NIP THE BUDS, SHOOT THE KIDS - AN EXTRACT

Fifteen teenage boys from a reformatory have been evacuated in wartime to a remote mountain village. When plague breaks out, their peasants hosts blockade them inside the empty village and leave them to starve, together with a young girl evacuee.

That night the moon shone brightly. Since my brother had gone with Li to the Korean settlement to have dinner with the soldier, the girl and I had to eat porridge by ourselves. Then we spent a long time in silence warming our hands by the fire on the earth floor, letting our stomachs work in peace. From time to time birds cried shrilly in the forest. I yawned and shed little tears, and that infected the girl. She gave a small yawn, pushing out her tightly balled fists in front of her. Her whole body gave off a smell like musty straw. I thought calmly that her skin was no cleaner than mine. I began to worry that my brother hadn't come home.

"Hey," the girl said, turning her small dark face towards me.

"Yeah?" I said, surprised.

"I'm scared."

"Everyone's scared," I said in a huff. "Because we're cut off."

"Bring back the villagers," she said imploringly.

"I can't do that," I said harshly. She started to sob, burying her forehead between her knees.

"If I go and call the villagers, they won't come back," I said. "And if they do come back, they'll catch the soldier and kill him."

She went on sobbing inconsolably. An insane feeling grew inside me. Biting my lip, I stood up and took the map which the doctor had given me out of my kit-bag. The trolley track crossing the valley and the route to the doctor's house were roughly sketched out in it.

"I'll tell them to come and take only you," I said brusquely to the girl, who was looking up, her face blotched with tears. "Stop blubbering."

I went out on the road, which was bright under the moon. The fog was flowing, harsh and chill. The girl followed me outside, but I didn't look back. I didn't even know whether I could reach the other side of the valley or not. But in any case I wanted tohand over the girl, whose little face was wet with tears and whose whole body stank, to the bunch on the other side. I couldn't bear it.

The trolley track, dripping from the fog, shone in the moonlight. Then the black looming mass of the barricade.The light in the hut on the far side where the guard should be keeping watch had been put out. I turned back and spoke to the girl, who was biting lips that were blue with cold.

"Wait here; I'll talk to them about you."

When I stepped onto the track's sleepers, the fog and a sharp chill came blowing up from beneath them, striking my cheeks and stinging my nostrils. Far below, the water shining in the moonlight and the sound of it gnawing the rocks made a swirling motion. Slowly, bent over like a beast, I went on walking over the sleepers. I half-closed my eyes to keep them from the hard bitter wind and fixed all my attention on stepping on the dead centre of each sleeper.

The track was very long and the wind was fierce. By the time I reached the barricade, piled with tree stumps, bundles of branches, boards and chunks of rock, I was so tired that I wanted to lay down and sleep. I peered at the underside of the sleepers. There was no other way. First I straightened up and put my frozen hands inside my trousers and in my groin to warm them.As my fingers gradually recovered their senses, they felt the presence of my penis, shrunken and wrinkled with cold and fear.

Placing my elbows on the sleepers, I curled up and slid my lower limbs through the narrow gap. The next moment, I was hanging from the sleepers by both hands, exposing my whole body in the valley's chill void. The harsh wind and cold, and a terrible loneliness, assailed me. I had to fight them. Twisting my body haphazardly like a shrimp simmering in tepid water, I swung from one sleeper to the next.

My strength almost exhausted, I put my hands on the last steeper and, with a gasp that was almost a scream, chinned up, put my elbows on its upper surface which was covered with crystalline frost, and lifted my body up. I stretched out on top of the sleepers and breathed heavily. But I couldn't lie there in full view in the moonlight. If I was shot at from the guard hut, my head would be smashed with the first bullet. Exhaling harsh gasps, I walked over the sleepers for the last short distance and when I reached firm ground I ran up the slope beside the dark shrubs, staying out of the moonlight. There in front of me was a fairly small village, peaceful in the moonlight.

It was made up of houses, roadside trees and convoluted alleys that were almost the same as those in the village where we were incarcerated. But there was a subtle difference in the air in this village, and that made me scared. The strangers who had cut us off and stood guard over us were sleeping in those houses. Fear and a violent surge of excitement made waves of trembling race over my frost-nipped skin.

I knocked on the Western-style door of the doctor's house.Then, stepping back a pace, right into the moonlight, I watched the door with its glass panes, so rare in the village. A light went on behind it, a figure came up to the entrance, mumbling in its throat, and the small animal-like head of the doctor I had seen at the warehouse poked out.

"Hey," said the doctor in a voice that made my limp feelings suddenly harden. "What have you come here for? If you get violent, I'll call someone."

"I won't get violent," I said in an excited, thickened voice, curbing my anger. "I didn't come here for that. The village girl was left behind in the warehouse. She wants to get out of the village. You, take her out, please." The doctor looked me over searchingly. I saw his bared gums soaked and glistening with saliva, and cunning spread quickly from them all over his face.

"How many of you have contracted the disease? How many of you are left alive?" he asked.

"What?" I said in surprise. "We're not ill; there's no plague.' He looked at me more carefully. "If you think I'm lying, take a look at me. I'll undress so you can examine me."

I lowered my hand from the coat buttons which I had almost undone to bare my upper body in the moonlight. He wouldn't listen to me at all.

"You're a doctor, aren't you? It's your job to see if someone's ill or not, isn't it?"

"Don't be impudent," he said, suddenly shooing anger. "Go back; don't come over this side again."

"You're just going to watch us die," I said.

The doctor bent down, and a terrific impact struck my back as though I had been hit by a heavy stone. I cried out and writhed away, rolling over to avoid his foot, drawn back for the next kick. Vindictively, he tried to pursue me. Screaming with fear, I crawled down to the trolley track and went out along it.

I was completely exhausted. But when I saw the doctor bend down to pick up a stone to throw at me, I crawled along the track, clawing at the sleepers with panicky fingers, then when I reached the barricade I slid my legs, trembling with rage in that ignoble posture, underneath the track.

When I lifted my body up onto the trolley track again after the arduous struggle, using almost all the strength that I had left to do a last chin-up, I could only pant violently, my chest rising and falling like a tormented beast. My fingertips were wounded and bleeding. I thought I heard someone's footsteps receding behind me, but instead of turning round, I gazed at the end of the long track illuminated by the moon.

When my feet touched the other side, the earth on that side where we were definitely shut in, the girl jumped out, staring at me with wide-open eyes that shone like those of a feverish child. We stared at each other for a long time. Anger raged over my body. Breathing hard, I tore myself free from her pressing, entangling gaze and started to walk. Her thin lips were moving without emitting a sound. Suddenly the meaning of the words they had been repeating became clear to me.

I thought you wouldn't come back, they said over and over again. I thought you wouldn't come back.

This is an edited extract from `Nip the Buds, Shoot the Kids', translated by Paul St John Mackintosh and Maki Sugiyama, published by Marion Boyars in February 1995 at £14.95

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