Five years was not enough to change my hometown. Familiar buildings, familiar people; it was the same. My house, which I could have found with my eyes closed, was unchanged too. Thinking of the dining table with its two fish-shaped patterns, the utensils I had used before I went to prison and the clothes I used to wear, I headed for home, sweet home. My house was at the end of a building where 11 households lived together. I wanted to surprise my mother and didn’t want my neighbors to recognize me, so I jammed my hat on and killed time on the street until it grew dark. Only then, I opened the gate and stuck my head in.
“Is anyone there?”
“Who is it?”
“Is this Jun Ha’s house?”
“Well, yes it is, but……”
Mother looked for a match and lit a lamp. As she came out of the door with the lamplight, her eyes opened wide.
“Oh my! Who is this? Jun Ha! You’re Jun Ha, right?”
As soon as she recognized me, she started to cry and began hugging me tightly. How I had missed her! When she patted me on the cheek, her hands felt just like the old days. Whatever happened, her hands were always filled with the warmth of her love. I stood there hugging her for a long time. I promised to myself that I would never leave her again.
“Oh dear! I’ve completely forgotten!”
“Jun Ha, you’re hungry, right? Wait for a while; I’ll cook you some rice.”
I don’t know where she got the idea, but then she made me eat a piece of tofu, told me to take a step forward with my left foot and not to turn back. Then she sprinkled some salt behind me.
My room hadn’t changed a bit either. The table, the utensils and all the other things were the same. I took off the military uniform and changed into my own clothes. And it was then that I started to realize that I was home for real. For the first time in five years, I sat around the dining table and had dinner with my mother. It had taken five years for us to finally reunite, so it was no wonder we had so much to share. We talked the night away, crying and laughing. Early in the morning, mother finally fell asleep. She must have had a good dream, because she was wearing a happy smile on her face. In five years, she had gotten so old. My heart ached to see, and I hated myself for making her suffer so much.
I quietly went out of the house to have a cigarette. I remembered the times I had had to hide in a toilet or a warehouse in order to smoke in the prison. I didn’t have to be careful about smoking anymore. I didn’t have to be so tense anymore. I enjoyed my cigarette to the full. It was too good to be true.
I heard a bell ring, and then my neighbors coming out of their houses one by one. I asked mother what it was, and she told me that it was a bell mobilizing the people’s unit. Every morning when the bell rings, one person from each household had to go out and participate in projects like road maintenance, digging ditches and constructing fisheries to name but a few. Households whose members could not provide manpower, such as those consisting of only the old, had to pay a fine. Mother told me to get some sleep and began to change her clothes.
“Mother, I will go,” I told her.
Even though she tried to stop me, I forced her to stay and went out with a shovel. I said hello to some of the people I recognized, and they were all happy to see me.
“You just got released from prison yesterday! How come your body is so good? Your mother must be relieved. You used to be such a small boy, and now you have come back as a young man!”
That day’s project was constructing river embankments. When I arrived at the river bank, 80 People’s units were there. They said that one household which was supposed to participate in building a pasture for goats had gotten off by paying a 1200 won bribe. Everyone was complaining. The government left the rich people to themselves, but continued to pressure the powerless.
However, I had been mobilized for labor only a day after my release, so everything felt new. That was why I just concentrated on working without saying anything. But people kept asking me questions. I answered the necessary questions, and for those I didn’t find appropriate I smiled instead. I took rocks as big as a person’s head out of the water and piled them up on the bank.
After working for an hour and a half, we were allowed to head home. The entire unit complimented me for doing such a good job. In prison, I had had to put up with curses and beatings after doing much harder labor. To be honest, I was a little bit embarrassed at the compliments I got after doing that easy work.
When I got home, mother was waiting with rice, bean sprout soup and pork for me. Tears gathered in her eyes. She said it still felt like a dream. Having breakfast with her couldn’t have made me happier, but the rice and pork bothered me. It was a little too much for a breakfast. Mother had prepared all these for me, returning home after five years. I could understand it, but it wasn’t suitable for my family.
“Haha, mother! I have been eating nothing but corn rice for five years! Eating rice alone is too greasy for me. I can’t take it. Can you mix rice and corn?”
Mother looked at me with an understanding face.
“Mother, don’t worry,” I told her, “From now on I’ll take care of you. So don’t worry about me anymore.”
My first day back in society started like that. Everything was new, and everything seemed so hopeful. I couldn’t do anything but aim for a goal and live for mother. Five years in prison had taught me tolerance and perseverance. These values were my weapons, and I was going to use them to start a new life.
However, God wasn’t going to allow me to take the smooth road, and destiny parted me and mother again for an indefinite period of time. Alas, mother’s pain didn’t stop that day.