A dutiful daughter struggles to help her father navigate their shared griefand the sudden release of dangerous, exotic animals.
A new father driven by his pride confronts Japanese soldiers in a harrowing raid on his home.
In his debut collection, Michael Croley takes us from the Appalachian regions of rural Kentucky and Ohio to a village in South Korea in thirteen engaging stories in which characters find themselves, wherever they are, in states of displacement. In these settings, Croley guides his characters to some semblance of home, where they circle each other's pain, struggle to find belonging, and make sense of the mistakes and bad breaks that have brought them there. Croley uses his absorbing prose to uncover his characters’ hidden disquiet and to bring us a remarkable and unique collection that expands the scope of modern American literature.
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"Larger Than the Sea"
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 that 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 to 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 pathneat 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. 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 worldall of its joys and sorrowsseemed 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 sleeping pads on the floor. 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 seabass 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 extending to grab the 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 supplies to them.
“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 seabass 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 my 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 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 is no one here. There are no men. 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 up the baby. 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.
[end of excerpt]
Table of Contents
ANY OTHER PLACE: Stories
- Larger than the Sea
- Two Strangers
- Since the Accident
- Diamond Dust
- The World's Fair
- Passings in the Night
- The Beginnings of a Storm
- Solid Ground
- Siler, Kentucky, 1970
- Washed Away