• johnschengber

17: Inside the Mermaid's Purse, v2

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

Inside the Purse of a Mermaid

Sam was running up and down the beach collecting mermaid’s purses. His eight year old legs carried him erratically over the sand, which at low tide was compact and hard enough to bounce a tennis ball. Sam hopped around and squatted to dig, as if he had rubber in his knees. He scurried back toward his finely dug hole with a load of black mermaid’s purses.

“How many is that now?” asked Denise, Sam’s mother, from her lounge chair closer to the water.

“Eight, nine, ten!” Sam said. “Want to see?”

The pocket-sized black sacs looked like oblong ravioli with antennae sprouting from each corner. They held shark and skate eggs, seemed ill-suited to adorn a nice looking mermaid. The purses, wet and leathery, smelled of the deep sea.

“Want to see?” Sam repeated.

Denise craned her neck back to glance at him.

“Maybe in a little while, Sam. We’re talking.”

Denise didn’t see that Sam had discovered inside the purses thirteen Spanish coins, three rusted thimbles, and a sheath to a sword. Denise was in her early forties and wore a modest bathing suit that covered her midsection and ended in a skort at her mid-thigh. She turned her head to rejoin her husband, Art, and her older brother, Trevor.

Together they sat five meters from the incoming sea, opposite Sam and his hole, amidst a cluster of umbrellas, coolers, beach bags, and boogie boards. There was one empty chair for grandmother Luce, who was up at the house. They watched the mid-morning sun grow smaller and higher over the waves wherein all the other cousins were playing.

“If only Mrs. Painter could see him now,” said Denise, turning to Art.

“It’s a good thing, right? At least he’s focused on something.” said Art.

Art was a high school literature teacher. He was lean, wore a visor that covered up some of his balding. On his lap was a deserted crossword puzzle.

“Who knows, maybe he’s a budding marine biologist,” said Art. “Something to work with come August.” He trailed off and looked to the water. Denise squeezed his hand.

Trevor, Denise’s older brother, who on this second day of vacation was already well tanned, stood up from his sand castle and dusted off his hands.

“If Sam is a marine biologist, I’m an architect.” said Trevor, gesturing to the shoddy column of sand he built up next to his chair. He was a big-boned man with arms built from competitive swimming and then later starting his tree business. He took a beer from the cooler, cracked it open, and rested it gently atop the column.

“Never too early to start,” he said, pleased with himself. A chunk of sand calved off under the can’s weight, but the structure maintained. Art went back to his crossword puzzle.

“Civil engineer at best. You won’t be designing my house.” ragged Denise.

She and Trevor laughed and then fell into silence. They watched a seagull turn up its nose to a drowned ghost crab in front of them.

Then Sam flew past, gathering more purses. Their dark black cases, glistening with salt water, caught the sun’s glare and sparkled from far away. He seemed to collect purses all over the beach except within a certain proximity to the family encampment.

When he filled his arms and the load was heavy, he returned to his hole and laid each purse out carefully. Then he began to rip them open and dump their contents. With this particular expedition he added a silver compass and a broken pair of spectacles to his collection.

“Hey!” yelled Denise. “Back this way!”

Sam shot up from his hole, but he saw that his mom was shouting to the kids in the water who had drifted down the beach. She was standing at the water’s edge with her hands cupped around her mouth to block out the wind. Sam sat down against the wall of his hole.

He remembered the previous year, when his parents, mostly his dad, showed him mermaid’s purses for the first time. But he never saw their insides before. The black sacs were always just part of the beach, nothing more. Even now, Sam could see a couple unopened mermaid’s purses at the feet of the adults.

“I know, such a burden.” said Denise to the kids coming out of the water. “What a tough life you all have!”

Sam’s siblings and cousins muffled their complaints as they walked past her and continued up the beach to account for the current. Suzy, the oldest at thirteen, led the pack with her black braids and a boogie board dragging from her ankle.

Denise pulled Suzy aside and bent to her level. “Get your brother to come out with you, will you?”

“No Mom, we’re all playing! He doesn’t even like to!”

Suzy marched down the beach and Denise stood up and crossed her arms. She paused, seeing Sam in his hole, and remained at the water’s edge. Art stood up and joined her there. They let their ankles go under.

The waves were reaching a size and speed unusual for South Carolina in late June. The wind had been blowing since nine. The horizon was vaguely dark and boiling, but the sun was not yet threatened. Sam was the only kid interested in staying on the sand, it seemed.

“Hey Sam, buddy, are you seeing these waves?” called Art. “Bigger than last year don’t you think?”

Art had the type of voice that sounded frustrated and desperate when raised. He was outmatched by the wind. Sam didn’t respond.

In his hole, Sam was taking inventory and organizing the mess he’d made. He filled two purses with Spanish coins and then discarded the rest of the torn-up sacs. He dug his hole deeper to allow for the sword that might fit the sheath he found. If he could find a telescope, that would be his favorite. Sam’s hole was now so deep that he wasn’t actually visible from a distance.

“I’m going to see what —” began Art, digging out his feet.

“No, honey. Can’t we just let it be?” said Denise. “It would probably encourage him, anyway.”

“And what would be wrong with that? I used to —”

“Please just stay here with me. We’re here, we don’t get this time often.” said Denise.

Art paused, sighed. A wave crashed against their shins, buried his feet again. He watched the sand flying out of Sam’s hole. He remembered coming to this beach as a kid and learning how to search for sand dollars and whelks and horseshoe crabs in the shallows with his cousins. He would always show his grandparents his discoveries before running up to the house to dry them on the hot porch. He learned later that killed them. Art was half considering digging around for sand dollars again when Trevor let out a big sigh. Art and Denise both turned around.

“Time for the CLAW,” said Trevor, wrestling himself from the chair. He stood up and took a big gulp of his beer.

“No, Trevor, I don’t want—” said Art.

Trevor shooed him with his hand and finished the beer.

“Aaah.” said Trevor. “It’ll be good for him.”

He trashed the can in the plastic bag suspended from the umbrella. “It’ll be good for him, and you!” He wiped his mouth and straightened his wide brim sun hat. He began to walk with pace up the beach towards Sam’s hole.

“Trev!” yelled Denise.

But Trevor was deaf to them. He was lumbering like a monster, with his arms raised in the air, hands clenched like talons awaiting prey. He arrived at Sam’s hole.

“Rawr! The CLAW is here!” roared Trevor.

Sam looked up with wide eyes and let out a scream. He rarely screamed. Immediately he started pelting Trevor with mermaid’s purses and clumps of wet sand. He pulled from his enormous scrap pile of purses — careful not to disturb his discoveries — and grabbed at the wet sand with fury. Sam threw and threw, but Trevor brought his hat down over his eyes and persisted.

As Trevor bent down towards him, Sam curled into a corner of his hole. Trevor’s thick outstretched arms closed inward like an excavator, grabbing him underneath the armpits.

“The CLAW is here, there is no escape!” yelled Trevor.

Sam squirmed in his arms once, twice, but then he went limp. He looked straight out at the ocean with a blank stare. Trevor ran them towards the water as if Sam was a boogie board.

Passing Denise, she played along, was in terror of the CLAW. Art was silent.

“Here, we, go!” boomed Trevor. And they plunged in.

The CLAW met its fate in the water and released its victim. The water was refreshing and clean but turbid. The wind had stirred up the surface into a foam and waves were lifting up sand from the bottom. Trevor sprang up from the tumult like a dolphin and looked for Sam. He didn’t see him. He looked out into the waves where the rest of the kids were, but Sam wasn’t out there. He spun around towards the beach. Sam was up and walking to the shore. He waded blindly through the shallows, wiping the salt from his eyes.

“Aw, bud!” yelled Trevor. “Shoot, Sammy! I’m sorry bud.”

Trevor made eye contact with Art. Then Art turned to grab a towel from the beach chair nearby and passed it to Denise. When Sam reached the shore, Denise opened up the towel to wrap him like a burrito, but Sam stopped short. He bent down and picked up two mermaid purses that were attached to one another. He lifted them to his face and stared at them and continued walking towards his hole in one patient motion.

His hole had grown closer to the water even in that short time away. The tide was coming up. Sam sat back against the wall of his hole with his two new purses in his lap and listened to Suzy scream at Uncle Trevor to push her into waves. Her shrill voice was the only voice that could reach him. Otherwise it was quiet. Sam noticed the waves were still getting bigger, and the sky was darker too. He opened his two purses and pulled out a blue pair of binoculars with a bright yellow strap, and a magnifying glass.

In a little while, Luce summoned everyone to the house for lunch. Sam waited to see if anyone would stop to see his findings, but everyone was hungry. They all bolted upstairs to the top floor which featured an adjoined kitchen, dining table, and living room. Sam followed. The dining table butted up against a screened-in-porch that overlooked the dunes and the beach and the water. Luce came in from the screened-in porch, where she’d been all morning watching the sea and avoiding the sun. She loved to watch the sea.

“Well how was it out there? Sure did look messy!”

“Big, fun, huuuuge waves, Mommy Lu!” said Suzy, echoed by similar superlatives from the rest of the kids. There was a strict no dripping policy, so all the kids were wrapped in oversized towels that dragged along the floor and left little damp trails on the hardwood.

“Must have worked up an appetite, I hope! Lunch is ready once you’re all seated.” said Luce.

Sam was already quietly seated and ready, though he was looking out the window, and didn’t see the food coming his way.

“See now, just like Sam’s doing.” said Luce. “You get first pick, Sam, for being so patient.”

Luce bent over slightly to lower a plate of sandwiches in front of Sam. All the other kids scrambled to take their seats, tripping on their towels. Denise and Trevor sat down, too.

“What no fair! He didn’t even play!” said Suzy. “We’re hungrier!”

“Suzy! Napkin in your lap.” said Denise.

The tumult died down as Luce made the rounds with the sandwich plate. She took a seat at the table. Art was heating leftover spaghetti in the microwave.

“It looks like a pretty good squall is building out there, didn’t you see, Luce?” asked Art.

“I’ve been watching it all morning. Said in the paper something could come around this afternoon.” said Luce.

“Ten bucks they’re wrong like yesterday.” quipped Trevor.

“And the day before.” added Denise.

Art took out his spaghetti and stirred it around. Barely any steam rose.

“What is a squall?” asked Sam.

Most everyone stopped. Suzy looked up at him, narrowed her eyes slightly. Denise stopped on a piece of sandwich. She had chosen chicken salad like always.

“Sam, will you be our meteorologist today?” said Trevor. “We all know help is wanted.” He laughed.

Art placed his spaghetti back in the microwave and slammed the door shut. It rang loudly. He looked back to Sam at the table.

“A squall is a storm, buddy.” he said. “You probably saw one building out there, you know, those blueish clouds.”

“Funny word, isn’t it?” asked Luce. “Squall.”

Art brought his spaghetti over on a hot plate but no sooner had he sat down than all the kids began to stir in their seats. They implored Denise to watch TV.

“Thirty minutes, that’s it.” said Denise. “Clear your plates first.”

Before she finished her sentence the kids became the fastest kitchen crew of anyone in their age group. Then they fled into the living room and piled up in front of the television. Sam took half a sandwich from his plate and went out onto the porch. Trevor looked at Denise and raised his eyebrows but went back to eating. He took the last slice of provolone from the cheese plate. The only thing left in abundance on the table were cucumber slices.

Denise sighed. She wiped her mouth with her napkin. “Still the same, Mom,” she said.

“What do you mean?” asked Luce.

“He was in the sand all day again, just him. Playing with those purses.” said Denise quietly. “While everyone else was in the water.”

Luce gave a half-smile and looked down to her plate. She paused. The television yapped on in the background. Luce gathered her napkin and silverware onto her plate and looked back up at Denise.

“Why don’t you finish your sandwich? Too much mayonnaise?”

“Trevor’s been feeding me beer again. But Mom—” said Denise.

“Listen—” said Luce, pushing her chair back. “I’ve told you and Art how I feel. Nothing to worry about, not for now at least. Maybe not even forever.”

She stood up from the table.

“But who am I to know.”


“Give me that and I’ll save it for tomorrow. Always were a picky eater.”

Luce took Denise’s unfinished lunch and walked off into the kitchen with a small stack of plates. She made herself busy in there. Denise was resigned to pick at the cucumber plate. Then a large gust of wind pressed against the side of the house and shook the windows. Art looked up from his spaghetti. Luce paused her cleaning to listen. The gust subsided but in its place a strong, consistent wind was ruffling the trees outside and making the house creak.

Denise and Trevor went out to the porch to have a look. They found Sam pressed against the screen, admiring a wall of blue-grey clouds that were approaching from the right, down the beach.

“Holy!” said Trevor.

“Coming this way alright.” said Denise.

The porch was only as big as a car, but it housed eight broad-backed chairs, the kind good for sinking into. And though it provided only a 90 degree view of the beach, the way it extended over the lawn and dunes below made it feel like an observation deck, jutting out into the salty air. The approaching clouds, now covering three quarters of the sky, including the sun, cast the space in a shadowy green light. From his vantage point, Sam could see his hole down below on the beach. It was precariously close to the incoming tide, which was being further pushed ashore by the wind.

“Ooo-aah,” said Trevor, sitting down with a beer . “I do love a good storm.”

Art stepped onto the porch and took a seat with his spaghetti bowl rested on a cutting board. Luce followed soon thereafter, went over to stand near Sam.

“You can really feel the low,” said Art. “See the squall, Sam?”

Sam was propping himself up on one of the horizontal crossbeams. He stood on his toes and pressed his face against the screen.

“Why don’t I get those binoculars from downstairs, get him a better view of things,” said Luce, turning to face the adults.

“No, Mom, don’t be silly.” said Denise. “With those stairs, Art can get them.” Denise looked at Art. “Honey? Do you mind?”

Art was caught slurping his spaghetti. Trevor burst out laughing. Denise looked perplexedly at Trevor, and then back to Art, who hurried to finish his bite.

Still chewing, he said “I’m sorry, hun, I lost them this morning, out on the kayak with Trevor. When we tipped.”

“You mean you tipped,” interrupted Trevor. “Don’t drag me into this!”

Art paid him no attention. “I will get another pair, I promise.”

“Apologize to mom, not me,” said Denise.

The focus of the room shifted back to Luce, who was still standing with Sam. For a moment her face twisted. She sent a sour look at Denise, but then she relaxed.

“Oh please. Don’t be ridiculous,” said Luce. “The ocean has always kept good care of my things. Those binoculars are probably right at home.” she said, returning her gaze to the sea and the storm.

Far off the shore, the wind was whipping up waves and then blowing them over themselves. The reeds on the dunes were starting to bend. Luce squeezed Sam’s shoulder. She muttered to nonone in particular, likely audible only to Sam given the way the wind was berating the screens.

“Oh yes, my old class ring from Tulane, more than a couple wristwatches, at least half my jewelry box, and now a pair of binoculars lost to the collection.”

Sam looked up at her. She kept her eyes on the ocean, but squeezed his shoulders again. Then a massive bolt of lightning hit a palm tree in the neighboring yard. The children watching TV shrieked nearly as loud as the thunder that followed. The power went out and the TV went black. Everyone’s hair stood on end. The kids scrambled onto the porch in their towels and blankets and huddled around the adults. Despite the new crowd, Sam was intent to keep his primetime spot by the screen.

The storm suddenly picked up force. Wooden shrapnel from the palm tree was picked up by the wind and blew across the yard, one piece flying close enough to the porch to make everyone gasp. The sea, which had been boiling, now became windswept and battened down by sheets of rain that came down sideways like curtains with one end knotted up. The rain reached the porch in explosions of mist that pushed the slack of the screen inward, and then popped it outward again.

Sam watched it all intensely. He saw how the ocean to the left was untouched, looked normal, but was starting to show the first signs of the storm. He compared it to the ocean in front of him, unrecognizable to the ocean of he saw that morning. He noticed his hole on the beach looking very small compared to it all, very vulnerable to the waves that were now only a foot away from filling it. He was glad that he had dug all of his discoveries deep into the bottom of the hole and buried them with alternating layers of reeds and sand. He was glad they would be there tomorrow, but then he thought of something.

Sam craned his neck up to look at Luce. She had a hand wrapped around each eye in a circle, like a telescope, like she was using them to block out the storm. She was straining to see further. Sam’s eyes grew wide. He drew in a quick, deep breath. And then he bolted.

“Sam! Where are you going?” yelled Denise.

“Sam?” echoed Art.

They both jumped to their feet, spilling spaghetti and knocking over children in the process. Sam flew inside and went down the three flights of winding stairs. His feet were sixteenth note drum beats on the hardwood floor. He could hear his father tracing his steps behind him, but Sam was much more nimble. He exited the bottom floor out onto the lawn. It was like walking out into a wind tunnel made of green light and moisture. Sam could feel the eyes of his family above him on the porch. They all watched and held their breath, let Art and Denise do the yelling. He sprinted towards the sea.

When Sam reached his hole, he found it swirling with foam and water. Torn-up mermaids purses were floating on the surface like bath toys. Sam hesitated. The tide had risen so far that with the next set of waves, the hole would be underwater again.

“Sam! Get back here!” yelled Art, desperate through the wind. He was coming fast over the dune.

Sam looked back at him, and then slipped himself into the hole. He could stand on his toes to barely keep his head above the water. But he needed to get to the bottom. He took a deep breath and lifted his arms to propel him down. In the muck, he realized the layer of sand and reeds he made had been disintegrated by the water. Everything was everywhere. He felt some of the Spanish coins on the bottom, some of them floated around when he stirred the water. He felt the empty sheath and the broken spectacles and the rusted thimbles and then he finally felt the flat webbing of a strap. He grasped it and shot up to the surface.

Sam saw his father sprinting towards him, nearly skidding to a stop at the edge of the hole, when from behind a wall of water hit him in the back of the head. He was ejected from the hole and tumbled up the beach. The water was gritty, full of reeds and sand. When the water receded, Sam was splayed out on his stomach like a dead fish amongst a smattering of washed up beach collateral. There was a barnacle-covered piece of driftwood next to his head. He lifted his face off the sand, and saw that his dad, too, was washed up.

“Sam!” said Art, scrambling to his feet. “What is going on! What—we need to get back inside!”

He helped Sam to his feet and saw that he was holding a pair of binoculars. Art was stunned.

“How did you, wait, what is going—”

A second lightning bolt struck nearby. For an instant, the water at their toes felt red hot.

“Come on!” yelled Art, taking Sam’s hand. “Let’s go!”

They both ducked as they ran back to the house. Denise was coming over the top of the dune, her hair blowing into her face. She fought to stay balanced in the crosswind. She joined Sam at his side and together the three of them ran like desperate soldiers into the cover of the house.

They huddled on the bottom floor in silence. They wrapped themselves in a big towel. Denise began to speak.

“Sam, never again, please never run out into the storm like that—”

“Denise, enough. We can talk about it later.” said Art.

He looked down at Sam, hoping to get his eye contact.

“Sam?” he said. Sam looked up.

“Thank you. That was very nice of you.” said Art.

Denise’s jaw went slack. Art held up a stern index finger without breaking eye contact with Sam. Art and Sam stared at each other for a moment.

“They’re for Mommy Lu.” said Sam.

“I know, buddy. I know,” said Art. “Why don’t you go show them to her?”

Sam smiled timidly. He looked at his mother, who was still in absolute confusion. Then he brought the binoculars up to his chest, looked down at them for a moment. Denise gasped. Sam turned to find the stairwell, but looked back.

“I wanted you to see, too.” said Sam.

“After Mommy Lu, how about?” said Art.

Sam nodded and went upstairs. When he entered the screened-in porch, all the kids turned around and jumped up.

“Quite a show little man!” said Trevor.

The kids moved to greet him but stopped short. They looked at the binoculars around his neck. Sam walked up to Luce, who was facing the storm. Sam tugged at her shirt. She turned her head from the sea and looked down at him. Smiling, she lifted him onto the crossbeam of the porch.

“Next time, maybe wait until after the storm.” said Luce, chuckling. “But I get it. What a time to find things.”

Luce helped Sam get the binoculars straightened out. She untwisted the yellow strap around his neck, and she showed him the focus adjustment knob. It was stiff with sand, but still did the job. Sam pressed his eyes into the eyepieces. He brought the lenses level with the horizon. He could see the contours of every wave and every billowing cloud. He looked deep into deep into the heart of the storm, deep into the heart of the squall. Sam didn’t know, nor did anyone else, but the squall was actually not a squall at all. It was a small hurricane, unusual this early in the season, especially for South Carolina, which is one reason the weathermen never saw it coming.

Suzy came up to Sam in his reverie. “Sam, have you found any goggles in your purses? I lost mine this morning.”

Sam hadn’t found any goggles yet, but he would get to searching once the storm passed.


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