In my younger days, I thought it prudent to travel as much as possible, remaining in my home state for as little as a week at a time. I favored the warmer climes below the equator, touring small towns and trails off the beaten path. This was how I came a small fishing village on the southeastern coast of Venezuela on a layover between passenger planes.
This was how I met the old man.
He would lay on a lounge outside his simple hut, his bulbous ribcage like an umbrella partially collapsed, pulsing weakly with breath as he lay in the sun. He kept a rug over his legs at all times. He said he was no more than fifty, but it was a hard-lived fifty. Between my faltering Spanish and his nonexistent English, this is the tale he spun me—
“My family have been pearl divers since the dawn of time, señor. We plunder the same fields our grandfathers did, my own grandson was shaping up to be a worthy successor. This was all until (here was a bit of local dialect I couldn’t translate.)
It was Fernando, my brother, who found the first one. A clam as heavenly on the outside as a pearl. We told him it was depth sickness, but he swore to us it was real. We followed him and we saw. They were like pieces of the moon dropped among the coral, gleaming. And we thought ourselves very rich men indeed.
Fernando tried to cut the stem of one with his knife, but even after ten divings, he could not part the foot that gripped the rock. I found that by rocking the shell back and forth I was able to weaken the bond. But the clam came to pieces in my hand, as a clam never does when still alive. Through the mud cloud it stirred up, I saw something black as night.”
The old man fell into a violent coughing fit until I gave up a bottle of liquor I’d purchased that morning.
“A pearl as big as my eye. Bigger. I felt a lust come over me and I grabbed for it. But my grip was clumsy, I should have gone up for another breath. I lost it in the coral, señor. I came up to the boat in shame. Luis, my son, volunteered to go. He, with his sturdy lungs, grabbed up the shell and brought it to us. But oh—when he opened the shell, a puddle of tar in the bottom half. No pearl big enough to feed us all for months. I cursed my clumsy luck. This was when my grandson Tomás volunteered. He had learned from our mistakes and held the clam gently as he broke its grip. He came up to the boat with the pearl in one hand, smiling.
When he surfaced, I heard a scream I have not matched before or since.
The boy wept his hand and wrist were on fire as he thrashed. Where once he gripped a pearl large as a plum was a black slick. Working together with his father we managed to knock the boy out, but we could not wash the stain from his hand in the seawater.
This was the (again, dialect my ears could not pick out.)
It came to us, finally, that we had grasped too much. We prayed to the Virgin to forgive us as we rowed the boy back to shore. His mother wept and rained blows on us when she saw what we’d done He spent the night in his bed with a poultice wrapped around one arm. We stayed up past candlelight, examining our spoils. The shells that had gleamed with many colors beneath the water were dull white like bone in the air, a trick. Luis said it wasn’t a clam at all, but waste left by some unknown creature. Fernando wondered what creature it could be, but I told him it did not matter, we were never going back.
In the morning, Fernando was dead.
Have you seen what the big islanders call dropsy, señor? He was like that, puffed up twice the size he should be. My wife screamed, puncturing him with a kitchen knife to let some fluid out. I couldn’t stop her. Instead of blood, many small bodies poured out.
Please understand, señor, my brother was dead at this point. But he still moved, and the (there was that phrase again) poured out of him, crawling to the sea.
In the hut, the boy’s arm was swollen to the size of his thigh, and he begged for water. We gave him a drink to numb the pain and Luis hacked off the bad limb with a machete. He hit his own thigh by accident.
No one would come near us now, señor. They would not come to help no matter how we screamed. Tomás nearly bled out, but his mother staunched it in time. By nightfall Luis’s wound was angry and swollen as well.
My wife and daughter-in-law sat up saying rosaries. I tended to my son and grandson as best I could, but sleep found me in the end. By morning Tomás was cold and Luis’s thigh was swollen as well.
We were more cautious, puncturing the wound as a doctor would a boil. Perhaps it was early, senor, because we saw not many little bodies but hard grains that resembled the pearls we had so foolishly sought. His wife worked night and day, bringing a bowl to the draining wound and catching what came out. We burned them. They went up like tar and smelled like rotting whale and coal. Luis made it three days until he puffed up. Then we burned him too.”
The old man drained the bottle.
“His wife blamed me, of course. She came after me with a fruit-knife. My own wife stopped her. We shut her in the boy’s room until she calmed again. When we opened the door, we saw her face had begun to swell, the result of a last kiss between husband and wife. Before we could stop her, she ran past us and threw herself into the sea.
My wife tended to me. The few cuts I got from the knife did not swell, and I remained healthy. But the damage had been done. No pearl dealers would buy from me, nor would the fishermen let me come with them. We got by with what little my wife could make on her tapestries, but it wasn’t enough.
And then, one night I took a walk on the shore. I was thinking about what I had lost, señor, because of greed. I trod on something sharp. When I picked it up, it looked dull and white as a piece of bone.”
The old man removed the rug from his knees.
“I kept ahead of the swelling, señor. First one foot, then the other. My wife cut with a knife she held in the fire, so I did not bleed out. I lived, and I continue to live. Others have asked me where the pearls are, they beg me not to let the family hunting grounds die with me. But I will take them to my grave, señor, tainted with those pearls as they are.”
He fell silent then, and I realized he had fallen asleep. I replaced the rug over the stumps of his knees and went on my way. When I came back the next year, I could not find the old man, not would anyone admit that they had known him. All that was left was an ancient cane chair left to dry in the sun.