I am writing this a week since my trip had been concluded. It may not be too dramatic or cliche of me if I were to insist that this very trip changed my perception of many things. And here, I document—lest I forget and revert again, to my once pitiful self—its details and the wonderful people I have met.
It was 1952, seven years after the war and seven years since her duty had ended. Yet, memories of the bombings, the wounded, the death, remained. It is almost scary how the human brain function; one can easily fail to recall one's lunch just two days ago, but never an event that shaped or reshaped one's life. For Yoohyeon, that would be the war; the great war as they call it.
But I must express my reservations about such a view for I found it hard to use the word 'great' to describe such an event.
It seems; however, I did not want to forget.
As if she would no longer be her—no longer be anything for that matter—suppose she does forget. Yoohyeon served in the air force for a little over two years, barely enough time to call it 'her whole life'. So then why did she feel so empty?
I was like an empty glass jar that could no longer hold any water—simply because it was already broken—but did not know why.
Yoohyeon looked around. The English landscape had indeed changed drastically over the years; funny how seven years seemed to be a long time for everyone; everyone but herself. It was a chilly night when she had awoken to loud incessant screams and constant shaking of the ground, that she had decided to embark on the journey. When her eyes had darted open, Yoohyeon found herself in the comfort of her bed physically, but her mind had wandered, yet again. Back to the memories, back to the tragedies.
This cannot and shan't go on, I told myself. It was in that moment that I decided on a drive through the countryside.
“Perhaps a trip is the solution.”
Why a trip? I do not know.
Perhaps seeing the ever-changing British countryside will force herself to accept that time has moved on, albeit without her. One has to realise the passing of the seasons in order to make sense the passage of time. One must will oneself to keep up—for time awaits none—to avoid being left behind.
Her first instinct upon stepping out was to visit a dear friend. It is truly a blessing for Yoohyeon to have retained a friend after the war, whom she is able to describe their relationship as 'close’. Coping hasn't been easy and having someone by her side hasn't helped much either, but it is nonetheless comforting to know that someone actually cared.
The reality of war brought people involved in it closer; we forged bonds and became family when things were tough, but those friendships are fleeting and always seemed to end in abandonment.
Yoohyeon did not make an effort to keep in contact. This friend of hers is the only exception. That is because they had joined the air force as friends, but had returned as comrades. As a fellow pilot during the war, her friend had moved on—from the memories, from the cries, from that time—to live a somewhat fulfilling life.
It was disappointing, to say the least, that I was not successful in eradicating the pain in comparison.
And she knew.
Her comrade knew all about Yoohyeon’s envy for her; she knew about the dreams, nightmares; the pain of seeing the breath of comrades slowing down until there was none; the helplessness that came next knowing that there's nothing you could have done; the dreading fear of not seeing the next sunrise.
Yoohyeon continued her drive down an uneven lane with much difficulty, suppressing every urge to curse out loud. She had decided to abandon her terrible habit of spitting vulgarities whenever she is annoyed or in danger the moment the war had ended. It was part of her grand plan—to toss aside any habits she had picked up from her begrudging two years of service. This may very well be the reason she no longer reaches for black coffee, now seemingly enjoying a humble cup of hot chocolate more. She stopped writing letters to her family, though that did not stop them from writing back, for which Yoohyeon is eternally grateful for.
I had written far too many letters during the war, to the point where even picking up a pen proved too much of a burden.
She stopped looking forward to the sunrise too, for that was the first thing she would always see when she had awaken and emerged from her bunk.
But ironically, back then, all prayed for the sunrise to be the first thing they saw every day, and maybe even the only thing they will see for the rest of the day.
Directing focus away from the road, Yoohyeon came to realise for the first time, a sunrise so beautiful it should’ve been hard to miss. Its light pierced through the tinted glass window of Yoohyeon’s car, as if its very presence was haunting her own. She had left home a little before half past five that morning, hoping to gain a few more hours for the trip.
It has been long since I had woken up that early—seven years to be exact.
She shuddered. So much for abandoning old habits. As she took in the landscape that grew brighter each passing minute, she arrived at my destination. It is a small establishment, standing next to massive plots of land. The harvest season was about to arrive. Yoohyeon glanced at my pocket watch, six-ten. Surely, she would have awoken by now?
“Yubin!” She gingerly called out, in fear that she might have shown up too early in the morning as a disturbance to her friend’s slumber. Rustling was heard to the left as Yoohyeon stood politely at the door. As much as they are close friends, a part of her still sadly have clung onto the ritualistic—and to a certain degree, rigid—morning greetings from when they were pilots. 'Good morning, sir!' She remembers calling out with an absolutely straightened back and tips of her fingers slightly touching the corners of her eyebrows.
“Yoohyeonie!” She turned, and was greeted by a warm pair of arms around her shoulders, and a tight light-hearted squeeze. “You are early today,” she continued. Eyeing Yoohyeon’s fancier than usual outfit and the luggage she had lodged in the backseat of the car, Yubin raised an eyebrow.
“I'm going on a trip,” she paused when sudden realisation washed over her: stating the purpose of the trip would inevitably mean admitting to her current ‘condition’, and Yoohyeon had not been as ready as she thought she was. “To...” she struggled.
Indeed, it was not easy for me to accept my fervent reluctance to put the past behind, as if it was some kind of disease. It may conceivably be due to Yubin's swift adaptation to the new life after the war, that I see my failure to follow suit nothing less of an embarrassment.
She stared hard at the ground.
“You are playing with your fingers, Yoohyeon-ah.”
“Pardon?” She did not look up.
“You always do that when you are nervous.” Yubin took Yoohyeon’s hands in hers, rubbing circles with her thumb gently. So gentle, as if the hand would have broken otherwise. “Go,” a bittersweet smile graced her lips, “go and enjoy this little trip of yours. Perhaps, you will even find something so special it can change your life. And hopefully, for the better.”
Yoohyeon followed Yubin as she led her via the hands towards the car parked just outside her apartment. The scenery had changed yet again. It was bright. Very bright. Too bright. So bright and so different from the dim world that Yoohyeon was unfortunately used to. A pat on the back and another tight hug later saw the pilot spitting out feelings for the first time since forever—since time has stood still for her.
Feelings I had buried in the deep trench I had dug, hoping naively that I will feel better. It is during times like these that one actively realises one's limit at suppressing one's emotions.
“Surely, this didn't go as I have expected,” she chuckled. “I was hoping for a more... joyful conversation. I have come, hoping to bring reassurance but instead became the receiver of such reassurance.” She struggled for words once more. “I think it had been a rather rash decision to visit so early in the morning. But you see, I had thought of your place first, the moment this trip was decided upon. I apologise. For now, and... for the many other moments as well. I am regretful that I was not able to express myself the way I had wanted to. I... I had wished that you will be proud of my decision, but now...”
For the third time today, silence.
“Have a safe trip, Yooh.” Yubin’s voice was clear. She gestured as she held open the car door.
Yoohyeon stepped reluctantly back into her car, witnessing the door closing shut at the mercy of her former ‘colleague’. Hesitantly, she turned the car key clockwise. The engine roared to life, its sound piercing through the tranquil air, and for the first time in that hour or so, a sound other than their voices was audible. The car inched forward.
“Yooh, I'll always be here. Whenever you need me.”
She looked over to where Yubin was standing.
Under the blinding sunlight, she looked so small. Yet, in my life, there is no one with a presence bigger than Lee Yubin.
Yoohyeon nodded. She knows, always. Always knew; how much Yubin meant to her and how much she meant to Yubin. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Yoohyeon would have lost herself completely without her friend.
“I'm proud, you know. Always did. And that will never change.”
When words so precious are spoken aloud, one wonders yet again, what one has done to deserve somebody this special in one's life.
With these words in mind, she started her trip down the quiet English countryside and probably, also down the road of tragic memories she holds so near her heart.
The air was still, quiet and moist. Yoohyeon breathed lightly, tracking up the steep and narrow slope that led to the top of a hill one would never have noticed if one was not paying much attention. She gasped desperately for air. Apparently, seven years of moping around had taken a toll on the pilot’s body rather harshly. She made a mental note to start running daily the moment the trip was finished. She had made her way up the hill on nothing more of a wimp. But the charming English terrain that greeted Yoohyeon had proved her decision correct.
Little can be said about Great Britain and its countryside scenery—it is bland and to a certain degree, featureless, where the emerald green grassland ran on and on as if boundaries are non-existent. But surely no one should be allowed to describe it as anything less than majestic; though one may only be able to realise its beauty upon staring at it for some time. Its beauty is subtle, but nonetheless shines through at times when needed the most.
It was comforting to be able to witness such a sight then—large patch of meadows glistening in the foreground as dew clung onto the grass, accompanied by the pale blue sky in the background which lit up as the sun inched further upwards into the clouds.
Much of my trip had been dominated by moments like this. Moments where I strongly felt a wave of relief rush over me; relieved that I am still very much alive to be able to witness such a scene.
One then starts acknowledging how precious one’s life is, as well as how transient it can be.
Yoohyeon took a look at her pocket watch—seven minutes to eight, it had read. The perfect time to stop over some place for breakfast. She descended the hill slowly, mindful not to trip over loose rocks and slip on the moist soil. The pilot can be clumsy at times when it is most uncalled for. She let out a pent-up sigh upon re-entering her vehicle. Surely nothing beats the security one feels when in an enclosed and familiar place. Remembering the one little cafe she happened to chance upon when consulting a book titled: ‘Travelling across Great Britain: Top 50 places to visit’, it was settled as her next destination. The cafe as described was of a cosy atmosphere, to which she was sure the cafe owner hoped would bring peace to whomever visits.
Seeing that I will be able to thoroughly enjoy a nice breakfast due to the rather fond reviews given by the author, and the fact that it was a mere ten minutes’ drive from where I was, the cafe seemed to be the most sensible choice.
Said cafe was not difficult to find. The small building took the appearance of a cottage. Its walls, made of elegant wooden boards, were painted a faint off-white. A sign, ‘Welcome!' hung on the front door, which was also made of wood.
Do forgive my lack of adjectives to describe this humble establishment. I fear the above description fails miserably in reproducing an accurate image of the cafe, which I had in fact found to be quite elegant.
Yoohyeon found a seat next to the window and made herself comfortable; she had foreseen herself spending quite some time in there. Surprisingly, the cafe was relatively empty, with only four patrons including Yoohyeon herself. People in that town certainly are not early risers.
“Good morning! May I have your order, Miss?” A courteous bow followed. She turned and eyed the waitress standing beside the table. She was petit; her long pink hair complements her face with excellence, similar to how her smile complements the kind image she exuded.
Yoohyeon smiled politely. “One hot chocolate please.” She pondered again before continuing, “what would you recommend shall I decide to have a light breakfast?”
“Ah, yes! In that case, our speciality breakfast platter may be to your taste. Of course, if you so prefer a sweeter alternative, our pancakes are excellent too. Oh, but would that be too filling? It would no longer be a ‘light’ breakfast, would it? How about some toast with eggs and melted cheese?” She blinked. Once, twice.
“Oh dear, I have been rambling again, haven’t I?” She said after she took a deep breath. “I’m so sorry!” She quickly apologised moments later.
“Oh no, it was quite a pleasant recommendation. I’ll settle for the breakfast platter then, Miss… Gahyeon?” I read off her name tag.
There was a slight accent in her speech, and I had wondered if she may have been from someplace else. The nametag had confirmed my suspicions—it was a pleasant surprise that we shared a homeland.
I must say, she had given me quite the first impression, for people who have the courage to move to a foreign country so full of unfamiliarity, are but those who should be regarded with utmost respect and admiration.
“Of course, right away. A hot chocolate and a breakfast platter.” The hurried reply was accompanied by a swift motion into the kitchen, Yoohyeon’s order in hand.
The pilot chuckled lightly. A cute waitress indeed. It would appear that with every passing minute, the decision to embark on a trip was more and more justified. Miss Gahyeon, Yoohyeon was sure, is someone who brings joy to those around her merely with her presence; by no means did she meant any harm, of course.
“Please enjoy!” Gahyeon returned, placing the order down in a neat arrangement for which Yoohyeon found most pleasing.
“Thank you,” she flashed a sincere smile.
Gahyeon nodded slightly, cheeks flushing a light shade of red most likely in embarrassment from the little incident before. The hot chocolate was a little too sweet for Yoohyeon’s liking, but it was a pleasant twist to her otherwise standard routine. Perhaps it was not so bad to change things up a little from time to time.
As time passes, people age and things change. We are only allowed two choices when faced with such a situation: to accept and change alongside them; or if we are unable to accept such a scenario, we have but to choose to abandon.
It shall never be in our power to criticize changes or those who have embraced it as that would only be lamenting about the inevitable.
Glancing up, the pilot realised that the waitress was still present and was standing awkwardly by her table. She noticed the confusion and started speaking.
“Are you here for sightseeing? Miss...”
“Miss Yoohyeon. You see, usually, the people who come by so early in the morning are the usual customers whom I’m very much familiar with.” Another dimpled smile was presented.
“Well, yes. I’m currently embarking on a trip, to...” she trailed off. Engaging in a conversation about her past with a stranger was not something she was particularly comfortable with. The fact that she wasn’t able to explain the purpose of going on a trip to Yubin earlier that day had made her even more reluctant to open up. “Find myself,” she finished, having finally settled on an explanation vague enough.
“Ah...you seemed to be a little troubled. Were you perhaps involved, in some way, in the war?” Yoohyeon could sense nervousness in her tone.
The pilot remained silent.
It was a moment of pure shock. I was sure I had revealed no hints whatsoever about my past; I had been very careful in ensuring this.
The pity and overly cautious remarks people tend to fall back on, whenever it was revealed that she was a pilot in the war was suffocating. She does appreciate the goodwill some show in trying to be mindful of their words, but often times they reopen memories rather than shut them down.
“Please do forgive me for my bluntness. I meant no harm. It’s just, I have a friend who was in a similar situation as you. You reminded me a little of her back then.” Certainly, she must have realised her customer’s discomfort, for there was a long silence. Yoohyeon looked at the waitress intensely. There is a certain glow in her eyes that reflected great depth of kindness. It reminded her of Yubin’s.
Their eyes have the same unmistakable glow; the same depth of kindness.
An encouraging smile.
“Yes,” I admitted. “I was a war pilot, mainly helping with relocating planes for battles in the Asia Pacific. The war indeed took a toll on me. Mentally especially.” I added moments later, “thank you. I really do appreciate your kind concern. But as you can tell I’m a little reluctant...”
“I understand. It must have been tough. Took quite some time before my friend was able to stop having nightmares, about those awful days and painful things she saw. You are very brave Miss Yoohyeon. I could never foresee myself going into the battlefield and risk losing my life like that.”
“Brave? Well, that’s a first. None has used the word ‘brave’ to describe my joining the air force as a woman before. I would imagine your friend to be very brave as well,” Yoohyeon smiled lightly.
A laugh was returned. “Well, yes! She’s quite the woman. Brave, determined and strong-willed.” She replied fondly, the clear in her eyes gone, replaced with a cloud of affection.
Silence ensued. Neither was it suffocating nor painstakingly unbearable. The silence was good; peaceful. This little encounter brought to light a delicate situation regarding Yoohyeon’s past. It is interesting how one may sometimes only see deep within oneself in the company of people whom one does not know well. It was this moment that allowed her to realise how much she hated the war.
Because I feared the memories, I was reserved in recalling any instances of it. It was like a part of me that I did not want, but could not throw away.
Yet, Yoohyeon had volunteered readily when they engaged women and gave them a place in the war. She had wanted to fight; for the nation, for the people, and for herself.
Perhaps I had wanted to prove that even women can contribute their part in a place so dominated by men.
Perhaps I had wanted to ease the burden on many of my friends who were called to war and served unwilling.
But at that moment, the reason did not matter. For regret deeply plagued her. She was sure then she had made the wrong decision.
“If I had stayed home and patiently awaited the end of the war, how would my life have turned out? The war gave me plenty, yes, but then took away much more. I saw planes crashing, comrades dying, cities burning, children crying, and families separated.”
Gahyeon redirected her gaze away from a nearby window. Yoohyeon continued before she had the chance to speak, “I couldn’t do anything. I watched, but couldn’t do anything. I had naively thought helping the war effort is to fight for our people, fight for those that couldn’t.” She paused. “No. I was wrong, never more so. I was but destroying a peace the powerful righteously claimed the war was fought for. The reason for war is never righteous; never for the sake of anyone, no. The great war happened because of choices made by a people whom we never saw.”
She bit back her words.
It was, I admit, quite insensitive and rather rude of me to have had taken my anger and despair on the innocent waitress. Needless to say, I was dominated by deep felt regret after having recovered from my little outburst.
But make no mistake, I had indeed meant every word I said that morning.
Though I have now abandoned that viewpoint altogether, it is, however, worthy to note that at that time I was lost and had not fully recovered upon experiencing great loss.
Yoohyeon stared hard at the wooden table top before her as she contemplated the decision to raise her head and return the waitress’ gaze for which she was sure would be of abhorrence. It is a pity that two years with the war effort had graced the pilot with such little courage, barely enough to even lift her head.
I realised then, how much I had believed in what I had said and how much it was wrong for me to have said what I did.
It is usually the most distasteful truth that one regrets saying, despite one’s strong belief in one's views.
“You may not have achieved what you had hoped you would, after joining the war, but in my opinion, everything happens for a reason. You may have saved more people than you could ever imagine. To you, your choice may have been wrong, but how do we determine the right from wrong? We can’t. Because there are few absolutes in this world. It is through uncertainties that humans have evolved, but sadly it is also through uncertainties that we fall into despair. Don’t blame yourself for being powerless. Blaming yourself changes nothing; it doesn’t bring back the dead, not does it reverse time. Have the courage to move on instead. Have the courage to be weak.”
Being weak? Was that all that I am capable of in this moment?
I recalled feeling quite inadequate, for I was ashamed of myself and of the lack of the courage that Miss Gahyeon had spoken about.
Being so caught up with her own emotions, she couldn’t craft out a suitable response. Perhaps Yoohyeon knew what Gahyeon said had some truth to it, or perhaps she knew she should not have harboured such dark views towards her experience with the war effort.
I may have even regretted slightly for visiting said cafe then. Yet it was an essential factor which led to my meeting with whom I’m sure can be described as the person who changed my life.
She was not particularly amused by Gahyeon’s reply nonetheless. Truth or not, no one wishes to be put in a situation where one must but admit being wrong. The long silence that followed was, as one would expect, no longer comforting like the one she had experienced with Yubin. Awkwardness lingered. It clung fervently to the air around them. Tense and unbearable.
“Please do excuse my bluntness. If my words have done you harm, then I apologise. It was never my intention to make you feel uncomfortable.” Gahyeon’s voice managed to cut through the sufferable atmosphere.
Yoohyeon met her gaze once more. To say she was taken aback might have been an understatement. Her eyes were clear and her gaze strong; yet still retaining a peculiar softness. Hers reminded Yoohyeon of Yubin’s again. It’s frightening to think that there are people in this world who can extrude similar auras but look nothing alike. The sincerity in her eyes was real and it was comforting.
I have met countless who showered me with praise and admiration—and pity—after learning of my contributions that ‘freed the world of an evil’. But none had reflected this depth of sincerity.
Yoohyeon remembered little more from that morning.
Do forgive me, for I have forgone many details of this particular morning as nothing was worth mentioning more than this banter with Miss Gahyeon.
She left shortly after, leaving a note that read something along the lines of: ‘You praised me for my courage to join the war effort, but I thank you for your courage to face my pitiful self with palpable genuinity.’
It was already noon when she had stepped out of the cafe. The sun was at its highest, and again she felt its shine piercing through her skin; mocking her. She had decided to head south, to admire some of Great Britain’s finest scenery.
“Miss Yoohyeon!” she turned and lowered the car window. “If you are still deciding on your next destination, then I would suggest going north. Perhaps the scenes and people that you may meet along the way will help you come to terms with yourself. Take care, Miss Yoohyeon.” The waitress recommended through the cafe back door.
She brought my head down for a stiff nod and continued her drive down a path on the left—heading north instead.
Death. A truly solemn word. It signifies both the end of an existence that have left the world behind and the beginning of a grief for those who have been left behind. Every being come face to face with it at some point in their lives, but how many have truly accepted this undeniable, would be encounter? Many fear it, some detest it, but none escapes it. Who would have thought mortality to be our greatest weakness? Many yearn for an existence that is beautiful, yet berate the human life that is full of suffering; but isn’t it a life of hardship that grants one a life full of beauty?
Yoohyeon first started right into death’s eyes—no, more like crumbled under its gaze—on 14 September 1944, just two weeks after enlisting. She had thought that she was prepared, but preparation was not what she needed. It was simply not enough to be prepared. Time was, in a way, more helpful since pain numbs to a degree that is parallel to the length of time.
“You will get used to it.” She remembered someone telling her. An attempt to comfort escaped as a mere whisper, far from comforting and resembling more like a plea. To himself; “Please get used to it.” A question, with no answer; “Will we ever get used to it?”
Deep down, we knew. I knew.
No, we will never get used to it. Used to death.
Soldiers laid everywhere in those makeshift tents. The ones clinging onto their lives, the ones screaming their lungs out, the ones crying out for their loved ones, the ones whose breath starts fading away.
The ones who stopped moving.
Yoohyeon stood in the middle of the quiet chaos, nurses and doctors scrambled around to aid as many soldiers as possible while other soldiers—those that could still move—prepared for another battle ahead. She was dutied to fly, together with another pilot, to a marked location to pick up supplies and transporting them to a battlefield some distance up north. Her job is critical to the survival of those soldiers risking their lives, they said. It is dangerous but nonetheless essential, they told her.
It was the pilot’s first mission.
When I first learned to fly, I had imagined my skills be used in a dramatically different environment. I had dreamt of flying to relieve myself and to gaze down upon civilisations to feel that sense of superiority; that I am bigger than anyone walking on the ground beneath me.
But reality is often never what one would expect it to be; it is much crueller. Reality is like a con man dressed in a gentleman’s suit, showering you with pretty lies that you think—or want to think—are truths, only to realise nothing that perfect can be true. She witnessed civilisations that have ceased, destroyed by flash bombs and bullets. As they flew past towns that had been torn by warfare, Yoohyeon felt incredibly sick.
There was nothing for me to feel superiority towards as I looked down. They were all dead. At the same time, I felt a sense of relief that I am alive.
As they approached their destination, signs of life began to grow beneath. Then, she felt another wave of relief; she felt safe up there, in a steel enclosure that is surely more trustworthy than flesh.
It seems war made people enjoy wrapping themselves in metal 'cages'; a form of confinement she supposed. In face of something that could kill, sturdy metal 'cages' became sanctuary.
Gone was freedom.
Mission one was a success. Supplies were loaded and sent over, no casualties and no loss of lives. Subsequent missions too, were smooth. This continued for months and Yoohyeon had already enlisted for close to half a year. Mission thirty-one. A crash landing due to engine failure, but nonetheless successful. No casualties again. She was alive. Still, but barely. One physical injury to the leg, and light trauma to the skull. Breathing; yet she was dead.
‘You will get used to it’—it turned out to be true. I got used to it.
To the pain that is, not the deaths.
Another plane was shot down, the fourth that week. The pilot was a fellow comrade whom she had met while she was still in the first week of training. Yoohyeon heard the plane crash, and then heard nothing.
“Report status, over.”
“Target secured, commencing landing. Over.”
“Missile incoming! I repeat, missile inco-“
The deafening explosion of the engine was followed closely by silence and the continuous buzz of static.
When death becomes a constant in one’s life, it is logical for one to start treasuring every moment and every connection with another being. That was not the case for Yoohyeon, having failed to discover anything worth treasuring, she feared for her life. And she started to fear for her comrades’ lives as well, while they too probably feared for hers. Death looms and devour as it lingers and haunts, to a point where one could almost taste it and feel nauseated. Shutting out memories of the past was perhaps the best way for Yoohyeon to cope; but that did not mean she had withstood the ravages of time.
I dare say, time passes devilishly slow for those who had experienced trauma. Time, in a sense, is not kind.
So then again why am I forced to confront this part of me whom I had grown so painstakingly to hate?
She stepped out of the car and stared. Time, then, stood still a second time. She eyed the words that seemed to have been engraved into the structure.
It read: Air Forces Memorial.
Perhaps fate was playing with her. Perhaps it found her intriguing to say the least. She danced on its palms, escape not a choice as its fist clenched tight whenever she did try to do so. And she was foolish, enough to think that escape was ever a possibility. Unlike destiny which danced closely with circumstance, fate has to do with luck; seemingly it was luck that Yoohyeon had plenty.
She threaded cautiously; each step definitely heavier than the last. Entering the established monument would be to pry open a part of her she detested, that part of her. This she was sure.
Air Forces Memorial. Unveiled in 1953, a mere year ago. It looked new and perfect almost, which was laughable and nothing short of a mockery.
It seems, my comrades saw flawlessness not until the end of the war; the very war fought for the betterment of lives. Now lying there in said place, they appear to have achieved, of some sort, peace.
And pitiable, me.
She acted the role of a speck of pollution in the middle of fake purity; a wrinkle in smooth running silk. She scanned the memorial as she walked. Every corner of it must be ingrained into memory, not a piece was tolerated to be forgotten. For long, Yoohyeon’s presence was the only stature inside the vast infrastructure. But that did not last.
A name. Her name. The name of that self—some sort of pseudonym that she used to detach herself from the being who was a war pilot. To claim that she could have recognised that voice anywhere would be an overstatement, certainly. But Yoohyeon put a name to it without turning her gaze.
“Handong,” she muttered before turning around.
She was a comrade as well, but not a pilot. She was a spy, and an excellent one.
Our chanced meeting happened at headquarters, where we were both to be assigned out next mission. I suppose we somehow found solace in each other's presence, for we kept in contact throughout my service.
It is rare to discern that somebody shall remain in one's life from the very first meeting, especially in the circumstance they had made acquaintance of—Yubin being a striking exception, of course. Handong was, in a way, different. No matter the aura she exuded, the way she conducted herself, or her innocent personality, Handong was out of place. She simply did not belong. Not there.
I had always thought she was too naive, too transparent to be a spy. How would someone like her survive in a world where deception becomes the bargaining chip for its players?
But, Handong was anything but naive.
In fact, she was full of surprises.
The innocent exterior masks a special identity. A monster. The monster was neither intimidating nor harmful, but it holds much power—deceit and keen observation. Their first meeting was particularly memorable for the woman had guessed Yoohyeon’s thoughts almost immediately with frightening accuracy.
‘Don't worry, I'll be able to survive out there. I'm more than how I look’—I seemed to have, then, underestimated her abilities.
After knowing her for some time, Yoohyeon finally realised the reason behind the stifling feeling she always feel whenever they were together. They may have been at ease in each other's company, but her presence brought more than just that for the pilot. It was comforting being around Handong, but it was also, Yoohyeon realised, something more—fear—as she could always see through everything.
It was scary. It felt like I was laying bare under her gaze, waiting patiently for my demise.
At the same time, it felt right to be lying there, for she knows without a need for spoken words, and that was solace itself.
“Thinking about us?” Her words shot through, revealing Yoohyeon deepest thoughts. That was new no longer. “You...don't seem to be doing so well, my friend,” it came out as nothing more than a whisper. Truth have always been difficult to be spoken aloud. Even Yoohyeon herself had struggled.
She did not reply. There was no need to do so. Handong was right and she knew she was right.
“Walk with me for a bit?” She tried again, but Yoohyeon did not bite. “I just want to catch up. We stopped talking and you disappeared right after all of... that.”
“Why are you here?” Yoohyeon decided to take the bait.
Handong trudged down the row of endless metal plates that engraved the names of soldiers who have perished in the war. Some were gone while others simply missing, though most acquainted would have already assumed the worst.
I mean, what is there to gain holding on to a hope that one knows is nothing but an illusion? Hope cannot materialise without a reason; and there was little reason, if at all, to believe that these missing loved ones would ever return.
“I had thought you died,” Handong side eyed the pilot. “It is common to assume the worst... but I realised you had a much tougher life than you would wish to admit. I'm sure you know it too.”
Yes. Yoohyeon have so realised. Her existence just would not seem to dissipate, even when she had prayed dearly for it. There had been no fatal accidents while flying, no close encounters with enemy planes, no ambush attacks after landing. Nothing. But had she hoped for something to happen? Indeed.
It would seem only right for me to perish along with the rest who had gone before me, in a way familiar to us all—in duty.
As one sees life flickering and flickering until they were no more, one seems to regard one's life with less weight. Unlike the loss of dear ones to old age or illness, death by war sucks the life out of everyone with any association, no matter how fickle.
In war, life may just become meaningless.
“I'm not doing well Handong,” these words escaped before she was able to put any restraint on them. It was surprising obviously, for if she had lacked the ability to admit such a situation before Yubin, it would be of utmost impossibility she could do so with any other being.
Handong may not have been as close as Yubin with my, yet, under her gaze—one that is able to see through even the thickest fog and darkest shadows—even I could not but crumble.
“I needed the most amount of space as possible. But despite all, I still felt like I was suffocating. Have you ever felt this way, Handong?” A question with many implications. A hint, so subtle yet still ever present, detailing that the spy would never be able to understand her despite going through similar experiences. A dirty and misplaced jealousy of someone who came out of the war unscarred.
What have I been reduced to, I wonder?
Handong blinked, most likely confused by the pilot’s sudden hostility. Frowning, she turned slightly, staring hard at the ground. Perhaps this was a way for her to express her deep felt displeasure, or perhaps this was all only an act. One so in tuned with whatever she had ever stood for—disguise.
I had remembered a sudden clenching on my heart, but as quickly as it had come, it was gone. It was as though I had felt pain; guilty, for talking to a friend that way.
Reality was, I did not.
“I met someone.” She heard Handong speak. A timid sound; shy almost. “She is the reason I decided to live.”
She sent Yoohyeon a glance, “being a spy was...not easy, let's just put it that way. Being in constant scrutiny that can instantly get you killed with one wrong move? Surely not the best experience one can have.”
“So why? Why did you do it?”
“Most likely the same as you. To help people and save our nation? Unlike you, I can't fly a plane, but I can act. And I'm pretty good at it.” She shuffled a little and Yoohyeon knew she was nervous. She could understand Handong to at least that degree.
But again, it could all have been an act and no one would know. Accept herself.
“I wanted to take my own life. To disappear. And it should have been easy. As a spy, there's something that we call quick change. You change out of an entire outfit that matches the enemy's description into something totally different, to release yourself from suspicion. But life is not like that, is it?”
Yes, it certainly was not.
“Life is way crueller. Changing your appearance cannot free you from your experiences, and it most certainly cannot free you from the nightmare of living.”
“To really free yourself from it, is to cease to exist?” Yoohyeon mumbled; the revelations of what she is trying to tell her.
“No, Yoohyeon. That is just passing your grief to another person—a someone who would mourn you after death. You are freeing yourself, but in exchange, you have to sacrifice someone to take your place. That is just selfish.”
So what, Handong-ah? To live on with a pain and emptiness that mirrors death? To walk on earth among humans as a zombie?
“She taught me that, you know? The beauty of living. The fact that it is possible for one to carry burdens yet see life as beautiful. Because it is, Yoohyeon-ah. The war showed me how dark human nature truly is. At the same time, I also learnt how pure humans can be. You are a living testament to that. The world is imperfect and therefore, perfect.”
Me? I am pure? Beautiful? This damned world?
It almost sounded like a dark and humourless joke.
Almost. There is some truth in Handong’s words. Only one who is sufficiently pure can be corrupted. Only the purest can be soiled—at least to the observer. Black on white is all too obvious, while black on black is never revealed. Only an imperfect object can reflect perfection. For only it knows what true perfection looks like.
“Handong, for what reason do you live?”
“For her—I breathe to hear her breathe, awake to see her smile.” She paused, then smiled. “And for me—I live to see her for another day; I want to see her forever. I live to experience everything that is her.”
“What’s the lady’s name?”
Handong gestured to a petite lady standing not far away. She was eyeing the both of them closely, but broke out into a smile almost immediately upon making eye contact with Handong.
Her figure was one that is of elegance. It would have been rudeness on my part to call her anything but beautiful. Beauty may be subjective, but I’m certain, no one shall ever be able to deny her of it.
War pushes you to doubt: a gorgeous being surely must have a wicked heart, mustn’t they?
But one then starts to doubt even such a thought once they see the look in Handong’s eyes, full of adoration and admiration—something that is returned by Bora herself. If you give it much scrutiny, you will realise that their love come with utmost respect for each other, a nuance that should have been obvious to possess but even so, many couples lack.
A person approved by Handong can never be wicked, for the monster in her knows evil like it knows itself. Perhaps that is the reason for Handong’s kindness. Perhaps that is the reason for Handong’s trust in Bora.
A perfect being at first glance; still a flawless being upon greater understanding—such was the lady named Kim Bora.
If it is indeed true that meeting that special someone can change one’s worldview, then Yoohyeon was sure that Handong must have been blessed in her current lifetime. While it was Handong’s pleasure to have met Bora, anyone loved by Handong is further from being unlucky. Sadly, humans are so obsessed with the feeling of being loved; of being in love, that we have forgotten how to love.
I dare say, many love the idea of falling in love more so than actually loving somebody.
Should we not all start loving our partners more than loving ‘love’?
To love is to trust; to trust is to obscure nothing. And that is what Handong did. Being with Bora may be the only time Handong would willingly take off her mask, and present every part of herself, her rawest self, under the scrutiny of Bora’s pristine gaze.
With Bora, Handong is just Handong.
After leaving behind the memorial, Yoohyeon had driven for long hours, having found no reason to stop. That is, until the engine had run out of fuel. If she had been operating a plane, in the backdrop of the great war, it would certainly have been disastrous—a pilot never forgets extra fuel, if they placed value on their lives. She stepped out from the front seat; there wasn’t a single establishment or sign of civilisation ahead. She would have to walk, at the very least until she had retrieved fuel for the car.
I must have walked on for miles; the sight of trees and a single dirt road had greeted me in my endless and mindless trudge forward.
But alas, every journey comes to an end eventually. Even mine shall one day become a part of history.
She eyed the small hut hidden among the trees. It was a humble residence—one for which Yoohyeon wasn’t confident they would possess her much needed fuel. Nonetheless, she decided to try her luck.
A black-haired woman opened the door. Her features strong and fierce, one could almost taste the hatred said lady held—for what, there simply wasn’t a very much clear answer. Even Yoohyeon herself wouldn’t as to dare acclaim, that resided within her own features, was a detest as evident as the lady standing before the door—despite that deep loathing the pilot feels towards her predicament and everything else.
But once more, appearances are the most inaccurate portrayal of human nature and that of which reside inside.
“How may I be of assistance, Miss?” Her voice was by far the thing that surprised the pilot most. It was smooth, pleasant to the ear and rung with a timbre unique—Yoohyeon would soon be given the blessing with which to listen to it more.
“Pardon me, but do you perhaps have extra fuel that I could use for my car? May I purchase it off you, if you so happen to have some in your possession?”
“Certainly,” said lady disappeared into her humble hut, and eventually returned with a tin containing petrol. “I’ll assist you in bringing this to your car.”
“Oh no, that’s not necessary. I have troubled you enough.”
“I insist,” the lady gave a small smile.
Isn’t it amusing to say the least, that a smile—so long as its genuine—can serve to transform the impression of one in another’s mind?
They followed along the path that the pilot had taken previously. However, Yoohyeon grew slightly embarrassed given that the walk wasn’t particularly a short one. “It seems like I have parked it further than I’d expected. I shall drive you back afterwards.”
“Thank you...” the lady trailed off, looking expectedly at her.
“Thank you, Miss Yoohyeon. I’m Siyeon.”
The rest of the walk was predominated with silences, yet they were comfortable ones. Soon enough, they were able to engage in conversations at the courtesy of Siyeon—the pilot had never found herself quite elegant with her words, especially when communicating with a stranger. The mysterious lady, however, was seemingly the very opposite. They were individuals with opinions of the like, thus granting them with the pleasure of enjoying each other’s company. It was highly probable that the two ladies had found it rather peculiar that they were to find a congenial company so unexpectedly.
“Where are you heading off to, Miss Yoohyeon?”
“Please, just Yoohyeon will do,” the pilot looked up from refilling the tank. She smiled before answering, “I’m just driving around. Sightseeing, perhaps you could call it.”
The drive back to Siyeon’s residence was relatively short as compared to the journey taken by foot. Very quickly, they have arrived and Yoohyeon was already reaching into the pocket of her coat for her purse. She found it a personal obligation of hers to pay off the kind lady that had so graciously extended a helping hand, but she was stopped by a strong grip on her forearm.
“Oh no, it’s absolutely alright. You don’t have to pay for anything.”
I hesitated, obviously. It would be bad nature to accept help without returning, in some form, gratitude and acknowledgement.
Naturally, I rejected such a notion and insisted on paying for the tank. Siyeon’s next words truly surprised me.
“If that is so, would you allow me to join you on this trip then?” She suggested, “I have a letter that I wish to deliver. It so happens that the recipient resides along the path of your journey.”
Yoohyeon hesitated once more. She wasn’t so much as eager to be conducting her trip with another—let alone one she wasn’t acquainted with well enough. Granted, Siyeon and her did have many topics they see eye to eye, but one should never come to a conclusion too early.
“I do understand your reluctance; we did only just made acquaintance.” The lady smiled; eyes sincere—the intensity that once was so predominant had dwindled. In truth, there had been no malice present in her words, and Yoohyeon could not find any reason for her to possess hidden agendas. Yet, one can never be too cautious, can they. Sadly, that was a trait most likely bestowed to Yoohyeon through her experiences in warfare—it had rescued her from the most precarious of situations.
There was something that the pilot saw in Siyeon for sure, as she had let her guard down severely when around the supposed stranger. Yoohyeon was always wary—towards other people and towards situations, for her safety and for her life. In war, there was no allies, only enemies. Even friends can stab you in the back given enough reason to do so. Therefore, the only constant in battles are who you are dutied to eradicate.
It may have been irrationality on my part, or I had simply craved company more than I had believed I did.
I decided to accept her proposal.
For the stubborn pilot—who had been stuck forever in time, tormented by her memories and past—to accept a stranger to join her in her adventure across Great Britain, was certainly a feat. As such, Siyeon became Yoohyeon’s travelling companion for almost the rest of her trip.
“Forgive me for asking... but how important must a letter be, for you to personally pass it on to said friend of yours?” The duo had stopped at an inn to rest the night before. Now, the sun was again sitting high in the sky and they had continued on their drive past the town.
Her companion laughed, “why yes. I would say it is an important letter, for it contains information very...” She seemed to be lost with her words. “It contains answers that my friend had been searching for, for a long time.”
The pilot hummed in understanding. The search for answers is often a difficult process, and the award of answers not aligned to one’s expectations can be so damaging that some simply demands not to be sought after.
But the obstinate human heart is but resilient during the most unnecessary of times.
Alas, the human condition can only cry out in despair for the discovery of a truth that deviates from an ideal or the obtaining of no truth at all.
Throughout their time together, Yoohyeon had got to learn more about her travelling companion. Siyeon was a writer—with works that consisted of literature, poems and lyrics. And the pilot had been given the honour to read some of her works, and to say that she is talented would be the most necessary of praise. Siyeon was excellent at her job; it was to a point where sheer hard work and practice would never be able to fulfil.
She is, in a way, a wielder of words; words so grand that they flowed with dignity.
It is regrettable that hard work may be necessary for the mastery of a skill, yet it can never be sufficient. Talent, undoubtedly, separates the best from the good—this is the cruelty of the world.
The world is fair yet unfair. Oh, this damned world.
“Someday, it would be great if you were to base a story off me, wouldn’t it?” Yoohyeon joked.
“I’d love to Yoohyeon,” Siyeon had returned seriously. “I am quite amused actually.”
“Really? What about?”
“Is, perhaps, something troubling you? I’m no great reader of the mind, but I am an author. Sometimes I see my written characters come to life in people who are alive.”
“What character am I?” The pilot asked with curiosity.
What was it like to see yourself from the eyes of a writer?
“A broken and lost soul; searching for peace,” Siyeon looked out of the car tinted windows. “Searching for peace within himself.”
Yoohyeon frowned. She did not dispute her words; Siyeon had sounded convinced of her own analysis—one bearing quite the similarities to her life. It would have been rude, and in her opinion, childish to deny truth. She remained silent, waiting for the other to continue.
“Am I wrong, Yoohyeon? Please believe me, I didn’t mean to pry or make you feel uncomfortable.” Siyeon looked absolutely saddened by her own words. It was a good-natured worry that had touched Yoohyeon. Nonetheless, she did not respond; simply smiled she did and nodded. Siyeon seemed to have gotten the hint that the pilot was unwilling to share, for she lapsed into silence shortly after. But Yoohyeon remained confused. She had been read easily by many people. Her self-induced duty of masking a tragedy that was her life, had been nothing less of a failure. This had prompted her to wonder: how broken must she have looked for even strangers to recognise the pain that that tortured her.
People are usually born for different purposes. Mine was to fly.
It would never be in my power to be an actress, not even for the sake of the self.
“Does he ever find it?” she had asked after a prolonged stretch of silence.
“Does your character ever find the peace he is searching for?”
“… Within himself, yes. In the world? Not so much.” The writer laughed slightly, “but the ambitious and hopeful can always try.”
How does one find peace within oneself? What must one do, in order to rid the demons that so reign over one’s mind?
Yoohyeon doesn’t understand how someone could remain unbothered, or to return to the path of light after losing themselves. Yet, by then, the pilot had come to realise that she no longer remembered what had tormented her to no end. Perhaps it was the loss of comrades that had drove her to despair, or perhaps it had been the close encounters with death that had trapped her in paranoia. Perhaps it was the sight of human nature so ugly, that had caused her to abandon that small amount of hope she had left. She blamed it on the chaos that had so dominated people’s hearts, which had blinded people into massacring their own kind—enemies and innocents alike.
The world shall never know peace the way it does know conflict.
And that gave Yoohyeon some form of solace. Such irony. It meant she had an excuse, one to absolve herself from her incompetence to find inner peace.
I blame the world for being such a place ridden with conflict, that even I could not be spared from its hostility. If the world cannot find peace, then who am I to find it within myself?
“I doubt that it was easy.” The pilot turned her attention towards the passenger seat. She sees Siyeon fiddling with the brooch on her shirt as she says, “humans are naturally competitive and violent. To live with a peaceful mind is to be a saint among evils; tough but noble. Very noble.”
“You don’t seem to be living in bliss either,” Yoohyeon returned after giving it some thought. Siyeon’s works had stood out to her not merely due to their insight, but most of her writings were dark and bittersweet. They had documented heartbreaks, tribulations and loss.
She stared at me for a long time, as if reminiscing a time in her life. There was something in her eyes, meaning difficult to discern, but clear in its presence.
Finally, the writer turned backed to stare at the road ahead.
“Not many are.”
The car rounded up the corner, and stopped beside a small establishment. The smell of dough baking in the oven could be detected even with the door of the bakery closed. This was the third day Yoohyeon had been travelling with Siyeon. Finally, they had arrived at their destination—at the very least, Siyeon’s.
The doorbell rung out, signalling the arrival of two guests.
“Siyeon!” A woman ran up to bring her into a hug. “What brings you here today?”
“Morning Minji,” Siyeon returned the hug graciously before reaching into her pocket to fish out the letter. “I have some news you might want to hear.”
Yoohyeon followed behind, still haven’t gotten the chance to take a closer look at the shop owner. She had never felt comfortable in a bakery, the smell often too overwhelming. She much prefers the aroma of coffee beans instead. Yet, the freshly baked products of this establishment smelt wonderful—not too much but still strong enough to appeal to people’s appetite.
“Oh?” Yoohyeon heard. “Who shall this lady be?”
I turned quickly to greet the owner, but had frozen in place the moment I had made eye contact.
She is beautiful.
There was a sort of elegance that one doesn’t find any longer in the people of England. She was almost amusing to watch, presenting herself with confidence and grace. She was almost dancing as she walked, singing as she spoke—Yoohyeon thought she was in a theatre, witnessing a play written by none other than Shakespeare himself.
But I had strange confidence; that it wouldn’t be another one of his tragedies.
It was difficult to describe the woman in words, for perfection could not be conveyed through words alone. Indeed, it would have been too hasty to conclude that one is perfect simply by appearances. But the pilot reasoned that a human being with a smile so bright shall never come close to being bad
I had found it a blessing to witness such pure perfection is a mortal being; after the horrors of war, one tend to lose the hope of finding the quintessential human being—one who possesses all the desired traits and character.
But there she was, standing in her small shop tucked away in the suburbs of Britain, selling pastries to locals and travellers alike.
“You… are the pilot,” she started suddenly, surprise was evident on her features.
“The pilot?” Yoohyeon was taken aback. The lady had known her somehow, yet she had no recollections of the lady at all.
“Oh, I'm sorry.” She smiled bashfully. “I worked as a nurse. I have seen you near the tents where I worked.”
Yoohyeon watched the lady work, bringing batches and batches of baked goods from the kitchen onto the table. She moved with a practised precision; the pilot reckoned that she had been doing this for ages. Siyeon had disappeared thereafter, into the back of the shop after handling the lady her letter. It was to Yoohyeon’s knowledge that the two had been close friends even before the war, as such, the writer had a room of her own in the bakery itself. The lady had returned swiftly to continue preparation for the opening of the shop, letter long forgotten on a table nearby.
Yoohyeon eyed the brown envelope lying on the table top.
The envelope was crumpled and the corners were starting to yellow. Siyeon had probably written it for some time, but for whatever reason, did not pass it on to her friend.
“Here,” she handed Yoohyeon a tray, on top of which were pastries of different variety. “Choose anything you’d like. Personally, I am quite fond of the Rhubarb pie.”
“Thank you,” Yoohyeon said and reached for the pie. “I’m Yoohyeon. I haven’t really gotten your name yet, Miss.”
“Why yes, please call me Minji. It’s nice to finally make your acquaintance.” She took a seat beside Yoohyeon, shoulders slumping the moment she came into contact with the chair. Her hunched posture was a stark contrast to the perfectly straight back of the former war pilot.
They sat in quietude, surely neither knowing how to begin a conversation. Yoohyeon eyed the envelope again. She gestured lightly to the encased letter and smiled. “You forgot about that. Do you need some space? I can leave for a bit so that you can read it.”
“Oh no, please stay. It’s absolutely alright.”
The pilot watched as Minji reached over, her fingers slender—the hands of one who once saved lives appeared so sophistically beautiful. There was an air of hesitance as she slowly opened the envelope, careful enough not to tear anything. The slight tremble of her hand did not go unnoticed by Yoohyeon.
Years of practice had granted me with the honour of picking up little vibrations in people. Flying when one is nervous or afraid would only end in disaster.
But in war, what choice does a pilot have? Even those who tremble must take the wheel, in the name of service, in the name of bravery.
Minji took a deep breath before pulling out the piece of paper from within, eyes focused on the words that flowed endlessly on it. With each passing moment, her features seemed to fall. And then, the letter ended as she placed the paper gently onto her lap. For some time, Yoohyeon had thought she would start crying, for her shoulders had shook ever so faintly and her lips had dipped downward into a miserable melancholy. But the lady didn’t cry, simply folded the letter back neatly and stuffed it into the yellowing envelope.
“I must get back to work now,” her voice cracked. “If you’ll excuse me.”
Yoohyeon gave a curt nod, not confident in her abilities to provide comfort. Minji still moved with precision and familiarity, but she was no longer donning a carefree expression. From where the pilot sat, she could not see her face, but she noticed the countless times Minji had brought her arm to her face to wipe away the traces of tears no one could see.
As I watch the angel weep—a silent cry of the soul not visible—I felt the prick of a thousand needles, straight unto my heart.
She wasn’t really sure that it had been tears, it could very well have been sweat, but somehow the image of Minji wiping away her tears suited the situation with an unspoken capacity. Soon enough, there was no more pastries to arrange, no more cookies to bake, and no more tables that required cleaning. Minji simply stood, now free of all tasks too abruptly. She took a seat next to the pilot for a second time.
“Why a bakery?” Yoohyeon enquired quietly, turning to smile at the lady upon receiving no response.
“It was an impulse, actually.” Minji started, playing with her nails as she spoke. “I have always loved baking. Maybe I just wanted to share what I loved with people. It’s a little silly, I know.”
“Not at all. I think it’s wonderful.” And it was true. Yoohyeon had genuinely thought that.
Just then, Siyeon had finally remerged from her room.
“Minji, have you read,” she stopped suddenly. Then, softly, she said, “I will take it as you did.”
She pulled her friend into a hug, “I’m sorry.”
That was all she was capable of saying. Perhaps, at in most crucial of times, the presence of someone who cares is all that is really needed.
“Are you sure?” Minji asked in the smallest of voices. “Is what was written absolutely true?”
Siyeon does reply for a while, looking equally as broken and lost—the contents of the letter had affected her just as much.
“I’m afraid so, Minji,” she said, finally.
She held onto the baker, as she struggled to find consolation in her friend. Minji shook violently, so fierce that Yoohyeon thought perhaps she would never stop again—she might never be the same ever again.
I stood up and left, choosing to stand outside the shop rather than intrude on their moment of grief.
It was times like this that I had regretted quitting my habit of smoking. Nicotine has the unique property of making time pass a little quicker, and the pain fade to a little more bearable.
“Why a pilot?”
Yoohyeon turned to see Minji standing by the door, smiling at her with a radiance that could have rivalled anyone’s. She walked up to stand beside the pilot. “I apologise for… well, all of that.”
“It’s alright,” she could still discern the traces of red around the lady’s eyes.
“So?” She raised a brow, “why a pilot?”
I remember looking up to the sky, and seeing the clouds that had once been surrounding me as I flew. They looked lonely up there without me. And I felt alone without them.
For some reason, I did not mind sharing my experience with her. Maybe it was because she had been there as well.
“I wanted to do something. For the people pulled into all the mess, for those who had died while fighting, and for my family and friends.” She imagined the feeling of holding a cigar in between her fingers. “I enjoyed flying; it was liberating. It’s a pity I no longer feel the same.”
“You seemed really angry,” Minji glanced at her briefly.
“I would see you looking into the tents to see your friends lying there, and then frown. You would stand there for a long time, just staring at them lying down unmoving.”
“But I have never seen you.” Yoohyeon would surely remember Minji—a person who looked so pure would stand out like a sore thumb in the middle of the battlefield filled with blood and burnt flesh.
“I would always see you entering tents with soldiers I had just finished patching up. There were so many doctors and nurses, I wouldn’t be surprised you didn’t pay attention.”
In war, one must of course view horrors every day.
“Maybe we are just not destined to meet in war,” there was a misplaced conviction in Minji’s tone.
But we are destined to meet. If not in war, then surely, someplace else.
Yoohyeon asked about her work as a nurse; she received stories of how the former nurse would patch up soldiers and see them recover successfully, other times she would see the same people returning and begging to be relieved of the pain. She talked about the times she had failed to save the lives of many, feeling them slip between her fingers into an abyss. The past still haunts her, she said, but she tries her best to live.
‘That’s all that you can ever do,’ she told me.
Sometimes, she would dream of people screaming and pulling at her before perishing in an ugly death. It would scare her awake, and she would go sleepless for many nights after. She had been called onto the battlefield suddenly—one day she was a nurse, the next she was sewing severed limbs back onto soldiers.
She told me she hated the bombings the most.
“They were very loud, and scary. It sounded really close, when in reality, it could have been far far away.” She shut her eyes for a while, perhaps to stop herself from bringing back the memories she so feared. Yoohyeon was the same—she would close her eyes tightly, and focus on the black. That way, she could block off the sounds and forget—despite merely one second—the smell of charcoaled flesh, the slight of dented metal and concrete, and the pictures of twisted bodies soaked in blood.
It was almost alarming, that Minji had experienced similar grievances, given that she seemed to be truly gaiety. It takes tremendous effort to smile, when one is not really joyous enough to do so. Even more so, a smile that looks genuine is the most difficult to replicate—only those who actively believe in their happiness can smile freely and whole-heartedly.
Yoohyeon had been a little envious, for she too wanted to be strong. She too, yearned for freedom.
Perhaps, we all deal with the aftermath of war and trauma differently.
No matter what we choose to do with the scars, we have but to live on.
That’s all that we can ever do, really.
Yoohyeon had decided to continue with her journey—a sense of responsibility washed over her; she was compelled to finish what she herself had started. She bid Siyeon a nice farewell, and received a tight hug in return.
“I hope you find what you are looking for,” she said as she released Yoohyeon from a prolonged embrace.
Yoohyeon waved a polite goodbye to Minji as she opened the door; the doorbell chimed, now signalling the departure of a new friend. She stood in front of the door, finally noting the sky had turned bright. They had arrived at the shop in the early morning, before the sun had even risen.
The doorbell behind her rang again.
“Will you visit again?” Minji whispered as Yoohyeon prepared to walk back to her car.
The pilot eyed the lady, contemplating her answer thoroughly.
“Yes. Yes, I will.” Yoohyeon promised as Minji broke out into a bright smile. “And when I do, I shall bring those pastries you love so much.”
“I open a bakery, Yoohyeon.”
“I know,” the pilot’s volume was now as low as Minji’s.
“I will be waiting then.”