Joohyun almost doesn’t hear it, her ears straining to hear something that might not even be there. When suddenly, a muffled sob followed by quiet crying sneaks its sound through the crack in her door. She throws her covers off and her feet slide into a pair of slippers. Tentative steps are made in a dimly lit hallway and she brings her hand up to gently knock on the door. A sniffle and shuffling occur on the other side before the door opens to reveal her youngest daughter. Yerim looks up and paws at the tear tracks on her face before lifting her arms, signaling for her mother to carry her. Joohyun gently smiles and picks up the girl, slowly making their way to the kitchen.She places her daughter on a stool at the counter.
“Do you want to talk about it, Yerim-ah?” her mother quietly asks before turning around and beginning to make some chamomile tea.
“I’m worried about mom and if she’ll ever come back. I heard the teachers talking about how the war is getting a lot worse now. Especially where she is.” Yerim says before continuing, “Mom hasn’t sent a letter back yet and I’m scared that she never will.” her sentence is barely finished before the girl starts sobbing again. Joohyun coos before coming over to wrap her daughter in a hug. She pulls back and looks into her daughter’s eyes.
“Yerim, do you remember how I said your mother was like a bear?” The girl nods. “Well at first it was because she looks like one, don’t you think? With her round face and ears?” Yerim giggles as her mom pulls at her ears and making a funny face before nodding again.
“Your mother is also just as strong as a bear and is fierce against anyone who would ever want to hurt her family. That’s why she’s fighting over there Yerim. She’s fighting for us, so we can be safe and happy.” The tea kettle whistles, making the two girls jump and Joohyun turns around to pour the tea into their favorite mugs. Hers with a rabbit, Yerim’s with a turtle, Seulgi’s with a bear. The crudely painted animals were drawn by Seulgi and colored by Yerim. They had all made these together at a workshop shortly before the war began. Right before Seulgi left.
The pair make quick work of their tea, the calming chamomile working effectively and making them sleepy. Their pinkies interlock as they wander into Joohyun and Seulgi’s room. Yerim unceremoniously plops onto the bed before snuggling into Seulgi’s side. Quiet good nights are exchanged before sleep takes them both.
The next morning holds an air of uncertainty, unrecognizable to the two Kangs as Yerim scrambles to get ready for school. She manages to make it on time and waits for the bus outside, its yellow presence pulling to a stop in front of their house. Joohyun pulls at her ears and makes a silly face, just as she did last night. Her daughter flashes a huge smile, her cheeks coming up to complete the look into an eye smile. Joohyun blows a kiss and Yerim clamors onto the bus.
Joohyun begins going through her normal routine of: chores, knitting, and catching up on her reading. Her book has the woman deep in thought when she hears the mail slot rattle. She shoots up and runs to it, leaving Virginia Woolf to close on her own. The mail is gathered from the floor and starting to be flipped through.
Something. A letter.
Everything else is dropped as Joohyun fumbles to open it. She squints at the date. The letter is late, written over a month ago, but Joohyun cherishes it nonetheless. Her wife writes of life on the front and how she’s been promoted. The news warrants a fancy dinner, Seulgi pens before going into her love and admiration of both Yerim and Joohyun. The end tells of a possibility for her to come home very soon, and that she’ll phone as soon as more information is given. Joohyun’s brow furrows at this. This was- this was written over a month ago. How soon was Seulgi talking about? Either way Joohyun clutched the letter to her chest, trying to absorb the ink into her skin.
Yerim bounds home from school, immediately delving into a story about how they wrote encouragement letter to the soldier and that she hopes her mom gets hers.
“Speaking of letters, one came in the mail today.” Joohyun says slyly, holding it in her hand.
Yerim snatches it and bolts into the house, leaving her chuckling mother behind.
“She wrote this in the trenches! That’s crazy!” the girl says, walking to Seulgi’s favorite chair with a smile on her face. She continues to read but stops abruptly and asks about her mom’s homecoming. Joohyun shrugs and voices that she’s not sure about it either.
That night in the middle of dinner, a timid knocking is heard. Mother and daughter make eye contact before rushing to the door, leaving their meals behind.
Yerim yanks the door open and is confused to see an unfamiliar soldier at their door.
The soldier removes her hat and asks to come inside. Irene starts to tear up and nods, pulling Yerim towards her and out of the doorway. The conversation is brief yet jolting nonetheless. Seulgi, newly promoted to captain, was leading a reconnaissance team into enemy territory and has not been heard from since. It was supposed to be a quick mission, one so vital that leave was to be granted upon completion. The status of the team is uncertain, but presumed dead. No one sent to this location has ever come back alive afterwards.
Joohyun is furious and begins screaming about why Seulgi was sent in the first place. The soldier holds her ground, saying that it wasn’t ordered, but volunteered. Joohyun wipes her tears and asks the soldier to leave, which is done promptly. She notices Yerim hasn’t said a word since the guest had arrived.
A meeting of eyes occurs. No answer is given.
“Yerim please say something.” Joohyun pleads, but her request falls on deaf ears. Her daughter goes to her room, door clicking shut behind her.
Yerim doesn’t speak or laugh again. There is nothing to be found as the seven-year-old closes in on her self. No matter how many cups of tea are given. No matter how many times Joohyun pulls at her own ears, making a face.
- Four years later -
The war is finally over. There is still no word about Seulgi’s status.
Another year passes, and a national flag is sent in the mail. The president himself pens a letter commending Seulgi and her sacrifice made for her country. Yerim refuses to read it.
Five years since Joohyun has last heard her daughter’s voice. Yerim is nearing thirteen, and has been to just as many therapists. Joohyun requests a name change form.
It means peace, the opposite of the force that took her wife away. She has half a mind to revert to her maiden name. It just hurts too much to hear Kang, to read letters addressed to Kang. However, she can’t do that to Yerim. To Seulgi.
Irene doesn’t believe that her wife is alive. It’s impossible at this point. Albeit, Yerim believes enough for both of them. Irene knows this as she has stumbled upon Yeri's deeply moving poetry, which tells of her one want: to see her mother again. She curses to herself and puts it back where she found it. Underneath Seulgi's pillow.
Dinner is quiet, as per usual. The silence is interrupted by a timid knocking on the door. A wave of deja vu hits both mother and daughter as they lock eyes once more. They don’t rush to the door, afraid of what’s behind it.
Yerim is gentler with the door this time.
She peers up at the soldier. A sob rips out from her lungs as she pounces onto her mom. It's the first sound she's made in years. The bear laughs and hugs her daughter quickly pulling her wife in as well, before saying:
“I’m sorry it took me so long.”