The Walk of the Mermaids by Michelle Nott


I told them I didn't want to go. The air is too cold. The wind hurts my cheeks. I'm safe here at home. Besides, I have nothing to wear. They didn't budge, just swayed a little bit when the octopus waved over to us. He's been our neighbor since as long as I can remember. Mr. Brasfort used to carry all of us mer-children to the great big school shell before we were big enough to swim on our own. Sometimes on our way home, he'd give us a ride by spiraling us around and up and down until the other schools of fish let out. We would all then swim back to our coral, do our experiments, eat seaweed and fall asleep. I was so happy then. I am happy now, too, that I no longer have to go to Primary Shell. But, now, my parents want me to go to High Shell... that is not even a shell! “It's right above us on shore,Meredith,” they tell me. “It's only an extra 10 minute swim.” And then another 15 minutes by foot. I do not even know how to walk! “You'll have all summer to practice.” Mother says. I don't see how. The beaches are packed during school holidays. Everyone will see me stumbling onto the beach. “But no one gets up early in the hot months,” Father tells me. “You'll have several hours by yourself.” They say I won't be the only one. My classmate, Nelson, will also go to Beach School. Mother swims me up in the morning. The sun catches our eyes at the first breaking wave. I snap my fingers to Nelson who is back-flipping while his mother files her nails against the break wall. The lighthouse stands like a red and white arrow, its flesh aiming for another blue world opposite of mine. The four of us join arms halfway between the lighthouse and the beach. Our mothers give us a few tips. “Be on the rocks as soon as the sun is up. You must sit out until your scales are completely dry.” “As you pull yourself up, the scales will flake away.” “Swiftly tie your wrap-around skirt. Your cousin, who has already gone off to college, has left clothes deep in the cave. You'll dress there every morning. There are also shorts and trousers for Nelson.” “You must moisten your legs to get your fins back.” “We'll wait for you behind the lighthouse.” “Good luck!” Off they go. We can still hear our mothers chit chat until their hair sinks like golden seaweed below the surface. But how do we walk? Nelson and I look at each other. A gray-haired man bops down the beach. We flutter our tails quickly behind some rocks at the entrance of the cave. Nelson offers me a seaweed bar. I hand him a coconut shell. “Wow! Where did you find this?” he asks. I tell him about the boat that was rocking around during last moon's storm. A big crate fell into the sea and floated down not far from my grandfather's coral. “How did you know you could drink from them?” I explain how my grandfather used to be a Walker. Then, he saw my grandmother swimming and fell in love. “Was it love at first sight?”

So they say. He was a sailor who had gone all around the world. From Cardiff to Brisbane I was told. “That's a straight line.” I remind him it's not for people with land in their way. Our fins dry as we finish our breakfast snack. Still not knowing how to walk, we pull ourselves along the rocks with our arms until we get into the cave. The walls almost smell like home. I find an orange skirt and tie it loosely around my waist – just like dressing my dolls Grandfather had carved for me. “These have a tail too,” Nelson says as he stands up. I tell him he has two legs in one pant leg. Leaning himself along the wall of the cave, he slips down and out of the trousers for one more try. I tell him that the vacation crowd would be awake soon, so we better get practicing. “I remember how that man was doing it.” Nelson bounces from one leg to another without going very far. His arms flap up and down like a sick seagull. I tell him to slow down his movements but he loses his balance before hearing me. I stand up in the narrowest part of the cave where I can put each hand against a wall. I pick up one foot, then put it back down. I pick up the other foot, then put it down. “You're not going anywhere either, Meredith!” I tell him I have to get the feel of these legs. Grandfather had said something about heels then toes. But, what's a heel and what's a toe, I hadn't figured it out yet. Nelson sits in the sand. “Look how the little bits on my feet wiggle. Isn't it funny?” I tell him to stand back up and put his arm around my shoulder. With four supporting legs, we are balanced. Then, I tell him at the count of three, we will step out with our outer leg – my left, his right. One. Two. Three. Our legs swing forward then back around us. “Ouch!” Nelson's elbow hits a rock. I tell him to get back up. We try stepping with our inner leg – my right, his left. We bend our knees this time, swing our feet forward and let them fall onto the ground. We are still standing but have no idea what to do with the leg positioned behind. “When I say three, drag your leg forward. One. Two. Three.” We slide our outer legs – my left, hist right – up to meet their partners. We stand. We continue this motion until out of the cave. The sun has already heated the rocks under our feet. Blue and red parasols stripe the scenery, one by one. Our legs shake. Our frowns quiver. We fall off the rocks. Our legs, useless in the water, quickly scale back into shape. We aim for the lighthouse and jump out to startle our mothers. “Oh, there you are.” “How did it go?” “We could use more practice.” I agree with Nelson. “Of course. As your grandfather always says, 'Rome wasn't built in a day.' I have always wondered who Rome was.” A wave reaches over me like a giant glove just as I dive down to find grandfather. “What do you mean, 'How many days did it take Rome to walk?'?” I told Grandfather what Mother had said. I tell him about Nelson and I needing more practice, but want to know how much more. “You can't just dry out your tail and expect to walk. I keep telling your parents that.” I ask Grandfather if he would come up to the beach and show us how he used to walk. “I'm sorry. I can't,” he says and swims off. Right before shutting my shell and falling asleep, I ask Mother why Grandfather can't teach Nelson and I to walk. “He never taught me either, but I want you to have this opportunity that I didn't.” I ask her why it was so important for me to walk if she had never walked on shore herself. She has a good life here in the sea. She doesn't need to walk.

“But if I had learned to walk, I would have discovered so much more.” I tell her that I already have enough to learn down here. What's the point of going up there? “You don't have to stay on shore forever. But what you do learn can help you understand what is down here. Besides, your grandfather used to be a Walker. That world is a part of who you are.” What do you think? * What sounds odd about the title? * What has a parent or a teacher ever encouraged you to do that you really did not want to do? * What were some of your feelings when you got started?

Part 2 My crabby friends pinch me awake. I open my eyes, rubbing off some salt. Go pinch someone else, I say. “We'll teach you to walk.” Sideways? No, thank you. Before reaching the first morning sparkles of sun, Nelson and I meet, grab hands and swim to the rocks in front of the cave. The same gray-haired man passes our view. “Do we have to go as fast as he does?” Probably, unless we see someone else doing it differently. We eat our breakfast. Our fins dry up. We crawl into the cave and put on some clothes. Nelson's pants are the same color as sand. I choose a shorter, coral-colored skirt this time. Yesterday's orange skirt dried but I like the idea of changing clothes everyday. After always being in the same skin, wearing new skirts and colors feels fun. Nelson and I resume our positions from our last attempt – his left leg, my right leg. Then, my left, his right. Our drag quickens then slumps. “Let's bend the back knee like the front knees were and bring them up ahead.” Starting with feet together, we bend our inner knees upward and step down. Then we bend our back knees and swing those lower legs forward. Standing, we wondering what to do next. Our arms ache from holding onto each other so tightly. “We're going to have to let go as some point, Meredith.” I suggest we do three steps together, then let go. My left, his right. My right, his left. His elbow relaxes from my shoulder. My left, his right. We let go. My right, his left. Our arms sprawl like albatross wings. Like sand sculptures, we stop. “What do we do now?” I tell Nelson to just keep going. We do. When we get to the opening of the cave, we lean on some rocks and let the sun warm our cheeks. To get to the beach, we sit on our backsides and scoot ourselves up and over some rocks. No blankets were down yet so we stood up. Holding hands this time, we get going. My left, his right. My right, his left. His fingers relax their grip on my palm. My left, his right. We let go. My right, his left. My left, his right. My right, his left. Ouch! I step on a broken bottle. My legs give way and pull me down to the sand. Nelson stops but doesn't turn around. We never thought about how to change directions. Shutters of a cliff house bang open. I reach over to Nelson and push my hand into the back of his knee. He falls. We have to go, I say.

Rolling into the tide still in our clothes, we're underwater before the lady at the window finishes rubbing her eyes. “Do you think she saw us?” Nelson blurts out as soon as we reach the lighthouse. “Who saw you?” Mother asks Nelson but looks into my eyes. I told her about the lady up in the house. “Be careful, ok?.” Nelson and I nod then swim down to my coral for lunch. Grandfather is already at the table. We are the only mer-family to have a real wooden table, although slightly rotten. Grandfather found it in a sunken boat. My skirt's weight floats around me. I quickly untie it and crumple it into a ball. “What's that?” he inquires. I tell him how Nelson and I swam home quickly so no one would see us. We didn't have time to hang up our clothes. “That would be disastrous!” he pointed out. I said that it would be more embarrassing than catastrophic. He smoothed out his beard all the way to his waist. His eyes crinkled under brows. “What's it like?” I wonder what he is talking about. “What is it like to walk?” I describe how the wet sand oozes in between the bits on the front of my feet. I describe the relaxing warmth I feel when I am on dry sand. When my real legs get wet, I get a chill up my spine. Grandfather smiles from one side of his mouth. His lips part as if about to say something, then Mother carries over an armful of seaweed salad. I spend the rest of the afternoon with my little sister. We chase fish and watch them scurry out of their formations when we get close enough to touch them. “Will I have to walk one day?” she asks. I say she probably will. “Does it hurt?” I say my muscles are sore but not painful. “Is it difficult?” If it were easy, I wouldn't have to practice so much. “I wish you would still be in my school next year.” I take her arm and swing her around. When I let go, she twirls backwards into Grandfather's chest. “Come with me, you two.” His voice isn't mad but rather decided. Sister and I flap our tails behind him until we get to his coral. We lie down on the sand in his front room. “I want to show you something.” He pulls out a rusty box. The latch does not quite hook. Water-marked pages of black and white pictures nearly float away from us. “This is how you stand.” He shows us a little boy in long pants. A little girl, almost his age, has her arm around him. “This is how you run.” An older boy poses in short pants. One leg is bent high in front of him while his other leg trails behind. “Those are shoes,” he answers when I point to the things on the boy's feet. “That's enough for today. Time to go home.” “Where did he get all those pictures?” sister wonders out loud. I remind her how much he likes to hunt for souvenirs whenever a boat sinks. We can barely see Mother through the foggy water when we notice her arms rotating, our signal for ... shark!

Sister and I push each others hands away. We swim in opposite directions. She squirms into a cave. I dive behind a planted anchor. He can't bite through it. The sound of his teeth hitting and scraping the iron makes my jaw clinch. Luckily, he is a young shark and tires after a few attempts at pushing the anchor out of the way. The coast is clear, as Grandfather likes to say. Sister comes by to take my hand. I tell her that maybe there are advantages of living in a walking world after all. What do you think? * What tips would you give Meredith and Nelson to walk better or to run? * Why do you think Grandfather does not want to go to shore to help them learn to walk? * When you try something new, do you like to do it on your own or with someone? (with whom?)

Part 3 This morning, I swim straight past Nelson and yell out for him to meet me in the cave. He is out of breath when he gets to our rock. We start our routine: eating breakfast while our legs dry out, slipping into some clothes, holding arms until we're out of the cave. Nelson and I laugh more with each other than at each other these days. The sun's heat dries us out quicker each morning. We manage to walk by holding hands or by holding elbows until we arrive at the beach. I suggest we let go completely for ten steps. Nelson looks at me as if I had told him to climb up the lighthouse. I reassure him that we are ready. If we do not try, we will never know. Morning heat warms our cheeks, pulling us forward. I look at Nelson who is not looking at me. “All right, Meredith. Let's go.” Our arms stretch out, my right palm against his. We agree to the count of three...and go. Right leg. Left leg. Right leg. Left leg. At exactly ten steps we stop. We turn to each other and smile. “Hey! We turned!” Nelson notices. This is getting fun. We continue to walk ten paces, then turn right. We walk twenty paces then turn left. Our bare feet make a lovely design in the sand. Shutters open. My eyes explode and stop Nelson's feet in their tracks. We are too far up the beach to roll back into the waves. “Just sit down,” he whispers. We sit. We look behind us to see if the lady is still at her window. She is. We look again. She is gone. We look one more time to be sure. She is back, this time, carrying a chair. She sits down and lifts her feet onto the balcony rail. “She's going to be there all morning,” worries Nelson. Parasols pop open. Blankets flap down onto the sand. Walkers surround us. “Our mothers are surely waiting for us by now. What do we do, Meredith?” Let's go. I say it, but still sit a minute to hear it. Nelson grabs my hand. He pushes himself up onto his feet. “We just have to go back to the rocks.” He extends his hand and pulls me up. We raise our chins, steady our balance, and take our first steps on a crowded beach. Ten paces, twenty paces, thirty, forty, fifty... We are at the rocks.

Relieved to sit down, we flip our legs to the other side of the rocks and walk back into the cave to hang up our clothes. We jump back into the sea. With arms stretched out, we reach for each other. “We walked!” We did! Our tails grow back their scales and swim us to the lighthouse quicker than ever. “What took so long?” Both mothers shout. “We were just taking a walk.” Nelson smiles. “Go tell your Grandfather!” Mother suggests. I see Grandfather, from the distance of a whale, sitting on an anchor. I flip flap myself excitedly down to him. Old photographs sit in his hands like playing cards. One walking woman looks just like Grandmother. I never knew she walked. “When you were still a little guppy," Grandfather explained, "I took Grandmother back to shore to celebrate the day we first met.” She must have really liked that. In the photograph, both of them look like young Walkers sitting on a terrace at tea time. Their grins rise as sharply as clams. “That afternoon, she stepped off the curb to go see a souvenir shop. Can you imagine a mermaid wanting to buy a seashell in a shop? Just as her foot hit the road, a car sped by.” I gasp, not knowing exactly what a car is. “Her foot was crushed. I carried her back to the beach and into the sea.” I bet she never wanted to go to shore again. “She loved going to the shore. But, her tail couldn't grow back properly into shape. She was never able to swim to the top of the sea again.” That's why you never wanted Mother to walk. But, I am learning. And, I like it. Grandfather covers me with his arms. Although we are deep in the sea, I can feel warm drips of water on my forehead. Are you ok, Grandfather? “I am ok because I have you - on land or sea.” I squeeze myself tighter against his chest. What do you think? *How do you feel when you accomplish a goal? Who do you like to run and tell? *What have you learned that you really weren't sure you could? *Mer-people must watch out for sharks, for example. What are you careful about when you are at the beach and in the ocean?

Part 4 Nelson is not at the lighthouse this morning. “There's his father on his way.” Mother waves her tail beside her. He excuses Nelson from practice. “He got stung by an eel last night. Nothing serious. But, his right fin will have to heal completely before going out in the sun.” “Thanks for letting us know. Come, dear, we'll come back another time.”

I can go today. I can walk on my own. “Really?” Her left eyebrow arches. I tell her how school starts soon. I tell her I need to do this. She nods and reminds me to be back at the lighthouse by the time the sun is directly above us. Blowing her a kiss, I kick my tail toward the shore. The blue sky feels like a blanket to me. It looks warm even though when I get to the cave entrance, the atmosphere chills my scales. I scurry inside for a skirt. I find a pair of shorts. Perched on the rocks out of view, I eat my breakfast bar and my last coconut. With my tail dried up, I reach for my clothes of the day. The green fabric ends just above my knees. I chuckle out loud imagining I have seaweed wrapped around my legs. My hands cross over each other as I walk against the wall of the cave. The cool dampness encourages me to let go. One hand at a time, I do. I stand. I inhale the salty air and watch the fog it makes when I breath out. The sand feels colder under my toes than the first days of walking. At least, I think, I have figured out what toes are. And my heel, it sinks just enough into the beach to push me off. A bubbly feeling in my stomach tells me to not go any farther. I ignore it. If I want to walk, I have to walk. Up and down the beach I go. With every aisle I make with my foot prints, I approach the beach blankets and parasols. The elderly man Nelson and I see every morning has already passed me twice. I don't know if I'll ever go as fast as him, but I may try. Children hurry past me. Mothers and fathers call after them, chasing them with plastic bottles. I wonder what the white stuff is all over their skin. Many Walkers are not even walking, but lying on long chairs or blankets. The parasol shadows create a kaleidoscope: shades of brown, stripes of blues, reds and oranges. In between, legs of all lengths run, walk and crawl. The sun beats harder today. My head begins to ache. I sit down. I lie down. I fall asleep. “Is she ok?” “Just fine.” “Maybe she should stay here from now on.” Mother? “She'll go back to shore when she's ready.” That's Grandfather's voice. Where am I? “You're home, dear,” Mother says. “We were so worried.” I almost cough waking up underwater. Grandfather grins at me. “I'll go get your supper. You must be hungry.” Mother flaps past us toward the kitchen shell. Grandfather, did you...come for me? “I didn't know I still had it in me. After your mother waited an hour at the lighthouse, she came searching for help. Her voice bubbled and popped louder than ever.” Grandfather's eyes sunk low. “I had to go back up for you.” He explained how he went to our cave and found piles of dried scales. He then dried out his fins and looked around for some clothes. All he saw was the skirt I had left behind. So, feeling a bit silly, he stretched out his leg muscles, climbed over the rocks and headed for the beach. Grandfather recognized the lines of footprints as mine. He said Grandmother had paced back and forth the same way. After about ten rows, the prints stopped, right where I had. The Walkers had not noticed anything out of the ordinary. I was just a young girl in her shorts, asleep on the beach with a sunburn on half her face and the side of one leg. “You looked so much like your grandmother when I first met her,” he said. He picked me up in his arms and walked back to the cave. I did not even wake up while he massaged my legs in the sea.

“You have had an eventful day. You should stay among the corals tomorrow,” Mother warns. I can't wait to go back to the beach, but agree to rest a day or two until my sunburn heals. Just in time for the first day of school, Nelson returns to the lighthouse. “I'm not sure if I remember how to walk.” Don't be silly, remember what my grandfather always says - It's like riding a bike, once you learn you never forget. “What's a bike?” I don't know, but let's find out. What do you think? * Was Meredith right to go to the beach without Nelson? Why or why not? * Imagine Meredith and Nelson's first walk to school. What might be exciting for them? What might bother them? * Have you ever had to change schools or return to a previous school? How did you have to prepare? Were you excited or nervous?

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