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little girl and grandfather survive in the age of the pearl
THE AGE OF THE PEARL
appeared in Orbis Magazine (UK)
winner of the Readersí fiction award
and in Short Story International (USA)
Strolling along the nacreous stretch of a South Pacific islet were an ageing man and a female child. They were both naked and holding hands. "Tell me again, great-
grandpa," the little girl inquired, "why is it that we cannot go into the sea? When I look at the water and know I cannot dip my feet in it I feel terribly sad," The centenarian gazed silently at the turquoise expanse. Beads of perspiration rimmed his lashless eyes. Was there a tear among them? "Great-grandpa," the little girl said impatiently, "you haven't answered me. All you do when you come here is stare at the ocean. I won't come any more."
The old man gently patted the child's shoulder. Still fixing the aqueous immensity, he began to talk as if to himself.
"It goes back so many years. As a matter of fact, the last time I remember having swum I must have been your age. And this beach had real sand. You could feel its fluffiness under your toes. But the sea, Krela, the sea," the old man lamented, "it was so incredibly beautiful and soothing. I'd dive in it and swim for hours on end. Deep under the water, along the coral reef, I'd open my eyes and suddenly there was magic: the glass sponge so hospitable yet so discreet, the pink-eyed indicus with its razor-teeth, pious like a bald monk, the atolla lighting up as if it were a Christmas tree, the octopus-weed graceful as a ballerina, stroking shades of a diabolic dance. The sea-fan, the wonder-lamp and, oh, Krela, the silverfins, they would lead me to the secret entrances of the Low Realm. A living treasure trove, Krela!"
"But great-grandpa," Krela whispered, reverent and incredulous at once, "are you all right?" The centenarian lowered his eyes and smoothed Krela's blond curls with the palm of his hand. "You think I've lost my mind, don't you? No, I'm not roving, I have seen them just as I see you now."
Krela gaped in wonderment. He spoke so passionately about everything that she only half believed whatever he said. He'd come up with such amazing tales. Though he did appear quite lucid and had a vast knowledge of the universe, Krela was certain that her great-grandpa embellished his memories in a most fantastic manner. But she loved it, for he provided her with worlds she couldn't reach, even in her dreams. Once in a while he'd mention the scourge of the pearls. And he'd become extremely despondent. Nevertheless, he'd promised to tell her all about it. And this is how he finally recounted the story, using at times words and definitions that sounded totally outlandish to her.
"Long, long ago, pearls were a rarity indeed. To find a handful of them you had to gather thousands of oysters. It would take weeks, even months, and people would die in search of a pearl. Generally they'd drown. Do you know what a pearl is made of Krela? It is an iridescent concretion produced by certain marine and freshwater molluscs. It is composed almost entirely of nacre, or mother of-pearl, the compound which forms the inner layer of mollusc shells. A pearl, the only gem of animal origin, results from an abnormal growth of nacre around minute particles of foreign matter such as sand.
Let me also tell you about the oysters. These have separate sexes. Eggs and sperm are shed into the water, and after fertilization, the embryo develops into a free-swimming larva with rudiments of a shell and a bundle of cilia for propulsion and feeding. As the shell enlarges, the veliger develops. This second larval form has a well-muscled foot, a bivalve shell and internal organs. The spat, i.e. the young oyster, remains free-swimming for some two weeks before settling down and attaching itself to a suitable surface. Some bivalves go through a brief parasitic phase that aids dispersal. The larva of these species must attach itself to a fish for development to take place. Afterward, the young bivalve abandons its host to take up an independent existence in the ocean. As I told you before, natural pearls were extremely rare, until a Japanese - his name was Kokichi Mikimoto - devised a method of cultivating pearls artificially. Mikimoto had to tackle a number of biology and marine-science related problems first. The red tide was one of them. The increase in plankton which tainted the sea blood red would kill the oysters by the millions. Then there were the octopi and the cold underwater currents. But our indefatigable Japanese fought relentlessly against the odds. Invention succeeded invention. He obtained hemispherical pearls initially, then one day, from the shell of a dead oyster, he extracted a perfectly round gem. He cut the pearl in half and discovered in its center the spherical nucleus which he had originally implanted. Kokichi Mikimoto pursued his research, improving both the color and the lustre of his pearls. But it was by accelerating the growth function of oysters that Mikimoto revolutionized aquatic life. Never had he suspected the magnitude of his discovery and least of all its outcome. For it reached far beyond the mere multiplication of cultured pearls. Those pearls which adorned the delicate necks of women around the globe. To counter the murderous red tides, Mikimoto used culturing baskets and platforms, attaching baby shells as a means of propagating oysters. And now, Krela, the pearls to which an industrious Japanese had devoted his life are as common as the grains of sand in the desert. They have washed ashore to cover all the beaches that lace our continents and the myriad isles such as the one we are both standing on. There was sand here once, and pebbles too, but these have disappeared under layers of pearls. The white, black, pale blue and indigo pearls we're so accustomed to."
"Great-grandpa, itís all very fascinating, about the pearls and the oysters, I mean," Krela said in a tone of expectation, "But you haven't explained why I can't swim in the ocean the way you used to. Is it dangerous?" The old man, obviously strained, walked the child to a flat rock on a promontory, made himself comfortable and produced two ripe mangoes from a bag. He motioned the child to sit next to him and handed her a fruit. They both relished their snack, biting voluptuously into its juicy flesh. Krela had already finished hers while the centenarian was still savoring the oblong fruit, licking its seed dry. Now that he had gathered new energy, he went on to satisfy the child's curiosity.
"I would come to this very place, dive into the sea and look for oysters. I'd bring back home basketfuls of them and we'd eat them raw. They were tender and delicious," the old man smiled, pinching Krela's cheek, "just like you! But this has changed. Do you know that humans traveled on the oceans and even lived under the water in what used to be called bathyspheres. For centuries we were masters of the seas. But in fact we knew so little about them. Today it is the ocean that rules us. The only thing we're allowed is to contemplate it and pump limited quantities of water, filtering and desalinating it for our daily needs."
"Have we done anything wrong, great-grandpa, that made the ocean so angry against us?" the child asked, looking quite puzzled.
"Yes, Krela, we have abused it, we have dumped tons of refuse in it, poisoning part of its life, killing some of its most valuable creatures and flora. And it took revenge, confining us to our land. We have become the seas' prisoners, Krela. Before, we needed each other like parent and child, brother and sister, man and woman. Before, there were rivers that flowed inland, rivers in which we could bathe and fish, some of them thousands of kilometres long. They are all dried up now. As a result, mankind depends on the good will of the seas. We have turned into orphans, Krela. And soon we shall have to look for another planet to settle on, lest we are reduced to parasites." Krela listened dumbfounded to the centenarian's predicament. Her eyes pleaded, "Surely we will find a way to save everybody?"
Then, in the old man's mouth, the words 'pearl' and 'oyster' exploded successively. "You're so young, Krela, but you ought to know nevertheless. Thanks to Mikimoto the oysters have proliferated, unchecked, covering every reef and incline under the oceans, damming all the estuaries. Oysters have grown to be the most populous species of our universe. What's more, they have learned to mass-produce pearls naturally, expelling them from their organisms, strewing them over our shores so as to create a permanent barrier between land and sea. Their ultimate aim, Krela, is to eliminate the earth's population, animal and plant alike. Every year they ration the waterflow at the rate of ten percent. And we humans have no alternative but to explore the galaxy for our survival. By the time you reach adulthood, you won't be living here any longer."
"But what are the oysters doing in the ocean?" inquired Krela, unperturbed by an event which seemed to her far removed in the future.
"They're building huge mazes underwater to safeguard the sea inhabitants. Imagine walls of oysters, scaffoldings, bridges of oysters. That's what they're doing. And sooner than we'd want it to happen, they'll be sealing off all that blue horizon you are gazing at. You can't notice it, Krela, for they're just below the surface. It's only a matter of years before they accomplish their project."
Krela's face suddenly glowed: "Then we'll be able to walk on the water, great-
grandpa! It'll be the most beautiful day of my life."
The old man nodded, forcing a smile. "Why not," he acknowledged to himself, "why not."
Site: The Crowded World of Solitude, vol1
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|Reviewed by m j hollingshead
|Reviewed by Sandie Angel
|This story is so beautifully-told. Wonderful story indeed, Albet! Congratulations on the winning!
Sandie May Angel a.k.a. Sandie Angel :o)
|Reviewed by Charles O'Connor III
|Nice imagery and you caught the fact well concerning what we've done to the ocean. Can't say this enough, "You've captured the scenery perfectly."
Charles D. O'Connor III "Check out my new fantasy story 'The Painter'