The Story of Edgar Sawtelle

by David Wroblewski

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Prologue Summary

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In 1952 South Korea, a man walks in the rain among the narrow streets of Pusan in an unfamiliar district. He is the only serviceman in sight. He is searching for a sign showing a turtle with two snakes. The streets meander, and he is becoming confused. When it is past midnight, the man retraces his steps and finally sees the sign, looking exactly as Pak said it would. He looks for an alley opposite the sign and walks down it to a doorway with a red lantern. It is the door of an herbalist’s shop. He hears a recording of Doris Day singing “Bewitched, Bothered, and Bewildered.” He knocks on the door, which is opened by an old man dressed in simple clothes. The old man knows only a little English. He tells the serviceman to talk slowly.

The old man asks him if he has brought medicine, stating that he has money to pay for it. The serviceman explains that he is not looking for money. He explains that he is looking for a poison that will kill “rats” without the other rats becoming suspicious. It should look like a natural death. The old man points out that only God can take life away with no sign. The serviceman says that this is what he is looking for. Everyone has the power to take away life. It is only the method that is different. He wants a poison that will use God’s method.

A three-legged dog passes by outside in the rain. The old man asks the serviceman if it is his dog, but it is not. The old man goes in the back of his shop and returns with a small clay soup pot in one hand and a small bamboo box in the other. He sets the pot on the cobblestones in the street. From the bamboo box he withdraws a glass bottle, shaped like a perfume or ink bottle. The glass is crude and is sealed with wax. The old man picks away the wax, takes out a small reed cut into a needle, and dips the reed into the bottle. The serviceman sees a small drop shimmering on the point.

The old man calls to the dog, which comes to drink the soup from the pot. The serviceman, guessing what the old man is about to do, tells him that it is unnecessary. However, the old man pierces the dog with the reed. The serviceman is upset as the poison begins its work and the dog quietly dies. The old man replaces the bottle into the box and gives it to the serviceman. He kicks the pot out into the street where it shatters, explaining that it is better to destroy it than risk being poisoned. The serviceman gives him penicillin, which is for the old man’s grandson. After giving the old man directions, warning him that there is no guarantee the penicillin will cure the boy, the serviceman leaves. The old man drags the dead dog away.

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Part 1, Chapters 1-2 Summary