The day the siblings left to find their mother, snow devoured the northern mining town. Houses loomed like ghosts. The government’s face was everywhere: on the sides of a beached cart, above the lintel of the post office, on placards scattered throughout the surrounding mountains praising the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il. And in the grain sack strapped to the oldest brother Woncheol’s back, their crippled sister, the weight of a few books.

The younger brother Choecheol ran ahead. Like a child, Woncheol thought, frowning, though he too was still a child, an eleven-year-old with a body withering on two years of boiled tree bark, mashed roots, the occasional grilled rat and fried crickets on a stick. He picked across the public square, afraid to step where last month, the town had watched two men dragged in necklaces of bones and then hung for cannibalizing their parents. They passed a vendor and woman haggling as if on the frontier of madness. On the straw mat between them one frozen flank of beef? Pork? Or human? No one knew any more, though they pretended to.

‘She’s slowing us down,’ Choecheol said as he circled back, his whine like a roomful of lost children. ‘We’ll be dead before we reach China.’

‘Shut up.’ Woncheol tied his brother’s laces in symmetrical bows. For younger children obeyed the older one who obeyed the mother who obeyed the father who obeyed the Dear Leader. For the school textbooks stated that a swallow had descended from heaven at the Dear Leader’s birth, trees bloomed and snow melted in the Dear Leader’s presence. He stubbornly ignored the salmon fishery and the town’s vegetable gardens that the soldiers guarded, shooting intruders on sight. For there was an order to everything. Or there used to be.

Still, he soldiered his siblings up the mountain slope of granite and bare, spectral trees with the assurance of an oldest son. So certain he did not slow, though his legs shook under her slight weight. The Tumen River to China would be frozen for crossing, and he felt ready to make the necessary sacrifices.

Choecheol walked ahead, his nose close to the ground as he looked for acorns. He passed one near his shoe. Woncheol picked it up, and waited until his brother was deep in the forest before he set his sister on a hillock of granite. While he struck the nut against a rock, she watched with the expectancy of someone who knew she was loved. And he fulfilled his promise, peeled the woody skin back a thin strip at a time. The acorn’s meat, wrinkled and gray. The size of a rat’s brain. He broke it into nearly perfect thirds, and into her waiting, open mouth fed Gukhwa the largest chunk. His hands were shaking. It was good, without insects.

Obba, where are birds?’ Gukhwa said, her breath a sick hiss.

‘You babo, it’s too cold for birds.’ He was angry because she still trusted him.

Then he remembered her thirst and scooped up snow, which she licked off his palm.

Obba, it hurts.’ She stuck her frozen yellowed tongue out for inspection. ‘Obba,’ she said again, and smiled, a little, as if the words older brother were a song she liked to sing.

He cleaned her face with his mittens, softly scraped under her fingernails with pine needles. Reminded himself again how impossible it was to carry her on the long walk to China. Then he closed his eyes, twisted their mother’s scarf around Gukhwa’s neck and choked her. It was better this way, he was convinced, than to leave her afraid, starving slowly to death. He did not let go until she stopped moving.

 

Oldest Son, please forgive my selfishness, his mother had written. You’re their mother and father now. No one but them, in the town created after the Korean War for the wavering or hostile classes, were surprised when their mother, rumoured to pollute her widowed flesh by selling herself to feed the three children, fled a week ago. She was only following the thousands escaping to China after the government stopped food rations in their town altogether. Hunger changed people, destroyed the strongest bonds between parents and children and young and old, and a woman with disgraced flesh was already a broken woman. As the old saying went, If you starve three days, there is no thought that does not invade your imagination. But Woncheol believed they would find her, the way he believed in the sky and the snow, the American imperialists that the Dear Leader said were starving the country out of existence. It was so inconceivable to be without his mother, he had even sacrificed his sister.

But the sack, now the weight of a house, a squid boat, Woncheol did not give up as planned. He lugged the sack with her body across rock, ridge, his hands burning, until he couldn’t. In the white sun, his cheekbones were nearly visible through the stretched skin. Gukhwa’s fingers were still haunting on his back.

‘What do we do?’ he said. ‘What did I do wrong?’

Choecheol’s face was blank with waiting because his hyeong, his older brother, always knew what to do.

But Woncheol only stared at the sack.

‘We can’t bury her,’ he finally said. ‘The ground’s all rock.’

The downbeat of his words skittered across the icy plain. Choecheol pivoted away. Eyes wild for escape.

He sang, ‘One dead American plus one dead American equals two dead Americans,’ while crushing snow into powder, trying to distract Woncheol.

But it was time. Woncheol turned back the lip of the sack. She tumbled out. He moved his hands over Gukhwa’s face, unable to comprehend what he had done. He could only look at her a fragment at a time. Her cheeks the shade of boiled snails. Her arms two stiff twigs.

‘I can do my arithmetic,’ Choecheol sang. ‘One dead American –’

Woncheol forced his brother’s face close. Their sister’s forehead stippled with sores.

‘Look hard,’ he said. ‘She’s gone.’

His brother stopped. His eyes, as blank as coffin lids.

‘Ten comrades died this year,’ he said. He smiled so hard, he became teary from the effort. ‘If I don’t think about her, she’s not there.’

Their baby sister. The sun, hot on Woncheol’s chilled face, changed her into polished bone. Into something unworldly, numinous. He had fed and bathed her, had been her drifting house. Something stirred in him. A memory of an earlier time. The trees, heavy with swallows. When the birds rose into the air, the trees lifting with them. His sister’s feet the size of a swallow. Swallows, they could go anywhere, his mother had said, but they returned because it was their home. Suddenly Woncheol was afraid.

‘I killed her.’ He said this with surprise, as if he had just realized it himself.

‘You – didn’t – kill – anyone!’ Choecheol covered his ears and began to sing.

Woncheol began folding the sack in neat creases. The praise of his teachers. His mother’s trust. Nothing could help him now. He folded until Choecheol complained of the cold, his blue-tinted lips puckered like an old halmeoni looking for her teeth.

Only then, Woncheol took two fistfuls of snow. He smoothed it down over his sister and all his memories. Added snow until a shape grew resembling the tumuli graves of their ancestors. He stepped back and circled the mound, watching it.

 

Sooner or later, everyone in town heard the stories of those who crossed the border and returned with a miracle of money and food. Of ironmonger Lee safe in the German Embassy, or rice-cake-turned-grass-cake vendor Miss Han furtively married to a Chinese farmer, despite the Chinese government’s bounty on North Korean heads. But Mrs Ku with child was beaten off the US Embassy gates by Chinese police. Woojin, a boy of eight, killed by borders guards. Daejon’s uncle, drowned in the monsoon-swollen Tumen River to China. The young and beautiful Soonah, raped but lucky to be alive. Thirteen-year-old Sora, caught and sold by Chinese traffickers. Which meant rape too, Seungwoo’s aunt had said, but at least she’s in China. Whether any of this was actually true, no one knew, the same way they silently speculated whether someone was an ally or informer, or whether someone who disappeared in the night had been imprisoned in a concentration camp or had escaped to China, and they watched and waited as the rumours turned into hardened truth.

Still, as the sun set, the two black dots moved across the great white back of the mountain’s summit. Past the last stately granite boulders carved in with the Great Leader Kim il-sung’s and the Dear Leader Kim Jong-il’s epithets. The brothers moved without knowledge in the path their mother had embarked on a month ago when she had made her terrible decision, followed the ghostly steps of others whose hunger and despair had strained their allegiances to family, to country, to love. Behind Woncheol, his brother struggled from rock to rock. So small, Woncheol thought, so breakable, watching his brother’s back as if he would lose him if he stopped looking.

‘Careful!’ he said, afraid for him.

‘Yes, hyeong.’

After a few hours, they rested.

‘I’m wet all over,’ Choecheol complained, as he kept trying to strip, but Woncheol made sure his brother mittened his hands in socks.

It happened when Woncheol looked for walking sticks. As he wandered between the trees, a white apparition lumbered into him. Its sound, an unearthly menace. Fear hooked his throat like a fish bone and he screamed, his hands helmeted his head. But it was Choecheol, laughing. His hair, shoulders, banked with crystals of snow, gave him a phantom look.

Babo,’ Woncheol said, almost weeping from fear.

She was only four, she was his sister. He remembered loving her. He dumped an armful of snow on his brother’s head. ‘You stink of American feet.’

‘I scared you.’ Choecheol’s voice fluttered with the nervous padding of birds. ‘There’s nothing to scare us, is there?’

As they walked, the rocks took on shapes. ‘Over there,’ Woncheol said. ‘See the pigs?’

He pointed at the gray-pink ears pinned back as the fatty snouts rooted for food.

‘You mean that patchy one, that speckly runt?’ Choecheol pointed at a rock canopied in snow. ‘Kill it! Eat it!’

They giggled now, unable to stop.

‘And when he walks, his balls wiggle,’ Woncheol said. ‘They’re melons!’

His brother pantomimed a melon-balled, strutting pig.

Woncheol laughed, hot with happiness, until his thoughts migrated to his sister. He stopped laughing.

 

They continued west. The wind was a bellow. The pine needles, tiny fingers. The crunch of snow, powdery bones. Even with newspaper folded into his ears, he heard the whispering sounds of Obba. Obba. From all four sides, she seemed to call him.

Other visions followed.

The bushes keened with animal sounds. He whirled, a rubber band out of his pocket ready to fire. But there was no squirrel, no soldier casting a fatal shadow; only their sister. Her pallid skin. She leapt from rock to rock like a fawn. She smiled and wiggled her tiny fingers at him in the air, showing him, no hands! His breath came in ragged gasps. Still, her waifish figure stood before him. The gourd shape of her forehead. Her face, an ivory varnish. She pulled a thread, unravelled her entire sweater before his next breath. Naked, her body flamed blue with heat. She bent until the back of her head brushed her heel, made an exaggerated shiver. The same Gukhwa, comic even in her revenge.

‘The most revered mountain in Joseon,’ Woncheol muttered. ‘Mountain Baeku, where our Great Leader Kim-Il sung was born. The second-most worthy flower, Kimjongilia.’

The school routines, the lists of historical facts that he had recited faster than anyone in his class, helped normalize his breathing.

But she was still there.

‘I’m a Joseon soldier,’ he said louder now. ‘I’m a fighting machine.’

He squinted, rubberband aimed.

His brother followed him the way he often did. He made his hands into a machine-gun, targeted a denuded fir tree.

‘I’m getting myself a long-nose,’ he said, and popped off each potential American.

Woncheol aimed the rubber band, shot. She darted behind a tree; he hurtled behind a knot of rocks.

‘Are you scared?’ Choecheol looked ashamed for him. His legs spread out at an exaggerated distance as if to show that he would not go hiding behind rocks. Then he clambered through her.

‘Watch out!’ Woncheol cried.

‘Watch what? The soldiers catch us, they kill us.’ Choecheol struck his foot outward in a crescent kick. ‘That’s all.’

‘It’s Gukhwa,’ Woncheol said.

His brother stiffened, stepped back. ‘There’s no ghosts here,’ he said loudly.

Woncheol shot again; it went straight through her. Gukhwa’s laugh was a baby’s gurgle that stopped abruptly. He covered his face with his hands, seeing the lumpy grain sack.

‘We have to go back,’ Woncheol said. ‘We were crazy to try.’

‘Do you want to die?’ said Choecheol. His voice newly sharp. He stepped on his brother’s shadow. ‘I want to live.’

Woncheol looked west to China, a country where somewhere, he had a mother. There were a great many things he didn’t know, he realized, and as he gazed at the horizon of splintered peaks, it seemed that his life, once of great import, shrank in significance. He squeezed his hands behind his back until they stopped trembling. ‘Then let’s go,’ he said, forceful enough to reassure his brother.

Choecheol re-emerged, brambles in his hair. He stood at unsteady attention. A drunk cadet.

‘Yes, comrade!’ he cried. His voice ballooned with relief.

 

The night was a black glove. The mountains, an endless rubble of loose stones. The stars, the eyes of the dead. In the unnatural landscape, the one day felt as long as Woncheol’s entire life. None of this mattered when Gukhwa began chanting his name.

He covered his ears. His mind wild with cannonball thoughts.

Gukhwa’s face was swollen like a pincushion, her ashen toes, braced against a tree root like a seagull perching on a rock.

‘I want to sleep.’ Choecheol sat beside Gukhwa in the snow, his legs out like chopsticks. ‘I’ll do anything to sleep.’

‘If we sleep, we die.’ Woncheol stared at his two siblings, his loving burdens.

‘I want to sleep.’

‘A few minutes, then. Then we go.’

Woncheol drew a box in the whiteness around them. They huddled on that patch of dryness. Hugged for warmth.

‘We aren’t far,’ he said, though he did not know where they were. He spoke with the false calm of an older brother.

‘I wish we had a big rat,’ said Choecheol. He looked up hopefully at Woncheol. ‘We could roast it on the fire.’

‘Me too.’

Woncheol tilted his head, filled his mouth with snow. The sting woke up his sleeping tongue, made it throb.

‘It tastes like cold rice,’ he said, though he did not remember the taste of rice.

‘If we had an ear of corn . . . two! Roasted.’

‘Don’t let’s talk about food.’

His brother picked his nose, considered the wet curl of mucus before twirling it into his mouth. He said, ‘Do Chinese people really eat children’s brains?’

‘They don’t need to,’ he said. ‘They’re a land of rice bowls the size of you. That’s what people say.’

He said this, though he did not know who these people were, had only his mother’s word and the rumours spread by other kids hustling in the market, a hope kindled, flickering dead, then kindled again by a snatch of a word, the appearance of smuggled grain sold on the street.

‘It’s a special dish there. That’s what the older boys said.’

‘You saw what Omma brought back, the first time.’

‘Where is she?’ Choecheol hugged himself.

‘Nobody knows.’ Woncheol wrapped his arms around his brother and gazed over him west toward China. ‘Get your rest.’

They slept. There was only the emptiness of sleep, a peaceful forever, as if Woncheol’s body desired to become part of the snowy landscape and over time, become detritus for another generation. But a sharp movement like teeth sinking into his arm ended the quiet.

He rolled Choecheol deep into a snowdrift. Then he jumped on the darkness, his boot smashed at where the nose must be. Underneath him, his walking stick. His arms swung up, down. A pestle to corn. He struck and struck. He could have stopped, but didn’t.

‘I was born a killer, too!’ Choecheol’s voice buckled. ‘I’m a fighting machine!’

Only then Wonchoel stopped, looked at his brother’s head just above the snowdrift. A thread of mucus hung from Choecheol’s nose. He was crying. His own brother, afraid of him. And below, there was nothing. Only the shadows of trees. His own web of saliva in the moon. He stuffed snow in his mouth when a scream began. Choecheol clumsily put his arms around him, but he pulled away.

‘We’ll never find her,’ Woncheol said. ‘Omma left us. The way we left Gukhwa.’

Hyeong, don’t say that!’

But Woncheol was crying because he knew it was true.

Choecheol kicked a stone downhill. It rolled until their sister stopped it with her feet. Powdered in snow, she looked like a small, icy spirit. A chill smothered Woncheol.

‘There’s Gukhwa again,’ he said.

‘She’s a dead body.’ Choecheol shored himself up. ‘She’s someone who’s gone far away.’

‘She’s right there!’

‘There’s no such thing as ghosts!’ His brother charged ahead. ‘She’s dead, she’s dead, she’s dead!’

‘Wait for me!’ Woncheol cried.

 

The next morning, the Tumen River. There was the hike down, the dangerous rustle of leaves. Guards in outposts or on patrol with Soviet machine guns and murderous boots. From an escarpment above, Woncheol watched. Beyond was Yanji, a city where it was said the garbage could feed entire villages. Where streetlights actually worked. There was also Gukhwa, as cold as stone. Their father, embalmed beneath the roof of coal that had collapsed on him. The world, forever dark for them both. And Woncheol, still alive. He did not know why he deserved this when they had not.

Noon. The brothers began the descent toward the river. Snow fell steadily, erasing their traces. The phalanx of guards had their cozy outposts, their rice. Woncheol assumed that their uniforms would dry over lunch; they would want to stay indoors, they would not want to get wet. Still, his heart was too fast. He muffled the sound with his hands. They passed a glassy waterfall. Their fingernails chipped, their hands bled from the rocks. They moved from root of spruce and fir. Slowly. The iciness in his feet traveled through his body.

Finally. Before them, a gray landscape. Meager shapes before they became a river, mountains, China. In the distance were a desolation of cement buildings so tall, a person could disappear, never be found. The brothers stood where so many had stood in the past five years. Felt the same fugitive fears and hopes, the same dim sense that the world outstretched before them would never know or care about them.

‘You were a good hyeong.’ Choecheol’s voice was as heavy as schoolbooks.

‘I’ll never make you eat arrowroot porridge again,’ Woncheol said. ‘We’ll live differently.’

He could not articulate his muddy love and fear for his brother, so he just held his hand tightly, then let go.

They ran. They pitched into the clearing. Dashed toward the river. When their feet touched the ice beneath the snow, they skidded and fell.

‘Halt!’ A voice shouted. ‘Meom-cheoh, or I’ll shoot!’

The man was small from a distance; he looked like a toy soldier in his earth-coloured uniform and starred cap, a rifle slung over his shoulder like a school bag. He hefted the gun up. Stop, stop, Woncheol’s glottis throbbed. The man aimed ahead at Choecheol, zigzagging across the ice, and pulled the trigger.

There was the sharp shriek of a bullet, then nothing. No one had been hit.

Woncheol choked.

‘Run!’ he shouted as he slid across the plate of ice.

Choecheol looked back at him, now frozen.

Hyeong,’ he said. He was crying.

‘Your hyeong said run!’

And Choecheol ran, his light feet delicate on the ice. Each time he looked back, Woncheol shouted as he skidded forward, until finally his little brother was too far ahead to see.

Woncheol continued to skid forward, heavier and slower than Choecheol. His sister bounded in front of him. Her candle wax eyes, bright and white as the core of a fire. Her cheeks flamed – the only color in her stony face.

‘Please let me go,’ he begged.

Her tiny legs stayed squarely planted between him and China. He moved left; so did she. He moved right; she mirrored him. When he stepped back, she relaxed into a smile. She did not want him to leave her. He saw this now. His hand rose to strike her away, and her face rushed to a sad place. He could not do it. She was his sister, so he extended his hands toward her ruined body.

Across the frozen river, the thud of approaching soldier’s steps faded as Woncheol now saw the phantom world that had always been there. His schoolteacher scraped bark from the air. His best friend Gunhyeok, flush with his good luck, roasted a squirrel by its tail. While the sun was eclipsed by his father’s swallows, their family home drifted across the ice. The chimney smoke, it smelled of his mother’s vinegary cabbage, her loamy earth scent. There was his father wearing his salty smile, strolling beside countless, diaphanous figures. And behind them, finally, there were the shadows.

 

This story is taken from the collection Drifting House, published by Faber & Faber.

Photo by expertinfantry

We’ll always have Paris
Juan Pablo Villalobos | Interview