Darkness does not come gently to Chongjin. It doesn’t creep over the purpling hills and into the cracks, like back in Mexico City. It’s not Novosibirsk, where night falls like a cheap blanket, and you end up shivering even in the jaws of summer. There is no golden hour here, no photogenic streamers of twilight curling up through the flaking tenements, no calls of mothers to their children to find their way home. None of that, no. Over here, night is a sudden lead pipe to the back of the head. Breathe in while I’m turning a corner in one of the container crate shanty- towns ringing the city, still squinting into the desiccating crush of grimed daylight. Breathe out and everything goes black, a basement door slammed shut and nailed into place, right when I’d just managed to pick up the scent again. I try to relax, to give my senses some space to adjust, hoping the scattered doorframes of coal fires would be enough to illuminate the squeezing alleys with an ashen glow. But when my eyes keep drifting towards the poorly synched LED boards flickering to life, diffusing the maze of sheet metal and plywood into a limbo of dimly reflected Korean celebrities, I know it’s time to let the bike go before I smash myself into a wall. That’d be some future archaeologists wet dream, wouldn’t it? What’s this here stuffed between the rat skeletons, the packing peanuts and the inch-thick layer of feces? An Irishman having relations with a rental scooter? Surely there’s a prize for that.
I should have a plan to hide the bike away for later, but realistically, what were the chances it or I would be here again? So I hand the keys to an anonymous pair of outstretched hands and bowl the helmet down a septic drain. Without the wind and the visor I can really suck in a good bit of the world. The world immediately obliges back, crawling down my throat and up my nose before nesting in my paranasal attic. I take a few half-steps one way, then backwards again, spin half a clock. Calm down, try again. At least it’s not Nampo, no rusting helicopters constantly tumbling overhead, no roving bands of masked gunmen picking through the abandoned resorts for underprepared chaos-touristas. It’s actually still long enough for me to sort out the distinctive chemical trail from the sifting clouds of cooking oil, rotting garbage, drifts of methane. I lean west, there, closer, I can just about tongue the slot, when a trio of kids on ATVs scream past, each one carting a trailer piled high with corroded car batteries. The acid snaps at my membranes and immediately wipes the trail away. Well then. Fuck. Time to resign myself to an old fashioned hunt-and-peck.
Head down, micro-fiber scarf wrapped around my face, I barrel into the human smog of the open market. I get some strange looks, some defensive tugging at waistbands for a weapon, a phone, who cares. I’m not worried. Sometimes I believe I’m protected by the lingering halo of several decades of oppressive propriety, a shepherd still faintly recognized by the sheep. Or maybe I’m just another pale white asshole in a long line going back to the first sails that pricked their horizon. Either way, no one has the energy to bother with a foreigner sniffing around their blackened chickens and cisterns of baby formula.
It’s in the third row of makeshift tents, among a jungle of antiquated three-prong power cords, that I get another taste of it. I tug at my scarf. Barely there, just a few dozen molecules. Difficult to describe. Something like a pop of color, or a memory trapped in the back of your mouth. Just a hint, but more than enough to start pushing me back towards what I am. If you ask my employers, they’ll insist on labeling me a warrior, a samurai, their blessed servant of honor and virtue. Watch their faces and you’ll know it’s bullshit even as they say it, because what I really am is their dog, a bloodhound or a beagle, something low to the ground. That’s what they pay me to be, in cash and in life. Besides, from the scraps of history I’ve read on the subject, real samurai weren’t really known for their shoving through crowds and inconspicuously smelling the backs of stranger’s necks. And I’ve yet to find a museum with a woodcut of a samurai passed out in a filthy hotel room, bruised prostitutes weeping at his feet.
Soon I’ve caught another scent ribbon, purer this time, a solid synesthetic burst of lemon yellow. I ducked under the rubber tarp and there she is, a shriveled old woman peeking out from behind a stack of Batman t-shirts. Gentle cataracts, skin like onion paper. In the right light, she could have been one of my parishioners, back two lifetimes ago. Except … she stinks of it, packed into every wrinkle on her ancient face, balled up in her tear ducts, matted into her tightly knit hair. My anus clenches at the smell.
I stand in her cramped stall, filling what little space she had with my presence, my palms open between us as if to receive the rain. I withdraw the crucifix from the folds of my jacket and ask her one simple question, one of the few Korean phrases I’ve bothered to memorize, other than How Much and Like That and Get The Fuck Out Of My Face. But this one I know the best. I can say it in over a hundred different languages and dialects. It’s critical that I get it right every time, because this is how the Procedure starts.
“Do you believe?”
Back at the seminary, people always asked why the phrasing is so important. Why those exact words? The monk patiently explains the simulations, the models, the millions of A-B tests run against every personality type. He tells us, even if it seems too obvious, we know this is the right question, that it will open the door to grace almost every time. Then some cocky smart-ass, usually an American, invariably a Texan, inevitably raises his hands and says what about the times it don’t?
The monk sagely taps the Procedure and drags his finger to the bottom of the scroll.
Then, my child, you have permission to skip to the end.
The old woman doesn’t budge and I started to wonder if this was going to be one of those rare skips, but then her eyes suddenly widen as if I had just appeared out of thin air. A creaky grin sprouts from the wrinkles on her chin and she nods and the blue veins on her neck throb with life. I dangled the crucifix again in front of her face. No reaction. I make sure no one else can see us and with a magician flip of the wrist replace the crucifix with a porcelain cameo of Kim-Il Sung. She blinks at it, her thoughts stuttering again, then with a little sigh she shakes her head and disappears under the counter. My muscles instinctively tense, but all she dredges out is an ancient, dinged-up laptop. The hard drive lights flutter and photos start fading in and out of each other, tinted in false sepia. I don’t have to understand her words to know what she’s saying. This is my grandmother. This is our family farm. This is great-uncle whoever. This little girl, this is me, and I realize that she can’t be any more than thirty years old. This country ages its people with a rare furiousness. When I first crossed the abandoned border into the former DPRK, it was like walking into the pages of a dim fairy tale, and everyone I met was a ghost or a gnome.
She rubs her hands together and repeats the same invocation over and over again. Her fingers brush gently against a ceremonial bottle of wine and a bowl of steaming white rice. Ancestor worship. Not uncommon around these longitudes, just another variety of the sectarian froth that bubbled over the peninsula after the bloody pop of their totalitarian cork. Not that the particular flavor of faith makes a difference, not to me, certainly not to the Procedure. The only thing that matters is that it is unearned.
I break out my most benevolent smile and wave my hand in a circle, shrug my shoulders, point to her laptop. I show her my crucifix again, still warm. I pat my heart and in my best, mealy-mouthed translation, wonder aloud: Where Can I Get Some? She rewards me with a silly look, as if I was asking for directions to Neptune, and I’m already mentally preparing for another week in this shithole, sleeping in the corner of an abandoned shipping crate. Then she raises her finger and points over my head, out of the market, to the crystalline glow of the illuminated cranes clustered along the port. I raise my eyebrows, More Details Please? She taps the wine bottle, looks eastward again. I quickly duck under the tarp and make a tentative sniff towards the scab of supply warehouses and truck depots between us and the water. Nothing. Wait. On a feather of sea-wind, the hint of a memory. A glass of gin with a twist of lemon.
I thank her and bow deeply. She bows back, smiling, nearly giddy to have helped a fellow believer. The lines on her face melt away and I catch an idea of the girl she could have been. We appraise each other quietly. I’m counting the seconds in my head. The Procedure notes that the next step can be taken up to a minute later. I always wait that entire minute. I never start early.
Forty seconds. More ATVs roar by, accompanied by the jeers of youthful exuberance.
Fifty-two seconds. The woman gazes at the images on her laptop. I hear the rattle of her phlegm-drowning lungs. I smell the flush of sweat down her back. Love fills her body.
The hilt is out of my pocket and in my hand. In a microsecond, a needle pricks my thumb, scans my blood, and the Word scalds the air between us in milky light. She raises a single finger, as if to shush me. Then her finger is gone, her arm is gone, her guts spill out onto the ground and then those are gone as well. I step into the space where she just was and cross myself, an old habit, before smashing her laptop under my boot. The digital spirits of her family tree flicker away in a crackle of plastic and silicon.
At two-hundred seconds, when the explosives go off, I’m already making my way towards the blue-haloed lights of the port, trying to ignore the sudden caress of thermabaric heat, carrying maroon notes of smoldering rubber, charred meat. Ashes to ashes, yes, I know.