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Translated by Jeon Miseli
“A herd of zebras are grazing on the savannah.”
Zebra must be today’s topic on “The Animal Kingdom”.* As soon as he hears the word “zebras”, Yông-su immediately drops the broken toy he has been playing with and rushes to sit in front of the TV. His ringworm-stricken face reminds one of a savannah in dry season. He immediately gets absorbed in the scene of a vast African savannah, which is reflected in his eyes that are riveted on the screen. The scene changes and now a couple of lionesses are sneaking up on a zebra, lowering themselves close to the ground. The boy clenches his hands and yells: “You bad lions! Go away! Scram!”
Yông-su shouts on, shaking his small fist at the lionesses. When they finally pounce on the prey, however, the boy closes his eyes tight. Of all animals, the eight-year-old loves zebras the most. He first saw them on TV when he was five, some time after crossing the Tuman River on his mother’s back. The zebras, mixed with a herd of gnus, were grazing to their hearts’ content in Serengeti. The stripes on their bodies looked really beautiful. Since then, whenever he watches a large family of zebras galloping across a plain on TV, his eyes are glued to the images on the screen and his cheeks burn with excitement. Yông-su has memorized almost everything about the life of zebras.
“Yông-su! I’m gonna switch it off!” threatens Aunt Chung-sim, standing in front of the TV with arms akimbo. He thinks she looks like a hungry lioness. The boy starts pouting and finally bursts into tears. Tears roll down his cheeks like a trickle of water struggling to push its way through a desert.
“Okay! Okay! Oh, dear!” says the aunt, moving away from the TV screen. Wiping tears with the back of his hand, the child fixes his eyes on the zebras again: “Millions of gnus and zebras live together peacefully. In the distance lions, cheetahs and hyenas roam.”
Yông-su hates the predators. He can’t understand why those nasty creatures have to eat gazelles, antelopes and even zebras, when there is plenty of grass to graze on the plain. It is so painful to watch lions kill a zebra, sinking their long, yellow fangs into the poor victim’s neck that Yông-su can’t help yelling at the predators at the top of his lungs. The worst of all is when lions attack a zebra from behind, pouncing on its rump.
The scene reminds him of a man who once stripped his mother naked and climbed on top of her. Remembering, at the moment, the poor zebras killed by lions, Yông-su yelled: “No!” at the man, but in vain. The raging man kicked the boy and beat his mother to a pulp. There was nothing he could do to help his wounded and bleeding mother. Night after night the man would be on top of the naked woman and she would utter strange noises. The helpless child would sit at the feet of his mother, shedding silent tears. The man was as ferocious as a lion declaring his newly secured kingship. Whenever the man caught sight of Yông-su as he crossed the courtyard, he would lay such a painful knuckle-blow on the child’s head as to bring tears to his eyes. His mother could do nothing at all that might get on the man’s nerves. The child hated his mother for that. Then one night, in pouring rain, his mother secretly left the village, covering herself and her son on her back with a plastic sheet.
Aunt Chung-sim calls Yông-su to the dining table. Pretending not to hear her, he wonders why “The Animal Kingdom” should always be on at dinner time? If it were on some other time, he would not have to be scolded by Aunt Chung-sim. No other aunts or uncles pay any attention to Yông-su at mealtimes. They don’t care whether the boy skips a meal or not. If he doesn’t eat now, he will be terribly hungry later on, but he can’t afford to miss this chance today of watch the zebras. He isn’t sure at all if and when zebras will be the main topic of the programme again. He hates waiting: waiting is like having a cone of ice cream in his hand.
“Be quick or your dinner will be gone!” threatens his aunt’s angry voice.
He wants to eat while watching the zebras. But his aunt won’t let him do the two things at the same time. His mother would feed him spoonfuls herself as he carried on watching zebras on TV. Suddenly, he misses his mother very much. Did she cross the Mara River safely? She had left Yanji in November last year to go to Korea. She shed a waterfall of tears when she promised her son she would come back for him later and Yông-su trusted her tears rather than her words. Not long after she left, a snowman walked into this small house. It was Aunt Chung-sim, completely covered in snow, who came from somewhere far away.
“What are you doing? Are you listening to me?”
The aunt loses her temper and snatches Yông-su’s hand.
“Aunt, look! Look at that!” the boy points to the TV screen where the legs of a foal have just slipped into view out of a mother zebra’s behind. The zebra neighs, flaring her nostrils. Other zebras gather around and protect her as she gives birth. Along with the legs comes the head. The mother zebra seems to be struggling. Eventually, the foal drops onto the grass.
“Oooh!” exclaims Aunt Chung-sim. The mother zebra eats up the white membrane in which the foal’s body was wrapped.
“Pretty, isn’t it?” says Yông-su, pointing to the new-born foal.
“It is, indeed!” nods the aunt.
“Now, let’s go and eat.”
She pulls him by the hand.
“No! I want to see it.”
The boy shakes his head stubbornly.
The baby zebra is struggling to stand up. With hands clenched, Yông-su cheers him on: “Get up! Get up! Drink your mummy’s milk!” The baby zebra falls back on the ground twice more before it manages to straighten its legs and stand firm.
“My dear boy, we must leave tonight. We will be going a long way. If you don’t eat now, that’s it; there’ll be no time for any more meals. You’ll be starving. You wouldn’t like that, would you? I beg of you, please, eat now.”
She tries to reason with the child in a calm voice, crouching down beside him.
The boy shakes his body violently in a fit of something he doesn’t understand, with his eyes still following a herd of zebras on the screen over Aunt Chung-sim’s head. Now, the baby zebra begins suckling vigorously at its mother’s breast.
“Sweetheart, we haven’t got much time. We have to leave soon. Don’t you want to go see your mum?”
The boy instantly turns to the young woman.
“Yes, let’s go and see Mummy, okay?”
“Are we going to Serengeti, then?”
Aunt Chung-sim nods her head to him.
“Hurray! Hurray! Hurray!” He bounces up and down like a gazelle, waving his arms. Imitating a he-zebra that is flaring its nostrils and kicking up its strong hind legs, the child comes to the dinner table at last. Uncle Man-bok, who came from Chôngjin, Aunt Chu-hyôn from Musan and Aunt Sun-dôk from a small village not far from Shinûiju have already started eating.
“Do you really mean to take him along with you?” Uncle Man-bok asks Aunt Chung-sim, gesturing to the child with his chin. The child immediately stops eating and hangs his head, stealing glances at the adults’ faces.
“What else can I do? How can we possibly leave the child alone here? We adults are responsible for him!” replies the young woman, knitting her brows. The boy instantly senses that something’s wrong. Soon, the aunts begin arguing with one another. It has already been three years since he started feeling that he was unwelcome in the group of grown-ups living there together.
“You know how the saying goes about preparing for a long journey. It says you should leave everything behind, even your eyebrows,” grumbles Aunt Sun-dôk. Aunt Chung-sim puts down her chopsticks with a thud.
“That’s enough! Would you leave him behind if the boy were your own, the one you’ve left behind at Moktangang? Stop talking nonsense! If you keep at it just because the boy isn’t your own, you’ll be punished by Heaven. Mark my words!” challenges Aunt Chung-sim fiercely. The child keeps shovelling rice into his mouth; he wouldn’t dare to touch anything else on the table.
“Sure! You oh-so-good Samaritan! Why don’t you take the whole responsibility upon yourself. We wash our hands of it all, okay?” retorts Aunt Sun-dôk, angrily jerking her head up. An icy wind seems to blow between them. The child lays down his spoon quietly. He has eaten only half the rice in his bowl, but he couldn’t eat any more even if he wanted to.
“Okay, I will! Now, no more of it! Things are tough, and no one denies it. But where on earth is your compassion?”
Aunt Chung-sim picks up her chopsticks again. The boy waits for a chance to sneak away from the table and goes back to the television. However, the animal programme is over and all the zebras are no more. He suddenly feels completely drained of energy. The inside of his nose starts to burn; he feels like crying. But he resists and, squatting down in a corner of the living room, traces a word on the floor with his finger – “Mummy”.
* * *
As soon as Aunt Chung-sim finishes washing the dishes, two men come in. One is a minister dressed in a suit and the other a missionary called Mr Pak wearing jeans. Mr Pak videotapes every nook and corner of the house. The minister sits down on the floor and the others sit in a circle around him. Yông-su sneaks behind Aunt Chung-sim’s back. He thinks that the minister’s eyes resemble those of a deer.
“Let’s pray,” says the minister, and Aunt Sun-dôk quickly kneels and folds her hands. Yông-su also closes his eyes, and presses his hands together.
“Lord, our father who art in Heaven! Bless these lost sheep gathered here in prayer. They are about to go on a long journey. We pray that thou will walk with them every step of the way. Bless them with strength so they may reach Korea safely, and let them pass through the wilderness not alone, but together with the Holy Spirit. Allow them to come closer to thee with only faith, hope, and love. Trust in God and in the name of Jesus Christ, Amen.”
Following the minister, everybody repeats: “Amen.”
“It’s time to leave now. Are you all mentally prepared?”
The boy wonders what the minister means by “mentally prepared”. What is it that should be prepared? Perhaps something like clothes or shoes? Judging from the look on the faces of the uncle and aunts, it seems something different from such things.
“There is absolutely no question about it: you must set out together with Jesus Christ. Whenever you face difficulties, cry out ‘Lord, hallelujah, Amen!’ Then Jesus Christ will guide the way for you. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” they all answer in unison, though in weak voices.
“Please! Don’t answer with ‘Yes,’ but with ‘Trust in God, amen!’ ” says the minister with a broad smile.
“Amen!” says Yông-su as loudly as he can. The minister smiles again and strokes the boy’s head. His touch feels soft and warm like that of a mother zebra’s tongue licking her young.
“As for other practical details, please discuss them with Mr Pak here. I must go now. I’ve got some other things to prepare.”
Once the minister is gone, Mr Pak clears his throat a couple of times. He begins talking as Aunt Sun-dôk comes back in after seeing the minister out.
“First, you’ll leave for Beijing by train. You’ll stay one night there and then take a different train thatgoes to Urumqi. Before Urumqi there is a small town called Eren. You have to cross the border there. A Korean guide will help you and guide you as far as Eren. Then, once on the other side of the border, you must do everything you can to be captured by Mongolian soldiers. If you get captured by People’s Liberation Army soldiers there is no hope for you, none whatsoever. You must remember that. Also, if you wander through the plain for too long, there is a good chance of dying from cold. Also, the plain has a capricious climate and you can get frostbite very easily. The best thing is to be captured by Mongolian soldiers as soon as possible.”
The word “plain” catches the boy’s attention, while all the adults look very nervous.
“Now, we need to talk about practical matters. You – er – must pay the exact amount. We use all the money collected to help you people, leaving not even a single penny for ourselves. As you can see, our work here is for charities. At the same time, you must understand, it is part of our missionary project. However, whether it is charitable or missionary work, you shouldn’t expect us to take care of all your expenses as well. Do you follow me?”
Yông-su doesn’t have a clue about what Mr Pak has just said. The grown-ups, on the other hand, nod their heads, though reluctantly.
“Okay! Then you all know it is – er – five million won per person, don’t you?” asks Mr Pak.
The boy can’t understand how much money five million won is, but he reckons that perhaps it is even more than what one pays for ten plates of dumplings.
“You should pay twenty thousand yuan in advance. Once you get to Korea and receive the settlement money, you must pay off the remainder, that is, three million won. You already know that, don’t you? All right, then.”
As soon as Mr Pak finishes his talk, Aunt Sun-dôk takes a bulging envelope out of her purse and lays it down on the floor.
“You did a good job,” says Mr Pak, taking the money and then patting her on the shoulder.
“I will pay when I get to Eren,” says Aunt Chung-sim in a calm but emphatic tone.
Mr Pak’s smiling face immediately turns into an icy expression.
“What do you mean by that, Chung-sim?” Aunt Sun-dôk, looking terribly startled, reproaches Aunt Chung-sim.
“Well, last time, I paid the fee up front, but the plan folded even before I could leave and that Korean guy disappeared with all the money that had been collected. Chu-hyôn worked for two years and I worked as a masseuse for over two to save all the money. We earned it sweating blood. Even while we were being chased, when we were starving and wearing rags, we somehow pinched pennies. How . . . How could any Korean extort it from us so easily? It’s not that I don’t trust the minister and you, but I must hang on to the money until I get to Eren.”
Uncle Man-bok nods, agreeing with Aunt Chung-sim. In the mean time, Mr Pak repeats several times under his breath: “Oh, Lord, our Father!” Now all the adults seem to feel uncomfortable and awkward.
“Chung-sim, how dare you say such things to the minister and missionary? The minister is our saviour! Without his help, we couldn’t even dream of going to South Korea. Don’t you know that? How could you be so thankless?” Aunt Sun-dôk berates Aunt Chung-sim with an angry glare. Yông-su has never seen Aunt Sun-sôk so angry as to be red in the face. It seems that Aunt Chung-sim is doing something terribly wrong.
“I’ve heard that some ministers will take people like us to South Korea for free,” mutters Aunt Chu-hyôn to herself.
Hearing her, Mr Pak’s eyes take on the cruel sharpness of a lion fighting another for prey. “Well then, let’s forget about the whole thing!” he yells, jumping up.
Aunt Sun-dôk grabs him by the sleeve. Mr Pak’s face seems burning with fury. “I’m so sorry, Mr Pak. Chung-sim, you must apologize, now!” demands Aunt Sun-dôk in an almost tearful voice, pulling Aunt Chung-sim by the knees. Frightened, the boy takes a couple of steps back to hide himself behind the adults.
“I’m sorry for making such a fuss,” apologizes Aunt Chung-sim, finally. Only then does Mr Pak sit down again. After everyone gives him an envelope, he looks at the boy.
“The child stays behind, of course?” he says, addressing Aunt Sun-dôk.
“Yes,” says Aunt Sun-dôk in a weak voice.
Aunt Chung-sim glares at Aunt Sun-dôk. “We must take him with us. There will be no one here to take care of him,” she protests.
“What about his parents?” asks Mr Pak, after throwing another glance at the boy. Now it is Aunt Sun-dôk’s turn to glare at Aunt Chung-sim. All the while, Aunt Chu-hyôn is scribbling something on the floor with her finger and Uncle Man-bok keeps picking up some strands of hair from the floor with a wet finger and dropping them in the ashtray.
“To tell the truth, his parents were in the group that left for Mongolia last winter, you know, those poor people who ran out of luck on the plain,” says Aunt Chung-sim in a whisper, conscious of the child’s presence beside her.
“Oh, I know. You mean the group that followed the Korean guide?”
Aunt Chung-sim nods to Mr Pak.
“It’s not right to leave the poor, motherless child behind alone here. It was wrong of us not to consult you about it earlier, but we must take him with us,” said Aunt Chung-sim in a calm voice.
“He is only a child, but it will cost the same amount of money to take him with you. Let me level with you. A child will only be a terrible burden. He is unable to follow instructions, crying and making all kinds of trouble. In that sense, helping a child can be more expensive. If you insist on taking him along, there’s nothing I can do about it. But you must pay his fee as well.”
Listening to Mr Pak, Yông-su starts to bite his thumbnail unawares.
“This isn’t my business. Chung-sim, you take care of it,” says Aunt Sun-dôk coldly.
“I don’t even have enough for myself. Perhaps you can collect his fee once we arrive in Korea?” asks Aunt Chung-sim hesitantly. Mr Pak’s usual deer-like eyes turn into those of a jackal.
“As you can’t trust me, I can’t trust you, either. Why don’t you write an IOU on his fee?” There is ice in his voice. The boy is now biting his fingernails and his thumb is bleeding. However, he doesn’t stop biting.
“An IOU? What’s that?” asks Aunt Chung-sim.
“It is a note saying that you’ve borrowed money. By writing it, you promise that you will pay it back by a certain date. If you fail to pay it back on time, you go to jail.”
“But I’ve never borrowed money from you, Mr Pak. Why do I have to write such a thing?”
At her question, Mr Pak bursts out laughing: “I know I’ve never lent you any money. Still, if I don’t collect the money from the boy now, it will be like I’m paying his fee out of my own pocket, which is the same as lending it.”
“I don’t understand.” Aunt Chung-sim shakes her head unconvinced.
“Well, there’s nothing I can do about that,” says Mr Pak, jumping to his feet again. Everyone looks at him in surprise. Aunt Sun-dôk grabs his sleeve again and implores him not to go. Nevertheless, he shakes off her hand coldly and leaves the lodging house.
* * *
After his departure, Aunt Sun-dôk and Chung-sim fly into a big quarrel. Uncle Man-bok, taking Aunt Sun-dôk’s side, ends up slapping Aunt Chung-sim on the cheek. Aunt Chung-sim starts having a terrible nosebleed, but she seems determined not to cry. Yông-su, scared to death, is crouching quietly in one corner. He would hide inside a rat hole if only he could find one. The quarrel comes to an end when they agree that Aunt Sun-dôk should bring Mr Pak back to draw up the IOU.
After a long while, Aunt Sun-dôk comes back with Mr Pak. Mr Pak says he will not take the child’s fee. Instead, he asks the boy to write a letter. Aunt Chung-sim, with a big smile and a rolled-up tissue up her nostril, asks Yông-su if he knows how to write. The boy doesn’t feel too confident, but he says that he learned from his mother how to write the Korean alphabet. Mr Pak lays a sheet of paper and a crayon that he has brought with him on the floor.
“Shall we practise first? Let’s write down what I say.”
Aunt Chung-sim hands him the crayon. Mr Pak starts to videotape the boy’s face and the clothes he is wearing.
“I don’t want to go back to North Korea. Kim Chông-il is a bad man. With the help of Jesus Christ, I want to go to South Korea. I want freedom. North Korea is hell and there, I was hungry all the time. I want to eat a lot of rice. I want freedom. Please, help!”
Yông-su tries to write what Mr Pak dictates, following Aunt Chung-sim’s finger that is tracing the characters on the floor. At one point, Aunt Chung-sim asks with a frown: “Is this really necessary?”
No one answers her question. As for Yông-su, he is anxious to write the letter for himself.
“Good! But his clothes are too clean. Aren’t there any dirty ones?”
Uncle Man-bok looks at Mr Pak angrily and clicks his tongue. Aunt Sun-dôk quickly rubs the crayon over the boy’s clothes to make them look dirty. Then she tears them here and there.
“That’s better. Let’s do it for real this time.”
Yông-su starts to write zigzag, without Aunt Chung-sim’s help this time. His forehead is covered with sweat. Mr. Pak looks satisfied while videotaping busily.
* * *
“What on earth has happened?” asked Aunt Chung-sim in great surprise.
“I’ve heard that one must leave eyebrows behind . . .” replies Yông-su proudly. After breakfast, he had shaved his eyebrows off with Uncle Man-bok’s razor.
“That’s just a proverb, you silly!”
Aunt Chung-sim gives the boy a light pat on the buttocks and stares at him incredulously. The child is about to cry.
“Ha-ha-ha! Sun-dôk, come here and look!”
Aunt Chung-sim called Aunt Sun-dôk who is busy putting her make-up on. Looking at Aunt Sun-dôk, with her eyes wide open in surprise, the boy realizes something has gone seriously wrong.
“Where have your eyebrows gone? Oh, dear, ha ha ha!”
Aunt Sun-dôk’s remark becomes the last straw; he breaks into tears. After his mother went, the child is liable to burst into a wail whenever he is in trouble, and this has earned him the nickname “Cry Baby”. However, no one lovingly wipes away his tears as his mother used to. He cries and dries his tears all by himself.
Aunt Sun-dôk brings him toward the mirror where she has been doing her make-up.
“If you go out like this, everybody will stare at you. Then the public security police might spot us. Let me draw in some eyebrows for you.”
Using a short pencil, she draws eyebrows on the child’s face. They don’t look perfect to him, but he thinks he looks better than before.
“It’s all done. Go and change, now.”
Aunt Sun-dôk gives him a gentle push. He goes to Aunt Chung-sim. She helps him into a thick jacket, doing the zip right up to his chin.
“Yông-su, you must not cry, however hard things get, do you understand?”
He nods, thinking of a baby zebra. He is eight, but his body is as small as a six-year-old. He has been thinking that he is short and skinny because there hasn’t been any rain in the savannah for a long time.
At nightfall, they all leave the lodging house in taxis to go to Yanji Station. At the station, they find the minister waiting for them. Besides the minister, there are Mr Pak and four other defectors from North Korea: a teenage boy with a pimply forehead who is taller than Yông-su, a middle-aged woman with a dark complexion, a broad-shouldered man with big, fierce eyes, and a young woman who is short and plump like Aunt Sun-dôk. They all exchange awkward nods. These new people look at Yông-su and tut-tut.
Mr Pak never stops videotaping. To Yông-su, everything is new and fun. The minister boasts of the high-performance video camera that can tape even in the dark. After the initial greetings the people in the group do not say much to one another. Even after they get on the train and sit down, they continue to keep silent. It doesn’t bother the child because he knows that zebras also ignore one another in a large herd, except among family members.
Finally, with a big clank the train starts moving. Yông-su shouts “Hurray!” thinking that the train is bound for Serengeti. Uncle Man-bok immediately gives the child a harsh whack on the head with his knuckles, making him tearful.
“I’ll kill you if you open your mouth again!” threatens Uncle Man-bok in a cold voice. The angry man looks like a crocodile in a bloody feeding frenzy on a hippo. The boy senses that tears in his eyes freeze instantly.
“Come on, he is just a child!”
Aunt Chung-sim confronts Uncle Man-bok, closing her arms around the child. Then Uncle Man-bok puts his hands around Aunt Chung-sim’s neck and squeezes. She gurgles out a choking cough.
“You stupid bitch! I’ll kill you, too, if you don’t shut up right this moment!”
Uncle Man-bok’s eyes glint and glare murderously. The child is frightened. Aunt Sun-dôk is poring over the pages of the Bible in her lap. Mr Pak keeps the camera focused on Aunt Sun-dôk all the time; perhaps he has decided on Aunt Sun-dôk as the heroine of the story being taped. After Uncle Man-bok’s attack, Aunt Chung-sim keeps her mouth and eyes tightly closed. The train seems to run on endlessly in the dark and Yông-su falls asleep on Aunt Chung-sim’s shoulder.
Someone shakes Yông-su awake and tells him it is Beijing Station. Still half asleep, the child staggers, wiping away the saliva around his mouth with one hand. Uncle Man-bok, Aunt Sun-dôk, Aunt Chu-hyôn, and the others push ahead and cannot care less whether Yông-su manages to keep up with them. Aunt Chung-sim alone holds Yông-su by the hand and struggles to follow the group. They are introduced to a Chinese man in the lobby of the station who will guide them to the border. Shaking hands, the minister and the man look very happy to see each other again. Soon, the minister leaves, but Mr Pak and the Chinese man stay on with the group. Videotaping continues and Uncle Man-bok demands an explanation. Mr Pak answers that the tapes will be sent to missionary organizations in America and South Korea. Uncle Man-bok spits angrily onto the ground.
Following the Chinese man, they get on a train bound for Urumqi. The plan was to spend one night in Beijing, but they are now told to leave Beijing immediately as they left Yanji a day late. As soon as they get on the train, Yông-su closes his eyes but can’t fall asleep. Instead, he reminds himself of the Mara River he’s seen on television. The river flows across the border of Kenya and Tanzania. It is teeming with crocodiles and hippos. Remembering the crocodiles waiting in hiding in the currents of the river, he suddenly feels like peeing. He could pee anywhere if only he had the split-pants on. He can’t help waking up Aunt Chung-sim, but that in turn wakes Uncle Man-bok in a temper. Unable to bring himself to tell Aunt Chung-sim that he needs to pee, Yông-su ends up muttering something in a whimper. Aunt Chung-sim closes her eyes again. He doesn’t know what to do, as he tries to hold back with both hands on the crotch of his pants.
“What is it? Do you want to pee?” asks Aunt Chung-sim, having woken up again. Yông-su nods silently, stealing glances at Uncle Man-bok. Aunt Chung-sim takes the boy’s hand and leads him to the toilet. With a full bladder, he has trouble walking straight. After relieving himself, he comes back to his seat to find a public security policeman flipping through Aunt Sun-dôk’s Bible and asking her questions inquisitively. Then the Chinese guide says something to the policeman in Chinese and takes him outside the carriage.
As soon as the policeman moves out of sight, Uncle Man-bok, beside himself, yells furiously: “Will the Bible give you money or food? Put it away right now!” , Grumbling, Aunt Sun-dôk puts the Bible in her bag. After the boy sits down, Aunt Chung-sim holds him in her arms tightly. Yông-su closes his eyes, smelling in her embrace something similar to the scent of his mother. The train keeps rolling on day and night. Whenever the child wakes up, he tells Aunt Chung-sim about the migration of zebras. Aunt Chung-sim listens half-heartedly.
Finally, the train arrives at the place called Eren. Yông-su’s intuition tells him that they have arrived at the Masai Mara Plain just in time for crossing the Mara River. Now, all zebras come to this plain and cross the river together. If they fail to get to the other side, they are doomed to starve to death, unable to reach the vast fields of juicy grass in the Serengeti. Several months of no rain is turning the green plains into deserts. Yông-su is anxious to swim across the Mara River to go over to Serengeti.
He is hungry, but he can’t find fresh grass anywhere. He even misses the unsavoury rice he used to eat in Yanji – rice that was yellow and smelly after been kept in the thermos for a long time. Ironically, however, foodstuffs in Eren were smelling too, with strong and unfamiliar smells, making him feel nauseous. Those with money go to the market and buy some food for themselves. However, Yông-su has no money. Aunt Chung-sim who also seems penniless, never buys anything, not even a piece of candy. Aunt Sun-dôk says grace every time she eats, but she never shares any of her food with the others. Uncle Man-bok and Aunt Chu-hyôn stick together as if they were married to each other. Mr Pak carries on with the camera, focusing only on Aunt Sun-dôk and those who have joined the group at Yanji Station. They often gather among themselves to read the Bible and pray in the name of Jesus Christ.
Aunt Chung-sim buys some smelly Mongolian food for Yông-su and herself. The child shakes his head, refusing to eat the smelly stuff. Aunt Chung-sim is livid and insists on him eating. He tries but the food won’t go down; in the end he spits it out. Then the Chinese guide reluctantly surrenders to the boy the cup of ramen that he has been saving. The noodles melt in the child’s mouth.
A strong, sandy wind is sweeping the border town that the group has finally reached, which reminds Yông-su of the Masai Mara Plain where the same sandy wind also blows.
* * *
The clouds are tinted red as if they are on fire. Soon they turn darker by the minute and silently the dusk thickens. The sky, dotted now with the half moon and stars, shines dark blue. The eleven of them quietly escape Eren and start to walk along with the Chinese guide. Yông-su, holding on to Aunt Chung-sim’s hand, is almost running to keep up with the guide who is walking as fast as a cheetah. The boy feels as if he is a newly-born zebra for real.
At the end of the border town appears a dark stretch of the border road. The Chinese man stops and shows them the direction they must take once on the other side of the border. From here on, he says, they are on their own in finding the way to cross the China-Mongolia border. Mr Pak entrusts the broad-shouldered, fierce-eyed man in the group with the camera. Mr Pak gives him stern instructions, repeating over and over to take care never to lose the camera or to stop taping under any circumstances. Then Mr Pak and the guide disappear into the darkness of the night to go back to Eren.
Now, like an unruly pack of hyenas, the nine people cross the road, only to find themselves in the middle of nowhere. From that point on there are no other roads. After hesitating for a moment, Uncle Man-bok starts to walk and the rest follow him. They walk through ankle-deep sand. Uncle Man-bok, taking the lead, strides so quickly like an elephant that the rest of them are hard put to keep pace with him. Before long, the boy begins to gasp for breath. He walks as fast as he can, but his legs are too short to be a match for those of the adults. If he slows down even for a few seconds, the adults disappear into the dark without a trace. Each time, Aunt Chung-sim comes back to fetch him and runs with him, pulling him by the hand. By the time the two catch up with the rest and pause for breath, the others have already gone ahead. The breathless, desperate hide-and-seek game is repeated time and again. Yông-su is drenched in sweat all over his body. The sweat instantly turns into ice beads whenever he stops, even for a moment to catch his breath. The ice beads make them all shiver and their teeth chatter as if they are sitting in a tank icy water. Aunt Chung-sim says she is very, very cold but offers to carry him on her back. Before long, she begins to pant terribly. Yông-su also suffers from the cold once his sweat cools off on her back. His tummy which is touching her back is okay, but his back is getting colder and his feet feel frozen, like icicles. At last, Aunt Chung-sim, who is after all a petite-sizewoman, slumps down onto the sand.
“Yông-su, let’s be brave and walk together, shall we? It’s too much for me to carry you on my back.”
Even before hearing Yông-su’s answer, she starts to run,taking hold of his hand. He can’t think of anything, being almost dragged by Aunt Chung-sim. When they manage to find the rest of the group sitting in the dark, Aunt Chung-sim lets go of his hand and collapses onto the sand, face up. Yông-su vomits up the ramen he has eaten, which is also videotaped by the fierce-eyed uncle. The exhausted child tries to take deep breaths a couple of times and finds himself feeling a little bit better. In the faint light he makes out barbed wire entanglements built across the field. Uncle Man-bok walks back and forth several times examining the wire fence.
“There seems no other way!”
Uncle Man-bok takes off his jacket and spreads it over the barbed-wire barrier before lying over it, face down.
“All of you, go across over my back!”
The man with the camera tapes the scene enthusiastically.
“Hurry up!” yells Uncle Man-bok. Aunt Chung-sim takes Yông-su’s hand and helps him put his foot on Uncle Man-bok’s back. With his legs shaking, he loses his balance and almost falls, but finally gets over the fence. Aunt Chung-sim also climbs over Uncle Man-bok’s back, and then the others. The fierce-eyed uncle does the same and finally Uncle Man-bok himself gets safely over to the other side of the fence.
All of them start running in the direction indicated by Uncle Man-bok. Yông-su runs after the adults, but in no time at all, he is lagging far behind them.
“Aunt!” calls out the frightened boy. Aunt Chung-sim comes back, snatches hold of the boy’s hand, and runs again to meet up with the group. But the distance between the two and the rest of the group continues to grow. They are running hurry-scurry when they hear Uncle Man-bok’s angry voice: “Do you want to kill yourself? You must be out of your mind! Didn’t I tell you to leave him behind?”
As he shouts, Uncle Man-bok slaps Aunt Chung-sim hard on her back. Yông-su is scared to death of Uncle Man-bok, who now turns to the boy and threatens to leave him there if he keeps on falling behind. Then suddenly he lifts the boy onto his back and breaks into a sprint. For the boy, it feels very different from when he was on Aunt Chung-sim’s back. Now he feels he is riding a he-zebra. He doesn’t feel cold at all. He looks up at the night sky. Countless numbers of stars are shining bright, staging their own firework display. Some stars are shooting across the sky leaving long trails. Under the night sky, the plain stretches out endlessly. He wishes this plain was the real Serengeti. However, all he can smell in the wind is a dry desert, not the fragrance of fresh grass. After a while the uncle, who was strong and quick at the beginning like a leader zebra, slows down; the boy can hear his loud, painful breathing. He feels sorry for the uncle. In the end, Uncle Man-bok can run no more and can only manage to walk over the plain, still carrying the child on his back. The fierce-eyed man begins taping them.
“You’d better put it away before I smash it to pieces!” yells Uncle Man-bok. The man puts down the camera. As soon as the uncle sets the boy down on the ground, the people who have been resting there start to get up. They are all huddled up against the cold and look at the new barbed-wire fence that stands there twice as tall as the fierce-eyed man. If the first barrier was a dwarf, this one is a giant. There are many opinions on how to climb over this fence, but no one comes up with a good idea. After recovering his breath, Uncle Man-bok takes something out of his bag and sets about cutting the barbed-wire. Unlike the time at the first fence, the people are now praising him to the skies. Even Yông-su feels embarrassed to hear them. An opening is made through the fence and the fierce-eyed man crawls through it first, and then turns around to tape the whole process. Yông-su goes through third and Uncle Man-bok last.
Although they have passed through the fence safely, they are once more at a loss, not knowing which way to go from there. Aunt Sun-dôk prays to God for a sign, which is filmed by the fierce-eyed man. Aunt Chung-sim looks to the sky, holding Yông-su’s hand tight. There is no path to be found on the plain that seems as vast as the sea. Uncle Man-bok observes the movement of the stars in the sky for a while and then finally takes the lead, with the rest of them following him. The fierce-eyed man asks him if he is sure of the direction.
“If you don’t want to come with me, don’t!” says Uncle Man-bok brusquely and breaks into a brisk walk.
Aunt Chung-sim becomes more and more tired, and Yông-su trails farther and farther behind the group. From where he is, Yông-su can’t see Uncle Man-bok at the head of the group. The boy does his utmost to stay close to the group, but eventually he falls down. He tries to stand up. With his shaky legs, however, it is difficult to raise himself. He stops struggling to get up for a while. Then he begins to feel comfortable as if he were in a warm bed.
“Yông-su, get up!”
Although he can’t remember when Aunt Chung-sim came back, she is there all the same trying to help him to his feet. She helps him get up and take some steps. She praises his effort and walks with her arm around his shoulders. This way, they keep on walking for about an hour before they meet up with the group again in front of yet another wire fence. While the people pace back and forth in front of it, Uncle Man-bok busies himself for the second time making a way through it with his cutters. Since the third fence has two layers to cut through, they have to crawl through the opening flat on the ground. For Yông-su, though, crawling is easier than walking.
“Well done, dear! Only a little bit longer, now. Keep trying!” encourages Aunt Chung-sim, giving him a pat on the buttocks. Uncle Man-bok also strokes him on the head. The child finds himself feeling energized. Beyond the third fence, the plain still unfolds limitlessly in the dark. Someone utters a long sigh. The unabating wind keeps flapping their clothes; they are quickly losing their body heat. Uncle Man-bok takes the lead as usual, saying that walking is the best way to avoid dying from hypothermia.
Yông-su becomes even slower as the wind hones its icy edges. The boy feels as if something from underground is pulling his ankles down, like crocodiles with the legs of zebras between their jaws, tugging at them. Then a thought crosses his mind: “Could this place be the Mara River? How far must I walk from here to finally arrive at the Mara River?” On the far side of the river, he should be able to see the plain of Serengeti where his mother must be waiting for him.
He is terribly hungry. When he and Aunt Chung-sim finally make it to the spot where the group is resting, he sees cookie wrappers scattered around. And the smell from the sausage skins thrown about is unbearably delicious. However, no one offers him any sausages or cookies. He feels like wailing, but swallows it. He knows only too well that there is no one to comfort him even if he cries. He misses his mother. Aunt Chung-sim flops down on the ground and looks up at the dark sky silently. He can see tears streaming down her cheeks.
They are walking again. The distance between Yông-su and the rest grows. At times, he finds himself all alone in the vast darkness of the plain. Then Aunt Chung-sim appears in the midst of the wind and pulls his arm. When it becomes impossible for him to take another step, he plumps down to the ground. Aunt Chung-sim’s small figure walks away on the plain like a feather blown lightly in the wind. Into the empty space left by Aunt Chung-sim lashes the freezing wind. His fingers are frozen numb and his whole body feels as if it will be snapped in two by the cold; yet sleepiness attacks him as hungry hyenas attack their prey. All he wants now is to lie down and go to sleep. Then Aunt Chung-sim suddenly shows up from the dark and slaps him in the face a couple of times, and pulls his hand. As soon as he joins the rest of the party, the people who have been taking a break in small groups rise one by one to resume their march. Thus, Yông-su has no time to rest before he begins struggling to follow them yet again.
At one point, he realizes he is no longer holding Aunt Chung-sim’s hand.
Aunt Chung-sim has disappeared into the distant spot on the plain, leaving Yông-su all alone. The baby zebra has been completely separated from its herd. He cries out to Aunt Chung-sim, but his cry doesn’t travel far, buried in the wind. He trudges on, only to go round in circles. The cries of hungry animals can be heard from far away. It is neither hyena nor lion nor cheetah. He remembers watching a programme, not “The Animal Kingdom” but one about the blue wolves living on the Mongolian Plain. A faint smile spreads over his face when he remembers the lone blue wolf chasing after a herd of gazelles near the Gobi Desert. Ouch! He trips over something. He tries to get up, but he can’t. He turns his body to look at the dark blue sky scattered with stars. He tries to connect some stars to make out his mother’s face with them.
“Mummy!” calls the child, smiling broadly. The wind answers his call on his mother’s behalf: “Oh, my baby!” He buries himself in his mother’s embrace. He rolls his body into a ball. Suddenly, he feels comfortable and sleepy. He closes his eyes.
The Mara River appears before him.
Tens of thousands of zebras and gnus are standing around along the riverside, looking down at the gentle currents of the river. Crocodiles showing only their eyes above the water are waiting for the zebras to plunge into the water. The zebras, suspicious of the river, hesitate to jump in; they just stand around flaring their nostrils. Suddenly, one brave zebra at last jumps in with its legs raised high. Then the rest of them follow the leader into the river like a giant waterfall.
Yông-su, one of the baby zebras, also starts to swim across the Mara River. The mighty, speedy crocodiles attack him, but he kicks up his hind legs and keeps swimming forward through the currents. He is completely out of breath, but he doesn’t give up. Finally, he succeeds in putting his front legs on the river bank. At that moment, he feels fangs driven into the flesh of his hind leg. “Is it a crocodile?” He struggles to free himself, but the crocodile disappears into the water with his prey in his jaws. He can’t breathe.
Soon, however, peacefulness engulfs him. Once he closes his eyes, he no longer feels the hunger or cold. Crocodiles with their teeth sunken deep into the baby zebra’s body jerk open their jaws. The zebra’s leg comes apart. The crocodiles gulp down the flesh. His body twitches a couple of times. The half moon hides itself behind the dark clouds; one tiny star shoots across the sky pulling a long trail behind it and falls to the west of the plain. The harsh wind of the plain attempts to shake him. However, the only thing that stirs in the wind is his hair. Once more, the wind sweeps through the plain carrying the echo of the child’s voice: “Mummy, Mummy . . .”
* Reference: BBC Wildlife Specials Crocodile