“Miyoung-ah, wait here,” Taeyeon says softly as she jumps down from a low tree branch. Landing gracefully, she turns and flashes Miyoung a toothy grin. She closes her own eyes in an imitation of the younger girl and so as not to see the sadness or fear in the other child’s eyes.
“Come back safe, TaeTae,” Miyoung whispers. “Please c-” She forces herself to smile as well.
It’s definitely an improvement over the wailing, “Don’t leave me!” and clumsy crashing through the underbrush in pursuit of her that Miyoung usually does, the older girl thinks. Taeyeon smiles— the five year old finally trusts her to return. Seven, Taeyeon follows the unsuspecting man a few paces ahead of her. She steals his coin purse using the kkotjebi skills that years of living on the streets have earned her. A look inside of the purse reveals very little money, but Taeyeon isn’t disheartened. No one has much money. She sits by the side of the road and waits for another person to pass. She has to do it away from Miyoung or else the little girl won’t let her go in time for Taeyeon to get anything.
Well, Miyoung is the younger of the pair, but she’s quite a bit bigger than Taeyeon is. She grew up as well cared for as possible until a few months ago. She was well-loved by her parents, even spoiled by Democratic People’s Republic of Korean standards. Thus, her home was broken into by soldiers and robbed of her parents, who were destined for a re-education camp.
Her mother refused to let go of her daughter, and her father tried to protect them both. Mr. Hwang survived, barely, while Mrs. Hwang did not. The woman lay on top of her child and used her last breaths to tell Miyoung to lay still and silent so that the soldiers would think she was dead as well.
Miyoung obeyed for a long time, trying to console herself with the fact that her father left smiling, knowing that she was still alive. She also knew her mother was watching her in Heaven and wanted to show the woman that her sacrifice had not been in vain. Somehow Miyoung knew those things.
Taeyeon didn’t. She had been drawn to the ransacked hut by the sound of crying. She hadn’t heard such keening before and didn’t know what it was. Even orphaned babies learned to stay quiet very quickly. Wild sounding but weak, maybe it was a wounded animal she could kill and eat. The small girl pushed Mrs. Hwang’s body off of Miyoung without much care; the streets she lived in were filled with the dead.
Miyoung shrieked. “No, no, umma!”
Startled, Taeyeon slapped a hand over Miyoung’s mouth.
The young girl took one look at the older and then threw herself onto Taeyeon.
Taeyeon tensed up, recovering enough to fight back a second later. She had never been hugged before, but she had been tackled and wrestled for food. Her attempts to get Miyoung to let go of her failed. Hitting and scratching the girl only had the effect of making Miyoung howl louder, so Taeyeon went still. She thought Miyoung would die soon, so she should just wait.
Sometimes the dying forgot themselves like this. There were some crazy people and some mentally handicapped people around too, but they never survived long once discovered by the soldiers.
Taeyeon wondered if she should take Miyoung to them.
Once in a while, soldiers would take pity on the kkotjebi, and they always rewarded those who turned in their neighbors in displays of loyalty to the state.
The older girl tried to lift the younger but found herself unable to do so.
A van blaring the national anthem startled both children.
With much faster reaction time, Taeyeon was able to toss Miyoung to the side and scramble to a corner of the room. Being caught outside after lights out meant being shot on sight, and the hut was already marked. She was trapped with Miyoung until morning.
The bigger child automatically rose to close the door.
Taeyeon tackled her. “Don’t, stupid! Everyone needs to see that your family has been made an example of, and you’re supposed to be dead!” she hissed.
Miyoung started shaking and almost fell apart into tears again.
Instinctively hugging her since that quieted her down last time, Taeyeon held her tightly.
Miyoung hugged her even tighter and took them to their knees. “Umma, umma,” she whimpered several times.
“What’s an umma?” Taeyeon asked with a sigh minutes later.
“Her!” the five year old pointed to her dead mother. “It’s a special name for the lady who gave you life!”
“The Honorable Leader gives us life,” Taeyeon growled.
“But I came from inside her!”
“You did not! This is probably why your family was chosen for re-education. All life comes from our leader. When the sun rises, I will return you to him because you are not worthy of the gift he has given you.”
“No! Umma didn’t want that!”
“Be quiet! What ‘umma,’” she said the word with distaste, “wanted is not important.”
Miyoung pushed Taeyeon down and retreated back to her mother in a huff. “You talk big for such a little kid,” she said much later.
Taeyeon didn’t respond. Trying not to die of fright, she thanked the Leader for allowing her a night inside shelter. She curled up in a corner, ignoring Miyoung but not turning her back on her.
Who knew what the crazy child would do to her?
She awoke warmer than she had ever felt before in her life, Miyoung cuddled up to her, and a good-quality blanket over the two of them. She started to push the kid away but again found that she could not.
“Umma’s cold,” the young child whispered, broken.
Somehow, the emotion in that small voice pierced Taeyeon’s long-cold heart. “I’m not very warm though, am I?” she whispered back.
“Warm enough,” Miyoung pressed her face to Taeyeon’s neck and snuggled closer to her.
Taeyeon fell back asleep thinking that she had always hated the cold and that this might not be so bad.
“You hungry?” Miyoung asks as she did the first morning they woke up together.
Taeyeon scrambles to her feet. “I told you to wait for me!”
“But you’ve been gone a really, really long time!” Miyoung plunks down next to her.
The older girl snorts. “The sun has barely moved across the sky. You need to learn patience.”
“You need to learn to relax.” Miyoung pinches Taeyeon’s cheeks and pushes the corners of her mouth up.
“So, what? I can be killed like your parents were?” Taeyeon responds without thought.
Miyoung gasps and crosses her arms, pouting but not moving away from the older girl. She leans against Taeyeon again after a minute. “Where are your parents?”
“I don’t know. I don’t think I have any.” Taeyeon shrugs.
“But you have to. You-” Miyoung shuts her mouth.
“Well, you’re learning that at least.” Taeyeon ruffles the messy hair by her cheek.
“Do you learn anything from me, TaeTae?”
“Of course.” Taeyeon nods. “Nothing useful, but lots-”
Miyoung shoves Taeyeon so that the other child falls sideways and then takes off running gleefully.
Taeyeon doesn’t know why she chases the younger girl or what the funny sound coming out of her own mouth is but finds herself bothered by these things less and less as time goes on.
Miyoung stops, whirling around so that Taeyeon crashes into her and they fall over. Wide-eyed, she lays where she falls.
Taeyeon quickly pushes Miyoung’s tattered clothing out of the way to check her for injuries.
“Don’t.” Miyoung giggles and then touches Taeyeon’s lips and throat in awe. “You were laughing, TaeTae. Really.”
“I was? No, I wasn’t,” Taeyeon immediately denies the assertion and pulls her arms back to cross them.
“Well, you’re learning that at least.” Miyoung laughs as she ruffles Taeyeon’s hair in return.
“Why did you ask me if I was hungry earlier?” Taeyeon wonders after another marginally successful day of money-making. “It’s not like you have any food. Unless you’ve been hiding it from me.” She regards the other child with mild suspicion. The fact that Miyoung’s cheeks are just as chubby as they were on the day that the two girls met has not escaped her notice.
“You’ve got big cheeks too!” Miyoung giggled the first time Taeyeon brought it up.
“I do?” Taeyeon wondered.
Glass isn’t big in their village and neither is clean water.
She doesn’t know what she looks like.
“I dunno. Umma always used to ask me that.” Miyoung mentions her mother with ever-lessening sadness. “She told me that when she was a little girl, there used to be a lot more food, and even more when Oe-halmeoni was a little girl! They lived waaaay out in the countryside and grew their own food in a field. She said there was something called a ‘river,’ and it had clear, delicious water, and things called ‘berries’ that grew near her home and tasted really good. And there were ... ‘flowers’ that smelled really nice. I want to see those.” Miyoung clasps her cheeks and flutters her eyelashes as she often does when she’s daydreaming.
Taeyeon had never heard of the word “dream” before Miyoung told it to her.
Miyoung says something else a lot too, “love,” which is even more mystifying to the lifelong street urchin.
Taeyeon thinks that she’s learning what the words mean, though. If she loves anything, it’s Miyoung. And her dreams are whatever Miyoung’s are.
“Hey, Miyoung-ah,” she whispers into the night.
“Uh-huh?” the girl clinging to her mumbles sleepily.
“Maybe ...we could find that place you were talking about before. Do you want to try?”
“Yeah!” Miyoung’s crescent eyes glow brighter than the moon and stars above them do. “Let’s go tomorrow, okay?”
“Okay.” Her hands automatically lift to play with Miyoung’s hair. She’s pretty sure they’re starving to death, so the danger and unlikelihood of finding and getting to the place don’t really matter. If they die, at least they’ll die ...“happy”? Yes, that’s the word. And with someone they love beside them. Taeyeon dreams of a farm as she sleeps.