ALL WOMAN AND SPRINGTIME
By Brandon W. Jones
ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL
Copyright © 2012 Brandon W. Jones
All right reserved.
Gyong-ho fed another pant leg into a powerful, old cast iron machine, counting the stitches as she ran a perfect inseam. She watched intently as the needle danced across the rough fabric, plunging in and out of the cloth with methodic violence—she was amazed the fabric did not bleed. It was a paradox of sewing, that such brutality could bind two things together. A distant cloud shifted, liberating a pocket of sunlight that had been building up behind it, flooding the dirty windows high on the factory wall and illuminating her work station in smeared and spotted light. Now the needle glinted as it stabbed. Gyong-ho felt grateful for the light because of its illusion of warmth—she could still see her breath, and her dry fingers ached. The factory was a cold concrete cavern, full of fabric scraps and echoes, a container for damp and chilly air.
She glanced up only momentarily. The Great Leader, Kim Il-sung, and his son the Dear Leader, Kim Jong-il, looked down on her from behind their golden frames. They perched on the wall, smiling, like they did on every wall, looking down on her, watching and weighing her every move. Reflexively she prostrated from within, bowed her head and worked harder. She was not good enough. The portraits filled her with awe and fear. It is by the grace of the Dear Leader that I live so well, she recited to herself mechanically.
Gyong-ho was in a nest of sound. The air around her hummed and stuttered with the staccato of one hundred sewing machines starting and stopping at random. Electricity buzzed from lights and machines, and seemingly from the factory women themselves, who were plugged into the walls by unseen tethers. Scissors snipped and clipped at threads in punctuating chops, sharp steel sliding on sharp steel. Holding the sounds together, corralling them, was the shuffling step of the foreman pacing his vengeful circuit of the factory floor, dragging his mangled foot as he walked—thump, slide ... step; thump, slide ... step. The sounds were a kind of music to Gyong-ho, helping her focus, occupying a busy part of her mind that was always looking to distill order from chaos.
The pained and lumbering gait of the foreman drew nearer, and Gyong-ho tensed. His powerful body odor preceded him, pinning her to her chair. He was both sour and flammable. He stopped in front of her, and she could hear his raspy breathing, could smell the smoke on his breath. Without looking up at him, she could see his scarred and slanted face, lined with disapproval. He grunted and then labored onward, shuffling away. Gyong-ho exhaled. She knew that his obvious pain was an example of his impeccable citizenship: He walked all day in spite of it for the glory of the republic.
Foreman Hwang would tolerate no disruption to production, and even restroom emergencies were met with heavy scorn and public humiliation. there was a sign on the wall that read, Eat No Soup. It was a campaign designed to increase production by curbing restroom visits. Unfortunately for Gyong-ho, thin soup had been the only food available that morning at the orphanage. She had tried not to eat too much of it, but she had been hungry; so she danced around her straining bladder, working her hips back and forth in coordination with her sewing.
She worked in rhythm, fast and precise, feeding legs and waists and cuffs into her hungry machine as fast as it could chew them. She worked to outpace a memory that was pursuing her, reaching for her, breathing on her. She was afraid that if she slowed down for even a moment, it might catch up with her, grasping the back of her neck with a black-gloved claw. It was a demon chasing her down a long corridor, his hard shoes echoing, his stride longer than hers, leather hands grazing the little hairs on the back of her neck as they snatched for her, always catching up with her. She kept up a mental race in an effort to evade the memory, her mind in overdrive to distraction.
She chanced a brief look to her right. Her best friend, Il-sun, was finishing a cuff. The seam staggered drunkenly, and one of the trouser legs appeared a little longer than the other. It was a wonder how she could get away with it; but then, she was the pretty one. Sunlight, whenever it shone, seemed to cling to her. Most days it condensed right on her, running in bright rivulets down her body, drawing eyes down the length of her. She was even beautiful with dark circles under her eyes from lack of sleep, and her lethargic motions were fluid—seemingly an open invitation to caress. Her heart-shaped face was set off by pouting red lips and eyes that gazed mischievously from the corners of their sockets. Her skin was flawlessly smooth and her pin-straight hair hung in a black curtain just below her shoulders. In just the last year her body had taken on a new shape that made her hips and shoulders move in hypnotic opposition as she walked. People turned to watch her whenever she glided by, their gaze causing her to radiate even more, to be even more beautiful. Men in particular were affected by her presence, losing their ability to speak, looking both fearful and hungry. Gyong-ho did not like the change.
She worried that Il-sun would again not meet the day's quota. This would make the fifth day in a row. How long could she go on like this, so indifferent to authority? It was as if she did not understand the consequences of being so ... individualistic.
They had been working at the factory for less than a year. At seventeen years old, they had been excited to join the ranks of working adults—the novelty of going to the factory every day was a welcome break from the tedium of school. They had felt a sense of maturity as they left the orphanage each morning in their factory uniforms—bright red caps, pressed white shirts, and navy blue trousers—the younger girls gazing at them with awe and respect. Their heads had been filled with images of going to the factory with a feeling of pride and purpose, as if every day was going to be more exciting and fulfilling than the last; after all, this was called the Worker's Paradise. In a short time, however, all the basics of sewing were mastered, and the job itself did not require much more than that—cut, match, sew, snip, cut, match, sew, snip. Every day, day in and day out, it was the same pair of trousers over and over again. The work transformed quickly from excitement to drudgery, especially under the thumb of the fearsome and cranky foreman.
Finally, a whistle blew and the foreman announced, as if it were against his better judgment, that lunch was being served in the cafeteria. Gyong-ho and Il-sun stood up and, in rigid military fashion, filed out the factory door. Gyong-ho wondered if there really would be lunch, or just the sawdust gruel that was served most days.
The women splintered into small groups as they exited the workroom, and the air filled with chatter. It seemed an odd contrast between the martial atmosphere of the workroom and the casual muddle of the lunch room, as if they were ants that morphed into women and then back into ants again. Occasional laughter could be heard, and a Party anthem played in the background on tinny speakers. Gyong-ho made a break for the latrine. When she returned, she and Il-sun queued up in the cafeteria, waiting for the day's ration, which turned out to be a small scoop of rice and a slice of boiled cabbage. On the wall behind the service counter was a poster with a drawing of stout Chosun citizens handing food across a barbed wire fence to the emaciated and rag-clad Hanguk. American soldiers with long noses and fierce, round eyes were holding the Hanguk down with their boots, the hands of the Hanguk outstretched in desperation. the poster said, simply, remember Our Comrades to the South. Gyong-ho and Il-sun received their bowls and sat down at a corner table.
"How long do you think we will have to stockpile food for the Hanguk?" Il-sun asked, looking despondently at her meager ration.
"Until the Americans stop starving them, I suppose," Gyong-ho answered. It was widely known that the imperialist Americans were harsh overlords to the oppressed Hanguk people, who craved reunification of the Korean peninsula under the Dear Leader. That is why the Dear Leader was stockpiling food for them, asking his own people to sacrifice much of their daily ration to aid the unfortunate people of the South.
"Yeah, but what I wouldn't give for a bite of pork," another woman at the table chimed in, not quite under her breath. The whole table fell into a tense, uncomfortable silence. The cold of the concrete room drilled bone deep. Nobody dared inhale. Such a statement was as good as slapping the Dear Leader—it could leave the stain of treason on anyone who heard it.
"But it is worth it for the benefit of our dear comrades to the south," she added quickly, forcing a smile at the rice balanced on her chopsticks. "It is by the glory of the Dear Leader that we eat so well."
Conversation resumed. It was a broom sweeping dust under the corner of a rug. Such talk was dangerous.
Twenty minutes later a whistle blew, signaling the end of the midday break. It ended all too soon for the weary Gyong-ho and Il-sun, who were ants once again, marching back into the workroom. They stood next to their sewing stations, feet apart, hands behind their backs. Not all factory foremen demanded such military strictness of their workers, but Foreman Hwang was decidedly old-guard. The shift began with a song in praise of the country's founder, then the foreman spoke.
"Comrades, I do not need to tell you that there is no higher purpose than serving our Dear Leader." His voice was low and gravelly, like stones rolling around in a tin can. "It is an honor that he has bestowed upon you, allowing you to serve him in the People's garment factory. But sometimes I think you do not fully appreciate this gift. Every day I see complacency and laziness." His eyes landed on Il-sun, and Gyong-ho tensed. "these must be stamped out!" He punctuated the statement by slamming his fist into the palm of his hand, sending a shock wave down Gyong-ho's spine. She nearly gasped out loud. "We must be prepared for the day when the imperialist dogs, the American bastards and their flunky allies, attack us. Even though we no longer hear their bombs or feel their bayonets in our hearts, we are still at war. They are afraid of the Dear Leader and the mighty Chosun army. They are afraid like cornered animals; and like cornered animals they must eventually strike at us, even as hopeless as they know it will be to do so. So we must be prepared for that day. Each of you must ask, 'What can I do for the Dear Leader?' " He let the question hang in the air for a moment to collect drama. "You must do exactly what is asked of you, without question, without complaint." He paced thoughtfully for a moment.
"We are falling short of our quotas. Each of you must work harder, sew faster, and make no mistakes. Errors have become quite a problem on this floor. Every time you have to restitch an inseam ..." He paused, looking to the dirty ceiling for words that seemed to be eluding him. "For every stitch you have to redo, a good Chosun man or woman pays for it with blood." He laid heavy emphasis on the word "blood," probing the room with heartless, accusing eyes.
The room was captivated in breathless, guilty silence. Gyong-ho felt as if she were solely to blame for the imperialist scourge and wondered how she could possibly work any harder to rout it out. She stole a glance toward Il-sun, whose eyes were closed with her head pitching forward. It could have been humble introspection in response to the foreman's speech, but Gyong-ho saw it for what it was: sleep. She was amazed, offended, and, in spite of herself, impressed by the way her friend could so casually flaunt her disrespect for authority. That she could fall asleep standing up was impressive in its own right. Il-sun was always on the edge of trouble, just skating by without suffering any real consequence for her insubordination. Gyong-ho felt deeply fearful for her safety. For Il-sun, the dangers lurking around every corner and under every rock were impotent, imaginary shadows; for Gyong-ho they were real. Il-sun did not understand what she was risking by being impetuous, rebellious, and unique. If only she knew what I have been through.
With that thought, Gyong-ho bumped into an unspoken boundary of her consciousness, treading accidentally into an area where she dared not go. A memory flared in brilliant colors, growing on the dry tinder of her fear, and the factory began to fade around her. Suddenly she was hearing again the footsteps she had been evading. They were catching up with her swiftly from behind: hard soles echoing down a long, bare corridor, muffled voices, rough laughter, the light of a naked bulb, cold, wet feet, an electric shock.
In desperation, to fight off the sensation, she began counting things. anything.
She counted needles in a pincushion—forty-eight.
She counted bare lightbulbs—sixteen.
She counted buttons on the foreman's shirt—seven.
She multiplied lightbulbs by buttons, and then divided them by needles—two point three, recurring.
Two point three, recurring, multiplied by itself is five point four, recurring.
Five point four, recurring, multiplied by two point three, recurring, is twelve point seven zero three seven zero three, recurring ...
With each number her mind gained ground, her demon receded, inky black thoughts fell further and further behind. She was once again ahead of the echoing footsteps, could hear them falling back.
The square root of twelve point seven zero three seven zero three, recurring, is three point five six four two—
"Comrade Song!" the foreman barked loudly, shocking her back into the room. He was standing toe to toe with her, bathing her in a cloud of sour kimchee breath. Kimchee was a luxury of his rank that the times did not afford for the likes of Gyong-ho. "Comrade Song Gyong-ho! Is there something you would like to say?" It was more of a threat than a question.
She looked around to see that the other seamstresses were already sitting at their machines, looking fearfully at her. She had been lost in counting and had missed the command to sit. She felt very much like an errant nail in a wooden deck that had worked its way upward, standing out, begging to be struck with a hammer until its head is again flush with the wood. In any moment of uncertainty, she had learned, there is only one safe course of action. As if by reflex she brought her hands together in front of her chest, hoisted a gleaming tear into her eye, and, with a catch in her voice, said, "I am so very grateful, comrade foreman, sir. It is by the grace of the Dear Leader that I am here. I am not worthy to be here. I am lower than mud. Lower than pond silt. Even so, our Dear Leader has had the grace to allow me to work in his garment factory. I am just so grateful." She bowed her head, but remained standing.
"Very good, Comrade Song," rasped the foreman. "I hope that the others here will learn from you." He turned to address the room, seeming to relish the pain shooting up his damaged leg. "You see? Comrade Song knows that she was given a rare second chance. She knows that she is unworthy. This makes her grateful. You may sit, Comrade Song. Everyone, get to work!"
Relieved, Gyong-ho sat and began sewing.
When Il-sun first walked through the front door of the Home for Orphan Girls, she sneered at the portrait of the Dear Leader. His frozen smile only confirmed for her that his omnipotence was a lie—he was only made of paper. Either the orphanage mistress did not see the offense or she chose to ignore it. Il-sun had certainly made no attempt to hide it. She was thirteen years old and had just watched her mother crumble, piece by piece, before her eyes, and she was in no mood to be placatory.
Il-sun had grown up in relative luxury, with extra food rations, almost new clothes, and in a nice apartment in the middle of the city. These were her birthright, handed to her through her father's good songbun. She did not belong in the orphanage; not with lowly girls who had no home—that was not her. Her mother had been doting and kind, her greatest ambition being to raise her children well. Her social position afforded her the ability to do just that. Less fortunate women had to trudge off to the factories and farms each day, leaving their children to raise themselves. Il-sun dearly loved her mother.
Il-sun's father had been in the army, and his military uniform hung in the small family closet throughout her childhood. It was the only thing she knew of him. He had been an old man when he married her mother, and then died shortly after Il-sun was born. Some days, when she was in a particular mood, she would glide her fingers on the fabric of the uniform, and smell it for any trace of the man who had worn it. Sometimes she thought she could detect a masculine scent around the collar, but other times it was only mildew.
Excerpted from ALL WOMAN AND SPRINGTIME by Brandon W. Jones Copyright © 2012 by Brandon W. Jones. Excerpted by permission of ALGONQUIN BOOKS OF CHAPEL HILL. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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