To Ride a Seahorse
A Child is Tempted by the Secret World Under the Waves
"Have you ever talked to a starfish?"
The question came from the girl in the sea, who was swimming alone about fifteen feet away.
Kimmie had been watching her out of the corner of her eye, too shy to say hello. She was pleased by the friendly overture.
Maybe they could play together.
The girl looked to be the same age as Kimmie, who had turned ten last week, but she appeared to be a much better swimmer.
She was farther out from shore and alternated between treading water and floating on her back, now and then swimming underwater and popping up somewhere else.
Kimmie had watched surreptitiously, with equal parts curiosity and admiration. She, herself could only swim a little, mostly by paddling her hands, but she often forgot to kick her legs and slowly sank.
She was only allowed to go into the ocean as far as her waist, with her mother keeping an eagle eye on her from her chair on the sand.
Kimmie had cheated a few times today though, standing on her very tiptoes, trying to lessen the distance between herself and the other girl.
Now Kimmie stopped bobbing up and down, and looked around, making sure the question was really directed at her.
It was a strange question, she thought, but she would like to make friends.
"Hi," Kimmie called with a little wave, then added, to buy herself some time.
"Um…what did you say?"
She wasn't sure how to answer the odd question. How would you talk to a starfish, anyway?
Instead of repeating herself, the girl smiled and waved back, making a motion for Kimmie to swim out to her.
Kimmie darted a look toward the beach, and sure enough, her mom was watching. She didn't dare break the rules. It would be embarrassing to have Mom call her in for a time-out on the shore.
She shook her head at the other girl. "I can't," she called self-consciously, feeling her mother's eyes on her back.
She hesitated, then mimicked the girl's hand motion, waving her in toward the shallower water.
"You come here," she suggested, hoping the other girl wouldn't think she was a baby, having to stay in the shallows.
She really didn't think it would work, but the girl surprised her, diving under out of sight, then popping up quickly, just a few feet away.
The girl surfaced, her blonde hair slicked back, her eyes green and clear.
She didn't sputter and wipe at her face like Kimmie would have, or blink to get the salty water out of her eyes. She just tilted her head back gracefully, letting the water run off her, reminding Kimmie of a seal.
"Hi," Kimmie greeted her again, pleased to have a playmate. "Um…what did you say about starfish?"
The girl smiled enigmatically and repeated her question. "Have you ever talked to one? They're very interesting creatures."
Kimmie narrowed her eyes, trying to tell if she was joking. The girl had an odd way of forming her words, not an accent, really, just a strange rhythm of speech.
She was about to call the girl's bluff when a wave came in, knocking her a little off balance. She barely managed to stay on her feet, but the other girl dunked under, disappearing.
A few minutes passed, and Kimmie looked around, wondering where her new friend had gone.
There were only a few other kids in the water: some very young toddlers with their mother at the edge of the surf, and a boy about her own age, in waist-high water a little distance away.
The minutes ticked by. Kimmie was beginning to get worried when the other girl popped back up.
"Where did you go?" Kimmie asked, bewildered. She hadn't seen the girl resurface for air.
The young stranger waved off the question, dismissively.
"Waves are more fun down at the bottom," she said, slicking water back down her hair.
Before Kimmie could think of a response, the girl added, "Look," and held one hand up, out of the water.
The girl opened her fingers slowly.
A starfish lay motionless in her palm, vibrantly colored, in a hue between orange and coral.
Kimmie looked at the bumpy surface of the creature, fascinated. She'd only seen them before at the Boston aquarium.
She reached out to touch it, but the girl quickly pulled her arm away.
"No!" she protested quickly, her earnest gaze meeting Kimmie's. "He doesn't know you! You're scaring him."
Kimmie looked doubtful. "Is it even alive?" she asked.
The other girl giggled and brought the creature close to her own face, whispering to it.
Kimmie waited, feeling vaguely uncomfortable, like maybe she was the butt of a joke. She was about to turn away, when the girl spoke, addressing the starfish.
"Ok." The young stranger lowered her palm once more, displaying the creature, and then commanded it, "Wave if you can hear me."
As Kimmie watched, entranced, the starfish slowly lifted an arm and curled the tip up, down, then up again.
The girl grinned at Kimmie, a dazzling smile. "See?" she said. "He's my friend."
Kimmie frowned. "Maybe they always do that," she said, skeptical. Could the starfish really hear and understand her?
The girl rolled her sea-green eyes, and spoke again to the creature, exasperation in her tone. "Could you please wave two arms, then one, then two?" she requested politely.
As Kimmie watched, the ocean world around her seemed to shrink, pinpointing her focus to just the starfish on the stranger's palm.
The sound of the waves, the breeze on her skin, the shifting sand beneath her feet… it all disappeared as she watched the starfish slowly wave it's appendages in the exact sequence the girl had instructed.
The girl laughed, a musical sound, and thanked the creature, lowering it into the sea. She turned to Kimmie, eyes sparkling, and asked, "Now do you believe me?"
Kimmie nodded vehemently, enthralled by the display.
That was so cool! She would love to talk to starfish! Maybe the girl would teach her how!
"My name is Kimmie," she said, hoping the girl still wanted to hang out.
Her new friend smiled and bobbed in the water, laying back and effortlessly letting the ocean support her.
"Oh, I love your name!" she exclaimed. "Kimmie…" she repeated dreamily, gazing at the sky.
"Can I share it? Can I be Kimmie, too?"
Kimmie shook her head, confused. What?
"But what is your name?" she persisted.
She glanced back at the shore and saw Mom waving from the edge of the surf.
Catching Kimmie's eye, her mother flashed both palms, fingers extended. Ten more minutes, and then she'd have to come in.
Kimmie was a little disappointed, but Mom had said she could have an ice cream sundae after lunch. Maybe she could meet up with her new friend later, or even tomorrow.
The girl shook her head in response to Kimmie's question, her eyes a little sad.
"My name is too hard to pronounce," she said, dejectedly.
She suddenly brightened, looking at Kimmie. "Why don't you give me a new name?" she suggested. "Anything you like!"
Kimmie was uncertain, but decided to play along. Maybe the girl's real name was horrible.
"Ok," she agreed, studying her new friend. "Um…how about…Shea?" She didn't know anyone with that name, but it sounded pretty.
The girl's eyes widened in delight. "Oh, I adore it! Shea…" she repeated happily. "Shea…it's so lovely," she bubbled, her grin infectious.
"It sounds like the sound of the wind on the water!" She twirled in a circle, making Kimmie laugh.
The girl twirled farther away and Kimmie took a couple steps forward, though the water was up to her chest now. She stood up on her tiptoes.
"How did you find the starfish?" Kimmie asked Shea, thinking maybe she could find one to bring home, herself.
Shea stopped twirling and bobbed upright. She looked surprised.
"Why, they're everywhere on the seabed! Haven't you ever been down there?" She gestured with a wave that seemed to encompass the entire ocean.
Kimmie hedged, not wanting to admit she wasn't a good swimmer.
"Oh, I can't see anything under water," Kimmie said. "I have to keep my eyes shut because of the salt. It stings."
Shea swam closer, her shoulder brushing Kimmie's. She whispered conspiratorially in her ear.
"It wouldn't sting for long. There's so much to see down there. Castles, and gardens, and the most wonderful creatures to talk to. There's pretty jewels to wear from sunken treasure chests, and seahorses to ride!"
"Have you ever ridden a seahorse?" she asked Kimmie in a low tone, her eyes glowing a luminous green. She backed up a step.
Kimmie took a step forward, fixated on Shea's face, listening in rapt attention. She shook her head.
"You can ride them?" she asked breathlessly, imagining it all, just as the girl described.
Shea nodded. "And we could be best friends, forever," she promised, her voice hypnotic. "You just need to hold my hand and we'll go there together."
Shea held out her hand, pale and slender.
Kimmie started to reach for it, her fingertips brushing the other girl's, when her mother's voice intruded.
Mom sounded mad, yelling Kimmie's name over and over. Kimmie glanced down and saw she had followed Shea deeper into the ocean, and was now standing in water up to her neck.
"Sorry," she said, backpedaling, retreating immediately. "I've got to go." She turned around, heading into shore and calling over her shoulder, "Bye…Shea!"
The girl watched Kimmie go, disappointment on her face.
Then, dunking under, she disappeared, popping up moments later next to the young boy in waist high water.
"Hi," she greeted him, as he looked at her shyly.
"Have you ever talked to a starfish?"