The South |

Songbun Song

by Jessica Richardson

Hyo washes his hands in hot water. He presses his nails into his cloth to remove each excess drop to ready his fingers for pinning. The baby fusses but falls back to sleep, dreaming her arms up. Hyo tweezes his find identified easily as Thyas Juno by the orange under markings. He removes it from the aspirator and fumigates it, lulled by its increasingly tranquil spasms. He chooses a spot next to an inferior twin but the spacing in the display box is wrong. He moisturizes the smaller specimen avoiding its antennae, swabbing it with alcohol for repositioning. The radio is on. Kim Jong Un reminds us again that he has met with a famous basketball player Rod Man and they created a great friendship. Praise the Supreme Leader.

In the dream round shapes come toward her, glowing gray. She reaches.

Hyo steps outside, placing each of his feet in a slipper while the solution takes. Hyo is grateful for his transfer to Yoduk. A shock of gold corn weaves into evening sun, like the drool of a sky with mountains for a head. He displayed great self-reliance when his wife Eun died and he never missed a day of work. His fists clench involuntarily and he concentrates on unfurling them. Trains the pitch of his eyes on the marsh, really a puddle from the intense rains, where he’d found a Nehalennia Speclosa today after spitting in the mouths of a pair of dogs. He’d caught them kissing and thought to pigeon them when he heard the signature drone and spotted the delicate blue tipped tail. He had his kit so the kissers got off easy. He rubs his hands together and snaps his neck to release his shoulder.

She wakes with a start because she can’t breathe. It’s the squares again. She hates the edges. She finds her belly noise.

The baby starts crying. How Hyo loves his daughter. Little Ko. Hana, Hana, in public, but in private he named her after The Great Mother. He does not know how to deal with the crying fits Ko is lately prone to, however. He yells for Hee Young. When she doesn’t come he crosses the compound to the hut she shares with her husband and three kids. He walks in without knocking. There is no door anyway.

Hee Young sees Officer Hyo enter her hut and in a single motion covers her cheeks and breasts with her tangled hair and her infant son’s face with his moth eaten blanket. Her gut clamps. Burp. Stand. She knows she may earn a reward when Hyo comes, but the reward of feeding her child is greater. She’s uneasy on her legs. The pull of her babies is too strong, it’s thrumming in her ribs. At least she’s sure her neighbor will check on them. Last week she gave the other mother a cherry candy from Hyo’s house.

Hyo keeps clear of the cracked and teeming walls of Hee Young’s hut, hugging himself. He doesn’t want to catch an infestation of lice and fleas. As it is Hee Young can never disrobe enough for his comfort when summoned into his officer’s quarters. She is breastfeeding her youngest in the shadowed corner. The oldest girl is out working of course, but her three year old looks starved to near death on a mat in the corner, his face swaying in the throes of fever. “Why do these people insist upon reproducing?” Hyo thinks. They hadn’t caught Hee Young’s pregnancy in time for the abortion injections to work. The birth was difficult. The slow recovery has rendered the woman practically useless to the camp. Hyo protects her from the others, though, because of her inconsistent gift for quieting his daughter Ko. Among other inconsistent gifts. Hee Young should be thankful. She scrabbles to her feet before he can slap her. He admonishes her for not hearing his calls but she is already at the door gathering her skirt in a thick clutch in front of her.

Hee Young keeps her eyes low to avoid gazes that find the holes in her clothes no matter how much she gathers them to cover. She doesn’t want to see the fainted workers scattered on the dirt path either, though, so she raises them again to look straight ahead. They are already nearing the proper houses where the officers live with their grasses. Pavements and gates. She looks forward to sights of clean suits or a glimpse of a fat child huffing with the pink cheeks of play, her favorite delight above all, even birds or sugar.

Hyo understands hard work. Once he had been coal miner, most noble Songbun, though he was terrible at the job, and wound up running the company accounts instead. No one knew that, though it could be found out that his wife was from a family of elite scientists. He was lucky for this job. Bad Songbun, but his wife had saved him, inadvertently, by dying. The erasure of the undiscovered wealth-stained lineage, and the kneejerk pity taken on a single father rescued him. He would trade it all for one more minute touching one warm finger of her, but what impure thoughts. How ungrateful. He pinches the scabbing skin between his thoughts discreetly as he walks and then his inner thigh through his pocket until he winces.

He types his identification to set the alarm system. The marvel of beeps.

Once in the house, Hee Young goes to baby Ko and Hyo goes to even his moth twins in their glass case. To calm himself he plucks a leg from the Acromantis Japonica mounted upside down at the base of the box. Then another, and another. Leg. Leg. It’s a symmetrical destruction he allows himself, the only one he allows, in his otherwise impeccable craft of preservation.

She takes air in for another push on her belly noise. The footsteps of the big ones sound like accidents.

It’s the emptiness he loves about the insects; so empty their husks practically vibrate with it. Perfection of stillness.

She makes it say go and no in her noise.

His daughter is still screaming. For her mother, Hyo knows. The howling began last month when her mother passed. She is too young to understand, he reasons, but the timing is uncanny. Maybe distress is Ko’s natural state and his wife had somehow dammed the outpouring before with the small boulder of her maternal body. Hee Young brings the baby in, her sagging breast pocked with scars, the infant’s mouth refusing the nipple.

Ko shakes her face and twitches her hands open and closed like a pincher crab. She’s grabbing for the other part of her but can’t find it again. She doesn’t want a tit now, not this tit. Not warm, not sweet, not milk. “Not,” she cries in non-speech. The shapes circling her are the wrong shapes again. The not.

Hyo turns his head and plucks another leg. Peels it slow and with great care, holding it up to the sunset light beneath the shade to behold peaks of hair, edges of transparency. Sing, he tells Hee Young without turning his head, the song of the eternal president. Sing No Motherland Without You, he challenges. His voice comes out hoarse. He is suddenly urgent with his need for the woman to sing. He swings toward her but deadens his eyes at her graying face. Hee Young’s reeducation is pointless - her family defected. Her parents had been lawyers and her sentence was life for three generations, but perhaps the tune would soothe Ko. Sing, Hyo’s jaw, his chin and hand say, and Hee sings.

Ko wails.

Her father snatches her back. Sticks the cleansed mantis in her tiny grip. Hee Young shakes her head. The baby drops the carcass and Hyo points with his toe for Hee Young to clean the tile beneath it. He detests mess. He dabs his daughter’s palm with a cotton ball.

Hee Young hates the smell so close to Hyo’s crotch, the smell of the rat meat they must eat to fight infection. Worse than rat meat, rat meat and feet and bleach. Sickness. Shame. His badge dangles from his belt. She deflates like a straw has sucked her through. Breath leaving the eyes. She wipes the pristine floor with a wet rag, picking at the scattered legs, shocked by how light the bug’s midsection is. Like it holds less than air. She stifles a strong instinct to put it in her mouth and instead fills her cavity with the melody she is remembering against Hyo’s glare that says she won’t. Hunger will push a memory heavy as a freight train forward with one hand. The radio is still on. Words emerge as backdrop. Merciless. National Reunification. National Desire. This man, Officer Hyo, has a pulse of kindness like stray static zaps in the form of treats sometimes. She falters her voice for pity, a prayer for sweet.

Ko wails along for an emptiness she understands in not understanding, absence in immaculate ache. As loud as wrong birth she screams to Hee’s grave rendition of No Motherland,

Ko the Coda sounding

Without You,


Hyo hears the timbre of elegy and joins,

If the world changes one hundred times,

pinching his softest skin again he grunts repetition of the start,

Cannot exist,

the squeeze cuts, percussion pushing for finale,

Without you,

stuck between notes, glissando of Hee and Ko, the loop of the chorus in blood. All three sweat.

Embarrassed by his dripping thigh and eyes, Hyo returns to his station by the window to cap his solutions. Ko’s red cheeks make sucking motions as she comes to rest. Despite herself Hee Young rises to check on Hyo but notices the unwatched dish of cherry candy and the baby calming and refrains. If the world changes, she sings alone, slipping her free hand into the bowl.