excerpt from novel-in-progress, set in North Korea
From Pyongyang, eastbound, the crow’s driver took the hills above Myohyang like mad because he had no headlights. If darkness fell before they made it wherever it was they were going, they’d have to sleep in the road. The truck was a Soviet Tsir, but they were called crows because of the black canvas canopies that covered the transport bed, which is where Jun Do sat. Why hadn’t they given Jun Do a train ticket? Why had they stuck him on a crow, the slowest, most painful way home? The washboard road rattled his intestines, the engine vibrated so strong he couldn’t tell where his flesh ended and the wooden bench began. When he tried to move, to piss through the slats to the dirt road below, his muscles wouldn’t answer. His tailbone had gone from numb to fire to dumb. Dust filled the canopy, gravel shot up through the transaxles, and it was here that Jun Do understood that he’d returned to North Korea, that his few days in America were now a dream. It was here on this mountain pass that he flipped the switch in his mind from living back to enduring.
Also in the back of the truck were two men. They sat on either side of a large white cooler, and they wore no insignia or uniform. They were particularly dead-eyed, and of all the shit jobs on earth, Jun Do thought, these guys had it the worst. Still, he tried to make small talk.
“So, are you guys medics?” he asked them.
The truck hit a rock. The lid of the cooler lifted, and a wave of pink ice water sloshed out.
He tried again, “The guy at the airport said you two were real heroes of the people.”
They wouldn’t look at him. The poor bastards, Jun Do thought. He’d choose a landmine crew before being tasked out to a blood-harvesting detail. He only hoped they’d get him east to Kinjye or maybe even Chongjin before they made a stop to practice their trade, and he distracted himself by thinking of the gentle motion of his ship the Hyun, of cigarettes and small talk with the Captain, of the moment he turned the dials and his radios came to life.
They breezed through all the checkpoints. How the soldiers manning them could tell that a blood team was on board, Jun Do couldn’t figure, but he wouldn’t want to stop their truck either. Jun Do noticed for the first time that spinning in eddies of wind through the floorboards were the shells of hardboiled eggs, a dozen of them perhaps. This was too many eggs for a single person to eat, and nobody would share their eggs with a stranger, so it must have been a family. Through the back of the truck, Jun Do watched crop security towers flash past, a local cadre in each with an old rifle to guard the corn terraces. He saw dump trucks filled with peasants on their way to help with construction projects. And the roads were lined with conscripts, each bearing huge rocks on their shoulders to shore up washed-out sections. Yet this was happy work compared to the camps. He thought of whole families being carried off together to such destinations. If children had sat where he sat, if old people had occupied this bench, then absolutely no one was safe—one day a truck like this might come for him, too. The cast-off eggshells spun like tops in the wind. There was something carefree and whimsical about their movement. When the shells drifted near Jun Do’s feet, he stomped them.
All he could think about was Sun Moon and her great swings of emotion. He could almost hear Sun Moon play the gayageum, almost smell Sun Moon’s laundry out the window, her hanboks brightening in color as they dried under the summer sun.
It was late afternoon when the truck descended into a river valley. On the near shore was a large encampment—thousands of people living in mud and squalor to be close to their loved ones on the other side. Across the bridge, everything changed. Through a flap in the black canvas, Jun Do could see harmonica-style barracks, hundreds of them, housing thousands of people, and soon the stink of distilling soy was in the air. The truck passed a crowd of small boys stripping the bark from a stack of yew branches. They had only their teeth to start the cut, their nails to peel back a flap and their little biceps to then rip the branch clean. Normally, a sight like this would reassure him, make him feel comfortable. But Jun Do had seen no living boy so sinewy, and they moved faster than the Long Tomorrows orphans ever had.
The gates were a simple affair: there was one man to throw a large electrical switch while another wheeled back an electrified section of fencing. The medics removed old surgical gloves from their pockets, ones that had clearly been used many times, and pulled them on. They drove to a dark wooden building, where they parked. The medics jumped out and told Jun Do to carry the cooler. But he didn’t move. His legs were filled with static, and he sat there, watching a woman rolling a tire past the back of the truck. Both of her legs were missing a little below the knee. She had a pair of work boots that she’d fashioned to wear backwards, so that her short stumps went into the boot’s toe box while her knees were planted in the heels. The boots were laced up tight, and she was surprisingly nimble in them, swinging her short legs in circles in pursuit of the tire.
And that’s when Jun Do understood the crowness of the truck he was in. Sure, its black canopy suggested a crow’s wings, but this truly was a crow, he was now inside the crow itself, stealer of eggs, of eyeballs, of the babies of all breeds. The crow will come in the cold and the wind, the crow will take grain just a hair’s breadth beyond the reach of the farmer’s sickle. The crow will alight upon the chests of the elderly, too weak to bat them away and suck away the breath of life, and thus the crow is not just a taker but a deliverer, too.
One of the medics picked up a handful of dirt and with great violence threw it in Jun Do’s face. His eyes filled with grit and welled over. He wanted to kick that punk’s head off. But this was not the place to make a mistake or do anything stupid. Besides, it was all he could do to swing his legs off the back of the truck and keep his balance while he hefted the cooler. No, it was best to get this over with and get out of here.
He followed the medics into a processing center, where there were dozens of infirmary cots filled with people who seemed on both sides of the edge of death. Listless and murmuring, they were like the fish at the bottom of a fishing hold, offering no more than one last twitch of a gill when the knife came down. He saw the inward gaze of a heavy fever, the yellow-green skin of organ failure, and wounds that lacked only blood to keep bleeding. Spookiest of all, he couldn’t tell the men from the women.
Jun Do dropped the cooler on a table. His eyes were on fire, and trying to wipe them clean with his shirt only made them burn more. He had no choice. Opening the cooler, he used the blood-laced ice-water to splash the dirt from his eyes. There was a guard in the room, sitting on a crate and leaning against the wall. He threw his cigarette away to accept an American Spirit cigarette from the medics. Jun Do came up to get a cigarette, too.
A medic turned to the guard. “Who is this guy?” he asked, indicating Jun Do.
The guard inhaled deep of his fancy cigarette. “Someone important enough to arrive on a Sunday,” he said.
“They’re my cigarettes,” Jun Do said, and the medic reluctantly gave him one.
The smoke was rich and smooth, and it was worth a little eye sting. An old woman entered the room. She was thin and bent and wore strips of cloth wrapped around her hands. She had a large camera on a wooden tripod that looked exactly like the one the Japanese photographer was using when they kidnapped her.
“There she is,” the guard said. “Time to get to work.”
The medics began tearing strips of tape and sticking them to the backs of their hands.
He was about to witness the darkest of trades, but the cigarette calmed him. I am in a kwan li so camp high in the mountains, he thought. I am going to see something no one has seen, a gulag blood harvest, and live to tell about it.
Just then, something caught his eye. He looked up to the blank wall above the threshold of the door. It was completely empty—there was simply nothing there. Never in his life had he been in a room without portraits of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il above the door. Not in the lowliest orphanage, not in the oldest train car, not even in the burned-out shitter of the Hyun. Never had he been in a place that did not merit the gaze of the Dear and Great Leaders’ constant concern. The place he was in, he knew now, was below mattering—it didn’t even exist.
He caught the old woman staring at him. Her eyes were like those of the Senator’s Wife—he felt she was seeing something he didn’t even know about himself.
One of the medics yelled at Jun Do to grab a crate from the corner, where there was a stack of them. Jun Do took a crate and met the medic at the bedside of a woman who had her jaw tied shut with strips of cloth that circled her head. One medic began unlacing her shoes, which were just mottles of black repaired with strips of bark and wire. The other began unwrapping tubing and intravenous lines, all very rare medical supplies.
Jun Do touched the woman’s skin, which was cool.
“I think we’re too late,” he told them.
The medics ignored him. They each ran a line into a vein in the tops of her feet, then attached two empty blood bags. The old photographer appeared with her camera. She called to the guard for the woman’s name, and when he shrugged, the photographer simply wrote the date on a grey slate and placed it on the woman’s chest. Then the photographer unwound the strips of cloth from the woman’s head. When the photographer removed the woman’s cap, most of her hair came off with it, lining it with a black swirl.
“Here,” the photographer said, slipping the cap to Jun Do. “Take it.”
The cap looked heavy with ground-in grease. Jun Do hesitated.
“Do you know who I am?” The old photographer asked. “I’m Mongnan. I take the pictures of all who arrive and depart from this place.” She shook the cap insistently. “It’s wool. You’ll need it.”
Jun Do pocketed the cap as a way to shut her up, to stop her and her crazy talk.
When Mongnan took the woman’s picture, the flash awakened her for a moment. She reached from the cot to Jun Do’s wrist and clenched it. In her eyes was a very clear desire to take him with her. The medics yelled at Jun Do to lift the head of the cot. When he did so, they kicked the crate underneath, and soon the four blood bags were filling nicely.
Jun Do said to the medics. “We better make things fast,” he said. “It’s getting dark, and since the driver doesn’t have headlights, I don’t want to sleep here tonight.”
The medics ignored him.
The next person was a teenager, his chest cool and pale blue. His eyes were drawn, smaller than his sockets so that they turned with labor, in increments. One of his arms hung off the cot, outstretched to the rough-hewn floorboards.
“What’s your name?” Mongnan asked him.
His mouth kept making a motion like he was trying to whet his lips before speaking, but the speaking never came.
Soft and tender, with the voice of a mother, she whispered to the dying boy.
“Close your eyes,” she said, and when he did she snapped the photo.
The medics used the strips of medical tape to secure the blood lines, and the process repeated itself. Jun Do lifted the cot and slid the next crate under it, the boy’s head gently lolled and then Jun Do was left carrying the warm bags to the cooler. The life of the boy, the true life of him, had literally drained warm into these bags that Jun Do held, and it was like the boy was still alive in the bags until Jun Do personally snuffed him by dropping them into the ice water. For some reason, he expected the warm bags of blood to float, but they sank to the bottom.
Mongnan whispered to Jun Do, “Find a pair of boots.”
Jun Do gave her a wary look but did as he was told.
There was only one man with boots that might fit. The uppers had been patched many times, but the soles were from a pair of military boots. In his sleep, the man made a croaking noise, like bubbles kept rising up his throat to pop in his mouth.
“Get them,” Mongnan said.
Jun Do began unlacing the boots. They wouldn’t make him put on a pair of work boots unless they had another ugly task in store for him—he could only hope it wasn’t burying all these fucking people.
While Jun Do was wriggling the man’s boots off, he woke. “Water,” he said, before he could even open his eyes. Jun Do froze, hoping the man wouldn’t come to. But the guy found his focus. “Are you a doctor?” the man asked. “An ore cart tipped over—I can’t feel my legs.”
“I’m just helping out,” Jun Do said, and it was true, when the boots slipped off, the man seemed not to notice. The man wore no socks. Several of his toes were blackened and broken, and some were missing, with the remaining stubs leaking a tea-colored juice.
“Are my legs okay?” the man asked. “I can’t feel them.”
Jun Do took the boots and backed away, back to where Mongnan had her camera set up.
Jun Do shook the boots and clapped them together, but no toes fell out. Jun Do lifted each boot and peeled back its tongue in an effort to peer as deep inside as he could—but he could see nothing. Hopefully, the missing toes had fallen off someplace else.
Mongnan raised the tripod to Jun Do’s height. She handed him a little grey slate and a chalk stone. “Write your name and date of birth.”
Pak Jun Do, he wrote, for the second time in one day.
“My birth date is unknown,” he told her.
He felt like a child when he lifted the slate to his chin, like a little boy. He thought, Why is she taking my picture? but he didn’t ask this.
Mongnan pressed a button and when the flash went off, everything seemed different. He was on the other side of the bright light now, and that’s where all the bloodless people on cots were—on the other side of her flash.
He was holding a pair of boots and a cap. The medics yelled at him to lift a cot.
“Ignore them,” she said. “When they’re done, they’re going to sleep in the truck, and in the morning, they’re going home. You, we’ve got to take care of you before it’s too dark.”
Mongnan called to the guard for the barracks number of Pak Jun Do. When he told her, she wrote it on the back of his hand. “We don’t usually get people on Sundays,” she said. “You’re kind of on your own. First thing is to find your barrack. You need to get some sleep. Tomorrow’s Monday—the guards are hell on Monday.”
“I’ve got to go,” he said. “I don’t have time to bury anybody.”
She lifted his hand and showed him the barrack number written across the back of his knuckles. “Hey,” she said. “This is you now. You’re in my camera. Those are now your boots.”
She started walking him toward a door. Over his shoulder, he looked for the pictures of Kim Jong Il and Kim Il Sung. A flash of panic struck him, the way seasickness can suddenly overpower you. Where were they when he needed them?
“Hey,” one of the Medics said. “Were not done with him.”
“Go,” Mongnan said. “I’ll handle this.”
“Find your barrack,” she said. “Before it’s too dark. ”
“But then. What do I do, then?”
“Do what everyone else does,” she said and pulled from her pocket a milky white ball of corn kernels. This she gave to him. “If people eat fast, you eat fast. If they drop their eyes when someone comes around, so do you. If they denounce a prisoner, you chime in.”
When Jun Do opened the door, boots in hand, he looked out onto the dark camp, rising in every direction into the icy canyons of a huge mountain range, its peaks still visible in the last of the setting sun. He could see the glowing mouths of the mineheads and the torchy flicker of workers moving within. Ore carts pushed forth from them under human power, strobing from security lights that reflected off the slag ponds. Everywhere, cooking fires cast an orange glow upon the harmonica houses, and the acrid smoke of green firewood made him cough. He didn’t know where this prison was at. He didn’t even know its name.
“I’ll come find you in a couple days,” Mongnan told him.
He closed his eyes. It seemed he could make out the plaintive groans of roofing metal in the evening wind, of nails squeaking in the grip of contracting wood, of human bones stiffening and hardening on thirty thousand bunks. He could hear the slow swivel of searchlight tripods and he could make out the hum of electricity charging perimeter wires and the icy crackle of ceramic insulators on their poles. And soon, he would be in the center of it, in the belly of the ship once again, but this time, there would be no surface, no hatch, just the slow endless pitch of everything to come.
Mongnan indicated the boots in his hand. “They’ll try to get those from you. Can you fight?”
“Yeah,” he said.
“Then put them on,” she told him.
The way you dig into a boot for old sticky toes is the way you spring a trap door in a DMZ tunnel or pull a stranger off a beach in Japan: you just take that breath and go. Closing his eyes, Jun Do breathed deep and reached inside the dank boots, sweeping his fingers back and forth, feeling all the way in. Finally, he turned his wrist so he could scrape out the depths, and he removed what he had to remove. It left a scowl on his face.
He turned to the medics, to the guard, to the doomed half-dead.
“I was a model citizen,” he told them. “I was a hero of the state,” he said and then stepped through the door in his new boots, out into a matterless place, and from this point forward nothing further is known of the citizen named Pak Jun Do.
© 2009 Adam Johnson
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