Death by Fiction by Kim Takhwan
- onDecember 22, 2015
- Vol.30 Winter 2015
- byKim Takhwan
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 Jin 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.
“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
— Yi Deok-mu, “To My Brother, Baek”
Next, Baek pointed to a building to the west. “And that is the library owned by Yi Seo-gu.”
Pak Ji-won, Yi Deok-mu, Yi Seo-gu!
The names that flowed from his lips belonged to men of letters celebrated for their superb poetry and prose. I could finally understand why Baek frequented the neighborhood of the White Tower.
“Will I get to meet them today?”
Baek resumed his unusually broad strides. “Not just them. Did you read the book of poetry I gave you last summer?”
“Yes!” I replied, doing my best to keep up with him.
The book in question was a collection of poems by Yi Deok-mu, Pak Je-ga, Yu Deuk-gong, and Yi Seo-gu.
“Which did you like best?”
“My favorite was ‘Stormy Night.’”
Yesterday, a rainstorm had raged throughout the day. Thunder had rolled in all directions, and each time a streak of lightning lit the sky, I recalled the sight of Cheong Un-mong’s head sitting atop its flagpole. The poem, read a long while ago, welled from my lips:
Raindrops swirl relentlessly upon a hasty wind
Through the obscuring downpour, I seem to hear a cock crow
But open or shut, my eyes can discern no shape
I am left to divine names from sounds distinguished
Baek clapped his hands together and barked out a laugh. “Hah! Can’t you almost feel the rain streaming off your hat? What consummate skill!”
“Which poem did you like best?”
“Deok-mu’s ‘Book of Leisure’ appeals most to a lazy fellow like me. Let’s see if I remember it.”
Poring over the Yinfujing will not ensure a good life
Reeling off the Cantongqi will not stave off old age
With nothing weighing on my conscience
The snow-white clouds lift my spirits
“The poem bespeaks a deep and capacious mind. It is impressive indeed.”
Baek nodded. “Today, you’ll meet the finest writers in all of Joseon. You’d better be ready to buy a round of drinks.”
With a dauntless air, Baek pushed open the front gate and stepped inside. A sign hanging overhead bearing the name “Gwanjae” caught my eye. As I learned afterward, Gwanjae Hall was the study of Seo Sang-su, a member of the White Tower Fellowship: young followers of Pak Ji-won and Hong Dae-yong, gifted in writing and art, would gather here to read the currents of the time or engage in scholarly conversation. More than a few of them were illegitimate sons, barred from a career in the government.
Y ears earlier, Pak Ji-won had been asked by Seo Sang-su to pen the annals of Gwanjae Hall. In response, Pak recounted the story of the famed Buddhist monk, Chijun:
A child monk who was stirring the brazier to light some incense remarked in awe of its rich perfume and mystifying vapors.
At this, Master Chijun replied, “My lad! You are diverted by the scent; I but see the ashes. You marvel at the smoke, while I behold the emptiness. Movement and stillness are both without substance. Where, then, shall virtue be bestowed?”
Hearing these words, the child monk realized the emptiness of the self. Perhaps Pak Ji-won had chosen this anecdote with the hope that Gwanjae Hall would grant many such realizations to the young scholars who frequented it. The tale also held a presentiment of the shock and turmoil that would soon descend.
The hum of voices suddenly stilled.
Judging by the shoes left beneath the edge of the open hall that served as both a sitting area and a passageway between the main rooms, some dozen people were gathered in the study. The door slid open, and a short man with keen eyes emerged. The murmur of conversation drifted out from behind him.
“Is Dong-su outside?”
“Dear me, it looks like we have another rowdy evening ahead. I heard he was farming in rural Gangwon, but he seems to have settled in the capital instead!”
“Hush, keep your voice down. Don’t you remember the scolding he gave you last time?”
The short man brought his right hand up to his chest then clapped it together with his left, as if to say paynomind.Hedidnotappeartobetheleastbitintimidatedbythesix-footgiantloomingoverhim.
“My brother! Do come inside. I did receive word that you were bringing an important guest…”
Baek indicated me with his chin. I stepped out from behind him; the short man peered steadily into my eyes. Just then, a gravelly voice rang out from the far end of the room, where a low desk was placed.
“Come in if you will, or close the door if you won’t. This conversation is too precious to be interrupted!”
“Ji-won, it’s me, Dong-su. I’m coming in!”
Baek darted in like a soldier obeying a military order. The short man and I followed behind. Baek crossed the room and settled himself in a select spot near the right wall. I sensed that the seat had long been acknowledged as belonging to this spirited warrior.
My gaze alighted on a silver-haired older man seated opposite him, with wide shoulders, a thick chest, and fire flickering in his eyes. At first, I took this stranger to be in his fifties. But his ruddy cheeks and smooth forehead gave him the appearance of a robust man in his forties, ready to declare war on all the problems that had harassed him till now. This was the man who had summoned in the great Baek Dong-su, Pak Ji-won! The rumors were true: I could not imagine anyone who would not be cowed by his air of dignity and strength.
“You were so late in coming that I wondered if you’d been arrested by the King’s Guard.”
“Nonsense! What would the King’s Guard want with me?”
“It is no secret that you are responsible for my safe flight from the capital. There is a fast-spreading rumor that Hong Guk-yeong is after you now. I entreat you, do not be over-certain of yourself; always have Je-ga or Deok-mu with you when you go wandering at night.
And try to refrain from drink, as well.”
“Hong Guk-yeong may be the Chief Royal Secretary and Commander of the King’s Guard, but even he wouldn’t arrest an innocent man! All I did was to inform a certain foolish scholar infatuated with nature and art about a scenic valley in the remote mountains. I’d like to know how that constitutes a crime.”
“The chief royal secretary is not an adversary to be taken lightly. He is young in age but old in cunning. It is a mere matter of time before he strikes at us. Think, Dong-su! You might become his first target.”
“Don’t worry. He won’t be able to touch any one of the White Tower brethren.”
“Nevertheless, mark my words and take particular care.”
The silver-haired man, occupying the seat of honor with his hand resting on the low desk before him, possessed a face whose beauty would have had few rivals in its prime. Fine lines marked his neck and brow, but his cheeks still retained their rosy bloom. His nose soared high and straight, and the fine contours of his lips were enough to captivate the beholder. His circular spectacles also served to conceal his real age. He turned to address another of the party.