Joanna Kim
Winner

Betta

Our lunch break is only half an hour long, but today, Hayeon wants to buy a pet fish, so we close the store early and head to downtown Seoul on a bus. She stares out the window the entire ride, so I don’t tell her that I think fish are dumb and they’ll likely die if you look at them funny.

I started working for Hayeon last fall after Umma demanded I repay her for raising me. Umma was always saying things like that, to remind me how much I owed her for not getting an abortion when she could. As if I’d had any say in my pro-life, pastor grandfather convincing her to have me in exchange for an early inheritance, or that, by the time of his death nine years later, she started working at a chicken and beer restaurant because she’d squandered it all on art supplies, designer shoes, and plastic surgeries that gave her eyelids too many folds and left her lips swollen.

Men she’d bring home from the restaurant would look at me and say, “You look nothing like your umma.”

“I think that’s the point,” I’d respond, leaving Umma drunk and draped over their shoulders like a hunter’s trophy.

I agreed to repay her because I didn’t think I’d get hired anywhere. Our neighborhood was small; my grandfather’s church even smaller. The women who ran the restaurants and stores, or were the wives of the men who ran them, were the same women who diligently attended church every Sunday, gossip dripping from the same mouths as their early morning prayers. Even as a little kid, I avoided them—a cluster of walnuts with bad perms rattling in their shells over post-service coffee.

My umma, the pastor’s daughter, the ‘good’ daughter who ran off to America to pursue art and returned with a toddler in tow, continued to be the talk of the town. I figured I’d let her reputation determine the rejections I’d inevitably receive, and then I’d turn nineteen next year. Nineteen was supposed to be my jayoo, my liberation. I could legally be cities, maybe countries, apart from her. She’d forget me after I left, like the way she forgot the possibility of me when she fucked her one-night stand.

That was the plan, at least, but then Hayeon decided immediately to hire me. “You’re one of the good ones, Sun, I remember,” she said when I thanked her. She ran a stationary store now, but before my grandfather passed away, she taught English at his church. I was six when he placed me in one of her Saturday morning classes. He thought my time was better spent retaining my English in a classroom than sitting in the pews, drawing on weekly bulletins with colored pencils, as he practiced his sermons at the pulpit.

Eleven of us sat around an oval table in the church basement every weekend, reading tattered copies of chapter books and discussing them. Even though I’d lived the first years of my life in America, I still didn’t like English, didn’t like the way the syllables sped out of my mouth like a car racing down a track. Korean was neuruh, like slow-moving traffic. But I liked Hayeon and the way she would look at me when I answered a question right, her eyes softening at the edges, a smile settling effortlessly on her face.

By pet store, Hayeon meant a pathetic section of a supermarket carrying a few shelves of dusty pet products. She chuckles at my baffled expression and admits that appearances aren’t convincing, but online reviews highly praise the market’s aquatic pets section.

“Are you sure they don’t mean the seafood section?” I ask, glancing at the other end of the market where the frozen meats and produce are.

“Sun, just trust me,” she says.

I follow her behind the shelves to an aisle rich with color and polish. I can’t believe the two aisles are under the same management. The aquariums glisten, the shelves abound with products, and the fish race around in their tanks. The entire space is dimly lit, allowing the tanks and fish to glow almost preternaturally.

I walk over to where Hayeon is scrutinizing a selection of underwater plants. On the floor to her right is a glass fishbowl with a packet of gravel inside, tinted with cobalt. After a year and half of moving back to Seoul and into my grandfather’s house, Umma arrived home one afternoon with an armful of art supplies. I was starting kindergarten soon, counting down the days in front of the television, sandwiched between my stuffed animals (two of each kind to replicate Noah’s ark). At the sound of things spilling out of her plastic bags, I walked over curiously to where Umma was unrolling a large sheet of brown craft paper on the wooden floor of the living room. “Coming over to help me, tokki?” she asked, and I tried to wiggle my nose like a bunny. She squeezed tubes of blue on paper plates, colors that made me think we’d collected drops of the sky.

We painted in silence. Or at least, Umma did, while I tried to urgently show her whatever deformed shape I’d created on my end of the paper.  “That’s beautiful, tokki,” my umma would say, adding her own streaks of blue to my blobs. That was the first time I heard those words from her, and it surprised me how they mesmerized me.

When my grandfather came out of his study, Umma abruptly dropped her paintbrush, startling me as well.

“I thought you were aslee—”

“—what is this?”. He circled us, the paper crinkling under his feet. “You’re still doing this nonsense? I thought we were done pretending.”

Umma bit her lip and stood from where she had been kneeling. “Don’t be so har—”

“—chamna, when are you going to grow up? You have a daughter now.”

At those words, I stretched out my arms and he scooped me up into his own. “Little tokki,” he whispered, pressing his forehead against mine as I tried to wiggle my nose like a bunny again.

“Drawing isn’t going to save you,” he said, facing my umma again. “Haven’t you disappointed me enough? I’m surprised Sun isn’t ashamed to call you her umma yet.”

Umma didn’t move, didn’t make a sound. Her eyes were to the ground, and I wanted to see what she was seeing, but there was only blue paint, my careless strokes grazing her steady lines. My grandfather placed me on the floor again and returned to his study, kicking some tubes of paint aside on his way back. I grabbed my brush to resume painting, but Umma snatched it out of my hand.

“That’s Umma’s brush,” she said.

I reached out, and for a sharp second, she seemed to reconsider, but then she pulled away from me.

“No, no-no-no-no-no,” I cried out, reaching for the brush again.

When Umma ignored me, I grabbed a plate of navy paint. “Stop, Sun,” she said, and pulled the other end of it. I screamed, stood up, slapped my hands in the nearest shades to me, and rubbed the paint all over me in a fury until I was a mix of blue, until moments later, when I passed out on the paper in exhaustion, even my tears dried in color.

*

A distant loudspeaker announces a special sale on rice cakes for ddukboki, reminding me what kind of pet store we’re at again. I pick up the fishbowl from the floor.

“Don’t you need to choose a fish before picking out its accessories?” I ask, shaking the bowl so that the cobalt gravel slides to the side.

“No, first, you have to make a place for it.” Hayeon grabs a plant. “I think this one should work. What do you think, dear?”

I assess her pick. The stems and leaves are tangled together as if fighting to coexist. I give a small nod and Hayeon beams.

“Why a pet all of a sudden?” I ask.

“My husband and I decided we needed a fun new addition to our household.”

“So a fish was the obvious choice.”

“He’s allergic to fur.”

Hayeon tosses the plant into the fishbowl and then kneels to browse through an assortment of thermometers and water heaters. I think about her answer. She never mentioned wanting a pet during our time at the store. It was quiet work, for the most part. I swept the floor, unpacked products, and monitored children and their sticky fingers from the counter. Hayeon usually completed paperwork or read, perched on a stool with a dog-eared book in hand. We rarely made long conversation, but sometimes, if there was an overflow of packages, she would help me restock products while peppering me with questions about school. Most times, she would withdraw into the pages of a book she was reading. Drawings of babies or flowers usually adorned the covers with titles like Empty Cradle, Swaddling Hope, or The Burial Before the Birth. I’d heard rumors that Hayeon and her husband had been trying for a baby for five years now. They only wanted one through natural means. Nobody knew why, but I understood. Everybody wants to believe they have the power to create something beautiful.

I never spoke directly about Umma to Hayeon, but whenever I would mention her, Hayeon would nod excessively, almost knowingly, and I would be reminded again of just how small our neighborhood was. When she asked me once if I had decided to work a part-time job to save for college, I shook my head.

“I owe a debt of sorts to my umma,” I said.

Hayeon nodded slowly and I left it at that. The walnuts had probably already gotten to her.

Two weeks later, on the first day of school, Hayeon messaged me early morning, asking that I stop by the store. When I arrived, she beckoned me to the counter where a stack of notebooks and a pack of pencils were wrapped together by purple satin ribbon. Next to the bundle, there was a silver thermos and a white bento lunch box.

“My umma used to always pack my favorite foods for the first day of school,” Hayeon explained. “And I don’t know yours, so I put together rice, meat, and side dishes my husband says I’m best at making.”

I fingered the edge of the lunch box. The lid was transparent and I could see rolled omelet, kimchi, and a mix of cooked beansprouts and spinach occupying the top row. On the bottom row, white rice layered seasoned beef slices cut unevenly. My school only ever served pork—beef was expensive.

“I never—,” I said.

“—had rice and side dishes for lunch?” she finished, chuckling.

“Had anyone pack me lunch before,” I said.

*

After grabbing a bottle of water conditioner and a container of pellets, Hayeon walks over to the small shelf of betta fish. They must not sell well, because the shelf sits at the far end of the aisle, tucked away in a corner. I study the selection. The red and blue ones remind me of the velvet hair ribbons we used to sell at the store. Hayeon had decided to start selling them last winter when the trees lost their color and everything turned dreary and gray. “These are really for little kids, but you’re the only kid available to test on right now,” she’d said, sitting me down in front of a vanity mirror and pulling my thick hair back into a ponytail. I watched in silence as she experimented with different hairstyles: a maroon ribbon tied around the ponytail, turquoise ones weaved through braids, my hair pinned to the side with marigold decorating the pin. I pressed my head into Hayeon’s fingers as they navigated the black depths of my hair, the same shade and thickness as my umma’s.

My shifts were usually after school, and I always checked myself in a mirror before clocking in. I brushed my teeth, combed my bangs, and scratched off the dirt that collected on my shoes throughout the day. Hayeon didn’t mind if I threw on an apron over my school uniform, but I brought a change of clothes anyway in case my uniform became wrinkled or stained. Hayeon could think what she wanted about me because of my umma, but I didn’t want to confirm any assumptions. Sometimes, I would run into the old walnuts from church, and they’d shake their heads, cluck their tongues, and pat me on the shoulder while looking me over as if searching for any signs of distress or damage. “I saw your umma with another man,” they’d say with drawn out concern, and I’d roll my eyes and say, “You’re just happy it isn’t your husband she’s with,” before walking away.

I didn’t want Hayeon to see what wasn’t true when she looked at me.

“I hope if I have a daughter, she’ll like her umma styling her hair like this,” Hayeon said, interrupting my thoughts.

I smiled in response, or at least, what felt like a smile.

“Finished! I think this is my best ponytail yet, Sun.”

“Great,” I said, pulling the emerald ribbon out of my hair.

“Okay, Sun, I think I know which one I want,” Hayeon says. She approaches me with a plastic cup clutched close to her chest. “Healthy little thing, isn’t he?” Hayeon asks, pushing the cup into my face.

The fish is a translucent silver, only given definition by the deep purple that gently streaks its underbelly. I’m disappointed by her pick. If I was her, I would have chosen one vibrantly colored, maybe emerald green.

“Do you know what you’re going to name him?” I ask.

Hayeon shrugs. “I’ll think about it on our way back.”

We approach the checkout counter, where I place the fishbowl and its accessories on the conveyer belt but Hayeon steadily passes the fish over to the cashier to scan. After the cashier hands the fish back and rings up the rest of her purchases, Hayeon holds the cup with one hand while digging through her coat pockets with the other. I offer to hold the cup for her, but she shakes her head and presses it closer to her chest. Instead, she gives me a zipped coin purse after rummaging further, and I take out the credit card inside to pay. As the cashier finishes the transaction, Hayeon stands next to the bagging area, watching the stupid fish blow bubbles as if I couldn’t just run with her credit card if I wanted to.

*

It was only recently that I considered quitting my job at the store.

Hayeon didn’t pack me lunch again after the first time, but when the weather started warming up and the velvet ribbons were stored away for the next cold season, there was frequently a container of sliced fruit or a bag of sweet potato crackers waiting for me on the counter. “I accidentally bought too many for me and my husband to finish alone,” she’d say with feigned nonchalance, or, “They were just so in season that I had to share.”

Last week, I was eating an apple slice behind the counter when Hayeon brought out a plastic container of porridge from the back. “You still sound pretty congested, so I made you some porridge last night.”

I dipped a spoon into the soft rice as steam brushed against my face. Hayeon patted me on the back and returned to her book on the stool where she always sat. After a while, I felt her watching me eat.

“What?” I asked, in between mouthfuls.

“Mm,” she said, her gaze still fixed on me. “I just assumed I would be cooking porridge for my own sick kid by now.”

After work, I arrived home to find Umma sitting on the floor, bent over a large sheet of paper with paintbrushes scattered around her. I paused in surprise. She was never home during this time, and I hadn’t seen her with a paintbrush since I was a child. She’d bring home art supplies, but always squirrel them away in free spaces around the house. Sometimes, I’d find them sitting behind our potted plants or stored away in our dish cabinets. Once, I found five tubes of acrylic paint wedged inside a pair of my sneakers that looked too tattered to be worn anymore.

I tiptoed around Umma, as if trying not to scare a butterfly on a blade of grass, and walked to the kitchen to wash the containers of porridge that I’d offered to clean for Hayeon. The containers clattered in the sink, and Umma looked up from her artwork.

“I didn’t know you made your own lunches,” she said.

“I don’t,” I said, turning on the faucet. “Someone I know made me porridge.”

“Was it that Hayeon woman?”

When I didn’t say anything, Umma stood up and approached the entrance to the kitchen.

“Don’t pretend it wasn’t, Sun. I’ve heard things about her—she’s bad news.”

I turned the faucet on louder. “Yeah, well, you have to get your money back somehow, don’t you?”

Umma paused for a second. “Are you really planning on paying me back?”

“What else were you expecting?”

I scrubbed the container with soap and rinsed it under water. Umma stood there watching with her arms crossed.

“You should scrub it twice,” Umma said. “They’re not your containers.”

“I know how to make something presentable.”

“Fine. Drain the sink when you’re done.”

Umma returned to her art, and I washed the inside of the sink until it was completely clean.

The next morning, a pot of porridge sat on the stove waiting for me. I looked around for the plastic bag it had come in, because Umma never cooked, let alone for me. When I couldn’t find one, I scooped the porridge into a bowl and sat at the kitchen table. Umma had already left for work. My fingers trembled as I dipped a spoon into the mush and then brought it to my lips. I gagged. The porridge was made of crushed mung beans, something my grandfather used to savor. I preferred soft rice.

I stood up to throw the porridge away, but the thought overwhelmed me, and I sat back down, shoving spoonful by spoonful into my mouth. I let my body do the work of shoving, chewing, and swallowing, not thinking, not tasting. When I was done, I left the empty bowl in the sink without washing it, remnants of the porridge lining the inside of the bowl.

My stomach lurched as I left the kitchen, and I ran to the bathroom where I threw up all the porridge. The tightness in my stomach released, but somehow, I didn’t feel any relief. Instead, I felt the loss of all the porridge that sat in my stomach—my Umma’s, and portions of Hayeon’s that had yet to be digested. When I was done, I sat on the floor of the bathroom, tucked my knees to my chest, and cried.

I decided to quit working at the store the next day, but when I arrived, Hayeon was curled up on her stool in the corner, more withdrawn into her book than I’d ever seen before.

Ahn-young-ha-sae-yo,” I said, greeting her with a bow.

Ahn-young,” she said, waving her hand, not looking up.

I grabbed a broom and started sweeping the floor, sneaking furtive glances at Hayeon. She remained still on her stool, her eyes trained on her book but her fingers resting on the same pages.

I swept circles around the store until my fingers ached from the wooden handle of the broom. Hayeon stayed motionless on her stool. When I knocked the handle against a shelf, causing a box of erasers to fall to the ground and Hayeon barely stirred, I knew something was wrong, and I knew I couldn’t ask her what it was. So I waited, and a week later, we were buying a fish.

*

We wait at the bus stop to return to the store. Hayeon clutches the plastic cup with the fish inside close to her chest, periodically lifting it to eye level. I stand next to her, holding onto her bag of purchases that she gleefully passed along to me when I offered to take it off her hands.

“How about Sushi for a name?” she asks.

“Isn’t that a little mean?”

“How about Sang-uh then?”

“Shark? That’s some high expectations for such a little fish.”

“Betta fish are known as fighting fish, you know.”

“Only with each other though.”

Hayeon glances down at the cup.

Silence sits between us, in the shape of late afternoon sunlight, still bright but unwinding.

I think about telling her I want to quit.

“So, is your husband allergic to everything with fur or just some things?” I ask instead.

“Pretty much everything,” Hayeon says. “He’s tried taking medication before, but never with any success, which is upsetting, because he’s wanted a dog since he was a little boy.”

“There are hypoallergenic dogs out there.”

“Like poodles? They’re too small and yappy.” Hayeon lifts the cup to her face. “I think, at a certain point, you just decide some things weren’t meant to be yours.”

I think about the porridge in the toilet bowl. Umma never said anything when I returned home that day, but all the dishes were washed and dried. I knocked on her bedroom door, but there wasn’t an answer, and when I pulled out my phone to text her, I didn’t know what to say. Frustrated, I grabbed a few bills from my wallet, threw it at her bedroom door, and then stomped into my own room.

“I think I understand,” I say to Hayeon.

She looks up and considers me for a moment before placing her free hand on my shoulder, like a paperweight, and squeezing it.

Ahgah-yah,” she says.

I flinch and shrug her off. “I’m not your baby,” I say.

“I know,” she says.

We hear the rumbling of the bus as it approaches our stop. My stomach grumbles and I realize we haven’t eaten lunch yet. An English word Hayeon taught me years ago suddenly pops into my head: famished.

“Sun, I’m thinking, maybe I won’t take this fish home,” Hayeon says suddenly. “Maybe I’ll just keep it at the store, for both of us. What do you think?”

The bus groans as it brakes and opens its doors. I look at the fish, translucent but alive and swimming effortlessly in its cup. I still think fish are dumb and might die if you look at them funny, but there’s something soothing about the way it swims. The way it draws patterns in the water, glides seamlessly through the very thing that preserves its life.

“Sure,” I say.

 

 

 

Comments
  1. kee hwang on

    Wow, I liked reading the story. It allowed me to savor my Korean root melted in this short piece of writing.

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