The bay thrashes against itself like a dying eel. It’s a warm August night, and somewhere in Pocomoke Sound, a tiny skiff is buffeted by the chop. There’s a woman up front with binoculars and a man in the back who’s been rowing for hours. Fortunately, she tells him to stop.
“Kill the light,” she says. “The farm’s ahead.”
Harvey snuffs the flame of an old storm lantern. Off on the distance, a granule of light flickers in and out of the treeline.
Thea checks that her tools are secure: flashlight, goggles, bag… Her knife is missing.
Harvey places a new diving blade in the palm of her hand. It’s engraved with the nickname he gave her, Mermaid, which Harvey considers both unoriginal yet fitting, even though Thea says that her gift is different.
She straps the knife to her thigh. They kiss.
Before the taste of her has left Harvey’s lips, Thea plunges into the black water. She doesn’t surface.
Thea was twelve. Under the crescent moon, the beach seemed as lonely as she felt, so she decided to bathe in it. Her legs were gangly, doe-like, and the undertow easily swept them away, pounding her into the oceanic grit. She struggled against the pull, but the current refused to yield, and her lungs were burning for air. Thea accepted her end.
She drew a breath, and everything was fine.
Years later she’d tell Harvey: "Sometimes, the only way to save yourself is to let go."
Harvey waits in the boat for hours, so he lets his mind wander. The pearl farmer is a man named Lawrence who’s known throughout the Eastern Shore for his wealth and enmity in equal measure. He occupies his plantation in solitude, save for a few underpaid dockhands who cut the oysters from the reefs.
Harvey wonders if Thea got caught in some net, or if she’s lying hurt somewhere underneath the waves. He wants to row in and find her, but stays, because he trusts her.
When Thea returns, her bag is quarter-filled with silvery pearls.
Harvey rows back to shore against a purple sunrise, and the two drive to North Carolina to fence their haul.
Harvey and Thea eat well for months. They rent a house on a secluded street, pay the landlord in cash, and love each other. Whenever the money gets low, they return to the pearl farm.
Now it’s April, and again Harvey is occupying the puny boat and watching the speck of light through Thea’s binoculars. The difference is that this time, an hour after Thea splashes into the bay, a second light blinks on. Then a third. Harvey can see the silhouettes of men on the shore, but he’s too far out to hear anything other than the breathing of the ocean.
In the morning, Harvey rows to shore alone.
There’s a payphone on an abandoned corner in town where Harvey makes a call to the police. He won’t say his name, but what he does say is that he heard a disturbance at the pearl farm during the night. A man and a woman were screaming; there may have been gunshots. When the dispatcher asks why he didn’t call earlier, Harvey hangs up and drives away.
The authorities, however, find nothing at Lawrence’s farm or in the waters surrounding it. The search efforts die after two weeks; the investigation soon follows.
Knowing work on the pearl farm is difficult and turnover is high — rolled ankles and blown out shoulders are common — Harvey watches the papers and bulletin boards for weeks. When a job opening becomes available, Harvey applies.
“Do you have any experience hauling up reefs?” Lawrence asks.
“No, sir,” Harvey answers.
“Can you use a knife?”
Lawrence pencils a note or two into a stained ledger.
“I’ll have to start you at an apprentice’s pay,” Lawrence says, but Harvey’s happy to accept the deal.
Harvey dedicates himself to the work and Lawrence takes notice. One day, while he’s cutting away shells from an oyster bed, Lawrence asks him if he knows how a pearl is grown.
“In nature,” Lawrence says, “a bit of sand sneaks its way into the oyster shell. The oyster can’t bear the feeling, so it coats the grain in layers of nacre. Once enough layers have built up, the oyster feels nothing at all.”
“But it takes years?” Harvey asks.
“Yeah,” Lawrence says. “It does.”
Harvey learns that it’s easy to sneak around the plantation. During the day, he gives all of himself to working for Lawrence’s profit, but in the dark, he patrols each inch of land and dock under Lawrence’s ownership, searching for answers and always finding nothing.
He wonders if something else happened to Thea that night, and eventually, Harvey forgets that he’s just pretending to be a dockhand.
Harvey’s fixing a support post when notices an algae covered chain peeking over the edge of the water. Curiosity gets the better of him. He hauls it in.
This reef is different from the others; it’s coiled dozens of times in padlocked chains, and stippled with the largest barnacles and oysters he’s ever seen, but beneath the slime and shell, Harvey recognizes a face.
He carefully cuts away at the growth, and the reef‘s eyes open. They’re cloudy and lifeless; its lips are gaped aimlessly.
A fiddler crab scuttles nearby and the reef stretches out in longing. Harvey plucks the crab by a leg and dangles it over the reef. It rises, taking the creature with its teeth.
He tries speaking to it, but the reef doesn’t respond. He asks it about a man named Harvey.
Eventually the reef starts gurgling. It tries to shimmy back into the water, but Harvey grabs the chain and holds it. There’s a rusty knife dangling from its side that he should pull loose, but it’s engraved with a word he doesn’t care to remember.
Instead, Harvey remembers to let go.
Brian Schwartz teaches English and is a yearbook sponsor from Norfolk, Virginia, USA.
You can find more of his original work online at brianschwartz.info
Cloister is a 2016 Fiction War Fall Finalist entry.
Please do not reproduce without permission from the author.
Originally published at fictionwar.com. Image credit: @firsara