Ayuka Breathes

By Mandy-Suzanne Wong

Surfacing, she rested only a few seconds. She’d told Hiroki to slap the water with a ping-pong paddle if, in this frail interim, he wanted her before she went deep again. Shouting wouldn’t do; Ayuka wouldn’t hear. Oceanic pressures had exacted an early toll: when waterlogged, her ears were particularly weak.

Hiroki knew this. He knew his wife was not deliberately hard to reach. But it did hurt, having more and more to shout at her as though she lived fathoms away, and he didn’t enjoy slapping things like some sort of seal. Ayuka claimed she could feel him in the ocean’s recoil.

A net fisherman by vocation, Hiroki Watanabe had no qualms about pounding the pier with his foot when the ama’s doddering procession seemed to dally. The women donned masks and wetsuits in a hut beside the beach, and there Ayuka left them, making her way alone to her husband’s boat. As Hiroki aimed their prow at open sea, Ayuka watched her mother and sister swim out from the beach. She saw eight pairs of flippers kiss the sky, plunging fifteen meters to the reefs and seaweed forests.

Hiroki turned off the boat in an undulating field of blue and gray without horizon. He gave Ayuka a rope attached to a windlass. Ayuka tied the rope around her waist and jumped into a cold, blue otherworld.

Sinuous forests and grasses swayed in absent breeze and moody gray-blue light. With a wooden spatula of prehistoric design, Ayuka turned over rocks, delved into crevices, rooted through seaweeds in search of edible mollusks and echinoderms. She tugged the rope around her waist when she had to breathe, and Hiroki reeled her in with the windlass.

Whereas the other ama stayed in sight of shore, Ayuka had eyes only for the ocean’s very heart. She was a funado ama — fune meaning boat — the last of her kind in dwindling Kaiyono.

It seemed the deep belonged to her alone. Hiroki was her harbor.

The ama swam as deep as endurance permitted without breathing apparatus. They were predators and caretakers of a ten-thousand-year-old custom, sheltering their prey against themselves.

The prey, mostly mollusks, starved or withered nonetheless in poisoned seas. The fishing co-op tried to save them: trimmed the ama’s workday to an hour, truncated the fishing season, hid farmed prawns and mollusk-babies in the wild. Ayuka and Hiroki kindled their love with dreams of nursing the ocean back to health. Hiroki would lead the co-op. They’d change everything.

They failed, of course. The ama, the fishermen, the village joined their prey on an expressway to extinction and discouraged their children from following. The Watanabes’ two sons followed their friends to the city, and then in their empty house, Ayuka and Hiroki no longer knew what they were. Ranged against them were the forces of a planet self-destructing.

The Watanabes couldn’t hate the planet, so they blamed their disappointment on each other. Their hasty criticisms decayed into stubborn misunderstandings when Ayuka misheard and couldn’t bring herself to ask him to reiterate — or when Hiroki, knowing he would have to reiterate, forbore to say anything. A devotee of quiet who believed fishes spoke in gestures, Ayuka asked Hiroki to point to things that would indicate his meaning. Hiroki refused because it made him feel foolish.

Hiroki and all the ama worked for Ama no Ryokan, Ayuka’s mother’s guesthouse. Along with freshly caught seafood, the divers served up tales of when their workday was a day and mollusks lived to adulthood. Ayuka, The Last Funado, spoke only to deliver her spiel: boat, windlass, husband. When a tourist had a question, her sister shouted it into her ear. And there was always someone, some scintillating wit, who advised her to keep that man of hers happy — for Hiroki held her life in his hands.

Another ama said thank goodness Ayuka was too deaf to flirt. Some urban salaryman said too bad because fifty-year-old Ayuka was the youngest ama left. Ayuka, saying nothing, assumed a fixed smile. And Hiroki, elsewhere — prawn-fishing or cleaning guestrooms — brewed an image of her flaunting private memories in which the two of them braved the ocean all alone.
He thought he was quite the stoic. But his resentment, obvious to everyone, was stifling to Ayuka. That it might have roots in plain husbandly jealousy never occurred to her. She thought he resented tourists in general for listening to divers and ignoring fishermen. She wondered what they’d say if she described the time when Hiroki forgot to pull her up.

There she was, fire in her chest, clawing through broken sunbeams, breaking the surface at last with a cry. Hiroki jumped up as if from heavy thought, dragged her into the boat, and wept, begging forgiveness as she gasped for breath.

But he couldn’t explain. He didn’t know why he’d done it. Nor could Ayuka bring herself to question him. She agonized for months: what could she have done to make Hiroki turn his back on the windlass?

From then on, Ayuka postponed surfacing to breathe. The air, heavy with doubt, brought no relief.

Underwater was relief. Ayuka ashore was a ghost of an irrelevant species. She was a figment of tourists’ imagination, their false nostalgia for a “Nature” they’d never left behind despite themselves. Down in the shifting blue, she was predator and caretaker, she moved and perceived as a being self-aware.

She lived in a kind of whirlpool. The longer she spent weightless and solitary in the deep, the more unreal terrestrials began to seem, Hiroki included. The rope that bound her body to the boat became the rigid corpus of the silence between them. Wishing not to provoke it, Ayuka stayed down deep to the limit of her endurance. This merely redoubled her dependence on Hiroki, who had to whisk her up as quickly as he could, and intensified her fear of a certain recurrence. The fear confused her, drove her deeper underwater.

For all this, Hiroki never recognized his true, fathomless rival. Learning that Ayuka was seal-hearted made everything worse.

The word ama means sea-woman.

Riku Hayashi, a research physiologist, wanted to find out if centuries of lifelong diving had adapted the sea-women’s circulatory systems to protracted underwater living. Noting that the women free-dived at least ten meters for at least a minute at a time and did so forty times an hour, day in, day out, well into old age, he sought permission from the fishing co-op to conduct experiments.

He wrote: The ocean is growing, uprising everywhere. This research is vital to our time.

The ama longed to hear that their struggle was worth something. Ayuka’s keenness had even more to do with private shame.

Whilst the co-op no longer permitted it, Ayuka believed that ama should dive naked as their grandmothers had done, resisting masks and wetsuits out of respect for the ocean who bared herself completely. But if Riku was correct and the ama were authentically aquatic on the inside, that basic honesty would redeem the dishonor of outerwear.

Of course, she said none of this to Hiroki. And Hiroki said nothing of his terror of Ayuka diving where he couldn’t reach. Before he knew what he was doing, he condemned the experiments as privacy invasions, announced that he wouldn’t allow Ayuka anywhere near Riku, and said to her in front of the entire co-op: You already push yourself too deep for too long. Just because you like being a tourist attraction.

This was an echo of other men’s barstool-laments: flaunting themselves of an evening made ama-wives too feisty. However, with a withering glance in Hiroki’s direction, his mother-in-law argued that if Riku found what he was looking for, tourists would flock for a glimpse of Kaiyono’s Anthropo-amphibia.

It was unheard-of for feminine concerns to override husbands’. But the village was hardly in a position to let the promise of brisk business slip away.

Ayuka felt as if, just because a part-time janitor would never lead the co-op, her husband couldn’t dream of her attaining true significance. Underwater she ignored her spasming chest-muscles as the surface became synonymous with the toxic kind of silence in which spouses can convince themselves of any wild notion: he never loved me, only his pride; she never loved me, just wanted to marry local so she’d keep her right to dive under the sea-tenure rules.

When the physiologist arrived, Ayuka went to him against Hiroki’s wishes. She joined the other ama in wearing electronic bracelets which tracked the amount of time they spent underwater, the speed at which they plunged, their heart rates, and the oxygen in their blood at the wrist. After their daily dive, they took the bracelets to Riku’s office. He uploaded the data, measured the ama’s blood pressure, performed chest and throat ultrasounds, and had them breathe into a spirometer.

Hiroki was appalled by the bracelet. He said: You let him tag you like a seal.

For such as Hiroki, seals were an absolute bane, hijackers of fishing nets. Though he painfully understood the concept of endangered species, he couldn’t see why it should apply to seals with greater exigency than it did to prawns, mollusks, or fishing villages. Even an imaginary affinity between his wife and a seal was an insult added to festering injuries. And Hiroki gobbled it, crammed it down into his overstuffed resentment, where it blended with pernicious fear — fear that she’d come to exceed him.
He stopped touching Ayuka at nighttime. Ayuka pretended not to notice.

Riku Hayashi took a room at the guesthouse, dining nightly in the ama’s restaurant, where he asked a lot of questions about techniques and ancestors. He took a keen interest in Ayuka and addressed her in special, relaxed tempos and volumes, gesturing in ways that she somehow understood and liked. Having checked his findings against library research, other ama’s recollections, and observations by her none-too-civil husband, Riku asked Ayuka to visit his office alone.

In his small room and awestruck tones, Riku told her that her daily dives were significantly deeper and longer than the other ama’s, their ancestors’, and every funado’s in every record he could find. Clutching her handbag, Ayuka asked, knowing she’d been reckless, if too much deep diving had damaged her insides.

With a smile, Riku explained that the oxygen in her blood during diving was abnormally plentiful, indicating a remarkably healthy system. All the ama’s arteries were as if a decade younger than the women really were.
This delighted the divers, set the restaurant to trilling with speculation: Ancient Practice as Cardiovascular Disease Prevention; sustainability no one could undermine.

But there were detractors. Riku requested that Ayuka come alone because he’d endured Hiroki’s objections firsthand. The man was a curmudgeon in Riku’s opinion. He thought Hiroki ought not to see the ultrasounds until Mrs. Watanabe — this strange, abstracted woman who mainly spoke in silence — had seen them for herself and had time to consider.

Ayuka stripped in an empty cove, slipped into the water, inverted, descended until her hands touched kelp. Underwater, sounds and shades diffused, always moving, strange — Ayuka imagined she swam inside an inhuman thought.

Later in the kitchen, she told Hiroki what Riku found, what it meant. Deep wonder lit her face such as boat-bound Hiroki had never seen, adrift as he was on the surface of the waves.

Behind Ayuka’s astounding free-diving ability was a deformed aorta. Not an aneurysm; her aorta had a solid wall. Rather, her aortic arch, the onramp from her heart to her other arteries, was forty percent wider than the rest of her aorta, taking the shape of a bulb just outside her ventricle. The bulb was a holding pen for the blood emerging from her heart, which percolated through her at an exceptionally slow rate. Her body absorbed oxygen in this slow burn, urging her to breathe less often than other ama.
Ayuka asked if the bulb had any bearing on the fact that she never turned blue in the frigid water. The bulb stored a heartbeat’s worth of blood, Riku explained. So even when her heart rate plummeted in the cold, Ayuka’s organs and muscles were never deprived of energy.

The aortic bulb was unprecedented in humans but vital to marine mammals, particularly certain pinniped species, who’d evolved this vascular distention as an adaptation to frequent diving at extreme depths. According to Riku’s ultrasounds, Ayuka’s aortic bulb appeared naturally enlarged by the same proportions as those of certain seals. When she explained to Hiroki, she thought his silence merely typical. She didn’t know he stopped sleeping. She dreamed of oceanscapes as an exile dreams of home. He wondered how long she’d continue to need him.

Ayuka never knew what she’d find in the deep, yet she herself was of the deep, oceanically crafted. And now her own body, too, was a stranger to itself, an alien seascape, and the most familiar phenomenon. This paradox bespoke uncounted possibilities.

Mutation is difference, difference the stimulus and ambition of change. Change is evolution. Riku’s words, his word, hope, floated on Ayuka’s suddenly surging voice. She felt like a new person because of what she’d always been, what she and her foremothers and the ocean had achieved. Riku lent her books on marine biology. Ayuka looked at them as at pictures of her sons.

She discussed them with Riku, the books and the sons. She wanted them to come and show him their aortas. But the boys thought she was silly, and she didn’t know how to explain as Riku did: she wasn’t a silly old woman but a newborn ocean creature.

Her sons might be the first of a new kind of being. Her marriage, she thought suddenly, had never been anything but a success. It had fallen silent only because husband and seal-woman hadn’t understood each other, a mystery which now made perfect sense. She’d begun diving protractedly, she decided, not to avoid Hiroki but because she was made for it. Her body had after half a century grown into the challenge of being itself.

This impression came to her as a heady breath of air. Transported by affirmation, Ayuka laughed when Hiroki saw the ultrasounds. She misread his look of betrayal as wounded pride which would in time be proud of her. She insisted that by refusing to give up, they’d achieved this evolution together. She misconstrued his incredulity as astonishment unaccustomed to anything except disappointment. And she asked what did he think, should they go with Riku to a city hospital and let him take 3D pictures of her heart?

Hiroki said no, said it in terror become wrath. If she went to the city, she’d come back changed, infected with urban values that valued nothing but self-interest. Riku’s pictures would convince her that she was a treasure, too valuable for Hiroki.

This conclusion was the result of fear and envy escaping reason’s paddock and turning savage. Ayuka heard only envy: Hiroki refusing to forsake his pride even to let her cultivate the first shoots of self-worth. She rebelled as only a funado ama could.

Down she went. She stayed longer than ever — and didn’t tug the rope. She just appeared beside the boat, gasping, exhilarated, just as seals pop their heads out wherever it suits them. Then she saw Hiroki’s face.
Hiroki said, Did he put you up to that, some sort of test?

She’d planned to say she’d done it just to see if she could, but she knew it was half true and hardly sensible. She already regretted it. She climbed into the boat, and he said, Why did you do that?

Ayuka no longer knew. She never did it again. She tugged the rope with what Hiroki thought absurd regularity. He mistook it for mockery. Their silence clogged the air like smoke.

Hiroki decided that Riku loved her. Ayuka didn’t know, her ears were full of oceanic summons. The adoring note in Riku’s voice when he spoke of Ayuka and her pictures was a projection of Hiroki’s anguished mind, which happened this time to coincide with truth.

Of course Riku loved her. Ayuka Watanabe was the discovery he’d longed for. Inside, she was perfection, which made her merely pretty face the epitome of lofty beauty. Never mind that she was ten years Riku’s senior; her enthusiasm, her quiet, her singularity swept him away. She made his research beautiful by delighting in it. She gave all his hopes a body. If he’d had the chance to declare himself to her, Riku would’ve sworn to love everything she was: the wife and the ama, the woman and the nascent marine animal.

Hiroki imagined Riku declaring precisely thus; for Hiroki knew it was what Ayuka wanted. But all he saw in Riku’s diagnosis was a living tourist attraction playacting at drawing a veil over despair. Hiroki despaired of his life with Ayuka, which it seemed would never be enough for her.

He became as if vindictively possessive. She withdrew into herself, spending so long in her underwater haven that he became suspicious. He decided to blow a lot of money on a wearable camera, which she saw as an invasion and at long last sparked an argument.

It might have meant relief for both of them, had they carried it through. But Ayuka couldn’t bear it. Flaying each other with words was worse than drowning in silence. She threw herself overboard as if into a lover’s arms, maskless and weeping.


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