"Sugar or Salt" by Seo Hajin

We had been at the lakeside that day. It was in K’s neighborhood. K, her husband, and I were each holding a fishing pole, but the lake was just still. The sound of birds and of trees shifting in the breeze shook the forest and dissipated, and we gradually grew tired. K was the first to put down her fishing pole. Fumbling in the basket on the grass, she sighed, “Whew.” We had been planning on catching fish and making spicy Korean fish soup, and all the basket contained was a few pieces of kimchi.

     “I’m about to starve to death. I’m going to run home quickly and grab something to eat.” As K’s figure disappeared over the road, I felt that our surroundings had been blanketed with tranquility. Putting down the fishing pole and turning around, he opened the thermos and asked, “Would you like some coffee?” At soon as he asked, he made a strange face.

     That morning, I had put salt instead of sugar in his coffee. Salt and sugar were in identical bottles with the same cork lids. Looking at K’s round letters spelling out sugar, salt, I picked up the bottle labeled salt. K, making an omelet, was busy playing with a stray cat who had just walked up, so she didn’t see what I had done. I furtively tasted the coffee. It was salty and bitter, and it tasted unspeakably strange; nevertheless, I silently put the cup in front of him. After taking a sip of the coffee, a peculiar expression appeared on his face.

     “The oil probably wasn’t hot enough. Isn’t that omelet a little greasy?” K asked.

     “No, it’s fine. The soup is good, too. I thought you might be a terrible cook, but you’re actually quite good at it,” I said with a calm face. The soup, which she had made with frozen vegetables and chicken, tasted metallic. Sipping my soup, I didn’t take my eyes off his face. If he had said, “You must have put salt in the coffee. It tastes weird,” then I only needed to say, “Oh, dear. I guess I was confused because the bottles look the same.” Escaping my eyes, he picked up the newspaper on the table. With an indifferent face, he quietly and slowly sipped the coffee. Cutting up sausages and putting bacon in my mouth, I stared at him fiercely. Every time a sip of coffee traveled down under his Adam’s apple, I felt as though some part of me also was also being swallowed with a gulp.

     “He likes Korean food, but he hardly eats the soup I make or things like that when I cook them. I guess it’s because it’s not like his older sister’s cooking.”

     K made some more comments on the menu, but he only smiled faintly and kept quiet. Maybe he grew up in an environment with no regard for a sense of taste. I thought of his father, who had been an almond farm worker, the tan-faced old man had never taken a break, working from dawn till the middle of the night until he had set up his own dry-cleaning shop, and his wrinkled sister who was fine with being called his father’s wife. This taciturn man, who supposedly had never slipped below first in his class, who had received a scholarship to complete his studies, and was immediately recruited by Boeing upon graduation. I was afraid of this man who didn’t even blink an eye about coffee with salt. I feared that K was going to become thin and pale with him, that she was going to become just like him.

     My back tensed at the sight of him. I knew he was looking at me and that he knew I had done it on purpose. Then something broke the surface of the boundless water. The floating cork was pulled deep down under the water and a heavy feeling reached the tips of my fingers.

     Just as he said, “I think you got a bite,” the reel started unraveling at a good speed.

     “Loosen it up a little first,” he called out, coming over to me. A carp or a bass or whichever type of fish had taken the bait was running away, further out into the water, with all its strength. On the surface of the water, it created a long stream of waves.

     “Now, wind the reel back in slowly,” he said. While reeling it in once or twice, I saw a dark object suddenly jump up on one side. I screamed unwittingly. It was my first time fishing, and I hadn’t known what to expect. The fish nosedived again and the reel took the brunt of it, loosening and making a whistling sound.

     Although he shouted, “Slowly, slowly,” the reel wouldn’t budge an inch.

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Seo Hajin is an assistant professor at Kyung Hee University’s Department of Korean Language and Literature. She has published two novels and six short story collections. The English edition of A Good Family came out from Dalkey Archive Press in 2015. She has received the Hahn Moo-Sook Literary Prize, Baek Shin-ae Literary Award, and Kim Jun Sung Literary Award.