Spring 2003

by Andrew McKenna


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You died in a dark place
On a sunless day
Rain dripping from gossamer clouds
Crying tears as red as camellia flowers in midwinter snow
My heart bleeds 
                                                  -Yong-bae’s writing box

He was the son of farmers from the Village of the Blue Crane, and he knew the hard work of the barley and rice fields and the tobacco they had to cultivate for the Japanese. What Yong-bae remembered most about him were his hands. Soft and delicate, they were not like a man’s hands at all, more like leaves that fluttered in a breeze, leaves that protected her for their season and then were gone. 

As a boy he had learned to play the choktae, the bamboo flute, for the harvest festivals, and as he grew older music became more important to him than helping in the fields. And he was sickly, so while his brothers went out to work he was able to stay at home and practise. He discovered the uncom- plicated sounds of the flute. He learned to concentrate his attention at the surface of his skin, to breathe in through every pore of his body, to feel the vibrations of sound in his marrow, to taste the sound in his mouth, to hear it with his hands. He learned to be carried by it and surrender to it, to reach the spirit world through it. He knew it was the song of his soul.

By the time Yong-bae was born her father had long since left the Village of the Blue Crane and gone to live in Seoul where he played the flute and the t’aep yõngso, the Korean oboe, for the masked dance dramas that were popular there. He had left his farming roots behind, but he never forgot where he came from and would often tell her stories of the country. Once she went back with him to the Village of the Blue Crane for a harvest festival, but the vastness of the countryside frightened her. The field workers’ faces were like tree bark, and the way they bent double as they worked made her tired. She couldn’t wait to get back to the city. Even her father, guest of honour among the yokel musicians, seemed to reveal a side she had never seen before--a raw, uncompromising hardness, like rocks under water in a stream.

“Agriculture is the foundation of all under Heaven,” he told her in the train, but she cried all the way back to Seoul.

She began spending her evenings at the theatre while he rehearsed, watching the actors come and go, a small girl staring at them as they memorised their lines and ran through their paces on the stage, laughing or arguing as they worked. She loved watching the musicians in their beautiful red robes, hearing their small gongs and drums and stringed instruments, the smell of sawdust and paint and makeup and nervousness heated under bright lights, and she swelled with pride when her father played the oboe.

She was so entranced by the performances that the stage manager finally agreed to give her a role backstage even though she was not yet ten. She helped the main actor dress, and passed white cloths to the women dancers. 

One day she heard her father performing on the choktae in his garden and she wept because she believed she had heard the voice of the dead. She was drawn to the beauty of the music which held at its heart a deep sadness. Here she thought here was a chance to explore her own grief, the grief of knowing that all things, all life, must end. She could feel her own death a little in each beautiful note. 

She begged her father to teach her to play. He said no. Her mother also asked him, just the basics, but he refused. But her mother was persistent and asked one of her uncles to teach Yong-bae. After a few months her father realised she was talented and, grudgingly at first, took her on as his own student. His lessons were strict. He would never wait if she floundered, and he would teach a piece only once and expect her to play it. 

“Always use your ears,” he said. And, “Your attitude is more important than cleverness with your fingers.” Or, “A single tone can provide enlightenment.”

He believed that a musician had to work on an inner strength to become a master, that it was an instrument of introspection and self-knowledge, that music was for the soul and the spirit. From her own experience would come insight. 

“To play the flute,” he told her, “you have to learn to control your breath through your abdomen, and that is the cornerstone of all meditation. Master this and you master yourself.”

He spoke of perfection, of a single breath as a meditation, of “our shore” and “the other shore” being linked by a delicate thread of sound. They were fine sentiments, and his face showed a calm passivity that might have been contentment. But in his heart he had begun to harbour poison thoughts. 

Japanese soldiers had beaten two of his nephews to death in the Village of the Blue Crane for smoking at a time when the Japanese Government was carefully guarding its tobacco monopoly. Their father’s heart was broken, and he had thrown himself into the sea. At home Yong-bae’s father spoke bitterly about the Japanese, often so loudly that Yong-bae’s mother had to tell him to be quiet, for the walls had ears. 

More and more often he was disappointed and tired. He was sick in his soul, and it could be heard in his music. Gradually it ceased healing him. They only found out much later that he had been passed over as leader of the orchestra in favor of a Japanese musician. 

One night a delegation of Japanese officers visited the theatre, because its reputation had spread. Only ten minutes into the first scene, where Yong-bae’s father was meant to play a haunting section as the ghost appeared, he put down his oboe and stood up. There was a moment of confusion as the musicians were suddenly thrown off and the actors looked uneasily at each other. 

Yong-bae’s father walked to the front of the stage and cleared his throat.

“There are foreigners in our midst,” he said, “Until they leave this land I will play no music for the theatre. All good Koreans should demand they leave. They are not welcome here. They are parasites on the backs of our nation. I curse them and their ancestors.”

The performance broke in disarray. The audience began shouting and fled. Alarmed voices rose backstage as the musicians and actors stampeded for the wings. Yong-bae’s father stood at the front of the stage watching the mayhem he had created, and she stood watching him, proud and frightened at once. Police whistles shrilled and soldiers poured into the theatre. They beat Yong-bae’s father with the butts of their rifles and dragged him away. She saw his face bloodied, as red as his musician’s robes. Someone took her arm, and she was suddenly outside in the night.

Her father never came home. The theatre was closed for six months. When it reopened, a Japanese musician had replaced him. 

To draw rations under occupation you had to recite an epic poem. When Yong-bae’s mother next went to draw their rations she could not do it. Instead, she broke down and sobbed and accused the government men of killing her husband. They laughed and threw her out. 

Over the winter they were forced to eat scraps from the market, bark and roots out of the garden. The winter was hard, and they were very hungry. In the spring they were forced to take a ship across the sea. There were squid boats trolling under floodlights during the crossing. A cold rain fell, and Yong-bae vomited from seasickness.  But when they landed she thought how beautiful Japan looked. The blossoms were out and the clouds had parted on an enormous sky, and the country was green, filled with rice paddies and neat vegetable gardens. 

They were taken to Tokyo. Except for soldiers everywhere, it was a beautiful country. The rice paddies rippled under the sun, and tiny villages dotted the countryside. They were barracked in the women’s quarters at Asakusa and set to work.

Her mother befriended a Buddhist man who was forced to work with them. He was regarded as the lowest of the low--a Japanese man forced to work with Korean women slaves. This was because he would not fight in the Pacific War. He would not kill for the emperor. He would not even kill an insect. So the army made him work in the factory. He told Yong-bae’s mother that the Japanese would have to pay for what they had brought upon the people of the Pacific, that there was a law of retribution.

Because her hands were small Yong-bae’s job was to insert fuses into shell casings. Other girls and small boys did the same work. When war broke out with America air raid sirens often interrupted them. They had a shelter under the factory, but Yong-bae’s mother said it was not much use because if the factory was hit they could dig to the centre of the earth but no shelter would be deep enough to spare them. Yong-bae had nightmares. 

One night in Asakusa the sirens woke them. An explosion came very close and threw Yong-bae out of bed. People were rushing around screaming, and she was separated from her mother in the dark. She could smell fire. She ran into the street as the anti-aircraft guns opened up. There were many explo- sions, so many that her eardrums seemed to be stretched tight inside her head. A great whistling filled the night as bombs rained down. The Americans were dropping incendiaries, and much of Tokyo was built of rice paper and wood. She saw people blown apart. A huge wind started to blow as the fires sucked up oxygen. She heard her mother calling through the roar, and they ran to where wardens were directing people. They entered a cellar and sat shoulder to shoulder with other terrified people while above them Tokyo burned.  Other people suffocated in the shelters that suffered direct hits, but Yong-bae and her mother were just far enough from the firestorm to survive.

They emerged into a charred ruin, full of smoke and craters. Corpses lay in blackened piles. Yong-bae thought this must be hell. They spent some hungry days, wandering away from the centre of town where there were still houses, and finally they were evacuated to a place called Hakone in the mountains. Yong-bae thought it beautiful, with hot mineral water bubbling out of the ground. There were even boiling waterfalls and steam rising through the ferns. All around were lovely mountains, and the forests were full of trees turning copper and scarlet as winter approached. She was set to work on a farm minding chickens and goats, and that was her happiest time during the war.

From the farm she was sent to Nagasaki to live with other girls. And then it was 11.00 o’clock one morning in August. They had no news of what had already happened in Hiroshima. She was alone in her room when she heard a plane in the sky, very high up. She pulled her chair to the window and looked out. She couldn’t see the plane, but she did see a silver box floating slowly down on a parachute. The city was very quiet. She could not hear the shouts of workmen and streetcars rolling past, birds singing, and the policeman’s whistle. A duck landed on the lake, sending out ripples as it flapped its wings. And above, just that silver parachute falling, with no sign of the aeroplane. 

Her mistress came into the room and shouted at her, thinking Yong-bae was about to climb out the window and run away. She slapped Yong-bae’s face, and she fell to the floor. 

“What are you doing!” the woman yelled. “I will send you away.”

“A parachute is falling,” Yong-bae said, and pointed to the window.

The woman glared at her, then pulled over a chair and climbed up to look out. Yog-bae’s face was stinging. She hated her. She hated everything about Nagasaki. She saw a bedspring that had fallen to the floor and reached out for it, prepared to stab the woman, even if it meant she herself would be killed. 

Then the room was full of the brightest light. No sound, but it was as if the sun had fallen to earth. A blinding blue-white light that made her dizzy with its intensity, so bright she could almost see through the walls. She pressed her hands to her eyes and saw the bones of her hands, even with her eyes closed. She even thought she could see her brain behind them. The woman screamed, and there was a great rush of wind, and somehow Yong-bae lost the use of her senses.  When they returned she was on the other side of the room, pieces of broken glass covering her face and in her mouth. Her mistress was lying nearby. Where she had been looking out the window her face and neck and chest were stripped raw like a side of meat. There were strips of paper lying all around her, and Yong-bae wondered what they were. Then she realised they were the woman’s skin. 

For many days she did not know what had happened. The girls wandered outside and were afraid at what they saw. Soot was falling everywhere. Nagasaki was a blackened wasteland. They did not know about radiation. Within a few hours the police ordered them into town to help carry out the dead. 

The worst part was where electric and telephone wires had got twisted around people’s legs and they could not pull themselves free. They died like that, begging for water. The river and the pools in the gardens were choked with dead. Yet Yong-bae felt no pity for them. She saw entire families and children incinerated, their bodies twisted and swollen by the great heat. She saw tree branches piled together and wondered what they were until she realised the white bark was bones. But she did not feel pity. She rejoiced. In the midst of the incineration she was glad, though she herself felt like a ghost. 

Many Japanese committed suicide, as did some of the girls she lived with, some of whom were students. Yong-bae stayed alive because she wanted to find her mother and because she wanted to see Japan brought to its knees.

She stayed on for several weeks after the bombing. There was little else she could do. Groups of workers arrived to dig through the rubble.  Amazingly, despite the terrible heat of the blast, in a few weeks the vines and flowers returned, exploded into life as if they had just been waiting for the chance, or even as if the bomb had stimulated their growth. She saw dandelions as tall as a horse, grass pushing through walls, morning glories pulling down ruined houses.

There was no transport out of Nagasaki until the Americans arrived. Some of the injured and sick--and there were a great many—were sent to Tokyo when the war was over. Then the roads were flooded with GIs honking the horns of their jeeps and acting in ill-mannered ways. The American authorities would not let her travel. She had to stay in Japan until the spring of 1946 when they finally allowed her a berth on a ship back to Korea. She had not been able to find her mother. 

Back in Korea she found herself an outsider. She didn’t know who she was or where she should go. Her nights were plagued with nightmares. She wanted to reclaim her family home and get news of her mother. She walked the streets of Seoul and found her old neighbourhood in rubble. The people there talked ill of her and her family. They said her family had deserted them; that it was her fault what had happened. She heard so much of this kind of talk that she began to believe it.

She stood in the street and considered throwing herself in front of a bus. Two little boys were playing nearby, climbing up onto a fence to tear flowers from a camellia bush and then jumping down onto the footpath to trample them, hooting with laughter. What was her life worth? Her family was gone, her country in ruins. In effect, her life was over. Snuffing out what was left of it would be of as little consequence as what those boys were doing to the camellia blossoms. She turned toward the traffic and waited for her moment to arrive. She felt absolutely calm. 

(Andrew McKenna is an Australian writer and journalist. He has worked for publisher Lonely Planet, had plays performed around fringe theatre and national radio, and published two non-fiction books and many articles. His work has been published in The Dead Mule School of Southern Literature (USA); River Teeth, A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative (USA); New Internationalist (UK); Carve Magazine and the Best of Carve 2002 (USA); Antipodes, (Canada/USA); the New England Review (Australia). He has just completed a novel, The Illness and the Cure, of which "A Dark Place" is an extract.)