Thursday, June 28, 2012


            The mermaids came to Capitola and I knew I was doing the right thing.

            Timing couldn’t have been better for my Rosie. She loved summer, and Capitola wasn’t that far from San Jose. It was the perfect beach—small, but just right for anyone—and especially now, the mermaids.

            By the time I brought Rosie out there they’d all left, save for one. We were lucky. Rosie was going to have a summer like none she’d seen in her nine years. And she was drawn to fairy things. Her mother had just spent a fortune on children’s series and pop-up encyclopedias about dragons and griffins and such. Rosie delighted in these, and read them devotedly to delight her mom.

            The first day we arrived in the little sunspot of a coastal town, Rosie insisted we drive first to the harbor before checking into the bungalow. I drove the car through the small winding streets past the warm-colored little shops, and we were parked along the edges of the smooth yellow sand. She was tugging at my hand and running ahead out to the sea. At the back of the crowd already gathered in the waves, we waited our turn to get at the front where the sea maiden entertained. Some people saw us, noticed a sweet-faced little brunette girl who didn’t bother to roll up her jean hems and was tightly holding onto her father’s hand. They moved out, letting Rosie through first.

            The mermaid was a given. She was beautiful with the expected sprite features of moss-colored long tresses bobbing in the waters that enfolded her gray glowing body up to the shoulders. Her eyes were black and glistened like a dog’s, or a whale’s for that matter. Mermaids weren’t much for me, but with Rosie this meeting was different. And it altered me too, because she was happy.

            A little bit after settling into the waterfront hut we rented for the few months ahead, she begged me to take her for a waffle cone and back to the waters. There was a narrow concrete promenade for the people to trod, and wooden benches pelted in seagull droppings faced the beach along the stroll. It was sitting on one of these benches that Rosie began asking of her mother.

            “She said she’d be coming,” she spoke excitedly.

            “You know she’s busy, sweet,” I had to remind her. I always tried to avoid confessing that her mom was on business trips yes, but extended her stays in Miami and Chicago to enough time to cover the bars and shopping with her close girl colleagues—enough time from us. Usually it was a week, a month at max.

            “I heard people talk that she’s sick,” Rosie went on. “The mermaid’s stayed behind because of something wrong with her.”
            “It’s probably just that, talk.”
            She was biting into the edges of her ice cream cone, the melting cream similar in color to that marvelous creature flanking the shores in the distance. “But do you think the others will be coming back?”

            “Well, I’d sure hope so!”
            She was laughing now and tossed the crumbling cone to the birds. “Mom will love it here.”
            The next morning was when Dorothy called me. “How long this time,” I asked blankly to my wife.
            “Maybe a few days this time,” she was almost whispering. “It’s only a matter of days when they open the exhibit. I’ll be back darling, for Rosie. If I wait, I’ll be able to pick something up from here in the collection!”

            “I trust you,” I told her, even though I didn’t. But what point was there in calling her out—she wouldn’t come sooner.

            The talk was true, the mermaid had taken ill. But each day, the people were saying, she still showed brightness in spirit and playful grace in her movements, and to the children who flocked to the waves she sang to them in her smooth and low native tongue. I let Rosie go out on her own one afternoon and she came to the hut with golden pink shells. “She’d disappear into the water for minutes,” she spoke, falling asleep in my arms on the balcony wicker seat, “and she returned with the sweetest things for the kids. ‘Was one of the lucky ones.”
            Rosie loved helping me make dinner. In the outdated cramped kitchen she made sure the heat was strong, salt was plenty, and that thyme and dill were minced to precision. She was bent on bringing the sickly sea maiden some stew, even if it wasn’t what she ate. Dorothy called again. The days turned into two weeks.

            I was hearing about things getting worse with the woman out at sea. Along those neon stucco houses in the north of the town beneath the railroad tracks, the get-well cards and ribbon-wrapped tins of home-baked shortbreads for her piled and reached as far as those homes. We were walking there, and the path was blocked by two older couples seated in plastic white lawn chairs gazing out to the water. “I heard it was something in the waters out here,” a thin man with a straw panama on his head was saying to the woman closest to his side.

            “But the waters around here are beautiful, compared to LA,” the older woman, far from him, remarked.

            “They say the merfolk hate it down there,” the closer companion to the panama man said. “It’s where they’re from, but they can’t stand it.”
            “Perhaps they’re not used to up here then,” the other man with a curling black moustache joined in.

            “She won’t last long, then,” the panama man said. I looked down to Rosie; she’d been covering her ears the whole time.

            I let Rosie out to the water to see her, and I remained watching from the bedroom window following her tiny dot to the white waves surfacing. She didn’t want to spend time with me at the moment. Lately she’d ridden her blue beach cruiser through the sand with the basket loaded with her fairy books. She wasn’t reading to the maiden, but was bent on asking her facts about her people and if she could disprove any claims written in the books. “Everyone likes attention,” was what Rosie figured.

            Into the second month we’d been in Capitola did the mermaid stop rising to the surface. She stayed submerged in the murky blue below, Rosie told me after returning once, but you could still make an outline of her beneath the waves. She was swimming on her back slowly, but wrapping her long hair around her like a sable coat you wouldn’t want to lose and kept fastening tightly around your shoulders. Rosie was throwing her books out—all of them weren’t true, to her surprise. She knew mom wouldn’t get mad at her.

            The woman out at sea had died by the time Dorothy met us. Rosie was smiling at her arrival, but I knew she wasn’t embracing her mom for her finally showing, or the exquisite couture fashion dolls she’d bought her. My Rosie was feeling grief for the first time. She was too young for it.

            On the last day of July before we were leaving the hut, Rosie took Dorothy out to the benches on the concrete promenade. From the windows I could see them starring listlessly out to the sea. Dorothy’s mouth opened at intervals as if she were talking. Rosie was just still, her focus to the beach. The sea maiden’s body was going to be exhumed by scientists heading up from Monterey; this was disheartening to Rosie. Miraculously in the night her floating remains disappeared. The people supposed it sank; few believed her people had come to reclaim her corpse. But the mermaids were being spotted again near Huntington Beach; they were at home, though they couldn’t stand it there. I don’t believe Rosie bothered to tell her mother these things—she knew she wouldn’t care for any of it.

            Dorothy fell asleep in the car ride home with us. She’d had an exhausting but exhilarating past few months at God knows where she’d been stationed. The road went through the mountains enveloped by tall cedars. After driving through one winding pass safely I turned to look at Rosie in the back, who was already staring at me. School would start in a month for her, but with small short laughs she was already talking of next June.

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