“Elaine,”said her father gently. “Talk to me.”
Her mother took a small step toward her in the shallow foam, aching to help but reluctant to intrude. Elaine kept her face toward the waves—outsized waves,powered to unusual height by the storm blowing toward Nag’s Head from the Gulf. If she could wash her ears in their sound a few moments longer, she would gain strength to speak.
Four years before, a shining girl had skimmed out of nowhere over the near-dusk sands and halted in front of Elaine.
“Hi, can you understand the words I’m saying?” she asked.
“Of course,” Elaine had replied, puzzled.
The girl had laughed, a quicksilver sound that danced on Elaine’s ears the way tiny foam fingers danced on the shore.
“I’m Illumina,” she said. “I had to get permission to approach you. Nobody like me has ever played with a human girl.”
“You aren’t human?” Age ten,E laine was old enough to know two things at once: that a nonhuman girl could not be real, and that she was not seeing a hallucination.
“I am the daughter of a moonbeam and the foam of the sea. . . .”
Mr. and Mrs. Sandgate waited.
Fourteen-year-old Elaine’sshoulders squared, and she said without turning: “Illumina’s fading.”
Mr.Sandgate managed a strangled, “Yes.” They all stared seaward.
“Call her,” Elaine had screamed at her confounded parents the next evening, “or she’ll refract into moonlight and foam.F rom yesterday evening to this, that’s all she has—unless you believe me and ask her to be your daughter!”
“But no one’s there!” bellowed Mr. Sandgate, straining to discern silver moonlight and dying sunset from gleaming breakers. Where was Elaine’s sylph-like friend?
“ I see her!” shrieked his wife,e yes bulging, limbs thrashing through the waves toward the dissipating image. “Illumina! We want you!”
“Elaine,” stuttered Mr. Sandgate now. He and his wife closed the short distance between themselves and their daughter. They put their arms around her waist, laying their heads against hers so tenderly that she began to weep: free, healing tears.
“We shouldn’t have come back,” she gasped. “It just made her more tired.”
“She wanted to come,” Mrs. Sandgate said soothingly. “We came for our usual vacation and we came to remember the day she brought light and song and an amazing secret into our lives.”
“She’s so weak. She could die!”
“What do we do, take her to a doctor?” her father asked—a rhetorical question. Just getting Illumina through a physical so she could audition for La Guardia’s dance program six months before had required ingenuity. Mrs. Sandgate had sewn tiny fishing weights into the giggling girl’s underwear so she would tip the doctor’s scales at a near-normal weight. Illumina also drank hot tea before the appointment, raising her temperature just enough to get her past the thermometer reading. The doctor had looked askance at the thermal underclothes, dense sweater, and down coat Illumina had donned after the physical, to face thirty-one degree weather. Mrs. Sandgate had hurried her out of the office, not wanting to explain that this adopted daughter could actually freeze.
What medic could help a girl who had already lived so long beyond her appointed time? To whom could the family explain what they didn’t want to admit—that light and foam must return to their origins just as flesh and blood, far less transient, must return to the earth?
A mighty wave sent parents and daughter scurrying up the broad beach, the unaccustomed waters surging nearly to their cottage.
The cottage door opened. It framed Illumina, her silvery hair whipping about her delicate face. She wore a heavy turquoise necklace Elaine’s parents had given her, not so much for its beauty as for its weight, to help her narrow feet keep contact with the ground.
“Illumina!Shut the door!” cried all three Sandgates.
Illumina didn’t stir. Her large green eyes gazed at them, her joy and grief enveloped them; the world itself stood still, so pure was the emotion among them.
In the next instant a blue-green circlet arced skyward, drawing the Sandgates’ eyes. A softness of silver and mist streaked past their cheeks. Elaine wailed, “Illie,wait!” and ran hopelessly over the sands, a thing of mud and sticks pursuing bright beams and sea spray.
This was the moment they had all taken pains to avoid, when late sunset and rising moon lit the wet sands just as on the evening Illumina was birthed. The finger-like rays would dissolve the cool airy body through which the soul of Illumina had enlivened their world. In past years she had carefully retreated to the beach cottage before evening. Now Elaine saw flashing arms flung wide—saw the fingers separate into sparkling droplets—then a vast wave crashed upon Elaine’s head. First her back, then her knees and elbows scraped harsh sand. She couldn’t scream, her head was under water.The waved slowed; she paddled forward, was knocked backward by the sucking drag of the receding waters, and rolled helplessly again. Something snared her hair—hands clenched her arms—her head burst up from the foam into the strengthening dusk. Her parents were hauling her toward the cottage, their eyes the size of tractor wheels. Elaine caught her footing. Hard stones in the fine sand bruised her instep. She staggered, reached down, seized a handful of . . . turquoise.
For timeless moments she and her parents existed apart from sea breeze or driven surf or screeing gulls. They saw only the twinkling stones. Four years of memories paraded in unruly leaps across their inner vision. Individually they found themselves murmuring, laughing, shaking heads, smiling through tears.
At last Elaine raised her chin. She looked at her mother, at her father. Hands firm, she lifted the necklace and slid it onto her own neck. Then she linked each arm through a parent’s elbow and together the three mounted the cottage steps.