- onMarch 22, 2018
- Vol.39 Spring 2018
- byKim Soom
- One Person (Han myeong)
It was around Chuseok. They had no clocks or calendars, but the girls grew sick with longing for home as Chuseok drew near.
When the skies had cleared after four tedious days of rain, an outlying army base sent a truck. Six girls—Bong-ae, Sun-deok, Mi-ok, Yeong-sun, Han-ok, and she—climbed into the cargo bed. It was Bong-ae’s first trip to the base. Hyang-suk was supposed to go, but Bong-ae filled in when she broke her arm.
Hyang-suk’s arm broke when a Japanese soldier shoved her. Takashi had stopped coming one day. Hyang-suk asked around for his whereabouts, but didn’t find out anything. The girls said he must have died in a battle. Hyang-suk’s crying upset a drunk Japanese solider. The damned Josenppi, sniveling away instead of taking soldiers. When that didn’t stop her crying, he twisted and snapped her arm.
The ground was so muddy, clumps of dirt the size of cow pads would kick up and hit the girls in their faces when the wheels spun fast.
After half a day’s trip in the truck, they arrived at a river. A wooden boat the shape of a clog was waiting for them by the riverbank. The water was frighteningly high after four days of ceaseless rain. Looking at the brown water, she felt scared and relieved at the same time.
The girls got off the truck and into the boat. When the girls settled down on the boat floor, a Chinese man, so completely bald he looked like a boiled octopus, picked up the oar and began to row. The man’s unclothed upper body was tan as if he’d painted himself with black ink.
She felt seasick but oddly peaceful as if the end of her life were near. She hoped she’d flow on forever in this boat. That when the boat arrived at the river’s end, she and the other girls would find their faces shriveled with age.
Bong-ae, her pockmarked face jaundiced, sighed, “Look—a village.”
The girl, who had been sitting with her eyes cast down on the water with the winds blowing upstream caressing her face, looked in the direction where Bong-ae was pointing. The village was far away and yet seemed so close she could almost reach out and touch it. It had a red glow and seemed cozy, like something out of a dream.
“I don’t think anyone lives there.”
“I don’t see a single person.”
“They must all be sleeping.”
“A few nights ago, I visited my home in my dream, and no one was there. Father, Mother, my younger siblings. I visited with the dead baby on my back—”
Bong-ae rose to her feet and, as quick as a blink, jumped into the river. She reached out to grab her by the hem, but Bong-ae was already sinking to the bottom of the river. When it dawned on the girls what had just happened before their very eyes, they cried Bong-ae’s name into the river. They yelled so loudly they tasted blood in their throats, but Bong-ae did not resurface. The Chinese man stopped his rowing and shook his head at the girls as if to say it was no use.
The Japanese soldiers aimed their rifles at the panicked girls. The Chinese man resumed rowing as if nothing had happened.
Returning from the base, the girls saw Bong-ae. Groins inflamed and pelvic bones twisted after taking soldiers for five days in a row, they were sprawled uncomfortably in the boat. Their eyes were gaunt.
“Over there—isn’t that Bong-ae?” said Han-ok.
“Oh, it is her!”
Bong-ae sat reclined against a branch stuck upside-down in the river, her head above the water and eyes wide open as if she had been waiting all this time for the girls to come collect her. Her belly was swollen from drinking too much water.
The girls asked the soldiers to help pull her out of the water. They made a bed of sticks and branches, and laid her down on it.
Sun-deok wiped the water off Bong-ae’s face as she wept. The chapped skin that had peeled off as if half-eaten by rats didn’t seem to frighten her or put her off in the least.
Flames shot up when the soldiers poured gasoline and lit the kindling. Leaving Bong-ae to crackle in the licking flames, the girls climbed back into the truck. Sparks like fireflies flew over as far as the truck. Imagining them to be a part of Bong-ae’s soul, she reached out to catch one in her hand, but the spark instantly turned to black ash.
She felt Bong-ae’s death was her fault. If only she’d reached out more quickly and caught Bong-ae by the hem of her skirt.
Each time a girl died at the comfort station, the girls felt it was their fault.
As always, she turns on the television the moment she wakes up. Fortunately, there is no news of the last one. The last one is still alive.
She pauses while folding her blanket to let out a deep sigh. It hits her that whether the last one dies first, or she dies first, or someone alive somewhere else dies first, there will come a day when not one of them will be alive.
Her head spins as her foot reaches below the deck to put her shoes on. A magpie. When had Nabi come by? She doesn’t see the cat anywhere into the yard.
The magpie seems to still be hanging on. Like Hu-nam, who was still breathing after Oto-san dragged her out of her room and tossed her into the field.
She gently pushes two fingers under the magpie’s wing. She feels a pool of warmth like breath.
She holds up the bird with both hands and heads over to the tailor shop to see the seamstress. She will know if the magpie is still alive or not.
The seamstress is sitting in front of the television and eating breakfast from a round floor tray. She is eating straight from the containers. Her TV is so loud that the noise carries out to the alley. The seamstress turns her upper body to look at her while tearing apart grilled yellow corvina with her bare hands.
She shyly extends her hands to show her.
The seamstress jumps. “Yech, isn’t that a magpie?”
“Could you . . . see if it’s still alive?”
“Good God! Did you go senile overnight, bringing me a dead magpie first thing in the morning?”
The seamstress shakes her head. The dog curled up on a cushion under the sewing machine gets up and starts barking at her.
She walks down the alley with the magpie still resting in her hands. The magpie might still be alive, and she can’t just toss it on the street.
In the alley bathed with slanting sunlight, she suddenly stops and holds the magpie up to the sky. Its feathers catch the light and glimmer. As if coated with the fine dust of briquettes they used at the comfort station in Manchuria.
The only things that glimmered at the Manchuria comfort station were the blood of the girls and the briquettes.
Translated by Jamie Chang
Photo © NOH Suntag, Confession of Body #BCG0501, 2002