AUTHOR'S NOTES: Ahem. Thank you for reading this, and for putting up with me.
Now... this fic. I *tried* to slash Margaret-- I don't know if I've succeeded. I think this fic cost me, word for word, more than any other I've ever written. @_@ Except 'The Will of Heaven'-- *makes a face* I hope this is at least somewhat decent.
All Korean words are from my "Korean/English Dictionary"-- I hope they're right. The family set up is based on my knowledge of oriental culture, which, admittedly, is more limited to Japanese and Chinese areas. I've been told persimmons *do* grow in Korea. *shrugs*
And now, without further whining on my part...
DATE BEGUN: January 13th, 1:45 PM
DATE FINISHED: January 13th, 11:24 PM
*Traveling in Korea*
by Meredith Bronwen Mallory
Margaret dreamed of snow on the branches outside her window when she was twelve, shivering there in the moon-less night; and woke to the half-chill gray Korean spring. In her sleep, she'd threaded the chain of her dog tags around her fingers-- now she untangled them, stretching her hand. It seemed, often, that in her sleep her soul curled up into a tight ball, so that when she awoke it took a few moments for it to flow back into the rest of her body. There was a listless quiet in her now, which she found preferable to the overwhelming anger or panic her failing marriage often brought her. Outside, pale yellow blossoms were beginning to dot the war-torn country side, giving a bizarre, deadly festive air-- but the head nurse held winter in the cradle of her hips, and was glad. No child to bind her to Donald, as she had bound her parents-- she was just Margaret, a lone person, and she had some chance of getting free.
Sitting on the edge of her cot, she began to change into her worn, comfortable army greens, studying the way they enveloped and protected her body. Not a woman, just a person-- she'd tried to hold her love of service and that diffuse expectation of wifehood handed to her when she was born. She'd tried to shoulder them both, and...
Glancing briefly at the image held loftily in the silver frame by her bed, Margaret looked away, almost ashamed, from the unseeing gaze of the strong-chinned Colonel; as soon as she had averted her eyes, she felt poison sliding sweetly down her throat. Reaching out blindly, she tore the picture from the wall and held it in two hands that suddenly seemed like claws.
"I hate you," she said to the sepia photo, and the hate was a strength in her arms. Decisively, she dropped the frame and kicked it with one foot, sending it sliding against the dirt under her bed. She stood fully inside herself, eyeing the Major in the mirror, for the first time in a long while feeling that the reflection was right.
Out in the compound, her steps were brisk and sure. One of the enlisted men nodded her way, saying "Major", and her smile at him was perhaps more frightening to the poor young man than was her usual icy demeanor. She held her happiness closely, protectively, though-- it was too rare and delicate for her to really risk sharing it. And so, when she turned and felt her blood seem to fall away, she was surprised.
It took her several moments for her eyes to really register the scene; at first it seemed entirely abstract, just colors, like a kaleidoscope. Then, she saw merely the southern end of the unit, near the OR, and the young woman trotting slowly towards the dirt road leading into town. It was the girl who'd caught her eye, as improbable as her singling one face out in an endless crowd. A Korean girl, thin boned under her long skirt and loose chogori jacket; she moved like a wild animal, graceful but unsure, and the edges of her faintly blue skirt were caked with mud. Margaret watched, suddenly aware of each breath; saw the girl's formless shadow on the ground, saw the heavy laundry basket in her arms and the other load slung over her shoulder.
Briefly, a memory breathed like butterfly's wings on the edges of her mind.
Her hand shot out with a will of its own, grabbing the selves of (someone?) as they passed. On turning, she was relieved it was only Radar-- she saw herself in his dirty, coke bottle glasses and, beyond that, his clumsy panic.
"Relax, Corporal," she shook her head, gesturing with one slim finger towards the girl and her retreating shadow. "Who's that?"
"Tho's Wat, sir?" the young man garbled briefly, before straightening his posture, "I mean-- sir, that's the laundry girl."
"I can *see* that," Margaret cracked her voice like a whip-- not so much frustrated at the young clerk as she was perplexed by her own sudden, ashes and cinders curiosity. "But she's different, not the girl that used to come around."
"Oh, no, Ma'am," Radar nodded quickly, "that was her sister, Hyo-Soon-- but she got married, I mean, Hyo-Soon did, so now Hui Ping does the job."
"Hui Ping," unconsciously, the head nurse flicked her tongue over the name. All at once, she felt ridiculous, uncertain why the girl had caught her eye in the first place. "How long has she been working?"
"About two weeks now, sir, ah, Ma'am," the corporal replied hastily, "She's really nice, I talked to her when she came to pick up Sophie's blanket to clean. Her English is better than her sister's, and she's closer to my age. She likes animals, too.."
"Two weeks," she shook her brown-touched gold curls, pursing her lips, "I wonder why I didn't notice her before?" With a sigh, she released her fingers from their bite on the young man's sleeve, and stalked absently towards the mess tent.
Radar, on his part, let a look of abject relief wash over his face. To the Major's retreating back, he squeaked; "Some people!" and quickly found something else to think about.
The world is full of faces, some we see and some we don't. At the train station, five minutes late, and you see a pretty girl trying to mop up her spilled coffee. She's been taking the nine o'clock down town longer than you have, but you never saw her before. Now you'll always see her.
Chemicals, they say, cause us to be attracted to another person. Or psychological patterning, the earliest imprints on the flicker of our consciousness. Or the stars, spinning, the round Zodiac, fate as undeniable as gravity or the need to breathe; Cancer with Capricorn, Leo with Aquarius, all there in vague points of light. Or else affection is as fickle as a roll of the die, com'on baby, seven come eleven. A pair of hearts in poker, call, and garbage for the dealer. Opposites attract. Perhaps it's in the name, like the Chinese parents who called their girls 'Jade' for good luck. Careful brush strokes; somewhere, there may be a book, with our names all lined up, matched perfectly. If you could take this book in your hands, smooth the pages, find your name... would you admit to the one beside it?
She began to count days without admitting it to herself; in Korea, everything was usually fluid, one day bled into another and another. Night and day were a matter of technicality only, for the wounded came when they came. The pre-op was gasping, OR was timeless, the Post-Op was holding its breath. Nevertheless, Margaret began to count, and when she got to the seventh day, there was a light knock on her door.
If Radar said said Hui Ping had been working two weeks, then the girl must have come to the Major's door before. Often, Margaret tucked her dirty clothes in a bundle inside the door-- she called for the laundry lady to come in and take it and often didn't look away from her work. Today, her used clothing was still piled discretely in a small hamper, nothing was prepared.
She said, without thinking, "Come in."
"Major," said the moon-round face peaking around the door-- the way she said it was more "may-jah"-- "Major, come for laundry."
Major Houlihan was thinking how silly it was, that flip comment, "all orientals look a like", because it made no sense next to this girl. The girl was really a young lady, brown eyes tilted up and just the color of burnt amber. Her hair lay in black wisps around her face, and she held her pink tongue between her slightly irregular teeth.
"Of course," the nurse nodded, gathering the garments together and wrapping them in the largest towel. Hui Ping watched her with eyes that told no secrets, but it seemed to Margaret that the Korean girl was not looking at her for the first time. "I'm sorry I didn't have it ready when you got here," she lied, "it must have slipped my mind."
"Is all right," Hui Ping held her arms out for the bundle, accepting it like a baby. "Not mind waiting."
Margaret felt herself smiling, though she had no intention of doing so, "Radar told me you've taken over for your sister."
"Hai, hai," the other girl bobbed her head like a robin, "Sister married now, lives with husband's family." With a single, dusted-brown finger, she pointed to herself, "This my job, now." With a shallow bow, she turned and moved out the door with all the ease of a leaf being blown by the wind.
Belatedly, Margaret thought to murmur a "thank you", almost certain the other woman was out of ear shot already. But out in the salty spring morning, she heard a shout back, as if calling to something she wouldn't remember.
Maybe, thought Margaret while sterilizing the instruments to be put away, maybe it's all about timing. Maybe it's about when you have your life in your own hands, and not someone else's.
She could see those hands so clearly in her mind.
Her mother's hands, first of course, weighed down by rings. The gold, fading glint of the wedding band, the engagement ring, with it's diamond hugged between two sapphires. On the right hand, a heavy circle with four stones-- the colors for the months of Margaret and her sisters. That long line of raised flesh over Mother's left palm-- the cut of a kitchen knife, too deep to be an accident, too glaring to be purposeful. She remembered that hand more than the other, remembered it writing, or lifting a book, holding an apple-- that scar was like a snake's eye, blinking, watching.
Hands belonging to her father, as well. Thick, meaty hands, that could hold a pistol or a riding crop, or her own small one in his. A hand used to salute, to administer a spanking, to hold the telephone like it was a weapon.
Here the hands blurred, there were just too many. Her sisters', with varied nail polish, moles and birth marks. Her own, gloved, assisting during surgery. Her first boyfriend, who's name she didn't even remember-- his hands under her blouse, fumbling with her bra.
And Frank's hands, smooth, untalented. With a tight grip, it's mine, no I won't let go. Frank's hand, clasping hers as they shook to say goodbye, not knowing it was for the last time.
Donald's hands seemed remarkably characterless beside all those.
One more pair of hands, she saw sweetly on the edge of her mind. Ringless, pale and young, filled with knowledge and what passes for love as a child.
The second seventh day came, a little warmer, on the heels of Hui Ping and her dirty skirts. Donald's picture had been removed from under the bed, put in it's proper place, then tossed back into the dust again, finally removed from its frame and fed to the pitiful fire as Margaret, BJ, Hawkeye and the Colonel swirled celebratory drinks in the Swamp.
"Here for laundry again, Major," Hui Ping seemed swallow her smile, though her eyes were bright and clear.
"Oh, yes," replied the nurse, who no longer prepared her load at all, but let it sit in the hamper until the last minute. When she held out the bundle, Hui Ping's fingers reached past it to touch her loose, hastily dyed curls. Stilling immediately, Margaret watched the expressions pass over Hui Ping's face, like clouds over the moon.
"Your hair," the Korean woman murmured, "is different.. ah... _pit-kal_." Frustrated, Hui Ping shook her head and took hold of the bundle, turning swiftly. She motioned a long finger towards the quilt resting over Margaret's bed. "That," she emphasized, "is white. And," she made an a sweeping motion with her free arm, "sky is blue. These are called...?"
"Colors," the Major supplied, still feeling the briefest touch of hands, "my hair is a different color."
"Yes, it is," Hui Ping intoned solemnly. "Why?"
"Oh," Margaret moved a little in the small confines, "We threw a party for one of the doctors. You know, Hawkeye."
Hui Ping's mouth became a perfect, burnt-rose rimmed, 'O', "In the Swamp?" She giggled, a lower sound than the nurse might have guessed, "His laundry so dirty," she made motions again with her hand, "it could walk away."
"Yes," Margaret hid her laughter behind the flesh of her palm, "That's him all right."
Moving quickly, she reached for a box sitting on her makeshift desk, her smiling beckoning the other girl to her side, "I have some cake, left over from the party." She was already cutting the semi-brittle breading in half, "Do you want a some?"
"You sure?" Hui Ping held the wad of clothing protectively against her chest, "You not mind?"
"If I minded, I wouldn't have offered," the Major said with forced practicality. Carefully, she pushed the two pieces to opposite ends of the box and moved to sit on the edge of her bed. Hui Ping joined her a moment, perching like a bird about to fly.
"Sure?" she asked again, "It's okay? Eat from plate, drink from cup?"
"Yes, after a fashion," Margaret smiled, setting the box between them, "I don't have plates and cups." They laughed, pushing the sound out of their mouths. A moment later, she reached for her canteen, offering her guest a sip first. To fill the space, she said, "How's your sister?"
"Good," Hui Ping followed the other woman's example, picking at the cake with delicate, bare fingers, "Priestess cast stones, says good chance Hyo-Soon get with baby soon. Even better, say it good chance for it to be a boy."
"That's nice," a nod, and the temporary redhead took a swig from the canteen, "Do you have many brothers and sisters?"
"Our family blessed," the Korean girl cast her eyes down, though her voice was proud, "Three boys, two girls. I'm youngest. All brothers married."
"Really?" Margaret murmured around the sweetness of icing in her mouth, "The boys stay with the family, right, and brides go to live with their husbands?"
"Yes," Hui Ping wiped at a crumb, "Sister Number One has one baby-- also boy. Sister Number Three pregnant, and," her dark eyes were smiling but sympathetic, "Sister Number Two hearing lots from Mother."
"What about you, Hui Ping?" the name just as thick as the icing on her tongue.
"Hui Ping will stay with Mother and Father," the other girl said with careful attention to detail. Silently, she licked the last bits of cake from her fingers before continuing, "Take care of them. And new sisters."
In an almost seamless movement, Hui Ping took the bundle back in her arms and stood before the major.
"You don't want to get married?"
(Ashes, ashes-- Donald was ashes in the stove and in her mind)
"Mother try, ask around," the other woman shrugged exaggeratedly, "All say, "Nuh-uh."
"Oh," Margaret moved a hand gently down the Korean girl's arm, "I'm sorry I said anything."
"That's okay!" Hui Ping was so like a bird, a flash of bright color, "Am free."
The door shut quickly behind her, as if eager to erase her presence, and Margaret sat trying not to think.
It's no good, you know, trying to forget.
(Her hands were forgetfulness; we were supposed to be studying, but I never remembered a thing.)
Don't you feel ashamed?
(No, no blush of shame. Just the blush of affection, pink across her cheeks. They are sitting in Anita's room, in an old row house close to one of the endless bases Margaret's father was stationed at. Anita's hair is black like the aftermath of fire, and her eyes are a green darker than the forest rug on the floor. She leans over, touches Margaret as one might pet a cat, whispers that she knows secrets.)
How disgusting! What's the matter with you?
(Anita is tall and lanky, all elbows and knees in her school uniform. She sits next to Margaret in Science and during lunch-- they trade food, and walk home together. They are friends two days after their eyes meet, hurrying to devour the knowledge of each other. They are both, after all, army brats.)
You *must* know how wrong that is!
(They study at Anita's house, in her room, crouched in the wide space between the bed and the wall. The geography book, they toss aside, Anita says she knows how to travel, how to go places without her body. She shows Margaret how, touching gently, reaching down into places where the other girl has only briefly touched herself. They melt into each other-- practice, you understand. I'll show you, promises Anita, how to kiss a boy. How to do it with tongue. See, Meg, like this?)
(But there is nothing more natural in the world than those warm, fumbling travels; that sweet wave that can fling the both of them out past the sun. Anita carves their initials into her headboard, and Margaret writes Anita's last name after her own Christian one.
And of course, they are army brats. One has to move-- it doesn't matter which. They are broken apart, A.D.&M.H, the carving scratched out. There is not another woman in the world who knows how to travel like Anita did.)
In her tent, Margaret held her temples with her hands, as if she could take out the memory and bury it.
She said, to herself, to her failure as a wife, "I must be an awful person to be thinking like this."
Hui Ping was like a ghost, the afterimage of some childhood photo. Margaret would turn sometimes, see her moving between the tents, collecting her work. Once, the Korean girl was with Radar in the makeshift stable, holding Sophie's reins as she pressed her cheek to the horse's soft mane. There was no pang, no pinch of the thorn in Margaret-- because she saw the trust imparted to the young corporal, and because she could see so clearly his adoring gaze following Hawkeye's turned back. Time was getting as ripe as the summer sun-- the heat rolled over the 4077th and into the small village.
The woman Hui Ping called Sister Number Three had grown round with the season-- when Margaret was called to the family hut, she was already in labor. Her small, narrow eyes were predatory, watching, and her sound for pain was more like a growl. Margaret was not sure if this tiger meant to protect her children, or to devour them, but she worked with careful skill, feeling the eyes of the Mother and Hui Ping. It was not so much the birth that the Major would remember-- it was relatively quick and very bloody, as such things are-- it passed vague, because it is hard to remember a miracle step-by-step. No, it was the thing after she would remember.
Outside the hut, the evening air was little relief, but Margaret breathed it in never the less, listening to the high hiss of the summer beetles. Her sweat ran like slow rain, down her neck and between her breasts, but she was full of the triumph of life, so different from the quick work of the operating room. This pain was natural, this pain bought forth a tiny, perfect little body. With her med. bag in hand, the nurse trotted down the hill, her steps almost in time with the sound of skipping stones.
Then, she stopped.
For a moment, no language barrier existed-- Margaret understood the shouts of "_koe-mul_!" for what they were; hatred, anger squeezed into syllables. Moving into the main of the village-- which was not so much a village, but a collection of what barely passed as buildings-- she saw the infinitesimal shadows thrown for the flying stones by the moon. She saw also, the familiar lines of Hui Ping, etched in midnight and huddled protectively over the full water jug she'd been sent to fetch.
"_koe-mul_!" the children spat, their shapes and sizes blending together in their mob mentality. "_ak-ma_! _koe-mul_!" The stones arched high in the night, landing like bomb shells on and around Hui Ping, trapped in the fortress of her own body. There was a firm weight in Margaret's hand, the rock sped towards the vicious gathering of bodies and arms like it had wings.
"Hey!" she heard her own voice, firm and commanding, "You leave her alone!" She was at the Korean girl's side, her body like a shield between her enemies. Hui Ping quavered and shivered, as if to draw away from the touch and let the stones take her. "What," she asked to the faceless shadows, "the hell are you *doing*?" Most of the other children had scattered at the sound of an adult voice-- only a few tall forms remained, defiant.
"Get away from the _ak-ma_, bitch." It was a male voice, wielding the American curse like a unfamiliar weapon. "We're gonna get her good!"
"Not while I'm around, you aren't," the nurse knew, was almost sure that the animal ferocity Sister Number Three had possessed was in her now. "Get outa here before I call the MPs!"
And the shadows divided, slipping away.
"I only made mistake," Hui Ping was crying into the water pitcher, "only one time. Was mistake!" With the clay jar in one hand, Margaret drew the young woman up and moved her fingers over her tears, unable to say, to comfort, or to ask.
So she dreams again.
Of the black, snow covered branches outside her window, of feeling every mile between herself and Anita. Of hands-- Donald's, and Frank's and Mother's and Anita's, and Hui Ping's as they clutched the pitcher for dear life. Of stones as they arch against the moon.
There is no word for what she's feeling, no vocabulary, no way to give it form. It sticks inside her, to the back of her throat, until she has to talk around it, or not at all. The difficulty was the context-- here was Margaret's life, what she allowed herself to link in a timeline, but step outside that linear progression and there was something else all together. Fluid, formless, an uncharted ocean. Here is that nurse, way back in training, who's lithe movements were spellbinding. And Bobby Thompson, who she dated not so much for love but for the chance to see his sister, so bright and airy, sitting across from her at the dinner table.
And Frank. Did she love, had she loved, Frank?
Surprisingly, the answer was yes.
He had no hold on her, could not demand or tie down, for just as the shimmering, insubstantial form of Anita lay beside her, the ghost of his Louise was beside him.
She wondered why she'd never noticed how crowded their bed had been.
Just as Frank's knocks had once all been specific, Hui Ping's soft rapping on the tent door was also unique.
"Laundry day," her voice was dry and far away-- the sound of cold leaves on stone. Moving in through the small crack in the door, the girl wraithlike, hands clutched around a brown burlap bag. She kept her eyes down and away, hiding their strange dark stars, but when she reached for the bundle, Margaret ceased the chance to take her hands. They were textured, not soft and not hard, but balanced and warm, those hands. Comfortable. It occurred to the nurse that Hui Ping was like Anita in that she was comfortable in her own skin. For a moment, Margaret simply studied the contrast-- her own slightly tanned skin against the almond tint of orient, and how still the Korean girl's hands were between her own, like patient, held birds.
"Hui Ping," the name seemed to draw the other girl to the moment, "What happened the other night?"
"You were there," she pointed out, voice fostering some impatience, "You saw. They threw stones."
"I know that," Margaret said evenly, "what I want to know is *why*? And who lets them get away with that crap?" Hui Ping's eyes darted up, quick and scandalized, so the nurse said, "Excuse my language." But they were both smiling.
"I made mistake," Hui Ping drew her hands to her breasts, hidden under the uncompromising drape of her _chogori_.
The Major's hands fluttered, landing like butterflies on the other girl's upper arm, "What mistake?"
"People don't throw stones for nothing." And without any movement, Hui Ping seemed to draw inward and away. "Look," said Margaret kindly, matching her tone to her touch, "what they did was wrong, no matter what reason they think they have. No one deserves that."
It was so soft, but the words dropped into the dirt, "I do."
"Absolutely not!" It was seamless-- she simply drew the other girl to her, arms and hands finding places to rest and soothe. "What did you do, Hui Ping?"
The words were muffled against Margaret's chest, soft and mostly Korean, but as she led the other girl to sit down on the bed, she caught what she needed-- "Su-Yoon, in the orchard. I didn't... just a... _ip-mat-chu'-gi_." The nurse simply held and rocked, remembering a rhythm from her baby-dreams, neutral, friendly comfort; Hui Ping stayed close and cried, breaking her tears while the older woman whispered a dozen, two dozen American endearments into the void of ebony hair.
Later, Hui Ping vanished like a heat shimmer, dropping the brown bag and the words, "from family, for birthing". After hours a minute a day in the OR, the nurse sat curled up on her bed, body bent over her small Korean-English dictionary, eyes scanning the words like fire through dry grass. She held the brown bag to her side, biting her lips, imagining the orchard and the movement of the trees, with their leaves turning over in hope for rain. The image was concave, seen through a spyglass; Hui Ping and a featureless other-girl, walking under the blue shade. A pause, a held breath, a moment that Hui Ping was still and would always be paying for.
She began to think about it, how close they had been to danger, like the edge of an unclean razor, laying there and traveling across the endless expanse of Anita's green rug. Panties down around their ankles, uniform skirts hiked up with the textbooks tossed aside in lazy indifference. All it took was for the door to open, for an adult to listen more closely. The walls were hideously see-through.
Just the turn of a door knob.
Ring around the rosy, she remembered Anita singing, tracing a haphazardly painted nail across the pale never-seen-day-light of her friend's breast.
( Pocket full of posies. )
Their kisses were all sloppy, warm and wet.
She wondered if maybe, as she grew, Anita locked away her knowledge of how to travel, and started kissing boys.
We all fall down.
There were persimmons in the brown bag, colored like soft new flesh, full, ripe and heavy. Feeling as though her eyes were open for perhaps the first time, Margaret took them to the mess tent, handing one soft sphere to each officer, and one to O'Reilly as well. She sat with her knees drawn up to her on the bench, she watched Hawkeye and BJ feed each other, hands sticky with sweet juice; she watched and saw-- maybe for the first time-- Radar's averted eyes, Mulcahy's quick glance.
("I do," Hui Ping had said, as if begging the stones to come. I do, I deserve it.
And Anita's voice, "I'll show you how to leave your body." Dark hair spread on the floor, over the map of the world.)
Major Houlihan left quickly for her Post-Op shift, and did not eat at all.
Hui Ping came again before the seventh day, thrusting the door wide open has if there was not enough room for her under the whole of the sky. Surprised, Margaret's tears had no time to hide themselves, though her hands curled around the yellow telegram mercilessly. In the afternoon light, the Korean girl's hair was wild, her breath short and her eyes full of secrets Margaret was sure even Anita had never known.
"Radar told me," Hui Ping's voice was a high reed, still water, "I ran home. Brought you a present."
The nurses' smile was brief, melting like a watercolor, "What did he tell you, Hui Ping."
"He said," Hui Ping bowed, hands held carefully behind her back, "said you got a dee-vorce. He sounded happy-- what is it?"
"I--" Margaret began, unable to get angry, unable to feel anything by a spiraling sense of birth. "It means," she said, "that my husband and I aren't married. He has no power over me." And the telegram went the way of Donald's picture kicked under the bed, as the nurse patted the seat beside her.
The flight of the stones was in Hui Ping's eyes as she asked, "This is good?" And she touched, thoroughly, each tear on the other woman's cheeks.
"Yes," a breath out, "I'm relieved. I thought it was my fault it didn't work out."
"Is not." And Hui Ping put her hand on the Major's cheek. Maybe, like the memory of snow and the moon, that was enough. "I brought you a present," the dark-haired girl repeated, and revealed in her free hand the sweet dollop of what was perhaps the season's last persimmon.
(Out in the orchard, under the persimmon trees.
Hui Ping was made to pay for that moment.)
"I'm free now," Margaret said, recalling a long-ago conversation, held under a chilly spring sky.
Careful, careful-- they were now mirrors of each other, hands on each other's cheeks, thumbs barely touching lips.
(Let the stones fly.)
Together, Margaret and Hui Ping took of sweet, yellow-pink glory.