A Father’s Guide to the Sea

By Caroline C. Duda

Before her, you are blessed with boys. There is nothing to fear with them; mermaids have long since become outnumbered in these parts and you do not intend to allow your sons to become sailors.

But your little girl is not so little any longer. She has grown from an infant wrapped in the softest blankets, nursed before the fire, to a toddler bright and inquisitive.

She will take her first unsteady step when you are away from home. Only your wife will watch her progress across the uneven floorboards that day, lifting her back to her feet when she falls. In a matter of months, she will master walking, soon after, navigating the floor at a run.

At the first hint of spring, she will be allowed into the cottage’s small garden. With the help of her mother, she will pick the few flowers that push through the frozen ground, crowding the edges of the yard. She will be led on walks through the town, her small hand held securely in another’s. 

There will come a day that you allow your two most trusted sons to look after her. They will brush her hair when she wakes in the morning, untangling the knots that sleep makes, creating new ones when they try their hands at braiding. They will dress her and take her to town.

They will guide her down the steep path, slowing their pace to be sure that she does not stumble on loose gravel, heading to the center of the village, to the toy shop they love best. The eldest will be the first to exclaim, “Look! A new model airplane!”

They will crowd closer to the right-hand corner of the glass front, their sister’s hands sliding from theirs. They will not notice when her attention is caught by the sights all around her, by the vibrant reds and earth-tone browns of the shop doors on either side of this one and the smells from the next avenue over. 

Her brothers will not notice her disappearance until the younger of the pair nods to the price tag affixed to the plane, gesturing to empty pockets.

When they turn, they will find the space between them vacant, and their palms, no longer warmed by the skin of their baby sister, will feel cold.

If they hurry, they will find her near the water. If they listen, they may hear the faint strains of a melody. Though it is unfamiliar, all but hidden beneath the noise of the town, it lures their sister forward, loud to her sensitive ears. 

One of the boys will shout as her foot first touches the water, his voice thin and frightened. If you are lucky, he will shout loud enough, desperately enough, that his voice breaks the hold that the melody has on her.     


If you succeed in protecting your daughter from the perils of music that drifts as the mists do in this part of the world, you have only just begun a journey that will last years. One danger diminishes only to make room for another.

Children grow quickly at this age; your daughter is no exception. While you struggle to earn the money necessary to replace shoes that are too tight after a month or two, to purchase fabric to craft into new clothing, she no longer waits for her mother or an older sibling to take her hand before she sets out from your home.

In those hours you work, in those hours her siblings sit in classes that she is still too young to attend, she will explore the cobbled streets and shoreline.

She will muddy her stockings in the village pastures, stroking the mane of a horse that catches her eye. She will dirty her hands tracing patterns in the dust on shop fronts and searching stretches of beach for a unique piece of sea glass or a whole seashell in just the right shade of cream.

Because she is curious, she will wander where others do not, where there are no footprints in the sand.  She will be the first to scramble over a cluster of rocks, their sharp edges worn down by wind. She will scrape the palms of her hands and barely notice. The sand will slide between her toes.

When she stumbles across the pools of water caught behind the rocks, she will discover the thing that keeps you awake long into the night.

He will look much younger than he is, several years older than she, not yet as old as either of her brothers. He will not resemble the strangers you have warned her about. His friendly wave and his greeting will not bring to mind the wicked creatures she has been told to avoid. 

She will kneel beside the pool where he is submerged, and when he asks to see the shells that weigh down her pockets, she will flatten her hands over them, possessive, secretive.

“I’ll trade you,” he’ll say.

“What have you got?”

She will not think that anything he has to offer can match the finery that she has spent the day collecting, but when his hands rise again from the water, one palm will cradle a pearl.

“What is it?” she’ll ask, though she will have already snatched it, leaving half a dozen cracked shells in its place.

That evening, she will hide it beneath her pillow. What remains of the sea shells, the odd piece of sea glass, the smooth pebbles that the surf tossed to the shore, will be placed on the mantelpiece, as her treasures generally are.

She will return to the tide pools. Each day that she visits, she will find him closer to the shore, closer to the open ocean. On the last day of summer, she will kneel on a slab of rock that juts into the sea.

“Have you brought me something?” she will ask, raising her voice above the whistling wind.

He will swim closer to drop the day’s gifts into her lap. Two shells, the undersides delicate and opaque. When the dying sun lights on them, they will seem liquid with each color of the rainbow.

“Is that all?”

“I have more at my home.” He will hold his hand out to her, but she will not take it.               


When, finally, your child has grown to adulthood, do not yet think her safe. When her red hair has curled past her shoulders and halfway down her back, when she stands taller than your wife, do not think her mind hardened to youthful legends. 

One afternoon, like many days before this, she will take her books along to read in the privacy of the coves, for women her age value solitude, time for thought. The reflection of her hair off the water and the delicate arches of her feet beneath the surface will draw the mermen to her, and when they arrive, they will not offer charms or song.

Some will tempt with their good looks, with brown hair, eyes the color of oxidized copper, skin sun-touched. She will see through the delicacy of a turned wrist, a finely-muscled torso. She will pull her feet from the water, draw them beneath her skirt. She will not allow herself to be enchanted by long, tapered fingers and smooth palms.

Breathe a sigh of relief, for you will see your daughter again. She will hurry home for supper, free of fickle mermen who will look for easier prey elsewhere.

But one day you will find an empty place at your table. Your ears will strain for the sound of footsteps that will not sound on the path to the cottage door. Instead, your daughter will draw her legs to her chest, and in doing so, allow the cunning man closer. His scales will shine as he closes the distance between himself and the girl you believe you have raised so carefully. He will flick his tail beneath the water, gently, and the ripples that race across the surface of the sheltered stretch of sea will erase all thoughts of returning home.    

His eyes will light on the book that has fallen open, forgotten in the wake of his sudden presence. Though it is sandy, the edges and spine wet, he will recognize the rudimentary illustrations done in shading pencil and narrow-tipped pen.

 “Do they interest you?” he will ask, lifting his eyes to your daughter’s face.

She will blush, nod after a moment. His voice is nearly regal, not rough as she imagined it would be. She will admit that she loves the sea. The tension in her muscles will lessen. One foot will slip back into the water.

He will touch the nearest picture with his fingertips. A seahorse. “You do not do him justice.”

“You have seen one?” she will ask eagerly.

“I have known many. All more colorful, more elegant, than your sketches can show.”      

He will tell her of the other animals that her drawings attempt—of the schools of fish that cluster just beneath the swell of the waves, of the hermit crabs that rarely venture out of the shallows. Her eyes will widen, her body bend toward him so that she might catch each precious word. A single lock of her hair will brush his shoulder, warmed by the sun.

 “Would you care to see?” he will ask.

Her foot will touch his side, either of its own accord or encouraged by the currents. She will not be repulsed by the feel of sleek scales blending to flesh. 


Caroline C. Duda is a MFA student at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. She has lived in six states and one foreign nation, but currently resides in Pennsylvania when not working on her degree. This is her first publication.

Published on March 29, 2008 at 3:07 pm  Leave a Comment  

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