Behind us fades the stamping of the men on foot. Brody is playing Beyoncé. He has rigged his MP3 player and some computer speakers to a solar cell and tied them all onto his backpack with audio cable. He says Beyoncé calms the mounts. I can’t say either way. They were bred as racehorses, but they trudge like mules. By now they are probably deaf. Once Brody fell asleep in the saddle with the music playing and I touched his shoulder and felt the bass running through him like electric current.
We climb the hill road. The short autumn day advancing. Below us, through the trees, 경주, Gyeongju, like a cloak of ancient grey mould on the landscape. The reservoir like a dull aluminium plate. The burial mounds covered in green grass. A paraglider whines over the city. Two shots crackle. The horses do not swivel their ears, they keep plodding.
The road is fissured and uplifted; old grass grows in the splitting asphalt. The air thin and still. Beyoncé must carry a long way in the woods. I see no birds. The snare flagellates the tweeter.
We climb toward the temple: 불국사 – Bul Guk Sa. I translate mentally. My mind clicks like a watch mechanism. Beyoncé raps out clipped lyrics. Temple of the People of the Light, I think. Or perhaps, Shrine to a Burning Nation.
I ask Brody which he thinks it means. He looks at me for a long time, his eyes squinted. I am on the downhill side of the road. I must appear as a black silhouette on a horse, backlit by the afternoon above Gyeongju.
ʻ당신은 한국어 잘 못해요,ʼ is all he says. Dangshineun hangukeo jal mot heyo. You don’t speak Korean well.
The monks have barricaded the gates with old furniture and toilets and ice cream refrigerators, but a half stick is enough. The horses pick their way through, flames burning here and there like doomed votives. Inside the wall, a parkland of hard bare earth, long-stalk trees. Ahead, the temple sits on its bulwarks like an imperious toad.
We cross a wide bridge over a pond of slime. There are three monks in grey jackets sitting on the steps leading to the temple. The stonework of the steps and the walls is monumental and perfectly fit and has been here for a thousand years. The granite shows its grain from acid rain. The monks are very thin and their coats are too large and their clothes and threadbare beards are the colour of the stone.
We draw rein. I look at the monks. They are very still. Like stones, they will be worn away and there is nothing that can stop it. One might as well be the agent. Protest against this is the height of impotence.
Three yellow leaves fall from a tree limb, the other side of Brody. They swing through the air to the dust. Brody’s rifle is resting behind the horn of his saddle. The horses stamp and turn, nervous. I look at Brody, but he looks ahead, his body still while his mount sidles under him. He pulls out his shooter’s earplugs by their string. The air has gone very still, there is no sound, just a high bell, perpetual; it will dim later, I know, in the dull evening. Like all things. I can see a tiny rivulet of blood running through a divot in one of the steps.
We ride through the park around the temple and find a ramp running up to a side gate. I dismount. Brody watches the wall, ready should anyone appear. I light another half stick and lay it at the base of the gate. Thickly painted in red, iron rivets like a horse’s eye.
The dust is gold and brown in the sunlight like dry rice chaff. The doors hang splintered on their hinges. I push through the smoke and dust with my rifle at my shoulder but there is no-one, just the pavilion with the gigantic statue. He is too big for the building and the roof of curving tile hangs above him like a ceremonial helmet. The wood pillars drop from the roof like tassels. Intricate fractal designs in red and green and blue. The doors are open to the fall air and I can see the buddha’s expression of infinite ennui, his skin of dull gold.
I climb the steps and stop at the threshold and then I turn around and sit and unlace my boots. In stinking socks I cross the creaking wood, burnished to a sheen. I look at the side of his face. He is very large and his head seems far away, lost in the shadow beneath the roof. The many miniatures of him lining the walls, each different in some minute characteristic, all the same. The silence is the afternoon, the autumn. I place the dynamite in his lap like an offering. He is immobile and accepting. He is indifferent.
I trail the long fuse to the door, light it. Watch the spitting tail make its way over the wood like an insane rat afire. I take a moment to pen a poem about it. Toss the scrap of paper on the floor, then stamp into my boots. Cross the yard with my gun slung up on my shoulder.
Brody sits on his horse and stares hard at me, because my boots are untied and because I have taken so long, and maybe this is the moment he begins to distrust me, though it could have been any time, or no particular moment, an accretion of suspicion like a stalagmite. His testimony will be instrumental in what comes later.
As we ride through the hard-packed grounds, I see the disarranged monks out of the corner of my eye. Smoke and dust hang in the air. We leave through the ruined gate and ride slowly down the mountain, listening to Beyoncé and watching the still woods, their turning colours. The scarlets and umbers and goldenrods occur when the trees draw their chlorophyll back from the leaves. They are colours of burning decay.
We rejoin the column on the road and the men on foot glance up at us as we pass and then back at the ground. The afternoon is going. I admire the high dykes of earth where the palace of the Silla kings once stood, now almost indistinguishable from the landscape, covered over by deep field weeds and broad-trunked oaks.
I smell the smoke and look back the way we we’ve come and already there are thick grey plumes on the mountain. I didn’t mean to do that, but what did I expect. And furthermore: how large is the gap between the destruction of icons and the burning of a forest. This is the kind of thinking that will get me in trouble later.
The rice fields have been drained and cut, the stubble like a million buried brooms. The chaff hangs in bundles on the fences. A breeze comes up and the stalks rustle dry; the evening is lying down, purple air. Among the bundles on the fence hangs a dead snake.
As we advance toward Gyeongju, we come alongside Anapji Pond. It’s only a replica, but it’s on the list. We turn off the road, and cross the field to one of the pavilions.
Brody uses a bundle of rice chaff to make a fire at the base of a pillar and then stands there watching the sparks and smoke to see if it will take. The paint all peeling, advancing psoriasis of wood. A bamboo grove across the pond gossips in the breeze. I sit in the saddle with the reins loose and look into the black pond. There are rafts of yellow leaves blanketing the surface of the water beside the shore. The water is opaque. A reflected flicker as Brody’s fire climbs the pillar. Then I see an old man sitting with a fishing pole in his hand. We watch each other, neither moving. He is still there, even when the flames start to eat the roof beams of the pavilion and Brody mounts up again.
An ugly moon rises over the mountains as we ride into Gyeongju. Darkness lies matted in the alleys. We find the guest house where we are to be billeted, across the wall from the hill tombs. It is composed of many low buildings inside a compound, the roof tiles greyed with age and lichen. The gate is locked and we ring a tin bell that hangs on a wire.
The proprietress has wiry black hair and rings upon rings under her eyes. When she sees us her mouth gets hard.
ʻ외국인 안 됩니다.ʼWaygooken an dweibnida. Foreigners are not allowed, she says.
ʻ우리 외국인 없어요. 앳애디 입니다.ʼOolie waygooken upseo yo. Es-Ay-Dee imnida. We are not foreigners, says Brody. We are the Special Anti-Establishment Detachment.
She stares at us for a moment. Time for the lichen to grow on the tiles. Then she slowly swings back like a gate, and we duck under the jamb and enter.
There is a dusty yard, scraggly plants hemmed in by broken pots and bricks along the walls. She goes ahead of us with stooped shoulders and waves at a paper screen door. Inside there are two bunks tacked to the wall, enough room for us to stand side-by-side. I don’t step in because my boots are still on.
ʻ온돌 있어요?’Ondol isseoyo? Do you have floor heating?
ʻ없어.ʼ Upseo. Don’t.
Brody takes her by the collar of her plaid shirt. He shows her his knife, a carbon steel kitchen blade, the colour of the roof tiles except where he has honed it, a silver thread.
ʻ공손히.ʼGongson hee. Be courteous.
ʻBetter,ʼ Brody says in English.
He lets her go and she steps away from him, back towards the main building.
ʻ밥 주세요.ʼPab jusaiyo, I say. Please bring us a meal.
She bows as she goes. A half-hour later she brings us two bowls of kamja-tang, nothing but half a potato in salt broth, a chip of grey bone at the bottom. I look at Brody and he doesn’t say anything. He doesn’t look at her as she goes.
It is near full dark when we finish eating, sitting with our feet out the door of our room. Bats flap overhead in the bruised twilight. There is a terrible feeling in my throat. As if something has gestated there, is trying to be birthed.
I get up and take the bowls toward the kitchen of the guesthouse. I can feel Brody watching me. As he is, even when not looking, waiting for a fault to appear.
It is dark in the common room and I can’t find a lamp. My hands full of the ceramic bowls. The woman is nowhere. I move through the shadows toward the dim light cast by the window over the counter. The steel sink is coated in dust, cobwebs in the drain.
There are shelves of decaying books along the walls and after I leave the bowls I brush my hands along the spines. They are dry, desiccated, ready to burn. Almost yearning for it. I stand staring at their faded covers in the gloaming.
When I step outside I hear a sharp scream. The hollow gong of a pot falling to the floor. Brody appears out of a side door and comes toward me, hunched shoulders. Behind him two soldiers are dragging the woman out into the walk on her heels. He has accused her of something, perhaps practicing Islam. She claws at the jamb of the gate before they get her away.
Brody comes close to me and stares hard into my eyes. This lasts a long time. I wonder if we are waiting for the soldiers to return and drag me away too. He has a sweet potato in his hand and he brings it to his mouth and takes a bite. Then he pivots on his toe and stalks toward our bunks.
Later I walk the horses out to the tombs to graze. The mounds are twice as tall as the town that surrounds them, steep hillocks furred thick in grass and thistle. I hobble the horses in a valley between the slopes and they begin to pull at the weeds.
I leave the mounts and wander among the tombs. No-one has begun to farm here; a few things must be left. A persimmon tree has dropped all its fruit on the ground to rot. The dead sweet smell in the dark.
I climb one of the tombs and stand under the large oak that grows at its peak. I put my hand on the bark. I think some time we may be called to level this place, taking ancestor worship into account. This tree would be cut then. Nothing is clear. There are the words, and there is what I have seen. Brody only listens to Beyoncé because she was on the iPod he found. A remnant; where is she now?
The moon has been hazed red by smoke. To the north beside the reservoir an old hotel has been razed, a great candle in the dark. Beneath the moon is the forest fire around Bulguksa, bright on the hill as if someone had spilled the sun, and to the south the pavilions by Anapji are bonfires. I say the names of these things in my mind, not aloud. I can smell the smoke, but it is silent, only the sound of the wind brushing the hair of the grass. Someone is singing an old song far away. To the west are dark mountains like smoked glass.
Things will get worse from here on.
You’ll find more where this came from in our latest book.