Michele watches from the beach, questioning what she is seeing. Something swims by with a gray tail and dorsal fin similar to the surrounding dolphins, yet the creature’s upper-half appears to be a human’s torso with breasts as iridescent as the inside of an abalone shell. Michele swallows, making out the cool green face of a bald-headed woman.
This has to be my imagination.
But when the creature arches her muscular back to dive past seaweed beds, Michele wonders if she’s witnessing the impossible. Quickly scanning the placid beachgoers, she sees that no one else appears to notice.
Michele turns her attention back to the ocean, considering the story in which various Native American tribes had first perceived European sailing ships as floating islands with their white sails, angular clouds. It was theorized that having had zero experience with such colossal vessels, their vision adjusted the image to match their reality. Perhaps, then, with only myth as a reference – even if the mermaid is real – no one else can really see her. In everyone else’s eyes, this creature only looks like another sea mammal hunting for food. Michele knows that if she nudges Conrad awake, he’ll only tell her that grief is making her see things. Or worse yet, suggest that she has become hysterical.
Sitting on the edge of her towel, she digs her feet into the sand, reassured by the grainy warmth. Michele focuses on the ring of water where the mermaid had last submerged. In her peripheral vision, she sees Conrad leaning on his elbows. He yawns. “You know, maybe it’s a sign,” he says.
“What are you talking about?” Had he possibly seen the mermaid too? She knows, though, that even if he did, he’d never admit it—not even to himself.
“This last miscarriage. Maybe it’s a sign you shouldn’t have kids.”
“A sign I shouldn’t have kids?” Michele feels as if she has fallen flat on her back, too shocked and sore to be able to fully breathe.
“You’ve had three miscarriages now. Maybe your body isn’t meant to have a baby.”
“It couldn’t have anything to do with us – with our combined genes?” She continues to scan the churning water where the dolphins are still feeding, but cannot locate her mermaid.
“That’s right, Michele, everything is my fault.” He lies back down, and covers his eyes with a hairy forearm.
“I said us, not you!” Michele tries not to shout. “Why do you always make it sound as if I’m attacking you?”
“You’re just overwrought right now.” Conrad’s body remains prone and emotionless, yet he reaches over and weakly pats her leg with his free arm. “Everything I say or do right now is wrong – even if it’s the truth.”
Michele jerks her leg away, disgusted by the rotten-onion stink of his sweat. “I still don’t understand why you won’t consider adoption.”
Conrad turns from her, the sunlight reflecting off his angry-looking shoulder blades. She desperately wants to jump into the ocean and swim out to where she had seen the mermaid, but the doctor had told her that she is still vulnerable to infection – and she’s beginning to doubt that she had really seen such a creature anyway. It must have been her imagination. After all, she does know that in times of loss, she is inclined to seeing things.
She slides on her sunglasses so she can more clearly make out whatever is happening on the distant glare of water, remembering the vision she had when she was six years old and had been knocked off her raft by an incoming wave. While she held her breath, tumbling underwater, powerless as wingless bird, she saw things that later she figured out, must have been a hallucination. At the time, filtered sunlight at the entrance of underwater caves and the shadowy figures that had stood upright, as if guarding them, were as real as her big sister, Emily, running toward her in a lime-green bathing suit when the wave finally released her and she emerged, gasping for air. Michele told her sister what she had seen, and all Emily said was that she didn’t want Michele ever to go too far out again because, “…since Mom died, I can’t lose you too.”
Michele glances at the snoring Conrad. How could the man doze off again so quickly? Annoyed, Michele turns her head and notices a little girl with a crown of black curls standing pigeon-toed in the sand. The girl’s soft-bellied mother has set up a beach umbrella and is in the process of laying down flowered towels under its shade.
The mother sighs. “Sorry we’re putting up camp so close to you, but there’s not much room on the beach today.”
“I don’t mind; all my husband will be doing is sleeping – and trust me – when he wants to, he’ll sleep through anything.” As if on cue, Conrad lets out a loud snort of a snore.
The mother covers her mouth and giggles. The little girl laughs as well, but does so with wide-grinned unselfconsciousness. Michele smiles at them. “I told you so!”
A sudden chorus of excited voices surrounds them. Several people are pointing to where the dolphins are splashing as one of the animals leaps out of the water and twirls its body high in the air as if in a ballet.
“Mommy, she is so beautiful,” the girl exclaims.
“Yes, dolphins are very pretty, honey,” the mother says with the kind of distraction that Michele knew was meant to be kind, but guesses will only frustrate the girl.
“No, not the dolphins – the mermaid!” The girl’s voice breaks as if she is about to cry. “Look, Mommy, can’t you see her?”
Michele stands, hearing her own heartbeat. She can only see the pod of dolphins, fins ripping through water and the diving splash of a seabird. She turns to the little girl. “Where do you see her?”
The girl starts to answer, but her mother cuts her off. “Sweetie, remember you promised me that you wouldn’t let your imagination take over any more?” She shoots Michele a look of warning.
“This is not my imag-in-mation!” The girl points at the ocean and begins to cry. “Look, she’s right there!”
Michele still can’t see her.
With a downturned mouth, the mother pats her daughter on the shoulder. “I’m sorry, honey.” The girl is crying so hard now that Michele’s eyes start to water. The mother steps over to Michele and whispers in her ear, “She’s having a hard time with reality. It’s only been three months since…” The mother pauses briefly, taking in a sharp inhale. “Since her father died.”
The mother goes back to her daughter and tenderly wraps the girl in a towel. As the mother settles them under their umbrella, she begins to rock her daughter in her arms while singing “When You Wish Upon a Star.” This calms the girl down, and Michele watches as she curls into her mother’s consolation.
After the girl rests her head on her mother’s shoulder and closes her tear-swollen eyes, Michele looks back at the water. The dolphins are moving on, a determined exodus of sleek silhouettes curving in and out of the ocean’s surface toward what Michele guesses is better hunting ground. The area where they had been once again sparkles with quiet ripples. She rubs the loss in her lower belly, trying to ease the slight aftershocks of pain still rolling in. With desperation, she wills her mermaid out.
When the cool green face finally emerges from the surface, Michele holds her breath. With head out of water, the mermaid swims closer to shore. Michele whips off her glasses and sees that the mermaid’s turquoise eyes are staring at her with a combined expression of sorrow and expectation. Walking toward her on legs that have become increasingly numb, Michele tries to breathe air that has become to her lungs something thick and alien. She keeps her gaze on her mermaid and remains calm. Finally, finally Michele reaches the water’s edge and as she steps into the ocean, her legs immediately regain their strength and her lungs readily take in air. With authority, the mermaid waves to her. Before Michele is able to wave back, the mermaid vanishes below the surface. The water, translucent and cool, swirls around Michele and she finds herself smiling, knowing the truth.
Tracy Shawn lives and writes on the Central Coast of California. Her educational background includes a master’s degree in clinical psychology. Her debut novel, The Grace of Crows, is about how an anxiety-ridden woman finds happiness through the most unexpected of ways—and characters. Dubbed a “stunning debut novel” by top 50 Hall of Fame reviewer, Grady Harp, The Grace of Crows has also been hailed as an accurate portrayal of generalized anxiety disorder and a healing opportunity to the reader by Anne Diamond, MS, LMFT.