A rope descends from the sky, so the beginning itself is strange. But since it’s only the beginning, the audience withholds judgment. A solemn-faced magician tells his assistant to go up the rope, and at his command, the fearful, hesitant young man begins climbing. He climbs and climbs. He continues upward, his small frame becoming even smaller, until he disappears from view.
The magician shouts into the air, “Now it’s time to come back down!”
There is no response. The magician says, louder, “I told you to come down. Can you hear me?”
When he still gets no response, the audience grows even more curious. Where on earth does this rope lead? And what happened to the kid who went up moments ago? Has he arrived at another world, reached the mysterious place that we call heaven?
The magician angrily grabs the rope and begins pulling himself up until soon enough, he also disappears from view. Those gazing up begin to get neck pains and start to feel how heavy the distant sky is. Then, from that high-up place, the young assistant’s arms, legs, head, and torso fall ?— ?one at a time, without warning. Straight after, a dull thud, and blood splatters on the marble floor, as if a wineglass was just knocked over on a white tablecloth. It is red and violent and dizzying. The audience recoils, shocked. Then the magician returns down the rope with his hands coated in blood, his face frozen with anger. He retrieves his assistant’s scattered body parts and puts them into a bucket. After shoving it behind him, he gazes contemptuously at the terrified audience, as if to say: What else do you want?
Just then a sound comes from behind the magician. The straw mat covering the bucket lifts, and ?— ?as if emerging from a long nap ?— ?the boy rubs his eyes as he arises. The magician is more nonchalant than shocked, as if crossing the boundary between life and death is no big deal. The boy vanishes; the vanished boy dies; the dead boy comes back to life. For the sake of audience members still skeptical of his resurrection, the limber boy does some handsprings until everyone feels reassured that he is definitely alive. Blood is coursing through his arms and legs, and his muscles and joints are functioning properly. Only then does the audience begin clapping wildly.
The first person to document this magic act was a man named Ibn Battutah. The Marco Polo of the Islamic world, he witnessed this amazing feat in Hangzhou at the end of the Yuan dynasty and wrote about it in his massive travelogue. Although the secrets to countless tricks are now known, the rope act is still a mystery.
A similar tale also exists in China. It is said that a young Chinese emperor witnessed and was deceived by the same act. He was delighted to be so thoroughly tricked and, captivated by the astonishing act of magic, he wanted to see more. So when he turned his attention to the eunuch fanning him, his guards dragged the trembling eunuch forward.
The emperor reassured him, “There’s no need to worry. The magician will soon bring you back to life.”
An aged attendant spoke up and tried to dissuade the emperor, saying what had happened was nothing more than a trick of the eye. But the emperor ignored him, and said, “We will only know for certain if we try.”
Overwhelmed with curiosity, he ordered a massive soldier to approach the eunuch and brandish his sword. A rainbow flashed in the fountain of blood. The magician turned away from the bloody scene and quickly climbed up the rope. After he hid behind the clouds, the rope fell twitching to the ground. It resembled a legendary serpent that had tried to become a dragon and ascend to heaven, but failed.
When I first heard this old tale, I only wondered where the magician had gone. But now I think about the assistant and what happened to him after the magician vanished, leaving him there alone, soaked in the eunuch’s blood.
A fresh-faced teenager strained to push the shopping cart. In some ways it looked as if the cart were dragging her. She had zipped shut the backpack in the cart and had her earphones on. She would have resembled one of the homeless people living in the bus terminal if it weren’t for her age; she lacked the hard-boiled look of someone who had lived a long, difficult life. Though her arms were thin, her upper body was on the plump side, and her carelessly slipped-on sneakers dragged across the ground.
The Express Bus Terminal was a nightmare dreamed up by the massive city of Seoul: a place of hoarse-throated religious fanatics and male prostitutes selling themselves for small change, beggars missing both their legs singing hymns, con men targeting the simple-minded from the provinces, prostitutes without a regular beat, teenage runaways, a cult leader who believed in the coming of aliens, hucksters, and purse snatchers; all of them loathing one another. Behind the fake monk who begged while tapping at a wooden gong, a man traded in his kidney, and another man ?— ?whose early ejaculation problems made him unable to satisfy his hot-blooded wife ?— ?paid an unlicensed Asian medicine doctor for a white, powdery treatment with dubious powers. Doomsday believers, who trusted that on Judgment Day only the faithful would be saved, positioned themselves throughout the terminal. According to their prophet, October 28, 1992, would be Judgment Day. Back then, many of the prophets stank of overripe, rotting fruit. News of establishing diplomatic relations between longtime enemies, the People’s Republic of China and the Republic of Korea, came trickling in from the large TV installed in the waiting room. Thousands of buses came and went and hundreds of thousands of people swerved past one another.
Almost no one paid attention to the girl. A sole elderly drunk man leered at her, but as soon as she pushed her cart into the bathroom, he lost interest.
She went to a handicap stall and pushed the cart inside. After locking the door and grabbing her backpack, she sat on the toilet seat and withdrew a disposable adult diaper from the pack. She struggled out of her sweatsuit and put it in the cart. As soon as she released the mercilessly tightened maternity belt, her swollen belly sagged out. She pulled off the wet diaper she’d worn beneath her underwear and tossed it into the trashcan. A foul stench overwhelmed the stall. She wiped her sweaty forehead and checked her watch. She took some short, deep breaths and an occasional deliberate heave, but her breathing soon turned irregular. It was as if a skilled torturer occasionally left her alone then returned on impulse.
Used diapers piled up in the trashcan as hot fluid continued seeping from her. The floor became wet. The girl went limp as she watched the amniotic fluid soak her knees and ankles, then finally swirl down a drain clogged with hair. She screamed as pain swept over her again.
Before her echoing screams faded, someone opened the bathroom door and entered. The girl held her breath and stopped up her mouth with her fist. The person went into another stall and immediately flushed the toilet. A lighter was flicked, then smoke drifted over into the girl’s stall. Finally the person flushed the toilet again, slammed the stall door shut, and hurried out.
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