oon Young sat near the front of the classroom, squinting as the teacher pointed his long stick at the characters on the chalkboard. The other children were singing, loudly: “The sky is blue and my heart is gay.”
Her eyes couldn’t keep up. “What a wonderful homeland we have,” the voices rang out. “Our father is Marshal Kim Il Sung,” she mouthed, slightly out of sync with the others, “We are the happiest in the world.”
“You,” the teacher shouted, pointing the stick at Moon Young. “Stand up, girl.”
She stood, her arms stiffly at her sides, her eyes lowered.
He moved toward Moon Young, rapping the stick on the desks as he passed. “You don’t know the words? Look at me, when I address you,” he said, holding the stick in both hands and pushing it against her throat to lift her chin.
She could smell the garlic on his breath. It made her homesick. She had not tasted kimchi since she and her mother had left their village. She opened her mouth to speak and he struck her across the face with the stick. The narrow tip snapped off and flew across the room.
“See what you’ve done?” he screamed, shaking the broken stick in front of the girl’s face. “Do you think sticks like this grow on trees?” he asked, leaning over her until she nearly fell backward.
“Well?” he said, looking around the room at the students, who stared wide-eyed at the blood pouring from the girl’s mouth. “Do sticks like this grow on trees?”
Moon Young’s mouth filled with metallic-tasting blood, but she was afraid to swallow.
“You idiots,” the teacher bellowed as he turned away from Moon Young and headed toward the chalkboard. “Do sticks grow on trees?” he said, slowly, breaking the stick into smaller pieces and letting them fall to the floor. He laughed, his face transformed in a broad grin. “It is a joke!”
One by one, the children began to laugh, until the whole room rocked with their merriment. Even Moon Young smiled, her teeth stained as red as the chrysanthemums in the picture of the Great Leader that hung at the front of the classroom.
The teacher took a step forward, locking eyes with Moon Young. “Who are we, girl?” he asked, his lips curled to reveal two dimples in his cheeks.
“We are the happiest in the world,” she replied. And at that moment, with her teacher nodding benevolently, she believed it.
in Woo picked up the pieces of broken stick off the floor before leaving the classroom. He should have made the girl do it. He could not remember her name. He would check with Principal Ri. Why had they put the girl in his class? She was clearly slow-witted. She had no business being placed with his students, who were among the brightest in the school. He worked them hard, as he told Principal Ri after one of the parents, a Party official, had complained his son had been humiliated in front of the class. “Be careful, Jin Woo,” Ri had warned. “One day you will go too far.” But coddling them would not help them learn. He had his duty.
Jin Woo rode his bicycle through the streets of Hoeryong, toward the river. He could smell meats roasting over open fires in the new open market that had spread out close to the river. He was hungry, but he would not stop. Others could frequent the illegal stalls, but he would never do so. The Party was becoming too lax.
He carried his bicycle up three flights. The stairwell stank of urine. He suspected that old Choi had thrown out his slop jar from the floor above when the water to the building was cut the previous day. The old man was too lazy to walk it down to the first floor and empty it into the weeds behind the building, as Jin Woo himself had done. An inconvenience, yes, but hard times required sacrifices.
Hot, rancid air hit him when he opened the door to the apartment. He went quickly to the window to open it. He looked out over the city toward the river, which was barely visible through the warren of tall buildings, uniformly gray except for a few faded banners bearing the Great Leader’s image and words. He took a deep breath, but the outside air smelled no better than his apartment.
Tomorrow he would teach a lesson on the Beloved Father of the Nation. He was intent that one of his pupils win the contest at the end of the school term for the student who could recite at the greatest length Kim Il Sung’s heroic deeds and wisdom. In his six years of teaching, Jin Woo had never produced a winner. But this year, he had high hopes. Not only were his fifth-form students older than those he had taught in the past, but they were, for the most part, brighter.
He ate his evening meal in front of the television. He liked to watch the pretty young woman who read the evening news. Her lips were bright red and her skin was like pale porcelain, framed by her short, black hair. He had never actually seen a woman as beautiful in Hoeryong, but he imagined Pyongyang was filled with such lovely creatures. He watched her mouth form the words as her head bobbed up and down earnestly. She was speaking of the Dear Leader Kim Jong Il, but he barely listened to what she said. The rhythm of her voice and her bow-like lips transfixed him. He found himself annoyed when the screen turned from the newscaster to video of the Dear Leader, who Jin Woo still had a hard time imagining could fill the shoes of his departed father Kim Il Sung. He put down his bowl and turned off the set. He should not have such thoughts. Perhaps he would give up the nightly news and confine himself to reading the newspaper.
oon Young waited for her mother to come home, sitting patiently at the kitchen table, her open schoolbook in front of her. She had washed her face to remove the dried blood but the skin around her mouth was swollen and had begun to turn blue. She thought of telling her mother that she had been hurt on the playground, but there was always Chang Il to worry about. Her uncle’s son had not acknowledged her since she joined the class, but he still might tell his father what had happened and it would get back to her mother. She searched the book for the words to the song but couldn’t find them. She must learn the words somehow or she would face the teacher’s punishment again.
She heard her mother struggling with the door, which stuck in the warm weather and was difficult to open.
“This heat will be the death of me,” Sun Hi said, pressing against the swollen door to squeeze it back into the jamb. Her daughter failed to look up as she approached the table. “Studying hard, sweet one?” she asked, but the girl twisted away from her. Sun Hi reached out and took the girl’s face in her hands, turning it gently toward her. “Aiyee,” she moaned, studying the girl’s bruised cheek and lips. “Who did this to you?”
Moon Young’s eyes filled with tears, but she could not look her mother in the eye.
Sun Hi had worried that the new school would be too difficult for Moon Young, who was used to a slower pace in their village, but her brother-in-law had insisted. “It would dishonor my dead brother to have his daughter attend an inferior school,” he had said when the two arrived in Hoeryong. “You will thank me, you’ll see.”
“Did Chang Il not stand up for you?”
Moon Young shook her head.
“I will speak to the boy’s father,” she said, stroking her daughter’s hair. “Children can be cruel. They pick on the new one, who has yet to make friends.”
Moon Young bit her lip. “It was my fault,” she whispered. “The teacher punished me.”
Sun Hi tilted her daughter’s face up so that she could see her eyes. “Did you do something to provoke this?” she asked.
“I didn’t know the song of happiness,” Moon Young answered, her words barely audible.
Sun Hi pulled the girl close to her. “Well then, we will have to learn it together.”
in Woo took several posters from his satchel and unrolled them on his desk, placing rocks at the corners to make them lie flat. He didn’t notice the girl until she was directly in front of his desk. “What are you doing here? It is too early,” he snapped. She stood mute, her face still swollen and discolored from the day before. “Get outside and wait for the others,” he yelled.
“I wanted . . . may I please,” she stammered, “copy the words?”
“You should have thought of that yesterday,” he said.
“I couldn’t see them,” she said, her voice faltering. “In my old school, I sat in the front row so that I could see the board.”
“Do you expect me to move you? Get your parents to get you glasses,” he said.
“My father is dead,” Moon Young muttered.
“You have a mother, don’t you?” he asked, without waiting for an answer. “As long as you’re here, you can help me.” Jin Woo pulled a small wooden box out of his pocket and opened it. “Put your hands out,” he said.
Moon Young couldn’t see what was in the box but held her hands up obediently. Her teacher poured out tiny pins into her palms.
“Don’t drop any,” Jin Woo said. “I will need all of them to secure the posters in place.”
Moon Young looked down at the posters on her teacher’s desk. They were reproductions of paintings, showing different scenes and depictions of the Great Leader. One showed Kim Il Sung surrounded by a group of smiling children, a girl no older than she in an orange jacket and fur-lined boots reaching up to hug the Great Leader. Another showed him riding a white horse and holding a young Kim Jong Il on Mount Paektu, with Kim Jong Suk, the Mother of the Nation, following behind on a brown horse. In every poster, there were flowers and birds and broad smiles on all the faces. Moon Young’s eyes feasted on the colors and the happiness that emanated from the drawings.
“I see you like them,” her teacher said, breaking her reverie. She nodded enthusiastically, looking up to catch him staring at her. She held her breath.
Jin Woo could see the terror in the girl’s eyes. He held her gaze until a single tear formed in the corner of her eye. “Are you going to help me or not?” he asked, lifting the poster of the Great Leader and his wife Kim Jong Suk from the desk.
oon Young walked along the narrow street to her apartment humming the song of happiness. She barely noticed the stifling heat or the weight of the books she carried. Her mind was filled with the story her teacher had told the class, how the Great Leader had given up his last bowl of soup to a dying soldier during the Arduous March against the Imperialists. She could almost see the young man, his wounds bleeding onto the snow yet smiling up at the Beloved Leader, who held the bowl to the soldier’s lips. She thought of her own father, who was often stern. The Great Leader would never reprimand a daughter. He would guide her with love and kindness. Her teacher had said so, though Moon Young wondered why the teacher did not follow his example.
She was surprised to find her mother already home when she opened the door to the apartment. Her mother looked up, startled. She was standing at the table, which was covered in stacks of canned goods. Moon Young had never seen so many cans of all different sizes. Most of the tin cans were wrapped in decorative paper, with colorful pictures of fruit and vegetables and printed with unfamiliar characters that she could not read.
She grinned at her mother. “What is this?” she asked.
Sun Hi hesitated before speaking. She did not want to frighten her daughter, but she must impress on her the gravity of the situation. “Sit down, please.”
Moon Young pulled the chair out and sat, but she could barely see her mother’s face through the tall stack of cans. Her eyes wandered across the pictures of peas, beans, peaches, and some she could not identify. She felt hungry, even though it was not her usual time to eat.
“These are a gift from your uncle, who is going away,” Sun Hi finally spoke.
“But there are so many of them,” Moon Young said. “He should have taken some with him.”
“Where he is going, he would not be allowed to bring such things.” She stood up and walked over to her daughter. “Come, let’s sit together,” she said motioning to the pallet on which they slept.
“Is Hang Il going with him?” Moon Young inquired. Her uncle’s son had not been in school that day.
“Yes, and your aunt as well.” She put her arm around Moon Young. “They will be gone for a very long time.”
Moon Young was frightened by the look on her mother’s face. Sun Hi looked almost as if she was going to cry, her lips pursed and a deep crease between her brows. She had seen her mother shed tears only one time, when her father died. She pushed against her mother and wrapped her arms around her waist.
“This is important, Moon Young. You must listen to what I say and promise me to do exactly as I ask,” Sun Hi squeezed the girl tighter, then pushed her gently away, holding her at arm’s length. “You must never speak your uncle’s name. You must never let anyone know of our relation to him. Do the children know that Hang Il is your cousin?”
Moon Young shook her head.
“And your teacher, does he know?”
“I don’t think so. Hang Il acted as if he did not know me at school.”
“But why? What happened?”
“It is better we not talk of it. Now help me put away this food. But first, tear the paper from the cans. We must burn it later.”
ou are a lucky man, Jin Woo,” Principal Ri said when the teacher stepped into his office. The teacher’s worried brows unfurrowed and his eyes opened wide. Ri had never warmed to the man in the six years he had taught at the school. He was too earnest, too uncompromising.
Jin Woo shifted his weight from the balls of his feet to his heels but said nothing, waiting for the principal to speak.
“It seems you were right to humiliate the Lee boy,” Ri said.
Jin Woo let out a deep breath. “May I know what happened?”
“His father has been relieved of his position. It seems he was using it to smuggle in luxury items. His customers were rumored to be high up in the Party, but they are more worried about their own necks than to care about protecting his.”
“So that is why Lee Hang Il was absent today?”
“I don’t think we will be seeing him again.”
“I would like to have been a fly on the wall when the state security showed up,” Jin Woo said.
Ri resisted his impulse to tell the teacher to wipe the smirk off his face. “The boy is young. Who knows, his re-education may succeed. It has happened before.” Ri watched the blood rise in the teacher’s face. They had never spoken of Jin Woo’s background, but he knew that the teacher had spent the first years of his life in a camp like the one to which the Lee family would be sent.
“Our system is very beneficial to the individual . . . ”
“Yes, yes,” Ri cut him off. It was one thing to get pleasure from seeing one’s adversaries fall, but quite another to actually believe they were better off as a result. “I’m busy, as you can see,” he said, but regretted it almost immediately. “I know you are as well—I hear that you are spending extra effort to prepare your students for the competition.” Better to keep a man like Jin Woo on your side, he thought.
Jin Woo beamed. “I don’t want to boast, but I believe this may be my year to produce a winner.”
Ri watched as Jin Woo retreated down the hall. He had intended to warn him to keep an eye on the new girl, the corrupt official’s niece. But he needn’t worry. Jin Woo would sniff her out on his own if she gave him reason—perhaps even if she didn’t.
oon Young surveyed the apartment through the new glasses perched on the bridge of her nose. She noticed the stains on the ceiling for the first time, and the cracks on the wall, which had previously been visible to her only when she stood close by. The glasses made it easier to see the chalkboard at school, but her world had become sharper, more frightening even. She’d looked up before entering her apartment building that afternoon to see big hunks of concrete missing high up on the top floors above her. The façade looked like it was in danger of crumbling. In the stairwell, she’d seen a large, black spider caught in a web high up in one corner. Even her own face in the mirror seemed unfamiliar, the tiny hairs of her eyebrows just above the metal frames of her glasses, the pores on her nose and chin, a small mole on her cheek.
Her mother was not yet home even though it was long past her usual quitting time. She had hoped to recite her presentation for her mother one last time. They had practiced it for weeks, her mother making suggestions on how to bring the Great Leader’s story to life. “You must do more than list his accomplishments,” she had said. “You must do something to distinguish yourself from the others.”
She paced the small room, reaching out with her hands as if to grab a rainbow on her tiptoes, like the four-year-old Kim Il Sung. She covered her mouth with her hands in horror, imagining she was watching her own father arrested by the Japanese as the Great Leader’s father had been when he was barely older than she. She passed out imaginary pamphlets for the Anti-Imperialist League, then mounted an imaginary horse to flee to the mountains to fight the Japanese oppressors, all the while her lips moving as she silently recounted the Great Leader’s heroic deeds.
Perhaps her teacher would think she was too theatrical. She wished to please him as much as she wanted the honor of placing first in her class. It had become her obsession to prove that she was not the dullard he took her for that first day in class when she couldn’t see the blackboard. At times she believed she was making progress, as she had the day she recited all the prime numbers up to 1,000. He had rewarded her with a rare smile, which showed the dimples in his cheek but also his missing teeth. At other times, however, he railed against her, pounding her desk with his fists when she could not provide the answer to his question quickly enough. But tomorrow she was sure he would be on his best behavior when Principal Ri visited the classroom to judge the students.
It was customary for the winning student to give a present to the teacher, he had reminded them again before he dismissed the class that afternoon. But of course no one knew ahead of time who would win, so everyone would bring a gift, usually something to eat. Moon Young had already made up her mind to bring one of the cans from her uncle. She tried to remember the pictures on the labels that had been torn off—which ones held fish, which contained fruit, which vegetables—but it was impossible to recall. She and her mother had already consumed the contents of about half the cans, never knowing when they opened it what they would be eating that night. Her favorite had been from a large silver can. The stringy, yellow, pickled cabbage tasted like kimchi, but less spicy. She wondered if there was another can with the pickled cabbage. But then she remembered that her teacher’s breath often smelled like real kimchi, so he would probably regard the dish as inferior. No, she decided, she should pick one of the small, flat cans that seemed most often to contain headless fish. Maybe she would be lucky and find a can with all the heads, a delicacy that would surely win her teacher’s favor.
She had waited for her mother to come home to take a can from the hiding place above the cupboard. But what if her mother would not allow any of the cans to be given up? It was already so late that there would be no time to wear her mother down with promises of extra work or tears if need be.
Moon Young pushed the table close to the cupboard and placed a chair beside it. If she stood on top of the table, she could reach the hiding place. She glanced back over her shoulder at the door and stepped onto the chair and then the table. Her fingers searched along the wall above the cupboard until she felt the loose board. She pushed it inwards at the top, and the lower portion tilted out on its hinge. Her hand glided along the remaining cans until she discovered what she was looking for, a small, flat can with a key attached. She grabbed the can and was about to step down to the chair when the door opened. She slipped the can into her pocket and stood dumbly facing her mother.
“What are you doing?” her mother asked, startled at the sight of Moon Young on top of the table.
“I thought you would be hungry, so I was about to start dinner,” Moon Young answered, hoping her face and voice would not betray her.
“Get down. Now.”
Moon Young could not remember ever hearing such a tone in her mother’s voice. She reached out to steady herself on the chair back and stepped down gingerly. “I was just trying to help,” she lied.
“I’m sorry. I am very tired. I think I will lie down,” Sun Hi said, wishing not to worry the girl. She must get rid of the food before it was too late. “Go ahead and fix yourself something to eat. In fact, take down two or three of the cans. You should have a full stomach before your big day tomorrow,” she said, pulling her daughter closer to her.
Moon Young grinned. “I thought you had forgotten. Are you too tired to listen to my presentation?” she asked.
“I am never too tired to watch you perform,” Sun Hi replied. “But I will do so after you’ve eaten your meal. Now climb back up and hand me down the cans. Maybe you will get lucky and find the can of little oranges. Do you remember the pretty picture?”
Moon Young nodded. Too bad she had not thought of that one for her teacher.
in Woo fidgeted in his seat at the back of the classroom. He was disappointed in the performances of his students so far. Some had forgotten their lines, others mixed up dates. If Principal Ri had not been seated next to him, he would have shown his lazy students what such careless preparation deserved. But Ri just smiled as the students disgraced themselves. Perhaps Ri was laughing at him after he had bragged this would be his year. He dreaded calling on the new girl, but she was the only one who had not yet recited. He observed her sitting stiffly at her desk. Well, he thought, she couldn’t do worse than the others.
“Moon Young,” her teacher called out. She rose slowly, taking a deep breath as her mother had instructed. “Remember,” her mother had said, “forget about the students and your teacher. You will be performing only for me. Look to the back of the room and see me there, waiting to hear the story unfold.” She gazed over the heads of the class and fixed her eyes on the blank wall, trying to see her mother’s face, but all she could see was the discoloration of the paint where different layers showed through. She took off her glasses and put them in her pocket and suddenly the faces blurred and the image of her mother hovered.
“What are you waiting for?” Jin Woo shouted out. The girl would be his final humiliation. She had clearly forgotten what to say.
Moon Young turned her back to the audience, then spun around, as she had practiced. “It was springtime in Mangyongdae near the city of Pyongyang in the year 1912,” she pronounced, her voice strong and clear. “The city bloomed and the sun shone brightly in the cloudless blue sky, but few knew what a momentous day had dawned that April 15th.” She paused. “Even his own mother did not yet know that the child she gave birth to was to become a leader like no other the world had ever known.” She bent down as if lifting a baby from its basket, and held him up to the audience. “‘See my beautiful child,’ Kang Pan Sok said proudly.” Moon Young held her hands aloft, turning first left, then right, as if displaying the baby to the students. “But every mother is proud, and it was only as his virtuous mother and brave father, Kim Hyong Jik, watched their boy grow that they became aware that he was different from every other child,” she said. “One day, when he was only four, the boy climbed a tree outside his home. Soon neighbors gathered at the foot of the tree calling out his name. Pan Sok came running out of the house, wiping her hands on her slacks for she had been making dinner at the time. ‘Child, what are you doing, come down from there,” his mother cried. ‘I am catching the rainbow to put above our home,’” Moon Young sang out in a childish voice, as she lifted herself onto her tiptoes and reached her hands up as far as they would go. “’What a clever boy,’ the neighbors called out. And indeed Pan Sok knew at that moment that this was no ordinary child.”
Jin Woo watched in amazement. The girl had transformed herself, moving about the front of the classroom as if it was a stage. He listened as she described the Great Leader’s adolescence and early adulthood. She lifted her leg as if mounting a horse as she described the Great Leader’s escape to the mountains to join the guerillas fighting the Japanese, then bent on one knee aiming a rifle, her voice proclaiming the heroic deeds of the young Leader. Back and forth she marched across the room, at times gentle when she was pretending to help a fallen soldier, just like in the picture that hung on the wall, at other times fierce and commanding, her voice fluctuating with each incarnation of the Great Leader she portrayed.
“Quite a little actress you have there,” Ri leaned over to whisper to Jin Woo. “You saved the best until last.”
Jin Woo nodded enthusiastically. Who could have known that the girl would prove to have such talent? He looked at the clock. She had gone over her allotted time, but Ri seemed not to have noticed. Even the lazy students seemed mesmerized by the girl’s performance. At the end of her recitation, the girl turned her back to the audience again, bowed to the photos of the Great Leader and Dear Leader on the wall above the blackboard. But when she turned around there was no trace of the actress Jin Woo had just witnessed. She seemed the same dull child who stammered when he asked her questions and strained to see what was written on the board.
Moon Young put her glasses back on as she walked back to her desk, afraid to look up at her teacher. She could feel the sweat becoming sticky under her arms from her exertions.
“I don’t think there is much doubt as to who the winner is,” Principal Ri pronounced from the back of the room. “Stand up, Lee Moon Young,” he bellowed, clapping loudly. “You have won first prize in your class and for the school.”
The students picked up the rhythm of applause and even Jin Woo joined in wholeheartedly.
Moon Young blushed. She looked around to see students smiling at her and her teacher grinning broadly as he approached. She hoped that the small can of fish would not be a disappointment to him. “Please accept this token of my appreciation for helping me acquire knowledge of our Great Leader,” she said, handing him the can.
He frowned as he accepted the gift. The can was insignificant in size and weight, and he could not imagine what was in it. He had never seen one quite like it. Clearly the girl did not believe she would win, he thought. He placed the can on his desk as the bell dismissing class rang. One by one the students filed past, each one depositing a gift: steamed buns, dumplings, cold noodles, fresh fruit, a jar of kimchi, even a set of colored pencils and a pen. He would have quite a feast as he watched the evening news. But more important, he knew that Principal Ri would have little choice but to acknowledge, finally, that he had produced a winner, even if the ungrateful girl didn’t understand her duty to honor him with a fitting gift for having taught her all she knew about the Great Leader.
in Woo knocked on Principal Ri’s door, tapping three times. “Enter,” the principal’s voice answered. He hesitated a moment, wondering what the principal’s reaction would be to his complaint. Surely he would see the girl’s gift as the insult it was. He had not believed his own eyes when he finally pried the lid off the can—a black slimy mess of fish eggs.
Ri looked up from his desk at Jin Woo. It was hard to like the man, even when he had achieved the remarkable feat of producing a first-class performance from one of his students. “Here to gloat, my friend?” he asked. “You predicted you would produce a winner. I must say I had my doubts. But the Lee girl was quite a surprise.”
“It’s her I want to discuss,” Jin Woo said. He placed his satchel on the edge of the desk and reached inside. He pulled out the small can, which he had wrapped tightly in a rag to keep the contents from spilling over his papers. The room immediately filled with a fishy smell. “She has made a mockery of my efforts to enlighten her. It is as if she wants to insult me in order to elevate her own importance.”
Ri shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “What are you talking about, man? The girl’s performance was the best I have seen in the years I have been judging this contest. How is that an insult?”
“Look for yourself,” Jin Woo said, unwrapping the can of fish eggs.
Ri peered over the desk at the small can. “Where did you get this?” he demanded.
“From the girl. That’s my point,” Jin Woo said, satisfied now that he had not made a mistake in bringing the matter to his principal’s attention.
Ri took the can from Jin Woo and lifted it to his nose. “You have no idea what this is, do you?”
Jin Woo started to answer but could tell from the look on the principal’s face that he had somehow misjudged the situation. “I . . . I thought I should bring it to your attention,” he faltered. “Immediately.”
Ri studied the teacher’s face. It was clear the man did not know what he had in his possession, and the seriousness of the situation. He’d acted on petty grievance, no more.
“If I am not mistaken,” Ri said, breaking the awkward silence, “you have been given a can of Russian caviar.”
Jin Woo took in the foreign word caviar, but he had never heard it before. No matter. He knew enough to understand that the girl was in possession of foreign goods. “See? I told you she has given a grave insult,” he said.
“More likely a bribe, you fool,” Ri whispered. “That can is worth more than a month of your generous state stipend. Did you eat any of it?”
Jin Woo gasped. “Of course not,” he said, his voice rising with indignation.
“It is important that you not say—or do—anything that might alert the girl. My guess is her family is hiding much more contraband. Her uncle must have passed it on before he was arrested,” Ri said.
“Yes. I told you they had arrested the man for corruption. Hang Il’s father,” Ri said.
“But you didn’t mention . . . ”
Ri interrupted the teacher. “Yes, I did,” Ri said, glaring at the man. “I told you to keep an eye on the girl. Are you too dense to remember? I specifically instructed you to draw the girl out by whatever means you could conjure. But I will give you all the credit for making sure she won the contest. That was a stroke of genius,” he said, staring fixedly into the teacher’s eyes.
Jin Woo’s hands trembled as he picked up his satchel. He must be careful in everything he said to Ri. The principal was devising a way to protect himself from not having warned Jin Woo that one of his students was a member of the hostile class. And if Jin Woo contradicted Ri’s story, state security would accept Ri’s word over his and he would end up back in the camps where he had grown up. “I will be careful, Principal Ri,” he said, finally, though he knew that nothing he did could control the outcome.
oon Young,” Jin Woo called out to the girl as the students were leaving the classroom. “Stay a moment. I have something to discuss with you.”
Moon Young turned around obediently, though she had been eager to leave with one of the other girls who had suggested they walk home together. The day before, several students had come up to her to congratulate her after her performance, the first time any of them had so much as spoken two friendly words to her. When she told her mother about the compliments, her mother seemed as pleased that she had made friends as she was that Moon Young had won the honor of first prize in the competition.
Jin Woo smiled at the girl, who approached his desk cautiously. “So, you’ve done well, Moon Young. I must say I was surprised, but maybe I shouldn’t be. With your family connections, maybe you have studied acting,” he said. The girl’s eyes widened behind her new glasses. He had touched a nerve. “Well?” he asked when she did not reply.
Moon Young pulled the books she was carrying closer to her chest. “No,” she said trying to gauge her teacher’s reaction, but his face remained placid with the smile still on his lips. “My mother helped me.”
“And did your mother secure the very generous gift you gave me?” he asked, smiling even more broadly.
Moon Young froze. How had she not anticipated this?
Jin Woo watched as the girl’s terror spread across her face. Perhaps she would confess to everything on the spot. He waited, never taking his eyes from her face.
“It was me. I bought the fish,” she said, trying to recapture the confidence of her previous day’s performance. “I’m glad you liked it,” she said forcing a smile.
“Fish?” Jin Woo suppressed his desire to smirk. He had her exactly where he wanted. She would dig herself deeper and deeper into her lie. He felt like a cat with his paw on a mouse’s tail. Let her try to wiggle free. She would only prolong her suffering.
Moon Young took a deep breath. She could smell her own sweat, but it had a sickly acrid scent unlike the sweat from her performance. She wondered if her teacher could smell it too. “That is what I paid for,” she said.
“You got quite a bargain then,” Jin Woo said. “Perhaps your uncle assisted you . . . ”
“I bought the can at the market by the river,” Moon Young interrupted.
Clever girl, Jin Woo thought, admitting to a crime, but one that was rarely prosecuted these days. But when the truth came out, it would add to her offenses. “I see,” he said. “Get along now, you’ll miss catching up to your friends,” he said, waving her away.
Moon Young was glad the teacher didn’t press her further. But she had an uneasy feeling in the pit of her stomach.
un Hi paced the floor of the apartment, wringing her hands. What had her daughter done? She could barely believe the girl had been so foolish after she had been warned repeatedly about the canned food. “Tell me again, daughter. Exactly what did your teacher ask? What words did he use?”
Moon Young felt sick. She repeated the story, emphasizing that her teacher had been friendly throughout the conversation.
“And that was not enough to warn you?” her mother asked, incredulous at her daughter’s naiveté.
Moon Young tried to recall her teacher’s words, but it was her own words that troubled her. “I told him that I bought the can at the open air market, by the river,” she said finally.
“Good. Did he seem to accept the explanation?”
Moon Young dropped her head, holding back her tears. “No,” she muttered.
“How do you know? What did he say, child? It is important. We must prepare our stories. Who knows how long we have,” Sun Hi said, wanting to elicit as much information as possible without terrifying her daughter.
“He said I got a bargain.”
“Did you tell him how much you had paid?”
“No. Just that I had bought the fish at the market.”
Sun Hi sank into the chair. “How did you know the can contained fish, Moon Young?”
“I . . . I assumed. It was like the cans that had the headless fish, but round.” She was fearful of telling her mother about her teacher’s accusations about her family’s connections, but to keep the information from her mother might endanger her. “There was something else he said.”
“Tell me!” Sun Hi’s heart beat rapidly as she reached out to grab her daughter’s arm.
“He talked about our ‘family connections,’” Young Moon whispered.
Sun Hi loosened her grip on the girl’s arm. “He knows about your uncle then. And if he does, he probably knows that he has been sent to the kwan li so—and why.” She stood up and picked up the chair. “We must get rid of everything,” she said as she placed the chair beneath the cupboard. She wanted to scream at the girl, who had endangered their lives in an effort to win favor with a man who had mistreated her. But what point was there? Their lives would soon be altered irrevocably, and Moon Young would suffer enough.
“I wanted to make you happy,” Moon Young said, as she took the cans from her mother’s hands. “The happiest in the world.”