Chapter 5: The Naming Ceremony (4)
Fatigue took over the boy, and he laid down on his side to get some rest. As he expected, the bed was warm and luxurious, and the freshly washed sheets and the soft mattress provided him with a comfort he had never even dreamed of. He could hear the distant laughter of the other children playing outside, and the afternoon sunlight drifted in through the window, shining over the boy. The added warmth caused a sudden sadness to wash over him, and before realizing it, he began to cry.
“Mom…” he sobbed quietly. His mother, who had always protected him, was gone, and he was alone in the world. Not only that, but the world itself had rejected him and sent him to a foreign place. The overwhelming sense of desolation left the boy clueless, unsure of what to do.
Winter was fast approaching. As soon as the trees shed their leaves, showing their barren branches, the institute was in a frenzy over getting the place cleaned up. They had to prepare for the winter season before the weather turned any colder, and as such, even more volunteers came to help than usual. The older children, generally those who had received middle school education or higher, were cleaning up alongside the volunteers.
However, not everyone was involved in the ruckus. Those who were too young to help were exempt from cleaning duty, and they were happily running along the corridors, laughing merrily. Some of these children were busy persuading the others to join them outside to play soccer, cold weather be damned. And there were those who didn’t belong to either of these groups, choosing instead to move independently.
“Let’s go outside. Isn’t it boring in here?” Myeong-su asked in an almost pleading way, though the boy showed no sign of moving. “How can you study? It’s so loud. They said we need to move around after eating, so come on. Please?”
“I have to finish all this.”
The boy’s curt refusal upset Myeong-su, who then made his way behind the boy, pleading once again from right behind his back. “Hey, let’s go. We can’t lose to Cheol-yong hyung*. You’re the only one who can win against him.”
This time, the boy didn’t even give an answer and remained in his seat, completely focused on his writing. He had already used up half of his pencil, yet he continued to write out one Korean character at a time, almost with too much force.
Though it hadn’t been long since his arrival, the boy had gotten over his initial sadness and despair and had started to get used to the institute. Even the bafflement he had felt seeing new objects and products of this civilization had faded into his memory. During this time, he had taken an interest in ‘learning.’ While he was surprised that anyone could learn, as it had been a privilege only granted to aristocrats in his world, what interested him most was the field of ‘academic education.’ The fact that anyone who wished to could study and acquire knowledge was an astonishment, and learning characters and being able to read were an enjoyment. He had been illiterate even before, so the fact that the alphabet was different didn’t hinder him in the slightest. The act of learning characters itself filled the boy with delight, and while he studied, he could forget about his sadness and other memories and really concentrate. This wasn’t the only change to occur while the boy adapted to his new environment. He had gotten close enough to his roommate, Myeong-su, to speak comfortably and play with him, and though it was only pertaining to one-on-one conversations, he was also able to talk to the teachers at the institute. It was with their help that the boy begun his study of the language.
“Oh my, you’re rather bright.” The teachers would say, admiring his progress. “You’ve memorized all this already?” They frequently expressed their surprise at the boy’s intelligence when they taught him. He learned a lot and he learned it quickly, to the point that they wondered whether he was a genius. Though it wasn’t uncommon for children to learn the Korean alphabet before entering elementary school, the teachers were certain that the boy’s learning speed was much faster when compared to that of others. He was also very diligent. Children of his age had difficulty maintaining their focus, but the boy’s concentration surpassed that of even adults, and he had now reached the point where he could read almost any book available to him.
His talents, however, went beyond study. Once time, after lunch, Myeong-su had taken the boy to play soccer, much to the dismay of the boy himself. Though they called it soccer, it was just a simple game of kicking the ball into a designated goal post, without any rules or regulations. With the boy’s physical strength and stamina, acquired through roaming the forest from a young age, far surpassed those of the other children, and as such, Myeong-su’s team had been able to win against the older Cheol-yong’s team despite the two-year difference in age. From that day on, Myeong-su often tried to get the boy to join his team, and at his desperate requests, the boy sometimes agreed and played along with him. Thanks to this, the boy got along with the other children to an extent, but as his passion lay with studying rather than kicking balls around in the field, Myeong-su had to go out by himself, leaving the room with a heavy sigh.
Today, as usual, the boy was alone in his room, practicing on his writing and reading books, when he suddenly felt a presence behind him. He turned around and saw a girl, perhaps around ten years of age, with a pristine smile on her face. “Oh,” she said, “you were studying. Did I disturb you?” The boy shook his head as he watched her. She had pale, white skin, matching her pristine smile, and thin eyebrows. Her smile reached her eyes, making them appear almost drooping. She opened her pink lips and spoke again. “You’re a handsome one, aren’t you? How are you so pretty? What’s your name?” The boy fidgeted around, hesitant to answer.
A few days ago, the boy had been summoned to the chairman’s office. The older man had offered him a white mug full of the same juice as before and sat down heavily on the sofa in front of the boy, who couldn’t help but worry that the chair might break. For one fleeting moment, the boy even went as far as to imagine himself getting stuck under the chairman’s protruding stomach.
“Well,” began the chairman, interrupting the boy’s imagination. “I heard you’ve been working hard on your studies. I really was quite worried, did you know? That you’d have a hard time here, too. But seeing you now, I think I can relax a little. Is studying fun?”
The boy was now aware that gulping down his juice as he had done before could be considered lacking in manners, and as such, he simply sat there, looking back and forth between the cup and the chairman, not daring to take even a single sip. The chairman found this to be very cute and, with a boisterous laugh, gestured for the boy to drink with a twitch of his fingers. Accepting this as permission to drink the juice he was given, the boy took the cup in his hands and drank slowly, one sip at a time, as the chairman continued talking. “Next year, you’ll have to be enrolled into a school. But before that, there are a few things you need, once of which is a name. We need to know your name to fill out all the paperwork needed to get you into school. Do you understand what this means?”
“Good. So what is your name?”
Seeing that the boy still had difficulty disclosing his name, the chairman formed a few hypotheses about the boy’s past and carefully offered a second option.
“Well then, how about I give you a new name?”
Startled, the boy just stared at the chairman. What did he mean by a new name?
“What I’m trying to say is that…If it’s hard for you to use your old name, giving you a new name is also a possibility. This means you’ll have to use your new name from now on, of course.”
“You need one to go to school and continue the studies you love so much. By now, I’m sure you know as much, right?”
The boy couldn’t bring himself to speak. He had never even imagined getting a new name. Truth be told, the reason he couldn’t say anything when asked about his name was largely due to the impact his dream had had on him. His father’s words, telling him to remember his name, became engraved in him, acting as a seal. The awkwardness and hesitance the boy had displayed as a result of this had only contributed to the adults’ misunderstanding of him. But now, he hesitated to say his name for an entirely different reason: he had figured out that his name did not follow the common naming system of this world. He was afraid that revealing this information would force him into a situation that he could not handle alone. This was why he had struggled so long to say his name. And yet…
They were going to give him a new name?
*hyung – lit. older brother. It is how men address older men with whom they are close, regardless of actual blood relations.