Photographic Memory #11
The engine’s haphazard coughs were the first sounds that reached the villagers of P—. These were soon followed by the fighter’s final plunge into the hillside, the concussive boom knocking clay jars and the more timid to the floor. Yet it was the muted sky in the immediate aftermath that arrested the imaginations of the laborers working the parched fields. They pointed to the heavens above as the parachute’s white canopy swayed in the thermals like a petal. The laborers clutched the weathered shafts of their hoes as they tracked the parachute’s slow decent. Their steps grew more urgent when they saw fabric tangled in a copse of oaks. A lone figure dangled forlornly, the marionette of a careless master. The pilot kicked his legs in vain, scarcely three feet from the earth below. Once they had semi-circled around him the pilot froze, though his eyes darted between the stoic gazes like bewildered blue minnows. One of his arms hung limply at his side, dislodged by the unknown mishap that befell his plane. Otherwise, he was in splendid condition.
No one bothered to cut him down. Instead, the laborers stood in quiet, unwitting contemplation. Wind rustled through the brittle treetops, and they thought of the rain that had refused their overtures for six seasons running. They recalled the chance of marriage lost with the meager harvests, a soldier’s boot against a boisterous uncle’s tongue. There were shattered limbs and promises of long dead dreams, a war that had stretched beyond sunken stomachs and into shallow graves. There were no reasons, no expectations, yet a beastlike instinct had compelled each to investigate this bounty offered from the sky.
Only the mute farmhand Chung Baedal did not question the inevitable task at hand, the gift of a pragmatic predisposition that overrode his silence. He was the first to renew his grip before raising his hoe and swinging mightily. The hoe’s blade clanked loudly against the harness buckle on the pilot’s chest. The pilot let out a harsh gasp and beseeched Chung Baedal with wild gesticulations of his one good arm. The laborers watched as Chung Baedal cocked back and swung once more, the pilot shouting epithets, kicking his legs madly until branches snapped, and the pilot fell the last few tantalizing feet to the ground.
Suddenly, the levies holding the other laborers’ unrequited thoughts were breached, and they joined in the assault with a gusto that belied their long despondent arms. The dull blades that could scarcely scratch the drought-stricken hills enjoyed renewed purpose as they diced and dented and otherwise laid great waste to the pilot’s constitution.
The pilot curled, unfurled and at one point ended up on his knees. He pleaded for the beating to abate, words hopelessly entangled within a thick web of pain, fear and simple language barrier. Bright crimson bubbles burst across his lips as he made his final toothless supplication, but this was immediately mistook for the last insolence of the vanquished, and he collapsed beneath the laborers’ redoubled efforts. They swung wildly, careless shafts of injustice whistling through the air. They swung without speaking. They swung with the fury of small men lovingly raised to yearn for unattainable things. The air echoed with the crunching slice while their arms grew heavy, their breaths left them in steady huffs, the glowing horrors they beheld slowly fading until, at last, they were finished.
The laborers rolled the pilot onto his back and commenced rummaging. It was precisely at this moment that he released a slow, wheezy, two-beat groan, filled with such longing for a place elsewhere that they halted their looting. From the corner of his one remaining eye squeezed a single tear. They glanced at one another, then back at him. The groan lurched deep within his punctured chest as he gazed upon that distance. He repeated it softly again, and again, and each time they knew to their core that he was calling for his mother.
They soon slipped helplessly into their own abysses. They recalled warmth and laughter and gentle scoldings. They recalled wafts of red bean porridge, croaker stew. A mottled caterpillar dangled from a gingko leaf held by slender fingers. Voices called their names, the soothing, near-forgotten ones uttered in the night of nightmares, from across the threshold of half-remembered dreams. The pilot had ceased groaning, and they observed the welts and jagged incisions, his ruined insides darkening everything around him. They noted his polished boots, the carefully double-knotted laces, and they were ashamed.
Chi Taewoo, the tinker’s enterprising sixth son, had lifted a small leather-bound journal from the pilot’s pocket. They opened it now and observed the tidy script of his wartime musings, pencil sketches of grotto bodhisattvas, the outlines of a nursing farrow. The journal was accompanied by a brass locket encasing the miniature photograph of the pilot’s beloved, smiling shyly at the balance of their lives still unmapped. The words were hieroglyphic, yet a fresh wave of remorse coursed through the laborers. They clutched their hair and hammered their chests, as if this fresh assault upon their own hearts could raise his from its slumber.
When this too failed, when they knew their newfound kinship with the pilot was cemented in his death, they gripped their hoes anew and sliced into the earth. Though their strength had been spent, they dug until the pit was deep, worthy of a brother. They bowed low and shrouded him in his parachute. Chi Taewoo refused to bury the pilot’s journal and locket, in case she should ever decide to collect them. It was foolish talk, a danger to all if discovered. Yet no one argued, and some secretly hoped it would be true. When they had patted the last bit of earth atop him, they wondered who one day might accept the brief tidings of what they had done. They asked again for the rain to return, and they scanned the sky in search of whatever else it might proffer.