That winter, during a rainfall, he arrived in Brazil.
He came by sea. On the cargo ship he was their only passenger. In the last days of the ship’s journey it had grown warm and when he remarked that there was no snow, the crew members laughed. They had been throwing fish overboard, as they always did, for luck, and he watched as the birds twisted their bodies in the wind and dove. He had never seen the ocean before, had never journeyed so far as he had in this month alone. He was called Yohan and he was twenty-five years old.
He was dressed in an old gray suit that was too large for him and wore a hat with a short brim. They were not his clothes. They had been given to him at the camp and after he had changed, the young nurse, an American, took the military shirt he had worn for all those years and folded it with care even though it was torn and stale, no longer recognizable.
The nurse had thin shoulders, he remembered, and her neck had darkened from the sun. She had been kind to him. Through all the days at the camp there had been that. But he did not tell her so and he said his farewells to the guards and the doctors who stood in a line under the tent in that long field where the sky was always low and vast and where there was always a wind that carried the smell of the soil and sickness and the sound of animals from a nearby farm.
He was escorted into the back of a UN truck. It had snowed the night before but the day was clear as he left. From a tower someone waved. He shut his eyes and thought of castles.
He had also been given a rucksack with a spare shirt and trousers. A letter confirming his residence and his employment was in his jacket pocket, tucked behind a folded handkerchief.
It was close to dawn, and the ship was near land, when the rain began to fall. The rain was slow and light and they all remained on deck. Yohan felt the drops tap the brim of his hat and vanish along his shoulders. His eyes were dry and red from the wind. The night before, facing a mirror in a cabin, he had clipped his hair short, the way the nurses had often cut his hair in the camp, checking for lice. He had also shaved, unsure at first whether he remembered how, hesitating before pressing the razor against his skin.
He could see now the coast. It resembled a cloud at first. Then it changed and the line broke into segments and he saw the tiles of rooftops and the stone and the whitewashed walls following the slope of a tall hill.
The port grew visible. Then the sails and the masts of ships. He gripped the railing and followed the smoke from the steamers rising above the town.
Near the peak he could make out a church spire and higher, on the open ridge, a single large tree. Farther up the coast, to the north, a plantation house stood in a long field. And farther still, on a headland, a lighthouse was flashing.
They entered the harbor. As the ship approached a pier they were surrounded by a low fog and the sudden echo of voices and engines and the strains of ropes against pulleys. Merchants were looking up at them, motioning their arms and lifting the goods that they were selling. Fishermen were cleaning their boats; landowners were preparing to journey farther west, to visit their farms and their tenants.
He said the name of this country and then said it again.
The ship docked and he helped the men unload their shipment. He kept his eyes focused on the ship, on the crates sliding down the gangplank. He felt movement behind him, heard a slow hammering. He caught the scent of blood but was unsure whether it was his imagination or from all the fishing nets moving through the air.
The rain had not stopped and one of the sailors, the oldest of them, offered him an umbrella. It was blue with a wooden handle.
The sailor shrugged and grinned and said, —From the child, and pointed up at the ship where Yohan thought he saw a crown of hair and the length of a pale scarf gliding along the sky. A young boy was running after her, waving, and from that distance Yohan caught the voice of the girl, its delicacy and assuredness, the way it rose like a kite, the foreign cadence of words in another language.
He paused, as though expecting something. But then they were gone and he was unsure whether he had seen or heard them at all, unsure whether he had understood the sailor correctly. There were no other passengers, he was told.
—To a good life, the sailor said now, and Yohan shook hands with them all, catching the fatigue in their oil-stained faces, these men whom he had lived with for over a month and who had made an effort to keep him company on that ship, teaching him card games, sharing their cigarettes, telling him what little they knew of the country where they had just arrived.
The sailors were South Korean. In the war they had been in the navy and there had been times during the trip when they gathered on the deck in the evenings as the weather grew warm and they passed around a bottle and told him of the fighting at sea. But then they looked at one another and then at Yohan and grew silent.
They spoke instead of their lives now and the families they started, how they had been shipping cargo for a year and how they had moved to Japan, where there was more work to be found.
—And wives, one of the sailors had said, approaching the edge of the deck.
In his hand he held the bottle they had been drinking from, a long wick slipped into it, then the spark of a match. His hand aglow as he threw the bottle into the night, the momentary flare in the sky, then that brief explosion and Yohan hiding his body’s reaction to the noise and the sailors shouting up at that vast dark they traveled through.
Now, on the pier, a month later, he did not want to part with them. He lingered close, listening to them speak in Korean, not knowing when he would hear it again. But there was nothing more to say and so he looked at them one last time and waved.
He left the harbor and made his way inland, sheltered by his new umbrella, following a narrow road into a neighborhood of apartments and shops. Alone now, he stared at all the street markers and the hanging signs, his body suddenly overwhelmed by the noises of a town, its new smells, an unknown language.
The sailors had taught him as much Portuguese as they could, what little they themselves had learned, but he could no longer remember the words and the phrases, his mind searching for some remnant but unable to find one, unable to focus and settle as he followed the road.
The town was large, almost a city, and opened out along the rise of the hill. As he moved farther into the town he felt its density, its height. He kept looking up at the unfamiliar architecture, the designs of gates and entrances, the high floors. Buildings were the color of seashells. The dark windows everywhere like a thousand doors in the land.
A girl on a bicycle approached and he stepped onto the sidewalk as she sped past him, throwing newspapers against closed entrances. He paused, caught by a memory. He had not seen a bicycle in years. The rain lifted off the wheels as the girl pedaled farther away. A light appeared inside a bakery, then the smoke from a thin flue on the roof.
He stopped a fisherman, showing him a business card, and the man pointed toward the ridge and motioned his arm to the right. He followed a cobblestone road, turning at a barbershop and continuing along another road that moved around the slope, past row houses with narrow, brightly painted shutters. He began to notice paper signs on the windows, written in Japanese.
The tailor’s shop stood between an apartment and a pharmacy. The building was whitewashed and two stories tall. There was no sign. There were instead two large windows through which he could see tables, rolls of fabric, and a tailor’s dummy with a measuring tape draped around the shoulders of its headless body.
It was early in the morning. From across the street he looked up at the second-floor windows.
And it was there, standing in front of the tailor’s shop, as the rain fell, that he felt the tiredness of his journey for the first time. He heard the rush of a storm drain and his legs weakened and he grew dizzy. He gripped the umbrella and thought of the years that had passed and were an ocean away now. He thought of Korea and the war there and he thought of the camp near the southern coast of that country, beside an airbase, where he had been a prisoner for two years. He thought of the day he woke and saw the trees and then the men with their helmets and their weapons swaying around him like chimes.
The Americans called them northerners and those first weeks they kept his wrists bound. But then the doctors, in need of men, untied him and the others, and he dug graves and washed clothes in buckets. He carried trays for the nurses and took walks in the yard with Peng or the missionaries who visited, following the high fences, the men in the towers looking down at them.
He slept in a cabin with the other prisoners and in the winters the heat of their bodies kept them warm. Moonlight kept them company, the way it leaked through the timber walls and shifted across them as the hours passed; and sleepless, he thought of his father and all that snow in the winters in that mountain town where Yohan was born and where he had lived and it all seemed so far to him then, as though the earth had expanded, his memories, too, and he could no longer grasp them. And only then, when those thoughts began to recede, fading into a thin line, would he sleep.
He did not know when exactly the war ended. He did not hear of it until some days later.
One day he was told they would return him to his home. To his country, they said. To the north.
—Repatriation, they called it.
He declined their offer. From the camp he was the only one.
So he stayed a while longer, helping the doctors with the ones who were too sick to travel and would not last long. He held the young men’s hands if they wanted him to or sat beside them and described the fields and the trees and the clouds, and the young men smiled and thought of their mothers, unable to open their eyes or move their heads. And some wept and said that they were sorry, so very sorry, and he wondered what they were sorry for, but it was all right because in their eyes he could see that they were not looking at him but someone else in the last of their dreams.
And then some time later a man visited.
—From the United Nations, he said, and they gathered around a table under a tent with the nurses and the missionaries.
There was an agreement with Brazil, the man said, and Yohan remained silent. He had never heard that word before. If he wanted to, the man said, for the camp would soon be gone.
—The sun, the nurse beside him said, looking far away where the snow from the trees had begun to scatter. I bet there’s so much sun.
And he thought of a place where there would be no more nights.
—Brazil, Yohan said, and the man nodded and the nurse smiled and so he did, too.
There was a tailor there. A Japanese man. Kiyoshi was his name. Yohan would be the tailor’s apprentice because he had mended clothes at the camp. He was good at it, the nurse said, and Yohan looked down at his hands, forgetting that when the UN man appeared he had been stooped over the table, under the tent, mending the clothes that had been taken, during that war, from the dead.
It was now 1954. He stood on the sidewalk, holding the blue umbrella.
The rain continued to fall. It fell on the rooftops on the slopes of the hill and in the narrow streets and the alleyways and on the windows of the tailor’s shop, blurring the image of his body. The morning was gray and the color of rust. All the sounds of the waking city seemed to rise toward the sky, dissipating as the rain fell.
A puddle began to form on the sidewalk where he stood; the toes of his shoes had grown wet and dark.
He regained his strength. He adjusted his hat and then his rucksack. From his jacket pocket he took out the letter. He crossed the street and knocked once on the glass door. Waiting there, opposite his reflection, his hands shook and he stilled them.
• • •
From where he stood outside he could now see the shop in its entirety: a single long room with a dark wood floor, worn pale by footsteps and the legs of chairs and tables; fabrics piled on shelves and leaning against walls stained by cigarette smoke; sewing machines on worktables; wooden boxes filled with scissors and sewing needles and spools of thread. A portable radio. An old fan with a single lightbulb hanging from the low ceiling.
He leaned closer to the glass. In the back there was a heavy red curtain covering a doorway, framed by a dim light.
It was from there that a man appeared, pushing the curtain to the side. He was short and walked with a stoop. He was wearing an undershirt and a vest and his hair was gray and long, tied in the back with a piece of thread. As the man approached, his slippers hit the floor in a slow rhythm, like the soft pattern of rain against the dome of the umbrella Yohan held.
The man lifted his hand.
—It’s open, he called, in Japanese, but continued to approach and, with effort, opened the door himself.
Yohan had not spoken Japanese in some time and he struggled to respond, reaching for a language that seemed to float in a far memory.
—Come in, come in, the man said, and Yohan entered, leaving the umbrella outside by one of the shop windows.
There was no longer the sound of rain, or it had faded, and his ears adjusted now to the low hum of the radio and the ceiling fan. He could smell a broth of some kind, and tea, and he remembered then that he had not eaten since the day before, a small meal with the crew, mindful of their sharing. He was suddenly struck with hunger.
But he remained still. They stood facing each other at the front of the shop, silent until the man’s eyes focused on Yohan’s suit. The man reached for him and pinched the fabric on each shoulder.
—I see the problem, the tailor said.
Yohan took out the letter and bowed. The man slipped on a pair of reading glasses that he kept in his vest pocket.
While he read, Yohan studied the man’s face: his calm eyes, his thick lips, the old and dark skin that had spent years under the sun.
This was Kiyoshi, in his expression a patience and also a steadiness Yohan would grow accustomed to over the years.
The tailor folded the letter and slipped it into his vest pocket along with his reading glasses. He lit a cigarette. He took Yohan’s hand. Kiyoshi’s fingers were warm and rough.
—Welcome, he said, continuing to speak in Japanese.
He reached for the rucksack, attempted to lift it, but changed his mind and tapped Yohan on the shoulder, motioning for him to follow.
They headed to the back of the room, passing through the curtain, into a kitchen. A teakettle and a pot of soup were on the stove. Beyond the kitchen there was a door ajar, revealing the corner of a small room: a nightstand, the spine of a book, slippers, and an ashtray, the edge of a cot that reminded him of the field hospital in the camp, the gray light of the morning extending onto the floor.
But they did not go there. They turned and climbed a set of narrow stairs that creaked with each step. They went slowly, Kiyoshi leading and holding on to the handrail, his cigarette smoke lifting toward the dim lights in a slow whirl.
There had been no electricity at the camp, though there was at the military base; and in the evenings when it grew dark and the buildings vanished, a line of electric light appeared beyond the fences, these rows of square shapes in the sky glowing every night. And the dying, who lay in their cots under the tents, would stare out across that distance as though waiting for something else to appear while the doctors made their rounds with lanterns. And Yohan in the cabin thinking of nights in the town wearing his father’s coat and watching a lit stage, the long shadows of actors.
There were two small rooms on the second floor, connected by a short hallway. One was used for storage. The tailor brought Yohan to the other one, stopping beside the doorway.
The room was above the shop. The ceiling was sloped so that one wall was taller than the other. A single window looked out onto the street. In the far corner there was a mattress on the floor. Closer to the door, along the high wall, there was a bureau, a chair, and a small desk. Again, there was a lightbulb hanging from the ceiling. That was all.
It had not occurred to him until now that he had been silent since entering the shop. But before he could speak Kiyoshi left. He listened to the old man descend the stairs. He walked across the room, settled his rucksack beside the mattress, and opened the window.
From here he could see broken glass glued onto the rooftops descending the slope of the town; the occasional television antenna; birds on clotheslines, the clothes drenched from the rain, their colors dulled. In the far distance there were the ships in port and the winding streets he had followed to get here, the wet cobblestones and the damp awnings of shops and restaurants.
The girl on the bicycle returned. He leaned out the window and watched her approach. Directly across the street was an apartment building. Beside that were two stores: a bakery and a pastry shop. Without pausing the girl dipped her hand into her shoulder bag and threw. He listened to the impact of the newspaper on each door and the rain in the bicycle wheels.
A moment later Kiyoshi stepped outside, reaching for the paper and for the blue umbrella, too. A group of boys ran by, kicking a rubber ball in the rain, and an old woman, with her head covered in a bright shawl, waited under the awning of the pharmacy.
He took off his suit jacket. He left the window and stood under the lightbulb, examining it. He flipped the switch and it began to flicker and he turned it off. He reached up to tighten it into the socket and tried it again. Then he sat on the mattress. It was hard and a corner was torn. His shirt stank of seawater and fish. Or perhaps it was his skin or his hair.
His tiredness returned to him and he settled into the bed. He shut his eyes. Through the open window he could hear the tapping of the rain and voices and a car and then a ship’s horn. A single chime of a church bell. A door opening. A song on the radio. The steady punches of a sewing machine. He heard aircraft and the dust spraying from trucks and the wind against the tents but it was faint and calm and he did not mind. He was riding a bicycle. He felt a hand on the small of his back. Someone familiar spoke to him and he said, —I can go a little longer, and he lifted a shovel and sank it into the earth. A group of children whistled and clapped. And then he was running his hands through a girl’s hair and she took his wrist and they moved through a corridor where rows of dresses hung from the ceiling. Those dresses turned into the sea.
When he woke it was dark. The lights from the town had entered the room, the furniture casting shadows. In the far corner, beside the door, a man sat on the desk chair, facing him.
Yohan froze, startled. Then his eyes adjusted and he saw that it was his suit jacket. He did not remember placing it there. He rose, smelling the bowl of soup that was still warm on the desk. Beside it lay an ashtray and a pack of cigarettes.
The fluorescent lights of a store began to blink and the room lit bright and then dimmed. He watched his shadow on the wall behind him appear and fade. The room was thick with warmth. A breeze came and he took off his shirt.
He was not yet used to the heat of this country. It was summer here and he wondered if there existed a different season for every corner of this world in this moment and the moments to come. Whether if you traveled fast and far enough you could witness a year passing in a single journey.
Across the street, a woman stood on a second-floor balcony, looking down. She wore a pale dress that revealed her thin arms, and her dark hair hung down across her shoulders. A motorbike paused below her, its engine running. The man was looking up. Together they spoke in a language Yohan did not yet know but would learn and he concentrated on the soft cadence, again trying to remember the words and phrases the sailors had taught him.
And then his eyes scanned the landscape, consuming it.
He would learn the streets and the buildings of this hill town that resembled the old shell of some creature. And he would know the people who moved within it.
He lifted his suit jacket, examining the shoulders and the sleeves. He tried it on. It was no longer too large for him; the shoulders had been altered, the sleeves, too.
The beam of the lighthouse swept across the harbor. In the sea there were stars. Millions of them, reflected in the water’s surface. The rain had stopped.
“Exquisitely enigmatic…a small but radiant star in the current literary firmament” (The Dallas Morning News), Snow Hunters traces the extraordinary journey of Yohan, a twenty-five-year-old North Korean POW refugee who defects from his country at the end of the Korean War, leaving his friends and family behind to seek a new life in a port town on the coast of Brazil.
Though he is a stranger in a strange land, throughout the years in this town, four people slip in and out of Yohan’s life: Kiyoshi, the Japanese tailor for whom he works, and who has his own secrets and a past he does not speak of; Peixe, the groundskeeper at the town church; and two vagrant children named Santi and Bia, a boy and a girl, who spend their days in the alleyways and the streets of the town. Yohan longs to connect with these people, but to do so he must sift through the wreckage of his traumatic past so he might let go and move on.
In Snow Hunters, “quotidian-surreal craft-master” (New York magazine) Paul Yoon proves love can dissolve loneliness; that hope can wipe away despair; and that a man who lost a country can find a new home. “The brief, simple sentences that form this elegant tone poem of a novel…have the effect of making you slow down to read them—which is a fitting way to experience the story of a man unmoored by memory and time” (Entertainment Weekly). This is a heartrending story of second chances, told with unerring elegance and absolute tenderness.