A tale of magic and hope
Liam ran across the ocean terrace, a bucket in one hand, a shovel in the other. His mother trotted a few feet behind, her yellow wellingtons slapping the wet sand.
“Hurry up, Ma,” Liam called.
The wind carried away her complaints about the weight of the metal pail and her blasted boots. But Liam was right. The tide was coming in, and the skies were turning grey. They wouldn’t have much time for digging.
“Do ya see anything, Liam?” she called when she reached the water’s edge where he had started digging.
“There’s a few here, Ma.”
The tiny siphon holes in the wet sand were hard to find in the low light. The shellfish were safe from marauding seagulls but not from a good eye and a clamming spade.
Liam rinsed his pile of clams and set them into the bucket while his mother plucked burgundy seaweed from the ocean floor. A good haul of dulse could mean a new pair of shoes if it was tourist season. The cruise ships were only starting to arrive in the harbour, though. Ma would barter with the local butcher to exchange whatever didn’t sell for a cut of beef for Sunday supper. Her job at the cannery wasn’t enough for small luxuries.
“Make sure you get the right size, Liam,” Ma said. These would go to the butcher as well. Too small and no one wanted them, too big, and people complained the clams were gritty.
“Yeah, Ma,” Liam said tartly.
Shrinking back a little from his impatience, she said, “That’s alright, son, just like yer Da taught you.”
She knew she had to give him more space. Last year, he was a little boy, running across the dunes, looking for seashells to add to his collection. This year, he was a man, forced into the position like so many other sons in their seafaring village. She watched his dark hair blowing in the wind and smiled at how he stuck his tongue out the side of his mouth when he was concentrating. Just like Darren, she thought.
Once the two buckets weighed as much as they could carry, they started toward the shore. The wind was getting sharp, and the mist was thickening, forcing them to walk too fast to have a conversation. Neither of them felt like talking anyway. Both were thinking of clam digs on sunnier days when the only man either of them had ever loved was still with them and when they were still friends. They rarely talked to each other these days.
They reached the high spot just below the cabin where the rocks and wild grasses bordered the ocean floor. When Da wasn’t on open waters with the trollers, the family ate supper on the beach. Ma would climb the steep stairs to get a pot, a few spuds, and a tub of cream from the house, while Da and Liam would start a fire. Over clam chowder, Da would tell the tale of a magical oyster shucking knife that his far-off distant relative had used to get his family out of hard times.
“Legend has it,” he would whisper, “that every clam he opened with the knife would have a perfect pearl inside. The red handle was the length of a grown man’s hand. The blade was so sharp it could cut through paper. They called it the Pearl Maker!”
Liam and Ma would laugh at Da’s gestures and facial expressions. It was just folklore. Fine pearls rarely came from clams, and if they did, they certainly didn’t in these waters.
Deep in thought, Liam and Ma forgot they needed to hurry. The wind was less harsh now that they were on the shore; a single beam of sunlight peered out from the grey clouds, inviting them to reminisce for a little longer.
Ma had resumed walking when, out of the corner of his eye, Liam saw a flash of light underneath an old, burned log. He imagined it was just a hunk of glass washed in by the tide, but a feeling that he should take a closer look washed over him. He had to take a step back before getting into just the right position to relocate the object. Again, the light bounced, and Liam was able to see exactly where the object was hiding. He reached down and moved the log and was about to touch what appeared to be a piece of metal buried in the sand when he heard, “Liam! Liam!”
Whipping around, he cried, “Da!” All he could see was miles of empty sea. When he turned to see if his mother had heard it, she was halfway up the steep staircase.
Shaken, but not forgetting the object, Liam turned back to the firepit. Finding a stick, he poked the sand around the metal. It was wedged in as though it had been there for a long time. Liam picked up the clamming shovel and carefully dug away at the sand. Finally, the item loosened, and Liam could pull it out with his hand. He sat back on his heels and inspected a rusted shucking knife covered in tiny barnacles. Hearing the dinner bell, Liam tucked the knife into his coat and headed up the bank toward the cabin. He had just the tools to clean it up, but there were supper and chores to do first.
He decided not to tell his mother about the find, nor that he had heard his father calling his name.
Ma never complained about the amount of time Liam spent in the shed behind the house. She knew it was where he felt closest to his father.
Liam settled at the old workbench with an ice pick and various sizes of chisels. He started by prying off the larger barnacles first, then set to work scraping the handle. By the time Ma called him to get ready for bed, Liam had cleaned off most of the knife. Wrapping it in a piece of worn leather, Liam tucked his find into a drawer for further inspection when he could see it in the sunlight. His eyes were tired from straining to see by the light of the oil lamp.
After Ma tucked him in for the night, Liam pulled a small black notebook from under his pillow. It had belonged to his father, found in the rafters of the shed after the funeral. Touching the soft leather cover, Liam turned the pages until he found what he had been on his mind since the sea demanded his father’s life.
Straining to see in the stream of moonlight, Liam flipped to the last page. There, he found a hand-drawn picture of the same knife that he had been prying barnacles from all evening.
Liam woke early the next morning.
With the notebook under his arm, he quietly closed the back door and ran to the shed to inspect his treasure. Stepping into the daylight, he unwrapped the knife and held it next to the picture his father had drawn. Like the knife in the drawing, the handle was the length of a grown man’s hand; the blade was short and wide with a rounded tip. The grains of wood on the handle held remnants of red paint.
“The Pearl Maker,” whispered Liam.
Before another thought crossed his mind, Darren and Fionna’s son was on his feet, running to the beach. Down the steps, past the firepit, across the shallow terrace, Liam ran. Dropping to his knees, he started digging with his hands until he felt a triangular shell. With shaking hands, he held the clam gently in his palm and inserted the knife, gave a twist, then used his fingertips to pry open the hinge.
Wide-eyed, he stared at the open shellfish. It was there, just as the legend promised. It was small, but it was there. Liam picked a creamy, perfectly round pearl away from the creature’s body and held it up to the sunlight. The surface shone like a mirror. He was only eleven, but he knew what this would mean for him and his mother.
He grabbed the Pearl Maker and the notebook in one hand. With the other hand, he held the pearl in a tight grip.
Fionna was washing dishes when her son burst through the door, yelling something about being rich.
“Wee, man! Stop your yelling!” Still not understanding what he was saying, she said, “What are you on about, son? Slow down.”
Liam set the notebook on the table and turned to the drawing of the Pearl Maker. Then he banged the knife down next to it.
“I found it, Mum! I found the Pearl Maker!”
“Awk, yer daft, that’s a legend son, a folklore.”
Then unfolding his fist, Liam said, “Then what’s this, Mum?”
Fionna’s eyes opened wide, “Where did you…?”
“I’m telling you, Mum. I found the Pearl Maker last night after the dig. I heard Da call my name, and there it was in the sand at the firepit.”
With tears filling her eyes, Fionna said, “You heard your Da?”
“Do you think it’s worth anything?”
“Maybe, but I think we could do with a few more,” she said.
“Mum, will people flood our beach once they think there’s treasure down there?”
“We’ll have to take them into the city, Liam. We can’t be telling anyone.”
“I’ll grab the shovel and bucket,” he said on his way out the door.
The pair had been digging for most of the morning, removing and inspecting each found pearl, then carefully nestling them on the piece of leather.
Fionna stopped to stretch her back. Her heart leapt when Liam looked up at her with his daddy’s brown eyes and asked, “How much do you think their worth, Mum?” Mum, he hadn’t called her that in a long time.
“Awk, your Da would have had a better bet,” she said, “but I’m guessing there’s about twenty-grand there.”
Liam whistled, “Twenty-thousand dollars?”
Fionna nodded. The pearls were too perfect to be worth any less. Twenty-thousand dollars would be enough to do the needed repairs to the house.
She was inspecting a larger, pink pearl when she realized that her son was frantically digging in the sand.
“There’s no more, Mum,” he cried.
“What do you mean?”
“I keep opening them, but their empty,” he said, thrusting a shell in her face.
“It can’t be! There’s got to be more,” said Fionna.
Liam was about to suggest moving to another part of the beach when he noticed his mother staring at someone a few feet from where they stood.
Liam wanted to run to his father’s arms, but he knew ghosts can’t be hugged.
“Hi, Da,” he said.
“Looks like there are no more pearls. You know, the Pearl Maker is only for hard times. It’s not for getting rich,” he smiled.
“I miss you, Darren,” said Fionna, then putting her arm around their son, she said, “We both miss you.”
“I know, I know. But you have each other. That’s a better treasure than any old pearl,” he said. “I see you found my notebook.”
Liam picked it up from where it lay on the sand.
“Everything you need to know to get by is written in that book,” said Darren.
“What do we do now, Da?” asked Liam.
Pointing to the horizon, Darren said, “You must return the Pearl Maker to the sea to be found again by someone else who needs a hand.”
Then looking at his wife and son, he said, “Take care of one another.”
Fionna and Liam walked to the water’s edge. The sun was sinking toward the sea. Looking into each other’s eyes, they smiled, knowing that they were going to be okay.
Drawing his arm back, Liam threw the knife as hard as he could, returning the Pearl Maker to the sea, trusting that it would change a life, just as it had for him and his mum.
Originally published at https://vocal.media.