“Water swish, and swirl, and play. Wash my troubles all away.”
Since I was very small, something about the water always called to me. No matter what mood I was in, water seemed to complete me. When I was sad or angry, the burbling song of a stream could soothe my upset. Or the glassy surface of a lake could be the perfect place to take a good, hard look at myself and see despite whatever anxieties loomed, that physically, I was still just me.
When I was seven years old, I made up a little rhyme that I said every time I carried my troubles with me to the water.
“Water swish, and swirl, and play. Wash my troubles all away.”
I’d chant it a few times while looking into the water and lose myself in the eddies shifting below the surface. I was a troubled child in a home that was lacking in love, so I said it a lot.
My favorite place to go was a river about ten minutes’ walk from home. It was deep and wide, and I imagined there were all sorts of fantastical creatures living in it, especially the place where I most loved to hide out.
The river there widened out into a pool and was surrounded by huge rocks that jutted out over the water, creating small caves beneath them. Once, when I was twelve years old, I saw a large trout peering out at me from one of them. I was both riveted and horrified by its otherworldly presence. It seemed to be watching me. Studying me. And it unsettled me.
Before I left there that day, I was sure that out of the corner of my eye, I saw a person swimming in the water. In my periphery, she appeared to have brown skin and I thought I saw splotches of green adorning it. When I turned to get a better look, no one was there and I realized I must have imagined it, the fish sighting setting my imagination into overdrive.
Troubled, I left in more of a hurry than usual, sure that someone was watching me. I could feel the skin prickle on the back of my neck. Yet I saw no one, heard no one. Only the splash and bubble of the river’s breathy song.
But I always went back, and I never again felt alone there. It was always as though someone was watching–not wanting me to hurt or feel lonely, as I often did. Whoever it was seemed to want to carry out what I asked for in my rhyme and take my troubles away. To free me from those hurts and discomforts.
Even though there was no evidence that someone was there, and though I had tried talking to whoever it might be on more than one occasion with no response, I could feel someone. I knew it must be true. And I knew they were a friend.
At fifteen years old, after my first breakup, I said my rhyme through sobs and tears as I hugged my knees and buried my face in the fabric of my pants. The tears, hot on my cheeks, cooled by the time they fell onto my jeans, soaking them with the weight of my grief.
A gentle touch shifted my long blonde hair, as if fingers slid softly through it in a soothing gesture. Like something a mother would do. A good, kind, loving mother. Not a mother like mine.
I’d always imagined that one day something would enable me to connect with my mother, but so far, she seemed to wish I’d never been born. No matter how good or smart I was, she barely noticed me.
I lifted my gaze to learn who had touched me, but again no one was there. My heart sunk and a hard lumped formed in my throat as new tears prickled the corners of my green eyes. I didn’t want to cry anymore so I shoved those feelings down with a few deep, careful breaths. It must have been the wind, strange though it was.
I left, feeling more than ever like maybe–just maybe–this place was haunted. My mind conjured images of a young girl drowning in the river pool, her soul condemned to walk the banks for eternity.
But then I realized how ridiculous I was being. I mean, there’s no such thing as ghosts, right?
I decided to head to the only other happy place I’d ever known: my grandmother’s house. Gram could make everything better with a warm, strong hug, a complimentary cup of tea, and some quiet conversation at her dining room table. She had always been the most understanding, kind, and loving toward me. She also was the most honest, real person I’d ever met in my life.
If Gram was disappointed in you, she’d let you know. Point-blank. She didn’t dance around anything and instead chose the straight-shooting method of telling you exactly what she thought.
If angry or disappointed, she could cut you to the core with just a few words–worse than if she’d slapped you.
But if she was pleased, she effervesced with a warm, contagious energy that practically crackled in the air around her. She’d let out this loud belly-laugh that was like fireworks going off. You couldn’t help but be happy around her. Unless you didn’t have a heart, which I was sure was the problem with my parents. But then, nothing seemed to make them happy. Not that I could remember anyway.
I went to her that day to see what she thought about it. She greeted me with a knowing smile and arms opened wide for a hug.
“Hi, Clara. It’s nice to see you as always, but what’s with the long face?”
I chuckled as I sat at her kitchen table bathed in sunlight, unnerved at how she noticed my moods, even when I tried to hide them. Maybe I wasn’t as good at hiding them as I thought. She walked to her stove, igniting the gas burner beneath a chipped black tea pot.
“Ah, Gram…do you…?” I drummed my fingers on the table–something I’d done since I was very small that drove her crazy. I raised my eyes to hers and found she had quirked one eyebrow at me.
Clearing my throat, I said, “Do you believe in ghosts?”
She leaned back in her chair and pressed a finger to her chin. “Hmm. Well…I guess I would have to say yes. I believe in spirits, and most people consider spirits to be ghosts, right?” I nodded and she continued. “So then, yes. I do. Why?”
I told her everything that had happened today as she listened silently.
“Has anything else ever happened there?”
So, I explained how I thought I saw someone swimming there, and how I never felt alone–though not in a bad way. She nodded, pursing her lips and seemed lost in thought. When she finally spoke, it was slowly and carefully.
“I don’t think you’ve got yourself a ghost there.” Unsure what to feel, my stomach fluttered in anticipation of the addendum I could feel coming and said, “But?”
She got up and went to fetch the now whistling tea kettle, her steps unhurried, then she poured the water into two mugs and dunked a tea bag up and down in each one several times before returning.
“But you do have something. It could be a water spirit like a naiad, or possibly even a mermaid.”
I laughed, slapping the table loudly. “Ok, Gram. What do you really think it is?”
She cut me a look that said I couldn’t be stupider if I tried. “That is what I think it is. If you don’t want to believe it, then that’s your choice.”
I felt my chin hanging almost to my chest in disbelief. “But Gram…you’re talking about mythical creatures. Magic. They’re not real.”
She raised her chin and stared me down with a knowing expression. “Shows what you know. If spirits can be real, why can’t magic and mythical creatures also be real? I’ve been around a long time…seen a lot of things that can’t be explained. Magic is real. This I can promise you.”
I felt my mouth simultaneously go dry and flood with saliva, an uncomfortable sensation, as fear curled cold and hard in my belly. “But…I should stay away then, right?”
My grandmother nodded. “That’s probably for the best. I know you say this presence feels like it only wants what is best for you, but the Ancients don’t always have the same idea of right and wrong as we do. I’d steer clear…maybe find a new place to hide out. Or just come see me. If you want peace and quiet, I’ll give it to you. Only…don’t go back to that place. Please promise me.”
I drew an X over my heart with my fingers and said, “Cross my heart.”
Nodding, she said, “Alright, then.” We drank our tea in companionable silence for a while and then sat and talked away the afternoon.
I kept my word and went to her for a while after that. But within a few months I noticed that she was getting very thin and seemed out of focus much of the time. I asked her about it a few times, but she waved me off with a laugh and said, “What? You don’t approve of my slimmed down look?” I laughed along and tried to ignore the unease gnawing at my insides.
After another couple months my parents told me that she was in the hospital and fading fast. That she’d been sick with cancer for a long time and was finally losing the battle.
I pleaded with them to take me to her, tears streaming down my face and neck. I sobbed so heavily that my words were hard to make out. And for once, my parents did something I wanted.
They took me to her.
Her room smelled sterile and sour at the same time, a machine beeping off to her left as she lay in the bed looking so small and frail. This woman who had always been a stocky, sturdy, larger-than-life presence in my life was now a fading ember–her glow dimming with every second.
I walked into the room quietly, stepping as though something might attack me at any moment. She appeared to be sleeping. Her breaths looked fast and shallow.
I slunk to her side, pulled her hand up, and laced my fingers through hers. “I’m here, Gram. Everything is going to be OK. You’re going to get through this and will be just fine. You’re the strongest person I know. You have to pull through.” I choked on a sob. “I need you.”
I didn’t take the time to look up and notice that my parents had left me alone with my grandmother. I didn’t care where they were. All that mattered was Gram. She needed me and I was going to give her the support she needed to pull through.
Leaning close to her I whispered, “You told me magic was real. If we wish hard enough, maybe magic can help you heal.”
Her eyes opened weakly and she drew in a ragged breath. “It doesn’t work like that, sweetie. Magic is real, but I’m beyond its reach now.”
My already soaked face dripped with new, hot tears and I shook under the weight of what she was saying. Squeezing my hand as tightly as she could–which was just a faint pressure–she said, “Don’t worry, Clara. I’ll still be with you.” I nodded, and a noisy sob escaped me. She squeezed my hand again. “You know you can’t get rid of me so easily. I love you, Clara. I always have and I always will.”
She let her head fall back against the pillow and closed her eyes. I held her hand and ran my fingers through her thin hair. Within an hour, her shallow breaths had ceased with a final sigh and the machine at her side screamed in alarm. I was quickly ushered from the room as nurses rushed to tend to her, knowing in my heart their efforts were futile.
Gram was gone and I knew it in every fiber of my being. I felt numb and lost. I walked, my legs heavy and weak, though I had no idea where I was going.
Sometime later, my parents came running and I practically collided with them in my stupor. The doctors must have notified them about Gram while I wandered aimlessly about. I didn’t feel like talking with them. There was nothing to say.
My mother placed a hand on my shoulder. “Come on, Clara. Time to go home. Hopefully you can find some comfort in the fact that she’s at peace now. She was in a lot of pain and now that’s gone.”
Wow. The first things resembling comforting words my parents had ever given me and I couldn’t do more than nod numbly. It was too late for them to try and make any effort anyway. The only person who had ever actually loved me was gone. I was alone, and no one cared but me.
On the drive home, I said nothing, and it was easier for my parents to ignore me as they always had. I’m sure dealing with my emotions would have only been another inconvenience for them. I sat in a horrible, smothering silence drowning under the weight of my thoughts and memories…of the future looming ahead of me with no one on my side. No one to love me.
A faint memory tingled at the back of my mind, a warning, but I pushed it away, a single tear escaping as I chose instead to remember making cinnamon rolls with Gram when I was younger, sprinkling sugar over the top of the buttered dough and dreaming of how delicious they’d be once they were done. I cried in relative silence save for my incessant sniffling the entire rest of the drive home.
As soon as we pulled into our driveway, following it along its considerable length to our jazzed up double wide, I jumped out of the car before we’d even come to a complete stop. My legs pumped wildly under me as I raced up the grassy flat toward the very place I’d promised Gram I’d stay away from. But whoever it was in that place was my friend, and that’s what I needed right now.
Behind me, I heard my mother utter an exasperated, “Clara, come back!” And when she saw that achieve zero results, she shouted, “Don’t stay out too long!”
Be still my heart! Two instances of almost caring in one day? My world had turned completely upside down. Still, I acted as if I didn’t hear her. I’d come back when I was ready, and not a moment before.
Arriving at my intended destination, I drank in the sight of the deep river pool placidly flowing beneath the overhanging trees–the water’s song a balm for my battered, weary soul.
I sat at the edge, removed my shoes, and dragged my toes through the frigid water. It felt as if something came alive at my presence–like it had been waiting for me. I waited a moment, but no one and nothing appeared.
The despair of losing my grandmother took hold of me again and as I began sobbing anew, I said my rhyme.
“Water swish and swirl, and play. Wash my troubles all away.” I waited a moment before raising my eyes, searching for whatever friend I thought I had here, but still there was nothing. Cursing myself for a fool, I only cried harder, holding my knees to my chest and rocking myself. When I could breathe again, I lay on my side on the large rock I’d been sitting on and whimpered, “Whoever you are…please help me. I need you right now. I need a friend.”
I closed my eyes and allowed the grief to swallow me up. I cried until no more tears would come. My eyes felt swollen and glued shut, but I forced them open, blinded by the sun glaring off the water’s edge.
It took me a moment to notice that this time, I truly wasn’t alone. A young woman stared at me with her face half submerged. Only her golden, large-pupiled eyes and the top half of her glistening brown face were visible.
When I saw her, I began to push myself into a sitting position, which seemed to startle her. She dove under the water’s surface, but I called to her and her face came back into view. This time, she raised her whole face.
She was beautiful in a feral, ethereal way. She was fine-boned with high cheekbones and those golden eyes seemed to almost glow. Green flecks dotted her cheeks and nose like grassy freckles, and long black hair billowed around her like spilled ink. Her full lips parted to reveal teeth too sharp to be human.
She still looked wary, so I spoke softly. “It’s O.K. I’m not going to hurt you. I could feel someone here and just don’t want to be alone right now.” She regarded me silently, an animal ready to take flight, so I said, “Will you…sit with me for a bit?”
Her eyes studied me a moment more before she made her way to where I sat. As she paddled, I saw that the green flecks played down her arms and back, varying in size from that of a pencil tip to a golf ball at the largest. Their edges were irregular as if she’d been splatter painted. It was great camouflage in a river.
Perhaps the most disconcerting thing of all was what happened a moment later. With a great splash, she slapped a voluminous tail against the surface of the water. It was also brown and green, but flowing and beautiful. I tried my best to hide my shock at seeing it, and she didn’t seem to notice as she drew to the edge of the water.
She pulled herself up onto the rocks and I noticed that she was topless, tiny green flecks dotting along her collar bone as well. I wondered if I should be worried about her nakedness, or avert my eyes to preserve her modesty, but when I saw how unbothered she was, I let my guard down and stopped caring.
Everything about her seemed so alien and animalistic that I realized it was no wonder she was naked. She was wild and natural, and exactly as she should be.
I forced my eyes to meet her unblinking, unearthly gaze. “I’m sorry for disturbing you. I don’t know if you remember me, but I used to come here when I was upset. Once I realized someone was here, I stopped coming for a while, so I wasn’t invading your home. But today…It’s the worst day of my life, and that’s saying something. I lost the person who meant most to me in all the world…I’m truly alone now. ”
A painful lump formed in my throat and I tried to swallow around it with no luck as again the tears began to flow. My new friend placed an arm around my shoulders, and as her skin touched mine, I realized that she was covered in the smallest scales, giving her skin a glittering, shiny appearance, and a slightly rough texture. The scales remained small and relatively unnoticeable until about where her belly button was. From there, the scales were larger and more pronounced, like that of a great fish.
She held me while I cried, still saying nothing. I wasn’t sure she could. I mumbled, “I wish the pain would go away.”
All at once, she turned her head away from me and I noticed pink gills flaring under her jawline. She reached a hand down, scooping some water and rubbing it against them.
A breeze whispered by and I felt the skin on my face tighten slightly as the tears streaking it dried. The mermaid–or whatever she was–regarded me strangely before sliding herself back into the water. She motioned to me. Come. So, I stripped down to my undies and followed her in, excited for what I might see, and grateful for the distraction.
As I reached her, an involuntary shiver wracked my body from the water’s chill. She lifted her hand to me, palm up. Laying my hand over hers, she grasped my fingers and together we dove beneath the water.
A liquid world of brown and green met my gaze, a trout passing within inches of my face as my friend pulled me toward the cave formed by the large rocks above. We passed through the narrow opening, both of us just barely fitting, with her arms wrapped around my waist and her front pressed against my back as she pulled me gracefully along. I instinctively paddled along with her, though her tail propelled us along much faster than I could ever have hoped to achieve on my own. I felt light and free–as though my troubles had indeed been washed away.
A smile lit my face as we dove deeper into the cave, which opened into a large expanse dimly lit with bioluminescent algae. The cavern continued further back into darkness and she pulled me on, into the abyss.
As we slid through another opening, we entered a larger hollow with more glowing flora. My heart froze in horror as I realized the water went all the way to the roof of the cave, the smile that had burned brightly a moment ago giving way to wide-eyed terror. My lungs screamed for oxygen.
I tried to pull away from my new friend, but she seemed to not understand, only cocking her head at me like a confused beagle and refusing to release her hold on me. I thumped my chest and gestured upward. She nodded.
Pulling me into her, hugging me close, I was sure she was going to somehow imbue me with the ability to breath underwater, or share some hidden oxygen supply. As she pulled me in to her chest, she locked her arms around me and began stroking my hair. No life-giving oxygen. No move to pull me out of here. And no gills magically appearing on my throat.
Oh my God…I’m going to die!
I struggled against her, attempting to push her arms off me, but her grip was like iron and my lungs were spasming in their desire to breathe. Unable to hold it anymore, I opened my mouth and sucked in a breath of cold, dank water. It burned and choked my lungs and the world began to fade. The mermaid kissed my forehead.
She had finally washed my troubles away.
As I drifted into darkness, I heard Gram’s voice. “Come to me, Clara. It’s time to go home.”
I felt her arm go around my shoulders as the world bloomed into a blinding whiteness. I laid my head against her shoulder, strong and firm again, as we walked together into the light.