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 seafloor. In her excitement, Hana lost her breath sooner than expected and had to race upward 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 disoriented 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, reassured 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 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 labor 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.
Hana knows that protecting her sister means keeping her away from Japanese soldiers. Her mother has drilled the lesson into her: Never let them see you! And most of all, do not let yourself be caught alone with one! Her mother’s words of warning are filled with an ominous fear, and at sixteen Hana feels lucky this has never happened. But that changes on a hot summer day.
It is late in the afternoon, long after the other divers have gone to the market, when Hana first sees Corporal Morimoto. Her mother wanted to fill an extra net for a friend who was ill and couldn’t dive that day. Her mother is always the first to offer help. Hana comes up for air and looks to the shore. Her sister is squatting on the sand, shading her eyes to look out toward Hana and their mother. At nine years of age, her sister is now old enough to stay on the shore alone but still too young to swim in the deeper waters with Hana and her mother. She is small for her age and not yet a strong swimmer.
Hana has just found a large conch and is ready to shout at her sister to express her joy, when she notices a man heading toward the beach. Treading water so that she can lift herself higher to see him more clearly, Hana realizes the man is a Japanese soldier. Her stomach knots into a sudden cramp. Why is he here? They never come this far from the villages. She scans the beach within the cove to see if there are more, but he’s the only one. He is heading straight for her sister.
A ridge of rocks shields her sister from his view, but it won’t do so for long. If he stays on his current path, he will stumble upon her, and then he will take her away—ship her off to a factory in Japan like the other young girls who disappear from the villages. Her sister isn’t strong enough to survive factory work or the brutal conditions they are subjected to. She is too young, and too loved, to be taken away.
Searching the horizon for her mother, Hana realizes she is down below, oblivious to the Japanese soldier heading toward the water’s edge. She has no time to wait for her mother to resurface, and even if she did, her mother is too far away, hunting near the edge of the reef where it drops into a cavernous void with no seafloor in sight for miles. It is Hana’s job to protect her little sister. She made a promise to her mother, and she intends to keep it.
Hana dives beneath the waves, swimming at full speed toward the beach. She can only hope to reach her sister before the soldier does. If she can distract him long enough, perhaps her sister can slip away and hide in the nearby cove, and then Hana can escape back into the ocean. Surely he wouldn’t follow her into the water?
The current crushes against her as though desperate to push her back out to sea, toward safety. Panicking, she breaches the water’s surface and takes in a deep breath, catching a glimpse of the soldier’s progress. He is still headed for the rocky ledge.
She starts to swim above the waves, aware she is exposing herself but unable to bear staying too long beneath the water for fear of missing the soldier’s advance. Hana is halfway to her sister when she sees him stop. He digs in his pocket for something. Plunging her head back into the water, she swims even faster. In her next breath, she sees him light a cigarette. With every subsequent breath, he moves just a little more. He blows out a puff of smoke, takes a drag, breathes it out, again and again with each lift of her head, until the last breath, when he looks toward the ocean and notices Hana’s race toward him.
Only ten meters away from the shore, she hopes he can’t see her little sister from where he stands. She is still hidden by the rocks, but not for long. Her small hands are on the stony sand, and she is beginning to push herself up to standing. Hana can’t shout at her to stay down. She swims faster.
Hana pitches beneath the surface, pulling the water out of her way with each stroke, until her hands touch the sandy ground. Then she shoots to her feet and runs through the last few meters of shallow water. If he has called out to her as she runs toward the ledge, she can’t hear him. Her heart thunders in her ears, blocking out all sound. It feels like she has traveled across half the earth in that sprint to the shore, but she can’t stop yet. Her feet fly across the sand toward her sister, who is smiling at her in ignorance and preparing to greet Hana. Before her sister can speak, Hana lunges at her, seizing her shoulders and knocking her to the ground.
She covers her sister’s mouth with her hand to keep her from crying out. When she sees Hana’s face hovering above her, she knows better than to cry. Hana gives her a look only a little sister would understand. She pushes her sister into the sand, wishing she could bury her to hide her from the soldier’s sight, but she has no time.
“Where did you go?” the soldier calls down to Hana. He is standing on a low rock ledge overlooking the beach. If he stands on the edge he could look down and see them both lying beneath him. “Has the mermaid transformed into a girl?”
His boots crunch on the stones above them. Her sister’s trembling body feels fragile in Hana’s hands. Her fear is contagious, and Hana, too, begins to tremble. She realizes there is nowhere for her sister to run. From his vantage point, he can see in every direction. They will both have to escape into the ocean, but her sister can’t swim for very long. Hana can remain in the deep water for hours, but her little sister will drown if the soldier decides to wait them out. She has no plan. No escape. The realization sits heavy in her gut.
Slowly, she releases her sister’s mouth and takes one last look into her frightened face before standing. His eyes are sharp, and she feels their piercing touch as they creep over her body.
“Not a girl, but a grown woman,” he says, and lets out a low, grumbling laugh.