The Pearl by Marco Lobo
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Ise Bay, Japan 1583
THE CHINESE CALLED THEM DWARF BANDITS, wokou. With none of the large, organized fleets willing to accept them, in pirate pecking-order they were considered nothing more than fouling to be scraped off hulls, less than dirt trapped under grime- packed toenails.
They started as Japanese farmers, eking out their existence from the stony earth of the seacoast, much of what they harvested then paid in taxes to the local lords. Eventually, they were driven to thievery to survive. First, they raided Chinese coastal areas. When those impoverished communities had nothing more, they began robbing their own clans. Over time, their victims had become so destitute that in order to stay alive, the wokou resorted to robbing one another.
Boats lashed together, two rival gangs of wokou were locked in battle. Once unleashed they went at it with blade, rock, tooth or fingernail and did not relent until the cries of their victims were silenced, oft accomplished by the ripping out of a tongue. Sliced- open corpses of shipmates were mere impediments to the struggle. The decks of the flea-ridden tubs were slick with gore. Both vessels were aflame from grenades made of oil-soaked hemp packed into pots and lobbed across the gunwales. Given prompt attention the blazes might have been extinguished, but in the ruction the flames roared with growing fury.
The struggle continued until just two men remained. Barely alive, bloodlust drove them on. In a lethal clinch they roiled in the muck of the dead. The end came with one man’s fingers clamped tightly round the other’s skinny throat. In his crazed state he cared not that the man he wanted dead was his own shipmate. He used his dwindling strength to squeeze, watching with glee as his victim’s eyes dulled, mouth gasping like a dying fish.
The last man rolled off his victim. He looked up at the mast burning above. Sucking in a final breath, a flaming timber smashed onto him.
The boats crumbled apart. Body parts were snapped up by hungry sea creatures; lesser vestiges were carried away by ocean currents. In a while, all that remained of the battle’s aftermath were charred planks bobbing on whitecaps.
THE CREATURE’SFOOT OOZED FIBROUS, GREEN SLIME, anchoring it to a rock. Designed for little more than executing the simple functions for its existence, the animal’s form had changed little over the half billion years from when its ancestors first appeared on earth. Contracting one of its two muscles, it tugged open its shell in readiness to feed on life forms even more basic than itself. Clouds of plankton swept along the seabed and the oyster began to take its fill.
Nature, indifferent to the needs of the trillions of individuals it catered for, in the swirling current, along with plankton a miniscule fragment of brigand-bone that had drifted down, found its way into the soft-bodied bivalve’s viscera. That an irritant was imbedded in a vital part of its soft flesh was not immediately apparent, but at some point a cluster of nerves that served as its brain sent out a cry for help. Eventually, a cyst formed over the invading speck; a fleck imbued with malice.
The oyster marked what man knows as the passage of time, by the ocean’s temperatures and tides. Within the oyster, a smooth crystalline substance covered the uncomfortable lump, coddling the malevolent granule. Layer upon layer was added, forming a little sphere of evil.
TEN THOUSAND TIDES LATER, thirty meters off the coast, a wooden tub bobbed on the blue-green sea. Tethered by a narrow rope, the container resisted the light breeze coaxing it further out into Ise Bay. The line ran beneath the surface and through a waving garden of brown kelp. It snaked past a cluster of spiny black sea urchins rasping algae off the face of an undersea boulder. Over the rock the line dipped down again before finally reaching its full length, its end affixed round the waist of a pearl diver.
Hana thought to return to harvest the spiky delicacies, but for the moment she focused her attention on discovering a bed of saltwater clams. Knowing that mollusks were a favorite food of sea urchins, she took them as a sign that oysters were near. Hana hovered a few meters off the sandy bottom, eyes scanning the sea floor. To her left, the fingers of a colony of red sea fans waved her a greeting. A gang of ring-tailed cardinalfish, their sleek forms tinted like wasps, dashed amongst the branches of a staghorn coral. She kicked her legs, propelling forward, disturbing a moray eel that retracted its serpentine body into a hole. It opened its mouth, showing her a spiky grin as she swam past its lair.
And then she saw them — a cluster of pearl oysters. Bare-skinned but for a white loincloth, Hana made for the bottom, her long hair waved out loosely like black tentacles.
Hana examined each of the feathered oysters, turning them in her hand. She dropped a few of the most promising into a string basket tied around her torso. Hana had been down for a full minute, close to her limit for a lungful of air. She reached down one last time and wrapped her fingers around a large, gnarled shell. What a fat beauty you are, she thought, inspecting the knobby oyster, surely you hide a treasure.
With her bag full, the Ama planted a foot on the seabed and sprung herself upwards, leaving a swirl of sand. The pearl diver stretched an arm up and pulled through the water, the loose end of her loincloth trailing under her. She clawed upwards through ten meters of sea, releasing a stream of bubbles, outpacing them all the way to the surface.
Hana’s mouth gulped air. She filled her lungs and floated on her back like a sea otter, basket resting across her chest. The sun, though low in the sky still had enough heat to warm her skin. She kicked lazily, legs scissoring as she went to her bucket.
She emptied the oysters into the tub and waved to another Ama swimming nearby. The other diver who was pulling her container towards the beach turned and called out, “Let’s get back in. It will be dark soon.”
Hana was tired, her first dive coming soon after sunrise, but she remembered the sea urchins. “One more time, there’s uni down there,” she called out.
Finally rid of the irritating lump in its guts, the animal died when its shell was pried open and the pearl scraped out along with its flesh. Seated round the sunken hearth, the Ama celebrated Hana’s find by cracking open sea urchins and scooping out their delicious gonads. They washed down the creamy golden-yellow paste with sake warmed in an iron pot hanging over the irori.
“Had a feeling about this one,” Hana said, pinching the pearl between her fingers. It responded to the lamplight’s soft caress with a golden blush. She turned the orb, admiring it. On one side, barely visible, was a tiny change of color where gold became pink. Or was it pink? She wondered. One moment it was and the next it turned brownish, and then light gray, and pink again. She thought she could feel it pulsating between her fingertips. “Look sisters! This beauty is alive. It has a heart.”
The other divers, three of them, crowded in for a look. The women had shared the same single-roomed house for several years and loved one another as if they were real siblings. Just a year or two separated each of them, the eldest, Nai, acted as a big sister, advising, encouraging and sometimes scolding. Hana was next, and after her came Saya who constantly preened herself, running her fingers through her thick hair, admiring herself in a piece of broken mirror. Asa, the youngest, sweet and ever curious got up from her place and moved in behind Hana. She nestled her chin on Hana’s shoulder and gawked at the pearl.
Asa typically behaved this way, leaning on the others like a little cat. This time Hana felt a stab of irritation. She tried to shrug Asa off but the younger woman clung on to her like a limpet. Hana felt anger rising in her gut. When Asa reached over her shoulder to touch the pearl, Hana picked up a loose black spine and jabbed it at Asa’s outstretched hand. The barb pricked Asa’s wrist, barely breaking skin but enough for a pinprick of blood to show. She fell back with a squeak of surprise.
The other two women shifted back in disbelief, Nay’s mouth an oval rictus, Saya sucked a sharp breath, palms cupping the sides of her face.
“What’s up with you?” Nai said.
“Serves her right. Don’t like being crowded, is all,” Hana said, voice low and defensive. Hana grasped the pearl tightly, fist held to her lap. Is the little orb hot? Is it throbbing? Couldn’t be.
“You’ll sell it, won’t you?” Nai said, eyes turning to a small pot on a shelf. They had always shared equally in the bounty of the sea. “It could bring in a tidy sum.”
“Might. . . don’t have to, do I?” Hana’s response brought murmurs from the other Ama.
Saya spoke first, “What about last year when I found. . ..”
“That was your choice,” Hana cut her off. “Said I might . . . but maybe not.”
“We’ve always shared,” Nai said.
Hana pouted. “You’re all jealous. Why can’t we share Saya’s mirror then, or that little wooden cross Asa hides under her pile of clothes?” Hana said, her voice shrill over the pops and hiss of the fire. “And that little treasure you think nobody knows about, that comb. What do you want with a comb anyway, as if anyone would . . ..”
Nai’s eyes burned with rage. “It was my mother’s,” she hissed.
“You’ve been going through our private things, you devil,” Saya said.
“My cross is a secret,” said Asa, close to tears. “You mustn’t tell.”
“That’s enough, you’re all drunk. What you did to Asa was unkind — apologize, Hana,” Nai ordered.
Hana turned and looked at Asa. The younger woman looked back sulkily, pouting with upturned eyes, fingers rubbing her pricked wrist.
“Sorry,” Hana murmured.
Asa nodded and smiled. She lurched forward, hugging Hana as if nothing had happened. “I forgive you,” she said.
Hana pushed her away. “Time for bed,” she said, rising, moving away to prepare her futon.
Curled in her bedding, feigning sleep, Hana furtively watched her housemates cleaning up. The pearl was clasped in her hand, she felt its warmth and a strange tingling sensation that radiated up her arm. She studied Nai supervising the clean-up, putting dishes away. Nai, that busybody. Look at her, ordering everyone around like she is some kind of queen. Queen of night soil is all. I should piss on that old comb of hers.
She covered her mouth with her blanket, giggling at the audacity of it.
With dishes washed, Saya took her piece of broken mirror from a drawer and began to examine herself in the lamp light. Stupid girl, Hana thought. Probably imagines my pearl made into a hair ornament or some such nonsense.
Hana peered through her eyelashes at Asa. That little thief, trying to grab it from me. That dirty little wooden cross she got from the bearded foreigner. Her hand tightened around the pearl.
Heavy with sleep, Hana’s eyes closed. I’ll show them . . .
HANA LOOKED UP. Her hair wafted upwards towards an undulating ceiling that shimmered like mercury. Her beautiful bay, normally abundant with marine life seemed dead; coral etiolated, not a fish to be seen, no swaying kelp gardens. She felt chilled to the bone and realized she was completely naked, her white limbs a stark contrast to the dark seabed. Hana felt an overwhelming urge to breathe and wondered how long she had been down.
Overcome by hunger for air, she opened her mouth and sucked icy brine into her lungs. She coughed it out, more in fear than a drowning reflex. She sucked in again, this time it tasted of nothing. It restored her. Hana squeezed it out of her lungs; it flowed out viscous, colorless. She could breathe this . . . whatever it was.
To one side, just a couple of swim strokes away lay the remains of a boat’s hull. Its ribs were cracked and charred. Within it were smaller ribs that looked to her like human bones, also broken and strewn about. Hana shuddered in horror. Her hand cramped from clutching something very tightly. She looked down and slowly opened her fist to reveal the pearl cupped in her palm. When it rolled a little she curled her fingers over it to form a protective carapace.
A bony hand reached out from the ruined boat. The human remains were moving — partial skeletons propped themselves up. They want the pearl. “It’s mine,” she said, the words came out as a gurgle. A hand gripped her ankle, another held her wrist, something covered her face. She felt fingers trying to pry open her hand. My pearl. She kicked, tried to jerk free but there were too many hands gripping her. And then the pearl was gone.
Hana awoke drenched in sweat. She had pulled open her yukata and kicked off her bedclothes. She lay still for a moment, listening to the breathing of her still-sleeping housemates. The pearl was no longer in her hand. She sat up, straightened her clothes and looked through her bedding. Not finding the pearl in her futon, her attention turned to the slumbering women. Which one of you stole it? They would be awake soon but if she moved quickly, she would be able to search their secret hiding places.
She tiptoed directly to where she knew each of the women hid their treasures. In a moment she had Nai’s comb, Saya’s broken mirror and Asa’s small wooden cross. Hana tied them in the center of a kerchief and stuffed the parcel behind her sash.
But where was the pearl? They’re all in on it. I’ll make them pay. The irori’s warmth drew her to it. She poked the embers and threw in more charcoal. Fanning it, the fire awakened. She grabbed an armful of clothes and threw them over the glowing embers. The fire began to blaze. She threw in more clothes.
The shimmer of flames played over the women’s faces, stirring them from their slumber.
Hana continued to rummage through the hiding places, a voice heavy with sleep called from behind, “What’s going on, are you cold?” Hana turned. It was Saya. Hana grabbed the heavy iron pot that hung over the irori and brought it down on Saya’s head. That will shut her up.
For good measure, she thumped Saya three more times. “Your hair doesn’t look so good now, does it sister?” she said, looking down at the matted scalp.
She bashed in the heads of the other two sleeping women. She pulled burning garments out of the fire and scattered them about the little wooden house. Flames licked up the walls and into the thatched ceiling.
Hana rushed to retrieve the small ceramic bowl that held their combined savings and tucked it under her arm before fleeing the burning house. They had no near neighbours and a path led directly to the beach over a small grassy hill. Hana stopped at the top of the knoll and watched the blaze. She sat on the grass with her knees pulled up to her chest, feeling the warmth of the rising sun on her back. Listening to the lapping of waves, she hummed a little tune.
Can you see the herring from the sky, dear seagulls?
You'd better ask the waves 'cause we're just flying away Heave-ho, heave-ho
I am going to sleep on a satin pillow tonight
And tomorrow we're going to sleep on the rough waves Heave-ho, heave-ho
Her thoughts drifted to breakfast, have something delicious at the village inn, perhaps. She smiled at the thought of a nice meal paid for by her sisters’ savings. “Thank you, girls,” she whispered. Her fingers played with the hem of her clothing. She felt a small lump; something trapped in there — small and round, smooth too. Ah, that’s where you are . . .
HANA SQUANDERED HER SISTERS’ MEAGER SAVINGS on sake. In her drunkenness, she had taken the pearl out and shown it boastfully at the inn, protecting it fiercely like a feral cat defending her young, snarling and clawing at anyone approaching for a closer look.
The next day, Hana’s body was discovered carelessly hidden in bushes not far from the inn. Her throat had been cut. Not much was known of the young pearl diver or the women she had lived with in the burned house. The only possessions found on her were a broken mirror, a comb and a small wooden cross. Hana’s death was attributed tosomeone who was thought to have held a grudge against all the Ama, a stranger probably, perhaps one who hated Kirishitans, as the woman must have been to have the cross hidden on her.
The murderer, a thief who had been making his way south had fortuitously stumbled on an easy, drunken target. With a simple ambush and then an escape, he continued his way towards his destination of Nagasaki, the furthermost point west and as far away as possible from the trail of crimes left in his wake.
THE FIRST TIME THE MURDERER examined the pearl closely, it had given him such a feeling of dread that he retched on the wayside. It scared him and he immediately dropped it into his bag of other filched items. That night he suffered from horrific nightmares; images of skeletons clawing their way towards him that had him shuddering in his sleep. He awoke drenched in sweat — ill. He suspected the pearl as the source of this sickness, yet he plodded on, no longer wanting the pearl but unable to give it up.
Entering Nagasaki, armed guards stopped the murderer and thoroughly searched him. A tax to Lord Ōtomo the daimyo, was to be levied on everyone entering these lands, they told him. They discovered the pearl hidden in a fold of his clothing and seized it.
There was nothing Hana’s murderer could do. And in any case, by this time he was too ill to object.
Inspecting the pearl, a representative of the feudal lord identified it as a gemstone of exceptional quality. His stomach churned with nausea as he turned the glistening jewel between his fingers. He quickly dropped it into a silk bag containing other treasures collected on behalf of his master. The pearl sat amongst other gems, imbuing them with its malevolence — each one of them ready to spread evil.
MARTYRS Nagasaki, Japan 1597
THE EXECUTION GROUND had been chosen so that everyone would have a clear view of the slaughter. Lady Ōtomo’s party viewed the proceedings from a platform built specially for the occasion. The chamberlain, aware of her preferences, placed it close enough for Lady Ōtomo to be able to hear the screams of the victims, but far enoughnot to have to witness the minute details or be troubled by the smoke, the smell of blood or the flies. Standard bearers held up billowing flags displaying the colors of her clan. Armed warriors stood guard in a protective cordon around her dais. Walls of white cloth on three sides protected the lady from the curious eyes of the less well-off spectators.
The elderly noblewoman’s lips were stained red with rouge made from safflower. Her face covered in white powder. Her waxed tresses were pulled back and arranged into a high bun adorned with combs. The edges of her kimono, decorated with bats and birds crossing a full moon, spread out on the floor by her feet.
These killings were largely of her doing. Even the executioner’s sword belonged to her. The katana was made three hundred years before — a work of art created by Masamune, Japan’s greatest swordsmith. This sword had been used against the Mongols; barbarians that tried in vain to attack Japan. Both times their armies were destroyed by huge storms, the divine winds, the Kamikaze. Lady Ōtomo wanted this katana to be used to kill the new invaders, the Christians. It was due to her efforts that the Shogun had agreed to deport all Portuguese missionaries.
Thirty five condemned men stood behind a bamboo fence, tied side-by-side with their arms folded across their chests. In with the group of Portuguese missionaries were several Japanese iruman, ‘brothers.’ From the top of a mound constructed of rammed earth, they all faced the same direction. Beyond the enclosure, fires burned in preparation of the fate soon to befall them.
Below the missionaries, on the main stage, another killing ground had been prepared. It was the reason the missionaries were made to face that way: to witness the butchery of their Japanese followers. Forty were to be executed, half of them women.
Guards dragged the Christian converts one at a time along the row of brothers to have their heads chopped off by a swordsman. When they reached the executioner, the guards forced them to their knees. The swordsman loosened his clothing and bared one shoulder to allow his arms freer movement. He raised the weapon up in a two-handed grip and looked to Lady Ōtomo for her assent.
As heads rolled one after another, blood poured onto the knoll and a wet muddy patch stained the executioner’s workspace. The bloodied ground sucked at his feet, a red- brown rivulet flowed downhill.
The severed heads were collected and jammed onto sharpened spikes arranged along the base of the earthen platform so that the missionaries could get a good look at the faces of their dead followers.
A few wealthy lords and their retainers had been invited to watch the butchery with Lady Ōtomo. They applauded as each head rolled, expressing their approval with hearty cheers. One of them turned to Lady Ōtomo. “What a wonderful spectacle. You have combined the elements of justice and entertainment so elegantly.”
Lady Ōtomo acknowledged the compliment with a nod of her head and replied, “You are too kind, but I have to admit, the idea of burning Christians is one we imported. They have been doing this to their own people for centuries.”
Lady Ōtomo sipped sake while watching her soldiers arrange piles of kindling and logs around the legs of the brothers. When all was ready, she raised a pale hand, giving the signal to the chamberlain. He acknowledged her order and scurried over to the earthen mound. There the chamberlain conveyed her instructions to a warrior in ceremonial armor. The samurai, Lord Matsumoto, wore a helmet with horns extending from its sides. The chamberlain said a few words and handed Lord Matsumoto a small object wrapped in white paper. Matsumoto unfolded the little package. It contained a pearl. The helmet hid Matsumoto’s grin. He was a wealthy man and as beautiful as the pearl was, it was not its material value that mattered. Lady Ōtomo gave pearls only to the select few that she felt deserved her gratitude. It was an honor, a sign of respect and now the horned samurai had her clan’s support and the ear of the Shogun. He turned to face the powerful noblewoman and bowed deeply. She acknowledged him with an almost imperceptible nod. Matsumoto kept the pearl in his hand and picked up a burning stick, bringing it to the brothers.
The prisoners watched the demonic figure coming towards them and began screaming in terror. Matsumoto put his torch to the first pile of firewood. It caught instantly and he moved to the next prisoner. Soon the entire line was ablaze. The rising heat drew in gusts of wind. The fire’s loud crackling competed with the screams of the victims. The grey plumes of each fire spiraled upwards, then joined to form a dark mushroom- shaped cloud that hung above Nagasaki.
Marco Lobo is a Tokyo-based business consultant. With a background in international business, Marco helps European and North American multinationals establish their commercial footprint in Japan and the wider Asia region. Extensive travel and exposure to myriad cultures has allowed him to take note of the ways different peoples interact, whether it is in harmony or conflict. Raised in British Hong Kong, he witnessed the former colony’s transition from Britain to China, and now its ongoing transformation into a Chinese city. Likewise, of Portuguese heritage, Marco is deeply committed to observing and writing about the Portuguese diaspora and the changes it has gone through. The author of five books, his work has been published in English, Portuguese and Chinese.
Originally published on the Kaidankai podcast on June 15, 2022.
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Linda Gould hosts the Kaidankai, a weekly blog and podcast of fiction read out loud that explores the entire world of ghosts and the supernatural. The stories are touching, scary, gruesome, funny, and heartwarming. New episodes every Wednesday.