"Thank you, Father Kim Il-Sung," I say.
Teacher smiles and pats me on the head. I smile back.
A traffic girl waves a baton and whistles, composing rush hour traffic this way and that. I watch her with my mouth gaped slightly. She's graceful. I want to be graceful too.
"Sang!" Coach snaps, hands on her hips. "Practice is right here!"
It's my turn. I dribble the soccer ball through the cones, my shoes squeak against the concrete sidewalk.
"Quicker!" Coach commands. "Quicker!"
I pick up my pace. The tip of my shoe catches on a crack in the sidewalk. I fall. The ball bounces toward the intersection. Without missing a beat, the traffic girl stops the ball under her heel then kicks it back to me.
Blood trickles from a scrape on my knee but I hardly notice.
The front door is unlocked when I return home. Grandpa is back early. I step inside.
His muddy boots rest by the entryway but he doesn't reply.
His bedroom door's partially open. I'm not allowed in his room but I peek through the gap. Grandpa straightens a picture of our founder's son. Our founder grins at a red bird perched upon his shoulder. Grandpa must've been admiring the picture and noticed it hanging a little crooked.
His hand lingers on the frame for a moment. I clear my throat. He turns. His cheeks glisten.
"What's wrong, grandpa?"
He wipes the moisture off his cheeks with a leathery hand. "Oh, nothing, dear one."
"Did the memory of our founder's son bring you to tears? My teacher says it is common."
Grandpa offers only a small smile before his eyes widen. "Sang, you're injured!"
I look down at a blood-stained sock and a dried crimson creek bed leading to it from my knee.
"Let's get that cleaned up." Grandpa shuffles past me. "Have a seat."
I plop down on a wooden stool. Grandpa searches through mostly barren cabinets.
"Ah! I knew I had some." He retrieves a small plastic bottle. The label has been removed but I know what it is.
Grandpa kneels on creaky knees in front of me. "This may sting."
Careful not to waste a single drop, he pours the clear liquid onto a shred of cloth then dabs my wounded knee. Ouch.
I frown. "I fell on the sidewalk at soccer practice."
"Oh dear one," Grandpa says, unwrapping a thin bandage with tiny cartoon red birds on it, "Everybody falls down sometimes."
Not the traffic girl, I want to say. She's always in control.
Grandpa gently places the bandage on my knee. "The important thing is you pick yourself back up.”
"But how many times must I have to pick myself back up?" I huff.
Grandpa wipes away the dried blood then looks up. "77 x 7 times."
"Sang," my teacher calls as she holds up a sketch. "What is this?"
I bite my lip. She points to a roughly drawn stick figure holding a baton.
"Is this you?"
"Do you wish to be a traffic controller?"
I nod again.
My teacher smiles. "I believe it is possible should you be one of the first of your class admitted into the Children's Union."
I ball my hands into fists with joy. "You really believe so?"
Warmth spreads across my chest.
"Now," teacher points to something underneath the stick figure, "What does the number 539 mean?"
"That's 77 x 7 or how many times Grandpa says I must get back up."
Teacher's eyes narrow slightly.
I sit on the living room stool in silence. I should be studying but I'm too distracted. I see myself wearing the red necktie reciting the oath of allegiance at the Children Union's admission ceremony. I squint harder and my uniform changes to one of blue and white. I hold a baton. My stomach stirs.
The wind blows through the window behind me pushing Grandpa's bedroom door open. The portrait of our founder's son, the Great Guide Commander Kim Jung-il hangs crooked.
I lay my books aside and glance around the room. I know I'm not supposed to but…
It will only take a moment and he'll never know.
I creep across the room, barely making a sound. I slide through the open door like a shadow.
I peer up at our Great Guide Commander. He grins his approval of my actions.
I reach for the portrait with gentle hands but I'm not steady. It falls from the nail, crashing to the floor though I try to catch it, my dreams crashing with it.
"Oh dear. Oh dear. Oh dear."
I bend down and pick it up. The glass is splintered across the red bird's wings.
I hold it like I'm holding my breath.
A lie blooms. The wind! Yes, the wind blew it off the wall! I heard the crash and---
---I look up. Where the portrait hung on the wall, there is... a hole?
My heart flutters.
I lay the portrait on Grandpa's mattress and hurry to the living room. I drag the stool across the floor to the wall and climb atop it. Standing on my tiptoes I peer inside.
I didn't hear Grandpa come in.
We've been on the public train for a long time. Grandpa hasn't said a word. His face is hard, his wrinkles etched in stone.
The train trundles to a stop and he finally speaks. "Come."
He exits the train and I follow. A few minutes later the train roars to life and pulls away leaving Grandpa and I alone on the platform. A warm breeze whips at my skirt.
Wordlessly we walk down a potholed road. A skinny woman on a bike passes by. I wave but she doesn't wave back. There are no cars here. No need for a traffic girl.
The pavement turns to gravel. Sparsely cultivated fields edge in on us from both sides. A family hacks at the ground with hoes. A boy---younger than me with grimey cheeks---piles the rocks they dig up as if he's building a wall between me and him.
I have so many questions for Grandpa: What is this place? Why are we here? What was that book? Why are you hiding it? Are you still mad at me?
My stomach knots up. He's in no mood for questions.
We turn off the road and follow a trail up a wooded hillside. Grandpa breathes heavily, slowing. He's like a river flowing uphill. Determined though nature works against him.
We reach the top where most of the trees have been cut down. Grandpa sits on a hollowed-out stump, wipes the sweat from his brow then pats his thigh.
"Sit, dear one."
I climb into his lap. His legs are bonier than normal.
From the top of the hill, the world unfolds as if it is painted to perfection by the Commander's best artists. I gasp.
Grandpa gestures. "Who made this?"
"Time and consequence," I say, repeating what I heard from my teacher.
"What if I told you something so important, you must keep it a secret." He meets my eyes. "Could you do that?"
My skin prickles with excitement. I nod. "Yes! Tell me."
Grandpa offers a weighty smile. "Time and consequence have a name."
The tall man stands behind my teacher, his arms crossed. I keep my eyes low. It’s lunch time for all my class but me.
“Tell me, Sang,” teacher says, bending down to my height. “Where did you hear of the 77 x 7 times?"
“Grandpa,” I say.
“Why did he tell you this?” teacher asks.
“Because he wants me to keep getting back up when I fall down.”
Teacher nods. “Did he mention where he got them from?”
I shake my head.
“Has your grandpa told you anything else?” she asks. “Strange tales or fables?”
My hands clam up. My heart pounds. But I say nothing.
Teacher looks back over her shoulder at the tall man, then says, “You can tell me, Sang. We only want the truth.”
“Is grandpa in trouble?” I ask.
“No dear, but a member of the Children’s Union would answer my questions. A future traffic girl would answer my questions. Do you understand?”
Her words fall on me like a rock slide. I nod again.
“Now tell me, dear one,” teacher says softly, “Have you noticed anything odd or different about your grandpa?”
Teacher peers at me. A second pases. Two seconds pass.
I swallow hard. “There...There is this one thing.”
Soccer practice ends early. I wave at the traffic girl as I head home and she waves back. And I didn’t fall down a single time today! Two good things! I can’t wait to tell Grandpa!
Sirens wail in the distance.
Police lights greet me when I reach my street, flashing silently. Blue. Red. Blue. Red.
My front door stands wide open. I sprint to it, but a police officer stops me from going in. He grabs my arms with both hands. He squeezes tightly.
He’s on his knees in the living room. His face is bruised and bloody. The house is in disarray---our stools turned over, dresser broken in pieces, clothes scattered across the floor.
The tall man stands over Grandpa. “Where is it?” he says. “Where?”
Grandpa peers up but says nothing. The tall man scowls and strikes Grandpa with the back of his hand.
“Grandpa!” I cry.
“Get her out of here!” the tall man snarls.
The officer attempts to lift me up but I wriggle out of his grasp and lounge toward Grandpa, extending my hand to him in desperation. He meekly reaches toward me. Our fingers meet for a split second before I’m yanked backward, my fingernails gouging the wood floor.
“I’ve had enough of this,” the tall man says. “This traitor’s too old for the labor camp.”
I struggle with all of my might. A hand across my mouth stifles my cries. One word is all I want. One word.
The tall man pulls a gun from the inside of his coat. He presses the barrel to Grandpa’s forehead.
Grandpa doesn’t blink. “Forgive them, fath---
I pinch my eyes shut.
I pull my long coat over my traffic controller uniform and tie it around my waist. A cold wind gusts across the platform, stirring up a swirl of snowflakes. I cross my arms for warmth and lean against the breeze.
A long walk down a snow-covered road leads to a wooded hill. I blaze a narrow path to the top, the weight of my journey growing larger with each step.
It’s been 15 years. I still think of him.
There are fewer trees now but the hollowed-out stump remains. I brush off the snow and sit down.
The canvas has changed since my last trip. White hills roll in frozen waves beneath a gray sky. Dark smoke rising from decrepit chimneys in misty curls peppers the clouds.
It doesn’t take long for the tears to fall. They slide down my cheeks.
Suddenly, amongst the white, comes a splash of color. A red bird lands softly on another stump a few meters away. It dabbles around the edge of the stump then flies straight toward me, startling me out of my tear-filled stupor. At the last moment, the bird dives by my knees into the dark hollow of the stump.
I bend over and take a peek inside the hollow. The bird hops out, then takes flight, disappearing down the far side of the hill.
“What’s this?’ I whisper.
The dull light glimmers off clear plastic. I stoop lower and reach into the dark.
My heart pounds as I admire it.
“Time and consequence,” I whisper. “I know his name.”
Most Christians aren't American and don't have the freedom we have. If you are a praying person, please remember them.