Mermaids of the Charles River

Lee

She heard them calling, calling for her the weeks leading up to the first spring blooms. Their voices faint, submerged beneath a ceiling of ice, yet she heard them singing, calling for her. She imagined they said her name, entombed in their calls. The rollicking waves rocked below the bridge as she trudged through the snow. It became like slush, caking the pedestrian walkway on the Harvard Bridge, and here, she heard them sing loudest. She paused, here, where they sang the loudest: were they singing for her? In the morning on her way to work, their voices burst above frosted waters, and at night, on her way home, the voices sang lullabies good-bye to the day. Their voices sank, then faded beneath the surf.

Nerissa crossed the Harvard Bridge twice a day, swarthed in scarves and bundled in wool. She heard the voices through her headphones, over the trilling piano keys, the rhapsodies and harmonies. She heard the voices asking, persuading her to join them. Nerissa walked on. In her office in the Pru on the fortieth floor, she heard the voices calling, a soft hum rumbling in her veins. She turned her eyes out over the river, stretching from Harvard to the head, and lowered her eyes away from the calling, persistent calling, longing thronging calling her to come.

Was it home they called her to? The flood of sleep immersed her into dreams, and in these rambling dreams, tempests broke across the land, with rain, with water rising high and intending to catch her inside the foamy waves. Nerissa tousled her blonde hair away as she moved back towards her desk cluttered with charts and reports, and as she pushed a strand from her face, wiped the squalor dreams from her mind.

Her eyes fell away from the Esplanade banking the shores of the river, the tree-lined strip of haunts and spirits who arose at night, gallivanting with homeless moonshine and motley clothes. The crew teams, the sailboats were missing from the icy river today. On warmer days, on windy days, the sails would dapple the water with color and the little rowboats would steady towards the river’s head, rounding just beyond the bend and into the harbor. In the harbor, the cruise ships departed hourly from the Long Wharf, to the Navy Yard or to Hull, Hingham, and Quincy; down past to Cape Cod and Provincetown. She had once traveled so far, to the tip of the sleeping fisherman, the very end of Massachusetts. She had stood at the end of the world, looking east, across the ocean and to the Old World.

From the Old World and from the Orient, great ships arrived in mid-July. The ships, they came again, for Fleet Week, and families and friends waited on the harbor to watch them come in one after another, great white ships blasting triumphant horns.

She remembered she had waited too, among the crowd, pressing in upon her and hot. Lowering her sunglasses, she peeked above the rim; something stirred within her. They lifted their faces upwards and the sailors looked down, grinning wide, corn-fed teeth, dressed all in white. They came down the planks with duffle bags thrown over their backs, and their medals shone and sparkled gold. In mid-July, the sailors came, moving three or four abreast down the sidewalk streets.

She watched them in Copley Square, sitting around the fountain pool while the children splashed and played, and the dogs panted with feet dipped in the water. The sailors dressed in white, moving three or four abreast down the sidewalk streets, down Newbury and through the Garden, and she hesitated and watched them go in white.

In July, it was a delusion to think of mid-winter. Now, there was sunshine aplenty and bodies nearly naked in the white sand. For forever it seemed, and she hoped. She would often drive down to Nantasket Beach alone and sit to read and waste away the weekend hours. They called to her then, they always did, but the sun was warm and she was so full of life, she whispered back, “I do not want to go just yet.” The Paragon Carousel rotated to mournful songs on the boardwalk of pastel colored buildings, the last vestige of Hull’s Golden Age.

She remembered the sailors moving three or four abreast down Boylston Street, and the solemn one detached from the others. He floated away from them and settled on the edges of the Copley Square Fountain, while the others followed the tortoise and the hare to stained glass and the Trinity Church. He took off his sharp shoes and rolled down his socks, and dipped his pale, colorless feet into the water.

She hesitated and watched him from above the edges of her book. The voices ever present, and the birds sang Greek; she hesitated and watched him from above the edges of her book. His medals gleamed, polished for show, and he turned his straw-colored head to the voices of his friends, waving him over by the doors of the church. They beckoned, and he remained, catching her eye as she closed the book.

She had once traveled so far, to the tip of the sleeping fisherman, the very end of the world, looking east, across the ocean and to the Old World. It would be summertime again: she would skip and dance, sheathed in nothing more than flimsy film and gauze. In July, the ships would come again, warmth and effulgent light. She remembered, she remembered. Dancing away from him towards the ebbing flow of the ocean water on Race Point Beach in the summer. They came early to catch the sunrise. Their distant voices hummed on the edge of the horizon, near the ripples made by breaching whales. She asked Levant, “Do you hear them, too?”

“Hear what?” He asked with a brazen smile. His voice was so flat and sweet and she could taste the Vermont apple orchard on his breath as she turned away from his kiss to the voices.

It was only the ocean, and she beckoned him with outstretched arms, saying, “Come, come follow me into the water.”

She heard them singing, each to each, but ignored the voices waking from the foam. She beckoned to Levant and caught him in her arms. “I don't think two people could have been happier than we,” she said, and to the waters, to the voices calling one to another, she thought, “Not yet, you will not have me yet.”

Levant stayed a week, and in that time, they went everywhere together. It was summer; she took off from work, and climbed the cool blue spiral tower towards the top of the fish tank. They stared down over the rim, at the sea turtle wavering through the green-blue water. The barracudas darted between the sloping walls of coral, and the stingrays waltzed and dithered near the bottom. She never did this; she never had time. Nerissa cast a glance to her lover, took his hand and softened. The reef fish darted and splayed, and one detached from another to float along the belly of a nurse shark. Levant pointed to the moray eels, and she counted the tiny sea turtles.

Through the dark rooms, the eerie rooms echoing with children’s laughter and teenager voices, they gazed into the windows of sea dragons and moon jellyfish, the gaping mouths of piranhas, the hidden octopi, orange and iridescent against the Pacific coral.

After, they crossed the Seaport Boulevard and sat on the steps at the ICA. She said, “Let us go then, you and I, to Castle Isle…” and so they went by taxi later that night to Castle Island in Pleasure Bay, where the Tories and the Royalists once absconded. It was dark, and the evening spread out across the sky. She heard the voices on the crashing waves and the birds singing in Greek. He felt her tremble beside him; he worried after her pale face. To him, she whispered, “Let us go, then, you and I…”She took his hand and led him forth.

They walked down the Head Island Causeway, which took them out into the ocean with insidious intent. It was a narrow strip of road, a path rising out of the water, and as it curved, there at the center of the horseshoe, a pavilion sat empty and beckoned.

“Let’s rest,” she said to Levant, and as she motioned to the benches, he spun her around and kissed her. Kissed her, and she felt the rush and light inside her as she pressed her lips to his. Fireworks went off around the Boston Harbor, celebrating the ships return, the sailors, the happy weather of July.

The shells burst orange and pink over the city. A few large comet stars erupted, extending large tendrils that whipped out in either direction. A few fish explosions; he and she watched the flaming debris swarming in random directions, twinkling, fading yellow on the backs of the eyes. They watched the fireworks, the sad dazzling display. She counted down the moments now that they reached the mid-point of the week. Each second she savored, clamoring after time, begging it to last a little bit more. In three days, Levant would depart. And she watched her lover tenderly, fidgeted, looking back and forth from the fireworks to her. Their eyes met, and they fell in love. “I don’t want to go just yet…” Levant was saying, but the fireworks ended, and she grew cold. Time slipped away and then they moved forward on the Head Island Causeway towards the star-shaped fort. The island dark and empty, they kissed in abandon among the shadows on the sloping lawn, the fireworks cracking, whistling, blasting above them.

They had once traveled so far, to Race Point Beach to catch the sunrise, and swarthed in blankets, they waited on cold, white sands as the sky glimmered pink and orange. In July, the ships would come again, he said, and in the meantime, he would write to her, he would call her. Their voices hummed distantly on the edge of the horizon; she had not forgotten them. “Please. I hope you will…,” she said, dusting the sand off his pant leg. He wrapped her up in the blankets, in his embrace. “Do you hear them, too, calling each to each?”

“The whales?” He asked, looking off on the horizon.

She smiled. “Yes, the whales…” Of course, she thought, those are the voices, and the birds do not sing in Greek.

They woke into the warmth of early afternoon, and she swooped over him to plant a kiss on his forehead. “I do not think two people could have been happier than we,” she brushed his sandy, straw-colored hair from his face. “Oh, Levant, none happier.”

They stripped to their skivvies and dashed down the beach towards the water. She beckoned to him with outstretched arms, saying, “Come, come follow me into the water.”

The water was warm and the air was warm, and they bathed their bodies in the dark blue waters. It was only they upon the beach that afternoon, only their blankets and clothes spread out across the sand, scattered in a path towards the waves.

They played at being fish, diving down into the depths. Nerissa opened her eyes and looked up towards the elusive ceiling, the filmy effulgence of the sun washing out the world above. She heard them sharply and so distinctly, singing each to each. Calling her name, calling her to come. Their voices haunted the twitch of seaweed floating near her hand, encircling upon her arm, and it called so sweetly, so much louder than before. The rollicking waves may rock the world above as the whales broke through to the surface and roared, but here the world was calm and here the world serene.

She saw them riding heavenward on the vortexes of waves. They gathered the salt bubbles and beaded them on Maiden Hair tendrils green. Wreathed in seaweed red and brown, the sea-girls beckoned and brought her down. They grabbed her foot and held her tight, and laughed a little more to see her dear. Nerissa finally saw the voices that had called her for so long, combing back their white hair with seashells. All dimples, smiles and curls, complexions green and white, they beckoned her more with outstretched hands, and Nerissa looked up once more to the drowning, to the fading, to the dimming light.

Their voices sank, then faded beneath the surf, and she fell down with them.

She heard them calling, calling for her the weeks leading up to the first spring blooms. Their voices faint and submerged beneath a ceiling of ice, yet she heard them singing, calling for her. She imagined they said her name, imbedded in their calls. The rollicking waves rocked below the bridge as she trudged through the snow. It became like slush, caking the pedestrian walkway on the Harvard Bridge, and here, she heard them sing loudest. In the morning on her way to work, their voices burst above frosted waters, and at night, on her way home, the voices sang lullabies good-bye to the day, and their voices sank, then faded beneath the surf.

But then a pale, colorless hand outstretched from nowhere and brought her up. She rose and rose and rose with the hand, guiding her up to the watery ceiling, until she, like the whales, broke the surface and breathed. She breathed and breathed again, panting as her hand clutched her throat, and the roaring in her ears overcame the singing, the fading singing, the longing thronging fading down below.

Levant looked worried, but with a brazen smile, he said, “I thought I lost you, and we just met.” Nerissa looked at her feet paddling beneath her, thinking, Not yet, no, not yet.

Not yet would the tidal waves claim her. The flooding dreams, the tempest at nights no longer bothered her. She listened to him talk about the Orient, her sailor Levant, brushing his straw-colored hair from his face as he lay in her lap. They were on Nantasket Beach, the antique carousel turning to the chiming music. The week was drawing to an end, and her sailor Levant talked about the places he would go, the places he would sail. He tasted like Vermont, syrup and apples when she kissed his lips.

“When I finish, we should sail down the Eastern Atlantic Seaboard,” he said. “I’m serious,” Levant said, shading his eyes from the sun.

She dipped her head in front of his face to block the light. “So am I.”

“Would you then, travel with me? From Maine to Florida.”

“Why stop there? We could go to Cuba, too. Find the mermaids in the Gulf of Mexico.”

“Why stop there?” Levant challenged, flashing his corn-fed white teeth. Her eyes widened momentarily at his sincerity. You and I, she thought. Nerissa linked her arm in Levant and they braved their faces towards the sea, against the wind, against the sun.

They talked about spending a year after his service sailing, the boat they would buy, the things they would need. Nerissa would quit her job; she would sublet her apartment; she would follow the sailor wherever he traveled.

“I’ll write you every day,” he said, “I’ll call you when I can. Will you wait until next July?”

Nerissa looked up and out across the water; she heard them singing, heard their sirens, calling and calling for her to join them. But her sadness had ebbed away because of this straw-haired sailor. She turned her face back to Levant, “I will.”

She remembered it all, nearly nine months ago in July, underneath the starry sky, the evening spread out and wonderful, filled with bursts of orange and pink. But it was winter now, and she trudged to work over snowy paths, and below the bridge, the voices shrill, the voices unquiet, sang to her to come.

She heard them singing, each to each, and calling her for weeks leading up to the first spring blooms. It snowed, it snowed, it snowed every day, and she soldiered on in gloves and scarves, great down jackets, moving through the caked snow. In her office in the Pru, she heard them as she prepared herself to journey home.

It so happened news came from the Orient of a ship that went down. What was the error, what was the cause? How many survivors arose from the foam and swam for the shore? The weeks leading up to the early spring day were silent of news, and then, a name, a face, a memory. She whispered, “Levant, I do not think two people could have been happier than we,” before moving out in the winter squall.

Was it home they called her to? She remembered the day she almost drowned at Race Point Beach, the calm and serene depths, what a pleasure they had been. Her dreams were filled with rising water and foamy waves, and the voices calling her, calling her to come.

As she came to the Harvard Bridge, she heard them loudest, nearest to her heart. Their voices burst above the frosted waters; they pleaded and they called. She saw them riding on the surfs of waves, their coral necklaces orange and pink against their green and white complexions. They were all dimples and smiles and curls, and as she neared the center of the bridge, they beckoned more with outstretched hands.

At the 182.2 smoot line, she hesitated and watched. Beneath the crusts of ice, she saw them there waiting. Nerissa looked up once more to the fading light around her, nearly dusk, and all orange and purple and black. A few people on the other side of the bridge wandered by, and a few on her side, wandered off in the distance.

It was time, then, to say good-bye. They had called her long enough, and he was already beneath the waters. She could join him yet. She had waited, she had waited. July again would never come. They had called and beseeched her, and finally persuaded her, and she decided it was time. Nerissa took off her coat and her scarves and her hat, she stepped a naked, pale foot into the snow. Breathing a moment, she gripped the green railing and looked over Boston.

From Harvard to the head, her eyes fell away from the Esplanade and rounding just beyond the bend, into the harbor. And from the harbor to the ferries, departing to the Long Wharf, the Navy Yard, to Castle Island, farther on to Hull, Hingham, and Quincy, to Cape Cod, Provincetown and Race Point Beach. She had once traveled so far, to the tip of the sleeping fisherman fishing for scod and cod cheeks from the Atlantic oceans. She had stood at the end of the world, looking east to the Old World.

Now, she gripped the green railing once more and fell to the sea-side girls wreathed with seaweed red and brown. She heard the voices loud and shrill, singing still; she thought of Levant, she thought, None happier than we, and then she drowned.