Joo-Won cupped the poison in his hand and sat seiza-style across from Shi’u, the seonsu favorite to win next week’s tournament. Smiling at the slender swordsman, he poured them both tall glasses of beer, the poison pressed against his palm. He then stood, raised one of the glasses, and waited for the clamor of voices to quiet. His fellow seonsu glanced at him but did not pause their animated conversations. Their boasts for the coming games and sudden bursts of laughter floated up to the ceiling fans spinning above them.
Joo-Won flushed, his cheeks hot. Seonsu read weakness in the eyes of others, and he burned in embarrassment under Shi’u’s gaze as he awkwardly stood in the midst of those ignoring him. Finally, he shouted above the raucous, “A toast to next week’s games!”
The seonsu closest to him drunkenly banged their fists on the tabletop to get the others’ attention. Joo-Won clutched the glass as he suppressed his simmering anger, but more of his comrades stared at him, and he added in a strained voice, “May the player with an indomitable spirit break their lessers under the bokken!”
Smoke from the table grill rose up between the competitors in the crowded pork restaurant. Joo-Won slid a genial smile over his humiliation, his lips stretched tight. He offered the glass to Shi’u with both hands, the small packet of poison obscured by the golden beer. Shi’u stood, took the cup with an appreciative nod, and raised it above his head. A hush fell over the gathered seonsu as they filled their cups and leaned forward in anticipation. Joo-Won clenched his teeth, the grinding echoing in his ear. If he could, he would poison all of them, the fools, for not giving him the respect they gave Shi’u.
“We will play under the onslaught of the bokken,” Shi’u said quietly in the silent restaurant. “The weakest of us will be buried beneath the grave. The timid will return home to their mothers with cracked bones and broken dreams. The strongest will compete before the president as a team, whilst the best will stand beneath the torch lights to claim full glory.”
A cheer went up amongst the gathered players. They slammed their empty cups on the table. Shi’u also drank his beer in one shot, and lowered his cup with a thud. When Joo-Won reached over to pick up Shi’u’s cup to refill it, he uncorked the vial with his thumb and let a drop of clear poison drop into the pint.
Joo-Won did not glance up to see if anyone saw him. Their actions would tell him if they spotted him. He could almost imagine rough hands grabbing his shoulders and shaking him at his treachery. If caught, his fellow seonsu would drag him out of the pork restaurant and throw him into the mud to kick him, to crush his left hand under their sandals so that he would never wield a bokken again. Joo-Won wouldn’t be the first to poison a competitor. What happened to those who did was worse than death. Their punishment was, instead, public disgrace, which they bore for the rest of their lives.
Joo-Won filled his glass of beer after he topped off Shi’u’s glass and set it before his comrade. He leaned back and waited, but nothing happened, and relief swept through him. He glanced up to see Shi’u staring at him, his eyes half-closed as if he would fall asleep at any moment. Joo-Won swallowed hard. Steadying his hand, he picked up a slice of pork, placed it on a leaf and added tofu.
“Older brother.” He held the food to Shi’u, his breath catching as he waited for the other’s reaction.
Shi’u leaned over the table, and Joo-Won placed the wrapped pork into his mouth. Watching Shi’u eat reminded Joo-Won of the cows on farms chewing cud. Those who did not know Shi’u may believe that he was slow witted. The sword player rarely spoke, though he was more talkative after becoming drunk.
Shi’u’s movements were deliberate as if he feared bumping into something and knocking it over. But when he entered in a match against his opponent, he became a whirlwind of motion, speed, and strength. Many believed he was fated to win the individual competition this year. Joo-Won had always wondered what Shi’u’s secret was. While Joo-Won put in more hours of conditioning, skipping meals so that he could practice the fundaments of kumdo, Shi’u still managed to beat him every match.
“Would you offer me some advice for tomorrow’s competition?” Joo-Won asked him.
Shi’u regarded him silently for several moments. His eyes pierced Joo-Won, who wondered if he knew about the poison and was just biding his time to expose him. Joo-Won folded his hands on his lap so that Shi’u would not see them tremble.
“I am only a lowly student of kumdo,” Shi’u began. “There is much I must learn, and your question would best be posed to a master of the martial arts.”
Joo-Won leaned forward. “Even as a lowly student, your skill far surpasses mine. Any advice you can impart to me, I will happily take and ponder before I enter into the games with the other seonsu.”
“As you wish. Just remember that my words are burdened by my lack of knowledge.” Shi’u inhaled, then exhaled slowly. “It is my opinion that you have assumed incorrectly. My skill with the bokku does not match yours.”
“Older brother…” Joo-Won began, but Shi’ u waved him to silence.
“You are a superior swordsmen,” Shi’u continued. “Your form and technique far surpass mine. Ask anyone else in the dojang, and they will say the same. No other swordsmen compares to you when it comes to the technical aspects of the game.”
This is true, Joo-Won thought bitterly. No one studied kumdo more than he, no one practiced as long and as hard as he did. Despite this, Shi’u remained the favorite to win the tournament next week.
“It should be your destiny to compete in the final round before the president for the grand prize in tomorrow’s game,” Shi’u said, then paused.
When he did not speak again, Joo-Won gasped out, “But why won’t it be?”
Shi’u placed his hand on his cup. “When we practice in the dojang, I see weakness in your eyes,” he said softly. “You are afraid to lose, and terrified of death.”
Joo-Won kept the mask in place as his anger spiked, spilling out from his heart to burn through his body. Shi’u watched him closely, his expression placid. Joo-Won knew this was only a veil. If he were to lose his temper and attack Shi’u for the aforementioned insult, his older brother would spring to life with incredible violence. In this restaurant in front of the other seonsu, Shi’u would likely beat him until he lay bloodied and cowering beneath the tables.
So Joo-Won swallowed in his dry throat, reached to his cup instead, and lifted it. “Though it was difficult to hear,” he said, his words smooth and untroubled despite the hatred raging through him like fire, “I appreciate your wisdom, and will consider it in the next several days during the tournament.”
Shi’u lifted his cup also. When their neighbors saw them, they also lifted their glasses. Bringing them together in cheer, they tilted back their heads and drained their beer. Joo-Won watched Shi’u place the empty cup on the table with a thud.
Three hours. That’s all the arrogant swordsman had left to him. The herbalist had told Joo-Won to administer the poison after the victim had eaten a full meal. This way he could escape suspicion as the poison affected the victim after they’d already gone their separate ways. When Joo-Won had asked what the symptoms would be, the herbalist had simply smiled.
“There will be no trace,” the man assured him. “As the night progresses, the victim will feel increasingly tired. But how is that different from any other evening? Soon he will be too fatigued to move, and will lie down to rest. The poison will weaken his heart. Before the morning, he will be dead.”
There could have been many ways in which he could make the swordsman suffer, but suspicion could not be aroused so close to the games. Shi’u must die a death that seemed natural.
“There are techniques you can employ to conquer your fear,” Shi’u continued, but Joo-Won waved him off.
“This is something I must resolve alone,” Joo-Won said. “We will meet again at the competition.” These last words forced him to stifle a laugh of triumph.
The seonsu of Joo-Won’s dojang packed several buses that traveled to Gangneung two days later. The competition would be held in Ponam Entertainment Center, an open-air stadium near the river. The bus ride from their small city of Sokchu took a couple of hours, and the clear early morning skies promised it would be an uneventful ride.
Shi’u’s untimely passing cast a pall over the swordsmen. When the master had announced to the dojang’s seonsu that Shi’u had died in his sleep, they’d all lowered their heads in grief.
“He was our best player,” one had murmured. “Destined to lead our club to victory.”
Joo-Won had curled his fingers into fists because no one acknowledged him as Shi’u’s successor. Who else gained more victories in the dojang during practice besides him? Who else matched his speed and power? Even Shi’u had admitted that Joo-Won should have been the one to stand in front of the president because of his exceptional skill with the sword. Yet as they rode to Ponam Entertainment Center today, no one took notice of him as they stared despondently out the window on this beautiful day.
They checked into a motel and went to a sashimi restaurant for a light dinner before the following day competitions. Normally, their talk would be boisterous as they boasted about the fantastic feats of athleticism that they would use to whelm the spectators. Today, though, the somber mood prevailed, and they drank water that night as they ate a light meal of rice and raw fish. They did not toast each other. Midway through the meal, their gwan-jang-nim stood before them, and their voices fell completely. They lowered their chopsticks and turned to their teacher with heavy brows.
Their gwan-jang-nim was not a tall man. He had tan skin weathered from the sun, and a slim physique, yet he moved with a casual grace that bordered on extreme violence. Many seonsu had fallen beneath his bokken, the hardwood sword, and his jeok-gyeon, the short wooden dagger, when their gwan-jang-nim competed in the games. Many skulls cracked open like melons to release their gray matter on the court.
“Fate has brought us to this moment.” His deep voice carried through the restaurant. “We have lost our best player. We have lost a brother. We have lost a friend. As kumdo competitors, we are constantly exposed to death. It is as much a part of the games as the sweat that rolls down our foreheads. But who would have thought that we would lose Shi’u so soon? Who would have thought that he would be cheated by death instead of being given a chance to prevail against its dark shadow?”
Their gwan-jang-nim stiffened with anger. “It’s the lack of a fair fight that enrages us the most. But we will not succumb. Each of you will step into the court tomorrow. You will stare death in its black eyes, and you will roar from here,” he tapped his gut, “I am not afraid!”
All of the seonsu tapped their abdomens and cried out, “I am not afraid!”
But fear did exist, and some of their proclamations were muted. Joo-Won’s hands shook, and he clenched them into fists.
I am not afraid, he told himself, without believing it.
They rose before dawn and rode to Ponam Entertainment Center. Spring had burned away to a hot summer, and moisture hung heavy in the air. The stadium’s walls rose high above Gangneung’s buildings. Throngs of spectators gathered at the stadium’s entrance as the seonsu filed through the wide double doors. As the athletes walked past, loud applause rang out from the people who had journeyed to the stadium from the towns and villages belonging to each separate district in Gangwon-do. But when the members of Joo-Won’s dojang got off the bus, those who had come to support them lowered their voices to despaired whispers.
“It’s true. Shi’u truly isn’t here?”
“Can one such as he die?”
“The sleepy warrior has disappeared into a dream.”
Word spread from the citizens of Sokcho to the others gathered to watch. Shi’u had been a feared seonsu in previous tournaments, and his reputation was widely known in Korea. Even people from other provinces admired his skill and courageousness in the face of injury or death.
But in the end, all must fall somehow.
Joo-Won patted his pocket where he kept the poison so that no one would accidentally find it amongst his things. The vial seemed to burn now, so when they finally entered the stadium, he took it out and put it in his shoulder pack. He would dispose of it here in Gangneung. No one in his hometown could discover the poison’s existence. If they did, questions might arise about Shi’u’s untimely passing, and those questions might lead directly back to Joo-Won.
Joo-Won repeatedly flexed his hands as he changed into his dobok, the loose, navy blue jacket and pants that allowed for free, easy movement during the match. They tied the leather skirt protecting their groin and thighs to their waists, then the black bamboo protector protecting the chest from glancing blows, though prone to shatter at power strikes.
Joo-Won would fight first for his dojang. He carried the protective mask in his left hand, and his bokken and jeok-gyeon in his right. He went to court #2 and faced his opponent on the opposite side of the shai-jo. For this match, Joo-Won wore a blue ribbon tied to his back, and his opponent wore a white ribbon. Both men dropped to the formal seiza position, their legs folded underneath their thighs. They slid the ho-myeons over their heads, stood simultaneously, and slipped the hardwood bokken and jeok-gyeon into their belt. Only then did the three shimpan enter the court. The referees stood in a triangular formation, each holding two flags, one white, one blue, signifying the color of the ribbons on the competitors’ backs.
Joo-Won and his opponent stepped into the court, and after both bowed, the shimpan shouted, “Begin!”
Joo-Won and his opponent inhaled deeply and let loose a cry that reverberated through the stadium, bringing the audience to their feet in applause. Joo-Won leapt forward, releasing his bokken and thrusting it forward in a chest strike. With a flick of the wrist, the man easily deflected with the edge of his freed bokken.
Joo-Won sidestepped to create distance, wrapped the tips of his fingers around his jeok-gyeon, slipped it from his belt, and hurled it at his opponent’s unprotected shin with incredible force. The wooden dagger bore into the man’s leg with a sickening crunch of bone, and he let loose a horrible scream as the three shimpans raised their blue flags to indicate a point for Joo-Won.
His opponent tried to hop back, but Joo-Won let his momentum carry him forward and slammed into him with his shoulder. The man’s legs crumpled, and he tumbled over, his head tilting back as he fell. Spying his chance, Joo-Won redirected his bokken, bent his wrist and thrust the hardwood tip into his opponent’s exposed throat. Blood splatted his face as the wood penetrated the man’s neck. The shimpans raised the blue flags to indicate another point for Joo-Won.
The audience went wild. Joo-Won stood over his opponent, his heart racing as the man gurgled with blood filling his mouth. Gazing into his opponent’s dying eyes, Joo-Won thought of Shi’u. He stepped away from the man as the assistants raced out onto the court to retrieve the body.
“Your bokken and jeok-gyeon,” they said, nodding to his weapons. Joo-Won yanked the bokken from the man’s throat. Blood squirted from the wound and splashed his dobok. To get the jeok-gyeon, Joo-Won had to place one hand on the dead man’s leg, and tugged several times before the thick bone released the wooden dagger. The assistants congratulated him on his win, put the body on a stretcher, and carried the corpse away.
Joo-Won returned to the section where the seonsu from his dojang waited. The men clapped him on the shoulder and congratulated him on his fierce play. Now no one mentioned Shi’u’s name, and they said to each other, “We will be victorious!”
Joo-Won went to the bathroom and washed the blood from his face and dobok. His heart hammered, and he avoided looking into the mirrors, not wanting to see the fear in his eyes. When he reached for the soap, his hand shook so that he could barely grasp it.
The bathroom door swung open and the dojang master entered.
“Your next match is in fifteen minutes,” his gwan-jang-nim said. Joo-Won, avoiding his eyes, nodded. Returning back to the waiting area, he inspected his weapons. The jeok-gyeon had several breaks, so he exchanged it for a new one. The bokken remained in good condition. Wiping the blood from it, he placed it and the dagger next to his ho-myeon.
“Joo-Won,” one of his comrades said, “you should see this match.”
Joo-Won stood and looked out into the stadium where his comrade pointed. “The seonsu’s name is Min-Jae. Before it was thought that he and Shi’u would meet each other in the final match, but now…” He glanced at Joo-Won.
Min-Jae wore the white ribbon, and his opponent wore the blue. They bowed to each other and slid their bokken out of their belts.
Both men’s cries ignited a fire inside of them that became palpable as a crackling energy. They leapt at each other. When neither saw an opening, they stopped in midair and flipped backwards. Min-Jae’s opponent landed on his toes, propelled himself to the right, and flung his jeok-gyeon at a horizontal angle at the unprotected area beneath Min-Jae’s underarm. Min-Jae flung his arm back to avoid the strike, caught the dagger by the tip of its hilt and threw it back at his opponent. Quickly Min-Jae grabbed his own dagger, and as the man leapt, Min-Jae crouched low so that his belly touched the ground and threw his jeok-gyeon at a sharp right angle. The dagger embedded itself into his opponent’s crotch, and the man released a terrible howl of pain as the shimpans raised the white flags to indicate a point.
The man crashed in a writhing heap on the ground. Min-Jae pounced forward, his bokken held high. He swung at the back of the man’s head and crushed his skull in a devastating blow.
The shimpans raised the white flags again. “Winner!”
Joo-Won stepped back from the gruesome sight. How could he face Min-Jae? How could he possibly win?
He thought back to the poison in his shoulder bag, but how would he manage to administer the droplets to his opponent? Joo-Won watched the brutal matches that followed with growing horror as seonsu after seonsu fell, either from serious injuries or fatalities. The tournament had become a grand feast for death.
When Joo-Won stepped into the court for his second match, the crowd roared. Despite the open stadium, the air became oppressive. Joo-Won struggled to breathe. Sweat soaked his dobok and his bokken slipped in his grasp. Yet when the shimpan shouted, “Begin!”, Joo-Won leapt forward without hesitation. His opponent tried to block his wide swipe. Expecting this, Joo-Won swept his bokken upward and brought it down with tremendous force on his opponent’s mask. The hardwood splintered and shattered, and the shimpans raised the blue flags.
Joo-Won did not pause. He freed the jeok-gyeon from his belt, kicked his dazed opponent in the chest knocking him back, stabbed through the mask and impaled the dagger itself into his opponent’s nose with an audible suction.
Joo-Won stumbled back as the dying man tried to suck air through the dagger protruding from his cratered nasal cavity. Again the assistants appeared to remove his opponent. Joo-Won yanked his weapon free. Wiping away the mucus dripping from the dagger, he bowed to the audience and quickly walked into the bathroom. Closing the stall door, he dropped to his knees and vomited into the toilet.
How had he made such good friends with death? In the following matches, Joo-Won delivered killing blows that came to him with perfect clarity. The seonsu from his dojang began to back away from him in fear after each match.
“He is possessed,” they whispered, and Joo-Won buried his hands in the folds of his dobok so that no one would see them shaking as he rushed to the bathroom. He cleaned his face, yet still felt remnants of warm blood snaking down his cheeks and dripping into his collar.
The afternoon came and went, and evening claimed the sky over the stadium. The number of players thinned out until finally, only two competitors remained: Joo-Won and Min-Jae.
The crowds stumped their feet and cheered in anticipation as both men waited in private chambers during a brief rest period. Joo-Won’s muscles ached from swinging the bokken and jeok-gyeon all day. He had gone through several weapons, and had requested for his gwan-jang-nim to bring him fresh ones. He heard his name chanted in the stadium above his head, and choked back a wail of terror at a quiet knock on the door.
His gwan-jang-nim entered the small room with the two new weapons. “It is time,” his master said after a moment of silence. Joo-Won tried to steady his hands as he reached for the sword and dagger, and failed. His master, seeing his condition, inhaled sharply.
“Please,” Joo-Won said, snatching his hands back and hiding them in his sleeves, “place them here.” He motioned to the floor.
“You and Bak Min-Jae must enter the stadium together,” his master said after a moment. “You must not allow him to see you this way.”
Joo-Won closed his eyes and heard his gwan-jang-nim start towards the door.
“Master,” he said, “may you bring me one more item? My shoulder bag.”
Again, Joo-Won did not look up to see his reaction, but moments later his gwan-jang-nim returned and placed the bag beside the weapons.
“The shimpans await.” His gwan-jang-nim left the door open when he exited the room. Joo-Won took several deep breaths to calm his violent tremors, but he could barely grasp the tiny vial of poison at the bottom of his bag. His breath was labored as he buried the scream desperate to escape from deep down inside of him.
With a quick movement, he uncapped the vial, placed it to his lips, and swallowed the poison.
His hands stopped shaking, the suppressed scream evaporated, and his breath slowed. Joo-Won waited several moments as peace stole over him. Then he picked up his bokken and jeok-gyeon and joined Min-Jae at the end of the hall.
The two men walked into the stadium to thunderous applause and went to opposite sides of the champion court. Since this was the last match of the tournament, the players and the shimpans turned and bowed to the president. Then Joo-Won and Min-Jae slid their bokken from their belts. Joo-Won stared without fear at his opponent. When the shimpanyelled, “Begin!”, he leapt forward with a resounding cry, sure in the knowledge that he would win.
This story previously appeared in Kzine Issue 23, Jan. 2019.
Edited by Marie Ginga
Todd Sullivan currently lives in Seoul, South Korea, where he teaches English as a Second Language. He has had more than two dozen short stories, poems, essays, and novelettes published across five countries. He currently has two book series available through Amazon. He writes for a web and play series in Taipei, founded the online magazine, Samjoko, in 2021, and hosts a YouTube Channel that interviews writers across the publishing spectrum.