Sunday, February 15, 2009
Eons ago, a great glacier carved out a tiny island 12 miles off the coast of Rhode Island. Hills, valleys, rocky outcroppings and deep, dark hollows mark the terrain. On a clear day, the tip of Montauk, New York can be seen from the bluffs on her western shores. This place was called Manisses, the “Island of the little god”, so named by the Indians who lived there for centuries.
Captain Adrian Block, a Dutch explorer landed there in the early 1600s and changed the name to Block Island, paving the way for the white people to settle there. Throughout its history, the island has been the scene of massacre and shipwrecks. A grand hotel and a mansion were destroyed in blazing conflagrations. There is a historic, Indian burial ground surrounded by rolling hills and pastures. Many of the older hotels and homes are said to be haunted. Even the dark woods in the hollow at the center of the island is said to be a place of supernatural power.
It is a place of unmatched beauty and heavenly tranquility as well. The island is ringed by roughly seventeen miles of mostly unspoiled shoreline, and coke-bottle green waves lap the white sands. Swallows and terns fill the air and flutter about the cliffs. Beach roses line the roads and scent the air on summer days, while boats with white sails drift in and out of her two harbors. It is a place of magic and mystery.
There are many stories to be told of Block Island, but the one that comes to mind tonight is the legend of the mermaid.
It seems that a young mother and her little boy were on the island, and enjoying a day at the beach some years ago. The woman was reading, while her son played in the sand near the water’s edge. At some point, the woman became aware that she had dozed off, and when she lifted her head to check her boy’s whereabouts, he was nowhere to be seen. In a panic, the mother ran up and down the deserted beach looking for her son. Suddenly, she saw him bobbing in the water. The story goes that something unseen seemed to be pushing him toward shore, keeping his face just above the waves. His mother charged into the surf and floundered toward him. Just as she reached him, she saw the tail of a large fish slap the surface of the water a few feet away. When she got her little boy back safely on dry land, she asked him what had happened. He reportedly told her that he had walked out too far into the water and had started to struggle, when a nice lady with very long hair who was swimming nearby, had helped him by lifting him up and pushing him back toward the beach. The woman looked out at the water and saw no one. In fact, the beach was empty as far as the eye could see, but the child insisted that “a lady” had rescued him. Then the boy’s mother remembered the large "fish" she had caught a glimpse of, just as she had reached her son.
I recall reading a written account similar to this story in a little island newspaper many years ago, but when I searched online recently, I could not find anything on it. Could this story be fiction created to entertain the tourists? Quite possibly. But I prefer to think of it as a mystery and a legend. Whenever I am "on the Block" as we say, I always scan the sea for signs of mermaids. It is only one of the many strange and marvelous tales of the magic island of Manisses.