TREES ON A SLOPE
For three weeks Hyo※n-t'ae was treated in a field hospital near the Kumalli power plant in Hwach'o※n. During that time his unit was relocated to a village called Sot'ogomi, some six miles north of Hwach'o※n and nine miles south of the front at Ch'up'a Pass.
An army truck delivered Hyo※n-t'ae to Sot'ogomi. He climbed down from the truck and looked about.
Sot'ogomi was north of the 38th parallel and thus was northern territory before the war. When Hyo※n-t'ae's unit had pushed through here the previous year for the second time, the houses lying at the foot of the hill behind the village had been reduced mostly to ashes. It was now less than ten days since the establishment of the armistice, and in that short time a scattering of shacks had appeared. There were even a few houses being built.
The canvas structures that made up the base were in plain sight to the right of the road. Hyo※n-t'ae, knapsack in hand, was about to set out in the steamy heat on the ocher-colored dirt path to the base when he heard a distant voice.
He turned and off in the distance saw a group of soldiers making repairs to their quarters. One of them raised a hand. It was Tong-ho.
"Been writing a lot of poems?" Hyo※n-t'ae called out.
He went inside regimental headquarters to report his return, then joined Tong-ho.
"Okay to shake hands?" asked Tong-ho.
Hyo※n-t'ae gripped Tong-ho's small hand painfully tight.
"That's good-I was afraid you'd end up with a bad arm. I heard you couldn't feed yourself for a while-the nurses had to spoon-feed you. Wish I could have seen that."
"You don't know the half of it. The worst part was the infection-set in so quickly. Say, any news of our buddy Yun-gu?"
"Well, he's here."
"Really? I was afraid something happened to him that night."
"He was captured, but he managed to get away."
Hyo※n-t'ae snorted. "That'll give him something to talk about. So where is he right now?"
"I think he went to Hwach'o※n-had to wire somebody, or something. Four now, so he ought to be back."
Other friends had trickled over to shake hands with Hyo※n-t'ae and welcome him back.
Hyo※n-t'ae noticed quite a few soldiers that he didn't recognize. These were reinforcements. Hyo※n-t'ae was forced to the realization that many of his buddies had died in the fighting preceding the armistice. As the men who had gathered around him recited the names of the casualties, gloom shaded their faces. But spreading beneath that gloom was an undeniable tinge of joy that they had survived. And what was wrong with that, as long as they kept that joy to themselves?
Yun-gu returned just before dinner.
After their meal the men returned to their quarters.
"I was afraid something happened to you," Hyo※n-t'ae said to Yun-gu. "I asked some of the other wounded about you, but no one knew anything. Thought we might have a little ceremony, help you rest in peace, so I bought these."
From his knapsack Hyo※n-t'ae produced two bottles of soju and a few dried squid.
"Instead we'll celebrate your safe return. I know it tastes better if you drink before eating, but we'll each have a snort and then hear what the brave soldier has to say about his escape."
Hyo※n-t'ae uncapped one of the bottles with his teeth and filled the cap of Yun-gu's canteen.
Yun-gu sipped as he began his account.
"That night I figured I'd break through the enemy lines and head south toward the sound of our artillery. That was a mistake. I should have gone east instead."
The enemy had come from the west, then turned south and arranged themselves in several lines. Yun-gu would manage to break through one line only to find himself still in the midst of the enemy. The rain held up for a time but then resumed, and Yun-gu wandered through it all night long.
At daybreak he was forced to seek cover in a bomb crater filled with rain water. He found someone already huddled there: Corporal Kim from his company, a man everyone called Heap o' Trouble. The two of them crouched there silently, too tired to exchange talk. After a time Kim muttered to himself, "If only our men can counterattack this morning." After another interval of silence Kim muttered again, "Long as we're going to be captured, better if it's the Chinks." Yun-gu agreed. One notable aspect of this civil war was the cruelty that Koreans displayed toward one another. The formalities for dealing with prisoners of war were disregarded; the usual practice was to execute them by gunshot-"direct disposition," it was called.
As luck would have it, it was the Chinese Communists who apprehended Yun-gu and the corporal. They were taken to the rear of the enemy lines, in the direction of Ku※mso※ng.
There they were confined to a makeshift shelter thrown up against part of a bombed-out building. It offered scant protection against the elements. The straw mats spread on the ground were sodden with rain water. The hut held some fifty prisoners. One by one they were interrogated.
Inside a smaller shelter sat a man at a beat-up table. He wore the uniform of the People's Army and the insignia of a captain. He appeared to be in his early forties and he spoke gently. He asked Yun-gu's name and age. And then, "What is your rank?" "Private first class." Yun-gu had prepared for this, and the lie rolled easily from his lips. "Hometown?" "Seoul." "Same here. What about your parents?" "They passed on when I was young." "And?" "And I went to live with my father's younger brother." "Where is this uncle of yours now?" "He and his family died three years ago in the September 28 bombing." A spark of sympathy appeared in the captain's eyes. "What did your uncle do?" "He sold insurance." "And what were you doing, Comrade, when the war broke out?" "I was going to school." "Majoring in?" "Commerce." The captain nodded. "Tell me-how was an insurance salesman able to send his nephew to college?" "He didn't. I worked my way through as a home tutor." "You must have had a difficult time," the captain said, nodding again. "When did you join the army?" "This spring." "You mean to say you didn't join up till you were twenty-four?" "I tried to keep out of sight before that." "Why didn't you volunteer for the People's Army when the war broke out?" Yun-gu was stumped. He couldn't very well tell the truth-that he had hidden beneath the veranda at the home where he was tutoring. He decided to stall, but then the captain smiled and said, "Would you care to volunteer at this late date?" Yun-gu hesitated here as well. "I guess I've put you on the spot. Take your time and think about it." The captain changed the subject. "Tell me, Comrade, who are the officers among the prisoners here?" "None that I know of." Yun-gu understood the intent of this question. If the officers could be identified, military secrets could be extracted from them. During battle, though, the soldiers removed their insignia, and if they were about to be captured they would destroy their identification cards and dog tags, so that it became impossible to distinguish officers from rank and file or to determine who was senior among the latter. But the reason for Yun-gu's answer was not that he wished to protect officers. The fact was, he knew of no officers among the other prisoners. For the first time the captain's expression hardened. "I don't think you're leveling with me. Not one, you say?" "Not one." "You're a tool of the capitalists!" the captain barked. "A commerce major, but you're not too good with numbers. This spring, eh? Off by two or three years, I'd say. You claim you joined up this spring, but you've been a soldier at least two years, no doubt about it. Your eyes give you away, Comrade. They look calm but they're always moving. One glance, and I knew right off. It's clear as day, Comrade-when the war broke out you were hiding somewhere, dreaming your reactionary dreams."
The first round of interrogation ended and each of the prisoners was fed a riceball. A People's Army soldier then appeared and called out a name. Every mouth ceased chewing the fluffy lump of steamed rice and barley and the hut fell silent. The name was called again, and a prisoner rose, a smallish young man. While following the People's Army soldier out, his adam's apple moved once, heavily, as he swallowed the remainder of his rice ball.
That morning the rain stopped and the sky began to shed its overcast, so that by evening it was completely clear. It was enough to make you want to remove your sticky clothes and air them out. The sunset was lovely, and oblivious to the prisoners in the hut. At dusk the prisoners were herded outside, lined up, and led away. The young man summoned earlier had not reappeared.
Every half dozen prisoners were escorted by a guard with a submachine gun over his shoulder. Their destination was uncertain. The position of the stars was the prisoners' only clue; they guessed they were heading north.
About three miles along, they came to a narrow valley. Uncommanded, the men came to a halt one by one, starting at the head of the line. The prisoners assumed it was a rest break. They were not told to squat, however, but instead were ordered to produce all their belongings. "You son of a bitch, did you think we wouldn't find this?" Such could be heard at various points in the line. Yun-gu's wristwatch was discovered and confiscated. He had tried to hide it by tying it to his shirt tail and tucking it inside his trousers.
The line set into motion. Yun-gu counted the number of passes they had crossed thus far. The most recent one made four. At an isolated spot near the fifth pass the guards called a rest stop. They ordered the prisoners to squat, then smoked, concealing the lighted end of their cigarette with a cupped palm.
Again the march resumed. Another pass was crossed. At the following pass, a UN fighter suddenly roared overhead, machine guns firing, apparently at the hill directly above the prisoners. Almost as suddenly, clouds reappeared and the stars were gradually obscured. And then, meteor-like, another fighter flew overhead, guns blazing, and yet another.
"Freeze!" the guards shouted repeatedly. But several prisoners ran off down the slope. Two of the guards, or maybe it was three, pursued them, submachine guns going ratatat ratatat. Presently the guns of the fighters stilled, and the silence at the foot of the slope was punctuated with more bursts of submachine gun fire. "Got three!" came a voice. A guard who had remained above counted heads and shouted down the slope, "There's a fourth!" Some time later the pursuers returned, bringing only the boots of the three captured prisoners. The guard who had flanked Yun-gu reappeared. He thumped together the pair of boots he had brought, dislodging dirt, then tied the laces tight and slung the boots over his shoulder.
At dawn the prisoners arrived at a hillside prominence. At the foot of the prominence were several man-made caves, their entrances concealed by branches.
At the arrival of the prisoners, soldiers appeared from one of the caves. A change of guards, Yun-gu guessed. Roll was called, the names of the three shot prisoners and the one escapee noted, and the list of prisoners handed over to the soldiers there. The guards with the boots removed their canvas footwear and put on the boots.
The prisoners were given a riceball each, then ordered into two of the caves and told to sleep.
The prisoners lay their exhausted bodies across one another, legs folded over legs, on the grass-covered ground, and soon they were asleep. Yun-gu found himself lying next to Corporal Kim. Realizing the corporal was still awake he addressed him softly: "Who was that man who was called out yesterday?" Kim kept his eyes closed as he answered: "New rifle platoon leader." Kim, who had been a soldier ever since his days in the Constabulary, knew the faces of practically everyone who was a master sergeant or higher at the other bases, faces unfamiliar to Yun-gu. Who had squealed on the platoon leader? Might very well have been this man Kim, it occurred to Yun-gu, the thought prompted by the man's past, which had given rise to his nickname Heap o' Trouble. The previous year, shortly before he was to have been promoted from staff sergeant to technical sergeant, he had gone AWOL. Three weeks later he had reappeared. It was rumored that he had been helping his family with farmwork. But who could believe this, considering his reputation as a thug, his dislike of farmwork, and his background in the Constabulary? Normally for such an offense he would have been confined to the guardhouse and reduced in rank, but in consideration of his many years of military service-he had enlisted directly from the Constabulary-his only punishment was a deferral of the promotion. But then the previous winter, around the time he was transferred to the rear, he was caught stealing relief goods. He had used them to buy a girl, the story went. This time he spent a month in the guardhouse and was reduced twice in rank. Thereafter he had disregarded some unimportant orders from a certain technical sergeant and had used plain speech forms in answering the officer, as if they were the same rank. All of this provoked Yun-gu's suspicion that Kim, depending on the situation, was capable of ratting on the platoon leader the previous day. But then the corporal, eyes still closed, said in an indifferent tone, "Probably a guy in his own unit that turned him in, a new one who didn't know any better, figured he'd get preferential treatment-maybe even one of us here. I'll bet he regrets it now." At that point Yun-gu came to a realization. Suppose he himself had known about the platoon leader and been enticed by the possibility of the People's Army captain offering him a favor-could he state unequivocally that he wouldn't have informed? He was not so sure. Yun-gu was ashamed of himself for suspecting Kim. The corporal opened his eyes almost imperceptibly and turned toward Yun-gu. "What's the use of fussing over that business anyway? We have enough on our hands as it is. Tonight's crucial. If we don't act tonight, we'll end up too far north-then it gets real tough. Did you see those guys who tried to run off last night? Only one of them made it. The other three were too anxious, they tried to run too far too fast, and look what happened. You only want to go a short distance, maybe five kan. Then when the sons of bitches leave, that's when you run away. Think about tonight, then get some sleep." And with that, the corporal's head sank back and he rolled over.
"And that's when I decided," Yun-gu continued. "I decided I'd go with Kim."
At dusk the men ate a riceball each and set out again. Yun-gu got into line a few places behind the corporal, near the tail end.
Perhaps it was the onset of the monsoons, but whatever the reason, low-lying, rain-swollen clouds again covered the sky.
As Yun-gu walked, he tried to pace off a distance of five kan. Five kan would be about thirty cha. Before they had set out, Yun-gu, using thumb and forefinger, had measured his foot-it was a bit longer than one cha. That meant five kan were not quite thirty footsteps.
Yun-gu counted six passes before they were allowed to rest.
In spite of the darkness, Yun-gu knew that hills lay to the right and a precipitous slope to the left. This is the place, he thought. He fixed his gaze on Kim, squatting ahead of him.
The guard standing next to Yun-gu went forward to the next guard for a light.
"Trade you my boots for your shoes if you'll give me a smoke," came the voice of a prisoner.
"Not till I see what those boots look like tomorrow morning," chuckled a guard.
Where the corporal had been squatting, a round bundle began rolling down the slope. Yun-gu hugged his knees to his chest and did likewise.
"Knock it off!" said the guards, thinking someone had set large rocks rolling to play a trick on them. Then they seemed to realize what was happening. The harsh report of the submachine guns pierced the empty stillness between heaven and valley.
When Yun-gu guessed he was five kan distant from the ratatat ratatat, he grabbed a small tree branch and came to a stop. He was faintly aware of Kim lying prone a short distance away. Suddenly the place where the corporal lay broke free and slid downhill. Two guards thrashed through the undergrowth in pursuit.
Presently the ratatat ratatat of the submachine guns reverberated throughout the valley, followed by a shout: "Got one of them!" A short time later, from above: "Another one's missing!" Then Yun-gu heard Corporal Kim's boots being removed. "Huh, look at this son of a bitch-wristwatch strapped around his ankle," one of the guards muttered. Yun-gu heard the guards move farther off to search, then finally trudge back up to where the prisoners were, grumbling all the way.
When he was sure the prisoners had left, Yun-gu descended the slope. As he wondered where to go next, he heard a voice from the underbrush not far off. It was the corporal. He had collapsed from a bullet to the abdomen and had somehow managed to play dead. The way he talked now, you wouldn't have thought he was about to die. "Feel like I was on a roll and they cut the game short. What's a guy to do?" The voice was unexpectedly calm. At the end, the corporal made a request: "I want you to send this to my family." So saying, he held out a closed fist to Yun-gu. Inside was a handful of dirt. "Make sure you send it. No letter. Just my name."
"And that's what this is," Yun-gu added. He brought out his knapsack, produced a hardtack wrapper, and unfolded it. Inside the crumpled wrapper was dark ocher soil, now less than half a handful, the remainder probably lost during the time Yun-gu had kept it.
"What's that supposed to mean?" asked a soldier with drink-reddened eyes. "Is there gold in it, or what?"
"Come off it," scolded a soldier seated nearby. "Even if it was all gold, it wouldn't make up for the man's loss. He was probably raving toward the end."
"I don't think so," said Tong-ho as he eyed the clumps of dirt in the wrapper. "It was his way of telling his family he had died. 'From dust to dust....'"
"That's pathetic," said Hyo※n-t'ae. "Get rid of that stuff. What's the use of keeping it all this time?"
"Uh-uh," said Yun-gu. "It's my duty to deliver it."
"It is after all a dying man's last wish. I'll go to personnel tomorrow and get his address, then send it off," said Tong-ho.
"All right, you men do what you want." Hyo※n-t'ae poured another round of soju into the canteen caps of his comrades. "But now, let's drink to our buddy Yun-gu for making it back alive. And to the memory of Corporal Kim. And to all our buddies who fought their last battle-rest in peace, gentlemen."
Human compassion is such that wartime survivors suppress their joy beneath a gloomy countenance out of respect for their departed comrades. But it is the nature of this gesture of respect that, since it is contrived by people, it may also be disregarded by people. And in the world of men it is often alcohol that spurs the disregard.
Since the Sot'ogomi base was less than ten miles from the front, the men were required to be in a state of constant readiness. This meant they were occupied in the morning with training and drills and in the afternoon with camp maintenance and cleanup. Sunday was no exception. But in mid-September, upon the conclusion of the prisoner exchange called for by the armistice, Sunday leave became available to those who wanted it.
The destination of a group obtaining a Sunday pass depended on how deep their pockets were. Normally it was a drinking place or a "comfort station."
Following hard on the heels of the armistice, clutches of opportunists had flocked to the bases to do business with the soldiers. Drinking places with hostesses had lately increased. Licensed comfort stations became established, as well as several pimps, each with a stable of streetwalkers.
The usual pattern for an outing was soju or makko※lli without the customary snacks, followed by a drunken brawl, which could break out at the slightest pretext, or a visit to a comfort station or brothel. The alcohol-induced stimulation and the odor of a woman heightened the men's joy at being alive.
Hyo※n-t'ae developed a certain skill at obtaining Sunday leave for himself, Tong-ho, and Yun-gu.
"Well, are we out of here?" said Hyo※n-t'ae. "Haven't blown all the Governor's money left."
At the field hospital Hyo※n-t'ae had received spending money from his father. Before the outbreak of the civil war "the Governor" had become quite successful importing beef tallow for soapmaking, but the war had ruined his business. Then while a refugee in Pusan he had reestablished himself, this time in the sugar business.
After becoming suitably drunk at a drinking shack, Hyo※n-t'ae produced some banknotes from his pocket and pretended to sniff them.
"What a sweet smell-never fails. Doesn't seem right to spend it on something that tastes so sour." He turned to Yun-gu. "Time for you-know-what; got to stand up and be counted."
Finally, he eyed Tong-ho. "And you-take this, buy yourself some caramels, and write a sweet little ditty while you're chewing."
He dropped a few hundred-wo※n notes in front of Tong-ho, then left with Yun-gu.
Yun-gu readily followed Hyo※n-t'ae at such times, his pleasure undiminished by the knowledge that it was derived from the use of someone else's money.
Tong-ho for his part was thankful that Hyo※n-t'ae, in spite of teasing him about his fussiness toward women, didn't insist on including him in his outings with Yun-gu.
Tong-ho bought a pack of cigarettes and lit up. Then he climbed the hill behind the base to where some pines had been felled to provide timber for camp repairs and fuel for the oncoming winter. He perched himself on a sappy stump after covering it with undergrowth, then retreated into a world of his own, a world in which, once again, he entertained thoughts of Sugi.
The land beside the base was a waste, the barely visible elevated paths between the dry fields the only evidence that farming had once taken place there. Untouched for three years by plowshare or hoe blade, the earth was broken in places to reveal the ocher soil. Weeds flourished. The weeds had more of a yellow tinge than when Tong-ho had last come here. The early-October sun beat down ceaselessly, toughening the berry seeds that lay on the soil and increasing their chances of surviving the winter.
He had consumed less than half of what Hyo※n-t'ae and Yun-gu had drunk, but felt the alcohol warming his ears, as well as the pleasant sensation of the breeze from the ridge cooling them. Perhaps it was the imminent arrival of harvest season that brought to mind the image of a peach as he thought of Sugi.
But what kind of peach? It wasn't a nectarine, with its bare skin, or a sumil peach, with its fuzz and soft flesh. Tong-ho didn't know the name of the variety, could only sketch its appearance in his mind: white skin, short fuzz, middling-firm flesh.
There was something unusual about Sugi's profile, and once Tong-ho had sat in different places to observe it-an experiment of sorts. It didn't catch your eye if you looked at her straight on, but it came into view if the angle of sight and the lighting were right. If the light source was diagonally to the rear, or to the side and above, her face was shaded except for the straight-sure bridge of her nose, and as you sighted toward the perfectly rising tip you could make out a faint halo about the tip and nostrils. A lighting effect that you wouldn't ordinarily notice. This halo was very much like peach fuzz, or the bloom on grapes and persimmons, only softer and finer, making you want not so much to feel it as to melt it with your breath. Tong-ho had discovered it that night two years previous in the Haeundae Beach hotel room where they had stayed at Sugi's suggestion (and for which they had emptied their pockets)-the memorable sendoff that Sugi had planned for so long. In that secluded room, with the thick snowflakes falling outside, they had spent practically the whole night awake, and the following morning, after a long kiss, he had caressed the tip of her nose and her nostrils with his lips. It was that morning, clear and bright, when they were laughing in childlike delight at the discovery of the third fold in her eyelid, and the contrast it made with her other eye, that Tong-ho had chanced to notice, in the sunlight streaming through the window, that faint halo. "That's the most delicate peach fuzz I'll ever see," he had mumbled to himself. "And it'll never come off."
Tong-ho descended the hill and entered the grocery next to the base. A man of about forty was dusting the stock. He turned and approached Tong-ho.
"Can I help you?"
Tong-ho glanced at the piles of apples, pears, and persimmons.
"Um, aren't there several varieties of peaches?"
The man was taken aback. His customers usually bought merchandise rather than asking incongruous questions.
"Something I've been trying to find out," explained Tong-ho. "What other varieties there are besides sumil peaches and nectarines."
"Well," said the man reluctantly, but then he reminded himself that his business depended entirely on the soldiers, and he seemed to realize he couldn't feign ignorance. "They say there are even more kinds of peaches than apples."
"Isn't there a peach that's like a nectarine, only it has fuzz all over?"
"Well...that means we're talking about peaches that are hard to the touch. There's what they call the Ch'o※n variety. Skin's red and so is the inside. Has a crease and comes to a point on top."
"Sounds like a sumil, too.... Is there one that's white and has a little fuzz?"
"Maybe you're thinking of the white peach. Short fuzz and firm flesh that's white as can be. Tastes good too. You know, I'll bet I have it in a can."
The man located a can on one of the shelves, gave it a swipe with his duster, and handed it to Tong-ho.
"Here you are. Processed from the real thing."
The label had yellowed slightly. On it was a picture of two unnaturally round peaches, one overlapping the other because of the clumsy way the label was attached, accompanied by dark red letters identifying the product.
Tong-ho returned the can to the man. Not that he couldn't afford it. Rather, when he realized that the peaches inside were probably skinned and halved, he lost all interest. More poignant at the moment was the overlap of the man's description of the white peach with the image of the peach Tong-ho had sketched in his mind on the hill. Peach season next year I'll check out that white peach but good.
Tong-ho returned to the base to find that Hyo※n-t'ae and Yun-gu had already returned.
Yun-gu left without a word to wash his underwear and socks at the well.
Hyo※n-t'ae was stretched out in bed. "Hey, Poet," he said. "Been off by your lonesome all this time? Something on your mind? Well, bear up. Won't be too long before we're discharged, and then you can be with your sweetheart."
He displayed his arms.
"Want to hear a story? Damn, you should have seen the fuss my girl made over these scars. 'Just look at that new skin, how red it is, and smoother than the other-it's so pretty I could die!' She went crazy licking and sucking on it. So I told her, 'If you really think it's so swell, why don't I make you a scar of your own?' Know what she said? 'I already have them, more than I can count.' Good God! 'And they'll never heal, long as I live.' Now get this: 'If two of us with scars could have a nice life together, I'd never ask for anything more.' Give me a break! Who'd want to live with a yapping douchebag like her! I wasn't in too good a mood after that. Won't be in any hurry to see her again."
Tong-ho waited until Hyo※n-t'ae fell asleep, then wrote Sugi a letter. In the letter he wrote about peaches. And added that he hoped he'd be able to see Sugi Peach before the white peaches came into season the following year.
(to be continued)