Cry of the Blade
Flowers bloomed in every abandoned isle. The setting sun bathed the blooming woods in golden hues, giving them the air of being puffy clouds, unchaining themselves from the main land and drifting away into the horizon. When the birds returned to the drifting isles, the setting sun retracted its reflections toward the horizon and was eventually extinguished. In the ocean, the rules were always the same and simple: far away isles were always called first into the setting sun and were rekindled and returned first from the rising sun. When the setting sun gathered up its last bit of sparking scale it scattered on the water, the ocean became black and the sound of the waves crashing themselves against cliffs tossed and turned in the darkness. The cliffs interrupted the line of sight inland. And, from over the black, quiet horizon enemy vessels approached with their wings stretched out, loaded with heaps of guns, cannons, spears and swords. I could not fathom the source of my enemy’s animosity, and the enemy probably could not sense the depth and intensity of my enmity against them. The hostility incomprehensible to either side stretched tightly across the darkened surface. Then, again, I had no vessels to carry myself and my enmity. I was released from the Seoul 의금부 on the fourth Moon of 정유년. The investigation I received was meaningless. The investigators, in reality, were not asking anything. They were after what was not there. I took pity on their words. They fitted what was not there in an intricate pattern under the most delicate touch and built an extensive vessel of a delusional framework. However, their vessel was not grounded in the nature of the ocean. Bound to the torture seat, I was facing nothing but phantoms. Beatings by the phantoms were painful and deep that they seeped into and broke my bones. I passed out many times on the boundary between the empty questions of the phantoms and the physical pain they inflicted which pushed my body to the cliff’s edge each time. After my release, I stayed at a small house outside the South Gate of Seoul. High officials sent their servants to convey their sympathy. Since I was still charged with treason, the officials sent only their servants instead. And even the servants did not stay long. I understood that solace did not exist in this world. On the way down to my new post, I tried to sweat out on heated floors the lasting backaches from the beating I received. It took me a month to reach the 권률 도원수부. That was the beginning of my service as a seaman without a rank, demoted from the position of Admiral. In the easterly breeze coming from 한산, 거제 and 고성, the stench of rotting human flesh wasunmistakable in mix with the delicate scent of freshly budding flowers. On the tail of ocean breeze that carried damp smell of the woods, the rancid odor of decomposing corpse was rampant. And on the skirts of that breeze came the musk of spring flowers of the isles. 경상 coast was literally covered with dead bodies missing either the noses or the entire heads. Chosun navy decapitated the Japanese behind the front line in a relative safety from the cannon balls and arrows hailing from sky, and the Japanese seamen cut out the noses of their enemy. The severed parts were packed in salt and presented to the respective superior offices. The body parts were the evidence of their achievement. It was simply impossible to identify one’s fellow soldiers from the enemy in that heap of parts. Hence, on the ocean, everyone who was an enemy to the other hacked off the noses and heads of his enemy, salvaging parts from the dead. Every regional governor had run away before his line of defense fell. And the enemies that penetrated into the bay climbed nearby mountains, hunted down the women who took refuge there and killed them for their noses. Refugees died simply because each of them had a nose in the middle of his or her face. I saw it with my own eyes. I saw our deck-hands fish out the corpses of fellow Chosun sailors floating on the water and cut off the heads. Some carried an extra large fodder on board just for chopping off the heads. Headless corpses were thrown right back to the water. By the number of these heads and noses, the commanding officers of either side received promotions along with recognitions from the Kings, overflowing with imposing rhetorics. The dead bodies floated down south to the coastal area of 순천 and 보성 bay and lodged themselves in the muddy beach. Often the headless corpses appeared to be wriggling with its last few breaths. I saw from close that what wriggled was not the body but maggets crawling all over it. Crabs and mussels ate their way into the trachea, and falcons nose-dived from the top of a cliff and tore off a limb. For the whole month heading south to serve as a newly enlisted seaman, I spent the nights in deserted guestrooms of local governor’s quarters. Sometimes I fell asleep next to the few servants who were yet to flee. I was completely drained each night, drenched in my own sweat. Garden zinnias bloomed splendidly in each village even though weeds covered its straw roof houses, and the villagers who had some breaths left in them killed feeble children and ate the meat. At times, surprised by the sound of the bell on my horse, ghosts stuck out their heads from under the Aster Yomena bush. The eyes shined in their hollow sockets. The horse that I switched to in 구례 died on the hill to 순천. It was a starved, mangy carthorse. Starting to limp the front leg at the base of the hill, the horse staggered and swayed all the way to the hilltop. It gave all it had. Then the horse died as it reached the peak. The death was as calm as that of a natural cause. The horse straightened out its four limbs, displaying the hooves nailed with worn-out horseshoes. With the eyes still open, it breathed no more. Those eyes gazed right at me, and I stared at me with shaggy hair reflected in the pupils. I dumped the carcass on the roadside and walked to 순천. The coastal air was sticky, and the smell of rotting mackerel was substantial. On the first day of my arrival in 순천, I went out to the coast in the direction of 여수 after registering myself at the 권률 도원수부. The ocean before me was overwhelmingly wide and far-reaching, but I had not a single boat. I saw several headless corpses in the reeds. The rotting uniform told that they were once our sailors. their heads must have reached the Royal Court via 도원수부, and registered as enemy kill by Chosun sailors. Staring at the severed sections, I mulled over my own reflection on the cornea of the dead horse. Apart from where the heads might reside, they seemed to have finished his own war of by crossing over the boundary of mortality. This endless war was only a pointless act, and this world is but a meaningless place. I heard the intense cry of the sword rising deep within me, deep inside the abyss of my existence. Cold beads of sweat rolled down my back. The pitch-black ocean simmered with phosphorous light. Apricot Blooms in the Fog The wind blowing over the ocean always swelled and ebbed like the outline of a mountain range. In winter, winds are abundant. By the wind, the radish leaves hung dry on the sunny walls for consumption rasped against the wall during the day, and the vessels moored at the piers squeaked and creaked all night. And the sound of surging waves filled the void of which the rushing winds left behind. And I heard a hallucination at the fleeting wind: sounding similar to cocoons unraveling their silk. The sound was always the same near the ocean. Perhaps the sound was not carried by the wind at all—the waves themselves might be carrying it over the horizon. At times the sound was like a cluster of grasshoppers feeding on grass, and at other times a herd of mice feasting on grains. The noise was too obvious to be a hallucination. However, when I recognized it, the sound was soon buried by crashing of the waves. And it picked itself up again on the tail of a rushing wind each time I rel
axed my senses. Even when the wind died down and the moonlit ocean became as still and viscous as oil, the inexplicable noise gnawed its way over the horizon. Days, nights, and the early mornings in which I shivered in cold sweat, the sound followed me around. I would shake my head to get rid of the faceless noise, but it always came back in the blowing wind. An inlet would not be a safe place because it lacked an escape rout to back out the vessels when attacked. An inlet, in deed, was the most perilous place in which to spend nights. On those nights I withdrew my surviving men and vessels from a full day of battle to an uninhabited inlet, the haunting sound would sweep me over like an invisible storm. And it would resonate in my head, as I lie drenched in cold sweat, as the rowing of ten thousand enemy ships approaching my shores of exhaustion over the dark horizon. Yet, I knew the storming noise was not only coming from Japan, the other side of the horizon. It was also booming from the direction of the King who fled North with his Royal Court advisors to 의주, near Yalu river. 사각, 사각, 사각. The sound was no less than a blizzard raging from the Yalu River to the southern coast, over all the mountains and rivers in between. The storm caused our boats to crash against each other. I ordered my sleepy men to the water, and they dragged the boats ashore in the dark. At the water, I was always drained, sodden in my cold sweat. The entire fleet of Three Provinces, 경상, 전라, 충청, was obliterated in the battle of 칠천량 water, north of 거제 Island, in the summer of 정유. In the spring of the same year, I was arrested at 한산 통제영. The battle near 가덕 just before my arrest was slack in tension and routine in engagement procedure. It was apparent that the enemy lacked the will to fight. The fight was more of a weeding process in the fields than a battle on the water. When I withdrew my vessels from the 가덕 water to the main port of 한산 통제영 the already awaiting 의금부 도사 tied me up at the pier. The rope was rough and tight, digging into my arms and ribs. According to the 의금부 도사, the charges against me was that I, the 삼도수군통제사, harbored a contempt for the Royal Court, deceived the King, and disobeyed the direct order to mobilize the vessels to destroy the enemy. I transferred to my successor 원균 all the documents and administrative authority over the fleet, men, provisions, guns, gun powder, personal arms and prisoners. It seemed that all 원균 wanted was to have 의금부 도사 take me away in the cage-cart sooner than later. He stamped on the transfer paper without even counting the number or checking the condition of what was now under his responsibility. I had been stationed in 한산 통제영 since the summer of 계사년, the second year of 임진왜란. The men and equipment I signed over to 원균 was the entirety of what I secured over three and a half years in 한산 통제영, which amassed over 80 percent of the whole Chosun Navy armaments. This 80 percent was buried in the sea of 칠천량. This 80 percent was scattered on the water as burning logs and dead bodies that lacked the noses or heads. The battle lasted only one night and one day. I heard later that one thousand enemy vessels spread out and approached in a radial formation in the 칠천량 battle. And 원균 faced the enemy in the open sea with his exhausted men at hand, who rowed the whole day from 한산 통제영 to 제주 Island waters. Without any rest, 원균 gathered his vessels in a single line formation and plunged himself into the middle of the radial. I predicted this. 원균 was a man of uncontrollable animosity which no one, including himself, could appease. He wished that all battles were for him and him only. He believed that there was something to gain in the aftermath of a combat. I used to give him the heads my men collected to lull his temper, albeit only briefly. His volcano-like animosity and insatiable anger committed his vessels and men directly into the radial formation in a single file. His armor forsaken, 원균 escaped into the mountains of 거제 island. He even lost his sword.He was eventually slain by an enemy soldier while resting his obese body in a tree shade, panting from all the futile running he did. 전라 우수사 이억기 died, and충청 수사 최호 perished also at the sea-battle with their ships. When the cage-cart was leaving 통제영, rowers and officers kneeled on the cart path and wept. And 원균 whipped them to open the way. 원균 barked: —Stop crying. The enemy will hear. 원균 loaded dried skates and seaweed on top of the cage. They were gifts to important officials in the Capital. —It will be a long way.—I pray fortune on your battles. The farewell between 원균 and I could not have been any drier. The oxen that pulled my cage-cart walked North for nine days and nights straight. At each mealtime the escorting soldiers searched for a village that had smoke rising from the chimney. When they did, they robbed the villagers of what there was to eat and what little they had saved for later because there was no guarantee of finding another village that had enough to eat. The 의금부 도사 constantly hastened for Seoul, and the oxen had to pull even at nights. The Royal Court probably could wait not a moment longer for my death. Bound and immobile on board, I trundled along with the cart. The crime of harboring contempt for the Royal Court, the crime of disobeying the direct order for immediate mobilization…I had but affinity to the world. And death was as unmistakable as a cliff. I only wanted the torture and interrogation leading to death would not be too lengthy. I had longed that I would die drowned in my lethargy only after I kill all those that needed to die, so that the world could function, as it should all by itself. The roads coiled around mountain ranges, the end hidden from sight. But at the end of the unseen road ahead were the King, the Royal Court and the 사직. My war would terminate by my death. Despite my realization of the indubitable death to come, the sound of my enemy rowing over the horizon still rang in my ears. As the cage-cart crossed Han River via 마포나루 into Seoul, I shook my head hard to drive out the noise from my head. Spring rain drizzled over Seoul, and the Apricots bloomed in the fog. Into the World Again I heard from 도원수 권률 the news that all the Chosun Naval Alliance Fleets were annihilated on the water of 칠천량. 한산 통제영 was shattered. The enemy’s flags were fluttering in all the nearby ports and isles of 통제영. The enemy marched inland and stationed themselves in every strategic inlet. The nights were filled with their songs, voiced by the enemy in their drunken stupor. The refugees who had returned to their hometown in those few months of lull were scattered once again. I did not know where they were. The summer was approaching its end, and the rice patties were still green. The enemy would reap the harvest in autumn. The enemy prayed that the supernatural power of Buddha would guide them in battle. Flags featuring the words 나무묘법연화경 were raised high on the enemy vessels. 나무묘법연화경 covered the ocean and crowded the shores. Since the year 임진, when the war began, copies of 법화 Sutra or 연화 Sutra were found at times in the captain’s quarters of destroyed enemy vessels. …in the coming world you shall achieve the Buddhahood. Then your land shall be filled with innocent and virtuous Bodhisattvas, and the virtuous men and women shall wear the clothes of Buddha and sit on the throne of Buddha. Ananda, you shall understand this: Buddha does not abandon the sentient beings… Some enemy vessels set up a Buddhist altar in their quarters, and others had monks on board. My men often decapitated the captured enemy monks and tossed the body into the water. The monks received the blade while chanting, hands clasped in prayers. The mouths that recited the sutra one moment spewed out blood the next. I did not have enough provision t
o feed the captives. My men tore the 나무묘법연화경 flags and tied the wounds with it. The silky fabric was perfect for dressing the wounds. Others made clothes out of the flags. Some oarsmen had parts of the brush strokes of 나무묘법연화경 on their backs. I heard that the enemy fleet stormed over the ocean with the 나무묘법연화경 flags wavering on the tall masts. The front line broke down uncontrollably and mixed with the rear. It was not possible for our forces to converge or diverge. 도원수 권률 must have known about his impossible position. His precarious position was there to stay. 도원수 권률 held no war intelligence on affairs of the water. The most definite fate spread over the coastal waters and inland as the most obscure rumor. 도원수 권률 did not assign me to a post or station immediately. Even after I reported to 한산 통제영 as an enlisted, I was on hold without a deadline. He perhaps wanted me never to board a ship again. I roamed the ravaged ports of coastal regions, the abandoned villages in 지리산, as well as the burnt houses along 섬진강. The regional government buildings inland were in its recovery, but the villages remained ghostly. Not even a dog wandered through them, and grass grew in the trashed wells. Not a thing of use was left behind, least of all able-bodied men. I stayed in a tattered dwelling of a petty official in 진주. It was a surprise for me that 도원수 권률 called on me to that shabby house in 진주. He sent first his aid to notify me that the 도원수 would be visiting me on his trip to inspect the defense line of 진주. The 진주 fortress fell in the summer of계사년. 김천일, 최경회, 황명보, 이종인 as well as 5,000 civilians fell along with the fortress in that battle. Nothing that could move survived the massacre. Since then, what ruins remained in 진주 was neglected as such. There was no defense line in 진주 for the 도원수 to inspect. His excuse for visiting 진주 was implausible. 도원수 권률 turned up with his officers and the enlisted. His horse looked well-fed and groomed. Light shattered in many colors on its slick mane. The 도원수 did not enter the room but sat on the raised wooden floor that led to the inner quarters. The subordinates stood before him in formation with their swords, spears, and flag in line. I came out to the wooden floor and bowed deeply. —이순신, do you mind if I address you by your name only? He cleverly, and sharply, reminded me of my current status. His voice roared even in his age of 60. —Since I am of no rank… I did not intend to finish the sentence. I met him face to face in 한산 통제영 at the start of병신년winter, three months prior to my arrest. He came to 통제영 to see me. He told me of what intelligence the Royal Court had obtained. According to it, the navy of 가토 기요사마 was to cross the ocean and attack 부산, and I was to wait for the enemy on the open sea, intercept them by surprise and present the head of 가토 before the Royal Court. He said that such was the strategy of the Royal Court and the direct order of the 도원수. I made no reply, but a request, asking him to grant consideration on the opinion of the commanding officer on site. He returned in haste, and I did not mobilize my fleet. I could not trust the intelligence that the Royal Court obtained from the moles. The enemy was amassing a huge amount of provision in the ports and islands near 부산 waters. To move through those islands meant exposing the sides and rear to a likely ambush. Moreover, the waves were high and rough in winter. It was a suicide mission to wait for the enemy, which might or might not show, for days in strategic formation in the heaving waves. The Royal Court desired the head of 가토 more than the success of the operation itself. 가토 led the van of enemy soldiers in the year of 임진. His troops broke through the wall of 부산 in half a day. He decorated his carts, gay enough for a spring day picnic, and charged North. Captured Chosun refugees were forced to shoulder the carts. Chased by 가토, the King fled all the way to 의주. The King was thirst for the political symbolism attached to 가토’s head. The King would kill for a chance to offer the head of 가토 on the altar before the ancestral plaques and pour ceremonial drinks to let all know of his potency. But I could not exchange my men’s lives with his political symbolism. What handful of men and fleet I had was everything Chosun could offer to fight the war. I sighed for my inability to provide the toy the King wanted. I could understand the King, but did not move my fleets. I was immediately indicted. 권률 indicted me. And the civilian officials from Defense Ministry obsessively detailed out the arraignment. I found out who indicted and arraigned me only after the interrogation started in 서울 의금부. I was ignorant to politics, but I was not ashamed of my ignorance. And the very 권률 called on me again to this unfrequented remnants of a fortress. Sitting on the raised wooden floor, 권률 spoke of the news that the Chosun Navy fleets were annihilated on the 칠천량 water only two days ago. He told the news as if he was reciting a soliloquy, his eyes staring far away. He emphasized the word “annihilation.” I only listened to his words since the word meant that it was of no use to inquire about the details. —You should forget what happened in 서울 의금부. Such is the way of a true soldier. 권률 was a man of dignity and will beyond ordinary. As the Field Martial and the Supreme Commander of Chosun Army, he won his battles at 임진강, 용인, 수원, 이천 and 남한산성. He hid the bloodthirstiness of a man who had been to hell and back many times deep inside his guts. And I sensed what he hid with my own bloodthirstiness. He took on the war with his might and the political power he wielded. He called in 원균, who had cold feet before committing his fleet into their demise, and flogged him 50 times onto the water of 칠천량. He was the only man who could tie the 50-some years old 삼도수군통제사 on the post and flog him into submission. 권률 was almost a beast, old and blinded. He opened his mouth again after a long pause. —Do you have any plans? I felt a ball of fire rising from deep within, a ball of wretchedness and woe that could not be cried out. Plans, oh heavens, the strategies! I wished to die in the torture chamber in 의금부. In this world of no plans, my tenacious breaths lingered on, and here I was searching again for the plans. I barely got myself to reply. —The plans, if there was any, should exist near the ocean. I would advise you only after I finish inspecting the coastal regions.—Thank you. Please proceed immediately. 권률 returned with his men. It took two days for them to travel from his post to 진주. The 칠천량battle was over two days ago. 권률 must have hurried after me as soon as he heard the news of the loss. Was it his plan, to find me when his options were exhausted? After he left, I ordered a servant to sharpen my blade. The bluish sword shimmered in the hue and the pattern of the clouds above, and it smelled of cold steel. I always had a difficulty distinguishing whether a sword was cold or hot in its nature. I took a deep breath of the blade, inhaling the smell of freshly sharpened steel deep into my lungs. The sword seemed to tell me that I needed to stay alive in this world of no plans until I could be free of the worldly attachment. The next morning, I left 진주 with the servant to carry my sword. The servant’s name was 막쇠. My plan was to travel through the coastal regions of 하동, 남해 and 여수. Before I left, the local petty official whose room I briefly occupied packed for us some millet, salt and dried fish.