Once the Shore
by Paul Yoon
Spanning over half a century—from the years just before the Korean War to the present—the eight stories in this collection reveal an intricate and unforgettable portrait of a single place in its entirety. An elderly couple embark on a fishing boat in a harrowing journey to find their son, hoping that he has survived a bombing in the Pacific. A Japanese orphaned woman's past revisits her with devastating consequences in a wartime hospital. A case of mistaken identity compels a husband and wife to question the foundation upon which their lives have been built. An AWOL American soldier finds refuge in a small farming community, unknowingly endangering its inhabitants. And in the celebrated title story, a horrific accident at sea becomes the catalyst for an unlikely friendship between an American widow and a young waiter at a coastal resort.
These stories capture, with lyrical precision, the moments in which lives shift and unravel—where loss is ultimately turned into a search for reconciliation, and where the silences that pass between lovers and siblings, between parents and their children, are as powerful as the reverberations of war. Novelistic in scope, daring in its varied environments, Once the Shore introduces a remarkable new voice in international fiction.
Once the Shore
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 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 father 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 the 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 to 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.
Ethereal stories set on a South Korean island introduce a haunting new voice in international fiction
"These are lovely stories, rendered with a Chekhovian elegance. They span from post-World War II to the new millennium, with characters of different ethnicities, yet each story has a timelessness and relevance that's haunting and unforgettable. Yoon is a sparkling new writer to welcome and celebrate."
—Don Lee, author of Wrack and Ruin and Yellow"Paul Yoon writes stories the way Fabergé made eggs: with untold craftsmanship, artistry, and delicacy. Again and again another layer of intricacy is revealed, proving that something as small as a story can be as satisfying and moving as a Russian novel."
"These are splendid stories, at once lyrical and plain-spoken and full of unusual realities. Once the Shore is a kind of fantastic Korean gazetteer that tours us confidently through unpredictable incident and often startling conversations—Paul Yoon's writing is erotic, haunting, original, and worldly."
—Howard Norman, author of Devotion and The Bird Artist
2010 Fiction Award Winner of the 13th Asian American Literary Awards
2010 Independent Publisher Book Awards Finalist in Short Fiction
2010 Eric Hoffer Award Finalist