3480 words, short story
Moon Over Yodok
for Kang Chol-Hwan
Everyone at Yodok, everyone in the whole country, knew the story of Our Dear Leader’s birth. On the day he emerged from the lake atop Baekdu Mountain, a double rainbow appeared over the cabin of his father, Our Great Leader, Kim Il-Sung. A new star appeared in the sky and a swallow flew overhead to signal the arrival of a mighty new general destined to lead us to victory over the imperialist enemies.
Oh Hae-Sik, his thread-bare rags and the rough cool flesh underneath coated in dust, squatted outside the Oh family hut, gazing at the night’s full moon and thought about his younger sister, Dal-Soon. Inside, his grandmother slept or was unconscious. Hae-Sik could no longer tell the difference. He knew he should go inside to clean the blood, but he needed more cold air first. A muted double rainbow circled the moon. Dal-Soon would have loved that, Hae-Sik thought. Perhaps it’s a sign for her.
The full moon of the year’s eighth lunar month also marked Chuseok, the Korean harvest holiday. The years since the Oh family were brought to the Yodok work camp had never been happy ones, but the recent death of Dal-Soon had cast an even greater pall on the family . . . what remained of the family.
“Can you see the rabbit in the moon,” Dal-Soon asked him each night as the new moon grew to its Chuseok fullness. “She’s pounding the rice for our songpyeon.”
Hae-Sik was old enough to remember the sweet taste of the honey-and-sesame-seed-filled rice cakes, but he doubted his sister really could. Such memories brought a tangy metallic pain to the roots of his teeth. He almost hoped Dal-Soon could only imagine, not remember, that taste.
During the last year, his grandmother had begun telling them stories like the rabbit in the moon. Hae-Sik remembered her being different before they were brought to Yodok, before his parents had gone. “Focus on what you need,” she once told him in Pyongyang. “Focus on your work. Focus on the party. Keep our country self-sufficient and strong against the imperialists.”
His grandparents had been forced into servitude by Japanese imperialists long ago. They worked and fought through hardship to gain their freedom and forge lives for themselves in Japan. Thirty years ago, the lure of a Korean People’s Republic brought them back to their homeland.
Hae-Sik would never know exactly why his family was taken to Yodok. First, his grandfather disappeared. A week later, the trucks and soldiers came to the family apartment. They were forced to hastily pack some clothes, utensils, and rice, and were whisked away in the night.
The family was able to survive the first winter, but the following years had taken their toll. The rice they were permitted to bring with them did not last long. After it ran out, they survived, like the other prisoners, on cornmeal and anything else that could be scrounged. The all-corn diet had severe effects, though, especially on the men. Skin turned dry, toe- and fingernails fell out, eyes became ringed with deep dark wrinkles, and bodies became weak from constant diarrhea. Hae-Sik’s father succumbed to the “glasses disease” that first spring.
“If only we’d had some dog meat, we could have cured him,” Hae-Sik’s grandmother declared.
“If only we’d had any meat,” his mother whispered. “If only we, if only they, if only that, that—”
Hae-Sik’s grandmother quickly clapped her hand over her daughter-in-law’s mouth. At Yodok, one never knew who might be listening and who might repeat what was heard. Hae-Sik looked in his mother’s eyes, but he couldn’t see her. Until she disappeared more than a year later, Hae-Sik saw only the If-Only woman, never his mother, never his Om-ma.
Mourning for passed loved ones was kept to a minimum at Yodok. Such deaths simply became too common. Children adapted to the shock. Hae-Sik and Dal-Soon adapted, too.
Mornings were spent crowded into shabby classrooms. Between the beatings and constant verbal abuse, they studied the feats and words of Kim Il-Sung and Kim-Jong Il. Afternoons were spent at hard labor: planting corn fields, pulling weeds, hauling timber, tending rabbits, and later for Hae-Sik, burial detail.
Though difficult, certain jobs provided benefits. Tending fields allowed for the collection of frogs, salamanders, and even earthworms to supplement the diet. Grandmother could never get the hang of quickly swallowing the salamanders whole before they could secrete their foul-tasting oil. Pulling weeds allowed for collection of a few herbs and the occasional wild ginseng root. Burial allowed for the collection of precious clothing. Yodok was located on a high alpine plain surrounded by barren peaks, and prisoners were given only one set of clothes per year, if they were lucky.
Recently, Grandmother’s skin had been getting rougher. She only had three fingernails left. Her eyes were deep-set and getting darker. Hae-Sik and Dal-Soon tried to help her as much as possible. They shared what they could of their meager allotment of cornmeal, especially Dal-Soon.
“You are my sweet little rabbit, Dal-Soon. Do you see the rabbit in the moon, young one?”
“Yes, Halmoni. She’s pounding rice for the songpyeon.”
“That’s right. Do you know how she got there?”
“No, Halmoni. How?”
“The Buddha put here there. A friend of the Buddha was starving . . . nearly dead. The rabbit offered her life to save this friend, so the Buddha honored the rabbit this way. Now, we can always see her at night and remember.”
“Who’s the Buddha, Halmoni?”
“Oh, young one! He was someone my grandmother taught me about. It doesn’t matter now. Maybe it’s silly. Don’t think about it. Just remember the rabbit when you look at the moon.”
“I will, Halmoni.”
“Good girl. Good Dal-Soon.”
Long before this conversation, Dal-Soon had been known as “Rabbit” among the children of Yodok. This was partly because of her oversized front teeth, partly because of her swiftness of foot, but mostly because of her love of the rabbits kept by the school.
Every rural school in the country was given the responsibility and honor of raising rabbits. From these rabbits, fur coats were made to keep the soldiers warm during the bitingly cold winter months. Each class had its own warren of rabbits. At Yodok, students were encouraged to care for their rabbits with more attention than their own families. After all, their families were counterrevolutionary mongrels, but these rabbits were helping Our Dear Leader’s army withstand foreign imperialist forces.
Students were even encouraged to steal corn from the fields and even cabbage or other vegetables from the guard’s gardens. They also had to clean the cages, keep track of the number and weight of the animals, and stand guard over the cages to ensure rats were not intruding upon the cages to steal food or attack the young.
Though all students took some part in tending the rabbits, the teachers trusted them most to Dal-Soon’s care. Despite knowing the eventual destiny of the rabbits, she treated them with open love and affection, expressions almost always guarded and hidden at Yodok. With family members, other students, even teachers, such displays could be turned against you. If such a loved one cracked and publicly expressed anger with life in Yodok or, unthinkably, displeasure with the party or even Our Dear Leader himself, guilt by association was far reaching. With the rabbits, Dal-Soon’s love and affection could only be seen as love and affection for leader and country.
A shooting star blazed through Hae-Sik’s gaze up at the moon, though he hardly noticed. Why couldn’t I see it coming? She must have been giving her corn to the rabbits and to Grandmother. She was getting so thin. If only I’d opened my eyes. I’m sorry Dal-Soon. I didn’t know what to do.
As September had progressed, the remnants of the Oh family continued to weaken and grow thinner. Fewer and fewer frogs, salamanders, and worms were in the fields. Hae-Sik couldn’t seem to catch any rats when it was his turn to guard the rabbit cages. Both he and Dal-Soon gave more and more of their cornmeal to their grandmother, whose symptoms continued to worsen.
At school, Hae-Sik’s concentration lagged. He forgot the date upon which Kim Il-Sung gave his speech at the Dahongdan conference.
“How dare you forget the glorious acts of our Great Leader!” screamed the teacher. Hae-Sik was forced to stand in the corner, holding five textbooks above his head, while the teacher beat the back of his calves and thighs with a stick until he passed out. After class, he was assigned to latrine duty.
He stumbled home late that night, the stench of urine and feces clouding into his nostrils. There were no showers for prisoners at Yodok. Despite the coolness of the evening, Hae-Sik simply waded into and out of the creek on his way home. Steam rising from his clothes and head, he entered the Oh family hut to see Dal-Soon huddled down beside his muttering grandmother, her skin a pale, almost-silver in the moonlight.
“Hae-Sik? Oh Hae-Sik?” his grandmother asked.
“She’s not good,” Dal-Soon mumbled, her own eyes half closed.
Ah sheebal! Hae-Sik thought frantically. I don’t know what to do anymore. “She needs some food. She needs real food. She needs some meat. You, too, Little Rabbit . . . you, too. Look at you. There’s almost nothing left. Look at me. Me, too. There’s nothing left of us.”
“Quiet. Quiet,” Grandmother said as strongly as she could. “Listen to me.”
Dal-Soon and Hae-Sik squatted beside her, leaning close.
“Yes, Halmoni. I’m here. It’s Hae-Sik. I’m here.”
“Good boy. Good boy. Listen to me, young ones. I’m an old woman, listen to me. I’m going to die soon.”
“No. Don’t say that Halmoni,” Dal-Soon said.
“Yes, yes, Little Rabbit. I’m old and tired. It won’t be a bad thing. Understand? I’m tired. I’ve seen a lot . . . too much. We all have, young ones. You two have to watch out for one another. Understand? Understand?”
“Yes,” Hae-Sik spoke.
“Yes,” Dal-Soon eventually said.
“Good girl. Listen to your grandmother. Watch out for one another. Listen for one another. Be careful what you say. Be careful what you do. Hide your eyes. You can survive this. Your grandfather and I survived the Japanese. You can survive this.”
“OK, Halmoni,” said Hae-Sik. “We’ll be careful. You sleep now, OK? You won’t die tonight. It’s Chuseok soon. We’ll have a good time.”
“Yeah, Halmoni. Don’t worry,” said Dal-Soon. “Maybe we’ll get some songpyeon this year. Don’t die yet.” She suddenly stood up and left the hut.
“Dal-Soon?” Hae-Sik called after her. “Little Rabbit? Where are you going?” Turning his gaze back to his grandmother, he noticed her eyes had closed, though her chest slowly rose and fell.
He stepped outside the hut and squatted down, shivering. Where had Dal-Soon gone? He should go find her, but he was so tired. He slipped back out of his squat and onto his back, his eyes rolling lazily up to the moon.
“Dal-Soon?” he called softly. He saw the rabbit in the moon, pounding rice for songpyeon . . . but it wasn’t rice. It was his family: his grandfather, his father, his mother, all being pounded. He saw his sleeping grandmother underneath the heavy wooden mallet, then his sister. He could feel the mallet behind his own eyes, reverberating in his nostrils and down his spine. I’m going crazy, he thought. I need sleep. I need strength. First, find Dal-Soon. “Rabbit?” he called, rising to his feet. “Where are you?”
Another shooting star sped across the Yodok night. Hae-sik’s eyes focused on it this time. He needed to take his mind off the events of the last twenty-four hours. It was actually quite beautiful. A streak of light remained burned into his retinas. He looked back at the moon. He could see the shape of a rabbit, but it was still tonight. An owl flew silently overhead in the direction of the rabbit warrens. Oh well, he thought, that’s someone else’s problem tonight. One less fur coat for the army won’t hurt Dal-Soon. Or Grandmother. Or me.
Suddenly, another shooting star sped across the fullness of the moon, streaking and screaming towards the camp, landing with a crash that sent rocks and dirt and debris into the Yodok air.
Oh, no, thought Hae-Sik, not the hill. Dal-Soon!
Suddenly, the camp was stirring with people. Prisoners slouched out of their huts to see what the commotion was. Guards scrambled from their quarters to defend against attack or revolt. In the aftermath of the meteor impact, only the sound of falling dust and tumbling rocks could be heard.
“A meteor struck the hill,” people began saying. Word soon passed through camp. A few older prisoners muttered about a bad sign and went back into their huts. A few others muttered about a good sign and went back into their huts. Some younger prisoners milled about the common area, looking up at the hill. Nobody moved closer to inspect.
“Burial detail to the hill!” shouted a voice through a megaphone. “Burial detail to the hill at once!”
No, Hae-Sik thought, No. No. No. Not again. Not again.
“Oh Hae-Sik! That means you, too!” the voice continued, “No excuses. Let’s go!”
Turning his back on the moon, Hae-sik obeyed the voice, marching up toward the burial hill for the second time that day.
“Dal-Soon? Where are you Little Rabbit?” Hae-Sik called as he searched for his sister. Though the sky was clear and the almost-full moon bright, he could not find her anywhere.
He slowly searched around their little village area of the camp, the rabbit warrens, the school grounds, the rabbit warrens again, the latrines, the banks of the creek, and stumbled back to the rabbit warrens one last time. He couldn’t see Dal-Soon, but he did see three or four rats at a small pile of lettuce. As quickly as his weakened legs could move, he pounced at the rats.
When he arrived back at the Oh family hut, Dal-Soon had returned. She lay beside Grandmother. Tonight, he thought, we’ll have some meat. Grandmother will be OK. We’ll have full bellies on Chuseok. When she heard Hae-Sik enter the hut, she rolled toward him, her eyes wide and glassy.
“What did you do?” she asked.
“I’ve brought some meat,” he said, holding out his arms, the skinned carcasses hanging from his fists.
Four others joined Hae-Sik in the march up burial hill. Rocks and stones still tumbled down the slope towards them from the impact site. One man pressed a hand on Hae-Sik’s shoulder, muttering, “Be strong, huh? We’ll get through it. It has to be done.” Then in the faintest of whispers: “For Dal-Soon.” Hae-Sik just continued trudging up the hill, thinking about that morning.
He had awoken to the girlish wails of one his classmates, Seo Ji-Hwan. “What happened?” he cried. “Who did this? Who could do this?”
Hae-Sik, feeling stronger than he had in months, suddenly bolted upright. Dal-Soon was beside him and quickly clamped a hand over his mouth. “Don’t get up,” she spoke softly but sternly into his ear. “Stay right here. There’s trouble.”
A lump suddenly forming deep within his throat, Hae-Sik scanned the Oh family hut. His grandmother remained in bed, facing the wall. In the corner beside the door lay a pile of skinned, bloody, carcasses, too large to be rats. In front of him sat his bowl, empty save for a small amount of soup broth, speckled with congealed flecks of waxy fat. Beside him sat Dal-Soon, her legs wrapped in blankets soaked in blood.
“What’s going on?” he asked her.
“Shhh. Stay still. There will be trouble today, Hae-Sik. Bad trouble.”
Suddenly, he could hear people gathering outside their hut.
“The blood leads here,” someone said.
“I told you I saw her at the rabbits last night. It was Oh Dal-Soon,” said Seo Ji-Hwan. “She did this.”
Now about halfway up the hill, Hae-Sik stopped his legs. More rocks continued to tumble down the slope. Something was moving up top, crawling and pushing its way out of the earth. Hae-Sik finally looked up to see his sister Dal-Soon emerge.
“Dal-Soon,” he said voicelessly. “Little Rabbit. What’s happening?”
Her skin had turned grey, but appeared almost silver in the moonlight. Her clothes had been removed for the living, and Hae-Sik could see the cuts and bruises she’d suffered from the guards that morning. Except some areas were hidden from view: patches along her belly, shoulders, and back were covered by rabbit fur, as though the skinned hides of the creatures had been stitched to her own flesh.
As she limped slowly along the crest of the hill, Hae-Sik’s eyes were drawn to her calves. The muscles were gone, but in their place he saw the skinned bodies of two rabbits, fused liked tendons into her body.
“You did this to me,” she spoke.
Suddenly, Seo Ji-Hwan, also part of the burial detail, fell to the ground. Hae-Sik noted the bloody dent in the top of his skull and a bloody fist-sized rock beside the boy’s body.
“What—What’s happening, Dal-Soon?” Hae-Sik asked.
“You have to bury Halmoni,” she said.
“What? She’s sleeping, Little Rabbit. Don’t wake her up. She’s sick, but we have some meat.”
“It’s too late, Hae-Sik. She died last night. Remember?”
“No. No, she was OK this morning. I made her some soup. Some rat soup. It will cure her.”
“No, Hae-Sik. You were too late. She was gone already. There was no rat soup.”
“I ate the rat soup. I’m strong today. Halmoni will get better, too.”
“It’s too late. She’s gone, but you must bury her. Then, we can all be together. That’s why I made you my soup. Be strong now.”
“I brought the rats for you and Halmoni, so we could get strong together. If only I’d got them sooner.”
“There were no rats, Hae-Sik. You killed the rabbits.”
“No. They were rats. They were eating the lettuce. We made rat soup. I’m stronger. Halmoni will be stronger.”
“After you bury her, she will. But there were no rats, Hae-Sik. You killed the rabbits. You killed Our Dear Leader’s rabbits. You killed my rabbits.”
“I’m sorry Dal-Soon. I’m sorry Little—I ate your rabbits? I’m sorry. If only I could have—If only we had—If only that—”
“You didn’t eat my rabbits. I couldn’t let you. I gave you my soup to give you strength. Only you can bury Halmoni. Then, our family will be together again. You must bury Halmoni.”
“OK, Dal-Soon. OK.”
“Look at the moon, Hae-Sik.”
Hae-Sik turned his gaze towards the moon. He could see the rabbit pounding rice again.
“She’s made us some songpyeon, Hae-Sik. Eat the songpyeon and bury Halmoni,” spoke Dal-Soon, throwing handfuls of the sweet rice-cakes down the hill towards Hae-Sik.
Hae-Sik reached down, filling his hands with songpyeon and shoving them into his mouth. Chewing with all his power, he ground and broke his teeth into dozens of jagged pieces.
“Go bury Halmoni now, Hae-Sik. In the morning, you can join us all in the sky. We’ll have a real Chuseok feast!” Dal-Soon spoke. Then, she squatted down low on all fours, flexing her rabbit-calf muscles and springing into the air, a streak of light reaching across the night sky to the moon.
After watching her ascent, Hae-Sik turned downhill, moving toward the Oh family hut. Everything suddenly became clear, as though a fog had been lifted from his mind. He heard the generators chugging in the distance. He heard the fluorescent lights humming in the guards’ quarters. He even heard the beating of moth wings at their windows. He could smell a burning sulfur stench from atop the hill. He could smell cigarette smoke, the latrines, rabbit urine, and even the wild ginseng roots growing under the soil in the hills around Yodok. He was aware of the tickle of sweat in his armpits and on his legs, and he felt each single hair on his arms and head twitch and flitter in the breeze. Most of all, he could taste the honey and sesame seeds from the songpyeon.
As he walked through the other huts to his grandmother, his neighbors came out to find the source of the sweet, nutty scent that filled the air. They watched Hae-Sik, noting the rich, golden mixture dribbling out between his broken teeth and down his chin. Their stomachs churned and groaned as his tongue flashed out to catch and savor it.
“Hae-Sik,” someone asked him. “Where did you get the songpyeon? It . . . it smells wonderful! Where did you get it?”
“From the moon,” he replied, pointing to the sky. “See? It comes from Dal-Soon.”
David Charlton splits his time between Calgary and Seoul. He writes and edits textbooks for an ESL publisher. When he gets the chance for more exciting pursuits, he works on archaeological projects in Mexico and Nicaragua. "Moon Over Yodok" is his first published story. It was inspired by Kang Chol-Hwan's real experiences in Yodok as recounted in The Aquariums of Pyongyang: Ten Years in the North Korean Gulag.