I Like It Here

Han Chang-hoon

Illustration by Dianna Xu

As the last glow of redness on the far horizon recedes, everything plunges into total darkness. Having traveled in a straight line since leaving the island while dusk dissolves into night, the boat seems to have found what it was looking for all along. Out here where all depth perception disappears, the spirits of the night pour down, and a strange, almost impossible-to-describe texture fills the air. The ocean, the air, and the sky mix into one color so it appears that the world is upside down and the sea is falling into the sky, water saturating the air, the clouds, and the stars.

The engine cries out urgently, sounding like it’s about to explode or break apart any minute. Meanwhile the bow of the boat stops its heaving motion to pause in the air for a moment, before quickly dipping tremulously and flying back up again. The spray from the bow crashes into the bridge windows like bullets. The boat is crying.

As the man stares at the screen of his GPS, his face glows in the blue light and changes into that of a spirit. The depth of the water changes drastically too, from fifty to sixty, then seventy.

“Are you seasick?” The man asks, looking to a corner of the room. His wife only nods in response. He turns on the navigation light as if just remembering to do so. The deck that was hidden in the darkness lights up instantly and, as soon as it does, also creates an umbrella of light with the boat at its center. Pop—water droplets, bounding upwards, sparkle instantaneously. Silver-colored rain falls into the umbrella.

The crashing waves at the bow of the boat are illuminated in such a way that they resemble a giant sea monster wagging its tongue as it hides its body deep in the ocean. The navigation light finds the end of his wife's long, wavy hair, turning it white and making it look as though she has a disease that is causing her to age from her hair first.

But it's not just the hair. Her skin shines where she has put on lotion, making her look pitiful, like she is trying too hard to hide her wrinkles and rough skin. She stands, propping herself against a door, flinching and shrinking away from him every time a new wave hits the windows. She’s old. Well, she is almost 50, the man thinks to himself. The skin around her eyes sags and her hands have become muscly. It has been more than twenty-five years since she married him and had kids, more than enough time to change from an energetic young girl to a middle-aged woman who buys hair dye. Time enough for her once roiling passions to grow cold, to be folded up nicely and tucked into a drawer. But now, with all that time behind her, she says she will leave—forever. But why and where to?

“We're here, so just hold tight.”

Having made darkness their destination, the man knows they must have arrived. His wife’s mouth is full of complaints.

“The waves are too high. Let's go back before someone gets killed,” she says.

“They won’t issue a warning on waves like this. These waters aren’t that bad.”

The GPS screen shows that they have indeed arrived. The man turns the engines down and the rough roaring sound dies away. After continuously pitching up and down and racing harshly forward, the boat now seems unsure of what to do. The built-up momentum in the boat meets the resistance of the waves head on, causing the boat to rattle as it rolls hard to the left and right. His wife nearly goes flying to the floor, barely holding on to the cabinets. She looks anxious and restless, like she’s been kidnapped. Though it’s true, the man thinks, that he did force her to come along against her will.

The man sticks out his head to look around, but the only thing he can see is the light he has turned on. Just as a drop of India ink creates a discrete black spot on the surface of clear water, the light illuminates the area within a three to four foot radius of the boat, never spreading out further. The light does brighten everything right in front of your eyes, however; but the effect is that it only makes the darkness that much darker so nothing can be seen. Only, what’s on the other side of the curtain of light, the man knows, is the rolling, endless ocean. If he comes across one of the spirits wandering the area—he thinks to himself—he might be mocked for trying to measure the depth of the sea with human eyes. Nevertheless, whenever the boat stops, he always succumbs to his long-held habit—a fisherman’s habit, perhaps—of looking around the waters.

Here, about halfway between the island he lives on and Jeju Island, is where the largehead hairtail fishing area is located. There is no one here, however, because for the past couple of years the area has been on the verge of dying off, and anyway it’s not hairtail season. After running furiously for one hour, the boat now sits in the middle of the vast ocean inside the cone of light from its navigation lamp, catching its breath for the first time.

This boat traveled to and from this fishing area for two years and then, for three consecutive years, was tied up at the wharf. After the fish in this area started getting scarcer and scarcer, the man had no margin to pay for gas or labor costs. At first, he took a loss only if he took the day off; later, even if he worked, he still took a loss. Eventually, just by having the boat, he was taking a loss. So in the end he put it up for sale. During that time, he even occasionally regretted being greedy and buying such a large boat. I should have listened to my wife when she said no, he thought.

He had planned this trip by himself. A few days ago, a person from Jeju Island had come to see the boat. A transaction had taken place. Now, before the boat changed ownership, he wanted to go out fishing one last time, knowing he would not be able to again. The fishing season had ended, but he thought he could at least catch enough fish for his own family to eat for a while.

The buyer would be back tomorrow, and he would become a mere islander—instead of a boat-owner. Since he first became captain when he was twenty, except for a few years during which he worked as a crew member on a merchant ship, he has never not been a captain. The memory of his first outing as captain, of passing through the rough waves of the East China Sea and returning with a boat so full of croakers and bass it was almost sinking—that memory will soon be nothing more than the dim memory of a middle-aged island man who has lost his boat. Stamping the contract, he felt as though all the blood had run out of his body. When he told his wife he had sold the boat, she said,

“I have something to tell you.”

“Go ahead.”

“I will leave the island now. I will leave and I will not come back.”

In the morning, he went to the fisheries co-op bank and checked the full extent of his debts. After accounting for the money he would get from the sale of his boat, he would still be in the red: in fact, the remaining principle and interest added up to the price of another boat.

When he got home, his wife was tidying up, or, more accurately, she was packing. “What are you doing?” “I told you I was leaving.” “You‘re leaving? Don’t be crazy.” “I’m serious, I’ve thought about it for a long time so don’t think I’m kidding.”

She spoke slowly and purposefully. He could tell by looking at her eyes that she was really going. Her eyes resembled the horizon over a still ocean. There was no turning of her head, no pleading, no resentment.

“Life doesn’t always work out the way we want it to,” she had said to him, “I suppose if you live every day as best you can, there will certainly be good days ahead. So don’t feel too sad and don't get angry, you know, shouldn’t we have peace within our family regardless?” When she pleaded like this, her eyes resembled his daughter Youngwha's. These were the eyes he had grown so used to.

She also had eyes full of hatred and wrath. Those were like the glaring eyes of his son. “My fishing business failed and all I did was build up debt, yeah, and I didn’t mean to do that, I am sorry. If I ever do it again I will throw myself into the ocean and die,” he remembers saying during one argument with his son, his son’s eyes growing subdued at these words. This all happened the day after he had been heartbroken, tired, and drunk.

During all those times he had never once seen this calm horizon in his wife’s eyes.

“Tomorrow morning I will take a boat and leave the island.” “Oh, stop saying that.” “I will live with Youngwha, because when Youngsik finishes his military service, Youngwha will graduate.” “And how will you provide for yourself?” “I will do anything as long as the kids don’t starve.” “Oh, you were just waiting for me to sell the boat, huh?” “That’s right, I was waiting for you to sell the boat.” “You really plan on going?” “I’ve already told you.”


“Stay here and lie down,” the man says to his wife.

“I want to go out and get some air at least. I’m scared too.”

This last part, “I'm scared too,” she almost whispers. The boat in all this darkness; the ocean with its rough, rolling waves; the isolation of knowing no matter how much you rub your eyes, you will not see another boat—these are the things of which she is afraid. He turns on the fishing lamp as well, which, with the engine running so low, is no brighter than a regular bulb. The deck brightens a little and the spirits in the darkness are pushed back a tiny bit more. Staved off, they stick out their tongues and dance.

“I have been thinking since we got here,” he says as he pulls his equipment out of the deck storage cabinet.

Though it is now just open ocean with no islands nearby, in the height of summer when the fishing season began this area would become a little city on the water by night. Fishermen from his island and from Jeju Island, even fishermen from the West Sea and the East Sea who heard about this place, would bring their boats here and turn on their fishing lamps. As the boats gathered, passageways were set up and the glistening light from the fishing lamps looked like fire from a welder, or a jewelry store open for business.

But like a market that loses its crowds as its businesses die out one after another, the welder’s shop disappeared and the jewelry store closed its doors. The man casts his fishing hook into that place. Poosh. Even with the rough waves, he hears the weight enter the water with a splash. At once, anchovies gather around the bait, nibbling at it, followed successively by their predators—the fish that eat anchovies. Invariably, in the light of the fishing lamp, one of these fish will bite the bait.

“I thought that you are getting old too,” he says finally.

“Well, look how much time has passed . . . ” his wife says.

There is no energy in her words. It could just be because she feels seasick, but her placid tone belongs to one who has lost all desire. She bends over slightly and stares blankly into the ocean.

“You were so pretty.”

Just as one misses something one has lost, so one must also become attached anew to someone about to leave. The waves and the darkness slowly disappear from his eyes; he sees a young woman pressing her lips together to form a straight line. He also sees a mug on a cafe table and the girl’s beautifully permed hair, reminding him of a famous movie actress.

The man peeks over at his wife’s breasts, pressed up against her left arm and pushing out, just like he used to steal a glance at her chest when she was a young woman. How many times has he slept resting his head in that bosom? All the fatigue from his long fishing trips that the ocean created but couldn’t ease. The heavy exhaustion, feeling like it would tear through his skin, was surrendered over to her body. After delivering his spoils to the co-op, he would come home and find her body there. “You worked hard,” she would say. “Was everything okay at home?” “Yes, the waves weren’t too bad?” “They were pretty rough around Heuk-San Island.” “Did you catch a lot of fish?” “Oh, same as always.” And then, he would press his body against hers. Her breasts and her lower parts were always right there, too. He would bury his face in her chest, thrust his body into hers and shake like a boat in a tempest, until finally his deep fatigue would blow away like the wind. That was how they lived.

His wife laughs wryly.

“Are you trying to get me to stay by telling me I’m pretty?”

“Am I? . . . I was just so surprised to hear you say you were leaving.”

“Well, you weren’t so bad yourself as a young man. You had a large, strong body and were famous for being the young captain who came back with a full boat. If it weren’t for you, I would have died before getting married on this island.”

A grin stretches across the man’s face. But just as it does, the man suddenly sees the charade of it. If only he could nudge her and get her to admit she was just kidding around; if only it were all a joke they could both laugh at together.

The fish aren’t biting. He brings in the line and casts it out again. Vague hope and sudden rage were constant companions on this boat. He wanted to live well, as if he could make all the fish in the sea his; he wanted to earn stacks of money that he could give to his wife and children. But he couldn’t beat the high-tech competition, with their nicer equipment and their bigger nets. Even with this bigger boat—bought against his wife’s wishes, because of his greed. And now the boat will disappear. Living on an island without a boat . . . He might as well be a miner entering a mine without a pickaxe—or a soldier heading into battle without a gun. This defeat was finally happening to him.

“I must have committed some great sin in my past life,” his wife says as she stares into the ocean.

“What do you mean?”

“Because I was born on an island.”

“I like it just fine.”

“That’s because men don’t know what the ocean and the island are to women. Because I never let on to how I feel, how could you?”

“ . . . ”

“A long time ago when we were on the boat and I said that I had to go to the bathroom, do you remember what you said to me?”

“I must’ve said to just find a place and do it, we never had a bathroom on our boat.”

“That is what it is like to be a woman on an island.”

“All boats are like that. What, was I supposed to build a bathroom for you on our boat when you only ride once in a while? All the other women work it out just fine.”

His wife buries her head in her arms, pushing her breasts up a little more.

“That’s what I’m trying to say, I can’t do that like other women. Can’t you tell by the fact that I get seasick every time? And it’s not just boats. If you walk a few steps, you meet the ocean, if you turn and walk the other direction, ocean, if you walk sideways, ocean. If it’s not a road, it’s a field or a mountain . . . That’s the life of an island woman: having only a few set places to go. Having only a few places to go.”

A wave lifts the boat high in the air and drops it back down. The man’s body teeters and his wife huddles down to the deck.

“It’s all the same. That’s just life,” the man says.

“Life can be lived on land too.”

“ . . . ”

“I have thought about it my whole life—why I was born on an island. There is no other answer besides that I committed a sin and am now being punished for it.”

“Then just think that you are fulfilling your punishment while you’re here.”

“I wish I could remember the sin. It’s just unfair that I can’t.”

Just then he gets a bite and reflexively pulls it up. It’s a hairtail, a lucky catch. Its iridescent body violently flounders on the deck before growing still. The dorsal fin is quick and nimble but also helps it glide through choppy waters. Its eyes are clear as crystal. Swimming elegantly through the deep ocean, it suddenly fell into the man’s hands, transferring ownership from itself to the man. Looking at the fish’s body sparkle in the light, he loses himself momentarily in deep thought.

This feeling is why he fishes. Through fishing, he made a living, and because of fishing he came into debt. Because of fishing, he found joy, and because of fishing, he found anxiety. It was like looking at beautiful marble that could also poison him.

He pulls up another fish, and then another. The empty deck fills up with life.

His wife, slightly hunched over, brings over a knife and cutting board. Without speaking, she picks up one of the fish, scrapes off its silver scales, cuts off its fins, and thinly slices its flesh. Just as the man has lived his whole life as a fisherman, she has lived her whole life as a fisherman’s wife. Like someone from the mountains who runs away to live in the city will always, whether they like it or not, become really good at chopping wood and making a fire, his wife has become an expert with the knife. The hairtail watches as its own body gets de-boned until, finally, with nothing but its spine and tail left, it gets tossed back into its home with a splash. Only flesh is left, presented on a plate.

“Here, eat some.”

The man chews on a piece with a little sauce before opening his mouth heavily.

“Are you really going to go?” he asks.

“I have already told you that I have decided on it. It is just left for you to decide what you will do.”

“And what if I decide I won’t go with you?”

“Let’s get a divorce.”

Maybe this will be the last meal she ever prepares for me, he thinks.

“How can you say that word so naturally?” he replies.

“The world doesn’t revolve around you, you know, you said yourself I’m getting old.”

“Alright, your good years are all behind you, what's your plan now?”

“Your wish was to own a boat like this. Do you remember what you said to me as I was trying to talk you out of it? You said you didn’t care if business failed and you ended up in heavy debt, if you never owned a boat like this you would regret it even after you died. That's exactly how I feel now.”

The usually sweet fish is tasteless in his mouth. The wind comes out of the darkness, slyly rattling the plate as it whooshes to the other end of the boat, disappearing. The dark rain clouds wetted with the seawater are blown by the wind; so thickly stacked, they make it seem like the whole sky is moving together. As his wife stares at them, she asks, “So you really like the ocean, huh?”

The question surprises him. Like the ocean? The question comes up often when he drinks with other fisherman. There is the answer he always gives to tourists. But does he like the ocean? It doesn't take him long to realize that he has never once truly thought the question through.

The red sun rising up over the deep blue ocean at dawn. The white wake stretching out V-shaped behind his boat as he heads toward that sun. His nets full of fish. The joy of returning with a full boat. The sunset exploding over the horizon. The light of the fishing lamp at night. The sweetness of the break taken at the end of a hard day’s work. Sure, it’s all beautiful. But does he like it?

His father’s left foot was missing its big toe. The part with the toenail, just above the knuckle, was cleanly cut off, its tip hardened. “Father, what happened to your foot?” he asked as a child. “A rat bit it off.” “Rats bite?” “I was on the South Pacific Ocean and had been up four days straight catching tuna until I finally passed out. When I woke up, a rat this big was gnawing on my toe, eating the flesh and sucking my blood dry. I was so scared I didn’t even feel the pain. All the food had run out, so, with nothing else to eat, the rat started trying to eat us.”

Over and over, his father washed his toe with tooth marks hardened into the flesh, as if he were watering a newly planted seed. But in the end, he was unable to grow a new toe. The man remembers the last words his father said to him before he moved on to the next world, leaving his big toe in the belly of a rat:

“You must become a great captain.”

His father, who only ever worked as a crewman, considered becoming a captain as a way to never be eaten by a rat.

“When you cried as a child, just hearing the sound of a boat would make you stop. When you went out to sea, you never wanted to come back, even after the sun went down.” These were the stories from his past, the past he couldn't remember. And the testimonies weren’t wrong. At school, he could tell from the tong-tong-tong sounds coming through the windows which boat had just docked. When school let out, he would hurry down to the port and fawn over all the boats. There was never a day his face and hands weren’t covered in grease and soot from touching the engines and staring into the mufflers. There were many grown-ups who scolded him for doing this instead of studying, but his father couldn’t be happier to see his curiosity for the ocean and his interest in boats.

No one his age could keep up with him. He was the fastest swimmer, he knew the most about the ocean and the time of the tides. At age twenty, he became the youngest captain ever of a fishing boat. Wanting to conquer vast oceans, he worked as a commercial fisherman and traveled over the Pacific, the Indian, and the Atlantic Oceans.


A great captain. Becoming one is perhaps just as difficult as becoming a great husband, the man thinks. Just as he sometimes thinks he knows how to be a great husband and father, but realizes time and again that he actually doesn’t, he is coming to think that he actually has no idea what it takes to be a great captain either. Is a great captain one who catches a lot of fish? Maneuvers a boat safely through rocky waters? One who is unafraid of stormy seas? Or one who takes good care of his boat? One who would rather spend ten days on rough seas than even one day lounging in one’s living room?

Of course he has done all of these things, and he has done them better than anyone else can, but it seems now that he did not, in the end, become a great captain. Shouldn’t being a great captain mean at the very least never, ever giving up your boat?

“I don’t know . . . whether or not I like the ocean . . . ” he finally replies to his wife.

“It’s just what you’re used to.”

“You’re probably right. I have never done anything other than work on the ocean.”

“It’s true, you haven’t. You have lived concerned about nothing but boats and the sea. That’s why this happened. So what will you do here now?”


“I have actually wanted to say this for a long time. But I put it off over and over, seeing the fire in your eyes as you stared at your boat and the ocean. When you bought this boat, when you didn’t listen to me and you got into so much debt and bought such a big boat, I even thought about running away alone at night. But in the end I wasn’t able to. I didn’t want to be the first to spoil everything.”

“Is that so?”

“Even when you put the boat up for sale, I waited. I thought, if he just sells it, if he just sells it, then I will tell him.”

“Yeah, you must have felt that way. I am sorry I caused you so much hardship.”

“The time has come. I can’t live like this anymore. I am leaving.”

No longer able to look into those eyes that are as calm as the horizon, he turns his gaze away to look at his boat. He first looks at the bow, riding up on a big wave and pitching quickly back down. What might the eyes of a boat look like? Are they as calm and horizon-like as his wife’s as they stare into the dark ocean? Each time the boat crashes down and the spray splashes up its sides, it seems to him that the boat is actually sobbing heavily.

Two large anchors sit on either side of the boat, tied perfectly with rope. When was the last time he dropped those anchors? He suddenly hears in his mind the heavy sound of the anchors being released and rushing to the bottom of the sea. Since he last dropped anchor at the intersection between Jeju Island and the fishing boat broadcast center, this boat has been sitting in the same spot for three years. And the deck below is the same story. Within the oval-shaped outer wall, the storage room, the fish storage, and the livewell all sit empty right now. Only the very top compartment is in use. His nets and other tools of the trade rest neatly inside, musty from being unused for so long.

He pulls up a few more hairtail and a few more mackerel. His wife tries to straighten up, but, unable to get the better of the ocean’s rocky motion, sits back down, almost falling over. From her bluish complexion, he sees that she is seasick.

“Drink a glass of soju,” he says to her.

No answer. Instead, another wave crashes over the side. He opens a bag of ice he brought along and pours it onto the fish he’s caught. He then opens a bottle of soju. “Come on, drink some.”

“I don’t want to. Let’s head back.”

“We should at least fill one box.”

“Fill one box and do what with it?”

“I want you and the kids to eat them.”

“Did I ask you to catch us fish? Did you think I would be so happy you caught us fish that I would dance or something?”

“Still, if I caught them, someone should eat them.”

“It is time we really consider how we will provide for our kids. What is one box of fish going to do?”

“What else can I do?” Indeed, he thinks, surprised by his own words. What else could I be doing on a night like this?

“Well, what do you want to do for us?”

“ . . . ”

“That’s why I suggested putting everything in order here and for us to leave together.”

“What will I do if we leave?”

“Hey, you’re not old yet.”

“Fine, I’m not old. What will I do?”

“These days, sixty is considered so young they don't throw a big party anymore, and you are only fifty. What can’t you do on land with your muscle?”

“Are you telling me to go work construction?”

“I don’t like the thought of you working construction either, but, still, it’s something you should at least think about. How will we live on the island? Can’t you throw away your lingering fondness for the sea? You don't even have a boat anymore.”

As she says this, he feels a strong bite. The hairtail he pulls up is about as thick as his hand.

“It’s big.”

He does not hear his wife but thinks, a fish this big is pretty rare. He stares into the pleasing and intense iridescence of the fish’s body.

“We can send this to Youngwha to cook and eat,” he says.

“I would rather we sell this one.”

Just then a harsh wind blows, and off to one side the deep black clouds break apart, exposing a heap of distant, beautiful stars. The clouds disperse but the wind is as strong as ever. The stars flicker as if wriggling in annoyance at the wind rubbing past them.

Whelk.” His wife finally vomits. She staggers to her feet, her pale face now totally ashen. He soon hears her vomiting again from the stern of the boat. He hesitates, wondering if he should go over to her. He regrets forcing her to come along against her wishes, over her protests that she would be seasick. But really, just as he could do nothing else but fish on a night like this, he couldn’t bear to leave his wife at home, who now insists she is going to leave him.


Occasionally, new recruits from the mainland came down to the islands to work on fishing boats, sent by the Crewmen Management Center. They would have mean, squinting eyes, or high, sharp cheekbones, or tattoos on their wrists, or clenched teeth; they would look either perpetually ready for a fight or dopey and vacant. They came because they were running away from something, or because they were pushed away by people, or because they wanted to provide for their families, or simply because they were curious about life here. But whatever it was, the reason for their being here was something you could never ask about directly.

They were generally kids who had never even handled a rope before, but without them the fishing boats wouldn't be able to go out to sea. They would be taken through the Jeju Sea and the South China Sea, and from day one they would get seasick. No matter how much they would squint their eyes or flaunt their tattoos, their faces would go bright yellow and they would start to vomit. And then the fishermen would make them drink soju. At just seeing the plastic bowls filled with soju they would heave and put up their hands to wave no.

“Do you want to drink this or do you want to get thrown into the ocean?”

At this threat, they would squeeze their eyes shut and drink. “If you stop drinking, I’ll kill you. Drink it all.” When forced to drink, nine out of ten would see their color return and their seasickness dissipate. That’s when the work would start. It wasn’t hazing; it was simply the best method, handed down from generations of fishermen now in their graves. No one had found a better way.

He used the same method when he first got on a boat as a teenager, exchanging sleep for the chance to catch fish—that never-ending work, and through his time on the foreign merchant ship plying the Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. When your body was sick, the answer was soju; when you were overcome with loneliness, soju; when you were falling asleep during work, soju; when you didn’t have the strength to work, soju; even when you got hurt and blood was gushing out of you, the answer was soju.

Now that he thinks about it, he wonders where all the people he worked fishing boats with are these days. There was the man from Kyungnam, his chief engineer when he was just a twenty-year-old captain, who was so upset to report to such a young captain he didn’t say a word the entire time. And all those people on the merchant ship with him, like the guy who threw the bowl of soju into the Jeju Sea, and who was then thrown into the water himself, only to be saved by a man who jumped in after him. And then that man from Seoul, where is he, what is he doing now?

Suddenly, he feels as if everything has been taken away from him, or even like it wasn’t there in the first place.

As he listens to his wife vomiting, he thinks for a minute about why he was born on an island. Unlike his wife, never has he been dissatisfied with being a native islander, but now he wonders if it was because of some sin he committed.

He remembers the words of another fisherman. “We got to catch ‘em all, even the goddamn little ones. We got to catch and eat them all, down to the tiniest ones and fuckin' ruin the ocean. Shit, lets just toss these kinds of plastic bottles right into the water. Just pollute the damn thing. That way we can forget about this place and leave it behind. That way we won’t have to pass this fuckin’ work on to our children.”

It has been seven years since Captain Oh, who gave that drunken rant, left this place. He was living somewhere around Seoul, but rumor has it that no one knows where he is now. Whatever has become of Captain Oh, the man is sure Captain Oh’s children are not fisherman. He also knows that in all probability, the dearth of news and long absence mean Captain Oh is too ashamed to show his face.

The man is fifty years old. His body is strong and it still has a lot of muscle for someone his age. Because for a lifetime he has done the hardest kind of work—fisherman’s work, there is no other work he can’t do. Rather, the problem is that the time for him to acquire new skills passed a long time ago. He is an expert with a boat, but he can’t even drive a car. And now his wife says they should leave.

The box is almost full. The once floundering fish now lie neatly between ice. This tells him that his work has come to an end. Going back is the only thing left to do, but he has no desire to do it. It seems as if the instant he returns to the island, both his wife and boat will disappear like a dream. In their place, he conjures a tableau of an old man sitting alone in a room for a long time—him. Then the question is asked, as if from heaven, “Did you have a good time with your old wife and your boat?”

His wife returns just then, looking worse for wear. More than seasick now, she looks like a prisoner who has been trapped as punishment for fifty years.

“I told you to drink a glass of soju.”

“How can you see me like this and still have no thought of going back? Just telling me to drink soju. Is soju medicine?” She yells at him in a shrill voice. “What the hell is the ocean? Just what is it to you?” she says before quickly turning around and heaving up another mouthful of bile. The sound she makes seems not to emanate from her throat, but from deep within her marrow. At that very moment, he gets a bite and has no choice but to pull it up—a mackerel.

“Alright. Let’s head back.”

“Answer me. What is the ocean?”

“ . . . ”

“You love the ocean more than your own family.”

As she says this, she turns to the ocean and spits out what has gathered in her mouth. No doubt a spit full of ill will and hatred.

“While you were sailing in foreign waters on that merchant ship, I had Youngwha and raised her, never complaining about the chores I did for your parents. I just waited for you.”

He feels another bite but loses the fish. He feels fortunate to have lost it.

“Still, it was better back then when you were working on a merchant ship or when you returned home and became the captain of someone else’s boat.”

“ . . . ”

“After you bought this boat and became the owner, because of the damn debt, I have felt so small. Every time I meet someone I’m so ashamed I can’t open my mouth with confidence.”

These last several years that they have spent burdened with debt and pressure from their guarantor now flash through his mind.

“Sure, I too wish I could have supported you better; that we could’ve escaped from this excruciating poverty. If I could just turn my life around, I would do something beyond just supporting you. If you had a chicken shop, I would carry chicken all over the surrounding neighborhoods until my legs broke off. If you ran a supermarket, I would sit at the check-out counter 24 hours a day for you. But what can a fisherman’s wife do for her husband when she can’t even ride on a boat? What can I do when the boat is tied up, just waiting to be sold?”

Because her chest has tightened, she stops talking. Instead, she massages her throat with a clenched fist, her mascara streaking from tears. Another bite. He moves his hand over the line. But because he looks at his wife as he does so, he is slower than usual; he feels the fish turn its head as it continues to bite. Reining his catch in, the man inadvertently wraps the line around the fish’s neck; when he pulls, its neck breaks. The fish instantly goes still.

“In the end, you’re just a seaman.”

The man suddenly gets angry himself.

“That's right, you didn’t know I was a seaman? You didn’t know that when we got married?”

“That is not what I mean.”

It sounds like there is something caught in her throat.

“Then what?”

“You are afraid of the mainland.”

These words cut him to the core, killing his anger.

“Here everyone treats you as a hero. No one ever will on the mainland. Isn’t that why you are afraid to go there?”

“ . . . ”

“Can’t you see that the sea is destroying you? Think about it. You weren’t like this before we bought the boat and took on so much debt. That is, you didn’t get drunk and violent . . . People live on land, not out here. What is so great that you choose to live on a piece of wood in the middle of the ocean instead of setting up on steady ground?”

His gaze grows distant again. He has lived like a gourd dipper. He has lived floating in the middle of the ocean on a tiny island and a boat no wider than a few feet. He thought he lived freely, without chains. His chest feels tight.

“Are you going to do what your father did and say those words to Youngsik?”

His wife’s voice calms down, sinking. All of a sudden, it appears to him that she looks senile—a wretched and devastating sight. As if she chose not to cry all these years but to grow old instead. Suddenly he himself wants to cry too, for no reason at all. He shakes his head, thinking of the words “You must become a great captain.” A line he won’t be saying to his son, of course.

“Then show your children. Show them how to live on land.”

She rubs her temples and vomits again but nothing comes out. She is dry-heaving almost as if she is trying to purge something stuck deep in her chest, he thinks: a lifetime of denial, doubt, and hate. And with that, she enters the helm as if about to collapse.

Surrounded by the waves, the wind, and the darkness, he sits alone and briefly looks down into his box full of fish. Lying in the ice, the hairtail and mackerel look back up at him with their blue eyes, as if asking, “Are you going to leave us?”

I was hoping you would be a side dish for my family for a while, but you will now either be my food as I travel off the island or a package my wife carries as she leaves alone. He is no longer able to say if he thought these words in his head or said them aloud.

His heart, his liver, his kidneys, and all the rest of him now feel like they are being pulled out of him—a gutted fish. As if he were a red seabream in the water tank of a sushi restaurant, plucked, gasping, into the air, gills and guts unraveling, blood drained, backbone wagging, breathing out its last air and waiting for its final breath. “Can’t you see the ocean is destroying you?” A spirit suddenly appears on the deck his wife has just disappeared from, imitating her words. “You are afraid of the mainland.” Maybe she’s right. Maybe he doesn’t like the ocean as much as he is afraid to leave it. Where in the world is that rat now, who chewed off his father’s big toe?

With the fish still staring dolefully up at him, he ties up the box with a cloth as if it were a casket and, like a mourner at a funeral, carries it to the helm.

“We will be back in no time so just hang on a little longer.”

His wife, lying stooped over, only moans like a patient in intensive care. The GPS flashes to indicate that they are two kilometers from their destination. He turns off the fishing lamp. The umbrella of light quickly shrinks and that darkness, to which the world seems to belong, coils around the boat.

He sinks his fingers into the steering wheel, worn old by his hands. Farewell. Meet a good owner. The engine answers with a roar and the boat begins to pick up speed. With the wind at their back the boat rolls heavily. Unable to ride the waves evenly, it leans recklessly left and right as they speed forward. Spray after spray crashes into the hull windows. My heart feels the same way, the man thinks.

translated from the Korean by Jason Woodruff