Covering faces with iridescent silken skirts
Crying & screaming
All the courtesans plunged into the water
Like flowers scattering in winds ...
They floated down the Paek-ma River on a pontoon that smelled of gas and roasted garlic. Synthesized folk music blasted from the boat’s speakers, and a leathery man in plaid socks stamped his foot, shouting “Ya! Ya! Ya!” Two grandmothers clapped their hands. A bead of sweat ran down Jah-Yun’s throat.
Roy scraped a paper ticket across his forehead and stared down into raw sewage. What was it that Paek-ma meant? White horse? The river was a hundred yards wide, muddy, flat — completely devoid of bucking bronco rapids or anything horsy. Cigarette butts bobbed in the boat’s miniature wake. As far as Roy could tell, colorless garbage was the only “white” left in the water. To the boat’s right, an unimpressive rock face rose a hundred feet in the air. It was smooth, not jagged and menacing as Roy had expected. He glanced from a 12-hundred won ticket in his hand down into murky brown water and then back up to the cliff. Red Chinese characters were stamped on rock.
“What does that say?” he yelled to Jah-Yun.
“It say Nak-Hwa-Am,” the secretary replied, smiling. “Cliff where women jumped off to escape! Here we are!”
The foot-stomping man sprang off the boat, onto a rickety dock. Roy guessed he was in his 70s, but it was hard to tell. Koreans aged well. On his trips off the military base, he had seen marketplace grandmothers squatting all day, shucking garlic into bowls. They must be well into their 80s. And here was Jah-Yun, pushing 40 in tight Capri pants, skin smooth as a china plate. Of course, her husband had died years ago. Perhaps she was still searching for a partner, Roy thought. Taking care of her appearance, not becoming unkempt like a married woman.
He thought of his own wife, Margaret, kissing him goodbye at the airport, wiping blush-stained tears on a sweatshirt sleeve. Jah-Yun wore her years like an evening gown, but Margaret’s version of 40 was more of a tattered bathrobe. He imagined her stepping out of the shower, wet poodle perm smashed to head, deflated party balloon breasts, tiny splotch on her abdomen that he had kissed so many times. For the first few months of his tour, Roy cried every night, victim of a homesickness that caused filmstrips of the past to play on the back of his eyelids. In the silence before sleep, he ached to lay his head on the rolling ocean of Margaret’s belly.
Comfort came in the form of distraction. Roy played soccer with the soldiers from Young-san. He whittled a bird out of a tree branch. And finally, he was introduced to the new secretary in the 51st Transportation Unit. The one with inquisitive eyes who taught him Korean words. The one who wore red, silk blouses, rhinestone rings on almost every finger and who told him her name meant “nature.” The one who rented a car that morning and escorted him on his first solo outing on the Korean peninsula. Jah-Yun. The ultimate distraction.
Roy blinked and realized he was the only passenger still seated on the pontoon. The old man was taking Jah-Yun’s hand as she high-heeled her way down the boat’s ladder. Roy felt heat rising inside his skin, hotter than July sun beating down on the exposed side. He didn’t appreciate the assumption that ugly Americans lacked any sense of chivalry. The old man turned and smiled at Roy with two stacks of tea-stained teeth.
He wheezed something in Korean and extended a raisin paw to Roy, as well. Roy ignored the gesture, clambering down by himself and taking Jah-Yun by the elbow.
“Ai go!” she exclaimed, as he pulled her down the dock. “Where are you going? That ajoshi ask you for money. We have to pay again, to get to the top.”
Roy stammered an apology and began rummaging through his backpack. He pulled out a wad of money, wet from the leaky water bottle in his bag, and squinted at a mish-mash of bills. Jah-Yun waited a minute to see if Roy would get it right. Then she plucked two damp strips from Roy’s hand, clicked her way back down the dock and paid the man herself.
* * *
The hilltop pagoda was crammed with tourists – ice cream-covered children, stocky fathers, young women in high heels, and old couples in plaid socks and brightly colored visors. The crowd pushed hot air around with paper fans and listened to a young man give a speech. Roy and Jah-Yun stood off to one side. In front of them, a rocky slope curved down to a fence, then dropped straight to water. Roy couldn’t understand what the pimply faced tour guide was saying, but he laughed politely with the crowd when he sensed a joke. He still had his hand on Jah-Yun’s elbow.
“He is saying about Paek-je dynasty,” Jah-Yun whispered. Roy was the only white face in a sea of brown, and he wondered if Jah-Yun felt uncomfortable speaking English out here, away from the military base. “This was capital city of King Uija. He was very great king for Paek-je dynasty.”
The tour guide waved his hand toward the forest, then made slashing motions – swords chopping through branches. His tone grew louder. Jah-Yun’s whisper blew around in fan-swirled air, and in an effort to hear, Roy pulled her closer.
“In year 660, Korean Shilla dynasty and Chinese Dang dynasty unite to make a new kingdom,” Jah-Yun breathed, staring at the dark army of trees. “They are very strong together. Many men and much power. More power than King Uija. They come to here and burn palace — destroy everything! Ka!”
She slashed an imaginary sword, ripping her delicate elbow out of Roy’s grasp. The tour guide clasped his hands together and began to speak in a funeral parlor droll. His eyes were glazed over with the false sadness of a man who had condensed an epic event down into a 10-minute script. Roy pursed his lips and looked to see if Jah-Yun was doing the same.
“Oh, now very sad part,” she said, and Roy was surprised to see Jah-Yun was approximately 1,400 years away from where he was standing. Tears welled up in her eyes. “Sae-sang eh!! What a world! King Uija has so many beautiful women. Castle ladies.”
“Courtesans,” Roy said, grateful to help with translation.
“Yes, 3,000 court ladies,” Jah-Yun nodded, as if she were agreeing with herself. “They are very beautiful — like flowers. Young and innocent. Only wanting pure and good life for old king. Shilla men and Dang men want to sleep with court ladies. But ladies do not want. So they run. Soldiers chase them to here, and because they are very good and loyal persons ... they jump.”
The tour guide, Jah-Yun and the entire crowd turned to stare at the river.
“Three thousand women fall on rocks and die in water.”
Roy listened to reverent whispers around him as he contemplated the short drop and calm river. He imagined the scene — Shilla and Dang soldiers roaring through the forest like a thousand Ghengis Khans, court ladies leaping gracefully over fallen trees, halting at the cliff-top to grasp their heaving breasts. He nudged the women forward with his mind. Jump. But try as he might, Roy could not visualize a mass suicide occurring at this calm spot in the river. In his dream, the women’s dresses filled with air, and they floated to the water gently, like silk balloons. Three thousand bodies could not possibly have broken against the smooth face of Nak-Hwa-Am.
“Jah-Yun, if they only fell a short distance like this, they probably didn’t die,” he finally said. “I mean, I don’t see any rocks. And they probably just ran to the edge, stopped and then fell over when the girls behind ran into them. Hey, maybe they’re still down there ... Hello!”
He hoped Jah-Yun would find his observation entertaining. Sometimes in the office, she laughed at what he was saying and swatted him with a rolled-up paper. Now, she turned her gaze directly at him for what he suddenly realized was the first time that afternoon. Mascara mixed with tears to form chocolate syrup in the comers of her eyes. There were wet circles under her armpits. He had never seen her outside of an air-conditioned room, never seen her vulnerable to the elements. And despite the runny makeup and curly hairs plastered to her brow, he was quite sure he had never seen anything so exquisite as Jah-Yun’s tear-stained face.
“I’m sorry,” he said. “I just meant they probably didn’t jump, and if they did, they probably didn’t die.”
“You were not here,” she said simply, then turned to stare at the rocky slope dropping off into space.
* * *
At that moment, Jah-Yun was not exactly angry, only tap-tap hada — trapped inside of herself. She was frustrated that Roy’s understanding of Nak-Hwa-Am was so small. The tour guide spoke quickly, and she was not able to give the American sergeant a translation large enough to satisfy him. She wanted to say the face of earth changes over time. She wanted to tell him the new king said “3,000 courtesans” because he wanted King Uija to look like a pervert. Perhaps the number was not exact. But Roy could not appreciate what he could not see.
Historically, beautiful virgins belonged to the king the same way elaborate castles belonged to the king. They housed him at night and kept him warm. When a new king took the throne, property shifted ownership. Bodies traded hands — in the plunder, perhaps they traded hands again. And again. Jah-Yun wanted Roy to hear footsteps thundering against the forest floor, silk dresses tearing, sobs howling together with screams. She wanted Roy to understand the only thing that mattered — many women died in this spot, eternally innocent. They drowned with the title to their own property intact.
But her mind worked slowly in the heat. English words escaped her. In fact, she was only able to recall the simple words, words she had known since grade school. Now her mind was drawn to three letters: B-I-G.
Funny sound, like pig. She thought about Roy’s backpack and wondered why American people carried big things with them everywhere. Especially on such a hot day. These were the dog days in Korea — similar to American dog days. She remembered studying the origin of that term in university. Romans called the hottest weeks of summer caniculares dies because they believed the Dog Star, rising with the sun, added to its heat. If any time carried two heats, she supposed it was these few unbearable weeks in late summer. But Korean people knew a different meaning to dog days. Dog was a medicinal meat for heat victims, and Posint’ang — dog soup — was to be eaten now to cool the body and to give power. It was especially popular with men.
Roy cringed when they discussed this particular custom back in the office.
“How can you eat a dog?” he shouted in his big voice. “In America, we keep them as pets!”
She tried to explain that Koreans also kept small dogs as pets. They raised large dogs for meat the same way Americans raised cows. And really, what was more cruel about eating one animal over another?
“I don’t know,” Roy cried, “but I know I love dogs like people! Especially big ones!”
Jah-Yun imagined what America must look like with its big, red-faced men, big houses with big backyards and big dogs running everywhere. “Big,” she said to herself. “Big pig. Big dog. Big pig hog.”
Big.Find more imaginative stories and poems ... return to the Summer Fiction 2001 home page
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.