Hey there everybody! Sorry for being absent on the story front the last couple of months. I’ve been super busy with a ridiculous amount of work. But I’m back this month with a story I wrote last year. I had a lot of fun doing the research for this particular story and using snippets of my mom’s own childhood to help shape this story. Things I discovered while writing this story: I’m horrible at titles and as much as I like the story, I feel like the end is a little too…cheesy? Or something? I don’t know. Maybe I’m a bit paranoid again.
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The Good Luck Sea by Sheenah Freitas is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.
The Good Luck Sea
verything reminds me of the sea. The rush of cars, a storm rattling the windows, the salty smell of fish sizzling in a pan . . . No matter how far my mother takes us inland, the ocean continues to call to us. It knows that we are saltwater girls. It knows that we belong on the shore, out in the open, not in some city that keeps packed like a net of anchovies.
Omoni insisted on moving to the big city for work. She’s been sewing away her life, trying to escape what had happened. But I know she can’t forget. The missing forces in our lives cannot be forgotten. They call to us, sticking to us like rice.
Today is May 5. Children’s Day. It’s been an entire year since Aboji and Oppa were taken away from us and ten months since we moved to the big city. Omoni doesn’t like to talk about it and I don’t dare bring it up. She’s still young and pretty—much too young to be a widow and a mother—but there are days when she looks out into the distance, lost in her own memories of the war, and I know she’s seen things that I can barely imagine.
This morning I find her looking at me, a small smile on her face. “I requested the day off today. What do you want to do? Go to the zoo? We haven’t been there yet. Don’t most parents take their kids to the zoo around here?”
I look up, surprised. I am almost too old to be celebrating Children’s Day. Or at least I feel like I am. I’m only ten, but with Omoni working so many hours at the factory, I’ve been left alone to feed and care for myself.
“I thought you had work,” I manage to say.
“I did,” she says slowly. She watches me carefully, as if gauging my reaction. “I just realized that we haven’t spent much time together since we’ve arrived in Seoul. So I requested the day off.”
I now watch her carefully as I pick at my rice. Something about her seems off, but I don’t know what. I had always wanted to go to the zoo when we were living in the village, but now the zoo just seems so . . . childish.
“I don’t want to go to the zoo.”
She raises her eyebrows. “Then what would you like to do? It’s your day.”
“I want to go home.”
She now frowns at me. “You are home.” She taps my hand with her chopsticks. “Stop picking at your food.”
“There’s no kimchi,” I mumble.
“Aigoo! When I was your age—” She stops herself. “I’ll pick some up.”
It’s always like this. Omoni begins something with “When I was your age” or “Back when I was a child” and she just stops. I sometimes wonder if she was ever a child or if one day she just sort of appeared as an adult. Once, I imagined she sprouted from the ground through a giant flower, sort of like how Thumbelina was born.
I slowly look up, not sure if I want to catch her eye yet. I know if I look up right now, she won’t be here. She’ll be there, wherever there is. The only thing that I know is that there is far away from here. Far away from me.
“So,” I say carefully, “can we?” I look up at her now. I was right. She is there.
“Hmm?” Her glassy eyes turn to look at me, but it feels like she is looking right through me.
“Can we go home?”
She frowns as she returns back. “We are home.”
“No, I mean home. Back to the village.”
“I don’t know Min-na . . .” She looks around as if soldiers might come out of the walls if she agrees. And maybe in her mind she really thinks that.
“You asked what I wanted to do and I want to go home!”
“We can’t go home,” she says softly.
“Why? Why can’t we go home?”
I stand. I can’t be here anymore. We left the village in the middle of the night as if we were refugees. I never asked why. I heard her muttering about spirits and ghosts once. Sometimes I hear her muttering about fate. And when I hear those late night whispers, I wonder if she even realizes when in time she is or if she’s still lost in the past.
I begin to leave, but stop the moment she grabs my sleeve. “Where are you going?” she demands.
“Out,” I say and I cannot bring myself to look at her now. I know she is mad at me, but I am also mad at her. Why bother to ask me for a request? Why did she even bother to stay home in the first place?
“You can’t just leave every time you have a problem. What will that solve?”
“Aren’t you doing that? Aren’t you running away?” And as the words escape my lips, I know it is true. I know that deep down that is why we are here in the city and not by the sea. She’s running away. From ghosts or spirits or . . . I don’t know. But she is running away and it is etched on her face.
She raises her hand as if to slap me and I think she is going to do it. I flinch and she drops her hand. “How dare you! Where did you learn to talk like that, huh? From the city rascals you’ve been hanging around with? We’re not going home. We’re never going home again. Don’t you know what that does to me? The fact that your father and brother aren’t even there anymore? I have this pain in my heart!” She taps a finger to her chest. “It won’t go away! I’m too old to see more death. The next death I should suffer through is my own!”
“I hurt, too!” I begin crying now because I know it is true. “My heart beats just as loud as yours! But Omoni, all we have is each other. Aboji isn’t here anymore to take care of us and Oppa isn’t here anymore to watch over me when you and Aboji are working in the ocean. It’s just me and you.” I cry harder now. “We’re saltwater girls, right? Don’t you miss the sea?”
She sits in front of me, her face soft as she wipes my tears. “Okay,” she says. “Okay. Let’s go home today. It’s a day to celebrate you.”
“You make it sound like my birthday. It’s not like that.”
She gives me one of her soft smiles. “In a way it is.”
I scrunch my face.
“You’ll understand when you’re older.” She guides me to my room and tells me to get dressed while she puts away the dishes. As I change my clothes, I don’t think I’ll ever understand anything when I get older.
* * *
Our village is about four hours away by bus from the big city. I bounce in my seat. Hardly anyone is on this bus. As Omoni mentioned, most of the kids are down at the zoo. My hand crinkles the 1000 won bill in my pocket that Omoni gave me before we got on. It is my first Children’s Day present. My mind races with the candy I could buy, but then I think about school and remember that I need a new notebook. I should get one. Maybe one that’s better than the one I use now.
Omoni points to something in the window, waking me from my train of thought. We wave politely to the women planting rice in the fields, hunched over, mud nearly covering their knee-length rubber boots.
“I miss that,” she says as she continues to wave at the women.
I look back at them. It doesn’t look like fun, hand planting every single rice stalk. Omoni used to leave for a few hours for an entire week to help get all the planting done. Our neighbor owned a paddy and would often request all the neighbor women for their assistance. Once, I asked to tag along, but a leech had attached itself to my leg; my legs were too small and I sank too far in the mud. The moment I felt the slimy coat of the parasite, I screamed and ran to Omoni. She never asked me to come again and I never asked to tag along again.
“Me, too,” I say hesitantly.
She gives me a look and I know that she doesn’t believe me just as I don’t believe my own words. I continue to bounce in my seat. I don’t think I can keep still, but somehow I do because in the next moment, Omoni is shaking me awake.
“We’re here,” she whispers.
I rub my eyes and look around. We are now the only people on the bus, so I don’t understand why we are whispering. She leads me out and the smell of the sea washes over me. It’s suddenly everywhere, clinging to my skin and hair.
“The beach! Let’s go down to the beach!”
I had thought she looked wary to visit the village, but the thought of going down to the beach seems to absolutely terrify her. “We shouldn’t—”
“You said it was my day . . .”
“I—” From our position on top of a hill, we can see the shoreline. She looks at it now, her eyes narrowing as the sun glares right at her, matching my own glare. She sighs. “Okay. Let’s go.”
We walk hand-in-hand, my heart beating faster and faster the closer we are to the water’s edge. I long to splash in the water, to feel the sea’s mist on my face as the waves roll forward and back like a lazy yo-yo. This is everything that I’ve longed for in the past ten months and now it is in front of me.
As soon as I see the sand, I can no longer contain myself. I kick off my shoes and break from Omoni’s hold, rushing to feel the velvety softness of the sand between my toes. The tiny grains coat my feet, attaching to me now, as I run faster to the sea.
“Min-na!” I hear my mother yell as I jump into the water.
I never realized how comforting the coolness of the water and the smell of the ocean were until this moment. I continue to wade deeper into the water.
“Min-na!” she yells again, but this time she sounds more frantic.
I stop and look at her. Her eyes are so big and she’s hurrying to me, but trips on a rock and falls. She clutches her foot and yells, “Aigoo!” She struggles to get up. “Get out of the water!”
I choose not to hear her over the crashing waves. It’s been too long since I’ve done this. It feels like another time entirely. Maybe even another place. In the big city, in our new apartment, the loss of Aboji and Oppa are too real. Their absence is everywhere. In the walls, in the food, and even in our furniture. The silence of their spirits is too loud. It feels like it buzzes in my ear like a pesky fly.
But here, in this place, on this shore, I can feel them. Their presence is everywhere. Their spirits are so loud. I can almost hear them yelling at me right now. I close my eyes.
“Min-na!” Omoni screams.
I continue to stand there with my eyes closed and it is too late when I realize why she is yelling at me. The large wave consumes me.
* * *
Being trapped in a water current is a terrifying experience. You tumble and get pushed and pulled. The water punches you in the stomach, making you lose all the air you’ve been holding. If you can open your eyes, you can see all the bubbles escape. Water wants to rush into you, wants to devour you, wants to take you into its arms. But you continue to fight. You want to live. You have to live. I have to return back to the surface. I have to return back to Omoni. She’ll be all alone and it would have been all my fault.
Was this what Aboji and Oppa experienced when the storm took them away from us? It was such a long time ago. An entire year. Almost forever. I can hardly remember what they sound like anymore. I dig up their picture and look at them every day, trying to force myself to remember what they smelled like. What they felt like.
In our apartment in the big city, Aboji’s laughter doesn’t echo in the rooms. In our apartment in the big city, Oppa’s books don’t litter our table. In our apartment in the big city, Omoni isn’t even there. In our apartment in the big city, I’m all alone. All alone just like now. In this current.
I try to fight. I try to force myself upright. I try to find the surface. But everything is so dark and mixed up. I don’t know if I’m going up or down anymore. I don’t know if I can win anymore. I can feel my body getting tired, surrendering . . . to the sea . . .
I hear a grumble . . . I think it is the sea, swallowing me whole . . .
And then I feel something pushing me. I’m too tired to fight now. I’m moving faster than I’ve ever moved before and I think that maybe my spirit is trying to escape my body. I think that happens. I think I have heard people talking about things like that happening from before. I think . . . I think . . . I . . . th . . .
We’re almost there, a voice rumbles.
Strange. It sounds like the water talking to me. And now I can breathe and think again.
You were carried away pretty far from shore. But just hold on a little bit longer. You’ll be safe soon. Remember your mother!
Today is Children’s Day, I remember. But why are we celebrating it? I feel too old now. Much too old.
You’re still a child with much growing to do, the voice says again.
“Omoni says it’s a day to celebrate me,” I say aloud. I feel silly talking to myself. Maybe I swallowed too much sea water. I think I’m looking at the sky.
To celebrate your innocence. Your mother grew up during war. She was never allowed to be a child. But you are. And that’s enough to celebrate.
“Who are you?” I try to look around, but all I see is water. I can feel something beneath me, though. It is slimy and scaly. I relax my hands a little and realize that I have been grabbing onto this creature for some time.
I am the imugi that resides in this sea.
“Is this what you do Imugi? Go around and save children from drowning?”
I try to save all the lives I can.
“Why?” I can see the shoreline now. I can see my mother with a man, crying, screaming, and embracing an older boy.
So that when I find an orb that falls from the heaven, I may become a creature worthy of the title yong.
“I think you’re already a worthy dragon, true dragon or not.” I can hear my mother’s screams now. She keeps saying my name over and over.
Thank you. We are close to the shore. Can you swim the rest of the way?
I nod. “Thank you Imugi. I hope you find your orb soon.”
I do, too.
I can feel him moving away from me as I release my hold on him. I begin to make my way back to shore and somehow I know that he is still there, watching me ever so carefully to make sure that I don’t get swallowed by the sea again. The man my mother was standing next to is the first to spot me. He looks strangely a lot like my father. And as he yells and runs to me, I realize that he is Aboji! Omoni looks up and now I realize that the older boy she was embracing is not just some random boy, but my brother.
“Omoni! Aboji! Oppa!”
The water splashes all around us and Aboji is the first one to reach me. He wraps his strong arms around me and it really is him. It is not a ghost. He feels warm and whole. And now Omoni and Oppa are with us, everyone wrapping their arms around me. I turn ever so slightly and catch a glimpse of the imugi’s serpentine tail slipping back into the water and I silently thank him.
* * *
It is evening now and my family is resting on the beach. The bon fire crackles as Omoni mentions having to go back to the big city for work, but she doesn’t seem to be in any hurry to leave. Aboji smiles at her as he cooks a fish he just caught. My mouth waters as the smell takes over the beach.
Oppa bought a box of American sparklers. He used up all the money he had been saving. I told him it wasn’t worth it, but he just looked at me and said, “Today is worth celebrating. Our family is back, sister.”
He now lights one and the sparks light up his face. He hands it to me carefully, telling me to be careful or else I’ll burn myself. I take it from him carefully, my fingers wrapping around the thin stick just below his. It’s hot, but not as hot as I thought it would be. I take the sparkler and wave it around, creating my own firework show and soon Oppa is joining me, too.
“We thought you were dead,” I tell him as he steps closer to me.
His smile slowly disappears. “I thought we were dead, too,” he says quietly.
“What happened?” I hold my breath.
“I’m not sure. I think Aboji knows more than I do, but when I woke up, we were in Ulleung-do.”
“Ulleung-do? But that’s so far away!”
“The squid were farther away than normal. They seemed to be hiding. And then . . . the storm came.”
My sparkler fizzles out and I request another one. Oppa is more than happy to hand me one. I look at my parents who seem happy to be with one another again before whispering, “How long were you there?” I don’t know why I whisper. Maybe because I don’t want my parents to overhear me questioning about the event. Maybe because I don’t want Aboji to remember the horror of drowning.
“A week, I think. I asked Aboji what had happened and he said it was an imugi and that the imugi let us stay in his cove for a long time so I could recover until I was well enough for travel. He said we stayed in that cove for months while I was unconscious. And then, just when the imugi thought I was about to wake up, it took us both to Ulleung-do. I guess I was injured pretty bad. Can you believe it?”
“An imugi saved me today.”
Oppa’s eyes got wide. “Are you sure? Was it long? Serpentine? Did it have a beard?”
I shrug. “I don’t know. I didn’t actually see it.”
“So how do you know it was an imugi?”
“It told me. And I . . . I felt it. It was slimy. He mentioned he was looking for an orb and that he saves people so that when he does become a full-fledged dragon, he’d be worthy of the title.”
Oppa sits beside me. “Wow,” he breathes.
“Wow,” I agree.
“You know . . . I thought that Aboji was confused when he told me an imugi saved us because when we came back, you two were gone. Imugis are supposed to bring good luck. How was that good luck? And Aboji searched for you two, looking for every lead possible. Some of the villagers mentioned Omoni had talked of Seoul, but that she just left one night and never reached out to anyone. He’s been there a few times, looking through factories that Omoni might be at but he’s never been able to find her.”
I put my hand on his and smile. “When the survivors returned and said you two were gone, Omoni . . . She wasn’t herself. You know how she gets when she starts to talk about her childhood?”
Oppa nods. “The war wasn’t kind to her. Aboji has mentioned some of the stories to me. He was with her group of refugees for a time before they parted and met up again later.”
“Bad stuff. I’ll tell you when you’re older.”
I stick my tongue out at him.
He nudges me in the shoulder. “You’ll be older soon enough. Trust me, it’s not fun. Did you have a funeral for us?” His voice sounds amused at the thought of us holding a funeral for them. I remember him telling me about an American character—Tom Sawyer—who witnessed his own funeral and I believe he is thinking of that.
“Yes. I wanted to wait to see if your spirits would eat the food, but she wouldn’t let me and we left for the big city a week after. I think your . . . deaths,” I pause, the word weird on my tongue as I look at Oppa, “was too much for her. I guess the good luck the imugi sent was just late.”
He ruffles my hair. “Hopefully it’ll be nothing but good luck from now on!”
“Look!” Aboji says, pointing to the sky. “A shooting star!”
We all look up. A streak tears at the sky. I hope it is actually an orb that will fall into our sea so that the imugi may find it. The bringer of good luck deserves a bit of good luck himself because if there is ever a creature who should be called a dragon, it is the imugi that brought my family together on this day of innocence.