My mother was a haenyo: she dove into cold waters for seaweed, abalone, sea urchin, and other things. My fifth year of elementary school holds my first memory of contemplating her potential death. What if Mother spends a minute too long underwater, trying to harvest one more conch? What if her feet go numb? What if I’m left alone? “If” became the realest word I knew, but I couldn’t find the voice to ask these questions.
On a bleak Saturday, I was sitting in the kitchen, picturing my mother cleaning an octopus and thinking, If she doesn’t come back today, this is where I’ll sit and picture my mother clean an octopus. I recall this moment clearly. A common mayfly flew to the windowsill and spoke:
“What’s your worry, boy? You’re so young, the blood on your head has barely dried.” It certainly had to be the mayfly, since there was nobody else. This surprises me now, but I wasn’t startled then.
“You have a lot of cheek for a fly, don’t you? Go somewhere else,” I said.
The mayfly perched on my shoulder. “Angry is better than sad. But unsheathing a sword at an insect is useless. I only live one day, but I hear many stories, some of them human, some of them not human. Tell me your troubles. Even a sheet of paper feels lighter with another hand to carry it.”
“You say a lot of pretty things, but what good are beads if they aren’t stringed?” I remember this exchange well because I loved the idioms, proverbs, and such linguistic devices I had learned at school. I put on my most dramatic grimace. “I guess I’m afraid of death.”
“Then I’m sorry,” said the mayfly, fluttering a little. “I don’t know fear. One may know the depth of waters but not the depth of a human mind.”
I was disappointed by this irresponsible response. I watched clouds foam ominously; a storm was supposed to hit that night. I thought about Mother near the seabed, in her black haenyo wetsuit, holding her breath. The original mermaid. Girls of our island no longer aspired to become haenyo. They wanted to move to a city, meet a prince from the mainland. That was the reality of our time and our island. The mayfly spoke again.
“My death will help you feel better. You will witness my death, be sad, then see that it is out of your control.” It had flown back to the windowsill.
“I wouldn’t have been sad about your death if we hadn’t met,” I said. “How would that make me feel better?”
“I am only a common mayfly.”
The mayfly died then. The wind blew its body off the windowsill.
I waited for my mother. I waited for her to return and say, Because of the sea’s circumstances—as if it were a person—I couldn’t catch an octopus today. I waited for her, watching the window. The storm did not come.
EMILY JUNGMIN YOON‘s poems and translations have appeared or are forthcoming in Poetry, The Collagist, The Volta, Columbia Journal Online, and elsewhere. She is the winner of Ploughshares’ Emerging Writer’s Contest 2015, AWP’s WC&C Scholarship Competition 2015, and the AAWW fellowship for Home School Miami 2016. She is currently a PhD student in East Asian Languages and Civilizations at the University of Chicago and serves as the Poetry Editor for The Margins, the literary magazine of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. http://emily-yoon-poetry.tumblr.com/