When Mari didn’t surface, I tried pulling on the rope to her bucket. But it would not give way. It must have been caught on something down below.
With concern in my heart for another of my Ama sisters, I filled my lungs. Then I dove downward with concern, fearing the worst. It would not be the first time something bad had happened to one of us.
She was true to her name: “the obstinate one”. I told her diving to 40 meters to find pearls was a great risk. She just scoffed at me.
She told me I lacked ambition. She said I did not have the will to go where the oysters would be plentiful. What good was a bed of plentiful oysters, I’d replied, if one cannot get them back to the surface without perishing?
I followed the rope down from her bucket, making sure not to lose it in the growing darkness. It remained tight, refusing to give. And still, there was no Mari.
She may have been stubborn and rebellious. But none of us wanted anything bad to happen to her. After all, we are all sisters of the sea, diving for pearls to provide a life for ourselves and for our families.
I felt the pressure and chill of depth as I went ever deeper. I descended to 20 meters, and then 25. Surely she had not been foolish enough to go deeper, had she? But her rope disappeared below me. I feared of what I would discover.
It got darker until my eyes had to adjust to limited illumination through my oval dive mask. But I finally encountered her body at right around 35 meters. There were three impressive oyster shells in her net bag. But she would never live to see the contents sold to bring food to her aging grandmother.
Her foot was wedged in a crevice between some coral. She had gotten stuck. Now her lifeless body appeared to be swaying ever so softly.
Her nipples were hard on her bare chest. It was residual evidence of that final excitement of peril. I know of the excitement one gets when you are not sure you will be able to reach the surface in time.
There was just enough illumination for me to see a horrible expression of shock in her eyes through her dive mask. Her mouth gaped open from her failed attempts at breath. Then I caught sight of a couple of bubbles slipping past her lips to scurry to the surface.
I was too late. She must have drowned only a short time ago.
I paused for a long moment to look into her eyes, to look at that expression in her face that had now softened in death. Surely, she must have known in those last, breathless moments that she was stuck and was about to drown. I could not help shuddering at the thought.
How horrible it must have been. What did it feel like during those last agonizing moments when she knew her breath was about to go? What thoughts did she have, knowing she was on the verge of drowning?
Did she think of her grandmother? Did she wonder how the rest of us would feel at her loss? Did she plead with the gods of the sea to free her ankle and allow her to live? And most of all: did she happen to see the ghost of one of our own who had gone before her?
These are questions that come to mind whenever I find myself in a tenuous situation. I suspect my sisters have also had similar thoughts. But we never share them aloud with each other.
That would be considered bad form, a bad omen. Many see it as a premonition of things to come. We never discuss death amongst ourselves, not when we work so close to it each and every day.
I suddenly felt it in my lungs, a reminder of how deep I was and how I could not tarry long. While I was here, I needed to work quickly in order to free Mari from the coral and get her to the surface before my own breath gave out. I would want her to do the same for me if our roles were reversed.
The rope from her bucket was still attached to her body. That was good. I tried to pull her free, but she was wedged in tightly. The reef did not wish to relinquish its prize.
I grabbed her leg and pulled hard, knowing I would want someone to pull my body up if I had drowned. I would want my family to have something to bury, at least giving them a sense of closure. But I could feel the strain building in my lungs. This was proving difficult, and I was much deeper than I normally would have been.
I struggled to work her foot loose from the coral, not wanting her body to serve as food for the creatures of the deep. But the strain was growing in my chest. If I didn’t free her soon, I would have to abandon her and return to the surface.
I braced my feet and pulled hard against the coral, grunting and bubbling. It shifted a little until her body floated free. But I knew in a heartbeat I could never make it back to the surface with her in tow.
Realizing I was nearly out of breath, I reluctantly left her behind. I started pulling on her rope hand over hand, anxious to reach the surface and the air I so desperately needed. Then I released the rope altogether as I started kicking hard for the surface.
Panic started to well up within me as I raced my expelled breath. Mari’s drowned image was on my mind the entire time. It was disturbing having found her like that. But I knew my fate would be the same if I did not reach the surface in time.
I released the last of my air during my frantic ascent, pondering her sad fate the entire journey upwards. It was the fate of a careless Ama, a fate that could very easily prove to be mine as well. But the water was getting lighter, the surface drawing nearer. If only I could reach it in time!
My chest really began to heave; I had been down at great depth. My lungs were empty, and I felt heavy. It was as though the sea wanted to claim me as well.
Maybe it was Mari’s spirit not wanting to pass into the afterlife alone. Maybe she wanted to take me with her!
For a heart-stopping moment, I didn’t think I was going to make it. Then I burst up out of the water, gasping loudly for breath. I desperately clung to Mari’s bucket, panting heavily.
I hoped in those moments I would not suddenly pass out and slip back under the surface as Keiko had done two weeks ago. She was lucky another Ama had been nearby to see her and quickly bring her back up. The risk of passing out at the surface is just as great as drowning at the bottom of the sea.
My breath finally returned as the sadness of what lay below me set in. I began calling out to the nearby divers… “MARI HAS DROWNED! MARI HAS DROWNED! COME HELP ME!”
In no time at all, Chika and Haruki swam over to me. “What has happened?” they clamored anxiously.
With tears in my eyes, I told them my tale: I had gone down and found Mari on the bottom and that she had gotten her foot wedged and had drowned. “Help me bring her body up for her grandmother,” I said to them amidst my sobs of grief.
Together, they started pulling on her rope until they were able to pull her up. I told them that since I had found her, I would be the one to go down and make sure her body remained tethered to it and was indeed coming up. Then I took a deep breath and slipped back under the surface.
I could see the rope coming up as I swam back down. I detected many knots where it had been severed and retied. As long as her body remained attached to it, she would be returned to the surface world. Besides, I was hoping there would be no need for me to go all the way down for a second time.
Within moments, I saw her being pulled up from the depths. Her body jerked upward with each tug of the rope still attached to her waist. Little bubbles slipped out of her parted lips as though the remaining air in her lungs was being forcibly expelled with each jerk of the rope. Her eyes still had that horrible look of shock; her nipples still erect.
Thankfully, her net bag clung to her waist, the oysters still inside. I vowed I would make sure those oysters made it to her grandmother. After all, it was the least I could do.
When her body went jerking past me, I followed it back up with great sadness. Together, the three of us got her to the surface. Then we worked her and her bucket back to shore.
There were two more Amas waiting there, Tamiko and Hitomi. They had yet to get out and begin their work. They joined us in our grief as we mourned the loss of one of our own.
Chika respectfully removed Mari’s dive mask from her face. Then she used her fingers to tenderly close the eyes of our departed sister. Together, the five of us solemnly carried Mari’s body, her bucket and her collected shells off to her grandmother.
The poor woman was grief stricken when we arrived. Our hearts broke for her loss. We stayed with her for an hour to mourn with her as Chika went to town to fetch the embalmer. Then I presented her the three oysters Mari had found and put in her net bag.
“These are yours,” I told her solemnly. She nodded and then went to the kitchen to retrieve the proper knife for opening them.
We stood quietly and respectfully, watching her cut the shells open. Then we gasped in astonishment. Amazingly, each one had a pearl of great value.
Thankfully, Mari’s grandmother was comforted at the sight, bringing tears to her eyes as well as our own…
Chika returned with the embalmer. Then my Ama sisters and I headed back to shore. There was still daylight, still time to go diving.
Mari’s drowning was heavy on our hearts. But our minds were on the oysters with the pearls that had come up with her body. We all wanted to find a similar treasure.
“Where did you find her?” Haruki wanted to know. “How deep was it?” I told her it must have been close to 35 meters.
“Dangerous,” Chika observed, solemnly shaking her head. “She should not have dived so deep.”
“Mari was always obstinate and foolish,” Hitomi spoke up. “She would have gone down anyway. None of us could have stopped her.”
“She would have been fine if she had not gotten her foot caught,” I spoke up. “Slow and steady, and she would have made it.”
“The philosophy of the tortoise,” Tamiko laughed. “You are indeed well named, Kameyo.”
“Well, she would have,” I replied indignantly. My head was swimming with visions of those three great pearls.
“Don’t you believe in premonitions?” Chika told me with dismay. “She went too deep!”
“She was careless!” I countered. “She got her foot stuck, and that was it!”
“Surely you’re not thinking of going down that deep!” Hitomi said with concern in her voice.
“I have already been down there once before,” I proudly told them all. “In fact, I was the one who stayed down long enough to free her from the coral or she would still be down there. Besides, I would not have to be down long… just long enough to retrieve a few oysters for me and my family.”
Chika was not so convinced. “There is no guarantee more oysters from that depth will yield such prizes as what we saw at Mari’s grandmother’s house.”
“And there is no guarantee they won’t!” I shot back. Then I looked at their anxious faces.
“You are concerned about my safety. I am honored. Rest assured; I will be careful down there… that is, if I even decide to go down that deep.” They looked at me with relief, as though my hesitation meant wisdom would trump risk.
We reached the shore, gathered up our buckets and then swam out to sea in different directions. I went back to my traditional spot and dove downward. I was determined to put the morning’s events out of my head. But at 15 meters down, I had the same luck as before.
I surfaced, and then moved my bucket a little farther out. Then I dove down, where I began my search anew. This time, I was able to track down two oysters of modest appearance.
I surfaced and deposited them into my bucket. Then I looked out in the direction Mari had been diving. She had met with great success.
It was too bad she had been so careless. The site of those pearls on the kitchen table of Mari’s grandmother spurred me to move a little farther out.
When I looked down, I concluded I would be at a depth of around 25 meters. That depth was easy enough for me on one breath. I would be able to go down and remain on the bottom long enough to look around. Perhaps Mari’s death would prove to be fortuitous for me and my family. It would be good if she had not died in vain.
I was about to go down when a large shadow crossed over me. I looked up to see a small cloud passing across the face of the sun. If I would have been superstitious, I might have seen it as a premonition, occurring quite soon after discovering Mari’s drowned body. But I do not believe in premonitions.
I took a deep breath and then submerged, kicking smoothly with my legs as I pulled with my arms. I felt a burst of exhilaration as I went down. I was excited at the belief that a new location would mean greater success.
I made my way down, feeling the cold of the depths all around me. This was deeper than I usually dived – deeper and colder. But the hope of a good catch brushed the worries out of my head.
I reached the bottom and felt my way around, peering at the shadows. With less sun penetrating to the bottom, it meant I had to search a little harder until my eyes adjusted. Thus, I stayed down longer than I normally would have.
I finally found a single oyster shell. I pulled my knife and worked it loose, aware of the growing need in my chest. Then I tucked the shell into my net bag before making my ascent. I had been under a good two minutes, and I could feel my chest protesting.
I pulled on the rope to my bucket, chasing the bubbles I had released until I burst up panting heavily. I clung to my bucket, trying to avoid the danger of passing out and slipping back under the surface. Then I pulled out my shell and tossed it into the bucket.
I became impatient to the point where I took my knife and opened it up right then and there. My heart sank when I found no pearl. The meat would serve us well, but otherwise there was nothing more.
I thought of Mari and her three shells producing those great pearls. I looked in the direction she had been diving. Clearly, I was drifting a little farther away from my Ama sisters.
I almost paused. But I went farther out. Perhaps it was my greed.
Or was it something more…
I always did enjoy diving: the thrill of the deep, the silence at depth and the strain in my lungs. I never really paid it much attention until recently. But there was something else about being down at 35 meters trying to pull Mari free that I’d found to be exhilarating. It was almost as though I was being drawn back to her location.
I reached what I thought was close to her spot. Then I prepared for my descent. I was strangely excited, consciously aware of how hard my nipples had become. It had to be a good omen; surely this would be a good dive location!
I took a deep breath and then started down, trailing the rope to my bucket behind me. I felt confident, full of myself and my abilities. Then I jerked to a halt at only 6 meters as I saw a shark pass another two meters below me.
I carefully swam back up so as not to draw attention to myself. Perhaps a more superstitious person such as Chika would have decided she was pushing her luck and would have moved closer to shore. But sharks pass through these waters all the time. I saw it as nothing more than a chance encounter, and not some omen or premonition to cause me to consider aborting my dive.
I waited patiently, peering down into the water every few seconds. But the shark did not reappear. So I filled my lungs and then started my journey downward once again.
I released a small trickle of bubbles to ease the pressure in my head as I descended. As the water got colder, my nipples grew harder. I wondered if perhaps Mari had been lured here as well, seduced by the excitement of depth and the chance at a great find.
It got colder and darker as I went down, although my eyes slowly adjusted. There was a certain nervousness I felt as I went deeper. For a moment I wondered if Chika had been right.
I angrily brushed the thought aside. She was not nearly as adventurous as Mari had been, or as I was now being.
I finally reached bottom; it had not taken that long. I felt excitement and exhilaration. Confident in my abilities, I began feeling my way along the bottom, searching for those elusive oysters.
Almost immediately, I found a large one. My excitement increased a hundred-fold. Mari had been wise to search this part of the sea!
I retrieved the knife from the calf of my leg and cut the shell free. Then I deposited it into my net bag. Already, my adventure was paying off.
I was exuberant as I felt around for more, my eyes slowly adapting to my surroundings. My lungs felt no strain whatsoever. The feeling was incredible… and strangely seductive.
I quickly found a second one, working it loose with my dive knife. It soon joined the one in my net bag. Already, I had found two… and I had still plenty of air left!
The coral was sharp, with many cracks and crevices. I had to be careful. But it was rich with oysters.
Mari had indeed found treasure! I told myself to be sure and say a special prayer of thanks for her when I returned. I would even make a brief pilgrimage to the holy shrine outside the village in appreciation of my fruitful quest.
I could feel it starting in my lungs when I found a third shell. I eagerly sawed it free from its growth to the coral. Then I went to put it in my…
No! It was gone! My net bag was gone!
I bubbled as I anxiously fumbled around for it. Where had it gone?? It was right here with me! Then I felt the frayed edge of the rope that should have been holding it to my waist.
Had I brushed up against a section of coral and sawed it off? Had it come loose and fallen away? It was a bad sign, what Chika would have called another omen or premonition. But I refused to believe in such things.
I felt those familiar stirring in my lungs, telling me I should return to the surface. But I could not leave without my net bag. What it contained might reveal pearls of great value.
If I left now, I could lost track of this location. I might never succeed in returning to this exact spot to conduct a search. My net bag and its contents might be lost forever.
I could feel it in my lungs as I anxiously looked all around. My breath was giving out; I needed to return to the surface soon. This was not good… not good at all.
A portion of the ocean suddenly seemed to become illuminated before me. It was as though a shaft of sunlight had somehow penetrated to the depths. I could actually see someone down here with me. But who could it be? Who would be diving this deep near my location?
For a moment, I thought it was one of my Ama sisters, intent on searching the very area I was now diving. Then the image came into focus. I bubbled in shock.
It was Mari! How had she gotten clear back here?? I thought her body was in the care of the embalmer! Surely I was seeing things!
They say the most ominous premonition of all is when you see another dead Ama diver, especially when you are on the bottom of the sea. It is supposed to indicate death is coming for you. It gave me a terrible jolt, and I stared in utter disbelief.
My lungs were burning. But I was distracted by the vision before me and did not immediately set out for the surface. Besides, she seemed hung up in the coral in the exact manner I had first found her.
Her eyes were wide in that shocked expression of horror. Bubbles trickled out past her parted lips. I could see her nipples were hard and pointed, the same condition my nipples had become.
Was this a premonition of my impending death? But I did not believe in premonitions! Then I thought I saw…
Wait; was she waving at me? Did she need my assistance? Or was she waving for me to come join her?
I became aware of my lungs heaving in my chest. I had been down too long. My mind told me to forget the bag and head for the surface immediately.
I grabbed for my rope to the bucket, only to feel a sharp pain in my ankle. I looked down in horror. Somehow, the coral had grabbed me!
I was incredulous! The coral had actually grabbed me, just as it had grabbed Mari! Gods; no!
I frantically jerked on the rope as I fought to pull my foot clear. It did not matter if I injured myself or made myself bleed. My lungs were burning. I had to get clear and reach the surface. Otherwise, I would drown!
Horrors! This was becoming a situation just like poor Mari! Had she also seen something before her death, just as I had seen her? Was I also doomed to drown??
I looked up and saw movement above me… a shadow of some sort. Then I felt a jerk on the line. Was someone coming down to rescue me?
At first, I felt relief despite the fire in my lungs. All I would have to do now is just hold my breath a little longer, and then I would be saved. Then I felt another jerk on the line before the tension unexpectedly gave way…
What?? Oh, NO!
I frantically pulled hand over hand as the rope came rushing down. I could feel my heart pounding in my chest. This was not good; not good at all!
…and then the end of the rope was in my hand, the knot severed by something sharp…
A set of teeth perhaps? Had that shark returned and been attracted to the jerking knot in my line? Had it bitten clean through my lifeline?
An explanation no longer mattered. The rope was useless now. I was almost out of breath.
I pulled anxiously against my ankle, the coral cutting into my flesh. I had no idea how I’d stepped into such a crevice. But now my carelessness would prove to be my undoing.
I started thrashing about, my lungs on fire. Even if I were to be miraculously released at this very moment, I did not have the necessary breath. I would not make it back to the surface in time before I drowned. 35 meters was too far down in my breathless condition.
I thrashed and bubbled as panic set in. A terrible excitement filled me to overflowing. I twisted and bubbled, my precious air billowing away until very little remained in my lungs.
I so wanted to inhale. My body desperately needed to be refilled. I knew I did not dare, but the urge was overwhelming.
My eyes were open wide, my cheeks bulging as I fought to keep what little air I had left inside me. If I could just hang on a few precious seconds longer. Surely someone would come down here and locate me.
But I already knew it was a hopeless fantasy. The rope had been severed. Surely, my bucket was drifting away from my position. They would never be able to locate me down here at depth in the near darkness.
It was that terrible thought of never being discovered that made me scream in horror. Now my family would have no body to bury, unlike Mari’s grandmother.
It was often like that with the Ama. I had vowed it would never happen to me. Now I was about to break that vow.
My chest heaved in agony, my body thrumming like a plucked string. Any moment now, my lungs would give out. I clamped my lips shut in a futile gesture as my cheeks bulged prominently. Then my last breath exploded out of my body.
The desire to inhale was so strong that I nearly doubled over. Then I felt water go down my throat. Immediately I began to cough and convulse.
My body jerked and shuddered. I nearly bent over at the waist each time a powerful spasm shook me. I opened and closed my mouth like a fish out of water, trying to pull a life-sustaining breath inside me. But there was nothing all around me to inhale except the sea. It was a violent, savage attack by the depths against my mortal body.
I had not responded accordingly to the premonitions I had experienced and dismissed. Now I was to pay the ultimate price. I bucked and shuddered until I lost the strength to fight.
A sudden burst of air escaped my lungs. Scattered bubbles slipped out past my parted lips to scurry to the surface. I was all alone, drowning in the near darkness with no one to witness my fate.
For a moment I felt better, and I had a brief clarity of thought. Strangely, it felt like I could actually breathe somehow, although I knew I could not. Then I felt a terrible agony inside my body, as though I could actually feel organs starting to shut down one by one. It was horrible!
I tried to scream. But nothing would come out of my mouth other than a couple of stray bubbles.
I thought of Chika and how right she had been. I had been so foolish. And now here I was, tethered to the bottom of the sea where no one would ever find me.
My last, agonizing thought was how much my family would miss me. Then I faded away into oblivion. My body softly swayed back and forth unmolested… at least until the creatures of the deep discovered that a special feast had been delivered to them by the gods… prepared for them by the actions of a rather foolish mortal.
My Ama companions found my drifting bucket a couple hours later. Naturally, they began a frantic search for me. Then they found the rope had been severed.
At that point, they gave up the hunt for my body. There was no way of knowing where I had gone down. They understandably surmised that a shark had probably gotten me.
Unlike Mari’s grandmother, my family would be forced to put up a sad memorial. My body would never be found. And it was all because of a few timely premonitions I had chosen to ignore…
2012; 2022 (written for thefoe Sep 28 ’12; ed. Mar 19 ‘22 by riwa)
(Picture found on the Internet and provided for illustration purposes.)