The Artist: Shisan

Miyoung sips her tea in an attempt to stay awake. It is way past her bedtime and her eyelids are protesting but she is determined to treasure every last minute she has with Taenggu. So she takes another sip as Taenggu tells her about the time she tried to climb a tree when she was very young. She ended up falling and cutting her chin on a rock.

“I bled a lot and I remember crying a lot because I thought I was going to die.”

Miyoung giggles at the mental image of a crying kid Taenggu. “That must have been both terrifying and adorable.”

“Mostly terrifying. My parents scolded me very badly after I stopped bleeding.” Taenggu touches her chin. “They were afraid I would scar but fortunately, all that remains is a faint line in the cleft of my chin.”

Feeling curious about the scar, Miyoung leans toward Taenggu and stares at her chin, searching for a trace of the cut. “I can’t see it.”

“It’s right here.” Taenggu points at a spot below her bottom lip. “Here.”

Miyoung leans closer, stopping an inch from Taenggu’s chin and examines it. “It must be really faint. I still can’t s—” Lips press on hers and she jumps back in shock. “T-Taenggu.” Said girl is grinning and Miyoung realizes she might have been had. “Is there really a scar?” she asks, eyes narrowed in suspicion.

Taenggu grins wide, her mouth opening in silent laughter. “Yes, there is. But it’s not on my chin.”

“Taenggu!” Miyoung chides her companion half-heartedly for she is beginning to laugh too. “So where is the scar?”

“Here,” says Taenggu, pointing at her cheek.

“Taenggu, be serious!”

“Okay,” says Taenggu with a laugh and sweeps her hair from her forehead. “Here. At the side.”

Miyoung touches Taenggu’s temple, stroking her thumb over the faintest scar. “Poor little Taenggu. You must have cried a lot.”

“Those were cheap tears.”

“Don’t say that.”

“A child’s tears aren’t worth much.”

“Tears are always worth something.”

Your tears are precious.”

Miyoung shakes her head. “My tears change nothing.”

“That’s not true. Your tears would break my heart.”

Moved beyond words by Taenggu’s sweet admission, Miyoung puts her arms around the young woman and nestles her head on the shoulder that seems to be made for her. For a while, they sit like that, holding on to each other. The night is quiet and the moon supplies just enough light to cast an eerie cloak of visibility over the land outside. The candle on the table burns on, giving them a warm glow. Some insects are calling for their mates.

“Is Taenggu your real name?” Miyoung asks at last. Talking about this makes it seem even more final but she can’t let Taenggu leave without knowing her real name.

“No.” Taenggu’s hand rubs up and down Miyoung’s arm, comforting her somehow. “My name is Taeyeon. Kim Taeyeon. And my brother is Kim Heecheol.”

“Heechul?”

Taenggu nods.

“I knew it. Your story didn’t make sense at all.”

“I’ve never told anyone that I have a brother. It just slipped out that day and that was the best story I could come up with on the fly.”

Miyoung giggles. “You need to get better at this identity hiding thing.”

Taenggu pouts. “I’m good at it. I’m only bad at it when I’m with you.”

“Oh, so you’re blaming me for this?”

“I’m saying you’re too attractive for me.”

This puts a big smile on Miyoung’s face. “Taeyeon.”

“I miss being called Taeyeon. It’s been months . . .”

“Taeyeon.”

“Mmm?”

“Taeyeon.”

“What is it?”

“I’m going to call you Taeyeon all night.”

“Don’t make it a habit.”

“I won’t.”

“Miyoung.”

“Yes?”

“Miyoung.”

The young mistress smiles. “Taeyeon.”

“Miyoung.”

“Taeyeon.”

The two young ladies stare at each other for a beat before bursting into giggles. They cling on to the other girl’s arms and try to suppress their laughter, lest anyone should hear them.

It is so precious, every moment they have right now. But as the shichens go by, Miyoung grows sleepier and sleepier. At one point, she is barely aware of Taenggu calling her name, and she is reduced to mumbling her answer as her head lolls on Taenggu’s shoulder. Then, nothing, after that.

=

“Taenggu! Wake up!”

Miyoung wakes with a start. What was that?

“Oh my heavens.”

It takes a moment to register the face hovering above but when it does, Miyoung screams and hides behind the drapes hanging over the bed.

“What is this noise . . .” Taenggu mumbles, her voice sounding thick with residual sleep.

“WHAT IS THIS!”

Miyoung jumps and trembles upon hearing her brother’s furious roar. Tears well up from nowhere instantly—such is her terror at being caught in an incriminating state like this. “Brother . . .”

“Get off the bed!”

Miyoung stares in horror as her brother yanks Taenggu onto the floor by her collar. Then, as though someone flipped a switch on her, she scrambles off the bed to make sure Taenggu is not injured.

“Brother! You can’t treat Taenggu like this!”

“Have you gone mad? Why are you defending this asshole!”

“Taenggu is not an asshole!”

With another roar of anger, Li Ou grabs Taenggu’s lapels and hauls her up. “You. Are. A. Dead. Man!” he bellows in her face and proceeds to drag her out of the room.

“Young Master, please,” Heechul pleads but Li Ou is in no condition to listen.

Turning to Heechul, Li Ou snarls, “You! Did you know anything about this?”

“N-No! N-Nothing—I knew nothing. I would have tried to stop it if I had known!”

Li Ou turns back to Taenggu, ignoring Miyoung’s pleading cries for him to let Taenggu go. “You will face the wrath of my father, you piece of good-for-nothing rotten meat!”

“No! Please, brother, please! You can’t drag her around like this!” Miyoung is losing her sanity at the sight of Taenggu being held like a criminal by her brother.

“I can drag him around as I want. This is our estate and this ungrateful asshole has just committed the greatest act of insult on us.”

Miyoung is sobbing by now, her tears blurring her vision and her nose, runny. But she manages to follow her brother to the study where her father is pouring over some documents.

“Father, I caught this rat in bed with Miyoung,” Li Ou announces as he dumps Taenggu on the floor with little ceremony.

Miyoung rushes to tend to Taenggu when she cries in pain but is held back by Lim Dayu. He shakes his head and frowns at her, mouthing the words ‘do not’. Miyoung struggles against his grip but is unable to shake him off and in her desperation, ends up throwing her fists at him. “Let me go, please let me go.”

“STOP THIS RIGHT NOW!” her father hollers. “Miyoung, your actions are intolerable.” He rises to his feet and steps towards them, stopping in front of Taenggu. “You. You were caught red-handed by my son. What have you got to say for yourself?”

Taenggu closes her eyes and hangs her head. “Master Hwang, I am sorry for repaying your kindness in this manner. I am really sorry. You may deal with me as you wish.”

“No! It’s not her fault! It’s me! I am the one who went to her room!” Miyoung screams in distress.

“Miyoung!” her father shouts at her. “This is the result of giving you too much freedom and choice. I am so disappointed in you, Miyoung. How can you do this to our family name? Think of what Mishil and Li Ou have done for our family. And look at what you have done now.”

Tears are falling from Miyoung’s eyes like the rain. “I-I’m sorry . . .”

Her father’s eyes harden and his jaws clench as he puts Taenggu in his sights again. “You will not tell anyone about last night. You will go on trial for theft and you will admit to the crime. I will have you sent to the furthest jail from here and you will never come back again.”

“Father! You can’t! You can’t do this!” Miyoung screams to the point of breaking her voice. “Taenggu will die if you do this!”

Heechul falls to his knees and pleads, “Please, Master Hwang, please let us go. We will go to a place far from here and never return. We will not say anything about this either, please, Master Hwang.”

“Shut up! You are in no position to negotiate. It is either this or I’ll have my men beat him to death.”

“NO!” Miyoung screams in terror and collapses onto the floor in tears. “Please, Father, please don’t! Don’t! She’s only a young girl, you can’t do this to such a promising young girl!”

“Miyoung!” Taenggu shouts with urgency. “No!”

“Girl?” Master Hwang looks at Miyoung as though she has lost her mind. “He is a man.”

“Taenggu is not a man,” says Miyoung, babbling on even though Taenggu is shaking her head like a woman gone crazy. “Taenggu is not Taenggu. Her real name is Taeyeon and she’s a girl.”

“Taeyeon?” her father questions. “Is this true? Are you a girl?”

Taenggu hangs her head and says nothing.

“Answer me!”

A moment later, Miyoung hears Taenggu’s tiny voice answering in the affirmative and gasps in relief. It will be alright. Things are going to be alright. Taenggu is a girl and they did not do anything wrong by sleeping together.

“Are you lying to us?”

“Father, she—”

“Miyoung, it’s time for you to shut your mouth. I want to hear it from Taenggu. Or Taeyeon. Tell me the truth.”

“It is true. I am a girl.”

“How can you prove it?”

Miyoung is close to protesting the question when Lim Dayu squats in front of her and shakes his head again. His eyes seem to be telling her something so she decides to remain quiet for the time being. Upon seeing her calm down, Lim Dayu returns to his position behind her and she focuses on Taenggu’s face. Right now, Taenggu looks conflicted and the crease of her forehead tells of her dilemma. But after a moment of silence, the young artist stands. She closes her eyes, reaches into her loosened overcoat and tugs at something vigorously.

Not knowing what Taenggu is trying to do, Miyoung watches with bated breath as the young woman turns to face the wall and tugs with both hands. Then, after a moment that feels trice as long, Taenggu turns back around and holds out a strip of cloth that used to be white. The difference it makes to her upper body, although not overly conspicuous, is evident enough in the light of day and everyone in the room gasps, while Heechul turns away awkwardly.

“So it is true. You are a girl,” says Master Hwang.

“Yes, I am a girl. And I am very sorry for pretending to be male.”

Master Hwang turns on his feet and strides back to his study table. He sits and looks at the people in the room. “My son, Li Ou, has treated you like a friend these past two weeks. I have treated you well, taking you in without any intention of asking for returns. Lim Dayu has served you faithfully as well. And though my daughter knows of your deceit, she has hid it from us on your behalf. All of the above constitutes enough reason for you to come clean with me, right here, right now. Not a single detail will be left out. You will tell me everything, from beginning to end. Begin.”

=

Author’s note // Pronouns

In Mandarin, pronouns for he/she/him/her all sound the same, so even though Miyoung is saying ‘her’ in the story, Master Hwang would be hearing ‘ta’ and wouldn’t be able to tell if she’s referring to a he or a she.

male – 他 (ta)

female – 她 (ta)

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