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. The craftsman brings up every instance he has helped the tradesman. They drink and argue. The craftsman’s eyes grow as big and wide as the diameter of the pearl, as if he wants to pluck out one of his own eyeballs to replace it with this pearl. He brings up a past indiscretion of the tradesman—months of secret letters and meetings with the wife of the local county magistrate—a son of hers with the tradesman’s coloring—her death, after realizing that the tradesman would never return to her. The tradesman is forced to relinquish the pearl in the face of guilt, but the craftsman also loses a friend in the process. Months later, the tradesman dies on the Silk Road, from plague. 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. Will they be able to tell? his disciple asks nervously. Even if they could, it’s a precious enough treasure that it wouldn’t matter, the craftsman says. A week later, the craftsman is found dead in his bed, having passed during sleep. At the palace, the pearl hairpin is the focus of attention. No one has ever seen a pearl so big, or so luminous. The Emperor laughs as he handles it, and then bestows it upon his Empress. A pearl for the pearl of my kingdom. This emperor, at least, does not have the gift of verse. The Empress wears it on special occasions, to inspire shock and awe. She wears it to a banquet with the foreign envoys from the North, in celebration of their new alliance. She wears it to the wedding of the Emperor’s younger brother, where in private, she weeps tears as large as the pearl. She wears it to a hunting festival where she has arranged for the death of a concubine who murdered her son, the pearl’s surface mirroring the woman’s blank, sunless eyes. When you become the Empress Dowager, you inherit the past Empress’s treasures, including the pearl hairpin. It still gleams like lustrous moonlight. It is suffused with a pink blush, but you cannot tell if it comes from within, or from the subdued rubies around it. You grow curious. You take a jade paperweight and hammer at the hairpin until its metal setting warps, and the pearl is dislodged. It stares at you like a perfectly cloudy eyeball. On an afternoon walk around the palace, you slip it into your sleeve, let it roll onto the ground, and then kick it gently into the lake.
Kwan Ann Tan is a writer from Malaysia and a graduate student studying medieval literature at the University of Oxford. Her work has been featured in The Offing, Joyland Magazine, and Sine Theta Magazine, amongst others. You can find her at kwananntan.carrd.co or on Twitter @KwanAnnTan