Reading Time: about 8 minutes
"Spoons" originally appeared in Issue 22 of Tahoma Literary Review. I was drawn into the story by the luscious depictions of preparing nourishment during a time of danger and crisis. The author writes in her opening paragraph, "Yeonsoo likes her eggs to feel at home until she boils them to death." This piece is beautifully ominous.
Quail eggs nestle inside a cedar box on a bed of shaved wood chips. Yeonsoo likes her eggs to feel at home until she boils them to death. Her kitchen is kitted out with the best equipment Yeonsoo can afford though this is the only thing she’ll cook.
With a press of her finger, she heats the water cooker to forty degrees celsius. She pours the perfectly warmed water into a tall glass and adds one quail egg. Yeonsoo only eats fresh eggs, the ones that stand at attention on the bottom of her glass.
With two presses of the finger, the water boils. Yeonsoo assembles her tools: a copper mesh spider, candy thermometer, and quail egg scissors. She lines her eggs from small to large, never more than three or less than two. She weighs the chosen few and calibrates the timer.
Yeonsoo’s tongue works its way out her mouth as the spider enters the boiling water. Exactly two minutes and twenty seconds later, she drains her perfectly soft boiled eggs.
She carries her precious cargo in a soft white towel to the dining room table where a shot glass, flaked sea salt, and a pepper grinder await. The morning sun streams through the windows overlooking Han River. No need for curtains here on the seventeenth floor.
Yeonsoo beheads the first egg. Her fingers tremble to strew the exactly correct amount of salt. With the first egg, she never adds pepper. The yolk glazes ever so slightly. Yeonsoo raises her ceramic spoon.
Then, the sirens wind up. They start from the watch towers on Inwangsan. From mountain to hilltop to city skyscraper, the entire city of Seoul throbs with the command, go to the bomb shelter.
Yeonsoo lays down her spoon. She gets up to slam the kitchen window shut. She hurries back to the dining room to insert her spoon while the egg is still warm. Yolk spills onto the ceramic surface. It fills Yeonsoo’s mouth with a golden unctuousness.
She finishes the egg in three neat bites as pamphlets fall from the sky. No one reads them anymore. The recycling bins are full of warnings.
The second quail egg is slightly cooler than the first, its flesh more firm. Yeonsoo snaps her teeth together ever so gently. The mouthfeel of the egg white is as smooth as freshly-made tofu.
Not that Yeonsoo eats tofu anymore. Her girlfriends laugh at her. Why won’t you eat Korean food, they ask, while they stuff their mouths with naengmyeon.
When Yeonsoo was a child, she made noodles by hand. She mixed the buckwheat and sweet potato flour and rolled the dough into long thin strings. Her grandmother would cook then cool them on a bed of ice. She always ate her naengmyeon slathered in bibim sauce.
When Yeonsoo’s girlfriends offer their metal chopsticks for her to take a bite, it’s all Yeonsoo can do not to gag.
The windows rattle. Yeonsoo’s spoon skitters across the table. She looks down at the men and women running for the shelters. Yeonsoo sighs. Once again, she’ll have to finish this last egg at her desk.
She focuses on her wardrobe. Yeonsoo is, after all, the executive assistant to the bank’s third vice-president. Her appearance reflects on the bank and, indeed, the entire financial sector.
At the last drill, she had spied her boss in the queue for the bomb shelter. He wore a shockingly old tracksuit and his chin was unshaven. Admittedly, it was a weekend drill but that’s no excuse for bad grooming. Yeonsoo had turned her face away to spare him her embarrassment.
The thought of seeing him again in a disheveled state brings a rare flush to Yeonsoo’s face. She chooses a pale grey jacket and a snug matching skirt. Her blouse is demure, an exact match for her blindingly white teeth.
Yeonsoo is not the type to hurry. She’s precise and methodical, the qualities the bank demands from their executive assistants, no matter how many sirens might go off. She applies her lipstick, carefully re-arranges her bangs to achieve the correct not-too-tousled look and checks her handbag.
The soft-boiled quail egg rests inside a small cedar box, a miniature version of its countertop cousin. Next to the box nestle three spoons in their individual silk pockets inside Yeonsoo’s bespoke Birkin bag.
The ceramic spoon is, of course, for the quail’s egg. The bone spoon Yeonsoo reserves for aged, artisanal balsamic D.O.P. Her prized mother-of-pearl spoon is used only for Russian caviar, never the cheap Korean imitations.
Yeonsoo knows a proper caviar shop that’s not too outrageously expensive. They know how to reheat a quail’s egg. As soon as the drill is over, in an hour or so, Yeonsoo will go. Already, she can feel the pop pop pop of red salmon roe on her tongue.
The first bomb shelter is full. The doors to the second one close as soon as Yeonsoo squeezes through. It’s not the bomb shelter proper but the subway platform that lies above it.
Yeonsoo tries not to touch anything but it’s impossible to avoid. A child leans his face into her skirt. He leaves a shiny trail of mucus across her hip. The crowd is so tightly packed, Yeonsoo cannot open her handbag to extract her handkerchief.
She wriggles her way to a spot with cleaner air. At the platform’s edge, a violent draft hurtles cold air through the dark tunnel. To comfort herself, Yeonsoo imagines the caviar she’ll relish when this is all over. Not the red salmon but the very best black sturgeon roe. The pop of the fish egg is not quite so explosive but, oh, the taste of the sea. On such a trying day as this, she deserves a treat.
But when? This drill is interminable. A man in a three-piece woolen suit, far too warm for this time of year, demands to know when the all-clear signal will sound. No one has answers though theories abound. An electrical short circuit, an internet outage, someone asleep at central command.
The platform lights flash their warning. Everyone including Yeonsoo peers hopefully into the dark. A needle of light appears at the far end of the tunnel. The needle fattens into a string, the string into a path, the path into a road for the Enemy to enter.
They come in tanks adapted to the subways of Seoul. The tanks are followed by cattle cars. The Enemy fills the cattle cars with every male on the platform. Old men in wheelchairs and baby boys in their strollers. Some men resist. None survive.
Yeonsoo sees her boss in a linen suit and new tie, properly attired for work. The Enemy drags him away by his English leather shoes. His white starched shirt is a filthy rag before he, too, is thrown into the cattle car and the Enemy moves on.
Within an hour, the metal bins of government food rations, bottled water and thermal blankets are empty. Suddenly, every woman in the subway needs a bite to eat.
An old ajumma with a suitcase full of homemade rice cakes does a brisk business. The cakes were intended for her daughter but this is an opportunity too good to miss. Won notes fill the suitcase as lucky buyers emerge with a cake gone soggy in the humid underground.
Not Yeonsoo. She probes her bone spoon for a balsamic memory. She tries to remember the six types of wood used for aging. Oak for the vanilla aroma, chestnut for its gloss, cherry for the sweetness. She pinches her thigh. Finally, the names come to her: mulberry, juniper, and ash.
Yeonsoo has never seen these trees. She knows them from a YouTube clip. She imagines the heat of the tiny attic room where the casks are stored, the sharpness of the sour air, the sound of treacly tears as they weep onto plastic trays. She remembers the close-up shot of the June flies ready to feast.
She’d love to see that clip again but her phone’s gone dead. Schoolgirls have monopolized the only electrical outlet. They say, pay first, then charge. Yeonsoo has money but it’s all digital. After much debate, the schoolgirls agree to barter. Ten minutes at the socket for Yeonsoo’s lipstick, face powder and eyebrow brush.
Her telephone lights up with messages. Are you safe? Do you have food? What’s going on? Seven of the messages come from Yeonsoo’s grandmother far away in the countryside. Come home, her halmoni says. You’ll be safe here.
A subway is a maze and Yeonsoo is a rat. Her nose quivers at each fork. She’s hungry but she is determined to wait. Her quail egg deserves to be eaten properly.
She emerges close to the Han River where it’s still raining pamphlets. In the breeze, they rise and fall like birds, spreading yesterday’s news across the rubble that is now Seoul.
How lucky the current is slow enough for Yeonsoo to swim across. She splutters onto the far shore with her Birkin bag on her head. A crow caws welcome to the new world.
There are no more roads. Where train tracks once oriented the world into north and south, east and west, metal runes rise, too strange to read. If their message is hope, it lies beyond this place. Yeonsoo discards her stiletto shoes in favor of a pair of runners she finds on the road.
The Enemy has not yet altered the mountains and rivers. Yeonsoo can navigate by the memory of summers when her parents would banish her from Seoul. Yeonsoo lived with her grandparents in a tiny village deep in the south. She was supposed to learn about tradition and filial duty. Instead, she grew to hate all things old.
She scrambles through a gash in the land that was once the superhighway to the south. She remembers the persimmon trees that lined the highway, their yield so great that the fruit rained down on the roofs of passing cars. Their burst juice stained the tires.
Yeonsoo shimmies up a tree. She splits her skirt in the process. The moss on her legs is more than worth the ripeness in her hand. Yeonsoo opens her Birkin bag to puzzle over her spoons. Persimmon is closest in taste to balsamic. From her bone spoon, Yeonsoo delicately sips the bright orange flesh as the persimmon weeps in her palm.
For the long road ahead, Yeonsoo collects persimmons. She won’t defile her quail egg with a load of orange fruit. Nylon stockings turn out to be the perfect carrier. As Yeonsoo nears the pass of Mungyeong Saejae, the fruit bumps her back, staining her jacket with orange kisses.
At the summit, she finds sparrow bones charred, brittle, and licked clean. With her mother-of-pearl spoon, Yeonsoo sorts through the remains. Crunchy, she thinks, a mouthfeel she hasn’t experienced in a while. She could learn to like this taste but the sound of voices carries through the pass.
Maybe they’re fellow escapees. Maybe they’re not. If she can hear them then they can hear her.
Yeonsoo disappears into the high grass. Her grandparents’ village is a day’s walk from here. Halmoni keeps chickens. Perhaps she could be convinced to add quail to her yard.
The home of the soy sauce maker stands closest to the village gate. His earthenware jars sparkle in the courtyard. Yeonsoo picks her way among the onggi straight for the rain barrel. She plunges her head into the water.
The soy sauce maker doesn’t appear to shoo her away. The woman who teaches tourists how to make bibimbap doesn’t answer her door. No ajummas gather to gossip in the market.
Yeonsoo’s grandparents are resourceful. They know the abundance of the forest, the generosity of the sea, and the best places to hide from the Enemy.
When Yeonsoo enters her grandparents’ home, she finds the table set for the evening meal. Steel chopsticks and long spoons wait in their proper place. Three rice balls wrapped in seaweed sit on a blue ceramic plate.
Yeonsoo takes her seat at the table, her wooden box before her. She opens the lid and the stench of sulfur pours out. It smells like the hell her grandmother’s church had promised to souls like Yeonsoo.
Her spoon quivers in the air. Her mouth waters. Yes, the stench might come from the egg. But it could just as easily be her grandparents, seated in their chairs, their mouths frozen in perpetual anticipation of the rice balls shriveling on the table.
Yeonsoo eats the egg.
Eventually, she recovers, one spoon of rice at a time. She finds her grandmother’s larder. Childhood tastes fire nerves long dormant. The spike of the gojuchang, the umami of dried anchovies, the sweet-sour of her grandmother’s pickles. She sleeps on the wooden platform where halmoni dried her mountain herbs. Minari and mugwort perfume Yeonsoo’s dreams.
The larder is near empty. One last jar of pickles lies buried in the garden.
Yeonsoo ransacks her grandmother’s bedroom. Pajamas, long underwear and ribbons to tie a winter coat tight fly about the room. Yeonsoo finds what she needs in an envelope tucked beneath halmoni’s best hanbok. A plant almanac, fed by the knowledge of fifty growing seasons, tastefully adorned with watercolor depictions of all that Yeonsoo can find to eat and drink.
Yeonsoo dons her grandfather’s fishing vest packed with hooks, lures and lots of line. The Birkin bag rattles with tools as she heads for the garden.
Red earth yields a small onggi, its clay lid sealed with mud. Inside lie daikon, carrot, and mountain yam. Yeonsoo ties the heavy jar into a harness which she ropes around her shoulders. She leaves the village and disappears into the woods. A trail of pickle juice shines in her wake.
During the day, Yeonsoo hides. At night, she forages. Wild ramps, mushrooms, her grandmother’s almanac as stained as Yeonsoo’s face. Her spoons crush bright bunches of omija berries. It’s not the tea her grandmother would have made but Yeonsoo savors its five flavors. Salty like caviar, sweet and sour like balsamic, as pungent as life.
She wakes one morning to the soft sound of balloons popping. A column of smoke appears in the sky. The Enemy has come.
Yeonsoo is ready. Her Birkin bag is clean and dry. She fills it with wood chips, twigs and leaves as she pushes her way deeper into the forest. Somewhere in this green maze is a covey of quail. Yeonsoo listens for the call of a male ready to mate.