Cho Yongchol was up unusually late at his college office in Sinuiju, preparing materials for three new teacher-training courses, when his neighbor rang him on his mobile phone.
“Yongchol?” the shrill voice said in a tone of alarm.
“Moongyu? What’s wrong?”
“Where are you?” his neighbor asked urgently.
“At the office, working late. Is everything okay?”
“Yongchol, I’m outside the building. The guard won’t let me in. Your wife called me. It’s 3:00 a.m.”
“What? I’m coming. I’m coming,” he said in a hurry and ran down the stairs.
He came to the ground floor and opened the side door of the building, letting his neighbor in from the cold.
“Moongyu, what’s wrong?”
“Yongchol, you’re wife called my family in the middle of the night. She wanted to know if I had the key to your building, and she said she was going to come here with the baby—in the cold.”
“What?” the younger man winced perplexedly.
“I have a six-year-old son who is in school. He needs to sleep; my wife, too. Why aren’t you with your wife?”
“Her mother has been here for a week to help us. I was home all day today. I told her earlier I would be back in three hours.”
His neighbor looked at him irritatedly, holding back anger.
“I would appreciate it if your wife not call me at 3:00 a.m. at night,” Moongyu said pointedly, his temper rising. “You really should be with your wife.”
Yongchol listened to the heavy admonishing words, and he put his hands on the handrail of the staircase. There was a silence and a deep breath. He wished he never had to tell anyone.
“I don’t know how to say this, Moongyu,” he paused, “but my wife … she suffers from a serious mental illness. She has for a long time. … We have been too afraid to tell anyone … especially party people.”
His neighbor looked at him half comprehendingly.
“You remember when you were first relocated to our province, yes? You wanted our families to go out for a meal, and I said, ‘My wife is very shy.’”
Moongyu did indeed recall the day three years ago, when he had newly arrived from Pyongyang on the Pyongui Line. He had thought the claim a capitally rude evasion, but he decided to let the matter go. Yet it was true that he rarely saw Yongchol’s wife outside the apartment, where she was always obsessively doing house chores.
“Well, yes, of course. But you really should be with your wife now,” he insisted again.
“I will be there in thirty minutes.”
“And please do not call my family at 3:00 a.m. at night.”
“Your advice is well taken, Moongyu. I am sorry for the trouble, and thank you for coming all the way here to tell me.”
After he saw his neighbor off at the door, Yongchol returned up the flight of stairs to his office, filed some papers, and, as he was about to leave, received a call from his wife, asking him to come home.
He got a lift from the guard’s girlfriend since the train station was closed and, arriving at the apartment, found his wife huddled in a corner of the living room, face blanched with a desperate fatigue and their baby sucking intensely at her breast.
He was quite upset to see his mother-in-law sleeping deeply in the bedroom, but he explained to himself there were physical limits to what a woman of sixty years old could do.
He asked his wife why she had called their neighbor, Moongyu, and why she was going to go out in the cold April night with the baby.
“Will you be angry if I tell you?” she asked.
“No,” he said.
“I thought you were with another woman at your office, so I wanted to come with the baby to show you that we still love you.”
He felt a convulsion in his intestines, but he looked at her impassively. He went to change his clothes.
After washing his face in the bathroom, he came out to hear the baby crying in the crushing embrace of his wife’s arms. She was gasping and sobbing, saying repeatedly, “Sorry, sorry, sorry, sorry.”
“Give me the baby,” he said softly, yet taking the child with some force out of the tight arms.
His wife watched him pace back and forth in the room, holding the baby, who fell asleep and looked like a warm, little, brown egg.
As he continued pacing, he told his wife to go to sleep as well. She said she couldn’t, that she needed to feed the baby, that feeding the baby was calming for a mother such as herself. She sat there, watching the baby in her husband’s arms.
An hour later, the mother-in-law awoke, complaining with sagging eyes that she couldn’t go to sleep with all the pacing sounds, and she tiredly demanded to take the baby into the bedroom. Yongchol felt a surge of reluctance, but he agreed after his wife said she would now try to sleep, too.
When the women and the baby went inside the bedroom, he lay down on the sofa mattress in the living room, but he couldn’t bring himself to close his eyes.
After giving his daytime lecturers at the teacher-training college, Yongchol returned to his apartment block late in the afternoon. Moongyu was in the courtyard, playing badminton with his own son and another neighbor’s boy in middle school uniform.
Yongchol greeted his neighbor, who was wearing sunglasses, and Moongyu asked if Yongchol got any sleep at all.
“No,” he replied. “I had to work. There was no way around it.”
Moongyu reprimanded Yongchol once more, the neighbor saying that he didn’t appreciate getting phone calls in the middle of the night and that Yongchol had better take more control of his family life.
“My wife is very ill,” he reminded his neighbor, who was somewhat more willing to listen this time. “I need your help, Moongyu. I talked to a trusted friend at work. He is outside the party, and he said he knows a doctor in the northern border region, a resident Chinese who is discreet about cases like this. But I cannot do this on my own. My wife doesn’t think she is ill, and her mother is not well educated, so neither of them will understand.”
“Are you sure this is not simply depression, Yongchol? My wife had it after our son was born. Such things are normal for a woman. The symptoms go away after six months. If you need help, I’m sure the local clinic and the women’s union can—”
“No, no party organizations, Moongyu. Our province is not Pyongyang. No, not with this. My wife has had her illness for eight years now.”
“It has gotten worse with the birth of the child … anxiety, voices in her head, fear of separation, feelings that people are criticizing her.”
“I … didn’t know, Yongchol.”
“We haven’t told anyone. We can’t. How can we? You’ve heard the old stories about Ko Chongmi, the mentally invalid woman at the infirmary, haven’t you? How the party cadres gave her to the American soldier who crossed the southern division line?”
“Is this what the party people will do with my sick wife—feed her to vultures and wolves, in her mindlessness?”
Moongyu’s heart was palpitating. He swallowed his saliva and, with his right hand, wiped the sweat and stubble above his upper lip. He drew a deep breath. His little boy was still playing badminton with the other boy.
“What do you want me to do, Yongchol?” he asked.
“This evening, please, after dinnertime, let us go in your delivery truck. I know you are doing private work on the side, and I can compensate for your losses with some of the gifts my students give me.”
Moongyu thought for a moment.
“Is the place far? Where is it?”
“Ninety-seven kilometers from here,” Yongchol answered.
“Okay. We can go,” his neighbor replied. “But your mother-in-law and the grandmother in charge of the neighborhood watch?”
“Mother-in-law takes a long nap after dinner. The grandmother will accept a gift.”
“How will you bring your wife to the truck?”
Yongchol explained that he would coax her to the lot or take her by force if necessary. They heard the baby crying loudly from the second-floor window of Yongchol’s apartment.
“Moongyu, I will see you this evening after dinner,” and he walked under the greying sun.
Yongchol entered the apartment, and no one said “hello” except for the baby’s wail. His wife was sitting on the floor, looking sullen and faint. When he asked what was wrong, she said she hadn’t slept in the two weeks since the child was born. Meanwhile, his mother-in-law was single-mindedly cleaning the kitchen and preparing dinner at the same time. No one was paying attention to the baby, who was on the floor, kicking and squirming uncomfortably on its back, napkin heavy with moisture and smelling of feces.
He looked resentfully at the two women, who were there but not there, and he decided to change the child. Urine guzzled out as he lifted the tiny legs in order to wipe off the pasty smear, with a wet cloth in a pan next to her. Afterward, the baby stopped crying.
Somehow, he had dozed off in the two-hour-and-thirty-minute interim between baby-changing and dinnertime, and he was now awakening to the chatter of bowls, cups, and dishes nudging against each other and being set on the table.
His wife had the baby at her breast again and was staring vacantly into space despite the food in front of them.
He had seen the look before, when she came out of the bedroom two nights earlier, repeating something in a circle that didn’t make sense and sitting in a blank daze. He had talked to her, but she wasn’t aware, so he said he would pinch her hand in order to wake her up, as he had seen in a film or read in a story. She didn’t react, and he was confused.
A little while later, she was gradually herself again, and he apologized for pinching her so hard that it left a mark on her hand and broke the skin.
“You pinched my hand? … When?”
Now, instead of reacting, he would let her sit quietly until the staring would be over on its own, and he reluctantly ate his dinner with the mother-in-law, whose only comment was, “A woman is more complicated than a man when a child is born.”
He felt no consolation and looked at the time on his mobile phone.
A few minutes passed. His wife came to, ate her meal, and fed the baby. Someone knocked on the door. Startled, he quickly rushed to it, and his neighbor, Moongyu, was there.
“Yongchol, hurry. We have to go now. I heard that some party security cadres are making a surprise political inspection of the neighborhood. I talked to the grandmother and gave her some money. She’ll shut up. You can repay me later. Get your wife now, and let’s go.”
“Yes. Okay. Wait,” he said in a mild panic. Half confused, he began putting his shoes on, when his wife came to the door and asked what was going on.
The two men suddenly grabbed her off her feet, held her mouth tightly, carried her down the stairs, and almost fell under the incredible, powerful struggle she put up in spite of her diminutive size.
The engine of the truck was running.
They fought to get her inside, and afterward, Moongyu rapidly drove north to see the Chinese doctor. Yongchol was giving directions, and his wife, now attacked by the voices, was crying and begging the terrible sounds to “Stop, stop, stop, stop, stop, stop.”
Yongchol held his wife close to him and told her, “Don’t listen to them. They don’t know what they are saying. They don’t know anything.”
And she slowly fell asleep.
Alzo David-West writes literary fiction and serious poetry about North Korea (past and present). His work has appeared in Cha, Eastlit, Offcourse, and Transnational Literature. Email: email@example.com