MOTHER OF PEARL, EXCERPT ONE

Kelp covers the small body, the blades tangled, entwined almost like a fabric. A blanket, Mira thinks, to protect the girl against the dawn's chilly breath and the Pacific waves that leap toward her every so often to shower her with sparkling drops. From under the seaweed, a tiny foot peeks out. The surf stops short of the toes, as if afraid to touch, and retreats, leaving a pattern of foam on the glossy sand.
Why had she been so sure that it was a girl sitting there? Mira would wonder later. The shape of the head maybe, or the long strands of hair covering it, as tawny and tousled as the kelp. The wind gently tugs on both while Mira steps closer. Otherwise she can detect no movement. No wincing when the ocean spray hits, no shifting of the body to find a more comfortable position. But she's sure it's not a doll. The foot is plump and fleshy, like a toddler's. This is not what she expected to find searching for agates, sea glass and turban snails.
Mira kneels down. Her fingers brush the damp curls away from the face. The girl's eyes are closed, the features pretty but distorted with an expression of pain. Or is it grief?
Mira flinches: a bird's loud whistle is ringing out nearby. The culprit, a black oyster catcher, hurries past, red beak pointing toward the ground, too busy looking for shellfish to notice them.
Mira glances up and down the shoreline: Not a soul in sight. The tide is coming, though.
Despite the bird's continued calling, the girl's state of silent anguish hasn't changed. Mira's hands slide in between the seaweed fronds and begin peeling them away. Firm and leathery, they seems reluctant to give up their secret. She has always liked the batches of kelp washed ashore after a storm: The stems of various thickness, coiled and twisted, resembling messed-up balls of yarn. Their gnarly holdfasts, ripped from the ocean bottom. The gas-filled bulbs that keep the blades at the surface to catch the sunlight.
She has seen otters floating among them, anchored in the wild gardens the giant kelp forms in the coastal waters that are like untamed sisters of the lily pads growing in quiet ponds. She has been told about the forests underwater: dense, impenetrable, full of life and mysteries.  
More layers come off. She gets glimpses of the girl's pale skin that shimmers with the soft blues and pinks of the morning sky. Surprisingly, it's warm and dry.
The oyster catcher chimes again. It's a pleasant call, though slightly frantic. A shout of joy — or disapproval? A warning? Mira checks the beach again. The bird is still the only witness. The waves roll in with vigor, frothing.
When she looks back a the girl, the face is turned toward her, eyes wide open, pupils glowing with the bright green of eel grass exposed by a low tide. The gaze is calm and unafraid. Trusting. Expectant.
How has this sweet baby ended up here all by herself? Mira unties her knitted belt. She pushes away the kelp and wraps her cardigan around the girl.
Spume splashes over the little foot, as if laying claim to it. Is this a child of the sea? Mira knows the stories of seals coming to the shore to shed their pelts and take on human form. The old fairy tales about mermaids abandoning their liquid home for the love of unworthy men. She doesn't believe any of them. Whoever has left the kid here to fend for herself has forfeited their right to be a parent.
Mira scrambles to her feet. As she lifts up the girl, several tiny white globules drop to the ground, unnoticed. One, though, slips into the front pocket of her boho skirt, where she will find it later, astonished beyond measure.
Now, two little arms reach out for her, small hands grab onto the thin sleeves of her blouse. She feels the warmth of the girl and, pressing her close, starts running toward the cliff.
Of course she will name her Pearl.

 

ONE

NEE - Victoria

My gloved finger brushes against the little feather-duster legs poking out of the volcano-shaped shell, causing its owner to retreat to the inside of its limy apartment and bar the door. How many people share their home with such strange lodgers? But then, my house is not a normal one. It goes up and down with the tide, and its bottom is crusted with a thick layer of limpets and barnacles, like scab covering a wound. I have a garden, also not the usual variety, as the eel grass requires no mowing, and its dainty flowers wander about, their bright-colored arms dancing to the tune of the current. You could almost forget they are ever-hungry predators with a deadly embrace.
Carl knows all their Latin names, of course, but I've forgotten most of them. Right in front of me sits a giant green one. By the dock edge, a brooding anemone lies in wait. The two white ones over there at the corner pontoon that look like they're waving lace hankies are giant plumose sea anemones.
After Carl took me for my first dive at Race Rocks lighthouse where we saw their dense communities all over the ocean floor, I told him they reminded me of my least favorite vegetable, and for a while we called diving 'going for a walk in the cauliflower woods'. Later I learned that their digestive enzymes can melt flesh within fifteen minutes. Good thing they are small and slow moving, otherwise I wouldn't be able to sleep only a few feet above the poisonous harpoons on their tentacles.
Living on the water is different and more beautiful than on terra firma. Weens thinks it's also a great metaphor. Things have to be balanced out carefully, otherwise the whole construction is going to tip over. As a writer, she sees matters mostly in terms of story.
In a little distance, an engine roars. The harbour is a busy place, and so is the wharf. From my living room, I see the float planes taking off and landing, the ferry going in and out. In front of my kitchen window, visitors walk up and down the jetty, casting an eye into my life — some furtively, others without shame. Yet, I like the distraction the tourists bring, and of course I depend on them to leave their money in my gift shop. This little buoyant village moored at the docks has become my haven. Its offbeat inhabitants — human flotsam like me — have decorated their homes with objets trouvés; the spirit is creative and whimsical, half art show half flee market.
And in spite the water's hazy slate blue and the muddy ground, the sights down here below the planks and pontoons are not less cheerful and teeming. Bright-colored tunicates cover the wood pilings like living paint splotches, over twenty different kinds Carl identified last time we had the chance, and he knows his invertebrates. Most of them are immobile, though some smart ones attach themselves to the back of a crab to get a fun ride. Bright-red sea stars stalk about. Shrimps sashay. Every arm and leg is in constant movement, juggling invisible things — as if an underwater circus has pitched its tents right below the feet of the unsuspecting tourists having their lunch at the wharf's seafood eateries.
How have I ended up here? Kelp baby inhabiting a floating home — life imitating art. Shouldn't it be the other way round?
Next to me, Carl works his hydraulic hammer drill to fix another sheet of stainless steel wire mesh in place. Hopefully this will convince mama otter to find another spot for her birthing den.
He beckons and I hand him the next metal screen. In spite of mask and mouthpiece I know he's smiling. It's nice to spend bottom time together, even if it's only to board up my home against furry squatters. We both miss our trips — but we don't mention it. Vancouver Island has been called the best temperate water diving location in the world, second only to the Red Sea, but he's been told to take it easy. And Weens and I make sure he follows the rules. We want to keep him around. I still think it's unfair because his lifestyle has been so healthy. “Sometimes it's the sins of the fathers,” his doctor has said. Or mothers, who knows.
The little fellow in the limestone dwelling has cautiously opened the door again. He's actually standing on his head in there, trying to catch food with his feet. To think he never ventures outside — a bizarre existence, though mine might look equally odd to Mr. Barnacle. And he mates with his neighbor; this we have in common.
Why do things happen to people? Is there a hidden meaning behind the trials and tragedies in one's path? Thankfully, being down here, even only with a hand-breath of water over my head, makes me feel less heavy, in more than one way. It's astonishing that I'm never sad when I'm submerged. Maybe mermaids don't cry after all — that must be another perk of having a fishtail. Although, let's face it: where does this intelligence come from? A writer. I don't think a nineteenth century inventor of fairy tales is a reliable source of information. Has he done any scientific research on the topic, like inviting twenty mermaids plus control group to a lab to read them sad tales or poke them with hot pins? Probably not. And even if he had managed to catch one in her natural habitat, she surely could have wept a whole ocean unnoticed. Water to water. Salt to salt.
Carl turns and lifts his right hand, thumb and index finger forming a circle: the okay signal. We're done. He heaves the hammer drill onto the jetty.
I've always, always, loved this man. From the moment he showed up at Coco's Cantina with his entourage of students and shells of stone. Even though I was only seven, I sensed that it meant change. Weens, of course, needed a bit longer to understand. But she has held on to him, the lucky duck. It's another big anniversary for them next month: Thirty-five years since their walk-in-wedding in the small white chapel in Reno on our way up to Seattle. I couldn't wait to get out of the building because they had promised me I would see the ocean the same day. But when we arrived in Eureka, it was already dark and I had fallen asleep in the backseat. When I woke up in the hotel room the next morning, I ran to out onto the balcony right away. All this water: The Pacific ocean. I was going to live by the sea, with a brand-new father.
Carl signals 'which direction?'. Of course I want to frolic around under the jetties of the wharf. Carl and I are wearing full scuba gear, just for the fun of it, even though we could have done the screen repair breathing through a snorkel. The 'black shrimp outfit' I used to call it, as all the cables and tubes snaking around our shoulders and necks look like extra legs (I think it makes us acceptable down here). In our tanks is still enough compressed air for at least thirty minutes. Maybe we could watch the spoiled seals performing for the tourists? It's hilarious to see this spectacle from the other side. Or we could try to find some clowns or leopards – nudibranchs, the flamboyant sea slugs we both love the most. Collecting garbage is another option; waste accumulates fast down here: discarded bottles and cans, plastic forks and knives, corroding cell phones dropped by their clumsy owners, the odd shopping cart or sunken dinghy turned reef and now bustling with life — the ocean has a way of claiming things.
But Weens sits on the deck in the sun, and will notice that the drilling has stopped. She didn't approve of us doing the job in the first place. So I point my thumb upwards: ascend!
Carl did cardiac rehab and passed all his tests with flying colors. He has the medical approval to dive again, although the freaking scar on his chest is a constant reminder that he is not indestructible. It was shocking to imagine the gap his absence would create in our lives. In the days when we huddled around his hospital bed, I also realized that behind this gap would open another, and that I have nothing to fill it with. “It didn't work out' and 'It's not your fault' has always been the fortress Weens hides behind — for a woman of words she has been infuriatingly taciturn about my backstory. She's like the barnacle creature, quick to withdraw into her shell of silence and self-sufficiency. So I'm left with her celebrated debut novel, which, of course, raises more questions than it answers.
At least Weens understand our infatuation — she loves the sea too. Of all her books, the ones set in or at the ocean were the most successful. I have no idea why she intended to raise me among saguaros and rattlesnakes.
Carl gives me the okay signal again, and we both break the surface.

Expected publication date:

May 2019