I never expected this, the bitter cold. The radio tells us it’s a Siberian cold front. It feels like just a few weeks ago I was walking through the mountains with unbearable heat. The smell of rot was everywhere, and the bugs came at us with more force than the Korean People’s Army.
Yet here I stand, huddled next to my squad mates in a hovel we dug out near the shores of the Chosin reservoir. We used our gas supply for the day and all we have for warmth is each other. The thermometer reads -20 degrees.
The village near us isn’t doing much better. It looks like a ghost town. Ruined buildings from the shelling leave only the chimneys. The houses that still stand are filled with little more than huddled refugees left with no options. No one is going south until this passes.
The biggest lie my government ever told me was that I would be home for thanksgiving. At that point I would have been willing to settle for before 1951, but I’m not sure that is in the cards either.
I was immensely grateful for the spread: some real turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, and all the fixings. I stuffed my face as fast as I could, the brown gravy already freezing to the soggy mash underneath it. Even cold, I tried to savor it.
“Hey Clayton!” Briggs said. I looked up and a snowball exploded in my face. I flicked the snow off pieces of near frozen meat. He was a tall and lean black man. He’d gotten some flack for being the only integrated one in our squad, but when the fighting started, the talking stopped.
“You’re dead in about two minutes,” I said, laughing. I shoveled the last bit of turkey in my mouth, snow and all.
“You say that, but I got the stuff. The stuff you want,” Briggs said. I expect he might have some reefer, though I have a feeling I don’t want to know how he got it. Instead he held up a can of pumpkin pie filling.
“How the hell did you manage that? I thought they had run out,” I said.
“There’s a reason for that. Sticky fingers are all over the place,” Briggs said.
He sat next to me and with shaking hands he removed the lid and broke into the frozen orange mush. After considerable prying he got a chunk of it. I followed suit and let the piece melt in my mouth. It was the first sweet thing I’d had in weeks and my body shuddered with how fantastic it was.
“Sadly, this is better than how my Mom used to make it,” I said.
“I take it Mrs. Clayton wasn’t much of a cook then,” Briggs said.
“Nah, not so much. Since my dad passed it was a lot of canned beans and whatever else I could find on my own. She was always working double shifts.”
“Well, when we get home I’ll have the wife make you a proper pie. She’s portly for a reason. Heads would be rolling if they tried to pass this dinner off in her kitchen,” Briggs said.
We dug through the can until our knives bent. When we were about halfway done I asked if I could save the rest.
“I know what your getting at. You want it for that little widow in town.”
I didn’t answer.
“It’s okay man. You take it. Maybe you can get some of that this time. Death is the ultimate aphrodisiac, followed by sugar.”
“It’s not like that,” I say, feigning being appalled. I was never a good liar. Truth is, she meant a lot more than I cared to admit.
“Sure bud,” Briggs said, slapping me on the back. “You do what you gotta do.”
The night was cold and dark and deep. I snuck out from the mild comfort of our hole and walked toward her village. The idea of her face, of her little boy’s face, when I brought them the dessert kept me warmer than what should have been possible.
Smoke rose out of the houses that still stood. They were very simple structures, utilitarian in all aspects. The fires that rose weren’t from the surrounding forest, but the leftovers of the bombed out structures. It was an efficient way of cleaning up the mess, and of keeping the cold at bay.
I found her house and knocked on the boarded up window. She shared a room with a few others and I hoped not to wake them.
I heard some movement behind the boards, then some murmuring in Korean.
“Miss Park, are you in there?” I whispered. “Chun-ja?”
I heard two knocks back, her signal, and walked to the front of the house. When she opened the door it creaked and I winced. She stepped outside, holding her sleeping son. The thick coat and boots she was wearing hid her beauty, but the moon gave just enough light for me to see her tired brown eyes clearly.
“Hey,” I whispered. She smiled and stepped further out, shivering when the wind hit her. She put a gloved finger over my mouth and walked over to a house a few doors down. Part of the roof and wall was blown out, but the room we needed was intact. I walked to the fireplace, grabbing as much wood as I could from the broken furniture and other debris. Using my zippo, I lit some propaganda pamphlets and stoked the wood splinters until the fire bloomed.
“You no should be here now,” She said. Then she hugged me. Through all the winter clothes and cap I could smell her hair and hint of perfume. Even with the war going on and a lack of showers, the scent was enough to make me dizzy. I prayed that I was not repulsive and was suddenly self-conscious of how long it had been since I had had a proper bath. We stood that way for a long while.
“I brought something for you two,” I said, pulling the can out of my pack. I showed it to her and set it by the fire.
“Thank you,” she said. She muttered something in Korean after, trying to find more words. She had been learning English for some time. My brain couldn’t seem to grasp how their language worked. I had given up several weeks before now.
The smell of pumpkin rose up from the can. The simple label burned off. She looked at it and asked, “What is it?”
“Just an American thing. We always have it this time of year. You’ll see,” I said, reaching my hand out to hers. It was shaking, but not from the vile cold. She took my hand and we sat as close as we could to the fire.
Sung-soo, her son’s given name, took a tentative bite of the mush, chewing deliberately before turning to smile at us. He laughed and dug the spoon in again, making a mess of himself. She smiled and took his spoon, stealing a few bites for herself. Her reaction was not quite as pleased, but she let the smile through.
Later, Sung-soo sat on her lap, trying desperately to keep his eyes open, but failing. Young minds have open hearts and loose lips. We waited for him to snore gently before laying him by the fire.
When Chun-ja was sure that he was sleeping, she crawled over and straddled me. Her lips met mine, and for the first time in weeks, the cold and the war were just a memory.
I woke up to an explosion that ripped through the night. I heard the cracking of ice in the distance, followed by a rapid succession of more bombs.
Chun-ja looked at me, alarm and fear crossing her face. Her son cried out, pouting about being woken from his sleep.
I ran to our shelter’s shattered window and looked across the plain. Sirens blasted at the base, where fires started to burn through tents and structures.
“Oh God, no!” I shouted.
Flares shot up over the lake, showing small figures running out of the base. Massive plumes of dirt blasted from the ground all around as artillery pounded us from the mountains above. On the pass, I could see a long string of lights going down the old road. These didn’t seem like KPA either; it was too organized and had too much hardware to be the rebels.
“It’s the Chinese,” I said, running to get my rifle. “They were all over the border. We were fucking told that they were there to ensure we didn’t come to China, not to reinforce the KPA.”
She grabbed me by the arm and opened her coat, and pulled out a pistol tucked into the breast pocket. It was just a six shot revolver, but it would do the trick.
It was less than a quarter mile to the base from the village, and I could see the inferno growing. I watched men running from the base under the slow dropping flares. I saw black forms in the snow, littered among the craters.
I tried to step out the door, my gun in hand. She pulled harder, looking at me and then to her son. “They’re dead. You can’t go,” she said.
More illuminating rounds and flares fired into the night sky. It looked like the hills were moving, enemy infantry rolling over the top. There were thousands of them. I was witnessing hordes of Chinese in the dark, coming from everywhere but the ice. This was just a small outpost, not a stronghold. It wasn’t defensible yet.
Every fiber of me said to run back to the base. To save my friends. To honor my duty. But I couldn’t. I knew Chun-ja was right but my heart wouldn’t let me believe it. I couldn’t tell if running was desertion or retreat.
Artillery rounds were getting closer. They went from loud cracks in the distance to rumbling earthquakes. The few soldiers left in the base were firing blind into the hillsides. Massive rounds blasted into the Chinese troops, but still they came.
“We have to cross the water. If we go straight south we can get to Hagaru-ri. That has to be the rally point,” I said.
“How far?” She asked. Just as she said it, small arms fire erupted as the Chinese soldiers were getting in range.
“Just a few miles. It’s the only way.”
She nodded. She picked up her son and situated him inside her coat.
I put my hand on the barely standing door, and looked at her. “No matter what happens, you have to keep running, okay?”
She nodded again.
I swung the door open and we charged into the brutal cold. I coughed from the shock to my lungs, but kept moving. The burning shelters guided us toward the shore. I could hear the voices, the screams as we drew closer. Some pleaded; others were furious and barking orders. The Chinese Army drew closer.
Bullets whizzed by us, making the snow pop up with each miss. Near the shore, we dove behind a boulder. I looked up, seeing only three figures giving chase. I lined up the shot and took them, one by one the men fell into the churned snow.
I paused for a moment looking at the scene. Chun-ja grabbed by shoulder, breaking my focus from what I had just done, and we ran on the ice.
Red lights glowed in the distance, and I realized that we weren’t the only ones falling back. Through the whipping wind and snow, I could see the column of soldiers heading south. When we caught up with them, the entire line was quiet and defeated. I worried they would say something about Chun-ja, but she wasn’t the only refugee on the ice.
I prayed that dawn would bring some warmth, but the morning light only revealed an oncoming storm. It loomed heavy and grey on the horizon. It felt like we had been walking for ages, but miles are much harder when the wind makes the world feel so cold. I kept my arms wrapped around Chun-ja, hoping to keep any warmth we could muster between the three of us.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the movement of something odd. At first I figured I must be standing a bit too close to the tank’s exhaust pipes, but the delusion persisted.
I kept walking, but Chun-ja stopped. The rest of the column stopped. The more I walked, the darker the world got until it was just me and this figure. It looked like a man, then a woman, then a mix of everything in between. The colors of its garbs shifted between red and grey, camo and white. Sometimes it was in plate mail, others, just fatigues. Its face couldn’t seem to hold form for more than a few seconds.
“Marcus Clayton. Good morning. I know that might sound odd to you, but for me it has been a delight to work with you and your friends.” It said, voice booming as though it were a full legion of men and women.
I tried to run. The inky black world was unending. I could feel the ground moving beneath my feet, but the being stayed right beside me. I stopped and looked at this monster before me.
“Am I dead?” I asked.
“No, but that question is always relative to timing. Ask it in a few hours if you can, and you may have a very different answer.”
“What do you want?”
“Just to help you. You look like you could use a hand. Maybe someone to lift you out of this situation.” It said.
“The Chinese must have gassed us. I’m hallucinating or dead,” I said, poking at the being with a finger. My hand passed through it.
“You are quite a disrespectful little pink ape aren’t you? Here I am, offering you a lift out of this mess and you try to shove a finger in my eye,” it said.
“Why would I want a way out? Why would I make a deal with a…devil when I still have my rifle and hands to use it?” I asked. “Besides, I thought the devil had a pitchfork and a tail.”
The being sighed. “It means that this whole situation won’t end well for you, kid. You give me what I want; I give you a one way ticket out of the ice box. No one will even notice you’re gone. No treason, defecting, or even paperwork; other than a signature of course. Also, if you saw my true form, it would be about as good for your health as a flame thrower. The flesh always gets kind of melty.” It looked into the distance for a moment. “Your kind did well on that one.”
“Since you aren’t real, I’m gonna have to say no,” I said.
“Suit yourself. Enjoy the worst day of your life. If you need a little help, think about me for a bit, and there I shall appear,” it said, and with a snap of its fingers, vanished.
The world returned to me, this time more blustery and bitter than before. The storm was worsening. Chun-ja just stared at me. “You okay?” she asked. I nodded and we kept moving forward.
When we got closer to the rally point, I started to hear the familiar pounding of artillery and tanks. On the absolute edge of exhaustion, I wanted to fall to my knees on the ice and not move again. The fight was ahead of us, not behind.
In the absolute chaos on the southern edge of the Chosin, I had no choice but to hide Chun-ja and her son. I was forced into a mixed unit and given orders to defend until reinforcements could come. When they briefed us, they said an estimated 60,000 Chinese soldiers surrounded the reservoir.
The morning was a blur. Wave after wave of Chinese forces tried to slam against our defenses. Our positions grew stronger as the bodies froze. In the brief moments that we had between waves, we stacked them in front of our sandbags.
After so many long hours of fighting the Chinese broke through the outer defenses. The fight had become personal, bloody. My bayonet was stained with frozen blood. My body was a wreck, but I had to get back to them.
Outside the fox hole, I could see several bodies. Chun-ja had used her pistol well.
A Chinese soldier was barreling toward the fox hole where they were hiding. I lined up the shot, let out my breath, and squeezed.
Looking through the sights, I was too focused to see a fellow infantryman rip into the Chinese solider, bayonet to the barrel into him.
The shot went off. The bullet clipped the sleeve of the American and drove itself into Chun-ja’s chest. From where I crouched, all I could see was her gripping her belly.
The rifle fell from my hands. An immense and primal fear gripped my heart and my breathing stopped.
That evil prick’s words rang in my head. “The worst day of your life.”
“Devil, demon, whatever the fuck you are. Get here now,” I shouted, tears freezing to my cheeks.
In front of the foxhole, the screaming Chinese man with a bayonet in his belly froze. The concentrated face of the American stabbing him was cemented in place. The blood dripping from his arm froze in midair. A small spray of copper bullets hung in the air, ill intents going in another direction.
She was stopped in mid fall, one hand on her belly, the other bracing to hit the ground. The smoke from all over looked solid, more like cotton than the wisps of fiery war.
“Why is it that you people never take my warnings seriously?” The being asked. His form was more solid this time, shifting only in skin but not outfit. He was in a private’s fatigues. The name on the uniform read Clayton. He touched a finger to one of the bullets, and it started smoking. The round may not have been moving, but the heat evidently lingered.
I said nothing for a few moments. Thought of the only word I could. “Faith.”
“Faith in what? The big guy upstairs? He’s let your kind kill off a few thousand today, and that’s just this war. It’s not exactly like either side is doing God’s will down here. You aren’t anything special. Just another grunt. Why would he make an exception?” He said, looking bored. “What do you want? I’ve got a lot of work to be done down here.”
“Her. That’s all I want. She needs to be safe. She needs to get out. She has to get her son out,” I said.
“You sure you wouldn’t rather just go home? Maybe forget you ever enlisted? I can have you in your bed in the snap of a finger. No trauma, no killing, no her. Or how about this? You just kill her. You’ve done enough of that already. You’ll get over it. No skin off of my bones.”
“I’d rather give my soul away to make her live than to lose it in her dying eyes,” I said.
“How poetic. I didn’t know you had it in you, Marcus.” It said.
“My life, my soul, doesn’t mean shit. Like you said, I’m just another grunt,” I said. The hardness of my heart gives way and I start to sob. “She’s a mother. She’s the world to him. I’m just a murderer.”
“Mother is the name of God in the mouths of children and all that cliche nonsense you mortals love so much.” The being looked at his fingernails, looking bored. “I’m not exactly short on killers, either. You aren’t the first to want to stop a crime of passion ex post facto.” It said. Its face was still shifting colors, but the features were starting to look more like my own. “Besides, saving her and making sure she is with her kid takes a bit more than a soul. I need another quick sacrifice.”
I drop my gaze from him. “What else could you possibly need?” I said.
“Oh, you’ll see. Or maybe you won’t. These things can be tricky,” it said with a wink.
A shudder ran through me. “So long as she and her son make it out safe, do what you have to.” I looked back up at him, and he was me. He was using a smarmy grin I didn’t think my face was capable of, but it was there just the same.
He pointed at me and I’m snapped back into the position where I fired the shot. The bullet, the entire world suctioned back. I watched the blood curl into her belly, the old coat mending itself. The copper glinted in air as everything moved back ever so slowly. Without a sound, the bullet is chambered again.
“Now fire,” it said.
“What? No! You promised me you would fix it!” I shouted.
“And I have. You just need a little faith in me. I’m bored with paper contracts. Your contract is in that bullet. Your signature is pulling the trigger. Seal the deal now or live with what you’ve done.”
I pull the trigger. The rifle backfires, sending shrapnel in all directions. My right eye instantly goes dark. My frostbitten hand is a sloppy mess. I feel little pieces of pain all over my face and body. Before I can truly understand what is happening, I see the American bayonet the Chinese soldier. The foxhole where my bullet would have gone was empty.
Darkness starts to seep into my left eye. The pain and bitter cold becomes far away. The world fades to black.
When I wake up, the world is dark. I panic, feeling my face, relieved to feel gauze but still not content. I need to know if I can see. I start tearing at the bandages. I try to grip with my right hand, but two of the fingers are gone. I awkwardly poke at my face with the remaining ones, trying to find a seam. When I find it, I start unwrapping. A dim glow starts to come through on the left side. I start pulling faster. Pain shoots through my hands and face like nothing I’ve ever felt before.
“Oh no you don’t!” An angry woman shouts. She runs over to me, and grabs my nuts in a vice like grip. “Your left eye is still working. I just got done bandaging you in your sleep. If you make me do it again, I’ll make sure you leave this hospital minus a few stones. Understand?”
I try to speak, but my throat is dry and the effort is exhausting. Instead I just nod. I hear the nurse mess with some equipment on the table. “I can see from your shaking you are in some pain. Let me fix that for you.” She said. I feel a small prick in my arm and a wave of cold fluid. The world goes soft and I fall back to sleep.
I put the eye patch on when I first wake up. It’s a courtesy to others I’ve been practicing for the last twenty or so years. I get a lot more looks of curiosity this way rather than revulsion. I could wear the glass eye, but the quack doctor I got mine from seems to think it’s funny that he didn’t get the pupil centered. Prick.
This is just one habit of many I picked up over the years. It’s amazing how structure can help fill the gaps in one’s self. I make the same breakfast, I wake up the same (but ever taller) kids. I tell the wife I love her as I head to work. Then I check the foreign news section of several papers. I scan over the pages, looking for one thing in particular.
South Korean Ambassador Encourages Re-Unification Talks With North. A not so young woman stares from the page, usually in black and white but dressed very neatly and looking serious. I get my scissors out, and cut the picture. I add it to the small but growing scrap book in my desk under the stationary.
On days when I find her, I wonder what it is that I really sacrificed, if anything at all. The eye doesn’t bother me as much as I expected. My wife likes the scars, and when you look like I do, you never have to buy the beers at the bar. Maybe each time I get a little bit better at telling the story, but the gap between the truth and what I tell people gets a little fuzzier each time.
I know that at the end of my life, the frozen wastes of that Korean hell we call Chosin await me, but for now, I have the memory of her neatly sealed away.
Tony Southcotte hails from the Rocky Mountains somewhere around the state of Colorado. Possibly raised by grizzly bears, this gritty denizen of the arena now spends most of his time grappling with Java updates and dysfunctional RAM. With not much fiction under his belt, it might seem tempting to bet against Mister Southcotte, but an impressive knowledge of everything from PVC pipe to psychedelic drugs makes Tony a storehouse of fiction waiting to hit the paper. Plus, you know, there’s the possibility of him ripping you apart like a grizzly bear.