by Wendy Wuyts
Once upon a time there was, and there was not, a French landscape architect named Judith. On this particular day she waited in a traditional tea house in Yangnyeongsi, Daegu. The Korean city of street trees, apples and oriental medicine.
She was always looking for a way to be “different”, “special” and “unique”. As a young woman, she tried to challenge the status quo by experimenting with alternative lifestyles and joining protests. She said she would devote her life to activism, art and travel. Even now, at the end of her thirties, she proclaimed to everyone that she will never marry and have children but will have loved ones in every corner of the world – even in the deserts of Mongolia.
It was all the fault of author Simone de Beauvoir. Her interview with Jean-Louis Servan-Schreiber in 1975 convinced Judith to never end up as a housewife, and to become a free woman. Judith wanted to be the next Simone.
Though, she also desired a soul-mate. Judith knew she had met her “amour de ma vie” when she was 21. It was someone who inspired her, brought the best out of her and with whom she could experience endless love and adventures. But it didn’t last, as society didn’t allow surrogate mothers to have partners. The surrogate mothers could only be married to the earth.
Seven months ago, Judith was assigned by her boss to work out the e-plantification of this city.
“Daegu?” she had repeated. “Why Daegu?”
“Because they have money,” her boss answered bluntly. She was Dutch. They are always honest. After her working day, Judith returned to her apartment feeling it was time to meet her former love, who lived in Daegu. She looked at the photo of Simone and her lover Sartre on her desk. They never lived together, but they were lovers until their deaths. Simone’s biggest success, she said herself, was Sartre. The promise of death, of separation evoked a certain curiosity from Judith.
Judith reflected on her own former partner. In this world, Sartre didn’t exist anymore. Women’s successes were their own. Needing men were a thing of the past. Perhaps she could at least check in with her lover, even if society wouldn’t allow them to be together.
Seven months later, Judith was on the other side of the world. After a work inspection by contractors, Judith went to this famous district in Daegu, where you would find innumerable herbs and medicines. In oriental medicine, the point is not to cure a disease but to fix the body. People get sick because the dual powers of yin and yang are unbalanced.
“Dong quai nourishes the blood and Omija juice reduces coughing.” A toothless woman told Judith.
In response Judith bought some kudzu, because it would help her with a hangover.
She noticed that the women in the contracting company drank soju like mountain water. She joined them last night, to quell her nerves. She would soon find herself in a meeting akin to an interrogation.
From the moment Judith left her hotel until she took a seat in the tea house, she hesitated a thousand times. From her bedroom to the taxi, the same thought echoed in her mind. “This has to be the craziest, if not the stupidest idea of my life.” But something in her – whether it be female intuition, her guardian angel or the voice of her dead grandmother – told her that meeting Han-Sol is what she needed to be able to heal her. Perhaps she would realise the feelings were only memories and nothing more.
Daylight shifted, and Han-Sol appeared. Judith held her breath. After all this time she had not changed from her time as an exchange student.
They greeted each other, but it was awkward. They used polite gestures to greet one another, trying to hide their invisible relationship. On the day they met, they called themselves ecofeminists. They shaved their hair off as a protest against the “patriarchy that intoxicated the French minds.” They slept together that night. Han-Sol had come from Daegu. Among their many talks, she expressed topics as diverse as K-Drama, beauty contests (which they also detested), and that Daegu produces so many beautiful women because of their apples.
“We have changed so much,” Han-Sol said. “I became a housewife, and you an architect for one of the most powerful companies in the world.”
Judith blushed. “We both do important work.”
Han-Sol continued, “Some women call me a Kim Yi Joung or a Mam’Chung, after a famous novel which was published ten years ago.”
“I’m not so familiar with Korean literature. Not since 2012, at least.” Judith admitted.
“Oh yes, 2012. What a year.” She looked down. They both recalled the painful memories which took place in that French village. “You know… It’s an insult for women who live easily by the money of the city to think my kind don’t work.”
“Really? That is ridiculous.”
“Some people joke that we are yang-banged,” she said, “because we convert yang energy into yin through our bodies. That is our only function.”
Judith could not look her in the eyes anymore. She knew about the discrimination. She also judged women who volunteered to be surrogate mothers. Or rather, she felt it was a pity. She felt their life was that of a machine.
“So, how does it work?” Han-Sol asked.
“What?” Judith was brought out from her thoughts.
“The e-plantification of our light infrastructure.”
“Oh. Well, do you know the process of photosynthesis?”
“Yes. I recently helped my eldest child with her biology homework.”
Judith wondered how many children Han-Sol had produced, but she now preferred ease so she stayed on technology.
“Plants convert CO2 into oxygen,” Han-Sol continued, “with the help of chlorophyll in the leaves.”
“That’s true,” Judith said, “but they also produce sugars. These sugars do not remain in the leaves. They are transported throughout the plant, and some of these sugars are excreted by the roots. There are bacteria that surround the roots, and they break down these sugars, too. In this decomposition process, they release electrons. Our technology collects the electrons in the minus pole of our plant battery. When the electrons flow through the wire, they can be used as electricity.”
“But is it healthy for the street trees?”
“Yes, the electrons continue their journey to the plus pole, the cathode. We do not disturb the trees and plants.”
She paused to think. “I think I understand.” She smiled. “You really have found a purpose.”
Judith looked up. “Han-Sol, what is going on?”
She hesitated, looking to her tea cup as if she was looking for advice, and then gazed right into Judith’s eyes.
“I know how you think about us. I am sure that book of Simone de Beauvoir is still in your suitcase at your hotel.”
Judith turned her eyes away.
“I wanted this,” Han-Seol said. “I truly love my daughters, but sometimes… I don’t know. I feel so confused. I know the work of de Beauvoir is not relevant, or can’t be relevant anymore, in this world. However, sometimes it is… I think that becoming a caretaker was a mistake, and that I should have stayed with you. To make art…create amazing ideas…to build a regenerative economy. I feel so… invisible. While you are so… unique. You are visible. I am sure you look down upon me.”
“No.” Judith looked down. “Not anymore.”
“But you did?”
“…Yes,” Judith admitted. She felt as if a colony of termites were eating her stomach.
“It is like I am struggling with ‘The Problem That Has No Name.’ Though, it has a slightly different nature than what Betty Friedan once described.”
Judith craned her neck. “Han-Sol, what is going on?” she repeated.
She hesitated. “I am confused… or maybe I need help. The insults that I hear make me mad. They do not know what it’s like to bear and take care of children.” She bit her lip, and her hands started to shake. “Actually, I think I lost my mind nearly seven months ago. I blame an old Korean novel that I found from the time before The Reckoning.”
People did not talk about The Reckoning because everyone had lost loved ones in this war. The ones who had survived The Reckoning now had a better life than they did before.
Judith looked up. People did not talk about The Reckoning because everyone had lost loved ones in this war. The ones who had survived The Reckoning now had a better life than they did before. If only they could forget the feelings of loss, Judith wished. The earth is healthier… so are bodies, but the memories of pain were hard to forget. It was easier not to talk about it. Han-Sol had always believed that The Reckoning was inevitable, after all the pollution, terror and other crimes she had seen in Asia and Europe.
Han-Sol paused before asking,“Have you ever read ‘The Vegetarian’ by Han Kang?”
Judith shook her head.
“Han Kang wrote this after she was struck by an idea from another writer who suggested that humans should be plants. I wish sometimes I could also be a plant. They probably have all the answers to the questions I have because they live for so long, witnessing so much.”
“Yes, there is something wrong. Sometimes I feel I need a break from her children,” she whispered as if confessing to first-degree murder. “Seven months ago, I had another episode. My sister took over. She advised me to take a long walk. Mountain air is the best medicine.” She hesitated. “…I had an inner voice telling me to look up the eldest apple tree. Did you know that Daegu has the oldest apple tree in Korea?”
“Yes, you told me once. I remember you said that apple trees have an average lifespan of 30-40 years, but this tree produced apples for more than 80 years.”
“ I realise now why I was so attracted to that tree. She keeps living, keeping society alive.”
Judith didn’t know what to say or do, other than to continue listening to her story.
“I was alone when I arrived at the apple tree… or not really. There were three young guys…” Suddenly Judith held her breath as Han-Sol turned down her eyes. The biggest victims of The Reckoning have been men. Judith had not seen any men since then.
Han-Sol continued, “… and they seemed to have expected me.”
“Are they…” Judith did not finish her sentence, because she did not want to say it aloud.
“Yes, they introduced themselves as… gods. But we know what they are.” She scanned Judith’s face. “Do you believe that I really saw them?”
“I believe that there are still free men on earth, and only those kinds of men would have survived The Reckoning.”
Han-Seol smiled. “I knew you wouldn’t think I was crazy.” She sighed, feeling relief rush over her.
“What did they want from you?” Judith asked carefully.
“They wanted me as a judge in their beauty contest, ” she said.
Judith blinked, confused.
“I thought they were all … the same. You know? And they realised soon that I did not become a surrogate mother because I love yang energy so much.” That remark gave Judith her first smile of the day. “So they tried to bribe me with their powers. One offered to make me queen of a forested island, and my daughters would all become princesses.”
“Do they really have that power?”
“I think there is probably a place where they hide and where they would like to have some women around. I think that was the dodgiest offering.”
“What about the second?”
“He offered me wisdom and skill in war.”
That took away Judith’s remark. “Do they expect another war?”
“I don’t know. But as my aunt once said to my mother, and my mother later to me, as long as some people are oppressed there is always a risk for an uprising.” She hesitated. “My aunt told my mother that before she went to Gwanju.”
Judith remembered the death of her youngest aunt in the democracy uprising of the eighties. She thought of how her grandparents fought for a long time against the plans of the governments to wipe away the bloody history of Gwanju. Han-Sol was not born in that time, but she was aware – from a young age – of the memories of losses. They were intertwined in her family’s memories.
The two women looked at each other and continued to conversation.
“So what about the third?” Judith finally asked
“The third one offered me the love of my life. A love that I could finally keep until my death.”
Judith straightened her back. Her fingers were tingling, and it was not because of the medical herb tea.
“So, this meeting was more than seven months ago?,” Judith asked with a smile. Han-Seol nodded.
Judith took her cup again and drank from her tea, feeling the medicine flow through her body. This was indeed what she needed.
“Why don’t you ask me who I chose?” Han-Seol asked.
Judith looked her deep in the eyes and already knew the answer.
Wendy Wuyts is a Belgian PhD student in Environmental Studies at Nagoya University, Japan. She blogs about sustainability issues in Japan for Mo*, a Flemish magazine focusing on social and environmental matters globally, and has her own personal blog where she collects stories about trees, tree spirits and forest bathing (woodwidewebstories.com). In her free time she works on a second novel about tree spirits. This short story situates in the world of that novel, but is about other characters. In november 2019, Wendy’s first fiction book got published: ‘Als Meubels Konden Spreken’ (If Furniture Could Talk), which introduces the main character to the different dimensions and aspects of the circular economy.
Special thanks goes to Andrew Winchester Greer for proofreading and editing.