The first time it happened, I panicked. My back had only been turned for the briefest moment. I set Mara into the high chair, clicked the tray into place, and turned to fill her sippy cup with water from the tap—then, when I looked away for only that infinitesimal second, I heard her gagging. I spun around. Her eyes were wide and rimmed with red, her mouth open in a terrible puckered O. My stomach lurched, pure sick dread, all alarms blazing. I dashed to the high chair. I fumbled with the latch on the tray, but it stuck, and as I yanked her out, the empty tray clattered to the floor.
Quickly, I flipped her over and thumped her on the back, one two three. My heart was hammering wildly. Something dislodged from her throat and tinked across the linoleum. As she sobbed and coughed, I rubbed her back, the nubby texture of her ribbed cotton pajamas under the palm of my hand, and I murmured, “It’s okay, shh, it’s okay now, you’re okay.” Her cheek was hot against mine, her brown curls spackled to her forehead with sweat, like seaweed plastered to a rock.
I was flooded with relief, but red acid panic was still coursing through my veins, the wide-eyed terror of a near miss. She calmed down more quickly than I did. Her cries faded to hiccups and then to happy burbles in my ear as we waltzed around the kitchen. I played along and softly murmured happy little sounds, letting her pull my hair and giggle while I tried to calm my own racing pulse.
“What was that?” I said, in my most sing-song and light-hearted voice, eyebrows raised, pantomiming like a cheerful birthday clown. “What on earth did you put in your mouth, Miss Mara?”
I tickled her in the belly and she giggled. Cradling her on my hip, I bent down to pick up the empty high chair tray, and then I looked for the foreign object. I kept her pressed against my body because I didn’t want her tiny fingers to find it before I did—whatever it was—and pop it right back into her mouth, but she struggled and writhed against me, wanting me to let her crawl. I hadn’t seen the foreign object, but I had clearly heard the sound it made, a tink-tink-tink as it hit the floor and bounced across the linoleum. It sounded like it was the size of a ball bearing, a small marble, a BB perhaps, none of which were items we kept in the house—certainly none of which had been in reach of my baby while she sat in her high chair.
I pushed the high chair into the dead center of the kitchen floor, a moat of linoleum and air on all sides, and I clipped her back in. On my hands and knees, I peered into the dusty crevices under the cabinets, cast the searching beam of a pocket flashlight under the refrigerator. Dappled, murky light filtered through the swaying branches outside and poured in through the single kitchen window. Finally, near the grate that covered the heating duct in the corner, I came across a small white sphere about the size of a blueberry.
A pale pebble, a bead? It gleamed under the cone of light and I picked it up, relieved. I turned it in my pinched fingers. It was a pearl, a rippled freshwater gem that shimmered like champagne and almost glowed with a strange luminescence. There was no drilled hole: it was not a bead.
I turned to Mara in the high chair, who was noisily slurping water from her sippy cup. Her blue eyes sparkled like chips of sea glass.
“Where on earth did you find this, baby girl?” I asked her.
“Ba ba ba,” she said, smacking her cup against the plastic tray.
The pearl’s luster was smooth under the pads of my fingertips. Its iridescence was mesmerizing, hypnotic. At first glance, the pearl was a single shade, a pale gold, but as I rolled it in my fingers and peered into the reflections of the distorted kitchen window—the curved lines of the ceiling, my own face like a dirty fingerprint smudge—the pearl’s sheen shifted, rearranging itself into soap bubble rainbows, swirling Hubble galaxies in incandescent shades of champagne. Surely it was a trick of the light. I glanced around the kitchen as if I expected to find an easy explanation. Idly, I flicked the kitchen lights off and then on again, but the pearl kept its strange, shifting luster.
“Huh,” I murmured to myself. On the windowsill above the kitchen sink, there was a little ceramic bowl where I kept my wedding rings when I slipped them off to wash the dishes, and I dropped the pearl into the bowl with a plink.
When Silas came home from work, it was dark. I had been alone all day, and I was desperate for human interaction. “Hey,” I said. “How was the store? Did you have a good day?”
“Jesus Christ, Joy, I just stepped in the door. Get me a beer and let me sit down before you start interrogating me, okay. Just chill with all the questions.” He stripped off his polo shirt and tossed it towards the laundry room, where it flopped against the wall and landed in a heap. He had them in an array of colors, each with a Central Coast Aquarium Supply patch above the breast, a different shade for each day of the week.
“It was slow, again. Okay?” he sighed. “Two bags of gravel and a betta starter kit for a twelve year old’s birthday, that’s it. Work sucks. Just stop reminding me. How’s baby girl?” He had this habit of referring to our daughter as baby girl, never by the name we had given her, which irked me slightly, but always seemed too minor to argue about.
“She’s doing fine,” I said. “Oh, actually, now that you ask, that reminds me. The weirdest thing happened. I caught her with something in her mouth. I have no idea where she got it from. She was sitting in the high chair when I saw her choking.”
“What? She was choking? You let her choke?”
It flooded back to me with fresh panic, the sound of her gagging, the tears welling in her reddened, watery eyes.
“Well, no, not really, I guess choking is kind of an exaggeration. It was more like coughing. She didn’t turn purple or anything like that. I patted her on the back and it popped right out. She was fine.”
He reached for the baby, and I handed her over. He brushed the curls from her forehead, ran a fingertip along her cheek. “What was she choking on?”
“It was a pearl. Like I said, the weirdest thing.”
“A pearl? Where are you going, wearing pearls? You’re supposed to be at home.”
“No, it’s not from a necklace. Besides, Silas, I don’t even own a pearl necklace. Here, look—” I plucked the pearl from the wedding ring dish on the windowsill and showed it to him. “No hole. It’s not a bead. Just a pearl.”
Silas was one of seven children, a fact that had appalled me, in all honesty, when I had first heard it. He recited their names with a practiced lilt over dinner, Silas-Samuel-Sorcha-Seamus-Solomon-Sean-Serena, as if was hearing the ghost of a childhood melody as he spoke.
“Your poor mother,” I half-joked.
“I know.” He nodded compassionately. “Five boys and only two girls though, sadly.”
“Well, I’m sure your parents were just glad to have healthy babies, right? Regardless of the gender.”
“Sure, sure, of course,” he said, agreeing with me too quickly. His shoulders sagged just slightly. “It’s just that… well, only two girls. That’s kind of sad, isn’t it.”
At the time, we had just started dating, and I had not yet met any of his family. I told myself that this must be an awkward attempt to impress me, by trying to prove his high regard for my gender. Or, I told myself, he likely meant something like, little boys can be rowdy and five of them would be overwhelming. Something about the conversationhad bothered me just slightly, like a burr stuck in my clothing and prickling against my skin. I caught a whiff of unspoken tension, something potentially odd about the family dynamic, but Silas was handsome and the wine we were drinking was flooding my heart with warmth and I was in love. At our table in the restaurant, I smiled, and let the kindness of his eyes wash away at my discomfort until there was nothing left.
When our relationship grew more serious, I was summoned to meet his family. I met his mother first: the matriarch of the vast herd of children, Cleome Muirgen. I knew they were a wealthy family, although the source of their wealth was somewhat mysterious to me. The chain of aquarium supply shops they owned must be more successful than I could imagine. Old money, maybe. I had built up her legend in my mind, and I had to fortify myself with Seagram’s to meet her. Only a certain kind of woman would raise seven children, and Silas spoke of her with a reverence that made me assume she would be overbearing, intimidating.
But when I met her, she was an odd bird, petite and frail, thunderhead circles under her eyes, her scraggly hair slicked back wet with gel. Even indoors, she wore a massive pair of square-framed sunglasses, or maybe it was the sort of glass that was supposed to transition, the lenses a strange lagoon-blue. She was hunched in a wool trench coat and wrapped in a scarf, but this was Central California in June, and I suddenly felt uncomfortably exposed in my tank top and sandals. Should I have worn something different?
“Ma,” said Silas, nudging me forward. “This is my girlfriend, Joy.”
“It’s pleasant to meet you,” Cleome said solemnly, with an accent I couldn’t place. Her voice was reedy and quiet, and neither her tone nor her mannerisms implied that meeting me was, in fact, pleasant.
The three of us sat in a restaurant at the pier, where a string of buoys bobbed in the distance, strung together by the thin line of the horizon. Seagulls cackled and swooped, coasting through the sky, menacing each other for scraps. I fidgeted with the crisp edge of the white tablecloth. Mrs. Muirgen ordered nothing but oysters and slurped them down hastily, her eyes downcast. When the oysters were gone, she nibbled away at the sprigs of parsley and sucked all traces of pulp from the lemon wedges. When the parsley was gone, she began to chomp on the bed of ice cubes under the pile of bare-bellied shells. She spooned the melted ice water into her mouth with a teaspoon. She tipped the rim of the shallow bowl to her lips and sipped the ice melt down. I tried not to gape.
“Now,” she said, licking her fingers. “Do you do a job?”
“Of course she has a job,” Silas said gently. His manner with her was protective and tender, and for a moment, I wondered if perhaps her odd manner was due to early dementia. “She’s an adult woman, Ma.”
“Of course,” Cleome said. “And which job do you do?”
“I’m a dental assistant.” I smiled politely. “I just finished school.”
She nodded and looked out the window, where sailboats floated on the rippling sea, and brown pelicans with beady sulfur-yellow eyes spread their wings, wet feathers as slick and ruffled as mushroom gills, choking down lumps of fish. Even inside the restaurant, the air was briny and cold, thick with the smell of the sea.
“When you have babies,” she said to me, handing the check back to the waiter, “You will stay in the home. Family is a woman’s true wealth.”
I faltered, my mouth hanging open slightly. Silas and I were still only dating, we had not yet discussed either marriage or children, and regardless, I had never intended to be a stay-at-home mother. But, strangely, she turned out to be correct. In a whirlwind, Silas and I would marry seven months later, I would find myself pregnant shortly thereafter, and when I was ready to rejoin the workforce after my maternity leave, I would be told that my position was no longer available.
The second time it happened, I was playing with Mara on our turquoise blanket, spread out in ripples on the living room floor. On the blanket was a wooden play gym, a plush whale, and a stack of soft-paged infant books. Mara looked straight at me and coughed, twice, nonplussed, like a cat coughing up a hairball. Then she was turning something over in her mouth, jaw moving idly, eyes shining with mischief.
“Mara!” I said, scooping her up. “What do you have?” I swiped my finger through the wet cave of her mouth. No matter how careful I was about keeping the floors swept, she seemed to have the magical ability to search out some tiny treacherous thing that the broom’s bristles had missed. In her nine months on this earth, I had already removed from her mouth the translucent milky half-moon of a band-aid wrapper; a sopping, mucky fingerful of dryer lint, like something washed ashore; and a single kernel of popcorn, still unburst and curled in its gleaming amber shell.
I was constantly prepared to lurch towards her whenever I saw her little fingers stuff something into her mouth—but this was different. I had been watching her at that very second, and she hadn’t grabbed a thing. We had been playing on the blanket, everything else well out of reach, our bodies an island in the center of the fabric.
“Ba ba de de,” she said.
“What do you have in there, Mara?” I sang, trying to sweep her mouth clear, but now it was a game, and she giggled as she writhed away from me, arching her back and twisting away. Finally, I felt something firm hooked in the crook of my bent finger and I fished it out.
When I saw what it was, there was an odd slip of recognition in my stomach, like a fish flopping in a net. Another pearl: of course it was. As soon as I saw it shimmering and wet in my cupped palm, it looked so familiar that I almost wondered why I had expected to see anything else.
The reflection from the living room windows cast a square of white light over the pearl’s rippled surface, the track lights of our apartment refracted like twinkling stars above. I flicked the lights on and off again, but the pearl was still dazzling under any lighting conditions, glowing faintly like a new moon in my fingers. The shimmer across its surface seemed to swirl as I looked closer, like glittering motes of dust caught in the eddy of a tidepool. Surely the movement I thought I saw was due to my own desperate sleeplessness. Of course the glow was just a trick of the light.
I compared the first pearl with the second. Roughly same size, same rippled shape, same impossible, mesmerizing sheen. I put the two pearls together in the little dish by the kitchen windowsill, but almost instantly had second thoughts. I tipped the pearls into my palm instead. Upstairs, I dug through the bathroom cabinets until I found an unused contact lens case, and I deposited one pearl into each plastic eye socket. I screwed the lids on tightly and hid the contact case in my makeup bag, where nothing would possibly capture Silas’ interest long enough for him to look closely.
Silas and I were still only dating when I met all the siblings at once, at a backyard potluck at one of the brothers’ houses, where odd black aeoniums grew on spindly succulent stalks by the walkway. I had trouble telling the five brothers apart. They were a dull and nondescript continent, a bland land mass of similarity. Straightforward and broad-faced, milling about, discussing the playoffs, the stock market, a new brand of razor that could accommodate seven blades. They clapped each other on broad shoulders and guffawed too loudly at boorish, unfunny jokes. One of the brothers handed me a business card for some consultancy firm: Sean Muirgen, it read, in a spidery creep of italics. When I looked up from the card, Sean’s face had already pulled away from memory, lost again among the vast herd of brothers.
But the sisters, Sorcha and Serena, fascinated me. I could not stop watching them, although I wouldn’t have been able to say precisely what it was about them that drew me in. They glided through the kitchen, stirring a large pot of stew, whispering and peering at me over their shoulders. They both had waist-length hair, thick waves that tumbled down their backs like sea grasses in the current, flushed cheeks, skin as flawless as the inner curve of a shell. They weren’t rude, but they made no effort to include me in conversation, even though I tried to be gracious. Neither of them opened the wine I had brought as a gift: they didn’t even touch a fingertip to the bottle, and the amber glass beaded with dewdrops as it languished, abandoned, on the counter. In their bare feet, they padded around me cautiously, giving me a wide berth. They kept their sight fixed on me as they passed by. Each time I stepped into the room, a knowing look unspooled between them, their eyes as dark and gleaming as tidepools under the midnight sky.
“I don’t remember if you’ve told me already. Where’s your family from?” I asked Silas in the car as we left.
“We’re from here. California.”
“No, I mean, your heritage? Muirgen—is that, what, an Irish name? Nordic?” I was thinking of Cleome’s unplaceable accent, the stew in the iron pot that the sisters swirled with rubbery scarves of kelp, stony fists of mussels, vegetables unknown to me. It had to be a family recipe. I thought if I had a little more information, I could find the recipe somewhere and make it for Cleome as a gesture of kindness.
“We’re from here,” he said firmly, his eyes on the watery horizon as we drove. “We’ve been here for generations. Why, do you care? Does it matter where my family’s from?”
“Of course not,” I said. “I just couldn’t remember if you had mentioned.”
He frowned, and I fell silent. Was it wrong for me to ask such a question? By that point, it seemed inevitable that we’d get married, and I was eager to understand his family, to try to figure out my place in it. His surname would be mine soon. Was my curiosity inappropriate? I slouched in the passenger seat as we coasted down the highway, the ocean dipping into view, then the emerald green hills rising again to swallow it. I felt like I had committed a grave misstep. I did not approach the subject again.
Not a thing changed after our wedding—but as soon as we announced I was expecting a sweet baby girl, his family was overjoyed. Sorcha and Serena flooded me with warmth and attention. They stroked my hair, placed gentle hands on my belly, whispered indecipherable murmurs to baby Mara as she swam and flipped in my womb. The baby shower they hosted for me was a lavish affair: caviar on bruschetta, foie-gras steamed clams, lobster bisque, effervescent vials of champagne, pink bouquets on every table and an archway climbing with dazzling magenta shocks of ice plant blossoms, fluttering orange poppies, rubbery pastel aeoniums.
“We’ll babysit, whenever you like,” Serena cooed, a clammy hand lingering on the swell of my belly.
“Any time,” Sorcha said. “It’s no trouble at all. We would love to help you. Now that we’re all sisters.”
Later, when one of the brother’s wives announced she was expecting a son, the sisters hosted a lackluster get-together in Cleome’s basement: paper napkins, plastic cups, a tray of flubbery sliced cheese from the grocery store.
The morning after the second pearl, I waited until Silas left, and then I retrieved the stroller that I kept hidden in the garage, draped under a dusty moving blanket.
“It’s just a weird family thing,” Silas had explained apologetically. “I don’t really get it, to be honest, but Ma thinks it’s bad for baby girl to be outside before she turns one. It’s a dumb family tradition, I don’t know. Just go along with it, okay, and stay inside? Please, just keep Ma happy?”
My eyes had widened. A year? You expect me to stay inside with the baby for a full year? No walks around the neighborhood, no playing in the park? At Mara’s next appointment, the pediatrician, perplexed, had assured me that fresh sea air and sunshine were actually quite healthful, and that taking my baby for a walk would cause no harm. When I saw a sun-bleached stroller propped up against a neighbor’s garbage can, it had seemed like a sign. When Silas was at the shop, I had rolled it into the bushes and stashed it in the garage. What my husband and mother-in-law didn’t know wouldn’t hurt them.
Now, I dressed Mara, clipped her into the stroller, and started down the sidewalk. I could almost feel the two lustrous pearls radiating in my purse, where they rolled around within the little round troughs of the contact case. Mara and I walked into town, straight to the address I had scribbled on a slip of paper: Oceanview Fine Jewelers, where the door handles were a shining, polished bronze. My own tired face stared back at me from the gleaming doorplate. Mara had spit up on her shirt and my unwashed hair was lumped back into a messy bun. I left the garbage stroller outside, collapsed behind a ceramic urn that held a topiary rosemary shrub near the entrance. It was safe to say that we were not this fine establishment’s usual demographic. Inside, there was, in fact, a view of the ocean, a full-length window that overlooked the winking and glittering sea.
“Can I help you?” a man asked disdainfully. He was well over six feet, an absolutely hulking gentleman, with white flowing hair, a bulbous nose, a stiff pale mustache that drooped at the corners of his mouth like elephant seal whiskers. His doughy belly was cinched down by suspenders as he swiveled on a stool.
“Yes, please,” I said, cradling Mara on my hip. “I have some pearls I’d like to have appraised.” I dug through my purse and withdrew the contact lens case while the dour elephant seal looked on, unimpressed. As I unscrewed the caps, he sighed, a long windy huff. Evidently, this was not how most of his clientele presented him with valuable jewels. He pulled a pair of tweezers from his shirt pocket and plucked up a pearl, holding it to the light. He frowned and sat up straighter.
“Hmm,” he said, leaning forward.
From the same shirt pocket, he pulled out a jeweler’s loupe, which he pinched between the swell of a ruddy cheek and a rubbery eyebrow. With the tweezers, he brought the pearl before the monocle’s glassy eye. He let out another sigh, this one breathless, astonished. He gently set the first pearl back into the contact lens case and pinched up the other, turning it slowly in front of the light. Then, just as I had tried at home: he reached out and flicked his desk lamp off, then on again, a wash of darkness, a wash of cool light. His gaze lingered on the pearl’s glow, and he could barely pull himself away.
“Incredible,” he said under his breath, the loupe still pressed into one eye. I bit my lip, trying to suppress a smile. Finally, he set the pearl back into the two-eyed case. “Where did you say you acquired these?”
I paused and tried not to glance at Mara. “They’re family heirlooms,” I said. “I was just trying to get a sense of their value.”
“I’m sorry, miss, uh, ma’am, what can I—er, sit down, please, have a seat. Can I offer you some coffee? Ice water?”
“No, thank you. I’m just out for a walk with my baby, and I thought I’d swing by. If this isn’t a good time—”
“No!” he said, too quickly. “Please, I would be delighted to help you. What did you say your name was?”
“Stella,” I lied.
“Stella is fine.”
“Well, Stella,” he sighed after a thoughtful moment, making a show of slouching back down upon his stool. “You have inherited some cute little pearls here. Unfortunately, these are quite common, no monetary value, really. You can find these at any little corner shop. Regardless, I’d be happy to take them off your hands.”
I nodded slowly as I screwed the caps back onto the case. Without a doubt, he was lying.
“Can you give me a dollar value anyway?” I asked. “A ballpark estimate?”
“Well, hmm, it may take a bit more time for me to arrive at a figure. I’d like to do some more in-depth analysis, to ensure the accuracy of my quote, you understand. My stereomicroscope is, ah, currently being serviced, so I would need to hold on to your items for the time being, until my equipment is available to me again. I can get back to you within several weeks.” He stretched out a thick hand to pull the pearls in, but I swiped the case away.
“That’s not necessary,” I smiled. “Thanks for your time.”
The jeweler stood as we walked out. He wiped a hand across his forehead, and his meaty neck swiveled to watch us go. I might have misheard his final words, but I suspect I didn’t.
“A real Muirgen pearl,” he said under his breath as the gleaming doors whispered shut behind me. My eyes widened. With trembling fingers, I clipped Mara into the stroller and I tried not to run.
The third pearl: Mara in the bathtub, splashing happily, white crescent moons of the bathtub’s rim reflected in her eyes. The water was beginning to cool, the surface dappled with frothy remnants of soap. Bathtime was almost done. Already, she had tossed all of her toys methodically onto the sopping mat, and now all that remained was my slippery, blubbery, ivory-skinned babe and the small tide she made as she sloshed around in her ceramic ship.
Her eyes met mine. She hiccuped, grinned, and stuck out her tongue, and there it was. I pulled the pearl from the tender pink pad of her tongue and tucked it into my pocket.
On my phone, three missed calls from Cleome, two texts from Serena, three texts from Sorcha. My in-laws—the women—had been checking in with unusual frequency. The week before, Cleome had stopped by unexpectedly with a box of sea salt chocolates, shuffling away into the sun in her heavy coat. The sisters had been offering incessant messages of support. How’s baby girl? She’s getting so big, isn’t she. Could she be bigger than when we saw her last week? Can we offer to babysit? Does she have any more teeth yet? Has she started walking? You’re staying at home, aren’t you? Anything unusual, any fun new baby behaviors, any silly little things she’s started doing? We want to know everything. Tell us everything.
To my surprise, I had also received a voicemail from the dour white elephant seal, suggesting that I stop by Oceanview Fine Jewelers again, if I didn’t mind. He was willing to make me a generous offer to take those silly little pearls off my hands. Really, he was doing me a favor. They were worth next to nothing, he assured me, but he could see that I needed the money. I tried not to think too hard about the lengths he had gone to in order to track me down, given that I had lied about my name.
Silas would not return from the shop for an hour yet, at least. Not that I was particularly eager to see him anyway: things between us had been bad for a while now. I hadn’t realized, until today, that I had been just looking for an excuse. I dressed Mara, set the third pearl into the contact lens case, and screwed the caps on tightly. Into the trunk of the car went the forbidden sun-bleached stroller and the suitcase that I kept stashed in the back of the closet. On the passenger seat sat my makeup bag, where three shimmering pearls rolled around in the case inside. I shut the front door of our apartment for the last time.
As I pulled the car out of the driveway, a hushing static hissed in my ears, my own pulse humming and vibrating in my throat. I swung the steering wheel wide, like a sea captain pulling a great creaking ship into open water. My tires shushed against the asphalt. The afternoon sun through the rolled-down window was warm on my skin as I let my cupped hand sweep and dip through the salty air.
In the glass pool of the car seat mirror, Mara’s wide-eyed reflection shimmied as we drove. A flock of gulls escorted us, swooping. Behind us, undulating mossy hills, the drab boxes of suburbia, a wide black river of asphalt. Ahead, reflected in my daughter’s knowing eyes, the slipping liquid horizon, diamonds of shattered sun glittering on the surface of the sea.
Molly Seeling is a writer and professional photographer based near Boulder, Colorado. She is currently querying her first novel.