Trigger Warning

Dreams and secrets fall into the sea. Everybody knows that.

When the collecting fairies come tiptoeing through snow-white curtains in the night to stuff children’s secrets into their satchels and hang their dreams from long hemp strings, they carry them over the sea to their special hideout, there to be “processed and shipped.” What “processed and shipped” meant, one couldn’t say, for no one had, or ever could, see the other side of the sea. Some things just couldn’t be done.

Little Andy, of course, knew this to be true. A serious child in a dirty brown apron and sensible brown shoes, she sold flowers outside the baker’s shop every day in the village. She’d chosen that spot herself and indeed felt no small amount of pride for its placement. Sugar-eating patrons always came out happy. A cake with colorful frosting, a bun with a secret center of chocolate, a Swiss cake rolled tight with raspberry jam swirls … these things could put one in a good mood. And when a girl with a face made almost solely of large, twinkling eyes held out her basket of tulips and sunflowers and roses, lips curled in a pout, they couldn’t help themselves.

“How precious!” they would say, patting Andy’s head fondly and nudging other pudgy men to come loom over her. “Give me a bundle to take to my wife with these scrumptious sweetmeats. And here’s an extra coin for you to get yourself a nice, warm piece of cake too.”

Every evening, feet heavy from standing too long, a braided line across the top of her lower arm from the hanging basket of tulips and sunflowers and roses, Andy went to the beach. Taking off her shoes and hiding them in a crevice, she walked over the cool sand to the water’s very edge. And there, crouching to the ground, she touched the waves running to and from her hand like an enchanted, excited puppy. Dreams and secrets ran down her fingers.

The fairies always proved careless. Everybody knew this to be true. As they zoomed over the water, twittering like birds and trying to knock each other out of the air, the satchels of secrets spilled and the hemp strings of dreams broke, all to fall down to the sea.

As there are stars in the night sky, glowing white and blinking with long-held hopes and silent yearning, so these dreams and secrets shone in the depths of the waters, bobbing with the waves, rushing to be sifted through Andy’s hands.

Not many people could see these dreams and secrets, Andy had found. They came to the water and sat at the edge under wide umbrellas, or dove into the waves with their hair bound tight and their hands held together to form a spear, but they never stopped to feel the waves lap at their toes and suck at the underside of their feet. Nor did they feel the gentle touch of water on their calves like Andy did, like the sweet stroking of a mother’s hand in the night when the grandfather clock in the hall below strikes the hour and the child starts from sleep.

That day, at the water’s very edge, Andy saw a dream with flying castles breathing fire and dragons with windows in their bellies where lived little dwarves, looking quite tall for being so thin. In another, she saw Kings in long skirts, their bristling mustaches braided with bright ribbons and dripping with dewdrop jewels, their hair worn long and down their backs and their feet shoved into tight heels, riding alongside women in breeches and holding up riding crops that trailed fire at the tip. Andy laughed loud. Then she heard the secret of a stolen pie eaten and the blame put on a little brother, and she grew silent. Stolen pies must ever be shared, everybody knew that to be true.

So engrossed in secrets and dreams did she become, she did not feel the long Sea Serpent rise out of the water and wrap around her little body. Only when it reared its head above hers and blocked out the sun’s rays did she look up.

“Ssso it’sss you,” said the Sea Serpent. Its face-tentacles waved in the breeze. “You who sssee my dreamsss and hear my sssecrets before I have the chance. You who sssteal from me.”

Andy felt fear in her belly, like a bite of bad bread sat at the bottom of her stomach, unchewed and alone, concocting mischief.

“I did not mean to steal.”

“And yet you did. Ssso you will have to pay. What have you to give, little child?”

Andy did not know. All her worldly belongings could fit in the basket she carried on her arm and whose handle braided her skin.

“But they are not your dreams and secrets,” she said.

The Sea Serpent blinked its languid eyes and leaned down. Hot breath played on Andy’s cheek.

“Perhapsss. But it doesss get lonely at the bottom of the sssea. And ssso I watch the dreamsss and hear the sssecrets, that they might keep me company.”

“If you let me go now, I shall not come back to steal your dreams and hear your secrets.”

The Sea Serpent thought for a long moment. Andy sat suspended. But, being so very familiar with children, it decided not to eat her. Instead, it uncoiled its tail and slithered back into the depths.

“If you do want to sssee my dreamsss and hear my sssecrets, you mussst first bring payment.”

And so little Andy ran back to the village, tears locked inside her chest—for, being a serious child, she never cried. And she stood before her bakery the next day and let her eyes go wide for the potbellied patrons, who beamed at the little girl and patted her hair and took her flowers. And the days went on.

Slowly, the shine went out of her eyes. Her cheeks sank into her face and her arm with the basket, always held up aloft, fell to her side. The patrons stopped stopping, too busy looking ahead to see the minute girl by the door in her dirty brown apron and sensible brown shoes. She vanished from their eyes.

Not able to sell her flowers, she now watched the streets. Children with their hands in their parents’, pulling at sleeves and pant legs, asking for this and for that. Children who dreamt of dragons with windows and castles that breathed fire. Children who stole pies and did not share.

Girls clutching dolls, boys with slings crammed into their pockets. Brothers pulling their sisters’ hair. Sisters kicking their brothers’ shins. Parents looked down at them with busy eyes, not seeing their children for bills and big papers of not-for-children matters ran before their eyes.

“What a strange child,” the mothers sometimes said, staring at Andy and her basket of broken, dead flowers. “Wonder who she belongs to.”

After a month, Andy came back to the beach. Brown sensible shoes still on, she stopped at the edge of the water and looked at the bobbing, glittering dreams and secrets. A single tear ran down her cheek.

“Sea Serpent!” she called. Voices have never fallen smaller.

Yet a green head with long waving tentacles soon pocked out of the waves. It still had its dinner bib ties around its scaly neck.

“I’ve brought you payment,” said Andy, and held out her basket. Inside, in neat little jars with stoppers and long coils of string heaped without tangle, she’d brought her dreams and secrets.

“I close the door at night,” she said to the Serpent when it came close. “And I keep my dreams hidden so that they might not be ‘processed and shipped’. But I do not have snow-white curtains, so the fairies do not come to my window. Will you take these?”

The Sea Serpent used one of its face tentacles to untie its bib. Then it sniffed the basket.

“Sss… beautiful.”

Andy held it higher. “Will you take it?”

“Come with me instead, child,” said the Sea Serpent. “Into the waves to my cave. And there you shall keep me company and see all the dreams you wish to see and hear all the secrets you wish to hear. I do not think this world deserves you, my little flower girl.”

Andy looked down at her dirty brown apron and her sensible brown shoes. Dreams and secrets glistered on the waves, at the edges of her vision, going up and down and up again.

And then, for the very first time in her life, she smiled.

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