In 1953, a man named Harris Burdick showed up at the office of Wenders Publishing Company- Mr. Peter Wenders and Associates in the hopes of publishing his fifteen illustrations and captions with their attached stories. Mr. Wenders reviewed the man’s illustrations and agreed he had never seen anything like them. He promised Burdick publication and he held onto the brown portfolio with the hopes of meeting up with Burdick again the next day to read the stories he had written for each illustration.
Harris Burdick was never seen or heard from again.
The above illustration is one of the ones left by him to Mr. Wenders, who has since given the illustrations and captions to different school boards and started something called the Harris Burdick Project. Students write down their own short stories that correspond with the photos.
This is mine.
The weather had been scorching hot and dry for months now, and this sunny July afternoon was no different. The children were restless in the nursery, and Mrs. Porter had no idea what she would do with them. Eliza had already been feverish earlier in the week from over-exertion, and Thomas was once again provoking her, egging her on. Mrs. Porter knew once Eliza and Tommy began wrestling, there was no separating the two.
Mr. Jones was going to be at the office until six p.m. that evening and Mrs. Jones was another charity meeting until after supper. It was up to Mrs. Porter to find something to amuse the children and to keep them cool.
Mrs. Porter fanned her red and sweaty skin with her chubby hand. “Eliza I told you not to smack your brother! Tommy, stop teasing Eliza.”
Tommy flashed his nanny a cheeky smile before tugging on Eliza’s hair one last time for good measure. He was the oldest child and he felt it was his duty to make sure his sister knew her place.
Eliza, the baby of the family, squealed at him to stop with fat tears in her eyes. “Tommy, don’t!” she whined.
Mrs. Porter gave a grunt from where she sat by the window. “You children are worse than mine were at your age. I need to find something for you both to do.”
Eliza stopped crying and smiled at Mrs. Porter with wide eyes. “A game?” she suggested.
Tommy started bouncing up and down. “Let’s go fly my new kite!”
Mrs. porter shook her head at both suggestions. She needed the children preoccupied with an activity that wouldn’t make them ill from this wretched heat. “I think we ought to go for a walk along the shore,” she said and the children’s faces returned to their sulky selves.
Mrs. Porter gathered up some provisions – an umbrella for herself, Eliza’s swimsuit, a few toys for the children – and Tommy and Eliza took turns making faces at each other. Neither of them wanted to return to the shoreline where Mrs. Porter usually took them if they were being naughty. It was boring.
They left the house and walked through the garden, down past the barn and through the sandy beach that was less than a quarter mile from their front porch. Eliza held Mrs. Porter’s hand while Tommy bounded ahead, sick of the slowness of the women.
“William Thomas Jones, don’t you dare go into that water!” Mrs. Porter yelled ahead when she saw Tommy hop up onto some large rocks near the water’s edge.
Making sure Mrs. Porter was too far away to see him, Tommy stuck his tongue out at her. He kicked some pebbles into the water and watched them sink, jealous he too could not enjoy the cool water.
Eliza, who had let go of Mrs. Porter’s hand and run ahead to join her brother, tried to climb onto the rock too, but was too little. Tommy helped her up roughly and awkwardly and allowed her to kick some pebbles into the water too.
Mrs. Porter set up her umbrella and lawn chair before plunking her large body onto the chair and giving Tommy a wave to let him know that, yes, it’s okay to play in the water now as long as he stayed close to shore and watched his sister.
Tommy played with his toy submarines for, what seemed to Eliza, a very long time. She tried to join in several times to Tommy’s annoyance, but he shooed her away.
Mrs. Porter was asleep in the lawn chair by late afternoon when Tommy decided he was bored of submarines and went to join Eliza as she made sand castles.
He picked up a pebble from the top of her sand mound, a mischievous smile on his face.
“Give it back, Tommy!” Eliza wailed. Tommy chucked the stone into the water and Eliza watched with dismay as it sunk to the ocean floor, too deep for her to retrieve. She started to cry.
Tommy, delighted at his sister’s distress, picked up a second stone from her castle. Eliza cried harder in protest, but Tommy threw the stone into the sea, just like he had with the first.
Eliza saw what he was about to do with her final stone – a pretty red one that sparkled in the bright sunlight – and started pounding his chest with her small fists. Grinning, and hardly bothered by Eliza’s abuse, he lifted his arm, stone in hand.
He threw with all his might, but the third stone came skipping back. It plunked itself right back into Tommy’s startled hand and he dropped it before falling backwards in awe.
Eliza stopped crying and stared bug-eyed at the stone, now laying on the sand. Hesitantly, she picked it up.
Tommy swatted it from her hand. “Don’t! What if it’s an animal?”
“It’s not! I would have known when I found it!” she insisted and reached for the stone again. She reeled her arm back and threw the stone into the water, though it didn’t land as far away as Tommy’s throw had. Seconds passed, and Tommy let go a breath he had been holding.
“That’s that then,” he began. “I suppose it was just – OUCH!”
The stone had come back a second time, but this time it had smacked itself on the side of Tommy’s head. Angry, Tommy threw the stone harder than before. He barely had time to duck before it came back again for his head.
It rolled in the sand over to Eliza, who picked it up and turned it over in her palms. “Tommy, I think there’s writing on it,” she whispered and handed the stone to her brother.
Tommy stepped back. “I’m not touching that thing,” he snapped. “It’s dangerous.”
“I don’t think so,” Eliza pouted, shoving her hand closer to Tommy’s face, urging him to look.
Tommy took the stone and rubbed the sand from its side, revealing small gold lettering on the side. He read the inscription.
Tommy shivered in the July heat, causing Eliza to bounce up and down. “What’s it say? What’s it say?” she piped.
“It says ‘hello’,” he admitted, dropping the stone on the sand. “This is bad. This feels bad. We should tell Mrs. Porter.”
Eliza squealed and pointed to the stone, which now had no words on its side. “It’s changing, look!”
Like magic, more gold words appeared on the stone. This time, it took Tommy a bit longer to read all of the writing.
Hello Tommy, hello Eliza. I’ve been following you two for quite some time. Sorry about your head Tommy, I had to get your attention.
“How does it know our names?” Eliza whispered, peering intently at the rock in Tommy’s hands.
“I don’t know,” Tommy admitted, wishing he had dropped the rock the moment he had first read the words. To his dismay, more gold writing was appearing.
Now listen here you two: I’ve been asked to fetch one of you for some big, important people. Rest assured that one of you would be treated very kindly by my people.
“Your people? Who are your people, rocks?” Tommy sneered. Immediately, the letters changed again.
We are known as Water Sprites by many of your kind. We often follow children like you who are misunderstood and spoiled. We take you to our home in the sea, we feed you and we care for you and we love you. And one day, when you’re ready, we turn you into one of us.
Eliza whimpered when Tommy finished reading the message to her. She glanced at their nanny nervously, but Mrs. Porter was still dozing peacefully, many yards away.
Tommy continued reading when the words shifted again, very quickly this time. “‘Please do not be afraid, we mean you no harm. One of you is about to have their life change forever.’ Well, which one of us?” He shook the stone in frustration.
The writing reappeared, golden and smouldering. Stop that, Tommy. We want only purest of hearts to come with us, so we leave it up to you both to decide. The writing dimmed, then faded altogether.
Tommy grinned excitedly. “I’m the oldest,” he declared. “I should go.”
Eliza pouted. “That’s not fair! I’m the youngest, so Mummy and Daddy would miss me the least. They haven’t known me as long.”
“That’s not true and you know it. Girls are always liked more.”
“Are too! And besides, you’d be too scared to swim in the water.” He lifted the stone up to his face and turned it over in his hands. “Say, how do we get to live in the water anyways? We would surely drown.”
In a flash, writing appeared again on the stone.
Yes, this is true.
The two siblings gaped in disbelief. “What’s the idea saying that?” Tommy shrilled, suddenly terrified once more.
The writing appeared slowly this time, like whomever was writing it was thinking about their words carefully.
Whichever one of you comes with us will have finished this life. They will leave their body behind in this world to join our spirits in the next. You will have to die, in other words, in order to really live.
Eliza had turned a deathly shade of porcelain. “I don’t want to go Tommy, and I don’t want you to go either.”
Tommy shook in the July heat. “We aren’t going to go anywhere. Come on Eliza,” he dropped the stone, but not before Eliza had noticed the new gold lettering on the side.
“Tommy,” she said and grabbed his hand with her right while pointing to the stone with her left. “Look.”
We will choose one of you if you can’t decide.
Tommy shook his head and smiled hollowly at his sister. “It just says goodbye.”
Eliza didn’t know if she fully believed him, but she ran over to Mrs. Porter to wake her up all the same. The walk back to the house was a solemn one. Mrs. Porter believed it was because the children were tired from their day at the seaside, but Tommy and Eliza’s heads were swimming with fear and worry over the events that had transpired that afternoon.
That evening, Eliza turned her face to Tommy’s in their nursery bedroom. “Tommy, I know that rock didn’t say goodbye. There were too many words.”
“Shut up Eliza, you don’t know anything,” Tommy murmured, thankful she couldn’t see his flushed face in the darkness of their room.
“I know that they wanted one of us, and I know they want the purest of hearts. Tommy, you tease me all the time and pull awful pranks on Mummy and Daddy and Nanny… I think they might want me.”
Tommy forced himself to laugh, pretending the idea was ridiculous. “They said they would let us choose, remember? Just relax.”
Eliza believed him halfheartedly and drifted off to a dreamless sleep.
When she awoke the next morning, Tommy was gone.
In the weeks that followed, the constables never found any sign of her brother. The official report listed that he had most likely wandered off in the direction of the sea in the late night, foolishly believing he could go swimming like he had that afternoon, and drowned.
Mrs. Porter blamed herself in the years to come for encouraging his interest in the sea during that afternoon. Mr. and Mrs. Jones blamed each other for not listening properly that night to have heard him sneak from the house. Local villagers blamed themselves for not seeing anything that would have helped.
Every day since then, Eliza had visited the shoreline where she had last played with her brother. It wasn’t until she was far older than Tommy had been when he disappeared that she knew what had happened to him.
She was skipping stones into the water while her husband waited patiently with her newborn son, Thomas, on the grass where Mrs. Porter had once dozed on a strange day in July. She had successfully flung and skipped two stones into the horizon and had just picked up a third.
It came skipping back to her.
As she picked it up, her hands shook the way her brother’s once had as he handled the same stone. She expected the gold writing before she saw it.
I couldn’t let them take you, now could I?