Fiction: A Forgotten Story of War

July 14, 2017 Fiction , Literature , POETRY / FICTION

USN photo

 

By

Therese Young Kim

 

 

June 25, 1950 in Blackstone Village near Seoul, the night fell gently upon a garden abloom with flowers on a soft bed of soil. Lying on the cotton-padded Yo in the cozy comfort before curling up to snooze, Nayoung listened dreamily to the sputtering of a little fountain pool in the fishpond outside her window. Five goldfish kept circling slowly, also ready to repose for the night. The tall-stemmed red gladioli next to the fishpond were gently waving in the breeze as if they

As Nayoung tried to decipher the message in her dreamy eyes, she was quickly lulled into sleep when a thunderous noise shook the village. A moment of numbing silence fell only to be broken by the piercing cry of what sounded like a cat, then the world turned pitch dark. Through the darkness, the voice of Nayoung’s father, Tongsun, rang out with his urgent plea, “Good gracious, mother just delivered a baby! It is already screeching! Tongman, light a candle and go quickly to the village doctor and tell him to come immediately! Hurry with a can

Almost instantly, the middle son, Tongman, hurried out of his bedroom, steadying a candle in his hands, nearly colliding with the maid who was staggering out of her room in a daze. Togsun, who had seen the midwives attending to the births of his six other children over the years, told the maid to bring fresh towels and a pair of clean scissors, and to warm up a bucket of water.

“Holy Buddha! I think the baby simply slipped out of me from that terrible noise! What was that loud bang, dearie?” Nayoung’s mother, Chinju, asked Tongsun wearily when the maid brought some towels and a pair of scissors.

“Here, here! Wherever the noise was from, nothing should be of concern now that our baby boy is born safely!” Tongsun gently clipped off the infant’s umbilical cord.

“A bucket of water is being warmed,” said the maid and rushed out of the room.

“Look, look at this bundle of life!” He beamed, carefully wrapping the tiny infant in a dry towel.

Just then the breathless village doctor arrived, clutching a black leather bag. He seemed quite surprised and relieved to see the infant already lying in his mother’s arms. But he brought a surprise of his own, saying that the Han River Bridge had just been bombed by the Southern Air Force.

“What? By our military?” cried Tongsun.

“Yes, Master Kim, to stop the North Army from crossing the Han River!”

“North Army?”

“Yes, from the North! Someone said they were infiltrating the South over the 38th parallel, but not a soul was aware of it until too late! And those innocent civilians who happened to be driving on the bridge fell into the river like drowning rats, tst, tst!” The doctor clacked his tongue in distress while he moved his gentle hands around the infant, examining.

“Master Kim, the baby appears to be in good shape, although he came a bit prematurely. Tiny indeed, but he is intact! Be sure to nourish the mom with hearty seaweed soup to provide a good dose of milk for the infant,” said the doctor, putting the medicine kit into his bag. “What timing, to be born at the brink of war!” He stood up to leave.

“Oh, wait a minute!” Tongsun quickly reached into a small chest of drawers and took out some bills to pay the doctor.

“Oh, no, Master Kim! You are the one who attended to the delivery. You don’t owe me a penny,” said the Doctor, gently but firmly pushing away Tongsun’s hand. “I only want you all to be strong and safe through this terrible time!” He stepped out of the room and scuttled away through the silent garden and into the night.

Eyes gleaming in the fluttering candlelight, Tongsun held up the candle and carefully shined it over the baby, “Look, look at this heavenly face, calm like a lake, isn’t he? What about calling him Suhho, tranquil Suh and lake Ho, huh?” said Tongsun, beaming at Chinju.

Suh– Ho?” Chinju considered. “Yes… it sounds good, Suhho!” Chinju repeated the name, her eyes welling up with tenderness and pride, as well as trepidation about the war that had just broken out.

 

In the next day and days that followed, despite the bombed Han River Bridge, the North Army advanced rapidly to the South and the South Army was losing the capital city, Seoul. People in the village whispered that communist North soldiers were rounding up young Southern men and forcing them into their military. Those who refused were shot on the spot. A good part of population in Seoul and the surrounding villages were fleeing to the south. Tongsun, after making sure that Chinju with her newly-born was strong enough to travel, let the maid go join her family. He then had everyone pack a bundle or two to carry before fleeing Blackstone Village. Chinju wrapped Suhho in a quilt and fastened him onto her back with a wrap-around sash. Nayoung’s three brothers, father and elder sister, each carried a large luggage or a huge backpack, while seven-year-old Nayoung carried a bundle of baby diapers and clothing. Even her five-years-old younger sister, Namee, carried her own pouch and walked close to Nayoung, both of them excited, thinking in their innocence that they were all going for a picnic of some kind.

Nayoung’s family soon found themselves in a throng of fleeing villagers, only to find that most of the trains had been taken by Southern Army for their military use. Had there been any buses running, they were no faster than the crowds moving on foot. A single South Army helicopter hovered above, guiding the long exodus lines toward the Southern provinces.

After some three hours of trudging, Nayoung and her family were well out of the Blackstone Village. Only then did Nayoung realize that she had left the goldfish in the fish pond. She wondered who on earth would float cooked grains for them. If only she had remembered before their hasty departure, lamented Nayoung, she would have scooped them up and carried them with her in a jar.

Suhho started to screech at the top of his tiny lungs. Chinju’s face turned pale with exhaustion.  They had yet to reach the top of the hill to shortcut the distance. On the breast of the slope, some people were slumped over their bags and trunks, resting. By then the number of people had thinned out, as some had dispersed to different parts of the hillside. Nayoung and Namee, who were at first bubbling with excitement over a picnic, now turned sullen, awakened by a reality they had never known before.

Chinju took the infant from her back to change his diaper and nurse him when Namee said she needed to pee. Tongsun had his fifteen-year-old first son, Tongwuk, find a spot behind the nearby trees and seventeen-year-old Nasoon took her younger sisters, Nayoung and Namee there. After they returned, Nayoung held the baby while Nasoon accompanied Chinju behind the trees. When they returned, Tongsun took the boys. When they gathered back, everyone picked up their loads to resume their exodus. Tongsun, however, stood in silence, his face shadowed by a troubled look while he gazed upon the valley below.  There a narrow stream ran, partially hidden by weeping willows. Farther down, there was a small village that huddled low to the ground.

“Look, yuhbo, dear,” Tongsun turned to Chinju and pointed into the distance below. “You see that village near the brook? That’s the Village of Clear Brook.”  Everyone turned the gaze toward the village. Tongsun continued, “I’m afraid we must decide whether or not we should continue to the South together, you with Suhho on your back and soon it will be dark … I’m afraid you and little ones are better off if you head to that village to stay awhile.”

Chinju looked at Tongsun forlornly as an answer. He explained, “You and the little ones are in no shape to travel when there is no sign of a bus or train to carry us. I’ll take Nasoon and the boys southward, as far as our ancestral town in Chungchong province. I’m certain my nephew, Bomsu, will let us stay in his home for a while, and as soon as I find a place for us all, I’ll come back and fetch you.”

“How all of you will be able to make such a long journey on foot, yuhbo?” asked Chinju creasing her forehead. “Especially Tongil, he is only nine years old,” she said, placing gently her hand over his head. Nayoung peered at Tongil, her loving but mischievous older brother, who was standing with a heavy sack slung behind his shoulders. He now looked like a little man as if he had grown up overnight.

“The rest of us will take care of Tongil. You already have enough children to care for. Besides, Taeyong’s house is not big enough. Here, here is some money for you to get by for some time.” Tongsun untied one of the three rami pouches of rolled bills tied around his belt and fastened it under Chinju’s waistband. She did not protest.

“Now, listen closely, yuhbo — when you get down to the village, look for Taeyong’s mother.  Tell her that her late husband, Mr. Park, used to work in my silk mill. Don’t remind her of the heart attack he died of. It would only upset her. When I went to his funeral two years ago she didn’t look too well then…” Tongsun now knelt and started to sketch a map in the dirt with a tree branch, giving Chinju directions.

“As soon as you get down the hill, follow the brook for about fifteen minutes, then turn right and walk for another fifteen minutes or so. You’ll find yourself standing at the threshold of the village behind Suhnangdang, the village’s wooden guardian. You’ll see Taeyong’s thatched house behind it. I remember seeing a well in her yard. Tell Taeyong’s mother that I sent you and asked her to keep you under her roof until we return to fetch you, soon…. Now, let us get going before the sun goes down. Be sure to take good care of yourself and our little ones,” said Tongsun before he quickly turned away to hide the face distorting in the sadness and trepidation.

For the first time, Nayoung realized, her beloved father, brothers and older sister were all leaving her. Too numb to utter a word over this unexpected farewell, her family began to trudge down the back of the hill without talking. At the foot of the hill where the road parted ? one to the east, the other to the south ? the family huddled together for a moment of silent wishes before separating.

“We will be gone only for a while. We will be back to fetch you soon!” assured Tongsun.

“Go safely!” said Nayoung.

“There are some apples and pears in one of the bundles… Don’t starve… come back soon!” Chinju uttered in her tearful voice.

Nayoung held Namee’s hand hard and gazed at her father and older siblings slowly walking away, their shoulders sloped down under the weight of the loads they carried, their heads bowed in the sorrow of parting.

 

With Suhho on her back, together with Namee and Nayoung, Chinju followed the narrow path under the weeping trees alongside the stream. Soon distracted by the pleasing countryside Namee became chatty, while Chinju trudged laboriously with Suhho sleeping like a turtle on her back. They followed the brook that led them to the small village of Clear Water with its thatch-roofed houses perched on the ground like half-moons. As Tongsun had mentioned, on the threshold of the village was standing a tall and colorful Suhnangdang, whose carved warrior’s face atop the high wooden pole looked more comical than threatening. Namee pointed to the guardian pole and giggled. A few steps behind the pole appeared a small cottage house surrounded by a bamboo fence. A thin cloud of smoke rose from the clay chimney. In the yard there was a stone well.

Chinju leaned over the bamboo fence and beckoned, “Hello, is there anyone around, please?”

When there was no response, she inquired again toward the kitchen door.

Yaa?  Who’s out the-r-e?” An old woman’s voice rang out, as a wooden door blackened by age and smoke flung open. From the nearly dark kitchen emerged a lanky white-haired woman.  Behind her shone a dim light in the kitchen from a small cooking furnace under an iron cauldron. The woman wiped her eyes to clear away the stinging smoke.

“Are you the venerable Taeyong’s mother?” asked Chinju anxiously looking into the woman’s sunken eyes.

Eng?” The woman squarely looked at Chinju, neither affirming nor denying.

“We’re the Kim family from Blackstone Village. Your late husband used to work at my husband’s silk mill in Seoul… Do you remember, Mother of Taeyong?” Chinju asked the old woman again.

The old woman blinked her eyes a few more times before clapping her boney hands as if something had just dawned on her.

“My goodness, yeh… I kind of remember. Holy pickle, you walked this far from Blackstone Village with these little ones? tst, tst!” She arched up her dark eyebrows and surveyed the two girls while clacking her tongue.

“Oh, yes, yes, we’ve walked all the way to convey my husband’s wish to ask you if you could let us stay a while with you till he comes up to fetch us to the South,” said Chinju, gently pushing Nayoung and Namee forward to greet the woman. Promptly, Nayoung, as well as Namee, bowed from her waist, saying hello, and Nayoung bowed so low to the ground that she felt dizzy, her empty stomach growling. As if moved by the polite pleading for her favor, the woman gathered her hand and smiled, saying, “I can assure you can!”

“Thank you, Revered Taeyong’s mother!” Chinju bowed also and said, “If only we had known Kim Ilsung would invade the South with no warnings whatsoever, we would have been better prepared, don’t you think?”

“Tsk! You think I disagree with you? Let me tell you my story ? all of my three sons went to fish in the upper stream of Han River one day before the bridge got bombed. Their father used to go eel fishing there with our little Taeyong and two older ones. Even after his sudden collapse, my sons continued fishing in the river. And, would you believe, they became so good at it that they could even sell what they had caught in the East Gate market in Seoul before coming home by sundown. They were supposed to return home by train the same night the bridge was bombed and they still haven’t come home, haven’t come home… tst!” The woman clacked her tongue and threw her arms in the air, sighing mournfully.

“What a terrible coincidence, Taeyong’s mother! What are their ages?”

“My first son is nineteen, the middle one eighteen, and my little Taeyong will be fifteen-years this lunar month!”

“And you’ve heard nothing from them?”

“They say my sons must have been drowned in the Bridge bombing if they were not kidnapped by the North army. Let them say whatever they want, but do you think I’m so foolish to believe a word of it…Eng? Return they will! They must return, or I’ll go fetch them myself!” Her voice quivered in mother’s desperation. Quickly she wiped her eyes with her jugori sleeve and motioned to them, “Holy tree! You must be starving! I’ll feed you whatever I have in the kitchen! I have no meat or fish, but I can give you some cooked rice and soured kimchi! Come, come into my sons’ room and make yourselves comfortable. When they return I will share my room with you!”

 

Taeyong’s mother ushered them onto the shiny wooden floor that connected the two rooms facing each other. They all took off their gumshoes before stepping onto the floor. The woman opened the sliding door and led them into the empty room. The floor of the Ondol room was clean and shiny, its mud and stone-laid floor neatly matted with bean-oil paper. It felt cool and smooth underneath their battered feet. The only furniture in the room was a small chest of drawers, on which were stacked a couple of neatly folded futon yo.

Chinju carefully untied the baby from her back and put him down on the floor. Suhho, being awakened from his turtle position, started to screech.

“Holy Buddha, look at this tiny thing! I didn’t know you were carrying an infant! Poor thing, tsk, tsk! Make yourself comfortable and I’ll feed you all!” Taeyong’s mom left the room, her baggy cotton skirt billowing behind her gangly figure.

After Suhho was changed, everyone visited the outhouse and washed a bit with spring water warmed in a caldron. Taeyong’s mom returned to the room with a low-legged wooden tray. On the tray there were steaming bowls of cooked rice and cool cabbage Kimchi that had been dug out of a clay jar stored in the hut. She also brought brass chopsticks and a kettle full of hot barley tea. Nayoung and Namee instantly surrounded the tray of food like famished ravens.

“I’ll leave you, so you can enjoy the meal,” said the woman and quietly left.

 

The warm, soft rice with cool, spicy cabbage was heavenly. It didn’t take long for everyone to empty the bowl. When the woman came into the room again, Chinju smiled apologetically, “Taeyong’s mother, I am sorry that I didn’t even ask you to join us.”

“Children’s mother, I have not felt any hunger ever since the war broke out, with my sons nowhere to be found. I think your visit here is a good omen! I hope a stranger or two will do the same for my sons wherever they are. I now cook extra bowls of rice just in case my sons rush in and say, ‘Umma, we’re home!’” The woman wiped her eyes again.

“Holy pickle, what am I doing? I should cook some more rice! They might show up tonight!” She muttered to herself before carrying out the emptied tray and glancing over the bamboo fence as if at any moment her sons would appear upon the threshold of her home.

Back in the kitchen, Taeyong’ mother filled a small pot with rice and water and fed dry leaves into the stone stove. Leaves and broken boughs crackled as they caught fire. Soon, the warm aroma of boiling rice filled the air in the hut. The woman bustled around the kitchen as she filled up three little brass bowls with cooked rice and covered each of them with a lid. She placed them on a clean tray with a plate of kimchi and three pairs of chopsticks while the last embers in the stove were burning out.

The candlelight in Chinju’s room went out. Suhho, after filling his little stomach with mother’s milk fell sound asleep like a doll between his mother and Namee on the yo. Nayoung next to Namee also fell asleep in no time.

In the middle of the night Nayoung awoke from a strange dream. Moonlight filtered through the mulberry-papered lattice window. She gently raised herself from the thin quilt cover and quietly drew open the window. Resting her elbows on the sill, she leaned out of the window. In the gentle breeze, a full moon shined softly on her face. Moonlight also shone over the woman’s little stone well. So still was the night that even the wind had gone to sleep, leaving the thatch-roofed barn and the wild hedges around the bamboo fence to repose in their own stillness.

Nayoung wondered about her father, her brothers and Nasoon, and longed for their presence.  She gazed at the moon, hoping to find their faces in it, wondering if they had eaten something warm and delicious for dinner as she had. Maybe they were still trudging through the night. Nayoung stretched her neck toward the moon, wanting to hear an answer, but the moon only glowed silently into Nayoung’s teary eyes.

 

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Nayoung awoke to brilliant morning sunlight streaming through the opaque latticed window, filling the room with soft golden light. Suhho and Namee were still asleep. From the kitchen the animated voices of Chinju and the old woman rose and fell.

“My goodness, Nayoung’s mother, don’t do that! Not for the meager meals and dingy room you get. I don’t need anything from you, nothing whatsoever. Luckily, I still have some sweet potatoes, chestnuts, and barley to share. You eat whatever I have. When my sons return, you will have plenty of time to repay me, if you wish.”

“Taeyong’s mother, I owe you so much already! I pray we will both get to see the rest of our families soon.”

From the singsong voices that traveled to Nayoung, she could picture the old woman gently but firmly pushing away the money in her mother’s hand.

Aiko, the porridge is boiling over. Here, Nayoung’s mother, fill up the bowls and feed your children first. I’ll finish up the rest in the kitchen.” Nayoung jumped out of the yo, eager for the breakfast about to be served, unaware that it would soon turn out to be one of the last comforting moments she’d enjoy.

The grains and potatoes in the barn, which Taeyong’s mother had assured were plentiful, were in fact running out faster than anyone had expected. Even the small village market had been closed some time ago. November was approaching with sharp northern winds, leaving the rooms drafty and cold. Twigs and dry leaves had to be fed into the furnaces to warm the Ondol floors.

Chinju felt an urgency to do something before the weather turned harsh. She strapped Suhho on her back and took Namee and Nayoung to the slopes of the hill, to the banks of Clear Brook to gather dandelions and wild mushrooms. It seemed as if nature knew no hunger or deprivation from the war. By the time Nayoung’s straw basket was full, Chinju and Namee had gathered piles of twigs as well.

They returned at the sunset. Chinju made a wholesome vegetable soup for the girls and Taeyong’s mother. And the ondol floor was warmed. Taeyong’s mother didn’t forget to arrange the low-legged tray with a bowl of cooked barley from the last remaining portions in the barn, and a cup of spring water from the well. Then she lit a candle and knelt before the low-legged tray in her room. This was a new ritual she had started lately, one in which she chanted a Buddhist prayer, namuamitabul, into the night, calling out her sons’ names in the dark hollow of the room. Chinju and the girls watched in awe, staring at the dark silhouette of Taeyong’s mother reflected on the mulberry-paper window, as she murmured in the flickering candle light.

“My children, I know you are all alive and will be coming home soon! My little Taeyong, do you hear me? Yes, yes, I know that you know that your Umma never let you go hungry! Come back! We will plant cabbages and rice and, yes, we will harvest them together on the harvest-moon day, Namuamitabul…”

 

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Winter approached with heavy snowfall in the village of Clear Brook. As provisions dried up, reducing to only one meal a day for everyone, the eerie behavior of Taeyong’s mother became more pronounced. One day she fell ill with fever. Chinju stayed up many nights tending to the old woman until she became sick herself.

Rumors spread around that the capital city of Seoul was being flattened by the bombings from the North, aided by Chinese manpower and Soviet arms, producing a large number of casualties. The South Korean Army was now being reinforced in their effort to drive the North out of Seoul. These consisted of foreign soldiers from as far as America and other parts of the world who came with all manners of fancy weapons to rescue the South.

In the meantime, Suhho’s empty belly was ballooning like a pumpkin. Namee, who was smaller and less sturdy than Nayoung, stayed in bed weak and hungry.

“Something has to be done!” Nayoung cried to herself. The fear of losing her beloved ones urged Nayoung to do something. “There must be some dandelions growing under the snow! There must be fish swimming in the stream of Clear Brook!” Nayoung slipped out from under a quilt and put on as many layers of the clothing as she could in order to go outside.

“Where are you going, daugh–ter?” Nayoung heard Chinju’s feeble voice as she was stirring around.

“I am going outside, Umma. I’ll be back with something to eat,” said Nayoung resolutely as she picked up a straw basket still laced with dry dirt from the dandelion picking trip she had gone with Chinju in late fall. She quickly slipped out of the sliding door.

When Nayoung stepped out into the field behind the cottage, she saw no signs of life around, except for the wind whipping through bare trees and dusting off the snow that had piled on the branches. Nayoung bent over the ground on her knees and dug into the snow with her fingernails, but there were no dandelions. All she could dig was a handful of coarse brown grass in the frozen soil. Knowing they were inedible, Nayoung headed to the brook, ignoring her fear of the ghosts that she believed lived atop the tall pine trees.

Standing by the brook, she stared hard into the stream running downhill rapidly. It appeared only ankle deep. A nearby weeping willow in its low murmur threshed thin branches across her face. In order to steady herself, Nayoung kept her feet firmly planted at the water’s edge and stooped over the water with the basket. She now held the basket firmly in both hands and lowered it under the stream, unaware that her feet were getting cold from being submerged in the frigid water. She let the basket sit under water for a while before she quickly lifted it up. Water streamed out of the tiny basket holes.

To her surprise, flip-flopping in frenzy in the bottom of the basket were about half a dozen tiny fish. No less surprised than the fish that seemed growing larger and larger before her eyes Nayoung dropped the basket in panic, as the wind began to howl into her ear as if screaming at her. The long scratchy limbs of the willow threshed around her face in earnest and the noise of the brook started to sound like a malevolent chorus.

She turned to run away when a dark figure appeared behind a tree across the brook, a man in green uniform with a red-striped hat, stooping over the stream with cupped hands. The first thing that came to Nayoung’s mind was that he must be a northern soldier. Swept by fear, she tried to drag herself away from the stream, but her legs wouldn’t move, as if she was caught in a fishing net. She dropped the basket and all the fish jumped out.

“Bang, bang, bang!” At the piercing sound Nayoung jumped like a rabbit and started to run up the bank, only to fall. She picked herself up, falling again. Just when she finally regained her footing, she saw above the trees a female figure clad in a colorful robe, her long strands of hair flying in the wind and her arms flapping like eagle’s wings, inching closer and close toward Nayoung until she suddenly collapsed.

“Goodness gracious! Tell us what happened, my daughter! You were lying in the snow unconscious. Do you remember? Was something chasing you?” Nayoung found herself lying back in the room where she slept. Her mother, Chinju, was smoothing Nayoung’s damp forehead.

“I saw a Kwerae Kun! He must be a Northern soldier because he was shooting at me from across the stream! And I saw a ghost, a lady ghost flying on top of the hill!”

“Holy Ghost, my precious, you must be hallucinating! When the stomach is empty for so long, one can see things that are not there, tsk! Here, have some porridge, my poor one. Our kind neighbor brought it for us.” Chinju dipped the spoon into a bowl of warm grain porridge and spooned it into Nayoung’s mouth.

The young woman neighbor woman who had brought the porridge, smiled at Nayoung with gentle eyes. Unable to recall anything but the ghostly image she had seen, Nayoung claimed, “Yes! I swear I saw a Kwerae soldier and a ghost — a laughing, dancing ghost!”

The night fell. As Nayoung tried to sleep next to her mother with Suhho and Namee, the sounds of gunfire started to pierce the night from the troops firing at each other from the opposite sides of the mountains. No one dared to go outside or light a candle. As the night deepened, the sound of machine guns grew more intense with thousands of bullets zinging over the village’s thatched-roofs. Soldiers were shooting mortars, too, which tore through the skies before convulsing the earth.

Terrified Chinju pulled her three children together and covered them with quilts and pillows. Too scared to cry, Nayoung and Namee clung to Chinju who was holding baby Suhho on her chest. Nearly suffocated with fear and sweat, Chinju listened to the noise of shelling and explosions through the night. At dawn the noises quieted down. Chinju and the girls crawled out from under their sweat-soaked quilts. Suhho was quiet when Chinju placed him on the floor.Then she heard rapid footsteps approaching the yard and someone crying, “She is dead!  She is dead!”

Chinju pushed open the sliding door and rushed out.

“Taeyong’s mom is dead,” cried the old man, who Nayoung later learned was the father of the woman who had brought her a bowl of porridge. Her mother had passed from an illness some time ago.

Aiko! Are you telling me Taeyong’s mother is killed? Don’t tell me she is gone!” cried Chinju

“Some villagers said that she had run out to Clear Brook during the shelling, as she called out her sons’ names and was hit by a flying mortar! Even a dog shouldn’t die that way, not even a dog!” wailed the old man, waving at the sky helplessly.

The weeping Chinju suddenly looked up as if something had dawned on her. She ran into the room and picked up Suhho and let out a yell that was raw and piercing.

Nae-Ah-Keee–my baby! My baby is not stirring! Our baby is not breathing! What happened to my Suhho?” She slumped over the tiny tot and tried to resuscitate him, but to no avail.

“Agga! My precious, what happened to you? Please, open your eyes and let me hear you cry! Cry, my agga!”

Not quite grasping what was going on, but knowing something was gravely wrong, Namee pleaded, “Umma, why are you crying? Why is Suhho so white and still?”

Numb and helpless, Chinju kept rubbing her cheek against Suhho’s face, but the baby was unresponsive. Only then did Chinju learn that, during the night’s bombardment, as she had huddled down with children under quilt covers, she had unknowingly suffocated her frail tot in her desperate grip for life. Born at the brink of the war and looking like a tiny angel, her Suhho had succumbed to the destruction of war without ever knowing one day of peace.

Too pained to believe that her baby brother was gone, Namee retreated into a corner of the room like a wounded rabbit. Nayoung ran out of the house and fell against the toppled bamboo gate, sobbing. The field appeared tear-streaked with holes punctured by mortar shells. Even the Suhnangdang village guardian was toppled like a mere stick. Unable to accept the death of her baby brother and Taeyong’s mother, Nayoung listened to the silence of desolation around her.

Standing like a scarecrow, she longed for her father to appear, to wrap her and her infant brother in his healing arms. Longingly her eyes traveled to the far end of the road when she noticed something moving in her direction. Nayoung brushed her eyes with a soiled hand and gazed hard at the approaching object, which turned out to be an army jeep racing towards her. Frightened, as she turned to run away, it came to a halting screech directly in front of her.

“Nayoung! Nayoung!” She heard someone calling her.

A man hopped out of the jeep, limping slightly. It was her father, followed by her oldest brother, Tongwuk. Both of them started to run toward Nayoung with extended arms, their faces bursting with joy. Striding right behind them, however, was a huge man with a strange look.  He was extremely tall and had a mass of golden hair around his face. The stranger’s rosy face was so radiant that her father’s emaciated face paled like a mere shadow.

“My daughter! It’s your Apba!” Tongsun reached for Nayoung and wrapped her in his arms, saying that the kind American soldier had given them a lift to the village. Proudly her father turned Nayoung around and announced in broken English, “Mae dotta… dotta, Nayoung!”

Naa–Yung? Naa– Yung!” The soldier echoed her name with a strange accent and crouched beside her. He peered at her with his huge blue eyes, smiling like the sun. Then, without any warning, he scooped her into his arms and held her in the air as if she were a doll. Dangling helplessly in his raised hand, Nayoung shrieked like a squirrel. He laughed as if amused and gently placed her down on the ground only to place before her a small black box that hung from his neck, all the while making funny sounds like, “Cheeez; Kim-cheez!”

As Nayoung stood with a frozen look, the soldier planted a smacking kiss on her frightened face. Nayoung had never seen a man with golden hair and blue eyes before, let alone been kissed by one. Horrified out of her wits, this time by the clicking box that she had never seen, called camera, she darted into the house and buried her face under weeping mother’s long Cheema.

“Oh, my god! What terrible thing is it now?” cried Chinju amidst her mourning.

“Sol…sol…soldier! A huge, foreign soldier! And fa…father is here!” Nayoung barely uttered the words when Tongsun entered the room with Tongwuk.

Upon seeing them, Chinju rose and nearly fainted into Tongsun’s arms. The two cried without words, then cried some more as Tongsun picked up the lifeless body of baby Suhho.

“It’s my fault, I killed our baby! Forgive me!” Chinju lamented, pounding her chest.

“No, father, it’s my fault! I should have watched Suhho!” pleaded Nayoung, pulling on her father’s worn-out sleeve.

“Forgive me! I should have come earlier to fetch you all!” said Tongsun, dropping his guilt-ridden face.

Whether he had understood any of their words or not, the American soldier stepped forward and spoke in a foreign tongue, using sweeping gestures. Tongwuk, who had studied some English in school, translated some of the words like, “war,” “hunger,” “death,” and explained no one was responsible for the baby’s death; if there was anything to be blamed it was the war, the bloody war that was going on.

At this the soldier went back to his jeep and returned with some canned foods, as well as several sweets wrapped in fancy papers, called Milky Ways, which tasted like the fantastic gluten sticks Nayoung knew of, but this one only smoother and sweeter. Everyone was given a sampling of crackers with cans of fruit jam. As for Nayoung, her initial fright of the American soldier now turning into curiosity and fascination; she hardly paid attention to her father’s account of how he, with four children, had reached his nephew’s house in Chungchong Province after three days on foot. That the nephew had sheltered them in his house, but upon hearing American troops had started their combat against the north, Tongsun decided to come and fetch Chinju and their younger ones.

A moment later, Nayoung realized, everyone was saying good-bye to the soldier. If that farewell came too quickly and saddened her, it was overshadowed by the thrill of uttering her first English words, “Bye…Good-bye…Rah-bert… Rah-bert!” Nayoung kept repeating the strange name as she waved and waved to the jeep driving away Northward.

 

 

 

 

Therese Young Kim

“A Forgotten Story of War” is a story of a 7-year-old girl braving the rippling tides of the Korean War tragedy that erupted in 1950. It is an excerpt of the novel, Nayoung’s Journey, a young Korean woman’s coming-of-age story in America.

Therese Young Kim studied English and literature in Kyung Hee University, Seoul. She worked as a professional interpreter for over 25 years in New York, while immersing herself in poetry and creative writing in Korean and English, now with a completed novel, Nayoung’s Journey. Her works appeared in Korean literary journals, as well as in Rosebud, Tuck Magazine, and Poetry Pacific. She is an occasional photographer of poetic images.

Her website address: http://www.yoursentimentalstranger.com and LinkedIn page: http://www.linkedin.com/in/therese-young-kim-43a906114

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