Little Ju Kyung Lee sat up, wide awake, as soon as she realized that her mother was no longer in bed with her and her father. She heard Omma (which is Korean for "Mama") moving around in the darkness, putting on clothes, getting ready to leave. "Omma," whispered Ju Kyung softly to the dark.
"Hsst," shushed Omma.
"Omma," persisted Ju Kyung.
"Quiet," hissed Omma. "You'll wake up your father."
Ju Kyung knew this was impossible, so she whispered again, "Omma, you said I could go with you this morning."
"Go back to sleep. You should rest."
"You said I could."
"Oh, all right. But dress quietly."
Ju Kyung crawled carefully over her sleeping father. She wasn't the least bit worried about disturbing him, since this had been his first chance to sleep in days. He would be lucky to wake up on his own even if the house caught fire. When the communists had taken over Pyongyang and the rest of North Korea, he had been put to work in the train yards loading up boxcars with supplies. Sometimes things fell behind schedule, and he would be kept working day and night until they told him he could leave. He would shamble home exhausted and sleep as though he were dead. Ju Kyung felt so sorry for him. Last night he had come home for the first time in three days. He sat down at the little dinner table, and Ju Kyung watched in fascination as his heavy eyes closed while he was eating.
It was August of 1946, and the air had not turned cold yet. Ju Kyung put on light clothes and tied her long hair back with a ribbon as Omma had shown her. Tomorrow she would be six years old, but money was scarce and there had been no sign of a birthday present this year. But she was excited to be able to go with her mother to help her do her work at Mrs. Ho Ho Bin's church today, and her bright little face seemed to shine in the dark bedroom.
Omma found her hand and together they stepped through the wood and oiled paper door into the cool gray morning. As they walked down the street together, Ju Kyung chattered excitedly.
"Will Jesus speak to Mrs. Ho today?" she asked.
"I don't know, Ju Kyung-a."
"Are you going to make more clothes for Jesus today?"
"Yes, Ju Kyung-a."
"What kind of clothes, Omma? Korean clothes or English clothes?" "Korean clothes."
"Why don't you make English clothes, Omma?"
"Mrs. Choi makes English clothes, daughter."
"You can make English clothes, too, Omma."
"Jesus needs me to make Korean clothes."
"But Omma "
"Chun-man-ayo!" (which means "a million words," or "you talk to much") Omma waved her hands impatiently for Ju Kyung to pipe down. They walked along quietly. They had to come so early because Jesus had told Mrs. Ho that it was important that they be the first ones in the market to buy it. No one understood why it was important, but because it was important to Jesus, they absolutely followed it to the word. They passed many houses on the way the mayor's house, the police chief's house. They crossed Myong Dong street, down at the other end of which were the barracks where the soldiers stayed.
They passed by a large house with a hand painted sign and a cross nailed to the door. They could hear people inside singing "Amazing Grace"; it made them feel good.
Meanwhile, down in the public market, the cloth man was unlocking his little shed. He took out some wooden boxes and set them up on the ground. He took down big rolls of cloth and Chinese silk and arranged them on the boxes. As he was searching for his measuring stick he glanced up and saw Mrs. Lee and her little daughter coming down the street. His heart beat faster; he could hardly keep from dancing. They belonged to that crazy lady's church, the one everybody called "Bok Jung Kyo" or "Inside the Belly Church". People called it that because the crazy lady thought Jesus would come and speak to her, and her belly would start to shake as though there were a lively baby inside. This was because Jesus had told her the Messiah would be born again as a baby and grow up as a man on the earth. There were a thousand members in that church, led by Mrs. Ho. But there was one thing about the Inside Belly Church he liked very much they must have lots of money. He charged them top prices, and they always paid whatever he asked. If they were all crazy that was alright with him.
Mrs. Lee came up and said, "Sugo-ha-sayo." (which means "you're working hard", and is a polite way of saying good morning) "I want to buy 15 meters of white cloth and 5 meters of green silk."
The cloth man didn't mention prices. He just took down the rolls of cloth, measured them out and cut them. He rolled up the pieces and tied them with string.
"That is 20,000 won."
Ju Kyung gasped. What a price!
Omma took the bills from her pocket and began counting them into the man's hand.
"Omma, no!" said Ju Kyung, "that's too "
Omma rapped her smartly on top of her head with her knuckles as though she were knocking on a door. "Ow!"
The man gave her the cloth and a polite little bow. Omma could see in the man's eyes that he was laughing at them. As they walked away, Ju Kyung rubbed her head painfully. She had wanted to cry, but she was too proud to cry in front of that greedy man. "But Omma..." she whined. "Jesus said we can't argue over the price," Mrs. Lee explained. "That's what Jesus told Mrs. Ho, and Mrs. Ho told me. Do you believe Jesus? Then don't complain anymore."
The church that people called the Inside Belly Church was really a great big white house that they had all bought together. They were ready to die for the Messiah when he came again. They were all waiting to meet him.
When Omma and Ju Kyung came in the door, the room was full of people in white robes, scurrying around. About a hundred women were on one side of the room and all of the men were on the other. There was an altar with a picture of Jesus on it, and when an old woman banged on a little gong everyone bowed down to the floor. She banged it again and they all stood up. Another old lady marked down the number of bows on a little chalkboard.
This group was led by Mr. Ho in the morning and by his assistant in the afternoon. They had to bow 300 times every day. Sometimes they were told to bow 3,000 times, which took ten hours. Everyone was sweating and breathing hard. After the first hundred bows or so, it became pretty tough going, and many of the people weren't very young.
As they passed by the kitchen on their way upstairs, Omma and Ju Kyung could smell the wonderful spicy smells of a rich Korean meal being prepared to put on the altar for Jesus. They were told to make two meals a day of the best food for Jesus and the Messiah who was to come. Ju Kyung had nothing much to eat for days except rice and kim chi, and sometimes a thin seaweed soup. When those wonderful smells hit her, her mouth watered and her stomach growled so loud that Omma looked down at her, embarrassed. They had almost no money of their own for buying food and Omma wouldn't touch the large amount of money Mrs. Ho had given her for the cloth.
Near the stairs was the prayer room. The door was shut tight, and on the other side they could hear the voice of Mrs. Ho praying desperately in a loud voice, and beating on the floor with her hands. Ju Kyung was so struck with awe her stomach stopped growling. Maybe Jesus was in there, speaking with Mrs. Ho. Omma led her wide-eyed girl upstairs to the sewing room. That was where Omma worked.
The room was full of women of all ages sitting or kneeling on the floor with their sewing things spread around them. Mrs. Choi led one group who made western style clothes, and Omma led the other group which made Korean clothes. They had to make three Korean suits and three English style suits every week. They were not allowed to use machines, and once they started they couldn't get up and move around until their work was finished. They would sew three stitches and tie the thread, sew three more stitches and tie the thread, over and over. At the end of the day Omma would stand up with a backache. She hoped the Lord would come soon. All this activity was because Jesus had told Mrs. Ho how poor he had been in his lifetime. He never had good clothes or enough food to eat. It was terrible for the son of God to be the poorest and hungriest man on earth. So Mrs. Ho volunteered to make an offering of clothes and food to Jesus, and Jesus told her how to do it. The food was later distributed in fragments to people like a Catholic communion, and the clothes were stored away for that day in the future when they would be needed. Omma passed the cloth to a lady in the middle of the room who would cut it into shapes and pass it out to the other women. Ju Kyung felt so excited when she was allowed to come here and watch everybody work. She wondered if someday she would meet the Lord, too. She wondered what he would look like. Maybe he would be twenty feet tall, like a giant, with big muscles and a handsome face. He'd fly through the air and know just everything in the whole world, and you could see angels come and go, bringing messages to him. He'd look at you and know.
Just then there was a great crash and a scream from downstairs. The startled women dropped their sewing and stood up. You could hear men running around downstairs and some kind of shouting from the street. Omma told Ju Kyung to stay where she was, but she went clattering down the stairs right after her mother.
The room where the people bowed had pieces of glass all over the floor. In the middle of the mess was a big jagged rock, and there were spots of blood. A man was kneeling there, holding his hands to his head and blood was running between his fingers. Two other men were trying to help him to his feet.
On the street outside a small gang of men were shouting things at them.
"Devil worshippers! You're all going to hell!"
Ju Kyung was so scared she grabbed onto Omma's skirt and began to cry. Omma reached down and put her arms around her. "It's alright. It's all over now; those men are going away."
Ju Kyung looked up, her face all wet with tears. "Why did they do that, Omma?"
"I don't know, daughter Ju Kyung."
"Are they Christians? They talk like Christians."
"Doesn't Jesus love us, Omma?"
"Yes, Ju Kyung-a, yes he does."
"Then why don't they?"
"I don't know. Shh, don't cry now." She petted Ju Kyung's little head and finally she felt better. Downstairs, they led the injured man into the kitchen, and a couple ladies came in with short-handled straw brooms to sweep up the glass.
Then Ju Kyung noticed that the prayer room door was standing open, and there was Mrs. Ho herself. Mrs. Ho was in every way a country person, with a country woman's simplicity and honesty. She was small, but rather large in the belly. Like her followers in the room, she was dressed all in white without a trace of color around her, which made the nut brown color of her face and hands stand out. She was all straight and narrow lines and wrinkles. Everything about her radiated seriousness. People like the cloth man might laugh at her behind her back, but never, never face to face. She was not a mean woman, but the dead seriousness of her eyes sucked the mocking laughter right out of you and made it clear that even if the whole world laughed at her she wasn't laughing. There was never a more serious woman than Mrs. Ho. And when she made up her mind to do a thing, all the world wouldn't change it. It was also the face of a spiritualist. She was a woman who saw a world that others didn't or couldn't. And this world knew her.
"Is our brother all right?" she asked.
"Yes, Kyo hey jun-nim," (which means church leader), one man said.
"He's being washed in the kitchen. He has a bad cut on his head, and he'll need to go home and rest."
She nodded, and her eyes surveyed the room. In her mind this problem was already finished and her mysterious thoughts had moved on. She noticed Omma and Ju Kyung standing on the top of the stairs. "Will the clothes be ready for the evening service?" asked Mrs. Ho. "We're almost finished. I'm sending Ju Kyung to buy some more thread."
Mrs. Ho glanced at Ju Kyung with her dark serious eyes and then turned to face the others. "Don't be discouraged by this attack. Persecution can bring good. Within a few days we will all meet the Lord. Jesus has told me I will meet him in prison."
People in the room began whispering and talking. One man spoke up and said, "Kyo hey jun-nim, we will never allow them to take you to prison. We would die first."
She waved her hand at him impatiently. "If it pleases God for us to go to prison, what's that to you? You should be humble in front of God's will, and God's destiny for all of us. We will meet the Lord in prison. Think of that and pray for it." People began whispering again. Mrs. Ho walked into the kitchen to see if the food offering was ready to go on the altar.
Omma led Ju Kyung upstairs and gave her a length of thread. "Go to the little store next to the public bath, you know the one, and ask the man to give you three rolls of this thread, and tell him we'll pay later." Ju Kyung took the thread and tied it to her finger, and she was off down the stairs and into the street. She paused and looked up and down for that little gang of men, but they were gone. She went on her way to the little general store where people went to buy whatever odds and ends they needed.
When she got there, the store was full of people, and it took a long time for the man to notice her and ask her what she wanted. She untied the thread and told him what her mother had said. He frowned at her. "Oh, is your mother at the church with all those people, the Bok Jung Kyo Church?"
"Yes," said Ju Kyung fearfully. She had never felt afraid before, but she was learning the meaning of fear today. Just yesterday she would have spoken right up. but this afternoon her "yes" stuck in her throat for just a second, and it surprised her. "My mother works there," she added, a little defiantly.
People stopped chattering. People looked at her. The man looked at her. Oh no, thought little Ju Kyung Lee. Please Jesus, don't let these people do anything to me. Don't let them throw me through a window too. The man looked around for someone. "Mrs. Choi?" A woman stepped up to them. "Mrs. Choi, I think it'd be nice if you could walk this little girl back to the Bok Jung Kyo and see if her mother is still there." "Still there?" thought Ju Kyung. What does he mean? Now she felt another kind of fear. These people weren't angry at her, but they had all been talking about something bad that had happened when she came in. Now she felt really scared. These people all knew something that she didn't know. The woman took her by the hand, and they went out and began walking quickly back to the church. They both walked very fast and didn't say anything at all. When they got there, an army truck was parked out front, and there were many communist soldiers loading all the clothes and food they had made for Jesus and the coming Lord. She didn't see her mother or anyone she knew around anywhere.
Ju Kyung broke away from the lady and ran toward the soldiers, crying, "Omma! Omma! Omma!" A soldier stood in front of her and wouldn't let her past. She beat at his knees and cried for her mother.
"Who is your mother?" snapped the soldier.
"Who is she? Ho Ho Bin?"
"No, Mrs. Lee! I want Omma!"
"Was she in this church?"
"Where is she?"
"She's in prison where she belongs," said the communist soldier proudly. "They've been arrested, these enemies of the people. Our beloved Father Kim Il Sung has liberated this church and its stolen wealth for the people of Korea."
Ju Kyung only heard the word prison. She fell screaming and crying to the ground. The soldier was embarrassed and went away.
"Oommmaaaaa!" she wailed.
She felt arms around her. She pushed them away angrily. The arms came again, a woman's arms gently picking her up. The woman who had walked her from the store said, "Let's go together. Maybe we can find her." They went down to Myong Dong Street. This time Ju Kyung was not afraid. She was only thinking about her mother. They walked past the soldiers' barracks, past the huge blue house where Kim Il Sung probably lived and down to the end of the street where the police station and prison was. They walked up to the nearest window, where an old man was looking out through the rusty iron bars.
"Do you know the people from Mrs. Ho's church who were picked up this afternoon?" the woman said to him.
"Yes," he said. "I'm one of them."
"We're looking for this girl's mother."
The old man squinted down at her through the bars. "You're Mrs. Lee's little girl, aren't you?"
Ju Kyung nodded her head eagerly.
"I think I know," said the old man. "Just a minute." He went back out of sight, into the darkness of the prison cell. He spoke with someone for a moment and then came back again. He stuck his arm out the window and pointed down the prison wall. "Try the fifth window."
Holding hands they walked along the wall to the fifth window. The ground rose uphill down the wall, so that the window came down to about the level of Ju Kyung's face. She put her face up to the bars and looked in. Out of the dark Omma jumped up and ran to the window.
They hugged each other joyfully through the bars. "You shouldn't be here," said Omma, "If they catch you, they'll chase you away." "I want to help you, Omma."
"Don't worry, Ju Kyung-a. They say the Lord is here in prison somewhere, and we're waiting to meet him. Mrs. Ho is here somewhere and we're all waiting for them to meet each other."
"Has anyone seen him, Omma?"
"No, not yet. No one knows who he is. But he's here somewhere." She nodded, and sadly left Omma's window. Omma pointed to a cell at the corner of the building. It was the cell of Mrs. Ho's helper. Mrs. Choi walked away at a distance to keep a lookout and Ju Kyung ran up to his window. Inside she saw Mrs. Ho's helper (a man) sitting in the dim light, and there was another man with him, a young man. She had never seen him before. He was handsome, but very thin as if he hadn't had much to eat for a long time. He had a flat nose and he sat on the floor quietly, undisturbed by his situation. He seemed like a kind person, and she liked him and hoped she could meet him.
She called softly to the helper; he had been sitting across from the young man. Now he saw her, and stood up stiffly and walked over to the window.
"Omma said I should see if you're all right." The helper reached out and patted her cheek affectionately. "That's nice," he said. "Who's that other man?" asked Ju Kyung.
"His name is Moon."
A silly thought occurred to her. "Is he the Lord?" she asked, without really thinking.
The man chuckled. Silly girl. "No, of course not," he said. For the third time that day, Ju Kyung discovered yet another kind of fear. She couldn't put her finger on it, but she knew it wasn't for herself but for other people that she felt afraid. It was a strange feeling that something was mixed up here. "Are you sure?" she said, partly to him and partly to herself.
"Oh yes," said the helper confidently. "He's a very young man." She felt the hair on her head prickling. Something was really bothering her now. She had always thought someone like Mrs. Ho's helper would never make a mistake. But deep inside she felt he was making a mistake now. "It's okay if he's young, isn't it? He could still maybe be the Lord, couldn't he?"
"If he was," the man said, "then Jesus would tell me, wouldn't he?" No! A voice in her heart cried out, trying to speak, pushing at her, trying to get out. "Well," she said timidly, "What if he didn't? I mean, what if he didn't want to, maybe he wanted you to find out?" "Oh, hush now!" He was getting tired of all this. She looked past him to where young Moon was sitting on the floor. He was looking right at her, and their eyes met. That was when she saw it in his eyes. Then she knew. She became excited.
"No more now," Mrs. Ho's helper snapped. "You shouldn't even be here. Go home now." He walked away from her and sat down on the floor of the cell across from Mr. Moon. He leaned against the wall and closed his eyes. That was that.
"Omma!" She ran from the window, shaking all over. "Omma! I've got to tell you! I've got to tell you something!" But now a soldier had seen her. He began running toward her shouting, "Hey you, get out of here! Go on! What are you doing here?"
The woman from the market came racing across the lawn and scooped up Ju Kyung in her arms and carried her quickly away from there. She set her down and together they ran down Myong Dong street back to the town. "I saw him." Ju Kyung said to her as they ran. "I saw him. I saw him." The woman thought she meant the soldier.
Ju Kyung tried to come back by herself the next day, but the soldiers saw her and turned her back. She waited till dark and went back in the night while her father was sleeping.
When she came to Myong Dong Street the soldiers were all asleep. She went to the prison window where Omma had been, but the cell was empty. She went to all the windows and they were all empty. Finally, she went to see Mrs. Ho's helper, really hoping to see that Mr. Moon again. It, too, was empty. Everyone had gone somewhere. There was one room that she was sure had people in it, but there was a big piece of wood nailed across the window, and she couldn't see in. When she walked past it, she heard voices inside and she stopped and put her ear against the wood to listen.
A man's voice was saying, "Who are you? Why did you write that note?" Another voice said something, but she couldn't hear what it was. Thump. Thump.
"Why did you write for Mrs. Ho to pray who you are? Huh? Who do you think you are? Huh?"
It sounded like a stick breaking, like something hard inside of something soft being broken. What was going on?
"You're the enemy of the people! Tell us who you are! Answer my question!" Thump.
It sounds rough, she thought with a shiver. She left the boarded up window and walked on in the dark looking for her mother, looking for Mr. Moon. She wondered where Mr. Moon was, and what he was doing right now. Even though she didn't know him, she liked him very much. Finally, feeling more worried for her mother than ever, she gave up and went home.
As it turned out, her mother showed up the next morning. They had let her go. When she came into the house Ju Kyung ran tearfully into her arms. She was so happy to know her mother was home safe again from that awful place.
She asked Omma if Mrs. Ho had gone home. Omma said no, she thought maybe Mrs. Ho was dead. The communist soldiers had shot many people there. She hadn't seen either Mrs. Ho or her helper since she'd left the police station.
"How did you get out?" asked Ju Kyung.
"They gave me a paper to sign," said Omma. "If I signed it, they said they would let me go."
"What did the paper say?" asked Ju Kyung.
"I don't know," said Omma, "I don't know how to read."
Someone was at the door. Omma let them in. It was a woman, and she had a little girl with her Ju Kyung's own age. Omma introduced them to Ju Kyung. "This is Mrs. Hong. She's a member of Mrs. Ho's church also, but she wasn't there the day the soldiers came. Why don't you girls go play outside while we talk?"
Ju Kyung found her favorite doll and held it out to the little girl.
"My name's Ju Kyung, what's your name?" "My name's Hak Ja Han." "Would you like to play with my doll?"
"Oh yes!" said Hak Ja Han, and hand in hand they ran outside to play together under the persimmon tree.