The little girl's name was Hak Ja Han, and she was humming with excitement and chattering with endless whispered questions to her mother and grandmother. She was excited because she was able to stay up so late at night, and because she was walking through a dark forest with her mother and grandmother, and because the last couple of weeks she'd been through so many adventures.
Her mother and grandmother were excited, too, but in a different way. You might say they were excited because they were scared. Unlike the child, they knew what was really happening. They knew all too well what war was, and that overnight their little country of Korea had gone crazy and was at war with itself. For the first time in thousands of years, Koreans were not fighting off the Chinese or Japanese, but were fighting against each other. It was a civil war.
Mrs. Hong was scared because she had been having terrible dreams at night of friends and relatives declaring war on her and coming to shoot her. That's what civil war was.
She was scared because of a neighbor who had tried to escape to the southern half of Korea at night, just like they were doing now, and she had stepped on a flat metal can buried in the ground of the road and gone straight home to Jesus in a clap of thunder and a flash of light. It was a land mine, a little bomb.
All these things pressed on Ju Nai Hong's heart as she led the way for her little girl and for her own mother. The starry night was full of dangerous things. The mountains were full of soldiers, the soldiers of the South and their American friends, and the soldiers of Kim Il Sung and his Chinese friends. A sneaky little can buried in the ground, or the sudden blast of a rifle behind a bush, might end their business on this earth at any moment. If they met South Koreans they would probably be safe. If they met Kim Il Sung's army from the North, they would be sent back to the prison camp they had just escaped from or maybe just shot dead. It would all depend on how Kim Il Sung's people were feeling. Her life and her family's might simply hang on what the commanding officer had for dinner that evening. No more than that. That was how it was now. That was war. That was Korea.
But in her heart, Mrs. Hong couldn't believe that Jesus would let anything bad happen to them. He'd taken care of them so far. Hadn't he made a way for them to escape from that terrible prison camp? This is what had happened.
The communists had found out that the Hongs were part of Mrs. Ho Ho Bin's church. For that and other reasons they had spent the last two weeks in a prison camp. Then one afternoon an army truck full of oil barrels backed into the wire fence, tearing a hole in it. No one seemed to care about it. It was, after all, just a camp full of frightened women and children. No big deal.
That night, little Hak Ja Han was sleeping soundly when her mother came and woke her up. Grandmother and mother were all packed up with their clothes tied in a bundle.
"Let's go," whispered Mrs. Hong. She pulled Hak Ja Han out from under her blanket and told her to be very, very quiet or they would all be in a lot of trouble. She obeyed without a sound.
Outside in the prison yard, the rickety fence was lit by gasoline lanterns hanging from nails. The lanterns where the truck backed in were broken. Again, no big deal. Women and kids.
The three had one more thing going for them, the guard himself. He was a young man from the borderland of North Korea and Mongolia (which is a part of China). He had been taken by force from his pig farm, from his wife and children and a way of life he understood. Now here he was, guarding a pen full of children and terrorized women, like some shepherd from hell. He was miserable and depressed, and had taken to drinking moonshine which the farmers made from rice. He was babbling to himself, carrying on a conversation with his wife who lived far away.
He heard the jingle of the fence being lifted. He turned around, reaching for his rifle. He saw the three shadows, two big and one very small slipping through. He slammed the breach in and pulled back the hammer, but as he was lifting the stock to his shoulder, he saw the tiny skirt of the little girl in the moonlight.
"Oh no," he thought. "Not a child." A sweet smelling alcohol tear trickled down his face. This wasn't his country; these were not his people.What in the world was he doing in a place like this, pulling his gun to shoot a little girl? Not this time, not for Kim Il Sung and his rotten bunch. He'd rather shoot those guys first. "Good-bye, ladies," he whispered. "Good luck. And watch where you step."
He raised his voice in an old Mongolian folk song, while the guard officer left his desk to come out and tell him to shut up.
It was the third night, and Mrs.Hong knew they must be getting close to the South. They had relatives somewhere in Chun Chon. But what kind of shape would Chun Chon be in by now? They didn't know whose army they would find there, if and when they got there.
Mrs. Hong felt the intensity of the spirit world all around her as they picked their way through the solid country darkness. They had traveled by night and slept by day. Now the sky was filled with stars and a sliver of a crescent moon. The cool night air seemed full of weight and soft winds that sounded like voices talking about them, deciding things about them. Hak Ja Han felt those voices too, and sometimes thought she could see the spirits around them. It distracted her from her tiredness and her hunger.
"Omma," she said, "are there still tigers in the forest?"
"I don't think so, dear," answered Mrs. Hong. And this was true as far as she knew. The farmers and ginseng hunters, in their little village of Ahn Joo, had said the wild animals had been driven from the mountains by the fighting of men and had gone to look for quieter hunting grounds. But you could never be sure about Siberian tigers, who weren't afraid of anything.
"What about ghosts?" asked Hak Ja Han.
"Oh, probably there are some," said Mrs. Hong, trying to sound nonchalant. To deny it might draw bad luck. And her mysterious little girl had a funny way of knowing when people weren't saying what they really thought.
"Good ghosts or bad ghosts, Omma?"
"I'm sure they're good ghosts."
"If we pray to God, maybe the good ghosts will protect us from the bad ones."
"Yes, yes." Mrs. Hong heard the shaking in her own voice and hoped her daughter hadn't noticed it. They were so alone out here! Anything could happen to them, and Satan had tried so many times before to destroy her little girl. She knew they had some great destiny to fulfill for God, and that was why they had to get to the South. Somewhere in the South, the Messiah would be waiting for them. But first, there were many things on the way they had to get through. Tigers. Yes, tigers, tigers with guns, whose hearts were worse than tigers who killed only for food. Those tigers were Kim Il Sung's army. She peered into the darkness and pulled her daughter closer to her.
"Omma," said Hak Ja Han, as they moved through the forest. "May I sing a song?"
"Sure, why not?" said Mrs. Hong wearily, putting one foot in front of the other.
"Do I still have to sing a song of Kim Il Sung?"
Good question! Just how far had they gone? She paused, then answered, "No." The sound of it made her begin to feel strong, almost free. "Sing anything you want to, little daughter."
The little girl held up her finger on each hand next to her head like rabbit ears. She began hopping up and down as they went. "Bunny, bunny, hopping down the mountain trail, hopping hopping..."
Mrs. Hong stopped so suddenly that Grandmother bumped into her in the dark. She'd heard something among the trees. Hak Ja Han went hopping on ahead. There it was again. A low voice. The soft sound of metal on metal.
"Bunny, bunny, hopping down the trail..."
"Oh Jesus!" prayed Mrs. Hong silently, frozen with fear, unable to stop her daughter. "Oh Jesus, save your people!"
"The tigers have found us," thought Mrs. Hong. "Jesus, please!"
There was a crack and a flash of fire from behind a tree. It was a rifle. A bright electric light came on, shining in their eyes, blinding them. Suddenly the night was full of light and still they couldn't see. "crack, crack," went the guns, and grandmother shrieked as a bullet hit the pine tree by her shoulder, spraying her with chips of tree bark.
"Holy Moses on a pony!" shouted a man's voice, in a language they had never heard before. "It's some women and a kid! Hold your fire!"
"Crack," went the rifle,and something hot zizzed by Mrs. Hong's ear.
"Cut it out, you jerks!" shouted the big voice." Put your guns down!" His words were repeated to the soldiers in Korean. Mrs. Hong heard the Kwang Ju accent, and then she knew, these were South Koreans and an American!
The bright light was taken off them, but for a moment they saw only purple dots dancing in front of their eyes. Then a man came up to them, and they had never seen anyone like him. He was bigger than any Korean man they had ever seen, and his skin was as dark as the night. His big grin seemed to float in the dark by itself, and his hair was short and fuzzy, like a sheep's.
Hak Ja Han laughed with delight at the sight of him. The man laughed back in his booming voice, "Hah, hah, hah. Ain't she cute! C'mere, little girl."
He took something out of his pocket. Paper crackled, and he put something in her hand. It was flat and hard and felt like wax. There were letters carved in it that didn't look like Chinese or Japanese. They looked like H-E-R-S-H-E-Y. She smelled it. It smelled great! She broke off a piece and put it in her mouth. It tasted wonderful. She gave the rest to her mother.
The man laughed again with joy. Sorry we scared you ladies.We thought y'all was somebody else. Y'all better be careful in these here woods tonight."
The Kwang Ju man translated his words for them. "I got a little girl like you at home," he continued, still smiling his big, big grin. "I sure do!"
The soldiers dug in their pockets and put some money together to see the two ladies and child off. The dark man drew them a map showing the way to a friendly train station that could take them from the next town to Chun Chon.
The sun was rising hot and pink over the mountain top as they went down the dusty road. They no longer had to sleep by day. "We'll find the Messiah," thought Mrs. Hong to herself hopefully. "Someday, when we get to the city."