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from the May 2013 issue


Both the seller
And the buyer
Have nothing to offer but themselves
In Pyongyang’s marketplace

The filters of cigarette butts
Provided cotton for this blanket on display
“Face-wash for sale!”
The ladies shout
And clutch at passers by

With nothing to offer but a bowl of water
For one face-wash
The traders sit here
To sell their poverty

The reasons for their poverty
Are on display
In every street
In every alley
On the dark posters
Of murderous intent:

“Death by firing squad to those who waste food!”
“Death by firing squad to those who spread rumors!”
“Death by firing squad to those who steal state property!”
“Death by firing squad to those who disseminate foreign culture!”
“Death by firing squad to those who break traffic rules!”

The only respite
Is the sound of begging
Of grieving
Of pain
That is all

In this marketplace, final breaths are gathered
In this marketplace, last days of life are gathered
There is not only wretchedness and misery
In this marketplace. There is also terror

The suffocating stench
And worn out clothes
And dirty outstretched hands
And angry shouting and swearing
Are everywhere seen
Are everywhere heard

“Quick! Get that boy!”
Someone shouts for help
“Catch him! Catch him!”
“Catch that thief!”
The shouts grow louder
Become more urgent

The stolen item
Means everything to her
Those who have nothing
Will not let the thief escape
They will catch the thief
Thus chaos ensues

Someone stands waiting for the thief
But he dodges to the left
Where someone else is waiting
But he turns and runs the other way
The child being pursued
And the adults chasing him
All stumble and fumble

Suddenly, a soldier seizes
The boy’s collar
And raising his fist
High above him
Lands it where
A chilling scream ensues
The crowd gather around them

The boy holding the bundle
Shouts at the stranger
“I am not a thief!”

You have no right
To say those words, boy
The one you robbed shall speak first
The crowd makes way
To let the woman in

“Give that back to me”
At those words
His crime is confirmed
The crowd becomes furious
The soldier raises his fist again

“Don’t hit him!
He’s my son!”

At those words
All eyes in the crowd
Become fixed on the woman
Who had been robbed
By the boy-thief

The boy tries to unwrap the bundle
And the mother rushes at him
Pulling at the bundle
In a tug of war

“Please, give it back
Don’t unwrap it”
“Please, let me look inside
I won’t do it again”

What is contained in that bundle
That the boy wants to see?
That the mother cannot allow him to see?
The crowd
Pushes and shoves
To get a better look
Telling each other what they have seen
Telling each other what they have heard

Not money
Not goods
To be sold or bought in the market
A pillow
Nothing but a pillow

What is inside
That the boy had to steal
That the mother
Pleads for him to return it to her?

What is inside
That the boy tears it open with his teeth
That the mother falls to the ground
And beats her chest

Nothing but a pillow cover
Filled with sand
Common sand spilled on the ground

The boy falls to the ground
The mother buries her face in her hands
The mother and son begin to scream
The boy looks at the sand again
And his shouting grow louder
And the mother trembles
A bewildering scene
Then the boy rises, clutching sand
Screaming at the top of his voice

“You lied to me!
You said the pillow was full of rice
But no–
It was sand all along!”

“You said it was rice
So I didn’t feel hungry!
You said the pillow was full of rice
So I made myself go to school!”

The onlookers beat their own chests
In despair

As the boy accuses the mother
The boy who had rested his life
On the pillow of rice

The sad strain of his voice
Is a curse
That voice
Does it belong to that one
Who is still a boy?

The ultimate act of motherhood
Was a rice-pillow lie
For deceiving her beloved son
The final pang of hunger
Was a pillar of faith giving way
For the ruin of a young boy’s life

Every night, the boy endured
With a rice-pillow in his arms
Until daybreak
The mother cried, looking on

How to carry on from here?
Mother and son who rested themselves
On pillows of rice
Will wake up to see only white sand

© Jang Jin-sung. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Shirley Lee. All rights reserved.

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