Songs of Death

(Originally posted on Facebook, February 20, 2009)

Half a street away you wouldn’t hear anything. You probably would never walk down this way; there is no reason to. But I had walked past before and I wanted to check on this place again. It is near the big electronics market in the Dragon Mountain district, Yongsan. A month or so ago there was a dispute with the residents of this neighborhood and the police. The former were to be evicted from the old buildings to make way for fancy new buildings. Just like those a block away. Tall shining towers. Not these shabby three or four story buildings. They didn’t leave fast enough, the swat teams didn’t give them much of a chance. There were fires, there was death.

People blamed the new government and the new police chief for mishandling the affair, causing the deaths of these people. Last week I walked by and found this site, a place that seemed like a far and distant land because I had only seen it in the papers, on the news on-line. But there it was. Just around the corner, just half a street down. Had I not walked by that day, I wouldn’t have seen the artists painting mattresses in protest, paintings of burning buildings and the president – a bulldozer coming out of his mouth like some distorted apocalyptic Christ, with pointed, evil ears. I had gone to Dragon Mountain with Jihye and we made a detour to see the place. Were the mattresses still there?

Half a street away we could not hear anything other than the normal evening traffic, nothing but the sound of wheels on pavement. Then we saw the police buses, young officers in plastic armor, young enough to be my brother. Young enough to be Jihye’s brother. Waiting. We walk further and we hear some noise. Clanging and drumming sounds of ancient cymbals and drums. The crying moksori.

Bring us back our people, bring them back.

Half a street away seemed to be half the world away.

It was not their time to go, bring us back their spirits!

Half a street away you could not hear, you did not see. You did not see the crowd, a candle light vigil, people sitting, people watching. In the burned out building lights were installed. The drummers and cymbalists played, the drummer did not sing, he cried the words. In front, a long thin banner was stretched, the names of the dead written on it. As it was pulled in front of the crowd, a man dressed in white and blue pulled, desperately clawing to bring these dead names back. But the banner head been stretched taut, this man goes to one end. A rip is made and he forces his torso inside. Every halting movement forward continues the tear, every step forward is a dance. A dreadful mourning dance. He waves great tassels in his hands, side to side, forward and backward, and with a quick jerk he moves forward another step.

He does this the whole length of the banner, every step photographed, every movement documented, so people can see what is happening in their own city, half a world away.

This dancing man, he is a shaman, and he continues his death dance. The great tassels he had been using go up in flames, and he continues his dance with these great burning appendages. The small burning pieces fly up and ash is in the air, falling like snow. He lays his burning tassels on the ground and the banner, now in two, is fed slowly into the fire. The names burn and fly up, the ash lingers and falls back to the earth, floating on the air.

Bring back our sons, it was not their time to go.

He dances around the flames, the clanging and drumming continue, and the crowd, the whole time is quiet, watches. The shaman dances until the flames die and the drummer announces the ritual complete. There is a soft, awkward applause. A speaker started talking about how the president had murdered these people. But I had tarried there longer than I should have and I had to leave. I would have liked to stay all night, to be in this place where the air was thick of ash and grieving. A place more real than the flashing towers and shopaholics just half a street away.

Jihye and I walk away, we pass the young police, still suited up, smoking, waiting. The vigil, the drummers, the speakers already gone from earshot. Just half a street away.We leave Dragon Mountain via subway, zooming halfway across the city to our own worlds. We might as well be half a galaxy away.

-John Shrader, February 20, 2009

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