Winter, and its companion, want, came too soon. The harvest had been poor. Though there were fewer mouths to feed, the labor of a nine-year-old boy produced a meager yield compared to that of two young men. It was not long after the first snowfall before illness struck the family’s weakest member.
The fever claimed Owlet during the night, and by morning he could not arise from his bedding. Father moved the child’s bedding over the warmest part of the ondol floor and fueled the fire in the plenum chamber below the house with extra wood.
Mother boiled rice water and dribbled one drop at a time down Owlet’s throat. But the water spilled over his cheek filling his ear. The fever rose and delirium scrambled the child’s burning head. Then, convulsions shook his frame and his eyes rolled back in his head.
In the yard was buried a gold Chinese coin, thick and round, with a square hole in the center, the final remnant of their currency. The father unearthed it, tied it around his neck, and hastened to the village on his oxen-drawn cart.
Later that day, he returned transporting an old man with a long beard like spider webs and skin wizened as a dried apple. The old man carried a basket in his lap and straddled a large bundle at his feet. He disembarked, one brown ropey hand hugging the basket, the other holding the lid shut, and entered the house.
Owlet lay like a desiccated wraith, silent and still under his covers, his sunken eye sockets staring into infinity. The shaman barely glanced at the child before turning to the father to demand, “First the money.” He snatched the Chinese coin, put it to his tongue, and stashed it into a purse tied around his waist. A curious dry rustle shook the witch doctor’s basket.
Then the shaman inspected the inside of Owlet’s mouth, pulling open his cheeks, lifting the upper and lower lips, twisting the tongue up and around. He instructed Umma to keep Owlet’s mouth moist to prevent breaks in the skin. The anxiety of his patient’s parents, their hovering, their stream of questions – “What are you looking for in his mouth?” and “Can he be cured?” and “What is inside your basket?” – irritated the shaman. He instructed them to break the ice over the stream with rocks and drench themselves in its frigid water. They were to repeat this procedure morning, noon, and night to cleanse the evil spirits inhabiting their bodies and contaminating their son. They were to steer clear of him and his magic pot until their evil spirits were completely discharged: three days to be exact.
While his parents shivered at the frozen stream, Young Nam was dispatched to fetch the old man’s bundle and firewood. The boy looked on with bated breath as the shaman gingerly unwrapped his bundle and revealed something resembling an oversized mud dauber’s nest in the shape of a cauldron. “My magic pot,” he said. Squatting on his haunches in the courtyard, the shaman arranged the firewood, placed the cauldron over it, and added a handful of snow.
Then, in a flash, the shaman lifted the lid of his basket and seized from it a hissing viper. Its diamond shaped head immobilized in the gnarled grip, the snake’s body writhed and its bared fangs dripped venom. The shaman looked the snake in the eyes and cracked a toothless grin. He coiled it tail end first into the cauldron and swiftly topped it with a heavy lid. Then he lit a twig at a time under the snake pot, chanting and rocking on his haunches. For hours the shaman squatted in this position, building the fire with excruciating exactitude, one stick at a time. As the viper snapped and whipped inside the gradually heating pot, the shaman nodded and chanted.
All the while, the boy observed from a respectful distance, leaving only to replenish the wood pile. Gathering his courage, the boy approached the crouching figure and squatted opposite him in silence, watching. The old man squinted at the boy.
“So you are a curious one,” the shaman said. “But you do not squawk like a magpie. I had to get rid of your noisy parents. They gave me a headache. Ask me the question that is in your eyes.”
The boy learned that the shaman’s magic pot was an iron cauldron coiled with rope and coated with clay. In this insulated pot, heated gradually, maximal venom would be extracted from the viper. If no open sores developed in the sick child’s mouth and throat – entry through the bloodstream would be deadly – Owlet could safely consume the potion and be cured.
The sick child shivered and seized all night. The following morning, the boy awoke before the sun came up, slid out from the covers, and tiptoed out to the yard. A gentle snow was falling on the shaman who squatted over his cauldron in precisely the same posture as the day before. A small fire burned and the snake was still angry inside the pot. The boy offered to stand watch over the pot. The shaman refused. The boy offered to bring the old man some food and water. The shaman refused. After a time, the boy offered a cup of rice wine. This the shaman accepted. The vigil went on for three days and three nights during which the old man did not budge from his post.
On the third morning, the boy hurried to the courtyard. The scent of meat wafted into the frosty air. “My friend has surrendered all of the venom his body could make,” said the shaman, lifting the lid to show the boy. The snake had been cooked alive in its own venom for sauce. The meat had fallen off the railroad of bones coiled in the pot. The old man wrapped the snake parts in a cloth and wrung out the liquids into the pot. After standing the pot in the snow for an hour, he soaked up the floating layer of yellow fat with paper.
Creaking audibly, the old man uncoiled himself to a standing position, studied the boy intently, and said, “The spirits spoke to me from the mountains last night. They told me something about your future.”
Kim Young Nam held his breath.
“Do you want to know it?”
“Your destiny awaits you in a great foreign land.”
Then before the boy could ask any questions, he motioned to the magic pot and said, “Hurry up. You carry it in. I am weak.”
No frankincense, no myrrh was ever transported with more painstaking care than that cauldron of viper stew. Once again, the shaman examined the inside of the sick child’s mouth, throat, and tongue. When he was done, he examined it a second time. He lifted the sick child in the crook of his arm and gave him a sip from a spoon while the family gathered in hushed expectation. “More?” whispered Owlet. A yelp of jubilation escaped his mother’s lips. The shaman glared at her. She stifled her sobs behind her hands. Owlet took another spoonful, his eyes focusing curiously on the shaman, then fell back to his mat. Over the course of the morning, he consumed the remainder of the viper elixir, and by the afternoon, he was healed.
Tears sheeting over her ruddy cheeks, the deaconess gathered her sons to kneel on the floor around their youngest brother and thank God for saving Owlet’s life. More fervent prayers of gratitude were never sent heavenward than from the heart of the boy Young Nam. He loved his brother. But as his mother wept and prayed, and wept and prayed some more, the boy’s private thoughts strayed to a different place. He replayed the shaman’s tantalizing, inscrutable, and, in terrible times to come, sustaining words: Your destiny awaits you in a great foreign land.
Tiger Pelt was shortlisted for the Center for Fiction First Novel Prize, named to Kirkus Reviews’ Best Books, and awarded the Nautilus Gold Award for Fiction. The following excerpt, set in occupied Korea during World War II, observes a poor farm boy, Kim Young Nam, as he watches over his fragile younger brother, nicknamed “Owlet”. Their family of subsistence farmers has been rendered destitute in support of the Japanese war effort, and the boys’ two older brothers have been conscripted to labor camps.