Many of you may know of my enchantment with mermaids and how they are the inspiration for my first novel, The Mermaid Mahjong Circle. What I have not shared previously, though, is this account from my childhood that, along with a myriad of storybooks and their illustrations, has made mermaids forever magic to me.
Living on a coast, whether it be the East or the West, has been a constant for me, meaning that the beauty of a beach has never been far away. And while I’m not a swimmer, a beach stroll, be it during a peaceful sunrise on Cape Cod or a splendiferous sunset in Santa Barbara, has always been a privilege I have never taken lightly. Few joys can match the perfection of a fall afternoon strolling on a deserted Long Island beach, snuggled into a scarf to keep out the chill, taking sips of hot chocolate or hot apple cider to stay warm. Or the absolute pleasure of that first bite of a homemade sandwich on a brilliant July beach day in Half Moon Bay – simple fare tasting so special because of the salt air and even the few grains of sand adding a distinctive summertime crunch. Or the seashells.
Seashells have always seemed like storybooks to me. In sun-faded, sea-washed shades of ivory and rose, pale pink and soft peach, swirled with violet and caramel tones, silver and mauve, they hold the stories of the creatures that once inhabited them, of the ocean waves that have tossed them, and of the beaches on which they have been strewn, often to be picked up again and again. Scallops and whelks, lady slippers and clam shells, sand dollars and turbo shells – all hand-colored by nature, some pearled, others matte, still others translucent from time. These are the pieces of magic, of make-believe, of imagination that enhance every beach outing for me and have forever.
Every beach walk always brings to mind a memory of a little girl on a Cape Cod beach back when I was young. I saw her one day – a delicate sprite – sitting nearby on the beach with a sign reading, “Fresh Found Seashells – 10 Cents Each!” She had all of her seashells spread in perfect concentric circles on the sand around her as she waited for beachgoers to stop for a moment and browse. Her long hair curled all the way down her back and mixed with the shells as she sat there, and her eyes, an unusual blue-gray-green, shifted in color the same way the ocean changes color as the clouds skirt above it. She seemed almost to be a fairy child, practically glowing in the rays of sunlight that touched her, while pieces of sea glass and abalone, mixed in with the shells, added their glimmer to the setting.
I so wanted to approach her and look at the seashells she had gathered. But I was too shy, so I just watched from a few feet away. I thought it was curious that people passed by without stopping even though she made such a beautiful picture. It was almost as if she weren’t there at all but merely an ephemeral vision in the sand. At one point, she looked up from her shells and smiled at me, lifting one hand to beckon me over. Embarrassed at being caught staring, I quickly looked away.
Later that evening, when my mother was tucking me in for the night, I asked her about the girl selling shells. “There was no little girl selling shells,” she told me, puzzled. Neither did my father remember seeing her when I asked him about it as he turned out my bedroom light. “It must have been a dream,” he concluded. “All that sun made you drowsy and you fell asleep for a while on the blanket.”
A dream? Perhaps. Too much sun? Maybe. A figment of my imagination brought on by all the storybooks I loved and hoped one day to write? Could be. But one thing remains unexplained. The sweetly pink, perfectly scalloped seashell I found in my sand pail when I picked it up to take it to the beach the next morning.
I hadn’t put it there but I like to think that she had.
© 2023 Claudia Grossman