By John Kay
Night on a hard wooden floor and mosquitoes on a mission. The nuns up and about the whole night reciting sutras and praying and burning incense. In the morning they shaved his head. In the small courtyard, the pudgy-faced young monk, now nun, who yesterday had a bucket, today held a razor. For a split second Oh panicked as he looked at the hand holding the razor, then reason took hold. Slowly with the razor she scraped clean every inch of his wizened scalp. Then he was given a set of clothes both grey and baggy.
Bald as a coot and with a modest packed lunch, they sent him on his way. He followed the trail, followed the well-trodden path, as he had always done. Every few minutes a man or woman or both filed passed dressed as consummate climbers, replete with long chequered, woollen socks, the latest hiking boots, shiny backpacks, flasks, coils of rope and the latest, light weight, telescopic walking sticks.
Every so often he stopped, caught his breath and proceeded to mutter his usual litany of complaints; about his knees, his chest, his heart, his eyes, his feet, his balls and his back. He sat down on stones smoothed flat by centuries of travellers’ arses pausing to catch their breath. He worked a hand over the smooth, unfamiliar terrain of his head and took a sip of water. It was then that a man came into view, his face pink on the way to crimson, his glasses steaming up, his bald pate shiny with sweat, his shirt darkened at the chest and underneath his arms. On his back he carried a large rucksack, big enough Oh thought to carry a picnic for a family of four. The man took out a handkerchief and proceeded to dab at his saturated brow and forehead. He bowed, took the rucksack off his back and sat down.
“You’re a hard man to keep up with. I saw you back at the temple Seunim, remarkable for a man your age. If you don’t mind me saying?”
“Not at all” said Oh. “At my age you learn to take all the compliments you can get.”
“Are you heading for the peak?”
“Heading that way myself. I was born not far from here. As a child every school trip was either to the temple or the mountain. Even now in my sixties, I can’t seem to break the habit, Song’s the name.”
They set off and Song was always a few steps ahead of Oh. All the while his reedy voice echoed off the rocks and boulders. As they walked on the couples and tour groups, the loners and enthusiasts who had passed Oh on their way up, went back down the way they’d come, with nods, grunts and the occasional sparks and slices of conversations. They paused, then Oh with a burst of energy went on, leading the way.
“Now I slow down and let this old sonofabitch set the pace.”
Oh wondered if this guy ever stopped talking. On and bloody on he went about his hippopotamus of a wife; how he had learnt to tune out her incessant complaining. How everyone thought the life of a minor government official was a breeze; that it was a job for life just when they were going out of fashion; when in fact it was a prison sentence: a sea of troubles.
“Look at him the old cunt. He tilts as he walks, leans to his left like an arthritic orangutan.”
They round the bend and discover off the path to the left a gigantic boulder with a 14 hundred year old image of the Buddha engraved into the slate grey surface. Nearby a spring; water seeped from between some rocks: the water, the first thing that made this place holy.
“While I knelt down, drank and splashed water on my face, the old man starts bowing and praying; his hands together, finger tip to oily tip: praying! Praying to whom? What could he be praying for? For redemption? for forgiveness? For a few quiet, trouble free years more?”
Like a bloody red rag to a bull; Song leapt to his feet and ran hard, eyes down and charged into Oh. Catching him with his shoulder Oh was knocked off his feet and onto the ground. With the benevolent face of the Buddha looking serenely on, Song set about kicking and punching the prone Oh. Who did the best he could to guard his face and ribs from the attack but he was on his back; he was 80 odd years old; Song was heavier and had the advantage of surprise.
“My foot on his wizened throat; so easy just to keep it there, squeeze his wind pipe till he’s blue in his startled face. It’s all over now Oh. The game is up. Some monk you turned out to be. Nam was right, but he woke up too late. You should’ve seen what that subway train did to him.”
Song gave Oh a few more kicks.
“You killed and you thought you could get away with it; that no one cared and no one remembered, but you were wrong.”
He knelt down and grabbed a tight hold of the scruff of Oh’s neck.
“You fucking worthless, evil, desiccated piece of shit.”
He shook and shook Oh like a flimsy rag doll. Spittle flying he twisted Oh round and pushed him hard into the ground.
“You like burying people, well let’s see how you like it; eat you bastard, eat,”
He rubbed Oh’s face in the compact, red earth. Oh’s right eye had puffed up and closed like a boxer’s. A cut continued to bleed above the eye. Song stopped to catch his breath then squashed Oh back down hard.
“You must be hungry after all this walking; eat, eat! Well, best not give you a heart attack, otherwise I won’t be able to extract my pound of flesh from this fascinating situation.”
Song walked over to where Oh’s bag had fallen and took out the packed lunch. I’ve built up quite an appetite, revenge is a hard task master. He opened the Tupperware containers and started to eat.
“On the 14th April 1950 I was seven years old but they say I was lucky; I was there and I survived. They were right and they were wrong, but you (he walks over and gives Oh a fierce boot to the back) were just wrong;”
Oh curls up in to a foetus position and let out a low animal-like moan.
“You knew it was wrong, you had to, yet you followed through, like your Neanderthal comrades in arms; all day from sun up to sundown you excelled in your work; your cull, your spade work, your murdering.”
From his rucksack he took out what looked like a piece of washing line and tied Oh’s hands at the front.
“My wife died recently, a slow, agonizing, wasting death but she suffers no more; that is your job now. More to the point, my wife was the voice of reason. I told her all about what I saw, what I experienced and what I fled from on the 14th April, all those years ago. How we were woken in the middle of the night by an incessant hammering on the front door. Men in uniforms stomping all through our piss-poor house. I remember thinking it strange that they didn’t take off their boots before entering. I was still trying to work out what this meant when we; mother, my sisters and I were all bundled out into the street and into the back of a waiting truck. Throughout the night others arrived, by morning we were packed in like cattle on their way to an abattoir. One truck became a convoy; mother tried to keep us quiet, the men in uniforms kept barking orders; they wanted everyone (it was impossible but they wanted it) to lie flat on the floor of the truck. Mother thought it was because they didn’t want anyone to see what they were doing to us. I found out later, the real reason was that they didn’t want the prisoners in trucks D, E and F witnessing the prisoners from trucks A, B and C being shot and tossed in a ditch. We could hear screaming, the crying of the adults and children alike. And the constant cursing and shouting of men in uniform: and sharp loud noises that made all the adults grind their teeth and hold us even closer.”
“When it was our turn they ran us across a patch of ground screaming, shouting, grabbing, pulling, spitting and snarling at mother. They made us all kneel by this long hole in the ground. There were already bodies in the hole, some wriggled a little like worms when it rains. Mother held my hand so hard it hurt but I didn’t say anything. Mother knelt at the edge of the hole and we did too. She wrapped us in her arms and I heard the sharp loud noise again and we fell forward into the hole. Mother fell on top of me, then I fell on top of my sisters. They looked like they were sleeping. They didn’t wriggle like worms. Mother was heavy lying across my chest and I didn’t like it. It wasn’t a good feeling lying there but I must have fallen asleep. A long time later I woke to the sound of the trucks moving off their, job done. Tired after all that hard work, they only half-heartedly covered the bodies; and for that I am eternally grateful.”
The lunch finished with, from his rucksack Song took a small shovel. Beside the huge boulder from which the Buddha looked serenely down, Song set about digging. He said,
“If this was a film I’d have you dig, you lazy old shit. But we’d be here a week and you haven’t got that much time. You buried my family, you tried to bury me, so in turn to keep things as symmetrical as a butterfly: I’ll bury you.”
Song cut out a rough rectangular pit; it was about six feet long, a foot wide and about four feet deep.
“A home from home for you, Oh; let’s get back to basics.”
Sweat dripping from his temples, his nose and slowly trickling down his back, Song stopped digging. He lit a cigarette, hunkered down on his haunches and slowly let billowing plumes of grey-white smoke out of his nostrils. When the cigarette was almost finished Song got up, went over and sat down beside the bruised, bleeding, and disheveled Oh. He leaned over and held the filter tip to Oh’s swollen and bruised lips; letting the old man drag on it a while.
By the time Song had finished digging the hole to his satisfaction, it was starting to get dark. Then it started to rain and the rain woke Oh from his pain induced slumber.
“You listen to me: It was back breaking work digging those pits. Each one was supposed to be thirty feet long and that morning we must have dug ten in all. I never really wanted to join the police you have to understand but they were offering good pay, a fine uniform and a pair of proper leather boots. I was new and did as ordered. Digging the pits was a killer. It was like being back on the farm again. Nothing like I expected police work to be. First we dug the pits, not as deep as a real grave. Maybe four feet deep, two across, three of us worked on each pit. All those gaping holes made it look like someone was going to build a house.”
“Yes, I killed with these blotchy hands; men, women and children. They were pushed, kicking and screaming to the pits. I can still see where everyone was standing, where the trucks were parked and the way the field rose toward the woods. Women, pleading for us to spare their children offering me their boy or girl, if only we’d pull them away from the pit and allow them to live. One young woman she had the loveliest neck. I wanted to reach forward and touch it but there was no time and it wasn’t the place for affection, even if I’d been capable of expressing it, which I wasn’t. She died like the rest, before her time, piled one a-top the other, all twisted in a cruel kind of anti-gymnastics. Stand too close and you’d be slapped awake by a splash of blood; horribly warm and with bits of brain and splinters of bone in the face.”
“Some facing the pit and death prayed; there were those who whispered secrets no one would ever prise away from them. Others tried one last desperate time to save themselves from the abyss by means of the most emphatic and continuous pleading; that they were not enemies of the state, had never been and had neither aided or abetted those that were. Pleading faded into attempts to bribe, to pay with whatever they held most dear; gold teeth, jewellery, their wives, daughters, with sex, cattle, with deeds to this and that: all to no avail. The pits were dug for the prisoners and when we’d done our work the trucks rode away, like the mute, insensate witnesses they were.”
“Years later I read about what the Turks did to the Armenians in 1915; what atrocities the Wehrmacht committed as it rampaged across Eastern Europe during the Second World War. I read about Stalin’s terror and the Khmer Rouge’s attempt to turn Cambodia back to Year Zero. And I’ve read about the genocide in Rwanda. The scale of these crimes shocked me but the methods, the means and the wherewithal were as familiar to me as the voices of my grandchildren. Yes I am guilty but you’ll not bring them back this way. Maybe if I was in your shoes I’d do the same thing: but Song once you’ve got blood on your hands you can never wash it off.”
The rain started to get heavier, so Song dragged Oh toward the hole. The rain got heavier and heavier still and thunder boomed over head like artillery fire. Then a 20 second gap then an almighty flash and crack of lightning illuminated the tired little scene. With the storm comes electricity, spirits, demons, the long watchful ghosts of the mountain, memories; and death, in all her manifest shapes and forms. Another crack of lightning; Oh’s face in bold relief like a mime artist doing fear; though not the piddling fear of spiders, or rats, public speaking or of heights, but the fear that is squeezed from every pore when a person knows their death is near and unavoidable.
Then the mountain and the two participants return to the pitch black, Song grabs Oh by a leg and drags him closer to the hole. Oh pipes up;
“It won’t make any difference whether you kill me or not, they’re dead. Your wife too, she’ll be turning in her grave, if she knew what you were up to.”
Lightning again; Song with a grimace pulls Oh down into the hole, already filling up with water. He puts a muddy, wet hand over Oh’s mouth:
“Time to say goodbye, Oh. You can’t talk and lie your way out of it now. This is the end game, and it’s decided: you lose. Isn’t life like that, that things which are so significant to us, we sometimes seem to have so little influence over.”
Song brings the spade down hard and fast on to Oh’s head. Then lightning cracked the world in half. Song, the grimace gone, eyes devoid of feeling, as if in slow motion started to shovel earth into the hole. Darkness; not visible but heard; Oh willing to sell his soul, to make an arrangement with this devil, Song.
“My properties; the deeds, they’re yours. I have an apartment in Seoul, my son’s is in my name. I have a building I rent out; they’re yours, please! My savings, take them and the land where my wife is buried; and the plot for me next to it.
Lightning struck a nearby tree; Song continued to shovel the earth. Blood getting into his one good eye, Oh wriggled and scratched at the sides of the hole, trying to get some leverage and yank himself out. Song stamped down hard with relish on Oh’s scrabbling and frantic hands that looked like two albino crabs trying to escape a net. The pain shot right through Oh and he started to whimper and then curse his head off.
“Son of a whore, you’ll never get off this mountain Song. The ghosts of Nam and the others, mine too, will keep you here with me.”
Song speeded up shoveling; he’d already covered Oh’s legs and was steadily moving up to his chest. If you squinted it looked like Oh was in bed, turning this way and that in a fevered sleep. With only Oh’s head exposed Song stopped. He patted the earth down making it compact and smooth. Oh stretched and wriggled his neck like a new born baby. Song rubbed his hands on his trousers and lit his last cigarette.
“Oh, what a sight you are.”
The cigarette finished, Song flicked the glowing fag-but at Oh’s head but missed. He unzipped his fly and had a piss. The closer the golden stream got to Oh’s face, the more Song’s teeth showed; under different circumstances it could’ve been a smile.
Oh was breathing through his nose, his chin pointing up toward the tops of the trees. The hole was steadily starting to fill up with water. Song took one last look, slung his rucksack over his shoulder and started down the mountain.
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John Peter Kay started writing in earnest back in 1996 at art school. Since 2003 he’s taken as his inspiration the sounds, sights, smells, tastes and incidents of life in South Korea. He has a blog where he has been known to wax lyrical about riding the bus, demonic hagwon directors, his mother-in-law, alcoholic brethren, and the joys and tribulations of being a fully paid up husband and father. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org