The Tower Journal

  Alzo David-West

   A Medal for a Cat

Kindergarten teacher Kim Onsook and her children were eagerly awaiting the visit of the new young leader to their school. They were excited and began preparing their classroom for the momentous and special occasion.

The children were especially happy, above all because they could show the leader their orange cat.

When security cadres came for an inspection, however, and met with Onsook, she had sad news for the children.

They could not show the leader the cat.

The thirty small children asked why and began pleading and crying, for they all loved their cat tremendously. He meant the world to them.

Onsook did not know what to do, except to tell the children again that the security cadres said, “No cats allowed.” Apparently, the young leader was allergic to cat fur, but the children did not believe it because they had all seen him on television, doing on-the-spot guidance with furry animals at Pyongyang Central Zoo.

The kindergarten principal and the other teachers were cleaning their classrooms, the hallway, and the performance room in anticipation of the visit.

They could all picture it vividly: the young leader and his entourage striding confidently, smiling cheerfully, and surrounded by the camera and video crews that would broadcast the event nationwide.

They were extremely pleased their school was chosen, but they were also nervous, since Onsook’s children would not give up their stubborn demand that the leader see the cat.

The principal and the teachers discussed with Onsook over lunch, explaining how everyone agreed that if the security cadres said, “No cats allowed,” that is how it had to be.

No one wanted to risk anything, least of all the possibility of career advancement. Therefore, it was a priority to get rid of the cat.

Onsook, who was thirty-four, very thin and hardly tall, was upset to hear this. She yelled, saying that taking the cat away—especially after what it did for the kindergarten—would break the children’s tiny hearts.

There was an uneasy feeling among the principal and the teachers, and Onsook’s insistences and justifications bothered them.

The principal reasserted that there was no questioning the matter. If the security cadres said, “No cats,” there would be no cats.

Onsook only became more incensed, and soon, everyone at the lunch table was squabbling and arguing over what to do.

The principal stomped his foot loudly, and the women looked at him.

“Okay,” he said. “We will keep the cat,” he compromised, “but only on condition that you lock it in a closet when the leader comes!”

Onsook’s face twitched, but the others thought the idea was reasonable, given that they could not agree on anything else.

Afterward, when Onsook told the children the principal’s decision, they all started crying again, holding the orange cat in their little arms and saying he would die of loneliness and suffocation in the closet.

A week passed, and five days were left until the young leader’s visit. The kindergarten was cleaner than ever—the front, the back, the classrooms, the bathrooms, the play yard, the soccer balls, the goal posts—even the trees and the bushes were pruned.

The kindergarten would be a model school for the town, for the province, and for the country.

In the meantime, the orange cat wandered the grounds and sat on the windowsills of different classrooms during teaching hours, and the teachers tolerated him out of sympathy for Onsook’s children.

On the day of the visit, throngs of people lined the streets leading to the school.

Women in traditional dresses, men in suits, and children in cute outfits were shaking flowers and chanting in praise, “Hooray! Hooray! Hooray!”

A cavalcade of official Mercedes-Benz limousines crawled slowly through the street, and orchestral music was resonating from loudspeakers.

The cars pulled into the kindergarten parking lot, and the security cadres came out first, followed by generals wearing big hats and starry medals, and then he emerged—the young leader, waving and smiling at the men, the women, and the children.

A little girl came forward, saluted him, and presented a bouquet of flowers. Cameras were flashing, and video was rolling.

Next came a small crowd of female teachers and three-year-olds, specially selected, who ecstatically surrounded the smiling leader, tugging at his arms and black jacket and sobbing as if they had seen a double rainbow.

The young man was openly amused by the attention, and as all the tugging and sobbing were going on, he looked at the cameras, pointed whimsically at the women and the children, and said something that was lost in the clamor.

There was a momentary dispersal, and the camera and video crews went to the front of the school building, to get shots of the leader and his entourage entering and walking down the gleaming, pristine hallway.

He looked around, amazed at how clean and spotless the place was for a local provincial kindergarten. He went from classroom to classroom, where he sat with, talked to, and gave presents to overjoyed boys and girls.

Meanwhile, Onsook was readying her classroom for the young leader. She kept the cat in a closet as the principal had ordered, but the children were still pleading and begging her to let him out.

She was growing terribly anxious, and she could not calm them down.

One of the children let out the cat, and it started dashing around the room.

The principal came in for a last-minute check, and seeing the cat and the frantic children, he quickly shut the door.

“How could this happen,” he said to himself, “before the eyes of the leader and the generals!”

Hurriedly beckoning some of the other teachers, whose classrooms the young leader already saw, the principal told them the cat was loose and that Onsook’s little ones were out of control.

The women were all shocked and alarmed, and the group of them rushed in front of the classroom door to barricade it with their bodies.

The leader, at some distance, was coming in their direction, waddling merrily with the generals and the security cadres.

The principal and the teachers were sweating.

Seeing the dripping, soaked faces, the young man joked that the weather was unusually hot for June.

He motioned at the door, but everyone said there was nothing inside, that there was a children’s library he could look at instead.

The obvious excuse amused him even more.

“You mean you didn’t clean the room?” and he chuckled with his entourage.

He turned around and began strolling, when suddenly Onsook’s children somehow opened the door, crawled under the principal’s legs and the teachers skirts, and ran down the hallway to the leader.

The cameras turned to the sea of small children rushing forward with the orange cat and madly crying out, “Leader! Leader! Leader!”

The principal and the teachers were chasing the children, and Onsook was screaming. The generals and the security cadres panicked at the confusion and disorder.

The cat jumped out of a child’s hands, and the grown men rolled on the floor, like baked potatoes, trying to catch the feline.

Everyone was rushing around; the camera and video crews were shooting and recording; and the little children swelled around the knees of the young leader, dragging his pant legs, and pulling him down beneath them.

“Help! Help!” he shouted, sinking under the wave of toddlers.

The security cadres, generals, principal, and teachers eventually cleared away the pile of children, carrying them like little sacks off the leader.

He was lying on his back, and the cat was sitting on his big stomach.

The principal and the teachers bowed in deep humiliation and apologized profusely. The leader sat up in a straddle, and the generals helped him to his feet, fixing his disheveled hair and torn jacket and shirt buttons.

“What unpardonable treason!” the security cadres intoned, denouncing the principal and the teachers and threatening collective punishment on the kindergarten and everyone’s families.

All the adults and the children were wailing, their cheeks wet with tears of anguish.

The young leader gestured for the angry cadres to be quiet. He looked at the small children and the cat, and he asked them what was going on.

Two months ago, a little orange cat came to the kindergarten and would sit at the front security booth in the mornings, lick his paws, and walk around in the afternoons. He was a friendly cat who liked children, especially the ones in Kim Onsook’s class, so she decided to adopt him as the school cat after no one claimed him.

One evening, when the elderly guard at the booth was watching the school, robbers came, beat the old man, and broke into the building. As the robbers were coming out with a stolen Meike keyboard piano, a television set, and a DVD player, the cat leaped out of the darkness and attacked the three men, who were so badly hurt that they dropped everything and ran away.

After the wounded guard phoned the principal at home for help, the story of the cat-foiled robbery spread rapidly among the teachers and the children. Thereupon, Onsook and her class gave their orange friend the unofficial title “Hero Cat” for his bravery in saving the old guard and the kindergarten.

The children continued to explain how the security cadres told their teacher they were not allowed to show the cat during the leader’s visit, and much worse, the cat was going to be locked in a closet, where he would surely die.

The young leader looked around.

“Is this true?” he demanded of the security cadres. “Why, this cat should be awarded an Order of Kim Ilsong and a Hero of the Republic!” He let out an enormous laugh. “Very well then, our visit is finished,” he told his entourage. “Let’s go,” he said and waved at the cameras.

The important men returned to the parking lot, entered the limousines, and departed.

Over the following month, the kindergarten received dozens of calls from the provincial government office, and preparation committee officials made daily planning visits for the unprecedented award celebration in the history of the country.

When the parade came, it was a glorious event.

Soldiers were marching, balloons were flying, civilians were cheering, and the clouds were trembling. And amid it all, on a great moving platform, sat the little orange cat with a golden ribbon and a shining medal, grooming himself as Kim Onsook and her children looked on, weeping tears of joy.


   Copyright © 2016 Alzo David-West

Alzo David-West is a past associate editor of the North Korean Review. He writes literary fiction and serious poetry about North Korea (past and present). He is also published in the areas of aesthetics, language, literature, philosophy, politics, and social psychology. His creative writing about North Korea appears in Cha, Eastlit, Offcourse, and Transnational Literature. This is his first appearance in Tower Journal.

The Tower Journal
Winter 2016