Once the Shore
One of my fondest memories of Hannah is receiving the “few suggestions” she had for my story “Once the Shore” before it was published in One Story. It was my first experience with an editor and my jaw dropped. She had deconstructed the story, line by line, with clear and intelligent thoughts on why a certain word was not the best fit or why a sentence did not work or why a certain idea should be further explored. And she did all this while staying true to the story’s voice and vision. And so began the months and months of drafts and correspondences. She took that story by the hand and guided it, immersed herself into that fictional word with unparalleled devotion and passion. It was one of the most rewarding times in my life. I don’t get the chance to see Hannah often these days but when I do, one of the greatest pleasures for me is to listen to her wrestle with the intricacies of a story she is editing for One Story. Stories are always on her mind. There is no one more dedicated to that art. We are all aware of, and devoted to, the power of Hannah’s own fictions. What moves me especially about the PEN award is the long-awaited public recognition for her tremendous gifts as an editor. I couldn’t be more proud. She is a writer’s dream. Someone who will stay with you on that journey, with selflessness and conviction. And each day I feel blessed to have worked with her.
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 opened 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.
They were pushing hard, perpendicular to the waves, and Jim sat near the bow, tightening his legs against the constant pressure of the water as it split beside the hull. He sat facing his brother, the shoreline receding behind the level of the older boy’s shoulders. They sped onward. Twenty minutes perhaps. Maybe longer. And then all of a sudden his brother cut the engine and elbowed the rudder and Jim reached for the gunwale as they spun, fast, the boat rocking, and then slowing, slower, in their sight a single straight line that divided sky and sea, a line that traced their movements like the unraveling of a ball of string until, gradually, they were still.
Above them hung a quiet—save for water lapping against the hull, there existed no sound, not even of a bird or of a distant horn. And all around them lay the ocean, a great wide ring of it with just that thin line of the color gray with the boat its very center, and his brother then stood and raised a hand to his brows in the manner of a salute and said, “There. We’ve done it,” and Jim followed his brother’s gaze and where there was once the shore there was now water and where west once lay was now north, east, south, any one of them. How many rotations the boat had spun Jim couldn’t recall.
The panic came in the form of an arc: slowly rising until the boy felt his chest clench and the joints of his legs loosen, and when his brother began to laugh in triumph, hopping and whooping, he knew then what it was to be afraid. It was the feeling of diminishment. And he didn’t know what to do so he sat there gripping the sides of the boat as his brother, in his underwear, dove into the water and surfaced and shouted for him to come on down, he said, come on down, and Jim would not, shaking his head, his jaw set and his gaze fixed at that gray line. He heard his brother’s breathing and then he saw, in his periphery, what resembled a fish jump up into the air and bite down on his wrist and all at once that line tilted and he felt the cold and the warmth and he shut his eyes and opened them to see that the sky was now a glowing haze of thick water.
This was when he screamed. Opened his mouth as the sea entered the passage of his throat and he heard the dull vibration of it against his ears and then he felt a rising, a lifting as water gave way to the heat of the sun, and all he saw then was a pair of thick, dark arms that enveloped his chest and he leaned back and listened to a soft laughter and felt a palm press against his soaked hair and heard the words, I was just playing, I was just playing, it’s all right now, everything is fine. And then a hand appeared in front of him and within the thumb and index finger there was a compass, suspended just above the horizon.
“Here’s our sun,” the older boy said.
Jim reached up and took hold of it and, as the sound of the engine returned and they headed west, slowly this time, he fell asleep in the arms of his brother.
They reached shore at sundown.
“You’re not going tell anyone?” his brother said, waking him. “Promise? You won’t tell anyone?”
He remembered walking up the beach, his clothes still wet, and the look on his brother’s face which, to his surprise, seemed so young then, so much younger than himself, his eyes as wide as a child’s, his shoulders not so confident anymore, and he couldn’t help but smile.
He promised. And then they held each other’s hands for a moment, the way a shy couple would do, and by the time they returned home to their mother shouting about their whereabouts and ordering them to their room until their father came back to give them a proper punishment, the afternoon was already far in their memory, where it took the shape of not only a grinning secret, not only the conspiracy of two brothers, but of a campaign against the sea.
The Spaniard lived in a cave. That was the rumor she had heard from the boy Jim. For how long no one was certain. But lately he had been coming to the resort property to receive leftover food in exchange for God knows what. She saw him once, against the slope of a distant hill, with a walking stick, and she pointed at his figure and that was how the boy responded—that he lived in a cave. The American widow drew a mental picture of this man, outfitted in bearskin and smelling of lard, perhaps, or week-old fish. Hairy. She quickly dismissed this fantasy. It was, after all, the cave she was interested in.
“There are many,” Jim said.
“I’m speaking of ones close to shore,” the woman said.
“Many there as well.”
It was evening, the candles lit. Her hand covered the folded newspaper on the table. A single body had been recovered, a man in his forties. The search continued.
She wondered if, among the missing, there were husbands. And she thought of the wives and whether they caught themselves in the late afternoons unable to remember what they had been doing or were going to do. She thought of the waiting. Of images of the sea that, years ago, dominated her dreams, all the more terrifying in its emptiness, vast and quiet and gray. Of how she prayed for her husband’s safety, for his return, and how, in his absence, her love for him grew through memory, in constant repetition, images circling so that the effect was that time paused. And yet, time did not because a single day turned into another. She slept, woke. It was a feeling of both immobility and motion. This was waiting. She knew it well. And it was how the wives of the fishermen spent their days, she was certain, with the conviction that they were alone, regardless of the publicity, the news, the interviews, condolences.
A couple from Boston had shortened their stay on the island lest the incident provoke anti-American sentiment, which was developing on the mainland. A group of college students had formed a rally in front of the walls of a U.S. Army base outside of Seoul. There had been a skirmish at a bar involving a G.I. and a teenager. Jeeps had been vandalized with words painted on the windshields: Go Home.
But she would not. Now that Jim had mentioned the caves. Afterward, perhaps. Or maybe she would stay. It felt very possible to do so.
During a furlough, her husband and a friend joined a fishing crew and sailed to this island. They spent the day swimming and walking along the beach. In the distance their ship, a sentinel in the shape of a fingertip. There were no other reminders of what they would soon return to. Not even the distant roar of fighter jets. On that morning it was as if the war had paused for a day and while the fishermen rounded the island her husband collected coral and urchin shells, took photographs of the hills and the forests inland, and chased crabs.
There, on that coast, he found a cave. A wide mouth that drank shallow seawater at low tide, its walls as tall as the entrance to a fortress within the earth. He waded in. Not too far for it was dark. Far enough so that he could still see his own hands, sunlight concentrated into the shape of an egg behind him. He picked up a stone. And against the right wall, he inscribed his initials and hers and drew a heart around it.
There it would remain for the rest of their days, he told her. On an island at the opposite end of the world he knew was waiting after all this. Four letters and the shape of a heart etched in stone.
The first few times he told this story she believed him. And loved him for it, pressing her cheek down against his chest without speaking. They were in their thirties then and life seemed as they imagined, living in a town in upstate New York with enough fields to walk across in the evenings. Her letters to him during the war had gone unanswered. He had never received them, he said. But it didn’t matter anymore. Because he had written against the wall of a cave. To her. Somehow, though she couldn’t explain why, that was worth more than a lifetime of correspondences.
But when she asked him one day to see the photographs of the island, he hesitated. He lost the camera, he said. Stolen by a little Korean boy. And as the years progressed his story began to change. Not dramatically, but enough to make her pause, repeat the story in her mind. It wasn’t a fishing boat. It was a small motorboat. Three friends instead of one. They were AWOL. It wasn’t a stone but a shard of coral. And the more the story changed the more she wasn’t sure herself what she heard on that first night.
He was getting older. Age transformed memory. That was what she told herself. And why say such a thing if it never happened? It was her inability to answer this that allowed her to forgive him. She wasn’t angry. No. Just puzzled.
Later, she would find in a drawer a stack of photographs. Men beside a fighter jet spray-painted with the words: Eat This MiG. A group of young girls smiling shyly. Another girl bending over as her husband pointed a pistol at her rear. And one of the sea, flat and emerald, and set against the horizon a wide island with a mountain at its center.
She rushed outside to where he was changing a tire, her duster in one hand with feathers the colors of a rainbow, saying, “Is this it? Is this it?” until he snatched the photograph and told her to never go through his possessions again.
It was only in the evening, in bed, that he nodded, said, “Yes, yes, that was the island. That was it, baby. That was where I wrote to you.” He pulled her shoulders to him and she felt a quickening and shut her eyes and imagined herself folding, refolding, growing smaller, and then she turned away from him, pretended to sleep, and felt as though she were sinking.
So when Jim answered that there were many caves she wasn’t surprised. In any case, she told him her husband’s story. About the initials.
“You would like to find them,” he said.
In his voice lay a trace of skepticism. Or perhaps it was her own sentiment that she heard behind his words. Strips of the sea shone silver from the stars. A busboy blew out the votive candles around them.
“I would like to find him,” she said.
Silence. She heard him sigh, shift his feet behind her.
She went on: “To wait. It is a fever. And I waited for him. But the man whom I knew, he never came. So I want to remember him. Not the one who returned. But the one who never left.”
A breeze came in from the ocean and she watched the shadow of the candle flame swing across the tablecloth. It was late. She noticed the busboy lingering, waiting for her to leave.
“I would like to see a cave,” she said. “Close to shore. A tall one. Before I leave. That’s all.”
It was then she managed to ask Jim the question that had been on her mind since her first day on the island. Why she waited so long—she had been here for almost two weeks now—she wasn’t sure. Perhaps she didn’t want to go at all, she thought. Perhaps the question was waiting for the right person. And so she asked him and no one else. And he, after a short pause, leaned over so that his face hung beside her hair like a moon and quietly responded.
“I will take you,” he said.
It wasn’t a secret that Jim had grown an affinity toward the American widow. The Madame, the other waiters joked, a woman who, they were sure, came from royalty. No one in their right minds would spend more than two weeks at the Chosun Resort. Not with these prices.
“But someone who has nothing?” one waiter conjectured. “What does it matter to her?”
“What do you think, Jim?” another said. “Has she told you yet about her fortune?”
“Will you marry her, Jim?”
“All she’ll do in bed is tell you about her husband!”
They had gathered outside the back entrance to the kitchen, on the dimly lit gravel lot where shipments of food were delivered every morning by way of a narrow dirt road that cut through a forest and around the resort property. Jim remained silent, smiling on occasion at their well-intentioned humor. For that was what it was. Their teasing wasn’t out of spite. Perhaps a little envy. That was possible. Jim had found some other form of amusement in addition to watching movies late at night in the conference room or smoking hashish.
They also knew of his brother. Word had, of course, spread among the staff. They offered to take his tables so that he could leave but Jim thanked them politely and refused, which at once confused them and brought upon a certain respect for the boy’s dedication to his work. In short, they weren’t at all sure how to proceed. In the end, they chose distance. They joked with him, as they always did, and never mentioned the news updates or their opinions on the matter—which ranged from rage to a shrug of a shoulder—although they saw him every morning in the bar watching television, skimming the reports in the paper, and speaking on a telephone to whom they presumed to be his mother.
And whether or not they knew it, Jim was grateful. Glad, he admitted, for the company and the harmless words and the patterns of these days, including the nightly gathering of the waiters, which always began at the back entrance of the kitchen.
They heard the footsteps first and then from the road a figure appeared with a walking stick. He was tall with short bright hair and wore shorts and hiking boots, his wool socks stretched up to his shins. He stopped a few feet away from them and leaned against his walking stick in the manner of one who had traveled from afar. From his pocket he handed over a small paper bag and Jim, who was carrying a plastic container filled with leftover food, walked over and asked if he could have a word.
“Gracias, Luis!” the waiters called.
The two stopped some distance away from the kitchen entrance, right where the road began.
“You know about the caves,” Jim said. “Along the coast.”
“Yes. Many of them.”
“There’s one that’s very tall and wide,” Jim said.
“Many,” Luis said again.
“But you know the best?”
“Yes, the best. The biggest.”
“The most magnificent,” Luis said, extending his arms.
Jim nodded. He told the man that he had promised to show a woman a cave. “A family relation,” Jim added. He hadn’t planned on saying that but it came out naturally and so he repeated it. She was a friend of his mother’s. An American. She wanted to see a cave by the sea.
Luis stood in contemplation. After some time, he agreed to meet them at a beach on the southeastern coast, and from there he would lead them to the cave.
“Sunrise,” Luis said. “That will be best. Tomorrow.”
With the container of food in his possession, he was about to walk away but then paused and tapped his fingers against his walking stick. He looked at Jim in a way that was indecipherable to the boy’s eyes. He shook his container in front of him and said, “There is nothing more beautiful than eating with a full view of the sun at the very edge of this world. On the days I come here. To pick up this. That is what I miss.”
And then he left and Jim watched him for some time, under the glow of a tall lamp, and wondered whether he really did live in a cave. And if he did, it was no different, he supposed, than living in a house. Perhaps his brother had found a cave, he thought, as Luis’s figure faded. He could imagine it. With a front entrance that was always open.
“It is all set,” the boy said when he called her room. They would leave before sunrise. She woke early anyway. At four o’clock. Starving long before the dining room opened. She had asked him up for tea. She would stay up a little later if he wanted to chat. “I have to prepare for our expedition,” was how he replied, then told her she wouldn’t have time to eat. Then he gave a short laugh and said good night. It was to be a surprise. How old his voice sounded on the telephone. “Good night,” she said, perplexed.
And now she lay on a king-sized bed in the dark, unable to sleep. He was so kind, the boy. A kindness she imagined he had brought with him from infancy. She wondered about his family. His answers were always so nondescriptive. What she knew was that he was born in a place called Pusan and now his family lived in Seoul. He grew up on the coast. And siblings? She had forgotten to ask about that. She grew angry at herself for not asking such a simple question, but then the feeling subsided. There would be many more opportunities to speak with Jim. A lovely name. One that she always admired. James. For its strength. For its sensitivity.
Before sleeping, she thought of a great flat field. This was when her husband returned. They had yet to marry. In the dark they wandered, careful with their steps, for it had rained the day before. He led with a small flashlight and for every dry spot he placed his foot she imitated with such exactness that all they heard on that night was a single body in the midst of cicadas and the distant rumble of a truck on the freeway, its headlights filtered through the nearby forest, shredded and fading like frosted breath.
It was her blanket he carried. Light blue, pulled from her bed and folded and folded until it was a square, a pillow, a sack filled with a mysterious treasure, one that he revealed in the middle of that dark field. He dropped the flashlight and as it lit a fallen dome of white beside their feet, he lifted his arms and the cloth unfurled and hung for a brief instant in midair then fell like a parachute onto the grass. There, in the middle, lay their shape, their shadows already congregating. It resembled a tortoise. Their arms around each other. Their two heads meeting.
“There we are,” he said, and pointed down at their silhouettes.
In that dark under a night spread with unknown constellations and the warmth that gathered at the very bottom of her stomach—there she made her promise. Because he had come home and this time wouldn’t ever go away. Afterward, lying there, she twirled the beam of the flashlight across his pale body.
They had known each other since high school. Three lives they led. The first, she would always think of as the evenings when he appeared at her house with his hair wet and groomed and they walked without touching, a good distance between them, discussing books or what they wanted to be. He always phrased it that way: what she wanted to be. The second was right after the war, when she thought of him as a swimming tortoise. And then that faded as the years passed and it was replaced by something she couldn’t, to this day, articulate. It was the longest of the three. Though in retrospect, it didn’t seem that way at all. In fact, the opposite: it was the first that lasted. For a good while. When his scent was of soap. When he would have done such an act as pick up a stone and write their initials in the mouth of a cave. Caged in the loose sketching of a heart.
They were to have a service for him. Without a body. A photograph instead. Jim received the call from his mother the day before. He would go; he had decided. His brother wouldn’t forever be fishing, although he could always think of him in that way. Regardless of a service, a formality. It made no difference. He knew that now. So he would go. In two days he would fly to the mainland and return home. How long he would stay he was unsure. But there was one thing he was now sure of. He would stand there, in that room, beside the photograph of his brother, in front of a small group of the city’s citizens, neighbors, family friends, anyone—he didn’t care—and recount the story of finding the middle of the ocean. He would share that. And in doing so, he would regain his brother, pull him back down from the static of the sea and air. From the mouths of strangers.
And when the widow asked him, “Will you take me?” he said yes. He would do that as well.
He recruited two other waiters. Three was enough. They agreed in amusement, slapping him on his back and shaking their heads and describing it as the farewell party.
So at four in the morning they stole the keys of a resort truck and loaded it with the necessary products and, with the American widow, they sped away down the dirt road and through the forest and around the hills toward the southeastern coast. Their headlights spotted the foliage in a luminous lime color, the stars still clear and distinguishable against a paling sky. The woman remained silent throughout the journey, her hands against her lap, squished between Jim and another waiter. She was wearing one of her linen outfits, a light blue, with a white scarf draped over her arms. They all bumped shoulders whenever the truck skimmed over rocks.
It took less than an hour, as Jim predicted, and by the time they arrived at the beach, the sun was lifting above the horizon. Jim, with a hand on the woman’s elbow, took her to an old log at the edge of the forest and told her to wait. From his pocket he took out a handkerchief and reached over toward the woman’s head. When she hesitated, he assured her, “Just for a short time. I promise. A surprise.”
The woman nodded, staring up at him. Behind him the sea was red and the sky thinned toward morning. She felt her heart. And the last thing she saw before her vision was covered in darkness was the boy’s T-shirt with the image of a sailboat printed on his chest.
When her eyes were covered, he took her hand and squeezed once quickly and then ran to the truck where the three waiters carried the table and a chair down to the middle of the beach. They covered the table with a white cloth. Jim set down a plate, flanked by a napkin, forks, knives, and a teaspoon. He placed a saucer and a coffee cup to the left and two glasses on the right. The chair faced the sea. From the back of the truck they ignited Bunsen burners to heat the small silver trays that contained scrambled eggs, fried potatoes, and sausages. They opened the icebox to reveal a bottle of water, cream, pineapple, melons, and strawberries. The thermos of coffee was still warm. They changed into their outfits, black jackets instead of their usual white.
It was all set. They stood beside the truck barefoot. Jim began to roll up his pants. “One more thing,” he said, and treaded down to shore. The waiters lingered by the truck, uncertain. The tide rose up to his shins. He looked back at the distant canopy of the forest, the flat peak of Tamra Mountain. It was possible, he considered, that this island lay at the center of the ocean, the place he and his brother never found. And thinking this, he began to cry, covering his mouth, rubbing his eyes with his knuckles. He waited for it to cease. He breathed, deeply, then slipped his hand into his breast-pocket and produced what resembled a harmonica against the light of the sun. It shone amber. Leaning forward, he dipped the object he was holding into the sea, like the beak of a bird, and then lifted it in a slow arc toward the length of his hair.
She had heard of fishermen in the ancient days, lost at sea, delirious and racing toward the horizon and the half-sphere of the sun in pursuit of illusions: some vision of land or of anything attributed to a country and its soil and the possibility of their feet touching a surface without sinking. She imagined that for the men who fell into the sea over a week ago now, perhaps one of them, if only for the briefest of moments, considered this as the water parted and the skin of what could very well have been a continent rose beneath them. That perhaps, before they keeled, there was this sense of a waking dream and, through it, a descending of peace akin to slipping into sleep. She hoped that it happened too quickly for them to feel otherwise—that by the time they knew this was the last of their days, they had already entered the sea and shut their eyes and given themselves to its depths.
This was what she thought of in the covered darkness of the handkerchief. And how, every night, she sent them a prayer. Not to a god but to their ghosts, whom she envisioned forever on a boat, riding the cusps of the Pacific, in search of images that existed only in the mind.
Like the one she saw at dawn as she smelled potatoes and heard footsteps and Jim uncovered her eyes, forcing her to squint, her vision blurred. There in the distance: penguins. Tall and slim, rising out of the ocean. Then they evolved into black-suited men walking up the beach, their clothes dry but their hair wet and combed and before them a table and a chair. She gasped, placing her hands on her chest. One of the men carried a thermos of coffee. Another a water bottle. Jim helped her to the chair and then leaned over to tell her about the menu. He then picked up her plate and carried it to the back of the truck and proceeded to arrange her requested breakfast. When he returned she picked up her fork but changed her mind and took his hand and tapped him lightly before she began to eat, the sun warming her skin and the tide closing in on the table legs.
Later, Jim introduced the American widow to a man who had appeared beside the truck, picking at the leftovers. They shook hands. With a nod Luis led them around the coast to a cave by the shore. He gestured to it with his walking stick, his arms spread, indicating that it was, in his opinion, the best. Then he bowed and said that he would wait for them on the beach, with the others. “Careful,” he told them. And they were.
Jim held her by her elbow as they waded in through its tall entrance, the ends of the woman’s skirt forming a circle in the water. Their voices echoed the farther they entered.
There was a myth, he told her, that the island contained a network of underground passageways, used as meeting points for those who were persecuted for their religious and political beliefs. In the middle of the night, by candlelight, they would travel from all parts of the island and speed through the tunnels to a room somewhere. It was there they discussed the future of the island and its people, writing speeches and preparing pamphlets for distribution. No one knew where the room was located. But perhaps this was one of the passageways, he said.
They hadn’t gone far. To each other they were still visible. They could hear the approach of the ocean. And Jim, his hair dry now, presented his hand to the woman. In his palm lay a small flat stone that she reached for and rubbed with the tips of her old fingers. He stepped away, stood behind her. Water cool and dark around his toes. He watched her. Her thin shoulders. Her shedding gray hair. The hem of her skirt afloat and her arm rising. With that stone she speared the wall of the cave and began what could have been a sketching, calligraphy, some form of design—Jim was not yet sure—or the words of a language long forgotten.