- onDecember 17, 2019
- Vol.46 Winter 2019
- byKu Hyoseo
I’m dead. I’ve been here for twenty years standing as a dead body. I look pretty much the same as I did when I was alive, except I don’t have an leaves. And this helps people better remember me, since I look the same throughout the year by not having foliage that seasonally alters my appearance by blooming and shedding. Villagers who were born and lived here for over thirty years remember me as an Asian oak tree.
But people who see me for the first time stare as if I were some kind of specter though some come closer and touch or tap my bark while muttering, “What kind of tree is this?” Frowning, they then brush off their hands or wipe them against their trousers, fearing that my dead energy might spread to them. Thus, those people never discover what kind of tree I am. In fact, they don’t care to know anything more about me. To them, I’m just a dead tree. And what good is it to know the species name of a dead tree.
But twenty years ago I was still flourishing with thick leaves. In those days, like the other trees, I lived a peaceful life; in spring I bloomed new leaves and nurtured them during the summer before shedding them in the fall. The time came, though, when a large- scale development swept through the poor village here. And during this upheaval, the whole village at the foot of the mountain was razed and a new village, consisting of tidy concrete houses, was built halfway up the mountain. A wide paved road was also constructed and butted against my feet. Before I stood aloft and looked down upon the village, but now I have to look up at it. And this is how my domicile suddenly changed from woods to a desolate roadside.
If it weren’t for Madame Myeong-du I would have probably been cut down or uprooted and disappeared without a trace. Myeong-du literally used her body to protect me. She placed her own life in harm’s way for my sake. So this is why I’m still standing here next to this road looking rather unsightly.
In one way a huge oak tree towering next to a newly built road could have been seen as something grand and beautiful, but because of me, the road now needed to bypass me and this interfered with someone’s plans. A man was dreaming of becoming wealthy by opening an upscale restaurant alongside the new road, and I, causing a detour and thus thwarting his plan, angered him. Anticipating that the road would be constructed as originally planned if and only if I were dead, one night the man came to me and drilled two large holes at the bottom of my trunk and poured four cartons of chili pepper powder into one hole and two bottles of herbicide into the other.
So I died that summer. But regardless of my death, the road was never built the way the man had hoped for and that was because Myeong-du saved me from being cut down by hugging my dead trunk tightly and thus blocking anyone from harming me. No one in the village would stand up to her. And that’s how I ended up standing here, alive for one hundred and fifty years and dead for twenty years.
Grass fields surround me. A long narrow path snakes across it and stops shyly at my foot. The other end of the path vanishes behind a distant hedge of spindle trees.
After building the asphalt road, they planted grass all around me. And of course, at that time there wasn’t any path. After two years, though, they suddenly ceased maintaining the grass for no particular reason. Soon dandelion seeds floated in and put their roots down, as did wild lettuce and fleabane plants. Golden foxtails and wiregrasses also grew thick and tall. Dandelions in spring, wild lettuce in summer, and wild chrysanthemums in autumn bloomed everywhere in the grass. Even though the grass was giving ground to these plants, it also thrived. As the grass and flowers flourished, a narrow path appeared and grew wider, like a living, breathing creature. And it was Myeong- du’s daily visits that created and widened the path. But since she was the only person who used it, the path no longer grew once it reached a certain width, and this helped maintain its slender and delicate shape. And the path helped the plants and wild flowers alongside it look more friendly and beautiful. This was because the person who used it daily to visit me didn’t forget to also look affectionately at them.
Myeong-du won’t visit me today. She has come to me every day for about fifty years, thirty of those years when I was alive and living in untamed woods and twenty of them since I’ve been dead, but this will finally end.
Rain or shine, she came to me. When sick, she walked slowly like the ticking hand of a clock. During droughts she brought water in a jar and poured it on my feet and during holidays she brought special offerings from ancestral memorial services or from other ceremonial rituals, such as apples and pears. An aspiring movie director who was born in our village once recounted a legend where a dead tree bore fruit after it was devotedly watered for three years. A famous Russian movie director also told the same story in his last film. But Myeong-du has never prayed for such things to happen, like my dead body sprouting new leaves or bearing fruit. She just came to me and left. She did this throughout her life, and now she is senile and about to die. Yes, soon she will be dead like me. But since she’s a human, she won’t be standing through the years as I have. Anyway, she is about to enter the world of death. Several village women rushed to her cottage some time ago. Even though I’ve seen her throughout most of her life, or maybe because of that, I don’t have such an urge to see her now as they do.
No one but me knows this story. Maybe the trees that populated the woods with me did at one time, but for sure no villager knows it. Myeong-du buried her three babies under my feet. Each baby was less than ten days old. She buried the first one under my southern roots, the second and third under my northern and eastern ones, respectively.
But during each of her pregnancies, people did notice her bulging belly. And the day would come when her swelling abdomen shrunk, and the village women seemed to know when this would happen. But they had no idea where the babies ended up once they arrived in this world.
Before the new village was constructed on the mountainside, I was still living in the woods with the other trees. It was rather a cozy grove, where a small woman could hide herself if she squatted down. And when Myeong-du, hidden by the trees, madly dug the earth beneath my roots, it was always at midnight. The soil was soft and her hands were tough like rakes, and so it was easy to bury an infant. She would pick a moonless night and leave her baby on its face throughout that day. Later, when the night turned pitch black, she would run to me and dig a hole at my feet, huffing as if she were angry. And when the baby’s still warm body touched my roots, I would shiver.
By then Myeong-du already had two children around ten years old. She gave her eight-year- old daughter away as a babysitter to a woman in a neighboring village over the mountain, a woman who was the second wife of an impoverished nobleman whose fifth-generation ancestor had passed the first stage of the civil service examination. And her other child, a son, would accompany his father in a work trade arrangement with neighbors or strip away pine bark to eat or make brooms out of bush clovers. Since everyone in the village was more or less poor, no one could really afford to offer them work for any kind of payment. Doing things like that meant increasing the risk of starving themselves. It was such a remote mountain village, Toet-gol, a place where people rarely owned any land and even tenant farming was very hard to come by. It was a village founded by drifters and wanderers who had bountiful stories to tell but no house to live in. And after they formed a village, it was an unwritten law that the landlord of the mountain and the surrounding land would evict them if they didn’t bribe him with gourds of rice every year.
The neighboring villages weren’t better off. To see a decently roofed, thatched cottage you had to walk a long way, long enough to become hungry. Toet-gol was such a destitute village that the majority of villagers who had been born in the village and fortunately survived hadn’t seen a tile-roofed house throughout their entire lives. And they were often so hungry that they would huddle around the village well, seeking to soothe their empty stomachs with water, but their concern about losing face restrained them from drinking to their hearts’ content. Parents, in a desperate effort to reduce the number of mouths to feed, would give their children to strangers or would offer their underage daughters to widowers with several children just because they were able to feed their families. Actually, there was recent media coverage of this very matter; a fifty-six-year-old woman, Ae-bong, who had been born in the village and left when she was a young girl, appeared on a morning TV show where long-lost family members were reunited and she had a tearful reunion with her brother after forty-four years.
If children didn’t die right after being born, many would die either of diseases or of starvation before they reached the age of ten. Nonetheless, women’s bellies would rise and fall for the simple reason that they were women and alive. But the population of Toet-gol didn’t grow. Villagers either died or were abandoned or sent off somewhere. And parents, who prolonged their miserable lives by killing or deserting their own children, were in turn killed or abandoned by their offspring before reaching a ripe old age. Others, having lost their minds after sixty or so, were left alone to freeze to death or to drown. Numbed by the endless births and deaths, people simply had no room left in their hearts to be happy or sad. It was all willed, they said, by the King of Hades and the Three Goddesses of Procreation. When a child died somebody would say, “The Three Goddesses of Procreation must’ve given it a short life cord,” and then others would respond by saying, “Yes, that seems so,” and the child then would fade from their memory. When an old and malnourished villager silently starved to death, the most they could say was, “The King of Hades must’ve been impatient for that soul.” And some of those who had said this would later be possessed by ghosts or go mad before they suddenly died. And all the deceased, young or old, were soon forgotten. Nowadays people view all these tales as if they were some kind of ancient horror stories, but they aren’t that old nor are they the tales of others.
The destitute couple, Myeong-du and her husband, who barely fed their own mouths, had no other option than to let their son go hungry, even after reducing one mouth by giving away their daughter. And, of course, they went hungry more than their son did. But often, when the season changed and the persimmon tree beside the village well bore fruit, a baby would find its way into Myeong-du’s hungry belly, and when the persimmons fell to the ground, the baby also would drop out of her crotch. And while she was burying two of her babies at my feet, as if throwing out bitter tasting persimmons, her famished husband would grab his empty stomach and sprawl out on their mud hut floor like a dead body. Her last baby’s father was unknown, since she had conceived it two years after her husband had died of snakebites.
And even though other families in other villages may look better off than Myeong-du’s, it didn’t mean that they had a very different life. Maybe they hadn’t buried three babies as she had, but they were all poor and couldn’t bear the long nights, so it was common that couples ended up having sex and unwanted babies that would soon disappear. And this was just an open secret that the villagers dealt with while reciting the names of the Three Goddesses of Procreation and the King of Hades. Villagers were bound together by these deeds, making them all accomplices, and an old taboo silenced their mouths, and if by any chance someone questioned such practices, that very person would suffer the wrath of the earth gods. As long as they were not free of poverty and hunger, their fear of death was an ordinary part of their daily lives, menacing them at times like a sharpened blade. Fearful, villagers would breathlessly hug whoever was next to them, as though trying to escape death or trying to hasten it, or maybe they would just make love without thinking of the result, and so naturally new unwanted lives arrived with their predictable wretched end. Yes, death endlessly bore new lives and new lives delivered endless death.
Thus, their stories were not really confidential but rather common knowledge. Only the precise time and place of their deeds were hidden. And only persons who were involved remembered them, but even they forgot as time passed. Their desperate attempt to escape death made them forget even the time and place of their deeds. They buried the dead here and there; sometimes a new burial was made at an old burial site. And throughout their lives they lived not knowing if they stepped or rested their heads on the land of the dead. Well, actually, they didn’t want to know.
Myeong-du, though, didn’t forget the time and place of her babies for fifty years, not even for one day. But the villagers, who grew old while burying and forgetting others, didn’t know that she had buried her three babies at my feet.
One reason people didn’t know about Myeong-du’s burials was because of a false rumor that Myeong-du didn’t bury her babies but mummified them in earthen jars. This eerie rumor began circulating after she showed signs of possessing a miraculous power to cure crazed villagers and the ghost-possessed.
Traditionally, it is believed that people with shamanic powers kept body parts of the dead hidden somewhere on them. Body parts from a person who died unfairly and bore a great grudge were considered to be highly efficacious. On the other hand, body parts from someone who died in bed after living a full life, experiencing their share of life’s pain and sorrows, weren’t efficacious at all, since these people would be satiated after living their lives to the full and thus would harbor little or no vengeance or bitterness. Only a ghost consumed by vengeance would continuously drift about in this world, endlessly intervening in people’s affairs. The less somebody suffered from worldly afflictions before meeting with an unjust and untimely death, the higher the purity of malice their ghost harbors. So a newborn baby who dies with its soul bearing a deep grudge was considered the best. Thus people who possessed shamanic powers would speak like a baby with a songbird’s voice while healing the sick. Encountering such a death required luck, but some people couldn’t just wait forever. They had to make it happen. And rumor had it that Myeong-du made it happen.
What has to be done first is for a mother to stop nursing her baby. But a newborn doesn’t die easily, even without milk. After three or four days of not being fed, the baby finally cries frantically, its limbs writhing. The mother then puts the baby in an urn and places a cover on it before putting it in a dark corner. The baby now intuitively realizes that it will soon die of hunger and cold in the darkness. After a couple of days pass, even this little baby will push at the jar top fiercely in order to escape from the urn. At that point the mother places a large stone on the jar’s cover. But innocent of this world, the baby’s fear is immaculately pure. It soon moves the lid with the stone on it up and down. Next to the jar, though, the mother waits holding a honed knife, and when the baby’s hand sticks out of the jar, she instantly cuts off a finger. Falling back into the jar’s darkness, the baby cries out. The mother then adds several more stones atop the jar’s lid. In pain and fear and without knowing why, the baby dies. And this death bears fruit as the purest kind of vengeance. The mother then wraps the baby’s finger in a silk cloth. When it’s halfway dried, she then keeps it for one hundred days on her bosom, still wet with milk meant for her dead baby. All this is done so that she can manipulate the baby’s vindictive spirit as she wishes.
This finger fetish is called myeongdu and that is why she was called Madame Myeong-du. People knew that the reason her magical power was so strong was because she possessed three myeongdu. But although the villagers knew she had jars for soybean sauce and paste, there was no way for them to verify whether she had urns with bodies of babies in them. Nonetheless, it was true that she did have a small white porcelain jar, resembling one containing ancestral tablets, enshrined on a rack at one corner of her room. People believed that she must have kept her babies’ three fingers in the jar. What they didn’t know was that Myeong-du had buried her three babies intact at my feet. And so of course they also didn’t know why she visited me every day.
While she treated the sick in the village, using the power of her myeongdu, her daughter, who had been sent off as a babysitter, married a male servant of the house, and had two sons and two daughters. What enabled her to take care of four children and even furnish her home with a TV set and a refrigerator while living such a slavish life was not only her hard work, but more importantly the changed times. Myeong-du’s son, on the other hand, left the village after his father died and drifted about, but as villages grew into towns and towns into cities, he managed, one way or another, to feed himself. Like a fish that has left its old home and like a bird that has left its nest, her children lived their lives as best they could, riding the fluctuating waves of life, and thus she stopped worrying about them.
Toet-gol changed a lot, too. Electricity and phone lines were installed. And when the water supply system was established, the village well was left to the frogs. Bus service began and a public health center opened nearby. Villagers could also get to a modern hospital by bus. And no more children or old folks were abandoned or starved to death. But the number of sick people coming to Myeong-du didn’t diminish. And that’s because they preferred her to the public health center or the Western-style hospital. As time passed, her well-fed face bloomed like a cherry blossom flower above her well-rounded neck. And as her face widened and her cheekbones sunk deeper into her ample flesh, she gradually began to look like a Bodhisattva. Her tranquil but piercing eyes and imposing presence contained the power capable of expelling any evil spirit at the first encounter. Sitting with dignity like a grand mountain, she would shout out her mantra “Never Forget” at patients with ghastly pale faces due to blockages of chi energy. She would also ask her patients, those who had fits and became absentminded, “What is it that you forgot?” And she would tell them, “There is something that you have forgotten that saved your life but you’re oblivious to it.”
While building the road, the construction crew cut away large sections of the mountain and were about to cut down many more trees, including me, when Myeong-du began railing at them. She stood right in front of me, a tree five or six times taller than her, and acted like a wild-eyed protector. “Who do you think saved your lives? Have you all forgotten what has kept you alive? Are you all that stupid?” Hearing her irrelevant questions, the villagers and the construction crew, who were all directly facing her, looked at each other, bewildered, feeling that they maybe had to answer her questions. They looked at Myeong-du as if watching a masked bogeyman in a survival game show, where participants can’t move in any direction unless they answer questions within five seconds. Baffled, the people at the construction site asked themselves, Has that tree saved our lives? Is she talking about nature? Maybe she’s saying that the forest itself saved us. So she must then be a conservationist. What do you think? The people shared such absurd speculations. Meanwhile, Myeong-du tied her body securely to my trunk, with her back pressed against me. The people there continued to puzzle over what the forest and trees had contributed to their survival during the harsh years. Soon they remembered that during the famines the forest shared its fruits and roots with them, along with firewood and water and lumber, and that it also enabled them to meet clandestinely with their lovers beneath its shade. By swaying the bushes and branches, the forest breeze muffled the ecstatic groans of women and the sounds of their men climaxing. Much of the forest is still there, with its mighty vegetation covering up the whole mountain, but people no longer pick fruits or collect fire wood or make spur-of-the- moment love there. After pondering things over, the people there first nodded yes and thought that the forest did help them but soon they shook their heads.
Removing Myeong-du from the tree by force wouldn’t have been difficult at all. Many construction workers and heavy equipment operators looked strong enough to battle an army. But they couldn’t defeat her, and even the chief of police and the governor of the province stood there, dumbfounded, sighing and shaking their heads. Grasping the situation, the field boss finally made a timid suggestion that they detour the road and bypass the tree, and no one disagreed.
Standing there, they all seemed to recall an event that had happened half a year ago. It was when the Korean War was nearing its end. It was the time when the village at the foot of the mountain, where people had lived for generations in poverty, was demolished. Before that happened, they heard that the government was planning to build a new village on the side of the mountain. It wasn’t that difficult to tear down the old village and its flimsy structures. Like tanks, giant tractors plowed through the village. And the demolition workers just followed the tractors leisurely like lazy infantrymen. As they passed by, everything crumbled into ruin. It was a war without any chance of victory for the occupants, as they were not the owner of the land and thus had no other option but to leave when asked to do so. But villagers who had no place to go gathered and put up tents at the site and protested, and later they built an iron tower in the middle of the village, with the idea that they would make their last stand on top of it by threatening to jump off. But as there is always internal discord in such situations, one by one, villagers, worn out by the lengthy resistance, were bought off and gave up the fight. The number of those who surrendered and accepted half of the originally requested compensation steadily grew. Only the iron tower stood wretchedly in the middle of the now destroyed village. An angry young man, the last protester, smashed the ladder that was the only way to the top of the tower and barricaded himself up there. But when one of the tower’s iron beams collapsed and lay perilously on its side, it provided a new bridge to the tower’s top. It was too dangerous, though, for people to climb up or for the young man to climb down. Villagers threw a rope up to him, but it didn’t even reach half way up before dropping to the ground. And so, three weeks passed and he was still up there. But no one knew whether he was alive or dead.
And it was then that Myeong-du suddenly volunteered to rescue him. Considering her age and body, she wasn’t the right person for the task at all. The iron beam was so narrow and at such an angle and height that even professional rescue workers only looked up at it without even thinking of climbing it. But Myeong-du, holding one end of a rope, climbed up on the beam. Way up there, her plump body looked like a small black bird. With their mouths agape and their heads tilted up, people anxiously held their breath watching her. Regardless of the concerned and astounded crowd, Myeong-du proceeded slowly but surely up the beam. Upon reaching the top of the tower, she tied the rope to it for the rescue workers to hold on to while climbing up, and, as if performing a tightrope walk, she stepped down the beam, freely and easily, and soon landed on the ground. The rescue workers found the young man so exhausted that he had collapsed.
Even though they had witnessed her magical balancing act, they still couldn’t believe it. Her amazing feat was captured by a hastily-dispatched TV reporter and it was aired throughout the country six times. When the reporter asked Myeong-du how it was possible for her to perform such a feat, she answered in two short sentences: “I just couldn’t let him die” and “I’m not afraid of death.” “But how is it possible that you don’t fear death?” the reporter then asked her. “It’s because I never forget,” she answered.
When she again said that she never forgot, the people there saw her gleaming, razor-sharp eyes, eyes that didn’t look like they belonged to a person of this world, and this made people shiver in fear. In other words, the reason people didn’t cut me down and had the road bypass me wasn’t because I, a tree, was that important or because of the soundness of her answers or because they didn’t have the means or manpower to force her away from me. No, it was because of the unearthly and piercing gleam that shot out from her eyes. It scared people into believing that if by any chance they disregarded her, they would no doubt meet with the worst kind of fate—an odd and sudden death not only in this world but also in the world beyond.
It was the same when I died because of four packs of chili pepper powder and two bottles of herbicide. People thought that Myeong-du would now give up on me since I was dead, but she remained fiercely protective and this stunned them. Obviously, no person existed in the village who could stand up to her.
But she wasn’t that way in the past. She had appeared then to be a woman whose soul had departed, with sunken eyes not focused on this world. After her husband died from snakebites, she was like a dumb mute and a helpless victim until the village men raped her in turn while the whole country was engulfed in war.
Her husband died after being bitten by snakes on his way to an herb patch, but oddly enough the snakes were nonpoisonous. The field he had to pass through just before reaching the wild bellflower patch was thick with water pepper plants and infested with swarms of garter snakes. It was as if the snakes were guarding the patch from the villagers seeking out its medicinal roots, and so the roots had time to fatten up, year after year, and grow as big as radish roots, all the while radiating a licentious aroma. Of course, Myeong-du’s husband knew about the snakes, but becoming blind with greed for the herb roots, he entered the snake field and tripped over a group of snakes copulating and fell and hit his forehead on a rock on the ground, resulting in quite a serious wound. Angry, he gathered up whatever firewood he could, torched it, and burned the whole field. Afterwards, he dug up the herb’s roots to his heart’s content. The following year he went back and had to once again pass through the snake field, but this time he lost his life after again tripping over entangled snakes. The water pepper plants were thicker than the last time he’d passed through and the number of snakes hadn’t diminished at all. But even though the snakes killed him, he didn’t die of snake poisoning. What happened was that after tripping over the snakes he lost consciousness and the snakes, like bamboo roots, coiled around his neck and body and strangled him to death. When found, his dead body looked ghastly. Not only did the snakes thread through his eye sockets but they also slithered through every other bodily orifice: his mouth, ears, nostrils, anus. And the once burned up field was again blanketed with thick vegetation and bulging herbs and copulating snakes glittering in the sun.
During the Korean War, when half of the village’s mountain was consumed in flames, the snake field was again burned. And people who fled to the mountain and were hiding there, people whose dead bodies were dumped in the snake field after being shot, and people who were being taken away with their hands tied, all were incinerated and turned into ashes, along with the pine, oak, and alder trees. What followed this was soldiers stealing cows and dogs and butchering pigs and goats. In ruins, the village and the mountain became uninhabitable, but the water pepper plants gradually grew back and new trees sprouted fresh leaves and all together they cloaked the horrible memories. And once again baby goats bleated and dogs barked and the brooks trickled.
What the male survivors of the war did first, as soon as they were able to get back on their feet, was to rape Myeong-du, now living all alone. Like thieves, they would sneak into her cottage and knock her down, or drag her to the straw pile in the barn, or get her on the ground while she was collecting wild herbs, or they would snatch her away from a lonely mountain path and drag her into the forest. These men would sympathize with her in public but turned into rapists when alone or at night, thrashing her with their cock-clubs. The third baby Myeong-du buried was conceived in this way, and after this burial, she suddenly changed.
A man named Se-geun, who abused Myeong-du the most, had a clandestine visit from her one night. He was knitting a rush mat under a dim kerosene light when he felt someone’s presence and stopped what he was doing. But he heard nothing. So he went back to his work, but he soon again felt someone close by. Cautiously, he opened his door. There, in the middle of his dark yard, stood Myeong-du, like a totem statue. Taken aback at first, he, a man who would jump at the first chance to perform any evil act, soon grinned wolfishly. He murmured to himself, “Well, there you are. And you already know the taste of my manly stick.” At that moment, Myeong-du, without saying a word, turned around and began walking away. Flinging aside his knitting, he followed her.
Arriving at her front yard, Myeong-du, for the first time since her husband’s death, suddenly spoke and said, “I need your help.” She then entered her barn. Bearing himself haughtily, Se-geun said, “Of course I’ll help, no problem” while walking behind her.
What was waiting in the barn was a huge man sprawled on the ground. Even in the darkness it was obvious he was dead. Right then, the clouds cleared away and blue moonlight seeped into the barn through a big gap in the partially collapsed roof. The corpse had deep horrifying gashes on it. But since its heart had already ceased beating, at least the bleeding had stopped. The gashes’ wide furrows, clogged with coagulated blood, gleamed like ebony under the moonlight. Terrified, Se-geun stood motionless at one corner of the barn. “Can you come here and help me,” she said, nonchalantly, while lifting up the body’s head. She was composed as if she were just taking away a bothersome trough. Finally, Se-geun managed to grab the body’s feet. When he lifted up the heavy, still flabby corpse, it drooped. This caused Se-geun to tumble down to the ground and land on his rear. It was a time when discovering dead bodies lying about was not unusual. It later came out that the man found dead in Myeong-du’s barn was the last surviving communist guerilla head in the area who had been pursued by the army for over a year.
Myeong-du carried the corpse almost by herself to the hilltop where the village shrine was located. While dragging the body, she now and then stopped and stretched her back while staring at Se-geun as if he was pathetic. It was then that he noticed her unearthly eyes. While dragging the huge corpse, she appeared sluggish and languid, but he felt an unnatural power in her nonetheless. It was more than physical strength; it was closer to being psychic power. And this power of hers wasn’t emitted from her body but rather from her eyes and spirit. Even the night’s dreadful chi energy that pervaded heaven and earth couldn’t challenge her. Yes, that night Se-geun witnessed Myeong-du’s unyielding spirit and stately physique, something no one would even think of defying. On the hilltop she took care of the corpse by covering it with stones, and afterwards, she shoved Se-geun, who was standing there benumbed, to the ground. As if a mountain landslide had slammed against him, her shove toppled him over, and when he landed on his back, Se-geun pissed in his pants. Afterwards, he couldn’t imagine ever being anywhere near her nor could the other village men. The unyielding power that enabled her to perform the miracle of climbing the iron beam during the demolition protest and the menacing spirit that guarded me faithfully, dead or alive, germinated in her from that time onward.
After that night, Se-geun soon died of a jaundiced liver that hardened like a stone. No one died of starvation anymore, but people still died of old age, shock, and pent-up anger. While others suffered from waist and knee conditions, abdominal and heart ailments, and many other internal diseases, Myeong-du’s body fattened and her skin whitened, giving her a noble appearance, and both her voice and shamanic efficacy deepened. Mysterious but solemn, with an elusive facial expression and looking like a bodhisattva in a Buddhist temple fresco, she expelled numerous ghosts afflicting people with diseases. During those sessions she pounded a stone block with a wooden club and like a ventriloquist, she spoke in a baby’s voice. If this voice was heard from outside her room, it would sound like a songbird chirping in a high note from a distance, and the pounding sound resembled that of a monk’s wooden gong. The patients who needed her help were mostly womenfolk. They were the ones who had already sought a cure for their lingering illnesses from Western doctors, but nothing worked. Upon kneeling down next to her stone block, they would prostrate themselves. But Myeong-du didn’t tell them ghosts possessed them or that she would expel them. What she instead said was, “There must be something you’ve forgotten, correct?” Her patients, though, couldn’t understand what she was talking about. But after Myeong-du spent half a day pounding the stone block and summoning the baby spirits that would rant and scold the patients in harsh language, they then would finally manage to remember long suppressed events in their lives.
They remembered babies that had died naturally or that they had killed. They remembered parents who died of old age or were murdered. Some even remembered ancestors who died during the Japanese or Chinese invasions hundreds of years before.
“I forgot about the baby that I sent off from this world years ago.”
“Why did you do it?” Myeong-du would ask.
“. . . I had to live. Sorry Madame, but you remember, don’t you? Didn’t we all live like that?”
“And that’s how you survived.”
“But did you really forget?”
“Maybe I wanted to believe I did. Shouldn’t we forget such things?”
Dialogues like this continued endlessly between the pounding sounds and the bird-chirpings. Myeong- du would shake her head and say, “You killed your baby in order to live, and so you have to live well so that your baby’s death won’t be in vain.”
The sick women would then cry while nodding in consent.
“Why the hell have you become sick then?” Myeong-du would shout.
At this point the women would not only have flowing tears but also runny noses.
“Do you know how you can live well for the dead?” Myeong-du would ask.
The women would raise their heads and look at her. Myeong-du would then thunder at their faces,
Her voice was so loud that most of the women would fall on their backs.
“What good is it having killed your innocent baby if you get sick and die? If you killed your baby in order to survive, you have to live well, even as you request forgiveness from your baby’s ghost.”
“You’re certainly right, Madame. Yes, I would like to be cured of my illness, and this is why I’m here before you.”
“If you don’t want to die, you should stop being afraid of death. It’s your fear of death that caused all your shitty chronic diseases. And to be able to overcome your fear, you shouldn’t run away from it or forget about it, but rather you should learn how to live with the bastard throughout your life. If you ever try to escape from it or dismiss it from your mind, fear will enter you and then you’ll either go crazy and die or dry up and die. Understand? Forgetting is dying. If you die like that, you blockhead, what good came from killing your child? You better know this: If you drop dead now, it’ll be the real death of the child that you killed. If you die now, your child’s ghost in the afterworld will feel that its death went for naught, understand? You killed your child to save your life, and so you have to survive. In order not to die of illnesses, insanity, or despondency, you ought not to be afraid of death, and in order not to fear death, you ought to make friends with death. You must understand the provision behind death sparing lives. Let me repeat, you dumb women, since your dead child saved your life, you should live well so that its death won’t be in vain. And if its death isn’t in vain, then you can say that it is alive in you, understand? If you forget your child, you’ll become afraid of death and you’ll want to flee from it, and when this happens, you’ll get sick and die, and this will result in your child’s real death. Don’t avoid death but get acquainted with it. And swallow it and keep it inside you forever. Remember! Never forget!”
Myeong-du would yell out all this, but it didn’t really help the women folks understand what she was saying.
“How can I stop forgetting, Madame?”
“Are you ready to do as I tell you?”
“Yes, by all means.”
Myeong-du would point to a small white porcelain jar and say, “Bow deeply to that jar nine times. You bitches should come here to bow until my doorsill wears out, but I know that probably won’t happen, so instead, bring me things like your baby’s birth clothes or dried umbilical cords if you kept them. No need to fetch me the whole thing; a little piece is enough. I’ll then swallow them and keep them inside me. And as long as I’m alive, I’ll be walking around here, and so whenever you see me, bow nine times in your mind as if you were seeing your baby’s ghost and welcome me as part of your family. Don’t run away, understand?” Myeong-du ranted.
As she had ordered them to do, women reverently brought her a piece of cloth from their baby’s birth clothes or a bit of their baby’s dried umbilical cords. People who didn’t have any of those things brought parts of their baby’s pillows or a little dirt from their burial ground. Every first day and every full moon of each month, they would visit Myeong-du and bow down to the porcelain jar under the ceiling. With so many remains of the dead supposedly inside her, Myeong-du became well rounded, and when she strolled through the village, it looked like death was tottering about. Catching a sight of her, women would silently bow from a distance, with their palms pressed together on their bosom. And as before in the village of Toet-gol, babies of villagers and domestic animals were born and died, plants were cut and burned and others soon sprouted and bloomed, and people grew up and caught diseases and maybe cured them, but sooner or later, all the villagers died of old age. Meanwhile I, too, died. And now the time came for Myeong-du to also die.
It is early in the evening and it’s overcast, so the darkness is deep, as if it were midnight. Blue light shines out from the village windows. Sitting on decent-looking sofa chairs, villagers are watching on TV a qualifying soccer match for the World Cup next year. Only a few streetlights know that several village women hurriedly rushed to Myeong-du’s cottage.
Myeong-du’s son, who has come home after receiving news of his mother’s impending death, sits at one corner of her room. Her daughter, now sixty, sits at her mother’s bedside with her now grown-up children.
Upon the arrival of the village women, Myeong- du’s son and daughter stand up.
“How is she doing?” one of the women asks.
Lying straight on her back on the warmest part of the room, Myeong-du moves her eyes slowly.
“Can you recognize me, Madame?” another woman asks. But Myeong-du only smiles faintly.
“Can she speak?” one woman asks her son. Not answering, he gazes at his mother.
“I’ll be leaving soon,” Myeong-du says, her words sounding weak and dark and heavy.
“What will we do without you?” a woman laments, tearfully.
Myeong-du then gazes at the rack at the corner of the room for quite a while. Seeing this, her son carefully takes down the white porcelain jar. While doing so, he pauses for a moment, giving his mother a chance to look at it. Since Myeong-du doesn’t respond, he puts it down on the floor.
“Everyone, take what belongs to you,” says Myeong-du, in a voice that has already changed into that of a baby’s.
Some silent moments pass before her son carefully tears open the jar’s seal. He then takes out the items inside the jar, one by one, items like small pieces of baby clothes, parts of dried umbilical cords, bits of pillowcases, dirt wrapped in medicine paper, thin strands of baby hair, tiny plastic noisemakers, an old woman’s ornamental hairpins, fingernails, parts of stained collars, gloves, eyeglass cases, rings and necklaces, lighters, and three ultrasound scans of fetuses that were only recently printed out. They are the items of the deceased that villagers believed Myeong-du had swallowed.
Her son and daughter and grown-up grandchildren and village women gaze at the items strewn on the floor.
“What is this?” one woman wonders, picking up a strange object. It is a small piece of wood from a tree’s branch that looks like a baby’s fingers. Its bark was peeled away and the wood was sandpapered smooth. Looking also like a chicken’s foot, the wood has three stems forking out of it. And there are three such wooden pieces.
But Myeong-du doesn’t react to anything. She’s now crossing death’s threshold. But I know that she took the wood pieces from me each time she buried a baby at my feet. She then peeled and trimmed and sandpapered them. They’re now over fifty years old, but they look as though they’re still filled with life compared to my dried dead branches. Actually, they are her myeongdu.
“What should we do with all these things?” a woman murmurs. By then, Myeong-du is taking her last breath.
“Where do we send you next? And what do we do with the oak tree by the road? Who will guard it now? The path to it will soon disappear. Would you like us to visit the tree for you and keep the path open?” the women ask.
But Myeong-du doesn’t answer.
The night is dark, so dark that it can’t possibly get any darker. One by one, the lights from the village windows fade away. But the light from Myeong-du’s cottage remains lit. No longer breathing, Myeong-du is pale but looks as peaceful as white snow. And maybe that’s why those around her dead body don’t cry out loudly.
I know they won’t hear my words but I still speak to myself in the dark while looking at the village: “You see, we needed death in order to continue living, but we don’t need it once we die. The many myeongdu and Myeong-du’s body are now the concern of the living. What you do with them does not concern us dead. That’s probably why Myeong-du didn’t answer those last questions, even though she may have been still conscious. And don’t feel sorry about the path being run over with weeds and grass. You all now have your life path within you to tread.”
Translated by You Inrae, Louis Vinciguerra