- onApril 4, 2017
- Vol.35 Spring 2017
- byKim Un-su
- The Plotters
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell 2010422pp.
The old man must have been in high spirits, because he filled Reseng’s cup with whiskey until it was nearly overflowing then filled his own and raised a toast. They downed their cups in one gulp. The old man picked up the skewer and fished a couple of potatoes from the hot ashes. After taking a bite of one, he pronounced it delicious and gave the other to Reseng. Reseng brushed off the ashes and took a bite. “That is delicious,” he said.
“There’s nothing better than a roasted potato on a cold, winter’s day.”
“Potatoes always remind me of someone...” His face reddened by the alcohol and the glow of the fire, Reseng caught himself as he started to babble.
“I’m guessing this story doesn’t have a happy ending,” the old man said.
“Is that someone alive or dead?”
“Long dead. I was in Africa at the time when we got this emergency alert in the middle of the night. We jumped in a truck and headed over. It turned out that a rebel soldier who’d escaped camp had taken an old woman hostage. He was just a kid—still had his baby fat. Must’ve been fifteen, maybe fourteen? From what I saw, he was worked up and scared out of his wits, but not an actual threat. The old woman kept repeating something to him. Meanwhile, he was pointing an AK-47 at her head with one hand and cramming a potato into his mouth with the other. We all knew he wasn’t going to do anything. But just then the order came over the walkie-talkie to take him out. Someone pulled the trigger. We ran over to take a closer look. Half of the kid’s head was blown away, and in his mouth was the mashed up potato that he never got the chance to swallow.”
“Oh my, he must’ve been starving.”
“It felt so strange to look into the mouth of an African boy with half his head missing. What would’ve happened if we’d waited just ten more seconds? All I could think was, if we had waited, he would’ve gotten to swallow the potato before he died.”
“Not like anything would’ve changed for that poor boy if he had swallowed it.”
“No, of course not. But it still felt weird to think about that chewed up potato in his mouth.” Reseng’s voice wavered.
The old man finished the rest of his whiskey and poked around in the ashes with the skewer to see if there were any more potatoes. He found one in the corner and offered it to Reseng, who gazed blankly at it and politely declined. The old man looked at the potato; his face darkened and he tossed it back into the ashes.
“I’ve got another bottle of whiskey. What do you say?” the old man asked.
Reseng thought about it for a moment and said, “Your call.”
The old man brought the other bottle from the kitchen and poured some for him. They sipped in silence as they watched the flames dance in the fireplace. As Reseng grew tipsy, a feeling of profound unreality washed over him. The old man’s eyes never left the fire.
“Fire is so beautiful,” Reseng said.
“Ash is more beautiful once you get to know it.”
The old man slowly twirled his cup as he gazed into the flames. He smiled then, as if recalling something funny.
“My grandfather was a whaleman. That was long before they outlawed whaling. He didn’t grow up anywhere near the ocean—he was actually from inland Hamgyeong Province—but he went down south to Jangsaeng Harbor for work and ended up becoming the best harpooner in the country. This one time, he got dragged under by a sperm whale. Really deep under. What happened was, he threw the harpoon into the whale’s back, but the rope tangled around his foot and pulled him overboard. Those flimsy colonial-era whaling boats and shoddy harpoons were just no match for an animal that big. A male sperm whale can grow up to eighteen meters long and weigh up to sixty tons. Think about it. That’s like fifteen adult African elephants. I don’t care if it were just a balloon animal—I would never want to mess with anything that big. No way, no how. But not my grandfather. He chucked his harpoon right into that giant whale’s back.”
“What happened next?” Reseng asked.
“Utter havoc, of course. He said the shock of falling off the bow made him woozy, and he couldn’t tell if he was dreaming or hallucinating. Meanwhile, he was being dragged helplessly into the deep dark depths of the ocean by a very, very angry whale. He said the first thing he saw when he finally snapped out of his daze was a blue light coming off of the sperm whale’s fins. He forgot all about being underwater and just stared at that light. When he told me the story, he kept going on about how mysterious and tranquil and beautiful it was—an eighteen-meter-long behemoth coursing through the pitch-black ocean with glowing blue fins. I tried to break it to him gently—he was practically in tears just thinking about it—that since whales are not bioluminescent, there was no way its fins could have glowed like that. He threw his chamber pot at my head. Ha! What a hothead! He told the story to everyone he met. I told him they all thought he was lying because of the part about the fins. But all he said to that was, ‘Everything people say about whales is a lie. Because everything they say came from a book, but whales don’t live in books, they live in the ocean.’ Anyway, after the whale dragged him under, he passed out.”
The old man refilled his cup halfway and took a sip.
“He said that when he came to, there was a big ol’ full moon hanging in the night sky, and waves were lapping at his ear. He thought luck was on his side and the waves had pushed him up onto a reef. But it wasn’t a reef, it was the whale’s head. Crazy, right? There he was, lying crosswise on a whale, staring at a buoy, a growing pool of slick red blood, and the whale itself, propping him up out of the water with its head, that harpoon still sticking out of its back. Can you imagine anything weirder or more incomprehensible? I’ve heard of whales lifting an injured companion or a newborn calf out of the water so they can breathe. But this wasn’t a companion or a baby whale, or even a seal or a penguin, it was my grandfather, a human being, and the same guy who’d shoved a harpoon into its back! I honestly don’t get why the whale saved him.”
“No, it doesn’t make any sense,” Reseng said, taking a sip of whiskey. “You’d think that whale would have torn him apart and then some.”
“He just lay there on the whale’s head for a long time, even after he’d regained consciousness. It was an awkward situation to find himself in, to say the least. What can you do when you’re stuck on top of a whale? There was nothing else out there but the silvery moon, the dark waves, a sperm whale spilling buckets of blood, and one man up shit creek. My grandfather said the sight of all that blood in the moonlight made him feel guilty. And how could he not? He wanted to pull out the harpoon, but you know, easier said than done. Harpoons are like bad life decisions: so easy to cast, so impossible to take back. Since he couldn’t pull it out, he cut the line instead with the knife he kept on his belt. The moment he cut it, the whale dove away and resurfaced, then headed straight back to where he was clinging to the buoy and struggling to stay afloat. He said it watched as he flailed pathetically in shame, all tangled up in his own harpoon line. According to my grandfather, the beast came right up and gazed into him with one enormous dark eye—with a look of innocent curiosity that seemed to say, ‘How did such a little scaredy-cat like you manage to stick a harpoon in the likes of me? You’re braver than you look!’ Then he said it gave him a playful shove with its snout. Like it was saying, ‘Hey kid, that was pretty naughty. Better not pull another dangerous stunt like that!’ All the blood it had lost was turning the ocean murky, and yet it seemed to brush off the whole matter of my grandfather stabbing it in the back. Each time my grandfather got to this part of the story, he used to slap his knee and shout, ‘That monster’s heart was as big as its body! So much better than us jerks!’ He said the whale stayed by his side all night until the whaler caught up to them. It had been tracking the buoys in search of my grandfather. As soon as they saw the ship in the distance, the whale swam in a circle around him like it was saying goodbye and then dove way, way down under the sea, the harpoon with my grandfather’s name carved into it still quivering in its back. Crazy, huh?”
“Yeah, that’s quite a story,” Reseng said.
“After that, after his narrow escape from a watery death, I guess my grandfather had some serious second thoughts about whaling because he told my grandmother he didn’t want to go back. My grandmother was a very kind and patient woman. She hugged him and said if he hated catching whales that much then he should go ahead and quit. He said he sobbed like a baby in her arms and told her, ‘I felt so scared, so very scared!’ And then he really did keep his distance from whaling for a while. But those crybaby days of his didn’t last long. They were poor, there were too many mouths to feed, and whaling was the only trade he’d ever learned. He didn’t know how else to provide for all those hungry children squawking at him like baby sparrows. So he went back to work and launched his harpoon at every whale he found in the East Sea until he retired at the age of seventy. But there was one more funny thing that happened: in 1959, he ran into the same sperm whale again. Exactly thirty years after his miraculous survival. His rusted old harpoon was still stuck in the whale’s back, but the sperm whale was just swimming along, all gallant and free, as if that harpoon had always been there and was simply a part of its body. Actually, it’s not uncommon to hear about whales surviving long after a harpoon attack. They even say a whale was once caught in the nineteenth century with an eighteenth-century harpoon still stuck in it. Anyway, the whale didn’t run away when it saw the whaling ship; in fact, it cruised right up to my grandfather’s boat, the harpoon sticking straight up like a periscope, and slowly circled it. Like it was saying, ‘Oi! Long time no see, old friend! But what’s this? Still hunting whales? You really don’t know when to quit, do you?’” the old man said with a laugh.
“Your grandfather must have felt pretty embarrassed,” Reseng said.
“You bet he did. The sailors said my grandfather took one look at that sperm whale and dropped to his knees. He threw himself on the deck and wept and howled, and called out: ‘Whale, forgive me! I’m so sorry! How awful for you, swimming all those years with a harpoon stuck in your back! After we said goodbye, I wanted to quit, I swear. You probably don’t know this since you live in the sea, but things have been really tough up on land. I’m still living in a rental, and my awful kids eat so much, you’d be shocked at what it costs to feed them. I had to come back because I could barely make ends meet. Forgive me! Let’s meet again and have a drink together. I’ll bring the booze if you catch us a giant squid to munch on. Ten crates of soju and one grilled giant squid should do it. I’m so sorry, Whale. I’m sorry I stabbed you in the back with a harpoon. I’m sorry I’m such a jerk. Boo-hoo-hoo!’”
“Did he really yell all of that at the whale?” Reseng asked.
“They say he really did.”
“He was a funny guy, your grandfather.”
“He was indeed. Anyway, after that, he quit whaling and left Jangsaeng Harbor for good. He came up to Seoul and spent all his time drinking. I imagine he felt pretty trapped, seeing as how he couldn’t go out to sea anymore, and with barbed wire strung all across the 38th parallel, he couldn’t go back to his hometown either. So whenever he got drunk, he latched on to people and started up with that boring old whale tale again. He told it over and over, even though everyone had already heard it hundreds of times and no one wanted to hear it again. But he didn’t tell it because he wanted to brag about his adventures on the high seas. He believed that people should be more like whales. He said people had grown as small and crafty as rats, and that the days of taking slow, huge, beautiful strides had vanished. The age of giants was over.”
The old man took another swig of whiskey. Reseng refilled his empty cup and took a sip.
“Towards the end, he found out he was in the final stages of liver cancer. It wasn’t exactly a surprise. As a sailor, he’d been guzzling booze from the age of sixteen to the age of eighty-two. But I guess the news meant nothing to him at all because no sooner did he return from seeing the doctor than he hit the bottle again. He gathered his kids together and told them: ‘I’m not going to any hospital. Whales accept it when their time comes.’ And he really didn’t go to the hospital. After about a month, my grandfather put on his best clothes and went back to Jangsaeng Harbor. According to the sailors there, he loaded a small boat up with ten crates of soju, just like he said he would, and rowed until he disappeared over the horizon. And he never came back. His body was never found. Maybe he really did row until he caught the scent of ambergris and tracked down his whale. If he did, then I’m sure he broke open all ten crates of soju that night as they caught up on the years they’d missed, and if he didn’t, then he probably drifted around the ocean, drinking alone, until he died. Or maybe he’s still out there somewhere.”
“That’s quite an ending.”
“It’s a dignified way to go. In my opinion, men ought to be able to choose a death that gives their life a dignified ending. Only those who truly walk their own path can choose their own death. But not me. I’ve been a slug my whole life, so I don’t deserve a dignified death.”
The old man smiled bitterly. Reseng was at a loss for a response. The look on the old man’s face was so dark that Reseng felt compelled to say something comforting, but he really couldn’t think of what to say. The old man refilled his cup and polished it off again. Then they sat there for a long time, sipping their whiskey. Each time the flames died down, Reseng added more wood to the fire. While Reseng and the old man drank in comfortable silence, the new piece caught fire, crackled and flared up hot and ferocious, then slowly burned down to glowing charcoal, and then again to white ash.
“I really talked your ear off tonight. They say the older you get, the more you’re supposed to keep the purse strings open and your mouth shut.”
Translated by Sora Kim-Russell
Printed by permission of Text Publishing, Melbourne, Australia
Kim Un-su has written three novels and one short story collection. He won the Munhakdongne Novel Award in 2006. His books have been translated into French, Japanese, and Chinese. He was invited to the Saint-Louis Literary Festival and the French literary festival, “Meeting.”