LIVE oak trees formed a dense canopy of green as we drove down the narrow road lead-ing to the cottage. There was the clean scent of marsh and salt air from the Gulf of Mexico, and the minute I smelled it, I knew that I was where I wanted to be.
The white wooden cottage with screened porches on three sides was built on an inlet whose waters were as clear as sea-washed glass. In back was a fresh-water lake that was fed by a tidal creek, so at times there was a mixture of salt and fresh water.
The cottage belonged to my aunt Bardie, and over the course of a summer my relatives would visit: my Aunt Grace coming in from New York with my three cousins, and my mama and brother coming from Georgia. Uncles and fathers seldom visited. They were busy working. So, for the most part, it was a household of women and children, with Aunt Bardie in charge.
My tenth summer was the first time I'd visited alone, and while the house on the shore had always seemed magical to me, it was never more so than the summer I heard the mermaids' song.
The cottage was shaded by a live oak tree whose branches were hung with Spanish moss (what the old folks called ``old man's beard'') that was so thick that birds made nests in its green-gray softness. I ran from the car, kissed my grandmother who'd been waiting for us, and put my things in the small bedroom on the shady side of the house.
``I hope you brought lots of books,'' my aunt said, as I was unpacking. ``You'll be on your own this visit. Your cousins aren't coming till August.''
``Yes'm,'' I replied. I didn't care whether they came or not. I had my aunt and my grandmother all to myself, and I didn't want to share.
``We can try the library in town,'' Bardie said, ``but it's only open a couple days a week.''
There wasn't much to the town. There was Mr. Paul's general store, and the oyster sheds where we bought oysters and fresh-caught flounder, but there wasn't much in the way of entertainment. Then I realized what she had said.
``Research?'' I asked. ``What kind of research?'' Research was what people in college did.
``When you find something that interests you particularly, you'll want to research it,'' Bardie said, looking over at my grandmother with what could only be called a serious look.
There was definitely something going on, but it was clear that nobody was going to tell me what it was.
``I think I'll go down to the lagoon,'' I said.
``Don't get too much sun,'' my grandmother said.
``Listen for the mermaids,'' my aunt said .
``Mermaids? ''I thought. Oh, yes. Something is definitely going on here.
By suppertime, I had filled the pockets of my shorts with shells, the way I did every year. There were buckets on the porch filled with shells from past years, but each year we did it again. I searched the soft sands hopefully for a lion's paw shell, but never found one. Maybe this summer would be the magic time. As I walked back up toward the house, there was the mouth-watering smell of hush puppies and fried shrimp.
Suddenly, I heard a sound that stopped me in my tracks. It was a chirp, a kind of squeal, but it didn't sound like a bird, at least not any bird I'd ever heard. The sound seemed to come from out back, at the lake. Just then, Bardie came to the screened door and called me in for supper.
``Did you hear something?'' I asked, sitting down at the table. ``A kind of squeal?''
``Did it sound like a mermaid?'' Bardie asked, pouring iced tea into tall glasses.
``I don't know,'' I said. ``I never heard a mermaid before.''
``My, my,'' she said, raising her eyebrows. ``Maybe they don't have mermaids in Georgia. That would account for it, I guess.''
Grandmama gave me a smile. ``After supper, we'll go watch the sunset,'' she said.
It didn't get dark until nearly 9 o'clock, so after the supper dishes were done, the three of us walked down the path along the lagoon and over the dunes to the beach.
We were hoping to see the green flash that sometimes occurs when the sun seems to set into the sea, but we didn't see it that first evening. On the way back, the sea breeze was at our backs.
Grandmama said she wanted to listen to the radio. I was ready to go back to the cottage with her, but Bardie wanted to walk down by the lake. She seemed awfully anxious to go and to have me go with her.
At twilight, there was an air of mystery about the place. The surface of the lake was calm, the water hyacinths on its surface the color of the evening sky. In the distance, the marsh glimmered silver where herons stalked through the tall grass.
As we looked out over the lake, the waters began to ripple, the water hyacinths shifting and parting. Suddenly a gray head rose up out of the water. It was a manatee, wearing water hyacinths for a crown.
The huge gray beast moved slowly, reaching out a flipper for the lavender flowers that grew on the water's surface. It chewed slowly like a cow, flowers and stems hanging from its thick lips. As I gazed in wonder, I saw that its upper lip was cleft in the middle.
A moment later, a second manatee surfaced and propelled itself with a kind of side-to-side movement over to the first one. They kissed! I couldn't believe it! They kissed on the lips! They fed for a while, and by that time it was getting too dark to see clearly. Bardie and I got up and walked back down the path to the cottage.
``Is that what I heard earlier?'' I asked, ``a manatee?''
``Or a mermaid,'' Bardie said. ``At least, that's what they say. Sailors used to see them and think they were mermaids. That's why they're called Sirenians,'' she explained. ``The name of the order comes from Greek mythology. Remember in your book of myths when Orpheus saved his Argonauts by singing so beautifully that none of his crew wanted to listen to the song of the sirens? The story is that sailors spotting manatees in shallow waters thought they were mermaids.''
``They must have been looking through the wrong end of the telescope,'' I muttered. ``They don't look anything like a mermaid.''
`NO,'' Bardie laughed. ``But in the deep of the night, perhaps sailors heard them when there shouldn't have been any creature near to make the sounds they make. The sirens' song may have been the cry of the manatee.''
I shook my head. ``More likely a whale,'' I said.
That night, I was so excited I didn't expect to be able to go to sleep. But the sea air and the sound of the little owls in the trees worked their magic.
I spent most of my vacation either watching the manatees or reading about them. We only saw two in our lake the entire time. I learned that manatees are nocturnal, which means they move around at night. They eat 100 pounds of vegetation a day, and they're the only sea mammals that live entirely on vegetable matter.
FROM watching them I knew that they have no external ears and that their front legs are like large flippers with nails at the end. They live in shallow coastal waters and bays. They move in small groups and are more solitary than most mammals. They sit on the bottom of our lake and can remain submerged for about 15 minutes before they have to come up for air.
On my last evening at the cottage, the three of us walked down to the lake.
Early the next morning, we were going back to Bardie's house in Alabama. My folks were coming to spend a few days; then we'd be going to Savannah.
``Do you think the manatees will stay here all winter?'' I asked, wondering if they would be here next summer when I came for a visit.
``I'm not sure,'' Bardie said, sitting with her arms hugging her knees as we watched the two manatees feeding.
``Do you think one of them will have a baby?'' I asked. The book I read said that manatees have offspring every two to three years.
``Oh, I hope so,'' Bardie said. ''Maybe when you come back next year, there will be three manatees in our lake. Wouldn't that be something?''
``Their closest kin is the elephant,'' said Grandmama, slapping at a mosquito.
As we walked up the shadowy path together, there was a sudden high squeal behind us. We looked back and saw both manatees looking at us.
``Say goodbye to the mermaids,'' Bardie said. ``You won't forget their song.'' As we looked out over the lake, the waters began to ripple, the water hyacinths shifting and parting. Suddenly a gray head rose up out of the water. It was a manatee, wearing water hyacinths for a crown. The huge gray beast moved slowly, reaching out a flipper for the lavender flowers that grew on the water's surface. It chewed slowly like a cow, flowers and stems hanging from its thick lips.