The room was rolling with contractions to send her out to the next world. It made her dizzy, reality rolling in and out with the unknown. She knew her spirit was to leave her body soon. One second she was in her bed in a land without His portraits on the walls then she saw Chol Tae flashing his grin at her and Appa trying to tell them so many things. It never would be until she couldn’t ask Appa then she wondered what he had to say. Decades had passed since she was the girl that was one half of a whole but the memories were as clear as day, and it didn’t make them any less true than the present. This morning Esther arrived with spicy tofu stew to check in with her, she knew she was in Seoul; she could see the familiar buildings from her window. An hour later she was at the farm the way she always remembered her home, the yellow stalks of corn swaying in the wind before the floods destroyed everything. She and Chol Tae were carrying a heavy bucket of water back to the animals. The buckets were so heavy it took both of them to carry one. Then Esther’s face would come back in focus. Seoul came back in focus, and she yearned to be back to where she really was.

The film of her life was being extinguished before her eyes before nothing else would hold her back from moving on. The small bedroom she lived in for sixty years was what set her free but now the walls were simply holding her back from those she loved. It had been a long wait. She was sure they would not recognize her but then, spirits too had a way of recognizing each other when they were free. That was what Umma taught her children, and she never forgot. Only now as a withered woman she began to see the truth in her mother’s words.


Culture Shock

The car rolled to a stand in front of a shopping center and three stepped out of the car, Hye Tae among them. Breathe. She looked up the wall covered with colorful signs. Deodorant and Kimchi at cheap prices! The advertisements bombarded her eyes and she thought of the plain walls on the outer walls of their home. The paint on the lower portion only changed once a year or so while the screened advertisements changed every few seconds. Again, she reminded herself to breathe, focusing on the cloud exiting her agape mouth. A figure, a man or woman she couldn’t identify, crashed into her and left in a hurry but not without muttering something she caught on his or her lips but didn’t understand.

                Smells of grilled chicken and soup made her mouth water but her pockets were empty. Hye Tae reasoned she could grab one chicken skewer without anyone noticing. Like back home. She eyed the meat pile on the vendor table and the customers. Before a step towards the vendor table was taken Madame Ga took the girl’s hand and walked towards the building talking about debit cards but she didn’t understand how paying with a card worked. The revolving doors spun around with the constant stream of people entering and exiting. No one but Hye Tae approached the doors with trepidation; Madame Ga sensed her hesitation. It’s fine, she told her, go with the flow. She smiled at the younger girl and pulled her inside. She was nicer than Mr. Ga, her husband. In a second she was past the revolving doors and she began to see what was inside the mall.

                Maybe it was the flashing lights or all the smells at once, but Hye Tae began to feel nausea crawl up her stomach, it wasn’t fear nor hunger, both of which she knew well. She kept her eyes trained on the walls for the sign that meant bathroom as they taught in class when she first arrived. Madame Ga let go of her hand but kept an eye on Hye Tae, saying she needed new shoes and began listing the items they needed. The bathroom sign was the only thing Hye Tae was looking for now, she was starting to feel dizzy. The nausea moved lower and she was afraid to embarrass Madame Ga in such a public place, lest some of them knew who she was.

                Finally the bathroom door came in sight, she told Madame Ga she had to go, she nodded. Inside it was dark but when Hye Tae walked across the white tiles the lights blinked on momentarily blinding her. She fumbled with the lock before sitting down and moving to her pants. They were nice, she supposed, even if the zipper was intimidating. She waited for the trickle to cease by counting the tile squares beneath the toilet. Her stomach turned once yet again, and she felt something warm drip down. She would have to ask Madame Ga to pick up some aspirin. The door rattled then a set of shoes disappeared. Someone knew she was inside, probably was calling for her and thinking she was purposefully ignoring the caller. Was it him? A long moment passed where everything stood still to Hye Tae, as if time momentarily froze. Finally she let out a breath. It couldn’t be him, how could it be?

                There were blood stains on her underwear. Hye Tae gulped, she didn’t know what this was but it must have been bad. There weren’t any wounds but she was still bleeding. With spinning thoughts she exited the stall and threw up in one of the sinks, triggering the motion sensor on the faucet. Blood had that effect on her now. She returned to the stall with a fistful of paper towels. With paper towels tucked into her underwear Hye Tae wondered how long it would take for her to bleed to death. She recalled reaching the leaves of the tree with her barefoot while swinging on the swing their Appa made. I’m coming back soon.

                It had been long enough for Hye Tae to allow herself to retreat into her memories. Away from the sinks with no handles and her stained underwear. Towards standing in the dark feeling his hand in hers watching the lit end of Appa’s cigarette and then through the telescope into the universe. The stars were brighter then, and the moon illuminated the features of the people she knew since birth. They faded away and she opened her eyes, feeling even more distant from them, especially Chol Tae. Every day there were more things she knew that he never would learn. How long has it been? The days now blurred together in a frenzy of activity and a week seemed like a month. Hye Tae faced the mirror for the first time in weeks and was shocked she looked the same, only with more weight. Madame Ga stuck her head through the bathroom entrance, her look of concern reminding her of Umma more than anything before she could tell herself not to go there. That memory was forbidden.

                Madame Ga relaxed when she told the lady about the underwear bleeding. Hye Tae was expecting her to panic, but felt better she didn’t. She put a finger up, telling Hye Tae she would be back. But she was not going to bleed to death; Madame Ga would have been worried if she was. Relieved, Hye Tae sat at the stall again until she returned with a box of sanitary pads and explained to Hye Tae she was now a woman. I haven’t been a girl in a long time.

Hye Tae didn’t have a first memory of Chol Tae, one she could remember at least. They had always been together, always would be. Their memories often blended with each other, from the very beginning. There was the nursery school, Hye Tae’s first memories, walking there with hyong Hyeol Seop leading them. Even then she held Chol Tae’s hand in hers. When their hyong sat between them Hye Tae did not know. There was the story Umma told of the bond between twins, the bond they knew would never shatter, because of that it never occurred to her she would have a last memory of her twin brother. Until then, sitting on a cold seat among other defectors in the Hanawon center in Seoul, she thought they would find each other again. The hope shattered. Hye Tae was the only one there her age that was by herself. The faces in the room blurred together.

It took me longer than most of the students in the same class but I memorized the alphabet hand shapes, the American one. And the numbers, they were easier than the alphabet. I mix the signs up with the Korean ones, less often the signs from back home that I shared with Chol Tae, twenty years after I left my home. When other defectors reminisce about the only place we ever knew at one time, our fatherland, they say it will never leave us. I nod my head in agreement to avoid disrespect for the elders but I know I’ve left it just as it left me because, as far as I am concerned, the village farmer’s daughter called Jang Hye Tae no longer exists. Never one without the other.


Nothing made sense, but everything did. Chol Tae stood at the Taedong River once more and instead of the Suryong in the dreams Chol Tae had he saw some classmates from primary school, some he did not recognize but they all wore the Youth Pioneer’s Scarf. They gathered on the bank of the river in rows of five. A teacher at the front took roll while the students sang revolutionary songs; the bus would be here soon they were assured. Where they were going no one knew, all Chol Tae knew was that it no longer mattered. The bus was smaller than they thought but it fit all of the children. There was always room for one more. This time no one missed a turn and waited for the next bus that might or might not come. But the Suryong made sure the children would all arrive at their destination. The children opened their mouths in unison.


Bright traces of blood on the crags of Jangbaek still gleam,

Still the Amnok carries along signs of blood in its stream!

Still do those hallowed traces shine resplendently

Over Korea ever flourishing and free!

So dear to all our hearts is our General’s glorious name,

Our own beloved Kim Il Sung of undying fame!


Chol Tae joined his comrades in singing the song of their hearts, for the first time he could hear and speak. Even the old woman bus driver wearing the choson-ot his mother had before she sold it on the black market for Hye Tae’s medicine joined in with the joyous singing. He looked at his singing comrades; he had never felt this alliance with so many comrades at the same time and it occurred to him there was nothing to see out the windows but a light seeping in through the vinyl windows. They were all excited to see the Suryong, none of the passengers seemed concerned about where they were heading. Chol Tae kept an eye trained on their lips out of habit, recognizing the words of the song learned since birth.


Tell, blizzards that rage in the wild Manchurian plains,

Tell, you nights in forests deep where the silence reigns,

Who is the partisan whose deeds are unsurpassed?

Who is the patriot whose fame shall ever last?

So dear to all our hearts is our General’s glorious name,

Our own beloved Kim Il Sung of undying fame!


            The bus slowed down to a stop and the children stopped singing when three elderly women appeared at the open door, making a show of not taking a single step on the bus. They said no word but waved the passengers over, their bright choson-ots filled the bright empty space with colors running down the dresses. Raised to obey, the comrades lined up to exit, Chol Tae joined the end of the line watching what would take place. He still didn’t know where they were but their happiness spread of their one undying love and Chol Tae’s distress faded away. He knew it was the same place where the Suryong appeared to him in his dreams. The women, smiling at the comrades, began singing the song at where they’d stopped off. Once they got off the bus they would never again catch another bus. The others were already off, and Chol Tae joined them in finishing up the song before they all walked off in the light to greet the Suryong.


He severed the chains of the masses, brought them liberty,

The sun of Korea today, democratic and free!

For the Twenty Points united we stand fast,

Over our fair homeland spring has come at last!

So dear to all our hearts is our General’s glorious name,

Our own beloved Kim Il Sung of undying fame!


(This song is called ‘The Song of General Kim Il Sung’)

His father put away the telescope when their neighbors appeared at home to hide it from them. Chol Tae saw his father whistle and wave to one of the neighbors, who waved back at him. Tae Seop poked his son in the ribs before darting into the tall yellowing grass. Chol Tae set off after his father, both barefooted. The crunching of the grass was pleasing to his soles but later both Chol Tae and his father would find splinters, in the moment none of them cared. His father was too fast for him, he was nowhere in sight and the surrounding yellow grass against the backdrop of complete darkness made Chol Tae nervous. Someone grabbed him from behind and lifted him in the air, making him scream, but the laughing predator was only his father. He pointed to a dot in the sky and wrote ‘Mars’ in the notepad he used for surveying the farm. Mars, the red planet his father spoke about. Named after the Roman god of war, he wrote but Chol Tae didn’t understand what a god was. He only understood the Suryong.

Both Hye Tae and Sea Na huddled under a bridge near the Yalu River, where Sea Na just sold her last choson-ot for Hye Tae’s medicine where she saw her. At first she shook her head at how absurd it was, but it really was her. The shorter leg that still limped in the same way. Still the same missing ear. No longer carrying an air of determination, Eun Hee kept her eyes to the ground near her feet. It was the first time Sea Na saw someone from the orphanage since she walked out the front door at seventeen. She didn’t expect a reunion, certainly not in this way. Eun Hee was no longer the young child Sea Na befriended in another lifetime and there was nothing but grief to share so Sea Na averted her eyes away from her childhood friend and took Hye Tae’s hand walking away, making sure Hye Tae would not see.

It was the Suryong’s job to take care of the masses, Sea Na bitterly considered, she knew it was a crime against the state to think like that but they were starving, everyone was. Wasn’t it the Great Leader and the Dear Leader the citizens trusted to keep them fed and safe? She grasped her daughter’s forehead, still feeling the fever that held Hye Tae in limbo. Hye Tae was her only daughter and even with her inability to hear Sea Na wished life had been fairer towards her daughter. A long time ago Sea Na believed everything ended in Pyongyang but she wasn’t in Pyongyang anymore.


The Suryong cared for his people and they all basked in this knowledge of the Sun’s guidance. A chuckle hid under his glasses, but his mouth did not hide, his white teeth gleamed when he uncovered a piece of the sky and sweet-smelling butterflies filled the space around Chol Tae and the kindly Suryong holding the six year old boy’s hand. Walking among a creek they saw to be filled with fish. At the sight of the fat fish Chol Tae felt his stomach rumble. The Suryong must have heard the rumble in the child’s stomach because the next thing he did was to sing a song, one Chol Tae missed on the Suryong’s lips. Three fish jumped out of the water and into the firm hands of the Suryong. The fish knew they were lucky to die pleasing the Suryong, becoming slack in his hands as he tended to a fire that appeared without Chol Tae realizing it did. The Suryong shared stories with Chol Tae of his boyhood while the fish became crispy in the fire. The Suryong’s smile turned into a frown and the fish became crows with bloodied beaks, cawing at something behind Chol Tae, who turned around to face a train with the flag of the imperialistic bastards followed by a thick snake of smoke lapping at the air and filling Chol Tae’s nose. Before the train crashed into them a siren went off and the covers erupted in a flurry of movement. Chol Tae blinked, first seeing himself prodding him awake. Of course it wasn’t him, he told himself. His twin sister Hye Tae stood over him, shaking him awake and then he saw his parents’ furrowed eyebrows instead of the Suryong’s chuckling eyes.

With the rising sun, the Suryong again became a tangible reality. Chol Tae could not escape the pangs of hunger in his stomach; he kept on thinking about the fish he so nearly feasted on while his mother prepared the little rice they had left, shaking the bag furiously to get every grain in the pot. They were still lucky, when people in South Korea had it worse than they did under imperialistic control of the American bastards. Their hyong Hyeol Seop once told Chol Tae and Hye Tae women in South Korea ate sweet pills anyone with money could buy that ended their pregnancies whenever they wanted to. Here in North Korea their babies were born safe! Chol Tae didn’t want to hear more of what Hyeol Seop was telling them. In South Korea if a baby was deaf it would be left to die, but that didn’t happen here in North Korea, the Suryong wouldn’t allow it. Both he and Hye Tae were still with their family and had two meals a day despite the sanctions imposed on them, all due to the protection of the Suryong. He was still grateful.