Dark clouds were scattered low and despondent in the sky, loitering above the creeping flow of the river. As it always had, the Aprok River echoed through the deep ravine. The water was rising after a sudden, unseasonable squall, and seemed massive under the gleaming moon.
A loud gunshot sounded not far away.
At the noise, a night bird dozing in the leaves of a willow tree fluttered its wings and shot, startled, into the sky. At the same time, a young man dressed in black appeared on the riverbank, panting.
He had been hiding behind a rock, holding his breath, looking anxiously up and down the river. Now he carefully stepped out and into the water. As he looked into the depths of the river, his eyes were full of fear.
He faltered for a second. Dark shadows were advancing over the mountains he had passed, rushing down toward him. A searchlight lit up his back and a sharp voice yelled, “Don’t move!” At that instant, his hesitation vanished and he sank beneath the water and was gone.
The dark shadows shined their searchlights into the flowing water but could not see the young man.
“Shit!” The potbellied man, who seemed to be in charge, swore loudly and fired his pistol into the air. Bang! But the echo was swallowed by the loud rush of the river.
Startled by the commotion on the other side of the river, the two border guards on duty looked at each other as if they had just seen something crazy.
“What’s wrong with those bastards tonight?”
“Well, he shot his pistol, so they’re obviously not border guards.”
“You’re probably right,” said the taller of the two. “How dare those bastards shoot! Should we fire back?” As if about to fire, the taller man raised his rifle.
“Hey, are you crazy? You can’t shoot on the border.”
“Well, those bastards just fired, so why can’t we?”
“Where you gonna shoot? Into the water? Into the air? Get a grip.”
For a while, the men on the other side continued to shout. Then, as if wearied by the effort, they walked away and their voices faded. The two border guards watched them until they disappeared, and then resumed their patrol.
In a cramped room near the entrance to an alley not far from the riverbank, a tall and strikingly pretty woman waited restlessly. Jang Sin-mi: tall and pretty—that was her name. She glanced up at the clock on the wall: just past 3 a.m. But she was too nervous to entertain any thought of sleep.
The small room held a tiny kitchen and a bed against the inner wall. Next to it sat a large wooden box. Apart from that, the room was bare. There were two signs habitation: a brown bag on the windowsill, and a small mirror that perhaps belonged to her.
The wall was papered to cover the mud it was made of, and some clothes hung from a nail. Blankets were folded at the end of the bed, which was Chinese, with peacock patterns. The woman was waiting for a man who should have arrived already. Kang Ki-su: a strong man—and that was his name, too.
She had heard the gunshot ring from the riverbank and its sound was still in her ears. Kang Ki-su should have returned two hours ago. At around midnight, he had crossed the river with his rucksack, as they’d agreed.
The one who was supposed to hand over the fifteen kilos of opium hasn’t made it, she thought. And then a gunshot rang out.
Of course, when he’d crossed, it wasn’t raining. The squall that came about an hour after he’d gone had really made the river rise, but he was the kind of man who’d have made the return crossing anyway. In thirty minutes, she thought, the sun will rise. Sin-mi felt like she was burning inside.
She had never imagined that waiting for someone could be this difficult. Although they weren’t married yet, theirs wasn’t just a friendship. When they’d come here to Hyesan, they’d always shared a bed. Two hot-blooded late twentysomethings living together in a small room? All the neighbors assumed they were a couple.
Sin‐mi was miserable. She couldn’t decide whether she should go out or wait longer.
They had made a rule: don’t go outside at night. But to wait in a dark room with not even the lights on for someone who wasn’t coming—that was unbearable. Because he had to return, and the waiting constricted her chest even more. Worse, a gunshot rang out when he was supposed to have been crossing! That was no small matter! And it was now two hours since that heartrending gunshot had sounded down at the river.
A man who had not returned, and after a gunshot! Sin‐mi’s eyes were fixed on the door. Tears welled and began to fall. Something must have gone wrong. If that’s the case, she wondered, what will happen? They’d done this so many times and for so many years, but nothing like this had ever happened. And now, finally . . .
The woman’s shoulders began to shake and then, with a creak that made her start, the door opened. Sin‐mi didn’t even wipe her eyes. She ran toward him.
Kang Ki‐su, his strong body soaked through, looked blankly at Jang Sin-mi and sank to the floor. Perhaps he lost consciousness. He closed his eyes and did not move at all.
“Hey?” Her tears blurring his face, Jang Sin‐mi called out in a low voice, but there was no reply. The water from his body flowed toward the furnace that warmed the room and she could hear dripping.
Jang Sin‐mi quickly crossed to the door and bolted it tight. Then she knelt next to him and looked intently at his pale face. He was breathing. She rose, took a bottle of liquor from the cupboard in the kitchen area, opened it, and carefully poured a few drops of the drink between his lips. They moved a little, then he swallowed the liquid with a gulping noise. A few moments later, he groaned and opened his eyes. Sin‐mi’s eyes were bright with joy.
“Just a second,” she said. “I’ll help you take your clothes off.” She took off the ripped and filthy layers one by one. When she tried to ease off the clothes between his body and the floor, he moved a little to help her. After she had taken off his underpants, she filled a basin with warm water, wet a towel, and carefully washed his body.
He was bruised in several places and there was blood, too. With a dry cloth, she wiped him dry, then strained to lift him and lay him on the bed. He fell asleep immediately. She covered him with a blanket and back by the stove, she stoked the fire. She washed each torn item of clothing, hung them on the line that stretched across the room, and then washed some rice. She put it in a pot to cook.
It was a late breakfast. Finally, several hours after dawn, Kang Ki-su stirred and moved to sit at the low table in the middle of the room. His eyes were still dull with exhaustion. Sin-mi brought the bottle of liquor to the table and poured him a shot.
“You have one too,” he said.
“Not too much. I’m just happy to pour you one.”
She got another glass and put it down. This time, Kang Ki-su poured.
“That’s fine, just half.”
As Sin-mi touched the bottle, she smiled widely. In the daylight, she was so pretty. You could see no blemish, and her face was that of a beauty. Her clear skin: he couldn’t stop thinking about it. It was a face that he knew he’d never tire of, and when she scowled at him he smiled sheepishly and looked away.
“Go on, have a glass,” he said. She touched the glass. “Yes.”
She looked at the man as he drank again, took a sip herself, and put the glass back down. It was a strong liquor and she felt fire in her throat as it went down, even though she had taken only a small sip.
“So, the cash didn’t get soaked,” she said.
“How could I get it wet? It’s worth my life.” He grinned. “Are you feeling better?”
“Yeah. Were you worried that I might die?”
“I thought it was I who was dying, because my heart was getting so tight.” Sin‐mi scowled again.
“How could I die when a beautiful girl like you is waiting for me? Doesn’t make sense.”
“Do you mean that?”
“Of course. Whether I mean it or not, though, that’s the important thing. I mean, to have a girl waiting.” He chuckled. “That’s the source of a man’s strength.”
“I’d wait for you forever. But . . .”
“Yes?” Kang looked up at Sin‐mi as he put a large spoon of chicken and tofu stew in his mouth.
“What was that . . . gunshot?”
“Ah—dunno how they found out. They cornered me and almost got me. How did they know?”
“They cornered you?” Her eyes widened.
“I think this is over. Until we find another way.”
Kang raised his glass. He shook the last drops into his mouth. Sin-mi said, “Tell me what happened.”
“Let me eat, I’m starving.”
She pushed the plate across the table. “Sorry. Here, eat this. Don’t have too much to drink.”
Sin-mi looked at him and smiled. He had braved death. If death’s thick shadow closed in on him, and if he could evade it because of a girl longingly waiting for him, she would do the waiting—even if it were for all of her life. He had made it clear that it mattered. Sin-mi wanted to imprint that on her memory.
She wished that what he had said was a promise, and that he would keep it for her. She knew they couldn’t live like this forever. She did not want to be a drop in the swelling wave of this strange time.
Wherever it was to be, she wanted one day to have a safe and cozy place where she could hold her head up and live with the man she loved. Sin‐mi loathed this life. Kang had said it was over, and she wished it were. She wanted Kang to understand this.
“That was delicious. Sin‐mi, you’re a good cook.” “It was that good?”
“Of course. I mean no one would refuse food, but hey. It was good. Here’s a kiss.”
His lips still had soup on them but he pressed them to her white cheeks and kissed her twice.
“I don’t know how you can be so happy after what happened last night.” “Huh. What’s the point in thinking about it? Anyway, it was bad last night. I delivered the goods and got the money and had it in my bag. They asked me to stay for a drink so I agreed. Then . . .”
He interrupted himself by putting a cigarette in his mouth. Sin-mi quickly lit it for him. He sucked the smoke in deeply and then exhaled. He shivered. Then he continued to speak.
“Actually, you can’t drink when you have the money on you. And besides, even if they are Koreans like us, they’ve lived among the Chinese. How can you really trust them? So I said I was going to the bathroom and sneaked out the back door. Then you know what I heard in the dark? A pebble, rolling down the steep hill.
“My mind was on high alert and I had a sudden hunch. Run. If I get caught, that’s it. So I just ran madly toward the river. Maybe they saw me, and they even fired a shot as they chased me.” He laughed. “But I came back to you.”
Sin‐mi put her hand on the back of his neck, and pulled him toward her. She rubbed her soft cheek against his stubble. Tears dripped from her eyes. Kang leaned toward her and whispered into her ear.
“Do you know what I was thinking when I jumped into that dark water?” “What?”
“When I was underwater, Sin‐mi, you appeared and laughed and called out to me. Then I had to focus. Maybe if I hadn’t, I would have . . .”
He was afraid, and he held her more tightly.
© Lee Ji Myung. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2013 by Shirley Lee. All rights reserved.