Hanla’s slippers slaps noisily against the windy road towards the beach. She pants, and stops to shake her hair out of her face. The east wind is wilder today, and she can hear the distant rumble of thunder. She presses forwards, and grips the clump of flowers tighter to her chest.
She scrambles over the last steep hill, and she’s here. The waves are taller today, the shouting of the sea drumming against her ears. Hanla reaches the edge of the water, and there she is. As though she was listening to Hanla’s approach, Minju rises out of the sea right in front of her eyes, and Hanla stumbles forward in glee, clasps her arms around her friend tight. “Good morning,” she chirps into Minju’s shoulder.
“Good afternoon,” Minju greets her, and today, her arms move to hold Hanla, too. Hanla grins and steps back. Minju’s tail lap across the water surface in a broad stroke. “What are…” She points at the flowers in Hanla’s hand.
Hanla looks down, and to her dismay, sees that her flowers were crushed from their hug. “These are for you,” she mutters, looking at the ground. “I squashed them.”
Minju chuckles, and her laughter is silvery, like tiny bells. “Why,” she asks, but pries the crushed stems from Hanla’s hand, anyway.
Without anything to hold onto, Hanla plucks at the edges of her shirt as she settles onto the sandy ground. The water laps at her outstretched calves, ticklish. Why? The simple answer is that she wanted to. “Because they’re pretty,” she says instead, and hopes that it was enough.
Minju strokes the edge of a daisy’s petal. “They’re lovely,” she says, and Hanla feels her stomach curl in her shyness.
“You’re welcome,” she musters. By this time on any other day, they would have been frolicking in the water, swimming laps across the beach until Hanla gets tired. Hanla isn’t used to speaking so much to the girl from the sea.
Minju starts to weave the flowers through her own hair. Occasionally, she looks over at Hanla, and Hanla flicks small droplets of water at her, just to have something to do. Her friend’s tail flickers just under the sea surface in response, and water gets flecked against her arms like she has scales, herself. Hanla supposes this is good too.
Her name isn’t actually Minju.
One Sunday morning months ago, after waving goodbye to her mom, Hanla climbed down the slopes to the east coast beach.
It was untouched; her mom had told Hanla about the tides that rose to the height of trees and sea snakes that kept the Haeneyo away. It had frightened Hanla when she had been younger, with the way her mom spoke about animals who killed women with a sting or bite, but she had been curious.
There was no-one on the beach. Hanla slipped closer to the gentle lapping water, and touched it with the tip of her pointer finger. She drew back quickly, but after determining that the touch did not poison her like her mom had told her it would, she set aside her extra set of clothes, and waddled in.
She had gone so deep that the water had lapped at her ears. At some point, the thrumming, ceaseless energy of Marado had quietened. All Hanla could hear was the water, and all she could feel was the barest brush of the sandy sea floor. The sun shone, and it made the water warm. She stretched out across the surface of the water, and started paddling.
"Don't go too deep," someone said right by her ear. Hanla shrieked, stopped mid-stroke, and sank like a stone. The next moment, someone righted her, and she broke the surface gasping.
"Ugh," she shouted, pushing her matted hair away from her face, and started paddling again. "Who..." She wiped at her eyes and peered up from the water.
A girl was looking at her, her body half-submerged in the water so it looked like she was sitting down.
“Who are you?” Hanla has never seen this girl in her village before. "Did you just move here?"
The girl smiled at her, a polite little grin. "I've always lived here," she said.
Hanla scratched the back of her own head. "I've never seen you around school before. Are you from the village?" Maybe she’s too old to go to school, Hanla decided.
"No, I don't live in the village."
"Then, where do you live?"
"Here," the girl said simply. And then she glided across the surface of the water like a fish. A large, web-like fin followed the motion, and Hanla clapped a hand against her mouth at the implication.
“How old are you,” Hanla asked. “How long have you lived here?”
The mermaid looked at her, and tilted her head. Hanla realised the mermaid wasn’t just looking at her, she was observing Hanla.
“My name’s Hanla,” she tried again, and stuck her palm out like how dad taught her to. “What’s your name?”
The mermaid stared at Hanla’s outstretched palm, and Hanla blushed and withdrew it. “I don’t have a name,” the mermaid said finally.
“I can give you one,” Hanla said, with all the firmness that her twelve-year-old body could muster. “My dad always wanted to call me Minju. Do you…” She trailed off, and snuck and peeked at the mermaid. “Do you like the name?”
The mermaid blinked. “Yes,” she said.
Hanla smiled, and said, “Then you’re Minju-unnie.”
Minju cocked her head. “What’s unnie?” Hanla told her, and Minju nodded, and her expression looked far-away. “I’ve never seen anyone come here for years,” she said.
It dawned on Hanla that Minju was probably much older than she’d thought. She moved in the water with more grace than the Haeneyo, but she didn’t have the wrinkles around her eyes, like they did. Marado women even looked like sea creatures, her mom told her, their backs would bend from decades of hard labor, and their skin grew as tough as shellfish from the salt in the sea.
Minju looked like a girl who was to go to Chejudo for her studies. Hanla had seen girls like that in the village and in her elementary school. One day, they would be sitting next to her in class, and the next day, their seats would be empty, as though Chejudo had reached out and plucked the girls right from their beds.
Hanla didn’t know why she came. It was a little part curiosity, but she realised that she had woken up as though tugged by an invisible force from the east coast. “I wanted to swim,” she said, instead. It felt silly to tell the mermaid who had lived many years beyond her about a feeling.
“I like swimming, too,” Minju said simply.
They looked at each other over the waves, and Hanla, in a burst of courage, took the mermaid’s hand in hers, and said, “I’ll race you to the shore.”
Minju laughed, and plunged into the water in a single movement and darted ahead. Hanla, still swept up in the turn of events, paddled hard to keep up.
Minju’s hair glinted gold from the sun. Hanla thought it made her look like an angel.
Hanla practically burst through the house door that evening.
“Mom,” she shouted. “I made a new friend today!”
Her mom looked up from where she’d been descaling the snapper, her smile causing her face to crinkle like paper. “Is she from school?”
Hanla stopped in her tracks. She had to sneak down to the sea because her mom had forbidden her from that. “Yes,” she replied shortly, and rushed to her room to avoid further questions. Maybe it would be better for Hanla to keep the encounter to herself, for now.
In the privacy of her own room, she took in the thrill of meeting someone who wanted to play with her and hugged it close to her chest, like she would a well-worn toy. Huddled in her cot, she grinned until her face hurt.
They’re watching the sunset at the beach after a long swim, Minju’s tail dipped in shallow waters and Hanla squeezing the last drops of water from her shirt.
Hanla squints at the sun, and asks, “Have you never seen anyone for years?” Minju is more talkative now, but Hanla still takes the lead in their conversations. She has a feeling that Minju might not talk a lot, because she hasn’t got anyone to talk to.
Minju shakes her head, but her tail shifts in the water, as it does when she’s deep in thought. “Well,” Hanla says. “My mom and the other Haeneyo’s fish in a place just aways from here, maybe you’ve seen them?” At that, Minju’s tail jerks, and Hanla braces herself as water splashes all over them.
She wipes at the water on her cheeks, and looks up to see Minju with a stormy expression on her face. “Unnie,” she probes. “Are you alright?”
Minju stills, and her tail resumes its previous position. “I don’t go near them,” she says, and her voice trembles with emotion. And after a moment, she adds, “You must never tell them about me.”
Hanla frowns. Her mom never mentioned anything about the mermaids in the sea, even though she told many other stories about the sea off east coast. “Why,” she asks. “My mom would like you.” But Minju’s already shaking her head. Her lips are a flat line, and Hanla thinks Minju might be angry at her. She shrinks back. “I won’t tell her, but…”
“Nothing good has ever come out of it,” Minju says. Now, she just looks sad, and she breathes out in a long sigh that makes Hanla’s stomach tug.
“I won’t tell her,” Hanla says. “I won’t.” Minju nods, and her eyes take on the faraway look whenever she’s lost in her own thoughts. Hanla wonders if she has anyone to comfort her in the sea, wonders if Minju makes friends with the fishes and crabs on the seabeds. “Unnie,” she mutters, timid. “What happened?”
Minju is quiet for so long that Hanla thinks she’s never getting an answer.
“A few decades ago, my cousins were playing on the other side of the island. No-one lived on the island, we thought. Then the fishermen found them and dragged them out on the beach to dry up.” The way Minju says that reminds Hanla of a news broadcast. Her voice is flat, and Hanla can’t understand how she can bear saying something like that without any emotion.
“I’m sorry,” Hanla says, and lowers her head. She wants to reach forward and grab her friend’s hand in sympathy, but Minju is silent, with her back tight.
Minju says nothing for a very long time, and then, as fast as blinking, swims back into the water. Before Hanla can move, or even call out, Minju has already disappeared into the sea.
Hanla picks at her bowl of rice at dinner.
“What’s wrong,” her mom asks, and her dad heaps an extra helping of fish onto her plate.
“My friend’s mad at me,” Hanla says, and manages a weak smile at her dad.
“The one from school,” asks her mom.
Hanla almost reveals the truth, but Minju’s words appear in her mind. “Y-yeah. Her family passed away and I said the wrong thing.” She’s surprised to find a tear dripping down her nose to land into her bowl of rice, and she hurriedly rubs at the wetness on her face. And then she realises why: “What if she never wants to see me again?”
“I’m sure she will,” her mom says vaguely, the foreign sentiment garbled on her tongue, and that’s the end of that. Dinner resumes, and Hanla scoops rice and fish into her mouth thoughtlessly. The rice tastes saltier than usual, and Hanla tries very hard not to think about it.
She must not have been very good friends with Minju to know her so little, after all.
The next morning, Hanla wakes up from the shouting outside her house. She scrambles to put on her shoes, and goes out to see all the children running past her house.
“What’s going on,” she shouts in their direction, but no one spares her a single glance. Ducking her head, Hanla follows them over the familiar slopes that led to the sea.
Dread prickles at her skin, and she slows, easing herself down the beach in small steps as she nears the crowd gathered. The children form an outer ring around the swarm of people, hopping up and down, whining for a peek over the shoulders of the adults. Hanla walks across the perimeter of the ring, and bends down to look from under the villagers’ legs.
The shimmer of a large tail cannot be mistaken. The village found a mermaid, and Minju’s words from yesterday chills Hanla, and she gasps involuntarily. It’s impossible, she’s always met Minju aways from here, where the Haeneyo worked. Minju wouldn’t…She has to be sure, though, and so Hanla takes a deep breath, and starts squeezing her way through the swarm of bodies.
“Hanla.” Hanla looks up to see her dad looking at her. “Hanla, you can’t see this,” he says. “Go home.”
“But dad,” Hanla says, and her voice grows high and panicked. “I want to see if—”
He shakes his head. “I’m taking you home, right now.” His hands are heavy against her shoulders.
Hanla leaps up from her chair the moment her mom steps through the door. “Mom,” she calls, rushing over. “What happened this morning? Who was—”
Her mom sighs, a deep rumble that makes Hanla grip the fabric of her own tunic tightly. “Hanla, I need you to promise me never to go to the east coast again.”
“But why? Who was that today?” It can’t be Minju. It can’t.
Her mom looks at her, her wrinkles looking deeper than they did last night, and says, “It was a mermaid. I’ve only read you stories about them, but I should have told you about the legend on this island.” She shuffles past Hanla, and settles onto her favourite stool with a long sigh. Hanla follows, and sits cross-legged on the ground in front of her. “About fifty years ago, Haeneyo started disappearing one by one. Legend has it that they were diving when they heard a song so enchanting that they drowned themselves. And then, a fisherman saw one of those, and when she saw him looking, she started to sing.”
Hanla thinks of Minju’s words from yesterday, and bites her lips hard enough to taste blood.
“The mermaid followed him to shore. She moved like a snake on land, and ate the fisherman whole. It took the whole village to kill her.
“The creature you saw today was one of them,” her mom finishes.
“But…” Hanla finds herself unable to speak. Minju was kind to her, even saved her from wandering too deep into the sea. She has never even heard her friend utter a single musical note.
“You must never go near them,” her mom warns. She stands back up, and shuffles into the bedroom.
Hanla hugs her knees, and rocks herself back and forth. From the distance, she can still hear the sea crashing against the beach with muffled waves, constant and indifferent.
Hanla wakes up the next morning with hope in her gut. She will go to the east coast after school, and Minju will come and meet her, like she does every day. She gathers daisies on her way to the sea, the wind like knife to her cheeks as she runs to the coast.
She can almost imagine Minju rising out of the water. She reaches the water’s edge, and Minju’s not there.
The water glitters from the sun, too bright. Hanla has to squint hard to look into the distance, to look for any sign of movement, an abnormally large fish tail, or long, golden hair.
She waits until sundown, lays the daisies down at the water’s edge, and goes home.
She heads out every afternoon after school, and comes home late at night, until her parents sit her down.
Her mom begins the conversation. “Hanla, your father has found work in Chejudo.” Her mom’s face takes on the pinched quality, the kind that tells Hanla that whatever comes next is bad news. “It’s a good opportunity for the whole family to go, and you’ll have a middle school to attend and new friends to make,” she finishes her speech all in one breath.
“Hanla,” her mom murmurs, and moves to hold Hanla’s hand in her own weathered ones. Hanla squirms, discomforted by the foreign touch. Her mom drops her hands, and Hanla knows, without looking up, that her mom’s upset. Hanla doesn’t know why, but her chest burns. She turns away, curling into herself as she hurries away to her room.
Just as she’s about to close the door, she hears her mom call out her name one more time, and the sound of her dad’s deep sigh.
Hanla slumps down against the back of her door, and buries her head against her knees.
Before she leaves, she goes to the sea again with an entire handful of daisies. Just in case Minju comes to see her today.
When her time is up, Hanla lays her bunch of flowers on the wet sand, and turns away to the insistent calling of her mom.
Minju is a constant fixture on Hanla’s mind when she first gets to Chejudo. Hanla moves into the small apartment a few blocks from her new middle school. She doesn’t have her own room and sleeps in the living room, but Hanla doesn’t mind, at least not at first. When she draws up her covers at night, she thinks of the sound of the sea that used to lull her to sleep, and of Minju’s voice on the day they first met.
Hanla sees clumps of flowers growing beside the pavement every day on her way to school. For the first few months, she takes to pressing her chin down towards her neck, as far as she can go, so she can avoid looking at the flowers. She knows, logically, that they aren’t the daisies on Marado, for these flowers come in all sorts of colours. The stems are the same, and the memory of its scent, when Minju used to twist the stems into her hair, fills Hanla with wild bursts of longing.
Eventually, Hanla graduates middle school, moves onto high school, college, and starts working. Minju becomes less important, but she’s still a sweet ache, an anamnesis that Hanla takes out to savor on some days.
When Hanla is thirty years old, her mom passes away. In her mom’s last will and testament, she requests that her ashes are to be buried in Marado.
Hanla takes the ferry to her old childhood home. As the boat speeds past the crystalline water, she feels like she’s twelve years old all over again.
Hanla scatters the last of the ashes, and watches as the wind take them. Sending a small prayer, she tucks the urn back into her coat, and bundles herself tightly.
She takes the cable car down the mountain, and with her mind wandering, her feet carries her to her old childhood home. Someone else is living there now, a Haeneyo with her fishing gear lined up neatly like trophies. The living room is sparsely furnished, with the gear taking up half the area. Hanla wonders if another little girl lives in her old bedroom now, wonders if the girl had wandered down to the east coast on a Thursday afternoon, if she’s ever met another girl who lived in water.
Hanla goes to the sea. The landscape is now littered with fishing boats and commercial vessels. There’s no chance that Minju will still linger, but the thought that she might have makes Hanla’s heart skip, and perhaps, she muses quietly, that’s enough.
She stays until the sun sets over the landscape, painting everything a bright orange, when the last ferry to Jejudo leaves the docks. Hanla finally gets up and dusts herself. She hesitates, and sends one last look to the horizon—
There’s a flicker of bright gold, impossible against the deep red of the sun, and the nimble glide of a tail impossibly large for a fish. It’s over so quickly that Hanla thinks she might have imagined it.
She stands stock-still, willing for a reappearance. The minutes tick by with nothing.
Hanla lowers her head, her heart clenching from both sorrow and joy, and heads on home.