Friday, July 8, 2011

The MerMan of Burying Hill Beach

    There have been reports lately of a male swimmer appearing in the shallows of Burying Hill Beach during the early morning hours. He invites female passersby to swim with him. He shouts, “C’mon in! The water is lovely!” Many of the women are sullen and lonely wives who live in large, almost empty homes near the beach. Their husbands are too busy working to walk the beach with them. To some of the wives, the swimmer is dark, swarthy and strong shouldered. To others he is lithe and blonde, almost a boy of their youth. He appears in different forms and because of his changing description, the authorities have not been able to find him.
    When Theresa Ancona was arrested by the Greens Farms police for indecent exposure two years ago, she claimed that she undressed to go swimming and hung her clothes on a barnacle laden jetty nearby. She had every intention of dressing once again behind the shadows of the pilings before walking back home. But the tide went out and took her clothes with it. She further claimed she was drawn into the water by a middle-aged swimmer, an attractive man who called to her. The man that locals are now calling the MerMan of Burying Hill Beach. Theresa said the man disappeared before the authorities arrived, “He seemed to dissolve with the tide like a hermit crab burrowing into the wet sand.”
    Mrs. Ancona is not the first local housewife left stranded lately without clothing or logical explanation on the little stretch of beach that affords grand views of the Long Island Sound. The beach is much less frequented by out of town New Yorkers and much more frequented by those who live only a stroll or bicycle ride away. It sports no gourmet snack bar and some say it is haunted by the ghosts of town’s founding families; the Jennings and the Burrs. It is not a place to be seen, it is a place to commune with the salt waters. A place where one notices the inlet rushing out to the Sound and the trill of the red wing black birds back in the marshes. Grebes frequently fish in the inlet and their quick and spattering flight across the dark green waters is the only cacophony that disturbs the silence there. The distant ascending horn of the train pulling into the Greens Farms station is the only reminder that time is passing. But now the MerMan has changed everything.
    It was early June when India Shelby encountered the MerMan. There were no sightings of him for several months and many thought he moved on to different waters. The last report of him came from newly divorced Ruth Taylor. She was walking the beach on a cold February morning with her Irish Setter Helen when the swimmer appeared as only a head and neck in the water. The setter dove into the frigid waves and the swimmer began playing with the dog. Ruth called to Helen and then to the swimmer, “Aren’t you freezing?” He made no reply and instead somersaulted continuing the game with Helen the Setter, who was beside herself to have a playmate.  Ruth found herself transfixed by the antics of her dog and the swimmer. She laughed out loud for the first time since her divorce had been finalized. But Ruth's delight was quickly interrupted when the swimmer dove and his strong torso was replaced on the water’s surface by an emerald flipper—it slapped the water and a salty rain cascaded and arched to drench Ruth. The great green fin was gone and Helen the Setter ran up on the beach to shake herself dry, further soaking Ruth and leaving her shivering in the winter wind. Ruth looked at Helen and Helen the Setter beamed. The swimmer was gone.

    Ruth returned home to a hot bath and put bourbon in her coffee. She debated with herself. Was she insane? Perhaps the stress of her divorce had driven her mad. But then she recalled reading something in the paper last summer about her neighbor Theresa Ancona. She poured more bourbon in her coffee and picked up the phone, “Theresa? Theresa Ancona? Is that you?”
    “Yes, who is this?”
    “Theresa, I’m Ruth Taylor. We met at the yacht club some time ago, must have been two years ago, before my divorce. We promised to play tennis and never did. I live on Beachside Avenue, well, not for long, the house is on the market, but who knows when it will sell. You, you live on Sasco Hill don’t you?”
    “Yes, uh. Wait, Ruth, yes I remember you. I’m sorry about your . . . ”
    “Oh the divorce? Its nothing really, nothing. He met a girl on the train.”
    “Well, I’d love to play tennis with you, but its winter.”
    “Theresa! Oh dear, that’s not what I’m calling about. I’m calling about the swimmer. The man in the water on Burying Hill.”
    “Oh! I am going to hang up now. You understand, I can’t . . .”
    “Please! Please don’t hang up! I think I saw him this morning.”
    “You’re making fun of me. You must be. No one admits to seeing him. The other girls who were arrested . . . you know there are three of them. Three of them! They’ve all changed their stories now. They all say there was no swimmer, no man at all. They just went skinny dipping and got caught and they are so sorry. But I was stupid. I continued to tell the police that a man, a middle-aged man, but not built like any of the men we know around here, you know, he was well, you know, quite fit, and he invited me to go swimming and I just didn’t think it would do any harm . . . no harm at all, but I was so wrong, so so wrong.”
    “Theresa! I saw him this morning. My setter swam with him. He had a tail! A flipper I suppose. It was the color of seaweed! In fact, I thought it was seaweed, but he slapped the water and it went everywhere. I was soaked through my sweater and blue jeans, I was shivering with the cold and excitement and then he was gone. But he played with my dog. They swam together!”
    “Did you see his eyes?”
    “Yes! They were silver.”   
    “Oh Ruth. You have no idea what it means to me that you saw him. Will you tell the police? Will you?”
    “I don’t know Theresa.”
    “I beg of you Ruth. It won’t clear my name completely, but if people in town hear that someone else saw him, saw that he wasn’t a man at all, but a MerMan, then I might be able to go out in public again. My husband won’t speak to me anymore you know. He’s said five words to me since last September. And my sons just stare at me. They tell their friends I’m an alcoholic.”
    “Oh Theresa dear, but will they believe me?”
    “They just have to believe you.”
    Ruth reported her encounter with the swimmer to the Greens Farms police. But they just stared at her blankly when she asked them to make a record of her sighting. They told her no crime was committed. There was nothing wrong with a man swimming in February, except that he might catch cold, and if she and her dog were unharmed, then nothing really happened, “But he had a tail.” And to this they rolled their eyes and told her to go home before they asked her how much she’d been drinking that morning. Ruth turned on her heels and left the little police station. She felt she had let Theresa Ancona down. She thought about calling the newspaper, but then thought again. She decided to forget the whole thing.
    And yet Ruth’s report to the police took hold. The cops didn’t write it down, didn’t put her words in a file cabinet, and they didn’t discuss her story. They dismissed her story among themselves, but each one of them heard her and they furtively began to believe there was something to the stories about the MerMan. Were the women in town so lonely that they were hallucinating? The cops saw the husbands park their BMWs and their Porches and their Saabs in neat shiny rows at the train station every morning and off the men would ride into the city, where they sat in offices all day, trading stocks and buying futures, loosening their ties and glancing at their secretaries' lovely bottoms in skirts, but not for too long, only long enough so the sight of a pretty ass was like a brief cool breeze across one’s brow on a hot summer’s day, and as quickly as the breeze came, it dissipated and the heat of their work took over again. The men would return late from the city, sometimes on the 8:35 or the 9:42, drag themselves to their shiny cars and home to a dark house, where dinner was done, the children were out for a movie, and a wife who was wilted with wine. So the cops thought, why not? Why wouldn’t the women start conjuring up a MerMan? But none of them would admit their suspicions to their fellow officers, they just steeped quietly to themselves.
    India Shelby never read about Theresa Ancona in the newspaper and never heard the lightly scattered rumors crossing the lips of ladies who lunched. India was practically a tourist. This was her town years before. She was a little girl in this town. She became a woman in this town. She learned how to swim when she was tiny in the waters of the Sound. The bottoms of her feet had walked across the barnacled reach a thousand times to get to the soft coffee-colored sand where she played with seaweed and hermit crabs and swam to the distant buoys while the tide came in. She loved this water and the thought that it lead to Long Island, to the tip of Manhattan and out to the Atlantic. And even though she no longer lived with this water, she could summon it up in her head anytime she wanted . . . sleepless in bed in her southern home miles and miles from the sea she dove deep into the water of night and cast a spell upon her own memory. The green waters chilled the small of her back, the salt air filled her lungs, and in the moment before she drifted off to sleep again, her mind’s eye met the midday sun flashing off the beach stones making them glow in the shallows.
    India’s family was all gone from this town. Her great-grandfather once owned part of Burying Hill, but all that was gone, even the house he raised her grandmother in was gone. “The money went out with the tide,” her grandmother used to say. But India returned every year to touch the water again, to sit on the jetty and look out towards the smoke stacks on Long Island. To conjure up her past.
    India walked to Burying Hill on her last morning in town. She saved it for last like a sweet piece of cake. She was staying with a childhood friend who slept late every day. India woke at 5:30 am to the song of the one bird in the neighborhood. She was astonished by the quiet that had overtaken her town since she was little. All the perfect gardens and lawns maintained by neatly dressed crews of Mexicans were devoid of life. The chemicals that made every yard verdant had silenced the hissing of summer. There were practically no more birds—only a stray blue jay, a small gang of starlings perhaps, and then night would fall and India would wait for the crickets and the buzz of cicadas so deafening to her as a child, but nothing, nothing would come, just two or three singular flashes of fireflies and then the far off train’s low horn mourning the loss of its men at the station.
    Yet when she reached Burying Hill after walking strong for three miles from the front porch of her friend’s home, she found the nature she had been missing. Red wing blackbirds trilled and stood guard on the cat tails in the marsh and doves' voices like soft church bells rang. Dragon flies zipped low over the inlet catching light and then hovered militarily. The water was rushing in. The tide was coming in! It was early enough that the guard house was closed and only one or two cars parked at the head of the beach. People sat at the wheel with their cups of coffee staring out at the morning on the water. India took off her shoes and stepped onto the sand, she headed straight for the jetty and sat down. She closed her eyes and listened to the tide moving. She thought briefly about her husband, she wondered what he was doing, maybe he was still asleep. She wanted to miss him, but she didn’t at the moment. Twenty years gone and what came of it was a sort of numbness. India opened her eyes and saw the jetty steadily succumbing to the tide, so she decided to walk the shoreline with the morning sun, white as lightening in her eyes.
    There was no one on the beach and she noticed the cars were gone now. She was thrilled with her solitariness. She looked down at the shallows. The salty water moved across the worn stones and  India was pleased by the clearness of the Sound. It hadn’t always been that clear. She bent to pick up a yellow beach stone, the kind that are gold when wet, but dull and without any life at all when dry. As soon as she put her hand on the stone she heard a man’s voice. She looked up and out to the water and there, only a few feet away, where no one existed just a moment before, were the head and shoulders of a man. The sun beat from behind him, so his face was dark except for his eyes, which were silver like minnows. He rose an arm out of the water and called to her, “C’mon in! The water is lovely!”
    She stood up straight and ran her thumb over the wet stone she just picked up. She was embarrassed, because she was startled by the man’s request. How odd to have a stranger ask her to swim with him. It was so odd that it seemed as though she must be some sort of prude to think that it was out of the ordinary. She turned her head, as though there might be someone else standing on the beach behind her, a person that the swimmer knew. There must be someone else here that he is calling to, she thought. But there was no one. Only India stood on the beach. She gulped and ventured a word to him, “Oh it is lovely. And clear! I wish I had thought to wear my swimsuit! So . . . so oh well, what a shame. But thank you just the same!” She felt as though she had said too much, and then he called to her again. “I won’t look. Undress behind the jetty and sneak into the water. Really, I won’t look. You must come in. The water is so perfect. You don’t want to miss it. Seldom is it this lovely.”
    And India believed him. She believed the water was prettier than she had ever seen it, and it was silly of her to have left her swimsuit back at the house. But she wouldn’t dare swim naked with a stranger. No, regrets of missing the water were nothing compared to the regret she might feel about treading water with this man. But then, as though he heard her thoughts, he called to her again, “He won’t mind. He’d understand you know. We’re all getting old, the things you wouldn’t do years ago seem to make more sense, because the tide is going out.”

    “But the tide just came in.” She replied to the swimmer, knowing what he really meant. Her intention was to be dignified, not coy. Dignified women didn’t just crouch behind a jetty to strip and swim with a man they’d never met before. Or did they?
    India stopped thinking and just stared at the swimmer. He was treading water slightly closer to the jetty now. He called something else out to her. She couldn’t understand his words and she wanted to ask him what he said, but she didn’t. She walked to the jetty and looked at him once again, “You won’t look?”
    “I won’t look. I am a man of my word.”
    India stepped over the jetty, crouched down onto the broken muscle and oyster shells and peeled off her clothes. She arranged them in a pile and momentarily hoped the gulls wouldn’t carry them off. Then she peered over the jetty at the swimmer, “Okay, I’m coming in. Turn around, close your eyes now. You know—don’t look.” The swimmer dutifully turned his back to her as India took four steps across the barnacled slippery rocks. She felt the seaweed about her ankles as she lowered herself in the water. Two more steps and she was in that place where the sand is soft and if you dig your toes in just slightly you can feel the hermit crabs protest and pinch at you. She was in up to her neck now and the sun was glinting off the surface of the quiet water. The swimmer turned to face her and all she could see of him were his silver eyes and his terrifically strong neck that grew out of straight muscled shoulders. His collar bones protruded and were so square that he seemed to be like the mast of a sail boat. And then she looked at his face and he smiled and the sunlight went everywhere.    
    “What’s your name?” he asked her and she thought it was funny to be telling him her name at this point.
    “India . . . and your name?”
    “That’s your first name?” she looked away from him and out to the Sound where two people were paddling a red canoe toward the inlet.
    “Yes, is that odder than India?”
    “No, I guess not.”
    “Let’s go further out, you like to swim don’t you?” He was swimming backwards now and smiling at her. It was a terribly nice smile, it was slightly crooked and his jaw seemed to grind slightly to the right.
    “Yes, I love to swim. Let’s go to the buoys.”
    And so they began to swim. He was slightly ahead of her and she noticed that he swam quietly, his effort was economical, whereas she was having to work harder than him. She felt awkward and almost weak,  the tide’s still coming in, she thought.
    When they reached the buoys, they hung on to one and now they were very close to each other and India felt completely happy to be with Smith. She didn’t mind when he brushed his hand against her arm. It was a feeling that she had not felt for years. He was taking her somewhere, she didn’t know where, but she liked the feeling of being taken. “Do you want to dive?” he asked her.
    “I don’t know. What is there to see out here without a snorkel and mask?”
    “Oh! there’s so much! C’mon. Dive with me.”
    “But . . .”
    “I already looked.”
    “You didn’t!”
    “I did and so did you. I saw you. So its okay. We can dive together. It will be fun!”
    “But I didn’t look. I didn’t . . . ” At least she hadn’t thought she had . . . all she had see was his back and then the greenness of the water, the flashing emerald green.
    “Dive India, c’mon just dive.” and with those words Smith dove and India felt his hand tug on her ankle and she dove too and opened her eyes to find that she could see below the Sound perfectly well and there were fishes and a sunken wooden boat and rocks and Smith doing somersaults. She dove deeper and couldn’t take her eyes off of Smith. He was half man, half fish! He swam toward her and she found that she was no longer breathing and that it didn’t matter, she didn’t need to breathe. Smith hovered in front of her. She reached out and ran her hand down his chest, down his belly and then stopped just where his skin became scale—bright bluish green scale, like he was encased in jewels. She wanted to breathe, but Smith shook his head. He was reading her mind again. Smith took her hand and she went with him, they swam among the fishes for miles. At one point they surfaced and were surrounded by sailboats in a race . India could hear the spinnakers whipping in the wind and the voices of the sailors shouting orders to one another. “Can they see us Smith?”
    “I don’t think so. I watch them all the time. They never seem to notice me.”
    “I should probably go back now Smith, its getting late.”
    “But we haven’t . . . ”
    “Haven’t what?”
    “Oh nothing, you would think I was ridiculous for asking.”
    “How could I think you were ridiculous? I’ve spent all morning swimming with a MerMan, nothing is going to shock me now, or ever again for that matter.”
    “Of all the women who swam with me, you are the only one who ever came this far. All the others got to the buoys and said, that’s it Buster, I gotta split. But you, you dove with me. So I wanted to take you somewhere special to thank you.”
    “The island.”
    “What island?”
    “Cockenoe Island, of course.”
    “I’ve never been!” India had always wanted to take a boat to Cockenoe, the island off Saugatuck, the island some people swam to, the island that seemed unreachable, but she never got the chance.
    “I know. So I can take you there today and we can have a picnic.”
    “A picnic? Smith, can you really have a picnic with me? I mean, can you even get out of the water?”
    “I’m full of surprises India.”
    “Yes, you are just one surprise after another Smith.”
    India followed Smith to Cockenoe and the sun stood still for them. Smith walked out of the water as a man and disappeared into a grove of trees. He told her to wait for him. She treaded water and watched an oil tanker slip across the distant horizon. Smith returned to the shore and called her out. “Are you hungry?” And she was, she was starving and there was Smith, in a t-shirt and shorts and holding a dress for her. He had a picnic basket too.
    “You doubted me didn’t you?”
    “I doubt no man with a tail.”
    “But I’m the only man you’ve met with a tail, right?”
    “Oh yes, the only one.”
    “So what was your question?”
    “Can I stay here a while?”
    “On Cockenoe?”
    “No . . . can I . . . ”
    “have a tail?”
    “No, I can’t give you a tail. I’m afraid I have to toss you back on land right about at sunset.”
    “Well, crap, cause I was kinda getting used to all this.”
    “Sorry.” Smith poured more wine in India’s cup.
    “Pass the fried chicken.”
    The following winter was long and grey and inhabited by one snow storm after another. India read of the storms, which made her glad she lived in the South and she passed the days content to wait until the milder days of summer to travel north again. Some nights though, she lay awake with the moonlight sifting through the window to light up her pillow and she could feel the MerMan curled up next to her. She thought of returning to the beach and hoped he’d  be waiting there for her. But she knew he wouldn’t be. He told her so when he tossed her back on land the previous summer.
    And meanwhile the MerMan had been strangely quiet. The Greens Farms police waited for another hysterical woman to show up on Burying Hill. Summer droned on without incident and fall came with the usual fanfare of color in the maple trees and it seemed as though the MerMan had never existed at all. But then Mrs. Pansy Chatham disappeared and the town was in an uproar again.
    Pansy Chatham was 89 years old. She grew up on Sasco Hill and her family spent summer days on Burying Hill Beach. Just like India, Pansy learned to swim in the Sound. Her husband was dead now and so was her sister Adelle. Pansy drove to Burying Hill every morning at 10 am. This was after she would go to the Greens Farms post office to pick up her mail from Box 82, the box she had held for sixty years, and before she would visit the Spic and Span market in nearby Southport, where she would buy one of their delicious frozen entrees for dinner, and then cross the street to say hello to Jerry at the pharmacy to buy a bottle of Johnny Walker Red if she were out of the stuff at home, which was often the case. While on the beach,  she would sit in her car for some time to watch the sun on the water and then she always got out to walk to the end of the beach and back again, carefully, with her cane. She felt visited by the spirits of Adelle and her father when she walked on Burying Hill. She found herself talking out loud to them at times and she didn’t care what other passersby might think.
    But on the morning she disappeared she wasn’t talking to Adelle or her father and there was snow on the beach, which Pansy thought was quite beautiful, especially where the snow met the salt water, the way the snow dropped into the green water and became part of the Sound. She was stood close to the jetty and tapped her cane on an oyster shell that a gull left on top of the snow and mused about the gulls. She wondered if the cold was really bothering them. And that’s when the swimmer appeared. Pansy was startled to see his bare shoulders, his dark square head, and his handsome smile in the water, ”Where the hell did you come from? You must be freezing.”   
    “C’mon in! The water is warmer than the air and just lovely!”
    “While I used to swim the Sound as early as March first and as late as November third when I was your age, I don’t think I’ll chance it today.”
    “I remember!”
    “Remember what?” Pansy pulled her cane back from the jetty and pushed it into the snow and sand.
    “I remember swimming with you.”
    “How could you? I’m old enough to be your grandmother.”
    “I’m older than you think.”
    “Listen, I’m not long for this world young man, but I haven’t completely lost my mind. You really should get out of that water and into a warm coat!”
    “I used to swim with you and Adelle.”
    This made Pansy stop and look at the swimmer. She took in a long cold breath and let it out again, and the steam seemed to freeze in front of her face. She heard the train pulling into the Greens Farms station, its the 10:25 she thought. “You knew Adelle?”
    “I swam with you both. Here and off Sasco Beach. You took me sailing with you too.”
    “I did no such thing. I only took one man sailing and that was my husband.”
    “How do you know my name?”
    “Because you took me sailing with you.”
    “I told you I . . .”
    “Think Pansy, it was the twenty fifth of September, 1932 . . .”
    “Who are you?”
    “Smith? I don’t know any Smith . . . no, no I don’t.” Pansy shook her head and watched the swimmer somersault. She saw his tail emerge from the water and then disappear to be replaced by Smith’s head and shoulders once again. The sun began to move across the sky the way it does in the summer and the snow was retreating and retreating back to the sea wall. A gull was hovering over Pansy and Smith and then it dropped an oyster shell and by the time it hit the jetty and broke open, there were leaves on the trees along the coast and there was the faintest and sweetest smell of honeysuckle in the air. Pansy felt nauseous and deliriously happy all at the same time.
    “Pansy, c’mon in! The water is warmer and clearer than its been in the longest time.” Smith was swimming backward now and waving one tan arm to Pansy.
    Pansy looked down at herself and she was twenty-three once more. Her hands were taut, and her vision was such that she could see all the way to Long Island. She stepped in the shallows and the water was indeed warm, “Smith! Now I remember you! The one Adelle liked so much, the one with the tail!”

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