The Jagalchi Fish Market by Elaine Barnard

The Jagalchi Fish Market

Elaine Barnard

It is late afternoon now, and still they haven’t come, the tourists that I have been waiting for all day. Sometimes they come on buses, sometimes on foot, traveling from our myriad of subways that connect Busan from end to end. I myself love our subways, such an inexpensive mode of transport in South Korea, much better than cars because there is nowhere to park. That is, there is somewhere, but someone else has gotten there before you. So, you drive round and round in a daze with the other drivers honking you awake.

This day I have gotten to the Jagalchi Fish Market early as it is the weekend when the tides of tourists engulf us. My flounder and red snapper are in my tanks, submerged in the circulating waters that keep them fresh, ready for sale. They are beautiful to behold.

The tourists, when they finally come, will have many other options as well, crabs, eels, and the undulating tentacles of octopuses that I hear are delicious, almost like chicken. But I have never been able to eat an octopus since I discovered how smart they are. They are the stars of the Jagalchi Fish Market. My fish are not so smart, but I believe they are more beautiful. Just look at my snapper with her rosy skin and my flounder, his meat white and succulent, a gourmet’s first choice.

I hear the din of the chopping blocks on the second floor where the fish is served. It is such a triumphant sound, thud-thud-thud. It blends with the chaos outside, the grind of the buses, the shrill calls of the grannies. The salty smell of fish and the pungent odor of frying oils delight me.

Soon, the grannies will slip on masks to filter the sewer smells, close up their food carts, and head home to prepare dinner for their working sons and daughters, to indulge the grandchildren with bits of their leftovers.

The sun, which has been bright all day, is setting. Shadows move along the aisles between the tanks. Many of the mongers have also left, as they’ve sold most of their fish to Jackie’s restaurant upstairs, or to the housewives who purchase the crabs or eels for tonight’s supper. They will steam or grill them simply with lemon so that you taste the delicious flavor of the fish, or dip them in chili and soy sauce if they are not so fresh.

The rubber boots that I have been wearing all day to slosh through the wet floors are beginning to be uncomfortable. I feel my feet swelling inside them as if my circulation has ceased. Also, my hands within these long rubber gloves are almost numb. I long to go home, to sit in a tub of hot water with my wife, to drink soju and make the night happy. I try to do this always, to make the night happy, but my wife disapproves. “The soju will be your undoing,” she says.  But I do not care. I love soju, so sweet and smooth. It trickles down my throat, warming my stomach, my legs, and hands, which are cold from sloshing in the waters all day, making sure my fish are fresh. They are my true loves. I watch them play in the waters. I hate to sell them, but I must. My wife says I love my fish more than her. She is probably right, but I will never admit it. How long would our marriage last if I did?

My wife works here too. She prints our cards, which she distributes to the tourists, hoping they will buy our fish instead of another monger’s and bring the fish upstairs to Jackie’s, where it will be prepared for a sumptuous meal.

My wife is getting tired of her work. She is not so pretty anymore. It is more difficult to lure the tourists who prefer younger faces that have been botoxed in the clinics or had a double fold added to their eyelids to make them look bigger, more Western. My wife would love to have her eyelids done. I tell her as soon as we have the money she can have all the surgeries she wants. But that day has never come and maybe never will. So, she has to be content with the face God gave her, the face I fell in love with and still do adore, next to my fish, which seem to have captured the larger part of my heart.

My wife waves to me from across the market, signaling it’s time to close up, even though I have sold no fish today. Her black hair is limp from the moisture rolling in from the ocean which fronts the Jagalchi Fish Market. The gray in her roots is more prominent now, even though she uses the black dye sold in the markets. It is pitiful for women to age. They depend so much on their beauty to overcome life’s difficulties.

If she wishes to go home, I must as well. It’s not that I don’t want to sit in the tub with her, but our earnings are meager, and this day will make them more so. I hate to leave my fish alone at night, even though I will leave the waters circulating to keep them fresh. I will worry about them all evening, dream of their safety, knowing they will long for my return in the morning, my sweet snapper and my favorite flounder.

Suddenly, I smell the fumes of a bus pulling up outside. I hear the laughter and the voices, jubilant from the day’s outing. I hope they’re still hungry, even though they probably had a big lunch. The students hustle inside, their elderly professor explaining the signs which are all in Korean. They mumble to each other in English, which I find difficult to understand. There is no music to their syllables.

They are with the octopus now. Their professor extolls the wonders of its tentacles, how it can capture its prey, then raves about the black ink of the squid, how it is a staple of the gourmet’s diet. His students poke each other and giggle, imitating the tentacles of the octopus, spitting the black ink of the squid.

I am waiting for them to pass my tanks. I stand at attention, a smile on my face. It is my best smile – the one I use for the tourists. My wife is also smiling, her cards ready to distribute, to tell the tourists about her discount if they will buy our fish and send it upstairs to Jackie’s to be prepared for a late lunch or early dinner. But they are paying no attention to my tanks, to my elegant snapper or favorite flounder. They are enraptured by the octopus. I smile wider, hoping the flash of gold in my teeth might attract them for a second, get them to pause before they leave.

“Where is the restroom?” a skinny girl pleads, shifting her backpack. The professor squints at the signs, then points her in my direction. She must pass my tanks to get there. Just as she passes, my favorite flounder jumps from the tank, hitting the patched thigh of her jeans. I rush with my net to scoop him back into the water. She looks dumbfounded. “Oh, how sweet,” she coos. “Look at it, everyone.”

They gather around her, staring, chuckling, debating what they should do with my friendly flounder. “Let’s send him upstairs to Jackie’s,” they chorus. “He’ll make a great dinner.”

“Yeah, he’s huge enough for all of us,” another kid yells.

“No,” the girl interrupts as he wiggles in my net. “I’m a vegetarian. Let’s take him to the docks. We can send him back where he came from.” She pulls out some won from her pack. “Is this enough?” she rolls the bills in her sweaty palm, her blue eyes hopeful.

I’m not sure it is. I feel a pang in my heart, my favorite flounder gone back to the sea. I hesitate, but my wife intercedes. “It is enough,” she snaps, sealing the flounder in a baggie of water. “But hurry, before my husband changes his mind.”

About the Author

Elaine Barnard’s stories and plays have won awards and been published in numerous literary journals such as Lowestoft Chronicle, Kyso, Red Fez, Zimbell House, Sunlight, and many others. She has been a finalist for Glimmer Train and Best of the Net. Recently, she was nominated for the Pushcart Prize and Best Small Fiction. Her collection of stories from her travels in Asia is forthcoming from New Meridian Arts. She received her BA from the University of Washington, Seattle and her MFA from the University of California, Irvine.