TW: suicide, death
By Leanne Phillips
This afternoon, the sky reminds me of a sky I knew one hundred years ago. I reveled in cold winter afternoons in my day. Everything its own shade of bleakness—the sky a pale gray mist, the ocean gray green, the jetty rocks such a deep gray they are almost black. The dark, gray-sand beach is a backdrop for vibrant splashes of color—a purple sand dollar, still living, or the bright orange carcass of a crab, recently dead. When storms threaten, they cast a wet gloom over everything, and when I was living, I rejoiced in it. The late afternoon wind whips it all into motion, and the bay becomes a roil of dull jade, the silt and detritus from the bottom of the ocean floor mixing into the glassy green until it produces a rough and exquisite murkiness.
I remember my little girl Kattie on a day like this one, so long ago, kneeling down near an outcropping of rocks, poking into crevices with a stick, searching for a hermit crab to take home with her. She kept them like pets, feeding them bits of carrot and seaweed, providing them with assorted shells to move in and out of. When they inevitably died in her care, wasting away into translucent, flaky remains, she searched for replacements.
I looked up at the darkening sky and was reminded of the hour. “Come, Kattie,” I said.
“It’s time to go home.”
“But I haven’t found anything yet,” she said.
“I’m sorry, my sweet. But it’s almost time for supper. Daddy will be waiting.”
She continued searching, then stopped and looked up at me. “Come and help me, Mama.” I could deny her nothing. I joined her at the rocks and we searched together.
The sun was shrouded and low against the horizon. The moon was on the rise—the tide was still low, but soon it would begin to come in. The sky was brewing a storm, but Kattie was her mother’s child—she was not afraid. The slight spray of the waves hitting the shore was gradually overcome by infrequent, fat drops from the sky, but I felt no sense of urgency—I had no fear of waves or storms, and I was not yet ready to make Kattie abandon her play.
The rocks were not yielding anything that day. The tide pools were filled with dark seawater and kelp, either empty of life or now an even better hiding place for the creatures we sought. Kattie looked behind her, toward the long, low jetty. It looked far away, mystical, the normally visible end fading into the silver mist as if it might go on forever. She looked at me with those steel blue eyes pleading. She wanted to go out on the jetty, “only for a few minutes, Mama,” to search the more fruitful pools there. And I let her.
I never travel far. I stick close to the beach where my little girl Kattie drowned late one afternoon. The beach where I deliberately drowned myself a year later because I could not get beyond the grief of losing her. I wanted nothing so much as to join her in the sea, the two of us mermaids forever. What I didn’t know then was that the grief would follow me, and unlike in life, where the pain might have become more bearable over time, where other joys might have tempered my sadness, I am stuck in my grief. My grief was cemented in that instant when I crossed over from life to death. It is just as sharp now, these one hundred years later, as it was the day I waded out into the ocean, still in my boots and heavy clothes. I swam out past the waves and kept swimming. I kept swimming until I was too tired to go any farther, until my clothes soaked up the sea and became anchors and the shore was a faraway dream. You carry what you are feeling at the moment of your death with you into eternity. This is something I wish I’d known one hundred years ago.
My grief might be tolerable if I knew where Kattie was, if I could find her. But her spirit is not at the beach; she is not near the rocky tide pools she loved. The house we lived in was razed long ago. Where would an eight-year-old ghost girl travel to if she could travel to anywhere in the world?
Some spirits allow themselves to be seen by the living. I generally don’t bother. I spend my days haunting the beach, searching for Kattie. I am convinced she cannot have gone far; I am at a loss to think where she might be. We lived here her whole, short life. She didn’t know enough of the world to have dreamed of going anywhere else.
Nights, when the beach is bereft of people and sound, I travel to the hotel where the beach curves south. Nights, I haunt Room 327. Its proximity to the beach, its solitude at the end of the hall, its windows overlooking the outcropping of rocks where Kattie once played—all of this suits me. I wander the room and moan, softly so as not to wake the sleeping guests. I have no tears; I cannot cry.
Last night, a young woman came to the room alone. She had a deep sadness about her that I recognized. She took a shower, then came out into the room naked, her long hair dripping. She looked like a mermaid. She removed a thick, white candle from her bag and lit it with a match. She sat it on the small end table. She poured out a handful of pills from an amber bottle. She swallowed them down with a glass of whiskey she poured from a tiny bottle in the honor bar, then pulled the quilt from the bed and wrapped it around her still-naked body. She turned off the lights, sank into the tall, wingback chair, and waited for sleep to come. She closed her eyes, and when she did, I began to moan softly, for myself and for Kattie and for this young woman, too. She opened her eyes and spoke to me.
“Hello? Who’s there?”
“Go back,” I said. My voice was not much of a voice at all. It seeped into her mind as light as a thought. I appeared to her, made myself visible, and she sat up straighter, raised her head, and looked at me.
“Hello,” she said. “My name is Grace.” Her voice was already groggy. She was not afraid of me. When one was this far gone, what was there to be afraid of?
“Go back,” I said. “There is nothing for you here. Go back.” I thought of what else I could say to this woman, how to get her to pick up the telephone, how to warn her that death would not be the escape she thought it would be.
“There is nothing for me here,” she said. Her eyelids seemed heavy. She struggled to keep them open.
“Why?” I asked. “Why do you want to go?”
“My husband is gone,” Grace said. “I can’t live without him. It’s too painful.”
“You are so young, Grace,” I said. “I once felt as you did, but you must go on living. Living is pain, I know. But the pain you will find here is so much more unforgiving.”
“I can’t go back,” she said. “It’s too hard.”
“Go back,” I said again. “Living is hard, but it is more, too. I promise you, there is nothing but pain here. You will be sorry.”
“I’m already sorry,” she said. “Sorry for so many things.” She stopped struggling to stay awake. She closed her eyes and did not open them again. By morning, she stood next to me, a fellow apparition, keening over the empty shell that had once contained her, the body sat blue and cold in the chair.
“Why didn’t you tell me?” she cried.
“I told you,” I said. “You didn’t want to hear.”
My husband and I buried our little girl on a day so sunny it was like a slap in my face. I laid her favorite book in the coffin next to her, its cover cracked, pages worn thin. She looked like she was only sleeping. Like any moment she would open those steel blue eyes and say, “Read to me, Mama.”
“Pick a book, Kattie,” I said to her each night. She chose a book from the shelf in her room and bounced eagerly onto her bed, ready to be tucked in, ready for her story. She held the book out to me—the same book every time.
“Wouldn’t you like a different story, Kattie?”
“No, Mama. I want this one.”
And so I read it to her, at least once, sometimes twice: “Again, Mama? Please?” How could I say no?
“When the sisters rose, arm-in-arm, through the water in this way, their youngest sister would stand quite alone, looking after them, ready to cry,” I read, “only that the mermaids have no tears, and therefore they suffer more.”
I wish I could touch my child again, but I can’t touch anything anymore. I wish I could remember the feeling of her tiny fingers wrapped tight around mine when she was a baby, her little hand in mine when I walked her to the schoolhouse on sunny mornings, her fingers sorting her beach treasures, covered in wet sand, placing them in my open palm one by one and telling me the story of how and where she found each one. I remember the moments, but I can’t remember her touch, the feeling of her skin against mine. All I can remember is that her touch was sweetness.
My husband hated me after Kattie died. He avoided me. He avoided anything that reminded him of our little girl, but I tried to soak her up. I slept in Kattie’s room, smelled her clothes and held them close to me, was terrified that her scent, the last of her, would leave me too. I longed for Edward’s comfort, but I could not seek it, and he did not offer it. Nor would he accept mine. If I touched him, laid a hand on his shoulder in an effort to console him, he shook me off and left the room. He would not look at me. I tried to make things better, but it was no use. I remember the last day, the day I gave up trying.
“Good evening, Edward,” I said when he came in from working in the orchard.
“Good evening,” Edward said. His back was to me. He hung his hat and coat and went straight to the kitchen table, where supper was waiting. I served him a plate and sat down across the table from him.
“How was your day?” I asked him.
“Fine,” he said. He began shoveling forkfuls of food into his mouth as if he were a starving man. He kept his head down.
“I went into town today,” I said. “I bought some muslin to make you new shirts.” I waited for him to respond, but he didn’t. “I thought I could take your measurements after supper,” I said. “You’ve lost weight. I couldn’t begin to guess—”
“I don’t need new shirts,” he said through a mouthful of food. He sat his fork down and chewed, swallowed, then pushed himself away from the table, his plate still two-thirds full.
“But you’ve lost weight,” I said. “Your shirts are hanging on you. Besides—”
“I don’t want new shirts.” He stood. “What I want is my child,” he said. “All I want is for Kattie to come back. Can you bring her back, Clara?” He left me alone in the kitchen.
What kind of a mother am I? He didn’t even know the whole story. How much more would he have hated me if he did?
I went into Kattie’s room that night, recited the story aloud one last time—I knew it by heart: “Far out in the ocean, where the water is as blue as the prettiest cornflower, and as clear as crystal, it is very, very deep; so deep, indeed, that no cable could fathom it ….” I lay in Kattie’s bed, but I slept little. In the morning, after Edward had gone, I walked down to the beach and out into the water. And now here I am.
The ghost of a child haunts the hallway outside of Room 327. Perhaps fourteen—older than Kattie, but still a child. She wails all night. I’ve never asked why she is so sad. I’ve never cared. I sometimes think I should care. She is a child and I am a mother. But my own grief is all-consuming, and after one hundred years, I fear it is hopeless, fear nothing can ease her grief or mine. This morning, after Grace, I decide to talk to her, to see whether it is possible to comfort her and whether it might serve as some sort of atonement for all that I have done.
I leave Grace moaning in Room 327 and go out into the hallway to visit the ghost child. She is moaning too, as expected. I study her. She sits on her haunches on the floor outside Room 324, across the hall and one room down. Her knees are pulled up in front of her, her arms wrapped tightly around them, her face buried in them. She is wearing a simple, dark-colored dress that appears to be from around my time. A dirty apron is tied around her waist, and a stained cap is pinned loosely atop her head. Her hair is dark and matted with some wet substance.
“Why do you moan, child?” I ask her. “Are you missing your mother?”
She continues moaning and doesn’t answer me.
“Do you miss your mother?” I ask again.
“No,” she says. “Nooo!” Her voice is violent as the sea in motion, wracked up and down with her anguish, stretched out side to side into a long wail. Had I breath, it would have taken it.
“You don’t miss your mother?” I am surprised. Doesn’t every young girl miss her mother when she is separated from her?
The girl’s wailing slows and she looks up at me. I see then that she has only half a face. The other half is missing. The flesh is ripped away from her skull, and the bony structure that once supported her face is shattered. What remains is gashed and gruesome, like a raw piece of meat that was shoddily butchered and pounded with a mallet. Her hair is matted with dried black blood, forever matted with thick, dried blood.
“Look at me!” she yells now.
“I see you, girl,” I say. “Why are you moaning? Are you in pain?” I am forever learning this world—I wonder if the physical pain of what happened to her has followed her to the grave, as my emotional pain followed me.
“Look at me!” she yells again. “Look at me. I’m ugly.”
“What happened to you, child?” I ask.
“A man was waiting in the room one morning, when I came in to change the sheets, and he hurt me. I begged him to stop. I called for help, but no one came. After, I told him I would tell. “‘You ain’t gonna tell nobody nothin’,’ he said to me. Then he struck me in the face.”
“I’m so sorry, child,” I say. I kneel beside her.
“I’ll never be beautiful again,” she cries. “I’ll never be beautiful again.”
“You are wrong,” I say. “You are beautiful. You have the most beautiful, gray-green eyes. They look like the sea.”
She looks at me as if I were insane. “I’ll never be beautiful. I’ll never find a husband. Who will marry me now?”
She doesn’t know she is dead, poor thing. I ponder whether to tell her. Will it make things better or worse? She is right. She’ll never find a husband. She’ll never marry. She’ll never have children.
“I had a husband once,” I tell her. “A lot of good it did me.”
I leave the hotel and go outside. I feel eternity stretching before me, and Room 327 no longer belongs to me. I won’t go back there again.
The beach is cold and deserted today. I wait for the late afternoon gray. I look up at the sky and out to the sea, and then I look over toward the jetty and I have to look away, and then I look at the outcropping of rocks where my child once played, and at the tide pools, and then I see her there. A young girl, maybe seven or eight. Not my Kattie—this girl’s hair is bright red against the dark rocks, straight and cut short like a boy’s. Kattie’s hair was long and dark and unruly as could be. This girl has freckles on her nose, and she is crouching, poking into the crevices of the rocks with a stick, lifting up would-be hiding places in the tide pools that surround the rocks. She is wearing blue jeans and red tennis shoes and a light green sweatshirt with a hood, but the elements don’t bother her and she leaves the hood falling down at her back.
The girl stands up. She abandons her search and begins chasing three seagulls that are standing at the water’s edge. They fly from her, then alight a few yards away, but she keeps coming for them—they will find no rest here, not today. The child is alone. There is no one here to tell her what to do or what not to do. She seems fearless and rules the beach as if it belongs to her, as if she is a queen and this beach is her realm, the sea creatures and birds her subjects. Now the seagulls have gone, flown to safety, and she walks the water’s edge. She squats and studies a crab skittering sideways, then begins picking up broken bits of seashell, cracked sand dollars, and splintered pieces of driftwood. She leaves the things that are whole behind. She stuffs the fractured treasures into the front pockets of her jeans until they bulge. She turns and looks out at the jetty, begins walking down the beach and toward it without hesitation, and I feel what’s left of my human heart sink.
I follow the girl to the jetty. I never went out on the jetty in life, and I’ve never gone out on the jetty in death, and now I am remembering that I was not quite so fearless as my little girl after all. The jetty terrified me. I cannot say why. It is neither ocean nor shore—it is man-made of huge, charcoal-black rocks jumbled together into a long, narrow structure that stretches out into deep water. The rocks are wide and smooth with sharp edges that slide and fit against one another like a disordered puzzle. The outer waves crash and thunder against it, wetting the rocks, making them slippery and perilous. My little girl navigated them nimbly—she jumped from rock to rock with confidence, her footing sure. I was uncertain, hesitant, always afraid of falling, and so I waited for her on the shore.
But my grief seems to be the only human emotion that followed me to my grave, and I am surprised to find that I do not feel the fear anymore. The fear I felt that day, when I let my brave little girl go out onto the jetty in search of sea creatures and did not follow her.
I regretted letting Kattie go out onto the jetty the instant the words of permission slid out from between my lips, but I did not stop her going. I did not tell her no. I watched Kattie run all the way out to the end of the jetty, so far out that the gray mist enveloped her and I could no longer see her. My heart caught in my throat, but then she came back into view. She squatted down and began poking with her stick. The tide was coming in, and the waves began beating against the sides of the jetty rocks, higher and higher.
“Kattie! Kattie, let’s go!” I tried to call to her, but my voice got lost in the wind and she could not hear me. I thought about going out onto the jetty myself, to go after her, to tell her, “Come, Kattie, it’s time to go home.” To take her cold little hand in mine and walk her back to safety, then take her home and wrap her in a warm blanket and feed her a supper of hot stew and biscuits and listen to her stories in front of the fire. I thought about it. But I was afraid, and I told myself it would be all right. I walked closer. Where the jetty met the sand, I put one foot up onto a rock, then hesitated. I tried to call out to her again.
“Kattie! Kattie!” I yelled for her at the top of my lungs, but the winds were loud and it was still futile. “Kattie!” I thought for a moment she’d heard me. She lifted her head and waved, but then put her little head back down and returned to her work. I thought about it once again—should I go to her? Surely she’d come back off the jetty any minute. She’d promised. But Kattie was engrossed in her play, and I waited too long. A wave crashed up the side of the jetty and she stood quickly, startled by the water splashing her, and then another wave came up even higher, and when its white froth receded, Kattie was no longer standing on the jetty. She was gone.
The little girl with the bright red hair is running now, running out toward the jetty, and I follow her the way I did not follow my own little girl. For an instant, I wonder what would happen if she slipped into the water and drowned as Kattie had—would she stay here on this beach with me? Would I be able to watch her play and comb the sand for shells and chase the seagulls forever? But the evil thought goes as quickly as it comes, and my thoughts turn to what I can do to warn the child.
Would appearing to her be enough? Letting her see me? A depressed, one-hundred-year-old ghost lady on the beach in soggy boots and an always-dripping Victorian day dress with seaweed tangled in her hair? Somehow, I don’t think that would be enough to stop her. She is not afraid of anything. She is running faster now, to the end of the beach, to the spot where the jetty begins to stretch out beyond the waves. I follow close behind.
She is on the jetty now, beginning the long walk out to where it meets the depths of the ocean. She is skipping from rock to rock, nimble and sure. A storm is gathering above us. I follow her, pass through her, and stand in her way, willing myself to be seen. The little girl stops short when she sees me in front of her, but as I’d suspected, she is not afraid. I am just another adventure, another thing to tell her playmates about at school tomorrow. She’d seen a ghost on the jetty.
“Go back,” I say to her. “Go back.”
“Why?” she asks. A child’s question. It had been Kattie’s favorite.
“It is dangerous,” I tell her. “You must go back. Go home.”
“I’ll be okay,” she says. She waves a dismissive hand at me. “Don’t worry.”
From a distance, I hear a woman’s voice calling: “Rae!”
The little girl hears the voice too. She turns to look in its direction, to locate its source, but it only adds urgency to her mission. She turns back toward the sea and runs past me, farther out, expertly jumping from rock to rock, then looks back and calls for me as she runs, “Come on!”
Her mother’s voice is frantic now: “Rae! Rae, come back here! It’s time to go home!” The voice is behind us now and fades into the wind until we can no longer hear it.
All of this is a delight to the child. She loves the gray afternoons as much as Kattie did. The cold, wet wind invigorates her. The approaching storm energizes her. The thought of her mother and me trying to stop her only encourages her. She runs across the low rocks until she is lost to her mother in the gray fog, as Kattie had been to me for a moment that last day, and then, when she knows she is safely shrouded in mist and hidden from her mother, she stops and begins searching for active tide pools in the crevices between the rocks. She is safe for the moment, ignoring me, has better things to do.
I try to get her attention. “Rae.” I repeat the name her mother called her, say the words I wish I’d said to Kattie. “No, Rae. You can’t stay here. You must go back.”
“It’s okay,” Rae says. “I’m just playing. Just a little longer.”
“No,” I say. “No, no, no.” I’m wailing it now. “No!”
She pays me no mind, just looks up at me and smiles like Kattie had that day. “It’s okay,” she keeps saying. She raises a hand as if to calm me. “It’s okay. I know what I’m doing.” She is stubborn, a child who has not yet learned to sometimes be scared, and I feel helpless.
I look around me, at this man-made structure I was once so afraid of. This long, low thumb of big, sharp rocks jutting out into the ocean that Kattie had loved. It looks like a giant stick of black rock candy laid across the water. It is filled with life, surrounded by life. Here, I think. Here at the end of this jetty, on the dark, wet rocks, out in the deep water, with the waves crashing around her and a storm threatening overhead. Here is where Kattie would be, if she could be anywhere in this world she wanted to be. But she is not here.
I am wondering what I will do as the tide rises, when the waves begin to crash too high on the rocks, if the little girl stands or slips or begins to run again, even farther out, when I sense something behind us, then see a figure emerging from the mist and stepping toward us on the rocks.
“Rae,” the woman says. The relief in her voice is palpable, but the fear is too. She is nervous out here on the rocks. She is afraid, as I had been. But she came anyway. “Rae, come on. You know you’re not supposed to go to the beach by yourself. I’ve been worried sick.”
The little girl looks up and smiles. She is not afraid of anything, not yet, and least of all her mother. “Okay, Mom,” she says. She stands and reaches into a pocket, pulls out a fistful of broken shells. “Look what I found,” she says. She opens her wet, sandy palm and fans her fingers, displays her treasures, starts counting them out, one by one, and begins to tell her mother the story of where and how she found each one.
“You can show me when we get home,” her mother says. “Daddy is waiting for us.” She squats in front of the child, tugs the hood up over her daughter’s head, pulls the drawstrings tight and ties them in a bow under the girl’s chin, hugs her daughter close, and for a moment, I remember what that felt like.
The little girl stuffs her treasures back into the pocket of her blue jeans and reaches for her mother’s hand. She turns back to me and waves with her free hand, “Good-bye!”
Her mother thinks nothing of it, thinks her daughter is saying good-bye to the ocean or the rocks or the sea creatures living inside them, as little girls do. They begin navigating the rocks, moving slowly for the mother’s sake and stepping carefully so as not to slip, heading back toward the beach. They are soon lost to me in the mist. I follow a short distance behind so I can see them again.
“I saw a ghost,” the little girl tells her mother.
“You did?” her mother asks. Her voice does not betray any disbelief. “What kind of ghost? What did it look like?”
“It was a lady,” the little girl says. “She looked very sad.”
I watch them as they leave the jetty, walk up the beach together, then up the wood stairs to rejoin the living. I stay behind. My grief is still present, but if feels somehow suited to this wild, deserted place. Yes, this is where my little girl would be, if she were in this world. My child is not here, and she will not come. This world is my penance. It is not hers.
[Story excerpts are from The Little Mermaid by Hans Christian Andersen (1872).]
Leanne Phillips is a writer, historian, photographer, and lifelong Californian who never lives far from the beach. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in the Los Angeles Review of Books, The Rumpus, and The Coachella Review. She received her MFA in fiction from the University of California at Riverside’s Palm Desert program for Creative Writing and Writing for the Performing Arts. She earned her BA in English, with an emphasis in creative writing and a minor in history, from Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo.