Thursday, March 17, 2016

Yulyeong part 1

To the living damned contained in Camp 22 the events of the night was the only miracle in memory; an insidious thought in these conditions where the mere hint of hope can drive a man insane.  If you dreamt of escape or freedom from Kwan-li-so it was almost a guarantee you wouldn’t make it through this hell on Earth; many had taken their own life to escape the torment of the hard labor camp.  The baby was born after the work shift ended at 10AM; the guards had locked them in for the night after the group finally recited all the prison camp rules without flaw.  Many believe the birth was ironically induced by the hard work put upon the women that day; they were forced to run carts up and down a hill like cattle for several hours, a production without any purpose beyond cruelty, the same large stones carried down the hill would be rushed back up.  The guards did this so pregnant women would miscarriage, but it seemed to have the effect of inducing labor for one nameless women, new to the camp, already haggard, hunched over, bleeding from scabs on her feet and hands.  When she wasn’t sleeping or working she was weeping, another wail to join the cacophony of ever present sorrow at Camp 22.   

There were at least forty of them in that cramped space.  Most nights nearly all of them would fall into sleep instantly upon selecting a cramped space on the floor, passing out from exhausting and starvation, but there was too much excitement in the air tonight, and electric charge that pulsated through the whole group.  They were careful to cover up their excitement, arousing the guards suspicions at this hour would result in the torture and beating death of a few.  Several offered scrapes of clothing to help stem the flow of blood from the women in labor, which was no small sacrifice; all prisoners were only allowed one pair of clothing to last the rest of their miserable lives.   The women had bitten down so hard on a pine comb that several of her teeth cracked free from her weak, blackened gums, bouncing off the floor into secret spaces.  Some saved the teeth; it would be all they would have to remember the nameless women by.

She trembled and heaved throughout the night, her body casting a wet blanket of steam over the cramped quarters of their cell.  Some tired of the spectacle; their dreamless sleep was the only escape from the daily dread of life.  Finally, with the last geyser of blood and amniotic fluid the baby quietly slipped out of her dark ruby interior as her body finally gave in to blood loss and exhaustion; she died with a weak barely audible rasp.  Some prisoners ate the afterbirth raw; cooking was strictly forbidden, and they were all starving, on the verge of collapse.  Starvation was the leading cause of death here; the daily diet of 30 kernels of corn and salt couldn’t sustain a ten year old, never mind a full grown adult working hard labor for all waking hours.  Food was more valuable than gold.  It was not uncommon to hear about a prisoner picking undigested corn kernels from animal shit for sustenance.  Eating rats and frogs whole was a treat; the prisoners are given no meat, they were forced to catch their own and skin them with their bare teeth.  Some were even considering eating the fresh cadaver of the new mother.

The most miraculous aspect of the birth was the baby’s quiet demeanor; it never cried out or made any sort of fuss.  The wail of a new born was not present, only ghostly silence passed from its lips.  Several women tried breast feeding the baby to no avail; malnutrition ran rampant.   It was thought that despite the miraculous birth the baby was doomed to be lost.  Surely it would be discovered by the guards as work resumed at 6AM in the morning, and they would cut the mewing youngling down like an errant weed. 

But when the shift began at 5AM it was nowhere to be found.  Those that fell asleep early in the night assumed the labor ended in miscarriage, and that is the story the guards received as well after a few broken bones.  The last person that had seen it alive had dosed off with the bloody thing wrapped in her caring arms, but when she came to her senses it was gone.  Some thought they had hallucinated the whole thing; their minds and bodies approaching the end of their meager existence.  The guards dragged the inert body of the mother from the cell; her crimson trail stained the cement and would be all that was left behind, when the prisoners returned they would be too exhausted to turn their thoughts to the events of the prior night, and like a bad dream all note of the baby’s birth would be passed from memory.

But the baby did not die, it grew up in that hell, behind the walls, and the secret places where the rats and bugs held council.  Its skinny, pale androgynous body could pass as either man or woman; nobody had seen enough of the poor creature to quantify it as either.  Its skin held taunt over a skeletal frame, like an animated corpse.   With deep obsidian eyes it has held silent witness to every barbarism imaginable, torture without end at Camp 22.  It would whisper to the prisoners being box tortured, unfortunate souls locked in a confining 4 foot boxes for days upon weeks without being able to stand or stretch out.  Many would die from blood clots after release; the few survivors would blame the whispering creature on their own fleeing sanity.

It would leave the guards secret treats and trinkets.  Tobaccos collected from discarded cigarettes were meticulously rolled into new joints and distributed in secret under the guise of night.  It held no special hatred for the guards or love for the prisoners of Camp 22.  It would donate a skinned frog to a prisoner one day, and then awaken a slumbering guard the next before his supervisor could round the corner.  Despite the cruelty of its conditions, despite never feeling the warmth of human kindness itself, the fire of compassion burned deep inside the creature that simply became known as the “yulyeong”, Korean for “ghost”.