New Voices: “Pearl (c.1250—1400)” by Kwan Ann Tan

May 3, 2021

In Kwan Ann Tan’s “Pearl (c. 1250—1400)”, this week’s New Voices story, a pearl changes hands over time, from the fisherman who found it, to a local jeweler, and more. A hundred and fifty years pass in the blink of an eye, but you don’t want to miss this ending.

The craftsman tucks the pearl away until he is too old to work with his hands, in which case he directs his disciple to make the greatest gift that their city will ever send to the emperor, a pearl hairpin set with gold.

The pearl stares back at the fisherman from the guts of a large fish. It is as big as a lychee, pinkish flesh surrounded by just as much red skin. The fisherman sells it to the local jeweler, in exchange for a sum of money that could feed his entire family for a month, and then promptly loses it at gambling. The jeweler falls asleep with the pearl close to his chest, as he does all his most precious jewels. His wife’s lover slips a knife between his ribs, just below the glinting curve of the pearl and with so much passion that later on, they find shards of turquoise and amber in his heart. The pearl passes into the hands of thieves, and a few more are murdered for it. Finally, it reaches a trader from the Great Steppes. Before he can ferry it to Europe, where they pay double and in gold for exotic playthings like these, he pays a visit to an old friend, a master craftsman. Over tea, the pearl slips out of his bag, and the craftsman pounces on it. The tradesman refuses to sell.

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