“Son, eat a lot.”
The golden-brown grilled mackerel glistened with the colors of the sea. My mother meticulously removed the bones and placed a thick piece of mackerel in my rice bowl. Her face was wrinkle-free, the face of a young woman who had lost her husband early and single-handedly opened a fish stall at the Namhang Market.
The moment felt too precious to be a mere glimpse before death. I wanted to hold onto it forever. Wasn’t this the mother who devoted her life to me? The image of my young mother was more beautiful and noble than any actress I’d seen.
“Son, are you crying?”
My mother looked at me with a worried expression. I managed to swallow the tears welling up in my throat and shook my head. What a foolish son I was, causing worry even on my mother’s face in this fleeting moment. With a grunt, I lifted my spoon and barely pushed the mackerel and white rice she had prepared into my mouth.
But what’s this?
As the savory taste and the fullness of the white rice went down my throat, the vividness of the taste was too real to be an illusion. Although it was supposed to be a brief encounter, it was incredibly delicious, as if I was again at my mother’s table. That’s when it happened.
Only then did the room’s scenery gradually come into focus. The wallpaper of the cramped space, which seemed to only contain the two of us, was old and worn with mold here and there. The lamp hanging from the ceiling also had one lightbulb removed to save on electricity. It was unmistakably the tiny room in Yeongdo that I had shared with my mother since middle school. It was a perfect replica of that time.
Her face, lovingly gazing at her child, overflowed with vitality. It seemed as if I could touch her if I had just reached out. Gathering my courage, I did just that, and her skin, still untouched by sunlight, felt real. My mother’s eyes were wider than ever. She wondered what was happening, seeing her usually irritable son stop eating and crying while tenderly touching her face.
I had returned.
How it happened, I couldn’t say.
I was sure I had decided to commit suicide by hanging.
But when I opened my eyes, I found myself back in my 14-year-old self.
Had my past life been just a nightmare?
Or was it a prank by the gods?
Either way, it was fine. The fact that I could experience this moment again felt like a blessing.
“Yeongguk, let’s play soccer after school!”
A friend, whose name I didn’t know and who was sitting next to me in class, spoke to me as if it were familiar. In this rural neighborhood without even a modest arcade, it was an era when gathering to play soccer after school seemed like a promise.
“I’m not playing soccer starting today.”
“I’m going to study.”
My friend stared at me with an expression that seemed to say, “What kind of nonsense are you talking about?” But I left my bewildered friend behind and walked out of the classroom.
The school playground, which seemed endlessly vast in my childhood, was where I played soccer with my friends every day after school. It occupied a faded spot in my memory—an area both familiar and unfamiliar. I had doubted it many times, wondering if it was all just a dream or a fleeting illusion borne just before death.
But the vibrant people and the tickling scent of the sea in my nostrils were not false. After several days had passed, my anxiety seemed to ebb away like the tide. The memories of losing my mother and the days spent wandering without direction faded.
“Are you giving me another chance?”
I raised my head and asked the clear sky, devoid of a speck of dust. The divine answer didn’t come, but I felt the silence as an affirmation. Hadn’t I already experienced a failed life? Hadn’t I felt the chilling harshness of society in my bones? I didn’t want to have regrets anymore. I vowed not to miss this second chance. My fists clenched tightly, and my steps were lighter than ever before.
At that moment, a nameless bird crossing the sky seemed to respond to my resolution, changing its course dramatically.
The sound of seagulls’ cries filled the air. Boats bobbed at the wharf, docking one after another. Next to the waterfront was the Namhang Market. Like any traditional market, it was a labyrinthine maze. The strong accents of Busan’s women and the scent of the sea filled the air. Fresh fish, seemingly leaping directly from the water, were confined to red containers, flicking their tails.
My mother, who ran a fish stall at the Namhang Market, looked up with surprise and stood up.
“Son, why are you here?”
“I came to help you with your work.”
Surprise was evident in my mother’s eyes. After all, I had never visited the Namhang Market even once before. Wasn’t I the son who found selling fish at the market shameful? My mother even rubbed her eyes with her sleeve, wondering if she was dreaming.
“Let’s check if the fish are in good condition.”
I examined the fish’s condition in the stall with a practiced eye. The fish included mackerel boasting a deep blue hue and the pale green of the hairtails. These were the remaining fish after the freshest ones had already been sold at the live fish auction. My mother bought them from the auction at dawn.
“Mom, I’ll rearrange the fish a bit.”
When I lived as a small-time actor in my past life, acting wasn’t the only thing that sustained me. I had to find other jobs to make a living. As they said, what you learn is like stealing. I’d tried driving and manual labor, but the most suitable job for me was selling fish, which I’d learned and observed since childhood. I’d sold a lot of fish, going back and forth from markets to supermarkets.
“Son, what about mackerel and Spanish mackerel?”
My mother was still inexperienced in the fish business. It made sense, as she was likely the youngest among the Busan women who ran fish stalls in this market. My mother’s sales pitches, drowned out by the rough accents of Busan women, couldn’t attract a single customer. As proof, her fish stall attracted not customers’ gazes but only flies.
I took a deep breath and put strength into my lower abdomen as if practicing deep breathing. In sales, the most essential aspects were vocalization and pronunciation. Moreover, I was just a 14-year-old. I needed to breathe even deeper. Soon, my mouth opened as if pulling a trigger.
“Now, now! We’ve got very affordable and delicious mackerel! We also have hairtail and Spanish mackerel, so don’t just pass by, take a look before you go!”
My voice burst out like cannonballs, causing my mother’s eyes to widen in shock. But that wasn’t enough. I also needed gestures to compete with the seasoned Busan women who had been in the Namhang Market for a long time.
“Noona! How about mackerel for dinner tonight? Just take a look. Mackerel is very popular with boyfriends!”
A middle-aged woman passing by looked at me with wide, curious eyes. I was halfway to success. I seized the opportunity and put more strength into my voice.
“The spring mackerel so good, even husbands who left home would return after smelling it!”
“Oh my, look at this kid. How old is he? So audacious.”
“Ladies, don’t just walk by, come over here! I’ll give you plenty of service!”
Tourists and women started approaching the fish stall one by one. I took advantage of this momentum and engaged in even more aggressive sales pitches, making passersby stop as if they were watching a spectacle.
“Oh, you’re such a beautiful lady that I added a few extra hairtails. If my boss finds out, I’ll get in trouble. It’s a secret, a secret!”
Now, even the Busan women selling fish around us stopped their aggressive sales pitches and curiously watched me. Thanks to that, the mackerel, hairtail, and Spanish mackerel on the fish stall sold out quickly.
My mother was able to pack up the fish stall earlier than usual that evening. Despite her objections, I helped with our fish stall and assisted the women nearby in cleaning up theirs. Perhaps because of that, I seemed to have become a local celebrity in the Namhang Market in just one day. The fruit vendor even brought us some leftover strawberries, praising my skills.
“Son, you don’t have to help me like this…”
My mother seemed proud and apologetic as her son sold fish with nimble hands. On our way home, her eyes were filled with countless emotions.
“It’s okay, I enjoy doing it.”
“Son, should we have your favorite pork belly for dinner tonight?”
“Mom, I like mackerel the most. Please make mackerel for dinner.”
I would have liked to prepare dinner, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it, knowing that feeding her son to his fill was my mother’s simple joy. After a happy dinner in our small room, which felt like it could be filled up if we lay down, I spread out my study materials on the little desk.
“Son, are you going to study?”
My mother’s eyes widened as she looked at me. This was so different from my usual behavior. She seemed at a loss at the sudden change in her son, who now seemed more mature. I was ready to study day and night. My mother’s eyes reddened as memories of the past years came back. She must have had such a hard time losing her husband and raising her son alone as a young woman. The small room we finally got after moving from one lodging house to another. The earnings from the fish stall in Namhang Market were not enough. But today, with my help, we could sell all the fish for the first time. I silently held my mother’s hand and didn’t forget to hug her.
Looking at my mother’s reddened eyes, I made a vow to myself repeatedly.
I would live a life without regrets.
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