Daughter Of The Sea
I am the daughter of oyster-divers and pearl-gatherers. I am the descendent of the first-wave immigrants from old Terra Firma, the ancient Earth planet the grandmothers of the village speak so kindly of. I am the daughter of a line of women who risk their lives to dive for the treasures of the sea, the rough-shelled bivalves that give us food and beautiful orbs of beauty.
I have my hands cut and sliced by the sharp shards covering the shells; my skin has bled and merged with the fresh salty juices while I learn the craft of opening the oysters. My grandmother says that once the oyster has blooded me, the sea has claimed me as Her own. She then holds her hand and shows me her scars – she too is a daughter of the sea. I laugh and swallow the sweet briny oyster flesh whole, letting it slide down my throat, a delicious flood of salt-copper-water.
The women dive every early morning when the sea is calmer and when the tides are less torn and conflicted than a woman in childbirth. They slip on the black skins, snug close to their bodies, and adjust their breathing apparatus while they gossip about their husbands, children and household chores. This ritual has not changed for generations. And when they are done with the preparations, they slip into the clear-green water and swim into the depths while the oysters lie, baskets in toll. A good harvest would yield basketfuls and we know that they would fetch a good price at the fish markets near the City. A poor harvest would feed our households and nothing else.
In the afternoons, the women wade waist-deep in the pearl-oyster pools and gather the mature pearl oysters. This time, they wear thick gloves and pry the tight shells open to remove the pearls, glistening in the sun like tiny rainbow-tinged moons. I sit often with them – my grandmother, my mother and my aunts – as they shell the oysters, feel for that tale-tell bulge and fish out the perfect spheres out of the tender slippery folds. The pearl oysters can be as hard-hearted as their ocean cousins; our hands have been lacerated by the jagged edges of the palm-sized shells.
I am the daughter of such diligent women. They dive in the morning and swim in the afternoon, all because oyster-diving and pearl-gathering are already in their blood, in our lineage. I am proud to be one of them and I often wish that I could be as good as my grandmother or my mother. Yet I know I am a bit different from the rest of the women: my hands curl light and this is forbidden, as it is men’s magic.
I realized I could curl light when I was just five. I was playing, as children would be, with my cousins on the beach, next to the shallow tide-pools where the water teemed with tiny sea-creatures. We would go fish and look for little crabs and shrimps living under the rocks. The water of the tide-pools was a delicious cold-warm and we enjoyed ourselves, laughing under the sun, dipping our toes in and watching the shoals of silver fry darting about. Suddenly there was a yell, a frantic shout. Someone had fallen in.
I did what I thought was instinctive. I flung my hands up, in a fending gesture. My head filled with light circles, bright green-blue circles that spun and overlapped like the toy windmills they sell at the village fairs. The next thing I knew, Timas – my cousin- was pulled out from the water with bands of light. He was only three and was in my charge. Out of the water, he looked bedraggled and out of his shell (as my grandmother would say): totally lost and sobbing away. The rest of the children tittered and held back, eying me as if I was a frilly sea-eel crawling out from the depths of the sea. I held Timas to my chest, wondering what I had done.
Oh the scolding I received later, in the privacy of the family hut. First Father is a man who hardly raises his voice. But that day, he did and forbade me to do what I did when I rescued Timas. Mother added her voice in and she expressed her shock and fear at my deed. Young as I was, I knew I had crossed some invisible line and did things I should not be doing. As I sobbed myself to sleep, I heard my parents arguing, with Grandmother providing a calm counterpoint. “You realize that came from your side of the family,” Mother was saying and First Father muttered angrily, “And your side too.” I finally fell asleep and slipped into dreams of spinning light circles.
It was only after a few days when the storm-tossed atmosphere at the dining table had dissipated and everyone was talking to one another again, when Grandmother drew me aside and spoke me about men’s magic. Men could wield light and curl them into infinite shapes. No one knows why. They just do. They use it to power the silver fish – the little air-filled blimps – and travel to the City to conduct their business. They use it to light the fishing boats at night. They use it in the search of knowledge out of reach for women.
I did not curl light, keeping it a secret, until I reached adolescence. I felt the circles growing brighter and more vivid. I felt them deep within my bones. To deny them was to stop myself from breathing. So, in quiet dank corners, away from the sea and the pearl-oyster pools, I practiced the crafting of light, listening to the circles in my head, and made rings and spirals that revolved in the air, reminding me of the golden sea-kelp forests.
I am the daughter of the sea and a curler of light. I tiptoe between two worlds, both as real and as rich. Within me, the sea is shimmering peridot and the light magic interweaves with it like necklaces of bubbles wrapping themselves around seaweed. Intertwined. Me.
I woke one morning as I would every morning to join the women. I fetched my black skin and the breathing apparatus, padding bare-foot to the edge of the sea where the rest of the women stood, doing their stretching exercises to get their blood circulation going. Their arms curved, dipped and bent as the sun rose. This scene remains one of the enduring memories inside me.
The older and more experienced women dove in first, followed by the younger and learning women, including me. The water was warm against my exposed skin and I placed the breathing apparatus in my mouth. Having done so, I joined my sisters, the daughters of the sea, gliding down into the colder layers, to the oyster beds.
The sea is Her own world, a world filled with shades and veils of light, flows and currents. She has Her own moods too, lightening and darkening – the trick is to know them. After generations of diving, the women have understood her and now swim with a healthy respect for Her. This lesson is taught to all the daughters; it is as vital as the letters we learn in the teaching hut, if not the most important, like breathing. I breathed in and out, bubbles filtering through the apparatus, trailing behind me like some shimmering tail. I swam with shoals of tiny finger-fish flashing their scales in the underwater light. Light refracts in the sea.
I spied the oysters. Clusters of mature ones. My hands were gloved, my right holding a small knife gifted to me by my mother after I had completed my first dive, my left the basket. Whispering silent thanks, I dislodged the oysters gently, taking care not to hold onto the razor edges too tightly. I hefted one, testing its weight: it was heavy, meaning good fat flesh. I looked around me, seeing the slender forms of other women hard at work. Like porpoises, a song praised the grace of the women. Like porpoises swimming in unison, crescent moons dancing together.
Once my basket was filled, I headed back to the surface, kicking hard, letting the momentum propel me upwards. I emerged, inhaling deeply the briny air. A commotion on the shore drew my attention. There was a crowd, mainly of young girls and of men; they surrounded a woman, pointing their fingers and yelling at her. One of the more vehement yellers was my Second Father.
As I treaded water, moving closer to the shore, I could see that the woman was not that old, somewhat youngish in appearance. She wore a long brown robe and her hair was the black of night. She had pearls circling her brow and they gleamed like a crown or a diadem. She ignored the yelling and glanced at me with a small smile, before turning away, followed by the crowd.
I was intrigued by this woman and became preoccupied with questions regarding her appearance. Why were people hostile to her? Who was she?
As the women removed the shells and picked the malformed pearls (because even for edible oysters, they produce pearls), I worked out enough courage to ask my grandmother.
“Who was the woman on the shore?” I asked, my fingers working automatically, sorting the pearls in terms of their sizes. I sometimes collected the ones that called out to me.
Grandmother simply looked at me and answered, “The sea-witch.” Her voice bore a tone of finality, her expression a look of no-more-questions-asked.
I grew perturbed. Why was Second Father so rude to her? Second Father was not my birth father, but he married my mother and was considered family. He was also a strong proponent of men’s magic and used his light proudly, sometimes arrogantly. At the night circles, he demonstrated it with extravagant and elaborate disks, dwarfing First Father’s and the rest of the men folk. He owned a silver fish and carried himself like a merchant from the City. He took an active dislike of me and I shared similar sentiments. Only the love of my mother prevented me from doing anything. We are daughters of the sea, part of an ancient lineage. Even then we show courtesy to visitors and extend our hospitality, especially to the storytellers and the rag-and-bone men who drop by to trade stories and goods for warm comfortable lodgings and food.
As the day eased into early afternoon, the stately air-blimps arrived to transport the baskets of oysters to the City. The women pulled them with practiced ease to the open carriages and made sure there was no spillage from the containers. I watched the silver fish slowly ascend into the skies, humming as their propellers rotated rapidly. I caught a glimpse of light, interlinked and criss-crossed like an intricate web, winking tantalizingly from one silver fish as it passed overhead. Magic. It whispered in my blood, awakening my senses to fire.
I dreamed of the sea-witch that night and she danced with the waves, green on green, her pearls gleaming in the sun, singing oddly familiar words Mirra-Mirra-Mirra.
I am the daughter of oyster-divers and pearl-gatherers. I know the moods of the sea like I know my own. She can be kind one day and angry-raging the other. We get storms now and then, seasonal monsoons and the occasional typhoon. For seasons like these, we stay indoors, listening to the howling wind and the rain pummeling against the outer walls of our huts. Outside we know the sea is storm-tossed and the women occupy themselves with netting and assorted distractions: we too are storm-tossed inside, disliking being stuck in enclosed living quarters and longing for the sea.
There is a song in my mind. A snippet, actually, from my dreams. Mirra-Mirra-Mirra. It stirs within me like the sea kelp fronds lit with sun. I wonder what it means.
Second Father behaved curtly towards me days after the sea-witch had appeared in our village. I stayed my anger and held my tongue, because I love my half-sisters and hate to see them hurt or otherwise. Moreover, his attitude simply accentuated my curiosity. I wanted to know more about the sea-witch.
The storm hit within a week. We had fair notice of it, being warned by the watchers who paid close attention to weather patterns. Sheets of water cascaded down, washing away the sand, causing rivulets to form on the shores. The wind was strong and batted at anyone who dared venture out of their huts. I sometimes dreaded staying indoors, simply because there was Second Father around with his surly face and his barbed words. Grandmother was there, shielding me from his bluster. She was diplomatic when it came to her sons-in-law, polite and neutral in her speech.
My birth father – First Father – was cordial towards Second Father and told me to be pleasant towards his brother (all the men in the village call each other ‘brother’). He was still concerned about my light curling ability and stressed repeatedly that I should focus on other things. I nodded, though I seethed inside. I was no longer a little girl to be told to or of.
Yet for his kindness, First Father did not prepare for the wrath I was about to face on the second day of the storm.
Second Father was the leader who led the charge and showed up at the door, the raindrops beating a jagged rhythm on his rattan raincoat. He had earlier left the house, muttering about something and we let him, having more important things to worry about. The netting needed repairing and we still had to check on the pearl-oyster pools now open to the deluge of rain.
“What are you doing?” My mother said sternly, flicking water off her. Second Father was letting water pour into the hut and she did not like that. He led a group of solemn-faced men, similarly attired and similarly postured: belligerent.
“We have decided,” Second Father snarled and glared at me with a triumphant gleam in his eyes. “Mirra needs to be secluded.”
Ice flooded my body and I cried, “I did nothing.”
First Father shook his head. “Brother, you don’t have to do this.” Mother flung a look at him; he knew something we didn’t.
“Why did the sea-witch appear?” Second Father sneered and stalked into the hut, rainwater dripping off him. He stopped before me and grabbed my right arm. His hand was cold, clammy. “Because of her. Her!”
I pulled my arm away, wincing at the pain. There would be some form of bruising later. His grip was that vicious. “No. I refuse to go. I have stopped my light curling.”
“Stop lying, you little urchin,” Second Father spat and Mother stared at the ugly man she had married. “Women should not use magic.”
First Father lost his cordiality with his brother and stepped up, putting himself between me and Second Father. “She has said so. Let her go, brother.”
Second Father was past reasoning. He flung First Father aside, grabbed me once more and dragged me out into the open where the rain drenched everything. I soon became soaked to the skin. Someone tied my hands with rough fishing wire and it cut into my wrists. I was surprised it did not slice through skin.
There was a scuffle. First Father lost his temper and slapped Second Father across his jaw. In the pouring rain, I could glimpse pairs of eyes peering from other huts. My breathing grew frantic, my body was cold.
Second Father regained his composure, flung a contemptuous glance at First Father whose eyes showed shock and anger. “Majority vote, brother.” The rest of the group muttered assent and refused to meet my eyes, my parents’ eyes.
“What perfidy is this?” Grandmother’s voice. Loud and clear. She had been napping. Now she stood, her stance stubborn, arms akimbo on her sides.
Second Father ignored her and yanked me into moving. I stumbled, slipping on the slick mud. Fell. Another vicious tug at my arm – and I found myself flung into a dark hut, smelling nothing but dead and rotting fish. The door slammed close and I was alone, heart thumping wildly, in the fetid darkness.
I pulled at the door. It was locked from outside. I screamed and shouted. I beat the walls with my bound fists. Nobody seemed to have heard me. Instead there was the roar of the rain and the wind. There was some shouting outside, women’s voices raised against men’s. I blinked back tears and stared at my hands, tied as they were. I tried to summon the circles back. They appeared, but they were weak, bereft of power, spinning feebly. It was as if my ability had fled, fearful of censure.
Then the sea had her revenge.
I am the daughter of the sea. It has been said that the sea will protect her daughter when she cries out for help, that She will step in when there is injustice done.
I am the daughter of the sea.
I have never doubted that.
At first there was a slow subtle roar, as if it was coming from the distance. The roar soon gathered strength and I could feel the floor beneath my feet tremble. The winds seemed to have died down, only replaced by this sound. Then –
KERRACK! The hut I was in splintered apart and in came water. Torrents of dark water flowing ferociously towards me. I gasped and backed away, tearing at the wire binding my wrists together with my teeth.
I could hear screaming this time. Women. Men. Children. As the dark water swirled about me and I tried to keep myself afloat, I saw women and men swept aside by the force of the dark water like twigs in a river.
I held onto something, bound as I was. The current was strong. The sea was furious. Just as I was. We were feeling Her wrath.
Suddenly the vise-like pressure around my wrists loosened and I breathed a sigh of relief. I flexed my hands, feeling the blood circulation return in painful spurts. The water rushed around my chest and I half-swam, half-fought, half-walked my way to the splintered opening.
I could only see a black wave, pushing debris inland. Some of my neighbors had managed to climb onto their roofs and were clinging onto anything stable desperately. They shouted something at me. Mirra. My family.
First Father’s body bobbed past. He looked unconscious but alive. His limbs twitched. I raised my sore right hand and the bright circles re-appeared, hardened by resolve. I willed him to safety and a green-white arc gently eased him onto drier and higher ground.
Two figures, wide-eyed and struggling: Mother and Grandmother. They gasped for air. They were expert swimmers but even then they could not withstand the wrath of the sea. Mother mouthed Mirra before slipping away, dragged along by the dark water.
I willed two more bright arcs, shifted my hands, and the arcs lifted my mother and grandmother clear out of the water. Their feet dangled in the air. I moved them to where First Father was. Mother immediately turned her attention to him. Grandmother collapsed.
Water filled my senses and I lifted my head so that I could breathe. I saw yet another body – a male – drift amongst the detritus flung up by the sea. Second Father.
My heart clenched. I hated him. He had brought this upon himself.
Second Father stirred and thrashed about as if he was drowning. He shouted for help. His eyes found me and grew wider.
He began to cry like a baby.
Silently, I lifted my hand and created a tight circle glistening with green and silver tones. Sea tones. I made it slide around Second Father who then clung onto it as thought it was a safety float for children. I willed it to carry him away from the dark water and it did, depositing him all crumpled next to my family.
The use of so much light drained me. My body felt consumed by some out-of-control fire, hollowed-out, and I grew dizzy, limp. I gurgled, water filling my vision and my lungs.
At first, it was light that pierced through the darkness as well as a soft voice speaking tenderly to me. Followed by Mirra, you have to wake up.
A groan. It was my own voice: weak, faded. Mirra. Mirra. Mirra.
My mouth tasted sea brine and something darker, earthier. I choked, coughed and sat up straight, retching out more seawater. My middle hurt. I hurt.
There was someone beside me, in brown robe and pearls entwined in her hair. She held a cool towel against my forehead, her hands graceful, mild.
“You gave us a fright,” she said, her voice a mellow contralto. She wiped my face and I could see that her hands were also scarred. Old scars, oyster scars, multiple scars marking her skin.
“I am also an oyster-diver. My village is not that far away from yours.”
The pearls clicked as she dipped the towel into a bucket of clear water. I could see that the pearls were malformed, in odd shapes, strung together in a beautiful necklace.
“You are the sea-witch,” I said. She did not look terrifying at all.
“Oh,” she smiled and her eyes twinkled merrily, “Is that what I am called now?”
I opened my mouth and closed it.
“Sometimes, it’s best,” she brought me a cup of hot seafood broth and I sipped it gratefully, warmth glowing in my middle, “to treat abuse and derision with humor.”
“My family,” reality sank in. The tsunami. My family. The village covered with the dark water.
“Everyone is safe,” the sea-witch’s voice was reassuring. “You did well saving them.”
The memory of me curling light rose unbidden and I became afraid.
“Why are you so fearful?” She glanced at me while she took away the cup and refilled it with hot bitter kelp tea.
Men’s magic, I wanted to say.
“You did well,” she repeated, her voice not unkindly. “There is no such thing as men’s magic or women’s magic. We all came from the same people, didn’t we?”
With that, she spoke to me about the mysteries and truths.
Looking For Her: A Journey
I am the daughter of oyster-divers and pearl-gatherers. I am the descendent of travelers from old Terra Firma, the ancient Earth the women of the village speak so proudly of. I am the daughter of a line of women who risk their lives to dive for the oysters, the rough-shelled bivalves that sustain us and give us beautiful pearls.
I am the daughter of the sea and a curler of light. I stand between two worlds, both real and rich. Within me, the peridot of the sea and light magic dance like helix strands. Mirra-Mirra-Mirra.
In my hands I hold the piercing oyster shells and they bite into my skin.
Through my hands I direct light and it fills my body, my soul like the golden sun.
With these two gifts within me, I travel, just as my ancestors had done so for many generations. My belongings are minimum, my clothing adequate and enough to protect me from the weather and travails of the journey. There is so much to learn ahead of me and my past is a story I would tell one day when I finally settle down, out of many pearls I have collected throughout my adolescence. I keep them like memories. They are memories. They keep me strong as I make my way to the City and strengthen my will as I pass by the ghost villages of hollowed ship hulls left behind after the first-wave and pick my way through the rows of empty huts leading to the main City gates.
There I know I will find her.
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