“There are mermaids in the water,” Pa always began. This was the preface to my brother’s favorite story.
Pa would tell us how, if you were still and silent long enough at the edge of the dock, you could spy the shimmering green-gray of their fish tails as they flashed and disappeared. He said this mysterious disturbance near the water’s surface was the mermaids satisfying their curiosity about us, the air creatures. The reason no one ever saw them, he said, was that they could swim faster than the fastest horse could run. All they had to do was flick their tails and they could dart out of sight as quick as you please.
“Where do they go?” My brother would ask.
Pa would lower his voice and hunch forward in his chair, as if he was telling us a secret. “Back across the sandy plain, through the fields of kelp, down the tumbled rock mountain to their sunken palace, made from a grand ship that foundered hundreds of years ago.”
It wasn’t hard to imagine. The sea near our small fishing village had a mystic quality born of the sea shanties and folktales that circulated endlessly. The stories were mostly about mermaids, but there were also some about selkies, sea serpents, and the lady in white who walked the sands of the bay at low tide, keening for her love long lost at sea.
My little brother believed in these tales implicitly. He would sit at my father’s knee, wide-eyed, as Pa wove magic with his voice. I would join them by the fireside on chilly autumn nights when my mother and I had finished washing dishes. The warm firelight bathed the small front room of our cottage in a flickering glow. Pa would sit in his favorite chair, his figure made mythic in stature by the gigantic shadow silhouetted on the wall behind him. The rising and falling cadence of his words entranced me, but I wasn’t as gullible as my brother. I interrupted with impertinent questions, or loudly made noises of disbelief when he came to a part that tried my patience. My brother, meanwhile, would glare at me with his sea-gray eyes and wave his hands for silence so he could properly listen. He loved those stories. To him they weren’t make-believe.
If my father was a born storyteller, my brother was a born dreamer. I, on the other hand, was a skeptic. “Maggie would not see a mermaid even if one slapped her in the face with its tail,” my brother would say. “She has no magic.”
My pa would laugh, big and booming, and ruffle my curls. “She needs evidence, my Maggie. She don’t trust her eyes alone. As willful as the sea, this one!”
The damp air clung to my skirt and made my skin clammy. My brother, who always led the way, darted in and out of the haze like a ghost.
On misty mornings when my father was fishing, my mother would send my brother and me to take him an early lunch. The docks would be wet, and on calm days, the sea beyond the bobbing boats would be as smooth as glass. The waves would make a gentle lapping sound, like a dog drinking water. We would race to where my father anchored his small wooden boat, weaving our way through the mist. The damp air clung to my skirt and made my skin clammy. My brother, who always led the way, darted in and out of the haze like a ghost. We would eat with my father on the dock, our legs swinging a few feet above the water, my brother’s face smeared with the gravy from our mother’s best meat pasties. Afterward Pa would row back out to sea, the mist closing around him like a giant’s hand. “Look after Moony,” he would call to me. “And mind you’re home in time to help with chores.”
We had an hour or two, then, before the mists evaporated and it was time to return to our cottage on the cliff. I would troll the beach for pretty stones for my mother or, better yet, sea glass for my collection. Meanwhile, my brother would sit motionless at the edge of the dock, staring into the depths and waiting for his mermaid. I was often hard-pressed to tear him away when it was time to go home.
“C’mon, Ma’s going to be angry if we’re late again.”
“But Maggie…” He never gave me a good enough reason to risk the anger of our mother, and my impatience made me bossy.
“Hush, you. Come!”
He would drag his feet all the way back. No matter how much I chided or yanked on his arm, he would always pause, over and over, to stare longingly at the sea.
“That boy is somewhere else,” my ma would say. “Sometimes I think he would fly out the window if I let him.”
“Moony’s always mooning,” Pa would reply. Ma would never have anything to say in return. Instead, she would look at my brother — his hazy blond halo of hair, his small grubby hands — and a wondering would be in her eyes.
On a day when the mists were almost opaque, when the sea was blue-green one minute, roiling charcoal the next, I was longer than usual on the beach. My father had given me a sand dollar, and it so fascinated me I became determined to add to its number. My eyes scoured the shore, but I made sure to lift my head every now and then to look for the tiny speck that was my brother at the end of the dock, unidentifiable but for the red of his favorite sweater my mother had knitted. He was a bright dot against the gray of the shifting water beyond, which was getting choppier as the wind intensified. The crests of the waves were as white as bone.
I recalled our conversation from earlier that morning. It had been Moony and I standing at the crossroads of our two separate, well-trodden paths. “Come to the dock today,” he had said, his eyes shining. His voice still held onto the sweet notes of babyhood. “I want to show you something.”
I brushed him off. “What? And watch you mope and daydream all afternoon? No thanks. Besides, I have something important to do.”
“Please, Maggie, I have something to show you—” his small hand reached for my own.
Annoyed, I had shrugged out of his grasp. “Get off! I told you, I don’t have time for your nonsense. I’ll come for you when it’s time to go home.” As I turned and trotted off toward the beach, the wind carried away his shrill protests and tossed them out to sea.
I crouched in a scientist’s pose to unearth a perfect sand dollar. The bleached white skeleton was smooth and cool in my palm.
Soon enough, I forgot all about him. My search up and down the beach was the only thought in my head. The shore was a kaleidoscope of hues: the bigger rocks that were all shades of cloudy gray, watercolor blue and wispy lavender, leading to the thin strip of fine sediment just out of reach of the white foam of the receding tide. This was where I might find my sand dollar.
It was a long time before I spied treasure, a white edge protruding from the sand. I descended upon my bounty with zeal, stumbling over the rocks in my sturdy boots. I crouched in a scientist’s pose to unearth a perfect sand dollar. The bleached white skeleton was smooth and cool in my palm. I held it close to my eyes, poring over every angle.
When the wind started tossing my curls wildly about my head, I realized the mist had gone. We were going to be home late. Worse, I looked up the beach and saw I had gone too far—my point of orientation, my brother’s red sweater, wasn’t visible. Clouds were building themselves into monsters on the horizon, and the waves thundered onto the beach and ravaged the stone and sand. With these portents warning me, I started back, walking quickly.
As I neared the docks, my stomach dropped. Distance hadn’t obscured my brother from my sight; rather, he wasn’t there at all.
I began to run. The slippery rocks tripped me up, making my steps slow and floundering. The gale blowing in from the ocean slammed into me, as if it wanted to stop me. I ran against it and panted, tasting the briny salt in the air from the churning sea. All the while, my eyes were scanning the harbor for that dot of red.
I reached the last dock and ran full speed down its length, my pace finally able to match my urgency. I skidded straight to the edge, eyes wild, blood roaring through my veins. The sea crashed below me. White spray misted my arms and face. I screamed his name, but the wind ripped it from my throat and snatched it away. My eyes darted to the sea, to the swells coming in so high that they lapped over the dock and soaked my boots. Like the dock, the sea was empty. No small shape floated in its icy grasp, but I was not comforted.
My legs carried me away before I knew what I was about. Fueled by panic, I ran back down the dock, my footsteps pounding on the rotting wood. I flew up the hill to the cottage cliffs. The harbor and the village were merely a blur as I passed; they might as well have not existed. The wind pinched my face and dried the tracks of tears on my cheeks. I sprinted into our yard, warm all over. The muscles of my legs felt spongy and insubstantial. I could still hear the sea roaring like a caged animal, a wild thing no one could ever tame.
She was about to bend over to retrieve the wash basket, but I saw something register with her, something automatic. Only one child safe home — not two.
My mother was ripping the wash from the line. She saw me out of the corner or her eye and yelled, “Maggie, get inside, a storm’s coming!” She was about to bend over to retrieve the wash basket, but I saw something register with her, something automatic. Only one child safe home — not two. In a second, she turned toward me, her eyes skimming the road behind me as if she expected him to come loping along. He was always late, always falling behind.
“Where’s your brother?” she shouted, a frown pulling down the corners of her mouth.
I did not answer, not immediately. Her gaze latched onto my face; she had interpreted my pause instantly. Something was wrong. In another beat she took in my appearance — wild hair, bright red cheeks, tear-stained face.
She rushed at me and grabbed my shoulders. “Maggie, you’re scaring me. Where is he? Did something happen?”
The wind whipped around us. Ma’s words were lost to its howling, even though she was shouting in my face. Cold drops of rain started to pelt us, gaining in intensity with every second, though I could not even feel the chill of it. When I remained silent, Ma shook my shoulders. “Maggie!”
The litany in my head was screaming at me. It had kept up a constant refrain ever since my race up the beach: My fault. My fault. The truth exploded out of me. “He’s gone!” I sobbed. I felt myself reeling, becoming hysterical. My fault. My fault. My baby brother, barely old enough to read.
As my mother’s panicked gaze turned to the ocean, the world around me closed in on itself until darkness enfolded me.
Days came and went, then weeks, in a slow agony of unfurling time. Pa and men from the village searched every crevasse of the bay and the shallows of the water. The women organized search parties to explore inland—a waste of time, but I kept such thoughts to myself. Ma cried herself to sleep most nights, and I sat a long vigil, staring out the window for a dot of red that never materialized.
The sorrow wouldn’t end. My little brother was gone. I blinked and he vanished, just as a character in the stories he loved. The only problem was, as he himself had once said, I had no magic in me. My father’s tales were no more than words. My brother had disappeared, and there was nothing to believe but that he had drowned in the angry sea.
* * *
It was a long time before I could return to the harbor. I became a stranger to the docks and the beach. I did not even go back to look for my beloved specimens. The sea had betrayed me. I hated its changeable nature, its willfulness. I hated the folktales of the village and their superstitions. I buried my head in science books and waited for the day when I could escape everything, including my guilt. I grew older, but my brother’s shadow haunted me. My parents did not blame me, but an old refrain niggled in a tiny place in the back of my mind: My fault. My fault.
The time finally came when I was set to leave for the city. My devotion to my studies had secured me a scholarship at the university. I would study marine biology from a safe distance, through books and papers and lectures. I couldn’t wait to leave the seaside behind. Every crash of the ocean, every whisper of the tide coming in, reminded me of my brother, and I wanted nothing more than to forget.
I brought my father lunch for the last time when he rowed in from fishing—my mother’s famous meat pasties tucked in a basket. The day was calm. We sat together at the edge of the dock and ate, just like old times. Memories swarmed around us, the past edging its way in. Where our two sets of legs dangled over the dock, there had once been three. I couldn’t help thinking: he would have been taller than a post, our mooning Moony, with awkward hands and gigantic feet like Pa. Instead, the past froze him; he would never be taller than the height of my shoulder when I was ten years old, a little boy with dream-dust in his eyes.
Pa was different now. His booming laughs had long since quieted, and his stories had all but dried up. We were mostly silent as we sat eating our lunch. Still, when he rowed back out over the water, there was a faint glimmer of a twinkle in his eye. Grief had not completely put out his fire. He had one last thing to say to me before his boat disappeared into the fog, one final nudge before I surrendered myself to an inland life.
“The sea is a willful thing,” he called over his shoulder. “Don’t go just because you can’t forgive it. Your brother wouldn’t want it.”
I didn’t answer. I waved until he was lost to my sight, then stood looking out to sea for a long, long time.
It wasn’t a cold day, but the wind was chilly. I was just turning to leave, my mind on hot tea, when I saw it: a shimmer beneath the undulation of the waves—a flash quicker than a blink. I gaped, stared, and dropped to my knees, my hands braced on the rough, rotting wood of the dock. My eyes searched the sea, doubt coloring my heart. The stories—the stories I had never believed in—was it possible?
As if to answer my question, I saw something floating a few feet out, something I was sure hadn’t been there before. I strained my arm, reaching, my muscles tensed all the way down to my fingertips. I barely snagged the thing. As I pulled it from the icy water, I realized it was some sort of clothing.
A sweater—faded and soggy beyond recognition, but not to me.
My heart pounded in my ears as I stared at the impossible thing in my hands. The wool was heavy with dampness, and the fibers were coming apart. Once it had been red, like the freshest cherries of spring. There was a hole under the armpit, the one Ma had patched hundreds of times, once just big enough for a tiny finger to wiggle through, now stretched out long and thin. I turned the cloth over, automatically searching for the tiny breast pocket. My mother added this detail to all his shirts, because he had loved to stow miniature treasures.
There it was. My two trembling fingers just fit inside.
It wasn’t empty. Out of the pocket, I plucked a tiny sand dollar.
Tears wet my eyelashes as I sat riveted on the edge of the dock, the very place where my life had split in two. I turned my face toward the ocean and felt the salt breeze kiss my face and tangle my hair. I let my gaze move out to sea, clutching the soaking sweater in my lap. I held the sand dollar in my fist so tightly I could feel it leaving an imprint on my palm.
My grief ebbed like the tide. It was there that I finally believed.