The Pearl King
By Ashley Nava
The boy trotted along behind his sister, occasionally stooping to pick up a stone. Finding rocks was his delegated duty; she was busy choosing seashells to weave into her hair. He ignored the hiss of the waves as they washed up past his ankles, and the slithery feel of seaweed over his fingers as he scrabbled for stones. When he found a good one, he ran up to his sister and offered it for her inspection.
After a moment's study, she nodded. “Perfect. Give it here.” She dropped it into a pocket already bulging with rocks. The seams of her thin dress strained from the weight.
“Come on, Deacon,” she called back, when he stopped to poke at a crab carcass. “I'm going to need a lot more stones if I want to reach the Pearl King.”
The gulls had eaten all the meat, anyway. “Fiona, wait for me!”
“Do you remember what to tell Mumma when she asks after me?” she said, when he had caught up to her.
He spoke carefully, wishing to show her just how well he had memorized the words. “You went down into the ocean to live with the Pearl King. You've settled with everything up here.” He hesitated then, but finally asked, “Even with Mr. Voloi? Is that why you were crying again last night?”
Even in the watery, grey light of the dawn, he saw his sister's face pale at the factory manager's name, yet she answered calmly enough. “He wasn't happy with my quitting, but I did it. My uniform's cleaned and waiting on my cot back home. I do hope Lissa hasn't spilled anything on it. If there's even one spot, the bastard will make Mumma pay for it. Ooh, that's a pretty one you've found.”
The first hints of orange tinged the sky when Fiona decided she had enough stones. Her dress, dragged down by the weight, now revealed the ugly scab stamped across her neck and left shoulder blade.
“What happened?” said Deacon, transfixed.
His sister's shoulder twitched, as if the weight of his gaze irritated the wound. “I accidentally burned a shirt while ironing it. Mr. Voloi saw.”
“Did you cry?”
She turned to him. “Not in front of him. Now, how do I look?”
Deacon would remember that moment for the rest of his life, of how the rising sun turned the shells in her hair into gold, and the wind rippled her patchwork dress like sea foam in the waves. She looked like an underwater queen. His mouth trembled.
“I don't want you to go!” He clung to the unearthly creature his sister had become, turning his face to the side so his tears wouldn't fall on her. “Old Mab says the Pearl King is horrible. He lives in a castle of bones made from people who drown. He'll want your bones!”
She gently pulled away from his grip. “No, Deacon. He's already built his castle. Now he's looking for subjects, people who'll live with him at his court.”
“Forever?” He wiped his nose with his sleeve.
She nodded, and squeezed his hand. “You'll still see me. Every time a shell washes on shore, it'll be like seeing my footsteps on the sand. And when you see a pearl, why, that's even better. I'll be right there, looking back at you. The Pearl King lives in all his creatures, even when they're brought to shore.”
“Are you scared?” he said, and for a moment, she looked like his sister again.
“A little. Now give me a hug and wish me luck.”
He watched her wade into the water. Even when the waves crashed into her waist, she neither paused nor looked back. Once, he ran after her, just after her head slipped beneath the surface, but the shock of the cold water sent him back.
He waited until the tide had washed away the last of her footprints before leaving for home.
- - -
Ashley Nava spends most of her time writing and painting her way down the yellow brick road. She currently lives in California's Central Valley.
Labels: Ashley Nava