August 18, 1945
We were waiting on the north shore of the river for the boat that would ferry us to safety to a town on the other side. Father was talking to the men who had arranged to take us across. He should not speak too much. This is what got us into this mess in the first place.
He likes to talk, mainly about things of which he knows very little. Like God. What possessed him to take on the role of church elder five years ago we will never know. My mother protested at the time, accusing him of taking on the Americans’ religion. She was wrong, of course. Father was not baptized into Christianity for the sake of pleasing any outsiders, though he did like to please people. Father actually believed. He was a true convert to the religion of blood and broken bones. On a broken cross. He sang the western hymns. I had never known a Korean man to sing so much about the state of his heart. It was shameful to me and I knew it was embarrassing to Mother.
So when the pastor came to our house last night warning Father of the approaching Communists, I understood why Mother yelled at him when the pastor left. He had brought danger upon our house, our family. I heard the pastor tell Father, “You are target number one.” I understood that. Father is easily the most western man in Samdeung. He inherited his taste for fedoras and slim cigarettes from the Americans who would occasionally wander through town, praising the virtues of hard work and personal accountability. In our steel factory, he instituted the practice of “bonus pay” for workers who, in his eyes, “earned it.” Of course this rattled the local Communists, but they were such a minority that Father found them easy to ignore.
So here we were in late summer, the sun beginning its steady decline under the horizon, lighting up the clouds in a dazzling display as if reminding us that all things have their moment in the sun until darkness falls, drowning all dreams.
Tae-Han was feeling a chill so Mother wanted to start a fire but the men forbid her. They said it would attract attention. My mother said we were too far from the road for anyone to notice.
Then, one of the men said, “Not the notice of men.”
The other men looked away as if hiding a shameful secret.
Or fear. The way children look away when forced to admit a phobia of heights or spiders.
My mother asked how they were supposed to cook our dinner, and the men just shrugged again. Frustrated, my mother uncovered a large pot of cold rice and another of stringed spicy beans and served them to everyone, including the men.
Father then called for everyone to bow their heads for grace, and that is when one of the men grabbed Father’s arm.
“Don’t,” he said. “Not here.”
Father looked at him, challengingly.
“He who does not give thanks for small blessings gives thanks for nothing,” Father said.
“You have it wrong,” said the man. “We are very thankful. Especially for our lives. That’s why we would rather you didn’t pray.”
The other men grumbled in agreement. I had no idea what he was talking about.
Father straightened his back, his palms out as if Jesus himself before a crowd.
“Brothers, what do you have against praying? Are we among friends or not?” Father scanned all their faces.
“We have nothing against prayer,” said the man. “But something does.”
“What do you mean something?” asked Father.
The man said nothing, and turned his head towards the river.
I peered out over its dark waters. It was wide, and looked much too fast to swim safely. It meandered silently around the next bend, the shores gently sloping into the currents.
Was there something in the river? Is that what he meant?
I stared at that river for the rest of the evening as my parents prepared our camp. The ferry was not due until the morning.
I awoke in the middle of the night under a ceiling of stars and a half moon off to the south where we were hoping to be. Tae-Han was pressed up against me, rolled up in his blankets from head to toe. My nose was cold to the touch so I pulled Tae-Han’s blanket gently up over his face for warmth. I turned towards the sounds that had woken me.
Father was still up talking to one of the men. They were standing closer to the river. I strained my neck to try to hear what they were saying.
“I worry about my youngest,” I heard Father say. “He is not built strong. My oldest I worry about too. But only because he wants to be a writer one day.”
The other man chuckled quietly. I could see them passing a clay bowl of makkoli back and forth between drinks.
“Why didn’t you want me to pray?” asked Father.
The man finished taking a large sip from the clay bowl before passing it back to Father.
“You ever have those American Christians pass through Samdeung?”
“Of course,” said Father.
“We had one here with his wife. Five years ago. He was a good speaker. So when he announced a baptism in the river, everyone came.”
Father passed the bowl back to the man who took another sip from it before continuing.
“I think there were almost three hundred people here lined up to be baptized. People were being dunked and they yelled with joy at the promise of salvation. And then this woman gave him her son. They were well known here. She was a pansori singer. Not the best, but she put a lot of emotion into her singing. He accompanied her on a barrel drum even though he had some kind of handicap. He was very thin, and drool ran down the side of his mouth. And he had trouble walking. But he could still hit that drum hard. With passion. Anyway, when she showed up with her son, you could see the American was nervous.
“I can still see him taking the boy, struggling to get him in the water. And you could tell the boy wanted no part of this. He was gripping a small bouquet of yellow lilies he had picked that day. We would always see him in our streets with such an arrangement of flowers as he sat next to his mother, singing and begging for money or food. His mother was known to tell the neighbours how yellow was a calming colour for him. So when a Japanese soldier handed him some while marching through our town, the boy was entranced. But on the day of his baptism, I remember the way he turned his face towards his mother. Even though his condition made his face always look sad, I could tell he was even sadder that he had to do this to please his mother. And I can tell you, she did not understand what baptism was. She thought God had cursed her son, and that if the boy was baptized, God would heal him.
“So when the boy felt the strange white man speaking in an alien tongue put his hands on him and the man started pulling him backwards into the deep, cold water, the boy started to panic. He began kicking and screaming. At one point he even hit the man in the face. But the man kept pulling, yelling even louder, looking up at the sky. He tried pushing the boy’s head in the water, but the boy kept fighting. So the man pulled him into the deeper current, trying his best to calm the panicking boy.
“And then the man slipped. His feet had given way under his feet. But by this point, he was the boy’s only source of balance, so when the man went underwater, so did the boy.
“The mother started screaming. Men jumped in the river. And by the time the first man reached the American and pulled him up out of the water, the boy was gone. And then we heard the mother screaming, pointing downriver. And I saw the head of the boy bobbing up and down in the current before he disappeared around the far bend over there.”
I could barely make out in the faint moonlight an arm outstretched to the west. Father had not spoken during this whole time, which is a rare occurrence. Having Father interrupt speakers was, for him, a part of the storytelling experience. A story was not a story unless he could somehow insert himself into the middle of it. If it was some small local gossip, my father somehow knew the subject of the scandal. If it was a tale of the beginning of the universe and God’s intention for it, my father knew he was part of that purpose. So it surprised me that he actually listened.
Then Father spoke. “What happened to the boy?”
“We found his body on the far shore a few miles downstream,” he said. “His mother was now alone in the world except for a few neighbors who didn’t much like the woman, but still felt sorry for her son.”
The man then cleared his throat. “He was still clutching the flowers when they found him.”
I could see Father turn fully towards the river, his back to me. And I heard him drink deeply from the bowl.
“That is tragic,” said Father.
“They buried him out in that field,” said the man, pointing to a place I could not see. “His mother made sure to keep his tombstone adorned with the fresh yellow lilies the Japanese brought over from Mount Asama. The ones her son always carried around.”
“Is his mother still here?” asked Father.
I heard the man’s footsteps on the stony beach as he paced.
“She was inconsolable,” he said. “She would stand in the town center and sing pansori by herself. No drum. Just her voice echoing loudly through the streets. She had no tone, no drama. Just the same level of emotion in every line like some street merchant calling out her wares in the alleys. And it was always the same song.”
The man now crouched dramatically, and in his best pansori voice, began to howl these words.
You came to me in the light of the moon,
And that is how you left me, my boy.
My sweet, innocent child.
The waters took you from me.
And I need you to return.
Come back to me,
Or prepare a place for me beside you,
Where darkness hides my shame.
I was moved. I had heard pansori many times but this particular rendition of her mournful wailing, knowing it was about real, fresh loss – it struck me deeply.
“She sang this every hour, every day for many days,” he continued, now standing upright, taking a deep drink after his performance. “I like a good pansori here and there, but without the drum, it’s just a crazy, lonely woman crying in the streets.”
“But you have not answered if she is still living in town,” said Father.
“In town, yes,” the man answered. “But not living.” He turned and pointed somewhere I, again, could not see. “She is buried next to her son. They found her by the river, very close to where they found her son.”
“She threw herself into the river?” asked Father.
“That is what most say,” said the man. “But there is another theory. A rumor.” The man looked around before continuing. “Some say they saw something climbing out of the river a few nights after the child’s death. It had human shape. And it limped. Just like the boy.”
I could hear him taking a long drink before continuing.
“Some feared it was the ghost of the boy. Some think it was the boy himself returned from the grave in bodily form. And some,” he said, “some people believe that the boy is a holy abomination, a product of a failed baptism. And it is these stories that make some people believe that he crawled out of the water to take his mother back with him. He heard her songs, her entreaties, and being the obedient, dutiful son, complied.”
I suddenly felt the cold wrap itself around me, my ears and nose chilled from exposure.
And then I heard Father praying.
“What are you doing?” protested the man. “We don’t pray by the river.”
“If there is a curse here, it must be lifted through prayer,” said Father. “Through God comes all grace.”
“There is no room for grace here,” said the man, his voice rising. “Your prayers will seem like mockery to him. You will stir his anger.”
In the dim light, I saw Father standing near the shore, his arms raised to Heaven. A hushed prayer stole forth from his lips.
And I could hear the river churning. Massive. Eternal. Moving.
It was well past midnight when I awoke again. It was a sound. A splash, as if someone were bathing in the river. But I could have been dreaming given the stories I had heard that night. I was still groggy from sleep. I turned to Tae-Han, thinking it might have been him who made that sound. I carefully sat up without disturbing anyone and looked at the sky. Stars were everywhere and the moon now hung higher in the night sky, lighting up the trees and hills around us.
Father was still not back in his bed roll. I silently moved away from the makeshift camp in search of him.
That is when I heard it. At first it was so faint that I thought it was the breeze whistling through the trees. But then it grew steadily in volume to a hoarse whisper.
And then, through the trees, the words drifted towards me.
“I have waited in darkness
My everlasting night to your spark of days.”
It sounded like the low, barely coherent sing-song ramblings of a drunken man, quietly growling a lazy pansori. And he sounded like any one of the men from the village we had met earlier that day. So I walked towards the voice. I thought if I follow the drunk, I would find Father.
I cautiously walked towards the sound but I had to be careful. It might be one of the men just relieving himself in the bushes, singing his inebriated tune to himself.
My eyes were adjusting to the moonlight when I saw the figure slowly stumbling under the trees. He was clearly drunk. But instead of returning to the camp, the man walked further away from the river.
I followed at a distance. I could see something in his hand as he swung his arms. Probably a jar of makkoli or soju. And he still sang as he walked, his voice a soft, raspy timbre as if he were in pain.
“The water does not soothe nor save.
Its chill stings like a flame of ice.”
He was bent over, lurching with each step, one arm by his side as if paralyzed. I followed slowly, cautiously, careful to stay in the shadows in case Father suddenly caught me trying to follow him.
I lost track of how long I had been following this man when I realized I could no longer hear the river. I had been engaged in my crouching and hiding from tree to tree for quite a while. I looked farther ahead and saw that the man had left the trees and was now shuffling through some tall grass in a clearing.
Father was nowhere to be seen. But I thought perhaps he was passed out in that field ahead and this man was returning to him with another jar of the local drink.
I was so low in the grass that I was almost crawling. I occasionally propped myself up on one knee to make sure the man was still in sight.
And that is when he sang the words that I know will haunt me the rest of my life.
Oh Mother, I have come for you.
The waters have washed me clean,
And they will cleanse you too
So we may together rest
On the cool stones
Where the deep hides all secrets.
I was frozen to my spot. Crouched, hidden by the grass, I found myself trying not to breath for fear of being heard. And then as carefully as I could, I peered over the grass.
I could see him limping away from me in the light of the moon, his last words wrought with deep pain, laced with a terrifying sadness I had never heard before.
Then he stopped. I could see his silhouette, his head turned toward something on the ground. He stooped down, and I heard something that chilled me even more.
I heard weeping. But this time, his voice was different. Changed.
It was the crying of a boy.
Frightened beyond my wits, I crouched as low as I could. I was too afraid to look for fear of not only being seen by him, but of seeing his face. It was not something I wanted to look at for his moon-tinged figure and the ghostly sound of his voice had already sent my imagination reeling at the possible horror producing those sounds. I had once seen a body dragged out of a river. It had been face down for many days when it was found. The face looked melted, the eyes eaten away by fish. The hair long and wispy, plastered to the forehead. That image now came to my mind as I fought the temptation to see it suddenly animated, its low hanging mouth coming for me.
And then, I heard its footsteps. Closer than I had remembered them to be.
I looked up just in time to see the top of his head moving towards me.
And I ran. I had never run so fast in my life. I didn’t even look behind me for fear of seeing him hovering right over my shoulder, reaching a ghastly, decomposing hand towards me.
I found myself running out from under the tree canopy and hurdling the logs lit by the moon. And as I raced forward, I suddenly saw the outline of my family’s camp.
And I stopped. I did not want to lure that thing towards my family.
I was shaking, but I had no choice. And, slowly, I turned to confront my fate, this entity that did not belong on this soil.
And there was nothing there. I scanned my surroundings and all was clear. It was all stillness and silence. My breath was coming in heaves, and then, feeling dizzy, I bent over and vomited onto the grass.
I must have collapsed because that is where Mother found me. I was woken at the break of dawn with her kneeling over me, gently slapping my cheeks. She yelled for help and a blanket while others rushed to start a fire to warm my body. I was shaking from a night in the cold.
“Where is your father?” Mother asked in a panic.
I had no idea what she was talking about. Surely Father would have made his way back to camp by now. Even though he liked to drink, that never stopped him from returning to my mother’s arms each night.
Men were scurrying everywhere, calling out to each other as they searched the river bank.
Several hours later, Father was still missing. We did not know what to do. Tae-Han was crying, worried about Father. Mother put on a brave face for us, but I could tell from the mens’ faces that they had little confidence in Father’s safety.
“He shouldn’t have prayed over the river,” said a voice.
I turned to see the man who had been drinking with Father last night. Some men nodded their heads. Mother was too distracted to notice. The ferry was coming at any moment and Father was nowhere to be found. Most of our money had been spent arranging this boat to take us safely to a village on the other side of this river several miles upstream. If we missed this boat, we were stuck, and the Communists would surely find us.
Mother was pacing, distraught, knowing that if Father did not show up, we would have to leave without him. That is what he would expect of us.
I rose to my feet, feeling slightly better, wrapped in the warmth of the blanket. I told Mother I had to find a private place in the woods. She told me to make it quick and to cover it up so no one steps on it.
I looked at the line of trees and started walking. After a few minutes, I was back in the place I had run through just hours earlier. But now, there was no horror here, just the tranquility of the forest.
I kept walking and I soon found myself back in the clearing where in the clarity of day I could see the beauty of the place, nestled in a peaceful mountain valley. The tall grass waved slowly like seaweed.
I kept walking to where I had seen him stoop.
And there it was, in the middle of the field.
Lots of them. I was standing in the centre of a makeshift cemetery.
And off to the side, I found the ones I knew would be there: two unmarked graves.
One of them had fresh yellow lilies laying on it.
Undisturbed, at peace.
Like a beautiful, wilted carcass.
[My grandfather never found his father. He caught that ferry and travelled for weeks, leaving North Korea with his mother and younger brother.]
He never saw any of his relatives again.