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  • Song of the Sword An Excerpt (Chapters 1-6)
  • Kim Hoon (bio)
    Translated by Jung Ha-yun (bio)

Tears of the Sword

Flowers blossomed on each deserted island. The islands billowed like clouds as the evening sun lit the flowering trees. It seemed as if they might slip free of their moorings and drift beyond the darkening horizon. By the time the birds returned from this shore to their roosts on the dimming islands, the sparkling sunset had already hurried off to the horizon and died. At dusk, the remote islands were the first to be drawn into the shallow twilight and, at dawn, they were the first to be returned to the world by the rising sun. Out at sea, it was always the most remote islands that died first and came back first.

As the setting sun scraped the shimmering scales of light off the water, the sea blackened and surged with the tide, crashing against the cliffs, the rumble of the surf tossing in the darkness. My sight line extended no farther than the blackened bluff. This was the moment when the enemy fleet would swoop in once again on the dark crest of waves from the other side of the murmurous horizon, wings spread wide, bearing a mountain of guns and swords. I could not fathom the source of the enemy's rancor, and the enemy had no way of knowing the quivering depths of my own rancor. The sea was taut, swollen with a rancor that neither side could hope to penetrate. But that was all I had for the time being—no fleet, only my rancor. [End Page 23]

The Royal Prosecutor's Office had released me on the first day of the fourth lunar month in the year Chŏngyu. The interrogation consisted of empty questions. The prosecutors, ultimately, asked nothing. They were chasing a phantom. I pitied their language. They prattled on, meticulously assembling an illusion of loyalty and justice. But the prosecutors knew nothing of the truth of the sea. In the interrogation chair I sat face to face with a ghost. The ghost lashed my body, the pain piercing me to the marrow. I lost consciousness many times, reeling back and forth between the phantom void and the splintering pain that crashed into my body like a cliff. Upon my release, I stayed for a time at a house outside South Gate. The High State Councillor, the Inspector-General, or the honorary ministers would no longer call on me, for I had been accused of a grave offense. They sent servants in their place, servants sent to simply show their faces as a gesture meant to console me as if there was such a thing as consolation in this world. Soon I began my journey south, passing my nights in the homes of the various town clerks who allowed me into their servants' quarters to soothe my aching, nearly broken back against the warmth of the heated floor. One month later, I arrived at Marshal Governor Kwon Ryul's office in Sunchŏn to begin my sentence—to serve in the war stripped of rank and gear, wearing the white garb of a commoner.

The east wind, blowing in from Hansŏng, Kŏje, and Kosŏng, carried the stench of rotting human flesh, along with the scent of the flowering trees. The sea air was laden with the acrid odor of rotting bodies and tinged with the fragrance of the damp forests, and the wind that drove the stench away from the shore carried floral scents on its tail. The coastline of Kyŏngsang Province was blanketed with corpses, some with the head cut off, others the nose.

Behind enemy lines, beyond the battleground where shells and arrows rained down like hailstones, Chosŏn naval forces were busy chopping off the heads of their enemies while Japanese soldiers sliced off Chosŏn noses. The severed heads and noses were [End Page 24] salted and then presented to the superior officers as a means of keeping score. Since it was no longer possible to discern whether a given head or nose had belonged to an enemy or an ally, out...


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