Sit back and savor this mesmerizing collection of short fiction set in multiple eras and locales. Two sisters hike a mountainside in South Korea, ascending to another level of sibling intimacy as they descend. A weary detective weathers a mid-life crisis of faith in everything that is familiar and known—including his own integrity as a man of the law. A dying grandmother tasks her grandson with distributing her massive collection of shoes, with the caveat that each pair must be matched to a suitable new owner.
These fourteen stories provide tantalizing glimpses of death and its impact on those left behind, the tedious grind of day-to-day living and the promise of escape through the magical and supernatural. Though the characters in each story are encapsulated by their own unique worldview, they are a composite reflection of the overarching experience of life lived, in all times and places.
I came of age in a time of no heroes: they were already boxed up and stored in the ground. I am only two generations removed from the great water battle of my grandparents, and the grandparents of other children from other lands. They are probably my enemies by default, though I have never met them and most likely will never set eyes on them because my island is as remote as a star from their lives.
My grandmother, born a Tahitian princess, told my mother that our people were not created on land, but in the sea and that’s why all the peoples of Oceania made the best pearl divers. In the ancient past of Polynesia my people were mermen and maidens, their fins emanating a luminescence that caused the other animals of the sea to bow in their presence.
I grew up in a time of peace where men and children had become rounded in muscle and flesh in their laziness. Food dropped from trees and floated in from the sea, requiring little labor to harvest. It was one long season of tropical sun and plenty, our softened bellies held no fire for living or dying. But, like a smile that never leaves a face, even constant, benevolent warmth can harden into a cold, bony thought provoking the mind, prevented from ever desiring light and heat in their absence.
As I grew, there were men coming to the island whose skin was pale like the milky secretions of the plant we ate for nausea and to ease the pain of jellyfish toxin. These men visited the island once a year to trade with the men of our island.
My mother told me these men who arrived on large sea vessels came from a land where the water and the land became cold part of the year. There was a season called spring. My father said in the spring everything that died was reborn and had another chance to prove itself to the world. A flower could bloom more colorfully. A beast could run or fly faster in order to catch more prey with each rebirth. A man’s soul could be redeemed. I wanted to see this spring, but on the island everything stayed the same, except in my imagination.
The bellies of the other islanders grew rounder and smoother, and war never came, but the milky-colored men did. One year they took all of the men and women of good age and health. They left the very old and us, the very young. The elders raised us as much as we raised ourselves. We buried the old when their time came. Our muscles and bellies hardened because we had to grow up faster and more cunning than the previous generation to survive.
And, I dreamt of that unearthly season of regeneration called spring and wondered if my parents had been taken to where there was spring.
I married and had five children of my own and then their children arrived as easily as breadfruit dropping from the trees. My wife passed on to the next life with a soft belly and I was left with soft-bellied children and grandchildren. And I, an old man, continued to harden myself by remembering the time when my parents were taken so I would not dishonor their memory with weakness.
I surfed in the waters around the island so that my muscles would not deteriorate. I built fishing boats—mostly used as floating hammocks for the soft-bellies—but some I used to explore the waters around the island.
Each time, I fanned out in circumference further and further from the island until one day, when I was well into my eighth decade of life, I lost sight of land and all around me was the wetland of my ancestors. I lay down and closed my eyes, mingling images of ancient, ancestral sea forms with my grandchildren, chubby-necked and fingered, some barely able to toddle on land, let alone conjure awe and deference from the most exotic and dangerous creatures in all the aquatic kingdoms of the world.
The thing called spring thrived in my imagination. It was far from the sea, fertile with color and vegetative life, an ocean of flower and fauna. Spring spilled out of the season called winter, like the tender fruit inside the hard shell of a sweet gourd. In the distance, I could see the milky-fleshed men, with their large ships harbored in a vast expanse of dryness.
I decided to stay asleep in the dry, fragrant spring land. My parents were there somewhere and I had an eternity to find them.