Death by Fiction
- onDecember 16, 2015
- Vol.30 Winter 2015
- byKim Takhwan
- Death by Fiction
- Tr. Lee Hyun-Jung
The White Tower Fellowship
Learning archery and swordsmanship from Baek Dongsu, a master of equestrian combat, was the greatest boon of my life. I had once tried to call him teacher, but he had refused the honor, proposing instead to become sworn brothers.
“I don’t believe in having students. That sort of nonsense is for stuffy scholars. If the difference in age is less than ten years, two people of like mind should become friends. If the difference is greater, and yet you can drink all night in each other’s company, you should declare yourselves brothers! Let’s dispense with formality and leave ourselves free to share our hopes and dreams over wine. My dream is to write a book that collects all of Joseon’s military and martial arts. With that book, I want to train our soldiers to be the mightiest of warriors. You will support me in this, right?”
When a man with sixteen years on you insists on being your brother, refusal is not an option. Some attribute my early success in the State Military Examination to my royal lineage, but that is a misimpression born of jealousy. The real reason I passed the exam at just twenty years of age was Baek Dong-su’s instruction: he trained me to shoot fifty arrows without rest from a bow of extraordinary size and strength. Even now, I have nothing to fear when I step onto an archery range with a quiver of arrows at my waist. I would not hesitate to challenge the great Bang Jin1 if he were still alive.
Baek Dong-su also taught me to use throwing stars. The kind I most preferred had a triangular, tapering body, with fins extending like tails to the top, bottom, right, and left. They are shorter and lighter than an index finger, but the shape causes it to spin in flight, so that it will dig into flesh and lodge itself deeper than an ordinary throwing star. A direct hit to a vital point can prove fatal. Baek, being wary of facile expedients, never once picked up a throwing star himself. But he did not stop me from carrying several in my own sleeve, saying that the right path could be found even in expediency.
“Look to your target only after you’ve looked to yourself. No matter how close your intended target may be, you’ll never hit anything if all your energy isn’t focused at the tip of your fingers. What you must strike down is not your target but your desire to best your opponent with ease. It’s better to achieve your end without letting loose a single throwing star than to fell your enemy with it. The Japanese across the sea use throwing stars for assassination, but you must never use them to make a surprise kill. Resort to them only in moments of extreme urgency, when there is no time to reach for a sword or a bow. Do you understand?”
The day after the execution, toward four o’clock, Joseon’s finest hero showed up at the Royal Investigation Bureau. The officials were trying in vain to attend to their responsibilities after a long night of drinking. I was in the back yard, similarly attempting to shake off its after-effects by practicing taekkyeon.2
“Didn’t I tell you to practice every day? You’re sadly out of shape,” Baek Dong-su observed disapprovingly, as he smoothed his impressive moustache with one hand.
He was easily two heads taller than most men, with extraordinarily long arms that reached down to his knees even while standing upright. His eyes, slanting slightly up at the corners, shone with such a penetrating gleam that his gaze seemed to pass right through solid walls. He had a wide mouth that stretched almost from ear to ear; his voice was a low and powerful bass capable of subduing a thousand people into obedience with a word. Thighs thicker than a maiden’s waist allowed him to tame the wildest horse in a heartbeat. If he knew there was great wine to be had, he would travel three days and three nights to sample it; if there was a gisaeng who knew true music and genuine poetry, he would take her to his heart as a sister with no thought for her tainted profession.
He wished me to accompany him somewhere, he said. Returning to the office, I found that over half of the officials had left for the day. It seemed the aftermath of the execution would linger for three days at the least. Baek exited through the front gate and took the lead with broad steps. I had to follow at a trot to keep up with his long legs and longer gait.
“Dong-su! Where are we going?”
He replied without looking back. “Today’s meeting might well be the last. You are in luck.”
Last meeting? Luck?
Such terseness was typical of this self-assured warrior. He was not one to cavil over details, nor was he apt to be warmly solicitous. If he liked someone, he shared with them all of himself, and demanded that they join him in whatever enterprise he had in mind. With the doughty Baek Dong-su as company, one was sure to come across extraordinary men, rare vintages, and beautiful women. When he bid you follow, he did so for a good reason. Today, I was especially expectant: never before had he used the word “luck” to describe what awaited, no matter how grand the occasion.
“Today, I’ll introduce you to the worthiest men in the kingdom.”
My shoulders tensed of themselves; I could sense his excitement just by walking beside him. Skirting a white tower that reached skyward like a bamboo shoot piercing through snow, Baek led us on northward and then came to a sudden standstill.
“This used to be the home of Pak Ji-won. He’s since retired to a remote village in the mountains.”
Pak Ji-won had left Hanyang for the anonymity of Yeonam Village because of one man: Chief Royal Secretary and Captain of the King’s Guard, Hong Gukyeong. Pak had declined to conceal his disapproval of the almost exclusive control Chief Royal Secretary Hong exercised over everything that went on at Court. Hong Guk-yeong regarded Pak Ji-won, along with his own relative Hong Nak-seong, as the two people whom he must eliminate. Baek Dong-su all but coerced the resisting Pak Ji-won to depart for Yeonam Village; the odds of surviving a direct challenge against the King’s most trusted retainer were nonexistent.
Baek turned north, toward a small gate set in a wicker fence.
“This is where Yi Deok-mu lives. He and I are brothers-in-law. Though he’s only two years my senior, the depth of his character and learning more than warrants the profound respect I have for him.”
I had long been aware that Baek’s older sister had wed Yi Deok-mu. I also knew about the time Baek had set out for Yi’s house at the foot of Mount Namsan and failed to reach it. The poem Yi had composed on the occasion, in lament of their missed meeting, was consigned to my memory. It is a clear testament to the depth of their mutual bond:
A lazy brook with petals afloat My wicker gate stands close by, easy to find
But the Mountain God, wary of worldly intruders
Swathes it in a curtain of cloud and leads my friend astray