Shores of Isolation
Her words are the only remaining artifact of those days before she arrived.
Nineteen forty-eight. This day, like all of them during the diving season, began slowly. Fixing the strap on her mask, eating a bowl of barley, mending a tear in the hood of her diving suit, eating dried sardine after dried sardine, smoothing a nick taken out of her tub, thinking that the kanji letters she had drawn at the bottom of it needed to be repainted. She ate more barley, some dried seaweed, pickled vegetables, drank green tea. The other divers did the same, not much chatter before the dives, concentrating on loading up on carbohydrates for the grueling couple of hours of diving.
Old man Kenichi and the other assistants waited in the boats to take the divers out a quarter of a mile into the Inland Sea. She carried her empty tub, as they all did, before the dive. Only after, when they were sapped of all their energy, did they want, need help. She sat on the edge of the boat, twisting and rolling her ankles, stretching her back and limbs. Some of the women squeezed into flippers, which, not so many years before, they began wearingthey are said to help your speed. That was exactly why she didn't wear them. Maintaining the same pace, the same rhythm, the comfort she found in the more than fifteen centuries of history, the sixty generations of doing things the same way.
In five minutes, they arrived; the boats swayed a bit before finding their balance. She, the youngest of the divers, waited until the others had done so, then tossed her tub and, feetfirst, joined it in the sea. This was the only time each day that her head didn't lead the way. And it was way out there, in the vast waters, that she was never alone. Cedar tubs all around, freckling the water, the divers holding on to the sides until they let out long whistles, released the tubs, shoved them off toward the nine o'clock sun, and disappeared in order of seniority.
The tubs wobbled on the waves, sometimes taking the morning sun from her, then, just as quickly, giving it back. Her arms tight against her sides, her feet swept in slow, steady strokes; waves tossed and jolted her body, the water dimmer, duller, murkier with each foot she went. Sixty feet down, the light was that of an autumn's half-moon. And down there, for the first time, she moved her arms from her sides, doing handstands underwater, feeling for the familiar. Oysters. Sea urchin. Scallops. Lobster. Seaweed. Abalone. Mollusk.
Sometimes, down there at the bottom of the sea, the hollow cracking of the pick against the rock, the hollow scraping, was sometimes answered very close by. The first time she had heard it, she thought it was an echo, but what she had thought were echoes continued, and when she had turned to her right, there was another diver dislodging an oyster, only an arm's length away.
This day, she chipped and pried at an oyster shell with her metal J-shaped pick, and after only a few chops, it was loose and in her hand. Arching her back, she pushed her feet off the rocks, the same pace as going down, arms at her sides. The water lightened the farther she went; halfway up, the silhouette of her tub appeared. Up, up until she popped out of the water, waist-high, settled back, dropped the oyster into the tub.
Both arms, at the elbows, hooked the tub. She wheezed, gasped, hoarse gasping, her lungs battling each other. The spring winds were strong, the sea clouds had made their way to and dissipated over Honshu. The top of the sea was so much warmer than the bottom. Nothing like a mountain. Sixty feet up, a mountain makes little difference in the temperature. Not the sea. Going down is like autumn into winter. Winter into autumn back up, but the thaw is very slow.
Her lungs cleared, her breathing no longer scratchy, she let out a long whistle, released the tub, gave it a shove off in the direction of the sun, and went back into the sea.
For the final time on that day, a day where she had done more than fifty dives, she headed back up, a lobster in her viselike grip. She surfaced, wheezing; the taut air squeezed out of her lungs to her throat, then through her chattering teeth. She showed Kenichi her lobsterbarely able to hold it out of the waterknowing that he was thrilled because, as always, she shared it with him.
But lunch wasn't on her mind. She was so cold that she couldn't even climb into the boat, so tired that she couldn't even drop the lobster into her tub. The cold and exhaustion fed off each other. With his net, Kenichi scooped the catch from her limp, rubbery arm, dropped it into the tub, again stretched out the long fishing net. This time, her empty hands took it; he pulled, lifted her onto the two-step ladder and into the boat.
The sun was almost directly overhead, and although it was well into the eighties, she would not get anywhere near warm for at least a few hours; some days not at all. In the first couple of months of the diving season, she and the other divers balanced on the edge of hypothermia. The boat closed in on the west shore of Shodo Island. Kenichi was jabbering something, the glare of the sun off the sea blinding, buyers gathered on the dock ready to purchase the catch. None of it did she notice, just knew it, for every day was the same. Her glassy gaze was distant, far out there somewhere beyond the blue-on-blue horizon.
Kenichi moored the boat to the cement dock, flung a cigarette stub into the water, helped her out, set her catch next to her, which some of the buyers were already checking over.
"Come on; let's get to the divers' hut before you become stiff enough for me to tie the boat to."
He said that nearly every day and, as if the words were magic, she found herself taking hold of his arm as he led her over to the divers' hut. On the way, she stopped, lowered herself onto the dock, her legs knotted in cramps. She writhed in pain but quickly remembered to try to relax her body. Relax, relax, she told herself, while all the time her body told her to tense, tense. Relax. Leg, neck, back, bottoms of feet. They could strike anywhere. Other divers gave her a quick glance, realizing it was only cramps. She was back on her feet, hobbling to the divers' hut. Again Kenichi reached out for her.
"Can you stand alone?"
"Yes. I'm fine now." She pushed him away, coughed several times, cleared her throat, spat into the water.
He left her there outside the hut, went back to sort everything. She entered, closed the door, and joined the others, her legs still tight as the knots of rope holding the boats to the dock.
Three generations in that hut. Silent as they stripped. Water dripped off the floor, rattling teeth, sucking sounds accompanying the shivers. There was no energy for talk, no need for it. They helped one another with the hard-to-reach placesstraps tied in the back of their tops, shedding hoods. She was no longer as self-conscious as she had been in her early months of diving. No longer embarrassed by her chubby but tight body, the gooseflesh, stone nipples, wrinkled hands and feet, tanned face like a mask against her white body, the shaking blue lips.
The unheated freshwater pinged off their bodies, only rinsed the outer skin of the sea from them. The other layers never left. Even in the long months of the off-season, she took the smell of the sea with her to sleep each night. She shivered getting dressed, shivered selling her catch, shivered while shivering.
She had had a good daythree small octopuses, a few dozen oysters, two sea urchins, and some seaweed, half of which she had put aside for her lunch, along with the lobster. The lobster that Kenichi had already removed and was preparing.
Wrapped in blankets, they sat in the divers' hut, drinking hot green or barley tea, cradling cups with hands still wrinkled by the sea, fighting not to think of the cold; in different ways, everyone went about distracting their thoughts from it. Mariko liked to hum old songs, wiggling her toes and fingers as much to warm them as to keep rhythm; Yurika fiddled with her Buddhist prayer beads; Yoko read an Agatha Christie mystery.
But for her, she thought back to that August, not even three years before, when she was certain that the water of the Inland Sea was warmer than it had ever been. Almost hot. She had asked one of the divers if there were any underwater volcanoes in the area. The women had looked up from the sorting of their day's catch, but nobody had laughed or teased like they usually did, her being the youngest of the divers, then barely sixteen. It would be weeks before anyone would dare to laugh, all waiting for the elder diver, Miyako, to show them when it would be okay to do so.
"Why do you ask that?"
She was annoyed that her question had slid out; it was only something that she was thinking.
"Why?" the woman asked again.
"It seems that the water is warmer than I can remember it."
"I've been diving in these waters more than half my life, and I'm old enough to be your mother, and I don't think the water is any different this year than it was before you were born."
She said nothing else.
The next morning, the eighth day of August, the sea was again warmer than normal; she was certain of it, but she kept inside what she thought. That maybe the heat from Hiroshimaless than a hundred miles awayhad traveled from its delta, skirted its way through and under the scores of tiny islands of the Inland Sea, warming the waters around Shodo Island. A hot tsunami.
And for that week of days, when the water warmed, the divers had worked quietly. Bawdy jokes tucked away for future ears. Going about their business, like the heated Inland Sea went about its: waves rolling in, tide pulling out, rolling in, pulling out, rolling, pulling.
It wasn't until the middle of August that she believed the water had returned to its normal ways. She was in her final few dives when she surfaced and Kenichi told her the diving was finished for the day.
"A few more."
"No more," he said.
There was not a tub, except for hers, out on the water. She'd never been there when a diver died, although she had heard about it happening. Maybe this was what it was like. Kenichi rowed to shore. Nobody was shucking oysters; they were standing around, a few leaning against the dock, eyes locked onto feet or rocks or just locked. Another bomb, she thought.
"Where did they drop this one?" she asked.
"The war is over," said Miyako, her voice raspy, as if she had smoked a couple of packs of Golden Bats every day of her seventy years, although she didn't smoke at all. She called it "a diver's voice."
"The Emperor spoke. We have surrendered."
"How . . ." she began to ask, but she followed Miyako's eyes to the small speaker hanging on the pole. She looked at the speaker and kept looking at it, as if she could squeeze words from it. Nothing came out. Some of the people around the dockfishermen, the divers, shoppersstunned, numb, others with eyes reddened by tears. She didn't know what to do, or say, or whether or not to believe the unbelievable. The Emperor's voice. Couldn't be true, must be true. She continued staring at the speaker for a long while, but nothing came out of it. Not a word.
But on this day, nearly three years later, as the divers slowly warmed up, so, too, did the sounds of lunch. Oyster shells clapped, clinked atop one another on the ground; hot miso soup was slurped, crunchy pickles crunched, one of the divers let out a fart, starting giggles, billowing into waves of laughter, some laughs coupled with still-clattering teeth, making them laugh all the more. She, too, laughed, but she was always aware of her legs, which could be thrown into cramps at any moment.
Lunch, next to the diving, was her favorite time of day. Her half of the lobster was tasty, boiled in salt water, a little lemon squeezed over the top. She sat the lobster on her barley, alongside the seaweed and several kinds of picklesradishes, bamboo, cucumbers. Still there was no real talking. A few burps, hiccups, a sneeze, as if that was how they warmed up their voices.
Then a loud scream. Yoko, lucky Yoko, held up a nice large white pearl from inside one of her oysters. It seems as if once a week Yoko finds one, she thought. In her four seasons of diving, she had found nineteen pearls, all at home inside a lacquer box, next to them an eighteen-inch string to measure the length of a future necklace. Yoko must have enough for two necklaces by now, she thought.
And this is how the talking began.
"You seem a little tired today, Chikako."
"Who, me?" Chikako pointed at herself, the chopsticks still in hand, a mouthful of octopus.
"That fine young husband of hers wouldn't let her alone last night."
"My husband?" Chikako laughed.
"I noticed you were walking a little unsteady this morning, even before the dive."
Again Chikako laughed, holding a mouthful of food, which she chewed and swallowed before adding, "I can hold my breath underwater longer than my husband can hold" She stopped, letting the silence grow, then took another bite of food, never finishing the sentence. The divers were howling. One of them let a piece of octopus dangle from her mouth, keeping the laughter up.
"How about our young diver there?"
All the women turned her way. She squirmed with nervousness. She was still the youngest of the divers. Every spring, she hoped that a new diver, a younger one, would start so she could move out of that position.
"Looks like she's been doing some naughty things, too."
Everyone's eyes were on her forearm, to which Yumi pointed; everyone anticipated Yumi's next words.
"Some sucker bite he gave you."
A few laughs. She looked at the arm, as did everybody. She didn't know what to say, for she had only noticed it a few days before. The reddish spot about the size of a scallop.
"I bumped it on a rock last week," she said.
"That's a sucker bite if I've ever seen one," Yumi added, passing around a pack of sweet red bean cakes. "Only problem is that your lover sure has his direction all wrong. You have to teach him where he's supposed to put that mouth of his. Has to go lower than that."