The Days After: A fanfic tribute for the mourning hearts for The Red Sleeve
Deok-im felt that her body suddenly rose, feeling lighter and lighter…until she couldn’t feel any weight on her anymore. It was as if she was floating, yet she stayed on the ground. She felt that she was being attracted to something, and she opened her heavy lids. There, her body lied on the place she used to sit before. Lifeless, like how she saw Yeongbin’s body many years back. Deok-im was too tired to care about anything. She crouched at a corner and hugged her knees, burying her head into her arms.
Days passed by in a blur. Deok-im saw Bok-yeon and Kyung-hee coming over to visit her body, but she could not even touch them and wipe their tears. So she stood there, emotionless. Strangely, her tears did not well up, not even once. ‘Ah, is this a gift for the spirit of the dead?’ Lack of breath and lack of tears…maybe it was a good thing after all. She saw them touching her cheeks and wiping her forehead, but she could not feel their warmth on her skin. So she stared at them…
San also came by. ‘His Majesty…or can I just call him by his name? He would never know. San.’ He would sit across her body, staring at her. Deok-im did not dare to approach, afraid that he might sense her presence nearby him. He would take out a piece of paper from his sleeve and pour some water before grinding the inkstone. The thing she used to do when she was beside him in the past. He would write something while being deep in thought. Deok-im did not bother looking over his shoulder to see the content of his writing, but she could feel each stroke of his brush sending warmth into her veins. Maybe it was just her imagination, but she just stood there in a corner.
She saw her body being lifted into a coffin and brought out. She just followed her body, as she could not tear herself from the force that tied her to the body. She did not even try actually, but she just knew. Deok-im walked close to her coffin, as she realized that the path they took was too familiar. It was the path to her son’s tomb. It had been months since they parted without the chance to see each other for the last time. Would he still be there right now? Or…
That familiar voice. She turned around and saw her son’s beaming smile. In his left arm, there was a bundle with a nose peeking through the cloth, while a little girl not more than 3 years old was holding his left arm. How could a small boy carry a baby like that? Alas, Deok-im didn’t have an answer to that, for her arms were faster to spread and reach for the three of them, her children.
“Your Highness Crown Prince…have you been well?”
Deok-im looked at Crown Prince Munhyo. He was still the same height as he was a few months ago, but the way he speak…it was different from her son, who would struggle to say some words and silently sigh, as Deok-im chuckled at his small frustration. The boy in front of her spoke like an adult. Maybe it was another gift for the spirits of the dead.
“Mother..I’m no longer a living Crown Prince, so please call me by my name and speak informally.” He smiled at her and tugged at her white skirt. “Please~?” There he went again, acting cute whenever he wanted her to stop being upset at him. Deok-im caressed his hair with her palm. “I understand, Sun-ah.”
They stayed there under a tree as the burial for Deok-im proceeded. When it was completed, Deok-im no longer felt the force pulling her towards the mound with her body beneath it. She could not describe the feeling, but it was..overwhelming. Her fingers clutched at the bundle in her arms, trying to find a sense of stability.
“Mother, please follow me.” Crown Prince Munhyo…no, Sun’s voice broke the silence. She followed after his short steps and they reached the small shrine where Sun’s spirit tablet was housed. This was also a place she frequented before she grew weaker. Sun ushered Deok-im to sit in front of the altar, now bearing Sun and her own spirit tablets.
Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months…months, and years passed by, and soon, it would be the third year of her death anniversary. Sun had grown up, as well as Hong-yeon and Yeon-hee. Her daughters did not have a name in her lifetime, but she had always wanted to call Hong-yeon that, because of her favourite book. San would surely chide her if he knew about this, but she couldn’t care less now. As for Yeon-hee…sharing the character of lotus with her sister, and also Bok-yeon…and the character of happiness with Yeong-hee and Kyung-hee. It was her choice to name them, for they were her daughters. At least she could do that in her current situation.
San would come by so many times over the years. Whenever he entered the small shrine by himself, Deok-im and her children would stand on the side, looking at San. Deok-im could see how the years were slowly catching to him. Wrinkles decorated his forehead, and white hairs were slowly appearing in between the shiny black hair peeking from behind his hat. He would always carry his brush to write whenever he was there.
“Mother, do you know what Father is writing when he comes to visit us?” One day, Hong-yeon asked Deok-im. She just smiled at her daughter as she braided her hair. “I don’t know. We cannot know what the living is thinking, just like how they cannot see us here.”
One day, a huge procession came towards the tomb and the shrine. Deok-im realized that the day had come; the day she would be moved to the place she would spend the rest of her time. Up until now, she was waiting for the moment Sun would part ways with her again, because he was destined to carry the fate of being born as a Crown Prince, even in his death. His shrine would be at a different place, away from her humble concubine’s shrine. The concubine who could not even protect her own child she was carrying inside the belly.
She braced herself, knowing that the procession would take her son away from her again…she held her children in her arms, hugging them tightly as she closed her eyes…
Sun’s touch on her cheek made Deok-im open her eyes. Sun was smiling at her, his smile as reassuring as it had always been. Her hand reached for Sun’s on her cheek, covering the small but sturdy fingers.
“Mother, I don’t think we will have to be apart again. Please, do not worry about it.” Deok-im nodded. She believed him. She had always believed in her son and his every word, his every promise. Even when he had to be apart from her after promising to get better, they have reunited again like this. She believed him. She…wanted to believe him again this time.
When Sun’s spirit tablet was carried away, Deok-im tried to hold her non-existing breath. She wanted the time to stop, hence she did whatever she could. Her spirit tablet was brought out next, and slowly…her steps carried her towards her final resting place, the permanent shrine. Sun never let go of her hand. Was it possible for him to follow her like that? Unless…unless…but San would never do that…San, who had lived according to principles all this life, would never bend the law according to his will. But then..but them, her and Sun being in the same place all this while…
They followed after the procession. Deok-im only realized belatedly that they were moving towards the capital..or more precisely, the palace. Her heart skipped a non-existent beat. It can’t be…no, not even San could do that…
The procession stopped at a building in between the two palaces, Changdeok and Changgyeong. Deok-im saw San’s own procession coming out of the gate of Changdeok Palace heading towards the building they were about to enter. The spirit tablets crossed the threshold of the building, and Deok-im followed inside with her children in tow, Sun included.
There, Deok-im and her children found a new home for them. It was near the palace, so Deok-im started to see familiar faces coming to look at her place, even from afar. Only San was able to enter the place and spend time by himself there, accompanied by the family he could not see with his mortal eyes. Sometimes, Deok-im would catch glimpses of Bok-yeon and Kyung-hee passing by the gate on their leave days; Bok-yeon standing for a short while in front of the gate before walking away on her feet, while Kyung-hee would open the window of her litter to look at the gate as she passed by. Court Lady Seo, despite coming there once in a while, would have tears streaming down her sullen cheeks as she sat on the threshold to catch her breath. Deok-im even saw her brother Seong Sik too, taking off his hat and bowing towards the direction of the shrine. Somehow, she knew that the bow was not intended for her, but for Crown Prince Munhyo.
Soon, the visits stopped.
San was nowhere to be seen anymore. Court Lady Seo too. Seong Sik only came by once a year at most. Bok-yeon and Kyung-hee, despite their lesser visits, still never missed the chance to drop by. Seeing them from time to time made Deok-im miss Yeong-hee so much. How was she faring all this while? She could never find out about Yeong-hee’s whereabouts, for she was never allowed to leave the place forever.
Or so she thought.
Deok-im was just having another day of sightseeing from the gate as her girls were running around the yard and Sun peering through a new book San sent through an official few days ago. Her eyes caught a figure she knew too well, walking towards the palace. She couldn’t help but call out the person, despite knowing that it was impossible for her to be that person.
The figure stopped walking. Deok-im froze. Did that person hear her? Was it a living person? Or a spirit like her? Or…
The figure turned back to face Deok-im, and it was Yeong-hee’s eyes looking straight into hers.
Deok-im darted towards that figure, the repercussions be damned. The only thing that mattered to her was Yeong-hee, who was in front of her. She stopped right in front of Yeong-hee, as she reached for Yeong-hee’s soft cold hands. The tears Deok-im thought had disappeared from inside her began welling in her eyes.
“Yeong-hee ya, is that really you?”
Yeong-hee just nodded, tears streaming down her almost invisible cheeks.
It was from Yeong-hee that she learned more about the spirits’ realm. Yeong-hee was buried outside the city, yet she could move around like this. ‘How is it possible?’ Deok-im wondered to herself. Yeong-hee also learned from spirits in her family’s shrine that they could travel the farthest on the Double Seventh Festival to meet their loved ones, but on the Double Ninth Festival, there was special permission for those who once belonged to the palace to visit for one day. So today, Yeong-hee finally gained enough courage to visit the palace to see how Bok-yeon and Kyung-hee were faring.
Deok-im didn’t hesitate to ask. “Can I come with you too?” Right after she finished her sentence, she immediately regretted her question.
“Of course. I know that His Majesty probably visited you frequently here, but it would be different to visit the palace yourself.”
“He didn’t anymore.”
“His Majesty didn’t?”
“He has probably forgotten about me already.”
Yeong-hee reached for Deok-im’s hands, patting them warmly. “You know that it’s not true. Maybe His Majesty is busy with his duties. Why don’t you take this opportunity to visit him in return?”
Sun’s voice was heard from across the road. He immediately bowed towards Yeong-hee when he realized that Deok-im was talking to someone, but he could not mask his shock to see his mother outside their place ever since the day they entered the shrine. Yeong-hee bowed back, showing respect to the Crown Prince.
“Sun-ah, It’s okay. Come over here.”
Deok-im was not sure whether she would be ready to finally be back at the palace she had left behind for so many years, but at the back of her mind, there were also her children who had missed their father. “Sun-ah, would you like to bring your siblings to visit the palace?”
Sun’s eyes sparkled upon hearing that question, but he was cautious. “Mother, are you okay with that?”
Deok-im smiled and nodded.
The palace was still the same as before. Nothing much had changed, except for the people who came and left. Deok-im and Yeong-hee walked behind Sun, his two sisters on his left and right. They stopped in front of the Throne Hall and Sun bowed towards it; his sisters followed suit. Deok-im and Yeong-hee also bowed. As much as she wanted to follow Yeong-hee, this time, she had to be together with her children.
“Deok-im ah, I’ll go by myself to meet them today. You have to stay with your children.” As if Yeong-hee could read her mind, Deok-im nodded at Yeong-hee’s suggestion. Yeong-hee disappeared to the back of the hall, heading towards the court maid’s quarters. Sun led the small family to San’s work office to see if he was there, but there was no one there. Not even the officials were around, which was a strange sight to Deok-im.
“Sun-ah, maybe we should go to your old residence?” Sun’s beaming smile returned with Deok-im’s suggestion. This young man would be 12 years old if he was still alive, and Deok-im could not help but realize how similar he was to San when she first met him.
They were about to leave when a small voice caught their attention. “A..ba..ba..mamma..”
The little boy looked three at most, wearing a colourful small jacket and a soft head wrap like Sun used to wear when he was younger. Deok-im immediately smiled at the memory of a young Sun doing exactly that, running towards San’s work office just to see his father’s face.
A court lady rushed after the young boy, followed by an elegant young lady in a ceremonial jacket. The lady walked carefully, and that sight reminded Deok-im of her past when she was pregnant. She stood there in silence. Sun did not move, as if he was glued to the ground like his mother.
“Your Grace, what brings you here at this hour? The sun is up high in the sky, you might tire yourself with the trip here.” Court Lady Kwon greeted the lady. She then continued, “His Majesty isn’t inside.” The lady sighed, unlike her graceful appearance, but soon gathered herself. “I understand. We will return to our residence then.” The court lady, which Deok-im assumed would be the boy’s nanny, scooped him into her arms. The boy…or the prince started crying, but he soon disappeared behind the gates together with the nanny and his mother.
Sun silently took her hand, and Deok-im realized that she had been standing still for a long time. Even the sun had hidden itself behind the clouds, as compared to how it was shining so brightly just now. Deok-im patted Sun’s head and scooped Yeon-hee into her arms. They need to rush a bit, for soon the nighttime would fall.
Deok-im totally did not expect to see San’s boots perched on the steps leading to the Crown Prince’s residence. The Chief Royal Guard and the King’s eunuch were standing in front of the building like they had always been. She walked past them and caught them whispering to each other.
“His Majesty would always prefer to be alone around this time.”
“No matter how badly he wanted to hide it, it’s hard not to notice…”
“Notice what? Do I forget something?”
“Ahhh..Chief Royal Guard, you and your bad memory…”
The eunuch made Deok-im wonder as well…what was the reason for San to spend his time alone here instead of being at his work office?
Then she remembered.
Today was the Double Ninth Festival.
Today was the 9th day of the 9th month.
Two days ago would be Sun’s twelfth birthday.
And five days later, it would be the seventh year anniversary of her death.
She ushered Sun, Hong-yeon, and Yeon-hee to go inside and bow to their father. Deok-im could not bring herself to see San after remembering what he could have been going through during this very moment, seven years ago. Had it been too long since she left that she almost forgot the details about what happened back then? She thought that San was finally living well when he stopped visiting them, and the sight of the young prince and his mother was like a sign for her to stop coming to see San in the future and only let Sun bring her sisters. But then…the person she thought would be strong might have grown even lonelier than before.
From that moment on, Deok-im kept tabs on the flowing time instead of letting it pass unnoticed. That was in the year of 1793. She made the decision to visit the palace twice a year: seeing San on the Double Seventh Festival to check on him by herself, and on Double Ninth Festival together with Yeong-hee to visit Bok-yeon and Kyung-hee, while her children would visit San and kept him company.
The year 1798 was a sad yet sweet one for Deok-im and Yeong-hee.
When they visited that year, Bok-yeon did not look too well; unlike her usual cheery self, her cheeks had grown hollow over the time they did not see her. There were talks about her being sent out of the palace soon due to her illness. Deok-im and Yeong-hee promised that they would look for Bok-yeon next year if she did not find her way to the palace on the Double Ninth Festival, but somehow, Deok-im knew that the resourceful Bok-yeon would find out about it somehow.
Her visit to the palace two months ago made her silent heart heavy. San did not look well. His complexion was darker compared to before, and his eyesight had grown worse, from how he was already wearing reading glasses. That did not hinder him from reading until late at night; even when Deok-im was about to leave before the curfew bell rang, San was still poring over the book he has been reading since the evening. Deok-im used to wonder, how on Earth someone could be as studious as San? Her heart felt heavy for the first time in so many years, so she decided to leave her heart with him this time.
Bok-yeon’s appearance on the morning of the Double Ninth Festival in front of the palace gate ended with hugs and ugly crying. They did not even enter the palace; they just sat on the staircase beside the gate and chatted until it was dark. They parted ways when Sun appeared with Hong-yeon and Yeon-hee in tow. Sun’s face did not look good at all and Deok-im noticed that he was quieter than usual.
That night, Yeon-hee sat beside Deok-im. This was a rare occurrence, considering how Yeon-hee would always stick with her sister Hong-yeon all the time. Yeon-hee, now in her teenage years, rested her head on Deok-im’s lap.
“Mother, have you ever heard of this one poem in the Book of Odes? I think the title is North Wind.”
Deok-im tried to compose herself. She looked down at her daughter’s face, her lips broke into a bittersweet smile.
“Where did you read the poem? Did your brother read it to you?”
Yeon-hee shook her head. “No, I saw Father reading it earlier today.”
Deok-im sighed. She only hoped that nothing bad would happen.
New Year passed by without any news. ‘No news means good news,’ Deok-im thought to herself. Seasons changed according to its usual course: Winter turned into Spring, and soon, Summer arrived.
It was a warm summer evening when the strange sound of a bell rang, breaking the silence. Deok-im’s heart dropped. She knew that the thing she wished would never happen had become a reality. Soon, the road was filled with people in mourning clothes. The nation had entered a three-year mourning period for the king.
Deok-im entered the palace on the Double Seventh Festival in the year 1800. She went to the funeral chamber where San’s body was kept, nine days after his passing. She was not sure whether San’s spirit would be there, but she was ready to face anything now. She entered the room to find it empty, save for a huge coffin in the middle. Deok-im was about to lay her hand on the coffin when something stirred at the corner of her eye.
The voice. The voice calling her name..after almost 15 years of not hearing it herself.
“Deok-im ah..it’s you, right?”
When Deok-im was about to face the source of the voice, a pair of arms were faster to pull her and a familiar scent wafted around her as that person enveloped her with a hug from behind.
The time stood still for the two of them as they found comfort in each other’s arms. The chamber was cold, but they were warmer than they had ever felt before.
Deok-im later found herself resting her head on San’s shoulder as they sat leaning on the doors, a gesture that felt like it happened in her past life. They were silent for a long moment before San opened his mouth.
“Did you…meet our Sun?”
Deok-im nodded, her eyes tearing up. San kissed her on the forehead.
“Then all is well.”
“We have been visiting you every year, Your Majesty.”
San sat up straight and held Deok-im’s shoulders to sit facing him. “Explain so that I can understand.”
And that was how San found out that her children were together with Deok-im all this time, and that they had been visiting him when he was at his lowest time every year. San felt apologetic towards his young children who had to witness his weak side in front of their eyes. He held his head low, but Deok-im smiled and cupped his face in her small hands.
“They knew how great of a father you were, and you still are. You are forever their father, in life or death. They look up to their father, who is also the King of Joseon.”
“What is the use of being a king when I couldn’t even preserve the lives of people I cared the most?”
“You did everything you could, Your Majesty. No one could fight against fate, but you did what you had to do. And that was enough.”
San did not stop his tears from flowing down his cheeks. Deok-im patted him like she used to do with Sun. She chuckled silently at this sight of San.
“Are you laughing at me?”
“I wouldn’t dare, Your Majesty. It’s just that…”
“You look so young, like what you used to be when I met you at the library.”
“You too..the only difference is that your hair is in a bun, so you look like a very young bride.”
“I would never lie.”
Now that she thought about it, even Bok-yeon and Young-hee looked like how they used to be when they were 18, except that their hair was, just like her, tied into a bun. Oh, could it be…
“Ah…so that’s what gonna happen to our children.”
“What about them, Deok-im ah?”
“You’ll see when you meet them, Your Majesty.”
San’s body was still kept in the funeral chamber during the Double Ninth Festival, so their children had the chance to visit him. Just like what Deok-im predicted, San was taken aback to see them all grown up: Sun was a spitting image of him but with Deok-im’s delicate features; Hong-yeon (San rolled his eyes at the name) was like Deok-im’s younger sister and San could see the same spirit in her eyes; Yeon-hee, on the other hand, was elegant in how she carried herself, despite being the youngest. She did not talk much, yet her words were always warm and reassuring. Yeon-hee resembled both San and Deok-im, which was a peculiar thing in San’s eyes. It was surreal that he got to see them again, together as a family.
It would take another three years before San could move freely (this was just his hunch, but he thought that it would be possible from what Deok-im had told him) but San already had a plan on what he wanted to do every year with his family: he would take Deok-im back to her old residence to see if the flowers had bloomed again during the Double Seventh Festival. On the Double Ninth, he would take the children to find his father, if he was around in the palace..or maybe in his shrine, while Deok-im spent her time with her friends. They would fly a kite the following year and drink flower wine together as a family. Maybe his princesses…no, daughters, could learn new things from Deok-im’s friends as well.
When he returned for good after three years, he would tell Deok-im to call him ‘Husband’ instead of ‘Your Majesty’ and his children ‘Father’ instead of ‘Royal Father’. He wanted to make Deok-im’s dream come true since it was not too late to do so.
- Double Seventh Festival is on the 7th day of the 7th month of the lunar year. According to legend, separated lovers would be able to meet each other when they cross the Magpie Bridge.
- Double Ninth Festival is on the 9th day of the 9th month of the lunar year. It is the day where people will hike up a hill to enjoy the flowers and drink flower wine. On this day also family members of the deceased will visit the graves and conduct memorials for the departed.
- A deceased spirit, according to Confucian beliefs, will be split into two parts; one stays with the body on Earth while the other part goes up to heaven. The spirit that stays with the body will be transferred to the upper garment first. Then, a temporary spirit tablet will hold the spirit before it is transferred to the spirit tablet proper to house the spirit. In a normal family, the spirit tablet is brought back to the house of the deceased after the burial, but in this story’s case, a temporary shrine is built to house the spirit table near the tomb. A proper shrine is completed after the three-year mourning period and the spirit tablet is formally enshrined in the permanent shrine.
- Deok-im and Sun’s shrine is located between Changdeok and Changgyeong Palaces, so that explains the close proximity of the place and the palaces.
- San’s spirit tablet is going to be enshrined in Jongmyo shrine, which is located just beside Changdeok Palace. Since San is a king, his spirit will receive lots of spiritual energy through numbers of memorials, so that might make it possible for him to travel without much restriction.
Thanks Gia for the inspiration 😉