Our bodies are piled on top of each other in the shape of a cross.
The body of a man I don’t know has been thrown across my stomach at a ninety-degree angle, face up, and on top of him a boy, older than me, tall enough that the crook of his knees press down onto my bare feet. The boy’s hair brushed my face. I was able to see all of that because I was still stuck fast to my body, then.
They came towards us. Helmets, Red Cross armbands over the sleeves of mottled uniforms, quickly. Working in pairs, they began to lift us up and toss us into a military truck. An action as mechanical as loading sacks of grain. I hovered around my cheeks, the nape of my neck, clinging to these contours so as not to be parted from my body. Strangely, I found myself alone in the truck. There were the bodies, of course, but I didn’t meet any others like me. They were there, perhaps, pressing close in the confines of the truck, but I couldn’t see them, couldn’t feel them. “We’ll meet in the next world,” people used to say. Those words were meaningless now.
The random jumble of bodies, mine included, were jolted along in the truck. Even after I’d lost so much blood that my heart finally stopped, the blood had continued to drain from my body, leaving the skin of my face as thin and transparent as writing paper. How strange, to see my own eyes shuttered in that blood-leached face.
As evening drew in around us, the truck left the built-up districts and raced down a deserted street, surrounded on both sides by darkening fields. It began to ascend a low hill, thickly wooded with tall oaks, then an iron gate swung into view. The truck slowed to a stop in front of the gate, and the two sentries saluted. Two long, sharp shrieks of metal, first when the sentries opened the gate, and again when they closed it behind us. The truck drove a little further up the hill, turned into a clearing flanked by a low concrete building on one side and the oak wood on the other. It stopped.
They climbed down from the truck, walked round to the back and undid the catch. Again in pairs, one person to seize the legs and the other to hold the arms, they moved us from the truck to the centre of the clearing. My body seemed to slide beneath my wavering grasp, as though trying to shuck me off, but I clung on with a strength born of desperation. I looked up at the low building, the lighted windows. I wanted to know what kind of building it was, where I was, where my body was being taken.
They pushed their way into the thicket which backed on to the empty lot. Following the gestured instructions of one who looked to be in charge, they stacked the bodies in the neat shape of a cross. Mine was second from the bottom, jammed in tight and crushed still flatter by every body that was piled on top. Even this pressure didn’t squeeze any more blood from my wounds, which could only mean that it had all leaked out already. With my head tipped backwards, the shade of the wood turned my face into a pallid ghost of itself, eyes closed and mouth hanging half open. When they threw a straw sack over the body of the man at the very top, the tower of bodies was transformed into the corpse of some enormous, fantastical beast, its dozens of legs splayed out beneath it.
After they left, the darkness closed in around us. The faint afterglow that had lingered in the western sky dissolved slowly into the surrounding blackness. I moved quickly up to the top of the tower of bodies, anchoring myself to that final man to watch a pale light seep through wisps of grey cloud, a shroud for the half-moon. The leaves and branches of the thicket intersected that light, their shadows throwing patterns on the dead faces like ghastly tattoos.
It must have been about midnight when I felt it touch me; that breath-soft slip of incorporeal something, that faceless shadow, lacking even language, now, to give it body. I waited for a while in doubt and ignorance, of who it was, of how to communicate with it. No one had ever taught me how to address a person’s soul.
And perhaps, or so it seemed, my companion was equally baffled. Without the familiar bulwark of language, still we sensed, as a physical force, our existence in the mind of the other. When, eventually, I felt him sigh away, his resignation, his abandonment, left me alone again.
How I wanted to believe that cloud-wrapped half-moon was watching over me, an eye bright with intelligence. In reality nothing more than a huge, desolate lump of rock, utterly inert.”
The night deepened, became threaded through with a string of similar occurrences. My shadow’s edges became aware of a quiet touch; the presence of another soul. We would lose ourselves in wondering who the other was, without hands, feet, face, tongue, our shadows touching but never quite mingling. Sad flames licking up against a smooth wall of glass, only to wordlessly slide away, outdone by whatever barrier was there. Every time I felt a shadow slip from me, I looked up at the night sky. How I wanted to believe that cloud-wrapped half-moon was watching over me, an eye bright with intelligence. In reality nothing more than a huge, desolate lump of rock, utterly inert.
It was as that strange, vivid night was drawing to a close, as the faint blue light of dawn had begun to seep into the sky’s black ink, that I suddenly thought of you, Dong-ho. Yes, you’d been there with me, that day. Until something like a cold cudgel had suddenly slammed into my side. Until I collapsed like a rag doll. Until my arms flung themselves up in mute alarm, amid the cacophony of footsteps drumming against the tarmac, ear-splitting gunfire. Until I felt the warm spread of my own blood moving up over my shoulder, the back of my neck. Until then, you were with me.
The grasshoppers were chirring. Hidden birds began to trill their morning song. Gusts of wind grazed the leaves of dark trees. The pale sun trembled over the lip of the horizon, moving up to the sky’s centre in a violent, majestic advance. Piled up behind the thicket, our bodies now began to soften in the sun, with putrefaction setting in. Clouds of gadflies and mayflies alighted on those places that were clagged with dried black blood, rubbed their front legs, crawled about, flew up, then settled again. I pushed out to the edges of my body, wanting to check whether yours was also jammed into the tower somewhere, whether you had been one of those souls whose fleeting caress had swept over me the previous night. But I couldn’t, I was stuck, unable to detach myself from my body, which seemed to have acquired some kind of magnetic force. Unable to look away from my ghost-pale face.
Things went on like this until, with the sun almost at its zenith, I knew: you weren’t there.
Not just that you weren’t there, in that pile; you were still alive. For some reason, though the identities of the other souls who were clustered near at hand remained unknown, if I used all my powers of concentration to picture a specific individual, someone I’d known, I was able to tell whether or not they had died. And yet, at that moment, my discovery brought me no comfort. Instead, it frightened me to think that here by this strange thicket, surrounded by bodies gradually breaking down into their constituent parts, I was alone among strangers.
There was worse to come.
In an attempt to batten down the rising tide of fear, I thought of my sister. Watching the blazing sun describing an arc further and further to the south, staring at my face as though trying to bore through those shuttered eyelids, I thought of my sister, only of her. And I felt an agony that almost broke me. She was dead; she had died even before I had. With neither tongue nor voice to carry it, my scream leaked out from me in a mess of blood and watery discharge. My soul-self had no eyes; where was the blood coming from, what nerve endings were sparking this pain? I stared at my unchanging face. My filthy hands were as still as ever. Over my fingernails, dyed a deep rust by watery blood, red ants were crawling, silent.
I no longer felt fifteen. Thirty-five, forty-five; these numbers came, in turn, to feel somehow insufficient. Not even sixty-five, no, nor seventy-five, seemed to encompass what I was.
I wasn’t Jeong-dae any more, the runt of the year. I wasn’t Park Jeong-dae, whose ideas of love and fear were both bound up in the figure of his sister. A strange violence welled up within me, not spurred by the fact of my death, but simply because of the thoughts that wouldn’t stop tearing through me, the things I needed to know. Who killed me, who killed my sister, and why. The more of myself I devoted to these questions, the firmer this new strength within me became. The ceaseless flow of blood, blood that flowed from a place without eyes or cheeks, darkened, thickened, into a viscous treacle ooze.
My sister’s soul, like mine, must still be lingering somewhere; but where? Now there were no such things as bodies for us, presumably physical proximity was no longer necessary for the two of us to meet. But without bodies, how would we know each other? Would I still recognise my sister as a shadow?
My body continued to putrefy. More and more mayflies crowded inside my open wounds. Gadflies crawled slowly over my lips and eyelids, rubbing their dark, slender legs together. Around the time when the day grew dark, and beams of orange light strafed down through the crowns of the oaks, exhausted with wondering where my sister might be, my thoughts turned instead to them. To the person who had killed me, and the one who had killed her. Where were they, right now? Even if they hadn’t died they would still have souls, so surely, if I bent all my thought on the idea of them, I would be able to sense them, touch them. I wanted to shuck off my body as a snake sheds its skin. I wanted to sever the pure strength, that force thin and taut as a spider’s web, dilating and contracting, from the inert lump of rotting flesh. I wanted to be free to fly to wherever they were, and to demand of them: why did you kill me? Why did you kill my sister, what did you do to her?
The metal screech of the iron gate opening and then closing sliced through the silence of the night. The sound of an engine rumbled closer. The twin beams from the truck’s headlights swept in sharply. When these beams arced over our bodies, the shadows cast by the leaves and branches, those black tattoos, danced over every face.
This time there were only two of them. They carried the latest batch of bodies over towards us, one by one. There were five altogether; four whose skulls had been caved in by some blunt weapon, leaving a splatter-pattern on their upper bodies, and one wearing a blue-striped hospital gown. They stacked them in a low heap next to ours, again in the shape of a cross. The body in the hospital gown was the last on, then they covered the pile with a straw sack and hurried away. I stared hard at their furrowed brows, their empty eyes, and realised that, in the space of a single day, our bodies had started to give off a horrific stench.
While they started the truck’s engine, I slipped towards those new bodies. I wasn’t alone; clustering around these new arrivals, I sensed the shadows of other souls. The four whose skulls had been staved in were three men and a woman. Thin, watery blood was still trickling from their clothes. Perhaps someone had splashed water over their heads, as their faces seemed relatively clean, compared with the state of their bodies. The young man in the hospital uniform was clearly set apart, special. Lying there with the straw sack pulled up to his chest like a quilt, he was cleaner and neater than any of the others. Someone had washed his body. Someone had sutured his wounds and applied a poultice. The bandage coiled around his head gleamed white in the darkness. We were bodies, dead bodies, and in that sense there was nothing to choose between us. All the same, there was something infinitely noble about how his body still bore the traces of hands that had touched it, a tangible record of having been cared for, been valued, that made me envious and sad. Mine, on the other hand, crushed out of shape beneath a tower of others, was shameful, detestable.
From that moment on, I was filled with hatred for my body. Our bodies, tossed there like lumps of meat. Our filthy, rotting faces, reeking in the sun.
From Human Acts, translated by Deborah Smith, courtesy of Portobello Books
Han Kang was born in Gwangju in 1970 and moved to Seoul at the age of ten, later studying Korean literature at Yonsei University. She made her literary debut as a poet in 1993 and has since published several collections of short stories and novels. Her novels have won the Yi Sang Literary Prize, the Today’s Young Artist Award, and the Korean Literature Novel Award. Human Acts, a powerful and poetic account of a viciously suppressed student uprising in Gwangju in 1980, won the Manhae Literary Award. She currently teaches creative writing at the Seoul Institute of the Arts. Human Acts is published by Portobello Books. Read more.
Deborah Smith’s translations from Korean include Han Kang’s The Vegetarian (Portobello Books, 2015) and Bae Suah’s The Essayist’s Desk. She recently founded Tilted Axis, a not-for-profit publishing focusing on translations from Asia and Africa.