At this singular spot on the Sea of Japan, bright blue-white bubbles float one or two meters above the water. As the bubbles burst, spoken words pop out.
Sakichi and Hikedo see and hear this and it sends fear into their hearts as they prepare to dive. They reassure each other that they must be imagining things as Fumiya has been dead for over two years. They are as sure of his death as they are of the bowline knots they used to secure net bags filled with rocks to his body. They know how to tie knots. It’s an occupational necessity. The fear grips them and they head for a different oyster bed in search of pearls.
Sakichi and Hikedo are “Ama-san” or “women of the sea”, freediving women who retrieve abalone, sea snails, and especially pearls from the deep waters. Steeped in tradition, it’s a way of life that has been passed from mother to daughter for over 3,000 years. Techniques for increasing lung capacity, learning to read ocean currents, and knowing where to find prized pearls are shared between mother and daughter. These are cherished family secrets and a means of ensuring a family’s livelihood.
Ama can hold their breath for as long as two minutes as they dive. Traditionally, they dove wearing only a loincloth and a headscarf adorned with symbols which brought luck to the diver and warded off evil. Nowadays, the Ama don wet-suits and diving masks. Belonging to the sea and being part of the web of marine life, they eschew the use of oxygen tanks.
Over the course of centuries, the ocean spirit has insinuated itself into the hearts of the Ama and they have become part salt beings and part human. They know the life of the sea and can converse with the creatures who live there. These same creatures had warned them long ago of the dangers of over-harvesting which would destroy life; theirs, the abalone, the fish, the oysters, the zooplankton, and the 8,000 other forms of life in this sea. The Ama listen to the living ocean. They accept guidance. They understand limits.
Now, rumors of the discovery of red pearls threatens their livelihood with the possibility that hordes of careless divers will soon invade. It has already brought a man into the sea. A sea that the Ama dearly love and fiercely defend. And one man, Fumiya, was responsible for this. Truth to tell, it was no rumor. Every Ama knew about the red pearls, where they were, and the need to protect them. And every Ama was sworn to secrecy knowing that the red pearls are a secret of the sea, not to be shared with the world in fear of man’s greed.
Fumiya was from Toba, the same village as Sakichi and Hikedo. They had known him for most of their lives and never held him in any high regard. He was unmarried, which was uncharacteristic for men in this area. Like witches of the past, simply because they lived alone, there was suspicion about whether he worshiped the Onibi (鬼火). The Onibi are spirits born from the corpses of malicious people who held intense grudges and have become cold fire. They appear as small blue-white balls of flame. Living creatures that draw too close are swarmed by dozens of these blue-white orbs and all life force is drained from their victims leaving nothing behind but a dead husk. The Onibi are greedy denizens of the realm of hungry ghosts.
How Fumiya heard of the red pearls was a mystery. Some Ama suspected that Onibi spirits may have told him in a dream but it was more likely that his mistress, an Ama herself, may have muttered something in her sleep or in a drunken moment. Regardless, Fumiya’s fate was sealed. It wasn’t a complicated problem. Fumiya had to die. The sea said as much.
After being under water for less than a minute, Hikedo was the first to notice the air bubbles coming up over the oyster beds. Motioning to Sakichi, they swam toward the bubbles. A man in scuba gear was working on the oyster bed, prying carelessly at the living beings. In a shared instinctual moment, they knew what must be done.
The next day the man was back. Sakichi and Hikedo were prepared. With Fumiya’s attention focused downward on the oyster bed, they swam swiftly toward the bubbles and then silently dove towards him. Coming up behind him, Hikedo wielded her isonomi, normally used to pry abalone off the rocks, and with a single deft move sliced through Fumiya’s scuba breathing tube. As Fumiya struggled for air, Sakichi wrapped him tightly in the rope normally used to attach their wooden barrel diving buoy. It was over in less than a minute. Sakichi and Hikedo nodded at each other. For them, Fumiya had died of natural causes. The Ama, like nature itself, are not malevolent but they are exacting.
With Fumiya dead, they quickly attached a net bag filled with rocks to his diving belt and let him sink. They then rose to the surface for the Isobue or “sea whistle”, used to relax the Ama during short surfacing intervals. It’s a unique breathing technique with a long and slow exhalation with the upper lip drawn over the lower. Their Isobue complete, they dove back to the body as if diving for pearls.
Unhooking the net bag, they swam away from the oyster beds with Hikedo pulling Fumiya’s body and Sakichi pulling the rock bag. They surfaced twice before getting to the prepared location where another net bag of rocks was stored. With both bags tied securely to Fumiya’s diving belt, Sakichi and Hikedo let the body sink to the ocean floor and swam away. Not looking back, they didn’t see the small bright blue-white bubbles rising from the deep. Like so many, Fumiya became what he worshipped. Another Onibi was born.
Now, when Ama mothers speak to daughters and share the secret of where the red pearls are found, they add a cautionary tale of the Onibi. In the waters near the oyster beds, they are told to watch for blue-white orbs of flame floating above the water. They are sternly advised to stay a good distance from the Onibi and from any man who would suck the spirit out of them.