Equipped with our net, bucket, raw chicken and roll of string, we trekked from the ragged graveled patch where we had parked the van. Glassy-skinned frogs hidden in the thick marsh grass croaked in a languid manner; they paused when we were near and resumed their song after we passed. All was still dark when we reached the water. My sleepy body stumbled onto the nondescript, wobbly wooden dock to which a handful of simple rowboats were moored, bobbing and pulling with the current like willful creatures. Our flashlights lit the way to the water, but they could not cut through the layer of mist over the bay’s surface. Our family split up into two boats. While appointed rowers quietly transported, others tied up chicken legs with string. Once the dock became the size of my hand, we carefully but powerfully threw out the legs and listened to the distant thunks as they struck the water. Then we sat and waited, dark stones rocking back and forth, without a word or move lest we frightened off the easily spooked crustaceans with the echo of our voices or a knock against the wood.
Women pulled down on their skirts, men examined the leather on their shoes. Nowhere was it as bright as it was in there, during that time of repentance and prayer.
My maternal grandmother lived in Seabrook, Maryland, a town I fondly remember by the fishy smell and icy climate of a Korean grocery store where we ate red bean popsicles, the low metal fences bordering each house and the sidewalks that were so deeply and widely cracked we had to keep our heads down and watch our feet while walking. My mom never talked warmly about that town; there were too many robberies and assaults. She deplored the shabby character of the neighborhood, but my brother and I loved that place growing up. We watched rated R videos from our uncle’s VHS collection, attended jesa for our maternal grandfather and played with the sprinkler in the backyard where our grandmother diligently grew tongue-tickling kkaenip and brow-sweating gochu. We especially looked forward to the pre-dawn crabbing trips out on the Chesapeake Bay. Around three o’clock on a Saturday morning, my mom would shake my brother and me out of bed. Still mostly asleep, we dressed, brushed our teeth and crammed into an old caravan with our parents, grandmother, two aunts and two uncles. Being awake at such an early hour and squeezed into the back of a van, with heat building from mashed bodies and omnipresent humidity, induced wave after wave of nausea. I would sit, hunched over the large white bucket meant to hold caught crabs, dry heaving and tracking little starbursts in my periphery. It was impossible to try and catch some more sleep during the ride. My uncles and aunts were raucous, joking and drinking hot coffee from 7-11. The van would bump up and down as we made our way to the bay.
* * *
I recently attended Sunday service at the church I grew up in, after decades of exodus. Because of the growing number of congregants over the years, the church had built a brand-new campus half an hour away from the original sanctuary. The new campus was massive and modern, complete with enormous hundred-foot bay windows, tasteful stone exteriors and sparkling linoleum floors. Similar in ambience to a shopping mall or airport, the cavernous complex comfortably accommodated its three thousand churchgoers. There were separate sanctuaries for English speaking ministries and Korean speaking ministries, TVs broadcasting sermons in the lobbies for parents cradling crying infants, a stylish cafeteria selling espresso and kimbap, an enormous gym for kids playing volleyball and basketball and a fully staffed day care center. I attended service in the sanctuary for young English-speaking adults. The back wall of the sanctuary was a brilliant, Crest whitening strip shade of white and textured with small, undulating waves that gave the sense one was on a boat out at sea, or high up on a plane among the clouds. The space was beautiful. It was also discomforting. The overhead LED lighting shined down on us with an interrogating radiance, exposing every crease on every face, every grain in the wood of the smooth pews. Women pulled down on their skirts, men examined the leather on their shoes. Nowhere was it as bright as it was in there, during that time of repentance and prayer.
The church of my childhood was a small, white-brick building. The top floor held the single sanctuary and the dingy cafeteria-cum-gym was underneath. I grew up crawling under the pews, kicking up dust from the plum-colored carpeted floor. Every Sunday we sat with our parents as the reverend proclaimed the gospel to a packed house of recently arrived Koreans. The sermons, which tranquilized us children with their tedious and repetitive verses in a language we only half understood, nourished our parents not only with its message of salvation, but with its plodding and familiar mother tongue. The occasional Amens en masse punctuated the tonal rise and fall of the reverend’s preaching. My mom would pinch my father’s side whenever he began to nod off.
A large, plain wooden cross hung on the wall behind the reverend. The reverend was an older, soft-spoken man with wavy black hair and small, delicate features. His slightly stooped back and slow pace of speaking reminded me of a tortoise. When I saw him recently at a relative’s funeral, for the first time in twenty years, he softly took my hand and greeted me by my full Korean name and English name, telling me in his same slow manner that he was still praying for me.
As kids, my friends and I would sneak into the sanctuary after service to play tag and hide-and-seek in the dark. The thick, drawn curtains blocked out most of the sun, but thin slices of light would peek through gaps here and there and reflect off the polished brass candle holders behind the podium. The reflected light would blind us at random moments as we ran away from each other. Although we could have run around in the gym downstairs, we always preferred the dark, stale sanctuary. The quiet, drawn-in atmosphere of the room was alluring, mysterious. The smell of our parents lingered there; dust motes floated listlessly in the lines of light. The man named “yeh-su” hung in wooden agony as one of us counted to ten. The way the room both muffled and echoed our stomping feet and laughter afforded the illusion of absolute separateness from the rest of the world—from overworked, distant parents or abusive ones—and from the perpetually fragmenting self-awareness we were scraping together as not-quite-Koreans and not-quite-Americans.
* * *
This was before girls I knew would vomit in the car after an abortion, the shame refusing to come up in the heaving; before girls I knew brusquely narrated stories of assault and rape between sips of coffee; before misogyny became routine and mundane as toast in all of our lives.
One minute we were inside of the van rocking with thick laughter and heat and the next minute out on the water, where we were induced to silence and stillness. This was my favorite part of the trip: settling in with my family under a blanket of cold mist, unified for once in our anticipation of the catch. We were almost meditative: our breathing slowed, our postures straightened and our eyes focused on the little waves running in from the horizon. Crabs were sensitive, skittish. The chance to catch a crab demanded all of you. Although my brother and I were young, we never once felt the urge to fidget—the world conspired with us, in its pull to still us for the greater reward. We all sat and looked out across the gray expanse, the rowdy and boisterous behavior from before diminished into faint memory. Blue herons flew just above the water and fish broke the surface with their open-shut-open-shut maws. My grandmother would always pick up on the nibbling first. She would feel the tug in her hand and somehow she would always know that that tug was the right one, and not one from a stray fish or current. She continued to hold the string between thumb and pointer with such caution and delicacy; the string was a baby bird’s neck, a keen open blade, a precious life. Her eyes skimmed out to a spot on the water. And then, ever so slowly, and only when she was ready, she began to reel in the string in excruciatingly smooth segments. And here was when the stretches of time became delicious—because of the unknown events occurring beneath the salty brown. Because I could have waited for eternity. At first, the opaque water was dark and fungal, but in the next moment, a phantom appeared—a mere shape that seemed only imagined. While your brain attempted to catch up to your eyes, it was and was becoming. Then suddenly there it was, as real as the wood we were floating in: a crusty brown alien latched to a chicken leg that was softened and disintegrating in the saltwater. The possibilities of what the water held and offered was something to be relished, cherished. While my grandmother eased the crab closer to the boat, my aunt or uncle quietly took hold of the large green net. As the crab continued to attend to the abundance in front of him, the net became merely a hanging bough of a tree for a suspended moment. We held our breaths in unison, our world hushed and sealed off from any other existence. Then in one quick exhalation, the bough transformed into a predatory bird, broke the surface of the water and scooped the crab and chicken into its gullet. Salty droplets freckled my face and arms, some landing on my lips so I would taste the same salt as the crab had. The disoriented crab instinctively gripped onto the green net and its tiny mouth emitted small bubbles of air, creating a mask of froth. We tossed our haul into the same big white bucket my head was hovering over just a moment ago. His chepelids tapped against the bucket and from his foaming mouth came a hissing sibilance.
* * *
In eighth grade I walked out of Sunday service for the first time. Reverend Lee was our youth group’s new leader. He had a pale, hairless face, wire-rimmed glasses and a perfect, straight part down the center of his hair. He would pace restlessly from end to end of the stage with his microphone, the serpentine cord never once entangling his feet. Like everyone else, I submerged into daydreams during his sermons. After innumerable days of hide-and-seek, after thousands of verses and prayers and Amens, all sermons melded into one sermon, so worn that no deeper mark could be made. We now fidgeted in our seats more than ever before since pubescence was budding in bodies that were no longer familiar. It was not home anymore. Looks were hooded; laughter was crafted. We were now painfully conscious of acting out a script of which we knew very little. But we knew it existed all the same. We knew with certainty that we had to play it out. During that particular service, I wore a sleeveless knee-length black dress with tiny periwinkle blue flowers. I remember picking at the stitched buds on the skirt hem when my ears caught something from the podium. I don’t remember what first caught my attention, but as I broke through my reverie and attuned my ears to his speech, I heard Reverend Lee talk about something I had never heard anyone talk about up on that stage before. I thought I had misheard. He was yelling about how we women must remain vigilant and steadfast—that if we went down the path of sexual immorality we would be faced with pregnancy and the sin of abortion, the path to assured damnation. I looked around, discreetly at first, seeing if anyone else was splintering like I was. Everyone I saw was facing forward, motionless—you could barely tell they were breathing. The story Reverend Lee was fingering on us, while his spittle landed on the first row, bled through my brain and out my nostrils. If I didn’t leave the room soon, I was going to rip my dress and scream so hard my mouth would split open. I could not articulate why my body shook so. This was before girls I knew would vomit in the car after an abortion, the shame refusing to come up in the heaving; before girls I knew brusquely narrated stories of assault and rape between sips of coffee; before misogyny became routine and mundane as toast in all of our lives. That Sunday, a hand from the depths simply tugged an unnamable, soft bit of me and drew out salted blood.
I got up, walked to the back of the room and turned around at the entrance, yearning to spot just a hint of opposition, any lick of discomfort, a slight cough or questioning tilt of the head. I waited with my hands at my sides, holding my breath and praying for something—anything—to break the surface. But nothing came forth; the lake of bodies remained still and silent and unresistant. I hurried to the bathroom and looked at my pale, hairless face. No one else was in the bathroom hunched and seething in front of the mirror, trying to make themselves clean and whole again. No one was stifling a jaw-breaking scream. Everyone was dead and burning in their seats.
* * *
When we brought the catch back to my grandmother’s house, my youngest uncle placed a cutting board on the kitchen counter right next to the stove. A large, dark blue pot rested above the stove light. The white bucket was on the floor next to his feet. He swiftly selected a crab, laid it on its back on the cutting board and stabbed it right in the center of its stomach, above the apron. The blade was small but very sharp. He was precise. As I watched, some stopped moving almost immediately, while others continued to slowly wave their claws. I imagined if I leaned down close enough to their mouths, I could hear their faint, salty gasps. My uncle then tossed the crab into the pot. I stood very still at the kitchen’s entrance behind him, my back to the raspy newspaper being laid out on the dinner table like new linen. My face, colored by the dim yellow of the kitchen light, observed the killing without expression. Once they were all in the pot, my uncle turned the heat all the way up and left the kitchen. Did I continue to hear the tiny clinking of claws against the sides of the pot? I strained to hear it. I hovered over the pot, wanting to lift the lid, wanting not to lift the lid. I would relent every time, lifting the pot by its handle just a bit and peering into the darkness and heat to try and see if there were any signs of struggling persistence, any waving or skittering, any bubbles frothing from orifices.
When the crabs were done, they were piled into a red orange heap at the center of the newspaper-covered table. Nutcrackers, little steel forks and wooden mallets were scattered about for shared use. My brother and I watched and replicated how to open up a crab correctly. My grandmother and mother always got the most meat from the bodies as they had the nimblest fingers and quietest hands. I flipped the crab on its back and opened and removed the apron; then with thumb and pointer, I pried the shell off the rest of the body, uncovering the meat and organs. I used the utensils to crack open the legs and claws and either pulled or sucked out the meat. Our fingers were marred by cuts made from the sharp bits of broken shell. We sprinkled Old Bay seasoning over the precious white clumps, sucking our teeth and then ignoring the stinging when the Old Bay made contact with the open wounds on our hands. My lips would swell and sting too. The only sounds during the meal were the splintering of shell and the slurping of flesh. None of the darkness that had held me during the crabs’ slow death in heat remained over the breaking of fast.