The Vegetable Seller

Sonni Aun, Fiction

After having survived a war and raising two children single-handedly, old Mrs. Lee couldn’t have been faulted for believing that all her past suffering meant that however many years remained of her life would be safe from disaster. For the difficult times were past her now, her son and daughter having been both safely ferried to adulthood, and surely there were now just enough years left to undergo a gentle decline as she watched her little granddaughter grow up and attend university, if her ancestors would so allow. Which is why the day Mrs. Lee lost her four-year-old granddaughter, it was as if the earth had cleaved into two and swallowed her up into its deepest nether regions, or the sky thrown down a dry bolt of lightning and shattered her into a million pieces.

She had been out at the marketplace at the east end of Seoul with her granddaughter and found herself arguing with the vegetable seller. Her granddaughter had let go of her hand to toddle inside the stall and poke her chubby fingers against the long radishes, which shone white with a lovely green tinge that deepened towards the leafy ends. Through a lifetime of dicing and slicing into that clean white flesh, old Mrs. Lee had never been able to suppress the thought that radishes looked immodest, like the plump calves of young women. The vegetable seller was not much younger than old Mrs. Lee, and a web of wrinkles radiated out from the center of her browned face, and a clutch of fine horizontal lines crossed her upper lip like an illustration of seaward wind. The vegetable seller glanced over at the granddaughter to make sure the girl would not topple the neat stacks of radishes, but did not tell her to stop because she was fond of children.

“Last batch of cabbages, I found them soft in the middle when I got them home,” Mrs. Lee said. “What kind of kimchi am I going to make with rotting cabbages? They were heavy, and you know how much trouble my right arm gives me. Carried all those rotting cabbages back to the apartment just to throw them out again, and the super charges us if we go over our trash limit. The building keeps track.”

The wind above the vegetable seller’s mouth drew itself together as she smiled. “Ai-gu, grandmother, how can that be? You know I have many other customers, and this is the first I hear of this. I promise you, I would know if my cabbages were going bad.” The vegetable seller knew Mrs. Lee was trying to get a discount and that she probably had made stew with the soft parts instead of throwing them out.

“Listen, you overcharged me too, because I went down the block a few days later, and those men with the truck, they were selling them at 550 wons a piece, not 600 wons,” said Mrs. Lee stubbornly.

“Well, grandmother, I can’t stop you from buying cabbages from those men, but if they cheat you, how will you find them? There’s no guarantee that they’ll ever come back to the same spot, is there? You know always where to find me in this market.”

Just as Mrs. Lee was about to retort sharply, a thundering noise shook her bones and something heavy thudded against her temple. She immediately hunched down, her stiff hands clutching her head. Lights flashed behind her closed eyes, and her heart knocked against her breastbone. When she opened her eyes, a wooden bin had splintered open inches away from her nose, flecked with pulp and bits of broken fruit. She looked up to see that a noodle man had crashed his motorbike into the adjoining stall, and heavy, round pears and apples were scattered everywhere and halved corpses of wet fruit strewn across the ground. The bike had stopped only a foot away from where Mrs. Lee stood, two large exploded fruit bins having absorbed the brunt of its force. As Mrs. Lee righted her creaking body with a groan, the noodle man, apparently unhurt, hastily picked up his dented motorbike and leaned it on its kickstand. In front of Mrs. Lee, the vegetable seller’s mouth hung open as she looked over at the adjoining stall. By some miraculous stroke of fortune, her stall had been spared damage.

“What the fuck is this,” yelled the fruit seller, making his way across the ruins of his stall. He was in his late forties, and the age-old coupling of hard drink and hard work had left its usual blight on his face. The noodle man—a boy, no older than sixteen, as it turned out—was frantically scrabbling at the broken plastic bowls that had held the noodles he was delivering. Tar-black bean sauce oozed from the bowls and mixed with the wet fruit in strange, glistening pools on the nubby concrete, calling to mind a fantastical disemboweling. “What the fuck,” the fruit seller repeated, as he grabbed the frightened boy by a shoulder. “Who’s going to pay for all of this?”

Mrs. Lee, tremors still going through her arthritic body, cast her eyes back down to notice that the front tire of the bike had torn into the bags of groceries she had set down while arguing with the vegetable seller. Trembling, she hurriedly grabbed the torn bags and thrust her hands inside to inspect the contents. “Ai-gu, ai-gu,” she groaned as the smashed bits of tofu and broken eggs dripped out of the torn plastic bags. She shook her head in dismay. Her daughter-in-law’s irritated face flashed into her mind.

Next to her, the vegetable seller cried, “Hey uncle, enough already, let the boy go.”

“I said, who’s going to pay for all of this,” roared the fruit seller as he viciously jerked at the noodle boy’s collar, showing the smooth young skin at his neck and sternum. The boy bowed his head over and over again. “Sorry, I’m so sorry,” he rasped. The fruit seller, enraged, raised a hand to deliver a slap to the boy’s face, when a sudden shriek pierced through his anger.

“Jisun, my granddaughter! Where is she?” Mrs. Lee cried, in horror. For the little child who had been standing inside the vegetable stall had disappeared.

The fruit seller was startled into casting about for the missing child though he didn’t let go of the boy in hand. Both Mrs. Lee and the vegetable seller swiveled their wrinkled necks and swept their gazes over to the left and right of the vegetable stall, and then the entire marketplace. A cloud had momentarily dimmed the sky, but the late afternoon sun emerged again, and lit the marketplace into a brilliant hubbub of color, dipping each bright object into its own pocket of inky, trailing shadow. There wasn’t a sign of the child. People passed by this way and that, full of ordinary intent that did not bear on this sudden precipice in Mrs. Lee’s existence. As she kept looking, tremors took over Mrs. Lee’s hands completely, and they started flapping like birds looking for perch. “Ai-gu, ai-gu,” she said, breathlessly.

“She can’t have gone far,” said the vegetable seller. She patted her monkey-paw-like hands down on the back of her pants and called out to the fruit seller, “Hey, uncle, can you watch my stall for a minute?”

“You must be joking,” the fruit seller boomed. Mrs. Lee’s predicament had crumbled his rage a bit, but his temper, once ignited, wasn’t so easily defused. He gave a hard knuckling on the head to the boy whose collar he still held in a firm grip. The boy winced, but did not give in to his tears. “I’m going to lock up my store so that I can walk this one down to his boss and get this thing squared away,” the fruit seller glowered.

The lady selling rice cakes on the other side agreed to watch over the vegetables. Not bothering to wait for the vegetable seller, Mrs. Lee, now hunched and shaking as if she were boiling with fever, had already taken off, stiff-legged, towards the north end of the market, where the dark passageway to the indoor section stood like a cavernous mouth that had swallowed up her granddaughter. She remembered that when passing through the indoor market earlier, the child had whined because Mrs. Lee had refused to buy her a red-and-blue lollipop from a candy stand by the entrance.

“Jisun-a! Jisun-a!” she called out along the way, craning her head to catch sight of a toddler tucked into the folds of the passing crowds, like a kernel of grain in billowing fabric. The vegetable seller walked in the opposite direction so that they could cover as much ground as possible. Behind her, she could hear Mrs. Lee’s voice, frantic like that of a downed fowl, grow fainter and fainter as the distance between them grew.

“Auntie, did you see a little girl pass by? I think she’s four or five? I think she was wearing a green top with a frog on it?”

“Uncle, have you seen a baby of about four or five by herself in the past ten, fifteen minutes or so? Maybe someone was walking her? Green shirt with a frog on the front of it?”

One by one, each person shook his or her head. No child fitting that description had passed that way. The vegetable seller turned and hurried back the other way to catch up to Mrs. Lee. She found Mrs. Lee inside the indoor mall, her voice brittle and cracking now. The child had not passed back by the candy stand, its owner had told her.

“Jisun-a, Jisun-a!” Mrs. Lee called out brokenly, as she walked down the passageway.

“Grandmother, did you lose your baby?” Concerned men and women leaned out of their stores to ask Mrs. Lee.

“Yes, yes, she’s looking for her little granddaughter. She was wearing a green frog shirt. Grandmother, how old is your little girl?” The vegetable seller turned and asked Mrs. Lee, who blinked for a moment.

“Jisun, Jisun, she is…she is…four. She is four, my grand¬daughter is four years old,” Mrs. Lee said. She was still shaking. From the moment the sound of the crash had pierced her day, an inexorable, translucent coldness had curled open inside her, and as her mishap had taken shape, the coldness proceeded to lay itself out long and full-bodied within her. With each additional moment that passed, this coldness burrowed through her old body, fitting its icy extremities onto her time-ravaged own.

“Just now, I saw one of the ladies I know from the second floor taking a girl that age up the stairs,” said the fishmonger.

“Was she wearing a green top with a frog?” asked the vegetable seller.

“Yes, I think so, that’s what she was wearing,” said the fishmonger, pulling off his long rubber gloves. He noticed Mrs. Lee’s rheumy eyes had snapped onto his face, wide as if he had yanked her back from desolate wilderness. A sudden sense of foreboding unsettled him, and he unconsciously patted down his rubber apron for his pack of cigarettes.

“Second floor, you say?” The vegetable seller looked down the hall, at the end of which, the staircase rose up in a dingy progression of chipped steps towards the second floor, where they sold clothing and ready-mades.

The fishmonger led the way up the stairs, with the two old women following next, the vegetable seller’s hand at Mrs. Lee’s elbow, both sets of their knees popping audibly. A group of three or four other people followed, shaking their heads in sympathy.

“I think that lady’s store was this way,” the fishmonger mumbled to himself as he hesitatingly led them by twists and turns through various passageways that were narrowed by the goods that were spilling out of each stall.

Mrs. Lee had been on this very floor just last week on an errand for her daughter-in-law, but now the place was unfamiliar. Uneven fluorescent lights cast spotlights on the riches of ordinary items that overran the stalls. Normally, the bright gleam of pots and pans and the soft sheen of the fake leather bags hanging from hooked panels would have sung a reassuring chorus of plenitude for Mrs. Lee. Each seamlessly welded metallic joint attaching handle to pot and patient stitching that closed out the end of a purse strap would have summoned up a symphony of a thousand faithful machines, needles, and hands, all employed by an invisible, heartwarming prosperity. But now she did not see any of these things. She was only aware of time folding in on itself in white ticking minutes, creating a deepening vertigo. If she turned her head, she saw only people who were not her granddaughter, and she could not have said which objects were in front of her, only that they were taking up the space where her granddaughter should be.

The fishmonger finally led them to a medium-sized booth where variously sized women’s hanbok hung in a wall of overlapping silk, like a ghostly platoon of floating courtesans. A flimsy curtain was drawn across an inner room. The group stood there uneasily for a second or two, when they heard the wails of a child, and breaking through it, the half-scolding voice of a woman.

“Jisun? Jisun-a? Jisun!” Mrs. Lee burst out, as if electrified. She rushed over and swiftly drew back the curtain.

“What, what is this?” A bewildered young woman cried out as she looked up and saw the group of people gathered outside her booth. There was a small child behind her who looked out at the crowd with baleful, teary eyes. The child’s hair stood up in wild peaks, and there was a large stain on her shirt. The shirt rode up her body to reveal a crescent of egg-like belly. She wore nothing but a diaper at the bottom, and little dimples of fat folded over the knees of her short legs.

After a moment, someone behind the vegetable seller said, “That’s not a green shirt.”

Mrs. Lee looked stricken, and she said not a word.

“That’s not our baby,” said the vegetable seller.

“That’s not a green shirt,” someone repeated. “That shirt is blue. How could you think that was green?”

The fishmonger patted down his apron again for his cigarettes. “So, that’s not green? Not a green shirt?” He looked rattled. “I thought it was green. It looks green to me.”

Everyone’s eyes turned to Mrs. Lee, whose face had become increasingly gray.

“Help her, I think she’s becoming faint,” said someone. “This is all too much for an old lady.”

Hands reached out for Mrs. Lee, and she was guided to a chair at a nearby stall. A glass of water materialized, as well as two white pills.

“She’s worked her nerves up too much. These should calm her down,” said the lady who had brought the pills. “My pharmacist friend gave me a bunch of these for my son who’s been a mess of nerves from exams.”

“No, she’s old like me, don’t give her both,” said the vegetable seller, palming one away from Mrs. Lee’s lips. “You’re going to scrape out all her wits.”

The fishmonger watched from the periphery as Mrs. Lee’s eyes fluttered and her breaths shallowed. Now that he had fumbled his accidental role as a guide, all he longed for was to escape this calamity he could see thickening around the old woman. A quiet smoke outside and the day’s soccer scores, that’s what he needed. As soon as he thought he’d waited long enough, he bobbed his head. “I’m very sorry.”

Mrs. Lee didn’t respond, her eyes still far adrift.

“I’m sorry, grandmother, I didn’t mean to add to your troubles,” he repeated, head still bobbing as he started to crab his way nearly backwards towards the stairs. When he reached it, he shot one more look at the diapered child now in the young woman’s arms.

“I really thought it was green,” he could be heard muttering to himself as he turned to leave for the outside, a pale cigarette already hooked into his stained fingers.

“Well, it’s like a man to not be able to tell the difference between a two-year-old and a four-year-old,” scoffed the pill lady.

As the others clucked over Mrs. Lee, the vegetable seller thought about her stall back at the marketplace, lying unattended save for the distracted supervision of the rice cake lady. The dusty carrots and green-spotted pumpkins that still needed stacking, the bean sprouts that were resting in a large bowl of water, waiting to be trimmed. It would soon be approaching evening time, when grandmothers walking children back from after-school lessons and harried women on their way home from the office would want to buy vegetables.

“Grandmother, what about the police?” she asked Mrs. Lee.

Mrs. Lee did not hear. She was somewhere far away.

“You need to call the police and your family; they can come help you look.”

Mrs. Lee didn’t reply.

“Grandmother, I do have to go back to my store now,” she said finally, laying a hand on Mrs. Lee’s shoulder.

As if awakened, the cold that had been suffusing through Mrs. Lee suddenly jolted up and twisted into an angry, black snarl.

“Uneducated guttersnipe,” she spat. “If you had not been distracting me, I would not have lost my granddaughter.”

The vegetable seller recoiled. The countless wrinkles stood out in minute relief on her stark, brown face. She stared at Mrs. Lee with her small, black eyes, and only said flatly, “I need to go back now. Please call your family.”

She then turned around and left, leaving Mrs. Lee to sink back into the abyss.

Officer Park detested women’s tears. He had grown to take a dark joy in the late-night drunken men who swung for fights at the station, to relish the reassuring crack of his young fist against the sodden blubber and the “Oh!” that came out in sour, sulphurous exhalations against his ear. The dull irritations of that day or week would loosen their grip inside his head as the momentum of his body took over. But as for crying women draping themselves over his desk or flattening their soggy noses on his paperwork, flailing wet fingers at his sleeves, for them he felt a nameless horror, having grown up with a mother who had wept copiously at his father’s abuses.

“It just repels me to my fingertips,” he told a fellow officer, who snorted knowingly. “Why can’t they just get to the point? I could help them faster.”

However, even Officer Park made allowances when it came to lost four-year-olds, which, in his opinion, merited tears more than the usual stories of lying landlords, thieving neighbors, and hard-hitting husbands. The well-dressed woman in her thirties had held herself together as she told of her doddering mother-in-law losing the child in broad daylight out in the marketplace, even if her words had been halting and her makeup had run down her cheeks in transparent streaks. She was not like the others who grew intoxicated on their own emotions, then pulled their hair, ripped their tops, and rolled on the floor.

“That’s a woman with class,” he later said approvingly to his partner, Officer Kim, as they made their way through the passersby streaming through the marketplace. Dusk was starting to set in, and here and there, harsh spots of light lit up the stalls.

The vegetable seller was crouched down and packing up her stall in the yellow glow of a single light bulb when he and Officer Kim approached. In the deepening dark, their view of her was partially blocked by a table, and they could only see a solitary elbow rise up and down, up and down past the rounded line of a knobby back, and the shadow that it cast was like some subterranean creature laboring mysteriously.

“How do you do,” called out Officer Kim.

“Yes, how do you do,” the vegetable seller called back from below the table.

“Isn’t it early to be closing down your store, grandmother?” asked Officer Park. “We’re here about the missing child.”

Ai-gu, I got a call that a relative is sick, and now my poor behind has to endure a long bus trip down to the countryside tomorrow,” replied the vegetable seller with a friendly, self-mocking groan.

“Grandmother, can we just ask you some questions? Surely we don’t want to get in your way, but you understand the importance,” said Officer Kim.

He could see that the vegetable seller, while ancient of face, still had the straight bearing of someone much younger when she stood with a grunt. He guessed that she was somewhere around sixty.

“Of course. It’s a terrible thing that happened,” said the vegetable seller, wiping her hands on her pants. “I tried to help as best as I could. I went with the lady all across the market, trying to find the child.”

“There was an accident with your next-door stall?”

“Yes, a boy crashed his delivery motorbike into the bins,” the vegetable seller said, waving a hand at fruit seller’s stall, which remained shuttered. The angry fruit seller still hadn’t returned by the time she had come back to her own stall.

“Do you mind if we take a quick look around, grandmother?”

“Go right ahead. I was just packing up, as you can see.”

The two officers did a quick sweep around the stall, noticing nothing out of the ordinary. The recessed part of the stall held a large refrigerator, shelves, and a thin wooden bench that was nailed to the walls. A bowlful of bean sprouts was still soaking in water on top of the wooden bench and there were plastic bags of green beans tumbling out of the space below the bench. The walls were papered over with plastic sheets that rose up unevenly in certain places where humidity had weakened the glue. A stack of bins rose next to the refrigerator, where the vegetable seller had been bringing them inside.

“Poor parents,” tsked-tsked Officer Kim, as he finished looking over the stall. “Can you imagine what that must feel like?”

“Trouble falls on everyone,” said the vegetable seller flatly. “Life can be heartless.”

“Well, I hear the child’s grandmother is quite distraught. She feels responsible, of course,” said Officer Park.

“I do remember that she checked her groceries first before she thought to look for her grandchild,” said the vegetable seller. “Perhaps she should have paid more care. You know what they say about lightning.”

An edge had entered into the vegetable seller’s voice, and Officer Park interpreted this as her increasing impatience for them to be gone and let her continue as she was. Officer Park had dealt with plenty of people like this before. The kind that put up a show of being ingratiating at first, but then would turn hard and stubborn later. In any case, he didn’t see a need to stay any further. He and Officer Kim confirmed the mother’s description of what the child had been wearing, and then satisfied, bowed to the vegetable seller in parting. They walked out to the rest of the marketplace to continue their search. It had become night as suddenly as a loved one leaving the room, and as the two officers passed through the yellow cone of each street light, round shadows danced at each of their heels.

The vegetable seller finished packing up the vegetables and drew the shutters down over her stall and locked them in place. “I am probably going to be gone for a few days,” she told the rice cake lady, as she wheeled out the large rolling bag that she used to carry extra supplies during her daily commute.

“Yes, I heard. I’m sorry to hear about your relative.”

“It’s just a second cousin. But it’s that they don’t have anybody else.”

“Well, have a safe trip to the countryside. What a very strange day it’s been.” The rice cake lady bowed her head to wish her goodbye.

The vegetable seller returned her bow, wheeled her bag around with some difficulty and finally walked out onto the streets, which were adrift in vaporous light pooled from the blue-white and yellow lamps that lit up the marketplace. Women, slinging multiple plastic bags from their wrists, flitted from one brightly lit stall to another. It was one of the rare nights when the sky had cleared of the smog blowing in from China, and high up above, the vegetable seller could see a hard, crisp moon which stared down at the mist of city lights that rolled and changed color like jellyfish. She wheeled her bag with care, making sure it didn’t bump up against any potholes.

With their smooth and plump faces, the police officers had looked like mere boys. They had reminded her of the soldiers she had seen as a young girl, peach-fuzzed boys only a few years older than herself with hard rifles slung across their backs.

There are memories so blinding, one cannot look at them directly. Only at the fragments that fall sideways out of the glare. One dusk, a lifetime ago, she had fled her wartime village with her younger sister, three years old, both of them wearing their plainest so that their privilege would not mark them. Her mother had stayed back one more day to pack and hide the valuables from their family home. If the vegetable seller looked back, she might remember these things: the girl that she had been, with the weight of her sister wrapped onto her back with a cloth, only that night’s ration of food tucked into her belt. Her following a mountain trail lashed to the last of the diminishing light, a path that gradually submerged as another forest rose up with the night. Branches clawing at the older girl’s face, while the mountain grew steeper and leaves threatened to slip underfoot. Only the memory of her mother’s fierce admonishment at her ear made her continue on, almost halfway to the top, until the child whimpered from her back. Then finally stopping somewhere, where? A grove, where trees leaned crooked and knotted like old men in the gloom. The earth canted away like water out of a glass, and only the roots that bent like necks of giant anteaters held the trees fast to the earth. The girl eventually tucked herself and her sister into a massive tree root that cradled them away from the pull of the slanting mountain. The moon rose, and its light streaked down like thin rivulets of milk on the ground. Everywhere, there was the sticky sweet smell of crushed pine needles.

Distant reports of gunshots rang out, stopped and started again that night. The girl eventually fell asleep coiled around the smallness of her sister, one hand holding onto a precious small foot. She woke at dawn to find herself huddling into the pine needles, no soft toddler body to warm her center. At first, she thought that she had merely forgotten. She had hidden her sister away somewhere safe, and now she just had to wait to remember. But there was nothing to remember. The girl ran like a banshee from tree to tree, and tumbled down nearby slopes in the hopes that she would find a pale frightened child caught up in the bushes. It could have been a wild animal. Or her sister could have woken disoriented in the middle of the night, and tried her soft, unformed footsteps on this faithless terrain. Every leaf and every branch, every blade of grass trembled upon the expanse of this newly opened void. The mountain was unmoved by her cries. It did not return her sister to her or to her mother whom she found much later that day, waiting at the second highest peak, where she had promised to be.

The past was persistent and sly, and eventually snuck back into your life. After leaving Mrs. Lee, the vegetable seller had come back to her stall and sat down at the wooden bench to clean the bean sprouts. She had looked down to see the tip of a miniature shoe nestled between the bagfuls of green beans. She whipped her head down to see, two bright, tear-stained eyes staring at her from the profusion of plastic bags that were stuffed below the bench. The vegetable seller’s head swelled with sudden emotion. A picture snapped into place, and the recognition took her breath away.

Even decades later, war never let you forget the violence that life could visit, the shock of the obliteration that took only an instant. Like the parched touch of lightning, loved ones, homes, the reliable continuation of known days, all of this could be lifted from one’s reach in the whitened splintering of a second.

Had the child hidden away from the crash? Or from the enraged braying of the fruit seller? Or had it simply been an extended game of hide-and-seek, a toddler’s delight in watching her grandmother look for her? A game that once started, had, with a toddler’s consistency, then turned to silent tears. What a wonder that the child had not cried out even once.

The vegetable seller took out the white pill from her pocket, bit it in half and quickly fed it to the child.

A child taken, a child given.

Life could slumber on and lull you into thinking things. You think that life is done with you, done giving you choices, and you’re left staring down a hall of endless repetitions, with only dismaying variations to come. A long series of afternoons spent pandering over the price of cabbages; the petty accumulation of grimy routines and work, all that was left. But she had recognized in Mrs. Lee’s stunned face the truth, that at any moment life could crack wide open again like a fissure in the ground, revealing the unholy currents beneath. And she had reached down and touched the current, fed the child the pill.

Her mother had died not too long after that night in the mountains, felled by a heart attack or a broken heart. It had left her only distant relatives she stopped visiting once she realized that they worried she would ask for money. Then followed a shadowy series of men who had left her alone and barren. At a certain point, she had simply grown to accept her lot. Nearly unending and physically consuming work became her only reliable companion. She taught herself not to stop even when certain mornings she woke to find grief collected in her heart overnight like rainwater.

But none of those things mattered now. The past fell back and away like the pale outline of a child flickering through distant trees. Somewhere on the slopes of the mountain that guarded the south end of the city, a night breeze had gathered and now blew on the ruined face of the vegetable seller. A fierce joy clamored in her chest, and she let out a soft, dry cackle. She had some savings salted away, enough money to leave the city for now and give herself a little time. As she continued walking, she could feel in the handle of her rolling bag the reassuring weight of the small child who was tucked inside, sleeping dreamlessly.