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Archive: Review - The Old Garden, by Hwang Sok-yong

From Asia Literary Review No. 23, Spring 2012: Korea

Review by Lucia Sehui Kim



Scroll down for an extract from The Old Garden, by Hwang Sok-yong, translated by Jay Oh



THEY SAY they feed you first because the well-fed ghost is prettier.’ So observes Hyun Woo, the lead character in this novel, as he watches his fellow prisoners being led to the execution chamber. He is serving an eighteen-year sentence for his involvement in the Kwangju Uprising.

     In The Old Garden, author Hwang Sok-yong revisits the uprising, a popular revolt that occurred in May 1980 against the martial law imposed by General Chun Doo-hwan, which resulted in South Korea’s brutal massacre of its own citizens. Surviving activists went underground. They, like Hyun Woo, were branded as Communist sympathizers and pursued with vengeance. The Old Garden begins as Hyun Woo is released from prison and jolted back into a country he fails to recognize. 

     Hwang’s personal experience as a political prisoner lends authenticity to this tale. He describes the obsessions that can either save or destroy the mind of an inmate and the way order and routine can be self-imposed as a means of survival: Hyun Woo measures the exact dimensions of his cell, keeps a precise tally of its contents, observes the regimen of a successful hunger strike and imagines carefully following the recipes of Korean dishes. 

     Hyun Woo’s story is juxtaposed with that of Yoon Hee, a painter who helps him hide from authorities after his participation in the uprising. They live simply in the village of Kalmae: fishing, hiking, cooking and tending to their garden. They fall in love. Their Edenic closeness to nature and freedom from artifice isolates them from the rest of the world, but their idyll is cut short when Hyun Woo’s photograph appears in newspapers. By this time many of his fellow activists have been captured, yet despite being a wanted man he decides to help others who remain in hiding. With a promise to return, Hyun Woo leaves Kalmae, unaware that Yoon Hee is pregnant with his child. After he is caught and imprisoned they begin to correspond. At one point Hyun Woo writes: ‘In here, when a woman finds new life they say she puts her rubber shoes on backwards. I have too many hours to spend in here so, please, Yoon Hee, I want you to turn your shoes around.’ 

     Nearly two decades later, Hyun Woo learns of Yoon Hee’s death and returns to Kalmae. In their old house he finds her letters, notes, diaries and paintings: a revelation of her extraordinary life. While Hyun Woo languished in isolation, Yoon Hee had expanded her world to include not only motherhood but also a graduate degree, solo art exhibitions and, most notably, a vital role in the enduring underground student movement. Fiercely independent and with a disregard for social norms, Yoon Hee propels the story forward: 'Art,’ she writes, ‘what the hell. Will never paint again. Meaningless innumerable mistakes. The word “mistake” is quite amusing. In Chinese, it means the tracing of a lost hand. Today, I continue writing the old letter to him.’ 

     The pace of the novel is modulated by portrayals of Hyun Woo’s slow acclimatization to modern South Korea. Yoon Hee’s lively written docu­ments, woven throughout the book, contrast with Hyun Woo’s quiet, uneasy reservations about his new surroundings. He sees a country transformed, a government disconnected from its people, a political system that is corrupt and a citizenry conditioned to be little more than consumers. 

     His disenchantment is fuelled by his meetings with other surviving activists in Kalmae, and on the sixth morning he prepares to leave. He packs Yoon Hee’s notebooks in his bag, taking her words with him: ‘I guess you are an old man now. Everything that we wanted to protect, the things that we endured so much for, are shattered now, but they are still shining through the world’s dust.’ 

     With one last look back at the village, Hyun Woo moves on to meet his seventeen-year-old daughter, Eun Gyul. 

     The Old Garden is both a chronicle of South Korea’s modern history and a tragic love story; the separation of Hyun Woo and Yoon Hee is a metaphor for the division of Korea. The novel explores the nature and consequences of obsession – with ideology, art and love. It shows how individual and collective identity can spring from chaos. 

     Hwang does not shy away from expressing his political views, and though the embedded references to Western writers and artists that reinforce his opinions can sometimes be obtrusive, they add context. 

     Hwang Sok-yong’s distinctive perspective originates not only from his personal experiences as a prisoner and political dissident but also as a day labourer, student activist, Vietnam War veteran and advocate for factory workers. He balances the brutality of physical, emotional and mental deprivation with elegant, poetic and wistful dignity. The Old Garden is an elegy to those activists who did not survive the Kwangju Uprising, and Hwang reminds the reader of what is sacrificed when a fledgling country stumbles to establish itself. He insists that we remember. 


Here's a hefty extract from the novel:

translated by Jay Oh


I THINK it was sometime in the autumn of 1985 when, for about a year, they began to allow long-term political prisoners a couple of days of furlough, or what they called ‘visitations’. As oppression turned into appeasement in the outside world, the regime’s effort to ‘convert’ political prisoners also changed, from brute force to more conciliatory tactics. During the 1970s, many political prisoners died because of the endless torture; many of those who survived the torment committed suicide. They began to ‘convert’ me as soon as I was transferred to the prison. Two departments within the prison bureaucracy – education and security – competed to produce the most converts. It didn’t matter whether we had broken the national security laws or the laws of public assembly, or been involved in fabricated espionage cases; they wanted to change what we thought, our ideology. 

My crime was that I was opposed to the killing of innocent civilians by a military government that had seized power by force and enjoyed the support of an industrialist monopoly that attached itself to the dictatorship in exchange for privileges and spoils. After what happened in Kwangju in May 1980, how General Chun Doo-hwan’s soldiers opened fire on the demonstration against his new regime, we learned who was on our side and who was on the other. Our eyes were opened, and we realised our enemy was not the North. 

‘Listen,’ I said. ‘How many times have I told you? I am not an agent from the North; you know that better than anyone.’ 

‘It’s just a piece of paper, that’s all. All you need to do is sign it, and everything will change in an instant.’ 

‘It’s only a piece of paper! Then why do you want me to sign it so badly? I never followed their ideology, so how am I supposed to turn from that to this? Or, do you want me to admit that I am a Communist? Do you want me to endorse the political manoeuvring and violent oppression of this dictatorship?’ 

They brought in members of our families to beg us to sign; we hadn’t seen them in a long time and the meetings were always emotional. When that failed, hardened criminals were allowed to take a more aggressive approach. Then it was the turn of volunteers from religious organisations who wanted to ‘help’ us, bringing armloads of food and writing long letters to us. It seemed they wrote to us political prisoners every other day. Letters from our families were limited to just a few hundred words and were confiscated after three days. Mostly the volunteers’ letters were about religion. 

Shortly after our uniform was changed from short sleeves to long – it must have been the beginning of October – the chief of the prison’s education department stopped by my cell with a couple of dissident university students and said I was going to be allowed a special visitation. No matter who it was, a visitation usually meant food. 

It had been a hard summer. The mosquitoes and flies and hellish steam from the cement walls were gone, and we could hear crickets at night. A breeze would come in through the meal slot and escape through the high window over the toilet; it tickled my whole body as it passed. We were always hungry and would borrow cookbooks from the guards so we could ‘eat out’, and fishing and hiking magazines let us ‘go on a trip’. 

‘Okay, who has the special issue on the Sorak mountains?’ came a voice from a few cells away. 

‘I’m still reading it,’ another cell answered. 

‘I want it back, now!’ 

‘Hold on, I haven’t even reached Hankaeryung yet.’ 

‘Bastard. When are you going to get to the mountains? Stop hanging around the outer valley will you? 

One of my neighbours, in for forming an illegal organisation, said he had a visitation coming up later in the month and had seen Christian women with bags of food. ‘I hope they have some sticky rice cake,’ he whispered to me. His face was covered in scabs and he hadn’t been able to shave. He rubbed at the stubble. 

‘You’re not supposed to have any special visitation, are you?’ my other neighbour, the president of a student union, said. ‘I bet they’re trying to get you to sign something.’ 

‘Let’s not argue with them if they give us a sermon, okay?’ said the first. ‘Just stuff your mouth and belly as much as you can.’ 

‘There is no free ride in this world. We should at least argue a little, shouldn’t we? You’ll see; this is just the beginning.’ 

* * * 

A section chief of the education department, who called himself ‘the Professor’, had me brought to his office. He appeared affable enough, on the surface, but he was cunningly determined to advance his career. He was an entry-level officer who had clawed himself up the ladder and had no plans to go back. 

Every political got the same speech from him, so there was no mistaking where we stood in his eyes. 

‘I had many younger siblings, my father was sick and bedridden, my mother supported all of us by peddling on the street, and I dared not dream of going to high school,’ he would begin. ‘In those days, if you finished middle school and knew a little about the law, you passed the prison officers’ exam and got to be a civil servant. We’re the real people, not you guys. You guys were so full of it and so spoiled that you didn’t study as you were told and ran around protesting this and that. To be honest, I really resent you guys. 

‘During the Revitalising Reform period, we suffered a lot too, did you know that? There was no heating in the corridors, no desks, no chairs, nothing. We had to do the nightshift standing up the whole time. Walking around the cell block freezing to death, we’d look into your rooms, you know I actually envied you guys. At least you got to sleep under a blanket! Sometimes I just wanted to go in there and lie down next to one of you. 

We were afraid we’d break our noses by falling asleep while standing up and falling down on our faces, so what we came up with was a hook. You bend a wire into an S-shape and attach it to your belt and go to work. When you get sleepy, you could just hook yourself to the corridor, lean on it, standing up of course, and go to sleep. If you hear the boss’s footsteps, take off the hook, and walk around. 

‘And then I met people working here in the education department, and I really envied them. They got to wear civilian clothes instead of uniforms, no night shift, no inspection, and they got to meet civilians from outside, too. And what can be more patriotic than purifying Commies? Before, they used to say, an ideology for an ideology, and the education department preferred Christians. So you know what I did? I went to the seminary at night. And I took that qualifying exam, too. Did you know that I’m in graduate school now? And that I teach at the school, too? I’ve read a lot about the other side, too, so don’t even think about bullshitting in front of me, understood?’ 

The two section chiefs shared a room, and connected to it was the office of the department chief, whose position in the prison administration hierarchy was only second to that of the warden. 

‘Mr Oh, can we talk for a minute?’ The Professor then asked me to sit down in an easy chair next to his desk. 

‘You should have something to drink, since you came all the way here,’ he said, his voice dripping with courtesy. ‘What would you like?’ 

He called over a trusty, who was probably just a thief and got far better treatment than we did. ‘What can we offer Mr Oh today?’ 

‘We have all different kinds of drinks here at the “Education Department Café”,’ the inmate began, playing up to his part. ‘In traditional teas, we have green, ginseng, citron, goldenseal and adlai. We also have coffee, English Breakfast tea, and various other beverages, including Coca-Cola, Sprite, and energy drinks …’ 

The Professor himself seemed shocked by what was available. ‘Are you nuts? How come there are so many choices?’ 

‘Most of them are donated. Some are supplied by the purchasing department.’ 

‘Well,’ the Professor seemed satisfied with the explanation, ‘what would you like? How about a cup of coffee? I bet you haven’t had that in a while.’ 

‘Sounds good to me,’ I said. 

‘Hey, make sure you get the biggest mug and fill it to the brim.’ 

The Professor bent down towards me. ‘Mr Oh, I need to ask you for a favour. I want you to listen really carefully, okay? A very famous pastor is visiting us today, and I’ve specifically recommended you.’ 

I knew exactly what he was talking about. ‘You mean one of those educational lectures, right? So you can report to those higher up that you’ve done something, that you’ve observed my attitude, and things like that. Isn’t it just a waste of time?’ 

‘Oh, come on! What can I do? They keep sending me notices that we should carry out the programme and report back as soon as it is over.’ 

He had included the dissident students. ‘They can write an essay afterwards.’ 

‘I don’t think they’ll write what you want to hear.’ 

‘Doesn’t matter, we can always edit and rewrite. That’s not the issue. I just want to ask you one thing, and that is, please, at least pretend that you’re listening when the minister talks, alright?’ 

‘For nothing?’ I was only half joking. 

‘Hey, we know better than that. We’ve prepared a buffet, of course. And above all, the reason why this programme is so important is that – don’t tell anyone else – there are evaluations going on right now, and some lucky National Security Law offenders may get a furlough.’ 

After my interview with the Professor was done, the two students were called into his office. We were taken to the Special Visitation Room, which was furnished with comfortable armchairs and a large conference table covered with food: heaps of fried and glazed chicken, various rice cakes, and yes, the sticky rice cake with bean flour that my neighbour had craved, and refreshments. An old man was waiting for us, and he greeted us with a raised hand. 


The Professor introduced us to ‘the most venerable Reverend Kang’ and made us bow to him. We were each introduced by name, the crime we had committed, whether it was against the National Security Law, the Law of Assembly, or some other law, our sentence, and how many years we had left to serve. 

The Professor then clasped his hands together and launched into his opening address: 

‘Well, it is my great honour to welcome you to the autumn lecture series. Our speaker today, Reverend Kang, began his work in the purifying operation for Communists during the post-war period, and he has served with distinction for many years. He has turned many, many National Security Law offenders towards humanism. He has taught so many bloodless, cruel Communists to repent and to regret, and shaped them into good citizens. He is a true patriot, and …’ 

The preacher interrupted him. ‘Listen, listen, that’s enough. They must be hungry, so why don’t we let them eat first? This is not a lecture; I think a discussion with open minds would be much better, don’t you think?’ 

‘Of course, of course. Well, I should leave you to it. I hope everything goes well.’ 

Then the Professor turned to the two students and said under his breath: ‘Don’t you dare be disrespectful. Listen to the Reverend, do you understand?’ 

As soon as the Professor left, the students began grabbing at the food, shoving what they could into their mouths. 

The Reverend, ignoring the rush for food, said, ‘Why don’t we say a little prayer before we begin? Now, let us pray …’ 

He put his hands together, bowed his head and closed his eyes. The two students resumed their seats, but did not otherwise acknowledge his praying. I did not want to appear too insolent, so I put my head down, but kept my eyes open. The Reverend, clearly aware of our respective responses, chose not to notice. 

‘Dear God, the Almighty Father, we’re gathered here today, with the food you’ve blessed us with, to ascertain the value of the family that you’ve given us. These men in their youthful ardour once fell under the spell of Satan, but they have realised their mistakes and they are ready to repent. It was not their fault; they were misled by Satan, so please guide them back to the righteous path. As they eat this food today, please let them realise how much their families miss them, that the still empty spaces at their dinner tables are daily reminders to their families of their absence. Let them each realise the grace of their country and family, and realise also that they will be born again as your faithful children.’ 

He added a few formal sounding words and said ‘Amen’. Only then did he open his eyes and look around at us. We remained silent, and the Reverend raised both hands towards the conference table. ‘Please, help yourselves. We’re not a rich church, so I know this may not be enough, but we did prepare it with our hearts.’ 

Before the Reverend had stopped talking, the two students were on the chicken. I joined them and picked up a chicken leg. I could not remember the last time I had eaten chicken, and my stomach was so eager my throat took the meat before I could chew. The chicken had been fried, glazed with a spicy garlic sauce, and roasted. The two students reached for a second piece, and I glanced at the Reverend who was looking down at an open Bible with a pair of thick reading glasses perched on his nose. In minutes, the chicken was gone and only bare bones were left on the plate. As we moved on to the mounds of rice cake, the Reverend began to speak. 

‘Why don’t we talk as we enjoy our food?’ We took that as a signal to return to our seats, which we did after loading up with cakes. ‘Mr Oh, you’ve been sentenced to life. What do you think of religion?’ 

I hadn’t expected the question and thought about it for a bit, then mumbled, my mouth filled with sticky rice cake, ‘Now? I am grateful.’ 

‘What do you mean by that?’ 

‘You brought all this wonderful food.’ 

‘You were born in the South, correct?’ 


‘Then how and where did you learn about Communism?’ 

I smiled as I replied. ‘I know nothing about that.’ 

One of the students, who was also chewing on a mouthful of sticky rice cake, added in a cheerful voice, ‘Don’t you know, minister? It’s all fabricated!’ 

‘Then isn’t it even easier? All you need to say is that you changed your mind; they’ll let you go home right away.’ 

‘Let us go?’ The student was incredulous. ‘That’s a lie. It’s like they are hitting someone first and then asking him to admit to the reason why he was hit.’ 

‘You also broke the National Security Law, correct? No matter what, it is not right to divide public opinion when the puppet state in the North is watching for every opportunity to start the war again.’ 

The other student joined in. ‘The bloody dictatorship, by killing innocent civilians, divided public opinion. They should be in here, not us.’ 

The table was empty of food. The Reverend began to tell the familiar story of hardship and oppression in the North, but the first student interrupted him. 

‘Stop talking about what’s going on in someone else’s house. I told you, we don’t know anything about them. We would willingly curse them, too, but we know nothing about them. We should find out more about them before we do.’ 

I could see where this was going and interrupted: ‘Reverend, maybe there will be a chance for me to go to your church and pray as one of the believers. Thank you so much for wonderful food. I think we should all go back to our cells now and read the Bible. Why don’t you say a closing prayer?’ 

This kind of visitation took place a couple of times a month. The young ones who talked back in the early meetings eventually resigned themselves to the routine and learned to pretend to listen to the lecture while stuffing their faces non-stop. 

* * * 

Furlough was a big deal. None of the real Communists ever stood a chance of seeing outside the prison, but those prisoners with families or deemed to be potential converts got to go, one by one. Escorted by prison guards they took a train or bus to cities far away, where they ate the food their families had prepared and had a chance to talk to them in private. They’d spend the night in the nearest jailhouse and then be brought back. It all lasted two, maybe three days, but it took a long time to forget the warm home-cooked meals and the equally warm laughter of their families. When someone returned from furlough, we all hung onto the viewing window and asked questions as quietly as possible, always aware of the footsteps of the guard on duty down the corridor. 

Around this time, many of the prisoners had their sentences reduced, and life in the prison grew a little easier. Even the guards in charge of our cell block tolerated communication among prisoners, and they sometimes looked out for us by standing at the end of the corridor to make sure no one else was coming. 

‘Mr Yi, where did you go?’ 

‘We left here and took the express bus.’ 

‘Is the bus station far from here?’ 

‘No, just across the bridge, right outside of the town. It doesn’t take long at all, maybe five minutes.’ 

We all paused for a moment. I could see it in my mind. If you take a car and go through the gate, and drive on the road lined with poplar trees and cross the bridge, there’s the bus station. 

‘Were you still wearing your prison uniform and handcuffs and ropes?’ 

Someone butted in from another cell, ‘What are you talking about? They give you normal clothes and a baseball cap for the furlough. You can’t tell something’s off unless you looked really close.’ 

‘They gave me a jacket, too!’ said prisoner Yi. 

‘I guess they’d feel a bit ashamed, too, if everyone knew …’ 

‘Anyway, the express bus is just like it used to be, right?’ 

‘It was my first time,’ Yi said. ‘We didn’t have that in the fifties.’ 

‘Did you eat lunch at the rest stop?’ 

‘Yeah, beef soup,’ he said, ‘and what is it, this fried hot-dog thing on a stick?’ 

‘A corn dog! And then?’ 

‘We got off in Seoul first. My home is in Kangwon province, actually.’ 

‘Seoul’s still the same, isn’t it?’ 

‘I wouldn’t know. All I know in Seoul is the central station and the Great South Gate. Anyway, there were so many people, I thought something was happening. There were more people than I’ve seen in pictures. We were waiting for our train in this big area, and maybe all people do these days is take train trips, but there were just so many of them walking back and forth.’ 

He tells us how he got a window seat on the train. The river flows on the right, and there are high mountain tops and forests. Once in a while, the train passes through an unfamiliar village. The high-rise apartments are like empty castles in a daydream. The guard is sitting next to him dozing, and every time he leans over the tip of his gun brushes against Yi’s ribs. The other guard, who is sort of a team leader, keeps blabbering. ‘Look around, isn’t this a great place to live? It’s all up to you. Your wife is waiting for you. Your children are big enough to grow old with you. Didn’t you see in the picture? You have five grandchildren!’ 

They get off in a rural area, and as they leave the station house he recognises the landscape. The small village looks just like it used to, maybe a few buildings and roads have changed just a little. The point where three streets meet, where the mill used to be, looks the same, and so does the village’s civic office building, built during the Japanese occupation with plywood boards covered in cement. He sees people in the distance running toward him. An old woman wearing dark baggy pants with a flower prints and a faded short-sleeved T-shirt gives him a bear hug. 

‘My dear …’ she says and begins to cry. 

He hugs his wife’s shoulders. Beneath his chin, he sees her white hair gently swaying in the wind. On one side of them is a farmer in his forties, his face tanned dark; he stinks of cigarettes. On the other side is a middle-aged woman. 

‘Father!’ they say.

The guard leads them away, and the team leader grabs his arm and moves with him, too. 

‘Let’s hurry and get you home before anyone else sees you,’ says the younger guard, while the team leader pulls out the paperwork to reinforce the conditions of furlough. As he walks into the house, he notices the rotting floorboards and the ripped paper on the sliding doors. It was all much worse than the houses he saw from the train. Up under the ceiling in the living room is a frame filled with yellowed and faded photographs, including one of him wearing the uniform from the last years of the Japanese occupation. He is squinting in the sun. His young wife is wearing a white cotton top, her black hair in bun secured with a stick. Next to her is a boy wearing a school uniform, and on her lap is an infant. He realises time has stopped only for him. 

Mr Yi’s voice trembled as he told the story of his furlough. It had happened so recently that he could not quite figure out the sequence. Someone helped to stir his memory. 

‘You already told us about the lunch you had with your family at a Chinese restaurant before you left.’ 

‘Yes, that’s right. It is an old place called San Dong Ru, although the owner was different.’ 

His mind slips back to the long-gone past. The story he tells now is about the first time he ate noodles with black bean sauce when he followed his father into the village on a market day. It is a story he has told many times during exercise hours. No matter how recent, everything a prisoner experiences is like a fluttering dream. Memories can be perfected only when he is free. The story is that he swallowed the whole bowl of noodles as if drinking a bowl of soup, in one breath, and sat there still wanting more, and his father put his own noodles into the young boy’s bowl. 

When the story is over, each of us returns to the tiny window by the toilet in our cells and stand there. It is the spot where you feel to your bones that you are alone. There is a faint white moon in the early evening sky, a handful of stars. You hear something from the faraway corner of the sky where the red sunset lingers. A flock of birds takes flight, just like they did yesterday. You picture the tall trees on the river bank over which the birds will fly. 

* * * 

About ten days after the Reverend’s visit, my turn came to go outside. The weather was getting colder every day, and the old-timers had already received thick comforters from the laundry department. The filling was synthetic and had rolled into little balls over the years so there were lots of empty pockets, which did little to protect the sleeper from the cold air. Experienced inmates got permission to use one of the larger cells during the day, after its occupants had gone to work. There they spread the comforters on the floor, found the little balls inside the covers, and unrolled them. Some of them attached a blanket to the comforter, some sewed together two blankets to make a big sleeping bag. Some asked the concession worker to save cardboard boxes and lined the floor with them. The cardboard was often wet by morning from the damp concrete. Old woollen socks were used as sleeping hats. Uncovered ears and noses got so cold they would wake the sleeper. And if you tried to read for too long in your cell, your hands would go numb and couldn’t hold onto the book. Mittens were only good for exercise hour. So we’d stick two pairs of the cotton gloves issued to working inmates, one inside the other. The approach of winter was a busy time for the inmates. 

I was in the middle of my various preparations when I was summoned by the chief of the education department. The office was very warm; there was a gas stove in the middle of the room. The Professor was waiting for me outside the chief’s office. He offered me a cup of hot tea. 

‘Mr Oh, you have been selected for a couple of days of furlough. I just want you to know that it was I who recommended you strongly.’ 

‘I guess I should say thank you.’ 

‘There is one condition. You need to sign an agreement before you go, and you have to write a report when you come back.’ 

It seemed so bothersome, and I felt helpless, so I just mumbled back, ‘Well, then forget about it.’ 

‘Oh, come on, you may never have a chance to go out again! I already wrote out the agreement, all you need to do is sign your name and stamp it with your thumbprint.’ 

He showed me a typed paper. I was supposed to pledge that I would abide by the rules both inside and out of prison and that I was aware of the punishment if I broke said rules; things like that. So I took the pen the Professor handed to me and wrote down my number and my name, which looked unfamiliar once I put them down on the paper. Then I put red ink on my thumb and stamped the paper with my print. I felt like I had done something I should not have, so I kept rubbing my thumb even after I took off the red ink with a piece of tissue. The Professor gestured for me to follow him. 

The chief of the education department was a fat man in his fifties with drooping eyelids that made him look like he was always sleepy. His voice was thin and sounded tired, but the gaze from under those thick eyelids was piercing. The Professor presented the agreement to the chief with both hands. 

‘This is the inmate selected for the short furlough,’ he said. 

The chief glanced at the piece of paper for a second. 

‘I must say, you’ve been a model prisoner, and … we still cherish the hope that you will develop a better, more proper ideology regarding our country, and I think you’ll realise what you need to do once you see how much our country has changed, how developed it is. Therefore,’ he glanced at the paper, ‘Number One-Four-Four-Four, I look forward to reading a great report when you come back. Do you understand?’ 

‘I don’t know … This is so unexpected …’ I was feeling truly overwhelmed. 

‘So, is he the only one going out?’ the chief asked the Professor. 

‘Yes, the others did not meet the requirements.’ 

The chief nodded. ‘How long is he being given?’ 

‘He’ll leave tomorrow morning at nine and stay one night. In total, thirty-two hours.’ 

‘What? He gets to sleep outside?’ 

‘Well, a home visit lasts for three days. But Number One-Four-Four-Four is from Seoul, so the schedule had to be set that way.’ 

‘Wow, the warden has given you a special permission. Now I am really looking forward to a good result when you come back.’ 

It still did not seem real as I walked out of the office. Tomorrow, I would be in Seoul, near my home. My heart was beating fast, and I felt dizzy. As we walked back to my cell block I mouthed the slogans decorating the bare walls. ‘You do not know what life is until you eat your bread with tears.’ ‘Do not follow, take the lead.’ ‘What did I do for my family today?’ ‘Mother, your son will be born again.’ 

‘Can I go visit my family?’ I asked the Professor as he escorted me back. 

‘You are not going on a visit to your home,’ he said. ‘Think of it as a field trip to society. 

‘But you never know,’ he added. ‘It all depends on your behaviour. Maybe there will be a special visit or something like that.’ 

As soon as I walked into my cell, I heard inmates all around me talking and asking questions. 

‘Mr Oh, I heard you’re going out! Congratulations!’ 

‘So you’re staying the night, too?’ 

‘Where are they taking you?’ 

The guard in charge of the cell block must have known before I did and had told the other inmates. Somehow I felt sorry for the others, and I was careful not to seem too enthusiastic. 

‘I don’t know, I think it’s just for one day. I bet they’ll just circle around the neighbourhood a few times and bring me back.’ 

‘They didn’t tell you what the schedule is?’ 

‘Well, I do know that I’m leaving tomorrow morning, but apart from that …’ 

Since I did not appear to be too excited, the enthusiasm deflated. I lay on my mattress, arms crossed. This was not some imaginary trip with a magazine and a map, nor was it a memory trip to the past; this was the real thing, my body and spirit together leaving this place. I did not know then that this was another form of torture. 

The old-timers say that prisoners change in their third and fourth years and, with the fifth year, things get easier. The next crisis comes around the tenth year. But with time, the gap between each crisis gets wider until the prison becomes home. Like the slogan in the corridor said, ‘You are reborn as someone else.’ 

Only once before had I been allowed outside. I had a terrible ear infection that the infirmary couldn’t handle and I had to go to a big hospital in the city to see an ear, nose and throat specialist. I had been having a cold wash in my cell, pouring water on my head, and some of it got in my ear; whenever I tapped my head, it sounded like there was a wooden gong inside. I should have known better and let the water come out on its own, but it was still there after an hour so I poked around in my ear with a stick, which made everything worse. The next morning, I had a fever, my cheek was swollen, and it was very painful. At first it was bearable, but soon I was begging to be taken to the infirmary, where they applied some antiseptic and gave me a few antibiotic pills. After two nightmarish nights, they sent me to hospital. 

Before we left, I was strip-searched and given a grey uniform, denoting I was a prisoner being transported, and a pair of open-backed rubber shoes. My wrists were handcuffed and my arms bound with rope so I couldn’t move them. One of my two guards, now dressed in civilian clothes, held the end of the rope that trailed behind me like a tail. I was given lunch before we left. I would not be allowed to eat outside. Without their caps and badges, the guards looked like my old neighbours. 

Inside the gate was a jeep, its engine running. I got in the back with the lower-ranked guard holding the rope. The senior guard took the passenger seat next to the driver. The gate had been opened and we drove out. The guard next to me took out two sticks of chewing gum, unwrapped one and put it in his mouth. He unwrapped the second and put it in front of my mouth, which I opened so he could put it inside. I was getting a taste of freedom, and it was spearmint. 

We crossed a bridge. It was in the middle of summer, the rainy season, and the muddy river had risen close to the top of the levee. It was a cloudy day, but no longer raining. I studied the cars, all models I had never seen before, and their occupants; I wanted them to notice me, to turn around, to look back. None did. The only person to meet my eyes was an old man waiting for the light at a pedestrian crossing. Our jeep had stopped. When our eyes met, he quickly turned his head, but he could not resist and turned toward me. His gaze was intense. The light changed, and the jeep moved on. The old man hadn’t moved. 

‘Stop here,’ the higher-ranked guard ordered the driver. ‘There’s no parking in front of the hospital.’ 

‘Is it far from here?’ the other guard asked. 

‘Not really; about a hundred yards, tops.’ 

The guard next to me wound the rope a few times around his hand and pushed me in the back. ‘Get out.’ 

Since I could not use my arms, it was a struggle not to fall. I looked around at the shops and restaurants as we walked towards the hospital. A young woman pulling a child by his wrist came out of a jewellery store. The child was crying. Abruptly we were facing each other squarely on the sidewalk. The child stopped crying and looked at me. The mother looked at me, too. We stepped around them, my backless rubber shoes slapping the ground. The shoes made me take slow, tiny steps, or they would fall off. The child shook his mother’s arm. ‘Mommy, what is he?’ The woman did not answer her child, just grabbed his hand and walked fast in the opposite direction. I could not resist turning back. They were standing there, next to each other, watching me. I smiled. The woman grabbed the child’s wrist again and they hurried away. 

In the waiting room at the hospital, a row of chairs and a large sofa in the shape of a square with one side missing faced the receptionist’s window. I was directed to sit in the innermost part of the sofa, as the senor guard went to find the assigned doctor. The occupants of each of the chairs pretended not to notice us; likewise those sharing the sofa. Our section had plenty of seating, but no one joined us, preferring to stand, facing straight ahead, faces devoid of expression. Two teenage girls came into the hospital loudly talking to each other and, oblivious, walked towards the sofa. About four of five steps away they stopped talking and exchanged looks of ‘What’s this?’ ‘Come on, let’s go sit somewhere else.’ 

I told myself I was not a criminal. All I did was to oppose the dictatorship. I refused to cooperate. But there are no markings on the grey uniform. I could have been anyone. Even Number One-Four-Four-Four sounds like a stranger to me. I am not here. No one sees me. I have been erased. 

Now I am going outside again. For what? To reassure myself of my absence? They are verifying the way back for me, they want me to practise. 

* * * 

‘Let’s change your clothes before we go, shall we?’ said the senior guard. The junior guard handed me a folded pile. 

‘I just got these from the laundry department, but I don’t know if they fit. Number One-Four-… I mean, Mr Oh Hyun Woo, I think the medium is too small, so I got large.’ 

The dark grey top and pants fit okay and had lots of pockets. It’s called a Saemaul, an outfit that became popular during the New Community Movement of the 1970s led by President Park. Many bureaucrats wore it as a kind of uniform, like the Chinese wore Mao suits. 

‘Here’s a hat for you.’ 

On top of a desk was a cap in a similar shade of grey with the word ‘Saemaul’ – New Community – embroidered on it. There was a belt, sneakers, and cash, too. 

‘It’s 30,000 won from your deposit,’ the senior guard said. ‘You keep it. Now, shall we go?’ 

Like the time I went to the hospital, there was a jeep waiting for us. This time, there were three guards in the escort, all of them in plain clothes – two in suits, one in a windbreaker. The jeep took us across the bridge to the new bus station that Mr Yi had told us about. When the leader of my escort spoke to me, his voice was different from the one he used inside the prison. 

‘Mr Oh, it’s been a while since you last took the bus? 

‘Are we taking the bus all the way to Seoul?’ 

‘That’s the most convenient for us – it’s non-stop.’ 

One of the lower-ranking guards, the one in the windbreaker, took the bus tickets from an inner pocket and checked the time. ‘We have about ten minutes left,’ he said. 

We hadn’t drawn any attention at the bus station and I sat down near a television; the guards sat a little bit away from me. The television was showing a professional baseball game. I didn’t watch the players, but instead the people filling up the stadium, wondering if, by any chance, I might recognise one of them. The fans were cheering; the ball flew, they got up 

from their seats, and they cheered some more. 

‘You wanna taste this?’ 

The leader held out an ice-cream cone. I had eaten ice cream before, of course, but it looked so unfamiliar that I just held it for a while, looking at it, trying to think what I should do with it. I needed to take off the wrapping first and as I tore the paper down the cone in a spiral pattern, the ice cream, studded with cookie crumbs, appeared. Sometimes, the taste of food can be so sharp. It touched a part of my brain that made me remember the first time I tasted ice cream. Like Mr Yi’s noodles with black bean sauce. My mom bought a cone for me on a sports day at our school. The ice-cream man strolled around carrying a container filled with dry ice that had a smaller container spinning in it, and he kept yelling ‘Sweet, cool ice-cream cones!’ After sucking every morsel of ice cream from the now soggy cone, I would sneak up on other kids and stick wet pieces of the cone onto their backs and they shrieked. 

Maybe it was because I ate something cold, or maybe because I was nervous about travelling; I needed to pee. ‘Can I go to the restroom?’ 

‘Number one or number two?’ The leader didn’t wait for a reply. ‘Escort him to the restroom, both of you.’ 

The two guards got up, frowning, looking nervous. 

‘Walk,’ the windbreaker said. 

I slowly walked toward the restroom, avoiding the crowd in the waiting area, the windbreaker right behind me. 

‘Watch out, Mr Oh Hyun Woo, I am armed,’ he said. 

I went into the restroom. One of them stood behind by the door to guard it while the windbreaker followed me and stood at the urinal next to mine. He opened up his jacket and showed me the pistol at his waist. 

‘See this?’ 

Inmates called it the chicken head, and the gun was hanging heavy in a leather case. We were two faces talking to each other in a mirror. ‘I don’t really want to do this, but I don’t want you to do anything stupid,’ the face said. 

I smiled back without saying anything. I finished and walked back through the crowd, concentrating on finding the exact place I had been sitting before, as if I was going back to my prison cell. 

When we boarded the bus, they pushed me to the very back. 

‘What, we have to sit at the back of the bus, too?’ the windbreaker complained. 

‘This is the best spot for us,’ said the leader. 

‘I get car sick. It’ll shake too much back here.’ 

As soon as he said that I started to feel sick to my stomach, like I was car sick, too. The bright sun of the clear autumn day made me dizzy, but above all I was exhausted from being among so many people. They gave me the window seat. And our journey began. 

The bus is moving. There is new road after new road, and finally we go onto the Seoul-Pusan expressway, which is something I know. I see the red and blue roofs of farmhouses and the faraway hills now appearing with a purple hue and hovering in the sky. The field has been harvested already, and cut rice plants are tied up in bundles and stand around the field like soldiers on parade. A forest dotted with orange-coloured persimmons flies by the window like a picture fluttering in the wind. Even a magpie, something I see all the time in prison, seems to be freer here as I watch it fly away into the distance. Like a scene from a movie, I want to jump out of the bus and disappear into the purple shadow of the rolling distant hills. The three men are sleeping. Only the leader opens his eyes a little from time to time, whenever he feels the bus slowing down a little, looks around to figure out where we are and takes a quick look at me, then closes his eyes again and goes back asleep. I cannot sleep. I am absorbing the landscape all at once. When I get back, I’m going to feast on these pictures, compress then into my brain and my heart, nibble on their stored nutrients little by little. 

I am going back to Seoul. I can feel it from a long way off. The open fields disappear, replaced by crowded little buildings that look like blemishes or wounds along the roadsides and rising up the hills. All the cars seem to be headed in one direction. It is not a cloudy day, but there is something hazy about the air. I no longer see flying birds. 

Women are walking around on the streets. From her calf and the hem of her skirt to her hip, from her hair to the high heels on her feet, a young woman is freedom; especially when looked at from afar. I see a young man slowly pacing in front of a building; he has a cigarette in his mouth and is wearing a shirt without a jacket. A small crowd waits at a bus stop. This is the world from which I was kicked out. Without knowing if I will ever return. I can only participate from behind the glass window of a moving bus. 

I remembered Nam Soo’s grumbling about Seoul. It was at the very beginning of his underground days, and he did not know the city at all. I was one of the people assisting and guiding him until he got settled, and I had to keep an eye on him day and night. The first few days went by with us talking and exchanging news of other friends, but within a week we had run out of conversation. I had things to do, so I took him to a small movie house close to the place we were staying. I estimated I’d need about three hours. 

‘Go in there and catch a couple of movies in a row,’ I told Nam Soo, pointing at the theatre. ‘By the time you’re done, I’ll be waiting for you out here.’ 

Nam Soo, grinning, scanned the posters and promotional pictures hanging next to the box office. ‘There’s a Chinese war movie and a romantic comedy. Today’s cultural event combines both the literary and the military!’ 

Life in Seoul was always hectic. It’s hard to remember what happened ten minutes ago, your mind fixed on the present. It took me more than four hours to finish my errands and, when I alighted from the bus and walked toward where we were supposed to meet, I was late and it was already dark, and the street was crowded with people going home from work. The movie house was still a distance away, but I stopped walking and glowered. There was Nam Soo, sitting alone on the steps leading up to a pair of large glass doors, staring into space. I felt sorry, but I was annoyed at the pathetic figure he made. My anger grew as I approached him. 

‘Why are you sitting here? Do you know what time it is now?’ 

‘Well, I finished the movie with fighting and kicking, but I left the one with kissing and hugging and crying as soon as it started, so I guess I’ve been sitting here for a couple of hours.’ 

‘Look, the hotel we’re staying at isn’t far from here and you know that I would have gone there if I hadn’t seen you here.’ 

‘I don’t know how to get there.’ 

‘Oh, come on, try a little. Look, that street right over there? That’s the street you walk up and down every day. You just go up the street, and then you’ll see the red neon sign for the hotel.’ 

I did not like that he was sitting right in front of the theatre where everyone could see him. ‘What if you were seen by those who are looking for you? You know it’s not just about your safety.’ 

Nam Soo grumbled, now nervous as he followed me, walking quickly. 

‘Seoul is too complicated; I’ll never figure it out. There is no east or west, or north or south.’ 

I was unsympathetic and annoyed. ‘They say an activist should know the city. I’m not just talking about the geography. There’s something in that complicated mess.’ 

Still behind me, Nam Soo mumbled as if talking to himself, ‘Fuck that … I don’t need to know it, we’ll just forget it all later.’ 

* * * 

Our bus arrives and the other passengers grab their bags and carry-ons from the shelf above. We remain at the very back of the bus. When most of the passengers are off, the leader walks down the narrow aisle first. I follow him, with the two guards closely behind me. I am too anxious to even take one step without the escorting guards holding the rope. It has been a long time since I had to navigate such a large space with so many paths all by myself. At the bus station, in the crowded area inside the station building, I keep losing my sense of direction and have to pause. 

‘What’s wrong?’ the guard in a suit asks from behind. The windbreaker gently pushes me. 

‘Do you see the chief over there? Do you see the back of his head? Just follow that, okay?’ 

Among the waves of people coming and going I find the closely cropped head of the leader and run after it. 

‘Just imagine that this is no different from the inside,’ the suit says. ‘Then it’ll be much easier.’ 

I do not reply, but I agree with him. It is true; I’m just in a larger prison. As we leave the bus station we find ourselves in the middle of a gigantic city. The leader is standing there waiting for us, and as we gather around him he checks his watch and says, ‘Let’s see … It’s time for lunch already. What should we do?’ 

‘What do you mean? We should just follow the schedule.’ 

‘The schedule … Yes, here, I have it.’ 

The leader reads from his pocketbook. ‘Today’s schedule is as follows. Lunch, visit the old palace, go to a movie, and then a department store, and … that’s all. What would you like to do first?’ 

I can’t quite remember what places he just listed. On the bus from the detention centre to the court house, every suspect fights to sit by the window, to look through the meshed windows and see if they recognise any of the streets. But no matter how hard you look, no matter how hard you stick your head to the window, nothing you see sticks in your brain. What you are looking at is a place you have already left, a place where you cannot be anyone anymore. 

‘I don’t know. I can’t think of any place I’d like to go first.’ 

Windbreaker talks to the leader. ‘I don’t think we can visit all these places today. Let’s eat first, and then we’ll figure out what to do, depending on how much time we have left.’ 

The leader starts walking ahead of us, having made the decision. ‘Let’s take a cab.’ 

We wait in line like any other good, ordinary citizens, and we get into a taxi cab when it is our turn. The leader takes the seat next to the driver. 

‘The Dan Sung movie theatre, please.’ 

Then he turns his head back to tell us, ‘I checked the movie schedule already. After all, there’s nothing like a Hong Kong martial arts movie to pass time, don’t you think? We can eat after we get tickets.’ 

The streets in Chongro are jam-packed with people and cars. Nothing new here, but I am more used to walking now than I was at the bus station. The suit gets the movie tickets and tells us that we have about an hour before it starts. 

‘What do you say, how about some grilled beef for lunch?’ 

The leader looks around the street, where two big cinemas face each other. 

‘Let’s see if we can find a decent restaurant around here,’ the leader says. ‘I think it’ll be easier to find one on the other side of the street.’ 

We cross the wide avenue. It’s lunch time and the restaurant is crowded. I had been eyeing an old Chinese restaurant next to a fire station and craving noodles with black bean sauce, but the moment I heard the word ‘beef’ my mind locked on it. Whether you are in prison, or in the military, you never fantasise about really fancy, expensive food, maybe because the gap between your imagination and the reality is too big. When ‘eating out’ with a cookbook, I’d skip the pages of elaborate dishes and linger on the dishes you used to eat all the time at home. For Mr Yi it is noodles. For me, large meat dumplings, each the size of a man’s fist, served at a dark Chinese restaurant with dirty tables. Sometimes you’d find a piece of pork fat, the hair still attached to the skin, in the vegetable filling. I’d crave noodles too and could almost hear the chef banging and kneading and pulling the dough. I swear I can smell the pork and vegetables and the sauce being tossed in a wok engulfed in tall flames. Whenever the inmates talked about food during the exercise hour, they inevitably ended up comparing the noodles from their own favourite restaurants, boasting that each one of them knew the place where they served the best bowl of noodles in the world. I once saw two young criminals in a fist fight that left them both with bloody noses because they couldn’t agree whether sweet-and-sour pork or stir-fried noodles were the best. I don’t know why I never thought of grilled beef. 

The four of us walk down the hallway, take off our shoes and sit around a low table in a large room. As the marinated meat cooks away on a small grill on the table, the windbreaker uses a pair of chopsticks to place a few pieces of it on my plate. 

‘Well, well, this prisoner’s life ain’t so bad, is it?’ 

The leader gives him a look, frowning. ‘Stop the bullshit. Help yourself, Mr Oh, eat as much as you want. We eat this all the time.’ 

I put a piece of meat in my mouth and chew. The texture is so tender, and my mouth is soon filled with the flavours of garlic and honey and soy sauce. It has been a while since I have tasted any seasoning. Kimchi at the prison looks red, but it is never spicy, just salty. 

‘It’s much better outside, isn’t it?’ the suit mumbles. 

My eyes are burning, and I bend my head down because I do not want them to notice the trouble my mouth is in. When I put my chopsticks down on the table, the leader asks, ‘What’s wrong? It doesn’t taste good to you?’ 

‘No … it’s just … a little … spicy.’ 

‘I guess it must be; you haven’t had food like this in a long time. By the way, you should have something to drink, too. What do you like, soju or beer?’ 

‘Beer?’ My voice is raspy. 

He orders and some tall, cold bottles are brought to the table and a glass with the white foam up to the brim is placed in front of me. 

‘Well, congratulations!’ 

The windbreaker raises his glass to me. Confused, the suit raises his glass and asks, ‘What? What are we celebrating?’ 

‘His release! Well, the rehearsal for his release.’ 

After a few glasses of beer, my face is enflamed and throbbing. And I finally relax. I almost think for a moment that I have, indeed, been released. 

* * * 

In the dark cinema, I feel like I am on holidays with friends. For Buddhist monks or soldiers or young men without regular jobs, the movie theatre is often their only point of contact with the rest of the world. What you are watching may be a story from a different society or a scene from a foreign place, but you are participating in what others are also seeing and feeling and remembering. The newspaper is not as vivid an experience, but I still remember the shock, which remained for months, when newspapers and magazines were allowed again after a long time. The world was thriving without me, as if nothing had happened. 

* * * 

It is still bright outside, about half past three in the afternoon. My eyes are blinded by the autumn sun. All the colours on the street, people’s clothes, everything, so vivid it looks like there is a festival going on. People push past me, indifferent. 

‘Look, we don’t have too much time,’ the leader says. ‘Can you think of some place else to go besides a department store?’ 

The suit asks me, ‘How about a marketplace?’ 

‘The market? That’d be too tricky to escort, no?’ says the windbreaker, looking at the leader. 

‘Yeah, but the Great Eastern Gate market is right nearby. We can just walk around there, I guess.’ 

I stand there, listening to them argue. They take my silence as agreement and we head towards the marketplace. The market is a good idea. There are four of us, so the leader and I walk in front, the suit and the windbreaker behind. We wander around the market, zigzagging through the stalls and vendors. ‘Only one thousand won for a T-shirt!’ ‘Five thousand won for a pair of pants!’ ‘Come on! Take a look! Practically free!’ ‘Down parkas!’ ‘Bonded goods!’ ‘Watch out, heavy load, out of my way!’ 

The noise comes to me like little children chattering behind a glass window at the end of a room. Only the voice of the leader rings clear; sometimes loud, sometimes soft. 

‘Mr Oh, don’t you wanna buy something? Go ahead, you have money from your deposit, remember?’ 

I finger the three 10,000-won bills folded in half in my pocket. I keep one hand in my pants pocket while I look around. 

‘But you can only get what’s allowed inside,’ he says, ‘or it’ll be confiscated when you go back.’ 

Only then do I remember my block mates. I stand in front of a stall selling underwear. During the exercise hours, we wear boxer shorts, but the officially distributed ones are white and easily stained. On cold winter days, the prison fashion is to put on boxer shorts over thick thermal underwear, as if we were imitating real boxers. We cannot help but laugh at each other’s appearance. I pick out some large-size boxer shorts, with stripes or dots, and long-sleeved cotton T-shirts to wear under the prison uniform. Only four colours are allowed – grey, navy blue, white and black. No printed letters or elaborate patterns. I spend all my money, which means nothing to me, except that I pay with my own hand. 

‘Well, the day has come to an uneventful end,’ the leader says as he looks at his watch. He does not seem to be in any particular rush. 

‘Let’s go, hurry!’ the suit adds. 

‘I’m not staying there tonight,’ the windbreaker says. 

The leader fixes them with a firm look. ‘Where do you think you’re going? You’re still on the job until we go back.’ 

‘What? We have to sleep there, too?’ 

‘What’s wrong with it? We don’t have to spend our travelling expenses. We can have a drink after we check him in.’ 

‘Are we going somewhere else?’ I ask him, finally. 

‘Didn’t you know? According to the rule, you have to spend the night in a prison. But I can tell you now, you should look forward to tomorrow,’ he says, and looks at his watch again. ‘We just need to be back before the lockdown.’ 

The leader stops a taxi and, once settled in the passenger seat, tells the driver, ‘We’re headed to Anyang.’ 

The taxi driver quickly glances back at the three of us through the rearview mirror. 

‘Where in Anyang?’ he asks. 

‘The prison. We’re escorting a prisoner, so push on that gas pedal, will ya? Don’t worry about the traffic.’ 

In between the two guards in the back seat, I remember the night I was sent to the detention cell. It was raining. I remember the cool metal of the handcuffs tight around my wrists, too tight. 

The taxi stops in front of the prison gate, we get out and walk in through a small door. The walls are bleach-white. I smell cooked rice. A speaker blares with the sound of a trumpet, the end of the daily schedule. 

‘We made it just in time,’ says windbreaker. 

We reach the main building. Things are busy, hectic. The shift is changing. We wait like peddlers among the bustling uniforms. The leader disappears and comes back with a section chief, who is holding some paperwork and studies me up and down. He asks the leader, ‘Did you feed him dinner?’ 

‘We didn’t have time. Can we order him something from the staff cafeteria?’ 

‘Sure, not a problem. Take him to the visitation room, he can eat there first and then you can lock him up.’ He assigns me a new guard. 

‘I bet you’re tired,’ the leader says to me. ‘So go eat your dinner and rest. And I’m telling you, we have a surprise for you tomorrow.’ 

The windbreaker and the suit remain seated, but they raise a hand as I leave. I follow the new guard to the second floor and reach the special visitation room, which is furnished with a single coffee table and a couple of couches. The young guard does not say anything. He calls the cafeteria to order my dinner. 

‘So what, a home visit?’ he asks. 

‘No,’ I say, ‘just a field trip.’ 

While I eat my dinner of soup with cabbage and rice, he stands in the corner holding a small tape recorder, and an earphone in one ear, quietly repeating words. He must be learning another language, probably English, or it could be Chinese. When I am done with dinner, he makes me walk in front of him, directing me with curt orders, as if I’m a bull being returned to his pen. ‘Forward!’ ‘Left!’ ‘Right!’ ‘Turn!’ ‘Stop!’ ‘Attention!’ 

We are outside a special cell where prisoners spend the last few days of their sentences before being released. It is a large room with a heated floor, and the walls are not bare, but covered with wallpaper, although the pattern is tacky. The floor is quite warm, so they must have been heating this room for a while. The young guard pushes me inside and slams shut the door. It looks just like any other cell door. He drives home the bolt, turns the lock, and shouts to the guard stationed midway along the corridor, ‘One additional prisoner for the night!’ 

It is still a prison cell, but it feels so unfamiliar that I actually miss my own cold, tiny cement cell. I lie down under a comforter and stare at the ceiling. The mildew is different, so are the images I see. There is a lot of writing on the walls: dates of release for the prisoners before me, quick notes on their thoughts and feelings. The handwriting is tiny. 

‘My darling Sook, I’m coming to you tomorrow.’ 

‘Thirteen years of bloody tears.’ 

‘To my late father, your son is finally coming home.’ 

‘Park Kap Joon, screw you! You’re my enemy until the end.’ 

‘It is all gone, my youth.’ 

‘My fellow brothers, do not ever commit a crime. This place is a trash can for human beings.’ 

‘Money is the problem. Have no money, then guilty.’ 

Deep-sea divers need to decompress as they rise from the ocean floor so their bodies can adjust to the changing pressure. And in an old myth, there is a river of oblivion between this world and the next; one forgets everything by crossing. Most inmates spend two or three days in this cell. It is still in the prison, but there’s one more wall that confines the general population. Here, the inmate is halfway out, and within a few days he begins to forget what happened inside. By the time he is sent home, to a new reality, he finds it easier to reconnect with his own past – and prison becomes just a gap in his memory. However, the world is like flowing water and it has moved on, while he thinks that he has landed in the same spot, that he is soaking his feet in the same water as before. 

I do not sleep well, maybe because I am not sleeping in my own cell. Just like at any other prison, the daily activities begin as soon as the sun is up. The guards have changed, but the same young man opens my cell door. I walk the same corridors as I did the day before and go to the visitation room. The leader and the windbreaker are not there; only the suit is waiting 

for me. 

‘Did you eat breakfast?’ 

‘Yes, they already served it.’ 

‘The chief will be here soon. Guess who’s coming to see you.’ 

I have been thinking that someone is coming for a special visit. The suit continues in a whisper, ‘If only you wrote down something, then you could have gone home, too. It’s not a home visit, so a special family visitation during a field trip is a privilege among privileges.’ 


As I say this, the leader, in the same clothes as yesterday, walks in with another guard from this prison. All of a sudden, he uses a polite form of speech. 

‘Mr Oh Hyun Woo, your sister is here to see you,’ he announces in a dignified manner. 

Behind them, the door begins to open, and my sister’s face appears in the widening gap. Then I see the familiar hat my brother-in-law always wears because he is bald. I get up from the chair. ‘What are you two doing here?’ 

My sister grabs both my hands and shakes them, and her eyes behind the glasses are already turning red. 

‘Please, take a seat,’ the local guard says. ‘Since this is a special visitation, you have plenty of time. So take your time, enjoy.’ 

The leader signals to windbreaker and they occupy folding chairs in the corner. The suit leaves the room. My sister is carrying two large shopping bags. 

‘Those bags were inspected?’ the leader asks. 

‘Yes, don’t worry. It’s all food.’ 

My sister looks as if she still cannot believe that she is facing me directly, without an iron grill or an acrylic panel to separate us. They came to see me last spring, so it has been more than six months since we saw each other. A tray of drinks is brought in and placed on the table. I don’t know what to say. Nor do my sister or her husband. We sit quietly. The leader opens the visitation record book. He waits, pen held in mid-air. 

‘I heard that you looked around the city yesterday,’ my sister says. 

I nod. 

My brother-in-law says, ‘We got the word just yesterday morning, out of the blue, and your sister was not able to sleep at all last night.’ 

‘I am so sorry; I’m always such a burden to you.’ 

‘Just take care of yourself …’ she says, ‘and join us soon.’ 

She opens the shopping bags. 

‘I made a few dishes for you. And you need to get ready for the winter. I deposited two sweaters and two pairs of thin thermal underwear, just like you wanted, and a few pairs of thick socks.’ 

‘We have them,’ the leader says from his corner seat. ‘I’ll hand them over to you when we get back, after I’ve registered them.’ 

My sister takes out dish after foil-wrapped dish, spreads them out on the table and peels each of them open. 

‘Look at this. Rice rolls, just like our mom used to make.’ 

I know them well. All of us went to school picnics and festivals with those rice rolls. Whenever she made them, we surrounded her and fought each other for the chance to nibble on the ends, where the fillings stuck out. We knew her recipe by heart. First, lightly toast and brush some sesame oil onto a dried seaweed sheet. Spread the rice on it, making sure it is not too sticky, and arrange the filling. The filling is the key: minced meat, stir-fried with various sweet and salty seasonings; spinach, blanched and dressed; old-fashioned pickled radish, sliced long and thin; eggs, whisked and cooked into thin sheets on a hot pan. If even one item is missing, the rice roll won’t taste good and that’s the end of it. My mother used a bamboo mat to roll it into a log shape and, with a knife rubbed with sesame oil, slices the roll into pieces of precisely the same thickness. 

After the rice rolls, she opens a dish of beef, cooked Seoul-style, which means it’s pounded before being seasoned and cooked on a charcoal grill. Then braised short ribs and various dishes of vegetables and mushrooms, sautéed and seasoned. There are tiny fried oysters and meatballs, pears and persimmons, which are in season, and a dessert drink made with fermented rice and poured from a vacuum flask. 

The taste of the rice roll reminds me of the house we lived in, the one in Yeongdeungpo built by the Japanese with many built-in closets and an indoor bathroom. 

‘How’s mom?’ 

My sister is looking down at the table and does not raise her head. The last time my mother saw me was more than eighteen months ago, and that was through an acrylic panel. 

‘Come on … eat,’ my sister says, her eyes redder than before. 

‘You told me she was not healthy, but it’s not a big deal, is it?’ 

‘So-so. Please, eat some more.’ 

I stuff my mouth with rice rolls. I had no appetite for my prison breakfast after the previous day’s splendid meal in the city. Now I was ravenous. I cannot remember what we talk about. I just remember eating until I am so full I can barely breathe; I think even my throat is filled up with food. When it is time for them to leave, the leader allows me to accompany them down the steps. My sister grabs my hands again. 

‘Be strong. Outside, they’re making a huge fuss that we’re hosting the Summer Olympics and the Asian Games and all that. Who knows? Maybe things will change when these things happen.’ 

‘Don’t worry, I’m actually doing well.’ 

My brother-in-law, usually a reserved man of few words, fingers the brim of his hat without putting it on and mumbles, ‘The thing is … I have something to tell you … Hyun Woo, the truth is, your mother passed away. It happened last September, and …’ 

My sister, who had turned away, now begins to pour out the information. 

‘She had cancer of the vertebrae. Last winter, she fell down when she slipped on snow and couldn’t get up again. The doctors said there was nothing they could do and so she came home, but she only lived on for about six months. We took care of her funeral.’ 

I stare at them both. My face is blank. 

‘Did she say anything?’ 

My sister makes a little smile. 

‘She made us promise that we’d marry you off.’ 

My sister pulls her coat tighter around her shoulders. ‘Well, we should get going now. Please, take care of yourself.’ 

As they walk across the courtyard toward the front gate, the leader says, ‘We should get ready to leave, too.’ 

In the afternoon, we board the bus heading south. It is windy, and the sky is an angry looking grey. I can summon no emotion. The leader asks how I feel after the furlough, and I say, without hesitating, ‘The day before you go on a trip is always more exciting, isn’t it?’ 

I don’t think he understands what I am talking about, but I have always been like that, ever since I was a child. Right before something I know is going to happen, there is a little flutter in my heart. Whether it is a school field trip or New Year’s Day or my own birthday; nothing seems too special when it happens. After a summer Sunday at the riverside, having fun fishing and swimming, what I thought about at the end of the day was the next day, Monday, a rainy day that I would have to spend at school. After a field trip there are exams, and after New Year’s Day or my birthday are just more colourless days that are all a little spoilt, like leftover food. I know that this particular trip will become a long-lasting wound. This memory will be an ache in my body and heart on rainy days.

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