Eun-Yeong looked up at her mother and smiled.
“It is your birthday today, dear Eun-Yeong,” said her mother. “You are turning thirteen, and that means you are becoming a woman.”
“Yes, Mother,” smiled Eun-Yeong.
“You are in charge of the house from now on,” said her mother. “I am leaving, my child, and I am not returning. Do you understand?”
Eun-Yeong frowned and took in a short breath at this news, for she did not understand. She could not comprehend why her mother would leave her and not come back.
“Why are you leaving?” she asked. “Where are you going?…I want to come, too!”
Her mother placed her right index finger upon Eun-Yeong’s lips and shushed her.
“You are a woman now,” said Eun-Yeong’s mother in a firm tone. “You will watch the house from now on. You will do the chores from now on. It is up to you to weave the clothes and take them into town for sale. It is up to you to buy supplies from now on. You will live here by yourself from now on…I am going to join your father.”
Eun-Yeong was very upset about this. She did not want to live here by herself, nor did she wish to take care of the estate by herself.
“Where is father?” asked Eun-Yeong. “Why cannot he just return and help us? He left for the war, but he never came home. Do you know where he is?”
“I do,” nodded her mother. “I promised him I would raise you until you became a woman, and now you have. Now, I must return to him, which means you now own our land. Do you understand?”
“No!” cried Eun-Yeong as she stamped her feet. “No, I do not understand!”
“It is about courage, dear child,” said her mother. “Soldiers came to take your father away to war. Your father had the courage to tell them no, but he went with them anyway to keep them from burning down the house. He had the courage to go with those soldiers, and I have the courage to go to him, so you must have the courage to live on your own from now on. This is what your father and I have decided.”
“I…” began Eun-Yeong, but she was at a loss for words.
“You are safe here,” continued her mother. “The war is over. No one will come up here. You are safe here high on this cliff with the oaks overlooking the water. You must have the courage to live your life on your own.”
“There are many things I cannot do on my own!” cried Eun-Yeong. “For instance, what will I do about the roof? You know I cannot climb! You know I cannot stand the height!”
Her mother reached down and touched Eun-Yeong’s chest directly over her heart.
“You must find the courage to climb in here,” said her mother. “If you must fix the roof, you must find the courage to do so…Now…I have wasted enough time on this. I have to leave, and you will stay here and learn what it means to have courage. You will not leave the house until tomorrow, and then you will be on your own. I am your mother, and you will honor my wishes.”
Eun-Yeong was not happy about this, but she had to honor her mother’s wishes.
“Yes, Mother,” frowned Eun-Yeong.
She could not help but cry. It was not like her to spill tears, but the situation called for it.
“Dry your eyes, dear child,” smiled her mother. “You will find the courage to live on your own…Now…you stay here, and I will be on my way.”
Eun-Yeong nodded in acceptance, but she did not like this. It was not something she wanted at all.
“Go and work on the loom,” said her mother. “You will lose your troubles in your work. You can prepare your own meals now, and you can manage the household on your own. You must find the courage to face the world alone, my child.”
“Yes, Mother,” sniffed Eun-Yeong.
She did as her mother had commanded. She went to work on the loom, and her mother took her leave.
Eun-Yeong worked on the loom until she was tired, and then she prepared herself an evening meal, though her thoughts were heavy on both the present and the future.
“What am I to do?” she asked herself. “How will I manage without Mother?…I must learn to have courage, or I will surely fail.”
She slept on this thought as a storm brewed outside.
The next day, it was pouring, and the roof began to leak.
“This is what I was trying to tell her!” hissed Eun-Yeong in exasperation. “I cannot be responsible for everything! I cannot fix the roof!”
She thought of going into town to ask someone to help her with the roof, but she was afraid that someone would take advantage of her once they learned she was living alone. They might beat and rob her, take the house by force, or worse.
She set to catching water in buckets from the leaks and then went to work, weaving on the loom. Her mother was right about setting aside her troubles for work; it helped keep her mind off her fears.
Once she was finished with her work, she prepared her evening meal, ate, and then laid down for sleep. The storm was dying down, so the next day was a good day to work on overcoming her fears.
“I will find a way to fix the roof,” she thought wearily. “I must overcome my fears, and I will start with my fear of high places.”
The next day, the sun had come out in the morning, and she was ready to work on overcoming her fears. She walked outside to look up at the roof, but the height was still intimidating for her.
“I must overcome this fear!” she hissed. “I must find courage! I have to fix the roof!”
Her mother had taught her many things, even the knowledge of how to fix the roof, though she had never actually been up there.
“I will do this!” she said to herself. “I must!”
Eun-Yeong looked past the meadow spread out before the house. She looked out toward the row of oak trees growing on the side of the cliff they lived upon. There, leaning against the tallest oak, was their wooden ladder.
“That is what I will do,” thought Eun-Yeong. “I will start with that tree. If I can climb that ladder to the crook of that tree, then I can climb the ladder to the roof.”
She walked across the meadow to the ladder in the tree and gripped its sturdy sides. She stepped upon the first rung and looked up, but the height made her dizzy, and she could not take another step.
“No, I cannot!” she thought. “But I will not give up. I will try again later.”
She went back into the house and went back to work. She did her work, prepared her evening meal, and laid down for the night.
“I will climb the ladder tomorrow,” she thought. “I will do it this time. That tree looks out over the cliffside, over the ocean. I will climb it and look out over the ocean, and then I will know I can climb to the roof.”
The next day was as sunny as the day before. It was the perfect day for climbing the ladder in the tall oak tree.
Eun-Yeong took her leave of the house, walked across the meadow, and gripped the ladder with both hands.
“You must overcome your fears,” she thought. “You must have courage!”
She stepped upon the first rung and looked up. The height made her dizzy, but she closed her eyes and took in a deep breath. She released her held breath, opened her eyes, and started to climb.
She made it about halfway up before she made the mistake of looking down. Looking down made her dizzy again, and she panicked. She clutched the ladder in terror before gathering the nerve to climb back down again.
“I will do it tomorrow,” she said to herself. “I have the courage…I know it!”
She went back into the house after that, went to work, and took care of her nightly chores. She laid down for sleep after a long day, but the trial of the ladder in the tree was never far from her mind.
“I will find the courage to climb the ladder,” she thought in defiance. “I will look out over the ocean, and then I will have the courage I need to leave this place. I will go find Mother and Father, and then I will bring them home.”
The thought of this made her smile inside, and she rested easy that night.
The next day was cloudy, and Eun-Yeong knew more rain was coming.
“I must climb the ladder today,” she said to herself. “I will climb the ladder and find my courage. Then I will fix the roof and leave to go find Mother and Father.”
She gathered her courage, left the house, crossed the meadow, and made her way to the ladder in the tall oak tree. She gripped the sturdy wooden ladder with both hands, looked up, and started to climb.
She made it halfway up when she looked down again. The height made her dizzy, but this time, she steeled herself and shook her head no.
“No!” she said to herself. “I will climb the ladder! I will climb this tree! I must find my courage!”
She took in a deep breath, slowly released it, and climbed. She took one step after the other, and before she knew it, Eun-Yeong was at the top of the ladder and in the crook of the tree.
She held onto the branches as she looked out over the vast expanse that was the ocean, but there was something else that held her immediate attention.
Before her was a thick branch that stretched forth over the cliffside, over the crashing waves far below. It was impossible to see this side from the meadow, so its cliffside branches were only visible from the crook of the tree.
She had found her courage at the top of her climb, but she had also learned a terrible truth. She would not be leaving to find her mother and father.
Around that thick branch was a rope and a chain. Swinging from the rope was the rain-soaked body of her mother, the older woman’s neck broken at an odd angle from the drop, her body swinging next to the chain-hanged, chain-bound, moldering skeleton of her father, his remains decayed and stripped of flesh by birds long, long ago.
The Ladder in the Tree Copyright © 2021 Matthew L. Marlott