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 argu
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.
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
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 deli
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 indi
“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 edu
She raised a hand, and even through the broken flesh, Zhou
could see the distinctive gnarls of arthritis. Her own grandmother had the sa
The old woman’s gaze beca
“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 see
Zhou didn’t know why it was so important to her, but she
wanted to know her companion’s story. “Tell
“I was born, my father’s eldest daughter, near the city of
Kimch’aek on North Korea’s eastern coast.
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
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
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
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 see
“When Young-min died—”
“How did he die?”
Taek-dae cocked her head, as if in
“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 beco
“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 far
“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
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 hard—never wanting Sun-seung to regret providing for
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
Taek-dae nodded slowly, as if it hurt to move her head. “For many years, yes.”
She stopped, as if lost in her
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.
“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 ca
“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
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
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
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 see
Rolling over, Taek-dae held her breath and inched slightly
toward the sleeping woman. Her eyes widened as Jin-ho im
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
“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 ca
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 na
“We eventually made our way to Beijing and
“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 state
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 ti
“Then, why did you do it—try to climb the fence? Why didn’t you just stay where you were?”
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 see
“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
Zhou could see the awe in Taek-dae’s broken face at the re
“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 resu
“It was Jin-ho who ca
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 ti
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 co
Zhou shuddered. She knew of her own country’s re-education
camps. She had narrowly avoided one herself when an angry custo
“We knew that the Chinese were offering rewards for those
who turned in refuge-seekers, and it was only a matter of ti
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 equip
“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.
“What are you thinking?” Taek-dae whispered to the woman curled up in her arms.
Jin-ho raised one hand to stroke so
“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
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
“I swear. Jin-ho, I swear. I will
“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 ti
She shook her head. “It is better that you carry that. It
will just weigh
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 ca
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 mo
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 so
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 screa
“...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 na
Normally the whore would not have answered that question from a cellmate, but without hesitation she said, “Zhou Ning.”
“Thank you for listening to
The old woman closed her eye, and this ti
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
“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 ti
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 apart
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