September 2, 2009
“Thanks for everything.”
Like bygone history, I turned. The chief guard and I didn’t exchange a word as we stood in front of the iron gate. It closed behind us. There was another gate in the middle of the corridor leading to the main building. A young soldier, who was serving his mandatory military service as a guard at the prison, opened and closed the gate, shouting Loyalty! I had walked back and forth along this wing thousands of times, whenever I went to the clinic or the security office or the visitation room or the administration office. The wing disappeared behind my back, one section after the other.
We finally passed the third iron gate leading to the main building. Beyond the iron gate was the bare ground where the guards assembled every morning. For no reason, I looked up at the sky. It was still dark, but something cold came down, soft and delicate. It was snowing. As I always did, I walked one step ahead of my escort. Like a well-trained animal, I knew where to go. I stepped up into the building and turned right.
An unfamiliar heat enveloped me when I walked into the security office. On top of the blazing gas stove, a kettle was whistling as water boiled. The chief administrator on duty was dozing off, seated deeply in a swiveling chair. He took down his feet from the opposite chair and slowly stood up.
“Fourteen Forty- . . . ah . . . Mr. Oh Hyun Woo, you’re being released today, right?” He glanced at his wristwatch then pointed toward the chair where he had placed his feet.
“Please, take a seat.”
I walked over to where he sat comfortably in front of the stove and bowed awkwardly.
“Sit down, sit down. You met with the warden yesterday, didn’t you?”
“Actually, your official release began at midnight, but we’ve been waiting for your family and transportation, things like that.” Then he asked the chief guard standing behind me, “What about his personal effects, did you retrieve them?”
“His nephew deposited clothes yesterday. Money and other things are over here.”
“His nephew? He must have stayed overnight somewhere nearby, then.”
“Yes, he phoned yesterday to say he’d be here at five o’clock.”
When I heard that my nephew was here, my heart finally began to race. I saw him every few years or so, most recently a couple of years ago when he came for a visit with my sister, telling me he was about to start his military service. He was a five-year-old, a little boy, when I came in here. Watching that little boy grow into an adult, I kept track of time passing. Inside here, the changing seasons seemed indistinguishable, and I was never sure what year it was, but little incidents marked time in my memory like growth rings on a tree. I remembered one year by the winter when the black cat I fed day and night died, and another year by the long autumn night when Mr. Yang, an eighty-year-old man, wept all through the night, saying he did not want to be released, and another by the night when the man we called Toothless Mouth suffocated and died in the middle of the night, one week before the end of his prison term.
“Please come over here.”
The chief guard had piled up a suitcase and envelopes on another desk. I was stifling by the overheated gas stove, so I promptly moved over to his desk. When the chief guard opened the suitcase, the first thing that caught my eye was a pair of black leather shoes. The toes of the slip-on shoes were slender and shiny, reflecting the light. They looked too perfect to wear. Also in the suitcase were a wool shirt and a jacket, which looked so warm, and a leather belt, something I had not seen for years. There was new underwear and socks, price tags still attached.
“Change your clothes.”
I took off my prison uniform as if I were shedding my skin. First I took off the unshapely, quilted jacket, which we jokingly called the Chinese Army uniform. Then the pants with no belt, held together by short strings about the length of a little finger. When I had taken off the old knitted thermal underwear with baggy knees I stood there in only my underpants and T-shirt, yet I did not feel cold. Instead, my sweat finally began to dry.
“No need to hurry, we have a plenty of time.”
That’s what the chief guard said, but I moved quickly yet precisely, just like I had during the physical examinations. I folded the prison clothes neatly and stacked them in front of me, then began to dress in my new clothes in reverse order, starting with the new underwear. I put on the wool shirt and pants, put the leather belt around my waist, tightened and secured it, then took one deep breath. I looked down at the sharply creased line of my slacks. They were ironed like a bureaucrat’s. When I put my shoes on, my feet appeared so small it was as if they were drowning under my slacks. The last item I put on was the warm, loose jacket. The clothes I took off were piled under my feet like rags, the pair of white rubber shoes neatly placed on top, like relics of a dead person.
“You look pretty good, Mr. Oh.”
“Ha ha, you look like our warden.”
The administrator and the guard each commented. Without saying anything, I put my two bags in the suitcase. The chief guard took money out of a large envelope.
“Here, your money deposited before, and the receipt . . . and I think those are your personal properties.”
I simply folded the bills and stuck them into an inner pocket of my new jacket.
“Count them. I don’t want to hear later that you’re claiming anything missing.”
My old belongings tumbled down into a small plastic basket. There was a gold ring decorated with leaf patterns. There were letters from my sister, a picture of my mother before she passed away, and a brown wallet, faded and wrinkled. I opened the wallet. One ID card, the photo on it discolored yellow. In that picture, the younger me had wavy long hair and glared. Seeing the address reminded me of the house surrounded by forsythias near Buk Han Mountain. Then I opened another part of the wallet fastened with a snap. I held my breath a moment to control my breathing, but my heart was beating hard. I knew very well what was in there: a talisman my mom had given me when I left home, of Avalokiteśvara, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy, and a small passport photograph. I unsnapped the small compartment. There was the talisman, wrapped in red silk, and the photograph. I pushed the snap down and closed it again. I didn’t want to remember anything in there. I put the wallet in the other pocket. As I put the gold ring on my ring finger, she appeared to me, finally, her fingers, her voice, her white calves wearing white rubber shoes with jutting toes. Look here! she said, her voice breaking slightly. A single moss rose has blossomed, the first one! And she touched her mouth with one raised finger and gestured toward me. Hush, can you see? Underneath the apple tree, there’s a hoopoe! The telephone rang.
“Hello? The front entrance? Got it.”
The chief guard put down the receiver and told the chief administrator on duty, “His relative is waiting at the front gate.”
“Mr. Oh Hyun Woo, come over here please.”
The chief administrator thrust a piece of paper toward me.
“This is the official certificate of your release. You’re still considered a security risk and a subject of surveillance. When you get home, you’ll have to report to the local police within one week, is that understood?”
The chief administrator stood up and formally shook my hand.
“Congratulations on your release. It is my sincere wish for you to become a productive member of society.”
He saluted and I bowed deeply. I left the main building with the chief guard. It was still snowing and windy. The chief guard looked up to the sky and mumbled, “You have a long way to go, I hope the road condition is okay.”
We passed through a small opening in the corner of the front gate and walked toward the guard station near the prison’s outermost wall. Armed soldiers were guarding the station, and in front of it in an empty field was a lone passenger car with lights on. When we reached the guard station, the chief guard stopped walking and said, “From here on, it’s the real world. Best of luck.”
We said our goodbyes like that, him inside, me out. I moved the little suitcase from one hand to the other, and I entered the world.