Chapter 5: Life and death in times of war
After saying their goodbyes, sharing their provisions and parting ways with what she knew her entire life, the road to the northern barracks was long and hard for Soo-Ah. It was also the first trip she ever took.
The end of their road was the northern reinforced bastion. It could house up to 1000 well-trained military, but more recruits were drafted from the surrounding provinces amounting to a total of 25000 men. Soo-Ah and her grandfather made a turn on the path they tirelessly followed for an entire day, when their eyes met an old sight for General Min-Jun and a new one for Soo-Ah.
“You’ve been looking up for quite a while, girl. You want a neck sprain?”
“Is that the fortress, grandpa’? It is so high up. How will we get there?” marvelled the young girl at what was an outlandish sight for her eyes. Her gaze soared again over the stone steep of the mountain, giving way to the rock and brick walls of the fortress.
"There are steps carved in the mountain. The entrance is hidden away. It is revealed only by speaking a magic incantation,” joked her grandfather, trying to alleviate the girl’s anxiousness at the enormity towering over them.
“Granpa’, I am old enough not to believe in magic anymore.” The young girl tried to sound mature.
“What’s this nonsense? One should always believe in magic. Especially magic you create yourself.” Her grandfather caressed Soo-Ah’s face with his affectionate stare. He wanted for her to remain a child so he would shelter her from all the horrors that were expecting them.
Over the ridges of the mountains laid a vast grassland bordered on the left by the oldest forest in the region. The crisp green of the meadow will soon be stained by the crimson of the victims’ blood, while the soil will be turned over under the hoofs of the horses and the soles of men. With each of the general’s victories, they would advance their camp further and further from the mountain slopes, leaving the forest and its trees as the only silent witness of those horrors.
What Ho-Orabeoni had said about young girls not belonging in the army was entirely true. Even if she was related to the general of the army. Before reaching their destination, the bastion, Soo-Ah’s grandfather prepared her for what was to come and who she was to be from that moment on.
“You remember what we talked about? Tell me quickly, what is your name?” Min-Jun asked of his granddaughter as the first question of the final fire round quiz he prepared for her.
“Soo-Yun!” answered Soo-Ah without taking any moment to consider her answer. She repeated this name for the past couple of days and it started to appear even in her dreams.
“Who are you?”
“I am general’s Min-Jun grandson. Grew up at his farm in Weiresyong. I am a stubborn boy and not so friendly. ”
“What did you enjoy most from the time on the farm?”
“Catching frogs and chasing the girls, scaring them.” When her grandfather asked her first to think about answering this question Soo-Ah remembered Jung-In and picked the one tease that grossed her out the most.
“What most excites you about the war, boy?”
“Can’t wait to learn martial arts, and hold a real sword in my hand.”
General Min-Jun nodded satisfied. Disguising his granddaughter as a boy was the only device he could come up with to keep her safe. He thought about how this life would leave her lacking in the characteristic specific for a young woman. Keeping her safe preceded everything else and she would not have to pretend for too long. The war should be over soon, he thought.
Adapting to living like a boy was not hard at first since she was young. But as time passed and her body changed, she had to struggle more and more. Covering her developing breast and hiding her monthly bleeding proved to be the most difficult challenges. She found every day to be tedious. But her grandfather warned her. The army had men from every walk of life, amassed together, and she learned a new word: rape.
If any lowlife would find out she was a girl they might take advantage of her and do unspeakable things, things that her grandfather could not bring himself to describe. But she thought she had a good idea what he was referring to. She now knew what Ho-Orabeoni had done to that woman that night. It was rape. The fear of anything like this happening to her made her be consistent with her efforts to look and act like a man.
There was one thing she did not understand about being in the army though. Why were women of loose morals that were following the troops and why would they submit themselves to such rape-like treatment. She would see them laugh and make jokes with the men and she did not understand. Later she found out they were doing this for money, so she thought they had to pretend to enjoy themselves. But she still felt money did not justify their actions.
As she matured her face changed also. At a first glance at her without the boyish appearance, she would appear to be beautiful, her eyes standing out the most. Her black hair grew but she kept it in a man style bun in accordance with her disguise. On close inspection though, she was not perfect. Just a pleasant ensemble of all the features that make up a face. When she would laugh the gap-tooth would show and she would hear about how that meant she was touched by gods, twice. Her blue eyes and her gap-tooth were seen as a good luck talisman for the men going to war. In her disguise as a boy, she would look like an inexperienced young man with a pretty face. Enough to make the women following the troops eye her and make advances.
“Handsome lad, come let big sister show you a nice trick.” A plump harlot tried to approach her one day when she passed by their tents. Soo-Ah ignored her and minded her own business, but the woman would not relent and started following her. “Oh come on, don’t tell me you are shy. Take one look at these to get some courage,” and she shook her oversized bosom at the disguised young woman’s direction.
“Thank you, not interested,” quickly added Soo-Ah, hoping she will give up. The woman was stubborn though.
“Oh, now you make big sister sad. You look lonely. Let me warm up your bed tonight.”
Soo-Ah turned around and snapped as rude as she could be, “I said no! You wrench, you should take a hint. I would never lay a finger on you! Stop bothering me.”
This left the woman shocked and hurt, although she had tough skin, as one should in this line of business. It stopped her in her tracks today, but she continued to call after what she thought to be a cute but rude boy, in the ensuing days. Only to spite him. After some time, this banter became a way for the two to greet each other, having forgotten the original feud.
Soo-Ah found her reactions ridiculous and funny.
As a young boy in the army, she now had the opportunity to learn how to fight. Her grandfather trained her wanting to share most of the skills he had in combat not knowing when they would prove useful. And she enjoyed sparing. The best way to let go of her frustrations and a fun way to spend her time. She learned martial arts and became astute in sword fighting. But her grandfather would keep her away from any real battles.
Whenever the old general had to go away and fight, they would have a moment to themselves. Soo-Ah would take the general’s hands, kiss them and hold them to her face. There were no words spoken out loud, but there was a mountain of emotions going through both of them. Soo-Ah would silently say goodbye as if she were never to see her grandfather again while the general could only think that there were no goodbyes to be said. If he would have made his peace and said his goodbye that would mean his will and his need to return would quiver. Any quiver in his resolve to return could allow a fatal blow on the filled. And who would take care of and protect Soo-Ah after he was gone? No! There was no room for any goodbyes yet.
When he was gone, she would make herself useful at the barracks infirmary where she had an opportunity to explore her gentler side. Blood and gasping wounds would no longer make her feel squeamish and she learned a thing or two about treating the wounded by only watching the doctors. They found her presence useful and were happy to share some of their knowledge with a boy that was smart and eager to learn.
In all the time she spent at the barracks and in the war camp, it was hard to keep in touch with the people she once knew. So in time, she ended up forgetting what life was like when she was a child and the faces she once remembered started to fade from the girl’s memory being replaced by the faces she would see in her day to day life as a boy.
Her song was the only thing she did not let go of from her recollections. She would sing it to herself now and then or to the men laying on their sick beds to give them comfort. Seeing them injured or on the brink of death would shake the hatred she felt towards them and allowed her to see they were as human as she was. Some had tender stories about the loved ones they left behind or about the ones they lost. This feeling of easiness would disappear however whenever she saw the other facet, of them acting like beasts after getting drunk and fighting among each other or when she passed the brothel area, and she would hear those sounds that marked her so deep in the past.
Though she was of age now, she found she had no interest in exploring more that particular aspect of life. And apart from an annoying itch, she would feel now and then that she struggled to ignore, she maintained her original disinterest in men. And from fear of being discovered, she also kept from befriending anyone.
More than 10 years passed since they left the comforts of home behind. Time is a factor of change and together with the conditions of life in times of war, it went by eroding people’s bodies and minds. Especially those of old people.
Her grandfather was already old but now he was getting older and sicker by the time. The doctors said pneumonia and they gave him little chances of recovery. The old general was now bed stricken and had to delegate most of his duties. Soo-Ah, however, was there to care of him, as he had cared for her when she was younger. But knowing she will soon lose him was something she could barely face, so she was telling herself that could never happen. That motivated her to take even better care of the old general, to call on the doctors every day to come and see him, or to ask them if they had better medicine.
In time the doctors found it difficult to tell her ‘No’ and they allowed her to keep her hopes up. The young boy would face the truth soon enough, what point was there to make him suffer until then? - they thought.
Soo-Ah became the old general’s personal cook since she noticed he enjoyed and praised her cooking skills. Cooking for him started as a way to pass the time but it became a custom since she was not allowed to do much around the camp.
“Grandpa’ you need to eat this. You’ve always liked this soup. I made it especially for you. Come on old man, don’t waste my hard work.”
“You...you start to speak like a disrespectful rascal. You...” - the old general would answer coughing. Then he added in a serious tone:
“You listen to me, my child. I need to make arrangements. You know I am not well. A new general will be arriving soon, to take over for me and lead my regiments.”
“What is this nonsense? I heard your men saying they are willing to follow you to the grave.”
“I am afraid that if they were to actually follow me to the grave that would happen sooner rather than later. It is always better to follow someone to the grave later rather than sooner- remember that.”
“Was that your attempt at a joke old man? You are not good at it.“- said Soo-Ah as they both started chuckling.
“Listen to me Soo-Ah when this great general arrives...”
“You will send him away. You and your men need no new general. What will happen to you when someone comes to take over? All your hard work for over 10 years. How can you allow that? They will throw you away just for being a little sick.”
“Soo-Ah.... this general, he is the king’s great general, the best we have right now, his name is...”
“He, no matter what his name is, will be at the tip of my sword if he tries to do anything disrespectful to you.”
“He is a good man, you will see, my Soo-Ah.”
“No good man would take away anything from a sick person. You managed very well so far without any help. I am sure this is how he built his fame as the king’s general. Like a vulture.” - Soo-Ah wanted to hear nothing more about this new general.
“Here you go again talking nonsense just because you are upset. Now there is no point talking to you, girl, because you will not listen.”
“You have been talking too much anyway. It is time to go to sleep and rest so you can fight away those vultures.”
His lungs were no longer functioning properly and speaking made her grandfather tired, so it was not unusual for him to fall asleep even after a little chat, while Soo-Ah would watch over him as he was struggling to breathe in his sleep.
“Old man...what am I to do with you?” - said Soo-Ah with a heavy heart as the general fell asleep while she was caressing his face. Thinking of what she heard from her grandfather this night and what was to come for them soon, unsettled her and chased away her tiredness and steadied her resolve. She will continue to take care of her dear one for as long as possible.