The Pearl of Catara

Day 3 of NaNoWriMo and we need to celebrate!

Here is a story I wrote in response to a challenge from Qatar National Library – to write something celebrating Qatar’s milestones. In this story, I imagine something making it all the way from Qatar to Rome for the first time, and ending up being bought by Julius Caesar himself.

The Pearl of Catara1

The boy had been working this section of the bank all morning and he was tired. He hoped the midday break would be declared soon, and so he was mainly thinking of food and rest when he prised the oyster from its bed and slipped it into his net. Mechanically he tugged on the rope and closed his eyes preparing for the whirling, nauseous rush as he was pulled back into the sunlight.

The two pullers saw his unfocused eyes and laid him gently on the deck, under the awning, one of them staying to talk him back into full consciousness, while the other took the net full of oysters to the captain.

The captain took the net and flipped it inside out with a practised twist of the wrists. He reached for the first shell, knife at the ready to stab and twist. The oyster was the fourth he picked, and he had not finished opening it before the feeling came over him, the feeling his father had told him about: this was the pearl, the pearl that would make sense of his life. His worries about how he was going to pay for his share of the boat, the grief he still felt over the sailor who had died last year in a storm – suddenly these things were atoned for, settled.

The merchant fainted when the captain showed him the find: but once the shock had died down, he joined a caravan that crossed the Arabian desert at the end of every pearl summer. On the coast of the Red Sea, he sold the pearl to a very rich Greek from Alexandria, returning home dizzy with his newfound wealth, dreaming of a fleet of new boats sailing up and down the coast of the peninsula.

The Alexandrian carefully stowed the pearl from Catara in a soft cotton bag which he hung around his neck. Mentally he went through the different markets he could try and decided on Rome: he had a contact in that city who had told him that pearls were all the rage among the wealthy classes. He would get his favourite craftsman to put this pearl on a delicate chain of gold, and in time it would be around the neck of a fine Roman lady, a teardrop of silver and cream lustre. He smiled as he traced out the pearl’s journey in his mind.

The jeweller in the Porticus Margaritaria in Rome looked up from his contemplation of the pearl, to find that Julius Caesar had just entered his shop. The jeweller could hardly contain his elation and hurried to greet his illustrious client. Caesar was just about to marry – surely a pearl necklace would be just the thing for a young and well-born bride? But Caesar was on a more delicate errand: he needed a farewell gift for his love of many years, Servilia. She was already in her forties, although still beautiful, and while he could not marry her, he could fend off her disappointment with a special pearl.2

Servilia accepted the pearl in a philosophical manner and made sure that every one of her wide acquaintance saw it. She kept it for fifteen years, but on the day that Julius Caesar’s body was burned on a makeshift pyre in the middle of Rome, she threw the pearl into the heart of the fire, praying fiercely for something she knew was impossible. Sputters of rain made tears on her cheeks as she made her sacrifice, but her gods did not answer.

And far away from Rome, the boy who had discovered the pearl was now a free man, captaining a ship in the biggest fleet in the peninsula. He stood and watched his men as they worked on the latest hull, making it ready for its first summer of pearl harvesting: and his heart was full of hope and dreams.

  1. Catara is the spelling used on the earliest maps to feature Qatar.
  2. According to the Roman hisorian Suetonius, Juius Caesar did indeed buy Servilia a pearl, worth six million sesterces. Suetonius reckons that she was JC’s favourite mistress…

3 Responses

  1. Stunning story, Fiona! And so clever, the way you literally hand the pearl from one character to the next, right across the eastern Empire to tell the story. Loved it. Xx

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