Conjunctions:51 The Death Issue

June 26, 1950
Chungchong Province, South Korea


He can hear the pain, shifting and moving, a big animal somewhere close. He knows he’s hurt bad and he holds still, looking hard into the perfect white. The pain presses at him, pushing, sliding near and veering away, and he drifts, half conscious, waiting for it to find him. There are banks of cloud, vast, featureless, soft. He sees a shape below him, a curve in space, a mountainous line against a sea: the Taebaek Range, rocky and broken, running like a north-south spine along the Sea of Japan. They’re the same barren, unforgiving mountains that rose above Taejon and overhung the lowlands he crossed and tracked and hated during the retreat. Now they shine, banked with clouds and spread out like some dinosaur’s blasted ivory skeleton. Beautiful country, he thinks, so hot and so cold, and knows he’s in a dream. It’s winter in the mountains and the clouds are snow, drifted and deep, horrendously white, yet he feels no cold. He feels nothing but sees the moon set along the jagged peaks, a pale bulge round as an orange until it settles farther down, snug against the foothills. He hears a cry then and the land shifts, settles, and lengthens. Like a woman, he thinks, like Lola, turning away from him in sleep. He wants to trace the long smooth line of her body, run his fingers from ankle to thigh to hip. The rounded globe of her belly, seemingly within reach, glows like a moon he can touch. His legs are senseless but he can move his arms, his empty hands. He reaches for her but she’s far away. He sees her below him, gowned as though for a ceremony, flat on her back in a white room, the hard plane of a steel table under her and her knees pulled up under sheets. The baby isn’t born and she’s bleeding. It’s her pain he hears, deepening, closing in. A burnished pewter light wavers as he tries to approach. The pearled edges of the tableau darken, flickering every time he tries to move.

     He opens his eyes. The movement of light is tracer fire crossing against the stones above him. He’s on his back in the grit of the tunnel and he feels a subtle thrum in the ground. He thinks it’s the approach of tanks or heavy artillery until he remembers the stream on the other side of the tunnel wall. The tunnel exaggerates sound, displaces echo, vibration. There are indistinct voices, whispers. It’s dark and the Korean girl has got them midway in, against the side of the tunnel where the dirt of the road meets the inner wall. Leavitt hears scattered artillery reports. Soldiers dug in just beyond the front and rear of the tunnel are firing sporadically. He lies still; if he doesn’t move, the pain locates just beside him, and he can think. He feels the girl behind him; she’s taken the boy from her back and put him on the ground between them. Now she pulls Leavitt onto his side, into the curve of the wall, and presses the boy down, behind him. Leavitt feels for the butt of his revolver against his belly, under his shirt. The gun is gone. Blindly, he feels for the revolver near him, on the ground. He has it in his hand, pulled close, when he hears the girl talking to the old woman. She’s in front of them, kneeling upright. The girl is telling her to lie down, stay flat on the ground, but the old woman moves close to Leavitt and looks into his face. She’s frail, smaller than the girl, her lined face almost simian. Her small eyes are black in their raisined folds. He hears her curse him under her breath, like a whisper or chant, and then she spits on him.

     There’s a rush of Korean words from the girl as she wipes the spittle from Leavitt’s face. Crouched behind him, near the wall with the boy, she touches him with flattened palms, his eyes, the line of his jaw, his cheeks that are stubbled with a week’s beard, as though to put him back together, repair the insult. Her hands are warm and dry, slim and weightless as a child’s, but her touch is deliberate. Maybe she isn’t a child. He remembers the shadow shape of Tompkins and his girl on the paper wall of the brothel in Seoul; the girl suspended in Tompkins’s arms was probably no older than this one. It was always that girl. Tompkins let her choose which others they took upstairs with them, a means of supporting her status, winning her favor. The youngest girls called him hyoung neem, older brother, and formed an audience of sorts; they exclaimed like little kids as Tompkins held his girl aloft over the bed, turning her balanced on the soles of his feet as she extended her arms and legs, a performer poised in midair. Tompkins and his girl were beautiful then, siblings playing at circus games.

     Leavitt hears the words, halmoni, yogi. The Korean girl is whispering urgently to the old woman, who sits motionless, inches away, staring at the ground. She ignores the girl and croons a kind of dirge. She might be crazy, or the war has driven her crazy; she might be a shaman, a practitioner of what the country people called Tonghak, the Heavenly Way. Superstition and magic. The elderly rural people still believe inmudang priestesses, changsung spirit posts, chapsang protection. Leavitt hears words, phrases. He’s a murderer, she says, an evil demon, he’s not alive. She spits into the dirt, then prostrates herself over her own offering as though before a temple deity. She believes he’s a murderous spirit wandering among the dead.

     The old woman is mistaken, Leavitt thinks ruefully. If he were a spirit he would fly from here, lifted like a mist, and take these children with him. Tompkins is looking for him, if Tompkins is alive. He’s still certain he heard or sensed Tompkins’s voice on the radio. This is not enemy: a phantom transmission. You must listen to me, Leavitt tells the girl in careful Korean. He can see, in the dark, the shapes of bodies lying where they fell, villagers wounded in the strafing who made it to the tunnel and died, or survivors killed by sporadic fire. The Koreans still alive are terrified, silent, huddled near the tunnel walls or lying flat on the ground, unmoving. The nervous American troops seem undirected, pinned down, or shooting at whim; the fire may get worse.

     Leavitt wants to tell the girl to get him to the tunnel entrance at first light. He wants to keep his eyes open, focused, but he’s shutting down, losing track, his consciousness manufacturing images as though to compensate for his entrapment, his injuries. The images are vivid and acute, a sensory expansion or avoidance. It doesn’t feel aimless; it feels like information, direction cut adrift from space or time. He senses Tompkins’s restless, impatient energy raging near him, searching. Tompkins considered himself equally menaced by North Korean troops and American command. Command kept your ass in a sling, Tompkins said, while the Communists shot at it. Leavitt knows he can’t depend on Tompkins to find them. The panicked platoon may have taken casualties and scattered after the second strafing, left the wounded. Tompkins might be hurt or dying.

     His attention blurs, and then sharpens: He sees Tompkins looking at him intently, peering at him as though into an enclosed space, through a window. Then they’re together in open air, moving effortlessly through a densely green Korean landscape. It’s a sunny day. The sound of the war roars past like a train they forgot to board, but they don’t acknowledge it. They’re in a country grove where it’s shady and quiet. They stop under the trees, near the red wooden posts of a hongsal-mun, a royal grave site. Two haet’ae statues guard the decorative latticework of the open gates. The haet’ae, fierce fire-breathing creatures that resemble lions, are massive, waist-high, settled back on their haunches like big dogs. The features of their faces move and they turn their stone heads as Leavitt and Tompkins approach. Tompkins touches one of the statues and takes a round red object from its mouth; he shows it to Leavitt, a small kusul disc with a flame decoration. Leavitt looks past him to see Tompkins’s girl and the other girls from Seoul; they’re all with him, there beyond the graves, moving across the grass in a gently swirling salpuri, a traditional improvised dance still performed in rural hamlets. Tompkins looks at him and smiles; shakes his head as though to comment on Leavitt’s illusion. Then the picture changes and they’re alone, standing in the dark near a simple myo shrine that marks a commoner’s grave. Tompkins’s dark eyes are somber. His face is leaner, narrow and gaunt, his high cheekbones nearly Asiatic. He gives the kusul to Leavitt, closed hand to closed hand, and says it’s from the mouth of the dragon: the flaring jewel of Buddhist truth. The kusul, compact as a small flat stone, is surprisingly heavy. Tompkins is speaking but Leavitt can’t make out the words. There’s something more. Something about the gun. He’s saying to holster the gun.

     Leavitt hears the old woman. He’s in the tunnel and the old woman is mumbling in cadence, chanting or praying. The girl has pulled Leavitt onto his side with his back against her, and he can reach the empty holster strapped to his thigh. He moves his hand to the gun in the folds of his clothes and grips it, forces it securely into the holster. His arms are heavy. He knows he’s passing out intermittently, but he has to keep track. He considers giving the revolver to the girl, but he reasons she’ll know to take it if she needs it. The old woman, her face in the dirt, doesn’t move and continues to chant. He feels the girl next to him, by the tunnel wall. He has to convince her. You must do exactly as I say, he tells her in Korean, She doesn’t respond. Ihae hashimnikka? he asks her. Do you understand? Ne, she whispers, yes. Get me to the entrance of the tunnel, he says, taking care to translate correctly. If they see an American soldier alive, they’ll send someone. I can tell them: no infiltrators, only villagers. The girl doesn’t answer, or he can’t hear her. It’s hard to speak. Has he spoken? He’s not sure. There’s more gunfire. He hears the thug of a dropped body near them, and stifled cries. He feels the girl behind him, pulling the boy lower between them. She’s a smart girl, a good girl. They need to shield the child and they need to rest, so that she can pull Leavitt to the front of the tunnel. He can feel the curve of the boy against him, warm, nearly weightless. Quiet, breathing.

     Gently, the girl puts something, a thickness of folded cloth, under Leavitt’s head. The boy’s face is against the back of Leavitt’s neck. Your shy skin, his mother used to say, touching his neck at the base of his hairline. Leavitt hears her calling him. It’s evening, when he was so young he didn’t work in the store; he’s seven or eight years old and she’s calling him in from the street. If they see I’m alive, he tells her in Korean, they’ll come for me. That’s good, Bobby, she says. She’s kneeling in front of him, combing his hair with a wet comb. He sees her young face, the face he saw as a child. This is not enemy, he says. She smoothes his hair and her hands are wet. Drink, she says in Korean. Lie still. He hears his mother talking to the old woman. It’s his mother’s voice, softly entreating, then it’s the girl’s. He sees the old woman kneeling near him in the dark. She’s taken the gun from his holster and holds it in her palm as though inspecting it. Leavitt wonders calmly if she’s going to shoot him. The revolver looks big in her small hand. Take the gun from her, he tells the girl in Korean, give me the gun. Before he can calibrate the old woman’s intentions or try to move, she puts the gun to her head and shoots. Leavitt feels warm blood spray his face and the gun’s report echoes through the arched space like thunder. The sound rolls him under like concussion, and he knows the troops dug in beyond the tunnel will think the refugees have weapons. Immediately, a volley of fire pours through the tunnel from the rear. An answering volley from troops guarding the entrance ricochets against the walls. The girl screams and pulls him against her, low and tight to the wall, out of the line of fire by inches. He loses consciousness in a roar of enveloping sound.

Jayne Anne Phillip’s novels include Lark and Termite (Knopf), from which her contribution to Conjunctions:51, The Death Issue is taken.