On December 25th at 1:14 am the full moon reaches aphelion, its farthest distance from the sun. The two bodies taking the earth from both sides means that in a few hours, the water will be unusually high as the tidal bulge moves around the world and the moon sets exactly opposite the rising sun.
It is at precisely 1:14 am that I’m suddenly awake, staring at the ceiling. I know every crevice in the spackle like every nerve in my leg, scars painting the accident that took me down as a child. Not sure how long these severed and sewn limbs will serve me. Sleep ebbs and floods with the spasms. By 5 am, I’m done. I don’t care what day it is, tired of feeling shitty. I take another look at the hydrocodone bottle in the medicine cabinet. I slam it shut, grab my towel, goggles around my neck and drive to the beach to find relief in the cold winter water. Driving east, the moon races to the horizon behind me.
Sunrise is a half hour away. In the twilight, life stirs. Mullets create a disturbance on the surface, occasionally jumping into the air, and birds take the deep dive. Dolphin families make their way up the coast, celebrating in leaps and showing tail. There is man curled up in the sand, duffle bag tucked under his crown of dreads, restless in his sleep. He seems familiar but the hunch is fleeting. The moon is setting, full and mirroring the invisible sun.
It’s high tide so the walk to the water is short under my throbbing legs; the sandpipers scatter and fly. The chilling water hurts my ankles. I acclimate, then go in further, slowly up to my knees, breathing through the shivers. Stepping waist high—that’s like, wow, brrrr. The sun is cresting right below the horizon and just as the opposing moon sets, I see a tail. It’s very close and very big.
Another deep breath. Don’t panic; remain still, hope it passes by. Strong undercurrents around my legs. Shit, it knows I’m here. Then with a powerful push of its tail and a swift undertow, it’s gone. I’m tumbling in the water in its wake. I’m out of here. Painfully getting to my feet, toes curled, gripping the sand, walking backwards, I see the tail again. All at once the rest of this creature reveals herself in one giant leap. I freeze as she swims toward the shore. Cold water has done some strange things to me. Dizziness, vertigo, hypothermia… but it’s never been a hallucinogen. Yet there she is, coming straight toward me, her tail conjuring itself into a seal-skin shawl around her broad shoulders.
I’m straight-up scared and completely enamored. Her legs, appearing out of the water like magic, are showing faint scales. There’s a tattoo on her right foot: “Kristina”. She speaks first.
“Hi.” Like we just met in line at the coffee shop.
So, “Hi-hi,” I stammer. Her wet hair shifts shades of red and brown. She looks me straight in the eye. Her words soft but urgent. “There’s a child coming.”
I’m looking up and down the shore scanning for kids. She touches my nose with her finger and turns my face back toward hers. She’s closer now. I can feel her breath.
“Michael, there’s a child coming. Meet me at the river, after dark, downtown under the blue bridge.”
In the absence of a tattoo bearing my name and feeling completely out my league, I blurt, “Need a ride?”
She takes a step back, the corner of her mouth curling up in a smile. “I’m a mermaid there, Aquaman.”
She tosses me a pouch, turns toward the water, her seal-skin shawl drifts back down over her legs as they melt away into a tail. She pushes off into the breakers, leaps into the air and slips back into the sea just as the sun breaks the horizon. I barely remember the drive home. My phantasmagoric morning might be a dream, though I do have this pouch in my salty hands. It contains what looks like a bunch of frigging seaweed. My leg is screaming so I lay horizontal in bed, hoping the swelling recedes, postponing further consideration. Something about the pouch invokes sleep as the rivers and streams on the ceiling fall away.
Hours later, I am roused by a roaring in my head. The river is blocks away. I never heard it like this, like I’m in it, when I’m not in it. Instinctively I know it’s the peak of the ebb tide and sunset is coming. Pouch in my pocket, goggles still around my neck, I make way to the river and begin the walk north along the bank, to the blue bridge.
Ten minutes in, the pain is deep. It’s difficult hiding my limp from passersby. Don’t want questions. There’s a steep catwalk up and over the railroad tracks. The climb is excruciating. Not sure if I can make this one. Hands staying warm in my pockets, I hold the pouch tighter and feel an epiphany. The sound of water becomes comforting, reassuring, revealing that she, the water, travels with me always”. Pretty cool for seaweed.
The blue bridge is just ahead. The sun is setting opposite the moon, temperature dropping. Just want to get off my feet. Pain pounds my legs as I seat myself under the blue bridge. Waiting. I can still hear the rush of the ebb tide. The rising full moon pulls the river back out to sea while I’m holding back a flood of tears, thinking about that bottle of pain meds. I hear a voice beside or inside me... I can’t tell.
His long jatas twisted in a bundle on his head, one eye open, one eye squinting in the moonlight, he says, “You… You’re part of the water system.” I have a clouded memory of hearing those words on the beach one sunrise last year. Tell me twice. He drops his torn duffle bag and extends his hand. “Willis,” he says.
His hand is warm. “Okay there, Willis, I’m…”
Willis interjects, “Michael,” but I’m in too much pain to feel surprise. It’s cold and these legs have taken me down. Willis reaches in his bag revealing a familiar seal-skin shawl.
“Stay warm, Michael,” he says, draping it around my shoulders. I recall him from this morning. The man in the sand. He acknowledges with a nod as if he could hear the thought. Twilight ends as I feel the shawl’s grip, and we are under the power of the moon.
“Journey ahead, Michael. There’s a child coming,” he says. “You won’t need these,” removing the goggles from my neck. He places them on the ground, the moonlight beaming through the lenses at his feet. Looking up, I see his dreads unbundle with a life of their own, like Kristina’s shawl. Beautiful locks, touching the ground.
Willis is pointing to the pouch Kristina gave me and I hand it over in disbelief. I’m game for anything. Had no idea when this day started that I’d be hanging with a homeless angel with magic dreads in the cold, waiting on a mermaid named Kristina. Still, I hear the currents in the ebbing river. In the roar, I pick up Kristina, tunneling against the tide, making her way to the blue bridge. I feel her angst when she leaps high into the air and our eyes meet midflight.
Splashing down, she high-tails it directly to us on the bank. Swimming in place, she intones, “To the sea with you Michael, while the tide is ebbing. There is a child coming.” I look at Willis.
“The water is your blue bridge, Michael.” Willis touches the pouch to my forehead then empties the contents over my shawl. It unfolds its way down my body, the pain in my legs finally disappearing as they merge into a magnificent tail. Willis nudges me into the river with his foot and I slip into the water beside Kristina.
I can see and hear everything as she leads the way just under the surface. Willis is distant on the banks. He speaks but I know his mouth isn’t moving. Through my continued astonishment, I hear, “She is sad and broken, Michael, but you won’t see her tears under the water. Learn your new legs. I’ll be in touch soon.”
Swimming close behind her toward the ocean, untethered, I test my new tail and kick up a swirling undercurrent.
“Hurry,” she says, “while the moon is still far from the sun.”
Willis can talk me through this. Why is he abandoning me now? Reaching out, I find he is unable to hide his own pain.
I see him on the beach before his awakening. A young Kristina, surfboard under-arm, running out to the water during the riptide. Willis tries to stop her. She mocks him and head to the surf. Her board is seen hours later on the north beach, her body never found. In his tall proud frame, he carries guilt that he didn’t do more.
Deeper still, I see him standing over the body of his daughter, drowned in ankle-deep water, as Hurricane Katrina blew across his previous life. I know about “if only” kind of pain. If only I had not gotten on that motorcycle. If only I had been a better father, Willis thinks.
“Willis,” I call.
“I sense you prying, Michael. One day, I’ll teach you some etiquette.”
In our mental conversation, it’s difficult keeping up with Kristina. I’m floundering and she’s in a hurry.
“She lost her life that day, Michael. Like my daughter.”
“She’s right next to me, Willis” I say, confused.
“There are others like her, Michael. In the sea and on the streets of this chosen city. After her death, they wrapped her in a shawl, hoping to save her. The shawls, the moon, and the sun have a connection. They are a triangle.”
“She must be reborn. Reborn at the well. This city is special, Michael. Soon you will learn.”
“Why didn’t you do it, Willis, a long time ago? You had a second chance to save this life!”
I know that stung, and he felt me take it back.
“It must be at aphelion, when the moon is far from the sun. Today. Only you can save her life now, Michael. By way of the water, where I can’t go.”
I hear the ebb tide slowing and see slow-moving manatees and curious dolphins swim by for a closer look. My skills improving, I catch up with Kristina with a powerful push of my tail. I point up and we surface, tails swimming in place.
“Hurry,” she says.
“Kristina, I’m beyond grateful for this miracle but why me?”
“Michael, you are in the sea at sunrise even on the coldest days. It’s where you offer up your suffering. I know you felt me around you.”
“When the moon is far from the sun?” I asked.
“Yes, Michael. I need you to take my place for a while. In return, I take your pain.”
“And a bit of my equipment,” I say looking down at my tail, curling back and forth holding me up out of the water, in a mermaid doggie paddle. I like it, notwithstanding certain missing parts.
“You get them back on land, Aquaboy.” She knows where my thoughts go next, and a sardonic smile crosses her face. “And no, that’s not going to happen.”
Her humor fades with the ebb tide. “Just protect me, Michael,” she said with a sudden change in mood. Sad and broken, like Willis said.
“We need to get to the island under the red bridge, please.” Kristina is tired, and above the water I can see tears rolling down her cheek, dancing with a life of their own, like Willis’s dreads. She reaches out her hand and touches my face.
“Let’s go, Michael. Please,” she begs.
Swimming down river, Kristina’s velocity decreases so much that I’m pulling ahead of her. I pause until she catches up. I stay close beside her. Passing under the green bridge I surface and see, high up, leaning over the railing, Willis. His long jatas, alive, twisting and curling.
“Hurry, Michael,” he says.
Ahead is a red bridge and the island underneath. A river taxi passes nearby, spotlight on, the passengers leaning out, seeing my head bobbing in the water. I feel the tug of Kristina’s weak hand underneath. She’s slighter, her frame diminished, her once-broad shoulders sunken. Feeling her urgency, I submerge and head to the island.
I see the red bridge in ripples from below. The ebb current is easing so we have to work harder to move ahead, Kristina struggling.
Approaching the island, Kristina tries to go deep. I wrap my hand around hers and assist. I feel the limp hand of the woman who saved me. She points to a cave-like opening below the oyster beds under the island. I swim through the arch, towing Kristina. Rising through a well, I see moonlight. Feet from the surface, she squeezes my hand. We emerge in a small pond in the middle of the island, surrounded by trees. I see the shadow from what looks like a monument, but it’s too dark to see clearly.
As I near the pond’s edge, I think of my legs—I need them now. Instantly, my tail curls up, back into the seal-skin shawl Willis gave me under the blue bridge. I can feel my pain coming back as I pull Kristina onto the shore under the moonlight. My feet steady, I lay her gently on the sand, feeling the December chill. Her body shivers and shakes.
“We’re here,” I whisper.
She opens her eyes. “You and I: we are part of the water system.” The pitch of her voice changes with every syllable.
Kristina’s tail withers, changing to a seal-skin brown. I cradle her in my lap, watching her body transform in the moonlight as she whispers and moans.
“I’ll take care of you, Kristina,” I whisper, sealing the contract.
Kristina lets out a sigh. Her body shrinks from my lap into my arms until I am cradling an infant. I wrap her tightly in her shawl. We curl up in the cold winter moonlight. I think of checking in with Willis, but it can wait. There is nothing to do but sleep and keep my friend warm. Sometimes in the night, she cries.
The sun rising, I notice the moon hasn’t set yet and it’s no longer opposite the sun. Kristina is asleep in my arms, her whimpers reassuring me. On the other side of the pond, I see the monument. Cradling Kristina, I walk to the concrete slab standing under the trees. Boats pass the island but I feel safe in the cover.
“Mud Island,” it says, chiseled and eroded. “July 4th, 1960, County Commission.” Well over a half a century since its dedication, the island remains undeveloped.
Kristina is restless in my arms. I hold her close under my shawl. My legs hurt, even under her slight weight. I notice the tattoo on her foot is still there. Hearing a sound beyond the trees, I tighten my grip, but realize it’s Willis. He is tall, dark, and beautiful, backlit by the river sunrise. His dreads dance in the light. His long legs cast shadows like trees.
“Michael. I take it you’re okay?”
I knew he had the answer before my lips moved.
“Why here, Willis?” I ask, nodding to the monument.
“It’s no coincidence the island was dedicated on July 4, 1960.” Willis looks to the horizon. “On that day, that year, the Earth was its farthest distance from the sun, much like the moon was yesterday. We don’t understand why, but it’s when things happen for us.”
“Us?” I think, annoyed that I still don’t know everything.
“Soon, Michael,” he says, gently responding to my thoughts.
“Today, I give you what you need to care for Kristina.” He drops a small duffle bag to the ground. “Food and a journal. It tells you what you need to know.”
I glance at the pond, thinking I can swim her back.
“She cannot breathe in the water now, Michael. There is a kayak for you on the east shore. Paddle back with her. Go home.”
“And you, Willis?”
“I walk, Michael.”
“What will become of Kristina?”
“She will grow fast. Even now she’s changing. We will help you.”
He senses my question and motions to the red bridge. High above the trees, three figures are looking our way. I can tell they are like Willis, even from here.
“How long, Willis?”
“Summer, when the Earth is farthest from the sun, and all the angels come.” His jatas curl in waves. “In the meantime, take care of her. Tell her stories from the rivers and streams in your ceiling,” he says, disappearing into the trees.
Kristina turns her cheek to my warm chest. She’s already feeling heavier. My legs ache as I find my way to the kayak. Cradling her on the duffle bag in the bow, I push off, looking up at the red bridge.
I see the three, Willis beside them. All the angels, watching over this chosen city. Where those who suffer can be saved, and those who are saved, save the suffering, when the moon is far from the sun.
To be continued …
Etchings by Mila Furstova. Artist and designer for Coldplay’s Ghost Stories album and her new exhibition, “Motherhood”. Learn more at furstova.com.
Title illustration by Christina Boykin, Photography and other illustrations: Jim Alabiso
Original title photo by John Jay, and model, Dori Davis.
For Willis, Jay, Diego D., Mila F., Michael G., Kristin K., Christina B., Barbara C., Tim F., John J., Beth S., and you.