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The Island of Sea Women: A Novel

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Original price $18.00
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“A mesmerizing new historical novel” (O, The Oprah Magazine) from Lisa See, the bestselling author of The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, about female friendship and devastating family secrets on a small Korean island.

Mi-ja and Young-sook, two girls living on the Korean island of Jeju, are best friends who come from very different backgrounds. When they are old enough, they begin working in the sea with their village’s all-female diving collective, led by Young-sook’s mother. As the girls take up their positions as baby divers, they know they are beginning a life of excitement and responsibility—but also danger.

Despite their love for each other, Mi-ja and Young-sook find it impossible to ignore their differences. The Island of Sea Women takes place over many decades, beginning during a period of Japanese colonialism in the 1930s and 1940s, followed by World War II, the Korean War, through the era of cell phones and wet suits for the women divers. Throughout this time, the residents of Jeju find themselves caught between warring empires. Mi-ja is the daughter of a Japanese collaborator. Young-sook was born into a long line of haenyeo and will inherit her mother’s position leading the divers in their village. Little do the two friends know that forces outside their control will push their friendship to the breaking point.

“This vivid...thoughtful and empathetic” novel (The New York Times Book Review) illuminates a world turned upside down, one where the women are in charge and the men take care of the children. “A wonderful ode to a truly singular group of women” (Publishers Weekly), The Island of Sea Women is a “beautiful story...about the endurance of friendship when it’s pushed to its limits, and you...will love it” (Cosmopolitan).

ISBN-13: 9781501154867

Publisher: Scribner

Publication Date: 03-10-2020

Pages: 400

Product Dimensions: 5.25(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.90(d)

Lisa See is the New York Times bestselling author of The Island of Sea Women, The Tea Girl of Hummingbird Lane, Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, Peony in Love, Shanghai Girls, China Dolls, and Dreams of Joy, which debuted at #1. She is also the author of On Gold Mountain, which tells the story of her Chinese American family’s settlement in Los Angeles. See was the recipient of the Golden Spike Award from the Chinese Historical Association of Southern California and the Historymaker’s Award from the Chinese American Museum. She was also named National Woman of the Year by the Organization of Chinese American Women.

1. Swallowing Water Breath April 1938

My first day of sea work started hours before sunrise when even the crows were still asleep. I dressed and made my way through the dark to our latrine. I climbed the ladder to the stone structure and positioned myself over the hole in the floor. Below, our pigs gathered, snuffling eagerly. A big stick leaned against the wall in the corner in case one of them became too enthusiastic and tried to leap up. Yesterday I’d had to hit one pretty hard. They must have remembered, because this morning they waited for my private business to drop to the ground to fight among themselves for it. I returned to the house, tied my baby brother to my back, and went outside to draw water from the village well. Three round trips, carrying earthenware jugs in my hands, were required to get enough water to satisfy our morning needs. Next, I gathered dung to burn for heating and cooking. This also had to be done early, because I had a lot of competition from other women and girls in the village. My chores done, my baby brother and I headed home.

Three generations of my family lived within the same fence—with Mother, Father, and us children in the big house and Grandmother in the little house across the courtyard. Both structures were built from stone and had thatch roofs weighed down with additional stones to keep the island wind from blowing them away. The big house had three rooms: a kitchen, the main room, and a special room for women to use on their wedding nights and after they’d given birth. In the main room, oil lamps flickered and sputtered. Our sleeping mats had already been folded and stacked against the wall.

Grandmother was awake, dressed, and drinking hot water. Her hair was covered by a scarf. Her face and hands were bony and the color of chestnuts. My first and second brothers, twelve and ten years old, sat cross-legged on the floor, knees touching. Across from them, Third Brother squirmed as only a seven-year-old boy can. My little sister, six years younger than I was, helped our mother pack three baskets. Mother’s face was set in concentration as she checked and double-checked that she had everything, while Little Sister tried to show she was already training to be a good haenyeo.

Father ladled the thin millet soup that he’d prepared into bowls. I loved him. He had Grandmother’s narrow face. His long, tapered hands were soft. His eyes were deep and warm. His callused feet were almost always bare. He wore his favorite dog-fur hat pulled down over his ears and many layers of clothes, which helped to disguise how he sacrificed food, so his children could eat more. Mother, never wasting a moment, joined us on the floor and nursed my baby brother as she ate. As soon as she was done with her soup and the feeding, she handed the baby to my father. Like all haenyeo husbands, he would spend the rest of the day under the village tree in Hado’s central square with other fathers. Together, they’d look after infants and young children. Satisfied that Fourth Brother was content in Father’s arms, Mother motioned for me to hurry. Anxiety rattled through me. I so hoped to prove myself today.

The sky was just beginning to turn pink when Mother, Grandmother, and I stepped outside. Now that it was light, I could see my steamy breath billowing then dissipating in the cold air. Grandmother moved slowly, but Mother had efficiency in every step and gesture. Her legs and arms were strong. Her basket was on her back, and she helped me with mine, securing the straps. Here I was, going to work, helping to feed and care for my family, and becoming a part of the long tradition of haenyeo. Suddenly I felt like a woman.

Mother hoisted the third basket, holding it before her, and together we stepped through the opening in the stone wall that protected our small piece of property from prying eyes and the relentless wind. We wended our way through the olle—one of thousands of stone-walled pathways that ran between houses and also gave us routes to crisscross the island. We stayed alert for Japanese soldiers. Korea had now been a Japanese colony for twenty-eight years. We hated the Japanese, and they hated us. They were cruel. They stole food. Inland, they rustled livestock. They took and took and took. They’d killed Grandmother’s parents, and she called them chokpari—cloven-footed ones. Mother always said that if I was ever alone and saw colonists, whether soldiers or civilians, I should run and hide, because they’d ruined many girls on Jeju.

We came around a corner and into a long straightaway. Ahead in the distance, my friend Mi-ja danced from foot to foot, to keep warm, from excitement. Her skin was perfect, and the morning light glowed on her cheeks. I’d grown up in the Gul-dong section of Hado, while Mi-ja lived in the Sut-dong section, and the two of us always met in this spot. Even before we reached her, she bowed deeply to show her gratitude and humility to my mother, who bent at her waist just enough to acknowledge Mi-ja’s deference. Then Mother wordlessly strapped the third basket to Mi-ja’s back.

“You girls learned to swim together,” Mother said. “You’ve watched and learned as apprentices. You, Mi-ja, have worked especially hard.”

I didn’t mind that Mother singled out Mi-ja. She’d earned it.

“I can never thank you enough.” Mi-ja’s voice was as delicate as flower petals. “You have been a mother to me, and I will always be grateful.”

“You are another daughter to me,” Mother replied. “Today, Halmang Samseung’s job is done. As the goddess who oversees pregnancy, childbirth, and raising a child to the age of fifteen, she is now fully released from her duties. Many girls have friends, but the two of you are closer than friends. You are like sisters, and I expect you to take care of each other today and every day as those tied by blood would do.”

It was as much a blessing as a warning.

Mi-ja was the first to voice her fears. “I understand about swallowing water breath before going beneath the waves. I must hold as much air within me as possible. But what if I don’t know when to come up? What if I can’t make a good sumbisori?”

Swallowing water breath is the process all haenyeo use to gather enough air in their lungs to sustain them as they submerge. The sumbisori is the special sound—like a whistle or a dolphin’s call—a haenyeo makes as she breaches the surface of the sea and releases the air she’s held in her lungs, followed by a deep intake of breath.

“Sucking in air shouldn’t be troublesome,” Mother said. “You breathe in every day as you walk about the earth.”

“But what if I run out of it in the watery depths?” Mi-ja asked.

“Breathing in, breathing out. Every beginning haenyeo worries about this,” Grandmother blurted before my mother could answer. She could be impatient with Mi-ja.

“Your body will know what to do,” Mother said reassuringly. “And even if it doesn’t, I will be there with you. I’m responsible for every woman’s safe return to shore. I listen for the sumbisori of all women in our collective. Together our sumbisori create a song of the air and wind on Jeju. Our sumbisori is the innermost sound of the world. It connects us to the future and the past. Our sumbisori allows us first to serve our parents and then our children.”

I found this comforting, but I also became aware of Mi-ja staring at me expectantly. Yesterday we’d agreed to tell my mother of our worries. Mi-ja had volunteered hers, but I was hesitant about revealing mine. There were many ways to die in the sea, and I was scared. My mother may have said that Mi-ja was like a daughter—and I loved her for loving my friend—but I was an actual daughter, and I didn’t want her to see me as less than Mi-ja.

I was saved from having to say anything when Mother started walking. Mi-ja and I trailed after her, with Grandmother following us. We passed house after house—all made of stone with thatch roofs. The main square was deserted except for women, who were being pulled to the sea by the scent of salt air and the sound of waves. Just before reaching the beach, we stopped to pick a handful of leaves from a bank of wild mugwort, which we tucked into our baskets. We turned another corner and reached the shore. We stepped over sharp rocks, making our way to the bulteok—the fire space. It was a round, roofless structure made of stacked lava rocks. Instead of a door, two curved walls overlapped to prevent those outside from seeing in. A similar structure sat in the shallows. This was where people bathed and washed their clothes. And just offshore, where the water reached no higher than our knees, was an area walled with stone. Here, anchovies washed in at high tide, were trapped at low tide, and then we waded through with nets to catch them.

We had seven bulteoks in Hado—one for each neighborhood’s diving collective. Our group had thirty members. Logic would say that the entrance should face the sea, since haenyeo go back and forth from it all day, but having the entrance at the back gave an added barrier against the constant winds blowing in from the water. Above the crash of waves, we could hear women’s voices—teasing, laughing, and shouting well-worn gibes back and forth. As we entered, the gathered women turned to see who’d arrived. They all wore padded jackets and trousers.

Mi-ja set down her basket and hurried to the fire.

“No need for you to worry about tending the fire now,” Yang Do-saeng called out good-naturedly. She had high cheekbones and sharp elbows. She was the only person I knew who kept her hair in braids at all times. She was a little older than my mother, and they were diving partners and best friends. Do-saeng’s husband had given her one son and one daughter, and that was the end. A sadness, to be sure. Nevertheless, our two families were very close, especially since Do-saeng’s husband was in Japan doing factory work. These days about a quarter of all Jeju people lived in Japan, because a ferry ticket cost half the price of a single bag of rice here on our island. Do-saeng’s husband had been in Hiroshima for so many years that I didn’t remember him. My mother helped Do-saeng with ancestor worship, and Do-saeng helped my mother when she had to cook for our family when we performed our rites. “You’re no longer an apprentice. You’ll be with us today. Are you ready, girl?”

“Yes, Auntie,” Mi-ja responded, using the honorific, bowing and backing away.

The other women laughed, causing Mi-ja to blush.

“Stop teasing her,” my mother said. “These two have enough to worry about today.”

As chief of this collective, Mother sat with her back against the part of the stone wall that had the best protection from the wind. Once she was settled, the other women took spots in strict order, according to each one’s level of diving skill. The grandmother-divers—those like my mother, who’d achieved top status in the sea even if they had yet to become grandmothers on dry land—had the best seats. The actual grandmothers, like mine, didn’t have a label. They were true grandmothers, who should be treated with respect. Although long retired from sea work, they enjoyed the companionship of the women with whom they’d spent most of their lives. Now Grandmother and her friends liked to sort seaweed that had been washed ashore by the wind or dive close to the beach in the shallows, so they could spend the day trading jokes and sharing miseries. As women of respect and honor, they had the second most important seats in the bulteok. Next came the small-divers, in their twenties and early thirties, who were still perfecting their skills. Mi-ja and I sat with the baby-divers: the two Kang sisters, Gu-ja and Gu-sun, who were two and three years older than we were, and Do-saeng’s daughter, Yu-ri, who was already nineteen. The three of them had a couple years’ diving experience, while Mi-ja and I were true beginners, but the five of us were ranked the lowest in the collective, which meant that our seats were by the bulteok’s opening. The cold wind swirled around us, and Mi-ja and I scooted closer to the fire. It was important to warm up as best we could before entering the sea.

Mother began the meeting by asking, “Does this beach have any food?”

“More food than there are grains of sand on Jeju,” Do-saeng trilled, “if we had an abundance of sand instead of rocks.”

“More food than on twenty moons,” another woman declared, “if there were twenty moons above us.”

“More food than in fifty jars at my grandmother’s house,” a woman who’d been widowed too young joined in, “if she’d had fifty jars.”

“Good,” Mother said in response to the ritual bantering. “Then let us discuss where we will dive today.” At home, her voice always seemed so loud. Here, hers was just one of many loud voices, since the ears of all haenyeo are damaged over time by water pressure. One day I too would have a loud voice.

The sea doesn’t belong to anyone, but every collective had assigned diving rights to specific territories: close enough to the shore to walk in, within twenty- to thirty-minutes’ swimming distance from land, or accessible only by boat farther out to sea; a cove here, an underwater plateau not too far offshore, the north side of this or that island, and so on. Mi-ja and I listened as the women considered the possibilities. As baby-divers, we hadn’t earned the right to speak. Even the small-divers kept quiet. Mother struck down most proposals. “That area is overfished,” she told Do-saeng. Another time, she came back with, “Just as on land, our sea fields also follow the seasons. To honor spawning times, conch can’t be picked from the ocean floor from July to September, and abalone can’t be harvested from October through December. It is our duty to be keepers and managers of the sea. If we protect our wet fields, they will continue to provide for us.” Finally, she made her decision. “We’ll row to our underwater canyon not far from here.”

“The baby-divers aren’t ready for that,” one of the grandmother-divers said. “They aren’t strong enough, and they haven’t earned the right either.”

Mother held up a hand. “In that area, lava flowed from Grandmother Seolmundae to form the rocky canyon. Its walls provide something for every ability. The most experienced among us can go as deep as we want, while the baby-divers can pick through those spots close to the surface. The Kang sisters will show Mi-ja what to do. And I’d like Do-saeng’s daughter, Yu-ri, to watch over Young-sook. Yu-ri will soon become a small-diver, so this will be good training for her.”

Once Mother explained, there were no further objections. Mothers are closer to the women in their diving collective than they are to their own children. Today, my mother and I had begun to form that deeper relationship. Observing Do-saeng and Yu-ri together, I could see where my mother and I would be in a few years. But this moment also showed me why Mother had been elected chief. She was a leader, and her judgment was valued.

“Every woman who enters the sea carries a coffin on her back,” she warned the gathering. “In this world, in the undersea world, we tow the burdens of a hard life. We are crossing between life and death every day.”

These traditional words were often repeated on Jeju, but we all nodded somberly as though hearing them for the first time.

“When we go to the sea, we share the work and the danger,” Mother added. “We harvest together, sort together, and sell together, because the sea itself is communal.”

With that final rule stated—as though anyone could forget something so basic—she clapped her hands twice on her thighs to signal that the meeting had ended and we needed to get moving. As my grandmother and her friends filed outside to work on the shore, Mother motioned to Yu-ri to help me get ready. Yu-ri and I had known each other our entire lives, so naturally we were a good match. The Kang sisters didn’t know Mi-ja well and probably wanted to keep their distance from her. She was an orphan, and her father had been a collaborator, working for the Japanese in Jeju City. But whether or not the Kangs liked it, they had to do what my mother ordered.

“Stand close to the fire,” Yu-ri told me. “The faster you get undressed and ready, the faster we’ll be in the water. The sooner we go into the water, the sooner we’ll return here. Now, follow what I do.”

We edged closer to the flames and stripped off our clothes. No one showed any inhibitions. This was like being together in the communal bath. Some of the younger women were big with babies growing in their bellies. Older women had stretch marks. Even older women had breasts that sagged from too much living and giving. Mi-ja’s and my bodies showed our age too. We were fifteen years old, but the harshness of our environment—little food, hard physical work, and cold weather—meant that we were as skinny as eels, our breasts had not yet begun to grow, and just a few wisps of hair showed between our legs. We stood there, shivering, as Yu-ri, Gu-ja, and Gu-sun helped us put on our three-piece water clothes made from plain white cotton. The white color would make us more visible underwater, and it was said to repel sharks and dolphins, but, I realized, the thinness of the fabric would do little to keep us warm.

“Pretend Mi-ja is a baby,” Yu-ri told the Kang sisters, “and tie her into her suit.” Then to me, she explained, “You can see that the sides are open. You fasten them together with the strings. This allows the suit to tighten or expand with pregnancy or other types of weight gain or loss.” She leaned in. “I long for the day when I can tell my mother-in-law that my husband has put a baby in me. It will be a son. I’m sure of it. When I die, he’ll perform ancestor worship for me.”

Yu-ri’s wedding was set for the following month, and of course she was dreaming of the son she would have, but her sense of anticipation seemed unimportant to me right then. Her fingers felt icy against my skin, and goosebumps rose on my flesh. Even after she’d tied the laces as tight as possible, the suit still bagged on me. Same on Mi-ja. These suits have forever marked the haenyeo as immodest, for no proper Korean woman, whether on the mainland or here on our island, would ever bare so much skin.

The whole time, Yu-ri continued talking, talking, talking. “My brother is very smart, and he works hard in school.” My mother may have been the head of the collective, but Do-saeng had a son who was the pride of every family in Hado. “Everyone says Jun-bu will go to Japan to study one day.”

Jun-bu was the only son, and the gift of education was bestowed on him alone. Yu-ri and her father contributed to the family’s income, although they still didn’t earn as much as Do-saeng, while my mother had to raise all the money to send my brothers to school without any assistance from my father. They would be lucky to go beyond elementary school.

“I’ll need to work extra hard to help pay for Jun-bu’s tuition and provide for my new family.” Yu-ri called across the room to her mother and future mother-in-law. “I’m a good worker, eh?” Yu-ri was known throughout our village as a chatterbox. She seemed worry free, and she was a good worker, which was why it had been easy to find a match for her.

She turned her attention back to me. “If your parents love you greatly, they’ll arrange a marriage for you right here in Hado. You’ll maintain your diving rights, and you’ll be able to see your natal family every day.” Then, realizing what she’d said, she tapped Mi-ja’s arm. “I’m sorry. I forgot you don’t have parents.” She didn’t think long enough before she spoke again. “How are you going to find a husband?” she asked with genuine curiosity.

I glanced at Mi-ja, hoping she hadn’t been hurt by Yu-ri’s thoughtlessness, but her face was set in concentration as she tried to follow the Kang sisters’ instructions.

Once we had on our suits, we put on water jackets. These were for cold weather only, but I couldn’t see how, since they were the same thin cotton as the rest of the outfit. Last, we tied white kerchiefs over our hair to conserve body heat and because no one would wish for a loose tendril to get tangled in seaweed or caught on a rock.

“Here,” Yu-ri said, pressing paper packets filled with white powder into our hands. “Eat this, and it will help prevent diving sickness—dizziness, headaches, and other pains. Ringing in the ears!” Yu-ri scrunched up her face at the thought. “I’m still a baby-diver, and I already have it. Ngggggg—” She imitated the high-pitched sound that apparently buzzed in her head.

Following the examples of Yu-ri and the Kang sisters, Mi-ja and I unfolded the paper packets, tilted our heads back like baby birds, poured the bitter-tasting white powder into our mouths, and swallowed. Then Mi-ja and I watched as the others spat on their knives to bring good luck in finding and harvesting an abalone—a prized catch, for each one fetched a great price.

Mother checked to make sure I had all my gear. She focused particularly on my tewak—a hollowed-out gourd that had been left to dry in the sun, which would serve as my buoy. She then did the same with Mi-ja. We each had a bitchang to use for prying creatures from their homes and a pronged hoe to pick between the cracks and embed in the sand or on a crag to help pull us from place to place. We also had a sickle for cutting seaweed, a knife for opening sea urchins, and a spear for protection. Mi-ja and I had used these tools for practice while playing in the shallows, but Mother made a point to say, “Don’t use these today. Just get accustomed to the waters around you. Stay aware of your surroundings, because everything will look different.”

Together we left the bulteok. We’d return several hours later to store and repair our equipment, measure the day’s harvest, divvy up the proceeds, and, most important, warm up again. We might even cook and share a little of what we’d brought back in our nets, if the harvest was bountiful. I looked forward to it all.

As the other women boarded the boat, Mi-ja and I lingered on the jetty. She rummaged through her basket and pulled out a book, while I brought out a piece of charcoal from my basket. She ripped a page from the book and held it over the written character name for the boat. Even tied up, it bobbed in the waves, making it nearly impossible for Mi-ja to keep the paper steady and for me to rub it with the charcoal. Once I was done, we took a moment to examine the result: a shadowy image of a character we couldn’t read but knew meant “Sunrise.” We’d been commemorating our favorite moments and places this way for years. It wasn’t our best rubbing, but with it we’d remember today forever.

“Hurry along,” Mother called down to us, tolerant but only up to a point.

Mi-ja tucked the paper back in the book to keep it safe, then we scrambled aboard and took up oars. As we slowly rowed away from the jetty, my mother led us in song.

“Let us dive.” Her gravelly voice cut through the wind to reach my ears.

“Let us dive,” we sang back to her, our rowing matching the rhythm of the melody.

“Golden shells and silver abalones,” she sang.

“Let us get them all!” we responded.

“To treat my lover...”

“When he comes home.”

I couldn’t help but blush. My mother didn’t have a lover, but this was a much-beloved song and all the women liked it.

The tide was right, and the sea was relatively calm. Still, despite the rowing and singing, I began to feel sick to my stomach and Mi-ja’s usually pink cheeks turned an ashen gray. We brought up our oars when we reached the diving spot. The boat dipped and swayed in the light chop. I attached my bitchang to my wrist and grabbed my net and tewak. A light wind blew, and I began to shiver. I was feeling pretty miserable.

“For a thousand years, for ten thousand years, I pray to the Dragon Sea God,” Mother called out across the waves. “Please, ocean king spirit, no strong winds. Please no strong currents.” She poured offerings of rice and rice wine into the water. With the ritual completed, we wiped the insides of our goggles with the mugwort we’d picked to keep them from fogging up and then positioned them over our eyes. Mother counted as each woman jumped into the water and swam away in twos and threes. With fewer women on board to help weigh down the boat, it rocked even worse. Yu-ri steadied herself before finally leaping over a swell and into the water. The Kang sisters held hands when they jumped. Those two were inseparable. I hoped their loyalty would now expand to include Mi-ja, and they’d watch out for her in the same way they did each other.

Mother gave some final advice: “The sea, it is said, is like a mother. The salt water, the pulse and surges of the current, the magnified beat of your heart, and the muffled sounds reverberating through the water together recall the womb. But we haenyeo must always think about making money... and surviving. Do you understand?” When we nodded, she went on. “This is your first day. Don’t be greedy. If you see an octopus, ignore it. A haenyeo must learn how to knock out an octopus underwater, or else it could use its arms against you. And stay away from abalone too!”

She didn’t have to explain more. It can take months before a beginning haenyeo is ready to risk prying an abalone from a rock. Left alone, the creature floats its shell off a rock, so that the sea’s nourishing waters can flow in and around it. When surprised—even if it’s only by the shift in current caused by a large fish swimming past—it will clamp itself to a rock so that the hard shell protects the creature inside from all predators. As a result, an abalone must be approached carefully and the tip of the bitchang inserted under the shell and flipped off the rock in one swift movement before the abalone can clamp down on the tool attached to a diver’s wrist, thereby anchoring her to the rock. Only years of experience can teach a woman how to get loose and still have enough time left over to reach the surface for air. I was in no hurry to attempt such a hazardous activity.

“Today you follow in my wake as I once followed in my mother’s wake,” Mother went on, “and as one day your daughters will follow in your wakes. You are baby-divers. Don’t reach beyond your abilities.”

With that blessing—and warning—Mi-ja took my hand and together we jumped feetfirst into the water. Instant, shocking cold. I hung on to my buoy, my legs kicking back and forth beneath me. Mi-ja and I looked into each other’s eyes. It was time for swallowing water breath. Together we took a breath, a breath, a breath, filling our lungs to capacity, expanding our chests. Then we went down. Light filtered turquoise and glittery close to the surface. Around us, others descended—with their heads directed to the ocean floor—through the canyon Mother had described, their feet pointed to the sky. Those women were quick and powerful, plunging a body length, another body length, deeper and deeper into darker blue water. Mi-ja and I struggled to achieve that straight angle. For me, the worst part was my goggles. The metal frames, responding to the water pressure even at this shallow depth, cut into my flesh. They also limited my peripheral vision, creating yet another danger and forcing me to be even more vigilant in this ghostly environment.

As baby-divers, Yu-ri, the Kangs, Mi-ja, and I could only go down about two body lengths, but I watched as my mother disappeared into the inky chasm of the canyon. I’d always heard she could reach twenty and sometimes more meters on a single breath, but already my lungs burned and my heart thumped in my ears. I kicked to go up, my lungs feeling like they were about to explode. As soon as I broke the surface, my sumbisori erupted and scattered on the air. It sounded like a deep sigh—aaah—and I realized it was just as Mother had always said it would be. My sumbisori was unique. And so was Mi-ja’s, which I learned when she split the water beside me. Wheeee. We grinned at each other, then swallowed more water breath and dove again. Nature told me what to do. The next time I surfaced, I had a sea urchin in my hand. My first catch! I put it in the net attached to my tewak, took another series of deep breaths, and went back down. I stayed within sight of Yu-ri, even if we resurfaced at different intervals. Every time I looked for Mi-ja, I found her not more than a meter away from one of the Kang sisters, who themselves stayed close together.

We repeated this pattern, pausing occasionally to rest on our buoys, until it was time to return to the boat. When I reached it, I easily hoisted my net—noticeably light compared to those of others—and carried it across the deck so that the woman behind me and her catch could board. Mother oversaw everything

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