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Prison Tales

A Good Friend Leaves for the Mountain

Lee Jun Ha's Prison Tales 17.
 |  2009-07-30 13:51
Hey! The guard is coming!

We were sentimental over our families for a while, but we soon started to mutter the Generals teachings when the handyman, who was supposed to be watching whether we were studying properly, called out a warning.

The next day, when my teams quota had been reached, I walked over to Young Nam. He was wielding an ax, but looked for all the world as though he was about to burst into tears. He looked awful.

He was trying so hard with his thin arms, but the heavy ax made his whole body reel. Bouncing wood chips were hitting his eyes, which was causing him to cry. Back then he was frequently whipped by the authorities, because more than two months after he had arrived, he still couldnt even chop down a tree by himself.

Young Nam, move!

I swiftly chopped down the tree, put it in his chains, and smoothed its base so it could be dragged along comfortably. He stared at me blankly, but I could see the gratitude in his eyes. Some people, even if they give you something, you cant but hate them. On the other hand there are some people whom you unconditionally like. To me, Young Nam was just like my own little brother.

It was because Young Nam was so kindhearted and innocent. When cold and hungry, others only cared about themselves. Young Nam, however, was conciliatory even though he himself was going through a hard time. When I gave him a scoop of rice, he always shared it with others. When the security official in charge of our section secretly called him and asked about the cell head and me, he did not say anything despite the beating he received.

I felt it was my duty to make him healthy again, so I started to pay special attention to him. One day on my way to work, I ordered him to take a recess (whereby a prisoner does not go to work, but is on stand by) and gave him five kilograms of corn powder.

The cell head had the right to order one or two people to take a recess at any given time. Originally, those taking recess were confined to the First Clinic under doctors observation. However, I put a plastic bag and a bucket of water for making rice cakes in the cell, and locked the door with Young Nam still inside, then asked the First Clinic Doctor and the head of another section to make sure that no guards found out about it.

Dont worry about anything, I told the boy, If you want to eat, then eat. You can sleep too if you want, but make sure you lie down right under the observation window.

Then I went to work. When I came back to the cell in the evening, I found that he hadnt eaten much of the powder I had given him. I expected that he would have finished at least two kilogram, but very little of the powder was gone

Young Nam. Why didnt you eat? Are you not feeling well? I asked him.

No, he replied, I thought that I could finish all of it, but since I had to eat alone with no one around me, I was soon full so I couldnt eat much.

Then he announced that he was going to share the remaining powder with the other prisoners. I stared at him for a while, and told him that, You must definitely survive. Other people would have said that they would finish the leftovers the next day, but he thought of sharing it even though he himself was suffering from malnutrition.

A mere four months later, his weight had reached 67kg. He was only 163cm tall then, so when he reached 67kg his face and body were swelling already. I was glad, thinking that his swollen body would rapidly turn into muscle anyway. I gave him a playful nickname, fatty.

One day I called out to him, Hey, Young Nam! But there was no answer, so I called again, Hey, fatty! He answered me without hesitation. Everyone in our section laughed, and from that day on his nickname stuck.

On another day I took him to the kitchen to eat. On Sundays and holidays Myung Hak cooked some rice and waited for me to come and eat it. It wasnt just the rice alone. With heated rice and soybean paste in a bowl, I could really eat like a human being.

Entering the kitchen, Young Nam looked around to see if anyone was watching him. He was nervous because, except for some cell heads and foremen, no one was allowed in there.

He took a close look at the high pressure electric rice-cooker, a soup pot with two large lids stuck together face to face (its a pot that uses a firewood-burning boilers steam because there is no electricity), a board for flipping rice, another pot for pounding rice, the water tank, the grinder and so on.

Youre in a much higher position than other cell heads who havent been here, huh? I said, and Myung Hak burst into laughter. When Myung Hak went away for a while, Young Nam spoke to me with tears in his eyes.

Thank you so much.
Oh, come on! Did someone die or something? I chided him.
Long before, when I was still a newcomer you chopped down that tree for me and asked me if I was tired. That really gave me power to go on. At first I thought you were not that friendly because you didnt talk much. But when I was suffering from malnutrition you told me that I was going to survive for sure. It made me have faith, for real. If you werent here probably I would have.
Forget it! A guy shouldnt cry!! I told him.

There were maybe six newcomers around Young Nams age, but I didnt pay much attention to them like I did to him. He always behaved tactfully, and everyone loved him. I took him along wherever I went.

However, our relationship was not to last that long. As I was dragging him back from the brink of malnutrition, I never imagined that he would leave me for Mt. Bulmang. But he did, on a freezing cold day in winter.
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