She did stand out physically, and not because she was beautiful. She was pleasing enough to look at. She was tiny, was the thing, just 150 centimeters (or not quite five feet tall), and slim besides, which made her the perfect size for her job in the tanks. At sixteen she had the stature of a girl of eleven or twelve, and thereby, when first encountered, she could appear to possess a special perspective that one might automatically call "wisdom" but is perhaps more a kind of timelessness of view, the capacity, as a child might have, to see things and people and events without the muddle of the present and all it contains. Perhaps Fan truly had that kind of clarity, and not just a semblance of it.
But if we may, let us picture her before the trouble, just as she was, clad in black neoprene, only the pale gleam of her bare feet and hands and face to indicate her humanity. Once she pulled on gloves and flippers and her eye mask, she looked like a creature of prey, a sleek dark seabird knifing into the waters. Of course, that's not what she did in the tanks, where her job was to husband and nurture the valuable fish that allow our community to do so well in this mostly difficult world. She was one of the best in her function as a diver, easily able to hold her breath for two minutes or more while she scrubbed and vacuumed and replaced tubing and filters, and patched whatever tears had formed in the linings, a half-weight vest to hold her beneath the surface. Even that was almost too heavy for her and she would have to bend her knees while at the bottom of the two-meter-deep water and propel herself upward to breathe, before descending again, her various tools attached to her work belt.
Once submerged, a diver is not easily seen. Given all the fish in the waternaturally as many healthy fish are raised as possibleshe is a mere shadow among them, trained to do her tasks quickly and unobtrusively. That is why she uses no special breathing apparatus aside from a snorkel, compressed gases causing too much of a disturbance. Fearful fish are not happy fish. The diver is not "one of them" but is part of the waterscape from the time they are hatchlings, and they see her customary form and the repeated cadence of her movements and the gentle motor of her flippered feet that must come to them like a motherly lullaby. A dream-song of refuge, right up to the moment of harvest. The diver is there at harvest, of course, and sees to it that the very last of them finds its way into the chute. And it is only then, for the span of the few hours while the tank is being cleaned and filtered before the next generation of hatchlings is released, that the water is clear of activity, that the diver is alone.
How somber a period that must be. The constant light from the grow bulbs filtering through the canopy of vegetables and herbs and ornamental flowers suspended above the tanks throws blue-green glints about the facility walls, this cool Amazonian hue that suggests a fecundity primordial and unceasing. The diver inspects each aquarium, which is roughly the dimension of a badminton court, and by the end she is exhausted not by the work or holding her breath but instead from the strange exertion of pushing against the emptiness. For she is accustomed to the buoying lift of their numbers, how sometimes the fish seem to gird her and bear her along the tank walls like a living scaffold, or perhaps lead her to one of their dead by swarming about its upended corpse, or even playfully school themselves into just her shape and become her mirror in the water. At the pellet drop they are simply fish again and thrash upward, mouths agape, the vibrato of the water chattering and electric, as if bees were madly attempting to pass through her suit. And wouldn't it be truth enough to speak of those bristling hundreds as not only being cared for by the diver but as serving to shepherd her, too, through the march of days?
Excerpted from On Such a Full Sea by Chang-rae Lee. Copyright © 2014 by Chang-rae Lee. Excerpted by permission of Riverhead Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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