Isabel

by Elizabeth Eberhardt

“Paint me as a mermaid,” Isabel said.

I stopped and looked at her.

“A mermaid from the sea coast of New Hampshire.”

Yes, I could see it. Isabel was the perfect mermaid. Sand and abalone and shells of cream glistening, trailing through her hair, down its curly length, seaweed woven into her skin, salt and sea and the fresh breeze that smells of a far-off hurricane. Turquoise water swirling around her, dazzling. A satchel of stones that were skipped and long forgotten, bits of sea glass turned over and over in her fingertips like a talisman — the spirit of the sea.

My hand moved for me. I dipped my brush into green, mixed it with blue. Heavy, textured strokes and softer ones for her skin that glowed pale, translucent, in the white moonlight that trickled through the water. She began to take shape under my hands. Details filled in like a tidal pool after the waves recede, leaving a pool of life in its wake. Life and beauty and colors.

“Should I pose? How do you want me?”

No, I let my imagination take me away. I couldn’t bear the stiffness of a pose overlapping the disengaged tension already present every time we interacted. The easel filled with colors, the light from the studio’s two windows dribbling over my canvas.

I’d never seen the ocean before. I didn’t understand how the waves could play with her toes, frolicking like a leviathan racing its mate from coast to coast. All I knew was color, the adventure of an uncharted canvas, but I usually recreated my mountains. My past, not hers. But now I painted her underwater, trying to do her justice, dappling the pupils in her eyes and tinting her warm skin a cool, clammy green like the seaweed she loved, her blond hair billowing around her as she curled up on a rock and touched a shell with the tip of her pointer finger. I intently touched the brush to the canvas, pausing to study her — unnecessary, but I wanted the chance to absorb her, saturate myself in her — this woman that I didn’t know half as well as I should and never would, whether I tried or not.

Isabel, the pearl of the sea.

She smiled at me, that distracted smile that meant her mind was a million miles away. I gently painted her fingernail, cloudy as milk, as a white shell covered in salty water. Thick lashes, thicker than in real life. She came and stood over my shoulder, examining the painting.

“I’m going to go for a kayak ride, I think,” she said. “Want to join?”

No thanks, her hope for our redemption was wasted on me. I was in my own world and she in hers, as per usual. We were in love, or love was in us. We’d coexisted for so long it was a given. We had perfected this dance, tiptoeing around each other’s scars, describing each other to our families in only the best light possible. I swirled the paintbrush idly, filling in her pensive eye with a light blue, tinted greener from the sea. I’d never been able to share in that part of her life. How was it that we’d been married four years and she’d never taken me to her sea? But then again, I’d never taken her to my mountains. We existed in a separate plane from our old lives.

I painted till the sky was dusky, lost in the seashells I had read about in books and the colors I had only ever imagined. Rain slid down the windows, dappling and warping my light. I had only heard about boardwalks, the lights and colors that always reminded me of a summer vacation pictured in an ’80s movie. I stretched and turned on the light. It was only 4:30; darkness had come soon.

I looked outside and, for the first time, truly noticed the rain lashing the windows, tearing at the pine tree in the yard. The paintbrush fell out of my fingers, smearing green-blue on the wooden floor of the cabin that had been in my family for years — my grandfather’s old studio, now reclaimed as mine — but I didn’t care. I banged the door open, nearly upsetting a can of paint in the process but stopping it before it fell. The lakeshore sprawled in front of me, trembling with the pounding of ten billion raindrops all at once, lightning flashing overhead. I splashed in up to my knees, losing my balance on the muddy bottom and falling on my hands and knees in the cold water. The wind drove at me, prying at my skin, harshly telling me to go back inside, that this was none of my business. The metal canoe in the yard rocked wildly. A life jacket sat morose next to it, pinned under its weight. Of course Isabel wouldn’t take a life jacket. She was the spirit of water, she wouldn’t need one.

I shoved the canoe into the water, weakly battling the rain. I couldn’t swim — of course I couldn’t, I grew up landlocked. I didn’t make it beyond the inlet before the canoe was rocking too badly, taking in so much water from the rain and the angry lake that I had to turn around. I waited on the shore for hours, far past when the rain gradually receded like the tide and darkness began to fall in earnest. It was there that I remembered that I was in love with her, not the spirit of her or the thought of her but her, the woman who made me eggs in the morning but ate them by herself at the breakfast table because I was too busy, and who believed that dinosaurs were oversized, aged reptiles, and who would only ever order chocolate-based ice cream from the small stand down the road.

The next day, the local paper ran an article about a local who had found a body, bloated from the lake and shrouded in the weeds from lily pads, washed up on the small public beach before sunrise. I finished the painting then, but my bristles were bent from the brush falling on the floor, and the green of the sea smudged over her throat, into her lungs, and I ran outside and threw up and wondered at the hollowness inside. My mermaid, my Isabel, had been a pivot point; someone to gracefully spin past, trying not to upset tins of paint and kayaks. But in the end, isn’t that all we have left?

Stillwater Magazine