By Myke Cole
from Black Gate 13, copyright © 2009 by New Epoch Press. All rights Reserved.
The men were bedding down. Soon, only the sentries stood, vague gray outlines in the dying firelight, rolling the bamboo shafts of their guns nervously between their palms. Their skin looked corpselike, leached of all color save the dull crimson of the cooking fire embers.
Ch’oe invoked the Willow Goddess of Mercy. She was neither ancestor nor Buddhist sage, but she was kind and beautiful and Ch’oe remembered visiting her shrine in Hanyang when he was a boy. Her statue had been draped in perfumed silk. The smell reminded him of his mother and eldest sister. He silently called upon her name, and filled his nostrils with the scent out of his memory. The ground was hard and uneven against his back, even through the plates of his armor. But he prayed anyway.
Sweet mother. Grant us all no-chongmyang, that we may die, old in our beds, as men were meant to.
The night swallowed his prayers, but not his fears or the swirling current of his thoughts, and he lay in that harried realm between sleeping and waking, beset by foul dreams of howling Waegu with teeth like knives until the sentries woke him.
“Lord, there are Waegu on the fells.” The sentry’s eyes were wide, reflecting the gray mud beneath Ch’oe’s back. Ch’oe sat up, planted his helmet on his head and moved to the edge of the camp. Dawn had just begun to break; the sun was the same color as the spent fires, crimson embers striped with gray swathes of ash. The cloying of the river mud was replaced with the metallic chill of the morning dew, and the aching damp in Ch’oe’s neck and shoulders.
Ch’oe reached for his gun, and then noticed with startled horror that he had allowed his match to go out during the night. One of the sentries handed him another. The Waegu stood amidst the rocks several horse-lengths down the river, waist deep in the water. They were not the usual human brigands, but the cunning bonesetters, their concave heads dripping rancid water, hairless monkey bodies sleek with river slime. They gestured to one another with webbed fingers and turned wide-eyes on the chrysanthemum knights.
The sentries stared at Ch’oe for a long moment before he realized they were paralyzed. Their course of action was obvious, and gunshots, not nervous hands, should have awakened him. This was royal land from the Yalu to the coast, but all knew who really ruled, and the sentries could not bring themselves to fire on the river’s true masters. The thought made Ch’oe angry. He checked the powder, loaded a stone into the bamboo tube and pointed the gun down river at the bonesetters. “In the name of his royal majesty, depart!” he shouted. His voice resounded through the river valley, echoing among the boat masts. He could feel his men straighten around him, shamed by their inaction.
Without waiting for a response, he placed the match to the touchhole. The smoke sputtered for a moment before the gun kicked and the water erupted just to the left of the nearest bonesetter. They hissed at him, waving their wiry arms and disappearing beneath the water’s surface.
There was a long silence before one of his men cried out. Ch’oe raced back through the camp. One of the chrysanthemum knights leaned against the boats, weeping. The ancestor portraits had begun to glow with the first rays of the morning sun, their faces looking bloated and waxy in the half-light, as if they had just woken themselves.
“It’s Che-won,” said the man. “They pulled him into the river.” Che-won’s boots had left deep furrows in the mud. His gun had gone under with him, but his sword had snagged a rock and lay in the rushes nearby. There was no trace of blood.
Ch’oe tried to think of something comforting to say and could not. Instead, he ordered the remaining thirteen men further up the bank and had them settle into digging an earthwork while they waited for the yangban’s return.
But the yangban did not return.
Che-won, however, did.
Most of his body, from the waist up, was strung from a tree just beyond the swirling current of the fells. Dark shapes moved in the canopy. A few of the chrysanthemum knights fired at them in vain until Ch’oe ordered them to stop to conserve powder. At length Yi mustered up the courage to cut the body down and bring it back to the camp.
Clutched in one sodden, gray hand was a crushed chrysanthemum blossom.
The complete version of “Naktong Flow” appears in Black Gate 13.