By: Aiden Baker
To make the necklace you need the pearl, and to make the pearl you need to penetrate the shell, invade, infect.
Grandma Wallace insisted. I was to memorize poems and recite them for her. To stand, hands behind my back, and enunciate, articulate, from memory, no peeking. In her big blue chair, she’d sit and listen, bouffant on a pile of bones, a stone-stiff audience of one. At the end she’d look me up and down and, if pleased, present me with a single piece of plastic-wrapped candy. That’s how I became a sticky-fingered seven-year-old, mumbling lines of Byron.
I remember her like that, listening, always dressed, neck adorned. Glimmering brooches and beads. All that stuff she left for us, my sisters: pendants, pearls, slippery silver chains. Regalia to indicate her noble ascension from the dirt and drab of rural farm life.
Calcium carbonate secretes from the skin, forming the shell. If a foreign object gets inside, irritates, fucks with things, a pearl will form. This naturally occurs 0.01% of the time.
As you get older, you gather information in scraps. I catch my Aunts pouring 7-up into Grandma’s champagne. Shhh, they tell me. Our secret.
It’s a means of defense. The mollusk forms a pearl sac to seal off invading bodies. The human immune system does the same thing.
A Russian zoologist, Ilya Ilyich Mechnikov, was the first to notice specialized cells, little soldiers fighting infection. In his lab, he inserted thorns from a tangerine tree into starfish larvae. He soon saw cells assemble, forming a wall around the invaders. A curious sight. The findings earned him a Nobel Prize.
Alcoholic wasn’t a word that was used. Everything was whispered. Not that my sisters and I would’ve known what it meant. The bent over bird of a woman we knew and loved was not the same woman who’d raised our Aunts. Three girls, in the fifties, during the war. My mom came later, in ‘61. Gathering stories from them, the four sisters, gives me a fuzzy, varied sketch, as though they each were raised by a different woman. I try, and fail, to make some kind of cohesive portrait from the fragmented bits.
Phagocytes, the cells are called. They protect the body. From the Greek phagein, to eat or devour. They ingest and absorb the invading particles, bacteria, dead or dying tissue. The phagocyte stretches itself around the irritant, engulfing it, and stores it in a special compartment. In humans, this process takes up to nine minutes.
Once inside, the foreign body is subjected to an arsenal of weapons, killing mechanisms. In minutes, the invader is dead.
In ancient Vedic texts, pearls come from the teeth of the great demon Vala. The teeth “scattered throughout the celestial regions, and fell like stars into the oceans below,” becoming the seeds for a species of gems, gems that carried the glow of a moon beam.
Iridescence comes from the reflection, refraction, and diffraction of light. The unique shine of a pearl is born from its layers of nacre, which break and bend light. Thinner, more numerous layers lead to more dazzling, gleaming effects.
The beauty comes from distortion. Tricking the light.
A story: Robert Wallace, young Naval officer, sets out for Korea. He’s firm, solid, mature. With a kind, rounded face, discerning eyes. He’d fought already, in the Pacific. Been at the Battle of Iwo Jima. But he won’t talk about that. He keeps his stories close, to himself. In fact, the only anecdote I ever hear is not of war itself, but an accident: an explosion of the ship’s gun turret. Four boys, brutally killed, bloodied and spread through the room. He goes to assess the damage, assign a cleanup crew.
It’s his job to write to the families. He was a journalist before the war, and to him, writing comes naturally. But this—I imagine he thinks of the mothers, miles away. For them, as far as they know, their sons are still breathing, eating, wrestling on the deck. The boys live, in the minds of their mothers, and it’s his words that will kill them.
Robert sits before the typewriter, before the blank page, and massages his cheek. It has to be done. He signs each letter with a black ink pen, folds them neatly into thirds. When he’s finished, he inserts more paper into the machine and writes home. He describes the survivor, the only survivor from the turret’s explosion. Eighteen years old. The boy, he wrote, had looked to him, lost, eyes as blue and wide as China plates.
Typical stimuli that will produce a pearl include organic material that enters the shell, irritates. Parasites and predators can bore their way in and penetrate flesh. Sometimes, damage to the mollusk will displace its own mantle tissue; bits of itself can cause the infection. More often than not, the process is violent, invasive.
In 1950, five years after Robert has returned from the Pacific Theater, Truman decides to send troops to Korea. Robert isn’t drafted. He volunteers. Duty, honor: for him, the words are heavy, tangible. They weigh like bronze epaulettes on his shoulders.
In a pale yellow Pontiac, he leaves Chicago. Wife, daughter, new-born in tow. They drive across the expanse of this country, through rippling fields of wheat, green fields of corn, undulating hills that rise and curve like a woman’s belly. Through jagged forests, red rocks, desert. They arrive in San Diego, at the Naval base, and set themselves up in a standard tin house.
While Robert’s at work, training, teaching, crafting plans, his wife sweeps, cleans, makes the home. She bounces the baby on her wide hip, and it’s with the baby that she finds it, a tarantula, crouched in the kitchen.
Up to now, she hasn’t complained, hasn’t begged him to stay, said a word. Duty, honor: she gets it. But this, no, she won’t have it. She’s come so far from the farm. And for what? Certainly not just to stoop back to this: tin walls, dirty floors, spiders the size of dinner plates. To spend god-knows how long in a shack, next to the wives of rookies, recruits, while he’s off sailing in the ocean sun? No. She sits on the porch until he returns.
“We are not staying here,” she says, baby girl on her lap. “You’re an officer, for god’s sake. Live like one.”
To farm your own, first start with some tissue. A makeshift nucleus. Insert the tissue, also called Saibo, into the flesh of the oyster. This is known as grafting, seeding, nucleation. Take care. This step will determine the worth of the pearl.
Sometimes, the oyster will reject the implant. It may spit out the nucleus before the culturing process is complete, leading to a non-nucleated pearl. These are known as Keshis, from the Japanese for poppy seed. Because they lack a nucleus, Keshi pearls are made completely from nacre. Not round, like traditional pearls, these will have a baroque shape. Imperfect, fractured, flattened.
“She knew things,” my mom tells me. She explains how my grandmother was sensitive. How she predicted the death of young Jimmy Hartigan. In the middle of the night she’d woken up with a feeling, woken her sisters up, too, and made them kneel and pray for Jimmy. Two weeks later, the letter arrived. His death is dated that night, the night they knelt praying.
Over coffee, I ask my aunt, my mom’s oldest sister, what she thinks about this.
“Oh yes, she had a gift,” Aunt Patty tells me, sure. “She once predicted the fall of a dictator. His regime toppled the very next week.”
Aunt Patty was always the serious one, the stern academic. A devout Catholic, she also believes in divine mystery, in psychics, a spiritual realm. She blows gently on her espresso, and mentions that grandma saw little green men, space men, who would float down to her and tell her things.
Pearls are made mostly of calcium carbonate. Because of this, they can be dissolved in vinegar. Calcium carbonate is susceptible to even a weak acid solution. It surprises me, that something so naturally rare can be undone by something so common.
Schizophrenic, I think, when Aunt Patty tells me about the little green men. When I ask Aunt Annie about it, she shakes her head. “Not schizophrenic,” she said. “It was the booze.”
We sit outside her Arizona home. She’s constructed an incredible spread: zucchini carpaccio, little pink shrimp with perfect grill marks. Her back yard opens out to the desert, where a lanky saguaro looms, limbs jutting out.
“The booze made her mean,” she says. “She’d say things. She knew just what to say to get under your skin.”
“I got the worst of it. Patty had gone off to college, Kitty was barely home. Your mom was too young. When she drank, it was like a switch went off. She would poke me, prod me. I was worthless, to her. Got out of that house as soon as I could.”
My mom only rarely mentioned the alcoholism, and never by name. She once mentioned the switch. After a cocktail, she said, her mother transformed. She just wasn’t the same woman, not even close. But my mom won’t linger on that. She chooses her memories: good, solid ones. She speaks of her mother with reverence, respect.
“Her life wasn’t easy,” she says. “The last child of seven, and her mom died a few days after her birth. An infection. It spread through the maternity ward, took out all the new mothers. Rural Illinois, you know, in the twenties. God knows what those hospitals were like.”
We’re in the backyard of my childhood home, just north of Chicago. The summer sky has turned from pink to purple, navy blue. Around us, cicadas chirp in droves, lightning bugs glint. My mom sips on a Heineken, her second and last beer of the night.
“All of them, on the farm, the depression. You can see how things were. Her Aunt had just lost a husband and son. She could have had a new life, could have traveled, but she came back to them, the kids, and raised them all. When the girls got older, they went up to Chicago for a good education. Stayed with their other Aunt. All of them gave up so much for those kids.”
My mom speaks with a romantic nostalgia; her eyes are far off, somewhere I can’t reach.
In 1934, the largest known pearl was found off the coast of the Philippines, encased inside a giant clam. Weighing fourteen pounds, the behemoth was found by a Muslim diver off the island of Palawan. The Muslim tribal chief named it the Pearl of Allah, as it resembled a giant turbaned head.
When Wilbur Dowell Cobb, a Filipino-American visiter, tried to purchase the pearl, the chief refused. “A pearl with the image of Mohammed, the Prophet of Allah, is earned by devotion, by sacrifice, not bought with money,” he said.
Soon after, the chief’s son fell ill with malaria, and Cobb used Atabrine, a new medicine, to heal him. It was this act that earned him the pearl.
At the end of her life, my grandma began making art. We had moved her from the yellow Evanston house, the one where her husband had died, into a sky-rise nursing home. The building jutted up from Lakeshore Drive, her new bedroom overlooking Lake Michigan. The blue of the water met the blue of the sky, and I imagine, for her, that it held so many memories: her teenage years in the city, the years after the war.
Though she’d never expressed interest before, she began to draw. She sketched landscapes in thin black ink, cabins and prairies and serene, wooded hills. She was skilled, I thought. We’d sit together: me, scribbling a fuzzy, jagged version of my family’s house, wildly looping the markers; her, carefully penciling a cabin, a girl in the window.
We had a conversation that I wish I could remember verbatim. I was around eight at the time and had developed an acute obsession with Vincent Van Gogh. I’m not sure what kicked it off. My Aunt Annie had taken me to the Art Institute, where I’d seen some of his canvases hanging. And that Christmas I received a book, a fancy hardcover that detailed his life and work on thin glossy pages. I don’t think it was the artwork itself that had me entranced. I just desperately wanted to know why someone would cut off their own ear. I did like the paintings, too, the swooping, whirling lines, all the color. I think I was baffled, why someone so sad would use so much color.
Grandma and I had just finished our drawing, were eating our lunch, when Vincent came up.
“I never cared for him,” she said, or something to that effect. “If you’re going to paint a sky, paint a sky.”
I wish I remembered what I’d said. Something about how children see differently, how our world is differently colored. Something about how he saw the world, how he was letting us into his eyes. I don’t remember what I said, exactly, but I remember how she looked at me: surprised, like I suddenly wasn’t a kid, but an adult, with compelling thoughts, ideas worth hearing. I relished that surprise. She nodded, and I felt proud, almost wise.
“That’s very interesting,” she said. “Very interesting.”
According to Pliny’s Natural History, Cleopatra was at the table with Antony, a proper feast between them. Luxury and decadence were stacked on the table, steaming meats and cheeses and huge plates of olives. Antony was stuffing his face when she plucked the pearl from her ear and dissolved it in a chalice. He watched her, rapt, while she proceeded to drink the vinegar-pearl solution, to swallow whole the gem.
Looking back on it, realism, for my grandmother, must have meant more than a simple aesthetic. Her generation had sacrificed more than mine could comprehend. Born to the Depression, a world of lack—escaping that only to see the planet nearly swept from under her feet, to see bloody and horrible wars that could destroy everything in a blink—when you’ve nearly lost it all, you need something real. The real, quotidian world must seem glamorous, and more than enough.
The anatomy of an oyster doesn’t seem awfully complicated. I scan the diagrams: stomach, mouth, anus. Intestines and heart. The small yonic lump is deceivingly simple. I don’t think I expected to have so much in common. There’s so much more to the flesh we sequester for that one, good thing.
Aiden Baker lives in South Florida, where she is an MFA candidate at Florida Atlantic University. When she’s not writing, she’s painting, cooking, or crying. Her work can be found in Sonora Review, Orca, Ninth Letter Online, and Variant Lit.