Pansori of an Abandoned Child
He stood preternaturally still; his lean and tiny body straining forward with such tension any bystander would have been convinced he'd fall off the cliff. But the ancient Buddhist monk was in no such danger. His feet wouldn't betray him now, not after eighty-three years of exemplary fealty. The sound was true; he nearly missed it for as often as it was described to him, he never believed he would actually hear it.
The guardian systematically relaxed his body then wrapped his shriveled frame with a warm cloak given to him years ago by a woman so prostrate with grief and guilt over the death of her baby it would've been an unforgivable act of cruelty had he rejected the offering. He looked down at his boots, another grievous trespass of his vows. But he didn't care; was too old to care, and more importantly he still had the memories of the winter when the American soldiers came.
Big men, all of them, and they made big targets. Easy prey. He never understood what logic drove them to march so loudly against enemies who walked so softly. Or believe that just because they were who they were, they could conquer terrain so foreign to them. Then the winter came and with it base cruelty no one, not even the Americans, could escape from.
He grieved for those men still, but like many Koreans he learned to cry quietly. Tears attracted predators, he was taught. Tears attracted wolves, the carrion-eaters, and gi-shin. Tears attracted death.
But death was already coming, beautifully wrapped in snow. It will dangle like icicles from branches frozen in terror by its load, and children will reach out for it, dazzled by its beauty. It always was the children who were attracted to it and paid an inhuman price for their curiosity.
The guardian wondered if it could be prevented this time. Then he remembered the whispers, the talks novitiates held in the secretive dawn, the stories he himself repeated in his foolish youth.
Even then, he thought, even then, it is possible for the outcome to change.
He wondered if he was lying to himself, for it has been so long since he has uttered a falsity, the monk had forgotten what lying felt like.
The desiccated pine needles snapped under his feet as he nimbly trotted down the path. He saw the bottom of the hill and two intrepid hikers - probably newlyweds bravely making their way to enjoy the stunning view on top. Out of respect for his chosen profession he slowed down, pressing hard the heels of his well-worn boots to the ground. His right ankle twisted and the monk's arms pin-wheeled violently as the man tried to regain his balance.
After eighty-three years of faithful service his feet betrayed him. The sound of his right ankle snapping was loud enough for the couple to look up in surprise. They saw the old Buddhist monk pitch forward then tumble down the hill. He was right; they were newlyweds, visiting Haeundae during the wintertime to save some money.
The woman screamed in shock as the monk's body came to a sprawl almost at her feet. Her husband, an internist, immediately began to check for vital signs. The bump on the back of the neck told the young man there would be no need for him to initiate emergency life-saving procedures. He looked up at his wife and immediately embraced her as she began sobbing.
"Such a bad omen," Young-Sook wept into his chest. "Doh-Yun..."
He hushed her into silence though her thoughts echoed in his mind long before she voiced them.
Death had come the moment the monk acknowledged its presence.
Seung-Keung paced the hallway once more, knowing his twin sister and mother would give him their patented reprimanding look. Usually, he wouldn't care what his sister thought, but he was always cautious around his mother, especially since the death of his father.
"Stop it," Hyo-Jung hissed at her brother. "You're making a scene."
Seung-Keung froze for a moment to throw a sarcastic look at her before resuming his pacing, his wet boots squeaking loudly on the linoleum floor.
A rush of footsteps made three heads turn and the mother stood up, her hands automatically cupping her swollen belly. The pregnancy was well into its seventh month and she was just finally getting used to the ungodly weight that was her abdomen.
Doh-Yun, her only brother, quickly helped her adjust her stance. His attentiveness shaming the two children who looked at each other with pure chagrin on their faces.
"How is she?" The mother asked. "It must have been terrible to witness the accident."
"Young-Sook has been sedated," Doh-Yun replied. "She was pretty shook up by it. I have to admit I'm not dealing with it that much better either. The poor man, he shouldn't have suffered such a pathetic end."
"Do they know the cause of death yet?" Seung-Keung blurted out.
"Yes, the soles of his boots were worn smooth and there was ice all over the path. And he was old, his eyesight was probably pretty much gone."
"I am sorry for his passing," Hyo-Jung said sadly.
"He will be looked after," The mother said soothingly. "Blessed men always are."
"What was he doing up there?" Seung-Keung asked.
"Your guess is good as mine," Doh-Yun answered. "I can't figure it out and neither can the detectives."
"He was a monk," Hyo-Jung said. "They have their reasons, and surely it must have been a good one for such an old man to be out in this frigid cold. Besides, it is not our place to judge or speak of."
"No, but it won't stop you from gossiping about it with your friends tomorrow." Seung-Keung said with a smirk.
Before his sister could reply the mother gave a smart slap on the son's shoulder. The baleful look that followed the chastisement silenced the boy from needling his sister any further.
Doh-Yun managed to smile. "I'm going to stay with Young-Sook tonight. I managed to wheedle my way out of visiting hours. You kids should go anyway, school day tomorrow."
Hyo-Jung was rinsing out her tea mug when her twin joined her in the tiny kitchen.
"I really hope she's okay. Young-Sook was always a bit on the sensitive side." Seung-Keung said.
His sister gave a worried nod, "Yeah, she tends to get hysterical, doesn't she? I'm still reeling from her wedding mania."
Seung-Keung smiled then laughed softly. "I was so grateful when the cake arrived without a hitch."
Hyo-Jung rolled her eyes, "The way she was going, you'd think they were delivering a nuclear bomb to the reception."
Seung-Keung's laughter grew louder, "And the way she snapped at you when you accidentally stepped on her train! As the Americans say, ‘s*** on a brick'!"
Hyo-Jung bit her tongue; she had long accepted her brother's love of things American, from their music to their creative expletives. "Be careful, better not let mom hear you say that."
"She doesn't understand a word of English."
"So you think. Or hope. I'm going to finish my homework."
"You finished it Friday! What else is left?" Seung-Keung asked.
"I'm talking about the paper due Thursday."
"But that's four days away! You are such a nerd, you give Koreans a bad name."
"To quote one of your favorite American sayings, ‘up yours'."
With that surprising farewell Seung-Keung was left alone to brood on the day's events. In spite of his light attitude he was sincere in his hopes that his favorite uncle and his histrionics-inclined wife will recover quickly from their trauma. To witness the actual death of a monk ... so soon after their wedding did not bode well for the couple.
Seung-Keung loved his uncle. After his father's death it was Doh-Yun who stepped in to support the family both financially and emotionally. The death benefits provided by Hyundai Merchant Marine was just enough for the family to pull by, but with the new baby Seung-Keung knew his mother was worried almost constantly about the money situation. Both he and his sister took on tutoring jobs in order to lighten the financial burden, and the mother was grateful for their efforts. But there never was much spare cash for the two and Seung-Keung knew his mother felt the sting of shame whenever she was unable to provide what was wanted, not needed.
Seung-Keung didn't mind the fact that he didn't have the latest gadgets that rose one's status amongst one's peers in school. But his avaricious love of American rock-n-roll was by no means cheap, and the only reason he even possessed American CDs was because his uncle routinely traveled to LA to visit his friends. And when the man returned, he always had more than a few to give to his nephew. Seung-Keung still remembered the shock he felt when his uncle gave him Black Crowes' Amorica, and this one had the cover with the tiny bikini bottom not quite covering everything it should. A rarity indeed. He remembered the mischievous twinkle in the man's eyes and by silent agreement neither told the mother about that particular CD. And unlike American CDs sold in Korea, the ones from the U.S. weren't edited out. Seung-Keung knew he was one of the proud few who had Eminem's The Eminem Show with all the explicit lyrics. Not that people couldn't afford to buy it off the Internet and have it shipped, but the shipping cost was atrocious and Seung-Keung also took pride in the fact that he had such a cool uncle who understood these things.
Seung-Keung wondered if he should visit the monk's monastery and at least show his respect. He knew it would be impossible for him to make the pilgrimage until the weekend since his after-school schedule was filled with tutoring and club meetings. Seung-Keung also began scheming of ways to convince Hyo-Jung to join him and blow their pitiful allowance on the bus fares and the offering he wanted to give. It was impossible to purchase just with his money, but combined, they could make a good show of it. He was deep into his plans when a noise from the bathroom startled him. Seung-Keung peeked in to see the window slightly open and a box of tissues on the floor.
Wind must have knocked it.
For reasons unknown to him his mother always preferred the bathroom to be slightly above freezing in the morning. Seung-Keung hunched his shoulders against the cold as he closed the window. His hands paused only for a moment as he heard singing from the street below. It wasn't until he was in bed that Seung-Keung realized that though the song was in Pansori style, the lyrics were in a language foreign to him.
That doesn't make sense. Seung-Keung sat up and opened his window, which overlooked the same narrow street. Only silence greeted him.
Seung-Keung woke up rattled, his mind foggy with nightmares that began dissipating the moment he opened his eyes. But the unpleasant aftertaste they left behind lingered well through the day. Hyo-Jung noticed his withdrawn behavior and approached him during their lunchbreak.
"I just had a horrible time sleeping last night," Seung-Keung explained, not wanting to delve further.
"Me too," Hyo-Jung said. "I heard singing last night and the..."
"Wait a minute, you heard it?" Seung-Keung asked, wide-eyed. "And you understood it?"
"Of course I did. I took an entire course on the Pansori of the..."
"I don't want a lecture; just tell me the facts."
Her brother's terse manner would usually get Hyo-Jung's hackles to rise but she could not muster enough energy to feel anything but mild annoyance.
"The dialect's native to these parts; it's old, very old -- I couldn't believe there's anyone left alive who could speak the words so perfectly. It's better than the recordings the teacher used."
"But what is the song about?" Seung-Keung needled.
"It's about ... that practice ... that went on hundreds of years ago."
"Practice? What practice? Slavery? Piracy? What?"
"Sometimes, when ... the winter gets hard ... the villagers would ... you know."
Seung-Keung's eyes widened. "You mean the lottery?"
"Yeah," Hyo-Jung suddenly felt uneasy even discussing such evil things. "That song's about a lottery of children. They'd be ... chosen and herded, then taken to the island."
"Left to die, you mean. I thought they did that with the old folks."
Hyo-Jung frowned, "Me too, but I guess they did it with children too."
"What idiot would sing a song like that in the dead of night? You'd have to be pretty roaring drunk to even touch such a topic."
"There's no shortage of bars or casinos on the beach." Hyo-Jung commented dryly. "Probably some professor from Seoul University taking winter vacation for a few days and got deep into the wine pot."
"But ... they would know better than to sing such a song, wouldn't they? To actually speak the words -- that's just bad luck."
Hyo-Jung nodded reluctantly, "I was shocked to hear the words. But the singer was amazing. It almost hurt to listen to him sing about the loss of his daughter."
"Whoever the idiot was, I pray he won't come back. I don't want him hanging around outside our windows, singing about death."
Hyo-Jung wrinkled her nose. "He probably passed out in the alley."
"Great, just what we need -- police canvassing our building."
Seung-Keung spent the rest of the day firmly entrenched in his school activities if only to drive out the lingering memories of the night before. He met his sister for their bus ride home and the two agreed on a silent pact that neither would speak of the song.
However, curiosity got the better of them and they circled the entire building, half hoping and half dreading in finding the origin of the Pansori. They found nothing, especially a semi-comatose professor from Seoul University. Feeling slightly foolish and more than inclined to forget about the matter entirely, the siblings discussed their plan to make the proper offerings for the Buddhist monk who died such a tragic and needless death.
The elevators were working, which was unusual as they continuously broke down, especially during wintertime. Seung-Keung wanted to make a comment but something made him hold his tongue. He didn't know what it was but he felt the heat on his face rise as they walked down the corridor to their apartment. Without knowing why he slowly looked over his shoulder.
Hyo-Jung was fumbling with her keys when she felt a firm grip on her right forearm.
"What is it?" She asked, turning to her brother.
She saw his wide-eyed stare down the corridor and Hyo-Jung turned to face the same direction. The corridor lights were turning off, one set by set. Usually this was no surprise; the many hotels and casino establishments on the beach often drained electricity to the point that brownouts were common. But, somehow, that encroaching blackness didn't seem familiar. In fact, it felt unnatural because the black was so total.
"Run," Seung-Keung whispered.
Hyo-Jung stood still, mesmerizing by the absence of any light. Only then did she understand why the blackness was so terrifying. At each end of the corridor there were windows and when they entered the building, the sun was still high above.
Where is the sunlight? Hyo-Jung thought. What happened to the sun?
"Run!" Her brother screamed on top of his voice and the two snapped into movement.
Seung-Keung was the taller of the two but Hyo-Jung was the sprinter and in few paces she was dragging her brother down the emergency stairs. They didn't dare look up; they knew if they did the blackness would drop on them like crows and eat their souls.
They burst out into the alleyway and blinked momentarily at the light, feeling gratitude that the sun was still visible.
"This way, this way," Seung-Keung said, "Shilla, we can hide out in Shilla."
Hyo-Jung nodded mutely and the two took off at a racer's pace to the corner noodle shop. Only when they entered the crowded restaurant did they slow their pace. The owner recognized the familiar face and immediately seated them on a table set for 4.
"Is your mother joining you?"
"No, not today." Seung-Keung said. "We ... had a rough day at school and skipped lunch."
"Of course, let me get you some Coke."
Hyo-Jung sat with her hands clenched into fists. Hours later, she would discover her nail impressions deep into the skin.
"What was that?" She asked only after taking a sip of her soda.
Seung-Keung shook his head, "I don't know but whatever it is ... you saw it, right?"
"I saw ... blackness. Where did the sunlight go? There should've been..." Hyo-Jung didn't finish the sentence as she watched her brother's face grow paler.
"Don't turn around," Seung-Keung whispered. "It's right outside the restaurant."
Hyo-Jung quelled the sudden urge to scream. "What?"
"It followed us."
Hyo-Jung felt tears sting her eyes. "Why?"
Seung-Keung dropped his gaze to the table. "Because we saw it. We saw it and it saw us."
"But what is it?"
"I don't know but it's not moving any closer."
"Why not? It chased us."
Seung-Keung frowned. "Because..." He took a look around the restaurant. "There are adults here."
Hyo-Jung took a quick sweep of the room. Her brother was right. It was filled with adults taking a quick bite before going to work or home.
"What's going to happen when they leave?" She asked.
"I'll call mom," Seung-Keung fumbled inside his schoolbag for the cell phone. "I'll tell her we got hassled by some pervert on the bus and to meet us here."
"What if you're wrong about the adults?"
"Got better ideas?" Seung-Keung snapped.
Hyo-Jung shook her head, the tears now visibly welling up in her eyes.
"I'm sorry, I'm sorry," Seung-Keung whispered. "Listen, mom will come and get us and when we get home it'll be okay. Remember? Our dad had that monk friend of his come by and give blessings when we first moved in."
"Will the blessings be strong enough?" Hyo-Jung asked.
"Have to be."
"We can't fall asleep, can we?"
Seung-Keung froze as he considered his sister's words.
"No," He whispered. "We can't."
Seung-Keung and Hyo-Jung told their simple lie and to their relief and anguish their mother believed it. They watched her as she went about her business, oblivious to the singing that was becoming louder with each passing hour. At first Hyo-Jung believed it was outside the bathroom window, but as the sky shed light and dressed itself in darkness, the song and the ghostly singer seemed to have moved into the building until the voice seemed to be located right at their front door. Fortunately the monk's blessings seemed to have worked and held the evil from entering their tiny apartment.
After they were sure their mother was fast asleep both children, by unspoken agreement, returned to the kitchen table. Hyo-Jung decided to take a proactive approach and began writing down the song.
Seung-Keung read what she wrote and his eyes constantly got wider as he flipped from one page to the next.
"This is obscene," He whispered. "They would never..."
"They made a deal with a sea witch." Hyo-Jung answered. "You know how those stories always end!"
"But why would they risk their children's lives?"
"Because they were desperate." The sister replied. "They were starving to death? Who knows what any one of us would do in such desperate circumstances, and because the witch wanted them cursed forever. They stole her child and then murdered the baby out of sheer fear of its mother finding out what they had done."
"So ... what? She still wants to draw blood? She's still looking for revenge? After how many centuries?"
"I think it's the parents who are looking," Hyo-Jung said softly. "I think their souls are cursed by Buddha for what they had done and they can't find rest. Hell wouldn't have them because they were so worthless and certainly nirvana would be denied to them because of what they had done."
"But they were tricked to agreeing with her!" Seung-Keung cried out.
"Doesn't matter in the cosmic wheel," Hyo-Jung said. "It was their choice in the end."
"So ... they left their children ... on the island..."
"To starve to death." Hyo-Jung finished his sentence. "And they weren't able to have any more children after that winter. When they finally got wise to what their bargain really was, it was too late."
"And then their tragedy was reduced to a song?"
"As a warning to all others about bargaining with a sea witch." Hyo-Jung explained. "And you know there are hundreds of stories like this one."
"But they're folktales! Meant to scare us from opening doors to tigers dressed as mothers ... foxes pretending to be courtly ladies..."
"And behind each tale is a moral." Hyo-Jung added. "Remember, no folktale is innocent."
"But this one's alive and singing right outside our door!"
"I can hear as well as you," Hyo-Jung said. "And I think we're not the only ones either."
"What?" Seung-Keung asked.
"If this Pansori is what I think it is, I bet it's also a folktale."
"What are you saying?"
"If it's a folktale from this area, Seung-Keung, then who would know about it?"
Seung-Keung paused, "The monks? The monk who died ... there has to be a connection!"
"Too much of a coincidence not to be," Hyo-Jung echoed. "So tomorrow we visit the monastery, and I bet they will be able to see that blackness."
"Let's hope they know what to do about it because I am too scared to even come up with a plan."
The siblings left the apartment with their mother and followed her to her bus stop before taking off on their own. They were careful to take the same route before doubling back and waiting for the bus that would take them into the mountains. Fortunately, by that time the streets were filled with early morning commuters. However, both discovered that they were able to hear the singing over their CD players and soon abandoned any idea of drowning out the awful music with Seung-Keung's American CDs.
The bus driver noticed them and openly asked, "Are you cutting school?"
"No, we have been excused from school today," Hyo-Jung lied. "We ... saw the monk die..."
The driver immediately looked contrite, "I am sorry. I read about that and knew there were witnesses. Going to the monastery to pay your respects then?"
"Yes," Seung-Keung answered. "We were unable to afford to do it until today."
The bus driver opened his wallet and pulled out generous amount of bills. "Here's some for your prayers." He said, "Don't think anything of it. Good to see kids think about these things nowadays. Sit down, I'll try to get there as fast as possible."
"Thank you," Hyo-Jung said.
"Shameful thing," Bus driver whispered. "Bad luck for all of us if you ask me, a holy man dying like that."
With that dark statement the driver earnestly began plowing through morning traffic, proving he was going to try his best to keep his word.
Hyo-Jung closed her eyes, though more out of fear than exhaustion. She knew if the monks were unable to help them both her brother and she were doomed. It took nearly an hour before they saw the towering gate of the monastery come into view. The two got off only few feet away from the doors but both immediately began running as soon as they exited the bus. They nearly tripped over themselves trying to come to an abrupt halt when they saw an old monk standing at the entrance. He was poised like he was expecting them.
"You came," He said then glanced behind them. "And brought it with you."
Hyo-Jung began to cry, her voice shrill as she begged, "Don't turn us away. It wasn't our fault. I swear..."
"No, of course not." The monk said and stepped aside. "Enter."
The children scrambled in and immediately noticed the singing dying.
"It can't come in," Seung-Keung said. "It can't enter!"
The monk shook his head, "They won't. They denied Buddha's hand and instead turned to evil for help. They were terribly arrogant then, and they remain so even in limbo. But they will follow soon enough. They have no choice."
"What can we do?" Seung-Keung asked.
"You two were the first who saw them? And you are brother and sister?"
They nodded in unison.
"Then we pray. The ghosts are fixed on you now because you heard their misery and understood. And by doing so they marked you as theirs. Selfish they were, selfish they are now. But we must be merciful and release them from their eternal torment. Follow me."
The children trotted after the monk, their faces etched with relief as the slight drumming of gourd drums greeted their ears. The monk led them to the center chamber where a healthy flame throbbed in a large iron bowl sitting in the middle of the table. On the ancient desk were blank scrolls and a ceramic inkwell with a brush whittled from a willow tree. And behind the table, sidled against the west wall were two rows of monks in kneeling position, chanting their prayers while beating their gourd drums. Their eyes were closed and to the uninitiated eye, they seemed to be falling asleep. In reality they were fully awake and reciting prayers -- powerful words to ward off powerful evil. The monk sat in front of the table and gestured for the children to sit next to him.
"First, let me write your names."
"My name is Kim Seung-Keung and this is my sister, Kim Hyo-Jung."
The monk dipped a brush into an ink bowl then wrote their names on a white rice paper. He waited until the ink dried before crumpling it and throwing it into the fire. Speckles of burnt paper floated into the air, dancing with invisible guardians before turning into black rain of ashes.
"Your parents?" He asked.
"Father has passed," Hyo-Jung answered. "Mother is still alive."
"That is both sad and good news," the monk explained. "Father will protect you from above, and mother will defend you in this life. Let me pray in order for your father to hear us."
Suddenly the volume of the chanting began to rise and the beating of the gourds increased also. Hyo-Jung's eyes widened as her heartbeat began to mimic the throbbing noise. She turned to glance at her brother before shifting her gaze towards the door. What she saw made her bite down on her tongue hard enough to draw blood.
There were people or what were once people crowded at the entrance of the chamber. Their clothes hung from the skeletal frames in shreds, their bodies so thin she could see bones poking through what remained of their clothing. But their eyes were what terrified her most. Avaricious, gleaming of inhuman hunger, they shone like brighter than living flames through the matted, stringy hair. The gi-shin glared at Hyo-Jung and Seung-Keung, willing them to come and join them -- to give up the fight because in the end, they would get what they wanted. And feed.
Seung-Keung saw his sister's gaze but refused to look. Instead he clamped his hand around her chin and forced her to face the fire. He feared if he saw what was behind him, he'd go mad. Seung-Keung was correct. The gi-shin's faces elongated until any trace of human visage was obliterated, their mouths turning to gaping maws as they tried to suck in the sound of the prayers. So hungry were the condemned souls they dared to consume Buddha's words that permeated the air, preventing them from taking the children's souls.
The monks responded by praying even more loudly, the frantic beating of the gourd drums reverberating in the large chamber. Their arcana of Buddha's teachings swelling with their voices and as their blood turned into fire, they felt their will overcome the singing of the condemned. By this time the two children had embraced the monk in a stranglehold, openly crying as they begged their father to defend them from what would be an eternal condemnation of existence. Neither dead nor living, they would slowly turn into what was hunting them. Death always held the promise of new life, a cyclical chance where they could return to the living, if only to correct the mistakes made in previous lives. The cosmic wheel was stern, not unfair. Life without death and death without life, to Seung-Keung and Hyo-Jung, was simply hell.
Suddenly the iron bowl shattered, sending jagged pieces flying everywhere. But neither the monks nor the children stopped their praying. And the living fire kept burning in the center of the table, in spite of the fact that there was no container to hold it in place. The monks all at once became silent. The absence of noise jarred the two children from their own prayers and made them open their eyes. Both brother and sister stared at each other, willing each other to turn around and look.
There was only sunshine flooding into the chamber.
Seung-Keung dug out his cell phone from his backpack. "Got a message from our uncle." He said before checking for voice mail.
"Is it his wife? Did something happen to Young-Sook?" Hyo-Jung asked. "He'd only call in case of emergencies."
Seung-Keung turned to his sister, "We have to go to the hospital, mom's sick."
It was a tense bus ride in spite of the fact that the children felt peace for the first time in days.
They found their uncle pacing frantically in the visitor's room.
"What's happened?" Seung-Keung asked, alarmed by Doh-Yun's pallor.
The uncle violently ran his fingers through his hair, "Your mom fainted at the office. I am so sorry ... she lost the baby."
Seung-Keung remained paralyzed even as he heard Hyo-Jung collapse onto the floor.
©2004, 2005 Copyright held by the author.