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The General Who Is Dead
by Jeff VanderMeer
MY NAME IS Stephen Barrow and I served in the Korean War, under the auspices of the 52nd Battalion. You would not have heard about the 52nd Battalion on the newsreels, for all we did is defend a city of the dead from the dead without, and the city held us in its thrall. From afar, it appeared as a glittering white crown of pagodas and snow, undisturbed and pristine. The walled kingdom of an ice witch, something right out of C.S. Lewis The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, perhaps.
Our mission was morbid and macabre and we loved it fiercely, for it kept us from the front lines. The city had been abandoned for over a year. Within its walls, the U.S. High Command had decided to house, catalog, and prepare for shipment stateside, the bodies of the soldiers who had died at the front in our stead. We also housed, cataloged, and prepared (for cremation) the remains of South Korean civilians who had been caught in the crossfire. At times, the city streets were littered with the dead, all formally laid out, limbs no longer akimbo from bomb or mine blast, faces much more serene since their grimaces had been crafted into the artifice of smiles. Perhaps they merely slept, I would joke with my fellow soldiers, usually Nate Burlow, a muscle-bound lunk from New Jersey and Tom Waters, a slender willow with hair so black it was almost blue and pale green eyes that stared out unblinking from beneath a helmet too big for his head. Nate was garrulous and Tom silent to a fault, calm as ice in a Rusty Nail. Between the two of them, I came very close to keeping my sanity amongst the dead.
All of us doubled up on our duties to conserve manpower, and so I became, much against my will, a writer of press releases for the army, under the supervision of Colonel X_______. It was easy work and I did it at my desk on the fourth floor of headquarters, which had been set up in the Buddhist temple at the citys center. The temple was the tallest structure in a place where the buildings seemed to genuflect and make themselves as small against the earth as possible.
I would sit with the snow-white pieces of paper in front of me and, when the pens were not frozen, I would write about the death of General So-and-So, the bravery of Corporal Whats-His-Name. It gave me a lot of time to think. Perhaps too much time. My past did not bear up under close scrutiny and if, in describing what I am about to describe I am indirect about my own life; if, to be blunt, I discard bland fact in favor of hard truth, forgive me.
Suffice it to say, the war had passed us by in more ways than one. By the time I came into the middle of it, my landing at Inchon had none of the biting melodrama of MacArthurs initial beach head. Colonel B. Powell had urinated proudly in the Yalu River more than six months before, doing several "takes" for the Stars & Stripes boys, blissfully ignorant of the fact that no American soldier after him would advance so far to demonstrate his backwardness. U.S. General Smith, a marine, had already declared, "Retreat, Hell! Were not retreating! Were just advancing in a different direction!" All the photo ops and all the best lines had been taken. By the time I came to Korea, the war had bogged down to a slow, futile, and bloody shifting of the lines along barren fields of snow, advance and retreat along the 38th parallel, like the ebb and flow of some Ice Age tide.
All I had were dead bodies to take care of and paper to write on and my buddies to shoot the shit with. And, of course, the dead Chinese soldiers outside the citys walls.
WHEN I CAME to the city, along with Nate and Tom, the dead Chinese soldiers were the first thing we saw. You couldnt miss them. Over forty thousand of them on the plain outside the citys walls. The sergeant-at-arms had made sure the chopper let us off in the middle of the plain so that we had to walk through the dead to reach the city. What the man was trying to prove, I have no idea.
There were thirty of us new boys and we said nothing to each other at the timeout of nervousness or sympathy or respect, I dont know which. All I know is we were so quiet you could hear the crunch of our boots in the snow. The sunlight suffused the snow and bled through the soldiers, turning them crystalline and divine and pathetic all at once. As you can see through the skins of certain fish to their internal organs, so you could see through the ice and know the shapes, the contours, of the dead men on the frozen field. Some knelt and some stood and some huddled in clumps seeking a warmth which had long since left them. Forty thousand dead Chinese soldiers sprawled along a snowy plain. There were forty thousand stories in those lives, for they had all died in subtlely unique ways, and those ways had lent all of their faces a fierce individuality which would mark them even when spring came and thawed them out.
They had called themselves "The Army Which Casts No Shadow" because they had marched by night and lay camouflaged from reconnaisance planes by day. United Nations forces had not spotted them until they crossed the 38th Parallel. They had outrun their own supply lines out of Manchuria, in an attempt to cut off U.S. forces from Inchon. They had no choice but to march forward and assault the U.S. perimeter at Pusan. They never made it. Our forces just kept retreating, left no supplies behind, and their progress slowed as they grew hungry, and then a blizzard caught them out in the open. They had already eaten their boots; almost none of them that I could see had shoes on their feet.
Parodies of statues in Pompeii. The ice which had hardened around their bodies had also hardened their features, disguised their uniforms and weaponry, so that indeed it was a plain of statuary, ethereal, ghostly, and mocking. No one would have guessed they were once an army, or that they had marched anywhere, that once they had been alive. Walking among them I felt a crawling sensation across my spinea helplessness and a despair that I did not know could live within me. I had a sudden frantic urge to write it down, to write about their deaths. I could not tell whether the impulse was ghoulish or commemorative, so I let it pass.
"Come Spring," muttered Tom.
"Come Spring what?" said Nate.
"Come Spring, theyll thaw and then therell just be forty thousand stinking dead people here for the vultures to feast on."
It was about the longest sentence Tom ever said, and when I got to know him better, I knew it meant those dead soldiers had really gotten to him, under his skin.
But they looked curiously at peace out in the snow, the longer I stared at themas if they waited for someone or something to resurrect them. Or perhaps I read that into them and I was waiting for someone to resurrect me. I had a sudden memory of making snow angels in the front yard of our house, my Dad at six-six spread out ridiculously, making giant angels, while my own had been much smaller divinities.
WE WALKED AMONG the dead men for nearly an hour that first, most important, time, although the walls of the city were near. We did not feel, not having seen the indignities of war first hand, that we could leave without paying our respects, if that is the correct term. It was like walking among gravestones, only these men needed no such symbolism. They stood staunchly for themselves. Seeing them so vulnerable, waiting for the thaw that would make them fully human again, my imagination began to unfetter itself from the cold and the company of my fellow soldiers. Something churned in my stomach and up, into my heart. What if these men, these soldiers, really were waiting for someone? As if they had been enchanted, put under a spell? Who were they waiting for?
"Who are they waiting for?" I said it aloud.
"General who?" Tom said, as if reading my mind.
"General Who," I said. Inside, the churning stopped and I thought, yes, it was General Who who led them. General Who who would come back for them. He could protect them, much as my father had often wrapped his arms around me in the snow and held me against his chest, warm and secure.
As we finally left the field, I saw a Chinese woman who had frozen to death along with the soldiers, a look of divinity upon her face. As if she could see something magical, beyond her reach. Her head was inclined upward and when I saw her, her features etched cruelly in the ice, I looked where she looked, almost expecting there to be someone in the sky, or some sign.
But, this time, there was just the white. Always the white. And, from then on, I could not hate our Enemy, or even think ill of Him, but thought only of when I too would be stiff, my eyes staring out into the unknown, afraidtaken away from the sudden, lacerating beauty of this world and into the cruel glacial light of the next.
"General Who is dead," I said as we left that place, and Tom and Nate nodded like they almost understood what I meant.
First appeared in Freezer Burn and Albedo1.
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