Far out at sea the water is clear, and as blue as cornflowers. But it is very deep, so deep that no ship’s anchor could ever reach the bottom. Mermaids and mermen live down there, and the mer king has his palace on the seabed, where wonderful plants and trees grow, swaying gracefully with the movement of the water. The palace itself is built of coral, its windows are all clear amber and its roof is made of shells that open and close to show the shining pearls they hold.
It’s warm July at the Jersey Shore. Olivia is eight. She and I walk on the beach amid sand castles, freshly dug holes and clear, fat jellyfish. The daisy-shaped jellyfish have washed up early this year because of the extremely hot temperatures. The sun, oppressive at its height, has gone down in a smokey red haze but the night is still a few minutes away. The sand scalded our toes earlier in the day. Now it’s cool and we’ve been walking for quite a while — caught between the darkening ocean and the sea of lights that is the motels and restaurants of Wildwood Crest, New Jersey.
Using her long-handled shovel, Olivia is scooping up the large jellyfish with the red centers. She is doing this as a public service on behalf of other bathers — this afternoon the lifeguard told us that these larger jellyfish have a small, harmless sting. Balancing the flaccid, scarlet corpses on her shovel, she flings them as far out to sea (about four feet) as she can.
We come suddenly upon a large hole dug in the wet sand. It is clear that it is a mass jellyfish grave — they are piled high. As the surf moves up the beach the hole fills with foamy water and the jellyfish are dragged from their resting place. The waves set them jiggling in a capricious, undignified way they surely never did in life.
It’s a vision at once macabre and humorous. I tell Olivia we should make a horror movie — call it “Night of the Living Dead Jellyfish.”
Olivia does not find this funny. “Mom, I’m totally creeped out,” she declares. “It’s like they’re alive . . . only . . . they’re dead . . . but they’re still moving. I mean they’re not ghosts or anything because there’s no such thing as ghosts . . . right, Mom? But they’re still moving . . . even though they’re de— ”.
Olivia’s obviously spooked so I draw her attention away from the jellyfish to a small human figure waving at us from the other side of the ocean-filled hole.
A young girl, probably Olivia’s age, in a green and white two-piece bathing suit, has just popped up from a colorful beach towel. She skirts the jellyfish grave and presents herself breathlessly before me.
“Can she play with me?”
She points at Olivia but keeps her eyes on me. Her sudden appearance and the dusky light make her seem more apparition than real. For a moment I’m almost as spooked by this girl as Olivia is by the jellyfish.
“Can she play with me?” the girl asks a bit louder, as though she’s figured out that my problem is deafness.
I glance at Olivia. She is eager to accept the invitation. She has had only her younger cousin Brian to play with since our vacation started. His slam-bam “Let’s throw things!” style is getting pretty old. He spent the whole afternoon trying to stomp jellyfish hard enough so their guts squish out. (“Duh . . . Brian — What guts?” Olivia had asked, her voice dripping with sarcasm.) She really could use a new friend.
But something is wrong and we both notice it. We look past this forlorn little girl for the grownup or older kid she must be with. But there is no one: no big brother or sister looking bored on the towel, no mother or father gathering beach toys, books or chairs, preparing to go home. No one. The girl is alone on a long stretch of Jersey shoreline at nightfall. My stomach turns over at the thought of all that could happen to such a child. Her fluffy beach towel has a full-length portrait of Disney’s Little Mermaid on it. It’s held flat by sand toys at all four corners. The Mermaid’s cheerful wave and brilliant smile seem to emphasize the real little girl’s friendlessness.
“My name is Peggy.” She points again: “What’s hers? My real name is Margaret. I was named after my grandma but she died before I was born so I never got to know her. I’m . . . uh . . . I’m nine years old. I live with my Dad. See that beach towel over there? It’s got the Little Mermaid on it. I love her. My Dad bought it for me when we got here. He’s really great! He’ll buy me anything I want if I ask for it long enough.”
The words are rushed out of her on a single breath. Before I can ask where this “great Dad” is at the moment, Olivia decides to speak for herself. “My name’s Olivia. Who’s taking care of you?”
“Oh, my Dad’s watching me from our motel room through his binoculars. He can see us right now.”
She waves vaguely, across 300 yards of beach front, toward the distant row of motels as though that should prove that we’re being watched.
“We’re staying at the Star Motel. See the big star all lit up? I’ve been wishing on that star every night. Last night I wished for someone to play with. You must have been sent by the star, Olivia!”
I figure she’s talking so fast to get us to stay or because it’s such a long, long time between listeners. Olivia seems to buy the “My Dad’s watching me through his binoculars” story so I try not to show how much it appalls me.
“Can I play with her for a while, Mom, please?”
They both stare up at me. Peggy seems small for nine. She takes Olivia’s hand as naturally as she might her mother’s. On my right, I feel the clamor and chaos of the approaching surf. The water edges up to wet the Little Mermaid’s fin on the beach towel before slinking away, biding its time. If she stays pinned under the sand toys much longer, the mermaid will surely be carried off and hidden beneath the waves.
The girls take my silence for yes. “C’mon!” yells Peggy running up the sand, “we’ll play tag!”
Olivia starts to follow but I catch her tee shirt and pull her back. “Wait, Olivia. It’s too late for you to start a game now. It will be dark out here soon. We’ve got to get back to the hotel. Daddy will be worrying about us. Besides, it’s almost bedtime.”
Peggy marches back to me incredulous. “Bedtime? Only babies go to bed now. My Dad let’s me stay up till midnight every night! He doesn’t care — even if I stay awake all night!” She flops down on the Little Mermaid towel and repeats softly, “He doesn’t care.”
Olivia seems torn between envy of someone so free of rules and fear that a time will come when she is that free. The fear wins out and she takes my hand. Peggy watches as her star-sent friend betrays her and turns her head away to be cradled on the breast of the mermaid. She seems not to notice the chilly water that washes her ankles. I think she is trying to make the mermaid’s embrace feel like a real hug.
“I’ve got an idea,” says Olivia. “Can we walk Peggy to her motel so we can see her room and I can wish on the giant star?”
“Great idea, Olivia,” I say. “Come on, Peggy, let’s pick up your towel and get going. We’ll make sure you get home safely and, if you like, you and Olivia can make plans to meet on the beach tomorrow.”
Peggy curls up tighter on her towel. “I told you it’s not my stupid bedtime! Anyway, I can’t go back there yet. Dad said, ’Leave us alone for a couple of hours — go play on the beach.’” She sits up, rubbing sandy, wet eyes.
“So go on home to your daddy, Olivia. I don’t need you. I’ll wish for somebody else.”
At any other time Peggy’s tone and words would be extremely offensive to Olivia. But now in the twilight she seems to recognize another child’s need to save face. She lets go of my hand and goes to kneel next to the mermaid beach towel.
“Please come with us Peggy. It’s not safe here. Someone might take you. You’re just a kid.”
But now Peggy leaps up and swoops the wet beach towel over her shoulders like a cape. “I’m not just a kid,” she dances away from us. “I’m a little mermaid. I live under the sea in a wonderful kingdom with my father, the king, and my beautiful sisters. I’m magic. Soon my legs will turn back to fins and I can swim to my splendid castle beneath the waves.” She is running now, towel cape flying out behind her — a barely visible waif, splashing in and out of the surf. “And my friends, Flounder and Sebastian, will be waiting to play with me and we’ll be best friends forever!” She turns back once more, “Hey Olivia! Look up at the sky. I can see the other half of the moon!” And then she is gone.
Olivia takes my hand and looks up at me. “It’s time to go home,” I tell her. She nods and we start walking. The beach looks like a vast, empty desert we must cross. There are only a few other walkers — mostly young couples. We walk far up on the dry sand to avoid the chilly water and the tactile surprise of a squished jellyfish. The moon is as Peggy described it. It’s such a bright night that the dark side is visible in outline surrounded by millions of stars. Olivia stands for a moment, staring at the moon. She closes her eyes and moves her lips silently.
“What did you wish for?”
“Something about Peggy. I can’t tell you.”
We reach the steep wooden stairs that will bring us to street level. As we climb the stairs, a lone man passes us on his way down to the beach. At the bottom, he stops to light a cigarette and then moves off in the direction we’ve just come from — the strip of sand where Peggy waits for her mermaid fins. “Mom,” whispers Olivia, “do you think that’s Peggy’s dad coming to take her home?” “Probably not,” I say. Then she says even more quietly, “I’ll tell you what I wished for on the moon: I wished Peggy really could have fins so she could swim home to her mother and father.”
I give my daughter’s hand a hopeless squeeze, remembering that in the Hans Christian Andersen version of “The Little Mermaid” the mermaid can never return to her home under the water after the sea witch gives her legs.
“Tell me more about human beings,” said the little mermaid to her grandmother. “Well child, their earthly lives are shorter than ours for we live three hundred years,” said the old lady. “But when we die we are gone forever like foam on the sea, while humans have immortal souls and rise to the stars in the sky after death. The only way one of us could ever get a soul is to have a human being love her.”
It’s warm July at the Jersey Shore. As we reach the brightly lit street and head for our motel I think about giving Olivia extra kisses when I tuck her in tonight. Then I recall the mermaid alone and unloved on the beach, and shiver as though it were suddenly winter.