Old Abe Wakefield died on the night of the first snow in October. His wife, Annabel, sat by his bedside holding his hand, and in her other hand she held a cup of coffee, which she did not drink. Steam rose from the cup, it rested on her knee, and she remembered a draft in the room. She moved to lay another quilt over her husband's long figure on the bed, but he did not release her hand. She held the round handle of the cup with her fingers and for a moment she avoided his eyes. He looked at her as if to say that he was warm enough, or perhaps to say that it did not matter anyway, or to gently say that now, dear, was not the time. She sighed and squeezed his hand. The feel of his hand made hers shake. The cup of coffee began to bounce on her knee and the steam folded down on itself in its ascent. Annabel fought her tears.
Abe saw her expression and turned his face away, squeezing her hand. Perhaps it would be better for you if I was not watching, he seemed to say. She placed the cup on a short table beside the bed and laid her hand on his and cried. Then she stopped. His peaceful breathing, his breathing growing longer and his breaths deeper in a sudden absence of pain, filled her ears and she marveled. She watched his chest move. Had it moved like this before? she thought, and she became afraid.
He was looking out of the window beside the bed, out over the small farm, at the silhouette of the barn and the white electric light in the barnyard like a winking star in the shadow of the winter clouds. He looked farther past the light, over the barn, and into the limitless black of the pine trees on the hills. There they are, he thought, like wealthy men at a secluded table, the pines all brushing their branches like ants touching their whiskers together, no, not whiskers.....
“There's no fooling them,” he sighed, saying it as if to himself. His had an expression as though he had just been beaten at cards. He was almost smiling but, turning back to his wife, he altered his expression. But he could no longer feel the pain and the smile returned, as a flag might drape against a pole when the wind stops blowing. He said, “Do you remember that night in the summer when we slept in the barn?”
“Yes, of course I do.” Annabel whispered.
“Do you remember the warmth in the barn, that we didn't expect, and the sun in the morning through the chinks in the wall?”
“And waking up in the middle of the night to you and the animals snoring together.”
“Yes,” Abe said, “But you can't imagine how my back hurt the next day. Believe me, Annabel, the reverse is true now. I am comfortable now.”
He laughed. Annabel wiped her eyes with her husband's hand.
He said, “It has its dignity. A dignity, maybe, like little children. Who battle all day with imaginary things, but sleep well at night. Everything is a ghost. It can haunt, but it cannot touch. Everything, so... so ineffectual, if you think about it. That's hard to believe. I don't think that I've ever believed it myself. Not even once. Not even for a moment. But maybe it makes sense now. Trust me, dear, I am ready to sleep.”
“Why are you saying that now, that your back hurt?” Annabel said. She moved the cup of coffee to her lap. “As if I didn't know. And I didn't know, Abe. But you could have told me. If only so I could have thought differently about it, perhaps, or so I could have known all the truth, everything, all of who you are. You can tell me now, too. You can tell me, are you comfortable? And what else, what damn else I can do?”
“Annabel, darling girl,” Abe said, before she had even finished speaking, “my memory of it is a perfect one. And you've always known just what I am. You know that I'm comfortable now and there's nothing more you need to do or say. And, my love, you know, you were never very good at swearing.” He smiled.
A change came into Annabel's face, as if the last thing that he said had done it, as though his tease about her swearing had somehow made everything different. “I don't want to talk like this,” she said.
“You also don't want me to die,” Abe said. “I'm sorry, Annabel.”
The change in her eyes disappeared. “But Abe!”
“Be quiet now. I am ready. You know, this little farm never amounted to much, but at times, I have made you smile. And that can make a man.”
“Abe, are you asking me to smile?”
“I am finished with asking.”
They were silent for a moment. Then Annabel said, “You're right, I know. Of course you're right. We have been blessed.”
“Sleep is the best blessing. It's the only one we can seem to enjoy uninhibited. And I will be glad to close my eyes to the sight of you.”
“But wait, don't fall asleep yet. Let me get you your glass of milk, it always helps you sleep.”
But he did not let go of her hand. He looked at her again with an expression which coaxed and said 'Now is not the time for that, there is no more time for that and you need not worry.' She resolved to say nothing more. She flattened her tongue against the roof of her mouth. She repelled her tears and she became like an angel statue over a grave. Her tenderness froze in her eyes. Her arms could not move even to lift his hand.
Annabel poured the cold coffee down the sink drain in the bathroom. The doctor said it was probably the change in the weather, and that the human body is sensitive to all of those things, and old Abe had been sick a long time. He was buried beneath the pines behind the house on a hill overlooking the highway. Because the ground was frozen the funeral home rented a backhoe to dig the grave. It was a big machine and a crowd gathered to watch it work.
Across the highway from the Wakefield's house was a place called Pine Grove Farm. The small hobby farm was only a barn, which was empty, an empty silo and a few outbuildings, two horses, one calf, because the other calf had died, a spacious pasture and a pond, which was called Hellsink Pond. Mr. Adams, a contractor, lived there with his wife and daughter and his son, Caleb. Caleb was nine years old and he was afraid of the dark. He was afraid with an exquisite sort of excitement. It was a kind of fear that would drive him one step further into a dark room, make him stop and ponder at the noises in the quiet, and to blink his eyes to see and see again and again, to test himself until he broke and clawed for the light switch. It was a fear that he both ran from and welcomed, a childish fear.
It was nearly Christmas, and Caleb could not sleep, but it was not for the usual reason. He was disturbed by nightmares. In the middle of the night he would open his eyes wide, make fists around the blankets, and lick the sweat off his upper lip. Then he would bite his lip, not daring to smile, but happy and rushing his thoughts all around the room. At last he would call for his sister in the next room. “Emily!” he would cry. But it was his mother and his mother's hair silhouetted in the light in the hall that appeared in the doorway.
But on the night of December twenty second, Caleb slept soundly in his bed, dreaming of something that would be forgotten in the morning when he looked out of his window at the fresh fallen snow. The snow fell in the night, surprising the blue jay. It fell in the pines and on the path in the flower garden. On the roof of the house and on top of the circle silo. On the red squat shed. It was on the barn roof sliding over the eaves freezing like an ocean wave. Snow fell in the pasture and was still falling in the silence over Hellsink Pond just before dawn.
In the early morning, as the sun rose carefully behind pouting clouds, the thin ice split on the surface of the pond. There was no sound in the pasture, in the dead of winter, except the breaking of the fragile ice. The half-light of dawn graced the edges of the ice as it came apart and overturned and the pieces bobbed on the surface of the water. Her white hand slid silently from the lightless water up, up into the frigid air. Her fingers curled and straightened and bent to touch the ice and drip into the water. Her arm came forward and gripped the frozen mud on the shore. The frozen night had rolled the mud into intricate shapes like a quilt around the pond. Her white fingernails found a place to hold and blood gathered in her knuckles, pink, as she gripped and pulled herself out of the icy water. She raised her head, covered with soaking tangled hair, and she listened to the droplets of water striking like jewelry on a mirror. Little noises in the silence. Behind the dripping veil of her gray hair she yawned like a winter lion. Then she bent forward and crawled through the snow towards the buildings of the farm, dragging her tail in the snow behind her.
Caleb made the first footprints in the snow outside. The drifts of snow, like skin and muscles on the ground, rolled out from underneath the pines beside the house, as though the pines were driven into the ground like stakes, pulling the snow after them deep into the earth. Caleb walked beyond them into the field where the snow was deep. The sun had risen but was far away behind thick clouds. The snowballs he made broke as he threw them and showered on the ground through the pine boughs.
As he was playing he heard a car approaching on the long driveway and it stopped in front of the house, the snow grinding beneath its tires. Emily got out of the car and laughed and said something through the open door. Then the door slammed, sounding different in the snow, and the car made a circle in the lot and drove away. Emily walked towards the house. Her mittens hung halfway out of her coat pocket and she was holding a rose in her bare hand. When she crossed Caleb's haphazard tracks in the snow, she stopped and followed them with her eyes until she was looking at him. Caleb bent down and squeezed snow between his mittens.
“Don't get frostbite!” Emily shouted to her little brother, “You'll lose your nose.”
“Don't get knocked with a snowball in your nose,” Caleb shouted back.
Emily tried to make a snowball with her free hand, holding the rose in the air as if the snow might ruin it. She threw her snowball at him, but it caught in the pine tree and broke apart.
“Where'd you get the flower?” Caleb shouted.
“None of your business.”
“I know where you got it!” He threw a snowball at her and it struck the back of her coat as she ran for the house. She laughed and he heard the screen door swing, sounding different in the snow, as if it were far away. He stayed outside until dinnertime. He went to bed very tired.
In the night he awoke. He was afraid. He could not remember any nightmare, but he stared at the ceiling, looking for things moving in his room, waiting for sounds in the darkness. The moon lingered in the window over the pattern of white outside. The moonlight reflected off the snow and the earth seemed very far away. Caleb's room was bright and colorless, strange, as though under water. He called out hesitantly.
There was a long silence. He waited, then he called again. He was embarrassed at the sound of his voice, so that he only more than whispered his sister's name and hoped that she would not hear. But he hoped she would come. He heard soft footsteps in the hallway coming up to his door. The light in the hallway had not come on. The door to his room opened. A man's figure stood there. It was not his father. His father was not so tall. His father did not have to stoop to enter the room. The figure came towards to the bed, so close that in the hollow glow of the moon, Caleb could see the figure walked with its eyes closed. It walked to the center of the small bedroom and stood, facing the window. For a moment Caleb imagined that it did not notice him, and he sank into his bed, holding the bedsheets in his fists like a weapon.
“The way up is down,” the figure said, “beneath the ground. We hold the candle upside down, and we sing out of tune.” Afterwards, Caleb could not describe the voice even to himself, except that it sounded as though its breath would make no clouds from its mouth if it spoke in the winter air.
“Mom—” Caleb said, but the word came in a whisper.
The figure turned its head and looked at Caleb's face with closed eyes. It was silent again.
“Go away,” Caleb said. Then he shouted, “Mom!”
“They cannot hear you shouting so. You're still sleeping, don't you know?” The figure said.
“Then you're a dream and you don't exist,” Caleb said.
“The better you sleep, the better you wake,” the figure said. “But ask me who I was.....”
Caleb said nothing.
The figure waited. It said, “Ask me now and then I will not ask again.”
“Who are you?”
“Abraham Wakefield's ghost.”
“Mrs. Wakefield's husband.”
“Annabel, she will not weep. But she cannot sleep.”
“What do you want?”
“Listen.” The ghost held up his hand. “The sea girl is here.”
The ghost stood still in the center of the room. Caleb sat up in his bed. As he sat up, the ghost raised both hands slowly, as if reaching out and pressing against something invisible before him.
The ghost said, “Each night she crawls to my grave, smelling the blood where it is no longer in my veins. She lies on my chest. She is waiting for Annabel, sweet Annabel, my darling, my wife and my bride.” The ghost seemed to press with all his might, but his hands, held close before his face with the palms outward, stretched flat and could not move forward. Caleb felt that they could not reach for him. He saw that the ghost's face was kind, though old and undefined in the shadow over its closed eyes. He had never seen old Abe, but surely this ghost could have lived once on Wakefield Farm, could have kissed Annabel in the morning and tossed straw alone in a spacious barn.
“Who? The sea girl?” Caleb said.
“Mermaid.....” The ghost answered, “Mis-made.....”
“A mermaid? But mermaids live in the ocean. But that's what they are, half fish and half maid.”
“No, not a fish. Half made, it is the truth, but no, no, not a fish at all,” the ghost said, “beware, she swims in the snow. Heavy like the weight of all the snow upon the earth. The sea girl on her treasure chest. She is beautiful like the moon and dangerous like a crippled lion. She will not leave my place of death, and so I cannot leave, though I feel a warmth, as though on the lids of my eyes... it pierces her skeleton. But she knows Annabel.....”
Caleb considered. It was not a man in his room. It was a ghost. So he said, “What can I do?”
“You must wait until she is gone, in the sun, when she must long for the lightless water of Hellsink Pond. Dig beside the old oak, beside the old rock, a place you well know. Dig through the snow. Dig with a heart, dig without mirth, as one digs a grave, until you find the path that leads under the earth. At the end of the passage is a dark little room, open the door and enter my tomb. Bring with you first the fresh bough of a pine, and spread its sharp needles between her face and mine. Her soft woman's belly will find no comfort more, and when you leave, leave open the door. The way up is down, beneath the ground, we hold the candle upside-down..... sing out of tune..... white as the moon.....”
When the ghost finished speaking it stepped forward, closer to Caleb's bed. Caleb shrank away under the covers. The ghost's rhyming, at least, was as he imagined. The ghost came closer, leaning over the bed, taller than the window. It looked at Caleb with its closed eyes. Then it bent its head into the moonlight from the window and dissolved.
Caleb fell asleep and did not dream. It was a strange sleep, strange as the careless gravity of snow and the frigid peace of cold, all of nature unnatural in the heat of the body and the sun extinguished in a few collected hours.
He woke very late in the day. He ate and dressed and went outside. The air was clear and cold, so that the nose runs into it, and he rubbed his nose on his mitten. He walked past the barn and climbed over the fence into the pasture. The snow was deep in the pasture and he was tired when he reached the second fence. He crawled beneath it into the outer field of the pasture and walked towards the pond.
Next to the pond stood an old oak, the oldest tree on Pine Grove Farm. Only with trees is it possible to die standing up, and its roots seemed held by the weight of the smooth gray rock which sat beneath it. The rock rose out of the ground to the height of Caleb's shoulder and sank into the earth heaven knows how far. Caleb stood by the oak tree and the rock, a young boy with red cheeks in the snow, looking at the pond. His wonder at his dream drew his eyes towards Hellsink Pond. He pushed his hands into his pockets to warm them.
There was a shadow near the shore of the frozen pond. He walked cautiously towards it. As he drew near he saw it was a hole, newly frozen over with a fresh and crystal clear pane of ice. He leaned towards it and stepped on solid, matted snow. He looked down at his boot. There was a track there in the snow like those he had made the day before, crawling on his belly through the drifts. He followed it with his gaze up the hill and behind the outbuildings of the farm. At the top of the hill he saw what he thought at first might be a gray grocery bag blown in the wind down behind the hill. He looked up at the sky and the seamless gray clouds.
Caleb ran along the track, stepping heavily in his boots and quickly growing warm in his heavy coat. He reached the top of the hill, at the outer corner of the woodshed, and found nothing. The track continued through the field towards the highway. He took off his hat and mittens and his heavy coat and ran after it.
Standing at the top of a steep hill over the ditch, he watched a car pass on the highway. He listened, but there was no other sound. He saw only the white snow everywhere and the wet black of the highway. Then a movement caught his eye. It was white on the highway, white like the snow, and moving across. She was crawling, sliding, her tail making noise on the wet surface of the tar. He saw her naked back, as white as snow, and her tangled hair tumbling from of it. Her fingernails scratched in the grit of the tar. Her hips and tail were shining like pearls, iridescent and beautiful, covered with flashing scales. Her gray mane rolled on her shoulders and twisted in her fingers and pulled in the movement of her thin arms. She slid over the black of the highway and disappeared into the snow on the opposite side.
Caleb looked up at the Wakefield's house. Like a stage set it stood undimensional behind a row of pines. He fell down the hill and scrambled on his hands and knees up the other side of the ditch. He rushed out onto the highway, then back as a car roared by, then on again in the desperate race.
He knocked loudly on Mrs. Wakefield's back door, frantic and breathing hard. He could feel his heart pounding and warmth in his cheeks and forehead. He knocked again, but when the door opened his panic left him. He felt the blood leave his cheeks, then return again, and he stood embarrassed on Annabel's doorstep.
“You're Caleb Adams. Next door.” Annabel said. She was wearing a thick flannel robe and green slippers on her feet. Annabel's hair, dyed dark brown, was cut short at her jaw and stood out slightly on one side of her head. She was pretty, as though it were just now early morning. She seemed to Caleb like a young girl, not too many years older than he.
“Come in, it's cold.” Annabel said. “Where's your coat?”
Caleb stepped inside. It was hot. He was in her kitchen, but it did not smell like a kitchen. On the counter top in the middle of the room he saw a new ball of yarn and knitting needles. He remembered the pine needles and paled and flushed again, feeling sick. Annabel walked behind the counter and sat on a stool.
He stammered, “I think something might be wrong.” It was all he could think to say.
“What?” Annabel said.
“I don't know. Is someone else here?”
“Is that a joke?” She said.
“No. I didn't mean, but, are you okay?”
“Should I not be okay? What are you doing here, Caleb?”
Before Caleb could answer, the mermaid came into the kitchen from inside the house. She slid on her belly, lifting her torso with thin arms with her hands flat on the wood floor, dragging her tail behind her. But she stopped in the doorway, as though exhausted, and hung her head under her tangled gray hair, to which bits of rotted leaves from the bottom of the pond clung. Caleb saw her shoulder blades move as she breathed.
“Annabel—” Caleb whispered.
“What do you want?” Annabel stood up. The mermaid inched closer, two steps with her bony hands, her fingernails curling and uncurling on the floor.
“Mrs. Wakefield, you have to get out of the house.”
“Out of my house? Did some friend of yours put you up to this?” The mermaid came closer, pulling her long body towards Annabel across the kitchen floor.
“No. Please, Mrs. Wakefield...”
“How do you know who I am? I suppose you've heard somewhere. The neighbor lady all alone now, and no, you know there's no one else here. Am I supposed to get angry? To cry? This is a terrible thing you're doing.” The mermaid moved closer.
Caleb could think of nothing to say. He looked at Annabel's face and frustrated tears came into his eyes.
“Get out of my house,” Annabel said, “I know what you must have heard, and I don't care. I brought this farm, this house, as far as I did and I'll certainly take it further still. And no one stands in my way, and you watch out. Now get out.” Annabel meant to frighten Caleb, narrowing her eyes and almost whispering the last words. She was pleased with her success. The mermaid moved closer. Reaching up with her arms, she laid her hand on the counter, almost touching the ball of yarn, and pulled herself up, sliding onto the kitchen counter.
“Get out!” Annabel said, “Go home. It's a terrible thing you're doing. And I'm calling your mother.”
As Annabel said this, the mermaid was next to her, so close as to smell her breath, her hair, the blood in her veins. But as Annabel said this, the mermaid turned and looked at Caleb. Her eyes were terrible.
Caleb turned and ran out the door. Annabel did not call his mother. He ran to the field behind the pasture of Pine Grove Farm and dug in the snow beneath the old oak tree until the sun fell behind the high heavy clouds. There was no passage, no hole in the snow, no door to the old ghost's tomb. Only the mermaid was real. He heard his mother calling him with a whistle she made by putting her finger and thumb to her lips. He went in to dinner.
Annabel spoke to someone on the telephone. From the pantry in the shadows, the mermaid listened.
“I feel like I'm shrinking,” Annabel said, “I am a shrinking woman. I've always felt like that, but now it's worse. It's so much worse now. And it's not just the Adams boy's prank. I really felt like I had to say something to him, to respond to it somehow. As if something wasn't said and now that it is I want to take it back. I want to take everything back, like a sinking, pulling everything down with me. And I feel like I'm disappearing. I went out today, to do the chores, and my fingers got so cold, like they were wood. I guess you know all about that. But it felt like some performance. Just more grasping at things and I've felt that before but never when there was no one watching. No one to see it. And there is no one to see it, and still there I was, with freezing fingers. And all because of something left unsaid, that now that I've said it, I want it back.”
“No, not to him,” she said, “he's a child, he doesn't know anything. But something in what I said to him. As if, as though I said it to myself, or let myself finally say it. That I'm angry, as if...” Annabel began to cry, “...as though I want him to die all over again. And, if he did, maybe then, or the next time, or some time after that I would finally know how to do it. Because he knew how to do it. And in all that I haven't once wished that he was alive again. Only that he had shown me how, or maybe that he would do it terribly, like I did, and not left me with this feeling that I let him down.”
She cried and listened for a long while to the voice on the telephone.
Then she said, “Why is it men can't say 'you poor thing?' It's such a lovely thing to say. I've thought a lot about how lovely a thing it is to say. How sometimes it means everything that we want to hear. 'Poor thing,' just like that. But you can't say it.”
She wasn't crying anymore.
“You don't understand,” she said, “It's not the people who are sick that have to die. It's the ones they leave behind, who have to die and go on living. And what are we supposed to do? It all came and went so easy for him, and he doesn't have to see this place without him. He doesn't have to see me shrinking, this grasping at things. We loved each other so much. I loved him. I was so beautiful. It was all so lovely. It should not have been so easy for him. It should not have been so easy to leave this place. To leave this incredible beauty...”
After a while she hung up the telephone. Reluctantly, the mermaid crawled away. Night was coming.
The ghost of Abe Wakefield returned to Caleb. It breathed as though it could not breathe. And spoke as though it could not speak. In its blue-white fist in the shadows of the moon it held a rose.
“I saw her!” Caleb said, “You have to do something. She's real, I saw her! The mermaid. She was scary and your wife doesn't know, she doesn't know. I couldn't find the passage. So you have to go to her and tell her.”
“Be quiet,” the ghost said, squeezing the air in the bedroom through its throat like snow grinding beneath a wheel.
“What? What?” Caleb pleaded.
“Be quiet.” The ghost repeated. He stretched out his arm, as far as he could in his confinement, and held out the rose.
“Where did you get that flower?” Caleb recognized it.
“The rose...” the ghost said, “...the only way now. To repel what is loved...”
“But I can't. My sister will think I stole it.”
“She will...” the ghost said, offering it in the darkness of the room, “...and you have. But she will let it go.....”
“No, I can't. I didn't steal it. I don't want to take it. I can't. You... I didn't steal it...you did.”
“Be quiet!” The ghost said again, “and do this. Place it on my grave...stand it up in the snow.”
The ghost's fingers extended over the bed and dropped the rose onto the quilt.
“And remember...her scales. Eat one and she will fear you... not as you fear, but with the fear of death.”
When the ghost disappeared, Caleb did not sleep. He lay awake in bed, touching the rose and smelling it beneath the covers. He looked at the clock on his nightstand. It was not even midnight. 'Emily cannot wake up and find that I have it,' he thought. He got out of bed slowly, shivering, and walked out into the hall. For a long time he stood, listening to his family sleeping. He was angry that they were not awake, that they had left him alone to do this thing which he feared to do. But he did not dare to wake them up, because they would not understand.
He went silently out of the house, leaving behind his hat and mittens. The air was icy and his breath covered his face in a rapid cloud of vapor. He caught his breath and held it, keeping the cold out of his mouth and throat. For a while he breathed through his hand. The great black shadows of the pines loomed invisible in the feeble moonlight, like holes in the ground and sky that took nothing in and gave nothing out, but rose on towards heaven as winter tried to huddle near their trunks. He walked like a tiny creature through the snow towards the highway, and glanced terrified at shapes and shadows in the snow. The highway seemed like a black river in the night. He stood looking down into it, clutching the rose in his freezing hand.
“Don't make me do this,” he said aloud, “I'm supposed to be in bed.”
But the moon glowed silently behind winter clouds and the silence moved on in the darkness, untragic, unfierce, and eternal. He stepped down the hill into the ditch, crossed over it, and onto the highway. For a moment he was glad to not walk in the snow. The solid road beneath his feet made him feel brave. Then she appeared, head first from a snowbank on the other side of the highway, coming out of it like ink running on white paper. And she waited for him on the other side.
Caleb ran to one side. But she was there. He thought of leaping over her, but she raised herself up and tossed her hair back over her white shoulder. He looked down at his feet. He was standing in the center of the highway with his heels on the yellow lines. She came forward and he kicked at her with his boot. His foot caught in her hair and he fell on the pavement. He felt her fingernails in the folds of his clothing and he struggled. She crawled on top of him, her tail pinning his legs to the road, and lowered her face to his chest, snapping her teeth like the jaws of a fish. Remembering what the ghost had said, he reached down and pulled at the scales on her hips. One came loose as she twisted and curled her tail around his leg, separating the scales and bending them upward. He tore at the scale with all his strength. She screamed and roared into his face and beat her head against his chest so that he could barely breathe and could not swallow. He choked on saliva and coughed wildly. The scale dropped from between his fingers onto the highway.
Then he saw lights on the highway. He lost control of his fear like a panicked animal and with all his strength he turned over onto his stomach. He crawled desperately towards the other side of the highway, trying to dig into the pavement with numb fingers. The mermaid did not seem to notice the car as it raced towards them in the freedom and vacancy of the highway at night. Caleb felt the mermaid's icy fingers in his hair and he cried out. His face was forced down against the road and suddenly he felt the mermaid's scale against his lips. He stuck out his tongue and licked it up, as a cat might devour a piece of butter. The mermaid turned him over again onto his back. His breath and the smell of the scale dissolving on his tongue rose to her nostrils. She screamed and lept back towards the snowbank. Her tail, wrapped several times around Caleb's leg, carried him with her and left him lying in the ditch in the snow as the car roared by on the highway. Caleb got up and ran back onto the road. He found the rose where he had dropped it, snatched it up, and ran towards Annabel's house.
Annabel was standing at her husband's grave. She alone could frighten Caleb more than the mermaid or the ghost or anything lurking in the northern winter night. He stopped running and stood shivering in the shadow of the pines.
Annabel saw the rose in his hand and smiled. “You came to apologize,” she said.
He stepped towards her.
“Here, bring it here, I'll help you.”
Together they piled the snow into a little peak over Abe Wakefield's grave and pushed the stem of the rose deep into it. In the cold moonlight it looked almost alive, as if it had grown there, as blood seems natural on the green of a leaf, or on brown grass, or in the pure white of snow.
“That is a nice thing for you to do, though it didn't have to be in the middle of the night,” Annabel said, “but I understand. You were probably afraid. Thought I might be asleep. I know you didn't mean to do what you did. And I'm sure you understand my response, don't you? But there is nothing better you could have done to show me that you really do understand...” Annabel would have gone on, but she noticed Caleb's hands, which by now were aching and red with cold.
“But don't you have any mittens?” Annabel exclaimed. “Run along home now, and I will go inside and make you a pair. I'll bring them over tomorrow. Tomorrow's Christmas, you know.”
And Caleb went home to sleep.
Beneath the snow and the frozen ground, in the confinement of Abe Wakefield's grave, the mermaid turned and rolled on his casket. The thorny stem of the rose, sinking deep into the grave, cut the flesh on her white back until it tore into tatters and bled in the darkness of the tomb. At last she crawled away, through the tunnels beneath the snow, between the roots of the pine trees, back to the depths of Hellsink Pond, and Abe opened his eyes.