How Grandma Became A Shaman

[Kingdoms in the Sun, a time travel adventure fantasy romance set in modern and pre-modern Korea, has been re-released!, and the chapter that follows concerns my wife Jade’s extraordinarily bizarre ancestry. More chapters will follow in the coming days.]

Throbbing through Jade’s bloodstream were DNA strands belonging to a general from hallowed antiquity—Kim Yoo-shin, whose fiery kites had unified the Korean peninsula for the first time fourteen centuries ago. The man could also move objects with his thoughts alone and see things that had not yet occurred. In the Samgook Yoosa, one of the oldest Korean historical texts, it was written that Kim Yoo-shin dreamed up the future of his land, and told his companions, the Hwarang Flower Warriors, that while he was frightened by his vision of towering gray stone castles filled with more people than he’d ever seen and deafening rivers of screaming metal turtles roaring around them in square moats, and that while he knew it would all come to pass thanks to his efforts to bring the peninsula under the dominion of King Moonmoo, he’d still fight on nonetheless, because he couldn’t bear the thought of allowing this green and pleasant land to fall to the Tang.

But the centuries between his triumphs and the birth of Jade’s mother Yi weren’t so kind to this branch of the clan. They grew thinner and smaller as the equinoxes precessed, and with increasing desperation they worked the earth that sprouted fewer crops each summer, rising and falling in a blurred montage, the crops, the sun, the people.

Like most Koreans of her generation Yi was born into crushing poverty. Her country was one of the poorest on Earth at the time, and as far as anyone knew her ancestors had been scrounging a living from the dry rocky soil since at least the tenth century. A handful of rice, to them, was a luxury. They mostly subsisted on millet, since these were the days when North Korea was a prosperous nation propped up by the industrial wealth of the Soviet Union, while the South was a backwater dictatorship still recovering from years of war, decades of colonization, and millennia of serfdom and despotism. Those people spent their lives aching for food.

At Seoul’s heart there were horses clopping through the streets, while today’s grandmotherly Sea Women of Jeju Island were all young, taut, and tanned—diving into the ocean without oxygen masks, rippling in the blue murk, spearing fish, plucking shells and seaweed, wrestling whitetip sharks, and going home to sleep in stone houses with straw rooftops shaped like loaves of bread. Live pigs were tied up and strapped to the backs of bicycles, water buffaloes ploughed the fields, and people walked dirt roads under towers of firewood. Today’s steel glass cities were wretched shantytowns perched over rivers of filth. Most buildings were as short as the average person.

Life was already hard enough for Yi’s mother (Jade’s grandmother), but a run of bad luck, combined with gongs clashing like lightning in the black mornings and rice bowls shattering against her shack’s walls only to reappear unbroken within the proper cupboard the next day and her naked babies floating and laughing dappled in the sunlight that poked through the roof—all this convinced her to visit Gyeongju’s old medicine woman.

After chanting the incantations a pall of white smoke puffed around Yi’s mother, and the shaman saw two sinuous dragons with porphyry scales slithering through. Their eyes were pale crescents, their moustaches were green zigzags—these were the troublemakers behind the recent poltergeist activity, and they would continue their antics until Yi’s mother bowed down to submit.

The old medicine woman turned to the spirit of death, who sat cross-legged behind Yi’s mother on the cold dirt floor in the corner of her house of piled stones, which had a wooden sign outside that said Philosophy in Chinese letters. He was dressed like a nobleman in black robes, and he wore a black conical broad-brimmed hat, with a string of smooth wooden beads stretching under his goatee.

Yi’s mother turned around, saw nothing, and then looked back at the shaman. “What is it?”

“Your new boss,” the shaman said.

In his black robes the nobleman nodded and rattled his wood-beaded necklace.

He nodded, rattled—appeared!—and Yi’s mother leaped back and yelped.

Death spoke without moving his lips. “You know how this goes, don’t you?”

Yi’s mother threw herself onto the dirt floor and bowed on her hands and knees. “If I don’t become a shaman you’ll take my eldest instead.”

Death turned away. “That’s right.”

“If you already knew the answer,” one of the dragons said, “why did you come here?”

Yi’s mother was sobbing into the floor.

“Did you want me to reassure you with lies?” the shaman said.

“I’d hoped you could convince the gods to leave me alone,” Yi’s mother said.

“They don’t care about you, and they never listen to me,” the shaman said. “They just want your bones. Yours ring the right way when the gods tap them, mine are the same.”

Yi’s mother stood, bowed, wiped the tears from her eyes, and walked out.

Death stared through several broken-down shacks to an old slave who was shivering under his tattered bedcovers, coughing fog and memory into a room without windows.

You won’t go alone, Death said to the slave, and to Yi’s mother.

One dragon attended the old slave, another flew beside Yi’s mother walking Gyeongju’s dirt roads. How would she break the news to her family? Far better not to see them at all, too painful to part like that, a shame to be a shaman.

She stops on the dirt road between all the rotten fruit and vegetable sellers, who stare at her through the rising sunlit dust as if they know everything, and there is a man wearing a straw hat and a frayed frock coat with the brown threads popping out of the hem in the shoulders.

“Get the fuck out of my way,” he says, shoving past.

A bulbous pickup truck coated in rust rumbles by.

Where can I go? she thinks.

“I can take you,” the dragon says in a voice that disappeared a long time ago.

He turns north. “Follow me.”