Warm and glowing. Almost perfect. Taenggu is already up and about, setting up the long scroll of paper and getting her painting tools ready. Brush, colours, ink, inkstone. She has an idea of the kind of portrait she wants to paint of Miss Hwang but she wonders if her client will be receptive to the suggestion. The sky is clear this morning. Taenggu looks around her. The leaves on the trees are quivering. Sweet chirps are hidden in the trees, betrayed only by sudden, minute movements on the branches. Flowers spread their fragrance through the air, attempting to attract attention that will contribute to furthering their kind. What is it like to grow up in this garden? What is it like to run through this garden under the warm sun?
“Good morning, Artist Kim.”
Taenguu spins around and almost squawks in admiration. What a sight! The warm smile, warmer than the sun. The gentle eyes, gentler than a baby kitten. The young mistress of the estate is clad in soft pink silk and her hair pulled into neat patterns on her head, tumbling down her back. The raven black river is held fast by exquisite golden pins, enticing with their dangling ends. Exotic looking earrings hang from her earlobes, piquing Taenggu’s interest. Lips. Red lips. Taenggu’s hand almost rises to touch her own lips. She cannot remember a time when her mother had ever put on this many accessories, much less a time when she had ever looked this feminine.
“Good morning, Young Mistress Hwang.”
The young lady blushes. “Father tells me you just turned eighteen. I’m seventeen. It feels odd when you call me with such formality.”
“How should I address you then?”
“You can call me Miyoung. If you don’t mind, we can be friends.”
Why would I mind? I would love to be your friend. “Miyoung, I’m not sure if your father would approve . . .”
Miyoung pouts. Adorable. “My father wouldn’t mind. He doesn’t ever say no to me.”
A pampered child. Tread carefully, Taeyeon. “If that’s the case, then we’re friends.”
The smile that follows is sunshine and rainbows. “May I call you Taenggu?”
It is really difficult to suppress her own blush. “Of course, we’re friends now.”
“Okay, since we’re friends, let’s be comfortable. How do we do this? Do I sit or stand?”
“I imagine you sitting right there, under the tree, admiring the sky or birds in the trees. You would be smiling like a beautiful flower blooming in spring, full of life in your eyes. I would love to paint you like that.” Miyoung stares at her for a while and when she doesn’t say anything, Taenggu wonders if she had crossed a line somehow. “Did I say something wrong?”
“No,” Miyoung replies. “Nothing wrong. But so poetic. And artistic.”
“Ah.” Taenggu pauses, not trusting herself to speak.
Miyoung sits on the little red bench that Taenggu pointed at and tilts her head. “Like this?”
Lips curl. “Like this?”
“Yes. What do you think? Does it suit you?”
“I’ll trust you on this.”
“Great. We’ll start now.”
Smiling for a portrait is harder than she thought it would be. Her lips are beginning to tire and her cheeks, cramp. Her back feels stiff. It is hard to keep still.
“You can relax now.”
“Oh, good.” Miyoung rolls her head and closes her eyes as she releases all the tension accumulated from sitting still for so long. Then she stands and walks towards Taenggu only to be stopped by the young man.
“Stop. Don’t come here.”
“But I would like to have a look at the painting.”
Taenggu shakes his head with stern eyes. “No. You can only look at it when it is done.”
Miyoung pouts. “But I want to see the process. I’m curious.”
“I’m sorry but I can’t allow you to see it before it’s completed.”
“It is an artist’s pride.”
“An artist’s pride?”
“A true artist will only reveal their art when it is ready to be seen. When it is perfect. When their work is of the highest level. Right now, it is work-in-progress. I would love to accede to your request but I can’t accede to this.”
Miyoung puts on her best please-let-me-see-the-painting eyes. “Please?”
For a moment, it seems as though Taenggu is about to give in but the resolve slides back in and his eyes toughen up. “I’m sorry. I can’t allow you to. Please return to the bench. We shall continue.”
Pouting doesn’t work. Neither do her eyes come through. What is Taenggu’s yes button? What is it? Miyoung returns to her bench and assumes the pose again. She is resigned for today. But she will try again tomorrow. She will succeed eventually.
“How is the painting progressing?”
Miyoung pouts at the memory of Taenggu’s stubborn denial. “T—Artist Kim did not allow me to look at the painting. He said a true artist will not allow imperfection to be seen.”
“Mmm, Artist Kim has his principles. A man like this will see great success.”
“Father, do you really think so?”
“A good man has to be steadfast in his beliefs. He has to stand firm in the face of obstacles and temptation.”
“I just wish he would let me have a tiny peek. The tiniest peek would make me happy.”
“You should respect the artist and his work. Don’t try to peep.”
“Yes, Father.” Miyoung is disappointed. She had hoped her father might back her up and help her to persuade Taenggu to let her have a look. But from the look of things, she does not stand a chance to see anything at all.
The sky turns dark and a cooler breeze kicks up. Dinner is served for Taenggu and Heechul. She digs into the meat immediately and moans when the rich juices of the succulent meat spill out in her mouth.
“Taenggu, you’re embarrassing.”
“Ermmanggry,” Taenggu replies.
“Don’t talk with your mouth full, for the love of the Heavens above.”
Taenggu chews hard and swallows with a loud gulp. “Ah . . .” She smacks her lips and grins. “That was the best triple-layered meat I’ve ever eaten.”
Heechul rolls his eyes and shakes his head. “You are not my sister.”
“No, I’m not. I’m your boss.”
Heechul narrows his eyes at Taenggu. “You . . .”
“You’re my agent. I’m the artist. I’m bringing the big bucks for us. So if I’m not your boss, who is?”
“Taenggu . . .” Heechul growls in warning.
Taenggu picks up a piece of meat and stuffs it in her brother’s mouth. Seeing the look in his eyes as he chews, she hoots with laughter. “See what I mean?”
“My heavens above, this is heavenly.”
“You’re temporarily forgiven.”
Taenggu waves airily, unconcerned with her brother’s words.
“Don’t forget who you are,” Heechul lowers his voice to a whisper and looks over his shoulder like a thief as he adds, “Taeyeon.”
“Shh! Don’t even—”
“I’m just afraid you’re forgetting. Your actions are really unbecoming of a—” Heechul resorts to gesturing the curvy figure of a woman. “One day, you’ll . . . you’ll have to go back to . . . you know.”
“Do you really think I have a chance of going back?”
“That’s the plan, isn’t it?
“After these few months, do you think it’s really possible?”
Heechul frowns. “You can’t do this forever. Once we have enough, we can start a business. We’ll get to Shanghai. Set up a shop. You can paint under a different name. Sell them in the shop.”
“And get married to a good man?”
“Yes, of course. Then you won’t have to work anymore. You can paint just for leisure.”
Taenggu sighs. “Let’s leave this topic for another day. The meat is too delicious to waste like this.”
Heechul sighs too. “Okay. Some other time.”
“You don’t have to pose today.”
“I don’t? Why not?”
“I have your expression done so all you have to do is sit there.”
“Am I allowed to talk then?”
“Of course you can.”
“May I ask you questions while you paint?”
“I will answer as truthfully as I can.”
Miyoung is intrigued by Taenggu’s reply. “Does it mean you might be lying at times?”
“I will answer what I can. Please forgive me if I cannot give you an answer.”
How interesting. “Well, during the interview, you asked me what my dreams for the future are. I am willing to make a trade. I will tell you, if you tell me yours.” The brush freezes in mid-air. Miyoung notices and a corner of her lips lifts. This strange little artist tries so hard to suppress himself but it doesn’t get past her eyes. “Do we have a deal?”
The artist shrugs his shoulders. He did not agree, but neither did he disagree. Miyoung takes it to be positive and smiles.
“What is your dream for the future?”
The brush freezes again before continuing. “Since you’re asking about dreams, it doesn’t have to be realistic, right? In that case, my dream is to be a man.” Aren’t you already— “A tall, strong, dashing man.” Oh, I see.
“You may not be very tall, but you’re not very short either. Although height isn’t something you can change . . .”
“What about you?”
Miyoung smiles. “Since you said it doesn’t have to be realistic, my dream is to travel the land and see as much as I can.”
“Why would you want to do that when you have such a lovely home?”
“I want to see the moon from the other side.”
“Uh uh. Miyoung.”
“Right, Miyoung.” The artist clears his throat. “The moon looks the same no matter where you go. I can tell you this since I have travelled many months and each night, the moon looks the same other than its shape changing.”
“I know. That’s what my brother tells me too. But it won’t feel the same. Seeing the moon from the top of a hill and seeing the moon from the bench I’m sitting on will give me two different feelings. It’s not the same.”
“You might have read one too many flowery books. Reality is not as beautiful as literature makes it out to be. Your garden is a beautiful place. Good for viewing the moon. The sway of the leaves, the fragrance of the flowers, the calm in the air. There is peace here and you are very fortunate to have this. There is no need to go anywhere else, Miss Hwang.”
She frowns at the artist’s repeated use of the formal address. “Miyoung.”
“Miyoung, I’m sorry. I should focus on doing my job.”
The frown on Taenggu’s face is a mystery to Miyoung. She doesn’t understand why he feels so strongly about her dream to travel. Surely, as a traveller himself, he would appreciate her desire to do so? Or has he gone through hardships that make he say otherwise? Miyoung wishes to ask more, but she senses that enough has been said for the day. And she shouldn’t disrupt his painting. It is bad manners to do so. Tomorrow then. Tomorrow will be another day and another round of questions that she can’t wait to ask.
That night, Taenggu sneaks out of her room and walks to the bench that Miyoung sat in earlier in the day. She sits on it and looks up, trying to see the spot that Miyoung looked at while posing. It is too dark to see, however, so she closes her eyes and fills her vision with the young mistress and her varied expressions. It is in her nature to mentally capture the essence of expressions. It is how she is able to paint a portrait with pinpoint accuracy.
Yet this ability to grasp the soul of her subjects is beginning to haunt her. Because Miyoung is infused with life. With hope. With wonder. With enthusiasm. Everything that she doesn’t have. Unlike Miyoung, she is driven by desperation, hopelessness, fear and the baseness of a need to survive. She remembers, all too vividly, how her home went up in smoke. She remembers, all too clearly, how her parents were beaten, then killed in the violence. The sounds of terror. Screams of anguish. The pungent, sickening smell of blood. It was a miracle that she managed to escape with her brother.
And now, here she sits, in a beautiful garden, in a town far enough from the civil war happening on the other side. The other side. Miyoung said her dream is to see the moon on the other side. Taenggu snorts. Yes, it is true that the moon doesn’t look the same from the other side. Because there is so much pain and loss over there, that the moon is nothing more than a bloody, hateful reminder of how powerless and insignificant she is. If only Miyoung could understand how she is better off on this side. Where the moon is beautiful, bright. Where it is a dreamy vision for the poetic to write poems about.