categories: Cocktail Hour / Our Best American Essays
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As the best writers in the world, Dave and I wanted to be sure visitors to Bill and Dave’s could easily find and comment on our work. So our web designer, Randy Skidmore of Subpar Design, has set up the Bill and Dave’s “Our Best American Essays” page, formally static, so that we can post work old and new, and readers can respond. I’m going to launch the new capabilities today with “Royal Visitor,” which I’ve read at a a number of public events and which appeared in Louisville Review #62. I also posted it on my old Down East blog. It’s my answer to the FAQ about the writing of memoir: what if there’s material from your life you really can’t use? The answer in this case is one word: metaphor.
Just a routine spring walk down to Temple Stream, late April, days and days of rain, a nor’easter, wet. The snow has been melting and the lawn is almost entirely bare, but in the woods I’m staggering through the remnants of huge drifts from three colder nor’easters, three in a row, rotten snowpack thigh deep and greasy, as they say around here, nothing like I’d been skiing on right up until the week before. The point of my walk is vernal bird arrivals, but really the only significant sighting is a golden-crowned kinglet (solo and very busy branch-to-branch in a balsam fir, an elusive year-rounder). My heart leaps—these sightings are always such a surprise, tiny little bird you have to make a point of looking for, always hanging near chickadees, those valiant commoners. I love the glimpses of hot yellow in its head as the bird darts this way and that, hangs upside down: some species of caterpillar must be hatching.
At the stream it’s sweet to note the ice is gone. The water is very high but has been higher overnight—you can see the debris caught up in the alders across the way. And in the debris, something catches my eye, just a spot of color. I put the binoculars on it and realize it’s a baby with long hair. Also a blue crown, molded to the head. So it’s a princess baby. She’s caught up in the ankles of some tangled alders. She’s wearing a sea-shell bra (even as young as she is!). I look more closely and discern a blue dorsal fin where her legs should be.
It’s a baby mermaid princess!
Later that day, after lunch, I’m driving my six-year-old daughter to Gifford’s for ice cream cones. On the way home, 3.5 miles, I remember my discovery and say offhandedly, “I saw a baby mermaid down at the stream this morning.”
Elysia says, “What color was her hair?”
“I don’t know. But she had a blue crown.”
“She had a crown!”
“Yes, blue. It was a doll, honey.”
“Oh, I see.”
I think Elysia’s going to laugh at my joke, but she does not: toy or no, the fact of the mermaid in the stream is magical. I watch her in the rearview mirror. She’s a very pretty girl with a new haircut, soft curls. My cone is long gone—she’s still nursing hers.
And cogitating: “Can we get the mermaid when we’re home?”
“I don’t think so. She’s on the other side of the stream.”
“We could wade. I’m very good at wading.”
“Oh, no, it’s very deep, hunny. The stream is in flood. It’s very cold.”
Silence in the back seat.
My own thoughts drift to other subjects. I’ll have to put some kind of dinner together in a couple of hours, always the imperative of food, meals. The car is making a strange noise, a squeak under the back seat (this will turn out to be a toy mouse, which my triumphant mechanic will hold high for all to see).
Then: “Was her hair red?”
“I’m not sure, honey.”
“Well, I think her hair must be red. I’m pretty sure she’s a Baby Ariel. Asha has one.”
I don’t know Baby Ariel, but I know who the adult Ariel is. She’s a mermaid and a babe of another sort and I’ve met her with Elysia at Disneyland in person and seen her on video as well. “Baby Ariel,” I say impressed.
Elysia goes back to her silent deliberations. I take peeks at her in the rearview mirror. I am in love. Even so, my thoughts move to semester’s end and the great pile of student portfolios I have to read, starting this evening. I’ll be up past midnight easily, maybe later. We’re almost home, driving the very curvy stretch of our road alongside Temple Stream, which is roaring, leaping, muddy, mighty, gorgeous.
“We have to save her,” says Elysia, resolute.
At the stream bank we stand admiring the flood. I have my binocs around my neck, Elysia hers (my old compact Nikons).
I say, “Hear that red-winged blackbird? That’s a summer bird already back.”
Elysia says, “Where’s the baby mermaid?” She’s a focused kid.
“See if you can find her with your binoculars. Just across the stream.”
Naked eye, the doll is just a dull spot of pink and a little odd circle of blue, which is the crown that makes her royalty. Elysia scans the bank across the way efficiently, impatiently. “Daddy, where?” she says.
“A little further left.”
Her head jerks. “That’s not a Baby Ariel,” she says, speaking as an expert. “That’s one of those baby mermaids you can get at WalMart. She has blond hair, Daddy. You said red.”
“No, I said I didn’t know.”
“Let’s get her,” Elysia says. “Now.”
And suddenly I regret having reported the sighting at all. It’s the kid’s tone: imperious. We haven’t eaten dinner, we’re at the end of a long day, the beautiful little perfect girl is six years old (she’s such a good companion that her tender age is often easy to forget): conditions are ripe for a meltdown.
“Well. The water’s too high.”
“You said at the pond last year that you were a very good swimmer.”
“Did I say that?”
“So you can go get her right now.”
“Hunny, the water’s too high and too cold—I’ll freeze and get swept away.”
“Okay, Daddy. Don’t worry. I have an idea. Get a long stick, put a string on it with a loop, and you reach across the whole stream and catch her by the head. We had a snake guy at school and that’s how he did it.”
“Well, it would have to be a very long stick.”
Warmly encouraging: “Daddy, you can do it!”
“A stick that long would be very, very heavy.”
Angry: “Daddy! We have to get her.”
Persuasive: “Hey, I know! We’ll get her in a few days when the stream goes down!”
Angrier: “Daddy! She’ll be washed away by then!”
This is no simple doll lust. This is a rescue, a mission of mercy. The poor infant mermaid is caught up in tangled alders, part of a snag of hundreds of beaver sticks and old grasses and dimensional lumber and plastic bags and pinecones. And she’s no common infant mermaid, she is a princess, a princess, even if not a Baby Ariel.
“Hunny,” I say tenderly, “We can’t. I’m sorry. We’ll have to come back when the flood is down a little. Now it’s time for dinner.”
Elysia’s not budging.
Firmly I say: “Let’s go.”
Hotly: “Daddy! We are not going to leave her there!”
“But we must, hunny.”
Brightening: “Is that one of Charlie’s fields over there? We could walk around to it!”
“Now, how could we do that?”
Sunny again, actually smiling, a budding cartographer: “Cross the bridge at Russell’s Mill!”
The little booger! She’s right, entirely correct. But such a walk would take hours. I say, “The walk would take hours.”
“But we could drive to the bridge!”
“You know we could!”
“Hunny, it’s time for dinner. Come on. We’re having pasta. Pasta with red sauce. Parmesan cheese, as much as you want. You can grate it yourself if you like. And we’ll have a salad.”
Safely this side of a tantrum (she’s not four anymore), but coldly furious, she says, “I’m never going home again until you get that baby mermaid!”
“I’m sorry hunny. And please don’t talk to Daddy like that.”
“You could swim if you wanted to. You could walk. You could make a pole with a loop!”
“Let’s go, sweetie.”
“No! I’m never going home again!”
“Okay, but I better go. I’m awfully hungry. We’ll come back and get her when the water’s down.” And I amble away, thirty yards or so back along the path.
“But it will rain and she’ll be washed away!”
I keep walking, shuffling in the leaves to make lots of noise. “It won’t rain,” I call, though I’ve noticed the high cirrus clouds coming in, mare’s tails, sure harbingers.
I stop. Can’t walk further than I can see the little girl back there. I wait. She waits. I wait some more. She waits. I take a step, then another, loud as I can in the duff, moving just out of sight.
And now here comes Elysia running—of course she doesn’t want to be left alone in the woods where who knows what witch will ask to see how fat your fingers are. “Okay,” she cries, “Wait! I’m coming. But you have to carry me and I’m not going to talk to you ever again.”
Overnight it begins to rain. And the next day it rains hard all day. Another nor’easter in a season of nor’easters, near three full days of rain, several inches. The already swollen Temple rises up out of its banks briefly—nothing like the big autumn floods we’ve had in recent years, but plenty to sweep away any baby mermaid that might be caught up in alders and Viburnum.
And it’s two weeks before the water level comes down to something near normal. Then another week before Elysia looks out the car window on the way back from a Gifford’s run and gazes at the newly quiescent stream in the stretch where it flows by the road. I’ve known better than to think she’ll forget, but am still taken by surprise:
“Daddy, let’s go get the baby mermaid.”
“It’s been raining a lot,” I say grimly.
She’s not a girl who says I told you so; she simply watches my eyes in the rearview mirror.
I say, “We have to be ready to accept the fact that she might possibly quite simply be gone.”
“Let’s just go!” Elysia says.
At the stream, we play our binoculars over the wild new arrangement of wrack and flotsam caught up in the twisted alders, but the baby mermaid is emphatically gone.
“Hunny,” I say, steeling myself. “Hunny, I’m sorry.”
Elysia looks a little longer at the spot where the mermaid isn’t, says, “Oh, Daddy, it’s okay. Don’t be sad. I think she was just visiting. She’s a mermaid. She’ll be happier in the stream anyway! Or even the ocean, if she can swim that far!”