Stockbreeders

by Alzo David-West

The meeting room was moist, filled with bodies, as the three head female cadres were explaining procedures to the eighty veterinarians and stockbreeders who sat tightly packed, sheets of paper turning and ruffling and pens and pencils taking notes.

Most were sitting. Several were standing. The morning weather outside was drab and rainy.

The head cadre asked the veterinarians and stockbreeders to turn to page twenty-three of their copies of the document. She explained shortages in medical supplies for the thousands of sick animals—cows, pigs, and oxen—that they would all have to put away.

There was a swelling echo of disbelief in the room, the gasped voices and whispers whirling into a dissonant hum. There was a general instruction.

Several people got up, and the room became animated with discussions and questions about the document.

People walked over chairs, talked over heads and across tables, pushed against each other. Some were kneeling down to hear each other better.

A female co-op farm manager with an armband on her left arm was giving instructions to three male stockbreeders. Two stood with their arms crossed and bundles of notes between them, listening, while another stockbreeder with a thick dictionary on infectious animal diseases was rubbing the bottom of his lip and nodding periodically in affirmation of her explanations.

Within an hour, the bodies thinned and gradually dispersed to other meeting rooms. Everyone would reconvene in two hours, after collecting and coordinating information.

* * *

Minji and her little sister Yongmi ran outside when the rain had stopped and the afternoon sun had begun to show itself from behind the cloud cover.

They ran barefoot from their small house, through the muddy puddles, to play with the three-week-old piglets that were suckling.

When they arrived, their happiness turned into confusion and then panic. Several of the small pigs were dead, while others were shivering feverishly.

Minji opened the sty door and began shaking the mother sow, who lay on her side, asking her to wake up, telling her that the piglets were sick. But the mother was dead, too.

Yongmi was crying loudly, carrying stiff bundles of little piglets in her arms, some of them falling to the ground, asking what was wrong, what was wrong.

Minji told her sister to let go of the piglets, but Yongmi would not listen, shaking her head and crying more and more. Not knowing what to do, Minji ran back to the house, through the puddles, to tell her mother and father that the pigs were dead and dying. Taepoog, the farm Chindo, was barking as a small truck with strangers pulled in.

* * *

Thirty-two veterinarians and stockbreeders had remained in the meeting room. A male cadre was holding a paper and writing numbers, representing farms and heads of animals per farm, on a chalkboard, and a phone was ringing.

Another cadre spoke out, reading a series of numbers designating different co-op farms in the district that required attention.

The phone was ringing again, and the second cadre picked it up.

Some people were sitting and discussing. Some were laughing. A few others were drinking water from cups.

Two technicians in the back of the room were graphing farm data and medical supply numbers into an old word-processing machine.

The female co-op manager and the three stockbreeders were seated now, toward the front of the room, conferring on the particular strain of the disease that had spread by air, originally from their district in Pyongyang. The virus was not severely infectious to people, the male stockbreeder with the dictionary explained. But the co-op manager said no chances could be taken and that it would be necessary to immediately quarantine their farm and others in the neighboring district, destroy the sick livestock, burn the dead animals, and proceed with a thorough disinfection of the farms.

The two other stockbreeders said the disinfection supply was low and that they would have to find additional measures to prevent the virus from spreading.

* * *

Minji and Yongmi’s parents ordered their daughters to wash themselves thoroughly with soap and burned their clothes, along with the piglets and their mother.

Other animals at the farm were experiencing symptoms of the disease: the milk cows, the draft oxen, and the rabbits in the warren. There was deep unease about the farm, as more animals were dying into the afternoon.

Minji and Yongmi, from the paneless window of the bathroom, saw their father talking to the two strangers who had arrived in the small truck, but the little girls did not understand what they were saying, the big words they used.

The girls asked their mother what was wrong, why the pigs were sick, and if the dead ones would come back. But she did not answer, focusing with a certain desperate intentness to wash the disease off her daughters’ bodies.

Taepoog, meanwhile, had run off somewhere and was burying something in a spot behind the house.

After the girls were soaped and rinsed several times over with bucket water, their mother dried and dressed them, telling the two to stay inside the house and watch the television.

They turned on the television to a stop-motion animated show with a cat that was beating up grey rats that had crept into a rice mill.

* * *

An hour and seventeen minutes had passed, and the female co-op farm manager and the stockbreeder with the dictionary had left the room to address some matter.

The two others were standing idly in the room, amid the voices that were rising and falling. A small woman came in with a set of notebooks and was pointing to the figures on the chalkboard. She gave the two some papers, and they stepped out briefly and back in again, bending over and sorting through a stack of documents piled on the table in the front of the room.

One of the male cadres called everyone’s attention to the time, reminding them that the teams would be reconvening in the next half hour. The voices fell and rose. The rain started to pour again.

* * *

Yongmi fell asleep. Minji was trying to look out the living room window. The men and her father were still there, and her mother was talking with them, carrying an umbrella. They went into the sty where the pigs were.

Minji was watching the raindrops bouncing on the puddles of mud and water and on the little yellow flowers that looked like they were dancing.

She suddenly thought of Taepoog and wondered where he was. The sky outside was getting darker, the rain harder, and the wind more furious. She went to the back of the house, where the kitchen was, and opened the door.

“Taepoog!” she cried out in her small voice. “Taepoog!”

The dog ran excitedly into the house, covered in dirt, licking Minji’s face and wagging his tail.

She told the dog that she had to wash him so that he would not get sick.

* * *

The female co-op farm manager was in a room with seven stockbreeders and one veterinarian. It was now forty-eight minutes past two. They were all men, sitting along tables in square formation.

The room was quiet except for the agitation of the ceiling fan and two men writing, consulting the dictionary on animal diseases. Another put his glasses on his forehead, taking notes for the veterinarian, and passed the paper to the co-op farm manager. She began writing, and one of the stockbreeders got her the supply data for the medicine stock.

Everyone was waiting, and one of the stockbreeders, a small man with thick hair, was fidgeting with a pen.

The manager said “thank you,” and everyone got up. The small man cleared his throat; the veterinarian checked his watch; and they all left the room.

They returned to the meeting room, reconvening with the cadres, the veterinarians, and stockbreeders before everyone left at three o’clock.

* * *

Minji imitated her mother, putting her clothes in a tin pail in the back of the house, pouring kerosene on them, and lighting everything with matches. Afterwards, she started running tap water in the bathroom, filling the bucket to rewash herself and Taepoog.

The dog was breathing aloud with his tongue hanging out, the way dogs do, and he was smiling. Minji poured the cold water from the bucket over him. Taepoog winced, and his ears shrank backwards.

After they were dried up, Minji brought the dog into the small living room, where Yongmi was still sleeping and the television was still on. Minji’s favorite cartoon Clever Raccoon Dog was on, and she asked Taepoog to watch it with her since her sister was asleep.

They watched it for a while, and Taepoog coughed, as if something was caught in his throat.

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