John Steinbeck
Chapter 2
John Steinbeck
The town lay on a broad estuary, its old yellow plastered buildings 
hugging the beach. And on the beach the white and blue canoes that came 
from Nayarit were drawn up, canoes preserved for generations by a hard 
shell-like waterproof plaster whose making was a secret of the fishing 
people. They were high and graceful canoes with curving bow and stern 
and a braced section midships where a mast could be stepped to carry a 
small lateen sail. 

The beach was yellow sand, but at the water's edge a rubble of shell 
and algae took its place. Fiddler crabs bubbled and sputtered in their 
holes in the sand, and in the shallows little lobsters popped in and 
out of their tiny homes in the rubble and sand. The sea bottom was rich 
with crawling and swimming and growing things. The brown algae waved in 
the gentle currents and the green eel grass swayed and little sea 
horses clung to its stems. Spotted botete, the poison fish, lay on the 
bottom in the eel-grass beds, and the bright-colored swimming crabs 
scampered over them. 

On the beach the hungry dogs and the hungry pigs of the town searched 
endlessly for any dead fish or sea bird that might have floated in on a 
rising tide. 

Although the morning was young, the hazy mirage was up. The uncertain 
air that magnified some things and blotted out others hung over the 
whole Gulf so that all sights were unreal and vision could not be 
trusted; so that sea and land had the sharp clarities and the vagueness 
of a dream. Thus it might be that the people of the Gulf trust things 
of the spirit and things of the imagination, but they do not trust 
their eyes to show them distance or clear outline or any optical 
exactness. Across the estuary from the town one section of mangroves 
stood clear and telescopically defined, while another mangrove clump 
was a hazy black-green blob. Part of the far shore disappeared into a 
shimmer that looked like water. There was no certainty in seeing, no 
proof that what you saw was there or was not there. And the people of 
the Gulf expected all places were that way, and it was not strange to 
them. A copper haze hung over the water, and the hot morning sun beat 
on it and made it vibrate blindingly. 

The brush houses of the fishing people were back from the beach on the 
right-hand side of the town, and the canoes were drawn up in front of 
this area. 

Kino and Juana came slowly down to the beach and to Kino's canoe, which 
was the one thing of value he owned in the world. It was very old. 
Kino's grandfather had brought it from Nayarit, and he had given it to 
Kino's father, and so it had come to Kino. It was at once property and 
source of food, for a man with a boat can guarantee a woman that she 
will eat something. It is the bulwark against starvation. And every 
year Kino refinished his canoe with the hard shell-like plaster by the 
secret method that had also come to him from his father. Now he came to 
the canoe and touched the bow tenderly as he always did. He laid his 
diving rock and his basket and the two ropes in the sand by the canoe. 
And he folded his blanket and laid it in the bow. 

Juana laid Coyotito on the blanket, and she placed her shawl over him 
so that the hot sun could not shine on him. He was quiet now, but the 
swelling on his shoulder had continued up his neck and under his ear 
and his face was puffed and feverish. Juana went to the water and waded 
in. She gathered some brown seaweed and made a flat damp poultice of 
it, and this she applied to the baby's swollen shoulder, which was as 
good a remedy as any and probably better than the doctor could have 
done. But the remedy lacked his authority because it was simple and 
didn't cost anything. The stomach cramps had not come to Coyotito. 
Perhaps Juana had sucked out the poison in time, but she had not sucked 
out her worry over her first-born. She had not prayed directly for the 
recovery of the baby- she had prayed that they might find a pearl with 
which to hire the doctor to cure the baby, for the minds of people are 
as unsubstantial as the mirage of the Gulf. 

Now Kino and Juana slid the canoe down the beach to the water, and when 
the bow floated, Juana climbed in, while Kino pushed the stern in and 
waded beside it until it floated lightly and trembled on the little 
breaking waves. Then in coordination Juana and Kino drove their double-
bladed paddles into the sea, and the canoe creased the water and hissed 
with speed. The other pearlers were gone out long since. In a few 
moments Kino could see them clustered in the haze, riding over the 
oyster bed. 

Light filtered down through the water to the bed where the frilly pearl 
oysters lay fastened to the rubbly bottom, a bottom strewn with shells 
of broken, opened oysters. This was the bed that had raised the King of 
Spain to be a great power in Europe in past years, had helped to pay 
for his wars, and had decorated the churches for his soul's sake. The 
gray oysters with ruffles like skirts on the shells, the barnacle-
crusted oysters with little bits of weed clinging to the skirts and 
small crabs climbing over them. An accident could happen to these 
oysters, a grain of sand could lie in the folds of muscle and irritate 
the flesh until in self-protection the flesh coated the grain with a 
layer of smooth cement. But once started, the flesh continued to coat 
the foreign body until it fell free in some tidal flurry or until the 
oyster was destroyed. For centuries men had dived down and torn the 
oysters from the beds and ripped them open, looking for the coated 
grains of sand. Swarms of fish lived near the bed to live near the 
oysters thrown back by the searching men and to nibble at the shining 
inner shells. But the pearls were accidents, and the finding of one was 
luck, a little pat on the back by God or the gods or both. 

Kino had two ropes, one tied to a heavy stone and one to a basket. He 
stripped off his shirt and trousers and laid his hat in the bottom of 
the canoe. The water was oily smooth. He took his rock in one hand and 
his basket in the other, and he slipped feet first over the side and 
the rock carried him to the bottom. The bubbles rose behind him until 
the water cleared and he could see. Above, the surface of the water was 
an undulating mirror of brightness, and he could see the bottoms of the 
canoes sticking through it. 

Kino moved cautiously so that the water would not be obscured with mud 
or sand. He hooked his foot in the loop on his rock and his hands 
worked quickly, tearing the oysters loose, some singly, others in 
clusters. He laid them in his basket. In some places the oysters clung 
to one another so that they came free in lumps. 

Now, Kino's people had sung of everything that happened or existed. 
They had made songs to the fishes, to the sea in anger and to the sea 
in calm, to the light and the dark and the sun and the moon, and the 
songs were all in Kino and in his people- every song that had ever been 
made, even the ones forgotten. And as he filled his basket the song was 
in Kino, and the beat of the song was his pounding heart as it ate the 
oxygen from his held breath, and the melody of the song was the gray-
green water and the little scuttling animals and the clouds of fish 
that flitted by and were gone. But in the song there was a secret 
little inner song, hardly perceptible, but always there, sweet and 
secret and clinging, almost hiding in the counter-melody, and this was 
the Song of the Pearl That Might Be, for every shell thrown in the 
basket might contain a pearl. Chance was against it, but luck and the 
gods might be for it. And in the canoe above him Kino knew that Juana 
was making the magic of prayer, her face set rigid and her muscles hard 
to force the luck, to tear the luck out of the gods' hands, for she 
needed the luck for the swollen shoulder of Coyotito. And because the 
need was great and the desire was great, the little secret melody of 
the pearl that might be was stronger this morning. Whole phrases of it 
came clearly and softly into the Song of the Undersea. 

Kino, in his pride and youth and strength, could remain down over two 
minutes without strain, so that he worked deliberately, selecting the 
largest shells. Because they were disturbed, the oyster shells were 
tightly closed. A little to his right a hummock of rubbly rock stuck 
up, covered with young oysters not ready to take. Kino moved next to 
the hummock, and then, beside it, under a little overhang, he saw a 
very large oyster lying by itself, not covered with its clinging 
brothers. The shell was partly open, for the overhang protected this 
ancient oyster, and in the lip-like muscle Kino saw a ghostly gleam, 
and then the shell closed down. His heart beat out a heavy rhythm and 
the melody of the maybe pearl shrilled in his ears. Slowly he forced 
the oyster loose and held it tightly against his breast. He kicked his 
foot free from the rock loop, and his body rose to the surface and his 
black hair gleamed in the sunlight. He reached over the side of the 
canoe and laid the oyster in the bottom. 

Then Juana steadied the boat while he climbed in. His eyes were shining 
with excitement, but in decency he pulled up his rock, and then he 
pulled up his basket of oysters and lifted them in. Juana sensed his 
excitement, and she pretended to look away. It is not good to want a 
thing too much. It sometimes drives the luck away. You must want it 
just enough, and you must be very tactful with God or the gods. But 
Juana stopped breathing. Very deliberately Kino opened his short strong 
knife. He looked speculatively at the basket. Perhaps it would be 
better to open the oyster last. He took a small oyster from the basket, 
cut the muscle, searched the folds of flesh, and threw it in the water. 
Then he seemed to see the great oyster for the first time. He squatted 
in the bottom of the canoe, picked up the shell and examined it. The 
flutes were shining black to brown, and only a few small barnacles 
adhered to the shell. Now Kino was reluctant to open it. What he had 
seen, he knew, might be a reflection, a piece of flat shell accidently 
drifted in or a complete illusion. In this Gulf of uncertain light 
there were more illusions than realities. 

But Juana's eyes were on him and she could not wait. She put her hand 
on Coyotito's covered head. "Open it," she said softly. 

Kino deftly slipped his knife into the edge of the shell. Through the 
knife he could feel the muscle tighten hard. He worked the blade lever-
wise and the closing muscle parted and the shell fell apart. The lip-
like flesh writhed up and then subsided. Kino lifted the flesh, and 
there it lay, the great pearl, perfect as the moon. It captured the 
light and refined it and gave it back in silver incandescence. It was 
as large as a sea-gull's egg. It was the greatest pearl in the world. 
Juana caught her breath and moaned a little. And to Kino the secret 
melody of the maybe pearl broke clear and beautiful, rich and warm and 
lovely, glowing and gloating and triumphant. In the surface of the 
great pearl he could see dream forms. He picked the pearl from the 
dying flesh and held it in his palm, and he turned it over and saw that 
its curve was perfect. Juana came near to stare at it in his hand, and 
it was the hand he had smashed against the doctor's gate, and the torn 
flesh of the knuckles was turned grayish white by the sea water. 

Instinctively Juana went to Coyotito where he lay on his father's 
blanket. She lifted the poultice of seaweed and looked at the shoulder. 
"Kino," she cried shrilly. 
He looked past his pearl, and he saw that the swelling was going out of 
the baby's shoulder, the poison was receding from its body. Then Kino's 
fist closed over the pearl and his emotion broke over him. He put back 
his head and howled. His eyes rolled up and he screamed and his body 
was rigid. The men in the other canoes looked up, startled, and then 
they dug their paddles into the sea and raced toward Kino's canoe. 


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