The sun shone through the windows, the sky blue and dotted with clouds. I could make out Obongsan Mountain in the distance. It had been raining for one month straight in South Hamgyong province, and I could not remember the last time I had seen the sun. I limped into the kitchen where my mother was, and heard a sizzling sound of something cooking in a frying pan. My eyes widened and my stomach ached at the thought of a proper breakfast. For weeks, my mother and I had been scavenging for raw corn and whatever scraps we could find. At least it seemed better than others in our village, subsisting on tree bark and grass.
“Seo-yeon,” my mother called, holding out a bamboo basket covered with a piece of white cloth. “I made three scallion pancakes. Can you bring them to your father?” I thought of every scallion, every pat of flour we'd salvaged for him. He’d committed an offense, talking openly about the famine and had been sentenced to work in a coal mine for re-education. I didn’t understand why my father’s speaking out the truth deserved this punishment, but my mother had assured me it was better than some of the other labor compounds in the mountains: at least we could see him and bring him the food we’d saved. Some villagers were forbidden visits to see their family members in the camps where they’d crush limestone and load it into industrial kilns, or make leather goods that were toxic because of the glues. I knew of stories about many who had died in camps far worse than the one my father had been sent to.
In my hands, the basket was as warm as the sun, but I put the aroma of hot oil out of my mind; I moved quickly, a slight bounce in my step. It wasn’t raining, the air warm and I could hear birds chirping.
As I walked deeper into Yodok, my limbs began to ache, especially my ankles and wrists. My mouth felt dry in the heat, bitter with thirst. I focused on lifting one leg before the other, but the heaviness weighed upon me, like a sack of corn or wood for a fire. I staggered a few more steps before stopping to rest. I’d made this trip a half dozen times before, but never had I felt so exhausted, especially so suddenly.
I leaned against the wall of a grey, crumbling building, squinting up at the sun, which now seemed to sting where it had been bright with hope. I fought to get back up, but my legs still trembled. I couldn’t stand and my hunger seemed to burn a hole in my ribs. I pressed my hand over the basket’s cloth. Surely one little bite wouldn’t hurt.
I picked up one of the pancakes with shaking fingers and took the tiniest of bites.
The soft dough and salted scallions filled my nose and the emptiness between my ribs. I closed my eyes, savoring every last bit before taking a second nibble. Then a third. A fourth. When I looked under the cloth again, my eyes shot open. I hurriedly covered the two remaining pancakes and tried to quicken my step, to make use of this energy that might have made my father’s life a bit more bearable.
The sun continued to wax, and I had to squint to see. My eyes burned, legs even heavier. There were people around me. I felt them watching my uneven step, faces blurring together into one dark mass. I leaned against the wall of an abandoned shop, my legs slowly giving away, until I was sitting on the ground again, gasping for breath. I made certain to look away from the basket, the tempation of more salt, more scallions.
Suddenly, a young man in a threadbare jacket with legs as swollen as an elephant’s collapsed beside me. His head rested on the wall, chipped like a shell that’s been stepped on. The man sat there for a few moments, gasping in breaths more shallow than my own. Then his head slumped to the side and stayed there. Lifeless eyes gazed blankly back at mine, then up at the sizzling sun.
I watched in horror, shock ricocheting through my body like a curse. I snatched my basket and ate another without thinking. My heart quickened. I stood up and pressed my body forward, vowing never to look back or rest again.
I walked with slumped shoulders past a huge mosaic of the great leader and father of the people, Kim Jong-il, gazing blissfully out into an ocean of black coal outside the mine. Just one pancake left for my father, I thought, he, who spent his days with no more than a pinch of cornmeal, and for what reason? My eyes filled with tears, my tongue with the same thirst that now seemed more like a punishment I deserved.
When I saw my father, the sun stung my eyes more acutely, as if to threaten blindness, a curse I was meant to suffer for my sin--what I saw now, so clearly, in my father’s hollow cheeks covered in soot. When he saw me, he smiled, revealing gaps between his teeth. He reached out, and I met his large, calloused palms. Suddenly I felt as though we were bathing in the warmest sunlight. As if maybe we’d died, and this was heaven?
My heart pumped blood, my eyes twitched, hands still shaking in reminder, No, we were still here. I handed him the basket, the pancakes heavy in my stomach: all that I’d failed to provide him. I pictured the morsel of food left in the basket. Tears racing down my cheeks, but my father must have mistaken them for happiness, because he said Thank you, still smiling through his missing teeth.
And in that dark space, his hunger, I knew that the pain of my love, my shame, would always be mine to bear alone.