Fences

By

Lois Cloarec Hart



“I was the one who didn’t make it over the fence.”

The whore jumped in surprise. She hadn’t expected an answer to the standard “Why are you here?” from the elderly bag of bones who had barely moved in the hours since she herself had been thrown into the cell after getting in a heated, public argument with an unfortunately influential customer. Zhou Ning had tossed the question out to her cellmate in pure boredom. Warily, she watched as the old woman struggled to push herself upright on the narrow cot. Despite being hardened by a life of privation, with a conscience ravaged by a primal need to survive, Zhou couldn’t suppress a gasp as she saw the old woman’s face.

Her cellmate had been badly beaten. Dried blood crusted her swollen features and laid streaks down her wrinkled neck and over the torn collar of her peasant tunic. An arm lay across her thin chest at an unnatural angle, and one half-open eye now gazed at the whore.

“Water, please.”

Startled by the firmness in the frail voice, Zhou didn’t even hesitate to hand over her ration. She had noted dispassionately that her cellmate hadn’t been allotted even the meager portions of food and water that prisoners normally got, and she had assumed that their jailers hadn’t wanted to waste rations on the dying.

For surely the old woman was dying. From the tortured way she held herself, it was apparent that more than just her arm had been broken. Yet she didn’t gulp the water she had been given, but only sipped it delicately before setting it aside with a trembling hand.

Zhou was intrigued in spite of herself. An old hand in the city jail, she had never had a cellmate so obviously out of place. Though the woman’s pronounced accent indicated she wasn’t a native of Beijing, somewhere this grandmother should have been tending her garden, or cooking dinner for a querulous old husband, or showering grandchildren with small treats.  As harsh as was the regime that had created their present prison, elderly women were seldom a target, unless as an example to a recalcitrant family member. “What do you mean you didn’t make it over the fence?”

“Our escape had been planned for many months.” Each word was forced between bruised lips, but Zhou noted the precise diction. This was an unusually educated woman for her generation. “I was to go last because my infirmity rendered me slow.”

She raised a hand, and even through the broken flesh, Zhou could see the distinctive gnarls of arthritis. Her own grandmother had the same hands.

The old woman’s gaze became distant as her one good eye tracked the full moon providing them with their only light through the barred window. “Some argued that I shouldn’t be included at all. They said I would slow them down, that I would endanger the escape, but she would have none of it. She stood up for me, just as she has all these many years. And they could not disrespect their mother, so they agreed, but her eldest son insisted that the two of us be separated. She fought him on that, but lost. I told her it was all right. That I would go on the second ladder and meet her on the other side, and so, with great reluctance, she agreed.”

“Who is ‘she’?”

The old woman turned her gaze on her companion, and Zhou was surprised to see the shadow of a smile on her face.

“She is the light by which I have lived these fifty years and more.”

Hearing the coarse laughter of their guards as they moved down the hall checking the occupants of the cells, Zhou waved her companion to silence and slumped down on her cot. She heard the rude jibes as they paused at her cell, could feel their gaze moving over her body, but feigned sleep until they moved on. Once it was quiet again, she sat up. The old woman hadn’t moved, but even in the moonlit cell she seemed little more than a bag of rags propped against the cold concrete wall.

Zhou didn’t know why it was so important to her, but she wanted to know her companion’s story. “Tell me.” The old woman seemed to understand, even to be pleased by her interest, and she took another sip of water before resuming.

“I was born, my father’s eldest daughter, near the city of Kimch’aek on North Korea’s eastern coast.  He named me Taek-dae, desiring greatness from me, and because he was not blessed with sons, he cherished me and taught me as if I were a boy. But though he was intelligent and educated, he was not a strong man and could not rally against my mother’s jealousy. When I was sixteen, she decreed that I was to be married to a man she had chosen in a northern province. I went to my father and begged him for reprieve. Ever since I could remember we had both planned that I would become a doctor, and I could not bear to leave him, or our dreams. He cried, but he did not stand against my mother’s insistence. The war had just ended, our country was still in upheaval, times were very hard, and I was an extra mouth to feed. So when the appointed time came, she took me and my few possessions and I left my father’s house forever.”

Zhou knew that arranged marriages were once standard and still often occurred, but it had never been an issue for her. She, too, had been following her destiny since she was sixteen and knew no man would have her to wife now. Still, she shivered at the bleakness in the old woman’s voice.

“I was left at a house in a strange village to await my new husband, and that is where I met Jin-ho for the first time. She, too, had been brought to meet her new husband, for we were to marry the brothers Kim. She was a year younger than me and very beautiful. I knew that the brother who got me would feel unfairly done by. And so it was...”

 

##

 

Taek-dae watched the girl pace nervously as they both awaited their fate. In the five days that it had taken her mother to escort her to this place, she had sullenly reconciled herself to her loss. The world of books and independence and fascinating cities that her father had painted for her was not to be. Instead, she would trade the joys of learning for the tedious duties of a peasant’s wife, and the best she could hope for was that he would be kind.

The door banged open and two men strode inside. No longer young, they had the weathered look of men accustomed to long hours in the field. They regarded the two girls, as Jin-ho lowered her eyes, and Taek-dae stared back defiantly. The elder brother pointed at Jin-ho. “She will be mine.”

Instantly the other man frowned and addressed Taek-dae. “Are you Jin-ho?” She shook her head. “Then this one is yours, brother. Jin-ho was promised to me.”

Kim Sun-seung smirked at his younger brother and took Jin-ho by the arm, leading her out without another word. Kim Young-min cursed under his breath and gestured angrily at Taek-dae, who rose and followed him out of the room. It was not a propitious beginning.

 

##

 

“My husband never forgave his brother for stealing Jin-ho, and as the years passed and Jin-ho gave birth to eight sons, and I lost each child I conceived, Young-min grew angrier and angrier. My hope that he would be a kind man was a fruitless one. He drank more and more and worked less and less as I laboured in the fields to put food on our table.”

Taek-dae stopped again for a drink of water, and Zhou realized she was sitting on the edge of her cot, captivated by her cellmate’s story. She found herself hoping that Taek-dae would not run out of strength before the story was fully told, but her companion seemed to gain vitality from the telling.

“When Young-min died—”

“How did he die?”

Taek-dae cocked her head, as if in memory. “I suspect it was many things that brought about his death, but all I know is that I woke up one morning and he lay dead beside me.”

“How long had you been together by then?”

“Over twelve years.” Taek-dae fixed her good eye on Zhou. “I was glad he was gone, but also afraid.”

“Because of what might become of you?”

“Because I might be sent away and never see Jin-ho again.”

Zhou’s eyes opened wide. Though it was clear from the start that the old woman’s sister-in-law was dear to her, she hadn’t expected that answer.

“The brothers farmed next to each other, and our houses were only a short distance apart. Sun-seung liked to lord his prosperity and his growing family over his younger brother and often invited us to join them for meals. Jin-ho and I had become devoted friends over the years, and often she would nurse my wounds when Young-min was overcome with drink or jealousy and took his anger out on me.”

“Men!” The whore had no good opinion about those who paid for her services.

Taek-dae just smiled. “Brother Sun-seung was not such a bad man. When Young-min died, Sun-seung took custody of his land and allowed me to join his household because he knew what a hard worker I was.”

Zhou wrinkled her face in derision. “How very generous of him.”

“It didn’t matter. I would gladly have given up all my possessions just for the chance to be near Jin-ho. Thus began a happier period in my life. I lived in her house and was honoured auntie to her sons and eventually to their wives and children, as well.  I worked very hardnever wanting Sun-seung to regret providing for me, and knowing I would return at day’s end to her side.”

Zhou stared at her in confusion. “But you weren’t Sun-seung’s wife, too, were you?”

“No. I had shown that I could not bear children, and he had the most beautiful wife in the world. Why would he look at me that way? No, I knew that Jin-ho belonged to him, but we spent many hours together as we cared for his children and his house. That was enough for me.”

“Was it?”

Taek-dae nodded slowly, as if it hurt to move her head. “For many years, yes.”

She stopped, as if lost in her memories, but Zhou didn’t prod her. It occurred to her that she might well be the last one, perhaps the only one, ever to hear Taek-dae’s story. Vestiges of the elder-respect that was an ingrained part of her cultural heritage made her hold her normally abrasive and impatient tongue until her cellmate spoke again.

“Times had never been easy, and being so rugged, the land was not well suited for growing, but we weathered it all—war, famine, collective farming. The farm was remote enough that as long as we handed over our yearly quotas, we were left alone and could grow enough on our private plots to feed ourselves. Until one day, several years ago. A new regional commissar, eager to make his mark, came to our home with his bodyguard. He told us that orders had come down from Pyongyang to double our quotas. By this time, Sun-seung was an old man and perhaps heedless because of that. He protested loudly that would not leave enough to feed his family, which had grown to the size of a small colony. The commissar didn’t care, and turned to go. Sun-seung cursed and grabbed the man’s arm.”

Zhou shook her head. She was intimately familiar with the petty tyrannies of minor bureaucrats. “That was stupid.”

“Perhaps. But with quotas doubled there would be nothing but weeds to feed all the hungry mouths depending on Sun-seung that winter.”

“What did the commissar do?”

Taek-dae closed her eyes. “He killed him.”

The whore wasn’t surprised.

“Jin-ho screamed, and when he raised his gun at her, too, I put my arms around her and turned her away from him, shielding her with my body. She struggled, but I was stronger and would not let her go. There was absolute silence until the men drove away, then everyone started to wail.”

“So that’s when you began to plan your escape?”

Taek-dae nodded. “That night, after we buried Sun-seung, Jin-ho sat down with her sons and decreed that we must leave that place forever, no matter how long it took. Her eldest son agreed, and they began to plan. They decided to send the youngest son and his family across the border into China first, then they were to assist the others as they came. It was to be done slowly, until everyone had crossed safely without attracting any attention on either side of the border. Jin-ho and her eldest son would go last. I sat by the fire listening, and wondering what it would mean for me.”

“You were part of the family.”

“Not by blood.” Taek-dae smiled gently. “But Jin-ho made it clear that I was to be included. Later, when her four oldest sons left and the others of the household were asleep, I began to lay out my pallet by the fireplace as I had always done...

 

##

 

Taek-dae was about to unroll her pallet when she felt a hand on her shoulder. She looked up to see Jin-ho regarding her with a mixture of sadness and compassion and affection.

“The floor cannot be good for your bones.”

The old woman couldn’t disagree. It had grown harder to move each morning as the years went on, but it was what she was used to, so she said nothing. When Jin-ho extended her hand, she took it and allowed herself to be led into her friend’s bedroom.

Jin-ho stopped and turned to face Taek-dae. “From now until we leave, you will sleep here with me.”

Taek-dae stared at the bed in which Sun-seung had slept only the night before. She felt Jin-ho’s hand tighten on hers and heard her softly whispered words.

“Please, Taek-dae. I don’t want to be alone tonight.”

With that, Jin-ho stepped forward and put her arms around Taek-dae as she began to cry.

Awkwardly, Taek-dae embraced and comforted her. She thought about the widow in her arms and the husband who had just been lost. There had never seemed to be much affection between the two, but Jin-ho had run an efficient house, raised obedient sons, and done what she was told with alacrity, so Sun-seung was not unkind to his wife.

Later, listening to the breath of the sleeping woman beside her, Taek-dae was astonished at what the day had wrought: the head of their family was dead; the eldest son was now in charge; and their lives were in great upheaval. They would make a two-stage bid for freedomfirst into China, then to South Korea. Most stunning of all, though, Jin-ho now lay so close to her that she could feel the other woman’s heat. No longer would they bid each other goodnight as she went to her husband’s bed and Taek-dae went to her lonely pallet by the fire.

A slow smile curled Taek-dae’s lips. The future was deeply uncertain and very dangerous. There was no guarantee that their daring, long-range plan would work. They could starve to death that winter, get fatally lost crossing the Nangnim Sanmaek Mountain Range, drown in the Amnok River, or be killed by border guards on either side of the border. If they did make it across safely, they had to find a way to blend their numbers quietly into their surroundings until they could find a way into neutral territory, then move on to the southern haven of their once-united country.

None of that mattered. She was an old woman and had long ago learned to be philosophical about her life. Uncertainty had been her lot since the day her mother had dragged her away from her father’s house. She would either live, or she would die, but for now it seemed she had been granted a small taste of paradise in a life that had held few such graces.

Rolling over, Taek-dae held her breath and inched slightly toward the sleeping woman. Her eyes widened as Jin-ho immediately snuggled back against her. Gingerly, she placed an arm around her companion, wondering if Jin-ho knew it was her or if in her dreams thought it was her husband returned to her side. But even that didn’t matter, for it was enough to hold the woman gently in her arms and pass the long night hours in wakeful joy.

 

##

 

The whore was no prude. Her years on the street had given her vast, if often bitter, insight into the human condition. It was not difficult to read between the lines of Taek-dae’s intimate narrative, and she was torn between her discomfort and the need to hang on every word. Feeling uncomfortably as if she were intruding, Zhou cleared her throat and changed the subject.

“So, you all made it across the border all right?”

Taek-dae smiled in understanding and nodded. “It took seven months for everyone in the family to cross. We sent the weakest ones early and the strongest ones in the cruelest months of winter. By early spring only Jin-ho, her eldest son, and I hadn’t crossed. Then we, too, left.”

“Was it hard? I meanto leave your whole life behind?”

“My whole life walked at my side all the way to the border, through the mountains, and to the pre-arranged point on the river where we hid in the bushes while her son went looking for his brother’s boat. We were there so long that we began to wonder if he had been caught, but then they came for us, and we crossed without incident, though we narrowly missed a Chinese patrol on the other side.”

Zhou marveled at how blithely the old woman dismissed her walk to freedom. Though the mountains they had crossed were not among the world’s highest, they were still rugged and steep, with granite pinnacles and deep, narrow canyons. Waterfalls and rapids would have often blocked their way, and they would have had to carry all their provisions for the arduous journey on their backs, yet the old woman spoke of it as if it had been nothing more than a stroll in the park.

“So, once you were across the Yalu,” Zhou asked, using the more common name for the river, “what happened then?”

“We eventually made our way to Beijing and melted into the city. Jin-ho’s sons and grown grandsons found work in construction. Their wives and those too young to join their fathers and brothers found what work they could. There was little money, but we pooled what we had and the family survived.”

“And you and Jin-ho?” Zhou wasn’t exactly sure what she was asking.

“We found a small room and work caring for children and repairing clothes. Her family ensured we didn’t starve.”

Zhou tried to read behind the unembellished statement. “So...you were together.”

That elicited another of the old woman’s half-smiles. “We were. From the night of Sun-seung’s death until yesterday morning, we were never apart, even for an hour.” She fell silent, then in a voice so soft her cellmate had to strain to hear, she said, “It was the happiest time of my life.”

“Then, why did you do it—try to climb the fence? Why didn’t you just stay where you were?”

“Ah, you mean and live what few years were left to us in peace?”

Zhou dropped her eyes at her cellmate’s painfully wry smile. That was indeed what she had been thinking. Clearly the old woman was nearing the end of her lifespan, deadly beating or not, and Jin-ho was only a year younger. Even if they had made it to freedom together, how long could they have enjoyed it? It all seemed foolish to her. Now the two old women were separated forever, and Taek-dae probably wouldn’t see another dawn. How was that worth the risk?

“It took sixteen months to plot our escape, as one plan after another was hatched, discussed, and discarded. In those sixteen months, my health grew worse, to the point where I finally urged Jin-ho to leave me behind, even though it broke my heart to think of life without her. But she would not listen, or even let me speak fully. And when her family urged her to do as I bade, she turned on them with a fury they had never seen from their mother. She told them that I was as dear to her as any of them, and if I didn’t go, she wouldn’t go.”

Zhou could see the awe in Taek-dae’s broken face at the remembered words, but she had to ask. “And didn’t you think that would be best? If she was to stay behind with you?”

“How could I ask her to part from her beloved children and grandchildren or give up a real chance at freedom?” Taek-dae grimaced as she shifted, but waved Zhou off when she rose to help. “No, no, I’m fine.”

It was obviously a lie. The old woman’s breathing was becoming more laboured with each word she spoke, and Zhou wondered if it would be kinder to urge her to stop talking. But she sensed that the end of the story was near and did not interfere. She only gently helped her cellmate take another drink of water, then resumed her seat on her cot.

“It was Jin-ho who came up with the final plan. She was watching several of her sons come home from work one day and muttered that she couldn’t tell one from the other under their hardhats. Or for that matter, whether they were men or women. Then she turned to me, with her eyes alight, and I knew she had an idea. She summoned her sons that night, and they crammed into our tiny room as she explained.” Taek-dae shook her head in admiration. “It was brilliant—and terrifying and dangerous.”

Zhou leaned forward eagerly. “What? What did she propose?”

“A bold daylight bid for freedom. We knew if we could get inside a foreign embassy compound, we would be allowed to travel to South Korea through a neutral third country. But time was growing short. We had been lucky, but we knew that the Chinese had been conducting raids and sending North Korean refuge-seekers back, even though that was a death sentence.”

“Your government would execute you if you were sent back?”

Taek-dae gave a cough that might have been a laugh. “If they were feeling lenient, they might only send you to a concentration camp, but death is death, whether it comes slowly or instantly.”

Zhou shuddered. She knew of her own country’s re-education camps. She had narrowly avoided one herself when an angry customer, miffed at her refusal to refund his money when he was unable to conclude their transaction, falsely named her to the authorities as a Falun Gong activist. It was only her grandmother’s life savings tendered as a bribe that had saved her then.

“We knew that the Chinese were offering rewards for those who turned in refuge-seekers, and it was only a matter of time before our neighbours grew greedy. One or two of us might stay hidden for years, but not the whole family.”

Taek-dae reached for the water, but cried out in pain as her body contorted. Instantly Zhou was beside her, offering support and holding the cup. Then, instead of leaving Taek-dae, she eased the old woman down to a semi-lying position as she cradled her and marvelled at how light her cellmate felt.

The old woman’s good eye fluttered shut, and Zhou feared she would be unable to finish, but then the eye opened again and focused on the face so close to her own.

“The problem was getting our whole family into the embassy compound. Those who had gone before had done so individually or in small groups and mostly at night. This was where Jin-ho’s idea was so brilliant. With all the construction going on in preparation for the Olympics, it was not unusual to see crews with their equipment going here and there about the city. We could disguise ourselves under the hard hats and carry our ladders boldly. During the day, the Chinese guards outside the embassy would be lax. Jin-ho estimated that with two ladders, we could be up and over the spiked fences before the guards even knew what we were doing. Each son and grandson was responsible for acquiring extra hard hats.”

“I can see how you might get an extra hard hat off a construction site, but I would think a ladder would be more difficult.”

Taek-dae gave a feeble nod and Zhou tightened her grip. “The men smuggled out wood scraps and made the ladders. Finally the time came. Jin-ho and I spent our last night in our tiny room...”

 

##

 

“What are you thinking?” Taek-dae whispered to the woman curled up in her arms.

Jin-ho raised one hand to stroke some grey hair back over Taek-dae’s ear. “I was thinking of the day we met and how scared I was then.”

“Are you scared now?”

Jin-ho considered, then nodded. “There is so much that can go wrong, my dear one. What if one of the grandchildren stumbles and doesn’t make it across? How could I live with that—with leaving one of us behind?”

Taek-dae chose to address Jin-ho’s worries by ignoring the subtext. “Jung-seung is the youngest, but he and his sisters scramble like monkeys. All will cross without problems. You’ll see.”

Jin-ho shivered violently, and Taek-dae pulled her closer, tenderly kissing her forehead. She was well aware of the matriarch’s worries, and she knew most of them centered on her. Even the eldest son was still fleet of foot and in excellent shape from the work he did. She and Jin-ho were the ones most at risk to be caught, and Jin-ho was to be third up her ladder, between her two youngest sons, who would pull and push her up if necessary. Taek-dae, however, was to be last on her ladder, despite Jin-ho’s angry and extended protestations. Even the invocation of ancestral curses had failed to sway her sons. They had nothing against Taek-dae, even regarded her affectionately for her lifelong devotion to Jin-ho and her children, but they would not risk any family members on her behalf, and that was the final word.

Jin-ho had refused to speak to any of them for a week after their declaration, until Taek-dae had quietly intervened, convincing Jin-ho that she would be fine and was feeling stronger than ever. She knew that Jin-ho hadn’t believed her, though, and she often caught the woman’s worried gaze focused on her.

“What did I promise you?” Taek-dae’s gentle question hung in the air even as she felt Jin-ho’s silent sobs against her chest. “Please, beloved, what did I promise you?”

With an effort, Jin-ho pulled back enough to speak. “You promised to meet me on the other side of the fence.” Then she rocked forward, desperately locking her arms around Taek-dae. “Swear to me you will keep your promise!”

“I swear. Jin-ho, I swear. I will meet you on the other side of the fence.”

“I could not live without you.”

Taek-dae nuzzled the soft hair as she responded to the fervently whispered words. “Nor I without you.”

As it had been on the first night they shared a bed, Taek-dae did not sleep, but this time neither did Jin-ho. Despite her solemn promise, both women knew they had little control over what would happen, and they clung desperately to each other through the night and long after dawn. When finally they arose, they dressed in their disguisesthe loose shirts and trousers of ordinary workers. Jin-ho picked up the small bag in which they had placed their meager savings and held it out to Taek-dae.

She shook her head. “It is better that you carry that. It will just weigh me down.” She saw the flash of fear in Jin-ho’s eyes, but the other woman said nothing as she tied the bag around her waist and pulled her shirt over it.

By unspoken, mutual wish, they spent the last hour sitting on their bed, holding hands, as they waited for the others. When the knock on the door finally came, they embraced tightly, kissed, and crossed the room to join their family.

Within an hour, they were walking casually down the street toward the Canadian Embassy. Taek-dae knew she should be keeping her head down as she followed the group carrying her ladder, but she could not help glancing ahead to where Jin-ho walked between two of her sons at the head of her group. The hard hat was effective in obscuring Jin-ho’s face, but nothing could disguise the graceful walk that had burned into Taek-dae’s being from the day she first watched the fifteen-year-old girl nervously pace a room as they awaited their husbands-to-be.

When they reached the embassy fence, everything happened so fast that Taek-dae momentarily lost track of Jin-ho. Within seconds her party was scrambling up the makeshift ladder, and she herself had a foot on the bottom rung.

Taek-dae heard shouts of alarm as the Chinese guards realized what was happening and ran towards the refugees. Frantically, she heaved herself upwards on the heels of the youngest daughter-in-law. She was halfway up when she felt someone grab her ankle. She fought desperately, kicking with her free foot, but the grip was implacable. Then a terrible pain shot through her body, like nothing she had ever felt before, and she fell from the ladder to the ground.

Curled on her side, numbed by the electric prod that was now raining blows on her body, she stared through the fence at the other side where the family was running for the safety of the embassy.

Only Jin-ho screamed and reached out to Taek-dae as she struggled to get free of her eldest son’s restraining arms, but Taek-dae could not even summon the muscle control to form any last words. Her final sight of the woman she had loved so long was of eldest son picking up his mother and joining in the run for the doors of the embassy.

 

##

 

“...and then I woke up here, in your gracious company.”

Zhou grunted disdainfully—no one had ever called her “gracious” before, but her hand was gentle as she stroked her cellmate’s brow.

“I wish...” The old woman moaned as a cough shook her body and cut off her words.

The whore was near tears as she saw Taek-dae’s eye close and flutter rapidly. Her voice hoarse with emotion, she asked softly, “What do you wish?”

“I wish...I wish I could have kept my word. I never lied to her before. I wish I could tell her how sorry I am for that.”

Zhou had no particular beliefs, except for her iron-clad conviction that every one had to watch out for themselves, because no one else would. Even that credo, honed through three decades of bitter existence, had been badly shaken this night, and she offered what comfort she could. “Maybe you will be able to keep your word. We can’t know, can we?”

Taek-dae opened her eye and fixed it on the younger woman. “What is your name?”

Normally the whore would not have answered that question from a cellmate, but without hesitation she said, “Zhou Ning.”

“Thank you for listening to me this night, Zhou Ning.”

The old woman closed her eye, and this time Zhou knew it was for the last time. And when the last breath passed from the broken and battered body, she held the lifeless form until the guards passed by again and discovered the death of their prisoner.

Seven days later, within twelve hours of her release from jail, Zhou Ning stood on the street leading to the Canadian Embassy. The increased security was evident and the gap between patrols far too short for any refugees to slip through. Her nephew shifted nervously beside her as they waited. He had agreed to do this thing for his aunt only after she had bullied and bribed him, but he wasn’t happy about it.

The whole city was aware of the diplomatic stand-off between Ottawa and Beijing as embarrassed Chinese officials angrily demanded the arrest of the refugees who had staged the dramatic escape into the embassy, film of which had flashed around the world. Canada was refusing to turn over the refugees who were hunkering down inside the embassy, awaiting a political settlement that would allow them to go to South Korea.

“Auntie, why are we here? You’re just going to get us arrested!”

Zhou Ning frowned at the teenager. He had been whining ever since they left his house late that afternoon. She would have carried out her self-imposed task herself if it had been possible, but her nephew had played baseball for many years. He was the strong arm in the family, and stood a far greater chance of launching the rock over the fence and hitting their target than she did. Knowing his courage was limited, and growing shorter as dusk fell, she decided it was time.

She kept a tight grip on his non-throwing arm as they strolled casually down the street. When they approached the spot nearest the fence, she hissed, “Now!”

He spun and threw a large rock with a paper taped carefully around it. The sound of glass shattering signaled the success of their mission, and they hastened away even as guards started to trot toward them. The boy broke off and sprinted down an alley. Zhou Ning slipped between a building and a fence and took refuge in a darkened doorway. She heard the sound of the guards running after her nephew, but knew they wouldn’t catch the boy. As scared as he was, he would be reaching near Olympic speeds by now.

As for her, she quickly made her way back to her apartment, shaking her head at her unprecedented actions. It had been her lifelong policy to stay as far away from the authorities as possible, and her recent incarceration should simply have reinforced that determination. Instead, she had taken a terrible chance, and even she could not have fully said why. She didn’t know if the note would reach Jin-ho, but if it did, it would tell the North Korean woman of her beloved’s last hours and final wish.

Somehow that seemed reason enough to take a chance, and she smiled as she recalled the words she had laboriously written on the note.

 

Jin-ho,

Taek-dae passed from this world seven nights ago, with her last words and thoughts only of you.  She desperately wanted you to know how sorry she was for being unable to get over the fence.  It broke her heart to be parted from you, but she promised with her final breath that when it is your time, she will meet you on the other side of the Great Fence. 

Believe in her for she kept faith with you.

Believe in her promise, for she never lied to you. 

Believe in her love—it was undying.

 

 

 

© Lois Cloarec Hart