By Robert Earle
Na Cheon would put her father’s high-crowned general’s hat on the floor of the family room. The hat was olive brown with green piping; and the five-pointed red star on its badge stood out brightly against a white enamel background. She wasn’t allowed to wear the hat, but she could pretend it was a castle that kept her safe. No one could scale its height. Too steep! There was room inside for pantries, schoolrooms, armories, little baby rooms, big people rooms, her brothers’ rooms, her mother and father’s room, cellars below and attics above. Her mother called her a “squib”, she could hide anywhere inside it. Sometimes the Beloved Leader magically appeared on the patent leather brim her mother wiped for her father before he went to work each morning, ensuring no dust or fingerprints. Those were special moments. Na Cheon could barely breathe. Before the Beloved Leader passed through the veil of olive brown wool, he told the world her father was courageous and efficient, supervising the not-human insects in his section of the camp.
Her mother, her father’s second wife, always said then, “We are so sad your first wife could not live to see you wear it.”
“I didn’t see it, either,” Na Cheon said.
“You weren’t born!” said Chin Ho, one of her half-brothers.
The great music and praise came through the speaker in the wall, but she scarcely heard it. She wanted to hear what her other brother, Jae-Hwa, would say.
“Our father, servant of Great Beloved Leader!” he cried.
Na Cheon helped her mother clean their house in Camp 22. They sang patriotically as they worked. Afterwards she joined the other officers’ children to dance and turn somersaults and stand on their hands.
When she was five, the colonel general came to visit. He saw Na Cheon playing with her father’s hat.
“What is this?” he asked Na Cheon’s father. “Lieutenant General, your hat is on the floor!”
“My daughter pretends it is a castle.”
“A castle! It is a lieutenant general’s hat, not a castle! What is wrong with the girl?”
Her father bowed his head in shame. Tears welled in his eyes. “I put it on the highest shelves, but she climbs and gets it.”
“A symbol of your honour in such disgrace? How can you put a hat on your head that has been on the floor? I gave you that hat! How many times has it been on the floor?”
Her father begged forgiveness. His whole body trembled. “Na Cheon is a child of misfortune. My first wife bore me brave strong boys but now this second wife, look at what she has done, giving me this wretched child.”
The great music and praise poured from the speaker in the wall but no other sound. Na Cheon grew so afraid she tinkled.
“Look!” her half-brother, Chin Ho, cried. “She fouls our home!”
“Na Cheon, you disgust me!” Her father pulled her into the air by an arm. “Insect! Insect!”
Her mother pleaded. “Please, honoured sir, let her go!”
“Let her go? No, take her where no one is human!” He swung Na Cheon at her mother. “Take her and stay there yourself!”
Na Cheon and her mother were pushed out into the cold as the colonel general watched and Chin Ho slammed the door shut behind them.
Her mother banged on the door to be let in. Her father rushed out. He had his hat on. “Go! Go!” he cried.
Guards came running. He ordered them to take his second wife and Na Cheon to where the not-human women lived with their not-human children. Insects!
Over her father’s shoulder, Na Cheon saw satisfaction on the colonel general’s face and despair in Jae-Hwa’s face. The soldiers pushed her and her mother down the hill to where the not-human insect women lived with not-human insect children under the age of six because, after six years of age, not-human insect children became orphans and lived only among themselves.
Na Cheon had never dug in the earth with a sharpened stick; never rolled a barrow on its wooden wheels; never eaten weeds; never seen women push up their behinds for rabbit sex when guards got near them; never slept with her face between her mother’s breasts and her mother’s hand over her bum so no one could finger it at night; never heard about the pigeon torture, the water torture, the kneeling torture, or the box-room torture which she thought would be the worst. What if she could crouch in the box but not pull in her hands and feet? What if they cut off her fingers to make her fit? What if they cut off her toes? She asked her mother when her father would rescue them. Her mother said never.
“But he is a lieutenant general!”
“No! Because of you the colonel general took away his hat. He is brigadier general again.”
Na Cheon still thought a brigadier general could save them, but when she was six, she was relocated to the not-human insect orphans’ barracks where the other children knew her story and abused her. The guards never stopped them. The guards were merciless. They did not even remove the bodies of children who died working in the fields. The bodies lay there; they turned green and the real insects gnawed them and the other children came over and pinched the insects away and ate them, worms and maggots and shiny blue flies that looked as though they had been dipped in oil. Na Cheon ate them, too, better than weeds. She also had a secret rock where she dried worms in the sun to make them taste better.
One night a general’s jeep chattered to a halt in front of the orphans’ hut. The general threw open the door and flashed his light so that he could see the children lying on the floor. Normally, children who were taken away on such occasions came back sworn not to tell what had happened, but they did tell. Was it better or worse to be taken? Better. Sometimes they got food although sometimes they only got what came out of the man, the white stuff.
The general’s flashlight reached Na Cheon who did not realize that it was her half-brother, Jae-Hwa, in her father’s uniform and brigadier’s hat. He snatched her up and drove to the not-human-insect-women’s hut to rescue her mother. Then he drove down a long road and told them he had killed his father and Chin Ho, too. He beat them to death with a skillet. Next he used the skillet on the guard at the camp’s fence. Then Jae-Hwa pushed his stepmother and sister out of the jeep and ran it into the fence to make a hole. There was a tremendous flash and blue fire all over the jeep, but Jae-Hwa had leaped out, returned, grabbed them, and said if one fell, the others must keep running, and if one was swept away by the river, the others must keep struggling, but he would carry Na Cheon on his shoulders and hold his stepmother’s hand and they would escape to China and find a South Korean who would get them to Seoul where the Americans would keep them safe.
China was not worse than Camp 22 but similar. There was desperate hiding, there were days when Jae-Hwa went out to look for South Korean helpers and came back not having seen one, or having been told it was all a myth, there were no South Korean helpers, but if he wanted to work and eat, he could work and eat. So he would take apart bulldozers and lower their transmissions and axles and engines into solvent tubs and wipe the solvent off and put the bulldozers together again and be given food and return to the place in the rocks where Na Cheon and her mother hid and share it with them.
One day a man told Jae-Hwa to go into the alley behind the garage. A blind man sat there smoking a cigarette. He said that he would help Jae-Hwa and one more reach South Korea, but that was it. Two, not three.
Na Cheon’s mother said she would stay in the rocks. Na Cheon said she would stay with her. Na Cheon’s mother said no.
“But why?” Na Cheon cried.
“Because he can carry you if he has to, and he cannot carry me. I am too used up. Look at me! I am dead!”
Na Cheon and Jae-Hwa saw her face wasted away from her teeth, her eyes fallen deep inside her head, her patches of baldness, her inability to stand up.
They left her. For the next three months they traveled under the floor of truck beds, on night-long icy walks, on horses, and once in a container house that was being moved south in a convoy of container houses to create a new camp near a mine. A Chinese woman snuck into their container house and taught them Chinese phrases that she said would save them if they were ever found out: We come from Jilin Province where there is no food. We are father and daughter. We want to live. We will do whatever you want if only we can go to Beijing.
Why Beijing? Because there they would live in a tiny apartment across the street from the South Korean embassy and one day there would be a car crash at the changing of the Chinese guards, giving them a chance to run through the gate and be safe for the rest of their lives.
Na Cheon made it through, too small for the Chinese guards to grab. Jae-Hwa was caught. She never saw him again, but when she thought about him, she pictured him in her father’s uniform, wearing her father’s hat. That hat kept Jae-Hwa safe if only in her mind. There in her mind he had a house and children, including a little girl like Na Cheon, and a jeep and men who served him and non-humans insects to punish. But then she remembered her mother singing tearful songs as they walked away from the place in the rocks, and she didn’t want to think anymore. “Think nothing!” She told herself. “Stop!”
They said in Seoul she must be eight. Okay, eight. Her name could still be Na Cheon. Okay, too. She was near the American base because Americans paid for the house in which she stayed. Very slowly for her own good, they said she was starved a little less and a little less and grew strong enough to go outside.
There a large man in a uniform took her hand and touched each of her fingers and said, “One…two…three…four…five.” The next time she saw him he did it again and said, “Four are fingers. Other’s your thumb.”
She took his hand and said, “One…two…three…four…five!”
“That’s right!” he laughed.
“Right again! You’re a smart little booger.”
Also there was a ball on a grassy field with no weeds. The girls and boys kicked it and screamed. At first she couldn’t run, but eventually she could a little bit. She even kicked the ball a few times, but like so many things, this made her cry. She didn’t like kicking the ball.
The American woman in the house where she lived gave every girl going into the showers a little dab of green jelly. Na Cheon ate it. The other girls laughed at the bubbly vomit spewing out of her mouth. The American woman took off her own clothes and got into the shower with Na Cheon and washed her hair for her. She was a heavy woman with enormous blue-veined breasts, a fat belly creased like a stairway, fat behind, great big thighs and enough hair to cover a whole head between her legs. Na Cheon pressed her face between the American woman’s breasts. The American woman said she mustn’t do that. Na Cheon thought this was a game and pressed her face there again. The American woman slapped her.
“Wash your hair yourself and don’t do that again. I was only trying to help. Don’t you say I wasn’t, you hear?”
When the soldiers came out of the base they didn’t hit anyone or kick them. The first soldier…the second soldier…the third soldier…different kinds of friends. Candy, a comb, words:
“Hey, what’s up? Where you been, sweet pea? How about a little kiss? You smile okay. What else you do? Pretty hair, pretty girl, I your guy? Call me Charlie. What’s your handle? Na Cheon? Where’d you get that name?”
A general’s car drove past. She pointed at it. Knew what it was.
“General gave you that name? Really?”
“Well, fuck me square, a little general’s girl. Tomorrow I come back, okay? Show you a little something. See this? Money. Know what you can get with it? All the candy you want. Make-up. Clothes. Ain’t just generals got it in America. We all do. They tell you that? Someone did? Who? I got to teach you to say what’s on your mind. All this nodding and smiling. Something about you, I know that much. You look odd. No one feed you when you was little? Didn’t hurt your teeth none. Guess you didn’t use them much, huh? You a runaway from North Korea? Yes? Whoa, baby, watch your behind. Them Northie gooks come sweep you right off the street and ship you back to what? Nothing, they got nothing. All the something is here. We got it in the PX. South Koreans got it, too, and who gave it to them? Yep, me, you got that right. Whatever you want, any kind of music or car, you name it cartoon shows! came from America. We run the world, honey. This place is ours.”
In the classroom, they taught her the words the soldiers used. The women in the house talked that way, and the girls liked it, talking American. Very special. Who could do it best? They all tried. Bathroom. Wee-wee. Poop. Over the top. Give me some. Who came from North Korea? Three did: Na Cheon, Park Pok-sun, and Hei Ryung. Each learned magic phrases: We’re from the countryside, we lost our parents, we don’t know how. No mother, no father, no brother. These magic phrases made it easier to get a soldier to be your brother daddy and give you whatever you wanted and take you to America. And when Na Cheon got bold enough, she offered rabbit sex in the alley. She liked the money Charlie gave her and how he laughed that he was fucking a general’s little girl.
“Tell you what. He can have his as long as I get mine. Men say they can fuck all night but women’s the ones. Why be selfish? I say spread the wealth. Girl knows a lot can give you a lot.”
She had money so she bought clothes. She had money so she bought presents. The North Korean girls taught the South Korean girls about rabbit sex. Two or three Americans and two or three girls in the alley or a basement across the street. Quick fuck, quick money.
Some Seoul women caught them and chased them and yelled at the soldiers to give them business, not these girls. Na Cheon and her friends hid and watched. Not so rabbit. Beautiful breasts, eyes and hair. Different sex, different ways the men liked.
“Oh, sweet pain, mama, sweet, sweet pain! Spread your legs wide ‘cause here comes the train!”
A Korean man grabbed her and Park Pok-sun and pulled them into an elevator. Then he pushed them off the elevator into an apartment where he said, “You love these Americans?”
They said yes, they did, very much.
“Well, I have news for you: men in Pakistan pay ten times what these guys pay. You work once, twice a week, the rest of the time you eat and do your hair, whatever you want. I can make that happen. Interested?”
Park Pok-sun asked what kind of work.
The Korean man laughed. “What you do right now but in a great big bedroom with a real soft bed. No basements, no alleys, all cushy as can be. You like it, it likes you! The Punjab, sweeties, boat ride to paradise. What about it?”
How could they know? There were women old as mothers on the ship, a big room where everyone waited, and little rooms where they went with the sailors. How old was Na Cheon? Didn’t know. Not every sailor wanted her. No titties yet. Where was her period?
“What is period?”
“The blood between your legs,” an older woman explained.
“I have no blood between my legs.”
“Don’t tell me you’re pregnant, Na Cheon. Where did you come from, you and Park Pok-sun?”
“Oh, come on. The truth. You came from North, didn’t you?”
“I don’t know.”
“Yes, you do.”
“I don’t know. Seoul, like you, like everybody.”
“All right, say that if you want, but here’s what we’ve learned and you will too: all men do the same thing to all women wherever they’re from. You can be rich and work in hotel, you can have a little house, you can be here, but it’s all the same. They do what they do because they have to. Men worship us. Remember that. Bow down, bow down, praise your holy queens and princesses, you bastards, and seek entrance to our sacred temples. They get out of line, you tell their little dicks that.”
At the end of the ship’s journey, Na Cheon and Park Pok-sun were taken out of the city to a house by a stream where each had a bedroom and a closet full of clothes and a dresser full of underwear and bathrooms with make-up and perfume. They didn’t like sleeping in their own rooms, so they slept together. Park Pok-sun was older and had breasts. Na Cheon pressed her face between Park Pok-sun’s breasts and felt the soft warmth. In the morning, a woman came with food. She said things to them they didn’t understand. One day a boy their age came. He spoke English and talked to each of them. Was he deciding? He said he didn’t dare. They were for his father when he came back from business in London.
Park Pok-sun said she wouldn’t tell his father. She pulled off her blouse and showed him her breasts.
He was a handsome boy with dark skin, black hair, and shining eyes. The sight of Park Pok-sun’s breasts made him leave. “Cover yourself! I don’t want you! You are sin!”
The big house was up a steep hill and there were pens for animals halfway and workers in the gardens and a fountain and beautiful trees and the enormous white house.
Na Cheon still could not easily bring herself to say where she came from, especially how, especially why. Park Pok-sun could, however. She escaped from Pyongyang hidden in a fishing boat that sailed down the Taedong River. She was five then.
“My life has been long.”
“I am fifteen.”
“Did anyone come with you?”
“The old woman who cooked for the fishing boat was my grandmother.”
“No one saw you?”
“No one. There was a man who told my grandmother he had to leave and would take me into the sea and down the coast if she hid us both. She said she would. When we got on the little lifeboat, they shot him in the shoulder. He could only row one oar, so I rowed the other. Many times we heard calling, but they did not find us. He took me into Seoul to the house where I met you and I never saw him again.”
The father came back from London. Things began happening in the big house. Comings and goings. Music. Processions. Welcome, welcome! Time passed until one afternoon he came down to their little house and sat with them smoking a cigar and sipping tea.
“You are so excellent and beautiful,” he said. “Both of you. I am Arjan. My son Gurshan confessed to me he had met you but not touched you. Did he touch you?”
“No, he didn’t,” Park Pok-sun said.
“Good. Don’t let that happen. What are your names?”
They told him their names.
“Where did you come from?”
Park Pok-sun told her story.
“Now you, Na Cheon.
Na Cheon couldn’t speak.
“Oh, please,” Arjan coaxed her, “you are far, far away now. There is no danger. You can tell me anything.” He was a balding man with a jowly face and large brown eyes. He seemed tired. “My heart isn’t good,” he said. “That’s why I was in London. Now give me some talk medicine, Na Cheon. Lift up my heart because I have saved you. What is your story?”
Na Cheon couldn’t stop herself once she began. All of it!
Arjan said, “Well, well, well. It will be a wonder if they don’t have someone come after you. Our blasted government is in cahoots with your government, and now here I am harboring a North Korean general’s daughter, a general who has been killed! I don’t know if this is good for my heart or bad, but I can tell you one thing: Punjab is the best place in the world. Enjoy yourselves, both of you. Here the food is best, the poetry is best, the people are best. Our only weakness is tender young girls like you, exotic and splendid and sweet. So I will cherish you, but you must promise me never to try to run away. Do you promise me this?”
“We promise,” Park Pok-sun said.
“We promise,” Na Cheon said.
He liked them both naked with him but not very often, only a few times a month. His heart couldn’t take more. How there could be a defective Punjabi heart, he didn’t know. He suspected his sister in London had one, but of a different kind: a mean heart, not a weak heart. He would get treated there more often if he could stand her.
“But sadly the woman’s unbearable. She has an English husband, and I dress as well as he and speak the Queen’s English as well as he, but it embarrasses her when I am with them together, which he perversely insists on…never lets us alone so we can talk things through. She thinks I am homosexual, you see, because I only have Gurshan, my son, and my wife tells everyone I am an indifferent lover. But to the contrary I think my sister’s husband is the homosexual and he hangs around hoping to put my sister’s false notion about me to the test. What a stupid man, and my sister? Even more stupid. Yes, I endure a sexless marriage, but I like sex very much, as you know. Here, come to me, both of you. Do your little things. This way…yes, yes… more… yes…”
Gurshan returned late one afternoon followed by a peacock, the most beautiful bird Na Cheon had ever seen. The peacock circled the house and pecked for things to eat in the bank along the stream. Gurshan wanted to tell them about Islam.
“I have thought deeply about doing this. My father doesn’t want me to. ‘Let’s leave that for the mosque, not my girls.’ But what isn’t the mosque, I ask?” Gurshan pointed at the sky. “Allah isn’t there?” He pointed at the peacock and the stream. “Allah isn’t there?” He pointed at his forehead, where there was an incipient prayer scar. “Five times a day, Allah isn’t here?”
“What is Allah?” Na Cheon asked.
“He is the all-powerful being we must obey.”
Na Cheon thought of the Beloved Leader and asked if Gurshan knew about him.
Gurshan said of course he knew about the Beloved Leader. “We work with him, don’t you know? But Mohammed revealed Allah to us. He is our beloved. He is who will punish all the unbelievers, burn them to ashes and then burn their ashes, too.”
They could see Gurshan struggle as he looked at them. He did not quite know what more to say about Allah except that there must be Jihad to defend Him. Nor did he know quite what to say about two Korean whores, which is what he called them, living in the bosom of his ancestral estate. They could see he wanted to possess them. Any girl could see the heat in his eyes, the restlessness of his hands and knees.
“You’re the daughter of a general. We should send you back,” he told Na Cheon. “North Korea is infidel but our friend. What is my father thinking? You must be punished.”
Park Pok-sun saw tears in Na Cheon’s eyes. Arjan had betrayed her secrets! So Park Pok-sun undressed and approached Gurshan.
“Don’t say that about Na Cheon,” she said. “We will be your friends. Let us show you.”
Gurshan knocked her down and pulled off his belt. Na Cheon leaped forward to stop him. They fell on top of Park Pok-sun. Na Cheon pushed his face between Park Pok-sun’s breasts and reached into his loosened pants where he was excited.
Gurshan came back many times for sex and to tell them they were devils. Eventually he cried out, asking them to leave him alone or else beat him, take his belt and beat him. Finally Park Pok-sun did this.
“And slap me! Make me soft!”
Park Pok-sun slapped him, but he grew harder, bigger. She straddled him and when his white stuff shot out, she smeared it on his face and lips. Yet he was still hard.
“I asked you not to touch him, didn’t I?” Arjan asked. “Now look what he did! I invited important people to eat with us. This was to be ecumenical there are Christians and Jews in Pakistan, did you know that? Yes? No? Well, I am on all sides, but Gurshan is not. He told someone that I keep the daughter of a North Korean general as my whore. He led this someone to the edge of the garden and pointed at this house and said you were in it. I fuck North Korea’s generals, I fuck North Korea our ally in nuclear matters. Yes, this is what Gurshan said! Did you teach him the word fuck? Off you go now. I can’t have you here. The fanatics will create a scandal. It’s back to Karachi for you both. Quick, quick, pack. By nightfall, I want you gone.”
They were taken to Karachi and left in a place where a man approached them right away. His name was Iqbal.
“You work for me, I take care of you. Food, doctors, everything, but only if you work for me, do you understand?”
He was a big strong guy who tested them both in turn.
“Okay, good. Real good. Now I have other women and you must get along with them or I’ll shave your head. Want your head shaved? I didn’t think so. Don’t fight the others then. Do what you’re told. Let the doctor have some if he wants it. Everyone else pays.”
There was in fact a Cambodian woman who had her head shaved; likewise a Nepalese woman and a Vietnamese woman. Why? Because when women fight, they pull each other’s hair, the madame said. Answer? Iqbal was right: cut it off. She stroked Na Cheon’s long beautiful hair and said it was a gift Na Cheon should never surrender, even though all the other women could see that the Cambodian, Nepalese and Vietnamese women got lots of men anyway. Many men liked bald women.
Sometimes, Na Cheon was taken to a hotel. One man wanted her to hold his Bible as he had sex with her. He said Jesus meant this. She asked if Jesus was like Allah.
“No, not like Allah! You don’t know about Christ? Lie down and don’t let go of that Bible. All His glory will pour through you while we make love.”
Some of the others had done Bible-sex with him. The Vietnamese woman was Catholic. She explained Jesus was God on earth and saved those who believed.
“Do you believe, Na Cheon?”
“How can I believe?” Na Cheon asked.
“Because we’re all in the Bible, all of us, prostitutes, men who kill, the Romans. Everyone!
Cho Sun also worked for Iqbal and was from Korea. She told Na Cheon about the Reverend Sung Wei who said that God told him to finish Jesus’s work, marry the world in love, save everyone in peace.
“Who do we marry?” Na Cheon asked.
“Japanese. Then we have real jobs, one husband, and children. No more of this.”
“Not whores anymore?” Park Pok-sun asked.
“Who said whores? Don’t say that! Sex workers!”
Na Cheon asked, “If we could get back to Korea, how would we find Sung Wei?”
Cho Sun said Sung Wei would find them. He came from North Korea and survived. He went to jail in the United States and survived. He built his churches and prayer center in Busan and survived.
Na Cheon wanted to survive. She began wondering about how she could leave Karachi and Pakistan.
“Then go back by boat. I’ll find you one. But Iqbal can’t know. He’d kill me.”
“Why do you do it then?” Na Cheon asked.
“I’ll get paid, don’t worry. Give me time.”
Time passed, the night came, five women, not just Na Cheon, left the house in different ways and met Na Cheon’s customer on a distant street. He took them to a freighter called Chemise.
“Go now! Musa the Chinaman is ready for you. All you have to do to get to Korea is work along the way. Go!”
When the ship left the wharf, that was one moment.
When the tug let go, that was another moment.
When they could not see the lights of Karachi anymore, that was the real moment. Na Cheon’s life came back to her from when she was a little girl on the floor of their house in Camp 22 to Beijing to Seoul to the Punjab to Karachi and her bond with Park Pak-sun with whom she still slept if she could.
And now there was this to know: the sea birds, the sea itself, Captain Musa inviting them into his cabin, the other crew, and an American called Walker with an ugly soft round brown wool hat on a hook on the wall. She donned the hat. It made her tremble.
“You look good. It’s an Afghan hat. Do you want it?”
“No.” She put it back on the hook. “Where is the brim?”
“There isn’t any. That’s not how they’re made.”
She put it on again. “Could an Afghan general wear a hat like this?”
“Yes, he could.”
“What kind of a general?”
“The fighting kind.”
“Why so much fighting all the time?”
“I don’t know, Na Cheon. Did you know a general once?”
“He was a general?”
“Yes, in camp.”
“What kind of camp?”
“A camp for not-human insects in North Korea.”
Na Cheon sat beside him, her slender body needing only a few inches of the bunk on which to perch.
“I take the hat off now, okay?”
“Okay, take it off.”
You want sex?
“Yes, but I’d like to talk more. I’d like to get to know you.”
He had a beard that was grey brown and hair that was grey brown and a low voice that was easy to understand. He spoke slowly and said that if she told him what she could about herself, he would tell her what he could about himself.
Na Cheon told him where she learned English and explained why she was in Pakistan and said maybe when she got to South Korea, she would find Reverend Sung Wei, who said there was no North and South Korea just like there had never been a North and South Vietnam.
“No, there never was,” Walker agreed. “But what happens if you find Sung Wei?”
“I don’t know. Marry somebody maybe. It’s what they say. What about you?”
Walker grimaced. Not happy. “I have no plan. All I know is I left Afghanistan where I lived for over twenty years and I’m not going back.”
“North Korea I don’t go back, either. What plan is that? No plan. Sung Wei, maybe he knows. Anyway, now I am here.”
“I am, too. Just you and me.”
They laughed. When sex was finished, he kept his arm around her and stroked her hair and sometimes he lifted his head and looked down at her with a tired smile on his face.
She returned twice. She wanted him to tell her his story as she had told him hers from being a little girl to a young woman now. He said he taught English in Afghanistan, rented rooms to travelers, and worked sometimes sort of as an interpreter, sort of an advisor. Did he believe in Allah or Jesus? He said no, he didn’t. And he didn’t go to America much because one time he returned he’d visited the wife he’d run away from and it hadn’t worked. And another time he saw his older sister, who was sick. So that hadn’t worked, either. For a long time life was better for him in Afghanistan although during the Taliban years he lived in Peshawar, Pakistan.
“But let’s not talk about all that anymore, okay? And if you don’t want to talk about North Korea, that’s okay, too. We can just lie here.”
“I make you hard?”
He kissed her and held her and told her that her face was beautiful because it was asymmetrical. She didn’t know that word. He held his hands up and framed her face the way a photographer would and tilted them, just slightly.
“Sort of like that. Provocative because it’s canted a bit.”
She went back to the room where the women all sat and looked in the mirror.
“What is it?” Park Pok-sun asked.
“The American says something about my face. Am I beautiful?”
“Yes, you’re beautiful.”
“I don’t know why. Hair for sure.”
“More beautiful than you?”
“Yes, to me, yes. Your eyes, you see more. Your lips, they say more. You think, that’s what everyone says who looks at you. She must think! How could she not think?”
“But I have been afraid to think!”
“Yes, you know that. All the time my mind dances when I talk to this American with the ugly hat. Americans don’t wear those hats. Why don’t I tell him? He can’t have that hat.”
“It’s an Afghan hat.”
“I haven’t gone to him. I don’t know what you mean.”
“Go to him, then. Knock on his door.”
“It’s never my turn for him when he gets his.”
“You want my turn next so you can see the hat and talk to him?”
Park Pok-sun did not hesitate. She was curious about this hat, and why it meant so much to Na Cheon. “Yes, give me your turn with him. I tell him I do it for you, you’re too sore, need rest but come back next time ready for more.”
They laughed and lay down and Na Cheon put her head between Park Pok-sun’s breasts.
“His hat is not like your father’s hat you tell me about?” Park Pok-sun asked softly.
“No, no, not like my father’s hat, but he says generals wear these hats. Fighting generals. Oh, I am so afraid. What if North Koreans find me in Seoul? What if they drag me back to not-human insect camp?”
“Where else can we go? We’re Koreans.”
“I don’t know. But I ask myself so much: Where can I hide? Who has a real castle where I can hide?”
The freighter throbbed along. They were just over the engine room and could hear the motors grinding steadily. The sound never ceased. Night after night, day after day. On the sea everything seemed forever but nowhere else.
Robert Earle has published over forty short stories in journals across the U.S. and Canada. His fiction often pursues international themes because he was a diplomat for twenty-five years. He has degrees in literature and writing from Princeton and Johns Hopkins.