Fiction | December 01, 2009

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According to subject number 6, in the winter of 1984 inside Nongpo provincial detention center a man known only as i, or Tooth, saved her life and those of countless others solely through clever use of ventriloquism, a skill he used to spook the gulag warders into thinking every life they stole would return as an invisible phantom. Eight years later the same man emerged in Yodok re-education center, this time as a contortionist who, according to subject number 32, was so flexible he could calligraph with his toes, pirouette on one palm and squeeze himself through a car tire—altogether confounding the injurious teachers and making them forget to administer the daily self-criticism exercises. By the time subject number 97 and Tooth crossed paths, the Great Leader’s heart had failed, the great famine had come and gone and the millennium had been celebrated, but Tooth, apparently ageless and vital, was still rescuing North Koreans, now as Yongdam’s resident shaman, a political prisoner who convinced the warders he was capable of killing a man with an angry wink or whistle.

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