The Mermaid and the Unicorn

A 2022 Birthday gift for Rebecca

By J. Michael Blumer


Each of us is born with a tiny spark of imagination. For a select few of us, that spark grows alongside us. It may soften at times or shine brightly when we don’t expect it. But it’s there for all our life. Imagination can stop growing and fade when we doubt Santa, and even more when the Sandman and others leave our childhood. As a senior, some imagination may come back but very little remains.  This is the story of a boy. It’s a boy of the select few; a boy who believed in magic and unicorns. And it’s the story of a mermaid who believed in the boy.

The northern forests are a great place filled with the wonder of nature and its wilderness. It’s a magical place for most. It’s a place to camp, to hike and to daydream. It’s a place to build memories. It’s a place for imaginations of the young and old to unfold.

There was a boy. He and his family camped in the woods. They came each summer to a spot where a stream entered the edge of a lake. The stream meandered between several lakes linking them together. Here, the lake started with a shallow bay full of green lily pads and their flowerers. Most of the flowers were yellow. But there was at least one each season graced with rare white petals. It floated across the bay at a spot where occasionally a moose splashed. In spring, it might be the mother moose with a calf.  With great high steps the mother would walk into the water for a cool drink and a rest from the heat. The calves liked to splash, just to see the water spray and hear the sound.

At the campsite, the boy’s father had pitched a tent and hung several gags of gear up high in tree branches to keep them safe should a bear come to investigate.  Two kayaks had traveled here on the car roof. Now, filled with fishing gear, they waited at the lakeshore. This was the beginning of the family’s second day of camping. The boy’s parents and his sister still slept. Early dawn provided light even though the sun still slumbered below the horizon. A tiny fog floated not high over the lake and stream. Soon there might be wind. For certain sun would quickly melt away the mist.

The boy hurried along a narrow path that led closer to the stream. He hoped to see a moose. He had learned from last year that early morning, when the loons were still calling, would provide his best chance.  He skidded to a stop at his favorite place; two waterlogged tree trunks. They sat half in, half out of the water and pushed tightly together forming a sort of moss-covered dock. The boy was sure they had been there for a long time. They had probably floated down from farther upstream. Just below the water’s surface an old and rusted spike stuck from one trunk. It was the kind used in railroad ties. The spike played a role in many imagined adventures. To the left of the logs, three smooth topped boulders waited for turtles who would sun themselves for half the day.eHe

The boy flopped down, then shimmied forward until he could reach out to touch the crystal-clear water if he had wanted. Using his hands like a pillow, he lay silently watching and waiting. His mind drifted. His imagination blossomed. Frogs wore suits of armor, then donned diving suits and dove beneath the storm driven waves to the sunken treasure galleons. Clouds formed dragons that tried to duel before twisting into castles.  “Plunk, plunk, plunk,” water plumes shot up from the lily pads.

The boy held his breath. The “plunking,” was the sound from a moose. Being careful not to move, the boy watched. The tall beast walked further into the lily pad shallows until the flowers reached its knees. It lowered its head to drink.

The boy felt the water near him move. He knew something had disturbed the mirror-smooth surface the water, sending the wave to gently wash nearly to his elbow. Still remaining motionless, he strained to peek out the corner of his eyes.  There was something there. Something bluer than the sky, sparkled in the water. Ever so slowly he moved his head just enough to look. It was a girl; a girl with wet golden hair in a swimsuit that glittered, reflecting the rising sun. She seemed not to notice him as she too watched the moose. She smiled, and said  “yes,” that sounded more like a breath than a spoken word. A newborn calf on wobbly legs had stepped from the tree line and waded out to be near its mother.

Not wanting to startle the girl, the boy asked, as gently and softly as he could, “Have you come to see a unicorn?”

With a start and splash, the girl disappeared under the water.

The boy remained motionless. Again, he spoke. “Have you come to watch with me for the unicorn? I’ve not seen it yet. Only the moose.”

From his other side, where he could not see without moving, he heard her voice, stronger this time. “Have you seen one.?”

“No. Only moose, and once a wolf. Most of the time I watch the frogs dance, or I sing songs with the turtles. I wish I could fly up to the clouds. They promised me they’d do a flower show later.”

There was a long pause before she spoke again, her voice more normal, “What is dancing? Turtles don’t sing and the clouds don’t do things just to please you. And yes, I want to see a unicorn.”

“Can I turn my shoulders and head so I can see you? Talking this way might make my neck grow funny.”

“It will not,” she said and giggled. “I mean your neck won’t grow. “Alright, you can turn. If you move than you said, I’ll swim away.”

Carefully the boy twisted and used one elbow to prop himself up. “Ha! So, you’ll swim away? ‘m a good swimmer too. I bet I could best you in a race.”

The girl slid back until only her head and shoulders were above water. “Well, can you do this?” she asked.

When she ducked under water, only ripples marked where she had been. The boy was wondering how long she could hold her breath when the splash grabbed his attention. She leaped high is the air from the center of the lily pads and splashed again then dove. He had hardly taken a breath when she leaped and dove again, one hundred feet away this time. Blue, mirror-like, glittering scales covered her from her arms downward; downward to two flukes of a tail.

He gasped. This was not his imagination, or was it? He shook his head. No cloud flowers. No frogs in armor. “A mermaid,” almost too softly for anyone to hear.

She swam back to him, and smiling asked, “Did I miss any dances. Did you sing or did the unicorn come while I swam?

“No, but I could dance with you now or tell you what the frogs were doing.”

“No. I don’t think so,” she said and swished her tail. “I’m not supposed to talk with you or even let you see me. You’re of the land. I’m of the water. The moose is of your world. Unicorns are of mine. How could you see one?”ow coud

“I can see lots of things. Like up there,” he said and pointed to the clouds. “I see ancient sailing ships. What do you see?”

“You’re being silly. Maybe I could watch you dance or listen to you sing. But that’s about all.”

“Only watch me dance? What about dancing with me?” he said and slid into the water. They held arms and swirled. They kicked up sprays of water. He kicked furiously whenever they drifted too deep for him to touch at least his toes to the logs. When that happened, she’d pull him closer to shore, then laugh.

After dancing they sat together, both half in, half out of the water. He told her some of the stories he had daydreamed of the frogs.

“I need to go,” he said when the sun’s rays fully claimed the morning.  My family and I are only staying four more days. Will I see you again? I won’t tell anyone about you. Come tomorrow and help watch for the unicorn again.”

“I don’t know,” she said and slipped down fully into the water. “Owe, my leg!”
she screamed and reached for the boy. He grabbed her arms and pulled her.

“You’re cut.,” he said and pulled off his wet t-shirt. He used his teeth to start a tear, then ripped a wide strip from the bottom. “You cut yourself on that rusty spike.”

Blue color tinted the improvised bandage. He snugged the knot a bit tighter until the color stopped. “I don’t know what to do. Should I call for someone or go for help?

“No,” she said and grabbed one of his hands. “That spike tore away one of my scales. I’ll have a black mark where it heals. I’ll be fine. I want to see a unicorn.  Help me back into the water. I’ll come tomorrow to help you watch again.”

The next day he waited. The next day she came. The unicorn didn’t. He entertained her with more of his stories about grand dances and creatures wearing fantastic costumes as they watched and waited. After only an hour they gave up on that day’s watching. She led him through the water to the far shore and up a creek to a large pool fed by a waterfall. They played in the spray, sunned on the boulders, and tried to outdo each other with more stories. Before the sun marked noon, they swam back to the dual logs.

The third day was much the same except for the sadness it held.  They held hands and stared for the longest time into each others’ eyes.

“I won’t be back tomorrow,” he told her. My family and I are going home. Our camping trip is over but we’ll be back next year.”

She let go of one of his hands, so she could use one of hers to wipe away a small tear. “I’ll watch for the unicorn for us while you’re away. I’ll be here next year waiting for you. She dropped her hand and embraced him.

After their long hug and more tears, she turned and disappeared under a swirl of sparkling water.

The next year, soon after the ice thawed, the mermaid began checking the logs near the lily pads. She checked each day. Some days she lingered, watching for the unicorn. It never came. Neither did the boy. The second year she checked each week. The following years she checked whenever she happened to be nearby. She did her own daydreaming. She never had another land-walker friend. Alone, she played in the waterfall pond or visited a real human dock. She marveled at the wildflowers and pretended the boy had picked a bouquet for her.

One day, a day long after the boy’s visits measured in people days but not as long in mermaid time, she heard a voice calling.

“Come watch for the unicorn,” the voice called, muffled by the early morning mist. It came from across the lake, from where the two logs still sat.

She swam fast, then stopped, sending a cascade of blue ripples ahead of her. Her emotions churned. She turned and slowly swam another direction. The voice, itself sounding weak and shaky, called again, followed by two loons who seemed to call back.

For quite some time, she stayed still. So did the voice. She couldn’t shake away the tears that formed. A quick wipe with her arm wouldn’t stop them either.  After one more breath, she sprinted toward the logs.

She stopped far enough away to make a hasty retreat, should she either need to or choose to. There at the logs, feet with socks but no shoes, extended into the water. They were the legs of an older man. She could not see his face with him laying on his back. He cupped his hands around his mouth and called.

“Have...” he yelled then coughed. “Have you come? Have you come to see… to see… to see the unicorn?” He dropped his hands to his sides. His chest raised and fell with his slow breathing.

Nearly crying, the mermaid swam to him. She knew it was her childhood friend, no longer a boy; now a very old man-boy.

She wiggled up close, put one arm across him. “Yes, I have,” she said. “I have come to see the unicorn.  Where is it? Is it yours?” She placed her cheek on his chest and listened.

He smiled and opened his eyes but could not raise his head to look at her. She helped him to his side so he could see both her and the pond.

“I’m sorry he said. We stopped coming here and I wasn’t old enough to drive. Years later I could drive but I couldn't come here. Then a long time later I could but you… you and I were then so far in the distant past.”

“I have something of yours I kept all this time she said and held up her wrist to show him a bracelet. “See?” she said. “See the strand of cloth woven between the bark strings? That’s all I have left of that bandage you made me when we first met. Do you remember?”

He coughed again and nodded. “I do. I was so worried when you cut yourself. I thought it was my fault. The spike’s not there because I pulled it out and saved it all these years. Sometimes I would set it on my desk and dream about us dancing in the waterfall.”

“How many days will you stay this time?” she asked.

He gave a small false chuckle. “Only this day I’m afraid. I had to beg my son and granddaughter to bring me here for one final memory visit. They won’t camp, only picnic. I wanted to try to see you and give you back something I have of yours.”

She had to sit up so he could reach something in his pocket. He held out a closed fist.

“Something of mine?” she asked.

He didn’t answer but opened his hand. Light burst forth, brighter than sun on ripples of the pond.

“My scale,” she said and clasped her hands together. She carefully took the scale and kissed him on the cheek. “Watch.”

She twisted so he could see the black scar on her side. When she touched the scale to it, blue light shimmered. The back was gone.

“Look. Do you see the unicorn,” he said, his voice faint.

She looked across the pond. There where the trees ended and the lily pads began, the low morning fog floated and swirled like magic around the legs of a white unicorn.

“Don’t move. Don’t scare it,” she said and placed her hand on his chest.

She watched in awe as it walked to the single white lily pad flower. I dropped its head to pluck the petal and surrounding buds.

“Grandpa. Grandpa?” sounded from up the trail.

The unicorn raised its head, listened, then darted away.

“I’m guessing that’s you granddaughter calling,” the girl said. “I’d like to meet her but I suppose I should go. Maybe you could bring …” Her voice trailed off. He still lay motionless, still smiling. “Have you come to see the unicorn?” she asked him softly. “It was lovely, wasn’t it. “I’m glad we saw it together.”

After one last kiss to his cheek, the water sparkled brighter than before, as she swam away.