Trees on a Slope
It can happen to anyone. You try to jump a ditch, but you fall short and one foot ends up in the water. You're disgusted with yourself. The feeling is all the worse if thre's mud or sewage in the ditch. And if you're wearing new shoes, it's a struggle to keep from losing your temper. Why didn't you start running farther back, you ask yourself. Then you could have made it. Ah hell! you finally think. You let your anger run its course, and by that time you feel like sticking your other foot in the ditch and getting it mucked up too.
Which was precisely Tongho's state of mind.
Back at the base that night he lay awake, tormented by regret. It was so unexpected, what had happened that day. To an extent he had been a passive participant. But no matter how unforeseen the incident, no matter how unintentional on his part, wasn't it a fact that he could have avoided it? He was forced to the conclusion that he lacked moral fiber. Pangs of remorse gnawed at his heart.
The following day at target practice he had difficulty concentrating. At first he was able to sight in on the target and fire. But then the target seemed to turn into the part of himself that had been soiled, and when images of Sugi and then that woman began to superimpose themselves, Tongho found himself firing blindly.
"You been eating army food how many years now, and that's the best you can do!" shouted the platoon leader from behind. "You can't shoot slouched over like that! Come on, aim steady, one round at a time, get yourself together and fire!"
Within a matter of days, though, Tongho grew displeased with himself for suffering so--it was absurd! All he'd done was something any other man might have done. He was so timid, and that realization brought with it an intense self-loathing. In any event, he couldn't put the incident behind him as others might have. Well, perhaps it wasn't after all so ordinary, something he could simply gloss over. And wasn't his love for Sugi as unsullied as ever? In fact, didn't he long for her even more now? What it amounted to was that damnable fastidiousness, he told himself. Why did he cling to it? Prissy like a girl, Hyont'ae had once called him. And now Tongho found himself agreeing. It was embarrassing. And it was high time he killed off that part of himself.
The next time they had leave, Tongho suggested returning to the same place.
"History in the making!" Hyont'ae responded. "First time you've ever been hot to go to a place like that. So we return in celebration to where we made a man out of you!"
They arrived at the plank gate and its scrapwood border. Inside they were greeted by the woman from P'och'on, Yungu's companion from the time before.
"Come in," she said, obviously delighted. "I was wondering if we might see you today."
They entered the room with the familiar dirt smell and settled themselves. Hyont'ae's former companion, the Ch'unch'on woman, sat beside him and placed a hand on his knee. She seemed beside herself with joy.
The Ch'unch'on woman's winsome smile revealed a gold canine tooth. Tongho had noticed it the previous time but didn't remember it being so dark and lusterless. There must have been a lot of copper in the alloy. He was gratified to realize that, unlike before, he now had the presence of mind to consider a detail like this.
"What can we offer you? Yakchu to start off? Then a stew, stir-fry vegetables and potato noodles, or something grilled? There's also lentil jelly, or we could batter-fry something. Whatever you'd like."
"Let's try the noodles and jelly, but first.... Guys?" Hyont'ae looked in turn at Yungu and Tongho. "What do you say we get some different girls?"
Yungu nodded in agreement.
Tongho was quick to answer: "The one I had last time is fine by me." He himself wasn't sure why he would insist on having for a companion the woman who had caused him such suffering for several days.
Hyont'ae turned to the woman beside him. "The girl you said came from Mokp'o--bring her and the one from Seoul who was with our buddy here, and anyone else you want."
The Ch'unch'on woman immediately grew sulky.
"What's the matter? Did I do something wrong last time?"
"Naw, we just feel like a change of scenery--that's all."
"Well, the other girls are with other customers."
"Fine--we can wait."
"Come on--I'll be extra nice this time."
"What about me?" said the P'och'on woman, looking up at Yungu with inquiring eyes and forced cheer.
Yungu maintained a noncommittal silence. He was happy to let Hyont'ae make the decisions.
"What's the matter with you two?" said Hyont'ae, his tone louder and icier. "You want me to call the owner?"
Previously Hyont'ae's tone and his lack of concern for the women's pride would have sounded cruel to Tongho. But today he found himself envying Hyont'ae for the willpower evidenced by his usual decisiveness.
The two women marched out with sullen faces, the hems of their skirts trailing along the floor.
"They aren't worth a second roll," said Hyont'ae. "Not to say the others are any better."
He produced a lighter and lit a cigarette.
Presently two other women arrived with a tray bearing a kettle of yakchu and drinking bowls.
"Which one of you's from Mokp'o?" asked Hyont'ae.
One of the women nodded almost imperceptibly and approached Hyont'ae.
"Naw, sit over there. From the looks of you, you're my buddy's type."
Yungu drew the woman by the wrist to his side.
To Tongho the Mokp'o woman looked older than any of the other women he had seen there. But her egg-shaped face was in no way ugly and her thick lips gave her a caring impression. Tongho recalled Hyont'ae's observation that when it came to buying women crafty Yungu chose older ones so that he would get more loving. Tongho found himself silently agreeing that there might very well be that side to Yungu.
The other woman said she was from Kangnung. She was missing a few teeth, which gave her chin an upward tilt.
Tongho took a drink, mustered his courage, and spoke.
"Where's the other one?"
He realized that the pitch of his voice was unnaturally high. Can't you control yourself and act more relaxed than that?
"Who do you mean?" asked the Mokp'o woman.
"Um, isn't there one from Seoul?"
"Oh, of course, you mean Okchu. She's with another guest now."
Tongho may have heard the name the previous time, but the realization that her name was Okchu imprinted itself in his mind.
The first kettle of yakchu disappeared amid random conversation, and Okchu still hadn't arrived.
"Ought to call one of the other girls instead, what do you think?" asked Hyont'ae.
"Don't bother," said Tongho.
"You chump, you've fallen for her. Oh well. Hey, Mokp'o lady--go pry the Seoul girl loose for a minute."
The woman clapped her hands and an errand girl appeared. The message was conveyed and another kettle of yakchu ordered.
Presently the girl returned with the yakchu and reported that the guest in the other room was about to leave.
Tongho was seized by a peculiar thought. What if Hyont'ae and Yungu got drunk enough and left with their girls and Okchu still hadn't appeared? Wouldn't it be much better that way? He could simply sneak back to the base. But the next moment he realized this was not a solution to his problems. Instead, his insufferable fastidiousness would continue to shadow him--a constant nagging reminder. Now that he had the opportunity, better to root it out once and for all. He should wait for this woman Okchu. Regardless of his relations with her, his love for Sugi would remain pure.
Tongho finished his yakchu. "Have a drink, you two." He offered his bowl to the Mokp'o woman and filled it. "Did you come straight here from Mokp'o?"
"Naw," she drawled. "I made a few stops along the way--Chonju, Pusan, Taegu."
"And where to next?"
"Good question. One thing's for sure: I can't go any farther north than the thirty-eighth parallel."
She returned the emptied bowl to Tongho and poured him another drink.
Tongho drank, making no effort to avoid the place he presumed her lips had touched. And then it was the Kangnung woman's turn to accept a drink from him.
"Look at this chump! Not bad for a guy who had such a long face all week." Hyont'ae's tone was edged with cynicism.
The words momentarily stung Tongho. He realized he was making a conscious effort to act as uninhibitedly as anyone else would in a place like this. Have to drink more!
A woman was singing in the other room.
"Okchu," said the Kangnung woman, tilting her head in that direction. "That guy still hasn't left."
Her voice was thick and husky when she sang, Tongho observed, unlike her speaking voice. An image of Okchu's large breasts and fleshy rump, which looked so unbalanced on her willowy build, filled his mind's eye. He took another drink.
A man took up the song Okchu was singing. Unfamiliar with the songs one might hear at a drinking place, Tongho couldn't judge the rendition of the song, but he did think the man had a good voice.
"That's the head of the Youth Corps," the Kangnung woman volunteered. "He lives in that village back up in the valley."
If you went around the bottom of the hill to the right of the base and far up a narrow valley you would come to a hamlet of some thirty homes. It was at a distance from the main road, and probably for this reason it had not been reduced to ashes during the hostilities of the last three years. Those who had fled returned after the cease-fire and now the village was pretty much the way it had been before the war.
"Is he a regular customer of Okchu's?" Tongho asked the Kangnung woman.
"Better not ask; that's a no-no," broke in the woman from Mokp'o. "Why don't we sing too?" she proposed in an effort to inject some life into the gathering.
"Fine by me," said Tongho. "You first."
Except for her moist eyes the Mokp'o woman showed no signs of the alcohol. She began singing "Tears of Mokp'o":
The boatman's song grows distant,
Waves steal over Samhak Island's shores,
Tears of farewell mottle the skirt of
The bride on the wharf
Tongho recognized the song and followed along silently.
"All right, that's enough," said Hyont'ae. "No weepy songs. Pick something else."
The Mokp'o woman seemed unfazed by this request. "How about ¡®Kangwondo Arirang'?" she said to the woman from Kangnung.
The Kangnung woman's face and ears showed a liquor flush. She began to sing:
Castor-oil plant, camellia, blossom not
Lest the maidens in the hills
Grow lustful thoughts....
Tongho observed the woman's sunken mouth and found himself thinking she didn't do a bad job with this flowing melody.
Arirang, Arirang, arario
"Hold on a minute."
Before the Kangnung woman had finished, it occurred to Tongho that he could no longer hear voices from the other room. Nor did the song resume. Tongho wondered what had happened after the song ended. More drinking? Was the visitor preparing to leave? Or were the man and woman about to move to a different room? An oppressive feeling came over Tongho, he knew not why.
And then he heard someone emerge from the other room. He strained to listen. It sounded as if the visitor was leaving. Presently he heard the scuffing of a woman's slippers. He managed to restrain a sigh and drank from his bowl of yakchu.
Hyont'ae, puffing on a cigarette, noticed.
"What's got into you, drinking like that?"
Okchu entered. As before, her eyes and thin lips were drink-reddened. Only the sharp tip of her nose remained pale.
Tongho suddenly felt ashamed of himself and glanced away.
Okchu, utterly calm, surveyed the three men. "Hello." She sat beside Tongho. Then, as if to augment her cursory greeting, she mechanically poured each of the men a drink. Her complete lack of emotion gave Tongho a feeling of tranquillity.
Hyont'ae finished his drink and filled the empty bowl for Okchu.
"Here's to you, for making a man out of our buddy."
"Nice joke." Her thin lips displayed a fleeting, perhaps sardonic smile. Against custom she accepted the bowl with her left hand, prompting Tongho to consider that perhaps she was left-handed.
The second kettle of yakchu was emptied and Tongho ordered a third.
"Are you all right, chump?" asked Hyont'ae with a look of surprise.
"Of course. If I have a mind to drink, this stuff's not going to bother me."
"Spoken like a rookie," said Yungu. "He'll know better once he develops a taste for the stuff."
In fact Tongho had never drunk so much before. But his head felt perfectly clear.
He glanced at the woman beside him. "Okchu," he said, as if he had just thought of this, "how about doing that song you were singing in the other room?"
"Which song was that?"
Her face remained dead still as she spoke, the tip of her nose looking impossibly sharp.
"You know, ¡®You wind, you raging wind'--something like that."
"That Cheju song, remember?" said the Kangnung woman.
Okchu sat silently a moment, then lit a cigarette and took a drag. She began to sing:
Gone, my husband, out to sea
Blow, you wind, you raging wind,
Blow three months and ten....
The other two women joined in, tapping chopsticks against the table in time.
And now it's time for you and I,
Day by day and night by night,
Our true and steadfast love....
Yeah, that's it, Tongho muttered to himself. His lips were violently flushed. Husband's out to sea.... You wind, you raging wind.... It blows for...yeah, three months ten days, that's right. Now I get it.
When the new kettle of yakchu had made the rounds a couple of times, Hyont'ae whispered something in the Kangnung woman's ear and the two of them rose and left. Yungu then nudged the Mokp'o woman and they followed suit.
It's that simple, thought Tongho. But here he hesitated. What now? Why hadn't he followed his friends, without so much as a backward glance at Okchu? That would have been the easiest, most natural way. He grew impatient. And the more impatient he became, the more difficult it was to overcome his inhibitions. Maybe I'll just have to wait here till they get back? But this thought barely registered before a louder voice called out inside him, You have to do what you came here for. Else you'll never be able to forgive yourself for your indecisiveness. He brought his drink to his lips and realized his mouth was bone dry.
"Well?" said Okchu, her voice soft and subdued. She was completely different from the time before, when she had seemed defiant and rebellious. Her quiet tone gave Tongho courage. He rose and tapped her slender shoulder, then helped her to her feet.
Okchu led the way to the room and opened the door. This time she entered first. Tongho followed and she secured the latch. In the damp air of the room the odor of fresh earth stabbed at his nostrils.
This time it was Tongho who unbuttoned his pants after the woman had reclined on the spread-out sleeping mat. And this time he knelt unassisted between her legs. Afterwards the woman, unlike before, did not thrust him aside. Silently she rose and began to dress. For Tongho it was a letdown. Was it for this that he had struggled with himself for so long? It was so absurd.
Tongho watched the woman finish dressing, then produced half a dozen hundred-hwan notes and offered them to her.
"I'm sure the other gentlemen took care of it."
"Take it anyway, will you?"
The woman tucked the money in her palm and left without a word.
Watching her slender shoulders Tongho experienced an unaccountable feeling of loss and unfulfillment.
Starting the next day, Tongho focused intently during target practice and summoned all his energy when practicing hand-to-hand combat. He put his heart into camp maintenance and repair. And during breaks he became absorbed in small talk with his comrades. The most important thing was to avoid being by himself. For at any such moment Sugi might intrude into his thoughts, and he found that prospect forbidding.
He refused to admit that a crack might have opened in the armor of his love for Sugi. He tried to convince himself that his love for her was unchanged and that he continued to hold it dear. But apart from the matter of that precious love, he simply had to make sense of the confusion in his mind precipitated by the infiltration of that one unexpected incident into his life.
He wrestled with himself for many long hours about ridding himself of his fastidiousness, and in the end he found himself tormented anew by the realization that despite the absurd blandness of their relations the sight of Okchu's slender shoulders receding from view had left him with a feeling of incompletion that he could ignore only at the peril of losing his peace of mind.
On their next day of leave the three men got quite drunk at a ramshackle drinking house. Hyont'ae and Yungu announced their intention of going off for a "tuneup." Whereupon Tongho went off by himself to see Okchu.
He arrived at the plank gate bordered by the scrapwood enclosure just as a man emerged from the drinking house. He looked about forty and seemed tipsy. The man brushed by Tongho, who noticed his olive-colored fatigues. Something prompted Tongho to turn and observe the man. He had a squat, chubby build and a slew-footed gait, but what really caught Tongho's eye was the exaggerated way he threw his arms out as he walked.
Okchu happened to be visible through the open door of a room she was clearing of drink and food. Seeing Tongho enter through the gate, she produced an odd smile, her eyebrows raised.
"What's so funny? Me being here by myself?"
"No, it's nothing. Come on in." She called the errand girl and had her finish cleaning up. "It's just that you looked so stiff coming through the gate. Kind of a funny way to walk when you're out drinking."
Tongho had felt emboldened by the drinks he had consumed with Hyont'ae a short time before. But the realization that this bravado had made him appear unnatural to Okchu bothered him. To resotre his spirits he would have to drink more.
"Ask her to hurry up with the drinks," he told Okchu.
A kettle arrived and Tongho finished two bowls in rapid succession. He then passed his bowl to Okchu and filled it. But instead of taking a healthy swallow she merely touched the bowl to her lips.
"What's the matter? I thought you had a pretty good capacity?"
"I'm already drunk. It's still daytime and I can't afford to drink any more than this. I'll have other guests too by and by."
Tongho finished the kettle more or less by himself.
Shaking his head, Tongho took her by the wrist and rose, wanting the privacy of the other room. This desire, and the act of taking her by the wrist, felt completely natural.
"You'll need to pay up."
Tongho produced the cost of the drinks.
He gave her some seven or eight hundred hwan--what was left from that month's pay.
In the other room Okchu was loosening the ties to her blouse when Tongho gestured to her to stop.
She looked at him, puzzled.
"Okchu, are you, ah, left-handed?"
The question baffled her.
"What if I am?"
"That's what I mean. I wanted to know a little more about you."
"I don't understand."
"Well, for example, what kind of woman you are."
Okchu erupted in laughter yet seemed vexed.
"You're serious, aren't you. Well, if you really want to know, I'll tell you. My real name is Ch'oe Myong-ae, I'm twenty-three, I was born in Seoul, married at twenty-one--"
"It's the present I'm interested in, not the past...."
"Oh, the here and now. Well--as you know, my name is Okchu, I'm a cheap barmaid...and I sell my body for five hundred hwan, maybe even three hundred...."
"What I meant was...don't you have a man in your life?"
"A man. Indeed I do. Every one of them who buys me."
"I wish you wouldn't be sarcastic.... Ah, that visitor you had before I arrived--isn't he the head of the Youth Corps?"
"What about him?"
"I was just curious. He was here the last time too, so I thought maybe he came here every day."
Again she burst out in laughter. And then, regarding Tongho as she would have a little brother, "Is there something wrong if he visits me every day?"
"No, that's not what I meant...."
"Well, then, let's stop the talk and get on with it. If I'm out here too long I'll catch a scolding."
She began to undress. Tongho noticed the swift movement of her hands.
"How much for the night?"
"All night long, you mean? Two thousand hwan."
Again the act proved to be absolutely mechanical. But this time, as he gazed at her body after she had dressed, Tongho felt a kind of familiarity in his relations with her.
Outside the fresh air swept over him and his mind seemed to clear. At the same time, the satiation of his desire, the dissolution of tension, had left him empty and once again he felt the effects of the alcohol. It was not an unpleasant feeling. He was a bit unsteady on his feet. He realized he was humming to himself.
Gone, my husband, out to sea....
Blow, you wind, you raging wind
Blow three months and ten....
Blow, you wind, you raging wind
Blow three months and ten....
A man was approaching. He stopped in front of Tongho.
"Why, Sergeant Yun?"
It was An. Tongho lifted a hand in acknowledgment and kept walking. From behind he heard An ask where he was coming from. He didn't answer.
"You must be drunk."
"Yes I am, and loving every minute of it."
"Ah, I don't suppose you've seen Sergeant Sonu?"
"Haven't the slightest."
"You really are drunk. That much liquor's not good for you."
Tongho continued on his way.
Blow, you, wind, you raging wind
Blow three months and ten....
Back at the base, Tongho found Hyont'ae and Yungu already returned.
"Listen, you two!" he shouted. "I'm all cleaned out! Put a beautiful woman next to me and I won't even look at her--that's how cleaned out I am! Love, hate, all of those stupid qualities--I've washed ¡®em all away, I'm free and easy.... Blow, you wind, you raging wind, blow, typhoon, blow three months and ten, blow three years and ten, I don't care!..."
Tongho sprawled out on his cot next to Hyont'ae's and presently was snoring. This marked the beginning of a complete change in his drinking habits.
The reconnaissance company to which Tongho and his friends belonged had never had a canteen of its own. And so the men had taken to using another infantry battalion's canteen. To remedy the inconvenience the company commander had arranged with regimental headquarters a few days earlier to open a separate club for his men. This canteen, such as it was, consisted of shelving assembled next to the mess area and offered only a few personal necessities, some inexpensive snacks such as cookies and dried squid, and a small selection of beverages.
Tongho, paying with chits, took to drinking there. He still accompanied Hyont'ae and Yungu on their outings but preferred drinking alone at the canteen. There he discovered that domestically produced dry gin had more of an effect on him than soju--especially if he began with a bowl or two of makkolli. From time to time he brought a bottle of dry gin back to quarters.
Hyont'ae finally felt compelled to say something. "Look at you. If you're going to drink, do it right, chump!"
"Right or wrong, the point is to get drunk, isn't it? And this dry gin definitely gets the job done."
"And screws up your stomach along with all that squid you're gobbling."
"So, you've turned into a health expert. Well, regardless of what it does for my stomach, dry gin's good for my mental health. For one thing, I get a good night's sleep. Whatever's on your mind, one sip and you're out."
One night Tongho returned from the canteen and began to rummage through his knapsack. He found the bundle of letters from Sugi. Behind the barracks he placed them on the ground and touched a match to them. They curled up this way and that, giving off smoke that rose only a few inches before blending with the darkness. Tongho remained until every last scrap was consumed.
Back inside he muttered to no one in particular, "I want more of that free and easy feeling--more."
That night Tongho dreamed he was on a bus. The bus was empty. He was on his way to Inch'on to see Sugi. There was no driver and the bus rolled along by itself. The sound of the engine numbed his ears, and the various parts of the creaking wornout chassis produced a cacophony of noise. Tongho considered: What if the chassis was held together by a single screw and that screw came loose? The chassis would fall into pieces. And he himself would be scattered who knows where. The bus came to a downhill stretch and built up speed. Again Tongho thought: it was the speed of the bus that was preventing the aging chassis from disintegrating. The moment it slowed to a stop the chassis would crinkle and collapse like a heap of ashes. But wasn't this incline he was speeding down none other than the dangerous downhill of Wont'aei Pass? If it was, and the bus failed to make a curve, it would overturn.
"Wont'aei Pass!" Tongho cried out. "It's Wont'aei Pass!"
"Hey, pal, what are you hollering about? Wake up!"
Hyont'ae, next to Tongho, shook him awake. Tongho was soaked with sweat.
Yungu, sleeping on the opposite side of Hyont'ae, also awoke.
"Well, is this the same guy who was telling us how well he sleeps after he drinks?"
Hyont'ae said to Tongho, "What the hell is Wont'aei Pass?"
Tongho gazed into the darkness before replying, "It's between Seoul and Inch'on."
"So what about it?"
Instead of responding, Tongho found the bottle of dry gin at the head of his bed and took several swallows. Then he rolled over in the opposite direction.
In a matter of days Tongho's face grew painfully haggard. His angular cheeks became sunken and his large clear eyes, bloodshot even when he was sober, were like hollows.
On a day marked by a hard frost Tongho received a letter from Sugi, his first contact with her in some time. On the back of the envelope was her Inch'on address. She and her family must have returned home from theoir wartime refugee lodgings in the south. Behind the barracks he burned the letter without reading it.
"Not again!" said Hyont'ae. "You chump, that's what girls do."
"Letters can't solve the problem. I have to talk with her instead."
"Better you didn't know."
The following Saturday afternoon Tongho approached Hyont'ae. "Could you finagle a pass for me?"
"Just get me the pass, will you?"
"Don't tell me you're hung up on old skin-and-bones."
"Aw, will you just--?"
"What has got into you? All you do anymore is slug booze and I think I've got an idea why. But I also thought your mind was settled, yet look at you."
"Actually I don't understand it myself. The only thing I know is I have to go out tonight."
"Give it up, chump, it's no use. Tomorrow we'll go someplace else and have some fun. You don't want to hang around with the same woman at a place like that. Beats me how you can get enjoyment out of it."
"Are you going to get me that pass, or what?"
"Oigu, have you looked in a mirror lately!"
Finally Hyont'ae arranged for a pass through the senior corporal.
"And front me three thousand hwan too, will you?"
That day, when he could wait no longer, Tongho left the base. To pass the time before sunset he had to wander about. It was late November and by evening a chill wind had risen. Whenever he passed a drinking place his pace slackened before he realized it. But then he would walk more quickly and be gone. Today he would remain sober no matter what happened. For once he would confront her with a clear mind.
Headlights appeared on the army trucks passing by. Before long he would see her. Suddenly he wondered if it was really necessary to seek her out in this manner. He himself couldn't understand it. He felt only, with the certainty of established fact, that he must see her that night.
When full dusk had fallen he finally entered the plank gate. He briefly wondered: What if she's with someone else?
A woman was moving through the yard and Tongho asked her to call Okchu. The woman went inside and presently Okchu appeared. She approached Tongho and thrust her face forward as if looking into a mirror in the darkness. She reeked of cheap face powder.
"Wwll, who do we have here?"
There was no indication that she had been drinking.
Tongho had already counted out two thousand hwan and he placed it in her hand.
"It's too early. Won't you come inside and have some yakchu?"
Without replying Tongho handed her the remainder of the money he'd borrowed from Hyont'ae.
The extra payment appeared to release her from the obligation to entertain other customers. She led Tongho to the usual room, ushered him inside, then fetched an oil lamp. Then she left again, saying she would light the firebox to warm up the room.
The lamp glass was coated with soot. A sign of neglect, it seemed to Tongho. He didn't recognize it, but somehow it wasn't unfamiliar. And the pungent smell of fresh soil in the damp room as well as the sleeping pad laid out on the floor now seemed quie natural. The firebox must have been lit, for the room began to fill with acrid steam. But Tongho found it bearable enough.
Okchu returned. She placed her slippers next to Tongho's boots and latched the door. Then, as before, she started to undress. Tongho stopped her.
"You can stay dressed."
Okchu regarded him quizzically.
"It's all right. You can lie down the way you are."
Okchu removed only her skirt and lay down on the sleeping pad. Tongho drew the quilt to her chin, rose, and extinguished the lamp. Then he lay down beside her, leaned over, and said, "Let's just sleep like this tonight.... And so...." He brought his lips to hers.
So cool. He cupped her cheeks and began to cover her face with kisses.
"Ai! What are you doing?"
She turned away from him. Her breath on his ear carried no warmth.
He caressed her neck, then reached inside the quilt and slid a hand inside her clothing. Her arms sprawled atop the quilt, she made no effort to stop him. But he proceeded as if she were resisting, his fingers gradually pushing deep. His only sensation was the coarse feel of her skin; there was no smell of flesh. His hand pushed into the cleft between her breasts. Those breasts didn't feel as elastic as Sugi's. Suddenly his hand was snatched away.
"What is it with you?" She sounded vexed. "Can't we just get on with it?"
But Tongho felt no desire. He let his head sink back on the pillow. He reached in his pocket for a cigarette and lit up. His state of mind felt like the dark void before his eyes. He wanted very much to talk.
"Okchu, why is it so hard for people to break out of their own narrow boundaries?"
She lay where she was without replying.
"You know, it seems those boundaries are established when we're young."
"You're talking over my head. Let's get on with it and go to sleep."
But Tongho instead began to relate a story.
"I must have been about eight. It was fall and I was doing my homework on the veranda when my little cousin came by. Well, she offered me a bite of an apple. She'd already eaten about half of it. I shook my head, told her I didn't want it. My grandmother had just brought us a bunch and I'd had two. But my cousin kept that apple in front of my nose. And the thing was, she wasn't being playful. She looked like such a big girl--so grownup. Well, what the heck, I took a bite. And another bite. And then another one. Suddenly she puts the apple down. And then she makes a face and starts spitting. I look at the apple and notice a spot of blood--must have come from my gums. Even way back then I felt ashamed letting someone see something about me that wasn't right. Ever since I've been very careful about eating things like fruit unless it's first been cut into sections."
He had once told this story to Sugi. "That's so like you," she had said. "But with me you shouldn't worry about such things--please eat."
Okchu, though, had no response. She lay silently in the dark.
"I always think of that in connection with something else that happened," Tongho continued.
This other incident concerned the same cousin. It was the spring of his fifth year of middle school, as he recalled it. He had returned home from school one day to find his cousin talking with his mother in her room. As he stepped up to the veranda he heard his mother ask, "Was it a lot?" He wondered what this meant. But when he slid open the door to his mother's room the conversation broke off. He noticed that his cousin's face looked thinner than usual. Before long he was able to make sense of his mother's question. He went to the toilet and saw, lying in the pit, a bloody wad of cotton. He aimed at the wad and the dark blood turned a vivid pink.
"It reminded me of flowers that had just bloomed."
This story he had never told Sugi and he wondered why now he was relating it to Okchu.
"And then I met a woman--"
Okchu finally broke her silence.
"I was wondering when you'd get around to the subject of your sweetheart. Well, you can skip that part, and let's just get on with it and go to sleep. Or else have a drink."
She rose and lit the lamp.
"I'll be back with some makkolli."
Tongho searched his pockets. The hundred-odd hwan that was left he gave to her.
She wrapped her skirt about her and left.
Tongho lit a cigarette.
Presently Okchu returned with a kettle of makkolli and a small bowl of kimchi. No drinking bowls. She offered him the spout of the kettle. He shook his head. She brought the spout to her mouth and drank, took a breath, drank again, took another breath. She offered him the spout a second time. He shook his head. Again she brought the spout to her mouth.
"I guess my face doesn't have that big-girl look like your cousin. And maybe your loved one is...."
A hint of a smile appeared and a pinkish liquor flush began to spread over her face.
Tongho concentrated on his cigarette.
Again she drank. She didn't touch the kimchi. After she had finished the entire one-quart kettle by herself she blew out the lamp.
"Just lie down like you did before."
Again she removed only her skirt before lying down. Her breathing sounded rough.
Tongho crushed out his cigarette. He cupped her face and put his lips to hers. The alcohol had warmed her cheeks and lips. But before he could kiss her face elsewhere she turned away from him.
"Don't waste your time. Just get on with it and go to sleep."
"You dislike me that much?"
"Listen, I know what's going on. You're looking for the one you love in me. Well, it's not going to work."
"No, you're wrong. There is someone I love, but--"
"Spare me. Think about the first time you came here: you probably wished you'd never met me. You couldn't stand it here. Frankly, it wasn't very pleasant for me either. But that's fine. The more important thing was to earn a few hundred hwan."
"You're right. I won't deny it. But it's different now."
"What do you mean, different?"
"The one I love is far away, too far."
"And so you're trying to look for her in me."
"No, I'm not."
"That's what you say. You think I don't know.... But it's no use."
She fell silent, lowered her underwear, and drew Tongho's hand to a spot low on her abdomen.
"Feel it. You know what that is?"
Tongho felt an incision in the soft flesh.
"It's all that's left."
"That's where they operated. I was eight months pregnant and they cut me open and took out my dead baby. I'd just learned my husband had died in action. I guess I fainted, and fell off the veranda.... And there I was, completely helpless. Two weeks after we were married he went off to the army. I waited for the day of his return--it was all I ever wanted. We were in love, we really were.... Even in death he lived on inside of me. He had a wart the size of a red bean in his left ear. I could see it clearly, right down to the color. No luxuries for a poor couple like us. Every once in a while we'd leave the city for a few hours. The feel of a soft breeze on my forehead, the comfort of leaning my head on his shoulder and closing my eyes, and when I opened them the reflection of sunlight on the leaves of the trees--those things were still alive for me. They kept me going."
She fell briefly silent, a still form in the darkness.
Tongho was amazed at this hidden side of her. She was different from the person he had thought of till now as Okchu the drinking house woman. As he listened to her he found himself concentrating on her breathing.
"And then those things began to lose their color. Those things I could see so clearly even when I started sleeping with other men...they started to fade--the wart in his ear, the shape of those leaves that reflected the sunlight. I tried to bring them back. But I couldn't. They just kept fading.... And now the feel of that soft breeeze, I can't bring it back, and the comfort of putting my head on his shoulder, it's all gone. Only thing left's this little line on my stomach."
She breathed once, deeply.
"I've got to hand it to you. You made me spill it all out."
"I remember something you said once: ¡®Better if two people who shouldn't have fallen in love kill themselves the moment they realize they're inseparable.'"
She burst out in an irritated laugh.
"Yes, and one of the gentleman you were with called me sentimental, said that in today's world drinking snacks are better than sappy talk."
The vexed laughter of the previous moment died out and in a measured tone she said, "Love to me now is stupid. I don't even hope for stuff like that anymore. You know something? There's nothing as heartless as the human body. This body of mine was able to rid itself of every last trace of that man."
She paused for breath.
"There's nothing as heartless as the flesh. Sometimes it scares me."
"I've felt that way myself."
"Your situation is different. You'll be on your way home before long, and when you get there everything will return to the way it was before. The one you love, and everything else...."
"Sometimes I'm not so sure.""
"Of course it will.... Whatever you're scared of, it's only temporary, and I know how to get rid of it."
And with that she bent near and began to undo his pants. Her hands moved more gently than at any previous time. And even though the act itself was rather short as always, she drew him to her more affectionately than ever before.
That night for the first time Tongho felt a kind of fulfillment.
Her breathing became even and regular. Tongho cautiously turned and observed her. Her angular features stood out in the dark. He looked for a glow, found none. He thought of Sugi. Strangely enough, enveloped in a kind of peaceful emptiness, he felt neither guilty nor apologetic toward her, and that was fine with him.
Before he could visit Okchu again his unit replaced another at the Ch'up'a Pass front.
(To be continued)