This piece was submitted by Bae Suah as part of the 2014 PEN World Voices Online Anthology.
It was a long way to the army base. I took a bus to the subway, then the subway to Uijeongbu, and then an intercity bus for miles and miles. The streets of Uijeongbu, where winter was just taking hold, were bleak and dry. The cold had come on quickly and frozen the streets. Lonely restaurants and shady-looking bars near the army base. Women in blue eye shadow and clothes that clung too tightly to their bodies, and a restaurant with faded roof tiles, called The Rose Garden, stood bleakly at the end of the road. A perfectly gray street. An old and dirty street. The Rose Garden didn’t look anything like a rose. I sat on the intercity bus with no coat, as frozen as a scarecrow in an unsown paddy in the middle of winter, until the bus reached the stop where an old woman with chipped and worn nail polish told me I should get off. By the time I stepped off the bus in front of an army base in the middle of an empty field, Cheolsu’s chicken in its paper bag was completely cold. The bus took off. I was not the only woman there. It was the weekend, after all.
“Who are you here to see?”
The PX was filled with women visiting soldiers. A guard wrote down my name and ID number with a black ballpoint pen.
I kept my answers short. The guard looked up at me.
“Kim Cheolsu isn’t here today. He’s out on a training exercise.”
“That can’t be. He told me to come today.”
“The exercise was announced at the last minute. But he’s not far. I can tell you where to find him. Do you want to go visit him in the field?”
“It’s about four kilometers from here. The bus will get you there right away. Or you can walk. Just take any bus that stops out front. Get off in front of the fishing hole. There are signs pointing the way to the base HQ. Follow those signs, and they’ll lead you right to the drill field. It’s easy. Just head there, and you’ll find him.”
Soldiers who’d been called to the PX were checking in before meeting with their girlfriends, mothers, younger sisters. I would rather have died than have to leave the warm PX and go back out into the cold, windy streets, but I had no choice. I picked up the bag of chicken and headed to the bus stop. I stamped my cold feet while waiting for the bus. Luckily, it didn’t take long. I sat near the front. I was supposed to get off at the fishing hole? I tried to remember what the guard had said. In front of the fishing hole. The scenery outside the bus window looked completely different than before. Paddies and fields (I never could tell the difference between the two) and sheds and vacant houses whirled past. I couldn’t tell anything apart, like I was looking at a piece of film that kept replaying the same scene. A little kid in dirty clothes was sitting in the street in front of a house, crying with his mouth wide open. After the bus had taken several turns and gone over a hill, I saw the same little boy in front of the same house, still crying. Was it really the same kid? I looked around and tried to jog my memory. Identical vacant houses, fields, paddies, sheds, and bus stops slid past. How long had I been on the bus? It could have been hours, and it could have been only five minutes. Was this bus going in circles through the same village? The sky was as overcast as it had been early that morning, and it hung down dark and heavy, as if snow would come spilling down any minute. And then there was the static electricity of this ominous winter coldly dominating the whole world. I waited and waited, but the announcement for the bus stop in front of the fishing hole never came.
“Excuse me, I need to get off at the fishing hole. Is it still far away?” I asked the driver.
“Fishing hole? This bus doesn’t go there,” the driver said.
“Then where should I get off?”
“You’ll have to get off at the next stop, cross the street, and catch another bus. It’s quite a ways away.”
I know the guard had said I could take any bus. But what could I do? I got off, sat on the bench at the desolate, abandoned bus stop, and waited for the next bus. I had already been regretting making this visit. A dog the size of a calf walked past me, carrying a dark red lump of flesh in its mouth. It looked like a dead rat. Snow gradually began to fall. It settled into a thin layer on my hair and my old sweater. The dog with the rat in its mouth turned to me with empty eyes, huffing and panting. I thought maybe it was studying the bag of chicken in my hand. It looked like it had something to say to me.
“Give me some chicken, and I won’t eat you.”
* * *
When I got off at the fishing hole, there really were signs pointing the way to the base. The signs directed me to a steep, narrow mountain path. The snow was still falling, and the path was dark. I popped into a store near the bus stop and asked for a cup of coffee to warm myself up. I felt feverish. My shoulders and hair were damp. Once I felt a little warmer, I started walking up the path to the base. Under my jeans, my legs had long since gone numb. I stopped thinking about why I had come all that way, what Cheolsu was to me, and whether I had a future. How long had I been out there? I was hungry and dizzy. I was freezing, but craved a glass of cold water at the same time. I sat on the side of the road and absentmindedly reached into the bag of chicken. I thought I would just have a bite. But when I opened the aluminum container and saw the chicken carcass looking like the body of a woman frozen to death in Siberia, I lost my appetite. Fortunately, the snow wasn’t sticking. It was settling lightly on the ground and melting away like dew. Had the snow survived instead of melting, I would have wished for it to turn sharp. Turn sharp and pierce through me. I arrived at the entrance to the base and told the guard I was there to see the platoon leader, Kim Cheolsu, who was on a training exercise.
“Ah, you mean Acting Platoon Leader Kim Cheolsu?” The guard was friendly. “If you head up that way, you’ll see a burned clearing. That’s where everyone should be.”
“Is it far?”
“No, it’s not far. You just can’t see it from here because of the tree cover.”
A burned clearing. That’s how the guard had described it. And just as he said, in the middle of the forest, I came across a deep water hole that appeared from between blackened and burnt trees, and a huddle of soldiers. And fire. The soldiers had gathered firewood and were clustered around a bonfire. Dark, shining faces that I couldn’t tell apart. Cheolsu’s face was not among them. But then again, Cheolsu’s face could have been planted right before my eyes and I would have walked on past, too full of disappointment to recognize him. The soldiers’ faces were that uniform, and that unfamiliar. I told them I was looking for Kim Cheolsu. They looked around at each other and shook their heads. The paper bag with Cheolsu’s chicken fell from my hand. Out past the treeless clearing, I saw a white cliff wall, and somewhere, a crow let out a sharp cry. The wind blew through the branches and scattered the lacework of snow that had settled there. The tall autumn grass that had not yet died was flattened by the wind.
“I came all this way because I heard he was here.”
There were about ten soldiers gathered around the fire. None of them spoke. As if the wind had frozen their mouths shut. Their lips were chapped white like they were malnourished. I stared at the cliff wall. Cheolsu, where are you?
After a dull and interminable length of time had passed, one of them finally spoke.
“Kim Cheolsu didn’t come to training.”
“But I was told he was here.”
They closed their mouths again. Branches crackled and snapped in the fire. I bent over to pick up the bag of chicken.
“We have some hot water. Would you like some?”
I accepted a cup of the water that had been boiling in a camping pot. A stab of pain ran through my head like a knife. I felt frozen. I sat down on the snow-dampened mud with the soldiers.
“Kim Cheolsu didn’t report for training,” the soldier repeated.
“But they told me he did.”
“There must have been a mistake. Maybe they confused him with the Kim Cheolsu who had an accident.”
“The Kim Cheolsu who had an accident?”
The question came out fast. The hot water exploded in my head. The soldiers stopped talking again, as if they didn’t know what they should say. None of them appeared to be in charge. That’s probably why they weren’t sure of how much they should tell me.
“Actually, there are two acting platoon leaders named Kim Cheolsu.”
I was speechless.
“The Kim Cheolsu who was supposed to be on this training exercise isn’t here. I’m not sure which one you’re looking for, but you should go back to the first place you went. The Kim Cheolsu who’s there is probably the one you’re looking for.”
So there were two platoon leaders here with the same name. Since no one had told me that, I would never have figured it out. Maybe one of them really was the Kim Cheolsu I knew. All I did know was that, for reasons unknown to me, I could not meet the Kim Cheolsu who had been here. I would never get to see the Kim Cheolsu who’d met with some mysterious accident on a snowy winter day. If I went back to the beginning, there would be another Kim Cheolsu, and I would be able to meet him. No one knew if that Kim Cheolsu was the one I knew, the one I’d wandered all that way for, carrying a bag of chicken to give to him. I finally realized it, there in the burned clearing at the bottom of the white rock face. With soldiers dressed in dirty uniforms like guerillas, their lips cracked from malnutrition, gums inflamed from lack of vitamins.
“I’ll head back. Thanks anyway.”
I handed back the hot water and nodded goodbye to the soldier who’d spoken to me.
“Wouldn’t you like to warm up a little before you go?”
He looked at me with sympathy. A warm fire. I, too, wanted to stay there forever. Tell Cheolsu his chicken was ripped apart and eaten by a rabid dog. But instead I stood and watched the crows dive through the air like they were falling from the cliff. I couldn’t bring myself to approach the blazing fire. Where was Cheolsu? Was he here? Was he there? Had the Cheolsu I was looking for died in some minor accident? Was he in the hospital? Or was he sitting with the other middle-class platoon leaders, surrounded by giggling girlfriends and mothers and sisters, laughing and joking over shots of alcohol, having forgotten all about me and the stupid chicken? What was real and what was fantasy? And what was it I really wanted? Reality? Fantasy? The same-old apathetic Cheolsu who’d been waiting a long time for his chicken, or the malnourished Cheolsu out here with the crows at the bottom of that cold cliff?
When I returned to the first base, other soldiers were signing in for visits at the PX. Just as I had before, I gave my name, ID number, and address, and said I was there to see Kim Cheolsu. The soldier pointed to where he was sitting. He was on a bench beneath a tarp roof. He was with the other platoon leaders and their girlfriends, mothers, and sisters who’d come to visit them, drinking cheap whisky—alcohol that was officially forbidden on base. They were giggling, and everything was exactly as I had imagined it. I walked over to Cheolsu, who was turned away from me and laughing. Someone nudged him in the side and whispered something in his ear. Finally he noticed me. The closer I got, the more people turned to stare at me. They stopped laughing. The girlfriends and mothers and little sisters stopped smiling and looked at me warily. The snow was still falling, but they didn’t look cold in their all-wool coats.
“What took you so long?” Cheolsu asked awkwardly. He took the tattered paper bag of chicken from my clenched hand. “I couldn’t wait any longer and decided to join my friends. We’ve been talking about how to build bridges. One of the guys specializes in bridge construction.”
Bridge construction. Building bridges. I didn’t hide the scorn in my face. Cheolsu would be hurt, but when I thought of his friends’ faces, I tried to suppress it.
“Would you like a cookie?”
One of the girlfriends held out a plate of cookies and sliced fruit. The faces and clothing of the women gathered on the bench in the falling snow were so different from my own. Their breath came out white. I shook my head coldly without saying a word. Cheolsu took my hand and wrapped his arm around my shoulders.
“Let’s go over there to talk.”
Get your hands off me. Don’t stroke my face. I’m not an animal.
Why was I suddenly thinking that?
I felt doubtful, but Cheolsu looked straight ahead as we walked.
“I wrote to my mom. Told her not to come. I told her it would make you too uncomfortable.”
“It doesn’t matter to me.”
“But it did.” He sounded upset. “You took so long that I thought you weren’t coming.”
“I left early this morning.”
“Then what happened? It’s almost 3 p.m.”
“The guards at the PX told me you were doing a training exercise at a different base. So I went all the way to the other base, on the other side of a snow-covered mountain, but they told me you were back here. And that there are two acting platoon leaders named Kim Cheolsu. One got in an accident while doing a training exercise over there, so I couldn’t meet him, and that’s why they told me to come back here. They said you were probably the Kim Cheolsu I was looking for. I came all the way back, worried I might never see you again.”
The words came out so fast that I started to doubt whether I even believed myself. So I stopped talking. No further explanation seemed to be needed. Cheolsu probably felt the same. He listened to me with his mouth half open and didn’t say anything for nearly a minute.
“What? I don’t follow you. You think there are hundreds of acting platoon leaders around here? I’m the only Kim Cheolsu. It seems there’s been some kind of huge misunderstanding. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and ask someone else.”
I didn’t know what was going on either. Was what I was feeling right now hatred? Or a dull affection buried deep inside? Or was I merely acting out some dramatic emotion in order to endure this chaotic life? I didn’t know, but for God’s sake, stop touching my shoulder like that. I’m not an animal.
After a brief silence, he asked me, “Did you eat?”
We held hands as we walked. Just like two lovers on a snowy, unpaved road. I shook my head.
“There’s not much to eat here. Just some pastries.”
Cheolsu sounded apologetic, but then he held up the bag of chicken as if he’d just remembered it was there.
“We have this!”
I shuddered in horror. He couldn’t really be telling me to eat that chicken.
“I hate chicken. And besides, that’s your chicken.”
“I have to go to the bathroom.”
“It’s over there.”
Cheolsu pointed to the soldiers’ latrines at the end of the parade ground. I went in and squatted down awkwardly, trying to keep my body from touching the latrine door, and peed for a long time. My thighs and butt were ice cold. When I came out, Cheolsu was pouring a can of Coke into paper cups. He was sitting on a bench beneath a tree overlooking the snowy parade ground. Cheolsu’s friends and their girlfriends, mothers, and little sisters were staring at us from across the way. They looked like they were waiting to see how much I would enjoy eating his chicken.
“Here, dig in.”
He tried to hand me a cup of Coke. I shook my head.
“Eat! I bet you haven’t eaten anything all day.” He was tearing up the chicken as he spoke.
“Cheolsu, are there two Kim Cheolsus here?”
He put the chicken down and looked at me.
“Tell me. Is there another acting platoon leader named Kim Cheolsu besides you?”
“I told you there isn’t. Someone made a mistake. Either you misheard them, or some idiot soldier misunderstood you. One of the two. And besides, what does it matter now? You’re here now, and the Kim Cheolsu you were looking for is right in front of you. So who cares? Have some chicken.”
“It’s your chicken.” I pushed away his hand as he held out the carcass. “Cheolsu is not an uncommon name. Right?”
“What the hell is it you’re trying to say?”
“I know I said your name clearly, both here and at the other base. Kim Cheolsu. I said I was here to meet Kim Cheolsu. Just like that. But everyone told me the same thing. There are two Kim Cheolsus. I don’t know which Kim Cheolsu you’re looking for. But since you can’t see one of them anymore, go look for the other Kim Cheolsu. That’s what they said.”
“You’re tired.” Cheolsu gazed into my eyes as if to soothe me. “That’s why your nerves are frazzled. I’m certain of it. Have some chicken. You’ll get your strength back, and you’ll feel better. Do as I say.”
My eyes started to well with tears. Up until that moment, I’d never really understood what sadness was. A fierce, mob-like sadness that sneaks up on you, clear and strong. What was it? This sadness that creeps up and cuts through all of your routines and your boredom and your repetition and your drama, that stabs your flesh and sticks in the soles of your feet like a sliver of glass, what was this really?
“I went to see your mother,” I said. “She called me.”
I ignored Cheolsu’s chicken and kept talking. He must have seen my tears, but he wouldn’t take his hand away.
“I really don’t belong with you. If it was like the old days, when all we did was bump into each other at the bus stop on the way home from school and say hello, that would be one thing, but this isn’t it.”
“What are you saying?”
“I hate the formulaic lives you and your mother lead.”
Ah, finally I’d said it.
“Don’t say that. Eat some chicken.”
Cheolsu seemed like he was suppressing his anger, or wounded pride. His voice was high and peevish sounding. I took the chicken, placed it back in the aluminum container, and put it in the torn paper bag. Cheolsu watched wordlessly. I carried the bag over to the latrines. The snow was falling prettily on the paper bag that held the chicken carcass, on my footprints, on my sweater, and on the soldier’s latrines, like a midnight drawing. The weather was frighteningly dark, and the world was filled with shadows that made it impossible to tell what time it was. I tossed Cheolsu’s chicken into the toilet and turned around. Cheolsu was standing right behind me. I ignored him and walked away. His friends and their girlfriends and mothers and little sisters were still staring at us.
“I’ll never forgive you for this. Ever.” Cheolsu hissed at me from between his teeth as I brushed past him. “All you do is put up walls and make excuses that I can’t understand. I’ve always hated people who go through life like they don’t care, making everyone else pander to their moods. I tried to feel a sense of duty towards you.”
Without looking at him, I said, “Now that your toilet has eaten your chicken, you’ve done your duty.”
And then I left.
Sora Kim-Russell also translated Bae Suah’s story Highway with Green Apples, published in Day One, December 2013.