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A Million Oysters For Chiyoko

Caroline M. Yoachim lives in Seattle and loves cold, cloudy weather. She is the author of dozens of short stories, appearing in Lightspeed, Asimov's, and Clarkesworld, among other places (such as Daily Science Fiction, of course). For more about Caroline, check out her website at carolineyoachim.com.

Nanami was the oldest of the ama. A Japanese mermaid, the tourists called her. She dove for oysters, lobsters, sea urchins--most anything edible fetched a good price these days, seafood had become so rare. For decades, Nanami had gone diving for shellfish without any special equipment, but tourists brought more than just money to her sleepy fishing village. They also brought change. Starting today, all the diving girls would wear wetsuits and breathe with fish-gill masks that drew air out of the water. Nanami embraced the new technology, despite her age. It would give her a way to search for the remains of her daughter, Chiyoko.
She plunged into the cool ocean water and resisted the urge to hold her breath. Nanami wondered what Chiyoko would have thought of the fish-gill breathers. She probably would have approved. The girl had always loved the water, diving deeper than Nanami dared, with the adventurous boldness of youth. Her daughter had joked that she would find a million oysters, more than anyone could ever eat, and every single one would have a pearl.
Even all those years ago, the ocean had been too acidic for oysters. Dozens of oysters made a good find, and a million oysters was nothing more than a wistful dream. Now, the shallows were stripped bare, and anything left would lose its shell to the acid sea soon anyway. The only dive sites with anything left to collect were at the base of the limestone cliffs, and even here the acidic ocean made sea urchins with stunted spines and thin-shelled oysters and mussels.
This was where she'd taken Chiyoko diving, the day her daughter disappeared.
Today, like that day, the sun was bright and the water was calm, the waves rising and falling in gentle swells on the surface. As Nanami dove deeper, a school of small silver fish swayed back and forth with the current, feeding on the seaweed that grew on the cliffs. She reached the depth where she would have turned back, if she had been holding her breath. It was almost meditative, diving without the time pressure of returning to the surface for air. She spotted an abalone and removed it from the rock with her flat-bladed knife. An auspicious start to the dive. She put it in her collection bag. The abalone would fetch a good price from the tourists back on the docks.
She pushed herself deeper, and felt the tug of a current, flowing into a tunnel that was concealed beneath a ledge of rock. She ducked under the ledge and let the current take her, hoping that it would solve the mystery of her daughter's disappearance, so many years ago. The tunnel opened into a cavern of dark water, lit only by thin bands of light that slanted down from tiny gaps in the rock walls.
The cavern was bursting with life. The floor of the cavern dropped off into the blackness of the deeps, and somewhere down there was another opening to the ocean, letting out the current that flowed in through the tunnel. But all along the sides of the cave the walls were encrusted with shellfish--mussels, clams, abalone... and thousands of oysters. Surrounded by limestone, the underwater cave was a haven for creatures that could not bear the acid of the open water. Had her daughter found this place, and seen her million oysters? Nanami swam up, to the surface of the water. There was air inside the cave, air that came in through the same small cracks between the rocks that let in bands of light.
Nanami swam to a small ledge and climbed out of the ocean. Water dripped from the ceiling of the cave and into a tiny puddle with a rhythmic plinking sound. Next to the puddle were stacks of oyster shells and her daughter's knife. The air in the cavern was warm, and there was plenty of food. How long had Chiyoko waited here, for a rescue that never came? One large oyster shell sat separated from the rest, a shimmering bowl for a small handful of pearls.
Nanami tucked the pearls into the zippered pocket on the thigh of her wetsuit. There wasn't much more to the cave above the level of the water, and there was no sign of her daughter's body. She returned to the water, focusing her search on the areas closest to the ledge. Then finally she found what she was looking for, below the ledge that held the empty oyster shells. Her daughter's bones, so covered in sea life that Nanami hadn't recognized them for what they were the first time past.
She did not disturb her daughter's bones. Over time, the calcium of her bones would be transformed into the shells of oysters. Nanami swam out through the tunnel, against the current, a long and difficult swim. It would have been impossible without the fish-gill breather, even with her well-trained lungs.
Back in open water, she studied the entrance to the tunnel. It was deeper than most divers went, and mostly hidden by an outcropping of rock. The other ama probably wouldn't find it by chance. She decided not to tell anyone about it. It was one thing to collect seafood that was slowly dying in an acid ocean, and another thing entirely to steal from one of the last healthy pockets of sea life. Perhaps someday her daughter's cave would hold a million oysters, each one with a pearl.
The End
This story was first published on Wednesday, January 21st, 2015

Author Comments

Several months ago, I decided to write a series of flash stories for Daily Science Fiction. This proved to be more difficult than I expected--my first few attempts to write multiple flashes on the same theme collapsed into single (multi-part) short stories. (If anyone is curious, my first "failed" attempt at a series of flash, "Five Stages of Grief After the Alien Invasion," is available to read in the August 2014 issue of Clarkesworld.)

For DSF, I wanted the individual stories to stand completely on their own, rather than being fundamentally interrelated. When I got the idea to do a tasting menu, I started by writing one fantasy story and one science fiction story, to make absolutely sure I ended up with a series instead of a single story.

To read the other stories in this Tasting Menu series so far published: dailysciencefiction.com/hither-and-yon/tasting-menu.

- Caroline M Yoachim
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