Read Black Flower Online

Authors: Young-ha Kim

Black Flower (6 page)

Early the next morning, he woke up before anyone else and quietly left the cabin to go to the galley. He walked along the passageway with his senses alert, just in case the Pyongyang farmer was hiding somewhere to jump him from behind. As he turned the corner to the stairs leading down to the kitchen, he sensed that someone was there, by the makeshift bathroom for the women. She must have been surprised, for she let out a soft gasp. Unable to cover her eyes with her cloak, the girl came face to face with Ijeong. It was only a brief moment, but it was enough time for the sixteen-year-old boy and the girl to become fully aware of each other. The girl, whose name was Yeonsu, moved aside and waited for Ijeong to pass. He walked by, then stopped and turned to steal a glance at Yeonsu as she turned the corner. The way she walked, lifting her heels ever so slightly, and her long skirt made it look as if she were floating in midair. And that strange scent . . .

There was no one in the galley. Ijeong was gathering his cleaning paraphernalia when he spotted a knife stuck in a cutting board. At any other time he would have passed it by, but he must have been possessed by something, because he took the knife in his hand. Japanese knives were much thinner and longer than Korean knives. It was a fillet knife and reeked of fish. Then he saw a square knife for chopping meat. The handle was covered with dried blood. He put down the fillet knife and picked up the cleaver. He liked the weight of it. Something sharp seemed to push up from deep inside him. He was overwhelmed, caught between his longing for the girl and the primal fascination with sharp things of steel, when he heard a voice like thunder behind him. He put down the knife. It was Yoshida. He ran toward Ijeong, cursing, and struck him on the cheek. He did not stop at that, but hit him dozens of times. Ijeong collapsed to his knees. The other cooks came running and asked what had happened. All they had to do was look at the knife in Yoshida’s hand to understand. The knife was the most sacred of objects to a cook. The hierarchy among cooks was a fearsome thing, even if they were cooking things like pork porridge on a foreign cargo ship. Ijeong retreated from the galley and began cleaning just like any other day. “Have I really become a dog?” the sixteen-year-old boy cried. The chaotic morning meal was soon over. Yoshida took Ijeong up on deck and sat. Red clouds hung low over the horizon. Yoshida caressed Ijeong’s red, swollen cheek and said, “I was once a soldier of Japan.” Ijeong understood next to nothing of what he said. Still, Yoshida began to talk at length of his past, like an incantation. He had been in the Japanese navy, and one year earlier, when the Russo-Japanese War broke out and the fleet laid siege to Port Arthur, he had fled in the night. His face was sad when he said that his wife and two daughters in his hometown of Kagoshima must have been ashamed when they heard of his desertion. All Ijeong managed to grasp was that Yoshida had once been in the navy. If he is a Japanese sailor on a British ship, then he must be a deserter, Ijeong thought. Yoshida caressed Ijeong’s cheek again. Yoshida’s eyes were moist. His rough hands enveloped Ijeong’s face, and his lips came closer, as if it were the next natural step. Ijeong wavered, his lips met Yoshida’s lips, and then Yoshida’s tongue was in Ijeong’s mouth. Yoshida grabbed Ijeong tightly with both hands and the boy toppled over backward. Yoshida’s body began to burn amid the thick ropes that curled like snake skins on the deck. Ijeong’s heart pounded violently. This was the first time he had experienced such a thing with either a man or a woman. The man before his eyes who cried as he pushed his tongue into his mouth had been the kindest to him, yet he had also beaten him so hard that morning that his cheek swelled up. It would have been easier for him to decide how he felt if it had been only one thing or the other. In that moment of confusion, Yoshida’s hand moved toward Ijeong’s groin. Yoshida gently stroked the boy’s erect penis. Then the morning sun, which had been hidden by the clouds on the horizon, showed its face. Like a sharp blade, the sunlight divided their two faces into darkness and light. Ijeong squinted. It was time for the Koreans who had finished eating breakfast to come out on deck to smoke their pipes. He shook off Yoshida’s hand. Then he shook his head. With plaintive eyes, Yoshida begged for Ijeong’s affection. When Ijeong shook his head again, breathing hard, Yoshida’s face slowly returned to its usual gruff expression. He did not show any hostility. Like a snail that had briefly pushed its body out into the world, he was returning to the safety of his shell. Yoshida reached out a hand to Ijeong. Ijeong held out his hand hesitatingly and Yoshida’s rough hand grabbed his and stood him up at one pull. When Yoshida let go of his hand, Ijeong brushed off the seat of his trousers. Without a word the two returned to the galley. With the severest expression he could muster, Yoshida spoke to Ijeong: “Follow me.” Ijeong followed him down to the dark hold. Yoshida handed a fresh apple to the terrified boy. When Yoshida returned to the kitchen, Ijeong shut himself in the hold and ate the whole red apple, even the seeds.

When he had finished, Ijeong left the hold and went up on deck. For the first time in a long time, a gentle breeze was blowing. The Koreans, who tired of life in the cabin, filled the deck, basking in the sun and breathing the fresh air deep into their lungs. Someone tapped Ijeong. He turned around to find Jo Jangyun, the one who had given him his name. “Isn’t it rough?” He was talking about life in the galley. Ijeong shook his head. He said that he was able to move around, so it was better because he wasn’t as bored. Jo Jangyun agreed. “And there’s probably a lot to eat, too.” Ijeong only smiled broadly. “Being shut up in the belly of the ship like this, the aching in my legs is almost too much to bear.” Jo Jangyun stretched himself. “What I wouldn’t give to take just a few steps on solid ground, even if it were in hell!” He tapped the metal railing. “Who knew there was such a big ocean? My goodness, no matter how far we go there is no end. They say we still have a month to go . . . It’s enough to drive you crazy.” He seemed to be expecting some hopeful words from Ijeong, who spent his time with the crew. But Ijeong knew nothing more either. The ocean was vast, and at the end of that vast ocean was their destination. He had glanced at the world map on the wall when he brought breakfast to the captain, but he had no way of knowing where they were at that moment. They could do nothing but wait.

When Jo Jangyun’s comrades from his military days came up, they stuffed tobacco into their pipes and lit them. The massive steel ship and their pipes seemed out of place on the tropical ocean. None of them spoke of the past. The only topic of conversation was the uncertain future. “When we arrive, let’s not separate,” someone suggested. “Of course, of course.” Everyone agreed. “We can just ask them to keep us in one place.” “Who will ask?” “The interpreter, of course.” “He looks like a shameless fellow—I don’t think we can trust him.” “Still, it’s his job to tell them what we say.” “He’ll do it, won’t he?” They all nodded their heads uneasily. Ijeong walked away from them and went back down to the galley. It was already time to prepare for lunch. Yoshida was still silent. “Today’s lunch is miso soup!” someone shouted. A large chunk of miso was thrown into the soup pot. The savory aroma filled the galley. The bearded cook who had first yelled at Ijeong clapped him on the back of the head. Ijeong hauled up a sack of onions. Sweat poured ceaselessly from the cooks’ bodies because of the intense heat. Someone chugged Japanese liquor that they had stashed away, and someone else sang a plaintive Japanese melody at the top of his lungs. They could not all have been deserters, and if that was so, how did they all come to be here? Ijeong wondered. But he did not ask anyone. When he brought the wrong ingredient, Yoshida quietly cursed him—“Bakayarou!”—but his voice was weak. He may even have been cursing himself. Ijeong did not know much about men loving other men, but he sensed only that Yoshida’s actions were born of affection. This sort of thing happened often enough among peddlers who lived long on the road, but Ijeong had left that world before he learned much of that side of it.

Ijeong thought that perhaps it might be best if he simply went down to the cabin and didn’t hang around the galley anymore, but he couldn’t do that. This lively hell was far better than being stuck in the foul-smelling cabin all day. He felt an attraction to this world where only men worked side by side in the narrow space. They cursed each other and slapped each other on the cheeks, but that was a normal part of life. So every time they struck Ijeong on the head, he felt that he was being accepted just a little more into their world. To Ijeong, who had lived as a wanderer, the galley of the
Ilford
seemed like a cozy family. Even though he was being carried to a place farther than he had ever gone, it did not feel that way to Ijeong.

Yoshida continued to keep his distance from Ijeong, but at every opportunity, as if it were somehow his noble duty, Yoshida with his gloomy countenance would solemnly teach him Japanese and, when the morning chores were finished, take him down to the hold and give him an apple. This secret pleasure in the dark hold slowly brought back together these two who had been torn apart by Yoshida’s unexpected actions. Ijeong smelled the sweet fragrance that wafted from the flesh of the apple. Then he polished it on his sleeve and bit into it. Yoshida gazed hungrily at Ijeong’s mouth as he ate. That was all. When Ijeong had eaten the red apple down to its seeds, only then did Yoshida turn to his chores. He organized the hold and selected the ingredients necessary for preparing lunch, putting them into a sack. He did not ask Ijeong to do anything. Ijeong went up on deck and savored the sour taste that lingered on the tip of his tongue. In the following weeks, without a word from Yoshida, he would go down to the hold and wait. A few minutes later Yoshida would appear and silently hand him an apple. Ijeong also ate other fruit that he had never seen or heard of. Whatever they were, Ijeong enjoyed them. He gradually began to wonder if he should do something for Yoshida. And though the thought did occur to him, he did not know what it was he should do, so he shook his head violently, went up on deck, and abandoned himself to the strong winds.

14

Y
I
Y
EONSU HADN’T
worried about her body in their house in Sagan-dong, in the heart of Seoul. There had been no need to. Her body was simply there, and she just used it. She was more interested in ideological and abstract things. Where did I come from, what do I live for, and what happens when I die? Her parents had taught her that she came from her ancestors, that she should live for her father and her future husband, and at the moment her life ended she would become a spirit. But she could not easily accept what the women in literati households were taught and convinced of. She did not deny that she came from the flesh and bone of her ancestors. Yet she had a different idea about what she was to live for. Deep in her heart, the idea that was too dangerous for her to dare to say out loud was: I live for myself. Gone were the days when women were forced to commit suicide when their husbands died, to be rewarded with gates erected by the king to commemorate their faithfulness, but that didn’t mean that anyone believed a woman could live for herself. What’s wrong with that? Is the joy of learning different for men than for women? Though she sat quietly and embroidered an image of the ten symbols of longevity, dangerous thoughts that the times could not accept grew in the mind of this sixteen-year-old girl. She had no concrete way to make these thoughts a reality, and that just made her even stronger-willed, and thus she struggled to turn a relatively blind eye to the changes taking place in her body. She had her first period, her breasts swelled, and the baby fat began disappearing from her face. Yet the more she changed, the more she clung to ideological issues.

But she could not do so on the ship. Her flesh did not leave her mind for even one instant. The problems of eating and drinking and defecating harassed the women in the cabin at every turn. There was a separate toilet for the women, but it was a shameful thing to weave their way among the men to get there. The men snickered openly. When she had to go with her mother, her demeanor was more imposing. In Sagan-dong there had been a convenient item called a brass bedpan, and the servants emptied it in the morning, but she could not expect such luxury here. So she ate and drank as little as possible, reducing the number of times she would have to go to the toilet. The rocking of the ship was as severe a burden. She vomited three times not long after the ship had set sail. Each time, she could not help but think of the obvious animal nature of her flesh. She was a creature plagued by hunger and nausea and the unbearable need to urinate. Most painful of all was the fact that her flesh was exposed to the eyes of all, with no walls between them. These eyes did not talk to her, nor did they laugh kindly. In fact, laughter was what she feared most of all. Every time those countless looks came and pierced her body, she realized anew that she was a weak and powerless creature trapped inside a prison called flesh. People watched everything as she woke and defecated and slept and ate. After a week passed like this, her agony gradually diminished. She was now able to withstand the furtive glances of the men and the jealous eyes of the women with some composure. For the first time in her life, she looked straight into the eyes of a man who gazed up and down her body. The experience made her heart sink, but she also felt as if she were opening a door that led to a new world. Before long, she decided she would not hide her face with her cloak when she was seated, and she expressed stubborn defiance when her mother rushed over to lecture her with a look of shock on her face. It was already far too late to be covering anything with a cloak. And she had also come face to face with a boy early one morning and been unable to move. Nothing happened between the two of them, but Yeonsu could not shake off the obvious eroticism that had been present in that brief moment. She, like other girls her age, cherished a sweet vision of romance that she had learned from classical novels. The idea that she herself could fall into a forbidden love, like Unyeong in
The Story of Unyeong,
was no longer strange. This boy was not from an aristocratic family, like the young Esquire Kim in the novel, so he was not the type of person who would understand poetry and be able to express his love through it, but there was a gentle and impressive intensity in his face that would make anyone stare long at him. She sometimes looked for him even when she was seated. Yet she rarely saw him.

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