Notes from a Journal
By Thomas G. Fairbairn
My trip to the northern limits of the demilitarized zone would, I had hoped, overpower the egotistical urge to impose myself on these notes. And it did have some effect, for the charged environment at Imjinkak where the two titons--Western capitalism and Eastern, albeit Stalinist, communism--stand mano a mano and hurl insults back and forth from opposing loudspeakers on either side of the Imjing River, electrifies the atmosphere. Merely the endless, serpentine coils of fifteen-foot barbed wire stretching hundreds of miles along the Freedom Highway should have quenched my curiosity. I have never been able to abide the sight of barbed wire. But even as I stood between those two irreconcilable worlds and felt my eyes brim with sadness, there crept into my mind the memory of Changbalsan Mountain.
Changbalsan is right in the heart of this planned community, Ilsan, and is easily accessible by sub-
way. It is, truthfully, not much of a mountain but would, I knew when I first sighted it, serve my desperate need for sanctuary, a place where I could escape from the tedious horror of mad bus drivers, screaming cars, and the ant-like scurrying of 700,000 inhabitants. At the top of the mountain is a pagoda-like building, much like the one at Imjinkak, meant for meditation, prayer, paying respect to ancestral memories.
It was very early in the morning, and there was no one in the temple. Having gazelled my way up the mountain, I was happily exhausted. I slipped off my backpack and, using it for a pillow, was soon fast asleep. A few days before this, in my "Pooh" kinder-
garten class, one of the children, Sang, had slipped away from me and took a header off the stairs lead-
ing up to the play loft. He broke his arm in two places. My stomach heaved when I saw the bone in his tiny arm (he's the youngest of the class, only four) stretching the paper-thin skin just below his elbow. The previous night to my climb up Changbalsam, I had visited him in the hospital to meet his parents and apologize for having let the accident happen in the first place.
I never got the chance. The father, who could speak a little English, motioned me to follow him out into the hallway where he proceeded to ask my forgiveness for his son's behavior and for having caused me so much worry and pain. "He runees like lizardee!" he said, smiling and bowing.
In my dream in the temple on top of Changbalsan, I stand in an unfamiliar kitchen. Sang's parents are with me. In my hands I hold a large platter with a raised edge like those used for panning gold. In the pan, dashing from side to side, is a russet-coloured chameleon. I am explaining how the lizard has to be cared for, fed, kept cool, cleaned. I pick the crea-
ture up, using my fingers like a pair of pliers, and it shoots forth a stream of milky waste. As I bend down to wipe up the mess I glance along the linoleum floor, and there behind the refrigerator is stretched out full length a brilliantly coloured orange snake.
Then all three of us are standing outside in the yard. I am again holding the pan with the lizard in it. In front of us is a house under construction. I can see the foundation beams and the black shadow of the hole under the house which will become the base-
ment. The lizard flops wildly and is suddenly scur-
rying along the ground, heading fast for the dark shadow. Before anyone can react the foundation beams of the house shake violently and the ground beneath our feet trembles. From out of the black darkness there bursts a monstrous, Galapagos-size lizard that lunges and crashes like thunder into one of the sup-
port posts holding up the half-constructed building.
"There's no use!" I cry as I awake, my heart pound-
ing, my breathing coming in desperate gulps. I do not recognize where I am and remain disorientated while that scene of the monster crashing into the support post plays over and over in my head.
At the northern limit of the D.M.Z. where the Han River, flowing north through S. Korea, intersects with the Imjin River flowing south out of N. Korea, where both converge and ebb tiredly out into the West Sea, in my mind's eye the beast again rocks the foundations of the house. I stare through the coils of barbed wire toward the fake and empty apartment buildings which North Korea has constructed to convince the South Koreans how grand life is over there (the S. Koreans call it Propaganda Village).
A light rain begins to fall. The water gathers and hangs on the fish-hook prongs of the barbed wire and drop slowly like tears. I think, those are God's tears as He attempts to decide if this, like the dinosaurs, is just another failed experiment.
Sang, by the way, is fine. He's back home and, his mother tells me, darting through the house just like always. The veil has trembled but, for now, the foundation holds.
(Thomas G. Fairbairn left home in Canada when he was fifteen to hitchhike to Mexico. Later he emigra-
ted to the US, where he completed undergraduate and graduate degrees in English literature. He has worked as a journalist in Toronto, Los Angeles and Winchendon, Massachusetts. He currently lives in Seoul, Korea, observing and recording the phenomenon of globalization, watching East meet West.)