TEN THOUSAND RIVERS
Joseon Korea, 1800
Inspector Han’s Letter to the Dead
The waves are clear and cold. Is the sea not a place you enjoyed visiting in the past? If I wait by the shores, will you return there too?
I wondered what became of you for many years, little sister. I followed your trail from a slave market all the way north to Gyeongsang Province, and today I found you in a grassy hill. “’Tis a mass burial site, this place,” an elder said, “the entire Nam household was wiped out by a plague long ago.” No one survived; including you, Jeongyun. Their slave girl.
My mind is restless now, and this life I wander seems to be stuck in perpetual dusk; neither the sun nor the moon are bright anymore. Yet it consoles me to write to you. You were my sister for too short a time. So read these pages in the afterworld, and when we greet each other again, will you remember to call me ‘Older Brother’?
There are infinitely more things I want to tell you, but my manservant calls for me. First light appears on the horizon, and I must prepare for a long journey.
The capital lay deep in stillness. The dirt road usually clamored with life outside Changdeok Palace: Women crowding fish stalls, farmers carrying produce, scholars with their silk robes, monks and traveling merchants. And there would always be a mob of children, faces burnt and glistening in the sticky heat, chasing after their rivals. But not today.
“Do you suppose the rumors are true, Officer Kyŏn?” Rain pitter-pattered against black tiled roofs as I lowered the satgat over my face, allowing the drops to dribble down from the pointed top and off the wide straw brim. “People are whispering that the king was assassinated.”
Mud squelched under boots as police officers trudged ahead.
Officer Kyŏn, the last in line, sent me a fierce look over his shoulder. “Watch what you say. The capital is nothing like the countryside.”
He was referring to Inchon prefecture, the place where I was from. A few months had passed since I’d left home, brought to the capital to be trained as a police damo, a slave-of-all-works.
“But, eh, I’ll tell you this much.” Officer Kyŏn eyed our grey surrounding as he adjusted his sash belt over his black robe. “When King Chŏngjo died, there came a terrible noise of weeping from Mount Samgak, and rays of sunlight collided, then burst into sparks.”
“An omen?” I whispered.
“A bad omen. The old order has passed and the new will come with a river of blood. From what I hear,” he lowered his voice even more, “Sim Hwanji poisoned the king.”
“Who is that?”
“You don’t know?” He arched a thick and youthful brow. “Everyone knows. He’s the Chief State Councillor, the leader of the Old Doctrine Faction.”
Old Doctrine. There were four major factional groupings, known as the ‘four colors’, and I was able to list them with ease: Southerners, Northerners, Old Doctrine, and Young Doctrine. I had learned this while serving wine to police officers, eavesdropping into the accounts of politics and treachery that oftentimes left me overexcited. Biting my lower lip, I searched through my memory of eavesdropped discussions, then offered a guess. “They’re the King’s rival faction, are they not?”
He snorted, then fell silent.
“Why did they poison the king? If the rumor is true, that is.” I quickened my step to walk alongside him. “What does the State Councillor want?”
“Let me tell you something about the capital, newcomer. The one thing everyone wants is power. To gain it or to stabilize it.” He clucked his tongue and waved me away. “What use is it for a slave to know such things? And I’ve told you many times, a woman shouldn’t talk so much.”
Annoyance pinched at me as I retreated and followed in his shadow. He was right, of course—though I did not yet consider myself a woman. I was only sixteen, sheltered my entire life by my family of slaves. Still, I’d learned that among the seven sins a woman could commit, one was talking excessively. A man could even divorce his wife because of her chattiness.
I blamed Older Sister for my longing to know more. She was unusually well-learned for a slave, with vast knowledge of Buddhist and Confucian verses; she would always try to hide it from me and the villagers. I would tug at her long sleeve, asking her to tell me more, but she would pull away and say, ‘It is better for you not to know these things. Do not stand out, do not be so curious, then you will have a long life, Seol.’ I had resented her for this, though now I understood her better. The longing for knowledge only got me into trouble these days. The learned here in the capital were self-willed, their knowledge like stubborn fish that would wriggle away from grabbing hands.
I looked ahead. Inspector Han stood in the near distance, watching me from beneath the wide brim of his black police-hat, the string of beads that strapped his chin trembling in the gusty rain. Behind him was his team of men who must have arrived at the scene before us: two officers, a coroner’s assistant, a legal clerk, and a police artist. I hurried towards the Inspector while officers murmured in my periphery:
“Found by a watchman.”
“He was patrolling the South Gate, and at the end of his watch, there she was.”
I gathered my hands before me and bowed to Inspector Han, deeper than was necessary. He was one of the few that was worthy enough to see the top of my head. He was to me the great spotted leopard from my village: the speedy and well-muscled hunter who excelled at climbing and jumping, and in slipping silently through the grass with scarcely a ripple.
“You called for me, Inspector,” I said.
“Have a look at her.”
He gestured at a lump a few paces away. I walked towards the fortress wall that enclosed Hanyang, the capital of Joseon. The wall was high enough to block out the sight of mountains, casting a vast shadow over me, and so thick that it would have taken a rebel a thousand years to chip through the massive stones. Yet as dangerous as the world outside the fortress was, clearly danger lurked within as well. My stomach turned to water as I stood before a woman. She lay sprawled, drenched in rain, her face turned to the ground. Her long dress and jacket made of a silky ramie cloth, embroidered along the hem and sleeves with floral patterns, pointed her out as a noble.
“Flip her around,” Inspector Han ordered. “We have yet to see her wound.”
I stepped over the corpse, crouched, and grabbed her shoulder. This was why the Capital Police Bureau kept female slaves like me: I was an extension of police-officers, my hands used by them to arrest female criminals and to examine female victims. An inconvenience for the police, and yet men were forbidden from touching women who were not directly related to them. It was the law, Confucius’ law.
As I flipped the corpse around, her voluminous skirt whispered and I almost jumped back when her long, soggy hair clung to my sleeve. Don’t yelp.
I closed my eyes, panic thrumming in my chest. Never had I touched a corpse before, having only worked at the Police Bureau for a few months. I sucked in a deep breath and peeled the damp strands off me, then forced my gaze down again. Blood stained her white collar. A deep gash with puckered edges stretched across her pale throat. A cloudy film covered her eyes. And her nose was missing, a bloody cavern dug into her face, like the staring hole of a skeleton’s nose.
“Stabbed in the neck. The jewel pin is still in her hair, and no one has stolen the norigae,” Inspector Han said, referring to the decorative, tassel-like ornament tied onto the victim’s skirt. “It doesn’t look to be a robbery. What is that under her left shoulder?”
I lifted the shoulder. A small bloody knife.
“Give that to the clerk. Now, look for her identification tag.”
I patted the corpse, buried my hand into her skirt and discovered a yellow tag of poplar wood. By law, everyone in Joseon had to carry one. There were characters engraved onto the wood, likely indicating the bearer’s name, place of birth, status and residence—but I couldn’t say for sure, for words were brushstrokes with no meaning. It was likely classical Chinese writing, the official script of our Kingdom, for what else could it be? Our native script, Hangul, seemed to have more circles and straight lines.
Placing the tag in the Inspector’s outstretched hand, I looked up, wanting to see his reaction to whatever name was written. But my gaze only managed to reach his chin, for I knew not to hold the gaze of my superior. To this day, I still didn’t know the color of Inspector Han’s eyes.
“Lady O, daughter of the Cabinet Minister O.”
A murmur arose from among the officers.
“He belongs to the Southerner Faction,” one officer said. “A faction with many enemies…”
As officers stood around, sharing their low-voiced speculations, I dragged the corpse past them and clenched my teeth against the sickly-sweet odor of death. This smell would haunt my nights. With one last heave, I pulled the woman onto the wooden stretcher while Inspector Han’s voice resounded through the pitter-pattering rain. “Senior Officer Shim, take Kyŏn and question the watchmen. The rest of you, inspect the capital for any other witnesses. First go to all the inns, then all the houses. Conduct a thorough search.”
I arranged the corpse’s arms neatly by its side, then after a pause, I hovered my hand over the cavity in her face, where the nose should be. Lady O looked less frightening like this. More human. More like a real person who had lived a real life; a person like me, who had felt joy and sorrow only a few hours ago.
I stood up and faced him. “Me, sir?”
Inspector Han cast a glance my way as he mounted his horse. Urging the creature forward in a trot, he said, “Yes, you. Follow me.”
I hurried alongside the creature, its powerful hooves striking the ground, splashing mud onto my skirt and sleeves. The peasants must have heard the tramping, for they dropped to the ground, bowing head-to-mud as was protocol. Inspector Han was not only an aristocrat, but he was a military official of the 5th rank—a rank very few noblemen achieved in their lifetime. No one would dare refuse to bow to a man such as he.
I was born a slave and thus belonged to the palchŏn, the ‘Eight meanest groups of people.’ Our lowborn class was crowded with monks, shamans, clowns, butchers and the like. All of us, in one way or another, were considered polluted.
Still, I imagined they were bowing to me.