Jennifer Todhunter’s stories have appeared in SmokeLong Quarterly, Necessary Fiction, CHEAP POP, and elsewhere. She was named to Wigleaf’s Top 50 Very Short Fictions 2018, and is the Editor-in-Chief of Pidgeonholes. Find her at www.foxbane.ca or @JenTod_.
i am a haenyeo
i am a haenyeo was originally published by Zetetic: A Record of Unusual Inquiry in September 2015
i am a mother
An ocean was born into my daughters; the salt so dense in their hearts, I can still taste it. As babies, they were nursed with the sea—my spirit surging from breast to mouth. Today, my husband stands on the curb beside them, as my halmoni and I prepare to ride. She is fifty-seven and a fixture on the diving line. My girls laugh when we kickstart our motorcycles, call out as we drive down the busy streets of Juju Island.
i am a sister
We are a collection. a sorority that spans centuries. We sell our seabed treasures to support the community, divide our profits between us. Our legacy can be found in the beauty of an octopus, the flesh of an abalone, the persistence of our pride. Our devotion to each other is like nothing else I’ve experienced. We are one.
i am a vision
My wetsuit is smooth, my face carved with wrinkles. An oval mask has become an extension of my face, a portal to promise. With this, I see my future. I have fins that propel my aging body fifty feet down—underneath overhanging boulders, and into the rifts of jagged cliffs. When I emerge from the sea, I am spent. I will return tomorrow, and the day after that, because it terrifies me that I will lose this. That I will have nothing.
i am fearless
Free diving is not an art I was trained for. I do it because it’s my calling. I’ve conditioned my lungs to last: thirty seconds, two minutes, four and a half more. My halmoni can submerge for almost ten. I risk pushing my limits too far, my inflamed joints too long. But I will not surrender a catch. it is within me and it is mine. I am powerful below the surface, I am strong.
i am endangered
My daughters will dress in suit jackets and skirts, carry briefcases, and drive compact cars. They will leave our island for an education, for the promise of work away from the sea. But they cannot escape our heritage or the restlessness that calls to them. I hate that we will fail. That we will disappear. I don’t want my daughters to miss out on the history that binds the women of Jeju island together. I don’t want them to forget.
i am a haenyeo
The shushing of the water calls to me. I am unadorned, slipping into its current. I hear its tune, and I am gone.
My Husband is Made of Ash
My Husband is Made of Ash was originally published by SmokeLong Quarterly in August 2016.
My husband is made of ash. He likes to smear himself into my tears when he can’t get them to stop.
“Don’t do that,” I say, disliking the way he raccoons up my eyes with his darkness. The way he blows around me when I’m trying to pull myself together. Was it the scar over his top lip? I wonder, blotting the smudge on my face. The birthmark behind his right elbow? The mole on the back of his index finger?
At night, when I’m sorting through his skateboards and Playboys and comic books, wondering where to donate the belongings of a man who had the heart of a child, he speaks to me: there’s a book of matches in the junk drawer, you know, a barbecue lighter out back on the deck if that doesn’t work, a jerry can on the shelf in the shed if you need a little help.
“Shut up,” I say, stuffing his comics into a box.
He watches as I finally get dressed to go out for something other than spicy ginger beef, cheap vodka, and tissues. Swirls around like he’s going to scoop me up and carry me over the threshold for a second time.
“I thought you loved me,” he says.
“Then where are you going?”
“I need to get out of here.”
His ash is suffocating. It fills my throat. It blocks my breath. I kiss him before leaving, and he is smoky on my lips.
“What shade are you wearing?” my friend asks under the blue-hued lights of the dance club, where my mind won’t release my body no matter how much I drink.
“My husband’s ashes,” I say.
She smiles. “It’s amazing.”
Just a little burn, he whispers, unrelenting in my ear when I’m back home and the room is spinning. I’ll feel so much closer to you.
“I’m right here,” I slur, dumping him onto the bed beside me.
“But I can’t feel you.”
I roll over his ashes, cover him with my naked body, wishing he could do something other than turn into a thick paste when mixed with my sweat.
I scorch my ring finger first, the one holding my claddagh, over the candle on my bedside table. The pain is substantial, but I hold it where I can smell the flesh singeing. Where my scent meets his.
“Stop it,” he says.
“Isn’t this what you want?”
I sear my forearm next, across the tattoo he designed of songbirds on a wire.
He shudders when I howl, plastering his ashes against my face.
“You were right,” I say. “This does bring us closer together.”
He covers me as we sleep, his ash like armour, enveloping me in a way I haven’t been held since he left.
The next morning, I brush him into his paper bag, tuck it inside my tote. He whispers, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry, as I ride one of his skateboards down to the corner. As I pick up an order of spicy ginger beef, needing to feel something inside me burn. He clings to my hand as I run him through my fingers, turning his hard bits of bone round and round.
“There isn’t much left of you,” I say, sitting on the curb.
“But there’s enough, isn’t there?”
I nod, eating my breakfast with a pair of wooden chopsticks, thinking about my candle back home.
My Sister’s Aquarium
My Sister’s Aquarium was originally published by Cease, Cows in October 2016.
My sister is showing off her aquarium again, walking around in the most deficient of bikinis. She twirls around so her long hair fans out and her water-filled insides get caught up in a tornado-like twister. The fish are swept in every direction when she stops; into her fingertips, down her calves, around her neck. Everywhere except her right arm which was amputated last year.
“Freak,” I say under my breath.
My friend, Libby, looks at me sternly. “Show her a little sympathy. It can’t have been easy growing up full of fish.”
“You’d be surprised,” I say.
The lifeguard isn’t paying any attention to the body surfers, the sun bathers, or the people swimming out past the drop. He’s bent down and pointing to a rainbowfish that’s taken up home underneath Sarah’s perfectly developed left breast. She laughs when he tickles her tank.
“Ugh,” I say.
Libby looks at me over her sunglasses. “Why’d you bring her to the beach if you can’t stand the attention she gets?”
“Because her pH is still fucked and nobody can figure out how to fix it.”
“And Mum thinks I should spend more time with her before she dies.”
“Oh,” Libby whispers. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”
“Because it’s nobody’s business but Sarah’s.”
A reef shark snakes around Sarah’s pelvis, skirting back and forth, looking for food. It’s the same shark that caused her problems last winter when she dabbled in vegetarianism. Almost ate all her other fish, totally messing with her symbiosis. Mum finally forced Sarah to eat a plate of fresh oysters and an eight-ounce steak with her rice and beans and has dictated her diet and feeding times ever since.
Sarah’s ecosystem is complicated, Mum says to her friends when she declines another invite to a dinner party or a night at the theatre. I can’t leave her alone.
It’s why I offer to take Sarah places like the beach. To give Mum a bit of a break.
I open the enormous cooler at the end of my towel. Start to lay out Sarah’s lunch on a paper plate. A tin of tuna fish, a bit of seaweed salad, a kelp smoothie that’s supposed to help balance her pH, although there’s no indication it works.
“That’s not what we’re eating, is it?” Libby asks.
I wrinkle my nose. “Of course not.”
Sarah sinks into the sand next to us, her transparent frame sparkling in the sunlight. “Thanks, sis,” she says, gorging herself on the food. “I was starving.”
The food swirls around inside her system, the fish chomp on chunks as they drop into the water. A speckled butterflyfish scoops a piece of tuna right from the shark’s mouth and dives into the safety of Sarah’s sternum. Watching her feed still amazes me.
“Want to go swimming when I’m done?” she asks.
I shake my head. “Mum says you’re not meant to go swimming anymore. That it can mess with your water temperature.”
“But I like the way the waves make me feel. Everything goes quiet inside when I’m in the water.”
For the countless time, I wish I understood more about Sarah’s aquarium.
“Please?” she says. “Mum never lets me do anything anymore.”
We leave our stuff with Libby, walk through the sand toward the ocean. There’s a quiet hiss when Sarah wades in, like her glass is cooling.
“Are you sure about this?” I ask.
She nods. “You taught me how to swim when I was five, remember?”
“That was when you weren’t so sick,” I say, feeling nervous. “And still had both arms.”
I think back to when Mum first told me Sarah’s pH was fucked. To when they thought they could fix things by removing the arm with the piece of rancid driftwood lodged in its fingers.
She pretends to scowl. “You promised you wouldn’t worry about me anymore.”
All I do is worry, I want to say.
We wander out until the water laps at our knees. She reaches down and splashes me, shrieking with laughter when I spray her back. The first crack starts along her left shin. It quickly spreads to five inches long, a thin stream leaking out into the ocean.
“Shit, Sarah, we’ve got to get out of here!”
I grab her elbow where a school of yellow angelfish have congregated. She pulls away. Walks in further.
The second split runs up her back.
“What are you doing? You’re breaking!”
“I was broken a long time ago,” she says before diving under.