A Daughter of Mother-of-Pearl
by Mandy-Suzanne Wong
She is born knowing how to swim. Her first few days of life she spends suspended in the plankton with all the other drifters, larval fishes, jellyfishes, just-hatched cephalopods, copepods, diatoms, microscopic flora, plastic nurdles following the ocean’s whims. She hangs in the water column from twin sails to either side of her budding mouth. Her delicate proto-shell dangles below, her tiny sails and blossoming eyes retracting at the scent of predators. At this stage of her life, nearly everyone is a predator: from two-inch sardines to twenty-thousand-pound baleen whales. A spate of hard rain could kill her.
But the microscopic haven’t time to consider their dismal chances. She has enough to think about: currents tugging this way and that, waves tossing her to and fro, so much light making everything hard and dazzling, everything already enormous. Her skin is alive to the myriad tastes of the water all around her and distant smells. A few days at sea, buffeted and inundated in the impatient, turbulent embrace of her ocean-mother, and the little one is yearning for a life of peace.
She goes off looking for it. She swims what seems a terrible distance in search of two safe smells. Smells that she remembers though they’ve never touched her skin before. How does she remember? We humans cannot ask her. It’s a question of no interest to our researchers, whose priorities for her kind are breeding, fattening, cooking, and mechanical biomimicry. Somehow, she remembers the delectable scent of crustose coralline algae, which lives on stones—although, swimming in the water column, she has never met a stone. Her skin remembers the smell of strangers who aren’t strangers. Something in that smell is eighty million years old, and the first to smell of it may have lived where she is now, in the ocean near Japan, where her name is awabi. The ocean’s gift of mercy are the scent of food and the mucus trails of her ancestors. She folds her tired sails, sinks to the ocean floor.
She alights upon a stone. She listens to it with her foot, skin-sniffing. The piercing sunlight frightens her. She notes the current’s restive strength, realizes—this stone is not her stone. Once more, her little face unfurls her sails. She sallies forth again, again, from stone to stone. The length of her body is one-fifth of a millimeter. If she cannot find her stone within a day or two, she will die of exhaustion.
There’s a sense in which her quest is hopeless. Even though she doesn’t know them, recalls no image of them, she finds herself longing to crawl in her forebears’ footsteps: beset by an eighty-million-year-old yearning to belong. Soon enough, she learns the truth. She must discover her own peace and defend it all alone. She alights upon a stone amidst a colony of flattish bumps. These ancestors offer her no welcome, nothing. They will teach her nothing. Nobody bothers to awaken, so jealous are they of their hard-won peace. It’s the traces of their mucus, made to ease one-footed walking, that tell her these ancestors won’t eat her. It’s the pink leafless algae, like pencil-coloring on the stone, that says her starvation is at an end. The stone, a sturdy boulder among submerged boulders, tells her this is home.
Relief and gratitude to the stone beneath her foot overwhelm her in this unhurried current where kelp holds fast, grows tall, and waves the probing light away. The opposite of turbulent, this pink-stained stone is the first thing in this world to offer her stability, sustenance: peace. But wispy, flighty sails cannot express devotion to a stone. The cilia on her sails begin beating out of sync. It’s as if she’s uncertain of them suddenly, perhaps ashamed. She eats them, swallowing the wings of her childhood. Her self-curtailment evinces her wish never to wish herself far away again.
Hanging on is easier imagined than achieved. Her foot is growing, but the rest of her, built for dangling, persists in toppling her onto her side. But she’s determined: she must change. Having discovered durability, she will give herself up for it. She spends the ensuing hours transforming from a drifter to a devotee, metamorphosing from planktonic swimmer to benthic adherent. Her heart must move. Her gills are off-balance. And so, she moves them: twisting her nerves and inner paths into a lemniscate; her heart, gills, kidneys, ophradium, digestive organs rotate within her body from the left to the right side of her all-important foot. This yellow foot, also a tongue, would seem flat and roughly oval if we saw her from beneath. But its appearance belies its secret powers. The awabi’s foot can stretch, expand, and in desperate circumstances distort itself to even more grotesque extremes than are possible for a pufferfish. Her little foot bears thousands of minute muscular setae that grip and clasp like the toes of a mighty gecko. Her foot is all-important because it hugs the stone.
Now she looks like a proper snail, except that her shell is rather flat compared to others’, its spiral unremarkable, its apex nearly unnoticeable. It has a pretty row of holes on one side. Tentacles are growing all over her: cerebral tentacles probing the substrate, epipodial tentacles exploring the water in every direction at once, extending the radius of her sensorium into the distance. Quivering along the frill of brownish grey and whitish yellow stripes skirting her foot, the epipodial tentacles are pale silver and waving, numbering over a hundred, electrifying her whole body with tastes, smells, vibrations from above, behind, everywhere—and the light shows her pinhole eyes no mercy.
By the time she is half a centimeter long, she has learned to seek protection underneath an uni, a sea urchin who shades her while she sleeps the days away and lets her follow from beneath at night. Uni is not her kind, doesn’t know her languages. Uni hasn’t even registered her presence in its purple briar. But nobody has taught the awabi how to forage; she doesn’t know which way to go. She must trust to her inexperienced senses. Naïve and unassuming, she trusts the uni. Under cover of this slow tumbleweed of purple spines, she keeps one-footed pace with her oblivious guardian’s photosensitive, hydraulic, remarkably plentiful feet. She scrapes pink algae from the stone in secret, with a tongue covered in teeth. She grows, her stomach strengthens, her appetite expands. Her teeth straighten, sharpening. She learns to snatch bits of seaweed that the urchin drops when chewing. The awabi likes these leafy bits. She likes them more and more. Before long, the urchin’s scraps are not enough.
And so, come night, she sallies forth. She’s forgotten how to swim. She lacks appendages for it now. All her strength (considerable strength, such suction power as the befingered can only fantasize) goes to hanging onto her stone with her foot. Though she’s a baby still, she’d never have believed that she’d outgrow this stone. She may yet return to it, perhaps this very night after a forage. She can find her way back to precisely where she started, home in on the spot exactly if she pleases. How she’d manage it, no one knows except likeminded relatives. Awabi are simply like this; some home, others roam. The choice depends on personality and experience. This young one ends up having to outrun a starfish, her foot spasming with terror as she drags her shell over the substrate.
Fleeing, not quite leaping and clumsily sort-of galloping, is no easy matter for a snail (the starfish has thousands of ciliate foot-like suction cups), and fighting is pure folly versus so many arms. It’s another stone that saves her, a fissure in a stone, a crack of darkness which (for unknown reasons that she can only hope aren’t hungry) the starfish finds off-putting. The whole experience inclines the young awabi to neither homing nor roaming. Never to forget the horror of being prey, she vows to love her new stone forevermore, to spend every moment of her life proving her dedication with all the strength in her single, squishy foot. She plasters herself vertically to the wall of the crevice.
There she stays. In dark and narrow solitude. Except for the weird assortment of tentacled, befinned, leaflike, rocklike, or altogether bizarre strangers who busily or somnolently populate the stone. A pair of chitons, armored greenish, nestle near enough to touch. But as neighbors, they’re no trouble. Uncurious, they sleep as much as she. When shrimps walk on them, they decline to make a fuss. Blennies and gobies are tiring to look at, darting every which way above. For the moment, it’s the shelled who catch her eye most often. Little cone snails, striped and squiggled brown and white, spiral up to dainty spires that seem almost fantastical, like indecipherable puzzles. Their long proboscises, like divining rods, gently make inquiries of the stone.
Others do not ask but prowl and smell of hunger. She tastes them on the water, these others, without seeing them; not knowing them but knowing, with her strange sense of distant history, that when she smells them, she must clamp down on her stone, hold tight to her stone and draw her head into her shell, hold fast, trust no one but the stone. She knows no names for these traitors who stink of carrion, these snail-eating snails called reishigai and himeyōraku; but if she saw them, she’d find their grotesque bumps and furrows braggadocious, extravagant—which isn’t to say that she would meet them with bravado. Young as she is, her fear of them is old and imageless, too deep and acute to contemplate for very long. She hides inside her shell, clasping her stone in an embrace which, for the sake of her very life, must be unbreakable.
Not all fragrances mean danger. Her relatives aren’t far off. They may introduce themselves come summertime, but they can’t be bothered for the moment, and she is grateful for their reticence. She has decided, not for the first time or the last, that she has had enough adventure for one lifetime. Even the thought of a good forage is unenticing. Here in the subtidal zone, she is near enough to shore that the waves are fretful and breaking, and often they tear fragments from the kelp or bend the fronds and deliver them to her. She scents them with her tentacles, but she must lift a corner of her foot to grab them, swing her epipodium to ripple the morsels along her foot to her dainty circular proboscis, and pop them in her mouth. She knows that if the starfish had caught her snacking or in motion, it could have overcome her formidable foot-suction and ripped her from the substrate. This is one reason why she’s loath to peel even a corner of herself from her stone—another reason being loyalty. She intends to keep her vow this time. She intends to demonstrate to her stone the care and steadfast loyalty she requires from it and, with her whole being, to the same unbreakable degree. No matter how much tasty algae the ocean brings her on the currents, the awabi refuses all except the necessary. She will not forsake an inch of her stone on account of greed.
Devotion to her stone is enough to fill her life. Nothing shall tear this stone and snail asunder. Her existence is a total-body expression of love.
Her way of life is contemplative. Each moment of the night brings a thousand touches; brushing her are currents carrying chemical gossip alongside self-serve algae. The meaning of consciousness is immersion in multitudinous flowing tastes, olfactory rumors, vibrations, racing to understand before the ocean washes them away; these sensations like spherical and syncopated waves crashing against her hundred tentacles. And all the while, she is cultivating vigilance, the sense that more unknowns are always on their way, not all of them beautiful, healthful, or sane. A single moment of her existence would overwhelm you or me. Morning brings a panoply of dreams. Her reflections proceed with gastropodan pedantry, molluscan meticulousness, a snail’s ponderous compulsion to hold on. She feels compelled to make a record of her dreams and reflections, her distraction by thronging ocean-borne sensations, her quest for understanding through devotion to a stone.
Her diary is her shell: her archive is her body. Her skin secretes remembrances of light and motion; she shapes and colors conflicts between her wish for peace and her sense of all-encompassing complexity. She weaves oceanic undulations in aragonite, paints in fantastic colors which she alone can dream, colors quivering and flowing, metamorphosing each time a thought twinkles her imagination. Were we to shrink and peek into her private cave, her secret studio and archive, we would see a silver sky teeming with fluid aurora, sparkling and undulating blue-purples, magentas, and green-golds the like of which the painter has never seen outside her dreams. But she would die before she let anyone see them. Private is the mystery incandescence of her nacre, coveting which the likes of us killed her ancestors to make buttons, souvenirs, entire garments for ritual dancers who sought to banish their demons with her magical inner light.
From the outside, her shell seems to fade into the stone. The algae that the awabi catches and devours lends her colors, which she interprets and expresses according to her ancestors’ hermetic aesthetics. Wakame, kombu, arame, varieties of brown algae, and aosa, which is green, turn her shell the deep teal color of waves curling into their shadows. Red matsunori turns her dark-arame brown. Other algae grow mossy on her back and on her stone. Stone, algae, and darkness conspire to conceal her from the covetous and hungry as she paints her private phantasmagoric sky while at the same time biomineralizing the ocean’s calcium-carbonate caresses into aragonite crystals, carving the crystals into perfect polygonal tiles with the skin on her back, bricking the tiles together with proteinaceous mortar.
All day and night, she weaves proteins and crystals together. The one is organic, the other not. Existentially she wavers; her mode of being flickers between that of invertebrate and that of stone. It’s as if her precious stone, her foothold on the world, stabilizes her in the oceanic currents and, in return, poses a question that destabilizes her ontology. Shell-building is her way of considering the question, testing it, and speculating. Unexpecting conclusions, she lives the question that she is. She undulates at the threshold between what we call living and inanimate; through her shell, she expresses her awareness of her elemental uncertainty. In this, she is like her ocean-mother. Her shell is her way of feeling and saying it: mother-of-pearl, daughter of water. Our researchers know it as the hardest, strongest material created by a living being: abalone (US English) from the Ohlone word a’ulun. Mother-of-pearl, daughter of water: sister of stone. One thing could pierce it with a drill, and that thing is an octopus.
Awabi has no conception of the invincible armor and robotic super-suction for which she is unwittingly a model. With all her ancient knowledge and surfeit of sensory experience, there remains much that she does not know. There are dangers she will never understand although she battles them in every moment. With all her cryptic resilience and strength, she lives amid perils which she can neither anticipate nor withstand. She knows nothing of her brothers who were captured and dissected; nothing of her sisters in the camps, where they are forced to breed and grow fat, giving birth to orange mutants and incubating viruses that spread into the ocean. Her mother-ocean is too hot and acidic; the culprit is anthropogenic CO2. How is an awabi supposed to measure such a thing, let alone compensate for it? She has no one to tell her that her shell is growing too slowly, requiring too much energy, is too thin and weak compared to her ancestors’, is even vulnerable to dissolution because she lives in acid. Who would inform a snail that where her grandmothers grew plump on drifting algae, she could starve to death inside her crevice? Nobody knows how to tell her: global warming is withering the algae, inviting herbivorous fishes from far-off tropics to eat the dregs. She is a snail; she’s forgotten how to swim. She cannot compete with fishes.
Some of her relations would elect to starve rather than forsake the stone that saved them from a life adrift. Reckless others will strike out searching for food, mad with hunger; they will let go of their stones. They shall be especially vulnerable if their quest leads them to sand. Sand refuses gripping, the one-footed cannot flee over sand, cannot clamp down on sand and retract into their shells, and octopuses know it. Starfishes can overtake awabi on the sand and turn them upside down. Where a good firm stone would help the snail push back against the starfish and right herself again, the sand would slither out from under or close over her; and the starfish would bear down, extruding its stomach to engulf her, its digestive juices dissolving her alive.
What has a snail to hope for, faced with so many potential cataclysms? You might point out that she doesn’t know the future; the cataclysms are not certain, that is true. Or you might dismiss every idea of hope from her vocabulary of thoughts and feelings. You might think (many do) that the experience of hope is beyond this slow and quiet being whom researchers call “primitive.” But that will never be more than an opinion. You cannot see into her mind, not even if you tear her open and pull apart her nerves. You and I have no hope of discerning what hope is when it is hers.
There are scientists who believe that slow invertebrates cannot think more than a few moments beyond the present, cannot remember more than a glimmer of the past. And yet the awabi marks the passing of the years by carving rings into her shell, treelike. She slowly but continuously forms new respiratory holes on one side of her shell because, in some way, she knows she will need them in the future. Older holes will close so that they will not impede her organs as she grows. Her shell-diary expresses her awareness of time’s passage and her anticipation of a future life. This diary indicates that she has at least some idea of what she would like her future to include: respiration, for example. What folly is this, this unfounded wishing, if not hope?
Because she’s no machine, no simple turbine, it stands to reason that she hopes for more than just persistence. She has no desire for what we call romance. Her vigilance has no room for any notion of immortality. She will never know her children or place any hope in them. In a few years, she’ll cast her eggs into the water, hardly understanding what they are; and if any would-be fathers are about, they will let fly their own gametes. Luck and the right currents and temperature, just the right kind of light, will bring them what they need to become little bewinged sailors. Or they will be devoured by plankton’s numberless predators. The latter is by far the more likely. For what, then, does she hope?
It is given to none of us to know the unspoken dreams of others; the terms in which an awabi dreams are not for terrestrial primates to understand. Some of them we can appreciate, however. Peace. Serenity of mind. In all relationships, equanimity. These we can respect even if our wildest imaginings can’t come near her speculations. A red anemone grows nearby, tickles her with phytoid tentacles waving to their mother-ocean. A hermit crab is wearing a himeyōraku shell. On his quartet of pointy candy-cane feet, he looks at her with little black eyes on stalks. He continues on his way; the awabi is dreaming nacre. The sea cucumber beside her stone is orange. The world is full. Shrimps walk on her, and she declines to make a fuss. White barnacles, like stars, climb aboard her shell and fall asleep.
Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s first novel, Drafts of a Suicide Note, excerpted in Digging Through the Fat, was a Foreword INDIES and Permafrost Book Prize finalist and a PEN Open Book Award nominee. Her essay collection Listen, we all bleed was an EcoLit Best Environmental Book of 2021 and PEN/Galbraith Award nominee. She’s also published in Arcturus, Black Warrior Review, Cosmonauts Avenue, Entropy, Necessary Fiction, Quail Bell, Stoneboat, and elsewhere. Her novel The Box will be published by Graywolf in 2023.
Mandy-Suzanne Wong’s Awabi won the inaugural Digging Press Chapbook Series Award. Awabi’s second edition is forthcoming in 2022.
Images: Public Domain