Saturday, December 22, 2012


Park Jin-Ho and Hwangbo Hyun-Woo had been friends their entire lives. Many often mistook them for brothers. While different in many ways, they realized early on that the other could help them compensate for their own short comings.
            Hyun-Woo had thought Jin-Ho was the smartest person he knew. All throughout school Jin-Ho had always gotten top marks. One semester, Jin-Ho had a fever the weeks before and during the national exams. Hyun-Woo had visited his friend regularly to bring him the assignments from each day. He was more amazed than anyone when Jin-Ho placed first in the school and thirteenth in the nation.
            Conversely, Jin-Ho thought Hyun-Woo was the strongest, most athletic person he had ever met. Regardless of the sport or competition, Hyun-Woo always came in first place. He had made junior nationals level teams in not only soccer, but also swimming and track and field as well.
            Ironically, when they had both decided to take up Tae Kwon Do, they were equally matched in their own way. Jin-Ho became a master of technical combat, readily delivering precise strikes and devastating counters. Hyun-Woo had adapted a more direct approach, utilizing raw power and speed to overwhelm his opponents. They had both decided to drop all other extracurricular activities and focus on their martial art.
            To say that Jin-Ho was surprised when his friend was hospitalized with a rare illness was a gross exaggeration. To him, it seemed absurd that someone so healthy and hale would succumb to an illness.
            Days had turned into weeks, and soon it would be more reasonable to start measuring time in months. Many doctors, and then many traditional healers came and looked at Hyun-Woo. All left after they were defeated by the mysterious contagion. Eventually, one of the healers suggested looking for a traditional cure that involved travel to a remote shrine. He said that it was deep into the mountains, several kilometers up an old stone path built off an old dirt road.
            After hearing about a possible cure at the remote shrine, Jin-Ho agreed that he would make the journey.
            Packing lightly, he rode the earliest bus he could for a few hours, arriving at the bus stop indicated in the set of directions the healer had left. It was a little more that a bench and a sign next to a light poll. He followed the road on foot for a few kilometers until he came to the dirt road in the directions. The road was rough and deeply rutted as it wove its way into the mountains. A few more kilometers and he was at  hongsalmun gate he was told to look for. At this, Jin-Ho stopped in amazement.
            The gate looked bright and new, as if it had been constructed yesterday. The large gray stone that formed the pathway, however, appeared extremely weathered and aged. He assumed that the government must maintain such historical structures as cultural heritage sites. It was past noon and he could feel his stomach start to growl. He opted to eat his lunch sitting on an large boulder he found on the other side of the road. He finished quickly, repacking everything but his water. He took a large gulp of water as he crossed the road. He was screwing the cap back on when he stepped under the hongsalmun.
            Instantly he felt an odd sensation, as if stepping into a walk-in cooler, and almost dropped his bottle in the process. He paused and looked around. It was mid-afternoon and nothing noticeable seemed to have changed. Jin-Ho put the bottle away and continued on.
            After several kilometers of a twisting path along that followed along the ridge top, he came to another, larger hongsalmun. This one was red and black with pillar over two feet thick. It was larger and contained intricate carved patterns painted in gold. Beyond it was a massive set of stair that followed up the edge of the mountain. It left the trees behind and faded into the now misty hillside. After climbing up what seemed a countless number of stairs, Jin-Ho suddenly came upon a third, colossal gate at the tope of the stairs. It was identical to the second gate in design yet many, many time larger the size in every dimension. He estimated it might even be taller than his apartment building. As he looked it up and down he noticed a venerable looking old man sitting crossed legged under the gate. His eyes were closed, his hands resting palms up on his knees.
            Jin-Ho assumed this must be a priest of some sort and approached the man. When he was only a few steps away, the man opened his eyes and smiled. Before the youth could say a word the old man spoke first.
            “Young traveler Jin-Ho, I welcome you.”
            Taken aback, the youth stopped, unsure of what to say. Did the healer have a way to contact this man.
            “No, he did not,” the monk seemed to reply.
            Jin-Ho simply stared in disbelief.
            “Yes, this is the place you seek. Your can find your friends cure here,” came an unsought reply.
            At this news, Jin-Ho’s thoughts were cutoff. He smiled as tear involuntarily started to well up.
            “But it comes at a price,” the man said in a flat tone.
            Bewildered again, he wiped the wetness from his eyes.
            “There is a field beyond this gate, and beyond that is a small village,” said the priest. “Pluck a single flower in that field. Then you can continue onto the village. After that your friend will be cured.”
            Jin-Ho’s confusion deepened. Was the flower the cure? Did they need to do something in the village? What about some sort of actually payment?
            “The cure requires exactly what I have said,” came yet another unsolicited reply.
            After a pause, the priest yawned, and then added “we are talking about saving a life.”
            Jin-Ho looked down at his feet, thinking intensely about what the priest had said. Suddenly a chill went down his spine with the sudden, harsh realization of the words meaning.
            He looked back up at the old man. The priest just nodded slowly.
            Jin-Ho closed his eyes, slowing his breathing. Once he had centered himself, he opened them. He looked back at the priest and nodded slowly. He fixed his pack and walked under the gate. Halfway across the field, he paused briefly and picked one of the thousand tiny purple flowers that grew in the field. A few minutes more and he was at a fourth gate, this one identical to the third. Beyond lay the village.
            Jin-Ho took a deep breath, then started through the gate.
            Far away, at the same time, Hyun-Woo sat up in bed for the first time in weeks. Tears were streaming down his face.

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