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Second Place: Pearl




Pearl

by Sarah Connell

Second Place


Anya kicked along the length of her fins, surfacing from the depths of the Inner Sea as her older brother broke the surface next to her. It took her a moment to transition back to breathing air instead of using her gills. She pushed back the tangle of black curls, concentrating on turning silvery scales to bronzed skin, fins to feet and hands.

Think land thoughts, her brother had always told her, sand between your toes and the taste of guava. But Anya had too much of the sea in her, slipping into her lithe, silvery fish form as quick as blinking.

Once she’d gulped in her first breath of the cool evening air, she grinned, shooting a stream of water into the air in triumph. “Told you I’d win.”

“And I told you I wasn’t racing,” Javan said, trying not to smile. He never seemed to have any trouble turning back into his human form. Together, they worked to pull up the line connecting their haul of clams until it bobbed on the surface.

Anya hoisted herself into their small boat, holding the line while he secured it. Without looking at him, she said, “my birthday is next month.”

“And?” Javan asked.

And I think we should leave this year. I’ll be fifteen, afterall.” She rushed on so that he couldn’t interrupt. “It’s time we saw some of the world.”

Javan sighed, slipping into the small boat as easily as a lapping wave, his tanned skin gleaming with brine. He shook back his shaggy hair so he could look her in the eye the way he always did when she brought up leaving their small chain of islands.

“What?” she asked, her voice an octave too high. “You said you wanted to go to the mainland.”

“Yes, but that was before Nan found us out.” His tone held the familiar practiced patience that made her want to kick something. In this though, Anya had to admit that her brother made a good point.

Their grandmother was formidable in all things, even in her no-nonsense preparation of the nightly stew. But on the day Nan had found out Javan and Anya had planned to sneak to the mainland, she’d been nothing short of terrifying.

“Nan’s not like us,” she mumbled. “She’s a land person so why does she care what we do?”

Javan scowled and Anya knew she’d pushed him too far. “Nan’s taken care of us as best she can. She’s sacrificed everything so she can keep us safe.”

Anya sighed, leaning back to look up at the coral sky.

Javan glanced down at her. “I know why you want to go and it’s not worth it.”

She rolled over and began to pick through their haul. With a practiced ease, she worked her blade into a clam’s mouth and began to pry it open.

“Anya,” Javan said. “If mom wanted to be with us, she would have come by now. It’s been more than ten years. I think you should -”

“What? Forget that we have a family outside of Nan, a life outside of this?” She swept her hand with the clam shell out around the horizon dotted with black specks of atolls.

“I don’t know.” Javan’s voice was small, tired of the same argument that came up each year at her birthday. “But, Anya, Nan knows what’s best for us. Remember what she’s told us about the war with the land people?”

Anya took note of the strain in his voice. “Yes,” she admitted, going back to her clams with a sigh.

“I don’t want them to find out who we are, Anya. I don’t want them to use us like they used dad.”

“So, you’re okay if we never leave?” Anya asked, trying to goad him.

“Maybe one day.” Javan shrugged. “But this is our home and if she says we shouldn’t go, then we shouldn’t.” He began to paddle again.

“Nan knows something,” Anya whispered to her hands now covered in musky seaweed and clam shell bits. “I know she does.”

The sun dipped below the horizon as they pulled up to their dock. Anya had only a few clams left to shuck. Nan called to them from across the beach and Anya waved him on as she bent to finish the rest.

“Coming!” Javan called and gathered up the square of cloth holding the clam meat.

Anya worked through the twilight until she came to the last one, only to see it was broken, split in the back and inedible. As she stood to toss it back into the sea, she caught a glimmer of something within. Swaying in the surf, she pushed back her hair and pried apart the two broken halves to get a closer look. There, nestled in the white flesh, sat a large, onyx pearl. She swallowed hard, her senses heightened with shock. Pearls were uncommon finds, even for her brother who had an uncanny gift of selecting clams he thought could contain them. Here, she held the largest pearl she’d ever seen and it was the metallic color of cooling charcoal.

Glancing over her shoulder to see where the cookfire was still blazing on the shore, she crouched back down, hidden by the dock, to carefully prize out the pearl.

The power of it thrilled through her, lighting along her fingertips and raising every hair on her arms until it reached the back of her neck. There were few stories of her kind, the Ikan people, those that could breathe water as well as air. But in all the stories her brother could remember hearing from their mother, the Ikan could never spend too much time in either form or risk living a shorter life full of bad luck.

“There is no turning an Ikan into a land person or the other way around,” Javan would say, wagging a finger. “Except! If the coral gods give up a gift.”

“What kind of gift?” was her perpetual reply.

Javan would grin and say, “a pearl the color of cooled fire, the Motee - A piece of land in the middle of the sea, hard and unyielding to either.”

Anya gripped the pearl in a tight fist, almost too afraid to look at it. Quickly, she took a curl from close to her head and braided the pearl into it so that it sat snug to her scalp, concealed there.

“Nan wants to know when the others will be done.”

Anya jumped. She hadn’t heard Javan walking up the dock. “Ah, sorry,” she said, gathering up the last of the opened clams. “Coming.”

Javan turned and walked in front of her down the dock that led past their hut and on to shore. Every step felt like an eternity as Anya felt the weight of the pearl tucked close in her curls. The coral gods had gifted her with a chance to leave and she was going to take it, whether Javan wanted to come or not.

Nan sat hunched on her cooking stool, white hair haloed around her in the firelight. “Took your time, did you? Good. I hope there won't be any grit in the meat.” She barely looked at Anya as she motioned for the clams.

“I haven’t cracked a shell in years,” Anya mumbled to Javan who was biting back a laugh as he handed her the bowls.

Anya removed the banana leaves wrapped around steaming fish balls and began portioning them into bowls, trying not to let her jumpy excitement show. She held the bowls close to Nan’s cook pot so her grandmother could ladle out the coconut and clam stew without spilling.

When they each had a bowl, they squatted on low stools overlooking the cove and the jungle beyond. Javan and Nan ate in silence as usual, Nan gumming the clams and lemongrass while Javan spooned up the contents from the tilted bowl held close to his lips.

For once, the stew seemed tasteless to Anya, her thoughts circling the pearl and the fate that it offered. “I was thinking,” she began, before she knew what she was saying.

Javan shot her a worried look but Nan kept her eyes focused on her stew.

Anya swallowed. “Maybe we could write a letter to mom.”

“And why would we do that?” Nan croaked, still not looking up.

Anya met Javan’s pleading eyes. He shook his head slowly. She pushed on. “So that I can meet her on the mainland, for my birthday.”

Nan set down her spoon before her milky eyes slowly slid over to stare at Anya.

Javan made a show of slurping down the rest of his stew. “That was delicious, Nan. Anya and I better go get -”

Nan waved her hand to shush him. “Anya, have I not made it clear what will happen if you leave this island?”

Anya felt her heartbeat quicken. “Yes, but I was thinking I could only go and -”

“Nonsense. You couldn’t go alone. And do you want your brother to be taken from us? Shipped off to die in some forgotten battle like your father?” Their grandmother’s voice was growing quieter, a warning of the wrath to come.

“We don’t know -” Anya began.

“Wrong.” Nan took up her ladle and smacked it against the cooking pot so hard that sparks flew into the sand. She pointed the ladle at Anya. “You think only of yourself. You always have.”

Anya felt the sting of tears begin as she blazed with anger. But her voice remained steady as she said, “that’s not true.”

Nan gave a cold laugh.

“Anya has always been curious. It’s harmless, mostly,” Javan said quietly.

“No,” Nan snapped. “She’s dangerous, like her mother.”

Anya stood, turning her back on them, and stalked off to the hut, not trusting her own tongue. Hot tears wet her cheeks and she brushed them away as quickly as they came, glad it was dark now to hide them. She dropped her bowl into the shallow wash tub and pulled herself up into the highest hammock so close to the rafters that her nose brushed against them if she turned over too quickly. Trying her best not to sniffle, she lit a small candle. With the flickering light, she reached up into the rafters and took out her one secret, something she’d kept even from her brother, a rusty tin box the size of a small letter. As carefully as she could, she pried open the warped lid and stared at the only things by which she had left to remember her mother.

The first family photo at the top was yellowed and creased by wear. It had been taken at a festival. A family stood in front of colored garlands strung between colonnades leading up to a temple in the distance. She touched a finger to each face in turn. First, her father with his overly large smile and curly black hair. Each day Javan looked more and more like him, tall and lanky with a broad nose and gentle eyes. She then touched her brother’s smiling face as he stood straight as a stick and looked up at their father while he held the hand of Anya as a toddler. She slid her finger down to her own small face, barely recognizable as it scrunched up, showing all her teeth in a wet smile. Last of all Anya moved up to rest her finger against her mother’s cheek. There was such laughter in the young woman’s eyes, her black hair flying around her face. She was full of life and this is how Anya always thought of her, having no real memory herself.

“What would you do, mom?” she whispered.

The tears had dried now and her cheeks felt sticky as she used her hammock cloth to wipe them. Anya slipped a letter out of the box next. Nan had said their mother had written it to them just before they’d run away. Anya read it through, her lips moving quietly as they’d done countless times before. It was short, only saying how much she would miss them and how safe they would be once outside the village. But it was the ending that Anya loved most.

Always be proud of who you are. I love you.

Anya smiled at those words. She knew then what she had to do.

“Anya?” Javan called from the dock outside.

Quickly, she folded the letter and returned it to the box with the family photo before he peeked his head around the wall.

He took one look at her and sighed. “You shouldn’t antagonize her,” he whispered. “She wants what’s best for us.”

Anya didn’t answer, turning over to face away from him.

“Have it your way,” he mumbled before climbing into his hammock. She felt a pang of guilt at excluding him from her plans. It had always been just the two of them and he’d never complained of having his little sister tag along on everything he did, even when she’d gotten them both into trouble of all kinds.

I gave him the choice, she told herself. He doesn’t want to go and besides, the pearl came to me. I’ll be safer on my own.

It wasn’t until the full moon had risen halfway into the sky and Javan’s snores echoed around the hut that Anya got up the courage to swing down from her hammock and tiptoe out onto the dock. Their grandmother’s hut on shore was dark and silent as Anya slipped into the largest of their three boats.

Just as she began to loosen the old rope from the dock, she felt a hand close around her arm. A lamp blazed bright, lighting the wrinkles and frizzy white hair of Nan.

“Shhh,” the old woman whispered, pulling Anya down until they were face to face on the rough wooden bench within the boat cabin.

Anya caught her breath. “Were you waiting for me?” she asked.

Nan busied herself with the lamp until it was burning so low as to cast more shadows than light in the slow sway of the cove. “Thought I wouldn’t know, eh?”

“Know what?” Anya asked.

Nan gave her a look.

“Fine, yes, I’m going to see mom and you can’t stop me.” The words left her mouth before she’d thought them through.

But Nan only smirked. “Your mother didn’t come with us here. Why do you think that is?” Her words were whispered just above the sound of the lapping waves but they hurt as much as if they’d been shouted.

“Nan, I don’t care what my mother did. I just want to find her, talk to her. I have a right -”

“Your mother is dead.”

Anya felt something vital within rip away, lost forever, and in its place a gaping hole. “No. What about the letter?”

“They let her write it in prison, before she died.” Nan watched her, waiting. Anya’s silence seemed to confirm something Nan had known would happen all along. “The truth is hard, isn’t it?”

Anya stood, feeling sick and frightened all at once.

“Sit,” the old woman commanded, tugging Anya back onto the bench with unusual strength. “Don’t believe me?”

Anya shook her head, dazed.

“Listen,” Nan leaned in close, her breath stale with coconut and clam meat, “I’ll tell you the story of your past. You say you have a right to it. Well, let’s see if you don’t choke on all that truth you crave so much. If you still want to leave and go explore the world of the land people after you hear it, granddaughter, I won’t stop you.”

Anya wanted to push her away, shout that she didn’t know what she was talking about, that her mother was alive and she would be waiting for them. But all that came out was a whimper.

“Good.” Nan sagged stiffly against the cabin wall, watching Anya with glittering eyes in the half-light of the oil lamp. “You don’t remember, but you were born into chaos. What once had been a bustling, seaside village, turned almost overnight into a war zone. Boys, like your father, were called up to serve and die. Spies were everywhere. Neighbor turned on neighbor until no one could be trusted.” Her voice ground out like she was swallowing sand.

“What was the war about?” Anya asked, eager to finally get some answers.

Nan waved her hand as if swatting a fly. “Who knows? Whatever was happening at the top, trickled down to us who lived through it. Fear and uncertainty, that’s all we knew of the war. With your father gone, your mother and I did everything we could to keep you and Javan safe. No one outside of the other Ikan villagers knew what you were, afterall, and any kind of difference was likely to get you killed. One day, a rumor started that someone was helping the Ikan who had turned into spies, getting them across the Inner Sea to safety.”

“Ikan spies?” Anya asked, impressed but horrified. “How?”

“That’s what the military wanted to know. They sent in a mole of their own, more of a rat, really. He was tasked with finding the traitor. One night, while your mother was out in the sea, he knocked on our door. I pretended to be asleep, hoping he’d go away. But he just came right in, walked around as if he owned the place. I’d hidden you two in the laundry, you see. Those kinds of men could do anything they wanted. I didn’t want -” her voice broke off and Anya reached for her hand before remembering her anger from earlier and pulling it back.

Nan pretended not to notice. She cleared her throat. “He asked me some questions. Simple things - how long had I been living in the village? What did my daughter-in-law do for work? But then the questions started to come faster and they were sharp as a knife. It turns out your mother was helping the resistance. She was going out late in the night and ferrying them across the river into neutral territory using her clam boat.” Nan’s voice was hard as iron. “And then he said the oddest thing, I’ll never forget it.” Nan blinked as if she was seeing the moment flicker to life before her. “He pointed his gun over my shoulder to where you’d crawled out of the hamper, and he said, ‘You have a choice - her or her mother’”

Anya held her breath, divided between wanting to know more and covering her ears so she wouldn’t have to hear.

“I made a choice.” Nan’s voice was sharp and precise. “And I chose us three.” Her milky eyes surveyed Anya, appraising.

“You helped them trap her? Knowing what she was?” Horror raced through her. “How could you?”

“If I hadn’t, you would have died, just another victim of someone else’s war. And your brother, Javan, he would have been taken away, used by the army, never knowing the freedom of the sea.”

“And you?” Anya breathed.

Nan’s lips peeled back into a red smirk. “Is that why you think I did it? To live?” She shook her head sadly. “I did it for you and Javan. You’re all I have left of him.” Her clawed fingers reached up to her chest, just below the heavy locket holding her son’s picture that she always wore, gripping until it formed a fist.

“What happened to her?” Anya whispered.

Nan shrugged. “She was sent to prison and executed. She’d made her choice too, it would seem, and she chose to help strangers over keeping her family safe.”

What little pity Anya had for her grandmother cooled into anger. “If you gave her up, then why did we have to leave? Surely the land people were happy with what you did?”

Nan shook her head slowly. “They burned the village for harboring the spies and the villagers turned against the Ikan after that. History is written by the survivors, granddaughter. Heroes become villains and the ones left alive take their vengeance.”

“Survivors.” The word left a bitter film on the back of Anya’s tongue and she had the urge to spit. “I’d name you murderer instead.”

Nan looked as if she’d been slapped but then her face hardened. “You want someone to blame? Blame your mother. She might as well have slit your father’s throat herself. He wanted to move away when the war started. But your mother said she needed to try to make a difference, to use the Ikan power to help. His love for your mother got him killed.”

Anya swallowed, fighting the grief and outrage. But it was as hard as keeping water in cupped hands. “You’re just a land person, you’ll never know what it means to be Ikan.”

“Proud to be Ikan, are you?”

Anya raised her chin in answer.

“Then why do you want to live amongst the land people so badly?” Nan smirked. “I saw that pearl in your hair, girl. Aren’t you afraid of using it? After all, I had a pearl like that once and look what happened to me.”

“You?” Anya’s breath left her.

“Yes.” Nan straightened.

“No, you can’t be Ikan.”

“I was, once.” Nan laughed grimly. “I found a pearl like that, long ago. I wanted to see more than what is below the waves, just like you do.”

Anya’s hand went up to the pearl in her hair. “I don’t believe you.”

“Oh, it’s too true,” Nan said. “I used it, got my land legs and moved into the city, away from the sea. What I didn’t know was that I was carrying your father at the time. The pearl worked on him too.” Nan paused, her face unreadable in the pale light.

“I thought my father was from our village?” Anya whispered.

“Yes, well even though he wasn’t Ikan, your father longed for the sea. I couldn’t keep him from coming back to the village. I still think that’s why he loved your mother so much. She was more fish than human.” She said the final words like a curse.

“If you hated her, why didn’t you just leave us behind too?”

Nan glanced at her sideways. “I thought you’d be different, that I could shape you into the daughter your father deserved, someone worth saving. But I failed. You’re just like me.”

“I’m not like you,” Anya ground out.

“No? I bet you didn’t even second guess it for a minute when you hid the pearl from Javan, did you? You’d leave him without a word even after all he’s done for you.”

“I’ve heard enough.” Anya turned, the cold truth of it cutting to her core as she stepped out of the boat, leaving Nan in the waning lamplight.

“I knew you wouldn’t make the same mistake I did,” Nan whispered to herself as she settled back on the bench rocking in the sway of the ocean, “not after you heard the truth.”


Nan woke the next morning in the cabin of the boat, happy to see that Anya hadn’t tried to sneak off again. She rose stiffly to her feet and stretched. As she made her way along the dock, she called for her grandchildren. There was no reply. Their clam boat was still there, moored to the dock. She turned a slow circle, feeling the creep of isolation seep in as it never had before. They left me after all, she thought.

Then, to her surprise, Anya swam up to the edge of the dock. She was her human self, black hair pooling around her in the foam of the surf.

“Still here, I see?” Nan asked, trying to regain her composure.

“Not for long.” Anya had an odd glint in her eye. “I convinced Javan that it’s time we leave the cove.”

“Turning into land people after all?” Nan scoffed, though bitter loneliness threatened to overwhelm her.

“No, we’re going to cross the sea and try to find the others like us, the ones mother helped to escape. I’ve just come back to give you this.” Anya held out her pearl.

Nan took it with a shaking hand.

“You lost the part that made you Ikan long ago,” Anya said. “But if the Motee pearl took it away, then it should be able to give it back.”

A deep thrum of something that felt very much like hope coursed through Nan as she rolled the pearl between her fingers. Her voice was small as she asked, “You’d give me your Motee?”

Anya smiled slowly. “It was Javan who convinced me. I told him everything. You see, we’re not like the land people. Ikan help our family.” She blinked up at her and then added, “Just like you kept us safe all these years.”

Nan’s lower lip trembled as she looked down at the pearl in her hand. “I…I don’t know if I remember how.”

Anya tilted her head, her gills surfacing as the shift began. “Think sea thoughts,” she said, “deep, cold water in the belly of the ocean beneath the sun dappled surf.”

Nan stood for a moment, buffeted by the morning wind and then she smiled. She popped the pearl into her mouth and felt the power surge through her as she swallowed.

“At last,” she murmured, the wind taking her words away, out to sea.



Winning pieces are published as received.

 

Fiction Potluck

April 2023

Second Place Winner:


Sarah Connell

Sarah Connell writes speculative fiction with a penchant for strange and unique worlds. She is the author of the cozy science fiction trilogy, Project Awakening, and her story, “Esha and the Echoes,” won the 2022 Geek Partnership Contest. A collector of hobbies, her favorite things outside of books include quilting, mountain biking and growing obscure vegetables in her garden.

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