Back Cover Blurb
To transcend the limits of time, one must first suffer.
The Immortal Flower is a sweeping five-century epic through world history. From the first recorded Europeans to set foot inside “The Hermit Kingdom” in 1653 through to a Canadian running from the mob in modern-day Seoul, readers are taken on a mind-bending odyssey that will see lives and events intersect, the repercussions of which will echo across continents for hundreds of years.
In ways they could never have imagined, Dutch sailors shipwrecked on the Isle of Quaelpaert in the 17th century will impact one woman’s Ph.D. thesis at the turn of the 21st century; three friends who wage battle with the Emperor of China at the mythical Great Fields of Ginseng will affect how King Kojong finds refuge at the Russian legation as Japan seeks to annex Korea into its burgeoning empire; and a teenage girl trying to survive the horrors of the Korean War will impart sage, heartfelt advice to a criminal dealing in black market goods at an opportune moment. Ultimately, how all these characters and stories relate to one another is revealed as intricately as a matryoshka doll being assembled by the deft hands of a master craftsperson.
It was grey. Nothing but a despairing, uninspired grey.
The foreground matched the colour of the three-piece suit Anatoly Kuznetsov wore underneath his wool coat, which stretched down to his ankles. A pocket watch on a chain hung from a middle buttonhole of his waistcoat. Russia’s first Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the Chosun Kingdom looked over the railing of the passenger ship and into the Sea of Japan’s lifeless waters as the Czar neared Pusan, the largest port city in Corea. He considered his friend Wassily and how much he would detest this banal canvas of sea and sky.
The thought made Anatoly reach for the letter his colleague had given him before departing from Moscow. He unfolded the sheets of paper and reread the last paragraph:
And remember what our faithless Prussian from Röcken once said: “Is not life a hundred times too short for us to bore ourselves?” Go in passion, Tolik. Never forget the rainbow which springs eternal from the well of tragedy.
Yours in colourful delight,
The sentence about tragedy confounded Anatoly as much now as it had three months ago when Wassily handed him the letter in person.
“Tolya!” Regina said.
Startled, Anatoly spun around to see his wife behind him on the deck. The light grey of her matching sable coat and hat made her pale skin even more ghoulish and insensate than usual. “Get back inside the cabin. You’ll catch cold if you stay out here any longer.”
Without protest, Anatoly slinked inside the ship, relieved that the twelve-week journey was almost over. The trip had been arduous for Regina, who had been in bed and vomiting much of the voyage; she had suffered from intense bouts of mal de mer, especially early on.
“What were you doing out there, anyway?” Regina asked once they were in their cabin.
Anatoly flipped open the clasps of his Louis Vuitton trunk and addressed his wife as she arranged her malles et sacs from the same French fashion house.
“Just preparing myself,” he said. “Mentally.”
“You’ll be fine. Now, what did you have to eat today?”
“I had some kasha in the dining room before heading to the deck.”
“Good for you, Tolya.”
Prior to leaving, Anatoly married a distant cousin, Regina Belinsky. The marriage had been deftly orchestrated more than a year earlier by Anatoly’s mother, Alexandra Kuznetsova, and fully supported by his father, Grigory Kuznetsov, who saw this blood union as a means to more safely preserve the family’s wealth from other, more avaricious hands. When his mother told him about the betrothal, Anatoly was neither pleased nor upset. For him, women were esoteric creatures. Unlike many of his colleagues, who would use their free time to court ladies from all backgrounds—females from respectable families at formal functions; any woman wearing rouge and lipstick at local watering holes—Anatoly had never been drawn to women.
It was a disquieting affair the first and only time Anatoly and Regina met in person before the announcement was made official to society. For Anatoly, that is. Even though he had grown up surrounded by two strong women in his mother and older sister, perhaps it was the lack of a dominant male presence in his childhood that led Anatoly to become a shy person who was content to play the role of observer when out in public. So, to witness a gregarious young woman like Regina act with an almost cavalier sense of self was jarring for an introverted conservative like Anatoly, to say the least.
When the young couple made the rounds among Moscow’s elite to announce their engagement, this feverish excitement of Regina’s carried over in public. Much to Anatoly’s horror, Regina seemed fixated on using French terms of endearment and his Russian half-name when addressing him, always in private, but sometimes even when in the company of his colleagues. And while this tendency came not from overt affection, and instead from wanting to emulate the well-known romantic propensities of writers such as Pushkin or Tolstoy, Anatoly cringed when he heard his fiancée address him as “my dear” in private or in public. It was equally awkward calling Regina “my dove” or “my sweet kitten.”
Anatoly was even irked by the events hosted in honour of his upcoming marital contract (for Anatoly, now a budding young lawyer at a top Moscow firm, was more comfortable thinking of his betrothal in legal terms). At these times, he and Regina would attend lavish parties and balls where champagne served in Baccarat flutes flowed like the Volga in summer, and society’s upper crust displayed their finery, from dresses and jewels to hats and shoes. Copious amounts of zakuski were served at these soirées, with the roe from Caspian Sea sturgeon placed gingerly on mother-of-pearl caviar spoons, German salads of pickled roasted beets and onions over leafy greens served in hand-cut Bohemian crystal, and delectable mushrooms on porcelain plates that paired wonderfully with Russian vodkas. Bunches of fragrant flowers from across Europe, the New World and Asia Minor adorned the halls on these nights, including white canna lilies and pink bleeding hearts. Candelabras scattered around the ballrooms added a warm, inviting touch. Gilded neo-classical chairs would be covered in silk and set against the walls for people to rest. The chefs were always celebrated Frenchmen, while the servers were young, handsome Russians.
After each night of revelry and endless toasts from friends and colleagues, Anatoly would escort Regina back to her parents’ home by carriage, whereupon he would kiss the back of her hand. “À demain, mon chéri,” she would say before getting out. She loved using French with her fiancé. It seemed so elegant and mature, she believed. Anatoly would say something along the lines of “Bonne nuit et dors-bien, ma chérie.”
As gay and joyful as these social events were, they provided little opportunity for the twenty-seven-year-old Anatoly and twenty-one-year-old Regina to come to know each other better. Having graduated from Moscow University’s Faculty of Law one year prior, Anatoly was busy making a name for himself at a prestigious law firm in the Russian capital. His father had amassed a fortune in natural resources in Siberia and lived in Vladivostok for almost all of Anatoly’s childhood, but he still secured a position at the firm for his only son shortly after Anatoly’s graduation.
When Anatoly was not studying the law, he was painting. He was especially fond of watercolours, and he admired the works of Cézanne (whose late-blooming career gave Anatoly hope that he could still succeed as a painter one day), as well as Impressionists such as Renoir and Pissarro. Anatoly’s only sibling, Mariya, was six years older and had married at the age of eighteen, so Anatoly had essentially grown up an only child with an absent father. Anatoly’s mother encouraged his excursions into the world of painting as a youth, but she forbade her son from studying it formally upon entering university.
Anatoly neither loved nor loathed law; it was simply rote memorization of cases going back hundreds of years. Alexandra Kuznetsova told her son she did not want him painting while at law school, but Anatoly reasoned that as long as she did not ask about it, he would not have to lie. Giving up his artistic endeavours meant relinquishing his dreams of opening an atelier in Paris someday. Even worse, it meant giving up his only measure of happiness in what he often saw as a bleak, grey world.
The one bright spot for Anatoly during law school had been meeting Wassily. Their first encounter had been at the registrar’s office, while waiting for their turns to see the clerk. Anatoly, bored senseless, had been counting the ceiling tiles when Wassily said from in front of him, “Why would you paint walls a sickly ochre and set that against a mantis green so offensive it makes you want to run out of the building and set your hair on fire?”
“Do you not see what I am seeing?” Wassily continued. “If Czar Nicholas were to walk in here, he would take a knee, look up above him, and say, ‘Oh, good God! Destroy this building before I suffer from vertigo and order every Cossack in this nation to hunt down the designer!’”
Anatoly put the back of a hand up to his mouth to stifle the laughter.
“Is it really possible for someone to be so colour blind?” Wassily marveled. “These are probably the same people who wear shoes on their heads and slippers for gloves. Let us hope that our soon-to-be professors have more knowledge of the law than these half-wits did when painting the walls of this abhorrent edifice.”
Their friendship had been solidified from that day.
After graduating in 1892, Wassily married his cousin, Anna Chimyakina. Anatoly wed Regina more than a year later. On their wedding night, after consuming more vodka than he normally would, Anatoly told his bride that he was too muddled to perform the rite of passage he knew was expected of him. Regina had not made a fuss and said it was completely understandable, what with the buildup and anxiety of the ceremony itself, the opulent dinner and dancing, and the endless alcohol. Secretly relieved, she had no idea how to explain what she believed would be inevitable: Anatoly asking her why his wife was not bleeding like a virgin should on their wedding night.
“Not to worry,” she whispered in his ear as Anatoly turned over, still fully clothed, on the couple’s wedding present from Anatoly’s parents. It was a beautifully ornate structure with scroll ormolu mounts that featured brass finials atop ebony panels. Cartouches of landscapes had been hand-painted on them, with side rails featuring an intricate gilt scroll-leaf design.
When they woke up the next morning, there was an awkward cloud of discomfort hovering atop the newlyweds like a trompe-l’œil which neither one wanted to address. They both lay stock-still.
“As-tu bien dormi?” Regina asked.
Anatoly felt self-conscious about speaking French in such an intimate atmosphere, so he laughed nervously before saying in Russian, “I slept well, thank you. And how was your sleep?” He wondered if he should add a pet name, but decided against it and let the question hang on its own.
“Oh, splendid. Absolutely splendid. I slept splendidly.”
Grateful she hadn’t used any pet names (or French for that matter), Anatoly asked if they should summon the maid to prepare breakfast.
“Yes. I think that would be magnifique. Let us have tvorog, fried eggs—no! boiled eggs—and butterbrot, toast, cheese and coffee, shall we?”
“I think I will just have some kasha and tea,” Anatoly said in a listless voice.
Although he did not mind speaking French at parties and social functions (he had even used it at law school), something about trying to be affectionate with his wife and speaking a language other than Russian seemed off-putting and altogether unnatural to Anatoly, like a woman going to work and the man staying at home to care for the children.
Their second night in the bedroom was just as tense as the previous one. Anatoly was not familiar with concepts like “asexuality” or “impotence,” but as he would soon learn, nothing his wife did could make him erect. He feigned sickness that night, a heavy workload the following evening, and fatigue the one after that. A week into their marriage, they had already settled into the first of many routines: Regina would retire before her husband, who would stay up at least an hour later, ostensibly to work, but mainly to ensure his wife was asleep by the time he crawled into their toile-painted bed.
When consumed by feelings of guilt, he would purchase jewelry, perfumes or decadent clothing made from the finest silk or cashmere. Occasionally he would buy his wife imported crystal or fine china. Regina was touched by these gestures, though she did worry in the beginning that all this gift-giving had something to do with her; why else, after all, would a red-blooded male not want to consummate his marriage? Especially with a wife who, she told herself daily, would be pursued by countless men if she had not been betrothed by her parents to Anatoly Kuznetsov.
Not long into their marriage, a letter arrived from Anatoly’s father. He had secured a most coveted position for his son through the Russian Foreign Ministry. Four years earlier, Czar Nicholas II had decided to establish ties with the Chosun Kingdom to serve as a buffer between the Japanese and Chinese, who had recently gone to war with each other in Manchuria over control of the Corean Peninsula, and Anatoly would be serving as Russia’s Envoy Extraordinary and Minister Plenipotentiary to the tiny Asian nation that few people in his country outside of Vladivostok had ever heard of.
As with Anatoly’s engagement to Regina and his entrance into law school, Grigory and Anna Kuznetsov had not asked their son if he wanted the job; he was being told to take the post and leave the comfort of his life in Moscow and at his law firm a mere twelve months later.
Preparing for the move had offered a much-needed distraction for Anatoly and Regina. Between his workload and the stress of home life, Anatoly needed to devote his mental energy somewhere else. For her part, Regina was beginning to feel pressure from her family to bring life into the world.
So, with cautious excitement and relief in equal measure, they packed trunk after trunk for their expected two-year stay in what some referred to as The Land of the Morning Calm, and which others called The Hermit Kingdom. Regina had heard fascinating stories about its neighbor, the so-called Empire of the Sun, and its mysterious culture. The country was said to have a temple made of pure gold, men with topknots who waved Samurai swords with artistic gracefulness, a palace in the capital of Tokyo that was the size of a small city, and a refined, docile people. Regina hoped Chosun would be much the same.
Anatoly received daily briefings leading up to his departure. One of the first things he learned was that Chosun, or Corée, was a dynastic nation with a king as head of state. He later discovered that the king’s wife, Queen Min, had a great deal to do with Russia’s opening of a Legation in the country. She was deeply worried about Japanese expansionist plans on the peninsula and felt the Chinese could no longer serve as a protector of her nation’s sovereignty. Even though it was a de jure free kingdom, Chosun had been a de facto Chinese suzerainty since 1636 and was now one of the main reasons Japan and China were waging war with one another in the barren wastelands of Manchuria.
Shall I call for someone to fetch our belongings?” Anatoly asked, looking around the spacious ship cabin with fondness; unlike his wife, he had rather enjoyed the trip to the Far East.
“Give me a few more minutes to collect myself.”
Anatoly watched Regina fold the last of her clothes with military-like precision and place them neatly in a trunk. On the left side were brassieres, corsets, girdles, silk stockings and other fine French lingerie she had purchased in Paris. On the right were various chemise and sweater she wore at night to stay warm on deck. Her many dresses, gowns and shoes filled two trunks of their own, to say nothing of her accessories and jewellery, mirrors, makeup, powders and nécessaire de toilette.
“You look fraught with anxiety,” Regina said.
“It’s the posting. I’m just anxious.”
“Tolya. Come now.”
“Yes, of course.”
“You will be a representative extraordinaire for the Czar.”
“Now, be a doll and have one of the cabin boys come take our things?”
The Czar blew her stacks as Anatoly searched out the man responsible for looking after passenger requests. The air was an odiferous mix of every element that made the human nose revolt and the stomach lurch. Men below decks were busy throwing ropes over the side in preparation for final arrival.
“What is you’a terminus?” the middle-aged Corean man asked in broken Russian after the bellowing roar had died out.
“Seul,” Anatoly replied, quickly translating from the Cyrillic name.
“Séoul,” Anatoly said, correcting himself. The capital city went by many names.
The steward was not familiar with the French pronunciation, however. He tilted his head to the side and sucked in a stream of air through his teeth.
“Hanyang?” Anatoly said, almost like a guess.
“Ah! Hansung!” the steward said happily. “Are you business here?”
“You is business in Hansung?”
“I will talk to other man. Have him go to find you are cargo…no, freight.” The steward chided himself. “Maybe he to find your bag. Yes?”
Anatoly nodded and looked out at the world in front of him. It was something he had not fathomed, either from picture books or romanticized stories his father had written about in letters over the years. There was refuse floating in the path of the Czar. Chaos abounded throughout the urban centre itself, which was a mix of wood and mud huts all built around a series of low mountains that provided a natural defence for the city. As the Czar lazily moored at port, a baby could be seen baby floating on top of the water, face down. When a wave bounced off the ship, its body flipped over. The child’s eyes were still open and, so Anatoly thought, looking directly at him.
A RISING SUN’S pristine rays sneak over the craggy peaks of the distant mountains. Morning’s most glorious time, Min-ju’s father thinks. Closing the gate to his home’s outer courtyard behind him, right hand clasped around left, the two resting comfortably against the small of his back, he begins the short journey down to the Han River.
One- and two-story dwellings line both sides of the road. Empty of traffic, soon vendors and merchants will be opening up their stalls. Store owners will dump small washbowls of water in front of their businesses to invite good fortune that day. Trams will shudder their way down roads, sparks dancing off the power lines, bells announcing their arrival at each stop.
The smell of Korean buchimgae pancakes and bass, skate, yellow corvina, pollack and pickled squid permeate the air. As one gets closer to these same restaurants and bunshikjŏm, garlic and pickled cabbage becomes more distinct, middle-aged ajumma busily preparing the day’s vegetables on wooden cutting boards. This consists mostly of scallions, mushrooms, spring onions, radishes, bean sprouts, and lotus roots. Steam surges out of huge black cauldrons in anticipation of the day’s first customer, who, if fortune is smiling down upon them, will be a man.
Near the river he finds a small patch of grass where the long, droopy branches of a weeping willow tree touch the ground. He closes his eyes and takes in a deep breath. Lungs filling with air, Min-ju’s father opens his eyes and scrutinizes his surroundings. A breeze blows off the river and rustles the thin strands of grey facial hair on his chin and cheeks, sneaking its way into the folds of his hanbok and tickling his skin.
Unlike some men who have abandoned wearing the Korean traditional dress for a Western suit, Min-ju’s father still finds his hanbok more comfortable than anything he has seen from Europe or America. With its simple belt holding up loose-fitting white pants and a matching top that does not require any special ties or knots, it is troubling for him that people would sacrifice comfort for status.
He purses his lips and looks across to the other side of the river. It is mostly farmers who reside on the southern shores of the mighty Han River, but ever since the first bridge spanning it was completed at the turn of the century, traffic between the northern and southern halves has been steadily increasing. Walking slowly along the bank of the river, his thoughts shift. He reflects on what has transpired in the three weeks since Korea’s independence, on August 15, the same day Japan surrendered, bringing an end to the Pacific War. There have been some cosmetic changes on the outside. Japanese store signs were torn down and, in most cases, replaced with Korean ones. Some people, however, chose instead to replace them with signs in the language of their liberators, English.
There are bigger, more dramatic changes expected. Even the most ignorant citizen can sense it. Uncertainty lingers over the peninsula like a turbid fog, nobody sure what will happen over the coming weeks and months as the nation sprouts its nascent wings of independence.
Yet newfound freedom may be short-lived. No longer under the thumb of the Japanese Imperial Army, the Americans and Soviets have expressed an interest in the future of the Korean Peninsula. In the days following the end of World War II, they carved the peninsula in half, one side to be guarded by each country’s own armed forces until an election could be held, with the aim of producing a unified Korea.
According to news reports, the Americans will be arriving in Seoul imminently. The Soviets have already arrived from the north, stopped in mid-halt on their way to Japan when President Truman ordered the dropping of two atomic bombs and brought a close to the war. The Soviets made their way down as far as the middle of the country, less than one hundred kilometers north of Seoul, and then halted. They stopped at an invisible line known as the 38th parallel, a manmade meridian running east to west that constitutes the dividing line between Soviet- and American-controlled spheres of influence.
Although the country’s political future weighs on Min-ju’s father, there are other, more pressing issues that worry him, such as the strife within his family, which has only been exacerbated since Dae-yong and Dae-jung returned from Japan a few days ago; the near-skeletal twenty-year-olds that greeted him upon their arrival in Seoul were hardened like overripe persimmons and embittered from their wartime service.
His stomach grumbling, Min-ju’s father stops at a small kiosk to buy some cigarettes, his one indulgence. He has become intrigued by the imported yangdambae now being sold. The taste and texture are quite different from the Pigeons and Haetaes he became used to under the Japanese.
“Ah! Sŏnsaengnim!” the gravely thin kiosk owner says with excitement, using the honorific title for Min-ju’s father, a distinguished doctor of Oriental medicine. “Have you had morning’s rice?”
“My wife wasn’t up when I left the house earlier. I’m afraid my stomach is as empty as a Buddhist monk’s on the day of a new moon fast.”
“You’ve got to keep a close eye on all women of the kitchen,” the man replies, bearing his teeth with a scowl. “Especially those buŏkdaegi who will rob you of your savings when you’re not looking and poison your food when you are! Women are changing nowadays. They’re not what they used to be. Where have all the obedient women gone? Truly!”
Min-ju’s father hands over some coins in exchange for the cigarettes and says he does not know. When the garrulous kiosk owner seems poised to go on with his rant against modern women, Min-ju’s father says, “You will have to forgive me, ajŏshi, but I have urgent business to attend to.”
“Of course, Sŏnsaengnim,” the man replies without delay. He apologizes for wasting the time of someone so eminent. “Ah! One more thing!” he goes on, running out from his miniature-sized Quonset hut, where he will sit cross-legged for the rest of the day on a wooden bench and in a space no bigger than a bathroom stall. He strikes a match against a box and shelters it from the wind, content he has earned tremendous face.
After smoking the cigarette down to the filter, each puff a luxury not to be taken for granted in a country where most people cannot afford as much as a single bowl of white rice, Min-ju’s father turns onto the side street which leads to his home. There are several arteries in Seoul large enough to accommodate horses, mules, trams, and automobiles. However, the rest of the capital—like the rest of the country’s urban centres—is a vast collection of much smaller capillaries that do not follow any logical course. They meander like flooded rivers, which has made it a nightmare for cartographers to make a coherent map of the city.
As he is about to open the gate to his home, someone from behind calls out to him. “Sŏnsaengnim! Hol’on.”
Head faintly at an angle, Min-ju’s father studies the brittle-looking man. The stranger has a limp, and so it takes him some time.
“Forgive me. I’m jus’ a farmer ’thout much education,” the man starts in a throaty voice. “I heard you’re this famous, jŏgi, Orien’l medicine doc’r and, jŏgi, the most famous in uri nara.”
As with many Koreans, he is not entirely certain what to call his own country, which has gone through several name changes over the last century, so will simply revert to a term like “our nation.” What was Chosŏn for centuries became Daehan Jeguk in 1897. Then the Japanese colonized the country in 1910 and renamed it Nippon Tōchi-jidai no Chōsen—Chosŏn of the Japanese-Governed Period. Around this same time, a provisional Korean government formed in exile, based mostly in Shanghai, and referred to themselves as Taehanmin’guk Imsijŏngbu. Now there is rumour that the name of the country will change yet again, to something people have heard will be simply Daehanminguk, The Republic of Korea.
Min-ju’s father quickly refutes the stranger’s claim. “Nonsense. You have obviously heard incorrectly. I am but a simple man who practices medicine more as a hobby than a science.”
“Sŏnsaengnim, your reputation is, jŏgi, as legen’ry as the soju of Andong.”
Min-ju’s ignores the compliment and asks the man his business.
“I’ve got a problem and…jŏgi…” The farmer laughs nervously. “Acks’ly, I don’ have much a’offer.”
“What seems to be the problem?”
The farmer produces a sack of brown rice from his pouch. He bows his head with humility, extends his arms, and apologizes yet again that he does not have more to give.
“We’ll address the issue of payment later,” Min-ju’s father says, refusing to accept the bag. “For now, just tell me what is plaguing you.”
“As ya can see, my health isn’ so good. I’m underweig’ and weak.” He looks off to the side. “I can’ till the land no more either.”
Min-ju’s father nods, the look on his face inscrutable. “Come inside with me. Let’s see what I can do for you.”
The men remove their shoes at the foot of the veranda which surrounds the home like a knee-level running board. Min-ju’s father notices the farmer has to exert a great deal of effort just to climb up to his clinic. The farmer hobbles over a wooden floor that is aged and withering. An antique desk stands at one end of the room. It balances precariously on two solid legs and two loose ones, a stool placed in the space underneath it. The needles Min-ju’s father will use are kept in a box on top of the desk. Beside that is a black lacquered apothecary chest. It is divided into myriad rows of tiny drawers, each labeled with one or two Chinese characters that have been painted in gold-leaf lettering. The characters signify the name of the medicine, herb or root that any Oriental medicine practitioner knows as well as the meridians that make up the body’s flow of blood. There is also a raised bench in the middle of the room which patients lie on to receive acupuncture, dividing the clinic into two equal halves. Behind the desk is a wall-length scroll with six Chinese characters painted in ornate calligraphy. It is a traditional Chinese saying Min-ju’s father was not initially familiar with and not one of the countless Korean proverbs and aphorisms he has memorized.
A gift from a former patient just returned from China with this famous artwork had, what Min-ju’s father assumed, was an incurable disease. The characters on the scroll translate to “Cure a dead horse like it is a living horse,” or more colloquially as “Attempt the impossible, for it may truly be possible.” Even Min-ju’s father had his doubts when he first saw the influential yangban, an aristocrat and powerful civil servant who once worked in the Royal Court named Yi Bum-jin. But knowledge and experience were victorious and over the course of several months, Min-ju’s father nursed the man back to health through daily acupuncture sessions.
“Sit down,” Min-ju’s father instructs the man. They sit cross-legged, opposite one another on the floor that also serves as the home’s ondol heating base. “Now, tell me exactly what the problem is.”
“Frankly,” the farmer begins, “this pas’ year hasn’ been so good. I’ve got a… jŏgi…pain ’at never goes away. Right here,” he explains, pointing to the lower right-hand side of his stomach. “Been there a while now. Maybe years. Not sure. But now I can’ no longer harvest my fields or my…” he says, trying to find the right word.
He nods. “That’s when I knew i’was bad.” The farmer stops and looks down into his lap, squeezing his hands together as flakes of dry, dead skin fall to the floor. “I’ve lost so much weight, see…. jŏgi…Now my family, well, they look’a me like I’m a millstone ’ey gotta put up with.”
The man cannot be more than forty kilograms, Min-ju’s father surmises. His arms and legs are turning to rotten figs from under him and his face looks like a sunken ditch.
“Open your mouth for me,” Min-ju’s father says. “I need to see your tongue.”
The farmer wearily does so and reveals a set of crooked teeth. Some are blackened, but most are a shade of purply-yellow, like a bruise that is forming. In between stumps where teeth once grew, his gums are heavily infected.
“Now, stick out your tongue, please.”
Min-ju’s father leans forward and attempts to read the esoteric language of the human body. He sees that there is no harmony to the farmer’s constitution, which, upon first inspection, could be that of soyang, or lesser yang.
“You can close your mouth now.” Min-ju’s father thinks momentarily and then asks the farmer if he has been sleeping well of late.
“And your diet? Have you been eating much rice?”
The farmer looks down in shame and a sad smile crops up on his tattered face. “Not so much, no.” Min-ju’s father waits patiently for the famer to go on. “When I do, it’s nothin’ but black rice.”
“May I ask about your bowel movements? Have you been having them on a regular basis lately?”
“Jŏgi…my bow’l moo’ents ’ve ’come…well…not so…”
“They’ve become rare, have they?”
The farmer nods.
Min-ju’s father straightens his back and inhales deeply. “Give me your hand. I need to check something.” He pauses, concentrates. “You see, there are twelve pulses to your body that tell me if your five essential organs are in need of cold or hot energy.” Min-ju’s father leans forward and takes the man’s left hand in his. Closing his eyes, he says, “Here,” then puts three fingers on the wrist, on a vein below the palm of the farmer’s hand. “Shim, for your heart; kan, for your liver; shin, for your kidneys. These are three of the five major organs I can sense from this point on your wrist. They tell me a good deal about the state of your health.”
Min-ju’s father opens his eyes, consternation weighing them down. He clears his throat and asks the farmer if he is an angry man. The stranger looks up, not understanding, then immediately returns his gaze towards the floor. “Do you let your emotions get the better of you more often than not?” Min-ju’s father repeats.
“No more ’an ’a average man.”
“Do you have trouble making decisions?”
“Do you have difficulty making plans? Are you indecisive?”
The farmer feels lost, unable to find his footing as he treads for solid ground. “Frankly, I…I…jŏgi…”
“That’s fine,” Min-ju’s father says softly. “Please understand that I’m not asking you these questions because I’m crazy or in any other way–”
“I’d ne’er—” The words tumble out of the farmer’s mouth.
“It’s okay. Many people are not familiar with my techniques and their principles. In fact, many patients are as confused as you are when I see them, before the acupuncture, that is. Don’t be alarmed. Just relax.” The farmer appears somewhat mollified. “There are five essential organs,” Min-ju’s father continues. “The heart, lungs, kidneys, liver and spleen. You, I believe, have disrupted the energy, the ki, in your liver. Do you follow what I’m saying?”
Puzzled, the farmer looks at Min-ju’s father with a blank expression.
“Are you aware of the twelve meridians?”
A shake of the head. “I’m ol’ an’ cursed.”
“Nonsense.” Min-ju’s father takes the enervated hand in his own once again. “This can tell me quite a lot,” he says, feeling for the pulse emanating from the liver. “The Gate of Hope is closed,” he mumbles. “You’re lacking wood. Where there is no hope, there is no growth; with no growth, there is no future.”
Cancer, Min-ju’s father concludes. This man is dying.
“Your liver is full of yin, too much water and darkness in the lower part of your torso. It is dangerously out of balance with the rest of your organs. I will try and treat you, but I do not know how much it will do for your…” He pauses, trying to think of a suitable word. “Illness,” he finally says. Yet Min-ju’s father already knows that while he may alleviate the pain for today, it will resurface. And when it does, it will continue its slow progression towards ending the farmer’s life. Min-ju’s father does not have the heart to tell him the whole truth, so instead he gives him the hope he needs to carry on for another day. “You know, sunlight has the possibility of entering a rat hole,” he comments, reaching for his box of needles. Then, as Min-ju’s father guides the man up to the bench, he inquires after his children.
“I go’a son.”
Min-ju’s father takes out a needle, he says, “You’ll feel a little prick. Nothing to worry about.” He wiggles it into one of the stranger’s hands in an attempt to harmonize the forces of day and night, hot and cold, fire and water. He sees the expression on the farmer’s face and reacts accordingly. “What I am doing now is called needling sensation. It makes the acupuncture more effective.”
The farmer nods, but still seems frightened. Min-ju’s father senses as much, so moves to assuage the farmer’s anxiety with more conversation.
“Does your son help you work the land?”
“Yah, bu’ my dau’ers also help. And still we’re on ’a brink o’…what with no food, an’ all…”
Min-ju’s father does know, from personal experience and from observation in Seoul and the countryside. In the final years of colonization, the Japanese had taken everything they could in a last desperate attempt to stave off total defeat at the hands of the Allies. Steel, corrugated iron, rice, vegetables, fruit, alcohol, cigarettes—it all went to the Japanese war machine. Nothing was sacred, including the thousands of Korean women who would be conscripted into the Imperial Army as “women to provide comfort.”
Min-ju’s father works his way down the man’s body, placing needles in his legs and feet. Twisting and turning each one, he fears it is a futile effort to ward off the man’s coming dance with death. It may be a matter of weeks, maybe even months if the farmer is lucky, but he will not escape his ultimate fate. I suppose that is true of everybody, Min-ju’s father thinks solemnly as he puts the last needle in place. Only some meet death earlier than others.
DUK-DAM entered the sandy ring to face his final opponent. There was no official boundary to the fighting space; the spectators themselves formed the outline of what was roughly the shape of a circle. Some of the all-male audience chose to wear their satkat, a conical black hat made of horsehair. Others removed it, leaned back on their elbows and lit their gombangdae, a long, thin smoking pipe. Vendors strolled around the outside of the ring area, selling pieces of toffee.
This was the last wrestling match of the day—the finals of the mighty Geumgang weight class—at the annual sshireum tournament held between Hyesan and Hsiaossutung, two villages established deep within the northern part of the Choson Peninsula. Hyesan was located on the Yalu River, or what locals referred to as the Amnokgang. Across the expansive body of water, one could see Qing territory with the naked eye. At both entrances to Hyesan stood mighty jangseung, guardian totem poles erected to ward off evil spirits with their gruesome facial expressions. The tall wooden posts, elegantly crafted from a variety of camellia found farther south in Gangwon province, were tutelary deities. The one to the north was called The Great General of Everyone under Heaven, while to the south stood The Female General of the Underworld. Collectively, they captured the essence of true jangseung—simplicity, humour and irregularity—and had protected Hyesan from marauders, plagues, fires, invasions, and drought over the centuries, though nobody was sure exactly how long they’d been there or who, in fact, had built them. The more nostalgic village residents claimed they were built 4,000 years ago, when Dangun came down from Mt. Baekdu and founded the Ko Choson nation. Those more inclined to rely on hard evidence said they were likely erected by shamans more than a millennium ago.
For Duk-dam, it was his sixth bout of the day. With aching muscles, he lowered himself onto swollen knees, where he and his opponent would start the match. This was the deciding fight in the best-of-three series. Duk-dam had won the first one, his opponent the second. A war of attrition in the pit had come to a final battle, and the pride of his village was at stake.
This spectacle of traditional wrestling was at the heart of a yearly celebration held every summer. Even the oldest member of the community, a woman by the name of Kim Hyun-kyung, could recall watching these wrestling matches as a child in the latter reign of King Injo, more than 80 years ago. There was no reward for the winner save bragging rights over the neighbouring village for the next 12 months. Duk-dam had won three years in a row and, if victorious again, would become the first man to win four consecutive sshireum championships. Even though Duk-dam was tall, he was nonetheless smaller than his opponent. However, Duk-dam was well versed in the art of traditional Gorean wrestling, so wasn’t afraid of his adversary. Everybody cheered ferociously as the 25-year-old whom locals called naeyuwaegang—the gentle giant—and his opponent were told to ready themselves by the match judge.
The young men arose from the ground by holding onto each other’s satba, a belt wrapped around the waist and thigh, a little above their loincloths, and wearing nothing else. Duk-dam knew he had little energy left, so made a calculated decision. With all his strength, he pulled on the satba, groaned, and then lifted the bulk of his opponent’s body into the air, all one hundred and fifty geun, and drove the man’s knee screaming into the sand.
Hyesan residents exploded in wild cheer.
“Ikyutta! Duk-dam-a! Ikyutta!” Gil-dong shouted.
“Uri Duk-dam! Uri Duk-dam!” Jin followed.
The locals mobbed Duk-dam, patting him on the back and repeatedly saying how proud they were. The other man remained on his knees as he punched the sand. While Duk-dam was physically spent, he let his fellow villagers lead him away. Tradition held that everyone would now retire to where the rice wine bowls had been set up.
“Duk-dam-a! You did it! You’re the first person to win four championships in a row!” Gil-dong said as they paraded towards the tables of traditional rice wine. Duk-dam may not have been bloodied, but he was marred, with arms that felt like rubbery wet noodles and legs that would surely buckle soon. His chest hurt from a thrashing he had taken in the previous battle and his head throbbed.
“Ikyutta!” people shouted.
The mood was jubilant and the makkoli flowed as people talked incessantly about the historic feat just accomplished. Duk-dam was a hero, the greatest sshireum wrestler to have stepped into the pit.
“How did you do it?” Gil-dong asked his best friend. The two of them, along with their friend Jin, stood off to the side of a Gorean pine tree and imbibed freely of the sweet-tasting beverage.
Duk-dam shook his head. “I don’t know,” he replied, his answer genuine.
“Challenge!” Gil-dong and Jin shouted, raising their cups high in the air and then emptying them just as quickly.
Gil-dong patted Duk-dam on the back. “There’s nobody in the history of Choson who could ever beat you!”
Duk-dam shrugged off the compliment and finished his bowl of makkoli. “There’s always someone better, someone stronger,” he said.
“Not compared to the great Duk-dam!” Jin countered.
They refilled their cups, toasted, and drank.
“Surely King Kyungjong will hear of this!” Gil-dong said. “Maybe even make you an honorary government official!”
The celebration was cut short when Park Gong-ju ran towards the gathering of people from deep inside the village. “Help! Grandfather is dying,” she screamed. “Please help me!”
Gil-dong, Duk-dam and Jin looked at each other before taking off on the heels of Gong-ju. She was the first to arrive home, but legions of villagers followed close behind. As the Village Elder, Park Hong-suk had the grandest home in Hyesan. Elder Park was lying atop a yo on the floor, wrapped tightly in three ibul to keep warm. The room was soon filled with people from the celebration.
An Oriental medicine doctor was sitting beside Elder Park, seemingly unaffected by all the commotion. Gong-ju fell to her knees and reached for her grandfather’s hand.
“His yin and yang are dangerously out of balance,” the doctor explained. “Our Elder’s liver is in dire need of light.”
Gong-ju began crying quietly and looked crestfallen. Like every unmarried woman in Choson, she was wearing a scarlet hanbok. Gil-dong’s heart felt sick at seeing Gong-ju’s nose gone flat. The granddaughter of the Village Elder and the daughter of the area’s most successful grain merchant, it was impossible for Gil-dong to consider a future with someone like Gong-ju. In a stratified society where yangban married yangban and sangmin married sangmin, Gil-dong knew with sad certainty that he would never be able to woo the lovely Gong-ju, as the traditions of Choson were as solidified as the tenets of Confucianism.
“Elder Park is in grave danger,” the doctor continued. “He is need of something that may very well be unattainable.”
The room remained quiet.
“Elder Park will pass into the Great Unknown if his liver is not rejuvenated immediately with the most empowering ginseng.”
“Which ginseng is that?” someone asked from behind Gil-dong.
The doctor lowered his head and replied, “The Great Root of Life from the White-Headed Mountain.”
An audible gasp swept through the room.
“Baekdusan?” a man asked, disbelieving what he’d just heard.
“Yes. He must have the Great Root of Life’s curative powers coursing through his blood in no more than a week’s time.”
Even Gil-dong, country bumpkin he was often called by some villagers because of his accent, had heard about the legend behind the Great Root of Life from the White-Headed Mountain. It was a mythical tale. Ever since the founding of the first kingdom on the peninsula, and later, when the Han people were drawn together during the Three Kingdoms Period, everybody knew of the legendary ginseng root from Mt. Baekdu. It was said to grow in and around the mountain where Dangun had established the first Gorean kingdom, Ko Choson, in 2333 B.C.
“But no one has ever laid eyes on this root!” a woman exclaimed.
“And it would take an army of soldiers to pluck it from the land!” another person said.
The doctor sighed, brought his hands together, and looked up. “I have been privy to the same stories you have. I was taught from a young age that a ginseng root grows somewhere at the ends of our Kingdom in a place called the Land of the Little People and which can cure all maladies. Although I am an Oriental medicine doctor who works with the herbs and plants well known to mankind, I do believe the Great Root of Life, if it indeed exists, may cure Elder Park of his ailment.” The doctor collected his thoughts. “I am not proclaiming it will save his life with certainty, but if we do not try to attain it, Elder Park will pass on within seven days’ time. Of that I am sure.”
Nobody uttered a word.
“I need to ask if there are any among you who will volunteer to go in search of the Great Root of Life.”
Everyone looked at each other. The weak looked to the strong, women at men, children at adults. Mt. Baekdu was far from the village of Hyesan. It was a part of the Choson Kingdom fraught with innumerable dangers. Not only was it replete with tigers, leopards and bears, but everyone knew that the Jurchens, those Tungusic peoples from Manchuria who now called themselves Manchus, often visited the area in search of ginseng and were notoriously dangerous when you crossed paths with them. Stories of Jurchens murdering Choson citizens abounded—and all in the name of ginseng hunting.
“I will go,” Gil-dong declared, surprising even himself when he said the words aloud.
All present turned towards the young man whose mother had already passed into the Great Unknown.
“Mushigi?” someone said in disbelief.
“I will go,” he repeated. When nobody commented on this most audacious claim, Gil-dong added, “And I will not return until I’ve found it.”
One of the men who’d been holding a cup full of makkoli dropped it, mouth agape, and shook his head. “Meecheen nome.”
A woman on the other side of the room muttered, “Saesangae…”
Gong-ju looked up from her grandfather’s bedside and met Gil-dong’s gaze. He did not waver.
The hint of a smile cropped up on Duk-dam’s scarred, square-shaped face. “If you’re going to embark on this odyssey, you will need an experienced wrestler.”
“And you will certainly need a guide, someone who can read the stars and point you in the right direction,” Jin added. “Not to mention someone who actually knows a thing or two about ginseng.”
Gong-ju had not averted her eyes from Gil-dong this whole time. One may have misinterpreted the look on her face as something akin to anger, but she was simply unable to understand how and why someone would risk their life for the cause of a person outside their family.
The doctor dispersed the crowd, saying Elder Park needed to rest. Villagers filed out of the house and chattered about the three young men who were about to go in search of a root nobody could say with assuredness was real.
“Gil-dong sshi,” Gong-ju said as she came running out of her grandfather’s home, electing to address him formally.
“Gong-ju sshi,” he reciprocated.
Duk-dam and Jin were already several feet ahead of them, which allowed for some privacy. “Thank you,” she said. “You needn’t do this, though.”
Gong-ju, whose name meant “princess” in Gorean, smiled. “I will never forget this act of bravery, this show of kindness.”
“Can you do me one favour, Gong-ju sshi?”
For 23 years, Gil-dong had watched Gong-ju from afar. Never once did he have the courage to talk to her alone, and it was likely her father would betroth her to the son of another yangban soon. The thought made Gil-dong’s heart ache.
“Will you think of us while we’re gone?”
Gong-ju had not expected this question. “Every moment throughout the days you are away.”
“Very well, then. Let me round up my friends. We will be off by the Hour of the Tiger tomorrow morning.”
Gil-dong began making his way towards Duk-dam and Jin when, from behind, Gong-ju said, “Gil-dong sshi!”
He turned around, determined not to let the fear he felt inside him evident to this woman. Looking at the object of his love, he said, “Yes?”
“Be safe and mindful of your health, Gil-dong sshi.”
“I will. And you of yours, Gong-ju sshi.”
The following morning, as the three young men prepared to leave for Mt. Baekdu, Gong-ju appeared from her home. While the sun could not yet be seen, the eastern horizon was slowly beginning to lighten. Duk-dam and Jin, not completely ignorant to the undertones of affection on display, gave their friend some space and walked to the other end of the village, nearest the Great General of Everyone under Heaven.
“I wanted to give you something before you left,” Gong-ju said. She approached Gil-dong, who lowered his satchel.
“You are up far too early,” Gil-dong replied.
“I couldn’t sleep. My eyes were blinking all night.” Gong-ju lifted her arm. In her hand was a flower. “There are three kinds of mugunghwa: danshim, baedal and asadal, yet only the danshim is the true mugunghwa,” she continued. “I give this to you now as a token of my eternal gratitude for what you are doing. And as protection for you and your friends.”
“Gong-ju sshi, you needn’t—”
“Bloom early every morning like the mugunghwa, then wither in the evening like a nobleman. I know you will find the Great Root of Life and save my grandfather.”
To drink in the beauty of a woman whom you love is the single greatest pleasure in life, he thought. And you are the love of my life, Gong-ju. I will never be able to say those words out loud to you, even if I feel them to the core of my being. For all of my 23 years, the sun has risen and set with you. I will always be prepared to go to the ends of the Earth for you, hold the land on my shoulders if need be, just so that I may see you smile one more time and know that you are happy.
“I will not return until I have found it,” Gil-dong said resolutely.
Gong-ju smiled, a lone tear falling down the side of her face. “Go in peace, Gil-dong-a,” she said, switching to the diminutive.
“And you stay in peace,” Gil-dong answered in banmal. He wanted to finish his sentence by saying my love, but could not—would not—say the words. Instead, he took the Rose of Sharon, put it delicately in his bag, and marched forward.
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. Our own beginning, if it is to be called that, was more arbitrary. Did it begin upon quitting Taijoan on our way to Iapan to continue our journey in His name? Assuredly it started before leaving Batavia, six weeks prior, as we sought to deliver Mr. Cornelis Caesar to his new post. Perhaps it began consequent to embarking on an odyssey to the Indies aboard the Vogel Struijs from Texel, the dockside pullulating with bewigged French sailors, somber-looking colleagues in black-and-white outfits, and turbaned foreigners displaying rings from the ear and dirks sheathed in their belts. What constitutes an inception is speculative, as birth and death are the only pellucid bookends we can use with any categorical certainty in life.
For us, the sixty-four souls who left Formosa on that resplendent day aboard the Sperwer, our own genesis is perhaps best specified on the day we marooned on the Isle of Quaelpaert, the “orange fields” which the Coreese call Cheju-do. More than a fortnight did we battle Neptune’s impetuousness. So menacing was the wind that you could not hear an adjacent mate’s caterwaul as it howled and hissed with the venom of a cobra. By twitter-light on fifteen August, in the Year of our Lord, sixteen hundred and fifty-three, the seas washed over our decks, nearly taking with her our galleon and transom. Men did their uttermost to raise our jib and were rewarded by very nearly being sent into Poseidon’s arms; I feared how long we could stay adrift before the Sperwer descended to an oceanic grave. When the clock struck two glasses of the middle watch, the lookout, a man by the name of Auck van der Hulst from Amsterdam, shouted, “Land ashore!”
“Men, keep God in mind!” the Skipper bellowed.
As later it would be pronounced, we were a musket shot’s distance from soil, though nobody, myself included, could see more than a fathom in front of his own person. The Skipper ordered our anchors dropped, the rudder having already turned around on herself. The depth of the water did not allow them to catch, however, and so we continued surging forward. When we beached, our jaght was given three prodigious jolts. The Sperwer was torn asunder, from bow to stern, like a torrent of grapeshot ripping through her nautical torso. Men were thrown from the decks into the choppy waters as our ship disintegrated into the same element she had granted us safe passage from for weeks, and the sea claimed yet another maiden. I struggled to rise above the waves, praying solid earth was near-at-hand. Shouts crying out for help resonated from every which direction, but it was dark as ebony out. And still the sea raged, vehemence spewing from her every spate and abatement. When my head smashed against a jagged object, I wrapped both hands around the porous structure and said a silent prayer. Blood streamed down my face, into my eyes and mouth, the taste of it mixing viscously with the salt. I clung to the rock like a newborn does a mother’s breast and thought to myself, God Almighty, do not take Mattheus. Whatsoever You do, take me, but spare him.
Alexander Vronsky, this is your lot, the portion I have decreed for you because you have forgotten me and trusted in false gods.
My eyes were already open and boring a hole through the god damn ceiling. Calm, measured breathing. She was beside me, asleep, oblivious.
Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil.
Went to the living room. Scribbled down a name and a cell phone number on a piece of paper. Six numbers too. Would give it to her later if shit completely fell apart. Back in bed, I crawled under the covers and traced the length of her body from behind. We disappeared into each other, naturally, like two clouds. Didn’t need to see her face to know she was awake. Hand on a fertile belly, I entered her as slowly as continents shifting at the beginning of time. A quiet gasp. A lungful of air. Passion rising to the surface. Her hips moved softly but with purpose. I put my head close to her ear. No words. Her nails pierced the sleeve of my tattoo. She took my hand and refused to let go. Rocking back and forth, I could feel her nearing a climax. When she reached that point of release where her body seized, she panted noiselessly and unlocked her fingers from mine.
In the shower, I let the scalding-hot water pierce my scalp. The pain felt good. Burned me with redemption. A final Baptism by fire.
While drying off, I looked in the mirror and was disgusted at what I saw.
—One day she’ll want to hurt you. Destroy your soul. And you’ll deserve it.
If she wasn’t in the apartment right now, I would’ve put my fist through the mirror and smashed it to pieces.
I am the way to the City of Woe. I am the way to a forsaken people. I am the way into eternal sorrow. Sacred justice moved my architect.
Leaving the apartment, she told me not to forget about our lunch plans and the gallery tour after.
There was a good chance I’d be dead by then.
Turned on the ignition in my Audi A6 Quattro. Slipped on a pair of shades and hit No. 4 on the car’s Blaupunkt stereo. In the trunk were two seven-disc cartridges I’d had specially installed and now held nothing but Zeppelin CDs. All nine of their studio albums. A mix of live and bootleg recordings to fill out the rest. There was a pause in the shuffling of discs as I backed out of the villa’s garage and began whipping through Myungnyun 4-ga. Windows rolled down, Plant’s voice came booming out of the speakers as I neared Haehwa Rotary.
Hey, hey, mama, said the way you move,
gonna make you sweat, gonna make you groove.
Slid the car into third as Dongsomun-ro straightened out in front of me. Cresting the little hill where that stupid overpass used to be, I put her into fourth and smiled. Street was clear of any cars this early on a Saturday. Got her up to fifth by the time I reached Hanseong-dae subway, then hung a hard left and gunned it up north into Seongbuk-dong.
Traffic slowed as the road narrowed to one lane and “California” came on. Damn song killed me. Always made me think of Annabelle. Told that woman I never deserved her. Said as much from day one. She called it destiny how we met, a series of events that “shouldn’t have happened, but did nonetheless.” A set of keys locked in a car. A visit to a random apartment. Her running late for E-dae ’cause she cut herself on a piece of glass, leaving a permanent mark on her left hand. Both of us now scarred, if in different places.
I was in Daeheung-dong at the time. Had dashed into a little mom and pop “super” to get some Xylitol gum. Not before locking myself out of the car, tho. I hate making mistakes. Not an option. Ever. Mistakes are for New Age freaks and religious types who think you can learn from past errors. Gain power in redemptive self-forgiveness. But when you’ve got nothing inside you that deserves redemption — and nobody else taking care of No. 1 — you don’t let yourself slip up.
There weren’t any payphones around, so I went to the nearest apartment. Walked up a set of stairs and knocked on the door. My Korean was about as shit as it comes, but I had a couple of stock phrases. Water was pouring out from under the front door, which made me think a pipe had burst. The woman didn’t flinch when she opened up and saw the deep red incision, quarter-inch thick, running along one side of my face. Courtesy of being launched face-first through a plate-glass window by a gang of pussies who thought attacking a random teenager, four on one, was cool.
—Dowajusaeyo, I said to a five-foot-nothing Korean woman. She smelled like a freshly cut pomegranate, the blood from its broken seeds running through your fingers.
God damn did she have a good laugh at my Korean. Her hair was wet and she had that frantic look to her people get when they’re running late.
—What can I do for you? she said in English, opening her mouth and revealing a gap in her front teeth. I liked that, specially ’cause she seemed comfortable smiling with her imperfection.
—You’ve got water running out of your place.
She eyed me something suspicious, but still gave me a half-grin, like I was missing the joke.
—That is because I have just been showered.
Her accent was almost dead-on, but that one sentence told me this wasn’t her first language. It was still way better than most Koreans speak English, which kind of intrigued me. She was different.
—You always shower in your front hall?
These pre-war and late-’50s buildings that weren’t outfitted with indoor washrooms once upon a time in Korea were a severe pain the ass. With Annabelle’s place, a toilet and showerhead had been installed at the front door, directly beside the entrance where you took off your shoes.
—I am a little running late, so…
—Can I use your phone? I’m locked out of my car, I explained, craning my neck in the direction of the shiny black Audi. Thing stuck out like a sore thumb here. The only other vehicles nearby were blue Hyundai flat-bed trucks with orange tarps covering whatever it was they were selling from the back. Megaphone speakers on top of the cab announcing their wares in Korean as they moved from one neighbourhood to the next.
She considered this while looking up into my eyes — about a foot and a half — and studying me.
—You do not have a mobile?
God damn did she laugh hard again.
—Come inside. But make it quick, please. I must have been going sooner.
Weeks later, as we lay in bed and I asked her about the first time we met, wondering why the hell she let a man who could pass for a convict into her home, she said it was my eyes, not the scar, which she’d initially noticed. My eyes were shit brown and right about the least physically appealing quality about me. After the scar, that is.
—It wasn’t the colour of your eyes. It was the strength, the trust. Yours were very much powerful. Like the gravity of a black hole. Do you see what I am saying?
She brushed some dirt-brown hair off my forehead and ran a finger down the length of my scar.
—As an adoptee, I only did trusted a person if they have a good soul since I can remember, she added.
Compliments don’t do much for me. Never have. They’re for weak people who need child-like reassuring about things they should already know. Or for idiots who can’t see reality for what the hell it is. In that whole speech Annabelle delivered, the one thing that caught my attention was her being adopted — I knew what it was like growing up in foster homes.
Even after we’d gotten together, me warning her I was damaged goods whose best by date was long gone, she wouldn’t give up. Felt like some kind of perverted selflessness on her part. As if saving me would make her feel better. Told her she was wasting her time.
She was all laid-back about this. Not naïve, ’cause she was way smarter than me and had serious life experience. Just totally different from other adoptees I’d met. She wasn’t paranoid about trusting people she believed in. Part of what made that smile of hers so damn nice to lay your eyes on. It was true, genuine, even if the teeth were a little fucked up. Annabelle said things like Accepting people for who they are, shit I wasn’t used to hearing except from kids who’d grown up with their real parents. Didn’t seem right, but it felt okay. Coming from someone who’d gone through the system, that is.
Still, the less I talked, the more she respected my silence. The higher the wall that went up, the longer Annabelle waited there. Without complaining. This pissed me off early on. When you don’t have any respect for yourself, it’s pretty god damn aggravating when someone talks about the good in you. But there was no good in me.
That same night, lying on our backs and passing a cigarette between us, I told her I’d have to leave one day, without warning, no final good-byes. Our bodies were slick, tho somehow Annabelle still smelled like flowers. She looked at me, eyes unwavering.
—Then we will live in the present. I am not worried about what is happening tomorrow, Alex. Do you understand what I am saying? It was destiny we met.
Destiny, astrologers, palm readers, star gazers — I hated all that crap.
—Too many things came together and we both made a choice. Your keys in the car. No mobile device. Me still at home. You coming to find me at my school the next day. Asking me out for coffee like a shy boy.
—I don’t much believe in fate.
—Not fate, Alex. Something brought us together and we made responsibility for our own story.
Thinking back to that night, I could feel the temperature on my anger thermometer rising. Every time I dredged up those memories, I hated myself a little more. For getting so attached to her. For actually caring about Annabelle.