The Old Garden: “In the Photo, She Is Not Smiling” (Part 4/28)

The Old Garden: “In the Photo, She Is Not Smiling” (Part 4/28)

September 8, 2009

Previously: “From Now On, You Do What Others Do”

The sun was coming up. The sky was frosty and opaque, but it was no longer snowing. The streetlights on the freeway went out. Only the lights on the cars coming and going were still illuminated, like the eyes of wild animals. The landscape told me we were near Seoul. As the dawn slowly emerged, I was beginning to adjust to my surroundings. I fumbled around my inside pocket and took out the wallet.

Like a blind man fingering braille, I stroked the outside of the wallet with my fingertips, hesitating a little. Yes, my mother had been alive then. The talisman was smeared with her worries and tears. I could not get annoyed and throw it away then, but what use was a talisman to a man of science? Mothers are not logical. Maybe I was now ready to throw it away. I took out the talisman and rubbed it between my thumb and index finger, then put it back again. I knew very well there was something else, the passport photo. The photo was stuck to the wallet. I took it out with my fingertips.

In the photo, she is not smiling. Imprisoned with me for almost twenty years, the little thing had yellowed. But she was still there, with her hair, slightly curled up at the ends, framing her face. Her hair coiled as if chemically treated but I knew it was natural. Right here, her round forehead, her almond-shaped eyes with lightly creased lids, her high cheekbones, her mouth stubbornly closed, her air of cleverness and thoughtfulness. Without realizing, I whispered to her, it’s been a while. There had been a few letters exchanged a decade ago, but all contact was blocked after I was transferred to another prison. I lost all her letters. Other than immediate family members, no visitation was allowed. Only harmless, meaningless greetings were allowed in letters, and those from acquaintances had to be returned to the authorities after reading. The photo was taken away with the wallet when I was arrested. I knew very well where this photograph had been hibernating. Whenever the weather changed, I would go to the depository to return woolen blankets or retrieve winter clothes. There were perforated aluminum panels divided into sections like a bookcase, each compartment bearing the inmate’s number like a dog tag. Sorted into each slot were the worldly possessions of the now imprisoned owner, still smudged with his life, the smells of his body. An old pair of shoes with worn heels held the dirt of unknown streets and alleys the owner had passed through. A faded jacket with traces of rice wine still visible, an eyeglass case, summer clothes threadbare like rags, woven summer sandals that were once the height of fashion, thick hiking boots, assorted hats, rings, necklaces, and watches. Frozen at the moment the owner was caught, they lay there tied with string like a dead man’s memories.

For a while, I held onto her letters by copying them onto a piece of paper, but even that disappeared during the search and inspection before my transfer. I still remember how the last letter ended.

When will you join me in Kalmae? We’re still there.

Maybe I reversed the sentences. I put her passport picture beneath my mother’s talisman and closed the wallet.

Continued: “No More Reed Fields, No More Peanut Fields”

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