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Manoa 14.2 (2002-2003) 150-153

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Hwang Sun-Won


The northern village lay snug beneath the high, bright autumn sky, near the border at the thirty-eighth parallel. White gourds lay one against the other on the dirt floor of an empty farmhouse. Any village elders who passed by extiguished their bamboo pipes first, and the children, too, turned back some distance off. Their faces were marked with fear.

As a whole, the village showed little damage from the war, but it still did not seem like the same village Songsam had known as a boy.

At the foot of a chestnut grove on the hill behind the village, he stopped and climbed a chestnut tree. Somewhere far back in his mind he heard the old man with a wen shout, "You bad boy, climbing up my chestnut tree again!"

The old man must have passed away, for he was not among the few village elders Songsam had met. Holding on to the trunk of the tree, Songsam gazed up at the blue sky for a time. Some chestnuts fell to the ground as the dry clusters opened of their own accord.

A young man stood, his hands bound, before a farmhouse that had been converted into a Public Peace Police office. He seemed to be a stranger, so Songsam went up for a closer look. He was stunned: this young man was none other than his boyhood playmate, Tokchae.

Songsam asked the police officer who had come with him from Ch'ont'ae for an explanation. The prisoner was the vice-chairman of the Farmers' Communist League and had just been flushed out of hiding in his own house, Songsam learned.

Songsam sat down on the dirt floor and lit a cigarette.

Tokchae was to be escorted to Ch'ongdan by one of the Peace Police.

After a time, Songsam lit a new cigarette from the first and stood up.

"I'll take him with me."

Tokchae averted his face and refused to look at Songsam. The two left the village.

Songsam went on smoking, but the tobacco had no flavor. He just kept drawing the smoke in and blowing it out. Then suddenly he thought that Tokchae, too, must want a puff. He thought of the days when they had shared dried gourd leaves behind [End Page 150] sheltering walls, hidden from the adults' view. But today, how could he offer a cigarette to a fellow like this?

Once, when they were small, he went with Tokchae to steal some chestnuts from the old man with the wen. It was Songsam's turn to climb the tree. Suddenly the old man began shouting. Songsam slipped and fell to the ground. He got chestnut burrs all over his bottom, but he kept on running. Only when the two had reached a safe place where the old man could not overtake them did Songsam turn his bottom to Tokchae. The burrs hurt so much as they were plucked out that Songsam could not keep tears from welling up in his eyes. Tokchae produced a fistful of chestnuts from his pocket and thrust them into Songsam's... Songsam threw away the cigarette he had just lit, and then made up his mind not to light another while he was escorting Tokchae.

They reached the pass at the hill where he and Tokchae had cut fodder for the cows until Songsam had to move to a spot near Ch'ont'ae, south of the thirty-eighth parallel, two years before the liberation.

Songsam felt a sudden surge of anger in spite of himself and shouted, "So how many have you killed?"

For the first time, Tokchae cast a quick glance at him and then looked away.

"You! How many have you killed?" he asked again.

Tokchae looked at him again and glared. The glare grew intense, and his mouth twitched.

"So you managed to kill quite a few, eh?" Songsam felt his mind clearing itself, as if some obstruction had been removed. "If you were vice-chairman of the Communist League, why didn't you run? You must...


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