In my last post (in February!) I explored the idea of being on a path that wasn’t right for me. Since that time I’ve been exploring other paths and the one that seems to be the best fit for me at the moment is writing. As much as I enjoyed writing blog posts when I first began, I’ve found that I enjoy writing fiction even more! I’ve been working with my writing partner in England and for the past 9 months we’ve been working on a fantasy novel for young readers. It’s begun to feel as if the story is “finished” and we’re getting ready to self-publish on Kindle Direct Publishing.
Creativity is the subject of one of my favorite new books: Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic. The subtitle “Creative Living Beyond Fear” has helped inspire me to share my story. Because it is scary to put yourself out into the world through your work, through what makes you feel joyful and alive, and through sharing your vulnerability. The question she poses in the first chapter is this “Do you have the courage to bring forth the treasures that are hidden within you?”
As an experiment I’m posting the first chapter of the story “Halley and the Mermaid” here. I’m sure there’s a way to post it as a link that can be opened separately but I don’t know how to do that. And I’m worried that if I don’t just do it I’ll let my fear overcome me and will never post it! So, here goes. Feel free to share this with any young readers you may know, particularly girls in the 9-14 year old range. It’s still in draft format so if anyone has any constructive criticism they would like to share I’m open!
Halley and the Mermaid
My name is Halley. Yes, like the comet, and before you start laughing let me tell you that it could have been worse. My dad is an astronomer and he’s the one who chose my name. My mom is a microbiologist and if she named me I could be called something really crazy like Protozoa. So I’m named after a comet that won’t be seen from Earth again for another 47 years. I’ll be nearly sixty years old by then and right now that seems like forever away.
This morning was the first time I’ve been able to go out for a walk for days. It’s been raining for a week but the mist had finally stopped and a breeze was blowing away the clouds. I put on my rain coat and boots just in case the weather changed again and took the path to the shore. I smelled fresh dark earth smell mingling with the scent of salt and seaweed. The sun was breaking through a solid patch of grey when I looked up and saw a full circle of light like a rainbow cast over the sea. I reached for my phone to take a picture but then remembered that I’d left it at home. I can’t get a signal at the shore. The rainbow was amazing. I stood there and watched until it faded and then I continued along the path toward the rocks. Looking down I saw a white gannet feather on the sand. I picked it up and smoothed it between my fingertips until the barbs were all connected again and tucked it in my shirt pocket. Whenever I see a feather I think of it as a message from my grandmother. Before she died we talked about what happens after you leave your body and she told me that if there was a way for her to communicate with me she would send a white feather. I wondered what she was trying to tell me now. As I came closer I looked out to sea and it was a beautiful color. Not the usual grey. There seemed to be an aqua light shimmering just under the surface. Then I saw something moving through the waves. At first I thought it was a seal because I’ve seen them here before, then I realized it was a person, a woman actually. She had long brown hair that looked almost like there was seaweed in it. The waves splashed over her head but she didn’t seem to mind. She seemed to smile at me before ducking back under the water and disappearing. I turned to see if anyone else had seen her but I was alone.
Usually I’m the only one who will go in the ocean here because it’s really cold, even in the summer. I stood waiting for her to surface. I can hold my breath for a pretty long time so I wasn’t worried at first. But she didn’t come up and I started to feel like something bad must have happened to her. Maybe she was trying to get my attention because she needed help. I hopped on one foot as I took off one boot and then the other and stripped off my jeans. Even though I didn’t know where she was under the waves I couldn’t just stand there helplessly. I pulled my shirt over my head and threw it behind me on the sand as I started to wade into the water. The water splashed up to my chest and I dived under to see if I could spot her. Would I be able to save someone from drowning? What if she had already drowned? It seemed like at least five minutes had passed and she hadn’t come to the surface yet. I kept diving under and searching but I didn’t see anything. There was no way she was holding her breath for that long. I took another deep breath and went under again. I felt my heart pounding in my throat and I wanted to scream even though there was no one to hear me. Just then I heard a splash like a hand slapping the water and there she was with her head back out of the water. I called out “I’m coming to help you, stay right there!” She looked directly at me this time and her eyes were an amazing color of green. For a moment I felt like I recognized her from somewhere. I started to swim toward her and then she dived back under the water and her feet kicked up into the air. Her feet looked different. They looked like mine.
My heart continued to pound as I waded out of the water. I climbed up on one of the big black rocks that are scattered around the beach and the shore. I kept looking out to sea for her but she seemed to have disappeared. I waited to see if she would come back. Finally I climbed back down from the rock and used my flannel shirt to dry off my arms and legs. I slipped my t-shirt back over my head. I shivered in the cool air and tugged my jeans over my damp legs then spread my rain slicker on the sand so I could sit down. I looked at my feet. When I said the woman’s feet looked different I know I didn’t really explain what I meant. Her feet were webbed. And mine are webbed too.
No one knows why my feet are like this. Mom said I was born this way and it’s not a big deal. I looked online and most people who say they have webbed toes just have regular skin between the big toe and the one next to it. Mine look more like a water creature’s feet. It’s probably genetic but if one of my ancestors had something similar they must have kept it hidden. I kind of like looking at my feet, especially in the water. I like to spread my toes and see the light coming through the skin. There are small blue veins that look like little rivers on a map. When I was younger I pretended that it was because I had a mermaid as a relative. Now I’ve seen someone who really could be a mermaid. If I told my mother or father they’d probably just laugh and say I’d imagined it. But I know she was real.
I stayed at the shore for about an hour, wondering if she would come back. I thought about going in the water again but I’m really not supposed to go swim alone. I love to swim. When I was a baby I used to slip under the water in my bath and it scared my mother until she realized that I knew to hold my breath and I always came up smiling. The water holds me and carries me. When I stay calm I can almost hear it speaking to me. It’s like it’s singing sometimes and it’s so beautiful but I haven’t quite figured out what it’s saying. Maybe the mermaid knows. Finally when I realized she wasn’t coming back I stood up and brushed the damp sand off my feet. I slipped my boots back on, tucked the white feather behind my ear and started walking toward home.
We live on an island off the coast of Scotland in the Outer Hebrides. We came here a little less than a year ago from the U.S. to live with my grandmother when she was sick. She passed away in January and for now we’re staying in her cottage. Even though I miss her so much I love living here. It reminds me of her and of the time we spent together before she got sick. It’s often cold and windy here and storms whip up out of nowhere. There are giant boulders and slippery kelp and corals that look like fingers and the ocean smashes against the rocks so hard that spray shoots into the air. It’s beautiful and wild and I love this place more than anyplace else on earth.
Walking back along the path I heard the distant sound of a car engine starting and then Mr. Fraser’s sheepdog barking. He was probably snapping at the tires and trying to catch the car. Mr. Fraser and his wife live on the same property that we do. It’s on a patch of land called a croft. The Frasers live in a more modern house and he takes care of the sheep and Mrs. Fraser spins wool to make yarn. Our cottage is called a blackhouse and it’s made of stones and has a roof made of thatch and turf. It looks like it grew right out of the ground.
Scotland is a good location for both of my parents’ work. There’s not much light pollution so Dad can see the stars. My mother is researching a type of algae that may have medicinal properties. It grows here near the seashore and she needs to collect it every week while it’s still fresh. She travels by airplane almost every week to the University of Edinburgh to take her latest specimens to the lab. She usually comes back on Thursday afternoon. I really wanted to tell someone about the mermaid but I didn’t think anyone would believe me. I decided to keep her to myself.
That night I dreamed about the mermaid and she was the first thing I thought of when I woke up the next day. I got dressed and headed back to the shore. Waling along the sea path toward the ocean I noticed something that I hadn’t seen yesterday. It was small and orange and waving in the breeze. I bent over it and saw that it was a tiny rectangular flag on a thin metal rod stuck in the ground. I saw more little orange flags in the distance. Then I noticed a sign. How could I have missed it? It was facing the other direction and I ran toward it. It was a big white sign with wooden stakes that were driven into the ground. “Caislin Cliffs – resort and luxury apartments for nature lovers- coming soon!” Someone had actually torn up pieces of peat to put this stupid sign in the ground. I felt like someone had punched me in the stomach. Luxury apartments aren’t for nature lovers. They’re for people who don’t even like to get their feet wet. This shore has always been deserted. It’s too isolated to be of any use to anyone. It’s a wild and empty place and it has to stay this way. What was I supposed to do? I turned and ran back home.
When I got to the cottage I grabbed my bicycle to ride to the village library. I’m friends with the librarian and she’d be able to tell me what was going on with the construction sign. I started pedaling as fast as I could but my mind was racing ahead of me. How soon were they going to start building? What if there was no way to stop it? The flags were on both sides of the sea path. Did that mean they were going to build right over it and up to the sea? How would I be able to get to the sea if there was a big resort between our cottage and the shore? And the construction noise would scare the mermaid away. How would I ever see her again?
I was so upset I didn’t see the old man until I was nearly on top of him. He shouted out to me and I swerved to avoid him. I hit a rock and lost control of my bicycle. I tipped over the handlebars and sat stunned on the ground for a moment before I realized I’d cut my elbow pretty badly. My shirt was torn and was already turning red from the blood that was seeping out. The old man held out his hand to help me up.
“Are you alright? That was quite a spectacular spill. You came right over the top of your handlebars!”
“I’ll be okay but I need to get a bandage for my elbow.” I answered.
“Well young lady, you’re in luck because I always travel with a first aid kit. Let’s take a look at that wound, shall we?”
I felt curiously calm as he pulled up the sleeve of my shirt. There was a small sharp rock embedded in my skin and he gently plucked it out with his fingers. He peered closely at the cut and said “I don’t think you’ll need stitches but let’s put a bit of medicine on it and cover it. Wash it with soap and water once you get home.”
“I’m Halley, by the way. Please excuse me for nearly running you over.”
“What a lovely name. And by your accent I assume you’re from America. I’m Jonathan.”
He removed a small green cloth bag from an old leather briefcase that he was carrying and pulled out what looked like a dried mushroom. He squeezed the mushroom over my cut and it was soft like a marshmallow. A light brown powder emerged and covered the cut. For a moment I wondered how safe I was and I started to pull away but by then he was putting a regular Band-Aid on my elbow.
“Good as new in a day or two” he declared. “Now where were you headed in such a hurry?”
“I was on my way to the library to see if I could find out what’s happening near the shore. I was walking there this morning and I saw a sign and some survey flags and I’m really worried about it.”
“Ah, yes, Caislin Cliffs, the luxury resort. I’m actually headed up that way myself to take a closer look.”
My heart fell. “Oh, so you’re with the construction company.”
“No, far from it. I’m an archaeologist and I’m looking for ruins and artifacts. I believe that there may something significant in this area that was left behind by an ancient culture. The construction firm had one of their own archaeologists do a survey and he found nothing, but I want to take a look around.”
I looked at Jonathan once more. I felt confused about whether or not I should trust him. He looked directly at me and I noticed his eyes were an odd shade of light blue, almost like a Siberian Husky. I hesitated a moment and then said “Well, maybe I can help you. Do you want to come to my house for some tea and we can talk a little more about it?”
“That sounds like the best idea I’ve heard all day.”
I turned my bike around and started pushing it toward home.
As we got closer to the cottage I asked Jonathan what he was doing walking way out here. He told me he’d left his rental car at the end of the paved road when he saw the private road for our land. He knew the resort was supposed to be built near the shore and he’d started walking on the dirt path when I’d nearly run him down. He told me he was staying in the village in a guest house.
Jonathan was a small sandy haired man in a sport coat, tie and checkered shirt. He spoke as if he were used to being listened to and I wondered if maybe he was a teacher or a college professor. In the U.S. I never would have invited a stranger home with me but it’s different here. He’s actually from England which explains why I’d never seen him before. He told me he’s been searching for ancient sites around the U.K. and trying to prevent them from being developed.
“Many people have lived in this area over the past several thousand years” Jonathan said. “We’re still discovering civilizations. We’ve had Beaker people and Picts who built some of the early stone circles like Stonehenge and left smaller carved stones that you still see in some of the fields. There’s even evidence of an ancient Gaelic culture that worshiped Goddesses. I haven’t found any of their sites but I believe there may be some in the Scottish Isles. ”
“My father is studying the standing stones at Callanish.” I told him. “He’s an astronomer and said that the stones are related to how the sun and moon move through the sky. He told me there’s some big event with the moon that takes place every 18 years and it’s due to happen later this summer.”
“Ah, then you probably know more about this than I can tell you,” said Jonathan.
“Not really, just what my dad has told me. I’m more interested in wildlife and birds than astronomy,” I replied.
As we walked into the cottage through the kitchen I invited Jonathan to sit in the library. It has a desk and shelves full of old books that have been here for generations. I cleaned my elbow and then I made some tea. As I came in with the cups he pointed to an old painting that was hanging on the wall above the desk. “That’s lovely. Do you know where it’s from?”
“No, I don’t. I’ve never even noticed it before. It does look familiar though, maybe it’s someplace nearby.”
“Yes, it looks quite a bit like the coastline near here. I wonder how long ago it was painted.”
“My mom might know. She grew up here. I’ve only been living here about nine months.”
I told Jonathan a little about the places we had lived in the U.S. as he finished his tea.
“Well, Halley this was a delightful way to spend an hour of my day. I trust that your elbow will heal quickly.” He handed me a card for the Tower Guest House. “This is where I’m staying in the village. Each summer I choose a different island to explore and I’ll be here for the next two months. I hope to see you again sometime soon.”