• johnschengber

16: Inside the Mermaid's Purse

Updated: Dec 20, 2019

Inside the Mermaid's Purse

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?”

Thus far, the purses had contained thirteen Spanish coins, three rusted thimbles, and a sheath to a sword. Denise craned her neck back to glance at him.

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

Denise wore a bathing suit that doubled as a tennis outfit. She turned her head to rejoin her husband, Art, and her older brother, Trevor. There was one empty chair for grandmother Luce, who had gone up to the house, and one for Rachel, who was on a walk. They sat five meters from the incoming sea, opposite Sam and his hole, amidst a cluster of umbrellas, coolers, beach bags, and boogie boards. Facing the waves, 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. Maybe he’s a budding marine biologist.” said Art, trailing off.

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. Denise squeezed his hand.

Trevor, Denise’s older brother, who on this second day of vacation was already leathery-tan, 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 next he built up next to his chair.

Trevor 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.

“Civil engineer at best,” 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 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 waves, 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 back 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. Denise spun around, satisfied. 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 mid-summer. The wind had been blowing since nine. 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 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.



I think I'm about 1/3 of the way through. I'd love to hear your impressions and reactions to help guide me in writing the rest!

— John


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