MOTHER OF PEARL
“It stings,” Pearl says.
Meera looks up from her sewing, the ratty pair of jeans she's trying to convert into a hip mini skirt.
Her daughter stands in the doorway of their tiny eat-in kitchen, stretching forth her hand.
Meera puts down the scissors and gets up from the table. She grabs Pearl's hand and turns it around. The palm is smeared with blood. A gentle wipe with a paper towel reveals the injury: a puncture wound, small but deep. Pearl whimpers while Meera ushers her to the bathroom.
“Why, Mom?” The green of Pearl's eyes shines even brighter in here, with a hue of blue.
Meera frowns. The bathroom bothers her. She almost didn't rent the place for the vehemence of its color scheme. As if there had been a challenge of how many shades of ocean could be fitted into this tiny space. This is Henderson for Heaven's sake. In this city, turquoise means hotel pool.
The sink (balancing on two chrome legs that have forgotten how to shine) and the other fifties fixtures are sea-foam green, the vinyl floor a mosaic of aqua, white and Pacific blue. A stencilled border of azure waves separates the wall tiles from the peeling paint. Even the stubborn bathtub ring is a shade of teal.
Meera reaches for the plastic tote bag that holds their toiletries, and searches for the iodine. Pearl winces as Meera applies a droplet onto the wound.
She's such a sweet, easy child. Always sleeps through when Meera does the late shift at Artie's. Mrs. Lopez of number eight is a night owl and only too happy to check on her bella chiquilla until Meera returns at 2:30 a.m., but there is never anything unpleasant to report. Of course, Pearl has cried before, when she is teething or when her tummy hurts, but it's a short, dry sobbing, some snivels and a few sighs, and Meera is always quick to distract her. Occasionally Pearl lifts her arms and covers her face. Sometimes she hides behind the sofa.
But now, she just stands there, under the one hundred watt bulb of the ceiling light that's missing its cover, her face stunned, her body frozen, as if the pain connects with something else, a stronger feeling, a deeper grief, the outrage that something she loves so much could hurt her.
It's the first time Meera actually witnesses it happening. She has found evidence before, in the creases of Pearl's bedding, the pockets of her jeans, and three at once in the Daisy Duck cup of the tea party play set. But until now, Meera has managed to ignore the truth, and banished it, together with her unease, to the twilight zone in which the memories of dreams live shortly after one awakes. Yet here it is: a tiny bump in the inner corner of Pearl's right eye. Gleaming — and growing.
“Why?” Pearl squints, still holding on to her cherished comfort toy.
Meera has bought the stuffed seahorse at a flee market in Blythe. Two-year-old Pearl fished it out of a travel trunk with 'vintage' dolls and plush animals. Among one-eyed teddies, scrawny dogs and kittens, grimy rubber dinosaurs and little lambs, and the various descendants of Raggedy Ann and Andy, she managed to spot the only water creature. And she didn't let go off it or could be persuaded to take a (much cheaper) troll with purple hair or to move away from the sellers stand to get her favorite candy until Meera paid the outrageous thirty bucks the old crow behind the trestle table demanded, which meant no Jujyfruits or fresh produce for the rest of the week.
In her exasperation, Meera missed the uniqueness of the stuffed animal, its beauty and artistic quality. A patchwork of wild silk and thick metallic brocade gives it stiffness and mimics the rings and ridges of the real thing. The two pectoral fins on the head and the larger one on the back are made from a double layer of velvet. Dozens of cupped sequins are sewn onto tail and belly with an overlap stitch hiding the thread. Pearl adores the seahorse and handles it with a care uncommon for a child of three. It sleeps on a special cushion in the drawer of her nightstand. With irrefutable logic, Pearl has named it Wakey because both eyes are closed, lids and lashes embroidered in dark-blue silk thread.
Attached below the inner corner of the left eye sits its most unsettling detail: a bead of shimmering pearly white. To Meera this has always felt like mockery, almost a provocation. Or is it a sign she cannot yet interpret?
With caution, she squeezes the toy. A sharp prick in her left palm close to the thumb base makes her flinch. She lifts the stuffie into the blazing rays of the ceiling fixture and lets her fingers roam over the fabric. There, the belly has a secret. Two rows of tightly overlapping sequins conceal a miniature zipper, maybe two inches long. Meera pulls its teeny tab: the slider moves and the teeth part, revealing a pocket inside lined with dark-red velvet. In it hides a small disk: a plastic container with quilting needles. The transparent covering has shifted and, instead of sealing them in safely, has allowed one of the needles to slip out. Likely not done on purpose, but even though, who keeps needles in a toy in the first place?
Meera looks down at her daughter, who sits on the bathmat and cradles a perfect pearl in her small palm.