Wetness touches my fingertips. He calls to me, my drowned lover, and I to him. He came to me once, the mer-king, took me into his palace and we lived happily, but I was a woman with an immortal soul and he was not. Han, my beloved, had a fatal leukemia. We met in the hospital; I was his nurse, and though forbidden to date, we could not resist the connection that swept us up like a wave. We often spent our precious days walking around the Han River in Korea because his doctor never allowed him to go far away from the hospital.
Han died in the bathtub at twenty-five. He dove into the water often in life. His connection to it was profound, and I believe he found a way to breathe in the water so he could be released to the spirit world. His body, in too much pain, and his heart and soul knew what to do to create that union. Han died alone, but he gave me his joy for the sea.
I developed a strange obsession with water and my fingertips. A friend referred me to Mrs. Chao, a mystic mendicant who taught me a powerful visualization technique. Mrs. Chao, my sea witch, and I met on the Korean island of Jeju to begin our work as soul friends in the forest. She called it “being engaged with the spiritual plane.” The larger souls of the deceased in the spirit world, she explained, connect to the little souls stuck inside our bodies. Back in Seoul, Mrs. Chao insisted I honor my family’s ancestors and ghosts, those who came before us in human form and who have gone on to the spiritual one. She explained that spirits from that other dimension come back to our human place to communicate and help us develop our spiritual lives.
“Pay attention, my dear,” her voice echoed, “when you see the reflection of yourself in the water. Then mourn for him. During the water ritual, you will feel the mer-king and your drowned immortal soul. He could not turn into foam because of his connection to you, so you will need to find him within the flow of water.”
I use her technique now, my eyes and mind and heart on my faucet at home in Hanover, New Hampshire. In America, I look past the faucet deep into the sea. Reflecting on Han never stops, even here. He keeps coming to me through the water.
“Yes, yes. I feel your vibration in me, Han Tan-Gang. Come with me now.”
I name him Han Tan-Gang. Han means one, Tan-Gang means sorrow river. So Han has become One Sorrow River in my life, the man whom I walked with beside the Han River. I place my hand on the faucet to bring the water out, about a month after meeting Mrs. Chao.
“You came at just the right time,” the sea witch had said, nodding her head. “Your immortal soul is drowned with Han’s spirit, who died in despair. It is not love that tastes like sweet candy, but your obsession that tempts you more than ever.” She paused, in thought. “People say the Little Mermaid died in despair, but she didn’t. She died for something greater.” Her laugh was full of sympathy. “The Little Mermaid died with her virtue and became a daughter of the air. Your mer-king killed himself because he could not possess your soul. He left you no hope but mourning. Human beings don’t wonder at the immortal soul that exists deep inside their minds. I want you to discover the answer through the meditation.”
“Alright, alright,” I had said. I had not told her what I’d felt, but Mrs. Chao seemed to know everything. “I hope I can let it happen.”
I have bathed with the memory of Han about this time every Saturday, right before the sun sets. I need to go into the water today, right now. I have urges when I’m down under it, funny urges. My body wants to float while my mind wants to float away from what presses at it so hard.
Han’s mother, his father’s concubine, also had leukemia. A concubine is sort of like the American idea of a mistress. She is not a wife but substitutes for something a wife cannot fulfill—it is a sleazy tradition. Han’s father’s legal wife could not have sons, and so he placed a secret woman into the background of his life. Han knew he was the product of a concubine and a dishonorable man, and that he was going to die—my drowned man, Han Tan-Gang.
I come to this water ritual, the bath, because I need to see, perhaps not Han but at least myself. I can’t be as cerebral and logical and unfeeling as these Westerners. They value the rational mind process too much. I speak to myself:
“I miss you, Han. Talk to me. Let’s have a little vision and learning tonight.”
I have shared my visions with no one I know except Mrs. Chao. I could talk to my female Asian friend who lives down the street from me, but she is busy. Westerners do not believe humans have these visionary capacities. If someone reveals this other dimension of human life, of the spirits speaking to and through us, they cruelly call him or her crazy.
A voice cuts through my worry. “Stop thinking. Most Westerners are too busy thinking. Just see me.”
Han speaks to me, but I don’t see anything yet. The bath water fills up nicely. I unbutton my blouse and see a flashback from this time-reality of when Han was in the hospital, severely sick with leukemia. During the time I became his nurse and we secretly courted each other, I learned a great deal from him. “You see,” he had said, “fire never embraces anything in the world; it just burns things up. Well, if you get too close to it, it will burn things up. Fire mercilessly comes to claim what it wants to get. While enlightening, it can be devastating to the human body. Our bodies are not quite evolved enough yet to make adjustments to overwhelming fire.”
I remember his gentle, resonant voice. The vibration of it sent waves down my body and into my vagina. “Love is fire, part of the fire. You know we have it, Seungyeon, and I’m helping you know by acknowledging that. There are various kinds of love in each soul. My soul is burning fast and is in deep love with this life. As I burn, I spend my love on you; that is good. You will find a way to manage yours whether I’m here or not.”
In another reality, Han has lain on fine, white, beach sand and begs me to return to his palace and put a dagger straight into his heart. Blouse, panties, slacks, and hose are stacked in neat little piles. My feet go in the water. I think and reject thinking all at the same time. I think the only solution is to go into the water and find this vision of me and Han, a holographic lens into our past and present. How do I find this view? I do not know. But the knowledge comes to me that we are in two different dimensions: me on Earth and Han in Heaven.
He is not like the Little Mermaid, I tell myself with bitterness. My fairy tale would never be the Little Mermaid. Yet I can hear the sea witch’s humming. Han and I never had any trouble recognizing the story we’d been given while he was living or knowing that its contents were quite real. What do I care if most people don’t believe it or hear our story like I do? The typical American doesn’t want to read this story. The typical American would not recognize it as another layer of reality.
I splash water so hard. I feel like I am drowning, but not my soul. The mer-king’s body changes into sea foam and I hear the church bell ring. I have never felt guilty for his suicide because I knew his time was near its end. I ease my body into the bathtub. A transparent stream of water rushes in and with it, Han. I can see him, just his face. I watch my hands move. I place my fingertips inside the water running from the faucet.
Every Saturday evening for an hour or less, I am in this water ritual, I am in the land of my shadows. “It is Saturday after work,” I tell myself. The fatigue from the day’s work made me forget to eat. “Just bathe,” Han echoes from a place I do not yet see. I like taking a bath in America very much. In Hanover, the tub is so deep. I didn’t know what the Americans meant when they conversed about these old-fashioned, deep tubs with clawed feet, but I know I like those old-fashioned, deep tubs with clawed feet. I like to feel like I’m drowning.
The warm, cozy, blue-green water embraces all the skin I have. It is like melting into my obsession. Han’s presence and the tender placement of my body under the surface are a perfect combination. I feel love and care within it, in the given space of this American bathtub. I don’t feel scared, because the faucet constantly makes a knocking tune. It is a beating rhythm, maybe something wrong with a pipe, that gives me a mild throbbing, a pushing force of sound. It happens in unison with a gushing stream from the faucet. I hear lapping now. I don’t know what it is, but it makes me smile and feel less lonely.
I turn the faucet off, feeling marvelously delirious and happy. The dripping water plays a pleasant sound, like the enchanted church bells, and I smile and move my hand to my lips to feel the edges of my mouth curl upward. I fill both hands with water and spill it over my face. Eyes reopen as the water drops and I do nothing else for a while but watch it come down. The water dives into the tub, and I take notice. Where does this energy come from? Little water drop, you have a lot of force to go down so strong into the water. I get so into the experience that my body warms and I am absorbed by my memories.
I love my small reunion with the blue water. The reveries alone are enough to make me return each Saturday at the same time. The sea witch was right; it is just me and the water. There is no disturbance. It is what my Korean ancestors called “discovering the way of enjoying.” My youngest aunt on my mother’s side told us the secrets of the Tao. In that bath, I have complete solitude and know it creates an opportunity for me to leave ego behind and connect with the immortal soul inside my body. To love that soul, like my mer-king, is to be resplendent. Han did not follow principles; he chased what it meant to be noble.
Water drops become tears rolling down my cheeks. I can taste the saltiness as I shake my head to get them off my face. Angrily, I shout, “What is it, soul, that you want to tell me?” I splash the water and weep. The answer I receive: “I am shadowed by the beloved one. The one you were with, the one that loved you back, the one that became foam and flew to the air.” My soul is shadowed by the one who drowned himself in Korea in the true expression of water love on a real day, in real time.
It was a Saturday in 1995. Water…he wanted me to go back to the water for this reunion. Han made me experience his longing for water throughout our courtship. I did not understand it fully, until the end of his story and life. He was trying to teach me that we humans are prophetic and that premonitions, when we know how to interpret our powers, are guideposts or guardian angels.
“Listen to my story,” he would say, cuddling me as he taught me about life on earth compared to life in heaven. “It was raining outside when I was born. At 5, I learned to dive into the water. The energy and symbolism of diving, of water, has always been part of my life, preparing me. Going in and out, I feel complete. Our lives are connected to our deaths. No matter our species, our beings, our consciousnesses, my non-soul and your immortal soul, call them what you like, are part of the process of selecting what we are about and what we do in this life. My soul leads me to the water and into diving, teaches me to use my body within the water. My diving has been a practice ground for how to use water in my life and death.”
Han’s true self was the mer-king. He never thought of becoming like me, of letting my feelings rule his life. When I abandoned him to return to the human world, he found a way to breathe in the water, to use it to release his spirit. He chose to be himself.
I talk to myself more tonight. Listening to him, to me through him, is getting so hard, I again spit salty tears. It was him who walked away from me. Depressed sounds come out of my mouth. I scream, “I do not want to process this mourning and sadness!” Han speaks, “You can never get away from water’s true nature. Sometimes it violently flows and harms humans, but it ultimately flourishes because it belongs to your human realm, to your soul.”
Do you hear the sound of Han River? I snap my head back and look around to see who or what is talking. Or maybe I snap my head just to snap out of it. The message is so clear. Han continues, “Water unites with the ground, just as buried humans do after they die. As long as we respect its wetness, its nature, the water comes and goes within us calmly. I am like the character of both water and fire.”
He laughs. “Han River loves what it is!”
His laugh is like pouring water. “There is pleasure in the stillness of the pouring, in the place where I am now. My palace is the death-plane, my dear, but it is a place like this. In death as in life, stillness is. Drinking water through my nose and throat was like the fire of love. It was hot and hotter, but so temporary. So is the life we live until what humans call death. That life is nothing much after all.”
The mer-king continues, “I don’t have an immortal soul like you, but I do not need one when I have you. You call me back on Saturdays, and I know you miss me because Saturdays are when you used to draw my bath.”
My foot merges with the surface of the water. The ripple pulsates outward. I sit up and watch the circles and I see us as a hallucination. We are over there, in the circles. I see us like I’m watching television or looking out the window or anywhere. I’m on the transcendental plane that the sea witch and the mer-king have opened for me. Staring over the surface, I stop observing and slip into the movie playing before my eyes.
I go deeper into the water. Han says, “Feel the breeze. I am within you.” The water warms my surrender. The word tenderness comes out of my mouth. It’s on my face. I touch it, and I smile. From heaven, he talks to me now, “We were always meant for each other.” For a moment, I hold my breath and close my eyes, feeling the water.
My immortal soul is now with you, my dearest. The ghost of Han goes back to his river to become the sea foam of sorrow. Tears roll down my cheek. We are united.
Seungyeon Lee is an Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Arkansas at Monticello (UAM). Her teaching areas are developmental and educational psychology at both undergraduate and postgraduate levels. Her area of interest is the study of film and fairy tales from a postcolonial point of view.