Mermaid Tears

The boy had been flying high, high over the trees, when the dream began to fade. He shut his eyes tighter, trying to stay aloft, until he realized that he was awake — and not in his own bed.

It all clicked before he had opened his eyes: his favorite third-floor room; his Granny’s summer house on the great lake; and two whole weeks before heading home for school. He rolled onto his back and listened for the familiar sounds of buzzing lawn mowers and the yapping of Mrs. Wallace’s ancient terrier next door. Instead, a gust of wind rustled the branches of the giant oak tree out front and whistled its way through a crack in the wallboards. He could hear waves slapping at the underside of the old wood dock and the metallic pinging of sailboat riggings down the harbor.

He drew the covers up to his chin, resigned to the fact it would be one of those days when he would have to make do without his fire-engine red bicycle (and its new speedometer), or diving off docks, or hunting for newts and Indian arrowheads in the woods.

• • •

If his parents had been there, they would have already made plans to take the boy and his sisters across the harbor for errands in town followed by a rainy day treat of whitefish sandwiches and chocolate Thunderclouds at Juilleret’s. But they had gone home to pick up the girls from theater camp, leaving the boy, as always, to spend the last weeks of summer vacation with his Granny. It was their special time together.

On blustery days his Granny rarely went out, preferring to sit in her yellow arm chair by the big picture window, quietly working on her needlepoint, sipping her elevenses from a tall, green glass, and listening to a baseball game being played in some sunny city far from the lake.

• • •

He stood with his nose pressed against the screen door, watching a skinny earthworm slinking across the slippery red tiles. The canvas storm awnings, already dark and soaked, snapped angrily as they billowed in and out like square-rigged sails. The wind carried the smell of wet sand and not-so-dried-out minnows from the back of the beach.

“There’s nothing to do,” he sighed, loud enough for his Granny to hear.

“Close the door, and come sit. I have a little something for you,” his Granny called to him.

He perched in his usual spot on the arm of her chair and waited as his Granny fished deep inside her lumpy knitting bag and brought out a small parcel of loosely wrapped tissue paper.

“This is one of my most favorite treasures from a long, long time ago,” she explained in a gentle voice. “It was given to me by my grandfather, your great grandfather, when I was about your age — the summer I met a most wonderful friend, don’t you know…” her voice trailed off recalling another time. “You see,” she continued, “I collect little things just like you. It’s time this was yours.”

As the tissue paper fell away, he held a box made of delicate, pale brown birch bark. Smooth, white porcupine quills tipped with black swirled across the top, then spilled over the sides in straight, even lines. The quill box was edged with strands of fragrant sweet grass whose rising, soft scent reminded him of picnics in a sunny meadow.

He carefully pulled off the top. Inside was a single layer of startlingly beautiful beach glass, each frosted piece about the size of his thumbnail. There were rich emerald greens and lovely warm ambers; there were the palest of pinks, turquoises, and violets; cool aquamarines and one splendid cobalt blue. Held up to the gray light of the window, the multicolored drops could have been rare gemstones.

He smiled and buried his head in the soft, warm folds of his Granny’s sweater, silent thanks offered in his embrace.

• • •

He ran up the back stairs to his room, flopped onto his bed, and carefully spilled the brilliant jewels across the white nubbins of the bedspread. He sorted them by color and by size. He admired them arranged in lines and circles before finally returning them to the beautiful quill box and safely tucking his new treasure under his pillow.

In the coziness of his garret room with the steady patter of the summer rain, the boy soon dozed off — and drifted into another flying adventure. This time, instead of soaring through the air, he dreamed he was gliding underwater like an otter.

• • •

The next morning was crisp and clear. Across the oiled dirt road out back and beyond the sand dunes a lone sailboat was slowly heading up the blue-green bay. By the time the side screen door had smacked behind him, the toes of his canvas sneakers were wet and cold from the dewy grass. He followed the path that led off through the sumac bushes to the shore. Horsetails and sharp beach grass scratched at his legs as he made for the old lighthouse with its massive glass eye at the end of the point.

He left his sneakers on a weathered plank half-buried in the sand and was soon wading through the cold, translucent water in slow, measured steps, like a great blue heron hunting for its breakfast. Few people ever explored the end of the point past the blackened pilings of the old Coast Guard jetty. That was surely where his Granny would have collected her beautiful beach glass as a young girl and that is where he was determined to find another piece or two to add to the quill box.

Every now and then he would stop, look, and pluck the odd pebble off the sandy bottom. If he found a flat, round skipper he would skip it sidearm across the lake or into gaps between the slats of the sagging breakwaters.

In the mirrored surface of the water, the boy saw reflected his face and a dazzling sun in a cloudless sky. As he stared, mesmerized for a moment by the wavery reflections, the face suddenly shifted. The eyes blinked. The mouth smiled. The face disappeared.

• • •

Off to his left, close to shore, a small splash startled him out of his reverie. As the ripples slowly spread outward, a young girl’s face gently rose to the surface and broke into the same beautiful smile; dark hair glistening, twinkling eyes shining at once green, blue, and jet-black.

Then, with an elegant toss of her head and a dramatic flick of a shimmering aquamarine tail, she flipped backward sending a perfect plume of water over his head. In that split second, he forgot all about his search for beach glass.

• • •

The front of his shirt was soaked and cold against his skin, proof, sort of, that his imagination was not playing tricks on him. Then again, he thought, it could be an elaborate practical joke. Just to be sure he shot a glance over his shoulder to see if someone was in stitches behind the dunes. Nothing stirred. Satisfied, the boy knelt down, absently swirling the water into eddies with his fingers, and hoping the fantastic vision would reappear.

He never noticed the swiftly moving shadow that returned along the dark line dividing the shallows and the cold blue drop off. Nor did he see the mermaid turn and glide gracefully toward him like a living torpedo, both arms extended, one hand outstretched toward his, until as if by magic, the tips of their fingers touched.

• • •

The rest of the boy’s summer passed in delicious slow motion. For a few hours every morning, before the wind could churn the flat calm of the bay into milky blue waves, the boy and the mermaid frolicked in the shoals near the lighthouse. When a fisherman on his way to Bear Island came in close, or if Jim Gregan chugged past in the June Bug on his way to town for groceries, the boy would half-heartedly wave. His friend never batted an eye.

The boy taught her how to fling the perfectly flat, white beach stones into Olympian 10- and 12-skippers. She showed him how to play hide-and-seek with the tiny rockfish and sand-colored crayfish that lived in the shallows. They launched driftwood battleships with stone cairns for decks and lobbed rocks at them like naval admirals conducting target practice.

Each day he brought her a new treat; a bunch of spicy wintergreen, his Granny’s peach ice cream packed in a cup of ice, or a box of dark red raspberries from the prickly hedge behind the house. She brought up treasures from the cold, deep lake: a fossil whose quartz-filled chambers sparkled in the sun like a thousand tiny diamonds; a smooth grey-blue agate as big as his fist; an enormous Petoskey stone; and a gold coin from a wrecked lake steamer.

The boy’s colorful stories about his home and his travels — like soaring across the sky in airplanes and visits to bustling cities full of people, cars, and trucks — amazed and amused her. She clapped her delicate hands and burbled a watery, musical laugh, especially over tales of classroom pranks or his sisters’ antics on stage.

• • •

The mermaid’s enchanted history and underwater adventures held the boy spellbound. She shared secrets of the great lake that made him shiver — tales of ghostly shipwrecks, subterranean caverns, and enormous freshwater creatures that no boy had ever seen. She told of times long before people and houses had appeared on her point, when her only friends from the land were the creatures that came to feed or drink at the water’s edge — the raccoons and bears, white-tailed deer, or the occasional wolverine. And she told the boy of the night she had watched by moonlight an entire Indian village rise near the shore and of how, many years later, the long houses, their inhabitants, and the glowing cooking fires disappeared without a trace.

She also told the boy how much he reminded her of two special friends from the past — a gangly boy with a wild sense of humor and long after, a winsome girl with blond ponytails. Like the boy, both had seen her, and for those two brief heartbeats in her long life in the great lake, she had been very happy indeed.

Now they, too, were best friends on the edge of two worlds.

• • •

The mornings had become perceptibly cooler, signaling the end of summer; yet the day of the long drive home seemed to come without warning, and all too soon. The workmen showed up one morning and set about taking off the screens, putting up storm shutters, and battening down the house for the long, cold winter. The boy’s after-breakfast chores seemed to take forever, including collecting his laundry, packing his duffle bag and backpack, and hauling both out to the sidewalk to be loaded in the station wagon. It was late morning by the time he made a beeline for the beach.

The mermaid was waiting in her usual spot when he came puffing over the dunes. She watched him kick off his sneakers in the tall beach grass and run to meet her, as always, but noticed an anxious, far-away look in his searching eyes. She playfully slapped the water with her glistening tail and sent a well-aimed splash his way. He never flinched. He stood dry and unmoved, staring straight through her as if she were not there.

A glistening tear welled up in each eye, blurring her view of the boy. She felt a familiar sadness, the same pang from long ago when another summer friend had tried to say goodbye. The tears began to flow, each falling into the lake with a soft hiss and a sputter like so many drops of molten glass.

The mermaid slid backward into the great lake and was gone.

• • •

The boy stood for a long time, anxiously scanning the shoreline, hoping for her familiar wave or splash or even the tiniest ripple to signal her presence. The only movement came from a yellow birch leaf that scuttled past him like a tiny canoe. With his head down, he turned to go — and froze; his eye caught by a flash of color in the shallows.

His heart pounding, he carefully scooped up a small handful of sand and pebbles and plucked out two brilliant sapphire-blue shards of beach glass. He spotted another by his foot — of pale lavender— and another, as red as a ruby. The boy rinsed them in the clear water and dried them on his shirt. They were like teardrops — pure and flawless.

• • •

There were many more summers in the house by the great lake and even more early morning expeditions along the shore. And on those peaceful summer mornings with the sun burning off the last wispy fingers of fog, he would remember his Granny seated in her yellow chair by the big window, the special porcupine-quill box, and, yes, their summer friend.

As for the quill box, it still holds the perfume of warm Indian grass on a summer’s day — and its precious treasure of mermaid tears.

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