Se-ri decides they’re going back to North Korea one night when they’re lying in bed, their four-month-old daughter sleeping soundly on her father’s chest, his hand rubbing the baby’s back in a soothing manner.
Their bedroom is filled with the scent of fresh laundry, and the perfume of her daughter’s baby oil, which she has just finished applying to her after her nightly bath. The only light in the room is her bedside lamp, which she swiftly turns off now, bathing the room in darkness. She leans down against the pillows and slightly turns towards Ri Jeong-hyeok, whose attention is enraptured by the gentle snores of their baby. She fixes her gaze on the rhythmic movement of his hand, and finds it has a lulling effect not only on her daughter. She has a million moments by now in her mental collection of unforgettable life moments, but every night, without fail, she finds herself committing to memory this perfect moment right here, where her two favourite people in the world are lying one on top of the other, right by her side, knowing that if she reaches out her hand, she can touch Ri Jeong-hyeok’s solid arm, or stroke her daughter’s sweet-smelling hair.
“What was that package this morning?” she asks him, interrupting the comfortable quiet of the night, but she knows the answer already.
Since he defected from his country years ago, when they realised they couldn’t live two weeks a year and survive the rest of the time, he has attempted all sorts of communication with his family, with the people of his past life, with scattered and hard-to-come-by success. He would receive random knick-knacks from his parents over the months, or photos of his comrades, all coming from different countries and never from North Korea, small reminders of people on the other side of the world thinking about him, thinking about them. At first, he’d read his mother’s letters alone, by the piano in their living room, and then pour his sadness over the keys for hours afterwards, Se-ri quietly witnessing his emotions from the sofa, praying her presence alone could be the comfort she wished it was. With time though, he started to take the letters to bed and tentatively read them to her, to share his nostalgia and ask more promptly for physical comfort. Se-ri remembers being struck by his mother’s handwriting, tiny yet precise, the words written in clear lines, as if the steadiness of her hand alone could let him know they were okay over there, and how are you in Switzerland, and are you happy, my son.
Since Se-ri gave birth, these parcels have been coming more steadily, the postman knocking on their front door every two weeks. Ha-rin has a beautiful woollen blanket now, and plush toys, worn but soft, her father’s. She imagines his mother’s anguish, her going to such trouble to make sure her presents get sent and delivered, can almost feel the old woman’s yearning to see her son’s face, to hold her granddaughter in her arms for the first time.
“It was a knitted hat this time,” he sighs, his hand stopping on the baby’s back. He’s not looking at her, his eyes fixed on the pictures on the wall. Se-ri two years ago coming out of the lake by their house, seven-month-pregnant Se-ri smiling goofily at the camera.
“I want us to go back and visit your parents in North Korea,” she tells him abruptly. “I want to hand Ha-rin to your mother, I want to take a picture of the three of you to hang on the wall.”
He whips his head to look at her, expecting to find a joking smile on her lips, but when he meets her serious expression, his eyes widen, his jaw locks and he shakes his head frustratingly, “that is absolutely out of the question.”
“No, it’s not,” she stubbornly insists, ready for a fight, “we could find a way, we could… imagine your mother, imagine….,” she’s sitting upright now, her words rushing out of her mouth in the effort to convince him, her hands flying about to make him see. While it was only in the back of her mind it was a half-baked idea, but now that she’s spoken it out loud, she feels it as a need she desperately needs to see through, a goal she has to accomplish.
While she rumbles on, he gets more and more agitated, the baby on his chest grunting in her sleep, as if sensing her father’s mounting distress. “You don’t know what you’re suggesting,” he mutters after taking a deep breath.
“You’re right, I don’t. That’s why I’m telling you, so you can look into this,” she tells him regaining her composure and looking him in the eye, “the last thing I want is to put us in danger, or risk this perfect life we’ve built here, I just…”
“This here,” he gestures at them and their bed, “you and Ha-rin, you’re all I need. I don’t want anyone else...” his voice goes quiet then, his eyes shining with tears, pleading with her to understand. And she understands, she knows he loves them and has no regrets about his choices, and neither does she, and she loves him for this and a thousand other reasons.
She can’t bear the thought of him thinking she doesn’t know, so she crosses the distance between them, reaches her hand out to cup his cheek, his skin warm under hers. He instinctively leans against her touch. “I know, my love, I know,” she whispers. She leans down and kisses his lips, his cheeks, his eyes. Maybe this was not a good idea, maybe they just have to put their past behind them, forget about it. Or maybe not, she thinks. Their past is who they are, where they met, what’s written in their hearts, the colour of their thoughts and the language of their kisses. Maybe, the possibility of going down this road is worth testing out.
She thinks of her parents visiting them in Switzerland a month ago, of her dad playing with their daughter on a blanket in their garden, her mother waking up in the night at Ha-rin’s first wails. She cannot stand the injustice of the impossibility to do the same with Jeong-hyeok’s parents. She will not give up until she rights this wrong, until she has that picture on the wall.
They stay silent for a while, lying side by side, Se-ri’s head resting against his shoulder, her hand on his on their daughter’s back, darkness getting thicker by the second now. Ha-rin moves her little head, and her face scrunches in the tell-tale signs of an oncoming cry. Se-ri gently picks her up from Jeong-hyeok’s chest, sitting up and placing her hungry baby against her breast. Before unbuttoning her nightshirt, she meets his gaze one final time, “promise me you’ll think about this, promise you’ll look into this possibility”.
His gaze is tired now, but love never falters on his face. He nods in defeat, in surrender. He was a fool in the first place to believe he could say no to her.
For the most part, their lives continue like before. They wake up early to the cries of their famished daughter, then go about their days as new parents. Their baby has given their lives new meaning, has infused joy in every little facet of their existence. The food tastes better, the sun shines brighter. Jeong-hyeok’s music sounds sweeter.
Se-ri will tend to their vegetable garden while Jeong-hyeok lies on the carpet in the sitting room, making silly faces at Ha-rin, whose newly learnt laugh is a sound from the heavens. Or Jeong-hyeok will go into town for a private piano lesson to one of his pupils, while Se-ri keeps one eye on her sleeping daughter and one eye on her work emails.
Yet, plans for their potential trip move forward, albeit slowly. Jeong-hyeok makes and gets phone calls in Korean at strange hours of the day, excusing himself to his office for a while, or scribbling down information on a note pad lying around on their kitchen counter. She was never one to be kept out of the loop, so she inquires about the phone calls, and is surprised to find her husband forthcoming with information. He says he’s reaching out to military contacts, people in the army who owe him a favour, but most of all he’s trying to get in touch with his father, but it’s proving hard to do. Jeong-hyeok doesn’t give up, though, and the phone keeps ringing. And if, at first, a frown would mar his handsome features every time she broached the topic, now he keeps her posted with a hopeful look in his eyes, sometimes even daring to use when instead of if. Se-ri’s heart soars at the sight.
Soon, Ha-rin turns six months old and they have a lovely picnic by the lake to celebrate, some neighbours and acquaintances from the village joining them in singing happy birthday to their sweet, pudgy, beautiful girl. Jeong-hyeok has slaved away in the kitchen on an ambitious multi-layered pink cake which turns out to be as delicious as Se-ri expected. He tears up that morning when he goes to wake his daughter up, only to find her already on her feet, her little hands clutching the bars of her crib, her smile toothless and slobbery, her eyes big and shiny, pick me up daddy, pick me up. It’s no surprise then that he can’t hold his tears in until the end of the party, and Se-ri spots him furtively wiping his eyes with his sleeve while cutting the cake. She holds her daughter in her arms most of the day, her warm weight against her chest a reminder of how blessed she is to finally have this life, to be alive in this moment, wind in her hair and Jeong-hyeok’s hand on the small of her back, while they pose for the photo in front of the cake.
That night he gets the last of the phone calls. He comes back from the study to join her again on their sofa, taking her hand in his and reflexively stroking her skin to relax her. She knows he’s finally managed to reach his dad, braces herself for the news. He takes a deep breath and explains.
It turns out they are not going to North Korea, after all. It is too dangerous, he explains. For him to be back there, to reach out to people who are bound to be under surveillance. And with her and Ha-rin, too. He will not take that kind of risk. Instead, they are flying to China, sometime in the next two weeks, and once there they will reach the north-east border, and wait. It will be his mum and dad who will travel to the Chinese border, and cross it, to meet them at an unspecified location. They will have a couple of days, a week if they’re lucky. He falls silent, then. Exhales and inhales.
“Isn’t that dangerous for your parents?” she asks. He doesn’t reply and she knows that’s because he would have to confirm her fears. And if he’s going through with this knowing the kind of risk he is exposing his parents to, then it’s because the alternative is not fathomable for him.
“What happens if they get caught?”
“Then they get caught. We will fly back home no matter what.” He squeezes her hand, more to reassure himself than her. She decides for now not to dwell on her certainty of the fact that he will never let his parents get arrested because of him.
He’s hopeful, he knows, but also worried they’re making a mistake they won’t be able to go back from. He’s also not sure of her reaction, if she is suddenly scared by the prospect of taking their daughter on an international flight with her defector husband to the North-Korean border to meet with a high-ranking official from said country.
“Are you sure you want to go?” he asks her almost shily. She climbs onto his lap then, circles her arms around his shoulders, his hands immediately going to her back to bring her closer to him. She gives him a long kiss, then rests her forehead against his and asks against his lips, “do you want to go?”.
He doesn’t need time to think and there’s no point in denying what she knows already, what she’s known even before he did, so he nods his head yes.
“Then I want to go too, Jeong-hyeok. I want to go wherever you go, always.”
That night when they make love, his solid weight pressing her against the mattress, her arms and legs locking him against her, she feels his touch with a desperation that hasn’t been there for a long time, since before that time when all they had was two weeks a year. His kisses are a hot press on her skin, searing and urgent, her hands frantic and unrelenting.
“I love you,” he breathes brokenly in her ear. I couldn’t live if anything happened to you.
“I love you too, so much,” is her whimpered reply. I won’t let that happen.
The next morning, she throws together some clothes for the three of them in an old suitcase, toiletries, and money, lots of it, just to be safe. They agreed to call her parents too, to let them know about their plan, in case they need backup.
Her daughter follows her every move from her vantage point, perched on her highchair, and Se-ri keeps her chat flowing, do you think we’ll need heels in China, peanut, or, what about these earrings. Ha-rin gurgles excitedly, her mother’s incessant blabber a great source of entertainment.
Jeong-hyeok enters the room at that moment and announces they will be leaving the next day in the early hours of the morning. Se-ri throws him a bright smile, then crosses the room to Ha-rin, picks her up and blows a raspberry on her belly.
“Sweet pea, have you heard? Daddy is taking us on an adventure!” and the baby explodes in a fit of giggles, the sight of her mother’s antics a source of irresistible hilarity, apparently.
Jeong-hyeok gives them an amused snort, but Se-ri is not done. She spins the baby around then points her fingers to Jeong-hyeok, “he’s big and broody, but he has a heart of gold, your dad does,” she chuckles through her words.
“Stop it,” he warns her, blushing and trying not to let his smile show. The baby is reaching out her chubby arms toward her father, anxious to be held by the big and broody of the family.
“Oh, look at her! You’re the love of her life, aren’t you? She can’t wait to have her hands on you the instant you enter the room!” she fake scoffs while she hands Ha-rin over to him.
“Reminds me of someone I know,” jokes Jeong-hyeok. She gapes at his words, then slaps him affectionately on his shoulder, causing him to laugh, and her daughter to suddenly burst into tears at the sudden interaction between her parents. Both of them are quick to comfort her, Jeong-hyeok holding her closer and rubbing her back soothingly, pressing his lips to the side of her head; Seri wiping the fat tears on her baby’s cheeks and cooing words of comfort, “oh no, baby, it’s ok! We were playing before, he is the love of my life too,” until Ha-rin calms down, and leans her head on her favourite place in the world, her father’s chest.
Se-ri can’t blame her.
The morning of their departure it is still dark outside, and the air is unexpectedly chilly. A taxi is waiting at the end of their driveway to take them to the airport.
Jeong-hyeok wears the baby carrier, their daughter sleeping soundly on his chest, and picks up their only suitcase. Se-ri reaches to wipe the drool from her baby’s pouty mouth, then wraps her coat tightly around herself and grabs her purse.
Jeong-hyeok is out of the door already, but she turns around to lock their house. She glances at the living room: the throw lies forgotten in a bunch on the sofa, Ha-rin’s toys litter the carpet in front of the tv set. They forgot to tidy the place before leaving. For the first time, a chill runs down her back. She hopes they will be back soon. Her gaze catches a picture on the living room’s shelf, of her and Jeong-hyeok standing before each other in the ceremony room in Iseltwald’s Town Hall. One of the happiest days of her life. She wonders if they’re going in the right direction. She prays nothing will happen to the man she loves, to their precious baby. She wants more pictures on the wall.
Jeong-hyeok calls her name from the taxi, so she closes the door of their home behind her and joins her husband and daughter in the car.
China is no Switzerland, that is for sure. The heat is stifling, for once. The air itself seems grey and sticks to your skin like sand.
They landed an hour ago and are now travelling by car to an undisclosed location towards the border. The driver, a tall man with a thick moustache around her husband’s age, was waiting for them at the airport terminal, and greeted them with a nod of his head and nothing more. He seems to know the destination because once they’re all in the car, he starts driving and doesn’t ask any questions, nor does Jeong-hyeok provide directions. Se-ri briefly wonders who these people are, what their true job really is, but she quickly diverts her thoughts to more pleasant dwellings, afraid she’ll fall down a black hole of hopelessness.
Before landing they switched the baby carrier from him to her, so now their daughter rests against her chest. She is scratching her eyes and whimpering in that way she does when she wants to be fed, a prelude to a full out crying session. Se-ri curses under her breath, she’d hoped her last feed on the plane would last her until they reached the hotel, but no such luck, apparently. Ha-rin is getting impatient, kicking her legs painfully against her stomach, the first tears leaking from her eyes even before she starts crying in earnest. She sighs and starts unbuckling the carrier to adjust the baby properly at her breast. Jeong-hyeok grabs a bib and a blanket from their bag and carefully drapes it over their daughter now feeding enthusiastically.
She doesn’t miss the way his hand shakes and then lingers on her shoulder, nor did she miss the fact he’s been on edge since their landing. She knows he handed her the baby carrier before so he could be free to move around, use his body as a human shield. He walked half a step ahead of them at the terminal, scanning the crowd for potential threats. Her mind flashes to a road not too far from here, to the punishing sound of a gunshot, the weight of his body suddenly collapsing on her, the colour leaving his face. Her heart beats in her chest like a drum at the memory, and she grasps Jeong-hyeok’s hand before he can totally remove it and intertwines it with hers, squeezing almost painfully.
They don’t relax for the rest of their journey, Jeong-hyeok scanning the scenery out the window, mentally cataloguing turns and bends, forests and rivers they cross, Se-ri anxious about the fretful baby in her arms and the high-strung man at her side. It’s a relief when they finally arrive at their hotel.
They get out of the taxi quickly. Se-ri hands the driver an envelope full of money and he’s off again. As they enter the building, their daughter starts wailing properly, so Se-ri starts rocking her back and forth and misses her husband’s interactions with the receptionist. Soon after, an old man leads them to their room.
The hotel is nondescript, austere but clean, just what she would have chosen herself to lay low with a baby in tow. The room is spacious and simple, a double bed and an ancient cot they will never use, a tv and a clean bathroom. Jeong-hyeok carries the suitcase inside, then sweeps the room for bugs but doesn’t find any. When he’s satisfied their accommodation will do for now, he turns to her, takes Ha-rin from her arms and immediately starts bouncing her.
He leans down towards Se-ri, brings a lock of her hair behind her ear and caresses her face. Then, he tells her, “Rest now, my love. You’re tired. Everything will be fine when you wake.”
She closes her eyes in exhaustion and pecks his lips in a gentle kiss. Then collapses on the bed and does what she’s told.
In the two days they stay in that hotel room they don’t go out if not to get food for themselves. They don’t want to be noticed, or leave a lasting impression on the hotel staff, of a Korean couple who spoke little Chinese and couldn’t get their infant daughter to stop crying.
Ha-rin is upset most of the time. It’s as if she senses she’s not home, that her parents are on edge and there’s danger lurking. She sleeps fretfully and can’t seem to feed properly, disregarding Se-ri’s nipple only minutes after latching on. The baby’s uneasiness does nothing to calm her parents’ nerves, but Se-ri is determined to not let it get to her, and complicate an already complicated situation. So whenever the baby gets fed up with eating, she quickly buttons up her shirt as if nothing was wrong, then lays the baby down on the hotel bed, and starts talking to her.
Her voice is a steady, lulling sound, capturing her baby’s attention like nothing else can. She tells her daughter about the plants in her vegetable garden, how they need ten nice words a day to grow properly; she tells her about the food Jeong-hyeok’s mother cooked for her that one time, how she could taste the care she put into it from the first bite; Se-ri relays stories of Ha-rin’s grandparents that Jeong-hyeok told her about during the years, how her grandma is kind-hearted and giving, like Ha-rin’s dad; her grandpa honourable and true, like Ha-rin’s dad. She paints the story of their approaching meeting like a fairytale, and Ha-rin stares at her with eyes as big as saucers, every word her mother speaks a new discovery, a beautiful melody.
It’s during their second dinner of ramen and rice that Jeong-hyeok announces he’s going out the following day. She knew this was coming, but that doesn’t make it any easier to swallow.
They will have to move again soon. They can’t meet his parents in such a public place, where anyone could spot them and remember them. They are going to move to an apartment, closer to the border, where they can arrange the meeting in relative privacy. But to do that, Jeong-hyeok has to go ahead, to scan the place, make sure it’s safe to stay in the area, even temporarily.
She wants to offer to go with him, but knows it’s a moot point. She hates that she had to agree to be separated with him, even for a few hours. The idea of staying in that hotel room by herself, miles away from home, a frightened baby her only company, is hard to stomach.
“Ok,” she agrees. “How long will you be out?”
He finishes swallowing a mouthful, then replies, “A few hours, I think.”
She lowers her head, looks fixedly at the food on her plate. She’s not much hungry anymore. “You’ll be careful, won’t you?”
He looks at her with those damn eyes. “There’s a gun in the backpack, I’ll leave it here. Don’t be afraid to use it.”
She would laugh if she didn’t have a lump in her throat. How are they in this situation again? “Sure,” she manages in a shaky voice.
“Se-ri, look at me,” he implores, “nothing will happen,” he swallows. “But, if anything happens, you take Ha-rin and get the hell out of this country, you hear me?”
She raises her head to look at his face, finally. She tilts her head to the side, gives him a disbelieving look. “Do you not know me after all this time? You think I could leave you here to die?”
She realises now this was his plan all along, that when he talked about flying out of here no matter what, he meant her and his daughter, not himself, or not in any case. Well, he’s got another thing coming.
She has started crying by now, so it’s an effort to get the words out between sobs, but she has to get her point across, “If, god forbid, worse comes to worst, I am going to take Ha-rin to safety first, like we planned. That I can promise you. Then I am coming back for you, and, if necessary, I will move mountains to get you back. Like you did for me, like you’d do for me. Because if you think there is life for me without you, then you don’t know me at all. Is that alright with you?”
He rubs his face, resigned, gets up from his seat and goes to kneel in front of her. He wipes her tears then kisses her lips. “Ok,” he murmurs against her cheek, her face in his hands, “don’t cry. I can’t bear it.”
She buries her head in his chest, falling into him. They sit on the floor like that for some time, him stroking her long hair, her breathing his scent, mouthing kisses along his neck.
That night there is little sleeping. Se-ri undresses both of them slowly, taking time to trace her fingers across all his scars, pressing her lips against the gunshot wound on his shoulder, the sight of it paining her even after all this time. He soon loses patience and gathers her in his arms, laying her down on the bed, careful not to disturb their baby, sleeping on one side. He then proceeds to lay himself right next to her, so that every inch of his skin touches hers. She rests one of her hands on his chest, his fingers in her hair.
Dawn comes quickly after that. He dresses in silence, never once tearing his gaze away from her. When he’s ready to head out, he lowers himself to the side of the bed, strokes the baby’s fine hair, kisses her head. When he’s finished, Se-ri moves to meet him halfway, crashing against his chest. He holds her tightly, desperately, then kisses her long and hard, a promise.
When they let go of each other, she traces her chapstick on his lips. “Come find us where you’re done,” she orders him.
And he’s off.
The morning passes unexpectedly swiftly. Se-ri manages to catch a few hours of sleep, to make up for the past night, thankful the baby decides to sleep as well. She wakes up with Ha-rin’s hand on her cheek, her eyes big and awake, her grin a blessing after days of tears and frowns. Se-ri gives her a long, much-needed bath, playing in the tub with a giddy Ha-rin, who’s loved splashing in the water since she first discovered it.
When they are finished, the baby is soft and clean, and snuggles against her, sweet and sleepy. Se-ri sits like that, her baby in her arms, for a long time, trying to imagine Jeong-hyeok out and about, going around unknown places, facing god knows what out there.
It’s after lunch that things go south. She heats up the food Jeong-hyeok cooked for her the day before, but she is too restless to eat more than her long-forgotten three bites. The few hours he told her he would be out for come and go, and with every second that passes after that, she loses every last shred of sanity she was desperately holding on to. Where is he? Why is he not back yet? Why did she insist on this? What possessed her to suggest a trip like this in the first place?
She changes into jeans and a jumper, now determined to go out and look for him, except she doesn’t know where to start looking and she can’t leave her daughter here like this. Her frustration mounts with her despair. They didn’t buy disposable phones they could talk through, and right now she can’t figure out why the hell they didn’t, and what were they thinking. Her mind goes over every possible scenario, one more awful than the other, imagining her husband lying in a ditch, covered in blood and dying, and she buries her face in a pillow to stifle the blood-curdling scream she’s been dying to let out for hours.
She looks around the room in search of a solution and is suddenly assaulted by a fierce longing for their home back in Switzerland. She bought that house even before she fatefully met Jeong-hyeok again in Iseltwald, because she thought it was beautiful and in a stunning location, overlooking the lake, the mountains and the valley. She never could have imagined at that time that the house would become the best home she’d ever known, that those walls and windows would come to mean family to her. Now she’s gone and put all of that in jeopardy, her selfishness blinding her to the dangers of a journey like the one she pushed her family on. What was she thinking?
In the end, he comes back at dusk, the light from the window bathing the hotel room in an eerie kind of orange, making him look like a hallucination. When the door opens and he stands tall as ever in the doorway, she hurriedly gets up from the chair but doesn’t take a step forward. All the anguish and dread of the day nail her to that spot on the floor, keep her from accepting the physical reality of him, whole and unharmed on the other side of the room. He carefully closes the door behind him then stares into her eyes with his usual look, love and devotion coming out of him in waves that threaten to knock her backwards.
“I’m sorry I’m late,” he finally says.
And it’s like she deflates at that, and she is overwhelmed by tears and sobs violently wrecking her chest. He’s across the room in three strides, picks her up from the floor to cradle her against him and lets her cry all her pain and sorrow.
No words are needed between them. He knows she’s driven herself crazy during the day. Knows only his touch can put her mind and heart at rest.
That evening, they forgo dinner.
The house they move into two days after his expedition is as nondescript as the hotel they’ve left behind, but it has a little backyard mercifully hidden from prying eyes by tall fences, which Se-ri takes as a slight improvement in their living conditions. Jeong-hyeok explains that his contact recommended this area for its proximity to the border and general quiet. People here go about their business without asking too many questions, keeping their heads low and marching on. Se-ri hopes to god that they do.
The morning his parents are scheduled to arrive at their little hideout, Se-ri chooses the outfits for all three of them, wanting her little family to look their best. Jeong-hyeok doesn’t remark on it but his teasing smile is enough for her to know he’s onto her. They’ve talked about this moment for months, with alternating hopelessness and excitement, and now that it’s here they are both overwhelmed with emotion, getting choked up at the smallest of touches, the quietest of words.
They are out the front door at the first sound of tyres on the gravel. The car his parents come in is sleek and black, tinted windows. It’s not even parked when Kim Yoon-hee rushes out, Jeong-hyeok running towards her and lifting her from the ground in a long-time-coming embrace. His mum sobs in her son’s neck, Jeong-hyeok strokes her hair lovingly and puts kisses to her cheeks, locking his arms around her short frame to secure her place against him. His dad comes around the car and joins them, patiently awaiting his turn. Jeong-hyeok must sense his presence because he reluctantly lets go of his mother and bows his head respectfully to his father. Ri Choong-ryeol fixes him with a solemn stare then opens his arms in encouragement so Jeong-hyeok embraces his dad as well, father and son quietly sobbing on the other’s shoulder.
Se-ri remains by the door to give them privacy and thinks the sight in front of her is worth all the worry and anguish of the past days and months. She brings her hand to her face and is surprised to find her cheeks wet from her flowing tears.
When the little family breaks their embrace, Kim Yoon-hee is the first to approach her by the door. Se-ri’s makeup is smudged and running down her face, but she can’t seem to stop crying. So much for making a respectable impression. She bows her head in respect, but her mother-in-law will have none of that and hugs her fiercely, taking Se-ri’s face in her hands and looking her straight in the eyes. “Thank you for this,” she murmurs, “you’ve given me the miracle I have been praying for.”
After a long hug between a teary Ri Choong-ryeol and a surprised Se-ri, they take their reunion inside. In the front room, Jeong-hyeok’s mother looks around in search, and she doesn’t need to speak the words for Jeong-hyeok and Se-ri to understand who she’s looking for. They lead the way to their bedroom, stopping by the doorway to let the older couple go in.
Kim Yoon-hee slowly moves towards the bed, her husband close behind, afraid the sound of her footsteps could break this dream she’s living. On the bed, Ha-rin is lying on her back, wide-eyed as always, kicking her pudgy legs and gurgling to herself. Her grandmother lowers herself to the bed beside her, leaning over the grinning baby, who takes her closed fist to her mouth, covers it in spit and then reaches it out to the old woman’s cheek. Jeong-hyeok’s mother gives out a teary laugh, covering the baby’s fist with one of her hands and kissing it lovingly.
She turns her gaze to Se-ri in a silent question and Se-ri gives her a quick nod in response. “Oh, my sweet angel! My darling girl,” she exclaims, picking the baby up and settling her on her shoulder. Ha-rin, in turn, claps her hands excitedly and squeals at her grandma, pleased as punch by the compliment.
The next few days go by in a blur, to no one’s surprise. It turns out that the black, sleek Volvo was chock-full of food and presents for Jeong-hyeok and his family. His parents seem to have brought the entirety of North-Korea with them to China and Se-ri figures they will have to buy a second suitcase to bring all of it back home.
Every day Kim Yoon-hee cooks mouth-watering meals that they enjoy huddled together in the little kitchen, her son slowly savouring flavours he remembers from his childhood but thought he’d never get to taste again. His parents bring him up to date on their lives, and the lives of the people around them. In turn, they timidly ask about his son and his wife’s lives and Se-ri is thrilled to recount stories of their years together, of the time she was pregnant and when she gave birth, Jeong-hyeok’s outstanding concerts, the lake in front of their house, where they swim in summer and take boat trips on in winter, Ha-rin’s little quirks and habits. Kim Yoon-hee listens on, engrossed in Se-ri’s stories, like water to the parched, while Ha-rin dangerously plays with her grandma’s hair on her lap.
Se-ri herself has brought with them photo albums of their life in Switzerland and gifts them all to her parents-in-law. She also takes a million and one photos of these days, capturing a thousand moments of domestic love and familial affection, going to bed at night imagining the photos she’ll develop and how wonderful they will look on the walls of their home. Jeong-hyeok’s father rocking Ha-rin to sleep by the fire, Jeong-hyeok resting his head on his mother’s shoulder.
But the thing she will remember more than anything else about this trip is the look of unbridled joy in her husband’s eyes. The happiness she sees written plain as day on his face in these special days has her heart beating madly in her chest, butterflies taking her stomach by storm. She follows him with her gaze wherever he moves in the house, not wanting to miss one single instant of his elation, and touching him every chance she gets, stealing caresses even in the presence of his parents, when she would never dare in normal circumstances.
And the way he holds her at night makes her truly feel on top of the world, like no amount of paragliding ever could.
A week later, she is outside in the front garden, gathering the laundry she hung out to dry that morning. Everyone else is inside, tending to the baby (grandad) and tending to the noodles (grandma and Jeong-hyeok).
She’s thinking about the no doubt delicious lunch awaiting them and enjoying the tentative rays of sun on her face when she hears them. Men’s voices, bickering in the distance. At first, she doesn’t pay them any mind, but soon she can make out what they’re saying.
“Damn it, this is the wrong street!”
“No, it’s not! For god’s sake, Ju-muk, Captain Ri said third house on the left, we’re nearly there, would you give it a rest!”
Surely, she’s misheard. Or, her mind is playing tricks on her. Surely, the people she knows those voices belong to cannot actually be walking down this road, in this god-forsaken village, at the Chinese-North Korean border. She doesn’t have time to come up with a more plausible alternative, though, because four men suddenly appear at the end of the driveway. And, against all odds, it’s her husband’s old company of men, her dear, beloved friends.
They’ve spotted her and are coming towards her with huge grins, calling her name excitedly, shouting for her. Se-ri’s heart skips several beats, then she starts running. And it’s a good thing they’re soldiers and catch her readily, because tears blur her vision completely and honestly, she doesn’t know where she’s going.
“Se-ri!” she hears once she’s crashed against a warm body, “I have missed you so much,” and she recognises Eun-dong’s teary voice.
“Hey, that was my elbow, lady!” comes Chi-su’s grunt but she doesn’t give signs of ever wanting to detach herself from them.
“My god, motherhood has made you even more beautiful, Se-ri!” exclaims Ju-muk from her right.
“What are you doing here!” she manages to get out, looking around at her friends’ faces, now different with time and signs of a life lived. Kwang-beom is more handsome than ever and she spots a ring on Ju-muk’s finger she makes a mental note to ask him about later.
“Oh you know, when Captain Ri calls you and says his wife is going batshit crazy without you in her life, you can entertain the idea of illegally crossing the Chinese border,” is Chi-su’s snarky reply but the grin on his face is sincere and she slaps him lightly on the arm, laughing all the while.
They keep chatting right there, voices overlapping in excitement, everyone trying to get a word in edgeways, and through it all Se-ri keeps having a hard time wrapping her head around these men’s presence right here. She’s missed them like a steady ache in her heart and sometimes like a fierce pang in her guts, has thought about them in her day-to-day life, when she has coffee with her girlfriends in town, or when she plays with Ha-rin by the lake. They were her true friends, the first people who really looked at her and chose to see all the ways in which they were the same, instead of noticing all the ways in which they were different, from different worlds. These four men made the choice to get to know her and appreciated her for herself. Having to be away from them is one of the unacceptable tragedies of the life she lives.
She thinks about the last time she saw them, handcuffed and dragged away from her by the army. How she’d wept for them. How she’d ached at the thought of never seeing them again. And now they’re here, with her, together. After all these years.
At one point the front door opens and Jeong-hyeok appears in the doorway, their daughter settled on his hip. “Will you guys join us for lunch?” he asks nonchalantly, and he actually smirks at the group.
A chorus of voices rises from them, “That’s what we came here for!”, “I’ve dreamt of your mum’s cooking for the last three nights!” and “Is that mini-Se-ri?! My god, what are you feeding her!”
The smile on Se-ri’s face is bordering on painful by now. She watches as her boys make their way inside the house, one by one, Kwang-beom stopping by Jeong-hyeok and tentatively asking for permission to carry the baby inside himself. When it’s only her husband by the door, she goes to him too. She knows by what the boys have just told her that he arranged for them to come here, paid for their travel and made sure they would have a safe way to cross. She knows he met with them when he went out that day when they were still staying at the hotel. She knows he’s done this for her.
When she reaches him, she locks her arms around his neck and stands on her tippy toes to brush her mouth against his. They close their eyes at the contact.
“I didn’t tell you in case the plan would fall through,” he excuses himself.
She hums her pleasure against his lips, then tells him, “Every day I wake up beside you and look at your face and I think I can’t possibly love you more than this. Then every night I go to sleep in your arms and I know I love you more than the day before. How do you do it?”
He just shrugs, then shushes her with a kiss.
When Ha-rin turns one year old they throw a small party at their house. Their daughter is the prettiest baby on this planet to her but today Jeong-hyeok is dressing her in a poppy-printed white and red dress, with red tights and a little red bow on her hair, and even halfway through the not-without-hitch process of dressing her, she is simply scrumptious.
Se-ri abruptly stops the proceedings, claiming she needs to fetch her camera to take a picture of the situation: Jeong-hyeok sitting on their bed, dressed in a black t-shirt that has him looking to die for, their daughter standing on his lap, red tights halfway through her chubby legs, a tiny tooth showing from her otherwise gummy grin. Se-ri will send it east.
She leaves their bedroom to quickly grab the camera in the living room. She looks around and spots it on the mantelpiece near the window. It’s by a new photo, recently framed and black and white. It was taken in a little backyard far away. In it, a man holds an almost naked baby in his arms, his arms around her securely, his gaze loving. An old lady, graceful smile and eyes closed, brushes her nose against the baby’s, their profiles uncannily alike.
Se-ri smiles at the sight of it. It is a beautiful picture. She’ll make a copy of it and send this one east, too.