Once the Shorestories
Sarabande BooksCopyright © 2009 Paul Yoon
All right reserved.ISBN: 978-1-932511-70-3
Acknowledgments.....................................ixOnce the Shore......................................3Among the Wreckage..................................33Faces to the Fire...................................57So That They Do Not Hear Us.........................85The Woodcarver's Daughter...........................113Look for Me in the Camphor Tree.....................159And We Will Be Here.................................199The Hanging Lanterns of Ido.........................235Author's Note.......................................267The Author..........................................270
ONCE THE SHORE
* * *
ON THIS PARTICULAR EVENING the woman told the waiter about her husband's hair: parted always on his right and combed finely so that each strand shone like amber from the shower he took prior to meeting her for their evening walks. "There was a time," the woman said, "when he bathed for me and me alone." She knew his hair-its length, smell, and color-long before she knew the rest of him. Before he left for the Pacific. Before his return and their marriage and their years together. When she opened the door it was what she noticed first. And in the heat of the remaining sun, she swore you could see a curtain of mist rising from the peak of his thin head.
At this, she laughed quietly and almost at once grew silent and looked out toward the distant hills and the coast where, long after sunset, the East China Sea lay undulant, its surface of silver reflections folding over one another like the linking of fingers.
She was in her sixties, an American from upstate New York, who was a guest at the Chosun Resort on the southern side of Solla Island. She had arrived several days ago and no one was sure how long her visit would last. She spent hours on the back porch, dressed in loose linen outfits that hid the shape of her body. She insisted on tipping, ignoring the polite reminders that such a gesture was unnecessary in this country. In her possession was a single piece of luggage, the perfect size-the hotel staff joked-for a head.
Her own hair she let fall in the most graceful of ways, all the way down past her shoulders. It clung to the backs of chairs or the cushioned elevator walls or, as the maid noticed, it stubbornly refused to sink into the depths of the shower drain, clenched in a gray-white fist.
Her husband used to maintain navigation equipment on an aircraft carrier not too far from here, she mentioned. He was dead now, a few months having passed since his heart stopped just as he woke and attempted to flip the duvet away from his body.
On that morning she bathed him with a wet cloth. Lifted his limbs and wiped his brow. His comb she dipped into the water bowl beside her and then proceeded to brush his hair, gray now, parting it on the right as he had always done since the first day they met in front of her parents' home in a small town where, in winter, the snow was ceaseless.
* * *
The other waiters called him Jim. Short for Jiminy because a group of them watched the Disney animated classic Pinocchio one night in a conference room at the resort. The youngest of the waiters, they decided, resembled the cartoon cricket: thin limbs and a round head with big, wide, dark eyes. A smile as magnificent as a quarter-moon. And so they-all of them in their thirties, having worked here for much longer than the boy and used to teasing him-began saying the name out loud, calling him Jiminy, over and over again, seated in velvet plush chairs and rolling their tongues and smoking the hashish they had obtained from a Spanish backpacker in exchange for leftover food. They had difficulty pronouncing the name. The boy corrected them, using three distinct syllables. "Easier to say 'Jim,'" he told them, and they nodded with a drug-induced acquiescence.
He was twenty-six and originally from the mainland, seventy kilometers north, where his parents and brother still remained. After attending the university in Seoul, he went on to military duty.
It was during training exercises at sea that he first saw the coasts of the island. By boat he and the other soldiers his age circled it, marveling at the bright foliage and Tamra Mountain at its center, once a volcano, which rose nearly two thousand meters. Cars the size of pebbles moved along the highway, it seemed, without effort, without anywhere really to go. There, they were told by an officer, the distance from one destination to another never took longer than an hour by car, from the waterfalls, hiking trails, the caves, to the beaches and the mountain's peak. This fact stayed with him, long after his duty, long after he saw the island again through an airplane window as he arrived to look for work. And it was, a year later, what he told his diners.
His brother, a fisherman, often teased him about working at a resort. But he couldn't imagine working anywhere else. The snug white jacket they were required to wear like a second layer of skin. The sound of uncorking a bottle of wine in front of his tables. The warmth of dinner plates. Here he met guests from all parts of this world. And almost always the food was served outdoors on a long porch that faced two hills and the East China Sea. He was, every night, witness to the setting sun. And in all of these patterns he was assured of an ineffable logic that at once bound him to the resort property and at the same time provided him with a sense of openness and possibility.
Until last night, as he stood behind the seated American widow. Though it wasn't her, exactly. It wasn't the way the woman related the story of her husband's hair, to which he tried very hard to listen. Or the way the sun wavered on the crest of a hill, as though rather than going down it had decided to pitch and roll along the slope.
It wasn't any one of these things.
It was, in fact, the manager of the resort-a man who was very fond of Jim-who led him into his office in the middle of dinner and told him that his brother, while catching tuna, as he had been doing for the past few years for their uncle's company, was killed when a United States submarine divided the Pacific Ocean for a moment as it surfaced, causing a crater of cloudy water to bloom, the nose of this great creature gasping for air while its body collided against what could have easily been a buoy or some type of detritus.
But what keeled and snapped upon impact was a fishing boat. And within it a crew of fishermen. Their bodies, once broken, sunk into a dark depth, their limbs positioned, without effort, in the most graceful forms known to any dancer.
It was morning and she sat at her usual table closest to the stone ledge, occupied by the distant strokes of a swimmer in the outdoor pool. Beside her, at another table, a Canadian man was reading aloud portions of the news to his companion. The incident with the U.S. submarine caused the American widow to shift her attention. The bodies had not yet been recovered. An admiral gave a press conference and formally apologized for this tragedy, unable to give further information at this time.
Her husband used to clip articles out of the newspaper. Anything having to do with the Pacific. It was a type of hobby, she assumed, like collecting butterflies. He tucked them inside photo albums. He never showed them to her. She only knew about it because, cleaning out his study, she had opened one, thinking they contained pictures. Years' and years' worth of collecting. She immediately shut the books. It was as though she had opened her husband's diary and felt it wrong to do so, even if he was no longer present. "It just isn't right," she muttered to herself, returning the album to its spot on the shelf.
The waiter called Jim approached the diners with a tray of orange juice in highball glasses and when he placed two on the table with the Canadians, he lifted his hand very slowly, as though attempting to slow time. He furrowed his brows and rubbed his eyes and the widow stiffened her back as he passed and quickly took the order of another table without meeting their gaze. He had forgotten to slick his hair, she noticed, so it seemed dull under the morning sun.
She raised a hand. "Hello, Jim," she said. "I've been up since four. And I called room service because your dining room is never open so early. You should look into that, you know."
He tucked his empty tray under his arm and promised he would. She told him she had yet to see Tamra Mountain and he offered her suggestions on reliable drivers, who appeared at the entrance to the hotel every hour. To all of this she nodded vaguely, "Yes, yes," she added. "Tell me what else you know of this place."
Jim began to describe it as best as he could. If you were to think of the island in terms of circles, then the outer circle was mostly residential, including the cities and the resorts; farther inland were the farms and the forests, and at the center was the mountain that stood behind them. She had only glanced at it through the taxi window on her way here. And although it was always visible, she made no effort to take the time to observe it. She wasn't interested. Not in its presence or its impressive height or how most guests were determined to hike along its trails. For her, it was simply what identified the island. She had come to the right place. That was all.
"It takes no longer than one hour to get from here to anywhere," Jim said.
"Anywhere," she repeated, then smiled, although Jim didn't join in the merriment.
She concluded the boy was tired-that he had been up late and needed sleep. She could tell from the redness of his eyes, the way his shoulders slouched. There was a question she wanted to ask him but decided it could wait. Instead, she pointed her head as discreetly as possible toward the Canadians and said, "Terrible business. I suspect you won't look fondly on Americans after this."
The expression on his face was that of confusion.
"My husband. He was here, you know. Many years ago. Not here, exactly, but over there." She lifted a finger toward the coast. "Somewhere over there, I think. I'm not really sure, to be perfectly honest. But I can imagine it. And it would take exactly one hour. That's what I think, Jim. Like you said. Exactly one hour and we'd find it."
The boy asked whether he could get her anything else.
"Oh, I'm just fine," the woman said. "And you work too hard. Get some rest."
And here, before being conscious of it, she took his hand between hers and patted his knuckles. His skin was warm, his circulation excellent. She imagined the blood that flowed underneath these fingers, rivers of it, splitting like highway systems. How healthy he must be with such warm hands. He was a boy, she was certain, who didn't grow cold easily.
It wasn't hope he felt. That God was merciful. No, that was his parents, praying that their oldest son had found a piece of wood. Found the belly of a whale. He was, rather, unable to accept. There was a difference. Because for him, the event never happened. Not until the body was recovered. Until then, his brother was still fishing. On a boat in the Pacific casting nets the size of mountains.
The manager offered a leave of absence. His parents wanted him to fly back home. But Jim declined the offer. He continued to do his work. The staff was not yet aware of the circumstances. He made the manager promise. In this way, every day was like all the days. He wiped lint off his jacket. Tightened the knot of his black tie. Washed his hands before serving. His co-waiters called, "Hey Jim!" and he walked over to their tables to speak to the tourists about the scenic hiking trails and the best waterfall for swimming. There was much talk, of course, about the submarine incident over dinner, but it was conversation that wasn't directed in any way toward him. He lingered above them for a moment while pouring wine or refilling their water glasses and the more they talked, the more it seemed it had nothing to do with him at all. As though the event, once escaped from mouths, was no longer his, now fanned across the air in the realm of static.
When he could spare a moment, he often stood by the American widow because he had done so for what seemed like long before. Her shedding gray hair and linen outfits were a recurring fixture on the long porch where he, with a form of reverence, served plates of the country's finest cuisine. She was the one who stayed long after the other guests retired. Her fingers tapped the stem of a wine glass or the candle holder as she addressed the scenery in front of her-she always ate facing the sea-all the while knowing that Jim stood behind her right shoulder as the busboys cleared the tables and the rest of the waiters took their cigarette breaks.
And he listened. Listened to her describe a photograph of a young man-younger than Jim-in uniform with a stern expression and his hair cut short (how she mourned for his hair when they cut it), and the large fields through which they walked, passing silos and a stable where they once snuck in and tried to feed carrots to a stubborn pony, who, instead, bit her knuckle.
He remained behind her, listening, without knowing exactly why. Perhaps it was her voice. The calm of it. The sudden laughter. Or her scent: the smell of lemongrass. Or because it felt, facing that distant coast, as if it weren't her voice at all but one that originated from the sea. He waited until she finished and only then did he respond by way of a brief comment or a simple nod and she would, as it grew to be her habit, take his hand between hers and tap his fingers.
"I have never been to your country," he confessed to her.
"You will if you want to," she answered. "I have no doubt."
He didn't tell her whether or not he wanted to; he wasn't sure himself. It seemed this place would suffice. Or maybe it wasn't an issue of sufficiency. Maybe going somewhere else was an act of remembrance, of where you were from. A world of mirrors in which you witnessed a countless number of things that could have occurred at home or anywhere/And maybe, just maybe, that in itself was worth doing now and again. Perhaps he already was. Like this woman who decided to come to this island of all places and now spent her days looking out at the water, at times with a finger pointed at a single spot on the horizon with the utmost certainty.
His brother used to take him out on a small motorboat their uncle owned. This was when they were all living by the eastern coast of the mainland, when Jim was eleven, his brother four years his senior. Their mother packed lunches for them, adamant in her rule that they should never stray far from shore. They were to raise their hands, palms facing land, and if the beach were hidden from their view, then they had gone too far.
They never followed this rule. His brother went where he pleased. And Jim trusted him with confidence, the way he hooked his arm over the rudder and leaned back as though he were reclining on a chaise longue. He smoked unfiltered cigarettes he had stolen from their father and the scent of it reminded Jim of damp wood. When they were far enough away his brother stripped to his underwear and shut his eyes, the midday sun on his chest, which was broad, a man's chest of which Jim was envious, as smooth and dark as the calm sea they floated over. He always took his clothes off on the boat rather than before they departed, as though he were only capable of doing so farther from the coast.
"We're going to find the middle of this ocean," his brother said.