Read Black Flower Online

Authors: Young-ha Kim

Black Flower (10 page)

“Things worked out for the best. After all, we only ever chased around the righteous armies who refused the emperor’s order to cut their hair.” “Why did you have to bring that up?” “Well it’s the truth, isn’t it? Damn, cutting someone’s throat because he refuses to cut his hair.” “I never did that.” “Me neither.” But all of them felt a twinge of regret.

The fourth soldier, Bak Jeonghun, had been silent up until then. He was a man of so few words that he was called the Stone Buddha. He was an expert marksman, shooting perfect scores even with the old Japanese-style rifles. There were rumors that he had killed a tiger on Mount Guwol and a bear on Mount Baekdu, but he remained silent on the matter. Bak Jeonghun had served as an infantryman in the central army that defended Seoul and the royal palace. He had such a strong sense of responsibility and drew such a clear distinction between public and private life that when his wife grew ill and died, he wrapped her in a straw sack with his own hands and carried her up the hill behind his village to bury her before returning to his post. Yet this only earned him the ire of the corrupt officers. When Hasegawa Yoshimichi, the commander of the Japanese army, proposed the reformation of the Korean imperial military system on December 26, 1904, Bak Jeonghun was the first to lay aside his uniform. Three months after that, he boarded the ship at Jemulpo. He was normally a quiet person, but he was also given to sudden fits of depression, and he had hardly spoken since the
Ilford
had sailed. So when he made as if to say something, everyone paid attention. Having seen the coastline, Bak Jeonghun suddenly opened his mouth. “Me, I don’t plan on going back.” Their eyes grew wide and they stared at him. It was the first time anyone had said anything like that since the journey started. “That pitiful country, what has it done for us that we should go back? Did it not starve us when we were young, beat us when we grew up, and abandon us when life was finally bearable? The Chinese bastards above us, the damned Russians on our backs, and the cursed Japanese below us, kicking us with their military boots and then making us fawn before them. The Koreans treating their own people as coldly as the winter frost and cowering before another nation’s army like a dog in summer. That country has no nerve or backbone. No, I don’t plan to go back there. As long as I don’t starve, I plan to somehow find a way to survive here. I’ll buy some land”—here he swallowed hard, whether from tears or just saliva they did not know, before continuing—“and of course get married. And have children too.”

The three other soldiers had little to say, knowing all too well what had happened to his wife and children. Only Kim Seokcheol mumbled softly, “Still, we have to go back . . . our ancestors are there.” As the coastline began to show itself more clearly, the possibility that they might not be able to go back—a possibility that they did not dare put into words—began to come closer to reality. Rather than continue a discussion with no conclusion, they chose instead to fix their eyes on the silhouette of the land where they had to go. In anticipation, their palms were clammy. And if they opened their eyes a little wider, they could count the number of fishermen working on their boats at anchor along the coast.

27

T
HE SHIP CONTINUED SOUTH
at a fixed distance from the coastline. Before the passengers knew it, night had fallen, and, tired of waiting, they fell asleep by ones and twos. The once troublesome Pacific lapped gently at the
Ilford
’s hull. Before sunrise, a cold, salty dew covered the ship as if it had been wiped down with a wet rag. On the deck, Ijeong gazed at the dark surroundings. There was no reason for him to be up this early, but as soon as dawn broke his eyes shot open out of habit. It’s only proper to say my farewells, he told himself. If it hadn’t been for Yoshida, and if he hadn’t worked in the galley, the voyage probably would have seemed endless. The cooks were a rough group, but after they accepted him as one of their own, they showed him a tenacious affection. He missed the taste of sake drunk straight from the bottle, too. Yoshida’s hands, slippery with pig’s fat, were unpleasant, but even so, he could not ignore the compassion he felt for him. Yoshida, the deserter who wandered the vast ocean with no family, no country, and no friends. He showed all the signs of one who had fought with life and lost early. Ijeong feared, however vaguely, that Yoshida’s misfortune might rub off on him. The peddler had taught him how to discern the signs of the unfortunate and how to repel them:

If you meet a cripple, a lame person, a blind man, or a deaf person before a meal, sprinkle salt on them generously. If they come closer, hit them. If they ask for food, kick their rice dish hard. Don’t think of this as being cruel. If a fellow with sores comes close, you will get sores, and if a fellow who has soiled his pants comes close, then you will smell of dung. He who touches pitch will be stained. Half of all merchants are sailors. That means that half of success is pure luck. What is this market we’re at now? It’s a five-day market, right? If we’re unlucky for a day we starve for five. If we’re unlucky for two days we starve for ten, and then what happens? We’ll die.”

Ijeong got dressed and started to go down to the galley, but then wondered if it might not be better just to leave, and he went back on deck, leaned against the railing, and stared at the Mexican coastline. The sun rose over the bow of the ship and shone on the deck. It hurt his eyes. The sun rose further, between the ship’s bridge and a lifeboat, and slowly began to shine on Ijeong’s face. Ijeong narrowed his eyes and peered at the Mexican sun. The angle of the sun and the ship gradually shifted. The
Ilford
was turning in an arc and changing course. Ijeong climbed to the upper deck. The boat was now heading toward the coast. Finally, the port, a real port bustling with cargo ships, warships, and passenger vessels, spread out before his eyes. Even this early in the morning, it overflowed with a vitality that far exceeded that of Jemulpo. Smaller boats went back and forth between the larger ships, carrying goods and people. The boats shook like autumn leaves each time the lithe, dark-skinned men pulled the oars. Before Ijeong realized it, passengers were gathering at his side, shouting excitedly. Someone approached Ijeong from behind and squeezed his hand. Ijeong turned around with a smile on his face. An unfamiliar man was standing there. Dressed smartly in a gray suit with his short hair slicked back, this gentleman led Ijeong through the crowd, and only when they neared the lifeboat did the man turn around. Yoshida. Completely changed, he stood at a comfortable distance from Ijeong. Then he spoke in proper Japanese. “I am much indebted to you. I am sorry if it was unpleasant for you. But I am glad I was able to spend time with you. I shall not forget this voyage.” He held out his hand to shake in the Western style. Ijeong took his hand, then bowed his head low in the Japanese style and replied in Japanese. “It is I who am indebted. Farewell, Yoshida-san.” The corners of Yoshida’s mouth turned upward in a smile. “My contract as a crew member ends today. I am free to choose whether or not to renew it. First I will go ashore. Then I plan to go to the consulate in Mexico, turn myself in, and await my punishment. I will not live like this anymore.”

Ijeong had always thought of Yoshida as simply a cook, but now that he was properly dressed in a suit he looked like a navy officer on leave. Ijeong examined the startlingly transformed Yoshida. It was more than just the fact that he was clean and well dressed; he seemed to have become someone else.

Yoshida shook Ijeong’s hand once more and then they parted. The Koreans were already collecting their luggage and coming up on deck. Ijeong went down and picked up his sack, though it could hardly be called luggage. Yi Yeonsu’s family had already gone up on deck.

The
Ilford
had arrived at the southern Mexican port of Salina Cruz after six weeks at sea. The date was May 15, 1905. John Meyers and Gwon Yongjun directed the disembarking. The ship was too large to approach the landing piers. Eventually, small boats approached to carry the people and luggage to shore. With flushed faces, the Koreans took the hands held out by an unfamiliar race, boarded the boats, and headed for the unknown continent. Ijeong climbed aboard a boat with a group of soldiers. When they reached the coast he discovered Yi Yeonsu and her family, but he did not go to them. When all the Koreans had disembarked, they gathered in an empty spot. Mexican customs officials approached Meyers and Gwon Yongjun, took their papers, and began to examine the immigrants’ passports. The mood was friendly and there was no trouble. Cigars were provided for the Koreans. The men naturally sat down in small groups, smoking their cigars and chatting noisily.

Food was delivered from somewhere—rice balls, probably prepared in advance on the ship. When the officials finished their examination, John Meyers set out at the head of the throng of some one thousand people, like Moses leading the Hebrews out of Sinai. Before long a railroad station appeared. There was no train in sight. Gwon Yongjun announced that the train would arrive tomorrow, so they would have to spend the night here. The port at which they had just arrived was not their final destination. They had to take a train across the Isthmus of Tehuantepec, where the North American continent narrowed to a thin strip of land like an ant’s waist, to the port of Coatzacoalcos, and from there they had to take another ship to the port of Progreso, the gateway to the Yucatán Peninsula. From there they had a journey of several hours to Mérida, the Yucatán’s central city. This land that they had traveled halfway around the world to reach felt somehow familiar to them. May on the west coast of Mexico was mild and gentle, and the day they arrived happened to be particularly warm and fair. At night the temperature barely dropped, and they could make do without shelter. Compared to the cramped, dark
Ilford,
it was heaven. Excited at the feel of solid earth beneath them after so long, boys stamped their feet and leaped around. Children chased each other and the adults stretched out their legs.

28

T
HE TRAIN ARRIVED
early in the morning. After it was loaded with cargo, the Koreans boarded. Many were riding a train for the first time. Some stuck their heads out the window and watched the scenery; some tried to fall asleep. At about the time they began to grow hungry, the train stopped at a secluded village. They got off and ate lunch in this village, which was so quiet it seemed that even the birds must be sleeping. Dark-skinned Mayans gathered around and watched them. When the meal ended, the Koreans boarded the train again and it departed. When night fell, the train stopped. Gwon Yongjun told everyone to get off. The Koreans formed a line next to the train station. The wind had a salty tang. It was too dark to see their surroundings, but they soon figured out that they were at a port. Far away, dim lamps bobbed up and down. Black dogs barked. Everyone moved to a field and settled there for the night. It was the second night they spent without a roof over their heads. Now that the excitement of landing had faded, the dew of dawn felt colder. People began to sneeze. “What are we, animals?” someone complained, but it did not spread far. Hairless dogs ran here and there, sniffing at the travelers.

Breakfast was pickled cabbage and rice. Afterward they lined up and boarded a cargo ship that awaited them. The voyage took three days and two nights, longer than they had expected. Those who had stayed on deck, thinking that they would soon disembark again, all went below to the cargo hold at night and found places to lie down. The ship cut across the Gulf of Campeche and arrived at the port of Progreso. The harbor was too shallow to bring the ship close to land, so it dropped anchor four miles from the coast, and small lighters streamed to the ship like a column of ants after something sweet. The lighters unceasingly carried passengers to shore. When they reached land, the Koreans looked around. Progreso was a sleepy port. No people were visible, and the village itself looked small. A lighthouse could be seen from afar, but it was not very high. The waters that flowed in on the Gulf Stream were turbid, and they could not see the ocean floor. Tropical trees they had never seen before lined the coast, and those who landed first waited in their shade for the rest.

Suddenly they heard a commotion, and everyone turned in that direction. Sparkling instruments were playing music—a welcoming party organized by the local government. The theme from Dvořák’s
New World Symphony
rang out, but to the Koreans it was only a loud din. The immigrants wondered if the tubas and trombones and other brass instruments were made of gold; they saw the uniforms of the band and surmised that they must be soldiers, and judging by the splendor of the event, they thought that these must surely be people of high standing. The appearance of the band momentarily breathed new life into their tedious journey, and gave rise to a misunderstanding about the Yucatán Peninsula and the prosperity of Mexico. A fat Mexican took the podium and delivered a speech in Spanish; the immigrants clapped without having the slightest idea what he had said. For one reason or another, the Mexicans had also been eagerly awaiting the coming of the Korean laborers. Another fanfare played and the brief welcoming party was over. The immigrants began to move.

A black freight train awaited them at the end of the road that stretched all the way out to the piers. After an hour they arrived in the city of Mérida. They headed for a vast field. Tents, erected by the Mérida association of hacendados, were lined up in rows, waiting for them. The tents had no walls, and a dry wind blew through them. There they were provided with corn, flour, and a small portion of beans, a steel pot and firewood. The men built the fires and the women cooked the food. Sand kept getting into their mouths. People began to talk less. A few days passed without event. Anxiety wandered among the tents. John Meyers and Gwon Yongjun were spotted speaking with serious faces to a few Mexicans. Mosquitoes swarmed viciously night and day, sucking the blood of the strangers and laying their eggs in pits between the tents. Ants bit them on their buttocks. Unlike their original destination, Salina Cruz, the heat of Mérida was like embracing a ball of fire. Their lips dried and cracked. May was the hottest month of the year. The heat was far worse than the humid summers of Korea. If it hadn’t been for the shade from the tents, some would surely have died of sunstroke.

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