Art by Austin J. Remington, from the series "EDEN AND OTHER GARDENS."
If you’ve got a pearl growing from your neck, no matter how small or faint, no matter how poor your exam scores are or how little you work, you’ll get to live on the Beautiful Side. Our parents and friends all live on the Beautiful Side but it’s still too early for us. This is good news for Clara whose pearl has yet to show, but the rest of us slack off on our assignments and spend our time chasing the stray dogs that loiter by the stands of deep-fried meat pies and bedspread noodles. Our pearls have all grown, although some more than others. You can barely see the surface of mine hidden by the shadow of my chin. But when I scratch at my neck, I can still feel the smooth, cool stone. The teachers say even a small surface area of pearl is enough to get me into the Beautiful Side so I’m not too worried. Clara is always studying though. Maybe she thinks high marks will make up for her lack of pearl.
Clara sits on her own, neck and head bent toward her desk as though she’s trying to conceal the secrets to her academic success. It’s not like any of us are interested. We all know it’s a farce. If you can’t grow a good pearl, you can’t survive on the Beautiful Side and studying won’t do anything about it. Across the Boundary, the Beautiful Side’s atmosphere feeds on life. That’s what our pearls are for: to supply enough energy so we can survive without contributing internal qi to our surroundings. It’s a small price to pay for what the Beautiful Side has to offer: crisp, clean air and fields of bright, green grass and bodies of water clear enough you can see their bottoms. We hear that you can take walks at night without worrying about tar puddles trapping you until Naegleria parasites crawl into your body and eat your brains. We hear you can pluck firm, dense apples large enough you need two hands, and the orchards grow them all back the next day.
The bigger, shinier, and more pristine your pearl, the more you are rewarded on the Beautiful Side: a larger home, more energy allocations, a better paying job. But the teachers won’t tell us how to make our pearls grow faster. “Your pearls are predetermined, there’s nothing you can do about it,” they say.
The words don’t seem to get through to Clara. “The teachers are all Beautiful Side rejects left to babysit us, what do they know,” she claims. While we gossiped or played games, Clara would return from the pearl incubator to our dorms super late even though it meant trekking through swampy grounds infested with plants that can cause your eyes to swell and stomach to shrivel. All of the buildings are tucked far into the mountains, a long, near impossible journey to the Boundary. Only the teachers have ever made the entire trip there and back, and among us students, only Clara has ventured as far as the pearl incubator. Even walking from one building to another wears us down due to the atmosphere.
“Why do you keep trying so hard?” I ask Clara while the others are in the cafeteria. I’m packing my things because I leave for the Beautiful Side in several days. My pearl hasn’t grown much larger but the teachers determined it has reached its maximum potential and there’s no use in delaying my departure.
“If you work hard enough, you’ll eventually see results,” she replies.
I laugh. “That’s not how the world really works. You can’t make your body grow what it doesn’t have.” I point to her smooth, bump-free neck—one sheet of skin covering her throat like a blanket, unlike my skin which crinkles and cracks around my pearl, dry from all the scratching in my attempts to pry the pearl outward, make it grow faster.
“I’ve got time,” Clara says.
“Not that much. If I’m already leaving this soon, I don’t think there’s much time left for you.” Clara and I are around the same age, although she looks much younger. Growing pearls consumes a lot of qi so we tend to age faster during the initial growth period.
“I’m not going anywhere,” Clara insists. I let it go. I’d rather spend mental energy on more meaningful things like all I’ve got to prepare before my departure.
I fold a towel and stuff my slippers and a plain, brown gown in a bag. I am not supposed to bring much since the Beautiful Side will have everything I’d ever need. Then I leave Clara who has already returned to her state of hunched back and death grip around her pencil. I descend the stairs to the basement floor, where I must take part in an ablution in the underground fountains, the only place clean water constantly runs. My footsteps echo. I glide my hand along the wall as the light from the top floor fades, seeking guidance from the cool stone bricks.
The cleansing starts with pouring a bowl of ice water over my head, letting it drip onto the tile floor, counting pitter-patters until the sound resonates in my head even when it stops dripping. The water spills to the floor and trickles between tiles and down the drain, carrying away the poison accumulated in our bodies. The fountain water supposedly flows parallel to my bloodstream, purifying my Gathering Qi, purging my innards. You can’t enter the Beautiful Side with accumulated toxins, and that’s all we are. After I pour water over my head, I place my right index finger on my forehead, then glide it down the center of my face, my nose, my lips, my neck, my chest, a gesture to honor the two halves held together by a pearl core. This is the last time I will be considered a sum of these limbs, this face, this chest, after which I will be known by my pearl, its grade, its size.
I shiver as my feet and toes grip the slick ground. I must wash until the teachers call me back although I’m not sure I can handle dousing myself in more freezing water. I am suddenly reminded of the daisy I picked last year. It started drooping after a heavy rain, stained gray and black from the droplets. Yet after it dried, it stood taller than me, able to peer just over the garden fence. Unfiltered rainwater tends to cause uncontrolled growth: it infiltrates the soil and is absorbed by the plants’ roots until the root cells swell and burst into new forms. Those daisies grew too big to be used as decorations. They looked more unsettling than beautiful at that size.
“The water we use is filtered and safe,” the teachers tell us. Given none of us have grown anomalous, extraneous limbs or facial structures, we figure this must be true. We don’t have the nerve to touch outdoor water anyway unless we’re suited up.
I hold my breath as long as I can while the water falls over my face. I wonder how clean I must be before I’m deemed acceptable. It shouldn’t take long to polish and scrape my pearl spotless. The exposed surface of the pearl wedged in my throat is so tiny you could rub it clean with a needle. Normally, the teachers lecture us about wasting water so we’d shower so fast our hair couldn’t fully soak and it’d still be a little greasy the next day. “Nothing the rain can’t fix,” Clara had said. She once showed up in our dorm, hair dripping and clothing trailing puddles on the vinyl floor. The others stared at her and then at me, whose bed was below Clara’s, as though all the water would drip down onto me from the bunk bed. I wore my suit to bed. It rained all night.
A small pipe from one of the fountains leads up to the teacher’s floor, a fallback if we forget the cleansing procedure: whisper into the pipe and wait for an answer to echo back—an idiot-proof procedure for most of us who had never bothered to memorize all the steps.
I knock the edge of the pipe gently with my knuckle. “How much longer should I rinse?” I whisper.
“Until you are clean,” the voice echoes back.
I let the water continue blanketing me, pretending it’s a layer of billowing clothing rather than goosebumps spreading over my naked skin. I’ve never been naked for this long. It’s not comfortable even though Clara used to say to us after she showered, “So refreshing! Clothing stifles you so much.” We were never sure to whom she was speaking, although everyone else assumed it was me since she’d hang her towel on our bunk bed and face me as she wrung her hair dry.
“You’ve got to watch out for Clara,” the others warned me. “People without pearls can go a little crazy about those who have them.” But my pearl was almost nonexistent. I didn’t see why she’d go after me when everyone else’s pearl appeared far more glamorous—like they’d harvested the largest mollusks with the most iridescent arrangements of aragonite and drilled them into their throats.
“When will I be clean?” I call back through the pipe.
This time, I don’t get a response. I suppose not listening in class is only salvageable to a certain extent before they decide no amount of handholding will help me through the process.
For what it’s worth, I don’t understand why the water can’t be warm like our showers. Cold water is more conducive to parasite growth, and more than a handful of our peers have gotten their brains eaten because of parasites lurking in their lukewarm showers or the cold tap. The facilities had much room for improvement, although the others always laughed and advised me not to waste energy thinking about it since we’d all be leaving soon anyway.
I think I’ve lost feeling in my toes and legs. Either my fingers are too numb or I’m afraid stopping the ablution will ruin my chances of leaving, I leave the water running regardless. If I can hold out a little longer, I’ll be clean.
I only notice the water stop because of the sound. Seconds after it goes silent, I feel the dry warmth of a blanket draped over my shoulders. I open my eyes.
“You look like a wet dog,” Clara says.
“You think?” I ask. “You’re not supposed to be here.”
“The teachers sent me. They were afraid you were going to mess up the ablution ceremony.”
“I wasn’t. I’m not,” I say, unfolding the blanket and wrapping my upper body in the cotton. “I was doing exactly what we were told to do.”
“Sure,” Clara says, glancing at my quivering hand gripping the side of a fountain. “Do you need help walking back to the dorms?” She places her arm in front of me and I reach out, holding it like a bar.
“So am I going to do this again tomorrow? If it’s like that, I’d rather bear with it today and get out of here,” I say, leaning on Clara’s arm and shoulder, still waiting for my feet and legs to regain feeling.
“Whatever they decide, it won’t be today,” Clara insists, pulling me toward the stairs. I drag my feet, listening to the remaining drops of water hit the tile floor with softer and softer plops the further we get.
“Do you know what I did wrong?” I ask Clara, who surely has this entire process memorized.
“Nothing. The teachers changed their minds and decided to postpone your departure. Something about it being too early.”
We are silent the rest of the way up. I’ve dried myself enough that I no longer trail water, but my hair is tangled and clumped and straw-like. I scratch at my neck, dragging my fingernails across the small circular patch of pearl and pulling at the edges of my skin surrounding the stone. That part of my skin is always red and itchy and no type of cream seems to stop it.
“You shouldn’t keep scratching,” Clara says as she twists the doorknob to our dorm. “If you irritate the host body too much, the pearl weakens, and then you’ll never be able to go to the Beautiful Side.”
I drop my arm back to my side and fall into my bed. The teachers had always said my smaller-than-average pearl wouldn’t be a problem. A small pearl was still a pearl and could contribute energy to maintain the Beautiful Side. So I never thought much of it when Clara and I got assigned the most decrepit bunk beds or served leftover scallion mantou while everyone else got pork-stuffed ones. Someone had to accompany Clara otherwise she’d feel too lonely, I thought. “We are a community that helps and depends on each other,” the teachers tell us constantly.
The next day, the teachers and students begin ignoring me like they do Clara.
“It’s because your pearl didn’t pop out during the ablution,” Clara finally tells me after I press her. “Proper ones should fall out under the water after at most an hour.”
“Is that it?” I ask. I thought there was something broken in me.
I ask Clara to help. She has all these metal tools she bent and shaped from materials taken from outside: tiny knives, scissors with short blades and handles as long as my forearm, jagged metal rods and sticks. I know she has even more because I’ve heard her scraping and sharpening and thwacking bits of metal on metal at night, the echoes resonating and keeping me up for hours. She tells me her dream is to build things, to make the outdoors habitable and more spectacular than the Beautiful Side.
Clara has me lie down on my bed as she holds my head still with one arm. She uses the other to drive a tiny blade between my skin and the pearl, and I hear a light scraping of metal on the stone. “Don’t nick the pearl,” I remind her. I’m not sure if the Beautiful Side would accept a damaged pearl. Clara continues to scrape and hammer the tool deeper in. She works slowly and uses gentle force to avoid chipping. I end up falling asleep to the clang clang clang of her hand guiding the knife or hammer or chisel, wondering if my neck will look like hers when I wake up.