It was a Glorious Time in Ma Kim's

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Status: In Progress  |  Genre: Mystery and Crime  |  House: Booksie Classic


In Joseon Dynasty Korea, the average career span of king and criminal were about the same. Both were fraught with the possibility of sudden, bloody termination. And neither was ever universally popular or unpopular.

In the capital city of Hanseong –modern day Seoul- a young man gifted all the advantages of not being born into the 90% found himself a member of the Yangban, an unexamined-life-is-not-worth-living elite rump who, whether they wrote or not, we might call a literati. Mu-yul, for that was his name, never really had to work for rice or meat or ponder too long where the next bowl of rice and meat was coming from. For the next one, like a Japanese invasion, was always coming.

Mu-yul, like most men with too much time and a little unoriginal aspiration to write something, found himself drinking nearly every day. He had got through youth at the feet of various stern masters in the Chinese classics without having the desire to add to the canon thwacked out of him with a stick. The great king Sejong had by this time forged from the genius of his court scholars a native phonetic script, a 30-character vernacular Korean alphabet, that was, as an aid to mass literacy, an innovation designed for the 90%. Mu-yul and his Yangban compadres would no sooner be caught using a single Hangeul syllable than they would manning a plough in Japan.

But drinking rice wine is (still to this day) easier than writing, and it was never hard for Mu-yul to find, amongst his well-heeled niche, young fellows equally disposed to all day carousing via the staple diet's liquid form, Hanseong Rice Wine ('the only rice wine drunk in Hanseong'). Their daily get togethers at –rough transaltion- Ma Kim's Oriental Tea and Wine Shop started out with makkoli tinged perorations on the Confucian classics before lunchtime; then, as time and life dragged on, they ended with fights about which Kisaeng house of ladies to visit.

Mu-yul was, by each successive calendrical full moon, putting together a late 17th century resume of some disappointment.

Not that much was expected of him. Sure, he must always repose in the outward garb of a Yangban at large -white flowing jungchimak robe, its sleeves of priestly girth tied together with long tasseled strings; black, circular, brimmed dopo hat atop bun-tied hair - but although Mu-yul incontrovertibly looked the part, he was beginning to feel less and less fulfilled by merely managing only this much of the part.

Mu-yul needed root and branch alteration to the tiring routine of Hanseong rice wine and hired female company. He wanted people to know of him as belonging to the 1% of the 10%. He craved reputation anew, to stop being seen as an everyday drinker with pitiable pretensions to poetic progress.

So he carried on drinking and took a pen name.

In an act readable as rebellion against the father, he took the name Yul-mu, a conceited reversal of the clan title, and a clever ‘in’ to the world of scandalizing writer. A literati’s undermining of filial pieties would set him on the path to something….or other.

His father never spoke to him again and Yul-mu, for that was his name, now had no money to drink with.

So Yul-mu had two dusty Hanseong trails available to him. He could go full prodigal –embark on a life of usury and sybaritic indulgence, quickly getting to his last penny before assuming the long bow position in front of dad.

Or he could take to crime.

Yul-mu, after a brim full of the milky white, lazily chose crime because it seemed like a natural next step. Having rebelled against the blood father in abandoning his name, he felt all geared up to rebel against the father of his aristocratic class –the King- by stealing from the state. Even in a rigid nation of approved Confuciana, such as was Joseon era Korea, there was glory to be had in the figurine of the just outlaw.

Yul-mu would steal. Then he would toss a few poom to the lowers –farmers, merchants, everyone productive in the process of maintaining the species. And then songs would be sung about him, poems written of him, and new laws -designed to scare off emulators- crafted around him.

Curses to this king, anyhows, Yul-mu told himself. He is one of the hated among his type, with none of the forward thinking fealty to the people’s wellbeing that Sejong had. I would, if I could, kill the naif. Yul-mu found this thought crossing his sloppy senses after a dozen and a half ceramic bowls of Hanseong rice wine. But it was still there the next morning as he tied long strands of beard together with his eyes sleepy-sticky shut.

Yul-mu, taken with a real rising urge to rob, took to the streets like a shadow, carrying a knapsack on his back and a white porcelain vase filled with Hanseong Rice Wine in his hand. He stealthily made for his old Confucian master’s grand very traditional Hanok building complex, sprang over its gray slate wall, slipped inside via a paper window, and stole all of his instructor’s most valuable writing implements. On the other side of Hanseong worked a mute stationery dealer who never did question where this illusory young man came across such beautiful pens, brushes, ink blocks, and choice hanji paper.

The stationery dealer thought of Yul-mu as the Knapsack Penman. For Yul-mu would stake out his daybreak quarry in the gear of the privileged - his type of presence around such places attracting no special regard - vault the walls, ghost through paper screens, help himself to top grade learning materials, then vault back out into the brush skirting an alley to change into the non-descript Hanbok of your regular drossy merchant moneyman. Stuffing his jungchimak in the knapsack, Yul-mu transformed into a victim of materialist historical forces.

…because a Yangban could never be seen selling goods for cash. The mute stationer would have been discomfited to the point of knowing he was complicit in all kinds of social upheaval. That wasn’t just a no no. It was a no no no no. Later, back across town again, Yul-mu would change back into the creased jungchimak, once again becoming the wine drinking rookie writer, posturing in bars, but really a secret outlaw with father, king, and Confucian society in his sights…

It was a glorious time in Ma Kim’s. There was Yul-mu and Ma Kim. And there was Ha Jae-hyeon and Lee Eun-song, ‘Fat’ Ahn Song-min, Chinese Tae-yoon, who got that nickname because his mother would only speak Chinese at home, Good Do-hoon, who they never heard swear, Bad Do-hoon, who always threatened that if anyone complained twice, they’d get hit so bad they’d never complain again; and then there was ‘the long Dutchman’. The long Dutchman was so called because he was an actual Dutchman, Hamstell Neff, part of some foreign delegation who had ingratiated himself with such finality into Hanseong’s warren of makkoli and Kisaeng houses that his fellow Dutch had set sail without him. His presence was now routine. They didn’t even think about it.

And Yul-mu now had the thing that would carry a man aloft through this chance, pointless life: purpose. No matter to what extent he had shattered the blood-brain barrier the previous evening, Yul-mu always awakened early and, with the inherited aptitude of his class, embarked upon the mastery of a craft. For robbery to Yul-mu was a craft. And one that turned the pages of history. Transgressive actions are history, he absolutely loved telling himself. There’s the act itself, which is essential but secondary. Then there is the reaction, which is all. The discovery, the confusion, the confirmation, the call to justice. Then there is justice itself: vengeance. This was the synthesis which moved peoples –forget individuals- peoples to turmoil. An agent of historical change, he drunkenly blurted out, is what I am.

“You?” snorted Bad Do-hoon.

“Yes me!” said Yul-mu.

“And what change will you ever bring about? Apart from that of your name?” The other Yangban laughed.

“More than you ever will Hoon-ah! I will be the person who brings about justice itself…” clarified Yul-mu.

“It’s getting late gentlemen,” Ma Kim gently interrupted, calculating, based on long experience, that repairing the aftermath of a scuffle would cost more than the income generated from another 8 bowls of rice wine.

Bad Do-hoon, also an artist manqué, though of the fine art varietal, sat back and brooded, while the long Dutchman, picking up only scraps of meaning, sensed that the end of an era was nighing.

Still, the next morning, the Knapsack Penman showed up across town to sell his stolen stationery, the family black sheep fending for himself on foreign farms. As he did the next morning, and the next morning, and the next morning, and on so many mornings that he found himself repeat burglarizing seats of Confucian learning across all parts of Joseon Hanseong. Until, that is, he got what he really wanted.

A reputation.

There was talk in all of Hanseong’s tea shops and restaurants, its schools and institutions of education, its offices of administration and homes of officials and courtiers and finally, the king himself, of this ineluctable force typhooning its way through the city, functioning a one-man grey economy, whirling into his possession the era’s most precious pens and brushes and ink and choice hanji paper.

Yul-mu was engaged in a historical transfer of wealth and knowledge from the haves to the have nots, as the mute stationery dealer stuck to his side of the bargain –that of never wishing to be caught- by accepting Yul-mu’s loot and reselling it at chump change prices to poorer denizens. Yul-mu was raising the betrodden’s consciousness through cheap Yangban pens and a script they could quickly learn and subversively deploy.

The king took note.

“Get this man. Get him now,” he ordered, and his order spread through Hanseong’s tea shops and restaurants, it’s schools and institutions of education, it’s offices of administration and homes of officials and courtiers.

Bad Do-hoon now had the thing that would carry a man aloft through this chance, pointless life. He resolved to trail and trap the Knapsack Penman, of whom a rough description was being put together from many partial sightings, serve his King in historic fashion, and be a person who brings about justice….

 

Every day he would acquire shards of new intelligence, sourcing rumours and hearsay, of the Knapsack Penman’s crimes. He would translate these bits of description –the Knapsack Penman has an oddly bridged nose, the Knapsack Penman’s ears are weirdly small, the Knapsack Penman stoops peculiarly- into ever more detailed sketches of a suspect, aiming to produce a portrait impression so versimilitudinous that he could pick out the man from a lineup of ten thousand peasants.

At last, exhausted by the effort, Do-hoon felt he could buff up his painting with not one iota more of detail. He was down to the depth of the Knapsack Penman’s wrinkles and the length of the Knapsack Penman’s fingernails. The problem was just how ordinary the thief’s Hanbok was. He had only ever been espied in a drab, common example of the garment worn by the 90% to the point of invisibility. They all wore them, the peasants! The Knapsack Penman’s only residual distinguishment, his criminal brand, was that bottle of Hanseong Rice Wine he was seen brashly swigging upon bolting a premises.

So that was the characterful flourish Bad Do-hoon added to his portrait.

His poster was now ready.

And thanks to King Sejong era innovations in metal type printing plates, Bad Do-hoon was able to plaster copies of Yul-mu –subtitled ‘The Hanseong Rice Wine Thief’- on every wall and public notice board in Hanseong.

Labour, resented Bad Do-hoon as he traipsed the city, really does consume time. But at the end of this long and dusty task, he was possessed of an unfamiliar sensation, one that he was reluctant to associate with the grind of doing actual work. It was some feeling of fulfillment that Bad Do-hoon confused with anticipation of his thirst being quenched at Ma Kim’s Oriental Tea and Wine Shop, where his fellow young Yangban were presently drinking in the assumption that Bad Do-hoon, always there when they arrived, must have died.

So there were murmurs of mock disappointment when he entered, carrying a few scrappy rolled up remaining prints of, still unknown to Bad Do-hoon, his drinking colleague, Yul-mu.

The only seat left was between Yul-mu and the long Dutchman. Bad Do-hoon took it and a celadon of rice wine simultaneously, setting in motion the elaborate passing round of drinks that guaranteed everyone got sloppy real quick. 

Yul-mu, of late, was finding it ever harder to hide from the group his sense of primus inter pares. As the rice wine flowed into his blood, it became an exacting burden to relentlessly feign normality. For normality –to the other young Yangban- was membership of a drunken unpublished circle, a dismal fact that alcohol effaced at first before always ramming home anew, both to and among themselves.

But Yul-mu was different, not of them. He had marked out a territory in the minds of men! Why should Yul-mu suffer fame in silence? What was a ‘reputation’ if it was stifled by anonymity? This was the subject of the evening, one that could not be expounded upon by the group in rhyming couplets, and Yul-mu drank on in silent vexation, pointedly ignoring Bad Do-hoon before stumbling home.

Tying his beard together through half open eyes, Yul-mu planned to sock it to the world in an inferno. He would burn down every place he robbed. This was in no way to be an expression of his rage with the Joseon autarky, or any system of misrule. It was much more vital than that. This was anger at a lack of personal recognition. It was about respect. 

Yul-mu packed a vial of flammable oil into his knapsack, took up the porcelain flask, and headed out into the zig zag of alleys crisscrossing old Seoul.

He got no further than the back street behind his two room abode before coming face to face with what felt like one of Korea’s wild tigers that were to roam the peninsula for two more centuries.

It took the form of an image plastered on a dusty beige alley wall and it froze the would be pyromaniac to the spot. There, stooping with small ears and bent nose, was he, dressed down in everyday Hanbok, knapsack affixed to his back, and carrying in his right paw a bottle used to enflask rice wine.

Yul-mu was stunned to ecstasy. His legs took him past the poster, lest his staring attract comparisons with its content –that oddly bridged nose, those weird ears, and that queer stoop- and he meandered from alley to alley, meeting his likeness at every turn, bathing in the asses milk of ubiquity in his own lifetime, a dazed outlaw of living history.

He knew not how he made it to Ma Kim’s Oriental Tea and Wine Shop just as she opened, led there by some subconscious homing device, but was so damn out of it on experiencing his own legacy in real time that he barely noticed nor cared when Bad Do-hoon joined him at their circle’s table. The long Dutchman, who was always there, sat unnoticed in a corner specially dominated by the city’s only foreigner.

“You’re lucky I have any left!” declared Ma Kim of Hanseong Rice Wine. “The city’s nearly sold out! After all those posters of you know who put up by who knows who, well it’s just been…People have gone crazy for Hanseong Rice Wine. If the Hanseong Rice Wine Thief drinks it, I’ll drink it. Everyone’s sayin. I’ve never seen anything like it. They can’t make enough of it. The posters were only put up yesterday!”

Even the long Dutchman understood Ma Kim. But without peers or observers that they were aware of, Yul-mu and Bad Do-hoon nary felt the obligation to engage in the pretence of mutual like or confrerity. They dutifully toasted and passed drinks to each other, but an unusual duration passed in which the two occupied the same time and space without having animal consciousness of the other, the one contemplating his own infamous reverie, the other patiently hoping to satisfy the order of his raging sire.

Yul-mu finally left to pay nature’s heed.

Bad Do-hoon, wondering which school that dastardly Hanseong Rice Wine Thief was robbing now, leaned over to fill his glass. He picked up the bottle. This isn’t one of Ma Kim’s, he thought. And what’s this? He flicked open a knapsack on Yul-mu’s seat. It contained an ordinary Hanbok.

Yul-mu stood in the entrance to Ma Kim’s Oriental Tea and Wine Shop watching Bad Do-hoon rifle through his knapsack. Bad Do-hoon returned to fingering Yul-mu’s porcelain liquor bottle, holding it up to the light to examine its shape and contours. Yul-mu watched as Bad Do-hoon took out a piece of paper. It was one of the posters Yul-mu had been tiger-stunned by in every alley and dusty back street on the way to Ma Kim’s.

Bad Do-hoon felt Yul-mu’s presence behind him. He went from cross-legged to standing faster than a courtier yelled to by the king. But Yul-mu sprang at Bad Do-hoon and violently slammed him back down. Ma Kim screamed. The long Dutchman took another swill of her delicious rice wine. Bad Do-hoon kicked both legs up like a court jester leaping onto a tight rope. His feet smashed into Yul-mu’s midriff, sending him flying into Ma Kim who was coming to break up the madness. Doubly enraged to find himself spread out over a wailing Ma Kim, Yul-mu now charged at Bad Do-hoon like one of those peninsula tigers, forgetting all his martial arts training, of which there was little effective beyond showmanship, and bit into Bad Do-hoon’s neck, producing blood and a yelp of childish horro. Ma Kim held up her long robe and lunged across the room. She tried comically to separate the brawling young nobles, but it was like a child trying to prise open Seoul’s locked city gate.

Yul-mu and Bad Do-hoon rolled and tumbled, trying to gain preeminence in the grapple. But neither could establish mastery and the interior of Ma Kim’s Oriental Tea and Wine Shop was being systematically destroyed. Finally, Ma Kim began to hit at them with anything she could get her hands on, a poster, the porcelain rice wine bottle, then, uselessly, Yul-mu’s cloth knapsack. As she thwacked the pair with it, the vial of oil spilled out onto the table and knocked over a lamp, whose flame lit the vial’s content which in turn lit Ma Kim’s billowing Hanbok, immediately producing alarmingly tall flames that brought to a halt Yul-mu and Bad Do-hoon’s floor wrestle.

The pair fruitlessly smacked at Ma Kim’s burning clothes, the only result being the transference of the flames first to Yul-mu’s and then to Bad Do-hoon’s own clothing. Now all three were on lethal, inextinguishable fire.

From outside Ma Kim’s Oriental Tea and Wine Shop, a small boy witnessed a tall foreigner exit the small wooden structure from which unregulated billows of smoke poured, before he yelled, “Omma! Omma!” for his own ma.

Thefts from schools ceased that day, and all evidence of Yul-mu’s crimes were swallowed up by the flames, as were the lives of three people, while the blame was laid for their deaths at the hands of a renegade Dutchman, whose figure the small boy only recalled seeing leave Ma Kim’s Oriental Tea and Wine Shop too late, but who had long slipped out of the country on a boat to Japan, returned to Holland and, taking inspiration from Bad Do-hoon’s artwork, approached famous Dutchmen of the day for their consent –for a fee- to be painted by realist masters, holding select products of the new consumer age for posters that would be placed at heavy foot traffic points across Amsterdam, Hamstell Neff becoming a millionaire in the process.

And that is how we got celebrity endorsement advertising.

 


Submitted: November 23, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Laisheng7. All rights reserved.

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