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
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
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
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.