Sydney loved the sound of water quietly lapping against the smooth shoreline. In and out. In and out. The waves moved placidly under the pull of the tide. Rocks sometimes clicked together when the heavier waves dragged them over one another. Smooth rocks. Perfect for collecting.
Sydney’s yearly collections fed her winter hobby. When Sydney caressed the different rocks from Superior’s floor, she could feel the distant pull of the tide, or sense the glide of water against her skin. Building sculptures with the rocks kept Sydney from missing the water too badly. Winters grew long in the small town of Munising on Lake Superior’s sandy shore.
She always knew summer was approaching when the rocks in her room began to dwindle. She’d managed quite a collection today. Rocks of maroon and cerulean and teal and the dark gray ones that lost their deep color when the moisture left them. Another haul to drag home and sneak into her bedroom closet.
The sun was dipping lower toward the horizon, soon to be swallowed up by the massive lake. Its gold glittered elusively across the top of the water. Summer was magical here. Summer felt endless here. The whole of Summer was captured in one moment here. But soon, Sydney wouldn’t feel the warm sand on the soles of her feet. And the water that had taken months to warm would chill. In summer the water was alive. Fresh. Uninhibited. But it wasn’t tame.
Superior was never tame. Still, the only thing that could call it to submission was the cold. But it was a false submission, for Superior raged in protest against icy winds and cooling air. It collided against the high banks in anger as the freezing wind tried to still its fury, as the winter tried to calm it into slumber. But when the warmth returned, Superior rejoiced and shed its shell of ice to freely lap at the shore again.
Now it shone for the sun in bright blue and glittering green. It waved soft whitecaps for the sun and danced like a partner in the wind. All summer long.
Sydney’s mother was from the water. So it was said. And so Sydney believed. She only knew her mother from the few pictures on the wall at her great uncle’s home. Dusty pictures with tattered edges made mystical by sepia hues and her mother’s own distant stares.
There were three pictures of her mother in the house. All of them told Sydney everything she knew about her mother. And everything her uncle didn’t want her to know. The first picture was of her mother’s back. A young girl, she was, with spindly legs dangling over the edge of the dock, reaching for the summer water below. The second showed her mother’s distant smile as she stood on Superior’s shore with her hand held up to her forehead shielding her eyes from the setting sun as she peered over the water. The third picture, Sydney’s favorite, is just her mother’s face, smiling. Sydney’s uncle had it blown larger, for her birthday, and in her mother’s bright eyes Sydney could see the dancing whitecaps of Superior. Windows to her mother’s soul.
“Look at her.” Mike Knave stood on his front porch, overlooking the water below. He swore under his breath and turned his pipe in his hand. His wife glanced up from her stitching and eyed her husband.
“She just stands there, on the beach, day after day after day!”
“Mike, most kids go to the beach in August. It’s warm and—“
“Don’t tell me it’s like other kids, Sophie. You see what I see. I know you see it, even for your lack of looking!”
“And you see?”
“What do you want me to say, Mike? I see.” She paused for a long time showing emotion he thought had been lost to her years ago. “There’s no way to stop it. You already knew. You knew the moment we found her. She’s just like her mother.”
Mike turned his eyes back out to the shore below and the child he loved like a daughter. She walked along the shore picking up rocks as if they were pieces of gold. Hording them away for winter. “She doesn’t know.” He whispered.
“It doesn’t matter. She’ll find out. They always find out.”
“I won’t go through this again.”
“Then don’t.” Sophie’s gaze snapped to his face, he could feel the heat of her eyes. Eyes that forgot how to cry. “You knew when we found her it would be the same, the same as her mother.”
“I know, but she—what was I supposed to do? Leave her there? Spit and image of her mother?”
“She is her mother! All over again! There is nothing you can do about it. Please, Mike, I’m staying with you. No matter what, I’ll be here when she’s goes. Because she will go. If the last one didn’t teach you anything, perhaps this one will. There is so much hurt here. Promise me you’ll put the house up for sale this year and we’ll leave, it’ll be someone else’s problem then.”
“You would just leave then? Leave her? Leave Laura?”
“Yes. Because Laura left us. And Sydney will too. Look at her, she has but one year maybe.”
“Sophie! How can you talk like that? I see Laura in every summer sunset, in every dancing whitecap!”
“Mike. I cannot stay here. I will not stay here.”
“I can’t leave them, Sophie.”
“You can’t leave Superior.” She said coldly. It wasn’t a question.
“It’s all we ever dreamed of.”
“No. You love that lake more than you love me because—because she gave you what I couldn’t!”
Sydney watched the last of the sun disappear over the edge of the world and sighed. There weren’t many more days of summer. The evening chill tickled the tops of the waves, but the water was warmer than the sky after sun’s descent. Sydney knew it was time to go home. But the water called to her tonight in a way she didn’t want to leave. The beach was deserted but for her. She should have let the sand dry her feet as she walked away, but the waves called to her for one last dip while the still red sky lingered above.
She didn’t realize she was walking back into the water until it rose up around her ankles. It was so warm still against her wind-kissed legs. She glided farther in, passed a clumping of smooth stones and onto a sand bar. The water rippled around her knees.
“You’re wrong Sophie.” Mike whispered to the empty front porch swing. “She doesn’t have one more year.”
The waves lapped against her thin cover-up and Sydney removed it, letting a warm summer breeze swirl around her. She looked back at the shore, but it was farther away than she thought. The night air was growing darker, she knew she should turn around, but she didn’t want to. The water was so much warmer than it should have been. It was comfortable, perfect. Her feet slid along the sandy bottom, but she wanted to swim. Pushing off, she dove her head underwater and sped forward.
Something soft brushed her face. Her eyes opened. It was her hair, she moved it from her face and saw a light up ahead. Sydney pushed back water with her arms and sailed toward the light, but she sped faster than she expected.
The water was like silk, and swimming was suddenly as easy as walking. She neared the light. It was in front of her and below her at the same time. Down below a dip in the sandy floor. Sydney thought momentarily that she should go up for air. She looked above her and could not see the top of the water.
Panic seized her for a moment as she pushed herself upward. She sped toward the top, but where she thought water would break it hadn’t. She kept swimming.
“Where are you going young one?”
Sydney stopped and looked around her. She was suspended in the water. The foolishness of opening her mouth to answer kept her lips sealed shut. One by one they surrounded her. Curious faces peering out from the hazy blue around her. Human faces.
“I think I’ve died.” Sydney said at last, realizing there was no burn in her lungs from holding her breath.
“You haven’t.” One of the newcomers swam closer to her. Sydney recognized her at once. The waves danced in her eyes. Her mother, with a face still as young as the pictures. “You’ve come of age.” She smiled. “You’ve come home.”
“Home?” Sydney asked. Her mother reached out a hand and Sydney took it letting her mother lead her toward the light.
“When the sun sets above, it is day here.” The golden light of the sun danced below the water’s edge, as if following the sun along its path to the other side of the world. Sydney looked down over the cliff in the lake and saw a vast city below. It felt like home.
Mike put his house up for sale. The town was sad to see him leave, but Sophie had already gone. He told his friends she’d gone to the new home, Sydney with her. They believed him, but it didn’t matter if they didn’t, Sydney had no birth certificate. No adoption papers. No record of life or death. He sold his home to a young couple who wanted to live near the water.
“Got any young ones?” Mike asked the question as casually as possible.
The young woman hung her head.
“No.” The young man answered. “No, we—we probably won’t have any kids.” He said.
“Just don’t walk the beach on a full-moon night in August.” He tipped his hat and ignored their surprised glances at his arcane message.
It didn’t matter. They would. And maybe just because he’d said not to. Maybe it was wrong of him, but he repeated what the old man that sold him the cottage had said to him those thirty some years ago. It seemed fitting to say now. It took the right kind of person to raise a mermaid. And Mike knew when those two walked the shore in a few weeks, the full moon would shine down and the tide would reveal a baby. A baby with eyes the color of Superior herself.