Read Black Flower Online

Authors: Young-ha Kim

Black Flower (9 page)

When Yoshida broke away, Ijeong finished eating the apple he had been holding in his right hand. “I’m sorry,” Yoshida said. Ijeong shook his head. Then he spoke. “I am going to get off in Mexico and go with the Koreans.” Yoshida got down on his knees and grabbed Ijeong’s hand. Ijeong coldly shook off those hands, slippery with pig fat. “Thank you for your help. But this is the end. When we reach the harbor I will go where I set off to go.” Yoshida sank to the floor and held his head in his hands.

Ijeong looked down coldly at Yoshida. A moment later Yoshida regained his composure and picked himself up off the floor. Then he looked at Ijeong with the eyes of a wounded animal and left the hold without a word. Ijeong followed him to the galley. He worked like mad. In the blink of an eye, food for one thousand people was prepared. Ijeong forgot about everything. But as soon as the work ended, he thought of Yeonsu’s shining black eyes and white skin beneath her cloak, and his heart leaped.

24

A
FEW DAYS PASSED
without anyone being born or dying. Other than one man who pestered another’s woman and so received a slight knife wound, nothing happened. The weather gradually grew hotter. Someone spoke of the equator, but almost no one understood him. The concept of the globe was unfamiliar, let alone the idea of the equator. It was a tedious voyage that seemed as if it would never end. Then someone pointed up at the sky. A large bird with its wings spread wide was circling above the
Ilford.
Soon another bird appeared. Both had the red necks and black bodies of frigatebirds. People came up on deck to look at these strange beings. “Seeing birds,” said the Pohang fishermen, “means that land is not far.” People shaded their eyes with their hands and gazed around, but the coastline was nowhere to be seen. Yet the two frigatebirds breathed new life into the enervated people who had been lying about. The deck and cabin suddenly grew noisy. The passengers tirelessly watched the flight of the frigatebirds. “Their tails are like swallow tails.” “They fly like hawks.” Everyone had something to say. Then a flock of birds of another kind flew toward them from the west.

A day passed. More birds were spotted. Blue-footed cormorants flew by and landed on the flagpole, resting before flying off again, and brown pelicans with beaks shaped like gourds soared past them. All of these things were interpreted as signs of abundance. Ospreys dove into the water and caught fish the size of one’s arm before flying back up again, and the cormorants continuously puffed up their throats and swallowed small fry. The passengers had eaten less and less for so long, but now they began to eat more. Having regained their appetites, they sat around in small groups and predicted the future.

Thanks to their chatter, down below the waterline Yi Yeonsu guessed what was happening. Yet the fire that burned deep in her heart burned not for the approaching unknown land, but for one boy. When she saw no sign of him for two days, Yeonsu’s anxiety reached the breaking point. Where has he gone? Does he spend the whole day in the galley? All sorts of questions raced through her head. What kind of person is he? How much has he studied? Knowing nothing of him but his name, Yeonsu was anxious with suspense. I can’t take it anymore. Yeonsu stood up from her seat. Next to her sat her younger brother, Yi Jinu, who had been depressed and silent for days. Even when his sister stood up, he did not react, as if he were lifeless. “Hey, why don’t you go out and get some fresh air?” she said. Yi Jinu shook his head. “The sun hurts my eyes. And I get dizzy.” As if she had been waiting for the moment, Yeonsu weaved through the narrow path between people’s legs. After she passed by, her unique smell lingered. Those who were asleep opened their eyes, and those who were awake shut their eyes. As soon as she entered the passageway outside the cabin she could see two eyes sparkling in the darkness. He was there. Yeonsu walked toward him. But his eyes drew back as if teasing her. He ran and Yeonsu chased him. They changed direction a few times and went down two flights of stairs and there he was again. He opened a door with a key. Yeonsu followed him inside as if spellbound. He closed the door. She was not the least bit afraid. The air smelled of rotten fruit and vegetables. From above came the odor of garlic. “Did you just stand there? Until I came out?” He nodded. “I haven’t moved for two days, ah . . .” Their lips met. It did not take long for their two filthy bodies to become one. Clunk, clunk. A few thick bulbs of garlic rolled off the shelf and hit Ijeong on the back of the head. Yeonsu only wondered at how familiar all of this was, and how alive all of her senses were. Pain flooded deep inside her body, but it was also sweet. In the dark hold, Yeonsu grabbed his face and let out a single long, sharp scream.

Lukewarm fluid dribbled down her thigh. She lay there and thought about the fate that had just brushed by her. She closed her spread legs. Her pelvis was stiff and her flesh prickled where it rubbed against the hem of her clothes. Ijeong said, “I am a wandering merchant and a lowly orphan. But in Mexico, where we will soon arrive, none of that will matter. Somehow I will earn money, and I will find you and marry you. Please wait for me.” Yeonsu laughed weakly as she lay there. She was not laughing at him, yet laughter came out. “You could be killed. Though we may be dressed in filthy clothes and eat and live like pigs here, my family is royalty and my father is a blood relative of His Majesty. He is not one of those ruined aristocrats who do not have money for a proper hat. If it weren’t for the wiles of Yi Haeung, my father might have ascended the throne. Such a person would never accept anyone as my husband, not just you.”

Ijeong spoke. “Do you really think the distinction between high and low, old and young, and man and woman will be as severe as it is in Korea? Look at this ship we are on. Aristocrat or commoner, all must line up to eat.” Ijeong pointed above his head. “In the eyes of those Westerners above us, we are all just the same—Koreans. They only count our heads, and they do not care about our family registers. There is no one on this ship who could stand side by side with you anyway.” Ijeong held Yeonsu. The smell of roe deer blood washed over him. She did not argue. Her own foreboding was not that different: Life there will be vastly different from Korea. I will go to school and to church. I will earn money with my own hands. I will be a woman who will rely on no one. When that time comes, my mother and father will have no hold on me. The two young people came together once again. In every way it was easier than the first time. This time they took all their clothes off and held each other. A rotten potato that was rolling around on the floor was crushed beneath their bodies.

25

C
HOE
S
EONGIL WOKE UP
in a strange place. It was not the corner where he always slept, but the middle of the cabin. What happened? As he stood up and brushed himself off, he heard something in his ear, his inner ear: “I have come to claim the price for my life.” Who can it be? More than that, how did I come to be lying here? He looked around. There were no familiar faces. Then someone walked toward him. “You’re awake.” It was the fellow whose possessions he had taken. Choe Seongil furtively touched his chest to make sure that the cross necklace was still hanging there. Nothing was out of place. Father Paul gave him a dipper of water. “Drink this. They found you lying on the floor and brought you here. You’re not fully well yet.” Choe Seongil tilted his head. “No, that’s not it. Maybe I was dreaming. Look here, my Chungcheong province friend, do you know anything about dreams?” Father Paul waved him off, but Choe Seongil did not stop. “I must have been dreaming, but I thought I met a strange person in that passageway. I could not see his face at all, as if someone had blotted it out with a brush, and he suddenly appeared and—I can still hear it as clearly as if he were talking right into my ear—he said, ‘I am the one who died in your stead. I have come to claim the price for my life.’ I couldn’t tell if I was dreaming or awake, but who on this ship would say something like that to me?”

Father Paul knew who had died in this man’s, and humanity’s, stead. The man who had saved his own life, too, and for whom he had traveled all the way to Penang and back. He had made a vow to become like him; he had bowed down on the floor and received his ordination. When he had first heard the story of that man, in a coal village in the heart of the mountains, he was captivated at once by the birth myth of the mysterious religion. It was a truly strange tale, but he could understand how a god might be born into the body of a human. Such a thing was entirely natural in his hometown on the island of Wi, where the gods manifested themselves in human form dozens of times each year. Yet this was the first time he had heard of a god never leaving the human body, spending the rest of his life there. The cruelty of his execution—spikes driven through the hands and feet of a living person, then into a tree so that he could not move and only wait for death—was also nothing new. Yet Paul was amazed to hear that a god who had taken a human body finally died powerlessly. It was even harder to understand that this man had died for the sins of all humanity. And though he had gone to so much effort to die, after only three days he was resurrected and went up to heaven with his body again intact. Maybe the contradictions that filled the story were what fascinated him. He was a god and yet a man, omnipotent yet powerless, horrible yet wonderful. He said that he loved humanity, yet he made those humans whom he loved eternal sinners. And now the son of this lofty god had appeared before the eyes of this petty thief and said, “I am the one who died in your stead.” Was this yet another of his contradictions? It couldn’t be. It had to be some Korean who detested Jesus and his religion, a soldier who had once chopped off the heads of Catholics—now that he thought about it, wasn’t this place teeming with soldiers?—and was pretending to be Jesus in order to play a trick on the weakened Choe Seongil. After all, Jesus wasn’t the type to go around claiming a price for his life.

“It was just a silly dream.” Paul patted Choe Seongil on the back. He stood up. Yet he did not feel at ease.

26

S
OMEONE WAS POUNDING
impatiently on the door of the hold. Ijeong straightened his clothes and opened it. Yoshida. The gas lamp cast a deep shadow over his face. While the two men stared at each other, Yi Yeonsu threw on her cloak and slipped out. Yoshida grimaced at the girl whose intense odor assaulted his nose. His lips trembled. “Bakayarou!” His voice shook like that of a teenage boy. The weak curse only annoyed Ijeong. “I did what I could for you, did I not? Make way.” He took a step forward. Yoshida stepped back weakly. Worried that Yoshida might attack him from behind, Ijeong walked forward with anxiety in each step.

A short while later, he heard the sound of the hold door closing. Yoshida had gone inside. Ijeong went up to the cabin to lie down. It’s over with the galley now—but didn’t they say we would arrive in port tomorrow? As he thought this, he already missed the experience of life in the galley of a large ship. It had nothing to do with Yoshida; he missed the violent, hot atmosphere created by the kitchen crew’s sweaty flesh so close together. It was a world of only men, and for that reason it was further outside reality. Nothing could intrude on it. Family troubles, regrets about the past, and worries for the future all had their place, even if it was far away. Why should Ijeong be any different? Why should he have no fear of the approaching New World? If his future were truly unknown, he might have hesitated a little, but his future was approaching with a distinct form and smell. The fog cleared and the western coast of Mexico showed itself faintly. Whitish cliffs like mold on wallpaper alternated with sandy beaches. The Koreans went up on deck to see the bewitching silhouette of the new continent. “There is absolutely no green to this land,” someone said with tilted head. “That’s because it’s the seashore,” someone else shot back.

Jo Jangyun and three other soldiers climbed up the crane in the bow and shaded their eyes as they looked at the coast. “Looks like we’re almost there,” Jo Jangyun said, and two of the soldiers, Kim Seokcheol and Seo Gijung, licked their lips. Kim Seokcheol, whose cheekbones stuck out and whose eyes seemed to be almost pasted onto his forehead (earning him the nickname of “Deva King”) started talking about finding a wife: “If I can earn some money and return to Korea, the first thing I’ll do is get married.” Seo Gijung, who was a head shorter than Kim Seokcheol and had always been the brunt of jokes in the empire’s military because of his small stature, teased: “After the five years that will take you, why settle for just getting married? You could take a concubine as well.” Kim Seokcheol liked the sound of that and chuckled. “Even a short fellow like you got married, so what could stop me? What will you do with the money you earn?” Seo Gijung glanced toward the west, where his wife and children had remained, and spoke in a quiet, shy voice. “I’ll buy a rice paddy.” A brief silence followed, dampening their boisterous mood. “What, did someone die?” Jo Jangyun joked, but no one laughed. None of them would have boarded that ship had they had their own land. They had no land, so they became soldiers; they had no land, so they couldn’t get married; they had no land, so they had no place to return to and had crawled into those awful barracks. “Now that our days in the garrison guard are over, I realize they were good times,” Kim Seokcheol said dreamily. “What do you mean good times? They were hard times.” The three of them had volunteered for the new army, reorganized according to the Russian model in 1896. Emperor Gojong, who had moved his residence to the Russian legation and resisted the Japanese, hired a drill instructor from Russia and poured forty percent of the yearly budget into cultivating the army. As soon as word spread that the empire was choosing new soldiers, more than one thousand young men from around the country applied, and there was a bustle in the garrison guard courtyard. Only about two hundred men were chosen, though. Two of them were stationed with the 5th Regiment’s 2nd Battalion at the Bukcheong Garrison Guard. Jo Jangyun, Kim Seokcheol, and Seo Gijung had been engineers and staff sergeants. Seo Gijung had been trained with them, but he was stationed with the 3rd Battalion at the Chongseong Garrison Guard. Then, on October 18, 1904, the Japanese army marched into Hamgyeong province, which was strongly pro-Russian, and set up a military administration, disbanding both the Bukcheong and the Chongseong garrisons. The Japanese would not leave the untrustworthy army of the Korean Empire in Hamgyeong, their front line with Russia.

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