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Mother-Of-Pearl

I had a grain of sand caught in my eye. For days it nestled between cornea and eyelid, a microscopic foreigner buried in its viscous confines. For days my eye was as irritated as an oyster that feels the initial birth pangs of its pearl, the hoodlum particle invading its soft flesh.

The pain increased, spreading beyond my eyelashes, pooling in the corner like a red shadow – all of the physiological consequences of a battle with an unwanted object. My eye felt as rough and dry as the hide of a mollusk. I waited for it to glaze over with nacre, for the hazel-colored iris to turn iridescent: opaque with lavender and turquoise. I waited for my vision to be awash with the ocean, its incandescent light challenging the reflections and refractions of my new eye.

The act of blinking became difficult – as if the stubborn child was grating against the ceiling of the lid: a crib too small for its subtle growth. Every time the grating pain returned, I wondered at the strata of translucence that layered my infant gem. The pain wasn’t curved, but jagged: perhaps my pearl wasn’t round; but malformed, Baroque. Such stones were rare, impossible to match: they were not used for necklaces, to be threaded with a string of equals. They were singular, their bodies used in brooches: as the hull of a ship; the torso of a god. My pearl was going to be unique.

But one day my eye began to water. And in the belly of one of those tears the infant grain escaped. It traveled a smuggler’s way down the cartography of wrinkle and jaw. The saline tracks curled down my face like the footstep of a snail. Then, in a fit of forgetfulness and annoyance, I brushed the tear away

No matter. I would have been a terrible mother.

The Stuff Of Dreams

The pearl is my birthstone. I have always been proud of its history, of its oblique beginnings at the bottom of the sea. I have always been proud of its fame: of La Peregrina (“priceless and incomparable in this world”), La Huerfana, Hope, Arco Valley. They’ve done time hanging from the necks of royalty, aristocrats, and criminals. I’ve seen the pearl featured in paintings: resting against the trussed chests of Isabella of Portugal

IsabellaOfPortugalPearl

and Mary I;

MariIPearl

hanging from a young woman’s ear in astral splendor in “The Girl With A Pearl Earring”.

vermeer-670-girl-with-a-pearl-earring

Pearls symbolize innocence and decorate the veils of brides; yet they also decorate the chariot of Neptune, raw and swarthy. Pearls have traditionally symbolized the tear drops of the moon: a delightful thought.

On the other hand, I’ve always had pity for the lapis lazuli birthstone. The name is unwieldy and unpronounceable. Uncomfortably foreign, I was never even sure of its color. It is the birthstone of December, and I have since learned that it isn’t even its primary gem – losing to the turquoise and blue topaz in an azure competition. I knew nothing of its meaning, its worth, its use.

But I know now, and I am somewhat ashamed to have held such a noble stone in contempt for so many years.

First, there is the look of it. Its color is a rich, royal blue; it sparkles with pyrite, giving it a look of a twilight sky dazzled with golden stars. Its color was of such intense opulence and rarity, it was mined as far back as the 7th millennium BC to be used as the finest jewelry. Minutely carved scarabs and beads have been found in Neolithic burials in the Caucasus and Mauritania. The Babylonians and Assyrians used it for jewelry as well, for amulets and cylinder seals, the small engraved cylinders used to roll impressions onto clay. Invented around 3500 BC, they have been found in gravesites, to provide good fortune for the dead.

The Epic of Gilgamesh, from the 17th-18th century BC, is recognized as one of the oldest known works of literature. Many times lapis lazuli is mentioned, the first time, many agree, a precious stone has appeared in a narrative:

From the prologue:
“Pick up the tablet of lapis lazuli and read out
the travels of Gilgamesh, all that he went through…”

Ishtar beseeches Gilgamesh:
“Be you my husband, and I will be your wife.
I will have harnessed for you a chariot of lapis lazuli and gold”

Gilgamesh declares in “The Flood Myth”:
“Ye gods, as surely as I shall not forget this lapis lazuli [amulet] around my neck, I shall be mindful of these days and never forget them!”

It was saved for the most exclusive of adornments. Powdered lapis was used as eyeshadow by Cleopatra. It was used to embellish the funeral mask of Tutankhamun.

tutlapis

Royal and priestly garments were shamelessly dyed with the mystic blue in order to designate their status as gods. Catherine the Great used lapis lazuli to decorate The Lyons Hall of the Catherine Palace, saturating ceiling and furniture with impenetrable majesty.

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By the end of the Middle Ages, lapis lazuli was being ground into the most valuable of all blue pigments, ultramarine “the most perfect of all colors”. It found its way into lush Baroque skies, Renaissance frescoes; it was an exalted color, used for Annunciations and the Virgin’s cloak. It was even used to color the turban the young woman wore, as thick with light as her celestial earring.

So in history, art and literature the lofty excellence of lapis lazuli has played a significant part. But its fame does not stop there; it has one more role to play: the leading one, the force that drives the tangled mythos of alchemy.

Lapis is the Latin word for “stone”. And every transmutation, equation, calculation and alteration that burns in the alchemical retort is for one purpose: to purify the “dark matter” the earthy “chaos” that had putrefied the four elements since the fall of Adam and to elevate them once more towards the celestial belt, the Elysian “lapis”.

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It is the “lapis philosophorum”, the Philosopher’s Stone, the sun and moon tree, the Treasure-house of Wisdom “from there that wisdom rises” (Umail at-Tamimi, 10th century), and described by Hermes Trismegistus in The Emerald Tablet: “the father of it is the Sun, the mother of it is the Moon; the wind carries it in its belly; the nurse thereof is the Earth”.

emerald

Now, it is true that the surname of ‘Lazuli’ does not appear in these obscure teachings, but the lapis lazuli is universally known to represent truth, enlightenment and inner vision – perhaps a nod and a wink to the twisted logic and bizarre mathematics of its alchemic ancestry.

In “The Tempest”, Shakespeare wrote the words, ‘We are such stuff/As dreams are made on’. They were spoken by the magician Prospero, as he reflected on the similarity between the spiritual and the corporeal, the confrontation between the dreaming and waking states. In very different circumstances, a rumpled cynic contemplated the statue of a dark falcon, naming its strange appeal as ‘the stuff that dreams are made of’ – the futility, the greed, the desperation, the hopeless competitive spirit that keeps people reaching for what they can never grasp.

But I still insist that the stuff of dreams are buried in the earth, that they are swimming beneath the waves. They have complexities of color and shape; they shine in the darkness. And they were born out of the most extraordinary circumstances: from the irritation of a grain of sand to the formative power of sediment, rivers and volcanoes.

But it was the caprice of humanity which gave the gemstones added meaning and value – long after they were pulled out of their earthly homes. But we can’t help it. We will always dream.

Bedtime Story

There was once a king who, when he was about to be married, summoned all of his carpenters and decorators to gather around him in a single, expectant battalion. He wanted them to use all of their skills and dainty armaments to build a marriage bed. And he wanted it to be decorated exclusively in pearl. He wanted it to be rich and rare, chaste and pure – as pure as his young bride.

The king was Henry VIII, and he was in love. Not politically, physically or intellectually in love – but foolishly and blindly…a doomed emotion, short-lived yet fraught with danger. The year was 1540: he was nearly fifty, and his bride-to-be was eighteen. Her name was Catherine – soft and curved, stupid and immodest, madcap and pathetic.

Catherine - an unconfirmed portrait, however

Catherine – an unconfirmed portrait, however

Her king was fat and clumsy, with suppurating legs which kept him immobile and irritable. He was over a foot taller than Catherine, and at their wedding ceremony stood next to her like a reeking colossus.

Yet court witnesses all attest to his inelegant caresses and embraces: he would crush her to him like a fragile bouquet, pink and white, petals undamaged: and upon releasing her was himself unharmed – she was indeed his ‘blushing rose without a thorn’.

He gave her jewels and enameled beads tipped with gold; gowns of twilight-colored silks and amber brocades. He gave her French hoods which perched saucily on the back of her head, revealing a daring view of forehead and hair. And he gave her a glowing, pelagic bed.

It flourished in the evening, a shining lake as translucent and pale as a saucer of milk. It was so pale that the moon, as curious as a cat, hovered low on the horizon to look at this reflection, this simulated echo. And when the inquisitive moonlight spread across the earth, it embraced the nacreous ornamentation as well, to create a radiance that was depthless and alive.

However, it wasn’t long before the King began to retire alone to his personal chambers – whether drunk, incapacitated with overeating or dulled with pain: he was no fit occupant for the dainty bed. And soon after, courtiers, whose only job was to lurk and listen, would hear the queen’s tiny hands open the door to welcome a new resident.

Eventually Henry found out about his flower’s guilty and treacherous secret. And when he did, Henry VIII – the proud, feared behemoth – broke into tears. He then gathered his wits to order her immediate execution. At one point he picked up his own sword and threatened to exact the punishment himself.

But he allowed the cruel laws of the 16th century to progress. Adultery and treason coiled into a single deadly helix with only one penalty: another queen was to be beheaded. (Catherine’s cousin was Anne Boleyn – they were buried in the same unmarked grave.)

She died early in the morning, in February 1542. She knelt in front of the block, her neck showing white against the wood, dark and scored by the marks of earlier condemnations. Courtiers and advisors had assembled, as well as ambassadors and spies who would write accounts for their masters, scattered across Europe.

Very few of them were sad. But in the distance, the moon, which would not be setting for another hour, watched with pity the little girl who each night had laid like a pearl in her oyster bed.

There is no other record of the pearl bed. It could have been sold, forgotten. It could have been destroyed, so that no memory of the shameless queen and the king’s humiliation would remain. But perhaps there came a night when the moon decided to linger before floating upwards like a ship through the twilight currents. And within that winsome pause she decided to embrace the lonely nacre to her, so that they could journey together – leaving only a pile of abandoned quilts and splintered wood behind.

Sea Change

They delineate the shoreline in a waving spine, steadfast in their salty acres – these homes I can hold in my hand.  Architecture that was once submerged, they were born inside currents that pulsed turquoise and lavender, and grew behind an oceanic veil, cold and serene.   

They tumble in the boiling surf, helpless in the blind physicality whose desire originated miles out at sea where winds stir the water into madness.   It was a long journey, far from the depths where Neptune’s verdant singing embraced the watery world like the god’s muscular arms.  They were far from the light that split into a labyrinth of prisms, from shadows that bloomed at the edge of the sunken earth.  

When they were free of the ocean’s rough attentions, the glassy beach, reflecting seagulls and ships, beckoned.   There they stretch like an untended necklace, a rope to mark the extent of the ocean’s appetite.  

Their bleached, fossilized skin, made of sand and salt, was tattooed with rhythmic designs.  Patterns leapt across a map of continents and followed a cartography of rivers carved into bone.  Products of Nature’s boundless whimsy and creativity, they were the sum of her busy fingers, carving skeletons into cathedrals, sweeping stairways and twisted carousels. 

When she opened her hand, she whispered their story into each pelagic coil, then scattered them across the green and pearl-dazzled landscape of the sea.  And anyone who picked the shell up to hold it close would feel her silvery breath and hear her dreaming narration of an empire of fishes, coral grottos, drowning suns, and a world far beyond our grasp.

Shellf Life

The Wanderer

It was found off the coast of Panama, nacreous and irresistible, glowing with a soft, pale temptation.  It was shaped like a tear, weeping into the ocean, the birthplace of currents, the blueprint of tides.

Gems, like women, will make men sentimental.  They give their treasures nicknames – small proofs of private and affectionate ownership.  At this time, Spain was mistress to the New World, showing her love in unwanted Catholicism and demanding payment in land, in people, in valuables.  By the time this grieving pearl had become part of the Spanish Crown Jewels, it had already acquired the name 'La Peregrina' – 'The Pilgrim', 'The Wanderer'.

In 1554, Philip, future king of Spain, was betrothed to a sad queen.  England's Mary I - thin-lipped, jaws tightly muscled, graceless and  intolerant - had never met Philip.  But she stroked the painted cheek of his portrait and waited with a doomed devotion for her Spanish lover across the Atlantic.

Philip arrived in England with chests of presents for Mary and the ladies-in-waiting who followed her silently on hidden footsteps.  There were bolts of satin – in coiled, simmering colors – yards of silver and gold tissue; black and white lace; linen veils; and gems from the empty veins of the New World.  Amongst these royal baubles was La Peregrina, wrapped in velvet perhaps, to protect its sublime light; the moon that slept within its layers.

Mary loved the pilgrim that had traveled to far to reach her.  She ordered her jewelers to create a setting worthy of her egg-sized pearl.  They brought to her a brooch of diamonds, surrounded by a filigree that swarmed like a golden vine.  And La Peregrina dangled like a planet beneath that glittering sky.

She wore it always.  It lay across her flattened breast, against the wooden corset.  Beneath it Mary's heart beat, an undesired spark kept alive in its lonely chamber.  But La Peregrina was round and nubile – a ripe fruit blooming from a barren tree.

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A Mother’s Pearl

It grew from a speck of sand, nestled deep within its mother's breast, safe inside the mothering mantle.  In the dark, layers of nacre – incandescent, transcendent – formed around the embryo and in the bivalve dark it glowed like a new star.

The mother-of-pearl was protective of her lustrous child.  She felt its iridescent warmth and the blush of its subtle color.  Though luminous and pale, in its depths swam the colors of the ocean – green, silver, blue.

She knew that many would seek her chaste birthstone, would hunt for her radiant teardrop.  She feared the harvest of her illustrious offspring and hid beneath the heavy currents, beyond the sweeping tide, behind the fish that curved like a metallic horizon.

But hands will reach far when the demand is high.  The mother was pulled from her world of enigmatic tributaries, sculpted grottos and coral islands that carved a map across the ocean floor.  She was no longer a part of the sympathetic ocean, but a stranger in a world of stinging air and a knife that with careless expertise cut the pearl out of her.

The mother had always been ugly; all of her beauty had drained into her child.  Now she was useless as well, and ready to die.  But her pearl was carried away with the other orphans.

It was put on display, a solitary fruit on a black velvet field – the better to show its pallid gleam.  All memories of the sea were polished off its skin.  It was destined to suffocate in a box along with the other tropies torn from the mysterious alchemy of a protesting earth.

And I am guilty too; I own four of these delicate prisons.

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