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FICTION

Jeol

  • onMarch 25, 2019
  • Vol.43 Spring 2019
  • byPark Min-gyu
Double (Side A·B)
Tr. Agnel Joseph
2011
620pp.

 

 

 

 

 

Beads of snow . . .

     . . . scattered down. A soft metallic clang sounded from behind a huge iron door that was flanked by a long wall. Considering the door was forty to fifty ja thick, the noise was only as loud as the snow beads ricocheting off the frozen ground. A side gate had opened. A silver-haired old man stepped out, but he trod so lightly that his feet made no sound. The snow beads, sapped of their vigor to stay afloat, let out the faint crunch of rice grains being crushed. The old man had a brief exchange with a guard who’d followed him out, but his voice made no sound. With a heavy clang, the iron door gathered back all its possessions. The only things left in the open were the old man, his bundle, and the vast expanse of earth that had broken out in snow beads in places and thus looked like the plucked, raw skin of a chicken. The snow kept . . .

     . . . falling. The old man’s eyes drew a 之 in the sky,2 where the sun and moon were aligned with Earth, before coming to rest on the sight ahead. Three men, hairs grizzled from bits of snow, stood before him like snowmen. The old man lowered his head.

     Daehyung!3 Warm puffs of air spouted from three mouths in unison.

     The old man was Kim Il-hae, better known as Master of the Celestial Fist. A few snow beads picked that moment to fall on the corners of his eyes, moistening them. Nnneeaoowww, a plane that’d taken off from a distant airport passed overhead just then.

     How come, muttered Celestial Fist, the dragon slices through the skies and yet sounds so feeble?

     It’s because of the law regulating the Weighted Equivalent Continuous Perceived Noise Level, said the youngest of the three middle-aged seosaengs4 as he wiped his fogged-up glasses.

     Because of the law, you say . . . Snow beads fell on Celestial Fist’s furrowed brow again. But bits and pieces of snow couldn’t cover the past decade that cast a deep shadow there, like a canyon drawn in bold strokes.

     You went through a lot, Daehyung. Between the other two men, Choi Il-u, a.k.a. Master of the Blue Dragon Sword, spoke. He was a giant of a man, not given to talking much. As if he were trying to steal it, or as if it were entirely natural, he took over Celestial Fist’s bundle. A disinclined gleam in the old man’s eyes stirred his grayed eyebrows for a second, but the hands that handed over the bundle were compliant. The short-statured man standing to the side pressed his palms together in greeting and bowed. He was Seon U-jin, also known as Horse of Sky, Clouds, and Mist. He looked between fifty and sixty. It was hard to tell his age from his face. The same was true for Blue Dragon Sword who could’ve been anywhere between sixty-one to seventy.

     How . . . have you all been? Celestial Fist said, glancing around at the party.

     Instead of answering, Blue Dragon Sword’s dark eyebrows quivered dimly like a forest swept by rain. Nnneeaoowww, another plane passed overhead. The noise was loud enough to interrupt the huddle’s conversation, but not to break the Weighted Equivalent Continuous Perceived Noise Level limit. Little by little, the flurry of snow was . . .

     . . . petering out. As if he’d teleported there, Sky Horse was already seated in a van parked a few steps behind them. Vroom rattlerattle, vroom . . . rattlerattlerattle rattle . . . The small decrepit six-seater van trembled like a horse that’d ruptured a tendon. On its flanks, the words Samu Farms were emblazoned in red.

     Take a seat, Daehyung.

     As he started to move at Blue Dragon Sword’s suggestion, Celestial Fist addressed the remaining middle-aged seosaeng. You don’t have the mien of a martial artist, so who are you, Young Brother?

     He’s Lee Jang-rok, a talented lawyer who’s been following me since last year. Blue Dragon Sword answered for the seosaeng who was bent in a deep bow.

     A lawyer, you say . . . Celestial Fist nodded and extended his right hand.

     It’s a great honor, said Lee Jang-rok, also known as Pinnacle of Sky and Great Law, as he received Celestial Fist’s hand with two trembling hands. He was holding the hand of a legend.

     I want to tell you something, you’ll hear it only after the sad times are gone

     Close your eyes and feel, how you touch my heart, how my gaze follows you

     The radio had a lot of static. They drove on the highway for a while before passing through a small tollgate and speeding along a quiet expressway. Nobody spoke so Celestial Fist couldn’t tell where they were headed. He didn’t ask. He had no way of knowing what changes had occurred in their warrior bond in the time he was confined. Jo In-deok, or Icy Waters Thousand Hands, was nowhere to be seen. Maybe they were headed to Jo’s house. Then again, maybe there was some bad blood between them. Like the tracks of a fine-and-wide-toothed comb running through a widow’s hair, at times sparse and at times dense, irregular streaks of snow hit the steamy car window with their teeth. Celestial Fist gently closed his eyes. In the past decade, both the land and the world would’ve changed. Swept away, people’s hearts and feelings would’ve changed too. The river of humanity would’ve kept flowing, like a column of ants heading for a pot of honey. Yes, the world once looked like no more than an anthill. He had led a cohort of warriors and had saved or taken lives if it was in line with the moral code of the great cause. He was a legend . . . he was a god. It had been a time when the great cause was alive, but those days were long gone. Celestial Fist opened his eyes, as though waking up from a long, drawn-out dream. Outside the window was an uninterrupted succession of mountains and mountains, rivers and rivers. He had turned exactly two hundred and eighty this year. He had looked on at the nation’s many vicissitudes and witnessed the murim’s5 decline. This indestructible body once exalted by the entire martial world, he was weary of it now.

     Don’t wait for a miracle, a rough road lies ahead

     With prospects and hurdles unknown, but I won’t change, I can’t give up6

     He closed his eyes again. When was the last time he’d battled a master? Must have been more than a hundred years ago. Sa Ma-cheon, a.k.a. Mystic Warrior with Crane Wings, had sought him out after vanquishing the Central Plains of China.7 The duel in Manchuria hazily came to his mind. They were in a wide-open barley field over which the old moon had just risen. He didn’t speak Cantonese but words weren’t needed in a match between masters. Crane Wings’ fists didn’t fly into the wind’s teeth; his own fists didn’t press down into the earth. The crane’s flapping pushed back the old moon a hundred li until the North Sea; the dragon’s ascension made a camellia in Jangheung County shed an old petal. As the sun rose in the eastern sky, Crane Wings scored first. The two men stopped, caught their breath awhile, exchanged nods, and returned to where they’d come from. That was all. Rumors were rife about who’d beat whom, but the two adversaries didn’t comment. Only after much time had passed, a line of poetry recited by an inebriated Crane Wings spread on the tongues of the world and was passed on as hearsay. All night long, not one blade of barley did his fists hurt, but alas mine bent two.

     The Joseon Dynasty perished, the Japanese Empire pulled out, the Liberal and Democratic parties stepped in, followed by freedom, constitutional government, separation of powers, and then came war, dealing a deathblow to the pulse of the murim. Hordes of masters lost their lives in bombardments, martial clans were sundered by ideology, snitching, and backbiting, heroes scattered to the North, to Japan, hermits went into hiding in the mountains, and what to say of the rest . . . the Republican Party, the Yusin reforms,8 industrial and economic development . . . At the mouth of the long river of time that had flowed by like water, he suddenly found himself reduced to a man. The immortal body had to have new papers made every time a new age began, and in the New World, he was always an ignorant old geezer. Kim Il-hae, Master of the Celestial Fist, protector of the fortunes of martial artists. He was already a dead man. And so it was for Master of the Blue Dragon Sword, Horse of Sky, Clouds and Mist, and Icy Waters Thousand Hands. They all had attained immortality but they were just like him. The four dragons of the East, who once made the Central Plains and the four heavenly kings of the murim tremble, now faced a sad fate.

     The distinguished personage was long gone, and the past half century had been a battle with poverty. All an unlettered old man could do was farm, stay put at home, or perform manual labor. Opponents to duel with or disciples to pass on skills to had disappeared long ago. Law had replaced righteousness and money had replaced power. The world didn’t believe in or need dragons anymore. The world already belonged to small, inconsequential ants that moved in colonies, unseeing and unthinking. And that was the end of the warrior bond of the four dragons of the East who used to have contests to decide who among them was the greatest warrior and at times used to be at severe odds. The more they learned about one another’s circumstances, the more they found themselves wretched. The dragons of the past had turned into fossils, and all that was left in their place were four mud loaches. In a world where the just and great cause had disappeared, the only thing left to do was to get by.

     A trivial incident triggered what happened that summer. Celestial Fist was in a new town on the outskirts of Gyeongseong, that is, present-day Seoul. It all began in a bar near his ramshackle lodging. The proprietor had failed to pay protection money for several months on account of the IMF crisis,9 recession, or some similar reason. A group of gangsters had stormed into the bar and was going on a rampage, breaking stuff up. Celestial Fist happened to be passing by and caught sight of the proprietor shedding tears and his woman being harassed. Cease! he said. And soon silence prevailed. The following day, the gang found out where he was staying and launched a surprise attack. To what do I owe this pleasure? was his only response. And then there was a chill in the air. It was the force of his legendary fist. The gangsters were left stunned, just like a mosquito hit by bug spray is clueless about the cause of its death. A few days later, he received an invitation. The boss wants to meet you. Rather than a cordial invitation, it was, in a way, an abduction.

     The place they drove him to turned out to be a nightclub in the entertainment district in the middle of town. It was broad daylight and before business hours, so the hall was deserted. And it was dark. Pah! The boss sighed when he caught sight of Celestial Fist as though he found the whole thing preposterous. What the . . . ? Phew, look here, old man. Seems like you dabbled in a bit of sports in the old days, huh? The tone of that “seems like” didn’t strike Celestial Fist as very respectful. The dingy club was crammed with men, as if all the villains of the county had gathered there. Celestial Fist didn’t say anything. Only the darkness rippled for a second, and then faster, higher, and farther than any athlete on Earth, the boss went flying through the air and landed on the stage behind him. An unintelligible moan that could’ve been “lock” or “sock” rang out. The hall was filled with shouts and drawn sushi knives that flopped violently like a rising shoal of halfbeak fish.

     Bro, we need reinforcements. Send over some boys, quick! Outside the club, two sedans and five vans screeched to a halt. Hefty men tumbled out and stormed into the club. Bro, we have a war on our hands here, step on it! Nine more vans pulled up. Men with murder in their eyes pulled out tools and rushed into the hall. Bro, Bro-o-o! Ahhhh . . . Oww! Finally, three chartered buses with Seoul number plates arrived. A sea of men bearing katanas, Tasers, tear gas guns, and even shotguns flooded the club. How much time had passed? The whole place fell silent and no one called out Bro! anymore. A swarm of vehicles thronged to the club. Five police cruisers, three police buses, and finally nineteen ambulances.

     Good Lord! was the sound that escaped from the mouth of a cop when he saw the scene. Goons lay scattered as far as the fourth cubicle of the five-cubicle women’s restroom, not to speak of the stairs, hallway, stage, hall, and thirty-three private rooms and lounges. Only two mops in the last cubicle and an old man were left standing. The man had his hands clasped behind his back and wouldn’t speak. Do you work here? said the police officer, who’d exclaimed Good Lord! earlier, to the old man who appeared to be a cleaner. Celestial Fist didn’t respond but he felt lighthearted. Like a cleaner who’d cleaned up.

     Hell yeah, he’s from a gang too. I told ya, they caught us by surprise. The rest skedaddled. The old timer’s their kingpin. The beacons o’ justice turned up too late, so how’re the powerless supposed to survive? We’re democratic citizens who pay our taxes, y’know?

     The old man maintained a stony silence so the police had to base their report on the gang’s testimony.

     Is that true?

     The old man wouldn’t confirm or deny anything and simply stared out the window. Those days, a few birds would fly past, it would rain at times, and eventually the drowsy sun would go to sleep bringing in another night. Three people died and twelve were crippled, but Celestial Fist felt no particular emotion. The injuries and deaths were the outcome of the tool swinging and pawing in the air. A warrior would never do that. The goons were weak and insignificant opponents, like a swarm of grasshoppers that gets crushed when stepped on. They made for adversaries too embarrassing to be called evil or even punish, let alone kill. In short, it was a world where you could no longer step on and kill grasshoppers that would die if trod on. In a world where the great cause had disappeared, there was law, and of that world, he was already weary. A tremulous, pleading voice echoed in his ears. Fine . . . let’s resolve this le-le-legally. In that darkness, Celestial Fist suddenly felt lonely. There was a time when even villains had their justification. The loneliness of not having a bad guy worth battling, the light’s loneliness when it can’t make shadows anymore—no one could understand.

     Do you accept the charge?

     He nodded. Intimidated and manipulated, the proprietor couple gave a testimony favorable to the gangsters. Somewhere outside the window, birds issued reed-pipe cries, and the sun and the moon and the stars squandered time in playing tag.

     Do you accept the charge?

     He nodded again. The gangsters had capable lawyers, and the lawyers had pull with the prosecution. It was a world where everything was resolved by law, according to the law. By nodding, he meekly accepted this world. He clenched his fists, now about as useful as a pine tree offering shade to a grave, and with a clean and pure heart nodded, and nodded again. The world would keep flowing. A world where justice and evil were like a ripple sparkling in the moonlight, like fine rain.

     I’ll love you forever just like this, my wandering ends now

     Good-bye to this world’s recurring sadness

     Why don’t you turn it off? Blue Dragon Sword drawled.

     Sky Horse put his hand on the volume dial but waited until the end of—That was “Into the New World” by Girls’ Generation,10 requested by a listener who’s a fan of Yoona and Jessica!—before turning it down.

     Those girls, they’re pretty . . . They were popular in prison too, murmured Celestial Fist, his gaze fastened on thin air. Though the prospects didn’t look good, he hoped the New World would turn out well.

     Blue Dragon Sword was also gazing outside the window in silence. In the distance, beyond a fleeting pine grove, the sun’s halo spread damply. Maybe there was a factory in the vicinity, because further away, on the highest crest of its highest peak, a blue mountain was wearing a parasol-shaped cloud. Blue Dragon Sword peered down at that stretch of world and gently closed his eyes. His long mane of hair tied in a doturak ribbon swayed to the rattle of the old van. Like a song requested on the radio no one listens to, it had a plaintive, forlorn rhythm. The age of the generation of heroes was long gone. It was the age of Girls’ Generation now.

     The four dragons all had their prestige, but Celestial Fist was the only champion Blue Dragon Sword looked up to. Celestial Fist was the only one who could block the baedal—his sword that was charged with his chi and which weighed 108 geun—with his bare hands. They had waged battle for the position of One-Above-All some hundred and twenty years ago. The battle raged from the highest ridge of Mount Geumsan in Namhae County, hopped over a few islands, and continued on to the open sea. Blue Dragon Sword was also the only one to survive Celestial Fist’s “Hit the Ox over a Mountain” move. Even from thirty feet in the air, his baedal sword of 108 geun parted the waves. One moment, it was a bolt of lightning, the next an exploding firecracker. Blue Dragon Sword used moves like “Fly by Riding the Sword” and “Control the Sword with Chi” . . . Three islands disappeared, and a tsunami swept over the islands of Tongyeong and Daemado, but Celestial Fist didn’t flinch even once. Blue Dragon Sword heard his sword wail and it occurred to him that even if he were to rend the planet in two he wouldn’t be able to do anything about the man in front of him. The young moon on the third day of the lunar month, of which it was said only an early-rising daughter-in-law could catch sight of, was about to hide itself. Abruptly, Celestial Fist withdrew from his fajin11 stance and smiled gently.

     How about putting away your fine blade, Young Brother?

     Only then did Blue Dragon Sword realize—within twenty li of his sword’s reach, two fishing boats had come in and were in the midst of lowering their nets. Daehyung! I guess this shamefully skilled dunce fell into a stupor. On a rocky island of three to four pyeong, Blue Dragon Sword went down on his knees.

     When it comes to skill, I can’t exactly brag myself. As for the result of today’s match, how about we consider it buried in the depths of the sea or in thick fog? Celestial Fist said with a wave of his hand.

     Overborne by the weight of Celestial Fist’s character, Blue Dragon Sword felt a warmth rising in his heart as he stood by the wayside of the solitary path of martial arts. The sound of the two warriors’ hearty laughter caused the night sea to heave even more.

     He missed those days. Fist and sword . . . from the Central Plains of China to Saracen, it came to be widely believed that the world was divided between Celestial Fist and Blue Dragon Sword. Heroes staked everything on their blade and crossed mountains, deserts, and seas to issue challenges. Ibrahim, a sword sage from the western lands of India, Shinjang Weoweol, a descendent of the Loulan people, all had to bend their knees before Blue Dragon Sword. But his luck in battle gave way in the summer of 1945, the year of the wood rooster. It was after he’d severed the heads of three of the five pro-Japanese traitors.12 The Zen hermit Takemaru Hanzō from Koga in Japan came looking for him.

     How could this humble servant dare face your sword, Great One? It’s just that this is a question of my country’s honor, so I’ve crossed the sea at the risk of my life. Matters of the martial world are best settled in the martial world. I deliver to you this challenge from Kibagami Jubei, the greatest swordsman of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.13

     The challenge was in the form of a short haiku inscribed on a tortoise shell: If I’m alone, I won’t get to hear the Buddhist chants for the departed, will I? One breath, one stroke. Blue Dragon Sword recognized the mark of the legendary sword futsu-no-mitama. He gently pointed his forefinger at the bottom of the tortoise shell that awaited his answer. Whiz! Two things happened simultaneously—Blue Dragon Sword’s forefinger passed over the tortoise shell and the shell landed back at Takemaru’s knees. Go tell your National Sword, I’ll come after I cut my nails.

     At his thunderous roar, Takemaru kowtowed. As you command.

     A short verse was inscribed on the bottom of the tortoise shell: If I’m alone, I’ll still need to trim my nails, won’t I?

     A flock of skylarks hastily flew off on the quiet morning as Blue Dragon Sword landed at the Itsukushima Shrine on Miyajima Island in the outskirts of Hiroshima. Kibagami Jubei was seated in the lotus position. A resolve becoming of the National Sword held sway over the Shinto shrine’s wide courtyard and the surrounding forests. The waters of the lake that carried boats, and the trees and forests, all seemed to have assumed the lotus position. With a long breath, Takemaru read out the oath of the observer. The heavy baedal sword produced a fair and dignified ring. At that sound, the pinewoods in the vicinity trembled and winced. Like a dragon exiting a cave, futsu-no-mitama slowly left its sheath, sprinkling its dazzling dragon scales through the air. The sword above all. That they couldn’t share the same sky, the two swords knew instinctively. It was a sweltering August morning. Even as he felt the sweat brimming in his palms, it seemed to Takemaru that the sky and the sea within a hundred li had frozen. With the tips of their swords trained at each other, the two master swordsmen faced off. Somewhere an immature grasshopper chirred impudently. At that sound, the frozen road within a hundred li appeared to crack.

    
BOOM!

 

     No one could make out what had happened. It was an ear-splitting explosion and, at the same time, a deafening silence. First, a blaze of light, light as if from an exploding sun, enveloped the world before slowly fading out. A wild wind raged. Caught by surprise, Blue Dragon Sword had flopped down and shielded himself with his sword and was turned into a heap of black-and-white ash. How much time had passed? When he dusted off the ashes and spread out his numb legs, he realized everything had disappeared. The baedal sword made of steel tempered for ten thousand years had crumpled like paper. Kibagami Jubei, who had his back to the blast, was melted all the way down to his bones along with his sword. Takemaru Hanzō, blown ten li away in the moment when everything disappeared, was a black lump of charcoal. His body’s energy field ravaged, Blue Dragon Sword slumped to the ground face-first. He was lifeless but still alive. The life his sword had prolonged was feeble and the prospect of what was left of his life was dreadful. Warm tears stained with ash rolled down his cheeks in streaks of black and white. Someone else was One-Above-All.

 

(Excerpt from Side B, pp. 85–97.)

 
 
1. Pronounced “jeol” in Korean and meaning “garrulous,” the archaic character has the most number of strokes (64) among all Chinese characters and is made up of the character for dragon (龍) repeated four times. The protagonists of this story are four immortal martial arts masters known as the Four Dragons of the East who’ve lived through the turbulent history of Korea and who are now well past their prime.
2. The Chinese character 之 is pronounced ji.
3. An archaic honorific used between friends.
4. A seosaeng is a student of Confucianism.
5. 武林; literally “martial forest.” The community of martial artists or the world of the martial arts.
6. Lyrics of the song “Into the New World” by the K-pop girl group Girls' Generation.
7. Called Zhongyuan in Chinese, this region is known as the cradle of Chinese civilization.
8. In 1969, the National Assembly amended the Constitution to allow President Park Chung-hee to run for a third term. After he was re-elected, Park dissolved the National Assembly, suspended the constitution, and declared martial law in 1972.
9. The Asian financial crisis of 1997.
10. Girls’ Generation is a popular K-pop girl group. “Into the New World” was their first single released in 2007.
11. Chinese martial arts technique used to issue or discharge explosive power.
12. Refers to five officials serving under Emperor Gojong who signed the 1905 Eulsa Treaty making Korea a protectorate of Japan.
13. An imperial concept created and promulgated for occupied Asian nations by the Empire of Japan with the supposed intention of creating a self-sufficient “bloc of Asian nations led by the Japanese and free of Western powers.”
 
 
 
Translated by Agnel Joseph
This translation is fully funded by a Daesan Foundation grant.