As the Han rushed past, Hyun slept beneath the moonlight upon the smooth wood of a pagoda far older than his problems. Chief among his problems was a severe affliction of demons. They would daily pop out of his vases, his chisels and the cart on which he sold his wares in the market. If he took notice of them, or shivered or jumped, they would gang up, spiral through rooms and wait in the shadows of the alleys near his home.
Their most active hours were around closing time when Hyun felt he had sold enough or when he first entered his Hanok and lit his lanterns for supper. Only when he’d been prodded by enough cold needles did Hyun retreat into the garden behind his Hanok and sleep on the cold pagoda floor. He often thought about skipping straight to the pagoda with a blanket and a lantern and a good book but: maybe his demons—like earthly bullies—needed a little fun to become satisfied. If they saw him avoiding it on their terms, they’d take away whatever solace he had left.
Still, their arousal and waning had been slowly stretching into longer valleys of torture. On this particular night, Hyun had determined to sell all of his pots, then his cart, and to drown himself the following morning. It would be simple enough. He would save a last pot, fill it with stones, and tie it to his waist as he rolled himself into the river.
They would find his body and they would cluck their tongues: wise to his reasons and not much blaming him. Perhaps they had seen his eyes dart fearfully as he haggled prices. Perhaps they had heard his sighs as he left the Baksu’s hut and then a shriek as he reconnected with old friends a few blocks into the darkness. In any case, they would leave the spot quickly so that Hyun’s friends would not become their friends.
Yes, Hyun thought, he would do this thing and obtain the only rest he could glean from the gods, who were not terribly kind. He remained almost optimistic about this plan until the following morning when he met the Master.
The man wore outlandish clothes. Hyun had seen men and even a few women from across the sea but did not know the sea ran so far. He introduced himself as The Master. He looked Hyun in the eyes and seemed to be waiting for a response. Clouds above thinned and Hyun could not spot his demons anywhere, not even in the far guttered alleys down the road where the beggar women tossed bones to the street dogs.
Hyun’s city was still small enough that he and his neighbors heard of any strangers and soon learned their intentions before ever seeing them. Hyun had heard of this Master. The man had done miraculous things in the dirtier stretches of the city.
‘What had he done?’ people might ask.
The witness would pull the questioner into the alley as though the sky were filled with spies. ‘Everything,’ they would say. ‘He did everything.’
And here The Master was: standing at Hyun’s stall with feet firmly planted as though he had no intention of leaving. After an eternity of staring, Hyun’s eyes were diverted by a wisp of shadows curling from a street corner up the hill. Something in the muscles of The Master seemed to tense beneath his robes though Hyun could not quite place the gesture. “Would you like to be rid of them?” The Master asked him.
Hyun knew whom the Master meant and, by the fire kindled in the merchant’s eyes, the Master knew the answer to be yes.
It is finished.
The Master said these three words and Hyun felt the shadows, closer than his eyes had ever hinted at, escaping in all directions. He caught his breath as though for the first time in years. Seeing the wide, bright world open before him, Hyun packed away his stall and broke into a dead sprint through the widening streets toward his home. The sun held in the sky longer that evening. Neighbors whom Hyun had not seen in years, smiled on their stoops as he passed them.
Hyun lit the lanterns in his Hanok, feverish with joy instead of fear. In every blood pulse of every limb he could feel it: they had left. He swept his Hanok clean, threw out some old furniture he’d never liked, and looked out on the river he need never sleep near again. As the light of day dimmed, he thought about an expression on the Master’s face as Hyun had been shuffling his cart into its resting place. The man seemed to be waiting for a response, maybe a thank you.
Well, had Hyun thanked him? He was sure he had. What good son of the Han would do otherwise? Still, there was something more. The man had seemed to want a longer conversation. Maybe he had nowhere to stay that night or he knew no one in the area. Hyun felt pangs of guilt as he lay down to sleep in his own bed for the first time in years. Small matter. After a good night’s sleep in his own clean room, Hyun would inquire about the Master and thank him properly with a good meal and a place to stay for the night.
The following day, Hyun doubled his lunch hour to go asking for news of the Master’s whereabouts. He tapped a few old friends at the city gates, bought cut-noodles from the dong’s biggest gossip and posed several questions. He poked around with a few strangers until finding out that the Master had left town the previous evening and no one knew to where. A few of the younger men had followed the Master to the coast. There was even rumor that one very impressionable youth hopped on whatever boat the Master had chartered but all were just pictures of rice cakes. The Master was gone. As the gods would have it, Hyun returned to work and then, to his very clean house for another good night’s sleep.
Down the alley past his favorite lunch spot, a woman raised an eyebrow toward Hyun. She peeked from the frame of her door like a waiting bridesmaid.
And why not Hyun? He had been sleeping much better these months and, had been pushing his cart to the market at a brisker pace. Of course this would have a positive effect on his physique and general attractiveness. Well, Hyun was no young man but, it is said, real women don’t like young men. Hyun descended into the cool of an alley he had never before visited.
The woman had retreated to the back corners of her unlit room as Hyun entered. In fact, she was not to be seen inside, maybe having escaped through a back door. He looked around the room. A few checkered cushions leaned against a corner next to a pot. A Gaksi mask lay upon a Takamakura. Besides these things and a clay bowl of half eaten food, the room was empty.
Fearing that a couple of ruffians would soon enter and take Hyun’s money, he hurried to the hilltop streets of the market. He sold another few kimchi pots and then went home satisfied. That night, as he slept, he dreamed of the mask leaning against the pillow. Had it just been placed there and hence, was tilting a little on its chin until it found rest? Or…no—it was definitely tilting on its own and now levitating upward and now filling itself with a neck, with shoulders and a body: dark and untethered to the ground.
Hyun watched this body step out of the woman’s room, float up the street to where his stall often rested and follow the stall tracks back to Hyun’s own house. Just as the body assembled like sentient mist at Hyun’s door, he awoke in a cold sweat.
Shadows formed everywhere, slowly and sure of themselves, they crept into Hyun’s room, into the axles of his cart and even into the pillars of his riverside pagoda. Like mold in a never dry room, the shadows crept forward and Hyun could not sleep. He tried wandering the city. He tried befriending every cook and wall builder he passed. If Hyun could just find enough people with bright dispositions who would pass some of their days talking to him, Hyun would shake his demons.
His demons had come back one thousand times stronger. They brought friends and cousins of friends (if malicious spirits kept cousins.) They camped out, awoke surly at unpredictable hours and lashed out at Hyun’s five senses in any way they could, to convince him they belonged to his physical world. Within just three days of their return, Hyun had had enough. He determined to go back to his pagoda, invaded as it was, and use whatever heavy object he still owned to fasten himself to the bottom of the deepest part of the Han River.
He trembled over ropes and a kimchi pot full of earth. It was a strange and frustrating task just to get everything tied together and Hyun was no sailor. He had no knowledge of knots. As he fumbled with holes and crosses and loops and failures, a small boat, a child’s plaything passed by him on the river. A mother’s voice called after it and probably its owner: “Go after you it you stupid boy. Go after your boat before it gets away!”
Hyun recalled the Master and the man’s sudden exit. He remembered (as though the memory had been locked carefully away until this moment) that the Master had, yes, definitely been waiting for an invitation to stay with Hyun. The ritual, the arrangement, the conquering of Hyun’s demons had not been completed and Hyun had proven its incompleteness with his lack of hospitality. He untied the rope from his waist and kicked the pot into the river. Bubbles galloped toward the turbulent surface and Hyun felt a similar opportunity to escape inevitable depths.
Hyun sold all that he owned: house included and bought a boat. He hired a man of the seas who could be trusted for a voyage or two and he asked everyone he could pester about the origins of the stranger some were still calling “The Master.” After a feverish week of preparation, Hyun found himself on the open seas headed toward a great city upon a hill where it was said that the Master was held in high esteem.
Hyun’s shadows, the mold on the tiles of the world, crept forward: advancing on territory they did not know so well as his old room. Hyun kept mostly ahead of them but they occasionally broke into a dream or a careless thought as he stared into the great expanse of the oceans of the world. Sometimes, one dared farther and rested on his chest as he slept. He held his breath with wild hope until the morning when the sun conquered every shadow upon the sea.
The great ship meandered past dark lands and peoples less orderly than Hyun’s. Months of rocking through salted winds and Hyun arrived on sandy shores: hot with basil and wheat. He followed trade caravans through gravelly country and found a seven-hilled city: sparkling tan on the green. With belt tightened and eyes fixed forward, Hyun hiked to the city’s center.
Here, men shouted at every street corner without Makkeoli in their guts to warrant such behavior. Here a holy procession passed every night. Maybe it was the only way to silence the city’s inhabitants: give them the spectacle of holiness. Hyun’s own city was a newborn and this distant one: a brash adolescent. Indecent women wore masks. Rich men waxed fat in the belly. Red curtains lined the upper windows of every villa. Hyun’s immediate impression was that, the lewd behavior of the city’s inhabitants brought on so many demons that they must have needed the holy parades just to keep the spirits at bay.
Still, the city held onto its brightness well into the evening. Over the course of several weeks the locals looked on Hyun with enough kindness in their eyes to put him at ease. Maybe he had given his demons the slip here where the Master was held in high esteem.
Hyun wandered the streets and gathered the language like a flailing newborn looking for fingers to grasp. One day as he perused a wet market, someone shouted a local word that could only mean demon. Hyun froze as though his own demons were hiding somewhere on that hill and that, if he revealed his face, they would find him again.
A fat man stood on an ox cart and shouted at shoppers in the market. “I once was the frightened maniac of the gutter. I had lost my work, humble as it was, and was driven to the edges of this city. There, my demons tormented me. I was of a mind to end it all, to take the one thing a man has not been given by any but God” The man’s tone softened. “Then I met the Master.”
At the mention of the Master, and in the heat of that southern city, Hyun nearly fainted. Here was a companion: a salvaged fellow to whom Hyun could talk and perhaps find answers. But oh, the danger of it! Some spells were like fishing boats. If you leaned too far to inspect their undersides, you fell back into the water and thrashed for your life. Maybe, if the two came together, they’d be much easier for the spirits to spot: a more appealing meal.
The fat man continued, “The Master spoke but eight words to my Demons and routed them. Ever since, I have been as you see now: a shining beacon on a hill, a vacated tomb, a burst seed.”
Eight words. Poor Hyun, pursued by demons, had only received three. He would ask this man about the other five. Hyun continued to listen from the shadows until the stranger ran out of things to say, dismounted his oxcart, and marched up the street. Hyun followed him several winding blocks until he was sure they were far from anyone else.
“You meet the Master?” Hyun asked the man in broken runs of the local tongue.
Seeing Hyun’s Hanbok, the stranger grinned. “The Master must travel a great deal,” he said. “Tell me your story, friend.”
So Hyun told of his encounter with the Master. He and the fat man walked arm in arm to the man’s house. Hyun felt himself pulled along by a giant into the cool heights of the city. The calm was not as great as when the Master had visited him but this jolly, large man was a comfort to Hyun whose nerves were all but wrecked.
The giant’s name was Allegri. He had a smile that crawled onto Hyun’s own face and tight shoulders. Hyun guessed that, were the man ever hungry, the birds of the air would bring him plums. And the birds of the air must have been busy.
“You never had the Master over to your house my little man?” Allegri asked with wide, flaccid eyes.
Shame rose in Hyun’s cheeks. How had he failed to invite the Master in? Perhaps this would become his undoing. Here was this great man with a friendly manner. Of course he had invited the Master over. Hyun had been too self-concerned. The Master might have stayed at his house if Hyun had only thought to offer and all would be well and all manner of things well.
They reached Allegri’s villa. Broken children’s toys were strewn about the weedy courtyard. Allegri pointed toward the atrium and inner rooms: “He walked these very stones. Oh, my demons were running scared by then. The Master was quite stern with them.”
They passed through the atrium. Old hammers and chisels lay coated in a year’s worth of dust. The villa looked as though its occupants had been run out of the city in a hurry and replaced by Allegri. Graying robes and greased hats lay in the living room. Dishes of crusting food cluttered the dining room table and the flat surfaces of every other room. In Allegri’s bedroom, light from a back window beamed onto a bed made more of discarded clothing than of mattress.
Allegri led Hyun to a pile of half rolled rugs in another room and indicated that he could sleep there. Hyun had not seen luxury like Allegri’s and could not imagine letting it fall to ruin. Still, Allegri had an important mission. He told others about the Master. This was a good thing to do. It was encouraging for those who, like Hyun, needed to know.
Feeling very grateful to be in such a mighty fortress where the Master himself had stayed, Hyun began to clean. He piled the broken toys in one corner of the courtyard with the intention to fix them in the coming days…if Allegri would be so kind as to let him stay.
He collected greased plates and bowls, piling them in what appeared to be a kitchen as he looked for pitchers of water. He began poking at a pile of rugs when he heard Allegri clearing his throat from an adjoining room. A shadow crawled across the floor, or maybe it was just a team of insects looking for a new corner in which to hide.
“You do as he did.” Allegri sat, terror stricken, on his bed. An aurora of dust billowed around him, and then settled.
Shadows pulsed on all sides. Allegri continued. “The Master, oh yes he came here well enough. I entertained him for several days. But he kept cleaning and picking up treasures that had been in my family for generations and were better off left where they were. He was adamant about putting things in their rightful places: that I be free to move about, that I be ‘productive in my own space.’ I could only take so much of it. Eventually, I had to ask the good man to leave. It pained me greatly to do so but, a tiger cannot change its stripes nor a man clean his room at the bidding of another.”
Hyun shrunk backward from the pile of rugs he had been poking. Shadows pulsed in the folds of yarn and the surrounding corners of the room.
A youth had been rumored to follow him onto the boat.
Lucky youth. It was no matter whether one had invited the Master for tea or built an entire city in his honor. The man must be followed. Peace came proximate to his person.
Hyun backed out of the villa, bumping into doorframes, broken clotheslines, and swimming past a sea of waking demons. He shouted past the growing spiritual tumult at the ruin of the man Allegri to inquire about the last direction in which the Master had gone.