ccept this gift ... and in return I ask ... that you help me find ... a pearl of great value." As Cali sat in the wooden boat he wondered if his prayer was good enough for the sea god.
The wind answered with a breath of salt and seaweed. The waters of Sulu remained undisturbed.
"Cali, before you find a 'pearl of great value,'" Uncle Muin drawled, "you have to actually throw your offering in the water. Then you have to dive in. Don't expect the oyster to come floating up, lips open for you to pluck."
Suri, Uncle Muin's friend who came along to help, laughed gently. "A little nervous, eh?"
Cali had been dreaming about this, his first pearl dive, for a long time. He longed for a pearl as big as a quail's egg, and lustrous like his mother's eyes.
For his offering, Cali had carved out a wooden bowl, etched his name on it, and filled it with rice and perfume. Aunt Fatima had stitched together swatches from his mother's white skirt and his father's white shirt, which Cali wrapped around the bowl.
Uncle Muin tugged on the rope tied around Cali's waist. "You're a good swimmer, with lungs as strong as a vinta's sail," he said.
Cali felt for the wooden goggles on his head. His legs, locked in a lotus position, began to ache. Cali knew he had better get started.
"This is for you, god of the sea." Cali threw the white parcel into the water, and pushed his goggles down over his eyes. He reached for the big rock he had chosen from his parents' grave and cradled it in his arms. Panting hard now, his eyes followed his offering as it sank beneath the ocean surface, waving goodbye. He jumped in after it, his lifeline untangling rapidly behind him.
The first splash always jolted him whenever he dove, but somehow this splash felt different. The heavy rock tied to his waist pulled him down, dropping like a comet against a blue background of graceful corals, schools of fish, and shadows.
A movement to his left startled him. Uncle Muin swam by, and Cali almost laughed with relief. Nobody dove alone, even experienced divers.
Uncle Muin pointed to the ocean floor and what Cali saw cut his breath short. There lay an oyster, its white lips sealed tight in a wavy, almost silly grin. A closer look revealed a mass of baby oysters, nestled between plants and rocks. Cali stared at them, awed by their power. These shells made pearls, and pearls made men mad.
Uncle Muin gestured for him to pick; he would be first that day. But how could Cali know which would make valuable pearls? He picked the biggest clams and slid them slowly into a small sturdy net bag his uncle held out for him.
Cali's ears began to hurt and his lungs strained for air. Had he gathered enough? Knowing he didn't have much of a choice, he grabbed his lifeline and swam upward. With a pang of regret, he realized he had dropped the rock from his parents' grave somewhere. But I can't take the rock back up, he thought, or I'll never make it. Maybe an oyster will attach to it someday.
Cali swam upward, stopping briefly every so often the way he was taught to rise. Fragments of light danced above him. 'Almost to the top,' Cali kept repeating to himself. But now pain racked his head and chest. I'm not going to make it, he thought. I should've just gathered a few, a few would've been fine for a first dive. He felt his energy begin to ebb.
But you need a pearl of great value, something inside him said. You've waited seven years for this.
With renewed energy, Cali swam all the way to the top. His head broke the waterline, and the skies roared.
"Quick, Cali, heavy rains are coming." Suri pulled him into the boat. Uncle Muin's head popped out soon after. "Ah, you made it, my boy. But I was watching you all the time." He clambered inside and plopped Cali's bag of oysters on the bottom of the boat. "Behold your prize."
Cali touched the net bag gently, as if it were already full of pearls. "Muin, storm approaching from the west," Suri said, worried. He hauled up the anchor while Uncle Muin started the motor. The sail was already wrapped around the mast and leashed tight. The boat sat in a sheltered cove, but to get back home they had to cross open water.
But Cali was not afraid. The sea god had been kind, and had given Cali oysters in exchange for his offering. Surely he would not take his gift back. The boat would make it to land before the storm hit and the oysters would be safe. Cali clutched his bounty to his chest as their vinta sped toward home.
© Almira Astudillo Gilles