Close
FICTION

Princess Bari

  • onMarch 10, 2016
  • Vol.31 Spring 2016
  • byHwang Sok-yong
Princess Bari
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell
2015
305pp.

 

SIX

 

I stripped off my shell of a body more than once during those long days of darkness and followed Chilsung down the white path to see my grandmother. Once, after coming to briefly and taking a look around, I realized that the world of the dead was no different from the place I was in. I travelled in the ship through the different layers of the otherworld.

I lay with my eyes closed and my back pressed to the bottom of the ship as it rose and fell with the waves, the din of machinery constant, and let my spirit rise into the air. It was indeed like slipping out of a shell, or removing a garment. It didn’t make a sound, but there was a sensation like soft fabric tearing each time I shed my body and drifted about in the dark.

Then Chilsung would appear, his white fur dazzling my eyes as he wagged his tail in front of me. We would walk single-file along the white path that hovered in the blackness like a belt of moonlight. After a long walk, we would arrive at a riverbank, where a light breeze blew and a bridge arched over the river. The water looked black as tar. Only the bridge was illuminated, as if by lamplight, and Grandmother would come across it, the hem of her white skirt swaying.

Bari, come this way.

When Grandmother walked back over the bridge, it lit up with all the colours of the rainbow. Chilsung walked ahead of me. I followed him across this rainbow bridge. Just then, I heard voices coming from the dark water below, voices crying out to be saved. A woman’s ragged screams. Weeping and wailing. Groans of pain. A baby bawling. Voices moaning under the lash. Dying breaths. Teeth chattering as voices cried out about the cold. Shrill screams following one after the other, wailing about the heat. Hollow giggles from going mad. I could barely bring myself to cross the bridge.

Don’t listen, and don’t look down. If you stray from the path, you’ll lose all your good karma.

Once I was over the bridge I saw that the sun was shining there, and everything was strangely quiet. A wide field filled with fresh grass stretched away evenly, and a delicate breeze stirred the wildflowers. Grandmother pointed to a zelkova tree at the far end of the field.

When you get closer to that tree, your guide will appear. Hurry off now.

Grandma, aren’t you coming with me?

I can’t. My world ends here.

What about Chilsung?

He slowly wagged his tail and didn’t answer. Grandmother held out her hand.

Take these with you. It’ll help.

She dropped three peony blossoms into my palm. I put them in my pocket and floated over to the tree, bobbing gently as if carried there on a current. The tree was enormous; it had to have been as tall as a three or four-storey building. The branches were completely bare, though it wasn’t winter. The closer I got to that tree, with its countless branches twisting out of its thick trunk in all directions, the scarier it looked. On one of the lower branches perched a magpie, flicking its tail. When it saw me it rubbed its beak against the tree several times and then addressed me.

Hey, Stupidhead, where you think you’re goin’? Oughta give you what for.

What did I do wrong? I asked angrily. Despite everything that had happened to me up until that point, I had submitted to all of it meekly, without a single word of blame or complaint, sorrow or frustration, so I truly felt this was uncalled-for. The bird opened its beak wide and laughed at me. Then it said:

You’re still a long way from bringing back the life-giving water. How the living do suffer, do suffer!

I clamped down on my anger.

Show me the way to the western sky, I said.

Follow me, follow me.

The little featherbrain spread his wings and took off from the tip of the branch, circled overhead several times and flew straight into the side of the enormous tree trunk as if to crush his own skull.

Serves you right, I thought. Nowyou’redeadofabustedskull.

But the trunk opened like a yawning mouth, and the bird disappeared into it. I placed one foot inside the shadowy hollow, and the rest of my body was sucked inside. I slid down, down, down. When I reached the bottom, the top of the tree hovered far above my head and I saw a road stretching out in five directions: north, south, east, west and centre. In the middle of the road stood an envoy from the otherworld, dressed all in black and wearing a black horsehair hat. He clutched a folding fan with both hands. Whereareyougoing?Heasked.

I’d been wondering the same thing, so I had no response at first. But then I said the first thing that came to mind:

They told me to come over for dinner.

The envoy considered this for a moment and then asked: Thegreatkings?

I didn’t know what else to do, so I nodded. He pointed to one of paths with his fan. I walked for a long time and eventually reached a large plaza with torchlight glowing on all sides. The same envoy appeared again and dragged me to the centre. A huge, towering platform, like a judge’s bench, appeared along the opposite wall. Seated atop the platform were ten great kings, each with a different type of crown: a horned crown; an ornament-covered crown that stuck straight up like a chimney and gradually widened; a round crown; a wide, flat crown; a crown that bulged out on the sides. The great kings seemed to stir, and then the one seated in the middle wearing the horned crown glared fiercely at me from above his black beard. He called out:

Loathsome worm! You’re not dead, yet you dare call us forth in your dreams?

The great king with a white beard and a crown with triangular horns yelled:

You lied and said we invited you here!

The great king with the flat crown said:

We cannot send you back to the flesh you abandoned!

Another said:

An insignificant speck like you arrogantly vows to take the life-giving water from the ends of the Earth?!

The great kings of the otherworld called out my crimes each in turn, and at the very end the king with the round crown said:

You are guilty of abandoning your starving kinsmen. Even if you spend the rest of your life offering food and reciting sutras to the spirits of these dead, you will never wash away your sin!

The ten kings called out their judgment in unison:

Seven by seven is forty-nine. If you can endure forty-nine days of penance, you will be permitted to return.

As soon as their judgment came down, the envoy grabbed me by the nape of the neck, dragged me to the edge of a cliff and tossed me over. At the bottom of the cliff was a blazing inferno. I screamed long and loud as my body tumbled like a piece of straw down toward the flames that wriggled like the jaws of a creature intent on swallowing me whole. Just then I remembered the flowers my grandmother had given me. I took one peony from my pocket and tossed it down. With a loud pop!thefirevanished,andsomethinglikeawarmblanketoracloudwrappedaroundme.Idriftedslowlydownthroughtheair.

When I alighted onto the ground, the air filled with a faint blue light and grey smoke billowed all around. A clump of smoke wafted over to me and moaned as it brushed past.

Feed me. Just one bite. Please.

Another clump of smoke coiled around me.

Just one little gaetteok.Orevensomeporridgeorthingruelwilldo.

The smoke began to fill the large hollow; each clump bore the face it had worn in life. I saw the woman and two children I’d met in the village near Gomusan, as well as the old woman I’d come across at the train station. Countless other faces I’d never seen and did not know crowded around me. There were three or four little urchins who’d slept under stairwells in a night market in Yanji, and even babies joined the throng as tiny puffs cleaving to mother clouds. Their eyes were dark, their cheeks sunken and their throats strangely long and thin. Their mumbling sounded like magic spells:  Hungry,hungry,hungry.Feedme,feedme,feedme.

I couldn’t breathe, my chest was heavy and my eardrums felt like they were going to burst. I covered my ears with my hands and squatted down on my heels. Then, without thinking about it, I pulled out another peony and tossed it upward. The air filled with wooden bowls packed with steaming hot rice, freshly cooked rice cakes piled high with mashed sweet red beans, every kind of fish and meat, fritters and savoury pancakes, wild greens, stews and soups of every flavour and colour and variety, plates and dishes and platters and saucers galore. All around me I heard the sound of lips smacking and teeth chomping.

Words ─ half-song, half-incantation ─ burst out of me, and even in the midst of singing, I recognized them as Hwangcheonmuga, the shaman song to console the spirits of the dead. It was from the story my grandmother used to tell me about Princess Bari:

Aah, aah, deceased spirits!
At this open door between our worlds,
I pray, I pray.

To the mountains, to the rivers
you prayed, you prayed.

Hungry ghosts, starved spirits,
what became of the bodies you wore only
yesterday?
Return! Return!

Go to Paradise, come back to life.
You are without sin;
lay down your burdens.  

When the song ended, the smoke retreated, low to the ground, and vanished. Suddenly the floor of the hollow tree split in two to reveal a fog-covered pond. A breeze lifted the fog and the glassy, mirror-like surface of the water appeared. The water was the blue-green of moss, and under it a shadow was moving. Against this solid blue screen, images slowly began to take shape:

A stormy sea. A single boat tosses like a leaf amid mountainous waves, barely making it from crest to crest. It is a fishing boat with a squat cabin like a tiny house sticking out of the top. The belly of the ship is stuffed with the day’s catch. In that cramped space, where the ceiling is so low that a person can’t even sit straight up, water sloshes and rises. Then I notice the people squirming inside. Men, women, children. Ten, twenty, maybe thirty or more. Waves surge over the side of the boat, sweep over the deck and pour down into the hold. Women and children struggle and try to crawl out. The crewmen kick and shove them back in. They close the hatch and padlock it. The wind and waves subside, and the sea is sunny. A distant mountain peak in a foreign land appears on the horizon. The crew remove the dead bodies from the hold and toss them into the sea. Bodies sink below the surface, bob back up, are swept along by the waves.

The coast of a foreign country. A boat, half-sunk and listing. Vegetable crates floating in the water. A large ship approaches. Uniformed people board the boat. They open the crates. Amid the tomatoes and cabbage are drowned bodies.

People suffering and struggling to breathe inside a dark container. The face of a woman clawing at the walls looms large. People crowd the door. They search for any crack in the walls before collapsing in the spaces between the cargo.

People called to the crewmen’s tiny quarters. When they are told to hand over more cash, they shake their heads and say they have none. The crewmen begin beating them. They punch their faces, kick their stomachs, gang up on them. Eyes fill with rage. Moneyless men slump to the ground, their faces bloodied. Women’s clothes are torn off. The men take turns. The women shake their heads from side to side, cry, struggle.

A narrow alley. Women alight from cars. Heavily made-up faces stare down from every window and every corner. The owner counts heads. Gives money to the men who brought them. Men lick their fingers and count their cash. The women are herded into a curtained room. The owner strips and inspects them.

A woman crouches and covers her mouth to keep from crying, crumpled skirt and top clutched to her naked body. Her face blurs and begins to shake with laughter. She’s lost hermind.

She stumbles down a road as if drunk. A young man chases her and smacks her face mercilessly. She’s dragged away by the hair and disappears down a filthy alley.

A dark basement. A single fluorescent bulb hangs from a low ceiling. Women sit at sewing machines and stitch together mountains of fabric. Men walk up and down the rows, their hands idle behind their backs.

A storage room at the back of a restaurant piled high with vegetables and shellfish. Water sloshing underfoot. Men trimming cabbage and cleaning fish.

Another stormy sea. Men who have been gathering clams stand on a tiny sandbank, naked beneath their raingear. They bring their hands to their mouths to shout. The tide rises. The sandbank slowly vanishes and the water rises from stomach to chest. The floundering bodies disappear beneath the black water, and the waves cut furrows into the surface of sea before filling them again. 

 

pp. 109-117

Author's Profile

Hwang Sok-yong was born in Changchun, Manchuria in 1943. After the liberation from Japanese occupation, he moved to his mother’s hometown Pyongyang, where he lived with his mother’s side of the family. In 1947, his family moved to the South and he grew up in Yeongdeungpo. Hwang left Kyungbok High School in 1962 and left home to wander the southern provinces. He returned home in October, and in November of that year he won the New Author Literary Prize from the magazine Sasanggye for his short story, “Near the Marking Stone.” Hwang lived life as a drifter, taking up manual labor and temple jobs until 1970 when his short story “The Pagoda” won the Chosun Ilbo New Writer’s Contest and he began his writing career in earnest. He also participated in the Vietnam War.

Throughout the 1970s, Hwang Sok-yong published a continuous stream of works that became well known such as “Far from Home,” “Mr. Han’s Chronicle,”“The Road to Sampo,” and “A Dream of Good Fortune,” becoming a foremost author in the Korean literary world. For the duration of the seventies, he went undercover working at the Guro Industrial Complex and took part in the resistance movement through his membership in the Association of Writers for Actualized Freedom while penning his epic novel, Jang Gilsan.

In the 1980s, Hwang completed his full-length novel, The Shadow of Arms, which shines light on the capitalistic world system during the Vietnam War. He did this all while working tirelessly to organize the fight to spread the truth about the Gwangju Democratization Movement as well as a variety of other resistance movements. After visiting North Korea in March 1989, Hwang was unable to return to South Korea and took refuge as an invited author at the Berlin Academy of Arts. In 1991, he continued his exile in New York. After returning to South Korea in 1993, he was sentenced to seven years in prison, but was released in 1998 after serving five of those years. Following this, he has shown year after year that his creative spirit will not die with the publication of The Old Garden (2000), The Guest (2001), Shim Cheong (2003), Princess Bari (2007), Hesperus (2008), Gangnam Dream (2010), A Familiar World (2011), The Sound of the Shallow Water (2012), and Dusk (2015). He has been awarded the Manhae Literature Prize, the Lee San Literature Prize, and the Daesan Literary Award, among others. Hwang’s major works have been translated and published around the world in countries such as France, the US, Italy, and Sweden.