- onOctober 5, 2021
- byYuri Lee
- Broccoli Punch
I woke up and checked my phone to see that I’d gotten two texts during the night. One told me that Wonjun’s right hand had turned into a head of broccoli, and the other informed me that Malja, who lived with Mrs. Ahn Pilsoon, had died.
Malja was a gray parrot that Pilsoon received from her boyfriend on her sixtieth birthday. The bird was amazing at mimicking human voices and was so smart that it had somehow picked up the nuances of the human language. Malja had turned twenty years old this year which made it practically middle-aged in parrot years, as the birds only lived to be thirty or forty at the most. Due to her age, Malja had begun eating noticeably less a few weeks ago and could barely sit upright on its perch, even toppling over a few times. I could see its health was failing, and now I learned it had died last night. I read Pilsoon’s message again. MALJA DEAD COME PLEASE. For an obituary, it was fairly dry and straight to the point. Which wasn’t surprising, given how the two seemed less like an owner and her pet bird than two loudly swearing enemies whose idea of greeting each other was to ask when they were planning on dropping dead. One of them must have picked up the habit from the other, although it was unclear who. As I lay sprawled out in bed, musing over these thoughts, my phone rang. It was Wonjun.
“Are you still in bed?” he asked sullenly. “My right hand has turned into broccoli.”
“I saw your text. What happened?”
I looked at the clock. It was a little past 10 in the morning.
“You should get that looked at,” I said.
We fell silent. I realized what Wonjun must be thinking. He wanted me to go with him to the hospital, this big man-child. Wait, where was the nearest hospital anyway? If your hand turned into broccoli, do you go to an internist or an orthopedist? Just as I was about to ask him, my phone let out a sharp beeping sound. There was another call waiting on the line. It had to be Pilsoon. I ran some quick time calculations in my head. If I took Wonjun to the hospital then headed over to Pilsoon’s house right away, that could work out for me time-wise.
After I hung up, I texted Pilsoon. Wonjun’s hand turned into broccoli. I’ll stop by the hospital before I go to see you. Her reply arrived by the time I was already showered, lotioned up, and pulling on my jeans. O NO POOR THING HOW DREDFUL. I imagined Pilsoon frowning at her phone as she texted those letters with the dead Malja beside her. Malja would look like she’d spring to life the moment she saw me walk into Pilsoon’s house, flapping her wings madly, and squawking, Get out of my house, you little bitch! But alas, the bird will never speak again. Most likely Pilsoon had covered the dead parrot with a handkerchief, the familiar rose-patterned handkerchief that I knew so well. The thought was sobering. I sniffled all the way to Wonjun’s house.
When I opened the door, I saw Wonjun lying in the same position, in the very place I had expected him to be.
Instead of waving, he lifted his right hand weakly, or rather, the head of broccoli where his right hand should have been. Gingerly, I navigated around the islands of garbage and dirty laundry on the floor and headed to the sofa bed where Wonju was lying on his side. I smelled a whiff of fresh cut grass from him.
“When did this happen?”
“I don’t know. I woke up to find myself like this.”
I grabbed his right hand and gave it a good look. The skin from the middle of his forearm was a dull green, and the color gradually grew darker towards his hand, with small leaves sprouting here and there; his fingers were green stalks that turned into bunches of florets like so many tightly permed little heads—a perfect head of broccoli. Not only that, it looked incredibly fresh and firm, to the point where I might have eagerly picked it up had I come across it at the grocery store. Amazed, I couldn’t help but continuously stroke the thick stalks. It was a majestic specimen of vegetable, and my teeth tingled with the desire to crunch down on the fresh, juicy broccoli.
“Wow, this is so cool,” I murmured as I continued to stroke the broccoli.
Wonjun retorted, “Cool? This is definitely not cool for me!”
“Why not? Looks pretty great.”
I was being serious, but Wonjun, thinking I was teasing him, glared at me.
“Let’s just hurry and go to the hospital,” he grunted.
“Yeah, yeah, let’s go.”
With that, I helped him sit up. I got him dressed in a hooded T-shirt and pants, wet my hands and brushed them through his hair, and finally removed the crust from his eyes. Only when I had wrapped his broccoli hand in a big towel did he get up to follow me.
“It’s nothing to be embarrassed about. This could happen to anyone,” I said.
“But my job is all about having swag,” Wonjun muttered as he shoved his broccoli hand, still wrapped in a towel, into the front pocket of his T-shirt. Swag. Psssh. You’re just a broccoli boy, I thought to myself as I locked his front door with my key.
Ko Wonjun is a boxer. When I introduce him as a boxer, most people respond with Oh you don’t say? but give me a look like they don’t believe me. That’s because Wonjun doesn’t have any of the features one might expect from a boxer, say, a tall height or a strong physique or a sharp, menacing look. Wonjun had a round jaw and black, bushy eyebrows that hinted at a rambunctious childhood, and as an adult, gave the impression of being a mailman or a Chinese food chef if one had to guess his occupation. But if the same people saw him compete in a boxing match, they wouldn’t doubt that he was a boxer. As soon as he climbed into the ring and the match began, Wonjun transformed into a completely different person. On the outside, he still looked like the Ko Wonjun I knew, but it was as if he had been replaced by someone else on the inside, someone I didn’t recognize at all.
The first and only time I saw Wonjun in a boxing match was a few years ago. I left and went home before the match had ended without telling him I was leaving. For a few days afterward, I let his calls go unanswered. I avoided him because I was terrified. Obviously, I wasn’t terrified of the fact that there had been two people in the ring hitting and punching each other. I knew what boxing looked like. Rather, I felt unbearable terror at the raw emotion that Wonjun emitted every time he punched his opponent. I could sense malice in every deadly punch he threw, at his footwork aimed to distract his opponent, and in the savage glint of his eyes. Till then, I had never imagined Wonjun to be the kind of person who could harness such deadly energy and hit another person. Others might call it spirit or even passion, but to me, it seemed like malice and nothing more. I felt like I was the opponent he was beating up in that ring, and my heart beat fast and hard at the terror I felt.
I didn’t go to any of his matches after that. I couldn’t bring myself to tell him I was afraid of him so instead I came up with a bunch of other excuses. But Wonjun never seemed to mind that I didn’t come to his matches and besides, there weren’t that many to begin with.
Even so, I knew enough about Wonjun as a boxer. That much I learned from Pilsoon’s boyfriend, Park Gwangsuk. The small, thin-as-a-stick old man was a huge fan of all combat sports including boxing, UFC, and wrestling, and when he learned that Wonjun and I were dating, he became so inconsolably excited that I had to rush over with cold water to help him calm down. It was Gwangsuk who told me about the golden prime of Wonjun’s career. The old man talked at length about how Wonjun came out of nowhere as a young upstart with incredible fighting spirit and rushed at his opponents with no intention of ever letting go, and about that one time when Gwangsuk was rooting so hard for him in the audience seats that he didn’t notice how a temporary tooth he had gotten while waiting for an implant had come loose in his mouth. When I asked him what happened to the tooth, he opened his mouth wide and pointed to a slightly less yellow molar in a row of very yellow molars. I swallowed it, he said. Gulp. At that, Pilsoon and I—and Gwangsuk too—laughed so hard we had to struggle to breathe and didn’t get to hear the end of the story of Wonjun in his prime, so I decided to look him up on the internet after I came home. I found everything I could on his career, including information on his time as an up-and-coming amateur boxer who achieved consecutive wins before experiencing a slump, as well as an interview he gave where he revealed his training routine and weight loss secrets. I enjoyed reading them all. But I couldn’t believe that the stories were about my boyfriend.
Although I liked to tell Wonjun all about the elderly patients I took care of as a long-term care nurse, Wonjun never told me anything about his work. When I asked him why, he said there was nothing to talk about. It’s always the same thing—training, sparring, losing weight, he had said, still looking more like a Chinese food chef than a professional boxer. I asked him if he liked boxing. For a while, he didn’t respond. Then he sucked in air through his nose and let out a snort, which I took for an answer and thought to myself, I shouldn’t have asked. He was fairly talkative about all other things and liked to talk about himself as well, so it was strange that he clammed up when it came to his career. I had to admit that I myself didn’t get into long-term care because I was crazy about the profession. Just as how I might not like everything there was to like about long-term care but still enjoyed keeping company with patients like Pilsoon, Wonjun must not have liked everything about boxing but still enjoyed some parts of it. Although, I wondered whether the parts he enjoyed including beating people up. That was the one question I really wanted to ask him, but of course I never said it out loud.
I took Wonjun to a clinic I had seen near an overpass, not because we wanted to go to that particular place but because I remembered I’d seen it before when I passed the street. But when we arrived, we saw that the sign outside read FAMILY MEDICINE. I didn’t know if a family medicine doctor could help with a broccoli hand. Unsure of what to do, we stood there looking at each other, until a voice called out to us from inside the hospital, asking us to come in. So we did. Inside the small lobby a few moms sat here and there on the couches with their kids, their faces flushed and red. A nurse sitting behind the counter looked up at us with a friendly smile.
“How can I help you today?” The nurse directed her question at me, thinking that if she had to guess which one of us was the patient, it would most likely be me. I removed the towel from Wonjun’s hand and showed her the stump of broccoli.
“His hand is a little . . .”
Seeing Wonjun’s hand, the nurse let out a sharp gasp. At that, the sick kids and their moms, who had been distracted by the TV and their phones, instantly turned to look at us. When they saw the broccoli, they all began gasping and reacting in turn, so that the entire lobby became as loud and confusing as an open-air market. Oh my gosh, I haven’t seen a broccoli like that in years! You know what, my father-in-law had that happen to him, too. His broccoli is huge! Oh he must be so uncomfortable! Blushing intensely, Wonjun grabbed the towel and hurriedly wrapped it over his hand. With a smile, the nurse handed us a form to fill out. When I wrote Wonjun’s address and phone number then handed it back to her, the nurse wrote Broccoli, right hand on the top right corner of the form in neat, round letters. Then we sat on the sofa and waited our turn.
“You’re so young to have something like that happen to you,” smiled a kindly woman sitting across from us. A little boy with a runny nose, who was probably her grandson, was lying across her lap.
“You must have a lot on your mind,” someone else spoke up.
“Yes, yes, that happens when you have too many thoughts in your head.”
As if they had been waiting for someone to break the ice, a chorus of voices chimed in after the old lady. But I was confused. Thoughts? Is that why your hand turns into broccoli, because you have a lot on your mind? I was about to ask the old lady with the grandson but someone called out Wonjun’s name. Ko Wonjun, the doctor’s ready to see you. His shoulders sagging, Wonjun got up and walked to the door. I leaned in to hear better, which proved unnecessary as the clinic was so small I could hear everything that was being said behind the door.
Oh, broccoli! I haven’t had a patient with this syndrome in some time. How long has this been going on?
I woke up this morning and found myself like this.
That looks quite uncomfortable. Let’s take a look, shall we? Does this hurt?
How about this?
Yes. It tickles on the inside. I don’t know what to call this, the stalk? Where my wrist should be? It tickles on the inside of that, underneath the skin. The vessels? Blood vessels? That’s where it tickles.
Oh, that’s completely normal. Sounds like you’re photosynthesizing. You know what photosynthesis is, right? I’m going to prescribe you some pills. Drink lots of water and get plenty of rest. That’s what you need most. Try to relax and think peaceful thoughts. You’ll be fine in a few days or so.
That was a little too easy, I thought as Wonjun came out with the towel again wrapped around his hand. He looked sullen. He mouthed the words, I think he’s a quack.
Wonjun remained in a bad mood even as we headed to the pharmacy on the first floor of the building to fill his prescription. As soon as I got his prescription, I tore open the bag and took out a pill. It was a long, green, translucent pill. It’s to help remove the chlorophyll, explained the pharmacist, as I stood by the water dispenser, filling a glass half with cold water and the other half with hot water. With his left hand, Wonjun took the pill I offered him and popped it in his mouth. Watching his Adam’s apple undulate as he swallowed the pill, I asked the question that had been bothering me.
“What’s got you so stressed out that your hand turned into broccoli?”
Instead of answering, Wonjun gave me a long stare.
I remember having seen that expression somewhere before. Only after I had said goodbye to Wonjun and was walking to Pilsoon’s house did I remember where I’d seen it. Once, when I was little, I had gone to the markets with Grandmother (not another patient but my literal grandmother on my father’s side) where we bought a bag of peaches. When we got home and opened the bag, however, we saw that the peach on the top looked perfect but all the peaches on the bottom were covered in bruises. Angrily, Grandmother marched back to the fruit seller, with the bag of peaches in one hand and me in the other. When she thrust the bag of bruised peaches in his face, the fruit seller gave her the same expression I had seen on Wonjun’s face. Finally, he said, But that’s how it is with white peaches. White peaches bruise easily. That’s just how they’re built.
That’s just how they’re built.
That afternoon, Pilsoon, I, and Gwangsuk organized a simple funeral for Malja. The venue was Pilsoon’s front yard, although since Pilsoon was renting the first floor unit of the condo building, the front yard wasn’t really hers. But we all agreed, even the landlord who lived in the same building, that the yard was the best place to bury Malja in. The landlord found a rusty old shovel from his shed for us to dig the grave. My dog died last year. I buried her there, too, said the landlord, pointing at the shade of a yew tree, which made us even sadder and made the atmosphere more fitting for a funeral.
Malja had always liked the color pink, so Pilsoon and I wore pink blouses while Gwangsuk wore a pink swim cap that he got from his swim club since he didn’t have any pink clothes. We chose a wooden wine chest to bury the bird in and placed several of her belongings inside, including her perch, some dried fruit, her toy ball, a wool bell, and five invoice statements for Pilsoon’s gas bill. Malja had always loved to tear those paper invoices into long, thin strips then parade around with the paper dangling from her tail. We arranged the items to make a small bed, on which we placed the body of Malja wrapped in the rose-patterned handkerchief. Then we closed the lid. His mouth firmly pursed, Gwangsuk grabbed the shovel and began digging below the spindle tree in one corner of the yard that he’d surveyed in advance. The earth was wet and soft so the digging couldn’t have been that hard, but even so, Gwangsuk let out a low groan each time he struck the ground with the shovel. Pilsoon and I crouched down on either side of him and picked out the pebbles and pieces of twig that were mixed in with the dirt. When the hole became deep enough, we placed the wine chest holding Malja and covered it with loose earth. Then we patted it down.
Just like that, the funeral was over. It would have been a finer occasion had we read a eulogy of some kind but none of us had prepared any. Besides, we were all covered in sweat from crouching in the sun for so long. I thought, Sure would be nice to have a cold beer right about now. Gwangsuk, looking like he was thinking the same thing, stood there with sweat lining his upper lip. But because Pilsoon remained in the yard, neither Gwangsuk nor I could find it in us to leave. Pilsoon was still stroking the earth, which was already flat and smooth. Rarely had she stroked the bird when it was alive or said one kind thing to her; all the curse words that Malja hurled at people were picked up from Pilsoon herself. But neither Gwangsuk nor I saw fit to scold her with a Why weren’t you nicer to Malja when she was alive? Instead we left her alone to stroke the earth to her heart’s content.
Later, we trooped into Pilsoon’s house and washed our hands. Black dirt was caked under our fingernails so we used an old toothbrush to scrub each other’s hands. I surrendered my hands to Pilsoon as I thought, What a peaceful scene for a bunch of people who’ve just been to a funeral, then looked up to see that the others were wearing the same look on their faces as we rubbed our hands dry on the towel.
I was supposed to go off the clock that evening; that is, I was originally hired to care for Pilsoon until 6 p.m., but that rule had flown out the window a long time ago. It was already very dark but I found myself still hanging out at Pilsoon’s house. Pilsoon began roasting some dried jipo fish fillets so I eventually headed out to buy the beer I’d been craving all afternoon. Later, the subject of our conversation naturally came to Wonjun. When I remarked how concerned I was that Wonjun’s hand had turned into a head of broccoli, Gwangsuk looked upset. After a long time silently gazing at the thin strips of dried fish, he murmured, “That poor kid must be going through a rough time.”
“What rough time?”
Gwangsuk fell silent again and stared off into space. He opened his mouth, as if to say something, then heaved a heavy sigh instead. It was Pilsoon who eventually spoke up.
“When I was young, I came across some folks suffering from that terrible affliction. People would wake up one morning to find their finger had turned into a string bean or a red chili pepper. It turns out they were suffering on the inside. Maybe they were consumed with hate for someone else or with some other bad feeling. Letting bad thoughts sit in your mind for a long time will eventually break you down, you know. Turn you into something that’s not human. The sick people got better after they ate some good food and rested for a few days, so we knew the disease wasn’t fatal. But you just look silly the whole time you’re sick and it inconveniences you something terrible. Awful affliction it is. I thought it was all but gone after they started vaccinating the kids. Wonjun must have gotten weak, poor child. Tell him to come over sometime. I’ll boil some chicken for him.”
Weak? I was about to laugh and remind her that Wonjun was a professional boxer when I suddenly felt a lump in my throat that made me shut my mouth. Physically, Wonjun might be stronger and healthier than anyone, but could I really say the same for his mental health? Thinking of how Wonjun had gazed at me so painfully the way the fruit seller with the bruised peach had, I let out a low sigh. What was haunting him so much to make his body react in that way? I may be a nurse but I knew nothing about what my own boyfriend was going through.
“I wonder what’s causing him so much distress,” I thought out loud, as I crushed my empty beer can flatter and flatter. Pilsoon didn’t say anything. As we settled into silence, the TV continued to chatter away.
It was late by the time I set out from Pilsoon’s house when suddenly, Gwangsuk stopped me. He whispered, “Will you and Wonjun set aside some time for me tomorrow?”
I turned and saw him peer intently into my eyes, his face made rosy pink either by his pink hat or the beer we had been drinking.
“Yes, time. I want to take you kids and Pilsoon to a mountain.”
“Mountain? What mountain?”
“That’s what sick people used to do back in my day. When you head into the hills and sing, you can cut down your sick days from ten to two.”
“Sing? What do you mean?”
“Wonjun has to sing from the bottom of his lungs. Really belt one out. Then you’ll see what I mean.”
With that, Gwangsuk grabbed my hand and pressed it firmly, as if to compel me into joining him on his plan. His hand was so hot and wrinkled that I couldn’t help but agree.
“Don’t brush off what I’m telling you as the foolish talk of some old man, and tell your boy to meet me tomorrow, you hear?”
Only then did Gwangsuk let go of my hand and slowly turn away. Singing? Boiled chicken sounds like a much better idea, I thought as I crossed Pilsoon’s front yard. I didn’t forget to take one last look at where Malja lay before I pushed open the front gates. That loud parrot used to croak, You leaving? Coming back soon? each time I set out the door. The earth was still flat and smooth where she was buried, and a soft darkness had settled over the place as if a knowing hand had spread out a nice bed for her to lie in.
Gwangsuk would be giving Pilsoon a nice back rub right about now, probably whispering how he would bring her another pretty little bird to take the place of the dead one. He would tell her about tomorrow’s plan to take a walk up the mountain with us. I stood before the front gates and looked up at Pilsoon’s still-lit windows. After a while, I decided to head to Wonjun’s house.
At first I thought no one was home, or at least I did when I pushed open the door to Wonjun’s place. The house was completely dark but more than that, there was a certain stillness over the place, like the feeling a house gives off when it’s empty. But Wonjun’s scruffy shoes that he would wear everywhere with the backs worn down like slippers were still by the front door. I called out, Wonjun, are you in here? before reaching down to remove my own shoes. Then I stopped. I could sense Wonjun was home. He was sprawled out on the sofa bed in the same position I’d last seen him. But in the dim light that filtered in through the window, I could see something wasn’t right. It was more a feeling I had than anything I saw with my eyes. I knew the body on the bed belonged to Wonjun but somehow, it felt like he wasn’t really there. It was as if someone had taken the different bits and pieces of him that I recognized and rearranged them to seem like the shape of Wonjun. Hesitating, I reached out to turn on the lights when suddenly, I heard his low, heavy voice.
“Don’t turn on the lights. They’re too bright.”
I trained my eyes, now accustomed to the darkness, on Wonjun’s broccoli arm. Just this morning, it was only his arm that was a broccoli stalk; now the green had spread to his shoulder and the florets had more than doubled in size.
“Did you take your meds?” I asked.
I felt a wave of anger at his nonchalant answer, but for some reason I couldn’t bring myself to yell at him. Instead, I felt my heart sink as if it were being sucked down from below. I crumpled to the floor next to Wonjun. I breathed in the smell of newly-cut grass from him. It was a fresh, green smell but it was also the smell of sadness, of a strong, lonely sadness.
“Wonjun,” I said.
“Is something the matter?”
“Gwangsuk said this happened because you’re going through something emotionally difficult.
If something’s bothering you, please tell me.
Wonjun lay there silently, as if asleep or dead. I felt like I was alone in the darkened room. I thought I might cry soon, but I was wrong. I was in fact already crying.
“Please tell me,” I repeated.
Finally, Wonjun let out a low sigh. His breath smelled strongly of cut grass.
“I’ll tell you, so don’t cry.”
Wonjun pulled his mouth to one corner and became lost in thought. I waited, dabbing at my eyes with the ends of my sleeve.
“To tell you the truth, I don’t want to box anymore.”
Wonjun drew in a deep breath then let it out just as deeply. Then he began slowly telling me his story, as if unraveling something tightly coiled from within his stomach.
“. . . Do you know what the most important thing in boxing is? Focus. You have to focus on wanting to beat the other guy to a pulp. If your left hand isn’t up to the task, you gotta use your right. If your right hand won’t cut it, you gotta use your head. You have to really focus to knock the other guy out. To have that level of focus, you have to think details. You’ve heard of image training, right? You have to imagine the other guy bleeding and slowly losing his strength. You have to imagine him getting knocked down from your punches. Have you ever imagined something like that in your life? I’m sure you’ve met some people you don’t like, but have you ever imagined beating someone almost to death, in really intricate detail?
“But you know what really sucks? I don’t even hate the other guy! In fact, I like him! The other guys I’m up against in the ring, they’ve dedicated their lives to boxing just as much as I have and have built a career similar to mine. I want to be friends with these guys. And yet I’m standing there, imagining beating the other guy to a pulp. After a while, I found it hard to throw those punches. I kept telling myself that this is only a game, that it’s a sport, and that I’m doing my job, but whether it be a sport or a profession, I still don’t want to deal with pain. I don’t like pain. I don’t like feeling it and I don’t like inflicting it. It sucks. And that’s when I realized. I don’t want to box anymore. But of course, I couldn’t throw my whole career away just like that. I didn’t want to. Instead, I kept thinking and thinking about what to do. Then I came to a solution. I decided to start hating the other guy. I thought it might be easier to hit him if I came to hate him.
“But it wasn’t easy to force myself to hate, just as it’s impossible to force yourself to like something when you don’t. I had to force the hate out of me. I came up with all kinds of reasons to hate the other guy, and repeated them over and over in my head. ‘He’s probably not as nice as I think he is. I’m sure he wants to beat me up, too. I have to knock him out before he knocks me out. I have to make sure he never comes crawling back to me again.’ Even on my days off, I kept thinking these thoughts. I thought of all kinds of reasons to make me want to throw those punches, and to contain those bad thoughts inside my right hand glove. Then one day, I woke up as broccoli.”
With that, Wonjun threw a broccoli punch in the air. I saw the outline of the florets in the darkness.
“After this happened, I can’t bring myself to feel angry at anything, try as I might.”
He jabbed the air a couple more times. Then he dropped his broccoli fist to his side.
“You’re probably thinking I should give it up. You probably don’t understand why I’m doing something that’s causing me so much pain. But I’ve been boxing my whole life. This is the only thing I know to do—hating someone else. Hating them enough to punch them to a pulp.”
With that, Wonjun went quiet. The room was left with nothing but darkness, silence, and the sad smell of cut grass. I opened my mouth to speak but nothing came out. I felt like I should say something, some words of comfort or of disapproval or anything after listening to such a long and difficult story, but after gulping at the air a few times like a fish out of water, all I managed to say was one word.
Wonjun glanced at me. Even in the darkness, I knew there was no glimmer of hope in those dead, listless eyes.
“Gwangsuk suggested we go hiking tomorrow. He says you could . . . You could do a few things that are supposed to help you heal. We’ll go tomorrow. Okay? We’ll have a good night’s sleep, and we’ll all go hiking tomorrow.”
Wonjun didn’t respond. I reached out and felt around for his broccoli hand. Beneath the thick, warm stalk, I could feel the pulsing sensation of water coursing below the skin. The water will circulate around the head of broccoli then end up . . . where? Where exactly in Wonjun’s body would it go? I wondered. Would it go to the source of his hate and anger? If the hate comes into contact with pure, clean water, would it thin out as well? I stroked and caressed the broccoli stump for a long time. The insides of my stomach churned, as if my own hand was turning green.
It was noon the next day when Wonjun and I met Pilsoon and Gwangsuk near the entrance to the Mt. Gwanak hiking trail next to the main gates of the Seoul National University campus. The elderly couple was dressed in matching hiking clothes in bright, sunny tones.
We fussed over one another as soon as we met. I complimented the couple on their clothes and asked them where they had bought them, exclaiming over the pretty azalea color of their matching jackets while Gwangsuk grabbed Wonjun’s left hand, the hand that hadn’t turned into broccoli, and shook it up and down. I’ve been meaning to see you, boy, said Gwangsuk as he grinned a big, satisfied grin while Wonjun said, I’m Ko Wonjun and smiled shyly as if he were embarrassed or maybe a little tired. Even so, Gwangsuk refused to let go of his hand and held on to it for a long time.
It was a weekday but there was a good number of hikers on the trail and the four of us looked like a nice, happy family. The weather was clear and bright, making it perfect for a hike. Gwangsuk had scampered up and down this mountain all the time from a young age, and Pilsoon had often joined him on these walks, so naturally the two of them led the way with their long hiking sticks while the rest of us fell behind.
Since we were still near the entrance of the trail, the surrounding scenery was more like a park and less a big forest, with people kicking up dust on the smooth, firm trail. Wonjun and I walked in the middle of the path, holding hands. While walking, I thought of what Wonjun had said last night. I’ve also had times when I felt intense hatred for someone or was forced to do things I didn’t want to do, but the incidents somehow ended up working themselves out. At the time, I must have felt awful and angry, but soon the feelings went away on their own. The process might have taken some time or been quite complicated, but the feelings always went away in the end. Even the wildest of rages that built up inside me, that were so forceful that I’d bit down on my lips and tasted blood and swore never to forget the injustice, eventually disappeared as if nothing had happened. And it wasn’t like I actively tried to forget what happened. The incident that led to those feelings didn’t itself disappear, but the bad feelings ultimately did. I could later look back on what happened and remember how I felt at the time. Some mechanism must have been working deep inside me to help me forget those bad feelings. Otherwise, I couldn’t have become so numb to an anger that once felt so real. My body must have known that I wouldn’t be able to function if I kept those feelings inside me for too long, so the mechanism in charge of bringing a sense of calm and order back into my life went into overdrive in those moments. Perhaps Wonjun had been trying to stomach too much pain and anger for far too long to the point where his mechanism broke down. With nothing to filter out the hate and anger, he must have carried them in his body for too long, until one morning he woke up as broccoli man.
Once his arm heals, what should Wonjun do? I thought as I walked up and down the rolling hills. I soon became out of breath. Meanwhile, Wonjun was walking serenely, wearing the same tired, sleepy expression, while Gwangsuk and Pilsoon were already far ahead of us as two azalea pink dots in the distance. I formed my two hands into a trumpet and shouted, Gwangsuuuuuuk! Are we there yet? At that, the two dots stopped and turned around and pointed to a spot some distance ahead as if to holler back, Just a little farther. They must have been thinking of stopping somewhere midway up the mountain instead of climbing to the peak.
Thirty minutes later, we finally came across Gwangsuk and Pilsoon again, who were resting against a wooden fence. Pilsoon handed us an ice cold bottle of water wrapped in a handkerchief. You made it, you made it. Gwangsuk guffawed at the sight of me exhausted and barely keeping up.
“This place seems as good as any.”
With that, Gwangsuk climbed over the fence and wandered out beyond the marked path. I hesitated, not knowing if we were allowed back there, but Pilsoon also climbed over the fence, followed by Wonjun. Left with no choice, I gingerly climbed the fence after them. Gwangsuk kept venturing farther into the forest, brushing the long grass away from him. It wasn’t clear whether he knew where he was going. The rest of us followed him down a steep path that grew increasingly steeper. Suddenly, the path came to an abrupt end at a sharp cliff. Looking down, I saw jagged rocks reaching up from the bottom of the cliff. One false move and we’d be done for. It’s dangerous over there, so don’t get too close, said Gwangsuk as he reached into his bag to grab a rolled-up foil picnic blanket. He spread it over a wide, slightly bumpy rock, and we placed our bags on each of the four corners to weigh the blanket down. From her own bag, Pilsoon brought out several rolls of gimbab wrapped in foil, some drinks, and a Tupperware container holding fresh fruit. The food made for a nice picnic spread. We sat down and each grabbed a toothpick to use as forks.
“Before we start eating, we have to do what we came here for,” Gwangsuk said. He stuck his toothpick into an apple slice and turned to Wonjun.
“Now, take off that towel and start singing.”
“Sing? Here? Now?” Wonjun said, looking understandably confused.
“Don’t give me that and belt one out!”
Wonjun glanced at me with a worried look on his face. I turned to look away, a smile working its way onto my lips. I felt bad for keeping him in the dark, but if I’d told him he had to sing, he never would have agreed to come along. Realizing what I’d done, Wonjun shot me a dirty look. But we were in the middle of a mountain. What was he going to do?
“Just give it a try,” Gwangsuk suggested again.
“What song should I sing?” Wonjun wondered.
“Any song you want.”
“But I don’t know any songs.”
“Then scream. Scream as loud as you can.”
As Wonjun hesitated, I took off the towel wrapped around his broccoli arm. The broccoli looked even greener and fresher in the sunlight. Gazing at the broccoli, Pilsoon suddenly spoke up.
“Can I go first and shout something? I’m not going to sing.”
“Sure, go right ahead,” Gwangsuk said.
Pilsoon got up and carefully tiptoed to the edge of the cliff. About two steps away from the edge, she suddenly flopped to the ground, as if her head was spinning, and brought her hands to her lips. Inhaling deeply, she then let out a sharp yell.
I expected to hear an echo, but perhaps because the forest was not deep enough, there was none. And yet Pilsoon sat there, continuing her yell.
“I didn’t mean it when I said those horrible things to you! I didn’t mean to hurt you!
I hope you’ve gone to a good place!
I’ll see you sooooooooon!”
Pilsoon sat there for a while, staring off into the distance. Finally, she got up and dusted off the seat of her pants. Like a performer coming down from the stage, she returned to us with a shy smile on her lips. Gwangsuk and I greeted her with fierce applause. As Pilsoon sat down next to him, Gwangsuk gave her a big smile.
“Wow, that made me feel good!”
“Good job. Now it’s your turn, Wonjun.”
I thought Wonjun was going to wave us off but surprisingly, he stood up and coughed a few times. He looked at us each in turn before cautiously walking to the same spot where Pilsoon had been. What was he going to do? I stared at Wonjun, my heart pounding. Wonjun took one step further from where Pilsoon had sat. Bending down, he looked down below. I jerked upright. The thought suddenly came to me that he might jump. Just then, Wonjun let out a yell.
It was an incredibly loud yell, at least ten times louder than Pilsoon’s scream. Taken aback, the rest of us exchanged glances with each other. A flock of birds took flight from a grove of trees below the edge of the cliff. Ignoring them, Wonjun brought his hands to his hips, inhaled deeply, then launched into song.
“Until that day when the waters of the East Sea run dry and Mt. Baekdusan is worn away!”
At his sudden outburst of song (or was it screaming?), the rest of us keeled over as if the wind had been knocked out of us. My goodness! So it was true he didn’t know any songs! But he’s singing the national anthem! Of all things! I laughed until my chest made strange hissing noises. Gwangsuk glared at me to keep quiet, but even he had tears in his eyes while Pilsoon was doubled over next to him, trembling with laughter. Ignoring the rest of us, Wonjun continued to sing the national anthem.
“God protect and preserve our nation! Long live our nation!”
Good! Good! Pilsoon shouted, as she clapped along to the song. I hollered, Keep going, Wonjun! Louder! Wonjun turned around and grinned. It was a grin beautiful enough to capture as a photograph, but also made me tear up for some reason. I was laughing so much that my stomach was getting itchy. Soon, Wonjun reached the end of the song. Clearing his throat, he walked back to us. I got up and gave him a hug. Good job, good job, I murmured as I patted his butt, stroked his head, and even pinched his cheeks.
He downed a 500-ml bottle of water. “It’s strange. All I did was shout a little, but I feel so much lighter,” said Wonjun as he twisted his neck this way and that.
“I told you that would happen,” smiled Gwangsuk. “You’ll feel better in no time.”
I didn’t know how the yelling was supposed to heal Wonjun, but I for one felt great. In fact, I felt like I was going to burst into tears. It was just a little singing, just a little bit of shouting, but it made us feel so much better. It was like the feeling of switching from a thick, sweat-soaked winter comforter to a light and breezy spring blanket. I felt so much more relaxed. What was going on? Was it because we were deep in the mountains, surrounded by clear, cool air that sucked in all sound without giving off so much as an echo? I’d never heard Wonjun shout so loudly before. I didn’t think he had it in him, I thought, breathing in the clear mountain air. He can be so manly when he wants to be. Suddenly, a piece of kiwi stuck to a toothpick appeared before my nose.
“Even the most majestic of vistas can wait till after we eat,” Pilsoon said, smiling, as she handed me the toothpick. We were in the middle of Mt. Gwanak, surrounded by scenery that was not exactly majestic, but I ate what was given to me. The kiwi’s tangy flavor made my mouth water and kept me wanting for more. Wonjun must have been just as hungry as he grabbed two pieces of gimbab with his left hand and tossed them into his mouth. I realized neither Wonjun nor I had eaten anything since yesterday. The gimbab soon disappeared but Pilsoon brought out plenty more food from her bag which I’d been regarding suspiciously because of how full it was: some fried tofu rolls, red bean jelly, popped rice, and even frozen barley tea for us to eat and drink and chew and swallow. The rice was a little warm and the fruit had turned slightly brown in some places but they were so delicious they brought tears to my eyes.
Just then, Wonjun stopped in the middle of chewing his fried tofu roll. Groaning, he frowned and turned to stare at his broccoli arm. Thinking he might have bitten a grain of sand, I turned to look at him.
“It’s bursting,” he groaned.
“Bursting? What’s bursting?” I asked in alarm.
The rest of us gazed at his broccoli arm, with our toothpicks in the air. Wonjun kept groaning and grunting. Suddenly, he reached out and grabbed his greenish forearm.
“I can feel something bursting inside.”
“Bursting?” I repeated.
“I don’t know how to explain it. It feels like there are small fireworks going off inside my arm.”
What? What does that mean? I was about to ask, feeling a growing sense of panic. Suddenly, Pilsoon and Gwangsuk began shouting and pointing at the same time. Gwangsuk grabbed Wonjun’s broccoli arm and brought it close to his face.
“Look at this!” he yelled.
I brought my face close and saw what he was pointing to. There were small, yellow dots on his arm. One of the broccoli florets had grown taller than the others, and was sprouting yellow dots on its tips. They were so tiny that we could only see them if we brought our faces close. But see them we could, and we instantly recognized what they were.
“Those are flowers, aren’t they?” I asked.
“Well, broccoli are flowering plants . . . that have been cultivated to grow bigger heads . . .”
“Wait, you mean to say those small things are all flowers?”
We brought our faces closer to Wonjun’s broccoli arm and spoke in hushed tones. Slowly but surely, tiny flowers were sprouting all over the broccoli tips. One of the earliest sprouts grew longer and longer until a tiny stalk emerged from the tip. From there, a bright yellow flower petal slowly wound its way upward and began to unfurl. Several minutes later, we saw the first fully blossomed flower. It was a tiny, simple flower with four petals forming a small cone. Soon, other flowers blossomed from the yellow tips.
“Oh, those are so pretty,” Pilsoon exclaimed.
“Yes, they really are,” I murmured.
“What a sight!”
We each murmured something in turn. I felt a wave of emotion come over me, as if I were seeing a newborn animal for the first time. I stroked Wonjun’s shoulder.
“This feels weird,” Wonjun said as he looked down at his broccoli arm. His face was much more at peace, his eyes and lips more relaxed.
“Yes, yes, you’re all better now,” Gwangsuk said with a pleased smile.
About an hour later, Wonjun’s broccoli arm had turned into a big head full of flowers. Tiny flowers were adorning the head, with the flowers on the outermost tips drooping down while the flowers in the middle shooting up straight into the sky, altogether looking like a big, upside-down chandelier. When I held a flower between my fingers, it gave off a surprisingly strong peppery smell. It was a refreshing, very intense smell that was different from other flowers. We took turns carefully stroking the broccoli flowers, as if congratulating someone who had done himself proud. Each time our fingers brushed the flowers, they nodded and gave off their intense scent. It was a scent strong enough to last into our dreams. The sweet and spicy smell would likely carry through the wind and head out far and wide, all the way to the entrance of the Mt. Gwanak trail, I thought with a sense of pride.
By the time we came back down the trail, the sun was setting. We went back the way we came and said our goodbyes in front of the campus gates. After sending an exhausted Gwangsuk and Pilsoon off on a taxi, Wonjun and I slowly walked to a fork in the road where we would have to say goodbye. Wonjun was carefully cradling his broccoli arm, still wrapped in a towel. He looked not unlike someone happily carrying a bouquet of flowers in honor of a joyous occasion. I walked home with a big bounce in my steps. I felt like bursting into song.
Since I had worked up a big sweat that day, I showered and climbed into bed as soon as I got home.
I thought I’d fall asleep immediately given how tired I was, but when I lay down, sleep didn’t come as soon as I thought. I was still excited from what happened that day, like a kid who had been to a picnic. Even though I closed my eyes, I could still picture the events of the day. I hugged my pillow close and tossed to my left, then to my right. I thought over what had happened.
I realized I was disappointed at Wonjun for not confiding in me sooner about wanting to quit boxing. He’s usually so eager to talk about his thoughts and opinions, but when it came to sharing what he was feeling on the inside, he had kept me in the dark and suffered alone for all those months. Couldn’t he have told me how he felt? I felt myself pouting in the dark. I guess I couldn’t have offered him a solution even if he had told me. I might have attempted to cheer him up, by offering to take him out to a nice restaurant or maybe go on a trip somewhere, like what Gwangsuk must have done for Pilsoon last night. I felt embarrassed. I guess we’re all the same when it comes to comforting the ones we love.
Would Gwangsuk offer to buy Pilsoon a new pet parrot? If he did, he was likely to buy a bird that was talkative and affectionate. The bird would be cute in a way that’s different from Malja, with a different voice and tone. But over time, he’d pick up curse words and start hurling them at random people, too. I was sure of it.
I felt sleep finally come over me.
The next morning, I woke up to find that Wonjun had sent me a text with an image attachment. I decided to quit boxing, he had written. The picture was of his right hand. There were still some flower buds near the tips that were withering away, and the hand was greenish in some places, but it looked like a proper human hand.
I typed back, That’s great!
And it really was.
Translated by Amber Hyun Jung Kim