To the shore and to life

To the shore and to life

From the novel White Chrysanthemum, published by Chatto & Windus.

It is nearly dawn, and the semi-darkness casts strange shadows along the footpath. Hana distracts her mind so that she doesn’t imagine creatures reaching for her ankles. She is following her mother down to the sea. Her nightdress streams behind her in the soft wind. Quiet footsteps pad behind them, and she knows without looking back that her father is following with her little sister still asleep in his arms. On the shore, a handful of women are already waiting for them. She recognises their faces in the rising dawn light, but the shaman is a stranger. The holy woman wears a red and royal blue traditional hanbok dress, and as soon as they descend upon the sand, the shaman begins to dance.

The huddling figures step away from her twirling motions and form into a small group, mesmerised by the shaman’s grace. She chants a greeting to the Dragon Sea God, welcoming him to their island, beckoning him to travel through the bamboo gates towards Jeju’s tranquil shores. The sun sparkles on the horizon, a pinpoint of iridescent gold, and Hana blinks at the newness of the coming day. It is a forbidden ceremony, outlawed by the occupying Japanese government, but her mother is insistent upon holding a traditional gut ritual before her first dive as a fully-fledged haenyeo. The shaman is asking for safety and a bountiful catch. As the shaman repeats the words over and over, Hana’s mother nudges her shoulder and together they bow, foreheads touching the wet sand, to honour the Dragon Sea God’s imminent arrival. As she stands, her sister’s sleepy voice whispers, “I want to dive, too,” and the yearning in her voice tugs on Hana’s heart. “You will be standing here one day soon, Little Sister, and I will be right beside you to welcome you,” she whispers back, confident of the future that lies ahead of them.

Salty seawater drips down her temple, and she wipes it away with the back of her hand. I am a haenyeo now, Hana thinks, watching the shaman twirl white ribbons in circles along the shore. She reaches for her sister’s small hand. Side by side they stand, listening to the waves tumbling onto the beach. The ocean is the only sound as the small group silently acknowledges her acceptance into their order. When the sun rises fully above the ocean waves, she will dive with the haenyeo in deeper waters and take her place among the women of the sea. But first they must return to their homes in secret, hidden from prying eyes.

*

Hana, come home. Her sister’s voice is loud in her ears, jolting her back to the present, to the room and the soldier still asleep on the floor beside her. The ceremony fades into the darkness. Desperate not to let it go, Hana squeezes her eyes shut.

She has been held captive for nearly two months, but time moves painfully slowly in this place. She tries not to look back on what she has endured, what they force her to do, what they command her to be. At home, she was someone else, something else.

Ages seem to have passed since then, and Hana feels nearer to the grave than to memories of home. Her mother’s face swimming up to meet her in the waters. The salt water on her lips. Fragments of memories of a happier place.

The ceremony was one of power and strength, just like the women of the sea, just like Hana. The soldier lying next to her stirs. He will not defeat her, she promises herself. She lies awake all night imagining how she will escape.

*

Hana

Jeju Island, Summer 1943

Hana is sixteen and knows nothing but a life lived under occupation. Japan annexed Korea in 1910, and Hana speaks fluent Japanese, is educated in Japanese history and culture, and is prohibited from speaking, reading or writing in her native Korean. She is a second-class citizen with second-class rights in her own country, but that does not diminish her Korean pride. Hana and her mother are haenyeo, women of the sea, and they work for themselves. They live in a tiny village on Jeju Island’s southern coast and dive in a cove hidden from the main road that leads into town. Hana’s father is a fisherman. He navigates the South Sea with the other village men, evading imperial fishing boats that loot Korea’s coastal waters for produce to repatriate back to Japan. Hana and her mother only interact with Japanese soldiers when they go to market to sell their day’s catch. It creates a sense of freedom not many on the other side of the island, or even on mainland Korea, a hundred miles to the north, enjoy. The occupation is a taboo topic, especially at market; only the brave dare to broach it, and even then only in whispers and behind cupped hands. The villagers are tired of the heavy taxes, the forced donations to the war effort, and the taking of men to fight on the front lines and children to work in factories in Japan.

On Hana’s island, diving is women’s work. Their bodies suit the cold depths of the ocean better than men’s. They can hold their breath longer, swim deeper, and keep their body temperature warmer, so for centuries, Jeju women have enjoyed a rare independence. Hana followed her mother into the sea at an early age. Learning to swim began the moment she could lift her head on her own, though she was nearly eleven the first time her mother took her into the deeper waters and showed her how to cut an abalone from a rock on the sea floor. In her excitement, Hana lost her breath sooner than expected and had to race upwards for air. Her lungs burned. When she finally broke the surface, she breathed in more water than oxygen. Sputtering with her chin barely above the waves, she was disorientated and began to panic. A sudden swell rolled over her, submerging her in an instant. She swallowed more water as her head dipped beneath the surface.

With one hand, her mother lifted Hana’s face above the water. Hana gulped in air between racking coughs. Her nose and throat burned. Her mother’s hand, secured at the nape of her neck, re assured her until she recovered.

“Always look to the shore when you rise, or you can lose your way,” her mother said, and turned Hana to face the land. There on the sand, her younger sister sat protecting the buckets containing the day’s catch. “Look for your sister after each dive. Never forget. If you see her, you are safe.”

When Hana’s breaths had returned to normal, her mother released her and commenced diving with a slow forward somersault down into the ocean’s depths. Hana watched her sister a few moments longer, taking in the serene sight of her resting on the beach, waiting for her family to return from the sea. Fully recovered, Hana swam to the buoy and added her abalone to her mother’s catch, which was stowed safely in a net. Then she performed her own somersault, down into the ocean’s thrumming interior, in search of another sea creature to add to their harvest.

Her sister was too young to dive with them when they were that far from the shore. Sometimes, when Hana surfaced, she would look first to the shore to find her sister chasing after seagulls, waving sticks wildly in the air. She was like a butterfly dancing across Hana’s sightline.

Hana was already seven years old when her sister was finally born. She had worried she would be an only child her whole life. She had wished for a younger sibling for so long –  all of her friends had two, three, or sometimes even four brothers and sisters to play with each day and to share the burden of household chores, while she had to suffer everything alone. But then her mother became pregnant, and Hana swelled with such hope that she beamed each time she caught a glimpse of her mother’s growing stomach.

“You’re much fatter today, aren’t you, Mother?” she asked the morning of her sister’s birth.

“Very, very fat and uncomfortable!” her mother replied, and tickled Hana’s taut stomach.

She tumbled onto her back and giggled with delight. Once she had caught her breath, Hana sat beside her mother and placed a hand on the outermost curve of her bulging stomach.

“My sister or brother must be nearly done, right, Mother?”

“Nearly done? You speak as though I’m boiling rice inside my belly, silly girl!”

“Not rice, my new sister … or brother,” Hana added quickly, and felt a timid kick against her hand. “When will she, or he, come out?”

“Such an impatient daughter sits before me.” Her mother shook her head in resignation. “Which would you prefer, a sister or a brother?”

Hana knew the correct answer was a brother, so that her father would have a son to share his fishing knowledge with, but in her head she answered differently. I hope you have a daughter, so that one day, she can swim in the sea with me.

Her mother went into labour that evening, and when they showed Hana her baby sister, she couldn’t contain her happiness. She smiled the widest smile her face had ever known, yet tried with all her might to speak as though she was disappointed.

“I’m sorry that she is not a son, Mother, truly sorry,” Hana said, shaking her head in mock sorrow.

Then Hana turned to her father and pulled his shirtsleeve. He leaned down, and she cupped her hands around his ear.

“Father, I must confess something to you. I’m very sorry for you, that she is not a son to learn your fishing skills, but…” She took a deep breath before finishing. “But I’m so happy I have a sister to swim with.”

“Is that so?” he asked.

“Yes, but don’t tell Mother.”

At seven years old, Hana was not skilled in the art of whispering, and gentle laughter rippled through the group of her parents’ closest friends. Hana grew quiet. Her ears burned. She hid behind her father and peeked at her mother from underneath his arm to see if she had also heard. Her mother gazed at her eldest daughter and then looked down at the hungry infant suckling her breast and whispered to her newest daughter, just loud enough for Hana to hear.

“You are the most loved little sister in the whole of Jeju Island. Do you know that? No one will ever love you more than your big sister.”

When she looked up at Hana, she motioned for her to come to her side. The adults in the room grew quiet as Hana knelt beside her mother.

“You are her protector now, Hana,” her mother said in a serious tone.

Hana gazed at her tiny baby sister. She reached out to caress the black tuft of hair sprouting from her scalp.

“She’s so soft,” Hana said with wonder.

“Did you hear what I said? You are a big sister now, and with that comes responsibilities, and the first one is that of protector. I won’t always be around; diving in the sea and selling at the market keeps us fed, and it will be left up to you to watch over your little sister from now on when I can’t. Can I rely on you?” her mother asked, her voice stern.

Hana’s hand shot back to her side. She bowed her head and dutifully answered.

“Yes, Mother, I will keep her safe. I promise.”

“A promise is forever, Hana. Never forget.”

“I will remember, Mother, always,” Hana said, her eyes glued onto her little sister’s peacefully dozing face. Milk dripped from the side of the baby’s open mouth, and her mother wiped it with a swipe of her thumb.

As the years passed, and Hana began to dive with her mother in the deeper waters, she grew accustomed to seeing her sister in the distance, the girl who shared her blankets at night and whispered silly stories into the darkness, until she finally succumbed to sleep. The girl who laughed at everything and anything, a sound that made everyone nearby join in. She became Hana’s anchor, to the shore and to life.

Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *