Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008 Cora Rubin arrived at Fishgold’s Bungalow Colony with three trunkloads of cruise wear and accessories, her twelve-year-old daughter Hazel, and her dog in tow, causing a stir among the old folks who were sitting on the porch of the Main […]
Month: December 2008
Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008 After he died, my friend Episcopal Johnson was reincarnated as a dazzling and luminous shade of blue. We have yet to decide if this is an improvement. We still sit in our favorite brick-walled coffee shop, surrounded by people who […]
Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008
Block prints by Cynthia Reeser
I’LL NEVER FORGET how she feels in my arms at this moment, her warmth, her weight, and the beat of her small heart. My arms mold themselves around her small body. She is the most beautiful baby I have ever seen. Her skin is soft, and so pale it almost seems translucent. She has wide, round eyes the color of aquamarines. Her hair, which is little more than fuzz, is already the pale yellow of the sun reflecting through the water. She has the same short, stubby tail as all baby mermaids, but its color is already bright, the same vibrant orange of my favorite sea anemone’s.
She gazes up at me with her clear, blue eyes and I know that she recognizes me as her mother. She coos and cuddles closer to me. I close my eyes and pretend that she will always know me; that she will always know who her mother is.
“BEING A SORCERESS is a gift,” my mother often reminded me. “Don’t ever misuse your power or take it for granted.”
I was taught the responsibilities and history of my craft when I was very young. My mother would tell me stories of my grandmother, great-grandmother, and all the women of my line who came before them. I learned spells and incantations the same way that other children were taught to read and write, and I loved every second of my lessons. I felt grown up and full of wisdom and power when I practiced mixing potions and casting spells. And when my lessons were concluded for the day, I would watch as my mother received visitors.
Mother’s visitors began arriving in the early evening and continued until late in the night; she never turned anyone away. It was amazing to watch her work. She would drift around the room grabbing bottles and vials from shelves and mixing potions that turned homely girls into great beauties, aged mer-folk into youths and made people fall in and out of love. Most of her visitors, though, came for hope; for cures to illnesses that were beyond helping.
When at last we were alone, she tucked me into bed. I lay with my head on her lap and she smoothed my hair away from my face and twisted it through her fingers. She sang me human songs and told me their fantasy stories about beautiful princesses with fairy godmothers who made their dreams come true and evil stepmothers who tried to kill them with poisoned apples. I fought to stay awake to listen to all she had to say, but inevitably, I would close my eyes and drift to sleep in her arms. This was our ritual for as long as I can remember.
IN MY EYES, my mother was the most beautiful mermaid in the ocean. Her hair was long, black and flowing, and it billowed around her as she mixed her potions and cast her spells. Her skin was tanned from all of the hours she spent basking in the sun in the world above the ocean. Unlike any other mermaid I have ever known, she was drawn to that other world. She was fascinated by humans and their way of life. Her love of that strange, foreign world only made her more mysterious and fantastic to me.
Because of this intense fascination, on my fifteenth birthday when I was able to make my first trip to the surface, it was hard to tell who was more excited, my mother or me.
It was the middle of the night when mother said goodnight to her last visitor. She closed up her spell books and put away her bottles and vials and made sure her things were cleaned. Then, she came to me and took my hand in hers and led me from our home.
The first thing I noticed about the human world was the way the air felt; cold and invigorating. It felt like icy fingers touching my face and pulling through my hair. The sky was inky black and so clear that I could decipher the constellations with no trouble.
It was the most magical, beautiful night for me. Mother and I barely spoke; we were just there, taking in everything around us. The sun was just beginning to rise as we returned to our home. After that night, she and I returned to the surface every night together.
THE DAY BEFORE my eighteenth birthday, I woke to find my mother gone. A note told me that she had gone to the human world to run an errand for my birthday and that she would be back by lunchtime. I busied myself all morning cleaning and making sure that my mother’s bottles and jars were all filled and ready for that night’s visitors.
Lunchtime came and passed, though, and she still did not return. I wasn’t worried. Mother often got distracted when she visited the human world. There was always something new and exciting to see, and I looked forward to hearing about whatever it was when she came home.
That night was the first time in memory that mother’s visitors were turned away. I had terrible dreams while I slept, and the next morning, I woke up screaming. My mother was dead. I’d seen the whole thing in my dreams, in my head.
The first time I realized I had the gift of Seeing it was to witness my own mother’s death.
A young human man had fallen from his ship into the sea. With no thought for her own safety, she had tried to save him from a shark that was closing in on him. Her hastily murmured incantation had no effect on the shark, and she and the human had both been killed.
After her death, I never returned to the surface.
AFTER A WEEK in mourning, a week of turning away mother’s visitors, I began performing her duties. I was, of course, no novice at my craft. I had certainly practiced and observed enough with my mother to easily step into her role as sorceress.
Her visitors were not quick to accept me though, and their skepticism made my confidence falter. I was alone for the first time in my life and I suddenly had to make my own living. As an eighteen-year-old girl, though, I seemed to inspire incredulity at my abilities.
For several weeks, I barely had any visitors. The ones I did have often turned away when they found me instead of my mother. It wasn’t until a young girl came to see me for help that I found my confidence again.
She couldn’t have been more than six or seven. She was a pretty child with golden hair and bright violet eyes. I felt her fear and apprehension before she even knocked on my door. I ushered her inside and tried my best to make her comfortable.
“Tell me what you need,” I said to her, “I will try my best to help you.”
She looked up at me with her wide eyes. Her bottom lip began to tremble. “It’s… it’s my Daddy,” she said. “He’s sick. His head is burning hot. He doesn’t get out of his bed… He’s all I have in the world. I don’t want him to die.”
I nodded and put my arms around the girl. “How long has he been sick?”
“A few days.”
I put my hand under her chin and turned her face up so she could see me. I smiled reassuringly at her. “I can give you a potion for him to drink. He has to drink all of it.”
I went to my mother’s spell book and a short time later, I was waving goodbye to the little girl as she hurried home.
Her father came to thank me a few days later. He offered to pay me, but I refused his money. He paid me instead by spreading the word that I had saved his life.
Suddenly I was receiving a constant stream of visitors. They trusted me as wholly as they had trusted my mother. I was good at what I did. Helping others gave me a feeling of completeness that I never thought I’d know.
The night of my nineteenth birthday, almost a year since I had taken my mother’s place, the King came to me for the first time.
HE HAD COME to my mother once before, seeking a cure for his dying wife. His visit was the only time my mother ever ushered me out of the room and asked for some privacy. It was no secret, though, that the Queen was gravely ill. Her sickness was strange; no one knew what it was or how to cure it.
I’d never seen anyone look as heartbroken or desperate in my life. He and the Queen were supposed to be deeply in love with each other. She was very beautiful. I saw her once when I brought a potion to one of the palace servants from my mother. She had long, dark red hair, which she wore pulled loosely off of her face. She had pale skin, and a long, amethyst tail. Her eyes looked almost amber from far away. I had caught her eye while I waited for the servant, and she smiled warmly at me, like we were long-time friends. She and the King made a striking couple.
He was just as handsome as she was beautiful. When I was younger, I remember having a crush on him; a child’s infatuation. He was so young and handsome at the time.
The spells and incantations my mother tried came too late; the Queen died just a few weeks before her, leaving the King a widower with five young daughters.
HE STOOD IN the doorway of my home staring at me in disbelief. He had not heard about my mother’s death, and he was surprised to find a nineteen-year-old girl in her place.
“Maybe I’ve made a mistake,” he said, and he turned to leave.
“No, wait,” I went to him and took his hand. It was warm, and for an instant I forgot that I was touching the King’s hand. “I can help you if you’ll give me the chance.”
He stood there in the entranceway looking at me with his intensely blue eyes. He was so handsome. His strong jaw was covered with a neatly-trimmed beard, and his dark blonde hair seemed to curl in the currents.
He didn’t take his hand from mine. “I don’t want any magic from you,” he stated clearly. “I need your help; your advice.”
I squeezed his hand reassuringly. “Come in and sit down, then. Let me help you.”
He followed me into my living room, where I’d never taken a visitor before.
He was hesitant that first time. The only thing he could think about was how my mother was unable to save his wife. I felt his fears like they were my own. In a way, I suppose, my mother had failed us both. It was the only common thread in our lives.
I could see how lonely he was, even though he was constantly surrounded by his court-members. His uncertainty; his feelings of isolation and doubt were clearly visible in his face, his eyes, in the way he held himself.
What he needed the most was someone who would listen to him, someone who wasn’t going to judge him or force him to make decisions that weren’t right for him.
He was under tremendous pressure to remarry, not just from his advisors, but from himself. He felt this need to provide a new mother for his daughters; the oldest of the five was only eight, the youngest three. He didn’t want them to grow up not knowing the love of two parents. He wanted them to have a happy, normal life. He wanted them to feel safe and whole again.
HIS VISITS WERE random at first, but very soon became daily. He would arrive late at night after my last visitors were gone and he would stay until morning. He was all business at first. He asked for advice about affairs of state. Did I know of any planned uprisings? Would things continue to be peaceful and prosperous in his kingdom?
His visits became more frequent as our conversations became more intimate. He told me stories about his daughters. He talked about his oldest, Maura, and how she had assumed the role of mother to her sisters. He was afraid that she might have been forced to grow up too fast. We laughed over stories about sneaking treats from the palace kitchen and how they climbed into his bed at night to hear stories about his adventures before he was married to their mother.
“They miss her so much,” he confessed. “They try to pretend for my sake that everything is fine. I know better, though. I see the same loss in their eyes that I see in my own.”
“Talk with them, your Majesty, let them know that it is okay to miss her; to grieve for their loss. You are their father; you have to be there to listen to them and make them feel safe and loved.”
He looked at me, studied my expressions. I could see myself reflected in his eyes; saw myself as he saw me. I saw my pale skin, and my mother’s cloudy, gray eyes.
“Have you had anyone to comfort you after your loss?”
I shook my head. “No. I am alone.”
“What about your father? You have no family at all?”
I stood and began straightening things, a nervous habit I’ve always had. I was never comfortable talking about myself.
“My father died when I was just a baby. I never knew him, or any of his family. They did not approve of my mother.”
I turned, and found the King right beside me. He reached up and tucked a strand of my hair behind my ear; his fingers lingered along my cheek.
“I’m sorry,” he whispered.
“We’re past that, aren’t we? You mean more to me than just a subject, or an advisor. Please, I want to hear you say my name.”
“ Merrick.” His name felt unfamiliar, but right on my lips. He smiled, and I felt the warmth and affection flow from his fingers to my body. He leaned forward to kiss me, but I pulled away.
“What is it?”
“Your advisors, your court… What would they say if they found out?”
His arms went around my waist and he pulled me close. “They have no say. I will love and marry whomever I want.”
“You love me?”
He looked into my eyes, his own eyes smiling for the first time since he began coming to me. He lowered his mouth to mine. The warmth of his kiss was all the answer I needed. He loved me, and I him. That was all that mattered.
FROM THE MOMENT I discovered that I was with child, I knew I would lose her. For months, Merrick’s advisors had been filling his head with doubts and lies until he began to question me. They convinced him that I had cast a spell to make him love me, bewitching him so that I could become queen. All I am guilty of is loving the King and being loved by him in return. I only gave him what he needed. I gave him comfort and support.
Shortly after I learned that I was pregnant, I went to Merrick hoping that he would fulfill our dream and his promise of marriage. Instead, he seemed to crumple under the weight of the news.
“I need time to think,” was all he said.
I knew what he needed to think about. So many questions plagued him. How would our marriage look to his advisors? Were the things they were saying about me true? Did I really love him? Would I be safe living with him in his castle? Would they let me be his Queen?
Although being a sorceress was not against the law, and many of his advisors had come to me themselves, my craft was viewed as objectionable. They claimed I was unfit to lie with the King and replace his dead queen; that I was so different, so undesirable as queen that I might as well have been human.
In truth they were afraid of me, afraid of my powers. Most importantly, they were afraid of my influence over Merrick. They were afraid that if he had my council he wouldn’t need theirs.
“I THINK IT is best if no one knows about your pregnancy.”
“You mean keep it a secret? How?”
Merrick shook his head. “Not now. We’ll talk about it later.”
I watched helplessly as he turned and walked out of my home, not even giving me the chance to speak again. Did he know that with this decision, my hope of being able to marry the man I loved and becoming the mother of his daughters was destroyed? His daughters would never know of me or how much I had come to care for them; how my advice had helped Merrick to make them happy.
I was confined to a room in the palace and looked after. Word was spread through the kingdom that I had gone to visit with a sick friend in another part of the sea. With the exception of the nurse who came and went randomly, I was alone.
Often, I would hear Merrick outside my door. I could feel the turmoil inside of him. He wants to be happy. He wants to come to me and lie beside me and hold me close, but he never allows himself to come. I could hear the accusations of his closest advisors echoing in his head.
“She has lied to you, your Majesty!”
“She only wants the crown!”
“Once she has what she wants, she will dispose of you and your daughters.”
“How can you trust a witch?”
He hated these men for putting the thoughts in his head. He knew deep down that they weren’t true. But now that they were there, he couldn’t ignore them.
During my confinement, I lost count of how many times he came to my door. I didn’t see him, though, until he came for my beautiful daughter.
MERRICK COMES INTO my room, careful to stay near the door. He nods to the nurse to take the baby away. He watches me for a minute, and then comes closer. I can feel the heat of his gaze on my face.
“I need to know one thing.” These are the first words he’s spoken to me since my confinement.
“Anything,” I reply.
He takes a deep breath. “Was it a spell? Did I really love you? Did you really love me?”
I look up into his eyes; the same clear blue as my baby’s eyes, and I can see that he doesn’t really believe it was a spell. I can see that he still loves me.
“I’ve never used magic with you. Your feelings were always your own.”
He nods. He is silent again as he thinks over some decisions he has made before coming to my room.
“It’s not safe for you here,” he says finally. He doesn’t look at my face. He’s careful to keep his eyes focused on his hands. “No matter what my feelings are for you, the court will never stand for your involvement in my life.”
“But you are their King.”
“I can only protect you so much! They might try to…”
He pauses, drawing in another deep breath. I can see his eyes becoming cloudy. It’s the closest he’ll allow himself to get to crying.
“You’re sending me away.” It’s not a question. I’ve known the answer for months. I have no strength to fight with him. I know what I’m losing, and it defeats me.
“It’s for the best,” he says. “You will be able to return to your old life. You’ll be safe.”
“And my baby?”
“You can never see her…”
When I don’t reply or argue, he turns and starts from the room.
“Wait!” I call after him.
He turns back to face me. His eyes meet mine. This time he doesn’t avert his gaze.
“What will you call our daughter?”
He is silent. For an instant a small, satisfied smile plays across his face. “I’ll call her Eirena.”
A feeling of warmth spreads through me. “Thank you.”
He’d given her my name.
ALMOST FIFTEEN YEARS pass. I have lived alone on the outskirts of the kingdom since the day Eirena was taken from me. I like being so far from what I have known and loved for my whole life. There’s a strange comfort in it. I can’t imagine what my life would be like if I had to live so close to my daughter and the man I love and not be able to speak to them or see them. It is much better this way.
I have not been lonely. A notice of my new address posted on my door ensured that those who needed me could find me. Within a month, I had the same steady stream of visitors that I have always known.
The tales that the young girls in town tell say that I am old and ugly and that I exact terrible fees for my potions and cures. I just laugh when I hear these stories. Mostly they are told to me by frightened teenagers who come asking for love spells and charms to make them beautiful.
I take such pride in being able to help them. They come to me terrified and leave feeling comforted. To me, every one of them bears Eirena’s face. Helping them, making them laugh or smile makes me feel like I am helping my own daughter. Helping them makes the hurt over losing her not feel so sharp.
SO MANY TIMES I sneak near to the palace to watch Eirena. I can’t help myself. I see how she has grown from an infant into the young woman she is now. She has become more beautiful than I could have ever imagined. She is long and graceful. Her hair is still the same pale yellow, and it flows past her waist in shimmering waves. Her clear blue eyes seem to speak; they are truly a window into her thoughts and feelings.
She is well-loved and cared for. Her five older sisters have doted on her since she was born, especially Maura. She has taken my place as her mother. She protects Eirena and teaches her almost like I would have. Regretfully, my daughter is not learning the history of her family or of her powers.
Maura worries about her. Eirena is so different from her sisters. She is quiet and thoughtful. She will sit for hours and daydream about the human world. There is nothing she wants more than to see what’s above the waves. I see my mother’s fascination in her— her love of humans and their world. Eirena reminds me so much of her when she behaves like this.
Maura will come and sit beside her and put her arm around her slim shoulders. “What are you thinking about?”
Eirena turns and smiles at her sister, the only mother she has ever known. She sighs and rests her head against her.
“I want to see the sun in the sky, and see birds and humans and ships!”
“When you are fifteen,” Maura says as she instinctively smoothes Eirena’s hair away from her face. “you will have permission to explore the world above the sea. You can go whenever you want and you’ll be able to see all the ships and birds you can stand!”
Eirena giggles at this, but she still isn’t happy.
SOMETIMES I COME to her in her dreams. Here I can hold her and caress her long hair and try to comfort her. I tell her that I am her mother and that I love her. This makes her smile and she wraps her slender white arms around me and kisses me. She says she misses me and loves me even though I am dead.
Most nights I tell her the stories my mother told me and I sing her songs from the human world. But, other times, she is so troubled by her desire to see the human world.
Her fascination with the human world scares me. She wants a life she can never have, but I don’t have the heart to take away the things she dreams about. This is just a phase, I tell myself, and she will grow out of it.
“You’ll get your chance,” I tell her. “But for now, enjoy being in the sea.”
“I wish I could! I’m just so restless. I know I’m meant for something else.”
I shake my head as I take her hands in mine. “You are a mermaid princess, Eirena, your place is in the palace with your father and sisters until you find a husband.”
“But I don’t want that! I want to lie in the grass and smell flowers! I want to know what it’s like to walk instead of swimming everywhere! I want to dance and run!”
“That’s not what your father would want for you.”
ON HER FIFTEENTH birthday, Eirena finally receives permission to swim to the surface. She is so excited, and I want to be excited for her, but I can’t. Something about this makes me very nervous.
I wait outside the palace as she and Maura go to the surface together that afternoon. When they return, Eirena’s face is flushed and beautiful. Her eyes gleam with excitement and an unformed plan to go back as soon as she can. When I see that look I know that I can’t go home just yet.
THAT NIGHT I watch as Eirena leaves the palace. Everyone is asleep; all the lights are off and Eirena’s birthday celebration has ended hours before.
I follow her up to the surface. As I emerge from the water, I have to pause and catch my breath before finding Eirena. I haven’t been to the surface since my mother died. As my head begins to clear and I push the thoughts of my mother away, I see that Eirena has come up near a large ship.
Familiar strains of music drift down to us from its deck, which is brightly lit with many different-colored lanterns. The tapping of dancing feet vibrates through the water, and the flirtatious laughter of tipsy men and women fills the air, just slightly louder than the music.
I expect Eirena to swim away when she sees the ship moving toward her, but instead she swims to meet it. She grabs onto a rope that hangs down into the water and carefully pulls herself up to a place where she can sit and get a closer look at the humans on the deck.
I want to yell for her to come back, but that would mean letting her know I am there. Instead, I move closer. I close my eyes and try to see what she sees. I immediately feel the warmth of Eirena’s body all around me. Her face is hot; she is blushing.
Through her eyes, I see a regal young man who moves around the deck of the boat. He stops to talk to some of the men, and he dances with women dressed in brightly-colored dresses. He is handsome, for a human. He is tall and broad. He has a strong face. His jaw is square; his features seem to be carved like he’s a sculpture. He has black hair and his eyes are two glittering emeralds beneath dark brows. His casual smile illuminates his whole being, and I can see why Eirena finds him attractive.
He makes his way over to the place where Eirena is watching him. She quickly presses herself against the side of the ship. Her heart is racing as his footsteps come to a stop just above her head.
He sighs as he leans on the rail and stares out at the ocean. His brilliant smile fades away.
I suddenly get a picture of his life, his thoughts. He is a prince. His parents want him to marry. He has traveled to countless kingdoms to meet countless princesses.
They are all the same, beautiful, mindless girls who are bred to be objects and provide heirs.
This is not what he wants. He longs for someone extraordinary; a girl who is beautiful and strong and brave. He wants someone he can love, who loves him, who will rule with him instead of being ruled by him.
“Where are you?” he asks, frustration obvious in his tone.
“I’m right here.”
Eirena’s voice is barely audible to the prince, but it rings in my ears. I almost scream; I am screaming inside. This is wrong! She shouldn’t be here!
THE SKY FLASHES suddenly, and I am ripped away from Eirena and the prince and back into my own body. I feel disoriented and confused for a minute, but I quickly regain my senses.
A huge wave comes crashing down over my head, catching me off guard and pushing me underwater. I struggle to get back to the surface. As I raise my head out of the water I can’t believe I didn’t notice the storm coming sooner.
The sky, which had been clear and full of stars when I followed Eirena, is now the ominous gray of burnt wood. I can see lightning on the horizon. I have to strain my eyes to see the ship through the driving rain. Monstrous waves crash all around me and down over the deck of the ship, causing it to dip dangerously low in the water.
I don’t see Eirena! I panic. I dive underwater and come back up over and over, all the while searching for her.
A loud cracking seems to split the sky. I watch in horror as lightning hits the boat masts. The sails and masts erupt into flame, sending a surge of intense heat into me, forcing me beneath the water. I emerge seconds later to see another wave slam onto the deck of the boat, splitting it in two. The two ends float for a moment like nothing has happened, and then they slide quickly below the tumultuous waves.
The air is filled with the smell of burning wood and death. Men and women are screaming; their voices crowding the sky and filling my head. I retreat underwater in an attempt to escape their voices, but they stay with me. I have to fight to push them out of my head. I have to find Eirena. The bodies of men and women float just below the surface, still dressed in their party finery, and I know that more will follow them. I struggle past them, still searching.
I see her finally. I am sure it’s her because I see her pale hair swirling around her in the stormy sea. She is recklessly swimming among the debris of the destroyed ship, seemingly unaware that she could be crushed or impaled by the sharp, broken planks of wood. She stops suddenly and dives down deep into the water. I lose sight of her for a moment before she comes back into view, dragging something behind her.
I almost cry out when I see that she is struggling to pull the prince above water. His body is limp in her arms, making her task even harder; his eyes are closed, and a long scarlet cut runs along the length of his finely sculpted jaw.
I close my eyes and focus all of my power on calming the waves. His weight is enough for her to contend with, she doesn’t need rough waters too.
I FOLLOW HER through the night. She is so careful to keep his face above the water, and she swims slowly; taking her time with him. She treats him like he is made of glass, like he will break if she pushes too hard. She recognizes his fragility; knows that his life is in her hands.
As the sun appears on the horizon, I begin to relax. The storm has completely dissipated and the sky is clear once more. In the early morning light I can make out a shoreline in the distance. Eirena sees it too, and she quickens her pace ever so slightly.
“Everything is going to be okay,” she whispers to him. Her relief is so great that I can feel it.
As we get closer to land I can see mist-covered mountains just beyond a thick forest of trees. A small building, a chapel or church, stands before the forest. The path leading to the door is lined with brightly-colored flowers; oranges and yellows, purples and reds that seem to shimmer in the rising sun, and end where the sandy beach begins.
The bay is warm as I follow Eirena into its jade-colored water. The rising sun reflects pink and lavender in the ripples that Eirena makes as she swims to the shore. She gently pulls herself and the prince up onto the cool sandy beach. She is brilliant in the early morning light. Her hair glistens in the sun and her face is flushed and vibrant.
She tenderly takes the prince’s head and rests it on her lap. She smoothes the wet hair off of his face; her fingers linger along his hairline. She traces the lines on his face and the curve of his mouth with her fingertips, like she’s memorizing his features.
Suddenly, his hand grabs hers and holds it tight. She is startled, but quickly calms herself. With her free hand, she plays with his damp, black hair.
“What happened…” his voice is thick and groggy.
“Shhh…” she says placing her fingers on his lips. “You’re safe. Your ship is gone, but you’re safe.”
“You… you saved me?”
She smiles and nods.
He tries to rise, and I feel her panic for a moment. “You shouldn’t do that,” she says gently. “You need to rest. You almost died.”
“Who are you?”
“It’s not important.”
His grip on her hand tightens. “How can I thank you if I don’t know who you are?”
She just smiles and shakes her head. He lets her hand go, and grabs onto the chain he’s wearing around his neck. He pulls on it and it comes off in his hand.
“Take this, please,” he says. He places it in her hand and closes her fingers around it.
“Just rest now,” she tells him.
He doesn’t argue as she begins singing softly to him. His eyes slowly close once more. He is sleeping.
Then, to my amazement, she leans forward and kisses his forehead, his eyelids, his cheeks and finally his mouth. Suddenly I know why I was so afraid of her trip to the surface, why her fascination with humans has always worried me. She loves this prince. I don’t know how it’s possible, but she loves him. She loves a human.
I watch as she carefully clasps the thin chain around her neck. The gold sparkles in the sunlight, and I can see a small medallion hanging from it. She places her hand over it; reveling in the cool weight of it on her skin.
The bells ring in the chapel, and the doors begin to open. Eirena gently lays the prince’s head down on the sand, and after a moment of hesitation, she disappears out into the waves.
We both watch from a distance as a group of young girls move down the beach from the chapel. One of the girls sees the prince and she runs to his side. She kneels down in the sand and takes his hand. She lays her palm on his forehead, and then calls back to the other girls for help.
She is stunning. Her skin is smooth, rosy and slightly tanned from the sun. She has long, dark hair, which is pulled severely back off of her face. She has wide, dark brown eyes, which are still lovely in spite of the concern which clouds them.
Eirena and I watch as the girl revives the prince, and then helps him walk back to the chapel. Eirena lingers for a few minutes in her hiding place, her fingers clasped tightly around the medallion the prince gave her. She hopes to get just one more glimpse of him. Finally, she gives up and returns to her father’s palace beneath the sea.
EIRENA HAS BEEN withdrawn since she saved the prince from drowning. She sits alone in the palace gardens day after day staring longingly up toward the sun, dreaming of her love; his medallion clutched tightly in her small hand.
Her sisters are worried about her. They ask her over and over what’s wrong, but she never answers. They try to console her with funny stories about other mer-folk that they know, and they bring her books that they find in wrecked ships. Seeing human things only makes her more upset, though, and she swims to her room to be alone.
Every night after her father and sisters are asleep, Eirena swims back to the place where she left the prince. She watches the leaves on the trees turn to orange and red and yellow, fall from their branches, then bud and turn green again as the seasons change. She even gathers enough courage to sit on the shore a few times. She hopes to see the prince there again. She never does.
One night Maura follows her. She swims far enough behind her so that she isn’t seen, just as I often do. When Eirena stops by a large rock to look at the chapel, she swims up next to her.
She doesn’t have to say anything. When Eirena sees Maura, she melts into her arms. She tells her all about the storm and the prince.
“I love him, Maura.”
“Why did you wait so long to tell me?” Maura smoothes her hair away from her face and holds her against her chest the way I have longed to.
“I… I don’t know,” she weeps into her sister’s hair.
“Don’t cry,” Maura says. “I’ll think of something.”
THREE NIGHTS LATER Eirena and Maura sit along the shore looking at a large, beautiful palace. It is built from white stone and pink marble. Long staircases wind around the outside and end at the beach. There are beautiful stained glass windows, and the sounds of music and laughter float out through the tall etched-glass doors that open from the ballrooms inside out onto the balconies. The whole castle is surrounded by beautiful gardens full of roses of every color.
Both girls are reminded of the grand parties their father gives. There is music and singing and dancing. There is no colored glass in the windows of their palace; instead, fish swim in and out as they please.
Maura smiles as she thinks of her home, but Eirena can only think about how lonely she is there without her love.
A single balcony rests just above a narrow channel of water. It is here that the prince appears. He walks out and leans his elbows on the rail and stares out at the sea. His handsome face is pensive; his emerald eyes are troubled.
Eirena’s face lights when she sees him. She takes Maura’s hand and tries to pull her toward the channel, but Maura is afraid of being seen, so she stays behind in the dark.
Eirena swims silently to the balcony and places herself in its shadow. She stretches her graceful white arms up to him; she fights the urge to show herself. She wants to tell him her name; tell him that she loves him and that she’s the one who saved his life. She knows she could never be happy without him; she could never love anyone the way she loves him.
THE NEXT DAY is Eirena’s sixteenth birthday, and her father throws a grand party in her honor. Knowing her fascination with human artifacts, the ballroom is specially decorated with lanterns and chandeliers collected from wrecked ships. Garlands of crystals and pearls dangle from them and shimmer in their light.
Among the many important guests, the King has invited a handsome young prince from a neighboring kingdom. His features are soft, and his skin is pale, like all mer-people’s. His hair is only slightly darker than Eirena’s, and his eyes are a deep brown. It is impossible not to notice the sharp contrast between his fair looks and the human prince’s dark, chiseled visage.
Merrick, sensing Eirena’s loneliness, believes that if she marries the prince she will be happy again. He has the right idea, but the wrong prince.
He watches proudly as the sea prince, anxious, nervous about meeting his bride, takes Eirena’s hand and begins to twirl her around the room in a dance. They make a beautiful pair; their lithe, graceful bodies and long tails moving together as one.
Everyone watches them, smiling, as they glide around the room. They are a perfect match, and they look as though they are very taken with each other.
Only Maura and I know better. The prince’s smile is genuinely happy; he is excited at the thought of spending the rest of his life with Eirena. Eirena’s smile is for her human prince. She pretends it’s him she’s dancing with.
When their dance is finished, Merrick goes to them. He takes them both by the hand and leads them to the front of the room.
Beaming, he announces, “In one week’s time, my youngest daughter, Eirena, will marry Prince Finian.”
The room erupts in applause as the young prince takes Eirena’s hand and kisses it. She smiles at him and leans forward to kiss his cheek. She’s not going to marry him. She’s going to come to see me.
She knows the stories about the woman who lives in the small house just outside of town. She’s heard about all the wonderful potions I have made to help other young mermaids be happy with their loves.
I know what she’s going to ask for, and I know what giving it to her will mean. I also know that even though I’m terrified, I’ll give her what she wants. How can I deny her the only thing she’ll ever ask of me?
IT IS LATE at night when she comes to me. Her father and sisters are asleep in their beds.
She lingers at my doorway, peering into the darkness of my home. She is afraid, and I can’t blame her. She almost turns and swims home, but the thought of her prince with his arms around her and the feel of his chain around her neck are enough to supply her with courage.
“Come in,” I say to her.
She takes a deep breath and enters. She comes close to where I am sitting, but I don’t let her come close enough to see my face. I’m afraid she’ll recognize me from her dreams.
“I know why you are here.”
She seems surprised, but she doesn’t say anything.
“You are in love with a human. You want me to change your tail into legs so you can try to win the love of the prince you rescued.”
Eirena’s beautiful face is locked in a look of determination. Her eyes fix on mine. Her full, pink mouth is set in a line. She trembles beneath her long hair, which ripples around her shoulders.
“Yes,” she says.
I nod and reach for my book of spells, even though I have looked at nothing but this spell since last night.
“I can make you a potion. You must swim to the shore and sit on the sand and drink it before the sun rises. Your tail will split in two and become legs.”
Her face brightens. “You can really do this?”
I try my hardest to keep my voice steady and strong. “If you take this potion, you can never be a mermaid again. You will never be able to return to the sea. You will never be able to be with your father or sisters again.”
She closes her eyes, absorbing what I have just told her. A surge of memories instantly fill her head: Maura holding her, playing with her sisters; the way her father doted on her fill her head. She quickly pushes them out, and her prince’s face replaces them.
“There is one more thing before you decide… Unless you make the prince fall in love with you; unless he marries you…” It’s hard to make the words come out of my mouth. They seem to stick in my throat. “If the prince marries another, the morning after their wedding, your heart will break and you will change into foam on the sea.”
Her determination wavers. She is suddenly unsure of herself. Her hand automatically goes to the prince’s medallion. She draws in a deep breath. A small smile crosses her mouth. The prince is in her mind again, giving her strength and courage.
“I don’t care,” she finally says. “I am willing to take the risk.”
I want to yell at her; tell her she can be happy without him. But I can’t; I know it’s not true. She is no different than I am. I was willing to risk my life for my love. Only I was never given the chance.
“There is one more thing. The potion requires your voice.”
“My voice? But how will I talk to the prince?”
“You will have to make do without speaking if you want to be with your prince.” My words seem harsh to me, but they are necessary. “You will have to find other ways to communicate. You will have to speak with your eyes; with your body.”
“Then take my voice,” she says without hesitation. She doesn’t doubt herself.
I grab the things required to make the potion and mix them together in my pot. When it is ready, I turn back to Eirena.
“Please close your eyes.” I have to move close to her and I don’t want her to see me.
She nods, and then closes her eyes.
I go to her and place my hand on her throat, rubbing a salve over it. My fingers linger for a moment before I move them away; this is the first time I have touched her since she was born.
She is no longer trembling. She can already feel her prince’s arms around her.
I hesitantly place my hand over her mouth. After a moment, I feel the weight of her voice in my hand. I look down at it; a swirling rainbow of light. There is no turning back after it’s been added. She’ll never speak or sing or laugh aloud again.
This is what she wants.
I go back to the pot and add her voice to the mixture. There is a flash, and I know it is ready.
“You can open your eyes now.”
I hand her a vial with the potion that could very well mean the end of her life. She opens her mouth to thank me, but no words come. She takes a deep, shaky breath, then nods and smiles her thanks to me. I want to comfort and reassure her, but I can’t.
“You’d better hurry,” I say instead. “You only have until sunrise or the potion will not work.”
She nods. I watch her swim away from my home without a second look back.
THE SKY IS beginning to brighten as she reaches the shore beyond the prince’s palace. She pulls herself onto the beach and sits just beyond the water’s edge. Her long, beautiful orange tail is curled beneath her. She looks at the vial in her hand; at the swirling amber liquid inside, then up at the palace. She takes the medallion from around her neck and holds it in her free hand. With the security of her treasure in her hand, she smiles and takes the cap off the vial, then drinks the potion without hesitation.
I watch as she instantly doubles over. She writhes in the early morning light. Her tail thrashes around on the wet sand, until it splits in two and shrinks to become legs. She lies still for a few moments, unconscious while the shock of the potion’s effects wears off.
As she regains her senses, she sits up and looks at her legs. She reaches down to touch them, fascinated by the soft feel of skin in place of her scaly tail. She tries to stand and fails several times before she finally gets it right.
She is so involved in her attempts that she doesn’t notice the prince coming toward her.
“Miss? Are you alright?”
She jumps at the sound of his voice and stumbles. She falls to the ground with a thud.
“I’m sorry!” he says, rushing to her side. “What happened? Where are your clothes?” He kneels down in front of her, takes off his shirt and drapes it over her shoulders. “I didn’t mean to scare you.”
She looks up at him. His dark hair is wind-blown, and his eyes are full of concern. His face and chest are tanned and his hands are warm on her arms.
“You’re not hurt? Are you okay?”
She nods as she pulls far enough from his arms to close the shirt over herself.
“What’s your name? Where did you come from?”
She shakes her head and places her hand over her throat.
“You can’t speak…” He is silent for a second. “Were you on a ship? Did it sink?”
She doesn’t disagree with him. She has no way to tell him where she really came from. Instead, she just nods.
“Are you alone?” He scans up and down the beach. “Has anyone come to shore with you?”
She tightens her fingers around the medallion that’s still in her hand and shakes her head.
He reaches out and brushes a stray lock of golden hair away from her eyes. He studies her face for a moment. There is something familiar about her face, her clear blue eyes, and her soft mouth.
“Don’t worry,” he says, putting his arm around her waist and helping her stand. “I live right there.” He points to the palace a little ways up the beach. “You can stay with me.”
She smiles and lets him lead her to his home.
EVERY NIGHT EIRENA walks along the beach. When she is alone, she comes in her nightdress; a sheer white gown with pink ribbons at the cuffs and neckline. She takes off the nightgown and goes into the water. Her pale skin still seems to glow in the moonlight like it did underwater; her hair sparkles like the stars. She walks out until the water touches her shoulders, but never further than that; she doesn’t remember how to swim and she is afraid of drowning.
I never would have believed it, but Eirena is even more beautiful as a human than she had been as a mermaid. She is radiant, breathtaking. Maybe it is because she is finally happy; because she has finally found her place. The gowns that she wears are wonderfully suited to her figure, and the prince has made sure that her clothes are made in blues, greens and purples to show off her crystal blue eyes. Her hair is never pulled up as the fashion dictates. The prince loves how it falls in soft waves over her shoulders and down her back and asks her to always wear it down for him.
Some nights the prince walks with her along the waters edge. They stroll hand in hand as if they were already husband and wife. I feel great pleasure watching them. I wish I could have had that happiness with the king. She has become everything to him in the two months since he found her on the beach.
“I am so happy to have rescued you, Pelagia.” he tells her one night as they walk, hands clasped. He has called her Pelagia from the day he found her on the beach; a name that means from the sea. It’s their little joke.
She turns to him and smiles. Her answer is a quick peck on his cheek.
“I didn’t think it would be possible for me to feel anything for a girl again.”
They stop and he turns to look out at the sea. “I was almost drowned when my ship sank over a year ago. I was washed up on shore near a convent, and a beautiful girl saved me. I owe her my life. She is a nun, though, and has pledged her life to God. She and I could never be together.”
He turns to Eirena and looks down into her eyes. He touches her face, and Eirena cradles her cheek against his palm, covering the back of his hand with hers. She aches to tell him that she saved his life, not this convent girl. She wants to tell him about her home and her family and how she gave up everything she knew to be with him.
“God sent you to me because He had already claimed her as his bride,” he says, lightly tracing the line of her lips with his fingertips. “I tried not to, but…”
He takes a deep, frustrated breath, “I’m not doing this properly!”
Eirena shakes her head; she doesn’t understand what he’s trying to say.
He smiles, then, and takes a step back from her. “I… I’ve fallen in love with you.”
A brilliant smile lights Eirena’s face and she throws her arms around his neck. He laughs as he pulls away and looks down at her.
“Does this mean you love me too?”
She nods exuberantly.
He pulls her against him. He buries his hands in her thick, golden hair. He kisses her forehead, her cheeks, the tip of her nose, then her mouth.
“My parents will return from abroad in a few months. When they are home, I will talk to them about our marriage. I want us to be happy together for the rest of our lives…”
The prince is still talking to her when I take my leave of their love scene. They deserve privacy.
My body, my heart, feels lighter as I swim back to my home. I am happy knowing that I gave my daughter such a wonderful gift. I feel foolish for worrying so much about the consequences of giving her the potion and taking away her beautiful voice.
MAURA IS WAITING for me when I return. She has large, gray marks beneath her eyes; she looks drawn. She is so worried about Eirena’s disappearance. I go to her, this girl who could have been my daughter if I’d been given the chance, and take her hand. She is not trembling the way Eirena was when she came to me, but her hands are icy cold.
“I need your help,” she says to me before I can speak. “I don’t know who else to turn to…”
“Come inside,” I say, placing a reassuring hand on her shoulder. “We can talk in there.”
She follows me into my home, and I make her sit by my worktable before I begin.
“You’re here because your sister is missing.”
She nods. “Yes, for a little over two months. She just vanished.”
“Your sister has become human,” I tell her. “She fell in love with a human prince and came to me for a potion.”
Maura jumps up from the chair. Anger flashes in her eyes. “How could you?” she screams.
I shake my head. “It’s what she wanted. She was so unhappy. You know that.”
The anger fades from her face and she slowly sinks back into the chair. “Is she happy now?”
I instinctively take Maura’s chin in my hands. I brush her hair away from her face and smile down at her. “Yes. She is with her love. They are to be married. He loves her and takes care of her and asks nothing in return but her love. Don’t be sad for her anymore.”
Maura nods. “Thank you for giving her happiness,” she says. She rises from the chair and starts toward the door.
“She misses you, Maura!” I call out after her.
She turns back and looks at me. “I miss her too.”
“You always took care of her; treated her like your own child.”
I go to her. I want to hug her. Instead, I take her face in my hands and look into her eyes.
“Do you want to see her? Do you want to talk to her?”
Her face lights up. “Yes!”
I leave her for a minute and get a vial for her. “Eirena has no voice,” I tell her. “But if you drink this, you’ll be able to hear her thoughts.”
She takes the vial from my hand and studies it.
“It’s safe, I promise.”
She takes the lid off and drinks the contents, then hands the empty vial back to me.
“Where can I find her?”
“She’s living with the prince at his palace. She walks on the beach every night. Be careful and make sure that she is alone before you approach her. The prince walks with her sometimes.”
She throws her arms around me and hugs me. “Thank you so much!”
“Don’t thank me,” I say to her. “I just ask one thing in return.”
“Come and see me sometimes. Let me know how she is.”
She smiles. “I promise.”
FOR TWO MONTHS Maura visits me regularly. She keeps me informed on Eirena’s life. She tells me about the parties and the beautiful dresses. She tells me how happy Eirena is and how much she loves the prince; about their wedding plans.
I don’t go to Eirena again after the prince’s proposal. Just knowing that she will marry the prince, that her life is no longer in danger, is enough for me.
I look forward to Maura’s visits. We have much in common; we have Eirena in common.
“Eirena and I are only half-sisters,” she says to me one night. “My father had an affair with her mother; he told me they were going to be married.”
Her knowledge of my existence hits me like a slap in the face. Merrick never told me that he spoke to his daughters about me. “What… What happened?”
“Father told us that she died in childbirth.” Her words are matter of fact, but there is much emotion in them. She looks up at me with red-rimmed eyes. “We were all so sad after our mother died. We wanted father to marry her so we could be as happy again as he was.”
I reach across and take her hands in mine. “I know what it’s like to lose a mother,” I say.
“You would have been a good mother.”
The statement startles me. “What did you say?”
She rises from her seat and goes to the window. She watches a school of bright orange clownfish swim past before turning back to me. For the first time I notice how striking Maura is. Her pale face, her mother’s wide, amber eyes, her honey-colored hair billowing around her in the current. “After I came here the first time I knew you were Eirena’s mother.”
I stare in disbelief. “How?”
Maura shrugs her shoulders. “Why else would you want me to tell you how she is? Why would you care?” She pauses; a small smile crosses her lips. “Besides, Eirena looks like you.”
She turns back to the view of the sea. I go to her. I start to reach for her hand, but I stop myself. “I loved your father very much. Neither of us wanted things to be the way they are.”
“I know,” she says. “I would have loved to have you as a mother, but I wouldn’t trade a second of having been able to care for Eirena. She made a lot of things better,” she pauses. “Is that selfish to say?”
I shake my head. “It’s not selfish to love someone.”
She smiles and takes my hand and squeezes it. “I won’t tell father that I know. He might forbid me to come, might think I’m endangering myself; but I want us to be friends, like we should have been years ago.”
“I’d like that. I’d like that very much.”
MAURA COMES TO me, waking me from a sound sleep, a few nights later.
“What’s wrong?” I ask her. “What’s happened?”
Her eyes are red from crying. She’s too upset to speak at first, and I just hold her and let her cry. Finally, she pulls away from me.
She opens her mouth, but she can’t find the words.
“It’s Eirena,” I say for her. “Something’s happened to Eirena.”
She looks at me, trying to steady herself. “The prince is going to marry someone else.”
“No… no, that’s not possible…” I sink slowly into a chair as disbelief fills every part of me. “How, Maura? Why? He promised to marry Eirena!”
“The prince’s parents agreed to give their blessing to his marriage to Eirena if he would promise to visit the daughter of a neighboring king first,” she continues slowly. “They had arranged the visit before they returned, and didn’t want to look foolish and cancel the meeting. The prince agreed, and he and Eirena set off to meet this princess.
“Imagine the prince’s surprise when he was introduced to the convent girl whom he believes rescued him! She wasn’t a nun at the convent. Her parents just sent her there to be educated.
“Eirena is devastated, but insists that he talked with her before canceling their wedding. She says she wants him to be happy, even if it’s not with her. He is to be married tomorrow night. That means that the next morning…”
I don’t say anything. I can still see that girl in my mind. How can he confuse her for Eirena? She has dark hair, dark eyes… She has the prince’s heart now.
I go to my spell book and start tearing through it. There has to be some way to save her! Maura watches me, then realizes what I am doing and grabs another book from my shelf.
Together we go through every book I have in search of a way to save her.
It is morning when we find what we are looking for. Maura reads the recipe out loud at first, but her voice falls off. The hopeful look on her face disappears as she nears the bottom of the page.
“What is it?” I ask.
“It says you need the blood of her father and mother.”
I take a deep breath. This is no time for hesitation; Eirena’s life depends on it. “Go to the palace and get your father. Bring him back to me.”
“He won’t come. He thinks Eirena is dead.”
I take both of her hands in mine. “Trust me,” I say to her. “Bring your father here and tell him that I said Eirena’s life depends on it.”
She doesn’t question me further. Instead, she turns and hurries from my house.
SHE ARRIVES NOT even an hour later with Merrick. He stands looking at me in silence. He is just as I remembered him. Just as strong, just as handsome. Maura takes his hand and pulls him toward me.
“Please leave us for a moment,” he says to her.
She looks at me; she knows the urgency of the situation, then nods to her father and swims from the room.
When she is gone, he moves even closer to me. He gently touches my cheek, and then runs his fingers through my hair. “I’ve missed you so much. I didn’t realize how much…” he finally says. “Can you forgive me for what I’ve done?”
“There’s time for that later,” I say to him. “We have to save our daughter now.”
He nods and calls for Maura to come back.
She watches silently as I prepare the potion needed to save Eirena. Then, taking a knife, I cut my palm. I let five drops of my blood fall into the mix, and then do the same to Merrick. The mixture bubbles and turns to a deep red color. When it is finished, I take the same knife and drop it into the potion. After a few minutes, I remove the knife from the potion and hand it to Maura.
“Take this to Eirena. Tell her that she must take this knife and before sunrise, she must stab the prince in the heart with it. Tell her to let his blood flow over her feet and it will change her back into a mermaid. If she does this she will not die. She can come home to you and your father and her sisters.”
Maura takes the knife from me and holds it tightly against her. “I will be back by the morning with my sister.”
EIRENA CLUTCHES THE knife in one trembling hand and the prince’s medallion in the other. Her heart beats rapidly in her chest, and tears fall steadily from her eyes. She tiptoes into the prince’s bedroom and goes to his side.
Through her eyes, I watch as she looks down at him as he sleeps beside his bride. He is handsome even in sleep. He unconsciously puts an arm around the girl sleeping beside him and presses close to her.
Eirena draws a deep, staggering breath and raises the knife up over her head. Her hands shake as she holds it over him. She starts to plunge the knife down, then stops.
“Pelagia…” the prince murmurs as he suddenly moves away from the princess.
Eirena drops the knife onto the floor at her feet and runs from the room.
She hurries from the palace and down to the beach where Maura is waiting for her. She sinks slowly to the ground and hugs her knees to her chest. The horizon is turning red; the sun will rise soon.
“What happened, Eirena? Why do you still have your legs?”
She looks at Maura with sad eyes and shakes her head. “I couldn’t do it, Maura! I love him too much!”
Maura is about to speak, but suddenly jumps back into the water and hides from view. Eirena turns to see the prince running up to her. She stands and tries to hide that she has been crying.
“What are you doing out here?” he asks, taking her hands. “You’ll make yourself sick.”
She shakes her head and pulls her hands out of his.
“What is it? Has something happened?”
She looks up into his bright green eyes. She touches his cheek, rough with stubble. She runs her fingers through his hair.
She’s saying goodbye.
“Please, what is it?”
She nods and takes his hand. She spreads his fingers out and places his medallion in the palm of his hand.
He stares at it, realization first brightening, and then darkening his face. He falls to his knees on the sand and buries his face in her gown.
“It was you. All this time I had you with me and I never knew… I’m sorry… so sorry…”
She kneels down beside him and puts her arms around him. She wants him to know that it’s okay.
She takes his face in her hands, making him look into her eyes. She wants him to see that she loves him; she wants him to be happy.
He kisses her forehead. He wraps his arms around her and holds her tight as he kisses her mouth over and over. “I love you. I always will.”
She smiles and kisses him as the sun’s ray’s fall over them.
THE PRINCE SITS on the beach crying silently into his hands for almost an hour after Eirena is gone. His medallion dangles from his hand, shining in the early morning light.
After a little while, the prince stands and dries his eyes. He turns and glances over his shoulder at his palace. He can’t go back there now; can’t go back and pretend to love his new wife and live his life.
He takes a deep breath, and begins to walk out into the water. When the water is over his head, he swims. He swims right past Maura, who is hiding beside a lone rock in the water.
She watches him, paralyzed by the realization that he means to kill himself.
“No!” she screams without thinking. She swims to him and puts her arms around him.
He is momentarily startled by her arms circling his waist. He looks at her face for a second, and then begins struggling to break free from her.
“No, this is not what she would have wanted for you!”
He shakes his head. “Please, just let me go… I don’t want to… I can’t be without her.”
Maura looks into his clear, green eyes. His grief is clearly reflected in them. “This is really what you want… I’ll help you.”
IT IS LATE afternoon when Maura returns to us. She is so pale, and her eyes are red and puffy. Both her father and I try to take her into our arms to comfort her, but she won’t let us.
“What happened?” Merrick asks. “Where is Eirena?”
Maura looks at me and sees that I already know that she isn’t coming. She turns to her father.
“She couldn’t do it. I told her what she had to do, and she said she would. But just before sunrise she came to me and apologized. Then the prince came, and Eirena gave him his medallion and he knew that she had saved him.
“I stayed and watched them. He held her in his arms, kissing her, telling her he was sorry. When the sun touched her, she just seemed to disappear. It didn’t matter that he loved her or how tight he held her. She was just gone.
“After that the prince just sat on the beach and cried.
“Then, he stood and began to walk out into the water. He swam right past me. I watched him until I realized that he meant to kill himself. I knew that Eirena wouldn’t want that.
“I swam to him and put my arms around his waist and tried to pull him back to shore, but he asked me to let him go.
“He loved her. He died so he could be with her…”
“No more, Maura.” Merrick goes to her and takes her hand. “Let’s go home,” he says.
I turn away from them. I can’t watch them leave; I can’t watch him walk out of my home and my life forever. Not after losing my only child.
Then, I feel his hand take mine.
I turn and look up at him.
“I’m not going to leave you here,” he says. “I’ll keep you safe; I love you too much to lose you again.”
IT IS STILL dark when I rise from the water near the beach. The sky is black and littered with sparkling white stars overhead. At the horizon, the line between night and day is stained dark pink and red. It will be dawn soon.
I swim over to a large rock that’s not far from the shore and pull myself up onto it; ignoring the chill its surface sends through my body. A year has passed since Eirena died. A year. It is hard to believe.
She loved so much; gave her most precious possession, her life, for love. She saved us all without ever knowing how much we needed to be saved.
The first rays of the sun begin to pour from the horizon, warming me with their streams of pale yellow. I stare at the beach; at the place where Eirena and her prince spent their last moments together. A sudden feeling of peace covers me and fills me.
In those early morning waves of light, I see Eirena and her prince walking hand in hand along the water’s edge. The sun shines through them; they cast no shadows on the sand. They pause and turn to look out over the sea. For a moment, I think they see me and they both smile. Then, they are gone. They fade away as the sun rises higher in the sky; their hands clasped together and expressions of joy, of love on their faces.
I don’t stay long after that. I return to my home, and my family.
Eirena is all around me, in my hair, through my fingers. I hear her beautiful voice singing in the currents, I can feel her graceful white arms hugging me. I close my eyes and see her: forever young, forever beautiful, forever in my heart.
Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008 The house smelled stale after Robert and Kathy returned from the hospital as if it had never been lived in and the past was merely a figment of their imagination. They decided to take a small vacation to get away […]
Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008 May 15, Homer The wind balloons at Alison’s back as she perches on the shoulder of a remote coastal road, thousands of miles from home, and with an air of audacity lifts her thumb. She’s bundled against the salt air […]
Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008
Nasir didn’t know he wasn’t supposed to like Gloria, didn’t realize that Morrison’s lyrical-turned guttural grunt was not romantic or sexy or even appealing and so when Moondance was a wrap and we’d pulled apart he immediately set his foot to tapping, his hands to clapping. His rhythm—he’d never danced before—was off. I wanted to think it didn’t matter, his standing next to the speaker, ear bent toward a beat he couldn’t hear. Truth was it made me sad. I made up an excuse about having to work the next morning and I all but ran from his apartment. I left my favorite Irishman squawking behind me, the throaty snap of his love-ranted abbreviated alphabet riding low on I-66 and it was only when I opened my eyes the next morning, alone in my own bed, that I made myself forget Nasir and my vow to date nice men.
He was smart, Nasir. Worked for a wireless company but at night he went on National Public Radio and talked about the war in Afghanistan. I loved the way his dark eyes sparked when he talked about that place over there, about his people. His father quit school when he was five to go work in the fields. So tragic, I thought, as we romped into my bed. We started out slow, quiet, but then his oratory skills kicked into gear and Nasir started talking.
Boy did he talk.
In my ear he whispered, then hissed, a blow-by-blow account of the unfolding action, climaxing with the news that he knew just what kind of woman I was, in this bed on this night with him, a stranger, and then he bit my stomach to prove it, just below my bottom left rib. Twenty minutes later I sat on the toilet, smoking a cigarette and inspecting the blue-green bruise streaking across my belly. I imagined it was just like the flag John Glenn had fisted into the moon’s sallow face some fifty years before.
“I hope you don’t think I’m a freak,” whimpered Nasir from the other side of the door.
“No,” I lied. “Not exactly.”
The night before my wedding I dreamt that an alligator was eating me alive. He made it to my hips before I woke up, bedcovers kicked to the floor, pillow clamped over my face.
“What the hell’s going on in here?” my roommate asked, flipping on the light. “Six hours to tee time, that it?”
I couldn’t orient myself to Roxanne’s hand-to-hip in the doorway, all that light gathered around her like an electric cloak. I’m told I screamed, then. I don’t remember anything until I woke again, next time at dawn. My wedding dress caught my eye first thing, slumped on the outside of my closet like a sleeping bird. I wondered to what faraway land my dress had traveled. Would it return in time, entertain me with stories of sweet princes bearing roses? Or would it stay locked in pensive silence, protecting me from heartbreak?
I figured either way I was screwed. Might as well get up, get to the church.
In Magnolia William Macy plays ex-quiz-kid Donnie Smith.
“I have a lot of love to give,” he sobs. “I just don’t know where to put it!”
Now there’s a man I could marry.
My ex and I were on our way to Key West when Ollie pulled off the road to take a leak. It was almost midnight and I’d heard somewhere that alligators lined both sides of the highway, hunting for honeymooning tourists with those freaky infrared eyes.
“Hurry up!” I hollered at Ollie. “Get back in the car!”
“Don’t worry, I’m not dead yet,” he said, sliding into the driver’s seat. “Just married.”
The next day as I lay on the beach, Ollie found a public restroom so he could have a moment of solitude. Turns out he wasn’t in there alone, a man weighing close to three hundred pounds was in there, also, and in a very short time he developed a crush on my new husband. I looked up to see Ollie standing over me, bent at the waist, pale face blocking the sun.
“You still got that wedding ring?” he asked.
Recently I was in a bookstore and came across a postcard of an alligator that made my heart skip a beat. The shot was real close, you could see his eyes rolled back in his head and a long row of ugly yellow teeth. I bought the postcard and tacked it to the wall over my bed. When my boyfriend came over that night, he blamed my new artwork for his inability to perform.
“He’s placing some kind of hex on me,” he complained. “Can’t you take it down?”
I explained about my alligator nightmares, how I was becoming brave and fighting my fears. Stewie told me that was great, but pointed out that I’d selected a picture of a crocodile, not an alligator.
“Oh, well,” I said. “It’s all the same.”
“How can you say that?” Stewie looked scared. “What about accuracy? I wouldn’t go around playing games with your psyche.”
Stewie was right. After we broke up, I wrote Long way from home, hope tosee you soon, on the back of the card.
This time, I wasn’t messing around.
“What is it you think you’re afraid of?”
Derrick paused, tugging his frown so it ran deeper. “Well. That’s a problem, now isn’t it?”
Freud believed we are everyone who appears in our dreams.
I’ve been trying to figure that one out, but so far I think he’s full of shit.
“If you don’t mind, I’m going to take this thing to the pawn shop,” I said, hefting my wedding gown over my shoulder. It was zipped in the garment bag with which I’d carried it out of the store; next, to the church where I’d stepped from a pint-sized orange painted chair down into its luxurious-yet-modestly priced crinoline folds. The photographer had thought it would be adorable if he took some shots of me and the girls getting ready in the church’s nursery. In one memorable photo, a bridesmaid ducks out of the way of an oncoming teddy bear—so much for nerves. “You don’t mind, do you?”
Across the room, paused in his duty of skimming CD titles, Ollie looked stricken. “Do you really need the money?” he asked. “I was saving it for my next wife.”
Once, I had a dream I was skimming—solo—a riverbed of alligators. The boat’s bottom reverberated with each push of the paddle, a thumpthumpthump I found both exhilarating and scary. I wasn’t sure I was riding on the backs of reptiles until I plunged a paddle deep and it came back with the end snapped off.
“Silly girl,” I said to myself. “Here you were thinking the river had run just a little dry.”
Three in the morning and a friend and I crashed into IHOP for pancakes and maybe some coffee. Jackson ordered rolled pancakes but the waiter came out with a flat stack, some blueberries dumped on top.
“I ordered rolled pancakes,” said Jackson, trilling his ‘r’ and pushing aside his plate. “This, my friend, is a regular short stack.”
The waiter and I both studied Jackson’s plate. By my estimation he was right—they looked same as mine, three flat circles, only with those blueberries sitting on top. Mine were chocolate chip, peaked white with whipped cream, no fruit.
“Those are rolled pancakes,” said the waiter. He was tall, almost seven feet, easy, with a buttermilk ponytail snaking halfway down his blue IHOP shirt.
“Nooooooooo, they’re not,” insisted Jackson. He was drunk. We’d been out dancing in DuPont and at least a dozen men had tried to ply him with tequila. They wanted Jackson to get plastered and go home with them. That’s why I was there—I was his bitch-buddy bodyguard, and when the drinkbuyers weren’t looking, Jackson slipped me free shots. Gay men loved Jackson because he was gay and didn’t know it yet. “These are flat.”
“Well, I could take them in the back and roll them for you,” offered the waiter, flexing his fingers and wriggling them dangerously close to Jackson’s face. He trilled his ‘r,’ exactly as Jackson had. I was impressed.
“These will do fine,” sighed Jackson, wrinkling his nose. “But I think it would behoove you to familiarize yourself with a complete list of foods this fine establishment offers.” He paused. “If you want a decent tip.”
The pancakes had turned cold but Jackson ate them anyway. He used his knife and fork and whenever our waiter walked by, Jackson did a strange thing: he lifted his fork to his temple and saluted. I wasn’t sure the waiter was paying any attention but when the bill came Jackson turned white as his empty plate.
Come here again, was written in small green caps next to the total. And I’ll force-feed you your tiny little prick.
That was enough for me—I was in love. I wrote my number on the slip of paper under the green letters and told the waiter to give me a call. I wrote that Jackson was gay. Bernie called the next day and we went to a movie. Jackson was pissed. He said I’d let him down as a friend but I told him opportunities for love don’t come along every day. Who could foresee these things? You go in for pancakes and come out with a scrambled heart.
That was last spring. Bernie and I broke up after only a few weeks and Jackson still isn’t talking to me. If I were keeping score I’d say I was on the losing end of something.
After Bernie and I split, I finally got brave enough to look up alligator in a dream-dictionary. You know, one of those books that tells you how to decode your nightly visions. Turns out if you’re dreaming about alligators, it is bad news. Someone in your life you need to get rid of, the sooner the better. I spent a long time after that, trying to figure out who my alligator was. I decided Freud was right—I was the one who had to go. I took the crocodile postcard down from my wall and crossed through the message I’d written a year back, when I thought he was a gator.
The time for bravery is here , I scrawled in big, loopy letters across the front. Hold strong, girl.
Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008 The drumming begins. She slices vegetables, tosses them into the pan. Carrots, red peppers squeaking under her fingers, a couple of leeks. They slide away from the blade, refuse to be cleanly chopped. She stops, hones her knife on the […]
Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008 Telegraph lines hang above the farm house. Empty, roof caved in, insects holding court, establishing kingdoms of wings and larvae where once we dreamed of a republic. I walk away, watch a buzzard circling, bored, above the valley. There’s a […]
Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008
In the mornings he felt like Tom Joad huddled in a canyon, his optimism rarely daunted, his love of family the great motivator. He drank his coffee and sucked down three cigarettes dwarfed by the Rockies, humbled by the distant peaks and colossal pines, the sound of whishing water and oblivious birds. It was only near noontime when anxiety nibbled at him and, more so, irritation with his prospects, his responsibilities, his children’s gradually fading peace and serenity.
Unfortunately, noontime always arrived quicker than he anticipated, and by then he had little to do, even though he still considered himself a roughneck farmer, a woodsman who made use of the land as countless before him had, as those who first tramped over those magnificent mountains had been forced to do: die or rustle up food, find clean water, fish from dawn till dusk or perish and lay for eternity in the open, without even a pauper’s grave, waiting unconsciously for nature to dwindle material essence to nothingness. He had never learned to cultivate the land, however—he often thought with a wry smile that he had cultivated scant else besides—and by now his patches of tomatoes were shriveled and his attempts to grow potatoes and lima beans had fizzled as his more ambitious corn plots had before them. No mountain man survived without a horse, he told himself often, a sentiment that led him to negotiate, and then to beg, the Withertons to give him one of theirs, but they only had four left, invaluable resources, they claimed, even as they cowered in their mansion day after day with only a cousin, bereft of immediate family himself, to tend to them, ride them each once a week, and plead for the stallion to mount one of the mares, despite his clear reluctance.
It had been almost four years. The sun, a soft orb in the sky yet potent enough to scorch his skin if he stayed out long, caressed him as he trod across the field in front of his white two-storey house, an early twentieth century dwelling—”rustic” would have been the term pinned to it five years ago in the realty section. Every time he approached in this direction on a clear day he noticed the absence of animals, the scurrying cats and devoted dogs that he equated with such an existence. Nothing stirred, and he reached the stairs to the porch without a change having been educed upon his surroundings.
In contrast, he hadn’t set a foot inside the house, having only swung open the screen door, before he heard voices addressing him.
“Pop, can we go out? No one’s around. Please?”
“Julie smacked me, Pop; she hit me hard just because I beat her at shot-ball.”
“Can we go out, Pop? We’ll be careful.”
“I’m hungry, Pop. Mom had to go early and all we got is that cereal, and it’s gone all crusty. Can you fix us something?”
They swarmed around him, his three children, waxen-faced and spindly yet full of vigor. The moniker “Pop,” his choice, which stemmed from his desire to segregate himself from the masses of “Dad”s, from the never-ending stream of those who could and did become fathers, now struck him as an unwanted and unwarranted burden. Each time he heard it, he cursed himself for insisting upon it even as Sonja had explained her desire to let “Dad” stand as a nod to tradition, for they both had called their own fathers “Dad” and it seemed almost injurious, not to mention disrespectful, she argued, to buck that legacy. No, he had insisted, I’m a “Pop,” and a “Pop” he became; only now it seemed to impose upon him a greater onus than he might have otherwise had.
“I’ll make something,” he said stoically, choosing to answer the last and easiest question. They continued nonetheless, unabated, and he walked through the entryway, took a right, and stood in the kitchen, only to face an overwhelming sense of incompetence. It wasn’t too long ago that no question intimidated him.
There were eggs in the refrigerator, and he expertly cracked all five into a bowl, mixed them, and poured them in a skillet. The whole process of making eggs embarrassed him—years ago, that had been his job, what he could do, his contribution to the domesticity of the household, and he had boasted of it when Sonja chidingly mentioned that he couldn’t change a tire or oil, paint a room, or tinker with a garbage disposal without increasing the eventual price a professional would charge them. But eggs, he gloated, he had a monopoly on: nobody in the Bay Area could scramble a better egg.
He absentmindedly scraped them around with the spatula, the monotony of the exercise never clearer. Anybody could cook an egg.
“Pop, can we throw the football after lunch?” Kyle asked.
He looked down on his eldest son. “Let’s decide that after lunch,” he responded after a pause.
Minutes later he scraped the eggs onto three plates, deciding to forgo lunch himself, and set them on the table. A desperate scrabble ensued, with all three children jostling around the table to eye each serving in order to ascertain which held the most heft. For once, an argument was avoided, and the eggs were wolfed down with a rapidity that would have made one suspect that some grand and arduous adventure waited on the agenda for the afternoon.
He watched the scene with detachment, the sight of famished children, his children, no longer mortifyingly painful but rather merely able to evoke a physical helplessness, a near atrophy in his limbs and a cramping in his finger joints. Lighting another cigarette, he prepared to wash the dishes, another chore he once presumed to help Sonja with twice or so a week, on days he arrived home from the office early enough not to feel the entitlement of the bread-winner, despite the fact that she had worked, too, as a nurse, with a longer commute at that, only with a substantially lesser salary and some fewer hours. It rankled him that she was not there to chip in on this job, that she never was, even though he knew she was likely soaping or drying dishes at that precise moment less than a mile away, down the overgrown, cracked road that she walked every day twice a day, a road that he never traveled without his shotgun, an entirely understandable precaution, but also without a familiar yet emasculating sense of alarm swamping him and with a tendency to flinch at every rustle of the trees and chortle of a distant crane.
“Pop, what do you say? Can we go out to throw the football?” Kyle asked. “It’s stuffy in here. It always gets stuffy in here after lunch.”
Rarely did he assent to such a request, it being a hassle, a task that required him to gather the full resources of attention and cognizance and vigilance that sapped his faculties for the remainder of the day. But they hadn’t been out in quite some time, at least a week.
“Put on some pants,” he said. “There are mosquitoes out there.”
Kyle dashed off and up the stairs, hollering as he went to his siblings.
The dishes had been stacked in the rack by the time the three children appeared back in the kitchen; they bounced about, yapping, with enthusiasm spread upon their pallid faces. “What did I say, Karen? Get some damn pants on. The mosquitoes will kill you out there.”
“Pop, I didn’t hear.”
“Well get them on. You should know.”
“We never go out, Pop.”
He wanted to soothe her, to apologize, but his desire was no match for the nibbling exasperation. “Just go put them on, Karen. It doesn’t require conversation.”
“Where are we going to go?” Kyle asked when Karen had disappeared.
“Where do you think we’re going to go? Outside, in the yard.”
“Oh, can’t we go to the field?”
“Do you know how far away that is?”
“It’s not far. Five minutes. Please let’s. We can kick field goals then.”
“You don’t need to kick a football. Be happy with some exercise. Must we always want more and more and more?” He stopped, then strode to the stove, nabbed his cigarette pack, and swiftly lit a butt. “I’m sorry, but, Christ, we can’t go over to the field; we just can’t. You’d realize that if you were me. It’s just that . . .”
He couldn’t go on. There was no way to elucidate the danger to a twelve-year-old, and no reason to besides, no reason beyond cruelty. And it struck him that part of the justification had to do with his own fears, and he had additional reasons to keep those quiet.
The cigarette scalded his parched lungs, and he stubbed it after three drags, an unconscionable waste considering he didn’t even attempt to salvage the remaining two-thirds. Kyle and John stared at him in seeming distress, silent.
“Let’s go, guys,” he said, trying to infuse his voice with vivacity. “Bet I can still whip that old boy farther than you, Kyle.” He walked over and swatted the football out of Kyle’s hands, precipitating a mad scramble into the entryway, both boys pursuing the ball as if it were a critical fumble at a critical moment in a critical game. John emerged with it, but not for long: Kyle yanked at his brother’s scruffy, shoulder-length blonde hair, forcing the younger boy to screech and catapult the ball out of his hands while simultaneously already beseeching his father to enact due punishment. “That’s John’s ball, Kyle, fair and square. You were flagged. Toss it back.”
Kyle grimly underhanded the ball to John, who cradled it against his chest and ceased to protest.
Soon Karen stampeded down the stairs, having changed not only out of her shorts and into UCSB sweatpants but also out of her raggedy T-shirt and, unaccountably, into an equally raggedy purple blouse. “This better?” she asked, and her expression was so guileless that he grinned unreservedly and gave her a nod. Before they left the house he kissed them all on the top of their heads, disregarding and not caring a lick about the matted, dirty state of their hair, and then stooped, with a return to his previous disquiet and doldrums, to pick up his trusty duffel bag from beside the door, where it sat disguising its contents while remaining easily accessible.
The sun had become more potent with the hours, and he had to shield his eyes when he set foot underneath it. The children had bounded down the steps ahead of him, and they bolted in separate directions across the overgrown yard, seeming to set out for the area with the low-lying grass that allowed for relatively unencumbered movement. They did not stop, though, and rather dovetailed before the path that led to the field before vanishing down it. Instead of calling out to them, warning them to stay near, he clasped the duffel bag tighter, as if a firmer hold could preclude the unknown. Immediately he rued leaving his cigarettes behind, parched throat notwithstanding.
A speed walk brought him down the path and to the field shortly after the children had began hurling the football through the air, it wobbling with each throw, caught only about once in every five attempts at first, the most evident sign that their outdoor excursions were less frequent than they should have been, than they once were. Already the heat and foreboding and pointlessness of the endeavor had brought to him a headache, and he stood watching the antics (John attempting to repay Kyle with a flying arm tackle; Kyle sloughing it off and stomping on John’s back; Karen scooping up the apparently forgotten football and punting it to no one in particular) with barely a movement. Never had he had patience for an unstructured sporting activity of any kind; even watching, even when the boys were four or five years old, he had inwardly seethed at their refusal to keep score, their complete lack of interest in tallying up points to satisfy what he believed should have been their natural competitive instincts. But now, while he could sense that seething, he no longer had to fight the need to intervene, his defiance having been sapped beyond its natural reservoir.
It took at least fifteen minutes for any of the children to remember his presence, and it was Karen who said, “Pop, you wanna play?” She beamed, and her crooked teeth castigated him, clashing as they did with her beautiful, near-white blond hair, her symmetrical features and becoming freckles; those environment could not destroy, even as it cast a pallor over her skin and allowed her new teeth to scrunch against one another, thrusting one of her canines on the top row outward at an angle that almost ensured future difficulties chewing food and marred a face he loved.
“Well, do you want to play a game?” he asked.
“What kind of game, Pop?” she replied.
He kicked at the grass and peered up into the pale blue sky, the clouds rolling surreally across it like something out of a movie, those scenes when the film is speeded up to denote time’s passage. “A football game, Karen.”
“But we’re playing a football game already.”
“You’re not really playing a game; you’re chucking around the football. We can play an actual game if you want. Keeping score. You know, like playing cards, or shot-ball, where somebody wins.”
“Oh, yeah, I hate that.”
He sighed, and Karen trotted off toward her brothers, who had taken her temporary absence from the game with not a thought. Lightheaded, he squatted, then sat, stretching his legs out in front of him and hooking one foot around the other. Instilling a love of competition—his love of competition—might, he realized, be detrimental, and his mental, if not verbal, insistence that his children conform to whatever long-held but now long-obsolete notions about how to survive and thrive and conquer in the world might just be a sign of atrocious rather than conscientious parenting, and the dearth of specialists, whatever the true quality of their wisdom in the past, left him without guidance, without even the guidance that he likely would have once reviled unless it was in harmony with his beliefs. Now he had no clue, had not even the assuredness that came from authoritatively rebutting the experts, and neither did Sonja, and they admitted as much, she openly, with tears sometimes, despite the fact that she never cried in response to anything else, only about their children, and he with frustrated detachment, attempting as he always did to embody some persona that he wished were genuine but knew could never be.
The shout reached his ears seven seconds before he sprung up, and thereafter he couldn’t figure why it hadn’t spurred him into gear immediately, the only explanation being that he was encoiled in the past, thinking of what he urged himself never to think of. “Heeeey boy,” it came, ricocheting, it seemed, off the walls of the canyon, and soon he had leaped to his feet. His first movement was toward the sound, a darting six steps before he swiveled and sprinted back toward the field, his eyes wide, sweat pouring down his face already.
John was in the midst of tackling Kyle, for no apparent reason considering that Karen held the football twenty feet away, when he screamed, and what he screamed he could not recall, but he knew it was incomprehensible because his children’s stares alighted on him with merely the faintest flash of concern before Kyle pounced up and kicked John in the stomach, not hard enough to elicit a groan. Karen shrieked with joy and punted the ball in the opposite direction from her brothers.
He had by then regained a degree of sanity. “Go, go, go, run!” he screamed, and then louder: “Go, now… Karen, for God’s sake forget the goddamn football and run!” He surged across the field and reached the boys, swooped down to lift John off the ground and in the same motion yanked Kyle’s shirt before stumbling and releasing both of them to catch himself on the ground. “Run!” he screamed again, using his knee to push himself upright and then shoving indiscriminately with both hands at the boys. “Run that way.” He pointed toward a thicket of shrubs seventy or eighty yards away. “Run and keep going; don’t stop.” Then he remembered the duffel bag, but a glance told him he was too far away to safely retrieve it.
The boys were staring at him. “Pop—” Kyle started.
“Fucking run!” he screamed again.
He saw John’s expression, and even in the midst of panic he felt a stab of guilt, of remorse, not because he was responsible but because he could have it no other way, because the world had conspired to turn his children into quailing fugitives whose mere existence necessitated the terror they were now experiencing, and because he knew they would never experience anything again without that terror lurking now that they had confronted it once.
“John, run,” he pleaded, and John scampered after his brother across the field, allowing him to turn toward Karen, who was jogging toward him while looking over her shoulder. “Karen, don’t look—run. Please.”
He held out his arms and beckoned toward her, and she moved so slowly in his mind that he felt that the world had been frozen in some primitive state in which human beings tracked one another with the quarry permanently shackled, with the hunters profiting through a handicap that was imbued in the pursued through the mere fact of being prey. He scooped her up when she reached him, but she was so heavy, despite her emaciated appearance, that he could move her no faster than she had been moving, so he let her onto the ground and tried dragging her, but his first yank brought her down and prompted tears and a howl.
“Jesus, Karen, we have to move,” he said, and he heard his voice crack.
“Pop, I can’t,” Karen squealed. “I can’t.” The last contraction was drawn out in a manner that reminded him of her younger self, of the whining that would occur when her brothers would snatch a toy from her, usually good-naturedly, or when Sonja would announce bedtime, or when a final uneaten piece of squash remained on her plate.
“Oh, please, Karen,” he said, and then yanked her roughly to her feet. Behind him he heard a shout and then horse’s hooves, and he ventured a look before sprinting away, frantically hoping Karen would follow.
“Hey there!” he heard behind him. “Hey there!”
He didn’t stop but slowed. The first pitch of shame swept through him, and he almost tripped again as his legs, tensed unnaturally long, relaxed.
“Hey there!” And he heard the horse break into the open field, just as he was about to reach the shrubs. He stopped and turned.
On a chestnut roan, George Langford sat casually, his horse loping across the field. “I got the supplies,” he yelled.
Karen had stopped, and he could see sobs cascading through her frame even though he could no longer see her face and the tears that doubtless accompanied them.
“Damn it,” he muttered. “God damn it, son of a whore.” Sweat had drenched the front of his shirt. “God damn it.” He swiveled back away from George and Karen. “Boys, false alarm,” he called. “Nothing doing.” He listened before calling out to them again, to no avail, it seemed.
“What’s going on here?” George asked, and the nearness of his voice provided another jolt.
“Not a thing, George.” He tried to smile. “Gave us a run, so to speak.” He walked up behind Karen and took her shoulders in his damp palms. She swung around and hugged him, the strength of the embrace nearly bringing tears to his eyes.
“Jeez, has somebody come up on you all?” George asked. He took his decrepit baseball cap, a mesh Astros hat that looked like a long-ago Little League scrap, and swept his forearm across his brow.
“Just you.” He tried to smile again. “I freaked. Don’t know what’s wrong with me. Should’ve been expecting you. Sent us all scattering.”
George’s auburn hair stuck up in lopsided tufts all about his head, the result of an apathetic shearing. “I’m sorry, bud.” He opened his mouth to continue but seemed to find words hindered by his surprise and discomfiture.
“Don’t be.” Karen quivered beneath his hands.
“Let me get your boys,” George offered. “Can’t be far.” He galloped off before waiting for a response, and soon he returned with the news that he had located Kyle and John. “Weren’t gonna go far without you,” he said, and clapped his shoulder from above: a compliment, evidently.
“Had nowhere to go. Come on back to the house.”
They waited for Kyle and John and then traipsed across the field in silence, George in the lead, still on the roan. When they reached the house, the children scuttled inside, suddenly eager for that dour sanctuary, while the men stood outside, sharing few words. After the horse was tied, he invited George in, and they both went, the heaviness of the mood not lightened with the acceptance and neither perceiving how to lighten it.
“Hungry?” he asked when they had both unburdened themselves of the sparse groceries George had brought.
“Stan fed me back in Chivington,” George replied.
“How is Stan?”
“Holed up, what you might expect. Got that double-barrel pointed at the door, and I’ll be damned if you can’t hear that mother click when you grasp the doorhandle. Said that crazy Mexican hinted last time back it might be his last trip.”
“Should be.” He shivered. “What you gonna do if it is?”
“What will you?” George laughed, however uneasily, and reached for a smoke in his breast pocket, snagged one, and offered the pack.
“You just brought me some,” he said in response, then chuckled to acknowledge the generosity.
“Boy’s always hinting it might be his last trip. Don’t expect he gets by any other way. Else why would he have stuck with it this long?”
“Hard to know. Circumstances change.”
“No crap. I got you this.” George reached into one of the two sacks and slid a newspaper on the table: the Los Angeles Times. “Big city news come to Chivington.”
He shook his head. “The inventory expands directly before he gives up the enterprise? Spark of hope. Chivington, Jesus. No God in this world when the only town left operating in Colorado is the one named after that man.” He eyed the newspaper with trepidation. “
“Hardly call it a town. And it might be sweet justice, after all this time—probably better to be empty at this point than inhabited by one sad sack, his wife, and a gun. Even Black Kettle’s folks might be better off than those two.”
“Grant you that.”
“Well, I got to get back. You take care out here. Sorry to put that fright into you.”
He blushed, the first explicit reference to his frenetic behavior, and what he figured could be perceived as rank cowardice, having struck him as both piercing and almost uncouth. “Never know what might be creeping out there.” He shook his head rapidly. “With kids . . . it’s different.”
“I hear you.”
He led George through the entryway and outside and stood watching while he swung up on the well-fed roan. “Thanks,” he called, but the belated gratitude for the supplies probably had not reached the intended recipient. For near ten minutes he watched the mountains and the sky behind them, blue and clear and distinct beyond the reality of existence, before remembering his children.
Inside, he bellowed, “Boys, Karen, what are you all up to?” The lack of a response propelled him up the stairs, his heart beginning to throb before he realized that whatever danger he had sensed an hour ago had entirely dissipated. On the landing he immediately spotted all three, sprawled on the ground with the ouija board opened but not set up in front of them. “What’s going on, guys?”
Stares settled upon him, and he stared himself, at gaping eyes tinged with agitation, the smooth skin of children but vilely pale, and prematurely stringy hair. “Are you using this thing or what?”
“Where’s Mom, Pop?” John asked.
He bristled but fought it. “You know where she is: she’s at the Wilbertson’s. Isn’t she there every day?” He softened his tone. “She’ll be home before long. Dark is coming.”
As he moved closer, he could see from the fresh tracks on her face that Karen had been crying. John’s eyes were red; perhaps he had been, too. “Shall we have some dinner anyway? I’ll eat with Mom later.”
The children slowly gathered themselves to their feet and then followed him down the stairs. He fought an urge to admonish them, to tell them that whatever they had gone through, whatever fear they were still battling against, they had no right to clam up and allow him to feel responsible, that when you truly considered it they were lucky, when you considered the children of those who could not protect their loved ones from such forces as he had thus far subdued, whether the Turks or the Germans or the Hutus or the Serbs, whether Pol Pot or Stalin or Pinochet or Ceausescu, and that was only in the last century—for centuries upon centuries before that the children of Chinese peasants would have given thirty years of life for the security his children were granted, and yet they frosted upon him looks of accusation, as though somehow he were not doing all he possibly could to guarantee them what stability could be guaranteed in a world beyond the horrors that anyone with any acquaintance with decency and civility and kindness could imagine in their worst imaginings.
When they reached the kitchen, he emptied the two bags George had brought on the counter and then methodically lined up each item on the edge as if a deliberate removal would make the meager contents more valuable than they were. The booty totaled three cartons of eggs, a loaf of bread, four packs of cold cuts, two cartons of cigarettes, one can of coffee beans, six boxes of cereal but no milk, six boxes of saltines, five packets of sliced cheese, ten cans of soup, eight cans of tuna, and six cans of blackbeans—a week’s worth of provisions. He lit the propane camping stove, brought a pot out from underneath the sink, and opened two cans of soup and poured them in before reconsidering and opening two more and adding them to the others.
“Pop, what do you do?” Kyle asked.
He turned; the children were sitting around the table like dogs looking up at their master. “What do you mean ‘what do I do’?”
“I mean, Mom works for the Wilbertsons. What do you do?”
“Save your ass,” he mumbled. Then he swiftly ripped open a box of saltines and slung it on the table. “Start on ’em. We’re gonna eat today.”
Even as he stirred the soup, his back to the table, he could envision the frenzy over the unexpected crackers as he heard the groping about for the cherished morsels and then the crunching as three mouths hemmed in on them. He opened one of the cold cut packets and took out a slice and stuffed it entire in his mouth. The soup soon boiled, and he filled three bowls to the brim and placed them on the table. The saltines were finished, so he opened a second box and divided them equally among the three. None of the children had spoken a word since he had flung the first on the table.
Soon he had consumed the packet of cold cuts and had another four cans of soup on the stove. Nobody spoke, but when he looked back at the children he noted that they had the eager expectation, the sense of hope but of likely impending disappointment, that he associated with majestic holidays, with Christmas or birthdays, times when what was supposed to occur seemed too wonderful to be possible. He dished out more soup, and they set to it without delay and, too, the additional allotment of crackers he provided them from the third box. A second packet of cold cuts had only touched a slumbering voracity within him, and he lit into a box of generic cereal without milk, which was unavailable in Chivington, still conscious enough to be mindful of not spilling any. When the children had finished their soup, he dumped the remainder of the cereal into their bowls.
Finally, Karen spoke, and he found it counterintuitive that the youngest would be the most astute. “Pop, why are we eating so much?”
A response—and, more pertinently, the reason—eluded him. “You’re my daughter,” was all he could come up with, and he followed this by walking over, bending, and kissing the top of her head.
Within thirty minutes they had finished more than half of the food, and the children sat, sullenly, he thought, eyelids drooping, at the table, with no energy for their customary after-supper banter and then bickering. One by one, first John, then Karen, then Kyle, rose and plodded off with barely a word—Kyle did offer a “thank you”—and disappeared up the stairs to do whatever they did to kill nights. The paper awaited, and a sense of déjà vu swarmed over him as he recognized the anticipation with which he had been waiting to view it, a remnant of those days during election seasons when a political junkie such as he looked forward almost with angst to perusing the internet in the mornings or after busy stretches at work, when it seemed as though any news could have broken, any massive and game-changing event could have already been batted about on countless gabshows, only this time the angst seemed more justifiable even though he knew the news was weeks old, which once would have made it archaic but not now, not in a stagnant world where progress had been replaced by the constancy of human versus human and city versus city.
“Sanchez to the Pen” blared the headline, and he could only chalk it up to justice that Ricardo Sanchez finally had to pay for his sins, no matter the integrity of those who were incarcerating him and would certainly soon, if they had not already, bleed him dry. The Times was only ten pages, and he had to flip to page eight to finish the story, written by who-knows-who, obviously someone well-connected, one of the half million or fewer residents of Los Angeles, the, from what anybody could ascertain, largest city remaining in the country and probably the world. Sanchez stood accused of “embezzlement,” whatever that meant anymore, he thought, and his cronies had joined him in the penitentiary, although their crimes were not enumerated. No mention throughout the paper was made of the racial violence that had been all the buzz up north when disaster originally struck and that had filtered through the word-of-mouth network in the succeeding years, but he did note that Sanchez’ replacement was Albert Eagleton, a name he recognized he knew not what from—the world of law or business, he supposed, although academia was a possibility—so he could at least hypothesize that it continued in some fashion.
Most of the paper was filled with absurd stories he generally chalked up to propaganda or pipe-dreams: the revivification of some education center in West Hollywood, a good Samaritan taking in a wayward child and sheltering her in his well-fortified home, tales of what might be happening in the vast unknown to the north and south and east and even overseas. He saved for last the only opinion column, written by the old standby Kilbert, chief of police when chaos ruptured docile life—if you could ever have termed life in Los Angeles or around the world docile—the de facto mayor during the tenures of the first Eagleton, then Williams, then Sanchez, and presumably whomever had gone unmentioned for reason of distance in Chivington and its environs, and just as presumably during the tenure of Eagleton II, whom he realized now that he couldn’t accurately ascertain whether he had heard of, considering that he was doubtless related to Eagleton I and his memory told him he had only heard of one of them and didn’t know which.
Kilbert’s columns had always struck him for their honesty, at least compared with the rest of the Times, and with the understanding that he had no way of distinguishing honesty from deceit. But this one struck him the same way, particularly in its contrast with the rest of the paper: “The Cardinal Van Roeys Are Dead” the headline, in small font, read, and while he had no idea who Cardinal Van Roey was and Kilbert chose to let historical erudition stand without explanation, he could figure from the stories of children murdered in the streets, and men bleeding their wives until death came upon them, and marauding groups hopelessly laying siege to the most impenetrable houses in the city, that he must have been a courageous man in some way. Despite, Kilbert wrote, Los Angeles’ superiority over the world, its citizens turned their wrath and greed and dread upon one another; despite their collective strength, they preyed upon the relatively weak among them.
He balled up the paper and then stuffed it back into one of the grocery bags. Surveying the scene, he, for the first time, felt a wave of contrition rush over him—he had wasted, out of a similar but lesser sense of contrition, the food they counted upon to keep them not alive, necessarily, but human, for who knew what he was capable of to acquire sustenance?
By the time Sonja arrived he had discarded the remnants but not the contrition. When he heard the door, he started, the unusual quantity of food in his stomach having made him drowsy, and then he staggered to his feet and lurched into the entryway. “Home?” he asked, ridiculously. She gave him a quizzical look. “Work good? Solid, I mean?”
She dropped her bag by the door and then shot her head up. “Where’s the duffel?”
“Oh Christ.” And before she had a chance to add to the questioning, he was past her and out the door, and he felt himself sprinting across the yard, down the dirt path, and into the field. There it lay, in the dwindling sunlight, where he had left it, and he snatched it up and slowed to a walk, returning to the house. On the porch, he paused and searched his pockets for a cigarette before giving up and entering.
“What happened?” Sonja said as soon as he walked in.
“Forgot it. We went out to toss the football. My bad.”
“What happened to the food?”
“Ate it.” He walked by her slender, withered figure in the entryway and turned into the kitchen, where he grabbed and lit a smoke.
“You ate it?” she asked, having followed him.
He presumed it was rhetorical. Her coarse, brown hair, he noticed, was unusually disheveled, even for one who cut her own hair, and the purple gauges underneath her eyes appeared deeper and purpler and more indicative of exhaustion than they usually did. For the first time in months he wished to kiss her, and not on the crown of her head, as he did once or twice a day, in the manner that he kissed his children, but on her cracked, full lips, the lips he had years ago lusted after as much as he had any other part of her anatomy, even her little breasts that she had always augmented in the most pleasing way with designer bras and tight T-shirts and a shoulders-back posture that in leisurely moments, at home sitting on the couch watching television for one, seemed a satirical imitation of some harassed Catholic school girl fearful of reproach from a steely-eyed nun. But months before when he had tried she had pleaded something—tiredness, busyness, or illness, he could not remember—and he had given up on that.
“How could you have eaten all that food?” she asked. “That’s our food for the week. That’s the food for our children.”
“Oh, well, they ate it, really. I ate more or less my regular portion.”
“They ate it? And what in God’s name, then, were you doing at that particular juncture? They ate our food for the week and the man whose only responsibility is to make sure they don’t do stupid shit that leaves us all dead like eating all the food we have to keep us alive for a week claims ignorance because it was they who did the damage.”
He felt his hand shaking, the cigarette lurching up and down between his fore and middle fingers, and before he could restrain himself he had picked up the French press from the counter and slammed it to the ground, sending shards darting about the room and his cigarette skittering toward his wife, who, he saw, did not recoil, who looked at him as she might have once done a recalcitrant shooting victim at Oakland Medical Center who refused to name his assailant.
“Are they upstairs?” she asked, without the emphasis this time.
He found his chest was heaving and it took him a couple of seconds to draw in the breath needed to respond. “Yes.”
Before he could apologize, before he could think to apologize, if that was what his next mental step would have been, she strode forward, pulled out a chair, and slumped in it. “Marty died today.”
He heard himself gasp. “He died?” She did not respond. “He died.”
Slowly he began retrieving pieces of glass from the floor. His violent impulse now seemed to him so inane that he wanted to cry, and he knew that second impulse was not exacerbated by Marty’s death, as tragic as it was considering the pain the boy must have undergone and the circumstances, how by mere fact of being born into a family with the largest ranch in Colorado he had been fated to become the provider of power to a world no longer moored to the old, positive, progressive technological advancement but to one so regressive that the end, inevitable as it was, dodged everyone’s consciousness until it occurred, and even after perhaps. He was thinking of Franklin and Marie Wilbertson holed up in their house justifying everything, seeking some seed to plant in their minds that would convince them their son had not died as senselessly as the six or more billion before him. Yet he had not known Marty Wilbertson, had only seen him once, and those were unusual circumstances to say the least, considering that at the time he was holding a gun to Marty’s father’s temple and insisting that, while the Wilbertsons could live with power and use his wife to supply it, that was the only service they would be receiving from his family. Coffee was real, coffee would announce its absence the next morning, and for weeks thereafter and probably longer considering the unlikelihood of George procuring a coffee maker in Chivington, and it would continue announcing its absence even after the caffeine dependency retreated, for the need for coffee fulfilled not only that dependency but also the need for routine, for something, something tiny, to look forward to.
“Tell me,” he finally said.
“He screamed. Once. He knew it. He didn’t scream in pain; he screamed at me, at his parents, at everything. Only two years older than Kyle. But he knew much more. He knew everything.” She straightened on her chair. “Why was man cursed with mind?”
This time it appeared she desired a response, despite the unanswerable nature of the question. “Without one, would we have the story of someone like Cardinal Van Roey?”
“Who is he?”
“I’m not sure. A brave man.”
“Why do we, why do we, what’s the cliché? ‘Clutch to life’?”
“‘Cling,’ it’s usually said.” He used to adore these signs of her distant immigrant past, the sporadic reminders that she had been born in Eastern Europe and moved to California at the age of six. To friends, he had abashedly lobbed the term “exotic” out, particularly to friends from college whom he rarely saw and who thus could not have the implications of that word dashed by his then-girlfriend’s perfect grammar and syntax, her American fashions, and lack of an accent.
“Cling. Why do we cling?”
“First, because we were cursed with mind. Second, because our history has taught us that we don’t regress; we always soar forward.”
“Certain quixotic history analysts may teach us that; history does not.”
“How so?” He lit another cigarette, sheepishly, not because it was the best sign, his nicotine reliance, that he did not wish to cling to life but because of what had happened to his last one.
“Did not the Greeks after the Mycenaean period revert to the Dark Ages? Do we not refer to ‘the height of Rome’? I don’t suspect Merv advanced a great deal after the Mongols butchered its inhabitants.” She wiped her eyes—he would have thought she was drying them, but she had not shed a tear. “Why did you let them eat all our food?” Her voice was soft and resigned, barely audible.
“George rode up on us outside as we were playing football. I lost it.”
“Scattered like Dain Waris’s crew under ungodly fire.”
She laughed. In the early days, they loved swapping literary allusions, and she, an English major, had stumped him continuously, until he had given up and instead sought to reference classics that would impress rather than confound her. “I think they’re going to blame me.”
“When your son dies, you don’t need a ‘for.'”
“I could—we could—blame a lot of people for a lot of things without a ‘for,'” he said, “but one would have to be insane to blame you for the death of a boy they sacrificed to the god of human consumption.”
“That’s not what they did.”
“Perhaps they could have tried living like us.”
“And how would we have lived then?”
“That is not for them to worry about. No jury in our distant land would have condemned you. Only the most unscrupulous trial attorney would have brought a claim.”
“They’re going to ask for Kyle or John. Or Karen.”
He took the last drag on his smoke, fiending for alcohol to go with another one. “They won’t get any of them.”
“And what will we do?”
“Fight them to the death, as they say.” He thought of the duffel bag he had recently retrieved from the field. “They know where they can stick that.”
“And what then?”
“Then we set up a government, and then we bring together the remnants of the country under one flag, and we strike down all opposition, lashing out against the power of L.A. in a way they would never expect.”
“I’m not asking you to be facetious.”
“Even Jefferson and Madison and Henry and Mason would realize now the importance of a centralized government. There have to be some people left with a little book-learning.”
She rolled her eyes. “You can’t even avoid sounding facetious. ‘Book-learning.’ Right.”
“Let me make you something to eat.”
“Even more facetious. I think I’d better leave the scraps for the rest of the week.”
He got up, shuffled toward her chair, and kissed her on the crown of her head.
“I’m going to go up and see what they’re doing,” she said, and rose with surprising alacrity, then marched out of the room. He followed.
On the way up the stairs he could hear squeals and chants, and he almost wished he could not. Sonja reached the open doorway, and he paused outside with his view obscured, listening only to his children’s chitchat, some foolishness about pirates, based, doubtless, on some equally foolish story he had related to them in one of his better moods, and then Kyle screeched something and John objected and Karen broke from character to settle whatever meaningless dispute had erupted, and all their make-believe seemed as real as their lives, and he knew then that one by one they would go like so many children washed away into the delta and then the deeper water after a devastating storm in a shanty town, but in this case slowly, agonizingly, and it all struck him as about as real as the notion that he once worked among computers and genial colleagues and lived in an expensive house in Noe Valley and walked his dog and drank chichi coffee and did whatever else he did back when his children had no need to pretend they were alive.
And still they quarreled and mediated and carried on, as if the only world that had ever existed sat inside that rustic two-storey somewhere in the Centennial State.
Fiction, Vol. 2.4, Dec. 2008 The faint odor of rotting flesh greeted the James family as Mr. James turned the family’s beaten-up Honda onto the dirt road. It was New Year’s Day, and the James family was taking their usual New Year’s drive with the windows […]