He contemplated the coastline and began his vigil. The curtains flapped as the breeze floated through the cabin. Only the kettle’s whistle punctuated the silence. He labored to snap the leaves from the spearmint plant that sat upon the sill. Cup of tea in hand, he settled in his chair to wait. In the war between the sea and the shore, the surf was the vanguard, tireless in its motions, retaking the same ground every day.
Wave upon wave in ceaseless rhythms, the ocean summoned her as it drew upon grains of sand.
He traced the scar across his chin and throat. Though the years had softened the scar, blurring its edges into the surrounding skin, the images of 1944 remained as hard and defined as the cold metal of a bayonet. He shuddered; another war to end all wars had ended. And he, Michael Smithfield, became a nameless, voiceless fragment of history in the hell called Normandy. He did not have to close his eyes to see the blood that streamed from the fallen soldiers like bright red ribbons, darkening as it saturated the sand. He could still hear the cavernous moans of the dying ricocheting between the explosions.
He shifted his weight. Deliberate movements interrupted the memories, the haunted reverie. He watched the last two tourists as they tried in vain to shake the sand from their belongings. Like lemmings, the tourists came, their protocol irrevocable; day after day, lying in the stifling heat, their bodies browned and glistened like sausages sizzling in a summer smorgasbord.
She passed the window, and again he was transfixed. Her eyes, clear and blue, spoke the language of the heart, reflecting endless universes, evoking a forgotten magic. Hair, face, limb, and form conspired in disconcerting beauty. For this moment, there was no more perfect beauty anywhere; she was perfection in the way only the young can be.
Michael leaned forward in his chair and watched her walk to the beach, a silent witness to her rite.
Long ago, passion had left him. He had spent himself in women. Some were kind like the nurse he’d met while recuperating in an English hospital who served him tea, crumpets, and herself. Her old brass bed creaked as he bore into her in hushed desperation. Her muffled cries were the only other sound. The end of the war brought the end of their romance; nothing seemed as urgent, or as necessary.
The occasional woman strayed into his life but never bridged the distance. Sorrow stood with him on one side and the world across the way. Years after the war, he sought refuge, and finally with the ocean he found peace. He cherished the isolation, the anonymity—until the appearance of the girl whose passion was the ocean, a stranger wrapped in solitude, a cloak he shared.
Summer dwindled. Sitting at the window, he drank his tea, witness to her pilgrimage. Alone on the shore, she spoke to the sea, stretching her arms open as if attempting an embrace. Such exuberance, yet Michael sensed her melancholy.
Autumn touched down, gentle as a fallen leaf. The coolness of the day beckoned to him like some sweet siren. He wandered down the path, his thoughts raging like a sudden squall. The girl, the girl, the girl. They could take long walks and when the wind turned frigid, he imagined them sipping tea and warming themselves in front of the stove, hoping for an early spring and a return to the routine.
He walked the length of the beach and parked on a deserted sand bar. A flurry of gulls followed him, sighting him on high with a bomber’s precision, anticipating the bread he would share. He watched their shadows streak the sand, until another shadow fell upon him.
“May I feed the gulls, too?” She stood before him like a vision from a long-forgotten dream. He passed along a slice of bread, careful not to touch her, afraid that doing so would dispel the dream. The gulls swirled around them in a calliope of screeches. “You live in the cabin, don’t you?” Her voice sounded perilously small.
He nodded as he patted his shirt pocket and came up empty. In the early days, the notepad and pen had seemed as necessary as clothing. Over time, the need to communicate had grown less pressing in his quiet world. A low, gurgling rasp escaped his lips. The girl’s eyes widened. He drew the words in the sand with a shaking finger.
“Mute? You can’t speak,” she said. Dropping to her knees, she touched the scar. “Is this why?”
He flinched. How long had it been since anyone had reached out to him, even in curiosity? Wordlessly, she down beside him. They tossed bread into the sky as the gulls dropped through the air like mortars. Hovering, they caught the bread and then banked, drifting higher.
When the bread was gone, she looked to the sea. “I saw the mermaids once and heard them sing—a song so sweet it made me cry,” she said, “made me laugh.”
For once, he was glad he was unable to speak; he knew his voice would have betrayed him. He hoped his face didn’t announce his disbelief.
She smiled. “Perhaps you’ve heard them sing, too.” She walked to the place where ocean and shore met and extended her arms, pretending to balance as if on a high wire. He watched until she was out of sight, afraid to breathe for fear she would lose her balance and fall.
Day after day, she came to dance and wander the beach alone. He waited, knowing her parents would rescue her, as parents must do. At last they came, her father wearing his despair like a rank insignia, the weight nearly crushing him into the sand. The wind swallowed her mother’s pleas.
The girl seemed small beside them. The tide rushed about her ankles, dissolving footsteps. And when she was gone, still it lapped and slid and sucked at the shore, keeping time, time, time.
She would return.
Winter secured the area with its battering wind, putting an end to his daily treks. One morning he looked up to see her face pressed against the windowpane, mouthing words: “Good morning, Michael.” She made time for him every morning, if only to tap at the window and smile. He liked to think his nod to her was the permission she sought, that he alone could grant.
In the warmth of his cabin, he sipped tea and wondered if she was smiling at him or the ocean. It did not matter. He smiled to her and their ocean. In these moments, he felt content like the white- and gold-speckled koi drifting among the artificial reefs in the city aquarium. It was a peculiar arrangement, their lives briefly cast in a delicate balance.
Soon the weather grew too harsh and rainy for young girls, their dances, and their quest. Still she came, and he handed her the umbrella and offered her tea. But the fragile harmony had given way to an ominous hollow, and Michael began to dread the early morning drill. His notepad and pen were in his pocket for short notes to her, scrawled with an urgency gestures and expressions had so far failed to convey.
Each morning, he waited at the edge of the path with a mug of steaming tea, a heavy towel, and often his old umbrella. She dried her hair and dabbed at her soaked shoes, never speaking. Sometimes she would take a small sip of tea, and on rainy mornings, she took the umbrella with her to school. In the evenings, he found the umbrella propped against his door, returned by a dutiful father Michael rarely glimpsed.
During a week of terrible rains, the bitter cold reached deep into his soul with its icy breath. She coughed, a sound so terrible he thought it could not be contained in a body so slight. On his notepad, he scribbled his concern in shaky letters: Wait until spring. It will be here soon enough. The rain splashed the notepaper, spreading the ink. Like a scream underwater, the message went unheeded. What did it matter that he could not speak? There were no words that she could hear. The whorls of her ears were like those of little conches, knowing only the sound of the sea.
He was afraid; she saw it in his eyes. “I’ve heard the mermaids sing,” she said. “I will always come. I must.” The edge in her voice was unsettling. He brushed away the rain and her tears and found her cheek warm to the touch. Too warm. He felt a despair he had not known in many years. The hopelessness that stands sentinel when the battle is nearly won, must be won, but the cost is too dear.
It was a frigid morning, and Michael woke late. He desperately hoped she had stayed away as he hurried to the path with a towel and an umbrella; there was no time for tea. He dropped both things on sight of her. She lay in the water as the surf foamed around her shoulders. He ran as old men run, calling out to her in voiceless screams. Picking her up, he stumbled and they both fell into the glacial waters. Her laughter made him weep.
In the cabin, he wrapped her in blankets. Stoking the stove, he believed that he prayed but could not be certain. Praying was a comfort long lost to him. She said they would come for her; it was only a short time before her parents knocked, her mother demanding, “Is she here?”
When she heard their voices, her eyes filled with tears. Anger and sadness flooded his small living room. Shaking, he drew the blanket around her chin and cradled her small frame, holding her fiercely, knowing they could not protect her.
Nor could he.
The woman clawed the air, cursing her invisible god. “Why, why?” Her pain was contagious, and Michael felt weakened. Her father lifted her from Michael’s arms and gently touched her fevered face.
A week of long days passed. Michael sat looking through his window. A hazy sun, its halo diffused, hung in the early sky. A solemn wind marched back and forth across the sands. His heart pounded and strained against his breast. He believed it did not break because it had stopped, frozen in grief.
He saw her struggle out of her coat and kick off her shoes. The wind surged, slapping her hospital gown against her bare buttocks. She stretched out her arms and embraced the sky. As he stumbled down the path, she paused as if she suddenly could hear his silent screams. Tears blinded him, but he saw her smile and then nod before she turned and walked into the sea. He ran. God, how he ran. The waves beat against his chest as he clawed the water and dove repeatedly. Exhausted, he stood waist deep as his body swayed back and forth with the ebbing tide.
She was no moon guiding the tide by her gaze, but a grain of sand given over to the motions, coming and going, at last gone.
The mermaid surfaced. Her bright eyes spoke the language of the heart, reflecting endless universes, evoking a forgotten magic. She sang, a song so sweet it made him cry; it made him laugh.
They will say it is not so, he thought, but I have heard the mermaids sing.