- onOctober 18, 2016
- Vol.33 Autumn 2016
- byKang Young-sook
Tr. Kim Boram 2015255pp.
The soldiers slowly approached the twenty-two escapees, guns leveled. One of the escapees, a teenage girl who had been licking her lips with a parched tongue, jumped up and opened her mouth to say something.
“We said, don’t move!” the soldiers yelled. The girl dropped back down to her knees and watched the soldiers. Although they were carrying guns, they too had hunger written all over their faces. The girl’s name was Rina.* She was short and had a thin face with yellow pimples on her forehead. Rina was sixteen years old, and her parents had been coalminers back home. Rina used to go to the youth vocational training center after school and assemble machine parts late into the night. Whenever she got sleepy or bored, she would pick up a screw, hold it up to her face, yell “Die, die!” at it, and toss it to the floor.
One of the soldiers approached the kneeling cluster of escapees. The worn rubber sole of his boot flapped open like the mouth of an angry toad every time he took a step. He crouched down in front of a little boy who sat crying and sniffling next to Rina, and tapped the boy’s head with his finger. Rina could feel the boy trembling against her arm.
“Hey, kid, sing us a song. Come on, don’t you know any? Sing something you learned at school. I’m bored out of my mind here.” “I don’t go to school,” the boy answered, and burst into a louder refrain of sobs. His father, who sat a few paces away, made a face as he tried to comfort his son, but it was no use. The little boy’s sobs echoed across the darkened border as if they were in a cave. There were rumors that little boys captured while fleeing the country were sold abroad and forced to work 36-hour work days with no rest, while girls were circulated from one red-light district to another and released only when they were diseased or dying These stories mystified Rina. It was hard to decide which was worse: spending the rest of her life in a cramped house in a mining town pock-marked with graying linens drying on laundry lines, or getting a taste of life abroad, even if it meant becoming a whore.
“I’m a pretty good singer,” Rina volunteered, but her offer was drowned out by the two toddlers of the group—a one-year-old and a three-year-old—who began wailing. Their hungry sobs dragged on piteously, but, like milk machines, all their anxious mothers could do was pull out their breasts and shove them at the babies.
They said the border was about two kilometers away. Rina had dreamt of it every night since the day her father had told her about their plans to escape. Every night, the border was flush with the sounds of wind, guns, and exploding columns of fire. Escapees captured while trying to cross over were stripped, lined up, executed by firing squad, and finally burned to black ash, all under the sullen gaze of the watchful owls. Still, Rina had no doubt that the border, which hovered before her like a vast blue levee, would open itself up for her. The blue levee would flow toward her like a colossal wave and open up like a stairway to heaven. She believed that an invisible hand would gather up the escapees safely in a net and magically usher them across the border.
The group of twenty-two escapees was made up of three families and a group of young people who worked at a sewing factory. They were all from a region near the border and had lived there their whole lives. When Rina’s father had first told her in a low voice that he had found some people to escape with, Rina had not believed him. Her father was incapable of even dreaming of crossing a border into a new world. His decision had reminded Rina of something she’d once been told by an ancient auntie who had died a few years back in a famine: “Everyone, even the biggest idiot, will face three challenges in her lifetime for which she will stake her life. When those three challenges are over, so is your life.” It had been hard to understand the old lady’s toothless mumblings, but that was the essence of her lesson.
The soldiers paced back and forth among the trembling escapees. All of them were still armed and many were smoking. All of a sudden, Rina’s eye caught a round, white light approaching from far away. It looked small at first, but got bigger and bigger as it turned a brilliant blue.
“Look, a light!” Rina yelled, in spite of herself. It turned out to be a small truck carrying food from the border checkpoint. The women clung to each other tearfully, fearing that this was the end. A man got out of the passenger seat, and was followed shortly by the driver. Together, they walked into the checkpoint watch house.
“Isn’t that him?” the men whispered nervously to each other.
They could see soldiers smoking in the lit windows of the watch house. A few minutes later, the man who had been in the passenger seat of the truck came outside and assembled the fathers of each of the families. After a minute’s quiet discussion, the fathers dispersed clumsily; their legs had fallen asleep. Turning their backs to each other, they pulled out wads of cash they had secreted away in bundles or in some undisclosed spot on their bodies. The man collected their money, licking his fingers to count the bills, and walked over into the watch house.
“Those sonsofbitches,” the sewing factory workers fumed, trembling with rage. For a minute, it looked as though they were about to march into the watch house. Instead, they kneeled back down. While the men in the watch house enjoyed their feast, all the escapees had to feed off of were the sounds of their own mouths watering.
After a long while, the man came out of the watch house. He wore tight-fitting pants, a jacket, and a hat that covered the contours of his face so that you could see his features, but not what they looked like. Since it was impossible to escape directly to the country of P, which was their final destination, he was the first of several guides to lead the escapees to a third-party nation, a number of which they would have to pass through to get to P. Their fates depended on this man. When Rina saw his tanned face with its defined features, she felt a jolt of elation; she was sure she’d found the man she was destined to love.
Without a single gunshot fired, the twenty-two escapees crossed the border. The border wasn’t on a wide levee stretched out like a blue band, nor was it on a river sparkling with the reflections of silvery lights from a pier. It was merely a part of a hilly path blocked off from an escape route. The moment she crossed the border, Rina felt like she could breathe again, as if a piece of candy that had been lodged in her throat had slipped down into her stomach.
Translated by Kim Boram
Reprinted with permission from Dalkey Archive Press.
* The name derives from the Chinese characters li (俐), meaning clever, and na (娜), meaning beautiful, pretty, slender, or supple.