Trees on a Slope
It was the end of November but winter was already entrenched in the Ch'up'a Pass region. This area was no more than ten miles north of the Sot'ogomi base, but the difference in weather was dramatic, owing to the alpine location. Wind stung the cheeks and the thud of boots against frozen earth hung in the air.
Keeping watch around the clock here at the very front lines was inevitably stressful. Even so, it was not quite the same as having to march in temperatures in the minus twenties and thirties with the war going on all around. Perhaps this was why the cold now seemed almost palpable.
It was necessary to stand watch in these cold conditions to maintain constant surveillance of enemy movements and to defend against spies infiltrating across the cease-fire line.
Since Tongho and his comrades had arrived a week and a half earlier heavy snow had fallen three times in the space of two days. Everywhere they looked it was white. In some areas the snow might melt only to be replaced by a fresh covering, while in shaded ravines it might linger until spring, when grassy shoots would push through it.
It was here, though, in this area entombed in winter's chill, that Tongho's haggard body began to recover. Every day saw an improvement. His face, stung by the wind, had a bluish tinge and appeared swollen, but his eyes regained their clarity and luster. His drinking was under control, which meant his digestion improved and he slept better. The crunch of the sentries' boots on snow penetrated his slumber but served at the same time, curiously enough, to usher him gradually into a sounder sleep.
One day a soldier returned to quarters with a pheasant he'd captured by setting out bait at his sentry post. This was a rare event, and several of the men took the opportunity to nestle the bird in their arms and comment on it. One of them speculated that it couldn't fly because it had somehow been injured during the war; another wondered if it was blind.
The same day, a liaison man returned from regimental headquarters with mail and documents. Among the letters was one from Sugi. Tongho had continued to receive letters from her at Sot'ogomi but these had gone unanswered. This particular letter was the thickest she had ever sent, perhaps reflecting her uncertainty during this interval.
The letter generated waves of emotion, dashing Tongho's composure. Should I open it? Granted, he had made up his mind not to correspond with Sugi before his discharge. It had been impossible for him to describe in a letter the changes in his life that had taken place at Sot'ogomi. And his feelings now would not permit him to write about other matters. In any event, he wished to continue in his present fashion until he could meet her in person. He was afraid that reading this most recent letter would resurrect his inner turmoil. And so he burned it.
This action, though, had an unexpected effect: Tongho grew more troubled. What was in the letter? Wasn't it something he should know about? His decision to burn it began to seem much too hasty, cowardly even. He wished only that it were possible, in his present state of mind, to rush to Sugi and pour himself out to her. She would understand; she would forgive him. But Sugi was too far away.
He wished he could do something to forget the roiling of his emotions. If only he could be with Sugi and drink to his heart's content. It was at this moment that thoughts of Okchu surfaced. "Whatever it is you're scared of, it's only temporary, and I know how to get rid of it," said she who had ministered to him so gently. He had had no opportunity to speak with her at the time of his transfer to the present post-not that he would necessarily have taken advantage of such an opportunity. He had thought the transfer would put an end to their relationship. And in fact he had almost forgotten her in his four weeks here. But now that she had come to mind, he began to waver. I can lose these complicated feelings in that peaceful emptiness I felt with her....
Daytime leave was not permitted at the front-line areas, even on Sunday, and overnight leave was out of the question. But Tongho felt compelled to make a special request. And so he had to resort to Hyo※nt'ae.
"You chump-are you out of your mind!" was the response.
"You've got to help me-today.""Where is it you're off to?""Sot'ogomi. I'll be back tomorrow morning for sure.""Sot'ogomi? You chump-you are out of your mind. Haven't you forgotten old skin-and-bones yet, you idiot?""I know what I'm doing. Just get me a pass.""Blockhead. What are we going to do with you.""I'll be back tomorrow morning-I promise.""Wait a minute, you and me have hide-and-seek duty tonight.""Hide-and-seek duty" meant standing watch at night at the boundary of the buffer zone between the northern and southern forces.
"Well...." Tongho gestured with his chin toward Yungu, who sat near the south-facing door mending a threadbare sock. "Yungu-how about taking over for me tonight? I'll buy you a pair of socks."Yungu was not enthusiastic. "Socks or no socks, two nights in a row is asking a lot.""Hey, now, don't count your chickens before they're hatched," Hyo※nt'ae cautioned Tongho. "Not even sure I can get the pass.... Talk about a one-track mind. I ought to...." And with that Hyo※nt'ae half-seriously brandished a fist in Tongho's direction, then left.
A while later Hyo※nt'ae returned with the pass.
"Here. And for the love of God don't pester me any more."Tongho reached into his shirt pocket, produced his pay envelope, and counted what remained.
"Can you lend me two thousand hwan?""You chump."Hyo※nt'ae produced some money he kept tucked away inside his shirt.
"Take it. It's my spending money-the whole works."Tongho left immediately. The winter solstice was approaching and the sun was about as low in the sky as it gets. He walked some three miles along a twisty mountain road, and by the time he arrived at Four-Way Junction dusk had fallen. From this junction roads led east to Tongmak Village, west to Kumhwa, and south to Hwach'o※n as well as north to Ch'up'a Pass. There was a checkpoint at the junction.
Displaying his pass, Tongho proceeded through without incident and began walking the road to Hwach'o※n. He attempted to flag down any army truck that passed, but they whizzed by, reluctant, apparently, to stop for a rank-and-file soldier armed with a carbine. But Tongho took no offense; Sot'ogomi lay no more than six miles away.
There appeared to have been a heavy snowfall here as well, and though the night was moonless the snow that flanked the road reflected the starlight and lit the way. Tongho thought about the woman he was going to see. Whether he really liked Okchu was secondary. The important thing was, she was his first sexual partner, and that thought gave rise to a vague feeling of excitement. Automatically he shifted his rifle from one shoulder to the other.
Before arriving at his destination Tongho purchased a bottle of gin and stuck it in his pocket. It would be nice to get drunk with Okchu.
As he entered the brushwood gate the errand girl caught sight of him.
"We have a guest!" she shouted toward the main room.
A young woman emerged. Tongho could see, even though her form was silhouetted against the lamplight leaking from within, that it was the Kangnu※ng woman, she of the missing teeth and puckered-up mouth. He asked her to call Okchu.
"All right," said the woman. Then, apparently unaware of her customer's identity, she went to a vacant room and opened the door.
Tongho remained where he was.
"Call Okchu for me.""Well...." Finally the woman recognized Tongho. "Goodness-it's been quite a while," she said respectfully. After a moment's pause she added, "Okchu is with someone now."Tongho scanned the other rooms. Two were lit and the chatter of the women and their guests inside them was audible.
"Ask her to come here for a moment."Again the Kangnu※ng woman hesitated.
"As I said, she's with someone." There was a brief silence. "But they should be done before long. Why don't you go in and have some yakchu."It finally registered in Tongho's mind that Okchu was entertaining a guest. He recalled the head of the Youth Corps-the man's squat, chubby build and slew-footed gait.
"It's cold out here-won't you go inside?""No, I'm okay here."The Kangnu※ng woman gave up and disappeared in the direction of the main room, hunching over to ward off the chill. Probably figures it's useless to stand here with someone who doesn't appreciate her company.
Tongho stood where he was. Then something occurred to him and he went around to the back. There, none of the rooms was lit. It was utterly still. He went to the familiar room. Something told him it was the only one that was occupied. To be sure, this something was not a voice, for the room was as still as the others. It was, rather, a kind of living presence that seemed to emanate from that room alone. He stood silently before it. Suddenly, standing there like that, in his own eyes he seemed base and cowardly. He should leave, he told himself. And then he heard the sound.
It was a peculiar sound-a woman's voice, neither a scream nor a moan, but an urgent outcry, gradually rising, repeating itself. He began to walk away as if pushed by an irresistible force, then just as quickly became stock-still. Something was gnawing at him. "There's nothing as heartless as the flesh-this body of mine was able to rid itself of every last trace of that man-sometimes it scares me." He felt as if inside himself he was being chafed by sand. And in a flash that sand ignited grain by grain into a burning heat. He was overcome with rage and his body tightened.
Tongho surveyed his surroundings. Nearer the building the ground was bare and dark; farther off it was snow-covered and not so dim. There-a small rear gate next to a brushwood enclosure. He steeled himself, approached the gate, unlatched it. He drew close to the room, which was quiet now, and tested the lattice door. Locked. He smashed it in with the barrel of his rifle. Then leveled the muzzle and twice pulled the trigger. Whether the man with Okchu was the head of the Youth Corps or not didn't matter. Their mingled screams followed him out through the rear gate.
The occasional truck and jeep passed by on the road. At first Tongho was oblivious to them. But after covering some three miles he grew nervous realizing he was visible in the headlights. The vehicles approaching from behind were more worrisome. By now there had been ample time for the Kangnu※ng woman to report the identity of the perpetrator. They could be pursuing him at this instant. He tried to keep as far from the roadside as possible.
Apparently the checkpoint at Four-Way Junction hadn't been notified, for he passed through without incident.
Steam rose from Tongho's face and neck. He was back at the Ch'up'a Pass base.
"What happened to you? Your face is white as a sheet," said Hyo※nt'ae. His watch was drawing near and he was preparing to go out. Eyeing Tongho dubiously, he added, "So you changed your mind and came back? Good idea."Without a word Tongho returned the two thousand hwan he had borrowed.
"I guess you didn't get my socks?" said Yungu, who was likewise preparing to stand watch.
Tongho made no reponse. Crawling over the sprawled-out forms of sleeping soldiers, he located his knapsack and took from it writing paper and an envelope. Then he made room, sat, and settled himself.
Hyo※nt'ae had not removed his eyes from Tongho.
"Inspiration strikes and the chump has to write a poem. But hey-what's the hurry? There's no light over there-how can you see?"The cramped quarters consisted of dried-earth walls and a single, south-facing door where a tin can had been fashioned into a kerosene lamp. Except for a five-foot circle of flickering light, darkness filled the interior.
Hyo※nt'ae donned his cold-weather hat.
"Time to head out. You going to be all right, Tongho? Why don't you stay here and get some rest."Tongho, sitting silently in the thick gloom, folded the sheet of paper and placed it in the envelope, which he then stuck in his shirt pocket. He rose and followed Hyo※nt'ae outside.
The air was icy. With every breath Tongho could feel the hairs in his nostrils freeze. The perspiration on his body had not yet dried and sent shivers up and down his spine. He realized he had forgotten his gloves.
They passed the front-line sentry post and when they arrived at the buffer zone Tongho reached into his pocket and produced the bottle of gin.
"What have you got there?" said Hyo※nt'ae.
Tongho silently uncapped the bottle, took several swallows, and passed it to Hyo※nt'ae.
"So you made it to Sot'ogomi after all." Hyo※nt'ae likewise drank from the bottle. "I figured you were gone too long to have turned back midway. I guess you didn't get to see her?""Uh-uh."
"Move on down the line, did she?"Without a word Tongho took the bottle from Hyo※nt'ae and drank.
"Those women don't stick around the same place for long. Well, it's better that way-now you can stop worrying your little head."Tongho brought the bottle to his mouth again.
"Hey, come on, you don't want to get tanked out here. You sit down and nod off drunk like that, you'll never wake up!""Hyo※nt'ae, remember Corporal Kim, the guy we used to call Heap o' Trouble? Remember what Yungu had him saying-'Feel like I was on a roll and they cut the game short'? I think I understand what he was talking about.""What do you mean?""I mean, what I'd like to know is, are we the victims or the victimizers?"Hyo※nt'ae gazed attentively at Tongho. The cloud of vapor issuing from his nostrils seemed to be more than just the result of alcohol.
"Did something happen to you today?""The way I look at it, the young people serving in this war are nothing but victims-no matter what they may have done. Okay, maybe ｀young people' is too fancy a way to put it, but just look at the ones we've known-Corporal Kim for starters, and Sergeant Sonu, and...."The pair of sentries on duty approached them, one from the left and one from the right. It seemed that Hyo※nt'ae and Tongho had arrived late.
Hyo※nt'ae and Tongho parted and set off in the directions from which the other pair had come.
Stars studded the sky, looking as cold as shards of ice. Below, the snow-covered ground lay white in the starlight, but the farther off you looked, the dimmer the light, until eventually it blended into darkness.
Hyo※nt'ae heard the piercing sound of breaking glass and looked back. He told himself it was probably Tongho, throwing away the gin bottle. The chump, something happened to him today-the guy is such a simpleton. Tongho's white parka had become one with the white of the snow, then had been swallowed by darkness, and he could no longer be seen.
Hyo※nt'ae returned his gaze to the buffer zone, then resumed walking. He knew this area was off limits to smoking, but for some reason he felt a continual urge to light up.
It was two hours later, when the next pair of sentries arrived, that Tongho's body was found. His blood, black in the darkness, had frozen on the snow. The artery in his left wrist had been severed. Half buried in the snow beside his left hand was a piece of broken glass. His face was white as the snow.
The body was placed in front of the men's quarters, a fire lit, and a vigil held for the remainder of the night. The corpse yielded a thousand-odd hwan and an envelope-the one he had stuck in his pocket before going out to stand watch. On the envelope was written the name Chang Sugi. As one of the men was about to inspect the contents, Hyo※nt'ae took the letter from him and slipped it into his pocket.
It was in early April, when meltwater had began flowing in the mountain valleys, that the first round of student-soldiers were discharged.
Yungu was the first to receive his notice. Order of discharge was based on year and month of entry, but the procedure took place rank by rank instead of across all ranks.
The day he was to leave, Yungu bid farewell to the sergeants.
"I'll write as soon as I'm settled," he told Hyo※nt'ae, then said goodbye, a look of delight spreading across his swarthy face.
"You're going back to that family where you were tutoring? Good for you. Lucky SOB-unlike some of us," said Hyo※nt'ae.
Yungu had lost his parents as a boy, then moved in with the family of his father's younger brother. But that family had been killed by a bomb during the war, and from that point on, Yungu was on his own. Yungu had been in touch with the family with whom he had lived as a tutor before the war, and as luck would have it they had responded recently that they would welcoome him back to look after the younger brother of the boy he had previously taught.
Yungu set down his knapsack and tightened the drawstring.
"If our pal Tongho was alive, he would have gotten out before me."Hyo※nt'ae, about to light a cigarette, responded, "That reminds me, I have that last letter he wrote to his sweetheart. What am I supposed to do with it-there's no address.""The chump, he must have flipped out-how could a man forget something like that?""In his case a last letter couldn't be that important anyway.... Well, see you in Seoul.""What the hell, it's all over now, and about frigging time too."Hyo※nt'ae put the lighter to his cigarette and spoke slowly: "We have our own lives to lead." (to be continued)