They entered the house quietly in the middle of the day when her parents were not there. Grandmother, eighty-seven years old, was in her own room, sleeping.
The smell inside the house was strong. They went down the short hallway into the other room, and they sat on the floor and looked at each other. She kissed him first, and her heart was beating rapidly.
He could hear the sound.
They were fourteen in 1968 when they first met, that new generation born a year after the war, young people who only really recalled things from when they were five, but only in bits and pieces.
The war was a story to them, and their father was the Great Leader, though they had their own fathers. And it was no secret that it was difficult to educate them in correct ideas, even if they were all in the Socialist Working Youth League.
Under the flag and the portrait, they repeated with everyone else that they were the loyal rear-guard unit of the party and would deal a hundred-thousand deathblows to the wolfish American imperialists and their lackeys.
The sky darkened and rumbled, and when the lightning exploded, the assembly broke apart like an anthill, allowing them all to dash and scatter as if they were liberated. They were breathing heavily and laughing, joking, as they all got back into the classroom, and the rain went by.
They had a math test, and he liked it when he did well when he didn’t study.
She noticed him and felt angry, though they were taught not to resent those who were talented.
He finished first and was staring at a poster of the Great Leader, on the side wall, with the same somber face staring somewhere over the metal worker and soldier leading the people, the rainbow-like drummer girl, the white-scarfed peasant woman in her short white blouse and high-waisted black skirt, the intellectual with a roll of paper, and the boy and his father in black caps. Why were only the boy and girl smiling? Where were they all going?
She dropped her pencil from her desk, and he helped her pick it up. She said, “Thank you,” but was truly spiteful.
Others were still writing or cheating.
They were holding each other in the room, which was now warm.
“Would you have believed we would be here,” she asked him, “three years after we met in the class?”
“If I could go back and tell myself that … no, I would never believe it.”
“I noticed you. I hated you. Did you notice me?”
“I always did,” he said.
“But you were always looking at that fool-happy poster.”
“I was thinking about it.”
“Why?” she asked.
“I’m not sure.”
“What do you think about the sixteen-year-old boy and seventeen-year-old boy who drank poison in the wheat field two years ago?” she wondered aloud.
“Their parents’ social background was bad.”
“Yes,” she said.
He went out from the back of the house and heard a clipping sound.
He looked over the wooden boxes and between the hanging onions. Grandmother was up, with a scarf over her head and cutting her fingernails. He went the other way, but could not get through the small space with the gutter, between the house and the bushes.
He waited a minute and decided to go back inside. Grandmother was walking slowly with a stick, five seconds with each step, and she was looking downward. He moved in quickly, up the three steps, and she didn’t have time to see him.
Out the front, he put his hands in his school jacket. The late-March air down the road was cold.
They met outside the school the next day, after the slow class on the national Marxist-Leninist ideology of the party.
She seemed afraid, and she told him her friend said she looked like a piece of chalk.
“I have a sore throat. Are you alright?” he asked.
“I was with you,” she said after a little while.
He didn’t say anything, but put his arm around her to keep her warm. They were sitting on a rock in the playground, with shoeprints in the sand, as the somber portrait high up on the school building was looking off somewhere.
“Your nose … it’s red,” she said.
Grandmother was sent to a sanitarium the week after, and they went to the house again, into the room down the short hallway.
Sunlight was touching them. And when it stopped, he walked home again, from the back this time.
The science teacher, who was also a party cadre, asked to see the two of them. They were not collecting the weekly mineral samples they had been assigned to as a pair.
The teacher sent their parents a letter and, when they did not answer, a telegram.
His parents met the teacher and, despite his authority, scolded the twenty-six-year-old man, declaring that he should not abuse his power like a comfortable commandist, that they were too busy with cannery and sanitation work and political study sessions, and that they could not magically change their son’s personality.
Her mother came as well, between work at the vinalon mill and organizational activities with the Democratic Women’s Union. She complained that she was tired and exhausted since her own mother was infirm, since her other daughter was mentally handicapped, and since her husband was ashamed and always drinking now and seeing another woman.
The teacher, understanding that everyone was burdened, decided it best to tell the two a story about a youth—almost their age—who fought devotedly with the Great Leader in the period of armed struggle against Japanese imperialism and colonialism.
They were laughing in the room, about everything, and she asked if he would start drinking and seeing another woman if they got married.
“No,” he said. “I love you.”
“Even if we have a daughter like my younger sister who is away?” she asked.
He was gazing at the ceiling.
“You are quiet … so it would be a lie … if you talked.”
“I don’t like to lie.” He touched her ear.
The wood of the house was making expanding sounds.
Some time passed, and he injured his right arm in a field accident when the students were assigned to help a peasant subteam with machine planting, as part of their social duty to donate eight weeks of labor outside school time.
It was his dominant arm, and a nerve was badly injured. He would not be able to hold a rifle steadily or serve in the army.
She wondered if he had put his arm in the machine on purpose.
She visited him at the hospital often and said she was a friend. A housefly was moving on his bandages.
“They taught me how to use my left hand,” he said.
“What will you do now that we have finished school?” she asked.
He didn’t say anything and twisted the side of his mouth.
“What is it?”
“They recruited me … to calculate … mineral extraction figures at the mining town … because I am good at math.”
“You will be so far away,” she said.
“We can find a way.”
They wrote regularly over the first four months.
She took a job at a silk mill.
He congratulated her.
But grandmother was sick.
He wrote that he was always busy.
Mill work was manageable.
He told her he made friends with the female director of the women’s rifle dance propaganda troupe at the mining town.
She became suspicious.
He said the director was forty-three, and it would be possible to come to the town through her recommendation.
No, she wasn’t sure.
He said he had been taking a college-level correspondence course to be a teacher.
She was weary.
Still, they continued.
He stopped writing, and she didn’t hear from him for six months.
When the letter finally came, she didn’t hesitate to reply:
I received your letter today, and it was a great surprise. In truth, I didn’t know if you were still interested. People here come and go like pallets on a conveyer belt, and they don’t make an effort to deepen a friendship or relationships. At my apartment block, it’s a miracle if anyone responds to a greeting.
You said you are now working at an elementary school. How great! I remember the last time you wrote, you said you were very far ahead in your correspondence course. I suppose it’s very different from what you did before, calculating mineral extraction figures, and very positive for your work history.
In my case, I am continuing here at the silk mill. How I am, unlike you, it’s not easy to find other work. Grandmother and younger sister are still not well, and I have to continue living apart from my family. But I should not complain. I have been visiting grandmother during the holidays. She is very old, and I am not resigned to losing her, but I try to be happy with my circumstances and enjoy everything that is most simple.
If you will return, like you said, I hope every day to see you here.
As you already know, I wish you the best in the world.
A year passed, and his next letter came:
How are you? How is your family? Now, exactly one year has passed since I received your letter of April 16, 1972.
Every day, I wanted to write back to you. Your letter was so warm and touching that I was afraid of what to say.
I wanted to surprise you with the good news about me returning to our hometown, but things didn’t go as planned. I put in many requests for a reassignment; however, nothing happened. It was a very frustrating experience.
I am still in touch with the director of the women’s rifle dance propaganda troupe at the mining town. We had lunch together when she came here on party branch work. She said you and I are still young, and we should be patient and not be discouraged. I can stay at the elementary school if I want.
The area is very rural, and I know you don’t like snakes and insects. But this afternoon, when the director and I went for a walk, we saw a snake, and I was going to throw a stone at it with my good arm. She told me to stop, and she said something I haven’t been able to forget.
She said, “We should not be terrified by the things that make us afraid.”
I am sorry it took me so long to write back to you.
She wrote back, openly saying she was seeing someone else.
He asked why.
She said it had been a while.
Work at the elementary school was busy, he said.
She explained that she was having difficulty, that the man was fifteen years older and a drinker like her father.
He suggested it would be better to leave him if that was the case.
“Unless you were here,” she wrote.
And he promised again.
A year with more letters went by.
The bus ride took four days, and his back was hurting. People were waiting in crowds at the station.
She was looking around and suddenly noticed him in a worker’s cap and a faded cotton jacket. He was much slimmer, but he was smiling.
“Look at your thighs. They’re thinner than mine,” and then she joked that he smelled like a hungry unwashed dog.
They went to a public cafeteria and got something to eat, and she insisted he needed to wash.
An accordion was playing in the apartment block, and she was putting on her stockings. She said it was good to be with him. They went outside, and she pointed in the direction of the silk mill.
“One of our older workers told me the Soviet government built it for us,” she said, “and that the other younger workers like me don’t know.”
“How is your grandmother?” he asked.
“I forgot to tell you … she died at the hospital last year.”
“I didn’t know. I am sorry,” he muttered.
“You shouldn’t be. We will all go away one day. I realize that now. Grandmother was happy I came to see her over the holidays.”
“Your mother, your sister … are they okay?”
“Mother divorced father—it was very difficult—and is taking care of younger sister these days. I didn’t like him. He didn’t understand us. We are better without him.”
She was anxious to ask something as they were walking in the street …. Was there … someone else … over there?
He laughed and said he was totally irresistible because of his bad arm and the article in the new constitution that gave special protection to disabled veterans and their families.
“But how old do they all think I am?!” he burst out, laughing much louder.
She was not sure what to make of his words, and he could see she was worried. He stopped laughing, touched her shoulder, and looked at her.
“You are quiet now,” she said and started to cry without making any noise.
A passerby, middle aged, turned his head and stared at them.
She was at the silk mill.
He had left three days ago after he saw his parents. He told her he had saved all her letters and counted all the words. She couldn’t remember the number, only that it was enough to make a small novel.
She looked at one of her coworker’s unusually long arms and long legs.
The gears and chains of the machines were moving in the factory room, and steam was rising from the long rows of warm water, with clusters of silk cocoons sitting and shaking, sometimes partially floating.
She and the other women were stirring the cocoons with brushes and, afterwards, carefully pulling the threads from the balls, helping the wet fibers into nozzles, which fed the silk threads onto spindles that rotated and rotated above the warm water.
Bright white light was coming into the building, through the mill windows, and she started thinking to herself.
We have our instincts and our needs, and anger is an emotion. He has changed physically, and we are not the same.
He was at the elementary school, preparing a math lesson in the classroom, and the students were running outside.