The story of two Margaritas
How Kenozero pearls were made smooth
In the summer of 1962, announcements appeared in the village of Ust-Pocha about the evening screening of a new film – Amphibian Man, a science fiction adventure. It was a full house. Workers, children, old men. The whole village came to see it. In the middle of the film, however, when Ichthyander dived for the pearl, the audience, filled with suspense, heard the sound of laughter. It was coming from Staritsyn:

"Sheer nonsense! How can a wild, uncultured pearl be hard and round?"

Sitting next to him was Margarita Pavlovna, a young teacher of physics. She got angry with the old man and said reproachfully he was no expert on Argentina. She didn't want him bother the audience with his comments.

Staritsyn got offended and left.

... Later in the evening Margarita Pavlovna heard a knock at her door. Standing at her window, squeezing his hat, was the movie projector operator, Leonid. What was he doing there?

"You shouldn't have hurt Staritsyn, Margarita Pavlovna. You aren't a local, you don't know he was a pearl hunter before the revolution, when he was young and lived near the Kena River."

"A what?" the younger teacher was surprised.

"The local rivers once abounded in pearl mussels. There wasn't a beach unlittered with clamshells. Pearl hunters used to sell their pearls to dealers who resold them in St. Petersburg and further to foreign countries. Russia was the largest pearl exporter back then. Buenos Aires didn't come even near. But you didn't know, did you?"

Leonid paused and finished Margarita Pavlovna off by asking her if she ever saw old portraits of women wearing kokoshniks on their heads strewn with pearls?

"Many Kenozero women had a kokoshnik like that. My grandmother kept one in her chest. She would wear it only on holidays. We gave it to a group of scientists who took it to a museum in Moscow."

Leonid left. Margarita Pavlovna barely slept that night. In the morning, she hitched a ride to Kargopol. She wanted to figure out what Leonid told her on her own. In Kargopol, she had a friend who was a biologist.

"Leonid was right. As was Staritsyn. Pearl hunting would be practiced in the Kena River every summer. They used special pipes to find the right clam. To check the quality of a pearl, they placed it on an inclined surface: if it rolled, it was round and therefore expensive. Round, even pearls would be used as adornment of kokoshniks – in Kenozero area, the headgear with flat bottom, ear covers and head band. The pearl-adorned kokoshnik was a signature design of Kargopol District. Do you know the Latin for European pearl mussel? Margaritifera margaritifera. Your namesake!"

... In the evening, Margarita Pavlovna went to Staritsyn to apologize for her words. A kind man, he accepted her apology and invited her to have tea and fish pie with him in God's corner of his hut.

"Dmitry Ivanovich, why pearl-bearing mussels are no more in our rivers?" she asked timidly. The man replied he and other pearl hunters had some guesses, which, however, were not to be told. They noticed that pearl mussels started to disappear with the start of timber harvesting and rafting down the local rivers. Pearl mussel is a species highly sensitive to pollution. Sunken logs and rotting bark had probably caused its population to decline."

Just before leaving, Margarita Pavlovna couldn't help asking what it was in the film that made Staritsyn laugh? The old man smiled ironically and said:

"You see, wild pearls are soft inside the clams. And rough. We had our own method of making them smooth and solid."

"What was that method?"

"We'd put them into our mouths and hold them there for a while. It wasn't easy making beauty."