- Black Island An Excerpt (Chapters 1-3)
southern wind in early winter held back the sailboat headed for Hŭksan. The double-decker vessel at Muan Naval Garrison had never been over a hundred ri out at sea, and the smaller boats were all tied up at the dock, their narrow keels rotting, oars broken. There were no other government vessels at Muan Harbor. Also awaiting the wind at the harbor was a merchant boat. It was a private vessel that carried grains to the many islands around Hŭksan and traded them for skate, red sting ray, or laver. The wooden boat had its two clay-dyed sails raised, forty forearms in length and eight arm spans in width. It was an old boat, the growth rings on the planks grooved white. The dovetailing on the stern deck was askew, the boards held together by staples, and the wale turned mushy with green moss.
The oarsmen pulled up the boat behind the row of rocks that formed a cofferdam, to fill the gaps in the keel with bamboo chips and solder them with resin.
The boat was owned by a fisheries middleman who ran three merchant vessels. He left the operation to the boatman, refusing to cast a glance toward the shore while spending his days with his second concubine at Yŏngsan Port, and the boatman warmed his back on the heated floor of the tavern by the wharf as he waited for the wind to return. [End Page 53]
The military officer from the Muan government arrived at the wharf in the evening with banished criminal, Chŏng Yak-chŏn. The officer's itinerary covered a great distance. He had to escort Chŏng all the way to Hŭksan Island, hand him over to the officer in charge at the Hŭksan Naval Garrison, then travel back by sea again. The island was under the jurisdiction of Naju Prefecture but was located over 900 ri from the shore. The officer had with him a provincial clerk and two servants. The clerk had been to Imja Island and Ji Island to ransack the homes of those who had failed to pay back their grain loans in the fall and collect grains or metal scraps, but it was his first time heading out to Hŭksan, 900 ri out at sea.
With the boat stuck at the port, the officer and the clerk resorted to mooching off the boatman and copulating with the whores in the tavern's backroom. The old whores had no strength left to tighten their loose lower parts that leaked puffs of air. When morning arrived but the sea route remained closed, the two men swapped the women and went at it again, but it did not make much difference.
The officer addressed Chŏng Yak-chŏn, former Assistant Section Chief at the Military Affairs Ministry, a senior fifth-rank position, as "noble scholar."
— Hey, Noble Scholar, there's no hurry, is there? Nothing good waiting for you anyway. Let's get all soaked before we go, shall we? You want a turn at this?
The officer browbeat the old woman who ran a soup shop and got Chŏng Yak-chŏn into her servants' quarters, where she brought him rice with soup at mealtime. The boatman used to manage the boat owner's land in his younger days and now served as the middleman's steward, administering costs and profits as well as operating his boats.
The boatman had to pay the oarsmen half their wages even though the sea route was closed and all they did was loll around in the tavern. As luck would have it, he had run into the officer and his men escorting the banished offender and was left without a [End Page 54] choice but to provide them with transportation, free of charge. It was maddening that he had to pay for their meals and their whores as well, but he could neither argue with a public official, albeit a petty one, nor demand their fare for the boat or the meals. The...