The little girl watched as the old man scraped barnacles off the bottom of his house, the small white shells dropping like fallen stars into the water dancing just below the floor. The ocean was inches away from soaking the worn hardwood barely visible behind the man. She frowned, her eyebrows pressed together as she tried to make sense of how a house could be built in the middle of the ocean. But, she had rowed to this nowhere herself on a plastic toy boat, so she assumed that the world must be a very interesting place, if one just cares to look around. She decided to get a bit closer.
“Hello,” she yelled out, waving a hand up in the air. The sleeve of the jacket she’d stolen from her mother fell down her arm and bunched up around her shoulder.
The old man looked up from what he was doing, raising a hand so he could block the sun from his view. “Oh, hello there! What brings you here?”
The little girl rowed closer. “I’m exploring the ocean! I’m a sailor.”
“Ah, the ocean! An interesting place. This right here,” the man said, patting the side of his home with a wrinkled hand, “is prime real estate for an ocean-lover.”
She nodded. She didn’t know what “prime real estate” was, but assumed he knew what he was talking about. Old people are wise.
“How’d you build it so it was in the water?” The little girl asked.
“Ah, I didn’t build it. But come inside, I haven’t had a guest in years!”
The little girl knew that strangers were dangerous, but the old man seemed familiar, and she’d never seen such a strange house before. She rowed closer, stepped up out of the plastic tub, and stumbling through the open door. The old man was bustling about in the kitchen straight ahead, and two other doors flanked her sides. She pulled her boat out of the water and set it inside, since there was no dock to tie it to. Sitting down on her heels, she ran a finger along the scratched red plastic. The manufacturer’s name had long since worn off.
“Would you like English Breakfast or Chamomile?” the old man called. The little girl stood up quickly, walking toward the right to face the kitchen. If she’d turned left, she would face the small dining room table and a window that opened to the outside. A teapot sat on the stove and the old man held two different metal containers of tea.
“Chamomile,” the little girl said, mouth set firmly but eyes darting around the room. Almost every surface in the entire house was covered in stacks upon stacks of leather-bound books.
“Take a seat, take a seat! The tea will be done in no time.”
The little girl tapped her heels together, sitting atop five different novels so she could see over the worn tabletop. Sipping his cup delicately, the old man took a deep breath as steam rose out to fill the thousand wrinkles that marred his skin. The little girl didn’t touch hers. She didn’t care for tea, but she supposed it was rude to deny a gift.
“What’s your name?” she asked, drumming her hands over the table.
“I don’t know. I haven’t quite thought of one yet. You can call me grandfather, if you’d like.”
The little girl furrowed her brows. She’d never heard of choosing a name for yourself before.
“Grandfather,” she repeated, “like the clock.”
The old man’s mouth was hidden behind the chipped ivory of his drink, but the wrinkles that curled up around his eyes sunk deeper than bowing waves, his eyes sparkling like sunlight glinting off the sea.
The little girl smiled back. “Well, my name is-”
The old man stood up suddenly, hand outstretched and fingers splayed while his teacup rattled on the table, startling her into silence.
“Stop!” he said, “A name is a precious thing! It’s best not to give it away so carelessly.”
Static pricked at the little girl’s eyes.
The old man sat back down, shaking his head. He turned left to face the open window.
“There’s no need to apologize for something you didn’t know.” He tapped the side of his cup. “You learn, and then you move on. Now, I must show you something. Follow me.”
The old man rose again, his bare feet soundlessly carrying him back to the front of the house. He turned to the door on his right.
The little girl leaned to the side, trying to peek out from behind him. The man turned the rusted knob and swung the door open. The little girl gasped. Harsh sunlight from outside streamed into the house, illuminating a few feet into the darkness behind the door. Stairs stood silently under murky ocean water.
“My basement,” the old man lamented, “It’s sunk under.”
The little girl fidgeted with her jacket sleeves as she stared in disbelief at the water lapping slightly below the floor she was standing on. A little fish swam up into the light before darting back down below. The old man closed the door.
“I’m afraid my whole house is sinking.”
Biting her lip, the little girl contemplated his problem.
“Can you move?”
“I’ve lived here forever. I’m afraid I can’t.” The old man sighed. “And I doubt I’d fit in your boat,” he added.
The little girl laughed. The old man laughed, too.
“Now, what time is it?” he said, turning back towards the kitchen. He squinted out at the sun dipping lower in the horizon.
“Don’t you have a clock?”
“No, I don’t need one. That way the only person who can decide the time is me.” The old man squinted his eyes. “I’m afraid it’s time for you to go, child.”
The little girl frowned.
“But, you can come back tomorrow,” he said, turning around to smile down at her. “And every day after that. You can read my books, or help me patch up the walls to keep the ocean at bay, or talk with me over tea. I always listen.”
The little girl held out her hand to shake his, which she’d heard happens when two grownups make a deal. And she did feel grown-up. She had sailed across the ocean and discovered something new. The old man shook her hand. He had a very good handshake, she decided.
“Head towards the sun, and you’ll be home before you know it.” He clasped his hands together and smiled down at her. “See you tomorrow.”
The next day, the water hadn’t risen, but a few holes had popped up in the floor of the house. The little girl helped the old man patch them as he read Treasure Island aloud. The little girl liked it because she wanted to find treasure, too.
In the following week, the little girl helped the old man clean all the barnacles off the sides of his house while reading Where the Red Fern Grows. She cried at the end, and her tears dripped down into the ocean to mix with the seawater. She told the old man she was sure that the ocean had come from the tears of angels. The old man nodded and said he always thought the ocean was made when god cried after making the world, so moved by the majesty of their creation. Holding a yardstick taken from her house, the little girl found that the ocean had risen a quarter inch since the first day she’d arrived.
Within the first month, the water had gone up an inch and a half above the floor of the house. The old man read the little girl Mr. Popper’s Penguins, Pippi Longstocking, The Wizard of Oz, and The Swiss Family Robinson. The little girl learned that she liked English Breakfast tea if she added a spoon of sugar to it.
Six months later, the water was to her ankles. The little girl liked that she could kick it around and splash her friend. The old man didn’t seem worried about it. She helped him put all the books on top of the dining room table, so many that the stacks almost touched the ceiling. They’d read so many she’d lost count, but her favorites were Matilda and Doctor Dolittle. She wanted to go on adventures.
A year later, the water had risen to her shins. As soon as the boat rocked against the doorway of the house, she’d spill everything that had happened to her that day, and he would listen. The little girl felt like most adults didn’t really listen. Whenever she told her mom or dad about her friend in the sea, they would smile in a way that meant they thought she was lying. But the old man never gave her that smile when she told him about how she fought a sea serpent on her way there or discovered aliens in her backyard. He’d tell her to describe them, to give him detail upon detail of what they looked like or how the battle had gone blow-by-blow. But he’d always call her “child” or “my dear.” She wanted him to know her name. He always said it wasn’t time yet and would stare at the ocean with jaw set and eyes narrowed, his grip on his teacup a little tighter than before.
Three years had passed in total. The day she arrived at his house crying, the water had gone up to her mid-thigh. The old man gave her tissues as they sat atop the table, the books pushed to the side or stacked on the kitchen counters to make room. Some kids at the little girl’s school had told her that the tooth fairy wasn't real, so she shouldn’t be so excited over losing a tooth. The little girl rushed home crying only for her mom to confirm her fears.
“It’s not fair,” she wailed, “Why would they lie to me? Why would they make it up if it’s not real? When they knew a day like today would happen?”
The old man squeezed her tight, as if the water below them was trying to wash her out of the house.
“It’s nice to start out believing that the world has magic before you drift away with mundanity. That way, you can always find it again, if you want to look.”
In the following months, the water level grew higher and higher. The boat was beginning to get too small, its plastic tub sinking deeper and deeper in the water with each day the little girl climbed into it. Before long, she was helping the old man transport books to his roof, barely big enough for the two. She was ten, now, but nobody had remembered her birthday but him. He gave her the water-damaged copy of Treasure Island they’d read so long ago, but she could hardly make out the words on the cover through the myopia of her tears. The old man made her promise she’d never stop searching for treasure and magic. She nodded, but stared down into the ocean as she did, the rise and fall of the waves synonymous with the sobs that rattled her lungs.
Another month passed. The roof was getting smaller and smaller, until the old man was stuck atop the chimney and the little girl had to stay in her shrinking boat. He could only hold onto one book, now, clutched in the withered hands that used to hold teacups filled with sugar and patch holes to stop their world from sinking. On the last day, he smiled at her as she rowed upwards. His eyes drooped and welled with phantom tears as he saw how cramped she was in her boat, and how far in the water the vessel now sank.
“What book do you have?” the little girl asked.
The old man handed it to her. Remarkably, it was untouched by the greedy waves. The little girl ran her hand along the spine, cracked and worn with age.
“The Old Man and the Sea,” she said, “What’s it about?”
The old man took his book back from her, staring down from his perch at where she looked up at him. “It’s about an old man, the boy who cares for him, and the great marlin he wishes to catch.”
The little girl was used to the wise ways and mystery of her old friend. “So I’m the helper-boy, and you’re the old man, but what’s the marlin?”
The old man nodded, scraping his fingertips alongside his last book. “I suppose it’s how we must part. Our names.” He tapped his heel against the chimney. “It’s time. You may tell me your name now, but then you can never return.”
The little girl took a deep breath, a sigh that spoke more words than the book the old man held in his callouses. She had known the day was approaching. But she did not want it to be today. She wanted to stay afloat for a bit longer.
She remembered Treasure Island and The Wizard of Oz, and she recalled the taste of English Breakfast with a spoon of sugar, and the stories of serpents and monsters she’d recounted to him with such an air of truth she’d almost convinced herself. And she could count the number of holes she’d patched in walls and the way the man’s voice cracked after reading too long without something to drink. She closed her eyes, and dipped her hand below the waves, and knew it was time.
Carefully, she grabbed hold of the stones jutting out of the chimney, leaned close to the old man, and whispered her name into his ear. She sunk back into her boat and closed her eyes, feeling the water rock her back and forth like a baby in a cradle.
“What a lovely name,” the old man smiled. “May I have it as well?”
The little girl nodded, eyes still closed. “You’ve found a name, then. And you won’t be able to forget me, too.”
The old man’s laugh rang through the air, ragged as sails on an ancient ship. “I’ll never forget you. But you’ll forget me.”
The little girl’s eyes snapped open, chapped lips parting, preparing to reject the old man’s words. But when she took in the view of the ocean, she found she was only twenty feet from the shore near her house. The old man and the chimney were nowhere to be found, and her boat was scraping the sand at the bottom of the ocean floor. It was quiet. The little girl raised a hand in the air, her sleeve staying up at her wrist, waving an invisible goodbye to him and the house she’d spent her childhood in. Then she let herself fall out of the boat, waves cascading over her until she, like the house, was one with the sea.