Henry woke up, his face buried in his pillow, drool making his cheek stick to the fabric of the case. His shoulder was sore, his arm having been outstretched to the other side of the mattress all night. Stretched out, to where she used to lie.
He sat up, slowly, pushing himself upright while he listened to his elbow pop from the strain. Picking his glasses up off the nightstand, he shuffled over to the ensuite and looked at himself in the mirror.
I look like hungover Dracula, he thought, fumbling for his comb on the cluttered countertop. He cursed himself for letting the mess pile up. It had been two weeks since the funeral, and three since she was here to patiently pick up after him — not that she ever missed a chance to give him heck about it.
Having tamed his hair as much as it could be, he entered the kitchen to the chime of the coffee maker finishing its programmed brew. A glance at the machine quickly revealed something had gone horribly wrong.
“Damn,” Henry threw up his hands in surrender as he looked at the mess. He hadn’t shoved the pot fully into place, so the valve wasn’t open to let coffee flow through. A volcanic mess of grounds and coffee coated the machine and slopped off onto the countertop.
“Tea it is, then.”
The sun was just barely coming up, shining down on Ninga, Manitoba. He looked out the window, grateful that the whistle of the kettle brought some noise into the house besides that of his own steps. Looking out the window he saw his collapsible ice fishing shelter, folded up and sitting on the back patio, waiting for him, his rod already placed inside it. The boys had suggested he try to get into the old routine which, during the winter, meant near daily ice fishing trips out on William Lake. He used to go with Gertie, before she got too tired for it. That was when he knew the end was near. Gertie had never missed a trip to the lake.
It felt wrong to go without her, now. But at least this first time he wouldn’t be completely alone. He looked over at the dining room table where a brass urn rested. He poured his tea into a steel travel mug.
“Ready to hit the ice, doll?”
It took him half an hour to drag the shelter over to the truck and get it in the bed. The boys had only done half the job before something or other had called them away. They were always busy. After that was done, and he managed to get the auger in without wrecking his back, he retrieved the urn from the house and buckled it up in the front seat.
He talked the whole drive over. It was easy to pretend Gertie was still along for the ride when he, at least, had her remains in the seat next to his. Helped to pass the time, too. He had asked their son, Tom, when he came to get the shelter out of the shed, if he wanted to come with him, or maybe the grandkids. But as usual, the answer was “no.” Tom was shuttling one kid to dance class, another to volleyball practice. Their other son, Pete, was similarly tied up most of the time, often not even answering the phone. They’d all crowded around him leading up to the funeral. As soon as the service was done, they scattered.
He finally made it to William Lake. The lakeshore wasn't very busy, but he noticed Bill Anderson on the ice, getting his own auger ready. Bill spotted him right away and gave a wave.
“Henry, you need a hand with all that?” Bill’s voice was big and booming, easily carrying across the ice in the silent morning.
“Appreciate it, Bill,” Henry struggled to match Bill’s volume.
Bill helped drag the shelter into place, the two old timers grunting as they hauled the shelter, auger, propane heater, seat and fishing gear on a sled. He offered to help drill the hole, but Henry waved him off.
“Sorry to hear about Gertie, Henry. She was one of the good ones.” Bill nearly took off his hat out of respect before remembering it was twenty-five below out.
“Thanks again. I’ll be okay from here. I guess I’ll have to learn to manage on my own, right?”
Bill nodded and headed for his own shelter. Henry always preferred a good, old-fashioned shack, but it was much too heavy to deal with by himself, and he didn’t like the pressure of having to get it off the ice in the spring. He’d nearly lost his last one ten years ago, before Gertie finally convinced him to give up on a permanent shack and just buy the little pop-up one. It did the job.
He folded out a camping chair over his fishing hole and sat down, the urn next to him. The shelter felt awfully big now. He looked down at the urn, resting at his feet beside the chair. The propane heater hissed as its element turned red. Henry picked up the urn, examining its smooth surface, and took off the lid. This was how she wanted to go. He thought it was odd — plenty of people want their ashes scattered over water, but not in January — but then again, she hated fishing in the summer. This was their place.
Henry hesitated to tip the urn over, bringing it down a bit before raising it again, not quite allowing a particle to spill. It was the last of her. It wasn’t really goodbye till the urn was empty.
He reached into his tackle box and pulled out a flask. His doctor told him to quit drinking, but it had its uses. The 12-year-old rye burned as it went down. His fingers traced the outline of the urn, the metal as cold as she was when he woke up to find her gone. They told him not to grieve, at the funeral — they said God had finally taken her home, like He takes everyone. He’d never really thought about it at all the other funerals, but now, it seemed awfully greedy of God.
Finally, he poured out the urn into the hole, and the pile of ashes settled on top for a bit as it dissolved into the lake. He stepped outside for a moment, to let it dissipate, but soon the breeze forced him back inside to the relative warmth of the enclosed space.
The ashes were gone, replaced by sloshing lake water quickly turning to slush upon exposure to the surface. He dug out the slush with a slotted spoon, and looked again at the empty urn. He slapped it into the hole, suddenly disgusted by what it represented, and waited for it to sink.
Finally, he began to fish, going it alone for the first time in thirty years. It was a slow day on the ice, but it was bright out, so at least he could see what was going on below. A few pike investigated his hook but none took the bait. All the same, he actually started to feel a little better. The smell of minnow was on his hands, the heater was hissing, the water was clear. For once it felt peaceful, instead of just quiet.
Four hours in a walleye, maybe thirteen inches, bit. He began to reel it in, expecting a fight. It was nearly topside when a shadow crept past, right beneath him, and yanked his line harder than any fish he’d ever felt. He dug his boots into the ice and pulled with all the strength left in him. He was nearly pulled into his own heater, barely managing to stop himself before his jacket made contact with the element. His line went limp, not even the weight of the hook on it. He reeled in to find the line ending in nothing, and the walleye gone.
He looked down into the hole, but there was nothing. No sign of what had taken his hook, or the fish that was on it. He put his face closer, and heard a sound. A high sound, playful and lyrical. It was a giggle — the giggle of a young woman.
He turned off the propane, ran out of the shelter, and took off home in the truck, leaving everything where it was.
He hit a patch of black ice as soon as he hit the highway, and struggled to keep the truck out of the ditch. The rest of the drive home was a series of over-corrections on the wheel and quick rationalizations of what he’d heard.
Must have been a mistake, he thought. Must have been something else.
Henry got home and had tea to settle his nerves. He picked up the phone and tried to call Tom, but there was no answer, and he hated talking to their voicemails.
The weather sunk to minus 50 for a couple of days; a brief cold snap that kept Henry off the lake. He knew no one would take his stuff from the lake, but all the same he’d called Bill and asked him to check up on it if he happened to brave the weather for a few hours. Bill was still a young man of forty-five. He could take it.
For the first time ever, he went to the local seniors center for coffee and socializing — again, on his kids’ advice. But he quickly got tired of the gossip, and hated board games and cards. The little library in town didn’t have much that interested him either. They’d all been Gertie’s friends, not his, and he didn’t know what to do with them any more than they knew what to do with him. It was all just polite smiles and weather talk.
Gertie had passed the time on her tablet, playing a bunch of silly little games, but he didn’t think much of them, either. He wanted to do something with his hands, with his body, however much it might be failing.
Finally, the weather warmed up and he returned to the lake to find everything where he left it, although he needed to drill a new hole and drag everything away. He was ready to go in about twenty minutes.
He landed a fat walleye about two hours in, seventeen inches long and full of fight. He opened the flap of the shelter to toss the fish in the snow to freeze, and heard another noise. He hurled the fish out and listened to the water again. This time, it wasn’t a giggle he heard, but a sigh. It sounded disappointed.
“Who’s there?” Henry’s voice came out as a stammer. Despite his propane heater, he was cold and his teeth were chattering. “What’s happening to me?”
“Tsk tsk tsk tsk.” The voice pierced through the ice he was standing on, clear as day. It made Henry’s heart skip. “Not very nice to do to a poor little fish.”
That’s it. I’m losing my mind.
He took a breath and accepted the slow approach of senility. He calmly packed up all of his gear, loaded it into the truck with great effort, and returned home. When he got home, he threw the fish in the sink to thaw. He wouldn’t be able to gut it until his fingers had warmed up, anyway. He’d probably take longer than the fish.
He picked up the phone and dialed Tom’s number. This time, there was an answer.
“Tom, it’s dad.”
“Oh, um, hi dad. How’s it — hold on, I’m on the phone — how’s it going?”
“Oh, uh, it’s okay. Went out fishing today.”
“Yeah? That’s good dad, we said you should — yes, okay, I understand, we will go. I’m talking to grandpa.”
Henry heard a high, nasal voice in the background. His granddaughter, Katy.
“Is that Katy?”
“That’s her. We promised we’d take her into Brandon to see a movie tonight, we were just about to head out.”
“Well, that’s nice, can I talk to her for a minute?”
“You know what, we really have to go now or we’ll be late. Can we catch up later?”
“Yeah. Yeah. Sure thing, Tom.”
The line cut out.
Henry killed the afternoon with a nap, and by the time he woke up the fish was ready to be cleaned. His hands were still steady enough to do a decent job of it, though lately he was never confident he was completely deboning the fillet.
Oh well, he thought. If I am going senile, maybe I should leave a big one in there on purpose.
Henry laughed at his own gallows humor. If he killed himself, Gertie would murder him once he reached the pearly gates.
He sat down to his fish fry and took a bite. It wasn’t the same. The breading didn’t stick on everywhere, like hers had, and it wasn’t seasoned as well as she’d done it. And he hadn’t caught it with her.
“Maybe you should get a dog,” Bill pulled more than his fair share in dragging Henry’s shelter to the ice again. Henry wondered if Bill ever left the lake, since he always seemed to be handy.
“Love dogs. No energy to walk it though. Hell, even housebreak it.”
They dropped the rope of the sled with a great exhale as it slid to a stop, carrying the shelter, auger and other materials.
“I catch fish, I eat fish, I don’t keep them around to be pals.”
“Suit yourself, Henry.”
“You’re not gonna say ‘bird?’”
“Oh, hell no. I hate birds. A bird’ll stink your house right up.”
“Gertie used to keep finches. You’re right, they smell. But the singing was nice.”
Bill shrugged, clapped a big hand on Henry’s shoulder.
“Well, I’m actually packing up and heading out of here. Been out since five this morning.”
“Yeah, wife finally got sick of me being out here all the time. We’re actually flying out to Mexico tomorrow. Two-week stay.”
“Sounds nice,” Henry lied. He hated the heat.
“I’ll have a shot of tequila for you.”
Henry waved and gave a congenial smile. Now Bill was gone, too. He’d definitely have to bring the gear home every time he went out, and with no one to help. His joints already hurt thinking about it.
The fish were biting today, but he couldn’t keep anything on the line. He’d see them come into view, nibble at the bait, swallow it, then take off. He’d begin to reel them in, but they were always getting away. He spent the first couple hours cursing and rebaiting hooks, his fingers freezing as he negotiated new minnows on, over and over.
Another minnow, another bite — a massive pike this time. Henry hated bringing in pike, since their bones were much harder to remove, but he’d take what he could get at this point. Pulling with all his might, he saw the pike slowly start to surrender, until another object came into view. Rather, two objects.
A pair of slender hands seized the pike, after which one began to work at his line, removing his hook from the fish’s lips. Henry’s breath caught in his throat. Once the hook was freed, the hand ripped the minnow off and held it out for the fish, which gobbled it up gratefully, taking the hand with it. The other hand smacked the pike on top of its skull, and it let go. The fish, spared death, swam off with its belly full. Henry’s eyes went as wide as dinner plates at the sight. One hand retreated from view, while the other wagged a finger at him, scolding him like a schoolteacher. Then, it too disappeared.
He looked down into the hole, at nothing but the bottom of the lake, for a few minutes, unable to sort out what he’d seen. He realized his face was getting colder, and noticed the propane tank was no longer hissing. He was out of fuel, and the heat was gone.
Three fishing trips full of bites, and only one fish to show for it. The noises he’d heard. He thought he was going crazy, but now he knew there was more to it. Someone was in the lake, letting all his fish get away.
He went to brush his teeth before bed, clearing detritus away to make room for his rinse cup. Grabbing at assorted tiny bottles, he turned one over to find it was perfume. Her perfume. He sniffed at the tip of the bottle, and felt the weight come off him. He spritzed some onto her pillow, and slept easily for once.
When Henry woke up the next day, he found that the town was engulfed in a blizzard. That was fine with him — he had some reading to do.
Luckily, he was only a few doors down from the library, so as long as he walked in a straight line, he knew he’d make it there through the blasting wind. He got in and knocked all the snow off himself. As he suspected, he was the only one in there, save for the lone librarian who had to man the fort. She was younger, and he didn’t recognize her.
“Good morning,” he offered. “Do you have any books on mermaids?”
“One second,” she tapped into her computer. “Nothing just on mermaids, but we have a few books on mythology. Want me to get them?”
“Please, get me everything.”
She nodded and went to comb the shelves, eventually returning with a few hardcover books.
“Why the interest in mermaids?” Her voice was chipper and polite as she looked at his library card and stamped the inside covers. She asked the question to be nice, not really wanting the answer.
“I want to know how they wind up in lakes.”
“Hmmmm, I don’t think they do, do they? Mermaids live in the ocean.”
“Well, I think there’s one in William Lake.”
The librarian stretched her grin as well as she could, and nodded. She turned to do something else, and Henry left, coveting the books in his arms.
He sat down at home, in his recliner, and started to read. A few minutes in, a coughing fit came on. He looked and noticed his black side table was turning grey. Running his finger along the surface, he realized he hasn’t dusted or vacuumed since she passed. His flannel shirt felt too big on him. He reminded himself to eat more. Scanning the walls, his eyes fell on their wedding portrait, which dominated the living room in its ornate, oval frame. He walked over to the picture, running his fingers across her cheek, taking in her full-sleeved dress, the one she’d made herself. He stifled a quiver in his throat, took the portrait down, and hid it in the closet.
The next time he went to the lake, he was prepared. He’d read through his books, enough to know how to make an entreaty, one that would hopefully sate his curiosity. If it worked, he’d finally meet his saboteur. He hadn’t felt this alive in weeks.
He was getting used to the work of dragging the shelter out by himself and setting everything up without Bill’s help. Maybe he was actually building muscle in his old age, or maybe his excitement helped to ease the aches and pains. It didn’t matter to Henry. He got set up, a new propane tank heating up the element attached to it, and put on his newest lure: a simple lead weight, painted chrome to give it a nice shine. The books had said if you want to catch a mermaid, you’ve got to lure her with something shiny. It had occurred to him a few hours after he read that passage, that Gertie’s brass urn must have drawn her to the spot.
He wasn’t ready to part with his watch yet, but if the weight didn’t work, he was prepared to consider it.
He stared down the hole, refusing to take his eyes off of it. The sunlight penetrating the ice illuminated the water nicely, and some of it bounced off his lure, making it glimmer. Finally, he saw a shadow creep in, one too big to be a fish. The hands appeared again, delicately grabbing the lure, examining it. Once she had it, he took out the second piece of his plan, a little paper card he’d “waterproofed” with layers of transparent tape. It simply said “Hello.”
He dropped it in the water and it slowly started to sink. The hands snatched it and looked at it for a bit, turning it over and over. The owner of the arms started to move — and he finally saw her. The first thing he thought was, she looks like her.
She had hair as green as a summer meadow, short enough that it barely moved in the water. Gertie had worn her hair a lot like that as a teenager, growing up on her dad’s hog farm. She’d told him it took too long to get the smell out of longer hair, so she kept it short. Once he got a better look at the mermaid, he realized the resemblance stopped there. Their faces were the same round shape, but his saboteur’s eyes were wide and round, unlike his late wife’s permanent squint after years working in the sun. The mermaid was daintier, her jaw ending in a pointy chin, a thin nose leading to full, deep blue lips. She looked at him with as much curiosity as he had for her. She held up the shiny weight and pointed at it. He pointed at his chest and nodded.
“For you,” he pointed at her.
She nodded. She swam up a foot and broke the fishing line with her teeth, tying the weight around her neck like a pendant. When she raised her arms to tie the line he noticed for the first time that she was topless. His upbringing kicked in and he shied away, averting his eyes, but his fascination overcame his manners and he found himself staring back down the hole by the time she finished tying the necklace. He felt like a peeper, but she didn’t seem to notice or mind that he’d seen her that way.
“What’s your name?” he shouted to her. He wasn’t sure how well she could hear him through the ice and water.
She raised a finger in front of her face and wagged it at him. She shook her head no, a smirk breaking out on her face. She blew him a kiss and swam away.
For the first time in weeks, a genuine smile crept over Henry’s face.
For once, Henry was glad he was old. The old didn’t sleep as much as the young. He could get on the lake earlier.
Knowing what awaited him at the lake, he practically raced down the highway, only controlling his speed once he started to feel black ice underneath him. He thought about trying to sneak the story to his family, maybe as a wild fish tale to the grandkids, just so he could talk about it out loud. But he knew himself, and they knew him. He never told stories like that. They might think he was losing it. Maybe he was, but if seeing her face was a consequence, he was happy to be mad.
It was important to start the work of setting up earlier today — he intended to drill a much bigger hole. The shelter stayed folded up in the truck bed, as it wouldn’t be big enough to accommodate the new opening and his chair. That made it easier.
Once his hole, triple the size as usual, had finally been opened up, he sat down with his coffee and tied a new chrome weight to his line. He sat there on the water for a while, waiting for her.
Maybe mermaids are late sleepers, he thought. After all, he’d never encountered her before nine in the morning or so.
The waiting was made harder by the fact that, without the shelter up, he couldn’t see through the water. He’d relied on the sunlight travelling through the ice to illuminate what was below, but not having the shade of the shelter blocking out the light from above made that impossible. He tugged the line, making the weight bob up and down. He waited a while longer, until the coffee was drained. Finally, a light tug from below. Then another, then another.
He began to reel in his line, feeling some weight on it, but not too much. He knew he couldn’t have a fish, since there was nothing to hook it. It had to be her.
The weight came up, her azure hand wrapped around it. She let go and the hand sank below again.
“No, wait, come up. I’ve got something for you.” He tried to make his voice travel as much as he could.
A moment later, she emerged. She was the colour of the sky. Her hair looked darker in the full light of the sun. She looked at him, bemused, holding her hand out for her gift.
Henry took off his watch.
“It won’t work once you go back under, but it’s nice, eh?” Henry held out the gold timepiece for her to consider. “I already took out a few links so it will fit better.”
He took her hand. A chill ran through him, both from her temperature and his own excitement. The watch still hung a bit loose, but it wouldn’t come off her hand. She admired the gold, twisting her wrist in the sun, making the piece shimmer. She flashed a grin.
“Who are you? How did you get here?”
She fell into a state of repose, leaning her elbows against the edge of the hole, lounging in the world’s coldest Jacuzzi. She shrugged.
“Can’t you answer me? Can you speak? I’ve heard you laugh.”
She shook her head, and sank below the water. He heard a voice.
“Not above the surface.” The sound drifted up through the ice.
“Do you have a name?” he asked.
“I’m Henry. Henry Thornton.”
“Hello, Henry. Maybe I’ll tell you my name someday.”
She emerged again, resuming her stance. She came up more exposed this time, and he again averted his eyes. He rummaged through a bag at his side, producing a long scarf.
“If you don’t mind,” he said. “You’ll give an old man a heart attack.”
She looked at him, puzzled, and then looked down at herself. She chuckled noiselessly, and wrapped the scarf around herself.
“Are you really here? Or have I gone mad?” It was the million dollar question. She seemed as real as anything, but she was also impossible. He couldn’t trust his eyes.
She sank below again.
“I’m real, as far as I know. I don’t know if you’re going mad.”
“You look a lot like someone. Someone very special to me.”
“She must have been lovely.”
Henry laughed. “Well, you’re not modest, are you?”
“I can see the look in your eyes.”
“I feel bad about that look. I feel like a lech.”
“What makes you think I’m younger than you?”
She rose again.
“Well, I’m seventy-two, miss. Are you younger than that?”
She curled her mouth in consideration and nodded, but held her thumb and index finger closely together, squinting at him.
“But not by much, eh? Well, that’s a relief. You’ll have to tell me your secret to long life.”
She undid the scarf and tossed it back to him, heavy with water. She sank back below.
“Bring me something truly precious next time,” the voice drifted up again. “And maybe I will.”
“What do you mean, maybe I need a change?”
The boys were sitting across the dining room table from him, looking tense. The wives and kids weren’t with them. He’d been ambushed.
“Dad, I know you love this house, but look at it. Everything’s dusty, everything’s cluttered. The pantry’s nothing but coffee and beef jerky. This isn’t good for you,” Tom talked with his hands as usual. Henry didn’t care for his diplomatic tone.
“Well, I was never much of a homemaker, I’ll admit, but really, I’m fine.”
“Look, we’re sorry we haven’t been in touch much, we’re just… very busy,” Pete at least had the decency to look a little ashamed. “But now that we’re here and we’re seeing what’s happening, it’s obvious you need more company, and more help. We love you dad, we don’t want you to turn into one of those old widowers living in his own muck until we find you in your recliner one day.”
“I can take care of myself, I’ve just been distracted. Been to the lake a lot this winter.”
“Maybe you’re at the lake too much.” Tom was getting condescending now.
“I’ll have you know I’ve met someone out there.”
His sons looked at each other. A worried look crept over their faces.
“Oh really?” Pete said. “Who?”
“A nice young lady who likes to be out there. She’s been helping me.”
“Uh huh.” Tom took a deep swallow. “Dad, we still talk to people around town. Nobody else is out there. There are no other shacks. No shelters since Bill went on holiday. So how is this young lady there? What’s her name?”
Henry looked down at the table. He could make one up, but they probably would see through his lie. He’d stressed honesty when he raised them too much to have become a good liar.
“I don’t know.” Henry knew where this was going.
Pete slid a few pamphlets across the table at him.
“Just take a look, dad. It’s not so bad. There are plenty of great facilities. I know you’ve got your pride, but you’re not young anymore and you can’t do everything yourself. You never could.”
Henry’s fist came down on the table, shaking their drinking glasses and giving the boys a start.
“Well, you’re right about that. Used to be I had someone in my life who wanted to help me around here. Do you think I wanted this? You think this was how I wanted things to turn out?” Henry shot fire out of his greying eyes. His sons flinched at the look. They’d seen it before. “So how much do you two plan to list this place for?”
“Please dad, just look at them. We’ll come by tomorrow to talk some more,” Pete said.
The boys got into Pete’s minivan and left. Henry watched them drive away out the window, then ran to get his coat.
The snow was coming down in big, fat flakes, carried by a strong wind that obscured Henry’s view of the road as he drove down the highway. He left his right hand on the wheel, while in his left, his thumb and pinky idly poked at his ring finger.
He thought about her face all the time now, her big, expressive eyes, black in colour, brimming with secrets. He thought about her hair, their tight curls crowning her head, her deep blue lips blowing their kisses. Knowing she was at least around his age made him feel better about his infatuation, though it wasn’t lost on him that he was getting the better end of the bargain, looks-wise.
He didn’t notice the deer wander into the center of the highway until it was almost too late. He slammed his foot into the brake and they squealed in protest, their pads too old to do their job well. The ice made the truck careen off course. The passenger side scraped a protective railing lining a short bridge over a frozen creek, and the vehicle came to a stop half in the ditch, its right-side tires hopelessly embedded in the snow.
Henry’s heart raced. He was grateful to have survived for a few moments before realizing how much this was going to set him back. He couldn’t lose the daylight. He felt around the floor of the passenger side. The wine had survived but the glasses had broken at the stem. He sighed, grateful for half a miracle.
He looked in his rearview. A truck was approaching. He only had one shot. Throwing open the driver’s side door, he grabbed the wine and stepped out onto the center line, waving his arms wildly. The truck, thankfully, noticed him before it was too late and came to a stop. A man, maybe a bit younger than Henry, sat behind the wheel.
“You okay, buddy?”
“Yeah. Deer ran out into the road, didn’t hit my brakes early enough.”
“You need to call a tow?”
Henry looked back at his truck.
“Not right now. I’ll deal with it later. Can I get a lift? I need to bring something with me, too.”
“Sure thing. Us old-timers have to stick together.”
Henry returned to the truck to get his auger. He heaved it into the bed of the stranger’s truck and climbed into the cab.
“The name’s Gus.” The man reached a hand out to Henry. They shook.
“Where am I taking you Henry?”
“Oh? Not home?”
“I’m meeting someone.”
The truck got going again, leaving Henry’s vehicle behind in the snow. They drove in silence for a few minutes before Gus decided to spark conversation.
“I have a cell phone. Need to call the missus and let her know what happened?”
Henry shook his head. “No. She’s gone.”
Gus sighed. “Sorry to hear that. How long ago?”
“About a month.”
Gus nodded. “My Carol left five years ago. Breast cancer.”
“Sorry to hear, too.”
“Thanks. It takes a while, getting over it. So who are you meeting at the lake?”
“Oh, just…” What? Henry thought. A friend? Another old man prepared to go fishing in a blizzard? “Someone I’ve met.”
Gus went silent. He looked at the brown paper bag, and up at Henry, then back at the road.
“You think it’s too soon,” Henry said.
“No, it’s not that. I guess I’m just envious. If you found someone to spend your time with, to take your mind off it… take it.”
Henry felt at his ring finger again. He felt like a traitor.
“It wasn’t supposed to be this way.”
“I know. You don’t have to tell me.”
They drove the rest of the way in silence. Henry guided Gus to where he needed to get off, and left. They exchanged wishes of good luck, and the truck puttered away. Henry dragged the auger to the usual spot and drilled, again making an extra-large hole.
He stood over the hole as water sloshed out, turning the snow to slush. It occurred to him he had no way to signal her, without his rod and painted weights. He took off his glove and looked at his wedding band, simple gold, knicked over the years. Something truly precious, she’d said. It was the key to learning her secrets.
Henry became paralyzed with a realization: he’d left his fishing rod in his truck. He had no way of lowering it down safely. He didn’t want to risk tossing it over for her to ignore his gesture. He removed his coat and rolled up his sleeve. Bracing himself, he plunged his bare arm into the water, his hand the lure to coax her. His teeth chattered, and his breath caught, at the chill creeping up his arm and spreading to his body, the blizzard around him a second front in the assault.
“Please. Please come,” he whispered at the ice.
He felt her grab his hand. His arm was pushed to the surface, her arms coming up underneath them. She emerged, resting her elbows on the ice while Henry tried to stuff his frozen arm inside his down jacket, desperately trying to warm it. Once he calmed himself he looked over her to find her leaning against the ice, waiting patiently. She held out her hand.
Henry looked at his trembling left hand, gone white with cold. He tugged at the ring, struggling to remove it over his bulbous knuckle. Finally, it freed. He looked at it, gave it a kiss, and placed it in her palm. The mermaid eyed the jewelry, taking in its accumulated imperfections. She sank beneath the water.
“The ring is nice.” The voice penetrated the ice and the storm, easily reaching his ears. “But I told you to give me something precious. A ring is only a ring without the story.”
She emerged again, floating in the center of the hole as the storm whipped around her. Henry squinted against the wind, but her black eyes stared out, unfazed.
“Fine. You want a story? I’ll tell you a story.” Henry got to his knees by the edge of the hole, tired, cold and spent. “Fifty-five years ago I met a woman who lit me on fire. Everything I did, I did for her. I worked like a dog. I suffered every layoff with dignity, digging ditches or scraping muck out of machines to make a buck, for her. She took good care of me. We raised two kids together. We planned holiday dinners and outings for our grandkids. Everything.”
The mermaid leaned back against the edge of the ice in her state of repose, taking in his words.
“About ten years ago, we started to joke about death. We were getting to that age. But then, after the joking, we started to really plan what we were going to do when the day came. Only problem is, we made all of our plans around me. Men die sooner, all the reports say. Women live longer. My family was the one with the horrible histories of diabetes and heart disease and cancer. She was the one who ate her vegetables and went walking. So we sorted out how she might get on, after me. We talked about how she’d spend her time, whether she’d keep the house, everything. And then she died, and left me here, and she took the man she made me with her.”
She drifted to the other side of the hole and touched his cheek. Her touch was ice.
“All that’s left are memories of a person I’m not anymore.” His voice leaked out desperation at the edges. “A person I can’t be without her. I want you to take the rest of that person away, and give me a chance to be somebody new. In return, I’ll make sure you don’t swim this lake alone ever again.”
The mermaid looked down, nodding. She met his eyes again and started to sink, her hand beckoning him to join her below.
He watched the hand disappear and considered his options, but decided there were none. Gertie wasn’t coming back. Even if she was lying, there was nothing above the ice for him. He stripped naked and curled into himself, exposed to the cold. He thought one last time of his wife, and their years out on the ice. He jumped in.
The water shocked every part of his system, and he felt paralyzed against its chill. He opened his eyes but could see nothing. It was tranquil, down here, the raging storm above having no effect beneath the ice. He pawed at the water, searching for her, but felt nothing. He felt his body start to go numb, his eyes start to dim. He’d been tricked.
He resigned himself to a cold grave when he felt an object come up next to him. Her arms draped themselves over his shoulders. He wrapped his around her waist, gripping her tightly as he became more and more numb.
Her lips pecked at his, and he felt his skin tighten as his muscles expanded, regaining their former strength. She wrapped her tail around his legs, and he winced as his thighs started blending into one another. Her lips travelled to his ear, and she whispered her name.