My Grandmother, the Deep-Sea Diver
by Tracey Glasspool
Mrs Ki surfaces and breathes out sharply, a high whistling shriek. She holds an octopus aloft then swims for the boat.
“Your grandmother hated octopus,” she says as she hands it to me, “I’ll try for abalone.” A deep breath and she’s gone again.
I push the octopus into a sack; change my mind and drop it back into the sea. I also dislike the taste and the sack is already full of clams and sea-urchins. Besides, I’ve watched octopus in aquariums back home. I like them; their intelligence is obvious. Back home. My stomach contracts with guilt.
Another whistle and Mrs Ki is at the boat. “Just seaweed.” She hauls herself aboard and I start the engine. She pushes the seaweed into the sack and if she notices the lack of octopus she doesn’t say anything.
“Enough to feed us for days,” she says as she removes her mask, her lined face puckered from the pressure. “Do you have to leave so soon, Seo-yun?” Water drips from her wetsuit. Seventy-five years old and as sprightly as ever.
I nod. “I have to attend a conference. It was booked months ago.” I’m aware I’m justifying myself.
“Always so busy.” But her smile softens the words.
It’s been hard coming back to South Korea. Not just because it’s Grandmother’s funeral, but for the feelings, the confusion it brings.
Memories wash over me. Five years old and hugging Grandmother as she returned from the dive-boat, not caring about the salt-water soaking my dress. Eleven and taking my first tentative dives. Thirteen and holding up an abalone in triumph, the sweet buttery taste of it later that day, the mother-of-pearl shell. Sixteen, leaving for school in Seoul, Grandmother’s face as I waved goodbye. Eighteen, returning to Jeju island, explaining the offer from the American university that I couldn’t refuse, that it was just for a few years, I would be back, I promise I’ll be back.
I did come back but not often enough and not permanently, excuses slipping from my tongue each time and Grandmother’s face, more guarded, more like a mask, knowing I would be gone almost as soon as I arrived.
When I got here for the funeral the fields were golden with rapeseed, Jeju at its most beautiful. Mrs Ki had taken on the role of chief mourner until I got to the funeral home, greeting the friends who came to pay their respects. Just friends, I was the only family. “She loved you,” she said as my salt-water tears soaked her. “She loved you.”
That evening we eat our catch at Mrs Ki’s house, watching the sunset. She and Grandmother were neighbours for decades and I spent as much time in this house as I did at my own. There are photographs of me on the walls.
“She didn’t suffer,” she says. “At the end it was very peaceful.”
“I should have been here.”
She tuts. “Always the secrets, your grandmother. She forbade me to tell you.” She whistles a breath; even out of the water the sea-women sometimes make that noise. “Ah, but perhaps I should have.”
I think she is trying to drown my guilt with her own.
“Thank you,” I say. “For being with her.”
“You should not feel bad, Seo-yun”
Oh but I do. For so many things. For wanting a different life; for not wanting to carry on the traditions; for swapping my island home for the shiny chaos of America. And for letting America seduce me.
I sleep badly and as the sun leaks over the horizon I leave Grandmother’s house for the quay. In the boathouse I see the haenyo, the sea-women, chattering as they don their wetsuits and masks. I wave as they board the boat. There is not an unlined face among them, these women who have dived the freezing waters for decades to provide for their families, while their daughters, their granddaughters, leave for the schools, the jobs, the temptations of the mainland. Girls who are slowly causing the death of their heritage. Girls like me.
I go back to the house to begin the sorting and packing. Grandmother had few possessions and the work is quick – things to keep, things to give away, things to discard. At the back of her closet I find a wooden box I’ve never seen before. I take it out, feeling the weight, puzzled. When I open it up I find myself.
Photographs, newspaper cuttings, my graduation programme sent after Grandmother refused my offer to fly her out, every little bit of news she could get of me. I did well at university, better than well, and Jeju was proud of its daughter. Prouder, I had thought, than my grandmother had been. At the bottom of the box something gleams and I find the abalone shell from my first proper dive. “You are lucky,” Grandmother had said when I surfaced and she grinned her gap-toothed grin. “Abalone is rare – and my favourite. To find that treasure so quickly? You will be a great sea-woman.”
The mother-of-pearl coating is still beautiful; iridescent green like fish-skin. And that is how Mrs Ki finds me, sobbing over a shell in my Grandmother’s bedroom.
“She was so proud of you,” she says. “Whenever anyone visited she would bring out the box and talk of her brilliant granddaughter.”
“I thought she would never forgive me for leaving. Whenever I came home she was so reserved, so distant. She wouldn’t talk about the diving, the sea. We barely talked at all!”
“She was scared you would feel obliged to stay. She wanted you to follow your own path.”
“But why didn’t she tell me?” It comes out as a wail.
Mrs Ki holds me against her. “So many secrets, your Grandmother. Ah! I told her it was no good but would she listen?”
“I want to go diving.”
She looks into my face. “It is not something to fall back into so easily.”
“I free dive at home.” I hesitate as Mrs Ki raises an eyebrow. “I could never tell Grandmother.” Too much like betrayal.
Salt-laden wind whips my hair as we motor out. She has found a wet-suit which almost fits, although the haenyo are a little rounder than I am.
She shuts down the engine then touches her fingers to my head and over my heart. “What you are feeling, Seo-yun, what you think is guilt? It is not. It is grief and you should not try to bury it, or hide it. Let it out. No secrets.”
I take her hand for a moment and then dive into the water.
The cold is like a fist to my stomach and I fight the urge to surface. I look up at the ceiling of the sea, at the shaded world above. Down here all is clear and I relax, start to scan the sea-bed, knowing what I am looking for, knowing I will find it.
I surface a little way from the boat and whistle-breathe. Mrs Ki is smiling as I swim to her and hand her my treasure. Abalone. The favourite of my Grandmother, the deep-sea diver.