The T'ae Medallion
Into the tumult of Korea in the late 1880’s—a peasant revolt, rapacious nobles, the weak King Kojong, armies from China and Japan pouring into the beleaguered country—disillusioned Virginian Jefferson Phelps returns a mysterious medallion given to his father four decades earlier. His attraction to a forbidden woman of the dominant Min clan thrusts him into the center of intrigues and great battles changing the history of Asia. Due from iUniverse in Spring 2012
First three Chapters of The T'ae Medallion
Prologue: 1864, Seoul, Korea
As the guards shoved him into Kyong-bok Palace’s throne room, little remained of the compelling grace and authority that had led thousands of men to die for Ch’oe Che-u. His white peasant’s garb was stained with blood from his tortured hands and littered with straw and dirt from the prison cell. His bloodshot eyes fixed on the sun and moon screen behind the throne as red pillars and green lattice passed in a blur. The five mountains and two waterfalls that brought the Tao—his Tao!—into the valley. Though he knew his body would soon enough be scattered on the dusty streets of Seoul, a certainty of triumph surged through him as he approached the throne.
A tall, lean man with hawkish features sat on the throne before the screen. His silk and brocade gown shimmered gold and purple. The Taewon’gun, Great Prince of the People, though possessing the fierce intelligence and self-assured authority of a king, was merely Regent, ruling for his young son behind the screen. The hilt of the guards’ swords beat the prisoner to his knees before the throne.
“Why do you lead the people astray, Ch’oe Che-u?” the Taewon’gun asked in a voice whose smooth intensity seemed to shimmer like his gown.
Ch’oe Che-u was surprised how surely his words came, even as his hands throbbed and the room refused to come into focus before his glazed eyes. “The Tao of Heaven bade me speak its Way,” he proclaimed in a ringing voice at odds with his filthy appearance. “One does not refuse the Ch’on-do, the Way of Heaven.”
The Taewon’gun laughed and leaned forward, one elbow resting elegantly on the side of the throne. “The Way of Heaven? Inciting my peasants to contest their king’s heavenly mandate? Stealing the King’s grain and arms?” He spit the next words into Ch’oe’s sweat-stained face. “Setting up a bastard kingdom that destroys the Heaven-sent peace of the Land of the Morning Calm?”
“Yes!” erupted from Ch’oe, as a burst of hatred jolted his wracked frame and set his eyes ablaze. “Your Yi clan’s dynasty nears its end. The Ch’on-do will cleanse our land of your corrupt nobles and your cursed rule!”
A glance from the Taewon’gun sent the flat blade of a broadsword crashing upon the prisoner’s head, knocking him on his face. The guards promptly jerked him back to his knees, where he swayed, his arms barely supporting him above the tiles.
“And what proof do you have of this deluded vision?” pressed the Taewon’gun.
Ch’oe heard the words as in a dream, floating to him thickly. He struggled to concentrate, felt blood dribbling down his neck. “My Tong-hak peasant followers,” he stammered. He gasped, and shook his head. “My brave thousands of peasants rising up. Pitchforks and hoes against your swords and rifles. They are my proof.”
Another laugh from the Taewon’gun, as he sat back in the throne. “Tens of thousands of dead Tong-hak peasants,” he corrected. “By proof, I was referring to the foolish myth of the medallion. Do you have the T’ae medallion?”
Ch’oe smiled grimly, despite his throbbing head and aching hands. He could sense the fear behind the Taewon’gun’s question. “Ancient Silla kingdom shamans,” he said through the pain and dizziness. “My ancestors, forging a medallion of power . . . power to crumble your doomed Yi dynasty.”
The Taewon’gun shook his head as the guards raised their swords for another blow. He wanted this founder of a new religion conscious for a few minutes longer. He considered it, eyes narrowing. “A revolt that shook two whole provinces to the south,” he mused, more to himself than to the pitiful man before him. “Yet you didn’t show the T’ae Medallion or use it, even as my soldiers crushed the uprising.” He sat forward again, peering keenly into the dazed eyes of the prisoner. “You don’t have it, do you? It’s just a myth, isn’t it?”
Ch’oe stared at the blur that was the Taewon’gun’s face. He tried to speak, but nothing happened. He sensed a blackness rising up to claim him. The cool, clean blackness of the Heavenly Way, about to swallow him even as it swallows all creation in the end.
The Taewon’gun saw the man struggling to remain conscious, and quickly pressed his final question. “And the stories of a barbarian sea-tossed onto our shores several decades ago? Are they true? Would you dare to give the ancient medallion to a barbarian, even to keep it from us?”
Ch’oe breathed heavily, beyond even his old fury at his sister’s foolish mistake twenty years ago. He stared down at his swollen, bloodied hands, seeing them as from a great height. He had the odd sensation that they no longer belonged to him at all. He watched a drop of blood from his head fall in slow motion to the floor, and splatter onto the tile next to his wracked hand.
The Taewon’gun sat back. He motioned to his left, and a scribe hurried forward from the shadows, brush poised above a tablet. “Ch’oe Che-u, founder of the misguided Tong-hak religion that has led thousands of peasants to rise against their king,” the Taewon’gun dictated in a toneless voice. “I command that your head be struck from your body when the sun sets this day. That your limbs be severed from your body, and that all be scattered on the streets of Seoul for the ravens and dogs to feast upon.”
The Taewon’gun reached into his sleeve for his seal, and dipped it into the ink pad held by the scribe. He stared hard at the broken prisoner at his feet as he punched the seal onto the bottom of the tablet, smiling as he did so.
The guards jerked the prisoner to his feet and dragged him away from the throne. “You’re doomed,” Ch’oe yelled hoarsely at the blurred figure in shining gold silk before the sun and moon screen. “You will live in fear until my Tong-hak peasants—“ His words abruptly died as the guard to one side struck him on the face with the hilt of his sword.
Only the sound of the guards dragging the limp body were heard for a few seconds more, then the scribe hurried away and silence filled the hall. The Taewon’gun turned in his seat. “Well, my son,” he said with unfeigned composure. “How did you like your first view of rule?”
A small, thin boy of eight or nine years stepped from behind the screen. His eyes were cast down. “Too loud, my father. Too many angry words.”
His father laughed. “All show, Kojong my son. Although his hatred was real enough. Everyone hates and resents a king, my boy, from the peasants in their crude huts to the Min nobles in their evil Fortress. You must get used to that.”
The boy trembled at the mention of the Min Fortress, but suppressed it, and glanced up. “Are we really corrupt, father? And doomed for it?”
The Tawon’gun sighed, becoming somber. “Yes, my son, we inherited a corrupt rule when your cousin died and the throne passed to you. By way of me, for some years. He is right about that. It’s the nobles, of course, our Yangban. They are unrestrained. Some of them—the Mins—are in fact rapacious. But I hope to extend our royal authority over them, and curb the worst of their behavior.”
The boy looked at his father in surprise. “But if he is right about corruption, why did you have him beheaded, father?” He paused. “And dismembered?”
The Taewon’gun pursed his lips. “Corruption is with us always, Kojong. You do not delude the peasants into leaving their fields and attacking government officials with hoes and pitchforks just because there is corruption. That is surely a perversion of the Ch’on-do Heavenly Way he babbles of so much.”
The boy followed the curved line of the yin-yang tile design with the toe of his right foot, wondering whether to reiterate his other question.
“And doomed, father? Are we doomed?”
The father laughed again, heartily now. “No, my son. All this talk of a medallion with the ancient powers of the shaman kings of the old Silla kingdom—it’s just a story that peasants love to hear. Come,” he said, rising and taking the boy by the hand. “Let’s visit your mother so you can show her your progress in calligraphy.”
“Yes, father,” said young Kojong. But his mind was on Ch’oe Ch-u, and his dismemberment that evening filled his thoughts –but only for a day.
Book One: Stranger in a Strange Land
Chapter One. Spring 1882. The Sea of Japan
The rough coast of Korea rose from the sea in the distance, gray rocky crags jutting steeply from narrow stone beaches. Row upon row of densely wooded hills loomed beyond, dark green of conifers, light green of hardwoods. Jefferson Phelps of Virginia drank in the view, his tall, muscular frame swaying with the dips and rolls of the smuggler’s ship, strong hand clamped onto the rail. Excitement mounting, he thought of his father three months ago in Norfolk, glass of rye in hand, challenging him to this trip.
“Phelps and Sons Shipping is about to go under, son. The Readjustors have got the war debt repudiated, damn ‘em. We need fresh capital, and I’m too old to get it.” He took a deep sip of the honey-colored rye, and smacked his lips. “You hate Virginia these days—no, don’t deny it. I don’t cotton to the White Leaguers any more than you. As bad as the Carpetbaggers, in their own way. So go to the Orient, son. See if you can get into the ginseng trade between Korea and China—there’s real money there. Plenty to save our little family enterprise.”
The old man’s words drove from Jefferson’s mind the story he was itching to regale his dad with, of the twenty-yard knife throw that had bagged him a forty-pound porker the week before, and the mountain lion that had contested the prey with him, damn near killing him in the process. But his father’s next words were even more interesting.
“While you’re in Korea, son, return this to a lady who gave it to me when I was there forty years ago, ship-wrecked coming home from the Opium Wars.” His eyes glinted under his shaggy white eyebrows as he handed Jefferson a bronze disc, about as wide as an apple. “I’ll give you her name and village, and some smugglers to get you there. And one more thing. While you’re there, keep your eyes open for a legacy I may have left you.”
The old man had shifted his attention to his rye then, and would answer none of Jefferson’s questions about the disc or the legacy. He would only pour rye and reminisce about the boyhood adventures of Jefferson and his older brother Madison.
So it was that Jefferson found himself on a thirty-foot smuggling craft being pushed by the wind toward the same coastal village his father had shipwrecked on four decades earlier, the puzzling bronze disc hanging from a loop of leather under his shirt. The stocky figure of Choi, the leader of the Wa-ko smugglers, ambled toward him on the bridge. Strong, shrewd-eyed, and a female, surprisingly enough. But the Wa-ko were a society unto themselves. Originally Japanese pirates, they had plagued the east coast of Korea for over a thousand years, intermarrying to the point where they were now as much Korean as Japanese, though not really either.
“How are you, Choi sonsaeng-nim?” Jefferson said in Korean.
The usual skeptical cast to her face was overtaken by a scowl. “Do not use sonsaeng-nim on me,” she gruffly responded. Her hair was tucked into a head band, and she wore a faded blue shirt and pants, unlike her male comrades on the vessel, who were clad only in white loin-clothes. “That is a title for Yangban nobility, not Wa-ko sailors. And you use all honorific verbs,” she continued, the shrewd look coming back to her weathered face. “You learned our language from a Yangban noble, I think.”
Jefferson had caught most of her reply. “On a ship with a Choson saram, a Korean person, from San Francisco to Nagasaki I traveled and learned,” he said slowly, being careful to put the verb at the end of the sentence.
She grunted, and her eyes narrowed as they bored into his. “Forty years ago, just before I was conceived, my father was given a dark-haired barbarian like you by a mudang, a sorceress, at the village of P’aljo where you ask to be taken. She was in great haste.”
Jefferson regarded her coolly. “What should I call you, if not sonsaeng-nim?”
“Sharp-tongue,” she answered curtly. She wondered if it was true what was said about the Jade Stalk of barbarians, that it was grotesquely thick. She guessed not, but barbarians were very peculiar animals, so one never knew.
“Sharp-tongue,” Jefferson repeated, being careful not to smile. “Please call me Je-fu-son. It is close to my name in Mi-guk, America.”
“You ask me to make inquiries for you in P’aljo, Je-fu-son. I think since you speak such excellent Korean, you should ask your questions yourself,” the woman spat out, staring off to the approaching coast.
Jefferson forced himself to grin at her again, and replied casually but forcefully. “The Mexican gold eagles I gave you in Japan. They were for transport and inquiries. You are bound. Besides, Wa-ko will barely talk to a barbarian. Koreans surely will not.”
She nodded. “Not the yangmin, common people. They would sooner stone you than talk with you.”
She made repeated throwing gestures, and he guessed the meaning and added it to his growing vocabulary. He grunted. Yes, that was part of the reason he had taken his father’s challenge and travelled here to the coast of the Hermit Kingdom, the most isolated and xenophobic country in the world. He would return the bronze object and see about the ginseng trade for Phelps and Sons. But he wanted to face danger. To make him forget about what the Carpetbaggers and then the White Leaguers had done to his beloved Virginia after the war. He didn’t seek death, but since brushing so closely against it during the mountain lion attack, he had been comfortable with its prospect. He would likely find either death or a reason to live, here in this most exotic of all places on the earth. Either was fine with him. The wind slapped into the worn sails, pushing the Wa-ko vessel closer to the wild coast.
* * * *
They approached P’aljo that evening, just as the sun was dipping toward the mountain tops. Jefferson and Sharp-tongue Choi both wore white shirts tucked at the waist of white pants drawn snug at each ankle, typical clothing of the Korean countryside. Jefferson’s garb and wide-brimmed bamboo hat hid his foreignness surprisingly well. Sharp-tongue Choi brusquely instructed Jefferson to stay at the beach as they clambered off the ship. After some thirty minutes in the village, she returned to the beach and they sat on their heels, Korean-style, in the lengthening shade of a myrtle tree, gulls circling loudly overhead.
“Put this thing out of your mind,” Sharp-tongue Choi said abruptly. “The woman you asked me to locate, this Ch’oe Nak-son, was doubly cursed. A mudang to begin with—a female shaman, possessed by the spirit world. Useful when you have need to appease the spirits, but all in all someone to avoid.”
Jefferson stared hard at her as she sat squinting out to the sea. “Where is she?” he demanded.
Sharp-tongue Choi exhaled loudly. “Her second misfortune was to be a member of the Ch’oe clan.” Her eyes swung from the sea to look Jefferson full in the face, her dark pupils dilating in the shade. “Some twenty years ago her brother led a peasant revolt, the Tong-hak. The Taewon’gun ruled as Regent then, in King Kojong’s young days. He crushed the revolt, and killed first the brother then everyone related to him.”
Jefferson blinked twice. “So—she has been dead twenty years?”
Sharp-tongue Choi nodded curtly. “She, and all the rest of the clan that lived here. Although the Tong-hak movement persists, scattered in the mountains. Waiting for a magic sign to lead them again.”
Jefferson stared out to sea for some moments, wishing the gulls would be quiet so he could concentrate. Light glistened off the waves. So much for returning the bronze disc, and tracing a mysterious legacy. Anger and disappointment swept over him as he touched the object under his shirt, at letting his father down. He grunted, dropped his hand to the cooling sand, and forced his mind onto the ginseng-trading part of his mission, thinking mistakenly that those other concerns were behind him now.
“My thanks, Sharp-tongue Choi. You bring me here, and you make inquiries for me. Now I have another matter for you.”
She viewed him with suspicion, then broke into a grin, the first Jefferson had seen from her. “Ah,” she said slowly, winking elaborately as she glanced at his thighs. “You wish to acquaint me with your Jade Stalk!’ She tilted her head back and laughed heartily. “And you hope to regain some of your gold by conferring this honor on me!” Laughing harder, she nearly toppled over, barely catching herself from falling into the sand.
Jefferson shook his head. “Stop that. Of course not. Don’t be—“ He searched his vocabulary, and to his surprise came up with the word. “Don’t be ridiculous.”
She resumed her sitting position, hunched over her heels, and wiped away tears with her shirt sleeve. For a brief moment she intrigued Jefferson by casting a disappointed look at him. “If not that, Je-fu-son of Mi-guk, what? What else does a barbarian have that could possibly interest me?”
Jefferson took a deep breath. He had practiced the speech. “Sharp-tongue Choi. I know from my father—yes, he was your father’s barbarian—that the Wa-ko collect gingseng from villages along the Korean coast and smuggle it into Japan.”
She shrugged. “So? Many know this.”
“I have a way for you to double your ginseng business.”
She gazed at him blankly.
“I also am a sea captain, who has traded in ginseng.”
She made no effort to hide her disbelief. “But you are a barbarian! From Mi-guk.”
He nodded. “In Mi-guk we have ginseng, growing in mountains we call the Appalachians. Poor ginseng, compared to Korean, but the Chinese desire it. I have twice brought large steamships of it to Hong Kong myself.”
She glanced at him enviously. “You know steamships?” she whispered greedily.
He nodded again. “And I have maps of the China coast, and know people in Hong Kong. If I buy a steamship in Japan, and if you can collect more ginseng from the Korean villages, then we can enter the Chinese market together, either legally or by smuggling.”
She stared at him hard for a few moments, then gazed out to sea. After some moments of silence she replied, surprising him with a soft and thoughtful voice.
“We Wa-ko are Korean in not thirsting for vast riches, Je-fu-son. Yet there are too many of our youths sitting idly on their heels smoking tobacco all day. I am Japanese enough to know such inactivity is not good for them.” She rubbed her chin thoughtfully. “Another ship or two, and more business, and those boys would have something in their lives.”
More gazing out to sea. Her eyes blinked rapidly, as her considerable native shrewdness weighed the situation. She spoke aloud after a while, not particularly to Jefferson. “So many changes in Japan, so fast, this last decade. The new rulers, they want our knowledge of Korea, but they also want to eliminate us. If we knew steamships, and the China coast . . .” She grunted, and considered it for several more minutes. Jefferson’s ribs began to ache from the old mountain lion attack, and he shifted position on the rocky beach, waiting anxiously for her decision but knowing not to push her.
“We’d need much more ginseng,” she said, breaking into the noise of seagulls and waves. Jefferson held back a grin. “We Wa-ko can’t roam the countryside beyond our usual seaside villages,” she explained, turning to him. “We would need an organization already in place, in contact with the peasants, especially in the mountains, to collect the extra ginseng. Not connected with the government.”
She pursed her lips. “There is one organization . . . you’ve already heard of it Je-fu-son. The Tong-hak. The outlaw peasant religion your father’s mudang was involved with.”
Jefferson’s head was spinning from all the new words, but he thought he followed her meaning well enough. Elation swept over him. “Where are these Tong-hak?” he asked eagerly.
“Not here. Their stronghold is west of here, in the Chiri-san mountains of Cholla province.” She grinned for the second time, revealing a row of perfect teeth. “I will take you there. My Wa-ko will talk of Sharp-tongue Choi long after I am dead, as the one who brought us a steamship, went to the great Middle Kingdom of China, and convinced Ito and Yamagata in Japan to respect us and our knowledge!”
* * * * *
The Min fortress, north of Seoul. Deep in her underground vault, she stirred. From the earth on which she rested she picked up . . . what? A vibration. A subtle shift in the network of energy that laced together the mountains and valleys. Something new had appeared. Something powerful. And dangerous.
Slowly her eyes opened. The slotted pupils stared into the absolute darkness of the vault beneath the Fortress. Her breathing, dormant for so long, began again, slow and shallow, unhurried. The blood began to flow throughout her body, awakening organs from a long rest. She lay absolutely still, every cell attuned to the subtle message from the earth. Something new, or at least newly arrived. Still far away, but there, changing everything with its arrival.
She searched her ancient memory, languidly comparing the new vibrations to the many she had known. Ah, yes. Not new. Something old, very old, just newly returned. And not good, or bad. But powerful. Something to be watched. Something which could threaten what they had constructed in centuries of ceaseless toil and begetting and struggle. Yes, something very old, newly returned. And something else. The old, returned with something truly new. Something . . . something never encountered before. She sat in the vault, alert, tracking the pulse of the vibrations. Breathing shallow as she stared into the blackness.
Chapter Two. The interior of Korea, Cholla province
Jefferson and Sharp-tongue Choi sat eating their morning rice in a clearing of a small valley in the Chiri-san mountains. Four days of hard walking along nearly empty trails had brought them here from the southwest coastal beach where the Wa-ko ship dropped them. A trout-filled brook flowed nearby, and the fresh green newly-emerged leaves of the surrounding trees sparkled with glimpses of flittering larks and warblers, whose song filled the clearing.
Sharp-tongue Choi sat poking the embers of the fire glumly.
“I am a great problem,” Jefferson commented.
She shook her head. “You are not the reason no one replies when I ask for the Tong-hak. If they realized you were a barbarian, they would have killed you by now. No, it is me. They sense my Japanese blood.”
“So what, that you are Japanese?” asked Jefferson.
Sharp-tongue Choi sighed. “Koreans hate Japanese,” she stated flatly. “Hideyoshi unified Japan three centuries ago, and invaded Korea. His armies killed many men, raped many women, and burned everything they found for nearly a decade. Korea has never recovered. Or forgotten.”
As she spoke, two figures materialized at the edge of the clearing. A tall one of perhaps forty years with sharp features stood regally and regarded them coldly, his flowing black hair gathered in a topknot and spilling out to either side of it. The shorter man, whose high forehead suggested intelligence, eyed them with unabashed distaste.
“Ah. Finally.” Sharp-tongue Choi grunted in relief as she rose and bowed to them. “Would you honor us by accepting tea?” she called out.
They stared silent for a moment, then the tall one led them forward. Sharp-tongue Choi filled four bowls with tea. All partook except the shorter one, who circled Jefferson, examining him as if he were a tree or insect, sniffing loudly as he gingerly placed his nose close to Jefferson. He grimaced at the strange odor, then picked up his teacup, shaking his head.
The tall one with the commanding presence abruptly broke the silence. “You seek the Tong-hak. We find it strange that a Wa-ko and a barbarian seek those who teach the expulsion of barbarians and Japanese from our troubled land.” His deep voice, like his eyes, were full of unveiled hostility. Jefferson’s eyes searched the edge of the forest for others, and wished his knives were strapped onto his shoulders instead of sitting in his pack.
Sharp-tongue Choi looked down to gather her wits for a reply, but Jefferson cut her off.
“The Wa-ko woman is here because of me.”
The two men jumped in surprise and caught their breaths.
“Amazing,” murmured the tall one. “A barbarian that can actually speak, after a fashion.”
Jefferson plunged ahead. “My name is Je-fu-son. I am from a land across the sea, called Mi-guk, where I am a sea-faring merchant dealing in ginseng and other items.”
A hint of surprise glinted in the tall one’s eyes. He nodded his head slowly.
“We know of your excellent Korean ginseng,” continued Jefferson, sweat beading on his brow. “I desire to obtain ginseng from the Tong-hak, take it to China to sell, and give you the price I get for it, minus a sum I retain for my labor and risk.” Jefferson breathed deeply and ran a hand through his hair, exhausted by the speech. He tensely awaited their reply.
The two men gazed at him in stunned silence. Lark song from the edge of the forest filled the air. Finally the taller one spoke. “Everyone grows ginseng. We could grow more, I suppose. But it is a long way to the Middle Kingdom.”
“The Wa-ko woman provides the crew and experience on the sea,” replied Jefferson quickly. Too quickly, he berated himself.
“If so, then why would we need a barbarian?” asked the short man bluntly.
“I have maps of the China coast and contacts in China. And I can obtain a steamship for the voyage.”
A silence. “You have done this sort of thing before?” asked the tall man suspiciously.
‘Two trips with American ginseng to Hong Kong,” replied Jefferson.
The tall man turned to Sharp-tongue Choi. “Could this be done?”
She looked nervously to the ground, then up again. “If he indeed has maps and contacts, then yes.”
The tall one stared through Jefferson as he stood lost in thought. The short man snorted in disgust and looked angrily at Jefferson and Sharp-tongue Choi. A pheasant burst out of the woods nearby and sailed smoothly to the other edge of the clearing, its feathers whistling in the air. The short man stamped his foot impatiently.
Finally the tall one shook himself from his reverie. “An interesting proposition, Je-fu-son of Mi-guk,” he admitted grudgingly. “You will be here for another day?”
Jefferson nodded, warily.
“We will consider your proposition. My name is Ch-oe Tae-lo, and my companion is Chon Pyong-chun, one of our leaders visiting from Kobu. We greet you in the name of the Ch’on-do, the Way of Heaven.”
Jefferson noticed Sharp-tongue Choi’s eyes widen as she heard this. “Are you related to the Ch’oe clan who founded the Tong-hak?” he asked the tall one.
The tall one became cold again. “Ch’oe is a common name. That clan was from Kyongsang province, to the east.” He nodded decisively. “So. You will have our answer soon.” With a slight bow, he turned and vanished into the woods, his companion following. Birdsong filled the air again in the abrupt silence.
Jefferson slumped to the ground, exhausted by the interview in a strange language. His ribs ached. He looked over to Sharp-tongue Choi. “Why did you stare so at the tall one?”
Sharp-tongue Choi rolled her eyes. “He is obviously a Master – the long hair and dangerous eyes. But more—he may be the T’ae spoken of in the prophecies!”
She nodded excitedly. “That a man called T’ae will destroy the Yi dynasty when its time has come!”
Jefferson snorted in disbelief. “Do you think they will accept our offer?”
She turned back to the embers, shaking her head.
* * * * *
T’ae and Chon sat on bamboo mats on the brown oil-paper floor of a farmhouse in the mountains, oblivious to the odor from the nearby manure pit which wafted in through the raised wall panels.
“Why do we even bother to talk of it,” Chon stated flatly. “Let us kill the barbarian, send the Wa-ko woman back to her pirates, and be done with it.”
T’ae leaned forward and picked up a handful of roasted peanuts from a bowl on a black lacquered table. “Probably we will,” he commented, tossing peanuts into his mouth. “But I’m intrigued by their proposal.”
“How could he help our cause?” pressed Chon. “If he exchanges our ginseng for gold in China, what good is it? Can our followers eat gold? Plant it?”
T’ae shrugged, and chewed thoughtfully. “Rifles,” he finally said.
“What about rifles?” muttered Chon.
“Twenty years ago, when our people first rose up, we were defeated,” mused T’ae in his deep voice. “Many thousands were killed, because the Taewon’gun’s troops had rifles. What if we had rifles this time? Lots of rifles?” He cast a keen look at Chon.
Chon glanced up, interested. Then he shook his head.
“Tell me, Master T’ae, where does one go to buy rifles?”
“I don’t know,” T’ae retorted angrily. “I am as ignorant as you about these things. But just because we are ignorant doesn’t mean the whole world is ignorant. The Taewon’gun got his rifles from somewhere. Perhaps the barbarian can get some from the same place.”
Chon grunted, intrigued in spite of himself. “It is true, my men are nearly ready to fight. Every time the Prefect strips us of our grain and compels our labor for his own interest, we come closer to it. And it is true that our only weapons are pitchforks and hoes. So, yes. Rifles would be good to have.” He stared into the meadow beyond the open panels. A pheasant walked jerkily along its edge, its golden head bobbing up and down. “Although I know nothing of rifles. How to hold them, how to shoot them. It is all a mystery to me. Do you know?”
T’ae shook his head somberly. “To me they are also a mystery. But it could be taught to us, surely.”
Chon shook his head. “You spoke truly when you said we are ignorant, T’ae. We need someone with experience to tell us whether this is foolishness. Someone in Seoul,not allied with the King or the Yangban nobles.”
T’ae looked up. “The Taewon’gun.”
“Exactly,” Chon answered. “He crushed our forces twenty years ago, but opposes King Kojong’s bumbling rule today, just as we do. He would know whether this proposal of the barbarian is foolish.”
T’ae grunted. “The Taewon’gun knows me. Lady Han and I have conferred with him on several occasions. Lady Han is a grand favorite of his.” As he mentioned her name, an image of Lady Han brushed across his mind, her high cheekbones and dancing eyes, the way her lips curled when she tried to suppress a smile. Or a groan of pleasure. He grunted again, this time in anticipation.
Chon noted T’ae’s attention wandering. “Take the barbarian to Lady Han in Seoul,” he concluded. “Arrange to talk to the Taewon’gun.”
T’ae nodded. “All right. But if the Taewon’gun tells us the notion is preposterous?”
Chon smiled. “Then you kill the barbarian.”
T’ae considered it. “Fine. He is only a barbarian, after all.” He stood, and picked up the bowl of peanuts. “Now. Tea, my friend?”
As they set out for Seoul the next morning, T’ae eyed Jefferson’s pack curiously as he hefted it onto his shoulders. It was a rich golden leather, furred in the interior, with long claws and teeth as fasteners for the pockets on the outside.
‘A typical barbarian pack in Mi-guk?” he asked, kneeling to tighten the straps of the straw sandals he wore.
“Not typical,” Jefferson said curtly.
T’ae raised an eyebrow, then turned and walked north with long, vigorous strides. All that day they walked steadily along narrow trails, Jefferson catching frequent glimpses of pheasant, rabbit, and a kind of deer smaller than those in Virginia. To either side the slopes were spangled with oaks, chestnuts, and the blooms of azalea and fruit trees. Every several hours they would descend to a valley glistening with the fresh green of young rice. Jefferson’s spirits soared as he soaked in the richness of the land, an abundance beyond even that in the forests of western Virginia. The wanderer in him was in his element.
In contrast to the exuberance of the plant and animal life, the people they encountered were few and mainly dull-eyed, sitting listlessly beside the dusty trail smoking long-stemmed pipes.
Though he would not admit it, T’ae was impressed that Jefferson could keep up with him, something few could do. In the early afternoon they stopped for a handful of rice wrapped in a broad leaf carried by T’ae.
“Why are the people not busier with gardens and crops?” Jefferson asked between bites.
T’ae grunted in anger, and spoke without looking at Jefferson. “You have much to learn of the lot of peasants, Je-fu-son of Mi-guk.” He took a mouthful of rice, and swallowed it. “These people have already planted small plots of rice, and gardens of cabbage, pepper, and beans. But the Yangban noble who is Prefect takes for himself one-half of everything they grow, whether food or fiber.” He turned his eyes to Jefferson. “Why plant much when you lose half of it?”
Jefferson nodded. “Plant?” he asked, making a digging notion. T’ae nodded.
“And why so few travelers along the trail?”
Another mouthful of rice for T’ae. He sat on his heels, munching the food slowly. “Every household grows their vegetables and rice to eat, their tobacco to smoke, their ramie for clothing.” He stretched his arms out, then relaxed them back. “What need to go anywhere?”
Abruptly he stood, and set off up the trail. Jefferson groaned, but softly, and quickly caught up. The only stops T’ae made in the long day of vigorous walking were at the mountain shrines to particularly venerated trees , stones, caves, or creeks. T’ae’s broad shoulders would lift when he spotted a shrine, and he would hurry to it, kneel, and sing Tong-hak chants praising the spirits of the land. Jefferson could not help but like T’ae’s devotion to the natural landscape, odd though it seemed to imagine spirits inhabiting the features.
They walked until twilight, when T’ae led them along narrow dykes between rice fields to a small hut. Bundles of dried corn and peppers hung from the eaves. The peasant who opened the door greeted T’ae with much good cheer, which immediately transformed into a shocked silence when he caught sight of Jefferson behind T’ae, then angry questions.
“He is my prisoner,” T’ae explained, casting a laughing glance back toward Jefferson. “I am taking him to Seoul.”
The peasant regarded Jefferson with suspicion and palpable hatred, and refused to allow his family close to the barbarian. Jefferson was led to a small side room, and left alone there.
In a few minutes, T’ae returned with more rice, a bowl of fried vegetables, and tea. He set them before Jefferson, and was about to leave.
“Prisoner?” Jefferson asked, testily.
T’ae shrugged his shoulders, and threaded straggling hair through his top-knot. “Easier to just say that. They understand it. They would not understand ginseng and rifles.” He left the room.
As it grew dark, Jefferson took his light blanket from his pack and spread it on the oil-cloth floor, which was scrupulously clean. From the next room came the sounds of spirited conversation and much laughter, T’ae’s voice prominent in both. Jefferson wondered what T’ae was like in a pleasant mood, and found he could not imagine it.
He removed a knife from the several sets in his pack and slide it under the pack, easily reached since the pack would serve as head-rest. The pack was made from the skin of the mountain lion that had so nearly killed him. For some reason, he felt close to the animal.
The hatred of the peasant hung heavily on Jefferson. It was not so much that he feared violence—he had confidence in his handling of the knife, and besides, he had not feared death since the mountain lion. But he much enjoyed the telling of tales and imbibing of spirits—now there was a spirit he could relate to, his dad’s rye! So to be excluded from the merriment on the other side of the wall hurt, and nearly inspired loneliness in him.
Amidst more laughter and talk too fast to understand from the next room, he lay on his side on the floor and eased his head onto the pack. His cheek settled against a lone canine tooth from the lion, which closed a pocket on the pack. He liked the feel of it, hard and smooth against his cheek. He moved his head a bit to put the tooth against the jaw muscle just below his cheekbone, where it fit nicely. In a lull in the laughter from the other room the calls of crickets and frogs from the surrounding fields crept into the room. As he drifted towards sleep, the crickets and frogs guided him back to Virginia, to another spring evening decades earlier.
Arcs of water sparkle silver in the waning sunshine as the two boys wrestle in the stream. Nine-year-old Jefferson leaps onto the older Madison’s back with a shout and pulls him down into the shallows of the Rivanna River, sending up more splashes. Madison’s dislodged feet kick up a double line of pebbles which plop back into the river in curving rows of smaller splashes. Jefferson and Madison roll several times beneath the surface and come up laughing and gasping for air. Jefferson shrieks as Madison tosses him into the deeper water towards the middle of the Rivanna, and quickly swims with choppy strokes back to the shallows and bulldogs into Madison. As they sit up in the shallow water, they catch the sound of frogs.
“We’ll be late for dad and Ashton!” Madison says with wide eyes. Both boys stagger through the shallows and plunge into the forest at the base of Monticello, racing up the immense hill through the white oaks and red oaks and chestnuts. “Cicero! Demosthenes!” they whoop together as they speed naked past Thomas Jefferson’s two favorite white oaks, now mighty with great age. They burst through to Monticello’s neglected clearing and spot their father and infant brother on the blanket just above the old vegetable garden terrace. As they race to the blanket, the infant Ashton lurches to his feet and begins a comical two-year-old staggering run toward his brothers. Madison swoops Ashton into his arms and all three brothers collapse on the blanket next to their father, laughing and whooping.
The dream fades to later, all lying on their backs staring at the night sky above Monticello. “Every star a sun, boys, just like our sun,” their father is telling them. “Most of them probably with planets like ours whirling around them. With creatures like us staring up and wondering what it’s all about.” Ashton is throwing himself onto his brothers with squeals of delight, Madison and Jefferson happily absorbing his little weight on their chests, loving him for himself and, for some reason they cannot understand, loving him more because their mother died in his birthing.
“What is it all about, anyway, dad?” Madison asks, with a teenager curiosity.
The old man grunts. “Stars, planets, seasons. Plants bursting into life now, making fruit, seeds in the fruit and buds on the late summer branches promising life after the coldness of the coming winter. It all fits together, boys. Growth, hard times, then growth again. A cycle, going on forever.” He grunts again. “Remember that. It all fits. Things do what they have to, to carry on.”
Thunder rumbles in the distance. Jefferson looks around, puzzled. The night sky is clear. More thunder. Jefferson sits up. His father and Ashton are now far away. Madison’s cot is empty. Jefferson rushes out of the tent and sees the dim outlines of Cemetery Hill south of Gettysburg in the early morning light. The few other orderlies and cooks left in the camp are straining their ears. It comes, crashing upon them all with horrifying power. The deafening roar of dozens, hundreds, thousands of Yankee cannons fired simultaneously.
“Madison!” Jefferson yells. His brother is on the hill. In front of the cannons. The ground shakes with more thunder from the numberless cannons. “Madison!”
“Madison!” Jefferson yelled again, bathed in sweat, trembling. A hand gripped his arm.
“Madison! Is that you?” Jefferson said. He turned eagerly toward the feel of the hand.
“Barbarian! You are in Korea, barbarian,” T’ae said angrily.
Jefferson stared toward the voice. He smelled the rain outside, and heard it slush against the thatched roof above him. Another peal of thunder cracked above them. Yes. He was in Korea. In the side room of a peasant hut in a storm. Witb the Tong-hak leader, T’ae.
He nodded, and grunted. T’ae’s grip relaxed on his arm.
“Yes. I’m in Korea. I am a barbarian in Korea.”
T’ae grunted, and laid back down on his blanket in the small room.
Jefferson remained sitting up for several minutes, until his trembling subsided. He laid back then, but didn’t close his eyes.
“I am a barbarian in Korea. Madison is dead,” he whispered to the dark.
For some reason his hand went to the bronze object, still around his neck even though to no purpose, he thought. The cold hardness of the object somehow felt good, dependable, reassuring. He lay there in the dark, his hand on the bronze, listening to the thunder.
* * * * *
The second evening of their journey they were striding toward another peasant hut when T’ae suddenly stopped and held his hand up for Jefferson to do the same. In the dark he peered at the lantern on the porch of the home. He began to back up, pushing Jefferson behind him, when a voice rang out from the porch.
T’ae peered toward the porch. “Song-nae?”
Laughter. “You won’t find Song-nae here!” More laughter, coarse this time. “Who is it?”
“No one. A stranger.” T’ae turned and walked quickly, nearly running. They didn’t slow their pace until they reached another hut twenty minutes away. There he knocked on the door and greeted the peasant who opened it, going through the previous night’s pattern of greeting, shocked silence, and explanation.
“What’s with Song-nae?” T’ae asked the man at the door.
The peasant stepped out on the porch and looked around. His white clothing was soiled and sweaty. “No one followed you here?”
“No. But what’s with Song-nae?” he repeated.
“They killed him five days ago. Took his house and everything from his family.”
T’ae cursed. “Because he was Tong-hak?”
The man shook his head. “Because the Prefect took another concubine, and needed a place for her and her family to live. So he tabbed Song-nae to provide it. When Song-nae protested the Prefect sent his thugs over. They beat him to death in front of his family, with wooden clubs.”
Again T’ae cursed, and breathed hard, staring at the ground. He looked up. “And his family?”
The peasant shook his head. “Killed his wife, when she wouldn’t stop wailing. His son ran away, out the back door. He’s staying with Ju-back.”
“And his daughter?”
The peasant cursed also, bitterly. His voice was beginning to crack. “Took her. She’s now a servant in the Prefect’s mansion. Or worse.”
The two of them stared at the floor together. T’ae put a round hand on the peasant’s shoulder. “I’m sorry about your brother. Soon it will be us doing the killing. And no more taking of our children. I promise it.”
The man looked up, and nodded. He was fighting back tears.
“We can stay tonight?”
He looked suspiciously at Jefferson.
“The barbarian can stay in the storeroom.”
The man nodded, and invited T’ae in, as he gestured to the adjacent storeroom for Jefferson.
Jefferson was too shaken by what he had gathered from their conversation to be angry. He made his way to the storeroom, spread his blanket on the floor, and fell upon it. He was too tired to dream that night.