The yellow ribbon.
WINNER YA (12-18 years) CATEGORY
MAE THOMAS, aged 15
In a village just outside of Seoul, there lived a girl and her widowed eomma. She had no siblings, the girl, or any friends. The other children kept away from her – no adult was ever sure why. She was kind, and perhaps a little distant sometimes, but a sweet girl.
The girl, Ara Lee, always wore a yellow ribbon in her hair. She had ever since early childhood, and as kids, no one had questioned it, but as she and the other children grew into teenagers, they called her immature.
“Why do you always wear that ribbon? Children wear ribbons, not young ladies.” Jin-Lie, a cruel girl, always asked. She had stopped wearing a hair ribbon at an early age, and led the rest of the townsfolk in what seemed like a daily ritual of interrogation. But Ara never gave them an answer, for all of their questioning and mockery.
Every day, she attended classes and then she would go to the woods. Ara’s eomma worked as a washerwoman, and often worked long hours, but no one had ever asked why Ara so often disappeared into the forest.
Ara spent the time gathering edible plants, to help her and her eomma survive. She knew that her eomma was known as ‘Crazy Old Eun-Ae.’ Ara had no desire to talk to or spend any unnecessary time around people who thought that about her eomma.
It was on one of these such days that Ara happened on a small, pretty fox.
“Who are you?” The fox asked her. Ara blinked in surprise – most of the talking animals had died out, according to fable.
“Ara Lee,” she replied. “And you?” The fox regarded her for a long moment.
“You may call me Fox, as I am a kumiho,” Fox told Ara. Ara had always found animals more forgiving than humans – even wily kumiho. Kumiho were the creatures of legend. Beautiful women that were fox shapeshifters, known for being ruthless, but once in debt to someone, would uphold promises with their lives.
“I have seen you in this forest, day in, day out, every day of the year. And, tell me, why do you always wear that pretty yellow ribbon in your hair? You always wear it, even in winter.”
“My eomma’s memory is going, slowly,” she explained carefully. “But she always knows that her daughter wears a yellow ribbon in her hair. So I wear that ribbon because it helps her remember me.” Fox was silent, and then finally spoke.
“You are a very good daughter, then, to put up with the torment the other children give you.”
Ara smiled sadly at Fox.
“The things we do for love.”
Fox and Ara continued through the forest, when Fox stopped suddenly.
“I must hide now. There’s a woodcutter coming who would love to use my pelt and my meat,” Fox told Ara. Fox melted out of sight, as the woodcutter appeared.
“You’re the daughter of Crazy Old Eun-Ae, aren’t you?” He asked, and Ara replied.
“She’s not crazy, but yes, she is my eomma.” The woodcutter reached for his rifle. Ara had a brief moment of panic – not everyone liked her mother, but surely he wouldn’t shoot her?
“There’s a fine young fox behind you. Stay still,” he instructed. But she turned to see the fox, and it was Fox, with the amber eyes. Panic filled up her throat, and she shot forwards.
“Stop!” Ara cried, but with wide, panicked eyes, the woodcutter pulled the trigger.
She gazed down at the red that stained her light blue dress, lips parted in surprise. As though she’d knocked over a pitcher of water. Something small. Something trivial.
Ara could hear the woodcutter running, calling for help, and slowly, she collapsed.
Fox was at her side, amber eyes on Ara.
“You saved my life,” Fox blinked quietly. “Not many humans would do that for a fox.” Fox bent her head. “How may I repay the deed? A life for a life?” Fox paused. “You said your eomma’s memory is leaving?”
Ara’s lips were painted with her blood. “Yes, she – she will not always be able to function.”
“I can take your place,” Fox explained, deep sorrow in her eyes. “I can keep her alive, and she will – she will think I am you, if I wear the ribbon.” Ara’s tears splintered the last remains of her façade, each one a broken shard of her heart.
“Keep Eomma safe. Keep her alive, make sure she has a good life, Fox. You must tie your hair into a braid every day, and wear the ribbon in it. Tell her that her daughter is home,” Ara gasped, tears in her eyes. She struggled the ribbon free of her long braid, giving it to Fox. Fox spoke around the ribbon.
“What do you feel, Ara Lee?”
She touched the red blood. It decorated her dress, the ground. Fear consumed her mind, her chest. Who would look after her Eomma now? Who would keep her safe, who would be there to remind her of necessary everyday things? Who would keep her alive?
“Scared. I’m scared, Fox. I love Eomma, do her well, please.” She pleaded, and died.
“I will do her well, Ara Lee,” Fox answered the girl’s body, too late for her to ever hear.
Fox gazed at Ara for a long, still moment, the ribbon in her mouth, and then turned, shifting fluidly into a human form. Tied the ribbon into her hair, and left, to do as the girl had asked. Her dying wish.
The girl lay there, the yellow ribbon gone. A single tear, weighed down with the terrible heaviness of a lifetime, fell from her eye. All the memories that made up a person gone along with it.