7360 words, short story
The Peppers of GreenScallion
Chaeeunshinji was seventeen, and I was thirteen. Just going by years alone, she was way older than me, but that kind of comparison didn’t really mean much: the planet where Chaeeunshinji was from and the one where I came from each had slightly different rotational and sidereal periods, so that the relative lengths of days and years on those worlds worked out to be just different enough to be confusing.
“Well, technically I’m in my late teens, but you’re just a little kid, so officially I’m your big sister.”
“But who would go by that? If you count by wake-sleep cycles, I’ve lived longer than you!”
“Okay, fine, let’s count it up exactly, right now. Then we’ll see who comes out on top, night or day . . . ”
“Okay—knight and dame, let’s try . . . ”
“Try what? No, no, don’t explain it; that always kills a joke. Just forget it, okay? Let’s just calculate it today, and do it right. No giving up halfway along again, alright? Now, what was your planet’s rotation period?”
“Uh, wait a sec, I wrote that down someplace.”
“You dummy! You don’t even know its rotation period? Even if you only ever heard it once, you should’ve been able to remember it.”
“I told you last time—you wouldn’t be able to remember it either, if you only heard it once.”
Whenever the adults were away working in their labs, Chaeeunshinji and I always returned to our ceaseless war. We were both the type who’d rather die than lose an argument, and our clashes almost always continued until the grown-ups came back home after finishing their daily work.
Sometimes they’d watch us fight like that for a while, and then they used to say stuff like: “Is it really so fun, that you two always stick together like that, jabbering at each other all day long? Don’t you kids ever get tired of it?”
“Well, he’s always talking crap about my name.”
“He keeps joking about how he can’t tell where my family name ends and my given name begins. And he keeps calling me ‘Eunshinji’!”
Shinji, Eunshinji, Chaeeunshinji. I couldn’t say how old each of us had gotten while we were back on the worlds we’d lived on before coming here, but here in our new home, on this planet that was named GreenScallion, we’d both aged exactly three years, not a day more or less . . . and we’d spent every single one of those days at war with each other, without even a single day off. And we went on like that, too, right up until the war broke out.
Actually, the war had nothing to do with us, not really. It happened mostly out in space, so we never saw any sign of the actual fighting, nothing at all. For us, everything just went on as usual. But one day, sometime in the afternoon, the executive director of my mom’s research center dropped by our house and notified us that a war had broken out. After that, things seemed to change, little by little. That was because suddenly there were things like which people we could talk to, and which we shouldn’t; which place we could go, and which place we must never go. In other words, we had a kind of front line to the war right inside our village. The lines were on a map, but they weren’t actually there on the ground. They were the lines that didn’t really exist, except as words someone had said.
And Chaeeunshinji’s house was on far side of that stupid line.
“Can’t I go and see her?”
“No, just for a while.”
That was the new rule my mom handed down to me: no more meeting up with Chaeeunshinji and fighting all day long. To me, that was what the war really meant: separating us so we couldn’t fight anymore. As for how the war was going, well, things got more and more serious every day. Attack ships appeared, flying under the clouds. With loud noise and their fancy glittering lights flashing, those tiny dots flew slowly over our heads. Whenever evening fell, every single grownup looked up in that direction and talked about all kinds of things with worried expressions:
“Like the rumors said . . . they must’ve dispatched attack ships that can fly inside the atmosphere.”
“That’s a huge deal! The war front could expand planetside, couldn’t it?”
“No, not really. We don’t even have a single attack ship on our side, so it’s not like the war front is expanding, it’s more a case of a single attack ship being capable of conquering us all here.”
“So then . . . what? Should we attack it?”
“What? No, we just surrender. We’re not soldiers or war prisoners, so nothing much will happen to us.”
The director of our research center freaked out; he got really upset when he heard that word, surrender, but no one else really cared.
What the grown-ups were worried about was that the fight going on out in space would spread down onto the planet. In fact, where we were living, there was no chance that any of us would even see actual soldiers or weapons: given the insane amount of energy required to enter and exit our atmosphere, those soldiers weren’t planning to fight any battles inside GreenScallion’s gravity-well.
However, the story would change as soon as an attack ship flew inside the atmosphere; supposedly because the kind of weapons they use in space are unimaginably scary.
What bothered me was how everyone suddenly started calling that dot in the sky our “enemy.” Did that mean that those scary weapons were gonna swoop right down over our heads and blow up just our research centers, but leave Chaeeunshinji’s centers untouched? If they wanted to destroy anything, they’d have to destroy them all at once, wouldn’t they? Even just thinking about that made me feel so damn bad.
Luckily, none of that stuff happened in real life.
There was a technician named Mr. Dallu who came back to our village a couple of months after the war started. He was the one who updated us on how the war was going. He roared with laughter after he saw the grown-ups staring up into the sky and muttering worried comments to one another.
“Aw, that stuff’s all fake,” he said. “Don’t worry.”
“How can we not worry? I can’t get any work done at all, seeing that thing floating around up there like that. The engine’s so loud when it flies over us! I can’t just pretend I can’t hear that noise.”
“That noise—that’s what I’m saying is fake! That noise is fake! Look, I lived on one of their military outposts about a decade ago. In fact, that’s what I did over there . . . ”
“Building warships for them? What the hell, are you bullshitting us?”
“No, wait, I didn’t say I built their attack ships. I’m saying I installed those noise generators on them. The volume output was really incredible! I mean, back then I actually wondered why they wanted me to install that kind of gear on their warships. But now I know why. Why they didn’t bother to install any weapons, just an audio system. You guys are already shaking with fear, just from that sound. I’m pretty sure their attack ships couldn’t even handle a payload like a proper weapon. I mean, if you looked closely at it, it’d look kind of off somehow, wouldn’t it? I’d bet it’s never even come any lower to the ground than it is now, either, has it?”
“Well, that’s . . . ”
“See? Just ignore it. Just go on doing whatever you used to do, business as usual, because I’m telling you, nothing’s happening here.”
“Their homeworld might send out another military vessel as backup.”
“You mean a landing ship? And what exactly would they achieve by dropping down into the atmosphere? Do you see anyplace worth conquering around here?”
“But . . . ”
“But what? Do you know how much it costs to send a single military vessel all down here like that? This is a fight to take over the planet, sure, but it’s not fight over our piddly little research center. There’s no point for them to send around any kind of serious deployment like that.”
“Are you sure?”
“Of course I’m sure! Listen to that noise. It’s real scary, isn’t it? Well, I hate to break it to you, but that’s not an engine sound. I’ve never heard a single engine that sounded anything like that in my whole life. It’s not an engine. They’re pumping that sound out on purpose. Sure, it’s loud, but that thing’s gotta be empty. All you’re hearing is vibrations in the air, no different from the sound of the wind.”
Suddenly, from that moment, all our stress miraculously disappeared, and we returned to our calm routine. Of course, every evening that attack ship hovered just beneath the clouds, emitting that deafening sound at us, and I still was forbidden to meet and squabble with Chaeeunshinji, but at least I never saw anyone around me shivering in terror anymore.
In fact, on some days, you even could hear laughter and occasionally singing inside the research center. Not that the war was over yet: like Mr. Dallu said, nothing military happened, no attack ships descending down into the atmosphere toward us, but, even indirectly, the war still affected all of us.
The real meaning of the war, for me, was what I saw on Chaeeunshinji’s face when I ran into her on the street one day, just out of blue. Without a word, her expression warned: Don’t talk to me. I’m not supposed to talk to you. Silently, I mouthed the single word I wanted to ask her: Why? I knew what she was supposed to say to me then, just like she always had—“Dummy, don’t you know?”—but instead Chaeeunshinji said nothing. That, for me, that was how her silent face became a symbol for the war.
By then, the planet was totally shut down: the two armies had managed to utterly cut us off. What I mean is, there was no way for supply ships to get in or out. And since there was nothing growing on the planet that human beings could harvest for food, cutting off supply shipments also meant the prospect of going hungry.
“So how are we supposed to live like this? Don’t they need to evacuate us?” said one of the grown-ups.
Then the executive director’s secretary replied, “Well, it’s not that simple. We aren’t just civilians: we’re important personnel here, so evacuation’s not going to be possible for now. Still, it looks like there’s a supply ship headed our way soon. That said, it obviously won’t be a big one.”
“Are they trying to make the supply drop with a small ship? It’s not like there’s fewer of us here than before. How are we supposed to get by if they only send a smaller supply ship? D’you think they’re even trying to send us enough for, like, war rations or whatever?”
“Well, the director looked into that, and apparently they’re trying to send multiple small, self-piloting ships. That way, what we’ll receive will be sufficient for wartime rationing.”
“Self-piloting? Those little things? If they’re trying to send the same amount of cargo as before, in such little ships, it’s going to increase costs exponentially! Are they really going to do that? Won’t they just end up cutting back on how many supplies they send? We’ve got kids here . . . what are we supposed to do?”
“Well, that’s what they’re offering, despite the elevated cost. I guess we have no choice. For now, we need to trust them . . . and besides, there’s really no other option. I mean, what can we do if they refuse us? Of course, we definitely should request evacuation if things become more serious, but it’s really not at that point yet, here.”
“What’re you talking about? Things already are serious.”
The next morning, the director got a transmission with the schedule and rationing plans for our wartime supply shipments. All things considered, the menu wasn’t really so bad. Not that they were delivering cooked meals, of course: the idea was that they’d calculate the necessary ingredients for each meal we’d be having, and then deliver all of that once a month. Organic photosynthetic vegetables, livestock mammal meats, five different kinds of cheese, Earth-styled grain flours, and fruit and seafood raised on zero-g farms: nothing but the best . . . in other words, stuff like they eat back on Earth. They even included wine and beer on the list, and desserts like cakes and puddings. Our director even joked that we might even end up eating better than usual, if things went according to plan.
Unfortunately, though, things didn’t go according to plan. Honestly, the wartime supply system was a complete mess. The problem wasn’t that they didn’t send us the stuff, or what they sent; the problem was how they sent it, and when it arrived. For example, the zero-g farm that produced the seafood was close to GreenScallion, so on the day when it came, it was pretty fresh, and was just as much as the supply manifest specified. Except . . . that was all we got: a month’s worth of seafood.
Then, on another random day, the grain flours came. Just the flours. Then, another day, the fruit, and on another, the meat. Everything came, just like they promised, but it all came separately.
You might think we could’ve just put it into storage and started eating it, but it wasn’t so simple as that. To start storing up stuff, we had to cut back on what we were eating, so there’d be some left until the next shipment . . . and that was what we did. By setting aside a little bit here and a little bit there, we figured that over time we might pack our larder with a balanced mix of ingredients. Eventually, though, when the only thing that arrived was a month’s ration of beer, we couldn’t help but start to worry. After all, it’s not like we could survive on beer alone.
When we complained, the director said, “Look, it’s because they couldn’t gather all the ingredients together—so instead they sent what they did have on hand as quickly as they could. Besides, the supply ships are so small that they couldn’t package everything together anyway. There’s no choice but to make do with frequent, multiple shipments . . . ”
“I don’t care what the reasons are,” snapped Mr. Dallu. “Who the hell thought they should send this crap to us this way? I’d like a look at the face of the jerk they have calling the shots on this.”
In a lot of ways, it was an exhausting time. We never knew what shipment might come in next, or whether we might find ourselves suddenly cut off completely, so we ended up having to make it our top priority to store and save up food, no matter what.
Then a shipment of meat arrived.
And then, another shipment of meat.
And then, two weeks later—yet another shipment of meat.
We ran out of beer, and then vegetables, and then fruit, and finally when we were down to having almost nothing else, we just started eating meat alone, every day, twice a day. For a while after that, we really had nothing else to eat but meat.
Finally, about ten days later, the next supply ship we’d been awaiting finally arrived—
—carrying nothing but fresh pork.
“Come on, Director, how long are we supposed to scrape by like this?” shouted Mr. Dallu. “Can’t we just submit a request for evacuation?” Of course he was the first to blow his stack about it.
Everyone in the research center looked over at the director, who calmly said, “Let’s hang in there just a little longer. The upper administration must be considering our situation seriously. It’s just that we research personnel are the only population on this damned planet. If we’re evacuated, that means their research team will be the only people left here, and that means they’ll exceed the required 80% minimum of population share required to stake a colony-claim on world. I’m not saying we ought to stake a claim on the planet, you know, just that we can’t let them claim it. We need to stay so that it can remain unclaimed, and open to exploration, just like it is right now.”
“Okay, fine, fine. Still, do me a favor and tell off the bastard who arranged these damned shipments. Don’t take this lying down! What good does that do us? Just curse ’em a fucking blue streak, okay?!”
As the war continued, the grown-ups kept on doing what they’d always been doing. Actually, there wasn’t really much else for them to do anyway.
War is so boring. When all the grown-ups went to work, I had to spend the whole day all alone. Out of all the research families on our side, there were six other kids around my age, but I didn’t really like hanging out with most of them. Sure, later on I found that it was actually them who had started avoided me first. Probably, I guess, because unlike me, all their parents were part of the research team.
My mom, on the other hand, was a hairstylist. A terrible hairstylist—and the only one in the whole research complex. When people grumbled at her about the haircuts she gave them, she used to say, “I’m sorry! My training is actually in zero-grav hairstyling, so . . . when I’m styling hair under gravity, I guess I have two left thumbs. Someday I want to open a hair shop at an orbital junction, and when I do, please drop by and I’ll give you a fabulous new hairstyle for free!”
All of that was actually true: Mom had been a popular hairstylist, back on the spaceships and junctions. She’d actually had been so famous that she’d usually cut the hair of celebrities and famous people. But nobody at the research center cared about all that. It’s not like I was exactly discriminated against because of my mom’s job, but somehow I never felt very close with all of the scientists’ kids, and I always felt left out.
I took to wandering the borderline alone. It only appeared on maps, and yet it blocked my way forward just as surely as an invisible wall. A few grown-ups teased me, asking, “You planning to go into exile?” I didn’t even know what that word meant.
Wait a sec, I thought to myself. Chaeeunshinji’s parents were both researchers too. Why did I end up hanging out with her, and fighting all the time whenever we met?
I picked up my binoculars and squatted down somewhere near the borderline. Staring through my binoculars, I slowly scanned Chaeeunshinji’s research center, the front yard of her house, the roof. I wondered how she doing. Had she found herself someone else to squabble with every day?
Shinji, Eunshinji, Chaeshinji, Chaeeunshinji. I murmured her name softly to myself as I spied on the other side of the borderline for what felt like a pretty long time. At some point, I finally discovered a suspicious-looking shadow hidden behind a tree on the roof of their research center. There was another kid hiding behind that tree, like some kind of spy, and I could make out a pair of binoculars sticking out from the hiding spot. At that moment, the kid’s binoculars suddenly turned toward me. I had no time to look away, so suddenly I met that other kid’s eyes. Well, I mean, our binoculars met.
What’re you doing, Eunshinji?
Chaeeunshinji made the first move, waving at me across that borderline. I followed suit, waving back at her. And that was it: nothing else happened that day. When it got dark, Chaeeunshinji marched back toward her house, keeping her posture the same and even holding those binoculars over her eyes all the way. I did the same thing . . . well, except I didn’t do anything weird like walking around with binoculars in front of my eyes.
The next day, I went back to that spot with my binoculars. It took about ten minutes before Chaeeunshinji showed up, and then she opened up this huge sketchbook and showed me what she’d written inside it beforehand.
—HEY, SPY! I HEARD YOU GUYS HAVE NOTHING TO EAT. WE’VE GOT TONS!
Then she held up a peach and took a big huge bite out of it. Sweet-looking juice dripped down from her hand onto the ground at her feet.
Wow . . . fruit!
I went back home and got myself a lamb chop. After days of nothing but meat, I felt sick just looking at it, but hurried back to that spot again and, while Chaeeunshinji watched, I devoured the whole thing, and then licked my fingers clean afterward. Not because I actually enjoyed it, of course: I just wanted to see the look on Chaeeunshinji’s face. But all I could see was those binoculars in front of her face, and so eventually I just went back home.
That evening, when I told my mom about the story, she tilted her head and said, “That’s weird. They have to be dealing with the same kinds of stuff we are . . . what makes you think they’re doing better than us?”
“But Eunshinji said they have a lot to eat over there.”
“For kids who hit puberty so long ago, you two sure are a pair of little brats. Think about it: what did you tell her? ‘We’ve got nothing to eat, can you share some of what you have with us?’ Is that what you said?”
“No, of course, not!”
“There you go! You and Chaeeunshinji, you two punks are exactly the same: neither of you can stand to accept anything from the other, if it means giving up a little bit on winning. How in the world are you two going to turn out when you grow up?”
The next day, I took a pork leg with me, and a solar-powered grill, and cooked it while Chaeeunshinji watched. I grilled up the leg and then I ate it, piece by piece, really, really slowly. I wasn’t taking my time on purpose: I couldn’t help it, because as much as I pretended that it was totally delicious, I really didn’t want to eat it at all. Chaeeunshinji stared at me for more than an hour as I ate it, never once lowering her binoculars.
Finally, it was Chaeeunshinji’s turn. From a distance, it looked like she had half a ripe red watermelon with her, and she finally set down her binoculars and spent almost the whole next hour eating the thing, just as slowly as I’d eaten my pork leg.
I wrote a huge message on a page of my sketchbook and then held it up toward her so she could see it.
—SO WHAT? THAT’S NOT EVEN MEAT, IT’S JUST A STUPID WATERMELON.
Chaeeunshinji looked over through her binoculars for a second, but then she ignored me and went back to eating the watermelon with this arrogant look on her face. I sat there, gaping and dazzled. She looked so elegant, even when she was just spitting out watermelon seeds onto the ground. Finally, she finished eating her half-watermelon without breaking her absolutely perfect poise, with not a single thing out of place, from the way she sat, to the movements of her fingertips. Then, I guess feeling bloated, she lay down on the roof of the building.
That made me burst out laughing, and watching Chaeeunshinji closely through my binoculars, I could see her shoulders shaking. I swear I could almost hear her laughing then—that familiar, distant sound of Eunshinji’s chuckling suddenly just as close and clear as if she were sitting right next to me. Then I lay down on the ground too, and though we were far apart, it felt like we were laying down together, staring up into the same big sky above us, until we both drifted off into a nap.
A couple of days later, the next supply ship came. This time, it was completely loaded with seafood.
“Are there any leaves, anything green?” asked Mr. Dallu impatiently. “Maybe some seaweed, even, dried or fresh?”
“No, nothing like that. Just clams, squid, tuna, and stuff like that . . . some other kinds of fish.”
That evening, they held a meeting at the research center auditorium. Many grown-ups, including Mr. Dallu, insisted that we ought to request evacuation, regardless of anything else.
“Think about the kids,” someone said, and everyone turned and looked over at us. I put on a really sad face. When they saw me do that, some of the lady researchers giggled at me.
But the director just yelled at everyone, his face stern: “I told you, we can never do that!” Everyone just looked away when he did that, and he went on: “Folks, let’s just try to make it work a little longer. I’ve already explained to you plenty of times why we need to hang in there. This planet hasn’t even been fully explored yet! It’s not ready to become anyone’s territory yet! If we leave, other people will come here, to this spot. We have to keep up with them—that other research team, I mean. They’re not so different from us, are they? I’m not even hoping they give up and leave, either: I just want both sides to see this through till the end.”
Everyone went silent, then, and suddenly seemed lost in thought.
A moment later, though, Mr. Dallu broke the silence: “We are hanging in there. We all know exactly what you mean, it’s just that we can’t handle this anymore. You can’t just tell us to hang in there and make do with what we have. We want to eat vegetables, leaves. We’re not nomads, we’re all going to get sick from vitamin deficiencies. If you don’t think fainting is a problem, how about constipation? Have you thought about that? Nobody’s saying anything now, but I’m sure we’re all suffering from it.”
“Yes, of course,” said the director, “But even so, we can’t give up now. Think about it. They must be suffering just as badly as we are, right? But they’re handling it so well. If we give up first, then it makes everything they’re suffering through amount to nothing, too, right? When you think about it that way, don’t you think we owe it to them to try hold on just a little longer?”
At that, everyone started talking, their voices growing louder and louder. I plugged my ears. Of course, that didn’t block out everything, but I was lost in another thought, and suddenly I wasn’t hearing or seeing anything around me anymore.
That is, until mom suddenly jumped to her feet and shouted so loudly that everyone heard her: “Why don’t we trade?”
Then everyone turned and looked at Mom.
“What?” blurted Mr. Dallu.
Mom replied, “You said they’re basically like us, and that our goals are pretty much the same, right? Well, then we can just exchange food! Some of what they have, for some of what we have.”
“Well, that would be wonderful,” Mr. Dallu responded. “But you know that’s not going to happen. Just look at how they’ve been acting since the war started. They canceled all the joint research projects and even scrubbed the accumulated data. Look at me, even: when the war broke out, they were the ones who insisted I leave. It’s not like we wanted any of that. They were the ones who first started acting like the war was between our two groups.”
“They’re not the only ones, though. We did too,” my mom countered “Look at us. As soon as that attack ship showed up, we put a complete stop to all free movement here, didn’t we? Even the shared facilities! We locked them up first, so that they couldn’t use them, even though we weren’t planning on using them at all either. We can’t just pretend that none of that happened and try to go back to the way it was before.”
“No, we can’t—because it did happen. Obviously it happened. And now we can’t go back to the way it was before.”
The next morning, I got my binoculars and sketchbook and went over by the borderline again. Then I wrote a message to Chaeeunshinji:
–WE CAN TRADE FOOD. MY MOM SAID SO.
Chaeeunshinji wrote a response in her own sketchbook.
–DID I MAKE YOU JEALOUS? YOU WANT SOME FRUIT? BEG FOR IT. COME ON, SAY, PLEEEEEASE, BIG SIS.
–ARE YOU NUTS???
–YOU WANT SOME FRUIT? I DON’T WANT MEAT SO BAD, SO I DON’T WANNA TRADE, REALLY.
–WELL THEN NEITHER DO I.
But that day, we did end up trading some of our rations. Finally, for the first time in months, I got to see Chaeeunshinji up close.
“Eunshinji, you look taller!”
“Of course, we’ve been eating so well.”
“Well, you’re taller, but you’re also so skinny. If you were eating so well, you’d have put on some weight!”
“Shut up, you savage!”
I ended up trading some pork jowl for Chaeeunshinji’s bell peppers and red chilies.
“What? Is that all you’re giving me for this pork? Seriously? That’s a terrible bargain. How can you think this amount of vegetables is worth the same as that much pork?”
“Well, if you don’t want it, fine, I’ll take it back. Like I said, I don’t really like pork jowl anyway.”
“Oh, just take it. Consider it a favor, just this once. But don’t go starting rumors, okay? Our director might summon me to his office and give me hell for aiding and abetting our enemy.”
“Yeah, you better keep this to yourself, too . . . ”
That day at dinnertime, all the grown-ups were chewing their meat with this look on their faces like they were all just chewing mouthfuls of dirt. That is, until they saw me set out 4 green bell peppers and 6 chilies on the table in front of me.
“What’s that?” asked Mr. Dallu.
“A hostage exchange . . . ”
“Is that a token of love? Because if it is, I don’t think I want to take it away from you.”
“Think whatever you want.”
I didn’t give up my peppers to anyone, not even Mom. It felt like everyone was peering sideways at me out of the corners of their eyes as I picked up one of the green peppers and broke it in half with a loud crunching sound, CRACK! Even though it wasn’t really very loud at all, it filled the whole research center dining hall as if it were a booming echo.
Then I split it into quarters, following the lines of that green bell pepper the way Chaeeunshinji had taught me. After that, I picked up a bit of meat and set it in the inner curve of the pepper piece. Compared to the pepper, the sliver of meat looked ridiculously tiny. When I was about to finally bring it up to my mouth, I remembered the slow, elegant way Chaeeunshinji had eaten on that afternoon when she’d been showing off that half-watermelon of hers. Someplace close, someone’s mouth was watering, and they gulped it down loudly.
As I bit into the pepper, the sound split the air.
The sound was so holy and glorious, it was like the sky was being ripped in two.
I was the only one chewing a green pepper there, but because of that sound, I could see how, in everyone else’s heads, the dormant memory of the flavor and texture of peppers suddenly awoke, all at once.
CRUNCH CRUNCH CRUNCH!!!
Just then, the director walked into the dining hall. As I looked over at him, I saw him notice the peppers and chilies in front of me. He instantly froze on the spot.
The next morning, the entire research center held a big meeting. This time, it went way more smoothly than the last time.
“We need to take the bull by the horns,” said the director, and everyone nodded in agreement.
Not long after, around lunchtime, we gathered out in the library yard. Almost everyone among the families living at the research center showed up, even the kids. It was the biggest gathering that had happened since the outbreak of the war.
“We need to overwhelm them with our first attack. If it takes until the second, it might be a lot harder. We need to break their will to resist completely with a single, sudden assault. Got it? Right, then let’s begin.”
The grown-ups all took their positions, and then fired up their grills in unison. When they were all hot enough, they started setting down the first pieces of meat over the fire.
The air was filled with the sound of hot fat hissing; it sounded like falling rain. That was the signal, and then the sound of the grilling meat filled the air all at once, like the roar of a heavy downpour coming down.
From a distance, Chaeeunshinji looked on, watching the scene unfold.
Then other people on the other side of the borderline started appearing, one or two faces at a time.
Of course, our most effective weapon wasn’t the sound of the cooking meat—it was the aroma.
Their enemy attack ship passed over our village a little earlier than usual. Within ten minutes, it seemed like nearly everyone in Chaeeunshinji’s research center had appeared, their faces peering from the windows. For some reason, I started feeling kinda nervous.
They began coming toward us, a step at a time. They were still far enough away that they couldn’t have been hearing the sound of it yet, but that mouth-watering smell of grilling meat had definitely reached them. I wondered whether maybe last night, in her own group’s dining hall, Chaeeunshinji might’ve done the same thing that I’d done at dinner. If she had, then the effect must have been even bigger than on our group, because after all she’d done it with meat.
We’d already set out our tables and chairs in the library yard. Of course, all we had to offer was meat, but we’d brought out our good plates and utensils for them to use. Even from on their side of the line, they must’ve seen all that, seen how we’d set up the tables and chairs and utensils and everything—more chairs than all the research center families together on our side could have needed—and known what we were doing.
Step by step, they came closer. Attracted by the smell. Attracted by the atmosphere, by how it felt like a party. A few of them had already crossed the borderline without even realizing it. As they crossed over it, I saw this look on their faces, like they were thinking, What are they up to? You could feel the tension in the air; it felt like a serious, important moment.
But just then, someone on their side said something, made some comment we couldn’t quite make out. Everyone who was coming toward us suddenly stopped in their tracks.
It was their side’s research director who’d made the comment. Everyone on our side looked over at their, nobody daring to breathe. Then a few of them ran back toward their research center buildings. What in the world was going on? What had their director told them to do? The tension rose, like a string being pulled taut—worry mixed with hope, and I worried if that string got cut, it might suddenly sag uselessly in the middle. The air became thick, as if something were about to happen.
But that tension didn’t last very long. The people who’d run back into their research center appeared again, and now they carrying stuff with them. Lots of stuff. Once a few of us saw what it was they were carrying, they relaxed, and like waves spreading through water, relief made its way through our group.
The sky above us was still loud, because their attack ship had come back around, once again earlier than usual. It was probably looking down at us, and seeing people crossing the borderline from their side, coming over to tables set up by us, the enemy’s citizens, and carrying loads of bell peppers, chiles, lettuce, sesame leaves, and whatever.
In the end, the attack ship disappeared above us. The border had already been become meaningless. It seemed to us as if the war was already over.
I took some of the fruit brought over from Chaeeunshinji’s research center and ate it until I was stuffed. Meanwhile, Chaeeunshinji scooped up all kinds of meat that we’d set out on the tables. It wasn’t just the two of us, either: everyone did that. People lay out pieces of pork belly onto chunks of split green pepper, and you could tell who was from which group by the ratio of meat to vegetables in their hands. Here, from a piece of meat and some bell pepper together in each person’s hand, a unimaginable miracle was about to happen.
The meat juices—that juice that had always just flowed through your mouth along whatever way if could and slipped down your throat—were elevated to a new level with they met the juices of those bright green vegetables. It was as if each became more completely itself—the juices of the meat more perfectly meaty, the juices of the vegetables more perfectly vegetabley—and I felt like at that point where they met and mingled together, they became some new kind of juice that deserved a unique, special name of its own, like some kind of rare subatomic particle created by a particle accelerator. And just then, when it felt perfectly complete and holy and glorious, that was when the miracle happened.
War is politics carried out by violence, but at the moment, the shape of warfare was simpler to trace. The stomach commands! The tongue leads! You don’t even need a weapon: once you put the food in your mouth, that’s it, nothing else matters anymore.
And with that, we all agreed to strike a truce.
Now, nobody ever said the word “truce.” The agreement wasn’t made outside our mouths, but instead inside them. That was a more sacred oath, one that would endure far longer than any agreement written down on paper.
“Quit stuffing yourself, elephant boy!” snapped Chaeeunshinji, as if she were spoiling for an squabble.
“You’re doing it too!” I snapped back. “You’re eating exactly like those, uh, I mean, exactly like this.”
“You can’t even talk right, dork!”
And with that, the war was over and my eternal fight with Chaeeunshinji was back on again. It continued, too, endlessly, but at least within the atmosphere of GreenScallion, we never again had anything like that wartime borderline that, invisible to everyone, had kept people apart.
Our two planets, with their different rotational and sidereal periods, eventually declared an armistice, but long before they’d gotten around to that, we’d already ended the war.
That’s how the planet of GreenScallion managed to reach the end of the war without either homeworld’s population climbing over 80% of the world’s total population. Which also meant that the planet was a place where nobody could stake a claim to ownership, so the world was able to remain open to any visitor who might want to come there, including all humans but also members of any other species that might feel like coming there. Of course, I don’t actually remember anyone coming and visiting at the time—or even after the war, for that matter—but anyway, according to the director, that was how things stood legally.
Time passed, enough time so we finally got to the day when all the kids on the planet were grown up and leaving their families to go to where their universities were located, where the big cities were. As it turned out, Chaeeunshinji and I were headed for the same place.
“Oh, I’m so embarrassed, so embarrassed,” she said. “I can’t even say a word to anyone. I can’t even stand up straight . . . ”
“What’re you so embarrassed about?” I asked her.
“Look, how old am I? I’m your big sister, by a lot, but I’m still going to show up there with a little punk like you by my side! What an embarrassment! It’s the most shameful day of my life! What a massive, complete embarrassment! This is why people shouldn’t stay too long in the same little neighborhood . . . they shove everyone who looks remotely similar into the same classroom, regardless of their age or education. That’s how someone as talented as me ends up being dragged down into mediocrity. Argh, what the hell? What a completely cosmic-scale waste!”
Mom had done up Chaeeunshinji’s hair with her special, zero-gravity hairstyle, and even given her a special discount as a congratulatory present because she was going to university.
My mom had said, “You guys were so little back then that you don’t actually remember living in zero-g, right? If you go on a spaceship looking like that, you’re going to hear people calling you bumpkins, believe me. Now that you’re a young woman, Shinji, you need to start dressing like it. Being pretty down on the ground and being pretty out in space are two totally different things. If you stick to this kind of hairstyle, when you go up there, your hair’s going to stick out all over, it’s going to look ridiculous. And you can’t just keep it tied back, right? Wow, it’s been a long time. Finally, I get to show someone what I can really do! Wow, look at your hair! It’s so nice! You’re so young, and it’s spring . . . spring . . . ”
After saying goodbye to my family, I headed for the spaceship. It wasn’t long after that we flew up and up, until GreenScallion’s gravity no longer had any hold on us.
As Chaeeunshinji was unbuckling her harness and getting up from her seat, she said to me, “Let’s go check out the dining hall.”
“Why, are you hungry already?”
“Nah, not hungry, exactly. I’m just curious about the décor.”
“That’s silly,” I said.
Eunshinji hovered in the spaceship hallway, hanging onto one of the many railings that was attached to every surface. She floated before me, and in the absence of gravity, her hair stuck out in every direction. Suddenly, she turned and looked back toward me as if some idea had just occurred to her. As she turned, her long hair was swept along, following the movement of her head. Then, it slowly spread out again into the air, spreading back out into the air. It wasn’t like how hair acts when it’s being blown by the wind; it spread out toward every direction at once, like it was doing some kind of light and joyful dance—as if the hair itself were alive, and planning to fly away suddenly.
“Wow!” I said.
From the look she gave me, I realized that I was gaping at her in amazement.
“What’re you doing?” Chaeeunshinji said. “Shut your mouth, before you get dust in there. You look ridiculous! Are you trying to look like an outer world bumpkin?”
“Y’know what, Eunshinji?”
“My Mom, I, uh, I think she’s actually a real professional hairstylist.”
“What are you talking about?”
“What? Uh, I mean . . . ”
At that moment, I was looking at the most elegant, beautiful girl in the whole universe, and I couldn’t believe it was the same Chaeeunshinji I’d met a million times before, and she was hovering in the air right there in in front of me, hanging onto that hallway railing while looking into my two eyes with that bright, mischievous smile of hers.
That’s how I met Chaeeunshinji.
And once again, Chaeeunshinji swept into my heart.
Originally published in Korean in Hoyeon Pimang: Pimang Danpyeon Seon, edited by Bo-Young Kim.
Published with the support of Literature Translation Institute of Korea (LTI Korea).