Back in my younger days, say about 11 years, my friends Bobby and Tedarell, whom we called Teddy, and I would go exploring through the woods. Cuz that’s what kids do living in the country. School was out and the folks were at work, giving us plenty of time for whatever mischief we could get into.
One particularly nice day in the woods we came across a swimming hole. The water looked clean and it was deep enough in the woods where we couldn’t be seen, so we stripped off our clothes and jumped in. Being kids we didn’t think anything could go wrong save the occasional leach, and the water was cool and wet. We got to swimming and splashing and doing all the things kids do in swimming holes. Cuz that’s what kids do.
Just then some old man came out of nowhere, yelling at us to get out or the mermaid would get us and eat out souls. We laughed at him and splashed water in his direction. Bobby said mermaids are only found in the ocean and called him an old fool, something the old man didn’t take too kindly. He huffed and said “Fine, you’ll see” and walked away in a huff. We laughed some more and went back to our games.
We were in the middle of playing Marco Polo, Bobby was it, when I noticed a bulge coming from the water behind Teddy. Thinking it might be some wild animal I called everyone to look. What emerged underneath the straightest blackest hair was the face of a girl. We didn’t know where she came from or how she got in the water without us noticing. She was very cute and seemed about our age. She rose up to her shoulders and looked right at us, which made us all feel a bit shy because we were after all naked. Imagine three young boys desperately trying to cover their genitalia in a swimming hole and you know exactly what we looked like. Teddy actually turned red.
Before any if us could speak her arms broke the surface and she began to swim around us in circles using powerful strokes. We watched, switching between awe and embarrassment. I mean, there we were, three naked boys, and a girl who could have been naked too. We weren’t sure what to do, even as she began to swim between us. She had the sweetest smile, and her hair flowed behind her like a snake, swerving left and right depending on which arm was stroking. I looked at Teddy and he at Bobby and he at me, and we didn’t know if we were lucky or being pranked.
She swam up to Bobby, took hold of his forearms, looked him in the eyes, and bit her lip. Bobby got really excited by this while Teddy and I were going “Whoa dude”. We couldn’t believe this was actually happening. I reached up to rub my eyes just to make sure they were working right. They were. Bobby started grinning like a Cheshire Cat. You could tell by the way his arms moved from being in front of him to being beside him that he reached for her, to hold her too. Teddy was going “Oh wow”, while my jaw decided it didn’t want to close anymore.
Suddenly Bobby got this weird look on his face, like he felt something was wrong. He pushed her back to try to see down through the water. That’s when the girl rose up from the water, grabbed him by the shoulders and pushed him down.
And they were gone.
We waited for less than a minute for them to come back up. Then we started to get worried. We called his name and swam over to where they were. Couldn’t find them. Then we began to swim deeper, thinking they got caught on some unseen root or something. Still nothing. We swam around in circles looking deeper and wider for some clue or a sign. By then we were pretty frantic about finding him. Every time we surfaced we called his name louder and louder. No Bobby. Once we surfaced and after calling around we looked at each other and had the same thought. We swam for the shore as quickly as we could to get out of there. Once we made the shore we looked back and kept calling, “Bobby, Bobby!” He didn’t answer.
What could we do? We put on our clothes and ran home blubbering to our parents. Our parents told Bobby’s parents and we all went back to the swimming hole. Someone had the wherewithal to call the police before we went did. They showed up as my dad and Teddy’s dad and Bobby’s dad were searching the swimming hole. They all figured he had drowned and was stuck under something in the water. They didn’t find him, even after the police joined them. No luck.
Then someone had the idea that maybe he made it to the shore and was wandering around in the woods. The police checked the shore line for foot prints but didn’t find any. They called in a search party and they looked everywhere and anywhere for him. Still nothing. It was as if he vanished from the face of the Earth.
Of course no one believed the part about the mermaid. We told them about the old man and they looked for him too, with no luck. Teddy and I couldn’t describe him too well for being in the water and splashing around. All we really knew was he was old.
The search went on. The police dragged the swimming hole and found nothing. The search parties searched the entire woods and found nothing. After a few days they called it off. They figured he ran away or something. That didn’t sit right with Bobby’s parents, or with me and Teddy. But with no body and no ideas what else could they say?
A couple of weeks later I went back to the swimming hole, by myself. Teddy stayed home, in fact it was hard to get him out of the house these days. He was still shook up about losing Bobby. I was curious, and didn’t know any better. But I had to see it again. It’s where we lost him.
I decided I wouldn’t get too close, just enough to see it. Yeah, I was still a bit shook up about it too. I went around a few trees and took a peek. And there he was, butt naked and laying on the shore. He looked like he was sleeping, and his hair seemed a bit off-color, but there he was, I was sure of it.
I couldn’t believe it. I ran to him, throwing all caution to the wind. I fell down beside him and grabbed his shoulders, trying to wake him up. I pulled him up and laid him on my lap, so I could get a good look at him. The first thing I noticed when I saw him was his hair, but I was wrong when I said off-colored. His hair, usually black and short, was now grey and longer, maybe past his shoulders. His skin was wrinkled, and I don’t mean water wrinkled. It’s as if he had aged fifty years. It lay across his bones like a sack, letting his ribs and arm bones and even his hip bones show
But the strangest part was he had a smile on his face, the kind of smile you get after a trip to the amusement park, when you’ve been on all the rides and ate your fill and went on more rides. The kind of smile that says the day is over and you’ve just had the best time of your life and now you’re ready for bed, and the only thing you’re waiting for is mom’s goodnight kiss.
I shook him gently a few times, called his name. I got through to him, because he opened his eyes, blinked a few times, and looked right at me. He goes “Hey man”. I go “Hey yourself. How you doing? You feeling okay?”
And he says “I’m just fine”. He closed his eyes, his head rolled to the side, and he died, right there in my arms.
So I guess you could call this a cautionary tale. If an old man shows up out of nowhere and warns you about mermaids, you better listen.
But then, if the experience leaves you with a smile just like Bobby’s, could it be worth it?