Violence Is the Only Law in This War

"The Hive and the Honey" by Paul Yoon, recommended by Ethan Rutherford

Introduction by Ethan Rutherford

Reader! Perhaps you already know Paul Yoon’s work and need no introduction. Perhaps you’ve already read The Mountain, his luminous collection of stories, or stayed up late finishing the quiet, devastating Run Me To Earth. Or perhaps you stumbled upon his brilliant, time-collapsing story “The Valley of the Moon” in the New Yorker this summer and just sort of sat there in a fugue-state of admiration until someone told you to snap out of it, things need to be done, etc. Maybe, after all, you are just like me, and have read him for years, each time putting down one of his books and thinking: What was that? Why am I suddenly crying?  How is it possible that I feel simultaneously obliterated and also more human than I did before I started this short story?  

But on the off chance you haven’t had the pleasure of reading him, you are in luck today.

“The Hive and The Honey” is the title story in Yoon’s forthcoming collection, my favorite of his books so far. I don’t want to spoil the story for you (as though you could spoil an encounter with language like this with plot-talk, but still)—but I do want to say it carries hallmarks of what I love so much about his work. It’s the story of an emotional encounter; it’s thoughtful, plangent, deeply inhabited. It’s historical, set specifically in a Korean settlement under Russian governance in 1881, and narrated by a young Russian policeman, but it also seems to exist out of time. It’s a ghost story (of sorts) that touches on issues of occupation, authority, revenge, and consent. 

But I also want to draw your attention to the brushstrokes, as it’s here where the story achieves its wonder and where I, as a reader, feel that particular pleasure-shock I go looking for everywhere. As in Yoon’s other work, the stillness and gentle precision of the prose is shot through with startling and often brutal imagery that lifts from the page and haunts: a narrator who, in dreams, carries his dead father’s jaw; a butchered man and a hanged woman; a young girl growing larger as she walks into the forest. Even the small descriptions leave a memory stain—the woman who, when hit with the handle of a knife, “crumples like an ancient twig”; the terrified man who “bit[es] his blanket like a child.” These images linger for me and do not resolve. The characters here are moved to speak without hope of an answer. 

Eventually, the members of the Korean settlement finally say to their young Russian policeman: “Please leave us alone. We are trying to live in a land no one wants or thinks about. Everything was fine until you came here, wanting it again.” But at this point, it feels like very little is real, and nothing can be touched. The settlement is haunted; the narrator, so young, so isolated and impotent (and, finally, exorcized) has lost the thread. 

But the reader hasn’t. We have been disoriented, redirected, and placed somewhere we never expected to be. Our vision is clear. What a pleasure, to be so gently guided by a writer.

– Ethan Rutherford
Author of Farthest South & Other Stories

Violence Is the Only Law in This War

The Hive and the Honey by Paul Yoon

South Ussuri, Primorsky Krai, 1881
April Report

Dear Uncle,

About the recent tragic and mysterious events here in your outpost, I can now relate this:

Thirty-four days ago, in the middle of the night, I was woken by a loud noise coming from the Korean settlement. It sounded like a drum or a tree falling. Or so I thought because I was dreaming of Father, who you may recall liked to bang two sticks together to keep rhythm when your family played music after dinner. In the dream, however, he was not young but looked the way I imagine he would look if he were with us today: a trim, gray beard and missing his jaw from the Ottoman bullet, but very much alive.

Did you know in other dreams I find that jaw and carry it? Do you dream of such things about your brother?

In any case, I threw on my coat, grabbed my rifle, and hurried down the hill. I was concerned one of their fanzas might have collapsed, or that a bear had come, or both. They are ingenious, those houses—they are, as I learned, in the traditional style of their country with covered windows that protect them from the million biting flies that have altered my skin, and they contain a heating system that keeps the floor and seating area warm during the winters. But a bear, of course, if provoked, could tear down the door or a window and get in.

There was no bear that I could see. I counted all the rooftops as I kept going. The moon was high and bright and everywhere. Grass sparkled. All the fanzas were there. It was when I was closer that I noticed a door open to the one nearest to the river. A crowd of about thirty had gathered in front but no one had gone closer yet.

I made my way through them easily and spotted the man of the house lying halfway out of the space—he was shuddering a little like the last moments of those fish you used to teach me how to catch, and he was clutching his throat. Someone was trying to help and clutching his throat as well.

In the moment I understood what was happening and saw that his body was covered in a dark wetness, I heard more footsteps behind me, more doors opening—the sound I had heard was of a door banging open—and the man stopped shuddering and went completely motionless. There was a collective gasp. The night air cold enough at the start of spring for our breaths to appear in the moonlight.

Then the man’s wife appeared from the house, stepped over her husband’s dead body, and walked out to the grass and faced everyone and lifted the bloody knife she was holding and said in Korean—the neighbor next to me translated as best he could—that her husband tried to take advantage of her as she slept and hit her when she refused him, and hit her again, and she got so tired of it, all of it, every night, every single night, so tired of it, and there, it was done. She threw down the knife. She stared at everyone. And then at me. Her hair was wild. But she wasn’t scared.

“You’re married,” someone shouted at her from the crowd. “What’s there to take advantage of, you bitch?”

There was silence. And then the man who had been trying to help save the husband, his arms all covered in blood—he turned out to be the man’s brother—walked up to his sister-in-law, picked up the knife, and struck her in the head with the handle, once, but hard enough for her to crumple like an ancient twig.

I rushed toward him, or tried to, but I was held. I reminded the men holding me that I was the police to this settlement and that they were under Russian governance, but whether they understood me or cared I didn’t know. They gripped harder the harder I struggled as the brother waved the knife at me and approached and said, in broken Russian, that I had no business here, that this was a family matter, and when I reminded him of who I was, he said, “You are a useless Cossack who is young enough to be drinking his mother’s breast milk, who has done nothing here and will do nothing here, ever, and if you say another word we will do to you what I am about to do to my bitch sister.”

He said this and spat and took my rifle and yelled, or it was more of a bellow. He headed to his house. He came out with a large rope meant for an animal and wrapped one end around his sister-in-law’s neck. At the weight of this and the motion, she woke, but before she could struggle, he was already pulling her toward the tree by the river.

The rest happened quickly. I shouted. I tried to break free once more, but I was no match for the men holding me. The brother threw the rope over the thickest branch, and with the rope over his shoulder he began to walk away from the water. The woman was dragged into the water first, submerged for a moment, and then was lifted. I thought our eyes met again until I realized she was looking just beyond me.

So I looked away in that direction as she died, to where her daughter of around twelve years had come out, the daughter who would later gesture to me, as I knew she would, that she had heard nothing, didn’t know what had happened, because she couldn’t hear, was born unable to hear, she was asleep, she was dreaming.

“What were you dreaming about?” I said in Russian. She had stopped crying and was reading my lips.

Music, she gestured, pretending to play a stringed instrument.

That was the beginning. I was never given my rifle back, but I was let go and told to leave them alone, that I was no police here.

“Leave us in peace,” they said.

“What peace?” I said, pointing first at the man with his throat slit and then at the body hanging from the tree.

Still, I went back up, peering down on occasion at what had transpired below, which alternated between shadow and the moonlight.

Am I a coward for staying up there for the rest of the night? For doing nothing to stop this from happening? Do you think me a coward, Uncle? Your orders after my preliminary years were to dispatch me to this remote region a world away from you where I would report on the goings-on of a) a newly formed Korean settlement of about fifteen houses, and b) the area in general.

And when I asked what exactly you meant by the “goings-on,” you didn’t respond. You passed me the reins of one of your horses, which I know you weren’t supposed to do—was that an act of kindness, or love?—and handed me a matchlock rifle, told me that every thirty or so days a messenger would come to pick up my report, and finally thanked me for my honorable service.

So here is my report, my third, and yet no messenger has come.

I am Andrei Bulavin, twenty-two years old, your nephew and son of Petro Timofeyevich, who died valiantly in the Balkans, and this is my fourth year of service under your command. I have received the highest level as a marksman and as a swordsman, in leadership, penmanship, cartography, languages; I can save a horse’s life a dozen different ways, can build shelters, estimate wind speed, build a fire faster than anyone else in the barracks. . . . Is this a punishment?

The body remained hanging in the tree all night.

The body remained hanging in the tree all night. Then, in the morning, I watched the daughter use an ax to cut her mother down. She plummeted into the water and for a moment the daughter, as though unprepared for what to do next, watched her mother float and twist and roll down the water until she got tangled in an old beaver dam. Then she dragged her mother out and proceeded to dig two graves near her house. No one helped. She grew tired. She kept digging.

I dressed in my uniform and came back down, this time on Timo, and I helped her as my horse drank the river water and grazed. Neighbors watched but did nothing. We wrapped the bodies in blankets but the daughter changed her mind, I think because she would have no more blankets. She covered her parents’ faces with some of their clothes instead and we buried them and I said that I was sorry.

But I forgot she couldn’t hear me, so I faced her and said it again, in Russian, and then in Korean—I had been learning as much as I could—and after a moment she drew what I believed was my matchlock on the dirt. I shook my head. I said, “Someone here has it. There are too many of them.” She considered this. I nodded and said that I was indeed in a predicament, but I didn’t think she knew I was talking.

Timo came up to her and softly pushed his head against her. This made her smile. She was thin and short for her age and I could not read her at all, what held her now, what passed through, whether it was sadness or anger or both or none of this. I knew she wanted little to do with her uncle, and her uncle wanted nothing to do with her. She was an orphan and was now living alone in a fanza that her parents had built a world and a lifetime away from where she was born, a house that was now hers.

My third month here, and I had already forgotten her name, had seen her twice perhaps before last night, was too embarrassed now to ask for it again. I had spent these past months speaking to as many of these settlers as I could, as many as would speak to me, but my picture of them wasn’t complete: I gathered that most had come from a province just across the border that had been suffering from drought. There were no children—except the daughter who had just lost her parents—though it wasn’t clear whether there had once been children in their community elsewhere and whether there were plans for families to begin. Many of them were older than I thought they would be, in the latter half of their lives. Two were wanted thieves who had escaped from a penal colony in Manchuria, a man of an ancient age mentioned matter-of-factly, offering me some of the tobacco he was smoking.

No one cared. Just as no one cared at first why I had come here and what role I was to play for them as long as I wasn’t a hindrance to their daily lives. They resided together peacefully and worked together and grew barley and buckwheat and corn. It wasn’t technically their land; they were tenant farmers for a Russian landowner who now lived in Vladivostok and who had given up trying to cultivate this land.

They weren’t the only ones. There were pockets of them all over, these small Korean settlements scattered up and down the valley.

Are these the goings-on you would like to know about? That they are entirely self-sufficient, seem to be immune to these dreaded flies that have scarred my face, that they have built better houses than ours even in the Cossack lands or those belonging to the indigenous tribes? That they have succeeded where Russians weren’t able to by cultivating this land, that they ferment vegetables by digging down far into the earth? That they are private and say little, but many of them already know Russian, and that there seems to be a school being built somewhere north at a larger settlement?

There is even a missionary who moves from one settlement to the next, selling products from a horse-drawn cart and briefly saying a sermon before he moves on. I have spent time with him, have bought wares from him, a pot of honey, a hammock I can hang over the stove in the winter to sleep in warmth.

That was where I was when the next disturbances started. The cold came back for a few days, and I had hung the hammock back up above the stove and was drifting off when I heard someone scream. In my disorientation and tiredness, I forgot what had befallen the settlement and the mess I had made of things. I put on my boots and flung on my coat, reached for the matchlock that wasn’t there, remembered, hurried down.

Timo the war-horse, whom I had left with the daughter to keep her company, upon recognizing me grew excited, but I told him to stay where he was in front of the house. The screaming was coming from elsewhere. Other members of the settlement had come out. Together we headed into the brother’s house, the one who had hung his sisterin-law.

We found him clutching a blanket and staring off into the distance somewhere beyond his wall. His skin was as pale as ash.

“She’s not dead!” he shouted, and bit the blanket like a child.

I attempted to lead the investigation into this matter, which in truth I thought of as no matter at all. The drunken murderer was having nightmares. I thought: perhaps if he kept having them, he would eventually depart. Good riddance. He was no uncle, either. I should say I had yet to see them interact. More than once, I have heard him call her “the runt” or “the deaf bitch.”

I know in my heart that with one stab of my saber, he is gone swiftly and efficiently, but I feel ill at ease doing so without your permission. Do I have your permission? Will you ever read this? Have I entered a lawless land only to eventually become lawless myself? What is it that you want me to do?

Have I entered a lawless land only to eventually become lawless myself?

The settlement wanted me at first to do nothing. They decided to take charge themselves and at sunrise they helped the brother dig up the bodies once more. They were both there, the bodies. Already rotting. The clothes the daughter had used to cover their faces ruined now from the digging up.

The brother began to shake. “I swear to you,” he said. “She came back.”

As far as everyone could tell, the case was closed. Everyone returned to their work. The following evening, just as the sun set, more screaming was heard. This time from another house. Another man was clutching his blanket and staring at his wall and shouting, “Oh please, oh please, oh please, this isn’t happening.”

When one of the farmers asked the man to describe what exactly he saw, he said “a woman with brightness like fire” and “full of vengeance” approached him before vanishing. (Again, someone obliged and translated this for me.) I wanted to ask how one saw the manifestation of vengeance, but I kept my mouth shut. I thought: someone was playing a cruel joke. Or perhaps it wasn’t cruel at all. I quite liked it, in fact. I was impressed. Good riddance.

I also considered that they were eating too much of the “drunken” bread they make and were having a collective delirium propelled by guilt. They had punished a woman defending herself and sided with the actions of a rapist.

I sneaked away as they kept talking and headed to the daughter’s house. Timo was by the front door, standing guard. I nuzzled his face. I slid open the door slightly to find the girl in deep sleep, wearing her nightclothes, her hair fanned out across the wooden floor, the room undisturbed.

Now it is day thirty-five after the deaths of the parents. Almost every member of the settlement has been visited by what they are calling the apparition. It’s never the husband, always the wife. They describe her in the exact same way. A moving brightness. Anger. The same height and shape as the hanged woman.

It has gone on long enough that I believe other settlements have now heard about it. The missionary has stopped visiting. I no longer see the faint silhouettes of riders on a far ridge. Not even, it seems, the bears want to tread here.

Only the birds keep coming. Hundreds of them. Silent until something startles them and they explode from the river tree as if all the branches have burst.

The day I left for this post, you said, “Be aware and afraid of bandits.”

There are no bandits here. Maybe there were once. Probably someday there will be again. For now, it is only ourselves.

You see, we seem to have become the fear. The settlers try to stay up, afraid to shut their eyes. The settlement has also assigned rotating sentries and they all take turns making their rounds at night. It doesn’t matter. Someone always sees the woman. Now it has been long enough that some have seen her more than once.

They have formed a council of some kind to talk about this ghost, but also, I infer, to discuss other matters pertaining to the land and their homes.

I find these two-headed strands of conversation fascinating. They want to solve the present situation but also to solve, apparition aside, the never-ending hurdle that is the future here for them.

Even through all this, they seem determined to enter it.

Sometime during the unease of these days, my matchlock vanished. I know this because the brother approached me and accused me of taking it back. I almost reached for my sword. I almost brandished it and pointed it at him the way he pointed the knife at me. I told him that he could check my house if he wanted, but he waved his arms, walked away, and then turned.

I expected the burst of anger I was accustomed to from him, but to my surprise his face had grown soft and sincere and broken, and he said calmly, “Please leave us alone. We are trying to live in a land no one wants or thinks about. Everything was fine until you came here, wanting it again.”

I find that hard to believe. That everything was fine.

I have deduced that it is possible someone is lighting the fuse of my matchlock to present a “brightness.” That there is impressive trickery here. But who is it?

I have tactfully begun to speak to those willing to speak to me, the way I began to do when I first came here, but there are few who believe this is not a supernatural event. They believe they are being punished for their role in the woman’s death and this is now the way of things.

“So we scream,” they say. “We lose sleep. There’s still the next day, isn’t there?”

When I ask them if perhaps they should leave a haunted place, that I would be happy to search for another plot of land, that they have all left once for somewhere else and succeeded—when I ask them all this, they all respond with some three-hundred-year-old story about a Japanese invasion and then the history of temples and missionaries and European ships and that a ghost is nothing.

They say, “So we scream. We lose sleep. It’s not killing us. Why should we leave?”

“You’re the police,” they say, finally. “Get rid of the ghost.”

Only two people have remained untouched by this: myself and the daughter. The settlement seems to think this is logical. Why would the mother haunt her daughter? Or haunt the one person who attempted to defend her? No one seems to consider me as the perpetrator for obvious reasons. But the fact that no one seems to consider the daughter is curious to me. I know that neither her height nor her hair length match her mother’s. But perhaps she has figured out a way to alter her appearance so that the settlement believes she is her mother. That is possible.

No one attempts to speak to her. No one acknowledges her as she passes to work her bit of land on her own or to visit her parents. Has it always been this way, all these years, long before I came? In their discrimination, have they failed to see her intelligence, her maturity, and that in a month’s time she has lost both her parents? If she is tormenting them, I do not blame her. But for how long will she do so? I have tried many times to bring it up in a way I feel is appropriate but have failed to do so every time.

So it is a great surprise when one afternoon she walks up to my post, leading Timo. She unwraps the blanket she has been using as a bag and places food she has prepared into tiny bowls and scatters them around us on the floor like a game we are about to play. She begins to eat. She gestures for me to join her, so I do and I eat with her. We eat it all. Every last spoonful. Then she lies down and shuts her eyes. I poke her and point up to the hammock and she climbs up and in, and I light the fire underneath, and she falls asleep. I lie down on the floor and listen to her breathing, thinking that she cannot hear herself ever.

What is a heartbeat to someone who cannot hear it? What is breathing?

Could Father hear himself before he breathed his last breath?

A buzzing flashes over me. For a moment I brace myself, waiting for the woman to appear for the first time in this house, but it is only a bee that has managed to find its way inside. I watch as it flits about, on the scent of something, and then it settles into my teacup where I used the last of my honey today.

It is then I realize, privately, that today is my birthday. Did she know this, and therefore visited and shared a meal with me? That is impossible.

I know nothing. That is how I feel just then. I know fire and horses and how to write and I miss my father.

I am wondering when this will end—and what will be here in a season, a year, ten years—when I hear another scream. The girl shifts in the hammock as I feed the fire. The night is full.

Early next morning, a few of the farmers are outside when I step out to relieve myself. A woman and three men. The woman speaks Russian. A man translates for the others. She shakes her head at me and says that I am a disgusting man for taking to bed with a child and that I am no different than the murdered man.

She says, “Have you no shame?” and then says that it is clear to them I am the cause of all of this. That I am a demon and that I am wreaking havoc and that I have one hour to leave before they set fire to my post. If I refuse to leave, they will come for me, all of them as a group.

She says all this very quickly, and they return down the hill. In my shock, I remain motionless until I feel the wetness in my trousers and realize that I have pissed myself. The daughter steps out, yawning, then looks curiously down at the three settlers marching toward a group of older gentlemen who are the council and who have gathered by the tree.

“It’s nothing,” I say, and smile. “Come. I want to show you something. I learned it from the missionary. We haven’t seen him in a while, yes?”

The daughter eyes my trousers, then yawns once more and nods. I retrieve my teacup where there is a little honey left, and I walk toward the perimeter of the woods and hold it up. I hear her coming up behind me, the slow rustle of her skirt in the grass, but I don’t turn.

A few minutes later, a bee appears, hovering, circling, then dips into the cup. Then it flies away into the woods. I follow it. She follows me. When I can’t see it anymore or hear it anymore, I stand still and hold up the cup and wait for the bee to come back. Which it does. So we move on, and as we head farther into the woods, I tell the daughter that it is a trick I learned from the missionary. We’re creating a trail.

“To the hive,” I say. “And the honey.”

And then I hold the cup out for her to try. Without hesitation she lifts it up, and after the bee leaves the cup, she begins to walk steadily and purposefully. She doesn’t notice that I have stopped and that I am watching her.

The sun has entered the forest and the spaces between the trunks are alight. It is as if the trees vibrate. For a moment, there is no sound. And I know it is a trick of the light, but the farther away she goes, holding the cup in front of her, the taller she becomes. Not once does she turn. Her shoulders widen. Her hair grows long and pale. And then I hear a distant scream coming from behind me and I say out loud, “So it really isn’t you.”

I wonder if the hour has already passed. Whether they are all climbing the hill to burn down my post.

I try to imagine where you are now, Father. And where I should be. Why someone will refuse to leave a cursed place.

She is in the distance now. All sunlight. Only a sliver. The bee comes back from its hidden kingdom, and then it doesn’t.

Your ever faithful nephew,
Andrei Bulavin

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