by Eric Stinton
Heo Jong Il was from Yang Pyeong, a fact as easy to discern as the brownness of his shorts and blueness of his tank. He clutched the elongated bamboo pole of his net tightly as the bus shook along its way. The net was made with layers of spider web, perfect for catching bugs, but easily broken when struck against something solid. Jong Il’s father told him not to bring it to Seoul. It was old and dirty, with crunchy, half-picked leaves scattered across it. He brought it with him anyway. Only when he held it could he remember the melody of “Red Dragonfly” by Cho Yong Pil, hummed to him throughout the hazy blur of his early childhood. Jong Il wanted to make sure he continued to remember.
This was the first time his father had allowed him to take the bus by himself since they moved, and he was determined to catch dragonflies and butterflies in the waning summer heat. His worn, orange backpack clanged with each step from the glass jars inside of it, each of them poked with a tiny air-hole in the lid.
The rumbling ride to the park was not unlike the bus ride from Yang Pyeong to Seoul. Though shorter, it still vibrated with anticipation and excitement and a hint of something else that made him feel like there was a hole in his pockets. He shoved his left hand into his brown left pocket and pulled it out again, looking at his empty palm before tossing his net from his right hand to his left so he could inspect the right pocket as well. No holes, which was a relief since Jong Il could now refocus on the adventure that lay ahead of him instead of whatever else wasn’t there.
The bus took a sharp right, and Jong Il bounced into the window. He held his arms stiff, out and away from his body to protect the net. When the bus straightened out, he toppled into the center aisle, spilling himself across the cheap dress shoes of an older man, somehow balancing the net safely in the tight spaces between the bus window and ceiling. The man grunted, shuffling his feet to the side. He yanked Jong Il upright like a lioness picking up her cub by its scruff. Jong Il bowed nervously while the man looked out the window. Jong Il had only been living in Seoul for a month, but he knew that this was about what to expect from people in the city.
The bus screeched to a halt, and he hurried off of it. He looked back at the old man, who was clearing his throat and smacking his lips, still looking outside the bus window. Jong Il knew that look; it was how he looked when he watched the animals at the zoo.
The first weekend Jong Il came to Seoul, his father took him to the zoo. There are no zoos in Yang Pyeong. Yang Pyeong was the countryside, and the only animals around were those who knew little of fences or enclosures or the curious safety of man’s structures.
Jong Il got lost in the zoo. He continued walking from one exhibit to the next, unaware of the distance he was putting between himself and his father, who was fully immersed in the photo options of his phone. Jong Il loved watching the animals, though most of them just ate or stood around. While the real apes were sprawled out in the sun, people took pictures of themselves making gorilla faces next to large ape statues, taking more time with the fake apes than the real ones. That is when Jong Il decided he didn’t like pictures.
That feeling, of being lost at the zoo, was one of Jong Il’s fondest memories. His father bought him a phone because of it, just in case. Jong Il didn’t care much for phones, either. He preferred being lost.
Jong Il knew the park was close by, but he wasn’t familiar with this part of the city. He chose this park in particular because it was far from his school. He wasn’t fitting in. He was an outsider and clearly so. His tanned skin and plain shoes practically screamed that he was from the countryside. Shoes were important in school, since everyone wore the same uniforms. Shoes, backpacks, and in the cold seasons jackets and coats – these were how people organized their thoughts of you.
Jong Il also didn’t go to any after school academy. This made him happy and free and lonely and sad all at once, since everyone else had their lives scheduled from 6am to 10pm everyday with each other. He was also the only one named Jong Il, probably in all of South Korea. It didn’t help that Yang Pyeong sounded like a mixed up Pyongyang, and that his home, specifically, was near Dumulmeori, the point where the Han River from Seoul connected with the Bukhan River in Yang Pyeong. Bukhan also doubled as the name for North Korea. Other kids called him “the dictator,” not just behind his back.
Jong Il found himself in a circular garden. Only a soft whisper of a wind made it through the nearby buildings that towered above the park. Butterflies dangled mid-air over the blooming flowers. He knew he couldn’t catch these ones, though he wasn’t exactly sure why. They were too close to the road, he guessed. Too much a part of the city itself. It would be like dropping a fishing line in a restaurant aquarium.
The flowers were beautiful, and the butterflies even more so. Couples held out sticks attached to their phones to take pictures of themselves from further away so more flowers could be in the photo. Yet, to the curiosity of Jong Il, the people were still most of the picture, standing in front of an abundance of flowers and butterflies and beauty. His net bumped into some of the outstretched phone cameras, but nobody noticed or said anything. They just took more pictures.
Jong Il followed the winding path into the open grass. The quiet breeze from the garden grew more courage along the sloping mounds in the park. The sun was honest and virtuous, breaking through the gossiping clouds that huddled together underneath it, its rays of light contouring the blue sky like it was a living, giant waterfall flowing across the Earth. The trumpeting chirps of the cicadas rang across the field, calling the tall grass to bow in windswept crescents. Jong Il felt at home in the maternal majesty of nature. It was a glorious day.
He laid his net down on the ground so that he could unpack the jars from his backpack. He set the jars up neat and orderly. He unscrewed each of the lids slightly, so that they still stayed put on the jars, but could be quickly removed when the time came to fill them up. He placed his things at the base of a tree. His adventure would now begin.
He ran, balancing the net as he stretched it out above him as far as he could reach. Barely above the realm of even the tallest person, there was a crowded audience of creatures too high to be caught. Jong Il smiled as he continued to run, looping around the field. He caught his breath near a flowery patch of bushes that lounged beneath a fluttering cloud of colorful wings. Butterflies were the easiest to catch. Something about their beauty made them weak and innocent, naïve to the realities of the incoming net swooping upon them. Jong Il’s smile graduated into laughter. For a moment, he forgot that those were buildings, not mountains, looming nearby, and the indiscernible chatter of humanity began to sound like the babble of the Bukhan River.
He skimmed the tops of the bushes with his net, and butterflies stuck to the inside of the spider web. The butterflies didn’t resist or even try to escape. Jong Il caught one butterfly at a time, picking them out of the net with his hands and placing them gently into the jar. He plucked a leaf to furnish their new homes. One by one, he filled up the hard glass jars with the softness of silent life, one solitary butterfly with a single green leaf under each lid.
Jong Il stopped to take a rest and admire his work. He had only one jar left unfilled, and he had yet to catch any dragonflies. They were much harder to capture. They were suspicious and vigilant, darting on an instant. They weren’t beautiful like the butterflies, but they were fast and athletic. They were wild. Jong Il would capture one before the night would force him to go back home.
Jong Il learned about dragonflies and butterflies at the insect festival they had at the zoo. They were related because of their wings and body parts, but they were different because of their life cycle. Jong Il learned their scientific names: rhopalocera and anisoptera. They both sounded the same to Jong Il, who hadn’t learned much English yet, but they were very different in the outside world, the only world where things just were what they were and not what they were called.
The dragonfly is special for two reasons. It is the most effective flyer in the world, including the planes and rockets that man has made. In fact, Jong Il learned, people use dragonflies as models for advanced flying machines. The flight of the dragonfly was not the most impressive part of it, though. Their eyes! If people could see like a dragonfly could, they would be superheroes. They naturally see light in ways that humans need technology for, and they can control their eyes like muscles, able to see all around them at all times. They never lose sight of things, never run into things. They are never blind. These two abilities, its flying and its eyes, make the dragonfly one of nature’s greatest hunters. If they were not cursed with their insect size, surely dragonflies, not man, would be the rulers of Earth.
He took another sip from his water bottle and walked out to the field in determined strides. There was no running this time, not against the formidable dragonfly. They were nearly impossible to net mid-air. They were too prepared. Instead he crouched around bushes, holding his net close to his side like an ancient swordsman. It may not be possible for a dragonfly to be surprised, but it is possible for it to be distracted. Jong Il stalked around the bushes, trying to hone in on the dragonflies.
He watched as a bright blue one dropped onto a nearby leaf. Jong Il lowered his head and studied it. Unlike the apes he watched at the zoo, who were either oblivious or indifferent to their observers, the dragonfly was hyper-aware. Jong Il knew – or at least he felt like he did – that even though the dragonfly had its long tail pointing towards him, it was looking right back at him with suspicious, egg-shaped eyes. Jong Il didn’t break eye contact, raising his net slowly. He knew not to aim for the leaf that the dragonfly was on, because it would anticipate the net and fly away. Instead, he would aim for the space right above the leaf, so that the dragonfly would fly right into his net.
Jong Il stepped cautiously into the bush, raising his net steadily. The dragonfly flinched, and Jong Il closed his eyes and swung. When he opened his eyes, his net was hugging an empty leaf. Jong Il immediately looked up, using his left hand as a visor. The blue dragonfly melted into the afternoon azure.
He contemplated his failure. There were two corrections to make. First, he must keep his eyes open. Second, he must not swing across open air, but rather descend downward upon the leaf. Dragonflies would fly up, not out. He visualized the motion and practiced it several times, only going on the hunt again when the afternoon began yawning into evening. The time to practice was over.
Knowing he had little room for error, Jong Il approached a new, larger bush. He feared that other dragonflies may be on the lookout after his earlier attempt. Plus, more bushes meant more leaves, which would mean more distractions for the dragonflies. He waited, scanning the skies with his net at his feet.
A dot emerged against the horizon, growing larger as it approached the bush. Jong Il ducked behind some leaves. The dragonfly continued to the bushes, resting on a leaf on the opposite end of the patch. By now, he could see that it was large and bulbous. And red. When he picked up his net to inch toward the dragonfly, he felt the melody of the song, carried by the wind in her voice. His eyes welled up but he pushed those thoughts out of his mind. His father told him to be strong. He must stay focused to catch the red dragonfly.
Jong Il started to get dizzy. The world pulsed around him, spinning in a polarized vertigo that made him feel as if the entire park was visible all at once. He anchored his thoughts to his earlier practice as he crept closer and closer to the mighty red dragonfly. Through wet, reddening eyes Jong Il saw the dragonfly, face to face. Jong Il didn’t break eye contact, raising his net slowly behind him to swing it down like a hammer. The song repeated, louder and louder until it burst out of his shaking hands into the bamboo pole of his net. Jong Il’s eyes were closed, but he followed through with the motion he practiced anyway. When he opened it, he saw the buzzing wings of the red dragonfly caught in the spider web net.
He breathed in, then out, exhaling the mysterious emotions that overcame him during the hunt. He looked down at his prize. It was stuck in the web, but its instinct was to fly, and so it tried to do so without pause. Maybe it is so used to being the hunter that it could not recognize the reality of its capture. Its strength couldn’t yield, wouldn’t surrender, even when there were no other options. For this, despite its grotesque, blood-red body, the dragonfly was beautiful, maybe even more so than any of the butterflies he previously caught.
Jong Il walked back to the tree where his backpack and jars filled with butterflies sat, towing his net and the buzzing resistance of the red dragonfly along with him. He held the net facing upwards so that the red dragonfly wouldn’t fall out onto the ground. It was unlikely, but the time and effort it took Jong Il to catch the red dragonfly made him extra careful.
When he reached his belongings under the tree, he sat down and balanced the net across his lap to free up his hands. He unscrewed the lid from the final jar and went to pick up the red dragonfly and put it inside. He paused. The red dragonfly continued to struggle against the net, wriggling its legs and buzzing its wings angrily. Jong Il knew that dragonflies bite, and the red dragonfly was large and intimidating. He cautiously moved his hands to pick the red dragonfly out of the net, but he hesitated and pulled back when he got too close. The red dragonfly writhed violently. He tried again, lightly pinching its long tail to peel it out. But he stopped short of tugging it all the way free, again fearing the red dragonfly’s retribution. Jong Il grew frantic and frustrated.
I think I am still young. It must be.
Mama why am I always waiting?
Mama why am I suddenly missing you?
The lyrics of Red Dragonfly returned to him, resonating from the panicked struggle of the red dragonfly hopelessly trying to escape the net. The park seemed smaller under the drooping curtain of the evening. The street grew louder, and buildings straightened their posture, jutting into what had earlier seemed like the sacred wilderness of the park. His father would be upset with him if he didn’t leave for home soon. His eyes dampened again, blood rushed to his cheeks.
Maybe I am still young.It must be.
Mama why am I always sad?
Mama why do I want to cry?
He turned to the net, no longer in possession of the gentleness he showed to the butterflies. It squirmed in petty defiance. Its wings bat against the net over and over. Jong Il grew tired of its dumb smug insect stubbornness. He flipped the net over so that the red dragonfly’s legs felt something solid beneath it again. Through the webbing of the net Jong Il pinched off each wing, one by one. Now it would understand where it was and what was happening and who had control. The red dragonfly could sense its fate and flailed wildly. Jong Il flipped the net around so that the red dragonfly was kicking into the air once more. He placed the lid at its back where its wings were turned to dendritic stubs and rammed the jar into it, trapping the wingless red dragonfly inside. By now tears were streaming down his face. He screwed the lid on, ripping a hole in the middle of the net.
Mama where am I going?
With my lonesome heart. I look towards the sky.
I am getting dizzy by the fading white clouds.
My dizziness goes around the flying red dragonfly.
The glass walls of the jar crawled with angered confusion. Outside those walls, Jong Il sat still. He looked at the creatures he captured. The butterflies idled in their jars while they displayed their wings. And the red dragonfly. It dragged itself ceaselessly inside the jar, as if the transparency of the glass cage it inhabited was just a bad dream, that it would wake up and be retreating into the safety of a dewy branch. Nearby buildings bullied the air around him as the sun continued its slow descent into the horizon. A sinking feeling ran down his throat and into the pit of his stomach. The butterflies were no longer beautiful anymore, the red dragonfly no longer strong. The song pulsed inside his head with increased ferocity.
I think I am still young. It must be.
Mama why am I always waiting?
Mama why am I suddenly missing you?
Jong Il threw his torn net into the bushes, and the song and all its memories dissipated into the night. He unscrewed the lids from the jars and left them. He didn’t know why he ever trapped them there, but he knew he wouldn’t be the dictator he was accused of being. Taking only his backpack, he ran towards the street. Jong Il waited for the next bus at the same place he got off of one earlier, where he looked back to see the old man smacking his lips at the changing world outside of the window. Jong Il waited impatiently, fiddling his hands in his brown shorts pockets, hoping beyond hope that there were holes in them, even though he knew there were none.