The Haenyeo’s Daughter

— Sydney S. Kim

Do Yoon has been diving for about an hour now. When she comes up for air—one to two minutes at a time—she lets out a long, thin whistle. It’s a special breathing technique. Head submerges, silence. Head resurfaces, whistle. A strange rhythm.

A basket tied to a float bobs gently on the waves. It holds her day’s catch: oysters, sea cucumbers, and snails, most likely. Perhaps some sea urchins or a small octopus, if she’s lucky.

By the time she’s swimming back to me, the sun has reached its highest point and I’m beginning to get hungry. I start a fire using scraps of driftwood and desiccated seaweed. The smoke gives off a slight stink. Do Yoon sits down next to me and shakes out her wet hair. She warms her hands over the flames and I ask her what she’s caught us for lunch. She lays out a handful of oysters on the sand.

“Everything else I have to sell,” she says. I look inside the basket. More oysters and heaps of little sea snails. Purple urchin spikes poke out from the crevices between. Do Yoon’s hand reaches deep. With her long pale fingers, she carefully pulls out a large oval shell covered in slimy brown algae. It looks heavy. Abalone.

She’s smiling. She looks pleased. “For us.”

“You’re not selling it?”

“No. We never sell abalone. We share it with family and friends.”

The abalone is cradled in her hands like a gift. She turns the shell over, revealing a smooth, cream-colored muscle crowned with strange black hairs. It looks like a flat eye with no pupil. Gummed, unblinking lashes. I can’t imagine what it tastes like.

“Let’s eat this first,” she says. Using her free hand, she empties her waterskin into the shell, pouring it all along the circumference of the abalone. Once it’s rinsed clean, she removes a knife from her belt. The handle is inlaid with chips of polished nacre. Iridescent pink and green and silver. She tucks the blade under the meat and slices all along the edges, separating it from the shell. The meat pops off into her hand. The abalone’s guts dangle in a heavy green sac, which she lops and discards into the sand. Next, she cuts away the hairy black trim until all that remains is a lobe of smooth flesh.

When she asks, I find her a smooth rock. She pounds it against the abalone, tenderizing it. Lines tense in the muscle of her bare arm. Saltwater dew trembles and drips from the tip of her nose. When she’s done, she places the abalone back into its shell and slices it into thin strips. Hands me one piece and takes one for herself.

It’s smooth on the tongue. A hint of the sea coats the inside of my mouth. I bite down—the initially silky texture gives way to a slight crunch. The taste is similar to clam but richer. We chew in silence while the fire spits and crackles.

Do Yoon reaches for an oyster. “Have you gone gull hunting yet?”

“No,” I tell her.

“The gull-mothers flew home a few days ago.”

“I know.” I try not to sound annoyed, but the truth is I’ve been avoiding it. And I know I can’t put it off for much longer. As the eldest daughter in the family, the task is mine alone.

She pries open the oyster. Slides it raw into her mouth.

I jam my knife into my own oyster. The blade wedges deep. I struggle to pry the shell apart. Do Yoon sighs and places her hands over mine. “You stuck it in too far,” she says, guiding the blade out until a glint of silver catches the light. She lets go. I loosen my grip a little and rotate my wrist against the stubborn shell. Slowly, the oyster cracks open.

I tilt my head back and eat. It’s cold and sweet.

“How was the water today?”

“A little choppy. Better than it’s been all week, though.”

“I don’t know how you can stay in the water for that long. It must be freezing.”

She laughs. “I’m just used to it. I don’t have the luxury of sitting in a boat all day, waiting for fish to swim into my net.”

I nudge her knee. “I built that boat myself. I deserve to sit in it.”

She passes me another oyster. “Do you think of her often? Your mother?” Hearing this question is like biting down on a grain of sand. It echoes in my head. She’s looking at me intently, her heavy black eyebrows still messy and damp. “Do you still mourn her?”

I swallow. “Yes. But not as much as I mourn my future.” The expression on her face changes to one of unease. I’ve upset her. I wait for the hard line of her mouth to soften before asking a question to which I already know the answer. “How long can you hold your breath?”

She hums thoughtfully. “Around two minutes.”

“I can barely do one. I’m a terrible swimmer. But you know that.”

Do Yoon laughs and nods. “Yeah. You’re not great,” she says between bites. “You flail more than you swim.”

More abalone is eaten.

“Could you teach me how to hold my breath like you do?”

“Of course not. You know this.”

“What, that it stays in the family? I know. It’s stupid.”

“It’s not stupid,” she starts. “Would you tell me the way to hunt a gull-mother?”

I meet her gaze. I want to say that if she looked at me long enough, if she looked at me at all, I would tell her anything. Instead, I shake my head.

We eat in silence until the air between us begins to feel normal again. The sound of gulls fills the sky in circles. For once, the sea is calm. The wind has dried her hair into wild, black waves.

“It’s not that I don’t want to teach you. It’s that I can’t,” she says. One piece of abalone sits alone on the shell. Do Yoon offers it to me. “Of course I want to share that with you.”

I take the last piece. I savor it.

“When you’re out there,” I start. “Are you ever. I mean, have you—”

She waits for me to finish.

“Have you ever come close to drowning?”

“Yes. A couple of years ago, right after my mother returned to the sea.” Do Yoon stretches and tucks her legs into her chest, chin on knees. “I got caught in an eddy between some rocks. I was trapped. Then out of nowhere, the tide returned.”

There’s a distance in her eyes I could never hope to cross.

“It knocked me out from the rocks. Like how a slap to the jaw shakes out a loose tooth?” She whacks one hand against the other. “It saved my life. I came up for air and I…” She hesitates for a moment, “I think it was my mother.”

“How did you know?”

“I recognized the water. The movement of it. I don’t know how to explain it, I just knew.”

I want to believe her.

I want to believe that every daughter we lose to the sea is really going home. I tell her that I’m not like her: my faith has been wavering ever since I lost my own mother, even as they tell us that our loss is no loss at all. I don’t know what it means to be reborn. But I want to know if going back to her true home was more important than tending the one she’d built with her family. If being a daughter took precedence over raising one. One glimpse will give me some answers. I know it. I need it.

I remind her that I can only hold my breath for a minute. I ask of her the impossible: to hold me underwater until I stop breathing. But Do Yoon recognizes the desperation in my voice, knows what it’s like to be at odds with what is expected of us. When she agrees, I should be more surprised but for the constant fact that we are both daughters of the sea. This is no favor; it is duty.

I am reborn back into the same cold world. As I’m heaving saltwater from my lungs, Do Yoon’s face breaks clean through the sting like the moon over cold winter water. And I am the high tide, helpless to follow when she cups my face and pulls me closer. She asks if I saw anything, felt anything, anyone at all.

I tell her no. There was nothing.

Maybe I was in the water too long. Maybe the sea’s gone straight to my head. A thought half-formed and immediate comes pouring out my mouth: that even if there was no wisdom to be found in the moments before darkness, I wouldn’t mind if her face was the last thing I’d ever see.

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