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With underwater photography by Zena Holloway.
Breath. Knife. Dive. Gum. Pill.
These the first words you lisped, as though the sea needed to mark you, make sure whose you were. Seventeen, you didn’t need the pills for the sickness that eventually grips us all, not yet. Not ever.
You were like an exquisite young fish, wetsuit gleaming like scales, the limits of your lungs untested. A child of the sea. Even to us old-timers, what you were was clear – destined.
I know now the dangers of using a word like “destined.” But then, we only saw how you moved your keen fingers along the jagged rifts, the flash of your sickle, your bright sumbisori whistle as you rose back up to this world.
Beware of bonanzas! An unusually large abalone, an exceptional harvest, can mean only one thing. That day, the same story with you. You collected so much seaweed your friends envied you.
We waited and waited. My entire life passed by on that rocky shore I had walked a thousand times, on the very shore where you, as a baby, had slept in a basket, waiting for the milk from my breasts, milk that tasted of the salty sea, while I shivered in the wind, my hair and cotton mulot dripping.
After the last diver came out and still no sign of you, we thrust our bodies back into the water. We scoured the seabed like ones crazed, finally staggering out into the darkness. The wind whipped us for our empty hands.
It was the next morning you returned to us, on the same waves that had fed and clothed and carried this aging daughter and so many before. Was it then, as you swam in my waters those nine months, that the sea claimed you as its own?
Your orange float nodded at your side, a mute witness to our awful grief, as we untangled the seaweed from your limbs. Who knew you would rise up despite the lead weights? Who knew to look for you on this side of the world?
The winter morning sun lit your motionless body, and you went up in flames, like some mystic bird, rising from the ashes.
We dove with coffins on our backs. We witnessed the drownings of our sisters. We toiled in the underworld and returned to this world with rice, alcohol for our husbands, and notebooks and pencils for our children. We offered up our youth.
On the day you were born, I looked at you and vowed: Never the haenyeo life for you.
So I dressed you in a skirt and blazer, put heels on your feet instead of flippers, scrubbed away the stink of brine from your hair and fingers, erased every trace of dialect from your speech.
But now, far away in your glass tower, you tell me of the dangers. You tell me I must stop, that I must consider my age.
My child, we all become white-haired soon enough. But I’m not surprised. Your entire life I taught you to fear these depths. So I don’t ask: If we don’t go, who will? Who knows the sea the way we do? Who will soothe its awesome waves, appease its capricious moods?
Though you would deny it, I know you still dream of water, of its texture against your skin, sometimes as smooth as tofu and at times inky with rage. I know you still hear the sumbisori, the whistle that pierces your dreams, as unforgettable as the taste of sea urchin, served straight from the spiny shell with a spoon.
Across the water, I hear the chorus of whistles go up, like that ancient siren call. This is all I know. This is all I have. I pull the hood over my white hair and adjust my mask. I enter the water. I am young again.
Don’t be afraid.
A haenyeo can’t be afraid of the waves.
There may be thunder and lightning. There may be poisonous jellyfish, sharks swimming circles above you. There may be eels. There may be spirits that watch your every move, abandoned clothes that chase you away.
Own the breath you were given – it determines how deep and far and long you go. Respect the limits of your lungs: nothing more, nothing less. This isn’t something you can change.
You must master your eyes, for they are greed. And never swallow water-breath. It is the breath we cannot swallow, the breath we must let go.
There will be headaches and back problems. There will be voices that beckon you to where the waters are always warm, where the sea urchins and conch abound. There will be abalone, as big as your hand, that you’ll only see as you come up for air.
Whatever you do, don’t stop. Thirty seconds can mean life or death. But this I promise you: the sky as you emerge from the water – never will you see a sight more beautiful. That is the reason we all dive, for that piece of sky.
Gather only as much as your breath allows. Take what you can carry with your two hands. Pray for safety. Leave the shallow waters for our mothers; one day, when you’re old and wrinkled, you will be the one needing them.
This is what I know: If desire masters you, the sea will become your grave. But if you master desire, the sea will bring you life. Choose life.
You are the price of our blood, our milk, our marrow, our sweat, our tears.
For you, we would go hungry, jump from a speeding boat, hang seventy feet below in water colder than Siberia, push our breaths to the breaking point – two minutes, five, or even ten. We would wrestle sharks and octopuses and violent winds, travel to the underworld and back. A thousand times over we would offer ourselves, and if we weren’t enough, our grandmothers and mothers and sisters and daughters too. Anything for you, our darling pearl, our bright, precarious seed.
Our future is uncertain. There is talk of decline and extinction, the end of all we know. Our men have left, and our children too. And the sea – our playground, our field, our home! – is turning white. There is no seaweed. There is no conch, no abalone. Just plastic bottles, Styrofoam, and cigarette butts, drifting like memories. Like ghosts. Still, we force ourselves to dive. When we rise to the surface, we are old.
Do not be fooled by these brittle shells. Do not be fooled by our bad backs and bad hips and bad joints. Do not doubt the strength of these bones, calcified by centuries of toil and suffering.
The truth is, apart from this, we have nothing. We have spent it all, with trepidation, with devotion, with grief, with love. Our ancestress’s tears have become the sea; her presence lingers. For there she hangs, weightless, deep in the water, in her thin cotton suit, a fish stopped in mid-swim as though frozen, a woman made into a mermaid, a siren, waiting to be found.
You drift quietly inside our waters, as the world clashes outside. All we can do is hope the sea will be here when you finally wake, that this mother, this husband, this lover, this god will be here still, with its arms open wide for you.
Sea Mothers is a collaborative project between writer Janet Hong and photographer Zena Holloway.
“III: Breath” is modelled after Lorna Crozier’s “Packing for the Future: Instructions.”
“IV: Guardian” borrows from the following:
“Make my blood, my milk, / and my marrow and my tears.” – Gabriela Mistral, “Clearcut: America,” Selected Poems by Gabriela Mistral, translated by Ursula K. Le Guin.
“Behind me I feel her presence, my ancestress, my double, turning in midair under the chandelier, in her costume of stars and feathers, a bird stopped in flight, a woman made into an angel, waiting to be found.” – Margaret Atwood, A Handmaid’s Tale.