"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.
Excerpted from All Woman and Springtime by Brandon Jones. Copyright © 2012 by Brandon Jones. Excerpted by permission of Algonquin Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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