Tr ans l at edbyPet erLee
Gasil By Yi Kwang-su Translated by Peter Lee
Originally published in Korean as Gasil in Donga Ilbo, 1923
Translation ⓒ 2013 by Peter Lee
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and Literature Translation Institute of Korea.
The original manuscripts to these translations were provided by Gongumadang of Korea Copyright Commission. The National Library of Korea Cataloging-in-Publication Data Yi, Kwang-su Gasil [electronic resource] / [written by] Yi Kwang-su ; translated by Peter Lee. -- Seoul : LTI Korea, 2013 p. 원표제: 가실 Translated from Korean ISBN 978-89-93360-16-5 05810 : 813.61-KDC5 895.733-DDC21
About Yi Kwang-su
Yi Kwang-su (1892-1950), the author of Mujeong (1917), is regarded as a pioneer of modern fiction and a leading voice in modern Korean literature. As a scholar and thinker of the Enlightenment movement, he played an important role in forming the current intellectual history of Korea. His works criticized the irrationality of the old conventions shackled by Confucian traditions while advocating the enlightened views of his age, and he helped create the modern consciousness and raised ideas to strengthen Korea through new education and civilizing forces. He also changed the internal grammar of narrative literature, which had until then been pre-modern, and played a role in proving that Korean was an appropriate language for modern fiction, in which the self and the world could simultaneously be depicted. Because of Yi Kwang-su’s pro-Japanese stance in his later years, the importance of his literary accomplishments has sometimes been questioned. Such criticism, however, can make the mistake of neglecting the contribution that his early short stories in the 1910s and works, such as Mujeong, made to Korean literary history. He was a columnist who published around 300 editorials, such as “Children-centered Theory” and “Theory of Nation Reconstruction”; a literary critic who wrote around 50 reviews, such as “What is Literature?” and “Criteria for Evaluating Art”; an author of 28 short stories, including “To My Little Friend,” “Gasil,” and “Mumyeong,” and 35 novels, including Mujeong, The Soil, Love, and Great Priest Wonhyo; a poet who published numerous poems, including “Our Hero” and “Spring in Gangnam”; and a prolific essayist of such works as “Mt. Geumgang Travelogue” and “My Confession.” His vast literary world, which crosses all genres, thus demands an assessment that befits his accomplishments. “Gasil” (1923) is a story based on the tale of “Seol’s Daughter and Gasil” appearing in The History of the Three Kingdoms, which deals with the moral and heroic acts of a young man. To keep his promise to Seol’s daughter, Gasil faces danger in ferocious battles and he also overcomes the temptation from his master’s daughter. The story focuses on his faithfulness and inner conflicts, which serve to highlight his upright character. The tale becomes a means of expressing the author’s views on morality. This is a common tendency noticeable in all his stories dealing with historical subjects.
1. The time is the end of Silla dynasty when General Kim Yusin is known throughout the land. Brilliant autumn sunlight illuminates a yard where sheaves of rice, beans and buckwheat stand tall. In one corner of the yard is a large pile of logs—firewood for winter. Perched on one of the bottom logs is a pretty, healthy-looking girl of sixteen or seventeen. She is gazing down the road leading south. She is weeping. A young farmer with a big ax over his shoulder enters the yard. Seeing the girl on the log, he stops and asks gently, “Girl, why are you crying?” Startled, the maiden turns to him with tear-filled eyes. Rising quietly, she replies, “My father got called up.” She wipes away her tears with the long ribbon from her top and turns away as if to hide the fact that she has been crying. The farmer notices her long, braided black hair. “He got conscripted?” “Yes, an official came by a while ago and told Father to present himself at the village tomorrow morning.” The young farmer seems to think about something and says, “I heard Goguryeo soldiers were coming to attack Bukhansan Castle. Perhaps that’s why they’re doing this.” He lays down his ax and goes to another house. He comes back. “Many people got called up,” he says. “Damn it, there is never any peace! All the young men are dead, and now they want to kill all the old people, too? Will we ever have days with no fighting?” He looks at the sobbing girl’s shoulders. Without turning her head she asks, “You weren’t called up, Gasil?” Gasil is the name of the young farmer. “I’ll probably get drafted next spring. Left me alone because I’m still a year below conscription age.” Gasil crosses his arms and appears deep in thought. Then he asks, “Where did your father go?” “Into the village. He said he would try talking to the magistrate and plead not to be sent away, because he’s old and not well, and because he has only a young daughter. He left a while ago. He should be back by now …” She looks again down the road. “Talking won’t do anything! They don’t know mercy!” The farmer takes his ax, pulls a log from the pile and begins to chop away. The girl’s tear-stained eyes grow wide with surprise. 4
“Why are you chopping our wood?” she says, taking a step toward him. “I finished chopping all our wood just now and I thought maybe your father might need some help. I thought I would give him a hand.” He raises his tanned arms with the sleeves rolled up high above his head and brings the ax down with a swish. With a sharp crack, the log splits and splinters of wood fly in all directions. The girl stands absentmindedly, watching Gasil’s tanned waist bend and stretch, his ruddy forearms going up and down, and the rapidly growing pile of white firewood. Then, as if struck by a thought, she runs through the twig door and into the house. A little later she returns with a large bowl of thick rice wine that she has scooped up from a crock. She waits for Gasil to finish chopping the log he is working on and says, “Here, have a drink.” She offers him the bowl with both hands. He drives his ax into a log and wipes the beads of sweat on his brow with his forearm, while taking the bowl with the other hand. “How did you get this?” he asks, his strong, gentle eyes gazing into the bowl. “The rice wine we made the day we gathered beans—there was some left over at the bottom of the crock, so I drew some water and mixed it again. I left some for Father …” She smiles with satisfaction as she dries her hands on her skirt. Gasil raises the bowl to his lips and drinks the wine in one breath. Wiping his mouth, he hands back the bowl. She takes it and gazes at him for a while, then runs through the twig door again and back into the kitchen. His eyes follow her, standing still and staring quietly at the kitchen door, then he takes up his ax and starts chopping again. The girl returns carrying something wrapped in her skirt and stands beside him. When he stops and looks at her, she says, “Have some chestnuts. I gathered the ripe ones from the ground and kept them buried in the ground.” With that she scoops up a big handful with her small hand and offers them to him. “They’re giant chestnuts!” she says. Gasil leans the ax against his leg and peels the chestnuts with his teeth. The girl also peels a few and eats them. “Father’s coming!” The girl lets the chestnuts fall from her skirt and goes out to greet her father. Gasil turns to look down the road. Old Man Seol with his white beard walks up the path dejectedly, passing under the shadows of ancient weeping willows. He enters the yard and sees Gasil. “You’ve chopped firewood for us?” he asks gratefully. “Yes, after I finished ours …” Gasil says with a shy but satisfied smile. The old man sits on a piece of split wood and lets out a long, deep sigh. The girl, who had gone into the kitchen, returns with another bowl of rice wine. “Have some wine, Father,” she says, offering him the bowl. “Oh, we still have some left?” The old man takes the bowl. “You should give Gasil some, too.” “I gave him a bowl already. I saved this for you, Father.” The girl glances at Gasil. Gasil then says, “It was delicious. Please go ahead and drink it. It’s a real hot day today.” 5
He studies the old man’s weary face. The old man slowly and hesitantly drinks the wine, then with his lower lip, sucks the remaining liquid from the end of his moustache as he picks up and peels one of the chestnuts lying on the ground. The girl wants to hear the results of her father’s trip to the village, but she dares not ask in the presence of another person. So she waits, wishing Gasil would ask her father instead. Gasil understands what she wants. He goes and squats down beside the old man. “So, did things work out all right at the village?” he asks. “No. I’ll have to leave tomorrow morning.” No one speaks for a long time. The girl can no longer hold back her tears. She hides her face in her skirt and turns away. Gasil bows his head in sorrow. The old man looks down for a while as well and then jerks his head up to look at his daughter. He says to Gasil, “I was actually thinking of coming to visit you.” “As you know, that young thing will be left all alone when I leave. Poor thing! Her mother died when she was a child, and her brothers all went off to war and got killed. And now, when I go, how can I hope to come back alive? If I’m not killed fighting, I’ll get sick and die. And if it’s not sickness, I’ll die of old age. I was conscripted into the army when I was twenty, and only came back when I was thirty, and by then both my parents had passed away. But what’s the use of all these words? It doesn’t matter. When I go this time, it’s very unlikely I’ll come back alive. But that child, she’s the only flesh and blood I’ve got left. How do you think it makes me feel, to leave her behind like this?” The old man struggles to hold back his tears. His daughter falls on the firewood pile and starts to cry freely. Gasil cries as well. The old man blows his nose, clears his voice and says, “But this is fate. What can we do? I look at you and I see you’re a good man! Take my daughter as your wife. Take this house and make a living from here. With the rice paddies, the field and the wood, if you two work hard you won’t have to worry about feeding yourselves.” He gets up, goes over to his daughter, who is still slumped over the pile crying, and takes her by the arm and raises her up. “Go in, child, and make some supper. Prepare a chicken and some side dishes and get some more wine. Gasil, have dinner with us, and let’s talk one last time.” The girl goes inside, wiping away her tears with both hands. The old man watches her go and then turns to sit beside the young farmer. “Gasil, will you do as I say?” He taps the back of Gasil’s sweaty hand. The young man raises his head and stares at the old man. He hesitates as if he is having difficulty finding the words. Then he says simply and firmly, “I’ll be forever grateful!” The old man gets up, takes the ax beside Gasil and starts to chop up some wood. “Let me do that,” offers Gasil. “Leave me be,” replies the old man. “This will be my last time doing this.” He swings, spitting out a “sshwi” sound each time the ax falls. He is old but still skillful, 6
and though he lacks Gasil’s strength, he moves with practiced grace. Once the chopping is done, he hands Gasil the ax. “Ah, chopping wood like this, it energizes me.” He wipes away the sweat. “Over the hill there, you know I have two rice paddies. I set both of them up with my own hands. In the fall, I was planning to get some fresh earth and plough it, and add another field next to them. I can’t do that now, so you might as well get started, from tomorrow if you want. And that cowshed there, move it to over there.” He smiles broadly as if he did not have a care in the world. Then a cloud passes over his face. “Too bad I’m going and won’t be able to attend the wedding. Once the rice threshing is done, ask the neighbors for a good day for it and have a banquet.” He looks upset. Gasil only listens and makes no reply.
2. The next day, the girl rises at the crack of dawn with the crow of the rooster and polishes rice in a stone mortar. She fetches water from the well, catches a chicken and prepares it for breakfast. Last night she stayed up sewing padded cotton clothing for her father and had fallen asleep beside him, just for a while, until the rooster woke her up. The father caressed his daughter many times as she lay sleeping and did not sleep much at all. By the time he and his young daughter sit facing each other over breakfast and mix rice into the chicken stew, the eastern sky has turned yellow. Then, just before sunrise, a government official, brandishing a sword and a bow slung over his shoulder, rides up on horseback. “Soldiers assemble!” he cries, then gallops away. The girl does not clean off the table but finishes patching her father’s frayed clothes and bundles them up. She is too busy preparing for her father’s departure to cry. While she is packing his things, he fetches water for the cows and cleans the yard. He finishes the tasks that he has always done each morning and then he checks the farm tools, the cowshed, the chicken coop, and the stacks of grain. He even cuts the grass on the path leading to the well where his daughter goes to draw water. The sun is up. Frost sparkles like silver dust on the roof. The neighborhood comes alive with animal sounds. Clucking is heard in all directions as chickens greet the sunshine. Dogs are barking. The time has come for the father to leave. He takes up his bundle and in the yard, he strokes his daughter’s head and touches her cheeks wet with tears. “Don’t worry,” he says. “Gasil is a good man, so marry him, have many sons and daughters and be happy. Listen to your husband and work hard. That’s my daughter.” He leaves through the front gate. The girl clings to her father’s sleeve and cries. At that moment, a large shape comes running over the hill toward their house, silhouetted by the golden sunlight. It is Gasil. He has on straw shoes and his feet are wrapped in strips of cotton. His pants are hitched up for running and he is carrying a small bundle. He comes to the front 7
gate and bows to the old man. “I will go in your place,” he says, his face hot and steaming from the run. “They said I’ll be back in a year.” “How is it that you’re going?” asks the old man, shocked. “How could someone who has grown so old be sent off to fight?” replies Gasil. “I decided yesterday that I will go in your place.” He bows again and gets up to hurry away. The girl grabs his hands. “You’re going to war instead of Father?” “Yes.” He gazes down at the girl’s uplifted face. She falls into his arms, buries her tear-stained face in his chest and cries, “Then please go! Until the day I die, I will gladly work to repay your kindness. Please go!” The old man, knowing he cannot bend Gasil’s resolve, hands him the bundle he was carrying. “I won’t forget your kindness even in the afterlife,” he says. “Go, then, and come back quickly. Believe that I am your father-in-law. Please stay safe and return to us.” And this is how Gasil came to fight in the war. From the village, Gasil marches to Seoul, the kingdom’s capital, with several hundred others selected to fight, surrounded by dozens of soldiers on horseback. On the way, they stop at many villages and are joined by others who have been similarly conscripted. By the time they cross the mountain called Chisulryeong, there are over a thousand of them. At the foot of the mountain, old people, wives and children are lined up in white clothes. As their fathers, husbands and sons pass by, the people stretch out their hands as if trying to touch them and call out, wailing and stamping their feet. When Gasil enters the eastern gate of Seoul, the sun is already touching the western mountain ridge, and from the capital’s many temples, said to number eight hundred and eight in all, the sound of the evening bells ring out in slow waves. The inhabitants of the city have all come out into the streets to see the new conscripts. It is only when they can no longer clearly see people in the distance that Gasil and the others reach the barracks entrance in front of Bunhwang Temple. Gasil waits for an administrator to check his name off a list, then proceeds into a huge room with the span of ten pillars. Over a hundred people are seated inside, squeezed together like bean sprouts, talking to each other. Some are from the same hometown and know each other, while others are strangers. Gasil finds a place in a corner and sits quietly by himself. He broods over how terrifying it will be to face the enemy on the battlefield. But then he recalls that he will return home at this time next year, and that he will then take the person he has desired for so long to be his wife and they will live together at last. It makes him happy now just to think about that. After a while, the sound of music drifts into the room. The men stand up and look out the windows, and they can see bright lights to the southwest. One of the men pressed up against one of the windows says, “That’s the royal palace where His Majesty lives.” Upon hearing this, all the others who had always heard of the royal palace but had never 8
seen it rush to the windows and ask, “Where? Which is the royal palace?” They push their heads through the crowd to see and stand on their toes. “Over there with all those lanterns. That’s the royal palace. That’s Imhae Palace.” This is said by someone who seems knowledgeable about such things. Squashed between the staring men, Gasil also gazes outside. Lanterns, numbering perhaps in the thousands, hover in the air like fireflies, and a huge light, like from some torch, is also burning in the middle. “That’s a lot of lanterns they’ve lit,” someone observes. “All that light,” says a second. “Wouldn’t that be great for doing the threshing?” “Some wrestling matches would be a fine thing, too,” muses a third. Then from their midst a man who had long served as a soldier in Seoul spoke up as if to belittle their ignorance. “Look here,” he says, “what are you talking about? Tonight His Majesty has gathered all the officials of the Court and prepared a banquet for them. Because tomorrow, General Yongchun and General Yusin are going to take command and lead us to Nangbi Castle.1 His Majesty is hosting this party to honor them and see them off to war.” The sounds of drums, pipes, flutes, and brass instruments drift in through the windows from time to time. A brilliant full September moon hangs above Nam Mountain like a round piece of ice. Banwol Castle and Hwangryong Temple appear as two shadowy shapes against the moonlight. The men slowly drift away from the windows, some by themselves and some in small groups, and settle down for the night in whatever space they can find, resting their heads on wooden pillows. Some are already snoring from the fatigue of walking the whole day. The men who have left their homes, wives and children, their rice paddies, fields and cows, to die in battle, sleep like children at least tonight, arms and legs sprawled out, snoring loudly. As they dream of the homes they have left, the music from Imhae Palace continues to drift in, sometimes thin, then growing thick, ceasing, then starting again, floating on the waves of the moonlight, seeping in through the windows. Gasil lays awake for a long time, unable to rest. Then he is overcome by weariness from chopping wood the previous day, followed by the long march to Seoul. He falls into a deep sleep that will not be disturbed, even by a royal procession. When the moon has sunk low enough to almost touch the western mountains, temple bells start to sound all at once in every direction. The bell at Bunhwang Temple beside the barracks is the loudest, shattering the dreams of the soldiers, rousing them from their exhausted sleep. The blast of trumpets and horns then surges from within the barracks. Sleepy soldiers pour out of the many rooms like bees from a hive that has been shaken, and assemble in the yard. In the middle of the yard is an enormous pile of bows and quivers of arrows. Colorful flags flutter all around in the torchlight. With the sunrise, about a thousand soldiers become the first troops to move out, leaving through the Southern Gate to 1
Nangbi Castle (娘臂城) was located in the Cheongwongun area of North Chungcheong Province during the period of the Three Kingdoms. It is said that Goguryeo and Silla fought bitterly to occupy this region. 9
head west. There are also soldiers on horseback and carts loaded with supplies. Everyone is carrying a bow and quiver of arrows; some are armed with long spears as well. Gasil, clad in a dyed soldier’s uniform, is among those with a large bow and arrows. The farmers, who until yesterday had lived peacefully with hoes and sickles and axes for chopping wood, have become soldiers armed with weapons overnight, marching off to kill other humans. “Where do you think we’re going?” asks someone behind Gasil. “Who knows?” replies another. “Wherever they lead us.” “Are the Baekje bastards attacking again?” “I think they said it’s the Goguryeo soldiers this time.” “Those dogs. Why can’t they just farm their land and sit on their asses? Why do they have to keep bothering us when we haven’t done anything to them? Why do they have to make hell for everyone?” “I know! And then the bastards will say that it’s us Silla people who are attacking them!” The soldiers go on talking this way. At other times they say, “But why are we plodding along like this? What’s there for us to eat?” “What do you mean ‘eat’? We’re going off to fight.” “So I’m saying, what’s there to eat that we’re fighting?” There is no answer for a while, then someone responds, “You think we’re going because there’s something in it for us? We’re going because they’re telling us to go.” The man who says this chuckles coldly, as if he is angry. Somebody else seems to find this comment funny and starts laughing. “Who’s telling us to go and fight?” he asks. “And we don’t even listen to our own fathers!” He laughs louder. “Really, who’s telling us to go that we’re marching like this?” Someone else laughs again. “We’re going because they said they’ll arrest us and kill us if we don’t!” At this the men fall silent, as if they are all thinking, “Oh, that’s why.” But Gasil thinks, “I’m going in my father-in-law’s place,” and he alone is happy. They march on, camp that night, get up the next morning and march all through the next day. They cross an unfamiliar river and a wide plain, then go over an enormous hill. About ten days after having left Seoul, they manage to ferry across a river as wide as the sea at a place called Nodollaru and finally reach Hanyang. Some ran away during the march. Others got caught trying and were beheaded, fell sick and died, or drowned crossing the river. So by the time the army reaches the other side of the wide river, the thousand soldiers that had left Seoul together have shrunk to less than six hundred. The day the soldiers cross the river, a fierce west wind blows from Samgak Mountain and millet-sized snow pellets hurtle through the air. The soldiers stationed at Hanyang are in dirty, patched-up clothes, their faces pale, drained of blood. The clothing they had brought from home is worn-out, their uniforms are black with filth, and they are all shivering with cold. The new arrivals take in the sad spectacle and feel their skin break out in goose bumps. 10
“Why do they all look like that, just skin and bones?” “Are we going to get like that, too?” “If we don’t get killed first. Then we get to end up like that.” The men say things like this as they dejectedly enter the barracks, the floors covered with straw mats. That day the people are told that fresh soldiers have arrived from Seoul after travelling for more than twenty days. The rulers prepare a huge banquet, killing many cows and preparing a great deal of wine. With Goguryeo soldiers sometimes sneaking over Muakjae Hill on their horses and no reinforcements arriving from Seoul, the soldiers guarding the frontier have not been able to relax even for a day or sleep well at nights, and so seeing the new arrivals lifts all their spirits and makes them cheerful. On top of this, feasting on meat and drinking wine after having gone hungry for so long further helps them to forget the cold and their yearning to return home. Soon they are all talking excitedly and celebrating. Gasil joins in and also gets drunk. An old veteran assigned to Gasil’s room has been in the army for twenty years, and because he had been in Seoul a long time, he is knowledgeable about barracks matters. He plays the bamboo flute and knows how to dance and perform dramatic songs. And because he has fought in many battles, he thinks nothing of fighting. After a lot of bantering, the old soldier begins to beat time on his knee and launches into a song. He begins with a question. “Eheya—strange mountains, strange waters, Who did we follow to come here?” When he finishes the call, an old soldier, one of the five, six in the room, starts to beat time on his knee as well and sings the response. “Eheya—yo—I didn’t follow my beloved Or come to see the sights; I came with the precious Sword of Yongcheon2 To hunt those Goguryeo bastards, eheya—yo.” The old soldier grows merrier and moves his shoulders up and down to the rhythm. He sings: “Eheya—yo—hey, new soldier, let me ask you, What happened to the hills and streams of your home village, What happened to your father and mother, Are the wife and children you left behind doing well? Eheya—yo.” Making the same bouncing motion with their shoulders, the rest of the old soldiers respond with, “I didn’t follow my beloved,” and repeat the chorus. Red-faced soldiers from the other rooms hear the singing and step inside. The room is 2
The Sword of Yongcheon (龍泉劍) was a special sword used by generals in ancient times. 11
soon full to bursting, with still more soldiers standing outside the entrance and shivering in the snow. Some of the men reciting the chorus grow more animated and start dancing. When they beckon to the others with outstretched hands, some respond by taking up the rhythm, beating their hands on their thighs. Every time the older soldier feeds his audience another verse, the crowd grows larger. At first, Gasil quietly and cautiously tries to mimic the tune and chorus, but once he has learned it, he joins in with gusto. The old soldier continues, raising his voice higher. “Eheyayo, let’s go hunting, go hunting. Once the day breaks, let’s go hunting. Over Muakjae Hill and across the Imjin River, Let’s go hunting for Goguryeo soldiers.” “Eheyayo—I didn’t follow my beloved Or come to see the sights; I came with the precious Sword of Yongcheon To behead the Goguryeo King and offer it to our Great Sovereign.” “Eheyayo, a hundred years of life is but a dream. Where are you from and where are you going? Today we live and play but who knows what tomorrow will bring? Maybe I’m a ghost struck by an arrow on a road of clay And soft stones in Bukhan Mountain, eheyayo.” Everyone then sings the chorus in a melancholy voice. After it is finished, no one moves. They all watch the old soldier, his white hair scattered wildly across his wrinkled face. He continues, still dancing, rhythmically bouncing his shoulders. “Eheyayo. Do not burrow into Bukhan’s clay and stones, Lest you disturb the scattered bones. Ah! Once we have died from we know not what, We shall all become those scattered bones.” His sunburned face sparkles, tears in his eyes. The soldiers start to sing the chorus, but become choked up with emotions and cannot finish. Soon everyone is crying. Gasil tries to hold back the tears welling up inside him, but he cannot stop them. He breaks down and cries as well. Bugles suddenly sound from the barracks yard, the command for the troops to muster. The men are startled, but everyone knows what it means. Goguryeo soldiers are attacking Hanyang Castle under the cover of darkness. Gasil joins the others in seizing bow, quiver and sword, and hurry into the yard. There are thousands of soldiers standing there in long rows, a commander on horseback at the front, waving a banner, shouting orders. “At this moment,” he cries, “Goguryeo soldiers are attacking, coming over Muakje Hill! 12
Go meet them and fight! If they retreat, pursue them all the way to Bukhan Mountain!” At that moment an arrow comes flying out of nowhere, grazing the ear of the commander’s horse. The thousands of assembled soldiers take up the battle cry and rush out. They go around Inwang Mountain and race toward Muakje. At daybreak, as village roosters are crowing, the soldiers reach Bukhan Mountain. Goguryeo soldiers have abandoned their dead, their horses, those felled by arrows, and have retreated to Nangbi Castle. Of the Silla army, some two hundred are dead. The old soldier who had sung his story is nowhere to be found. Gasil searches for him everywhere the next day and asks around. No one knows where he is.
3. After over ten days of Silla soldiers holding the line, an army of eight thousand soldiers under General Yongchun and General Yusin arrives. The men regain their fighting spirit and boast that in the next battle they will chase the enemy all the way to their capital Pyeongyang. But things do not work out that way. The Silla army would advance seven miles, then retreat twelve, then advance again two, going back and forth between the Han and Imjin Rivers. Spring comes and goes, then summer, autumn, winter, and the four seasons repeat. Meanwhile, soldiers are dying of old age, sickness, and wounds from arrows and swords. Some run away. Others are executed for trying. The army steadily decreases in size and is forced to fall back a dozen miles to await reinforcements. When fresh troops arrive, they swear they will smash their enemies all the way to Pyeongyang and advance more than twenty miles. But when their numbers decrease, they fall back again. This repeats day and night, an endless back and forth, until it seems the fighting will not end anytime soon. Gasil had left home saying he would return in a year, but it has already been three years and he cannot see any way of getting back. He occasionally hears news of his village from newly arrived soldiers, but there is no way to send a message. There are people coming, but no one is returning, so how could a message be sent back home? Then, in the spring of the third year, he finally hears news of Old Man Seol. Seol is doing well and his daughter still has not married; she is waiting for Gasil. But after a while, another newly arrived soldier brings word that the daughter is engaged to some nobleman in the village and that they are to wed in the fall. When Gasil hears this, it grieves him deeply. But what can he do when there is no way to return? The soldiers with whom he had left Seoul three years before have disappeared one by one and now he cannot see any of the old faces. It is difficult for Gasil to believe that he also won’t fade away like the morning dew on a blade of grass. Moreover, it is rumored that Silla will gather all its might in the autumn to strike against Goguryeo and that the enemy is planning to do the same against Silla. It seems unlikely that Gasil will survive such a maelstrom. The soldiers say that in Goguryeo there is a warrior who can travel—even fly—without being seen, and that he is coming to battle this time. Gasil thinks he will not live 13
to see next spring. In mid-September of the third year, the soldiers are ordered to attack Nangbi Castle. Everyone is weary and homesick and no one wants to fight. But then they are told that this will be the last battle; that after this, they will all be sent home. So the soldiers tell each other that they will do this one last time, whether they live or die. Once their stomachs are full of wine and meat, they sound their bugles and beat their drums and raise clouds of dust, charging at Nangbi Castle. Gasil frantically keeps shooting his arrows and swinging his sword as he fights his way forward. The arrows from Nangbi Castle rain down on them in turn and the charging soldiers fall one by one. Gasil keeps charging blindly forward, only forward, continually passing soldiers who are dead or gushing blood, climbing over them or stepping over them, both the dead and dying. The earth and the heavens are all dust, obscuring the way ahead. The screams and battle noise of the drums are deafening; nothing else can be heard. Still Gasil pushes onward, if only because that is the direction he has been going. “Whoosh!” An arrow pierces Gasil’s left arm. Pausing, he yanks it out quickly. As he draws nearer to Nangbi Castle, more and more arrows narrowly miss him. Then he is struck again, this time in his right leg. “Ah!” He screams and falls. He musters all his might to pull the arrow out of his leg, but now his arm and his leg are bleeding profusely. In great pain and his strength spent, he uses his clothes to stop the bleeding and falls back as if dead. He is only vaguely aware of Silla soldiers racing past him, screaming like madmen. After a time, he feels his leg being grabbed and pulled. He opens his eyes to see two Goguryeo soldiers standing over him with their swords drawn, their eyes on him. “You,” says one. “You’re not dead yet?” He kicks Gasil in the side. “I’m not dead,” Gasil answers, looking up. The second soldier points his sword at Gasil’s chest. “You Silla bastard! We’ve killed all your friends except for the cowards who ran off. Now it’s your turn. I’m going to kill you, too, like this!” He is about to run Gasil through with his sword. Gasil motions for him to stop. “Listen,” he says, “you and I, what have we against each other? Have I struck your father or stolen your cow? We’re complete strangers. What have I ever done to you that you now want to kill me? I also have aged parents and a young wife. If I die, what will happen to them?” The first soldier stays the hand of the man with the sword. “You scoundrel,” he says to Gasil. “Then why did you come to our country with your weapons? If you had come empty-handed, we would have killed a chicken for you and served you a meal! But no, you came with a bow to kill our people! That’s why you Silla dogs 14
deserve to die. You come here and attack us for no reason, when Goguryeo hasn’t done anything to you. You forced us to come out to fight like this …” Gasil replies suspiciously, “I heard it was you Goguryeo scoundrels that attacked us for no reason.” “Who says that?” angrily interrupts the soldier with the sword. “Our King told us Silla is the one that’s causing all the chaos!” “Our King told us that Goguryeo broke the peace and is attacking for no reason,” replies Gasil. The three men stare at each other in silence. Gasil struggles to sit up. He is parched. “I’m dying for a drink,” he says to the soldier with the sword. “Please, get me some water.” Confused about what he should do, the soldier hesitates for a while. He then sheathes his sword and goes to a stream nearby, returning with some water. After gulping it down, Gasil says to the two Goguryeo soldiers, “You two—don’t kill me. I may have killed some of your countrymen today with my arrows, but it wasn’t because I wanted to kill them. I fought because I was given a bow and ordered to use it. It’s the same for you. What reason do you have to go around like this, stabbing people and killing needlessly?” He picks up the bow beside him and bends it until it breaks. “There, without this bow I’m just someone who’s come to your country empty-handed.” The two soldiers look at each other, dumbfounded. “So what,” says one, “do we let him live?” “I don’t know, they told us to kill them all …” “Let’s spare him … What he says makes sense.” “I don’t know. Maybe we could say we captured him alive.” “Yes, let’s hand him over to the authorities. Let’s not kill him.” In this way the two soldiers help Gasil to the army authorities and hand him over to a commander. The commander, seeing Gasil’s hands and face, realizes that he is an ignorant farmer, an insignificant foot soldier, and decides that there is no need to kill him. He is taken instead to the market and sold as a slave. An old farmer who happened to be there buys Gasil, puts him on a cow and takes him to a village out in the countryside. Gasil’s wounds soon heal. He takes an ax and goes about cutting down trees and chopping up firewood, and at night he braids straw and makes shoes. Word soon spreads about him, that he is a captured Silla soldier. People come to gawk at him and children follow him around, making fun of him, shouting “Silla bastard!” and “Tang Kingdom dog!” But gradually they realize that he is just like them. He even becomes friends with the other workers. In the spring, Gasil scoops up manure and ploughs the field. He is good at growing rice because he is from Silla, and he turns one of his owner’s fields into a paddy. In the second year, after a bountiful harvest and with quality rice on the table, his elderly owner comes to treat Gasil more like one of the family than a slave. The neighbors all ask him to help them with their farming and Gasil teaches them how to grow rice in paddy fields. A 15
great deal of farmland lies barren due to Goguryeo being in an almost constant state of war and the people neglecting their fields. Until Gasil came along, there were no rice paddy farmers in Goguryeo outside the vicinity of Pyeongyang. Thus Gasil becomes well-known not only in this village, but also in neighboring villages. People speak highly of him, saying that he is a good man, strong and productive, and in particular that he is a master at building rice paddies. Three more years pass. Every year, when autumn comes, Gasil asks to be set free. And every year his owner refuses to let him go, saying that if he went back to his country after what has happened to him he would be in danger of losing his life. The old man also has it in mind that Gasil should marry his daughter, who is now sixteen. The old man’s sons had all gone off to war and he had bought Gasil as a servant because there was no one left to farm the land. With Gasil now with them, the farming is getting done and the household has become affluent. And because Gasil is such a sincere and diligent person, the old man believes in him and feels he can entrust the rest of his life to him. So he wants more than anything else to make Gasil his son-in-law and have him forget about returning to his own country. The old man’s daughter has also fallen in love with Gasil. While watching him carry the big ax on his shoulder, chop down trees and heave heavy loads of wood and grain up on the cows, the girl couldn’t help but fall in love. Gasil, meanwhile, has shown that he is not only physically strong but also wise and resourceful. He made a saw, an inking line, a smoothing plane and many other tools. He built a separate house for himself and carved wooden shoes for the old man and the girl. The old man said the shoes were comfortable and beautifully shaped and he had his daughter rub perilla seed oil into them to keep them from cracking. During breaks from farm work, Gasil also made fish traps with wormwood stalks. He would catch carp and other small fish and crabs, and the girl would clean them in the brook in front of the house and boil them stuffed with green chili. The old man loved eating these dishes. Because Gasil never stays still for a moment and he is constantly doing something, the house is always clean and there is never anything lacking. He has the firewood heaped up as high as a mountain before the first snow, and he always has a pile of straw shoes and hemp-cord sandals for the family to wear. The previous winter, when the girl said she wanted to try weaving and making clothes from the cloth, Gasil went all around the mountain collecting the best materials and made her a spinning wheel and a loom. Because they are like the ones in Silla, where weaving is more advanced, they are much more convenient and better looking than the ones in Goguryeo. Gasil does a lot of other things like this that win praise from the neighbors for his wisdom and skill. In this way he has become indispensable in the village. Whenever something difficult comes up, the women and even the children now say, “We need to go and ask Gasil.” Observing his creations, the neighbors have also become interested in making devices for catching birds and fish. Gasil’s diligence has made him an exemplary person among the villagers. And seeing that he is a man of few words who only speaks the truth and always does what he says, they have come to trust him, as well as respect him. 16
But there is sadness in Gasil. He has no way of finding out what has happened to his betrothed, the one he has promised to love for a hundred years, and he does not know if he will ever see her again. So he keeps asking his owner to set him free. But he only makes the request in the fall, when the year’s work is done. When spring comes and they need to start again on the farm work, Gasil does not speak of it anymore. But this year—it has been six years since he left his own village, for he was nineteen then and now he is twenty-five—he intends to return home no matter what. And so one evening after supper, he turns to the old man and says, “Please let me leave this year.” This startles the old man. He turns to Gasil and says, “Why are you saying you want to leave again? I’m seventy now and I’ve come to depend on you for everything. If you go, how am I going to live?” The old man speaks earnestly, his voice shaking. His old wife beside him also speaks up in a trembling voice. “Of course he’s right,” she says. “My husband and I, after our grown-up sons all went off to war and died, we met you by chance, and we’ve come to trust you and depend on you like our own son. If you leave us, how are we two old souls ever going to survive? Please don’t ever mention leaving again. Stay with us until we are dead and bury us both …” She caresses the hair of her daughter beside her. “After that, you can take this child and go anywhere you want. With you taking care of this little daughter of ours, we’ll rest easy knowing she’ll be well, even if you take her to a place where the earth touches the sky.” The girl slips out to the kitchen as if embarrassed. She returns with boiled chestnuts in a large gourd bowl, sets it down in the middle of the room and sits behind her mother. “Here, Gasil,” says the old woman, “have some chestnuts. Isn’t this good? You said yourself you don’t have parents, so think of us as your parents. You say you don’t have a wife, so take our child as your wife. Working to earn your own living and to live this way— isn’t it a good thing?” She takes some chestnuts and offers them to him. “Here, have some now. Go on. She boiled them just for you.” The old woman tries to pull her daughter forward. “No, Mother! Oh!” The daughter lowers her head and looks at the floor. Gasil peels the chestnuts and offers them first to the old couple before eating any himself. His hands shake as he peels the chestnuts. Truthfully, he does not know what to do. If the owner had forced him to stay, he would have escaped long ago. But with this poor family of three trusting him and hanging onto him out of love, it is difficult for him to leave. As strong as he is, he is also affectionate and kind. But if affection and kindness are strong within him, so is his sense of honor. Because of his deep feelings for the family, he cannot bear to abandon them. But because of his deep sense of honor, neither can he break the promise he made to Seol’s daughter. Seeing how Gasil continues to peel the chestnuts without speaking, the old man says, “Gasil, listen to 17
what we say and make this old couple happy. Please, don’t ever make our old hearts tremble again.” The old man gently strokes him on the back. The old woman and the daughter only gaze at him with anxious eyes. Then, as if he has made a decision, Gasil raises his head to face the old couple. “I consider you two my parents,” he says. “You have loved me like my own father and mother. So yes, you are my parents.” Even as he speaks, he is deeply moved and his voice falters. He continues, fighting back tears. “But when I left my village six years ago …” He has to stop, then finds his voice again. “I never told you this because it might have sounded like boasting.” He tells them the story of how he came to fight in the war in place of Old Man Seol and how he had promised that, after one year of fighting, he would return and marry Seol’s daughter. After the tale is told, he says, “Why would I want to return to my village? What do I desire? I want to return because there’s someone who is waiting day and night for me, because I need to keep the promise I made of a hundred years together.” Thick tear drops fall from Gasil’s eyes as he finishes his story. Listening to him, the old couple is amazed at how he is a far better man and his heart far more beautiful than they had imagined. And now, seeing his tears, they cry with him. Their daughter cries, too, burying her head against her mother’s back. The old man pats Gasil’s back again and says, “You are a gift from the heavens, Gasil, you truly are a great man. How do you go out to face death in place of someone else? There’s an old story I heard once, of someone like that in the time of our ancestors, but I have never met anyone like you in all of my seventy years.” He spares no words in praising Gasil. Then he says thoughtfully, “I wondered why I never saw you laughing, why there was always some worry shadowing you. I just thought you were missing your village. But now I understand.” The old woman wipes away her tears and is also choked with emotion. “And I wondered why it was that you were losing weight and growing thin,” she says. “So this is the reason.” The daughter quietly gets up and leaves. They hear her sobbing in the next room.
4. The next morning, after an early breakfast, Gasil gets ready to depart for his homeland. He bows three times to the old couple to bid them farewell and takes his leave. When he is about to leave the village that he has grown so fond of over the past three years, the old man puts some travel money into his bag and his old wife gives him some clothes and wraps up some boiled chicken for him. The neighbors also offer him presents and food, each wrapped in a 18
little packet, and put them into his bag. “Have a safe journey,” they say, “and let’s meet again before we die.” Their faces are gloomy as they say their goodbyes and accompany him to the river outside the village. “Dear neighbors,” Gasil says, “you’ve all been so good to me, but I don’t know if I can ever return from a country so far away.” He takes their hands one by one in a tearful farewell. As he boards the ferry, the old man stands by the front end of the boat and seizes his hand. “Take care,” he says, “and have a safe journey. Live a happy life. I know it’s too much for this old man to expect to see you again, but if you find that Seol’s daughter has married someone else, then come back to us. I will not marry my daughter to anyone for the next two years and will wait for you to come back.” The old man weeps as he speaks. Gasil also begins to cry and can only say, “Yes … Father!” For a long time they cannot let go of each other, but remain together, crying. Finally the ferry must leave. The ferryman sings “Eoya, eoya” as he rows across the glittering, clear blue water of the autumn river. The boat heads toward the far bank with a hill rising behind, leaving small ripples in its wake. Gasil waves at the dozens of men and women gathered to see him off. They wave back and say farewell. The old man remains at the spot where the ferry had departed, looking at Gasil from afar and calling out some words occasionally. After alighting from the ferry on the far side of the river, Gasil waves back to the people still watching, then shoulders his bag and walks through grass dried up from the frost, dragging his walking stick. He finds a path and turns east, looking back occasionally to wave again to the people and to see them wave back. The path is about to disappear behind a hill, taking Gasil out of sight. He turns back one last time and raises his arm high and shouts, “Goodbye!” The people watching him wave back and shout, “Goodbye!” their distant cries drifting across the river like the whine of mosquitoes. Gasil, thinking of the old man, sheds tears once more. Then mustering his strength, he raises his voice. “Going, going, I’m going back home,” he says. “To my country, I’m going back!” Singing, he thrusts his walking stick forward and continues eastward, ever eastward, back to his homeland.