The Mermaid's Sister

The Mermaid's Sister by Carrie Anne Noble


Llanfair Mountain, Pennsylvania


Wishing gets you nothing.

These words are old wounds carved into the trunk of an ancient tree. Above the vandal’s warning, the tree stretches evergreen limbs across the glassy-surfaced Wishing Pool. Below, its dark roots twist and trail into the water.

Do trees make wishes? I do not think so.

But I am wishing.

I wish that my sister would come out of the water. I can see her resting on the perfect, round pebbles at the bottom of the pool, the ones tossed in by visitors over hundreds of years, the ones said to be required by the pool sprite as payment. One perfect pebble for each wish. Such pebbles are rare in the world—as rare as magic itself.

Bubbles rise from Maren’s mouth, each one slowly drifting to the surface before popping. Her eyes are closed, her body is as still as a corpse. Little gray fishes nibble at the fabric of her floating petticoat. As she dreams, her webbed toes twitch and a smile spreads across her face.

She never looks so happy on the land.

“Come out,” I say, knowing she will not—even if she does hear me. She never obeys me.

Behind me, twigs crack and leaves rustle. I turn to see our wyvern lifting one foot and then the other, fussing at the moss and sticks between his birdlike toes. His blue scales, pale as a summer sky on his belly and dark as midnight on his back, catch the dim light like curved slices of stained glass. He nods his dragonny head and snorts. Auntie has sent him to bring us home for supper, no doubt.

“Good luck, Osbert darling,” I say. “She’s only been in for an hour.”

Osbert spreads his wings wide and dives nosefirst into the pool with barely a splash. When he reappears, he brings Maren with him, his sharp teeth clutching the back of her camisole, like an enormous mother dog carrying a naughty puppy by the nape of its neck. When he releases her, she crumples onto the muddy shore. Osbert tickles her neck with his barbed tail and snorts encouragement over her motionless body.

Finally, she awakens with a gasp, sits up, and swats at the watchful wyvern. “Go home, you beast!”

Osbert’s ears flatten and he skulks away, whining.

“He thinks he saved your life,” I say. “You could be kinder to him.”

She does not speak again until we are halfway home, at the place where the forest and meadow meet. She plucks a cornflower from its stalk and says quietly, “Someday I will stay in the water. Someday I won’t come out.”

My heart sinks, down, down. I can think of no reply.

She tosses the flower away and says, “Will you visit me, Clara, when I live in the sea with my mermaid sisters? Will you come in a boat and bring me cherries from Auntie’s tree? Will you come and sing our songs? Will you bring O’Neill?”

“What about Osbert?”

“You may leave the silly wyvern at home. But you must promise to come.” She reaches for my hand. Her webbed fingers are still dripping with Wishing Pool water.

They are more webbed than they were last summer.

I stare at them, my sister’s strange fingers. Until our sixteenth birthday, she had hands like mine. Same size, same shape, same chipped nails stained with tree sap or mud, ink or dyes. Twin hands, although we are not of the same blood. But now, her hands are changing.

She is changing.

I am losing her. I wish I would not.

But wishing gets you nothing.

With a long match, Auntie lights the three fat, yellow candles in the center of the oaken kitchen table. The scent of beeswax mingles with the scents of vegetable stew and fresh bread. She waves the match in the air like a magic wand and its flame transforms into a puff of white smoke. The smoke curls and stretches into a halo around Auntie’s gray hair.

“Come and sit here, Maren,” Auntie says.

Arms crossed, Maren plods to the chair. She tosses her head and her honey-colored curls bounce about her slim shoulders. She casts a scowl my way to let me know that she knows I told on her.

Auntie takes Maren’s pale hands in her plump, wrinkled ones, turns them this way and that, then holds them close to the candles. And she sighs.

“Now I know why you’ve taken to wearing gloves of late,” Auntie says.

Maren’s cheeks redden and she stares at the tablecloth.

“I should have expected the change to come quickly once you turned sixteen. I hope you will forgive an old woman for not being a better mother. For not better preparing you for what’s to come. Now, is there anything else you should show me, Maren?” Auntie asks, releasing her hands. She lifts Maren’s chin so that she must meet her gaze. “The truth, my dear.”

A few seconds pass before Maren pulls her bodice away from the waistband of her skirt. She clutches the fabric so that her side is exposed.

“My, my,” Auntie mutters.

Beneath a layer of alabaster skin I see rows of pale-green scales, starting just at the dainty curve of Maren’s waist. Delicate scales, small and silver-edged.

I am on my feet before I know it. I reach out and touch my sister’s side, feeling the ridges. They are real, not a trick of the light as I’d hoped. I have kept my worries about Maren to myself for too long.

“Auntie?” I whisper. “Can you cure her? Should I fetch the remedy book?” Auntie is famous among the folk of the mountain for the medicines she concocts from our herb gardens and the bounty of the forest.

“No, child.” Auntie’s voice is gentle but firm. “You know I cannot. There is no cure for being who you truly are.”

“But, Auntie . . .” I cannot find words to form the hundred questions swirling in my head, my heart.

“We’ve been pretending,” Auntie says. “Pretending that your sister’s transformation was something yet to come, instead of something that has always been happening, bit by bit. But you can’t erase a thing by not acknowledging it.”

Auntie places one hand on Maren’s shoulder and the other on mine. “Your lives are wonders, my girls. They will be wonders from start to finish. Do you not remember the story of how you came to me?”

“The seashell and the stork. You tell us every birthday,” Maren volunteers. Her smile is sweet and strange at the same time. Beautiful and eerie.

“And can I lie?” Auntie asks.

“Never,” Maren and I say in unison, knowing Auntie’s part-faerie blood keeps her from speaking falsely.

Auntie smoothes her flowered apron before perching her ample bottom on her favorite wooden stool. “Shall I tell you again?”

“Oh, yes!” Maren says, her eyes sparkling with delight.

I nod. Perhaps, if I pay close attention to the story, the weight of my dread over Maren’s condition will lessen—at least for a little while.

Placing her folded hands in her lap, Auntie begins.

“It was October, of course. Both of you came to me in October. The winds were fierce one night, rattling the windows and howling down the chimney like unhappy ghosts. Rain pelted the roof like rocks thrown by a family of giants. Osbert was in a state, moaning and pacing in front of the parlor fireplace. He kept tripping over my knitting basket and getting tangled in my good wool yarn. I was just about to banish him to the cellar when a knocking started at the kitchen door. I left Osbert in his tangle—a good place for him, as it kept him restrained so he couldn’t scare the visitor. But when I opened the door, not a soul was there. ‘Yoo-hoo!’ I called. ‘You’re welcome to come in for a cup of tea! Nasty night this is!’ But no one answered. I was just about to shut the door when it caught my eye: a great conch shell just lying there on the path like the tide had gone out without it. Never mind that no tide ever touches Llanfair Mountain. That seashell was as big as my good soup pot. I’d never seen the like! Being partial to seashells, I brought it inside and set it on this very table to admire it. It was wet with rain, so I used the hem of my apron to polish it dry. And when I tipped it, a tiny bundle rolled out onto the table—a little blanket woven of seaweed with the smallest face I’d ever seen peeking out. Here was a babe just as pink and white as the inside of the conch. She wore a little scallop shell on her head as a bonnet. That child was you, Maren.”

“I came from the sea, and to the sea I must return,” Maren says, as nonchalantly as one might say, “Two plus two equals four.”

“Indeed,” Auntie says. “Did I ever tell you otherwise?”

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