There was once a spreading, magnificent jade-green forest,
heavy with the spells of enchantresses and the pitter-patter of small animals,
and in this forest was a great stone tower, with neither stairs nor door, and only a tiny window.
Passing villagers, knights, and traveling princes came up to the tower,
but without any idea how to put the tower to use,
they merely rapped it with their knuckles for luck as they walked by.
It came to pass that from some time on,
villages were rife with gossip that the tower was inhabited by a small child,
with a face as white as snow, eyes that glimmered with blue shadows like the gloaming,
and rich, dark hair like midnight spun to silk.
The villagers, knights, and princes came to confirm this rumor,
and found that it was true.
In the little window was a girl named Loneliness,
and the tower had become so fresh and neat and romantic with her presence
that everyone who saw her was enchanted.
“What a pretty wife she would make!” some said.
“How innocently pure and unblemished she must be, locked in that tower for so long!” others speculated.
“What a grand feat it would be on my resume of heroic acts!” cried the knights and princes.
And so they rode by, whistling merry tunes and slashing the air with their clever swords.
“Hello, Loneliness!” they cried.
“How can someone as beautiful as you are stay locked up in that tower, year after year?
Come down and join us.”
“But how?” she inquired, her eyes bright and lovely.
“There is a spell on this tower, so that I can never escape.”
“Then we will rescue you,” they offered. “Let down your long hair; we will use it as a rope to climb up to save you.”
Then she would only shake her head and give them a sad smile lovelier still.
“The spell is such that I can never leave,” she said.
“Those who wish to help me can do nothing but climb up and live with me forever,
and I would not wish to burden anyone with that. I am peaceful and content as I am.
So go on your way, dear traveler, and thank you for your offer.”
And from her rose-strewn window with silk curtains,
from which she peeped her bright and beautiful face,
she would sometimes throw gold coins or lovely paintings, or swords for broken knights,
or water skins for the weary and thirsty.
Many travelers came by, to admire her, accept her gifts, and would go away shaking their heads, exclaiming,
“What a beautiful, noble girl! And what a pity it is that there is no way to go up the tower to save her!”
One day, the king’s first son came by to see her, and as he was a wise young prince,
he saw the tears that fell from her eyes as she bade travelers go on their way.
He took the gold coins she threw and went on his way,
but at night he came back, and called her name softly.
“You lie, Loneliness,” he said to her.
“You are not peaceful and content.
You are lonely and sick at heart, and you wish to escape from this tower you hate.”
“Ah! How did you know that?” she asked, looking out the window.
“But I cannot burden the kind travelers with my sorrows.
Let them pass on and live their lives with happiness. Up here there is naught but misery.”
“You are so beautiful and good, any place with your presence is surely worth living in,” he said.
“Let down your hair, and let me live with you and be your love.”
“You are mistaken,” she said, “you will regret this, I am sure.”
“Don’t cry by yourself any longer,” he urged.
So she unfastened her silky curls and tossed them out the window,
a cascading waterfall of rich, soft tresses that glimmered in the fading sunlight.
The prince seized her curls and climbed into the tower.
When he arrived, he looked around, and his heart sank.
It is all very well to speak of rescuing a damsel in distress, and living with her forever;
but reality is not so romantic.
The small room in the tower stank of stagnant air and urine.
The floor was cracked and flawed.
The silk curtains and roses at the windows were withering.
And up close, the girl was not so enchantingly beautiful as he had imagined.
In fact, she was only a normal girl, perhaps a little prettier than most,
with black eyes dim with weeping and lips parted in timid hopefulness.
And she was feeble from lack of exercise, and although she had painted the walls richly
with intricate patterns, flowers, and drawings of the most fantastic design and scope,
the walls were also crumbling and dirty.
He was disappointed.
“Let me back down,” he said roughly, and the girl understood.
She threw her curls down the tower, and grabbing them as a rope,
he hurried down as quickly as his legs could carry him.
Years passed, with all the villagers boasting of the lovely princess locked up in the tower,
the princess whose smile and sweet songs brought such happiness to their village,
and how sad they were that they could not save her.
Now there are two endings to this story.
If you like happy endings, here is one.
Another prince came by after several years, and once again begged the girl to let him up.
“The tower is a dark, dirty, unhappy place,” she warned him, “and you will not want to stay.”
But he spent days persuading her otherwise,
and when he climbed up and saw all the cracks and mold and running paint and spiders,
when he saw that behind the magical princess
was a frightened girl with wide pleading eyes
and hands besmeared with paint to keep from going mad from solitude,
he wept and hugged her tightly.
“I’m sorry it took me so long,” he said,
“I’m sorry that you feel this place is a prison. But because you are in it, to me, it is a palace.”
He climbed back down, but only to return with buckets of water and fresh clothes,
hot loaves of bread and rice cakes, gold thread and purple linen and soap and herbs,
and saws and hammers bigger than the horses in his royal stable.
They hammered the floor of the tower to the ground, then built a flight of stairs to the top,
so that although Loneliness could not escape from the tower,
she now had five rooms instead of one, and could run up and down and explore it all with joy.
Then they scrubbed and painted and polished the inside of the tower together,
until it became a garden full of rare flowers,
a palace full of gold and silver and glistening marble,
and a comfortable room with every amenity possible.
The prince rode out every day, but he also came back every night, bringing her new delights:
music sheets, a harp, chess games, and pastries.
And one day he opened his heart and showed her that inside,
it was also full of manure and broken dreams and malfunctioning machinery.
She wept and kissed him and said, “I’m sorry it took me so long.”
And they worked on a magic spell to fix him together.
But that is another story.
And if you are a cynic who refuses to believe in happily-ever-afters,
here is an ending for you.
Loneliness let down her hair for several more princes after that,
each firmer and more insistent than the last,
and each time she grew better at hiding the cracks and crevices and ugliness of her tower.
But each left sooner or later.
And Loneliness grew bitter and disillusioned,
so that one day when the villagers came to her tower she threw down,
together with the gold coins and flowers and paintings,
a long stream of glistening hair.
She had cut all of her lovely locks.
And from then on she continued to cut her hair once every few months,
handing out her tresses to birds and the forest creatures to use for their nests and bedding.
The princes stopped asking if she needed to be rescued,
because she grew old and no longer beautiful,
and her midnight hair turned gray.
The shower of gold coins and paintings dwindled to a trickle.
Then the tiny window of the tower shut tightly,
and no more was heard from Loneliness,
the girl who could never come out of her tower.
Dear Past Me,
I know everything seems hopeless right now.
The darkness caves in with no way out;
friendships crumble; first loves shatter; family unravels;
pain and anxiety for the people you love most drag you down into despair.
You wake up in the morning and see nothing but flat blankness in your life.
You look at white and think skulls;
you run out of the school festival and wander the school in your pale white dress,
pressing your feet onto the last petals of the rain-torn cherry blossoms.
You grow sharp and brittle around the edges, ready to break and unable to trust.
You look in the mirror and think,
“Not clever enough…not charming enough…not pretty enough…
not even kind enough.”
You think you will never be loved.
Well, I want to tell you: thank you for holding on.
Don’t be so harsh on yourself.
Not everything is your fault, and not everything can be explained.
(He’ll forgive you someday.)
(Your family will be threaded through with hope and stability.)
(She’ll come back to you, and say sorry.)
And there will be a day when you look at the mirror without thinking, “You’re ugly.”
And there will come a day when you will be loved, more than you can imagine or return.
There will come a day when you miss these memories and treasure them dearly,
in the leaves of your diary, in the shards of your soul.
This, too, will pass.
Dear Present Me,
So this isn’t the end.
And relationships or universities don’t always define who you are.
This is a beautiful, grace-filled time, with people full of kindness,
with everyone you love giving you the wealth of their affection,
without deadlines or depression.
Let’s be grateful for it.
Be kinder and more patient with those you love,
because you might not be able to see many of them for a longer time than you think.
Use this time to grow closer with God;
it’s equally important to hold tightly to him in times of peace as in times of war and confusion.
Try to enjoy the present. Don’t lose hope for the future. And let’s not regret the past.
You’re okay. You’ll be okay.
Dear Future Me,
Are you excited? Or sad?
Do you regret what I’ve done? I’m sorry.
Or are you looking back and saying thank you? I’ll try harder.
It’s my job to shape you.
Keep writing. Hold on.
Thanks. Wish you were here.
Once upon a time, when men and women stamped footprints in the sky,
when they broke their noses and built them again for beauty,
when the average person spent nine years sitting in front of a small black box with brightly moving images,
there lived a poor fisherman and his wife by the sea.
They had three squalling, scrawny children with sticky fingers and spiky hair,
and when the fifth was born, the fisherman and his wife were exhausted.
“Oh, it’s another girl,” his wife sighed, pushing herself up to stare sadly at her baby.
Weariness rippled across her face like sand wrinkling on the shore. “One more mouth to feed.”
“She has very little other than a mouth,” the fisherman snapped, tipping a glass of cheap drink into his mouth.
“Look at her! Useless from the day she is born!”
The baby hiccuped, quietly. She had neither arms nor legs,
but her eyes were steady and heavy with sadness,
as if she knew she was not wanted by her parents.
His wife laid her finger gently on the little one’s cheek. “Ah! She has a pretty smile, though.”
“Pah!” The fisherman spat on the floor contemptuously.
“Who has ever seen a pretty smile raise money to pay our debts?
Without arms to work or feet to carry her around, a pretty smile is useless.
It will not even tempt a very foolish man to marry her.”
“Marriage is not everything,” said his wife.
“Yes, it is,” the fisherman shouted. “Look what it has done to you.”
He sneaked a quick look at the baby, then pushed himself away with disgust. “Look at it! It is ugly as sin.”
His wife closed her eyes. She felt very sick at heart. “Then what do you want to do?”
“Why, throw her away,” he growled. He knew he was being cruel, and so he spoke very roughly.
“Are we millionaires and philanthropists, to take care of a useless thing like that?”
“But she is our baby,” said his wife, “and besides, the neighbors will talk.”
“Tell them she died as soon as she was born,” he said.
“I don’t want to throw her away,” said his wife, sadly.
“Better die right now before she grows up to a life she will hate,” said the fisherman.
“When she finds herself sitting in a chair for ten, twenty years,
without a single person who wants her, and a heap of debts at our door,
and both of us grudging every bite she eats, she will want to die anyway.
Now stop arguing, and hand me my key.”
“You are a very drunk and selfish man,” said his wife.
“Shut up and hand them over!” he barked,
slamming his fist down on the table.
“Perhaps you are right,” said his wife bitterly.
“Perhaps it is better that the child will never grow up with a father like you.”
And so that evening, the fisherman rigged up his puttering boat
with its oil-splattered sides and sand-speckled boards, and rode away from the house.
Then he took another swig of drink to steel himself,
tied the baby in a sack with some stones, and hurled her into the ocean.
“It is better for everyone this way,” he said, and rode home quickly without looking back.
Down, down, down the baby went,
from the waters where plankton drifted in emerald green,
and cloudy jellyfish bloomed like transparent flowers,
and bloated fish swam lazily by like drowned islands,
and a graceful manta ray who circled the sack curiously once or twice before catching it on her back.
“This looks interesting,” she said to herself. “Perhaps I shall take it to the other mantas. They will know what to do.”
Manta rays are docile, gentle, graceful creatures.
When they opened the sack and found the baby girl without arms or legs, they were deeply saddened.
“We would never throw away our own young,” said the mother mantas, shaking their heads.
“We would protect our family with our life, fins or no fins, tail or no tail,” said the brave male mantas.
“And why not protect her?” asked a voice –
quiet enough to leave the sand undisturbed,
but with an echo that made the caverns and coral reefs tremble.
The other manta rays hushed and drew together as the oldest of the manta rays swam forward slowly.
He was a healer, one who knew the secrets of sunlit ocean magic and the deep wisdom of the dark trenches.
“Why not accept her as part of our family, since she has no other?”
And placing his fins on her, he whispered a secret spell,
woven of melted pearls and broken sand and the cries of newborn beluga whales.
And when he drew his fins away, the other manta rays were silent.
Then one by one, they drew forth and touched the baby gently.
The baby’s eyes had opened again, and she drew in a shuddering breath.
Her body was clothed in black and white,
and from the place where her arms and legs should have been
were long, graceful, glossy black fins and a small, shining tail.
Thus was the little mantamaid born.
The little mantamaid grew swiftly amid the love and care of her elegant, black-and-white family.
The manta rays adored her. They thought her a little strange at first,
for they could never quite get used to her startling eyes,
her way of smiling, or crying, or playing games, or drawing in the sand,
or doing unfamiliar human things they had never imagined doing before.
But they loved her very much all the same, and treasured her as tenderly as a beautiful jewel.
And her questions! She would never stop asking questions.
“Mamma, why do dolphins never sleep?”
There were so many kind female manta rays that the little mantamaid had many mammas.
“They do sleep, dear, only with one brain at a time. They have to be ready for any danger.”
“Dangerous to dolphins! But dolphins are so clever! What could hurt them?”
“Many things, my dear. Cleverness does not always mean safety.”
“Well, then, Mamma, why do flatworms fight each other before they have babies?”
“Because both of them do not want to be the mother.
The one who wins the fight is the father, who swims away,
while the mother has to take care of their young. Being a mother comes with a lot of chores to do.”
“That is funny!” And the mantamaid laughed merrily,
clear, happy laughter that rang through the ocean five times as quickly as up in the air and tinkled like silver bells.
“It is funny, but it is also stupid,” she added, suddenly frowning.
“Fathers should be just as responsible as mothers. Being a father doesn’t mean you can run away.”
The manta rays looked at each other, remembering how they had found the little mantamaid.
“Oh, yes,” they agreed. “But my dear, flatworms are very primitive.
And we all have different ways of keeping alive. We do not expect much of them,”
and they gave small, delicate sniffs.
Manta rays do not have a high opinion of flatworms.
So the little mantamaid grew, asking questions and pondering answers,
weaving scarves plucked from kelp forests and darting through corals,
a drop of quicksilver swirling through the ocean.
She explored the sea, swimming and gliding and occasionally jumping into the air with the other manta rays.
They flapped their wings together for a few seconds of pure air before hitting the surface with a bang of water.
And the little mantamaid, who could never resist a trick,
taught the others how to somersault before landing, for a little extra fun.
“We are slow gliders,” said the older manta rays sometimes, gently.
“Slow down a little, my little mantamaid. Life is not all about jumping and flying.”
So the little mantamaid lived on, bright and lively, but a little lonely.
She loved the manta rays, but she did not have anyone she could really talk to.
The ocean is a large place, and most fishes do not have much to say.
Then she reached her thirteenth birthday.
On her thirteenth birthday, the manta rays rose to the surface of the ocean to feed, like any other night.
Manta rays love eating zooplankton, and because zooplankton rise to the surface of the ocean at night,
the mantas also feed beneath the moon.
While the older manta rays glided in circles to swirl the plankton into one spot,
the little mantamaid spotted a faint light gleaming on the nearby shore.
“Plankton always float around light,” she said. “Maybe there is more for the other mantas to eat over there.”
“Come back soon, and be careful,” said the other manta rays gently. “Humans are always on the shore, my dear.”
“Yes. Meaty creatures that walk like crabs and have skin as soft as jellyfish. You used to be a human once, remember?”
“Oh! Then, please, I must take a look at a human,” cried the little mantamaid eagerly.
Flapping her fins, she circled nearer and nearer to the light,
until the water grew so shallow that sand scratched at her white belly and cold night air flowed over her hair.
When she drew closer, she realized the light was coming from a thin, dark-haired boy,
who was holding a small star in his hands.
He had hair like her hair.
He had a mouth like her mouth, one that frowned and smiled and laughed.
And he had eyes, bright with ambition, dreamy and black as the ocean trenches.
Eyes that turned suddenly and looked at her.
They looked at each other for a long moment,
the boy and little mantamaid,
the little mantamaid and boy,
silently, fearfully, wonderfully.
Then, slowly and hesitantly, the boy jerked his hand upward – and waved.
“Hello,” he said in a hushed voice.
The little mantamaid opened her eyes wide.
“Hello,” she replied, simply.
“Are you going to drag me down to the ocean and eat me?” asked the boy, rather hopefully.
The little mantamaid broke into laughter. “Why would I do that?”
“Aren’t you a mermaid?”
“No. I’m a mantamaid.”
“Too bad. It would be kind of cool getting attacked by a mythical creature.
Are you sure you don’t attack humans?” He smiled.
“I’m very sure,” said the little mantamaid firmly. “Are you going to tear out my gills?”
“Why would I do that?”
“Aren’t you a human?”
“Yes. But I don’t want to hurt you.” He held up his hands in peace,
and the brightly glowing star in his hands dropped down to the ground and rolled into the sea.
“Oops, there goes my waterproof flashlight. Hey, you can have it, if you want.”
“You’re giving it to me?” The little mantamaid was very surprised. “Why?”
“It’s a present.”
“What does that mean,” she asked, “a present?”
He smiled again. “Something you give for free when you become friends,” he said.
“Although I’m not sure what you would do with a flashlight. I use it to hunt for shells.”
“You eat shells?”
“No. I like to collect them.” He spread his fingers and showed her his findings:
clumps of seaweed, pebbles worn smooth by the waves, and broken molluscs gritty with sand.
Struck with inspiration, he added, “It’s like the ocean is giving presents to the shore.”
The little mantamaid dimpled – suddenly, and radiantly.
“Oh, I see,” she said.
She snapped her teeth around the handle of the flashlight and slid back into the sumptuous coldness of the ocean.
Her hair bloomed around her like sea anenomes. “Would you like to swim with me?”
“No, thanks. It looks really cold.” He waved. “Goodbye, mantamaid.”
The next evening, when the little mantamaid returned to the shore,
the boy was waiting on top of a craggy gray rock nearest to the ocean.
His eyes lit up when she swam forward.
He leaped into the water and waded forward, waves slamming into his chest.
“You’re back,” he mumbled, happily. “I was hoping you’d come back.”
“I have presents,” said the little mantamaid, sweetly.
On the wet silk of the sand she laid out her gifts.
Cone shells and conch shells, pink-lipped and ridged and dotted and smooth.
“Just like the ocean to the shore.”
During that summer, the little mantamaid and the boy grew into very close friends.
She brought him shells and seaweed,
and he brought her different things every time, fascinating things:
luscious peaches that tasted like sunlight and love,
coffee that stung and made her blink in dazzled confusion,
paper boats that floated on the water,
He told her little about his family, but he did tell her this:
his parents were moving away from each other,
not because of plankton blooms or migration or mating patterns
but simply because being with each other made them feel sick and ugly.
That his grandparents ran a restaurant near the sea where they sold sushi and fish and ate squids live.
That he came here every summer, just to escape his parents fighting.
That he was lonely and bored, that the world seemed as dark and murky as an abyssal plain,
and when he had hoped for her to be a mermaid and eat him,
it was partly because he felt there was nobody who would miss him when he was gone.
They played hide-and-seek.
He closed his eyes and counted to ten, and then he would search for her in the shallow waters along the shore,
shifting the thin layers of sand, shoving aside rocks.
She usually won, and then he would fall back onto the sand, laughing,
while she jumped triumphantly in the air and landed with a loud splash.
When summer ended, they were both very sad.
“Will you still be here next year?” he asked, perching on the rock.
The little mantamaid nodded. “I’ll try.”
“Don’t forget me!” he said. He smiled shyly. “You’re the best friend I ever had.”
Next summer, when the little mantamaid swam slowly back to the shore for the first time in months,
the boy was waiting for her.
A light broke onto his face when their eyes met.
“Mantamaid!” he shouted. “You’re here!”
The little mantamaid tilted her head to the side.
“You’ve grown taller,” she said softly.
“Yeah. I’m almost a man now.” He grinned.
“You look a little like the fishermen in the boats now.”
“Don’t worry. I’m never going to cut out your gills.”
She tinkled with laughter. “I know you aren’t. Now let’s swim.”
They spent their days peacefully, glowingly.
The little mantamaid still brought him seashells.
And he still brought her human presents:
dandelions, a pinch of glitter he sprinkled on her shoulders,
and a little jar of half-used perfume he rubbed into her hair.
She laughed and sniffed her hair,
sneezing playfully at him before diving back down into the ocean to wash it out.
They solved puzzles together.
He brought puzzles that showed her Parisian landscapes, Chinese temples,
paintings of pianos and princesses wearing pearls.
She imitated the songs of humpback whales for him, making him laugh.
He read stories about the ocean to her, and she corrected him when the stories got their information wrong.
And then she told him stories about the ocean:
the deep, crisscrossing lines ploughed into the sea bottom by dragging icebergs,
the Brittle Star City where the stars could break off their arms and grow them again,
the sea mountains cloaked in darkness,
and the way humpback whale babies slept underneath their mother’s bellies
to keep from floating up to the surface of the water.
“Isn’t that beautiful?” she asked. “How the weight of parents can keep children from floating away into danger?”
“Yes,” he replied, darkly, “but sometimes parents can be so heavy their weight crushes the children they try to protect.”
“Humans are not humpback whales,” she retorted, before splashing back into the water.
One night, he brought something that looked like a long white rope
and plugged one end into her ear before plugging one into his.
“Is this a fishing line at last?” she asked playfully.
“Don’t joke about stuff like that. Now listen,” he said,
and all the oceans rushed together,
and the moon and stars spilled into the sea,
and everything beautiful and sunlit in the world came together
into the notes of the lovely, heartbreaking, beautiful sound that flowed into her ears.
Listen, he said.
This is called music, he said.
It was the most wonderful present he had ever given her.
The summer they both turned fifteen, he was lazy and sad.
There were no more puzzles. No more hide-and-seek. No more stories.
“What’s the use?” he asked, lying down on the rocks and staring at the sky.
“Life is meaningless. It’s full of ugliness.
Everyone is trying to kill each other with lying and hate and selfishness and there is nothing we can do about it.”
“Manta rays are filter feeders,” said the little mantamaid.
“We drink in the debris of the ocean and let clean water out.
You should do that, too.
Accept the bad and the good,
and try to make sure that what you let out into the world is good.”
“It’s useless, I tell you,” he said, angrily.
“What’s the use of being a filter feeder in a world of filth?”
“It’s not all filth.”
“Yes it is. There’s not a spot of cleanness or love anywhere.”
“I love you,” said the little mantamaid, hesitantly.
The boy looked at her for a moment, surprised.
“Ah, you’re lying, just to make me feel better. Don’t be sentimental,” he said.
“I’m not,” she said. “Manta rays are not sentimental.”
“You’re not a manta ray,” he said. “You’re not even a human.”
“Whatever I am, I love you,” she said simply.
“What does love even mean to you?” he asked, sitting up.
“It means that the person you love is more important to you than all the oceans in the world,” she said.
“It means that you could swim down to the midnight zone and still feel a flashlight star shining in your heart.
It means that you could swim to the Arctic to find plankton and still feel summer in the tips of your fins.
It means that the person himself is a present in your life.
Not the things that he brings or the words that he says.”
The boy was silent for a long time, and when she looked at him again, she saw that he was crying.
“Life isn’t as easy as that,” he said.
“But that’s what makes it so exciting,” she said.
He looked at her. “Thank you,” he said. “Being with you every summer is the only present I have left in my life.
I’m sorry for everything I said. Now, let’s listen to music.”
At least they still had that. For hours at a time the boy turned on music and lay there,
eyes squeezed shut tightly, barely breathing.
The little mantamaid was worried.
He was clamming up. He was shriveling inside.
He was stung, he was paralyzed, by the venom in his life.
But there was nothing she could do about it.
he was back.
“You’re back,” the little mantamaid said softly. “I didn’t think you’d come back.”
“I missed you.” He smiled and took off his jacket. “See, this is my school uniform.”
The mantamaid laughed. “Now you have a white belly and a black back like me,” she said.
“Yes. I’m going to high school now. I’m studying marine biology and physics.
I’m learning how to build essays and correct equations and memorize hard words.
But I still wanted to see you this summer.”
“And do you still think life is ugly?” she asked, laying a smooth pebble onto his lap.
His eyes clouded over. But he shook his head, turning the pebble over in his hands.
“If there is even a little piece of love to hold onto in my life – even if it is as small as this pebble – that is worth living for.”
“I will bring you all the stones in the sea,” she said.
“I will bring you all the pearls that have been hidden and all the songs that have been sung.
And you will see that there is more beauty in the world than you can ever imagine.”
“But we’re destroying it,” he said.
“Humans are destroying it even as we speak.”
“Fight it,” she said, bringing her face close to his and her voice to a fierce whisper.
“We’ll fight to keep the world beautiful, and we will succeed. You will see. But first, come swim with me.”
He took a running leap and dove into the ocean. They went down, down, down into the darkness together.
They had fireworks, that summer. The boy asked the little mantamaid to go see them.
“Ah, you know I can’t come out of the ocean!” she said with a smile.
“But they have the fireworks on this tourist boat. I’ll tell you where it is.”
“No, don’t tell me,” she said. “Show me.”
And so they swam,
through light-dappled emerald waters,
through melted topaz and clumps of seaweed,
through spindrift and sprays of silver,
until they reached the boat.
“It’ll start any minute now,” he whispered.
“Is this another present?” she asked.
He thought about it. “I guess it’s a thank you,” he said, “and a farewell.”
“What is that,” she asked, “a farewell?”
But before he had time to reply, the fireworks exploded.
Circles of fire exploded in starbursts of color.
Red streaks hissed through the air like bubble nets, white streaks sizzled through them,
and then, just as they fizzed out, fireflies of gold and purple flames.
Then a volcano eruption of bright pink.
Then a school of white-hot silver fish flying through the air.
Finally, a confetti spray of magnificent greens:
bottle-green and lime and olive,
jade and emerald and turquoise and pale pale opal,
flecking the air like snowflakes.
“They are beautiful,” the little mantamaid said softly. “They are like music in the sky.”
The boy leaned over and pressed his lips to her hair.
The mantamaid turned and looked at him, eyes shining.
They are like you, he whispered.
I’m sorry, he whispered.
I love you, too.
The next summer, the little mantamaid came back to the shore,
but the boy was no longer there.
“Where are you?” she called.
There was no answer.
“I have brought you presents,” she whispered.
But the waves drowned out her voice.
The summer after that,
and the summer after that,
the little mantamaid returned,
her fingers full of pebbles and pearls,
moon snail shells and queen conch lips,
periwinkle shells and bright, pointy whelks.
But there was no one to take them.
And the little mantamaid finally understood how the ocean must feel to kiss the shoreline
year after year, century after century, no matter how many times it is sent away.
Years passed. The little mantamaid stopped going to the shore.
She leaped and glided, soared and flapped through the ocean.
There were times when she felt as full of venom as a box jellyfish,
but then she would look down and see the flaring colors of a tiger cowry,
the pearly spiral of a moon snail shell,
or hear a snatch of music drifting sweetly across the waves,
and then her anger and sadness melted away.
“I was wrong,” she told herself. “His presence was not the only present he gave me. His memories have made the whole ocean a new present to me.”
One night, years later, she was swimming across the ocean when she saw a ship roaring into her sight.
Wine-glasses tinkled like hundreds of silver bells.
Laughter sparkled in the air, and honey-gold furs and rich dresses
swept the floor of the deck in smooth waves.
Then she caught a glimpse of a man sitting near the rails, books piled near his feet.
His eyes were clouded with sadness, and in his lap was a pile of pebbles and rainbow-colored shells.
“I have given him the ocean as a present as well,” the little mantamaid thought, gliding away from the boat.
“That is where he belongs. But every time he looks at the ocean, or at the pebbles and shells in his lap,
he will remember me, if only for a moment. And perhaps he will remember the music, the laughter –
perhaps he will remember what it felt like to be loved.
That is almost enough to keep living.”
And when she thought this, the little mantamaid was happy.
We were infinite.
We prayed, we sang, we dreamed.
We were children of God who dined on cold gimbap and limp kimchi
left over from Sunday services.
We were children of dust,
but breathed in the words of millennium-old prayers
and believed in a sea of eternity.
We were pastor’s children.
This is how it began:
with the brittle, calligraphic quiver of trees across the Bukhan Mountains.
With the cold kiss of steel against my ten-year-old fingers
curled tightly around an electric heater,
straining to carry it uphill to Kookmin University.
With a school that looked dreary and desolate in the barren winter morning:
wet-eyed, bedraggled students shuffling across our path,
clutching thick textbooks to thin chests.
When we reached an empty classroom,
chalk dust settled faintly over everything from the broken chairs to graying walls,
we knelt in a circle with Father and Mother and joined our hands in prayer.
There, the first kernel fell into a frozen plot of holy ground.
There, our church and home was born.
We watched the church grow with hope and misgiving;
we scratched our fingers bloody
against the husk of privations that sheathed the green shoots.
We shared our mother with university students who called her at 3 a.m.
to piece their broken lives together;
we watched, wide-eyed, as unemployed graduates she had been teaching English
for free threw tantrums of insecurity or tore their textbooks in two.
We mishmashed our own language
to speak fluently of the secrets of our least favorite church members:
scandals, sex tapes, drinking sprees, and violence.
And when insults were hurled and chairs thrown,
when members left church because “pastors shouldn’t jiggle their legs”
and our ears ached with angry quarrels,
we scrambled under the blanket covers and spun our own world:
bright with crystal tears and rivers full of glow-worms,
a world where reality ended and fiction began.
We were sisters and pirates, adventurers and animals.
We were three princesses locked in a quest to find goodness,
and in our world there was always a happily ever after.
“I’ll go back to America, and take you with me,” I said,
springing lightly onto the sofa and lifting my fingers upward:
for the world as if we were three young bluejays,
that having migrated back to a strange, cold homeland
that cast us out like foreigners,
we could simply beat our wings and fly back home.
“We’ll become successful, rich, and famous.
And then we’ll give our parents all the beautiful joys they deserve.”
“We will,” Lydia and Eunice promised, as solemnly as an oath,
snuggling and kicking under the frayed white sheets.
We were Esther, Lydia, and Eunice –
bunny, poodle, and pug;
classic, creamy, and spicy;
vanilla, chocolate, strawberry;
pastel, purple, and red.
In a world where so many hurt our parents,
and where it took all our prayers
to hold our family (let alone the church) together,
my coldness towards the church members
multiplied my adoration for my sisters until it ached.
Of course, there were also beautiful people in our church
who threw hearth-glow over our lives as well as the ungrateful;
they made our lives richer, and I loved them tentatively but loyally.
There were “older sisters”
who read Ecclesiastes with me over fresh pizza and laughter,
designed my poetry books, filmed my spoken word,
and massaged my mother during sleepovers;
“older brothers” who took us out for pizza
and gave us chocolates and compliments when we most needed them.
Yet it was all the more heartbreaking when we hugged them goodbye –
sending them off to the workplace, to different countries, or even to heaven.
One of the hardest pangs came when Young-sang and Mi-sang had to go.
They were two toddlers, aged three and five,
whom I had taken care of since infancy.
Young-sang, he was simplicity and coconut jelly, wonder and confidence.
At that time he asserted he would marry me when he grew up,
and nagged me for more cookies.
Mi-sang was coy and clever, prim-mouthed and pink.
At first, she refused to give me her hand
except when she teetered down the stairs,
but as we grew closer, she latched tightly onto me
and howled if anyone else tried to carry her.
She was my secret favorite.
In a tiny church with only one service, we were their Sunday School teachers.
Holding hands tightly, we ran around Kookmin University for hours every week,
acting out Bible stories and chanting songs to ward off mountain monsters.
We braided flowers for Mi-sang’s hair
and kissed Young-sang’s cheeks for luck every week.
The day their parents decided to leave the church,
we stared numbly after their departing car,
watching them wave their purple dinosaur dolls and cry,
They must have forgotten our existence by now.
We were the children caught betwixt sand and stardust;
we smiled brightly, and spoke politely,
but our strings were strained taut with untold words.
Our hearts bled and beat and bristled with trampled love.
Yet just as death is the father of beauty,
those bleak days spent huddling in frozen, borrowed classrooms
has shaped me into the person I am now.
I have grown up in a household devoted to serving in every way possible:
in silent, patient endurance;
through insincerity and backstabbing, ingratitude and hunger;
saying goodbye sorrowfully, yet welcoming new members joyously;
poor, yet making many rich;
having nothing, yet possessing everything.
My calling is different from that of my parents:
where they healed with prayer, I long to heal with prose, with poetry.
But through our family’s church,
I have learned innumerable lessons in kindness and love.
I learned to share my last cent with those in need.
I learned to touch thorns and think roses.
I learned to hold onto my sisters with every inch of my heart,
because they were the only treasures I were sure of
in a spinning flux of farewells.
And most of all, I learned the grace of gratitude,
in spaces small as well as great.
That, at least, is a beginning.
As I went to the grocery store to buy onions for Mother,
a middle-aged man with a red face corrugated with flesh dragged himself in behind me.
“One bottle of soju!” he barked, slapping down a wad of bills.
“That’ll be one thousand and three hundred won, sir,” the woman at the counter said,
placing a shiny green glass bottle before him.
It doesn’t cost much to drink yourself to idiocy, I thought disapprovingly.
As the man drew nearer I was hit with a whiff of cigarette stench.
And one addiction often leads to another.
Then, much more sharply than the stench of cigarettes,
my conscience smote me as I picked up the onions and strode into the open air.
What are you doing, Esther?
What right do you have to judge this man for his drinking and smoking?
Are you a perfect person yourself?
Isn’t this snide judging, this sniffy better-than-thou attitude
just as horrible as any addiction?
Color flashed into my cheeks as I reminded myself,
You have no right to throw the first stone.
One of the worst flaws about good people,
(and I’ve met almost nobody exempt from this flaw)
is that the better and kinder and more honorable they are,
the more harshly they judge those around them.
I don’t call myself a very good person.
But too often I find myself criticizing the people around me impulsively and unsympathetically.
I have to keep correcting myself mid-thought.
I know that if I were to be dragged before the pedestal of justice,
my sins and flaws and cracks and weaknesses would be ludicrous and numerous.
I hope I can pull out the dregs of hypocritical judgment inside me
before I become too old and too inflexible to change my ways.
But here are two things that comfort me.
Firstly, I read somewhere that the first thought that pops into your mind
is the product of society;
it’s the second thought that defines who you are.
So when I walk into a subway and think scornfully, “Ugh, what an ugly face!”
and immediately snap fiercely back at myself,
“What do you know about ugliness?
Who are you, Miss Universe? Do you think you’re remotely pretty enough to judge anyone for being ugly?
F**** you and your society-manipulated,
surface-shallow standards. That woman is beautiful just the way she is,
and shame on you for thinking any different.
I hope she has an awesome day and feels dearly loved.
And if her expression looks pained,
perhaps she has a suffering within her you can’t even dare to think about.
So shut up and don’t be an unpleasant, stuck-up jerk yourself, Esther Ra.”
I like to think that my second thought is more sincere than my first.
Secondly, that’s what writing is for:
to capture the small, transient, beautiful qualities of people
that are often forgotten amid the everyday flaws that irritate.
Writing is there to remind me of the brightness of the orb,
despite the craters that might deface its surface.
The way she knelt by the side of my bed, saying quietly,
“I’ll never let anyone be unkind to you, Esther, ever.”
The way he bought me yogurt milk when I was near breaking down in tears.
The way my little sisters saved their favorite meal to share with me when I got home.
These things will continue to sparkle in pieces of my heart,
however many times it gets broken by anything else.
Y once told me,
“If you don’t love that person deeply, you don’t have the right to criticize.
I never criticize your parents because I know I don’t love them as much as you do.”
I was struck with his words then, and still remind them to myself now:
Before criticizing, be kind.
Before you sit in judgment, stand up for them in love.
Don’t rush forward to throw the first stone,
I tell myself.
Be the first to clean the wounds of other stones away.
A familiar face,
glimmering faintly above the bookshelves like a distant star.
I walk quickly forward, barely realizing my breath is gone,
barely comprehending how much I’d actually missed him
in just the length of time it takes for him to take my hand and pull me into a hug.
“Where were you?”
“Where were you?”
“Have you been waiting for me long?”
“Not very much,” I say,
and the words carry more significance and weight in their four syllables than I had meant.
We head into a bakery: sweet and spicy fragrance, spun sugar and the warmth of fresh-baked flour.
A woman with smoky makeup and a faraway smile pops up behind the counter, saying,
“We’re only open for one more hour.”
He leans over the loaves of bread, pointing here and there.
“This one is very good…and I’ve tried this, it’s delicious.” Recommending quietly.
I pick up a sugar-crystal apple tart and turn it over gingerly in my hands before placing it on the counter.
“This, please. And a green tea latte and a cup of tea.”
I slap down a million-won bill; at the same time, he slaps down his credit card.
“I’ll pay,” we both blurt.
The woman lifts her eyebrows, condescending and faintly amused.
“Oh? And whose money am I supposed to take?”
“Mine,” he says.
“Mine,” I insist, glaring at him.
She chuckles softly and picks up the card. “Then I’ll take yours, sir. Oh…why don’t I be generous for once.
You can have another loaf of bread for free: take your pick.”
Amid our startled looks of gratitude, she grabs a coffee bun and flips it onto our tray.
Quickly we walk to a nearby table and sit down, my coat flaring open like the petals of a flower.
He raises his eyebrows at my pastel mint-colored skirt and says, smiling, “Wow. You look pretty today,”
just as he does every time he sees me.
Stability. Safety. Kindness, and protective admiration: these are qualities he will always represent to me.
These qualities are what make me like him so dearly;
but perhaps these qualities are why I feel that we are so different.
“No, I’m not.”
“Yes you are. You’re being shy.”
“Oh, shut up.”
He grins. I flip him my fourth finger.
“You curse too much.”
“It’s my fourth finger, not my third.”
“You always blush when I say that you’re pretty.”
“Ah, you spoil me,” I say rather earnestly, coloring, and turn the subject:
“As for prettiness, I saw a really, really, really pretty girl on the subway today.”
“Why? Did you look in the mirror?”
Wow. Points for creativity. Caught by surprise, I blush again, then burst into laughter.
“Oh, my goodness. You’re getting pretty good at this. No, of course not.
But what I was meaning to say is, she was very drunk –
shouting ‘Idiot!’ and ‘Trash!’ over and over again in the subway compartment.
I felt very sorry for her,
and very sorry that someone so pretty should be saying those things.
I hope she reached her destination safely.”
“Whoa. I wouldn’t call that sight pretty,” he says darkly.
I shake my head. “The drinking culture of universities is really deplorable.”
Silence again, for a few seconds. Then he flips on his phone and hands it over to me.
“You said there were thirty-six questions in the New York Times
that psychologists made to make people fall in love,” he said. “Want to try it out today?”
I looked up at him and smiled. “Okay!” We breeze through the first questions flippantly.
“If you could have any superpower you want, what would you choose to have?”
“The power to see through things. The things I could see!” He grins, looking me up and down.
I flip him my fourth finger, again.
“Just kidding. Teleportation? Flying? I don’t know. I’ll have to think about it.”
“If you could pick anyone in the world to have dinner with right now, who would it be?”
He juts his chin out at me. “Isn’t the answer obvious?”
“What? But you can meet me all the time! You shouldn’t throw away an opportunity like that.”
“I can’t meet you all the time,” he objects.
“It’s hard to meet you, and it’s important to me. Who else would I rather meet?”
“Oh – that’s very kind of you,” I say, startled into stammering.
Where has he learned to flirt so fluently, when I still feel so embarrassed?
Then, recovering myself rather sharply: “Well, I’m not going to choose you!”
He rolls his eyes. “Fine. Fine. What scoundrel would you choose in my place?”
“A famous author?
Someone who has changed the world through writing and can tell me how to improve mine?” I smile.
He’s quiet for a moment.
“You’re certainly very ambitious. I guess that’s one of the things I like most about you.”
“What is a quality you like about your partner? I like your eyes—the way they’re so calm and clear.
I like your trustworthiness—you never have ups and downs,
and you’re always even-tempered, and know how to laugh at jokes others crack about you.”
“I like the way you’re both thoughtful and innocent – it’s hard to be both.
And the way you try so hard to be honest.
You don’t have to all the time, you know;
but it’s so nice to see you always trying.”
We talk quietly like this, for an hour and a half.
We run through all thirty-six questions,
but realize we’ve already asked most of them to each other in our numberless conversations.
“I like your random questions better,” he says. “They’re funnier.”
We reach the subway around the time we reach the last question.
“What is a personal problem you’re struggling with recently?”
“A personal problem?”
He digs his hands into his pockets.
“Do I have one? Um…I guess the biggest one right now would be…you?”
He lifts his eyebrows at me. “That I can’t meet you more often?”
“But I’m happy right now,” I say.
“I could make you happier.”
“I’m a little scared of being too happy,” I say, hesitantly.
“I think sometimes I rather – try not to like you too much. For when I have to leave.”
And I try to stress my last words:
because still, the guilt of uncertainty lies heavily upon me,
the inevitable parting that I feel afraid will be permanent.
He is silent for a few moments, and then, quietly:
“Don’t try too hard. There’s ample time for that later.”
He starts suddenly. It’s his stop. Wang-shib-li Station.
“Go,” I say, jerking him upright.
He hesitates, turns slowly to me, as if pushing through viscous water.
“Go – go!”
I push him out the door, hard.
He stumbles forward in a daze and turns back to me, eyes wide, in a startled goodbye.
I twist myself around and press my palms against the glass window as the doors wheeze shut, mouthing,
He raises his hand in reply as the subway lurches forward.
Why is it that, despite all of his sweetness, despite being happy with him, all of our goodbyes feel so ominous?
Turning around, I was surprised at how pained I felt,
and the world faded to a cold and lackluster gray.