from “I’ll Be Right There”

Dahn sent me the first letter a year after he joined the military and was selected for the special forces. It was more than five pages long. He didn’t mention anywhere in it that he was in a special forces unit. I unfolded the letter and put it on my desk. From GI Dahn to Civilian Yoon . . . I stared at those words for a long time. It pained me to realize that I had never written him back. I filled a fountain pen with ink, took out a new notebook, and wrote his name at the top of the page.

Dahn.

Dahn as a baby, Dahn as a child, Dahn as a seventeen-year-old, eighteen-year-old, nineteen-year-old, then a college student, then a soldier. Right after he joined the army, I didn’t hear from him for some time. I called his sister to get his address, and she told me he had been assigned to a special unit. She said they had nonstop drills every day, and that sometimes he had to survive in the mountains for half a week with only a canteen and a bayonet. You know how on Armed Forces Day, she said, the soldiers parachute in formation? His unit is one of those. But why Dahn? She told me he had the right physique for the special forces. But they must do aptitude testing as well? I pestered his sister with questions, but it made no difference. I wrote his name in my notebook again. I could not picture Dahn parachuting out of an airplane. How did he survive on his own for days in the mountains? In the space between the words civilian and soldier rested the sense of distance that prevented me from picturing him doing a road march or maritime training. I imagined his unit must spend so much time in the mountains that, after being discharged from active duty, the mere mention of mountains would make them turn their heads in disgust. To think that was where he was. Dahn the arachnophobe in the special forces having to survive for days on his own in the wild? Even after I had his address, I kept starting letters and abandoning them because I could not begin to imagine what he was going through. Then his letter arrived first.

Dahn.

I got your letter. I hope the night drills went OK.

Unsure of what to write next, I closed my notebook. How many times during those three weeks of hard training did Dahn have to recite Dickinson to himself so he could face down a spider? I started to put Dahn’s letter back in the drawer but paused and stared for a moment at the other letters stacked inside. I took them all out and placed them on top of the desk. They included lettercards and even ordinary postcards. I could not believe I had never written back to him, despite the many times he had written me. The image of Dahn at the waiting area flickered before my eyes. We had arrived at the training center two hours early and were waiting for him. Since we hadn’t arranged to meet, we thought there might be too many people and that we might not get to see him. There were only a few others at first, but it soon grew into a crowd. Most were friends of the new recruits. If we had not been standing in front of a military training center, it would have looked like we were waiting for a concert to begin. Myungsuh spotted Dahn before I could. While I was staring way off into the distance, he tapped me on the shoulder and pointed to him. He even called out to Dahn before I did. Dahn was shocked to see us. It was so strange to see him with a buzz cut that I could not stop staring. His scalp, and even the underside of his chin, looked blue from where it had been closely shaved. He stared at me for a moment and then took the cat from Miru. I guess saying good-bye makes us reach out for those we would ordinarily ignore. Maybe we care about them more, too, when it is time to part. He cradled the cat in his arms and looked around at us. He had stayed away from Emily when the four of us were staying in the old house, but now it felt like she’d been his from the start.

Dahn did not put her down the whole time. Not even when we went to a coffee shop, which took forever for us to find, and not even when I handed him the book of poems and told him to sneak it on base somehow. Finally, just before returning to the training center, he handed Emily back to Miru. Then he walked away without once looking back. I caught myself chanting the words, Turn around! Myungsuh mumbled, “That’s cold.” I ran. Dahn was walking straight ahead in the crowd of blue-skinned heads when I caught up to him. “I’ll write to you,” I told him. “I’ll come visit you, too.” Dahn told me not to worry about it and smiled. Later, sitting in the bathroom at a rest stop on the way back to the city, I pictured Dahn disappearing into the crowd without looking back and had to close my eyes from the pain. Then, back on the bus, I thought about that time very long ago when a night train chugged past right in front of us, and I had to squeeze my eyes shut even tighter.

I put my face down on the desk. I remembered that night with Dahn so vividly. I had debated for several days whether or not to go. He had avoided contacting me, even when he was on furlough, because he didn’t want me to see him with a shaved head. To get to where Dahn was, I had to take a train and two different intercity buses. At the last stop, I met a civilian defense soldier who was on his way to night duty at the unit on the coast where Dahn was on patrol. He took me all the way to the unit where Dahn was stationed. Dahn rushed out, his rifle slung over his shoulder, hand grenades and bayonet on his army belt.

Armed to the teeth, Dahn and I walked along a forest path lined with dry pinecones. There was no one else around. We came down a path along the bluffs and followed the coastal ceasefire line until we had left his patrol route. We walked forever down that dark path along the waterfront. I had no idea where we were. We seemed to be moving away from the water, because the sound of lapping waves grew faint. The stars gazed down at us, shimmering as if they might spill down at any moment. Dahn walked beside me in silence. I didn’t say anything, either. For me, there was nothing stranger than seeing Dahn dressed as if he could be sent into battle at any moment. I could not think of what to say to the Dahn who was no longer Dahn the individual that I knew but Dahn the nameless soldier in khaki combat fatigues. We walked on and on but never came across another person. Suddenly Dahn asked, “Want to hear something scary?”

“Seeing you armed like that is scary enough.”

He laughed.

“I deserted my post,” he said.

“What do you mean?”

“If they find out I’m with you, I’ll be court-martialed.”

“Is it that bad?”

Dahn laughed again at how serious I sounded.

“Don’t worry. When you do coastal duty long enough, you realize that everyone does what they have to in order to see their family or girlfriends. We all look the other way. The company commander and first sergeant probably know about it. No one believed me when I said I had a girlfriend, so they made a bet.”

“On me?”

“Sorry.”

“What was the bet?”

“They said if you showed up, they’d let me stay out overnight.”

“This is too dangerous. I don’t want something bad to happen to you because of me.”

“Bad? What are you talking about? I’m so happy right now. I can’t believe you’re here beside me.”

I was nervous, but talking to Dahn made me feel better.

“What was the scary story? More spiders?”

“I’m not afraid of spiders anymore.”

This was not the same Dahn who had worn a headlamp to accompany me to my mother’s grave, the Dahn who trembled in fear of stepping on a spider. He told me that his fear of spiders went away while he was in the special forces. He said that after all of that daily hiking, crawling, jumping, and soaring up in the mountains, he found himself grabbing spiders with his bare hands.

“Really? So there is some benefit to joining the army!”

Dahn’s laugh sounded hollow.

“So what’s your scary story?” I asked again.

Dahn pointed to some spot in the dark, to where the sound of the waves was coming from.

“There’s a guard shack down there, between the bunkers, where the soldiers take turns napping during their patrols. They say a soldier fell in love with a girl from one of the villages nearby. The girl would come by from time to time and spend the night with him in the shack. Whenever she came to see him, she always brought a pot of ramen for him as a midnight snack. But after the guy got out of the service, he took off without giving her his phone number or even so much as a glance back. She was so heartbroken that she hanged herself from the ceiling of the shack where they had been sleeping together. Turned out she was several months pregnant. After a while, rumors started to circulate. Whenever a new arrival fell asleep in the shack, he dreamed that a pretty young woman opened the door, smiled, and came inside. Carrying a tray with a steaming pot . . .”

“. . . And?”

“The soldier would take the tray and open the lid to find the pot filled with ramen. Bright red ramen boiling in blood.”

I shrieked and grabbed his arm.

“Is it true?” I asked. “Did you see her, too?” “Of course not! It’s just a legend that’s been passed down in our unit. The Legend of the Blood Ramen Ghost . . . Soldiers probably made it up to tell their girlfriends when they visited, like you. The girls get scared, just like you did, and grab their boyfriends’ hands or leap into their arms.”

“What?!”

So he had been trying to scare me, too. I tried to shake off his arm, but he pulled me closer and said, “I’m so glad you’re here!” With the sound of the waves coming to us through the darkness, we passed a cornfield and walked single file along a ridge between two pepper fields until we came to a house. We decided to ask if we could stay there, since we couldn’t keep walking all night. The woman who lived there must have been used to overnight visitors from the base, because she immediately led us to a tiny corner room with a porch. Dahn asked if there was anything to eat. She was surprised that we had not eaten yet and told us to wait a moment. Soon she came back with a tray filled with battered and pan-fried slices of squash, steamed and seasoned eggplant, kimchi, rice, and soup. She set the tray down on the porch. As she turned to go back to the kitchen, Dahn asked if there was any soju. She started to say there was none, but then she asked if we wanted her husband’s half-empty bottle. Dahn thanked her. She came back right away with the soju, two shot glasses, and a small dish of pan-fried tofu. She told Dahn to take off his helmet and rifle. “Doesn’t that scare your girlfriend?” she joked, and looked at me as she laughed. She told us the room would warm up in a moment and turned to leave. We ate on the porch. The plates were old, but the eggplant smelled savory and aromatic, like it had been freshly seasoned with sesame oil. Dahn filled his own glass with soju and looked at me. As I shook my head to say I didn’t want any, I spotted a spiderweb dangling above the porch.

“Spider!”

Dahn took a look and stood up. With his bare fingers, he plucked the spider as it crawled down its web, trembling in the light, and tossed it into the yard.

“I’m not afraid of them anymore,” he said.

Dahn sat down again and drank his soju. He looked at the kimchi and tofu but didn’t touch any of it. I had a few bites of eggplant and then set my chopsticks down. I was hungry but couldn’t eat any more than that. While Dahn drank, I stared at his combat boots and my sneakers where we had left them in front of the porch. I stuck my feet out and slid them into his boots. They were loose. I got down from the porch and staggered around. Dahn laughed out loud. “How on earth do you wear these heavy things?” I asked. I took off the boots and opened the door to the room. On the yellow linoleum floor were two blankets and a flat pillow. It must have been past midnight by the time we went inside and spread out the bedding. Dahn’s helmet sat on the floor next to us. We lay side by side, Dahn still dressed in fatigues and me still dressed in my street clothes. When we were little, we used to go over to each other’s houses to play and wind up falling asleep. Either his sister or my mother would come find us and carry us home on their backs. The sound of the waves surged in through the small window and lapped the rim of my ear.

“The ocean must be right outside,” I said.

“Just the beach. The water’s farther off.”

“How are you doing?”

“Like I’m trapped in a spider web.”

“I thought you weren’t afraid of spiders anymore.”

“I’m not. Not of the spiders that live in the mountains. But I think I’ve found a much bigger spider.”

He sounded sad. I felt him move toward me, and suddenly his face was directly over mine.

“I hate the sound of rifles. And the feeling of my finger on the trigger.”

The smell of the soju on Dahn’s breath filled my nose. He stared deep into my eyes. They wavered, and then his lips were against mine. His uniform pressed against my street clothes, and his hand slid inside my shirt and over my breast. When his breathing grew rough, I pushed him away from me. I could feel the strength in his hands when he grabbed my wrists.

“Dahn, please.” I felt his breath against my skin. “Don’t.” I tried to push him away, but he wouldn’t stop. As I struggled, my hand brushed his cheek and I felt his hot tears. His lips pressed against mine again, and he tried to unbutton my shirt.

“You’re the only exit I have left,” he said.

The next thing I knew, my shirt was pushed halfway up my chest, and Dahn was trying to unzip my pants. I twisted away from him, but he climbed on top of me and held me down. I do not know if it was because of his tears on my fingertips, but I felt confused and lost all strength in my body. I realized that the whole time I had been debating how to respond to Dahn’s invitation, I had known deep down that this would happen.

“You don’t love me,” Dahn said finally, and rolled away from me. “It’s because of him, isn’t it?” he asked. I knew who he was referring to.

Embarrassed by what had happened, the two of us probably got no sleep all night. I reached out and felt for Dahn’s hand, but he did not move. At some point, it started to rain. If the sound of rain could be counted, I probably would have counted the drops. In the morning, our eyes met as we were folding the blankets up. His eyes were bloodshot. We took the same path we had taken the night before. I felt indescribably sad. We walked over the pinecones wet from last night’s rain, made our way along the deserted forest path, and stood at the edge of the cliff and looked down at the sea. Below the dazzling sun sitting just over the horizon, barges were rocking in the waves. The sun seemed to shine even brighter after the rain. A tractor made its way around the driftwood and fishing nets scattered along the beach. What was a tractor doing on the mudflats? It was an unusual sight for me, as I was more accustomed to seeing cultivators moving back and forth between rice paddies. Each time the wind blew, the water wrinkled and grazed the sandbanks, one fold after another. The distant sound of engines sounded like something in a dream. A flock of seagulls wheeled through the morning sky and called out to one another.

“About last night,” Dahn started to say, a glum look on his face. I quickly cut him off.

“Don’t worry about it. I’m fine. We’ll forget all about it in a few days.”

“OK.” He nodded gravely.

“So, have you caught a spy yet?” The question popped out before I could stop myself.

“No one in my unit has, but they say someone caught a whale a few years ago.”

“A whale?”

“Yes. We don’t normally get whales in the West Sea. But once in a while, one gets lost and crosses the South Sea to this side of the peninsula. They say that when whales swim toward the coastline in the dark, they sound like North Korean spy submarines infiltrating. The soldier on duty followed procedure and fired off a flare, then remote detonated a claymore and opened fire with a machine gun. After the sun rose and they went in for a closer look, they discovered that it wasn’t a spy, after all, but an enormous whale floating belly up and ripped to shreds.”

“Poor whale.”

“The colonel gave the soldier a commendation and rewarded him with a seven-day pass because he performed his guard duty properly without dozing off.”

After the story of the whale mistaken for a spy, we didn’t have anything else to say. It was the first time we had ever felt awkward around each other. We walked back between the cornfield and pepper field that we had passed the night before and arrived at Dahn’s unit. I told him I would be on my way and turned to leave. After a few steps, I glanced back to see that he was still standing there, glued to the spot, watching me go. After a few more steps, I glanced back again, and he was still there. I gestured at him to go on in, but he did not move. I got farther away and looked back again. His head was hanging down.

After that visit, I stopped answering his letters.

From I’ll Be Right There, forthcoming 2014 from Other Press. Copyright © 2010 by Kyung-sook Shin. Translation copyright © 2014 by Sora Kim-Russell. By arrangement with Other Press. All rights reserved.