My dearest Lydie,
By the time you find this letter, I will be returned to the sea.
These last months back on land have been filled with an unbearable duplicity. I have tried my best to remain your devoted husband, to tend to you as a man should tend to his wife, as I did without question and with absolute joy in the days and years before my voyage, but I can see that my charade has not served either of us well.
Some of what we told you all, our dear and most precious wives, about that bright and flawless day we set sail was true; we did indeed chart a course for Hope Island, and we did find the seas calm and forgiving. We did dine well on the ham and Indian pudding you packed for us, and we did ponder the future and all its promise under the vast, periwinkle sky.
But it is there that the truth stops. What transpired next, and for all the time afterward, we have hid from you, certain that our rapture would fade, or prove only the stuff of an extended dream. But we four now know that we cannot bury the truth of our hearts any longer. What has happened to me and my fellow sailors since that strange day can never be explained, let alone understood, for I myself can barely do either; yet there is no escaping it, any more than we can escape the beckoning of the sea, or the songs of our saviors who dwell just beneath its mighty waves and plead nightly for our return.
My dear wife, you know I am not a foolish man, nor one bereft of the truths of science; yet every rational thought has abandoned me. I have left you my log book, for the confession that it contains is an unspeakable one, which is why I can only put it to paper and hope that it will offer you and our son a modicum of peace after I am gone, even if it is only as a lasting tribute to my madness. Whatever the reason, you and Henry deserve better than a man whose heart has been torn from him and left to float among the waves like driftwood, sunbaked and weathered, parched of all its weight and worth.
I do not expect forgiveness in this lifetime or the next. But know that while I was on land, dry and human, I was truly blessed to be a husband and father.
Good-bye, dearest Lydia. May we all find our place on this earth, by land or by sea.
August, Present Day
Cradle Harbor, Maine
The little girl was breathless with excitement as she pushed through the fence of hedges toward the water’s edge, skinny freckled legs and lopsided red pigtails spinning in opposition as they disappeared into the fog.
Tess Patterson stood at the window and watched her nine-year-old neighbor make the same pilgrimage she’d been making almost every morning for the past week, but it was always the same at this time of year in Cradle Harbor. With the Mermaid Festival just five days away, every girl under the age of twelve—and a few girls above it—found herself helplessly swept up in the excitement of the town’s impending annual celebration, rushing to the surf to make sure she would be the first of her friends to find a mermaid’s purse washed up on the shore or to catch the faintest chime of what surely had to be mermaid song and not simply a mourning dove’s faraway call.
It was a feverish time, where for one long weekend the smells of blueberry custard and bonfires built with cedar starters would fill the air of the coastal village with such an insistent thickness that not even the sour scent of the lowest tide could overtake it. It was a time when the ocean was the warmest it would be all year, a time when inns teemed with guests and Puffin’s Good Basket would always run out of its famous whoopie pies before noon. Impetuosity ruled like some kind of stalled weather system, casting down showers of romantic stirrings that would quiet even the most notoriously discordant couples for a time and make friends of lifelong enemies. No wonder so many flocked from so far away to stand in the path of the storm.
Tess raised her coffee to her lips, blew across the top, then took a long sip, tasting the hint of clove she’d lately started to mix into her grounds. Even at twenty-five, she was still every bit that fanciful girl; her own heart still pounded while, ears perked and eyes wide, she crouched on the cold sand in the liquid light of dawn, turning at every tossed pebble, every gull’s squawk. But of course she’d been raised on the promise of fantasy and the certainty of fate. Nine years after losing her mother, Tess knew her belief in life’s magic was the legacy Ruby had left her with, one she treasured, no matter what the locals still whispered in her wake. And anyway, not everyone in Cradle Harbor thought she was a bad apple that hadn’t rolled far enough from the family tree.
Bedsprings groaned behind her. Tess turned from the window and smiled with relief at the sight of Pete Hawthorne, his broad back rising and falling with sleep.
Several times in the night, she’d felt the pangs of panic shake her awake, and she’d reached across the bed to make sure he was still there. Now in the soft light of early morning, there was no mistaking it. But it was always the way when they’d been apart too long. Her brain would need a few hours to catch up to her heart.
She hadn’t been in love with Pete forever, but most days it felt that way. In the months after her mother had drowned, Tess had been so lost, feeling so untethered and yet so desperate to attach herself to someone; then there he was—Pete Hawthorne, the golden boy of Cradle Harbor, the object of lust for every girl in town. And he’d chosen her.
Not that theirs had been a smooth road. The past year had been a particularly hard one. In January, after months of what Tess had been certain were advances toward a real commitment, he’d blindsided her by moving in with Angela Whelan. Sure that he’d regret the decision and come back to her, Tess had waited through their affair, much to the frustration of her stepfather Buzz, busying herself with work through the coldest winter months and an unusually wet spring.
But it had all been worth it. Just two nights before, Pete had arrived on her doorstep with the news that he and Angela weren’t working and that he was moving out of their apartment on Mercy Road. Tess had cooked him a mushroom omelet, and they’d made love three times. Tonight, she was making his favorite meal—seafood lasagna and pumpkin cheesecake. She’d special ordered the scallops and lobster meat from Russell’s Market. She’d cleaned her bathroom. She’d emptied the biscuit tin on her dresser and managed to find a pair of earrings that matched. After all these months of waiting, she had a date—a real-live, honest-to-God, shave-your-legs-all-the-way-to-your-ass date; the sort of date that came with a promise, an assurance of something more, something binding.
It was all the more reason Tess wanted to get an early start on the day. She would need most of the afternoon to prepare, and there were still three cottages that needed cleaning for incoming guests. Buzz would tell her that she didn’t have to help him. He’d insist that she finish her sculpture instead of sweeping out windowsills or scrubbing sinks, but Tess knew her stepfather could never manage the rentals on his own. It was the least she could do, considering that he never charged her rent on her cottage, or the shed he’d helped her turn into a woodworking studio when she’d lost her lease in town.
When Tess stepped out of the small yellow house, the morning air was damp and crisp with chill as it always was by the sea. The fog was still thick enough that she could barely see the tops of the rental cottages that stood on the other side of the driveway, each with an unobstructed view of the cove. The early mist would lift in a while, burn off like smoke, and give way to a humid August day. Until then, she would need more than just a thin T-shirt. She saw Pete’s navy sweatshirt draped over the arm of the wicker couch, and she tugged it on, sliding her bare feet into her unlaced sneakers. Above her, the collection of wind chimes dangled without touching, the air too still to incite their usual symphony, so she tapped them on her way down the stairs for good measure, and they rang out a brief but clear song.
She took her time crossing the lawn, through the dew-dusted grass to reach the shed, not caring that her toes were quickly soaked, squishing against the canvas with every step. Even cold feet wouldn’t bother her this morning. When Tess reached the garden shed at the bottom of the slope where her sign rocked gently on its bracket, she pulled the heavy door along its rusted rails and revealed her studio. The warm, coppery smell of her tools, followed by the leafy scent of fresh wood, rose up to greet her as she stepped inside. She pried off her sneakers, leaving them in the doorway to dry when the sun came up in full, and moved to her cluttered workbench where her most recent order—a sign for Poe’s Landscaping—lay buried, neglected, under weeks of dust.
The company had called twice to inquire about its status. Tess had promised it to them more than a week ago, and she was nearly done carving it, only one daylily to go, but in the last month her sign business had taken a backseat to another project. She picked up the chisels she’d sharpened the night before and crossed to the other side of the room where an ivory sheet hung over a bulky shape. Carefully, she pulled off the sheet to reveal a two-foot-tall wooden sculpture of a mermaid. Its form was still rough in places, looking more fish than female, but as she ran her fingers over the wood, Tess imagined it complete—how smooth the wood would become after she’d sanded it, how it would glow to a creamy tan with its finish coat of tung oil. For now, though, it was carved out just enough to create a basic shape, the only discernible part of the mermaid’s body being her curving, crescent tail and the upturned round of her still-featureless face.
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