A Novel Excerptby Krys Lee
In late February or early March, I walked across the frozen Tumen River toward a man from China, ready to give my unborn child a different life. I walked with the eyes of men and women following me from both sides of the shore. I was hopeful though the riverbanks were still hoary with the remaining snow.
A North Korean border patrol who the man from China had bribed followed me across. There were broad, dark patches where the ice looked as thin as glass, but I was from a border town. I had smuggled goods in and out since I was fourteen and knew how to read the river. I looped around where the ice became dangerously clear until I was standing in the center of the frozen river and facing the man from China. He had an eager smile and a small head—he was small everywhere, it seemed—and he limped slowly forward as if needing my permission to come closer. With every step his left leg swung out rigidly in a semicircle until we faced each other. He was nervous; his right foot kept making circles on the ice behind him like a ballerina.
This man named Seongsik said, “You really do believe me now, don’t you? I’m a person who can make these kinds of meetings happen. I know everyone, and everyone knows me. Money? Who needs money? You need connections.”
He tore skin from his lower lip with his teeth. He wanted my approval, the way he repeated himself made that clear. But we didn’t have much time so I interrupted him.
“I learn fast,” I said. “I’ll learn anything you want.” I shut my eyes tight so I wouldn’t have to look at him.
When I opened them, he was still shyly taking me in. The shy ones were the worst, hard to read.
“Why do you want to leave?” he asked, as if half my country, the country of his ancestors, didn’t dream of living differently.
I was so nervous that my fingers dug arcs into my palms. “There are no good men in my country.”
He brightened as I’d intended. “I’m a good man, I promise.” While the border guard smoked an imported cigarette from the many cases I’d given him to keep him happy, the Chinese man and I hurried through the ten minutes of time we had to talk—the courting time that he had bought for us.
Money was a symbol, a disease that infected our country. I was eight when the famine changed everything. After the government rations stopped and the crops were flooded and destroyed year after year, I didn’t follow rules; I stole and bartered and learned quickly, and I survived. But when the government devalued our money and made our savings worthless, all my work became nothing at all. There was no present, and the future looked even worse. Then my monthly bleeding stopped, and I realized I was pregnant.