He sat by Alicia's bedside. . . for how long? Was it a moment or a lifetime ago that she told him her story and handed him the pearl? The pearl that had been the only secret that came between them, the only part of her life she hadn't shared until the end.
She had asked him to turn down the morphine drip so that she could think clearly. He saw how excruciating the pain was this morning, but reluctantly he did as she asked.
"I have something to tell you, my love, and I can't say it when my mind is clouded," Alicia said. "I need to tell you the story of the pearl." She grasped the locket around her neck, the locket that remained ever closed and always with her.
"I know you've wondered all these years about the contents of my locket. Thank you for asking me only once and understanding my answer."
How well he remembered. In truth, he hadn't understood but did his best to live with her vague response that it was a gift from her mother that only they could share.
"I wanted to tell you long ago, but. . . . Maybe once you know the whole story, you'll understand, Daniel."
She paused for a moment and caught her breath doing her best to avoid visibly wincing. But she could never hide from him. He'd been forced to watch with all too much awareness while the disease swallowed her once beautiful body inch by inch. Her pain had finally become another living breathing being who shared their home and their lives.
"You see, mi amor ," she said, clutching the locket that hung just below her thin, pale neck, "My mother gave me this locket when I was just five years old—old enough to comprehend but young enough to believe. When you're very young, you're open to a world of possibilities, and it's easy to accept things that adults might not find plausible. So I warn you, Daniel," she said, smiling up at him, "What I'm going to say may sound a little loco to you.
"It was on my fifth birthday. Father was at work, and Mother had taken my brother to our aunt's home for the afternoon. She said she wanted to spend some special time with me on my special day. I was so happy to have Mother all to myself on that warm, sunny October afternoon. I imagined all sorts of fun we could have together, but strangely my mother seemed to be in a somber, serious mood.
"When we arrived home from Tia Ana's, she instructed me to sit by the fireplace and then she left the room. As she returned, I saw that she carried a rose-colored handkerchief tied in a square knot. She sat beside me at the hearth and solemnly untied the handkerchief."
Daniel saw that his wife struggled to continue speaking.
"Would you like some water, mi preciosa," he asked.
"Please." She sipped a few drops through the straw. "That's better," she said.
As he took the glass from her, Daniel gently caressed his wife's hollow cheek.
"Do you feel up to going on," he asked.
"Yes, I have to," she said with what determination she had left. "When my mother untied the handkerchief, I saw this beautiful silver locket inside. Without a word she placed it in my hand. My palms were very small then. I remember that it seemed to fill my hand. As I held it, Mother opened the tiny catch and released the pearl from its hiding place.
"I had never seen anything so beautiful, so shining and pure and perfect. If this was to be my birthday gift, as I hoped it was, I was sure that no birthday to follow could ever hold a greater treasure. And," she added quietly, "I couldn't know then how right I was.
"And this is what my mother said to me then. . . .
"'Alicia, mi hija, it is time you knew the secret of your birth.' Mother sighed in her reminiscence and then continued. 'It seemed that the birth pangs lasted a lifetime with you as if I were giving birth to a world of children instead of only one. It was not so with your brother Felipe. But with you the pain felt endless. Then at last you came and with you a miracle, for when the cord was cut, inside it, close to your belly, was the pearl.'
"My eyes grew wide at my mother's words, but as she told me the story I saw it come to life in my mind. I lived the words as a child can and they became reality, my reality.
"Then Mother said, 'And so I knew, my little one, that the pearl held your spirit, that as you blossomed and shone so would the pearl. And now it is time for you to carry your spirit with you. Soon you will go to school and leave your mother's side; so your spirit must go with you. Always keep it close to your heart, and never, never give it away. For you may give your heart but never your soul. It must be yours alone. And you must carry it with you to your dying day.'
"As my mother instructed, I wore the locket beneath my dress so that no one could disturb it. At first, it seemed heavy, but as the years passed, it became so much a part of me that when I had to remove it I felt naked.
"Mother said many things to me that day. I don't need to tell them all now, but my child's heart recognized them as truth, and I have kept them close just as I have the pearl in my locket."
She paused again. She looked so very tired, he thought.
"But surely now that you're grown you don't really believe all that, do you, Alicia?" he said as gently as possible.
His wife offered him her most patient smile. "Of course I do, Daniel. You see, as the years have passed, it has become even more real for me.
"Always I did my best to keep the pearl with me, and sometimes, when I felt the need, I took it out and held it. I remember when we moved from Argentina to this country I was only 11. Everything was strange and everyone a stranger. The children ridiculed me for my speech and my dress as children do. But at the time it hurt so much that my soul ached; I felt small and miserable. On one such day, I removed the pearl and easily perceived a definite change in its appearance. Its luster had been replaced by a murky clouding and it looked smaller."
"But that was probably just a child's imagination, Alicia," Daniel suggested.
"Ah, if it had only happened once and only in childhood, perhaps. But many times throughout the years I've had similar experiences. The one that was most obvious came when I was 20. As you know, Felipe died when I was 19 and Mother followed just a year later. That was truly the darkest time of my life, and there was really no one to help me through it. My father's grief at losing his only son and then his wife was beyond my ability to console. I was utterly alone.
"It was then that I thought of taking my own life. The darkness seemed to swallow my very soul. At the moment of my greatest despair, I sought the pearl. But when I took it from the locket I felt even more lost, because, Daniel, the pearl had turned black, black as ash. I stared at it with tears in my eyes and began to tumble the pearl over and over in my fingers. As I turned it, for a moment I thought I saw a tiny fleck of white - infinitesimal - no more than a speck of dust perhaps. But there was some spark of hope inside me that led me to search the house for our old magnifying glass. At last I found it.
"I used the glass to locate the speck on the pearl, and there it was. I hadn't imagined it. My soul hadn't turned completely dark. There was hope. As I gazed at the speck, a miracle happened. It grew larger and larger as my spirit filled with hope. And then in a blaze of light the entire pearl shone white and brilliant before me."
As Alicia spoke Daniel looked into her deep brown eyes. Disease had stolen the sparkle in those eyes along with the blush of cheeks and the sheen of hair and the bronze glow of her skin that was replaced with a sallow imitation. But as she talked he saw a miracle himself as the brightness returned to her eyes—the shimmer they wore in the years before illness came to live in them. Perhaps more than her words or her reverent tones, this made Daniel believe.
"I understand," he said to her. "I do understand now, Alicia."
She smiled weakly at him. She looked completely serene.
"Thank you, Daniel. There's just one more thing you have to know. I realize how difficult it's been for you to watch my body waste away. I wish I could have spared you the pain. But I also know that your empathy was your gift to me.
"Daniel, you see how withered my body is today," she said almost as a question. "But, mi amor, my soul is not. That is the true miracle. This body has faded to its end but this spirit is vibrant."
She reached for her locket but hadn't the strength.
"Daniel, please unlatch the chain for me."
He bent over her, lovingly unhooked the closure and handed her the pendant. She took it in her hands, opened the locket and held the pearl in her open palm. It was truly the most beautiful pearl he had ever seen—so lustrous it seemed to glow with inner light.
"You see, Daniel, my body dies but my spirit shines. It still shines. Come closer, love," she whispered, and he bent his head to hers and kissed her gently.
"I will love you always, Daniel. And my spirit will watch over you until I see you again. . . ."
He felt her cup the pearl in his hand and her last breath upon his cheek said, "Hasta luego."
And now he sat here gripping her pearl, letting her words wash over him again, reliving her story as if it were his own.
"Alicia," he murmured, and the sound seemed to echo in the empty room. At last, he allowed his fist to open, his eyes to focus on his up-turned palm.
There was the pearl, smooth and warm from his touch. The late morning sun filtered through half-opened window shades, and a flicker of light danced upon the opalescent surface of the pearl. He held it in his fingers and stroked it softly against his cheek. With this motion, a vision of Alicia appeared in his mind. There she was in a blue flowered dress with her long dark hair flying in the wind just as she had been on the day they met at the cafe. Her eyes met his and sparkled brightly, and she smiled at him as though she'd known him all her life.
On the bed lay the empty shell of his wife, but here, here in his hand and in his heart his Alicia flourished and danced and sang and whispered, "Te amo, Daniel, te quiero."
© 1995 Lillian D. Henderson
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