The young soldier jumps to his feet, snaps to attention.
“At ease, Corporal,” the officer says. “And please, sit down.” A white coat hangs off the officer’s shoulders; it hides her shoulder tabs, leaving visible only the caduceus in her lapel.
The soldier hesitates. The officer leans against the wall; her coat falls off one shoulder, revealing three small stars. The soldier’s eyes widen.
“Begging Comrade Colonel’s pardon,” he says, and sits down. The movement is slow and uncertain, as if his body fights the very thought of sitting while an officer stands.
“Sit,” the officer says, more firmly now. “This is an order.”
“Thank you, Comrade Colonel,” the soldier says, sees a small frown crease the officer’s face, and adds: “I mean, Doctor.”
The officer smiles and nods. A strand of graying hair escapes her knot and falls to her face; she sweeps it back with an impatient gesture.
“Carry on,” she says.
The soldier hesitates again.
“That’s an order, too,” she says and points to the caduceus in her lapel. “A medical order.”
“Thank you, Doctor,” the soldier says. “I only came to visit; I’m not here as a patient.”
“She is,” the doctor says and tilts her head at the hospital bed.
The soldier turns to face the dying woman in the bed, leans toward her, takes her hand, and whispers to her in a language the doctor does not understand.
Lying on the riverbank in a puddle of blood and melting snow, she listens for the sounds of gunfire, the roar of engines, the clatter of tank tracks, anything to say she is not alone. She no longer feels her hands, though she can see her right hand on the trigger of her Tokarev-40, the index finger frozen into a hook. She no longer feels pain where the shell splinter tore into her belly, only cold. Cold comfort, too, in the bodies scattered on the ice beyond the riverbank, eleven black specks against relentless white, eleven fewer Waffen SS, eleven plus two hundred and three already in the killbook makes two hundred and three fewer who could threaten—
Her mind’s eye projects a glimpse of Selim’s face against the night, then all is dark again.
She listens, and hears a friendly sound.
The little dog Ohori is barking.
“Help…” From a throat parched raw through desiccated lips, one of the last small drops of strength drains into the word.
The barking stops, but silence does not return. There is a noise like leaves fluttering in the wind.
No, wait. It’s winter; a white cloak for camouflage in the snow. No grass to hide, no leaves to whisper.
A woman’s whisper, in Russian.
“I don’t know.”
Another voice, a woman, too, or a goddess.
“Please…” Another drop of strength, gone, but now she can see Selim again, him with his great happy crooked smile. She tries to touch it but it is out of reach. Could this be Ogushin, the taker of souls, or the nine-tailed were-fox Kumiho? She can no longer tell what is real and what is not. There is only strength enough to hope:
—Please, little dog Ohori who brings lost loves together—
—The darkness deepens—
—please, angel Oneuli who watches over orphans, please, Sister Sun and Brother Moon—
—please. If only for a moment—
—please let me see my family again—
“Were you close, the two of you?” the doctor asks.
The soldier opens his mouth, closes it again. His eyes grow distant, focus far away.
“Sorry,” the doctor says. “Stupid of me to ask.”
The soldier nods. The doctor takes it as “Yes, we were close,” not “Yes, stupid of you to ask.”
The woman’s breathing is becoming ragged: a burst of rapid gasps, then slow breaths, then rapid again.
“I’m sorry,” the doctor says. “It won’t be long now.”
The soldier reaches into his tunic pocket, brings out a tattered notepad.
The doctor bends forward to look at it. “Her diary?”
“Her killbook,” the soldier answers.
“Ah,” the doctor says. “I see.”
The captain’s name, Kryviy, is Ukrainian.
“Age?” he says.
“Nineteen,” she answers, a pang of guilt for lying.
“Uzbek,” she says. A smaller pang.
“Why do you want to enlist?”
This is a question she does not expect. This question wouldn’t ever be asked of a man. Or a Great Russian.
She rifles through a list of plausible lies, and settles on a partial truth: “I want to be a sniper.”
The captain looks up from his notes. His ice-blue eyes aim at her face. “Sniper?” he says. “Can you see well enough, with those…” He squints in imitation of her features.
She looks out at the sun-baked desert beyond the open window. Some distance away, a truck approaches, raising a plume of dust behind it. She points in its direction.
“Truck number 43-11,” she says, and looks at the captain again.
The captain stands up, approaches the window. He watches the truck approach, squints, this time in concentration, and leans out the window.
“I see the 11,” he says slowly, then, after a pause: “Yes. 43-11.” He returns to his chair, crosses a line off his notes, and writes another. “You’ll do,” he says, and shouts: “Next!”
The woman’s hand tightens, just enough to see the tiny twitch. The soldier puts the killbook in her hand. Another twitch.
The doctor leans against the doorjamb. The wood plank creaks. The soldier looks up.
“It took an hour to pry her from that riverbank,” the soldier says. “Two nurses from the Medical-Sanitary Battalion. In the dark. Under enemy fire.” He shakes his head. “And then they dragged her back to the Division hospital, three kilometers away.” He touches his chest; two of his medals ring together. “No matter what I do, I’ll never be their equal.”
The doctor’s hands are in the pockets of her tunic. Her fingers itch for something – a cigarette, a scalpel – she worries at the knots in the pocket’s seam, rolls specks of lint into a ball. Surgery is easy, she thinks. Listening is hard.
She looks at the kill book. “I’ll remember her name. Heroes should never be forgotten.”
The soldier raises his head, looks straight at her. She sees the hesitation in his eyes, and the crystallization at a decision.
“That’s not her real name,” he says slowly, and looks at the dying woman again.
The doctor does, too. She compares the dying woman’s features with the soldier’s, her trained mind catalogs the differences.
She reaches for the killbook, turns its pages with reverence. Places: Stalingrad, Kursk, Smolensk. Dates: last in December, 1943. Ranks: Scharfuhrer SS, Feldwebel, Hauptmann. And on the last page, a stick figure of a dog, and writing in neither Cyrillic nor Arabic nor Latin. She looks up for a moment, then turns to the soldier sharply.
“Korean?” she says.
The soldier nods.
“Passing for…” she hesitates. “Kazakh?”
“Uzbek,” the soldier says quietly.
“Nineteen thirty-seven?” the doctor asks. Matching the soldier’s tone comes naturally; suppressing the urge to look behind her does not.
The soldier looks up. “Not many people know about that.”
The doctor says nothing.
“My grandfather was selling lamb samsa at a train station,” the soldier says. “A train carrying deportees stopped there one day. It had been traveling from Vladivostok for a month.”
The doctor’s fingers scramble in her pocket. She bites her lip.
“They stopped to bury the dead in the desert. Her mother was one of them. She was thirteen, and an orphan. Grandfather brought her back to our qishlaq. She became one of the family.”
Selim comes out of the recruiting office, a happy grin on his face.
“I did it!” he says. “They are sending me to sniper school. And I have you to thank.”
She draws a breath. “Did you tell them—”
He shakes his head. “I’m not that stupid. Can you imagine? ‘Oh yes, Comrade Captain, a little girl taught me everything I know about hunting.’ They would call a neuropathologist next, to have my head examined.”
“I am not little, Selim,” she says firmly. “I’ll be eighteen come spring, and I’ll enlist, too. I’ll ask to join your unit, and we’ll be together again.”
His face grows somber. “They won’t take you. I’m sorry.”
“What are you talking about?” She puts her hand on her hip. “They take girls!”
“They don’t take Koreans,” he whispers. “They have a list of undesirables, only assigned to labor battalions: Tatars, Volga Germans, Chechens.” He looks down, spurns a clod of dirt with the toe of his boot, then looks at her again. “Koreans, too. I’m sorry.”
She does not answer, except for a glint in her eyes: exactly, he thinks, like a reflection off the barrel of Grandfather’s old Mosin-Nagant .300.
Exactly like the glint she had on the first anniversary of her joining the clan when, returning to the qishlaq with an antelope and two hares in the back of their donkey-drawn arba, she turned to him and said, in too-precise Karakalpak Uzbek:
“When I am old enough, Selim, we will be married.”
The doctor is used to silences; the soldier is not.
“You might not believe this, but she taught me to shoot,” the soldier says.
The doctor says nothing. She reaches for the kill book, turns its pages with reverence.
“What am I saying?” the soldier says. “Of course you believe it, Colonel. Most people—”
“Most people don’t command a military hospital,” the doctor says. “Most people haven’t seen what soldiers are made of.”
“You must have, as a surgeon,” the soldier says.
“That, too,” she whispers.
The train approaches, the smoke from its engine thinning, the chuffing slowing down.
“This makes no sense,” says Uncle Tsoi. “First of all, there is no war now; the Japanese were beaten at Halhin-Gol, and they are not coming back. Secondly, even if they were, why would we help them? We left Korea to get away from the Japanese. And thirdly, why resettle all of us? They could just arrest the richer peasants, like the Pak family.” He sighs. “No, I think it’s a mistake. I think someone misunderstood what Comrade Stalin said, and when that becomes clear the train will turn around and bring us back here. I just hope it won’t be too late for the apple harvest.”
He looks up to find that his niece isn’t looking at him. She is staring at the train in the distance.
“This isn’t polite,” Uncle Tsoi says. “You should pay attention when your elders are talking.”
She nods absent-mindedly.
“Haven’t you ever seen a train before?” Uncle Tsoi says, and follows her gaze.
His face drops. “This isn’t a passenger train,” he whispers. “We are going to travel ten thousand kilometers in cattle cars.”
They wait for the train in silence.
A man approaches, a Great Russian by his appearance.
“Comrade Tsoi?” he calls. “Which of you is Comrade Tsoi?”
Uncle Tsoi stands up straighter. “See,” he says. “Someone realized it’s a mistake.” He turns to the man and raises his hand. “I’m Tsoi,” he says loudly.
“Please come with us,” the man says softly.
Uncle Tsoi turns to her. “Go get your mother.”
“Just you,” the man says.
The train stops. The gates slide open with a clatter.
“All aboard!” a man shouts from the locomotive.
She watches Uncle Tsoi escorted away from the train, past a line of armed soldiers, until she feels her mother tug at her hand.
She turns. There are tears in her mother’s coal-black eyes, rolling down her face that is the palest she had ever seen.
“Come. Have to go,” her mother says. A cough escapes before she can cover her mouth.
They board the train in silence, find a spot to sit. More people come until there is no more room. Then some more. Then more.
Then, finally, there is a whistle, the gates clang shut, and the train departs.
“My brother,” her mother whispers.
She leans closer to her mother. They are both too old to believe in Little Dog Ohori; but she decides she’ll never be too old to hope.
“Do you see your target?” Uncle Tsoi says.
Her head tilted over the stock of Uncle Tsoi’s Berdan rifle, she gives a tiny nod.
“What are you aiming at?” Uncle Tsoi asks.
“The big pine cone,” she says.
“That is wrong,” says Uncle Tsoi. “Pick a scale. One scale on the whole pine cone. Aim at that. Have you got that?”
She nods again.
“Now, breathe in, then out, and on the out, close your whole hand on the trigger.”
She presses on the trigger, flinching just a bit before the rifle bucks and the shot explodes. The pine cone dances but does not fall.
“Two more things,” says Uncle Tsoi. “First, squeeze the trigger slowly enough that the shot comes as a surprise to you. Understand?”
She nods. “And the second?” she says.
“Connect with your target,” says Uncle Tsoi. “Some people imagine reaching out and touching it; some talk to the target in their minds. Some apologize in advance for hitting it. You have to care, in some way, about the target, to shoot true.”
She aims again, breathes in and out, imagines the little dog Ohori running to the pine tree, leaping to sniff the pine cone, leave a wet print of its nose on one particular scale.
The shot rings out, startling her. The pine cone disintegrates into a cloud of chaff.
“She talked about her uncle so much, I felt like I knew him,” the soldier says. “Sometimes I could almost hear his voice come out of her mouth. ‘When Brother Moon and Sister Sun lived together on Mount Baekdu, they had a little dog named Ohori who loved them both. And when the supreme god Cheonjiwang sent each of them to a different part of the sky, Ohori ran from one to the other until he brought them together, but when they met, they shone light only on each other, leaving the Earth in pitch darkness, so Queen Baji petitioned Cheonjiwang to allow them only one meeting a month. So each new Moon, Ohori is free to roam the Earth, and when you hear barking on a moonless night it just might be Ohori searching for you, to bring you back to someone you miss very much.’”
The soldier’s voice wavers on the last words. The doctor reaches to touch the soldier’s shoulder. Her hand trembles an inch above his shoulder board, then pulls back to wipe her tears. She blinks, and hopes her eyes have time to dry before he sees them.
Colonels don’t cry. Not with a corporal present.
Is it a starshell, or dawn already? It is light: light enough to see green grass, birch trees in leaf – it can’t be spring – or does it matter? The rhythmic footfalls she hears – pulsing blood, or boots measuring time? And – faces, smiling faces she never thought she’d see again, and voices she never hoped to hear cry, once more, just one more time:
“Hurrah! Hurrah! Hurrah!”
And, nipping at their feet, the little dog Ohori, his barking mixing with laughter and with the shouts of welcome.
The hand gives one more twitch; the chest rises, falls, never to rise again. The soldier frees his hand from the lifeless grasp, smooths the dead woman’s hair, stands up, face to face with the doctor.
“Thank you,” he says.
“For what?” the doctor says.
“We got to see each other, she and I,” the soldier says.
“It’s worth so much to you?” the doctor says.
“To me?” the soldier raises his eyebrows. “It does not matter what it’s worth to me. It’s what she wanted. She was worth a million of me, you know.” He pats his pockets, takes out his cap, places on his head, draws to attention and salutes. “Goodbye…” he begins, but then his voice gives out.
The doctor reaches for a carafe on a bedside table, looks for a glass, finds none, and hands the carafe to the soldier.
“Here. Drink from that. Go ahead, drink.”
The soldier brings the carafe to his mouth, takes a long swallow.
“Thank you,” he says. “And thank you for bringing her here. I know you bent the rules—”
“We take care of our own,” the doctor interrupts. “Which includes you. Go get some sleep. Stop by my office in the morning, I’ll have my clerk process a leave extension.”
The soldier shakes his head. He steps past the doctor through the door, takes another step in the corridor, stops, turns around, and faces the dead woman again.
“Goodbye, Grandmother,” he says. “Give my regards to Grandpa Selim. And to all of your old comrades.” He takes a breath. “And a few of mine.”
He turns to the doctor. “Please, Comrade Colonel, don’t order me to stay. We, too, take care of our own. My unit is short a man till I come back, and – ” he checks his watch “ – an Antonov-24 is scheduled to lift off for Kabul in an hour.” He draws to attention and salutes again. “I beg the Colonel’s permission to be dismissed,” he says, in crisp militarese.
“Granted,” the doctor says, and watches him march away. It isn’t lost on her that his cadence is the same as for the change-of-watch before the Monument to the Unknown Soldier.
The doctor waits until she hears his footfalls no more before she covers the dead woman’s face.