Yi Mi-Kyoung stroked her waking baby son's cheek. His rooting reflex was still good, despite the famine in the land that had long ago dried up her milk supply.
She dipped a cloth into the bowl before her, saturating it with the herb-tinctured water. Drop by drop she strained the solution into her son's waiting mouth, humming softly as she did so. He must sleep for most of the following hours for the safety of the group, she reminded herself.
Her ten-year-old daughter, Chong Mi-Sun, watched as her tiny brother yawned once, twice, and closed his eyes. Mi-Kyoung swaddled him in a threadbare blanket and placed him into a sling carrier.
"We can go now," she murmured to Chong In-Ho, who watched at the window for movement outside. Her husband nodded and led the way from their small house.
Mi-Sun gripped the hem of her mother's jacket. The shadows seemed to conceal a thousand spying eyes. Though she knew her father could find his way to the secret meeting place, she also knew that bad things could befall them along the path.
They did not dare speak among themselves until they were deep in the forest.
"Papa, tell me again about Pak Ki-Hoon," Mi-Sun whispered.
A twig snapped nearby. In-Ho peered in that direction before giving her a weary smile.
"Pak Ki-Hoon was born a long time ago in this country. As a young man he escaped to the land across the river. There he met some people who spoke to him about freedom, about God's Son."
"Jesus," Mi-Sun inserted.
“Yes, Jesus,” answered her father. “But Ki-Hoon knew he could not be truly free on that side of the river. His heart was heavy with sorrow for his countrymen who did not know the good news. His burden was not lifted until he returned to us.”
“It was very dangerous for Ki-Hoon to come back,” Mi-Kyoung continued. “Most who return are imprisoned for life. Many are never heard from again.”
Mi-Sun frowned. “Was Ki-Hoon in prison?”
In-Ho sighed, but kept silent. Above them, among the treetops, a bird squawked.
In-Ho parted some bushes that concealed the mouth of a cave. Mi-Sun heard a chorus of whispers from within.
“The service has begun. They are singing,” Mi-Kyoung stated.
Mi-Kyoung entered first, then Mi-Sun. In-Ho peered once more into the surrounding forest and listened intently before following.
“The Faithful One sent us,” In-Ho spoke into the stillness.
“Welcome to His beloved ones,” came the answer.
As her eyes adjusted to the dark, Mi-Sun saw her neighbors seated on the floor. At the center of the small group was an elderly man, wispy white hair framing his wrinkled face. He nodded greetings to the newcomers who quickly found places to sit.
“Praise be to God! Glory to Him!” the congregants whispered in unison.
“The Lord hears your songs, children, and knows your hearts. He is pleased,” Pak Ki-Hoon encouraged.
From within his frayed jacket sleeve, Ki-Hoon removed and unfolded a red piece of plastic.
“The many years I was in the hard labor camp I kept God’s Word hidden deep within me. When they released me to return home, I found this caught in some bushes. I will soon die,” he said to his small flock, “But God’s Word will go on. You must memorize these Scriptures, for His Word will sustain you through many hardships.”
In-Ho and Mi-Kyoung accepted the Scripture balloon that Ki-Hoon had intercepted. In-Ho read the Word aloud.
The congregants repeated the words several times in unison to remember them. Mi-Sun refolded the red plastic for her father. With a final quiet hymn, they stood.
A young couple were the first to leave the cave. The others heard angry voices, then a single gunshot.
“Mi-Sun!” In-Ho hissed. “Take God’s message and hide deep in the cave! Go now!”
Mi-Sun scurried away through the dark passageway clutching the Scripture balloon. More shouts, more gunshots, and screams followed her footsteps.
She stumbled, cutting her knees on the cave rubble. As she paused, panting, all was silence. For several hours she prayed for the safety of the others and sang hymns under her breath, not daring to move.
She discovered In-Ho’s body blocking the passageway she had used to escape. Ki-Hoon and the other men were all dead; the women were nowhere to be seen.
She was alone, the red balloon a reminder of their last fellowship together. Clutching it to her, she wept.
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