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One Thousand Chestnut Trees

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Язык: Английский
Год издания: 2018 год
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      One Thousand Chestnut Trees
Mira Stout

An epic tale of an enigmatic land – Korea – and one woman’s search for her past.Uncle Hong-do arrives in Vermont from Korea to see the sister he has never met, a concert violinist long settled in America. His colourful visit turns his teenage niece Anna’s world upside down, disrupting her cosy existence with his eccentric customs, forcing into it a fresh and intriguing tang of Korea. Then, too soon, he returns to Seoul.When Anna leaves for the orient many years later to uncover her family’s elusive history, her departure stirs up vivid, shocking memories for her mother, of her gilded childhood in Korea and the story of her noble clan’s fall from power.Long ago, her grandfather, Lord Min, commanded his own private armies and his vast estates straddled North and South. In defiance of centuries of barbarous invasions – by the Japanese, Manchus, and finally the Communists – he built a temple high in the mountains, and planted one thousand chestnut trees to shield it from view. Now, generations later, his trees call back his great-granddaughter, and Anna sets out with Uncle Hong-do to find the hidden temple.A powerful mixture of memoir and fiction – the Wild Swans of Korea.

MIRA STOUT

One Thousand Chestnut Trees

DEDICATION (#u2261225d-6FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

FOR MY MOTHER AND FATHER, AND THE KOH FAMILY.

CONTENTS

Cover (#u2261225d-1FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Title Page (#u2261225d-2FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

Dedication

1 A Memory

2 Cardboard Boxes

3 Five Martinis

4 History

5 Et in Arcadia Ego (#u2261225d-13FF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

6 Father Goes Away

7 Mansei

8 School Days

9 A Radio Broadcast

10 Namsan Park

11 Fire on the Cliff

12 Ninety Thousand Troops

13 In Hiding

14 Airbase

15 Farewell

16 Kimpo Revisited

17 Going South

18 Going North

19 Filial Piety

20 Yangyang

21 One Thousand Chestnut Trees

Acknowledgements

About the Author

Praise

Copyright

About the Publisher

PART ONE Daughter (#u2261225d-6FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

CHAPTER ONE A Memory (#u2261225d-6FFF-11e9-9e03-0cc47a520474)

It was winter in Vermont. Beyond my window, the pines would have bristled sparsely against the hushed white snow. The grey, swelling sky would have been as vast and lonely as a Northern sea. But I can’t recall Hong-do’s arrival. His presence was ghostly then, so tentative that he scarcely left an imprint. Yet now, years later, when I remember that emptiness, Hong-do’s face follows.

My uncle from Seoul came to stay with us when I was just fourteen, my first year of boarding school. His jet eyes, wide-boned pallor, and shock-hair gave him an outward boldness, but he was actually quite shy. Although I’d met my mother’s Korean friends, Hong-do was different, more foreign somehow; pungent and unfiltered.

Even gestures required translating; Hong-do’s sneeze was a violent ‘YA-shee’ rather than a tame, ‘Ker-CHOO’. And when he was in a hurry, he walked in Korean too, lightly trotting, arms stationary and body canted forward. He rather stuck out in our redneck town.

My mother must have looked equally oriental, but I noticed less – she was a mother, already a separate species. Besides, they didn’t look alike. My uncle’s face was paler, and round like a moon. There was something remote and masked about him, as if he were stranded in his skin.

Despite our kinship, I felt little for my new relation then. Though he was young enough to be a brother (I hadn’t any siblings), no reassuring sympathy for him welled up, and to my alarm, no rescuing tug of filial loyalty helped me to pretend otherwise. Hong-do was a spaceling to me. The rapid, guttural language of clucking, hacking noises that he and my mother spoke sounded ugly and comical to my teenage ears, separating us like barbed wire.

As a child, I had refused to learn Korean. I’d even blocked out most of my mother’s worn stories of Seoul, which were as unreal as fairy tales, but with tragic endings. The gilded family sagas ended in divided lands, ruined gold mines, betrayals and torture at the hands of Japanese invaders, even before the beginning of the catastrophic Korean War.

Hong-do had been born after my mother’s departure for America, so she was meeting him for the first time too. My mother had returned home just once in thirty years, so the narrative store could not be replenished. By default, the whole of Korea had shrunk to meaning little to me but my mother’s iron discipline, and eating dried squid after school instead of luscious Marshmallow Fluff.

Until now, I had only known my uncle from photographs in our album. In an old sepia-tinted family portrait, Hong-do was a small, doll-like boy in a sailor suit, shyly holding my grandmother’s hand. (She died before we could meet.) The family looked grave and distinguished; tall men in wire-rimmed spectacles, stiff collars and boutonnières, and women, fragile, but assured, wrapped in stiff silk han-boks, seated in a shadowy, peony-filled garden. My mother’s chubby-faced younger sister, Myung-hi, hair severely bobbed, stood protectively next to Hong-do.

I daydreamed secretly about them, especially about my great-uncle, Yong-lae, the wastrel poet, so vain that he would only be seen in public astride a white horse – which sometimes returned empty-saddled, its master having passed out in a ditch. In a later black-and-white image, dog-eared from handling, Hong-do was grown up, dressed in military uniform, leaning against a wooden footbridge before a pagoda, smiling confidently at the camera – roguishly handsome. I had looked forward to meeting him.

But this full-colour, three dimensional stranger seemed jarringly unrelated to those glamorous photographs. For a start, he was here in our kitchen rather than safely there. He reminded me a bit of a prisoner then, hiding out in our isolated house in his geeky ironed denims, gazing out of the window as if contemplating an escape. But he had nowhere to go.

During his visit, my mother became more enlivened and fluent than I had ever seen before. They would stay up late together drinking ginseng tea and talking excitedly. Sometimes they spoke with a raw, almost animal pain that frightened me. Gradually, the sound became less exclusive, and flowed generously, like water released from a dam. This awesome current bypassed me and my Boston-Irish father (who also spoke no Korean), but neither of us remarked upon it. I was content to pretend that they were discussing dull matters like jobs in Boston, where Hong-do was to attend university in the autumn. Korea was so much static to be tuned out of my consciousness.

During those winter evenings, my father and I tactfully watched ice hockey on television, but neither of us could really concentrate. Although we were silent, I was acutely aware of Hong-do’s presence. I would sneak glances at him from the sofa as if he were a surprise package that had been delivered which I hoped someone else would open. While I had decided he was to be a marginal figure in my life, I kept a self-interested eye on him anyway during those first cold nights. I sensed, with some dread, that he contained secrets I might someday need to know.

One morning after Hong-do had just arrived, we drove out through the snowbanked woods for an educational breakfast at the Timberline Restaurant on Route 9, renowned for its sixteen varieties of pancakes, and its tourist-pulling ‘Famous 100-Mile View’ over Massachusetts.

Lavender-haired waitresses in white uniforms and orthopaedic shoes delivered the orgiastic fare with medical briskness; steaming cranberry and banana-dot pancakes, french toast piled with blueberries, waffles shining with melted butter and hot maple syrup, spice-scented sausage-patties, link-sausages, mouthwatering bacon, Canadian bacon, steak-and-eggs, eggs-any-style, oatmeal, homefries, toast and English muffins. MaryLou – as her name-tag announced – refilled your coffee cup instantly, and offered free second and third helpings like someone arriving to plough your driveway.

That sunny morning, the dining room was crowded with skiers, bunched around the colonial wagon-wheel tables in pneumatic technicolour overalls. They roared with pre-sport gusto, clanking their cutlery uninhibitedly, as if their appetites might extend to the creamy blue mountains which beckoned beyond the plate glass windows like a majestic frozen dessert.

At first my uncle looked overwhelmed, but soon glanced about delightedly, taking tiny, experimental sips from the coffee cup he held ceremoniously in both palms. People stared baldly at us, jaws momentarily disengaged. Orientals were rarely seen then in the Vermont hills. We ignored their dismay – led by my mother’s well-practised example – but I felt scalding embarrassment. Although we’d begun by speaking in English, my mother and Hong-do soon broke into voluble Korean as if my father and I were not there.

At last our breakfast arrived. Still feeling unwell after his long journey, my uncle faced a modest fried egg and toast. He hesitated a moment, but with a final scowl of concentration seized the sides of the egg white with his fingers, and crammed the whole object in his mouth in one piece. Head bowed and cheeks bulging, he chewed the egg penitently, as if ridding his plate of an obstacle. My father and I froze in surprise. Never having seen an egg dispatched in this way, I began to laugh, but my mother’s eyes stopped me like a pair of bullets.

The next week my mother urged Hong-do to look for a job in Starksboro – the nearest big town – in order to improve his English and relieve cabin fever. As his classes were not to begin for several months, he aquiesced, but found nothing. I suspect he was secretly relieved.

In the mornings after a bit of coaching, my mother and I would drop him off in the icy parking lot off Main Street, the Starkboro Reformer help-wanted ads folded neatly inside his glove. Yet by noon Hong-do would be waiting for us dejectedly at the counter of Dunkin’ Donuts, attracting hostile stares from beery lumberjacks grimly chewing their jelly doughnuts, puddles forming on the pink linoleum beneath their snowmobile boots. After a week, his only offer had been a part-time window-washing shift in the sub-zero February winds. Dad said they must have thought he was an Eskimo.

Struggle was foreign to my uncle. He was the pampered youngest son of an old, noble family, accustomed to a big house in town with servants, and estates in the country. My mother even claimed that Hong-do was renowned in Seoul as a ‘happy-go-lucky playboy’ inconceivable though it was to me, as I examined him critically through a gap in the car’s head-rest. Here, he was assumed to be a refugee.

I saw Hong-do again at Easter. At home, snow still scabbed the fields, but the ground had thawed, and squelched underfoot. Wild gusts of fresh, sweet wind roared through the bare tree-tops. Unpacking my duffel bag, I resolved to be a bit kinder to my uncle – providing it was not too painful.

But I had forgotten little things about him – like the way he chewed spearmint gum with smacking gusto, and sang corny songs in the car. And his sense of humour! I rarely saw him laughing, but when he did, it was a razor-edged alto giggle. Then, at moments of unanimous family mirth he would be isolated in a deaf silence. He thought most American food was disgusting, and I never saw him reading a newspaper or book in English.
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