Trees on a Slope
Part One Chapter 5
It was the following Sunday. A chill wind blew beneath a cloudy sky. Once again Tong-ho, Hyo^-t'ae, and Yun-gu had obtained passes and left the base.
They found a small drinking place, and Hyo-tae and Yun-gu proceeded to become pleasantly drunk before leaving to buy women. Tong-ho remained, slowly sipping a fresh bowl of makkolli while mung-bean cakes fried at the far end of the counter. On such a dreary day he was in no mood to go for a walk or climb his favorite hill. He hadn't started drinking until he joined the army and even now was not particularly fond of alcohol. He almost never drank without his friends, but he did so on this particular day, wanting to pass the time where he was rather than venture outside.
Tong-ho sat at one of three tables fashioned out of rough-cut pine planks. Those tables, sitting side by side, could accommodate perhaps a dozen men.
Four soldiers sat across from one another at the table next to Tong-ho's. They seemed in no hurry to leave. One of the soldiers was describing how he had smuggled two blankets off the base in a pair of cans. The difficult part, he told the others, wasn't stuffing the blankets inside the cans but tugging them back out through the small opening. "Well, hell, how else am I supposed to get booze money?" he jabbered, too drunk to care what the others might think. It didn't seem to have occurred to him that his pilfering might land him in the stockade. In fact, the soldier's account of his misbehavior bordered on bragging. And in that account Tong-ho recognized the delight savored by those who have survived mortal danger on the battlefield.
As Tong-ho sipped his makko^lli he felt the delight of the loudmouth soldier begin suddenly to warm his heart. And just as quickly the warmth spilled out and circulated throughout him. This sensation, and perhaps the glow from an unaccustomed amount of alcohol, gave a different cast than usual to the image of Sugi that now came to his mind.
He was in that quiet room in the Haeundae Beach hotel, Sugi's face cupped in his palms. "They're so warm!" she said. Sugi placed her hands over his. "Good night." Their lips met. The coolness of hers made him feel somehow as if he were kissing a plant. Only her breath was warm. But as that breath was exchanged between them, her lips grew warm, and then her cheeks and palms. "I can't breathe," she whispered, moving her head so that her hot breath tickled his ear. Tong-ho felt an urge to warm other parts of her body. He reached for her chest, but the quilt covering it had been pulled tight. "Let's stop," she pleaded. Tong-ho was impatient. "Not yet. Just a little more." "No, let's stop. I want this day to end where we are now. Don't be foolish, Tong-ho. What does it matter? This isn't like you. I'm all yours, aren't I?" Well, perhaps his desire had been inflamed by filthy notions. And with that thought, Tong-ho returned to his bedding. It had been Sugi's idea to sleep separately. "Let's keep to our own beds; I'm happy just knowing you're beside me tonight," she had said. Tong-ho had willingly agreed, but when it came time to kiss her goodnight and their lips rubbed together and they savored each other's hot breath, his desire had risen in spite of himself. Tong-ho lay in the dark, wide awake. The snowflakes swished and rustled against the window. It was so rare, a heavy snowfall this far south on the peninsula. He tried to concentrate on the sound of the snowflakes disintegrating against the window, and gradually his mind cleared and his desire cooled. Part of him felt incomplete, part of him felt tranquil. From out of the darkness came Sugi's voice. "Are you mad?" she asked softly. Tong-ho didn't answer. And then it occurred to him that his feeling of tranquillity did indeed harbor a slight anger. What was so filthy about two people in love sharing a room for the night and engaging in the act? Again Sugi's voice: "I don't want you being mad." Tong-ho kept his silence. That would be the best way to let her know he was angry. Maybe he wasn't being completely honorable, but for some reason he didn't think there was anything shameful about his behavior. "You really are mad, aren't you?" In the darkness Tong-ho heard Sugi turn toward him. Her hand reached out, found his, gently clasped it. Her palm was warm. His, though, had cooled. He found himself taking a peculiar pleasure from knowing that if he projected indifference a bit longer, her resolve would waver and she would submit docilely to his desire. He made a point of showing no reaction to the hand that held his. He could feel her pulse. Finally, when he could wait no longer, he gently drew her by the hand. She sat up and the outline of her face appeared distinctly in the darkness. He also sat up, then cupped her cheeks in his palms. Her cheeks, like her hands, had remained warm. Her lips were hot. In no time his palms and lips felt as hot as hers. She gently nibbled his lower lip once, then put her mouth close to his ear. He felt her warm, panting breath. "Now lie down, I don't want you catching cold." She was about to ease him down by his shoulders, but he shrugged off her hands and plopped himself back. She drew the quilt to his chin and tucked it in. "Are you mad again? Foolish boy, can't you see this is my love for you?" She leaned toward him and her lips pressed down on his. "When I see you hurt, it hurts me too. But just for tonight, let's not. I'll always be waiting for you." A salty liquid flowed between their lips. Finally she straightened and returned to her bedding. Again Tong-ho felt his mind grow calm. But he found it impossible to remain where he was. He approached her and softly touched his lips to her eyes. The lashes were wet and quivering. Very gently he sucked the moisture from them, first one and then the other. He lowered his lips to her cheek and found a trail of tears. Only her lips were dry. His lips forced their way between hers, and there he felt skin that was both hot and moisture-cooled. He buried his lips there. He realized that she
was motionless--a posture of silent submission, it seemed to him. He caressed her neck. Her hands, gathered over her chest, rested atop the quilt. He slid his palm under the quilt, then inside her slip. She slightly pressed her hands down on the quilt. But it didn't feel as if she was trying to stop him. Little by little he forced his fingertips farther inside. Soft flesh pressed against his palms, its smell exciting him. The pressure of her hands on the quilt gradually eased. And then she mumbled to herself, "It's all my fault, bringing you here.... I never thought we'd end up hurting each other like this. I only thought how wonderful it would be to spend a night with you by my side.... It was a dream. Well, fine, so much for dreams." It sounded almost like a moan. She no longer pressed down on the quilt. His hand came to a stop in the valley of her bosom, her breasts swelling on each side. "No!" he heard himself say. "No!" This was no time to spoil her dream, he told himself. Tonight he should preserve the dream of this loving woman. He felt as if something burdensome inside him was dissipating. From then on he restricted himself to light kisses on her cheeks, forehead, and eyes, then with his lips grazed the down on her unseen nose, that down finer than the bloom on fruit, as if to remove it. Again he became aroused and again he returned to his bedding, rested his head against the pillow, focused on the sound of the snowflakes disintegrating against the window, and waited for his mind to settle. By controlling his desire he was able to preserve Sugi's dream, and he was surprised to find that this gave him a certain pleasure. Was it really worth it to restrain himself until he finally went to sleep at dawn? But this was not an issue. He thought only of how precious everything about Sugi was, and that she would forever be his.
Even now Tong-ho felt exactly the same. He recalled what Hyo^-t'ae had once told him--that you could never make a woman yours till you conquered her. Damn you! he muttered silently. Maybe it feels good to have your way with a woman that every other man's left his mark on. But one thing you'll never know, my friend, is how pure and beautiful it is to have the feel of Sugi on my lips, face, and hands.
"Stop following me around, you asshole!"The shout came from the direction of the door. Guy must be plenty drunk, Tong-ho thought. He glanced toward the door, took another sip of makko^lli. Wonder if she'll have that third eyelid the next time I see her. Wonder if we can hug the way we used to, without hurting each other.
A man Tong-ho didn't recognize staggered to the other side of the table. He wore the insignia of a sergeant first class. "Here we go!" He slumped down on a stool across from Tong-ho. His bloodshot eyes acknowledged Tong-ho and then he turned toward the serving area. "Bring me something to drink!""Sergeant So^nu, won't you please stop, so we can go back?"This wheedling voice belonged to a soldier who had followed the drunken man inside. His name tag identified him as a sergeant named An. Tong-ho saw at once that the second man was stone sober.
"Go mind your own business!""Now let's not be like that. Come on, up we go." So saying, An put one hand at So^nu's back and with the other hand took his wrist.
"Get lost, crap hound!" So^nu tore himself loose. His head lurched around toward the serving area. His neck was livid. "Are you going to bring me something to drink, or not!"Tong-ho thought it best to leave. He rose.
"Hey, what are you getting up for?" So^nu looked up at Tong-ho. "Something wrong with me?... Well, lookie here--a sergeant." He tried to focus his bleary gaze on Tong-ho's nametag. "Lookie here, Sergeant Yun, you sit yourself down.... That's an order--an order from a sergeant first class."An awkward look crossed Sergeant An's face.
"You really are drunk. Come on, now, up we go.""Shut up!... Rather be with my pal here than a teetotaling piece of shit like you.... Lookie here, Sergeant Yun, don't you want to sit down with me?"An gave Tong-ho a rueful look. Tong-ho sat down again, realizing he was in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Finally the tavernkeeper arrived with a kettle of makko^lli and a drinking bowl and poured So^nu a drink.
"Can I bring you something to snack on? Mung-bean cakes, dried pollack--""Who needs snacks? Waste of money. Rather buy more drinks.... Pour that man a drink too," So^nu said, indicating Tong-ho's bowl.
"I think I've had enough," Tong-ho said politely, covering the bowl with his hand. "I'm not much of a drinker.""So there is something wrong with me. Don't worry, I'm not going to stick you with the tab, so drink up!"Tong-ho resigned himself and withdrew his hand.
So^nu's blurry gaze discovered Tong-ho's hand.
"My my, nice hands you've got there. Hands weren't made just for holding rifles.... Now look at mine." So^nu placed his hands on the table, fingers spread, and displayed them front and back. They were slender and tiny. "What do you think? They've toughened since I joined up, but I'll bet they're smaller than most women's.... I've been ashamed of those hands ever since I was old enough to know better. So I always keep 'em in my pockets--that way nobody can see 'em.... You know, I had a teacher in middle school, told me I had gynecologist hands. Oh, did I hate hearing that.... But I'll tell you something--these hands do a pretty good job of pulling a trigger. Watch...." He demonstrated several times with an imaginary rifle. "I'm as good a shot as anybody...maybe better."So^nu drank a couple of mouthfuls of makko^lli, then let his bloodshot gaze wash over Tong-ho.
"Where you from?""Inch'o^n.""My home's closer to here--Yo^nbaek, Hwanghae Province.... Don't matter if it's close, though, if you can't go there.... And if you can go there, so what? Hometown--place where you're born, right?... Naw, it's more than that. It's a place where people are waiting for you, waiting to welcome you home. It's those people who make a hometown, right?... I reckon you have someone like that, Sergeant Yun?"Tong-ho hesitated, searching for an answer.
"Tell me about your parents.""They moved to Pusan after the war broke out.""Pusan, Cheju Island, doesn't matter where, could be the other side of the thirty-eighth parallel. Long as you got at least one person waiting for you, you're all set.... But me...you know...."So^nu gulped the remainder of his bowl, then turned and displayed the empty vessel to the tavern keeper.
"More!"An sat patiently, waiting for the drunken diatribe to end. So^nu thunked his bowl onto the table, in An's direction.
"Bastard--mouth off one more time, and I'll rip out that yap of yours. Don't tell me you're worrying your poor little head about your parents because you left 'em up north. Don't tell me you'd feel better if you could have seen them pass away before you left. Damn you, don't you tell me you're bitter because you didn't go through what I did.... You pray for your parents every morning and every night. Who am I supposed to pray for--myself? 'Father, I have slept well--I give thanks to you for watching over me. And I pray that today you will shelter me in your warm embrace.' Something like that?"From that point on, So^nu seemed to be talking to himself, like those who when drunk are loath to stop chattering once they have started.
"Sure, I used to say that prayer every single morning and every single night.... And then I took a different tack--prayed for God to take me instead.... Didn't work. Finally, I realized God didn't exist. Actually, I made up my mind that he didn't exist. Otherwise, how could he let those things happen? Oh yeah, I know what you'll say: our heavenly father is testing us with one of his ordeals. Like he tested Abraham.... Well, I've had my fill of ordeals. When you get right down to it, people are weak. And God is cruel. We should believe a God like that exists?... But you can endure, can't you? Penance--it strengthens your belief.... That's why you're dogging me around and taking care of me when I'm drunk? To strengthen your belief?... Well, Jesus asked Peter three times, didn't he: "Simon Peter, son of John, dost thou love me more than thou lovest these people?' ˇ®I do, my Lord, thou knowest I do.' ˇ®Then feed my young flock.'"So^nu's lips curled into a scowl.
"You fancy yourself the shepherd, is that it? The shepherd who finds the one sheep that's missing from his flock of a hundred. And I'm that little lost sheep? Well listen, asshole, you have any idea what 'shepherd' means?... It's a dog...a breed of dog. But you're no shepherd--you're a crap hound, a dog that eats shit. And I've had enough of you following me around, crap hound, so get lost!... You like it when I bad-mouth you? An ordeal for the shepherd?... Okay, crap hound, let's try something. I want you to lick the sole of my boot. This boot that's walked hills that are soaked with blood. Come on!... What's the matter, can't do it? Then how about this table? You can do that. This is where young men who've escaped death get a temporary taste of joy at surviving. There'll be more of 'em in the future, right here at this table.... No? Can't lick it?... Then I'll show you--watch me."So^nu proceeded to lick the wooden surface, then gathered his arms on the table and rested his forehead there. He shook his head, then lapsed into silence.
"His parents were slaughtered when the war broke out," An whispered to Tong-ho. "Father was a minister.... He drinks to forget about it, and this is what happens."The soldiers sitting nearby had left, perhaps to avoid the bad drunk.
Tong-ho was about to leave as well, when So^nu suddenly looked up.
"Crap hound--what are you yelping about now? You think I drink because I can't forget? Wrong! It's because I want the memories sharper.... When I drink, everything comes back to life, even things I forgot.... All right, here's to remembering...."So^nu poured himself another bowl of makko^lli.
"It really is time to stop. What's the use of telling that same story, night and day?"Ignoring An, So^nu drank the entire bowl.
"Lookie here, Sergeant--it's Yun, right--drink.... Drink and remember. All the way back. Sucking on your mother's tit. Or anything else you can remember."And then he lifted his drink-reddened eyes and fixed them on a point in space.
"I can see it--it's all very clear--how they looked when I got out of that cave where I was hiding with the others--Mother and Father soaked in blood--the color of it. I wanted to see the blood of the sons of bitches who bloodied them.... But no blood I took could ever make up for the blood of my mother and father.... Every single night I prayed. Prayed I wouldn't wake up the next day. And every single morning. Prayed I'd be called to heaven that day.... Every time we went into battle I was out in front. And all I have to show for it is a special promotion. This is God's will, claiming the blood of my mother and father? Damn cruel, that's what it is."Shortly after the outbreak of the war a pit had been dug on the hill behind So^nu's hometown village. In the middle of the night some twenty villagers were herded there and machine-gunned. So^nu's parents were among them. It happened that the hail of bullets missed his father's vital organs and he clung to life. Desperately thirsty because of blood loss, he crawled down the hill, found his way to a house, and asked for water. By a terrible coincidence that house had been taken over by the Public Safety Force. The men there, seeing that at least one of the villagers had escaped death, returned to the pit, and nearby they found two other survivors hiding in the bushes.
"You tell me, was it God's will that out of all the houses in the village it had to be the Public Safety Force that my father went to? And those two who died because of my father...is that what you mean by 'God's profound will, which we humans in our wisdom cannot fathom'? My father devoted his entire life--sixty years--to God and the church...."So^nu's breathing grew rough.
"Don't you ever again tell me it was God's will!"He hoisted himself to his feet and staggered gingerly between the tables. Then he hesitated, stopped, and ever so slowly twisted to the right so that he was facing An and Tong-ho. His face wore a fleeting grin.
Tong-ho felt a chill. The man's expression was so incongruous.
"How's that?" said So^nu.
Though he was facing them, So^nu seemed to be talking to himself. When he could hold the pose no longer, he placed a hand on a table for support and seemed about to collapse, but then he straightened.
"I'm not drunk, no sir, not me!... What's the tab?"An was about to say something to Tong-ho, but instead he scurried after So^nu and helped him outside.
The next time Tong-ho saw So^nu was at the battalion canteen. The two men belonged to separate units, and if not for a place on base such as the canteen, they most likely would not have encountered each other again.
Hyo^-t'ae had received money from home that day. "Might as well put it back in circulation," he announced to Tong-ho and Yun-gu, and they dropped in at the nearby canteen. There, over drinks, they were having a desultory conversation about their post-discharge plans when So^nu walked in.
If you first meet a man when he's drunk, he may seem completely different sober. And that was Tong-ho's impression of So^nu now. So^nu's tanned face, absent the liquor flush, looked paler. His cheekbones were more pronounced. His eyes, casually glancing their way, were limpid and gentle. So^nu briefly made eye contact with Tong-ho, then looked away with a strained expression. Whether by design or chance, he ended up sitting with his back to them.
Hyo^-t'ae, mildly intoxicated, was holding sway: "Now our friend Yun-gu here was a commerce major so he'll end up at a bank. Give him a receding hairline and he'll be perfect for the job. Don't know about that wavy hair, though. In any event, if you're going to be a banker, how about doing what you can for the Governor's business.""Will you listen to this," broke in Tong-ho. "By the time this guy's a banker you'll have inherited your father's business. What's the big deal?""Hey, don't jump to conclusions. The Governor's in no hurry to turn over his business to me. Sure, I majored in sociology because I liked it, but the Governor went along with it too. Because if you're going to run a business you have to have vision--that's what he thinks. And take it from me, whatever I end up doing, I'm going to go big and do it with style. Won't find me farting around with little things. I got a feeling things'll work out. Maybe I'm jumping the gun, but you know--"Hyo^-t'ae broke off when he saw Tong-ho glance in recognition at An, who had just entered the canteen.
An approached So^nu, who sat slumped over, close to the table, and seemed to say something. But So^nu, concentrating on his shot of soju, utterly ignored him. Though his back was to Tong-ho and the others, it appeared that his only drinking snack was kimchi--not much of a buffer against hard liquor.
How odd it was, thought Tong-ho, that An would follow So^nu around and put up with his insults. Granted, the two of them were friends and had survived the outbreak of war in the North by hiding in a cave, but even so--"You know him?" asked Hyo^-t'ae.
"Sort of.""Anyhow," resumed Hyo^-t'ae, "don't think he's just going to hand over power to me. The Governor's a born businessman and it takes a lot to satisfy him. Damned if he didn't go down to Pusan after the war broke out and start up empty-handed, and I think the business he built was bigger than the one he had in Seoul. In the letter I got today he says he was in and out of Seoul making preparations even before the cease-fire. Looks like he moved back there as soon it was announced. And another thing--he's incredibly stubborn. Doesn't want anyone meddling in his affairs. Back when he ran a trading company my mother tried to get him to hire some relation of one of her college classmates. You think he'd listen to her? Not on your life. If he wants to hire someone, he puts an ad in the paper and screens the man himself. That's the procedure, and he doesn't bend it for anyone. Well, that works for some people. Anyway, if I worked with the Governor, I'm sure we'd be at each other's throats.""Yeah, yeah, yeah," said Yun-gu, a twinkle in his eye. His swarthy face had taken on a purplish cast as he drank. "That's a pretty long-winded speech--like you're trying to shut us up before we ask you for a job.""Ha--just like you. Well, I can see how you might misinterpret it that way. Don't worry--if you can't make it as a banker and you're down on yourself, whatever I'm up to I'll make a place for you.
"Now for our friend Tong-ho. He'll be a Korean literature scholar. And turn out a poem now and then. That's right, didn't you say your Governor's a teacher? What is it he teaches?... Korean? Sure, runs in the family--something to be said for that. But if you're going to be a scholar I'd recommend glasses. With dark rims--got to have dark rims. What are you scowling for? Okay, so maybe you're eyes aren't bad, but you need to wear them nevertheless. And make sure they have great big lenses. Small ones are no good--they'd look miserable on that thin mug of yours. Let's make the frames a bit thicker than usual. And--""All right, all right, enough is enough. Let's talk about you for a change. You're going to be a company president but you'll still want to look like a sociologist. How do you accomplish that?... Okay, I've got it. You grow your hair down to your shoulders and let your beard grow out. And you'll need a walking stick--made of wisteria. Even if you make company president and have your own car. What do you think?"Hyo^-t'ae snorted. "Except for the walking stick, that sounds just like a crazy guy I used to see when I was young. Now this crazy guy had style. Never knew what he'd say next when he saw us playing. His hair stuck out every which way and he'd point to it and say, 'Don't you want to come in and play--I've got all sorts of flowers blooming here.' We always had fun throwing rocks at him, but you know, for a crazy guy he sure had style. And that's how you want me, a madman with style? I'm overwhelmed! Such a rare occasion when I'm granted something by the poet. All right, how about a toast to our future appearance--"Hyo^-t'ae was interrupted by a thunderous roar from So^nu.
"Get lost, you asshole!"Hyo^-t'ae's hand holding the bowl of yakchu halted at his mouth. His eyes reflected the light from the carbide lamp. He sensed So^nu was trying to pick a fight with them. Yun-gu's purplish face tensed and he glared at So^nu out of the corner of his eye.
"Relax," said Tong-ho in an undertone. "That's his friend he's shouting at." Tong-ho then gave a brief account of his previous encounter with So^nu. "Looks like he's good and drunk again. Says he drinks to remember, but it's obvious to me he wants to forget."So^nu thumped his empty soju bottle on the table and called for more. It was the second twelve-ounce bottle he'd finished.
The canteen manager approached and displayed several slips of paper to So^nu.
"Sergeant," he said respectfully, "You're a hundred forty hwan over."The cost of the drinks, recorded on the paper slips, had exceeded the sergeant's salary. Advances could be obtained from the manager so that a soldier didn't exceed his monthly salary. Sergeants and higher had only to sign for an advance; lower ranks needed the signature of the senior corporal.
"Oh? Right. So you're telling me you can't give me any more. Well, that's the way the cookie crumbles."So^nu signed the slips, then rose to his feet. Wheeling about unsteadily, he caught sight of Tong-ho. So^nu's pale face had turned ruddy with drink and his eyes were bloodshot. When his eyes met Tong-ho's he fixed the other with his gaze, unlike when he had entered the canteen, and drew.
"Ah, Sergeant--what was your name again--don't suppose you'd buy me a drink, would you?"An rushed over.
"Don't tell me you're going to start in again. You've had enough--it's time to go.""Go bark somewhere else, crap hound. Go to your master and bark your head off.... ˇ®Lord, grant me thy boundless grace and safe passage through this world of confusion....' Yeah, bark on, whatever you want.... Mind if I join you brave men?"Hyo^-t'ae and Yun-gu reacted with stony expressions but Tong-ho made room. He called for another glass and filled it for So^nu.
"Hooie--yakchu!""You don't want to mix that with soju," said An with a concerned look. "Come on, let's get up."So^nu ignored him and drained the glass.
"Sounded pretty interesting, what you were talking about. Why don't you continue.... Hey, don't let me spoil the fun.... Long as we're all putting our life on the line in battle, can't we be friends?... How about telling me what my future looks like?"So^nu's bloodshot eyes looked in turn at each of the three faces.
Tong-ho told himself there was no need to feel awkward now that they were sitting together. He spoke first.
"Oh, we were just shooting the breeze, sir.... Maybe you could start out by telling us your plans for when you're discharged.""Damn good question.""We need to know, sir, if we're going to talk about your future.""Lookie here, Sergeant...Yun, that's it, Sergeant Yun.... How's about if we forget we're different ranks and get rid of that damned ˇ®sir' business? We can do that since we're about the same age, eh?... What do I figure on doing in the future, you ask?... Well--one thing's for sure, I don't have anyplace to go when I get out--not like you men. And as far as staying on as a lifer....""Then we'd better make you look like a general.""Well...I could spend the rest of my life in the army without much hope of making general.... But let's suppose I did....""Okay, first thing you'll need is gloves. In winter of course, but summer too. Big and thick as possible.""Hmm, fine. My little gynecologist hands don't exactly strike fear in the hearts of the men. Okay, what next?"Tong-ho looked to Hyo^-t'ae, tacitly asking him to join the conversation and make the atmosphere more comfortable.
Hyo^-t'ae, noting So^nu's absolute candor, felt less constrained in responding, even though this was his first encounter with the man.
"The way I see it, your face needs a more commanding presence--have to add something to it. And the mustache looks odd. Instead of the mustache, get in the habit of making your mouth twitch. Especially when you're upset about something, or if you need to think something over--don't say anything, just do the twitch a few times. What do you think?""Sure."
So^nu took two mouthfuls of his new drink, pondered a moment, then spoke.
"You know, something struck me when you men were talking just before. What if we took everything each of you mentioned and put it all together? Receding hairline, hair down to the shoulders, beard growing out, big glasses, long walking stick.... I can see a face there.... A face that looks like Jeremiah. Now there's a man I'd love to meet. The great prophet Jeremiah.... If we could bring Jeremiah here, I'll bet that's what he'd look like. So he'd have a different appearance from before, but inwardly there'd be a difference too: the Jeremiah back then was given revelations by God and uttered prophesies; the modern-day Jeremiah wouldn't do that. Know what he'd say? He'd say that you can't prove God exists, and you can't prove he doesn't exist. In other words, you can say he exists and you can say he doesn't exist. To the ones who believe in him he exists; to those who don't, he doesn't. We're all free to choose--it's up to the individual. People aren't controlled by the will of God.... Know what I mean?""That's a pretty far stretch. You fancy yourself a modern-day Jeremiah, Sergeant So^nu?"So^nu transferred his vacant, bloodshot gaze to Hyo^-t'ae.
"No way, not the likes of me. A guy who needs gloves and a twitching mouth to do even a half-assed job of maintaining authority--a guy like that can't be a Jeremiah.... And another thing: If I'm going to take your suggestion and wear gloves, it won't be to strike fear in the hearts of my men; it's to hide what these hands have done.... And if I'm going to make my mouth twitch, the look of authority is the farthest thing from my mind. Because that twitch reminds me of something I never want to see again.... And you think a damned fool like me could be a Jeremiah? A modern-day Jeremiah would have to be someone who could act on his convictions, someone who didn't have an ounce of regret about anything he ever did, someone without any lingering attachments.""But Sergeant, you look like a man who doesn't believe in God and acts on his own convictions.""You're right about not believing in God.... I started thinking like that a while back. Only way I can put my mind to rest. Too many inconsistencies if you say that God is the master of this world. Better for my peace of mind to believe he's not there.... Anyhow, the guy you're looking at here isn't going to make a modern-day Jeremiah."So^nu finished his drink, then rose and announced he was going to the toilet. He lurched toward the door, but then came to a stop. Ever so slowly he turned at the waist and looked back at the three men. His face wore a fleeting grin.
Tong-ho felt a chill, just as he had at the drinking place where he had first encountered So^nu.
Hyo^-t'ae and Yun-gu stared at the man's odd posture and expression.
"Not bad, eh? What do you think?"As before, So^nu's question was directed to himself more than anyone else.
"Plastered again," An muttered to himself. He had been sitting silently next to Tong-ho waiting for So^nu's drinking spree to end. "These days, unless he's drinking he'll hardly say hello to you, much less get into a conversation."So^nu jerked himself straight and lurched out the door.
"Apparently he shot a man who was cozy with the enemy," An said to Tong-ho in an undertone. "Told me he marched the man in front of him and shot him in the back. The man kind of twisted around with a grin--like my buddy did just now--then went down. I doubt if the man was actually grinning, but I guess it looked that way to my buddy. So when he gets juiced up like this he mimics the man. One of these days he's really going to screw up, and that's why I follow him around.... He gets loaded and calls me a crap hound, every name in the book. Of course I know that deep down inside he doesn't mean it, but I really am afraid of what might--"They were interrupted by the sound of vomiting outside the door. An rushed out and was then heard chiding So^nu about his drinking. Tong-ho pictured An rubbing So^nu's back to make him feel better. The sound of retching continued.
"Back off, crap hound, I don't want your help! Get away from me!"Presently So^nu reappeared at the door, wiping his mouth with his handkerchief. An took hold of his arm from behind, but So^nu shook it off.
"You asshole, for the love of God will you get lost!"So^nu tottered back to the table and sat down. Moisture had gathered in his dull, bloodshot eyes. It glittered in the light of the carbide lamp.
"Looks like soju plus yakchu equals an upset stomach," said Hyo^-t'ae.
"Naw, I'm fine now--all cleaned out and ready for more."So saying, So^nu filled his own glass, instead of waiting for one of the others to pour for him, and promptly drained it. Then, taking in the others with his moist, reddened eyes, he said,"You fellows know the difference between men and women when they die? When they drown, men end up face down, women face up.... Same when they're shot: the men pitch forward--"He paused to pour himself another drink, and downed it immediately.
The others waited for him to continue. But instead he served himself still another drink and rose without a word of explanation.
He staggered toward the door, more unsteady now, and came to a stop. He managed to steady his swaying body, then slowly twisted to the right, his face displaying the same fleeting grin. But before the "Not bad, eh? What do you think?" could escape from his lips, he bent at the waist and toppled over.
An rushed to his side.
Cheek against the floor, So^nu screamed desperately, "Leave me alone, all of you!... Turn off the lights--now!... It's too bright!..." His arms flailed in the direction of the light. "Turn off the lights...."Yun-gu, gnawing on a piece of dried squid, broke his silence: "Not a bad performance."
It was around this time that a letter arrived from the family of Corporal Kim, the man who had died attempting to escape with Yun-gu.
Yun-gu was at regimental headquarters reporting back from the Ch'up'a Pass area, where he had been sent to check on communications, when the soldier who was sorting mail for the various posts set aside a letter, mentioning that the recipient had been killed in action. Yun-gu realized it was a reply to the envelope with the dirt that had been sent at the request of the dying corporal to his family.
Hyo^-t'ae, learning of the letter from Yun-gu, obtained permission from the senior corporal to open it.
The writing on the envelope appeared to be that of an older grade schooler. Inside were four notebook pages filled front and back. Judging from the contents, the letter had most likely been dictated by an adult. At intervals the writing was thicker, where the scribe had moistened the lead of his pencil with saliva, and a few passages had been erased and corrected.
The letter began with an inquiry about the corporal's health and reported that everyone at home was well.
Strange things happen in this world. No sooner did your mom have a dream about you than we received your communication. I opened the envelope and knew right away what the dirt meant. We did what you told us with what you sent us last winter: we wrapped it up and placed it beneath the pot for the guardian spirit of our home, and we've kept it there until now, when we heard from you again. As you know, I, your dad, am someone who has never known anything except working the land. The only thing I have ever wished for is to farm well enough so that our family will have no worries about food and will always be able to eat their fill. You used to complain that living off the land was the perfect way to starve, and that your dad was proof of that; day and night you always looked for a place to gamble; you gave your mom and dad such a hard time. And so, to see that you finally seem to have got some sense in you makes us so happy. Even last summer, when you came home to help out with the farming, you grumbled that farmers were the most pitiful creatures in the world. But your dad wouldn't survive for a moment if he had to leave the land. It's the happiest thing that even at this late date you finally understand how your dad feels. The divine spirits must have been well aware of your state of mind, because Ch'un-bo and his family decided to sell their land.
There followed a lengthy passage about Ch'un-bo. It appeared that this farmer had become the talk of the villagers, for he and his family had had to move to where his father's cousin lived in Kangwo^n Province. The cousin had convinced Ch'un-bo's family to move, saying life was good there, but in such cases the truth often turns out otherwise. And no matter how many people might say that life is good in a particular place, how can a farmer be expected to uproot himself from his native area? The year before last, Ch'un-bo's father passed away--he had been bedridden for years--and last year his younger brother was killed in action. And that was just the start of a period of rough sailing in which the family accumulated quite a few debts. When the proceeds of their harvest this year couldn't pay off even the interest on the debts, they were helpless--the only thing to do was sell off their land and move.
Ch'un-bo's family worked the land here for generations. It leaves me with a real bad feeling that they had to leave. But I figured that as long as he was going to sell his land I might as well buy a parcel of it and no one could say I was taking advantage of someone's bad luck. The long strip across the stream from the stepping stones, they gave to Shin Ch'am-bong to pay off a debt. And the little patch below Eagle Pass, we bought from them. The land itself isn't all that choice, but making it ours is like a dream come true. This may sound strange, but the color of the soil on that land we bought is the same dark red as what you sent us. I guess this letter's running long what with your dad rejoicing over that land. This letter was quite a production--I made your little brother write it all down. You take care of yourself now. I'm sure you had a reason to send that dirt without a letter, but be sure to write soon.
Tong-ho looked up from the letter.
"What do we do now? We never should have sent that dirt without an explanation. Even if it was his last wish.""Who would have thought it would arrive before the death notice?" said Hyo^-t'ae.
"Shouldn't we tell them what happened?" ventured Tong-ho.
"No use. I'll bet the death notice was waiting for them when they got home from the post office.""Their dream is going to be shattered.""What's so special about the dreams of poor people? Sounds like their son means less to them than having a patch of farmland they can call their own.""Last winter he made a killing selling all those supplies," Yun-gu broke in. "Wonder if he sent all the money home. I assumed he'd pissed it away on some bargirl.""That's what I thought too. He liked fancy living, but I guess he was realistic too. Anyhow, if he was alive, he'd be jail bait if he'd sold that stuff.... You can figure out everything from the letter. Simple old man out in the sticks--what could he know? But for a simple guy, he surprises me. How did he get it in his head from seeing the dirt in that letter that it was a message for him to buy land? They sound pretty practical, both of them. Though land has always been a practical item.""It's practical, all right. But shouldn't the people who walk that land have a dream?"Hyo^-t'ae snorted.
"What for? A surprise for dinner instead of the usual stuff? More fun the next time we get leave? Come on, give me a break!"
Part One Chapter 6
"Wow!" Tong-ho said, crinkling up his nose at the pungent odor of freshly turned up soil.
It seemed the mud walls had not been allowed to dry properly, for the sheets of newspaper covering them had bubbled and shriveled.
They were at a place just off the road between Hwach'o^n and Ch'up'a Pass. The large interior had evidently been partitioned hastily into half a dozen cubicles back to back. There appeared to be about the same number of young women working there. The place seemed to cater not only to the units stationed at Sot'ogomi but also to soldiers in transit. Hyo^-t'ae had brought Tong-ho here to show him a "good" drinking place--one with women to serve and sit beside them.
"That famous nose of yours," joked Hyo^-t'ae. He then turned to Yun-gu: "Remember that god-forsaken place where they shipped us from the front? Nobody in sight, and our pal here claims he's got a whiff of face powder. I ask myself, now what the hell is he talking about, and damned if a woman doesn't show up on the road! Made a believer out of me. Never seen a man with a nose like that." He turned back to Tong-ho: "Well, if the smell of dirt bothers you we'll sit this girl next to you and she'll neutralize it."So saying, Hyo^-t'ae told the woman sitting between him and Yun-gu to move beside Tong-ho.
"Leave her there. Like you say, I can smell just fine from where I am.""Why don't we call more girls instead?" said the woman.
"Yeah, do that," said Hyo^-t'ae. "Doesn't look like you've got many customers."The woman clapped her hands and called for two more women.
Like the first woman, the two who now appeared wore shabby, ill-fitting traditional costumes appropriate to their soldier clientele. The white collars alone stood out.
Of the three women, two had a fleshy, healthy appearance but were plain-looking. The third, sitting next to Tong-ho, had a narrow oval face, sharp nose, and slender neck. The faded yellow of her jacket made her seem somehow unhealthy. Her square forehead and dark, clear eyes were the only features to dispel the impression of indecency given by this sort of woman.
"Where are you ladies from?" asked Hyo^-t'ae as he stuck a cigarette in his mouth.
"Goodness, we forgot to introduce ourselves," said the first woman, who sat beside Hyo^-t'ae. She gave her name and said she came from the city of Ch'unch'o^n. The woman beside Yun-gu hailed from P'och'o^n, and Tong-ho's companion was from Seoul.
"Seoul eh?" said Hyo^-t'ae. "That's quite a hop from here.""Not really. One of the other girls is from Mokp'o.""Yeah? She must be a real trooper."A stew of sliced pollack and bean curd arrived, along with a kettle of makko^lli.
After some drinks and jokes with the girls Yun-gu said, "So you think it might be a while yet before we get out?" He looked across at Hyo^-t'ae.
"Afraid so. The word was that we student recruits would get mustered out soon, but it doesn't look that way. Now I hear it won't be till next spring.""You think it's true that they'll swap us with a frontline unit in late November?" "That's what they say. That means spending the winter buried in snow at Ch'up'a Pass. Too bad for our buddy Tong-ho. Who knows, though, maybe he likes counting the days till he sees his sweetheart. Anyhow, long as we're not at the front we might as well get our fill of drinking and checking out the ladies.""May we have a drink too?" one of the woman asked politely.
"Yeah, long as you don't get carried away. Last thing I want to see is a bunch of blithering women."The woman from Ch'unch'o^n took an empty bowl and filled it halfway. She drank it all, then offered the empty bowl to the woman from Seoul, sitting beside Tong-ho. With a hint of irritation the woman from Seoul shook her head.
The bowl found its way to the P'och'o^n woman, Yun-gu's companion. She poured it almost full and finished it in several gulps, then screwed up her face the way a child would and shuddered.
"Hey, there's a talent!""Not me. Okchu there's the best drinker," the P'och'o^n woman said, indicating the woman beside Tong-ho. "Okchu, how come you're not drinking?""I overdid it last night and now my stomach's killing me--I'm full of gas.""That reminds me," said the P'och'o^n woman, "remember those soldiers last night? They said the night before last a soldier went off the road near the power plant and got killed.""You mean the Kumalli plant?""Yes, he was driving a jeep. It sounded like he went into the water."There had been a similar accident when Hyo^-t'ae was recuperating at the field hospital at Kumalli. A road ran along the embankment of the reservoir that extended some ten miles from Kumalli to Ožmni. Several yards below the dike was dark-blue water that was dozens of fathoms deep. The slightest mistake, and vehicle and driver ended up in the water. In such cases it was difficult to mount a rescue.
"Another land, air, and sea operation!""Land, air and sea?" said the Ch'unch'o^n woman. "What's that supposed to mean?""You don't know? Driving a jeep, that's the land part. Flying down the bank, that's air. And into the drink, sea. So there you have it--land, air, and sea."The women from Ch'unch'o^n and P'och'o^n laughed as if this were the craziest notion. But the woman from Seoul didn't crack a smile.
"I'd like to try that," she said.
"Try what?""Drive a jeep fast as I could and fly through the air into the water. It would be so...tidy. They'd never find my body.""You'd want your boyfriend along with you, though....""Yes, that would make it better.... But if two people really loved each other then found they had no future, killing themselves wouldn't be much fun. Better if two people who shouldn't have fallen in love killed themselves the moment they realized they were inseparable."Hyo^-t'ae snorted. "Let's not get sentimental. Sappy talk doesn't go with booze, not here anyway. If you're going to tell a story when people are drinking, then it ought to make the booze taste better. Hell, I'd rather play rock-paper-scissors and make the loser drink. Get a lot more fun out of that than a sad story."The empty kettle was refilled. From time to time the Ch'unch'o^n and P'och'o^n women offered each other a drink.
The woman from Seoul took two cigarettes from the pack on the table. One she lit and passed to Tong-ho, the other she lit for herself.
Before putting the cigarette to his mouth, Tong-ho furtively pinched off the lipstick-stained portion beneath the table.
The woman from Seoul sucked deeply on her cigarette and exhaled forcefully. Then, as if she had suddenly remembered something, she picked up the bowl that lay in front of Tong-ho, took a quick swallow, and offered him the rest. Tong-ho took a sip, avoiding the place on the rim where the woman had drank, and returned the bowl to the table. He realized that today as usual he was barely emptying one drink for every two that Hyo^-t'ae and Yun-gu finished. He just couldn't understand Hyo^-t'ae's propensity for visiting places like this. It was all he could to wait until they left for the next place.
The woman from Seoul asked Tong-ho to drink up. It seemed she wasn't interested as much in urging drinks on a customer as in being offered a drink in return.
Tong-ho resigned himself and drank.
"Attaboy! You won't see him refusing a drink from a lady," Hyo^-t'ae bantered, his teeth looking all the whiter in the grin that creased his coppery face.
Without waiting to be offered the empty bowl, the woman from Seoul snatched it from Tong-ho's hand, then held it out and asked him to pour. She proceeded to gulp the makko^lli, then returned the bowl to him. When Tong-ho gave no indication of drinking, she took it back and drank again. Tong-ho glanced at her out of the corner of his eye. The veins of her temples stood out and the area around her mouth and eyes was flushed. It was a complete mystery to him why someone who complained of stomach gas because of overdrinking the previous night was now emptying one drink after another.
When the second kettle of makko^lli was almost empty Hyo^-t'ae went outside, apparently to go to the toilet. The Ch'unch'o^n woman followed.
The woman from Seoul filled her bowl with what remained in the kettle.
"Shall I bring some more?"Tong-ho looked at Yun-gu.
"How about if we call it quits?""Well...let's see what Hyo^-t'ae wants to do...."Yun-gu rose and went outside. The P'och'o^n woman followed.
Shortly thereafter the Seoul woman was called outside. By now the borders of her mouth and eyes were scarlet. Her head perked up, displaying a hint of irritation, and she left.
Tong-ho gazed vacantly at the mess on the table as he waited for Hyo^-t'ae and the others: the pollack bones, spilled stew, cigarette ash, and dripped makko^lli. He heard murmuring in the yard and then the door softly opened and the woman from Seoul poked her head inside.
"Come here for a minute."Tong-ho went out, wondering if something had happened.
The woman led him past a room of boisterous drinkers and around to the back of the building. Tong-ho wondered if his friends were playing a trick on him. Perhaps they had moved the drinking party to another room.
The woman came to a stop at a door and opened it. Placing a hand on Tong-ho's back, she ushered him inside. Tong-ho felt the woman at his back and heard the latch being secured.
The room had only this one rice-papered door, and was dim in spite of the broad light of day outside. The smell of fresh moist earth was even more pungent, as if sunlight never reached this room. Tong-ho was bewildered.
Eventually his eyes made out a sleeping pad on the floor. On it lay the woman, naked from the waist down. Finally it all began to make sense.
It was so peculiar: the thin, oval face and slender neck gave the woman a general impression of unhealthiness, but the body that gradually came into view was well developed. The breasts rising beneath her thin shoulders and the ample hips below her narrow waist seemed out of all proportion to her slim build.
Suddenly the image of Sugi came to mind. Tong-ho dismissed it, pledging never to think of her in a place like this. He should leave at once, he told himself.
As his eyes grew used to the dark he noticed the woman's upraised knees and then the blackness between her thighs. Filthy! A wave of disgust surged inside him. Turn and leave, he said silently.
The woman bolted to her feet, came close to Tong-ho, and thrust out her chin. "I don't please you, is that it? I look dirty to you. Just like back there. I saw you ripping off the tip of that cigarette. Didn't want that dirty part my lips had touched, did you?... Well, I could care less what you think."The smell of cheap cosmetics and the odor of her flesh washed over Tong-ho's face, and then she gripped him tightly by the arm and pulled. He noticed the scarlet flush around her eyes and mouth disappear.
He had to free himself, he thought. But his will was paralyzed by the desperate force with which she clung to him, and he allowed himself to be led.
Tong-ho let his mind wander. She must be cold, wearing nothing down there. And the floor's not heated....
The woman unbuttoned his pants. He let her pull him to a kneeling position. And then she took him.
Afterwards she pushed him aside, rose, gathered her clothes, and began dressing.
"That's all. You're free to go. Those other two said they'd pay." Her tone was businesslike. And then she left.
Tong-ho considered this. Hyo^-t'ae must have joked to her that if she could get me in bed, then he'd pay. He obviously assumed that no woman had a chance with me.
Outside, Tong-ho avoided the room where they had been drinking. He left through the main gate and headed back toward the base. As the cool breeze blew against his face, it occurred to him with certainty that he had just been violated by a woman. It was a ludicrous notion, but he found himself unable to laugh. Instead, he told himself that part of his body was soiled. He stopped, urinated, and attempted to clean himself. But this only made him feel that the filth had spread. He lit a cigarette. But after only a few puffs, a wave of nausea rose from deep inside him. He squatted beside the road and tried to vomit, but little came up. Fits of retching shook him all over.
He heard someone behind him, and then Hyo^-t'ae's voice.
"Hey, what's the rush? You left this behind."Hyo^-t'ae placed Tong-ho's hat on his head. But it came loose as Tong-ho continued to retch. Before it could fall off Hyo^-t'ae repositioned it, while with his other hand he rubbed Tong-ho's back.
"Hey, I lost my bet with that bitch! You can get it up after all!""Leave me alone."Yun-gu approached, fashioning a paper mouthpiece for one of his cut-in-half cigarettes.
"?eave me alone'?" said Yun-gu. "You've been hanging around that guy So^nu too long. Just don't mention the lights-out business--it makes sense with a carbide lamp, but you can't very well turn off the sun."When Tong-ho's retching had subsided, Hyo^-t'ae looked down at him with a smile. "We have had one hell of a time making a man out of you."