I wanted to fight. I told Seo-Yun that the Japanese were only men, but she didn’t want to hear that. She wanted me to run away, like so many others, into the mountains and wait until the soldiers passed through our village.
The Japanese needed men for the war. They were traveling from village to village, kicking in doors and marching men out at gunpoint. Since Sook-Cha was born, I had lived in greater fear that they would come for me. We heard they were only three days from Masan and I was afraid, but I didn’t tell Seo-Yun that. I only said when they came I would be right beside her and our daughter.
It was evening and the child was already asleep in her corner of the house, as near to the fire as we dared put her. Look, Seo-Yun said, and went to the girl. This is why you must run. She squatted beside the child’s pallet and pushed back a small curl of hair on the girl’s forehead.
I went below the house to stoke the fire of the ondol which warmed the floor where we slept. I crawled on my stomach, feeling the earth’s coolness against my body. I heard Seo-Yun’s feet padding above me in the tiny kitchen. Then she stopped and there was a tapping, and I knew she was waiting by the door for my return. I took my time lighting the fire, stacking small limbs on top of the burning coal and blowing on them to fan the flames. The fire bloomed brighter and I shut the stove door and rolled onto my back, looking at the dark underside of the floor. They are all I have, I thought, and they are all I want. And in the next moment I said aloud, And yet.
And yet what? Seo-Yun said when I stepped up to the small ledge of our porch.
Nothing, I said, and I dusted myself off and stepped past her, onto the warming floor. A small set of bowls and cooking utensils sat in the corner and a strip of moonlight landed on the crock of water, sending silvery dances of light onto the soot-covered clay wall. Seo-Yun had not moved.
We need to talk, she said.
I knew where it would go. I saw every angle of her argument laid out like stones in a path—neat and in line. I’m tired, I said.
Promise me you’ll go, she said. Promise you won’t stay and fight.
I can’t promise that.
Even for her?
If I stay, it will be because of her. That’s why I must fight. They can’t have everything. Why can’t you understand that?
Why can’t you see that I need you?
We both had our eyes on the child, unable to look at each other. I saw her side but it didn’t stop me from feeling my own arguments, of seeing my father taken when I was ten and always wondering what had happened to him and how he had died.
There is no honor in dying, Seo-Yun said. She touched my arm, turning me to her. Her eyes were nothing but anger despite the tenderness with which she held me. She wasn’t a woman who cried. She said, You have to go. I won’t argue about it anymore.
And what I feel doesn’t matter then? I said.
She met me with silence.
I walked to the beach and sat on the rocks jutting out in the water and let mist spray me. The ocean was so loud and the foam lapped and lingered at my feet. I was filled with anger and guilt for leaving, but I couldn’t be in the house anymore. I had no energy to go through the pushing and pulling of my will with Seo-Yun’s. I knew I should do what she asked and leave. I had no gun. I had no training.
But now that Sook-Cha was here with us, I also didn’t see how I could walk away from the two of them. None of that would make sense to Seo-Yun when all she was thinking about was survival, but I was thinking about independence, dreaming of the day when we would no longer be under colonial rule in our country. I wanted to feel I had fought, in some way, for that freedom. Sook-Cha’s life colored these thoughts. The world—all of its joys and sorrows—seemed so much heavier now. Neither of us had ever loved someone or something so much, and the child bore the weight of our hopes and our worries.
Last year, the Japanese had taken Seo-Yun’s brothers from her parents’ home and shoved them out into the street, pushing them to their knees and pissing on them. They forced them to say it tasted like sugar water before they pulled them back up and paraded them out of the village. Weeks later, we learned both were dead. Since the beginning of the war, the Japanese had taken Koreans and dressed them in their uniforms and put them on the front lines of their Emperor’s army as human shields to absorb the gunfire and mortar shells of the Americans in Okinawa. My wife had suffered so much, but I still couldn’t make myself bend. I had my own principles and my own sense of what she and Sook-Cha needed.
And yet, I said again.
I came home much later than I intended and opened the door to see Sook-Cha, her little body aglow by the fire’s light. She slept peacefully on blankets Seo-Yun had arranged next to our pads on the floor where we slept. Seo-Yun was beside the child, sitting up.
You’ve been waiting for me? I said.
They won’t be in our country forever, she said. They’re going to lose this war. The Americans will come to help us.
They’ve never helped us, I said. Why should we believe in them now?
She ignored me. The fire lit the three of us in flickers. Seo-Yun leveled her eyes to mine. The Americans will win this war, she said. And then she can run free. I want you to be here to see it. Please, she said.
She had never pleaded with me like this before or spoken so softly to prove her point. It was my turn to reply with silence, but I wanted to say, I am tired of watching my brothers and fathers die. I couldn’t begin to think about a day when I would never see her or Sook-Cha again, but I couldn’t live another day in which the lives of everyone I knew seemed to disappear into the roar of the ocean. I turned my head from her because her eyes were so sharp and intense and I listened for the ocean I’d walked away from, which was too distant to hear, my imagination filled with its crashing waves and tidal waters.
Hyo, she said, look at her again.
Don’t say anything else. I’ve heard it all, I said. I can’t lose you, either. But I can’t lose myself. My voice had risen and the baby let out a wail. We both froze and waited to see if she would wake in full. When she resettled, I whispered, What will happen to you and her if I’m not here? Did you think about that?
We will be fine, she said.
Unless they take you.
They won’t. They need men.
They have taken women.
A silence filled up between us once more. Sook-Cha’s life, despite the joy of her existence, had somehow caused so much silence between us. It had only been five months since she was born and I felt Seo-Yun slipping away from me, both of us moving into a current of constant worry for our daughter. I missed my wife’s hair on my face in the mornings when she woke me for breakfast. I missed the way we talked after I came home from the boat, my hands cut and scarred from nets and hooks, and I soaked my hands in a balm she made and waited while she brought out the rice and soup and kimchi for our dinner. Even as the world unfurled into madness and war changed our country once more, we had each other, we believed. Always that. I wondered how much this new war, newly dying Koreans, had affected my feelings and pushed us away from each other.
We went to sleep without another word, though that night I slept between the front door and my family.
At sea, my eye wandered to the horizon. I tried to picture the war, the men, the landscape of another country. Mr. Gong’s little boat rocked in the waves and I held firm to a bloodstained gunwale. It did not happen often, but I could still find myself sick if I did not keep my focus on our fishing and a fixed point on the shore. Mr. Gong chided me and smacked the back of my head. He had known my father when they were young men. He knew where my mind was. Do what she asks, he said.
She can’t tell me what do, I said.
That’s where you’re wrong. What do you think will happen if you stay? Do you think the Japanese will be afraid of you?
I’m not a coward.
Yes, yes, he said, shaking his head. I know. Everyone knows that Paek Hyo is no coward. You’re tough and strong.
You think I am young and foolish.
I think you are fooled. Your wife loves you. She’s worried she’ll never see you again and she’ll have to raise that child on her own.
Didn’t you and my father want to fight them?
Of course we did. But what could we do? You act as if we have choices in life.
He bent over his gunwale and reached down for the net. I did the same and our hands ran through the water, seaweed brushing the backs of my fingers until we snagged the net. We pulled and heaved with our backs, carefully picking through the net to throw the crabs back and keeping sea bass and cod. We worked quickly to contain their flailing bodies in the net and pack them in the bow on a bed of ice.
Mr. Gong picked up his oar and began rowing toward our next buoy and I did the same. I watched his back, still strong and defined, although on land he walked with a bend, as if his spine had been turned into a worn-out spring from a lifetime of sitting in the boat and then the extending to grab nets. We stopped at the buoy, and the boat swayed with the water. Mr. Gong put his oar down.
When those men come, go to the mountains, he said over his shoulder.
I put my eyes on the peak of Muhaksan. I tried to think of my friends already hiding there. I imagined them passing canteens and bowls of rice back and forth. The tree canopy was thick enough to hide the women who walked up the trails to deliver them supplies.
Hyo, Mr. Gong said. I’m not your father, and I can’t tell you what to do. He paused a moment and turned from me. He looked to the mountain as well. You are my son, he said. Do you understand? Hide. Bravery can be doing something you don’t want to do.
I knew it had been hard for him to say this, and I did know what he meant. After my father was taken, I had become his charge. He showed me how to work the nets and to sell in the market and work with brokers. He gave me the home we lived in because he had no sons of his own.
It doesn’t bother you? I said.
I was a boy when they came, he said. It bothers me more than it could ever bother you, because I remember our country before they arrived. I remember a Korea that is only alive in my dreams.
I tried to see the Korea he spoke of in the beach and mountains, but I could not see anything except my own life.
That night I came home with a sea bass wrapped in newsprint and gave it to Seo-Yun to filet. I took Sook-Cha in my arms and lifted her to the sky. Her little legs stuck straight out, as straight as the oars in boat, and I flew her around the room and watched her face come to life.
Be careful, Seo-Yun said.
We’re playing, I said. I pushed her higher into the air and felt her tender rib cage resting on my fingers. Abeoji would never drop you, I said to her.
Seo-Yun allowed herself a smile and I played with Sook-Cha until she became sleepy, then I put her down for a nap. The house smelled of searing fish and I went to Seo-Yun and kissed her on the back of her neck and brushed a strand of hair from her temple and tucked it behind her ear.
I will go, I said. I’ll hide.
Her shoulders stiffened. You promise? she said. She kept her eyes down.
She turned her face to me and I saw she was trying not to cry. What changed your mind? she asked.
Of course, she said. You listen to him but not me.
I’m leaving, I said. Isn’t that what you wanted? What’s the problem?
She concentrated on the fish, turning it in the pan and then pouring hot water over tea leaves. I was exasperated with her. I’ll leave tonight, I said. After we’ve eaten.
I’ll pack some squid jerky and sweet rice for you to take, she said. She still had not turned to me, though.
I thought you would be happy, I said.
There’s nothing to be happy about. It’s dangerous either way.
We ate without talking and Sook-Cha still napped. I thought of those tiny hands being the size of her heart and lungs and I did not know how something human could be so small and full of life.
Then we heard the rifle shots, and we looked into each other’s eyes.
I scrambled outside. A pair of soldiers headed toward us. They were entering the village with their rifles pointed skyward. The dusty road that wound through the village’s small homes was lifeless and empty. The dusk light seemed to vanish faster than it ever had, a curtain falling, and the rifles’ muzzles sparked like lighters with each shot. I could not be sure from so far off but the men appeared to wobble in their walk.
I ducked back into the house. I scanned the two rooms for something to defend us with, but there was nothing except a hot poker for the fire and my fishing knife.
You have to hide, Seo-Yun said.
Under the house, she said. Behind the ondol.
Sook-Cha stirred and wailed. I tried to put my palm to her head but Seo-Yun pushed me out the door. I jumped down to the ground. There was very little space between the stove and the house’s pillars, and a jagged edge of stone sliced my back as I pushed myself through the opening. The gunfire was louder, out in front of our house. I tried to keep my breathing even. Sook-Cha was screaming so loudly I wished I could reach through the floor and pull both my wife and daughter down there with me. I heard Seo-Yun walking her back and forth, trying to calm her, but the baby kept screaming so long and loud she lost her breath, and I thought she would choke to death on her tears.
Heavier steps pounded on the floor. Seo-Yun shouted. The soldiers ordered her to quiet the baby, but Sook-Cha kept screaming. I placed my hands against the floor, as if I could push against the clay and calm the child and will those men to leave. There were more shouts from soldiers.
Leave, Seo-Yun screamed. There are no men here. Only a coward enters the home of a mother and child and fires his rifle into the air. You are nothing but drunks.
I did not hear the slap. I heard the bump against the floor and a piercing cry from our child, and I knew Seo-Yun had been hit so hard she dropped the girl. Then came the louder tumbling of Seo-Yun falling to her knees to scoop the baby up. She yelled at the men in a voice so loud and indecipherable I thought they would kill her just to shut her up. I gripped the warm brick of the ondol. I saw the dim light at the edge of our house, and I knew if I went forward and pulled myself out from under the house it might mean death for all of us. The vision of Sook-Cha’s face, wet with tears, kept me in place.
I heard three hard stomps and knew they were from Seo-Yun, telling me to stay put. Then silence. I did not know what was happening. The worst of my imaginings sprung forth and I had to close my eyes. I had never felt so scared and so strong in all my life, filled with anger and vengeance, and I understood what Mr. Gong and my father had known and what those men in the mountains might never know, which is that such anger is another kind of empowerment, driving you to the unspeakable with righteousness on your side.
Another stomp came. Seo-Yun said, It’s okay, much too loudly to be telling the baby. You’re safe. You’re safe.
She had given us away. The clear voice of a soldier called to her: Where is he?
I moved in position to wrench myself up from under the house.
Who? Seo-Yun said.
He made a tsk-tsk sound. The husband you stomp for, he said. It will be easier for you both if you tell us.
He has gone to hide with the others, she said. He’s in the mountains. All the men are gone.
What kind of man leaves his family behind?
The kind that wants to live to see his daughter grow up.
The soldier let out a loud laugh. He asked the other soldier if he could believe this woman. His Korean was very good, though with the clipped accent from the north like people from Seoul. He was clearly educated. Maybe we should look around? he said.
I told you he’s gone, she said.
We will find him.
I came out from under the house and the night air felt like my first breath, cold and filling. My body shook with fear but I took one step, then another, and came up the porch and into my house.
I am here, I said.
My dog sleeps under the house when he is scared, the soldier said to me. The other soldier had his rifle pointed at Seo-Yun and Sook-Cha.
We don’t want trouble, I said.
And we don’t want to be in this dog-infested country, he said. But we have our orders. You’re a fisherman?
I can smell it on you.
Leave, I said, more calmly than I thought I could.
This fisherman is brave.
I just want my family to be safe. I’m not brave.
That’s true, he said. A brave man wouldn’t have hid and left his wife and child alone.
Then there was a crashing into my temple, a burst of lightning in my vision, and I was on the ground. The other soldier stood over me. The butt end of his rifle hovered in the air. He brought it up with two hands, as if it were a fencepost he was readying to drive into the ground, but the first soldier, the one who had done all the talking, stopped him. I knew blood was on my face, but I refused to touch it. I let it run into my eyes. The cut was large enough that the air burned my split skin.
My friend doesn’t like all your talking, one of them said.
I don’t like yours, either, I said.
Yobo, Seo-Yun hissed.
Listen to your wife, fisherman.
Blood trickled into my mouth and I tasted its salty metal and then I spit it into my hand. I tried to stand but fell. The soldiers laughed. I stood up quickly, fighting to keep my balance.
Clean yourself up, one of them said, and spit into my cut.
I didn’t move. I turned to my family. I did what I had done every night since our daughter was born. I searched for her breathing in the rise and fall of her belly and when I saw it, a sense of relief came over me about whatever would happen next. Seo-Yun’s fingers squeezed the child’s waist and I allowed myself one glance to her eyes.
Had there only been one man I would have lashed out, but with both of them there I thought there was only one thing to do, which was to surrender.
Take me, I said. I’m ready.
No! Seo-Yun cried.
Leave my family and I will go quietly, I said. Let my daughter live.
Sook-Cha was close to Seo-Yun and she was remarkably quiet. My face had gone numb with pain. There was nothing but a throb in my head.
Why should any of you live? the soldier asked.
She’s a child. Our only child, I said. Spare her and her mother.
There was a burst of light as before, then another. In between the bursts I saw Sook-Cha’s face, heard her begin to cry. I tried to remember her smile, that first smile when she started to become a child and not just a baby. Seo-Yun pleaded, but the bursts came faster until I no longer heard my wife or daughter or anything at all.
I awoke to Mr. Gong sitting beside me. My vision was milky. I rose quickly, pain shooting through my body and my ribs seeming to crack in two. Where’s Seo-Yun? Sook-Cha? I asked.
They’re fine. They’re here, he said. Resting. Asleep.
We were in his home. He told me the soldiers had left me to die. Seo-Yun ran to his house with Sook-Cha and then he had come back for me, carrying me on his back. Seo-Yun had not wanted to stay in the house alone.
You’ve been asleep almost two full days, he said.
My mouth was dry. He put a wet cloth to my lips.
What did Seo-Yun say? I asked.
She said you were lucky. That all of you were lucky.
What would you have done?
I wasn’t there. You need to rest. You’re talking too much.
Tell me, I said.
A broken man is nearly as useless as a dead man, he said. I told you to go.
I was going to. I wanted to have one more meal with Seo-Yun. They came more quickly than we thought.
Babo, he said. He rose. He paced. His voice was low and his words pointed. You never listen to anyone. You only do what you want, when you want. You should have been gone days ago, when you first heard they were coming.
That’s my family, I said.
That nearly died because you couldn’t stay hidden.
He left the room. Minutes later Seo-Yun came in with Sook-Cha. Her cheek was bruised and I saw that her face was scratched. The child appeared unharmed.
Seo-Yun sat down next to me and I put my finger in Sook-Cha’s little fist. She squeezed it. Seo-Yun was distant. She couldn’t look at me.
Are you mad at me?
She didn’t answer. Not wanting to fight, I said she could leave. I told her we would return home when I could walk. She got up without saying anything else, and I knew she had turned away from me.
Hours passed. I woke in the dark and my whole body throbbed in pain. Sook-Cha gave a cry and then it was quiet again. I fell back and pulled the blanket under my chin. I was cold and every little movement hurt. I thought of all the homes where men now slept again. Why had those soldiers left us? Why had they only beaten me? The fire was nearly out, only a faint crackle every few minutes. I only remembered the world disappearing, nothing after. Seo-Yun was so angry that I felt I could not ask her to come back to the room, to build up the fire and let me see the baby. I closed my eyes and then opened them very quickly.
I rose with a start, ignoring the sharp slices of heat that tore at my ribs and back, the dizziness of my aching head. Yobo, I shouted. Yobo!
The child cried out and I heard footsteps coming toward me.
What is it? Seo-Yun said. She was out of breath.
What did you do?
What are you talking about?
What did you do? What did they make you do?
You lie, I said. Why am I still alive? Tell me, I must know.
You already do, she said.
I braced myself against the wall and fought not to retch. Seo-Yun guided me down to the floor, back to my pallet and covers, and then she went to the fire and stoked it. I closed my eyes. I could not bear to look at her and think about what I had caused.
I’m sorry, I said. I’m sorry.
Our daughter is safe. That’s all that matters.
You saved us, I said, the words between a whisper and cry.
She put her hand to my forehead. The familiarity of her touch was gone, though. I leaned toward her. Rest, yobo, she said.
I tried not to think about the crashing of their boots into my head, the world gone dark, the cries of pain I did not hear while I was unconscious.
Will you ever forgive me? I said, my eyes on the fire.
There is nothing to forgive.
I believed she meant it, but she was wrong. There was much about what had occurred that was unforgivable. There was no way to forget what she had had to do, what we might have avoided.
Two days later, we were back in our own house. The baby was happy, making smiles and soft giggles when we nuzzled into her neck. It was morning and I was preparing to leave for the boat, though Mr. Gong had told me to rest. The air was cold outside and I hobbled to the fire.
Seo-Yun had pushed our blankets to the corner of the room, close to the wall. She almost seemed to be cowering as I grabbed my fishing knife. She nursed Sook-Cha and I thought of how she was giving the girl life from her body, how she had been the one to shield us.
I must go, I said.
Stay, she said. You’re too hurt.
I’ll manage, I said, but I wasn’t sure if I could. I thought I might just be in the way both on the boat and at home. She walked with me to the door and held the baby on her hip.
Do you think they’ll come back? I said.
I don’t know.
I pointed to Sook-Cha. Is she okay?
I think so.
And you? I asked.
The bruise on her cheek had begun to lighten. She could only nod, turning the question back to me. You?
I told her what felt true for both of us. I don’t think so, I said. I never will be.
I stepped away from the door, readying to leave though I did not want to. Yobo, Seo-Yun said, stopping me. Can we walk with you?
The three of us went to the beach in the dawn light. Small step by small step and each one was like a knife in my side, another kick in my head. Mr. Gong waved to us from the pier and came toward us, taking Sook-Cha into his arms lifting the girl up in the air, where she spread her arms like a bird as if to fly away. She smiled as the sea breeze blew and waves crashed into the rocks.
I said it because I didn’t think it was possible to say it enough, because I didn’t want her to slip away from me.
No more apologies, she said. She took my hand. Her knuckles were red.
Mr. Gong flew the girl back into Seo-Yun’s outstretched arms and my wife pushed the child up into the sky once more.
Out in the ocean, pulling in the first net, my eyes on the shore, I saw the pair of them—my wife and child. I saw them there all day. Mr. Gong and I did not talk about the events, what those soldiers had done to my wife, what she had given herself over to in order to spare our lives, and why they had agreed to spare us. At day’s end, he gave me two sea bass, and that night I walked home with my family. I stoked the fire and carried Sook-Cha outside while Seo-Yun cooked.
All that had happened could have occurred anyway, which is why I had wanted to stay and try to prevent it. But now we both believed it could have been avoided if I had not been there. I saw that in Seo-Yun’s eyes, and I knew I would always see it.
I watched smoke from the chimney trail up toward the mountain. I thought of the men who had walked up there and then back, safe, eager to see their families and hold them close again. They had avoided everything we hadn’t. I held our child close to me, pressed her soft cheek into my rough beard, careful to avoid the bruises and cuts.
We love you so much, I whispered. Your mother’s love is larger than the sea.
Seo-Yun appeared in the doorway. She said it was nearly time to eat. Above her the smoke thinned to wisps, the moon rose, and past the mountains, over the treetops, a dappling of stars began to burn in the fast-approaching night.