Read Black Flower Online

Authors: Young-ha Kim

Black Flower (8 page)

When the spirit had at last left the shaman and he collapsed on the spot to catch his breath, the whalers took the sack with the body in it by the edges. They swung it back and forth three times and then heaved it into the Pacific. They hoped that would be the end of it, but no one could be certain. The crowd looked down at the black ocean that had swallowed up the corpse.

19

N
OT EVERYONE WATCHED
the ritual for the dead. While the ritual was comforting the soul of the deceased who had become food for the fishes of the Pacific Ocean, Yi Jongdo’s daughter, Yeonsu, sat with her cloak over her head and watched a boy who sat across from her. It was the boy she had come face to face with at dawn on that morning. The boy, who had claimed a seat early, was listening to the shaman’s chanting with his chin on his knees. His lips were firmly pressed together and his large eyes gazed unwaveringly at something. He was not watching the shaman. Whenever a torch shone on the boy’s face, it lit up like a shooting star and then faded again. It was the first time in her life that she had stared for so long at the face of a man whose name she did not know, made possible because the boy was paying attention only to the darkness inside himself. Her heart gradually grew more confused at the ritual, where the shaman’s chants and the cries of the crowd, the dark night sky and the torches, and the song and the blood all mixed together. The cloak that covered all but her eyes made her feel even more confined. Finally the boy got up. Ijeong brushed off the seat of his pants and turned his back on the ritual. After all, he had not known the dead person. The burial grounds and afterlife the shaman sang of were just abstract words to him. He was still at an age when death did not feel real. Even if he were to leap into the ocean, it did not seem that he would die that easily. How could he imagine catching dysentery, suffering diarrhea, and dying? Rather, the things that moved his heart were Yoshida, Mexico—the land it seemed they would never reach—and the hot flame of love that burned within him. Having no skill in letters, he did not know how to express the agony that welled up in his heart.

As he rose from his place and walked away from the crowd, Ijeong was suddenly captivated by an odor and stopped on the spot. He had smelled it somewhere before, but he could not imagine what it could be. He had smelled all sorts of things in the galley, but nothing like this. Even if he mixed together all the spices he knew, he would not be able to re-create it. He looked around. Yeonsu was there. Her dark eyes flashed with light and then retreated into the darkness. The smell disappeared with her. Ijeong filled his lungs with the salty air. He heard a guttural voice. “Did someone slaughter a roe deer?” It was Jo Jangyun. “That’s what it smells like when you cut the neck of a roe deer and drink its blood.” He smacked his lips. “There was an unusually large number of hunters in our unit, and whenever they missed that taste they went into the mountains and bang, bang! Then they would cut the neck and catch the hot, steaming blood in a bowl and drink it right there.” Ijeong tilted his head. “Doesn’t it taste bad?” he asked. Jo Jangyun laughed and ruffled Ijeong’s hair with his large hand. “I think I’ll join the ritual.” He disappeared into the crowd. There were 1,033 of them—no, two had died and one had been born, so there were 1,032 of them on the ship. The crowd pressed so thick around the ritual area that there was nowhere to set foot. After Jo Jangyun had gone, Ijeong turned to look around, but the girl had already disappeared. He could not find her. His heart had taken flight, and he could not stay still. He went down to the cabin and saw the girl sitting with her family and sewing.

20

T
HE ARGUMENT ON
the deck was in full swing. Everyone was talking agitatedly, some wanting to throw the seriously ill into the ocean before the disease spread any further, others wanting to move them to the deck during the day so they could get some sunshine, and still others wanting to stop at the nearest land and let them off. Yet they were unable to reach a conclusion. There seemed to be no land anywhere nearby, and the weather was cloudy. Of course, they could not throw into the sea those who were still alive—the families of the ill would make sure of that. And they could not toss overboard only those who had no family.

Father Paul walked past where the possessions of the dead were being burned, then went down to the reeking cabin. At Penang they had taught some medicine to the seminary students; there was nothing like Western medicine for gaining the trust of the natives and strengthening ties. He did not think that he could fight this epidemic with what little he knew, but he could be a small help. In the cabin many suffered from dehydration and asked for water. He brought them water. Yet he was more suited to consoling than offering physical treatment. He listened to what they had to say. Many people suffered delusions and could not speak properly. Perhaps there might be Catholic believers. If so, would he have to perform the sacraments? If someone recognized him and asked him to perform the last rites, what was he supposed to do? Did a priest who had disobeyed a bishop’s order and abandoned his flock have such authority?

He somehow fell asleep amid the cries of the sick. He did not dream of anything. Morning came and a dim light shone into the cabin. He rose and took care of the sick again. It was better than spending time alone, in agony, wrapped in his blanket. Some awaited his aid, and in their pleading eyes he felt a secret pleasure. Even the demon of disease had passed him by.

A day passed.

Tanabe, the veterinarian, his mouth covered with cloth, went down and helped Father Paul. The two of them checked to see if one gravely ill man was still alive. He showed no sign of movement. If he was dead, they would have to throw him into the ocean. Paul pulled back the blanket from the man’s face and his eyes narrowed. The face was familiar. The man had once told Paul to beware of thieves in an open port. He had grown quite gaunt, but Paul recognized him easily. He had thought the man, who went about humming merrily, was adapting well, and now he was hovering on the brink of death. Paul shook the man. His lips moved. He was alive. Paul nodded his head at Tanabe. He was about to cover the man with the blanket again when something fell from his chest to the floor with a clink. Tanabe picked it up. It was a necklace. He handed it to Paul. Tanabe looked at him to see what he wanted to do, but Paul only looked back and forth between the necklace and Choe Seongil. It was clearly the necklace of Bishop Simon Blanche. Paul closed his eyes. He handed the necklace back to Tanabe, and Tanabe retied the cord and put it around Choe Seongil’s neck. Perhaps this disturbed the sick man, because he began to twist and turn.

Paul went up to the stern deck and stared blankly at the wake pushed back by the giant screws. The red sunset hung like laundry left out to dry in the western sky. His clothes quickly grew damp from the humid South Pacific wind.

21

A
FEW DAYS LATER
, Ijeong was allowed to return to the galley. He rose early in the morning and walked carefully along the slippery corridor. He reached the stairs and started down when his heart leaped. He did not know why. Yet he was convinced that if he went down the spiral stairs, that which he had been so desperately seeking would be waiting for him at the end. It was not just because of the smell. He did not go to the galley but turned toward the engine room. She was there.

The two of them stood facing each other. Without a word, they gazed at one another as fervently as their eyes and—as they had never been taught that they shouldn’t—their hearts allowed, as much as their bodies could stand, and then without realizing it they were holding hands. Had they been in Korea, this would never have happened. But it was a different story in the middle of the ocean, where an epidemic was at its height. For the first time in his life, Kim Ijeong felt the touch of a woman’s hand and, flustered, he hung his head. So did she. He didn’t know what to do next, so he simply stuttered, “I am Kim Ijeong, the ‘two’ character for ‘i’ and the ‘upright’ character for ‘jeong.’” Her head still bowed, the girl giggled. Then she lifted her head and revealed the face that had been hidden by her cloak. The gas lamp in the passageway shone on her. Upon closer inspection, her face glowed with a mysterious spirit that could not be hidden by any filth. Unlike her cheeks, stiff with anxiousness, her eyes smiled gently and welcomed a new love, and the smell of roe deer’s blood was the same as always. Ijeong touched his own face. It burned like fire, and the muscles in his arms trembled as if he had just finished hard labor. “I am from the royal family,” she said, “the Jeonju Yi clan, and my name is Yeonsu.” They heard a clamor from the other end of the passageway. Finding no more words to say, they looked into each other’s eyes and finally unclasped their hands. Yeonsu returned to the cabin. Ijeong stayed where he was and suppressed the feelings that welled up inside him. Having been raised with no mother or sisters, by the rough hand of a peddler, Ijeong found everything about her wonderful. He had no idea what to do next, but this only heightened his excitement.

22

P
ERHAPS IT WAS
satisfied with two victims. The dysentery lost its strength. The diarrhea stopped and the fevers went down. Those who had gone all the way to the threshold of the next world before returning were still weak, partly from being unable to eat because of dehydration and high fever. Yet Choe Seongil was different. As soon as he woke from sleep in the morning his hand went to his crotch. His penis stuck straight up, red and stiff. His thigh was cold but his penis was hot. At that moment he knew that the demon of illness had retreated for good. His hand came up from his crotch, felt his sunken belly, and then moved on to his chest. He opened his eyes and peeked at what he held in his hand. It was the cross. He thought that perhaps it had protected him like a spirit pole standing at the entrance to a village, or maybe like a talisman.

With his left hand he held the cross to his chest and with his right hand he grabbed his hot penis and rubbed it against his thigh. A feeling of bliss rushed over him. I am alive. He shut his eyes tight and continued to masturbate furiously. Someone sitting next to him cleared his throat, but he paid no mind. Before long a few drops of semen shot out and wet his waistband. With his right sleeve he wiped away the semen, with his left sleeve he wiped away a tear, and then he heaved himself up. He felt slightly dizzy but soon regained his balance. He carried the blanket that had covered him for nearly a week out onto the deck. Father Paul followed him with his eyes. Choe Seongil spread the damp blanket out to dry. Then he sat down next to it and lit a cigarette. The blazing sun was warm and the wind tickled his earlobes. Some boys were shouting and spinning a top made from wrapped-up coins.

Father Paul drew near. “Thank goodness you are feeling better.” He held out some bread. “It’s the Westerners’ rice cake, and it doesn’t taste too bad. I saved some from yesterday. Try it.” Choe chewed and swallowed the bread. At first it felt like eating cloth, but its flavor came out as he continued to chew it. The ill began to show themselves on deck by ones and twos. Many were still bedridden, but it was clear that the worst of it was over. “How many died?” Choe asked. “Two. There was a shamanic ritual, too. You must not have seen it.” “Is there a shaman here?” “There is a fellow who has been possessed by a spirit, but he pretends to know nothing about it. He boarded the ship because he was tired of being a shaman, but once he had a wand in his hand he was willing enough.” Choe looked uninterested and scratched his stomach. Father Paul saw the string that held the cross around his neck, but he said nothing. It was clear that the man was the thief. Yet what would he do with the cross if he got it back? Had he not turned his back on the Church and on God? Still, Paul circled around the cross as if it had some sort of pull on him. For his part, Choe was irritated with his loot’s owner and deliberately cut off the conversation several times, but Paul did not go below; he stayed nearby without a word.

That night black clouds rushed in low. A tropical storm began to pour down rain, and lightning flashed the whole night. Choe Seongil deliberately went up on deck and stood in the downpour. On a ship, where water was scarce, it was the easiest way to wash oneself. On the dark deck he cast off his clothes and gave himself over to the harsh rain. Lightning slithered out from between the dark clouds like a snake’s tongue and the thunder roared, but he had returned from death and thought of it as a fireworks display to commemorate his recovery. He giggled and ran about the deck. I almost died in the wrong place! He draped his clothes over his wet body and headed for the galley. If Kim Ijeong was there he would get something to eat, and if not he would steal something. Since his return from the threshold of the next world, he had been plagued by a voracious hunger. He smacked his lips and went down the iron stairs, but a black shape blocked his path. He could not see the face, as if someone had blotted it out with ink. His body shook violently. “Who are you?” The black shape spoke in a low voice that sounded as if it came from a deep well. “I am the one who died in your stead.” The black shape reached out a hand and squeezed Choe Seongil’s neck. “I have come to claim the price for my life.”

23

A
S ALWAYS
, Y
OSHIDA
led Ijeong down to the hold. He gave him an apple and spoke. “We will soon arrive in Mexico. There are only lizards and cacti there. You can stay on the
Ilford.
The captain will allow it. After all, you don’t have any family, do you? Learning to cook and wandering the globe is not such a bad life.” Yoshida’s eyes were earnest. Ijeong turned away. His whole being had been violently seized by the image of Yi Yeonsu; the affections of this deserter cook were a burden. Ijeong crouched down and bit into the apple. Silence fell. The potato box against which Ijeong was leaning fell over at an angle. As if that were his signal, Yoshida leaped up and grabbed Ijeong by the shoulders. Then he kissed him. Yoshida’s tongue entered Ijeong’s mouth and licked the root of his tongue. Of course, Yoshida was too strong for him, but Ijeong also didn’t think there was any real need to resist. It was a strange feeling, but there was no reason for Ijeong to push him away. Taking Ijeong’s lack of resistance as permission, Yoshida grew bolder. He caressed the boy’s chest, penis, and buttocks as if mad. Ijeong closed his eyes. This is the last time. He wants this so badly, and it will only be a moment. After all, there was nothing else that he could give him, was there? Acid rushed up from his stomach. Ijeong swallowed. Yoshida had longed for this for over a month, and his body grew hot and was quickly boiling toward a climax. As Yoshida’s tongue was licking Ijeong’s earlobe, something hot pierced his rear. Ijeong shut his eyes tight. The stench of pig fat wafted up. Yoshida’s slippery hands grabbed Ijeong’s shoulders so tightly he thought they would be crushed.

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