Previous Challenge Entry (Level 3 - Advanced)
Topic: Minute(s) (as in time) (03/03/11)
TITLE: More Precious Than Pearls
By Ann Grover
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“Down,” he ordered.
Huda took several deep breaths before letting go of the boat and disappearing into the water.
“Useless rotten pomegranate.” He saw Samira still clinging to the boat. “What are you waiting for?” He pointed skyward. “The sun is still high. Down!”
“Our bellies are empty. You gave us no grease for our skin and we are cold.”
“You defy me?” Ahmed leaned over and struck Samira. “There are many oysters to gather before your feet touch the sand.”
Fire sparked in Samira’s dark eyes. Defiantly lifting her chin, she inhaled and slipped under the waves.
Ahmed shook his fist. “Worthless fleas.”
Huda’s slick head broke the surface, and Ahmed grabbed the rope attached to the basket of oysters and hauled it into the boat. He emptied the basket and threw it overboard. “Down.”
Samira had not risen, but Ahmed was unworried, for Samira had the rare gift of being one with the sea, embraced by it. When she dived, Ahmed’s fingers passed over many knots on his reed, as she could hold her breath longer than any other diver.
Ahmed’s greed had been ignited when he discovered her gift, and he forced her to dive deep and long, plucking basketful after basketful of oysters from the ocean bed. Every pearl belonged to the sultan, even those pearls still resting at the bottom of the sea, and Ahmed’s status was elevated with every pearl retrieved.
Samira finally emerged, and Ahmed’s eyes bulged when he saw her brimming basket. He hurled it, empty, back into the water. Samira adjusted the bone clip on her nose and followed the basket as it descended.
Huda rose twice more, but Samira remained immersed.
“The sun sets and she decides to work.” Ahmed frowned, though, as he pulled Huda into the boat. It was long, too long, even for Samira. Ahmed’s lips moved, and he slid his fingers along the knotted reed he’d pulled from the cloth he wore twisted around his loins. Perils lurked beneath the waves: jellyfish, sharks, barracuda, and the painful, often fatal, divers sickness, if Samira had dived too far.
“Come, Samira, come” whispered Huda and was a rewarded with a clout across her shoulders.
“I lost count, stupid daughter of a pig.”
Scanning the water, Ahmed began reciting again, grasping the reed tightly. Finally, there was a tug on the basket’s rope, and Samira’s dark head appeared.
“You foolish, misbegotten . . .” He yanked her into the boat, slapping her repeatedly.
In the pearling village, the girls lay on their mats.
“You must not anger Ahmed,” Huda begged.
“He is a confused man.” Samira twisted her hair into a braid. ‘Go down for long time, but come up quickly,’ he says.”
“He is our master.”
“He cannot own me,” murmured Samira, turning on her side.
“Hurry, lazy spawn of lice. Work and you will eat. Down.”
The girls pushed wads of beeswax into their ears and slipped the clips onto their noses. Hour after hour, they plunged down, rising with heaping baskets.
Ahmed’s eyes glittered. “You might earn your dinner after all. Yet, I doubt there is even one pearl in this pile. Down!”
Ahmed continued to goad the girls, threatening to whip them, starve them, sell them, if they did not bring up overflowing baskets of oysters. Several times, Huda saw Samira gazing across the endless, rippling ocean, and a nameless fear bit at her insides.
In the fiery rays of the sinking sun, an exhausted Huda emerged with only a few oysters, her fingers cut and bleeding.
“I should tie a stone to you, useless camel tick.” Ahmed grunted, but his eyes were searching, for there was no sign of Samira’s glossy head.
The knotted reed appeared in Ahmed’s hand.
Four, five, six knots slid through his fingers. Huda clung to the side of the boat, trembling, whispering her own prayer.
Eight, nine, ten, then twelve knots, far longer than any pearl diver had been known to stay in the sea.
“Rancid piece of sheep fat.” Ahmed blinked, squinting into the inky water. “The most valuable pearl diver on the island. Eaten by a shark.”
While Ahmed cursed, Huda watched the horizon, wondering if the impossible, the unthinkable, had happened, if the gift that had enslaved Samira had carried her to freedom.
Ahmed smacked Huda’s bleeding fingers, Samira seemingly forgotten. “Down, worthless flea.”
Smiling, Huda let the sea swallow her.
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