What to Do After Receiving a Starlit Pearl

by Mari Ness


1. When the starlit pearl arrives, place it against your skin immediately.

Do not take it off, for any reason.

2. Find some way to secure the pearl against your skin. Potential methods include soldering gold and silver bands that can be fastened to wrists, ankles, and necks to the pearl, a technique that should only be attempted with the assistance of a partner, to avoid the risk of severe burns; holding the pearl in a tight fist, trusting that you will remain awake – or be able to maintain the fist during sleep; or cotton bandages, leather straps, and silk cords, with the understanding that such materials may change their shape once submersed in water. 

An enchantment to hold the pearl may well be effective, but unwise. The seemingly simple solution of glue should not be used: not only is this a potential skin irritant, it will invariably place a barrier between the pearl and you, with potentially disastrous consequences. 

3. Pack carefully; you will not be allowed to bring more than the contents of one medium-sized sack – with the definition of “medium-sized” determined by the Holt.  Most occasions in the Nacre Holt are informal, with no particular dress required. You may, however, be invited to a formal banquet, which will require somewhat more elegance. The upper floors of the Nacre Holt contain delightfully warm waters and abundant light. The lower floors, however, are near freezing. Mortals are advised to bring wetsuits; others should consider preparing enchantments against the cold. Wearing furs of any kind – natural or synthetic – may be misinterpreted. Be prepared to lose every item you bring, and test your clothing in a pool before leaving, to ensure that you will be able to swim in it. Those with allergies to seafood are advised to bring any appropriate medications. 

4. Head to the ocean sung to you by the pearl. Do not rely on past accounts, or recent dreams: the Nacre Holt shifts on a regular basis, and is rarely in the same ocean for more than a few months.

5. Touch the pearl lightly to the salt waters, and wait on the shore.

6. If necessary, take some anti-nausea medications or enchantments.

7. When the song arrives, step upon it firmly.

8. Of course it’s safe. It’s a mermaid song.

9. As long as you keep the pearl against your skin, of course.

10. And as long as you don’t fall off.

11. Try not to think of everyone who has drowned beneath the salt-waves.

12. Keep your eyes closed against the rush of salt water.

13. When the song stops, open them.

14. Do not panic. Keep the starlit pearl against your skin.

15. Do not try to take a deep breath. You do not want to cake your throat with salt. 

16. Remember, their eyes are up there. It is considered inappropriate at best to focus on the iridescent tails and hands, however mesmerizing their beauty; highly offensive at worse. Unless, of course, one agrees to take you as a lover. In which case, allow your eyes to wander wherever they wish, once in the privacy of a coral chamber. Before that point, be cautious.

17. Do not look too closely at the coral structures, especially the structures that resemble cages and mortal skeletons. You cannot risk showing discomfort.

18. Be cautious when eating. Any dish that resembles fish or seaweed will probably be safe for consumption, but many foods will be laced with toxins – both the natural and supernatural kind.

19. Do not scratch your neck or the base of your spine.

20. We repeat: do not scratch your neck or the base of your spine.

21. Do attempt to attend at least one of the musicales; the sound of the members of the Nacre Holt singing through their instruments of coral, urchin shells, and sea nettles is not to be missed.

22. Ignore any bones in the bedchamber that you are escorted to.

23. Again, do not let the pearl lose contact with your skin.

24. Do not attempt to race any members of the Nacre Holt. But do accept any other invitations that they may extend: this may well be your only chance to dance with beaked whales on a seamount bathed in the light of bioluminescent corals, an opportunity that even the greatest of the faerie Courts on land cannot offer.

25. Do not panic at anything you may see on your skin. Remember: light behaves oddly beneath the salt waves, and what you think you see may only be a pattern created by swirling water, or a passing school of fish.

26. Try to give a gift each day to your hosts. This need not be physical: the members of the Nacre Holt delight in poetry, music and images of stars. If you are capable of using an underwater electronic device that can display photographs, you may be able to extend your stay for several moons.

27. When you are dismissed – and you will be dismissed; the Nacre Holt has never allowed anyone not born in the Holt to remain for long – do not argue. Instead, consider what wonders you can see, now that you have gills deep within your neck, and fish scales on your skin. 

© Copyright Mari Ness


Other work by Mari Ness appears in Tor.com, Clarkesworld, Lightspeed, Nightmare, Uncanny, Apex, Fireside, Diabolical Plots, Translunar Travelers Lounge, Strange Horizons and Daily Science Fiction. Her chapbook, Dancing in Silver Lands, won the 2021 Outwrite Fiction Chapbook Competition. Her poetry novella, Through Immortal Shadows Singing, is available from Papaveria Press; an essay collection, Resistance and Transformation: On Fairy Tales, from Aqueduct Press; and a collection of tiny fairy tales, Dancing in Silver Lands, winner of the 2021 Outwrite Chapbook Competition Fiction, from Neon Hemlock Press. For more, visit marikness.wordpress.com, or follow her on Twitter at @mari_ness.  She lives in central Florida, where she does not visit the ocean nearly enough.


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