My most recent story can be viewed at puritan-magazine.com or directly below. If “Murderers, Whoremongers, Liars and Worse” interests you, check out The Puritan. I have published one other story there, “Chekhov’s Confession.” The editors seem attracted to fiction that is out of the ordinary in character and setting.
Murderers, Whoremongers, Liars, and Worse
by Robert Earle
Two rooms in Pyongyang. 1930s. The room in back with sleeping pallets, cast-iron wood stove, cooking utensils they made themselves, and a chamber pot next to the food box. The room on the street only a half room with an awning open like a mouth in daytime and shut like an eyelid at night. No space to work safely. Sung Wei’s father, mother, and sister deliberately bumped him. Why? His father said to teach him lessons. Metal work was dangerous.
“This chisel? Puncture your chest. This lathe? Skin your fingers to bone. Stay out of the way!”
With his drill press his father could make metal curl out of holes like noodles, but better not touch them. Sharp as razor blades. He also had a small forge. Sung Wei would watch his father heat metal orange-hot, pull it onto the anvil with tongs and pound it with his hammer. Even iron did what his father told it to do.
Everyone worked. Sung Wei’s job was to scour the city for metal and bring it back. Tin, steel, iron, brass, wire, screws, nails. When he found something, how would he carry it? Never easy. If he returned with too little, he’d be sent out again. Long, long days.
A legless man on a wooden plank with wheels—a mechanic’s creeper—saw him one day. “Boy, I’ve been watching you. Work, work, work! How old?”
Sung Wei did not know how old he was.
The man said, “Five.”
Sung Wei wanted to be older. “Six.”
“Liar!” the man said.
“Okay, I don’t know.”
The man said, “I can help you if you help me. First, we be practical, then we meet God.”
Sung Wei already had lots of experiences. There were women who pointed to where he might find something. Sometimes they were right, sometimes only teasing. There were boys who stole what he collected. When he hid pieces of metal in his shirt, they knocked him down and rolled him in the dirt to hurt him.
The legless man’s practical suggestion was this: “You are metal worker’s son, right? Okay, the back wheel on this creeper wobbles. Get your father to fix it, and in the future if I am not busy, I will let you use it to carry what you collect.”
His father said to Sung Wei, “Fix it yourself!”
Sung Wei turned the creeper over and saw the brace of one wheel had crumpled. All afternoon, he worked with a screwdriver, a hammer he could barely lift, and a saw that cut his fingers. But he fixed it. Then he took it back to the legless man.
“Boy, you take forever!” the legless man cried. “Now get me a cigarette! Get me tea! Go, or I chase you!”
The man’s long ashy beard and Mongolian eyes were terrifying. Sung Wei ran down the street and crashed into the cigarette seller’s hut, pretending he just fell. Cigarettes scattered everywhere. Sung Wei took a few as he helped clean up. Now, tea? He ran home, snuck in the back door, took a cup, and filled it with tea.
The man on the creeper smiled with his three teeth. He exhaled the cigarette’s smoke through his nostrils; these grey dragon tails fascinated Sung Wei.
Sung Wei hated this question. “Yukio Matsuke.”
“I don’t lie!”
He had been born Sung Wei, but to please the Japanese invaders, his father said to the family one night, “We change our names.”
His mother asked, “What is my name?”
His sister asked, “What is my name?”
His father said, “Hikari Matsuke.
Sung Wei asked, “Me?”
Sung Wei protested, “I don’t want to be Yukio Matsuke.”
His father asked, “Do you think I want to be Aoki Matsuke? We have no choice.”
The Japanese police would take whatever they wanted from under the awning. They also would confiscate things Sung Wei was carrying home. One policeman kicked Sung Wei. Punishment for stealing things from the empire.
“Even iron did what his father told it to do.”
“Next we have to learn Japanese,” his father said because he had been taken to the sub-prefecture and told they were not Korean anymore—not Japanese, either, but on a path that began with names and language. The first to learn Japanese would be Sung Wei. If he learned it well, he could interpret for the rest of them.
“Or if you don’t understand, you can apologize. The Japanese always want apologies. Say you are Yukio Matsuke and you are sorry. Whatever it is, you are sorry. Learn those words first.”
“I want to be Sung Wei!”
“No, Sung Wei sounds too Chinese.”
“I think we were Chinese before Korean,” his mother said.
“Not anymore,” his father said.
So Sung Wei told the legless man on the mechanic’s creeper his name was Yukio Matsuke.
The man said his name was Chao Li Peng, but names didn’t matter if you were Christian. Nothing mattered but Jesus. He could live without legs, ride in wagons, on trains, even be pulled behind horses. All he needed was Jesus. He pulled a slim book out of his coat pocket. Silky, whispery paper.
“This is the New Testament. Word of God from the Beginning to End. Jesus is born, dies, and will return. We will be saved but all the dogs, murderers, whoremongers, liars, and worse will be cast into the flames of hell.”
“You called me a liar!”
“It’s okay. You weren’t Christian yet. We have time to fix this.”
When Sung Wei was an old man with oxygen tubes in his nostrils and riches beyond measure with churches all over the world and great companies and thousands of employees and followers, he would reflect on what made his life one thing and not another. For instance, meeting Chao Li Peng, who would never say how he lost his legs. Was he born without legs? Did someone cut them off? Sung Wei sometimes posed this question to his deacons: born was the easiest answer, but maybe an accident, war, or the revenge of a furious husband. Then Sung Wei would laugh because no one could know. They also could not know the answer to the next question: Would Sung Wei have found the Lord if he had not met Chao Li Peng? Sung Wei liked to laugh, even if it made him gasp and lose his oxygen tubes so that his wife had to put them back in place.
Chao Li Peng gave him use of the mechanic’s creeper in return for memorizing the New Testament in Korean, not Japanese. The Japanese weren’t Christians like the Koreans. The Japanese were the Romans of the East, and the Koreans were their Palestine, and they also wanted to conquer China the way Rome wanted to conquer Egypt, Syria, all of Asia Minor.
“So fuck the Japanese!” Chao Li Peng said. “That’s why we need Jesus to return and defend us!”
Sung Wei knew what fuck meant. In the back room, his father and mother fucked. He came upon his sister fucking a boy there once. Sometimes he had what he and other boys called a stiffy. Your thing would get hard and go up. The boys tittered and looked at each others’ things when they were stiff. Sung Wei’s was the biggest. He also could piss the farthest. Just something to do. They could do anything now because they were Japanese, and who expected decency from the Japanese?
When Chao Li Peng realized he was going to die because he could not push his creeper anymore, he gave Sung Wei two things: the creeper and the New Testament. But he made Sung Wei promise that he would hide the New Testament and never let anyone get it from him.
Chao Li Peng died when Sung Wei was eight. The Japanese soaked him with kerosene and burned him on the Korean body dump. Sung Wei watched Chao Li Peng curl up like a large black fist.
“The Japanese were the Romans of the East, and the Koreans were their Palestine …”
Even in old age Sung Wei never joked about some things. He had met God and received God’s blessing and mission and God allowed him to be hard as steel and urged him to belittle the queer scribblings of experience that plagued a man’s life—he loved The Book of Job, for instance, and always laughed out loud when he read it. Oh, stupid, stupid Job—no Korean would be so stupid! But certain experiences, no. Remembering the large black fist of Chao Li Peng’s burned corpse never made him laugh.
He took the New Testament home and decorated a tin box with engravings of Japanese dragons and Shinto shrines to make it seem what it was not. He hid the thin little New Testament under a piece of velvet cloth. He didn’t know it all by heart yet. How could he? But he would take it out in secret and recite what he knew.
One day he pulled his creeper home with lead pipes and metal window frames, proud of his work. Whenever he saw a Japanese official, he greeted him in Japanese and passed unmolested. As a Christian, he was beginning to think he could live with the Japanese, maybe change them. But when he got home, he discovered that his father had found his box and put it out to sell and a Japanese official took it away, paying nothing.
He told his father he was a cunt for the Japanese to fuck whenever they wanted.
His father struck him on the side of the head. “You’re not my son! You’re a bastard! You have no father!”
Sung Wei lay on the ground. No one helped him up.
When the great war came, the Japanese put Sung Wei’s father in a Japanese soldier’s uniform. Sung Wei cried out to him as he was marched away, “Father, don’t kill!” His father ignored him. Next, the Japanese took Sung Wei’s mother and sister and made them whores who had to fuck Japanese soldiers day and night.
Sung Wei knew by now where dogs, whoremongers, murders, liars, and worse came from. The Book of Revelation also told him that the cataclysm exploding around him would cast these evil ones to one side and the good to another. But from the dark into the dark, Sung Wei had to work for the Japanese like a demon. He fixed guns, patched canteens and pots, rebuilt carburetors, fuel pumps, and starter motors. He got under jeeps and trucks on his creeper, tapped and twisted, cleaned and bolted. The jeeps and trucks drove away. New ones arrived.
“He told his father he was a cunt for the Japanese to fuck whenever they wanted.”
People wanted shelter in his two rooms. He said yes if they would bring metal and food and listen to the New Testament at night. Who wouldn’t say yes? Which Korean wasn’t Jesus in agony on the cross of life? Hear the Revelation of the End and rejoice. Hell for the evildoers, Heaven for the good!
Then someone told the Japanese that Sung Wei laughed at them. He declared their defeat was God’s wrath against the Romans of the East. What else could whoremongers and murderers expect? No wonder Sung Wei laughed.
The Japanese sub-prefect arrested him. He asked about Sung Wei’s beliefs. Sung Wei said the Japanese were like female fish, spewing their eggs so that Korean men could come along and cover them with seeds. Only then could Japan fulfill its destiny.
The Japanese sub-prefect broke wind and told Sung Wei, “Eat my fart.”
He ordered Sung Wei to jail.
That was a mistake. In the cell there were twelve men. They all wanted to beat Sung Wei, stab him, maybe fuck him. He took on two and three at a time because he was a bull with powerful hands and forearms from metalworking since he was a child. He could twist a nose until it broke. He could snap fingers like twigs. They could get him down, but he kneed balls and butted heads and laughed when he smashed an elbow into an attacker’s eye.
That crazy laugh. His crazy cry, “If you want women to fuck, I will give them to you, more than you can dream. So many dead Japanese soldiers now, what do you think their women want? You!”
He just wouldn’t stop fighting and laughing at them, confusing and hurting them so much that they gave up.
The old Sung Wei didn’t tell all these stories. He thought about them, though, concentrating on the presence of God in his trials and salvation, doing so much that Jesus didn’t do. “The Gospel is life,” he sometimes said, and then stopped because he didn’t want to diminish the divine with the dirty, even if the divine came out of the dirty, born in its filth.
In the prison they lay on a damp concrete floor in a windowless cell with no pallets and a corner where they pissed and shit, creating a stinking anthill of runny feces.
Much of the day Sung Wei taught the New Testament. There would be group recitation and discussion. The men were grateful to pass the time to learn the Truth. Among the lot, two already were Christians. A discussion arose. Could there be only one Christ? Sung Wei said there would be another, according to the Book of Revelation, which was a very difficult book.
The fact that the men were twelve and Sung Wei appeared to teach what had happened and eventually would happen made the obvious question present itself. Was Sung Wei that Second Coming? Sung Wei laughed into the gloom. But still the men wondered.
They asked him, How do you make someone love you who hates you?
Sung Wei said by telling him you were only fucking his wife to warm her up.
Now it was the men’s turn to laugh. Oh, they liked that. So another question.
Was Jesus perfect? they asked.
Sung Wei had thought about this more than anything else and decided no. He said Jesus had erred. He took no wife, he had no children. “When He left us, only words remained. Words are not enough. That was His mistake.”
Having no sex drove the men to say things and joke and feel like fools because one thing in the cell was stronger than the smell of shit, and Sung Wei had said it: they had no women, and men had to have women. He was right. Jesus was afraid of life and therefore imperfect. Therefore, this mighty Second Coming appeared right before their eyes. Everything Sung Wei said was always true.
“Forget your swords and spears and bayonets and rifles,” he counseled. “Use your dicks right up to the hilt.”
The Japanese didn’t know what to do with him. They could hear the recitations and threats to fuck their women
“Put him in solitary confinement,” the Japanese sub-prefect said.
This is where he was found when the Soviets crashed into the north of Korea, foaming with a scum of Korean lackeys, and they set about freeing and renaming the Koreans who had survived the Japanese annexation. Sung Wei would be Ivan Oblonsky and was told to shut up about God.
As an old man Sung Wei could no longer easily recall himself as an eighteen-year-old, returning to the metal shop and rebuilding it. He almost could not remember how strong he had been, how upright his posture, how long he could work with little food and no companionship, just him and the rusting, scattered tools and the collapsed roof and shreds of awning. Then there were women, several of them, who cooked and fought and flirted and brought their children into the shed that became a kind of little house, and he chose one woman to be his only woman without expelling the other women or the men who were attracted to them. Let everyone fuck! But he had to be powerful and determined, and the thought made him smile. They were such good years between the war with the Japanese and then the war between the Koreans themselves. When that war came, he said no, he would not fight for the communists against other Koreans. About this, Jesus had been right and perfect. Sung Wei must love, and in the fullness of human love, he would not call himself Ivan Oblonsky, either, or shut up about God.
“Remembering the large black fist of Chao Li Peng’s burned corpse never made him laugh.”
So the communist North Korean police chief sent him to a prison camp and that was the last time he saw his first wife and child.
In that prison camp, Sung Wei’s behaviour convinced many guards and prisoners that he was deaf and dumb. The sounds of bombs and cannons, yes, he heard them, but they spoke without meaning. Airplanes droning above, no meaning. Machine guns cracking and thudding, no meaning. All the time, the other men in the camp shrieked that they would die, why must they die, who ordered this? Terrible forces came this way, came that way, but what forces were they? Chinese, Koreans, Americans? No one knew.
Sung Wei’s bowels seized; he was spiritless and could not repeat the New Testament. The secret of life, he thought, was death. He wanted to die.
Within the camp, a captured American, built like Sung Wei but more shrunken with hunger, would sit with his back to the fence and his arms behind him and dig with his fingers. At the same time, a frail Korean man whose broken glasses only had one lens sat beside him. They were teaching each other their languages.
Sung Wei sat near them, heard words in English, repeated them to himself, and estimated how long the American would have to dig to accomplish anything, especially when all he could do was loosen the dirt and then, before he rose, smooth it back in place.
Such a funny posture. It was as though the man had angel wings tucked behind him.
Sung Wei struggled with this thought. If they ever tried to crawl under the fence, they would be shot in the open field before they reached the woods. Yet day after day they sat there, teaching each other a new language as the American carefully dug and dug. Such effort, such faith. In comparison, all the rest in the camp, the prisoners and guards, too, were dead. Sung Wei saw this in their skin, eyes, and shriveled mouths. The ink of death had blackened them and would blacken Sung Wei, too. How could he not drink its poison? Yet this angel and scrawny Korean with broken glasses …
Sung Wei trembled with disgust at his own cowardice—an orphaned, widowed, childless bastard. What a pitiful scrap of cast-off flesh he had become. Chao Li Peng would have crawled to be free. Why couldn’t Sung Wei?
“Was Sung Wei that Second Coming? Sung Wei laughed into the gloom. But still the men wondered.”
God must have forewarned him the night the two men would attempt their escape. How else could he have known? He thought he would be tortured to death if he joined them, but he lay there—not palsied, not quaking, not afraid. The lights were turned off. Two guards stood at the only door. One smoked a cigarette whose glowing tip whispered, Kill me first. The American grabbed and punched him and beat him unconscious with his own rifle. The Korean with the broken glasses tried to do the same to the other guard but he was too weak. The other guard raised up his rifle to smash the Korean with the broken glasses. Sung Wei grabbed the rifle, twisted it loose, and slammed it into the guard’s face. When the guard fell to his knees, Sung Wei knew he must kill him. He felt nausea, he heard the hammer blows of his father on the anvil, he rained rifle blows on this man’s softening bloody head.
The American, the Korean with the broken glasses, and Sung Wei ran to the place where the American had been digging and they pawed away the loose dirt. Sung Wei put his hands on the barbs along the wire—he’d done such things all his life—and lifted it so the others could go through. Then the American and Korean did the same for him.
They made the moon their compass. Twelve miles, cold and breathless.
That night God told him if he failed, God would fail; God told him if he lived, God would live.
Sung Wei was powerful. He pulled the Korean with the broken glasses with one hand and pushed the American with the other. That’s how they crossed a freezing river in search of dawn.
God did not fail; God lived.
Where would Sung Wei be if he had not joined those men? Not just in old age, but all his life? Over the years he asked that question many times and laughed to himself that the American was no angel, the Korean a little bit worse. But the freezing river washed away their greatest sins. Kill to do good? How could this be? Impossible except for God, who taught Sung Wei that even in the last instant of life, there was hope. So this is what Sung Wei preached. Be terrible; you are human. But be saved. How else could a refugee from a prison camp in the north escape to Seoul, establish a metal shop, build a church, build scores of churches, build scores of businesses, and be followed by countless believers who let him marry them by the hundreds to partners they did not even know? What did it matter who they knew? God knew, didn’t He? When you live, Sung Wei believed, live!
And fuck the Japanese.
As his heart and lungs weakened, he would sit and pretend to doze so no one would bother him. He was bolstered and pillowed and covered with a beautiful shawl. As always, he insisted on dressing in a blue suit, a fine shirt, a beautiful tie. But the sharp moments of his life, vivid and startling, did not wear such splendid garments; they all happened in filth and rags before he was twenty, more than seventy years ago. It was better to have learned from Chao Li Peng, to have built his secret box and lost it, to have been struck by his father and seen him march away disgraced by a Japanese uniform, to have never seen his first wife and child again when he himself was marched away. But he did not say these things. His life was not the public secret people thought, the Revelation of His Second Coming. No, his life was the private secret, his memories of all the things God did to him that no one else would believe, worse than what He did to Job.