Real stories. Real faith. Real suspense.
Flower Swallow is a Christian novel set in North Korea and told from the perspective of a spunky street kid named Woong.
Join Woong as he battles famine, illness, and homelessness in order to find his happily ever after (and more).
From the USA Today bestselling author of The Beloved Daughter, Flower Swallow is a heart-warming tale full of hope and redemption (and quite a few laughs).
Buy Flower Swallow today or read chapter one for a sneak peek ...
I never woulda guessed a bowl of curst noodles could cause so much trouble, but that’s exactly what happened. And the more I think about it, the more I figure none of this woulda happened if I weren’t so greedy. I’ve lost track of how many times I’ve wished I’d just left it alone. But that’s hard for a growing boy to do, you know? Even now, Pastor laughs at me and tells me I eat more than an elephant. I know he’s just teasing me, though, because he took me to see elephants at the zoo once, and they don’t eat like me at all.
So anyway, Teacher, you said I should tell my story, even though I can’t guess why you wanna know it. Curst food and baby ghosts and such, that’s not really the kinda thing we read about in school. ’Less you’re talking about fairytales or stuff and nonsense like that. But my story isn’t no fairytale. I know enough of them kind to follow how they go generally, and well, this isn’t gonna be like that. Once I start, you’ll see for yourself what I mean.
I was born in a little village so small I don’t even know its name, so I hope you don’t mark me down for that. Some people think I couldn’t possibly remember that far back, because I done the math once, and I was probably only four or maybe as high as five when I left. It’s hard knowing for sure, ’cause the doctors here had to guess my age, and then I had to count back and see if I thought they were right. But even with me being so little, I remember it ’cause that’s when I heard the ghost for the very first time, and that’s just not something you get out of your mind, know what I mean?
Pastor tells me there’s no such thing as ghosts. He says people don’t get possessed anymore, neither. But the next thing you know, he’s talking about the Holy Spirit coming to live inside folks, so I’m not really sure Pastor knows as much as he lets on. Don’t tell him I said that though, ’cause Pastor sure has done a lot for me and I don’t mean to sound unthankful.
I was a pretty normal kid, I guess, except for being so young. I had a mama and a papa and a big sister who liked to clobber me more than just about anything. I haven’t seen Min-Jung in I forget how long. Like I said, the math gets tricky on account of the doctors never figuring my age exactly right. But I’m pretty sure that the sister I had will never end up reading this, so I’ll go right out and say that I miss her sometimes, especially at night. But don’t tell Chuckie Mansfield I said that or he’d say I’m a sissy. Far as I can tell, Min-Jung is one of the only things about the old days I miss at all — her and Grandmother, ’course — but if my sister was here, I probably would change my mind and wish she weren’t. Like I said, I don’t miss much else from the old days. Certainly don’t miss that haunted house, for one thing.
Papa was a fisherman, which means we ate all right. Well, ’least until the famine, but that started later. Having a fisherman Papa is nice because he’s gone early in the morning when you’re asleep, so you don’t really miss him that bad. And then when he comes home, if Mama’s not too upset with you yet, she gives you this little nod. That means you can go out and help Papa clean the fish. Last week, Teacher, you asked me to think of something I was good at, and I couldn’t at the time, so I’m gonna put it down here and then you’ll know. I’m better at cleaning fish than any boy in our school. Any girl too, but you probably coulda guessed that already.
Anyway, life was pretty good, ’least if you didn’t mind eating plain old fish every day or taking too many thrashings from your sister. But you know, I was never scared of Min-Jung. First of all, when she wasn’t knocking my wind out, she was all right, but if you ever meet her, don’t tell her I said that. Believe it or not, it was Mama I was really scared of.
One of the things I remember right before the haunting is Mama being sick all the time, puking up breakfast and laying on the couch with a wet rag over her eyes and yelling at me more but letting me get away with more, too. I kinda figured something bad must be happening to the girls in the family since Min-Jung was acting all strange lately too, getting so mad she sometimes started to cry. But when I teased her for it, those were some of the worst poundings I can remember, so her moods didn’t do nothing to weaken her.
So anyway, me and Papa spent our free time cleaning fish or going on walks or doing just about anything we could think of to get out of the house and leave the girls alone. But then something went wrong with Mama. She didn’t lay on the couch no more, and she stopped her puking, which you’d think would be a good thing except it weren’t.
Now she was just kinda walking around quiet-like, and the littlest sound set her crying off like a fountain, way worse than Min-Jung, and even Papa told me sometimes he was too tired to go on walks. And once I saw him looking so serious I woulda thunk he was about to cry if I hadn’t knowed better. Him and Mama were fighting less too, which kinda weirded me out, and sometimes I lain in bed next to Min-Jung, and I wanted to ask her if somebody was dying, but of course I didn’t because she was just as moody as ever and probably woulda clobbered me.
Well, I figure that was how the haunting started. It was evening one night, and I was waiting for Min-Jung to fall asleep so I could warm my feet up between her legs without her knowing it, and Mama, she sat up real fast and squealed, “What was that?” and Papa said, “A cat.”
Except Mama wouldn’t believe him. She got out of bed and put on her coat and Papa asked, “What are you doing?” and Mama said, “It’s the baby.” And then Papa let out one of them long sighs, but he didn’t say nothing, and he didn’t try to stop Mama. Papa was always smart that way.
He knowed the best way to get along with Mama was just let her have her own way, unless she was going a little overboard with the spanking spoon, and then sometimes he stepped in and asked her if she thought the boy (that’s me) had had enough.
So Mama went out and I was asleep by the time she got in, but the next morning it looked like she hadn’t slept a smidge, and Papa, he was rubbing his eyes and still saying, “It was a cat.”
But Mama said, “It was the baby. She’s not gonna give me no peace after Mrs. Nosy poisoned her with that tea.”
Mrs. Nosy was our neighbor, and she and Mama had kinda made an agreement to hate each other for as long as they were both alive. Mrs. Nosy wasn’t her real name, by the way, but I forget what it was, and you can’t really blame me because I never liked her in the first place and I haven’t even seen her since the flood, so I hope you don’t mark me down for that.
But anyway, Mama was always accusing her of little things like sneaking in and stealing our cornmeal, and Papa usually just listened and nodded because, like I said, he was smart that way. But this time I got no clue what Mama was talking about or what baby she meant. But then she said poison, and I thought maybe things would get a little interesting, except they didn’t.
So the next night, I stayed awake even after Min-Jung ’cause I wanted to see if maybe Mrs. Nosy’d come around and try to poison the water or something. What do you expect of a neighbor who sneaks in and steals cornmeal?
Mama and Papa didn’t say nothing in bed, but that weren’t unusual ’cause the more Papa talked, the more mad Mama got at him, so he stayed quiet-like most of the time. Anyway, I was pinching Min-Jung’s leg with my toes, partly because I needed something to do to keep me from falling asleep, and partly because I knowed if I tried something like that while she was awake she’d punch me. I kept snapping myself awake too, kinda like you do when you’re falling asleep, but then it almost feels like you’re walking down a stair you forgot was there, and you end up jerking your leg and that wakes you up.
Well, that’s when I noticed it, a little tiny baby crying. Mama musta heard it too, ’cause she gasped and said, “It’s the ghost.” And then she started wailing some kinda prayer or magic spell or something, and it gave me goose pimples all over. And Papa was so quiet I figured he musta found a way to sleep through it all, but Mama got herself all worked up until she was kinda sobbing, and with Papa snoozing I figured it was my duty as the man of the house to get up and scare that ghost away. That was before I met Pastor, you know, so ’course I didn’t know about there being no such thing.
So while Mama was doing her sobbing and Papa was just laying there dreaming about a net full of flopping fish or stuff and nonsense like that, I jumped out of bed and ran outside in time to see something dart away. I came back and I thought Mama’d be proud I chased it off, except she was already at the door with that ugly face she got when she was mad, and she grabbed both my ears including my bad one, and I thought it was probably half an hour or more before Papa waked up and put his hand on her shoulder and said, “Think the boy’s had enough?”
And so I slithered to bed wondering how many new bruises I got, and Min-Jung waked up long enough to let me snuggle against her, and that’s how I knowed she was in a good mood for a change so I didn’t mind making her arm a little wet when I cried, except it was just a few tears was all.
So, Teacher, I know you’re probably expecting dates and stuff and nonsense like in the history books you make us read, but like I told you I was little back then, so I don’t remember too well. But after that night, I wouldn’t go to sleep unless Min-Jung was snuggling up with me, even on the days she had been particularly nasty. And she was smelling bad, too, only I never told her that ’cause I didn’t want to get any extra poundings.
Well, after that the baby crying came and went and started up again. It got so common, if more than a few nights past and I didn’t hear it, I started to feel sad, like when Papa stayed late fishing and I sorta missed him. Mama kept cursing Mrs. Nosy next door and started to hide the cornmeal in different crannies but still complained of it going missing, and sometimes it wouldn’t even be where she coulda swore she left it, and sometimes she blamed the ghost and sometimes she thought I did it so I got more spoon spanks than usual.
Then things got even weirder, and if you don’t want to believe me, you’ll just hafta mark me down. And don’t tell Chuckie Mansfield, neither, ’cause it’d be just like him to pretend to be a ghost and try to prank me that way. But I know more than he ever will about them things, and I know enough to be a little scared even now after what I seen. Like one night, the electricity went out, and so we were sitting around a candle since there wasn’t much else to do. Mama was crying all the time now, and she was just sorta staring into the flame and then she sniffed a little and said, “Poor baby.”
But soon as she said the word baby, the candle went out, just like someone gave it a blow. So Mama, she was sure whatever baby she’d been crying over was in the room and she started to blubber, “I’m sorry. I should’ve never drunk that tea.” Well, soon as she said this, there was another little breeze. I heard it just as clear as if you’d dropped your pen during silent reading time in school when nobody was saying nothing. It sounded like a little breath, and then, I swear on the Dear Leader, the candle was up and going strong again.
Mama, she thought it must be some sorta good-luck omen, so she got up to make special pancakes to leave out for the baby, and I was hungry by then because food was getting kinda low these days. Late that night I waked up with hunger pains, so I checked and saw that them pancakes were still there and ate everything all up. I felt a little guilty about it at first, but then I waked up again in the morning and Mama was happier than she’d been in weeks because she thought the ghost baby or whoever it was liked her present.
And Mama was happy, so she left the spanking spoon be more often than not, and I was happy because Mama cooked more ghost pancakes again, and I figured I’d got a perfect way to keep from getting too hungry with us not having much more than plain old fish for dinner.
Mama, she took to doing it every night, leaving all kinds of food out for the baby, and I decided it would hurt Mama’s feelings to know the truth, and besides, I wanted her to be happy, so I always found a way to wake myself up and gobble everything down before morning.
So things were pretty good for a while. Well, except for the crops. Those weren’t doing too good. We needed rain, all the old folks were saying so, not just my parents. But Papa still brought home fish just about every day, and I got my snacks at night when Mama made them for the ghost.
Sometimes I thought maybe I should wake up Min-Jung and share some with her, but she was still in her nasty moods most of the time, so I didn’t really want to bother. Anyway, with food being scarce, Mama said it was most important for me to get it since I was a growing boy, and Min-Jung was just a girl. Sometimes I even wondered if Mama knew I was stealing the food and that’s why she kept making it. Seems like something she would do, with everyone being so hungry, and her being most concerned about me since I was the boy and a growing one on top of that.
The real trouble started the night I forgot to wake myself up, and so there weren’t nobody to eat the snack Mama made for the baby ghost. It was a nice fish stew, too. There were onions in it and a carrot, which probably doesn’t impress you that much, but it was a lot back then.
Well, I waked up after Mama that morning, and at first I was just sad because I had been looking forward to that stew and the carrot in particular. Then I seen her just there sitting at the table, staring at the full bowl. I tried to talk to her, but it seemed like she didn’t hear me. I went outside to hunt down some flowers or something yummy that could cheer her up and maybe get her thinking about breakfast. Then I saw Papa coming down the way with the old witch lady.
I wondered why he wasn’t at his boat, what with us being so hungry and Mama using up most of the food in her treats for the baby. “Is your mother home?” he asked me. ’Course she was, and he musta knowed it because where else would Mama be? The old witch lady was looking at me sly-like, kinda like she was a doctor and wanted to see if my insides was sick, and so I didn’t say anything, but I followed her and Papa into the house to figure out what the fuss was.
Well this lady — they call her type a mudang back home — she was an ugly thing, with lots of teeth missing and a big wart on her chin, or maybe I’m just making that part up. It’s harder to remember than you might think. Anyway, she looked at the bowl of soup, sniffed around, poked it a little, sniffed it again, then picked it up and stared at it from the bottom side like someone mighta written her a message underneath.
The mudang talked to Mama, but Mama hardly said anything so Papa was the one doing most of the answering now, and I was just kinda biting my lip, hoping the witch wouldn’t ask me anything because I was ok lying to my family, but I’d never done it to strangers yet, and I wasn’t so sure how good I’d do, especially with her eyes looking like they could see your guts and bones. Min-Jung was at school, or else I probably woulda thrown a fit until Mama made her take me outside.
The grown-ups talked a while, mostly about the baby, and Mrs. Nosy’s name came up a time or two ’cause Mama was certain that the neighbor next door had something to do with the family’s troubles, so finally the old witch, she closed her eyes and kinda swayed herself back and forth like she was a tree with nothing better to do than float with the wind, and she started this little song that sounded so pretty I wondered if maybe she’d teach it to Mama.
The music got me thinking about things like heaping plates of food and Papa’s net so full of fish we have plenty for us to sell at market for rice and noodles, maybe even candy. And the song was so nice that I thought maybe I’d just lie down and take a little nap when the old lady’s eyes shot open, all wicked-like and near glowing, and she looked right at me and I was so startled I was sure I’d scream, only she did it for me.
She stood up and shrieked, and it was worst than something you’d hear on a scary movie or whatnot on account of it being real life. She started swinging her arms all around and clattered the soup to the floor, then this witch — she was really old, too, old enough to be your mama, I bet — she got down on her hands and knees and shoveled all the food into her mouth like she was so hungry she hadn’t eaten in a week.
And then she slurped up the broth as noisy as a dog. Me and Mama and Papa just stood and watched because what else to do when an old lady screams like a demon’s poked her and then starts slurping old fish stew off your floor?
So when every last crumb was gone, the witch said all faint-like, “The child is no longer hungry.”
She tried to stand, and Papa had to help her to her chair. For a minute, she just sat there rocking herself, and I wondered if she’d burst her stomach or something eating so much so fast, when finally she said something about the spirits being appeased. I didn’t know nothing about spirits those days, and of course this was before I met Pastor who says there’s no such thing except for the Holy Spirit anyway, but I remember it sounded kinda silly to hear her talking so serious-like, but mostly I remember feeling sad that there weren’t a single drop of that stew left for me.
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