Authors: Young-ha Kim
The standoff began uneasily. Outside, Álvaro continued to fire his gun into the air and threaten them. It was best for him to resolve the situation before his master returned. In his eyes, Menem was nothing more than a political aspirant who knew nothing of the ways of the world. Thanks to his attempt to curry favor last time by promising to provide corn and tortillas free of charge, the hacienda’s finances were already leaning toward the red. This time, before Menem returned from Mexico City, Álvaro had to break the spirit of those Koreans. Yet the Koreans had barricaded themselves in the storehouse and were preparing for a long fight. Of course they had no food or water, so they were not likely to last long. Still, Álvaro became anxious. Fatigue washed over him and his body grew hot. He asked the foremen for their opinions. “Shall we go in?” They all shook their heads. Despite the fact that they were armed, no one wanted to raid a storehouse teeming with eighty men wielding machetes.
HREE DAYS PASSED
. A few of Álvaro’s bullets pierced the barricade, and the enraged soldiers threw stones out the windows, managing to hit one of the foremen on the shin, but both sides grew weary of the long standoff. Thirst was the biggest problem for the Koreans trapped inside. The soldiers urged the men on in order to prevent desertion, but a few of them had said they were seeing things and waved their hands about. Their annoyance with each other was causing dissension in their ranks. The sunshine was cruelly hot, and the inside of the limestone storehouse was above 100 degrees. They began to show signs of dehydration, and some of them were already in a serious state. Outside, Álvaro guzzled cool water to provoke them. “Should we surrender?” A group of peasants in a corner were tearing their clothes. When Jo Jangyun asked what they were doing, they did not reply. When he asked again, they said curtly that they were making a white flag.
Just then someone shouted for quiet. Everyone stopped talking. Then came the rumbling sound of thunder followed by the patter of raindrops. It was a rainstorm, a rare sight in the Yucatán. The storm poured down in buckets. The sound of cheering rang out in the storehouse. Men climbed up onto the rafters on the shoulders of others and tore away the roof. The rain soaked them through the wide-open hole. They held their mouths open to the torrent. Ijeong thought of a secret meeting on a rainy day and Yeonsu’s body as steam rose from it. Some thought of Korea’s wet season, others thought of a neighbor’s melons on a rainy day, and still others thought of their mothers. All of them were things they would never find in the Yucatán.
When their thirst was quenched, the Koreans laughed and joked with each other. “Hey, this is even better, since we don’t have to work and can just relax!” someone shouted. There were those who chimed in, “That’s right, that’s right, this is better.” Yet behind that hearty laughter, they were all uneasy. “What if,” said a whaler from Pohang, “they send all of us away?” All of their faces stiffened. There were those who tried to comfort him, saying that such a thing would never happen. But what would they do if the angry hacendado really did say, “I don’t need any of you, go away”? Someone else asked, “How much is it to get back to Korea?” No one knew. Ijeong said, “I heard at another hacienda; they said it was about one hundred pesos.”
Silence filled the storehouse. One hundred pesos? No one had so much as ten pesos, let alone a hundred. Even if they had the money, the thought of going back to Jemulpo empty-handed was dreadful. After all the suffering since February, were they supposed to go back with only their cracked hands, their diseased skin, and their sun-blackened faces?
“Let’s get out of here.” The farmers stood up. The soldiers blocked their way. “If we go out now, we are finished. We only have to hold on a little longer.” “Did you not see what happened to Choe Chuntaek?” said a middle-aged farmer. “All we have to do is not run away.” Kim Seokcheol grabbed the farmer by his throat. The others pulled him off the man. “If we do not show strength, they will despise us! Now they only beat those who run away, but later the whip will fly if we are even the slightest bit lazy.” The argument grew threatening. “You bastards!” The farmers raised their machetes high. The soldiers aimed their blades low. Those between them screeched like startled monkeys. The mood was so ugly that it would not have been the least bit strange had something horrible happened right then.
A single mosquito relieved the tension. A few weeks before the incident, this mosquito, which had hatched in a puddle near the cenote, followed the scent of humans and flew toward the hacienda. She drank the blood of a few people, laid her eggs, and died. One of those people was Álvaro. The overseer was pacing back and forth with his rifle raised high, watching the movements of the enemy, when he suddenly began to waver and then collapsed with a thud. Ijeong had been watching these events through a crack in the window and reported this to the others. The foremen ran over to Álvaro and carried him away. “It’s heat stroke,” someone said. “I don’t think so,” said another. “It’s not like he’s never seen this sunshine before. And he was wearing a hat, too.” There were a number of opinions, but no one knew the exact reason. The siege had been ended, and when night came the Koreans went back to their homes. Jo Jangyun suggested that they take turns standing guard, and the others agreed. Yet there was no movement that night. And when four o’clock in the morning came, no bell was rung. The men, who had starved for three days, wolfed down tortillas all night long. Only when the sun had risen halfway into the sky did they hear from the Mayans that Álvaro had caught malaria, had a high fever, and was on the brink of death.
Ijeong sought out Jo Jangyun as he stood guard at the break of dawn. Ijeong’s expression was dark, but his body was fully tense, like a gamecock preparing to fight. “I have something to say.” Jo Jangyun asked, “What is it?” Ijeong said, “I plan to escape from this place tonight.” Jo Jangyun opened his eyes wide in surprise.
“The work is hard for all of us,” he said. “It’s not because the work is hard,” Ijeong said. “Then what is it?” “I do not like being sold here and there like a dog or a pig.” “So you will run away? What if you are shot? Didn’t you see Choe Chuntaek?” “They are confused as well, so they will not know what is going on. Now is the best time.” “What will you do after you’ve run away? You don’t speak Spanish.” “I will learn. I learned Japanese, so why shouldn’t I be able to learn Spanish?” “You’ll learn it—you’ll learn it and do what?” Jo Jangyun said. “I will go far away and start a business.” “With what money? And you know that when they find out that you have run away, things will go badly for us. The hacendado will bring it up in his negotiations.” “Still, you have to help me,” said Ijeong. “Why?” “You gave me my name, didn’t you?” “Fine, but if you are caught, I will claim to know nothing of this. If you don’t think you can make it out there, come back. We’ll speak to the hacendado for you. You can work to make up for the time that you ran away.”
Ijeong went back to his room and plotted his escape. Jo Jangyun gave him 5 pesos and said, “Pay me back if your business is successful.” Álvaro was taken to the hospital in Mérida that afternoon. Then Menem returned, almost as if a baton had been passed. The Koreans continued to refuse to go out to work. They saved up food and prepared for a long fight. This time as well, Menem trusted far too much in his own diplomatic abilities and proposed negotiations. He called Gwon Yongjun from Yazche hacienda and met with Jo Jangyun and the other strike representatives. Menem promised to stop the whipping, which had been the start of the problem. But he vowed that if someone escaped, the remaining Koreans would have to pay damages for the breach of contract. The Koreans readily agreed. But Jo Jangyun, Kim Seokcheol, Seo Gijung, and the other retired soldiers brought up another issue. “How much do we have to pay if we want to leave the hacienda before our contract is up? Please tell us the precise amount.” This was a new negotiating condition that the Koreans had thought of during the several days they were trapped inside the storehouse. Menem left to consult with his lawyer and then returned. “Under no circumstances will you be able to leave the hacienda before two years is up. But after that, you will be able to leave if you pay one hundred pesos. I promise.”
The strikers insisted that one hundred pesos was too much. After persistent negotiations, the amount was decided upon: eighty pesos. They readily agreed to the two-year minimum because they knew that it would not be easy to save eighty pesos in two years. Kim Seokcheol mumbled, “Eighty pesos to be free, another one hundred pesos for boat fare back to Korea—when are we supposed to earn that?” But at any rate, the reduction of four years to two was hopeful. They were buoyed by the thought that they might be free of this henequen hacienda more quickly if they did well. The promise of early freedom was not a losing prospect for Menem either, because it raised their desire to work. Furthermore, it was not such a bad deal to work them for two years and receive eighty pesos; there was no guarantee that he would receive more than that if he were to sell them to another hacienda at that time.
Thus ended the strike that had kept the hacienda tense for several days. A few days later, Álvaro’s body was returned to the hacienda. The Koreans all lined up and attended his funeral. A few of the men shed tears in front of the body of the overseer who had tormented them nearly to death. To Menem, this was truly a strange sight. Even spitting on his grave would not have been enough to ease their bitterness, yet the Koreans had showed him the ultimate respect. Menem called to Jo Jangyun and asked him, “Why are you crying?” Jo Jangyun answered quietly, “That is our custom. We cry when someone dies. Then we drink liquor and eat pork and watch over the corpse all night long. This is because we believe that only then will the ghost not seek to do us harm.” Gwon Yongjun interpreted “to do harm” as “to take revenge.” Menem shrugged and said, “How is a dead person going to take revenge?” On that day, he gave the Koreans liquor and pork for the first time. In no time, two pigs were reduced to bones. The Koreans laughed and chattered and drank next to the coffin of the wicked overseer Álvaro, and a few of them gambled. The solemn funeral was transformed into a raucous, party-like atmosphere. A few of the Koreans got drunk, some scuffled with each other, someone sang a folk song.
Late that night, Menem came out and saw this. He thought he had been duped and was displeased. “No, this is normal,” said Gwon Yongjun. “In Korea, this is also part of a funeral. They make a clamor so that the deceased and the surviving relatives are not too grieved. They sing and play silly games. They did not like Álvaro, but these are the only funeral customs they know, so they are just playing them out. Please let them be, at least for today.”
As the watch on the hacienda relaxed with the settlement of the strike and the mood grew chaotic with Álvaro’s funeral, Ijeong climbed over the hacienda’s steel fence. He looked at the stars and headed northwest toward Mérida. The rough bushes repeatedly scraped his calves. He stumbled in a deep hole and fell over. He did not rest but kept walking, knowing that he had to flee as far as possible before the sun rose. He had not gone far when he grew thirsty, but he had no way of finding water. Only two hours after he left, regret began to rise. The morning star, which stood a handbreadth above the horizon, was telling him that this was his last chance to turn back. Ijeong paced back and forth for a while, and when the sun rose faintly in the distance he began to walk northwest again. It’s already too late. Just as when he had boarded the
at Jemulpo, he felt both unease and excitement.
O FLOWERS WERE SEEN
for two months. Yi Yeonsu chewed her fingernails. Her father was waiting for Emperor Gojong’s letter, and her younger brother studied Spanish unceasingly. Jinu followed the overseers around and picked up a word here and a word there. Lady Yun was focused on the problem of how to hang herself. She had entered menopause in Mexico. Perhaps it had been the rapid change of climate. Their reasons were different, but the two women of that one household stopped regular ovulation at nearly the same time, and they suffered for it. Lady Yun lost her appetite and thought only of suicide. The depression triggered by the change in her hormones seriously shook her being. Yet suicide would not be easy. There were days when she went as far as thinking that if she were raped, at least there would be no place where she could hide from the shame and no possibility of recovery, so it would be easier to make the decision.
Yeonsu never considered anything like suicide. She believed that Ijeong would return. But before he returned, her stomach would swell and the child would be born. How could he be there and not here? She put aside her grief, calmly soothed her mind, and set about finding a way to contact him. Yet no matter how hard she thought, there was no way except through that disgusting interpreter. And there was no way that she could venture an escape to Chenché hacienda by herself without knowing the way.
When it becomes known that I am pregnant, Mother may end her own life out of shame. Before that happens, Father and my brother will give me a knife and urge me to commit suicide. “End it cleanly. Aside from this, there is no other way to wash away the dishonor.” Jinu himself might stab me in the heart with a knife and then claim it was suicide. The others would accept his words as they have always done. That would be the easiest solution for everyone.
One night, when those who had returned from the henequen fields were asleep and the small groups who had been drinking hard liquor were snoring, she quietly got up from her bed and went to Gwon Yongjun’s house. A Mayan woman sat outside the door smoking a cigarette. Yeonsu smiled obsequiously at this woman who did not speak her language, to let her know that she had no intention of taking her man away. The woman absent-mindedly avoided her gaze, as if she were not concerned with anything like that, and looked only at the stars strewn across the sky. From her cigarette wafted a strong fragrance like burning sagebrush.