Adapted from family history
"The term picture bride refers to the practice in the early 20th century of immigrant workers in Hawaii...selecting brides from their native countries via a matchmaker, who paired bride and groom using only photographs"
Soon, she will leave.
But now, she is tired. As the oldest daughter, the only daughter, she has spent years carrying her brothers on her back. She is seventeen. Her spine is already crooked.
Before she was born, her father named her Yamul, literally adept, nimble and competent, like a prophecy or an expectation. She is not sorry to leave him behind. She is not sorry to leave Yamul behind, the name and the expectation, the laundry and the dishes. She will leave behind the house and the men, her father and her brothers, bothersome and bottomless, always breaking, always helpless, always opening their arms to be held, always opening their mouths to be fed.
In the morning, her father tries to stop her. He rushes to the shipyard after he wakes up to a house that smells empty – no kimchee, no tea. He drags along two clumsy-fingered brothers. But he is too late.
All three stand at the pier by the barge. She is already standing on the ship’s wooden deck. They look up at her and she looks down at them.
The men seem small.
“Yamul, we love you,” her father says. “Come home.”
She just grins, white teeth, lipstick.
That afternoon, she watches the green land quietly collapse, shrivel, until she is surrounded by blue crinkled ocean and everything she knows is gone. She imagines she is leaving herself, too, leaving Yamul, the obedient, adept daughter. She is someone new now, a woman reborn in the middle of the Pacific Ocean.
The trip from Korea to Hawaii takes weeks. She soon meets her bunkmate, a frail sixteen-year-old. Each night her bunkmate gets sick all over the floor, drunk on the ship’s rocking. The beds are wooden here, cold, and the rice is never cooked properly. She is stranded in the middle of an unending ocean, one stretches blue and blank into the sky, and the journey is beginning to feel long.
Thirteen days into the voyage, her bunkmate shows her pictures. A man stands in black-and-white, a little blurry.
“He’s so handsome,” her bunkmate says reverently.
“Yes,” she agrees.
“He has a Rolls Royce,” her bunkmate says. She turns. “And what about yours, then? Handsome too?”
Yamul has two pictures of her future husband. In one, he is standing by a car, black, expensive. In the other, he is standing by a house, white, also expensive. He is attractive, maybe twenty or twenty-one years old, too much hair.
Later, history textbooks will mention her in their margins. The textbooks will call her a picture bride, because she is crossing an ocean to marry a man who she has only seen in photographs.
She knows her husband’s name, and she knows he works in the sugarcane plantations. And she knows that if she had stayed in Korea, she would have been married off by her father.
This man she chose herself, all on her own, isolated, and she could have even refused him. She had seen him, him with his hair, car, crooked grin, and she had decided that she was in love. She had sent back two of her own photos, one with her hair tied up prettily and one where she stood in a white slip.
“Yes,” she says. She grins. “He’s handsome.”
Her first taste of America is a vagueness in the distance. The young women go above deck to watch the land take shape. It comes grey and humid. They dock, anchor. The stillness of the boat unnerves her.
She is hurried off the ship, together with the other brides. The women are hustled into a building. One by one, they step up to an upright white box and a man instructs them to sign a marriage license. They each have one – one per bride.
When it is her turn, she signs, and then the man places one lukewarm hand atop hers to get her attention. He points to the door. She walks outside.
She is an American now, a married bride.
This is her wedding day, and it is time to meet her husband. The brides walk to meet their grooms. Someone taps her on her shoulder. She turns and sees a man. He says something to her.
“No English,” she says brokenly.
“You undersold yourself,” he says in Korean.
He is middle-aged. He is balding.
“I don’t understand,” she says.
“You are beautiful,” he says. “You are more beautiful than the photos.”
Then he smiles crookedly, and she suddenly understands that this man is supposed to be her husband. She is shocked. He looks more like her father than he looks like the man in the photograph. She looks at him, his plain old face, his plain old suit. He must be twenty years older than her.
She feels sick. She feels cheated.
This is not the man she loves.
Later, the history textbooks that call her a picture bride will say, the men lied in the photos. They will say, the men were desperately poor. The picture bridegrooms posed with rich friends’ cars or sent photographs from thirty years ago. In reality they are bald. In reality they are in debt.
Marooned, the brides, locked to these old, broke, lying men, will be forced to work the plantations until their hands break and bleed.
Soon enough, this whole textbook future will unfold beneath her like prophecy, like paper. But she doesn’t know it.
All she knows is that the boat has already left.
The man takes her to his house. It is squashed, cabbage-colored. They are beside the plantations, dry fields that stretch like tangled hair.
He fumbles with the key. He opens the door.
“Okay,” he says. “Welcome home.”
She walks inside and surveys the small space quietly. There is a single bed. There is a sink, a toilet, a kettle. She feels a hand on her back. She looks up and her husband pushes her towards the bed.
She falls quietly onto the covers and stares at the ceiling. He begins to kiss her. He is not a good kisser. There is too much wet. He is a little fat under his suit, too. And she can feel how much he wants her. She is young, beautiful, red-lipped. He has been in this vacant place with no women for too long, all alone, and he needs a woman to love him.
After a few minutes, he pulls away, reluctant.
“You’re so pretty,” he says. “Yamul.”
She is shocked. She opens her eyes, sees white wall.
“You know my name,” she says.
“Well, yeah,” he says.
“How do you know my name?” she asks.
Her husband looks at her like she is a strange and foreign creature, something to handle cautiously.
“You know my name too,” he says. “Don’t you?”
She falls quiet now, feeling stupid, because she does know his name, and it seems only logical that he might know hers as well. Still, though, this somehow feels like the ultimate betrayal, him knowing her in all her daughterhood and adeptness. She had crossed an ocean to escape its prickly, inevitable grasp. And now here he is, her husband, pudgy, ugly, desperate, with no hair, with too many teeth. He will ask her for food, he will ask to be held. She will need to clean this house.
Even in America, she is only Yamul.
They have fallen in debt to the plantation store. They have fallen in debt to the neighbors. Her husband is a gambler and an addict, which disgusts her, but then again all the men are. It is expensive, the alcohol, the opium. She has to protect what little money she has left.
Her name is still Yamul, and she still does not speak English. Today she wakes up at night, dark everywhere, and she changes into crisp clothing, the fabric stiff from too many washings. She labors in the sugarcane plantations, alongside her husband, both of them on the owners’ clock. The day is made of knuckles and it passes in tangled, swollen hours. She keeps her head to the dirt and she works adeptly, competently. She has no other choice. When she gets home her hands are tacky. She licks one palm, experimental, and she tastes sweat, sugar, blood.
She cooks dinner, rice and pork, cheap and hot. She and her husband eat quietly, quickly, chopsticks always halfway to their mouths. Afterwards her husband steps back from the table and presses into her, soft. She lets him do it. They fall onto the bed.
They have had sex twice in their marriage, both times awkward. Now he hovers over her in the dark. She goes very still, almost stiff.
“Relax,” he breathes into her ear. “Just relax already.”
“I’m relaxed,” she says.
“No, you aren’t,” he says.
Everywhere around them is dark. She is worn-out, tired. She has worked all day. She turns slowly around, so that they face each other, knee bones clicking together. His eyes are wide and black in the dark.
“I can’t do it, Yamul,” he says. “You know that. I can’t do it until you’re relaxed.”
“I don’t understand,” she says. “I am relaxed.”
But she does not move or unclench. She just looks at him with big, innocent eyes and waits. With one fist he hits the thin comforter. He groans, his big body softening under him. He is like a child.
“You’re turning me off,” he whines.
“I’m sorry,” she says.
“Every night,” he says. “Every night, you sit there, so still. You think I don’t know what you’re trying to do?”
“I’m confused,” she says.
He looks at her, still halfway lustful.
“I’m your husband,” he spits. “Do you know that? I’m your husband.”
Back in Korea, her father liked to say that love is something that emerges between a husband and his wife after they are married. Love, in her father’s mind, is just another expectation. And she is Yamul, adept. She has grown accustomed to providing men with expected things. She cooks rice and sweeps floors and leaves the fields with hands stained with blood. She opens her arms to her husband. She feeds him.
But he is not the man in the photograph. She does not feel love.
On an October night, her husband gambles and fails. He comes home insecure, needy, drunk. He staggers into the house, shuts the door, fiddles with the lock. It is two or three o’clock in the morning. She is already in bed. He comes and lays down next to her.
“Yamul,” he says, cotton mouth breath. “You’re awake, aren’t you.”
“Yes,” she says quietly.
She hears him sigh. Drunkenly he reaches out a hand, too warm. He strokes down her arm tenderly, feeling its fine hairs, caressing the soft envelope of her elbow. She wonders momentarily if he is trying to ask for sex. But he doesn’t move past her arm. For five minutes they stay like this, breathing together, him stroking her. Then she finally turns to face him.
“What are you doing?” she asks.
“Do you want me to stop?” he asks.
He studies her. She doesn’t say anything.
“Okay,” he says. “I’ll stop.”
Now he pulls his hands away. He turns from her, so that he lays on his back. He looks up at the white ceiling. She glances at his face.
“What is going on with you,” she says. “You’re acting strange.”
“I’m sorry,” he says. “I don’t know. I’m sorry.”
She is quiet now. In seven months of rotten, miserable marriage, she has never heard him apologize before. She stares at her husband like he has become a foreign person. He is still staring up at the ceiling. Slowly she notices that his eyes are wet. He is almost crying. She notices this dispassionately. Maybe he is upset about the gambling, maybe he is just too drunk. Maybe it is something else.
She finds that she doesn’t particularly care.
“I’m so in love with you,” he says, sudden and unexpected. “I am so in love, Yamul.”
She pauses. She does not know how to respond. She does not understand how he could have grown to love her when she feels nothing but coldness towards him. He turns to her. He is crying now, fully crying, and it looks terrible. Tears dribble from his eyes onto his cheeks. His nose is running.
She leans away.
“God, why don’t you love me,” he says, helpless, fishlike. “I’m your husband. Shit, you’re supposed to love me.”
She is silent. Slowly he begins to calm himself down. He settles into the covers and sniffs wetly.
“Come here,” he says. “Please.”
He opens his fat arms to be held. And this is something she has done before, this is something she knows. She does it quickly, competently. When she reaches him he grasps onto her, sloppy, too tight. He winds his arms around her and rocks her body drunkenly. She lets it happen out of obligation alone. She doesn’t complain. She listens as his breath slows. Eventually he tires, and he lets go of her, and they both fall back into the bed.
Tonight her husband is melancholic, depressed. Tomorrow she will wake up and find that he has lost more of their money. They will not have enough to buy pork for dinner. She will serve rice in chipped bowls. Soon, she knows, too soon, he will run out of things to gamble.
It is a Saturday evening when they finally lose the last of their money. They are at the neighbors’ place, a party. The husbands are drinking, gambling. The wives sit on the couch like porcelain.
Cards lay scattered across the table. The men are on the second or third round of their game, but her husband has lost every hand.
Her husband empties his pockets of pennies. The other men take the coins, slipping them into fat pockets.
“You out yet?” one of the men asks her husband drunkenly, in Korean.
“No, no,” her husband says. “Not yet.”
“Well, what do you wanna bet then?” the man asks. “If you’ve even got anything left.”
Her husband looks down at the table. He splays his fingers, touches the edge of a playing card. He glances up at her. He grins.
“Her,” he says.
“Your wife?” the other man snorts.
“Yeah,” he says. He nods to her. He grins wider. “C’mere, Yamul. Stand up.”
She is sitting at the couch, the other women beside her. Quiet. Her knees pressed together. Palms on her thighs. She looks up at her husband, still and silent. He looks back at her with black, glassy eyes.
“Pretty, isn’t she?” her husband says. “Play your cards right, and maybe you can win her love.”
The men laugh.
It is a joke.
They leave quickly.
Outside, it is raining. Her husband is drunk out of his mind. As they walk back home, she feels fat raindrops slide from her hair to her cheeks. Soon they are both drenched.
They make their way to their porch and begin to climb up the stairs. Before he opens the door, her husband pauses. He turns towards her. He brings one hand up to her face, cups her chin, and she looks back at him, hollow. For a minute they both stand there in the deluge, rain everywhere, his drunken breath five and a half inches from her throat.
“God,” he says casually. “Thank God I didn’t actually lose you, huh?”
Now he steps closer. He presses his lips into hers. She feels empty. She does not resist. They kiss for thirty-eight seconds. She counts them, wet heartbeats.
He pulls away. He grins.
“I love you,” he says.
Her father said this too.
Her husband pauses. He studies her, then pats her cheek.
“Aw, you're mad,” he chuckles. “Don’t be mad. It was a joke.”
“I’m not mad,” she says coldly.
“It was a joke,” he says.
She looks up at her husband, and then she looks through him. For a moment she thinks about running away. But she knows that she won't.
This story already has an ending. Her story has had an ending before she was even born.
She stands alone in the rain. Her husband is next to her. Or maybe he isn’t. Maybe she is not even here. Maybe she is still in Korea. Maybe she never even left.
Her husband grabs her arm. She looks into his fat eyes. He has been talking. She has no idea what he has been saying.
“Wait, actually, are you mad?” he asks. “Yamul. I’m sorry. Are you mad?”
Later, the textbooks will call her a picture bride. The text will say, she could not leave. Then the paragraph will break, and the textbooks will not say anything else. They will not explain why she cannot leave. It is because these small technicalities, every whisper and rule and name that constrains her, do not warrant the space. There are more compelling and more important things for men to remember. She will only exist for a quarter of a margin. In some textbooks, she will not exist at all.
She has spent her life existing in spaces that are too small for her. She is not the first woman tangled in the prophecies of men. But in the dark with her forlorn husband, she only finds herself smiling. She is grinning now. She is grinning because she has won. Men, husbands, fathers, brothers, reach to her helplessly, always broken, always hungry, always desperate for rice and love. She will feed them.
But she will never love them.
Yamul feels the rainwater fill her mouth. She imagines it is ocean on her tongue.
Kaya Dierks is a Korean-American writer and an incoming freshman at Yale University. Her work has been recognized by The National YoungArts Foundation, The Alliance for Young Artists & Writers, Columbia College Chicago, and The New York Times and appears in The Adroit Journal, The Phoenix, and The Apprentice Writer. She was a finalist for the 2020 Adroit Prize for Prose.