Star of the North is the debut thriller by D B John, perfect for fans of Robert Harris, Terry Hayes and Mick Herron.
When a young American woman disappears without trace from a South Korean island, the CIA recruits her twin sister to uncover the truth. Now, she must go undercover in the world’s most deadly state. Only by infiltrating the dark heart of the terrifying regime will she be able to save her sister – and herself.
Read on for the first chapter of Star of the North…
Star of the North
D B John
The sea was calm the day Soo-min disappeared.
She was watching the boy make a fire out of driftwood. The tide was rumbling in, bringing towering clouds that were turning an ashy pink. She hadn’t seen a single boat all day and the beach was deserted. They had the world to themselves.
She pointed her camera and waited for him to turn his head. ‘Jin-hwa…?’ Later, the photograph she took would show a strong-limbed youth of nineteen with a shy smile. He was dark for a Korean and had a dusting of salt on his shoulders, like a pearl fisher. She handed him the camera and he took one of her. ‘I wasn’t ready,’ she laughed. In this photograph she would be in the act of sweeping her long hair from her face. Her eyes were closed, her expression one of pure contentment.
The fire was catching now, wood groaning and splitting. Jinhwa placed a battered pan onto the heat, balancing it on three stones, and poured in sesame oil. Then he lay beside her where the sand was soft and warm, just above the high tide mark, resting on his elbow and looking at her. Her necklace, later the object of such sorrow and remembrance, caught his eye. It was a thin silver chain with a tiny silver pendant in the shape of a tiger, representing the Korean tiger. He touched it with the tip of his finger. Soo-min pressed his hand to her breast and they began to kiss, foreheads pressed together, lip and tongue caressing. He smelled of the ocean, and spearmint, and cuttlefish, and Marlboros. His wispy beard scratched her chin. All these details, everything, she was already telling her sister in the airmail letter she was unconsciously composing in her head.
The sesame oil began to spit in the pan. Jin-hwa fried a cuttlefish and they ate it with chili sauce and rice balls, watching the sun sink to the horizon. The clouds had turned to flame and smoke, and the sea was an expanse of purple glass. When they finished eating he took out his guitar and began singing ‘Arirang’ in his quiet, clear voice, looking at her with the firelight in his eyes. The song found the somber rhythm of the surf, and she felt a blissful certainty that she would remember this all her life.
His singing stopped mid-note.
He was staring in the direction of the sea, his body as sprung as a cat’s. Then he threw aside the guitar and leapt to his feet.
Soo-min followed the line of his gaze. The sand was cratered and lunar in the firelight. She could see nothing. Just the breakers thundering in a dim white spume that fanned out flat on the sand.
And then she saw it.
In a small area beyond the breaking surf, about a hundred yards from the shoreline, the sea was beginning to churn and boil, stirring the water to pale foam. A fountain was rising, just visible in the dying light. Then a great jet of spray shot upward with a hiss, like breath from a whale’s blowhole.
She stood up and reached for his hand.
Before their eyes the roiling waters were beginning to part, as if the sea were splitting open, revealing a black, glistening object.
Soo-min felt her insides coiling. She was not superstitious, but she had a visceral feeling that something malefic was making itself evident. Every instinct, every fiber in her body was telling her to run.
Suddenly a light blinded them. A beam surrounded by an orange halo was coming from the sea and was focused on them, dazzling them.
Soo-min turned and pulled Jin-hwa with her. They stumbled in soft, deep sand, abandoning their possessions. But they had taken no more than a few steps when another sight stopped them dead in their tracks.
Figures in black masks were emerging from the shadows of the dunes and running toward them, holding ropes.
Date: June 22, 1998, Case ref: 734988/220598
BY FACSIMILE TRANSMISSION
REPORT by the Incheon Metropolitan Police at the request of the National Police Agency, Seodaemun-gu, Seoul
Orders were to determine whether the two missing persons last sighted at 14:30 on June 17 had departed Bengnyong Island prior to their disappearance. Respectfully submitted by Inspector Ko Eun-tek:
1. Security video images procured from the Bengnyong Island Ferry Terminal establish to a high degree of certainty that no one resembling the missing persons boarded the ferry during any of its departures within the relevant time. Conclusion: the missing persons did not leave the island via the ferry.
2. The coastguard reported no other shipping in the area at the time of the missing persons’ last sighting. Due to the island’s proximity to North Korea, marine traffic is highly restricted. Conclusion: the missing persons did not depart the island by any other boat.
3. A local resident discovered yesterday, next to the remains of a camp fire on Condol Beach, a guitar, footwear, items of clothing, a camera, and wallets containing cash, return ferry tickets, IDs, and library cards belonging to the missing persons. IDs for both persons match the personal details supplied by Sangmyung University. They belonged to:
Park Jin-hwa, male, 19, permanent resident of the Doksan district of Seoul whose mother lives on Bengnyong Island.
Williams Soo-min, female, 18, United States citizen who arrived in the country in March to enroll as an undergraduate.
4. At 0700 today the coastguard commenced an air-sea helicopter search operation over a range of 5 nautical miles. No trace of the missing persons was found. Conclusion: both persons drowned by misadventure while swimming. The sea was calm but currents have been unusually strong, according to the coastguard. The bodies may by now have been carried some considerable distance.
With your agreement, we will now suspend the helicopter search, and humbly recommend that the missing persons’ families be informed.
The seed of factionalists or enemies of class, whoever they are, must be eliminated through three generations.
Kim Il-sung, 1972
Year 60 of the Juche Era
October 8, 2010
Jenna was jolted awake by her breath forcing up a shout.
She was breathing hard, eyes wide, her vision distorted in the lens of the nightmare. In the confused seconds between dream and waking she could never move her body. Slowly the dim dimensions of the room took shape. Steam hissed softly in the radiators, and the distant chimes of the clock tower counted the hour. She sighed and closed her eyes again. Her hand was at her neck. It was there, the thin silver necklace with the tiny silver tiger. It was always there. She threw off the duvet, feeling the chill air settle on her perspiring body like a linen veil.
An indent formed silently next to her on the bed. Ambergreen eyes made mirrors in the faint light. Cat had materialized from nowhere, another dimension, as if summoned by the chimes. ‘Hey,’ she said, stroking his head.
The clock-radio switched a digit.
‘‑retary of State has condemned the launch as “a highly provocative act that threatens the region’s security…”’
The kitchen tiles were icy beneath her bare feet. She poured milk for Cat, microwaved the cold coffee she found in the pot, and sipped it, steeling herself for the backlog of voicemails on her phone. Dr Levy had called to confirm her appointment for 9a.m. The editor of East Asia Quarterly wanted to discuss the publication of her paper, and asked, ominously, if she’d heard this morning’s news. The older messages were in Korean and all from her mother. She skipped through them to the original one—an invitation to lunch in Annandale on Sunday—in which her mother sounded dignified and hurt, and Jenna felt guilt rise inside her like an acid reflux.
Cradling her coffee, she stared out at the gloom of her yard but saw only the bright interior of her kitchen reflected in the window. She had to force herself to accept that the hollow-eyed, underweight thirty-year-old staring back at her was herself.
She found her sneakers and running pants in a heap beneath the piano stool, tied her hair back, and headed out into the cold on O Street, meeting the mailman’s unsmiling stare. That’s right, buddy, I’m black and I live in this neighborhood. She started to run through the half-tones beneath the trees, down to the towpath. Georgetown had a Sleepy Hollow feel this morning. A chill Nor’easter carried leaves across a brushed-steel sky. Pumpkins leered from windows and doorsteps. She was sprinting before she’d even warmed up, the breeze from the canal blowing the bad dream from her hair.
The man gave a weary smile. ‘We won’t make progress if you won’t talk to me.’ Beneath the coaxing Jenna sensed the bedrock of his boredom. On the notebook rested on his knee, he’d succumbed to a doodle. She was focusing on a pastry crumb lodged in his beard, just to the right of his mouth. ‘You say it’s the same nightmare?’
She exhaled slowly. ‘There are always variations, but it’s basically the same. We’ve been over it many times.’ Without thinking, she touched the necklace at her throat.
‘If we don’t get to the heart of it, you’ll keep having it.’
Her head slumped back on the couch. She searched the ceiling for words, but found none.
He rubbed the bridge of his nose beneath his glasses and looked at her with a kind of exasperation and relief, as if he’d reached the edge of the map and could abandon the journey with a clear conscience. He closed his notebook.
‘I’m wondering if you’d be better off seeing a bereavement councilor. Maybe that’s what’s wrong here? You’re still feeling your loss. It’s been twelve years, I know, but with some of us time heals more slowly.’
‘No, thank you.’
‘Then what are we doing here today?’
‘I’m out of Prazosin.’
‘We’ve talked about this,’ he said with an exaggerated patience. ‘Prazosin won’t address the original trauma that’s causing your—’
She got up and reached for her jacket. She had on her white shirt and slim-fit black pants, her work clothes. Her shiny black hair was tied back in a loose knot. ‘I’m sorry, Dr Levy, I have a class in a few minutes.’
He sighed and reached for the pad on his desk. ‘All my patients call me Don, Jenna,’ he said, scribbling. ‘I’ve told you that.’
The image appeared as if through a window in space. China was a million points of light, its new cities brash clusters of halogen and neon. Towns and villages without number glittered like diamonds in anthracite. In the lower right of the projector screen, the shipyards and container ports of Nagasaki and Yokohama blazed sodium amber into the night. Between the Sea of Japan and the Yellow Sea, South Korea was fringed with glowing coastal arteries, its vast capital, Seoul, a brilliant chrysanthemum. The center of the image, however, was a swathe of darkness.
It was not ocean; it was a country, a mountainous land of unlight and shadow, where only the capital city emitted a faint incandescence, an ember in the ash.
The class, seated in semicircular tiers around the lectern, gazed at the satellite picture in silence.
‘As you all heard this morning,’ Jenna said, ‘the North Koreans launched another Unha-3 rocket yesterday. If, as they claim, the technology is peaceful, and the kwangmyongsong satellite is in orbit to monitor crops, then this is the view they’ll have of their country by night…’
‘Kwangmyongsong as in, like, “bright star”?’
Jenna switched on the lectern lamp. A Korean-American girl had asked the question. The name did sound ironic. In the galaxy of lights on the screen, North Korea was a black hole.
‘Yes, or brilliant star or guiding star,’ Jenna said. ‘The name is rich with symbolism in North Korea. Anyone know why?’
‘The cult of the Kims,’ said a boy in a Red Sox cap—another Korean, a defector Jenna had recommended for a scholarship.
She turned to the screen and flicked forward through shots of Pyongyang’s traffic-free boulevards, of triumphal arches and mass games, and found the image she was looking for. A quiver of mirth rippled across the room, but the faces of the students were rapt. The photograph showed rows of drab citizens bowing before a full-length portrait of a portly, smiling man wearing a tight-fitting beige casual jacket and matching pants. It was surrounded by a display of red begonias, and beneath it a slogan in
red-painted Korean script read: KIM JONG IL IS THE GUIDING STAR OF THE 21ST CENTURY!
‘In the official state mythology,’ Jenna said, ‘the Dear Leader was born in 1942 in a secret guerilla base inside Japanese-occupied Korea. His birth was foretold by the appearance of a bright new star in the skies above Mount Paektu. He himself is sometimes called Guiding Star – kwangmyongsong.’
From the back of the theater someone said, ‘Was his mother a virgin?’ The class snickered.
At that moment the overhead lights blinked on and the dean entered. Professor Runyon, Jenna’s boss, was in his fifties, but his stooped shoulders, bow tie, and corduroy jacket made him seem about seventy, and his parched, thin-air voice closer to eighty.
‘Have I missed a joke?’ he said, peering at the class over his reading glasses. Leaning into Jenna’s ear he said, ‘I’m loath to interrupt, Dr Williams. Would you come with me, please?’
In the corridor outside he said, ‘The provost just called me. We have a visitor from… some opaque government body.’ He gave her a bemused smile. ‘He wants to meet you. Know anything about this?’
The Riggs Library was a vaulted Gothic chamber that housed the antiquarian books. It was deserted but for a man in a dark-gray suit standing with his profile toward them. He was holding a coffee cup and watching an impromptu soccer game being played on the lawn.
Professor Runyon cleared his throat and the man turned. Without waiting for an introduction he stepped forward and shook Jenna’s hand warmly. ‘Charles Fisk,’ he said. ‘Director of the Institute of Strategic Studies.’ He was tall, strongly built, and in his early sixties. His nose was slightly bulbous and cleft at the tip, his hair silver and crinkled, like carpet cord.
‘Dr Williams is an assistant professor in our School of Foreign Service,’ Runyon said, still with a trace of bemusement. ‘We do have more senior staff available, who might be more—’
‘Thank you, sir, that’s all,’ the man said, and handed him the cup.
Runyon stared at it for a moment, before inclining his head as if he’d been paid a compliment, and creeping backward toward the door like a mandarin courtier.
When the door had closed and they were alone Jenna’s only thought was that she was in some kind of trouble. The man was observing her with an odd intensity. Everything about him, the cavalry bearing, the bone-crusher handshake, the formal friendliness, said ‘military’.
He said, ‘I apologize for dragging you out of class.’ The voice was deep and well-modulated. ‘May I call you Jenna?’
‘May I ask what this is about?’
He was smiling and frowning at the same time. ‘My name is not familiar to you? Your father never mentioned me?’
She kept her gaze neutral, composed, but she felt mildly alarmed, as she did whenever anyone revealed even the most trivial knowledge of her family.
‘No. I don’t remember my father ever mentioning a Charles Fisk.’
‘Served with him in signals intelligence. U.S. Eighth Army in Seoul. That was, oh, many years ago now, before you were born. He was the highest-ranking African American in the garrison. Did you know that?’
She said nothing, continuing to meet his gaze. A memory was stirring at the back of her mind. Of her Uncle Cedric, her father’s brother, throwing earth onto the casket as it was lowered into the ground, and her arms tightly holding her wailing mother, and the air filled with the smell of damp leaves, and, standing in the background at a respectful distance, next to the cortège, a row of men in long military coats, baring their heads to the rain as a bugle was played, then replacing their caps with visors pulled low. With the certainty of intuition she knew that this man had been among them.
A bell chimed in the clock tower. She glanced at her watch.
‘You have no further classes until three,’ he said. ‘I asked the provost to reschedule your teaching.’
‘Why would the provost agree to do that?’
‘I told him I need your advice on a matter of national security.’
Jenna was too surprised to stop herself. ‘Bullshit.’
He looked at her benignly, a wise great uncle with a wayward niece. ‘I’ll explain over lunch.’
Jenna followed Fisk’s broad back as the maître d’ guided them to a table. The restaurant, on 36th Street, was in a federal-period townhouse decorated with equestrian antiques and Limoges china plates. Portraits of the founding fathers gazed over a paneled dining room filled with the murmur of male conversation. She was feeling bang out of place, and annoyed. This man who claimed to have known her father, this total stranger who had hijacked her day, had brushed aside her protests with the ease of one who invariably got his way.
‘The Maine lobster is very good,’ he said, flicking open his napkin and smiling at her as if this were her birthday treat.
‘I’m really not hungry—’
‘Let’s have a dozen oysters to start.’
The waiter was quizzed on the merits of particular sauces, a bottle of Saint-Émilion was ordered and tasted, and glasses poured (again, her objections were waved away with a smile). It was an ostentatious display of good breeding, and she wondered how much of it was a show for her benefit. Slowly, after she’d taken a cautious sip of the wine, and conceded the futility of resisting such overwhelming bonhomie, Jenna felt her annoyance give way to curiosity.
She said, ‘My father never talked about his friends or colleagues in the army. I’d always assumed—’
‘He was a private man, as you know.’
The thought crossed her mind that this was some elaborate confidence trick.
‘How well did you know him?
‘Well enough to be best man at his wedding.’
This was a surprise. Her mind instantly pictured that miserable red-brick Lutheran church in Seoul where her parents had married. She had always imagined it was just the two of them and a pastor. Her mother’s family had stayed away and had refused to give her a second, Korean wedding, as was the custom, going so far as to shun her for years afterward.
‘When he brought your mother to Virginia I kept in touch with him. Later, I served with him again at Fort Meade and then at Fort Belvoir…’
He began to reminisce, recalling legends and anecdotes about her father from a time before she was born, or had been very young. Some she knew; others she’d never heard, but it was becoming increasingly evident that this man knew a great deal. He was even familiar with the more recent history, the decline in her family’s fortunes—her father’s drinking and his discharge from the army, her mother starting a modest business as a wedding planner to make ends meet—all of which he related in a kindly tone, an old friend remembering the family saga, occasionally glancing at her as he doused an oyster in wine vinegar and lemon juice before tipping it into his throat. And suddenly she began to see, with a rising panic, where this was leading. He was getting closer, skating in slow, decreasing circles around the subject she would not speak of, the abyss into which she would not look.
He noticed her discomposure, and stopped, his fork poised in the air. Sighing, he leaned back in his seat and gave her a defeated smile, as if to show her he was dropping all pretenses. In a gentle voice he said, ‘You’re afraid I’m going to mention your sister.’
The words dropped from his mouth like rocks. Jenna went very still. The hum of conversation and chinking of silver on china faded to the background. She could hear her own breathing.
The next course was placed in front of them, but Jenna continued to stare at him.
‘You know,’ he said softly, ‘I sometimes think the things that are really worth talking about are the things people absolutely refuse to discuss.’
Trying to keep her voice level she said, ‘Who are you?’
His expression changed slightly, becoming colder, more serious. ‘I’m a spook, and I really did know your father. I’ve been keeping a professional eye on you for a long time. You needn’t look so surprised.’ He broke off some bread and buttered it, watching her. His eyes were a pumice gray and had acquired an unnerving directness. ‘You’re a valedictorian with academic grades that are off the chart. You’re a national merit scholar with the highest IQ recorded in Virginia. Your doctoral thesis was so exceptional it guaranteed you a fast-track academic career. “The Evolution of the Workers’ Party as the Kim Dynasty’s Instrument of Power, 1948 to the Present.” Yes, I’ve read it. You grew up in dual cultures, with dual languages. You spent three months last year in Jilin Province, China, perfecting your grasp of North Korean dialect. You’re fit and athletic. You were a finalist in junior league taekwondo. You run. You keep to yourself; you keep secrets. You’re highly independent. A set of skills and qualities like that wasn’t going to pass us by unnoticed.’
‘Who is us?’
‘We’re the Agency, Jenna. The CIA.’
Jenna let out a soft groan. She had the sensation of having been set up, and felt foolish for not seeing it coming. This was followed by a flash of anger at the realization that her father’s memory had been used as a lure.
‘Sir…’ She put her cutlery down next to the barely touched main course. ‘You’re wasting your own time and mine.’ She touched the phone in her pocket, wondering whether it was too late to unpick the changes this man had caused to her teaching schedule. ‘I should get back to work.’
‘Relax,’ he said genially. ‘We’re just talking.’
She looped her handbag onto her shoulder and moved to get up. ‘Thank you for lunch.’
The bass register of his voice cut easily through the sounds of the restaurant, even though he spoke quietly. ‘At 0600 Korean Standard Time yesterday the Kwangmyongsong rocket blasted off from the Tonghae Satellite Launch site on North Korea’s northeast coast, in violation of multiple U.N. Security Council Resolutions. It carried no satellite. Its technology was entirely hostile.’ Jenna froze. ‘We tracked the launch. The rocket’s third stage fell into the Philippine Sea where it was picked up by the U.S. Seventh Fleet before the North Koreans could recover it. They were testing the heat shield for a long-range thermonuclear missile, which they’ll soon be aiming at our west coast. Your food’s getting cold.’
He had begun eating. ‘Grilled sea bass in a champagne sauce…’ He closed his eyes. ‘Perfection.’
Her mind was whirring through scenarios. She was barely aware that she had sat back down. ‘My God,’ she mumbled. She had a sudden image of a shooting star high over the Pacific. Kwangmyongsong. ‘This means—’
‘I want you to work for me.’ He’d spoken with his mouth full of steaming food. ‘In the CIA Directorate of Operations.’
She did a double blink. ‘I’m… not CIA material. You may think you know everything about me but you don’t know that I see a shrink once a week. I take medication for nightmares.’
He gave her a pleasant grin, and she realized that he knew that too.
‘I’ve been recruiting agents for decades. It’s given me a gift for psychology, you could say. You, Dr Williams, may be one of the most promising candidates I’ve ever met.’ He leaned toward her confidentially. ‘You’re not just smart. You have a powerfully personal motive for serving your country.’
She looked at him warily.
‘You know what I’m talking about.’ Again, his voice was full of sympathy. ‘I have no answers for you. You may never learn the truth of what happened to your sister on that beach. But I offer secrets. I offer the possibility that one day a door may open and you may know. Her disappearance haunts you. I’m right, aren’t I? It’s made you cold and lonely. It’s made you trust no-one and nothing, only yourself.’
‘Soo-min drowned,’ she said weakly. ‘That’s all there is to it.’
His voice fell to a murmur. He was treading with care now. ‘No body was found. She may have drowned…’ He studied Jenna, reading her. ‘But you can’t rule out the other possibility…’
Jenna closed her eyes. This was her most private article of faith and it was being contradicted. ‘She drowned. I know she did.’ She sighed unhappily. ‘If you knew how many years it’s taken just for me to say those words…’
She stopped and gulped. Suddenly she was fighting back tears and had to look away.
She left the restaurant before he could stop her. She was out of the door and onto the street, breathing in great mouthfuls of sky, walking back to the college as fast as she could, the wind catching at her hair and coat and sending leaves eddying around her.
Mrs Moon was foraging for pine mushrooms when the balloon came down. She watched it glide between the trees and land on a fox-trail without a sound. Its body shimmered and the light shone straight through it, but she knew it wasn’t a spirit. When she got closer she saw that it was a deflating polythene cylinder about two meters in length, carrying a small plastic sack attached by strings. Strange, she thought, kneeling down with difficulty. And yet she had been half expecting something. For the past three nights there had been a comet in the sky to the west, though what it signified, good or ill, she could not decide.
She listened to make sure she was alone. Nothing. Just the creaking of the forest and a turtle dove flapping suddenly upward. She slit open the plastic sack with her foraging knife, and felt inside. To her astonishment she pulled out two pairs of new warm woolen socks, then a small electric flashlight with a wind-up handle, then a packet of plastic lighters. And something else: a red carton with a picture of a chocolate cookie on the lid. Inside it were twelve cookies, sealed in garish red and white wrappers. She held one to the light and squinted. Choco Pie, she read, moving her lips. Made in South Korea. Mrs Moon turned to peer in the direction the balloon had come from. The wind had carried this thing all the way from the South? A few ri further and it would have landed in China!
The sky to the east was bleeding red light through the treetops, but she could see no more balloons, just a formation of geese arriving for the winter. Now that was a good omen. The forest whispered and sighed, telling her it was time to leave. She looked at the Choco Pie in her hand. Unable to resist, she opened the wrapper and took a bite. Flavors of chocolate and marshmallow melted on her tongue.
Oh, my dear ancestors.
She clutched it to her chest. This was something valuable.
Feeling flutters of excitement, she quickly put the items back into the sack and hid the sack in her basket beneath the firewood and fern bracken. Then she hobbled down the forest track, licking her lips. She’d reached the lane that ran along edge of the fields when she heard men shouting.
Three figures were running across the fields in the direction of the forest—the farm director himself, followed by one of the ox drivers and a soldier with a rifle on his back.
They had seen the balloon go down.
All day she worked the field in silence, uprooting corn stalks with the women of her work unit, moving along the furrows marked by red banners. ‘Enemy balloons were seen in the sky at dawn,’ one of the women said. ‘The army’s been shooting them down and the radio’s warning everyone not to touch them.’
A biting wind swept down from the mountains. The banners flapped. Mrs Moon’s back ached and her knees were killing her.
She kept her basket close and said nothing. At the far edge of the field, she could see only one guard today, bored, smoking. She wondered if the others were searching for balloons.
When the watchtower sounded the siren at six she hurried home. The distant summit of Mount Paektu was turning crimson, its crags etched sharply against the evening sky, but the houses of the village, nestled on a slope of the valley, were in deep shadow. The Party’s face was everywhere—in letters carved on stone plaques; in a mural of colored glass depicting the Dear Leader standing in a field of golden wheat; in the tall obelisk that proclaimed the eternal life of his father, the Great Leader. Coal smoke drifted from the chimneys of the huts, which were neat and white with tiled roofs and small vegetable patches at the rear. It was so quiet she could hear the oxen lowing on the farm. The temperature was dropping fast. Her knees had swollen up painfully.
She pushed open her door and found Tae-hyon sitting crossed-legged on the floor, smoking a roll-up of black tobacco. Under the exposed bulb his face was as lined and rutted as an exhausted field.
He’d done nothing all day, she could tell. But it was important to her that a husband shouldn’t lose face, so she smiled and said, ‘I’m so happy I married you’.
Tae-hyon looked away. ‘I’m glad one of us is cheerful.’
She lowered her basket to the floor and slipped off her rubber boots. The electricity would go off at any minute so she lit a kerosene lantern and placed it on the low table. Her concrete floor was spic and span, the sleeping mats rolled up, her glazed kimchi pots stood in a row next to the iron stove, and the air-brushed faces on the wall, the portraits of the Leaders, Father and Son, were clean and dusted with the special cloth.
Tae-hyon was eyeing the basket. She had not found a single mushroom in the forest, and had nothing but fern bracken and corn stalks to add to the soup, but tonight, at least, he would not be disappointed. She took the plastic sack from her basket and showed it to him. ‘On a balloon,’ she said, dropping her voice. ‘From the village below.’
Tae-hyon’s eyes bulged on hearing the euphemism for the South, and followed her hand as she took out each item and placed it on the floor in front of him. Then she opened the carton of cookies and gave him the uneaten half of her Choco Pie. His mouth moved slowly as he ate, savoring the heavenly flavors, and in a gesture that broke her heart he reached out and held her hand.
Tomorrow she would scatter an offering of salt to the mountain spirits, she said, and travel into Hyesan to sell the cookies. With the money she would make, she could—
Three hard knocks sounded at the door.
A cold terror passed between them. She swept the items underneath the low table and opened the door. A woman of about fifty was on the doorstep, holding up an electric lamp. Her head was wrapped in a grimy headscarf and she wore a red armband on the sleeve of her overalls. Her face was as plain as a blister.
‘An enemy balloon was found in the forest with the package removed,’ she said. ‘The Bowibu are warning us not to touch them. They’re carrying poison chemicals.’
Mrs Moon bowed. ‘If we see one, Comrade Pak, we’ll report it.’
The woman’s hard eyes moved from Mrs Moon to the room behind her, then narrowed in contempt as she regarded Taehyon sitting on the floor. ‘Everyone in the hall by eight,’ she said, turning away. The light of her lamp danced along the path. ‘Correct revolutionary attitudes in the workplace is tonight’s theme…’
Mrs Moon closed the door. ‘Poison chemicals, my foot,’ she muttered.
She lit the stove to prepare dinner, while Tae-hyon studied each of the items from the balloon, holding them close to the lantern.
He felt the socks and pressed the wool to his cheek; he wound the small handle of the electric flashlight and shone it at the ceiling; he ran his finger over the labels and trademarks of that mysterious parallel universe, the South. Then the plastic sack caught his eye.
‘Something else in here,’ he said, opening it up.
In her haste to leave the forest that morning Mrs Moon had not noticed the bundle of loose paper flyers at the bottom of the sack. He held one to the light.
“To our brothers and sisters in the North, from your brethren in the South! You are in our prayers always. We miss you and care about your suffering. We await with joy the day when North and South are reunited through the love of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
Tae-hyon squinted at the flyer. An extreme wariness entered his voice.
‘“Hasten the coming of that day. Rise against the deceiver who tells you that you are prosperous and free, when in truth you are impoverished and in chains. Brothers and sisters, Kim Jong-il is a tyrant! His cruelty and lust for power are without limit. While you starve and freeze he lives in palaces like an emp—”’
The flyer was picked out of his hand before he could say another word. Mrs Moon heard her breathing sound ragged. Suddenly she swept the rest of the flyers from his lap and in one movement crossed the room, opened the stove, and thrust them onto the coals.
Tae-hyon was staring up at the portraits on the wall, his mouth open, and it was at that moment that the electricity went off. In the flicker of the lantern the eyes of the Leaders seemed to glitter, and a condemned look came into Tae-hyon’s face. ‘The Bowibu…’ he whispered. He began running his fingers through his hair, a habit he had when he wished something wasn’t happening. ‘They’ll know…’ His voice was hoarse. ‘They’ll know we’ve read those words. They’ll see it in our faces. They’ll make us confess…’ He looked at his wife with an animal fear. ‘Take these things back where you found them…’
But Mrs Moon was staring into the flames behind the small glass grille of the stove, watching the flyers blacken and curl.
Something in those words had sent her back through time. A lifetime had passed since she’d heard that name, fifty years at least. Our Lord Jesus Christ… A name erased from history. Suddenly the memory opened like a secret drawer: her mother and a group of grown-ups in a room with the door and window closed, and a verse being read from a big heavy book, and a candle lit, and words chanted in unison. And singing. Quiet, soft singing.
A lamb goes uncomplaining forth, the guilt of all men bearing…
From long habit she snapped the memory shut, and locked it away with all the others. She turned to her husband, who had covered his face with his hands.
‘No one will know,’ she said.
She opened the front door stepped out into the cold. The sky blazed with stars, and there, low in the west above the mountains, was the comet, bright with two tails.
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