“Mackerels and halibuts! Twenty thousand won a kilogram! Just in from the seas!”
The Jagalchi fish market of Busan is itself a giant twitching fish. Only those who have wrestled with these creatures know the strength of their lean muscles, the defiant jerk of their fins. The workers at the market absorb that will to life. Every day, the bandanaed women call out to customers from behind ice-filled stalls crowded with schools of frozen fish, their voices already hoarse by noon. She shouts to you like you’re the last customer she’ll see that day, and it’s hard not to think her entire livelihood depends on your purchase. If you peek behind the stalls, you can often find the sunburnt husband crouching by a basin with a cutting board, dressing the fish one after another with that mechanical motion of someone who has made a living off killing for years. The fish never close their eyes; the man knows not to stare. He does not flinch as he lacerates the lower spine and empties the pink intestines into the basin with one skillful flick, for he understands how pity can be the worst form of disrespect. With each fish dismembered, his arms grow stronger, his chops and slashes faster, as if invigorated, rather than fatigued, by the hours of his wordless battle. In this way, he learns from that which he destroys.
I like to stand at the entrance to the market. I like to stand still and feel the tide of people rushing past me, locals and tourists alike. Behind me, the sea breathes a contented sigh as its waves gently lap the shore. At just the right spot, the buzzing timbre of the shouting women mingles in perfect harmony with the waves to produce my favorite concert. Boy, I could listen for days on end.
A blonde foreigner in his thirties is walking backward while filming himself with a camera stick. He gestures at the long line of fish vendors ahead of him, repeatedly exclaiming “Amazing!” in English. He almost drops the camera stick as he trips on a spot of broken pavement. Our eyes meet: blue into black, black into blue. He gives me a sheepish smile.
The very same spot where he tripped, my father and I used to live in a plywood shack, long since demolished. It was both our home and our flower shop. I still remember the sign we put out, a tattered cardboard he dug out from the rubble in a textile factory that the North had bombed to smithereens. Huibok Gotjip, it read. Recovery flower shop. Back then, everything was named after this modest wish of our people. Recovery furniture, recovery fruit stand, recovery tailor, and so on. It was the summer of 1954.
We were poor; we were tired; we were numb with hunger. Each day we hunted for crumbs of joy that fell through cracks in that sorrowful veil which had befallen our nation. It mattered a great deal to know when to laugh, how much to laugh. I giggled, at first cautiously, at the way father pranced one-legged on his crutches to avoid the stray dogs, his right leg drowned somewhere in the Jangjin Lake alongside Chinese commies and Northern reddies. Still kicking their communist ass, he said with a proud smile. We laughed whenever he regaled me with another episode of his haggling warfare with a fish vendor, if only to drown in our laughter the much larger war whose pinch we had just escaped. We were now “South” Korea — how funny, to have a direction in your country’s name! Then and there, it seemed like a classroom joke, as in “Pig-snout Joon” or “Slitty-eyed Min.”
We agreed by tacit promise to avoid certain words. Like “mother,” “funeral,” and “remarriage.” Whenever father so much as mouthed “college,” I aimed a playful kick at where his leg should have been. You’d need to sell three million bouquets of chrysanthemums and carnations to pay for that, Dad. Then what will you do in the future, son? I don’t know. Survive, my son; survive. I refused to venture far into the future in my imagination. The war had made a child of me. I spent countless hours in the morning sitting by our cardboard sign and watching herds of seven- and eight-year-olds galloping in the alley after American patrol tanks with outstretched hands, yelling “Choco give! Choco give!” Their younger siblings crouched hopeful on wicker mats, themselves not much larger than the baskets of grains and dried fruit coated in dust. Them, I could never laugh at. What could be funny about innocence when it had such fragile bones?
The first and only time I chased after an American tank, I kept a good distance from it, jogging barefoot along the unpaved road. The guttural laughter of the wheel sprockets spewed dust at the kids’ faces. An officer wearing sunglasses sat perched on the ring of the hatch, tapping his foot against the metal-sleek turret. He shouted something gleefully down the hatch; he flipped a finger at his little chasers before sprinkling a handful of Hershey’s Kisses; the children collected their reward like sparrows pecking at birdseeds.
I jogged past their delighted cries. My feet bled and blistered from the jagged gravel of the road, which absorbed the summer heat like a furnace. I was clutching a scrapped section of the local town paper, a pocket-sized obituary featuring Soo-jin with her bobbed hair, five years my junior. A small commemoration for a small life. It didn’t even mention what had killed her, a poorly kept secret. I always knew her as the “tailor girl.” She would beckon at me from the front porch as she folded up sleeves of repaired jeogoris, holding down the sorted pile with her foot so the shirts wouldn’t blow away in the wind from the sea. When I stepped under their thatched roof, her mute mother would hand me a wicker bowl of scallion pancakes or baked sweet potatoes. I would soon return with a plateful of dried anchovies glazed in soy sauce, the only banchan my old man could make with reasonable success. Soo-jin and I never exchanged a word. It was enough to know that she would beckon at me again tomorrow from the exact same spot. After fleeing back and forth the length of the whole peninsula, all of us wanted desperately to turn one another into a place. That way, perhaps, life could be as simple and fixed as a map. Ji-woo’s flower shop by the Jagalchi market entrance, Soo-jin’s tailor next to Min-ho’s bike racks. Fanciful thoughts.
It was a strange, resentful kind of curiosity that fueled me that day. How monstrous and powerful was this tank that it could topple over a person as easily as I could knock out a twig? I felt the vehicle’s weight through the rumbling of the ground; I studied the relentless gurgling of the roadwheels. I wanted to know how quickly the air inside Soo-jin would have been extinguished, how many seconds of pain she endured, what kind of belt mark must have sunk into her abdomen.
Thank God for the Americans. Father said this like a habit. They save our necks and they drive the commies back north, kill them off like mosquitos. But father, did you not know even then that we were mosquitos also, left alone only because we didn’t bite? Did you not know that when violence matures, it learns to smile like a kind neighbor?
The tank pulled to a stop by the Gwangan shore. Five or six uniformed men climbed out of the hatch. They smiled at one another in a way I had never smiled before, showing the full array of their shining teeth. I hid under the shade of a hackberry as they settled down on the pebbly beach. I massaged my bleeding feet, watching them skip stones against the incoming tide. The white foam of the wave crawled up to their boots and retreated at the last second, coloring the pebbles in its reach dark with wetness. I wondered what it would be like to live as a pebble on this beach, to have my existence defined by a slow but inevitable erosion. Would that be more or less painful than being squashed to death by a machine? The Americans laughed out loud. I practiced their toothy smile; my cheeks hurt from the strain of unused muscles.
When I went home late in the evening, I knew from the unmistakable smell of the fish market that we had a guest, even before I saw her silhouette cast against the mulberry window paper.
“Where have you been, son?” Father’s voice came from the furnace room, where he was feeding briquettes to the agungi so we could have hot water. A woman with her hair tied in a red handkerchief was crouching by the flower stand, smelling the cotton flower bundles. The fishy stink of her apron rose above the floral fragrance. She glanced at my feet and clicked her tongue; I gave her a curt bow.
“I was just checking out the tanks. They were pretty cool.”
“Ji-woo’s dad, you must buy your son shoes,” the woman said. Her voice was husky and gruff, almost a man’s. “How about that Japanese sneaker shop down by the Parks?”
“Aigoo, Ji-woo ya! You start wearing those straw shoes I wove for you before I chop off your feet and dump them where my leg is,” father shouted back with a chuckle. I would have laughed along, but I was trying hard not to grimace at the woman’s stench. She eyed me curiously.
“Look at you, a Busan boy who can’t handle the scent of the sea. Poor wretch.”
“I’m not a boy, ajumma.”
“Oh, sure you are, getting your old man all worried, staying out till after sunset. Those tanks won’t even see you crossing the alley. Didn’t you hear what happened to that girl?”
I silently sat down on the opposite corner of the room and started to shell the pile of cockles to prepare dinner.
“Sweet thing, Soo-jin was. Knew how to work the sewing machine like it was her third arm. She helped fix the hem of my dress, too. Her poor mom…”
The shells cracked loudly in my hands. The things from the beach sat well with me, abalones and oysters and mussels. But fish — they smelled of ocean displaced on land, of misfits asserting their wet homes in an environment determined to wilt them dead, with nothing to show for their feckless resistance but this stench.
“The mom was saving up to send Soo-jin to a school. Never underestimate the resolve of a mother. That woman would raise her daughter a literate lady if the heavens came toppling down. Worked her bones off, day and night. You young bastards need to appreciate how much blood and sweat goes into your upbringing. Look at your dad, hopping around like a kangaroo just to put rice in your mouth.”
“Yes, yes, I know.” The smell was even more unbearable in the midst of flowers. A disdainful invasion.
“Ji-woo ya, remember. Going before for your parents is the most impious thing you can—”
“Soo-jin died because she was stupid enough to think the Americans might feed her if she loafed around near the military base for the whole day! You know how tall she is? Barely 120 cm. They can’t even see the top of her head from inside the tank hatch. She was fucking asking for it, ssibal, all right?”
Father hurriedly limped in from the furnace room, his face covered in soot and sweat. The woman picked out a cotton bundle from the stand and rose to her feet.
“She should have shut up and stayed in her moldy little home and just… stayed there! That’s what people should do, stay the fuck still, ssibal. Everyone. Why can’t they? Why do they have to get mad and fight and cause trouble?”
The woman smiled a crooked smile. “You’re not mad about Soo-jin. You’re mad about someone else.”
“My mom gave her life so I wouldn’t have to give mine, and so did everyone else who died in the war, so don’t you dare—”
“You said it, not me.” She handed father a couple of brass coins and stepped outside. “Ji-woo ya, you would’ve made a miserable soldier.”
Father stood still while her footsteps faded, leaning on the wall with one hand. I bent my head and focused on the basin of cockles. It mattered a great deal to know when to laugh.
Three days later, he asked me to apologize. Go find her by the northwest corner of the Jagalchi market. Look for the red handkerchief. He asked in that perennially tired tone of his, at once pleading and firm, as if his words came from a dying will he rehearsed every morning, an entreaty I could not decline. You can’t talk that way to a grown-up. We didn’t say a word about anything else. Maybe that’s all it meant to grow up, to make a cemetery of your chest where you could bury more words and more names.
But I wanted to ask you, father, would I have made a good soldier? Would you have trusted me by your side in the trench? Because you never taught me to fight, only to survive; never to cope with loss, only to witness it.
As I found out later, the woman had a distinct reputation in the fish market. Red Chief, she was called. Every morning began with her loud singing as she awaited the first catch from the fishermen, who knew better than to haggle with her. The metronome beat of her chopping would reverberate through the lonesome lanes of the market, whose heyday would not come for at least another three decades. One by one, the vendors and joints around her would stretch awake.
I watched her for a long time in silence, my eyes following the repeated fall and rise of her knife, the busy movement of her hands. I cringed every time the blade pierced the heart of the creature — dark blood gushing forth into a bucket, then the triangular head snapped off like the cap of a bottle. A swift business. She would move on to the next, a halibut or mackerel looking all too awake in its frozen form. Sitting on that stool, glistening with summer sweat, she was Mother Nature delivering her verdict. Her shapely arms were tanned the color of seaside sunsets, with the evening tide tattooed into wrinkles on her elbow. Fish blood trickled down her hands, forming little tributaries along palm lines carved out by pebbles and sand grain.
“Creepy, aren’t they? The eyes.” Red Chief was the first to break the ice. She gestured at me to come closer. I did, resisting the urge to pinch my nose.
“I don’t like the way they stare.”
“It’s like they refuse to go to sleep. Here, touch this,” she said, picking up a hairtail from the stall. “Run your fingers along the scales, now against them. See how much resistance can reside even in a finished body? Some fishermen carry their catch like war trophies. You know, they’d sail back to shore, guffawing and whistling as they haul the net filled with flapping gills and drying eyes, the grand halo of evening sun to their backs… But those boys don’t know how to cradle death in their arms. They’ve never stood before a proper sunset, the kind where it’s blood and rage trickling down. Do you know why a hairtail is called galchi?”
“It’s because it looks like a gal, a knife. A fighter by shape. Always gives me the tingle, when I have to bring down a galchi with a gal.”
Behind the fish stalls, she kept a small table with plastic stools, where hungry customers might stop for a dressed-on-the-spot sashimi or a spicy fish stew. In the middle of the table stood a vase with the cotton flowers she had bought from father.
“Flower names have meanings too,” I said. “It’s called floral language. Acacia means secret love, dandelion means gratitude, and so on.”
Red Chief resumed her dressing. She had seemed to be around my father’s age under the dim light of the flower shop, but up close, she boasted a youthful vigor, her face enameled in that womanly beauty I rarely saw from other ajummas.
“Ji-woo ya, I have known many folks who died with open eyes. Women beat up by Japanese soldiers in brothels during the colonial period, men frozen in trenches dividing Koreans from Koreans… This country is full of them. And some of them were too damn young to go. They didn’t even understand what communism meant. Can you truly hate something you don’t understand? It wasn’t hate that drove those boys out onto the battlefield. It wasn’t patriotism, either. It was defiance.”
The floral language of cotton was mother’s love.
“He wasn’t even old enough to be drafted. I reasoned with him many times, but you can’t tell your kids anything. He took a bullet between the ribs during the Battle of Jangjin Lake, the same place your father lost his leg. His platoon commander wrote me saying that the North was spraying us with chemicals and that he had gas brimming full to the eyelids but boy, he kept them wide open. I still remember him telling me as he left for the training ground that someday, kids at school will read about girls who lost virginity before they had a country, boys who were martyrs before they were men. And it’s hard not to think that he’s here right now, roaming the market, waiting to see that day. Just like these ghosts of fish.” She inhaled deeply. “Smell this place, son. It’s the scent of life at its finest.”
Son. Perhaps the heaviest of all words to bury. Perhaps that’s why father always called me by my name in her presence. Her visits were sparse at first, and always under the pretext of sharing banchan — a vinyl bag of cucumber kimchi, stir-fried fish cake wrapped in aluminum foil. But I soon learned to expect that grand silhouette of hers every day after we put aside the cardboard sign of our flower shop around sunset. She came to talk; she was a walking bag of stories. She told me about her ventures on the fishing boat, about the countless escapes from Japanese patrolmen during her childhood. Father never forgot to chime in, Praise God for the Americans. She talked about the crazy politics brewing in Seoul. The war might be over, but a far longer tunnel lies ahead. The two grown-ups would unapologetically throw back soju glasses in front of me, while I dozed off on my barley tea to their chat. I didn’t mind her visiting. Around her, father laughed less and smiled more.
Each time she dragged our door open, I felt a pang of shame as I wondered what she would think of our flower shop name. There was so much more to do than recover. Which was such an easy goal, yet such an impossible goal. Because every day I couldn’t stop thinking, What if I’m just another pebble on the beach?
“Boredom is terrifying,” I told her one day. The mackerel’s tail fin felt cold and slimy under my left hand. I grimaced as I put the false edge of the filleting knife to the fish and pushed it upward along its spine, just like she had taught me. Her tutelage began one morning when I was delivering father’s usual glazed anchovies. She grabbed me by the wrist, saying that I needed a real skill if I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life shelling cockle and bundling up chrysanthemums. I feigned reluctance but I was grateful to spend less time under the leaking roof of our shack, where life seemed fated to a slow and suffocating sleep. Too often, the tickling fragrance of flowers felt like a mockery of our situation, a frivolous happiness beyond our reach no matter how much we laughed. Most of all, I dreaded noticing the abrupt halt of father’s laughter as he turned away after another stock joke of ours. The more he laughed, the more he became a stranger to me. “Ajumma, I get so bored I think I’m going to die from it.”
“What you feel isn’t boredom; you just haven’t learned the word for it. But of course you think you’re bored. You just went through a war.”
“I didn’t really go through anything.” I meant it too. It was other people who went through things. I was just the ash of a charred history.
People always came to the flower shop with a pretext and a smile. Daffodils for the widowed neighbor, roses for the newly born, carnations for the aging mom. Who knew what wretched stories lurked behind those cute blossoms they carried close to their chests. The Jagalchi market, on the other hand, allowed me to witness the raw face of people’s lives. Miners, divers, tailors, launderers, repairmen… From the haggling widows to the square-shouldered fishermen, these people were fighters through and through. Some had lost body parts; few had intact families. Boys and girls younger than Soo-jin were already sticking worms through fish hooks and hollowing out crabs. The market was a mock battleground where they all came to practice for that one day when they would be strong enough to dominate without having to defy. I remembered to look each of them in the eye as I handed them the fish of their pick.
Every now and then, the American officers came by too. The air changed whenever they did. Conversations moved to a lower register, heads fell to avoid eye contact. It wasn’t out of fear; the uniformed men exuded none of the high-handed aura that many grown-ups remembered with a shudder from the Japanese colonialists. Instead, they sauntered through the market lane in that unhurried gait of art patrons at a museum, frowning with pity at the peeling paint of awnings, chuckling at children scurrying about. With their high noses and wide-rimmed sunglasses, they looked, to me, indistinguishable from one another — just different incarnations of that image to which the Koreans had developed an allergic reaction: brute power.
I let them pat my head as I handed them a Styrofoam container with fish that I had cut up myself. While I was working with the knife, I felt their eyes on the top of my head. I didn’t speak a word of English, so everything in their language sounded like variations of laughter. Easygoing and insouciant. In my mind, that’s what they came to the market for: to show what real mirth sounded like in a place where no one else was capable of it.
The tallest of the officers handed me a few dollar bills, which I knew was way above anything the fish were worth. Red Chief, who had been watching from the side, sprang to her feet and waved her hands vigorously. The American grabbed her wrist as easily as he might catch a baseball from a toddler. He had a long scar running along his right cheek that made his face, even in rest, look like it was smiling. He said something in a soft voice, displaying the full array of his shining teeth as if to prove that there could always be a second smile hiding behind his first. I could not see through the dark lens of his sunglasses, but I followed the direction of his downward gaze and arrived at the loose neck of her white shirt, cut low to let the breeze through in the summer heat. She yanked back her hand and hastily pulled on her apron. She gestured at me to take the money.
“Look at you, Ji-woo, coming home with American money! Ready to be the breadwinner, are you?” Father exclaimed in delight when I returned home. After a few hours at the market, the green bills already carried that whiff of the sea. I pressed them into his hand. He gave them a playful kiss and hopped over to the dresser where we kept our money jar. “First earnings from my son. That’s really good, Ji-woo ya. You’re learning to survive. Bless those Americans. I myself made a fortune today — do you see those empty baskets? Mrs. Lee’s preparing a feast for her seventieth, and their family took all the wreaths and garlands I could manage to make in a day. Would’ve made some more, if only they’d told me earlier.”
I sat down at my usual spot in the corner. Today, it was abalones, at least three times as expensive as cockles. Father never saved the extra money when it came in.
“I used to mind you spending so much time with ajumma. You’re my second leg after all. But it seems she taught you a useful thing or two.”
“Yeah,” I said. “For the record, I don’t mind you spending time with her, either.”
Curtains. That’s what it was, the scent of flowers. The thing with curtains was that they let in enough light for it to feel bright, but unless we cast them aside, we couldn’t ever know what lay on the other side.
“Ji-woo ya, it’s not like that between us. Sure, your dad gets lonely sometimes. But it’s not like that.”
“Maybe it’s not loneliness. Maybe you just haven’t learned the word for it.”
“Neither of us is thinking about anything far down the road. That’s what everyone’s like these days. Another morning and another night. We’re all alive to see it, and that’s what matters. Today. Tonight.”
“Dad, what are we doing?” I dropped the abalone from my hand and pushed away the basin with my foot. “What’s our plan? Where do we go from here?”
“What do you mean, son, where do we go? We have a home. We have a job. Good compensation in exchange for a limb, don’t you think?”
“No, I mean after that. After this. Where do we go after this?”
We let the silence fester. I gazed into his eyes. The flat, black pupils were deep wells into which he had plunged many a gruesome sight. The creases on his forehead multiplied by day, forming little clouds. His left leg, bulging with muscle for doing twice the work it was meant to do, stood slightly slanted like an old willow. I retrieved the abalones and resumed my work. Sometimes, curtains were put up to help people forget that there was nothing on the other side.
The last I ever saw of Red Chief was a breezy day in September, after the adamant spirit of summer had let up on us. I followed my usual route, entering the Jagalchi market after a few minutes of strolling on the beach. I averted my eyes whenever I passed by Soo-jin’s place, though I knew that if I ever mustered the courage to look, I would find half a pile of jeogoris sitting on the porch, forever left in their unrepaired state.
As I approached Red Chief’s vendor, I saw two American officers talking to her. I could tell something was off, just from the fact that she had come out in front of the fish stalls, instead of standing behind them. Displaced from her habitat. I recognized the smiling scar on the tall officer’s face.
I don’t know what made me stop walking but I did. I didn’t resist as Mr. Kim, who sold crabs a few spots down the lane from Red Chief’s, pulled me aside. He whispered something about waiting till the row was over. I watched intently as the three of them continued to face each other off. She stood akimbo, the tan of her bare arms visible even from a distance. She had the kind of arms that could prove to a stranger that she had caught and chopped more fish than a whole squad of vessels. But next to the officer’s uniform — camouflaged with that universal khaki pattern which covered his beret, his comrades, his tanks, some of which might have destroyed entire platoons of North Koreans, one of which must have knocked out Soo-jin in a narrow alleyway — next to that apparel of power, even Red Chief’s arms looked like slender branches on a late autumn tree.
I whimpered as the officer’s hand touched her shoulder, slid down the arm towards her hip, then grabbed her buttock. His fingers tightened and loosened like those of a hand that was accustomed to seizing; he flashed his toothy smile. She slapped him across the face.
The officers pushed her aside. They overturned the stalls one by one. Frozen fish and ice blocks spilled out onto the lane. They picked up the bucket holding fish intestines and turned it upside down. In a couple big strides, they reached the small table at the back and toppled it over; the vase of cotton flowers shattered. Ajumma picked up a hairtail and threw it at the shorter officer, who retaliated by swinging one of the stools at her head. Thud. She flew back a couple meters and fell on her back. The Americans glanced at each other, speaking in low voices. They adjusted their uniforms; they walked away.
Mr. Kim and others rushed over to the fallen woman. Is she all right? Get help, now! Don’t step on the shards. Two of them carried away her unconscious body, each holding her head and feet; the others followed unnecessarily. Someone cursed after slipping on a fish. Mackerels and halibuts and hairtails and pollacks watched from the ground. No one saw me, except these fish, as I grabbed her filleting knife from beneath the cutting board and started to run.
I was wearing the straw shoes father wove for me. Too big for my size, they flapped against my heels like a series of rapid wavelets hitting the shore. I flicked them off and ran barefoot. My knuckles turned white from clutching the knife.
I can’t recall what was going through my mind as I caught up to the two khaki figures. When they noticed me and turned around, I leaned on my knees to catch my breath. I didn’t even bother to hide the weapon.
The taller officer with the scar bent over so that we were eye to eye. He asked me a question, which I did not understand. He asked again. His companion said something funny, and they laughed.
“Here,” he said, his scar twitching into a smile. He took out a Hershey’s bar from his front pocket. The crinkled wrapper made a whispering noise as a breeze passed by. “Choco.”
I shook my head. I felt my face burn as I realized that tears were flowing down my cheeks.
“What’s your name, buddy?” he asked. I was still shaking my head. He pointed at the name tag embroidered on his right chest. “Name. What’s… your… name?”
“Soo-jin,” I answered. He shoved the chocolate bar into my pocket and patted my head. After exchanging another incomprehensible joke, they walked over to their patrol tank parked nearby. I waited as they climbed down the hatch, as the vehicle announced its raucous departure, leaving behind a cloud of gravel dust.
Red Chief didn’t return to the market. Her spot was soon taken up by a lanky man who always complained that his whole body smelled of fish no matter how hard he scrubbed it. According to rumor, she moved to Seoul and started working at a seafood restaurant. Maybe after ten years or so, father and I followed her; he lived another decade before tuberculosis got him. I hopped from job to job, moving cement and laying bricks and painting walls. I managed to find a college willing to accept a middle-aged man with no high school diploma. Sometimes I joined the student protests for democracy; sometimes I watched from the side.
And in the meantime, the Jagalchi market burgeoned into a hatchery of vigor and spirit, transforming itself so thoroughly that no hint of its slummy history remained. Except, of course, for the smell.
“Can you help me film this, sir?” The foreigner with the camera stick asks me in English. In his blue eyes, the evening sun becomes a pair of flickering red dots. “I want the whole thing from the wide angle, for just a couple of seconds, you know? Right from where you are. Thanks so much.”
I nod and receive the camera. I hold it up to my eye. The man starts talking excitedly, drawing big circles with his arms. Behind me, the incoming tide slaps against the beach as the sun melts down into the wide waters.