The woman stood, robed in jade marble, head and hands reaching out for the sky like a tree. The water flowed from her up-reached palms and down the cold rounded surface of her body. It flowed between the shapely breasts and down the sculpted dimple that whispered navel. It never stopped as it flowed. It didn’t aburptly drip off a bent elbow or hardened nipple. It flowed. It didn’t drip off a bent knee but flowed, only releasing her at the very last, off the tip of her toe. from there it flowed into the cold green marble that worshipped quietly underneath her feet and off the marble into the cold pool below.
And it was difficult to take my eyes off her, this cold marble woman standing like a day dream in the corner of the dimly lit marble room. It was difficult not to love her, so I stood staring, for a long time uninterrupted until I felt the eyes on me and began to remember where I was. I saw them, the women, for the first time felt the heat of a blush flowing like water down the length of my own naked body, flowing down to my very toes. The women watched, not even stopping as they bathed, but stared at me in spite of the lather that flowed down foreheads and into eyes. They sat in the pools. In the cold pool at the foot of the woman and in the hot pool that lay open at the center of the room. Even through the steamy haze they watched me in their curious, questioning way. We were diffierent. It was silently acknowledged. I tried to avert my eyes as I walked over to one of the showers that lined the marble walls only three feet from the floor, but there was nothing for them to land on, except marble and the women there. I squatted as I watched the other women squatting on the opposite side of the room, facing me, watching me.
I sighed as the water hit me, it had been so long. It was March in South Korea. My platoon had been out for at least two weeks of a month long exercise in the combination of snow, slush and mud that always accompanied the beginning of springtime here. For two weeks I’d been clothed even at night. My skin had grown accustomed to the heavy feel of winter BDU’s (battle dress uniform). I had become used to not bathing, almost. Until today. My squad leader had insisted that we visit the bath house (in Korean–moke yoke tang). When I claimed I had no money to pay for this luxury (and also I wasn’t used to bathing in such a public setting), he leant me enough to cover the trip. Even so, I had very nearly refused to come, despite the musty smell that penetrated my clothes and drifted up my nose.
I squatted at the miniature shower and sighed as I thought that for a second I could take this trip to heaven with the jade angel watching over me. I cringed at the thought of going back to the weapon and the cammo, the heaviness of the kevlar on my head and especially the cold of the Korean night that froze my very soul, filled with the smell of manure (we were camped very near a pig farm) and the sight of the tiny homes made of tin and wood and sometimes cardboard, that dotted the countryside. I watched as the clean water flowed down the surface of my body, abruptly dripping off a bent kneee, muddied by the dirt which had by then become my second skin. As the muddy water flowed down the drain I felt myself slowly thawing, coming to life again.
There was a soft wisp along my shoulder which might have been my imagination. Then another wisp. I turned to glance. A woman squatted behind me, a wash rag dangling from her right hand. “I do,” was all she said–all she could probably remember of a strange language she had once learned in school. I closed my eyes as she washed my back, softly removing the dirt and the weariness. Removing the ice. She took each of my hands and held them in her own, washing, like she cared for me. She looked like the rest of them from my limited experience–small, and thin, with smooth black hair and brown eyes–all of them, and her. But she squatted like I was the same, washing me with her own hands, and her own heart. I felt hot tears spilling from my closed eyes, mixing with the warm water that beat away the frowning creases of my face; tears of relief–of not having to carry the burden, if only for a moment as this strangely graceful woman massaged my scalp. I opened my eyes and noticed for the first time how most of the women squatted in twos washing themselves and each other and conversing, communing with one another. In this room with these women I felt my self-conciousness being washed away like so much mud and dirt. I briefly forgot the respective definitions of the words “Korean” and “American.” for an uninhibited moment, I felt the meaning of gentle bliss.
When she finished I took a last look at her. “Kam sa hab ni da,” was what I remembered to say. That means thank you in Korean. She smiled and bowed her head, returning to her spot.
I took one last look at the room, at the watching women, at my jade angel. I turned and stepped out of heaven and into the blinding light of a yellow tiled locker room. I put on clean underclothes and dirty BDU’s over my still damp skin. I pulled on my boots, lacing them up begrudgingly, wishing for five more minutes in the presence of this community, of the jade angel. I took one last look at the steamed over glass doors that lead into the heaven of the bath house. Replacing the kevlar on my head, I walked out into the icy Korean night.