The sky is dark when we take the trails to the caves. The trees hang over the path, stirring restlessly in the cold wind, and I can hear the ghosts whispering among their leaves. I don’t like to leave so early, not when the sun is still hidden behind the mountains, but we have a long walk to get where we’re going, and every minute of daylight counts.
We can’t afford to waste the sun.
Jamal takes the lead. He’s walked this path so many times, I think he could follow it with his eyes shut. The darkness doesn’t bother him, and he only laughs at me when I tell him that I can hear the dead singing about the graves we left them in. The dead, he tells me, are very happy now. They are buried deep, and they don’t live to starve and beg and sell their riches for pennies. The dead are happier than we are.
I don’t believe him. We sell our wares for pennies, and I have gone to bed hungry many nights, but I can stand on the cliffs and smell the sea air and hear the gulls crying on the wind. I see the stars when I drift off to sleep, and when I dive among the caverns and collect the oysters we sell, I can taste the salt of the waves on my lips.
I am hungry, yes. But I am alive. I don’t envy the dead, even those who have died well and are buried deep.
The horizon has turned pink above the trees when we reach the chasm, and the trees sing quietly of dawn and waking, of sunshine and scattered rain. The voices of the dead are silenced, and I can remember why I always beg to come with Jamal when he hunts.
He ties the rope he is carrying to the trunk of a sturdy tree and tosses the rest into the cavern. The sun peeks over the tops of the trees, and I slip over the edge of the rocks and down into the darkness below. I have trusted my life to this rope many times, always praying to whatever gods come first to my mind that it will not choose to break this time. Jamal laughs at me for this too. He says the gods don’t care for oyster divers, and besides, a fall even from the height would not kill me.
I don’t believe him. I fell once, when I was too young to hold on, and I nearly drowned then, even though I had only twenty feet left to drop.
But I don’t fall this time, and the rope does not break. The water is cool here, and the waves are gentle and seem to welcome me back. As the light grows, the water takes on a translucent glow, green light dancing on the rock walls and soaring, vaulted ceiling. I tread water and watch Jamal come down to join me. He carries our knives, and the string bags we collect the oysters into. The single beach on the far end of the cavern is littered with the shells of previous weeks. Our ashes are there too, where we’ve lit fires to cook our spoils. The oysters themselves are not what we come all this way for, although we bring plenty home for the families to eat. The treasures they carry inside them, black and silver and opal, are what we come for, and the money we get for selling them in the open market keeps our family from starving to death.
Jamal has never liked our trade. He says that one day, he will find a pearl so large and so perfect that it will sell for much more than pennies. Then he will take a boat and get off our island and never come back.
When he talks like that, I shut my mouth tight and dive again, blocking out the sound of his voice. I will never leave our island, and I like the trade I’ve chosen. I like swimming in the lagoon with the rocks over my head and the oyster beds beneath me, and I like bartering in the market for the treasures I’ve found. I could find a thousand perfect pearls, and I would still get up before the sun is awake and listen to the ghosts whispering in the trees as I make the trek to the caves.