But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was luck,
a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both.
~ John Steinbeck ~ (1902 – 1968)
Eight-year-old Michel Balder anchored his bare toes into the bottom of the rough-hewed boat. The morning sun warmed his back as the ocean waves gently rolled the craft. As he struggled to open the oyster shell in his hand, the curved blade of the knife narrowly missed his pale, wrinkled flesh.
He glanced up guiltily at the bronzed native men sorting their equipment. He exhaled with relief—They hadn’t noticed. What if his father had seen him almost slice off his thumb? He would banish him to the safe insides of the boat and strip him of the much-too-sharp knife. Raising his eyes heavenward in thanks, Michel resumed his task.
Far away in the broad center of the vessel hunched his father, Saul, his broad shoulders towering over the other men. Michel puffed up his tiny chest. Guess I’m grownup enough to be at the end of the boat all by myself.
Michel chewed his lip with his loose front tooth as he checked on his father’s presence. The dark whiskers on his father’s face glistened with sand from the beach, like a brown sugar dusting as Saul clumsily adjusted the brim of his straw hat. As the boat pitched and lurched, he struggled to keep his balance, but the next wave sent the hat toppling into the foam. He cursed in response.
Michel laughed. It’s all right, Papa. No one here speaks German, and the Rabbi isn’t with us.
The rocking boat didn’t bother Michel at all and he returned his attention to the slippery shells. If a pearl was inside, his grandfather could sell it at his jewelry shop back in Berlin. But shell after shell contained only slimy oysters—no pearls. His shoulders drooped.
He plopped the last unexceptional shell into the bucket and perched to watch the pearl divers preparing for their first dive of the day. This was the season of Al-raddah, the three weeks before the onset of winter. Michel had heard the natives say that in a few days the northwesterly winds would make it too dangerous for the divers to go into the ocean.
Among the divers was Michel’s new friend, Ali, a dark-skinned Bahraini child with gleaming black hair. Michel had met Ali only yesterday as he was exploring the sun-bleached shore. Ali was with a group of Bahraini children, each using his own miflacket, the curved knife, to separate the oyster shells in search of the highly valuable Bahraini pearl.
Michel and Ali, who didn’t share the same language, figured out by using hand motions that they would be on the same boat today—the same one Michel’s father had chartered through their Bombay guide. Ali invited Michel to meet his family. Michel had never imagined people could live in such a place. In the tiny grass hut, they ate a meal of dates while sitting on the straw floor. Ali’s family, like most on the island, made their living from pearls and Michel knew they only had a few more days to find enough pearls to support them through the winter.
Now Ali, like the other divers, or ghoas, was getting ready to dive. The divers lowered the sail and worked the riggings as the captain, or nakhoda, barked out instructions. Their dhow, or boat, neared a pearl bank.
Michel waited until he caught his father’s attention. “How deep are the oysters? Can I dive for them, too?” He made a diving motion with his hand. He and Ali used mostly signals to communicate, and now gesturing had become a habit.
Michel’s father laughed. “How long can you hold your breath?” He shook his head, as he shielded his eyes with his hand. “The ghoas have trained many years to learn this work.”
Their hired guide from Bombay, spat his smelly tobacco into the water, and Michel wrinkled his nose. “They dive down to twelve fathoms, boy.” He waved his whiskey flask toward the rolling waves. “Of course, you lose a few of these ghoas in the deep waters…but we have plenty to spare.” He threw his head back as he guffawed, and drops of liquid spewed from between his yellow teeth. “Never a shortage of ghoas—easy to replace!”
As Michel watched his father flinch, he tried to recall the meaning of the word “ghoas,” which he’d for the moment forgotten. Shuddering as he remembered the definition, he began for the first time since leaving shore to feel a sense of foreboding. The ghoas are replaceable? You lose them in the deep waters? Does he really mean the divers, this nasty, smelly man? Unsettled, he turned to focus on the waves as they became more energized, undulating the flimsy little boat as if it were an insubstantial, minuscule twig rolling on waves of liquid mercury.
The ghoas placed their fitaams, or nostril clips, onto their noses. Michel breathed in deeply, filling his lungs with salty air, as if he, too, would need to hold his breath. Next the divers placed leather khubaats over their fingers and thumbs to protect them from the sharp coral and shells below.
Finally, each diver checked his diving stone—the heavy stone attached to a rope that made the diver sink to the bottom quickly, giving him more time to collect the oysters.
Butterflies scampered in Michel’s stomach when pint-sized Ali slipped his left foot into the coconut fiber stirrup connected to the heavy stone. Once each diver’s first foot was tightly bound to the stirrup around the stone, he placed his other foot in the rim of a woven net basket that was suspended by a second rope. Every diver had a partner who would watch the two ropes while he was underwater.
One by one the divers inhaled large gulps of air into their lungs, then dove into the sea.
Michel clenched his fists as Ali disappeared under the surface. He knelt over the edge and watched the divers as they faded from view.
His father shouted to him from the now half empty center of the boat. “Count to eighty, slowly. Then watch for a tug on the lines.”
Please, may they find enough oysters with pearls. Grandfather Aaron is counting on Papa and me to bring back lots and lots of pearls for our jewelry store—and the divers need to find them for money and food.
Ali’s partner pulled him out of the water, sputtering and gasping. Michel unclenched his fists as his friend clambered over the edge of the boat and eagerly counted his shells. Little Ali turned away from his catch, his head bowed.
Michel winced. Was that a tear running down Ali’s cheek? Or was it salt water dripping from Ali’s hair?
Michel’s lip was now deeply indented from the loose tooth.
Ali’s father and brothers returned to the boat seconds behind Ali, and although they had twice as many oysters as Ali, their expressions were just as unhappy.
The captain ordered the boat moved from inlet to cove, but each time the men returned gasping and short of breath, disappointment shadowed on their tanned faces.
At midday, meager portions of bread and dates were distributed onshore, along with flasks of tepid water. The mood remained somber. Conversation was intermittent and hushed, with only Michel occasionally and quietly asking questions of his father. Even the normally animated Ali seemed subdued. As the afternoon wore on, the catch continued to be meager.
The sun began its stunning descent, tinting the sky orange above the turquoise sea. The waves increased their rhythm as night took hold. The men had time only for one last dive.
Ali jammed his foot into the stirrup attached to the heavy stone and planted his other foot into the basket. Squaring his shoulders, he wedged his nosepiece on. Taking in a great lungful of air, he dove headfirst into the sea.
Michel felt fear engulf him like an ominous cloud. He shivered, more from worry than from the cooling breeze. He stared at the water, eagerly anticipating the jerk of the rope, but each second that passed seemed like a minute, as he waited for a sign of the young diver.
Ali’s partner bantered with the other men. Michel counted under his breath. As he reached sixty, he braced his body, leaning over the water, searching for some sign of Ali. Nothing. Only churning waves.
Saul looked at his son. “What is it, Michel?”
Michel pointed to the water, his heart pounding. His throat tightened.
Saul looked around. “Ali?”
Michel’s wide eyes met his father’s.
Saul grabbed the arm of Ali’s partner, who began to heave up the second rope. After what seemed like an eternity, the rope with the basket burst through the water—without the body of the small diver.
Saul hesitated not a moment longer. With a strong upward thrust of his body, he crashed headfirst into the swirling sea.
Michel noticed with each fleeting moment how the faces of the boat’s occupants darkened.
Michel’s heart pounded wildly. His father might die. Ali might die. Currents, sharks, poisonous jellyfish—all could kill in these waters. He felt the disgusting, slimy hands of the guide from Bombay on his shoulders. He shook them off, stepped up onto the edge of the boat, and cried as he dove into the waters. He sank deeper and deeper into the sea, his wide-open eyes stinging from the salty water.
Below him his father was soaring up toward the boat, kicking his legs with powerful strokes. Cradled in his arm, limp and lifeless, was Ali.
Michel struggled and kicked. He couldn’t swim.
He rose, managing to break through the surface of the water. He glimpsed his father and the motionless little Ali, now in the boat. Greedily, he took in a mouthful of air but sank again, his slight frame no contest against the powerful waves.
Suffocating brine filled his nose and mouth. Thrashing, he fought his way up to the swells, only to be wrenched downward yet once more, sinking deeper and deeper into the depths.
A blur darkened the water above him. Strong muscular arms of a ghoa wrapped around Michel’s chest, and they rose together, closer to the light. Michel vaguely felt himself tossed over the side of the boat to lie atop a pile of oysters.
Shadows surrounded him.
As he struggled for consciousness, he heard the pealing of the brass chimes attached to the heavy oak door of his grandfather’s shop as his white-haired Grandfather Aaron closed the entrance. There! Michel could see him at Balder’s Jewelers back in Berlin as he locked the door, the streetlights illuminating the keyhole for Aaron’s cast-iron skeleton key.
How Michel loved the welcoming sound of those chimes and how he loved his Grandfather Aaron. Would he ever hear the merry chime of those bells again?
What would his grandfather do without him to sweep the polished wood floors and shine the glass cabinets? Who would help him wind the antique grandfather clock every week?
Who would share the kosher dill pickles Aaron loved so much, the leftover ones the neighboring delicatessen owner gave Michel every Saturday morning, as a thank you for sweeping his floors and sidewalks?
Suddenly, the chimes quieted.
Michel’s world hushed to silence.