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[Fiction] Haenyeo

by Corinne Harrison

Minji was parting long strands of seaweed, peering through the maze of underwater vegetation when she saw it. A movement to her right, a flash of bone-white skin. She thought it might be her mother, who was swimming not too far off; her short, dark curls waving like the seaweed on the ocean bed, coal-black eyes darting over the coral. But when Minji looked for her, what she saw made her forget herself. She yelled, bubbles exploding around her. Dropping her precious few finds, she kicked out frantically toward the surface.

In her terror she let out too much air, and by the time she reached the surface, her lungs were strained. She threw herself out into the salty air, expecting the thing to surface with her. To her left, the boat was too far away to provide an escape. Next to her, the floating tewak bobbed serenely; her cache of oysters, seaweed, and abalone straining against its net.

Mum!” Minji shouted.

She put her face back in the water, searching frantically for the creature she’d seen. She saw something ascending after her, started—and realized it was her mother. After her prolonged dive, she rose methodically, like consciousness from a dream. Her whistle burst into the air as she let out her breath.

“What was all of that?” Minji’s mother said, removing her snorkel mask and deftly depositing a handful of conches into the tewak.

“Did you see that?”

“See what?”

“It was—” But Minji floundered for a word that would describe the spectacle she’d seen.

Tourist boats had multiplied in the last decade, and the clear blue of the sea had started to thicken like an underwater mist. It made divers squint and second-guess themselves before snatching a mollusk off a rock, a handful of seaweed from a crop. The creature hadn’t been the slick, metal-gray bulk of a shark, nor the darting, angular body of minor predators. It almost looked as if—

“Nothing,” Minji said. She scanned the waters but nothing else disturbed the surface. Her hand itched. She reached under her glove and started scratching.

“Come on, let’s get some lunch,” Minji’s mother said. She grabbed the towline and swam with the tewak to the boat.

Minji watched her mother swim alone, and for a moment, she looked like she could be the only thing in the sea. The boat, too, was scant of divers, where there had once been many. It made an uncomfortable anxiety burn in Minji’s chest.

When they were back on the boat, Minji’s mother handed her a rice roll. The other divers dotted the benches on the boat, black neoprene suits clashing with brightly colored scarves around their heads. They were deep in conversation and agitated.

“It’s the same every year, tourists flooding to the island,” Chuwall said. Her deeply lined face was tense with unhappiness.

“I don’t know why you’re complaining, they’re on the other side of the island.”

“It’s not far enough. They still come to the area and gawk at me like I’m a display in a zoo.”

“You mean they gawk at us,” Jeong-suk said. Her gray hair dripped into her basket as she checked her finds. A bony hand grasped an abalone, and she used it to point at Chuwall. “They think we’re those people from the circus, performing tricks like a well-trained dog.”

“It’s not like that,” Soo-mi said sagely. “They’re interested, Jeong-suk-ah, it’s not a bad thing. People only dive with oxygen tanks now, they think we’re skilled.”

“Well they won’t for long,” Minji’s mother said. “We’re going to be the last. Even Minji won’t live forever. And our grandchildren won’t be the least bit interested. They’ll want the city lives and the high-paid jobs. The trendy nightclubs and restaurants.”

She slumped the same way a balloon would lose air. Minji could feel her mother’s soul keening, and at her words, that hard anxiety pulled at her again.

Minji had been training to dive since she was eleven. Even now, after fifteen years of diving, she remembered that first boat ride out to sea. Her small hand, sitting like a snowflake in her mother’s sun-beaten palm. The cold air tunnelling between divers, spume rushing off the waves and smashing against the moving boat.

The first time Minji held her breath for a whole minute, she’d left the waves victorious. She’d climbed onto the boat with salt stiff in her hair, taut on her face—and coursing through her veins. She’d felt unhinged. Her joints, limbs, and even the muscles that held her lungs in place, she was sure, had loosened. Arriving at land, she’d hopped off the rocking jetty and turned to the sea. Her heart was still out in the waves, clutched in its current. The thought of this way of life disappearing made her want to stuff seaweed in her ears, place scallop shells over her eyes, sink into the water, and let it eat away at her.

The image of the creature rose, unbidden, in her mind.

“Oh Mum,” Minji said. She could hear her voice shake. “That won’t happen. It won’t be that bad.”

“Yes, it will,” her mother snapped. “In a hundred years, what will be left of us? Our young are leaving by the droves. We’re almost all gone.”

A dull silence followed. Even Chuwall was out of words.

Minji watched her mother search with yearning over the ocean and knew that look was for Minji’s little sister, Ji-eun. Minji had seen Ji-eun do the same thing, but the look of longing on her face was not for the sea, or for the way of life that meant they spent half of it swimming for finds, the other half of it bartering for a sale. It was for what was beyond it.

Minji looked down in embarrassment, as though she were to blame for her sister’s departure. Five years Minji’s younger, Ji-eun had always been headstrong and willful. As a child, no had been her favorite word. No to the stew and banchan she was given in the mornings. No to learning to swim, for her feet were surer on solid ground. And finally, no to the way of life her mother, her sister, and many generations of relatives before them had taken to support themselves.

“Come with me,” Ji-eun had said. Her fingers were a clamp around Minji’s wrist. A bulging quilt bag sat by the front door. “Don’t you want to see what’s beyond this island?”

“I know what’s beyond this island. I don’t need it, I’m happy with this life.”

“Well, I’m not, Minji. There’s so much more out there. This life is dying. It’s nearly dead. No one cares anymore for the life of a haenyeo. You’ll be the last, I promise you.”

But whenever Minji arrived back on shore, she felt herself shrinking like dappled sun disappearing from a pavement. It made her sure there was no life for her but that of the haenyeo.

At the thought of her sister, the back of Minji’s hand crawled and started to itch again. She took up her scratching with more fervor, peering closely at her hand. She could spend hours in the sea without a reaction, but today her skin felt delicate. As she inspected the back of her hand, she found a patch of her dark skin had turned transparent, rising away from her hand the same way skin would balloon around a blister. She frowned and prodded it.

“Now, now,” Soo-mi said, for Minji’s mother was starting to fold in on herself. “None of that. Ji-eun-yang will come back one day. And we’re not the last. Minji-yang is not the youngest here, more will follow.”

Minji’s mother shook her head sadly. “Our ancestors have been keeping this way of life for over a thousand years. That it’s ending with us—” She bowed her head. “We’ll become nothing but a memory.”

Minji pinched the transparent layer of skin and pulled. It hung, like a patch of dew strung between thin fingers of a branch, reached its limit and pinged away from her hand. She gasped. What was revealed was a patch of skin the color of rice paper, diaphanous like the body of a jellyfish. Below it she could see hard, tessellated shapes.

Something tingled through Minji’s arm, and slowly, it turned into a manic itching. A wave smacked against the side of the boat. Spindrift flecked her face. Minji thought she heard a faint whistling, the kind the haenyeo made when reaching the surface of the sea.

“I’m going back in,” Minji said. “I’m not hungry.”

Her mother started to get up.

“I can go by myself. You rest a bit longer.”

She watched her mother slump.

Minji grabbed the towing rope of the tewak and paddled back to the spot she’d been harvesting. She thought about the creature and found a strange assurance had replaced the fear. Before diving again, she closed her eyes. The hush of waves around her turned into something cleaner, more discernible. It was as though the sea was speaking to her.

The itching on her hand had moved to her arms, and a tingling sensation started to spread like veins up over her shoulders, down her back, curling around her legs, until her whole body felt like it was trembling. A wave showered her with small, salty drops, and as her tongue flicked up to catch them, she found she could discern different tastes. A hint of seaweed, a fishy aftertaste, the clear crisp tang of the wind.

We’ll become nothing but a memory.

A great sadness washed over her. She wrenched her gloves off and threw them to the wind.

The hand she’d been inspecting on the boat no longer had the layer of her sun-beaten skin. Like a patchwork quilt, scales were now visible along the back of her hand. The sea started to roil then, waves battering against her. They pulled at the thread of skin still holding her together, covering scales emerging along her wrists and under her wetsuit. She stayed abreast of the waves a moment longer, bobbing and sliding on them. The shock of cold water slipping over the collar of her wetsuit felt warmer. Her breathing became higher, a whistling sound. She could hear the wavering song of seagulls gliding from the ocean toward the shore. Their cries dovetailed with the high sound of her breathing, joining the sounds of the sea.

Minji took several breaths, each one deeper than the last—and plunged below the waves.

She swam with the swell of the sea, winding her way between poles of light. Below her, the wrench of the current was making fields of seaweed, coral, and flora restless on the seabed. Minji swam and swam and swam. That high-whistling sound she heard on the boat started again. With every stroke it became clearer and turned into a deliciously sweet song.

Her skin became more agitated. Minji felt something flick off her face and knew she was shedding like a snake. She turned in the water and pulled off her wetsuit. As she did, she saw the skin between her thighs had joined like a web. She knew they were being sewn together by her transformation and would soon be wrapped together in a column of scales.

As she turned back to peer into the depths, light seemed to expand in the shadows. The sea became clear as an open plain, and in it, she saw the creature again. It emerged from the darkness like resinous smoke from a volcano. That high singing emanated from it.

It was female, almost human. Her long arms were the color of lychee, and as she rose, aqueous light flicked off delicate scales covering her body, thin as fingernails. She had long, oil-black hair, matted like moss. Her upper body was naked and small breasts hugged her long frame. Her waist disappeared into a green-gray fishtail; if she lay on the ocean bed, she could have disappeared into its murky colors.

The creature came level with Minji and stared at her with human eyes. She looked like she could once have been a haenyeo. As she reached out with webbed hands, she stroked the space below Minji’s ear. Minji felt her neck shudder and more skin drifted away. Touching the spot, she could feel several short flaps in a neat line.

Minji sensed a disturbance in the water high above her, and they both looked up to see her mother kicking along the surface from the boat. She looked back into the creature’s black eyes. A pinprick of light sat in them, and staring at her, Minji could sense the creature’s meaning.

You can be more than a memory.

Minji wanted desperately to swim to the surface, to go to her mother and sob into her arms. Instead, she curled her fingers around the creature’s forearms, braced herself, took a deep breath in—and felt the sea funnel through her gills, ripple out of her neck. She looked up. Her mother had reached the tewak and was preparing to dive.

The creature let go and started to swim ponderously away. Minji remained, drinking in the image of her mother—imprinted her to memory.

She turned away from the surface and started to swim.

Corinne Harrison is an avid reader, writer, and coffee drinker. She’s a digital nomad who’s been traveling the UK for a year, taking inspiration for her writing from the places she visits. Her fiction has appeared in Elegant Fiction.

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