THE PEARL NECKLACE, a short story.
The old man’s eyes were open, but he just lay, listening to the sounds of the morning. It was early still, so not even the market traders were about; the wheels of their carts creaking down the passageways between the houses, shouting at each other to mind out of the way and claim the best spot. Market traders didn’t much care if everyone was asleep. They would chatter and squawk, the old man thought, swinging his legs out of bed. Not like the divers. We slip quietly from the land to the sea, he thought to himself, stretching with a loud yawn.
A dove clattered from one roof to another and the old man peered out. It was still dark. “The sun won’t wait for me,” he muttered buttoning his shirt. His fingers were brown and gnarled from grasping for oysters. The nails split and yellowed from years of toil and the joints beginning to bulge and thicken from age. He gobbled some cold rice and figs, keeping one of his bright, sharp eyes on the sky.
It was the first day of the big dive. After a good season of heavy rain and storms, the oysters will have had many young. Many young will bring many pearls, he hoped, shutting the little wooden door on his house and making his way to the beach.
There were already large groups of men at the shore. Away from the houses, the men could raise their voices a little, as they sorted nets and carried ropes.
“Aren’t you tired yet, of diving, old man?” one of the men called.
The others laughed and he waved their taunts away with good nature. He had his own boat and sailed out alone. He preferred it that way. Some of the other boats could have as many as 60 men and boys on board. As they all went out together, sometimes he could hear them singing songs and laughing and sharing tales of great storms and pearls as big as your fist. The old man would talk to the sea birds and laugh with the turtles.
“I am a creature of two worlds, just as you are,” he would call to the turtle. “Born on the land, but always returning to the sea.”
The turtle would look the old diver in the eye, before turning and sinking back down into the water and the man would know they understood each other. That they shared the same tale.
The cool, blue of the morning light made the old man’s muscles heavy. He liked the heat of the sun, which warmed and softened his limbs, like wax. As a ribbon of dawn crept across the sky, the men pushed their boats out and began rowing. It was quiet now, as the men concentrated on heaving their boats through the water. Just the slap of their oars and the occasional grunt from a rower.
He thought of the oysters, clinging in the shimmering darkness, as he crept out high above them. Each shell holding the promise of moonlight. As they rowed, the golden eye of the sun peeked above the horizon, where clouds rose like mountains. Soon they were out far enough to dive and the boats spread far apart, concentrating on choosing a good spot.
The old man knew these waters and could read the shadows like a map. He peered down into the fragmented below, which changed and winked in the strengthening sunlight. The sea always tried to hide her treasures from him, but he knew her tricks. Sometimes she managed to lead him astray and he would return with empty baskets or worse still, full baskets, but empty shells. He hoped today would be a lucky day. Maybe his old friend the sea would give up her gifts.
The old man dropped his anchor, which plunged downward, the rope uncoiling and slipping over the side with a hiss. He gathered his basket, slipping the rope over his head, so that it rested on his chest. He kept a knife in his belt, in case he met a shark or an eel. Standing for a moment, he let the gentle warmth of the morning sun invigorate his limbs. Then he turned and selected the diving rope, tugging at the weight to ensure it was secure and checking it was tied to the boat. There would be noone to pull him up, not like the divers on the bigger boats.
He looked down into the water for a few moments and took deep, repetitive breaths, filling his lungs, his arms, his strong thighs, right down to his toes. Holding his nose, he stepped off the boat.
The water rushed up to meet him and the weight pulled him down. He glanced up at the bobbing shadow of the boat and then looked past his toes and into the turquoise mist below. The old man pushed the strain in his throat down low into his abdomen, where it settled, as it always did. One kick and he was now facing head down, his feet pointing at the sky. He had travelled nearly ten lengths of his own body and he counted three more before he could make out the rocks, poking out through a veil of white sand.
Fish grazed on the bottom and only scattered when he came near. Everything drifted in silence down here and the old man felt calm and happy. Away from the chatter of people and the crunch of their wheels on the roads through life. Here he was on the edge of things. His heart beat slowed to the beat of the sea because to fight it would mean meeting your story’s end on the sea floor.
He swam over the rocks, which fell away below him, creating an underwater valley. A ribbon of peacock blue fish snaked past him, travelling to a new home perhaps. The rule of the sea, was safety in numbers, unless you were the hunter. The old man’s trained eyes scoured the rocks, his hands dusting sand away. Sometimes flat fish appeared from their hiding place and scuttled away. Finally his fingers came across a shell, which lead him to another and another. A cluster of oysters clung to the edge of the rock and he gathered them into his basket, leaving the small ones, which would be harvested in next season’s catch.
With a full basket, he began to pull himself back up the rope. He pushed the tightening in his chest down again and kicked his legs harder. The shadow of the boat was faint now. As he rose, shafts of sunlight pierced the surface and he could feel its warmth in the water. He pulled, up, up and finally his face broke through the surface. The old man gasped and his body took grateful mouthfuls of air.
With the sun glancing off his copper back, he pulled himself into the boat and emptied his basket. He sat for a while before leaping back into the water. The diver did this six more times in that hour alone. When he was a younger man it would have been eight or ten times, but his body was always calling him back to the surface these days.
Late that day, he had done many dives and the floor of his boat was covered in oysters. Even though there was no breeze, he raised his sail and sat in its shade. He took out his knife and began to prise open the shells. They were rough and a gnarled grey.
“You look ugly, but I know that you hold beauty inside,” the old man said to the oysters.
He turned the shells quickly in his creased and scarred hands. The puckered line running across his palm, was from a salty rope that had burned him when he was just a boy. His hands had been soft then. He had welts on his arms from the stinging caress of the beautiful jellyfish. These were the scars of an experienced diver. Although they laughed and called him “old man”, the men in the other boats knew he was a great diver and when they laughed you could see the respect in their eyes.
The old man’s knife scraped against the hard shell of an oyster. He prised it open, but there was only the pale, salty flesh. That day he opened one hundred shells and found not one pearl. The old man sighed and hoped that his luck would change tomorrow. He unwrapped one of the parcels of rice he had brought with him and ate it, as he watched the sun go down. His body was tired from the first day’s diving and he lay down with his head resting on his coiled ropes.
For the next three days, the old man dived, hauling up basket after basket of shells, but the sea refused to give up her treasures. The man was tired and his muscles screamed every time they pulled him up the rope towards the blinking light of the surface. By this time, he had run out of rice and had to eat raw fish that he caught off the side of his boat. It was at these times that he dreamed of yoghurt and maybe a drizzle of honey. But they were difficult to afford, unless he had a good diving season. Sometimes a neighbour would take pity on the old diver and leave something tasty at his door, for he had taught their sons how to dive and owed him their good fortune.
One morning the old man woke with a start. A splash of water had fallen across his face and something had nudged the boat. Squinting into the sun he scrambled to his knees and looked over the side. A shadow moved underneath him. He shifted to the other side of the boat. The shadow was already there and heading for the surface. A nose broke through with a splash and then returned under again, its sleek, grey body glistening purple and blue, as it curved up, out and then back into the water. The man recognised the soft curves of a dolphin and laughed to himself.
The creature came up again and looked at him with smiling eyes. It twisted and turned in the air before hitting the sea, throwing water into the boat. The old man began to pull up his anchor.
“You will me take me to the richest oysters,” he called to the dolphin, his hands working quickly now, one over the other to haul up the rope.
The man knew that dolphins brought good luck. He would follow the creature and his fortunes would change, he thought, as he adjusted the sail and settled down to row, as the breeze was still only light.
He followed the dolphin, which tossed and played around the boat. The man was pleased by the appearance of his guide and rowed with all his might, despite the complaints of every fibre in his arms and shoulders.
“Come on body,” he said through gritted teeth. “I feed you and keep you warm, so row.”
His muscles felt ready to snap and his hands started to cramp, from gripping the oars. The old man rested for a moment, but the dolphin went on. He called after it to wait. And for a moment it turned, but then it was gone, back below and the diver was left alone once more.
“Damn you old man, you couldn’t keep up.”
He massaged his tired hands and rubbed his shoulders, before heaving the anchor overboard. Maybe this is where my guide meant to leave me, he thought, to himself. A good diver must always have hope, he thought, otherwise he would never dive at all.
Shaking off his aches, the old man stood and prepared himslef. The sun was still high, so he knew had plenty of time. Grabbing his weighted line, he took several breaths, focused on the sea and dropped in.
Down he plunged, into the cool, green. The tumble of air rumbled in his ears and then was gone as he sank deeper. He swam down, little air bubbles clinging to his arms and then floating up to the surface. But he carried on down towards a shelf of rocks he could make out below.
Almost as soon as he touched down, the old man found a cluster of oysters and quickly put them in his basket. There were hundreds of them and he smiled. Soon his basket was full and he made his way back up to the boat to tip out his shells. He made several more dives, each time with a full basket.
After two hours of diving he climbed into his boat to lie in the sun’s warmth. His salty lips were beginning to crack after several days at sea, so he drank some fresh water and lay looking at the stack of oysters. Maybe there would be a pearl or maybe the dolphin had just been playing.
He reached forward and took the nearest one. The blade of his knife slipped expertly between the ridged lips. Gaining purchase inside, he prised the shell open. Salt had begun to dry on his eyelashes and he rubbed his eyes quickly with the back of his hand. There it lay. Perfect. Gleaming, like a small moon in the palm of his hand. He picked it up between his thumb and forefinger and hardly dared breath. It was a good size and colour, he thought. As good as any he had found before. He made a fist around it and said a silent prayer of thanks to his kindly siren.
“Don’t be greedy, old man” he said to himself, but that pearl was a sign that his luck had changed. “First the dolphin and now this.”
He prepared for another dive and urged his old body to stay strong. Just one more dive, he thought to himself. This will be the last one. And down he went. He was familiar with the area now, so he swam with purpose, letting the weight pull him into the deep.
Once there, he began gathering shells. He knew he was tired, so he tried to work quickly and tried not to think of resting in his boat. Not now, old man. No use, thinking of that now. Concentrate on the shells and don’t let this good fortune slip through your fingers, he thought.
With his basket full, he turned back to his rope and headed towards the surface. His arms began to burn as he pulled himself up the rope and his legs paddled weakly. Come on, we have endured worse than this, he urged them, shifting the basket, which was beginning to chafe on his neck. He peered up, but above there was only a blue haze and below the rocks were also beginning to fade. We must be nearly halfway, he thought, as the grip in his hands began to give way. He was making slow progress and the tightness in his lungs had risen to his throat. The old man struggled to push it down. He kicked his legs and pulled himself up on the rope, one hand over the other, but his basket was heavy now and his body was beginning to crave air. His shoulders burned and his lungs were tightening. His hand slipped again.
You’re tired, old man, he thought to himself. He was used to his body fighting against him, but not like this. Days of diving had taken their toll. He stopped and tried to get the basket over his head so that he could drop it and lighten his load, but even that was too much for his cramping, blistered fingers. I told you not to be greedy old man, he thought, as his hands slipped from the rope and he floated back into the arms of the sea.
“Look,” the boy cried, pointing. “It’s old Khalim’s boat.”
The men on the boat looked out towards the lone vessel and felt a darkness pass over them. They moved in to take a closer look and saw that the boat had been there for days. Flies had begun to settle on the oysters, which still lay in the bottom of the old man’s craft.
“He’s dived his last,” one of the men said and they all tasted the sadness one man of the sea feels at the passing of another.
“Maybe he’s still diving,” the boy said, setting his jaw firm and blinking back tears.
The men said nothing and turned away, one of them touching the boy softly on the head.
“Poor Khalim. I will bring his boat home,” the boy shouted over his shoulder, before diving over the side. “Maybe I will find riches in those shells.”
One of the men shouted after him, “That old man had run out of luck. You will spend an hour opening shells and be lucky to find anything at all.”
The boy swam and pulled himself into the boat. The smell of rotting fish hit the back of his throat and he threw an arm up to his nose. He chased the flies away from the oysters, but they kept coming back so he caught a rope thrown from the bigger boat and secured it.
Before they set off, the boy pulled out his knife to cut the old man’s rope. Tears ran down his face, as he severed the diver’s last connection to the surface. Finally he pulled up the anchor, which took a lot of effort from the young boy, and then he waved at the men on the boat to head on home.
As he rowed, the boy looked at the pile of decaying oysters. And when he grew tired he reached for his knife and began opening the shells. Even if he didn’t find any pearls, it was not good to have the smell of death around when you were at sea. He was only a young diver, but he knew that.
He levered the first shell open and there inside, lay a fat pearl. The boy found a piece of cloth nearby and laid the pearl inside, before starting on the next shell. This one was empty, but the next three contained pearls as big as the first, which reflected in the boy’s large, dark eyes. He began to feel hot tears prick them again, as he thought of the old man at the bottom of the sea, never knowing how many pearls he had found, but wiped them away on his sleeve.
By the time the boy had opened all the shells, he had nearly filled the square of fabric with pearls. His face shone with excitement. There were enough there for an entire necklace, he laughed to himself, but then felt sad again for the old man.
When he got to shore, the men asked him about old Khalim’s oyster catch. The boy hesitated for a moment and then showed the men his pearls. They crowded round and clapped the boy on the back, laughing and told him that the old man would be happy that his luck had changed and that it had been passed on to the boy.The men busied themselves with securing the boats and unloading their harvest, but already, they were telling tales of the old man, how he had taught many of them to dive and how he had the best eye of any pearl diver they had ever known.
The boy was happy to hear the men remember the old man fondly and he put the bag of pearls in his pocket. He didn’t know what he would do with them yet, but he smiled out to sea and thanked Khalim for his gift.