Je me crois en enfer, donc j’y suis.
Baekhyun had only known war.
He had been born in the fields, or so his grandmother had said. His birth had occurred at a time where the Japanese occupation was still ongoing, and for his family who had seen the rise and degenerative fall of the Empire, it had been way too many years of oppression already.
Baekhyun wouldn’t know, exactly. He hadn’t seen the Korea of his parents or grandparents to be able to tell the difference. All around him, there was poverty; an entire people being slowly ripped of its identity. It showed at school, in the streets, in the way the civilian police would look down upon him even as they smiled, or in the way his grandmother would only ever murmur the words of the traditional songs she sang, as if she was afraid someone would hear her.
The country was stuck at an intangible equilibrium, and it was the only Korea Baekhyun had ever known.
It didn’t mean his life was exempt of happiness, not at all—there were times in the fields with the water tickling his ankles where he could almost feel free, where only the wind and the sun would keep him company and there would be no one to make him feel restrained or like he isn’t worth anything. During those times, he would find himself singing those songs he heard his grandmother hum, but he would belt out the words instead of hiding them in hushed whispers like he was used to hear them. Sweet melodies would become invigorating anthems in the summer afternoons where he was charged with chores in the paddy fields.
There was nothing wrong with singing a song, Baekhyun believed. It soothed his aches and made up for the misery that was laced in the streets of Gyeongsong, far behind the farmhouse; it made him believed that someday, maybe he, too, would get to see a bright and prospering land that he could call his own without someone else claiming it, like his parents and grandparents before him once did.
Sometimes, he wondered why he cared so much about restoring back a past he was never part of. Then again, if he didn’t, he was afraid he wouldn’t have a purpose to live. That was terrifying. Having an identity was the only strength Baekhyun had, at a time where everything else was deceiving.
When Baekhyun was sixteen years old, other boys his age would run after girls, would throw each other knowing looks when they would mention Jung Soojung’s name or would watch Choi Jinri walk past, her skirt swaying along her hips and brushing against her slender legs. They were beautiful, Baekhyun agreed.
They were beautiful in a way paintings are beautiful, in the way the rain that sticks to the window panes in the fall is beautiful; they were also charming and kind and delicate, sweet and funny and intelligent, too. And so, maybe that was why Baekhyun couldn’t understand his friends when they would stare at them longingly, as he saw something in their eyes he knew he didn’t have in his own.
Somehow, deep down, he knew what it all meant, but he kept quiet about it. There was no need to raise attention on himself over such trivial matters. If, instead of staring at Soojung’s legs or Jinri’s curves, he was instead stealing a look at the almond shape of Park Chanyeol’s eyes or his sloppy grin for a little too long, no one had to know.
Soon enough, it was the entire world that was at war.
Baekhyun heard from Minseok that Japan got involved in some business in the West, and there was a fear that they would soon lack men amongst their ranks. What Minseok didn’t say, but Baekhyun understood nonetheless, was that they might end up being enlisted without having a choice, having to serve a country that isn’t their own in a war that isn’t theirs.
He already had a life of his own, working in the fields all year long and running errands for his grandmother more and more as she was slowly losing the energy to go herself. Baekhyun graduated high school, and soon enough found himself a job at Mr. Lee’s bookstore, while Jongdae picked up the bartender position at the tavern that his brother left behind, when he voluntarily enlisted, back in 1942. No one dared to talk about it.
In 1944, the Japanese government began the conscription of Koreans in the army. Baekhyun, Jongdae and Minseok all opted to work in the military industrial section, where their chances of survival were higher despite the terrible conditions they had to live under. From September 1944 to July 1945, Baekhyun had served in the industrial camps. He had no recollection of those ten months. With the amount of scars left on his body, he was rather thankful about that.
Baekbeom had joined the Imperial Army. Baekhyun didn’t hear from him after the battle of Tarawa.
August 1945 came rolling around like a tornado of national relief and chaos at once. Baekhyun came back home with his two best friends in tow, reuniting with their friends who made it out alive from the Japanese ranks. Chanyeol was one of them, and Baekhyun hadn’t thought twice before leaving a quick peck on his neck, the first time he saw him when the war ended. Chanyeol had brushed it off, because that was just who he was. Baekhyun hadn’t, and kept his distance from the man (and all he had meant) ever since.
Jongdeok hadn’t come back, neither did Baekbeom. Baekhyun and Jongdae never really dwelled on it, except that one time they cried together in the fields, some night in early September merely a few days before Chuseok, clutching at each other’s clothes and letting their tears soak each other’s shoulders. They hadn’t uttered a word; they hadn’t needed to. It was their only moment of grief, the only moment they let each other feel their loss, and it was a night Baekhyun knew they both would do anything to forget.
They never did.
Soojung was there to welcome them, that evening in August. She had tears in her eyes and a distorted but relieved smile on her red lips, and Baekhyun hugged her the tightest. When he asked her about Jinri, and she didn’t answer, he didn’t insist.
The only good thing the war brought was the departure of Japan from Korea; it didn’t make it any better, though.
Another good thing would be Yixing, but that’s complicated.