Osan is a city in Gyeonggi Province, South Korea, approximately 35 km south of Seoul. The population of the city is around 200,000. The local economy is supported by a mix of agricultural and industrial enterprises.
I walked the streets yesterday in the bitter Siberian cold. The wind was so sharp I could feel it lacerating my skin under my old state-issued, Worker’s party uniform. There was a group of six young journeymen huddled around a burning papier-mâché effigy of the latest fallen tyrant of the city.
As I walked past one of the men yelled, “You need some something fixed? An accordion maybe?”
I shook my head, and kept walking. I looked back. I saw the smallest one wrap his bleeding, cracked lips around a smashed bottle of ‘Red Glory’, a salty coca cola substitute issued at the ration bank. Another man put the fresh cut curls of black rubber from a bald tractor tire into the end of the bottle. They waited impatiently for the broken walking stick to heat up red from the flames of the burning tyrant. When its orange glow cut through the enveloping grey of the city, like a beacon of hope, they pulled it from the fire and held it under the broken bottle. The man sucked in the black smoke from the burning tire, and passed it to his friend, coughing all that rubber vapor out to the sound of tree trunks crashing to a frozen forest floor. Just before I turned back around I saw him smile. The teeth protruded from his under bite like swollen old piano keys, broken and covered in a thick grime like roofing tar.
Welcome to Osan.
“I came to Osan in ‘02” he said to me, drinking the last drop of sour Red Glory vodka from the bottle I’d brought him. I watched him run his pimpled tongue around the rim of the bottle, getting every last drop.
“When the housing prices in Suwon sky rocketed, we had to flee. The Great General Bak Soo-Hyun had taken the city. In the hysteria of leaving to find cheaper apartments, my wife and children were,” he paused. He pinched the bridge of his broken nose. He tipped the bottle to his face one last time. I watched the last drop of Red Glory fall onto his tongue. His eyes closed. He swallowed hard. “They were trampled to death. The pandemonium overcame the comrades. Everyone had heard the stories. We heard that in Osan, people had bathtubs in their apartments. They had Holly’s Coffee. We heard that our kids could go to school for 16 hours a day, for the price of 12. We heard these things. It was the promise land, we were told. Osan.”
I watched him shake his head as he looked at his bare feet, toes clutching at the oily water in the puddle we sat in. I went into my knapsack and pulled out a piece of stale bread I had saved from my rations last week. I had taken to sucking on the bread to get my nutrients. I broke it in half over my knee and handed it to him. He looked up at me. I saw him weep. The tears of joy and remorse rained from his swollen eyes, mixing together on his sunken cheeks and dripping to the corners of his mouth. He licked them as he took the bread from my hands.
“Thank you comrade. And thank you Nobel Leader.”
We both sat and sucked on the old, dry bread in silence. He would look either way every now and again, checking to see if we were being watched. There was a lot to look out for in Osan these days. The Freedom Police, the Parking Lot Pirates, and worst of all, the wild dogs. The dogs had once been an even match for the starving comrades of Osan. They could take out one of the rabid beasts with a spear fashioned from one of the state-issued crutches they would pull from the frozen fingers of a fallen comrade, and plunge into the dog’s rib cage, feeding a family of seventeen from a single cull. But the dogs had begun to feast on the corpses that lay strewn on the streets. The Nobel Leader ordered the bodies to be left as an example of fate of the weak. But the dogs had started to feed on the corpses. They had grown. They were as big as medium-sized bears. Some of the citizens I’d spoken to had even reported the dogs roaming the streets on their hind legs.
I said it to myself over and over as we sat sucking our bread behind a dumpster outside the abandoned accordion factory. How could a social experiment plunge to these depths? How could the Nobel Leader Lee Myung-Bak let things get this hopeless and pathetic? How could the world turn it’s back on these people as they cried themselves awake every day?
Every time I said that word I could feel my soul leave my body. My hope, it would drift, sailing away, joining with the smoke that rose from the burning cat that lay but ten feet from us. Dinner. That was what Jo-Hyun called it. We were waiting for it’s cartilage to crisp before we tore it apart with our hands and ate what we could.
The last frontier of the Great Red War. A city so grey that your ashen limbs became a part of the brickwork that scratched the once fertile land.
A whisper in the last breath of the dead. The cough as the last breath left a body condemned to a life of hunger and emotional sadness, rung like a gun shot in a bare valley.
Jo-Hyun looked at the sun that tried to fight through the thick, dark clouds. I looked too. My eyes burnt with colors I hadn’t seen since I left Gangnam four years ago. I blinked and felt myself weep as the beautiful effervescent colors danced on the inside of my damp eyelids. I blinked and blinked, watching them burst across my eyes. I felt the lump in my throat rise, and my heart beat like the footsteps of the foot soldiers.
“Quick,” he said, rummaging through his old plastic Kim’s Club bag, “take these.”
He handed me two old cigarette butts. We pushed the butts into our ears and cupped our hands around them.
A cannon fired so loud I felt my brain throb. 1:37pm. The time that that the revolution hit a stalemate was marked every day by a cannon shot. The sound rung on for minutes, into the distance. They said you could hear it from Seoul. But how would we know? How would we know?
I tried to look back to the sun. I wanted more color. I wanted to feel like my heart beat in my chest for a reason. I wanted to feel that life was worth living. But it was gone. There was only a black cloud that promised more acid rain. I felt my eyes well up as I tried to imagine the color. But it was gone. It was gone.
It was gone.