In my latest novel, Mermaids' Tears, my twelve-year-old protagonist, Rusty, writes the title story as a way to console his older housemate, Autumn, who has lost her brother to suicide.
In the month of October, in the terminally charming town of Caramel-by-the-Waters, there was born a cute and sweet girl. Her parents named her October. Almost three years later, in the month of July, there was born a cute and spirited boy. His parents named him January. This would not seem to make sense, but the boy’s big ice-blue eyes reminded his father of winters in Wisconsin.
It’s not unusual for a first-born child to resent a second, mostly for intruding on her parental monopoly, but this was not true of October. She gazed at her big-eyed brother in his crib and said, “I will always be here to protect you, because you are my dear brother, and we will be the best of friends.”
October and January were, in fact, the closest siblings that any of their friends had ever met, and they both grew into smart and kind young adults. They did, however, have troubles. January’s problem was his brain, which had an on switch but no off. It was constantly on the prowl, and like an overworked engine it would run hot and drift into redlines of worry and fear. It also prevented him from sleeping. Many was the night that October would rub January’s temples and sing wordless songs into his ear - but sometimes even this wouldn’t help.
October’s problem was her body, which was a healthy body but large and unwieldy. The girls at school made mean jokes that burned like hot embers.
Caramel-by-the-Waters had some of the most beautiful beaches in the world, and the two siblings spent many an afternoon walking their sands. One June day, they came to the tidepools to discover an albino sea lion sunning herself on the rocks. The sea lion tumbled into the water and barked at them. October heard this sound distinctly as an invitation, and before she knew it she was diving headlong into the cold blue waters. She didn’t see the albino creature anywhere, but discovered, much to her surprise, that she, Autumn, was an exceptional swimmer. Her ungainly body, so awkward on the land, became, in the water, a divine transport. She dove deeper and discovered that she could stay underwater for several minutes at a time, navigating the gold-green curtains of the kelp forest.
When October finally surfaced, she found January pacing the shoreline in a frenetic state. “Where did you go? I thought you had drowned! We need to get home - it’s almost time for supper.”
Just then, the albino sea lion appeared fifty feet away and repeated its funny barking.
“No,” said October. “I can’t go home. I think I will stay here and become a mermaid.”
October knew that this was preposterous. She wasn’t even certain that mermaids existed, and she had no notion of how to go about becoming one. But somehow, January seemed to understand.
“I’m going to have a hard time explaining this to Mom and Dad,” he said. “But you do seem happy here. Tell you what. I’ll tell them you found a nice place near the beach, and we’ll fill in the rest later.”
October let out a high-pitched laugh like a dolphin (which was very odd). “Thank you, brother. When you come to the beach, just call my name and I’ll come up to visit you.”
October loved her new life. She swam through swirling eddies of silver sardines, their fins tickling her skin. The sea otters taught her how to float on her back and open shellfish on her stomach. The whales taught her their beautiful and eerie songs. The albino sea lion, Snowball, took her to the edge of the Montrez Bay Canyon.
Every afternoon, January called for her at the beach. He brought green apples, her favorite food, and used a stick to bat them into the surf.
October waited for signs that she was becoming a genuine mermaid, but none came. And she worried about her brother. Each day, he looked more and more worried, and grew deep bags under his eyes. She asked if she should return to land so she could take care of him, but he wouldn’t have it. January waded into the surf and gave his sister a long, sad embrace.
“I’m afraid it’s not something that can be fixed,” he said. “I have come to a decision. I cannot bear this torment any longer. I am leaving to a place where the pain can no longer reach me. Sadly, sister, you won’t be able to reach me, either. But I really need to go. I love you, October.”
October thought of a hundred arguments to make January stay, but she realized that she could not ask him to suffer what he simply could not suffer. Especially when he had been so supportive of her odd mermaid ambitions.
“I will miss you terribly, brother. But I think I understand.”
January handed her a silver necklace. “I recorded some music onto this amulet. It sounds to me like whalesong. Hold this to your ear and it will play for you. Maybe you can share it with your whale friends.”
They held each other for a long, long time, until the sun dipped under the horizon, and then finally October let January go. He gave one last wave from the crest of the white sand, and then he was gone.
October thought he might change his mind, but after three days of keeping watch over the beach she realized he would not return. She held the amulet to her ear and sang along with its mournful tune, and as she did she could feel a great pain entering her body.
The next morning, the pain had traveled to her legs. She swam to the tidepools and lifted herself onto a rock to discover that she had no legs. What she had was a gold-green tail with fins instead of feet. What she had not known was that a human could not become a mermaid until she had suffered a great loss. And certainly, the loss of January was greater than any she could imagine.
This sudden transformation filled October with alternating waves of joy and despair. She began to cry, and her emotions were so strong that her tears crystallized into bits of colored glass. The waves carried her tears to the shoreline, where beachcombers found them among the pebbles and sand dollars. Most of them called these little gems sea glass, thinking them to be fragments of long-ago bottles, tossed and burnished by sand and surf. But the more whimsical called them mermaids’ tears, and they had no idea how right they were.
Mermaids' Tears (the novel) is available at Amazon.com.