"Moon Illusion"

By TreeHugger

There is a spell that is cast between the moon and the sea; a fascination of shimmering light upon the nebulous deep, a silver touch on alabaster crested waves. It is enchantment in its purest form, a mingling of the elements in a dance as ancient as Time itself, primal and untamed.

Many are caught in its bewitchment, captured by the play of light on water, light that sparkles and flashes, coruscating with clarity as though a handful of diamonds had been scattered across the sea, fracturing the light into a million brilliant pieces.

It dazzles the eyes and the soul, drawing people from far and near to stand on the edge of the world, becoming enthralled. It is an attraction that began when the world was new made and the first men stood on the shore gazing at the water or children spun in delightful abandon on the sand at one with the world and all it contained, the primordial joy of being alive, the feeling of connection to something greater and bigger than oneself.

A component of this spell is the white gulls, turning and wheeling overhead as the sun vanishes, their cries harsh yet compelling. Another is the slow measured strokes of the pelican's wings as they skim just over the sea or the sandpiper's hasty chase over the beach for his supper; the sand sharks gliding effortless in the shallow water; the small crabs that appear suddenly from their small holes and vanish as quickly, hidden from view, lingering a finger's depth below the sand, sand that is turned from gold to silver as the sun sinks into the bay and the moon begins it slow ride into the heavens.

Another element of the charm cast by the sea is the silvery sleek form of the dolphins that frolic offshore just beyond the reach of the swimming humans. Their powerful bodies knifing through the waves in a dance of grace and power that human athletes can only dream of.

And if one is to see them in the moonlight perhaps an even greater spell is woven, a different sort of magic is birthed, a magic that refuses to be forgotten no matter how swiftly the years pass. If one were to permit the spell to take hold of them, to live within them throughout their lifetime, who could say what could happen, perhaps anything… if one allowed.

Dove Cottage had been the retreat of Merrill Vernon's family for as long as she could remember. Walking up the wooden pathway from the drive of crushed clam shells, Grace at her elbow lest she should stumble and fall as if she were an infirm, fragile thing, filled the old woman with excitement just as it had when she had run onto the porch for the very first time as a young girl, leaning on the railing and gasping with pleasure at the pale sand and surging blue waters, the wind tugging at the ribbons in her hair.

The air was brisk and tinged with salt. It was the most invigorating scent she knew; it quickened the blood, filled one with the sense of being alive and for a moment she could forget the arthritis that twisted her joints painfully, and made walking

something she had to think about, something that she had come to dread. Long gone were the years she had run freely over the sand that felt so delightful between bare toes or dove into the cold embrace of the deep, feeling it tugging at her legs or cradling her gently as she floated on her back staring at the blue expanse of the summer sky, her lips tasting of salt.

September and October were really the best times of the year to visit the cottage. The flocks of summer people had gone home to the cities or mountains, their pilgrimage completed, allowing this small seaside village to revert to its natural state of quiet and solitude. The only sounds now were the cries of the sea birds, the breeze in the tall rattling grasses, and the susurration of water on sand. The noisy cars and noisier people had gone away, not to return until the next summer season when the air began to warm and the sea began to call to them once more, beckoning gently yet insistently.

Now was the time for those who heard its quieter summons, when the air was brisk, the water growing colder, the days golden; summer's bright edges dulled and softening. People of a more contemplative nature were drawn here in the off season, the quietude that summer no longer held; the deeper communion between man and the sea.

"It's beautiful here, isn't it, Aunt Merrill?" Grace commented, her hand tightening slightly on the older woman's arm, a shared excitement linking them together.

They stood silently on the wooden boardwalk for a moment and allowed the ocean and the wind to speak to them, each smiling and almost unaware of the other so close was their connection as they communed with the soul of nature that stirred all around them,

awakening what slumbered with in each human, its song silenced by the demands of life and the barrage of manmade diversions and entertainments.

"Why don't you bring our things in, Grace?" Merrill said quietly, breaking but not destroying the enchantment with her voice, patting the girl's tanned arm. "I can make it from here," she said before there could be any protest, hoping her voice did not sound as querulous as it had in her mind. She did not want to be the stereotypical grouchy old woman. How easily she fell into that pattern! Yet it was somehow humiliating to lean against someone, someone young and hale, someone who could stand and walk unaided.

Her hand tightened on the cane she leaned upon, a twisted stick of rich dark wood, polished and smooth, the handle fitting her hand perfectly. It was rustic looking and she loved it, almost as much as she hated it for being necessary.

When Grace had left her, hurrying back to the car and making a point of not watching her great aunt's progress, Merrill forced her way forward, step by painfully slow step.

"Getting old is not what it should be," she hissed to no one in particular, grasping the smooth cedar railing that would aid her way up the three steps and onto the porch.

The house did look very nice. It had been painted fresh pale grey, the window trim and doorframes stunning white that gleamed in the sunlight. The front door was painted pale blue, just as it had always been, and Merrill smiled in spite of herself.

She knew that Grace was standing by the edge of the house now, her young face worried and patient, waiting for Merrill to move up the steps, alone and unassisted, and the old woman ground her teeth together and lifted her right leg, proceeding as quickly as she could, telling herself that she was doing very well, very well indeed, that it did not look like it was costing her the effort that it was.

As soon as she stepped up onto the porch, letting out a small secret sigh of relief, Grace came around the house, smiling merrily, balancing their two small suitcases and a bag of groceries, all that they would need for their time here at Dove Cottage, pretending that she had not seen the struggle that such a simple act was for her great aunt.

"Dad and I painted this summer, as you can see," she said, setting the suitcases and the bag of groceries on the bench by the door, and digging out the keys as the old woman leaned on the railing, gazing at the ocean once more.

"Davey has always been very good about keeping the place up for me. Probably can't wait to sell it when I dead."

"Aunt Merrill! What kind of thing is that to say? Dad would never sell it. He loves it here." Grace clucked disapprovingly as she opened the door, and moved into the house, bearing their things once more. "And so do I," she added. "I wouldn't let him sell it, don't worry."

"He'll put in central air, too," Merrill continued, with a sardonic smile as if she had not heard the girl. Once one had decided that biting sarcasm was called for, it was hard to stop; she was a grouchy old lady, wasn't she? "Sea breezes aren't good enough for people anymore. The drive will have to be paved, and a second floor added. Or," she moved toward the door, feeling old once more, deflated and sad, "they will tear it down. No one likes old things anymore, they don't appreciate them. Everything must be bigger and better and newer. Bah."

She stood on the threshold, her free hand resting on the frame, gazing at the small wooden sign that read "Dove Cottage 1922" hanging to the left of the door. She ran her fingers over it, assailed with the feeling that this would be the last time she would be

here. She did not know why she felt this with such assurance, but she did. It filled her with an aching emptiness and a heavy sorrow that seemed to whisper that life was finished and there was nothing to be done about it. Her time here was nearly over.

"Dad loves Dove Cottage just as it is, Aunt Merrill," Grace reiterated, unpacking the things that needed to be put in the refrigerator. "You don't have to worry."

"Yes, perhaps, but I don't think your mother does." Merrill sighed, not quite ready to let it go. She did not really like her nephew's wife, even if she was Grace's mother, and Davey certainly seemed taken with her, even after all these years. Grouchy old ladies were allowed their dislikes and prejudices; they had earned them. "Some people don't appreciate things like they should."

You're sounding querulous again, old girl, she told herself sternly, but realized she really didn't care just now. Another thing about getting old was that you ceased to worry about what others thought of you.

"Mom just isn't a beach person, Aunt Merrill," Grace called from the kitchen in her mother's defense, though she did not understand why her mother did not love it here as much as her father did, or as well as she did. Granted, Kristen was very careful about spending too much time in the sun as her pale, nearly flawless skin attested to. Grace's

skin was tanned and freckled; it would never be the perfect alabaster Kristen wanted for her daughter. "It's not healthy," she would say. "Too much sun causes skin cancer."

Her mother had suggested they sell the old cottage "once poor old Aunt Merrill is gone." Not that Grace would ever tell her great aunt that.

"Are you certain that this will be enough?" the girl asked putting the last of the groceries into the cupboard, which had a fresh coat of pale grey paint adorning them. "What would you like for dinner tonight? I can drive to the seafood market for fresh fish if you want. Or maybe some shrimp. It's September so they might even have oysters. I could make some fritters."

"That would be rather nice." Merrill smiled. The girl had gotten her 'real' driver's license, and no longer needed an adult in the car with her, so she found any and all excuses to drive alone, even if it was the short trip to the seafood market a few blocks away.

Merrill stood at the door, facing the ocean once more, her hand reaching into her sweater's pocket, groping suddenly in its emptiness.

"Grace? Grace! Do you have my shell? You know the one, the Atlantic Moon Snail."

The girl appeared in the doorway, a smile on her face as she held out one hand. "It fell out of your pocket in the car, and I picked it up when I went back for our things," she said gently placing the shell in the old woman's trembling hand. "It's really important to you, isn't it?"

"Foolishness," Merrill breathed, closing her hand about it and letting out a sigh of relief, belying her words. "Utter foolishness. It's just a shell."

Grace squeezed her shoulder gently with a knowing smile, and moved back into the house to fetch the watering can. Red geraniums bloomed in terracotta pots on the porch bench, but she turned back when she heard the quiet query: "Do you believe in magic, Grace?"

"What?" The girl looked up, her red hair falling like a curtain over her shoulders as she gazed over at her great aunt.

"Oh, nothing. It's foolishness."

The next morning the two women stood on the porch, Merrill seated in the old rocking chair while Grace squirmed restlessly on the steps. Merrill knew that the girl would much rather be running down the beach on the warm sand or splashing in the waves though the water was getting chilly. Grace was aware that she should spend her time with her great aunt, so she hunched, vibrating with pent up energy, on the smooth old steps, her blue-green eyes sparkling as she watched the endless play of sunlight on the water.

"Oh, look, Aunt Merrill!" she gasped, pointing toward the sea. "There's a group of dolphins, just there."

"They travel in pods, dear. They are social creatures, after all."

Not far from the shore were indeed several dolphins, their strong shimmering bodies cutting through the waves like elegant carousel horses as they dove and resurfaced and dove back beneath the water again.

"Aren't they lovely," Grace continued, a beaming smile on her face. "How did you know that? About the pods, I mean."

Merrill leaned forward in the rocker chair, her hands grasping its arms.

"Oh, I know a few things about dolphins. Do you have the binoculars, Grace?"

The young woman hurried into the house and returned a moment later, handing them to the older woman, who raised them to her eyes as the girl stood on the steps waiting.

"Oh! Did you see that one, Aunt Merrill? It jumped completely out of the water!"

Merrill leaned forward in the white rocker, the glasses trained on the leaping silver bodies. Even though they were a part of the natural world, they were magical nonetheless, the September sunlight glistening on their sleek hides, their playful abandon so exhilarating to see. They often reminded her of children, uninhibited and full of joy, not caring that they were enjoying themselves and happy.

"Have you ever seen them in the moonlight, Grace?" she asked quietly.

"No, I haven't. Have you?"

Merrill leaned back in the chair, rocking slowly, cradling the binoculars on her lap.

"A long time ago, yes. There was one…." She rocked a bit faster, feeling agitated and suddenly restless. "I was sixteen at the time," she continued, her voice low and distant, "not much younger than you. For three nights he was out there, a little closer each time…."

The girl turned to look at her, hearing something of the wistfulness that colored her companion's voice.

Merrill sighed, leaning her head against the back of the rocker and closed her eyes, a slight smile on her lips.

"I used to wish I was one of them," she murmured, not quite addressing the girl, and a smile curved her lips for just a second before she snorted. "Silly, isn't it?"

Grace smiled back. "Not really. I used to want to be a horse. They are so strong and beautiful, graceful, fast. My friends and I used to pretend that we were horses, running and galloping in the yard."

"I remember," Merrill said with a chuckle.

Perhaps the desire to be something one was not was experienced by everyone at some point. The desire to be different, unconfined. Being human could be difficult, almost as if a secret glimpse of what we could be, should be, was seen most clearly in horses or dolphins, butterflies, birds. Somehow that made it seem less silly, but it also made it seem less magical at the same time.

She looked at the girl, who was still gazing longingly at the ocean.

"Go ahead, dear. I don't mind."

Grace turned to look at her quizzically, and Merrill smiled and nodded.

"Go and enjoy it for both of us."

She watched as the young woman leapt from the steps practically flying and ran across the sand, long red hair streaming behind her as she shed her shorts and tee shirt, revealing the bathing suit she wore beneath them, and dove into the waves after a quick wave of one hand.

Merrill watched her wistfully, remember a time when she would have been the girl running across the sand. Her hair had been nearly the same color as Grace's when she had been young; now it was white, faded and fragile, old; it was just as tired as the rest of her was.

Where have the years gone? she thought sadly, watching her great niece frolicked in the water, waving and smiling. Merrill waved back. She reminds me so much of myself. I wonder if she has ever been in love…. She had been once, long ago when she was sixteen and still believed that anything was possible, even magic.

She had been young and innocent, all of life held infinite possibilities. He had swept off her feet those enchanting evenings, culminating one night beneath the full Harvest Moon that glowed above the sea, a perfect golden ball. They had been the happiest days of her life, the best days, and she often wondered if they had tainted her somehow since she had never been in love since.

"Feeling bitter about being an old maid again, hm?" she chuckled, rocking back and forth slowly. "Now is certainly not the time to worry about that. It is much too late

for regrets…." She frowned, watching the dolphins now as they continued to move away, sliding in and out of the waves.

Her fingers slid into her pocket and closed about the smooth shell.

Why am I here?

But she knew the answer; it was the same every year. And tonight….

Grace was sprinting up the beach toward her, a smile lighting her face as she flung herself onto the steps in that artlessly graceful manner of young things, only slightly out of breath.

"That was glorious," she declared, wringing out her long hair. "I wish you could…" She stopped the words, but Merrill smiled.

"I had my time to be young, dear. Enjoy it while you can; it doesn't last forever. Did I tell you about the time Louisa and I…."

When she spoke of those long gone summers, she did not sound old at all; her eyes shone vibrantly, showing who she really was, the person inside the aging body, the shining soul of self, and Grace watched this transformation with amazement and tenderness, glimpsing for a moment the person her aunt had been when she had all of life before her, and every day was a blessing and dreams were bright and shining.

Photos scattered across a dresser have a tale to tell, an old one of days long gone and yet that seemed so very real and present, more so than the events of today may have been. Having a picture can bring the memory into sharp, bittersweet focus. They held the same power to peel away the layers of years that telling stories of bygone times did, times that have become softened into rainbow hued memories, the good far outweighing the bad.

"Aunt Louisa is older than you, right?"

"Yes, she is one year, three months and twelve days older than I am," Merrill answered, her lips turning up in a soft smile as she lifted the silver framed black-and-white photograph of her and Louisa. "She was seventeen that summer and I was sixteen."

"You were very pretty," Grace commented.

"You are only saying that because you know you resemble me," the old woman returned with a twinkle in her eye as she replaced the photograph.

"Well, maybe," the young woman admitted with an impish grin. "You look very happy in this picture."

"Oh, I was very happy. That was my best summer here, the very best."

Grace picked up another photo as Merrill turned to look at the pictures arrayed on the dresser bathed in the glow of the small lamp, set so neatly on the white cloth crocheted by her mother during one of the golden summers here at Dove Cottage. The photos mingling amidst the scattering of small shells, rocks, smooth pieces of glass and drift wood she and her sister had gathered from the beach.

Merrill's mother Ruth would sit on the porch plying her needle as she rocked back and forth in the rocking chair which was placed where she could keep an eye on her two daughters. The two girls would be splashing in the waves or building sand castles at the

water's edge, collecting shells or stones at the high tide mark or gathering seaweed and mermaid's purses.

They had wonderful times here at Dove Cottage.

The picture she held so tenderly was an old, faded black-and-white photo of Merrill and Louisa; they were dressed in old-fashioned looking swimsuits that had been all the rage at the time, and smiling widely for the camera, their long hair flowing in the ocean breeze, crowned with seaweed.

We looked like mermaids, Merrill thought with a melancholy smile. We thought we were….

There was a picture of her mother standing on the porch, a wide brimmed hat on her head, one hand lifted to shade her eyes. Another was of her father standing at the water's edge, gazing out over the sea, his ancient boater perched on his head.

"What happened?"

Merrill turned to see the girl's eyes glowing slyly, and she chuckled.

"What do you mean?" she rejoined.

"I mean, what happened that summer to make it the best one?"

What had happened that summer? It seemed almost too ridiculous to say it out loud. She had thought about that time often, but it had some magical quality that made telling it to someone, revealing the secret, hard to do. Yes, magical, that was the word that kept coming to mind when she thought of that extraordinary events. Events that she had learned to downplay, to negate when she had ceased to believe that….

"Was it a boy?"

The woman turned to see Grace looking at her, the girl's blue-green eyes shining with mischief as well as curiosity.

"Well," she drawled, "actually it was a boy," Merrill admitted, though she did not return the smile this time. "A beautiful boy."

"Really?" Grace sank to the floor at Merrill's feet, staring up at her great aunt with interest. "What was his name?"

The old woman did smile now, a smile of fond remembrance.

"His name was…Thalassinus." She gazed expectantly at Grace and was not disappointed.

"Thalassinus," the girl repeated, her brows winging upward. "That's a weird, uh, I mean unusual name. Was he a… foreigner?"

Merrill laughed with delight.

"One could say that, yes. He was not from here, not exactly. And it is a 'weird' name! You need not be polite."

"Tell me about him!" Grace wrapped her arms about her long legs, hugging them to her chest, her face glowing with excitement. "How old was he? Where was he from? Was he hot? What did Aunt Louisa think of him? Was she jealous?"

Merrill laughed once more, her fingers creeping into her sweater's pocket. Oh, the enthusiasm of youth!

"I don't know how old he was; he didn't say. Aunt Louisa…well, she never met him. And yes, he was hot."

"So you kept him a secret?"

"One could say that, yes."

"What did he look like? Was he…."

The questions tumbled from the young girl and Merrill shook her head, looking bemused.

"Go put the kettle on, dear. All this chatter is wearying. I need something to wet my old throat."

After Grace had vanished into the kitchen, rattling the cups and looking through the boxes of tea in the cupboard as she waited for the water to boil, Merrill sighed wearily.

"Silly old woman. Silly. Ridiculous. You can't tell her about this; she will never believe you…I don't really believe anymore…do I?"

She did not believe in the magic any longer, not really, having convinced herself that what she thought had happened when she was sixteen had been nothing more than mere fancy, a childish dream spun of a summer romance in the moonlight. What if he had been a mere moon illusion?

Then why am I doing this every year? she questioned wryly as she took the Moon Snail shell out of her pocket and gazing at it, her eyes filled with old emotion. Every year I come here and every year….

Every year it was the same. She came to Dove Cottage, shell in her pocket and she waited, but nothing ever happened.

"Nothing will happen," she said to the picture of the two young girls on the beach.

"Morning will come and nothing will be changed. The shell will still be here and I…." Her faded eyes gleamed with unshed tears. "I will still be old and alone…."

Grace had finally worn Merrill down with her barrage of queries, not letting her great aunt conveniently turn the conversation away from Thalassinus as they sipped hot chamomile tea. The older woman thought she might rather enjoy speaking of her 'summer romance' with someone for the very first time; she wondered why she had waited so long. She had wanted to tell Louisa, but her sister was too practical to believe her tale. Conversing with her young great niece was so much easier than she could have imagined. For when the subject of Thalassinus was once more broached, Merrill found that she truly did want to confide in her niece. She wanted to tell her everything.

She waited while the girl poured more pale tea into the china cup, and took a thoughtful sip.

"What you must understand, dear," she began, her eyes moving to gaze out the window that overlooked the pale sand. "Oh, dear!" she exclaimed, setting the teacup on the low table between them, and standing, trying not to wince as the dull pain throbbed in her hips and knees, her ankles swollen.

"What's wrong, Aunt Merrill?" Grace was instantly by her side, her face filled with concern.

"I nearly forgot. The moon is up." She took the girl's arm, easing carefully to her feet and allowed Grace to help her to the door, which she opened, emerging on the moon-washed porch. "It's full tonight," she whispered, her hand creeping into her sweater's pocket, and then almost to herself, "It is time. Please let it be time." She feared that time had run out for her; this was her last summer here.

She held the shell to her breast, closing her eyes, and then gently placed it on the freshly painted porch railing. The shell glowed softly, the light of the moon muting the colors to shades of pale bronze and silver. The light pulsed over it, glimmering.

"It's time for what?" Grace breathed, looking mystified.

Merrill gazed up at the full pale gold moon.

"It's called the Harvest's Moon," she murmured. "See how it looks so very close. That only happens during the full moon closest to the equinoxes. It's known as moon illusion. The moon is not really closer, it merely appears that way, fooling us all." A slow smile crossed her face. "It is enchanting all the same." She closed her eyes, her hands clasped over her chest. "'I will come to you when the time is as full as the Harvest Moon.'"

"Aunt Merrill?"

The old woman sighed and opened her eyes. His voice had sounded so clearly in her head, as if he had said the words only yesterday or a mere moment ago. "I think I will tell the story to you, Grace, if you want to hear it," she said quietly, her fingers brushing over the shell's cool surface. "You may think that your old aunty has lost her marbles, but I swear that everything I will tell you is true." She took the girl's arm once more and led her back into the house. "Maybe I will believe again."

The story that Grace heard that evening was one of late summer love between a young girl who could not resist the lure of the moonlight on the sea and a mysterious young man named Thalassinus. Merrill had slipped from her bedroom on the night of the full moon, running over the cool sand to the water where she had seen the dolphin playing the last two nights; each time it appeared to be closer to the shore. She could not resist; she wanted to be out there beside the water with it, in the water with him.

But that night there were no dolphins, only a beautiful youth with silver hair and dark, ancient eyes, who had stepped from the ocean, holding one hand out to her. They had danced upon the sand to the music of the sea, twirling and spinning like laughing children filled with the delight of just being alive; the girl's long nightgown wet and clinging to her legs, not hindering her in the least.

As dawn touched the eastern sky he had given her the Moon Snail shell and whispered in her ear, "I will come to you when time is as full as the Harvest Moon." He had kissed her then, a kiss that haunted her dreams even now, bringing her to wakefulness, filling her with yearning, and yet with the knowledge that she must wait for the time that had not yet come, the time that Merrill feared would never come. He could not have been a mere illusion of the moonlight.

She could not believe that.

When Louisa had married, she urged her sister to 'find someone' not knowing that Merrill already had. But how did one explain that no man, no human man could take Thalassinus' place, that her heart had been given to someone she had met on the beach beneath the full moon, someone who had vanished into the waves and had never been seen again, leaving a young girl standing on the beach, an Atlantic Moon Snail shell clasped to her breast?

Merrill had never married though once someone had asked her; she had never regretted this decision until she had become old and tired, her body betraying her with pain and age. Doubts blossomed and she began to think that perhaps it had all been for naught; that Thalassinus had lied to her, that he had been nothing more than a young man with a better pickup line than most. She had lost the magic for a time even though she continued to come to Dove Cottage faithfully every year during the week of the Harvest Moon either in September or the rare years when it appeared in October; and every year she would wait, putting the shell on the porch railing and … nothing would happen.

This year it would be different. It had to be different.

Grace had retired to her room after much urging on Merrill's part. The girl had kissed and hugged the old woman firmly, her eyes filled with anxiety. Merrill did not know what her niece though of her tale, but it did not matter. Something inside her was growing, blossoming; an excitement that flooded her body threatening to burst free like flood waters. Was this the year? Could it possibly be that this was the time? She moved

restlessly about the bedroom, returning again and again to the window, wondering when it would happen…if it would happen.

The moon rode high in the sky, the ceaseless waves pushed against the shore.

But he was not there.

An hour later, he was not there.

The clock on the mantle ticked the hours away quietly unconcerned, one day passing into the next.

She became aware of her arthritis as the excitement ebbed and anxiety flourished. Surely, this could not be part of the magic, if indeed the magic existed.

What if he did not come? He hadn't appeared in all these years, why should this year be any different? What if he did come and he saw her, old and bent, unable to walk without aid or pain? She looked toward the small chair by the door where her cane rested, awaiting the feel of her hand on the smooth wood.

Merrill moved with reluctance to stand before the dresser, gazing into the mirror.

I am old, she thought, touching the deep wrinkles on her brow, her cheeks, and her throat, skin once taut and firm with youth now flaccid and pale. Her white, thin hair was tied back in an untidy braid, no longer the glorious spill of red-gold that it had been once.

While telling Grace her story she had felt so young, so alive, so much like herself, her true self. Looking at her faded reflection, the vitality rushed out of her, dragging her under like a riptide, drowning the momentary joy. She had only felt young, she was not young.

She lifted one hand, so knotted and twisted, with prominent blue veins, and so old that it did not truly resemble a human appendage, to the cold glass, tracing the line of her tears.

"You are a fool, Merrill Vernon," she whispered. "An old fool." Nothing was going to happen, and there was no point in deluding herself any longer. "Moon illusion," she murmured as she laid on the bed, turning on her side, her back to the window. "It was only moon illusion and a ridiculous young girl who should have known better…."

She opened her eyes just as the first silver light touched the horizon, and she wondered what it was that had recalled her to wakefulness though she could not recall having given in to sleep. She rose painfully, slowly and moved to the window. The small wind chimes on the porch were dancing in the early morning breeze, greeting the dawn with a cheerfulness that she did not feel.

Resignation and renewed sorrow dulled her eyes.

"I was so certain he would come," she said quietly. "I am such a fool. I won't come here again. I can't. I can no longer bear it."

Her eyes moved along the ribbon of pale light on the horizon that was slowly growing, bathing the sky in rose and lavender, the colors sharpening and deepening.

It was then she saw him.

He was standing at the water's edge, his silver hair catching the soft rays of the rising sun, and he smiled at her, holding out one hand.

Merrill stepped away from the window, one hand clutching her throat.

"Thalassinus," she breathed, tears catching in her throat. "He came…he came!" She lifted her hand to her lips, feeling her tears sliding over her skin. "He came…." She moved slowly across the room, trying to ignore the pain that slowed her down, kept her from him. She would not pick up the cane! But…what if he did not wait for her? What if he had vanished before she could reach him?

Amazingly with each step the pain was less and she moved from the bedroom to peer in at her niece who was sleeping peacefully. She smiled fondly, and moved into the kitchen where she wrote a quick note to the girl, amazed that her hands no longer hurt as much as they had just moments before. Joy was better than any painkiller! She propped the note against the oil lamp that rested in the table's center where the girl would surely see it, and then Merrill Vernon unlocked the door and moved onto the porch, ignoring swollen ankles and knees.

The Atlantic Moon Snail shell was gone, and she laughed, a trilling sound of pure delight and joy, feeling renewed as she moved down the sandy wooden steps, one hand on the railing, a vigor that she knew was not new, not really, merely lost and forgotten with the passing of time returning.

By the time she reached the bottom step, her toes sinking into the sand that was cool and soft as silk, she realized that something was changing. She looked down at her hands to find that they were no longer gnarled, knotted with huge veins and brown blotches. There were no wrinkles. She opened and closed them several times, feeling no pain, no reluctance in the joints, no dull throbbing at all! And she laughed, lifting them to the sky. Her arms were smooth, firm, and young. She was crying once more, crying and wanting to shout her bliss to the skies.

She lifted the long gown she wore and tore across the sand, her braid loosening to release the spill of russet and amber hair it held. When she reached his side, gazing up into his fathomless eyes, she felt suddenly as shy as she had the moment they had first met, yet she was tingling with anticipation and wonder.

"You came," she murmured at last, her voice no longer creaking and cracking with age, but filled with the timbre and sweetness of youth.

He smiled at her, one cool hand lifting to touch her cheek.

"It is time," he said quietly in a voice that echoed in her heart, and he took her hand, placing the Moon Snail shell in it before bending to kiss her.

Grace awoke from a deep sleep feeling groggy, the vestiges of her dream still playing fitfully in her mind. She had not slept well, listening to her great aunt pacing the floor until well after midnight. It was no wonder that dreams had plagued her all night.

She really believes what she told me.

The girl was not certain how she felt about the story about Thalassinus and the night when Merrill said she had met him. Grace wanted to believe it, but it seemed impossible. Things like that did not happen.

She pulled on her robe and went to peer into Merrill's bedroom. The bed was empty only the quilt was wrinkled, looking as if someone had slept on it instead of between the sheets.

"Aunt Merrill?"

The bathroom was also empty, as was the living room. The young woman wandered into the kitchen, feeling anxious and wondering if she should call her parents. Then she saw the note, neatly folded in half. With trembling fingers she picked it up. There were twelve words on the paper, twelve words that told the entire tale.

He came, Grace! He came, and I am going to join him.

Grace stood immobile for only a moment before running onto the porch, gazing out toward the ocean. There was nothing but a few gulls standing near the sparkling water.

"Aunt Merrill?"

Her heart was pounding with fear, and she nearly did not see the set of footprints leading away from the house. Panic continue to flood her as she followed them, fearing what she would find at the water's edge for she could see the glimmer of white cloth on the beach, perilously close to the water.

The gulls launched into the air at her approach, calling reproachfully as she sank to her knees beside the neatly folded nightgown, the Moon Snail shell resting atop it.

Grace plucked up the shell, gazing frantically at the water. There was no sign of her great aunt's body anywhere. She did not know what to think. She did not know what to do!

"Aunt Merrill!"

At that moment, she heard a splash and looked up. A dolphin arced through the waves playfully, followed by another, and then the two surfaced, turning to glance at the girl kneeling on the damp sand. They continued to look at her for a moment as she struggled to her feet, still holding fast to the shell. They gazed at her steadfastly and Grace shook her head; this was impossible…wasn't it? Yet the words that her aunt had written echoed in her mind: He came, Grace! He came, and I am going to join him!

The smaller dolphin spun about in the water then looked once more at the girl, and Grace began to laugh even as tears flowed freely down her cheeks. She waved to the two graceful creatures in the water.

"Aunt Merrill?" she called, sobbing with joy and amazement. She waved to the dolphins, nodding. "He came!" she cried. "He came!"

The dolphins leapt into the air and then disappeared beneath the sunlit water, leaving the young woman standing on the beach, an Atlantic Moon Snail shell clasped to her breast.

The End