In the winter of 1995, my father was still alive although not with me, and I was just seven years old. It was so long ago that I can barely remember clearly now; it’s like trying to piece together cut film. All I’m left watching is a staticky video. I can’t recall exact dates or times, but when I think back and piece through my scattered memories, certain times and places become so clear and vivid. What’s left in my memory is this: my older sister and I were alone together in an empty, abandoned house.
The rundown house that we occupied was once home to a neighbor we called Big Mama. The Arduous March, the greatest famine our country had ever known, had already become a fact of life. One day, Big Mama abandoned her home and set off for somewhere new, since she could no longer survive in our village. She left everything behind. Her family’s story was a sad one. Big Mama’s husband had died of tuberculosis years earlier, so she raised their three teenaged children by herself. Eventually, her children left the village, her family spread out like thin roots. It was yet another family like ours, a family that had broken apart and had abandoned their hometown to wander the country. And now, my noona and I were in a home without an owner, trying to flee the cold. My hometown was in the northernmost reaches of North Korea, near the Chinese border. Winter comes harshly and quickly.
Noona and I were inside that house, wearing rags and hugging each other as we cried. Our mother had abandoned us for a new love. Our father had abandoned us to find our mother. Our older brother had left us to live with our aunt. And our aunt made the decision to only take in the oldest of us. Noona and I were too young to earn our keep, so we were left to fend for ourselves.
My only hope then was my sister—my nine-year-old sister. But what did a child like her know of survival? She could only suffer beside me. Hungry and cold, all I was able to do was rage. And that rage was aimed at the one person who was still by my side—my blameless noona who was sobbing for a mother who was no longer there. Seeing my sister cry, I started to cry too. “Why did you give birth to me if you couldn’t take care of me?” I cried out to the mother who abandoned me.
In North Korea, empty houses become decrepit right away. In just a few days they become outhouses. Our village was small and there were only a handful of public outhouses. They were small, wooden structures that couldn’t even block the winter wind properly. With dozens of people using them, human waste piles up quickly and freezes into a mound. The slightest slip or misstep would mean getting poked by the frozen feces mountain. At some point, people stopped using the outhouses and began using abandoned homes as de-facto outhouses.
Throughout our village, there were many abandoned houses-turned-outhouses, which meant that they were also scattered with human waste. Big Mama’s house was one of the relatively clean ones so noona and I took shelter there, sleeping on worn blankets. Fighting against the cold stiffened our bodies, so we had trouble moving properly. To conserve our body heat, when we slept, we curled up and hugged each other tight. Unfolding our bodies always took a long time.
That day, snow fell furiously outside. After stretching, we went back under our blankets, which still held some warmth. We lay there, just blinking slowly. Outside, we could hear the sound of footsteps as people passed by the house. The freshly fallen snow crunched under their feet, and we heard the murmur of voices as people walked by. But my sister and I did our best not to move. We were so famished that we knew exerting ourselves meant we could faint. We did our best to conserve our energy by sleeping.
How long did we sleep? We were roused by the sound of someone’s footsteps growing close. Startled, I lowered my blanket and poked just my head out and looked up. One of the neighborhood ajusshis stood before us. “Aigoo! Fuck, you scared me!” he exclaimed. To be fair, who would have thought that anyone would be in that empty house? We must have looked like nothing more than a bundle of rags piled up in the corner, and he had nudged it out of curiosity.
The man recognized both me and noona right away; we were pretty famous in the village as the abandoned children. The entire village knew our story, our mother had had an affair then run away, leaving her family behind. He called us by name and asked, “Aren’t you cold? You’ll freeze to death like this.”
The ajusshi was there to cut away pieces of Big Mama’s house to heat his home so he casually started on his business. We’d lived like this for so long, and were so well-known to the villagers, that apart from the occasional, “those poor, abandoned children,” they didn’t pay us any mind. No one lived well enough to offer us even a bowl of rice. The entire village lived hand-to-mouth. There was no room for mercy in anyone’s heart.
He had a small hand axe which he used to hack away at the wall; we lay there quietly while he cut into the walls. After he had a few pieces of wood, he looked back and made eye contact with me. As he held my gaze, he said, “Don’t freeze. Stay alive.” He tutted and muttered to himself as he left.
Solitude came back to that rundown house. Noona and I took in the spider webs crisscrossing across the ceiling without a word. Noona was so quiet that I turned my head to her to make sure she hadn’t died, and she must have had the same thought since she had turned to look at me at the exact same time. We stared back at the ceiling blankly. We had no strength to get up and no strength to speak. We conserved our words.
I could tell that it was sometime in the afternoon, and I think noona felt it too as she asked, “You’re hungry, right? Shouldn’t we try to get something to eat?” In response, I said, “There’s nothing to eat.” Noona persisted, “But still, let’s try to find something. If we stay here like this, we’ll die. With empty stomachs, we’ll freeze right away.”
Even though the sun was high in the sky, the harsh winter made it difficult for people to do anything. I had no strength to get up, so I told my sister I wouldn’t go. “If you want to go, go by yourself! I’m not going anywhere.” To find something to eat or to grab a handful of snow to snack on meant going outside. I was hungry, but the winter wind was blowing; I didn’t want to go outside. I lay there, unmoving, but she wouldn’t go anywhere without me. Noona cried as she begged, “No, we have to move! If you stay like this you’ll die.” Noona got up and then pulled my blanket off and told me to get up too. I threw an insult her way. “Son of a bitch, I told you I don’t want to move! I don’t have the energy to go anywhere. Why are you doing this?” At my words, noona started to cry big, sad tears. When I saw how upset she was, I thought to myself that I should listen to her, but I didn’t know where we could go. We could walk for hours and encounter people, but there was no guarantee that they would be willing to give us anything to eat.
I knew that if noona and I stayed in that rundown house, we’d find nothing to eat—not even a kernel of corn. If we wanted to find something, we had to leave. If we walked, we might find a dropped bit of food, some corn, anything. Noona wouldn’t leave without me because she was afraid that I might die if I was left alone, or that she might never find her way back to me. “Where should we go?” I asked noona. She replied, “Let’s go to Poongcheon.”
Poongcheon is a big county in North Korea. On foot, it could take anywhere from one to four hours to get there from our village. Unlike our hometown, Poongcheon was fertile farmland. In the summer, villagers worked together to plant crops like corn on communal farms. In the fall, they worked together to harvest and store the crops. Around March or April, the corn dries thoroughly and it’s taken out to be threshed and distributed to the villagers as rations. The people in my village knew Poongcheon had plenty, so they often went there to steal food or to glean the fields.
So we set out for Poongcheon. The wind reached inside our rags and the cold enveloped us. My hands and feet were so cold, I cried from the pain. Noona must have been as cold as me, but she didn’t cry. She lifted me onto her back. We’d gone days without eating and noona must have been exhausted, but she carried me without a word. The warmth of her back radiated through my body, but eventually, my feet grew so cold that I asked to be let down. Noona took her hands and warmed them in her armpits before rubbing my feet to warm them. Then we kept going.
We walked and walked and finally, we reached Poongcheon. The people there were hard at work threshing corn, and it was difficult to get near the grain storage. So my sister and I lingered near the thresher and foraged for the kernels that popped out from the machine.
Raw corn tastes fishy at first, but then grows savory as you chew it and the corn’s natural juices start to come out. Mixed with saliva, there’s even a sweetness to it. At first, one or two people tried to shoo us away, saying we were interfering with their work. But the sight of two children hunching over to eat corn off the ground must have struck them as sad, and after a little while, they left us alone.
We focused on nothing but getting as many kernels off the ground and into our mouths as we could. Our hands began to turn red with cold, but we didn’t notice. Some of the snow had turned to slush inside of people’s footprints, and the corn that had fallen there had frozen into the slush. We used our fingers to dig for the food. Snow and dirt found its way under our nails. Soon our hands were black with dirt and our fingernails cracked from the cold.
The workers didn’t turn a blind eye for long—they were worried we’d steal something if they left us alone. Once again, they turned us away. “You’ve eaten enough now. Go on!” Cowed, we pocketed some corn for ourselves to eat the next day. If we didn’t make provisions, we’d have to return the next day and endure the same journey again. We filled our pockets with corn, and then left the way we came.
We walked and walked, and eventually Poongcheon receded into the distance. We stopped to rest when Poongcheon lay below us. The winter sun was setting, and the day was growing dark. The people of Poongcheon looked like tiny dolls against a backdrop of white snow, bustling here and there. People on the mountain carried kindling on their backs. The houses had all sorts of different chimneys, slowly releasing clouds of smoke. The chimney smoke reached up to the sky and faded away, leaving its fragrance behind. The scent of the smoke reached me on that far mountaintop.
The scene looked like something a foul-tempered painter might have created, his brush painting a landscape that wasn’t particularly beautiful—but it was alive. My village was dying, its people barely surviving, but Poongcheon had rows and rows of houses, the smell of food lingered in the air.
The wind carried the sound of a cow’s bell to my ears. It was a familiar, pleasant sound. And for some reason, the bell clanking and the cow mooing made me think of the mother who had left me. A crowing rooster had the same effect. These simple sounds had the power to call up all the sorrow and resentment I had tucked away in a corner of my heart.
Winter nights grow dark quickly, and to avoid the impending darkness, my sister and I worked our legs as fast as we could. We talked about nothing in particular as we walked and walked. To some people, it was an outhouse, but to us, Big Mama’s house was a nest that let us escape from some of the cold.
As we were walking, someone appeared before us at a distance, heading in the opposite direction. When the distance between us grew shorter, we were able to recognize him. And he recognized us.
I kept thinking, “What do I do?” over and over. But it was too late to run away. In no time, the man was right in front of us, demanding answers to his questions. “You’re Jo Geum-hee’s children, aren’t you?” Jo Geum-hee was our mother’s name. “Where did you just come from? Where’s that bitch you call a mom? You know where she is, don’t you?”
We replied that we didn’t know. We were on our way back from Poongcheon where we had gone to find food.
“Your bitch of a mom runs up debt with my family, then runs off before repaying us?” The man was someone who had lent my parents grain, and we were the children of the debtors who had never repaid. The debt collector grabbed a branch to hit us with, and in my fear, I dropped to my knees as I begged, “I’m sorry, please don’t! I’m sorry, please have mercy.” Both my sister and I cried as we begged, but he was unmoved.
Even all these years later, I don’t understand why the man acted the way he did. I don’t know how my parents used that borrowed grain, and I don’t understand why I had to pay for my parents’ debt. But fate placed us on that road that day to be abused by him.
The debt collector didn’t hit us. Instead, he told us to strip down to our underwear. In that cold winter twilight, it may have been better to be beaten than to take our clothes off. When we hesitated to undress, the man threatened us by swinging his branch in the air. Left with no other option, the two of us stripped. Then the debt collector forced us to lay in the snow then ordered us to roll around in it. We did as ordered and rolled in the snow with fervor and fear. After we’d done this a few times he told us to get up and get dressed. Then he went off on his way.
We picked up our clothes and dressed with one eye on his departing figure. Our bodies were bright red and I had no feeling in my hands. They were so frozen solid I couldn’t move my fingers properly. I didn’t have much clothing to put back on, but I couldn’t even put them back on. So, noona took my clothes and dressed me before getting her own clothes together.
When we started to move again, my body began to thaw. But then the pain started too. The pain brought me to tears, but crying was no use—it’s not as though it could relieve the pain. And so, we returned to the empty house. The blankets we left behind earlier in the day were untouched. Shivering, we huddled under them. I started to ache all over from fatigue, and sleep soon overcame me.
The sun rose the next day, but I didn’t. I had a high fever, and my sister was no better. She could only lie next to me. My fever raged and I was so thirsty it felt like my throat was on fire, but there was no water to be had.
I gathered all my strength and got up. My goal was one of the icicles dangling off the roof, so I grabbed a rock and threw it with everything I had, hoping to knock it down. It wasn’t even close. My rock fell to the ground with a thud without even grazing the icicle. I was shaking from the fever and my head hurt so much I could barely keep my eyes open. The slightest movement made it feel like my head was splitting open and I had no strength in my hands. But my thirst was so bad that it felt like I would die if I couldn’t get a drink of water. I tried again and again, and after several tries, an icicle fell to the ground in big pieces. I grabbed a few and carried them into the house to share with noona. Then we both fell back asleep.
I woke to someone shaking me and calling out my name loudly. It was my hyung, my older brother. When I managed to open my eyes, I saw him sobbing. I asked what was wrong and why he was crying. “A kid in the village tried to wake you but couldn’t, so he came to me saying he thought you were dead. I ran over to check on you.” When he saw me and noona wake up, he sighed in relief and asked if we were okay. Then he told us to wait, and he went back to our aunt’s house to bring roasted corn for us to eat. We ate with a vengeance.
After he made sure we’d finished all of the corn, he left again for our aunt’s house. This time he took a long while to return, but when he came back, it was to take us to our aunt’s house. It was dinnertime and my aunt and cousins were sitting down for dinner. There was a meal of warm corn rice and radish green soup waiting for us. But after we’d finished dinner, it was clear that there was still no place for us, and my aunt sent me and my sister back to the empty house.
It was only after I arrived in South Korea, and after I became an adult, that I picked up a pen and started to write. I have forgotten too much. Those times, those emotions. Recently, when I asked my brother and sister if they remember that winter with the debt collector, their response came back to me as a question: Why bother remembering?
At an age when most children have a parent or an adult to rely on, the only people I could lean on were my eleven-year-old brother and my nine-year-old sister. At an age when most children readily believe an adult’s words, I had already lost faith in them.
For my brother and sister, the past belongs to the past. Noona once told me that it’s best to forget painful memories as fast as you can. She said that if she had held onto those memories, she might have gone insane. “Why do you need to remember?” she asked me.
However, these memories are already a tangle of knots that have settled in my heart. And these knots have shaped me into an adult who cannot forget. Though I long to forget the pain of the past, and to ease the burden of these memories by talking with the two people who lived them with me, neither my brother nor my sister want to speak of our past life. But if these knots cannot be undone, I cannot forget. And so I write to remember.
Darby Jo is a North Korean-born writer and photographer. In 2008, he defected to South Korea via Mongolia before immigrating to the United States. He is currently working on a long-term photography project documenting the North Korean diaspora. His website is thedarbyjo.com.
Deborah Kim is a translator, writer, and editor based in the United States.