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 lunchroom, 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 light bulbs—sixteen.
She counted buttons on the foreman's shirt—seven.
She multiplied light bulbs 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.