...Written by Harley Cooper...
AUTHOR'S NOTES: The lead protagonist is based on bestselling author Harlan Coben's antagonist Eric Wu from the novels "Tell No One" and "Just One Look." Despite of the representation of said character, this still remains as my original story as well as my own original character. I started writing this story last year of September and although I must admit my grammar is still flawed, I tried to make this story intricate and heartfelt as much as possible. I hope sincerely that you will not disagree. I am a humble young author who still needs a little guidance to hone her skills. The basic concept of this story is the same as that of a diary where a boy narrates memorable events of his life. I decided to write something that matters to me like living through conflicts of both personal and environmental and finally, a sense of worth as a person.
DISCLAIMER: All the characters and situations are purely fictional, which simply means, like Mr. Coben, I make up stuff. Some situations do not exactly correspond to the kind of setting that happens in North Korea. Please forgive me if you find it offensive but do not hold me responsible for my ideas in the novel.
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
for my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeoning of chance
My head is bloody but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the horror of the shade
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters now how strait the gate
How charged the punishments the scroll
I am the master of my fate
I am the captain of my soul.
William Ernest Henley
August 23, 1993
Dried leaves rustled almost musically inside my palm when my fingers crushed them. I fixed my eyes on their sound and for about an hour or two, the world meant nothing to me. I took some more and they continued to crunch with my fingers, my eyes still locked upon the monotonous melody. I heard my breath steadied while I sat around more dried leaves in the forest. More than once I would do the same thing for days; but that was okay because no one would really know that I'm gone.
The day was humid and sore but the breeze felt light against my own skin. It was autumn and I love autumn. Most people would shove the dried leaves away from their house yards with deride and boredom. It was their choice. I, on the other hand, choose to sit on them for hours, taking them in my palm with light amusement and crushing them for ages. It brings a smile on my lips. The sound and the breeze were enough delight for me. I feel wonderful and I feel all alone.
I stayed for more than eight hours. I fell asleep around the dried leaves. Their familiar smell was tickling my nostrils and I couldn't help but feel rapturous. This was enough for me.
"I supposed this is your way to disentangle, child?"
I opened my eyes and slowly sat up. He smiled and it stayed that way.
"You really like it here," he folded his arms in front of his chest. "I watch you sometimes."
"May I help you with something, teacher?" I asked.
He just stood there with our gazes still on each other. His expression was that of mild astonishment and yet I still thought there was something else there. I didn't blink.
"Why do you like these leaves, Sojin?" he asked me, with the smile still there. He walked around and pointed a plant nearby. "This one is alive and pretty. It also has flowers." He touched the green leaf. His smile was serene.
When he saw me looking at him I spoke, "They don't need to be praised like that. Everyone knows they are always good to look at."
He didn't say anything so I kept saying; "The dried leaves don't get that much attention anymore. No one notices them here and there. Everyone wants them swept away, burned and despised."
"Because they are dead," he said at last. The smile was slightly there.
"But they are still leaves," I took a pile with both hands and looked at them. "Their appearance and color mean nothing to me. It was how they feel when I hold onto them like this that I realize they are worth paying attention too."
I expected that he would laugh but to my surprise he didn't think it was weird. He watched me there inside my own little, insignificant world from a distance but he seemed to edge closer, wondering if he could penetrate the wall that surrounded us.
"This is how you relax then, Sojin?" he smiled again. "A child would play with other children or shoot birds and follow ants around the bushes all day."
"Children are weak and defenseless." I looked up to him, still clutching the dried leaves, "I am no longer a child, teacher."
He shrugged as though that comment was inconceivable. With the same smile, he sat beside me and took dried leaves for himself. He crushed them beneath his palm and the whole place was filled with the crisp sound. I listened to him and I did the same thing. He smiled wider and it reached his eyes this time.
"Life starts like a fresh living vessel," he spoke, "Like these plants and their green leaves. Seasons would pass and it still stands by itself, fighting off any danger that comes its way."
We crushed some leaves and we did it together this time. I smiled too.
"Then it ends like this," he looked down at his palm and I looked at his face. "Life dies. But it wasn't really over. Someone must notice. Someone should be upset."
I didn't say anything. I opened my palm and saw the dead brown leaf staring at me and I know it was thanking me for the time.
He was looking at me right now. His smile was gone but his eyes were filled a thousand more of them. I couldn't look away.
"You are different, child."
I just stared. The wind was whispering but I couldn't understand the words.
"Do I have training today?" I asked silently.
He sighed patiently before answering. "Why do you study martial arts?"
I sighed with longer patience. He knows why.
"You told me that I will serve you and I am grateful you took me in when no one did, teacher." The words felt heavy and it echoed in my chest.
He closed his eyes then after seconds he opened them again. He rested a hand on my wrist and I was obliged to look at his face.
"Do you like what you're doing?"
I smiled slightly and averted my eyes to the left. "I know what I have to do."
"That's because you don't have a choice."
I looked back at him, almost defiantly. "Are you now weighing my options? Is that what this is about?"
He shook his head. "I just came here because I want to see how you're doing."
I didn't believe him. But I trusted him so much. I looked across the forest and rested my eyes on the birds in a tree branch. I didn't say anything for almost an hour. He waited and didn't take his hand off my wrist.
"Tomorrow you have things to do," he finally spoke. "You have to get yourself ready. You are excellent, Sojin. You have the instinct of a fighter. You can go through life like that and there is so much more for you if you work harder in attaining your goals."
I took more dried leaves and crushed them. "My goals? You want to talk about what I want to do."
"I want to get out of the country, teacher."
He didn't say a word. "You can go ahead and do that."
I looked at him. "I want you to come with me."
He laughed slowly, like he wasn't sure if he should be laughing at that. But he was shocked that I want to be with him. I watched him closely.
"Don't hold on to things worth letting go." He said at last.
"But don't let go on things worth fighting for." I added.
He smiled. "You remember well."
I smiled back. "You're worth fighting for. And I will kill for you."
"Are you sure?" he asked sadly. "We will see that."
He stood up and didn't mind brushing off the leaves from his clothes. He looked back at me and didn't smile anymore. Then he walked away slowly. I watched him with a desire to follow but I know we have paths that we chose for ourselves. I have no idea where mine will take me.
"And if I did kill for you, teacher?" I called out.
"Don't try so hard pleasing me," he said without looking back. "You don't have to do things I say all the time. It will cost you a great deal."
"But I would do anything for you," I said again. He stopped walking but his back was still turned.
"Sojin," he said. "You are no child anymore. I know you understand that whatever you do would be pointless."
"It's pointless to you, all the things I do," I looked down at my palms. "How can I convince you?"
He walked away completely.
There were always the things that change. What happens when you get used to something and it changes? I looked down at the pile of dried leaves and I know they were the things that won't change. They will always be here every autumn.
I stood up and took a towel from my trouser pocket. And then I took some dried leaves and put them in the towel. I took my time and made sure I got plenty. Then I put the towel back in my pocket. I put some more in the other pocket.
I walked off from the sweet place. But I would always know where it is. I kept the brave smile on my face, thinking about tomorrow and the day after that when I will come back here and listen to the leaves crunching and singing as my own tiny fingers tickle them.
My soul feels the melody too.
September 9, 1993
My story begins on any other day of my dreary existence. It seems like an insignificant gesture to write down the events that happened in my life. I can explain how they happened but I never knew why they did happen. But life was becoming predictably unexpected as I was thrust into it, defenseless, naïve and young.
I lived in a place where you can say everyday is an unhappy pursuit for progress and all throughout my youth it was a battle of both mind and body. But this is my home; these vast mountains and lands are my home.
I live in North Korea.
Yes, that Korea.
Many have known us to be the "other" Korea, the irrational communist country with poor economy. It was not a question of one's moral or political judgment. I don't believe they really exist. My homeland closed its door from the world but not entirely. Maybe it's because we are afraid to be judged because our beliefs differ from those nations who call themselves free and democratic. But have you ever thought that we just wanted to be alone to pick up the pieces of our torn nation?
I know I might be young and I don't know anything yet. But perhaps there are plenty of things I know; and maybe they're not much at all.
Sometimes I imagine what if Korea has only one flag? Will the two nations combine theirs? It's a silly thought but could it actually happen? Could they actually put aside their differences?
The answer is vague. My birthday is in two days. I thought about these things each time I grow a year older. I don't have a good reason to celebrate my 14th year of existence. Maybe these thoughts would probably give me one. The afternoon is cold and the sun doesn't shine. I was crossing the bridge to 38th parallel because teacher told me to take a package to one of his comrades at the end of the dark forest.
I picked up some dried leaves on the pathway and put them inside my pockets. I would put them inside a sack and make it into a pillow. We only sleep in the floors, said it was part of the training. I decided that I could give myself some luxury in the form of a pillow.
My homeland has changed after the Korean War although I could never grasp the fact why the Americans have to build a giant wall to separate the North from the South. We are united, according to our leaders, but why not destroy the wall? Why not let their people breathe the different environment's air...if we are different. How can one Korean be different from another Korean just because he lives south while the other one lives north?
It's really beyond my knowledge.
I never got lost in the forest. I think that's why the General sent me. When I was six, I lived here. I call it home. But right now the state prison is my home. I work there. North Korea has prospered: we have skyscrapers now. We have tour spots. We have universities. I have never been in any of those. I live in the other shade of this country: the darker, sinister one.
I am a training assassin.
I wear the brown uniform with boots. That's the only clothing I have. They put a silver chain around me to indicate that my country owns me as their property. I am simply not a citizen. I am their servant.
The privileged ones go to school. They study Math, agriculture and Science. My kind and I were either orphans or sold by our own parents. I was an orphan. In my "school," Math was about how to calculate your precision in incapacitating your opponent in a matter of seconds. Agriculture is about burying the body of your victim and science is about studying the human anatomy in order to locate the pressure points to attack.
I was obedient and highly adaptable. I'm resourceful and a perfectionist. I pride myself in training. Older boys complain when the guards do not feed them. I can go ten days without food. Food is energy. But water is life so what I do is I drink in the storage room. I survive as I've been doing for the past years. I've always believed that if you want to stay alive, you have to find a way by yourself. I do not depend on people. People are people. They deceive you.
I played with my chain for awhile as I waited for the assigned man to pick up the package. A vehicle approached me after an hour. A soldier got out. He wore the same uniform although he was older and doesn't wear a silver chain.
To my eyes he was a free man.
I called everyone who works for the Great Leader without a silver chain a free man. It doesn't mean you're free when you simply live here. You could die in poverty or get killed in street fights. But if you are on the side of the government and at the same time you don't wear my chain, you are free. Freedom is not about being independent from this country. You have an obligation and you cannot run away from that.
What is free in this world anyway?
He took the package I handed to him. He surveyed me with a careful glance and nodded his head. I nodded back. We don't salute; a democratic government does that. We don't shake hands; we are not Persians. We're not friendly people either.
He led me inside the tent and threw some bread across me. I opened it and saw it has blueberry jam. I stared.
"Eat," he demanded.
I did what he asked and chewed slowly on the food.
He wrote something on a piece of paper. He folded and tied it. He handed it to me as soon as I finished eating.
"Tell the General that there are fireworks tonight," he said, "It's a very good display. He must be there."
I heard about that. There was another Holiday feast. I smiled to myself. Our holidays mean extra work. No one was allowed to do anything besides than work for making sure the show pleases the Great Leader. If you were caught doing something else, you will be thrown in jail and stay there for two weeks or so. You also have to pay and it will cost a lot.
That is holiday in North Korea.
But I love the fireworks and sometimes I would go to the highest tree and try to touch the sky with my fingers.
I was in the forest again, picking up more leaves. As I walked, I bounced, making my chain create sounds. I thought about the bread with jam I have eaten. Food tastes weird. I don't eat much but I enjoyed it.
Sometimes I daydreamed about food. When we are around the restaurants, I would watch people eat. One time an old woman gave me some ramen but I eyed her sternly, "I am not your dog." I said.
I was one of the youngest pupils but what I lack in age; I make it up for my skill. I was a lethal weapon. I am a very good assassin.
I reached my camp and left the message to the General's assistant. At one glance I knew she is a whore. No woman is allowed to work in this structure unless she sells herself all the way and exclusively. She was pretty and young. I stared at her until she noticed it.
"Your name is Sojin hee, isn't it?" she asked.
She just nodded her head. Then solemnly, she put her arms around me. It astounded me. I didn't have the time to react. The afternoon was getting colder and it made me feel warm--
A guard walked pass and scolded the both of us. She looked terrified and let go. I heard her whisper to me, "I know what they have done to your mother."
I walked away. My mother. It's been a long time since someone mentioned her. She was a popular story. She was a traitor and they all knew I was her son. It still puzzles me why the General took me in.
I was so bored so I decided to train myself. I stood on the corner and hit the metal barrels with my bare fists. I was getting stronger. In my fourteenth birthday, I will be granted my first mission. I kill the other prisoners as part of the training in order to perfect pressure point fighting. The General saw my potential in that area. He told me once that no one can be as fierce as I can. I'm glad of that.
"Can I join you, Sojin?"
It was Yin Po. I smiled and told him to come.
The incident happened four months ago. The Americans sent us these canned goods. I wondered why they gave us those. But whenever we did an excellent job, the General gives us one can as a reward. We have to make the most of it because a can is for six months. I sliced little from mine. I remember getting a meat loaf, the biggest of them all. I was my teacher's favorite but I never took advantage of that.
This skinny kid Yin Po had a liver spread, the smallest. I kept thinking about what I will do if I was in his situation. What Yin Po did was he took some grass and would apply an amount of liver spread to it. It was clever but it lasted for only one month. He came to me one night, asking me to share mine but I declined. He is responsible for himself.
Kindness isn't about helping; it's punishing someone so he could learn to survive. He is on his own from now on. I watched if he could make it through.
A week later, he did. He applied as a garden helper and whenever he catches a rat infesting the crops, he cooks it. I was really impressed. I walked to him. He looked at me. We smiled and nodded at each other.
A day later he became my bestfriend.
I taught Yin Po about a lot of things. I told him that people like him and me aren't important. The world is huge and we are just children. But we have to strive when we grow up to have meaning in our lives.
What is that purpose? He asked me once. I told him it is about showing the world that we don't need it in order to take care of ourselves.
Yin Po is really weak, both in mind and body. But his cheerfulness amuses me. He was a goof most of the time and even if they beat him with a whip for making a mistake, he can still laugh as I cure his wounds. As if he enjoys pain. I could only shake my head and tell him not to do anything stupid. But he always does. He sometimes cries but sometimes he would wake me up in the middle of the night to play with him. And whenever he does cry, he sleeps beside me.
Yin Po is still skinny but he was working on it. A lot of training will do him good. He can be extremely lazy though. We train together so I can motivate him.
We took two metal tubes and tied a pale filled with water in each end. We placed it above our shoulders and jogged outside. Yin Po fell twice. He had to do it over again. I didn't wait for him. I finished my own and watched him do his.
He finally dropped exhausted in the ground. Then he sat up and took my hand, "Sojin, tonight will be the festival!" he said. "I hope the guards will let us eat something."
I smiled. "I brought something for you."
I took the bread from my pocket and showed it to him. His eyes rounded as if this was his first time to see real food. I guess it is.
"I didn't eat all of it," I told him. "I decided that you could use some energy considering how weak you are."
Yin Po didn't devour it quickly. He stared at it first and admired it from every crumb. It was like a treasure he has found. Then after twenty minutes, he took bites from it and chewed happily.
I watched him eat and as he did, tears formed in his eyes. I watched him cry too. I watch him cry a lot.
"I want to give you something special on your birthday." he told me, "I know! I will dance around you while making music with my chain. I will do it right now! You can join me if you want!"
He danced around like an idiot. He loves making a fool out of himself. I laughed. He really makes me happy. I remember that it took him a month, trying to make me laugh. He did it successfully when he stumbled and fell on the stairs. He had few bruises but the way he fell down made me laughed hard.
He is such an idiot.
I was a year older than he was. He had his birthday two months ago. The General gave him a pin: the shape of a sword. He never wore it. He kept it in a safe place where no one will see.
Eight hours later, the festival began.
I walked with Yin Po around the busy streets. Everything is filled with noise and lights. I keep on bumping into people. Yin Po seemed happy to be part of all the excitement. He pulled me when he saw people grilling some pork with sauce. I feel hungry myself but I could not break the rules.
"We should ask permission," I told Yin Po.
"But I am too hungry to walk," as he said it, he sat down on one of the stools, rubbing his stomach.
'Well, I'm not sure if they will give us something to eat," I told him, "Why would they pay attention to us?"
"I still believe that people are kind despite what they teach us." Yin Po looked grumpy and sad.
I feel sorry for him. I glanced around and saw a bunch of girls huddled together and eating some grilled pork. One of them looked at me. She pointed at me and said to her friends, "How cute is that boy!"
I looked away. But she already walked towards Yin Po and me. I still looked in the other direction.
"Hey there, you want some?" she offered me a slice of pork. I refused. She saw Yin Po and handed it to him instead. Yin Po was delighted. Idiot.
I looked at her at last. She must be studying in the university. She was tall and pretty. Her dark hair was tied in a ponytail. She smiled again. I wasn't shy. I was just uncomfortable.
Yin Po was in a really good mood so he talked to her. "I am Yin. And you are?"
We weren't allowed to talk to the civilians. I looked at him sharply and he nodded and stood quiet. But the girl was persistent. I ignored her and pulled Yin Po away. I can't believe he accepted that food. If the camp finds that out, they will punish him again. I was trying to protect him but he is making it hard for me.
"I'm sorry, Sojin," he apologized as we walked through the crowds. I stopped and looked at him. I pulled him roughly into a corner and held my chain close to his face. "You see this. Yin Po?"
He eyed it sadly. I took his and let him hold it. "You are a ward of the state. You can get killed if you don't become careful. They will make you do things you don't want to but you just have to make it through. So for the last time stop being so stupid!"
Yin Po shivered as I towered above him.
"We are not like them," I told him. "I know it might be so painful to you but we are not like them. We are in a different league. You cannot just turn away from that. We cannot be like them."
"Why not?" he was crying again. I did not look at him but I answered, "Because we don't have a family like they have. We don't go to a normal school and make friends with normal people. We are different."
Yin Po wiped his tears. His lips were trembling. "I wish I have that kind of life."
I closed my eyes and shook my head. "We can't."
"You could just lie to me about that."
"I don't want to deceive you."
"It always does."
I can feel him moving closer to me. When I turned around, he hugged me like he always does when he is lonely. I didn't push him away but I didn't hug him back. He looked up to me and said, "But you will be always here for me, right? Promise me."
"Okay, I promise."
I looked up at the sky and smiled faintly. "Look up, Yin Po, the fireworks are starting."
And he did and we watched the scenery above us. I know that Yin Po was happy again for his arms tightened around me like he doesn't want to let go. The fireworks were beautiful and so were the entire happy faces of the people gathered around us. I felt like a normal kid again. As soon as I wake up, I know I will find myself in the cold afternoon walks in the forest once again, sleeping on the floor with my pillow filled with dried leaves and will be training for another ten hours. I have to watch Yin Po either cry or laugh again as he calls my name in the night.
This is the land of the morning calm but in the place where I call my only home, the sun never shines...
Comments and Reviews will be appreciated greatly.