The river was low thanks to a month-long drought in the area. Its rocky, muddy shores, exposed to the heat of the sun, were hard-baked into brick-like slopes which crumbled under the slightest pressure. We were here to camp for the weekend, and I, for one, was looking forward to relaxing in the cool, soft current of the Satine. It was a popular destination for family vacations, but we were one of only three or four small groups this weekend, and I wondered why there weren’t many people around. This time of year usually saw the campground fully booked. I shrugged it off as we set up camp and gazed longingly at the crystal clear water peeking out at me from the end of a nearby dirt path.
“Jess, hello? Earth to Jessica!” My mother tapped my shoulder, asking, “Didn’t you hear me? I called your name, like four times!”
“Sorry, Mom. I guess I was a little distracted. What’s up?”
“We need some firewood. Can you go gather some sticks for us?”
Gathering sticks. It used to be my favorite camping ‘job’ when I was a kid. Now, I just groaned. “Mo-om. Can’t we just buy firewood like regular people?”
Mom rolled her dark brown eyes and raised her bushy brows – a sign I recognized as saying, ‘Watch it young lady. You’re on thin ice.’ “We are not paying people for what Mother Nature offers us for free. It only takes a little bit of effort. C’mon, Jess. Let’s make this a great last vacation before you leave for college. Please.”
And, there came the guilt trip. My little brother, Jaime, looked over at my mother and I. I could see he was worried we’d start fighting again, as had been the case off and on for the past few months. Just the idea of my leaving home for college states away was taking its toll on us all. I bit my lip and smiled, “Okay, Mom. I’ll go get some sticks. Yo, Jamie, you wanna come help your big sis?”
Jamie’s grin grew, stretching from one goofy ear to the other. “You betchya!” He jumped up from where he’d been playing with his Tonka trucks and ran to my side. As we walked away from the campsite, Jamie tucked his little hand into mine, effectively melting my cold, hard heart. I smiled down at him, knowing I’d miss the little punk’s tiny doe-eyed face when I left in the Fall. We headed for the tree-lined dirt path, and all the while I kept the peekaboo view of the Satine river in my sights. When we could carry no more sticks, we returned to the campsite to make our delivery.
“Wow! Great job, guys!” Dad rushed over to help a struggling Jamie with his load. “Jess, follow me, and drop ’em over here by the pit, ok?”
“Yep,” I did as I was told, then turned to my parents, “I wanna go check out the river, is that cool?”
“Sounds pretty neat-o to me!” came the groan-able Dad-joke.
Again, Mom rolled her eyes, this time at her husband, “Yes, Jessie, that’s fine. It’s getting late, though, so be back before the sun sets, please.”
I saluted, “Aye, aye, Cap’n.” Sometimes, I think her eyes might really roll right out of her head.
I grabbed my bag containing my sketchpad and notebook and headed off down the trail once more. This time, I was determined to make it to that rocky shoreline. The river was a bit further than it had seemed from the campsite, but I was a strong hiker and had faith I’d be perfectly fine getting there and back. The way down way pretty easy. I basically slid down the slope like it was a bumpy slide, coming to rest just before the water’s edge. I was at a sharp bend in the river. Trees shrouded the landscape, so my only view was the small curve of shallow, crystal clear water and the immense greenery surrounding it. With little sunlight filtering through, it was much darker than the open field where we were camping.
About 20 yards away, I noticed an odd shape sticking up out of the waist-deep water. At first, I thought it was just an oddly-shaped rock. Then, I swear, I saw it move. Curious, I inched closer, trying not to make the water splash too much. As I got nearer to the object, I began to make out more details. Whatever it was, it was covered in scales and moss. I stopped trudging through the water and stood stock-still as I studied it. At first, I thought the current was playing tricks on my eyes. With the rise and fall of the small waves, it almost seemed as if the thing was… breathing?
In shock, I gasped aloud and nearly lost my footing. When I regained my balance and looked back, my suspicions were confirmed. Strands of algae and moss in dark, muted greens and browns whipped through the air as the being spun her head in my direction. Large, black eyes grew impossibly wider, and she let out a warbling screech from her piscine maw. Then, with one quick, graceful leap, she dove into the depthless water. The last I saw of her was a ‘T’-shaped tail slapping the water’s surface, leaving massive ripples that disappeared around the bend ahead. I could hardly believe what I’d just seen. And, there was no way anyone would believe me. I hurried to the river’s edge and whipped out my sketchbook, quickly drawing the figure I’d seen. Even if no one ever believed me, I would never let myself forget I had witnessed one of Mother Nature’s biggest mysteries – freshwater mermaids.