Pak Kwihwa awoke in the morning. She got up, stretched, and looked out her bedroom window. The air was humid and warm, and cicadas were whirring. She walked out of the room, toward the kitchen. Her mother was making breakfast, and her father was preparing tools for his job as a factory welder. Kwihwa observed them. She went by, to the bathroom, and beheld herself in a mirror. Her hair was long and scattered.
A pair of scissors was lying on the sink. She heeded the blades, picked up the scissors, and placed her fingers between the rings. A drop of water fell from the sink faucet. She gathered a handful of hair, and she cut the strands. Kwihwa gazed at herself, put the scissors down, and cleaned the sink.
She went to the kitchen. Breakfast was sitting on a low-lying table. Her parents looked at her. She looked at the floor.
“Do not worry,” her mother said. “Many girls wear their hair short now.”
Kwihwa walked slowly to the table, kneeled, and sat before the small bowls and plates.
Her father picked up a spoon and a bowl.
A tear rolled down the side of Kwihwa’s face.
The father’s throat tightened. He put down the spoon and the bowl, and his forehead tensed. He got up and went outside, with a pack of cigarettes.
Kwihwa sat at the table with her mother.
The mother stood up, peered out the kitchen door, and saw her husband smoking. She returned to the table.
Kwihwa rubbed her eyes. “Mother,” she said, “the army will send us to the coal mountains with the ‘spade platoon.’”
Her mother was silent.
“Mother, sisters Yooja and Pangsok next door do not have to go.”
“Mother,” Kwihwa repeated, getting up and running out of the kitchen.
The father reentered and sat beside his wife. A moist breeze was blowing through the kitchen door.
* * *
At that moment, Kim Yoran, the family’s neighbor, stopped by and invited herself into the house. She was carrying a wrinkled, white plastic bag, and she could not contain how happy she was that her daughters, Yooja and Pangsok, would be studying animal husbandry instead of serving in the army.
She sat at the low-lying table and began talking about everything on her mind—her husband’s favorite red peppers, the types of women’s clothes she did not like, her dream to have a business manufacturing children’s socks, because all children needed socks—until she came around to explaining how her daughters were exempted from army service.
“As you know, they are not bright girls. But, oh, it was like the sky had fallen when this new policy for mandatory army service for women came last year. Can you imagine all the unlucky mothers who have to lose their daughters for seven whole years and slave away at home and do side business without a daughter to help them? So I went to the personnel department the other day, and I had a chat with a management official there, and I gave him a bag of sweet oranges—like this—and he was so happy that he told me that if there was anything he could do, he would go out of his way to help me. So I told him about my predicament and how a poor woman such as myself would never be able to get by without my daughters nearby to help me. And he told me that if I could get him more sweet oranges, since he liked them, he would talk to some people at the recruitment office about exempting my daughters because of their special talents.”
“Yoran,” Kwihwa’s mother interrupted, “I thought you said your daughters were not bright. Surely, you must be forgetting something in your story.”
“Oh, no,” she continued. “He likes sweet oranges, and you would be surprised how far things can go if you are nice to people.”
“What are your daughters’ special talents?” the mother asked.
“Well, I told the man my daughters have a lot of experience raising our goat and kids, and he told me those were excellent qualifications to enroll my girls into animal husbandry school.”
“Where did you get the sweet oranges?” the father asked. “Aren’t they very expensive?”
“You can get anything at the market for the right price.” Yoran turned to his wife. “Your husband needs to get out of the factory more, sister.” She looked at him. “The traders bring them in from Dandong—I hear they are originally grown in South China—and after they come into our country, the deliverers distribute them to different provinces, counties, and townships depending on supply and demand,” she insisted, “as far as the demand takes the deliverers before the sweet oranges become overripe and unsalable. And the deliverers bargain with the middlemen or the sellers directly—when the price is right, of course—and we get them from the market after we bargain. Needless to say, the sweet oranges are more expensive when we get them because everyone on the road has to make a profit. But there are still ways to buy cheap at the market. You just need to have the right personality and bargaining technique and know the flexible sellers from the inflexible ones. So that is why the sweet oranges are highly desired, especially when someone knows how to get them without extra expense, like the personnel management official, who said he would help get his friends at the recruitment office to exempt Yooja and Pangsok. After all, I am a poor woman, and these are more difficult times, now that we must all look out for ourselves.”
Kwihwa reentered the kitchen.
“Kwihwa!” Yoran exclaimed cheerfully.
She looked at the floor.
“We received a notice for mandatory army service,” her mother said.
“Kwihwa,” their neighbor repeated, “as you know, I served voluntarily when I was a young girl like you many, many years ago. Ah, women’s army life was the happiest time of my life!” Yoran paused. Suddenly, she burst out laughing and slapped her knee. “Ha-ha-ha! It is a good joke, yes? Oh!” she exhaled.
Kwihwa and her parents stared at the woman.
“Here,” she said, bringing out three sweet oranges from the wrinkled plastic bag. “Go to the personnel department with your mother tomorrow afternoon and ask for Han Songho. His office issues certificates of appointment. Tell him your family are friends of Kim Yoran, and give him the sweet oranges. Everything will be okay. Trust me.”
Kwihwa’s father looked at the round fruits. They were slightly powdery.
“Sister,” the neighbor said, turning again to the mother, “take the sweet oranges. They are my gift to your family, for our friendship.” She placed everything into the woman’s hands and realized the clock face on the kitchen wall.
“Oh, the time!” she cried out. “I must go. There is so much to bargain for at the market today—before the party cadres and the factory managers’ wives come. You would never believe how entitled they feel, especially the managers’ wives.”
Yoran got up and said it was so nice for everyone to have her over for a morning chat. Kwihwa saw the busy woman hustle out the kitchen door, and the girl turned to her parents at the table. They were silent.
Three days passed.
* * *
Pak Kwihwa awoke in the morning. She got up, stretched, and looked out her bedroom window. The air was humid and warm, and cicadas were whirring. A shower of rain began to fall heavily, and a misty vapor arose. The warm air grew cool, and leaves on trees around the house swayed. She heard a bird chirping at intervals, and another one joined in succession. A string of droplets hung from her windowsill. The rain became gentler.
She looked around, outside the window, at bushes and trees, shrubs on distant hills, and little cooperative farm houses in the green.
The rain became stronger, and it sounded like the “shakka-shakka, shakka-shakka” sound of rice grains in a straw basket, while the mist grew thicker in the expanse between herself, the trees, and the hills. Water mixed with soil and grass. A barn swallow flew overhead. Brown branches darkened with moisture. The green trees shifted. Amid the rainy patter was the sound of a baby crying for feeding time, and after a few minutes, the shower and the mist gave way to the sun and the warm air.
A man well past forty walked up a footpath.
Kwihwa’s mother was making breakfast, and her father was preparing tools for his job as a factory welder.
“We did what sister Yoran told us to do,” she overheard her mother say.
The father was silent.
A moist breeze was blowing through the kitchen door.
The man stopped by. “Good morning,” he said. “I am from the recruitment office of the People’s Army. I have come to deliver a notice of service exemption for light-industry appointee Pak Kwihwa.”
Alzo David-West writes literary fiction and serious poetry about North Korea (past and present). His creative writing appears in Cha, Eastlit, Offcourse, Tower Journal, and Transnational Literature. firstname.lastname@example.org