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“There is nothing more precious than laughter,” I told them. “But there’s also nothing more expensive, or more difficult to find.”
It was an inconspicuous Friday. Nothing hinted at anything other than the usual periwinkle blue skies and quiet sing-song chatter of the mostly sleepy crowd on the platform. Everything seemed like the usual that early autumn when I boarded the usual Line 1 to Suwon.
On the train, an old lady with inked arms and sunglasses perched on her nose offered me an egg sandwich, much to my bewilderment. I looked around to see if I was blocking some grandchild of hers from the food. But she shoved it under my nose, jerking her chin at me and gesturing to take it.
I gaped at her.
“You seem hungry, young lady. Take it.”
I hesitated, as any sane person would, glancing between the paper-wrapped breakfast and her.
“That’s very kind of you, but I’ve already had my breakfast. Thank you!” I stammered, bowing once and then again for good measure.
My stomach, the traitor, gave a loud rumble as it protested.
The lady quirked an eyebrow. “Well, make sure to eat. You have to laugh a lot today.”
Before I could say anything else, the train sped up and then lurched to a stop, making me flail wildly as I struggled to stay upright. I probably looking like a sad, gangly windmill. It was with immense relief that I noticed that we’d arrived at my stop, for I bowed to her once again and then high-tailed it out of there.
Still slightly bemused by the unusual encounter, I hurried out of the station toward the university grounds. I clutched my jacket to myself tighter as the wind picked up around me. It had been a while but I was not yet used to the colder weather, and often forgot to don the requisite five layers before stepping out of the house.
I smiled at the trees on the pavement that seemed to wave as I passed them, enjoying the quiet buzz of insects and the occasional chirp of a bird. The campus was a thing of beauty at this time of the day, uninterrupted by chattering young voices and the distant racket of traffic.
I pushed open my office door in the Arts building, almost missing the sticky note on it.
Chorok called. I let the office know about your day off. -Minjun
I almost ran out of the building.
Twenty minutes later found me in front of Chorok, a shop whose storefront belied its size. A door no more than three feet wide and six feet tall welcomed me into the shop. Beyond it was a cozy lounge that led to three long hallways, leading to the back of the store. A small bell tinkled as I pushed open the door.
There was no one in sight, however, so I decided to walk around and explore. Wooden shelves ran around the entire shop, housing plants of all shapes and sizes, from succulents and cacti to bonsai and crotons. Bright splashes of colour brightened up the room as flowers peeked out here and there.
Interesting-looking books on flora were scattered in a small pile on one end of the cash register. It seemed as though they were referred to regularly and the person couldn’t be bothered to put them back in their place. The slightly wonky brass chandelier and the ancient-looking couch in the corner by the glass window gave it a quaint feel. And the aroma of wet mud reminded me of Indian monsoons back home.
“Sorry, we’re closed today,” said a quiet voice behind me.
I jumped a mile. A man who looked my age, tall as the bamboo behind him, was looking at me.
“Sorry,” he said again, looking as though he was trying hard not to laugh. I appreciated the effort.
“I was called here today…” I began.
He shook his head. “I should have put up the ‘Closed’ sign. Must’ve slipped my mind. We’re closed for business today. Perhaps you could come back tomorrow?”
He walked to the door, flipping the ‘Open’ sign and looking at me pointedly. “I’m expecting someone on official business, so we won’t be open today.”
“Oh, that’s me!” I hurried to say. “Tara. From SNU? You might have spoken to my assistant Minjun earlier.”
The man’s eyes lit up in recognition as he bowed. I bowed back, and as we both straightened again, I was caught off guard by his smile. It split his face, making his cheeks bunch up and two little dents appear in them. His sharp eyes, almost dragon-like, turned up at the corners and softened as he reached out to shake my hand with unbridled enthusiasm. I couldn’t help but be charmed, and perhaps a little taken aback by the transformation. The marigolds seemed to agree with me.
“Forgive me, I didn’t expect you here so soon,” he said, guiding me over to the couch. “I’m Kim Hajoon, co-owner of Chorok. Green tea or hot chocolate?” he added.
“That’s okay, I wanted to come over as soon as possible. Hot chocolate, please.”
“I’m sorry, but do you mind me asking…” he began, a little hesitant, sitting down beside me. I nodded, asking him to go on.
“Are you from around here?”
I chuckled, gripping the warm mug between my cold palms. “Well, yes and no. Was it my name that gave it away?”
“Uh,” he looked a little embarrassed. “Sorry, I don’t know your name. It was probably Yangho who spoke with your assistant. He’s my friend and the co-owner. He stepped out for a moment and should be here any minute now.”
“I’m Tara,” I said. “And I’m Korean-Indian. Moved here from India about a year ago after my Mom passed away. My Dad’s Korean. I’m Korean as much as I’m Indian,” I added, unable to hide the edge to my voice.
“I wouldn’t doubt that,” he said, one half of his mouth turning up.
That caught my interest. I was about to ask him what he meant when one of the doors behind the counter opened. Someone dressed entirely in black, from his boots to his face mask and his bucket hat, stepped out. “Joon? Did you knock over the aloe and coriander dust again? The lilies are overexcited…oh. Hello.”
I bowed. “I’m Oh Tara. Pleased to meet you,” I smiled.
“Min Yongho. You’re half-and-half.” It was a statement, not a question.
“Yoon!” Hajoon sounded like he didn’t know whether to laugh or look embarrassed on behalf of his friend. “You make her sound like Korean fried chicken!” He then looked mildly shocked that he’d said that out loud.
I laughed, pleasantly surprised to feel so at ease in these strangers’ presence. “I don’t mind at all. You did you know?” I was genuinely curious.
Yongho waved toward the air around me, eyes flitting as though he were focusing on invisible creatures. “Your overtone isn’t completely Korean, although it is plant-inclined.” I nodded.
‘Green thumbs’ could sense each other, just as I could sense Hajoon probably dealt with the flowering plants while Yongho was more of a plant doctor. Sure enough, he caressed a small unrecognizable plant as he passed by it and it sat up a little straighter in its pot.
‘Green thumbs’ was a more modern, less hipster sounding name than ‘green witches’ for people who had an affinity for flora.
“So, what can you do?” asked Yongho, getting straight to the point.
“Make people laugh.”
“That’s it?” he asked, quirking an eyebrow. Hajoon, in the process of setting down a tiger lily pot on the counter, looked mildly apologetic but didn’t intervene.
“Tell me,” I said, leaning forward. “When was the last time you saw someone laugh? Really laugh?”
At this, both men stilled as they pondered over the question.
“Ever since the Long War of the twenty-fifties, people have forgotten how to laugh. The body needs laughter in order to maintain its balancing act, believe it or not. And more importantly, so does our mental health. Laughter shows an increase in well-being, according to research. So if they can’t laugh by themselves, we can try to make them,” I waved my arms toward the plants in the shop.
It was true.
The fifties were when the Earth decided that it had had enough and simply…buckled. The population fell by more than half, thanks to various superviruses, massive holes in the ozone layer and too many things too depressing to think about. Broken families and higher infertility rates didn’t help. It was simply easier to struggle through life than pretend to be happy. Only the rich could afford laughter therapy.
“There is nothing more precious than laughter,” I told the two men. “But there’s also nothing more expensive, or more difficult to find. My overtone only seems to work on plants that have been hand-reared by green thumbs. With your plants, I might be able to do more. Help more people.”
“Okay,” Hajoon stepped forward. “Let’s see what you can do.”
“Okay. Um. I need… well, a joke. Or something happy.” I cursed inwardly for forgetting my 101 Essential Punny Jokes book at home.
Yangho snorted. “I have just the thing here. Will love poems work?”
“No, wait!” Hajoon looked like he was a second away from throttling his friend.
We both turned to him, and he seemed to wilt under our stares.
“Don’t mind him,” assured Yangho, handing me what looked like a black journal. “Here, let’s see if this works. The tiger lily should work, right?”
I nodded. “Definitely. It happens to be my birth flower, so it’s more receptive.”
“I know,” shrugged Yangho as he went to pour himself some tea. I got the distinct feeling that Yangho was a mysterious creature, like a house cat which always gets up to some mischief when the owners are out.
So, I opened the book to the first page and began to read, lightly caressing the stalk of the lily.
Here’s what it takes to love –
A calm sigh as I caress my acne-scarred cheeks,
treating them with cool aloe despite their reluctance to heal,
a kind whisper into my mossy skin,
even as I let raven-feathered hair sprout unchecked.
A merry chuckle as I win at hide-and-seek at twenty four
and never complain about legroom on the public bus,
a grin at the young girl at the supermarket
who sees my scar and thinks it’s ‘cool.’
A laugh for my cat who sleeps only
on her favourite pillow – my tummy, and
a beam, bright as sunshine, as a small child
wraps his fingers around my short, stubby ones.
The poem was…perfect. And the effect was immediate.
The speckled petals seemed to burn with a fiery glow for just a second before looking like a normal lily again. But the second Yangho touched the flower, he seemed to shiver almost unconsciously, as though someone was tickling him. He looked up, revealing, to my utter glee, a huge gummy smile that soon gave way to laughter that sounded like little hiccups. In response, like an attentive audience, the plants around us trembled a little as though applauding.
All three of us looked at each other in ill-disguised awe.
“Well,” Hajoon clapped Yangho on the back and then grinned at me. “Can we expect you here more often, then, Tara?”
“Oh, you bet,” muttered Yangho as he bent to examine the petals of the lily. “Hey, it probably worked better because Joon was here too. That was one of his poems, you know?”
Hajoon hit him a little harder, turning back around to smile at me, those dimples breaking out.
“Oh? That was amazing. I’d love to see more of your work.” I could feel my ear turn red as Hajoon smiled at me. And I thought I could hear Yangho mutter something about ‘hopeless fools’ as he carried the lily back to its shelf.
“Well, here’s to laughter,” said Hajoon.
Yangho and I echoed him. I suddenly remembered the old lady on the train. She’d been right.
It was the start of something new.
This story was shortlisted for our short fiction contest Muse of the Month for November 2020.
Picture credits: Photo by mentatdgt from Pexels
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Prashanti Chunduri is studying for a masters in English at EFLU, Hyderabad.
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