Read an Excerpt
THE JOURNEY WAS NEARLY OVER.
The night was unusually chilly, the wind sharpened by the speed of the train as it rolled southward through the darkened valley. The cotton blanket June had stolen was large enough to spread as a tarp and at the same time wrap around her younger brother and sister and herself, but it was threadbare and for brief stretches the train would accelerate and the wind would cut right through to them. It had not been a problem the night before but now they were riding on top of the boxcar, as there was no more room within any of them, even as the train was more than a dozen cars long. A massive phalanx of refugees had met the train at the last station, and in the time it took her siblings to relieve themselves by the side of the tracks they had lost their place and had had to climb the rusted ladder between the cars, June running alongside for fifty meters until her brother was high enough on the rungs so she herself could jump up and on.
There was a score or so of people atop every car, groupings of families and neighbors, mostly women and the old and the young, and then a cluster or two like theirs, children traveling by themselves. June was eleven; Hee-Soo and Ji-Young had just turned seven. They were fraternal twins, though looked as much alike as a sister and brother could, only the cut of their hair distinguishing them. June knew they could have waited in the hope of another train with room inside but it hadn’t been cold when they stopped just before dusk and she decided they ought to keep moving while they had the chance. To keep moving was always safer than lingering in one place, and there was nothing back at the depot to eat, anyway. There were a few scruffy soldiers drinking and playing cards by the depot shack, though their presence could only mean trouble, even for a girl her age. She was tall besides and she was wary of soldiers and any stray men. They were some two hundred kilometers south of Seoul, past Chongju, and June was now thinking that they would make their way down to Pusan, where her uncle’s family lived, though she didn’t know whether they were still there, or even alive.
The train sped up on a slight decline and June curled her arm around her siblings, spooning them tightly. They lay as low as they could between the ridges of the steel roof of the boxcar. They were on the front end of the car and as such they were fully buffeted by the rushing wind. They were fortunate to have a blanket; many others on top of the cars did not. It was too early to sleep but it was cold and it was better for the twins not to be active, especially given that the two had shared only a few crackers early in the day. June herself had eaten nothing. They had eaten well the day before, as June had found, below a footbridge, a GI’s abandoned pack of canned rations, a small bar of chocolate, and a sleeve of crackers. Her brother and sister were so hungry that they’d bolted down the chocolate first as June was smashing the cans open against a rock. She’d cut her finger and gotten some blood on the food but they ate it without hesitation, two tins of stewed beef and one of sardines in tomato sauce, afterward each taking a turn to lick the insides, carefully, with the deftness of cats. She made them save the crackers. They’d been by themselves on the road since their mother and older sister were killed two weeks before, at first traveling with some people from their town but then blending in with the endless stream of other refugees moving southward along the pushed-up roads and embankments of the river valleys. At another time it might have been a pretty journey, the hills just turning the colors of pumpkin and hay and pomegranate and the skies depthless and clear, but now everywhere one looked most of the trees had been felled for fuel and there was only a hazy, oppressive brightness refracted from the shorn hillsides. There were formerly cultivated fields of potatoes and cabbages, and then the terraces of rice paddies, but all had been stripped and then abandoned during these first months of the war. The farmers’ houses, if they hadn’t been bombed to rubble, were alternately occupied by both sides in retreat and advance, and then by passing refugees like themselves. It didn’t matter that sometimes the owners were present and still living there.
A few days earlier June and her siblings had stayed a night in a house no bigger than twenty square meters with nearly thirty others, including the old farmer and his wife, who slept in the corner next to a locked chest of their things. It was raining heavily that day, and when someone spotted what looked like a house at the foot of a hill a few people began to run for it, and then others, and soon enough scores. But it was far in from the road and the three of them were fast and reached the house in the first wave. The farmer had attempted to camouflage it with a makeshift cover of netting and reeds and then appeared out front holding a pitchfork, but he pointed the tines downward when he saw it was no use. The force of numbers held for even the weak and the ragged. The crowd pushed in until the small house was full, the others having to hike back to the road and continue their sodden march.
All the farmer and his wife could do was to make certain that they themselves had a space for the night. They were shrewd to share some of their food in the hope that all of it wouldn’t simply be taken. Without any prompting, his wife quickly made a large pot of barley porridge and everyone got a half-cup; the three of them had one tin mug between them and June begged the farmer’s wife to fill it to the brim, which she did. They took turns taking swallows while sitting jammed in among the rest of the horde, everyone sitting cross-legged and knee to-knee. Only the smallest children could curl up or recline. Everyone was soaked from the rain, and the smell of so many wet, long-unwashed bodies in the enclosed space was fierce, the air of the single room quickly stifling and sour with an overwhelming humidity, and soon someone asked June to open the window, which was right above them. After eating, she took out a tortoiseshell comb of her mother’s and ran it through her siblings’ hair; she had noticed before the rain began in the morning how whitish their heads appeared and so combed through to remove the sheets of clinging lice. She flicked them out the window. It was futile work, of course, for she had no special soap to kill the eggs and they would simply multiply, besides the fact that the other people there were equally infested, but now that her mother and older sister were gone it was she who had to keep the little ones safe, keep them as sound as she could, and so whenever she had a chance June wiped their faces, or rubbed their teeth and gums with mint leaves, fed them whatever she could scrounge or barter for, offering them as much as she could without growing too weak herself.
She was always a responsible, filial daughter and, as she was closest in age to the twins, had looked after them for as long as she could remember. It happened that her older brother and sister were also twins and their family had always seemed to comprise her parents and just three children, instead of five, June ever slightly removed from their naturally unitary play. It was a system of orbit that had seemed unlucky to her at first but in fact suited her burgeoning character, something her gentle, thoughtful father recognized. He was a respected schoolteacher in their town, and he often told her that there was great strength in her singularity, that she ought to revel in it, an idea that she would see as bitterly ironic years later, when he was falsely denounced as a Communist in the first disastrous, terrifying days of the war.
She combed her own short hair and saw that hers was rife with lice, too, and her sister Hee-Soo offered to do it for her, and she let her. A few of the men lit cigarettes and others began talking. The conversations centered at the start on the rumored movements of the forces (the Americans were advancing quickly north now, the North Koreans reportedly retreating pell-mell), on which were the best refugee camps, on lost family members, but then soon enough turned to subjects like the rain, the recent trend of weather, if the pears and persimmons would be ready by now (if there was any remaining fruit on the trees, if there were any trees at all), the best remedies for certain body aches, all the blithe, everyday talk that might keep at bay for a moment the staggering reality of the dismantled world outside.
But then a man stood up and began berating everyone for their trivial concerns. He was in his early thirties, which was unusual because any other man his age would have been conscripted instantly into military service. He spoke with emotion and passion, and from his accent and verbiage one could tell he was well educated. Didn’t they care that atrocities were occurring daily, in every village and town in the river valley? Didn’t they care that they were being committed not just by soldiers from both sides but by their own people? He talked about the rampant lawlessness that had swept the land, the raping and maiming and summary executions. A white-haired man near June sharply replied that his accusations were unfair, for what could powerless people like themselves ever do? It was difficult enough just to get by, to simply survive.
“War brought a tide of blood,” the older man went on. “And it has swallowed everyone.”
“Yes, it has,” the man said. He had turned squarely to address the other man and June saw that one of his eyelids was shut and half sunken in the socket, the other eye wide open but clouded gray and aimed off-kilter.
“But it doesn’t mean we should so quickly give up our humanity. That we should be so indifferent. Yesterday on the road there was an old woman lying on her side. I can hardly see but it was obvious that she was suffering greatly. Some of you here must have passed by her, yes?” He seemed to pick out June but she couldn’t be sure. She had indeed seen the old woman. She was a wretched sight. She had soiled herself front and back and was wheezing heavily with desperate effort, as if a crab apple were lodged at the back of her mouth. It was difficult to know what was wrong with her but she had a terrible color. There was no family beside her, nor any possessions, or even a bag, only what she was wearing, as if she had been magically dropped there onto the road from some place far away. She was barefoot as well, her soles very pale and soft-looking, as though someone had just pulled off her shoes. Ji-Young was curious and slowed as they approached but they had nothing, nothing at all, to give her, and June had tugged her siblings’ hands and they had quickly walked on.
“All the woman asked for when my mother and I stopped was to have a drink. A sip of water. That’s all. She knew she was dying, and what a horror it must have been for her, to see that no one would even pause so she could have something so meager. Yet hundreds must have passed, before we came to her.”
“We have Mother Mary and Jesus here,” someone mumbled from the other end of the room. There were scattered snorts of laughter. The man crooked his head, his one eye widening, craning about.
“I am talking about decency. About something as basic as that. We could offer her only the smallest comfort. She died shortly thereafter but, my God, she was alone and afraid and in misery. Who in this room would ever wish anyone an end like that?”
“So did you resurrect her?”
More laughter, this time full-throated and resonant. The man was about to respond but he went silent, his mother pulling hard on his arm to make him sit down, which he did. His eye was half closed now and his head and neck slightly shuddered, as though he were having the mildest seizure. The small talk resumed and soon enough it was as if the man had never stood up and said anything. The moment had already passed and disappeared. They were all chronically weary and hungry and whenever off their feet and safely sheltered the time paradoxically seemed to accelerate, the periods of rest never long enough, never satisfying, their bodies ready for complete repose but their thoughts restlessly spinning out memories they did not wish to see. Hee-Soo and Ji-Young lay nested together against her lap, the weight of them almost unbearable on her crossed legs. But the dirt floor was damp and chilly and she was afraid they might get sick, and those sick on the road, she knew, only grew more ill and weak and then often enough fell out of sight. She gently patted them on the back in a slow rhythm, lowing cha-jahng, chajahng, as her mother would do when they had a nightmare or couldn’t sleep. The man and his mother sat leaning back-to-back, like many of the others trying to invite sleep, and June wondered whether he’d been in this condition his whole life or if he’d been blinded more recently, since the start of the war.
The rest of the night passed without incident. Despite the torture of having to sleep sitting up, people were accustomed to it, and it was mostly quiet. There were groans, and the anxious, nonsense mutterings of dreams, and then an outcry that would wake them all for a moment before they returned to their difficult slumbers. The half-blind man in fact cried out in the middle of the night, and for a long while afterward June couldn’t sleep, her mind bracing for another shout or cry. It was the racked voice that disturbed her most. Someone’s miserable song. Now, after all that had happened, she thought she could suffer seeing most anything, whatever cruelty or disaster, but the notes of a human plaint would make her wish she could exist without a heart.
She sensed movement in the dim predawn light. In the near corner an older middle-aged man was huffing and grimacing; he was one of those who had taunted the blind fellow. Everyone else was still asleep. She had heard his breath filtering fast through his teeth. He looked terribly pained and she was ready for him to wail for help when he closed his eyes and exhaled with a final rasp of his throat. His shoulders sagged. He was surely about to keel over, but instead he pushed aside the coat that covered his lap and a woman’s head rose up, her expression wan, completely blank. She was around June’s mother’s age and still quite pretty, despite the sallow, drawn flesh of her face. Without looking at her, the man gave her a few strips of dried fish and then almost immediately dozed off. The woman slipped the shreds into her shirt and turned away. She absently caressed the sleeping children beside her, two young boys and a girl, and it was as if nothing had occurred until she glanced up and met June’s gaze. June tried to look away. The woman stopped patting them, momentarily trapped in her shame, but then her eyes narrowed, hardening their focus, and they seemed to curse June through the darkness, as if to foretell of an evernearing future, an imminent fate.
With the new light of the day the others were arising, the room echoing with coughs and moans, and the several infants among them were already fretting, their bellies keen for milk. Hee-Soo and Ji-Young were awake now and they were softly whining, too, as they did every morning when they knew there would be nothing on hand to eat. If she had her own milk (if she even had a woman’s breasts) she would have surely tried to feed them, but she shushed them, not for the sake of those still sleeping but to keep their thoughts from dwelling on the hunger. Her mother had kept telling them to think only of what lay over the next hill, in the next valley, the coming turn in the road, and though it never quelled a grain of the ache, her command seemed to quicken their pace ever so slightly, make them cover that much more ground on their southward journey to Pusan. From the beginning of their wartime life, their mother was shepherding them constantly forward, no matter the topography, no matter the weather. It was brutally torrid those first few weeks, the July sky a stifling blanket of haze; then the clouds would rend and the road would become a stalled river of mud. The flies and mosquitoes sang furiously in their ears. They’d trudge ahead anyway with their minds in arrest, in the suspension of any future save the one in which they persisted, kept on. Their movement was more inertia than propulsion. A necessary tendency. And yet one did whatever one could. One morning, when her mother was alive, June saw her mother emerge from the cab of an ROK army truck and then turn and accept several pouches of food from the driver. They were dried red beans. As she walked back, June pretended to be asleep, only rising with her siblings when her mother began to cook the beans. Nobody asked where they had come from. They ate them for breakfast, had bolted them down in fact, June filling her gullet so fast she’d actually choked for a few seconds, her eyes tearing as her mother gently rapped her on the back, saying, “Slow down, dear. There’s plenty now.”
The old farmer stood up with his wife by his side and said he wished he could offer something for breakfast but there was hardly anything left and so asked if they would kindly move on, now that it wasn’t raining. He also said he had heard of a newly opened UN refugee camp some twenty kilometers south. No one much believed him about the camp or his store of food, but he’d surely suffered them and people began to gather their things and leave. While her siblings yawned and rubbed the sleep from their eyes, June brushed the smudges of dirt from their clothes. It was of course futile, as they could never do any wash and their clothing and skin were long infused by the brackish color of the valley soils, but she did so anyway because it was what her mother would do if she were still alive. It was how June formulated every decision. Whether to go on and whether to rest. Where to sleep at night. Whom to approach and whom to flee. But most of all it was how she snuffed her own animal impulses, her desire to keep wholly for herself the meager cache of whatever they were lucky to find. It was how she blunted herself from ever seeing her siblings as burdens, or worse, as though they were killing her, if slowly, two blind leeches attached to her heels and drawing the life out of her. It was how she had not yet allowed herself to harden against them. To hate them. For of course she loved them, and just as her mother would she’d give up all to protect them, but what in fact was left of her to give? She felt hollowed with hunger and weariness, only the fear invigorating her blood. She was beginning to realize, too, that they could not go on in this way for much longer, that something would have to change, and soon. They were carefully listening for frogs and crickets at night, in the hope of catching some to eat. They dug for roots and grubs during the day. They begged and stole whatever they could, but three months of grinding war had left little of value. And she knew she was too young and powerless to keep them sound. She could take care of herself but someone else would have to aid them. Otherwise they would perish, or in a moment of weakness she might let them perish, as she would sometimes imagine, letting go of their hands as they waded across some fast-moving river, the sound of the rushing water only partly masking their cries.
The farmer again asked the others still in the house to leave. But some had not even begun preparing to clear out, either remaining on their haunches or lying on the floor and smoking cigarettes. The farmer began complaining, saying he’d been patient and enough was enough. But he was being ignored, those moving on continuing to do so, the others remaining indolently at rest. The blind man and his mother had tightened their bundle and he hefted it onto his back, tying a canvas strap around his chest to secure it. They were shuffling out ahead of June and she saw that they were among the few who thanked the farmer and his wife as they exited. The wife was kind-eyed and spoke softly, and when they reached her, June took her hand and asked if they could remain with them for a while, if for just a few days, explaining as quickly as she could what had happened to their family, that they were now alone in the world. They’d sleep in the outhouse, if they had to. The farmer overheard her as he was exhorting some of the others to leave and he scolded his wife for even listening.
“The whole country is orphaned!” he said. “Get on, now, children, before the day gets too late. You’ll be better off for it.”
But instead of leaving, June sat down right in front of him, tugging her siblings to sit beside her. He told them to get up.
“Please, Grandmother, let us stay,” June said to his wife, addressing her as if she were of their blood. “Don’t make us go.”
The farmer said harshly, “Did you not hear me, you insolent children!”
“Please, Grandmother!” she cried, her siblings now chiming in, too.
The farmer became enraged and grabbed her brother roughly by the arm, yanking him up like a doll. Ji-Young shrieked in pain and the farmer’s wife asked her husband to stop. But he then grabbed June the same way and tried to pull her up to her feet. She resisted and he clasped her shirt and would have almost pulled it off, had she not leaned in and bitten him hard on his bony, darkly tanned forearm. The farmer shouted an obscenity and flung her wildly behind him, sending her crashing against a neat stack of kindling near the step-down to the tiny kitchen. June lay on the floor, her back and side afire with pain. For a moment all in the house seemed suspended, everyone staring at her, before she realized that it was not her they were looking at; part of the stack had fallen away, exposing the lid of a large earthenware barrel hidden behind the kindling. The farmer’s wife immediately knelt and tried to gather the loose branches to place them again before the barrel.
Someone barked, “Hey, old-timer, why didn’t you show us that last night?”
“Yeah, let’s see what’s in the jar.”
Indeed, when his wife had prepared the pot of porridge, he’d made a special point of showing the inside of a similar vessel, which was practically empty save a cup for scooping.
“It’s none of your business!” the farmer said. “None at all. Look here, I’ve been patient with all of you! We have nothing to give anymore. Now let us have our home again!”
One of the middle-aged men who’d been smoking now stood before the farmer. His cheeks were rough, his eyes lightless and deeply set. He was a head taller than the farmer and much broader, though still thin like everyone else, and he spoke without any hint of jest in his voice: “Just show us what’s inside.”
“I won’t!” the farmer said.
The man brushed past him. But before he’d taken a second step the farmer pulled a wooden baton from under his shirt and hit him in the back of the head. The man fell straight down, as if dropped from a great height. He landed headfirst, with an ugly, hollow sound. June scooted away as some men attended to him; his face was pinched against the hard floor, dark, thick blood streaming from his nose. The farmer stood dazed as they tried to revive him, but it was no use.
“He’s killed him,” one of them said.
“With his back turned, no less!”
The farmer was already retreating against the wall when they rushed him. He held back the first man with his baton but the others quickly overwhelmed him, punching and kicking him as he crumpled to the floor. His wife was screaming for them to stop. But they beat him until he was curled up in a ball, covering his head, crying out like a pitiful boy in a schoolyard, his mouth webbed with bloodied strings of spit.
It was then that the house was ransacked. Everyone took part. Even many of those who’d begun hiking back to the main road, including the blind man and his mother, returned to force their way back inside. There was no use in doing anything else. It took perhaps all of a few minutes, for how little of value there was. First the hidden earthenware barrel was dumped, which was only half full of dried corn, then the larder of dry goods, and then the kitchen was stripped of pots and utensils and of anything else someone was willing to carry away. June and her siblings scooped up as much of the corn as they could; Ji-Young even used his mouth, jamming it with kernels when his shallow pockets were filled. (Later on he spit them up into June’s hand and she rinsed them in the next stream they crossed.) Somebody broke off the lock on the clothes chest and women were rifling through it, June lucky to grab a blanket that fell between two women as they struggled over a silk blouse. The blanket was of light weight but large, and June knew it would be useful. The rest was just old people’s clothes, worn and stained. In the end the house was in shambles, the floor a mess of pottery shards and torn fabric, smashed bits of furniture, every last object picked through and taken apart, and if not stolen, then instantly rendered worthless, and as the three of them left, June ordered her siblings to look away from the farmer’s wife, who was still kneeling over her half-conscious husband, her face pure madness, screaming as if she were slowly being murdered.
THE TRAIN SLOWED DOWN and halted completely for a moment, then started again, the change in the rhythm waking Hee-Soo from her dreams. June was listening to her and wondering whether to wake her out of them, as she was growing more and more upset. She was calling their father as if he were inside his study but had somehow gotten locked in and was greatly distressed.
“Please hold on, Father,” she was half crying. “Please just a little longer. Mother is still looking for the key.”
June wound the blanket tightly around them, retucking the tattered ends beneath their feet. The stars were just appearing, moment by moment gaining in brilliance as the sky darkened. In another time, in another life, she would have thought them pretty, might have stirred her siblings to gaze up at their array, but as it was she could only see them as impossibly distant and perfect. Forever uninterested. After the train lurched forward, Hee-Soo fell quiet, Ji-Young snoring lightly the whole time; he always slept well, despite the circumstances. June hoped she might fall asleep, too, for a few hours at least, so that she’d have some strength the next day. But it was futile. She was thoroughly exhausted and her limbs felt as frail and old to her as that farmer’s wife’s branch-thin arms; and yet her mind still raced at night like a fueled engine, simply running and running, until it ran so hard and long that it forgot all else but this sole reason for being.
Their father had been the first. The last time she saw him he was bleeding from the nose and mouth, from the eyes, kneeling on the ground with his hands tied behind his back, a South Korean army officer standing jauntily above him, pressing the nose of a pistol to his head. The rest of them, except for her older brother, were in the back of a large transport truck, being driven away with the families of the other men who were being rounded up. They weren’t told where they were going. It had all happened instantly, in the course of an afternoon, this a week after the war started; the rapid retreat of the South Korean forces was sweeping through the towns and a general panic abounded, everyone fearing what the Communists might do as the front rolled southward, people frantically loading up whatever they could and filling horse carts, wheelbarrows, cars if they had them. But as it happened the ROK forces wreaked as much misery as the northern soldiers, and perhaps more. That morning June’s family was packing when the local police captain and ROK army officer and two armed soldiers appeared in their inner courtyard and ordered that her father go to the station with them. At first he simply nodded, as if the sight of them were nothing unusual. When they grabbed him to take him away he suddenly erupted, demanding to know what they were doing, why they wanted him, but they wouldn’t tell him. When he resisted, a soldier rifle-butted him in the face, sending him to the ground. His nose was smashed. Her older brother, Ji-Hoon, who was fourteen, wildly threw himself at the soldier but he was easily thwarted and they toyed with him cruelly before corralling him into the back of a sedan, along with his half-conscious father. June witnessed this from the house, having just gathered the few clothes she would take with her, the rest of the family arrayed below in the small inner courtyard, and when her father was struck it did not seem an actual or even possible happening. It seemed to her that she was shouting and screaming along with her mother and older sister (the younger twins were sobbing), but a week afterward, in a quiet moment of rest on the road, her older sister asked her how she could have been so dispassionate and calm. “What is wrong with you?” she’d said, almost desperately, her tone suggesting that June’s non-reaction was more a confirmation of her character than any surprise.
June’s father and brother were driven away. The rest of the family was ordered to wait. Two hours later a truck pulled up and they had to climb into the open bed, where another fatherless family was riding. The truck picked up two other families and made its way to the public square of their town. In the square was her father, along with three other men. They were badly beaten up, bleeding and swollen about their faces. June’s brother was not among them. The police captain announced that these four men were advance spies for the North, which the men had apparently admitted to under questioning. Neither her father nor the others were allowed to deny the charges. A crowd of townspeople had gathered, including some village officials who stood nervously behind the police captain. Then her father and the others were pushed to their knees. The officer paused for a moment and then waved the driver of their truck to pull away. June never heard any shots. They were driven for an hour or so south of town and then told to get out and join the rest of a throng of refugees marching on the road. Unlike the others, they were carrying hardly more than what they were wearing, though her mother had wound a belt of cash around her waist in the last chaotic moments they were in their house. Her mother asked the driver if he knew where her son had been taken, and the driver told them that a truck full of new conscripts had been sent toward the front line. But his expression was odd and her mother pressed him and he finally said that he’d heard the truck had been ambushed and attacked, and that those not immediately killed had been taken prisoner. For the next weeks her mother asked every person she came across if they had encountered or heard of him, the only word coming from a woman from their town who said she heard rumors of young South Korean men who had been reconscripted by the Communists and taken north.
June still asked after her brother whenever she had the chance, though somehow she was certain that she would never see him again. Either he would be killed in the fighting or they would perish on the road. But even at the farmer’s house she spoke his name to those sitting immediately around them, perhaps more for the twins’ sake than anything else.
The twins were fast asleep. She was flagging, too, and hungry. Sometimes the pangs overwhelmed her at night, after her siblings were asleep, and only then did she allow herself to softly whimper and cry. By the morning her spirit had hardened again, her mind already scrambling, angling furiously as to how they would eat for the day.
They were constantly famished, the hunger risen in them like well water during the spring rains, accruing to them each day until the feeling, oddly enough, was like an unbearable plenitude, this pressing flood of hollowness that would not recede. In the beginning, in those first days on the march, when they still had some money, they might buy rice and dried cabbage from others, her mother making a simple soup or gruel in a small tin pot a former neighbor had kindly given them. Because they’d had no time to gather what they’d packed they had much less than most of the other refugees. At first they did not dwell on the circumstances, for they were surely only temporary, for everyone was quickly moving southward toward the rumored refugee camps set up well behind the front, where people said there was plenty of food, and tents. Once a column of American trucks had rolled by, the soldiers tossing oranges and candy to them, and they could believe they would be all right. But soon enough, within mere days, there was little anyone could sell them, or, if someone was willing, a cup of rice or some strips of dried squid would be so costly that their money was practically worthless. And so the five of them—her mother and older sister and the twins and herself—took to foraging and scavenging, leaving the road for a part of the day to gather whatever they could in the countryside, greens and roots, wild berries and seeds, and then always checking any abandoned or destroyed American armor or trucks, however dangerous that might be, for whatever had been left behind. The Americans seemed to have unlimited supplies and were generous and profligate with them. Of course everyone else knew the same and so it was pure luck to happen upon a vehicle before it was completely, instantly stripped.
One afternoon the twins made a thrilling find, spotting the tail rotor of a helicopter that had crashed behind a bombed-out farmhouse. It had been there for at least a week, to judge from the remains of the pilots scattered about the wreck, the birds and rodents and feral dogs having worked to leave them almost cleanly skeletal inside the torn uniforms. Broken beer bottles littered the floor of the cockpit. But in a crate behind the seats there was a hold of pristine riches: a half-dozen packets of beef jerky and a can of Spam. As with the tins June found, they couldn’t help but eat the canned meat right away; their mother refused it, professing not to like its smell as she cut the pinkish block into four thick slices with the edge of the can, though while she was gorging on the salty, slick meat June saw her mother take a taste of her fingertips, her eyes half shut, losing herself for a moment in another time and place.
The days on the road were like that. You could never anticipate what might happen next, the earth-shattering and the trivial interspersing with the cruelest irony. You could be saved by pure chance, or else ruined. That was the terror of it, what kept June awake at night and stole her breath through the day, though it was the terror that was also forming her into her destined shape, feeding the being of her vigilance until it had grown into the whole of her, pushing out everything else.
It happened soon after the twins found the helicopter. It was a beautiful, shimmering day, the sky majestically tufted with high clouds, the slightest cooling breeze filtering down from the hills. Because of the solid nourishment, they were feeling stronger, more lively, and they were covering good distances, the younger ones having less trouble keeping pace. And their mood was light, as light as could be, given the circumstances. An especially haggard-faced woman traveling in their column had even given Ji-Young a soccer ball, of all things; it had been the prized possession of her son, who’d succumbed to a terrible infection several weeks before. They’d traveled all the way from Pyongyang, most every meter on foot. The woman had two daughters with her and all of them were bearing heavy loads on their backs, and she’d held on to the ball but it was a burden as it was impossible to pack, and she was hoping to give it away to another young boy. It was somewhat deflated but almost new and June’s mother at first balked at accepting it, for the very reason of having to carry it, but Ji-Young was jumping up and down and she couldn’t bear to refuse him. Soon enough they would stop once or twice a day and they would play in whatever patch of field was around, often other children joining them for a kick or two before their families called them back, June’s mother and older sister, Hee-Sung, watching them from the embanked road. Everyone was exhausted and hungry, but it was joyous, for a moment at least, to simply watch the children play. That day they were playing with others when a column of trucks and light armor rolled through. It was the Communists, heading north; it was said the Americans were pushing them back now from the small foothold they’d desperately held around Pusan, and the North Koreans were in full retreat. Several hours later a troop of soldiers followed, numbering only in the dozens, scuttling through them in a labored, steady march. The soldiers’ condition was poor, some of them worse off, it seemed, than their own civilian ranks, a good number of them wounded, at least every fourth or fifth man unarmed. Still, they paused there long enough to demand food from the refugees, having everyone open their packs, and Hee-Sung, who was carrying the beef jerky, decided on her own to slip down off the road and join the soccer game, to safeguard the food. The packets of dried meat had been tightly strapped to her chest with a long bolt of muslin (they were careful to keep it hidden, given its great value taking it out only under cover of night, when they could huddle together and gnaw the delicious strips in secret); June’s mother had been binding her chest anyway, for at fourteen Hee-Sung’s breasts were already full and womanly. She’d cut Hee-Sung’s hair short, too, as well as June’s, rubbed their faces with dirt each morning, and dressed them with school caps like boys, for there was always that certain danger. They’d witnessed soldiers from both sides kidnap other women and girls, some of them as young as June; they’d simply grab a girl from the ranks and drive off with her, and if she was lucky they wouldn’t kill her afterward, abandoning her someplace not too far away where she could be found or still make her way back.
When one of the soldiers reached June’s mother she stood up and immediately gave him a tiny pouch each of barley and rice, saying she had only one other for her entire family. He was a corporal, judging from the bars on his uniform, and he shouted for the other one and she gave it to him, whimpering. But June knew she’d just hidden much more than that in a sock of pantyhose beneath her feet and in the tips of her rubber shoes. The soldier pocketed it and he and his group were about to move on when he saw the children standing silently about in the weedy field, the ball left idle between them.
“Go ahead and play,” he said to them. His face was dirty and unshaven, his uniform caked with mud and dried blood.
None of them moved and he yelled, “Play! Play!”
One of the boys pushed the ball with his foot and another passed it on quickly to Hee-Sung, who awkwardly kicked at it. She had never played much soccer. The corporal muttered something and handed his rifle to another soldier and jumped down, talking about how there wasn’t proper sports instruction in the schools. Two of his comrades stepped down with him. He motioned to Hee-Sung as he asked for the ball and commanded, “Watch me!” She’d tried to meld into the scatter of the other children but she was older and taller than all of them. He made the ball play back and forth quickly between his feet and then crisply booted it with his instep to one of the soldiers, who passed it to the other. It went back again to the corporal and he passed it on directly to Hee-Sung, who bent down and stopped it with her hands.
“What are you doing?” he said, exasperated. “Trap it and pass it back!” Hee-Sung hesitated and then did as he ordered but when the ball rolled to him he just let it deflect off his foot. His expression had stiffened. As he walked to her everyone stood still and June’s mother began in desperation to call to him, though with an informal address, her voice sounding strangely youthful and demure, but he ignored her and when he reached Hee-Sung he pulled off her cap and took a long look at her short hair. He then held her by the neck and with his free hand pressed up between her legs. She crumpled to the ground, trying to push him away, while June’s mother was shouting for him to leave her alone, begging him. He finally released her and for a moment it seemed he was going to strike her or perhaps kick her. But he simply turned to mount the road again. Hee-Sung had crawled away but then the two other soldiers stood her up on her feet, saying she made for a “pretty boy.” The corporal told them they were moving on now but they kept pawing her, if not roughly, handling her short hair, her hips, and now her chest. One of them, a soldier whose eyes were set very close together, like an opossum’s, tested her there again and then ordered her to take off her shirt. She refused. He slapped her and then tore violently at it, exposing the binding about her chest, as well as the hidden shapes within the layers. June’s mother ran over to them, screaming, and the other soldier struck her with his fist and she fell heavily to the dirt. She was momentarily dazed and a front tooth was knocked out, her mouth and lip badly bleeding, and June rushed to her and dabbed at it with her sleeve, not knowing what else to do. She and the rest of the children were crying, as was Hee-Sung. She was terrified, her skinny shoulders quivering. The corporal was looking on from the road. The soldier told Hee-Sung to raise her arms and he pulled the binding loose, undoing it from her as if from a spool, and midway through, the packets of dried beef fell out.
“Well, look at this,” he said, picking them up. He inspected the jerky, and the labels. “Where did you get this?”
She didn’t answer.
“What are you, some kind of whore for the foreigners? This is American food.”
“Please, I just found those.”
“What did you do for them, to get such a present?”
“Nothing. I never did anything. Please, I’m telling the truth!”
“Sure you are.”
“Let’s see what else she has,” the other one said.
There was nothing else, this was obvious, but the soldier undid her anyway, with a horrid, meticulous patience. Soon she was completely bare on top, her breasts as pale as milk. She tried to cover herself but he had her keep her arms high, and all she could do was hide her face in the nooks of her elbows as she sobbed.
“Now there’s some sweet fruit,” the other soldier said.
“She’s mine,” the opossum-eyed soldier told him, now grabbing her by the arm.
“Maybe yours first!”
She seemed to lose control of her legs and they practically had to carry her up to the road, where they flagged down a covered truck. The soldiers quickly came to some agreement with the driver, who motioned to the rear. Very few of the soldiers were lucky enough to ride in vehicles. But as they dragged her to the back, Hee-Sung began to resist, her feet digging at the dirt road. The soldier lifted her and slung her over his shoulder and took her to the rear of the truck. She was pummeling his back, kicking her legs. His partner jumped up inside and he handed her to him, and then got in himself. He shouted to the driver but the truck didn’t move; it had stalled while idling. The driver turned over the engine several times before it caught. It was then that her mother, who’d scrabbled frantically up the embankment, reached it, and as it began to roll away she held on to the tailgate, suspended on its edge, Hee-Sung screaming from inside, Uhm-ma! Uhm-ma!, her mother screaming, Hee-Sung-ah! June was wailing, too, as were the twins, who stood frozen beside her, but she couldn’t hear herself for the terrible shrieking, their cries as sharp as if they were being flayed alive.
But it was another sound that overwhelmed them: the roar of two silvery jet planes flashing by overhead. The planes flew in low, shaking the ground as they instantly spanned the length of the valley, then careened far in the distance in a long, banking ascent. They disappeared almost completely, but then June could see they were arcing back. Suddenly the column of soldiers and refugees broke up and dispersed. People sprinted for the fields. The truck had sped up for a distance but now stopped and June’s mother climbed aboard while the two soldiers and a couple of others leaped out. But Hee-Sung and her mother did not. They were embracing, kissing, clothing each other in their arms, before the terrible onrush of sound and light.
When June opened her eyes the truck was gone. There had been a thunderous explosion; June and the twins had been knocked over by the force of the blast. There was an intense pressure in her ears and for several minutes she could not hear her own breathing. The planes had made only the one pass, firing a few rockets, and then flown away. She’d instinctively crouched over her siblings, and when she stood and looked back at the spot there was nothing but a burning half-chassis. She ordered her brother and sister to stay put and she ran there, in perfect silence, her heart feeling like it would burst out of her chest.
The rest of the truck was in small pieces, its parts on the road and blown for dozens of meters on either side. The section in flames lay at the rim of a blackened crater in the road that the explosion had dug two meters deep and many times as wide. But there was little else about. Later she would hear one of the soldiers say that the truck had been heavily loaded with munitions, and that one of the rockets had directly struck the covered bed of the truck. She searched the field below the road and saw the rent bodies of two soldiers on the periphery; the one with the pinched eyes had a large, jagged plate of metal lodged in his neck, his blood staining the ground in a small black patch. The other body was headless, but otherwise untouched. And she was ready for the most horrid discovery. But as long as she looked, circling back and forth, she could not find a single sign of her mother or sister. There was not a scrap of their clothing, not a lock of their hair. It was as if they had kited up into the sky, become the last wisps of the jet trails now diffusing with a southerly breeze, disappearing fast above her.
THE TRAIN HAD SETTLED into a steady pace, moving through the flat of the darkened valley at the speed of a fast horse trot, the locomotive’s rhythm and the radiant warmth of her siblings’ bodies finally ushering June into a state of virtual sleep. It was not wholly sleep because she did not yet dream—she never quite dreamed anymore. Instead, her mind rode alongside itself in a state of animal vigilance, such that she could see the three of them nested in the dull gray wrap of the blanket, their heads and feet tucked inside so that it looked like some huge spider’s or moth’s downy egg sac affixed on the boxcar, placed so that it might travel freely and survive. These last of their kind. If there were any purposeful thoughts bracing her now they simply marked the distances they were covering, the meter of the wheels upon the rails, the shriek of the turns, and the idea that if they could keep moving like this it would be their best chance of remaining together, staying sound. Her one resolve, just before falling sleep, was that they should stay on this train for as long as it would go, for as far as it might take them. There was almost no prospect of getting food on the train, as there would be at some camp; it was difficult to steal or beg anything inside the cars and all but impossible on top. But they were ground down by the road, and she calculated it might be worth eating nothing at all if they could stay cocooned like this and reach Pusan in the next couple of days. If she could administer a potion to make them sleep right through and so blunt the pangs in their bellies she would do so even if it meant them sliding dangerously close to death. For in every village there was a purveyor of herbal medicines who made teas for sleep—even the deepest sleep, if one wished, for the pained and dying.
But what would June in fact do if she had some of that tea now? She would not be afraid that they might drink too much. Maybe she would even steal some sugar or honey to make the drink delicious and sweet, have them gulp it and then lay them down just like this, clinging to her belly like they were her own children, and tell them a colorful story about the grand meal they’d soon enjoy with their cousins. She would give her life for them, but she had begun to understand that the other face of that will was that she could allow them to suffer only so much. They were in a grave condition. Their cheekbones, like her own, were sharply drawn now and jutting, but their bellies were unnaturally distended, the skin drum-tight and shiny. Ji-Young’s hair was beginning to fall out and Hee-Soo had a weeping rash on her back that was festering as it spread. Both of them were listless, dull-eyed, growing quieter by the hour, and they’d even ceased to wonder about their mother and sister; after the attack by the planes they’d asked constantly about where they might have gone, as June had told them their truck had sped off before the planes swooped in and that they would make their way to Pusan soon, if they weren’t there already. But in the last few days neither mentioned Hee-Sung or their mother, as if the privation had clarified their minds as much as their bodies, rendered away all infantile hope and wish and belief to leave only the unmysterious, the unmistakable, the real.
And yet June would not yet speak aloud what they already knew was the truth. It was not for them she delayed, but for herself. She cast a stony front to the world but in her sleep’s throes it was for the moment vanquished and she was once again the child she had been on the eve of the war, a too-tall, soft-spoken girl of eleven who was content to play with much younger children, who was still too shy to look the village boys in the eyes, who wanted nothing more than to sit in her father’s lap and hum along with his records while he drew on his corncob pipe, the smoke hanging fatly and sweetly about them. And the deep warmth she felt was not of her sleeping siblings but the heat of the ondol floor nearest the kitchen hearth, where in winter she often lay with a book, the housekeeper stoking the fire so hot that June was sure she’d be seared to the tiles if she read another page. In her sleep she could still believe that all of them would eventually reunite, for she hadn’t actually witnessed her mother’s and sister’s deaths, or, for that matter, her father’s. And then, for all she knew, her older brother, despite the surety of her instinct, might very well be hiking north through the hills with the Communists, beleaguered but alive. This was the waking picture in her mind. And even if she knew that all of this was illusory, perhaps the most perilous kind of self-lie, the kind that made one giddy and angry and desperate all at once, she might still choose to crawl inside of it anyway for as long as she could, let it have her breath if it wanted, let it extinguish her outright.
Her chest heaved at the close, used-up air beneath the tight dome of the blanket, and she involuntarily turned from her siblings and craned against the corner of the fabric so that the wind rushed over her eyes and nose. The air was frigid and tainted by the coally exhaust of the locomotive but she took it in and let it flood her lungs. She shivered terribly. The night sky was dying, brightening quickly with the light. She was awake but did not yet want to open her eyes. She wanted to sleep, to sleep a little bit again. But the train suddenly and violently bucked, sending her hurtling against the metal rib on the front side of the well. She struck it headfirst and was dazed for a second and when she opened her eyes she was half hanging off the edge between the cars. The train lurched forward once more and then finally stopped. Her nose felt as if it was smashed. It was only when she checked her own skin for blood that she realized they were gone. Her brother and her sister. She peered down and saw the blanket draped over the coupling, their satchel broken open beside the shiny rail, their few worthless possessions scattered in the dirt.
She screamed: “Ji-Young-a! Hee-Soo-na!”
She climbed down the ladder and jumped to the ground. But they weren’t there, not on either side of the boxcars. They were in a wide, dusky valley, no buildings or houses or even a road within sight.
“Ji-Young-a! Where are you? Hee-Soo-na! Answer me! Answer me!”
She got on her knees and looked under the wheels but they weren’t there. Other people had climbed down as well and were running toward the rear; the train had rolled a short distance before halting, perhaps the length of three or four cars. Some terrible shouting came now, and June followed it even though it was a grown man’s voice, running in her bare feet—her shoes had come off—and when she came upon him he was grasping his arm in a funny way. He had been thrown off the train as well and had broken it, the lower part of his arm bent grotesquely backwards, as if he had an extra elbow. He asked her for help but she didn’t answer because she heard the report of Ji-Young’s voice weakly calling, Noo-nah, noo-nah.
He was two cars down, lying close to the train. A woman was kneeling before him. She didn’t see Hee-Soo. At first it looked as if the woman were fitting her brother for a shoe, but when June got closer she saw what had happened and stopped a few paces short, unable to move on.
“Noo-nah . . .” Ji-Young said again.
“This is your little brother?” the woman said to June. June nodded.
“Then come here and help me! Well? Come on, girl, right now!”
June stepped forward and knelt down. “When I say so, pinch his leg with your hands, here, just below the knee. As hard as you can.”
June readied her hands.
Ji-Young moaned sharply with the pressure, crying miserably. The woman seemed to know what she had to do. She kept telling him not to look down, to keep his eyes closed, saying there was nothing to see. June would always think later that that was perversely right: for his foot was gone. The amputation was very clean. The stump was bleeding fitfully, the flow alternately stanched and then surging as the woman tried to bind his thin calf with a belt. The light was coming up now and the blood showed its pure color, while all else—the woman’s clothes, the arid ground—was washed out, depleted. It was then that June looked away from the tracks and noticed a figure lying belly down near the weedy field. It was Hee-Soo; she could tell by her thick mop of hair. For a moment June was sure that she was all right because her face was turned to her and her eyes were open, her mouth in a faint, if somewhat confused, smile. But she was dead. Both her legs were cut off. She had crawled all that way, and all her blood had run out.
The wheels of the train squealed and it began to inch forward, as though the locomotive was now pushing off the rails whatever obstacle it had struck. Then the train stopped for a moment before moving again. The woman’s own children, who sat on top of the boxcar, yelled for her to get back on. But the woman couldn’t cinch the belt tightly enough, and Ji-Young was bleeding freely again. The train kept moving, a little faster now, and the woman’s children began to shriek for their mother, high panic in their wails. She looked June in the eye and said to her, “You should get back on, child.”
“Please help us.”
“I’m sorry . . . I’m sorry . . .” She got up, pausing ever so slightly, and then hustled to the car where her children were, climbing quickly aboard.
Ji-Young was quiet now, breathing shallowly, as though he wasn’t very pained at all. June wound the belt around his leg and looped it through itself before pulling on it as hard as she could. Ji-Young screamed and momentarily fainted. But the bleeding stopped, and with all her strength she lifted her brother and cradled him. He was no heavier than kindling. And she began to run. One of the boxcar’s doors was partly open and she could catch it and hand him up to the people packed inside. Some of them were waving her on, beckoning her. The train was speeding up, beginning to leave her behind. It was their only chance now. But it was then that the belt came loose from Ji-Young’s leg and slipped off. The blood poured out as if from a spigot and she squeezed the stump as she ran, but one hand wasn’t strong enough. She could not do it. So she halted and laid him on the ground, gripping the stump again with two hands. The cars were slowly rolling past them, only a third of the train remaining.
“How come you stopped?” he murmured.
“I can’t run anymore.”
“Oh.” He was losing consciousness, the color draining from his face. “Will you come back for me?”
She nodded again.
“It’s okay. You don’t have to.”
She let go his still-warm hand, kissed his still-warm face. She stayed with him as long as she could. But when the last car of the train passed her she rose to her feet and steadied herself. And then she ran for her life.