Friday, January 14, 2011


The Importance of Cloth
By Laurie Knox

At least in winter the fighting stopped at five o’clock. With the advent of summer he had to endure an extra four hours before nightfall. Today sounded particularly vicious. It was getting close.

Like a fisherman who learned how to read the sea, his experience told him that the violence would once more pass his house before close of day. He knew he had to prepare. Three months prior, his children and grandchildren had not.

His rickety old legs took him to the corner of the only room. Creaking to his knees, he searched between the mattress and the dirt. The old man found the pieces of cloth that he needed. Taking the stick that lay by the bed, he tried to attach the first piece of cloth to it. The fingers that used to farm the land outside had rusted long ago. It was a difficult task.

The tragedy-in-progress passed south through the village. He lived in a new country now. No sooner had he finished attaching the rag to the stick, he heard a voice address the villagers outside.

“Come out of your houses now. Every man, woman and child must stand in front of their house. Immediately!”

Overcoming the stiffness in his joints, he rose to his feet. Suddenly a terrible thought entered his mind. What if it was the wrong piece of cloth? He had attached the white cloth, but maybe he needed the red. Overwhelmed by fear, he started to panic. White or red? He could hear the villagers gathering outside. Once more the voice spoke:

“Come out of your houses immediately. This is your final warning.”

The old man fell to his knees. The speed of his descent caused a tremendous pain to shoot through both legs. Again, he searched between the mattress and the dirt. This time the rag he pulled out was red.

His failing hands tried desperately to attach the second piece of cloth. The panic erupting within him made the task more difficult than the last. A commotion was brewing outside. This time the voice was directly outside his house:

“You have ten seconds to make yourself known or we will shoot.”

The level of disquiet rose and the old man stumbled to his feet. Weaving the stick through the holes in the cloth, he struggled with the task as he walked to the door. He could hear the villagers shouting:

“Please, no! He is old. He is senile.”

Their interjections held no sway with the voice of authority.

“You have five seconds to make yourself known.”

The old man continued with the task of attaching the second flag to the stick. It impeded his progress to the door, but he knew that without it he was nothing. Just as the voice of authority was about to speak again, the wooden door opened. The last of the holes was attached to the stick.

He is just a child, thought the old man as he stood in the doorway. But he is pointing a gun at me. How very rude. The soldier beckoned to the old man to come closer. The old man walked forward and stopped a few inches short of the gun’s barrel.

All the villagers were outside their houses. They all held sticks with the white cloth. His stick had both the red and the white cloth.

“What are you?” asked the voice. “North or South?”

The old man tried to remember: who were the last ones? He wanted to be the opposite.

“Are you with The Republic?” asked the voice, growing with impatience. The old man was confused. Which side had his granddaughter failed to recognise? He looked at the other villagers and then pointed at his stick.

“White,” he said.

The child with the gun was not satisfied with the answer. He asked once more: “North or South?”

A tear fell down the old man’s face. He cried out of shame, not fear. Two years earlier he harvested the rice that this boy ate in school; now his trousers were soaked in urine. That was the fear.

Another soldier came by and said something to the boy. The boy paused for a second and lowered his gun. He stared at the old man, spat on the ground and walked away.

The second soldier was older than the first, but not by much. The old man looked into his eyes. He had the eyes of a man; the eyes of someone who had made mistakes. The child’s eyes had been weaker.
“Go home old man,” said the second soldier. “Go home.”

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Originally from Kent in England, he studied Economics at Southampton University before training as an accountant in London. Unhappy with the life of an office dweller, he moved to Seoul, Korea in 2007. He currently teaches English and spends his spare time exploring the Korean countryside.


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