The scrimshaw in the shop window caught the attention of an American couple getting off a tourist bus in Itaewon. A small woman with a large smile, greeted them with a bow at the shop’s door. “Good morning. Welcome.” They bowed return greetings and began their explorations.
He wandered toward the cabinets adorned with inlaid mother-of-pearl lotus blossoms and cranes, from time to time opening small lacquer doors that concealed tiny drawers. The woman walked to the wares in the back where she came across a slim table. The sunlight had not yet reached this far corner but she could feel an intricate design as she ran her fingers across its surface.
“Walnut,” the shopkeeper said, nodding and still smiling.
“See, they cut walnuts.” She made a gesture as if slicing a loaf of bread and for the first time the woman saw that the design was in fact composed of sliced walnuts arranged in a pattern.
“What an intriguing art form,” she responded. “Very lovely,”
The woman gradually worked her way forward where her husband was admiring framed art of nature scenes and congjie platitudes embroidered on silk. They discussed what the artist might be advising them in words they could not read. As they browsed the shop’s offerings of art and kitsch, slanted sun beams reached further down the narrow aisles. The woman finally reminded her husband of the many shops left to explore. They approached the shopkeeper to say goodbye, but she was not ready for their farewells. She took the woman’s hands. “The walnut table, you like it, no?”
“Yes, I like it very much but I am not ready to buy. I might come back later.”
“No, no.” She shook her head and frowned. “I give you a special price. Special because you are my first customer of the day.” She led the woman back to the walnut table with the husband in tow.
“It is bad luck for me if my first customer does not buy.” She picked up a small box with a similar sliced-walnut design. “So I give you this as a gift for bringing me good fortune.” Her smile returned as she offered the box with both hands.
The back of the store was now bright with sunlight. Again the woman examined the pattern that was simultaneously random and consistent. She imagined a farmer tending the orchard, a young girl slicing the walnuts, a patient craftsman fitting the slices into a pattern. She noticed the kind lines feathering the eyes of the shopkeeper beside her offering a gift of good fortune. Even if this offer was just a clever marketing ploy, the woman could imagine the walnut table in her living room with the sun from her front window illuminating its beauty in the morning light, the same light of good fortune she would share with this shopkeeper. She took the box from the small, smiling woman and bowed. “Thank you. Can you ship to the states?”
Walnut trees and the nuts themselves are associated in some cultures with properties to help with transitions and with noticing what has not been noticed before. The tree also produces a substance called juglone that hinders growth of some species near the tree while other species such as forsythia grow just fine. Walnut trees seem to be able to select their friends! Do you think the properties of the walnut influenced the tourist’s decision?