Fiction BY RUSSELL WORKING
“Why is her hair so short?” he asked.
The broker waved away his concern. “Hunger.
You should have seen her when she got here:
almost completely bald.
Let us call her Eun-ju, for people may die if her real name is revealed. Her own life is in danger, and her two sisters, her brother-in-law, and one surviving nephew remain at large south of the Tumen River, near the port of Hongwan, a city of apartment blocks without toilets, empty wharves populated by slump-shouldered cranes and rusty destroyers, a train station where the homeless sleep in the waiting room seats or on the floor with the mice, and bony children who lie down in the streets because after a certain point — thirty, thirty-five days, perhaps — one cannot stand any longer. The point is, it is illegal to flee the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea, and the crime is compounded for party members (and Eun-ju is a member of this caste: a journalist). The organs would arrest her relatives if they figured out the identity of this twenty-four-year-old refugee, and there is not enough food to squander on prisoners in North Korea. The only ones definitely beyond the reach of the secret police are her mother and two infant nieces, all of whom died of pneumonia; Papa, the person responsible for what happened, by now surely has also died: when Eun-ju fled to China, he was groaning from an advanced case of intestinal cancer, a fitting way to die in a famine, he said, and perhaps he has been buried, in her absence, in the cemetery overlooking the flood plains. Yet if anyone was culpable, it was he, for he urged her to flee, saying, “Go, you are young, you are beautiful” (though this could not possibly be true; she was balding at the time she left: strands of her hair clung to her fingers whenever she smoothed it), “at least one of the family should live. Some young Korean farmer in China will pay good money for you.”
Let us call him Young-shik. He is thirty-five years old, a sixth-grade graduate, a tiller of four-tenths of a hectare of soybeans and vegetables in China’s Yanbian Korean Autonomous Prefecture. Young-shik has never married, but his position is commonplace in rural Yanbian; the region is in crisis, its villages populated by Korean bachelor farmers. Innumerable girls were abandoned at birth and died in orphanages. The living disappeared in adulthood into the cities to work as prostitutes or serve Laochaoyang vodka in the karaoke bars or even, in the case of a single outstanding student he had once known, to study at Yanbian University. None of them, not even the simplest, a retarded girl twelve years his junior, was willing to spend her remaining five decades with Young-shik, leading an ox back and forth plowing a field. The retarded girl was now a masseuse. Her mother refused his proposal last time she was in town. “She already earns four times what you do; why would she marry you?” the mother said. Truth be told, he was a little relieved. He was no academician, but he did not know if he could enjoy life with a simpleton. He needed someone to cook, someone to lie with, someone to tell of his happiness when the bean shoots come up overnight after a rain; speaking softly, for they would not want to wake their infant son — in his mind there was no doubt that she would bear him a son. That she, too, might wish to talk as well on occasion did not occur to him. He had so much to say, and often he went for two or three days without speaking to anyone but the peasant squatting two holes over in the brick latrine that was only toilet for several dozen houses on this street.
“Give us the paper, would you?” Young-shik would say.
The man would grunt and hand over a copy of the Yanbian Daily. “Don’t use the soccer results.”
“Of course not.” Young-shik tore off the page with the ads for China Mobile and a miracle hair restoration ointment and returned the rest. “Thank you,” he said.
This passed for conversation on most days during the five years it took for Young-shik to save up enough money for a wife.
They met one afternoon in February twenty-three days after she left North Korea. An ethnic Korean marriage broker named Bong-il drove her to her new home near Yanji, rasping dire warnings all the way in the back seat of his smoky Land Cruiser while his driver adjusted the music on the stereo. “If you run away, we will find you, understand? He is paying good money for you, and we are men of our word. We will return you, and you’ll discover what an angry husband can do to a girl. I know this one guy, he chained his wife to the bed and gouged her eyes out the third time she tried to run away. If we don’t find you, the police will, and you know what that means: back to North Korea. Stay put. Even if he beats you, you’ll be fed, unlike in Hongwan, right? You will live. Seems like a fair bargain.” He threw his cigarette butt out the window and asked, “Are you listening?” She was. “Good,” he said, “because I’m not trying to scare you, I hope you’re happy, I truly do, you are such a pretty girl, or you will be when you fatten up and your hair grows back, I can see such things when anyone else in my place would think you’re a throwaway, that’s why I’m so good at this business: I get off on the potential of beauty, the withered rose bush that can be coaxed back to flower. I’m just explaining the situation, that’s all. Anyway, you should thank me: I got you someone who was a cut above all these peasants. A wily man, makes a little money selling his produce in the markets. Incidentally, it’s his prerogative to resell you if he wishes. Maybe that isn’t so bad. Think of it this way: if you don’t get along, maybe you’ll end up with someone more compatible.”
As they rounded a bend just out of Yanji, an enormous house came into view, standing on a bluff over the road and surrounded by a brick wall frosted along the top with the distant gleam of glass shards, and for a moment her heart leapt with the thought that she might be heading for a life of luxury in such an estate. But then Bong-il noticed her gaze and said, “Do you like that place? It’s mine.” She scoffs. “I’m not kidding. There’s a lot of money in girls. And of course I have other business ventures. You had no idea you were in the presence of such an important man, huh, little girl?” There was a long silence as the Land Cruiser continued on to Young-shik’s village, then barreled past row upon row of attached brick houses — slum dwellings, really: single story, each no larger than a villager’s hut, and topped by swayback tile roofs and a clutter of crooked brick chimneys leaking coal smoke into a contuse, yellow sky. The rows of homes were separated by dirt roads where children played hopscotch, cautiously, finding the rough spots, because yesterday a cold rain had washed away the snow and now everything was frozen mud. Several children stopped to watch the strange vehicle. It passed three white doors and a red one, each decorated with strips of red paper whose gold characters wished health and prosperity to all who entered, then finally they stopped, Bong-il leaning across Eun-ju to let her out. Or to hold her in, rather, because he pinned her in place and slipped a business card into her hand.
“If he decides to sell you, have him call me,” Bong-il said. “Maybe I can broker someone better, once you fill out a little.”
She got out and slammed the car door.
When Bong-il knocked, a farmer with a wind-creased face opened the door: a handsome jaw, intelligent eyes, a tiny wart by his nose, a superabundance of moles. Young-shik’s overlarge paws were black with dirt, but he nonetheless shook Bong-il’s soft, dank hand (Bong-il wiped his hand afterwards with a silk handkerchief; Young-shik dried his palm on his pants) and invited them through a concrete-floored entry room filled with rakes, shovels, buckets, dried ears of corn hanging from the walls, a plow without a blade. Glancing frequently with mute wonder at Eun-ju, the farmer led them into the living quarters, a single room with an electric cooker built into the floor-a gas unit covered by a lid the size of a truck’s hubcap. A faucet poked its snout from the kitchen wall, but there was no sink, and a plastic trash barrel had been placed underneath it to catch the water. Everywhere there were signs that this was not North Korea: a twenty-kilo bag of rice sat in the corner, color calendars with pictures of girls in swimsuits hung on the walls, and there was electricity to squander: a miniature black-and-white television buzzed with a broadcast of a soccer game. Astoundingly, a bird cheeped from within Young-shik’s shirt pocket. He patted himself down and removed a black object the size of a wallet, which he opened and spoke into. “She just got here,” he said. “I’ll call back.” A phone without a cord. He folded and pocketed it. Blushing, he explained, “My mother.” Then he remembered his manners and asked everyone to sit on the floor.
Young-shik surveyed the woman, a scrawny refugee with cherry red lipstick supplied by Bong-il, dressed in a fake Adidas warm-up suit, recently purchased, over which she wore her only remaining article of clothing from Korea: a padded long overcoat with a chevron pattern woven into the fabric.
“Why is her hair so short?” he asked.
The broker waved away his concern. “Hunger. You should have seen her when she got here: almost completely bald. They’re often like that when they leave. Anyway, you can see it’s already growing back, glossy and thick. We’ve been fattening her up for you.”
Young-shik stared at Eun-ju and opened his mouth as if wishing to say something, but he was struck dumb. He turned to Bong-il for help.
“Her personality — how is it?”
“Quiet. Very kind. Obedient.”
“And she is capable of bearing children?”
“Absolutely. She was inspected by a doctor, a woman doctor.”
This was entirely untrue, but it mollified Young-shik, for he said, “I think we agreed upon three thousand yuan?”
“This one is thirty-three hundred.”
“You can’t do that; you already said —”
“There were extra payments to the border guards on both sides, more than I expected. This is a dangerous business, and I risked my life to bring you your heart’s desire. Besides, look at her, she’s worth it: a lovely girl, the future mother of your sons. There’s this rich guy in Yanji wanted her for karaoke, said he would pay double whatever you offered, but I said a girl like this should go to a decent man. What’s three hundred? If you don’t like her, you can always make a profit on the resale.”
Young-shik glowered at the broker, then at Eun-ju, as if she were somehow complicit in this. She gave a sad, helpless shrug, and his expression softened into a look of shy inquiry, as if to ask, Well, then, do you think we can stand each other? Her eyebrows arched in reply: We shall see. This made him smile, and he nodded, almost bowed, a motion of the shoulders rather than his head, and began counting out the money from a candy box that he kept in the wardrobe. Bong-il’s hitherto dour face split in a broad grin. Thirty-three hundred yuan was everything this farmer possessed, it was obvious, and it flattered the broker’s vanity, as it might flatter a heroin dealer’s, to offer a commodity so achingly desired by the buyer.
Young-shik handed over the money without meeting Bong-il’s gaze, full of glad bonhomie, then endured the broker’s congratulations, his slaps on the back, his assurances that he would not regret this; for that matter, Bong-il nearly blurted out not to worry, she was terrific in bed, never mind that the age, twenty-whatever, was a little old for his tastes; he preferred to sample the fourteen-, fifteen-year-olds that the pimps and millionaires purchased — or at least his face said all that as he gave one last happy wink at Eun-ju. Then seeing he was unwanted, he bounced out, whistling as he strode for the car, where the driver slumped, head flung back and mouth open, as if murdered at the wheel, but he quickened when his boss rapped on the glass. Young-shik shut the door and returned to this new presence in his household: a wife.
For a moment the two sat together. He reached for her hand, calculated what point he might properly propose they go to bed, then blushed as she read his thoughts. Instead he said, “I understand you were a reporter.”
“Yes, but it means nothing. I wrote what they told me.”
“You have an education?”
“I graduated from Kim Il-Sung University, in Pyongyang.”
“I used to long to go the university. I excelled in maths. But I dropped out of school to help my father on the farm, so I’m an uneducated man. I hope you won’t find me too dull.” A self-mocking grin tugged at his mouth as he said this, and she could not help smiling.
“I am sure farming is an interesting occupation, as well.”
“You’re the first woman I have ever met who thought so.” They contemplated this. Momentarily it occurred to him to suggest, “Would you like some tea?”
“There’s a box on the shelf there. I’d like a cup, too. And as you see, the kettle stands beside it.”
Dear Jesus, let me find peace here. Dear Buddha, do not let them arrest me. Dear Leader, it is treason, but I do not want to die in your brilliant present reality.
Young-shik was an innocent, just as Eun-ju had been when she left Hongwan, and their first attempts at consummation were abruptly concluded by his premature enthusiasm, a phenomenon that she in all honesty hoped would continue, but by the third night they had succeeded, or so he thought, for afterwards his heart was enraptured and melancholy at once, and he kissed her face and shoulders again and again, then spoke of the son he wanted, of the joy of family, of the way his mother and his father used to stealthily rustle about at night under the covers when they thought he was asleep, and for a long time, until he was seven or eight years old, he thought they were looking for something they had lost. But after he nodded off, Eun-ju lay awake trembling, averting her interior gaze from the sunspot on her heart, grasping instead at random distractions as they fluttered like moths through her mind: Papa, his strong hands, the sadness that settled upon him when I came home from school and recited my lessons: Our National Father, who shines upon us like the sun, and after mumbling, “He would be proud of you, daughter,” he sat with a newspaper in his lap, not reading, but staring at the wall, unable to be drawn from his catatonic melancholy; no, something happier: think of Mama, long ago, when there was food, returning from a trip to Vladivostok with a bag of chocolates wrapped in shiny pictures of camels and palm trees, which she placed on a shelf out of reach as I stamped and said I want I want I want, an insufferable brat; think of home, of the candlelight glittering on the frost patch the size of a mattress growing on the wall of the living room; think of work, of the spaghetti of electrical wiring stapled along the ceiling of the newsroom, of the baby cockroaches that infested the desk drawers, of the broken Soviet refrigerator in the stinking canteen without food, of the hours of sitting through speeches and parades in order to write something that meant nothing to no one at any time ever:
Hongwan Kangdong Senior Middle School was renamed Hero Kangdong Senior Middle School Tuesday, for among its graduates were a dozen labor heroes of the republic who devoted their lives to shining acts of sacrifice on behalf of the world-dazzling Juche ideal that has left the American aggressors and their “south” Korean hirelings confounded and amazed, heroes such as Ri Chun Do, who with his very body protected the portraits of the President Kim Il Sung and Marshal Kim Jong Il and saved many revolutionary comrades from the explosion of a hand grenade and now enjoys eternal life (but even as you wrote-mindlessly, the hangul letters goose-stepping from the fog of the unconscious-you wanted to ask, What grenade? And why throw an explosive at a portrait? And for that matter, how does one attain eternal life in a Marxist universe?). As she lay there, however, the dark interior tide would not be stayed by distractions, and she gave herself over to the flood of hot panic, remembering the night Bong-il unlocked the shed and called her, rather than the two teenage girls she had heard whimpering every night from the main house, remembering the vodka smell of his sweat and his fatness atop her and the pain of his rubbery thrusting as she turned her head to the side and bit her knuckles. Lying here now, with Young-shik, she cried, but silently, because she did not wish to awaken her husband.
Dear Jesus, let me find peace here. Dear Buddha, do not let them arrest me. Dear Leader, it is treason, but I do not want to die in your brilliant present reality.
Shifting in the dark, Eun-ju held Young-shik because she had no one else.
It was obvious that this farmer was crazy about her. When the pussy willows budded in March, he brought home a bouquet and put them in a bottle for her. He took down his girlie calendars after she made a face at them. He inquired about her likes and dislikes with the frown of a schoolboy seeking through diligence to make up for a long absence from class. This is not to say he did not have expectations of her —cooking, cleaning, scrubbing his farm clothes in a plastic washbasin-and he did his best to issue his orders sternly, as was expected of a husband. Yet however severe he attempted to sound, he always smiled, and his face quickly assumed the smitten puppy dog expression he wore in her presence. Nevertheless, she soon learned that in China, too, there were ideological demands: he was stunned to discover that she did not follow any soccer team, and informed her that she must now root for Aodong; it would cause disharmony in the household if they were not in accord on this matter. Aodong it will be, Eun-ju said. He nodded, but the look of suspicion in his eye was entirely familiar: he was uncertain of her orthodoxy. Yet Young-shik respected her enough to ask what her favorite book was so he could read it; he was envious of her education. At first she thought it was a trap-she did not yet trust him — and she said that she had always found Chairman Mao’s sayings deeply influential. But seeing the look on his face, she confessed that she did not especially like books; one always believed that the written word could be full of joy and love and death and betrayal, but all you read at home were classics such as Kim Jong-il In His Younger Days and U.S. Troops’ Bestial Tyranny Flayed, and despite the longing one felt while gazing with one’s eyes unfocused at the pages of any given tome, imagining that words could arrange themselves into a living force, one could not bring life to the stories about female guerillas tearing off pieces of their tunics to create a quilt for the infant Kim as Japanese bullets whistled past, not to mention to the entire libraries full of industrial production statistics and Juche theory. She cut herself short, abruptly stayed by a different worry: that she had spoken over his head; at all costs she did not want to insult his intellectual pride, lest he announce that he had had enough of this headstrong woman and get rid of her.
But he nodded gravely and said, “I get the same feeling reading the agricultural news in the papers here. There’s so much they could say — exposes of party leaders who manipulate the rice cooperative, stories about how the hog farm is polluting the river — but it’s all harvest reports and five-year plans, even in the middle of a drought.”
As the weeks passed, Eun-ju’s fears that Young-shik would resell her diminished. But although she had, on her first day in China, removed from her lapel the medal of the deceased yet ever-living head of state and Great Leader, President Kim Il-sung, grinning (the frowning medal had been replaced some time ago), and pinned it inside her coat pocket where she would not lose it; she dared not throw it away, for if the unthinkable happened and she were picked up by the Chinese police and sent home, she did not want to arrive at the frontier without her medal, as its presence might mitigate her treason: I never lost my faith, I never ceased to long for the fulfillment of human evolution achieved in the Great Leader and his son, the Dear Leader: Kim Jong-il. She never went outdoors unless absolutely necessary, and shopping in the open market was her greatest anxiety: elbowing through the crowds in broad daylight, ordering eels and bok choy, scooping paprika from the baskets at a spice seller’s stall, always glancing around to make sure the people pressing close were grannies with shopping bags and not young men in leather and sunglasses ready to grab her, for her fear was not only of police but of other brokers, who had been known to kidnap Korean girls already here in China and deliver them to other buyers. For the first few weeks, she drank almost no tea and consumed as little water as possible so that she would limit her trips to the community latrine, though eventually she came to see that the neighbor women, all ethnic Koreans, regarded her sympathetically, and two of them dropped by one day to offer tips on how to dress and wear her makeup like a Chinese. Often at night, however, after descending through a tunnel of relentless dark, she found herself once again lying beside Bong-il as he snored, and she thought, There’s a knife in the kitchen and no one to stop me, I could find it and plunge it into his neck. With her heart pounding, she crept to the kitchen and felt about in the shadows, always unable to find the knife, and then as her eyes adjusted she made out a dark spot in the wall. A set of yellowed human teeth was nibbling a hole from the other side, the cuspids recessed like Bong-il’s. She woke herself, and rolling over in moonlight, she looked at her husband, his mouth gaping innocently, a yawning infant. Hush, she thought, hush, as though it were he who had awakened terrified. She dared not turn on the light, for fear of either waking Young-shik or catching the attention of a police patrol that would then drop by to investigate. She did not know if they would do this here in China, but old precautions were hard to get rid of. She found a bottle of beer and drank it in the dark.
When May Day came, there was no avoiding one task out of doors. Young-shik insisted that she help with the plowing. At first it frightened her, working out in the bright fields in plain view of the cars, trucks, cyclists, and red taxicabs that crept along the muddy road toward Yanji. Eun-ju lead an ox team back and forth as Young-shik followed, steering the plow and exhorting the beasts, “Come on! Get! Yah!” Sinking ankle deep in the soil, she trudged along, stone-footed, the clay clinging to her boots, but despite her anxiety, she began to enjoy herself, so long had it been since she worked outside and felt the sun warming her skin. The last time she had trudged across a rural field was when General Secretary Kim himself had overseen the land realignment project in North Phyongan Province, and she had covered his speech. Dear Leader: she was surprised to discover that this hero military commander, inventor of nuclear physics, astrophysicist, greatest golfer known to man, and immortal botanist and biologist who had, at four years of age, discovered why chickens raise their beaks when they drink and why there are no black flowers — that this poet and genius was a fat little man in a Mao suit with bouffant hair and yellow teeth, lecturing everyone on Marxist doctrine as relates to land reclamation, cracking jokes with his generals and regional party appartchiks about the girls they had found him from the cooperative farms in Jongju city and Uiju and Kwaksan counties, and a blasphemous thought wormed into her mind: that he was merely stupid, this Son of the Most High who strode around waving his pointer, who with his Father in Heaven had sown the seeds of everlasting joy and prosperity across the land. Yet she suppressed this thought and sang his praises in the story she filed, she could do it drunk or asleep, so familiar was the speech she was given to paraphrase:
Feasting his eyes on the large standardized fields, he noted with great satisfaction that provincial party members and other working people, People’s Army soldiers, shock brigade members from other provinces, and engineers involved in the Land Realignment Campaign have completely changed the appearance of the countryside by creditably finishing the difficult and gigantic project on a high qualitative level. He lavished praise on their great achievements and thanked them. He noted that all the soldiers and people involved in the large-scale nature-transforming project have carried out their enormous assignments in a matter of several months in the indomitable revolutionary spirit of soldiers who were pressed for everything, though the people’s enemies had said that even a few years would not be enough to complete the task. He added that this is a world-startling miracle that has forced the craven American aggressor to go down on his knees in awe of the achievements of the Korean people.
He pointed out that the present brilliant reality in North Phyongan Province clearly shows how powerful is the might of our army and people who are rushing ahead in a high-pitched spirit with an iron faith that once they are determined, they can do anything. He said that realignment must be done throughout the whole land so that none of its former contours could be recognized, and likewise the kulaks and hirelings of the imperialists must be crushed in their attempts to secretly and illegally hoard food crops for personal benefit.
“Ha!” Young-shik called behind the oxen. “Ha! Get up!”
As she led the snorting, muddy beasts back and forth, Eun-ju gazed across the crests and valleys of Yanbian, and from here she could see half a dozen other ox teams, the men always slogging along behind the plow, the women (for those farmers lucky enough to be married) always leading the oxen.
It is right that I will end my days as a farmwife. Working the soil will be a penitence for every word I have written.
“You’re drifting left,” Young-shik called, and she yanked on the reins and pulled the oxen in line.
The thunderstorm was tramping away, its flashes distant now, the thunderclaps insufficient to rattle the windows, a faint rumble now. “Are you angry at me,” he asked, “for buying you?”
The wedding was put off till the planting was done in May, and by that time she had missed a period and was suffering from alternating bouts of terrific hunger and nausea that caused her to bolt for the garden and throw up. She told Young-shik she was not yet used to rich food, for she did not want to raise his expectations just yet, and she was afraid the family would insist that she have an abortion if this child’s sex proved to be incorrect, for she wanted to protect for this being inside her, the prawnlike form, the tiny appendages that would become legs and arms. So she kept the news secret for now. Yet even without suspecting her condition, the family saw her as a treasure, an enhancement of their status — my son, you know, has found himself a wife — and she clung to this observation as evidence that the time had passed in which it was possible to resell her. In June they rented a maroon bridal gown at great expense and held a private ceremony. There was no way they could register the marriage, for she was an illegal, and this meant that her son or daughter (please make it a boy) would not be able to attend school, enter university, drive a car, or find a job; but that was years away, and she could hope things would change by then. She received a great number of gifts: a wardrobe, a new dress, a set of plates, a cutting board and several knives, clothes from a cousin who worked in the market. The women prepared a feast such as Eun-ju had never seen in her life: many varieties of kimchi, rice and beans, fern salads, minute salted fish, and bulgogi — slices of pork and beef fried with garlic and eaten wrapped in lettuce. The only time she had ever heard of such a feast in North Korea was at the April Eighth Cooking Festival at the Pyongyang Noodle House, a festival open only to the senior party leaders (she had not been allowed to attend the event she was covering); yet she could smell the food, taste it, as she wrote, hungry. But even then, she had heard nothing about the delicacy that was served at her wedding, an edible dog. The slaughter took place in public, in the alley behind her in-laws’ apartment. Looping a noose around the neck of a collie, Young-shik’s father Yun-jong hoisted it by the throat while Young-shik beat it to death with a stool, and the provisional contentment that Eun-ju had attained (I am alive, I eat every day, I think I can care for this Young-shik and he is a decent man) crumbled within. Yun-jong set to butchering the dog with quick slices of the knife, skinning the fur off the tallowy ribcage, and Young-shik gave his bride a proud glance, knowing that dog would have been beyond the means of any but the richest in North Korea, strays long ago having been eaten. But only when he wiped the sweat from his sockets (first on one shoulder, then the other) did he see his wife’s face as she fled indoors.
He followed her upstairs, through the apartment, and out onto the balcony, where he comforted her while trying not to attract any more attention than a groom normally draws while whispering to his bride in view of everyone with his face spattered in dog’s blood.
“What’s the matter?”
“It’s nothing. It will pass.” Eun-ju smiled. If the Democratic People’s Republic teaches one anything, it is to perfect a public face of joy and optimism, whatever fires burn within.
“You’re upset about the dog.”
“I’ve just never seen that before.”
“You’re too innocent for a farmwife. That’s your problem.” The thought pleased Young-shik, and before returning to his task he squeezed her hand. He left blood on it.
The panic slowly subsided, and she calmed herself thinking of Young-shik.
He is a good man, he is, he is. You cannot ask for more than decency and a rugged handsomeness too, especially when you consider what might have awaited you here. And the capacity of his mind is surprising for an unlettered man. I can be happy with him. Maybe I already am. Maybe this is all happiness is. Not being hungry. Not being beaten. Not lying.
They both drank too much that day, and they barely made it home on his motorbike, wobbling around the corners, laughing, sounding his horn as they zipped past a car that had broken down by the road. But that night it was Young-shik’s turn for insomnia. He started awake as a lightning storm marched in, and he could not believe his foolhardiness, driving drunk, blaring his way through town. Eun-ju moaned in her sleep. Gently he took her hand. He was not blind to the sadness that lay upon her like a heavy cloak, and it dawned on him that he had purchased a bottomless reservoir of pain along with a bride. Rain pelted the windows, and the lightning flashed, defining her face in a blue relief. Moments later (two, three, four) thunder rattled the windows. Young-shik was desperately afraid of losing her.
Eventually she rolled over and issued a little gasp. She was crying.
He asked, “What’s the matter, Ju?”
“Was the wedding a disappointment?”
“No, it was wonderful.”
“Honey, I am sorry the dog upset you.”
“The dog doesn’t matter. I like dog. It just reminded me of something.”
For a long time Eun-ju did not answer. Just as he concluded that she had fallen asleep, her voice came from the electrostatic dark, “There was this boy who somehow stole a cake from Kang, a local party leader who had gotten rich reselling the rice donated by the imperialist aggressors — he was selling a kilo for one-hundred fifty won: two months’ wages. I don’t know how it happened, whether the boy broke into Kang’s apartment or stole it from his car or what, but he came running down the street, saw it was a dead end, and panicked and banged through the door of this state store — you see such places in Korea, the shelves bare nowadays save for candles, matchsticks, maybe a bottle of vegetable oil, some Victorious Vodka. It was a frightening sight — this little stick figure crouching between the radiator and a bench, choking down frosting like a wild animal. Then Kang came puffing in. ‘Spit it out, you little traitor,’ he said. The boy swallowed. Kang seized the bench and battered him again and again, staved the boy’s skull in. He left the body there in a pool of violet for the shopkeeper to dispose of. This was not hard to do. This was at the height of the famine.”
“You saw all this.”
He felt a movement: a nod.
“You get so you don’t feel,” Eun-ju said. “I hadn’t thought of it in a long time. So many things happen. Everyone’s hungry.”
He had always avoided asking how she had gotten to China, fearing that it would include details that he could not bear to hear. But now he inquired: “Surely it was no easy thing to flee the country?”
“My father had connections; he was the one who sold me.”
Young-shik sat up, hugging his knees.
“I agreed,” she said. “There was no other way. I could have died there, and the family was desperate. I told you my father had cancer.”
He nodded with his chin on his knees.
“Papa used to be a top railroad official — so was my mom before she passed away, for that matter; she has been to Russia several times to work with her counterparts in Khasan and Vladivostok. But because of his illness he hasn’t worked since before the People’s Supreme Court hanged the Seven Lackeys of the Imperialists and their Southern Stooges in Kim Il-sung Stadium. I’m sure you heard all about that. No? They said the world media was following it. As it happened, Papa had worked closely with two of the traitors before their execution. There was a time when we lived in terror that he would be arrested, too. Perhaps with Papa’s illness, he was out of the way and the organs decided it wasn’t worth pursuing him. I’m speculating. In any case, things became very hard for us after that. Mama had already passed away by then. For me, there were struggle sessions at work. We felt something was coming, that I would soon be arrested. But Papa knows certain wealthy men of influence, military officers, party members who were active disassembling factories and selling lathes and machining tools to China as scrap. He is very sick, and he spends his days lying in our two-room apartment, wan and skeletal. I used to sit with him massaging his limbs where they hurt. The blackouts last eighteen, twenty hours a day in the residential districts, and the central heating has hardly worked since I was a girl, so he lies there in his outdoor coat, heaped with blankets, his mouth fixed in an expression of rage and bewilderment. He is a very good man, a brave man, and now he is in pain all the time — never sleeps more than forty-five minutes at a time. Slept. Sometimes I’m afraid he has passed away by now.”
There was another long pause in her story, and when a flash illuminated a glittering trail on her cheek, Young-shik wiped it away.
“The apartment always smelled of illness, of medicine, of ginseng snake wine, burning ginger, moxibuxion cotton. But in the end there was no money for food or medicine. We talked many times about what our options were, and I agreed with Papa that finding a husband in China was the best one. Still, it was a shock to come home from work one Friday and find a man squatting there in a Chinese suit and white socks and a watch that hung loose on his wrist. His face shone with health — the fat cheeks and pellucid eyes of one who has never starved. ‘Last time I saw you, you were just a little girl, and look at you now,’ he said. It was Kang. Obviously he did not remember or notice that I had been there when he killed the boy. I glanced at Papa in alarm, but he wouldn’t meet my eye.
“Kang scrutinized me. Astonishingly, he began prodding my ribs. ‘She’s thin,’ he said.
“Papa replied, ‘We eat simply, she is a good cook in these hard times and can produce a delicious dinner from those bark noodles and grass mixed with maybe a couple tablespoons of rice when it’s available. I do not complain; as the Dear Leader says, we must toughen ourselves in the battle against the American aggressor. But she will fatten up when she gets real food again.’
“‘The question is, is she healthy? No diseases? I see you are a sick man yourself, Comrade Lee.’
“‘Oh, she’s very healthy,” Papa said. He gave me this despairing glance. ‘She has always been a good girl and a party member. No boyfriends, nothing serious.’
“‘How old is she?’ Kang said.
“‘Twenty-two,’ I said.
“He glanced at me. ‘She seems older.’
“‘She’s hungry. Everybody is.’
“‘We will say twenty-two. She’s a beautiful girl, no obvious blemishes. Yes, I think we can find her a husband. If only she were fourteen or fifteen, we might find her a wealthy man indeed. As it is, I can give you seven hundred fifty won or five kilos of rice. Your choice.’
“Papa chose the rice. The family was hungry and he could also barter it. Kang gave me a half hour to pack, but there was nothing to take. A bra, a pair of underwear, my red diploma (Bong-il threw that away; it was dangerous, evidence I wasn’t Chinese). I sat with my father before I left, and we wept. There’s something deep inside him I could never reach: I think he is a religious believer, maybe a Christian (I once heard I had a great uncle who was a priest); but he would never talk to me about it, not until that moment, when he hugged me and whispered, ‘I’ll pray for you.’ Kang and I left for the border that night.”
Young-shik lay back down. The thunderstorm was tramping away, its flashes distant now, the thunderclaps insufficient to rattle the windows, a faint rumble now.
“Are you angry at me,” he asked, “for buying you?”
Yes I am, she wanted to say. I am not a piece of furniture, a bicycle, a cake. I am angriest of all because I am unable to hate you, because I might even love you, because I’m afraid I would love any man who provided for me and showed a little gentleness after such deprivation. However, she only said, “How can I be angry? Without you I’d be dead.”
“It’s not the way I would have chosen to find you, but it turned out right in the end, eh? I thought I would live my whole life alone, that I would never find a wife. And then I was so afraid that I’d spend all this money and we’d hate each other’s guts. I know it was hard for you, but you did your duty, helping your family. And if we make some money off this crop, maybe we can get a little cash to your family. Everything will work out. We can get treatment for your father. Maybe we can bring him here. Do you think they’d allow that if we bribe somebody?”
Young-shik slipped his hand inside the blouse of her pajamas and stroked her abdomen. Did he suspect that she was pregnant? No, he was tracing a line from her navel down to the thicket that led in a narrowing triangle to a cleft in the sandstone, to the alabaster cavern with its well of myrrh, slipping two fingers inside.
She rolled toward him, grasped him gently, began a motion of the wrist, up and down. She said, “You won’t ever sell me, will you, honey?”
Stunned, he pinned her shoulders to the mattress and said, “Ju, how can you ask that after today? My entire family —”
“Because Bong-il told me —”
“Hush,” Young-shik said. Then humbly, as if fearing where such a declaration might lead, he said to a woman for the first time in his adult life, “I love you.”
“Darling,” Eun-ju said as her husband unbuttoned her blouse, “you know I love you.”
Perhaps she meant it. In any case, what else could one say?
Two days later, Young-shik set off at dawn, four o’clock in summer in this part of China, and by the time Eun-ju had left to go shopping, he was twenty kilometers away, slowly driving a heap of vegetables into town past a long line of peasants on their backwards tricycles while the trucks rattled by spilling gravel. As she walked home with a duffel bag full of groceries she was preoccupied with thoughts of her family in Hongwan. She recalled a memory from two decades ago, her father saying, “Up!” and throwing her almost into the blurry canopy of blossomy trees in Stalin Park, then she came rushing down toward his big eyes and open mouth, to be caught only at the last moment. “Again!” she cried. “Again, Daddy!” It was one of her earliest memories, but then as she tried to cling to it, strangely, it was as if she were stationary and Papa were being cast away from her, and now, walking along a dirt road in Manchuria, she was seized by the conviction that he had died. He would be lying in his coffin — his blue pallid face, the mortification that ages the body when the spirit departs, so that within hours he would appear to be ninety and not fifty-two — and she heard the state burial liturgy, the name of the Father and the Son, the Great Leader and the Dear Leader, blessed duality, and heading down Central Street with a heavy duffel of food, she grieved at the ubiquity of mourning during a general famine that would have drowned out any sorrow over the death of one middle-aged cancer victim. She had just left the main road for the warren of alleyways where she lived when someone grabbed her from behind.
“Get in,” he said.
“Let me go!”
Bong-il. Shoving her toward the Land Cruiser. His driver too, along with a powerful man who pinned her other arm behind her back.
“I’ll scream. Help!”
“You want to scream?” Bong-il said. “You want the cops to come. Go ahead.”
Eun-ju said nothing.
“So shut up and get in the car.”
Bong-il settled beside her while the bodyguard and the driver claimed the front seats, and he removed a handful of sunflower seeds from his pocket as the vehicle accelerated. The odors of sweat and after-shave filled the interior. He stuck a few seeds in his mouth and began cracking them, separating them with his tongue, plucking the husks from his lips to flick out the window.
She ignored this. “What do you want with me?”
“Don’t look so angry. It’s good news. I came back to rescue you from a life of drudgery. I couldn’t get you out of my mind, particularly after I saw you on your so-called wedding day. You didn’t notice me? I thought you did, the way you started. I was driving by, and I caught a glimpse of this vision of beauty, in that dress of yours, standing on the balcony, and I had my driver pull over. You can’t imagine how stunned I was. Your hair’s coming in fine, very pretty at that length — very modern. And I thought, I was right all along about that girl. I should have trusted my instincts and held onto you for a while longer. And then this fuckwit farmer comes out in his borrowed suit and starts tugging at your arm, and if I may say so, it was obvious you were downright peeved at him. Poor girl. Life is a long, long time to spend with someone you hate.”
“I don’t hate him.”
Bong-il laughed and popped another pinch of seeds in his mouth. “So anyway, I had an idea: a kidnapping. I’m taking you off the hands of this farmer, putting you in a place where you’ll have a better life, maybe a little spending money for clothes and baubles if you’re a good girl. I’ve got a better man for you.”
“I don’t want anyone else.”
“Shut up. It’s me. Do you understand? I already have a wife, but she’s just a stupid little girl and she won’t get in your way. You can imagine what it’s like to be married to a teenager. Music, hair, parties. I told her we need another maid, but you don’t need to take orders from her. Only from me. Who knows? Maybe if things turn out well, I’ll sell her, and it will just be us, you and me.”
“My husband is going to find me.”
“Husband? Oh, you mean the guy who bought you for three thousand three hundred yuan? Fuck the stupid farmer. If I’m feeling generous and you don’t irritate me too much, maybe I’ll find him a replacement bride. What do you care? You saw where I live, a mansion, almost. You’ll stay there with me. Your new master. Haha, your Dear Leader.”
The Land Cruiser was doing sixty-five kilometers an hour when Eun-ju stepped out. For a moment she was tumbling on the abrading gravel. Then a concrete pinnacle rose from the road and struck her head, and an inkwell exploded before her eyes.
On his first day back from his vacation, Inspector Yang with the Foreign Crimes Unit received an order to carry out his least favorite duty: returning a refugee. He found the woman in the dispensary cell, where the doctor, himself an ethnic Korean, at first argued that she could not possibly be handed over in this condition; but he was a state budget worker, and when his duty was made clear by the garrison commander, he signed her release papers. Yang escorted the prisoner, handcuffed and bandaged, to a taxicab outside, where the driver was instructed to head for the border. The two men passed the time chatting in Chinese, which the girl, it was obvious, did not understand. Inspector Yang was glad that the driver was a Han; they understood the necessity of this kind of work. “Those Koreans would overrun the whole region if you guys didn’t stop them,” the driver said. “There wouldn’t be a single human being from the DMZ to the Tumen River. They’ll all be here.” Yang nodded, but it was an uncomfortable ride. He glanced at the prisoner, the black eyes, the bloodied ear, the arm in a sling. The girl was so frightened, it was as if she was in shock. All the way to the border, sixty kilometers, she stared ahead, saying nothing.
They stopped for a half hour to fill out a sheaf of papers at the border guard station on the Chinese side, then walked across the bridge to the halfway point, where the borderline was painted on the asphalt. It was summer now, and she was wearing no coat, and so she arrived without her medal of the Great Leader, an act of treason in itself. The North Korean border guard did not even wait until the prisoner was on his side of the line before smashing her in the eye with his fist.
“Did you like fucking those Chinese?” he said.
Eun-ju began weeping, gulping out sobs that had been building up for months, for years, for decades, for at that moment she was elderly, burdened by grief, by pain, by isolation, by men, by the prospect of dying alone in a very small place. It occurred to her now that she had never told Young-shik she was pregnant.
Inspector Yang watched as the border guard dragged the girl to a garrison on the other bank and shoved her through the door. Sighing, he returned to his taxi and said, “Let’s get out of here.”
The driver had seen everything from the shore and he said, “They’re all shits, North Koreans.”
The inspector bit his pen. Somehow it seemed disloyal to the fraternity of men in uniform to acknowledge this comment.
“Maybe she’ll find her way back,” the driver said. “I hear it happens. They bribe their way out.”
Yang shrugged. “Somebody should do something,” he said vaguely. “It always ends like this.”