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When they were old enough to ask, How did it happen? The answer they always received was: It happened on the way to Jeju-do.

What mystery! What weight! Because the two girls didn’t get further details, the answer they received carried a particular significance. They didn’t know what it meant, but because they didn’t, it could mean anything beautiful and terrible all at once.

 


 

It was always “Jeju-do” and never “Jeju Island.” There was something about “Jeju Island” that took away what was sacred and made it commonplace. Like the print of Van Gogh’s Starry Night on someone’s shower curtain.

“I would never go to somewhere called Jeju Island,” Seungwan said, slightly offended when they first heard the translation. “It sounds like a ride at Disneyland!”

Eunjeong couldn’t argue with that assessment, although she quite liked the rides at Disneyland. She only nodded and said, “We won’t go there. It has to be Jeju-do. Someday, we’ll go to Jeju-do.”

She was the first one to say that. Someday, we’ll go to Jeju-do.

 


 

Because it happened on the way to Jeju-do, Eunjeong learned how to swim. Swimming was on the list of acceptable hobbies, so her mother approved. But Eunjeong was always very careful that her mother never knew how often she swam or how natural it came to her—that would have been a deviation, and Eunjeong always made sure not to deviate around her mother.

Only Seungwan got to see the graceful way Eunjeong slipped into the water, barely making a sound or a ripple. Only Seungwan knew how long Eunjeong could hold her breath underwater—almost three minutes. (“Do you think we drowned?” Eunjeong asked Seungwan one day. “I think we must have drowned. You should learn to hold your breath too, and then we’ll never drown again.”) Their school coaches always begged Eunjeong to join the swim team, but Eunjeong refused because school sports weren’t on her mother’s list. The coaches called her a mermaid, which pleased both Eunjeong and Seungwan because it made them think of Jeju-do. But Seungwan thought the coaches were wrong.

When Eunjeong was in the water, she didn’t move like a mermaid or a fish or a dolphin or any other fast-moving thing under the sea. When Eunjeong was in the water, she was the water.

 


 

Seungwan didn’t like to swim. Even all the magic of Jeju-do couldn’t make her want to swim. She liked running, which wasn’t on her mother’s list of approved hobbies, but she ran anyway. It was the first battle Seungwan had with her mother, and it wasn’t the last.

After their first big fight about running, Seungwan’s mom called Eunjeong’s mom and complained. “Your daughter is so well-behaved. She always does just what she’s supposed to, why can’t my Seungwan be the way Seungwan is supposed to be?”

Of course, Seungwan overheard this conversation. Seungwan was pretty sure her mother intended her to overhear.

Why can’t Seungwan be the way Seungwan is supposed to be was a constant theme with Seungwan and her mother. Seungwan once started a list of things Park Seungwan was supposed to enjoy:

1. Old movies
2. Butterscotch
3. Spicy pork
4. Being filial

That was as far as she got before she scrawled over the list in blue crayon, Never mind, I’m going to Jeju-do.

Eunjeong had her own list of things Park Eunjeong was supposed to enjoy, but she never showed the list to Seungwan.

 


 

It took Seungwan a while to realize that her mother’s practice of introducing herself as “Seungwan’s mama” was a cultural pattern. That she would refer to her own sister as “Eunjeong’s mama” was an expected practice, and not because she doubted Seungwan’s ability to know who she was talking about without the epithet.

When Seungwan’s mom talked about the people she knew, it was always by the name of their first-born child. Billy’s mama, Sarah’s mama, Yoojin’s papa.

It took Seungwan less time to understand that she was not the “Seungwan” in “Seungwan’s mama.”

 


 

The cousins researched Jeju-do in secret the way other girls might attempt to hide their crush. Anyone who witnessed their furtive online searches might assume they needed to click a button to lie about being eighteen before viewing the website’s forbidden contents. The infatuation was just the same.

They fell in love with the haenyeo, the sea-women who would dive deep into the ocean to support a family. The women who could hold their breath for a long time to search the secret parts of the sea and find freedom there. Though Eunjeong didn’t like eating abalone or other kinds of mollusks, she was convinced that if ever she could eat from a shell plucked from the waters of Jeju-do it would taste like the most precious mana.

They cried when they read about the war, and the massacre, and all of the terrible things that happened hundreds of years ago, and they felt as though it had happened to them. At first, they hated learning about the war. Only beautiful things should happen on Jeju-do. But then the slaughter became part of them, just like Jeju-do.

We died on the way to Jeju-do, Eunjeong whispered. Our deaths and their deaths are connected.

Somewhere far away there was an island, and Eunjeong and Seungwan were that island.

 


 

“What do you think it’s like over there?” Eunjeong once asked. They were lying on the rooftop of Eunjeong’s apartment complex, staring at clouds and pretending they were waves.

“Jeju-do?”

“Korea.”

The longing for Jeju-do was also a longing for a homeland. Nostalgia for a place they had never been. If they could go to that faraway island, they could also go to Korea.

“Probably not all that different from Old Koreatown,” Seungwan said.

“We’d belong there,” Eunjeong said. “We’re Korean.”

“We don’t belong anywhere,” Seungwan said. “We’re not Korean.”

 


 

Once, during a particularly heated argument, Seungwan’s mother said, “We didn’t have to bring you home. We could have left you in the lab. A lot of parents did. We could have left you there until it was time to bring Seungwan-ie home. You should be thankful for the life we’ve given you.”

It was the kind of thing that couldn’t be unsaid, or unheard, once it was put out there. To her credit, Seungwan’s mother looked like she regretted the rebuke, but she didn’t apologize. At the time, Seungwan was properly chastised. The memory of the lab was still fresh. It was a tiny, windowless room. The children were brought out for food and exercise, and then put back in again. Once, a technician pointed to another little girl and said, “Do you know her? She’s your cousin. Or she will be.” That was the first time Seungwan saw Eunjeong, but they didn’t meet until their mothers came to pick them up and take them home.

A different technician pointed Seungwan out to Eunjeong. But that technician had crescent moon eyes and a fox-sharp smile and said, with distinct relish, “That girl? You two died together.”

It scared Eunjeong so badly she avoided Seungwan until their mothers came. That was when she learned they were cousins, or would be. She never told Seungwan, but she overheard the doctors advising their mothers before they left the lab. “It’s dangerous to take them out now, when they have such a long maturation schedule. I understand your impatience, but remember: they are not your daughters yet. It’s better to leave them here until it’s time for reintegration. That way, there’s no risk of confusion. Some parents get attached to the new versions, and that always ends in tragedy.”

“That won’t happen,” the sister who would be Seungwan’s mother said. “Nothing will stop me from wanting our Seungwan back.”

The sister who would be Eunjeong’s mother nodded her head. “I could never love this fake version. I know she’s not our Eunjeong yet.”

Eunjeong grew up knowing she wasn’t Eunjeong yet, and that her mother wouldn’t love her until she was.

 


 

Almost everything Seungwan and Eunjeong learned about Korea, they learned through books and the internet. Their own mothers were third-generation immigrants and didn’t know much about their homeland that they could have passed down, even had they been inclined to do so. But they weren’t inclined. Ever since their daughters died on the way to Jeju-do, they resented Korea the same way some parents might resent the drugs on which their child overdosed.

Eunjeong’s mama and Seungwan’s mama were heiresses, businesswomen, and Americans, in that order. Had they known any folk stories, they were not the kind of mothers who would tell their children folk stories. But they didn’t know the stories. It was Eunjeong’s father who brought home two copies of Korea’s Traditional Folk Tales. He gave them to Eunjeong and Seungwan when their mothers weren’t looking, and the two girls smuggled them to their rooms by putting them under their shirts.

The stories didn’t have princesses like the fairy tales they usually read. They were mostly about animals that didn’t exist anymore. Seungwan had seen tigers in pictures, and she marveled that anything could have ever had fur that color. The tigers seemed very stupid in these stories.

There were some similarities to the stories Eunjeong and Seungwan had read before. The virtuous were usually rewarded, the greedy were usually punished. But one story stuck with Seungwan.

It was about a green frog who never listened to his mother. When the frog’s mother was dying, she told her son to bury her by the river, because she wanted to be buried in the mountain, and she was sure he would do the opposite, as he had done all his life. When she died, the green frog decided to obey his mother and buried her by the river. Now, whenever it rained, the frog was worried his mother’s body would wash away, and that was why you could hear frogs crying when it rained.

What a horrible story, Seungwan thought. What a beautiful story.

The next time she met with Eunjeong, she asked, “Did you read the story about the frog and his mother?”

“It was terrible! It was so sad, I cried. The poor frog! And his poor mother!”

“She should have told him where she really wanted to be buried,” Seungwan said. Then, tentatively, she asked, “Don’t you think it was also beautiful? In that way only tragic stories can be beautiful?”

“No,” Eunjeong said, looking at Seungwan like she was crazy. “Sad things are just sad. It was traumatizing. I wish I never read it.”

It was traumatizing, Seungwan thought. But she couldn’t forget it. It lived in her now. The green frog, his mother, the water that ruined them both.

 


 

On Eunjeong’s fourteenth birthday, she learned it hadn’t been drowning after all. The revelation was a betrayal, worse than finding out there was no benevolent god.

There was no one who could understand except Seungwan, so it was to Seungwan she went to in the middle of the night. Seungwan opened the door, and Eunjeong threw her arms around Seungwan’s neck and sobbed for almost an hour.

The grief was too profound. She couldn’t talk about it right away. Any time she opened her mouth to explain, she just started crying some more. All she could do was shake her head as Seungwan tried to guess the problem: Was it your mother? Was it a boy? Was it one of your friends? Eventually, Seungwan stopped guessing. She just patted Eunjeong on the back and handed her more and more tissues.

Finally, Eunjeong explained. She didn’t have any tears left. “It was a mechanical failure. The ship caught fire in the middle of the night. Most of the crew escaped, but the passengers didn’t. No one knows if it was smoke inhalation or the fire. Seungwan, Seungwan, isn’t it awful? I’d rather we drowned. I don’t know what to do with a death like this.”

This news didn’t affect Seungwan the same way it affected Eunjeong. Seungwan had never been fond of the idea of drowning. “But it still happened on the way to Jeju-do,” she said finally, because she couldn’t think of anything else to say.

“But if we’d drowned, then we would have always belonged to that water.”

Seungwan wasn’t sure what to say to that. We don’t belong anywhere; we don’t belong anywhere. “We still belong to Jeju-do.”

Eunjeong closed her eyes. Seungwan’s hand was still going pat pat pat on her back, and for the first time, she let herself be comforted. “That’s right,” she said. “We still belong to Jeju-do.”

 


 

“I heard they’re learning how to make same-age clones,” Eunjeong said, one afternoon. “The kind in science fiction. Fully grown and ready to be implanted with someone else’s memories.”

Seungwan didn’t ask who “they” were, or who Eunjeong could have “heard” this information from. “People always say that.”

“But I read it in a magazine. The science is close. What do you think will happen to all the existing duplicates?”

The existing duplicates were also part of the nebulous “they” and “heard”—people talked about them, but no one knew for sure if they were real. Seungwan was inclined to believe the duplicates really did exist, because it made sense. Technology could make a copy of a person’s memories, and technology could make a clone. If they could only put memories into a body the same age as the most recent memory backup, then a loophole existed that only the truly rich could exploit. And, obviously, Seungwan believed that if such a loophole existed, the truly rich would exploit it.

The technology had been new when Seungwan’s mom and Eunjeong’s mom made their daughters back up their memories before going on a trip abroad by themselves. They didn’t have the option of foresight that rich parents did now. Seungwan and Eunjeong had both heard rumors that as soon as a rich baby was born these days, cautious parents would commission a clone or two so that the duplicates would age as their child did.

It became a simple matter then, didn’t it? Rich parents now wouldn’t have to wait twenty-two years like Seungwan’s mom and Eunjeong’s mom did. If their kid died, they just needed to grab their clone and pop the memories in and, bang, they had their kids back.

Seungwan wondered if those rich kids felt safer, knowing they had a backup. Eunjeong wondered if the duplicates grew up knowing, like they did, that they would someday be someone else.

“It’s better if they can make older clones, isn’t it? Then no one will have to suffer like we do,” Seungwan finally said.

Eunjeong didn’t say anything for a bit. Seungwan had cut her hair last week—her hair was now so short it looked like a boy’s, and Seungwan’s mother hated it. It’s not something Park Seungwan would do. Eunjeong only ever had the haircuts that Park Eunjeong had. If she had a choice, she wouldn’t cut her hair. She would dye it a brilliant turquoise or light blue.

“Yeah, I guess,” she said, finally. “But then our kind wouldn’t exist anymore. Wouldn’t that be sad? To be the last of our kind?”

“Like the haenyeo,” Seungwan said. All their research said there weren’t any haenyeo anymore.

This reminder of that place they both loved did not soothe Eunjeong like it usually did. She hated that the haenyeo no longer existed. The abalone they used to gather no longer existed either, not in the wild, only the kind grown on farms and sold in cans, and Eunjeong hated that too. She lived at a time when nothing good existed anymore, and too many things were easily replaced by something supposedly better.

If she was on Jeju-do, nothing would stop her from diving deep into those waters.

 


 

October 9, 2136. Everything changed.

The president signed the Sentience Protection Act. Eunjeong’s mom and Seungwan’s mom had donated a lot of money to prevent this from happening. And the Park family had a lot of money to spare. The Park patriarch—the father of Eunjeong’s mom and Seungwan’s mom—had been the prominent president and CEO of Park Industries, inventor of self-replicating bread, and his only children were keen to spend that fortune on making sure they got their daughters back the way they wanted them.

It won’t pass, Seungwan said.

But it might, Eunjeong said.

Neither of them were quite sure what they hoped would happen.

There was a legal phrasing, but it boiled down to: No sentient being’s memories can be replaced with another’s without their consent. With one law, the entirety of Seungwan's and Eunjeong’s existence was rendered useless. With one moment, a future that always seemed certain suddenly opened to the unknown.

When they heard the news that the Sentience Protection Act passed, they were all gathered together as a family. Seungwan’s mama cried. “I’ll never see our Seungwan again.” She said that right in front of Seungwan.

Eunjeong’s mother gripped Eunjeong’s hand and said, “But you’ll still do it, right? You’ll still choose to be Eunjeong. You’ve always been my good girl.”

Seungwan didn’t know what to tell her mother.

Eunjeong didn’t know what to tell her mother.

 


 

Eunjeong closed her eyes and let herself fall into the water.

Sometimes she liked to sit at the bottom of the deepest part of the pool and dream she was diving for abalone in the waters of Jeju-do. If there were such a thing as reincarnation, if there were such a thing as a soul, if such a thing as Eunjeong could possess a soul, then she was once a haenyeo.

She could picture the salt water so clearly that it must be a memory of a previous life. Not one of Park Eunjeong’s, as she had never made it to Jeju-do. But of a past life that Eunjeong liked to imagine she had.

And in this dream, Seungwan was there, too. Seungwan was also a haenyeo. One who did it from necessity, to feed her family. But she hated it the entire time. She hated it so much that when she reincarnated as Seungwan, she never went into the water if she could help it. She remembered laughing with Seungwan, sitting on the beach as they rested and recuperated before going back into the water. In her dream, she would remember some small detail about the island, like the way the cherry blossoms would look in the spring. Later, she would read about Jeju-do’s cherry blossoms, and she would be convinced that she didn’t know that before her vision. It really must have been a memory of a past life. But it was difficult to remember what she read about Jeju-do and what she imagined.

The vision was so clear that sometimes, when she emerged from the swimming pool, gasping for air, she experienced a moment of disorientation. Like a time traveler waking in the wrong era, she wondered what this clear water was, wondered where her friend was, wondered why she wasn’t in the waters of Jeju-do.

 


 

“Have you ever been to Korea?”

With Seungwan’s mother, it was important to ask questions at the right time. The right time was usually in the afternoon, or while they were waiting for something. They were sitting at the kitchen table, and they were waiting for Seungwan’s father to come home so they could have lunch. It was the perfect time.

Even so, Seungwan’s mother paused, and Seungwan wasn’t sure she would get an answer.

“Once. A long time ago. Your grandfather brought Eunjeong’s mama and me to stay in Seoul. He thought it was important to understand our roots.”

The question that Seungwan wanted to ask was, Did you go to Jeju-do? But she knew that question was far too dangerous. The question she asked was, “Did you like it?”

Again, a pause. Then, “No. They knew we weren’t born in Korea, because of our accents. And they said we smiled like Americans. It was awkward and uncomfortable. We were only able to go because our father had the money, and he had many friends living in Seoul. Very important people. Otherwise, we would have never gone.”

International travel had been outlawed for almost sixty years, unless you had exorbitant amounts of money and the right connections.

“Why did,” and here, Seungwan had to pause, because she never knew if it was safer to say they or we, so instead she compromised with, “Seungwan and Eunjeong want to go?”

“At the time, a lot of their friends were traveling abroad. If it was something only certain people could do, then that crowd did it simply because most people could not. I shouldn’t have let them go. I shouldn’t have let them go.”

Seungwan’s mama looked smaller when she cried. Fragile. Like she would break apart if Seungwan tried to touch her. Seungwan dared not touch her.

 


 

Are you still a daughter if you’re a copy of someone’s daughter, Seungwan wondered. Are you still Korean if you’re a copy of someone Korean.

She thought about the green frog and his mother. The mother should have trusted her son to obey her dying wish. She should have told him the truth. But that wasn’t the point of the story. The point was the frog failed his mother long before he ever buried her in the wrong place. The point was children failed their parents all the time. Sometimes they grow up, and they travel to a faraway land, and they die there. Sometimes they don’t travel anywhere and still fail.

 


 

The night before the anniversary, Eunjeong and Seungwan got together for dinner. Eunjeong suggested a French restaurant—the kind so fancy they didn’t list prices on the menu. But Seungwan wanted the sundubujip in Old Koreatown, and Eunjeong thought that would be appropriate too.

All evening they talked about everything but why they were together. They talked about movies, and books, and lovers, and Jeju-do. Only after all other topics were exhausted and a silence settled in between them did Eunjeong finally say, “We were never supposed to be any older than this.” Park Seungwan and Park Eunjeong died when they were twenty-two, exactly twenty-two years ago tomorrow. It had been five years since the Sentience Protection Act passed, and despite many cloning corporations suing to appeal the law, the law still stood. If the law had never passed, then tomorrow, Park Seungwan's and Park Eunjeong’s memories would have been reintegrated with the bodies waiting for them. They would have been restored. No. Resurrected.

When Seungwan didn’t say anything, Eunjeong continued, “My mom keeps saying I should reintegrate anyway. That I should choose it.” She thought Seungwan would say something at that point, but Seungwan didn’t.

“I’m not going to reintegrate,” Eunjeong said. She’d never said that out loud before. She never felt like it was safe.

“You always did what Park Eunjeong was supposed to do,” Seungwan said, although she didn’t say it like she was arguing.

“Because it was easier,” Eunjeong said. She didn’t talk about this, not even to Seungwan. “It was just easier to do what my mother wanted. But I’m not going to do it.”

Seungwan smiled. “I’m glad. I want you to live.”

And that was all she said.

It never occurred to Eunjeong to ask Seungwan what she planned to do.

 


 

The next day, Seungwan’s mother came by and gave Eunjeong a letter. Actual paper. Only Seungwan would have used real paper. And Eunjeong knew what the letter said before she read it. Seungwan’s mother looked at her, and it was impossible to know what she was thinking. Eunjeong didn’t even wait to read the letter alone.

 


 

Dear Eunjeong-ie,

I meant to tell you last night, but then I couldn’t. I didn’t want you to change your mind. But I’m going to reintegrate. I never did what my mother wanted, and it seems like I should do just this one thing. I guess I can’t explain it any better than that.

I want you to live. I meant that. I want you to live, and I want you to go to Jeju-do. Be nice to Park Seungwan, she’s still your cousin.

Swim in those waters for us both.

Love,
Seungwan

 


 

Seungwan’s mother didn’t look triumphant, like Eunjeong thought she would. She looked stiff and grim, and after Eunjeong read the letter, she left without another word.

It took reading the letter another three times before Eunjeong could comprehend what happened. And then it was terrible. Not just terrible, but like she woke up and realized there never had been any goodness in the world at all. It was always make-believe.

There never was a Jeju-do. The two cousins never existed, the ocean was always make-believe, there never was a land named Korea.

 


 

It was a long and lonely fourteen years before Eunjeong could leave. Eight years to save the money, and another six to make the right connections to get a travel visa.

Her husband knew what the journey meant to her, and he saw her off at the airport like brides might have sent off their soldiers. Her daughter had said, “Mama, where are you going?”

The easy response would have been, “I’m on my way to Jeju-do.” But instead, she had replied, “I’m going to see my cousin.”

Signs everywhere said that that swimming was forbidden. She’d expected that. No one was allowed in the ocean anymore. So she went to the shore at night, and did not care what happened tomorrow.

Before she slipped into the water, she whispered, “Seungwan, Seungwan, we made it.”

 


Editor: Kat Weaver

First Reader: Shoshana Groom

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



Michelle Denham is a biracial Korean-American who lives in the desert. She earned her doctorate in English Literature and now writes letters for a living and stories in order to live. Her stories have previously appeared in Apex Magazine, PodCastle, Daily Science Fiction, Flash Fiction Online, and the print anthology When the Ride Ends, published by Owl Canyon Press. Her other stories can be found here: https://www.michelledenhamwrites.com.
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