Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid & the Carved Bird


Visitors to the Old Mermaid Sanctuary often did not recall Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid. It wasn’t because she wasn’t memorable. It was more that she was like the Old One-eyed Mountain Lion who wandered the wash that ran through the Old Mermaid Sanctuary: you didn’t see him unless he wanted to be seen; otherwise, you could be looking right at him and you’d think you were seeing the blond desert floor.

Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid was not the most social of the Old Mermaids, and she was not always comfortable in groups. She was not unkind—no Old Mermaid was unkind—but she did seem a bit cross sometimes to those who didn’t know her. She didn’t understand the social niceties people engaged in here in the New Desert. While the other Old Mermaids learned to talk about the weather with visitors to the Old Mermaid Sanctuary, Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid wondered how people could talk so much about something they had no control over.

Mother Star Stupendous Mermaid told her, “When they speak of the weather, it’s like they’re singing a chant they only half remember. No doubt their ancestors talked to the wind and rain and clouds—they’d sing to them—trying to negotiate good weather for their lives. It’s how we talked to the Old Sea, only we remembered how and they’ve forgotten.”

“Then perhaps we should have Sister Faye Mermaid teach them a sea chanty or two,” Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid said.

“It is not their way,” Grand Mother Yemaya Mermaid reminded her.

Despite any perceived ideas about Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid’s social skills, everyone from far and near knew that she could be counted on in a pinch. Even when nothing was pinching, actually. When the Old Mermaids first washed up on the shores of this particular desert, it was Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid who walked the wash and the surrounding area getting a feel for the lay of the land—quite different from getting a feel for the flow of the Old Sea. And Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid had known the flow of the Old Sea better than anyone else. She knew the shape of the curves and cliffs and gullies that the Old Sea filled with Her body. Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid knew she could leap from those cliffs and never be harmed. But here in this New Desert, that kind of easiness was no longer possible. This world was a prickly one.

It was Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid who first found the Old Woman and the Old Man of the Mountain. The Old Woman and the Old Man listened to her tale of the Old Sea drying up. Then they stood on the land behind their house and they began whispering to the mountain and the desert below. Their hands made shapes in the air while they let the New Desert and its inhabitants know that the Old Mermaids were in the wash in the toes of the foothills of mountain. “Give them succor. Afford them peace.” The breath of the Old Woman and Old Man on Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid’s face felt like a welcoming breeze. She returned to the Old Mermaids who were carefully cleaning a space on the land for their new home and brought them news of the land—including where an Old Stream wound through the desert, slowly, surely, so that all could dip in their cups and take a sip.

Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid understood that the Old Mermaids needed to learn the rhythms of their new world. Sister Faye Mermaid and Sister Bridget Mermaid conversed with the Invisibles of the place—they created new sea chanties and poems for their new home. They learned about the flora while Sister Ursula Divine Mermaid got to know the fauna. Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid walked the land. Every day she walked in a different direction, away from the Old Mermaid Sanctuary that the Old Mermaids were creating. She couldn’t seem to stop walking. The other Old Mermaids admired her; she had gotten her land legs much faster than the others. Yet at night, she still felt restless, and Sister DeeDee Lightful Mermaid—whom Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid loved best of all—and the other Old Mermaids couldn’t seem to help her become restful. She walked and walked, day after day, until she came to the home of the Woman Who Loved Birds. Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid had heard stories of the Woman Who Loved Birds but she had never seen her before.

“Are you another lost explorer?” the Woman Who Loved Birds asked Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid when they first glimpsed each other as Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid came up over the rise onto the Woman’s place.

“Just trying to figure out how this world works,” Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid said.

“Ahhh, searching for the truth, then. Aren’t you a little wet behind the ears for that?”

Sister Bea Wilder laughed. This woman was not going to talk about the weather.

“I heard you Old Mermaids had drifted this way,” the Woman Who Loved Birds said. ”Come on up and join me. Hot enough for you?”

The Woman Who Loved Birds told Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid to call her Annie, and she brought her up to her house. Every step they took went past a bird house—all different shapes and sizes. Annie told Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid she found bits and pieces of the desert and brought them back here for the birds. “If it’s got a hole and looks like it’s a nice place to rest, I bring it back. Oh, look at that spider right there. See it? Hidden so nicely in this cactus.” Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid came and stood close to Annie and saw a web between two prickly pear pads. When she squinted, she could see the spider.

“How’d you know she was there?” Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid asked.

“I heard her spinning,” Annie said. “Yep. I bet that’s not something you could hear in the Old Sea.”

She started walking again. Then she stopped and sniffed the air. “You smell that?” she asked. “Ahhh, that’s nectar to bats. They’ll be feasting tonight.” She pointed to a flowering agave.

“Smells like something rotten,” Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid said.

“Perfume to the bats,” Annie said. “I’ll show you how to make something with a little kick to it from that one day. It’ll have you howling at the moon.”

“I do that already,” Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid said.

“My kind of gal,” Annie said.

It took them a long while to go down the path to Annie’s house. Annie saw and heard and smelled so many things on the way there, and she pointed them all out to Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid. At first this stop-and-go pace was annoying to Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid. She was used to walking. She wanted to go, go, go. She was looking for something—she didn’t know what—but it had to be up over that rise or around that corner or in the next moment, so she had to keep going. But now she walked slowly next to this Woman Who Loved Birds. It took them hours, days, weeks, to finally sit beneath a tall palo verde tree near her house.

The Woman Who Loved Birds gave Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid warm tea. They sipped the liquid together while they sat in the shade. The stillness throbbed around them. Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid listened to the bees in the palo verde. A rock squirrel came near her feet, picked up some bean pods, then wandered away. After a while, Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid began to feel the ground beneath her feet—truly feel it. It was different from the Old Sea, but it was there, touching her soles: solid, deep, stable. And the sky above her was different from the sky above the Old Sea, but it was the same sky. She breathed deeply.

After a while she began to notice the birds. First she heard the quail running beneath the shrubs and trees, cooing and clucking. Then she saw them. She chuckled. She wasn’t sure why. The pear-shaped birds were just amusing to her. Then she saw a cactus wren. A raven. A mockingbird. A bright red cardinal. And hummingbirds. The hummingbirds were everywhere! It was said later—although we can’t be sure this is true—that thousands of birds came to see this Old Mermaid who was sitting with the Woman Who Loves Birds and drinking tea. Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid squinted, or sighed, or something, and the birds either went about their business or were never there in that number to begin with—although the hummingbirds did stay around, hovering in the air near Annie and Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid. Hummingbirds have always loved the Old Mermaids and they them.

When the Woman Who Loves Birds and Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid had been sitting in silence and stillness for many moments or many moons, the Woman finally said, “Hummmm.” And she sounded just like the hummingbirds. “Hummingbirds use spider webbing to hold their nests together, did you know that? Sometimes they use hair, too. I’ve seen them pull strands out from my brush. Their heart beats 500 times a minute, and that’s when they’re resting. I’ve counted. At night, they fluff their feathers and let all the heat out. Then they turn themselves off. It’s like they’re dead. In the morning, they come alive again.”

“That must be something to see,” Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid said.

“Yes, but then, isn’t it all something to be?”

“Why do they call you the Woman Who Loves Birds?”

Annie shrugged. “They used to call me the Woman Who Loves Giants.”


“Because I loved giants,” she said. “Weren’t you paying attention? Giants used to roam this place. Though, I guess you wouldn’t say them roamed. Giants don’t actually roam much. They trample. But they lived here and here abouts. Maybe thereabouts. The ones who lived here, those are the ones I loved. One in particular actually.” She was quiet. “But that’s another story.”

“You had a falling out with the giants?”

“What do you mean?”

“Well, you aren’t the Woman Who Loves Giants any more.”

“Do you see any giants?” she asked.

Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid looked around. “No.”

“They’re here,” she said. “They’ve just changed. Somehow. Some day. Some place. Maybe they got tired of being so earth bound. Maybe like you Old Mermaids got tired of the Old Sea.”

“Well, that’s not really what happened—”

“In any case.” Annie motioned all around her, reminding Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid of the Old Woman and Old Man of the Mountain. “Now the giants are creatures of the air. I will say it is much easier to be a good host now that they’re birds. They don’t eat nearly as much as they did when they were giants.”

Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid smiled. Then they sat in silence again for another week or more.

Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid and Annie became good friends. They often sat together, telling stories and sipping tea. More often they sat together and said nothing or sauntered the desert together. Annie seemed to know everything about everything, so Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid nicknamed her the Woman Who Knew Everything. Annie called her Sister Wild. Sometimes the other Old Mermaids came and visited with Annie, too.

After a time, Annie couldn’t walk in the desert as much, so she and Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid sat together under the palo verde. Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid brought her pieces of wood and Annie carved little creatures out of them—mostly birds. Sometimes the piece of desert Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid brought her was so beautiful, she said it was already what it was intended to be, and she wasn’t going to change that. After she finished carving, she would place the finished bird on the small table next to her chair. The next day, the bird was always gone. One morning, Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid could have sworn she saw one of the carved birds shake itself and fly away, just like the hummingbirds coming alive again in the morning. Annie just laughed when Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid told her what she had seen.

“You’re getting desert eyes, Sister Wild,” she said. “It’s about time.”

One day when Annie was not feeling well, Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid sat with her trying to coax her to eat some soup Sister Ruby Rosarita Mermaid had fixed her. Annie began to talk about her life.

“I miss the giants sometimes,” Annie said. “I will admit that. I love the birds. I do. But sometimes I long to feel the Earth move like it did when the giants were tramping to and fro. And Mark, my giant, he was the biggest and the noisiest. And clumsy. I can’t tell you how many trees he took down in his day.” She shook her head. “He was something to see.”

“Did he love you too?”

Annie smiled. “That sounds like something Sissy Maggie would ask. Of course he was very fond of me and I was very fond of him. But, it was not to be. It wouldn’t have worked out.”

“Sissy Maggie fell in love with the moon once,” Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid said.

“And how did that work out?”

“Didn’t,” she said. “What happened to Mark?”

Annie shrugged. “He went wherever giants go when they die. Sometimes I imagine he’s come back. I can feel the earth tremble and I see the trees sway and then I know he’s coming home. I even dreamed about it last night. He came and carried me off. It was great fun. I laughed the entire time.” She smiled to herself. Then she looked at Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid and said, “Now, you know what to do when I’m gone?”

“No, what do you mean?”

“I’ve taught you everything I know,” she said. “You know this desert now the way I know the desert, so you need to pass that knowledge on.”

Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid shook her head. “I still can’t hear a spider spinning. And I don’t believe in giants.”

“Hah! You do, too. You know, some people don’t believe in Old Mermaids.”

“Yeah, well, that’s their loss,” Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid said.

The Old Mermaid and the Woman Who Loved Giants sat together until the sun went down.

One night, Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid awakened because the earth was shaking. Or the house was shuddering. All the Old Mermaids got up and ran outside.

“This is what an earthquake feels like here,” Sister Sophia Mermaid said.

The Old Mermaids agreed that must be what happened. But Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid wasn’t so sure. As soon as the sun began to rise, she went over to Annie’s house. The palo verde was missing a branch, and Annie’s chair was knocked over. Inside the house, Annie had taken her last breath.

Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid sat on her bed and cried for a long while. It was the Old Mermaid way to let feelings flow. Later when she stepped outside and looked toward the mountains, it appeared that a path had been made between here and there. When she looked again, the path was gone. She righted the chair. A single tiny carved bird stood on the tiny table. Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid picked up the bird and put it gently in her pocket.

Later, the Old Mermaids scattered Annie’s ashes in the desert. The wind blew the ashes this way and that. The birds watched, from everywhere. Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid knew Annie would be pleased that she was now part of the earth.

Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid put the carved bird next to her bed and watched it for days, waiting for it to take flight. It never did, and Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid kept it with her for almost always. It finally got lost in the wash somehow, sometime—which is how Myla ended up with it at the Church of the Old Mermaids—but Sister Bea Wilder Mermaid didn’t need it. She remembered her friend with every step she took, and every time she sat still and listened. Sometimes she heard the birds. Sometimes she heard her heartbeat. Once she thought she heard a giant. Some say she even heard a spider spinning her web one afternoon. Some say she is still listening.


Anonymous said...

Sister Kim Mermaid, "Sister Bea Wilder" sounds like the perfect companion for a pottering expedition in the woods. Love and BB, Sister Cate Mermaid

Kim Antieau said...

Yes, doesn't she.