- onMarch 10, 2016
- Vol.31 Spring 2016
- byHwang Sok-yong
- Princess Bari
Tr. Sora Kim-Russell 2015305pp.
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.