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THE KOREAN SOLDIER
Translated by Jae Won Chung
The apartment looked neat and tidy. It had been built two years ago as a condominium. It had a living room that doubled as a bedroom, a kitchen, a washroom that was separate from the bathroom, each with its own compartment. In the washroom lay a large tub, long enough to stretch out one’s legs.
When Bat and his wife opened the apartment door, the afternoon sun was blinding as it poured in through the south window despite the white curtains draped across it. The light that had shone through the curtains was spread all over the floor like fine golden powder. Below the window there was a steam heater, and the air was comfortably warm and smelled faintly of heated metal. Around the edges of the room were a khaki-coloured sofa bed, a TV and an old glass table with a phone on top of it. The style of furniture was a little severe, making the place feel like somebody’s office, but Chang-dae thought this would do just fine.
He was particularly fond of the high ceilings. They looked to be about a foot higher than the ceiling in his apartment in Korea, and they seemed to make the space appear even more expansive. He could smoke cigarettes all he wanted in this room, and the smoke probably wouldn’t bother his eyes. He was reminded of being forced to step out to the terrace to smoke in his apartment back home.
“The apartment is in typical Russian-style,” Dolma said as she pulled the curtains aside. Dolma was Bat’s wife. Her words touched Chang-dae deeply evoking something not unlike nostalgia. “Russian style” meant northern style, and he had never been this far north in his entire life. He would have to think of a name for this room. The Siberian Room. That would do. This was far south of Siberia and the land wasn’t even part of Russia, but he felt, all of sudden, a sense of being close to the very origin of things.
Buoyed by the feeling of satisfaction, he approached the window looking out to a steel tower the shade of umber and the construction site for a new apartment building. In the far distance, a chimney was spitting out lumps of white smoke. It belonged to Ulaanbaatar’s thermal power plant, which used bituminous coal as fuel. He stood up on the window eight stories high and looked down at the sea of grey exhaust fumes which seemed to overwhelm the city in an impervious haze. How cozy was this apartment, compared to all that dreariness below. Look at that sky! A path that a jet plane had cut across the blue sky was as vivid as a straight line made with chalk. The long line stretched from Russia in the direction of China. It could lead all the way to Korea. Just thinking about it made Chang-dae’s heart open up.
“It’s an amazing view,” he said.
Dolma’s face lit up. She must’ve been worrying whether this professor from Korea wouldn’t like the apartment. It belonged to Dolma’s younger sister. Nobody had been living in the place for the past three months since the sister had gone off to study abroad in Korea last fall. Dolma and Bat had also spent three years in Korea. Bat worked as a labourer in a factory, and Dolma was in graduate school getting her masters in international trade. She knew that in Korea, being a professor was a socially respected position that ensured some financial security. She was also a professor in Mongolia, but because it wasn’t enough for them to get by on, she moonlighted as an interpreter and a tour guide. Bat had studied literature in college, but now he was in the business of importing used cars.
Bat went back and forth between the bathroom and the kitchen and opened up the water valves. The water poured out gushing. Bat was hurrying things along like a real estate agent. There was a refrigerator designed for one person, an electric hob and an oven big enough to cook a small lamb whole. Cheap forks and plates produced in China were laid out neatly. When he found spoons and chopsticks among the kitchen utensils, he said, almost shouting: “It’s perfect.”
He would not have reacted this way had he been in Korea. He would’ve suppressed all emotion until the contract was finalized. With his arms folded fastidiously in front of him, he would’ve walked around the apartment with great caution, prepared to find the tiniest flaw. But Bat and Dolma were natives who were helping him out. They’d come to greet him at the airport, made reservations at a hotel and even taken him there. Even from this point on, they would play the role of his guardian by helping Chang-dae adapt to this new place.
Bat’s confidence seemed to be growing as he guided Chang-dae to the bathroom. It was very small, just big enough to squeeze a toilet inside. The toilet bowl seemed very wide. Not so wide that he would fall in, but it did look pretty painful to sit on. It was too bad though because he enjoyed reading magazines or the paper in the bathroom. He would get used to it soon enough. That’s why there was all that flesh back there. To get used to situations like this. He could read The World of Silence here. The Secret History of the Mongols would be good too. When he came to Mongolia, he’d brought books that were very thick or books that put him to sleep after a few pages – in other words, books that, in Korea, had piled up on one side of the desk like overdue homework. Among them were The Lotus Sutra and The Bible. He’d cracked those sacred books but had never properly read through them from beginning to end.
He pressed the lever on the toilet, and the water formed a surprisingly strong vortex before washing down the drain. When he came out of the bathroom shrugging his shoulders with a satisfied look, Bat told him: “This is the 10th district, but the centre of the city isn’t that far away.”
They walked towards the sofa bed.
“If you take a taxi, a dollar will be more than enough to get you there. Plus, it’s hard to find an apartment near the centre of the city. Especially for just a three-month lease.”
Bat appeared to be pressing for a decision. Chang-dae sat down on the sofa bed and spoke: “Let’s draw up a lease.”
“Are you sure the place will be okay? The space is a little tight,” Bat already sounded much more relaxed.
“It’ll be fine, since I’ll be living by myself. How much did you say the rent would be?”
“A hundred and fifty dollars a month.”
“Bat!” Dolma called out from where she was standing by the window. “It’s actually a hundred and eighty.” Blushing, she looked to Chang-dae to see how he was taking all this in. It appeared that she and Bat hadn’t yet agreed on what the rent would be. This disagreement between them only made Chang-dae trust the couple more.
“Did you say one eighty?” he asked in a tone that showed that it wouldn’t be a problem.
Bat answered quickly with an embarrassed look: “It’s one eighty. My sister-in-law is staying at a tiny studio, and the monthly rent is two hundred thousand won. Those rooms – the ones that are about as big as coffins – are going for two hundred thousand! That’s the monthly wage of a Mongolian labourer. Anyway what my sister-in-law is trying to do is cover that expense with the rent she earns from this apartment.”
Bat’s expression had become so serious that he almost looked depressed. But Chang-dae had already done the calculation in his head. In this country, the extra thirty dollars was a lot of money, but not in Korea. The monthly rent was about the same as the utilities fee he paid back at home. Also, the apartment was already furnished with everything he would need, so he was willing to shell out the extra money.
“All right, then. One eighty it is.”
Right away, the couple looked very relieved. “The utilities fee will be very small,” Dolma said. “You can expect to pay around twenty dollars a month.”
The three of them went down in the lift standing shoulder-to-shoulder to bring up the bags. Among the bags there were groceries Dolma had picked up from the store very early in the morning including kimchi, beverages, some bread, ham and fruit. Dolma disappeared, saying she would get the extra set of keys for the apartment while the men took care of the rent payment.
“Dolma’s older brother lives in this apartment.” Bat pointed his head to the floors above.
“It’s good for siblings to live close by each other,” Chang-dae said and handed over the rent for three months. Bat took the money and placed it on the glass table without even checking to be sure the amount was correct. He handed the keys over to Chang-dae, as if the transaction was complete. He smiled as he said to Chang-dae: “I don’t think there’s a need for anything like a lease between us, do you?”
For a second, Chang-dae looked at the foreigner sitting across from him as if for the first time. He had the sudden impression that he was sitting in some real-estate agent’s office in Korea. Bat’s words had come out so nonchalantly. They had sounded so urbane and slick to Chang-dae. The man had picked up nothing but dirty tricks from Korea. Though he felt a little uneasy, Chang-dae had no choice but to nod. It still felt like he was missing something; it was true that he was only renting the apartment, but it seemed not quite right to finish the transaction without a lease.
Dolma returned and handed over the keys. “There’s another one, but we’ll hold on to that one in case of an emergency.”
She slipped the envelope containing the rent money into her purse. Chang-dae had thought the process would be more complicated, but it was over in a heartbeat.
Bat explained a few details about the apartment that would require Chang-dae’s attention: “You can leave the trash outside the door on the first floor. The utilities bill comes at the end of each month, but we’ll stop by and take care of that personally. Let’s see, is there anything else . . . ?” He looked around to jog his memory, and his wife pointed to the bathroom. “Oh, right. Don’t let the water drain through the floor of the bathroom, or the water will leak through the downstairs ceiling.”
Chang-dae nodded. The point was that if he was going to shower, he’d better do it inside the bath. “Oh, and another thing!” Bat said, as though he’d almost forgotten to say something crucial. “You must carry your keys with you at all times, because the door locks automatically.” He went out the front door and shut it to show Chang-dae personally. At the same time a round locking mechanism turned automatically, making a click. You could hear the sound of someone turning the knob outside, but the door wouldn’t budge. The entrance actually had two doors, back-to-back; connected to the steel door there was also a wooden one.
“It looks more secure than a prison.”
He smiled at Dolma to assure her that he was satisfied. Dolma nodded and said: “It should be enough just to lock the outside door.”
Chang-dae had a mischievous thought; he wouldn’t open the door for Bat. How would this man react if his wife and some strange man deliberately kept him locked out? He hurried to release the locking mechanism, as though someone would find out about his idle fancy.
Bat said as he came back inside: “Don’t open the door for anybody you don’t know. Even if the person speaks Korean. If you’re talking to a visitor you can do it while standing here.”
Bat took one step closer to the entrance’s threshold. Chang-dae kept nodding; it was something he often told his young daughter.
“I’m just saying this as a precaution,” Dolma said. She had been studying him attentively. “Mongolia’s going through a period of transition, as you know. Things are chaotic. It’s been just over ten years since it changed over to a market economy.”
“There are thieves and muggers in Korea too. There are people like that no matter where you go in the world,” Chang-dae answered knowingly.
Standing there by the doorway, the three of them nodded with rueful smiles on their faces. Chang-dae was growing a little resentful. The last piece of advice had been given out of kindness and goodwill, but to a traveller, especially a foreign one, it could plant preconceptions about the place he was visiting. From that moment on, the traveller would always be on guard, watching his bags anxiously, worried about his surroundings. He would limit where he went day to day and miss out on all that was out there to be experienced. It was best not to say such things to a traveller. Even if the place was a little dangerous, wasn’t it better to leave the traveller alone to experience it for himself? Chang-dae tried to forget this warning. He would erase it from his mind the moment these people shut the door behind them and disappeared.
Once his kind Mongolian friends were on their way, Chang-dae looked around his apartment more carefully. No matter how much he thought about it, the place seemed perfect for his three-month stay. He whistled as he untied his luggage. He set his books on the window sill and set up his laptop on the glass table. He realized that he hadn’t asked Bat about getting an internet connection. How could he have forgotten something so important? He made a memo in his pocketbook. When he brought out his clothes, he didn’t see any good places to hang them. He didn’t see a single nail, let alone a closet. He gathered his clothing piece by piece and put them back into his bag, and wrote down “clothes hanger” in his pocketbook. He found a place in the kitchen for the food his wife had packed with such care: the roasted anchovies, beef boiled in soy sauce and toasted seaweed.
Once he’d finished unpacking, he got a bottle of water for himself and flopped down on the sofa bed. It felt like he had checked into a budget hotel. This was something he’d dreamt about for a long time, to go to some strange country, find a shabby hotel room to stay in, and read, go hiking and write poetry. Now this dream was coming true. He had finally earned a sabbatical after ten long years and he would spend it perfectly. He’d become a poet at a young age. He hadn’t written a single volume of poetry while teaching literature and getting his PhD. He used his busy schedule as an excuse. He recognized fearfully that the sensitivity and longing he had possessed as a poet were slowly wearing away. The countless books and essays he’d read were not works that fed the soul. Now he wanted to recover all he had lost during this period of solitude. If possible, he wanted to start seeing other women again.
He downed the water straight from the bottle. The house felt arid. The steam heater installed in the kitchen and the bedroom dried up the little humidity there was. The giant twelve-story concrete building had to be functioning as a giant sponge. The first thing he’d smelled when he got off the plane last night was the stink of cooking lamb. The smell had bothered him, much like the way the smell of garlic was said to bother foreigners who visited Korea. The smell of lamb abated quickly, but it was hard to put up with dry air. His nose and lips became desiccated. His throat had also become dry when he was lying in the hotel room. He soaked up four towels in the sink and laid them out by his bedside. Even when he woke in the morning his throat had been swollen, his voice hoarse. The towels had stiffened overnight like hung-dried fish. It all made sense: a few hours of driving from this city brought you to the Gobi Desert. He reached for the pocketbook and jotted down a reminder to pick up a humidifier.
He realized during the first few days of the stay that the apartment was noisier than he’d thought. There was a lot of construction going on around the area. He hadn’t thought anything of it when he saw it with his own eyes the day he’d come to look at the place. But with all the different kinds of machinery and the shouting of the workers that went from morning to midnight, it was hard to take in a single line from his book. Chinese labourers were working at the construction site right outside his window, and they liked to sing at the top of their lungs. There was another construction site for a parking garage at the back of the apartment. A parking garage was probably necessary in this country since the winters were so long and forbiddingly cold. No matter where he went in the city, parking garages stood in rows like warehouses. Ten or so Mongolian soldiers had been dispatched to work at the construction site where the parking garage was being built. Chang-dae had the sense that one of the higher-ups was using the military for his own private purpose. Since the weather was getting colder, the tight construction schedule forced them to work till midnight, under the headlights of the military trucks. He didn’t like the feeling of their gaze on him each time he went in and out of the house. The area around the house was so full of construction; it reminded Chang-dae of his childhood in Seoul during the 1970s.
He took his tourist map of Ulaanbaatar and went sightseeing around the city. It was only a forty-minute walk to get to the state-run department store in the city centre. The city was so small that you could travel anywhere on foot. The only thing inconvenient was that you had to risk your life every time you used a crossing. The cars pushed right into the crossings, with complete disregard for the pedestrians. It didn’t matter if there were street lights. On several occasions, Chang-dae began crossing the street at the ‘Walk’ signal, only to have to turn back in the middle of the crossing. Most of the cars were second-hand, imported from all around the world. Some of them had the driver’s seat on the left, some on the right. There was an almost acrobatic grace to the way all these cars wove in and out of traffic.
A fierce sandstorm blanketed the city from time to time. Gusts of wind carrying sand would hit you like a swarm of locusts then slip away, disappearing between the buildings. Chang-dae’s eyes were still kept open in wonder as he scouted the city little by little. There was the Gandan Lamasery, which was a prominent work of architecture in the heart of the city. A gallery of paintings that depicted the Mongolian plains in rich, variegated shades. Palaces of kings. Department stores overflowing with handcrafted goods made of leather or wool. He felt he’d endured the cold wind and absorbed the whole of Mongolian civilization in three days. He had felt unsure and lost about his life here, but now he felt more confident.
He resolved to learn how ordinary Mongolians went about their lives day-to-day. He spread open the map, searching for the biggest market in the city. There it was: the Narangtol Market. It was located on the right edge of the map. He’d once read on the internet that markets like these sold Russian-made binoculars at a cheap price. Russia was far from well off now, but once it had sent rockets to the moon.
Before leaving the house he took out his passport and left it in the drawer. It could be risky to carry it around a marketplace teeming with people. He made sure to put the keys in his trouser pocket. Checking to be sure he had the key on him at all times had become a harrowing obsession. Even after walking outside the door with the key, he checked his pockets again before he closed the door behind him. He’d become a slave to keys. On more than one occasion, when he was in his twenties, he’d had to call the locksmith after losing them. The service had cost him dearly. When he got married and started his newly married life in his old apartment, it was a great relief for him to know that he no longer had to worry about losing his keys. He joked to his single friends, telling them they should just get married if they ever wanted to be freed of the tyranny of keys.
Shortly before their child was born, his wife went to stay with her parents for the delivery, and he’d stayed out late drinking with his friends for the first time in a while. After arriving home, he realized that he had managed to lose his keys. It was in the early morning hours and torrential rain was pouring down. It was a nuisance but nothing to get worked up about. All around the building there were stickers advertising locksmiths. They were on call, ready to be dispatched at a moment’s notice. He called three or four places but either got no answer or when he did they refused to come out. Finally a locksmith agreed to come out, but the man asked for sixty thousand won for the trouble, citing the foul weather and the early hour. He couldn’t wait till the morning in this typhoon, so he bit the bullet and agreed to pay the man what he asked. He couldn’t tell his wife about it. After this incident he started wearing a keychain clipped to the waist of his trousers like a pair of tiny handcuffs. Five years later, he was finally freed from his keys after moving to an apartment with a locking mechanism that opened with a password.
He stopped in the middle of putting his wallet in his pocket and took out the amount he would need for the binoculars. He put the wallet containing his two credit cards in the drawer. He was about to take off his watch when he found himself shaking his head. Without knowing why, he became annoyed with the way he was behaving.
The Narangtol Market deserved its reputation of being the biggest market of its kind. It was enormous in scale and teeming with shoppers. No matter which store you entered, it was hard to even stand in place without being pushed along by the waves of people everywhere. There were antiques from India, China and the Middle East, a dozen different kinds of dairy products from horses, camels, sheep or cows, clothing fashioned out of fur and leather, handmade rugs, cellular phones and satellite antennas for television, horse shoes, saddles and other kinds of equestrian gear, home-brewed koumiss and vodka, and to top it all off, snakes and scorpions dipped in liquor. Everything under the sun was for sale.
After wandering around for an hour or so, Chang-dae finally found a store that sold binoculars. A huge selection of second-hand Russian-made binoculars were on display, just as he had read on the internet. He picked out a pair of binoculars tiny enough to fit in his fist. The clerk was asking for twenty dollars but he bargained down to eighteen. He didn’t care about the money, but he just didn’t want to miss out on the experience of having haggled for a better price.
He felt pleased with himself for having found a good place to shop all on his own. He would come back often. He put the binoculars in his overcoat pocket and got caught in the wave of the crowd. He had planned to go back the way he had come but he didn’t recognize any of the stores appearing before him. He came out on the side of the road and took out his binoculars. To the west, he could see the chimney of the thermoelectric power plant. There were clothing stores in that direction and a narrow alleyway, tangled like a labyrinth. The total population of Mongolia was two and a half million. Half of those people lived in this city and a half of that seemed to have gathered in this marketplace. He abandoned the idea of looking around and went with the flow of the pedestrians around him.
It happened when he had arrived at a display board by the corner where the alley bent around. He got tangled up with the people who were coming from the opposite direction. When he found himself about to collide with two well-built men, he shouted: “Sorry!” and twisted his body to step around them. One of the men threw himself against him. Had he moved at the same time as Chang-dae? He twisted his body the other way. He realized then what was happening to him. The men had got in his way intentionally. He could feel fingers groping around in his back pocket while the men standing in front of him thrust their hands into his coat pockets.
There was a stir of people around him, but nobody intervened. He stood there with his mouth agape like a criminal being patted down. One man in the front stared at him coolly with his brown eyes and spat something out. It stuck to Chang-dae’s face, getting mixed up with his saliva. He checked to see what it was by wiping it off with his hand. It was the skin off those pine nut seeds that Mongolians often chewed between meals. The men disappeared slowly into the crowd. He stood in a daze in the middle of the alley. He couldn’t tell exactly how many people were in on it. Everyone in the alley looked to him like a co-conspirator.
He began searching his own pocket like someone recovering from shock. The binoculars were gone and cigarettes and lighter were nowhere to be found. A few dollars and the keys he had put in his trouser pocket were still there. It occurred to him that first thing he had to do was to get out of that alley. He turned around at the end of the alley. It was lively and bustling, as though nothing at all had happened. His right thigh was aching all over so he pushed the coat tail aside to take a look. There was an incision at the seam just below the pocket. Both anger and despair rose up inside him. How could he describe what he was feeling? He felt as though his savage nature had been unveiled. If he had a knife, he would chase them down and punish them. There was no need for law. Only revenge would provide him with consolation.
He collapsed on the bed when he returned to his Siberian Room. Should he go outside with a porcupine in his pockets and dare them to rob him again? These thoughts only sank him deeper into self-pity. He should consider himself lucky that it hadn’t been worse. He was the new guy and they were just having a go at him, like it was back in his days in the military – a rite of passage. You didn’t lose anything important either, he told himself. This is just a part of everyday life here. Consider it a lesson learned. He tried to console himself . . .
Loneliness gathered around him as he lay on the sofa bed. He missed his family. He picked up the telephone and dialed thirty-two digits to call his home in Korea. Nobody picked up. It was a little after five o’clock there. His wife would probably be on her way to a discount grocery store, her hair still wet from the swimming pool. His daughter, who was in the fourth grade, would have finished with her maths academy and be sitting through her piano lesson. Once in a while he went into his daughter’s homepage. It felt like he was sneaking a peek at his child’s diary. The girl loathed going to the piano academy. She liked to call her piano teacher a witch. He told his wife a few times it might be a good idea to stop the piano lessons altogether but she was stubborn. She said that children at that age hated anything other than playing and if their daughter stopped attending the academy now she would just fall back into the habit of playing computer games all day long.
He got dressed. He remembered seeing an internet café around the area. The sun was shining high in the sky, and its light was so intense that he put his sunglasses on. This kind of scenery was hard to find in Korea, where there were so many mountains and tall buildings.
It only took him about ten minutes to walk to the internet café. The store was divided into two parts. The internet café was on one side and on the other side, there was a bar where you could get some coffee or beer. He asked the woman working there for a computer with a Korean keyboard. To his surprise, she replied in Korean, though her phrasing sounded awkward. He saw now that the walls here were plastered with posters of Korean celebrities. He felt a sense of shelter, as though he were back on the streets of Jongno.
He dug through the spam that had piled up in his inbox until he saw a few e-mails from his students back home. He didn’t bother opening them, thinking they were probably poems his students wanted him to read. His daughter didn’t even know where she could send him e-mails. He checked the spam box wondering if it might not have gone there by accident, but it wasn’t there either. He was disappointed. He visited his daughter’s website. The kid had posted something new in the visitor’s log: “Dad I know you sneak in here to look at my homepage. I miss you. Come back soon. I’m being dragged to the witch now.” He smiled weakly. It was true what they said about spending some time away from your family. He posted a comment on her post for the first time.
After browsing through various news sites, he looked up and saw that it was getting dark. The crowd of customers he’d seen in the café had noticeably thinned out and the bar was getting more bustling. Seven or eight young men were standing around drinking Coke and sent sidelong glances in his direction. It was too direct to be simply curiosity about foreigners. He began to feel uneasy. He went to the cashier to be safe. While he was settling the bill the young men left in a rush and went outside. He sighed in relief. I’m being paranoid, he told himself. He was sad that he had become so narrow-minded just because of what had happened to him earlier that day.
When he was collecting his change, his ears perked up at the sound of murmurs outside the door. It appeared that the men weren’t going away. He was sure now that he had been picked out by them as prey. If he went outside now there was no telling what disaster would befall him. Hoping he was mistaken, he asked the woman’s opinion with a trembling, lowered voice.
“Are those guys waiting for me outside?”
The woman looked right back at him and nodded.
“Does this kind of thing happen often?”
The woman nodded her head again, and said: “To foreigners who go around alone at night.”
She’d learned Korean but not its expressions and gestures. Her answer sounded so tranquil and matter-of-fact that it almost made him angry. It didn’t seem like she would call the police or try to find some other men who could help him. About to fall prey to this pack of wild dogs and getting nothing from the female clerk but indifference, Chang-dae felt he could understand the world these nomads lived in. It was the survival of the fittest, to put it crudely. It was no different from the laws of the jungle; if you were targeted, it wouldn’t matter if you lived or died. The outcome would just be your fate. Chang-dae had never understood why Genghis Khan had left his wife Börte while being chased by the Merkits, but perhaps this was why. History suggested that there had been no horse for the wife to ride, but he’d actually brought back his brothers, his minions, even an extra horse in reserve, but still left his wife behind in the jaws of death. In truth, the wife was probably being used as bait. It might be a flight of fancy, Chang-dae thought, but this is the reason why the Europeans feared Genghis Khan’s army. They treated human beings as though they were nothing but extensions of the land. How savage must they have seemed.
How would Chang-dae get through this? He looked around the store. There was only one exit. One of the guys poked his head back in and glanced in the direction of the counter. Murmuring started up again outside the door. Fear expanded inside him like a balloon in his belly at the thought of what these guys might be plotting.
“Is there a phone I can use?”
The woman shook her head. When his eyes settled on the cell phone on her desk, the woman replied rather impolitely: “You can only receive calls with this phone. You can make a call at the grocery store next door.”
“Could you go there and call someone for me?”
She nodded after a moment’s thought. He saw that she would only give help when he asked for it. That couldn’t be considered rude. She was willing to help out anyone who actually asked for help, but otherwise she seemed to have resolved not to lift a finger for anyone. The indifference was almost frightening. He wrote down Bat’s name and phone number and handed the slip of paper to the woman. She went out of the door without a moment’s hesitation
The woman returned a moment later. She was able to reach him. “You must stay here and wait.”
She returned to the counter and became absorbed in her ledger. Chang-dae waited anxiously as the minutes ticked away.
The guys didn’t go away. Every once in awhile, one of the men who was acting as a scout would come into the store to keep an eye on their target. Chang-dae kept his eyes on the TV installed on the column and tried to look nonchalant. His hearing attuned to the sounds coming from outside the door. These guys were damn persistent, like the soldiers of Genghis Khan laying siege on Kaifeng during the Jin Dynasty. Khan’s men had surrounded Kaifeng until the inhabitants resorted to eating the flesh of their own people before finally surrendering.
Suddenly it became quiet outside. Chang-dae stepped over quietly to the door and took a look outside. He couldn’t believe it, but they seem to have vanished. He didn’t let his guard down yet. The Secret History of the Mongols detailed military chronicles of how Genghis Khan’s army used retreat as a masquerade strategy and achieve brilliant victories. If he went out of the store without being careful, he wouldn’t make it ten yards before being seized by those men, who were probably waiting around to ambush him. He returned to his seat. Bat still didn’t appear.
Sure enough, it became noisy outside again. One of them came into the store. The man had a long knife scar just below the eye. Before leaving, he looked in Chang-dae’s direction with his eyes glowing with rage and frustration. Chang-dae felt like an animal chased into the corner with nowhere to go. He couldn’t breathe. He looked around. If they decided they couldn’t wait for him any longer and burst into the store, he vowed that he would put up a fight. There was nothing in sight but a plastic ashtray – nothing that he could use as a weapon.
He despaired at how powerless he was in this situation. Wasn’t there anything he could use to his advantage? He wasn’t very quick on his feet. What about first-degree black belt in taekwondo he’d gained during his military service? It seemed less useful than the fact he’d served three years as a soldier. The required term for military service in Mongolia was one year. The soldiers in this country had not fought a war since the founding of their modern state, whereas Koreans, by comparison, had participated in the Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War, and now even the Iraq War. That wasn’t all. They had to at least know that with our country’s war-riddled past and its division into North and South, we Koreans had earned a right to pride ourselves on a world-class might. It’s our army that’s more similar to the army of Genghis Khan, Chang-dae thought.
He wanted to shout outside the door: “I was a Korean soldier!” The fantasy actually made him feel weaker, draining what little strength he had left from his shoulders.
Another guy pushed the door open and came inside. The man holding open the steel door with his eyes open wide was Bat. Chang-dae was so happy to see him that he could feel his eyes almost watering.
“You can’t be walking around alone at night. The back roads and alleys are dangerous even during the day.”
Back at the apartment, Bat brewed some coffee and brought it over. Chang-dae was being treated to coffee in his own house. When he had finally calmed down Bat spoke again.
“My wife and I leave for Russia tomorrow. During that time, it might be best for you to stay in the house as much as possible.”
Chang-dae asked: “How long will you be gone?”
“We should be back in ten days.”
Chang-dae let out a sigh of relief.
“As long as you stay in the apartment, there should be nothing to worry about.”
Chang-dae agreed, nodding his head slowly. “But what if the utility bill gets here while you’re gone? And the phone bill . . .”
Bat was looking at Chang-dae as though he were but a child.
“Don’t worry. We’ll be back before then. What you experienced – those people are the scum of Mongolia. Don’t think that those incidents are anything out of the ordinary. These things happen everyday. It doesn’t mean that all Mongolian people are like those people. They’re an exception. When I arrived in Korea, a man promised to find me a good job, but when I paid him the fee, I never heard from him again. After that, I thought all Koreans were crooks. But I lived there for three years. I was even able to save some money and return, thanks to the help of all those Koreans I met. Don’t they have a saying in Korea? ‘It’s all smooth sailing from here.’ You’ll see. It’ll be like that for you too.”
Just as Bat had suggested, Chang-dae refrained from going outside. He only went out to a nearby grocery store to pick up necessary supplies; he wasn’t at all tempted by curiosity. Actually, there didn’t seem to be anything he wanted to see or experience any more. With the two doors by the entrance locked, he endured the noise from the construction outside and wrote a poem for the first time in ten years. The poem entitled “The Siberian Room” was about what he had gone through at the internet café. If he was going to write a poem here, he’d thought it would be a rhapsody on the steppes of Mongolia. The funny thing was, he didn’t feel particularly gratified sitting in front of the poem. Before writing the poem he had felt at a loose end. Now he felt calmer and more at ease. In the mirror he saw his own bearded reflection and thought he had returned to his former self.
Occasionally, there would be a knock on the door. It would be some man or woman he didn’t recognize. He would look through the peep hole, but wouldn’t open the door for them. They would eventually go away.
About a week after Bat and Dolma had left for Russia, a woman knocked on the door four days in a row. She was holding a clipboard of some sort. He kept the chain fastened and opened it a few inches slowly. She’d come to collect the utilities fee. She’d come a little earlier than Bat had predicted. Judging by the way she was dressed and the clipboard she was holding, Chang-dae didn’t think she looked suspicious. He took care of the utilities fee and made sure to get a receipt for the transaction. After the woman had gone up the stairs to the next floor, he leaned against the opened door and let out a cheerless laugh. He didn’t understand why he was so full of self-pity.
That night someone else knocked on the door. It was a man with a hat pulled over his head. Chang-dae held his breath and stood close to the door. The man kept banging at the door like a drunkard trying to get into his own house. Before long, Chang-dae could hear him humming. The hum came to a halt with the sound of a hiccup. This time the man kicked the door. It had to be a drunkard who’d come to the wrong house. If he was that drunk, he probably wasn’t going to go away anytime soon. He opened the door so that he could send the man away. He held on to the door knob firmly so that the man couldn’t come inside. The man seemed embarrassed when he saw Chang-dae’s face. The strong smell of alcohol wafted over to Chang-dae, who smiled to show that the man had mistakenly come to the wrong house. Chang-dae probably mumbled something in Korean.
Hello. Korean popped out of the man’s mouth unexpectedly. He seemed to want to say something else but he threw up his hands as though the alcohol had erased everything from his mind. He said a few more things in Mongolian but Chang-dae had no way of understanding. Chang-dae must’ve looked frustrated too. The man threw up his hands again as if to say: “Just forget about it!” His middle finger stopped short of the first joint.
The man was possibly a Mongolian laborer who had spent some time in Korea. He might have been fired from a factory without being paid his wage and lost all of his money. Maybe he had heard that a Korean was living in the building. After getting drunk, maybe he decided to pay Chang-dae a visit. Maybe the last word in Mongolian that had rushed out of his mouth had been an ethnic slur against Koreans. He reminded himself not to forget the man’s face. He knew he was probably being paranoid, but if he was going to protect himself, this is what he would have to do.
Bat didn’t return even after ten days had passed. He didn’t pick up his cell phone or the phone at the house or the office. Chang-dae reassured himself that no trouble would come to him as long as he stayed inside. This is what he told himself every time he set down the receiver.
He made himself some soybean stew, thinking it would help change his mood. The small apartment was soon filled up with the pungent smell of the stew. Get a whiff of this! he thought, opening the kitchen window. Dust and cold air blew inside fiercely. He closed the window and opened the living room window instead. He turned on his laptop and played the collected works of Bach. He dined slowly, as though he was savouring a lavish feast. The stinky odour of lamb that had enveloped and invaded his body seemed to wash away.
Someone knocked on the door when he was finishing up with the dishes. He looked out through the peep hole. He became nervous at the sight of a man in a leather jacket. The man didn’t just knock on Chang-dae’s apartment but was walking around knocking on other houses. This guy was holding a clipboard too. Chang-dae suddenly remembered the woman who had taken the utilities fee and began to suspect that he’d been scammed.
He opened the door and stepped out half way to peek outside. The young man had a black bag with him and his short hair was made to stand straight up with hairspray. In fact, his general appearance looked too well-groomed to invite Chang-dae’s confidence. Seeing that a foreigner was staying at the house, the young man pointed his finger behind the door, at the wall of the corridor. An electric meter was installed there; the case holding the meter had two locks on it to prevent people from siphoning off electricity. Chang-dae thought he must be a meter man then. And he must be telling Chang-dae over and over in Mongolian to open that case. But Chang-dae didn’t have the keys. The two keys he’d received from Bat were just for the front entrance.
Time passed rather uncomfortably. To Chang-dae, at least, it felt like a long time. He asked the meter man if he could speak English. The man nodded and said he could speak it a little. Chang-dae explained that he didn’t have the key. The meter man took out a large set of keys from the black bag. So what he needed weren’t keys after all. Chang-dae asked the man how he could help. The meter man said Chang-dae would have to confirm the reading that he made. As long as it was possible, Chang-dae didn’t want to go out of the house. He was barefoot and only in his T-shirt. He said he would trust the meter man to take the correct reading, so he could just check it and go. The meter man looked as though he didn’t know what to do; either he hadn’t understood Chang-dae or he wasn’t allowed to do what Chang-dae had asked.
“All right, all right,” Chang-dae said. He slipped on a pair of slippers and went outside. He wouldn’t let his guard down. He shut the door without thinking, realizing in the same instant what an awful thing had just happened. The meter man let out a cry almost at the same time.
This turn of events was completely unexpected. Chang-dae took a few deep breaths to regain his composure.
“Can you call a locksmith for me?” he asked, but the meter man shook his head. He said there are no locksmiths in Mongolia. Upon hearing those words, Chang-dae could feel what composure he’d fought to keep falling apart in shambles.
The meter man turned to the box holding the electric meter. What an asshole! If you stopped to think about it, he was partly responsible for what had happened. But the man just calmly went on focusing on his own work. Even if they couldn’t figure out a solution together, wasn’t it polite to at least pretend to sympathize with Chang-dae?
“Don’t you think maybe there’s some other way?” Chang-dae asked for the second time. The meter man shook his head and let out a weak laugh. Rage rose up inside Chang-dae. He tried hard to stay calm. It was useless trying to figure out who was really at fault. It was possible that a solution would come just as unexpectedly as the whole situation had unfolded. It began to work; Chang-dae remembered that Dolma had an extra set of keys. But she and Bat hadn’t returned from Russia yet. It couldn’t be that they would go abroad and take the key with them. It had to be in the house. He clapped his hands together. But he became sullen again. The pocketbook with their house phone number was on the table past this wall. And the pocketbook was sitting right next to the keys. There was also no point calling their house where nobody would be home.
Still he was definitely on to something. He now remembered that Dolma’s older brother lived upstairs in this apartment. It was possible that the brother had a key to Bat’s house. Even if there was no key, he might know how to get in touch with them in Russia. It was a twelve-story apartment so he would only have to ask around a little bit before he could find where the man lived. He started following the meter man. The man would be going floor-to-floor, knocking on each door. The meter man seemed completely indifferent to the fact that Chang-dae was trailing him.
There was no sign of anyone being at home in the three households on the ninth floor. The young man opened the meter case and recorded the figure on this clipboard. Finally as they were going up the stairs to the next floor the young man looked at him with some curiosity. Chang-dae told him that the brother of the woman who had rented him the apartment lived somewhere around here. He had to find the brother. The young man nodded, the bastard. He looked as though none of this had anything do with him. But Chang-dae didn’t want to think about that. He felt like a soldier all by himself in enemy territory.
When they got to the tenth floor, Chang-dae fell in line with the meter man and knocked on people’s door. Only one of the houses out of the three answered. A man in his underwear poked his head out, looking as though he had just woken up. Chang-dae moved in front of the meter man and asked if he knew Bat or Dolma. Even if the man didn’t speak any English he would recognize the names if he was the man Chang-dae was looking for. But the man just blinked his sleepy eyes.
There was nobody home on the eleventh floor either. Though the meter man understood Chang-dae’s situation perfectly, he wasn’t at all about to put his own work on hold. The meter man proceeded with his work thoroughly. Chang-dae could feel his hope fading. He might have to go up and down the stairs, while barely wearing anything. He would have to knock on people’s doors late into the night as they returned home from work. Already the skin on his forearms had broken out in goose bumps. The ends of his toes were freezing.
He ascended to the final floor, praying silently.
When nobody answered, his shoulders drooped in defeat. At that moment, the elevator bell rang and a woman came out. The woman was a little on the chubby side, and he couldn’t tell whether she was in her twenties or thirties. She at least had a kind face that offered some consolation to Chang-dae. This time, the meter man took it upon himself to explain. He pointed to the meter box and gesticulated how the door had shut, probably explaining how it all came about. Chang-dae was starting to like the young man. The woman stood in front of her door in the middle of the corridor, and looked at him with pitying eyes. The young man turned to Chang-dae after his lengthy explanation. “What are the names of their relatives?”
“Bat and Dolma.”
Chang-dae studied the woman’s face as he answered. Her expression changed immediately.
The young man exclaimed, laughing: “She said the man you’re looking for is her husband.”
Maybe his life would be spared after all. Chang-dae bent at the waist to bow and greet the woman.
Through the meter man, Chang-dae and the woman talked at length about what would have to be done. She took out her cell phone from her purse and called someone. Chang-dae couldn’t figure out anything by reading her expression. She finally explained after getting off the phone. She’d talked to her husband, but he didn’t have the key to his sister’s house, nor did he have their phone number in Russia.
He sighed and sank into a low crouch on the floor. The woman regarded him with pitying eyes and went over to the meter box. It was obvious now that no possible solution remained for him to get back into the house. If he didn’t break down the front door, he might end up freezing to death in this tundra. How was it possible for something as insignificant as a little metal key to drive him into the maws of death?
The hall window was practically shrieking with the wind blowing outside. Chang-dae wrapped his arms around his knees. The meter man, having completed his work, thrust his pack of cigarettes towards Chang-dae. He helped himself to a cigarette and put it in his mouth. The young man lit Chang-dae’s cigarette and sat down next to him. “What country are you from?”
“It’s really cold today.”
He patted Chang-dae on the shoulder and stood up. He looked up at the man with glistening eyes. The man looked like he was about to take off. He probably still had many more meter boxes to inspect. Chang-dae couldn’t think of a single reason that would persuade him to stick around. Only then did Chang-dae realize that having the man around had been a big consolation. The young man pressed the elevator button. The hall window moaned again as it rattled against the frame.
“Hey listen!” Chang-dae shot up to his feet. His face flushed with newfound vigour. “I’ll go through the window!”
The man looked at Chang-dae blankly as though he didn’t understand what Chang-dae had in mind. The elevator arrived just then and Chang-dae got on with him. He took the meter man with him to the courtyard outside the apartment. The sharp wind tore at his flesh.
Chang-dae pointed to his window while standing in the courtyard. It was way up there, but it was the only window that was wide open, so it was easy to pick out.
“I opened it awhile ago.”
The meter man looked as though he understood now.
“Help me get a rope.”
The man looked Chang-dae up and down.
“You’re going to climb up there yourself?”
Chang-dae nodded his head with grim courage.
“It’s dangerous. It’s over thirty metres.”
“Not a problem. I was a soldier for three years.”
“You’re a Korean soldier?”
The meter man looked at him with surprise in his eyes. Chang-dae nodded. The man seemed to believe that being a soldier was Chang-dae’s occupation. That wouldn’t be a problem. If the young man understood the situation and helped Chang-dae prepare, that was all that mattered. The young man made a tight fist and raised it high.
“Let’s go, Korean soldier!”
The meter man took him to the manager’s office. Though it was called an office, it wasn’t much more than a shack behind the building, fashioned like a guard post. What surprised Chang-dae was that it served both as an office and residence of the superintendent. An old woman with yellowed teeth came out. The meter man explained at length. It seemed he wasn’t leaving anything out, not even the things he had done. Chang-dae stood off to the side, wiggling his toes in agony. There was an incredulous look in the old woman’s eyes, but soon she appeared to feel sorry for him.
She guided them to the storage room by the first-floor garage. The place had the appearance of a machine room with a network of intertwining pipes. There was an iron ladder but nothing that could act as rope. The old woman took them to the office of the adjacent apartment building. A young woman appeared there and the meter man repeated his long story. Chang-dae was getting frustrated with the young man. If he could speak Mongolian, he would explain everything himself.
They didn’t seem to have any rope either. Chang-dae told the meter man: “Let’s go to the construction site where the Mongolian soldiers work.”
They went to construction site where the parking lot was being built. The two women followed them.
A dozen or so soldiers working there stopped what they were doing and looked at them. The meter man explained to the officer who seemed to be in charge. He didn’t leave anything out this time either. Chang-dae discovered to his surprise that he’d put complete confidence in the young man. At that moment, Chang-dae wouldn’t have minded offering the meter man the respect and fondness normally reserved for one’s own father.
After the story had been told the soldiers let out a collective cheer. The officer went to the truck and unloaded a spool of electric cable. His expression made it clear that this was the best they could do. The cable had a black coating and was about as thick as your little finger.
“Wouldn’t it be too slippery?” the meter man said, running the cable between his thumb and fingers.
“It’s not a problem. This should do.”
Chang-dae was already coiling the electric cable into a loop around his shoulders. As he did this he slowly grew more afraid. He’d been so focused on acquiring some rope he hadn’t had the chance to consider how dangerous and reckless it would be to attempt this. If something went wrong he could even die. Was there another way?
One of the Mongolian soldiers approached him just in time, pointing to himself. He was trying to say that he would take the rope instead. The officer yelled and made the soldier step aside. The meter man turned around and explained something in a loud voice to the soldiers. Chang-dae couldn’t understand what he was saying. The officer’s entire face lit up as he approached.
“What did you say to them?” Chang-dae asked the meter man; Chang-dae was a little nervous about what was happening,
Before hearing an answer, the officer thrust his hand forward and Chang-dae, bewildered, offered his own hand. The officer took the hand all of the sudden and yelled in his awkward English: “We’re your friends, Korean soldier.”
The enormous hand gave Chang-dae’s hand a vigorous shake.
The meter man, the old female superintendent, the young woman, Chang-dae and the officer now headed towards the twelfth floor, where Dolma’s brother lived. Dolma’s sister-in-law looked a little confused, but she welcomed everyone inside. Chang-dae made a beeline for the bathroom where he filled the basin with hot water and dipped his hands and feet inside. Once he came in contact with water, he realized he needed to use the toilet. So he waddled over to it. Even if they were all anxiously waiting for him, he wanted to mentally prepare himself at his own pace. His body wasn’t wholly defrosted yet, so he twisted his waist and bent his neck back and forth. There were murmurs coming from outside. They sounded worried.
When Chang-dae came out of the bathroom, the woman who lived there bowed to him out of the blue.
“She said her husband spent three years in Korea, too,” the meter man said. Chang-dae remembered the man who had knocked on his door a few nights before. He was Dolma’s older brother then. Chang-dae slapped his own forehead.
Chang-dae approached the meter man realizing that he was still there with him. “Thanks for everything. If you have things you need to do, you should go on ahead. Will you knock on my door when you come by next month?”
The young man laughed and did a little pantomime of holding on to a rope. The woman living in the apartment shook her head slowly and cleared a path for Chang-dae. He walked over to the living-room window.
The Mongolian officer was waiting after tying the wire securely around the steam heater. Chang-dae passed it through his legs and wrapped it around his pelvis. The officer helped him tie the knots. As he wrapped the wire around his body he felt fear spread all over his body like an electric current. Twenty years had passed since he had been discharged from the army. Since his experience in the military, he’d lived his life with a confidence that really had no basis. He had not lived a day in his life physically demanding enough to forget that experience. This day would be the sole exception. He felt himself to be very small. For how many years had he sat around talking about his time in the military while drinking with his friends? It was possible that your military duty didn’t end when your thirty months were up but lasted your whole life. The fact became clear to Chang-dae, that at least in Korea, the solider was mightier than the poet. How else could he explain what he was about to do?
He kicked off his slippers and went through the window onto the ledge. The wind from Siberia blew into his face like pins being driven in. Behind him, the officer and the meter man held on to the rope with bated breath. The women shrieked when he seemed about to lose his balance. Chang-dae held on to the window frame and looked down below his feet. The Mongolian soldiers had gathered in the yard. They cheered him on when they saw Chang-dae come out of the window.
“Go, Korean soldier! Go!”
The Mongolian fight song rang out and filled the yard so boisterously that it echoed everywhere and spread. Just as these strangers believe, Chang-dae thought, I am forever a soldier. He took the loose length of the electric cable moaning against the wind and tossed it weakly into the air.