Hwangap for Grandfather

By Bernadine Beatie

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    Chol-soo lay still, quietly staring into the darkness. Finally, he heard gentle snoring coming from the next room. Kang, yu, his grandfather, was asleep. Chol-soo rose and took a wallet from under the mattress. He had hidden it when he and old Kang returned from Seoul that afternoon. The wallet was made of fine leather and was full of money. Chol-soo’s eyes glistened, for his dream had come true! He could have a hwangap for Kang, yu!

    Hwangap is an ancient custom in Korea to celebrate a person’s sixtieth birthday. Kang, yu would reach that honorable age in three days.

    Chol-soo took the bills from the wallet and counted them. There was enough to buy new clothing and fine food. Everyone in the village would come, and after the feasting Kang, yu and the elderly men would perform stately old Korean folk dances.

    Chol-soo frowned. What will I say when Old Kang asks me where I got the money? he wondered.

    I found it at the market in Seoul, would be his answer, Chol-soo decided. A strange heaviness closed about his heart, for Chol-soo knew that the wallet belonged to Kim, min-soo, a fat, jolly shopowner who often visited his grandfather and bargained for his fine wooden carvings. Today Kim, min-soo left his wallet on the mat where he had been sitting. Chol-soo grabbed it up, thinking to run after him and return it, but instead, on a quick impulse, Chol-soo slipped the wallet into his pocket.

    Now, staring at the wallet in his hands, Chol-soo’s mouth hardened. “It is not for myself!” he whispered, trying to convince himself. “Grandfather deserves a hwangap, and he will have it.”

    Shoving the wallet back beneath his mattress, Chol-soo lay down, but sleep would not come. Many thoughts of his grandfather crowded his mind.

    Chol-soo was an orphan. His grandfather often told of the day he found Chol-soo on the side of the road. The woman caring for Chol-soo could no longer feed him. “You smiled and held out your arms to me and tottered over to me. That was the day I found a grandson. It was the luckiest day of my life!” Kang always ended the story.

    Lucky for me, too, Chol-soo thought. Old Kang was a fine craftsman and always managed to make enough for food, warm clothing, and rent for their small house. Kang was never too busy, however, to mend a toy, and he could always be counted on to help the villagers in times of trouble. Indeed, Kang gave of himself so freely that many times he worked late into the night to complete his carvings.

    Chol-soo kept thinking more than anything in the world, he wanted to bring honor to his grandfather. Suddenly, he sat straight up in bed and his face burned. Paying for a hwangap with stolen money would not honor the old one. It would only bring shame.

    His mind raced. What could he do? Even as he was asking the question, Chol-soo knew. The wallet must be returned!

    Chol-soo lay sleepless through the long hours of the night. At the first sign of daylight, he took the wallet from its hiding place. He tiptoed through Kang, yu’s room and was almost at the door when the old man spoke.

    “Where are you going so early, Grandson?”

    “I—I—” Chol-soo started. Then, though he tried to hold back the words, the whole story came pouring out. “Instead of a hwangap, I have brought dishonor to you. I am no longer worthy of being your grandson.”

    Old Kang smiled gently. “You will always be my grandson, my beloved grandson. Come, I will go with you to return the wallet.”

    “Thank you,” Chol-soo whispered, swallowing the knot in his throat.

    “Stop worrying. My hwangap is the knowledge that my grandson is willing to take the responsibility of a wrong action.” His dark eyes twinkled. “I have the feeling that there will be no more actions of this kind.”

    “I can promise that, Grandfather!” Chol-soo declared fervently. Suddenly he was smiling and the heaviness in his heart was gone.

    Illustrated by Jerry Harston