‘Viper’ by Giacomo Lee (England)

Short story selected for the 2010 New Asian Writing Short Story Anthology

My name, ‘brigandish — enemy of the state —- stooge.’

At my age, I wish I was able to be so revolutionary. It’s a young man’s game, and I see younger faces as my accomplices, men in their 30s and 40s who just don’t exist, sitting in a basement bar of shadows which never existed. They spur me on and I’m the only one with power, in my suit while they wear leather jackets and wave cigarettes. I may be the only one with power but I’m the oldest at the same time, just a body, a convenience, a real stooge. All emotions are sacrificed in the face of fervour. These men are fighting for the hungry and I’m the one with no passion, dulled by privilege and age.

I’m definitely a body now, looking at my name and this slander, a familiar read but now with my name in the print, fiery copy marching over this other man I don’t recognise. It’s a front page from the future, already made with no date and tucked away in my umbrella stand. Already I can see the guard outside my door as my wife cries in the arms of our grandchildren in the core of the banquet hall. I will be alone with her echoing sobs, then taken.

I’ve got used to being alone these past few months (though it seems I still have one friend with keys to the office). I walked in here alone, and now I’ll leave alone, putting on the coat and hat I’d just taken off, down to the basement car park. The elevator worker doesn’t meet my eyes once, a wise move.


Still in my suit I’m sat cross-legged, mixing the chicken and slices of cabbage smoking on the hot plate. I’ve paid double the price for this meal, and thousands more the drunker I get, secretly hoping they’ll keep me hidden.

The paper in my office now has a date, that of tomorrow, a new headline, MINISTER DISAPPEARS IN SHAME, car found in Kaesong.

No, no, such a story would shame the leadership. It’ll simply be MINISTER ARRESTED.

(Brigandish — enemy of the state —- stooge. Viper).

The patron is a grandmother in her 60s, a little younger than me, but I’m still humbled towards her, perhaps out of my own shame. She waits by the kitchen where her husband and daughter toil by gas light, hurrying inside for the few soju bottles she has left in stock, trying to refuse my money though I’m her only customer. The charade is never ending ’til I eventually trip off my tongue my actual title, and thus how this money means nothing to me, don’t worry. Then I bite my tongue fully realising that this won really does mean nothing to her.

With only cigarettes left I stagger out into the dark and keep walking. I don’t know where I’m going but it doesn’t matter as long as I stay awake.

I’m cold in my suit with no tie, lit up by the restaurant on the side of the road, before walking down the small mound opposite into the wide expanse of nature in the black. I look back to see the patron switch off the gas lamps one by one hanging from the roof of her lonely home.

I’m treading up on crops, throwing up on crops.

I can hear my wife’s sobbed cries echo from Pyongyang. They surround me and colour me in this dark, drowning out the cicadas, turning to pansori, lone dead buk drum beating with no rhythm, vox and knocks. The scene of her on bent knees in a blue dress surrounded by children hovers above me in the sky ’til it’s replaced by a cloud of her face at peace, a silent fog in which I disappear.

In the sun I wake in a field of yellow. Still the cold stings but I fling my muddied suit to one side and walk with stabs in my head. Somewhere beyond I see a group of men, a huddle of cone hats, and only one cart. I want to walk miles just to give them the meaningless paper I have left, but something’s uneasy inside me, and I feel I should keep walking alone for now. Perhaps cops are breeding in the distance, a ring of motorbikes on the urban gravel ready to dismount into rural panorama.

I want to be untraceable, a ghost in the crops, north, south, east or west.


Another night-time with the cicadas and I decide I’ll walk to Hyesan. I’ll need trains and something to obscure my face, thus I’m so relieved I held onto the won warm in my pocket. I push my wallet against one breast and claw for sleep, wondering how one hides their face. Scarf? But who sells any of those now, out here? A visor, like those worn by the permed hair  mothers in the South? I laugh.

(Yes, maybe I could go South, but that would be expected).

I think of the smoke chimneys and tin roofs in Hyesan, and the mountains high above, with China behind. There tigers prowl, the kind we lost long ago. I want to see their glowing eyes now in the dark, desperate for anything else aside from cicadas.


Far off to one side on one walk I see an industrial town I once toured to tout as an industrial heavy centre, when everything was okay. I remember looking out the passenger window and seeing cranes at work, a reminder that life went on outside of the capital. Yet at the same time a treacherous thought did creep in, that our land would never have the grace of China or the style of Japan. Each building was a block and no history or mystery remained. Grey and muted green prevailed, the same dull shades they have in the South.

For all their progress, they’ll always be one step out of sync. So how will we ever reach any sort of grace?

I can make out apartment blocks still unfinished.


Yesterday I passed a corpse in a wheelbarrow so as punishment I tore off my shirt to stand in the middle of a field with my arms stretched out like a scarecrow’s.

I now want to be caught, in the full glare of a highway, naked to the breeze from the nature spanning to the back of me.

I spend the first day with my face streaming wet with mucous before toppling to the floor, yet another night unscathed, unchained.

Bungler, scapegoat.

The second day I sneak a bottle of soju from the corpse’s jacket just so as to steel myself for another day’s worth of lashings, teeth gritted.

The third day I’m noticed.

A grey pick-up truck drives past with men in the back. Just as quickly they reverse and park to gawp at me in the middle of this flatland. They’re farmers, mainly middle-aged.

Being country folk, they see no danger in coming to investigate, yet still I’m surprised.

As they come close I try not to buckle at the knees, peering out at them from dark-ringed eyes, literally whimpering from the cold. My eyes are afraid, accusing. They clearly don’t recognise me, another county untouched by our press.

I see one of them’s brought a rake, so I bark at them to bring any other tools they have in their truck.

‘What tools and why?’ asks one frail man in a cone hat, a little toothless.

‘Spade. Shears. Everything.’

‘Why?’ asks his twenty-something son. There are six men in all, all a little stooped as they squint in disbelief at my body and stained pants, the archaic body to which they must show respect.

‘By order of our Dear Leader, and you know you don’t ask questions.’

The men are still confused, and no closer to following my request.

‘You don’t know me. Fair enough.’

I’m still standing with much struggle.

‘…I am your curse. I’ve killed your wives and children with my currency changes. I am the monster at large.’

Not much reaction ensues.

‘I brought your hunger to our land, and now I will be punished by our Dear Leader. They will chase me to death or feed me to the dogs.’

‘Sir, we don’t understand, you’re ill…’

‘Bring your tools!’ I bark. ‘Kill me! Strike me before they do. You’re the ones I wronged, not them! Kill me, I beg you.’

They’ve clearly heard these last words, a little ruffled by them. There’s some murmuring.

‘What happened sir?’

I rasp through my teeth and turn away to the road. The men stay there as I mumble my request over and over, trying not to cry.

‘We can’t sir.’

I grab the boy’s shoulder in tears and ask the group for a knife. Soon a chubby farmer whips one out just to silence my ravings, wide eyed with the knife before him like a match burning down to the fingertips.

I grab the thing and fall into a silent heap to watch the men leave.

Sadly I stare at the blade, knowing full well inside that I’ll only get the conviction to slash my neck the moment the cavalry streams down from all sides, when I’m literally inches away from arrest.


Further down the highway the truck has stalled, perhaps abandoned. I fall back to sleep.


Next day, I return to my pose and long for a satellite to map me so my ghost lives on.


buk: a traditional Korean drum
: a vocal and percussion genre of Korean music
soju: the South Korean drink similar to vodka
won: Korean currency

Illustration by Katherine Jones

About the author:

Raised in both Italy and England, Giacomo Lee currently lives in London after a year abroad working in South Korea as an English Language teacher. His debut novel Red Trick will be released soon by Blank Screen, and other works by the author can be found in Poxymash magazine along with the ME4 Writers periodical.

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