November 3, 2009
In the middle of the night, I was awoken as the calm valley began to stir slowly with the sounds of the imminent spring. I heard the little stream flowing, the endless sounds of lonely wind grazing the bamboo leaves. Trying to calm my fluttering heart, I found myself sitting in front of a bundle wrapped in cloth, which I had taken down from the shelf.
In the bundle was something I recognized. Recently, it had become possible to get elegant holiday cards with various designs from the outside world, but for a long time only a limited number of cards of poor quality printing and paper were available to prisoners. This was a card with a picture of a pine tree and a crane. I was certain I sent this to her from the holding cell shortly after I was arrested. I opened the folded card. The thirty-two-year-old me was still in there, frozen in the discolored writing.
Dear Yoon Hee,
The first night I came here, I stood on top of a paint can and saw a few bright stars in the empty darkness far away. Or I thought they were stars. The next day I realized that those were lights from the ghetto up on the hill. In the early evening the hill was covered with lights, but close to dawn, they disappeared one by one. There is one over there, and all the way over there another. Eventually I began to wonder why the window would become a star. As a sleepless heart becomes a star, mine would become another.
There were also a few postcards that I had sent around that time. Perhaps she wrote back to me, but I never received a reply. I did not receive anything until the new president was elected.
My dearest Yoon Hee,
The trial is over. I am sure you already heard what the outcome was. They sentenced me to life. It didn’t feel real. When I returned from the court, the chief guard called me. He is a devout Christian, and I am told that he did this not just to me but to murderers who received death sentences. He held my hand and prayed. I don’t remember exactly what he said. After returning to my cell, I read scribbles left on the wall by previous prisoners and began to ponder. There was one phrase, ‘existence is happiness.’ It seemed time was standing still. I slept for two days and nights, but it seemed like the same day. The third night I paced around the whole night and didn’t sleep. I felt like I had no life to live anymore, but then I braced myself with the thought that in order to persevere for a long time I would need to consider this my home.
I stopped reading my own postcard and thought of Mr. Huh and the young Mr. Choi. Already I could not recall their first names. They were both on death row.
Mr. Huh was in his early forties. Since he had been on death row for eight years by the time I got there, I presumed he had begun his sentence when he was around my age. He was in a solitary cell like I was, and our cells were right next to each other. While others washed up in the communal bath, the two of us brought two big barrels of hot water into the staff restroom and had a steam bath. Mr. Huh was a big guy with powerful hands, and he knew how to scrub well. He used to soak his lower body in water and quietly chant Buddhist prayers. Every spring Mr. Huh was depressed and withdrawn, rarely talking to anyone. This was because they usually carried out executions when the seasons changed, especially in the new spring after a long winter. A few mornings I saw that his eyes were swollen and bloodshot, perhaps because he cried alone at night worrying about his daughter, who he entrusted to a Buddhist temple before he came in here. I would put on a concerned face and lie, You’ve been waiting for so long, I’m sure you’ll be pardoned. He would contort his expressionless face in an attempt to smile and mumble as if he did not care, I should go soon, I trouble too many people. The young Mr. Choi, who came later, was a smart and gentle guy. His widowed mother visited him often, and encircling his wrist were Buddhist prayer beads, carved out of bo tree, that his mother had made.
The reason I cannot forget them is because I found out about their deaths the day before they happened. The chief guard for our block wanted to see me, so I went to his office, skipping my afternoon exercise. He was leaning over his desk, intently reading some papers. Without realizing that I was waiting right behind his back, he did not take his eyes off of them. Inadvertently, over his shoulder, I saw a list of names, among them Mr. Huh and the young Mr. Choi. Sensing someone was behind, the chief hurriedly turned the paper face down and turned his chair around to face me. What is it? I asked casually. Still nervous, he looked around then raised one hand. He made the hand as stiff as a knife and motioned cutting his throat. Quickly understanding, I mouthed the word when? without making a sound, and he mouthed back tomorrow. I returned to my cell and had to witness with the eyes of death the everyday life of two men. After dinner, when we were allowed to visit each other’s cells, the young Mr. Choi asked me the date and hour of my birth. He told me about his own fortune which he’d read in a book. He talked about his old age as it would unfold a few decades from now, whereas I knew he had only a few hours left to live. That memory has been engraved on my heart for a long time.
Early the next morning, as soon as the wake up call rang, Mr. Huh began beating his wooden gong and chanted his morning prayers. I got up as well and paced around, whispering the name of Ksitigarbha bodhisattva over and over again. I went out first for my daily exercise; they did theirs right before lunch. Maybe everyone sensed something from the guards, maybe we all have a sixth sense. Everyone, from the old-timers to the petty criminals, was nervous without knowing why, and the entire block sunk into silence.
I sat in my cell cross-legged with my back straight. There was no sound, not even the usual greetings we shouted to each other when the meal arrived. They say they feed you first because the well-fed ghost is prettier.
As soon as lunch was over, the men with red hats rushed in. It was eerily quiet. They must have gotten Mr. Huh first. I heard him grumbling, Why did you fill me up? It’s going to be ugly. If I knew, I would have had only fruit juice. He paused in front of my door. Mr. Oh, I’m going first. See you again later, but take your time. After he walked away, it was the young Mr. Choi who quietly stood in front of my door. Look, here . . . Take this. And please write a letter to my mother. What he handed me was the prayer beads.
I could never forget Mr. Huh and the young Mr. Choi. It was as if they were my family. I understood early on what time meant for a lifer.
My dearest Yoon Hee,
I am being transferred to another prison the day after tomorrow. Once I am there I won’t go anywhere else, they say, since I am a lifer. I will stay there for a long time. Don’t be sad. I know I am being cruel, but I have to say that my prison cell will become my coffin. Only immediate family members are allowed to visit and write letters, and what I read will be censored, too. The lawyers said that this affair of our organization was pretty hopeless from the beginning, yet it could be quite useful to paint us as political casualties. I can’t write about it too much, I know it’ll be censored.
In here, when a woman finds new life, they say she puts her rubber shoes on backwards. That’s what they said when a thief with numerous criminal records came back to the cell with his head down, his face covered with tears and crushed, that his wife put her rubber shoes on backwards. Don’t hate me. I have too many hours to spend in here, so please, Yoon Hee, I want you to turn your shoes around.
Now I regret that didn’t I stay in Kalmae longer, even only for a few months. Or a few weeks. Even only for one day.
There were a handful of postcards that I had sent and about twenty notebooks of similar sizes but different paper quality and binding. Each notebook was numbered with a sticker; perhaps she had organized them later.
I opened the first notebook.