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              The Barcelona Review

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On the mountain behind the village, a cuckoo crowed, crying out as if it were choking on a clot of blood. So Mrs. Oh wasn’t the only one for whom sleep was proving impossible. The drawn-out sigh her husband made spoke of his own discomfort. Then, as though it was a chain reaction, their granddaughter started up crying.
            “Baby, does it hurt?”
            Mrs. Oh’s trembling hand fumbled in the darkness for her granddaughter’s bandaged leg. Her fingers bumped up against a squared-off wooden board, hard and chill to the touch. A shiver ran down her spine.
            Though she tried to sigh out the ache inside her, it remained stubbornly lodged in her chest. Her five-year-old granddaughter’s broken leg was obviously painful, but Mrs. Oh had her own sufferings to contend with, the bandage around her lower back forcing her to lie rigid in the same uncomfortable position. A few days ago, when the elderly couple had visited their pregnant daughter, whose due date was fast approaching, they’d thought that by bringing the little girl home with them for a spell they were doing a good deed, allowing the mother to focus on taking care of herself. If Mrs. Oh could have foreseen that such a calamity would befall the child . . .
            “Mama . . .”
            “Little Yeongsun. Now that your leg’s better, let’s go and take the train to see Mum, hey?”
            “Don’t want to, don’t want to, don’t want to go on the train . . .”
            Her whimpered cries, which up until now had been as faint as the sound of a trickling stream, exploded into a full-blown howl. Shredding the dark interior of the house to pieces, the sound was one of despair and protest.
            “What are you doing, mentioning that awful train in front of the child? It’s enough to give anyone the shivers,” Mrs. Oh’s husband complained. The child’s cries doubled in volume, as though her grandfather’s remarks had swelled her sorrow even further.
            “Oh, of course,” Mrs. Oh muttered, “I’m a foolish old woman, it’s true.” She got up and searched for the light switch. Once the room had brightened, she moved to embrace the tearful girl.
            “Eh, our little Yeongsun, will you give Grandma a hug?” Overwhelming pity swelled up inside her and she slid her arms beneath her granddaughter’s body, being careful of her bandaged leg, and lifted her up. Carrying the little girl in her arms, she went over to the window bench where she’d spent the past few hours, and sat back down again.

            Feel better, feel better
            Our little one’s hurt
            Let your nice grandma
            Soothe it for you . . . .

            Though Mrs. Oh made every effort to comfort the child in her lap, the little girl was unable to quell her tears. Her sorrow seemed not to have subsided at all, so deeply had it pierced her innocent self. How to undo the hurt inside her, how to heal the wound inflicted when her soft knee had snapped, like the sparrow who fell afoul of evil Nolbu?
            “Yeongsun, your grandma made a mistake.” The words seemed to split Mrs. Oh’s throat in two. “We won’t take the train again, okay? Never again!”
            Never! There it was again, that hellish din, ringing in her ears as though reminding her to keep this promise. And that dreadful train station, the source of the commotion, appearing in her mind’s eye like a scene from some nightmare . . .
“There are people dying here!” screamed Mrs. Oh, seized by the despairing conviction that she was about to breathe her last, buried in this jumble of people. Her head and back were being steadily crushed by this mass of contorted, entangled limbs, while heavy blows knocked the wind from her chest. Throbbing heat, the stink of sweat, the gooey mud under her feet . . . these things were already growing faint for her, receding into the background. Only one single thought hung clear and sharp in her mind—that this was how she was going to die. Perhaps it was all her long years as a history teacher that gave her the illusion, now, of being caught up in a mass of starving slaves, in one of the grain riots she’d taught her pupils about.
            And Mrs. Oh would have truly met her end in that spot, were it not for the fact that the bread supplies ran out just in the nick of time. As soon as all the bread from the handcart was sold, the maelstrom subsided. Mrs. Oh managed to buy three packs just before the chaos reached fever pitch, and kept them clutched safe to her chest the whole time. Holding in her mind the thought that they had been bought with their last ration coupons, that without them the family would go hungry for however long it now took to make it to their destination, Mrs. Oh kept a tight grip on these precious packets.
            “Hey! Even grandmothers are crawling around in this mess?” a sweat-soaked young man cried in surprise when he spotted Mrs. Oh. Concentrating on finding her other shoe, which had come off and got kicked away from her in the melee, she gave no sign of having heard him. She found the muddied shoe and put it on, but there still remained the task of getting back into the waiting room to rejoin her husband and granddaughter. The room was rammed to the gills, so much so that even the window frames had disappeared, gotten rid of in a bid to free up some space. Whatever had previously been a window was now used as a door, and the water bottles people had brought with them for the journey were transformed into chamber pots. If only it could have just stopped raining, they wouldn’t all have had to cram into such a tiny space. But as it was, the waiting room was their only refuge against getting soaked to the skin.
            People lying down or sitting on the concrete floor, in spite of all the mud that had got trailed in from outside; people lacking even the space to sit, who instead had to stand stiff as posts—almost all of them were people who, like Mrs. Oh and her family, had been intending to change trains here at this station, only to find themselves imprisoned because a Class One event was being held.
            The station itself wasn’t particularly large and was far away from any built-up areas, but it was one at which various branch lines converged, meaning that even a small change in the service was enough to cause a severe backlog. That would have been bad enough in itself, but as the station had now been completely locked down for thirty-two hours and counting, crowds and confusion were only to be expected. The would-be passengers had all exhausted whatever provisions they’d brought for the journey, and the scant handful of basic restaurants were unable to meet their demands. Even buying a packet of bread involved the kind of ordeal which Mrs. Oh had just suffered through, and the difficulties in then getting back to the waiting room were no less of a strain. People’s nerves were on edge, leading them to kick up a fuss over the least perceived slight. Faces blackened with dust from the railroad were screwed up in irritation; people grumbled that someone had jogged the backpack they were using as a pillow or had elbowed them in the ribs while shoving past. And even when these petty spats had run out of steam, the same angry expression remained on everyone’s face.
            What bastard’s Class One event takes this long? What bastard’s Class One event kills people like this? Of course, these words of discontent could never pass their lips. The Class One event taking place just then involved Kim Il-sung traveling along that same railroad—Kim Il-sung, whose sacred inviolability meant that even if he announced that a convicted murderer was to be allowed to live, anyone who dared so much as hint at disapproval would be sealing his or her own fate, with no more recourse to reverse it than a mouse faced with a cat. Indeed, the “cats” would be all around the station just now, even inside the waiting room, scattered among the mice like the seeds in a squash.
            In all likelihood, the cats would pretend to share the sufferings of the mice right next to them, even producing the same pitiful whimpers whenever they happened to be bumped or jolted . . . and the wretched mice, suspecting this, could only divert their anger onto the most trivial incidents, like the bride who takes it out on the family dog when her mother-in-law gives her a tongue-lashing.
            With so many people looking for the family dog in this situation, it took Mrs. Oh a full ten minutes to get back to the place where her husband and granddaughter were waiting, though the distance from the yard in front of the station was no more than thirty-odd steps. The family had installed themselves in one corner of the waiting room, the ideal spot from which to avoid “attacks” from behind or to one side.
            Yeongsun was the first to spot Mrs. Oh. “Bread!” she exclaimed.
            They’d had to skip only one meal since setting out on their trip, yet the girl looked happier to see the bread than to see her grandmother. Her husband, though, was the same as always.
            “Look at the sweat on you! That’s why I said I should go. . . .”
            He reached up to take a packet of bread and turned to the young woman who had borrowed Mrs. Oh’s place. Her clothes marked her out as a recent bride. She had fallen asleep where she sat, her head lolling forward onto her backpack. “Excuse me, miss,” he said to wake her, and shifted aside so she’d still have room now that Mrs. Oh was back. Tearing open her packet, Mrs. Oh held out a piece each to her husband and granddaughter.
            “I’m all right,” the old man said, pretending not to be hungry, though in truth he was holding back. Before Mrs. Oh had gone out to the yard, he’d given her the last ration coupon from his wallet. Each packet it had bought contained five small pieces, fifteen all told—and this was all they had to last them until they reached their destination.
            “Go on, eat. Don’t worry about the child. The train will set off any moment now, you’ll see. Do you really think they’d let us starve to death here?” Mrs. Oh forced a piece of bread into her husband’s hand.
            “Well then, you have some too.”
            As it seemed the only way to get her husband to follow suit, Mrs. Oh took a bite of their precious stash. In reality, the couple were both on edge, worried that the little they had wasn’t going to last and Yeongsun would end up going hungry.
            “Wow! You look like you’re enjoying that . . . . ” 
            The young woman who had given her place to Mrs. Oh, and who was now sitting crammed up against them, laughed at the sight of sweet-faced Yeongsun devouring her bread in great gulps.
            “Ah, what was I thinking? Here, have a piece.” Genuinely apologetic, Mrs. Oh handed the packet of bread to the young woman.
            “Yes, have one,” her husband insisted.
            “No, no,” the young woman said, firmly pushing the packet back and smiling warmly at the couple’s concern. “I have some food of my own in my backpack. But have you got far to go? After all this . . . ”
            “Oh, we’ve come a fair way already, but there’s not much farther left now. As long as we can get out of this awful situation . . . ”
            “For goodness’ sake, when on earth will this train—oh!” The young woman moaned abruptly, seemingly taken by surprise. Both hands instinctively went to her lower stomach, and she buried her face in her backpack.
            “Are you all right?” Mrs. Oh asked. “But of course—you must be expecting.” Perhaps it was due to embarrassment, or perhaps simply because of the pain, but in any case the young woman couldn’t manage an answer. Mrs. Oh decided to be more direct. “How many months?”
            “Eight . . . Everything was fine, but I got jostled in the crowd just now, trying to get my ticket stamped. . . . ”
            “Whatever can we do?” Mrs. Oh exclaimed. “Here in the middle of nowhere . . .” Her anxiety was genuine, as much as if the problem concerned her own family. Why, this woman could have been her own daughter, whose pregnancy was similarly advanced. In this day and age, when young women found it every bit as tough as men to get by, who could say that some similar calamity hadn’t befallen her own daughter in the few days since they’d seen her last?
            “Here, make yourself comfortable.” His own thoughts in tune with his wife’s, the old man tucked his legs in to give the woman a little more space.
            “Oh my . . .”
            But as for what happened to her after that, there was no way for any of them to know. No sooner had the old man encouraged her to lie down than a rumor sprang up that tickets were finally being checked for anyone traveling north, and the waiting room suddenly sprang into action. The upheaval was so great that by the time it subsided, the entire place had gotten so topsy-turvy that complete strangers now found themselves practically in each other’s laps. But though the young woman herself had disappeared, the thought of her plight continued to haunt Mrs. Oh, strengthening her resolve that something must be done.
            When she’d found out about her own daughter’s pregnancy, one of the first things she did was to send a letter to her younger brother, who lived far away in the mountains, asking him if he could get his hands on a wild boar’s gallbladder. Everyone knew boars’ bladders were packed with nutrients and were just the thing to help a woman get her strength back after childbirth.
            Her brother’s home was only four stations away from the one they were currently stranded at, back in the direction they’d come from. Surely she could walk that far. And with one mouth less to feed, the four ration coupons would last so much longer! This wasn’t the first time Mrs. Oh had had such thoughts. Just now, when her husband had handed her the final coupon, she’d sounded him out upon the matter, only to be roundly scolded. But now, with the young woman’s fate a clear warning in her mind, her intention had grown firm. There was no space for hesitation.
            “Yeongsun’s grandfather! There’s nothing else for it; I have to go through with my plan.”
            “Ah, you’re not back on that again?” Her husband had been sitting awkwardly hunched over their sleeping granddaughter, trying to shield her from the jostling crowd. Now, he straightened up and looked his wife in the face.
            “I have to do this. Have you forgotten that young woman already?”
            “Pfft! Forgotten, indeed!”
            “If a woman meets with an accident in childbirth, she can suffer from the effects her whole life. Her whole life!”
            “ . . . ”
            “I’ve thought it through, and this is the best way. We can kill two birds with one stone. Please, you’ll say yes?”
            “Oh, I’ve thought it through as well, you know. How can you expect to make it safely all that way? On your own, and at your age.”
            “Well, don’t you worry yourself about that.”
            Eventually, Mrs. Oh got ready to set out. But when it came down to it, parting from her husband and granddaughter felt uncomfortably like leaving them to fend for themselves in a patch of thorns. Her feet were like lead as she took the first step. Slowly, constantly turning to look back, Mrs. Oh began to walk away from that station waiting room, which would remain seared on her memory like a brand.
As the child on her lap resumed her soft weeping, Mrs. Oh was pulled back to the present.
            Though Yeongsun’s sobbing had now died down, the sense of fate’s cruelty that had grown up inside her was apparently refusing to disperse. With a trembling hand, Mrs. Oh stroked the soft, downy hairs by the girl’s face. Even her husband hadn’t escaped unscathed from the chaos at the station; that was how serious it was. But there would have been nothing she could have done even if she’d stayed behind.
            All the same, she couldn’t help reproaching herself. She might fall to her knees in front of her granddaughter and beg the girl’s forgiveness, but even that wouldn’t entirely get rid of her guilt, her feeling that she, who called herself Yeongsun’s grandmother, had brought the child to this sorry state by running away when she needed her most. Of course, the child’s injury was nothing compared with what her husband suffered, his pelvis twisted badly out of joint. But the girl was just a tender young bud, in the springtime of her life! Even more than the damage to her leg, which had to be encased in a stiff bandage, the fear and agitation this suffering had caused were surely deserving of pity.
            “How about another of Grandma’s old stories, Yeongsun?” It was impossible for Mrs. Oh not to try to comfort her granddaughter, to make up for the pain she felt she’d caused, in whatever small way she could. The girl merely nodded in answer.
            “Right then, let me see. Once upon a time on a certain seashore . . .”
            “There lived a kind old fisherman, right? You already told me that one. Back at home.”
            “Ah, so I did! In that case . . . I’ve got it. Once upon a time there was a merchant who sold pots . . .”
            “Who was scurrying down the road with his pots on his back . . . Hee-hee . . .” It appeared that Yeongsun had forgotten her pain, at least for this little while. “You told me the pot merchant story too. The same day.”
            Mrs. Oh was lost for words. All of a sudden, she felt as though her heart were wandering in a distant field, leaving behind only her mumbling mouth, trying and failing to think of another story.
            “Hoho . . . Seeing our Yeongsun laughing with Grandma has made this old man’s pain all better.” Her husband was lying rigid as ever, his eyes boring into the ceiling. His warm affection was palpable in the unusual softness with which he spoke; to Mrs. Oh, it was clearly an attempt to make her see that her granddaughter bore her no grudge whatsoever.
            “Quickly, Grandma.”
            “Yes, yes, it’s coming to me now.” But though Mrs. Oh had found her voice, she didn’t seem able to produce another tale, so moved was she by the depth of her husband’s affection. “Looks like you’ve used up all your grandma’s stories, Yeongsun! How about one from me instead?”
            “Okay.” Yeongsun’s cheerful, matter-of-fact answer showed how utterly ignorant she was of the effort this was costing her grandfather.
            “Cock-a-doodle-do, do you know the one about the rooster, Yeongsun?”
            It was this that finally moved Mrs. Oh to tears: her husband imitating a rooster’s call, an attempt to help their granddaughter recover her child’s innocence, in which she too could detect a plaintive note. The more strenuous his efforts, intended to assuage his wife’s guilty conscience even more than to lighten their granddaughter’s heart, the less Mrs. Oh found herself able to conceal her emotions. All this for her sake!
            He was a teacher at the same middle school as his wife, and his lessons were known to be tough and rigorous, but pupils and close acquaintances alike received great affection from him, and gave nothing but love and respect in return.
            Cuckoo, cuckoo.
Midnight had passed, and the cuckoo still didn’t know how to quit. . . .  That sound stitched the nighttime stillness, punctuating Mr. Oh’s telling of Aesop’s fable, in a pain-filled voice. . . .
            Even if I hadn’t left the station that day, perhaps this kind of calamity . . .
            Against her wishes, Mrs. Oh’s thoughts once again turned back to the event of a few days ago, which she could not shake from her mind.
Only once Mrs. Oh had left the station and made it onto the newly constructed highway did she realize that it, too, was caught up in the Class One event. The road seemed to play hide-and-seek with the railroad, the former hugging the coast while the latter sometimes ducked away inland. And the road was utterly deserted; no vehicle dared to cast a shadow there, much less individuals on foot. All traffic had met a blockade farther up; Mrs. Oh had managed to smuggle herself on only by coming via the station. What on earth was this Class One event, if both road and rail traffic had to be suspended? Were there two Kim Il-sungs paying a visit? One thing was for sure: There would be “cats” stationed at each key point on the route.
            And indeed, Mrs. Oh was stopped and questioned four times before she’d even gone fifteen ri. Aware that her age was her only shield, each time she tried to use it to her full advantage. How could she have done otherwise? How could she be frank or sincere when there was no knowing what might happen if she let her guard down? Using wiles that she’d never known she possessed, she even feigned a touch of deafness, repeating “Yes? Yes?” when in reality she could hear perfectly well. She was just an old woman going to that village over there, yes, just over there, why, she was practically there already. ID? What ID were they talking about?
            She dragged out her griping as though this were all just some terrible inconvenience. A few times they glared down their noses at her as though she were a criminal, while at others, though their speech and actions were kind, their wildcat eyes would rake her up and down, striking a chill into her heart. Each time, though, presumably judging that Mrs. Oh was unlikely to be a criminal mastermind intending to plant a bomb, nor a crack-shot sniper planning to conceal herself in the woods, they would eventually tell her to be on her way, adding a raft of warnings before she’d even had time to obey:
            “But go along by the side of the road, not on it, and as soon as you hear a vehicle, no matter how far off it sounds, get out of sight. Understand?”
            “Yes, yes.”
            Having made it through those four rounds of questioning, Mrs. Oh was picking her way along the stony road that lay between the railroad and the sea and dealing with intermittent bursts of rain when from behind her came the blare of a car horn. Glancing back, she saw a convoy of black cars moving along the new highway; the dense stand of pines that screened the highway from the sea must have kept her from hearing the vehicles’ approach.
            Mrs. Oh was utterly horrified, and dashed off the road. Up until almost that point, she’d been careful to keep off the road itself, mindful of the cats’ orders, struggling along instead on the verge, where her feet kept getting caught in grass thickets or slipping into the churned earth of the paddy fields. But then she had reached a point where there was no verge to walk on, neither on the railroad side nor on the coast side, so there’d been nothing else for it but to get back on the road.
            Why did these extraordinary vehicles have to be overtaking her here, of all places? Mrs. Oh’s heart began to pound, anticipating an imminent crisis. Two of the cars had already swept past her when a whistle shrilled in her ears. She whipped her head around automatically, and her field of vision was instantly filled by a long line of cars stretching into the distance. She jerked her gaze away, as though seeing something she ought not to, leapt across the ditch that bordered the road, and fled into the pine wood. But the sound of a car door opening, and the voice that followed it, stopped her flight as effectively as a hand seizing her ankle would have.
            “Grandma, the Great Leader, Father of Us All, wants to see you.”
            Mrs. Oh turned around. Her head felt heavy and dull, as though a blunt blow had struck her on the back of her skull, and everything grew dark in front of her eyes.
            “No, no . . .” she muttered repeatedly, barely aware of what she was doing, pawing the air in front of her chest as though trying to push something away. Her vision gradually cleared, and the person facing her began to pull into focus. The man, whose clothes and general appearance were as flawless as a rod of steel, slipped his fingers lightly around Mrs. Oh’s wrist, his expression one of amusement.
            “Come along.”
            Under this man’s guidance, Mrs. Oh was brought, reeling, up to the parked car. She barely managed to keep control of her legs, which threatened to collapse beneath her and dump her on the ground. The men standing around the car were as neat and smart as the first, equally calm and collected. Among them, though, one stood out, a dignified figure shielded by the open car door. A man whose pale golden clothes seemed to shed a soft veil of mist, enveloping him from his shoes to his fedora; a man who was gazing in Mrs. Oh’s direction from behind gleaming dark brown lenses; a man who was unmistakably “the Great Leader, Father of Us All, Kim Il-sung,” a visage Mrs. Oh had known all her life, though only ever as one that gazed out at her from portraits or the television. His bulging paunch bent his arms into the shape of the Cyrillic letter ф,while the face that rose above, perhaps enjoying the refreshing sea breeze through the pines, perhaps amused by the sight of the diminutive Mrs. Oh tottering forward and held by the wrist as though she might fly away, was beaming.
            Feeling as though her body had suddenly withered to the size of a dried jujube, Mrs. Oh dropped to her knees about five paces in front of Kim Il-sung. As she did, words slid as smoothly from her mouth as a coiled spring being released. “I respectfully pray for the long life of our Great Leader, Father of Us All.”
            No matter who you were, if you lived in this land, beneath these skies, you would have memorized these words time and time again ever since you learned to speak; hence they flowed without a hitch even from Mrs. Oh’s mouth.
            “Oh, thank you.” This cheerful voice came from somewhere above Mrs. Oh’s head. “Adjutant, get her up. Up!”
            The man grasped Mrs. Oh’s arms and raised her up. Several other men got out of their parked cars and gathered around.
            “Where are you going on foot like this?” Kim Il-sung’s voice rang with deep sympathy.
            Tape recorders whirred and cameras flashed. Filming equipment clicked and clacked in all directions. All this left Mrs. Oh even more flustered, but she fought to steady her wits and answer Kim Il-sung’s question. Briefly, her mind fumbling for the right words, she informed her superior of her situation—though, of course, she did not forget to conceal that the root cause of all her woes was the present Class One event.
            “Ah, I see.” Kim Il-sung smiled broadly at Mrs. Oh’s answer, his head bobbing as vigorously as a mortar pounding grain. “If this boar’s bladder is all you’re in search of, we can take you in our car straight to your daughter’s house. We were going in that direction anyway.”
            “Oh no, no, I couldn’t possibly, Great Leader!”
            “You don’t need to worry about your daughter. We will help her get to the maternity hospital in Pyongyang.”
            “No, but I couldn’t, something like that, for the likes of me . . .”
            “It’s no trouble. I too am a son of the people. Just the thought of past days pains me, when our people had to walk everywhere on foot; why should they walk now, when all the conditions are in place to ensure a pleasant journey? Come, ride with us.”
            Mrs. Oh was truly stumped; to ride in the same car as Kim Il-sung would put her utterly out of her wits, but to refuse would be discourteous. But then someone came to her rescue—a curly-haired man standing by the car to the rear of Kim Il-sung’s, a flat briefcase tucked under his arm.
            “Great Leader, it seems riding in the same car as yourself might be a little too much for this humble grandmother; I’ll follow along with her in mine.”
            “That seems like a good idea,” the steel rod said approvingly.
            “Really? Well, perhaps that will set the old woman’s mind at ease. In that case, Grandmother, come along in the car behind.”
            No sooner had Kim Il-sung finished speaking than he put his hand on Mrs. Oh’s back and gave her a gentle push in the direction of the other car, still beaming at her all the while. Mrs. Oh herself could not have said how she ended up installed in the car, after another round of flashing and clicking which the curly-haired man guided her through. The scenery beyond the car window, whose glass had seemed black from outside, was brighter and more animated than Mrs. Oh could have imagined, like the world looked at from underwater. It seemed as though her whole body would sink into the soft, yielding seat.
            Some faint scent, redolent of luxury, hung in the car’s interior. The background music was as discreet as that scent, barely there, and with no hint as to where it was coming from. Mrs. Oh couldn’t even tell when they began to move. The car’s passage was so smooth it seemed to glide over the ground. It was like a dream. To have been plucked from the thorny path that had been her life so far, and placed in such unexpected splendor! And she wasn’t the only one—now they were telling her that her daughter would be able to give birth in Pyongyang’s maternity hospital. How could such a thing be possible, unless it was a dream?
            “How are you feeling, Grandma?” said the curly-haired man, smiling and turning to look back from the front passenger seat.
            “Well, you know, I would have been fine just walking. . . . I really don’t want to be putting you out.”
            “Never mind that, just sit there comfortably and enjoy your journey, as the Great Leader said. Our convoy will accompany the train until we stop being able to see the coast. But the Great Leader has said that this car is to take you right to your daughter’s door.”
            “No, but surely . . . not on my account.”
            “Grandma! Is it not higher than the heavens and deeper than the seas, the Great Leader’s love?”
            “Yes, of course,” Mrs. Oh replied, giving several deep bows. For a short while afterward, she struggled to remember what it was she had just agreed to. The car was speeding along. Pine trees and telegraph poles whisked past the windows in twin columns, like guards lining a processional route.
            They had been traveling for around twenty minutes when it happened. A steam whistle sounded, and a glorious train procession appeared to the car’s left. Mrs. Oh had never seen a train like it, with white curtains at each window and each door shining as dazzlingly as the long roof. She recalled the curly-haired man saying that the train would be used when the route ducked away from the coast. This was the special train that Kim Il-sung, riding in the car at the head of the convoy, would now transfer into. Only now was Mrs. Oh able to grasp just what kind of Class One event could shut down both road and rail. Kim Il-sung was traveling along a route where both options were possible, so they took the train when that was most convenient, then switched to the car whenever there was an opportunity to enjoy the coastal scenery. . . .
            “Ah! Whichever way you look at it, it’s best to travel by train,” the curly-haired man muttered to himself, pleased to catch sight of this mode of transport. Mrs. Oh was equally gladdened by the sight, as it meant that ordinary trains would now be able to pass through the branch station. But that happiness was fleeting. As soon as the special train’s long tail had vanished from sight, leaving great reverberations in its wake, a ghastly vision appeared in front of Mrs. Oh’s eyes—the uproar of that station waiting room, where a bomb had seemed to go off at the sound of the first ticket inspection!
            Worn out by the rain and the waiting and the hunger, people now at the point of madness surge out through the door and windows in a great tide. The narrow passage between the ticket inspection windows transforms into a sea of people. Screams come from all sides; people push and shove, no longer caring about their tickets, just struggling to extricate themselves from each other’s flailing limbs, walls creaking as they fight forward. . . .
            Mrs. Oh catches sight of her husband’s white head, only for it to vanish back into the melee. She spots him again—he has Yeongsun on his back. He is waving one arm. Finally, she sees him suffer the same fate as the rice scoop that falls into the boiling vat of porridge! Screams and shouts . . .
            “Yeongsun!” Mrs. Oh cries out. Startled, she jerks awake from her vision. Seeing that no one else in the car is paying her any attention, she guesses that no words have actually passed her lips. The car’s quiet burr as it rolls along the road kindles a sweet languor within its walls.

Mrs. Oh’s reminiscence was abruptly dispelled by her husband’s calling her name. “Is the child asleep?” the old man asked, unable to sit up and look for himself. Mrs. Oh looked down at the girl in her lap.
            “Yes, she’s asleep.”
            “Ah, so I was telling that story to myself, then!”
            “Thank you, anyway. Now you should get some rest too.”
            “You think I can sleep in my condition?”
            “Oh, and to think that while you and that child were going through hell, this stupid old woman was sitting in a comfortable car . . .”
            “There’s no need to keep going back over that. Would you have preferred all three of us to suffer? There’s no point to those ‘if onlys.’”
            “Aigo, when will the two of you be fit and well again?”
            “Wait!” The old man pricked up his ears. “Is that your voice?”
            Knowing only too well the cause of his surprise, Mrs. Oh stayed where she was. Yes, it was her voice—ringing out from the loudspeaker at the edge of the village.
            And so I ended up being ushered over to a car parked on the new highway. And next to the car was the Great Leader himself, Father of Us All. . . .
            These were the words which Mrs. Oh had dutifully mouthed four days previously. Alighting from the car that day, she’d been desperate for news of her husband and granddaughter, but had been greeted instead by a swarm of journalists. So persistently did they hold their microphones up, she had no choice but to open her mouth. The result had been broadcast on both radio and television for the past two days, but this was the first time her husband had gotten to hear it, as he’d made it home only the previous evening, after stints first at the railroad and then at the military hospitals. He’d been told about it by Mrs. Oh, but hearing it for himself was a different matter; no wonder he was surprised.
            He was straining to hear, afraid of missing a single syllable. Mrs. Oh’s face flushed as if someone had discovered her doing something untoward. If only a hole could have opened up she would have hidden herself in it then and there; even a mouse hole would have done! Her voice booming out of the loudspeaker was like a blade picking at the wounds of her husband and Yeongsun. How could it seem any other way, with her bragging about her own good fortune when two people she loved had spent those selfsame hours in a hellish situation, a pandemonium, which might well have been their end?
            Mrs. Oh wished the broadcast would hurry up and end. How many days had it been already . . . and still the loudspeaker jabbered on and on, until the whole world must surely have had its message rammed into their ears.
            The Great Leader had me ride in the car the whole way—he wouldn’t set off again until I agreed.
Eventually, her speech ran its course. Now it was the turn of the feverish broadcaster to add insult to injury.
            “Do you hear this, listeners? These words of boundless gratitude toward our Great Leader, toward our socialist system! Such is the love our Great Leader holds for us, a pleasant route has now been opened so that our people can travel free from discomfort under these skies and beside this sea, and happy laughter rings out all along that route, like that of this old woman, Oh Chun-hwa.”
            Run on, run on, train, run on
            The whistle sounds a note of love. . . .

            “Aahhh!” Her husband’s high-pitched moan abruptly drowned out the broadcast, echoing inside the room.
            Cuckoo, cuckoo . . .
The cuckoo had stayed silent for a while, but now its call broke out again. Mrs. Oh fancied that the sound was coming out of her husband’s chest, a clot of blood being coughed up which was all the anguish he couldn’t put into words. How could such agony fail to bite deeply, the pain of having to watch with his own eyes as his hip bone and his granddaughter’s leg were broken? To say nothing of that pain now being recklessly aggravated by the broadcaster’s boast of the “pleasant route”!
            Yesterday, when her husband and Yeongsun had been transported home from the hospital, he had told Mrs. Oh in minute detail all they had suffered at the station. Based on his account, the vision that sprang up in her mind while she was riding in the car had been no illusion, but almost an exact mirror of reality. The only ways in which it didn’t quite tally were that the walls of the ticket barriers were not pushed out—though four of the gates did collapse—and that the pair had been buried in the tide of humanity with Yeongsun not on her grandfather’s back but clutched tightly to his chest.
How on earth would the pregnant young woman have fared in such a free-for-all, with her stomach already paining her? And those three could not have been the only victims, the only ones to have their limbs snapped, to have their hips twisted, to end up having a miscarriage. . . .
            But those cries of pain which, if combined, would be enough to cause even hell to overflow, had all disappeared somewhere, drowned out by the sound of “happy laughter”— apparently swelled by Mrs. Oh herself! Laughter produced by one who had had the fingernails of both hands ripped off! Were such things possible in this world? How could the screams and cries of such a mass of people be transformed into “happy laughter” without a cruel sorcery being at work?
            Mrs. Oh shuddered. All of a sudden the image of a demon working just such black magic flashed in front of her eyes. Some ancient, hugely corpulent demon which conducted itself extremely freely. Having dexterously whipped up the magic which had created that “happy laughter,” it was now waddling busily back and forth preparing a similar spell. Only this time, the object would be not Mrs. Oh herself but her daughter, who had given birth in the maternity hospital.
            Mrs. Oh shuddered again. So far, thanks to that demon’s sorcery, the people of this land had been living lives turned entirely on their heads, utterly different from the truth.
            Yeongsun’s shrill voice, which was making noises as though she was fending something off, snapped Mrs. Oh right back to her senses. But the child on her lap was just mumbling in her sleep, her breathing an even ebb and flow.
             Mrs. Oh thought she must be dreaming, perhaps reliving the moment when her leg had snapped.
            “Is she sleep-talking?” Her husband seemed likewise to have been busy with his own thoughts, only for the girl’s voice to jolt him out of them.
            “Yes, that’s all it is. She’s settled down now. . . .  You try to get yourself some sleep.” Mrs. Oh wished she could give him some comfort, some relief from his aching, smarting thoughts. “Why keep tormenting yourself, it’s all done with now. . . . ”
            “What? I wasn’t thinking about that at all,” her husband said. “I’m not bothered about any old broadcast. I was just thinking about what story to tell the girl when she wakes up.”
            That was the kind of man he was. Caring more for his wife’s distress than his own, he refused to admit to being racked with painful thoughts, seeking instead to veil his own suffering with whatever it might comfort her to believe. Nor did Mrs. Oh intend to strip away that veil. If nothing else, it might help ease that torturous night for both of them.
            “You’re right—when she wakes up she’ll be begging for another story. I’ve never known a child to be so rapt when she’s listening to something!” Mrs. Oh said.
            “It’s lucky there’s something that can ease things for her.”
            “In any case, don’t worry. I’ve got an old tale up my sleeve.”
            “Hoho . . . Pushkin again?”
            “No. The story of Pandemonium this time.”
            “Pandemonium? The abode of the demons?” her husband asked.
            “Yes. Would you like me to tell it to you first?”
            “Ha . . . I’m not Yeongsun.”
            “Yeongsun isn’t the only one who could do with something to ease her pain.” Mrs. Oh couldn’t make it through this remark without a lump rising to her throat.
            “I’ll play Yeongsun, then.” Nor was her husband’s answer free from such evident emotion. Just about managing to control her trembling voice, Mrs. Oh embarked on the story she’d been planning.
            “Once upon a time there was a garden, surrounded on all sides by a great, high fence. In that garden, an old demon ruled over thousands upon thousands of slaves. But the surprising thing was that the only sound ever to be heard within those high walls was the sound of merry laughter. Hahaha and hohoho, all year round—because of the laughing magic which the old demon used on his slaves.
            “Why did he use such magic on them? To conceal his evil mistreatment of them, of course, and also to create a deception, saying, ‘This is how happy the people in our garden are.’ And that’s also why he put the fences up, so that the people in other gardens couldn’t see over or come in. So, well, think about it. Where in the world might you find such a garden, such a den of evil magic, where cries of pain and sadness were wrenched from the mouths of its people and distorted into laughter?”
            Mrs. Oh began to choke up again, though she herself was not aware of it. The calculation she’d made when she began the tale, that it might offer just a brief moment of respite, had been misguided. The night had deepened; yet another bout of “happy laughter” was spilling out from the loudspeaker, casting into ever-starker relief the plot of that old tale, which was not really old at all.
30th December, 1995

© Bandi

This online version of “Pandnemonium” appears in The Barcelona Review with kind permission of the agent, Barbara Zitwer.  It appears in the collection, The Accusation  by Bandi,  translated by Deborah Smith, published by Serpent’s Tail, 2017.

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