This story was inspired by the reports of death camps in North Korea and other areas of the world. Children are born, and raised in these Camps, and grow up knowing nothing of life beyond their barbed wire barrier. While this story is not set in any particular place, it is written for the downtrodden children of the world, past, present, and future.
The girl whose name meant love often walked the perimeter of the Fence, as she was small and no one paid her much mind. The Fence was twice as high as any of the Buildings, and it was topped with glittering barbed wire. From time to time, a cricket or a frog would hop through the tiny holes in the Fence and enter the Camp, but mostly only the wind travelled through. It was at the edge of the world. At the edge of the world, Grandmother always said, one could not expect many visitors.
It took the time from one whistle to another to make the trip around the Camp, and it would be quicker if she did not dawdle. Today, there were no crickets to catch, and it was not the season for frogs, the air was too dry, and dirt blew in on the wind. Even so, there was little reason for her to hurry. She was not expected to line up at each whistle with Grandmother and the other women who lived in the Camp. She was still too young to be of any use. The Guards hardly noticed her, except at mealtime to give her a bowl, or at the time of year the Doctor visited. But that was just before the frost came, still a long time off, and evening mealtime wouldn’t be until the sun had nearly set. On a dry day, with the sun hanging high in the sky, there would be no use for a little girl in the Camp.
The girl scuffed her feet along the dirt path that was worn around the inside of the Fence. The dusty soil puffed up between her toes in little clouds, and her feet were as brown as the Buildings. This time of year, everything was brown, and nearly everything was dead. The Buildings were all the same, a bit taller than the tallest Guard, and very long. They were laid out along the Fence, about three yards away from it. Tufts of dry, brown grass, short and scrubby, grew between them. Each Building had four large windows along its length. The windows only faced inside, towards the center of the Camp, and as the girl walked the perimeter, she felt very much alone, which is how she preferred to be when Grandmother was working.
Every morning, before the sun rose, the first whistle would blow, and her Grandmother would take her outside the Building they lived in, and they would stand, straight and proud, alongside the other women who lived in the same Building. Then, the Guards would come and take a look at them, and Grandmother said it was important to be respectful and clean, and stand very still, and look straight forward. This was how you showed your respect, she said. People with respect weren’t hassled. People with respect got their morning mealtime and a new gown when their old one wore out. People with respect would go the Heaven one day, and never have to see the Camp again.
After the morning mealtime was over, and everyone had eaten their allotted food, her Grandmother and the other older women would line up and march together to the longest Building along the Fence, to sew gowns, and the older girls and younger women would march in a separate line to the garden, also in the center of the Camp. When she was a bit older, she would join them in the garden, but for now, she was left on her own each day, and could do what she chose, as long as she didn’t bother the Guards or the women that worked. She was the youngest girl in the Camp, and preferred to spend her days alone.
The girl stood at the Fence, and pressed her face against it, feeling the cool metal of the links press into her skin. She looked outward, to the end of the world, where the grass grew tall and the sky went onward, forever.
“What is Heaven like?” she had asked her grandmother, after the evening mealtime the day before, like she always did.
“Heaven is like the land outside of the Fence.” Her grandmother told her, “Wide open, going on forever and ever, as far as the eye can see. The grass grows green and tall, and fruit grows on trees, and water runs in silver springs.”
“What is fruit?” she always asked next, looking at her Grandmother’s weathered face with eager, smiling eyes.
“Fruit is sweet and good, it makes you feel more alive just to take one bite of it.” Her Grandmother always answered, and sometimes her eyes would water and a tear would run down the creases of her face.
“We will eat fruit like we eat food at mealtime?”
“Yes. But we will eat it anytime that we want to in Heaven, mealtime or not.” It always seemed strange for the girl to think about eating whenever she wanted to, and try as she might, she could never understand what the fruit would be like. It was quite different, she knew, from the grey, clotted food she always ate at the Camp. It was like magic, something that you couldn’t see, but was with you anyway. Like love.
“And we will drink the silver water?” she prodded her Grandmother, who was starting to doze off.
Her Grandmother nodded. “Yes, shiny, silver water. Shiny like the badges the Guards wear, shiny like the reflection of the sunlight on the roofs of the Buildings.”
“How do you know about this, Grandmother?” the girl asked. She knew how, but it always made her Grandmother smile to tell her, and so she always asked.
“Because I have been there, my love. I was there, long before you were born, long before this Camp was built. That was a time where everyone lived on the outside, free like the wind and the birds and the sky.” Another tear streaked a path across the old woman’s face, and her granddaughter touched it. It stuck to the end of her finger and sparkled, like the silver springs in Heaven.
“Long ago,” she had echoed, “Long before this Camp was built.” It was such a strange concept, thinking of a time before the Camp. She had always lived here, and her mother had lived here before she went to Heaven. Where would people sleep, she wondered, if they had no Building to go to? Where would people work, if there was no garden to plant, or no gowns to sew? Without work, she knew, there could be no food. The Guards always said that, and everyone knew that it was true. Then, she remembered the fruit. They wouldn’t need food. They could pick the fruit and eat that instead.
“I love you, Grandmother.” She had said then, seeing that she was tired, and should be left to sleep. Work always made her tired, and one day, when the girl was old enough, she would be able to work, and would be very tired too. This was a good thing, she knew, because the more tired you got, the closer you were to leaving.
“I love you, too.” Her Grandmother told her. She cuddled her granddaughter to her body on their cot. That was love, the girl knew. Love was what kept them warm at night under the blanket, and love was what kept them together. Even when her Grandmother went off to Heaven one day, love would keep them connected until they could be together again. Love was magic, something you couldn’t see, but was with you anyway.
That morning, when she woke up, her Grandmother was already out of the cot. She was not in the Building either, and the girl had lined up without her, among the other women, standing proud and tall and still. She didn’t have to ask where she was, asking was not respectful. There was only one place that her Grandmother could be, if she was not there, lined up with the others when the first whistle blew.
The little girl pressed her face harder against the Fence, and ground her feet into the dirt. She looked out past the Fence, and tried to picture Heaven. How far away was it? How many whistles would blow before she reached it, if she tried to walk there? She couldn’t walk there, she knew. That wouldn’t be respectful, and then she would never be able to find Heaven, and would never see her Grandmother again. The Fence went underground as deep as it was high, and the very top was magic, and would burn anyone who tried to touch it.
The girl whose name meant love looked upward, tilting her head back as far as she could, looking at the very top of the Fence. It shone silver in the sunlight. She squinted, and her eyes began to water from the brightness. She touched a tear, and held it out, on the tip of her finger. “I love you, Grandmother,” She whispered. There was no sound, and the winds came, slow and dry, and her teardrop was blown away. The little girl smiled. That was love, she knew, that was magic, and one day, if she worked hard enough, she would be able to go to Heaven, too.