Under Fire

A display of pigs heads lined in a row, the butcher’s son offers samples of the delicacy. Live seafood—octopus and varieties of fish—rest in light blue plastic tubs, sellers squatting nearby. Vegetable stalls covered by corrugated metal awnings, the street vendor serving up beondagi, and the tang of kimchi hangs in the air.

Finished at a table burdened by books, I turn to move up the street but am forced to stop quickly to avoid a fast moving older woman almost bent in half. A woman in a crimson hanbok passes my gaze, a splash of color on this overcast day. Mothers with babies strapped to their backs and slow strolling gentlemen with long pipes make up the crowd.

I emerge from the market street into another world. Buildings of glass and metal dominate the intersection with the imposing brick gateway to the university. A crowd gathers in the maw of the gate chanting to the beat of traditional drums. The staccato thump of marching feet sounds from a side street, the riot force materializes. As if on a predestined cue, the two forces approach, combustible magnetism. I recognize few words of the protest chant but one stands out to me, mi’guk: America. Most of the protesters are wearing Levi jeans and Nike shoes. A third group, the spectators form a boundary, sealing the intersection off. Glancing around confirms no other non-Asian faces.

The riot force plants itself in the middle of the road, an impenetrable wall of opaque shields. The protestors continue to chant but to no reaction. Suddenly the crowd surges forward and breaks like a wave against the rocks. The riot force remains immobile but a slight shift in stance signals preparation for incoming danger. A whistling sound cuts through the chanting. Small canisters trailing smoke drop into the crowd. Bedlam erupts as a yellowish mist envelops the intersection. Tortured screams, rushing feet, zero visibility.

My eyes burn. I feel like someone poured onion juice directly on my pupils. Tears gush forth, a desperate flood to clear the gas from my system. I can barely open my eyes to the world. Sight becomes a strobe light glimpse of cobblestone and shoes. A hand on my shoulder and soft voice in my ear instructs me to follow. I crack my eyes open for a millisecond, through the haze and liquid I see a flash of red. I get knocked off course, rammed by an invisible force. Open again, flash of red. The spectators escape, anarchy reins. The red becomes my lighthouse, my beacon. The stinging in my eyes increases, the tears flow freely but I remain fixated on the flash of red leading me away from the chaos.

I am gently pulled into a shop. The sound of the street fades, replaced by a strange ticking sound, reverberating through my panicked brain. Someone guides my hand over my eyes, positioned to shade not cover.

“Hold still.”

A click and I feel heat close to my mouth. The fumes of fire trapped, soothe my eyes. The pain lessens and the tears stop. After a minute I can see the woman in the red hanbok holding a lighter under my eyes.

“Thank you,” I whisper.

She smiles and nods.

My heartbeat calms, joining with the cadence of the wall clocks in the shop.

Trenton Mabey is a freelance writer, poet, and photographer living in Arizona. He is working on an MFA in writing from Lindenwood University. Trenton is a treehugger and spends his free time with family hiking and kayaking through the desert landscape of Arizona. His writing is influenced by mythology, Asian philosophy, and a small dose of insanity. http://trentonmabey.com