Read Black Flower Online

Authors: Young-ha Kim

Black Flower (7 page)

As the voyage went on, the stench on the ship grew fouler and did not distinguish between aristocrat and commoner. In the cabin, where there were no wells or modern sanitary facilities, the horrible stink was only natural. People expressed their humanity through every hole and every pore in their bodies. Women smelled of women’s odors and men smelled of men’s odors. The distinction between the sexes became clearer than the distinction between classes, and that was wholly because of smell. Even when the men were trying to sleep, their eyes shot open if a woman passed by. A woman could smell a man coming up behind her. As more time passed without their being able to wash their bodies or clothes, the inside of the dark cabin became no different from a poultry coop. Even in that chaos, there were those who had peculiarly strong odors. These intense yet attractive odors spread far from their owners, and those who smelled them once could not easily forget them. The odor had nothing to do with the character or personality of its owner. Thus when people turned their heads toward the source of an approaching smell, they were often surprised at the unexpected conclusion.

Yi Yeonsu was one of these. After ten days aboard the ship, when the moon was full, there emanated from the girl an odor that everyone recognized. When she walked by, those who were sleeping awoke, and children stopped crying. Men who had not had an erection for years ejaculated in their sleep; young boys were roused from slumber. Women chattered and men turned their heads painfully. Her family knew as well, of course. Yi Jongdo often went up on deck. Yeonsu’s mother, Lady Yun, changed her daughter’s clothes behind the curtain put up for the women and sighed that she should have married her daughter off before leaving. Yeonsu’s younger brother, Jinu, woke up early each morning and, the blood having rushed to his crotch, rubbed himself against the straw mat on the floor of the cabin. Only she herself was unaware. It wasn’t only the smell. Her face began to shine as well. Her naturally noble manner and uncommon arrogance shone more brightly amid the filth. The men’s lust and the women’s jealousy were boiling over.

15

C
HOE
S
EONGIL, THE THIEF
of Jemulpo, was plagued by nightmares all that night. While he was caught between dreaming and waking, the boy lying next to him, Kim Ijeong, raised himself up. It was time to go to the galley, as always. Choe Seongil tried to say something to him, but no sound came out of his mouth, and suddenly Choe Seongil understood that his body would not move as he willed. His body shuddered involuntarily, and his legs were as heavy as if they were paralyzed. He wanted to lift his hand and grab Ijeong, but the boy, unaware of all of this, simply rose and left. After a long while had passed like this, Choe Seongil was seized by the fear of death. He could not die on this vast ocean with no family and no friends. The moment this thought entered his mind, his father’s face appeared in midair. His father looked at ease, sitting beside a long, thin waterfall and enjoying something to drink. “Ah, that’s delicious!” he said. Then, “The hardships of the world are ended, and this is paradise! Come quickly, son.” Somewhere behind his father, someone was singing a song: “White dog, black dog, don’t bark. White dog, black dog, don’t bark.” Sure enough, just then a white dog and a black dog appeared before his eyes and greeted him. In order to reach his father, he had to cross a river on a ferry that was tied up at the water’s edge. The white dog and the black dog were happily wagging their tails on the boat. He had never in his life liked his father, but the vista there was so beautiful that all he could think of was going to him. It was a place of delicious food and drink and cool waters. As he approached the ferry, the white dog leaped down from the boat and walked along the riverside, while the black dog stayed on the boat with his tongue lolling from his mouth.

16

B
Y AFTERNOON, THE
wailing that seeped out from between her clenched teeth became a scream like the tearing of a thousand yards of cloth at once. No one could be free from the sound. It was a woman from Seoul whose husband had pleaded and pleaded with his wife, who was nearing childbirth, to leave Korea. They had wanted to emigrate to Hawaii, but the Continental Colonization Company had urged them to go to Mexico instead. The company men claimed that Hawaii was already full. And Mexico was in no way inferior to Hawaii. And once someone makes up his mind to leave, he will find a way to leave. His heart already across the ocean, her husband went to her parents to help convince his wife. Her belly bulging, she protested. “I can’t go. Father, Mother, please stop him.” But in the end they could not overcome her husband’s stubbornness. She had boarded the ship thinking it would be better than becoming a widow, and now her water had finally broken. Her husband just puffed away at his long pipe; there was nothing he could do. The interpreter went up and told Meyers’s party that a woman was about to give birth. They called the Japanese doctor, but he had never delivered a child. Even more unfortunately, this young Japanese from Sizuoka was not really a doctor. He had merely studied veterinary medicine at an agricultural school, but he had been captivated by the company’s attractive advertisement, so he lied and boarded the ship. All he had to do was accompany them on the comfortable British ship for its one-month journey to Mexico. Furthermore, they would give him two times the salary of a Tokyo doctor. He had thought he would encounter nothing more serious than seasickness, but as soon as he boarded the ship he realized his error. On a ship that was carrying three times its capacity, it would have been strange had there been no illness. Every night he opened his medical dictionary and studied the diseases that might occur at sea. Perhaps it was fortunate that his first task was to deliver a child. The most basic skill in veterinary medicine was delivering animal offspring.

He went down to the cabin. The horrid stench assaulted his nose. Despite her extreme pain, the pregnant woman expressed hostility toward the man who approached her open legs. The women gathered around her did not make way for him. And when he opened his mouth and Japanese came out, their anger increased. He told them he was a doctor, but it was no use. The woman’s pain continued. The already filthy floor grew slippery with the amniotic fluid and sweat and blood that poured out of the woman’s body. “Aaaahh!” The woman’s screaming did not stop, and the old women who fancied themselves midwives began to cry out in unison. Children poked their heads through the gaps in the curtain to watch, and the veterinarian from Sizuoka waited nervously outside the curtain for the baby to come out. The midwives and the pregnant woman cried out as if they were fighting with each other, but the baby did not emerge. A sweaty midwife emerged from behind the curtain with a tearful face and pulled the Sizuoka veterinarian inside. The baby’s foot was sticking out of the woman’s vagina. He knelt down. It’s a foal, it’s a calf—he repeated these words to himself like some incantation and wiped the sweat from his face. Later, he would not remember exactly what had happened after that. Whatever the case, the baby’s foot went back inside, the mother-to-be screamed in pain, and some time after that the baby’s head appeared. He quickly grabbed the blue child. A woman brought a jar to hold the placenta and umbilical cord, and she took them outside. The child that had just come into the world did not breathe for several seconds, but with a slap to its buttocks it cried fiercely. The mother was spent and collapsed, and the women hustled the Sizuoka veterinarian back outside. “You did an excellent job, Dr. Tanabe,” someone said to him. A number of baby names were discussed, but the father, Im Minsu, gave his son the name Taepyeong. It was the name of the ocean on which they were afloat and it was also an expression of hope. Im Taepyeong, who would have been thrown into the sea by his own father had he been born a girl, was thus born with the blessings of all the passengers.

17

O
NE MONTH AFTER
the
Ilford
had left, the last emigration ship, the
Mongolia,
left for Hawaii, carrying 288 passengers. The Emigration Protection Act, made law under pressure from Japan, prohibited Koreans from traveling abroad; Japan did not want the people who would pour out of Korea to compete with Japanese emigrants. The emigration companies were forced to close their doors. Brokers such as John Meyers were denied reentrance into the country. The brief history of emigration that the Hawaii sugar plantation laborers had begun to write in 1902 was turning its last page three years later. Then came the Protectorate Treaty of 1905. Diplomatic authority of the Korean Empire was transferred to Japan, and the diplomatic legations of the United States, Germany, and France withdrew from Seoul. In July of that year, U.S. Secretary of War William Howard Taft and Prime Minister Katsura Taro of Japan exchanged secret memorandums, yielding rule over Korea to the Japanese and the Philippines to the United States.

The country the
Ilford
had left was slowly fading, like a drop of ink fallen into the water.

18

T
HE NUMBER OF PEOPLE
with diarrhea increased. Others suffered from high fevers, babbling incoherently and retching violently. The small toilets overflowed with feces. Those whose symptoms were most severe relieved themselves where they lay and shivered uncontrollably as they called to those who had already passed on to the next world.

The veterinarian from Sizuoka was called. He covered his mouth with a towel and plunged into the sickening stench. There was no doubt that these were the symptoms of dysentery. It was a highly contagious disease, so the patients must be quarantined, but there wasn’t enough room. It was important to wash one’s hands, but there wasn’t enough water to do that. All they could do was divide those who had been infected from those who had not, and make sure that no one passed from one group to the other. The
Ilford
was not equipped with sufficient medicine to treat dysentery, so the patients’ only hope lay in their own natural healing abilities.

The dysentery that had broken out in the cabin meant that Kim Ijeong was temporarily forbidden from entering the galley. Sitting in a corner and looking around, Ijeong leaped up in surprise as if he had been burned. Something wet had seeped into the spot where he had been sitting. Choe Seongil grabbed Ijeong’s ankle. Ijeong shook his leg desperately but could not break free. “Help me,” Choe Seongil said. Ijeong picked up his blanket and looked at Choe Seongil’s face. His eyes were sunken and hollow and his face was nothing but skin. There were traces of vomit around his mouth, and his blanket reeked. Ijeong and some others combined their strength to move him to the patients’ area. As he was carried off on the makeshift stretcher, he cried, “I don’t want to die here!”

 

It was already deep into the night when the body was discovered. The first fatality. Two passengers wrapped the body in a sack and brought it up on deck. They stood there, not knowing what to do, and John Meyers held a towel over his mouth and repeatedly urged them to throw the body into the ocean. Four whalers from Pohang supported Meyers’s words and explained to those passengers ignorant of customs at sea that this was the usual practice. But how could they just cast a person to the fishes, far from home, with no ceremony at all? The people formed a circle around the body and stood at a distance, unable to do anything. Flies had begun to gather on the body. When no one stepped forward to oversee the funeral proceedings, the whalers exchanged glances, picked up the sack with the body in it by the four corners, and threw it overboard. As the whalers sang their own peculiar song, neither a prayer nor a boat song, the victim disappeared beneath the screws of the ship. Four hours later, there was another fatality. The body was brought up on deck in the same way. The whalers stepped forward once more and lifted the sack, but some other passengers came forward. “They are not dogs or pigs. How can we do this?” cried one, a middle-aged farmer.

After a slight commotion, a man was pushed forward. His mouth shut tight, the man struggled to ignore the corpse at his feet, but when faced with the desperate stares of the crowd pleading for succor, he was shaken. “They say he’s a shaman,” some murmured. He retorted, “I am not a shaman!” As soon as he opened his mouth, his densely packed, in-turned teeth shone in the darkness. The crowd opened their eyes wide. “There is no one in all of Incheon who does not know that you are a shaman. Please put this man’s soul to rest. At this rate we will all die. We have all watched with our own two eyes as you performed exorcisms to appease the souls of the dead.” Someone found a long wooden staff and placed it in the shaman’s hand. The staff was more than twice the height of an adult. Strips of white cloth had been attached to one end. It was a sacred staff. People believed that the deity would come down and inhabit it. The one said to be a shaman caressed the staff in resignation and then returned it. “I do not need this. Only the southern shamans who cannot call the spirits use this.” The shaman closed his eyes and began to murmur a chant. A man pulled a flute from his pocket, as if he had been waiting for just this moment, wet the dry mouthpiece with his tongue, and put it in his mouth. A strong wind blew. The people listened to the shaman’s song as their clothing flapped in the wind. The shaman was plunged once again into his painful destiny. He became another person entirely, shaking his body, grabbing the corpse and wailing as if he had forgotten that the person had died of a contagious disease, and he took out a handful of brass coins and flung them onto the deck. Seized by the fear of death, the crowd cried, laughed, sang, and became entangled in each of his words, and in a moment the deck was burning with a carnival-like fever. The sound of the flute, which awoke a sense of excitement deep within, strove against the sound of the smokestacks and the waves and the wind, and did not waver once until the ritual ended. The fair-skinned musician’s cheeks puffed out like a frog’s and his face grew red. The Japanese crewmen in the galley threw out a rooster, its legs tied. The shaman, lost in his own frenzy, bit down on the rooster’s neck and then slit its throat with a knife and held it up. The blood drenched his sleeves and ran down to his armpits. A hot steam curled up from his forearm. The shaman shed tears. “Mother, mother, my mother! My cruel mother who gave me none of your food and never once held my hands or feet, let’s see if you survive without your son whom you have sent away! No, no, I’m sorry! I was wrong, my mother. Live well, my mother. Live long and live well. Eat my food and live long and well. Oh, it’s cold! Oh, it’s cold! It’s so cold that I can’t go on living even if I wanted to! I came because I was hungry, and now I have died of this cursed disease!” The headless chicken thrashed about on the deck, hopped onto the belly of the corpse, and finally fell down. There were no offerings, no drums or gongs, so the ritual did not last long. The gas lamps lit by the German crewmen shone down faintly on the scene, so things looked crueler than they actually were. This dizzying festival, formed by blood and darkness, song and dance, and the corpse and the shaman, stirred the hearts of this agrarian people faced with an epidemic on the ocean. The rhythm pulsed through their veins. Tears streamed down their faces. Many cried and many fainted. The German crewmen on the bridge grinned and looked down on the commotion.

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