This short story was originally published at Publish Your Mind.
This is my longest one so far, and also my darkest. There may be some detail in it that you will find hard to digest. I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.
Illustrations by Mint S.
SHORT STORY: DYSTOPIA
“Are you still alive?” the guard asked, smiling.
“Yes, sir.” he said. “But I’m in a lot of pain.”
“Good,” the guard said, laughing. He thumped his boot right into the man’s chest. He choked out blood and it spread over his torn clothes, a scarlet color spreading along the pale surroundings. The man tried to stand up again, but the boot simply came back onto his chest and pinned him down to the hard, concrete ground.
“You had eight kernels of corn in your pocket.” the guard snarled, all signs of the previous fake smile gone from his face. “Eight, young man- eight.” The guard laughed out loud at the thought of such an offense. “Selfish wretch. Scum of the nation. Counterrevolutionary!” He laughed again. “You know very well that you are not to hoard food for yourself, not here. Everything is to be shared equally.”
There is nothing to be shared, the man thought, but he still nodded, almost too exhausted to do anything. Some blood was still dripping out slowly from his lips but he tried to close his mouth and managed to keep most of the red liquid inside. It build up inside and in the end he had to spit it all out, a mass of red in stark contrast to the grey concrete.
The guard knocked at the man’s head once more in the nose, sending him rolling in agony. It was nearly too much, almost too much for him to bear, despite all the times this has been done to him. Almost like a miracle, however, the guard stood back and nothing more came. “I’ll let you go.” the guard said, smiling again. “You’ll live for today. That is, if you survive. You work hard enough; I don’t want to rip your short life from you yet, even if already it is worth nothing to me.” He laughed again and it was not a pleasant sound. “Go. Go! Get out of my sight. Back to your work!”
Although the man’s body ached in pain and he could hardly breath, he staggered up to his feet, bowed deeply to the guard and limped out of the room, back into the freezing cold air outside. More blood dripped out of his nose, leaving a trail of crimson droplets on the pure snow.
The young man sighed, hard. He was barely seventeen, but already he had already been through worse punishments than this one on almost a weekly basis. He was starving, freezing and always in pain, but still he worked; not meeting work quotas would mean the infliction of even harsher punishments on him by the guards.
He understood life, that it was meant to be like this. There was a superior class, a noble group of guards, who kept the society under control. They were harsh and rather merciless, but that was the way it always had been. After all, society needed the rule of these guards, who, according to their own sayings, were under the command of a distant Great Leader, somewhere else. He did not know or care much about these things; he already had too much to worry about. He did yearn for escape, for a better life; but he had no knowledge of the outside world and the guards never told him anything, nor did the teachers in his early morning ideology classes.
Trudging through the snow to return back to the coal mine that he worked in every day, the young man saw a group of people streaming the other direction. He was exhausted, but he did not want to be late and perhaps get beaten for it, so he tried to run as best as he could, finally joining in the line. It was a line made up of many people, from young men and women like himself to small children to hunchbacked ancients around forty years old.
“What’s going on?” he asked one of the children, a gaunt boy with an oversized head.
“Execution.” was the reply. “We all have to watch.”
He groaned silently. These happened every once in a while and he was sick of it.
* * * *
In the center of the room stood a glass tank. Two parents and one small girl sat in it, crying, although they could not be heard outside. A guard stood in front.
“Three…two…one…vanquish the traitors of the fatherland!” the guard cried out in triumph as a button was pressed. Vapors of gas began to be sprayed on the family. They immediately started coughing and choking, and they were visibly trying to hold their breath. The father vomited and then fell face-down to the floor. He did not get back up.
Beside him, the mother was clutching the little girl to herself, as she cried and screamed inaudibly. She raised the girl up and placed her face next to the girl’s. They were attempting to do mouth-to-mouth breathing, the young man saw. He stood in shock and horror at what he was seeing. He did not know whether or not it was wise for the mother to be prolonging the suffering and agony of the little girl, but it certainly was terrible and he could barely bear to watch.
Enough was enough; he took his eyes off the tank and glanced over to a girl standing beside him. She was roughly his age, perhaps a little younger, visibly gaunt as all the people were; she was holding her hand to her open mouth. Bits of tears were streaming out of her eyes. The man gazed at the young woman, but he forced himself to turn himself back to watch the gassing.
Soon enough, the mother too fell down, vomit splashing across the floor and the small girl fell down too. The guard pressed the button again, ending the flowing of the gas. They were clearly dead; there was no need for more.
The whole room was silent, stunned by the horrifying spectacle, as the guard turned back to them, clearly satisfied with what he had just done. “This is the first time we have tested out this machine for all to see.” he announced pompously. “Let it be known here, right now- do not betray the fatherland, for this is the fate of traitors.”
All in the room nodded nervously. They were not sure how to proceed, and the guard laughed. “Return to your work now. I shall accompany you.” He picked up a machine gun, and pointed it towards the door. Slowly, the workers began to make their way back.
* * * *
Work in the coal mine was hard. He worked until he was exhausted, and he could no longer move, but he still used mental effort to heave himself back up, lift the pick and chuck away at the rock. He had been doing this nearly all his life and for all the fatigue he felt, it was a routine and he could keep doing it.
His mind kept fluttering back to the scene of the gassing of the family, and his mind shuddered whenever he thought of it. It was almost insane to do that, he felt, though cruelty and harshness was something he was so used to. Even then, his mind also went back to something else. It was not just the gassing that he remembered from that day. He remembered something else also, a feeling, a new one; something he did not think he had ever felt before. It was a feeling that he had when he saw the young girl standing next to him, gaping at the dying families. He was not quite sure what the feeling was, nor did he talk to anyone about it. Not like there was enough time to actually look.
He took a very short break at mid-day for a tiny meal of gruel made up of corn and cabbage, a meal given once a day that was hardly enough to satisfy his hunger, but he relished it nonetheless. As he sat eating outside the coal mine, he saw a trail of workers coming to join. He simply sat there and quickly gobbled in the gruel, trying to fill up his stomach somehow although there certainly was not nearly enough.
The line of workers walked through the desolate, barren snow and stopped in front of the mine entrance. They were new workers, probably sent from another mine or factory. A guard leading them barked orders and they were handed very meager portions of gruel. The man eyed the line of workers warily. He had seen a lot of new workers come every once in a while and unless they were really fit and tolerant, they would not survive work in the mines for very wrong.
His eyes flickered when he caught sight of a certain someone.
It was the girl he’d seen earlier that day.
* * * *
Three hours more passed.
“Work hard. Work harder. Work until you drop. For the fatherland!” the guard cried out as he lashed a whip out on the workers. “Work hard. Work harder. Work until you drop. For the fatherland!”
The man was tired. He really was. He kept digging at the ground and he felt like he had no more energy left, but he had to keep going.
“Work hard. Work harder. Work until you drop. For the fatherland!”
He was exhausted.
“Work hard. Work harder. Work until you drop. For the fatherland!”
He couldn’t take it any longer.
“Work hard. Work harder. Work until you drop. For the fatherland!”
But yet he endured this every day.
* * * *
Three hours more passed.
“Alright. That’s enough for today. Get your asses back to your rooms.”
There were quiet sighs as relief as the people slowly tried to make their way back up from the mine. It was nearly completely dark as there was no running electricity in the mine and many people had slipped to their deaths before.
The man was determined not to be one of them, ever.
They walked in a single-file line and in silence. Or rather, the silence continued until someone in front of him tripped and fell down, screaming.
Instantly, he bended down and lent a hand, grabbing the person up. He couldn’t make out the features of the person. The line had halted behind him and a guard rushed to see what had happened, probably not out of any sincere feeling but just to see how he could punish her for being so careless as to fall.
The person had already got up. The guard grunted; he let the line keep moving with no punishment. There were audible sighs of relief. They slowly kept walking and soon they were out of the mine, the dim moonlight allowing a bit of vision.
The man could make out who the person was now.
She was the young girl.
“Are you alright?” he asked quietly, not wanting to be overheard by the guards.
“Yes, I am.” she replied. “A bit hurt, I guess, but nothing worse than what the guards do to me anyway.”
The man chuckled back. “That’s good. I thought they were going to beat you up.” He looked into the girl’s eyes, and he thought he could see a flash of sadness in it, but perhaps it was just a reflection of the moonlight.
“They beat me up a lot.” she said. “I’m scared, really. I don’t know if they’re going to take me in one day and rape me or something. I really…” Her voiced trailed off. “There’s no escape, anyway.”
“Where are your parents?”
“Back at my housing facility. We only see each other during the nights, since we arrived. Everyone’s always working.”
The man grew interested. “Arriving? You weren’t born here?”
“Nope. I’ve barely been here for two months.” she answered. “It’s been…hard for me.”
“For everyone, I’d assume. Where do you stay?”
“Housing Facility 2. How about you?”
“Housing Facility 1. I was born here. My grandparents had been sent here. My family has been in this place since it was made.”
They walked along silently for a while. The weather was cold and the clothes he wore were barely enough to protect his body from the biting frost the snow caused on his skin; they were already worn out by the time he inherited it from some dead person. The night was peaceful and he knew he’d be happy if it wasn’t for the fact that he was living where he was.
“I’m hungry.” the girl said. The man chuckled. It was a clear mark of people who had not been born here: to say that they were hungry. They were always hungry. They had never known a state other than being hungry.
“Aren’t we always?”
“Yeah, I’d guess. But I’m really hungry today. I didn’t think I could eat anything, after I saw the gassing…”
“Oh, that was horrible.”
“Yeah, but I’m hungry still. I think the longer I stay here in this place, the more indifferent I’ll be to these scenes- but not yet. Do you think I’ll be able to find a rat to eat?”
“A rat? Maybe. I’ll see if I can get one for you. Come with me.” The words flew out of his mouth without him thinking and he almost felt a pang of regret once he said them. If he was caught, the punishment would be terrible indeed.
They walked together without a word more until they reached Section 1. It was simply rows of small huts, just like any of the other housing facilities, and usually the man would go into it and sleep in the corner of one of the cramped huts. But not today. He walked on silently with the girl and not so long after that he reached Section 2. “Follow me.” he said, gesturing to the girl. They walked along the row of huts as people began to go inside for a rest.
Permission usually had to be granted by the guards if they wanted to capture mice to eat. There was no time for that, however, for the guards would expect them to be in their huts, not out catching mice. Another reason was the guards sometimes commanded people to swallow uncooked mice: he did not want to risk having to see the girl vomiting as she tried to chew a raw rat, as he had done many times before.
His reflexes were lightning fast when he caught sight of a rat running through the trails of the narrow lane and he grabbed it almost immediately. Bashing it against a hut, he killed it and gestured for the girl to come to him.
“What about you?” she asked. “Your parents?”
A glimpse of sadness came into the man’s eyes. “My parents? They died when I was three. Never mind about me, you can have it all.”
“Then you can have some yourself.” she insisted.
“No, it’s fine. I’m not that hungry.” It was a lie, but if the girl was going to have the rat with the people in her housing facility (one housed at least thirty people), there’d barely be enough left for her. “I’ll go now, or someone’ll catch me. See you.” He waved and it gave him some sort of satisfaction and happiness to see her wave back, smiling in the moonlight.
His stomach winced in pain and he was so tired and hungry he could hardly stand still, but at least he had helped someone and for the first time, he thought he might be coming closer to this feeling people called ‘love’ that he had so often heard about, but never truly experienced. Gritting his teeth, he broke out into a run to go back to his housing facility, praying that he would not be caught and tortured by a guard.
Meeting the girl became a daily habit for him. During lunch, when they were having their meagre and unfulfilling portion of gruel, they would sit together, but never would they talk very loudly or enthusiastically for fear of being singled out for some random punishment. They we’re also very quiet during the nights; if he wasn’t very exhausted, he would walk back with her, but they could barely speak too audibly. On some days he couldn’t walk back with her, for he had been punished and beaten and wasn’t able to be jogging around. She understood and did not mind.
He’d learned a lot from her. She came from the capital, she said, a city far away from the camp;a place of great luxury and comfort. Not everywhere was such a dystopia, she told him. She had once known a life when starvation was not always a reality and people were not subject to beatings. There were places that were not policed by these cruel guards, but instead were under the direct and benevolent care of the Great Leader- whoever he was.
She also learned a lot from him. Useful life-saving techniques, like how to build a fire in the snow, how to find a pregnant rat to eat, how to survive in the coal mine; these were all things she learned from him.
“Do you miss your parents?” she’d once asked him.
His eyes grew distant and his voice was cold.
“No.” he replied. “I did not know them.”
“I’m grateful I haven’t lost my parents yet.”
“But they may lose a daughter, if she is not careful.” said a voice from behind their backs. Instinctively, both of them jumped to their feet and bowed to the guard. The girl’s hands were shivering, shaking, and it was from fear, not the cold. All the workers were silent then, glancing in terror and fear at the guard who, as always, held all their lives and destines in his hands.
“I see both of you sitting together every day.” he snarled unpleasantly. “You two are in a relationship. You two are in love.”
“N-no, sir, no…” the man stuttered.
“Yes, yes! You two are more in love than two field mice having sex. I can see that.” At that moment, he kicked both of them down to the ground. “Do you two not know that it is strictly forbidden to be in a relationship not arranged by the authorities? We cannot have you, scum of the nation, randomly producing more babies, no! Your relationship is to end, immediately.”
“But I want to be sure you two have learned your lesson.” The guard grinned fiendishly, revealing about four missing teeth with the rest gone yellow. “Follow me.”
* * * *
The young man watched in horror as the girl was placed in a tank with walls stuck with nails. The guard behind him slapped him on the shoulder. “Don’t worry.” he said. “We’re not going to gas your girlfriend.” The guard gave special emphasis to the last word, as if in mockery.
Two other guards began filling the tank up with water until it reached just under her nose.
“No tip-toeing, no leaning, no moving: just standing still.” the guard said. “Your punishment will last three days. It will be long, but admittedly it won’t be as painful as what your boyfriend will experience.” The guard turned to him.
“Remove your shirt and drink the water.” He gave him a bucket of water and the man drank it as quickly as he could, in the hope of making this punishment end quickly.
“More.” Another bucket was passed to him. The man was already very full from the previous bucket, but he had to do as he was told or die. He drank it in.
“More.” Yet another bucket, this one filled up half-way. The man looked at the guard in frustration but there was nothing he could do and so he had to drink it in, but this time very slowly for he could barely take in any more liquid.
“Good job! Take more. I know you like water.” Another bucket was given and this time the man could barely gulp it in, while the guard stared at his expanding belly with interest.
“Hmm. Maybe half a bucket more?”
“Please…I can’t take-“ The man was slapped on the face by the guard.
“Drink,” came the command, “Do not disobey me.” The guard grabbed the man’s mouth and poured the entire bucket right over his face, laughing. “Hey, I need help here, guards!” Two more guards ran up and tied the man’s hands behind his back and then his legs before lifting him up and placing him on a table. IT actually felt good to be lying down, he thought, for there was so much water in him. Perhaps a bit more beating, and the torture would be over.
The guard seemed to have read his thoughts. “Oh, we’re not nearly done yet.” After that, he hard the sounds of footsteps in a gallop, and when he looked up, he saw the guard jumping up and then landing with all his weight right onto his stomach. He screamed out, but a massive amount of water also sprayed out all over his body as he screamed. He coughed, spluttering. The impact felt horrible and caused intense pain.
“That wasn’t quite enough. You two! Have a turn each, then hang him down from the ceiling and beat him up for maybe…seven hours. Dinner at nine, by the way.” The senior guard left the room, but the sound of his chuckling could still be heard.
* * * *
They did not speak again for a long time after that day. He did not know how the girl was after suffering through three days of standing still in freezing water. He did not expect to get to speak to her again.
He walked back from the mine one day, alone, in silence. And it was on that day that the girl once again ran up beside him. He smiled, but there was no moonlight that day and the smile would be hidden in the near-complete darkness.
“Do you want to be tortured again?” he asked softly.
“My parents were executed today. They were shot.” she said.
There was silence for a second as the man digested the news.
“They’re old. They couldn’t meet the work quotas in the factory. The guards decided that they were useless, so they killed both of them.” Her voice was shaking and she was probably crying. “They had them dig their own graves. Then they shot him three times- once at the head to kill them, once at the chest to make them slump and finally at the waist to push them into the pit.”
The man had witnessed such things before, and it did not surprise him. Yet he could not come up with a good comment. “That’s very…efficient.”
“I want to leave. Let’s go. We can escape this damned place.”
“What?” the man asked. “Escape?”
“Yes.” she spoke quickly. “Let’s do it.”
“Do you have any idea how dangerous that is? How much the odds are against us?”
“Well yeah, but I’d rather try and die than stay here.”
“Sometimes they release people with good behavior.”
“My family was sentenced to three generations in this godforsaken place.” she said. “Even my children will die here.
“What is the point of staying? Let’s go, now.” Without a word more, she grabbed his hand. He took a deep breath.
“Alright. Let’s do it.” Now that he’d made up his mind, he felt his heart calm down. The decision was made and he wasn’t going to turn back. He was going to get to escape and see the outside world that he’d heard so much about but had never had a glimpse of. He would be free. “Down south there are forests. If we somehow make our way over the electric fences, we can lose ourselves in the dense woods. They’ll never find us. The question is how to get over the electric fences.”
“I’m sure we’ll figure something out. Let’s go.”
He nodded. “Right now we’re heading the opposite direction. We’ll need to turn around. It’s very dark and no one can see us probably. Lie down.” Both of them laid themselves against the cold snow and they waited for the sound of the walking of the other workers to go past them. It was around two minutes before they could no longer hear it.”
“This is it. Run, run, run, run, run.”
* * * *
They took off, as fast as they could. The young man became skeptical as to whether or not he was making a wise choir by trying to escape with so little planning, but the girl was right. He was in a dreadful place and death was not a bad alternative to his miserable existence.
After running about two kilos, they both had no more energy left and were completely exhausted. They began to walk slowly, catching their breath. They had a long journey ahead of them, if they managed to escape and some energy had to be conserved for it.
“Where would we go?” the girl asked. “We could go to the capital. I might still have some friends, in high places.”
“Maybe.” he mumbled back. “That’s a little dangerous though. In fact, I don’t really care where we go. All I know is this: I’ll at least be free for a day, even if I get killed somewhere out there.”
“The girl nodded. “To be free is a good feeling.” she said. “I have experienced it before.” They clutched each other’s hands. Both of them tried to speed up their walking, aware that a guard could come upon them at any moment.
They walked on for about ten minutes more before they sighted what they thought were the electric fences.
“There it is.” the man said breathlessly, squinting his eyes to try to see. They began to run faster, approaching the gates.
At that moment, a gunshot was sounded and the girl screamed, breaking the night’s silence. Immediately, light was turned on around the area and a spotlight was shone on them. Four guards turned up.
“What on Earth do you think you’re doing?” cried out a guard in fury.
“Oh, we know what you two were about to do.” said another guard laughing. “You were trying to escape.”
A gun was loaded.
“No one, no enemy of the Dear Leader Kim Jong-un, escapes the labor camps of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.”
Two shots went into the air.
* * * *
As dystopian a place the setting of this short story is, it is in fact based on real-life accounts of the gulags set up by the Kim dynasty regime in North Korea. The realities are, in my opinion, harsher, unbelievable and more inhumane than the fictional camp I have set up here itself.
Prior to writing the short story, I have actually made sure I conducted some research into North Korean labor camps. I did not want to simply make up facts of what probably happened in these camps. That was not a necessity. In fact, while the two main characters of the short story did not make it out alive, there are many defectors who have survived a North Korean gulag and escaped to tell the tale.
I mentioned a couple of torture and execution techniques: beatings, gassing, firing squad, the ‘water bucket’ technique, the ‘water torture’ technique and being hung upside down the ceiling, known as hanging torture. These are all from real-life accounts and here is an example of a page that you can look at to learn more. The gassing scene described was in fact written according to a description by an eyewitness. Rats, snakes and insects are eaten in the gulags because there is not enough food given by the guards. The guards do, according to prisoners, force some to eat them live just for fun.
It was not a cheerful investigation for me and in hindsight I think it would be better had I not chosen this plot at all. The guards in the short story, in my opinion at least, showed a remarkable degree of cruelty; yes this had been lessened by myself to make the short story more readable. It is amazing that these Soviet-style gulags still exist (and expand) to this day and as the Washington Post puts it: “It is encouraging that the United Nations has stirred itself to pay attention to North Korea’s camps. Still, historians of the future may again wonder how the world could have known so much and done so little.”