A Ghost Can Only Take

Justin Howe

It starts with me in a frozen parking lot in Detroit “on vacation”. I’m scanning my phone, looking at my friend’s facebook pictures from his vacation in Thailand. “Here’s me at the beach. Here’s me riding an elephant.” The barrage of social media sunshine gets under my skin. In retaliation I share a picture of a snowdrift at the edge of the iced over lot, its surface crust gray from car exhaust.

“Wish you were here.”

Weeks later back home with my wife in South Korea (the Republic of Korea, or the RoK) the jetlag kicks in and I’m wide awake at 4AM. It’s still January and dark as pitch outside. I bundle up against the cold and take to walking so I can watch the sunrise. I settle on a route alongside the river, a winding sand path between the raised bike trail and the river’s water. I snap a picture with my phone each day, a way to document my passage. No one need notice. No one need care. But I was here. I saw this.

When the jetlag stops I keep the habit, a daily ritual to celebrate the mundane.

It’s a four bridges walk. Bridge one takes you to the steel mill. The mill dominates the city’s skyline, and most mornings looms large in the gray dawn like some architectural nightmare out of a Piranesi etching got it on with a Bladerunner backdrop. A skyline of neon-lit chimney-stacks, spewing smoke and flame at all hours. I often refer to Pohang as lovely Pittsburgh-by-the-sea. I’ve come to love this place.

The mill’s the lifeblood of the city and has been since the sixties. Some point to the mill as the industry that kick-started the RoK’s economy in the decades after the war. You could argue that there’s literal blood in its foundation. Not only from work-related injuries, which allow for a range of prosthetic limb shops in town ranging from the upscale to the downmarket, but also the fact that part of the mill’s seed money came from grants funded by the USA, payment for Korean troops used during the Vietnam War.

A bit more history with a caveat: everything I’m about to tell you comes from hearsay and Wikipedia.

An old map shows Pohang as all marshlands and islands at the mouth of the Hyeongsang River. During the Silla Dynasty, the ancient Korean kingdom that traded with Persia and Rome, Pohang’s the port for the Silla capital down the road in Gyeongju. But when Silla fell, the centers of power drifted west and north, and the city declined into neglect.

Old pictures from the end of the 19th century show a decrepit fishing village with a convent hospital where the steel mill would eventually be built. Then during the Japanese occupation the town staggered into the 20th century. Whether it did so collaborating or dragging forward a powder keg of resentment remains a hotly contested subject to this day.

Late in the 1950s, during the Korean War, the frontline wove its way through the city. One high school in town still commemorates the battle fought on school grounds. Another battle fought just outside the city involved child soldiers. Their slaughter will go on to generate a ghost story that persists to this day.

Stone markers near the river show the limits of the Busan Perimeter and the Walker Line. Often when I cross the park I’ll wonder whether I’m walking atop a mass grave.

After the war the city is rebuilt, and the steel mill gets founded. Pohang becomes a hub for conservatism and gains a reputation as a gangster town. In the 1980s, a decade of social unrest in the RoK as the democracy movement emerges, a lot of the forces used to quell the movement came from this region. More unpleasant history no one wants to talk about. Just like no one ever discusses the prospect of another shooting war with North Korea, despite the fact that the industrial infrastructure and nearby munitions plants (that play “Give Peace a Chance” during their lunch breaks) mean the town’s definitely a target. But so’s everywhere else in the RoK. You learn to deal with that, whether by exercise, substance abuse, religion, or screaming your anxieties into a hole in a bridge pylon like I do.

It’s possible to find odd pockets of nature on the mill’s margins. Wetlands running along the verges, cherry trees blossoming in the gaps between railroad tracks and factories, tucked-away gardens, and even a farm or two surrounded by rice fields.

Now as the 21st century dawns, the city’s attempting to rebrand itself as an eco-friendly tech center. One with a giant, fire-and-smoke-spewing factory sitting across the river. The bike trails are nice, the countryside beautiful. Sorry about all that thyroid cancer.

As strange as it is encountering the city’s human history, it’s stranger still when I insert myself into nature’s pre-existing cycle. I have to shake off the prejudice that my first encounter with the river was with its correct state, that since I began paying attention in the winter, winter is the river’s correct state, all other seasons intruders. That requires some metacognition, some acceptance, some convincing.

As I go out more and more and see the landscape change I start getting caught up in its patterns of growth and decay, winter’s barrenness giving way to green vibrancy. Ducks sass about. Pigeons browse the dirt. And the cranes think murderous thoughts in their needle-slender heads. Crabs, lizards, snakes, and rats all make their appearances along with snails, mantises, and crickets as long as my index finger. I’m no naturalist. No truffle-grubbing mushroom hunter who approaches a hike in the woods like a trip to an outdoor buffet. (Don’t get me wrong, some of my dearest friends are truffle-grubbing mushroom hunters.) Early on I’ll think about downloading an app to identify flowers and plants. But if you wait long enough such urges pass. At first I referred to most every flower I saw by color.

“The yellows looked really nice today.”

Fun fact though: your average South Korean child knows the names of the trees and flowers local to them better than their USAian counterparts. After walking the river’s path for over a year now and posting my pictures, I’ll be taught what flowers I’m seeing. Cosmos. Morning glories. Roses of Sharon.

Bridges two and three are right beside each other and mark my walk’s halfway point. One’s a traffic bridge, the other for trains. Just beyond them are two small islands covered in tall grass and home to ducks and cranes for much of the year. This part of the walk gets lonesome and empty. Beyond the bridges the grass grows tall year round. It’s always whispering at you. The support pillars of the train bridge have washed-down vegetation strewn all across their platforms.

I’ve come to start thinking of these as the Suicide Bridges. There are ghosts here.

More hearsay, less the Wikipedia kind, and more what gets passed around the table in the “exotic” foreigner bar late in October. The story goes like this:

Back in September 2016 a woman abandoned by her husband walked with her two kids here to the traffic bridge and jumped. She survived. Her children didn’t. Later an incoming English teacher will get shown an empty apartment for rent, and by a series of strange happenings, flickering lights, strange smells, learn it belonged to that family.

When I heard this story I asked my wife whether we should light a candle under the bridge, you know, for the souls of those two kids. She vehemently forbade me from doing so, because as she put it, “ghosts can’t give, they can only take”.

Those two small islands past the bridge where the cranes and ducks make their nests: I’ve come to associate them with the dead kids.

Despite the ghosts this bit is my favorite. By now the factory rumble has dimmed, and there’s less traffic here because it’s away from any neighborhood. It’s the part where all the elements converge: the wind across the tall grass, the fires above the mill, the water flowing past, and the earth beneath my feet.

Predawn, it’s an obvious spot for ghosts to gather. The quiet here is tangible. And quiet is key to a decent morning walk. At this hour I am distinctly preverbal. At best I can muster a Blutoesque subvocalized monologue. Nothing ruins an early morning walk like a chatty companion. People should be trained to silence themselves at the sight of an arched eyebrow. I’ve largely chosen this whole route because I can walk it without seeing another soul much of the way.

The English language needs a word like shortcut, but instead of it being for the route that saves you the most time, this word would be applied to the route that avoids the most people.

And the people I do see walking at 6AM?

We just nod at each other, conspiratorial.

Late in the year, the chest-high grass will make screens around the walking path. Old men and women (mostly women) will veer off the path to harvest the grass-stalks for some purpose I can’t fathom. They’ll be a common sight, covered head to toe in veiled pastel bonnets and tracksuits. They’ll bound up the embankment and browse amid the tall grass, plucking herbs and leafy greens. On the opposite side of the embankment, they’ll have dug gardens on the edges of parking lots.

All those plants I see old men and women harvesting: I have no clue what those are. Mugwort? Hemlock? Marijuana? Could be anything.

I’ve begun to suspect a low-grade feud between the city and these elderly harvesters. A day or two after seeing them amid the grass stalks, a work crew will appear to mow it all down, only to have it all sprout up again next year, a civic-minded cycle.

The best time of year to walk is between October and March. That’s when the least people are out and that asshole the sun is still beneath the horizon at 7AM. Holidays are a different matter. I like the holidays that get people outdoors to pay homage to either celestial orb.

The morning of the solar New Year, the embankment will be crowded with people greeting the year’s first sunrise. Two months later they’ll be back again to greet the first full moon after the Lunar New Year. On rare occasions I’ll spy some mudang shaman conducting a ritual. They’ll be chanting over a fruit-laden altar or waving around bundles of dried herbs near the river’s edge, beating a drum or clashing cymbals. It’ll be done from the back of a truck or beside the open boot of a car, covert and secret.

What cycle are they tied into?

Bridge four is my turning point. It separates some parkland attached to the sewage treatment plant and a new high-story apartment complex. Further upriver the wildflowers grow thick and the river wends its way between hills. On the opposite banks of the river are small neighborhoods far-removed from any development, each of them technically part of the city but resembling country villages.

My current job has me working up here, teaching English to corporate executives. One day we’ll get into a long conversation about mountains and rivers. One of the executives will say living near rivers is dangerous. I’ll dig, trying to get him to speak more but also wanting to get at what he’s saying.

Is he talking about the risk of flooding?

No, he’s referencing some superstition about how rivers affect your mind. He mentions recent suicides in the nearby apartment complex. I think of other superstitions, all those ghosts and supernatural beings that crop up where civilization meets water.

At some point over the past year I’ll be in another town. My wife will tell me it’s where courtiers used to change their horses when riding to the capital. As part of my daily routine walking to and from work I’ll take a picture of a tree. Post that online. #Oldtree. Amateur phonecam photographer run amok, trolling the extraordinary with the mundane. Back in Pohang people will tell me how they started to care about that tree. They’ll admit to the intensest feelings for it. But the tree’s not special. Or it is, but so is everything else if you take the time to look at it.

The trail continues on, but most days I don’t. I head back, the sun up by now and directly ahead of me behind the factory, the sky hinting at the weather to come. The wind picks up, making the grass whisper around me. I know I’m going in reverse, but really it’s only a change in perspective.

All told my walk’s only about 5 kilometers give or take.

 

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Author: Justin Howe

Justin Howe is a product of late 20th century New England. He currently lives with a cartoonist in the shadow of a steel mill by the sea. He blogs intermittently at 10badhabits.com and tweets with some regularity as @JustinHowe. If you’d like to see more photos from his walks check out the hashtag #hyunwalk.

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