Originally posted in The Guardian.
I set my phone to silent, dressed myself entirely in black and walked calmly and purposefully through the hotel lobby. Outside I hailed a cab and directed the driver to take me to the point where the town ended, about 200 yards from the river. There, at the end of a row of low buildings, was the derelict house among the trees where I was to meet my mother and brother. I crouched down behind an old garden wall and waited. The place was cold and damp and smelled of mouldering leaves and animal droppings. I peeped over the wall and saw North Korean border patrols passing on the opposite bank of the river. In the half-tones beneath the trees, I felt camouflaged.
The sunset looked ominous, a palette of murky reds and yellows. On the other side of the water Hyesan seemed lifeless, a city dug from rock, or an intricate cemetery. A place of ghosts and wild dogs.
Min-ho had told me he would lead our mother waist-high through the water and help her up one of the ladders on the Chinese bank. The water must be freezing.
I checked the time on my phone every minute for an hour. Night had fallen like a cloud of ash. I could see nothing on the other…