The Shaman Painting
- onDecember 21, 2017
- Vol.38 Winter 2017
- byKim Tong-ni
- A Moment’s Grace: Stories from Korea in Transition.
Tr. John Holstein 2009
Just as in the past, ancient frogs and other creeping things prowled the entangled weeds in Mohwa’s yard. Now that Woogi was gone the house was back to normal.
But Mohwa was not performing any rites in public now and spent all day every day banging away on her gongs and dancing with her spirits in her decaying, dilapidated house in the weeds, and people were saying she had gone mad. Her kitchen was now a perpetual ritual site, hung with five-colored streamers and Nangi’s ritual paintings of the Mountain Spirit, Seven Stars Spirit and many others. She had stopped eating, as if she had forgotten how, and her face turned sallower day by day even as the flame in her eyes burned hotter. And every day the spirits that possessed her ranted and raged to the furious beat of her gongs.
Going, Jesus demon, 10,000 li back to the west.
A ball of fire on your tail,
A bell on each ear ding-a-ling-a-ling.
Shoo demon, off with you.
And if you don’t go I’ll wrap you and all your descendants in the hide of the White Horse Spirit,
throw you into an ash briar patch,
into a boiling cauldron,
into the blue sea fifty fathoms deep.
Shoo, demon! Shoo-o-o-o!
Once in a while a neighbor, remembering how much Mohwa used to enjoy drinking, dropped by with a jug of wine. “How you can bear such a loss, that dear boy . . .” To which Mohwa would only mumble, “Taken off by that Jesus demon . . . ,” and put an end to the conversation with a long sigh.
Her neighbors mourned that she had completely lost her mind. “She was so good. Will we ever see her do another rite?”
Before long, though, word spread throughout the area: Mohwa was going to conduct one more rite, her last. The daughter-in-law of some rich gentry family in the county seat had thrown herself into the river, where the current had carved a deep pocket in its bed. Legend had it that the black fathomless depths of these slowly turning waters that locals called Yegi Pool took for themselves one person every year without fail, and deep in the bowels of this pool quietly stewed the sufferings and secrets of generations. The family wanted to send the tormented soul on to her rest, so they had pressed Mohwa with two silk outfits to use in conjuring up the soul, and she had consented to do just this one last service. At the same time, the rumor went, Mohwa was going to restore her own daughter’s hearing.
“Hmph. Now we’ll see who’s for real—that Jesus demon or the spirits,” she asserted.
The rite was to be held on the sandy beach near the pool where the young woman had drowned herself. The big night finally came, and the people turned up in droves, out of both curiosity and expectation. They came from over the mountains and across the river with a mixed sense of excitement and nostalgia.
The beach swarmed with taffy vendors, rice cake vendors, drinking stalls and food stalls equipped with their awnings and their mats, and in the center of this was the big canopy where Mohwa would summon her spirits to help rescue the young woman’s lost soul. Silk lanterns like green, red, yellow, blue and white flowers had been strung all over the tent, and lined up under these lanterns was an array of offering tables, one for each spirit that would be called upon. There was the table for the Host Spirit, with its rice cake steamer, jar of wine, and carcass of a pig. There was a table for Chesŏk, guardian spirit of the drowned woman’s family, with its bowl of uncooked rice, spool of thread, plate of tofu, and skewer of dried persimmons. There was a table for the Maitreya Buddha with apples, pears and mandarin oranges, snowy white rice cake, cooked vegetables, vegetable soup, salted fish, and hard honey cakes. There was a table for the Mountain Spirit with twelve kinds of wild herbs, a table for the Dragon Spirit with twelve different seafoods, and a table for the Lanes Spirits with one dish for each of a variety of foods. There were a few more large and small offering tables, and a table for Mohwa, with just one bowl of plain water.
Tonight Mohwa’s face was suffused with a dignified and serene countenance that had not been there before. People gabbed how, for a woman who was mourning her son as if he had died only the day before and was at the same time bearing every abuse and insult imaginable from these Christian interlopers, she had assumed quite an air of dignity. This was the face they knew from long ago, of that shaman ennobled by a few nights’ vigil under the light of the moon. She did not gad about and fawn over everyone as she used to, nor did she make a big fuss about every detail; she only stood there quietly, waiting. At one time, surveying the sumptuous offering tables with contempt, she sniffed at her assistants, “Lowlifes, thinking a few offering tables is all you need.”
When the women who gathered there saw this new Mohwa they started whispering that a new spirit possessed her.
“It’s the spirit of that young lady,” they grudged.
“Will you just look at that stoic composure, so demure— kind of prissy if you ask me—and when was Mohwa ever that pretty. That young woman’s spirit has got into her all the way.”
Others gossiped among themselves of how tonight Nangi would speak again, and still others debated the rumor that Nangi was with child, whoever the father was. And all of these women were eager to get answers tonight to all these questions buzzing about.