“Fuck, you’re just full of useless questions, aren’t you? Our place is on top of the mountain in Sadang-dong, in Seoul. Quite a sight. Couldn’t afford shit, but they bred a big litter in a house the size of an apple crate. Family of six, crawling all over each other.
“Hey, you know who I hate the most in this world?” the corporal asks suddenly. “It’s my old man. Day in, day out, he comes home after getting shitfaced and beats us kids like it was his job. The old lady’s a real piece of work, too, calling that man a husband, playing dead like a mouse in front of a cat—not a squeak. Truly pathetic. So, the second person I hate most in the world? None other than her.” The corporal forcefully kicks the snow under his feet.
Out of nowhere, the private feels a strange urge to console him. The corporal is glowing, his eyes like a beast’s, but his voice is a young child’s, starving for something. Under the falling snow, the private feels as if the two of them were the sole survivors of a shipwreck, clinging to a rotten plank in a vast ocean.
“How is it that you’ve only learned to resent the world?” Those were the words of his major adviser in college. Of all the things he’d said, that was what pierced the private’s heart and, for some reason, felt more insulting than anything else.
He looks at the corporal and thinks, How is it that you’ve only learned to resent the world?
A month ago, while washing the dishes in an icy creek flowing next to the barracks, the private received a message to come quickly to HQ. He was being ordered to ready himself for leave immediately and to report to the company commander. He ran to his quarters, taking off the rubber gloves that had frozen stiff on his hands, confused about what was going on.
When he stepped into the unit’s admin office, the C.O. handed him a sheet of paper. It was a letter notifying him that his father had passed away. “Three nights, four days special leave,” he said. “Starting today.”
As the private was about to leave, the C.O. called out to stop him. “You! You wouldn’t be planning on going AWOL, would you?”
He did not answer. He had to change long-distance buses twice and go through four checkpoints to get to Seoul, and by the time he got off the night train, in Busan, it was dawn. When he entered his house for the first time in more than half a year, his brother was wearing a hempen funerary hat, his face blank. He seemed to have aged to the point where you could no longer tell how old he was, and their mother just lay there facing the wall. It all felt surreal to the private. His brother crossed the narrow room to move the folding screen that stood there a bit precariously and told him to look behind it. He lifted the end of the thin shroud and saw the face of the corpse.
“He started drinking a lot after you entered the service,” his brother said behind him, his voice hoarse and faltering. “You know he had to avoid alcohol because of his blood pressure. One day, he came home after drinking a ton, and then he just couldn’t get up. We didn’t even have time to do anything.” It sounded like he was making excuses.
His father was an elementary-school vice-principal put out to pasture in the countryside, waiting for retirement. When the private had come home, wanted by the law for avoiding military service, his father had held him by his side and called the police himself. He was handcuffed in front of his father, and fifteen days later he was sent off to basic training.
It was a three-day funeral, but two days had already passed by the time he arrived. They buried his father the next day on a hillside outside town, among countless other grave mounds that swelled up from the earth like large, scabby boils. The day before returning to the base, he went to Seoul. As always, the air at the entrance to the university campus was filled with tear gas from the riot police quelling the constant student demonstrations. Familiar faces gathered to greet him; their throats were hoarse, and they were enjoying their debates, as usual. And no one got drunk as quickly as he did. Seeing his old friends, he felt a combination of envy and betrayal, the way a child does after experiencing something he shouldn’t have. When they sang the familiar songs, he was silent, and when they finished he started singing alone. The match girl who works in a match factory in Incheon . . . It was what he’d sung during basic training, a song that taught the soldiers how becoming shameless helps one forget the pain. He raised his voice especially at the part where the girl’s pubic hair gets burned off as she tries to smuggle a matchbox under her skirt, but when he came to the end there was no one left beside him. He returned to base a day earlier than the date printed on his pass.
“Want to hear a funny story?” The corporal seems talkative now, for some reason. Thick snowflakes are beginning to pour down. The corporal tilts his head back to look up at the sky.
“I told you before that I worked in a bathhouse, right? I’m at some bathhouse in Miari at ten o’clock at night after we finished all our work, and the owner lady calls me over. She’s a widow who lives by herself—doesn’t know where to spend her money. When I go in and see her laying there stark naked next to the tub, I can’t breathe. She’s a real heavyweight, must weigh more than a hundred kilos. Well, the bitch says to me—laying there—‘Mister Choi, come here and scrub my back.’ ” He mimics the woman’s nasal tone perfectly.
“You know what I did? As I gently scrubbed her back, I politely told her something: ‘Lady, you’d be an eyeful hung up like this at a butcher shop.’ Then the bitch starts screaming at me. Her eyes are bugging and she’s calling me an idiot that doesn’t know his place, and says how I’m talking shit. Before I knew it, I was strangling her. She flailed around at first, then her eyes rolled back in her head. I guess if I’d applied a bit more pressure she woulda been a goner. I packed my bags and left right away. But you know what? After that, that feeling of grabbing her fatty flesh with my hands—it wouldn’t go away. Like that unsatisfied feeling you get when you don’t finish what you started.”
Suddenly, the corporal’s voice is oddly sombre. He pauses for a moment before he continues. “I mean, after that happened, even when I’m walking down the street, if I see someone with a fat neck I want to grab them and strangle them with my bare hands.”
The private laughs, but it sounds too deliberate, and he realizes that it might seem inappropriate or fake.
“I’m not kidding!” the corporal says, his voice harsh. “You stupid fuck.” He adds, “What this world needs is a war to kill off about half the population.”
“Corporal Choi,” the private says, “if a war breaks out, don’t you think that you might die first.”
“Why would I die, you moron? I know I’ll make it out alive. And, even if I do die, it doesn’t matter. It’s chance, anyway. It’s all a matter of who kills who first and survives. That’s more than fair.”
“That’s the wrong way of thinking about it.”
“What’s wrong about it?”
The private is frustrated and depressed. He wants to say something but can’t figure out what. He can’t escape the helpless feeling of knowing that words won’t change anything. “Whatever the case . . .” he says. “No one should die. That bathhouse lady, your father or mother—even you. No one deserves to die.”
“Oh, fuck off! Are you lecturing me—your superior—because you got some education?” The corporal turns around, his eyes gleaming with hostility in the darkness, and pokes the private with the end of his rifle.
Because his feet are freezing, the private can only march in place. “Corporal Choi,” he says, “can I tell you a story, too? Though I don’t know if it would be considered a dating story. . . .”
“You shoulda told it in the first place, dumbass. O.K. Go on.”
But the private briefly tilts his head back and looks up at the sky. Snowflakes are falling, countless, glowing like embers.
“Hey! What are you waiting for?” the corporal yells impatiently. “Don’t leave me hanging.”
It was a Sunday, a few weeks back. A choir from some church in Seoul had come on a morale-boosting mission to the Field Church, the small church on base. The inside of the church was colorfully decorated like an elementary-school classroom ready for show-and-tell. The conductor was a man, but the choir was all young women, and most of them seemed to be college students. The whole time they were singing pop songs for the troops, he was looking at one woman in the front row. Why, amid those many faces, did she catch his eye? Was it the out-of-style perm that didn’t suit her despite the high hopes that must have taken her to the hair salon? Maybe that’s why she looked more awkward, more needlessly nervous, than any of the other women, her face serious like that of a child singing a hymn. She blushed when she noticed his gaze. At first, she avoided eye contact, but then gradually, cautiously, she looked at him until she couldn’t take her eyes off him, and her face blushed even redder.
After the singing, the women and the soldiers played a game in which they were paired up as couples, and it was just his luck that she was his partner. When the conductor had them line up in front, holding hands, hers were rough. Her knuckles were larger than his. “What kind of a soldier has such small hands?” she whispered, her voice low, as if she were out of breath. Those were the first words she said to him.
The conductor was a lanky man with a friendly smile pasted onto his face like a Sunday-school teacher. A guitar hung around his neck, and he occasionally told a joke, treating both the women and the soldiers like children. Sure enough, every time he said something the women tittered like well-behaved schoolkids, as if they had rehearsed. The game was a contest to see which couple would be the first to finish the task announced by the conductor. There were challenges like finding Bible verses, or things like “one military sock and one lady’s stocking,” and the private and his partner always did well, because the woman worked harder than anyone else.
“Now I will pose the final question,” the conductor said as the game reached its climax. “It’s the thing that is the easiest yet hardest thing to find in the world. What is it? Love! Find love and bring it here.”
The women and the soldiers, who had been laughing and joking up to that point, all fell silent. But the conductor was making a serious face, as if to show that it was no joke. The soldiers complained. In that moment, the woman whispered to the private, “Let’s go up.” She ran up to the conductor, pulling him by the arm.
The conductor exaggerated his surprise and asked in a theatrical tone, “Have you two found love?”
“Yes!” the woman answered, breathless, ever the model student.
“Then will you show us?”
She turned and looked straight at the private, her face, as small as a child’s, flushed red. Until then, he had not even been able to guess what the woman was thinking. Everyone was looking at them. She seemed to hesitate for a moment, but then she suddenly lifted her arms and wrapped them around his neck. By the time he felt her face coming closer, her lips had already touched his. The women all sighed, and the soldiers cheered and applauded loudly. But after the woman’s lips retreated, after the stolen kiss that had lasted for the blink of an eye, he just stood there like an idiot.
“What? That’s it?” the corporal exclaims when the private stops talking.
“Yes, that’s the end of the story.”
“Dumbass. You said you were gonna tell a dating story. Why’s it so dull?”
Now the private regrets telling the story. It feels as if he’s been insulted, as if something has been tainted.
“So how did it taste?” the corporal asks, licking his lips, unsatisfied. “Why didn’t you just bite ’em off and swallow?” His face says that he could not be more disappointed that such luck hadn’t come to him. “How much time left now?”
As the private is about to peer at his watch yet again, the two of them simultaneously sense that something is off, and as they have that realization they hear a loud noise—the empty cans hanging from the barbed wire clattering in alarm. In an instant they are on the ground, flat on their stomachs. A black silhouette, darker than the night, is caught on the barbed wire, and there is no doubt that it is human. The private presses himself into the ground. An icy shudder shoots up his spine and his entire body trembles as if he were having a seizure.
“Who—who is it?” It’s the strangled voice of the corporal. But there’s no sound from the darkness.
“Answer! I asked who is it. I’ll sh-shoot!”
“D-don’t shoot . . .” The voice comes out of the dark after a long while. “I’m . . . n-not a spy. . . .”
It’s the voice of an old man shaking in terror, too drunk to manipulate his tongue. He’s hunched over, frozen stiff, unable to say anything more. Only his heavy breathing is audible. He sounds like a sick animal.
The private feels a strange sense of disappointment along with relief. It is probably a local farmer who got caught in the barbed wire as he was stumbling around drunk. They must not have heard him crossing the field and approaching the barbed wire.