September 1, 2009
The sound of footsteps far off. Heels hammered on the concrete floor in a martial rhythm.
It was the chief guard making his last rounds.
“All clear,” the watchtower reported.
To reach this section, he would have to pass through two iron gates. I emerged from the quilt tightly wrapped around my shoulders and sat up. In that position I felt the cold dawn air cut into my back. I took off the felt slippers I wore at night over thick wool socks, and then the cap I’d made out of another sock. I put on my prison uniform stenciled with the numbers of my building, my cell, my registration. Number 1444 had been my name for a long time. I’d almost forgotten my real one. When did they give it to me? At roll call, mail call, on work detail, when I had a visitor or was getting a penalty, it was always with that number, preceded or followed by an insult, that they conceded that I did exist.
Standing on a low table, I pulled down the cardboard that, in violation of the rules, shaded the fluorescent bulb that shone day and night. The prisoner had to be observed 24/7. Daylight never ended, daylight with no sun. I’d torn apart a cardboard carton from ramen noodle packets, covered it with writing paper, then attached it to the light fixture with sticky tape. I attached a broken chopstick to this shade to raise and lower it. Of course, I took it down during every inspection. These little things made my life a little easier. Everything I had in the cell was made by me or my fellow inmates, bit by bit.
I folded the quilt, stacked it with the blankets in one corner, and made a square with the dark green sponge mattress, which folded into three. This was my seat. I decided not to take a cold shower today. Yesterday, I had selected things I wanted to keep and packed them into two small toiletry bags. They were the remnants of my imprisoned life.
I stood up. I stretched, then spread my arms wide as I often did and pushed the two walls on each side with my open palms. The cement walls were white with frost. On the ceiling where my breath reached while I slept there were little droplets of water, as always. In this cell, with the single mattress spread out across the width of the room, a little gap of about two feet was left. You could take one step and reach the door to the bathroom. There was a water bucket in front of the bathroom door, and on that side of the wall was a three-level plastic shelf where I stored my personal belongings and dishes.
There was a thin layer of ice in the water bucket. Today I poured three scoops of water into the basin and scrubbed my hairless cheeks, chin, and neck. I had taken a bath yesterday, I even got a haircut and a shave. I asked the prison assistant for a bucket full of warm water and got permission to use the common sinks. I mixed the warm water with cold, and took a bath in lukewarm water.
The middle-aged chief of the prisoner-run barbershop was said to be a hardened criminal already here fifteen years, but as they say in here, everyone becomes a gentle lamb after about ten years. Another barber once told me the chief barber had robbed a train, but in here it was forbidden to ask each other the cause of imprisonment, so I never heard the full story. After serving thirteen years, the chief barber was recently allowed a furlough. There was a mutual respect shared among us long-timers, and he was exclusively in charge of my haircuts. The chief barber’s technique was so good, he received a gold medal from the National Vocation Training Competition for Prisoners. He didn’t ask me how I wanted my hair done. Everyone at the barber shop knew that I was a political prisoner. A public security offender did not shave his head. This way, he was easily distinguished from other ordinary criminals.
“I’ll trim just a little.”
Expertly handling his scissors, he clipped the hair underneath my ears. After I sat down on the chair, I closed my eyes and did not speak. He lowered his head.
“It’s tomorrow?” he asked softly.
“So it seems.”
After shaving my face, the chief barber slathered my cheeks and chin with scented aftershave he’d gotten who knows where. Then he gently wiped my neck and ears with a dry towel, like they do outside.
As I was getting up, the chief barber quietly set his hands on my shoulders and whispered again.
“Mr. Oh, mind if I say a little prayer?”
I was perplexed for a moment. I was no Ca-Bud-Pro believer, I had never prayed before. Inside, a Ca-Bud-Pro believer was a disparaging term for those people who switched their religion regularly in order to attend every gathering thrown by Catholics, Buddhists, and Protestants—each religious group came here with armloads of food in the name of rehabilitating the criminal minds. But at that moment, I thought of our long, long solitude. The barber would leave here with me, because I would remember his prayer for a long time.
“May I?” he asked. He pressed my hands in his.
“Dear God, this brother is about to return to the world after serving eighteen years of imprisonment. Please let him bury everything that has happened here in his heart, and please take care of him outside as you’ve done until now. Let his future be full of hope and joy. And please allow him a happy, humble life where he is grateful for even the smallest thing. And most of all, do not let him forget those of us still left behind in here, I pray in the name of my Lord, Jesus Christ. Amen.”
I took the thick Chinese dictionary from the desk and opened it. I took out my hidden private property, a palm-sized mirror. Because of the threat of suicide, a solitary prisoner was forbidden to own a piece of glass, any type of string, or a sharp piece of metal. I’d bartered for the mirror with a prison assistant. I cannot remember if I gave him ramen noodles or an egg cake. Hidden among the leaves of thick books were my treasures. In the bible, there was a small knife as long as my finger, made by sharpening an aluminum can lid on the cement wall of the bathroom. I used it to peel fruit or cut kimchi. A comb was hidden in an envelope at the bottom of a paper folder stuck to the wall.
I raised my head to the fluorescent light and faced the mirror. A sad-looking fifty-something man appeared there. Hair graying from the bottom of the ears to the top of the head, deep lines etched around the mouth, and more around the eyes and forehead. There was darkness behind the face in the mirror. What was there? Was there really a world outside? I combed my hair, a tangle of fading threads. It shone even paler under the fluorescent light.
The iron gate opened, and I heard the screeching sound of the steel bolt and steps approaching from the corridor downstairs. I quickly put my books, mirror, and comb into their places and sat down meekly on the mattress.
Again, I heard the sound of the iron gate on the second floor of the maximum security area and the steel bolt clacking, followed by the iron gate crashing into the iron pillar. The guard on duty reported the number of inmates, and the sound of the chief guard’s steps were muffled now. He was probably walking on the long carpet in the corridor along the cell row. He arrived quietly in front of my cell and showed his face in the little window. It was about a foot long and covered with plastic. I could barely make out his face.
“Number Fourteen Forty-Four, leaving today?”
The visor tip of his cap tilted down, “It’s past four o’clock. Let’s go,” he said brusquely.
The door opened with a clear clanging of steel, just like it did every morning before the exercise hour. The vastness of the corridor suddenly seemed to pour into the tiny cell.
“Get your things.”
“Beg your pardon?” I asked him, bewildered.
“You’re going home.”
“Home? Ah, yes . . .”
I picked up the two little bundles placed where my head used to lie, and white rubber shoes from the shelf above the door. I placed them in the corridor and put them on. I took a step. I stood with two feet outside the cell. My cell was second from last, and every second cell held a political prisoner like me. I knew they were awake, waiting for this moment. I was about to walk along the row when the guard directed me from behind my back.
Before turning, without thinking, I shouted:
“Oh Hyun Woo is leaving now. Take care of yourselves, everyone!”
As I finished, the corridor was in commotion.
“Goodbye, Mr. Oh!”
“It was tough, Mr. Oh!”
“Goodbye, Oh, keep in touch!”
Annoyed, the chief guard clucked his tongue and pushed my shoulder. I turned toward the staircase on the opposite side. The guard from our block shook my hand.
“Take care, Mr. Oh. Don’t ever come back.”
Continued: “The Chief Administrator”