September 24, 2009
The envelopes, bearing the address of a small city college where Yoon Hee once worked, had become discolored and yellow during the last few years. The letters were sent to my sister’s university. There were three of them. One was dated November 1995, the next February 1996, and the last simply Summer 1996.
Dear Hyun Woo,
It has been so long since I wrote your name down. I feel like I’m addressing someone who is no longer in this world. It breaks my heart.
Yes, it’s been fifteen years since you left Kalmae. Did you receive the letter I sent to the prison on the year of the Olympics?
I’ll tell you later, but that was a very difficult time for me. After that, I left the country for five years. Thanks to you, I painted a lot. I quit after two solo exhibitions, and now I don’t want to paint any more. I guess I’m sick of this greedy world so full of cultural products. Meanwhile, you’re hanging in there in the middle of it all like an icicle hanging from the slate roof of a shed, precarious but pure.
This letter is written by me, not your wife, not your child. I am no one to you. Perhaps it’ll never reach you in prison. I wonder when you will be able to read my letters. So I thought of Professor Oh. At least, I knew the address of her university. Your comrades once told me your sentence would be reduced one day, but I can no longer welcome any change at this point. I’m not saying I don’t want you to be released. The world has changed, and people are beginning to see errors, too late. And it’s so lopsided. Then from the other side, those who caused many of those errors are now saying, ‘see, we were right!’ Ah, my precious one, what are you thinking now?
I’m not well. I know it’s nothing serious, but I’m going to the doctor today. I want to quote what you used to quote often. “Even during the tempest, time passes.” It’s quite windy today. The glass windows are rattling. I would like to believe that even the tiny window of yours might let in many days of wind and rain and sunlight, nights of starlight and moonlight, the sound of birds and maybe even of people living in the distance.
I dream about you once in a while. But you know what’s strange? You’re always the person I knew in Kalmae. In my dreams you never answer me, no matter how many times I ask you to. I run around the kitchen, trying to prepare something delicious for you, but when I come back, the door to the terrace is wide open, so is the entrance. A strong wind has come into the house and the window drapes are fluttering. Already you’re gone. Sometimes we are at the beach. Remember what you used to say? Let’s go to the last village on the peninsula, where there is no checkpoint. We can weave fishnets and harvest seaweed, spend a few days, bake some potatoes for dinner. At the beach, I gaze at the boundless horizon. When I turn around, you are returning to the mountain, swinging your arms. You don’t turn around, not even once, though I call for you again and again. Was that your imprisoned spirit?
I’ll write again after the doctor’s appointment. I think it’s nothing. I am a prisoner here until you return to this side of life, a life of dust. I’ll be perfectly healthy again.
November 1995, Yoon Hee
Ah, I’m shocked how long it has been since the last time.
So I wrote to you the day before I came to this hospital. I haven’t forgotten you. I was a little surprised at first, but not too sad. They said I have cancer. It’s already quite advanced. My body is shrinking, like a taut balloon losing air. But I still think clearly, and I think of Kalmae during the terrible long nights here. I think of everything, every facet of it, until I’m satisfied that I have collected my memories, down to the last, tiny fragment, then I fall asleep. The next evening, however, there are still things I’ve forgotten that must be added.
Do you remember that outdoor bathroom in the spooky bamboo field behind the fruit shed? The one with mud walls and ridiculously long and wide wooden supports and inhabited by monstrously big crickets. There was a piece of wooden board with a hole in it, and the container underneath was so deep. You used to joke that it took a while to hear something land at the bottom when you did your business. Once I had a stomachache in the middle of the night. I think I had eaten a bad watermelon. I begged you to escort me with a flashlight. I felt like I had returned to my childhood. You know that I am the eldest daughter. Once I turned ten, I had to go to the bathroom by myself and guard the door for my siblings, suppressing my own fear. Father at the time was always drunk, mom was out selling things and came back just before the curfew began. So when I say childhood, I mean before I started school. Daddy, are you there? Yes, I’m here. Don’t worry, take your time. Daddy, daddy! I’m here. I kept calling you like I used to then. You said to me, If you’re scared, leave the door open. There’s a cool breeze, and the stars are bright. I peeked through the slightly opened door. There really was a night sky full of stars, like golden sand scattered everywhere. Look, there goes a shooting star. I saw it, too. A long, delicate line of light stretched across and then disappeared into darkness. I remembered a night like that while lying in this hospital bed and receiving painkillers.
Jung Hee has been taking care of me. It has already been three months. Of course, she is married now and has two children. Mom visits from time to time, but I begged her not to come too often, because she just sits over there and quietly weeps. Jung Hee will mail this letter for me.
I wish you were near me. Maybe it is better this way, I look so awful now. Flowers are still beautiful when dried out and dying, there’s beauty while they fade away. Why does a person’s body get so terribly destroyed?
February 1996, Yoon Hee
The doctor notified my family of something today. I read everything in Jung Hee’s uncontrollable sobs. He must have told her to be prepared or something like that. Around noon, mom came by with a minister and a couple of her fellow churchgoers. Are you still a materialist? I’m not being sarcastic. I adore their faith. Who knows if there is something beyond the darkness. Still, if I could carry on longer. I want to see you once.
The hospital grounds were once filled with acacia flowers, so familiar from my youth. They are gone, swept away, and the world is covered with dark green.
After we left that place, I once painted your young face. Later, in the empty space I painted myself, older, as I looked then. You looked like my son.
Here’s a lyric from a popular song. “Why can’t love survive time? Why is love just like death?”
I once read in a Buddhist scripture. When the body dies, the part one was most attached to deteriorates first.
You in there, me out here, that’s how we spent a lifetime. It was tough, but let us make peace with all the days. Goodbye, my darling.
Summer 1996, Your Yoon Hee
P.S. My sister passed away three days later, on the evening of July 21. According to her wish, her body was cremated. Before she died she said these words to me: I’m going to Kalmae, tell Mr. Oh, if you see him later, tell him to please come there. She made me promise, so I did. I do not know when Mr. Oh will be able to receive this letter, but I wanted you to know.
Han Jung Hee
Continued September 29