch, a pile of comic books given to them by an American soldier going home.
Jae was quiet and modest, kindhearted. He had been a junior high student when the war broke out. Proudly, he showed Sung his school uniform, which he kept folded neatly in the family’s chest.
Sung was happy to be with his cousins. Even though it was getting colder by the day, they slept outside. When they could afford it and find it, they bought mosquito coils and burned them all night. Even so, they woke up dotted with bites.
Min disappeared every morning and didn’t come home until it was dark. Sometimes he brought home money, sometimes strange bruises.
Sung’s mother began helping his aunt at the market near Namdaemun, the Great South Gate. They got up before first light in order to wait for the farmers who brought vegetables from the outlying farms. His mother and his aunt sold apples. They sat all day in the market, two pyramids of late apples stacked on a blanket in front of them. They kept the younger children with them, either strapped to their backs or tied to their waists with a long piece of soiled cloth.
Sung watched Jungho grow weaker. It was happening right in front of his eyes. Jungho didn’t have the energy to walk much anymore, and sat quietly near his mother like a wooden toy. At home, he lay under the heaviest blankets, not moving unless he was racked by a worrying cough. Then sweat broke out all over his body, and he turned damp and pale like snow. He often wore a serious expression.
One night, Sung heard his mother whispering to his aunt about Jungho’s health.
“Sister, I don’t know what to do anymore.”
In the silence, Sung imagined his aunt shaking her head. “We could take him to the herbalist again,” she said.
“What for? It didn’t work last time and only cost us precious money.” Sung listened to his mother cry softly.
“Let’s at least try to find some abalone at the market tomorrow. If we make him a porridge, it should restore some of his energy. Sister, don’t give up. If you give up, the children won’t survive.”
“I know. I’m sorry, Sister. I shouldn’t be crying like this in front of you when you’ve lost two daughters.”
“It’s okay, it’s okay,” his aunt said, squeezing his mother’s hand. “How can one compare such things? Besides, what can we do? There’s nothing to be done.”
In the cramped room, surrounded by the many limbs and sleeping faces of his cousins and siblings, Sung felt all alone. He understood how his mother would do anything to save Jungho, and how lonely that made her feel. She kept whispering to Jungho to wait until his father came to find them; she kept telling him it would be soon. All they had to do was stay alive and together.
Rumpus original art by Kateri Kramer.
Excerpted from The Prince of Mournful Thoughts and Other Stories by Caroline Kim. Copyright © 2020 by Caroline Kim. Reprinted by permission, courtesy of University of Pittsburgh Press.h