Before the humans wielded blades that spat metal and fire, before we were born, before our mothers and grandmothers were born, there was no long barbed wire fence across the middle mountainous regions under which one must dig and slink across under cover of darkness. In those days when there was one Korea, we could visit the bears in Paektusan near the area where the human language shifts from Korean to Chinese, and then venture south to Gyeongju and visit the monks in such places as Sokkuram Grotto and the various fortresses. It was a countryside that made a dog sniff relentlessly, the air a wild concoction of rabbit and grasses and squirrels and berries. The monks at Sokkuram Grotto were a generous bunch, a welcome sight after trekking through the mountains above Gyeongju, always a bowl filled with food, and another, filled to the brim with water, awaiting you after a long journey. And the warrior monks at NamHanSanSeong Fortress outside of old Seoul were rumored to be very kind to dogs, despite their ferocious reputations. They were good for sanctuary in the worst weather and were always reliable and disciplined men who, more than any other humans, followed the code of canines.
The peninsula had changed, and yet we Jindo dogs continued to visit. [End Page 107]
Despite this option to wander the country, we have always had a preferred home. Most of us stayed on Jindo Island, off the southwest coast of the peninsula, but there was always the adventurous fellow who made it across the tide, or hopped on a boat to the main Korean peninsula. Those travels took time of course, but, as I’ve said, they were possible.
It wasn’t a perfect time, though. The people were sad—not as mournful as they were after the fence went up, but sad nonetheless. Daily, they watched boats laden with women, children, celadon, pears, and sacks of rice sail east towards a distant and large island. And after the boats became small specks in the distance, the smell of the sea having erased the stench of fuel, the people would shuffle back home and resume their work, awaiting the next time they would have to load the boats up again.
It was only a matter of time before we, too, boarded the boats. It happened like this.
This was back in the time when tigers were plentiful. Korean tigers are a special breed. They are the national symbols of Korea. Anyway, the people on the boats wanted to take a tiger home. So they picked one and put it in a wooden crate.
But what to do for food? They picked a medium-sized dog and put it in the crate with the tiger. Then they hoisted them both onto a boat and gave the zoo a message. “Prepare for a tiger!” and pushed off to sea.
The people on the boat thought nothing of the tussle in the crate during travel.
“That tiger’s having his lunch,” they said.
Maybe, as I imagine, there was a person on the boat called Tanaka wearing a special outfit that said he was something called a “zoo manager” who thought, “This will make my career. The first Korean tiger in Japan!” And he thought of new names for the Korean tiger; it wouldn’t do to call it Korean—that name would repel visitors. “Peninsula tiger?” he thought aloud. He puffed on his pipe and looked out to sea, his chest inflated with pride and hope [End Page 108] for his future. The sea was unusually blue with picturesque white-capped waves. Though he usually got seasick, he was able to ignore the boat rocking beneath him and he breathed the sea air deeply.
Meanwhile the noise in the crate continued. It rocked. Blood poured out beneath the slats. It was very disturbing, and lunch was delayed. Who could eat during such carnage? Well, one sailor named Hyungwon did so. He insisted on a bowl of rice and fish with pickled daikon immediately. He was known to be a very tough character, a Korean from the countryside who wasn’t...