It was raining hard when Ko’s father helped put her straw hat on, and told her they were going fishing.
Ko looked for her mother, but she was cloaked in shadows, cooking something tangy that made Ko’s mouth water, and her stomach growl.
“It’s raining, Father.”
“Yes, I know, but Mother needs fish, and they come to the surface for fresh water when it rains. We’ll catch them quickly, and return. You’re so good at catching them, we’ll be back in no time at all.”
His words of praise warmed Ko to the task, and she eagerly followed him down to where their fishing boat was tied on the aging, rickety pier. Ko used to think it would be fun to fall in, but with the rain and wind, and the high waves out in the harbor, she hoped the planks would hold her and Father’s weight.
It was hard to see with the rain blowing in almost sideways, but Ko was determined, and driven by hunger, to see this through, and have more warm words of love from him.
As they walked, a faint roll of thunder rumbled in the distance, and Ko took her father’s hand. He held it, and smiled down at her, and she took comfort in that.
He would keep her safe.
When they arrived at the harbor, a boat was docked beside theirs, bigger, darker and foreboding, and a man in a wide straw hat with tassels stood on the deck, watching their approach.
Ko slowed down, and her father did too, but then he said, “It’s all right, Ko.”
She relaxed, but didn’t let go of his hand, part of her still wary; the boat was a ferry, and it was unusual that it was such a remote part of the river. This was a land of small farms and local fishermen, and everyone knew everyone, and their business, and their children.
The man on the deck didn’t seem affected by the rain at all, and except for a narrowing of his eyes when they got close, he hardly seemed to acknowledge them.
Her father let go of her hand, and a little thrill of fear and anxiety went through her.
He spoke quickly to the man on the deck, and then their hands touched, so quickly that Ko wasn’t even sure it had happened.
Turning around, he looked at Ko, and beckoned her to come closer.
She went, not knowing what else to do, but felt the sting of tears behind her eyes, and dread in her spirit.
“Are we using this boat to fish, Father?”
“No, Ko. I must fish alone, and you must go with this man.”
He reached for her to bring her by the hand, but she backed away, staring at him, incredulous, and her solid grounding in him turned to soaked mud.
“I will not. I will not!” Ko was turning to run, when she saw the man thrust out his right hand toward her, fingers spread, and it was as if she’d grown roots.
“Father, help me! Why are you letting him…? I can’t move! I can’t move!”
“I’m sorry, Ko. I can’t undo the bargain I struck with him.”
“Bargain? A bargain? I’m to be sold, like some market piglet?!”
The man on the deck called out: “The winds and waves rise, ‘father.’ Is she coming with us, or do we return for you?”
She saw him flinch when the man mocked him.
A realization cold as the river rain settled over her.
“Mother’s pregnant, and you can’t afford me.”
Her father began to cry. “I’m sorry, Ko, so very sorry.”
Ko walked toward the boat, and stopped beside him, but he couldn’t look at her.
She leaned as if to kiss his cheek, and spit in his face; he felt it dribble along with the raindrops that mingled with his tears.
“‘Father,’” she used the same mocking inflection, “I haven’t begun to make you sorry.”