Posted on: August 29, 2013

When he was seven, Hunter slipped on his father's boat, fell in Lake Austin, and saw merlings. They were less magical and fantastical than he thought they would be; they were gaunt things with rigid bones and gray skin stretched thin. They were not the curved, fluid creatures of bedtime stories and animated films. They were, however, captivating. Hunter forgot everything: how to swim, his mother Elinor, even the importance of oxygen. His father jumped in and pulled him from the water.

There were witnesses. Witnesses who swore that the sopping wet boy's father had been a six-pack deep when he took his son out on the water. Witnesses who swore the father had a cap pulled low over his brow when the boy fell. Witnesses who swore the boy was under for almost a minute before the father jumped. It didn't matter how much was true. It mattered that Hunter's mother believed it

"Just tell her you saw them, Dad!" Hunter said. "I can back you up if you just tell her."

"When are you gonna quit this?" Hunter's father growled. "I didn't see them. You didn't either. You shut up about those mermaids."

"Merlings!" Hunter said. "They're merlings."

The merlings were real, and to deny them would be to lie. After his father left, he tried to convince his mother. Hunter drew pictures and plastered them all over his walls. His room was a chamber of Lovecraftian horror: shapes and angles forced by the rabid hand of an unskilled artist. There was one Hunter drew over and over again.

"The Harbinger," Hunter told his mother at dinner. He showed her his latest attempt, with rough calcified scales at the tail and sharp moldy skin. A wide mouth brimmed with dark pointed teeth. White eyes bulged.

"Where did you hear that word?" His mother forced herself to swallow a forkful of meatloaf.

"He told me. That's what he said he was called." Hunter replied. "I think I'm supposed to go back and find him."

His mother checked him into a children's psychiatric hospital. There, Hunter learned that he had likely experienced trauma falling in the water. The doctor said Hunter's father was an alcoholic, and although Hunter did not know that, he had figured out that he would probably die because his dad could not rescue him. Hunter's mind had invented angels of mercy to help him prepare to go to Heaven.

"But if that were true, I would've made real angels. Real angels are white and glow. They have wings, not fish tails." Hunter told his doctor.

Hunter learned that the mind does all kinds of funny things when you are scared. Maybe his mind played with shapes in the water. Maybe his mind played with how the light shined within Lake Austin. Hunter probably heard the word "harbinger" on TV. Hunter's mind knew what it was from context. When Hunter thought he was dying, he invented the merlings. One of them was his herald.

That's what the doctor said.

Hunter stopped talking about the merlings. Hunter stopped drawing them. Over years of therapy, the Harbinger faded into Hunter's memory.

But not Elinor's.

"I wasn't there for him," Elinor told herself.

She wasn't there when her son fell into the Harbinger's murky waters. She was across the street, "borrowing a cup of sugar" from Ted Vicars.

She wasn't there when the Harbinger called again. Her husband wrapped his truck around a telephone pole. The paramedics pronounced him dead at the scene. The coroner's report said his blood alcohol level was above the legal limit.

In the years it took for her boy to become a young man, Elinor saw tragic events as evidence of the Harbinger’s presence in her life. When the doctor suggested Hunter may be ready to leave the hospital, Elinor did not object. Good news was rare.

When Hunter came home, he was surprised by the house. Each room had been painted a different shade of watery blue. The living room was a shallow mountainside brook. The kitchen was a country pond, its surface just kissed with algae. Hunter's room was the top of Lake Austin when it glinted with sun.

Elinor's room - no longer his parents' - made him uncomfortable. It was the dark, deep inside of Lake Austin. It tugged at him, begging him to remember drowned nightmares. Hunter did not go in his mother's room. Hunter did not see her fill the tub and stare at it. He did not see her submerge herself, holding her breath under the tepid water. He did not see the inside of her closet, wallpapered with his old sketches of the Harbinger.

Hunter did not hear her call its name.

"I think we should go back to Lake Austin." Elinor said over lunch. "I think it would be good for us to confront what happened there."

"Mom, I don't want to go back in there. I don't think it would be good for me." Hunter stared at his spaghetti. The shapes were tangled curves, and for a moment he saw the ebb and flow of water and thought he might vomit.

"By Pennybacker! Not into the water, of course." Not yet. She could hold off a little longer. Maybe take scuba diving lessons first - just in case he wasn't near the surface this time. And really, who knew how deep Hunter had been?

When Elinor saw the bridge, she knew they were close. It was a low, wide arch the color of rust, and Elinor laughed at how it looked like water corrupted the structure. The amber curve did not dip into Lake Austin. It straddled the banks, but it was a false portal.

When Hunter saw the bridge, he inhaled sharply. Bad thoughts came to him, dark and evil things flooded his memory. The bridge transported Hunter back to that day he saw the merlings, that day he saw the Harbinger, that day he realized his father couldn't save him.

"The Harbinger." The word was a whisper. Neither knew who said it. Neither cared.

Shaking, Hunter pulled into the nearest parking lot. Elinor stepped out of the car without a word.

"See you soon." The voice creaked.

Photograph by: Emily Blincoe
Written by: Erin Justice

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