September 29, 2009
After persevering in solitary confinement for a long time, your small emotions are mostly hidden deep underneath a thick layer of insensitivity. Showing them helps no one. In the beginning, you forget words. It’s an easy one. You can’t remember when last you actually wanted to use them. More words disappear from your mind, even the names of those around you. The next step is when you cannot recall names of everyday things that are right in front of you. Wait a minute, what was that thing called? Then comes the symptom of muttering to yourself. Hey, it’s time to sleep, or that guard is such a stickler, or you fart and complain to yourself, gee, that stinks. Among the prisoners, those with long sentences rarely smile or cry. During the audio-visual education lessons, when they show you movies, prisoners shed their tears in darkness and cry to their heart’s content. Their eyes are red and bloodshot when they walk out of the room. For those who have spent too much time in solitary confinement, however, their ability to express feelings is taken away. It is impossible to empathize. You forget words, feelings. Even your memories get bleached away.
I sat there in the room in a daze, her letters in my hand. Collecting myself, I put the letters back in their envelopes, then put them in the innermost pocket of the travel bag I had packed. My nephew was not home yet, he would probably be working late again. My brother-in-law and I sat in the living room while my sister prepared dinner. We sat a little apart on a sofa and stared at the television without talking. In between programs there was a cooking segment. A prim woman in her thirties wearing an apron brought out pots and pans and began cooking.
“In this hour, we’ll make a soup with dried pollack. As many of you know, it is made in many different regions, a very well-known cure for hangovers. It’s easy to make, and it is very soothing, a perfect soup to comfort those troubled stomachs the morning after.”
Her hair was neatly pulled into a ponytail, a few strands falling to the side secured by a simple barrette in the shape of a butterfly. The neck of her sweater was modest, and her apron had blue stripes and was edged with frills. She looked like a proper housewife, an ordinary woman such as are found everywhere in the world.
“Here are the ingredients. We need dried pollack, ginger extract, chopped garlic, and some pepper for seasoning. Fifty grams of ground beef, and to season the meat we need one teaspoon of soy sauce, three tablespoons of chopped garlic, a little bit of pepper and one teaspoon of sesame oil. Also needed are one scallion, chopped, one egg, and a little salt.”
Staring at the television and thinking of a warm pollack soup for a family, my eyes welled up and a tear rolled down my cheek. My brother-in-law saw this and was about to say something, but he turned around and lit a cigarette, pretending he did not notice anything. I stood up surreptitiously and sneaked into the bathroom. For the first time in a long time, I looked at myself reflected in a big mirror. My closely cropped hair was half gray, which made me look tired. Both eyes were bloodshot, and underneath them were two crescent bags deeply creased and shadowed. Without the prison uniform I looked like the old man I was. I washed my face with cold water. I dried my face, took a big breath through my nose, and went back to the living room. Both my sister and my brother-in-law pretended not to have noticed anything and remained silent. That was how I said goodbye to Han Yoon Hee.