Melissa Carta Miller has been writing for as long as she can remember, her early stories usually involving a unicorn, or a horse, and a dying princess. She studied Art History at Moravian College and upon graduating spent seven years helping to raise and train racing sled dogs in both the Interior of Alaska and Eastern Pennsylvania. After “retiring” from dog handling, she began focusing on writing again, as well as parenting two daughters. She has had two personal essays published with Babble.com focused on international adoption. Presently, she is looking for representation for her novel Sycamore, and is writing a new novel, as of yet unnamed. As with her first stories, someone usually dies in her novels, which her children thinks is hilarious.
by Melissa Carta Miller
It started with one. The color of a ghost hovering in the corner of the room in an old photograph. Smooth yet gritty, like the irritation that was its catalyst. She cupped the pearl and let it roll around in the palm of her hand, opening and closing her fingers over it so that the sun would catch and wink in its luster. She had found it deep in the seams and forgotten crumbs of a sofa the color of a dirty camel.
It was her habit to run her hand beneath the musty cushions of chairs and love seats in the shade of tents at the flea market, hoping to find some change, a pretty barrette, a mate to a lost sock. But she hadn’t found a pearl before that day. After that day, they began to show up everywhere, as if a dying spirit had held tight to a treasured strand and, caught between heaven and earth, the necklace snapped and sent pearls out into the world like scattered hail that bounced and rolled until each found its own resting spot.
She found one in a cracked teacup that sat in a tottering stack on a folding table. An ancient woman sat with an even more ancient dog on her lap and watched her.
“It’s for sale as is,” the dog-woman warned.
So she bought it for two dollars, saying nothing of the pearl settled in the stained basin of the cup. It was part of the as is after all.
The next one was hidden deep in a basket of yarn balls that were tossed together without much thought. A sort of itchy field bouquet, half weeds, half roses. The next in a stack of neatly-folded embroidered handkerchiefs. She took the pearls home one by one and put them in a rusty tin box that had been full of bits of string, paper clips, rubber bands, and a porcelain doll’s arm. These things she dumped into a drooping shoebox and replaced them with the pearls, which made a satisfying click when she tilted the tin like a small boat and the pearls rolled back and forth on gentle waves.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Click, click, click, click.
She came to expect them, and she never panicked if one was particularly well-hidden or shy to reveal itself. She was patient. Talked to no one. Her mind completely trained on the tiny ocean soul that waited for her somewhere in the clutter of antique shops and markets. Somewhere in the clock parts, faded puzzles, books, and nicked marbles with colored swirls running through their centers. But then she found one in the corner of a locked, glass-topped jewelry display of turquoise and silver. It cowered on the purple velvet in a corner of the crooked wooden case. She pointed to it, but the man with the black braid that hung all the way to his belt seemed surprised. He had never seen it before. It wasn’t from any of the pieces that he had collected. It wasn’t for sale. She watched him, as he pinched the pearl in his thick fingers and held it up so he could get a better look at it. Her breath was snagged with thorns in her throat.
“Huh,” he grunted.
“Please?” she said, holding out a shaking hand.
The man with the braid looked past the pearl and into her open, aching face. He didn’t seem all that convinced, but eventually he shrugged. “Prob’ly fake anyway. One of them genuine faux jobs.” He grinned. “Take it.”
He put the pearl in her hand and she clutched it tightly, relief washing over her in a cool breeze. She didn’t feel completely at ease until she got it home and put it in the tin with the others.
When she could line the pearls along her tape measure to a length that fit around her neck and balanced lightly on her collarbone, she put the tin of pearls in her purse along with rolls of quarters, nickels, and dimes she had dug from hundreds of couches. Holding the purse close to her chest, she took it to the stooped man at the estate store tucked in the alleyway, the one with the blue door peeling of its paint and the faded sign above. She placed the tin and the rolls of coins on the counter. She took a deep breath and pushed them toward the man. He inspected the pearls with the hinged magnifying glass that he always wore strapped to his forehead. He murmured, pleased, and cocked his head.
“Two weeks?” he said, one eye distorted through the magnifying glass into a huge, rummy brown iris and dilated pupil. His eyelashes, like spider’s legs, were so large she swore she could hear them slam shut when he blinked.
She nodded and walked away slowly away, pausing outside the door before turning toward home.
She didn’t sleep well without the pearls and when she woke up in the middle of the night her gaze rested on the empty, rusted tin on her bedside table. Sometimes she would reach out from beneath her moonlit sheets and stroke the top of it, the disintegrating metal dusting her fingertips and turning them brown. However, two weeks did pass, however glacially, and when she walked back to the estate shop her heart was pounding. Platelets and cells roaring giddily past her eardrums. The stooped man smiled when he saw that it was her entry that had rung the silver bell on the door. He reached under the counter, bringing up a threadbare, green jewelry box with rectangular doors that met in the middle and latched with a brass hook and eye. He let her open it, standing back to give her space.
It was breathtaking.
She ran her fingers over each small orb like the beads of a rosary, her pearls finally bound tightly together. She tilted the green box back and forth in her hands. The necklace listed only the slightest bit to the left and then to the right and made no sound at all.
The man, in his satisfaction, failed to notice how pale her face had suddenly grown, or how swiftly her breath came in and out between her lips. He didn’t realize until later that she hadn’t even thanked him.
She went straight home, knuckles white in their grip on the green box. She went directly to her room and sat on the edge of her tidily-made bed. She leaned down and took the sharp, silver shears from the sewing box at the base of her bedside table. Gingerly, she lifted the strand of pearls from the smooth hooks they were looped over inside the box and she let them rest on the wool weave of her skirt.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I should have known.”
And she slid the silver shears between two of the pearls, brought the blades together and severed the thread with a snap. With each snap, she released another pearl and one by one they rolled into her lap to create a milky cluster like a gathering of frog’s eggs. When it was over, she picked away the bits of string and scooped all the pearls into the cup of her hands and rolled them back into the tin box. Then she sighed deeply and smiled, the color returning to her cheeks in a blush of pink.
“There,” she said.
And she rocked the tin back and forth, from side to side.
Back and forth. Back and forth. Click, click, click, click.