She held the large plastic bucket in front of her as the midwife severed the umbilical cord with a blood-smeared butcher knife before tossing the squirming infant into the pail. “Well? What are you standing there for? Get rid of it,” the midwife barked. She stepped back, averting her eyes from the bucket. It was heavy, three kilos she guessed, and the infant’s thrashing made carrying it difficult. She had wanted to stay until the afterbirth had been delivered. It would make a nourishing meal if she could hide until the shift was over. The guards would not miss a placenta, though they counted the bodies in the pit before they poured on the lime.
Hyepin—that was her name—had heard stories of prisoners who tried to steal the babies. She preferred to believe they were rescuing the still living, like the one in her bucket, though she knew it was more likely they intended to make a meal of the dead. She spat at the thought of it. It was one thing to devour human offal, another to eat flesh.
She reached the edge of the pit behind the infirmary and lifted the plastic bucket to her waist. The child let out a lusty cry and she dropped the pail. She crouched down on her haunches and peered in. The light was fading fast as the sun disappeared behind the steep granite mountains, but she could see it was a full-term boy, his skin covered in a powdery, white membrane, his mouth open, his eyes closed. She reached down to stroke his cheek and his mouth turned hungrily toward her finger. The boy was fat, not like the others. His mother had spent most of her pregnancy across the Tumen River in China. Foolish girl to have tried to slip back to see her own mother before the baby was born. Now the girl’s mother was probably dead and soon her baby would be, too. And if the girl survived the unsanitary delivery, she would be back in the barracks by midnight and in the factory alongside Hyepin at dawn.
Hyepin pulled back her finger and the boy opened his eyes. She felt a need to void her bowels, though she had not eaten since early that morning—a thin broth with four cabbage leaves floating on top, black with blight. The boy started to wail again and she quickly put her hand over his mouth. If she waited any longer they would send someone to find her and it would be too late. She pinched the tiny nostrils closed as the boy struggled to draw breath, his mouth, wet and warm, sucking in the palm of her hand. She turned her head away and pushed her other hand against the boy’s chest to force out whatever air remained in his lungs. She felt her sphincter muscle relax and a gush of liquid pour out of her.
She waited a moment longer to make sure the boy was dead before emptying the bucket. It was better this way. She could tell the mother he had not suffered, cold, hungry, writhing among the other dead half-breeds in the pit. She stood up and walked back to the infirmary.
Hyepin awoke just before dawn. The barracks were still quiet, the women on the floor on either side of her breathing deeply. The stench of rotted teeth mixed with urine and sweat from the sleeping mats made it impossible for her to fall back to sleep. Perhaps one day she would get used to the smell, but in the six months she’d been in the camp the perpetual stink of human bodies was nearly as painful to her as the hunger that gnawed at her insides. She had stayed up well past midnight to see if the girl had returned, but at some point she nodded off. She had heard rumors about what happened in the infirmary, but the previous night was the first time she had been sent to work there.
She sat up now, careful not to disturb the women on either side. Her eyes adjusted to the faint light that began to filter in from the dirty windows as the sun rose. She looked around: dozens of sleeping women, their bodies nearly touching, filled the room, which measured 10 meters in length and some 8 meters wide. Hyepin had survived the winter in the structure, which was heated only by a small woodstove at one end. The newcomers often fought to position themselves near the stove, but Hyepin learned quickly that proximity to the source of heat was a mixed blessing. It was too hot to fall asleep quickly and it became increasingly smoky as the embers died down. She soon staked a claim to a spot a quarter of the way down the long row of sleeping mats, but if she returned to the barracks late, as she had the previous night, her spot would be taken and she would have to make do with another. Now that spring was coming, it wouldn’t matter as much.
The loudspeakers outside blared the Dear Leader’s voice, awakening the camp to a lecture on the revolutionary value of manual labor. The sound of the Dear Leader’s high-pitched whine crackled intermittently before the unreliable current cut him off completely, mid-sentence. Hyepin stood up and searched the room more carefully. No, the girl was gone. She had probably bled to death. The midwife had not even bothered to wash her own hands. If a woman died, it would be one less mouth to feed and there were hundreds more arriving each week to take her place. Many of them, like the girl, became pregnant in China, then were captured and forcibly returned to a slow death in the camps, their babies aborted or left to die if they were unlucky enough to be born alive.
She ran her finger over her teeth and gums, rubbing hard. The smell of boiled cabbage wafted out of the refectory as she lined up for her morning ration. The women moved forward, shoving and pushing so as not to be the last in line when only broth was left.
Hyepin took her bowl to a table toward the back of the hut, careful to avoid spilling the cabbage broth with its lump of swollen corn kernels that had settled heavily at the bottom. It had been many weeks since the prisoners had received even a few grains of rice, much less slivers of meat or fish in their two daily meals, but hunger so consumed her that she regarded the mess in her bowl as a feast. She sat down in the corner, facing out into the room so that she could watch the procession of women, still searching for the girl despite the fear that she was dead. She slowly sipped the liquid, savoring each mouthful, which warmed her body on this chilly morning.
The place was eerily quiet, most of the women absorbed in eating every morsel. The woman across from her sucked her fingertips, which were wrinkled and black like the ribbed underbellies of mushrooms. Hyepin recognized her as one of the women who skinned rabbits to line the officers’ jackets, which Hyepin and her co-workers sewed in the factory. The woman looked up and flashed a menacing grimace. It was no concern of Hyepin’s that the woman hid bits of flesh scraped from the rabbit pelts under her fingernails so that she might relish them later, but the woman no doubt feared she might be reported for stealing. Hyepin looked away. And then she saw the hapless mother, not dead after all but slumped over her food on the other side of the room.
She felt a pang of remorse, looking at the frail, hunched figure. The girl’s breasts had started to leak milk, two dark, round stains that made the filthy blue shirt cling to her small chest. Hyepin had managed to avoid trouble so far by avoiding emotional entanglements with the other prisoners. There was little point. Even the best of friends turned on each other if they thought they could get more food or escape a beating. So why was she bothering herself about a girl whose name she had never bothered to learn? She shifted her attention back to the bowl of soup, lifting the soft corn kernels, one by one, to her lips. She felt them dissolve slowly on her tongue, pushing them against the roof of her mouth until the starchy pulp oozed out and only the husks remained, which she washed down with a gulp of broth. When she looked back up, the girl was gone. Hyepin took her empty bowl to the front of the hut and deposited it along with a hundred others, each one licked so clean that it was impossible to distinguish the used from the unused bowls stacked on the long wood table.
By the time Hyepin arrived at her workstation, the girl was already bent over the olive green fabric sewing a sleeve onto a jacket. The lightbulbs, which hung above the tables, flickered a few times before going dark again. Through much of the winter the women made do with only the light from the windows to guide their fingers. But Hyepin found the dark comforting, blocking out the sight of so many whose fate was certain. They would wither and bend until their bodies broke, discarded onto a heap like the infants dumped at the infirmary.
The girl next to her moaned softly, interrupting Hyepin’s descent into the abyss. “What is it, little sister?” Hyepin asked. The girl turned to her, startled.
“My breasts are on fire,” the girl said. “I cannot bear the pain.” The girl’s hands flew to her shirt, which was now dripping with milk. Hyepin’s eyes widened. She could smell the milk, sweet against the sour sweat that rose from the girl’s body.
“You must bind your breasts until the milk dries up. Here, hide this,” she said, handing the girl a piece of cloth from the jacket lining she was sewing. “When you go to relieve yourself, tie the cloth tightly around your chest. The milk will stop flowing in a few days.” Hyepin looked at the girl’s flushed cheeks. Few of the women who delivered babies produced enough milk to cause the suffering now afflicting the girl. But this girl was young and well fed when she arrived at the camp and her body had not yet cannibalized itself.
The girl slipped the strip of material down her trousers and nodded at Hyepin, her eyes cast downward. No more words passed between the two women, who worked side by side for six hours, carefully stitching the garments in front of them until one of the supervisors came to inspect the finished jacket. Hyepin tried to ignore the smell of the milk, which drifted like the scent of an infant across the small space separating her and the girl. A wave of nausea nearly made Hyepin swoon as she moved the needle in and out of the fabric in tiny, uniform stitches. Did the girl recognize her from the night before? Hyepin had stood behind the midwife, the girl’s legs spread apart in front of her, the ankles tied to the metal stirrups. She had watched as the baby’s head crowned, the girl screaming, lifting her upper body to push. The girl made eye contact then, but perhaps the pain had erased the memory.
Hyepin had never given birth. It was not something she regretted, especially in her current circumstances. She recalled the words of the Great Leader: “Factionalists or class enemies, whoever they are—their seed must be eliminated through three generations.” It was better to bear one’s misery alone than to be one of those whose children and grandchildren were imprisoned elsewhere in the camp. But if she had married and born a daughter, the girl might be about the same age as the one sitting at her side whose breasts leaked milk.
The girl began to shiver, violently. The guard eyed her suspiciously from her perch on a stool propped against the wall near their table. Hyepin feared turning toward the girl lest she draw attention to herself, but the guard came directly toward her anyway.
“Take her away. Clean her up. She is making a spectacle,” the guard said as she grabbed Hyepin’s arm, jerking her off the bench. The girl raised her dead eyes, as if seeing nothing.
“What are you waiting for?” the guard said, poking the sharp end of her baton into the girl’s spine.
“Come, little sister,” Hyepin said, gently touching the girl’s shoulder. The girl stood, the front of her shirt now soaked through with wide, wet stripes running down to her lap, her damp trousers clinging to her thighs. They walked silently back to the barracks a hundred meters from the factory along a narrow dirt road with identical wood buildings lining either side. The sun shone down brightly. If there had been trees, Hyepin imagined they would already have begun to sprout tiny green buds. But there were no trees, only the warmth of the noon sun on her back.
The girl’s teeth chattered as she clutched her arms around her torso. Hyepin waited until they were at the barrack’s threshold before putting her arm around the girl. She did not want to be seen, for the girl’s sake as well as her own. The guards regarded both sickness and compassion as weaknesses to be exploited.
She walked toward her mat, pulling the girl along. The girl’s body was burning with fever. When they reached her mat, Hyepin knelt down and the girl collapsed at her side. She reached down the trousers between the girl’s legs for the binding cloth, which was sticky with drying milk that had seeped through the pants.
“You must try to sit,” Hyepin said. “Take off your shirt so I can bind you.” The girl raised her body on one elbow and held out her hand for Hyepin to assist her. The girl lifted her shirt over her head, exposing her swollen breasts, the large brown nipples leaking a thick, yellowish fluid. Hyepin wanted to turn away but couldn’t take her eyes from the girl’s breasts. The veins showed blue against the taut skin. Hyepin looked up again into the girl’s face and the girl’s hands moved to cover her breasts. As the girl’s fingers pressed against the engorged flesh, milk squirted out from her nipple, hitting Hyepin in the face. She jerked her head away as if she had been slapped, but the warm milk slid down her cheek in a rivulet to the corner of her mouth. Her tongue flicked involuntarily to her lips, a taste like lychee fruit leaching along the tip. The girl giggled and Hyepin felt another spray on her face and began to laugh, too.
Hyepin reached out to touch the girl’s breast. It was hard and hot, like a stone taken from the oven to warm one’s feet. “We should not let your milk go to waste,” she said, gently. “Lie down. I will fetch something to catch it so that you may drink it and keep up your strength.”
“No. It is no use. I will die anyway. I can feel the life draining from me.”
Hyepin felt the girl’s forehead. She was burning up. “We must get you to the infirmary.”
She grabbed Hyepin’s hand. “Please. Never. I will not go back there. They murdered my baby.”
“He did not suffer,” Hyepin said.
The girl’s eyes opened wide as she clutched Hyepin’s arm. “How do you know?” she asked. Hyepin looked away, afraid to meet the girl’s gaze. She pulled free and walked to the small table at the back of the room where a metal pitcher leaned against a washbasin. She poured the cloudy water into the basin and carried the pitcher back to her mat.
“You were there, weren’t you? I thought it was you,” the girl said as Hyepin knelt beside her, tipping the lip of the pitcher under the heavy breast.
“Let me help you,” she said, her fingers working their way firmly down the girl’s breast to the nipple, pushing the milk through the ducts. “After, I will tighten the cloth around your breasts to ease the pain.” The milk at first formed caramel-colored bubbles on the nipple then flowed in translucent, bluish streams over the rim of the pitcher, which pressed into the flesh at the base of the nipple. The girl let out a sigh and slipped back against the mat, milk dribbling down her naked breast.
“Was it a boy?”
“Yes. A boy.”
“How long did he live? Do you know?”
“Where did they put him?”
“They bury them out back, behind the infirmary.”
“You say he did not suffer. Were you with him the whole time?”
“Yes, the whole time.”
“But why did he die so soon? He could have lived. I could have raised him, even here. I have plenty of milk. He would not have starved.”
Hyepin lifted the jug and moved to the other side of the mat, tilting the girl’s limp body so that the full breast covered the mouth of the pitcher. She moved her fingers down the breast until the milk began to flow profusely, squeezing the nipple between her thumb and forefinger. The spume hit the side of the pitcher, making the metal sing like hard rain on a tin roof.
“He was sickly. A blue baby. He was dead within minutes,” Hyepin lied.
“But I heard him cry.”
“No. You heard another child.”
“A mother knows. It was my baby. I am sure
“You must rest,” she said, putting the pitcher down on the floor between the mats. She worked the dirty cloth under the thin back and wound it around the now slack breasts, pulling tight until the girl whimpered softly.
The girl’s eyelids fluttered as she drifted off. Hyepin reached over and stroked her fevered cheek. It was smooth like the baby’s. She lifted the pitcher to her face, breathing in the sweet scent of life that erased the stench of the camp, the memory of the pit, her guilt. “Sleep, little sister,” she whispered.