Jongin's life was not his. His memories were built by other people. His self was built by other countries.
Inside a drab house north of the peninsula, floorboards barely warm with the last heat of dying coal, in the winter of January 1926, he was born into a family of already four, to a father and a mother who both worked for the same steel mill owned by the Japanese. He remembered being a toddler, cradled in the bosom of his mother as she swayed from right to left, feet shuffling. Jongin would stick his thumb inside his mouth, humming along to create the tune his mother would dance to, as the Japanese roam the streets of Korea like they own it.
Like a sad story, she would whisper in his ear, watery, “The war will be over soon.”
She died before it did.
He was seven and he remembered his mother’s coughs, wracking her thin body and crinkling her long skirts as she clutched on to the fabric. The starkest imprint of her that Jongin could make out of from the hazy memories of early childhood was the wooden rosary always hanging beneath the folds of her top. He would grip it in one of his hands, playing with the beads and putting the cross inside his mouth. He remembered his mother laughing, pulling it out, saying, “This is something sacred. This is the symbol of God.”
He had asked then, in the tinkling way only a child could. It was, maybe, the fall of 1932. His mother’s heaving chest was not yet spouting blood and mucus. “What is God?”
His mother’s smile had been hopeful. She answered, “He will save us.”
Jongin believed her then—continued to believe her afterwards. He thought, someone will save his family, his country.
At thirteen, his father followed, succumbing to an illness they did not have the means to get diagnosed. The rosary lost its meaning and Jongin was a blasphemy in the form of a boy, his sisters would often say. He would shrug, would retort, “It is a piece of carved wood.”
Jongin knew there was no god like an absolute certainty. He carried the rosary wherever he would have to go to.
So he was a heretic and Korean; it did not require much thinking when, at nineteen years old, face open and limbs lanky, Jongin had said yes to an older man, portly and bald, recruiting young boys—barely men. Most of them were from orphaned families. They were easier to persuade, particularly those in the lower classes, the ones with barely any food on the table. They had nothing to lose.
Jongin had nothing to lose.
His sisters escaped to the south, along the beaches on the tip of the peninsula, leaving him alone in the same house, because it was hard to be a Christian during the times when the only god anyone could ever recognize was whomever would liberate the country.
The floorboards were no longer heated; spring had come even without the blooming flowers.
Jongin had thought it was the right choice, wholeheartedly and willingly joining. There were turmoils in China. The Soviets were marching near the border, down. The Americans, if the gossip mongers were to be believed, were docking sometime in the next year, in the ports south of the country. Barely an adult, he became part of a military, a guerrilla group, desperately put together with hand-me-down artillery and unheard prayers.
He just wanted the war to end. Jongin wanted to rest.
His entirety, past his nineteenth year, was a collection of red bleeding through the murky brown. The red flag of the socialists, the Soviets, on the deserted and dingy alleyways. The decorations on their misshapen uniform, sewn and put together clumsily. The blood seeping down the soil on the trenches all over the country, crossing over invisible lines and through the regions up in China that stretched towards the dying lands in Manchuria.
Before he was two decades old, red had become a constant, a familiarity, that he felt like it was the only thing he could see. The color was always on his periphery, clouding his vision. Sometimes, it was rimming his eyes from the nights when he could remember the screams and the pleas. Sometimes, it was on his hands, caking underneath his fingertips, as he dragged bodies after bodies of mutilated silence.
Jongin had learned fast enough that the dead could only speak in his dreams.
The people he killed appeared more often than his parents did.
Jongin had just started another chapter of the book he was reading when someone rapped on his door—three subsequent knocks, solid on the hollow that was the wood. He inserted an old inventory receipt—grenade counts, ammunition, gun types, fuel reserves in between the words of translated and annotated Lenin—to mark where he had stopped. He called out, “Come in,” as he pushed the book away. The desk rocked, one of its feet shorter than the rest. Jongin took another unused paper, folded it tight, before bending down and placing it underneath the uneven leg.
The knob twisted and the push was slow. The hinges creaked as the door swung open. A tall figure was backlighted by the afternoon sun, orange and yellow mixed with the bleed of the red Jongin was intimate with. The man stepped inside his room and the door was closed instantly. The hinges cried again.
“Lieutenant Oh,” Jongin greeted. He craned his body towards his visitor. His right forearm was resting flat on the table, right leg crossed over the other. “What’s the matter?”
“Sir,” Sehun tipped his head down. His back was straight as a rod and his hands were behind his back, clasped. He had wide shoulders, feet apart. At rest. He added, “Major Gwak wanted you inside his office. Closed door.”
Jongin eyed Sehun’s blank face. The man was younger than him by a few months. Jongin was older by two years, only in terms of experience in the battle field. He had done unspeakable things during Sehun’s teenaged years which the younger officer had spent frolicking on the ports of Hamhung.
He stood up, nodded. Sehun turned back to open and to hold the door for him. Jongin gripped the ends of his white shirt, twisting it in his hold before slipping the hem underneath the band of his trousers. He slid his hands, tucking the garment properly and smoothing out the kinks.
The two of them walked quietly across the halls. Sehun followed him, standing right on his six like always. They passed by some of the commissioned Soviets in the barracks. Jongin exchanged a nod with some of them and the ones below him halted and saluted. Protocol was the same anywhere else in the world.
Major Gwak’s office was at the end of the hall. Jongin knocked twice, knuckles on the solid wood. Their commanding officer had a heavy door, more than enough for firewood in the middle of fucking nowhere when it was cold and everyone’s hands were freezing around their rifles. Such was the fate of a soldier, Jongin thought. Forever in the mercy of their commanding officers.
There was a muffled acknowledgement from inside so Sehun opened the door. With a tilt of his head and a pair of pursed lips, he gestured for Jongin to come in. When Sehun closed the door from the outside, it did not make any noise. Jongin, in reflex, brought his feet together, thighs pressed. His arm was in a perfect angle, back rigid and fingers not touching his forehead.
“At ease, Senior Lieutenant,” Major Gwak said. His voice was gruff and his face was wrinkled. The office was bright but the older male’s features were dim. Jongin stood at rest, hands linked together on his back, just on his tailbone. The Major ordered, “Step closer, soldier.”
He walked near the large table in the center of the room. It was finished dark—there were dents from various blades and Jongin guessed that one had to have been inflicted by a pocket knife, slim and deep, a controlled cut. There was a Korean map in the middle of the table. The corners were held by three paper weights and a gun. The TT was closest to their company officer, lying like a careless afterthought over the waters of the Pacific.
Jongin knew it was anything but.
He snapped himself to attention when the Major said, “In three days, I want your platoon to be ready.” Jongin’s eyebrows rose to his hairline but he remained quiet. Subservient. “You will march to a small village near the Ongjin Peninsula. Just by the border.”
The 38th Parallel was a black line painted on the map—an imaginary border agreed only by a handful of men, none of which were from Korea after the Japanese had annexed the country, occupied the land as theirs. Jongin clenched his fists tightly from where it was resting behind him. His facial expression did not change.
Major Gwak continued, “You will take control of the village. Weed out as many as you could. The village was hard to defend what with it being a little off course.”
His commanding officer raised his head and the tip of his stubby finger moved somewhere in between Haeju and the Ongjin peninsula. The 38th Parallel was a glaring reminder that the place was not theirs, by some definition. Jongin knew that the Major wanted the platoon to take it back.
“And what of the villagers,” he asked, told himself to keep his back straight and his voice even, “who will not comply?”
There was a smile on the Major’s face, all teeth and akin to a predator. Jongin could imagine blood dripping from the canines to the chapped lips to the wrinkled chin. “It is your job to make them, is it not, Senior Lieutenant Kim?”
Jongin was a soldier so he replied, strong and resolute, saluting, “Yes, Sir.”
April 21, 1950
Jongin led a platoon of twenty-three men to Haeju airbase, some fifty kilometers near Ongjin, tucked away and separate from the rest of the provinces slightly above the 38th Parallel, maybe even in between. The outskirts of the province was quiet, mountain ranges bracketing and hiding remote villages. The boys packed their necessities—guns and bullets, small hand bombs, food, some spare clothes, pilfered pornography. Their communications specialist was putting away the radio devices in the jeep.
Jongin eyed the ration. It was not bad—there were grumbles from his men, but soldiers were the most experienced whiners he had seen in his entire life. Jongin, in fact, had lived worse in the impoverished Wonsan with his family, in the deserted lands in the middle of the Chinese Civil War as a Korean volunteer nudged towards a different country with the desire to give aide.
It seemed so far away now as Jongin looked around the twenty-three men under his command. His uniform was ironed straight and his rank glimmered from where it was sewn near his breast. The cut of the uniform and the type of the fabric were both different from what the privates were donning. It was daunting—to be responsible for other lives aside from his.
Jongin used to stay behind the 17-pounder, dressed in pants and shoes and nothing else, streaked with brown and black from the soil mixing with gunpowder, firing down highly explosive shells one after another. Tungsten leaked through the sweat and grime on Jongin’s skin but he loaded the machine with ease, uncaring of the other men flanking both his sides and doing the same thing.
None of the men who had stood beside him had lasted long, men rotated like wall clocks, and Jongin slept beside dead bodies on the hard ground.
Here, in the airbase before heading to the village he and his men were assigned at, Jongin was clean shaven and his hair was combed back. He was overlooking men loading their cargo on the light vehicles. His hand was behind his back as he exchanged words with an officer of a higher rank.
“Senior Lieutenant,” he acknowledged. Major General Rang took the cigar in between his index and middle finger with the thumb supporting the thick roll. Jongin did not turn his head away when the smoke streamed out of the older man’s mouth, a little escaping from his nostrils. It smelled quite unlike anything that Jongin wondered where he had gotten it. The Americans, he remembered, were fond of them. The Soviets—he was not so sure. He added, stare heavy, “You are on your own time now.”
There was a bite on the Major General’s clipped tone. Jongin nodded, dared throwing back, “As I have always been, Sir.”
There was a tilt on Rang’s head before he gestured to where Jongin’s platoon had been waiting. The younger saluted and there was something that could almost be a smile on the higher ranked officer. Rang had always liked his boys with acid tongues.
His soldiers stood in attention and Jongin slid to the passenger seat beside Sehun. His second-in-command gave him a curt nod. Jongin inclined his head to the front and the ignition roared to life, noisy and rumbling. Both of Sehun’s hands were loose on the large wheel. The rest of the men followed the GAZ-67 that the Lieutenant was maneuvering out of the base and into the terrains around Haeju.
A few minutes passed and the roads became bumpy. Jongin was holding onto the front as Sehun deftly made a right turn without falling off of the open jeep. There was sigh, derisive and half way into a scoff and a ridicule, from the younger man. Without removing his eyes from their path, Jongin watched as Sehun twisted his lip upwards in a crooked smirk. The other man commented, “I can’t take Rang seriously when he’s smoking—what do you call them sticks—cigars? Yeah?”
Jongin grunted and Sehun’s fingers drummed on the steering wheel without pattern or coherence. The man continued, “He looks like he was sucking cock. Every single goddamn time.”
The senior officer snorted before the inhale was dragged long by soundless laughter. He replied, a little out of breath like that one time he had shot three men in the span of five seconds, “Soldiers had been punished for doing something less than what you had just said.”
Sehun shrugged one broad shoulder, jostling the jeep off of the imaginary road. “Rang was not here to publicly admonish and punish me.” The man made another turn and, behind them, there were hoots among the lower ranks. The only thing that could make them noisy like that, that fast, was talks of women. Jongin let his stare point straight as Sehun, with an underlying leer on the tone of his voice, added, “Unless you will. Punish me, I mean. Send me off, maybe? Let my fucking soul rest, yeah?”
Jongin closed his eyes. “I really should.”
The jeep rumbled and the vibrations of the wheel pushing and pulling against the beaten not-quite road sent tremors from the curved bottom of Jongin’s foot up to his calves and his legs before settling on the end of his spine, slowly tingling upwards the length of it. His teeth clattered.
“But you will not,” reminded Sehun.
After a beat, the elder answered, “I will not.”
The village sat on a valley just outside of Haeju, below the border—in between. Jongin was sitting straight on his seat, back a perfect vertical 180, a zero degree. Overhead, the sun was unforgiving with its heat and he fiddled with the stand-up collar, slipping his forefinger and pulling at the material of his uniform. Beside him, Sehun had the wide collar of his brown uniform undone to the second button. He did not make a comment and instead kept the envy he felt towards the Lieutenant to himself. Sehun’s uniform was made to endure the heat better than his.
Their jeep trundled across the rocky terrains, and the noises of the other soldiers had died down to almost nothing. The rubber wheels moved against the gravel with definitive crunches.
“We’re almost here,” Sehun said. Both his hands on the steering wheel turned white-knuckled and his shoulders were tense. Jongin raised his left arm straight, his hand open and the back of it to the soldiers following their vehicle.
The GAZ decreased in speed and so did the ones following them behind. Jongin kept his gaze to where he had seen the first house and then, another. Their vehicles passed through the several smattering of homes and Jongin saw the way the children cowered against their mothers’ long skirts. Tiny hands were fisted on the layered cotton as faces hid from their view.
It was not an unfamiliar sight.
Jongin kept his back straight, his expression flat and borderline grim. He heard an audible gasp before he saw a man run. He gestured for the brake and Sehun understood, immediately, slowing down before stopping.
“You!” He called out. The jeeps behind him also braked and they stopped right in the middle of the road. He saw an elderly couple rush inside their home.
The man slowed his steps and Jongin had to call him again before he turned. There was a pained smile on his face. The corners of his lips curled, reminding Jongin of an alley cat. Grimy and sly.
“M-me?” He stuttered. He wrung his hands together, grasped the material of his hanbok’s long sleeves. Jongin did not know if it was deliberately off white or if it was as worn as it looked like.
“Yes,” Jongin replied dryly. He got down from the vehicle and the other man audibly and visibly gulped. Jongin was taller by a few centimeters, not much that he would tower over the other, but enough to highlight an intimidatingly cut build. There was a revolver easily seen near his hip. The Nagant had a home inside a commissioned leather sleeve, barely concealed. He thought he had seen it glimmer with the way the shorter man’s eyes flitted down and, then, right. The man’s fingers trembled.
After a beat, Jongin asked, “What’s your name?”
“Jongdae,” the man whispered. There was a hitch on his voice, fear caught inside the column of his neck. Jongin smiled inwardly—the man had nothing to fear, yet. Jongin had done nothing worth being fearful over, as of the moment. Clarifying, Jongdae cleared his throat and, a little louder, added, “Kim Jongdae.”
Jongin hummed—he could not make out if the man would roll over or if he would fight back.
He took a step and Jongdae took one backwards, as if on instinct. The sun threw shadows to the village, 16:15 glare on houses that had seemed to stop progressing. Jongin rested the back of his left wrist on the sliver of hard muscle and soft flesh above his tailbone, below the length of his looped leather belt—another luxury, an authentic thing imported from Moscow—before he gripped the other wrist. He looked down at Jongdae, relished the minute quaking of the other man’s lips. Like a helpless kitten in front of a lion.
“Jongdae,” he drawled, the last syllable breaking off in an aborted sigh. The man’s shoulder turned even more rigid—a surprise, since he had been much tense the moment Jongin had called for his attention—and his eyes were darting to and fro different directions. Jongin was sure the short man was looking at the group of soldiers behind him. He added, loosening and tightening the grip he had on the wrist on his back, “Would you care to escort us to where this village’s chief is?”
“I—what do you—I mean, why are you here?” The hem of the man’s top was already wrinkled with the way he was holding the material in between his hands. His head was pointed towards the group of uniformed—armed—men.
“Just a friendly conversation,” Jongin said. He tried to smile, a little thing. They taught this in the constabulary—cordiality to the point that the other party would be thrown off. He added lightly, “We are here to offer him our protection.” It was scarier, he knew, to look into the eyes of an amicable man only to see blood thirst.
“Do you want—I can go with—” Jongin watched as the man’s eyes went to the gun holstered on his person again, quick, before momentarily flicking towards the direction of the parade of jeeps, soldiers stuffed in the front and back, tight with the limited budget from the Major General.
He cut off Jongdae’s rambling, said curtly, “Go with us to the village chief then.”
The shorter man nodded, two quick strokes. His eyebrows were furrowed, weirdly enough, upwards. He gestured for Jongdae to follow him and he pointed to the back of the jeep, remarked, “Just make some space for yourself.”
Jongin waited for Jongdae to clamber on top of the vehicle. Short legs hitched high, the man dropped gracelessly amidst their packed belongings. He saw Jongdae gulp once more when he spotted a Type 97 and 98 rifles lying less than a foot from where he had plopped down. Jongin did not point out the automatics on his immediate right.
“All good?” He asked, slipping into the passenger seat. Jongdae squeaked out an affirmation and Sehun turned the engine once more.
Jongdae directed them—and the soldiers still following—across the small village. Jongin did not move his head but his eyes roamed the surroundings. His second-in-command knew what to do, and so did the boys of his platoon. Their vehicles were slow and Jongin assessed the unfamiliar place calmly.
The houses were roofed in overlapping tiers; the bigger ones were made with clay tiles and the smaller ones, the more common ones, it seemed, were made with plaited straw. The people averted their eyes when they passed but Jongin knew that gossips would spread the moment they were an inch out of sight. The community was unlike the shipping town where he was from. The houses started clustering together and there were more people out and about. Someone was carrying a basket and holding a child’s hand on the other. It looked like time had stop for these people when, all along, the pace of Jongin’s life was moving alongside the whiz of his bullet, keeping up with each other’s speed.
It was unlike the tenement housing in Wonsan; the cramped cinderblock apartments were straight out of the Soviet Union, post-Japanese occupation of the Korean peninsula crumbling away one signature at a time. The government was more than eager to adapt the practices of the people north of their border.
Here, Jongin could see where the roots of these people had buried deep under the ground. There were paddies a little off ways, a stretch of green amidst the blue of the afternoon. There was a thicket of trees behind a strip of houses and Jongin licked his bottom lip, thought of the map he had tucked inside his bag. He transplanted the remote forest against the latitudes, a tiny secret for himself.
There was a low-rise building, all cement and rectangular, with square windows—a school—and beside it, a health center. At that exact street corner, Jongdae asked them to turn. Sehun did so wordlessly, face a mask of stoicism and efficiency.
“We’re almost there,” Jongdae mumbled and the jeep decelerated. Jongin had a hand on his gun, an instinct and a comfort after all the years he had spent with it as his only companion. Jongdae pointed to a house sitting on a wide piece of land near a rice farm, said, “Stop there. That is where the chief lives.”
The hanok was a large L-shaped structure and a courtyard was fashioned out front. Sehun stopped a few meters from the house, keying the ignition off. Jongin took a deep breath before getting down from the jeep. The rest of the soldiers’ vehicles were haphazardly squeezed on the empty plots. From the corner of his eyes, Jongin saw a young woman scurrying inside the village chief’s house—probably a daughter or, not unlikely, a mistress.
His men all clambered down from the cars and he let them stretch their limbs even if the journey from Haeju to the village was mercifully short. He watched as Jongdae did the same, toeing around the armaments he was just sitting down with, before he jumped out. Sehun was more graceful in his exit, one long leg extending out first and then hopping.
Jongin approached the taller man, tipping his chin upwards once. He said, “The boys are yours to control. I’ll talk to the chief myself.”
Sehun saluted, “Yes, Sir,” before his voice boomed—first and foremost, cursing the members of the platoon and their mothers. The younger male had always loved the rush of authority.
“Lead the way,” he requested. It came out sounding like an order and Jongdae was hasty to obey, tripping over himself and over one of the sliding doors of the house. It was made out of wood and paper—the hanji was beautiful against the medium shade of brown.
“Village chief! Uncle!” He called. His voice was shaking, the syllables broke against one another. “It’s Jongdae! Someone was here to see you.”
The entryway slid open and a man greeted the both of them. Jongin scrutinized the elder, ran his eyes up and down the figure. No wonder he was the chief, he thought.
The smile on the man in front of Jongin's face was easy but his posture was easier. There was a patch of hair above his upper lip. His feet were bare against the floor, tapping, and there was a folk song blasting from the radio, intermittently halted either from bad reception or bad appliance.
The man’s eyes widened and he stood up straighter when he fully saw Jongin—uniform and coiffed hair and stern expression. His smile turned tight but he greeted, “Good afternoon, Sir. Would you like to come inside?”
If this was China seven years ago, the man would have been dead—and so was his entire household. Hospitality was as good as a suicide attempt in the middle of war. Except, of course, the village chief probably had no idea.
Jongin dipped his head low, to the side, and he answered, “That would be good. Thank you.”
He went down on one knee, carefully unlacing the shoes he was wearing. Long fingers loosened the length of the fabric, careful and methodical, as Jongin sneaked glances at the older man. The village chief gestured for Jongdae, head moving slightly to incline towards the inside of his house. Jongin continued to unlace the other shoe just as the man they had picked off of the streets toed his own off. Another second or two and Jongin was standing inside the house and being told to sit.
The chief was quick to drop to the floor in front of the low table, his left leg was folded towards his person and his right leg was bent too, foot planted on the wood and knees high up. Jongin knelt down before he lowered himself. His shin on the floor bore the weight and he arranged himself properly so that the heels of his feet were not digging on his flesh painfully. His palms lie flat on the top of his thighs; his shoulders were relaxed but even. Between them, Jongdae was sitting in a careless lotus.
“What brought you here,” the village chief’s eyes flickered towards Jongdae, “with my nephew?”
Straight to the point—Jongin liked him, a little. “Protection, Sir. My soldiers and I are here to protect the village.”
There was a hum from the man; the radio stuttered. “And why, exactly, this humble community of ours?”
“We were assigned to this post,” Jongin said. He considered his next words carefully. A wrong statement and there would be, at least, one dead body. Neither the village chief nor Jongdae was armed. “Orders from the higher ups. Your village was in the border.”
The chief turned to Jongdae and snapped, “Go make us some tea.”
Jongdae followed with a quick, “Yes, Uncle,” before he scrambled up and disappeared in another room. The chief turned to him, expression dire and serious, but his tone did not hide the accusation resting level on his tongue.
“And who do we need protection from?” The man’s right eyebrow was higher than the left. Jongin’s hands curled into loose fists.
“The Americans,” he said. “Rhee would be moving up.”
“There were no large American troops staying on Korean soil.” There was a pause, sounding calculated. The chief’s lips twitched in one corner as he said, “I reckon the Soviets would be moving down. Or will it be the Chinese, this time?”
Supposedly, there were neither Soviet nor Chinese military anywhere on the peninsula.
Jongin’s face was a solid rock when he replied, “Classified, Sir.”
The older man’s lips twitched once more before he sighed. The chief’s shoulders slumped; Jongin knew that answering classified in a yes or no question was as good as an affirmation. “Do I have a choice?”
“Yes.” There was always a choice but—Jongin continued, “We would need rooms to rest. And a temporary place to house what we have brought with us.”
A resigned exhale and then, “How many were you, in total? I would arrange your housing with the citizens. I assume none of you and your company are picky. What with being used to sleeping wherever.”
“Twenty-three,” he answered. “And no, a roof above our heads would be enough.”
There was a momentary lapse between the conversation. Outside, the wind blew and rustled the leaves and branches. The radio was still going on, going off. The folk song had long transitioned into another and Jongin strained to listen to the boisterous camaraderie of his boys a few meters from the house.
“I did not even know your name,” the chief groaned, breaking the impasse. “Yet here I was, giving shelter to soldiers from the other side.”
“Kim Jongin. Senior Lieutenant from the 105th, Sir.” A pause and then, “Do you believe you are—with Rhee?”
Jongin tried to keep the hardness from his voice. It was too early for talks of such nature. The village chief raised his stare before averting it to the ceiling. He let out a great exhale like he was taking off a huge weight resting from on his stomach up to his chest—out of his mouth and into the open air.
“Do we even know which side we are on?” The chief closed his eyes. “We are a remote village near the border. Some people do not even know there is a war.”
Jongin scowled, “There is no war.” Yet.
“There is always war, for people like us living where we are right now,” the elder breathed out.
“Where do your loyalties lie?” Jongin remained a cold statue, as cold as the revolver on his hip. His fingers twitched but this was not the time. That would not be necessary.
The man opened his eyes, stared at something to Jongin’s right. Voice remaining even, he answered, “To my community.”
“So,” Jongin retorted. The sun was filtering through the hanji. It was closer to 17:00 now; another red to add to the multiples of the day, alongside the bright orange and the slowly disappearing indigo. “You would do whatever for your village?”
“Well,” the man turned to look at Jongin’s face, took in his uniform and the lapels pinned, the gold sheen of the metallic buttons. “I’d be damned.”
Like a cue, Jongdae rushed in with a pot of tea and three narrow cups on top of a wooden tray. He almost spilled the hot drink with his clumsy entrance, skidding on the floor from the lack of friction between the wood and his thin socks.
“Be careful!” The village chief barked. Jongdae, wincing, placed the tea on top of the table, grabbed the kettle where it was brewed, and poured each of them a beverage. Jongin watched as the other man put a cup in front of his uncle, and then in front of him before, finally, taking one for himself.
Jongin took the cup of tea in his right hand and found the thick glass had made the hot beverage pleasantly warm on the pads of his fingers. Slowly, he brought it to his lips and he allowed the smoke to waft inside his nose. He tried to smell anything out of place—poison, maybe.
“Go on. We have no intention of killing you, Senior Lieutenant.” The man took a gulp of the drink, added, “What have you done to merit such?”
There was an eerie way to the manner in which the chief delivered the rhetorical question underneath the easy joke.
Jongin took a tentative sip, found no odd traces of anything that could remotely incapacitate him. They taught this, too, in the constabulary. Little traces of poison into the water, made the students know the many ways they could die. Familiarly. First hand. Jongin remembered being sick many times on top of being bruised purple on every fucking inch.
The radio static stumbled; Jongin continued drinking the tea. The gun on his holster was left where it was.
Barely an hour and a half later and Chief Jung had his soldiers sorted to various houses in the village. Sehun was staying with Jongdae and Jongin’s host had yet to come for him.
“I apologize,” the elder rumbled to him. They were sitting around the low table still after Jongin had sent his men off with a stern warning. They were soldiers not raiding barbarians. “I can’t let you stay inside my home. I have two unmarried daughters.”
Jongin nodded, said, “There was nothing to be sorry for.”
The chief hummed lightly, “Our Kyungsoo would be a little difficult, I think. But he is not a bad person, Senior Lieutenant.”
The younger knew what the other man was getting at. According to him, Do Kyungsoo was a single man living near the paddy fields, one of their farmers. The man was living alone on the outskirts a walk away from the chief’s house and from the crowded parts of the village.
The elder added, like an incentive, “I had a small shack near his house where we keep some of our harvest. You can keep your supplies there, Senior Lieutenant.” Jongin noticed how the man said supplies—the guns and the ammunition, the fuel—like it was the veritable plague.
He gave a short nod, replied, “Of course. Thank you.”
Jongin heard the telltale noise of running footsteps against the crinkling gravel and his attention snapped towards the sliding door across the table. There was a faint outline of a figure slightly hunched. The wood rattled when it slammed to the left and Jongin saw a panting man bent over and gripping his knees over his baggy pants.
“Sorry,” he exhaled. This must be Do Kyungsoo. Jongin had not expected a small, wide-eyed man. His voice was deeper than what he had been thinking of. His lips were quirked downwards like he was anything but contrite.
“I was cleaning the house for my visitor.” He spat the words out, visitor had never sounded as acerbic in Jongin’s ears. He kept his face neutral but there was something simmering inside his gut.
Jongin did not recoil at the obvious hostility coming from the man. His eyes were narrowed into a glare and turned towards him. This was what the village chief had meant when he mentioned Kyungsoo being difficult. Jongin remembered the name, mentally cataloging the man. Height, build, the timbre of his voice, the insolence of his words. Kyungsoo had been here for less than ten seconds and Jongin knew, instantly, if a little biased, that the mad would give him a headache and then some.
He smiled, “Nice to meet you, Kyungsoo. I’m Senior Lieutenant Kim Jongin from the 105th.”
Kyungsoo’s lips curled in obvious distaste and Jongin heard the click of the village chief’s tongue. Without qualms, the man retorted, “The feeling is not returned.”
“I won’t get an introduction?” Jongin asked, standing up. He slung the strap of his worn bag over his right shoulder. He barely sunk down from the weight of its contents. He patted his uniform down, smoothing down the creases of the entire day. The clothes of a soldier were a reflection of his stature as much as the guns he would carry and his kill count.
Kyungsoo narrowed his eyes even more that Jongin wondered if the man was perhaps in need of eyeglasses. He bit out, “It seemed that Chief Jung had done the introductions for me. We need not concern ourselves further than what he had already shared.”
Jongin tipped his head to the village chief, remarked, “Well, your Kyungsoo is here. We’d go along then.”
Chief Jung waved them off and Jongin took his time to lace his shoes. Right on the left hole and left on the right hole, creating a simple criss-cross, he relished on the way Kyungsoo tapped his foot on the ground while waiting for him. There was a scowl on his face.
“I’m good,” he said, standing straight. Kyungsoo waved his gas lamp, clasped the handle in front of him. The moon was already bright but the incandescent glow from the lantern was creating a burst of light around the two of them.
The last time Jongin had seen someone use portable gas lighting, he had been half-dead near the borders of Korea and China, fighting against the Japanese and the Kuomintang—both, either, Jongin could not remember. The flickering of the light and the smell of the fuel made the large scar on Jongin’s left side twinge with phantom pain. He could not remember if it was a from a bullet or a shrapnel from one of the explosives being set off. Even now, Jongin was unsure as to which party gave it to him. He could have done it to himself, for all he knows.
Wars, for a mere soldier like himself, felt as if an individual against everyone, alone in the middle of the battlefield.
Jongin fucking abhorred gas lamps, really.
“Follow me,” Kyungsoo snapped. Jongin would too but he had no idea where the other man lived. There were too many paddy fields in the village to know which one the shorter man resided near at. His hands twitched at his side. The revolver was still cold. The reminder had always comforted Jongin, in a morbid sort of manner.
This was the only thing he had known. One of the three constants of his life. The gun—sometimes icy, sometimes warm from the heat it had robbed away from human bodies. The red. The rosary of his mother.
Jongin stepped beside the man, on Kyungsoo’s left. Their shadows stretched on the undone road and he watched as his limbs move, hands going behind himself to clasp on his back—a habit, in almost detachment. The nighttime was silent except for the music nature played on the slightly swaying trees and from the whispered musings of the wind. The cicadas chirped, swallowing notes after notes. The cicadas chirped, swallowing notes after notes.
“You are increasingly impolite,” Jongin said slowly, softly, as to leave the night undisturbed, “towards a military officer.”
Kyungsoo continued walking without any reply, the pebbles grinding against the soles of his shoes.
Jongin let his sentence hang in the air before the wind blew it away, unanswered.
Kyungsoo opened the main door to his house; it was left unlock, carelessly. It was one of the smaller properties in the village, a simple rectangular structure, with a roof made of shingle. The light from the lamp that Kyungsoo was carrying dimly lit the room. Jongin deftly hoisted his bag higher on his right shoulder before bending down to untie the laces of his boots. Kyungsoo toed his shoes easily and Jongin followed the shorter man as he arranged the pair near the door.
He let Kyungsoo step inside first, walking across the length of the room to the other side. There was a sliding door separating to what Jongin assumed as another room, the lone room in the house. His feet were soft against the wood and the lamp was placed in one corner, on top of a side table.
“I rarely use electricity,” he said. “Not many in this village do because of the cost.”
Jongin nodded, replied flatly, “It’s fine. That won’t be necessary.”
The other man crouched in front of the gas lamp, fiddling with the knob to turn the brightness of the light down. Kyungsoo’s house was sufficiently cooled from the breeze and the slight nip was pleasant against the skin of Jongin’s face and what was visible from his jaw down.
“Where can I change?” He asked, gripping the strap of the military issued bag slung on his shoulder.
Kyungsoo gestured to another corner, the one near the entryway, and Jongin did not need to take more than five steps to get inside the small bathroom. He squeezed himself inside and he let out a string of curses when his clothed hip bumped the sink hard.
He did not bother asking Kyungsoo for another lamp but he was used to removing clothes in the complete darkness that his fingers did not fumble. He took his holster off first, placing it on top of the concrete sink before both his hands grip the top button of his uniform, taking it out from the hole, and moving to the next ones. His mother’s rosary was caught in the fray of the fabric and he pulled it free, disentangling the beads from where it had gotten wound. He slipped his pants off, replacing it with a scratchy material. With careful precision, he folded his clothes properly, mindful of unwanted wrinkles and creases.
When he came out of the small bathroom, the coldness bit the bare skin of his torso. Goosebumps rose on his arms and his back but he did not mind, he had been on worse lodgings than this one. Jongin lugged his bag and held his clothes, unsurprised to see Kyungsoo laxly standing around and waiting for him as the man gathered his hanbok’s vest in one hand and the gas light in another.
“I prepared a floor mattress for you,” he said, not looking Jongin in the eye. The dim incandescent light casted orange glows on the male’s fair skin. The other man had long lashes, their shadows appearing to be delicate wings on the thin skin under the eyes.
“Thank you,” Jongin returned, averting his eyes somewhere else. There were a series of photo frames nailed on the wall, and he could only see, vaguely, the outlines of the figures on the photos. The light reflected off of the glass, glaring.
The silence was uncomfortable and the noise of the cicadas was almost deafening. Jongin hesitated to take a step. Kyungsoo broke the silence first, barely heard from how soft it was, trying to fight off the shrill drones from outside. He coughed, “You have to sleep in the same room as I do.”
Jongin’s eyebrow rose and a question hung in the air.
A scowl, and Kyungsoo grit out, “I don’t trust you that I will leave you alone in my living room.”
“You trust me enough to leave yourself alone in a room with me?”
Kyungsoo scoffed, “I don’t trust you. Period.”
Jongin huffed out a short laughter. He could feel amusement bubbling in his stomach as hostility eats it away, steady. He said, “I could kill you in your sleep and you would not know it.”
The shadows on the man’s face shifted and his eyes found Jongin’s own. The corner of his lips minutely jerked upwards, barely noticeable if not for the fact that Jongin was a soldier. The difference between life and death was the smallest of details.
Kyungsoo drawled, lazy and off-handed, “What makes you think I can’t do the same thing?”
“Fair enough,” Jongin answered, mildly impressed despite himself. A little irritated too, for an incomplete reason. He clenched his jaw and he could feel the tick on the left corner, just below the juncture where it met his ear.
Kyungsoo turned around, murmuring, “After you,” as he slid the door open to the tiny bedroom. The gas lamp he was holding shone a light to the space. There were two quilted mattresses rolled down on the floor, thin and narrow, just enough for one person to comfortably fit. A pillow was placed on top of each alongside a square of folded blanket, looking scratchy and stiff. There was more than a meter between the two makeshift bed.
Wordlessly, Jongin commandeered the one corner of the room, empty of anything. He set his bag down and his uniform and holster went on top. His revolver remained in his hands.
Kyungsoo said, “My bed is the one on the right,” before he set the gas lamp near.
Jongin grunted his acknowledgement as he picks up the thin blanket, sitting on top of the unfamiliar mattress. The room was suddenly shrouded with darkness when he heard the flick of the knob from the gas lamp near the other man. The moonlight filtered through the lone window in the room. A single beam that illuminated a strip from where it was coming from. The night air was cold and the goosebumps had yet to subside.
The cicadas were singing a tune and it was too early to sleep. This part of the village was silent and Jongin wondered how noisy the ring of his gun would be, here, at this very time. He ran his index finger on the barrel as he closed his eyes. The blanket was laid to the side as he had no intentions of using it.
He took a deep breath when he heard rustling sounds beside him. His shoulders turned into a taut line. In the muted darkness, everything sounded like a war zone.
His right hand held his gun, index finger stretched outwards and thumb ready to take the lock off.
“I’m going to sleep,” Kyungsoo announced. He heard some more rustling, a blanket being unfolded, and then, nothing. The violent whooshing of the trees outside Kyungsoo’s home was swallowed by the steady hums of the insects.
He wondered how the other man could close his eyes when there was another person in the same room with a gun on his hand. Jongin had killed men and had not needed even that. He wondered if Kyungsoo knew what soldiers like him had done, what he had been taught to do.
Finally, when the breathing beside him had evened out, he gripped the rosary hanging from his neck. The cross rested just below his chest, right against the hollow in between his ribs and his sternum. The wood was smooth against his skin. Thin and unobtrusive from the years of unceasing devotion towards a god who did not exist.
He did not bother saying a prayer—Jongin had no idea how, anymore—but he counted sixty beats from the pulse audible on his neck before he let go of the cross to slip the revolver underneath, on the right side, like clockwork. He used the same hand—wood to gunmetal, more than five years of habit—before gently lying down.
Jongin, with his back flat on the quilted bedroll, squirmed, trying to ease himself. Anything more than the uneven ground felt like a dream. Starched bed covers and barely filled cotton stuffing felt like the Egyptian sheets he had once tried when he bed a high-born woman, a daughter of a general. It was quick, impersonal, and now, Jongin had felt the hotel bed on his back more than the way he had slipped himself inside of her.
With a sigh, Jongin closed his eyes and he tilted his head, ears pressed on the covers, trying to listen to the lullabies of the gun under his pillow, singing him to a shallow sleep.
Jongin woke up in fitful stages throughout the night. The nightmares followed him to sleep—Manchuria first, and then Chong’jin, his mother in between the distant sepia of the years he spent in the constabulary. The imprints of every gun he had held were stark on his skin, on every line etched on his palms, just as real as the one he hid underneath his borrowed pillow. His feet went past the floor mattress and the draft of the air kicked him through the gut as he felt the ground shift under him, inside his nightmares, barefoot on the soil of the frontline.
The image of his mother and the soft tones of her voice overflowed through the terror of the military and the war. Her fingers on his hair morphed into the structured material of his hat until Jongin did not know where the dream had begun and where it had ended, bleeding into the bad ones.
He woke up at exactly half past four in the morning. He knew without checking the clock, since he had done this for years already without fail. No matter how early or how late he retired at night, Jongin would wake up on the dot, exact, at the same time everyday. Only, of course, if he had even slept the night prior.
He sat up from his makeshift bed and he ran his hands on his face. A meter and some away, he could hear his host breathing steady. Jongin felt envy, for a moment, before he tugged the revolver from under his pillow. The weight of it was, as always, an acquaintance.
The darkness danced on his vision, seeping through the remaining images of a small town in China that he had helped during the civil unrest, four years ago, defined by the protruding ribs and the gaunt faces of the people. Jongin remembered starvation and spindly fingers reaching for him, asking for food and alms. The community was forgotten like the last syllable of a dying man and the only thing they had asked from them was loaves of bread, even moldy.
Jongin had learned the horrors of war—wars—exhaustively, and perhaps the scariest of it all was this: the people, more than anything, were caught in the middle of something bigger than themselves when all they ever wanted was a safe shelter and a plate of food.
He was light on his feet when he stood up and he stole a glance at the sleeping male paces away from where he was standing. In the dark, with only the light from outside streaming in, Kyungsoo was curled into a ball, lying on his left side and facing Jongin.
The thought sent a tremor that was caught in his gut, blooming into chilly tendrils, when he realized he had been so out of it last night that he had not even noticed. He gripped his revolver tighter.
Kill or be killed. Soldiers had died because of the smallest details, he reminded himself.
He tiptoed across to his bag, left the gun on the floor, and he pulled out a pair of trousers, a shirt, and a bath towel—all rough and cheap, provided by the supplies from inside the barracks. He groped for clean underwear and the small hygiene kit before he made his way outside the room, sliding the door slowly and breathing quietly—almost not at all.
Jongin fumbled around before he remembered an extra lamp he had seen last night, resting beside the door of the bathroom. Kyungsoo’s house was almost empty, lacking of anything with substance that he would trip over. Near the bathroom, Jongin placed his hand on the wall, trailing it downwards until he found the lamp. He flicked the thing on—the fuel wafting into his nose, petroleum reminding him of China once more—as he held it an arm’s length away.
He made a quick method of cleaning himself, taking his clothes and the rosary off first. The water was cold as hell but he barely shivered. It felt like fallen snow in the middle of a hot summer day as he scrubbed himself raw of the dirt from yesterday. He pulled out his own soap, washing his hair and his body with it. He ran the suds from the length of his torso, down to his hips and his legs, until even his feet smelled clinical. The last douse of the cold water was satisfying as the bubbles were washed away from his skin, feeling dry and squeaky.
Jongin dressed himself inside the bathroom and his pants caught a stray puddle, wetting the hem as he cursed lowly. The shirt clung to his damp body and he pulled the rosary, hid it under the blend of nylon and cotton. He brushed his teeth before he took out the shaving box. The blade glided smoothly against the growth of his facial hair, and the ring of it was clear from where he had tapped it against the sink. With the low light and the cracked mirror, he took his time and tried to avoid nicking himself.
When he came out of the bathroom, he was unsurprised to see Kyungsoo sitting in front of the low table of his living room. The gas lamp was flickering from where it was set on the floor a few feet away from the man. Jongin turned his off and replaced it from where he had picked it up before he had bathed.
“I woke up and you were not there,” Kyungsoo said, disgruntled.
“Sorry,” was his insincere reply. “I took a bath.”
“I could see that,” the man replied. His eyes flitted on Jongin’s wet hair to the dirty clothes and the towel he was carrying. He added, lips extending to another corner of the house, near the bathroom, “I set aside a basket for your own laundry.”
Jongin did not bother with a thank you as he carefully placed his soiled clothes beside another basket—Kyungsoo’s, filled half-way with the soft-looking fabrics of the man’s regular hanbok. Jongin had forgotten the last time he had worn one, only knew it was sometime before he was nineteen, in Wonsan. The traditional dress was impractical for someone of his job description.
Jongin padded to the living room after, hair still damp as he roughly ran the towel through the strands. Kyungsoo sat, unmoving, in front of the table. The gas lamp illuminated the relief of Kyungsoo’s jaw and Jongin stole a glance, a little sideways, just as he sat down near the man. The distance between them was crackling, palpable.
“You left your gun near your bag,” was Kyungsoo’s offhanded remark. “Unattended.”
Jongin shrugged and leaned backwards. The towel was slung around his neck and his right hand was flat on the wooden floor, stretched backwards to support him. From this vantage point, he was still looking down at the other man despite the fact that they were both sitting down.
“It was a sign of trust,” he said. The other man scoffed and Jongin, more honestly, added, “You don’t look like the type of man who knows how to shoot a gun.”
Wrong. Jongin knew that everyone could know how to shoot a gun, if the moment arose.
“Everyone could know how, if given a desperate chance,” said Kyungsoo. A deliberate pause, and his eyes defiantly looked straight at Jongin's. Their gazes met and the light from the lamp flickered once more—eerie, ominous. Kyungsoo’s eyes blinked slowly, almost lazy, and Jongin took the stare head-on—like the barrel of a gun to a temple—as the man said, “If given the right motive.”
Jongin tilted his head and there was a cackling sound from the rooster as the black of the sky bled out, slowly turning into indigo. He let the noise permeate the silence of the room, the smell of gas and soil. Kyungsoo’s words hung between the two of them like a noose.
“There are no right or wrong motives,” he replied. “Only people and what they wanted.”
Kyungsoo’s thick eyebrows rose to his hairline and his lips quivered, the corners twitching into irritation—or, perhaps, begrudging amusement.
“There is always a right or a wrong,” retorted Kyungsoo. Jongin observed the length of the man’s arm as it creeped on top of the table, fingers drumming against the flat surface in what was quickly shaping up into a habit. His throat tightened, Jongin felt his tongue stick on the roof of his mouth in anticipation. “We just pretend they are not there.” He lifted his shoulder once, craned his head in a way that the shadows casted by the lamp made his jawline sharper than it already was. Another pause, and then, “Feigned ignorance is better than guilt, for some.”
Jongin knew a conversation when it ended and this—this was just the beginning. It was the first stone casted towards a peaceful lake, creating ripples on every surface where it had jumped, a continuity of overlapping circles on the fragile infinity of the unmoving water.
“Guilt,” he said as Kyungsoo stood up, “is the base of what makes us human.”
Kyungsoo turned to look at him and Jongin’s breath was stuck inside his throat, larynx being pressed down with an unknown weight. His stomach churned and there was something sudden, knocking him out of balance that the elbow of his stretched arm trembled.
There was a sad smile on the man’s face, his eyes were soft and pitying.
He said, an unfinished accusation, almost drowned by the sounds of the early morning, “It does not absolve you of what you have done.”
His hands shook and he twisted his lips in distaste. Kyungsoo walked away and his feet barely made any sound. Jongin could not help the way his stare traced the width of the other man’s back. He knew it was narrow, thin, but from where he was sitting down, it looked like an entire mountain, an immovable stronghold. He tried to listen to his own breathing, and he was surprised when small trickles of light slowly but surely filtered through the oiled papers in between the wooden panes, warming his skin slightly.
Jongin heaved a breath just as the sunrise came like the dawning of man, suddenly and out of nowhere.
Jongin spent the entire morning cataloguing their armaments inside the small shack near Kyungsoo’s house. The place was where the man would keep the sacks of rice during harvest season but, as of the moment, it was empty except for the containers of petrol and crates of ammunition he and his platoon had brought. The silver key dangled from his fingertips, given directly by the village chief. The glimmer of it had caused Kyungsoo’s face to go red and his eyes were narrowed into slits as he spat into Jongin’s direction a long line of obscene curses that could make anyone blush.
He kept a straight face, cheeks uncolored, as he threw the man an offending smirk. Jongin was a soldier and he had heard—and said—worse than that in the middle of getting shot and blown off.
Knee deep and in between bouts of greasing the bolts of gunmetal, imaginary sulfur and saltpeter rubbing on his skin, seeping underneath, Jongin could finally breathe a little easier than when he was with Kyungsoo. Raw charcoal and the slick of oil between the gaps of his fingers, against the terry cloth he was using to caress the length of the firearm, time passed just like that—quick and merciless, silent and unassuming.
“Senior Lieutenant,” a deep voice broke his concentration, loud like the instance of an open fire.
Without turning around, he instantly knew who it was. No one had the audacity to say his rank like that and made it sound like an insult and a joke all at once—except for a single person.
“Kyungsoo,” he bit out, turning to face his visitor. He was standing against the doorjamb, one shoulder leaning into the wooden entryway.
The man could make Jongin feel like he was ready to cock a gun straight to his forehead faster than an American or a Japanese or even his commanding officer had done. If the man could not make his blood boil with a single exhale, Jongin would consider it a talent. There was something about the arrogant lilt of his voice and the angle of his chin that pissed Jongin off like second nature.
“It’s lunch time,” he said. Kyungsoo stood straight, no longer postured on the entrance, as he gave a small nod to the general direction outside of the shack.
Jongin, likewise, put his things away. He twisted the cap around the mouth of the gun lubricant and he folded the rag he was using four times. He set it aside, as he holstered his revolver around his hip, slinging and clicking it in place around his leather belt. He straightened up and dusted himself off.
He followed Kyungsoo outside, locking the place securely before slipping the key into his pocket. There was a small basin of water near the door half-empty with clear water and Jongin crouched low, washing his hands carefully of any grime.
“I’m surprised you’re reminding me of the time,” he said. Kyungsoo grimaced, glared at him like he was the lowest among the low. Jongin ignored the look, used to being on the bottom of the barrel. He flicked his wrists twice, hard, as the water droplets created a small rain to dry his hands.
“I would rather you starve, Senior Lieutenant Kim,” Kyungsoo almost growled. He took a step to the direction of the denser parts of the village, and then, another. Jongin followed, boots against the small rocks and the uneven road. The shorter man added with unconcealed disdain, “The village chief insisted. You and some of your soldiers were invited for a meal.”
Jongin did not answer but there was an unattractive snort threatening to burst free. The sunlight was streaming high overhead and it stung the exposed parts of his skin. The humidity was stifling near the slow beginnings of summer and he pulled away the material of his shirt from where it had adhered to his sweaty torso.
The silence was kind to the both of them and the knives formed by their words stayed underneath their tongues and on the backs of their teeth.
Kyungsoo was walking with his hands clenched into tight fists, eyebrows furrowed towards the middle, and full lips in an even fuller scowl. Jongin was no different—palms closed, fingernails digging into his skin to form pink crescents in a mark of his undeniable self control.
When they got to the large property, Jongin saw his men standing around, some quiet and some, not. Sehun was standing stoically, face straight and expressionless, as the man they had accosted yesterday—Jongdae, he remembered—chattered beside him. The man’s hands were flying wildly and Sehun, more than once, had to incline his head to a different direction, or take a small step away just to avoid being hit.
“There they are!” The village chief exclaimed from where he was thumping two of Jongin’s men on their backs—both private officers looked like they did not know how to deal friendly reception. These men, including himself, were expecting hostility and resistance. Instead, they got enthusiastic greetings and a free lunch—lunches, it would seem, as Jongin eyed a plump elderly engaging conversation with his soldiers.
“Unfortunately,” someone on his right hissed.
Mostly enthusiastic, he corrected himself, eyeing Kyungsoo who looked like he would rather prostrate himself than breathe the same air as him and his men.
The village chief accosted him just as quickly and Kyungsoo disappeared from his vision like a particularly stubborn enemy. Jung was tall and he had no difficulty wrapping his arm around Jongin’s shoulder in a friendly gesture. The senior lieutenant allowed him, neither with a welcoming smile nor an irritated frown. There were women tittering when he was introduced to them, paraded like a prize horse with a gleaming Nagant and group of men to order. One of them had her small hand tuck a stray section of her hair behind an unadorned ear. Jongin’s expression did not change and her face fell.
Some were not so blatant about their flirting and the meal proceeded with much flare. There were spirited laughter and exclamations of delight from the villagers that Jongin could see his men slowly letting their guards down one funny story at a time. The younger ones—not far from Jongin’s age, but years too late in terms of experience—looked particularly overwhelmed with red staining their cheeks.
He had seen Kyungsoo all over, blending into the background as Jongdae entertained him. The smaller man had cracked a small smile, lips barely moving at all, but his eyes had brightened. The sunlight had made it even brighter and Jongin looked away, uncaught.
“Kim Jongin!” He turned around and was surprised to see one of the village’s woman, carrying a plate filled with fruits. The sweet scent wafted from his nose as the meal from awhile ago settled pleasantly inside his stomach. She thrusted the dish in front of him and he was helpless at the sight of her open face, wrinkled with age but nonetheless beautiful, the way people of her age tended to be—carefree, obviously enjoying the last of their years.
He inclined his head as he carefully held the piece in between his hands. The lady gripped his right elbow and Jongin almost flinched. The woman must have realized and she shot him an apologetic stare as she directed him to sit on the narrow porch surrounding the L-shaped house, characteristic of traditional Korean architecture, unblemished of the years of foreign occupation.
There was a plate and then some inches separating him and the elder woman but Jongin scooted a little farther, unused to the close distance of strangers who were neither paid prostitutes nor dying men from the other side of the front line.
If she noticed, she did not comment on it. Instead, she said, “Try the fruits. They are particularly sweet this time of the year.”
Jongin, out of politeness, bit into the piece of peach. The juice bursted inside his mouth, saccharine, and he felt like this was the first time again, after so many years. His taste buds had been desensitized after being used to the bland rations inside the barracks or growling stomachs in the heat of the war when the supplies had gone low and the reinforcements had yet to come.
“Good?” She asked. Her eyes were alight and her lips were in an easy grin. Jongin felt a twinge of envy, once again, towards people like her.
But then again, all of these were supposedly for her—for those like her—so Jongin might see them smile like that, the way he could not.
“Yes,” he replied. “Thank you.” He took another bite and he chewed slowly, taking his time to savor the chance. Not the sweet taste of the peach itself, but the experience.
Jongin’s eyes wandered over the scene unfurling in front of his eyes. Everyone had a piece of fruit at hand, some more than the other. His soldiers, in particular, looked like they were not letting an opportunity like this to pass. One of them was loud in his jokes and storytelling, causing a gaggle of women of all ages to giggle with their hands on their mouths. His eyes roamed the small courtyard—traditional wear mingling with the trousers and the leather boots, severe regulation haircut with the countryside fashion, if there was even such a thing.
His eyes found Kyungsoo and he watched, unblinking, as the man leaned into Jondae’s space, clear laughter deep as it sent reverberations that made his chest vibrate. From here, Jongin could see the way Jongdae indulgently let Kyungsoo invade his personal bubble, welcome and encouraged. There was an uncomplicated sort of camaraderie between the two of them that made Jongin wonder, silently, inside the deeper confines of his mind.
“You’re staying with our Kyungsoo, right?” The lady asked; Jongin had almost forgotten about her if not for her inquiry and the loud way she breathed. She said Kyungsoo’s name the way a mother would, proud and doting.
“Yes,” was his short answer. And then, not wanting to be rude, he added but not with an ounce of truth, “He had been good company.”
The elder woman laughed and she waved one thin hand in front of her face in a shoo-ing motion. With a huff, she said, “You’re lying, Senior Lieutenant Kim.”
Jongin’s lip twitched upwards and his eyes found Kyungsoo’s figure once again. He looked so different like this—away from Jongin, he seemed more relaxed, more unguarded. His entire body was free of the knots it had contorted itself into in an effort to defend himself from the soldier.
“Was I that obvious?”
“Not really,” she replied. The laughter in her voice had not left when she continued, “Our Kyungsoo could be difficult at times. I’m sure the village chief had told you.”
“That was his exact words, if I remember correctly,” he added.
The elder woman was tracing lines on her long skirt. Jongin sensed a story beginning to form from the lady’s mouth and he kept his closed in an effort to let her continue. She looked like the type of person who would not let others get a word in edgewise once she had begun with her anecdotes.
“He’s a sweet man, really. Been through a lot that boy,” she said. There was still pride in her voice like Kyungsoo was really her son. Jongin was sure she was not; the house he was staying at was devoid of any signs of Kyungsoo having a living parental figure. Jongin sneaked a glanced at her, sideways, and the smile playing on her lips was doting, if a little sad. “He’s little antagonistic towards new things but he’ll come around. He always does.”
“Is he,” Jongin paused, afraid to offend someone who clearly regarded Kyungsoo highly. He swallowed and he rotated the peach in his hold. “Why is Kyungsoo so—aggressive?”
Jongin had an inkling of as to why but he waited as the woman hummed a short tune before she answered. “Defense mechanism. You’re suddenly here in our village, carrying guns and bombs. You’re dressed like the soldiers from up north.” There was a pause. “His parents died early, during the Japanese occupation. He was not from here but Jung brought him young, already an orphan.”
He let the words sink in with clarity, tried to think of a toddler Kyungsoo without his parents, clinging to the village chief like he was the only anchor amidst the confusion.
“Why are you telling me this?” He asked, curious and helpless.
The woman shrugged, “So that you may be patient.” Another pause. She seemed to be fond of them; her old age catching up to her, lips smacking and her mouth slow. “So that you may understand that we were all victims of a war that had happened, that would happen, just in different ways.”
Jongin swallowed and an emotion formed inside his stomach, and inside his chest cavity. Something foreign that he could not name.
The sunlight shifted and Jongin’s eyes were drawn towards Kyungsoo again. He was—something. The light shone on him like a halo from the relics of Jongin’s memories, from the stories of his mother.
Kyungsoo seemed like summer personified, at that exact moment—warm and vibrant. Alive.
Jongin looked away, afraid of being caught—by Kyungsoo, into Kyungsoo himself.
Instead, his eyebrows rose and, with practiced slowness, he said to the older woman beside him, “Victims or not, we’re part of the same country. We, as soldiers, are here to protect you.”
The woman shook her head, replied, “At this rate, there is no one same country.” Her words were firm and strong even if her posture was not. Her hands on her lap were open, palms up. Apropos of nothing, she asked again, “How old are you, Kim Jongin?”
He answered honestly, “24 this year, Ma’am. I was born in ’26.”
“Younger than our Kyungsoo by a year then.” He would be lying if he said he was unsurprised about that. Kyungsoo carried with him the air of a young man, just shy out of being a teenager.
She turned to him and, suddenly, it was not about Kyungsoo anymore. “You’re young, Senior Lieutenant. You have a life ahead of you.”
The meaning was clear under her statement and Jongin averted his gaze, looking over to the horizon this time, far away. If he imagined hard enough, he could pretend that the mountainside just beyond was the end of ends; nothingness stretched behind the sloping surface.
“It is my duty,” he said curtly.
No one said anything for a minute before the woman spoke again. Her tone was soft but it did not betray the certainty she placed on her words. “Son, it’s okay to be selfish once in a while.”
Jongin kept his mouth shut. He bit into the peach and found it bitter on his tongue this time around.