TREES ON A SLOPE
Part One Chapter 1
Like walking through a big hunk of glass. Feet don't want to move.
The afternoon sun beat down relentlessly as they neared the foot of the mountain. Unlimited visibility. Dwellings crouched beneath them, half a dozen or more, thatched roofs looking impossibly heavy. The structures seemed untouched by the war, but where were their occupants? You would think they had died off, so still were the surroundings. Not a single living thing was in evidence.
Why did this calm, clear, lucid space feel so resistant, so stifling? It really was like walking through dense, thick glass, Tong-ho told himself again. He had to force himself to move. With every measured step, rifle close to his side, muzzle forward, that massive hunk of glass blocked him, closing all over him, leaving only enough space for the outline of his body. He heard himself panting. Sweat streamed from his forehead.
Six feet ahead walked Hyo※n-t'ae, rifle at his side. Tong-ho felt the other man look back at him. Another wisecrack coming? Tong-ho ignored him. If he allowed his focus to wander, the dense glass barrier that begrudged his movements would harden fast, immobilizing him forever.
It was no more than forty yards to the nearest dwelling, but those forty yards felt interminable.
The house search claimed Tong-ho's attention and his feeling of oppression eased. Hyo※n-t'ae beckoned Tong-ho and two others to keep watch while he and the remaining man prepared to enter the first dwelling. Normally slow to action and fond of clowning, Hyo※n-t'ae grew alert and determined-an altogether different man-when it came time to fight. In an instant he flattened himself against the side of the house and yanked open the door. "Freeze!" he said in a voice that managed to be forceful without being loud.
The door's rice-paper panels, patched with cloth remnants, were mottled dark yellow from years of exposure to the sun. The open door revealed a dark interior.
"Come out with your hands up!"
The three men on watch sucked in their breath. There was no response from the dark room.
Hyo※n-t'ae poked his muzzle inside, then quickly scanned the room. No one there. He checked the kitchen, and finally the outhouse. There were signs that the occupants had made a hasty departure with their meager possessions.
It was the same with the next few homes. Hyo※n-t'ae flattened himself against the side of the house, yanked open the door, and shouted, "Freeze! Come out with your hands up!"
Tong-ho began to feel less anxious. Somehow, Hyo※n-t'ae's doings seemed to be taking place in a world where everything was unreal, a world that did not involve Tong-ho. When another soldier offered Tong-ho a potato left behind in the inner yard, he quickly stuffed it in his pocket. That potato seemed more real.
But then a new source of tension. Yun-gu, one of the others on guard, discovered a shoe in a pile of ashes next to an outhouse. There were holes in the worn sole and the upper was frayed. It was obviously not something that belonged to the local people.
The ash bins of other dwellings yielded chicken feathers, pig bristles, and dog hair. One of the houses had a larger yard and it was strewn with the bones of those animals-a sure sign that a group had eaten there. A group of outsiders. The mess they had left suggested they had departed in a hurry-and not long before, judging from the fact that the bones swarming with blowflies were not yet dark and discolored.
The five men looked all about. Ahead were long, narrow patches of corn and sweet potato bordering a valley. Across the valley were hills. Behind them loomed the mountain they had recently traversed, its upper half blanketed with light gray rocks and boulders. The summer sun continued to beat down. The surroundings felt too still. Was someone in this deserted place watching them? The mere thought brought a sense of unspeakable oppression. Once again Tong-ho was overpowered by the feeling that he was entering a glass monolith. If that corner of it shatters, the whole thing will end up in pieces and there's nothing I can do to stop it. Those sharp fragments will stab me, every one of them. Tong-ho's flesh crawled and he heaved a great shudder.
All he could do to relieve the unbearable sensation of pressure was to move. The squad began to search the remaining houses. They arrived at the sixth house. Hyo※n-t'ae flattened himself against the side of the house, jerked open the door, and shouted "Freeze!" This time someone moved inside. The tension thickened.
Hyo※n-t'ae's eyes flashed. With a jerk of his head he beckoned Tong-ho. Then, in a steely voice, "Come out with your hands up!"
The three guards advanced from left and right, the muzzles of their rifles leveled toward the dark cavity framed by the open door.
"Come out, and make it quick!"
A moment later the ashen face of a woman appeared in the gloom at the entrance, then recoiled inside.
"Hurry up, you!" Hyo※n-t'ae barked.
The next instant the woman stepped barefoot down to the ground. Her lips trembled. She appeared to be in her early thirties.
"The rest of you, come out!"
The woman shook her head a couple of times. Her pointed chin quivered.
Hyo※n-t'ae quickly inspected the interior. Toward the back of the dark room, lying motionless beneath a soiled cloth wrapper, was a tiny little child.
"Who were they? Chinks? People's Army, those sons of bitches?"
"They came last night...and they left this morning, before it was light."
"Which way did they go?"
The woman's quivering chin jerked toward the front of the hamlet.
"Fifty?... A hundred?" said the hill woman, who seemed unable to grasp the concept of numbers.
"What happened to the rest of you?"
"They took the young men...and the others of us ran away, 'fraid they'd kill us...."
"How come you stayed?"
Hyo※n-t'ae's tone softened slightly but his gaze continued to bore into the woman's eyes.
The woman blinked several times, then turned her trembling head away from Hyo※n-t'ae and back toward the room. Inside, the child lay still, an emaciated arm outside the wrapper. A dark cluster of flies had settled about its nose, mouth, and eyes.
"Fraid if I set off with the little one on my back," the woman said in a strained voice, "It wouldn't live through the trip...."
After searching the last two dwellings and finding them empty, the men filled their canteens at the village well, then set off back up the mountain behind the hamlet. Five forms flickering against the base of the mountain in the broad light of day-they were dangerously exposed. After passing through woods higher up they found shade beneath some boulders on a ridge near the top.
The first order of business was to make contact with base. This was the second year since the start of the drawn-out cease-fire talks, and at each of the fronts there were only sporadic skirmishes involving search parties-no large-scale fighting to speak of. And even if the evacuation of the people in this hamlet was only an enemy ploy, it was unusual in the light of recent intelligence.
Yun-gu was the man who packed the radio, and Hyo※n-t'ae now ordered him to radio base. Yun-gu picked up the mouthpiece, pressed the transmit button, and called out, "Toad...toad...toad," using the code word for base. As soon as he released the button there was a response.
Yun-gu looked expectantly toward Hyo※n-t'ae.
"Tell them we're four miles to the northeast."
Yun-gu translated this into code and radioed, "Four squid and pollack."
"Eight thatched houses," said Hyo※n-t'ae.
"Four pairs of straw sandals."
Hyo※n-t'ae had Yun-gu report the evidence of two or three People's Army platoons passing through the village and moving westward. Finally, "All the villagers have been evacuated-there's no one left."
Yun-gu, hand covering the mouthpiece except when transmitting, looked quizzically toward Hyo※n-t'ae, wondering about the woman.
Disregarding Yun-gu's gaze, Hyo※n-t'ae quietly repeated, "The villagers have evacuated-not a single one left."
Yun-gu radioed: "Straw all blown away."
Base responded with orders: The men were to hold their position until nightfall and watch for signs of activity from the enemy.
After Hyo※n-t'ae had positioned men on both sides of the path where it bent around the hillside, he lit a cigarette. He took several deep drags, then turned to Tong-ho, sitting beside him.
"Hey, Poet, the kind of situation we had back there-describe your feelings in one word."
Now what, Tong-ho thought as he fished hardtack out of his pack. He didn't respond.
"Poet, there's nothing like a smoke at a time like this. Lonesome mountains, clean air, makes a cigarette taste fantastic! Gives the brain a good jolt."
Some time ago their unit had arrived at the edge of a steep outcrop. As the others looked down and flexed their aching knees or complained of dizziness, Tong-ho had simply mentioned that he was cold. That one word had earned him his nickname, Poet.
Hyo※n-t'ae tried again. "You know, Poet, I felt lousy back there. I mean, here we are heading down to a deserted village and I feel like I'm walled in somehow. Now why should that be? You were looking mighty serious yourself, you know, like you were trying to fight off something. What a wierd feeling."
So, Hyo※n-t'ae too. Hyo※n-t'ae, always resolute and self-possessed once he had readied himself for combat. So he too had experienced that peculiar feeling of oppression from that silent clarity? Tong-ho had wanted then to explain to Hyo※n-t'ae how he had felt-the sensation of boring his way through an endless glass shield. That inside that shield he somehow felt less burdened by the possibility of the enemy appearing. But he had kept quiet, wondering what would happen if the enemy actually were lying in wait for them and a firefight broke out. How many times had Hyo※n-t'ae seem him lose his composure in battle? He couldn't for the life of him talk now with Hyo※n-t'ae about combat.
There was that time they had come under enemy bombardment at the Ch'up'a Pass front. They were on level ground and there was no place to hide. Nothing to do but lie flat on the ground. Tong-ho, in spite of himself, had kept trying to worm his head beneath Hyo※n-t'ae's waist. Suddenly Hyo※n-t'ae had bolted to his feet. Tong-ho had jerked his head up to see Hyo※n-t'ae, bent low, running toward the pit where a shell had just exploded. Tong-ho realized he had better follow. He knew that no two shells ever land in the same location, even if they are so aimed; it was a kind of law called the scattering effect. Tong-ho saw other soldiers scrambling one after another toward the pit, Yun-gu among them. But Tong-ho's legs wouldn't obey him. Through the dust he could see Hyo※n-t'ae's eyes beneath his helmet and his beckoning hand. But Tong-ho's legs felt rubbery and he couldn't move. It didn't seem to be a matter of their different battle records, reflected in Hyo※n-t'ae's rank of sergeant first class and Tong-ho's rank of sergeant second class; Yun-gu was a sergeant second class too, and look how sharply he had moved. Finally Hyo※n-t'ae had run back to Tong-ho, slung him over his shoulders, and toted him to the crater. An incongruous realization had loomed large and clear in Tong-ho's shattered mind as he was dragged along, his hearing numbed by the explosions: the contrast between this fellow Hyo※n-t'ae, the unflappable warrior, and himself, who couldn't have been more cowardly and stupid.
This was the longest bombardment the unit had sustained to date, and there was considerable loss of life. Tong-ho felt certain that the soldiers who had flattened themselves on the ground next to him had been hit. When the shelling finally stopped, Hyo※n-t'ae, his copper-colored face covered with dust, displayed a toothy grin. "How come a skinny fuck like you has such a heavy ass? You ought to clean out your pipes now and then - lighten your load and your body will do what you tell it." This was how he kidded Tong-ho, who, when they had been transferred back to the second line and Hyo※n-t'ae and Yun-gu had taken to visiting the women at the "comfort centers," had never felt up to joining them. As soon as Hyo※n-t'ae returned from one of those places he would start in on Tong-ho: "Hey, Poet. Lose that look of disgust-you'd think I was a dirtball or something. Fact is, I'm just being true to myself-remember that. Love, hate, all those messy human affairs-I'm free of them, free and easy. I could have a pretty girl beside me right now and I'd just ignore her -that's how peaceful and relaxed I feel. But you wouldn;t understand." After rambling along drunk like this he would sprawl out. Tong-ho had never responded, but instead would wait for Hyo※n-t'ae to fall asleep. But today he said, "Good thing you're not free of all those messy human affairs today, otherwise you wouldn't have thought of dragging me to that hole, right?" "Yeah, all of that hero stuff is useless," Hyo※n-t'ae had rejoindered. "It's kind of ridiculous playing the brave fool-not worth giving up my life for." Tong-ho had listened silently. "Yeah, thanks to that, they could call me the bravest guy in the world, but so what?" Hyo※n-t'ae had grinned, revealing his white teeth. "You're quite a guy-till a little while ago you were shaking out of control, but now your yap is working. To be honest, pulling you over here wasn't a matter of us being old friends or war buddies. Maybe like you say it was an outburst of courage. Maybe what it comes down to is being rash, you know?"
And there was that battle near the Ku※mso※ng River. In the confusion of the fighting their unit had come under friendly fire by mistake. Too panicked to find shelter, Tong-ho had allowed himself to be led to the foot of a tree by Hyo※n-t'ae. Hyo※n-t'ae sheltered Tong-ho close against the back of the tree while keeping the in sight the fighter plane coming at them just then. Along with the roar of the engines came the staccato popping of the fighter's machine guns, the bullets making a furrow in the ground from left to right and thudding into the tree. The tremors from the bullets hitting the tree made Tong-ho feel as if the rounds had slammed into his chest. From various directions came screams of agony. Tong-ho squatted, trembling, behind the tree, too scared to stand; Hyo※n-t'ae, in back, held him motionless. The strafing ended and the fighters circled back, sunlight flinting from their silver wings. Again Hyo※n-t'ae moved so that he faced the oncoming planes, and calmly he told Tong-ho to drop his arms to his sides-it was dangerous to hug the tree. Suddenly, Tong-ho experienced an oppressive feeling of confinement, the stuffy, stifling sensation he remembered when as a child he had been playing in an alley near home and a big, strong neighbor boy had come up behind him, put his hands over his eyes, held him tight and refused to release him no matter how he struggled. But along with the feeling of confinement that came from being under the sway of Hyo※n-t'ae was a hint of a firm, unshakable friendship.
Tong-ho took water from his canteen to moisten his mouthful of hardtack.
"Say, how much of a burn does it take for someone to die?" he asked no one in particular.
Yun-gu broke a cigarette in half and rolled a piece of paper into a holder for it. "A third of your body would probably do it."
"What about slivers of glass?"
"Hard to say." Yun-gu used Hyo※n-t'ae's cigarette to light his own. "Glass is awful. Get it in you and it keeps going deeper. I stepped on a flytrap once when I was a kid and boy did that glass hurt-much worse than a knife. And even if you manage to get the slivers out, you still smart like hell. Couldn't sleep at all that night and when they took me to the doctor next day I still had a couple of pieces the size of millet seeds in me. Darned if they weren't pretty deep inside. That prickling and smarting I had all the previous night were those things worming their way inside me."
Once again Tong-ho felt as if the imaginary block of glass enveloping him had shattered and the countless shards were stabbing him.
"What's this, a poem about glass? "Hyo※n-t'ae rose. "Poems are fine, but first let's get out of the sun."
It was early July and though the sunshine wasn't quite so strong at this time of day, it felt terribly hot falling directly on their foreheads. They found shade beside a boulder.
"Okay, you can think about poetry all you want for the time being, but let's talk about something more pleasant. Where'd you come up with this glass business, anyway?"
Tong-ho understood what Hyo※n-t'ae meant by "something more pleasant." He wanted to hear about Tong-ho's sweetheart. Tong-ho still hadn't revealed to his two friends that there was a woman who was in love with him. But Hyo※n-t'ae and Yun-gu had guessed as much from the letters that arrived for Tong-ho. Tong-ho never read those letters on the spot. Instead he stuffed them deep in his pocket until he could find a quiet place to read them. Once Hyo※n-t'ae had tried to play a trick on him. It was lunchtime a couple of weeks earlier, when the front had fallen quiet. Hyo※n-t'ae began rummaging through Tong-ho's pack. Tong-ho jumped at Hyo※n-t'ae and tried to snatch it away from him, but Hyo※n-t'ae, anticipating this, tossed the pack to Yun-gu and held Tong-ho fast. Hyo※n-t'ae was about to tell Yun-gu to find a love letter and read it out loud, when suddenly he released his hold on Tong-ho's waist and jerked backward, a bite mark on the back of his hand. The next instant Tong-ho sprang like a tiger at Yun-gu, butted him in the temple, and knocked him backward. Hyo※n-t'ae had expected some resistance, but such a strong reaction was beyond his imagination. Tong-ho clutched the pack, panting, his eyes bloodshot like those of a drunken man. Hyo※n-t'ae made the best of the situation by smirking and saying, "The son of a gun, the next time we're in battle we'll have to stick that pack out in front of us-that'll make him brave."
If Tong-ho hadn't admitted thus far to having a sweetheart, he wasn't, of course, about to do so now. But Hyo※n-t'ae brought up the matter anyway, just for the fun of it.
"Long as you cherish this little cutie of yours so much, why the hell not tell us about her? Afraid she's going to disappear if you mention her? Anyway, I can't stand that damned pure heart of yours-it's dangerous."
Tong-ho ignored Hyo※n-t'ae and let his eyes wander to a pine grove below. Among the larger pines stood younger branchy ones. Tong-ho noticed that the tips of the branches were reddish and wondered if the trees were infested with caterpillars.
"I worry about you, you know. You think this lover girl of yours is your possession? We're past the days when a man thinks he can make a girl his just so long as he has a pure heart. No matter what, long as you don't have a direct memory of a woman's skin, you're wrong to think she's yours. You have any of those memories?"
"If you can't think of anything more useful to talk about, why don't you go take a nap or something?"
"Listen, pal, I'm doing this for your sake. Just tell me, for God's sake, about one unforgettable part of her. Lips, maybe, or the palm of her hand? Or maybe you-know-where?... Uh-oh, spitting? Don't like my filthy mouth? But you know, people who are normally well behaved do some pretty strange things sometimes. Who knows, a guy like you, maybe you've got your brand on her back? Now take our buddy here."
Yun-gu had smoked his cigarette down to the paper holder.
"Hey, I'm just an innocent bystander," he said, loath to be drawn into a conversation about women.
"You telling me you don't have any tricks up your sleeve? I know how picky you are, and when it comes to the cuties you've got all the angles covered. You always pick the older ones. Get more loving from them, right? You're a step up on the rest of us."
Every three hours the sentries on the hillside changed. Tong-ho finished his watch and by the time he returned to Hyo※n-t'ae the sunlight was waning and the cool breeze of the oncoming evening was stealing inside his fatigues. On the last day of March snow had blanketed this mountainous region midway up the east coast, forcing a suspension of operations for a time. And even now in summer, once the sun started to set, the daytime heat gave way to chill.
Hyo※n-t'ae sat silently behind the rock, sheltered from the wind, arms folded over his chest.
Tong-ho sat beside him and silently replayed the images of Sugi that had risen to the surface of his mind during his recent hillside watch. Two years earlier, he and Sugi had spent a snowy night at a hotel at Haeundae Beach the day before he had left for the army. They had kissed until their mouths were numb, but an even sharper memory was the discovery the next morning, in the clear sunlight after the night-long snowfall, that Sugi's double eyelid had developed a third fold. Seeing this, the two of them had laughed like children. Whenever he thought of Sugi, he recalled the sensation of their lips rubbing together all that night, the feel of her cheeks, the back of her neck, part of her chest. But even more precious to him was the mood, like their own perfect secret, of their innocent laughter at the sight of the difference between her eyelids. In her first letter to him in the army she had written about her eyes. It had taken two days for the eyelid with the third fold to return to normal, and during that time she hadn't ventured from home. What was more, she had avoided the gaze of her family, afraid the difference between her eyelids would reveal the secret she shared with him. How she looked forward, she had written, to the day when Tong-ho would return and make her eyelids unequal again.
Those eyelids.... The thought always brought a smile to his lips in spite of himself.
"What are you grinning about, pal?" ventured Yun-gu. "Hey, it's getting chilly." He rose and stretched his arms out front and sideways to warm himself.
Evening had arrived in the mountains. Before the bright orange of sunset had disappeared over the mountains to the west, gray dusk filled in the lower reaches of the valleys and gradually thickened until it advanced to the mountaintops. The process seemed slow but in fact was fast.
Before they knew it stars began appearing in the violet heavens. The sentries returned from the hillsides.
All awaited Hyo※n-t'ae's order to return to base.
"Somebody's got a fire going," muttered a soldier who was looking in the direction of the village.
Beyond the shadows of the darkly outlined pines drifted a faint wisp of smoke. It came from a chimney.
"I've got a vision of a cloud of steam coming up from a pot of rice," muttered a second soldier.
"Corn gruel's probably the best they can do. Didn't you see? There wasn' a single potato down there-they got cleaned out of anything fit to eat."
"A hot drink of water would suit me just fine."
"Hey, that woman," said the first soldier. "I hope she's not a spy."
Hyo※n-t'ae rose. "Radio base," he told Yun-gu. "Tell them we're on our way back." And with that he shouldered his rifle and strode off down the hill.
Tong-ho had a hunch that Hyo※n-t'ae would do away with the woman. Even if she wasn't a spy, if there was a danger that the enemy could learn from her about the movements of their side, she would have to be taken back to base. But that would be a bother to Hyo※n-t'ae and he would be inclined to get rid of her instead. So that's why he radioed base earlier that no one was left here!
Tong-ho gazed down at the gloom in which Hyo※n-t'ae had disappeared, waiting any minute for the report of the rifle.
Yun-gu approached. "What are you looking so serious for? Don't get sidetracked. Let's worry instead about getting back to base."
Presently Hyo※n-t'e returned. He was wiping his hands.
"All right, let's get out of here," said Hyo※n-t'ae. And then to Tong-ho, who was still gazing down the hill: "Why the idiotic look?"
Tong-ho made no reply.
The following day Hyo※n-t'ae noticed an unfamiliar gaze on Tong-ho's face.
"Don't give me that disgusted look-you're provoking me."
"What did you do with that woman?"
"Asshole, is that it? Well, I'll tell you. She wasn't scared like she was in the afternoon. She didn't try to resist me much either. But guess what -when I get up she grabs me by the hand. Well, I knew what that meant. She's scared, and she wants me to stay with her. Can't very well do that, can I? So I got rid of her. And that's that."
(to be continued)