Swimming Lessons off the North Shore

By Paula R. Stiles

The little boy had opalescent eyes and imbricated skin. He was human. He walked on two feet with ten toes, had two hands with ten fingers. Yet those feet and hands were webbed. And he almost smelled like seaweed. Like his mother.

His father worried about him. He didn’t like to take his son down to the beach. The few times they went, to go clamming or just to walk and pick up seashells, the boy was far too enthusiastic. He would jump up and down, in and out of the surf, barefoot or in shoes. And he would stare out to sea, to the reef that was the boundary between the shallows and the deep with all its singing mysteries. The father would watch the boy intently, sure that if he so much as took his eyes off him for a second, the boy would disappear into the waves like the flash of a fish. His mother had drowned herself a little farther north only two years before.

But the boy had begged and pleaded. Finally, the father gave in. They would go horseback riding on the beach. Surely, that was safe enough.

The first oriflamme of danger appeared when the owner of the stables led them to the paddock where the horses waited. One of the ubiquitous horse-mad teenagers that worked there has already saddled up two horses for them.

What warned the father next was the smell. He caught it and at first thought it was the groom. There were trends in the local youth toward his own boy’s looks, especially among those of the old town diehards who had settled there back in the 17th century. But as he approached, he realized that it wasn’t the groom at all. It was the horse.

The horses seemed normal enough on the surface–one, a head-shaking, side-stepping black mare and the other a grass-chewing, hard-mouthed, gelded specimen of equine nonpulchritude in bay colors. But the gelding lacked the usual musty, grass scent of horses. Instead, he smelled like fish. Or seaweed at low tide.

The father backed up, immediately made uneasy by the stink of day-old fish wrap. He put a hand up to the groom. “Wait here. I want to talk to your boss first.” He turned to his son. “I’ll be right back.”

His son nodded, though he seemed confused, or perhaps disappointed. The father didn’t want to think about the latter. Of course his son wouldn’t mind. And they could always take another horse. The father ran around the side of the barn, to catch the owner who had disappeared from sight. He’d rented horses from her before and she never stuck around for the nitty-gritty of saddling a horse and sending it out with its owners. She always left that to the teenagers.

Even though it had only been a few minutes, the owner was already well-headed back toward the house. The father had to run to catch up. “Excuse me!” he called. “Excuse me! Wait up, please!”

The owner slowed, looking reluctant. “No refunds,” she grunted in true Old-New-England style. She was a middle-aged woman of slowly-accumulating gravitas in knee-length black leather boots, jeans and a ratty t-shirt.

The father felt annoyed. Of course, the woman wouldn’t give him a refund. She was famous around town for making any money that passed into her hands disappear in a feat of legerdemain. And anyway, it was only thirty dollars for an hour’s ride. He switched tack.

“It’s not about that,” he said. “I’m a little concerned about that gelding. He seems a little…spirited.”

The owner stopped and turned around. She guffawed. “Are you kiddin’ me? Ol’ Marsh, he’s eighteen years old. He hasn’t had a spirited thought since they gelded him. He’s as calm as they come.”

“He’s not exactly like other horses, I don’t think.” The father really didn’t want to get into this, but he also didn’t want to let his son go out to the beach on that horse.

The owner raised an eyebrow. “Ah, you mean the smell. Marsh has always been like that, ever since he was a foal. His dam was like that, too. My father used to joke that she came from the sea out by the reef, not a land horse at all.”

“Yes, well, I’d like for my son to ride another horse. He’s allergic to fish.” This was a lie–his son loved fish–but he was running out of excuses, and for thirty dollars, he was a little irritated that he needed any excuses in the first place.

The owner seemed to recognize this, or perhaps she remembered that it was an unusually cold and rainy fall without many tourists and father and son were local customers she’d had before. Best not to drive them away by being stubborn. “All right. We’ll saddle you up another horse.” She hesitated and then started back down toward the barn. “I’d better go down there, myself. Jake can be stubborn with guests if they want him to do something I ain’t told him outright myself.” The father figured “Jake” must have been the disreputable-looking teenager.

Having gotten his way, the father should have been relieved. Yet, as he followed her down to the barn, he felt more uneasy than before. As they rounded the edge of the barn, he heard a shout of surprise and a high, strangled neigh. The shout sounded like Jake not his son. He exchanged a glance of surprise with the owner, then bolted past her around the barn back into the courtyard in front of it. The mare was trying to bolt toward them, Jake hanging on to her reins for dear life. Neither the gelding nor the man’s son were anywhere in sight, except for the flash of a black tail disappearing between the thorny Beach Plum bushes down the trail toward the ocean.

The father cried out in terror. His son had ridden a horse before, though he was too young to be good at it. But it wasn’t just that–it was the beach. The man felt a great dread that they were heading toward the beach.

He would have jumped on the mare, but she was clearly out of control, eyes rolling as she tried to pull away in the opposite direction from the gelding’s last appearance. Well, she would. She was a normal horse.

The father pelted down the trail after his son, dodging among the thorny bushes, still evergreen even in fall and amply covering his view. It wasn’t until he came out onto the high-tide dunes that the beach plums fell away and he had a clear view of the shoreline.

He was too late. Already, the bay gelding had entered the water up to his neck and swum out almost halfway to the reef, the boy just visible on his back. The man screamed at them both, but it was no good. Neither old Marsh nor William Martin Simms IV heeded the cries of William’s father, who could not hear the call of the sea.