“All of them are dead.”
My husband, Song Bum-Ji, looked half-asleep when he said it, his wide forehead creased deeply as if straining to hear a voice from a dream. He leaned heavily against the ill-fitting door to little sister’s house, blocking the rest of us from going in.
“My love,” I said, touching his arm, “what are you saying? Move aside. My belly aches. Our baby is restless. I must sit.”
Kang Youn-Chul, my little brother, lifted Grandmother down from the wagon and helped her walk. “Bum-Ji, open the door.”
Bum-Ji held his arms out. “No, Grandmother, you must not go inside.” He spoke in a hush. “We must get away before the police come or we will all be suspected.”
“Suspected of what?” Grandmother said sharply. “What are you babbling about?”
Uncle and Aunt left the wagon and joined us at the door. Bum-Ji blocked us all.
“Get out of the way!” Aunt said. “You will kill Grandmother! The ride has been the death of her. She must get inside and sit.”
Bum-Ji squeezed my arm. “Chun-Mi, please. They are all dead. Do not let Grandmother see them.”
I couldn’t make myself understand him. What was he saying? “How can they all be dead? Bum-Ji, little sister is in there.”
“I know. Yes, I know.”
“Has the famine reached this house, too?” little brother asked.
“There is no famine, Youn-Chul!” Aunt said, sounding shrill even to me. “We are living in a socialist paradise! The Dear Leader provides well for us!”
“Enough!” Grandmother snapped, and all chatter ceased. The setting sun glowed kindly on her pale skin. She lifted her head. “I have seen death. I have seen my own son’s death and my own husband’s death, and many more that I will never speak of.” She stepped slowly toward Bum-Ji, tottering only slightly. “If there is death here, I will see it.”
Bum-Ji shut his eyes and stepped aside.
Aunt almost knocked Grandmother over in her haste to get inside. Uncle and little brother followed more slowly. One by one they entered, and one by one each cried out.
I looked at Bum-Ji leaning against the crumbling white plaster of little sister’s home. His eyes blinked quickly, like they did whenever he was trying to think of something to say. My feet were unwilling to move. Then I heard Grandmother groan and the sound of someone collapsing, and suddenly I was inside.
The dying sun only dimly lit the curling floor paper and water-stained walls of Sister’s living room. Grandmother sat on the floor, her legs splayed so that the hem of her pants exposed her veined ankles. The curtains were drawn—it was surprising the police hadn’t come already to investigate such a certain sign of disloyalty. Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-il presided over the room from their astringently clean framed photos on the wall.
Little sister was there, along with her husband and his parents. They seemed so peaceful, lying around the room on the frayed bamboo mats. Perhaps they’d celebrated the Great Leader’s birthday too hard and were only sleeping off their drunkenness.
Uncle went to them and shook little sister’s shoulder. Her whole body moved with it, stiff in death. I looked closer and saw the blood. It ran from Sister’s eyes and from her nose and from her ears. A pool of bloody vomit lay on the floor paper where her husband lay. It’s sharp tang unsettled my stomach as much as what I was seeing. The vomit had mingled with his hair and his blood. His father and mother—emaciated shadows of themselves, really—lay on beside him, blood dried in blackened streaks down their faces like tears of ink.
On the low table in the center was a sheet of paper and a pen. And an opened box of rat poison.
Aunt retched on herself and went back outside.
My legs suddenly wouldn’t hold me. I sank to my knees, pain piercing my back and belly. Bum-Ji was beside me instantly, easing me to the floor. “Bum-Ji,” I said through the pain, “where are the children? Where are Ki-Won and Ji-Hyun?”
Uncle, Grandmother’s oldest son and my oldest uncle, picked up the paper. “It is a letter.” His eyes jumped to the bottom, then at me. “Written by Kang Chun-Hee.” Little sister. He cleared his throat and read aloud:
“‘All thanks to Kim Il-Sung and Kim Jong-Il, our saviors! This family, Son Il-Sung, Han Kyung-Im, Son Jong-Un, and Kang Chun-Hee, will always be grateful to them for leading us into the revolutionary victory of Communism. Please excuse our act today and do not interpret it as disloyalty to the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. Because the food rations are so low, and because of the great tragedy that no one was able to enjoy rations even on the birthday of the Great Leader, the Son family has decided to give all future rations to our brothers. We make this sacrifice to honor the Great Leader and the Dear Leader. Signed, Kang Chun-Hee.’”
We looked at each other. At the cockroaches skittering from shadow to shadow. At the cobwebs in the corners of rain-stained walls. Everywhere but at the bodies. Grandmother appeared to be sleeping. Uncle dropped his hand to his side. The letter spun to the floor like a cherry blossom falling into the stream. Little brother walked to it, careful to step around the blood, and read it. His young face seemed to shrivel. His eyebrows dropped and his chin rose like they always did when he was about to cry. Water dripped slowly in the kitchen basin off to my right.
I could smell the blood now, with the vomit—and something else, the onset of death-stench—even over the musty odor of the house and garden.
“The children!” I said, clawing at Bum-Ji to get to my feet. “Did she send them away?”
“Why should we care, Chun-Mi?” Aunt said, coming back inside, a hand on her forehead. “Why should we care where the children of traitors are?”
“Lower your voice, woman!” Uncle said. “And close the door.”
“They are dead, Aunt!” little brother said, his voice raw. “How are they traitors when they are dead?”
“They have shirked their duty to the Great Leader, Youn-Chul!” Aunt said, pointing at the bodies as if no one had noticed them lying there. “Now others will have to do their work, too. They have dishonored themselves and us!”
Uncle strode across the living room, brushing against Aunt, and shut the door. “We must wait until dark and then bury their bodies beside the river. No one knows we are here. We will bury them and be many kilometers away by daybreak.”
“What are you saying!” Aunt said, moving to stand by Uncle. “Comrade husband, you and I must go to the police this minute! You are wrong. We have been seen! Or do you forget the two children and their mother with the broken wagon? Chun-Mi had to be loudmouthed and show her face to strangers. Now we will be associated with their treachery!” she said, jabbing her finger at the bodies. “Our only choice is to bring the police running and be credited for our loyalty.”
Grandmother’s eyes flared. “Close your mouth, crazy woman! Do you step over the bodies of good people and speak of them as if their spirits do not linger? Ho-Pyong,” she said to Uncle, “you are to blame for her talk. It is as I have always said: A woman will run wild if you do not beat her enough.”
“Mother,” Uncle said, palms up, “why do we talk of this now?”
I left them behind and walked into the kitchen. Let them argue. I had to find the children.
In my mind I saw little sister cradling tiny Ji-Hyun, her newborn daughter, and happy Ki-Won at her knee trying to feed his sister a green strawberry. That had been only six months ago. Sister had looked so thin. She hadn’t gained any weight at all with Ji-Hyun, and the baby had been born so tiny. Where were those babies now?
The kitchen was brighter than the living room because there were no curtains. The rusted metal sink was chipped on the edges, like my own, and stained with minerals from the leaky faucet, which spattered lukewarm water on me as I passed. Clotheslines ran back and forth over the sink and counter, dried towels and clothes stiff on them. The faint scent of bleach tickled my nose. Faded, mismatched tile lined the wall above the sink and around the single window, which was cracked. Little sister’s house was a bigger than mine, but she had more people living there, and with the children I didn’t begrudge her the extra space.
I shoved a pile of unwashed towels aside on the peeled white floor paper and walked down the short hallway to the bedroom.
I heard movement, tiny thumping coming from the wall of the room just to my right. Rats were not so loud and there hadn’t been an uneaten house pet in this part of the country for years. My baby moved inside me, pressing on my bladder. I stopped to wait out the pressure and to listen.
All I could hear was my family arguing in the living room behind me. Aunt was in hysterics. Grandmother was scolding. The men joined in only occasionally.
I looked at the door. My heart was beating fast. I could feel the fullness in my ears and throat. I grasped the handle and pushed the door open quickly.
Instantly the reek of ammonia and human feces struck me. My already queasy stomach threatened to empty itself. I breathed through my mouth.
It was little sister’s bedroom, where she and her husband and the children slept. Right near the door was a gray mat, askew and untidy. The one window had been covered with blankets held by clothespins, so it was nearly dark inside.
Then I heard the movement again, louder. Something was moving toward me, aimed at my baby. I covered myself and stepped back, accidentally inhaling a full breath of the stench. Eyes glinted in the dim light. Was it some animal, something that killed little sister’s family, or maybe the vengeful spirit of one of the—
It was a little boy.
It was Ki-Won, my three-year-old nephew. He was disheveled and reeked like a cesspool. His checkered open-bottom pants were sagging and caked with dried excrement. His cheeks—despite near-starvation they still retained some of their baby chubbiness—were smeared with dirt and mucus. But when he stared up at me, his black eyes were afraid and even desperate, and I saw that he was just a frightened little child who had been locked in this room for who knew how long.
I dropped to my knees and reached for him. “Come here, Ki-Won. It’s me, Auntie Chun-Mi.”
His eyes narrowed and he tilted his head. He stepped backwards tentatively and I was afraid he was going to run. But then he seemed to recognize me. His eyebrows rose and he broke into a full-mouthed wail and staggered into my arms. I gathered him in, though he was wet and fouled. He clutched handfuls of my blouse and burrowed his face into my shoulder, muffling his cries.
Bum-Ji and Uncle came into the hallway, fear on their faces. I could hear the others behind them jostling through the kitchen.
Bum-Ji recognized Ki-Won instantly and for the first time since this nightmare began I saw my husband’s gentle smile. “Ki-Won,” he said, kneeling beside me, creases appearing by his eyes in his grin. He tousled the boy’s hair and sat against the wall.
“Shut up that noise!” Aunt said, shouldering up to the front. “And what is that horrid smell?” I didn’t think her face could turn anymore sour, but when she saw Ki-Won it did. “Is it the traitor’s kid?”
“There are no traitors here!” Bum-Ji said, then looked pointedly at Aunt. “Are there?”
Aunt blanched. “How dare you?”
Ki-Won peeked over my shoulder and his crying abated.
Bum-Ji stroked Ki-Won’s wild hair. “Ki-Won,” he said softly. “Ki-Won? Can you talk to Uncle Bum-Ji? Can you tell me what happened to your mommy and daddy?”
“Mommy?” Ki-Won said, looking between people down the hall. “Mommy? Daddy?”
“Ki-Won,” Bum-Ji said, “How long have you been in this room?”
“Ask him why he isn’t dead, too,” Aunt said.
Uncle stepped forward. “Boy, what happened here?”
Their questions continued, each one louder than the last. They crowded forward, towering over me and Ki-Won. He buried his head in my shoulder and cried again. His bodied shuddered.
“Stop it, all of you!” I said. “Leave him alone. You’re scaring him. Go…go away for a while. Let me get him cleaned up. Uncle, Grandmother, find him something to eat. But bring it to him here. I don’t want him seeing his parents like that. Little brother, please can you bring soap and water to clean up this room?”
They dispersed. Bum-Ji helped me to my feet and then went before me into the bedroom. I took Ki-Won’s clothes off and wiped him down with a clean part of his shirt. Bum-Ji pulled the curtains aside and light flooded the room. The sun had gone down but it was still bright enough to see.
The room was a mess. A pile of Ki-Won’s excrement sat on one of the sleeping mats and had evidently been stepped on. There was no sign of food having been left for the boy, but a steel bowl beneath the window had water at the bottom and all around on the floor. I went to the wooden chest and dug through clothes for something Ki-Won could wear.
“Chun-Mi,” Bum-Ji said softly.
My husband’s tone stopped me. He was holding a sheet of paper to me. It was a note from Sister. She wrote it to White Heron, her childhood name for me.
White Heron, I know you will find this. I could not force my Ki-Won to make the same sacrifice we all were choosing to make. I hope he can survive until you find him. Ji-Hyun is dead. My milk dried up and she would take nothing else. We buried her in the yard.
Big sister, what kind of mother lets her baby die? What hope do we have in this land? It is no paradise! There is no victorious revolution. We are suffering and our babies are dying. I don’t care if they find what I have said, for I will be dead. I only fear for you.
You must be braver than me. I have lost faith. My heart died with Ji-Hyun, and I will follow her to the grave. But you must carry out our plan. Do you remember? The one we always dreamed of but kept secret? You must do it, White Heron. For your baby.
Take my Ki-Won with you. He is strong and gave me joy. Make him remember me. Good bye.
The note had a faded black and white photo attached to the back. A photo of little sister and her husband on their wedding day, just before the soldiers came. They wouldn’t allow the traditional food at the celebration. They came just after this photo was taken and carted the groom’s father to prison overnight for “wasting the People’s food.”
I was aware of people entering the room behind me and of someone asking me a question, but their words were as nonsense to me. I went to the window and looked out upon the ground. At the base of the hedge of bean plants, all dead or dying, was a little mound of fresh earth.
Little sister was right. This land was without hope. Its heart had died long ago, just as little sister’s had. Families were committing suicide to end the slow starvation, the misery. Mothers could not nourish themselves enough to nourish their babies.
I had a baby coming, too. My breasts had hardly grown. I could not even feed myself—how could I feed my own little girl?
We had to leave. That was our secret plan, Sister and I. There was rumor of food in China, of plenty! I knew a young man who had fled to China and returned with money and medicine. Little sister and I had dreamed of going, but the Party told us we had it better here than anywhere else, that in China they robbed you or worse. Certainly we had it better here than in other lands like South Korea or even America—where the people cooked North Koreans and ate them whole. And so we stayed and tried to believe in the Great Leader to usher in the victory we were told had already occurred. But it never came. And now little sister was dead. A whole dead home.
Ki-Won held my leg with both arms. I touched his once full cheeks and knew what I must do.
I turned from the window just as the others were entering the room with food and cleaning supplies. I looked at them with new eyes. Could they make this trip I had in mind? Grandmother looked frail beyond belief, but it couldn’t be helped. Aunt was a liability, so she had to come along. The men would come.
“Listen to me,” I said in a tone I’d never used to them before. “Listen to me. Tonight we must leave this place. We will take Ki-Won but we will leave the rest as they are. We will walk through the night. All of us must come. We will not stop until we have reached the border of our homeland. And when we have reached the river, we will flee to China and never return.”
Aunt gave a little squeak and fainted.
One hundred feet from China.
A narrow beach of white rocks washed blue by moonlight. Eighty feet of dark water, gashed like a knife in the center by a white boulder. Swift current. Then a strip of white land on the other bank and a black wall of forest beyond. China.
“This is wrong.”
We all looked at Aunt, who was peering across the border from behind the trunk of a changbai larch.
“No, Aunt,” I said quietly. “It is the most right thing we have ever done.”
The others fidgeted in their hiding places. Uncle rubbed his unshaved jaw and stared thoughtfully across the Tumen River. Little brothers’s eyes were open wide, a look I knew well: He was ready to try the crossing. Bum-Ji sat with little Ki-Won in his lap, my husband’s kind face showing a calmness I knew he did not feel. Ki-Won had collected a fistful of wooden shapes, puzzle pieces from his home, and was laying them out one by one, over and over, saying their names each time. Grandmother was dozing behind us, her bed the raft the men had constructed from branches, logs, and driftwood.
“We’ve come so far,” I said, making sure they could hear me over the distant roar of the rapids smashing against the boulder. “I never thought we could make it all the way to the border in three days’ time. We’ve done well.” I looked across the river at the black unknown. “We will do fine in China,” I said, nodding resolutely as if to convince myself. “But we must make our crossing now. Then…food, money, a good life. A good place to raise children.”
No one but Bum-Ji and Youn-Chul would meet my gaze. I saw a challenge rise in Aunt’s eyes, but then she sat back and rubbed her feet.
It was a perfect night for a crossing. There were no clouds. A three-quarter moon hung directly overhead giving us all the light we could ask for, yet still hiding us from those who would prevent our crossing. Not that there was anyone around here. There were no villages for kilometers and the nearest guard station was far downstream.
A river breeze bathed my face, promising bliss if only I would cross over. The gnats and mosquitoes couldn’t bear up to the wind. They were swept away, and in their place came faint scents of fish, mud, and wild ginsing. Tree frogs and crickets welcomed the moon with raucous celebration. Leafy tree branches swayed and hissed in their nocturnal dance. The summer air was almost chilly here, but oh, it felt sublime! It drew my mind away from my sore back and knees and feet. A brief tremor tickled my belly. My baby had the hiccups.
“I’m concerned about the raft,” Bum-Ji said.
We turned to look at it. Grandmother’s face shone beautifully under the moon as she slept. What belongings we still had were piled beside the narrow raft. I was worried about it, too. It was two meters wide and three meters long—not big enough for all of us to get on. Uncle had arranged the long pieces side by side and interlaced them with strong thorn vines and his old leather belt.
“What’s to worry about?” Uncle said defiantly. “I said it would work, didn’t I? I served in the navy, didn’t I? Did you, Bum-Ji? Did anyone else here?”
Bum-Ji bowed slightly and lowered his eyes.
Suddenly my saliva tasted like brass. An argument before a venture was bad luck. To me the raft didn’t look like it would hold itself together, much less carry all of us across a fast-moving river. But Uncle had been in the navy.
“Besides,” he said, “only three of us will ride on it: Grandmother, Chun-Mi, and the boy. The rest will hold on and kick us across.”
Aunt’s mouth stood open. She looked like she’d popped a tree frog in by mistake. “Comrade husband, must I swim in this filthy water, too? I will ride. Let Chun-Mi swim—her shameful weight will doom us all.”
“Enough!” Uncle said. “You can swim, or have you forgotten how? You are not old or pregnant or a child. You will swim.”
“Perhaps we should make two trips, Uncle,” little brother said, his head tipping forward slightly to show deference. “I will gladly make the trip twice.”
“No, Youn-Chul, it is better if—”
Something heavy rustled in the forest behind us.
Aunt gasped. We all sank lower in the underbrush. Bum-Ji placed his hand over Ki-Won’s mouth, but the boy pulled his hand away. Grandmother snored softly, barely audible over the voice of the river.
A quiet footfall. A bush pushed aside then released.
And then we saw it. A deer coming to the water to drink. It saw us at the same instant. Its black eyes, agleam in the moonlight, widened. Its legs stiffened, then flexed. The deer chuffed and pounded away from us, smashing through the undergrowth. Smaller shadows moved on either side. Two fawns, still speckled, bounding away with their mother.
We all breathed out together. Youn-Chul and Bum-Ji laughed nervously.
Grandmother spoke in her sleep. “Two meals a day? What foolishness!” She sat up and seemed to remember where she was. “Well, what are you all sitting around for? If we’re going to go to China, let’s get on with it.”
“Mother, you were sleeping,” Aunt said.
“Sleeping? What nonsense.” She gave an exasperated sigh. “Well, woman, I’m not sleeping now, am I?”
Grandmother looked conspiratorially at me and rolled her eyes. I smiled in spite of myself.
“Are you ready, Mother?” Uncle asked.
“Of course I am, boy. Have you ever known me not to be?”
“No, Mother, of course not.”
The men put our belongings on the raft and then carried it to the water. It seemed very heavy to them. Was this raft going to float even with no one on it?
“Ooh!” little brother said as he stepped into the river. He smiled sheepishly. “It’s cold!”
Grandmother put her hands on her hips. “Why are we crossing here? It’s much too wide. What incompetence. No, we will find an easier spot. A narrower spot.” She began hiking downstream.
“Mother!” Uncle said, sloshing out of the water to catch her arm. “We’ve been through this. The narrow spots are all guarded. If we had money or cigarettes we could bribe the guards to leave their posts. But we have nothing. So we must find an unguarded spot.” He swept his arm toward the river. “This is a very good place, Mother. There are no villages nearby and the river is so wide and fast that no one tries to cross here, and so no soldiers guard it. You see? Your oldest son has Father’s good mind.”
“Bah!” Grandmother said. “Your father never would’ve done something so treacherous as leave the Great Leader’s care!”
We exchanged confused looks.
“Uh, Grandmother,” I said, “don’t you want to cross into China?”
“Of course I do, dear child. Why wouldn’t I?”
More confused looks.
“You just said it was treacherous,” Aunt said. “And for once I agree with you! We should turn back immediately and head straight to that last village. The police must be told what—”
“No!” Bum-Ji said, pulling the nose of the raft onto the shore. “No police. No guards. No soldiers. No more Great Leader. No more Dear Leader. No more revolution. No more Communist Party.” He challenged us all with his eyes. “We did not walk so hard and so far to turn back now. If we go to the police, they will find us guilty of something. We will all be sent to the death camps.”
Aunt huffed. “There are no such places, Song Bum-Ji! And you know it very well. Grandmother is right: We are betraying our homeland! Think long about this, my family. Our whole lives are here. Our ancestors are here. Our way of life, our culture, our great history. Friends. The People! Have we no loyalty to our own country? Are we to become faithless deserters living like thieves in a lesser land? Come, let us go back to our own dear homes.”
Stars shone upon us on the moonswept shore as Aunt’s words burrowed into our minds. The river hurried past, dark lumps of wood and debris carried with it, caught up in something too powerful to resist. A bat fluttered overhead, chirping and darting about as if dangling on a string.
Ki-Won’s sweet voice caught my attention: “Triangle. Circle. Rectangle. Square. Pentagon. Hexagon.” He was squatting over the white rocks laying out his wooden shapes one by one. Some of his words were very clear. Others I could figure out only by seeing what he laid down when he said them. Pentagon, o-gak-hyong, was o-gyong and circle, dong-gu-rah-mi, was dun-ga-mi; but rectangle, sa-gak-hyong, was as sharp and well-defined as the puzzle piece in his hand.
I shook my head slightly. “No, Aunt. You are wrong. We have no home now. Even if we did go back, the police would come. They would want someone to blame for Chun-Hee’s death and the death of her family. They would come to us. Think, Aunt: People have always disappeared around us. It has always been so. They simply vanish. And the soldiers stroll by with something that belonged to the missing person. Either there are labor camps or the soldiers simply kill those who disappear. Either way—” My voice caught as I watched Ki-Won carefully dust the sand off his hexagon. “Either way, it is no longer a place to raise a child. If it ever was.”
Bum-Ji came to my side and put his arm around me. His other hand he placed on my belly. Our baby was sleeping now.
Grandmother looked up at the stars and the moon. She blinked in the gentle light, then turned toward the way we’d come, toward the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea. We listened to the wind and the water and said not a word. Finally Grandmother looked at me and nodded, and stepped onto the raft.
I went toward the water, too. The rocks gave way to fine, wet sand just at the river’s edge. I stepped onto the raft and knelt down next to Grandmother. It was an uneven platform, but it didn’t collapse. The men eased us out into the water. The raft submerged under our weight. Frigid water spilled over my knees and lap and I almost leapt off. But the raft bobbed back up. Most of it was at the waterline or below, but it did appear to be floating and it did support Grandmother and me, though we were wet and shivering in the breeze.
Bum-Ji picked up Ki-Won and brought him to me. He clutched his stack of shapes in his small hand as he tried to get out of Bum-Ji’s grip. “No! No! Mommy!”
I thought he was scared of the water. “It’s all right, Ki-Won,” I said, receiving him from Bum-Ji. “Auntie Chun-Mi will keep you safe.”
“No! Rectangle! Rectangle! Mommy!”
He squirmed so hard I thought he was going to fall out of my grip. I held him with all my might. He struggled against me terribly. I couldn’t believe his strength.
“Rectangle!” He burst into an awful, heartbroken wail.
“He wants his rectangle,” little brother said. “Maybe he dropped it.”
“Never mind, Youn-Chul!” Aunt said, testing the water temperature with her foot. “You don’t need all your stupid shapes. We’ll get you another one. Shut your mouth before the whole world hears you.”
Bum-Ji ran across the rocky shore, bending over double to scan the ground. He reached down for something, then trotted back out to us. “Here, Ki-Won!” he said, holding out a four-sided puzzle piece. “Here it is.”
“Rectangle!” Ki-Won snatched it out of his hand, and instantly he was calmer. He added the shape to the clutch of others and buried himself into my chest, mumbling contentedly in his secret language.
I smiled incredulously at Bum-Ji. “Thank you, my love. What a father you will be!”
Uncle pushed us away from the shore. “Come on, woman,” he said to Aunt. “Get in and push or we leave you behind.”
Bum-Ji, little brother, and Uncle waded into deeper water. I had a sudden fear that Aunt would not come. I envisioned her running to the nearest guard station and alerting them to what we were doing. Perhaps they would come looking for us by name in China. Could they do such a thing?
Now that we were committed to going, I became terrified. What were we doing? What would we do when we got to the other side? Would China receive us? China had always been North Korea’s best ally. Perhaps they would arrest us? Send us back? Shoot us? Chun-Hee and I had never thought about this part. We’d always imagined that China would be a perfect place full of food and freedom and happiness. But what if everything we’d always heard was true and North Korea really was the best place on earth? What if we were headed to a place much worse than what we were fleeing? Were we truly ungrateful?
I tasted vomit in my mouth. The fear and the uncertainty and the flimsy raft combined to form a terror like I’d never felt. Ki-Won was leaning on my baby and my baby was leaning on my bladder and bowels. I felt I was going to explode in every direction. The smell of our bodies and Ki-Won’s soiled pants reached down my throat and threatened to bring up everything in my stomach.
And then I heard a strange voice. Do not fear, dear one. I have plans for you. I will keep you safe.
I looked around. No one else appeared to have heard it. Grandmother had her eyes shut. Ki-Won was resting gently against my chest. The others were up to their shoulders in water.
I had no idea what I’d heard. Perhaps it was only what I wished to tell myself. And yet my mind and body were flooding with a warm quietness. It wasn’t simply the absence of worry: This was an active, charging peace that invaded my heart and overwhelmed my defenses. I felt it would’ve calmed me even if I’d not wanted to be calmed. But how I did need it. My stomach relaxed and I found I felt perfectly balanced even though I tottered on a raft in the middle of a mighty river.
And there was Aunt, swimming out to join us.
The raft tilted a bit when she grabbed on. The hair on top of her head was still dry, but the rest of her was soaked. She looked outraged and absurd, like a wet cat.
“You’re too far…upstream!” she said between gasps. The men were still standing, but she was shorter and so had to hold on and kick. “We should be…below the boulder.”
“No,” Uncle said. “The current will carry us quickly. We’ll cross well downstream of the boulder. But I didn’t want to start there because then we’d be too far down. We’re aiming for that wider beach area just there.”
As one, the men pushed off and began kicking. I held Ki-Won close to me, though it felt as though he’d gone to sleep. Our belongings were as soaked as we were, but everything would dry out soon enough.
It was a beautiful moment. The bleached beaches bracketing the black river. The Korean trees waving goodbye, the Chinese trees waving hello. The pure white moon and ten thousand stars. The froth left by our kicking and the rapids’ snowy lace tearing across the boulder below us.
As we neared the boulder the river’s voice became a low roar, and then finally an unbroken shout.
I heard Uncle saying something, but I couldn’t make it out. The swimmers seemed confused. Some were kicking to push us across the river, but Uncle and Bum-Ji were kicking downstream.
The current hadn’t taken us as early as Uncle had estimated. We were still upstream of the boulder.
But the current did take us now. We gathered speed. All the swimmers were kicking downstream now, trying to steer us on the near side of the boulder. I could see them shouting at each other, but all I could hear were the rapids.
The boulder was huge, much larger than it had looked from shore. Rapids smashed three meters up its side, slamming against it as if the river were trying to make it tumble over and resist no more.
The swimmers weren’t steering, despite all their efforts. They were only hanging on. The river was in charge now.
We were going to hit the boulder.
I screamed at Grandmother to hold on, but I couldn’t even hear myself. She was already holding tight anyway.
Just seconds now. So loud! So fast!
I flattened myself on the raft, holding Ki-Won under me, trying not to press too hard on my baby. My hand gripped the side, and immediately I felt a strong hand on mine. It was Bum-Ji. Our eyes met.
And then we hit the boulder.
Click here to buy Operation: Firebrand—Deliverance from Amazon.
The little North Korean boy in this book, Ki-Won, is modeled after my own son when he was three.
Second bit of trivia:
I think this is my favorite of all my novels.