Cecelia Chapman

Black Pearls

Driving to the airport through rainbows in the wettest place on earth Moira said, "What could I do? Lele's grandmother was crying on the phone. I can't say no. She found Lele swimming naked with the surfer. My God, Lele and Tia are the same age! My daughter would tell me, though... I'm sorry Lele's coming just now when I just rented you the room. Her mother is my best friend, our daughters are like sisters. Lele's family treats me like a daughter. I know it will be a great experience for us all. But I've never been so broke. I spent your deposit on food and car repairs. Thank you so much for this ride." Ultraviolet arches crumbled behind us.

Lele arrived on the late afternoon flight from Tahiti looking ratty. She slouched, wore flip-flops, a salt-stained trucker's hat, a baggy t-shirt over a dirty sarong and carried a torn plastic bag. Sand still dusted her hair, collarbone, and the black pearl necklace she never unclasped. Lele's French accent in a growly whisper melted your skin.

Lele took over the large walk-in closet, off the deck, where she could hear the sea, she said, in the back of the house, instead of sleeping in Tia's room. For a while she wouldn't come out except to walk fast on the beach and to work. Then Tia and Lele started to look alike. Tia wore sarongs, Lele wore shorts. Boys came over, loud music, late nights. It was getting a little too busy for me. But they were all gone all day. Moira worked in an exotic plant nursery, Tia in a restaurant, Lele was a busy babysitter-on-call. Then I worked happily in the quiet house.

When they returned from their jobs they made plans, for the weekend, the nights, for their future lives. And later for Lele's fifteenth birthday party when Lele wore Tia's tight, black jersey dress, high heels, and thin, floppy, black Italian straw hat that looked like poppy petals. Her skin shimmered. We were stunned by her sudden transformation.

Moira and Tia said Lele surfed, she was very good, but she was moody. She bodysurfed occasionally. One day, on the beach, in the dry, hot sun of the west side of the island, I saw her hold her stomach when she rolled over. She was wary at my look.


"My God, Lele, does your mother know? Does Moira?"

"Non. Moira non. My grandmother knows, not my mother."

"And the..."

"He knows. Now everyone will know. But my age is not important. My mother was just my age when she had her first..."

"But Lele, no, don't think... I would just want to help..."

"Everyone tells this to me. They think they have this power that I do not have to take care of myself. I'm strong. Why can't I have my baby if my body can have one? You know, I see it in your eyes." She stroked her pearls, little dark mirrors, with a dozen of my surprised eyes staring back at me. "You are an artist, things work out. My grandmother will see. But I will die if I can't go home. Dave will find me. He is the best pro surfer in America."

Moira was shocked when I told her. She called the mother of Lele, she talked to the grandmother. Lele stayed cool. She loved Dave and was waiting for him.

Then Moira asked me to move out. "The grandmother wants Lele to stay here, she wants Lele to pay me rent and continue school and work. She can't make the surfer leave Tahiti and she knows Lele's safe here and will get a little more awareness of the world. I'm sorry, I enjoyed having you here. I wish I had more space."

I had been looking for another room and was able to move my belongings immediately. So I never got to say goodbye to Lele and did not see her. Until the storm several weeks later.

Before the wind even whipped the banana plants or seared the horizon, the storm started pushing serious waves on the beach. The water turned from turquoise to navy. Surfers tore out the channel to get to the storm surf. That's when I saw Lele racing out the channel on a board. Her tiny figure ripped down wave faces bubbling and knotting in the sudden squalls. Rain dumped on us. I couldn't see anything. Finally I went home.

The next afternoon Moira left me a broken, sobbing message. "They found her body... services are tomorrow. Her family is coming. Please come... she left you something."

Cecelia Chapman lives in northern California where she uses the people, places and things around her to produce work that explores the power of the image to affect perception and the human hunger for adventure, mystery and illusion. More of her work is accessible at www.ceceliachapman.com.

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