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.