THOSE BODIES AT THE TEMPLE
Now it seems to me, a village priest should be among the first to know what’s happening in his parish. That’s not the case here, though. Not here in this isolated Korean parish where I’ve been laboring for the past three years.
Oh, don’t get me wrong. I do find out about most things—eventually. My people do trust me. They do confide in me. Honest.
It’s just that it doesn’t always happen as soon as I’d like.
Take the case of those bodies found out at the old temple. You would think I’d be among the first to be informed about something like that. Not that dead bodies are my special interest. But you have to admit a person in my line of work could be of value on such occasions. For instance, who would be better at breaking the sad news to family of the deceased. I’m not bragging when I say experience counts in such a situation. And, should the poor soul be Catholic—well need I say more about my role in such a situation?
The point is, no one bothered to tell me about those bodies. I had to find out for myself.
It’s midsummer. The rice is green and heavy on the stalks. It’s warm and humid and the sky is daily that singularly clear blue which has earned the country its sobriquet of Land of the Morning Calm. When the people aren’t busy in the fields they’ve been going out to the park surrounding the old Buddhist temple for picnics. I’m not so naïve I don’t know the young people flock to the farther wooded edges of the park for clandestine assignations. Some of these incidents lead to scandal; for the most they result in couples coming before me for the bonds of matrimony.
One particular morning I became aware of a current of excitement running through the village. It resembled the sort of thing I witness whenever one of the popular traveling shows arrive in the village, or when the local shaman is performing one of her superstitious rituals, or when some ripe scandal is being circulated by the chief gossips.
For reasons I couldn’t fathom, I wasn’t being made privy to the source of this excitement. Everyone I asked either evaded my question or pleaded ignorance.
I wasn’t about to be put off. Something was going on and I intended to find out what.
Yet people kept ignoring me. Even Mrs. Song, a notorious gossip, passed me off with a mere shrug. Finally I confronted Sergeant Choi, our local policeman. “I demand to know what’s going on,” I told him.
Choi, who has seen way too many of our Western movies and fancies himself an Asian version of John Wayne—though he’s half the man’s size and carries no gun—sucked on the cigarette perpetually hanging from one corner of his mouth, withdrew it pinched between thumb and forefinger, exhaled a cloud of smoke and squinted at me.
“Well?” I said.
Sergeant Choi pulled his cap down by its brim, curled back his lips, exposing two gold teeth, and said, “No problem, Father.”
“What do you mean—no problem.”
After taking another drag on his cigarette, he said, “Two dead people have been found in the woods.”
“And that’s not a problem?”
“They are not from here.”
“They’re still dead. Aren’t you going to do something about it? What happened to them?”
“It appears they made a good-time. Afterwards they ate poison.”
They killed themselves?”
It would seem so.”
“Is there nothing I can do?”
“I have done what needed to have been done,” he said with a coy smile. “Word has been sent to their families.”
“Do you know why they did this terrible thing?”
He shrugged. “They did not leave a message and, of course, they talked to no one here.”
“Perhaps I should give them last rites. Where are they?”
I don’t know if they are Catholic. I suppose it would not hurt. They are in the back of Mr. Rhee’s store.”
“In the store?”
He shrugged again. “I didn’t know where else to put them.”
Considering the lack of dignity for these poor children, laid out among the cans and boxes like so much storage, in the back of a store, I suggested we move them to the church.
“As you wish, Father,” he said, complying with no more interest than had I ask what day of the week it were.
Once the bodies were moved and I had a chance to view them, I was shocked. Not simply by their youth but also the fact they were well dressed and apparently not of the lower, uneducated classes. Despite the grimaces left on their faces by the poison they’d consumed, both appeared to have been attractive in life. What could have led them to such a tragic end? It was beyond my understanding.
When I expressed this to Choi and other villagers I was met with blank looks, mumbles and shrugs.
Such nonchalance about a tragedy could not be ignored. I am, after all, a priest. It’s my duty to point out to people the error of their way. I decided there was no better place to address this than in my homily at Sunday’s Mass.
I took my text from Luke. I used the story of the Samaritan who had compassion on the man fallen upon by thieves. I was in rare form. I railed at them. “Which now of these three, thinkest thou, was neighbor unto him that fell among the thieves?” I shouted. I drove the message home. “Then said Jesus unto him, Go, and do thou likewise.”
Alas, it was in vain. They regarded me with blank expressions. Not one of them commented, said a single word, as they filed out after Mass. I was perplexed. Had they no shame? How could they not have had some shred of compassion for those poor children?
Sergeant Choi was among the last to leave. I caught his arm as he passed. “Well?”
He smiled up at me. “Good sermon, Father.”
“Is that all you have to say? Did you not understand what I had to say?”
“Sure, Father. I tell you, good sermon. Jesus want us always to be care about other peoples.”
“And you think that’s what you and the people of this village did for those poor children?”
Choi screwed up his face and studied me. Then he shook his head. “Is sad thing, Father. No one can help.”
I confess. I exploded. I waved my finger in his face and shouted. “What do you mean? You could have at least had some common decency. You could have treated them with…”
Choi raised a hand. “Please, Father. You no understand. You come. We have coffee and talk some more.” He turned on his heel and strode off, taking for granted I would follow.
Well, what else could I do? Of course I followed him. Koreans love coffee. But in our village it was a rarity. What more often was available in Mrs. Pak’s establishment was the traditional hot barley water drink.
I sat across from Choi and waited to hear more. He took his time, sipping his brew and nibbling dried cuttlefish. Finally he gazed up at me and said, “You know war do many bad things to my people.”
The war hadn’t been that long ago. Of course I was aware of its devastating impact on the Korean people.
Choi stared into the cup he held in both pudgy hands. “Many families get split during war. Some peoples go here. Some go there. Sometimes later they find one another. Sometimes not.”
“Yes, yes. What does this have to do with…”
Choi regarded me with a sad smile. “This boy we find at temple. He go to college in Seoul. Family happy. They making good life. Then boy, he meeting this girl. She work in shop. They liking one another. Soon they say love. Want to get married.”
“What’s wrong with that? That’s a good thing, isn’t it.” Then it dawned on me. “Oh, no. You’re saying his family wouldn’t accept her. She wasn’t good enough for their son. Is that why they…”
Choi shook his head. “No. Family happy son want to marry. They anxious to meet girl. That’s when problem come.”
“Problem? What problem?”
Choi tossed off the last of his drink. He looked at me and I saw his eyes moist up with tears. “Girl not stranger. She being long lost daughter.”
J. R. Lindermuth is the author of eight novels and has published stories in a variety of magazines, both print and on line. Living in Korea in the 1960s provided the seed for many tales.
Being Someone Else (July 2010), Whiskey Creek Press
Watch The Hour (April 2009), Whiskey Creek Press